Read an Excerpt
A Bandit's Broken Heart
A Blood Blade Sisters Novel
By Michelle McLean, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Michelle McLean
All rights reserved.
Brynne Forrester held the plate of pie up to her chin and glanced at her daughter. "Are you ready?"
Coraline nodded eagerly, her black ringlets bouncing about her face.
"Is your napkin secure?"
Coraline gave the napkin tied about her neck a firm tug and nodded again, breaking out in a happy grin. "Ready, Momma."
"All right then. On the count of three. One ... two ... three!"
Brynne and Coraline dove face first into their plates, bolting the sweet berry pie down their gullets as fast as they could.
"Done! Done!" Coraline shouted, tossing her plate to the ground and jumping up to dance around her mother.
Brynne laughed and pulled her napkin from her neck, mopping up the mess from her mouth. Coraline would take a bit more work. The little girl looked like she'd bathed in berries and flaky crust. Brynne pulled her down onto her lap, wiping her daughter's face as best she could while Coraline squirmed and squealed.
"I won, Momma!"
Brynne chuckled. "You did indeed, my little chickabiddy. Now hold still so we can clean you up."
The sound of a clearing throat brought Brynne's attention to the small group of women who had stopped to observe their fun. Cora, Brynne's mother-in-law, had a strained smile on her face. The others in the group didn't try to hide their amused shock. One or two glanced about, avoiding eye contact, though most of the group stared at her in open-mouthed astonishment.
"You have a little bit of something here," Cora said, pointing a daintily gloved hand at her own chin to show Brynne where she'd missed a spot.
Brynne flushed and wiped the offending bit of sweetness from her face.
Her mother-in-law's gaze flicked to the still giggling Coraline, who Brynne narrowly managed to keep from flinging herself at her grandmother.
"I won, Gamma, I won."
"Yes, my dear, I see that," Cora said, trying to keep out of range of Coraline's sticky fingers. "But what exactly was it that you won?"
Brynne blushed, hating that the judgment glaring down from the well-connected women in front of her had erased the brief moment of levity she'd shared with her daughter.
"We were having a pie eating contest," she said, forcing a carefree tone she no longer felt.
"A what?" Cora asked, her brow wrinkling as she looked at her granddaughter.
Brynne pinned Coraline down and finished cleaning her up.
"A pie eating contest. We used to have them at the ranch. Whoever can eat a piece of pie the fastest, wins."
"Wins what?" one of the other women chimed in.
Brynne shot her a wary glance, but Mrs. Jacobs appeared genuinely interested.
"Oh, anything really. At the ranch, we'd have the contest just for fun, or we'd trade off chores or such. At the festivals in town, you could win anything from another pie to a quilt. I won a goat once."
"How ... quaint," Mrs. Morey said.
Brynne stopped talking, her momentary embarrassment changing to anger at the looks of derision some of the women were giving her. Judgmental old hens. Mrs. Morey (who was connected to both the Gardner and Lowell families, thank you very much) was the worst of them. She always managed to find some fault in Brynne, no matter what the situation.
On further reflection, Brynne could admit a pie eating contest in the middle of Boston Common might not have been the best idea in the world for a picnic activity. But they had been sitting in a secluded enough spot, and they were only eating pie, for heaven's sake, not picking their teeth with their pen knives in front of the governor. Though from the women's reactions, they might as well have been.
"That sounds ... lovely," Cora said.
A twinge of guilt broke through Brynne's anger at Cora's expression. The last thing she wanted to do was embarrass her mother-in-law.
"Mrs. Forrester, I was going to send this 'round to you, but as you are here," Mrs. Jacobs said, pulling a card from her bag. "I'd be very pleased if you'd join us next week for a small music soiree at my home."
Brynne took the card, touched that the woman not only thought to invite her but had the backbone to do it in front of Mrs. Morey. Though the thought of venturing into one of the social soirees made Brynne's normally stout stomach quiver in unpleasant ways.
"That's very kind of you, Mrs. Jacobs."
Mrs. Jacobs smiled kindly, ignoring Mrs. Morey's haughty sniff.
"I hope to see you there."
Brynne nodded. The women excused themselves, some more politely than others.
"Well, my dears, are you ready to return home?" Cora asked.
Coraline stuck her bottom lip out, preparing to pout, but Brynne gave her a stern look. "I actually have a few errands to run. But it would be a help if you could take Coraline."
"Of course." Cora held her hand out to her granddaughter. Coraline giggled and ran to her grandmother. Brynne swallowed past the sudden lump in her throat. It was a joy to see Coraline get on so well with her husband Jake's family. Since their daughter would never know her father, it was a blessing that she would get to know his parents.
Brynne stood and brushed at her skirts, hoping there were no lingering bits of pie anywhere on her person. Cora's man began to clean up the remnants of their picnic, and Brynne gathered her reticule and pulled her daughter in for a kiss.
"You be a good girl for your granny."
"Oh, dear girl, please. Grandmother, or even Gran if you must. But not granny."
Brynne gave Cora a quick kiss on her cheek. "I won't be but two shakes of a tick's tail."
"Oh. Yes, well, fine. Take your time, dear."
Brynne waved as Coraline scampered off after her grandmother, and then turned and headed toward the carriage she had waiting a short distance away. She kept her head high as she walked past the groups of people scattered throughout the park. Some still stared, a few tittered behind their gloved hands, while others flat out turned up their noses.
Perhaps the park hadn't been the best choice of locations for a pie eating contest, but it had seemed harmless enough. And Brynne and Coraline had both needed to cut loose for a moment and have a little fun. Boston had been a haven of sorts when they'd moved here, but there were a lot of things that Brynne missed about home.
Ah well. She had other matters to attend to. She would have to save the nostalgia for later.
* * *
Brynne froze at the sound of footsteps coming up the lane, her heart pounding in her chest. For once, she was thankful for the voluminous skirts she'd begun wearing since she'd moved to Boston. They could hide all manner of things in their depths. Including the box she'd been about to leave on the stoop where she stood.
The footsteps faded, heading off in the other direction. She breathed a sigh of relief but waited for a few moments to be sure. Another quick look up and down the deserted lane with its small shops and tenements assured her she wouldn't be seen. Brynne swished her skirts away from the large parcel she'd been standing over and nudged it closer to the door of a large family she'd seen in the marketplace a few days earlier. She plucked a rose from her hat, tucked it into the string wrapped about the package, and departed as quickly as she could without drawing attention to herself.
Brynne's driver waited with the carriage around the corner and she hastened inside. As soon as the carriage lurched into action, she settled back against the seats, a small smile gracing her lips as her heart rate gradually returned to normal. She regretted having to use a rose as her calling card. A red California poppy would have been preferable, but impossible to find in Boston, especially so close to winter. Blood Blade had always left a red poppy. But Brynne would have to make do with what she had.
It felt good to be helping people again. The family she'd left the package for had several small children, all inadequately dressed for the encroaching cold weather, all thinner than they should be. Brynne had discreetly followed the harried mother until she'd found their home. She hoped her package of shoes, food stuffs, and the small bag of coins would ease their lot a bit. Helping in secret gave her the little taste of the excitement that she used to experience when she had ridden the trails with her sisters under the guise of the bandit Blood Blade.
Of course, things were very different now. She and her sisters no longer had to steal in order to help the unfortunates who depended on them. Thanks to their very profitable gold mine, they'd never have to steal again. And Brynne was thousands of miles away in the very civilized city of Boston.
Yet, despite Boston's wealth and culture, Brynne still found those who needed help. And while Blood Blade would probably never "ride" again, Brynne could certainly do what she could to alleviate suffering when she saw it.
She had her driver drop her near her favorite eating house. As soon as her cocoa arrived, she settled back with a sigh.
The anonymous gifts she'd been leaving about the city had been noticed enough that a story had appeared in last week's paper. Brynne enjoyed reading the blurbs about them. Enjoyed even more reading about how much they had helped those who had received them. Being the secret donor somewhat relieved the restlessness that plagued her, but it could hardly compare to her wild days with her sisters. And bringing happiness to others went a little way toward filling the aching hole in her heart that had been left when her husband had been killed. Brynne didn't think her broken heart would ever truly mend.
Being in Boston wasn't helping as much as she'd hoped. Brynne had been many things in her former life–a rancher, a sister, a wife, a mother, a bandit–but she'd never been a social pariah before. She wasn't finding the experience enjoyable.
Well, perhaps pariah was a bit of a stretch. Her in-laws' reputation and position in social circles saved her from being completely shunned. But it didn't stop the gossip mills from running full tilt, nor did it stop the cream of the crop from grinning politely to her face and turning their noses up at her the second her back was turned.
Brynne put down her cup and turned her face to the sun, welcoming the weak warmth of the unseasonably warm day. The small restaurant was one of her favorite spots. It wasn't often that she got to enjoy being out of doors, alone with her reflections. Her well-meaning in-laws had been nothing but kind and welcoming, taking her in without hesitation when she'd shown up on their doorstep with her daughter and sister in tow after the death of her husband. But they were sticklers when it came to society's rules. Leaving the house unaccompanied was a near impossibility, and for a woman who was more used to riding the range with a bandana covering her face and taking care of herself no matter what the situation, it was a lot to get used to.
Brynne missed the freedom of being on her own, as well as the more relaxed life on the ranch. On the ranch, life had been about survival. Here, life was about one's position in society. There were a few eccentrics, to be sure, more than Brynne had expected. But being an odd stick was only acceptable if you belonged to the right family, had the right connections, or had enough money to make everyone forget everything else.
Brynne had the money all right, but her background was a bit hazy (and she wanted to keep it that way) and the only connections she had were her in-laws. Granted, it was a good connection. Being the widow of the eldest Forrester son had opened a few doors, at least a crack, that would have been slammed in her face in other circumstances.
The waiter came back to refill her cocoa. It was a terrible indulgence, but Brynne couldn't give it up. She'd never tasted hot chocolate before moving to Boston and it had become something of a guilty pleasure.
"Thank you, Walter," she said, smiling up at the waiter. She'd gotten to know most of the staff fairly well during her daily visits and Walter was one of her particular favorites. He always brought her a little extra goodie.
He nodded and then hovered for a moment. "What is it, Walter?"
"Forgive me, ma'am, but I was wondering if you was still needing staff for your new home."
"Yes, I am," she answered, hoping he might have a good lead or two for her.
Unfortunately, her tenuous hold on propriety hadn't helped her replace the staff she needed for the house. Nearly all of the old staff had followed the previous owners to their new home. Not surprising, really, considering that the new owners had stayed in town and servants who had been with their families for years tended to be loyal. At least the good ones.
Still, of the few who had chosen to remain, only Mrs. Krause, the housekeeper, would pass Brynne's mother-in-law's muster. There was also Old Mr. Cotton, the former butler. When Brynne said old, she wasn't exaggerating. The man had to be eighty, at least. No longer really fit to fulfill his duties, but Brynne could hardly turn the man out. However, she'd put out an advertisement for a replacement for him. She needed a butler who could actually run the household. Perhaps Mr. Cotton could be a sort of advisor. Most likely he would be content enough to sit by the fire in the kitchen and doze.
"Did you know someone looking for employment?"
"Yes, ma'am," Walter said with a smile. "My little brother, Charlie. He's real good with horses. He'd make a good footman or stable boy if you have any need of someone like that."
"I do indeed." Brynne smiled, her mood considerably lighter. "The renovations are finally complete and I'll be needing the staff in place shortly. Why don't you send him along and we'll see how he works out."
Walter jotted down the address she gave him. "Thank you, ma'am. He'll be excited when I tell him." He gave her a little bow and went back to work with a grin.
At least that was one position she could check off the list. If Charlie was half as likeable as his brother, they should have no problems. As for the other staff ... Brynne pondered the pathetically small group of men who had responded for the butler position. She would scrap it all and run the house herself, but she knew her mother-in-law would never allow that. If Brynne was going to live on her own, she needed a properly staffed household.
Truth to tell, she'd need one more for efficiency's sake than for propriety. Her new home was a far cry from the ranch house she'd grown up in. She'd need a full staff to keep the place from crumbling like a broken fence in a stampede beneath her feet.
"Ah, Mrs. Forrester. Imagine running into you twice in the same day."
Brynne suppressed an eye roll and tacked on a grin. She would bet her best steer that Mrs. Morey would rather be force-fed a rattlesnake than run into Brynne even once, let alone twice, in the same day. Still, it wouldn't do to be impolite. "Mrs. Morey, how nice to see you."
Mrs. Morey smirked and looked around. "Are you here alone?"
The woman's face puckered like she'd sucked on a lemon and Brynne held her breath to keep any of her thoughts from showing on her face. Honestly, it wasn't as if she were the only woman who walked about town on her own. Granted, she wasn't in the most fashionable area in the city, but it suited her.
Still, Brynne had no fears of being on her own. She knew how to handle herself. And anything she couldn't handle, the gun in her handbag would take care of for her. It wouldn't be the first time she'd had to shoot someone. Wandering about the streets of Boston was probably one of the safest pastimes in which Brynne had ever engaged. Not that Mrs. Morey needed to know any of that.
"Are you alone?" she asked, not seeing anyone with the irritating woman.
"Heavens no," Mrs. Morey replied, her hand fluttering to her chest in shock at such a suggestion. "Billy is across the street picking up a few items for me, and Mrs. Kendler and her daughters will be joining me shortly. They've been volunteering their time at Dr. Oliver's clinic. The man is a true saint." She leaned in as if she had some great secret. "He treats all the poor unfortunates in the area, often without pay."
Excerpted from A Bandit's Broken Heart by Michelle McLean, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Michelle McLean. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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