From Chapter 1 of A Rebel without a Rogue
London, February 1822
Fianna Cameron—at least that was what she called herself today—slipped a hand inside her cloak pocket and curled her fingers tight around the butt of her father’s pistol. Her long, hurried strides had sent it bouncing hard against her thigh, but even that pain wasn’t enough to reassure her that the weapon hadn’t disappeared, that she hadn’t only imagined hiding it there before she’d finally tracked her prey to his lair. Still, she couldn’t shake the fear that when the time came for her to act, she would find herself confronting the man empty-handed, shaking in impotent fury as Major Christopher Pennington offered her a condescending smile and walked on, just as he had so many times in her dreams.
The memory of Grandfather McCracken’s soft, broken voice reading the Bible verse that had first inspired her—For he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him who doeth evil—brought her back to her sense of purpose. She could not fail, would not fail, not now, not when she’d given nearly everything for this chance to bring her father’s killer to justice and redeem the honor of his name. And to prove herself, bastard though she might be, worthy of her rightful place in the McCracken family.
The only family she had left—
Eyes darting between strangers and shop windows, carriages and carts, she searched the unfamiliar street for her destination. She’d feared being followed and had altered her path to throw any pursuer off her trail. But the evasion must have pulled her off course as well. She’d come too far, missing Pennington’s reputed favorite haunt.
Retracing her steps, she discovered the Crown and Anchor Tavern lay not on the Strand itself, but behind that bustling street’s houses and shops. Stepping into the long, narrow passageway between two shopfronts, she forced herself to slow to a pace painfully at odds with the rapid beating of her heart.
The sight of the Crown and Anchor’s spacious stone-paved foyer brought her up short. In Dublin, no place this grand would ever be termed a mere tavern. Ornate columns, a sweeping staircase with iron rails and what looked to be handrails of some dark, expensive wood—why, it seemed as elegantly appointed as the Lord Lieutenant’s mansion. And so many people! How would she ever find her quarry amidst such a throng?
A man in dark livery broke through her dismay. “May I direct you to the Philharmonic Society concert, ma’am? Or Mr. Burdett’s meeting to discuss the wisdom of abstaining from intoxicating spirits? Both may be found on the floor above.”
Not just a tavern, then, this Crown and Anchor, but a public meeting hall of no small repute. What a lackwit, to call attention to herself by staring at its grandeur like the greenest bumpkin. Lucky, she’d be, not to be judged an impostor and thrown out on her ear.
Run! her body urged. Hide!
Instead, forcing her hand from the comfort of the pistol, she pushed back the hood that hid her face.
The porter took a step back, his eyes widening. How predictable, the catch of breath, the poleaxed, besotted expression. She’d long ago stopped wondering why God had gifted her with a face that no man could seem to pass without falling guilty to the rudeness of staring. Lucky for her, men only seemed to care about the deceptively lovely husk of her face, never giving a single thought to what ugliness might lie beneath.
Lowering her voice to a murmur, she forced the porter to step closer. “It is so crowded here.” She widened her eyes. “My footman seems to have gone astray.”
“Might I send a man in search of him for you, ma’am?” he asked, a blush spreading over already ruddy cheeks.
“My uncle,” she said, taking care to add a shy, embarrassed frown. “The footman was to take me to my uncle, Major Pennington. Would you know where I might find him, sir?”
The man took another step closer, as if drawn to her by an invisible wire. “Major Pennington? Ah, let me see. There is to be a meeting of military gentlemen in the Small Dining Room this evening, but I believe they are men of the navy. I do know of a Mr. Pennington, though, a Mr. Kit Pennington. Brother to Lord Saybrook, he is. Might he be the gentleman you seek?”
“Ah yes, Mr. Pennington. I nearly forgot, he sold out some years past. My mother always called him the Major, you see.”
“Of course, ma’am. I believe he is up in the news room, reading the papers. I’ll send someone to fetch him immediately.” Reluctance and relief warred over his face as he turned toward the stair.
“Oh, please don’t,” she cried, placing a palm on the man’s arm. No need to give the Major any warning.
She felt the porter start, watched him stare at the hand from which she’d deliberately removed a glove. “It was meant to be a surprise, you see, for his birthday,” she added. “I’m sure I can find my way to this news room, if you give me the direction.”
“But women don’t typically frequent the news room, ma’am, and—”
Lifting her chin, she turned the full force of her green eyes upon the hapless servant. “You wouldn’t spoil my uncle’s surprise, would you?” she pleaded, adding the softest exhale of a sigh to draw his attention to her wide, full lips.
The quiver of his arm under her fingers told her all she needed to know.
Her mouth grew dry as they ascended the prodigious stone staircase and made their way across the second-floor lobby, passing a large assembly room. The strains of a tuning violin, its strings wound tight as her nerves, assaulted her ears. “Haydn’s Requiem,” the placard outside the room read. How fitting, that the Philharmonic Society should be playing a mass for the dead.
His death, not mine, she offered in silent prayer, even as a shiver slid down her frame.
“The news room, ma’am,” the porter said, stopping beside one of the many doors lining the passageway and reaching toward its handle.
She raised a silencing finger to her lips before he could step inside.
“A surprise, do you not recall?” she whispered. He mimicked her action with his own finger, pleased to be privy to the secrets of such a creature as she. At her nod, he reached for the door and opened it just a crack. Then, with a flustered bow, he retreated down the passageway.
She stood for a moment, then another, until she was certain he had gone. Then, with a quick inrush of breath, she drew her father’s pistol from her pocket. Her fingers shook as she cocked it, then hid it between the folds of her skirt. Pulling the concealing hood of her cloak back over her head, she forced her icy hand to push the door wide.
The floor’s thick carpets and the door’s well-oiled hinges allowed her to slip in unremarked. In her eagerness to finish the business, she’d stupidly assumed he’d be alone in the room. But she’d been mistaken; several groups of gentlemen were scattered about the large room. Damn, how her wits had gone astray since she’d arrived in London.
It would have been far wiser to leave before she attracted notice. But somehow, she could not pull her eyes away. Which of the room’s occupants was the man responsible for her father’s death? One of the knot of men debating earnestly around a table? The single man in a rumpled suit by the window, scribbling notes with a stubby pencil? Surely not one of the pair of gentlemen barely old enough to sprout whiskers, frantically pulling books off the shelves, nor their companion, dazed, even cup-shot, in a chair beside them.
She frowned. None had the stiff, upright bearing of the British military man, as had the soldiers she’d seen in Dublin and Belfast. Were they more relaxed, these English fighters, when in the safety of their own country?
“Mr. Pennington?” she asked, taking a few steps into the room. Her eyes cut between the lone man by the window and the group on the left. “Is Mr. Pennington present?”
She could barely hear her own words over the pounding of blood in her ears. But her voice must have been louder than it seemed, for each man raised his eyes. Most seemed shocked to see an unescorted woman in their midst, although several looked as if they wished they could answer in the affirmative.
But none did.
Had the porter been mistaken, then? Her eyes narrowed, her teeth biting down hard against her lower lip.
Before she could draw blood, a supercilious English drawl caught her ear.
“Kit, how amusing. For once, a lady appears to want you, not me.”
The voice had come not from the group on her left, but from the one on the right, the one now slightly behind her. She froze, waiting for the response.
“Pennington, pay attention. There’s a lady, here, in this very room, asking for you,” a second voice added. One voice to her left; the other to her right.
“A lady? Looking for me?” A third speaker. She heard one of the three take a step in her direction.
She cursed her shaking hand, clutching the butt of the pistol, her feet frozen to the floor. What, could she be losing her will now? Simply because this last act of retribution, unlike the others, demanded that she not simply humiliate or shame, but threaten real violence?
No. She steeled herself to charm Pennington into leaving the room. Once they were alone, she could beguile, or, if necessary, threaten, until the cursed man signed the recantation that would restore her father’s honor.
Taking a deep breath, she turned to face him. The hand holding the hidden pistol gripped tight, angling the weapon away from her body. Upward, to ward off any potential threat.
But her finger, slippery with sweat, slid against the trigger—
The unexpected force of the shot sent her reeling back toward the door.
Time hung suspended as, through the dissipating smoke, she struggled to make out her target.
Golden curls. Blue eyes, wide with shock. Blood, drip, drip, dripping from an arm to the carpet below.
A face even younger than her own.
A Mháthair Dé!
Mother of God. Not only had she fired too soon.
She’d fired upon the wrong man.