The Bachelor Betrayal by Maddison Michaels
London, August 1884
The shrill hiss of steam bellowing from the train’s engine should have masked the sound of the dagger sliding from its sheath, but Lady Kaitlyn Montrose heard the crisp scrape of steel against leather with an intimate brush of familiarity.
Thrusting the document she’d just retrieved into her bodice, Kat twisted to the side as a blade whistled past her and lodged with a thud into the wood paneling of the baggage carriage, barely a foot away from her head.
Spinning around, she found two men blocking the exit through to the other compartments. Both were dressed in rather nondescript brown clothing with scuffed black boots and an inch of dirt caked under their nails. The first was short and stocky, with the meaty fists and squashed nose of a pugilist, and an empty knife sheath hanging from his belt. The dagger thrower, she guessed. The second was tall and lanky, with the bulge near the waist of his jacket suggesting he had a revolver tucked underneath.
The men were a complication.
“Did you miss on purpose?” Kat asked, her eyes flicking to the dagger before returning to the knife thrower. “Or do you have a terrible aim?”
The man blinked and an expression of what could only be disbelief crossed his features. “What the hell did ya just say?”
Kaitlyn sighed. “Are you hard of hearing, too?” She knew saying such a thing would enrage them, but if she was going to have to fight her way out of the small space, then she may as well agitate them.
“Hard of hearing?” the man exclaimed, his whole body jerking like a bull spotting a red flag. He twisted his head over toward his companion. “Ernie, did ya hear what I heard? Did she criticize my aim and then me hearing?”
The second man rubbed his chin, confusion flaring in his long, thin face. “I reckon she did, Tommo.”
“The man who ’ired us said ya was odd, but he didn’t mention ya were stupid,” the one called Tommo said, his eyes narrowing upon Kat as his face turned a mottled shade of red.
“Someone hired you?” Kat leaned forward on the balls of her feet, ready to launch at them if necessary. “I hope for their sake you give refunds for a job poorly executed.”
Tommo’s jaw clenched tightly in unison with his fists. “I don’t think you’re properly understanding this situation, love.” The man cracked his knuckles. “’Cause ya should be scared instead of mouthing off. Now, give me the bloody letter.”
So that’s what they were after. “That will not be happening,” Kat replied, her lips twisting into a grim smile.
The one called Ernie stepped forward, his hand hovering close to the revolver tucked into his trousers. “Hand over the missive, and we won’t hurt ya. Promise.”
Kat could hear the lie in his words. “As I have already said, I shall have to decline.” She hadn’t spent the better part of a week chasing down this little gem of information to hand it over to these two. “You’re very welcome to try to retrieve it from me, though I’d warn against it, for both your sakes.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Ernie directed his question to Tommo. “Is her brain addled or somefink, ’cause she’s a redhead?”
“Maybe she needs some sense knocked into that pretty little head of hers.” Tommo looked her up and down, a calculating expression in his eyes as they came to rest on her neckline. “No one will hear ya scream from back here, me lady.”
They’d just disparaged her hair color and now they were threatening to abuse her? Well, enough was enough. Kat reached across and wrenched the dagger from the wall, and before the men could even blink, she flicked it with precision, aiming it directly at Ernie’s shooting hand. It hit its mark, slicing through his palm and lodging deeply in his flesh, blood spilling from the wound. The man glanced down at the dagger before screaming and fainting to the floor.
Tommo peered down at his fallen companion, a glimmer of uncertainty flickering in his eyes as they lingered over the second man’s wound. But then he leaned down and twisted the dagger out of his friend’s palm. Confidence now replaced the uncertainty in his gaze. “Whatcha gonna do now, love? I got the dagger, and ya ain’t got another one to throw.”
He was right, she didn’t. She could have used her derringer on him, but that would be a waste of a perfectly good bullet, so she rushed at him, closing the gap and catching him by surprise. He waved the knife wildly, but Kat raised her left arm, blocking his swing and catching his wrist in midair. Propelling her forehead sharply forward, she head-butted him in the nose. His head snapped back and the dagger in his hand clattered to the ground.
Blood gushed from his nose and his beady black eyes held hers. “Ya gonna pay for that, ya little bitch!”
“You, sir, are rude.” Kat raised her elbow, and with a quick slicing motion struck him across the windpipe. He clutched at his throat and gasped for breath.
She shoved him backward into the wall of the carriage, then swiftly picked up the fallen dagger. As he tried to right himself, still laboring to take a proper breath, Kat stepped forward and slammed the hilt of the dagger into his temple. He crumpled into a heap on the floor and was still.
“There. That will teach you some manners.” Taking a deep breath, she swiveled to the other one. He appeared to still be unconscious.
The train began to slow as it neared New Cross Station, the last stop before London. Kat unlatched the side door on the right, facing away from the platform, and dragged the first man and then the other over to the door. When the train came to a halt at the platform, she pushed them out of the carriage and into the hedges lining the tracks. Both moaned slightly as they landed in the bushes, though they didn’t awaken. Kat rolled the side door closed, just as the opposite door was unlatched and someone slid it open.
Without glancing back, she strode from the baggage compartment and down the corridor of the train. She focused on calming her breathing and her heart rate. The rush of energy in her body was fading and she knew from experience she’d soon be feeling tired and longing for a good cup of tea.
The conductor’s whistle shrilled loudly and a moment later the train chugged toward its final destination, London. Stopping at the door to her uncle’s private compartment, she smoothed back some of her wayward strands of hair which had come loose during the encounter. A quick glance at her reflection in the carriage’s window satisfied her that she looked presentable enough. She pushed open the door and stepped inside the compartment.
Victor Montrose lowered his newspaper a fraction and peered at her, his eyes tightening slightly at the corners. “Trouble?”
“Two men decided to bother me. Nothing I could not handle, Uncle.” Kat closed the door and twisted the lock with a flick of her wrist. Taking a seat opposite him, she relaxed onto the red velveteen cushions and smoothed out the folds of her sapphire skirt. “Why do you ask?”
Victor looked pointedly at her left shoulder. “Your dress has a small slash in it, my dear. It didn’t penetrate through to your skin, did it?”
Annoyance flashed through Kat as she looked at the torn fabric. “No. But Madame Arnout is going to kill me.” The French seamstress took great pride in her unique creations, so much so that Kat thought the woman fancied each outfit a child of some sort. The seamstress wouldn’t like to hear that one of her babies required fixing, again.
“She shall be annoyed only briefly.” Victor’s lips twitched as he settled back against his own seat. “Madame Arnout is nothing if not a clever businesswoman who charges me an inordinate amount of money to either fix or replace your special dresses. Perhaps next time, though, you might move quicker? I thought I’d trained you better.”
Kat felt a knot of annoyance in her belly. As much as she disliked the reprimand, her uncle was correct—she should have moved quicker. Next time she would. “At least the protective layer below the silk is intact.”
Victor nodded, his eyes keenly assessing the incision. “Yes. The special knots and weaves of the cotton create a slash-proof layer, as the good Madame said they would.”
“She’s also designing me some special detachable skirts, which will allow me to fight more effectively.”
“You will, of course, wear trousers underneath, won’t you?”
Kat nearly rolled her eyes. Her uncle had spent the past twenty years training her in all manner of weapons, hand-to-hand combat, and a great many other skills never taught to a child, let alone a girl, and he was worried about her wearing trousers underneath? “I shall, Uncle. Though surely you’re aware my undergarments do cover my entire legs from my ankles up?”
This time it was her uncle that rolled his eyes. “Yes, I am aware of that. Though black trousers will blend into the night much better then cream pantaloons. Oh, and do your old uncle a favor, would you, my dear? Please, no more mention of undergarments in my presence. I am progressive, but not enough to discuss such subjects with my niece.” His voice held a hint of amusement in its rich depths.
Kat grinned in spite of herself. There was nothing old about her uncle. In his late fifties, he was fitter than most men half his age, and even though his hair was laced with more silver than black he still turned many a lady’s head, much to her aunt Daisy’s annoyance.
Noticing that the train was slowing, she stood and reached for her valise from the overhead rack, retrieving her black leather knife roll from the bag’s depths. Sitting back down, she unrolled it out onto the empty seat beside her, the selection of sharpened daggers glinting in the afternoon sunlight.
“You weren’t armed when you faced those men?” Victor asked, his tone stern.
“You are the one who ensured that I am perfectly capable of defending myself without the need of a weapon.” The endless hours of training every day since she was four years old were testament to that.
“I also taught you to never be caught without a weapon on your person.” His voice cracked like a whip. “Particularly in the confined spaces of a train.”
Without warning, Victor lunged forward, drawing his own dagger and pushing her farther back into the chair. He pressed the blade against her throat.
“To not have a weapon in such a constricted area is the height of stupidity.” His voice was harsh. “Have I not always taught you to expect the unexpected? Not doing so will get you killed like your mother!”
“Who says I am not armed, Uncle?” Kat cocked the hammer of her derringer and pressed it into his stomach. “You did teach me better than that.”
A glint of pride flashed in his eyes as he drew back his blade and re-sheathed it in the custom-made retractable holder hidden up his right sleeve. “Good. I would hate to think all those years of training were a waste. Yet you didn’t use it on the men who accosted you.”
“They weren’t worth wasting a bullet on.” She returned her derringer to her pocket, then selected her favorite dagger, a mix of silver embedded with some small rubies, and the first knife her uncle had given to her, for her eighth birthday. She pocketed it too before returning her knife roll to her valise.
Victor retrieved his own bag from the rack above, as the train came to a stop.
Pulling back the curtain to the window, she glanced through the glass to the platform. “No one is here yet.” She’d been expecting to see her aunt and seven-year-old cousin Samuel, along with a retinue of servants, waiting at the platform to meet them.
“I daresay the carriage is caught up in traffic.” Her uncle opened the exterior door to their compartment and glanced in both directions before stepping down the few steps onto the bustling platform. “You know how dreadful it is trying to travel through Westminster at this hour of the day. Besides, my wife is never on time for anything.”
Kat draped her shawl over her dress before she followed him down. Her uncle was correct; Daisy was always running late.
Victor’s brow furrowed as he looked up and down the station while he placed his valise on the ground next to Kat. “I’ll go see if I can spot them from the top platform, and if not, I’ll rustle up some porters to assist with our luggage once it’s unloaded. Then at least we shall be ready to go when our carriage arrives.”
She nodded, watching as he strode down the platform, purposeful and dignified as one would expect from the Earl of Harrow. The other gentlemen he passed inclined their hats toward him in acknowledgment and the ladies turned and regarded him with undisguised appreciation, with several purposefully brushing against him as they walked past.
Even though Victor was married and finally well and truly off the marriage mart, women still clamored for his attention. The folly some women engaged in trying to attract a man’s attention really was an embarrassment to her entire gender.
Her gaze returned to the carriage as one of the train’s porters began unloading their suitcases and bags from the compartment. Kat motioned for him to put them down, then thanked him as he completed his task.
The bustling noises from the station went unnaturally silent for a moment, before several piercing screams ripped through the afternoon breeze, echoing shrilly across the platform.
Kat turned her head toward the sounds, the hairs on her arms standing on end as a chill of dread gripped her. Up ahead, men and women were frozen in shock, looking down at a man lying still on the ground.
Blood rushed to her head as whispers of her uncle’s name reached her ears.
Not her uncle. Please, God, no. He couldn’t be taken away from her. With a hoarse cry she didn’t even realize came from her own mouth, Kat took off running toward him.
She pushed aside the statues of bodies blocking her path until she was crouching down beside him. His shirt was covered in blood; a dark crimson mess, spreading quickly across the once pristine white cloth. His breathing was shallow and he looked deathly pale.
“Someone get a doctor!” she yelled frantically to the onlookers, before yanking off her shawl and balling it up. “It’s all right, Uncle.” She tried to sound confident, despite the lump in her throat, as she pressed the material tight against what looked to be a stab wound very close to his heart. “You’re going to be fine.”
“Should have seen it coming. Stupid of me,” he whispered. “The Chameleon caught me off guard.”
“But that’s not possible,” Kat whispered. “The traitor’s in Europe. The missives all say so.”
Victor shook his head, pain mingled with sadness etched on his face. “Said ‘The Chameleon sends his regards.’ Stupid of me to underestimate—”
“Shh, Uncle, you must save your strength,” Kat said, unable to stop the tears from streaming down her face.
He coughed and Kat felt her shawl soak through with his blood. “Have to tell you before it’s too late—”
“Don’t talk like that!” She pressed down harder against the wound, all but willing her strength into him.
“No, I must,” he said, wheezing. “Should have told you long ago but couldn’t bear the thought of you thinking ill of me.”
“I could never think ill of you. But whatever it is, you can tell me later. You must save your strength.”
He smiled softly. “We both know what a mortal wound looks like.”
“You cannot leave me.” Kat willed all the strength she had into her voice. “Do you hear me? I will not let you die! You must fight.”
He coughed again, this time more heavily. “Least I…get to say…goodbye. An inch to the left…and I’d already…be dead.” He breathed in a jagged breath, barely able to take in any air. “Still will…do its job.”
“No! You will not die, do you hear me!” Kat yelled at him as she pressed down even harder against the wound. Please, God, please don’t take him away.
“No time to…waste,” he rasped, before reaching into his trouser pocket and pulling out a brass key. “Wanted…to tell you…so many…times before.”
“Tell me what?” She swiped at the tears clouding her vision.
“Take the key,” he urged, pushing it into her hand. “It opens…my safe. Inside… Should have told you sooner.”
“Uncle, please, you must fight! You can’t leave me.”
He smiled softly as he held on to her hand, his grip feeble. “My brave Kat…always been so proud…of you.”
She sobbed as she leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I love you, Uncle Victor. Please don’t leave me. I do not know what to do without you…”
“Of course you do. You are a Montrose… I have trained you well.” His voice was like steel for a brief moment, before he coughed and the strength drained out of him. “Take care of Sam and Daisy…they’re not strong like you.”
Kat nodded. “I will, Uncle. I promise.”
He smiled again, his eyes unwavering as he looked up at her. He squeezed her hand, though there was little strength left. “Remember…I love you, my darling girl.”
His hand went limp in her own as the vacant look of death settled across his eyes.
Kat shook her head. He could not be gone. He was too strong, too stubborn. But as she continued staring at his unblinking gaze, she realized that he was. That an assassin, known only as the Chameleon, had taken him away from her.
Kat felt a bottomless chill settle into the deepest part of her soul. She gripped her uncle’s cold hand tighter and leaned down to his ear. “The Chameleon will rue this day, Uncle,” she whispered. “There will be nowhere he can run, nowhere he can hide. I promise you, he will bleed as you have, before I send him to meet his maker in Hell.”