The cacophony of sounds filling Julian’s head was unbearable. Had the tavern turned into a concert hall for drunken cats attempting to perform an opera, or was the floor about to crumble beneath his feet and send him all the way down to the depths of hell? He squeezed his eyes shut and hid his face in his sleeve when the door burst open, letting in the morning cold, and—worse yet—light to assault his senses.
And just when the noise turned into a dull yet pleasant silence that made Julian hope for a bit more time with his head comfortably resting atop the sticky wooden table, a tubal voice drilled its way into his ears.
“I knew I’d find you here, you wastrel,” hissed Julian’s father, and as the heavy click of his heels approached, Julian wished that hell had taken mercy on him after all. He’d take eternal flames over what was to come.
A sudden tug on the back of his coat pulled him up, and for a moment Julian had no idea where the floor was anymore. The world spun around him as if he had become a spoke in the wheel of Satan’s carriage. Nausea rose in his throat, and he hummed his displeasure, pressing his eyelids tightly shut. Why today? Why did Father seek him out so early? His skull was an empty shell, rattling only with echoing noise.
“Let’s make haste, Father. We wasted enough time trying to find the damned drunk.” So Horace, Julian’s oldest brother, was here too? What in God’s name could have possessed them to interfere with Julian’s morning routine?
But he didn’t have any time left for pondering as two pairs of strong arms hauled him up from the bench, causing upset to his stomach and mind yet again.
“Damnation! What is it that the two of you want from me?” he uttered, scowling at how hoarse he sounded.
“I see wine washed away all your memories of last night’s conversation. Or was it gin that you drank with those mongrels you idle about with?” Horace said in a biting tone. Every word came out of his mouth accompanied by a squelch of his permanently moist lips, thundering through Julian’s poor head like bugle calls. Julian already knew all the beats in Horace’s repertoire.
Julian wanted to parry the blow, he really did, but with his mind still muddled by yesterday’s gin, all he could think of was clean, lovely water to soothe his raw throat. “Yesterday?” he rasped.
“We spoke of your prospective engagement to Miss White. You promised me not to leave the house before the journey, and yet you fled like a rat. I cannot comprehend how you accomplished that with the footman guarding the doors,” yelled Father into Julian’s ears as he and Horace hauled Julian’s poor body over the threshold and into the bright light of day.
Julian twisted in disgust and shook his head, feeling his feet drag through the expanse of mud outside. “Window.”
“Ha. You damned clown,” growled Horace, his damp lips slapping together so close to Julian’s face, the tiny droplets of saliva misted his cheek. “About to marry into a title, and he’s running as if you demanded he kisses a pig’s arse.”
“You must understand, Father. All I saw of this girl you intend for me is a damn miniature portrait, and you won’t even let me say good-bye to my bachelorhood in the company of old friends?” Julian asked, forcing words through the thick leathery sole that was his tongue. When he managed to open his eyelids enough to see what was coming, the sight of a loaded carriage with Hunt, their driver, already waiting in the box seat, made him instinctively dig his heels into the mud, balking against this rape on his personal freedom. Hunt instantly looked away, as if Julian was to be ignored. He would not be ignored. He had a bright future ahead of him, one that his father and family intended to thwart, extinguish before Julian’s talent could truly bear fruit.
“What do you see in that puddle, Hunt? Are the mud nymphs calling out to you?”
Hunt’s jaw tightened, and he kept his eyes carefully turned away from Julian in such a blatant display of disrespect it burned the last threads of Julian’s self-control.
Horace opened the door, and the dim insides of the carriage started already sucking Julian in like the whirlpool that had taken Julian’s cousin to the bottom of the river nine summers past. That was it, the marriage would not put him into a cold grave just yet, but it would be the death of Julian’s ambitions and dreams, and those he needed to defend at all costs.
He put his hands on both sides of the door and recoiled, determined not to let himself be manhandled like a common thief, or worse yet—a silly girl who didn’t know better—but with his powers so weakened, Horace and Father pushed him past the door after an embarrassingly short struggle.
“Don’t make a further spectacle of yourself,” hissed Father, looking inside the carriage with the flaps of skin around his mouth lifting to reveal several missing teeth—the result of overconsumption of sugar. A mistake Julian was wary not to repeat.
Julian moaned and shook his head, rolling back on the seat from the impact of the movement. “Father. I know the alliance has been made, but wouldn’t the girl appreciate a longer courtship? I could stay in London and get to kno—”
“And lose all your funds on gambling and whores even quicker than you’re doing at present? Out of the question. I want to be congratulated on your engagement by the end of this month at the latest,” shouted Father. “You could do at least that for this family if you have neither the mind nor the work ethic to support the family enterprise in any other way than with your loins,” Father growled like a bulldog and shut the door with a bang that sent Julian all the way to the floor between the padded benches. He let out a low groan and held on to the smooth leather of his valise, which one of the servants must have taken from his room. Maybe he could still stop Hunt once they reached the outskirts of town? Direct him somewhere else perhaps? Surely, there was a way out of this imprisonment.
His mind stalled when the other door of the carriage, the one he was facing now, opened and Horace carefully pushed his bulk inside. Julian could hear his plans spill into the gutter.
“And for God’s sake, stop looking like a ruffian and wear your wig!” yelled Father before shutting the door.
The carriage rolled forward.
The sun was high up in the sky by the time the disharmonious orchestra left Julian’s skull. There wasn’t enough space to properly lie down anywhere, but he managed to obtain a comfortable position by resting his legs up the wooden wall while his upper body occupied one of the benches. He still felt like the filling of an enormous rattle as the carriage bent in all possible directions on the uneven road leading away from the coast.
Horace didn’t even make an attempt to hold back his disapproval, but after delivering several biting comments and a lengthy speech about duty, he at last leaned against the side of the carriage in the seat across from Julian and closed his eyes. It was difficult to say whether he was truly in need of a nap or if it was Julian’s face that he didn’t wish to look at.
With his headache out of the way yet not quite feeling well enough to read, Julian opened the curtains in hope of amusing himself with the views, but so far, he merely got to see the side of a narrow gully—all dirt and grass.
He couldn’t understand why Father was being so implacable about having his youngest son marry a title. Couldn’t it wait a fortnight so that Julian could finish that new novel he came up with last night? This one could truly be the breakthrough Julian had been waiting for, the one that would make the Reece family name known for more than fabric trade.
Inspiration was a moment in time when Julian’s friend Martin emerged from the darkness of an alley behind the tavern. In that very second he had not resembled himself but a man made of bronze, dreamlike and yet of substance, with strong hands that could crush Julian if they wanted. The novel would start with a similar encounter somewhere in the narrow back alleys of Rome, just off the Colosseum. Haunted by the ghost of an ancient gladiator, the protagonist would be believed to be slowly descending into madness, when in reality his awareness of the supernatural would become a vehicle for truth.
Julian was not yet certain of the exact message he wished to convey, but the events would be presented from several points of view, through letters written by the protagonist, his friends, and an official of some sort who’d represent the stale world order.
He’d already had several beautifully evocative ideas for metaphors describing the gladiator himself, but they became somewhat blurry after a night of cards and drink.
Oh, if only he could travel to Rome and let the atmosphere of the city soak him all the way to the bone—without a wife fighting for his attention and pulling him away from work because of feminine fancies.
He looked out of the window with growing disdain. Who in their right mind traveled on Sunday, and so early at that? Julian would have much preferred listening to a sermon at church to spending the day in what was effectively a hearse carrying one of the brightest literary talents just waiting to be discovered.
Now that Julian was feeling better, he was upset with himself about not asking for a day’s delay on religious grounds. He’d never been as devout about prayer as he was about his art, but if the Christian faith could postpone his commitment to a woman he never met, he would gladly kneel and pray. And Miss White wasn’t even a woman but a girl of fifteen, quite pretty in the portrait Julian had been shown, and a viscount’s only daughter at that, but surely as hungry for her intended’s attention as the bawdy house wench who’d become sweet on Julian some years ago.
Back then, he still visited Madame Canard’s establishment to do what everyone else did when they visited a school of Venus. These days, Julian had neither the overwhelming desire nor patience to handle a cunt, no matter how lovely the lady it was attached to. He still enjoyed having a drink with the harlots, and no card table within twenty miles was as lively as the one at Madame Canard’s, but at twenty-five he’d much rather handle needs of the flesh in solitude.
Sweet perfume made his nose itch, the act itself made him unpleasantly sticky—with his sweat and hers—and while he would not dare to ask, it was his suspicion that the friends who usually accompanied him to the brothel were only whoring so much because of pride and bravado. It was a sign of status to be able to afford women and decent wine daily, and so fucking and gambling was the thing you did as a social activity.
Julian’s eyes darted to Horace, who slept with his head thrown back and leaning against the side of the carriage. His wide-open mouth was asking for a distasteful prank, but Julian was far too upset to think of amusing himself at Horace’s expense. So far, the day’s joke was on him.
In the years past, he’d been mocked by his father and siblings over not taking on a profession that they deemed worthy of a gentleman, but with the family being very prosperous, Julian saw no reason to divert his focus from his one true calling.
Despite frequent threats, he’d hoped that Father—having four willing sons and three daughters—wouldn’t push Julian into marriage, but it seemed a lost cause. Soon it would be a wife nagging Julian to stop wasting his time following intellectual pursuits and instead turn his attention to practical matters. As the head of his own family, maybe he’d even be pushed to join the family trade, one step farther from traveling abroad to meet the great artists of the continent.
The carriage started a steep climb up a hill, and Julian cursed, pushing the soles of his boots against the wall to keep his body from rolling off the narrow bench. How long would it take for them to reach London at this pace? It was over two hundred miles away, so a week perhaps? The last time Julian had made the journey, he was so intoxicated most days that he couldn’t properly count them.
But out of nowhere, as the slope of the hill became gentler, the ugly dirt and grass that had been Julian’s only source of entertainment for the last half an hour were replaced by lush greenery of tree tops. He grinned and glanced at Horace, but the fat sod was too busy snoring to notice the change in scenery.
A wicked plan was starting to take shape in Julian’s head, and he quietly removed his feet from the side of the carriage and lowered them to the floor. Pulling himself upright was easy enough after that, and he stalled, eyes transfixed on the permanently flushed face of his brother that was an unappetizing contrast with the white wig he wore, and made him look like a man many years his senior. Julian might be less inclined to business, less sedate than his siblings, but at the very least he had good taste and flair most of Julian’s family lacked, buried deep in the stern world of pretense and money.
Horace didn’t even stir. The old pig was fast asleep, and if that wasn’t Julian’s chance to save his life, he didn’t know what was. Careful not to make any sound, Julian gathered his valise and the coat he’d earlier taken off because of the heat, stilling when the carriage came to a halt. His eyes immediately darted to Horace, but his brother only smacked his lips in his sleep. Hunt could have stopped to relieve himself. What an opportunity this was!
Julian could feel his heartbeat in his throat when he softly pressed on the door handle. Still distinctly aware of his brother being close enough for their knees to touch, were Julian not careful enough. He opened the carriage and left it in a soft stride before closing the door with care.
A warm breeze combed through his hair, wiping away the unpleasant wetness of sweat, and his lungs filled with fresh air, but he didn’t get to enjoy it.
The shining muzzle of a pistol was grinning at him from inches away.
Despite the warm weather, Julian’s whole body was shaken by a chill when his gaze met a pair of eyes so dark they might as well have been lacquered coals. The man had a tricorn hat pulled low over his forehead, and a black scarf obscuring the lower half of his face.
This can’t be happening.
“Don’t try to scream, or I will blow your brains out.” The man squinted and lowered his gun to Julian’s pupil. “Through the eye.”
Julian opened his mouth as his throat closed, robbing him of breath. He wanted to look back, suddenly wishing Horace weren’t such an easy sleeper, but Hunt was nowhere to be seen either. Heat washed over Julian’s body, making him stiffen as if he were made of clay. Had this man hurt their coachman? If so, where was the body?
“What do you want?” Julian whispered, resting his hand on the door handle when his knees softened.
“These.” A hand in a leather glove gripped Julian’s sweaty fingers and slipped off his rings. “And all your other valuables.” The man didn’t even blink, his voice dark as if dragged through tar.
Julian stared, and his mind finally came up with the answer for what this was. “You’re a highwayman…”
“And you’re cork-brained to travel on a Sunday when the roads are empty.” The man’s gaze drifted away to Horace for a split second, but he must have judged him as no threat, and when Horace snored from inside the carriage, the highwayman chuckled quietly.
Julian’s lungs emptied, and a silly grin emerged on his face, encouraged by the highwayman’s amusement. “Ah, I should have gone to church after all.”
The smile died on his lips when the robber poked Julian’s temple with his gun.
“Your valuables,” he urged.
Julian clenched his teeth when they threatened to clatter. He needed to keep calm. His father believed his friends to be villains, so he could handle one. “I’ve been taken out of the tavern this morning with nothing but the clothes on my back. I lost everything at the tables. You should try my older brother. He’s Father’s heir. He should have a healthy sum on him.”
The highwayman gripped the front of Julian’s waistcoat and pulled him forward so hard Julian stumbled straight into the man’s arms. He was much taller than Julian, with wide shoulders that were so strong their size couldn’t be just padding. His clothes smelled of leather and horse sweat, and Julian found himself staring into the eyes above the black scarf.
Before he could say a word, the man turned him around, and pressed the gun to the side of his head.
“Go on, wake up your brother.”
Julian breathed in and out, stiff with discomfort at the solid body pressed against his back as if the highwayman was seeking warmth. The gun provided some relief against heated skin. Its presence made Julian’s blood speed through his veins. It wouldn’t go off. Murder wasn’t in the robber’s interest, but if that was the case, then where the hell was Hunt?
Then an idea illuminated Julian’s mind. “I have a proposition, Mister—”
The highwayman stilled. He’d be lying. Of course. “Noir,” he said in the end. “What kind of proposition can you have, pretty boy? With no money in your pockets.”
Something about Noir’s tone sent a hot shiver through Julian’s ribcage, but he ignored the condescending words and slowly looked back into the blackest eyes he’d ever seen. “I don’t have much on me, but you must know my father. He’s William Reece, the cloth merchant. You could take me and ask for ransom. We could split it between us like two gentlemen,” he whispered and gave Noir a polite nod. Appealing to the highwayman’s self-importance should do the trick. His kind were known for a love of opulence and status they didn’t deserve.
He must have managed to surprise the thief, because Noir’s grip on him faltered. “How much could I ask for a son who hates his father?”
Julian exhaled in relief when he felt Noir’s aggression turn away from him. “A lot. He needs me. I’m worth more than you can imagine,” he said with a small smile.
Noir stole another glance at Horace sleeping in the back of the carriage, and his gloved hand slid to Julian’s neck, squeezing around his nape in a way that had Julian rising to his toes. “You better be. You scream, or try to run, and I will kill you.”
Julian swallowed against the warm, soft leather. It felt surprisingly expensive. Might have been snatched from a gentleman. “I don’t doubt that,” he lied. “However, we share a common goal, friend.”
“Call me ‘friend’ once this is all over.” Noir shook his head and pushed Julian behind the carriage, where a gloriously jet-black stallion awaited its rider and watched Julian with eyes as dark as Noir’s.
“I hope you haven’t hurt our driver. He’s a good fellow,” said Julian, smiling at the huge beast in front of him.
“He’ll live. Your brother will find him once he wakes up.”
Julian was sure there had to be a hint of a smile under that black scarf. When Noir put the gun inside his coat, Julian tried to assess the man more thoroughly.
The black riding coat was worn but of good quality. Could have been stolen too, but the clothes underneath, as black as everything the man wore, were clean, suggesting the highwayman wasn’t sleeping rough somewhere. Unless he dressed up for robbery.
Julian opened his mouth to comment on the beauty of the horse, but Noir spun Julian around and pulled back his hands.
“Good heavens. We’re partners,” Julian whispered with distaste. Hot and cold sweats were hitting him in rapid waves, and he couldn’t tell whether he was scared or excited about this new development. Once he got out of this, he could write a novel about the peril of travellers attacked by rogues while driving through a dark, rainy forest, and with a bit of poetic license call it a true story.
“I haven’t decided on that yet,” said Noir, and a shiver went down Julian’s back at the proficiency with which the man tied his hands. A former sailor perhaps? That wouldn’t bode well, as those types rarely possessed the intellectual capability for complicated schemes. Then again, his speech was far too refined to have been only recently acquired. Damnation!
“Mr. Noir. I’d much rather ride with my hands free. You see, I’ve been incapacitated by gin just this morning, and I don’t feel secure enough without my hands to assist me yet. I assure you, I am harmless.”
Once Noir had tied Julian’s hands, he turned him around. “Now you are. Up.” And just as Julian was wondering how exactly he was supposed to climb atop the tall beast, the scoundrel grabbed his legs and picked him up. Julian barely refrained from screaming. It was no way to handle a gentleman, and yet he couldn’t help but be amazed by Noir’s physical prowess.
Definitely a former sailor. A naval officer, perhaps.
Julian’s face flushed with heat when he imagined his bottom sticking out like a whore’s ass at a party. Good grief, what had he gotten himself into? What was next? Being kidnapped by pirates?
His foot found the stirrup, and he exhaled with relief, pushing his other leg over the horse’s hindquarters until he straddled its back. “I see no reason for this kind of treatment, considering it was I who came up with a most lucrative opportunity for you.”
“Keep that up, and I will gag you.” Noir was quick to get on the horse himself as soon as he’d attached Julian’s coat and valise to the saddle. Julian felt completely overwhelmed when the man reached for the reins, all but embracing him.
Julian shuddered and curled his shoulders to not be in the way, though no matter what he did, the shape of the saddle brought them close together. “You’re a scoundrel. Another man in your profession would have treated me right.”
Noir laughed darkly. “You are correct, sir. How could I have forgotten.” Even though the mockery had him exaggerate the polite accent, Julian was becoming certain that Noir’s natural speech was not that of someone uneducated.
Before Julian understood what was happening, Noir pulled a burlap sack over his head.
“I will scream,” whispered Julian, staring ahead through the dots of light in the smelly thing. He squeezed his hands into fists and pushed them hard against Noir’s stomach. His mind was rattling again, as if the drunkenness returned with full force.
“No one will hear you where we’re going.”
“Julian?” came a sleepy voice from the carriage.
Noir’s thighs tensed, and he must have urged his mount to rush, as it went almost straight into gallop.
Julian screamed at the top of his lungs. “Horace!”
The stallion flew forward, and without the aid of his hands, Julian was forced to hang on to it with his legs alone, shaken like a rattle. The rapid gait moved him back and forth over the front of the saddle, making Julian stiffen and push back against the firm chest behind him. Without seeing where they were going, Julian tried to hold on to anything he had on hand, and as it happened, it was probably Noir’s waistcoat. If the horse tripped, at least they would stumble and break their bones together. Or maybe the villain would cushion Julian’s fall in a well-meaning act of God.
It was Sunday.