By the time she followed the gaoler through the far door, it was all Catriona could do not to collapse in relief. But her relief was short-lived. The tunnel sloping down into the shadows was even danker and narrower than the one that had come before it.
She cleared her throat to mask the faint quaver in her voice. "Is this where you lock away the most incorrigible prisoners?"
The gaoler cast her a sly glance over his shoulder. "There's some that might say that."
By the time they reached the thick oak door at the foot of the tunnel, Catriona was beginning to question anew the wisdom of her quest. An iron grate was set high in the door, too high for her to peep through even if she stood on her tiptoes.
She reached into her reticule with shaking hands and handed the gaoler her crumpled permit. "I was promised an hour alone with my brother."
Holding the permit upside down, the gaoler squinted at it, his lips moving as he pretended to read. Catriona slipped a guinea from her reticule and waved it in front of his eyes, confident that its universal language would be understood.
He beamed at her, pocketed the coin, then unhooked a clanking loop of iron keys from his belt and slid the largest, most forbidding-looking one into the keyhole. As the door creaked outward on its massive hinges, Catriona drew in a deep breath, steeling herself for the worst.
That breath escaped her in a disbelieving puff as her gaze swept the interior of the cell. If it could indeed be called a cell. The room might not possess all the comforts of home, but it certainly possessed all the comforts of a lavishly decorated bawdy house. Or at least the comforts Catriona imagined a bawdy house might possess, having never visited such an establishment.
There was no bed in the chamber, but the overstuffed settee would doubtlessly serve just as well. As was proved by its current occupant. All Catriona could see from the doorway was a pair of shiny black Hessians crossed at the ankle and a graceful curlicue of smoke drifting up to join the faint cloud hovering near the ceiling.
"That you, Barney?" the settee's occupant drawled without even bothering to uncross his boots, much less rise to greet his guests. "Did Mrs. Terwilliger send over that girl I requested? You can't begin to imagine how bloody lonely it gets in here with nothing but your imagination to keep you company."
The gaoler scratched his head, giving Catriona an abashed look. "I'm afraid not, sir. But I 'ave brought you some company to ease your loneliness. It's your dear sister, come to bring you a dose o' Christian comfort."
The boots didn't budge. A thoughtful puff of smoke drifted toward the ceiling. Just as Catriona was seriously considering bolting and taking her chances with the men in the common cell, the prisoner sat up and swung his long, muscled legs over the edge of the settee.
As he came into full view, Catriona barely managed to swallow her gasp.
Simon Wescott was no longer a pretty boy.
His hair was in desperate want of a cut, spilling to a spot just past his shoulders. It was a shade darker than the honeyed hue she remembered, as if those silken strands had seen more of midnight than sunlight in the past five years. A day's growth of beard shadowed his jaw, accentuating its strong cut and the Slavic hollows beneath his high cheekbones. Dissipation had taken its toll around his eyes, carving a fine web of lines that gave his face more character than he probably possessed. A jagged white scar bisected his left eyebrow, as if he'd finally been punished for daring to fly too close to the sun by a lightning bolt hurled from the fist of a jealous god.
He stubbed out his thin cigar with deliberate care, then peered at her through the lingering haze of smoke, wariness darkening his eyes to the color of a forest glade in the breathless lull just before a storm breaks.
Catriona was about to open her mouth to stammer something—anything at all—when he spread his arms wide, his lips curving in the dazzling smile that had no doubt charmed countless young women out of their undergarments and into his arms. "Why, hello, sweeting! Why don't you come over here and let me bounce you on my knee as I used to when you were but a wee poppet?"
Given no choice but to play along with her own charade, Catriona edged toward him, clutching her reticule in white-knuckled hands. "Hello, brother, dear," she said stiffly. "I do hope they've been treating you well."
"Not as well as you always did, pumpkin," he replied, reaching around to give her rump a playful swat. Her outraged glare only deepened the sparkle of mischief in his eyes.
"Given your grim circumstances," she said, "I'm glad to find you in such high spirits." Her lips pressed into a rigid pucker, Catriona leaned down to brush a chaste kiss over his cheek. But he turned his head at the last second so that her lips grazed the corner of his mouth instead.
Blushing furiously, she straightened and stepped out of his reach.
Moved by their tender reunion, the grizzled gaoler drew a filthy handkerchief from his pocket and began to dab at his eyes. "Your sister wishes to have some time alone with you, sir, so I'll let the two o' you get reacquainted while I take my tea."
"No!" Realizing that she had made a terrible mistake, Catriona made a frantic lunge for the door. But it was too late. The gaoler had already slipped from the cell and was turning the key from the outside, leaving her locked in the tiger's cage.
And unless she wanted to become his dinner, she knew she had best try to repair her crumbling composure.
As she slowly turned to face him, Simon rose from the settee. He was taller than she remembered. Broader in the shoulders, leaner in the hips. He wore no coat or waistcoat, just a pair of doeskin trousers and a white lawn shirt with full sleeves laid open at the throat to reveal a wedge of muscular chest lightly sprinkled with golden hair. In her boldest imaginings, she had never dreamed that his charms would grow even more lethal with time, honed by that mysterious masculine alchemy of age and experience.
"I'm a wretched liar," she confessed.
"I know. That must be why Mummy always loved me best." At her reproachful look, he cocked his head to the side. "If you're not another one of my father's bastards, then why are you here? Did you come to assassinate me or"—his skeptical gaze dipped to the slender waist revealed by the flattering princesse-cut of her redingote—"to accuse me of siring your future progeny?"
"Why, I-I—" she sputtered before curiosity got the best of her. "Does that happen frequently?"
He shrugged. "At least once a week. Sometimes twice on Tuesdays." The wry twist of his lips made it impossible to tell if he was mocking her or his own reputation. "If you've come to assassinate me, then I'm afraid I'm at your mercy. I'd offer you my cravat so you could strangle me, but they took it away so I wouldn't hang myself. Wouldn't want to deprive the executioner of the pleasure."
"The last time I checked, getting oneself nearly seven thousand pounds in debt and seducing a magistrate's daughter wasn't a hanging offense."
"You haven't met the magistrate." He sank back down on the edge of the settee and reached beneath it.
Half expecting him to whip out a weapon of some sort, Catriona took a nervous step backward. But when his hand reemerged, it was brandishing a half-empty bottle of port.
He whisked two glasses out from under the settee with equal aplomb. "I've been remiss in my manners. Would you care to join me?"
"No, thank you." Watching him pour a generous splash of the ruby liquor into one of the glasses, she said, "I forgot that you were expecting company of a different sort altogether. You must be very disappointed."
He slanted her an unreadable look from beneath his gilt-tipped lashes. "I wouldn't say that. Surprised, perhaps, but not disappointed."
"We've met before, although I can hardly expect you to remember me."
Just as she could never expect herself to forget him.
"Then you do me a grave disservice"—Simon's gently chiding look could have melted an ice floe—"Miss Kincaid."
Catriona's mouth fell open in shock.
He lifted the glass in a mocking toast. "I never forget a lovely face."
Her mouth snapped shut. "You thought I was a boy."
His lips twitched with amusement as he glanced ever so briefly, yet boldly, at the generous swell of her bosom. "A mistake I can assure you I won't make again." He took a sip of the port, a teasing lilt infusing his voice. "Surely you didn't think I'd forget a bonny Scottish lass who smelled of fresh-cut hay and cinnamon biscuits and whose only champion was a savage orange kitten named Bonnie Prince Charlie."
"Robert the Bruce. I suppose you remember my cousin as well?" she could not resist asking.
He blinked at her, all doe-eyed innocence. "You had a cousin?"
"You really should remember Alice. You were about to complete your seduction of her when I tumbled out of the hayloft onto your back."
"Ah, yes, how could I forget dear sweet..." He frowned. "What was her name again?"
"Ah, yes, dear sweet Amelia." He clapped a hand to his heart. "I've thought of her fondly nearly every day since the cruel hand of fate tore us apart."
Biting back a reluctant smile, Catriona reached out to flick the end of one of the scarves that draped the stone walls. "What sort of prison affords you the luxuries of wine, tobacco and women of easy virtue?"
"I hate to corrupt your delicate sensibilities, my dear, but incarcerated men of means have always honored the age-old tradition of bribing the gaoler." He hefted the glass in another toast, giving him a valid excuse to drain it dry. "God bless his money-grubbing little soul."
She frowned. "I don't understand. If you have means, then why are you locked up as a debtor?"
He winced. "Perhaps I should have said the illusion of means. Everyone here knows that the Duke of Bolingbroke is my father. And they believe that surely not even the most icy-hearted of noblemen would be so cruel as to allow his bastard son to rot away in Newgate. They expect him to charge up to the gates in his coach-and-four at any minute, tossing coins from his overflowing purse to the slavering peasants."
"Is that what you expect as well?" she asked lightly, trying to hide how critical his answer might be to her plans.
The ghost of a bitter smile tugged at his lips. "I expect him to provide the rope for my hanging. I'm afraid I've always been a dreadful disappointment to him. My most recent transgression was to survive my encounter with Napoleon while my brother Richard died an ignoble death from dysentery on a mud-soaked battlefield in Malta, leaving him with no proper heir."
"I'm sorry," Catriona said softly.
"That my brother died? Or that I survived?" He leaned back on the settee and patted the cushion next to him. "Enough about the rot in my family tree. Why don't you trot over here, rest your pretty head on my shoulder and tell me just how word of my sordid crimes reached ears as refined and lovely as yours?"
Ignoring his audacious invitation, Catriona gingerly settled herself on a rickety three-legged stool a few feet away. The thing tottered wildly, nearly upending her before she recovered her balance. She sought to reclaim her dignity by briskly removing her bonnet and resting it on the floor next to the stool.
"As I'm sure you're well aware, your most recent incarceration is the talk of every drawing room in London." She drew off her gloves and placed them on top of the bonnet. "But you really shouldn't be so modest about your accomplishments, Mr. Wescott. Or should I call you Sir Simon? You didn't just survive Napoleon. You were knighted for valor after Trafalgar because you saved the life of your captain on the Belleisle by throwing yourself in front of a musket ball intended for him. Upon your return from Spain, you were hailed as a hero before all of London."
He snorted. "This city has always been quick to embrace any fool with a handful of shiny medals and a bit of braid on his shoulders."
"Oh, but it wasn't your rise to glory that truly captured the city's imagination. It was your rather spectacular fall from grace. Or should I call it a plunge? Instead of accepting the promotion to commander that the navy offered you, you resigned your commission and proceeded to wench, drink, and gamble away every ounce of respectability your valor had earned you."
He stretched out on the settee and folded his hands behind his head, looking thoroughly bored. "You left off brawling and dueling. I haven't killed a man yet, but I've winged several."
She continued as if he hadn't spoken. "Not a fortnight has gone by since then without some torrid mention of you in the scandal sheets."
"Which you no doubt pore over every night in your virginal white nightdress before you slide between the cold sheets of your lonely bed."
His taunt struck uncomfortably close to home. He would never know how many times his memory had warmed both those sheets and her dreams.
She lifted her chin. "How do you know I sleep alone?"
"Because you look like you're in desperate need of a good—" He met her unwavering gaze for a long moment, then finished softly, "Husband."
Catriona rose to pace the cell, avoiding his eyes. "I've heard other rumors about you since your return as well. Rumors not printed in the scandal sheets but whispered in drawing rooms and back alleys. They say that you're willing to use the skills you acquired in the navy to provide certain services for those in need of them—protection, transportation, retrieval of lost items." She paused before one of the plaster statues, running one finger lightly along the nymph's dimpled cheek. "All for a price, of course."
"Devoting oneself to a life of debauchery doesn't come cheap, you know."
Behind her, she heard the settee creak as Simon sat up. "Is that why you came here today, Miss Kincaid? Because you wish to hire me?"
"No, Mr. Wescott," she replied coolly, turning to face him. "I came here today because I wish to marry you."
In this scene, our intrepid heroine Catriona Kincaid visits Newgate Prison in the hopes of hiring a hero to escort her to the Highlands to find her missing brother...