Lucy Ashford.

The Major and the Pickpocket






Praise for

Lucy Ashford

writing as Elizabeth Redfern:

THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES

Unputdownable[a] remarkable debuta glittering

tale of London in 1795, full of science, intrigue, war,

revolution, and obsessive passion.

Guardian

An engrossing read and a rich,

pungent evocation of the period.

The Observer

brilliantly handled to keep the reader guessing

right to the end.

Charles Palliser

Striking and originala star is born.Literary Review

Quite wonderfulIt is Redferns ability to

bring each scene, each character alive

that makes this such toothsome reading.

USA TODAY

AURIEL RISING

Intelligent.The New York Times

Richly atmosphericRedferns strength

is in recreating a morally corrupt world

Publishers Weekly

You do have qualities in which I am interested, Marcus said.

There is a man in London on whom I wish, very badly, to be revenged. He has several weaknesses, and I intend to attack accordingly. Firstly he is a gambler, who cannot resist a challenge when the stakes are high. And secondly he has a marked liking for pretty women who are skilled at card play.

So Im ruled out for certain, surely, if you are looking for someone pretty? Since you make it quite clear that I am nothing of the kind!

She saw a half-smile flicker across his strong moutha dangerous, all-male smile. Those werent my precise words, minx, he said softly. I think, in fact, that you could be very, very pretty.

Tassie felt the colour rising in her cheeks. You jest with me.

I assure you, this is not jest. No, indeed. His voice, his expression told her he was in deadly earnest. To put it briefly, Tassie, you and I could help each other out quite considerably.

Lucy Ashford, an English Studies lecturer, has always loved literature and history, and from childhood one of her favourite occupations has been to immerse herself in historical romances. She studied English with history at Nottingham University, and the Regency is her favourite period.

Lucy has written several historical novels, but this is her first for Mills & Boon. She lives with her husband in an old stone cottage in the Peak District, near to beautiful Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall, all of which give her a taste of the magic of life in a bygone age. Her garden enjoys spectacular views over the Derbyshire hills, where she loves to roam and let her imagination go to work on her latest story.

This is Lucy Ashfords debut novel for Mills & Boon Historical Romance.

AUTHOR NOTE

Ive always adored historical romances.

I grew up daydreaming about King Arthurs knights, Rosemary Sutcliffs Roman heroes, the Scarlet Pimpernel and, of course, Georgette Heyers Regency rakes.

So you can imagine that, although Id had some success writing historical thrillers, I was really longing to create a romance set in a bygone age. And who else to approach but Mills & Boon?

After a lot of fun dreaming up my plot and characters, and with a great deal of help from skilled and sympathetic editors, I finally became a Mills & Boon author with THE MAJOR AND THE PICKPOCKET. The story is set in 1780, at a time when gambling fever was really starting to take the nation in its grip. Great lords and ladies would lose and win mighty fortunes in all-night sittings. My feisty heroine, Tassie, is as skilled as any of them at tricking her way out of trouble at the turn of a cardthat is, until the wounded war hero Major Marcus Forrester calls her bluff!

So here it ismy first Mills & Boon Historical Romance. I do hope you enjoy the story of how the Major and the mischievous pickpocket Tassie discover true love together.

The Major and the Pickpocket
Lucy Ashford


www.millsandboon.co.uk

Table of Contents

Cover Page

Praise

Excerpt

Author The Author

Author Note

Title Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Copyright

Chapter One

LondonFebruary 1780

Heavy rain that night meant the streets were almost deserted, and so it was even more startling for the few pedestrians in the vicinity of Pall Mall to see a big chestnut mare being pulled up in a frenzy of sparking hooves outside the porticoed entrance of one of Londons most discerning clubs. The mare had been ridden hard. Its glossy flanks were heaving, and its eyes rolled whitely in the gleam of the yellow lamplight. Swiftly the horses rider dismounted, thrusting the reins and a few coins towards a hovering groom before swinging round to face a footman who watched him uncertainly from the shelter of the imposing doorway. At this time of night, and in this sort of foul February weather, club members usually arrived by carriage or sedan, not like some whirlwind from hell on horseback.

But before the footman could issue a challenge, the dark-haired rider, his mouth set in a grim line, was already striding up the wide steps. It was noticeable now that he had a slight limp, but it didnt seem to slow him in the least. His long riding coat, glistening with rain, whirled out behind him as he crashed open the door, and his whip was still clutched in his hand. As the gust of cold air hed let in billowed through the lofty reception hall, all the candles were set a-flicker, and a number of disdainful faces turned to stare. A plump butler started busily towards the intruder, but found himself brushed aside, like a moth.

Im looking for Sebastian Corbridge, announced the man. Lord Sebastian Corbridge. His voice was calm, but the menacing gleam in his eyes was like sparks struck from flint.

He looked as if he had been riding hard all day, to judge by the mud on his boots, and the way his dark, unpowdered hair fell in disordered waves to his collar. He was not old, perhaps no more than twenty-five or twenty-six, but the taut lines of fatigue that ran from his nose to his strong jaw made him look older. The butler backed away warily, because he could see that this tall stranger with the limp wore a sword beneath his loose riding coat. And unlike most of the primped, scented men of leisure who frequented this club, he looked as if he would know how to use it.

By now the mans abrupt intrusion had registered even in the furthest recesses of the reception hall. Murmured conversations died away; startled faces, adorned in many cases with powder and patches, turned one after the other towards the doorway. Even the sombre portraits hanging from the oak-panelled walls seemed to gaze disapprovingly at the abrasive stranger whose clothing continued to drip water on the fine parquet floor, creating little puddles around his leather riding boots.

Lord Sebastian Corbridge. I want him, the intruder repeated softly, his hand flicking his whip against his booted leg in unspoken warning.

Someone rose languidly from a deep leather chair in a shadowed alcove. He was about the same age as the intruder, but his appearance could not have been more different, for his elegantly curled cadogan wig was immaculately powdered; his blue satin frock coat, with its discreet ruffles of lace at cuff and throat, was quite exquisitely fitted to his slender body. And his haughty, finely bred face expressed utter scorn as he gazed at the man who spoke his name.

So, Marcus, he drawled, taking a lazy pinch of snuff from a filigree box. Youre back. As usual, dear fellow, you seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The army hasnt done much for your manners, has it? Members only allowed in here, Im afraid

Sebastian Corbridge broke off, as the dark-haired man threw his whip aside, then covered the ground between them to grasp his blue satin lapels with both hands. My God, Corbridge, the man grated out, but youve got some explaining to do. Let me tell you that Ive just returned from Lornings, and I didnt like what I found there. Youd better start talking. Youd better think up some excuses, and quickly.

Corbridge looked down with pointed disdain at the hands that gripped his exquisite lapels. So youve ridden all the way from Gloucestershire, he sneered, the slight tremor of fear disguised by heavy scorn. Dear me. And there was I thinking you might have come straight from some modish salonafter all, I suppose its just about possible that clothing such as yours is permitted at fashionable gatherings now that there are so many unemployed ex-army officers around town

The taller mans powerful shoulder muscles bunched dangerously beneath his greatcoat, and Corbridge was lifted from the ground.

Do put me down, Marcus! breathed Lord Sebastian Corbridge. You smell of horse, man. Wet horses. All in all, youre rather overdoing itbetraying your origins, you know?

All around the room their audience watched the scene in breath-holding fascination. A young footman, whod just come through from the inner salon bearing a brandy decanter on a silver tray, froze into immobility at the sight, his mouth agape, and the candlelight danced on the golden-amber liquid as it shivered behind the cut glass. Slowly, the dark-haired man called Marcus let go of his victim. His steel-grey eyes were still burning with intensity, and the skin around his grim mouth was white. He drew a ragged breath. At least, cousin Sebastian, I dont stink of trickery and theft.

Nearby an older man whose face was red with indignation jumped to his feet. Enough, man, he rasped at the intruder. Guard your tongue, or well have you thrown out bodily!

Corbridge shook his head quickly, smoothing down his satin lapels. No need for that, eh, Marcus? Firstly, Id like to hear you explain yourself. And, secondly, Id much, much rather you didnt address me as cousin.

Id rather not have to address you as anything, said Marcus. He was more in control of himself now. But the fact remains that we are, unfortunately, related. And you ask me to explain myself; but first Ill ask you this. How do you justify the fact that youve managed to rob my elderly godfather of everything: every acre of land, every penny of savings, and above all the home he loves so dearly?

Lord Corbridge arched his pale eyebrows, just a little. Facts, dear Marcus, let us look at the facts! Though facts, I remember, were never your strong point. Always emotional, werent you? Must be your unstable heritage showing through.

Marcuss face darkened and his fists clenched dangerously at his sides. Corbridge, after taking a hasty step back from him, went on hurriedly, Ive robbed Sir Roderick Delancey of absolutely nothing, I assure you! In fact, I tried to help him, tried to dissuade him from plunging into yet greater debtsGambling is such a sad sickness, especially at his age. He shrugged, an expression of concern creasing his smooth features. But in spite of my every endeavour, Marcus, the foolish Sir Roderick continued to plunge yet deeper into the mire. I extricated him from the likelihood of a debtors prison at vast personal expense. In return, he agreed to offer me as security the great hall at Lornings and the land that goes with it.

If he loses Lornings, hell be a penniless bankrupt!

Wrong again, Marcus. Corbridge gave a thin-lipped smile, drawing confidence from those whod gathered around him. Your godfather will always have a roof over his headthe Dower House, to be preciseand some income from the home farm. Though its more than the pitiful old fool deserves. Gambling is a quite fatal disease, I fear.

And one that he was never infected with, until you decided to poison him!

Corbridge shook his head. Youve been away for two years, Marcus. Whats the matter? Didnt find fame and fortune soldiering in the Americas? Managed to get yourself a lame leg instead? Hoped to come back and live off weak-witted old Sir Rodericks fat purseonly to find the purse no longer so fat? What a shame. He turned with mock concern to his rapt audience. Something should be done about our returned war heroes. They should be awarded a better pension, perhaps. We heard about your promotion, Marcuspity it wasnt with a decent regiment, though. Perhaps the beautiful Miss Philippa Fawcett would have revived her interest in you if youd had a little more to offer her on your return.

The other mans eyes blazed. You know damn well why I didnt get in with a fancier regiment, Corbridge. It was because I didnt care to go around oiling palms with false compliments and fistfuls of money that would have kept some of our badly paid foot soldiers in luxury for the rest of their lives.

How noble, breathed Lord Sebastian Corbridge. How infinitely noble of you, Marcus. Of course, your particular family circumstances dont exactly endear you to your superiors, do they?

Someone in the audience laughed jeeringly. Have the man thrown out, Corbridge. Unstable streak in the whole family, if you ask me. Isnt he the fellow whose mother went mad? Mad as a hatter, they say. She actually ran off with one of his fathers grooms

Marcus turned. In the blinking of an eye, so fast that no one there had time to register it, he had whipped out his sword and held it so that its point just nicked the lace ruffles at the throat of the man who had spoken. The mans eyes were suddenly round with fear; his plump face had gone as white as a sheet. After a seconds paralysing silence, Marcus let his sword fall. He turned back to Sebastian, slamming the long blade back into its sheath.

This quarrel is becoming too public for my liking, he said flatly. I dont care to discuss my private affairs, or my family, in front of specimens like these. Let us arrange a duel.

The flash of fear that crossed Lord Sebastians face was quickly concealed. A duel? With an injured man? he queried, looking pointedly at Marcuss leg. My dear cousin, what must you think of me?

Marcus lifted his dark, expressive eyebrows. Do you really want me to explain exactly what I think of you? In words of one syllable, so everyone here understands?

But Lord Sebastian Corbridge did not reply. Instead he was looking furtively over Marcuss shoulder; and Marcus, seeing that look, swung round, his sword once more at the ready, to face several burly-looking footmen who were advancing rapidly towards him with their fists clenched.

Then, suddenly, another figure moved swiftly out from the shadows, knocking Marcuss weapon aside with a deft blow of his arm. A voicecheerful, almost laughingcalled out, Now, Marcus! Time for the disengage, dear boy! Live to fight another day, eh?

And Marcus found himself being hustled, almost pushed, towards the big outer doors, which were kicked open with a crash by his companion as he hurried Marcus down the wide steps into the chilly street.

Once on the pavement Major Marcus Forrester shook himself free and reluctantly sheathed his sword. Hal, he said with a sigh. Youre a good friend, but you should have let me hit him, at least.

Hal Beauchamp, whose compact, expensively dressed frame nevertheless hid considerable physical expertise, relaxed into a smile and handed Marcus the riding whip hed tossed aside earlier. What, and give those beefy minions who were creeping up behind you the chance to beat you black and blue? he objected. Not the best of ideas, Marcus! A strategic retreat is definitely in order, I think, before those painted fops in there combine their scanty brain power and come after us!

Marcus grinned back at his friend. A pursuit? And you reputedly the best swordsman in the regiment? Hardly likely, I think, Hal.

No. Hardly likely. Hal held out his hand warmly for the other to shake. Good to see you back in London, Marcus. Really good. Now, I assume from your attire that you arrived here on horseback?

A hired horse, yesI paid a groom to see to it.

Very well, then, dear fellow; so now I insist you come and share a bottle of claret with me, somewhere more congenial than that hole, and tell me Hals brown eyes gleamed absolutely everything.

Inside the hallowed portals of the club, Lord Sebastian Corbridge, smoothing down his satin frock-coat like a bird preening its badly ruffled feathers, returned to his table and affected nonchalant disdain. But his hands were still trembling, and he was aware that his acquaintances had rather enjoyed the spectacle they had just witnessed. Corbridge was not a popular man in London.

Is he really your cousin, Corbridge? grinned the portly Viscount Lindsay, generally known as Piggy. You kept quiet about that side of the family, dear boy.

Lord Corbridge paled slightly beneath his fashionably applied powder and patches. I have numerous distant cousins, he replied disdainfully. My great-grandfather, you will recall, was the Earl of Stansfield

Oh, we remember all right, replied Viscount Lindsay, sharing a covert sneer with the others seated at their table. You remind us of it nightly, dear fellow.

The Earl, continued Corbridge stiffly, had a variety of offspring. Major Marcus Forrester, whose mother was the only child of the Earls disreputable youngest son, is one of the least significant of them all.

Fellow didnt look insignificant to me, drawled Viscount Lindsay, raising his eyebrows. Fellow looked damned frightening to me, Corbridge, when he had you dangling there like a gasping fish.

The others joined in the laughter, and Corbridge paled again. The armys all hes fit for, he muttered in a low, angry voice. Theres bad blood on that side of the family. He was scarcely out of infancy when his mother fled to Europe with her lover, some lowly serving man. Since then, Marcus Forrester has shown a dangerous instability. I never thought to see him return alive from the war in America.

No, put in Viscount Lindsay rather maliciously. I bet you didnt, Corbridge. Seems as if young Marcus has found out, too, exactly what youve been up to while hes been away with his precious old godfather and that rather splendid estate at Lornings. All in all, its rather damned bad luck for you that hes returned at all, isnt it? Alive and well and primed for action, it seems.

Lord Sebastian Corbridge was silent. But his slender white hand, which glittered with jewelled rings, twisted in some agitation around the stem of his glass.

Outside the sepia clouds still surged menacingly overhead, and the pavements glinted with puddles in the yellow light of the street lamps as Hal and Marcus proceeded on foot towards the Strand. But at least the rain had ceased; and the citizens of London were heading out again for the gaming clubs of St Jamess, or the colourful taverns and theatres beyond Leicester Fields. Hal Beauchampas fair as Marcus was dark, with a slighter build, and an open, sunny countenancewas cheerfully extolling the merits of the dining parlour at the Bulls Head. Theyll set us up with some excellent victuals, Marcus! he promised. The clarets first rate as well, I assure you. And then we could go on somewhere for a decent game of hazard

No! No gaming. Marcuss vivid, handsome face, which had relaxed in the company of his friend, was suddenly serious once more. I dont think Ill ever cast the dice again, Hal.

Hal Beauchamp pulled a droll expression. He was dressed as usual in the most expensive, if discreet of styles; his long greatcoat that swept almost to the ground was exquisitely tailored, and his beaver hat and shining top-boots bore evidence of the tender care of a skilful valet. Oh dear, oh dear me, he sighed. Its the end of the world indeed if Major Marcus Forrester renounces the fine art. What would your devoted soldiers say? Remember the game of hazard we had in camp, just before the raid on Wilmington last year? The enemy were all around, and you were saying, One more throw, gentlemen. Just one more throw. I feel that my luck is in

Marcus laughed, but his eyes were bleak. It hasnt been in lately, Hal.

No. His friends expression softened. I heard about your injury, at the siege of Savannah. Do you have somewhere to stay in London?

Marcus shook his head. Not yet. The army pensions office offered me some tedious post in recruitment with lodgings all in, but I refused. And I havent started looking for anywhere else yet. I just wanted to find Corbridge.

And kill him? So I must assume you were planning on sleeping in Newgate gaol tonight, said Hal lightly as they jostled their way through the crowds that thronged Haymarket. I have a better suggestion. Come and stay with Caroline and me, in Portman Square. Far more comfortable than Newgate, I assure you.

Marcus struggled, then smiled. It was very difficult not to smile when Hal was around. Theyd been at Oxford together, then the army; theyd shared good times and bad. But now they were both out of the war; Hal because his only sister, who had been recently widowed, needed him at home; and Marcus because of a rebels musketball through his thigh.

You are more than kind, said Marcus, turning to face his friend. But your sisterI would be imposing, surely?





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