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Authors: Amanda Quick

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Reckless

BOOK: Reckless
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RECKLESS
Amanda Quick

[10 jan 2003—scanned by DanaDD]

[08 mar 2003—proofed by Stormy]

To Yook Louie, whose artistic talent and vision never cease to amaze me.
I am truly grateful.

Chapter 1

Moonlight suited him.

Cloaked in the silver light that illuminated the meadow, Gabriel Banner, Earl of Wylde, looked as mysterious and as dangerous as a legend that had come to life.

Phoebe Layton brought her mare to a halt at the edge of the trees and held her breath as Wylde rode toward her. She tried to steady her hands as she gripped the reins. This was no time to lose her nerve. She was a lady on a quest.

She needed the services of a knight-errant and it was not as though she had a great deal of choice. Indeed, Wylde was the only candidate she knew who had the proper qualifications. But first she had to talk him into accepting the position.

She had been working on that project for weeks. Until tonight the solitary, reclusive earl had steadfastly ignored all her deliberately intriguing letters. In desperation, she had resorted to other tactics. In an effort to lure him forth from his lair, she had baited a trap using the one tempting morsel she knew he could not resist.

The fact that he was here tonight on this lonely country lane in Sussex meant that she had at last succeeded in provoking him into a meeting.

Wylde did not know who she was. In her letters she had signed herself only as The Veiled Lady. Phoebe regretted the small deception, but it had been a necessary maneuver. If Wylde had been aware of her true identity at the start of the venture, he would most certainly have refused to help her. He had to be persuaded to take up the quest before she dared reveal herself. Phoebe was certain that once he understood everything, he would comprehend the reasons for her initial secrecy.

No, Wylde did not know her, but Phoebe knew him.

She had not seen him in nearly eight years. At sixteen she had imagined him a living legend, a noble, valiant knight straight out of a medieval romance. In her young eyes all he had lacked was the shining armor and a sword.

Although Phoebe clearly recalled the last time she had seen him, she knew Gabriel had no recollection of it at all. He had been too busy plotting to run off with her sister, Meredith, at the time.

Phoebe tensed with curiosity now as he rode toward her. Unfortunately, the combination of the veil she was wearing and the pale moonlight made it impossible to tell just how much he had changed over the years.

Her first thought was that he seemed larger than she remembered. Taller. Leaner. Harder, somehow. His shoulders appeared broader under the caped greatcoat he wore. Snug breeches outlined the strong, muscular lines of his thighs. The curled brim of his hat cast Wylde's features into a forbidding, impenetrable shadow.

For an unsettling moment Phoebe wondered if this was the wrong man. Perhaps she was about to encounter a genuine villain, a highwayman or worse. She stirred uneasily in the saddle. If she came to grief this night, her poor, beleaguered family would no doubt feel justified in having her tombstone engraved with something fitting. SHE FINALLY PAID THE PRICE OF HER RECKLESS WAYS would do nicely. As far as her over-protective clan was concerned, Phoebe had spent her entire life getting into one scrape after another. This time she might have taken one chance too many.

"The mysterious Veiled Lady, I presume?" Gabriel inquired coldly.

Relief washed over her. Phoebe's doubts as to the man's identity were instantly resolved. There was no mistaking those dark, gritty tones even though she had not heard them in eight years. What startled her was the small thrill of anticipation they sent through her. She frowned briefly at her strange reaction.

"Good evening, my lord," she said.

Gabriel brought his black stallion to a halt a few feet away. "I received your most recent note, madam. I found it extremely irritating, just as I did the others."

Phoebe swallowed uneasily as she realized he was not in a cheerful mood. "I had rather hoped to pique your interest, sir."

"I have a strong distaste for deception."

"I see." Phoebe's heart sank. A strong distaste for deception. She suddenly wondered if she had made a serious tactical mistake in dealing with Wylde. Just as well she had been careful to go veiled tonight, she thought. She certainly did not want him to discover who she was if this night's work came to naught. "Nevertheless, I am pleased you decided to accept my invitation."

"Curiosity got the better of me." Gabriel smiled faintly in the moonlight, but the curve of his mouth held no warmth and his shadowed gaze revealed nothing. "You have become a thorn in my side during the past two months, madam. I expect you are well aware of that fact."

"I apologize," Phoebe said earnestly. "But the truth is, I was becoming quite desperate, my lord. You are a difficult man to see. You did not respond to my initial letters and as you do not go into Society, I could think of no other way to gain your attention."

"So you decided to deliberately provoke me to such an extent that I would finally bestir myself to meet you?"

Phoebe took a deep breath. "Something like that."

"It is generally considered dangerous to annoy me, my mysterious Veiled Lady."

She did not doubt that for a moment, but it was too late to retreat now. She had come too far to call a halt to this night's venture. She was a lady on a quest and she must be stouthearted.

"Is that so, my lord?" Phoebe tried for a cool, amused tone. "The thing is, you left me no alternative. Never fear, I am certain that once you have heard what I have to say, you will be glad you finally agreed to meet me and I know you will forgive my small deception."

"If you have summoned me so that you can gloat over your latest triumph, I should warn you I do not like to lose."

"Triumph?" She blinked behind the veil and then realized he was talking about the bait she had used to draw him here tonight. "Oh, yes, the book. Come, now, my lord. You are as eager to see the manuscript as I am. Obviously you could not resist my invitation to view it, even though I am the new owner."

Gabriel stroked his stallion's neck with a gloved hand. "We appear to share a mutual interest in medieval manuscripts."

"True. I see that it annoys you that I am the one who located The Knight and the Sorcerer and discovered that it was for sale," Phoebe said. "But surely you are generous enough to give me credit for the cleverness of my investigations. The manuscript was right here in Sussex, after all, practically beneath your very nose."

Gabriel inclined his head in acknowledgment of her skills. "You seem to be rather lucky in that regard. This is the third such manuscript you have gotten to ahead of me in recent weeks. May I ask why you didn't simply snatch it up and carry it off, the way you did the others?"

"Because as I explained in my letters, I wish to speak to you, sir." Phoebe hesitated and then admitted in a soft rush, "And because, to be quite honest, I decided it might be wise to take an escort with me tonight."

"Ah."

"I have come to the conclusion that Mr. Nash is a very odd sort of man, even for a book collector," Phoebe continued. "The stipulations he put on the time at which he would turn over the manuscript made me rather uneasy. I do not like doing business at midnight."

"Nash sounds somewhat more than merely amusingly eccentric," Gabriel agreed thoughtfully.

"He claims to be nocturnal, rather like a bat. He says in his letters that his household is run on a schedule that is opposite to that of the rest of the world. He sleeps while others are awake and works while others sleep. Very strange, is it not?"

"He would no doubt fit very nicely into the Polite World," Gabriel said dryly. "Most of the ton stays out all night and sleeps during the day. Still, you were probably right to be careful about meeting him alone at midnight."

Phoebe smiled. "I am glad you approve of my plan to take an escort."

"I approve, but I confess I'm surprised by your concern," Gabriel said with the precision of a swordsman sliding his blade home. "You have not thus far demonstrated much inclination toward caution and prudence."

Phoebe's cheeks burned at the sarcasm. "When one is on a quest, one must be bold, my lord."

"You consider yourself on a quest?"

"Yes, my lord, I do."

"I see. Speaking of quests, I should tell you that I am here tonight on a small one of my own."

A chill of apprehension seized Phoebe. "Yes, my lord? What would that be?"

"It was not just the prospect of viewing Hash's manuscript before you take possession of it that brings me here, my Veiled Lady."

"Really, my lord?" Perhaps her scheme had actually worked, Phoebe thought. Perhaps she had truly piqued his interest, just as she had hoped to do. "You are interested in what I have to say?"

"Not particularly. But I am interested in making the acquaintance of my new opponent. I believe in knowing one's enemy." Gabriel watched her coldly. "I do not know who you are, madam, but you have been leading me a merry dance for some time now. I have had enough of your games."

A fresh flicker of uneasiness dampened Phoebe's rising spirits. She was still a long way from the successful completion of her quest. "I expect we shall encounter each other again in the future. As you said, we are interested in collecting the same books and manuscripts."

Saddle leather creaked softly as Gabriel urged his stallion a few steps closer. "Have you enjoyed your little victories recently, my Veiled Lady?"

"Very much." She smiled in spite of her nervousness. "I am quite pleased with my recent acquisitions. They make excellent additions to my library."

"I see." There was a slight pause. "You do not consider it a bit reckless to invite me along tonight to witness your latest coup?"

It was all far more reckless than he could possibly know, Phoebe thought ruefully. "The thing is, my lord, you are one of the few people in all of England who is capable of appreciating my recent find."

"I certainly do appreciate it. Very much, in fact. And therein lies the danger."

Phoebe's fingers trembled slightly on the reins. "Danger?"

"What if I decide to take the manuscript from you by force after you have collected it from Mr. Nash?" Gabriel asked with lethal softness.

Phoebe stiffened abruptly at the threat. She had not considered that possibility. Wylde was an earl, after all. "Do not be ridiculous. You are a gentleman. You would not do any such thing."

"Mysterious veiled ladies who scheme to deprive gentlemen such as myself of much-desired objects should not be too surprised if said gentlemen become impatient." Gabriel's voice hardened. "If Nash's manuscript is a genuine fourteenth century legend of the Round Table as he claims it is, I want it, madam. Name your price."

Tension crackled in the air between them. Phoebe's courage faltered briefly. It was all she could do not to wheel her mare around and gallop back to the safety of the Amesburys' country house, where she was staying. She wondered if knights-errant had been so bloody difficult in medieval times.

"I doubt that you could meet my price, sir," she whispered.

"Name it and we shall see."

Phoebe licked her dry lips. "The thing is, I have no intention of selling it."

"Are you certain of that?" Gabriel edged the stallion a step closer. The great beast tossed his head and blew heavily, crowding Phoebe's mare.

"Quite certain," Phoebe said quickly. She paused for effect. "However, I might consider giving it to you."

"Giving it to me?" Gabriel was clearly taken aback by that remark. "What the devil are you talking about?"

"I will explain later, sir." Phoebe struggled to soothe her nervous horse. "May I remind you it is nearly midnight? I am due at Mr. Nash's cottage in a few minutes. Are you coming with me or not?"

"I am most definitely going to fulfill my duties as your escort this evening," Gabriel said grimly. "It is far too late to get rid of me."

"Yes, well, shall we get on with the business, then?" Phoebe gave the signal to her mare to move off down the moonlit lane. "Mr. Nash's cottage should be a short distance from here, according to the directions I received in his last letter."

"I would not want you to keep him waiting." Gabriel turned his stallion to follow her.

The sleek animal fell into step alongside Phoebe's mount. Phoebe wondered if her mare was feeling as nervous as she was. Gabriel and the stallion both loomed large and forbidding in the moonlight.

"Now that we have met at last, my Veiled Lady, I have some questions for you," Gabriel said.

BOOK: Reckless
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