Edmund Pembroke's story continues in...
No Prince Charming
Book 2 in the Not Your Average Fairy Tale series coming April 26th
Dashing off in a daring elopement with a prince, handpicked by her mother, Lady Gwyneth Snowdon anticipates an extravagant, secure future. But when a mysterious stranger kidnaps her, Gwyneth fears her happy ending is doomed.
Used by his maniacal father, Edmund Pembroke turned his back on society. Seizing the opportunity to say good-bye to his past forever, he makes a deal to separate the pampered countess from a gold-digging imposter. But when Edmund discovers her life is in danger, he is forced to protect the beautiful, well-born Gwyneth Snowdon and to confront his ghosts.
Separated from her plush surroundings, Gwyneth learns she’s capable of so much—including love for a man with neither title nor fortune. But she begins to suspects there is more to her rugged, handsome guardian than he’s chosen to reveal. After finding herself at the center of a sinister deception, can she dare to trust her heart to a man who’s spent years deceiving himself?
Love is the fairest of them all.
An excerpt from Chapter One
“Are you saying the girl’s mother wishes her dead?”
“She wishes the girl gone. Fox was gonna take care of it for ’er.” The driver shook his head violently, then struggled, grasping at Edmund’s leg, trying to wrench himself free. Edmund pulled a length of cord from his coat, bound the man’s hands, then gagged him with the man’s own neck cloth.
Edmund stood, shaking his head as he looked to over Fox’s form, stilled from his blow. A low, sickening feeling settled in Edmund’s gut. He should have known Richard’s price for this job would be high, though he doubted even his mentor would have dared to guess how steep.
It was time to earn it. Edmund went on the offensive. He had a new life to lead when this job was over. Not as the second son of a madman, nor the favored cousin of a marquess, nor even the sometime agent of a testy, enigmatic spymaster. Instead, he could slip into the life he’d been slowly building since he walked away from his name and society’s trappings. Soon he would be simply Edmund Hanley, gamekeeper. A huntsman, free from the confinements of parlors, manners, and the power games of the titled.
There was only one thing between him and that promise, and she’d disappeared into the woods. But not for long.
Gwynnie ducked behind a large tree, desperate to catch her breath, afraid to utter a sound. She peeked over her shoulder and caught sight of the man with the hat moving toward her, his pistol drawn. She ducked back, blood pounding in her ears, and attempted to swallow the terror setting her insides on fire. She pushed herself away from the tree and went farther into the forest. Fear drove her steps, and it was a powerful propellant. Grass and mud squelched underfoot, soaking through her soft slippers. Not daring to stop, not even for a moment, she ran as fast as she could, skirts tangling in her legs, the sound of her own breath filling her ears. If she wasn’t so scared, she might have appreciated the exhilaration.
After a minute or two she stopped and put a hand to the ache in her side, her lungs hungry for air. The forest was deadly quiet, except for the damp breeze rushing through the leaves overhead. Even the birds seemed to be holding their breath.
Despite her efforts to outrun him, the man with the pistol was right on her heels. There was confidence in his movement, each step steady and purposeful. The sickening sensation of being hunted soured her stomach. Even in the dense forest, with the sun bleeding low in the west through the canopy of leaves, her bright cornflower blue dress would not help conceal her here from anyone except a blind man. And if he couldn’t see her, her ragged breath would give her away. Where on earth was the prince? Surely, he would save her. Or would he?
Doubt gnawed at her as she recalled the change in his voice, the plans he’d alluded to as she dashed into the wood. They were not the plans she knew. Instead, for reasons she could not comprehend, the highwayman had urged her to escape the chaos near the carriage. What on earth did he want? Whatever it was, he now approached with his pistol in his hand. Nothing good could come of that.
She would not die, not without a fight. Gulping back her fear, she picked up a large stone at her feet, jumped out from behind the tree where she’d hid herself, and hurled it at the figure quickly approaching. The weight of the stone sent it quickly to the ground, landing at his feet, and he merely stepped over it. Panicked, she scanned the area around her and found a half-rotten branch. She wrapped her fingers around the stick and held it across her body, ready to strike.
He paused, then lowered his pistol, placing it back into its hiding place under his coat. He raised his hands slowly, pointing to her. “Are you planning to beat me with that?”
She puffed up her chest and tried not to be lulled by the gentle humor in his voice. “I am not quite as useless as you might think.”
He said nothing as he took a few steps forward. He was clad in a long brown frock coat that had seen better days. It covered a worn woolen waistcoat and a loosely wound neck cloth. His boots were mud splattered, and his face was largely hidden by the wide-brimmed, battered hat he wore. His chin sported several days’ growth, but what she could see of him suggested he was relatively young.
She swung the stick across her body and tried to be menacing about it. He grabbed the makeshift weapon and ripped it from her fingers with ease.
Running out of options, she used the last weapon she had—her voice.
“Help! Help me!” she yelled, stepping away from him.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” he said through gritted teeth as he rushed toward her. “Keep quiet!”
He pulled her close to him, one hand around her waist, another over her mouth. Furious, she struggled, arms and legs flailing. A few blows found purchase, but it was not enough this time. He was too strong.
“Get down,” he whispered, his words sharp and harsh. He dropped, pulling her down with him. She lay on her belly beside him, his body leaning on hers to force her still. One of his arms wrapped around her shoulders, and he held a hand firmly over her mouth.
“If you value your life,” he continued, “you will not make a sound.”
Nearly blind with fury and panic, she struggled further, which only made him tighten his grip.
“Look there—see who’s coming?”
Gwynnie squinted through the trees. Her hair fell into her eyes, but still she managed to make out another man in the woods, a blade in his hand, and a murderous look in his eye. It looked like the man who’d been driving the carriage.
From her left, another set of footsteps approached. She turned her head slightly, all the while feeling the grip of the man beside her tighten ever so slightly.
The call was Prince Henrich’s. She recognized his smooth, clipped tone, but there was an edge of desperation in his speech. She was tempted to call out, but the memory of his words—and the Midlands accent in which they’d been spoken—kept her silent.
“Lady Gwyneth, my darling!” he called a second time. He kept walking past them, unaware. The twilight was making it difficult to see.
“She’s not ’ere,” the carriage driver said. He spoke low, but the silent wood carried his words through the trees.
“I can see that, you idiot,” Prince Henrich hissed. If his name was Henrich. At the moment he sounded like a Henry. Gwynnie bit her lip, blood rushing in her ears. What on earth was happening?
“Maybe that other bloke got ’er.”
“Well, if you find him, shoot him on sight. And get me back my bloody jewels. The bastard stole them.”
“And what about the lady?”
“He probably has her too, damn it. We’ll need help hunting them down.” He spat on the ground, and pointed at his accomplice. “But you don’t get paid until I get her money, and that doesn’t happen until we get married. Once we are on our honeymoon, we’ll arrange the accident.”
Her blood ran cold, and she held her breath until the two men disappeared in the distance. Both of them were still for what felt like a very long time after the men were gone. Not that it was hard to do. Gwynnie was such a tumble inside she doubted that her legs could carry her anywhere. The man beside her held her close, and though he had loosened his grip on her mouth, his arms were still wrapped around her. The weight of it gave her some strength and took the edge off her shattered nerves.
At last he moved his arm away. The motion knocked his hat off his head, and it landed near Gwynnie. She rolled over to get up, and catching his features for the first time, she stopped, struck motionless as she fought the compulsion to stare. His brown hair was unkempt and fell into his eyes, which he brushed away before retrieving his hat. His mouth, pulled tight in dismay, was not hard. She shook her head, forcing herself to remember where she was and exactly who she was with.
Who was she with?
“That was foolish.” He pulled himself to his feet, then held out a hand to Gwynnie, which she reluctantly took. “It is a wonder, my lady, why I should go through the trouble of keeping you safe when you are so eager to throw your life away.”
“I was eager to get married, you dolt! How was I supposed to know he had other plans?” She pulled her hand out of his grip, and pointed a finger straight at his shoulder. “Instead, I find myself being hunted by several men, and the only one I’ve not met before is you! You will excuse me if I didn’t run headlong into your arms to seek the protection of a man who first greeted me by pointing a pistol at my nose.”
Gwynnie buried her head in her hands for a moment, trying desperately to hold on to her composure. She squared her shoulders, shook her head, and dropped her arms to her sides.
“Who are you?” She felt no need to introduce herself, given he knew far more about Gwynnie than she did about him.
“Hanley. Edmund Hanley. I work for Sir Richard Hamilton,” he said.
Gwynnie stiffened at the name, and she took a step back.
“Your godfather,” he offered, as if the name wasn’t enough.
“I know who he is,” she snapped. “And I’m not going anywhere with you!” She shook her head. Sir Richard Hamilton had nearly killed her father in a duel when she was a little girl. Father had recovered, but was never quite the same. And certainly not well enough for he and his mother to try and have another heir to save their family’s prospects. All that was left was for Gwynnie to marry well.
“He told me you might not be happy to hear his name. He sent me to find you before you were lured into an unfortunate marriage. After what just happened…” He paused, looking over each shoulder. “I think the prince’s intentions were darker than even your godfather had guessed.”
Mr. Hanley dug into his pockets and pulled out a small miniature and put it in her hands. Her eyes widened. She stared at a five-year old version of herself.
“Where on earth did you get this?”
“He gave it to me, to give back to you.”
Gwynnie stared down at the portrait a little longer, not quite wanting to believe what she held. The girl in the miniature stared back, her lips curled in such a fashion reserved for the confidence of a child for whom the world held only possibility. Back when her brother had still been alive, and Kitty had become her friend. Carefully she rewrapped it in the fine linen, eager to bury the unwanted pang of nostalgia the image had unleashed. She gave it back to him, then crossed her arms and stifled a snort of disbelief. Most unladylike, perhaps, but there’d been nothing at all genteel about today.
She put her fingers to her temples and shook her head. This was all too difficult. “I don’t understand what is happening to me, or why. And why on earth does this matter to Sir Richard, especially after what he’s done to my family?”
“Perhaps he is trying to make amends for that now. I don’t know. All I do know is we can’t stay here to figure it out. It’s getting dark, and we need to find shelter.”
“Why did you pull a pistol on me? You could have killed me.”
“You attacked me, remember? From behind, no less. Besides, I didn’t shoot you, nor do I intend to.”
“I’m lucky you didn’t hurt me.”
“Luck had nothing to do with it. If I intended to hurt you, we wouldn’t be having this lovely conversation,” he replied.
“You sound awfully confident.”
“Just being truthful.” Mr. Hanley cocked an eyebrow and smiled.
Truthful. Despite her irritation, Gwynnie couldn’t help but notice that it was a lovely smile. And an earnest one.
“Are you going to hurt me?”
He shrugged, then raised his hands up at his sides. “You have given me every possible opportunity to do so, and yet here we are.”
She regarded him carefully. It occurred to her, in this moment, that Prince Henrich, charming though he was, had never offered such straightforward answers to her questions as the ones Mr. Hanley offered her now.
The distant rustle of foliage alerted both of them, catching Gwynnie’s breath in her throat. Mr. Hanley may not have been going to hurt her, but someone else out there definitely was.
“We need to move on, Lady Gwyneth. It is not safe here.”
“On that point, I believe, we can agree.”
He held out his hand. She took it. And they ran.