Bramwell Wesley Hallowsby missed the great love of his life because he was listening to the tale of his first kill. She was right in front of the inn in a blue dress and a bonnet with a matching ribbon. But his attention was on the inside as Dicky spoke of his Brave Deed. Not Bram’s assassinations of vicious men and once of a woman spy, but his very first kill at the age of twelve.
It had been a rabid bear, according to Dicky, escaped from the local fair and still wearing a bright red and green ruffle around its neck. Horribly, this only made it more terrifying to the onlookers as the young Bram stepped forward to defend a child.
A child? gasped Dicky’s wife, Clarissa. Boy or girl?
Both! cried Dicky, gesturing with his cheroot. Twins with kittens. One in each hand and completely defenseless!
That part was new. Last time it had been piglets. Bram looked out the inn window, idly scanning the street. Though Dicky had easily a dozen men who’d vowed to kill him, none of them would bestir themselves this far north of London. They were in Hull now, nearly to Scotland. If it hadn’t been for Clarissa’s tetchy stomach, they would be there, and he could get paid. That’s all he wanted. To get them to Scotland so he could get paid.
He narrowed his eyes. There was a thick brute of a man coming toward them, but then the man stopped to talk to the woman in blue. The man bowed only slightly, then spent his time ogling the woman’s impressive bodice. Bram labeled him the local lecher and let his attention wander back to Dicky.
And there he stood, one tiny boy against a rabid bear, continued Dicky as he patted the small treasure chest on his lap. The heavy thing must have flattened even Dicky’s massive thighs, but the man would not give up his gold even to sit in an inn with his sick wife.
Terrifying! gasped Clarissa. She always gasped whenever she spoke. Did it attack? Did it hurt you? Are there scars?
Bram barely stopped himself from rubbing his forearm. He knew the shape and the texture of the scars there from memory. The origin of the bizarre tale that had become his legend.
Horribly disfigured, my dear, Dicky said, clearly gleeful at the thought. You shan’t see it, of course. He keeps it well covered.
Oh my! Clarissa’s eyes grew sultry. Then she pressed her sapphire necklace to her lips at such an angle that her husband wouldn’t see her lick it. But Bram sawas she had intendedand he idly wondered if he would take advantage of what was offered tonight. It wouldn’t be the first time he had used his own mystique to open a woman’s bedroom door. And Clarissa was stunningly beautiful, as was her husband. Of course, they were both rotten to the core.
As the bastard son of a duke, Bram had to make his own way through the world. Thanks to the connections of an elite education, he’d been able to hang on the outskirts of the moneyed ton, but it had cost him. Humiliation was the smallest price he’d had to pay as he played bodyguard and general strong arm for the peerage. He’d also had to split his mind into two pieces. One half hoped for goodness and beauty in the world. He couldn’t shut it up no matter how he tried. The other half saw with clear, bitter eyes what went on and hated the world for the disappointment.
Meanwhile, Dicky continued the tale. People were running about screaming, you understand. Everywhere was chaos as grown men dropped to their knees in terror.
But not Bram. At the tender age of ten, he stood up for those poor children.
Ten? I thought you said he was twelve.
Both husband and wife looked to Bram, and he knew they would stay like that until he answered. Eleven, he said, choosing to split the difference.
Eleven then. But you’d just had the birthday, right? Dicky asked.
Right. Wrong, but who was he to argue? Dicky was paying him to be mythic.
Something jerked in the window, and he glanced quickly back. It was the woman in blue as she’d twitched away from a grinning man. Oh. Likely, she’d been pinched as she’d passed the thick-jowled man.
The beast gave out a tremendous roar! Dicky bellowed as he leaped to his feet, one arm holding his gold, the other waving about while his wife squealed in mock terror.
Uh, Dicky, you really shouldn’t be so loud began Bram, but he needn’t have bothered.
The door to their private room burst open as the innkeeper rushed in. My lords! My lady! What is amiss?
Dicky let his arm drop, not even embarrassed. I was being a bear, sir.
The innkeeper was understandably flustered, and though Bram enjoyed a flustered innkeeper as much as the next man, he hardly thought it fair. But rather than point out Dicky’s errora sin for any paid servanthe redirected the man. Have you got the posset yet? For my lady’s stomach?
Oh sir, not yet. But I’ve sent my son to find herthe woman I told you aboutand not return until such time
Oh, but I am so wretched! gasped Clarissa as she pressed a limp hand to her brow, her sapphire earbobs waving wildly on their gold chains.
A hot towel, milady? Perhaps a blanket? Not much of the peerage traveled through here, and he was making the most of these two.
I won’t put you to the bother, she said, her voice fading.
But milady, if it would ease your suffering
Tut tut, Dicky interrupted, oblivious to his wife’s need to be cosseted. She said no. Get on with you. I was in the middle of my story. Bram sighed. Bring her hot stew.
I couldn’t eat a thing, Clarissa protested.
You will, he said, keeping his voice stern. She liked it when he was bold. Yes, her legs shifted restlessly, and she shot him another coy glance that made him vaguely nauseous.
The innkeeper’s head bobbled yes as he rushed out the door in search of stew. Meanwhile, Dicky was annoyed that the attention had shifted off him. Pay attention, he ordered. I was about to get to the good part.
Pay attention to his own tale of derring-do? Please, I adore this part, he lied as he looked back out the window.
He saw a mob of boysfour of thembarely into their first beards. They were calling raucous comments aimed at the woman in blue. Really, why was she walking alonemoving from one house to the next to the nextseemingly unprotected by a husband, father, or brother? Didn’t she know better than to tempt the locals to harangue her?
The bear attacked! Dicky cried dramatically. He roared again, and Clarissa squealed. Bram pulled out his father’s dueling pistol and shot it right in the muzzle! Bang!
Bang, Clarissa echoed as she rubbed her thumb over and across the smallest sapphire in her necklace.
And that, my dear, is the tale of how my dear Bram became the man he is today. And he will protect us, you see. Dicky returned to his seat and curled his arm around the treasure chest. If he could protect tiny children
And their kittens! Don’t forget the kittens!
And their kittens from a rabid bear, then
Then we are safe with him. Clarissa’s gaze returned to him, her gaze growing more languid. I feel so safe.
Dicky frowned, his face turning red. On any other man, it would be a hideously florid look, but it only seemed to enhance Dicky’s easy charm. That’s why I hired him, Clary. To make you feel safe.
You did a good job, his wife said, her eyes not leaving Bram.
Bram pushed to his feet, needing to stretch his long legs. You do know that story has grown over the years.
Tut tut, Dicky said. We all know it’s true. Or most of it.
Or none of it. When had his life become so absurd that he contemplated cuckolding a manhis employersimply because he was bored? He despised himself, and by extension, he despised Dicky and Clarissa.
There’s no danger, Dicky. No one will chase you up here. They will ruin your reputation in town, destroy your financials simply because no one will do business with you, and certainly, you will never be invited to a ton party again. But there won’t be a soul who offers you bodily harm.
Course not! cried Dicky as he patted his treasure again. That’s because you’re here. That’s because I had the foresight to befriend you as a child. I knew then that you would protect me. I knew then that you were a man who could save me from those blackguards
Bram stopped listening and headed for the door. Dicky noticed about the time he stepped into the hallway.
Where are you going?
To have a look about. Just in case. It was a lie, but it was one that would satisfy Dicky, which would make sure he got paid when this was all done.
So he left the room, choosing to wander through the inn. He made it through the kitchen and out the back, to the garden behind with two lazy hounds dozing in the sun. And once outside, he took a deep breath of the summer air and a greedy look at the green land around him.
That was the life he wanted: stretched out in the sun like those hounds, with his eyes drooping shut, while a pup or three gamboled nearby. He saw no puppies, but he imagined them, and they made him smile.
Then he saw her. The woman in blue again, this time without anyone pinching or ogling her. The sight was striking enough, but then she paused under a tree, pulling off her bonnet to raise her face to what breeze could be had. Fine blond hair blew back from her cheeks, and her perfect bow of a mouth curved in delight. Beautiful. A country miss complete with a basket on her arm. Her lush, unspoiled beauty was the kind that could only grow in the wilds. In London, she would be painted and sullen, her body trussed into dresses that maximized assets and minimized flaws. But this woman had a simple gown, and while he watched, those puppies he’d imagined suddenly appeared. Four of them, barking and leaping from somewhere he couldn’t see.
She smiled when she saw them, and thento his shockshe laughed so musical a sound that he was riveted. Bells could not have sounded so pure.
He was awed. It was his idealistic mind, he knew. The one that believed in unsullied beauty. She knelt down then, oblivious to the dirt that would coat her skirt, as she tickled the puppies, her laughter chiming in the air.
He found himself moving toward her without choosing to do so. He had no idea what to say to an innocent miss. He’d never known a woman who could be so sweet. And yet
Miss Bluebell! Miss Bluebell!
A boy barely out of short pants came tearing around the corner. She looked up, her expression surprised as she held out her arms. He careened into them, so fast was he churning his short, stubby legs.
She said something too low for Bram to hear, especially as the boy kept talking right over her despite being short of breath. Rude brat.
Da saysyou come. Right away!
At that moment, one of the puppies attacked the angel. It was nothing more than a growl and bite as it grabbed hold of her dress and shook. With a sharp word for the dog, she picked it up and took her time disentangling it from her skirt, but then the thing started licking her on the face.
He saw the wet tongue tasting her chin and neck. He heard her laugh, this time deeperthroatierand he felt himself harden as he hadn’t in years. Her cheeks were flushed, her hair now flying free as the dog laved her. His mouth was dry as he watched, and he abruptly thought of so many things, all dark and carnal.
Miss Bluebell! the child cried, and Bram wanted to spank the idiot child for drawing the woman’s attention. Don’t look at him. Look at me! The thought was bizarre in his mind, but it was no less loud.
The woman finally managed to pull the puppy away from her face. She must have said something because the boy nodded vigorously and pointed at the inn. At first Bram thought the child was directing her to look at him, but he soon realized the truth. Neither boy nor woman had seen him, and the disappointment of that was yet another shock. What was wrong with him?
Another puppy grabbed hold of her skirt, and he nearly growled himself to make the thing back away. For all he knew, he did make the sound because a second later the woman looked straight at him. She arched her brows, her rose-colored mouth molding into a perfect oval of surprise. He held her gaze, transfixed by the aquamarine clarity of her eyes, especially with the sun full on her face. And then she blushed.
Sweet heaven, his knees nearly buckled. The shock of that destroyed the illusion and allowed the bitter half of him to take control. He’d gone weak simply from looking at a woman, and he knew what a disaster that was. Hell, he had the scars to remind him if he should ever forget.
And while he allowed the anger to put strength in his leg, the woman rose to her feet, shaking out her skirts before grabbing her basket as the boy babbled on.
There’s a lady and gents at the inn. Right fancy, every one. They need your tea, Miss Bluebell. Right away! Right now, Da says. Right
Now. Yes, thank you, Timothy. Her voice was more cultured than most, but the roots of this provincial village were heavy in her long vowels.
She started heading his way, and he noted the square set of her shoulders and the jut of her chin. She was proud then, and if the narrowing of her eyes meant anything, it was that she was studying him for a weakness. I think she’s dying! the boy said in a loud undertone. She presses ‘er fingers to ‘er mouth and she sweats to stink! That’s what Da says. Wot if she dies right in our parlor? What if
She’s increasing, Bram said. He hadn’t meant to speak. He had intended to simply watch and learn, which was his usual way of dealing with strange women. But the moment they neared, he found himself speaking simply to silence the prattling child. It’s morning sickness, but Clarissa was tired of the drive.
The miss cocked her head as he spoke, listening closely to his words. The idealistic part of him admired the color of her eyes and her honest face, but the bitter part of him knew that only liars needed to pay such close attention to their surroundings.
So she needs something to settle ‘er stomach? the miss asked.
She needed a good spanking. She and Dicky both, for conning seven peers of the realm into giving them thousands of pounds for a make-believe sapphire mine. But that wasn’t his job. Preventing this witch from poisoning the two idiots was.
He moved deliberately slow, easing his way in front of her. He was a big man, a good head taller, and he used his height to full advantage as he glared down at her.
They don’t need what you’re selling. No one did. Because it was all lies.
So you know wot a lady in ‘er early months needs?
Please, sir, the boy piped up. My da will whip me for sure if she don’t come.
The woman dropped a calming hand on the boy’s shoulder. You won’t be whipped, Timothy. Go inside.
Go. Bram was startled to realize he’d said the word. Worse, it came out more as a growl than intelligible speech. But it was enough to terrify the boy into bolting.
The woman shook her head. There was no need to frighten ‘im.
He’d meant to frighten her, but obviously, she was of the fearless sort. Clarissa just needs some attention, not any magic potions.
Magic potions! she cried, obviously offended. I make good Christian tisanes, sir. Nothing ‘eathen about plants tended with care and picked at just the right time to ease a lady’s delicate stomach. She narrowed her eyes. I ‘ave a wonder of a posset for a man with a sore ‘ead too, but I’m afraid I’ve nothing for stupidity.
Oh, well, if she declared it Christian in her broad, flat accent, then far be it for him to interfere. He folded his arms across his chest. Clarissa just needs some attention
And I’ll be giving ‘er that, sir, if you would stand aside. Unless you’d prefer to let ‘er aim her illness at your thick ‘ead.
That, of course, was exactly why he was outside. Damn it. Not only was she a manipulative woman, but she was clever too. He had no problems with simply barring her way, illogical as it was, but he knew time was ticking away. The first thing young Timothy would do was run tell his da what was happening out here. And a minute after that, Bram’d have the anxious innkeeper on his heels, begging and bowing enough to give him a headache.
Show me what’s in your basket, Bram ordered while he tried to think of some better way to rid the area of this woman.
She drew back. You have no cause to
I’ve every cause to protect those two. It’s my job. And you’ll not interfere with that.
Then it’s your job to see the lady gets tended.
Not by you.
Then who? She gestured to the few hovels that made up the town. There’s no doctor for fifty miles. And no surgeon for thirty. When people get ill, they tend to it themselves, or they call me for a tisane. If ’tis naught but a woman’s complaint, then let a woman tend ‘er.
He glared at her, knowing she was right. But he couldn’t just give in. It wasn’t pridethough he was man enough to admit that played a partit was his whole mystique. He had to appear wholly intimidating, or his entire life would fall apart. The only jobs he had were from peers who had need of someone impressive to protect them. If that mystique fell away, so would his employment. So he braced his feet and glowered. I’ll see what you carry in that basket, or I won’t let you in.
I’ll save you the trouble. I’ve a knife in there. As big as an ax, and I’ll use it to murder you for no reason at all.
His lips twitched. He didn’t want to be amused, but she was so queenly in her outrage. Even in her dirt-stained dress with that broad northern accent that dulled the mind. With all that, she still carried herself as a queen, and he was impressed. Though not in the least bit cowed.
Sadly, he was out of time.
He heard the heavy footfalls and knew Dicky was tromping out of the inn. He heard the man’s quick gasp of surprise. Stupid man would never look beneath the surface of a beautiful woman. He’d just see the flawless skin, the sweet curves of lush breasts and full hips, and he would be lost. That the man had swindled the ton for so long was a miracle.
Bram, my man, Dicky said as his footsteps slowed to the tempo of a swagger. Is this lovely creature the lady bringing possets?
The woman shifted immediately into a demure curtsy that completely fooled Dicky. I am, sir. Me name’s Maybelle Ballenger, but everyone calls me Bluebell on account of my eyes.
Bluebell! Dicky exclaimed. Charming. Absolutely charming. Lord Linsel at your service. He stepped forward and executed a courtly bow. If nothing else, Dicky knew how to impress an ignorant woman. Maybe even a clever woman too, since Miss Ballenger colored and ducked her eyes. Bram wanted to curse her for the act, but every woman colored and ducked her eyes when the ever-gorgeous Lord Linsel turned his charm in her direction. And this rude gentleman, Dicky added with a wink, is Mr. Hallowsby.
Your basket, Miss Ballenger, Bram cut in, his voice cold. Just let me see what’s inside.
Is that what the fuss is about? Dicky said with a hearty laugh. Which is when Bram realized the man wasn’t carrying his chest of gold. That was a surprise. I hardly think this charming young miss means me harm. And besides, you’re more than a match for one little slip of girl, don’t you think?
He slid his gaze to Dicky, wishing he could strangle the man. Especially when the lady continued to keep her gaze down and her expression demure. Gone was the bold-as-brass woman who’d been facing him down not one minute before. In her place stood a simpering child, which was exactly what would appeal to Dicky. He’d married Clarissa, after all, hadn’t he?
I just want to see what’s inside, he said, keeping his voice cold. You tasked me with your safety
Yes, yes, of course. Then Dicky shifted his gaze back to Miss Ballenger. Or rather, to her ample bosom. I must apologize deeply, but I am in somewhat of a pickle. Quite dangerous, actually. Would you mind terribly helping me out? Just a peek at your basket, please.
Well, milord, since you ask so sweetly. Then she held out her basket and tugged off the cloth cover.
Bram glanced inside, cataloging the items in an instant. She did indeed have a knife in there. A small one meant for cutting fruit. It was very sharp as it gleamed in the sunlight, but the handle was old and worn. He didn’t regard it as a threat. He was just noting that she had an old tool she kept sharp. Also inside were a variety of bottles, packed securely amid sachets and carrots.
Nothing damning at all, except the lies she sold in those bottles. And the overall lie of her body and smile.
There now, soothed Dicky. Nothing at all to fear. And will anything in there help my dear wife?
Oh my, yes, milord, she said with an artful smile. Butoh. Her face fell as she glanced to Bram. Forgive me, but is your wife in a delicate condition?
Dicky laughed with good humor. Clary is always in a delicate
With child, Dicky, Bram interrupted.
Dicky puffed up, preening as if it had been a miracle to get his wife pregnant. Why yes, indeed.
Oh dear, the woman said sadly. When a woman increases, she’s quite delicate. I’ve only the one posset that will do. She touched a small bag. It’s strong, but made for the frail.
Well, then you have one.
Oh no, sir, I couldn’t. It’s for my aunt. She’s been faring poorly, and I saved it just for ‘er.
Well, that’s too bad, Bram interrupted as he grabbed Dicky’s elbow and tried to steer him around. She’s got nothing
Wait, wait, said Dicky, shaking off Bram’s arm. She’s got the one, and Clary will be impossible if we don’t give her something. You know how she is.
The lady shook her head and abruptly brightened. Well, perhaps some of my other draughts will do. If I could meet the lady? See what she
Good God, she was worming herself deeper. Bram had to keep her from coming inside. He could think of a dozen reasons, but the most important was the way Dicky was looking at her. If the idiot got it in his head to seduce the witch, they’d never leave this miserable village, and he’d never get paid.
Dicky, no, Bram said, though he knew two seconds after voicing the words that he’d taken the wrong tone with the man. Dicky was well aware of his consequence, especially in front of a pretty woman. He would never countenance a negation from a hireling. And sure enough, the man glowered down at him despite the fact that Bram was a good foot taller.
Now see here, you work for me. And I declare this beautiful creature will tend Clary. Do I make myself clear?
Bram clenched his jaw, forcing himself to keep quiet. Meanwhile, Dicky held out his arm for Miss Bluebell Ballenger. Come inside, my dear. Let us see what you have to offer.
Bram was left to trail in their wake. Damn it. They were never getting to Scotland. He was never getting paid. And he blamed it entirely on the witch.