Excerpt: The Serpent Prince

Excerpt: The Serpent Prince

Book 3: The Princes Trilogy

CHAPTER ONE

Maiden Hill, England
November, 1760

The dead man at Lucinda Craddock-Hayes’s feet looked like a fallen god. Apollo, or more likely Mars, the bringer of war, taken human form and struck down from the heavens to be found by a maiden on her way home. Except that gods rarely bled.

Or died for that matter.

“Mr. Hedge,” Lucy called over her shoulder.

She glanced around the lonely lane leading from the town of Maiden Hill to the Craddock-Hayes house. It appeared the same as before she’d made her find: deserted, except for herself, her manservant, puffing a ways behind her, and the corpse lying in the ditch. The sky hung low and wintry gray. The light had already begun to leak away, though it was not yet five o’clock. Leafless trees lined the road, silent and chill. 

Lucy shivered and drew her wrap more closely about her shoulders. The dead man sprawled, naked, battered, and face-down. The long lines of his back were marred by a mass of blood on his right shoulder. Below were lean hips, muscular, hairy legs, and curiously elegant, bony feet. She blinked and returned her gaze to his face. Even in death he was handsome. His head, turned to the side, revealed a patrician profile: long nose, high, bony cheeks, and a wide mouth. An eyebrow, winging over his closed eye, was bisected by a scar. Closely-cropped, pale hair grew flat to his skull, except where it was matted by blood. His left hand was flung above his head and on the index finger was the impression where a ring should have been. His killers must’ve stolen it along with everything else. Around the body the mud was scuffed, the imprint of a boot heel stamped deep beside the dead man’s hip. Other than that, there was no sign of whomever had dumped him here like so much offal. 

Lucy felt silly tears prick at her eyes. Something about the way that he’d been left, naked and degraded by his murderers, seemed a terrible insult to the man. It was so unbearably sad. <em>Ninny</em>, she chided herself. She became conscious of a muttering, drawing steadily closer. Hastily, she swiped at the moisture on her cheeks.

“First she visits the Joneses and all the little Joneses, snotty-nosed buggers. Then we march up the hill to old woman Hardy—nasty biddy, don’t know why she hasn’t been put to bed with a shovel yet. And is that all? No, that’s not all by half. Then, then she must needs call round the vicarage. And me carting great jars of jelly all the while.” 

Lucy suppressed an urge to roll her eyes. Hedge, her man, wore a greasy tricorne smashed down over a shock of gray hair. His dusty coat and waistcoat were equally disreputable, and he’d chosen to highlight his bow legs with scarlet-clocked stockings, no doubt Papa’s cast-offs. 

He halted beside her. “Oh, gah, not a deader!”

In his surprise, the little man had forgotten to stoop, but when she turned to him, his wiry body decayed before her eyes. His back curved, the shoulder bearing the awful weight of her now empty basket fell, and his head hung to the side listlessly. As the piece de resistance, Hedge took out a checkered cloth and laboriously wiped his forehead.

Lucy ignored all this. She’d seen the act hundreds, if not thousands, of times in her life. “I don’t know that I would have described him as a deader, but he is indeed a corpse.”

“Well, best not stand here gawping. Let the dead rest in peace, I always say.” Hedge made to sidle past her.

She placed herself in his path. “We can’t just leave him here.”

“Why not? He was here before you trotted past. Wouldn’t never have seen him, neither, if we’d’ve taken the short cut through the common like I said.”

“Nevertheless we did find him. Can you help me carry him?” 

Hedge staggered back in patent disbelief. “Carry him? A great big bloke like that? Not unless you want me crippled for sure. My back’s bad as it is, has been for twenty years. I don’t complain, but still.”

“Very well,” Lucy conceded. “We’ll have to get a cart.”

“Why don’t we just leave him be?” the little man protested. “Someone’ll find him in a bit.”

“Mr. Hedge…”

“He’s stabbed through the shoulder and all over bloody. It’s not nice, that.” Hedge screwed up his face until it resembled a rotted pumpkin. 

“I’m sure he didn’t mean to be stabbed, through the shoulder or not, so I don’t think we can hold that against him,” Lucy chided.

“But he’s begun to go off!” Hedge waved the handkerchief in front of his nose.

Lucy didn’t mention that there hadn’t been any smell until he’d arrived. “I’ll wait while you go fetch Bob Smith and his cart.”

The manservant’s bushy gray eyebrows drew together in imminent opposition.

“Unless you would prefer to stay here with the body?”

Hedge’s brow cleared. “No, mum. You knows best, I’m sure. I’ll just trot on over to the smithy—”

The corpse groaned.

Lucy looked down in surprise. 

Beside her, Hedge jumped back and stated the obvious for both of them. “Jaysus Almighty Christ! That man ain’t dead!”

Dear Lord. And she’d been standing here all this while, bickering with Hedge. Lucy swept off her wrap and threw it across the man’s back. “Hand me your coat.”

“But—”

“Now!” Lucy didn’t bother giving Hedge a look. She rarely used a sharp tone of voice, making it all the more effective when she did employ it.

“Awww,” the manservant moaned, but he tossed the coat to her. 

“Go fetch Doctor Fremont. Tell him it’s urgent and he must come at once.” Lucy gazed sternly into her manservant’s beady eyes. “And Mr. Hedge?”

“Yes’m?”

“Please run.”

Hedge dropped the basket and took off, moving surprisingly fast, his bad back forgotten.

Lucy bent and tucked Hedge’s coat around the man’s buttocks and legs. She held her hand under his nose and waited, barely breathing, until she felt the faint brush of air. He was indeed alive. She sat back on her heels and contemplated the situation. The man lay on the half frozen mud and weeds of the ditch—both cold and hard. That couldn’t be good for him, considering his wounds. But as Hedge had noted, he was a big man and she wasn’t sure she could move him by herself. She peeled back a corner of the wrap covering his back. The slit in his shoulder was crusted with dried gore, the bleeding already stopped to her admittedly inexperienced eyes. Bruises bloomed across his back and side. Lord only knew what the front of him looked like. 

And then there was the head wound. 

She shook her head. He lay so still and white. No wonder she’d mistaken him for dead. But all the same, Hedge could’ve already been on his way to Doctor Fremont in the time they’d taken to argue over the poor man.

Lucy checked again that he was breathing, her palm hovering above his lips. His breath was light, but even. She smoothed the back of her hand over his cold cheek. Almost invisible stubble caught at her fingers. Who was he? Maiden Hill was not so big that a stranger could pass through it without notice. Yet she had heard no gossip about visitors on her rounds this afternoon. Somehow he’d appeared here in the lane without anyone noticing. Then, too, the man had been obviously beaten and robbed. Why? Was he merely a victim or had he somehow brought this fate upon himself? 

Lucy hugged herself on the last thought and prayed Hedge would hurry. The light was fading fast and with it what little warmth the day had held. A wounded man lying exposed to the elements for Lord knows how long… She bit her lip.

If Hedge didn’t return soon, there would be no need of a doctor.


“He’s dead.”

The harsh words, spoken at Sir Rupert Fletcher’s side, were much too loud in the crowded ballroom. He glanced around to see who stood near enough to overhear, then stepped closer to the speaker, Quincy James. 

Sir Rupert gripped the ebony cane in his right hand tightly, trying not to let his irritation show. Or his surprise. “What do you mean?”

“Just what I said.” James smirked. “He’s dead.”

“You’ve killed him?”

“Not me. I sent my men to do it.”

Sir Rupert frowned, trying to comprehend this information. James had settled on a course of action by himself and it had succeeded? “How many?” he abruptly asked. “Your men.”

The younger man shrugged. “Three. More than enough.”

“When?”

“Early this morning. I had a report just before I left.” James flashed a cocky grin that gave him boyish dimples. Most, seeing his light blue eyes, regular English features, and athletic form, would have thought him a pleasant, even attractive, young man. 

Most would be wrong. 

“I trust the matter cannot be traced back to you.” Despite his efforts, an edge must’ve crept into Sir Rupert’s voice. 

James lost the smile. “Dead men can’t tell tales.”

“Humph.” What an idiot. “Where did they do it?”

“Outside his townhouse.”

Sir Rupert swore softly. To waylay a peer of the realm outside his own home in broad daylight was the work of a halfwit. His bad leg was giving him the very devil tonight and now this nonsense from James. He leaned more heavily on the ebony cane as he tried to think. 

“Don’t get worked up.” James smiled nervously. “N-n-no one saw them.”

The elder man arched an eyebrow. Lord save him from aristocrats who decided to think–let alone act–on their own. There’d been too many generations of leisure for the typical lordling to easily find his own prick to piss with, never mind something more complicated like planning an assassination.

James was blithely unaware of his thoughts. “Besides, they stripped the body and dumped it half a day’s ride outside London. Nobody’ll know him there. By the time it’s found, there won’t be much to recognize, will there? P-p-perfectly safe.” The younger man’s hand crawled up to poke a finger into his golden yellow hair. He wore it unpowdered, probably as a vanity.

Sir Rupert took a sip of Madeira as he contemplated this latest development. The ballroom was a stifling crush, redolent of burning wax, heavy perfume, and body odor. The French doors leading into the garden had been thrown open to let in the cool night air, but they had little affect on the room’s heat. The punch had given out a half hour before and there were several hours yet before the midnight buffet. Sir Rupert grimaced. He didn’t hold out much hope for the refreshments. Lord Harrington, his host, was notoriously stingy, even when entertaining the cream of society—and a few upstarts such as Sir Rupert.

A narrow space had been cleared in the middle of the room for the dancers. They swirled in a rainbow of colors. Lasses in embroidered gowns and powdered hair. Gentlemen turned out in wigs and their uncomfortable best. He didn’t envy the young people the pretty movements. They must be dripping sweat under their silks and lace. Lord Harrington would be gratified at the massive turn-out so early in the season—or rather, Lady Harrington would. That lady had five unmarried daughters and she marshalled her forces like an experienced campaigner readying for battle. Four of her daughters were on the floor, each on the arm of an eligible gentleman.

Not that he could stand in judgement with three daughters under the age of four and twenty himself. All of them out of the schoolroom, all of them in need of suitable husbands. In fact . . . Matilda caught his eye from some twenty paces away where she stood with Sarah. She arched a brow and looked meaningfully at young Quincy James, still standing beside him. 

Sir Rupert shook his head slightly—he’d rather let one of his daughters marry a rabid dog. Their communication was well-developed after nearly three decades of marriage. His lady wife turned smoothly away to chat animatedly to another matron without ever revealing that she had exchanged information with her husband. Later tonight she might quiz him about James and ask why the young man didn’t come up to snuff, but she wouldn’t dream of badgering her husband right now.

If only his other partners were so circumspect. 

“I don’t know why you’re so worried.” James apparently couldn’t stand the silence anymore. “He never knew about you. Nobody knew about you.”

“And I prefer to keep it that way,” Sir Rupert said mildly. “For all of our sakes.” 

“I wager you would. You left m-m-me and Walker and the other two for him to go after in your stead.”

“He would’ve found you and the others in any case.” 

“There’s s-s-some that would still like to know about you.” James scratched at his scalp so violently he nearly dislodged his queue.

“But it would not be in your best interests to betray me,” Sir Rupert said flatly. He bowed to a passing acquaintance.

“I’m not saying I would let it out.”

“Good. You profited as much as I from the business.”

“Yes, but—”

“Then all’s well that ends well.” 

“Easy for y-y-you to s-s-say,” James’s stutter was growing more frequent, a sign the man was agitated. “You didn’t see Hartwell’s body. He was skewered through the throat. Must’ve bled to death. His seconds said the duel only lasted two minutes—two minutes, mind you. A-a-awful.”

“You’re a better swordsman than Hartwell ever was,” Sir Rupert said.

He smiled as his eldest, Julia, started a minuet. She was wearing a gown in a becoming shade of blue. Had he seen it before? He thought not. It must be new. Hopefully, it hadn’t beggared him. Her partner was an earl past his fortieth year. A might old, but still, an earl—

“P-p-peller was an excellent swordsman, too and he was k-k-killed first.” James’s hysterical voice interrupted his thoughts.

He was too loud. Sir Rupert tried to calm him. “James—”

“Challenged at night and d-d-dead before breakfast the next morn!”

“I don’t think—”

“He lost three f-f-fingers trying to defend himself after the s-s-sword was wrenched from his hand. I had to search the g-g-grass for them afterwards. G-g-god!”

Nearby heads swiveled their way. The younger man’s tones were growing louder.

Time to part.

“It’s over.” Sir Rupert turned his head to meet James’ gaze, holding and quelling him. 

There was a tick under the other man’s right eye. He inhaled to speak. 

Sir Rupert got there first, his voice mild. “He’s dead. You’ve just told me.”

“B-b-but—” 

“Therefore, we have nothing further to worry about.” Sir Rupert bowed and limped away. He badly needed another glass of Madeira.


“I’ll not have him in my house,” Captain Craddock-Hayes pronounced, arms crossed over his barrel chest, feet braced as if on a rolling deck. His bewigged head was held high, sea-blue eyes pinned on a distant horizon.

He stood in the entrance hall to Craddock-Hayes house. Usually the hall was quite large enough for their needs. Right now, though, the hall seemed to have shrunk in proportion to the amount of people it held, Lucy thought ruefully, and the captain was right in the center of it.

“Yes, Papa.” She dodged around him and waved the men carrying her stranger further in. “Upstairs in my brother’s bedroom, I think. Don’t you agree, Mrs. Brodie?”

“Of course, miss.” The Craddock-Hayes housekeeper nodded. The frill of her mobcap, framing red cheeks, bobbed in time with the movement. “The bed’s already made and I can have the fire started in a tick.”

“Good.” Lucy smiled in approval. “Thank you, Mrs. Brodie.”

The housekeeper hurried up the stairs, her ample bottom swaying with each step.

“Don’t even know who the blighter is,” her father continued. “Might be some tramp or murderer. Hedge said he was stabbed in the back. I ask you, what sort of a chap gets himself stabbed? Eh? Eh?”

“I don’t know, I’m sure,” Lucy answered automatically. “Would you mind moving to the side so the men can carry him past?”

Papa shuffled obediently nearer the wall.

The laborers panted as they wrestled the wounded stranger inside. He lay so terribly still, his face pale as death. Lucy bit her lip and tried not to let her anxiety show. She didn’t know him, didn’t even know the color of this man’s eyes, he was a stranger to her, and yet it was vitally important that he live. He’d been placed on a door to make it easier, but it was obvious that his weight and height still made the maneuver difficult. One of the men swore.

“Won’t have such language in my house.” The captain glared at the offender.

The man flushed and mumbled an apology.

Papa nodded. “What kind of a father would I be if I allowed any sort of gypsy or layabout into my home? With an unmarried gel in residence? Eh? A damned rotten one, that’s what.”

“Yes, Papa.” Lucy held her breath as the men negotiated the stairs.

“That’s why the blighter must be taken somewhere else–Fremont’s house, he’s the doctor. Or the poorhouse. Maybe the vicarage–Penweeble can have a chance to show some Christian kindness. Ha.”

“You’re quite right, but he’s already here,” Lucy said soothingly. “It would be a shame to have to move him again.”

One of the men on the stairs gave her a wild-eyed look.

Lucy smiled back reassuringly.

“Probably won’t live long in any case.” Papa scowled. “No point ruining good sheets.”

“I’ll make sure the sheets survive.” Lucy started up the stairs.

“And what about my supper?” her father grumbled behind her. “Eh? Is anyone seeing to that while they rush about making room for scoundrels?”

Lucy leaned over the rail. “We’ll have supper on the table just as soon as I can see him settled.”

Papa grunted. “Fine thing when the master of the house waits on the comfort of ruffians.”

“You’re being most understanding.” Lucy smiled at her father.

“Humph.”

She turned to go up the stairs.

“Poppet?”

Lucy stuck her head back over the rail.

Her father was frowning up at her, bushy white eyebrows drawn together over the bridge of his bulbous red nose. “Be careful with that fellow.”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Humph,” her father muttered again behind her.

But Lucy hurried up the stairs and into the blue bedroom. The men had already transferred the stranger to the bed. They tramped back out of the room as Lucy entered, leaving a trail of mud.

“You shouldn’t be in here, Miss Lucy,” Brodie gasped and pulled the sheet over the man’s chest. “Not with him like this.”

“I saw him in far less just an hour ago, Mrs. Brodie, I assure you. At least now he’s bandaged.”

Brodie snorted. “Not the important parts.”

“Well, maybe not,” Lucy conceded. “But I hardly think he poses any risk, the condition he’s in.”

“Aye, poor gentleman.” Brodie patted the sheet covering the man’s chest. “He’s that lucky you found him when you did. He’d’ve been frozen by morn for sure, left out there on the road. Who could’ve done such a wicked thing?”

“I don’t know.” 

“Nobody from Maiden Hill, I’m thinking.” The housekeeper shook her head. “Must be riff-raff down from London.”

Lucy didn’t point out that riff-raff could be found even in Maiden Hill. “Doctor Fremont said he’d be around again in the morning to check his bandages.”

“Aye.” Mrs. Brodie looked doubtfully at the patient, as if assessing his odds of living to the next day.

Lucy took a deep breath. “Until then I suppose we can only make him comfortable. We’ll leave the door ajar in case he wakes.”

“I’d best be seeing to the captain’s supper. You know how he gets if it’s late. As soon as it’s on the table I’ll send Betsy up to watch him.” 

Lucy nodded. They only had the one maid, Betsy, but between the three women, they should be able to nurse the stranger. “You go. I’ll be down in a minute.”

“Very well, Miss.” Brodie gave her an old-fashioned look. “But don’t be too long. Your father will be wanting to talk to you.” 

Lucy wrinkled her nose and nodded. Brodie smiled in sympathy and left.

Lucy looked down at the stranger in her brother, David’s, bed and wondered again, who was he? He was so motionless that she had to concentrate to see the slight rise and fall of his chest. The bandages about his head only emphasized his infirmity and highlighted the bruising on his brow. He looked so terribly alone. Was anyone worried about him, perhaps anxiously awaiting his return?

One of his arms lay outside the covers. She touched it.

His hand flashed up and struck at her wrist, capturing and holding it. Lucy was so startled she only had time for a frightened squeak. Then she was staring into the palest eyes she’d ever seen. They were the color of ice.

“I’m going to kill you,” he spoke distinctly.

For a moment, she thought the grim words were for her and her heart seemed to stop in her breast.

His gaze shifted past her. “Ethan?” The man frowned as if puzzled and then he shut his weird eyes. In a minute more, the grip on her wrist grew slack and his arm fell back to the bed.

Lucy drew a breath. From the ache in her chest, it was the first since the man had seized her. She stepped back from the bed and rubbed her tender wrist. The man’s hand had been brutal, she’d have bruises in the morning.

Whom had he spoken to?

Lucy shuddered. Whomever it was, she did not envy them. The man’s voice held not a trace of indecision. In his own mind there was no doubt but that he would kill his enemy. She glanced again at the bed. The stranger was breathing slowly and deeply now. He looked like he was slumbering peacefully. If not for the pain in her wrist, she might have thought the whole incident a dream.

“Lucy!” The bellow from down below could only be her father.

Gathering her skirts, she left the room and ran down the stairs.

Papa was already seated at the head of the dinner table, a cloth tucked in at his neck. “Don’t like a late supper. Puts my digestion off. Can’t sleep half the night because of the gurgling. Is it too much to ask for a dinner on time in my own home? Is it? Eh?”

“No, of course not.” Lucy sat in her chair at the right of her father. “I’m sorry.”

Brodie brought in a steaming roast beef crowded with potatoes, leeks and turnips.

“Ha. That’s what a man likes to see on his dinner table.” Papa positively beamed as he picked up his knife and fork in preparation for carving. “A good English beef. Smells most delicious.”

“Thank you, sir.” The housekeeper winked at Lucy as she turned back to the kitchen.

Lucy smiled back. Thank goodness for Brodie.

“Now then, have a bite of that.” Papa handed her a plate heaped with food. “Mrs. Brodie knows how to make a fine roast beef.”

“Thank you.”

“Tastiest in the county. Need a bit of sustenance after gallivantin’ all over the place this afternoon. Eh?”

“How have your memoirs gone today?” Lucy sipped her wine, trying not to think of the man laying upstairs.

“Excellent. Excellent.” Papa sawed enthusiastically at the roast beef. “Put down a scandalous tale from thirty years ago. About Captain Feather–he’s an Admiral now, damn him–and three native island women. D’you know these native gels don’t wear any– Ahurmph!” He suddenly coughed and looked at her in what seemed like embarrassment.

“Yes?” Lucy popped a forkful of potato into her mouth.

“Never mind. Never mind.” Papa finished filling his plate and pulled it to where his belly met the table. “Let’s just say it’ll light a fire under the old boy after all this time. Ha!”

“How delightful.” Lucy smiled. If Papa ever did finish his memoirs and published them, there would be a score of apoplectic fits in His Majesty’s navy.

“Quite. Quite.” Papa swallowed and took a sip of wine. “Now then. I don’t want you worrying over this scoundrel you’ve brought home.”

Lucy’s gaze dropped to the fork she held. It trembled slightly and she hoped her parent wouldn’t notice the movement. “No, Papa.”

“You’ve done a good deed, Samaritan, and all that. Just as your mother used to teach you from the Bible. She’d approve. But remember”–he forked up a turnip–“I’ve seen head wounds before. Some live. Some don’t. And there’s not a blessed thing you can do about it either way.”

She felt her heart sink in her chest. “You don’t think he’ll live?”

“Don’t know,” Papa barked impatiently. “That’s what I’m saying. He might. He might not.”

“I see.” Lucy poked at a turnip and tried not to let the tears start.

Her father slammed the flat of his hand down on the table. “This is just what I’m warning you about. Don’t get attached to the tramp.”

A corner of Lucy’s mouth twitched up. “But you can’t keep me from feeling,” she said gently. “I’ll do it no matter if I want to or not.”

Papa frowned ferociously. “Don’t want you to be sad if he pops off in the night.”

“I’ll do my very best not to be sad, Papa,” Lucy promised. But she knew it was too late for that. If the man died tonight, she would weep on the morrow, promises or no.

“Humph.” Her father returned to his plate. “Good enough for now. If he survives though, mark my words.” He looked up and pinned her with his azure eyes. “He even thinks about hurting one hair on your head and out he goes on his arse.”