When a Rogue Falls by Sasha Cottman

Chapter One

Earl Connor’s Estate

Just outside of London

The moment Sir Stephen Moore stepped into the hallway, he sensed trouble. He grimaced at the scene which lay before him, then turned to his client. “I thought you said you had winged him?”

Earl Connor glanced in the direction of the large pool of red gore and gave a derisive sniff. “Well, he was moving a little slower than I had expected. Perhaps I got a decent shot in.”

A decent shot? That amount of blood on the floor means a badly wounded man.

Stephen gritted his teeth. He hated the sight of blood, could barely stomach it.

Another night and another jealous husband. Cleaning up the private indiscretions of the ton was becoming tiresome. If the job didn’t pay as handsomely as it did, he would walk away with no regrets.

The crimson smear on the elegant parquetry floor trailed all the way to an open door at the end of the hall. Countess Connor’s not-so-secret lover had somehow managed to drag himself away and was more than likely dying in a pool of his own lifeblood in the rear courtyard.

Just what I need.

The earl took a step forward, but the bulk of Stephen’s six-and-a-half-foot frame blocked his way. He placed a firm hand on Lord Connor’s shoulder and levelled him with his piercing blue eyes. “My lord, I would suggest that you let me handle this. Go back to bed and pretend that nothing happened. Or better still—attend your wife. I expect she might be in somewhat of a state of distress at having her evening so violently interrupted.”

“But what if the blackguard is badly injured?”

You should have thought about that before you fired a bloody pistol at the man. Not to mention you don’t seem to give a damn about Lady Connor.

Stephen took a deep breath to calm his temper. Cool heads were what these sorts of situations required. “I am a professional. Handling this mess is what you pay me to do. If your wife’s friend does die, rest assured it will be somewhere far from here and your involvement will never be known. Now please, hand me the gun.”

Lord Connor grumbled something foul under his breath but did as he was told. The moment the earl disappeared upstairs; Stephen headed for the door.

Outside lay a young man. Blood soaked his white linen shirt, and his breathing was labored. The fact that he happened to be the Marquess of Witham only added to Stephen’s already complicated night.

“Ruddy hell,” muttered Stephen. He raced down the steps and came to kneel at the stricken man’s side.

“The beggar shot me,” groaned Lord Witham.

“Well, you were tupping his wife, so you are not exactly in a position to complain. But fear not. I have a carriage waiting outside in the street. After I get you away from here, I shall arrange for one of London’s best and most discreet physicians to attend to you.”

The marquess lifted his hand. “Thank you. My papa has always said you were a decent chap.”

Stephen gave a brief nod in response, grateful that for once it didn’t come with the usually added words of ‘unlike your father.’

All of London’s elite society knew Sir Robert Moore was a devious scoundrel. Fortunately, few members of the haute ton were aware that his son was up to his own eyes in smuggling, kidnapping, and pretty much anything else that was lucrative and illegal.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the Moore family.

“Now this is going to hurt like the devil. So, on the count of three, suck in a deep breath and I will lift you to your feet. One. Two—.” Stephen didn’t bother with three, as he hauled the stricken aristocrat upright.

“Oh! What happened to three?” groaned Lord Witham.

“I find it is always better to let the agony flow through you,” lied Stephen.

Bullet wounds do tend to sting. And hopefully, you will remember how much and do your best to avoid these sorts of situations in the future. Though I seriously doubt it.

The marquess swayed unsteadily on his feet, and for a moment Stephen feared the young lord might swoon. He tightened his hold on him. “Lord Witham, I will get you out of here, but I require a number of things from you in return.”

The marquess gripped the front of Stephen’s jacket and whimpered. “Anything; name it. Just get me to a doctor.”

“One, keep quiet. And two, don’t die on me.”

It was well after dawn by the time Stephen made it back to the offices of the RR Coaching Company in Gracechurch Street. He arrived via the rear lane way, pulling his mount up near the stables.

After dismounting his horse, he handed the reins over to the company’s one and only employee, Bob.

The craggy, old stable hand took one look at the blood stains on the front of Stephen’s shirt and screwed up his nose. “Rough night, Sir Stephen?” he inquired.

Stephen rolled his eyes. “Bloody nobles—can’t keep their tools in their trousers.”

Bob had worked for the rogues of the road long enough not to ask for further details. He pointed in the direction of the main building. “His grace, the Duke of Monsale, and some other members of the company are upstairs in the office. I was instructed to ask you to join them once you arrived. Oh, and Lady Alice is also here.”

Stephen glanced at his disheveled clothing. The fabric had dried but the metallic odor of the marquess’s blood remained.

The sooner I am out of these clothes the better.

While bloodstained clothes weren’t anything his friends hadn’t seen before, Harry’s wife was a different story. He was not going to greet Alice in this state.

His long legs took the stairs leading to the company offices three at a time. On the landing, he reached for the door handle then paused. He put an ear to the door. There was not a peep to be heard from within the room on the other side.

“Why is Alice here at this hour?” he whispered.

Because something is wrong.

His nerves suddenly tingled with premonition. It was rare for the RR Coaching Company directors to meet this early in the morning. Monsale, for one, never rose before the hour of ten. Not unless there was a crisis.

And they are all here, including Alice.

Taking a deep breath, Stephen took a firm hold of the handle and pushed open the door. The vision which met his gaze set his pulse racing.

Lord Harry Steele, Lady Alice Steele, The Honorable George Hawkins, and the Duke of Monsale were assembled around the weather-beaten, grand table, which took up much of the main room. Heads turned in his direction as he stepped through the door.

True to form, his fellow rogues of the road furnished him with their customary stony faces, but when he looked at Alice, a shiver of dread slid down his back.

Her eyes were teary, and her face flushed. The tremulous smile she offered to him, a portent of doom.

Definitely bad news. Bloody hell.

Stephen gave a quick bow. “Lady Alice. Please excuse my state. I wasn’t expecting to find anyone here at this hour. Give me a minute to change, and I will be with you all shortly.” He took a step toward the hallway and his room.

Monsale nodded. “Of course, take your time, my friend.”

Stephen stopped dead in his tracks.

What the devil? Monsale never speaks to me like that, never uses that tone.

He spun on his heel and faced the gathering.

All the company members were present this morning. All except Augustus Trajan Jones. Gus had sailed to France two days earlier, and if all had gone to plan, he should be on his way back to England onboard his yacht the Night Wind, a cargo of contraband brandy safely hidden below the weather deck.

Stephen looked from Monsale to Harry and then to George. “Gus?” he managed in a voice barely above a whisper.

The mere thought of the smuggler’s ship sinking somewhere in the English Channel or heaven forbid him having been captured by the customs militia filled Stephen with fear.

Gus.Sweet lord, please no.

What would he do if this was the news?

Lord Harry rose from his chair and came to Stephen’s side. He placed one hand on his shoulder, the other held out a folded and sealed letter. “I am so truly sorry, Stephen. It’s your father. His lawyer delivered this to my house an hour ago. Apparently, it was the only address they had for you.”

Stephen’s shoulders sagged with relief. Gus was alive and well. He took the note, then without a second glance tossed it onto the table. His father could wait.

“I will make myself presentable first, then read it. A few minutes won’t change the fact that the black-hearted devil is dead.”

He pretended not to hear Alice’s gasp of surprise. Of course, she was shocked by his reaction to the news of his father’s passing. Alice Steele came from a real family—one where the members actually gave a damn about one another. Stephen couldn’t remember a time when his sire had ever shared an ounce of affection with him.

And that’s because it never happened.

In his room, he shrugged out of his jacket and bloodied shirt, letting them drop on the floor. He would bundle them up later and get Bob to take them to the local washerwoman in nearby Pudding Lane. She knew exactly what to do with those kinds of stains. And also, how to keep her mouth shut.

From his battered travel trunk, he retrieved a fresh, clean shirt. The act of dressing occupied his mind, keeping it from tempting thoughts of regret. Stephen was a master when it came to avoiding unwelcome emotions.

With his attire now set to rights, he checked himself in the mirror. A flannel and some water from a pitcher removed the remaining traces of last night’s dirty work from his face and hands. The Marquess of Witham would live and hopefully had learned a painful lesson from his near-death experience. Hopefully.

He closed the door of his room and calmly walked back along the hallway. Stepping into the main office space once more, he gave his assembled friends a wan smile.

Let’s get this over and done with.

He retrieved the lawyer’s letter and slipping his thumb under the wax seal, broke it open. A quick read confirmed the news. His father, Sir Robert Moore, was indeed no longer among the living.

There were a few other pertinent details regarding balances held on deposit with various financial institutions and mention of the title deeds to the family home in Witley, but other than that, there were no actual details about how his sire had died.

No surprise there.

“I’m so terribly sorry,” said Alice. The heavily pregnant wife of his fellow rogue of the road came to Stephen, arms open wide, offering comfort. He reluctantly accepted her attempted hug.

It was odd to be receiving any form of consolation over the death of a man he barely knew. A man he would not grieve.

When a tearful Alice finally released him from her attentions, Stephen turned to the other men. “Did my father’s solicitor say anything else?”

Monsale sighed. “Apparently, he got into a fight with someone a week ago and a knife was produced. In the ensuing brawl, your father was stabbed. He died at Moore Manor the day before yesterday.”

And no one thought to send word to me because they assumed, I wouldn’t bother to make the trip all the way to Surrey.

Stephen wasn’t completely sure what he would have done if someone had arrived on the doorstep of the RR Coaching Company during the past week and announced that his father was at death’s door.

Probably sent them away with a flea in their ear.

Alice took a hold of Stephen’s hand and gave it a reassuring pat. “When was the last time you saw your father? I hope it was a moment that you are now able to treasure.”

His mind was suddenly filled with the memory. It hadn’t been pleasant then, and the pain of it still burned even now. “I haven’t seen my father in six years. I spied him across a crowded card table at Whites club. When I raised my glass of brandy in salute to him, he didn’t even bother to acknowledge me,” replied Stephen.

Harry came to his wife’s side. “I’m sorry, my dear, but not all families are as close as yours or even mine for that matter. Sir Robert was never one for his relatives.”

For the first time since he had received the news of his father’s death, a pang of longing and regret pierced the fortress wall which surrounded Stephen’s heart.

Explaining his parents to other people had always been a great source of humiliation for him. His mother had abandoned him not long after birth. After she had returned to her family in Scotland, she refused pointedly to ever have anything to do with him.

His father had been little better. He had housed, fed, and paid for his son’s education, but that had been the extent of things. Familial relationships were not part of the Moore family way of life.

“Alice, thank you for your kind thoughts. I really do appreciate them. It is sad that my father is dead, but even sadder to know he wouldn’t give a damn if I cried over him or not.” Tears pricked at Stephen’s eyes, and he hurriedly blinked them back.

His gaze drifted over Alice’s head and landed on Monsale. His friend gave a brief nod. If anyone in the room could understand how he was feeling right now, it was the Duke of Monsale. Only Andrew McNeal could best Stephen when it came to having a cold, detached, and dead father.

“Well, I suppose it means a trip down to Witley is in order to claim the body and arrange a decent burial,” said Stephen.

His father’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Stephen had plenty of other pressing matters to deal with in London. Important things.

“Would you like us to come? I expect having some friends standing alongside you at the graveside would be nice,” offered George.

Stephen considered George’s kind proposal for the briefest of moments, then shook his head. “Thank you, but I wouldn’t want to waste your time. The grave service will be short and without fanfare. Considering how Sir Robert lived his life, I don’t anticipate having to deal with a crowd of weeping mourners.”

As soon as the funeral arrangements could be made, he would bury his sire, check with the steward of his father’s estate to ensure that everything was in order, then make his way back to London. There was no point in him lingering at the house.

In time, he would sell the place and leave with no regrets. It had long ago lost any promise of ever feeling like home to him.

As Harry put his arm around his wife, and they moved away, Stephen caught the baffled look on Alice’s face. Of course, she couldn’t understand how he felt. His lack of grief was so foreign to her view of the world. A person had to have held something and known it was theirs in order to experience the pain of loss. For Stephen, that hadn’t ever been the case.

How can you mourn for something you’ve never had?