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The Blacksmith's Son
By Rebecca Thomas, Robin Haseltine, Kerri-Leigh Grady
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Rebecca Thomas
All rights reserved.
1842, Liverpool, England
Ally's steps slowed and she glanced between buildings. Lightning flashed in the distance, temporarily rendering her blind against the black of night. She peered down the street, seeking any signs of movement. Carefully, she set the rifle down to tighten the belt holding up her trousers. She double-checked her cap, making sure no strands of hair fell loose.
After she was positive no one followed her, she picked up her rifle and crept along the stable's back entrance. An ominous boom of thunder rumbled, and a drizzle of rain spit across her cheeks. She paused, lingering in the shadows of the stable, waiting for any sign of people.
She leaned her shoulder against the door, gripping her rifle in one hand and a lantern in the other, and stepped inside. Wariness grazed her spine as she studied each hinged gate along the dirt walkway. Licking the rainwater from her lips, she gazed into the last stall on the right at the colt.
The young sorrel lay on his side, his body thrashing. Terror blazed in his dark brown eyes. He struggled to stand. His back leg was splinted and wrapped and unable to support his weight. Ally set the lantern down beside the colt with trembling hands. A wave of nausea overcame her. She clutched her stomach and willed her nerves to settle.
A spattering of rain sounded on the roof in a low, steady hum. She pressed the cool base of the rifle stock against her cheek and hardened her resolve to do what must be done. The metal from the trigger burned into her finger. Gently, she placed the tip of the barrel against the colt's temple. The colt's dark eyes widened.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered in a raspy puff of breath.
She steadied her hold on the rifle.
The colt looked at her as though he understood, as though he'd already forgiven her.
"I can't do it." The rifle slipped from her hands. She fell to her knees and retched.
Defeated, she dropped her chin to her chest and cried. How could anyone let an animal suffer so? She had to take him out of his misery. She had to.
A loud crash at the front stable door jolted Ally from her despair. Footsteps followed the screech of gate hinges.
"You there, boy —" The man pointed a slim finger at her. "What do you think you're doing?"
Her blood turned cold in a jolt of recognition. She knew that face. Harrison Cross, the Earl of Linford. "M — Milord, I was just attending to this colt."
"You." A murderous rage flashed in the depths of his ice blue eyes.
She knew those eyes, and she prayed he didn't recognize her. Still crouched on her knees, she reached for the cool metal of the rifle like a lifeline.
He stomped toward her. "You had words with my squire. He told me about you. Just because you overheard what the blacksmith said about my animal doesn't mean you know what's best for it."
She couldn't have dreamed this colt belonged to the one man she never wanted to see again. "I —"
The back of his hand struck the side of Ally's head, sending her careening across the stall. Pain shot through her shoulder as she slammed against the wall. Before she could speak, he slapped her again. Her head snapped to the side.
"The colt is suffering," she said through gritted teeth. Her cheek burned, and blood dribbled down her chin. She tasted its coppery trace. Any worries about her identity being discovered fled, and only thoughts of the colt remained. "'Tis best to take him out of his misery."
Ally struggled to her feet, still gripping the rifle. "His leg is broke. He'll never walk again."
"You think I don't know his leg is broke, you insolent lad?" The earl took a step, grabbed the rifle out of her hands, and threw it to the ground.
Through the pocket of her baggy trousers, her pistol weighed against her leg. She reached for it, but the earl shoved her backward.
"This colt was bred from the best bloodlines in all of England." The spray of saliva pelted her face, and the stench of liquor assaulted her. "As long as he can mount a mare, he's worth keeping alive."
The touch of his hands coiled around her shoulders and seared her skin. "Milord, the fracture is compound."
"You dare to speak to me in such a manner?" His eyes bulged. "Where is your father?" He spat each word. "For if he'll not beat you, I'll do it myself."
He raised his hand high in the air.
"Unhand the lad," a deep voice reverberated from within the stable.
The earl swung around.
Taking advantage of the chance for escape, she pulled away from his grasp and dashed around him. His meaty hand locked around her arm and yanked her back. She never saw the blow coming. His fist connected with her jaw and sent her headlong into the wall.
Blackness enveloped her.
* * *
After years at sea, Quentin had docked in Liverpool with nothing but sleet and rain to welcome him back to his homeland. The wound in his left thigh ached worse than ever. He purchased a horse and had meant to tuck him into the stable tonight. He'd sleep, then ride two days to Manchester before arriving to his family's estate at last.
Over the last month, he'd lost track of the days as he sailed from China. Britain's victory at the Battle of Amoy served England's purposes, but his leg took a bullet in the fray. His life as a captain in the British Royal Navy had been arduous, but finally, after ten godforsaken years and his commission completed, he was almost home. All he needed now was rest and time to heal.
Inside the stable's blessed dryness, a harsh voice resounded in anger. Quentin's eyes adjusted to the lantern light, and he strained to hear the words being said. He handed off his reins to a stable boy and had every intention of leaving, but a small pleading voice drew him in. Tugging off his gloves, he strode down the narrow dirt walkway. He slipped off his frock coat and felt hat, and tossed them over the door of an empty stall.
Indignation took over his good sense as a well-dressed man cold-cocked a young lad, sending the boy into the rafters. He grabbed the back of the man's dress coat and flung him to the ground. His silk top hat tumbled from his head.
"What the hell?" the man cursed.
"Leave the lad be." Quentin's gaze cut to the crumpled lifeless ball amongst the straw and dust, then back to the man.
The man staggered to his feet and wiped a trickle of blood from his lip. "Do you have any idea who I am?"
Quentin knew him only too well and had hoped to never see him again. Memories of the man who had very nearly become his brother-in-law came to mind, but the real question was why Harrison Cross, Earl of Linford, didn't recognize him. Had he changed that much, or was the earl too deep in his cups? "I know who you are."
"Then you'll not question my actions. The lad was about to shoot my horse."
"It does not give you the right to beat on innocent children."
The earl's face contorted from red to purple. He launched himself at Quentin.
They catapulted out of the stall and slammed into another gate. Dust flew up, and a horse whinnied. Fists flailed, both men connecting with jaws and temples. Quentin's size gave him the upper hand, but not before the earl landed a hard left to his eye.
Quentin staggered but managed to stay upright. A blow to Linford's midsection sent the earl lurching backward to the ground.
"If what the boy says is true, if the fracture is compound, the colt needs to be put down," Quentin said.
The earl clawed at a stall door and righted himself. He leaned against the wall, brushing the straw and dirt from his person. The stench of liquor hung in the air. "You'll not lay a hand on my animal."
"And you'll not touch the boy."
Linford held his side, breathing heavily. Quentin tensed for another attack. Instead, the earl eyed him with annoyance. Then something passed over his features, something Quentin couldn't name. Had he finally been recognized? With a look of cool disdain, the earl straightened his cravat, still fixed in place by a gold pin, placed his tall hat back on his head, and strode out of the stall. "We'll finish this another time."
Quentin said nothing, only watched Linford's squared shoulders as he departed. What had his sister ever seen in him? Of course, he knew the answer to that. Harrison Cross had seemed a decent fellow. At least Lenora had thought so, until she'd given up on him and chosen another.
Quentin stooped next to the boy. Blood seeped from under his cap and down his forehead, but his pulse beat strong. A moan escaped the lad. Though he would probably recover quickly enough, he needed to be warm and dry.
After donning his frock coat and hat, Quentin scooped up the boy and carried him outside. The rainstorm had turned into a torrential downpour.
Lightning flashed on the horizon, illuminating his way across the muddied streets. He stumbled, nearly dropping the boy as the ache in his leg intensified. In his exhausted state, every movement proved difficult.
Why was he always moved to clean up other people's messes? Rain streaked muddy rivulets across the boy's face. The sight of the pathetic youth made his heart swell — he'd seen too many boys die in battle.
At the front doors of the dockside inn, he hailed the innkeeper. A short, elderly man with a hunched back beckoned for him to follow upstairs. The old building smelled of wood smoke and fermented ale. Laughter and boisterous voices bellowed from the taproom.
"Who have you got there, milord?" asked the innkeeper.
Quentin's eye — where the earl had landed one good blow — throbbed. He struggled to negotiate the stairs.
"Looks like ye both were in a scuffle," the old man continued, undaunted by his silence.
Quentin grumbled. "The lad has taken a knock to the head. I expect he'll recover once he's dry and rested. Do you know who he belongs to?"
The innkeeper halted and gazed at the lad's face. "Nope. Can't say that I do. Should I call a doctor?"
"No. Send up food, ale, and a basin of water."
Why couldn't he have minded his own business, put his horse away, and walked out of the stable? He'd be asleep by now, warm and dry. Instead, he was making excuses to a nosy innkeeper who looked at him with suspicion, questioning his actions.
"Right away, milord. He yer boy?"
"No," he barked. "Would you like to take him?"
"No, no. I don't need another mouth to feed." When they reached the second floor, the innkeeper opened the door to a small room with brown, unadorned paneled walls. A fire burned in the hearth. A simple bed and end table were positioned against the opposite wall.
"I'll send up a maid with some food for ye. And let me know if ye change your mind about a doctor. I'll be right back with water so you can clean up that eye of yers."
Quentin grunted and turned his back on the man. Careful not to jostle the lad, he placed him on the bed.
The boy mumbled, "Where ... ?"
"Hush, now." Quentin removed his frock coat and hat and shook the excess rain from them. I'm going to take care of you ... against my better judgment.
The boy rose on shaky elbows. "The colt ..." His head lolled, then fell back onto the pillow.
Quentin sat on the edge of the bed. "You took quite a bump."
After a knock, the door to the tiny room swung open. Toting a basin of water, the innkeeper backed into the room and placed it on the desk near the bed. "It's quite a storm we got goin' out there."
"That will be all." Quentin turned his attention back to the boy.
After the innkeeper left, Quentin set about removing the boy's rain soaked clothes.
The lad wore a shirt tucked into corduroy trousers at least two sizes too big. Quentin pulled the boy's shirt over his head, only to find another layer of fabric wrapped tightly around his chest. He repositioned him against the wall and unwound the damp bandaging from around his ribs.
A whimper escaped the boy. He attempted to push himself upright.
"Lad, you're going to be all right. I need to rid you of these wet clothes."
The lad was a skinny little thing. Not much to him at all. He continued to unwind the confining cotton cloth. An old injury perhaps. Cracked ribs? Mayhap the boy got into fights often.
Lifting him up slightly, Quentin removed the last of the clinging cloth. With infinite care, he laid him back onto the pillow and froze.
Two lovely breasts rose to meet his gaze. They were round and full like peaches that had been kissed by the sun. Pert little nipples matched the small stature of the child. But truly, this was no child, and indeed, no lad at all.
"I'll be damned."
Still as stone for a brief second, he then pulled up the blanket to cover her. His trousers tightened in appreciation of her loveliness. He removed the lass's fitted cap, only to reveal cotton wrappings around her head. Each unfurling of the cloth exposed more long cinnamon colored tresses.
"I'll be damned again." What was she doing in that stall with Linford's colt? He stroked the side of her cheek. Her skin felt cool as marble.
Bloody hell. The rest of her sodden clothes needed to come off, although he was loath to remove them. Certainly, if she dressed like this, she didn't want anyone knowing she was a woman and had secrets she hadn't meant to share.
If Quentin planned on removing her rain-soaked clothes, however, he needed to strengthen his efforts to avert his gaze.
Concern for her reputation as a woman alone with an unmarried man pulled at him from one side, while worry over her need to hide beneath boy's clothing plagued him from the other. Surely, she must have a good reason for doing so.
Quentin lifted the blanket and unfastened the oversized trousers. He lifted her hips with one hand and tugged the damp fabric free with the other. A small pistol fell from the trouser pocket and plopped on the floor.
Questions about this woman increased by the minute. Under the sheer fabric of her drawers, her long legs and concave belly were those of a mature woman. How could a red-blooded man look upon this woman and not admire such beauty? He shook his head, gathered her legs, and tucked them under the coverlet before the graceful curve of her rounded hips distracted him further.
The room needed more heat to dry the dampness from her limbs and drawers. After adding coal to the fire, he stared into the hearth in an effort to cool the riotous pumping in his veins.
A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. A maid stood outside holding a tray with mutton and potato stew, bread, a basin of water, and ale. She bobbed a curtsy and attempted to move around him, but he blocked her path. "I'll take the tray. There's no need for you to come in."
With a curious glance toward the bed, she handed the tray to him. He dismissed her. After placing the food on the end table, he poured himself a glass of bitter ale and took a long pull, then grabbed the basin.
He wondered how long his temporary roommate had been living this subterfuge and recalled the argument from the far side of the stable. There was mention of a blacksmith. From the amount of ash covering her face, it was possible she worked for a blacksmith — however unlikely.
He sat beside her with the water and wiped the smudges of dirt from her angled cheekbones. The cut on her forehead didn't look deep. Thank goodness. She appeared as fragile as a sparrow, and he wondered how he ever could have mistaken her for a boy.
Each swipe of ash from her countenance revealed something more stunning. Wide set eyes, full lips, and pointed chin. Her sunburned skin hid a splash of freckles across her nose. Mayhap the freckles were what contributed to her boyish look under all the ash.
For now, he'd let her rest, but in the meantime, he'd return to the stables to find out the story behind the colt.
* * *
Ally opened her eyes and blinked once, then closed them again. This place didn't look or feel or smell familiar. She must be dreaming.
"Are you well?" a low voice asked. "Open your eyes." The voice sounded so at ease giving commands, she could do nothing but comply. Her head throbbed. Light from the oil lamp on the end table filtered across the floor. She raised her hand to block the glow.
"The light," she said. "It hurts my eyes."
The man dimmed the light, and she sighed.
His face hovered inches above hers, and her gaze locked with gray eyes the color of smoke. His dark brown hair curled at the ends, framing the angular edges of his jaw. If she was dreaming, she didn't want to wake up. The man smelled of rainwater and the warm, wet earth. For a brief second, she felt comforted and safe.
The rain — the wind — the colt, everything came at her in a rush. What was she doing here? And who was this man?
"Are you all right?" he asked. The voice held a commanding tone, but within it, a strand of concern as well.
Excerpted from The Blacksmith's Son by Rebecca Thomas, Robin Haseltine, Kerri-Leigh Grady. Copyright © 2013 Rebecca Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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