Michelle Helliwell

Fairy Tale Inspired Historical Romance

Never Trust a Rogue in Wolf's Clothing

 

Chapter 1

Yorkshire, January 1796

 

Theft. Bribery. Intimidation.

Bastien DuMont had committed a litany of sins in his nearly thirty years. If someone didn’t hurry up and answer the damned door, he would break it down himself and add it to his list.

He pulled up the collar on his last good coat and cupped his hands, bringing them to his mouth to allow a wisp of warm breath to drive off the chill before rubbing them together. English winters were so damned cold. He hated being cold. Stomping his boots to push blood into his feet, he stood on the step of a modest but tidy Tudor home in a small village in the north of the country. For the second time in as many minutes, his knocking had gone unanswered.

Bastien shoved his hand into his pocket, his fingers curling around the edge of a letter of introduction of a new surgeon, Bastien DuMont, to one Doctor Timothy Brayden, the local physician. The letter stated Bastien was here under the invitation of the Marquess of Barronsfield, to assist Doctor Brayden with his practice. The seal on the parchment, bearing the house of Barronsfield, was genuine and provided an identification of sorts to the man Bastien thought would be expecting him. But beyond that, the note was little more than theater. Its purpose was to deflect any questions about Bastien’s real reason for being in Yorkshire—to hunt down Le Veneur Rouge and, according to his orders, capture him.

But Bastien had other plans. Plans that involved exacting some very personal justice.

Le Veneur Rouge, whose dedication to furthering the republican cause in England bordered on lunacy, had been trying for six months to kill Bastien. It was the price Le Veneur Rouge demanded for having his plans to bring the revolution to England disrupted. Bastien had spent two years trying to infiltrate its most inner circles, and had come close to succeeding. It had gone up in smoke because, damn it, his friend Edmund Pembroke had to get himself in trouble with a handful of English Revolutionaries. All because of a woman and his so called honor. It was not a total failure. Bastien had discovered information—names, places, plans—that successfully upset much of Le Veneur Rouge’s network, but the spider at the center of the web had scuttled away and remained safely in hiding. Waiting for a chance to tear Bastien apart, piece by piece.

All because he’d helped the damned English. He should have helped himself and sold the list to the French. To the Irish. Or even back to the British. Instead he gave it away for free. And his reward was a life on the run.

Good deeds always came with a price. He’d been a fool to forget that lesson.

Hunched against the cold pin pricks of icy rain that had begun to fall, he pulled a long iron file out a special pocket sewn inside his coat. He was finished with patience. He’d been in hiding for nearly six months. That had given him more than enough time to think about what the hell he’d done. And while he was skulking away in the shadows, the mysterious ringleader of one of England’s most successful revolutionary networks had discovered the familial link between Bastien DuMont—the Wolf de l’Ardoise—and the Baroness D’Anville. Le Veneur Rouge had lashed out at her to get at him.

Ten days ago, Bastien had been hiding in London when Sir Richard Hamilton, one of the King’s best spymasters, had tracked him down with news that Tante Marie had been gravely wounded. The baroness was the very public face of the Émigrés—the French nobility that had fled their lands for the safety of England. She was also the last bit of family Bastien had left. Their relationship had been a strained one, to say the least. But when the message arrived, it had driven a hole into Bastien’s heart. Which was remarkable, given he didn’t think he had much of a heart anymore.

She’d lost part of her arm, but she was alive. She’d managed to shoot the attacker herself. A man working for Le Veneur Rouge. But she’d also gotten a vital piece of information about where the dreaded Red Hunter was hiding.

Your prey is a lost Prince of Weymouth and bears the mark of the Wolf. He hides where the Beast rules over the land.

It had been cryptic, even for her, though the implication of one aspect of the message was clear. They had met once, Bastien and Le Veneur Rouge. The mark of the wolf told him so. Would Bastien recognize him?

He slid the file into the locked door of the modest home which stood only a few miles away from the estate of the Marquess of Barronsfield, once infamously known throughout England as the Beast. Jiggling the file in the lock, he turned the mechanism about until a satisfying click told him he’d accomplished his task. He quickly slid the file back into his pocket.

Bastien wrapped his hands around the iron door handle, the cold stinging his fingers. As he pulled down on the latch, the door opened from the other side.

“Good afternoon.”

Bastien straightened at the greeting. Across the threshold was an older gentleman, with thick shoulders and a countenance that suggested he would brook no nonsense. The man stood absolutely still, and Bastien felt the force of his keen appraisal.

“Don’t tell me,” the gentleman began, before Bastien had the chance to say a word. “You’re the favor I am doing for Lord Barronsfield.”

Bastien presented the letter, complete with the Barronsfield seal. The Marquess, upon learning of Le Veneur Rouge’s whereabouts, had authorized this mission. The doctor opened it, skimming the contents. “I trust everything is in order?”

“Trust.” The doctor glanced down at the door lock, then back to Bastien. “Interesting that you should use that word. Come out of the weather. I’ve got enough work here this winter. I don’t need you to be catching your death.”

Bastien stepped out of the cold. The house was well appointed, and a servant took his overcoat. He followed the physician into his study.

“Brandy?”

Bastien nodded, walking to the fire so he could soak up its warmth. He scanned the room. To one side stood a case filled with texts, some medical in nature. In one corner stood a cabinet filled with powders and the tools of the physicians’ trade. On the wall was a drawing of what he assumed was the Barronsfield Infirmary, which he’d passed by on his way.

His host put a glass in his hand, the liquid inside glistening in the firelight.

“Are you really a surgeon, or is that a fiction?”

Bastien smiled at the question. Doctor Brayden wasn’t a man who wasted time with pleasantries. Neither was Bastien.

“Does it matter?”

“If someone shows up here with a broken bone or a gangrenous foot, it damn well does, yes.”

“I assume you know I am here for specific reasons, and those reasons aren’t doctoring.” Bastien took a healthy sip of the brandy, and savored the heat of it at the back of his throat.

The physician shook his head. “You are here because Lord Barronsfield asked me, and I have a tremendous respect for his lordship. Whatever mission you are on must be important to him. But if you are under my roof, masquerading as one of my staff, you will goddamn well tell me if I can trust the skills you proclaim to have.”

Bastien swallowed the rest of his brandy, unmoved by the doctor’s dedication. Still, he needed an ally. He planted the glass on a nearby table. “Edinburgh. I studied at Edinburgh. Until 1792 I worked under Desault in Paris.” And for Marat, in his presses. Until September. Until his world exploded.

The doctor must have been suitably impressed, because all he did was nod.

“His lordship was thin on details about why you are here,” he continued, “except that I am to introduce you as my assistant.” He paused, clearing his throat, apparently waiting for Bastien to fill the silence with an answer. Bastien decided it was best to fill it with as much of the truth as he dared.

“I am searching for the man responsible for the kidnapping and attempted execution of his lordship’s cousin.” He left out the fact that the bastard had nearly killed his great aunt Marie. “There is credible information this man is in the area.”

“I see. Do you know who you are looking for? This isn’t a place with a lot of coming and goings.”

Bastien shook his head. “The gentleman—and I believe he is one—is probably able to converse well in French, and has access to considerable resources. And he is believed to bear a red mark—a scar—on his left shoulder.” That scar would be unmistakable. 

Doctor Brayden put a hand to his beard, scratching his chin as he appeared to be considering Bastien’s description. “The neighborhood has gentlemen enough in it, some who wear their wealth, and others who choose not to. I’ve seen several people with some nasty scars—including some I’ve given them, truth be told. My stitching isn’t the best. But those are mostly folk who can barely manage the King’s English, never mind a second tongue.”

A tray of sandwiches was brought in, and the two men shared an uneasy silence. Brayden was insistent on hearing about Bastien’s surgical and medical experiences—something he was not keen to share. Tante Marie had sent him to school. Believed he was capable of greatness. Occasionally, since he left Paris, he had tended to the odd broken bone, or sewn up a gash. The last time he saw a patient was the summer before, when Tante Marie dragged him to tend to a sick child.

Saving lives had been his calling, once. He’d lost so many to poverty and the ravages of hunger that made them susceptible to disease. The Revolution had promised change, and Bastien helped rally the people to rise up against the corrupt nobility of which, ironically, he was a part. And when the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité had turned deadly, it had done so, in part, due to the puritanical zeal of men like Jean-Paul Marat, the famous revolutionary turned near deity in France. Before long, the new revolutionary government had become as corrupt as the old regime, and death was meted out in part by the national razor, developed by Joseph Guillotine.

Joseph Guillotine. Jean-Paul Marat. Bastien DuMont.

They’d all sworn an oath to first do not harm. An oath shattered and strewn over the blood-soaked streets of Paris.

After those horrible days in Paris, after the September massacres, Bastien decided it was time to stop trying to do good deeds, and turned his mind to another occupation. He left Paris for Normandy, spent his nights tracking down the men who’d preyed on the weak, or who’d hunted down noble families fleeing the country; men who had delivered them to the guillotine in the name of the revolution and lining their pockets. He became the Wolf de l’Ardoise, hunting the hunters, and delivering his own sort of rough justice.

Right now, there were no crowds to save. The only lives that hung in the balance were his own and that of Tante Marie.

“Come, I will show you the infirmary,” Doctor Brayden said as they finished their meal. “I have to prepare for some visits tomorrow. You should at least come and get familiar with it. People will be expecting you to be there.”

Bastien wiped his mouth on the serviette and stifled a yawn. He’d been up for nearly eighteen hours. But the man was right. He was here to play a role, and the better he played it, the more information he might find to aid his capture of Le Veneur Rouge.

He donned his coat once more, and followed the physician along a small lane to a larger stone building.

“It’s empty now, but we’ve had it full many times.” The doctor opened the door that led to what must have been his office and examination space. “His Lordship had it built nearly fifteen years ago.”

On one wall stood a cabinet with a small collection of powders and tinctures. In another cabinet were several other implements: a bloodletting fleam, cupping jars, and a few obstetrical tools. Missing were the cruder instruments of the surgeon’s trade. Those he’d brought himself, just in case. Not that Bastien expected to do much doctoring. That wasn’t why he was here.

The physician led him to the ward which held four beds, all empty. It was well lit and clean—unlike many such institutions where Bastien had spent his time. He had no intentions of performing procedures if he could help it, but he could not help but admit the space was excellent.

The door flew open, the heavy creak drawing their attention. “Doctor Brayden!”

Both men looked up to see a young boy, perhaps twelve, breathing heavily.  

“Yes, Master Gordon, what can I do for you?” asked the doctor.

“My mum’s ready, but da said the babe’s coming out the wrong way.”

“Right then.” He turned to Bastien. “Do you wish to accompany me?”

Bastien shook his head. “I’m not here for this, remember,” he said, his voice low, deliberately averting his gaze from the lad who, he knew, was no doubt hanging on every word and gesture. “I’ll be of no use to you.”

Brayden’s eyebrows dipped into a deep frown, before he turned back to the young lad who’d come in. His voice was the measure of confidence. “Meet me out back. I’ll grab my things and we’ll go straight away.”

The boy nodded, then bolted out the door.

“Now,” Brayden put a finger up to Bastien’s face. “The next someone who comes through that door may need you. I don’t care who you’re chasing. You will help them.”

Bastien watched the doctor disappear out the door, then turned away, pushing away the unwanted sting at the man’s censure. The rebuke lingered for less than a moment. He needed to get to work. And his work wasn’t to deliver babies or tend to patients.

He sat down at the spartan desk, lit a candle, and began rooting through the drawers, unsure of what he was looking for. Among the collections of quills and ephemera, Bastien found a small brown journal. He flipped through the pages, which were full of notes about the doctor’s patients. Bastien sank down into the chair and pored over them. Somewhere—between the notes about the births and deaths, the pox and pus and foul humors—there might be a hint as to a patient who bore a red scar on his shoulder.

After several hours light began to bleed away the last of the short winter days. Bastien rubbed his eyes and stretched. Through a nearby window, the snow that had been falling steadily for the past hour had begun to accumulate. There was no sign of the doctor’s return, and little more Bastien could do here. He rose, stretched his stiff back, and reached for his hat, eager to return to a comfortable bed.

“Doctor Brayden!”

A female voice echoed across the stone walls, laced with panic. “Doctor Brayden, are you there?”

“Oui?” Bastien grimaced, flung his hat aside, and walked toward the main ward. A woman ran toward him, not much more than twenty, her cheeks ruddy from the cold and her breath heavy from exertion. She was draped in a heavy woolen cloak of the deepest crimson. She came to an abrupt halt, her boots skidding on the wooden floor. He ran toward her, catching her before she tumbled to the floor. Her hood fell back, revealing a delicate face framed with flaxen hair. Her eyes, a remarkable green, widened at the shock of her near fall. Her gloved hands gripped tightly on his collar. Even through the thick fabric, a shock of awareness bolted through him.

He cleared his throat, determined to shake away whatever unwelcome connection had just occurred. “Attention,” he muttered, almost under his breath, as the two struggled in an awkward dance until the girl was safely on her feet.

 “Who are you?” she asked after a moment, her delicate brow furrowing in confusion. “I need Doctor Brayden at once.”

“I am Bastien DuMont. Doctor Brayden has just left to see to a patient,” he said, forcing himself to sound professional. “How may I help you?”

“I think I’ve killed a man.”