Authors: Cheri Champagne
“Zat is exactly what I expect. We must reach our destination tonight,” he spat.
“At the very least, allow me to fashion a sling with some—”
Frenchie spun, his arm raised.
Lane acted on instinct and stepped between Anna and Frenchie, blocking the slap with his arm. “True men do not hit ladies,” he growled.
“True women know zeir place.” Frenchie’s voice veritably dripped with distain. “Step aside so I may teach zis
a lesson she obviously needs.”
“I am afraid I cannot do that.”
Without warning, Frenchie’s fist connected with Lane’s jaw.
Anna gasped. “No! Lane!”
He motioned her back with a wave of his hand. “Leave this to me, Annabel.” Recovering from the blow, Lane faced Frenchie squarely. “I will never stand aside and watch a man—
man, let alone loathsome degenerates like you—abuse a woman. If you wish to hit anyone, it will have to be me.”
* * *
Anna watched in horror as Lane and Frenchie faced off. She wanted to thank Lane for defending her, but she wished there had been a way for him to do it without the threat of danger to his person.
Toby and Billy cheered their comrade on, while the red-haired man watched in silence.
Frenchie shrugged. “Very well.” He raised his fist and Anna cringed.
Lane dodged the hit and instead planted a fist into Frenchie’s ribs. The man hunched over on a wheeze, and Lane struck him hard in the back of the head, knocking him to the grassy ground.
He spun to face Anna with determination. “Run!”
They started at a sprint toward the road. Anna could hear Lane’s heavy footfalls behind her, rapidly catching up to her own. She pushed herself farther.
of a pistol firing echoed off the trees and roamed over the distant hills.
!” Lane hissed a breath between his teeth.
“I have another,” an unfamiliar voice rumbled.
Anna spun to see the scarred man aiming a pistol at them and Lane holding a hand over his right arm.
“Lane! Lane, are you hurt?” It was a foolish question, but it was the first thing that slipped from her lips.
He lifted his hand to reveal his bloodied coat sleeve.
“You’ve been shot!” she exclaimed, as though it wasn’t already obvious.
“I’ve been grazed,” he corrected. “I am fine.” He turned to face their kidnappers, leading the way back toward them.
The man tossed the spent pistol to Billy, who caught it mid-air. “Reload it,” the scarred man grunted. “Wouldn’t want these two attempting another escape.” He grinned with malicious delight. “Or I might well have to kill ’em.”
* * *
Major Charles Bradley threaded both hands through his hair in aggravation then slammed his palms against the desk in his study. Three days.
Three damned days!
He was responsible for his sister’s abduction, but he wished to take responsibility for her recovery as well.
Charles and his family had managed to keep Lane and Anna’s disappearance quiet among the
by saying that she had journeyed to the North to visit their grandmother in Leicester. He sincerely hoped that they continued to believe the tale.
Bonaparte may have been sent to Elba, but Charles knew that the short, bastard Frenchman had spies planted all across England, doing their best to discover a way to free him. He needed to find those spies and silence any information they may have uncovered. He needed to find his sister.
Charles turned his attention back to the letter spread upon his desk. He had contacted his superiors at the Home Office and made every argument possible to have more men brought on to this case, but he had only been granted the aid of five. Only five bloody men. Each of those men had already been assigned watch of different roads out of town, but none had reported back to him.
His only other method to resolve this was to track Anna and Lane down himself.
He put the letter in the top drawer of his desk and locked it. It was time he packed his saddlebags and did what he should have done the moment his sister was kidnapped.
It was time to go hunting.
* * *
One hour of walking down the dirt road in the warm, humid spring day brought them to the nearest inn. Lane suppressed a sigh of relief. He very much needed to sit; his injuries were beginning to ache something fierce. He could feel his face swelling where Frenchie had punched him, his skin pulling across his cheek. His shoulders and neck were stiff and aching from their carriage accident, and he was tense from half expecting Frenchie to turn to violence or molestation with Anna, merely to teach Lane a lesson.
This situation was getting worse; he still had not found an opportunity for escape, and now their captors were more alert than ever. He needed to rethink his stratagem.
They walked through the innyard, passing chickens, bales of hay, and several stray dogs. The inn’s door opened directly into the taproom, a bell jingling as they entered. Toby spoke with the innkeeper, presumably to request a carriage and four to take them to meet with “The Boss” at their ultimate destination, wherever that might be. The innkeeper eyed them suspiciously before returning his attention to Toby.
Lane glanced around the nearly empty taproom, an idea forming in his mind. He needed to get Anna alone in one of the rooms above stairs.
. He would have to act, and he wasn’t terribly confident that he could fool these men. It would have to be the performance of his life.
Lane took two steps then stumbled, grabbing on to a nearby table. Anna rushed to his side. Despite looking drawn herself, she was willing to help him, bless her. He gave her a meaningful glance before holding his stomach.
“Oh dear, Lane, you do look dreadful.” She winked at him. Thank the Lord she understood his silent message.
dreadful. In fact, I’m afraid if I don’t get upstairs, I may disgrace myself by casting up my accounts here on the floor.” He put a fist to his mouth for effect.
“Oi! Toby, we need t’ get ’im te a room!” Billy bellowed, still clutching his broken arm. “If ’e gets sick, I will, too.”
Lane was rushed to a second-floor room and closed inside. He stumbled to the chamber pot to one side of the room and fell to his knees, hoping that they would hear him from beyond the door. He added sickening gurgles and horks as he took in the room and thought through his plan.
The bedchamber was lacking in furniture, but it would suit his purpose. There was a small, low bed, a sturdy writing table, and a window in the wall behind the table’s matching chair.
“I need assistance,” he called toward the door over his shoulder.
A short argument echoed in the corridor before the door swung inward and Anna was pushed gracelessly inside.
“No,” she pleaded. “Please do not make me go in or I shall be sick, as well!”
They pulled the door closed behind her, just as he’d hoped. He smiled at her reassuringly and motioned her toward him.
She crouched beside him. “What is the plan?” she whispered.
Ever the intelligent and practical woman
He made a nauseating sound then whispered back at her, “We need to get out the window, but there has to be a distraction to keep them from hearing us leave. Then we run. Make an excuse to open the window then request fresh water and rags to be put outside the door.”
She nodded and sprang into action. “This room smells something awful,” she said in a carrying voice as she moved to the window. “Let us get some fresh air in here.”
Lane was filled with pride as he watched her put her head out the door to speak to their abductors. He greatly admired her cleverness and keen sense of intuition. Of course, her mind was not the only thing that he admired about her…
Anna appeared before him, taking him out of his reverie. “Let’s go,” she whispered.
Lane made another awful sound and followed her to the opened window. It did not seem a very far drop to the ground; he was sure they would make it down with minimal difficulty.
Anna sat on the window’s sill and swung her legs over the side. Lane grabbed her hands, hooked his ankles around the writing table, and lowered her out the window. They both stretched as far as they could, yet Anna still hung several feet above the ground. He locked gazes with her, questioning with his eyes. She nodded her understanding and acquiescence. Lane sent her a wink…and let go.
Anna hit the ground with a ragged gasp, as a prickly, tingling sensation crept up her legs. She blinked rapidly against the pain as it slowly faded. She turned as Lane leapt from the window and landed with a grunt.
“Are you well, Anna?” He went to her side.
“I am.” She tested her feet. “Are you?”
He nodded, clasping her right hand in his. “Run.”
Anna lifted the front of her long skirts, and they ran.
She could not recall ever running as fast or as hard as they were then. She had run excitedly and with exuberance as a child, before her father put a stop to her “hoydenish” behaviour, but never had she run in fear. Certainly, she had read of characters running in such a manner in several novels, but reading it vastly differed from experiencing it.
They reached a copse of trees but didn’t slow their speed. Branches tugged at her fallen hair, ripped at her sleeves, and pulled the long skirt of her riding habit, but Anna paid them little heed. She focused fully on getting as far from the four burly men at the inn as they possibly could.
Their breath huffed around them, her blood pounded in her ears, and their feet crunched twigs and brush as they rushed between the trees. She heard nothing but their immediate surroundings; no shouts of anger behind them, no shots from pistols, no pounding hoof beats. It was just Anna and Lane, hand-in-hand, dashing through the forest.
Their escape was both exhausting and exhilarating. Anna laboured for breath, her muscles aching, her throat going raw, and her lungs tiring. She hadn’t any notion of how much time had lapsed, or how many miles they had covered, but Anna was certain about one thing; she was about to collapse. Her feet throbbed, and she felt the desire to itch at the sweat running between and under her breasts.
She slowed to a stop, pulling Lane with her.
“I…cannot run…any…further,” she huffed, bending over to place her hands on her knees. “I…need…to rest…”
A horse whinnied nearby, and they both froze. Anna struggled to keep her breathing silent as her chest heaved. Lane crept toward the noise, slowly and steadily, until the brush swallowed him whole.
Anna wrung her hands as she fretted over his safety.
Scant moments later the leaves rustled and she jumped back, her arms raised in preparation of self-defence. What she would do against a man with a pistol, she knew not.
Relief flooded her as Lane appeared.
“We have reached another inn!” he announced triumphantly, a grin on his sweat-streaked face. “We haven’t much time. Our captors will be searching for us. I will procure a room under false names and request a meal. Is that acceptable to you?”
She laughed airily. “Truthfully, I am so overjoyed at the prospect of a meal that I haven’t a care for how we get it.”
Lane’s grin spread to a smile, but Anna saw the fear behind his eyes. He was worried.
Having stopped running, Anna began to feel the enervation of her limbs, but she held firm. They must, still, continue their escape; they were not entirely free of their abductors, yet.
Lane gripped her hand in his, wrapping it around his elbow, as he led her through the shrubbery. They stepped into the clearing around the inn. It was bustling with activity; stable boys leading horses through the yard, carriages awaiting their passengers, chickens clucking, dogs barking or sleeping in some discovered shaded spots.
They strode across the cobblestoned walk toward the door to the “Lazy Inn.” They must look affright. Their clothes were torn and muddy, and Lane’s were stained with his blood. Her hair was down about her shoulders, and Lane had not shaved in days.
Anna raised her chin as they entered the establishment, hoping that a show of pride would prevent anyone from commenting. Lane immediately sought the innkeeper to request a room for “Mr. and Mrs. Roberts.” They spoke for several minutes while Anna stood, looking about in the taproom.
The room held warmth and appeared to be moderately clean—a vast improvement from the inns of the past several days.
Lane gestured toward Anna as he conversed quietly with a young woman. She nodded vigorously before hurrying away.
Anna’s brows drew together as a new thought came to her.
Lane returned to her side with a self-satisfied expression. “Come, our room is prepared.”
She stood still then spoke in an undertone, “Please excuse me for being gauche, but how is it that we are able to
for this room and our meal?”
Lane matched her frown with one of his own. “I must admit to my own bewilderment on the matter,” he said quietly. “Our captors failed to remove any effects from my person, including my purse.”
Anna shook her head but allowed Lane to lead her toward the stairs, a maid in their wake. What could their abductors have wanted, if not to abuse Anna or steal from Lane? She was frustratingly perplexed.
Her legs felt heavy as she trudged up the steps, her muscles aching with each movement.
Soon, they were in their temporary bedchamber. The space was of average size and contained all of the necessary pieces of furniture with pleasing accents of pale green.
“Shall I have a hot luncheon sent up to ye, then?” The maid took in their attire with open curiosity.
“Oh yes, please do.” Anna felt ready to weep at the possibility of having a full stomach. “Oh, and if you wouldn’t mind having some liniment, a poultice, and some hot water brought up as well, that would be lovely.”
“Right away, madam.” Anna was taken aback at being addressed as “madam,” but then, she and Lane were considered married by the servants here.