Authors: Cheri Champagne
She let out an undignified scoff. “What woman—outside the realm of fiction—ever
has an adventure?” Her lips curved in a mirthless smile. “I fear my childhood fancies of being whisked away in some melodrama or another have long since passed.”
He nodded his understanding, releasing her arm. She suddenly felt cold without his touch, and the sadness that had settled in her heart gave a decidedly sharp pang.
“I had best return to the ballroom. Anthony and my family will most assuredly be wondering where I am.”
“Of course,” he murmured.
Anna hesitated for a moment longer, part of her hoping that he would claim a dance with her. When no request was forthcoming, Anna sent him another small smile and returned to the ballroom, leaving him standing alone on the balcony.
How had she allowed herself to be so open to heartbreak when it came to Lane Mason, Earl of Devon? And why had she not moved past these feelings long ago? Whatever the reason was, she would be free of them from that moment on. Lane was, and would remain, her friend and nothing more.
* * *
Hell and blazes
. Lane raked his fingers through his hair as he pondered the insanity of his newly forming plan.
Anna’s intention for her future was a noble one, and his heart ached to see her in pain. But he could not allow her to live her expected, mundane life without first having a taste of the sort of excitement she found in her novels.
He would give her what she had always wanted.
He would give her an adventure.
Five days had passed since Anna last spoke to Lane. Five abysmally long days. She missed him dreadfully. What was he doing? Had he received the book she’d had delivered to his family’s town house? Did he think of her? What was it that kept him away?
She shifted her position on the heavily stuffed chaise near the low-burning fire in the library. Her bottom was sore from the many drives she had been on with Anthony over the past several days. He was inordinately proud of his phaeton, though he drove rather poorly.
Anna sighed. She may have missed Lane’s company, but she had certainly been kept occupied since their last meeting. Anthony had called on her every day. On the days that they did not go for a drive, he had stayed for tea or luncheon, and several times for supper. Their courtship was progressing, and it was only a matter of time before he proposed. She should feel ecstatic, but instead she was filled with a sort of neutral acceptance for his proposal’s inevitability.
Every spare moment she’d had over the past five days had been spent reading. It was her only comfort. Her only escape.
A knock sounded at the library door, and she called out, “Come.”
The door opened, and a footman, Bernard, entered, a large silver tray balanced on one hand. “A missive for you, Miss Bradley.”
She accepted the letter with a “thank you” for the footman. He bowed and retreated out the door.
One glance at the handwriting, and her heart skipped a beat.
She hurriedly broke the seal.
My dear Annabel,
Please do me the honour of going for a ride with me this afternoon in Hyde Park. The day is lovely; it would be a shame to waste it. Also, I have a matter that I wish to discuss with you.
I will be in your front drive at one of the clock precisely, should you wish to join me. There is no need to reply to this letter.
It was a strangely unemotional and undetailed missive, which was entirely at odds with his customary letters.
She glanced at the mantle clock and gasped. It was nearly noon! She leapt from her seat and fled the room, pausing in the foyer. Bernard stood at attention against the far wall.
“Bernard, would you have Lady Maximus saddled and brought round front for one of the clock, please?”
He bowed. “Certainly, Miss Bradley.”
“And if you could send Marie to my bedchamber, I would be much obliged.”
“Of course.” The young footman hurried to do as he was bid, and Anna continued up the stairs.
Within moments she sped through her bedchamber door, closing it behind her. She pulled her deep-blue riding habit from the wardrobe and draped it over the foot of her bed.
There was a tap at her door, and she called entrance.
“You rang for me, Miss Anna?”
Anna smiled at her maid. “Yes, I’d like to wash and change into my riding habit, if you please.”
“Of course, Miss.”
Together they worked at giving Anna a standing bath and getting her riding habit on in time to meet Lane. By the time Marie was fixing her hair, it was nearly time.
Anna’s stomach jumped with nervousness. She had hoped to be mounted on Lady Maximus before Lane arrived.
“This will do, Marie. My bonnet will cover my hair anyway.”
The maid was hesitant but acquiesced. “Very good, Miss.”
Annabel left her bedchamber with a
to Marie and hurried down the stairs.
Tim looked on as she descended. “Miss Bradley, your mount is on the front drive, and Hawkins is ready to accompany you,” he said from his position at the front door.
“Thank you, Tim!” she said breathlessly.
She accepted her bonnet and gloves from a footman with a smile and began to put them on.
“Anna.” Charles stepped into the foyer from the parlour’s opened door, his expression uneasy and a mite pale.
“Oh, hello, Charles.” She stepped forward in concern. “Are you well? You look positively ashen.”
He grinned at her. “Quite well, I assure you. Must have been something I ate.” He cleared his throat. “Where are you off to?”
Reassured, she tied her bonnet ribbons beneath her chin. “I am to go riding with Lane.”
He nodded. “I will see you at supper, I trust?”
“You will. Have a pleasant day, Charles. Do feel better.”
“Thank you, dear sister.”
She sent a smile to everyone in the foyer then strode quickly through the front door. The day was indeed lovely. The sun shone brightly, the sky was nearly cloudless, and the birds were happily chirping in the nearby trees. It was a splendid day for a ride.
She slipped her hands into her white kid gloves and fastened the button at each wrist. Had Lane met a woman that he wished to court? Her stomach knotted at the thought. Perhaps he had finished reading the novel she had lent him and wished to discuss it.
“Good afternoon, Hawkins.” She smiled at the head groom as he made a step with his hands to assist her onto her horse.
“Good afternoon, Miss Bradley,” he grunted, as she placed her weight into his awaiting palms.
Comfortably situated on Lady Maximus, Anna gave the grey mare a pat and a rub to her neck. “We will have a good ride today, my Lady.”
of a horse’s hooves came from behind her, and she turned Lady Maximus to face the rider.
Her heart began to drum wildly against her ribs as Lane walked his big, black gelding toward her. He made a striking figure on that horse. His tan riding breeches fit snugly on his muscular thighs, paired with a brown riding coat that reminded her of her evening hot chocolate and matched his warm eyes.
Hawkins mounted his horse just as Lane reached them.
“Good afternoon, Annabel,” Lane rumbled as he pulled Pegasus to a halt.
“Hello, Lane.” She studied his face but couldn’t discern what it was he wanted to discuss with her. Blast the man for keeping her in suspense.
“Shall we?” He gestured for her to lead the way.
Nervousness clutched Lane. He had spent the past four sleepless nights and five restless days planning an adventure for Anna. Once he had decided what his plan of action would be, he’d needed to find actors willing to play the parts he required, and retrieve the agreed-upon pound notes for their willingness. Today he would set the foundation for their adventure, and tomorrow it would begin.
He had his moments of doubt, wondering if this was an entirely foolhardy plan or if Anna would enjoy it as much as he anticipated. He hoped for the latter.
They rode in silence to Hyde Park. He knew Anna was brimming with curiosity as to why he had asked her here today, and likely more than a little perturbed with him for being absent for so many days.
She was stunning in her deep blue riding habit. He bit back a smile. Her impatience showed; long curls had begun to come loose from beneath her bonnet. She must have rushed her maid.
He pulled Pegasus to a halt and cleared his throat. “I had thought that we might leave our horses with your groom and stroll around this shaded pond. What say you
“I am amenable to that.” She held her reins out to her groom. “Hawkins, please watch Lord Devon’s gelding and Lady Maximus while we stroll about the pond.”
“As you wish, Miss.”
Lane leapt to the ground in one fluid motion then went to aid Anna’s descent. He placed his hands on her waist and felt her quick intake of breath as his own caught in his throat. Did he affect her?
Damn it, Lane, it wouldn’t matter if you did. You are broken, and Anna deserves better than that.
He would give Anna the adventure she desired, then she could return to her life and he would—
“What is it that you wished to discuss with me, Lane?”
Lane stepped back and held his arm out to her. “I shall tell you in but a moment.”
She wrapped her hand around his elbow, and they strolled into the thicket.
and splashed in the pond while the leaves rustled in the trees around them. Twigs cracked under their weight as they walked, the sun’s rays shone through the spaces in the trees, and a dog barked somewhere off in the distance of the park.
What he had to tell Anna would be difficult—most particularly because it was an untruth. He had never lied directly to her before. He not only needed to lie to Anna, but he also needed to act while doing so. If she knew he was telling a falsehood, the adventure would end before it had even begun.
Once they were out of view—and of earshot—of the groom, Lane stopped and turned to her, putting on a fretful mien. The shadows from the leaves overhead flickered over Anna’s matching concerned countenance.
“Anna,” he hedged a nervous glance around them as he spoke, “there is something about which I need to speak with you.”
“You said as much in your letter. Please do go on.”
“I’m in some trouble.”
The skin between her brows crinkled. “What sort of trouble? Please do not tell me that you have to face someone at dawn. I could not bear the thought of—”
“No,” he interjected, “this is not about a duel. This is much more serious, Anna.” He spoke as earnestly as he could manage without appearing melodramatic. “I borrowed some funds…”
“Funds?” Her frown deepened. “I did not think that you were on want of funds, Lane.”
“Not many people do.” Which was true, because he was, in fact, quite wealthy.
“Did you bring me here to request a loan? Because I do not have any to hand, but I do not mind requesting it of my father if that is what you—”
“No, Anna.” He shook his head. “Please listen to me.” He gripped her shoulders.
“I’m listening.” Fear threaded the concern on her features.
Lane looked up and down the path for effect. “A few weeks ago, I borrowed funds to pay off some gambling debts…but instead of paying them off, I thought I could…increase the amount.”
Awareness dawned. “Oh, Lane, you didn’t.” She put a hand to her mouth.
“I did. I lost the money. Now I not only owe the bank, but several other money lenders.”
“How much do you owe?”
He dipped his head in shame. “Thirty-two thousand pounds.”
She gasped, her eyes growing wide. “
? Lane, how could you accumulate such a tremendous debt?”
“Truth be known, that isn’t what should concern either of us at the moment. My troubles get worse, Anna.”
? How could they possibly get worse, Lane?”
“I promised certain fellows that they would have their money two nights past. I did not have it in time, and they are now searching for me. I think they mean to kill me, Anna.”
! Good heavens, Lane, what are we going to do?”
He was heartened by the fact that she said
but kept his pleasure from showing. She believed his tale. Now he simply had to set the scene for tomorrow when his actors came into play.
He opened his mouth to speak but closed it again when he saw the blood leech from Anna’s face. She stared somewhere over his left shoulder and gasped as a twig snapped behind him.
!” She leapt toward him just as something hit him from behind and the world went black.
Lane awoke to the sound of muffled rumbling. He grimaced at the heavy scent of body odour so foul he had the urge to gag. He was swayed, bumped, and jostled, which could only mean that he was in a poorly sprung hack.
His head ached fiercely. What in blazes had happened? The last he remembered he had been speaking with Anna—
He sat upright, swaying for a moment with the pain in his head, and opened his eyes. But everything was in darkness. He had been blindfolded.
“Anna?” he called, almost desperate.
“Oi!” a distinctly male voice barked from beside him. “The gent’s awake.”
Someone across from him grunted. “I fought ’e was one a’ them gents wot’d be out fer days wi’ a blow like tha’.”
The actors he had hired must have misunderstood their instructions; they were supposed to kidnap him and Anna on the morrow. Their accents and scent were genuine, for which he must applaud them. Their master had assured Lane that their parts would be played convincingly. Lane was convinced. The mistaken day was of no consequence, he supposed. He had already informed his household staff that he would be away for a few days, and Anna’s groom could take care of his horse.
He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, but where might Anna be?”