"Her characters come alive with warmth and purpose." --Jodi Thomas, New York Times bestselling author
Heiress On The Run
Lady Arabella Lucia Fairborne has no need of a husband. She has a fine inheritance for the taking, a perfectly capable mind, and a resolve as tough as nails. But what she doesn't have is the freedom to defy her cousin's will--and his will is to see her married immediately to the husband of his choosing. So is it any wonder that she dresses herself as a scullery maid and bolts into the night?
Colin Somerville's current mission for the home office is going poorly. Who would have expected otherwise for a rakish spy tasked with transporting a baby to the care of the royal palace. But when, injured and out of ideas, Colin stumbles upon a beautiful maid who knows her way around a sickroom, it seems salvation has arrived. Until he realizes that though Lucy may be able to help him survive his expedition, he may not escape this ordeal with his heart intact…
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Chasing The Heiress
By Rachael Miles
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Rachael Miles
All rights reserved.
"Do you have her?" Archibald Pettegrew, Lord Marner, already knew what the answer would be, and he ground his pen into the desk pad before him, crushing its tip.
Ox looked at the ground, hat in hands, his hulking frame braced against his employer's displeasure. He shook his head. "We've watched all the stages to London for three weeks. We thought we had her in Shrewsbury, even snuck into a garden party to snatch her, but it weren't your lady."
"She's not my lady, you fool." Marner crumpled the letter he had been writing. "But she must be found."
"She can't have gone far — not on foot. She has no money, no friends. None of the farmers on their way to market remember seeing her, and none gave her a ride. We asked at all the tollbooths for a dozen miles." Ox's tone was more frustrated than conciliatory. "If she's between here and Shrewsbury, she can't stay lost forever."
"That's what you said two weeks ago and again last week." Marner rose from his chair. Placing his hands firmly on the desk, he leaned forward over the broad expanse of wood. "What if you were wrong? What if she didn't head to Shrewsbury? What if she had traveled to one of the other market towns and from there to London?"
Ox ran a broad hand across his jaw. "On this side of the canal ... nearest market town is eight miles northwest across rough country — hills, forest to the south, then there's the river, and even if she could have gotten that far, she didn't cross at the Montford bridge. No, we have her pinned. And soon she'll bolt."
Marner wasn't appeased. "What if she crossed the canal? A child could swim it at most places."
Ox swallowed. "Well, then, she would have been noticed, a sodden woman walking alone in a fancy dress."
"Widen your search. Check every inn on every road from Ellesmere to Bridgenorth." Marner shoved the chair back from the desk and walked to stand in front of Ox. He pointed his finger in sharp angry motions in the bigger man's face. "I need her. Here. Now. Not in a week. Now." His finger punctuated each word.
Ox recoiled slightly, then bristled and stood to his full height.
"'T'ain't my fault. If you'd given me my way," Ox spit his words, "she'd be here. In the churchyard, next to your aunt. Dead and buried with a nice tombstone to mark her grave. Simple, clean. A fall from a horse, a broken wheel on a carriage, a swim in the river turned drowning. No one would have said nay. You'd have your precious estate, and I'd be paid."
Marner turned away, pulling his rage under control. He knew better than to push Ox too far. "She ruined everything."
"I told you to keep her away from the old lady." Ox frowned. "She's a sly one. You knew that the moment she came here."
"I can still set it right. Then it won't matter how she dies." Marner's anger turned cold, hard. "But first you need to find her."CHAPTER 2
Colin Somerville woke, heart pounding, the heavy thud of cannon fire fading with his nightmare. Heavy brocaded curtains hung over the carriage windows to his left. Feeling suffocated, he shoved the curtains apart and breathed in gulps of crisp September air. Beyond the window, the sun fell gently on the green rolling hills of Shropshire. In the near distance, open pastures with grazing sheep gave way to enclosed land, where turnips were growing. He fell back against the seat. He was in England, not Belgium. It was only a dream.
Judging from the position of the sun, they should reach Shrewsbury by dusk. He rubbed his face with his hands, pressing his fingertips into the tight muscles at his forehead and temples. To calm his heart, he used an old trick his brother Benjamin had taught him. He focused on naming the various scents in the air — wool, newly harvested wheat, dirt loosened to pull the turnips, and water. Likely the Severn.
His companion, Marietta, grew restless in her sleep. He stilled. She curled her hand under her chin and nestled farther into the down-filled pallet tucked into the well between the two carriage seats. Colin had bought her the thick pallet that morning at Wrexham. The gift had cost him more than he could easily afford, but her widening smile had been worth the cost. Since then, she'd spent the day sleeping, her back to one seat riser, her swollen belly pressed against the other.
A line of bright sunlight from beneath the window curtains shone above Marietta's head like a nimbus. But unlike the Madonnas he had seen at Rome or Venice, whose faces were lit with an internal glow, Marietta — even in rest — looked weary. The dark hollows in her cheeks, the deep circles under her eyes, the bluish undertone to her lips, all reminded him of the El Grecos he'd seen at Toledo. He thought of his sister Judith's confinements — she had never looked so ill, not with any of her four boys. If Harrison Walgrave had sent him to bury another woman ... He pushed away thoughts of Marietta dying, reminding himself instead of how Walgrave had presented the mission.
"It's straightforward." Walgrave had held out the address of a cottage in Holywell and a miniature portrait. "Escort the widow of one of the Prince Regent's Habsburg cousins from the western coast of Flintshire to London." The portrait revealed a pixie face with auburn hair and emerald eyes. A sweet face. An innocent face. His gut had twisted. Leaving the items in Walgrave's hand, Colin had turned to the door.
"Find someone else. I'm not your good soldier anymore."
"It's not that easy. I offered Barclay and Sundern. But Prinny wants you. Apparently your work at ..."
Colin had paused, his hand on the doorknob, waiting for the word "Brussels." The churning in his stomach turned into a wave of nausea.
"... Edinburgh has not gone unnoticed. The prince regent considers this a personal favor." Walgrave had tossed the miniature at him, and Colin had caught it automatically. "And be charming. Prinny specifically mentioned your wit and charm. I didn't tell him you've become a scowling misanthrope."
Colin resisted the sudden urge to throw the miniature at Walgrave's head and storm away. "Perhaps you should have. I'd rather be sent into the worst hell in London where I can scowl as I please than play nursemaid to a spoiled Habsburg princess."
Walgrave had raised one shoulder in a half-shrug. "Since I could not dissuade Prinny, I at least made it worth your while." He held out an official document on heavy parchment.
Colin read the contents, then folded it, all without comment. Walgrave waited silently until Colin held out his hand for the address. "After this, I'm finished. No more missions. No more death. No more lies." Walgrave had nodded his acceptance.
It had taken Colin two days to travel to Holywell, two days in which he had steeled himself to smile and be charming. But ultimately the princess had charmed him. Heiress to a mining magnate, Marietta had caught the eye of a visiting (and impoverished) member of the Habsburg royal family. Though she had been impeccably trained at the best finishing school in Paris, when Colin arrived, he found her teaching the housekeeper's parrot to curse in five European languages. "Don't call me Princess," she whispered, casting a grim eye to the housekeeper, hovering at the edge of the terrace. "Or she will raise my rate."
It had taken three more days to separate Marietta's possessions into two groups: those which the carriage could carry and those which would have to be shipped from Liverpool around the coast to London. Most difficult had been determining exactly which clothes she could (and could not) do without for her first week at court. Then, just when he had thought that they might set out, she had insisted that his coachman, Fletcher, accompany her trunks across the inlet to ensure they were well stowed for their London journey. All told, he had been gone from London for more than a week before he bundled Marietta, her paints, her embroidery, her knitting, her books, and a handful of magazines into the carriage and set off on their trip. But somehow he had not minded. Marietta was sweet, resilient, and companionable, anticipating the birth of her child with real joy.
He shifted in his seat, but his legs — outstretched on the backward-facing seat to give Marietta more room — felt like leaden weights, long past numb from a lack of circulation. He moved one foot down into the small space remaining between Marietta's feet and the carriage door. The blood began to move agonizingly into one set of toes.
He unfolded his map and began to recalculate their trip. Holywell to London was two hundred and eight miles. Even a mail coach, traveling at seven miles an hour, could travel the distance in thirty-two hours, and his brother's third-best carriage was able to clip along at ten. But the princess needed substantive food, frequent stops, a real bed at night, and opportunities to shop at any tempting village store they passed. Their first day, they traveled only to Wrexham. Twenty-six miles in six hours. Their second day would measure little more. He had already promised she could spend the night — and morning — in Shrewsbury. Using his forefinger as a measure, he counted off the miles from Shrewsbury to London. The return would take a sennight, if he were lucky.
Marietta moaned and tried to shift her weight. Why — he berated himself for the fiftieth time — hadn't he borrowed a better carriage? One with ample seats, thick comfortable bolsters, and better springs. If he were to play escort to a pregnant princess, why hadn't the Home Office informed him? Had they intentionally withheld the information? Or had they not known?
He forced his attention back to the map. If Marietta gave birth on the road with only him and Fletcher for midwives, he would kill someone in the Home Office. He wasn't yet sure who. Perhaps the lot of them, but he would begin by strangling Harrison Walgrave.
The carriage began to slow, the springs creaking into a new rhythm. Colin waited for Fletcher to offer the usual signals: two slow taps for an inn, a fast double-tap for a crossroads, and a heavy heel-kick for danger. But no taps, kicks, yells, or pistol shots alarmed him, except perhaps the nagging absence of any warnings.
Colin tapped on the roof and waited. No response. His senses grew more alert, listening, but he heard nothing beyond the normal sounds of a country road.
Even so, he shifted his second foot — still numb — from the opposite seat to the floor and slid several inches toward the middle of the bench. There, Colin moved a cushion aside to reveal a built-in pistol cabinet that had been added by his brother, the Duke of Forster.
His movement wakened Marietta, and she began to speak, but he held up his finger before his lips, then touched his ear. Be quiet: I'm listening. Her green eyes, always expressive, widened, and she nodded understanding. She pulled the thick feather comforter up over her belly, as if to hide.
The door handle moved slightly as someone tried to open the door. Luckily Colin had bolted it from the inside. Their highwayman grew frustrated, pulling against the door handle several times.
Reacting viscerally, Colin wrenched the pistol cabinet door open. But before he could withdraw the pistols, the window glass shattered inward. Marietta recoiled and tried to push herself up as the curtains were torn away, wrenched outward. Colin moved to protect Marietta, trying to place himself between the princess and the broken window. But his feet found no solid purchase, just a river of down shifting beneath his weight. Losing his balance, he fell back hard onto the seat.
Two hands in long leather gloves, each holding a pistol, reached through the window frame into the carriage.
As in battle, everything slowed. Both pistols pointed at a spot in the middle of his chest. At this range, he had no hope of surviving. And he felt more relief than fear.
Colin held out his hands to show he was unarmed. He could see nothing of the highwayman. Only a dark duster and a mask.
The guns didn't fire.
One pistol shifted to the opposite seat. But Marietta wasn't there. Seeing her on the floor, the highwayman repositioned his sights.
Realizing in an instant this was no robbery, Colin flung himself between Marietta and the barrel. He heard the cock of the trigger, saw the flash of fire, and felt the hit of the ball in his side. Black powder burned his flesh.
Dark smoke filled the cabin, and he choked, coughing.
His ears rung from the boom of the gunshot, but he saw the flash of the second pistol firing along with a shower of sparks from the side and barrel of the gun. He felt Marietta's scream. He pulled himself up, half standing, one hand against the carriage roof to steady himself. His side stabbed with pain at each expansion of his lungs.
Marietta tried to rise behind him, choking as well. She pulled against the clothes on his back, but he brushed her hands away. When the smoke cleared, his body would stand between Marietta and their assailant. He would die. But after Belgium, he felt dead already — what would be the difference?
Marietta beat the backs of his legs. Small burning embers burned on Marietta's pallet. Some of the lit sparks from the pistols had fallen onto the down-filled bed. He assessed the dangers automatically. Once the embers ate past the woolen cover and fire caught the feathers, the danger would spread quickly.
Still on the floor, Marietta pushed herself backward toward the opposite door, kicking the smoldering bolsters and pallet away from her. With each kick, she further entangled his feet. He couldn't reach her, at least not easily. And he couldn't reach and load a gun without stepping from his defensive position in front of her. Thick smoke burned his eyes.
With neither sound nor sight to help him, he had to choose: the dangers of the fire, growing with each second, or those of the highwaymen who could be waiting outside. Tensing, he unbolted the door, pushed it open, and leapt out. His leg hitting wrong, he fell and rolled into the ditch beside the road. He raised himself cautiously. The highwaymen were gone, having attacked, then left. Not robbers then.
He pulled himself to standing. He should worry about Fletcher and the postboy, Bobby, but there was no time. Smoke from the feather- stuffed pallet billowed from the coach. He could see Marietta's legs, vigorously kicking the smoldering bed away from her. She was alive, but trapped against the locked door on the opposite side of the carriage.
Ignoring the pain below his ribs, he pulled hard on the pallet, dragging a portion through the coach door. Already, the smoldering feathers were breaking through the wool in patches of open flame. He heaved again, releasing all but a third from the coach. Flames began to dance across the pallet.
If the pallet broke apart before he could remove it, he'd have to sacrifice the carriage, and then he could offer little protection to Marietta. He pulled hard once more, and the pallet fell onto the green verge next to the road. Then, to protect neighboring crops and livestock, he dragged the pallet, flames licking at his hands, into the middle of the road, where it could burn without harm. Once carriage and countryside were out of danger, he hunched over, hands on his knees, and tried to breathe without expanding his lower rib cage.
After a few minutes to recover his breath, Colin looked up at the carriage. Fletcher remained at his post, his body slumped forward.
Colin climbed the side of the coach, gritting his teeth against the pain. Blood oozed through the hair at the back of the coachman's head. Pressing his fingers to the older man's neck, Colin felt the beat of the artery. Alive.
Listening and watching for trouble, Colin weighed his options.
They needed to move, to get off the open road. But for that, he needed Fletcher conscious. At least he wouldn't have to explain to Cook how her man had been killed on a quiet English road after surviving a dozen campaigns against Boney.
Still unable to hear, Colin retrieved a water flask from under the coachman's seat. Tenderly cradling the older man's head, Colin washed the blood away. The wound was a long gash, slantways from the back of Fletcher's ear toward the back of his head. He pressed his fingers against the gash. Long but not deep and worst at the curve of Fletcher's head where the weapon bit hardest through the skin.
Colin lifted Fletcher's chin. "Pistol shot. Can't hear." Colin picked up the fallen reins and held them out. "Can you drive?"
Fletcher took the reins in one hand. Then, raising his eyes to Colin's, Fletcher held out his other hand, palm down, as one does when indicating a person's height.
Excerpted from Chasing The Heiress by Rachael Miles. Copyright © 2016 Rachael Miles. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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