No Prince Charming
Cumbria, August, 1795
An ordinary day for Lady Gwyneth Snowdon involved a little tea and much tedium, punctuated by her mother’s not-so-occasional tantrum.
This was not an ordinary day.
Today she was well on her way to accomplishing one, if not two, incredible feats: saving the family’s ailing fortunes, and, perhaps most extraordinary of all, making her mother happy—and doing both in style. All by embarking on a clandestine, impossibly romantic adventure to Scotland with a dashing European nobleman who would make her a princess before teatime tomorrow.
It was an extreme inconvenience to be sure, but it would all be worth it.
They’d ridden from her home in Warwickshire, through the western counties, and soon would be approaching the Scottish border. In a few short hours, she would accomplish all that mattered to a woman of gentle birth: an excellent name and a respectable fortune. She was going to be married. And not just married. Married to the man who, at the moment, gazed into her eyes from across the well-appointed coach. His eyes were the most remarkable shade of green and his hair was like spun gold. Adorned in the finest of buckskin breeches and the smartest of woolen coats, he looked the very image of a fairy tale prince.
“My darling,” Prince Henrich said, his rich accent adding a clip to his consonants that sounded as important as he looked. “Let me say again how honored I am you have consented to be my wife. When we return to Streichenstien, you will be the toast of Europe.”
Gwynnie smiled at the compliment. Prince Henrich von Leuneburg was deliciously smooth in his address, and so incredibly dashing. The principality he was to rule was quite small, but sounded terribly important. He showered her with endless attentions and compliments; of course she was besotted with him. Mama approved of him unconditionally—which may have been a first in Gwynnie’s memory. Her father, ill though he was, was thrilled with the match, and had bestowed on the prince as much condescension and flattery as he could manage. Of course, Papa had no idea that they had run off together. Her mouth fell into a small frown.
“Why the fretting, my pet?” Henrich smiled. A small rush of blood flooded into her cheeks as he reached forward and took her hand in his. “You will see…everything will be fine.”
She pushed away the lingering niggle of doubt. She’d had more than a few niggles, actually, about this entire thing. But Mama had urged Gwynnie on, and if there was one person in her life she could not disappoint, it was her mother. Mama had been so excited about this elopement, Gwynnie had decided it was best to keep her doubts to herself. Besides, Mama had her sights set on her daughter becoming a princess, there was little anyone could do to stop her. Even the groom’s parents.
“I just don’t understand how your parents could be planning your wedding to another woman when they knew you were engaged to me,” Gwynnie replied. “I’m the daughter of one of the kingdom’s most ancient earldoms.”
“Darling,” he purred, nearly transfixing her with his emerald stare. “Our meeting, and the force of our love, was completely unexpected. My family promised my hand to the daughter of another noble family. I have written to them, explaining that I have met the loveliest, most noble creature in all of Europe and that I am making her my bride. But I do not trust to messengers and ships. I am not certain they would release me from that other obligation. So we shall marry now, so I will not lose you.”
“Are you quite certain they would not disinherit you?”
“Disinherit…no. But they could threaten me with exile.” Though his tone was light enough, the edge in his voice as he spoke those last words caught Gwynnie off-guard. His gaze flickered away from her for a moment.
Gwynnie’s breath caught in her throat. An exiled princess? What kind of life was that?
He returned his attentions to her, a subtle command in his looks. “I will not lie to you, my dear. Breaking the engagement will test the alliances in the region, but with France in such turmoil, stability is required. A union from among the English Peerage will be seen as a positive move. And of course, I would never have suggested such a daring plan if I didn’t want you so badly as my princess.” He reached up and stroked her cheek, then put his lips to her hand and kissed her gloved fingers. “I am certain that when my parents see you, they will fall as deeply in love with you as I have. When we arrive in Streichenstien, we will have another ceremony. Big and grand, for the people. We could not deprive them of that. We will invite your family and all your friends. It will be splendid.”
Friends. Gwynnie’s lips pulled into a tight smile. Acquaintances she had in abundance. Friends? Only one name came to mind, and they had not been friends since the Boxfords had been sent away. Regret reached into Gwynnie’s chest and squeezed. Even if she could find Kitty, the girl was a gamekeeper’s daughter, not a lady. Five thousand pounds too poor and a stone too heavy to marry well, Mama had said. You’ve no business consorting with the servants. Gwynnie shook off the memory and squared her shoulders, as if protecting herself from the onslaught of emotion that would come if she allowed herself to dwell on it. Kitty couldn’t come to her wedding anyway. She would be so terribly out of place among society’s elite. Gwynnie swallowed deeply, then turned her attention back to her fiancé.
“I still can’t believe you went to Mama with your plan. Most elopements are secret,” she said. Anyone who dared cross her mother, Lady Theodora Snowdon, was a brave person indeed. Gwynnie could never imagine it. Even her father, the earl, did not.
“Your mother wants to see her daughter a princess. And so do I.” He released her hand and leaned back in his seat, a regal image of self-confidence. “Once the papers get wind of a European prince whisking away the beautiful Lady Gwyneth Snowdon, you will be the talk of all England and much of Europe, as well. You will have to order a hundred new gowns just to keep up with all the parties.”
New gowns. Gwynnie nodded, took a deep breath, and settled into her seat. He was right. It was terribly romantic, wasn’t it? He was so dashing, after all. And brave too, if he was willing to upset his family just so he could have her.
She took in a long breath, trapping the unease in her chest and forcing it deep into her belly. It was a familiar sensation since her mother and Henrich had first come to her with this plan two days ago. Two days ago, marrying a prince—or anyone good enough for her mother—had seemed an impossibility. But it was happening, and it had to be a good thing.
It had to be.
Her name and her princess-like comportment, Mama had said, would win over her new family. And Gwynnie had spent a lifetime honing those skills. She could walk as gracefully as a queen, knew the steps to every dance, and how to negotiate the politics of setting a table for a party. She’d spent years learning to be as perfect as possible, so she could be the perfect wife to the most well-titled husband she could attract. Marrying someone of Prince Henrich’s standing had to be the reward.
As the setting sun flickered through the thick foliage of the countryside, another curious thought came to her.
Marriage would be culmination of her life’s work.
At twenty-one. What then?
There would be balls and parties, and she liked those well enough. And she’d have the finest clothes, and she’d be on display all the time. She’d have her own household, so she’d not have to worry about stirring out of doors in the rain if she chose, or agonizing about being anything less than perfect. Although princesses were perfect, weren’t they?
After marriage, of course, came children. A chill darted down her spine. The very notion did not appeal. She would hardly know what to do with a child. Of course, her mama had never bothered with her until she’d turned fourteen. Until then, nursemaids and governesses were her company—when she wasn’t sneaking off with Kitty. Her dear father soothed her loneliness with all the gowns and slippers and ribbons a girl could want.
And Gwynnie wanted a lot. Still, a closet full of frocks and fripperies was not the most satisfying of companions.
Shouting and the loud whiny of horses, interrupted thoughts of silks and gown fittings. As Gwynnie strained to see what was amiss, the carriage heaved to one side. Gwynnie was thrown from her seat, against the hard wall, and into the prince’s lap, banging her knees as she landed. He quickly scooped her up and set her back on the seat. Heart pounding, she took a second to realize the carriage was still.
She barely had a moment to collect herself when the carriage door flew open and she came nose to nose with a pistol.
“What is happening?” Gwynnie whispered as she fought to control her voice. She forced her gaze past the dark barrel to the man holding it, but the brim of his hat obscured his face.
“Sit down, my lady. I’m not here to hurt you,” came the clipped reply. The ruffian turned to the prince, who immediately put up his hands. “You. Out.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Prince Henrich asked, his eyes narrowing slightly.
A heavy sob caught in Gwynnie’s throat, but anger forced it clear. “Don’t you dare hurt him!”
“The prince and I have some business,” the highwayman continued. “Whether he’s hurt or not depends entirely on him.”
“Darling.” The prince turned to her, the authority in his voice providing some measure of comfort. “I am quite sure this gentleman and I can come to an arrangement.” He grabbed her hand, kissed it, then jumped out of the carriage. “Whatever you do, do not run. You are safer here.”
Gwynnie took a second hard glance at the highwayman and wasn’t so sure.
Edmund trained his pistol on the golden man who hopped out of the carriage. He gestured to his captive, who, despite the long journey and being held at gunpoint, was decidedly unruffled. Over his target’s shoulder, Edmund saw the curtain in the carriage window pulled back, and the most remarkable set of violet eyes looking back at him with a mix of fear and fury.
Edmund Pembroke, or rather Edmund Hanley, as he called himself now, had been on more dangerous missions for his employer, Sir Richard Hamilton. In the past five years he’d been shot at more times than he dared count, intercepted documents, planted fake maps and gathered secrets from the lowest of thieves to the House of Lords. It was the price Edmund was prepared to pay for anonymity, a roof over his head, and maybe even a bit of redemption.
Why he was here, along a deserted stretch of road twenty miles from the Cumbrian border with Scotland had more to do with family intrigues. Not his own, thank God. The now infamous scheme of his father Thomas and his older brother Geoffrey Pembroke, to steal the title and lands of his cousin, the Marquess of Barronsfield, had fueled the society gossip mills for months after it had been revealed. Edmund’s foolish and unwitting complicity in it was, no doubt, laughed about in some of the finest ballrooms in the country. Did they talk about how he’d discovered the truth before the damage was done? How he betrayed Geoffrey and his father to do what was just?
No doubt, his cousin Stephen, the marquess, had spoken for him. Edmund had removed himself from ballrooms and gentleman’s clubs. After his father and brother were caught, Edmund, unable to remain part of a society so fixated on power, had left it behind with barely a glance over his shoulder.
Right now, his employer needed a favor of a more personal nature. A favor so important he was prepared to dangle an irresistible carrot in front of Edmund’s nose. The time spent waiting in the damp brush to save Sir Richard’s goddaughter from an inconvenient marriage to a gold seeking imposter was a bargain. Edmund’s orders had been simple. Intercept the carriage and take the girl back home. After his last assignment, nearly a year ago, to uncover evidence of a blackmailing scheme involving a Member of Parliament, this would be simple indeed.
“State your terms,” the man on the other side of his pistol spat, hands on his hips, the very model of noble indignity. Edmund cocked an eyebrow, impressed. Years of living in the theatre no doubt helped Henry Fox—or Henrich von Leuneburg, as he’d been calling himself these days—pull off his ruse and snare the affections and the dowry of Lady Gwyneth Snowdon.
“I think we should move away from the carriage, your highness, so as not further distress the lady.” Edmund’s gaze moved past his target to the carriage. She was still there, still watching. The intensity never moved from him.
Fox nodded, and with affected Bavarian efficiency, he marched ahead toward the horses.
“You can stop right there, your highness,” Edmund called out, fearing the man might try to run off.
Fox spun on his heel, facing Edmund, and put a monocle to his eye. He surveyed Edmund with the same practiced eye of the best Eton schoolmaster. Edmund was almost impressed.
“What do you want? A jewel? A trinket? Will that be enough to get you on your way?” Fox asked, his accent firmly in place.
“I’m looking for something a little more substantial than that.” Edmund raised his weapon. “You’re going to release Lady Gwyneth to me.”
Even in the dimming light, the change in Fox’s countenance at the sound of the lady’s name was apparent.
“And what on earth makes you think I would do any such thing?” Fox replied, his voice hitting a higher note. “What kind of gentleman would release such a lady to the custody of a criminal?”
Edmund held his pistol steady. “Curious. I thought you were the criminal here. An actor and a fraud, tricking Lady Gwyneth into marrying you. Tell me, what mythical kingdom did you tell her you’d rule over? Or were you saving that for the end of the grand tour?”
Fox stood straighter, apparently recovered from Edmund’s challenge. “I have no idea what you are talking about, nor do I have the luxury of time to discuss these matters further.” He put two fingers to his mouth and blew out a sharp whistle.
Out of the corner of his eye, Edmund saw the carriage driver stand in his perch, his weapon trained on him. “Do you think we travel these roads without protection?”
“Do you think I wouldn’t expect that, Prince Henrich? Or should I say, Henry Fox?”
“Henry Fox?” Fox laughed, muttered a few couple of nonsensical German phrases, then continued, “I do not know a Henry Fox.”
Edmund rushed the man, grabbing him by his collar. “I think you do.”
As they struggled, Edmund heard the telltale click of a pistol being cocked.
“You’ll never get a clean shot from there,” he yelled up at the driver. “You’re just as likely to get his head as mine.”
“For God’s sakes, stand down!” Fox hissed at the driver, both his noble demeanor and his Bavarian accent deserting him. His eyes narrowed and his mouth twisted into a sneer. “What the hell do you want?”
“I told you what I want. I want the girl.”
“Who is she to you?”
“She is no one to me. But my current employer takes a great deal of interest in her future. And her future does not include you.”
“Is it the father then? I should have known the old bastard would be trouble. She should have listened to me.” Fox spoke quickly, his eyes darting from side to side, as if groping for his next move. Obviously, improvisation was not his forte as an actor. “Look, perhaps we can come to some sort of agreement.”
Edmund paused. Who should have listened to him? Surely not Lady Gwyneth. Sir Richard had dispatched Edmund to intercept this plan, but it was hastily done, as the information had arrived late and was incomplete. The longer Fox spoke, the more Edmund suspected there was a grander scheme afoot than a simple plan for an actor to defraud an earl’s daughter of her fortune. Edmund loosened his grip slightly, signaling his willingness to listen.
Fox’s lips pulled back into a harried smile. “In a few days I’ll be a very rich man, see? I can stand to part with a few pieces.”
Edmund took a step back, keeping the pistol trained squarely at Fox’s chest. The man was getting nervous. It offered Edmund opportunity to learn more about Fox’s plans, but also greater opportunity for things to go awry. The driver’s movements in the perch were twitchy—clearly he was out of his depth as well, which added to the danger. Fox, hands shaking slightly, reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small silk bag. He offered it to Edmund.
“Take it. There’s a small fortune in there—enough to keep you in ale and women for a good while.” He cocked his head toward the carriage. “All you have to do is walk away. Tell your boss you never found us. Disappear. From the looks of a man like you, that shouldn’t be hard.”
If the wretch only knew how hard it had been to disappear. After Edmund had left Barronsfield, he’d spent months working on shedding his identity and years trying to stay out of sight. Edmund lowered his pistol and pocketed the silk bag, signaling to the fake prince his acceptance of payment, then considered his next move.
“Do we have an agreement, then?” Fox asked.
The muffled sound of the woman’s voice came from the carriage.
Fox rolled his eyes, then forced a smile as he went back into character. “Do not worry, my dear,” he called. “I am discussing a resolution to our situation with this fine gentleman. Stay where it is warm.”
Fox squared his shoulders and leaned in, wearing a confident smile as he gestured toward Edmund’s pocket and spoke once again in his natural tongue. “You are a richer man than you were a moment ago, and in a few days, I will be as well. Working men need to make a living, too. And seeing how she’s done nothing to deserve that money except being born, I don’t see why we don’t deserve to take some of it back.” He rubbed his hands together, and took a step to leave. “Are we done then?”
“We are done.” Edmund whipped around, pulled a knife out of his sleeve and hurled it at the carriage driver. The man cried out, dropping his pistol to attend to where the blade had embedded in his arm. Edmund turned and took a swing at Fox, his fist connecting with the man’s jaw. Fox staggered back, gazing up at Edmund with a horrified awareness that Edmund would have nothing to do with any proposed scheme. Whatever it was, Edmund was certain that more than Lady Gwyneth’s reputation and dowry was at stake.
He raised his pistol and aimed it at Fox when someone jumped on his back, throwing him off balance.
“What in the bloody—”
He threw the unwanted attacker off his shoulders, whirling around with his pistol in his hands to see the lady in question, her eyes wide with a mix of fear but unmistakable rage.
“Get back in the carriage,” Edmund ordered. “I’ll deal with you later.”
She pulled herself to her feet. “Leave him alone, you cretin. You have no idea who he is! Or who I am.”
“I have a perfectly good idea of who he is, my lady. You on the other hand, might be misinformed.”
“Your Highness,” she called to Fox, care in her voice. Foolish woman. “Are you hurt?”
“I am well enough,” Fox replied, his European accent returning, though lacking its former smoothness. “Do not worry, my pet. This ruffian has been hired by someone disloyal to my family who wishes to crush our happiness. I will not let that happen.”
Lady Gwyneth rushed to his side, then lifted him up to his feet before throwing her venom back at Edmund. “What kind of coward would pull a gun on an unarmed man?”
“I told you to get back into the carriage. I suggest you do as I say.”
“Are you going to shoot him?” she asked, standing between Fox and Edmund.
She might have been foolish, but her bravery was remarkable. Misplaced, but remarkable.
The second crack of a pistol broke through the chaos. Edmund heard the ball whiz by his head, thudding into the ground nearby. It was the carriage driver, who’d obviously managed to recover his pistol, though thankfully, not his aim.
“Don’t shoot at her, you fool!” Fox snapped.
“Your highness?” The girl’s eyes narrowed slightly and she stilled, no doubt caught unaware by Fox’s command, given in clear, unaccented English, and the expression of mad desperation on his face.
Fox went to grab her, but Edmund pushed him onto the ground.
“Run!” he ground out.
Edmund was uncertain whether it was his warning or simply the violent chaos happening around her, but she bolted.
“Go after her!” Fox barked at the carriage driver, who had jumped down. “We need her alive! If you lose her, you can explain to my lady how you’ve ruined our plans.”
Fox wheeled around, curling his hand into a fist, and landed a jab that clipped Edmund’s jaw. Edmund reeled back, shook it off, and sent his own blow across his opponent’s cheek. It was enough to stop the struggle, if only temporarily. Fox crumpled to the ground.
His companion ran toward the woods. Edmund pulled out his pistol and called out to him.
“Don’t run. I never miss.” It was part warning and all truth. He never did. It was part of what made him so valuable to Sir Richard. That, and a certain recklessness that came with a never-ending search for atonement.
The man paused long enough for Edmund to reach him. He tackled the driver to the ground, and kept him there with a knee to his throat, his hand pressed on the wounded arm.
“Who is this lady you speak of?”
“I can’t…’e’ll kill me.”
“Not if I kill you first,” Edmund growled, leaning on his prey’s wounded arm. The man reached out for Edmund, writhing on the ground, hurling curses at him. After only a few seconds of this, he called out for Edmund to stop.
“I’ll tell you, you bastard! Jus’ let go me arm!”
Edmund released some of the pressure from his arm, but kept his knee firmly at the man’s throat. “Who?”
Edmund paused, uncertain he heard correctly. “Lady Snowdon. Do you mean the countess?”
Edmund blinked, thrown by the man’s words.
“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.