Authors: Cheri Champagne
Lane busied himself about the bedchamber while stalwartly ignoring the sound of Anna dressing…and attempting to garner control over his body.
’ henchmen did, in fact, find them, he imagined that they would not be lenient with their punishment. He required a weapon of some kind. His gaze searched the room, then settled on the serrated knife brought with the beef. It would have to do. He slipped it into his breast pocket, bulky though it was.
A throat cleared behind him.
Lane turned and nearly swallowed his tongue. The woman who had owned that frock before Lane purchased it for Anna had been in possession of a smaller…bust. The pale-yellow material stretched tightly across Anna’s bosom, creating pert, smooth mounds above the bodice.
He took an involuntary step forward. What if he kissed her? Would she be repulsed by the action, or would she embrace it?
The room faded. He found himself leaning toward her, the diminishing space between them charged with energy.
Did she want it, too? He looked into her heavy-lidded blue eyes.
She wants it, too
Suddenly, his conscience gripped him.
What will happen when she believes that you can give her a proper married life? She would accept your proposal under the false assumption that you will take her to the marriage bed. It would be a lie…
He took a quivering breath. “I will request a basket of sustenance for our journey,” he said lamely.
A chill washed over him as he turned toward the door.
You are a fool, Lane Mason. A bloody damned fool
Major Charles Bradley pulled his stallion to a stop and leapt to the ground. He handed the reins to the waiting groom outside the Hog’s Inn.
“He bites,” Charles warned him.
The sun shone brightly in the partly cloudy sky, its rays heating him through his dark riding coat.
He strode with purpose toward the inn’s door. He needed to find Anna, Lord Devon, and their captors, but first he must learn their direction. The first three innkeepers he had questioned had denied ever having seen Annabel or Lord Devon. Charles hoped that this one would be different. He was running out of options.
The men Gilley had allowed him to aid with this rescue mission had, as of yet, not reported back. He was at his wit’s end, and damn it, he was worried.
He entered the cigar-scented taproom and located the innkeeper.
“Pardon me, my good man. Might I trouble you for a few moments of your time? I would like to ask you some questions.” He slipped two pound notes into the man’s greasy palm.
Greedy anticipation widened the innkeeper’s bloodshot eyes at the outrageous sum, and he furtively slipped the pound notes into his pocket. “Yes, yes, come into the back if you will, sir.”
Charles inclined his head. “I am much obliged.”
He followed the rotund innkeeper to the untidy back office and sat in the proffered threadbare armchair.
“What can I ’elp you with, sir?” The innkeeper looked quizzically at him.
“I need to know if you have seen any bizarre behaviour here over the last three days.”
The man rubbed his chin in thought. “Aye, we ’ad a group o’ ruffians come through ’ere a few days back. They was big ’uns, they was. Giants!” He spread his arms high, as though to indicate the “ruffians’” heights.
Charles watched the man’s eyes. “Had they anyone else with them?”
The innkeeper hesitated for a moment, fumbling with the ink blotter and some papers on his desk. “Those men paid the staff ’ere to keep quiet that they ’ad a man and a woman tied up in one of our rooms. I knew we shouldn’t a’ let it ’appen, but they were big men with pistols, and they said that—”
“Your reasons for keeping quiet are not relevant to my search. I do, however, appreciate your telling me the truth.” Charles’ heart hiccoughed as dread filled him. “Now, could you describe the man and the woman?”
“I only got a quick look at ’em, but they were both wearing them riding clothes wot the fancy folk wear. The gent was tall and ’ad light hair. The woman had medium coloured hair—not brown, but not light—and was a mite plump…” The innkeeper gestured obscenely with his hands.
Charles felt ill. “Thank you,” he said. “Do you happen to know in which direction they were headed?”
“Southeast, I’d say. It’s wot I figured from the way they was talking.”
The blood drained from Charles’ face as he stood to shake the man’s hand. He gave him another pound note for his time. “Thank you, again.”
Bloody, bloody hell
The groom was still waiting with Riot, though he’d been watered and fed. Charles tipped the groom, leapt on Riot, and started him at a gallop. They must be headed to Dover. It was the only conceivable location that had a harbour on the southeastern part of England.
This situation was terrible, and getting worse by the moment. Goons hired by French operatives had kidnapped Anna and the Earl of Devon. Charles needed to get to them before they reached their destination and were interrogated on subjects of which they had no knowledge.
His greatest fear for his family had been realized. His sister and her closest friend could potentially be the victims of torture. Of murder. His heart gave a sickening lurch and he pushed Riot harder.
He would not let that happen.
* * *
Anna resisted the pull of sleep as the mail coach trundled down the road toward the next inn. Rain had started some time over the past four hours. The soft
of the droplets trickled along the coach’s roof.
Her mind drifted as she dazedly closed her eyes. Lane had been about to kiss her at the inn, she was certain. What had stopped him? Would he rebuff her if she made an overture?
She’d had plenty of time over the past hours to contemplate their circumstance. She was unquestionably ruined, despite nothing untoward having truly occurred between her and Lane, or their abductors. Lane had proposed marriage to protect her name. And something had changed between the both of them that she absolutely wished to explore.
She shamefully desired his kiss, his intimate touch. Would it be frightfully terrible for her to act on these physical urges? She thought of all the delightfully naughty things she wished she could do to Lane, and molten heat pooled low in her belly. She squeezed her legs together in response, the pressure on her
a fleeting relief.
The mail coach jolted to one side, pushing Anna into the large woman sitting next to her. “Beg pardon,” Anna mumbled as she righted herself, blinking her eyes into wakefulness.
“What’s that, dearie?” the woman yelled, her jowls rippling at the movement.
Anna caught Lane’s glittering gaze from where he sat across the coach, then returned her attention to the woman beside her.
Anna raised her voice so she could be heard. “I bumped into you, Madam, so I said, ‘Beg pardon.’”
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all, dearie.” The woman waved a plump hand through the air, wafting the scent of stewed beef toward her. “What’s your name, pet?”
“My name is Anna B—Roberts. Mrs. Anna Roberts.” Anna quickly recalled that she and Lane had agreed to continue the pretence until they were safely returned to London. Anna gestured to Lane. “And this is my husband, Mr. Roberts.”
The woman nodded, her jowls jiggling. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Roberts. I am Miss Bligh, and the milk-and-water miss beside you, Mr. Roberts, is my niece, Miss Regina Bligh.” The little mouse of a girl sitting next to Lane blushed profusely then turned her gaze to her clasped hands in her lap.
“A pleasure, Miss Bligh, Miss Regina Bligh,” they uttered in turn, nodding at them both.
“So where are you two off to at this time of the day? Why, it is well past the time for a country supper.” Miss Bligh’s loud voice echoed in the small space.
With a quick glance at Lane, Anna turned back to Miss Bligh. “There were no available accommodations at the last inn. We intend to retire at the
“Oh yes,” Miss Bligh shouted. “’Tis a shame when one cannot find appropriate lodgings.”
“Where are you headed this evening, Miss Bligh?” Lane raised his voice for the hard-of-hearing woman.
Miss Bligh fanned her round face and sent Lane a flirtatious wink. “You impertinent rascal.” She giggled.
Lane and Anna exchanged a perplexed glance.
Miss Regina shifted in her seat. “We are returning to my father’s home in London,” she said quietly. Anna had to strain to hear her words. “My aunt and I ventured on an excursion through the South of England to take in the sights.”
Anna smiled. “That sounds lovely. How long was your trip?”
“Speak up, dears,” Miss Bligh bellowed.
Lane snorted with repressed laughter, and Anna grinned.
The mail coach began to slow.
“Are we at the next stop?” Anna turned to look out the window. “I do not see an inn or stable.”
Lane looked through the opposite window then muttered a curse under his breath. He caught Anna’s eye, worry written on his features, then reached below his seat and retrieved their packaged supper.
“It’s them,” Lane rumbled meaningfully. “We have to leave before they come any nearer.”
The rumble of male voices echoed outside the equipage.
.” Lane pressed the door’s latch and opened the door silently.
They nodded in unison and leapt from the coach.
Thank goodness Miss Bligh had the good sense to remain silent, or we would surely have been discovered!
Lane put his mouth to her ear, sending a shiver down her spine. “
.” He gripped her hand and made a run for the copse of trees at the side of the road.
* * *
Lane’s chest heaved with his laboured breaths as he and Anna ran through the forest. He hadn’t the faintest idea in which direction they sprinted, but they could not turn back. They had alternated between running and brisk walking since they had left the coach. He had hoped that they would come across another inn or a suitable place to rest in the past hours, but they’d had no such luck.
Anna tugged on his hand as she started to slow.
“We cannot stop, Anna,” he huffed over his shoulder. “I will not risk your getting hurt.”
“What if…we…walk quickly?” She gasped each breath, clearly struggling.
You should not push her so.
He slowed his feet to a brisk walk. “Is this pace to your liking, Anna?”
“Much,” she breathed. “Thank…you.”
Sweat beaded down his forehead and over his temples. Another trickle wove its way between his shoulder blades. The rain had stopped some time ago, to be replaced by the brightly shining spring sun. Their only protection from its rays was the fluttering leaves of the trees. They needed to keep out of sight until nightfall; they were far too visible in this forest.
He stopped, his back and legs aching from constant strain. He put down the package of food and checked his pocket watch.
“It is very nearly seven of the clock.” He blinked sweat from his eye. “Sunset is in just over an hour. We need to find a place to settle for the night; we should search for shelter.”
To her credit, Anna did not appear as appalled as she must have felt. Anna might love nature, but sleeping out of doors was not equal to admiring it.
Lane picked up their packaged meal and, hand in hand with Anna, continued their way through the forest. He kept his attention on navigating the path and searching for a place to spend the night, not the soft, warm hand gripping his…or the lovely woman attached to it.
A loud grumble sounded, and he let out a small chuckle.
“Feeling hungry, Annabel?”
She looked sheepish. “Yes, I am. Do you think we will find a safe place to stop? I have been fantasizing about the contents of that package for well over an hour.”
A smile tugged at Lane’s lips. “I believe we can arrange something.”
He scanned their surroundings as they walked. The air smelled of damp soil and distant flowers. A shrill
rent the air, and small forest animals scuttled along the ground. The sound of running water and frogs croaking caught his ear and he steered them towards it.
“Oh!” Anna exclaimed. “This is lovely!” She stared at their surroundings.
Lane watched the play of emotions on her face as she entered one of her dreamy moments. Anna had a refreshing amount of wonder and appreciation for their daily surroundings that Lane found addictive to watch.
What had she thought of his marriage proposal? Had she not answered because she intended to refuse him? Or did she merely require an inducement to accept?
“This glade is delightful.” Anna’s voice shook Lane out of his musings.
He cleared his throat. “Indeed.”
“You sound so cynical, Lane. Can you not appreciate the beauty of this place?”
Lane couldn’t break her gaze. “I can.”
The blush brought to Anna’s finely curved cheeks from their sprint through the forest slowly deepened. The sight roused his blood.
They entered a small clearing where blue flowers dotted the grassy ground and trees drooped overhead. A narrow stream trickled nearby.
“Well, my dear, I would certainly describe this as an ideal place to sit.”
She huffed a panted laugh. “Ideal, indeed. It is positively enchanting.”
Major Charles Bradley had been running his horse from posting inn to posting inn all day, with no luck of finding Anna or Lord Devon. He and Riot were exhausted and in need of rest, so it was with relief that he had come upon an inn hidden off the main road to Dover.
He must find them before they reached their destination. If they had not stopped along the main roads, they could have been there several times over, but Charles would wager that they had made frequent stops. He was three days behind, but with them travelling together in a hack, they would be significantly decelerated, most particularly with time spent at inns, changing horses, sleep, and meals. With his stallion, Charles was able to maintain a more expedient pace.