Excerpt from Devil May Care
Miss Harriet Farnum peered out the carriage window as the wheels rolled to a halt. "It's the usual schedule for this week's meeting, Ellie. Meet me back here in two hours."
Her maid nodded, though a shadow of unease flitted over her face. "Your father would have my guts for garters if he knew I let you hare off in these parts by yourself."
"No he wouldn't," she assured, stretching the truth just a tad. "He knows that I'm capable of looking out for myself." A diplomat's daughter who had experienced a number of exceedingly rough-and-tumble places during her foreign travels, Harriet had little patience with the rules of Polite Society. Unlike most well-bred ladies, she chafed at the restrictions requiring her to live within a gilded cage. "And besides, he accepted that I have a mind of my own and there's little point in trying to stop me from doing something which I am determined to do."
Ellie repressed a snort. "Aye, I'm well aware of that. But he expects me to exercise some degree of restraint."
"No he doesn't." Harriet flashed a grin, then took another glance up and down the narrow street before passing over a purse to her maid. "You and John Coachman go enjoy the strawberry ices at Gunter's. I shall see you later."
"You're too generous by half, Miss Harriet," murmured Ellie with a reluctant smile. But as the door latch clicked open, a spasm of concern pinched at the corners of her mouth. "Please be careful. All sorts of dangers lurk in this city, and you... well, you are not invincible."
Harriet paused and raised her brows. "Lud, what prompted that?"
"I dunno." Her maid made a face. "Just a queer feeling here." She pressed a hand to her stomach.
A laugh slipped from Harriet's lips. "That's because your breadbox is longing for Gunter's sweets." She quickly descended to the street and made a shooing gesture. "Now be off. And don't fret."
As the carriage lurched away over the rough cobbles, she drew in a deep breath, savoring the sense of freedom along with the less edifying scents of the surroundings. Modest townhouses lined the perimeter of the square, the crumbling stone and shabby facades a testament that the once-elegant area had seen better days. Her friend, an aging spinster who was working to improve the lot of the poor women in the area, resided in one of the narrow building on the far side of the central garden. The two of them had met at series of lectures on Mary Wollstonecraft's essays, and despite the difference in age had formed a bond over shared intellectual interests. That Lady Catherine possessed an earthy sense of humor and a fascinating—and slightly outrageous—circle of acquaintances made her weekly gatherings for tea and talking about ideas for social reform even more intriguing.
The topic for the upcoming discussion was educational opportunities for girls, and as she hurried through the rusting garden gate and cut around the unpruned boxwood hedge to the gravel walkway, Harriet let her mind race over the ideas that had been percolating in her head. Schools ought to teach mathematics and the natural sciences, like astro—
The collision would have knocked her on her derriere, had not a strong pair of male arms arrested her backward fall.
"Charging in where angels should fear to tread?"
Harriet fumbled to straighten the brim of her bonnet, though she didn't need to see the speaker's face to know who it was. Viscount Leete's drawling sarcasm was... unique.
A friend of her older brother since their schoolboy days at Eton, Jack had spent many a term break at her family's home over the years. More recently, they had both played a role in helping his cousin win the hand of Lady Kyra Sterling. As usual, they had engaged in more than their share of verbal sparring. Jack seemed to bring out...
A last tug finally shifted the chipstraw back into place, allowing an unobstructed view of the smirk curled on his handsome mouth. Nettled, Harriet was roused to retort. "Apparently even mere mortals are in peril with the likes of you charging hell for leather around the city.
"Moi?" Jack looked down his aristocratic nose. "I was merely walking at a sedate pace. It was you who was barreling along like a bat out of Hades."
Sunlight speared through the windblown tangle of his long hair, setting off a winking of dark and bright, like diamonds dancing over polished ebony. Her breath momentarily seemed to catch in her throat. To clear it, she quickly demanded, "Which begs the question—what are you doing in Red Lion Square?"
"I'm meeting someone," he answered curtly.
A lady, no doubt. And given the environs, likely one of dubious morals, thought Harriet.
"And you?" he added.
Jack considered the answer, and for an instant, a mischievous glint lit in his eyes. "One of your radical causes?"
"Yes." That he found it amusing irked her. "A group of like-minded females are meeting to discuss the inequalities we face in Society."
He gave a mock shudder. "I don't know how you do it—I'd rather face a saber-wielding regiment of Death's Head Hussars than have to think that hard!"
The light shifted, and for an instant, it accentuated the dark circles under his eyes and the fine lines of dissipation radiating out from the corners of his mouth.
"So you would rather engage in mindless revelries that will likely kill you just as surely as sharpened steel?"
Jack's jaw hardened, but he remained uncharacteristically silent.
"After being given a second chance at life," she went on, "you ought to take care to make the most of it."
"Thank you for the advice," he said with exaggerated politeness. "I know I can always count on you to be pragmatic and rational."
"Quite right—I'm stick-in-the-mud Harriet." She felt a flush rise to her cheeks. "It seems a lady is damned if she uses her brain and damned if she doesn't."
"I-I didn't mean it as an insult," he muttered.
"Of course you did," she replied tartly. "I'm outspoken and opinionated. Men find that abhorrent."
The last vestiges of mirth gave way to an expression... an expression she couldn't begin to fathom. "I'm not sure men have the slightest idea of what they want," murmured Jack.
Harriet was surprised by the note of wistfulness shading the ironic quip. Or perhaps it was only a figment of her own imagination. Either way, it left her feeling unsettled.
"I had better be going, else I'll be late," she said brusquely.
"Moi aussi," he murmured.
Jack was speaking French? Knowing the wartime ordeal he had been through, she wasn't sure whether that boded well or not for his current state of mind. Not that his behavior should be any concern of hers.
Confused, she simply gave a vague wave and turned to continue on to Lady Catherine's townhouse.
"One last thing, Harry..."
She paused and looked back over her shoulder.
"Be careful. This is a dangerous area for you to be out walking on your own."
"You're the second person who has warned me of that today."
His dark lashes shuttered his gaze. "Then perhaps you should pay twice as much attention."