The Dangerous Mr Ryder
Imagine a tiny Grand Duchy clinging to the mountains near the SE French frontier. Imagine it is 1815 and Napoleon has just landed from Elba and is marching on Paris. Imagine a castle towering over a vertiginous drop to the river below.
It is night and a rope dangles from the battements into the void…
No-one had told him that she was beautiful. Jack Ryder crouched precariously in a stone window embrasure two hundred feet above the ravine river bed and stared into the candlelit room. Inside, the woman he had been sent to find paced to and fro like an angry cat.
He kept his eyes fixed on the image beyond the glass as he wedged himself more securely into his slippery niche. Below, the void beneath the castle was shrouded in merciful darkness, the faint sound of the river floating upwards. Although his whole body was aware of it, he ignored the cold fingers of fear playing up and down his spine, knowing full well that if he let his imagination have full rein he would never be able to move at all. His studded boots ground on the stone, and he froze for a moment, but the sound did not seem to reach her.
Jack gave himself a mental shake and began to work on the knot that secured the end of the long coil of rope around his waist. As it came free he gave it a jerk, flicking it outwards, and the whole length detached itself from the battlement high above and fell out of sight into the void.
Now his only way down was through that window. Despite his perilous position Jack had no intention of going through it until he had a chance to size up the woman inside. The woman he had been sent to bring back to England by whatever means he found necessary, including force.
It was for her own good, as well as in the interests of both countries, they had explained at Whitehall. The officials had spoken with the air of men who were glad it was not they who had to attempt to convince the lady of this. They had told him a number of things about Her Serene Highness the Dowager Grand Duchess Eva de Maubourg. Intelligent, stubborn, anti-Napoleonic, haughty, independent, difficult and demanding was how she had been summed up by the various men who had gathered to deliver the hasty briefing, fifteen days before. Half French, they had added gloomily, as though that summed up the problem.
She had not left the Duchy since her marriage and was likely to be near impossible to move now, the officials added. That was all right; he was used to being asked to do the near impossible.
But there had been no mention of darkly vivid looks, of a curvaceous figure or the lithe grace of a caged panther. And Jack was having trouble believing she could possibly be the mother of a nine year old son. It had to be the thick glass in the window panes.
She was alone in the room; he had waited long enough to be convinced of that. Jack shifted his position, focusing his mind on opening the window and not on what would happen if he lost his balance. The flat of a slim blade slid easily enough between the casement and the frame. Thankfully the window opened inwards, for its height above the floor would make it impossible to use otherwise. He eased it ajar by inches, waiting long minutes between each adjustment so there would be no sudden drop of temperature or gust of wind to alarm her. If she screamed this would likely end in bloodshed - he did not intend that it would be his.
Grand Duchess Eva ceased to pace and sank down in front of a writing desk, her back to the window, her head in her hands. Jack wondered if she was crying, then started, with potentially lethal result, when she banged her fist down on the leather desk top and swore colourfully in English. He could only admire her vocabulary: he was tempted to echo it.
It was definitely time to get off this widow ledge. He grasped the frame, put his feet through and swung himself down into the room. There was no way he could land silently, not dropping eight foot onto a stone flagged floor in nailed boots. She spun round on her chair, gripping the back of it, her face reflecting the gamut of emotions from shock, puzzlement, fear and finally, he was impressed to see, imperious anger masking all else. They had not told him about her courage.
‘Who the devil are you?’ she demanded in unaccented English, getting to her feet with perfect deportment, as though rising from a throne. Her right hand, Jack noted, was behind her: he searched his memory for his survey of the room. Ah yes, the paper knife. A resourceful lady.
‘You speak English excellently,’ he commented. He knew from his briefing that she was half English, so it was only to be expected, but it was a more tactful beginning to their conversation than Put down that knife before I make you! might be. ‘But how did you know I would understand you?’
She looked down her nose at him. Jack registered dark eyes, thinly elegant eyebrows arched in distain, a red mouth with a fullness which betrayed more passion than she was perhaps comfortable with and one deep brown curl, disturbed from her coiffure and lying tantalisingly against her white shoulder. He focused on those eyes and banished the fleeting speculation about just how the skin under that curl would feel.
‘You will address me as Your Serene Highness,’ she said coolly. ‘I was thinking in English,’ she added, almost as an afterthought.
‘Your Serene Highness,’ he swept her a bow, conscious of his clothing as he did so. He was dressed for the purpose of shinning down castle walls, not making court bows, but he managed it with a grace that had one of those dark brows lifting in surprise. ‘My name is Jack Ryder.’ He had wrestled with whether or not to tell her his real name and decided against it. His nom de guerre would be safer in the event they were captured.
‘Then you are English Mr Ryder?’
‘So you have not come to kill me?’
The Outrageous Lady Felsham, the second Ravenhurst title will be out in May.