"You got your due, you horse's arse. Now crawl on out of here. I run a respectable tavern," Bryan bellowed between bouts of laughter.
A thin, jittery man drew Lyon's attention then. "Sir, I hear you're wanting information about ships from the colonies," he stammered out.
"Take a seat, Mick," Bryan instructed. "He's a good, honest man, Lyon," Bryan continued, nodding at his friend.
Lyon waited while the seaman exchanged news with
Bryan. He continued to watch the man he'd just injured until the door slammed shut behind him.
Then his thoughts returned to Christina and his mission.
Lyon had decided to start over. He was finished forming his own conclusions based on logical assumptions. Logic didn't work where Christina was concerned. He threw out all her explanations about her past. The only fact he knew to be truthful was that the Countess had returned to England approximately three months ago.
Someone had to remember the old bat. The woman was foul enough to have drawn attention to herself by complaining about something to someone. She wouldn't have been an appreciative passenger.
Mick, as it turned out, remembered the woman. Rather well. "Captain Curtiss weren't a fair man with me, sir. I would have chosen to slop the decks or empty the pots rather than fetch and carry for the Cummings woman. Gawd, she kept me legs running day and night."
"Was she traveling alone?" Lyon asked. He didn't let Mick know how excited he was to finally have real information, thinking the man might lace his answers in order to please him into giving him more ale. "Of a sort," Mick announced.
"Of a sort? That don't make sense, Mick. Tell the man straight," Bryan advised.
"I mean to say, sir, she came on board with a gentleman and a pretty little lady. I only got a quick glance at the lovey, though. She wore a cape with the hood over her head, but before the Countess pushed her below deck she looked right at me and smiled. Yes, sir, she did."
"Did you happen to notice the color of her eyes?" Lyon asked.
"Blue they were, as blue as my ocean."
"Tell me what you remember about the man traveling with the Countess," Lyon instructed. He motioned for Bryan to refill Mick's glass.
"He weren't family," Mick explained after taking a swig of ale. "A missionary, he told some of the men. Sounded Frenchy to me, but he told us he lived in a wilderness past the colonies. He was going back to France to see his relatives. Even though he was French, I liked him. Because of the way he protected the little lass. He was old enough to be her father—treated her like he was, too. Since the Cummings woman stayed below most of the voyage, the missionary man would take the pretty for a stroll on the decks."
Mick paused to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. "The old woman was a strange bird. She didn't have nothing to do with the other two. Even demanded to have an extra chain put on the inside of her door. Captain Curtiss tried to calm her fears by telling her none of us would touch her. Gawd almighty, we couldn't stomach to look at her, and why she'd be thinking we'd want to bother her didn't make a spit of sense. It took a while, sir, but some of us did finally figure out her scheme. She was bolting her door against the little miss. Yes, sir, she was. The missionary man was overheard telling the little lady not to feel sad 'cause her aunt was afraid of her. Don't that beat all?"
Lyon smiled at Mick. It was all the encouragement the seaman needed to continue. "She was such a sweet little thing. 'Course, she did throw Louie overboard. Flipped him right over her shoulder, she did. Couldn't believe it—no, sir, couldn't believe it. Louie had it coming, though. Why, he snuck up behind her and grabbed her. That's when I seen the color of her hair. Real light yellow. She'd always been wearing that hood, even in the heat of the afternoons. Must have been mighty uncomfortable."
"She threw a man overboard?" Bryan asked the question. He knew he shouldn't interfere in Lyon's questions, but he was too astonished by Mick's casually given remark to keep silent. "Enough about the hood, man, tell me more about this girl."
"Well, it were a good thing for Louie the wind weren't up. We fished him out of the water without too much backache. He left the miss alone after that surprise. Come to think on it, most o' the men did."
"When will Captain Curtiss be returning to London?" Lyon asked.
"Not for another month or two," Mick said. "Would you be wanting to speak to the missionary man, too?"
"I would," Lyon answered, keeping his expression impassive. He sounded almost bored.
"He's coming back to London real soon. He told us he was only going to stay in France a short while, then planned on giving the little miss a nice visit before going back to the colonies. He was real protective toward the girl. Worried about her, too. Don't blame him none. That old…"
"Bat?" Lyon supplied.
"Yes, she was an old bat," Mick said with a snicker.
"Do you remember the missionary's name, Mick? There's an extra pound for you if you can give me his name."
"It's right on the tip of me tongue," Mick said, frowning intently. "When it comes to me, I'll tell you, Bryan. You'll keep the coins safe for me, won't you?"
"Question some of your shipmates," Bryan suggested. "Surely one of them will recall the man's name."
Mick was in such a hurry to gain his reward, he immediately left the tavern to go search for his companions.
"Is this government business?" Bryan asked when they were once again alone.
"No," Lyon answered. "A personal concern."
"It's the lady, isn't it? Don't need to pretend with me, Lyon. I'd be interested in her, too, if I were young enough."
Lyon smiled. "You've never even seen her," he reminded his friend.
"Makes no matter. Mick said she was a slip of a girl with blue eyes and yellow hair. Sounds pretty enough for my tastes, but that isn't the true reason I'd chase after her skirts. Have you ever met Louie?"
"He's as big as I am, though he weighs a few stones more. Any lady who could toss him overboard has to be mighty interesting. Lord, I wish I'd been there to see it. Never could like Louie. There's a rank smell coming from him. His mind's as sour as his body. Damn, I wish I'd seen him hit the water."
Lyon spent a few more minutes exchanging bits of news with Bryan, then stood to take his leave. "You know where to find me, Bryan."
The tavern owner walked Lyon to the curb. "How's Rhone getting on?" he asked. "Up to his usual antics?"
"Afraid so," Lyon drawled. "That reminds me, Bryan. Would you have the back room ready for Friday after next? Rhone and I are setting up a card game. I'll give you the details later."
Bryan gave Lyon a speculative look. "Always trying to outguess me, aren't you, Bryan?" Lyon asked.
"My thoughts are always on my face," Bryan answered, with a grin. "It's why I'd never make it in your line of work," he added.
Bryan held the door of the carriage open for Lyon. He waited until the Marquess was about to close the door behind him before calling out his ritual farewell. "Guard your back, my friend." On the spur of the moment, he included another caution. "And your heart, Lyon. Don't let any pretties throw you overboard."
That suggestion had come a little too late, to Lyon's way of thinking. Christina had already caught him off guard. He'd vowed long ago not to get emotionally involved with another woman for as long as he lived. He was going to keep his relationships short and sweet.
So much for that vow, Lyon thought with a sigh. He couldn't guard his heart now. It already belonged to her.
His mind returned to the puzzle of Christina's bizarre remarks. He remembered she'd told him that his curiosity could get him killed. Was she lying or was she serious? Lyon couldn't decide.
Christina had been truthful when she announced she wasn't going to stay in London long, that she meant to return home. At least she looked like she was telling the truth.
He wasn't about to let her go anywhere. Christina was going to belong to him. But he wasn't taking any chances. If she did manage to get away from him, his job of hunting her down would be much easier if he knew exactly where her home was.
"She isn't going anywhere," Lyon muttered to himself. No, he wasn't going to let her out of his sight.
With a growl of new frustration, Lyon accepted the truth. There was only one way he could keep Christina by his side.
Hell, he was going to have to marry her.
"Where in God's name have you been? I've been sitting in your library for hours."
Rhone bellowed the question as soon as Lyon strode into the foyer of his townhouse. "I have messengers searching the town for you, Lyon."
"I wasn't aware I had to account to you, Rhone," Lyon answered. He threw off his jacket and walked into the study. "Shut the door, Rhone. What do you think you're doing? You shouldn't be out in public. Someone might notice the bandage. You took a needless chance. Your man would have found me soon enough."
"Well, where have you been? It's almost dark outside," Rhone muttered. He collapsed in the first available chair.
"You're beginning to sound like a nagging wife," Lyon said with a chuckle. "What's the problem? Is your father having more difficulties?"
"No, and you sure as hell won't be laughing when I tell you why I've been looking all over London for you. Better put your jacket back on, my friend. You've work to do."
The seriousness in Rhone's tone gained Lyon's complete attention. He leaned against the desk top, folded his arms across his chest, and said, "Explain yourself."
"It's Christina, Lyon. She's in trouble."
Lyon reacted as though he'd just been hit by lightning. He bounded away from the desk and had Rhone by his shoulders before his friend could take a new breath. "There's still plenty of time, Lyon. I was just worried you might have taken off for your country home. We've got until midnight before they come after her… for God's sake, man, unhand me."
Lyon immediately let Rhone fall back into his chair. "Who are they?" he demanded.
His expression had turned deadly. Rhone was immensely thankful Lyon was his friend and not his enemy. "Splickler and some men he hired."
Lyon gave Rhone a brisk nod, then walked back out into the foyer. He shouted for his carriage to be brought around front again.
Rhone followed Lyon out the front door. "Wouldn't your steed get you there quicker?"
"I'll need the carriage later."
The way he'd said the bastard's name told Rhone all he needed or wanted to know. He waited until they were both settled inside the conveyance to give his full explanation. "One of my men—or rather one of Jack's men—was offered a sizable amount to help take Christina to Gretna Green. Splickler thinks to force a marriage, you see. I went to meet with my men to tell them there wasn't going to be another raid. One of them is a decent enough fellow—for a bandit—by the name of Ben. He told me he'd been asked by Splickler and agreed to go along. Ben thought it was a rather amusing way to make some easy money."
The look on Lyon's face was chilling.
"Splickler hired Ben and three others. I paid Ben so he'd pretend to be in on the scheme. He won't help Splickler, if we can count on his word."
"You're certain it's set for midnight?" Lyon asked.
"Yes," Rhone answered with a nod. "There's still plenty of time, Lyon." He let out a long sigh. "I do feel relieved you're going to take care of the matter," he admitted.
"Oh, yes, I'll take care of the matter."
Lyon's voice was whisper-soft. It sent a chill down Rhone's spine. "You know, Lyon, I always thought Splickler was a snake, but I didn't think he had enough rattle in him to do something this obscene. If anyone finds out about this plot of his, Christina's reputation might very well suffer."
"No one's going to find out. I'll see to it."
Rhone nodded again. "Could someone have put Splickler up to this, Lyon? The man isn't smart enough to make change."
"Oh, yes, someone put him up to it, all right. The Countess. I'd stake my life on it."
"Good God, Lyon, she's Christina's aunt. You can't believe—"
"I do believe it," Lyon muttered. "She left Christina all alone. A little too convenient, wouldn't you agree?"
"Do you have an extra pistol for me?" Rhone asked.
"Never use them."
"Why not?" Rhone asked, appalled.
"Too much noise," Lyon answered. "Besides, there are only four of them, if we can believe your friend's count."
"But there are five."
"Splickler doesn't count. He'll run at the first sign of trouble. I'll find him later."
"I don't doubt that," Rhone answered.
"Rhone, when we reach Christina's townhouse, I'll have my man take you home. I don't want my carriage sitting out front. Splickler would see it. We don't want him to change his plans. I'll have my driver return for me an hour after midnight."
"I insist on lending a hand," Rhone muttered.
"You've only got one good hand to lend," Lyon answered, smiling.
"How can you be so glib?"
"The word is controlled, Rhone. Controlled."
Lyon was out of the carriage giving fresh instructions to his driver before the vehicle had rocked to a full stop. "Damn it, Lyon. I could be of help," Rhone shouted.
"You'd be more of a hindrance than a help. Go home. I'll send word to you when it's over."
Lord, he acted so unaffected by what was taking place. Rhone knew better, though. He almost felt a little sorry for the stupid, greedy men who'd joined with Splickler. The poor fools were about to find out just how the Marquess of Lyonwood had earned his reputation.
Damn, he really hated to miss the action. "I'm sure as certain not going to," Rhone muttered to himself. He waited for his opportunity. When the carriage slowed to round the corner, Rhone jumped to the street. He landed on his knees, cursed himself for his clumsiness, then brushed himself off and started walking towards Christina's house.