Frances Hadley has managed her family's estate for years. So why can't she request her own dowry? She'll have to go to London herself and knock some sense into the men interfering in her life. With the nonsense she's dealt with lately, though, there's no way she's going as a woman. A pair of breeches and a quick chop of her red curls, and she'll have much less to worry about...
Jack Valentine, third son of the famous Duchess of Love, is through being pursued by pushy young ladies. One particularly determined miss has run him out of his own house party. Luckily the inn has one bed left. Jack just has to share with a rather entertaining red-headed youth. Perhaps the two of them should ride to London together. It will make a pleasant escape from his mother's matchmaking melodrama!
"MacKenzie has penned another humorous Regency-era gem that will get a collective thumbs-up from readers."
~Shelley Mosley, Booklist
"MacKenzie delights her devoted fans once again with a quick-witted, steamy romp. Add a touch of mystery and another bright tale of love and laughter is born. An engaging, and meddlesome, cast whips this lusty tale into a perfect heart-holiday treat!"
~Anne Black, RT Book Reviews
"...a rollicking good read that's sweet and spicy..."
~Jane Bowers, Romance Reviews Today
4.50 / 5 -Reviewer Top Pick
"I recommend this book to all my fellow historical romance fans."
~Debra Taylor, Night Owl Reviews
Appearances can be deceiving.
--Venus’s Love Notes
Miss Frances Hadley staggered up to the Crowing Cock’s weather-beaten door, her legs, backside, and feet throbbing with each step.
Blast it, men rode astride all the time. How could she have guessed the experience would be so painful? And having to walk the last half mile in Frederick’s old boots hadn’t helped. Damn icy roads.
She took a deep breath of the sharp, winter air. And if Daisy was lame—
She scowled at the door. If her horse was lame, she’d figure out another way to get to London. Hell, she’d walk if she had to. She was not going home to Landsford. To think Aunt Viola had been going to help Mr. Littleton with his nefarious scheme—
Oh! Every time she thought about it, she wanted to hit something—or someone.
She put her hand on the door. The drunken male laughter was so loud she could hear it out here. Pot-valiant oafs! At least drunkards were even less likely than sober men to see through her disguise. She almost hoped one of them would approach her. She’d take great delight in bloodying his nose.
She shoved open the door and was hit by a cacophony of voices and the stench of spilled ale, smoke, and too many sweaty male bodies. A barmaid, burdened with six or seven mugs of ale, rushed out of a room to her left.
“Where can I see about a bed for the night?” Frances had to shout to make herself heard. She had a deep voice for a woman, but was it deep enough? Apparently. The girl barely glanced at her.
“See Mr. Findley,” she said without breaking stride, jerking her head back at the room she’d just left, “but we’re full up.”
Oh, damn. Frances’s stomach plummeted.
She would not despair. If worse came to worst, she’d find a corner of the common room and sleep there. Or perhaps the innkeeper would let her stay in the stables. Even if Daisy were able to carry her, she could not go any farther. Night was coming on.
She went through the narrow doorway. A stout man with a bald head and an equally stout, gray-haired woman were sitting at a scarred wooden table, eating their dinner. Frances inhaled. Mutton and potatoes. Not her favorite dishes, but she was so hungry, the food smelled like ambrosia.
“Tonight’s the duchess’s ball, Archie,” the woman was saying. She waved a bite of mutton at him. “Do you think Her Grace found a match for Lord Ned or Lord Jack this year?”
Archie snorted. “Don’t know why this year should be any different than last year or the year before, Madge.”
“I suppose you’re right. I just—”
Frances cleared her throat. “Pardon me, but might you have a room for the night?”
The man looked over and frowned. “’Fraid every bed is full.”
“I see.” She bit her lip. Damn it.
“Oh, Archie,” his wife said, getting up. “I’m sure we can find something for the poor lad. He looks exhausted.”
“I am very tired, madam, and my horse is lame.” Frances was suddenly a hairsbreadth from groveling. Lying in a real bed would be heaven, especially compared to sleeping on the hard floor with the tosspots in the common room or on straw in the stable.
Mrs. Findley clucked her tongue. “You’re likely hungry as well.”
Frances’s stomach spoke for her, growling loudly. She flushed. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast, eight hours earlier. She should have packed something, but she hadn’t expected to be so delayed, and to be frank, she’d been too angry to think clearly.
And if she’d had a knife in her hand, Aunt Viola would not have been safe.
Mrs. Findley laughed. “Come, sit with us.” She took Frances’s arm and towed her over to the table.
“I-I don’t wish to intrude. If you could just spare a slice of mutton and a potato, I’m sure I would do very well.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” The woman pushed her into a chair and started filling a plate with food. “You must be starving.”
Frances’s stomach growled again, and Mrs. Findley laughed. “Poor boy.” She put the plate down in front of her. “Now eat before you fall over from hunger. I’m sure we can find you someplace to sleep.”
Mr. Findley was less inclined to charity. “Madge, the only room we have free is the one I save for the Valentines.”
“Well, none of them will be here tonight, will they? It’s the birthday ball, remember? They won’t miss it, no matter how much they hate attending. They’re good boys.”
Ha! Frances speared a bit of potato with her fork. Jack, the youngest of the Duke of Greycliffe’s sons, was far from a “good boy.” Aunt Viola was forever holding him up as an example of the evils of Town. A rake of the first order and likely a procurer as well, he was rumored to know—intimately—every brothel owner in London.
“I suppose you’re right.” Mr. Findley turned his attention to Frances. “What’s your name, lad, and where are you headed?”
“Frances Had—” Frances coughed. She could use her Christian name—spelled with an i instead of an e it was a male name anyway—but perhaps she should be cautious about using her family name. “Frances Haddon. I’m on my way to London.”
“London?” Mr. Findley’s brows shot up and then down into a scowl. “How old are you? You haven’t escaped from school, have you?”
“No, sir.” She focused on cutting her meat so she wouldn’t have to meet his eyes. “I’m, er, older than I look.”
Mrs. Findley laughed. “What? Thirteen instead of twelve? Don’t try to cozen us, young sir. We’ve raised three sons. Here it is the end of the day, and you don’t have the faintest shadow of a beard.”
This pretending to be a man was more complicated than she’d thought. Frances smiled and stuffed a large piece of mutton in her mouth.
“What can your mother be thinking to let you travel alone like this?” Mrs. Findley made a clucking sound with her tongue again.
Frances swallowed. “My mother died a number of years ago, madam. I live with my elderly aunt.” Aunt Viola would not be happy with that description, but she had passed her sixtieth birthday.
“Well, I can’t fathom even an aunt, elderly or not, letting a young ’un such as yourself travel up to Town alone.” There was more than a hint of suspicion in Mr. Findley’s voice.
“My aunt wasn’t happy about it, sir,”—Viola had been shouting so loudly it was surprising they hadn’t heard her at the Crowing Cock—“but I was desperate to go.” She wasn’t about to spend one more second under the same roof as that treacherous woman. “I’m to visit my brother. I would have got to London hours ago if the roads hadn’t been so bad.” She’d meant to stay the night with Frederick, see their man of business in the morning, and then go back to Landsford and wave the bank draft for the amount of her dowry in Viola’s face before taking it, packing up, and moving out.
She frowned at her plate. She hadn’t yet figured out where she’d go, but she bloody well wasn’t going to stay one more night at Landsford. To think Viola had planned to drug her with laudanum, let Littleton into her bedroom, and then raise an alarm so he’d be discovered there by the gossiping servants.
She stabbed a bit of potato so hard, her fork screeched across the plate.
Mrs. Findley wagged her finger at her husband. “Don’t glower at the boy, Archie. You’re frightening him.” Then she turned to wag it at Frances. “And a boy your age should not be traveling by himself. There are bad men—and women—at every turn, eager to take terrible advantage of a young cub like yourself, still wet behind the ears. I’ll wager your brother hasn’t the least idea how to take charge of you. How old is he?”
Frances blinked. She would like to see Frederick try to take charge of her. If there was any taking charge to be done, she’d be the one doing it. “Twenty-four.” They were twins, but she was the elder by ten minutes.
“I don’t know, Madge.” Mr. Findley was still frowning. “It seems a bit fishy to me. I—”
“Mr. Findley,” the barmaid said from the door, “there’s a fight starting.”
“Damnation.” He glanced at his watch. “Right on time, the drunken louts.” He looked at his wife as he got to his feet. “I suppose you’re right, Madge. None of the Valentines will be needing the room, and I can see you don’t want the lad sleeping with the men out there.”
They heard a shout and what sounded like a table tipping over followed by glass shattering.
Mr. Findley sighed. “Get the boy settled while I go knock some heads together.” He picked up a wooden cudgel leaning against the wall and left to do battle with the drunks.
“Are you ready to go, Frances?”
“Yes, madam.” She didn’t want to give the innkeeper’s wife an opportunity to change her mind. She swallowed her last bite and stood. “Thank you.”
“I still don’t see how your aunt could have let you travel alone, especially after that dreadful blizzard. The roads were barely passable—well, not passable at all once it clouded up and everything refroze.” Mrs. Findley led her out of the room and up the stairs. She looked back, frowning. “You didn’t sneak away while she was busy elsewhere, did you?”
“Oh no, madam. My aunt saw me off.” With a string of curses.
She looked down so Mrs. Findley wouldn’t see the fury in her eyes. Thank God she’d overheard that louse Felix Littleton this morning. If she hadn’t stopped in Mr. Turner’s store to read Mr. Puddington’s letter—if she hadn’t dropped the damn man of business’s note and had to crawl behind a case of candles to retrieve it—she’d never have learned how Viola had been colluding with the bloody little worm.
Mrs. Findley turned left at the top of the stairs, and Frances followed her down the corridor.
Littleton—she’d recognized his whiny little voice—and his friend, a Mr. Pettigrew, whom she hadn’t been able to see but had heard all too clearly, had been laughing about the plot. Littleton had been home these last few weeks, apparently fleeing his creditors, and had been paying her court. He and Pettigrew had sniggered at how easy it was to get silly, old, desperate spinsters to lose their hearts.
She felt a hot flush climb from her breast to her cheeks. Mr. Lousy Littleton was flattering himself if he thought she’d fallen in love with him. Love. Ha! She was not susceptible to that malady. Yes, she might have begun to fancy herself attracted to the snake—he was very handsome and had been extremely attentive—but her heart had been quite safe.
But why Viola, who’d always told her that men were not to be trusted—and certainly the behavior of her absent brother and father supported that theory—would consent to help Littleton was beyond her. Frankly, she couldn’t believe it at first, but when she’d come home and confronted her aunt, Viola’s guilt had been written all over her face.
“Here you are, then.” Mrs. Findley stopped at the last room and opened the door. “It’s—”
They both jumped at the sound of another crash from downstairs.
“Oh dear, I’d better go help Archie. The men can get so obstreperous when they’re in their cups, but they’ll quiet down in just a bit.” She smiled and patted Frances on the arm. “Do sleep well.” She almost ran back down the passageway.
Frances stepped into the room, and her feet sank into thick carpet. Oh! She couldn’t track mud and slush in here. She put her hat and candle on a nearby table, closed the door, and leaned against it to tug off Frederick’s boots.
Ah. She wiggled her toes in the deep pile and looked around. Red-and-tan wallpaper covered the walls, heavy red curtains hung on the windows to keep out light and drafts, and a red upholstered chair sat by the fire. But the best thing of all was the big mahogany four-poster bed.
Which had likely been used by Lord Jack to entertain countless women. She wrinkled her nose as she jerked off her overcoat and hung it on a hook. As distasteful as the notion was, she was so tired, she couldn’t muster much moral outrage. Perhaps in the morning she’d be suitably incensed, but now she just wanted to lie down.
She slipped out of her coat and started unbuttoning her waistcoat . . .
No, better leave that on, as well as her shirt and breeches and socks—all Frederick’s castoffs. It seemed unlikely another traveler would arrive so late, but she couldn’t take any chances.
She pulled back the coverlet and climbed onto the bed, stretching her aching body over the soft, yielding, wonderful feather mattress.
She was asleep even before her head hit the pillow.
* * * * *
Lord Jack Valentine, third and youngest son of the Duke and Duchess of Greycliffe, jumped behind a pillar in Greycliffe Castle, his ancestral home. It was the last day of his mother’s annual matchmaking house party, and Miss Isabelle Wharton, spinster, was scanning the ballroom for prey.
Why did Mama have to be the ton’s premier matchmaker and subject them to this annual torture? Everyone called her the Duchess of Love. She even wrote a regular scandal sheet with marital advice--Venus’s Love Notes--that the ton’s females gobbled up like bon-bons. It was a wonder he and his brothers hadn’t expired from mortification long ago.
“Hiding?” Ash asked from his right.
Damn it, did his brother want the woman to find him? He grabbed Ash’s arm and pulled him out of sight, too. “Of course I’m hiding. Now that Ned is taken, Miss Wharton is after me.”
Ash chuckled. “I noticed.”
Ash could laugh—he was safe. Bigamy was illegal. Even though Ash and his wife had been estranged for years, they were still married, much as the matchmaking mothers might wish otherwise.
“It’s not funny, Ash. My freedom is at stake here.”
His brother frowned. “Jack, no one can force you to marry Miss Wharton.”
“I know that.” He peered around the pillar. Miss Wharton’s mass of blond ringlets bounced with determination as she scoured the room for him. She was charming in a puppyish sort of way—when she wasn’t pursuing him like a coursing foxhound. He wouldn’t put it past her to try to slip into his bed while he was sleeping tonight.
Gad. He felt a drop of sweat roll down his back. He couldn’t take that chance. “Go dance with her, will you? I’ve got to leave.”
“The castle. I’m going to London. Now.”
Ash’s brows flew up. “Are you mad?”
Miss Wharton was coming closer. “No, I’m not mad, I’m desperate. And London’s only an hour or two away.”
“Not on a night like this. It’s cold and dark, and the roads are likely as slippery as the skating pond.”
Ash was probably right, but he’d rather risk travel than Miss Wharton. “If the roads are too slick, I’ll only go as far as the Crowing Cock. Findley always saves that room for us.”
One good thing about Ash—he didn’t argue with a fellow. He just raised a skeptical eyebrow and asked, “Are you going to tell Mama?”
“Ah.” That did not sound like a good idea. “Perhaps you could tell her? Just don’t mention Miss Wharton.”
“So what am I to say? That you suddenly—in the middle of a frigid night when only the desperate or insane would go out—decided to hare off to London?”
“Just say I had urgent business in Town.”
“Mama’s not going to believe that.”
“I know.” Though it was true. There were always women and children in need of his help, but the situation was worse now. A madman the newspapers were calling the Silent Slasher was cutting women’s throats, mostly those of Covent Garden prostitutes. Panic was as thick a stench in London’s narrow, dark alleys as rotting offal. “But then you can shrug and say nothing. She won’t press you.” Mama had never tried to get them to peach on each other.
Ash looked at him a moment more and then shrugged. “Very well.”
“Lord Jack, there you are!” Miss Wharton’s hideous ringlets bounced into view.
Damn. “Ah, Miss Wharton, there you are. Were your ears burning? Ash here was just telling me how much he wished to beg a dance from you.”
“He was?” Miss Wharton’s mouth fell open.
“I was?” Ash raised both eyebrows.
Ash was only engaging in a bit of good-natured brotherly teasing, but Jack surreptitiously administered a well-placed elbow nevertheless.
“Oh yes,” Ash said, “so I was. Miss Wharton, will you join me in the next set?”
Ash managed to capture the woman’s hand, place it on his arm, and lead her away before she quite knew what was happening. She craned her neck to look back at Jack, but then she was gone. Ash, the splendid fellow, had chosen a set on the far side of the ballroom.
There was no time to waste. Jack slipped out, careful to avoid Mama’s or Father’s gaze, and ran up to his room. He threw a few things into his valise, grabbed his purse and greatcoat, and ducked down the servants’ stairs.
He stepped outside. The cold took his breath away for a moment. A thick blanket of snow muffled the lawns and gardens, while thousands of stars glittered in the cold, clear sky.
He belonged in London, but he loved the country. London was a constant din of coach wheels and horse hooves on cobblestones, drunken bucks singing and shouting. It was dirty and crowded, but the country . . .
The country’s quiet peace would be shattered by his curses if Miss Wharton caught him.
He strode toward the stables.
About forty minutes later, he was indeed cursing, but it had nothing to do with Miss Wharton. He’d almost slid off the road for the sixth time.
He should have stayed home and taken his chances, barricading the door to his room or even spending the night on Ash’s floor. The fellow snored loud enough to wake the dead, but that would have been better than breaking his—or his horses’—necks on this damn road. There was no chance in hell he’d make it to London tonight.
When he finally pulled into the Crowing Cock, he’d never been so glad to reach an innyard in his life.
Watkins, the ostler, came out to see who was arriving so late. “Lord Jack!” He ducked his head, but not before Jack saw his eyes widen. “I didn’t think to see ye tonight.”
Of course he hadn’t. Everyone for miles around knew tonight was the Valentine birthday ball, the culmination of the Duchess of Love’s yearly matchmaking house party. “I’ve urgent business in London, Watkins, and thought I’d get a start on my journey.”
Watkins blinked but didn’t point out the obvious: he was only a little closer to Town than he’d be if he’d stayed in the warmth and comfort of the castle.
“The place’s right full, milord. Lots o’ folks stopped when the chill came on.”
“I see that.” Even in the cold, the windows were wide open. Light and noise spilled out—the rumble of voices, the clink of mugs. There was little chance he could slip in unnoticed, but perhaps he’d be lucky. All he wanted was to find Findley and go to bed. Dodging Miss Wharton and struggling to keep his horses on the road had worn him out.
He left his cattle in Watkins’s capable hands and crossed the yard, pushing open the door—
“Look who’s here! Come join me, Jack.” Damn, that was Ollie Pettigrew’s booming voice. “Dantley’s gone off to the privy, and I might never see him again.”
Silence descended like a dropped window sash, and the eyes of every man in the room turned to regard Jack.
Bloody hell. So much for avoiding attention.
He strolled over to join Pettigrew, who bore a remarkable resemblance to a large bear, and the hum of conversation resumed. He’d have a quick drink, and then he’d find Findley. “What’s the matter with Dantley?”
“Ate something that didn’t agree with him.” Pettigrew pulled out his pocket watch and made a show of consulting it. “Is the ball over already?”
“I left a little early.”
“Oh ho! So did you survive another year with your bachelorhood intact?”
Did the man have to be so loud? His damn voice carried to every corner of the room. “I did.” Jack smiled at Bess, the barmaid, as she handed him a mug of ale. “Why aren’t you there?”
Pettigrew threw up his hands as if to ward him off. “I don’t care to risk my freedom at the Duchess of Love’s Valentine ball.”
Jack could sympathize with that sentiment. “So why are you in the area? I thought you hated the country.”
“Oh, I do. I definitely do. Was just down for the day, visiting a friend who fled London when the damn duns started camping on his doorstep.” Pettigrew snorted. “Idiot thought he’d marry to keep the dibs in tune rather than hang on his father’s sleeve, only the girl got wind of his plans and bolted.” He took a swallow of ale. “Just as well. Never met her, but her brother says she’s a regular shrew.”
Damn, callous blackguard. Anger churned in Jack’s gut and his fist itched to plant itself in Pettigrew’s face, but he forced himself to laugh. He had to maintain his reputation as a careless rake. It kept society from nosing out his real activities. “He was going to take on a leg shackle? Seems like a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
“Not what I would do, of course, but Littleton was feeling desperate, and the aunt just about dropped the girl into his lap. And really, one female’s much like another with the candles snuffed, as you well know.”
“Yes.” He would so enjoy drawing Pettigrew’s claret, but he’d have to deny himself that pleasure. Besides it being out of his carefully-crafted character, he was far too tired to do a fight justice, not to mention the fact that Findley wouldn’t be happy with the resulting mess.
“Littleton had hoped the girl’s maternal connections would be a source of continuing funds, but I told him he’d catch cold there. They’ve never recognized her.” Pettigrew grinned. “But don’t worry, Felix will land on his feet. His father’s sure to cough up more of the ready to tide him over to his next allowance, especially after all the uproar caused by the girl bolting.”
As if he cared what happened to the worthless sprig of the nobility. The girl, however . . .
“Where did the girl bolt to?” Surely if she was gently bred she had some relatives to help her.
Pettigrew shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“Would she go to her brother?”
“God, no! He just got married. Wouldn’t want a shrew in the house with a new wife.”
Bloody hell. “Then what of her parents?”
“Mother’s dead, father’s in foreign lands more often than not. He wouldn’t care if Littleton married her.” Pettigrew leered. “Has only one use for women, don’t you know.”
Jack gripped his mug tighter and forced himself to leer back. The girl might already be raped or sold to a brothel. “When did this happen?” Perhaps there was still time to save her. “What’s the girl’s name?”
Damn. Pettigrew’s eyes had widened in surprise at his obvious interest. “Might want to have a go at her myself,” Jack said quickly, in a practiced, lascivious tone, “especially if she’s a virgin.”
“Got a touch of the pox, do you?”
He forced himself to smile and let Pettigrew think what he would. Damn, he hated having to masquerade as a heartless rake, but the subterfuge allowed him to move through the worst areas of London without the ton constantly speculating about his real interests.
Pettigrew was shaking his head. “Sorry, but really must keep my tongue between my teeth. Littleton wouldn’t want it bruited about that he’d caused a spinster to turn tail and run. Doesn’t say much about his amatory skills, does it? And I’m quite sure the girl’s not up to your exacting standards. Littleton said she was too tall and far too skinny. Best let her go.”
Unfortunately, it seemed he would have to, with no concrete information to go on. He felt a twinge of regret, but he’d long ago come to terms with the fact that he couldn’t save every poor girl in trouble.
“Ah, here comes Dantley,” Pettigrew said. “Did you fall in, man?”
Ralph Dantley, thin and stork-like, burped. “I’ve got a mind to complain to Findley about his damn dinner.” Dantley nodded at Jack. “Hallo, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at the duchess’s ball?”
Jack did not wish to get into that subject again. He threw back the last of his ale and stood. “I left early. If you’ll excuse me, I need to see Findley about a room.”
“No rooms to be had, unless a duke’s son can make one magically appear.” Pettigrew’s voice had acquired a sharp edge. “We’ll save you a chair in case your exalted position doesn’t produce a miracle.”
“Splendid.” He’d rather sleep in the stables; the animals there would be far more congenial than Pettigrew.
Jack found the innkeeper in the taproom, feverishly filling mugs.
“Good evening, Findley.”
“Eh, I’ll be with you in just a min—” Findley turned. “Milord!” He grinned—and then his face fell. “Er, we didn’t expect you tonight.”
“Who is it, Archie?” Mrs. Findley came out of the kitchen. “Oh, Lord Jack!” Her face also lit up and then collapsed. She bit her lip. “Isn’t tonight the duchess’s and your birthday ball? It’s not over already, is it?”
“No, but I need to get back to London.” Damn. Perhaps he would be making his bed in the straw. Well, he’d slept in worse places.
Findley snorted. “You won’t be going any farther tonight. The roads are awful. But I suppose you know that.”
“I do.” His arms and shoulders ached with that knowledge. It had been the very devil keeping his horses on the road.
“And you must have missed your supper.” Mrs. Findley shook her head. “I’ll get you something to eat.”
Food had always been Mrs. Findley’s solution to any problem, which is why he and his brothers had liked stopping by the Crowing Cock so much when they were young. “I am a bit sharp-set.”
“Of course you are. Now sit down, and I’ll be back in a trice with some mutton and potatoes”—Mrs. Findley’s eyes twinkled—“and some apple pie, too.” She knew how much he liked her apple pie. She disappeared into the kitchen.
“I’m sorry to come so late and unannounced,” Jack said as he sat at the table. “And when you’re so busy as well.”
“Think nothing of it, milord. We are delighted to see you.” The worried look settled back over Findley’s face. “It’s just that—”
“You’ve put someone in the room you save for us. I quite understand. With this crowd, it would be foolish if you hadn’t.” Jack smiled as Mrs. Findley returned with a food-laden tray. “I’ll just sleep down here with the others or out in the stables.”
“You will not!” Findley was almost sputtering. “The lad will sleep with the hoi polloi. I’ll get him up straightaway.”
“No, don’t evict him on my account.” Jack cut into his mutton. Mrs. Findley was an excellent cook. “I don’t need a soft bed. I’m not made of spun sugar, you know.”
“Oh, milord, it’s all my fault Archie let the boy have the room,” Mrs. Findley rushed to say, “but the poor thing looked so tired.” The woman hesitated, and then forged on, wringing her hands. “I’m sure it is not at all what you are used to, but . . . but would you mind sharing? The—”
“Madge! Of course Lord Jack won’t share a bed.”
It wasn’t his preferred arrangement, true, but he’d done it countless times in his travels, and it looked as though that was the only way to save the poor lad from being rudely woken and tossed downstairs. “An excellent plan! That will suit admirably.”
Mrs. Findley almost sagged with relief. “Well, he’s thin as a whisper, milord. I can’t imagine he’d take up much room.”
In truth, size didn’t matter as much as sleeping habits. Some of the skinniest men made the worst bed partners, whirling like dervishes or snoring so loud they shook the rafters. He’d once ended up with a black eye after sharing a bed with a wizened little preacher.
Oh damn. Mrs. Findley was looking at him hopefully again. What else was coming?
“The boy seems far too young to be traveling by himself, milord. If you’re off to London anyway, perhaps you could watch out for him until he reaches his brother?”
Wonderful. Not only would he have a bedmate who likely grunted and squirmed and would poke him all night in the back with sharp elbows and knees, but now he was to bear-lead the lad as well.
“I’d be happy to do so, madam.” And he would, once he wasn’t so tired. He certainly didn’t want another green lad from the country wandering around London alone. He’d much rather take charge of him now than try to rescue him later. He scraped his fork over his plate to get the last bit of pie, wiped his mouth with his napkin, and stood. “Shall I go up now?”
“I need more ale, Mr. Findley,” Bess said from the doorway.
“I have a fresh tray for you, Bess. Madge, go ahead and take Lord Jack upstairs.”
“No need.” Jack said. “I know my way.”
“No, Mrs. Findley, I insist. You’re needed here.” Jack left before the woman could argue further.
When he reached the room, he opened the door quietly and shielded his candle so he didn’t wake the boy. The lad was sleeping on his side, and the covers had slipped down to his waist. Good lord, he was still wearing all his clothes. Well, not his coat, but his shirt and vest and breeches. Hopefully not his boots . . . ah no, there they were at the foot of the bed.
Red hair curled around the boy’s face, and a sprinkling of freckles dusted his nose. He did look very young. The light was too weak to see for sure, but Jack would swear the boy’s cheeks were free of even peach fuzz.
Frankly, he looked sadly effeminate. He hoped the lad was a good fighter, because pretty boys like him generally got beat up at school. Jack frowned. Or worse.
He put his candle down and stripped off his cravat, shirt, shoes, and socks. He wasn’t about to sleep in his clothes. He paused with his hands on his drawers and looked at the boy again. On second thought, he’d leave these on.
He sighed and blew out his candle. It looked like he definitely had a traveling companion. Unless the boy was much more imposing awake—which from what the Findleys had said seemed unlikely—he wouldn’t last five minutes in Town on his own.
Copyright © 2013 by Sally MacKenzie