ONCE A RAKE

Prologue

October 1815

Later, no one would be able to agree as to exactly what happened on the HMS Reliance that night. The witnesses were too many and the action too sudden to gain a coherent story.

What everyone did agree on was that about two hours after dusk, the Duke of Wellington came up on the deck of the ship, a fast brig that was carrying him home from France. Surrounded by several of his staff, the very recent hero of Waterloo and Military Governor of France was in an excellent mood, the distinctive bray of his laugh carrying out over the choppy water as he cupped his hands to light a cigarillo. The waxing moon slung a thin necklace of diamonds across the water, and the wind was freshening. Off to port, the coast of Dorset appeared a black void against the diamond-rich sky, which put them two days out of the port of London.

The second fact no one could dispute was that when the group came up on deck, one man could easily be distinguished among them. Standing well over six feet, Colonel Ian Ferguson of the Black Watch towered over his commander. It wasn't only his height which made him memorable. Even in the uncertain light of the night-running lanterns, his hair shone like fire, and his shoulders were as wide as a Yule log.

In the few days he'd been with the Duke, Ferguson had proved himself to be loud, funny, fierce and uncompromising. And even though he proclaimed himself a loyal Scot, he swore he was Wellington's man. Which was why it was so puzzling that he would pull out a gun and point it right at the duke.

"A gun!" someone yelled. “To the duke!”

Chaos erupted on the deck. Men scattered, shouting warnings and commands. Others threw themselves in front of the great man. Swords were drawn. Several men must have had guns, because suddenly there was a staccato pop-pop-popping. Acrid puffs of smoke cut visibility, and the ship heeled a bit as the steersman ran to help. Some men prayed, one wept, and the Duke of Wellington, much as he had on innumerable battlefields, stood his ground, a cigarillo in hand and a bemused expression on his face.

"What the devil?" he demanded, looking down to where a man lay still on the deck at his feet.

The deck stilled suddenly, the smoke writhing about the men and sharpening the air as the sails flapped uselessly above them. Bare feet thundered below as the crew roused to the alarm.

"He tried to shoot you!" one of his aides accused, already on the run to the railings.

“What?” Wellington barked, his focus still down. “Simmons here? Don't be ridiculous. Get more lamps lit. Let's see what's going on here.”

There was no question but that Simmons was dead. A sluggish pool of black blood spread out from behind his head, and his eyes stared open and fixed on the heavens. One of the crew retrieved the man's pistol from his outstretched hand and stood.

"No, sir,” he said. “The villain went over the side!"

"Who?" Wellington demanded, finally turning to look.

"That Scotsman. The one who tried to shoot you!"

“Ferguson?” Wellington stopped on the spot. "Bollocks."

One of his newer aides, the Honorable Eldon Stricker, stepped out of the shadows, holding onto a bleeding arm. “Saw him myself, Your Grace. Pointed that popper right at you."

Wellington pointed at the body on the deck. “And Simmons here?"

Everyone looked around, as if seeking someone with answers.

"He must have gotten in the way of Ferguson's bullet," Stricker said. "I shot the Scot. Where is he?"

Two people pointed over the side of the ship. One of Wellington's staff pocketed Simmon's pistol. The bo'sun ran up with several lighted lanterns, which cast an eerie, wavering light over the scene.

"Well, find him," Wellington demanded. "I'll be in my cabin."

All came to attention as he passed, but Wellington didn't seem to notice. He seemed preoccupied, shaking his head slightly, as if wiping something away. More than one sailor commented that he looked sadder at the news of who his attacker was than the fact that he'd been attacked at all.

“Hard aport!” the captain bellowed, and men scrambled into the rigging. The ship heeled again, more sharply. “Man the halyards! Prepare to shorten sail!”

Beneath the quick little ship, the water of the channel passed in choppy, frothed waves. The wind was stiff this night, ten knots from the northeast. Any man out in that water would be sorry.

* * *

Ian Ferguson was damn sorry. Bobbing up like a punctured cork, he shook the water from his eyes and looked up at the slowing ship, a hand pressed to the sharp ache in his chest. He couldn't figure out what had just happened. He'd come up on deck to share a cigar with Wellington. The next thing he knew, that little riathache Stricker was pointing a gun at the general.

Ian had reacted instinctively, pulling his own gun and firing at Stricker. There were immediately guns everywhere, a succession of shots, and suddenly he'd been knocked hard in the chest and catapulted right over the railings. He'd hit the cold channel water with barely a splash.

Did he save Wellington? Had he hit Stricker? God and the Bruce, he hoped so.

Come to think of it, what about that hit to his chest? Kicking hard to stay above the swells, he took a second to look down. He wasn't sure what he expected to see in the dark water. Blood, maybe. There was a hole in his jacket; he put his finger through it. No injury, though, except for a tender spot over his ribs. He was breathing well and didn't feel that awful disintegration that came with real injury.

“There he is!” somebody shouted above him.

Ian looked up to see the lighter being hoist out. A bouquet of heads appeared at the rail, haloed by the thin light of the lanterns. Ian lifted a hand to wave. He heard a sharp snapping sound, and the water near him leapt. Ian froze. Hell and damnation, they were firing at him!

He opened his mouth to shout. Another gun fired.

“Shouldn't we get him on board?” Ian heard from the first officer.

“And waste time with a court martial?” came the furious answer.

Ian cursed. He hadn't killed Stricker after all. Now he had to find a way to prove that it was Stricker who had fired the first shot. That Stricker's cabin was where he'd found the flask. The flask that should have been back at Horse Guards. The flask that he'd...

Ian laid his hand back against his chest. He smiled. No wonder he hadn't been hurt. The silver flask wouldn't hold a dram anymore, but sure, he bet it held a flattened bullet.

So, Stricker wanted him dead. He'd just see about that.

“Reloaded, sir,” came the faint call.

“Get him before the moon disappears.”

Ian saw the muzzle lowered over the side. A Brown Bess. He sucked in a lungful of air and dove. The pain and the crack came at the same moment. Blast. The bastard had hit him. The air whooshed out of his lung and Ian sank.
This time he didn't come up.

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