Mary Bascombe was scared. She had been frightened before—one could not have grown up in a new and dangerous land and not have faced something that set one’s heart to beating double-time. But this wasn’t like the time they had seen the bear nosing around their mother’s clothesline. Or even like the way her heart had leapt into her throat the day her stepfather had grabbed her arm and pulled her against him, his breath reeking of alcohol. Then she had known what to do—how to back slowly and quietly into the house and load the pistol, or how to stomp down hard on Cosmo’s instep so that he released her with a howl of pain.
No, this was an entirely new sensation. She was in a strange city filled with strange people, and she had absolutely no idea what to do next. She felt … lost.
Mary took another glance around her at the bustling docks. She had never seen so much noise and activity or so many people in one place in her life. She had thought the docks in Philadelphia were busy, but that was nothing compared to London. All around them were piles of goods, with stevedores loading and unloading them, and people hurrying about, all seemingly with someplace to be and little time to get there.
There were no women. The few whom she had seen disembark from ships had been whisked away in carriages with their male companions. Indeed, all the passengers from their own ship were long gone, only she and her sisters still standing here in a forlorn group beside their small pile of luggage. The shadows were beginning to lengthen; it would not be long until night began to fall. And though Mary might be a naïve American cast adrift in London, she was smart enough to know that the London docks at night were no place for four young women alone.
The problem was that Mary didn’t know what to do next. She had expected there to be an inn not far from where they left their ship. But as soon as they disembarked, she had realized that the area around these docks would not house an inn where a respectable group of young women could stay. Indeed, she was reluctant for them even to walk through the narrow streets she could see stretching out in front of her. A few hacks had come by and Mary had tried to stop one or two, but the drivers had simply rolled past, ignoring her. No doubt they presumed from the rather ragtag pile of luggage that Mary and her sisters would not be a good fare.
They could not stay here. Unless a carriage happened by soon, they would be forced to pick up their bags and walk into the narrow, dingy streets beyond the docks. Mary glanced uncertainly around her. Several of the men loading the ships had been casting their eyes toward Mary and her sisters for some time. Now, as her gaze fell on one of them, he gave her a bold grin. Mary stiffened, returning her most freezing look, and pivoted away slowly and deliberately.
She studied her three sisters—Rose, the next oldest to Mary and the acknowledged beauty of the family, with her limpid blue eyes and thick black hair; Camellia, whose gray eyes were, as always, no-nonsense and alert, her dark gold hair efficiently braided and wrapped into a knot at the crown of her head; and Lily, the youngest and most like their father, with her light brown, sun-streaked hair and gray-green eyes.
All three girls gazed back at Mary with a steadfast trust that only made the icy knot in her stomach clench tighter. Her sisters were counting on her to take care of them, just as Mama had counted on her to get the girls away from their stepfather’s house after their mother’s death and across the ocean to London, to the safety and security of their grandfather’s home. Mary had managed the first part of it. But all of that, she knew, would be for naught if she failed now. She had to get her sisters someplace safe and proper for the night, and then she had to face a grandfather none of them had ever met—the man who had tossed out his own daughter for defying his wishes—and convince him to take in that same daughter’s children. Instinctively, Mary clutched her slender stitched-leather satchel closer to her chest.
At that moment, a figure came hurtling toward them and careened into Mary, sending her sprawling to the ground. For an instant, she was too startled to move or even to think. Then she realized that her hands were empty. Her satchel! Frantically, she glanced around her. It wasn’t there.
“My case! He stole our papers!” Mary bounded to her feet and swung around, spying the running figure. “Stop! Thief !”
Pausing only long enough to cast a look at Rose and point to the luggage, Mary lifted her skirts and took off running after the man. Rose, interpreting her sister’s look with the ease of years of familiarity, went to stand next to their bags, but Lily and Camellia were hot on Mary’s heels. Mary ran faster than she had ever run, her heart pounding with terror. Everything important to them was in that case—everything that could prove their honesty to a disbelieving relative. Without those papers, they had no hope; they would be stranded here in a huge, horrid, completely strange town with nowhere to go and no one to ask for help. She had to get the satchel back!
Her sisters were right behind her; indeed, Camellia, the swiftest of them all, had almost caught up with her. But the wiry thief who had taken her case was faster than any of them. As they rounded a corner, she spied him half a block ahead, and realized, with a wrenching despair, that they could not catch him.
A few yards beyond the thief, two men stood outside a door, chatting. In a last, desperate effort, Mary screamed, “Stop him! Thief !”
The two men turned and looked at her, but they made no move toward the man, and Mary knew with a sinking heart that her sisters’ future was disappearing before her eyes.
Sir Royce Winslow strolled out of the gambling hell, giving his gold-headed cane a casual twirl before he set its tip on the ground. A handsome man in his early thirties, with blond hair and green eyes, he was not the sort one expected to see emerging from a dockside gaming establishment. His broad shoulders were encased in a coat of blue superfine so elegantly cut that it could only have been made by Weston, just as the polished Hessians on his feet were clearly the work of Hoby. The fitted fawn trousers and white shirt, the starched and intricately tied cravat, the plain gold watch chain and fobs all bespoke a man of refinement and wealth—and one far too knowing to have been caught in the kind of place frequented, as his brother Fitz would say, by “sharps and flats.”
“Well, Gordon, you’ve led me on another merry chase,” Sir Royce said, turning to the man who had followed him out the door.
His companion, a man barely out of his teens, looked a trifle abashed at the comment. Unlike Sir Royce’s, Gordon’s clothes evinced the unmistakable extremes of style and color that branded him a fop. His coat was a yellow reminiscent of an egg yolk, and the patterned satin waistcoat beneath it was lavender, his pantaloons striped with the same shade. The shoulders of the coat were impossibly wide and stuffed with padding, and the waist nipped in tightly. A huge boutonnière was thrust through his lapel, and his watch chain jangled with its load of fobs.
Gordon drew himself up in an exaggeratedly dignified manner, though the picture he hoped to create was somewhat marred by the fact that he could not keep from swaying as he stood there. “I know. I beg your pardon, Cousin Royce. Jeremy should never have told you.”
“Don’t blame your brother,” the other man replied mildly. “He was worried about you—and rightly so. You were being fleeced quite royally back there.”
Gordon flushed and started to argue, but the other man stopped him with an adroitly cocked eyebrow and went on, “You’d best be grateful to Jeremy for coming to me instead of going to the earl.”
“I should think so!” Gordon admitted in shocked tones. “Cousin Oliver would have prosed on forever about the family dignity and what I owed to my parents.”
“With good cause.”
“Here, now, don’t tell me you and Cousin Fitz never kicked up a lark!” the younger man protested.
A faint smile curved Sir Royce’s well-formed lips. “We might have done so, yes—but I would never have gotten myself kicked out of Oxford and then gone to town to throw myself into yet more scrapes.” He narrowed his gaze. “And I would never have taken it into my head to wear that yellow coat.”
“But it’s all the crack!” Gordon exclaimed.
However, his companion was no longer listening to him. Sir Royce’s attention had been caught by the sight of a man tearing down the street toward them, clutching a small leather satchel. What was even more arresting was that running after him was a young woman in a blue frock, her dark brown hair loose and streaming out behind her and her gown hiked up almost to her knees, exposing slender stocking-clad legs. Behind her were two more young women, running with equal fervor, bonnets dangling by their ribbons or tumbling off altogether, their faces flushed.
“Stop him!” the woman in the lead shouted. “Thief !”
Royce gazed at the scene in some amazement. Then, as the thief drew almost abreast of him, he casually thrust his cane out, neatly catching the runner’s feet and sending him tumbling to the ground. The man landed with a thud and the case went flying from his hands, skidding across the street and coming to a stop against a lamppost.
Cursing, the runner tried to scramble to his feet, but Royce planted a foot on his back and firmly pressed him down.
“Gordon, fetch that leather satchel, will you? There’s a good lad.”
Gordon was gaping at the thief, twisting and flailing around under Sir Royce’s booted foot, but at the older man’s words, he picked up the case, weaving only slightly.
“Thank you!” The woman at the head of the pack trotted up to them and stopped, panting. The other two pulled up beside her, and for a moment the two men and three women gazed at each other with considerable interest.
They were, Sir Royce thought, a veritable bevy of beauties, even flushed and disheveled as they were, but it was the one in front who intrigued him most. Her hair was a deep chocolate brown and her eyes an entrancing mingling of blue and green that made him long to draw closer to determine the precise color. There was a firm set to her chin that, along with her generous mouth and prominent cheekbones, gave her face an unmistakable strength. Moreover, that mouth had a delectably plump bottom lip with a most alluring little crease down the center of it. It was, he thought, impossible to see those lips and not think of kissing them.
“You are most welcome,” Sir Royce replied, pulling his booted foot off the miscreant’s back in order to execute a bow.
The thief took advantage of this gesture to spring to his feet and run, but Royce’s hand lashed out and caught him by his collar. He glanced inquiringly at the women.
“Do you want to press charges? Should we take him to a magistrate?”
“No.” The first woman shook her head. “As long as I have my case back, that is all that matters.”
“Very well.” Sir Royce looked at the man he held in his grip. “Fortunately, the lady has a kind heart. You may not be so lucky next time.”
He released the thief, who scrambled away and vanished around a corner, and turned back to the group of young women. “Pray, allow me to introduce myself—Sir Royce Winslow, at your service. And this young chap is my cousin, Mr. Harrington.”
“I am Mary Bascombe,” the young woman replied without hesitation. “And these are my sisters Camellia and Lily.”
“Appropriately so, for you make a lovely bouquet.”
Mary Bascombe responded to this flattery with a roll of her eyes. “My mother had an exceeding fondness for flowers, I fear.”
“Then tell me, Miss Bascombe, how did it happen that you are not named for a flower?”
“Oh, but I am,” she responded, smiling, and a charming dimple popped into her cheek. “My name is actually Marigold.” She watched him struggle to come up with a polite response, and chuckled. “Don’t worry. You need not pretend it isn’t horrid. That is why I go by Mary. But …” She shrugged. “I suppose it could have been worse. Mother could have named me Mugwort or Delphinium.”
Royce chuckled, growing more intrigued by the instant. The girls were all lovely, and Mary, at least, spoke as perfect English as any lady—even though there was a certain odd accent he could not quite place. Looking at their fresh, appealing faces or hearing her speech, he would have presumed that she and her sisters were young gentlewomen. But their clothes were not anything that a young lady would wear, even one just up from the country. The dresses and hairstyles were plain and several years out of date, as though the sisters had never seen a fashion book. But, more than that, the girls behaved with the most astonishing lack of decorum.
There was no sign of an older female chaperoning them. And they had just gone running through the streets with no regard for their appearance or the fact that their bonnets had come off. Then they had stood here, regarding him straightforwardly with never a blush or averted gaze or a giggle, as if it were perfectly ordinary to converse with strange men. Of course, they could hardly be expected to follow the dictum of not speaking to a man without having been properly introduced, given the way they had met. But no well-bred young lady would have casually offered up her name to a stranger even if he had helped her. And she certainly would not have volunteered the girls’ first names as Mary Bascombe had just cheerfully done. Nor would she have commented in that unrestrained way regarding her mother’s naming them. Most of all—what in the world were they doing down here by the docks?
“Are you—Americans?” he asked abruptly.
Mary laughed. “Yes. How did you know?”
“A lucky guess,” he replied with a faint smile.
Mary smiled back, and her face flooded with light. Royce’s hand tightened involuntarily on the handle of his cane, and he forgot what he had been about to say.
Mary, too, seemed suddenly at a loss for words, and she glanced away, color rising in her cheeks. Her hands went to her hair, as though she had suddenly realized its tumbled-down state, and she fumbled to repin it.
“I— oh, dear, I seem to have lost my hat.” She glanced around.
“If I may be so bold, Miss Bascombe. You and your sisters are—well, this is not a very savory area, I fear. Are you by chance lost?”
“No.” Mary straightened her shoulders and returned his gaze. “We aren’t lost.”
Behind her, one of her sisters let out an inelegant snort. “No, just stranded.”
“We got off the ship this afternoon,” explained the youngest-looking of the Bascombe sisters, turning large gray-green eyes on him. Her voice lowered dramatically. “We are all alone here, and we haven’t any idea where to go. You see—”
“Lily!” Mary cut in sharply. “I am sure that Mr. Winslow isn’t interested in hearing our tale.” She turned to Sir Royce. “Now, if you will be so kind as to hand back our case, we will be on our way.”
“Sir Royce,” he corrected her gently.
“My name. ’Tis Sir Royce, not Mr. Winslow. And I will be happy to return your case.” He plucked it from Gordon’s clasp and handed it to Mary but kept hold of it, saying, “However, I cannot simply walk away and leave three young ladies alone in this disreputable part of the city.”
“It is all right, really,” Mary argued.
“I insist. I will escort you to …” He paused significantly.
“An inn,” Mary said firmly, and tugged the case from his hand. Her chin went up a little. “Indeed, we are most grateful for your help, sir. If you will but direct us toward an appropriate inn, we shall not bother you anymore.”
Sir Royce bowed to her, schooling his face to hide his amusement. Her words were a dismissal as much as a thanks, he knew. Well, he thought, Miss Mary Bascombe might find dismissing him was easier said than done.
Mary watched as Sir Royce stepped into the street and casually lifted his cane. To her amazement, a carriage a block down started toward them. She turned back to him with a newfound respect.
She had not been sure what to think when she first saw this elegantly dressed gentleman standing in the thief’s path. He had hardly seemed the sort to engage in any sort of rough-and-tumble with the fellow who had just stolen her precious satchel. Yet, with seemingly no effort, he had tripped up the thief and given her back her case. And now he had managed to conjure up a hack for them in this uncongenial place.
Mary studied Sir Royce. She had never seen anyone with quite his air of sophistication and elegance. His clothes and boots were impeccable, and he moved with a sort of languid grace that bespoke a man of leisure. Yet it was plain to anyone with eyes that the shoulders beneath his jacket were broad and the thighs encased by his tight-fitting pantaloons were firmly muscled. This was not the effete, weak aristocrat she had heard more than one American describe as a typical British man.
She must have been staring, for Sir Royce offered her a smile. Mary’s stomach fluttered in a most disconcerting way. It was absurd, she told herself, that Sir Royce’s smile should have such an effect on her. Indeed, if she was honest, everything about the man, from his thick blond hair to his leaf green eyes, seemed to affect her in an unfamiliar way. It simply was not like her to be so strongly aware of a man’s looks—much less to feel her pulse speed up when he smiled at her. What was this peculiar warmth that curled deep within her as she gazed at him? And why did that dimple in his strong chin seem so appealing?
Sternly, she pushed such thoughts from her head. This was no time to turn foolishly girlish. She had heard tales of the sorts of people who lurked in cities, just waiting to swindle the unwary—or worse.
“How is it that you are able to summon a hack so easily?”
He raised an aristocratic eyebrow at her tone. “Suspicious, Miss Bascombe? You are probably right to be so. But I am not a white slaver patrolling the docks for lovely young American girls to abduct. And it is no hack, but my own carriage. I came in it because I was searching for young Gordon here, and I was unsure in what state I might find him. I had no desire to escort him home afoot if he was, um, a bit worse for the wear.”
Mary studied him. There was no way to know if Sir Royce was trustworthy. But he had, after all, tripped up the thief and returned her case to her, which indicated that he was a law-abiding sort. And while this Gordon fellow with him was most oddly dressed, Sir Royce appeared eminently respectable. Even to an unpracticed eye such as hers, his glossy boots and elegant coat bespoke a man of wealth, and his bearing was certainly that of a gentleman. He could be all pretense, she supposed, but she and her sisters outnumbered him; surely he could not overpower them all. Besides, they had nothing that anyone would wish to steal—that thief would have been severely disappointed when he opened her case and found it contained nothing but documents. She had heard tales of white slavers, of course, but Mary could not believe that a white slaver looked and acted as this man did.
“Please, allow me to escort you to a respectable inn,” he urged.
Mary hesitated for a moment, glancing at her sisters. Lily looked decidedly wilted, and even Camellia nodded, pulling her hand out from her skirts to show Mary the knife she held. “I can take care of him, Mare.”
Sir Royce’s eyebrows vaulted upward, and Gordon, following Royce’s gaze, goggled and exclaimed, “Bloody hell, is that a knife?”
“I believe so,” Royce replied calmly, adding, “Language, Coz—there are ladies present.”
Gordon appeared as if he might dispute this statement, but at a look from the older man, he subsided, saying only, “Beg pardon.”
“Gordon—can you manage on your own?” Royce continued. “I fear there isn’t enough room in my carriage for all of us.”
The other man, still eyeing Camellia’s knife, nodded. “Of course. I mean, if you’re sure it’s safe …”
“I think I can hold my own,” Sir Royce assured him. “Will you promise me that you will go straight home?”
“Home! Not there!” Gordon protested. “Mother’s in residence here.”
“Very well. Then straight to your father. He’s at the estate, is he not?”
Gordon looked pained, but nodded grudgingly. “Yes. I’ll go to Father and tell him everything.”
“Good. If I find out differently, I shall lay this all in Oliver’s hands.”
Gordon groaned, but nodded again and trudged off down the street.
“Will he be all right?” Lily asked, watching him walk away. “He seemed a trifle, well …”
“Drunk,” Camellia helpfully added.
Sir Royce looked somewhat nonplussed, but said only, “Yes. You are correct. I am afraid he has overindulged somewhat. But I think he will manage well enough.”
“Is that why he is dressed that way?” Lily asked. “Because he has been drinking?”
Royce let out a short laugh and shook his head. “No, I fear he was probably quite sober when he bought those clothes.” He glanced around. “Now, um, I assume you had some baggage?”
“Oh! Our bags! Rose will be worried sick about us,” Mary exclaimed. The girls all whirled around and started at a run back in the direction from which they had come.
With a sigh, Royce stepped up onto the tiger’s footplate of his carriage and grabbed the handle, gesturing the coachman forward. “I fear we must follow them, Billings.”
“Aye, sir,” the coachman replied, his colorless voice indicating that he had long ago accepted the fits and starts of his employer.
The girls ran to the docks, the carriage lumbering behind them. Royce’s jaw dropped open when he saw, perched atop two battered trunks, a raven-haired, blue-eyed beauty … with a long rifle resting across her lap.
“Good Gad!” Royce hopped lightly to the ground and strode toward the cluster of girls. “There is another one of you.”
“Yes, this is my other sister, Rose.”
“Of course it is.” He made an elegant leg to the lovely young woman, who shyly nodded back. “And I see that you brought a rifle with you.”
“Of course. We couldn’t just leave Father’s gun behind.”
“Naturally …” Royce replied faintly. “And who knows when one might have use of it? Any other weapons about your persons? Pistols, perhaps?”
“They’re in our bags,” Lily told him. “We didn’t think we would need them, really.”
“Mm. I would venture that a rifle—and your sister’s knife—should be enough for everyday occurrences.” He turned toward his driver, who had followed him from the carriage. “Well, Billings, load up the luggage, and we shall be on our way.”
Royce opened the door of the carriage and stretched out his hand toward Mary. “Miss Bascombe …”
Mary herded her sisters over to the vehicle, and Royce handed them up into the carriage, Mary hanging back until last. She would have liked to grab the handle beside the door and swing herself up into the carriage, but she could not, without rudeness, ignore Sir Royce’s outstretched hand. She couldn’t explain even to herself quite why she was reluctant to take Sir Royce’s hand. She only knew that she dreaded the contact—and at the same time was somehow eager for it.
Royce turned from handing the last of her sisters into the carriage. Mary hesitated, then reached out and slipped her hand into his. His fingers closed around hers lightly. She could feel the heat of his skin; he seemed unusually warm to her—or was it just that her own hands had grown suddenly icy?
She looked up into his face. She was closer to him now than at any time before, and she could see clearly, even in the growing dusk, how sinfully long and thick his lashes were. They were the same rusty brown as his eyebrows, darker than his thick blond hair, and they accentuated the bright green of his eyes. He was looking straight into her eyes, and there was in his gaze an intensity, a heat, that made her feel suddenly shy. She cast her eyes down; she could feel color rising in her cheeks. Almost imperceptibly, his fingers tightened on hers.
Mary stepped quickly up into the carriage, and for an instant it seemed as though he might hold on to her hand, but then he released her. Her three sisters had squeezed onto one seat, so she sat down on the seat across from them, realizing that she would have to ride next to Sir Royce, who, after a moment’s consultation with his driver, entered the carriage and sank onto the soft leather seat beside Mary.
Mary, avoiding his gaze, looked around her at the luxurious vehicle. She had never been in a carriage of such elegance and comfort. It was roomy, with wide benches cushioned in dark red leather, and behind their backs were squabs of the same butter-soft leather. Short, heavy curtains framed the windows, drawn back to admit the dwindling evening light.
The carriage started forward over the uneven cobblestones. Mary was very aware of Royce’s presence beside her. His broad shoulders seemed to take up a great deal of space, and his muscular thighs were only inches from her. She held herself tight against the other wall of the carriage, afraid the vehicle might lurch and send her knocking against him.
For a long time, there was only silence in the carriage, the four girls and their rescuer regarding each other carefully. Finally, Sir Royce said, “May I ask whence you young ladies have traveled to London?”
“Three Corners,” Lily answered promptly. “That’s a little town not far from Philadelphia. In Pennsylvania. The United States.”
He nodded. “I see. And what brings you to England?”
“Lily …” Mary sent her sister a warning glance.
Lily looked at her, surprised. “But what’s wrong with—”
“No, no doubt your sister is quite right,” Sir Royce said easily. “One can never be too cautious in the city. It can be a dangerous place. Though,” he added with a glance toward Camellia, “I am not entirely certain that holding a knife at the ready is necessary. It could lead people to leap to the wrong conclusion.”
“We don’t usually go about bearing arms, Mr.—I mean, Sir Royce,” Mary put in. “But, as you said, the city can be a dangerous place. So Camellia decided to wear her knife today.”
“Wear?” He looked blankly at Camellia, as if he would see it hanging about her neck.
Camellia smiled faintly and reached down to lift the hem of her skirt, exposing a bit of her shapely calf, to which was strapped a small leather scabbard. She bent and slipped the blade she had been carrying back into the scabbard, then shook out her skirts and regarded Sir Royce evenly.
“I see.” It gave Mary a small spurt of satisfaction to see the man, who was far too cool by half, look faintly disconcerted. “Handy. Well, clearly, I need not worry about your safety.”
“No,” Mary agreed firmly. “You need not.”
Mary was not sure why she was so reluctant to reveal anything about herself or her sisters to this man. He had, after all, done nothing harmful to them—or even suspicious. On the contrary, he had done them more than one good turn. Perhaps it was simply that this Englishman affected her in ways she was unused to or that she felt somehow unsure of herself around him. Or maybe she was just irritated by the relief that had swept her when Sir Royce had taken charge of their problem and set out to escort them to an inn. It was so nice, so easy, to put all her worries into someone else’s hands for once, to not be the one in charge, entrusted with protecting her sisters and leading them to a better life.
But that was something she absolutely could not do. She had learned from her mother’s bitter experience that putting one’s entire welfare in a man’s hands was foolish. Better by far to rely only on oneself.
Sir Royce held her challenging gaze for a long moment. There was something in his eyes—interest? amusement? a challenge of his own?—that both intrigued and confused her. Finally it was Mary who turned her face away, no longer able to hold his gaze.
After that, there was silence—even Lily, usually curious to a fault, was too exhausted to ask any questions—until the carriage rolled at last to a stop in the courtyard of an inn. Sir Royce got out, telling the girls to remain inside. Mary and her sisters exchanged a glance and promptly scrambled out of the vehicle after him, following him into the inn.
When they walked inside, they saw Royce speaking to a small man who was nodding and smiling obsequiously. Royce turned at the sound of the sisters’ entrance and cast them a wry look, but made no protest at their ignoring his instructions. He turned back, said a few more words, then withdrew something from his pocket and handed it to the man.
The man scurried off, and Sir Royce came over to Mary and the others. “Holcombe is the innkeeper of the Boar and Bear, and he has suggested that you wait in the private room while he makes sure that the bedchambers are turned out in the quality you deserve. My driver will bring in your things.”
A maid appeared to show them into one of the private areas set aside for the drinking or dining convenience of their guests who did not care to rub elbows with the other occupants of the tavern and inn. After a few minutes, she appeared again, carrying a pot of tea and mugs for the girls, as well as assurances that she would soon bring them steaming bowls of stew if they liked.
All the girls agreed that they would very much like it. Sir Royce cast a comprehensive glance around the room and said, “Well, ladies, it appears that you are well settled here, so I will bid you adieu.”
Mary’s sisters clustered around him, showering him with thanks. Even shy Rose offered him a blushing smile with a soft assurance of her gratitude. Only Mary kept her distance, watching Royce with a cool and thoughtful air. When he had bid each of the others good-bye, Royce turned to Mary and swept her an elegant bow.
“Miss Bascombe. It has been a pleasure.”
“Indeed.” Mary nodded, realizing that her gesture came out too primly. She was, she thought, appearing ungrateful, but she could not seem to relax around him.
He hesitated, then reached inside his coat, saying, “Allow me to give you my card, in case—”
Mary held up her hand. “No. Please. That is very kind of you, but I assure you, we will be fine. I will contact our grandfather tomorrow.”
“Ah, then you do have family here?”
“Yes.” Mary could see further questions forming in his eyes, and stepped forward quickly, opening the door into the hallway and turning to him in a clear gesture of dismissal. “Thank you, Sir Royce. I appreciate all you have done for us.”
With a wry look at her, he laid his card upon the table, then tipped his hat to Mary and stepped past her into the hallway. Mary, with a quick glance back at her sisters, followed him into the hall, closing the door behind her .
“Sir Royce …”
He turned inquiringly.
“As I said, I appreciate what you have done for us, but—I saw you give that man money.”
“Man? What man?”
“The innkeeper. I cannot allow you to pay for our accommodations. We do not even know you. And I am quite capable of paying our way. We are not penniless, I assure you.” That, she thought, was not entirely a lie; there were still a few coins left in her purse.
“Of course not,” he replied smoothly. “I would never presume in such a manner. What I gave him was not payment for the rooms. ’Twas merely a trifle, a small … incentive, shall we say, to ensure the innkeeper’s immediate attention to rooms for you.”
“Then I shall pay you back for that.”
Sir Royce waved such an idea away, and Mary set her jaw mulishly. “I insist, sir. I have no desire to be beholden. I cannot, of course, compensate for the kindnesses you have done us, but I can and will repay you for any money you have spent on us.”
“My dear girl, it was nothing. I haven’t even any idea what I handed him.”
He regarded her blandly, and irritation rose in Mary. She knew that he was purposely thwarting her, and she could not help but be suspicious that Sir Royce was lying to her. It was most kind of him, of course, but still …
“I cannot allow you to leave without repaying you,” she told him stubbornly, planting her hands on her hips.
He regarded her for a moment, and his eyes began to twinkle. “Well, then, allow me to take this in exchange.”
And with that, Royce took a step forward and wrapped an arm around her waist, then bent his head and kissed her.
© 2010 Candace Camp