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By Edith Layton
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Edith Layton
All right reserved.
After a hurried stop for refreshment, the Brighton-bound coach, the last coach of the night, left the muddy courtyard of the Ruddy Rooster and splashed off and down the main road again.
The flurry of excitement over, the guests at the Rooster prepared to settle in until morning. Most stayed at the tap, and most were locals, because the Rooster wasn't luxurious enough to attract many strangers apart from those on the public coaches. There were finer inns along the busy Brighton Road.
Still, it was crowded enough this night, maybe because of the rain, or maybe because there seemed to be some sort of entertainment going on.
"And so now that I've beguiled you," a smooth male voice was saying to the attentive listeners clustered around him at the long bar in front of the tap. "And bought you all another pint . . ."
This was met with a rush of laughter.
"Maybe some of you will loosen your lips?" the voice asked.
The speaker was a young man, dark as a gypsy, but dressed neatly and soberly, like a fellow with ambitions. He was certainly attractive. Of medium height, lean and trim, he wore clean linen and a devilish smile. He had ink black hair, regular features, an aristocratic nose, and in the light of the leaping hearth, his dark eyes sparked blue.
"After all," he went on smoothly, "I'm not asking after your grannies or your sisters, this is my fiancee I'm looking for. I think she may have passed this way this week. She's blond and shapely, with big blue eyes. The only man among you who could have missed her would be a blind one. Even if he was, he'd know her, because she speaks with a lisp like a highborn lady, though her father isn't any better born than mine, and mine's only as close to Quality as the bills he keeps sending them for their boots.
"I know she doesn't deserve my time after the trick she played me," the dark man continued, shrugging his shoulders, "running off on the eve of our wedding. But I forgive her because she's young and I love her madly. I do," he swore theatrically, his hand on his chest. "And so I only want to be sure she's safe. If she doesn't want me she doesn't have to take me, but I have to know she's not come to harm.
"Now," he said in a wheedling voice, "if you don't take pity on me, or her, is there anyone here who wants to earn a golden guinea? It's yours for a hint. Where is she, or have you seen her?"
The other guests at the Rooster shook their heads and shuffled their feet.
The dark young man looked around the room, and then his gaze sharpened. He saw a young woman at the back of the crowd, prim as a Puritan and just as shocked as one might have been if she'd seen the devil.
Daffyd was used to women staring at him, but not in obvious terror. His interest was caught. It would have been caught anyway. Once a man looked past her drab clothing, she was a charming little thing, with big brown eyes, a pretty face, and a neat little shape. Her only ornament was that flower face of hers; she was dressed all in gray, plain as a nun, and looked respectable as one. Not the sort of female who usually ogled him, at least not openly. He was definitely interested. And she was decidedly horrified. That interested him even more. So he looked away from her immediately, and turned his attention back to the locals he'd met at the tap.
"Not seen such a miss such as you're seeking, lad," one old fellow told him. "Leastways not here, and not of late. Blond, blue eyed, and talking like a lady? Be sure I'd remember that."
The others rumbled agreement.
"Here now," another fellow said, laughing, "You're not taking your pint back just because we can't help, are you?"
"Well you can't have mine," an old woman cackled, and then gulped down the contents of her mug. She plunked down the empty mug, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and added, "Can't see as how any miss in her right mind would leave you, anyways. Bad cess to her. Could I interest you in a female of experience, instead?" she asked, with an enormous wink.
"You could, love," Daffyd said, "if I wasn't so afraid of all your gentleman friends."
That was met with laughter, and he remained at the tap, joking with them. He took expressions of sympathy on his bad luck as well as advice on how to mend a broken heart with the same good humor. No one had any information for him; he hadn't really thought they would. The trail was growing cold. But so was he, and it had been time for dinner when that trail brought him to the inn.
Still, he reasoned, the track he was on wasn't completely without promise. If a female looked at him with horror, there had to be a reason. Could the baron's daughter have a confidante? A maid? A friend? Someone getting the lay of the land for her before she set foot in a place? Could the runaway then be close by? That made sense. Even more reason to keep his eye on the gray-clad woman.
So, of course, he pretended he'd never seen her while watching her from the corner of his eye as she was shown to a table in a far corner. Even more interesting, he thought. She wasn't running away from him. Good, he didn't feel like leaving. He was hungry and the rain was going to be an all-night affair.
"And so now, thank you all," he finally told his audience, "but even though my heart is breaking, my stomach's growling. I must have dinner.
Excerpted from Gypsy Lover by Edith Layton Copyright © 2005 by Edith Layton.
Excerpted by permission.
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