Spring, Western England, 1791
Bened Vaughn.” Bened grinned, savoring the sound of the words. “May I assist you,
Bened? Would you like some wine,
” He laughed softly. “That will never grow old.”
Bened rode deeper into the woods, deciding to take the shortest route to the village where he planned to rest for the night. If he had known that all he had to do was take a bullet for some spoiled, inept heir to a title to get his own honors, he would have been leaping in front of the fools years ago. Even the few times he had been hired to watch over some young gentry man, he had never considered the possibility that he could end up with more than just a very decent wage for the work. Then again, the previous gentry lads he had watched over had not been as dim-witted or reckless as this last one. Young Lord Percival Dunstan, an earl’s only heir, should never be allowed to leave his ancestral lands again.
Over the last few years of doing such work, he had also become a very wealthy man, or wealthy enough in his eyes and most of his family’s. Now, with this latest largesse, he could settle somewhere, stop making a living chasing foolish young gentlemen around and trying to keep them alive. It would please his mother beyond words. After he took that bullet, a wound that had kept him bedridden for a few weeks, she had decried his choice of work loudly and consistently.
“Smudge! Where are you, you obstinate beastie?”
Bened reined to a halt and stared in the direction of that angry feminine voice. The accent was definitely that of a well-born woman. What was some gentry lass doing deep in the forest with night coming on fast? Aside from making a lot of noise, he thought, as he heard a loud thrashing around in bushes followed by a faintly shocking litany of curses that would make a stable boy proud.
He sensed no threat so patiently waited for whoever was stomping through the woods calling for a horse, the same speckled gray mare he could see calmly grazing several yards away to his left. When a small, bedraggled woman stumbled out of the shadows of the thick trees, Bened actually caught his breath, surprised by the sight of her as well as his reaction. His heartbeat picked up its pace. Something it had never done at the sight of a woman. Certainly not for one like her. She was not the type of woman who usually caught his interest or attention.
She was short, delicate of build, yet shapely in a way that would please any man. Her hair was a mass of long, thick blond curls now cluttered with twigs and leaves. A look of angry frustration did nothing to dim the innocent beauty of her heart-shaped face. The flush of anger coloring her cheeks actually looked good on her fair skin. She was the perfect example of a gentle-bred Englishwoman except for the pistol she held aimed at his heart.
The pistol looked too big for her small, long-fingered hand but that hand did not tremble. Bened still experienced no sense of a true threat from her; saw no dangerous enemy before him. He supposed it made sense for the woman to have a pistol while running around in the woods and to point it at some stranger she met. It was, in truth, the only indication that she had recognized the precarious position she was in. He frowned at how fiercely she squinted at him and realized her eyesight might not be very keen.
“Do you intend to use that?” he asked as he very carefully dismounted.
“Do not move.”
“I mean you no harm, m’lady.”
“How do you know I am a lady?”
Bened bit back a smile as she growled softly and rolled her eyes.
“That was not what I meant to say,” she grumbled. “I meant how did you know who I am?”
“I do not. I but assumed your rank because of how you speak and the fine quality of your clothing. I am Sir Bened Vaughn.” He stepped closer to her.
“You are moving again.”
“I know.” He took one swift, large step and snatched the pistol from her hand.
“I told you to stop moving!”
“And I told you that I mean you no harm but I do prefer not having a pistol pointed at me.”
“Fine. I quite understand that but I need you to hold still. Considering your size, I suspect you have large, booted feet and I have lost my spectacles around here somewhere. I would rather you did not find them by stomping on them.”
Suppressing a sigh, Bened stepped even closer, ignoring how she tensed, plucked the spectacles caught in the button loop of her coat, and gently put them on her. They made her dark blue eyes look even bigger. She was adorable, he thought, as she blushed and arranged her spectacles as she obviously preferred on her small straight nose. Adorable did not usually stir his interest but it appeared to be making an exception for her.
“Thank you for finding them,” she said in a prim voice. “Where were they?”
“Caught in the button loop on your coat.”
“Oh.” She blushed even more. “That is somewhat humiliating.” She held out her hand. “I am the Honorable Primrose Anabelle Matilda Dunmore Wootten of Willow Hill.” She grimaced. “Long name, I know. Had to honor the paternal aunties.”
“Ah.” Bened nodded. “Understood. ’Tis why I was saddled with a second name as well—Madawg.”
“Mah-dawg. My maternal uncle’s name. My brothers were given it as well.”
“How many brothers do you have?”
“Six. I think my parents hoped the man would feel honored enough to will his cottage and land to one of us but, five years ago, even though the man was fifty, he had the bad manners to wed a much younger lass and now has three sons of his own.”
“Oh.” Primrose saw him grin and had to smile. “How very rude of him. Well, a pleasure to meet and speak with you, Sir Bened, but I must be on my way. As soon as I can find my horse,” she added in a soft mutter.
“That horse over there?” Bened pointed toward the dappled gray and almost laughed at the way she blushed and scowled in the direction of the animal, then muttered a few curses he pretended not to hear.
“More humiliation,” she grumbled as she walked toward her horse.
By the time she reached her horse, intensely aware of the big man walking by her side, Primrose began to try to think of the best way to leave. This man had been very helpful so she did not wish to offend him in any way. Since he made no move to leave, she then began to worry that she may have stumbled into some more trouble. There had been a lot of it on her journey, much more than she would have considered normal and it had begun to rouse her suspicions. Yet, even as she thought that, she could muster no fear, felt no threat from him at all.
He was a big man, something that did stir a trickle of alarm, but it was easily shrugged aside since it was the only thing about him that did. He was quiet, even moved quietly, and being near him calmed her. His features were somewhat harsh, but he was handsome despite that. His silvery blue eyes encircled by thick black lashes were spellbinding. Primrose noted that his clothing was not the height of fashion but it was well made, the cloth of very good quality, and the fit well tailored. Those eyes and that deep, smooth voice with the faintly musical lilt of Wales in it were his best features, she decided. Neither, however, explained why she was drawn to him, comfortable around him, and intrigued by him. She decided that was a puzzle best saved for solving later.
“May I have my pistol back?” she asked, silently cursing her own stupidity for letting him get hold of it.
Bened studied the pistol he still held and then looked at her. “Why? And exactly why are you riding about the forest all alone?”
“I am in search of my brother. He needs to know that our father has died.” She stuck out her hand, sighed with relief when he placed the pistol in it, and carefully put it back into her coat pocket.
“You could not just send a message to him?”
“I did but never got a reply. He loved Papa and would never have missed his funeral. Yet, he did and that was when I decided to go after him. He was not where he said he would be, so I suspect he does not know about our father’s death yet. His friends said he had abruptly left their house with no true explanation why and that they have heard nothing from him since then.”
“How do you know where to look for him then?”
“Simeon is the sort of man people notice.” She frowned when he shook his head. “What?”
“That is a poor way to track a person down.”
“It has been working well enough thus far.”
“But it will fail if your brother takes even one short route where no one sees him.”
“Then I will need to find the trail left by his horse.”
“You know how to look for that?”
“I do and Simeon’s horse leaves a very distinct trail.”
“Distinct in what way? An odd gait?” Bened could see that she was reluctant to tell him and wondered why.
“Simeon can be whimsical and he had his horse shod with shoes that have stars on them. So his trail shows stars in it.” She nodded at his look of astonishment. “I know. I told him it was such things as that which made people think him a lack-witted dandy. He knows that and finds it amusing. Papa was much the same.”
Bened did not like to think that a young woman with poor eyesight who set out alone to hunt her brother down was the most sensible one in the family. “You cannot continue riding about the countryside alone looking for people who may have seen your brother or for a trail of stars in the dust.”
When the man put it just that way, it did sound idiotic, which annoyed her. Primrose searched for a mature, sensible way to defend her actions. It was, by all the rules of society, indefensible. No lady of good birth should ride about England unaccompanied, unchaperoned. The need to find Simeon and to flee her aunt’s many plots had allowed her to ignore all that. Facing this big, calm man who expected her to explain herself, it was suddenly not so simple.
“Someone had to find Simeon. He is needed back at Willow Hill. Badly needed.” She turned to her horse, intending to mount and ride away before he could press her for more answers.
“Then we will find him.”
Primrose watched him smoothly mount his large black gelding. A part of her wanted to thank him for offering to come with her, repeatedly and loudly, but she resisted the urge. This concerned her family and her future. It was not right to place her burdens on the shoulders of a complete stranger, no matter how broad those shoulders were.
“Yes,” he said, looking down at her with those calm silvery eyes and then nodding toward her horse. “Mount up, m’lady, and we shall hunt down that brother of yours.”
“This is not your trouble, Sir Bened,” she said, even as she mounted her horse. “This is all part of a familial contretemps and you must not feel compelled to get tangled up in it just because you have a chivalrous nature.” She frowned at him when he laughed.
“Chivalrous, am I? That opinion would amuse my kin. Nay, m’lady, I am but a man who has too long worked at watching over others. You need watching over whether you wish to admit to it or not. I am also very, very good at following a trail and need no stars in the dirt to do it.” He leaned toward her to add quietly, “I am also very good at knowing when danger and an enemy draw near. I have a strong feeling that you may be in need of those skills, m’lady.”
“I truly want to say I do not need them but”—Primrose sighed—“it would be a lie, I think. I have not much enjoyed traveling about alone, either. ’Tis not accepted anywhere. And, I am not Lady Primrose, you know. Just an honorable, so you do not need to keep saying
“Easier than saying
Primrose laughed. “True, so just say
He nodded and took the lead as they rode back to the road. Bened would have preferred riding through the woods but he hoped he might find her brother’s trail on the road. What he really needed was more information from her and a sedate ride along a road would make talking easier. Bened was certain there was more to her hunt for her brother than a need to tell him about their father’s death.
“You say your brother is very noticeable,” he said. “In what way?”
“He dresses in a way to catch the eye. Some would call him a fop or a dandy but he never goes quite that far. Simeon does love color though and lace. He is also, well, pretty. Women would notice him were he to dress in rags. He has a face that looks both softly beautiful and yet manly. Brilliant blue eyes and what some call guinea gold hair, which is long, thick, and has soft waves in it. I have watched perfectly sensible women go all foolish over him more times than I can count. If I did not love him so much, I would probably want to kill him for so outshining me.”
Bened laughed. “I have kin like that.”
“I do not understand why he left his friends as he did, not even telling them where he was going.”
“One does not always tell one’s friends everything. Mayhap it concerned a woman.”
“It could be as simple as that yet he would have told them enough so that they would have guessed why he was being so reticent. They have all known each other since the cradle, are as close as any brothers could be. They were almost worried by the time I left them for they had begun to realize how little they did know.”
“And they just allowed you to ride away alone? None of them offered to be your guard? Just how old is your brother?”
“Nine and twenty. Six years older than me. Two of the friends he was visiting are wed and new fathers. They could not go off adventuring.” Primrose sighed. “I did not even think to ask the others. They are good enough men to have thought of it after I left but it would have been too late by then. And, to be fair, I am not sure they even considered that when I said I had to find Simeon, that I actually intended to do so myself.”
Bened said nothing but decided Primrose had been surrounded by people who had had little to do with the darker, harsher realities of life. It was often a problem when dealing with the gentry, especially those who spent much of their lives in the country. He studied Primrose as she rode beside him with an admirable skill. He suspected she was naïve but not blindingly so. It was something he was counting on because using his skill to keep her calm and unafraid could not continue indefinitely. It was good now, allowing him to gain information and some trust, but could quickly exhaust him. That would hinder his ability to hunt down her brother, something he believed was imperative.