Authors: Pamela Britton
Dedicated in memory of my own heavenly angels:
And my earthbound angels:
Jennifer Skullestad, Nanet Fisher,
All of whom never cease to amaze me with their
love and courage. God bless you.
Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still;
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.
Miss Lucy Hartford wondered at the wisdom of breaking into the Earl of Selborne’s mammoth estate on such a cold and dank evening. More specifically, she questioned her degree of intelligence in general. Scaling a tree in the dead of night while somehow managing to hold a small lantern to light her way, all for the sake of helping one adorable, outspoken little boy named Tom, was certainly
one of her better ideas. And though the earl and his evil second wife were on holiday, she still ran the risk of discovery. In fact, she would rank this idea right up there with the time she’d disastrously experimented with gunpowder. Fortunately, the only casualty that day had been the chamber pot.
She grimaced as her booted foot slipped off the branch, knocking a combination of leaves, bark, and twigs to the grass-covered ground nearly thirty feetbelow. A gentle puff of wind caressed the branches around her and caused the lantern to sway and the candle inside to flicker. She held her breath as she waited to be plunged into darkness, but, with a hiss, the candle flared to life again.
At that moment she contemplated turning back. Contemplated, but decided against it. Her glance darted from the window that was her goal, to the ground, then to the window again. Her friends always told her she had more courage than sense. Lucy looked at her surroundings and grinned. They were right.
Still, that didn’t change the fact that she knew this would be her one and only chance to gather clues, perhaps even evidence, proving Tom was really the long-lost son of the earl of Selborne. Unfortunately, in her experience, knowing something to be a good idea and actually implementing the notion were two different things.
Leaves and small branches tangled in her hair, which she had tied behind her head. She swatted them away, then gasped as the hot lantern glass scalded her breeches-clad leg.
Rot and bother. There were at least thirty trees dotting the gently rolling hills that surrounded the earl’s Tudor-style home, many of which looked far easier to climb—not that she could see much outside the rim of the light—but with her luck tonight, she’d probably fall out of this one.
No sooner had the thought sprung to her mind than something creaked. Undoubtedly the sound of her stayspopping as her chest heaved up and down in agitation. Then she remembered she wore men’s clothes. Her eyes widened. She heard one last, loud, ominous crack.
It didn’t help, not that she’d expected it to. It felt as though she sailed through the air forever, colliding with something as she landed, a something which grunted in a very masculine way.
“Bloody hell,” she finally groaned as she sat there, stunned, and took a mental survey of her limbs to assure herself nothing had broken.
“Not hell,” the man gasped beneath her. “Not yet.”
Lucy stiffened, suddenly realizing she sat across a man’s chest as primly as a lady sat for tea. Good heavens. She pushed herself to her feet, too hastily as it turned out, for her foot thrust into him in the process. In horror she heard him gasp, then let out a long, agonized moan. She clasped her hands over her mouth, for it was the same groan her brother had emitted the time she’d accidentally struck him in his unmentionables with a billiard cue.
“Oh dear,” she squeaked.
Something snapped. She turned toward the sound, her hair having escaped from it bonds to partly shield her face. She shoved it away impatiently.
Things went from bad to worse in that instant … very bad.
The grass had caught on fire.
“My lantern!” she wailed, watching as a great puff of smoke wafted overhead.
Flames shot up toward the sky like a bonfire on All Hal-low’s Eve. She clapped her gaping mouth shut and began to stomp, but the bloody fire refused to cooperate.
She stomped harder, broken glass crunching beneath her feet. Yet the flames grew bigger. She shrugged out of the coat she’d pilfered from her brother and tried to smother the inferno with the black superfine.
The fabric proved more flammable than the grass.
The coat caught fire. She dropped it to the ground and groaned as she watched the beautiful fabric turn into a textile torch which, in turn, lit a nearby shrub, which then set some dried branches aflame, and then started the trunk of the tree on fire.
It was the strangest thing about those flames, for they were quickly approaching gargantuan proportions when, suddenly, amazingly, they just disappeared.
They were gone.
Lucy widened her green eyes in surprise as she stared first at the smoking embers on the ground and then up at the sky. She expected to feel raindrops on her face, but felt only the soft touch of ashes alighting on her cheeks and the persistent heavy dankness which always accompanies fog.
“What … ?” She turned back to her companion. “Did you see that?”
“If you are referring to the blazing inferno, then yes, I did catch a glimpse of it.”
She ignored the sarcastic edge to his voice and turned back to the smoking embers. “It just disappeared.” She scratched her head, absently tugging out a few stray leaves before dropping her arm back to her side. “Maybe it burned itself out.”
“Perhaps so,” the man grumbled.
She whirled to face him, suddenly realizing she had no idea who he was. “Well, thank you for your assistance Mr., er, ahh, whoever you are. I’ll… I’ll just be on my way now.” She took a hasty step away from him.
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t?” she asked warily.
Lucy gulped as a truly horrible thought penetrated. What if he’d been hired by the evil Countess of Selborne to kill her because she knew who Tom really was? Indeed, if the countess had hired someone to kill Tom all those years ago so her
son could inherit the estate, what was to stop her from hiring someone to kill nosy Lucy Hartford?
She heard a soft rustle, and her terror increased as he got to his feet. For the first time that night Lucy wished she hadn’t ventured out of her aunt’s home alone. Never before had one of her “adventures” gotten her into such a fix. She dove to the ground, her hand searching frantically for something,
to use as a weapon. When she felt the rough texture of a long-dead tree branch, she clasped it gratefully, then shot to her feet. She hefted the branch above her head and braced her booted feet.
Warily she eyed the dark form making its way toward her. A very
dark form, she amended. When she gauged him near enough, she swung.
Her victim never saw it coming.
It must have taken him a moment to realize what had happened for it was two swipes later before he oared, “Bloody hell, woman, put that branch down!”
He raised his arms in the air in an attempt to ward off her blows.
She may as well have been hitting an elephant, Lucy thought in alarm. She struck him again and again, feeling a piece of the brittle tree branch break off. With a growing sense of dismay, she realized that with each blow, her makeshift weapon grew shorter and shorter. Splinters flew through the air until all she had left was a short stub.
She threw it at him.
Turning, she ran blindly toward what she hoped was the back of the house and, more importantly, the cart and pony she had hidden there, but her leg connected with a hedge some demented gardener had trimmed to only knee high. She gasped as its prickly branches made contact with her skin.
An ironlike grip surrounded her right forearm and kept her from falling. She had no time to be grateful, for in the next instant he whirled her back to face him, clasping his other hand around her left forearm and effectively ending her flight.
“Let me go,” she screamed, squirming in his grasp. “I’ll not let you kill me … or … or … have your way with me!”
“Have my way with you?” the man questioned. “Have my way with you?” he repeated, his voice tinged with amusement.
For a long moment he said nothing and then when he did speak, exasperation was clearly evident in his voice.
“Calm down, wildcat. I’m certainly not here to harm you.”
She said the first thing that came to mind. “No doubt that’s what all henchmen say to their captives.”
He snorted, or maybe it was a chuckle, but then she forgot everything as he said, “I promise, I’ll not harm you.” His voice was a low, seductive purr and his thumb began to rub up and down her arm in a soothing manner
“I d-don’t believe you.”
“I’m a friend.”
His thumb continued to stroke her arm. Oddly enough it was having a strange, calming effect on her. She tried to see his face, but all she could determine was that he had light hair and shoulders the size of Sir Gilmore’s prize stallion’s. Lucy swallowed, her throat so dry she felt as if she were swallowing a desert.
“Are you a friend of a friend, or a friend of mine?”
“My name is Garrick Wolf,” he answered, “and I’m a friend of the Duke and Duchess of Warburton.”
“Adrian and Salena?” Lucy asked hopefully.
Salena Kent, Duchess of Warburton, was her dearest friend, other then Elizabeth Montclair, of course. She began to relax, then tensed again as she realized it could be a ploy to get her to do exactly that.
“How do I know you’re not just telling me that?” she asked suspiciously.
“If I was truly out to harm you, do you think you could stop me?”
Lucy opened her mouth, then slammed it shut as she realized he had a point.
“Besides, the duchess suspected you might react in this fashion,” he continued. “She wanted me to tell you I am here to help you—let me see, how did she put it—‘keep chamber pots from exploding.’”
Lucy’s fears wafted away like clouds on a warm spring day. Only a handful of people knew of that embarrassing incident, thankfully. Her heart rate returned to normal as reason began to assert itself. She breathed in a whiff of soggy night air, noting distantly that she could still smell the remnant of the fire.
“Goodness, you must be telling the truth.” Tension drained from her shoulders. He must have felt it, because he gently released her. “But I wonder why Adrian and Salena never mentioned they were sending you?”
“I’ve no idea,” the man responded.
Lucy nibbled her bottom lip. She supposed Salena thought she might get offended, which she might very well have. “How much have Adrian and Salena told you?”
“Everything, including the fact that you were told to keep yourself and Tom hidden at your aunt’s.”
Lucy grimaced in embarrassment. “I couldn’t abide staying cooped up in the house for one more day. And when I heard the earl and his countess were on holiday, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Why, there’s no telling what I could learn by rummaging through their papers. Besides, I’ve never been one to stay meekly at home.”
“Do you realize how dangerous it is for a lady of good breeding to venture out alone in the middle of the night?”
Lucy nodded. “Yes, I do, but is it not dangerous for a lady of bad breeding, too? And breeding aside, I simply had to do it. The earl’s second wife has undoubtedly been paying that scoundrel Jolly blackmail money to keep him quiet about her part in Tom’s disappearance all those years ago. If that is so, then I would reason she knows where to find Jolly. Indeed, he must have told her where to send the money, for I’m certain she would never deal with the man directly. And if we find Jolly, we’ll be that much closer to proving Tom is the earl’s son. Do you not agree?”
He grew silent again as he mulled over her words, then said, “You could have gotten yourself killed, or hurt.”
Lucy rolled her eyes derisively. He was using that smugly pretentious voice males used when they didn’t want to admit a woman could be as useful as a man.
“I assure you, sir,” she said as firmly as possible, “I’ve climbed quite a number of trees in my time. I was in no danger of hurting myself.”
“Yes, no doubt you’re correct. I’m sure if you hadn’t landed on me, it wouldn’t have hurt a bit when you hit the ground.”
“Hmm,” Lucy conceded, unable to stop the laughter from tingeing her voice, “that
rather a stroke of luck, even though you are not much softer than the ground. Still, if you think the idea so silly, I give you leave to take yourself away from here. I, however, am getting into that house.”
“Oh, no you are not,” he countered. When she stiffened he added, “I will go inside, since you’re so set on the notion.”
Lucy wanted to insist she accompany him, but realized it would be useless. No doubt it was best to let him have his way … for now. She could already tell this friend of Adrian’s was the obstinate, males-are-the-ultimate-sex, you-are-weak-woman type. She wondered briefly if she might have met him at Salena and Adrian’s wedding. Yes. Perhaps that was the reason he seemed so familiar.
As the last of her doubts drifted away she said, “There was another branch below the one I used, sturdier, but at more of a distance from the window.”
Before she could say another word, he’d turned away and headed back toward the tree. It was with a sense of amazed disbelief that she watched his dark form climb up the branches a moment later.