Lady Freyja Bedwyn is on her way to stay with a friend in Bath. She is fleeing her home, where her neighbor and former rival, the Viscountess Ravensberg, is about to give birth. She is alone apart from her maid and an entourage of outriders and servants provided by her brother, the Duke of Bewcastle. It is a second-class inn, not the one her brother recommended, but Freyja insists upon sleeping alone in her room and will not even allow any of the servants to guard her unlocked door. During the night she would have regretted that decision--if she had been anyone else but one of the Bedwyn siblings.
Freyja awoke with a start some indeterminate time later when the door of her room opened suddenly and then shut again with an audible click. She was not even sure she had not dreamed it until she looked and saw a man standing just inside the door, clad in a white, open-necked shirt and dark pantaloons and stockings, a coat over one arm, a pair of boots in the other hand.
Freyja shot out of bed as if ejected from a fired cannon and pointed imperiously at the door.
"Out!" she said.
The man flashed her a grin, which was all too visible in the near-light room.
"I cannot, sweetheart," he said. "That way lies certain doom. I must go out the window or hide somewhere in here."
"Out!" She did not lower her arm--or her chin. "I do not harbor felons. Or any other type of male creature. Get out!"
Somewhere beyond the room were the sounds of a small commotion in the form of excited voices all speaking at once and footsteps--all of them approaching nearer.
"No felon, sweetheart," the man said. "Merely an innocent mortal in a ton of trouble if he does not disappear fast. Is the wardrobe empty?"
Freyja's nostrils flared.
"Out!" she commanded once more.
But the man had dashed across the room to the wardrobe, yanked the door open, found it empty, and climbed inside.
"Cover for me, sweetheart," he said just before shutting the door from the inside, "and save me from a fate worse than death."
Almost simultaneously there was a loud rapping on the door. Freyja did not know whether to stalk toward it or the wardrobe first. But the decision was taken from her when the door burst open again to reveal the innkeeper holding a candle aloft, a short, stout, gray-haired gentleman, and a bald, burly individual who was badly in need of a shave.
"Out!" she demanded, totally incensed. She would deal with the man in the wardrobe after this newest outrage had been dealt with. No one walked uninvited into Lady Freyja Bedwyn's room, whether that room was at Lindsey Hall or Bedwyn House or a shabby-genteel inn with no locks on the doors.
"Begging your pardon, ma'am, for disturbing you," the gray-haired gentleman said, puffing out his chest and surveying the room by the light of the candle rather than focusing on Freyja, "but I believe a gentleman just ran in here."
Had he awaited an answer to his knock and then addressed her with the proper deference, Freyja might have betrayed the fugitive in the wardrobe without a qualm. But he had made the mistake of bursting in upon her and then treating her as if she did not exist except to offer him information--and his quarry. The unshaven individual, on the other hand, had done nothing but look at her--with a doltish leer on his face. And the innkeeper was displaying a lamentable lack of concern for the privacy of his guests.
"Do you indeed believe so?" Freyja asked haughtily. "Do you see this gentleman? If not, I suggest you close the door quietly as you leave and allow me and the other guests in this establishment to resume our slumbers."
"If it is all the same to you, ma'am," the gentleman said, eyeing first the closed window and then the bed and then the wardrobe, "I would like to search the room. For your own protection, ma'am. He is a desperate rogue and not at all safe with ladies."
"Search my room?" Freyja inhaled slowly and regarded him along the length of her prominent, slightly hooked Bedwyn nose with such chilly hauteur that he finally looked at her--and saw her for the first time, she believed. "Search my room?" She turned her eyes on the silent innkeeper, who shrank behind the screen of his candle. "Is this the hospitality of the house of which you boasted with such bombastic eloquence upon my arrival here, my man? My brother, the Duke of Bewcastle, will hear about this. He will be interested indeed to learn that you have allowed another guest--if this gentleman is a guest--to bang on the door of his sister's room in the middle of the night and burst in upon her without waiting for a reply merely because he believes that another gentleman dashed in here. And that you have stood by without a word of protest while he makes the impudent, preposterous suggestion that he be allowed to search the room."
"You were obviously mistaken, sir," the landlord said, half hiding beyond the doorframe though his candle was still held out far enough to shine into the room. "He must have escaped another way or hidden somewhere else. I beg your pardon, ma'am--my lady, that is. I allowed it because I was afraid for your safety, my lady, and thought the dook would want me to protect you at all costs from desperate rogues."
"Out!" Freyja said once more, her arm outstretched imperiously toward the doorway and the three men standing there. "Get out!"
The gray-haired gentleman cast one last wistful look about the room, the unshaven lout leered one last time, and then the inn-keeper leaned across them both and pulled the door shut.
Freyja stared at it, her nostrils flared, her arm still outstretched, her finger still pointing. How dared they? She had never been so insulted in her life. If the gray-haired gentleman had uttered one more word or the unshaven yokel had leered one more leer, she would have stridden over there and banged their heads together hard enough to have them seeing wheeling stars for the next week.
She was certainly not going to recommend this inn to any of her acquaintances.
She had almost forgotten about the man in the wardrobe until the door squeaked open and he unfolded himself from within it. He was a tall, long-limbed young man, she saw in the ample light from the window. And very blond. He was probably blue-eyed too though there was not quite enough light to enable her to verify that theory. She could see quite enough of him, though, to guess that he was by far too handsome for his own good. He was also looking quite inappropriately merry.
"That was a magnificent performance," he said, setting down his Hessian boots and tossing his coat across the truckle bed. "Are you really a sister of the Duke of Bewcastle?"
At the risk of appearing tediously repetitious, Freyja pointed at the door again.
"Out!" she commanded.
But he merely grinned at her and stepped closer.
"But I think not," he said. "Why would a duke's sister be staying at this less-than-grand establishment? And without a maid or chaperon to guard her? It was a wonderful performance, nevertheless."
"I can live without your approval," she said coldly. "I do not know what you have done that is so heinous. I do not want to know. I want you out of this room, and I want you out now. Find somewhere else to cower in fright."
"Fright?" He laughed and set a hand over his heart. "You wound me, my charmer."
He was standing very close, quite close enough for Freyja to realize that the top of her head reached barely to his chin. But she always had been short. She was accustomed to ruling her world from below the level of much of the action.
"I am neither your sweetheart nor your charmer," she told him. "I shall count to three. One."
"For what purpose?" He set his hands on either side of her waist.
He lowered his head and kissed her. Right on the lips, his own parted slightly so that there was a shocking sensation of warm, moist intimacy.
Freyja inhaled sharply, drew back one arm, and punched him hard in the nose.
"Ouch!" he said, fingering his nose gingerly and flexing his mouth. He drew his hand away and Freyja had the satisfaction of seeing that she had drawn blood. "Did no one ever teach you that any ordinary lady would slap a man's cheek under such scandalous circumstances, not punch him in the nose?"
"I am no ordinary lady," she told him sternly.
He grinned again and dabbed at his nose with the back of one hand. "You are adorable when you are angry," he said.
"But I cannot do that, you see," he said. "That grandfatherly soul and his pugilistic henchman will be lying in wait for me, and I will be doomed to a leg shackle as surely as I am standing here."
"I do not want to hear any of the sordid details," she said, the significance of his dishabille suddenly borne in upon her. "And why should I care if they are lying in wait?"
"Because, sweetheart," he said, "they would see me coming from your room and draw their own slightly scandalous conclusions, and your reputation would be in tatters."
"It will doubtless survive the shock," she said.
"Have pity on me, O fair one," he said, grinning again--did he take nothing seriously this man? "I fell for an old trick. There were the elderly gentleman and his granddaughter--a damsel lovely beyond words--in the parlor downstairs with nothing to do to while away the evening hours, and there was I, similarly employed--or unemployed. It was the most natural thing in the world for the grandfather and me to play a few hands of cards while the said damsel watched quietly and sweetly, always in my line of vision. After I had retired for the night and she came to my room to offer further entertainment--I daresay you have noticed that there are no locks on the doors?--was I to point virtuously at the door and order her to begone? I am made of flesh and blood. As it turned out, it was just fortunate for me that I was still up and still half-dressed and that the grandfather did not wait quite long enough before bursting in, all righteous wrath, with the inn-keeper and his ferocious-looking thug in tow as witnesses. It was fortunate for me too that they came rushing into the room in a great zealous body, leaving the door unguarded. I made use of the exit thus provided me, dashed along the corridor as far as I could go and...took the only door available to me. This one." He indicated the door of her room with a sweeping gesture of his arm.
"You were going to debauch an innocent girl?" Freyja's bosom swelled.
"Innocent?" He chuckled. " She came to me, sweetheart. Not that I was in any way reluctant, I feel compelled to admit. It is a way some men have of marrying their daughters or granddaughters to advantage, you know--or at least of extorting a hefty sum by way of compensation for lost virtue. They lie in wait in places like this until a poor fool like me happens along, and then they go into action."
"It would serve you right," she said severely, "if you had been caught. I have not the least bit of sympathy for you."
And yet, she thought, it was just the sort of scrape that Alleyne might get into, or Rannulf before his recent marriage to Judith.
"I am going to have to stay here for the rest of the night, I am afraid," the stranger said, looking around. "I don't suppose you would fancy sharing your bed with me?"
Freyja favored him with her coldest, haughtiest look, the one that froze most normal mortals in their tracks.
"No?" He grinned yet again. "It will have to be the truckle bed, then. I'll try not to snore. I hope you do not."
"You will leave this room," she told him, "before I count to three, or I shall scream. Very loudly. One."
"You would not do that, sweetheart," he said. "You would expose yourself as a liar to your erstwhile visitors."
"Unless," he said with a chuckle, "you were to explain that I must have tiptoed in and hidden myself in the wardrobe while you still slept and then jumped out on you as soon as I estimated the coast to be clear."
He looked at her, raised his eyebrows, waggled them, and turned with studied nonchalance toward the truckle bed.
"Jesu, woman," he said, one hand coming up as if to be clapped over her mouth.
But it must have been clear to him that that would have been akin to shutting the stable door after the proverbial horse had bolted. Freyja had considerable lung capacity. She screamed long and loud without once having to stop to draw breath.
The stranger grabbed up his coat and boots, dashed to the window, threw up the sash, poked his head out, tossed down his garments, and then disappeared.
© Mary Balogh