Authors: Cheri Champagne
One of the men chuckled “The li’le miss is ri’ ere in the ’ack wi’ us. She’s a feisty one, she is. A real…wha’ they call ’em, Frenchie?” The man remained silent. “It’s tiger some-ot anyway.”
Lane felt ill. “Tigress?” he offered.
“Aye, tha’ be the one.
. Nearly scratched Billy’s eyes out. ’E ’ad te knock ’er out. ’E’s ridin on th’ perch, lickin’ ’is wounds like.”
Outrage burned in his chest. “Now wait just one minute! You lot weren’t supposed to harm her at all. That is not what I’m paying you for!”
The men laughed.
“This is not a laughing matter,” Lane insisted, taken aback. “I am paying you very handsomely, and I expect a certain amount of respect for my wishes in this charade. Miss Annabel Bradley will
be harmed in any way. Do I make myself clear?”
“Got no idea wha’ yer goin’ on about, mister, but yer mighty annoyin’.”
Unable to see their faces, Lane hadn’t a clue if they were in earnest.
“Just butt ’im, Toby.”
“Butt him?” Lane asked in confusion.
He felt Toby shift beside him, followed by a blinding burst of pain on the right side of his head. With a grunt, his world went black. Again.
* * *
?” Mrs. Margaret Bradley screeched.
The head groom, Hawkins, twisted his hat in his hands and shuffled his feet where he stood near the door in the dining room.
Major Charles Bradley sat at the table in abject horror, the blood drained completely from his cheeks.
No! This isn’t happening.
“Th…they d-disappeared, Madam. They left their horses with me to take a stroll about the pond, and they didn’t return. I waited then looked around for them, but they…disappeared!”
“Where could they have gone?” Mama cried. “Why would they leave the park without their horses?”
Charles shot up from his seat at the table, his chair scraping noisily against the floor. “Please excuse me,” he mumbled. “I must go.” He started for the door, but his father stopped him.
“What could be more important than your sister missing, Charles?”
“I wish to help find them, Father. But I do not wish for this to ruin Annabel, so I will keep my search quiet.”
“Oh. Very good, then.”
“I will do my best to return swiftly, Father.” Charles stormed out of the house and dashed into the stables. He went directly to his stallion, Riot, and saddled him. Most of the stable hands refused to saddle Riot due to his tendency to bite, but Charles liked to think of them as comrades. He respected Riot, and Riot respected him.
With the saddle secured, Charles mounted him and rode away from the house. Things had gotten much worse. He’d had a terrible feeling that this would happen if Anna left the house that afternoon. Despite what he had thought would be adequate protection, he should have prepared. He should have had someone watching her at all times. He should have taken those letters more seriously instead of brushing them off as idle threats.
Riot’s hooves pounded the cobblestones beneath him as he pushed his stallion as fast as he could. He needed to find Annabel immediately. There was no telling what they might do to her.
* * *
Anna awoke in a room as dark as pitch. She twisted her wrists against the decidedly rough ropes that bound her behind her back. She hadn’t any idea where she was, or whether those awful ruffians were in this room with her.
What had happened to Lane? The last she had seen of him, some giant lout named Toby had attacked him from behind then dragged him away through the park. She fought as best as she could, but another behemoth of a man knocked her unconscious. She rubbed at her sore bottom.
Wherever she was, it smelled horrible. If only she had a kerchief to cover her nose. If only she could
“Anna?” Lane’s sweet whisper to her left sounded loud in the silence of the room. “Annabel, are you in here?”
“Lane, oh Lane, thank goodness you’re here!” Relief flooded her. “Where are we? Who were those men?”
“I don’t know, Anna, but I’m going to figure a way out of this.”
“Lane, can you help me out of these ropes?”
“I will do my best. I have been tied, as well.” He shuffled across the floor toward her. “Perhaps we can sit back-to-back; it might be easier to untie each other.”
She turned her back to his voice and waited while he continued to shift. His hands gripped her sore bottom, and she gasped, gritting her teeth together.
“Apologies,” he mumbled.
“It’s all right,” she assured him. “I am merely sore.”
He was silent for a moment. “Did the ruffians
anything to you?”
“Besides kidnapping? Nothing that I did not provoke them into doing, I assure you.” He reached her wrists and began to untie them. “Were those the men to whom you owe funds, Lane?”
“No. I have never seen those men before.” She kept pulling at the ropes that tied his wrists. “I have a confession, Anna,” he continued. “I didn’t really—”
“Oi! Tha’s ’nuff ye two!” Anna jumped as two of their burly kidnappers burst into the room.
She squinted in shock from the dim light in the hall beyond their abductors. The four silhouettes made her frown. She’d thought there were only three captors. Though, she supposed someone must
The fourth man had red hair and ghastly red scars puckering up the side of his neck, over his jaw, and onto the lower portion of his left cheek.
“Get up off yer arses. It’s time te move.”
Anna hesitated, her internal voice screaming at her to attend to her own needs. She licked at her suddenly dry lips. “May I please have a few moments to take care of some…personal needs?”
The taller of the giants, Toby, gestured to a tattered privacy screen positioned in one dark corner of the room. “Ye got one minit.”
Anna was aghast. Surely he did not mean that. “There is no conceivable way that I am going to use a chamber pot with all of you in the room! The screen is very nearly transparent!”
“Couldn’t we step out of the room and give Anna some privacy?” Lane asked.
“No.” Toby scowled at Anna. “Ye either do ’t wi’ us in ’ere or ye piss yer prissy dress.” He spit on the floor not two feet from her. She recoiled in disgust. “We ain’t gonna leave ye, so get on wi’ it.”
Her stomach in knots, Anna reluctantly made her way to the privacy screen. She used her fingertips to lift the back of her skirt, but could only manage to raise one side. She spread her legs and tried to rest some of the riding habit’s long skirt on the top of one thigh, but it kept slipping off. Uninhibited, a growl of frustration escaped her.
“’Avin’ a problem, missy?” The ruffians chuckled.
“As a matter of fact, yes.” She knew she had no other recourse but to plead for help. She sighed. “Is there any way that I can request Lane’s help?” She felt her blush rise from her breasts to her hairline. One more humiliation and she would dissolve into tears.
The sound of shuffling came from the other side of the screen, then heavy, approaching footsteps.
Please let that be Lane and not one of the blackguards!
The relief she felt when Lane rounded the side of the screen was fleeting once she remembered that he had to help her lift her skirts.
With a meaningful glance that she could not possibly interpret, he turned his back to her and they worked together to lift her skirts. She managed to arrange herself in a way that allowed her to perform her necessary functions, mortifying though it was. Once Lane had helped her rise to her feet once more, she turned to face him while straightening the back of her skirts.
Now that she thought of it, she had read innumerable gothic novels, and not one of them mentioned having to use the chamber pot while one’s hands were tied, nor of needing help to do it. It was a terrible oversight.
Her blush flamed hot in her cheeks as embarrassment swamped her. “Thank you.”
His eyes softened. “Everything will turn out well, Anna,” he whispered, then led the way around the screen.
“Took long ’nuf.” Toby watched them suspiciously.
“With our hands tied behind our backs, you left us little choice, sir,” Anna snapped.
“Grab ’em, will ya, Billy? The Boss wants ’em there by wensdee night.”
? They were to ride for
days in close quarters with these barbarians?”
“Sure thing, Toby.” The man named Billy grabbed them both by the elbow and dragged them out the door.
Anna narrowed her eyes against the light in the corridor. They appeared to be in a small inn. She assumed it to be far from town on a road not frequently travelled, as was wont to be the way villains travelled in her books.
The scent of burning tallow wax, smoke, and stale urine assailed her nostrils. The acrid odour grew stronger as they strode down the hall, forcing Anna to breathe through her mouth.
Oh Lord, I can taste it
She distracted herself by asking the question that had been niggling at the back of her mind. “Why?”
Lane waited with interest for one of their kidnappers to reply.
“Why have you abducted us?” Anna clarified.
Lane wanted to learn the answer to that question, as well, for he had quickly realized that these were
the men he had hired.
“We gots orders,” Toby grunted.
“From whom?” Lane probed.
“Ain’t none o’ yer business!”
Billy’s grip tightened on Lane’s upper arm as they tramped through the inn’s taproom. There were two rough-looking patrons huddled together in deep conversation near a low-burning fire. Did they not find their presence alarming? What of the innkeeper? Surely he found two bound persons being led by four villains out of the ordinary?
A blast of cool, humid air hit them as the inn’s door opened. They were quickly ushered out into the innyard where their hack awaited them. Thick, heavy droplets of rain pelted them mercilessly from the dark night’s sky.
Lane dipped his head instinctively as Billy thrust them toward the hack. “In. Now,” the big man grunted.
Another blow to the head was keenly undesired, so Lane did as was demanded of him, though his gentlemanly instincts allowed Anna to precede him. She struggled with the length of her habit’s skirts and tumbled forward into the dreadful equipage.
“Anna!” He stepped forward and peered inside. “Are you well?”
She groaned as she fumbled to right herself. “As well as anyone can claim to be in this circumstance,” she grumbled sarcastically.
She was well enough, then.
Lane climbed in the hack just as Anna settled herself on the forward-facing seat. Toby pushed him to the seat opposite Anna and entered to sit beside him. Frenchie and Billy clambered in and took their seats as one of them hit the ceiling with their fist.
The hack lurched into motion, the wheels rumbling over dirt, hay, and manure. The damp from the rain was seeping through Lane’s riding coat, leaving him chilled.
The rainwater and cold night were not the only things sending shivers down his spine. Whoever had hired these men to kidnap Lane and Anna had a reason behind their actions. The question was,
? And what did they intend to do with Lane and Anna when they’d been delivered to
Those questions, however, paled in comparison to the one glaringly obvious problem they faced. How were they going to escape?
* * *
The past forty-eight hours had been the worst of her life thus far. Anna sat on the edge of a hard mattress, which had been placed on the rough, dirty, wood-planked floor of a miniscule and tattered room. This was the fifth inn, what Anna was sure was a long line of inns, at which they would stop.
Their journey had been long and rough, as was evidenced by her very sore bottom.
A loud snore echoed through the room, and Anna’s gaze slid toward one of her captors, Billy, where he sat in an armchair that was dwarfed by his large size. Their kidnappers took turns watching Lane and Anna in their respective rooms. And though she was grateful that
had fallen asleep, his chair was pressed against the door to the hallway, and the other door connected to Lane’s bedchamber, where his guard would surely stop them from escaping, should they attempt it.
Faint candlelight flickered over the walls, lending the dilapidated room an air of intimacy, though it was anything but. Something scuttled around in the corner of the small bedchamber, searching for food or the materials for a nest.
She shivered, running her fingertips over the once fine material of her dark blue riding habit. How she wished she had a clean frock…and a bath…and a meal…and hot chocolate.
Anna grimaced at the loud rumble from her stomach. Their captors had only fed them scraps of stale bread and weak, cold tea for sustenance; her body craved so much more.
She removed the hairpins from her flagging, bedraggled coiffure and tied the dark-blonde strands in a knot at the base of her neck. She had lost her bonnet and gloves at some point over the last two days, but she couldn’t muster any outrage over the loss.
As much as she wished to have the comforts of home, Anna settled for having her wrists unbound and a night of sleep.
How had Mama, Papa, and Charles taken the news of her abduction? Were they terribly concerned? By now the fact of her kidnapping would be circulating around the
as the latest scandalous gossip. Anna sighed. She was ruined. She had been in a hack with four men, without a chaperone, for two full days and had spent time with them in five separate inns. There was no possibility that the
would forgive those iniquities, deliberate or not.
She couldn’t hold back the tears that welled in her eyes. Her hopes for a future were gone. Anthony would no longer wish to wed her…
gentleman would wish to wed her! Her hopes for children were gone. And she hadn’t a clue what was going to happen to her and Lane. Would they expect him to repay the debt he had incurred in his own blood? Would they be tortured?