New! Lady Evelyn’s Highland Protector – Book 2 (Standalone novel) – Read Chapter One
Truth be told, Lady Evelyn Hunt rather enjoyed being a fallen woman. While others might well wring their hands over such a dizzying tumble from grace, she’d discovered an unexpected benefit of scandal—the invisible scarlet letter she wore was the key to her independence. After all, with no good name to protect, she had nothing to lose.
As her traveling companions gushed over the wares in a milliner’s cramped and cluttered shop, she debated whether to put that freedom to good use and make her escape. She’d endured the noisy, pungent train ride from London to the Highlands with nary a whisper of complaint. After all, it wasn’t every day one embarks on a journey to stand as a bridesmaid while her dearest friend weds a dashing Scotsman. She would not have missed Sally’s wedding, not for all the quiet chambers in the world. But now, as the walls closed in and her friends’ voices blurred, she eyed the door with a keen longing.
Fanning herself with one hand, she pulled in a gulp of air, deep as her corset allowed. Drat, she should’ve loosened the stays. A fashionable silhouette was desirable, but then again, so was the ability to inhale.
Her pulse hammered a defiant beat against her eardrums. What harm would there be in leaving this little shop, if only for a few minutes? It wasn’t as if she required a chaperone. With her reputation damaged well beyond repair, she was free to explore the city without benefit of an escort. On the other hand, her dignity would suffer a devastating blow if she collapsed in an incoherent heap on the milliner’s floor.
Edging past the hatmaker’s dour-faced assistant, Evelyn slipped out the door. Relief rushed in. Fresh calm filled her. Free of the crush and the relentless chatter, she could once again focus her thoughts. She could breathe.
A shadow fell over her.
Strong, warm hands settled over her shoulders.
A stranger towered over her. A handsome man, dark-haired and broad-shouldered.
“Unhand me, sir.”
His hands fell away. A hint of a smile danced on his full mouth. “Is the devil nippin’ at yer heels, lass?”
Good heavens. In her rush to take her leave of the shop, she’d nearly collided with the fellow, hadn’t she? So much for avoiding damage to her dignity.
She was tall, too long-limbed to fit the feminine ideal, but she had to cock her chin to meet his intent golden-brown eyes. “My apologies.”
“’Tis no harm done.” A lock of dark hair dipped over his forehead, and he shoved it away. “Do take care. The next man ye run into might take advantage of the opportunity to find a lovely lass in his arms.”
The man certainly had cheek, didn’t he? A reply sprang to her lips, hovering there unspoken as his hint of a smile gave way to a ridiculously appealing grin.
Taking him in, she corrected herself. Man did not begin to do him justice. Highland Adonis, perhaps—assuming he indeed hailed from this rugged place—might better suit the fine specimen of masculinity who stood before her.
He was handsome, his strong features tempered by the warmth in his eyes. His nose bore what looked like the scar of a years-old break—oddly, the slight flaw did not detract from his looks. Rather, it enhanced his earthy character. So very different from the classically carved nose and chin of the man who’d trampled her heart, then crushed her reputation beneath the heel of his boot for good measure.
Her throat tightened. With the sun gilding his deep brown hair and unspoken challenge flashing in his eyes, he rivaled any hero an author’s pen conjured.
“Good day, lass,” he said, the rumble of his brogue stirring a rush of awareness.
With that, he stepped out of her path and walked away.
Evelyn turned, allowing her gaze to trail his swift, sure strides. Ah, the Scot was temptation personified.
Once, when she’d been a perfectly proper heiress in search of an equally proper husband, she never would have allowed herself to look so boldly upon a handsome stranger, no matter how intriguing she found him. She’d understood the damage even the mildest indiscretion could wreak on one’s reputation.
But that was then, wasn’t it? Now she could drink in the appealing Scotsman to her heart’s content. Such was the benefit of being quite thoroughly and irreparably ruined.
Such a pity he was not sporting a kilt. While in London, she’d once debated a most pressing question with a friend—precisely what did a virile Scot wear beneath his plaid? Could it be that nothing stood between a well-muscled Highlander and the fabric draped around his lean hips? In Evelyn’s thoughts, the question flared anew. But this time, the query did not inspire laughter. Rather, the mental image of a strapping man with nothing between what God gave him and a length of pleated wool conjured an unbidden heat a well-bred woman would never dare to acknowledge.
How fortunate she was no longer considered well-bred.
Her attention lingered on him as he continued his brisk pace toward his destination. From this angle, he was a fine sight to see. A mere heartbeat later he ducked into an establishment.
Drat the luck. At the very least, she would have enjoyed studying his well-defined physique a few moments longer.
Very well. Her momentary diversion was out of her sight. She let out a small sigh. Well then, she had better things to do than bide her time out here, awaiting the ladies’ emergence from the milliner’s shop, didn’t she?
A bookshop, three doors from the hatmaker’s boutique, beckoned. Reading was a pleasure of which she’d never grown weary, never shuttled aside, not even when her father had hounded her to devote more time to cultivating her social graces and less to escaping into well-imagined worlds.
Glancing behind her to the hat-filled window, she smiled to herself. The spirited cacophony filtering through the milliner’s frosted glass door offered all the more reason to quietly peruse the bookseller’s wares.
Graham and Son. Books and Trinkets.
She reached for the door, but a sense she couldn’t quite define held her back. Leaning closer, she studied the emblem etched into the brass latch. There was something so very peculiar about that symbol. Something quite odd.
She bent to take a closer look. Rather unusual, that. Yet somehow familiar. A star of sorts. Five points. Surrounded by a circle. Ordinary enough.
A chill prickled her nape and shivered down her spine.
She was being a goose. Dismissing her reaction, she reached for the latch. The tinny peal of a bell announced her entry. A handful of steps into the charming shop, and she knew she’d made the right decision.
Books surrounded her, a pleasant mess of stacks and cases. Some had been purposefully displayed, while others were arranged with a casual lack of deliberation, inviting patrons to peruse the tomes at their leisure. If only she could spend hours sifting through the collection.
She spotted a thick volume perched atop a towering stack. A History of the Tudor Reign. That might be just the thing. Then again, a rip-roaring good yarn might hold her interest while she passed time in the Highlands. Perhaps the shopkeeper would offer a recommendation.
She wound her way through shelves and stacks. Surely the bookseller must be about, somewhere in this maze. A pile of novels that reached to her chest teetered precariously, one dust-spurred sneeze away from an avalanche.
Creak! The sound jerked her attention to the rear of the shop. The sun’s rays streamed through an open door. A slender, shrouded form stood silhouetted against the light. A woman…perhaps. Cloaked in mourning garb, the featureless figure seemed a wraith in ebony.
Her veil-covered head turned to Evelyn. Heavy lace concealed the woman’s features. Nonetheless, Evelyn could feel her penetrating gaze.
Ice-cold unearthly fingers danced across her skin.
She inched toward the door.
The woman in black turned away. A gentle breeze drifted through the rear entryway. The veil fluttered. The wraith paused, cast a glance over her shoulder, then stepped into the afternoon light.
An instinctive warning whispered in Evelyn’s ear. Squaring her shoulders, she shrugged off her cautioning inner voice. Goodness, she’d read one too many sensation novels, hadn’t she? This was a cozy shop on a well-traveled street, not a gloomy castle on the moors with a madwoman lurking about.
Banishing her apprehension, Evelyn hurried to the still-open door and stared down the alley. The narrow path behind the shop was empty. Still and soundless. No sign of the woman in black.
Evelyn released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
Why had the woman rushed away? And through a rear door, no less?
Had she witnessed a thief’s escape?
Not likely. Such a brazen exit would have drawn attention. The shopkeeper would likely have pursued a light-fingered culprit.
Stepping back inside, she closed the door behind her. An unnatural quiet enveloped the space. Where in blazes was the bookseller? She’d seen neither hide nor hair of the man. Rather odd, really.
Her fingers coiled tight around her beaded reticule. Her heels tapped against the scuffed wooden planks, echoing each step. Her instincts murmured a warning. She should leave. She should return to the milliner’s shop.
A fresh shiver darted over her, prickling her flesh.
Had something malicious occurred amid the stacks and shelves of the bookseller’s store?
Drivel. Her wild imagination was getting the best of her.
A sound, scarcely louder than a whisper, wafted to her ears.
Is that a moan?
“Help me. Please.”
A man’s voice. Weak. Strained.
Her heart stuttered. “Where are you? What’s happened?”
“Here.” The whisper beckoned her forward. She followed the faint cry to the tall counter at the far back corner of the store.
An elderly man lay on his back, arms outstretched, as if he’d struggled to push himself up. His pale gray eyes stared at her, the light within a mere ember. “Come…I must tell ye…”
Pulse racing, she crouched at his side. “I must find a physician.”
“No.” The protest came with surprising strength. “Dinnae leave me.”
“You’ve been injured. I will summon help.”
“No. Listen…to me. Ye must…” His hand brushed her skirt. Gazing up at her, he crushed the fabric between long, gnarled fingers. Expelling a labored breath, he pressed something that felt like a playing card against her palm. “Take it. The Dragon’s Eyes. Ye must protect it… Ye cannot let them find—”
She slipped free of his desperate hold. “I’m sorry, but you need help. I promise I will return.”
“Say ye will protect it.” The word faded, nearly a whisper. “Promise me…”
“Please, stay strong.” She slid the card into her reticule, took his hand, and pressed his limp fingers between hers. “I will—”
“Murder.” The word came as a gasp. The life in his eyes dimmed. Labored breaths wracked his body.
And then, sudden quiet. The man went still.
Silence overtook her.
Dear God. No!
It could not be too late.
She must find help.
Scrambling to her feet, she rushed through the labyrinth of overflowing shelves and yanked open the door. The bell clanged, the sound now shrill, as if even the building sensed her desperation.
The door closed with a thud, jarring the bell anew. Evelyn blinked against the noonday sun. She had to find a physician. Perhaps the milliner would know where she might find a doctor to attend the injured man.
She rushed pell-mell along the cobblestone pavement toward the shop. A matron sent a frown her way. An elderly man shot her a scowl as she darted around him with quick, evasive steps.
Without warning, strong hands grasped her shoulders. She froze. Brown eyes flecked with gold narrowed with unspoken questions. The Highlander. He held her, his touch gentle yet unyielding. A fine bead of perspiration dotted his forehead, as if he’d recently exerted himself. Tiny lines feathered at the corners of his eyes as his mouth firmed into an unsmiling line.
“We’ve got to stop meeting this way, lass.” The words came out in a husky burr. “Ye look like ye’ve been chased by the devil’s own hounds. What’s got ye in a stir?”
“I need help…a man’s been attacked.” The words tumbled from her mouth, even as her heart thudded in her chest. “In the bookshop.”
The Scot cocked his head. His brow furrowed. “Graham? Attacked?”
“He needs a physician. Time is of the essence.”
“Ye’re lookin’ at one. I took my training in Her Majesty’s Army.” He bolted past her, tossing a gruff command over his shoulder as he charged through the door. “Stay here. This may not be fit for a woman’s eyes.”
Not fit for a woman’s eyes. She was made of sterner stuff than that. She might well be able to offer assistance. Hiking her skirts, she rushed back inside the shop.
“He’s on the floor, behind the counter. Did you find him?”
Silence met her query. She closed the distance between the entry and the shadowed spot where she’d left the shopkeeper.
She was alone.
There was no sign of the injured man. Had he recovered enough strength to walk? Could the Scot have moved the unconscious man so quickly?
She glanced around the space. No sign of the so-called physician. Nor the shopkeeper.
Sunlight trickled into the rear of the shop. The door was slightly ajar. How very odd.
Had the Scotsman left?
A faint alarm sounded in her thoughts. There had to be a reasonable explanation for what was happening. Still, the hair prickled at the base of her neck.
With a surly note of protest, the back door creaked open. The Scot strode inside. “I thought I told ye to stay outside.”
Something in his imperious tone chafed. She hiked her chin. “As I am not in Her Majesty’s Army, and you have no authority over me, I did not take the words as a command.”
“Ye dinnae say?” He frowned at her. “I’ve better use for my time than searching for an injured man who’s well enough to leave this place of his own accord. Why don’t ye tell me what ye’re up to?”
She stifled a gasp. “What I’m up to? What are you implying?”
“Thieves often employ a beautiful lass in their schemes. Do ye have an accomplice lurking about, hoping to part me from my coin?”
“How dare you.”
He shrugged. “You would not be the first woman used as a lure…nor the last.”
“I assure you I am not a lure.” She glanced toward the door. “Where were you?”
“I heard a noise behind the shop—if ye’re telling me the truth of what ye saw, the injured man made his escape while ye sought help.”
“That’s impossible. I know what I saw. He was weak. Barely able to speak.”
His brows hiked. “The old man was awake?”
“At first. Before I left him, he slipped into unconsciousness. I feared…I feared he was beyond help.” With the Scot shadowing her every step, Evelyn marched to the counter. Staring down at the wooden planks, she shook her head to clear the haze of confusion. “Perhaps…he found the strength to crawl away.”
The Scot raked a hand through his hair, seeming to mull over her words. “More likely, Graham’s gone after the bloke. He’s a tough one.”
“The man I saw was in no condition to offer pursuit.”
“A blow might’ve caught him unaware, set him reeling ’til he could catch his breath.”
She held the Scot’s gaze. It wouldn’t do to become emotional. “I know what I saw. He was not in his right mind. He was on the verge of delirium.”
The Scotsman stilled. “Delirium? What makes you say that?”
“He spoke of dragons…dragon’s eyes, to be precise. Something about—”
Behind her, hinges badly in need of oil groaned. As Evelyn turned to a workroom by the rear entryway, a sturdy door swung open, and a man who might’ve been her father’s age emerged from the darkened space.
“What brings ye in today, MacMasters? I figured I’d be more likely to catch sight of ye in the pub than among my treasures.” The man’s boots thudded against the wooden floorboards. Creases marked his face, but the light in his hazel eyes demonstrated a youthful vigor. Glancing down, he unrolled shirtsleeves he’d hiked to the elbows and fastened the cuffs with gold links. Rather odd that a man of obvious breeding walked about in public without a jacket or cravat.
“The lass here believed ye to be in need of assistance,” the Scot named MacMasters said. “She believes an assailant got to ye.”
“No…that’s not the man.” Evelyn pinned the hazel-eyed man with a stare. “Where is he—the old gent.”
“An old gent? Here?” Confusion clouded Graham’s features. He rubbed his jaw. “I dinnae know who or what ye’re referrin’ to. I’ve had two customers in this shop since noon, a mother and daughter out and about on this fine day. I’ve no recollection of ye spending time in this shop. Ye sure ye’re in the right place?”
She might’ve been less stunned if he’d doused her with icy water. The man was mistaken…or he was lying.
“How can there be any doubt?” Evelyn tapped a finger on a dusty tome. “Is there another establishment along this row filled to bursting with books? I know what I saw. There was an elderly man…lying here…on the floor.”
MacMasters frowned. “The lass rushed out of yer establishment seeking assistance. I spotted her as I left the pub. Have ye been in the backroom for long?”
A ripple of tension eased from her body. At least the Scot did not think her addled.
Rubbing his neck, Graham offered a nod. “A quarter hour. Perhaps a half. Mrs. Humphries at the pub brought a plate of shepherd’s pie and tatties. I do believe the woman’s in the market for a mon.”
“Aye, there’s no doubt of that. Ye didnae hear a commotion?”
Graham shook his head. “Not a sound. The place was peaceful as a tomb. Until the pair of ye came in.”
“The bell chimed when I entered,” Evelyn countered. If the man was lying, she’d ferret that out. “And it rang again, when I left the shop. Surely you were aware of that.”
A sheepish look spread over Graham’s features. “Well…the thing of it is…I’d more than a plate of food to fill my attention, if ye take my meaning. I wasnae expecting customers. Truth be told, I’d latched the door.”
“That’s not possible. I came in through the front door.”
“The lass was in yer shop,” MacMasters said. “And she wouldnae have picked the lock to enter it.”
“Of course not.” Graham scowled. “I’ll be needin’ to test that latch. It must’ve come unsecured.”
“If I may be so bold as to ask, what was your guest…what was she wearing?” Evelyn asked.
Graham’s mouth hardened. “I cannae see that is any of yer concern.”
“Was she dressed in black?” Mourning garb would be more precise, but the term seemed absurd in the context of a midday liaison.
“Her skirt,” Graham bit out the words. “Her blouse was white. What does it matter to ye?”
“I observed a woman leaving this establishment. I assumed she was a thief. But now—”
“Dinnae go carrying tales about my sweet Enid. She’s discreet, she is. Comes and goes through the door to the workroom.”
“I was not in the workroom. And the woman I observed used a different door.” She pointed to the rear exit. “I followed her to the alley.”
“If ye are telling me the truth, and by blazes, I think ye are, someone took advantage of my…inattention…to help themselves to my wares.” Graham scowled. “Blasted no-good thieves.”
“The man you saw…could he have been the woman’s accomplice? The no-good weasel might’ve feigned injury to distract ye before he escaped.” MacMasters sounded the voice of reason.
Had the old man been a criminal caught in the act? Could she have been so easily misled? No. The unfortunate soul she’d encountered had appeared to be near death. The most skilled thespian could not mimic the dimming of the light in his eyes.
“Accomplice or not, I cannot fathom that he left of his own volition. We must summon a constable, someone who might investigate—”
“Dinnae trouble yerself,” Graham said. “When I find the no-good thief, he’ll rue the day he caused ye such a fright.”
“You don’t believe me?” She did not try to hide the exasperation in her voice.
“Lass, I dinnae doubt yer word. Ye saw something that troubled ye. That much is certain. But the man is not here.” The hard line of MacMasters’ jaw softened. “I think the blackguard played a ruse with ye. He sent ye on a fool’s errand while he made his escape.”
The card the bookseller had so urgently wanted her to hide popped into her thoughts. Perhaps it would convince them that he had not made a fool of her. Then again, if these men were up to no good, revealing what she possessed might well play into their hands. For now, she’d keep that secret to herself.
“Ye’ve no cause to worry yerself.” The tall Scot’s rich burr kindled a warmth in her. She wanted to believe him. Truly she did.
Perhaps she should accept the answers the men offered. Their reasoning did hold merit. The old man may have been skilled at deception. That might be the most reasonable conclusion.
If only she could believe it.
“I suppose I should find your words reassuring.” Even as she spoke, she heard the doubt she could not mask. “But it occurs to me—if your theory is correct, criminals are roaming this vicinity, thieves who have seen their witness’s face.”
MacMasters offered an unsmiling nod, somber as a vicar addressing his congregation. He reached out to her, clasping her hand between his long fingers. “No harm will come to ye, lass. On that, ye have my word.”
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