First Page: The Reluctant Baron, 1733
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How much rum did soldiers receive in their rations the night before a battle? Enough to stiffen their resolve; not so much they couldn’t see straight. A man’s aim mattered naught with a volley of musket fire at stake.
Revenge required precision. Tom needed to fell his foe in a single shot.
A good thing he’d schooled himself to two bottles of wine last night. His brother had known how to buy Madeira. It was fine, indeed. Left him with barely a headache this too-early morning.
He raised his face from the table where he’d fallen asleep. An hour or two of nightmarish terrors, the Old Hag pressing the breath out of him, river monsters come to get him. Drink was a Devil, alone.
He ought to have followed his brother’s example. Ahh, he laughed wryly at that irony. He might have spent the evening in besotted revelry, with the company of brawling tavern mates and a sweet miss at his side, if not in his bed. More his wont, his father would say; if they were speaking.
Tom yawned, arched his neck, caught sight of the waxing moon through the window. The grey mist of dawn would soon settle on the narrow streets below.
He needed a chaser. Three fingers of West Country whiskey would do the trick. He splashed his glass full and sniffed deeply, admiring the heady fumes of Scottish malt before gulping it down.
A moan escaped him. The pleasure of liquor, or the pain borne of grief? Tom dropped his head onto the table again, with another groan – this: yes, pain – as his skull knocked upon the wood. He’d squeezed his eyes shut but now opened them with determination. He could focus just enough to follow the baroque whorls of russet and gold in the battered chestnut table where his head lay. A fine piece once, that. Wood felled from the Baron’s own estates in Fife. Many a dinner aet upon it, many a glass spilt.
Nae, he wouldna hae ano’er sip. His mind was slurred enough already. He let linger the taste of the last tantalizing drops.
What does one wear, when one may die before the sun is fully risen?
No! Tom would have confidence. His practice would bring victory, when the time came.
He stumbled to his feet and lit a taper, amazed his noxious breath didn’t set the room ablaze. He huffed in the cold air, tripped on the hearthstones, stabbed and thrust at the embers with the fire iron as if he were preparing for a swordfight instead of – this.
“Robin!” he called out gruffly to the servant. The boy was surely awake. Servants, like soldiers on campaign, and swindlers, and god-forsaken swine as he knew himself to be, all regularly rose before dawn. Ruffians, the lot of them.
The lad appeared in the doorway, head bowed. “Yes, Sir! Shall I stir thy fire, Sir?”
“No, no – too late for that,” Tom hmmphed. Then, trying for a measure of kindness, he softened his voice at the edges. “Warm me some water, and have Mrs. Caulfield send up coffee and bread.”
He sprawled against the mantel and massaged his temples. Would he did have a molly to give him a quick rub. Invigorating. Enervating.
The pot of bitter black coffee would have to do. He poured himself a mug and leaned upon the window casement. The room faced east; the light was gathering there.
He’d kept vigil with his brother’s spent, bloodied body in a room much like this. Two floors up, with bullet-glass panes making shadow patterns on the floorboards.
Why the devil had Alex challenged a damn’d Earl, instead of celebrating how he’d wooed that Scots lass and won her family’s regard? But they’d seldom confided in one another.