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of Contemporary Women's Fiction, Romantic Comedies, and Historical Romances

 

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Red Roses Mean Love
Chapter One
 

Outside London, 1820

    Someone was following him.
    Dread curled down Stephen's back and settled like a brick in his gut. He reined Pericles to an abrupt halt and scanned the area around him, straining to pick up any sound or movement.
    It was so dark he could barely discern the outline of the forest surrounding him on both sides of the deserted road. A pine-scented breeze cooled the July air. A chorus of crickets hummed nearby. Nothing seemed amiss.
    But he was in danger.
    He knew it.
    An icy chill of foreboding shivered through his body. Someone was there. Watching him. Waiting for him.
    How the hell did they find me out here? I was certain I slipped out of London unnoticed. His lips twisted. So much for spending a few peaceful days at his private lodge. Stephen's thoughts were halted by the rustle of dry leaves. Whispered voices reached his ears. A flash of white broke the enveloping darkness. The loud report of a pistol cut the air.
    Searing agony crashed into his upper arm. He groaned and dug in his heels, making Pericles shoot into the forest. They raced between the trees, their pursuers close behind. In spite of Stephen's best efforts, the thrashing sounds grew ever closer.
    He clenched his teeth against the pain spearing his shoulder, and pushed Pericles harder. Damn it, I am not going to die here. Whoever these bastards are, they will not win. They have tried before and failed. They will not succeed tonight.
    Racing through the forest, Stephen thanked God he had refused Justin's offer to accompany him on this trip. Stephen had needed solitude, and his small lodge was private and unstaffed. A rustic haven free of duties, people, and responsibilities. He prayed he would get there. Alive. But if he did not, at least his best friend would not die also.
    "There 'e is! Just ahead!"
    The rough voice came from directly behind him. A slick film of perspiration broke out over Stephen's body. He smelled the metallic stench of blood--his blood--and his stomach turned over. It flowed, warm and sticky, soaking his shirt and jacket. He felt himself growing lightheaded and he gritted his teeth against the weakness.
    God damn it! I refuse to die like this!
    But even as he made the mental vow, Stephen realized his grave peril. He was miles from help. No one, save Justin, knew where he was, and Justin would not expect to hear from him for at least a week. How long before anyone realized he was dead? A fortnight? A month? Longer? Would he ever be found here in the forest? No. My only hope is to lose these bastards.
    But the bastards were nearly upon him.
    Another shot rang out. The stinging impact jolted Stephen from the saddle. He cried out and fell heavily to the ground, rolling over and over down a steep incline. Jagged rocks tore at his skin. Thorny bushes scraped him unmercifully.
    Images flashed in his mind. His father's frigid, unforgiving gaze. His mother's vapid laugh. A drunk Gregory--who would now inherit the title, and Gregory's timid, mousy wife Melissa. His sister Victoria's radiant smile when she married Justin. So many regrets. So many wounds unhealed.
    His downward plunge ended with a bone-jarring splash when he landed in a stream of icy water. White-hot pain sizzled through him. Blackness engulfed him. Cannot move. Hurts so much. Jesus. What a bloody, stupid way to die.

* * * * * * *
    Hayley Albright drove her gig at a steady pace and tried her best to ignore her growing discomfort. Squashed between her two servants on a seat intended for only two, she could barely draw a breath into her compressed lungs. Tired and cramped, she longed for a hot bath and a soft bed. Instead I have a long bumpy ride and a hard seat.
    She tried to move her shoulders, but they remained firmly wedged between Winston and Grimsley. A resigned sigh escaped her. They were hours late getting home. Everyone must be terribly worried about them. And if Winston and Grimsley didn't stop arguing, she'd have to strangle them with her bare hands--if she could manage to pry her arms loose. As it was, she had to drive the gig in order to separate them.
    A flash of white in the darkness caught Hayley's attention, turning her thoughts from murder and mayhem. She peered ahead but saw nothing.
    Except a large shadow lurking near a copse of trees.
    Her mouth dried up with fear. Forcibly wriggling her shoulders free, she pulled back on Samson's reins, grinding the gig to a squeaking halt. She pointed a shaky finger and whispered, "What is that?"
    Grimsley squinted into the darkness. "Heh? I don't see a thing, Miss Hayley."
    "That's because yer blasted spectacles are perched on yer bald head instead of yer long nose," Winston muttered, his gravelly voice filled with disgust. "Put 'em where they belong and you'll see fine, ya scurvy old coot."
    Grimsley drew himself up as straight as his creaking bones would allow. "Who are you calling an old coot?"
    "You. And I called ya a scurvy old coot. Must be a scurvy deaf old coot."
    "Well, a body can hardly be expected to hear above the cacophony from that wheel you supposedly fixed," Grimsley replied with a haughty sniff.
    "At least I fixed it," Winston shot back. "And a damned bloody good job I did, too. Didn't I, Miz Hayley?"
    Hayley bit the inside of her cheek. For the three years her father's first mate had lived with the Albrights, Hayley had attempted to clean up the former sailor's salty tongue--though not always successfully.
    "Your repair job was excellent, Winston, but look over there." She pointed again to the shadow moving near the trees. A shiver of fear rippled down her spine. "What is that? Dear God, I pray we're not about to be set upon by thieves!"
    She surreptitiously patted her skirt to insure her reticule was securely fastened and hidden in the folds of material. Good heavens! When I think of the risks I've taken--the lies I've told to get this money, I have no intention of handing it over to highwaymen.
    A wave of guilt washed over her. No one, including Grimsley and Winston, had any idea of the true nature of today's excursion to London, and she intended to keep it that way. As much as she hated lying, secrets led to falsehoods. Her family needed this money and she was solely responsible for their security.
    Fighting to calm her mounting fear, Hayley looked around. Nothing seemed amiss. The warm summer breeze played with her hair, and she impatiently pushed back several unruly curls. The pungent scent of pine tickled her nose. Crickets chirped their throaty song. She inhaled a calming breath, and nearly choked. The large shadow detached itself from the copse of trees and moved towards them.
    Hayley froze. Her mind whispered do not panic, but her body refused to obey. Dear God, what would become of her family if she died on this dark, lonely road? Aunt Olivia could barely take care of herself, let alone four children. Callie was only six! And Nathan and Andrew needed her. Pamela, too.
    The shadow moved closer and her entire body went liquid with relief. A horse, she realized. It was merely a horse.
    Winston laid a callused hand on her shoulder. "Don't you worry none, Miz Hayley. If there's somethin' evil afoot here, I'll not let any harm come to ya. I promised yer Pa, God rest his soul, that I'd protect ya and protect ya I will." He puffed out his massive chest. "If there's a bandit about, I'll break his scrawny neck. I'll yank out his gizzards with me bare hands and tie the blighter up with his own innards. I'll--"
    Hayley cut off the grisly diatribe with a dry cough. "Thank you, Winston, but I don't think that will be necessary. In fact, it appears our 'bandit' is nothing more than a riderless horse."
    Grimsley scratched the top of his head and discovered his glasses perched on his bald pate. Adjusting the spectacles on the bridge of his nose, he peered once again into the darkness.
    "Why look at that. A horse. Standing in the middle of the road. Imagine that."
    "Miz Hayley just said that, ya cretin," Winston grumbled. "Although I'm surprised ya managed to see the beast before it bit yer bony arse."
    Almost giddy with relief, Hayley smothered a chuckle and chose to ignore Winston's language. Before either servant could assist her, she jumped down from her seat and approached the animal with caution. He was huge, but she had yet to meet the horse she couldn't charm. When she reached his side, she grabbed the reins trailing over his saddle. "How beautiful you are," she crooned, reaching out to stroke the stallion's velvety nose. "The finest horse I've ever seen, and I've seen and cared for many. Why are you out here all alone? Who do you belong to?"
    The animal nuzzled her palm and nickered. She stroked the magnificent beast's glossy black mane, allowing him to get used to her scent.
    When the horse's breathing slowed, she called softly, "Grimsley, bring a lantern, if you please. And Winston, hold the reins while I look the animal over."
    "Look here," she said moments later, crouching down. "His right foreleg is bleeding." Hayley touched the injury with gentle fingers. The stallion jerked his head up and down and tried to step away, but Winston held him fast.
    "Is it bad?" Grimsley asked, peeking over Hayley's shoulder.
    "No, thank goodness. He needs treatment, but his leg is not broken." She straightened and took the lantern from Grimsley. A series of scratches ran along the horse's left flank, and his tail was full of leaves and twigs.
    "It looks as if he ran pell-mell through a thicket," Hayley mused. "He's a beautiful animal, and obviously well cared for. These scratches are fresh. As there are no homes for miles around, and he is saddled, his rider must have been thrown." She turned toward the woods. Peering into the inky darkness, she pressed a hand to her knotted stomach and forced back her apprehension. "We must search for this fellow. He could be seriously injured."
    Grimsley's eyes widened behind his spectacles. He swallowed audibly. "A search? Here? Now?"
    "No, ya moldy old coot," Winston said with a snort. "Next week."
    Grimsley ignored him. "But it's so dark, Miss Hayley, and we're already hours late getting home because we had to fix the gig's wheel. Everyone's probably worried--"
    "So another quarter hour will not matter," Hayley broke in, her tone crisp. God knew she wanted nothing more than to get home, but how could she leave, knowing someone might need aid? She couldn't. Her conscience would eat her alive.
    Filled with resolve, she asked, "How can we possibly leave without checking? The fact that such a fine animal is wandering about, scratched and bleeding and riderless, is a sure indication that something is amiss. Someone may be in desperate need of help."
    "But what if the horse belongs to a murderer or robber?" Grimsley asked in a weak, quivering voice.
    Hayley patted the old man's hand. "Not to worry, Grimsley. Murderers and robbers rarely possess such fine horses. And who would they hope to murder or rob on this deserted stretch of road?"
    Grimsley cleared his throat. "Us?"
    "Well, if he is hurt, he cannot do much damage, and if he is unharmed, we shall simply return his horse to him and be on our merry way." She leveled a meaningful, penetrating look on her companions. "Besides, after what happened to Mama and Papa, you two know better than anyone that I could never forgive myself if I left someone who is sick or injured."
    Winston and Grimsley both fell silent and nodded. Turning her attention back to the stallion, Hayley ran her hand down the animal's sweating neck.
    "Is your rider here? Is he hurt?" she asked softly. The stallion pawed the ground and whinnied, his nostrils flaring. She glanced at Winston and Grimsley. "Horses have very good homing instincts. Let's see if he leads us anywhere."
    Before either man could stop her, Hayley hitched up her skirt, placed her booted foot into the stirrup, and swung into the saddle. It was a good thing she was taller than most men as the horse was the largest she'd ever encountered.
    "Please fetch the supply bag from the gig, Winston. We need to be prepared. Grimsley, you carry the lantern."
    With the ease of an accomplished rider, Hayley touched her heels to the horse's flanks. The animal seemed to have a definite destination in mind and showed no hesitancy. They traveled parallel to the road for approximately half a mile, then turned and moved deeper into the dark woods. Holding the reins loosely, Hayley surveyed the area with sharp eyes while Winston and Grimsley followed behind, arguing all the while.
    "Fling me on the poop deck and strip me to my skivvies," Winston growled. "Step up the pace, ya old bag 'o bones. I won't be stoppin' to haul yer wheezin' arse along. I'll be leavin' ya here to rot."
    "I can keep up just fine," Grimsley puffed. "I am simply minding my new footwear."
    "Don't want no scratches on yer prissy shoes, do ya?" Winston sneered. "God save me from fussy old butlers. Worse than bleedin' babies."
    "I was Captain Albright's personal valet--"
    "Yeah, yeah. And I was 'is right hand, God rest 'is soul. You tell me which is more important."
    "A valet, of course." He sniffed loudly. "And at least I don't smell."
    A chuckle escaped Winston. "You do now, old Grimmy. Best mind yer shoes a bit better when yer walkin' behind a horse!"
    Their voices droned on, but Hayley ignored them and concentrated on her surroundings. The forest was darker than the inside of a cloak. Leaves crunched beneath the horses hooves. An owl hooted nearby, nearly stopping her heart. Surely she must be mad to have embarked on this excursion. But what choice did she have? She closed her eyes and imagined Nathan or Andrew, hurt and alone. God knows she'd want someone to aid her brothers. She couldn't leave until she knew if anyone needed her help--even if the effort scared her witless.
    Several minutes later the horse stopped. Nickering softly, he pawed the ground and laid his ears back. Hayley dismounted, took the lamp from Grimsley and held it aloft, bathing the surrounding area with a soft, golden glow. They stood on some sort of precipice. Walking to the edge, she peered down, her gaze traveling the length of a steep rocky slope. The gentle gurgle of a stream rose from below.
    Grimsley peered over her shoulder and gingerly wiped his shoe on a patch of grass. "Do you see anything, Miss Hayley?"
    "No. There's a steep bank and I hear a stream..." Her voice trailed off as a low groan drifted up to them.
    "Wh. . . what was that?" Grimsley whispered in a shaky voice.
    "It's just the wind, ya crusty old coot," Winston said, his voice laced with disgust.
    Hayley pressed her hand to her stomach and shook her head. "No. Listen."
    Another groan, barely audible but still unmistakable, floated up from the darkness below.
    "There's someone down there," Hayley said, her voice grim. She looked down and saw a flash of white. Without a thought to herself, she started down the steep slope. Halfway down she lifted the lantern, arcing a beam of light toward the stream.
    And she saw him.
    Lying face-down, the lower half of his body submerged in the water, was a man. A cry of alarm escaped her. Hayley half ran, half slid down the slope, ignoring the sharp rocks and twigs tearing at her clothing and skin.
    "Miss Hayley! Are you all right?" Grimsley's frightened voice drifted down.
    "Yes, I am fine. But there is an injured man down here."
    She reached him seconds later. Unmindful of the icy creek water and her now-ruined shoes, she dropped to her knees and gently turned him over.
    His face was filthy and covered with scratches. Blood oozed from a nasty gash on his forehead. Mud, leaves, and grass clung to his torn clothing. His dark jacket was flung open, revealing a blood-stained shirt.
    Hayley pressed her fingers to the side of his neck. To her profound relief she felt a pulse--a weak, thready pulse--but at least he was alive. She squeezed her eyes shut for a brief moment, her mind flashing to her parents. She'd been unable to save either of them. Perhaps she could rescue this poor soul.
    "Is 'e dead?" Winston's voice called out of the darkness.
    "No, but he's badly injured. Quick! Bring down the supply bag." She ran light, probing fingers over the man's head, searching for additional wounds. When she touched an egg-sized lump on the back of his skull, he groaned slightly.
    The sickly sweet odor of blood filled Hayley's nostrils and she fought back the urge to panic. She needed to clean his wounds and dared not waste the precious minutes it would take Winston and Grimsley to reach her. Jumping to her feet, she reached under her skirt and yanked down her petticoat. She stepped out of the garment, tore off a long strip, and dampened the fabric in the cold stream.
    With gentle strokes, she bathed the mud and blood from the man's face. In spite of the poor light and the filth covering him, she could see he was striking. He certainly didn't look like a robber.
    "Can you hear me, sir?" she asked, re-wetting the material. He remained completely motionless, deathly pale under the grime.
    "How is 'e?" Winston asked when he and Grimsley arrived with the supply bag.
    "His head is bleeding. So is his upper arm. Badly." She leaned down and sniffed at his torn jacket. "Gunpowder. He must have been shot."
    Grimsley's eyes widened. "Shot?" He glanced quickly about as if expecting pistol-toting highwaymen to materialize.
    Hayley nodded. "Yes. Luckily it appears to be only a flesh wound. Help me pull him out of the water. Be careful. I don't want to hurt him any more than necessary." Grimsley held the lantern while Hayley and Winston grabbed the man under his arms and dragged him from the stream.
    Opening the supply bag, Hayley pulled out a knife and cut his jacket and shirt away from the wound. With Grimsley clutching the lantern, she examined his upper arm. Blood oozed from a nasty gash. Flecks of dirt dotted his skin as did numerous scratches. Gritting her teeth, she pressed her fingers to the injury and nearly swooned with relief.
    "It's only a flesh wound. Bleeding, but no lead ball evident," she reported after a short, tense silence. Knowing they would need more bandages than the emergency few contained in the bag, she indicated her discarded petticoat with a jerk of her head.
    "Tear that into strips, Grimsley."
    Grimsley squinted at the garment and gasped. "But that's your petticoat, Miss Hayley!"
    Hayley took a deep breath and mentally counted to five. "These are dire circumstances, Grimsley. We cannot stand on ceremony. I am sure Papa would do the same thing were he here."
    Winston's eyes bugged out. "Captain Albright never wore no petticoat! Why 'is crew would have flogged him! Tossed 'im to the sharks!"
    Once again Hayley mentally counted--this time to ten. "I meant Papa would not have stood on ceremony. He would have done whatever was necessary to help this man." God, give me patience. Do not force me to cosh these two dear, infuriating men.
    Without further discussion, Grimsley tore the petticoat into bandages and passed them to Winston. He in turn wet them and handed them to Hayley. She bathed the wound as best she could, then applied pressure to it using clean bandages from her bag. Her eyes constantly flitted back to the man's face. She feared that every breath he drew might well be his last. Don't die on me. Please. Let me save you. When the bleeding finally slowed to a trickle, she bandaged his arm.
    She then turned her attention to the nasty gash on his head. The bleeding had nearly stopped. She bandaged it as well, first bathing the dirt away. After that, she gently touched his body looking for further injuries. A low groan passed his lips when she pressed his torso.
    "Broken or cracked ribs," she remarked. "Just like Papa suffered back in '11 when he fell from the porch railing." Winston and Grimsley nodded in silence. She continued her examination down his long frame, her hands gentle but firm.
    "Anything else, Miss Hayley?" Grimsley asked.
    "I don't believe so, but there's always the chance that he is bleeding inside. If so, he will not live through the night."
    Grimsley surveyed the surrounding desolate area and shook his head. "What are we going to do with him?"
    "Bring him home with us and take care of him," Hayley answered without hesitation.
    Grimsley's wrinkled face paled visibly. "But Miss Hayley! What if he's a lunatic of some sort? What if--"
    "His clothes--what's left of them--are fine quality. He is no doubt a gentleman, or employed by one." When Grimsley opened his mouth to speak again, Hayley held up her hand to silence him. "If he turns out to be a murdering lunatic, we will cosh him on the head with a skillet, fling him out the door and send for the magistrate. In the meantime, we are bringing him home. Now. Before he dies as we speak."
    Grimsley sighed and his gaze traveled upward to where the stallion stood. "I somehow knew you were going to say that. But how are we going to get him up the hill?"
    "We're gonna carry 'im, ya wheezin' old fossil," Winston hollered close to Grimsley's ear, causing the older man to wince. "I'm strong as an ox, I am. I could lug this bloke twenty miles if I 'ad to." He turned to Hayley. "You can count on me, Miz Hayley. I'm no wispy bag 'o bones--not like some people we know." He shot Grimsley a narrowed-eyed glare.
    "Thank you. Both of you. Grimsley, you lead the way with the lantern."
    "I'll carry his feet, Miss Hayley," Grimsley said with dignity. "You carry the lantern."
    A weary smile tugged at Hayley's lips and her earlier annoyance at the elderly man vanished. "Thank you, Grimsley, but I am already dirty and you are much more skilled at navigation with a lantern than I." Hayley saw that Winston was about to make a remark and she sent him a killing glare. Winston rolled his eyes heavenward and snapped his lips together.
    "Now," Hayley continued, "we must hurry and get him back to the house and into a warm bed as soon as possible."
    Winston grabbed the man under his arms, while Hayley struggled with his feet. Dear God, the man weighed more than Andrew and Nathan combined, and her brothers were no flimsy wisps. She may have spared Grimsley's feelings, but her back would hurt for it tomorrow. For the first time in her life, she gave thanks for her unfeminine height and strength. Perhaps she towered over most men's heads and couldn't dance with any amount of grace, but by God, she could lug her share of a heavy man up a hill.
    They slipped twice on their way up, and both times Hayley's heart ached when the man groaned, hating that they were hurting him, but unable to avoid it. The ground was treacherous with mud and rocks. Her clothes were beyond ruined, and her knees scraped raw from the sharp stones, but she never considered giving up. In fact, her discomfort only made her more determined. If she was suffering, the man was suffering more. And that hurt her worst of all.
    "Blimey, this bloke's heavier than 'e looks," Winston panted when they finally reached the top. After resting for a brief moment to catch their breaths, they carried the man back to the gig with Grimsley leading the stallion by the reins. The man groaned several more times, and Hayley's heart clenched. The going was slow, but at least Winston and Grimsley had ceased bickering.
    When they arrived at their vehicle, Hayley instructed, "Let's lay him down across the seat. Make him as comfortable as possible." That accomplished, she breathed a huge sigh of relief. He was still alive. "Grimsley, you watch over the man. Winston, drive the gig. I shall ride the stallion."
    The journey home would take another two hours. Sitting astride the huge horse, Hayley pressed her heels to the animal's flanks and offered up a silent, fervent prayer the man would survive that long.
* * * * * * * *
    In a dark alley near the London waterfront, a plain hired hack drew to a stop. The sole occupant of the coach watched through a slit in the curtain as two men approached.
    "Is he dead?" the occupant asked in a low whisper.
    Willie, the taller of the two men curled his lips back. "'Course 'e's dead. We told ye we'd get rid of the toff and we did." His beady eyes flickered with menace.
    "Where is the body?"
    "Face down in a stream 'bout an hour's ride from Town," Willie said, then gave exact directions to the location.
    "Excellent."
    Willie leaned forward and breathed foul breath through the parted curtain. "The job's done, so we'd be likin' our blunt now."
    A hand swathed in a black leather glove reached out the window and dropped a bag into Willie's outstretched hand. Without another word, the curtain closed. A signal was given to the driver, and the carriage disappeared into the night.
    A satisfied smile curved the lips of the occupant of the hack.
    He was dead.
    Stephen Alexander Barrett, eighth Marquess of Glenfield was finally, finally dead.
 
 
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A Sure Thing?
A Sure Thing?
A Sure Thing?
Who Will Take This Man?
Who Will Take This Man?
Who Will Take This Man?
In Over His Head
In Over His Head
In Over His Head
El Ladron de Novias
El Ladron de Novias
El Ladron de Novias
Whirlwind Affair
Whirlwind Affair
Whirlwind Affair
The Bride Thief The Bride Thief The Bride Thief
Whirlwind Wedding
Whirlwind Wedding
Whirlwind Wedding
Red Roses Mean Love
Red Roses Mean Love
Red Roses Mean Love
Kiss the Cook
Kiss the Cook
Kiss the Cook
Naked in New England 
 
 
 

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