Lydia Hall had seen a lot of things in her life:
Though she would never dare risk her mother’s wrath by losing her virtue, she had witnessed what awaited her on her wedding night far earlier than any other girl she knew.
She had known what it was like to ride a horse before she’d even known the name of the animal—although that may be due to her father’s need to be constantly traveling.
She was even sure some sort of doppelgänger had inserted herself in the place of her best friend, Beth Gallagher.
All this she was capable of swallowing. All this she merely blinked her eyes at.
But this? This was too much.
She supposed if it was merely an arrest on its own, she’d have found a way around it. Perhaps called her mother, a terrifying woman in her own right. Neither her nor Beth would have sat in jail for very long. Lydia hardly even flinched when the constable trapped her hands behind her back. It wasn’t even the enormous man with the red bandana wrapped round his head that appeared behind the constable that did her in.
Stone, Beth had called him.
At first glance, he could’ve been any fisherman or peddler on the street for all the grime and filth that marked his face. But when she forced her eyes past the dirt…He could’ve posed for a sculpture of Adonis and no one would have known he was of this earth. For that brief moment in which the constable simply stared at Stone, Lydia wondered if he was aware—if anyone at all was aware—of what he could look like if his home were not the streets. She wagered he’d have his choice of any bride if he had been a member of court.
He ordered the constable to let the women go and when the constable said no, it was as if his very essence changed. A smile unlike one she’d ever seen stretched across his face.
It was the viciousness she saw in his eyes, the hardened angles of his face, the almost cruel curl of his lips as he said, “I confess, I was hoping you’d say that,” which made her skin crawl and her heart stutter in fear. This was not a Good Samaritan come to save them from the villainous constable. This was not a good man of any kind. Lydia could practically see the blood of others tangible there on his hands.
Then, so quickly it startled a shriek out of her, Stone snatched the constable up by the collar and thrown him into the coach meant for her and Beth. The constable landed so hard on the floor of the carriage that Lydia could hear his teeth rattle, and she flinched in both surprise and empathy, gasping as she saw the man’s eyes roll back in his skull.
Stone turned and met Lydia’s gaze, that bloodthirsty grin still held firmly in place. It was as if she were gazing into a void, and it froze the very bones inside her flesh. She could not scream, could not breathe, dared not blink. All sounds seemed to vanish as if someone had stuffed her ears with cotton, and she found herself fixed to the spot by his impossibly too-dark brown eyes. Then he turned from her, severing the spell, and lept into the carriage after the man.
Stone grabbed up the constable’s head and slammed it forcefully back onto the floor, resulting in a horrifying crack. Blood seeped out from under the constable’s hair, but his eyes blinked open and he began struggling against Stone. This just made Stone smile wider. He reached into his waistband, pulling out a sword and—
Lydia wrenched her eyes away from the gruesome scene at Beth’s cry. Beth didn’t seem so much worried that her arms were still wrenched behind her by a constable as she did concerned for Lydia, as if she knew the steps of this dance and was embarrassed that Lydia seemed to be standing in the middle of the dance floor, completely alone.
“Run!” she urged.
Lydia had nearly forgotten they were standing in the middle of a bustling port street or that they’d been arrested. She just kept hearing that sickening crack of the constable’s skull, again and again, echoing in her mind. But Beth was right, they had to get out of there. Lydia nodded and turned to sprint, all the way home if she must.
But before she’d even gotten five feet, she slammed into a brick wall. She gasped in both pain and surprise as she stumbled back. Gazing up, she realized it was not a wall at all. It was a man, another Adonis, though his lack of filth made it much easier to discern his good looks. He had serious hazel eyes and wore a slightly dirty white shirt. It only took a blink or two to recognize him as the footman Beth had brought back with her from the States. Not a servant, then.
She’d had no intention of fleeing the scene, but when the footman—er, Stone’s criminal accomplice?—took hold of her arms, it was an almost instinctual response. She began bucking as hard as she could, waving her arms this way and that to break his grip, but it was no use. His hands were like bands of steel.
“Let go of the lady,” Beth’s constable shakily demanded, and when Lydia turned, he saw he now aimed the pistol at the man, holding Beth in place in front of him like a shield.
Lydia’s heart—which had been galloping faster than any horse—plummeted to her feet. It felt as if their situation had become so much worse.
Constables she could handle. A few kind words, several What could we do, we’re only women?s, and one powerful threat was all it would have taken to be returned home.
But these men, who seemed so easily inclined toward violence? Who were able to stir a man of the law toward violence himself? How on earth were they supposed to escape this with their lives?
And, perhaps more pressing, how, in the name of all that is good and holy, did Beth know them?
Stone’s accomplice smiled slightly, just the barest tilting of the corners of his mouth, and jerked Lydia closer to him. She grunted, straining away from him as much as she could but too afraid for Beth’s wellbeing to really fight him. “I should warn you,” he said, his voice so low that it seemed even the constable was shocked at the baritone, “that every man who has ever pointed a gun at my face has ended up dead.”
Lydia’s skin erupted in gooseflesh, her entire body trembling with terror. That didn’t seem like just a threat; it was a promise, and it scared her to the core.
The coach beside them shook forcefully and a bloodcurdling scream exploded out of it. Lydia wasn’t the only one whose head whipped toward the sound, but she was the only one who seemed to be affected by the scene happening inside. Stone held the constable against the wall of the carriage and, in one fluid motion, plunged his sword through the man’s jugular and into his skull. Lydia gaped, tears springing to her eyes, breaths erratic and mind unable to make sense of the gruesome image. Stone’s face was twisted with exertion and malice as he jammed the blade harder and then quickly jerked it back out, blood pouring all over the man’s front, drenching him in crimson. Lydia’s eyes were wrenched open so wide that she wasn’t sure she’d ever manage to close them again.
Stone hopped easily out of the coach, disconcerting grin gracing his face. His metal sword glistened with the man’s blood and his red bandana was wrapped around his bicep, hiding a wound.
Lydia was held completely frozen in place, words unable to describe how truly petrified she was of the man now standing beside her.
Beth’s constable started breathing so fast he was practically wheezing, but his pistol remained resolutely on Stone’s accomplice. “Release the lady,” he said once more.
There was only a short beat of silence before Stone’s accomplice said, “Fine.” Suddenly, Lydia was flung aside. She cried out as she lost her footing, the edge of her heels catching on her skirt. Stone caught her easily before she hit the ground. She heard him suck in a deep breath as it pulled at the wound beneath his makeshift bandage. She was shaking so hard that her teeth were chattering in her head.
The non-footman held his hands in front of him. “There, I let her go. Now hand over the woman you’re holding.”
Lydia briefly thought about struggling again. After all, the murderer behind her wasn’t gripping her arm nearly as hard as he should have been if he wanted to keep her there. If she timed it right, she could break free and gather help. Surely any criminals biggest fear is a crowd? They’d be gone faster than a lightning bolt.
But in that pause it took Lydia to think, the constable shifted his aim from the man to Beth’s temple. Her eyes flew wide when she felt the barrel and her gaze locked with the non-footman as she bucked wildly against the constable.
Perhaps at any other time, Lydia might have marveled at the curiously intimate and trusting expression found in Beth’s eyes when she looked at the criminal. As it was, Lydia felt tears of fear and frustration falling down her face.
“Leave now,” the constable ordered the men, “or you will leave me no choice but to kill her.”
And of all the things he could have done, the bastard non-footman laughed. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. He laughed! “Please, Constable,” he said, like her mother did when she was a child wondering if she might play with the boys in the garden instead of crocheting in the house, “you are causing a scene. I’m certain you do not want to shoot an innocent woman in plain view of everyone walking around the port. A lady, no less. Now,” he said, offering his hand to Beth, “let us drop these theatrics and just hand her over.”
The gun clicked as the constable pulled a lever on it and pressed the barrel more firmly against Beth. Lydia saw her grimace in pain and couldn’t help moving toward her, as if there was anything she could have done to help, but Stone applied just enough pressure to her elbow to communicate silently that that would be a very poor decision.
“You underestimate me, sir,” the constable said. “Both of you walk away right now or I will kill her.”
My God, he was going to do it. A little whimper escaped Lydia in the silence that followed. Whatever trouble Beth had gotten herself into with these men, she hoped they wouldn’t let her die.
The non-footman began taking slow steps back, hands clearly in front of him. “All right,” he said, his voice even. “We will go.”
Stone’s grip on Lydia loosened with his confusion. “Captain?” he questioned.
The constable ignored him. “All three of you.” He jerked his arm to include Lydia and she raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Take Her Ladyship with you.”
Blast him! What kind of man of the law was he? Lydia’s heart was trying to break free of her chest, and she began screaming incoherently as she yanked against Stone’s newly steeled grip. But it was hopeless. It was as if her body had forgotten how to function and her struggle was nearly nonexistent though her mind urged her to escape.
The constable kept his eyes trained on the non-footman as he slowly dragged Beth behind the coach. Lydia looked between the two criminals, expecting to be whisked away as well. But they simply stood, exchanging a look that only they could comprehend. Lydia debated between throwing all her might into trying to break free and staying put and trying to help Beth. Her mind was a scramble of thoughts and she could hardly decide the color of the sky let alone this impossible situation.
But it didn’t matter because Stone let out a small huff of a laugh and the non-footman approached the door of the coach.
“Don’t worry, little lady,” Stone assured her. “We’ll get your friend back.”
Though it terrified her to do so, she couldn’t help craning her neck to make sure he got the full brunt of her reaction to those ridiculous words. Don’t worry? Was he joking? Don’t worry?
He raised his eyebrows as if to ask Have I misspoke? but didn’t care enough to hear her response before pushing her forward toward the coach. Her own brows furrowed in confusion as he shoved more insistently into the box. Her throat was so dry that she didn’t even have the voice to argue, nor did she think the fear inside her would allow it.
The non-footman sat to the side of the door, sword drawn and held at the ready. It wasn’t even a moment later that the door opened and Lydia caught a flash of the constable’s face before the non-footman walloped him on the head, a resounding thunk filling the carriage. Lydia’s scream was muffled by Stone’s quick hand. She couldn’t help but notice that he smelled like a mixture of industrial rope and fish.
She hated fish. Lydia nearly became sick right there in his hand.
The non-footman hopped out of the carriage and Lydia tried to break out of Stone’s grip to follow, but he wrapped an arm around her midsection, holding her firmly in place.
She wondered if it were truly possible to die of fright. If it was, she must be moments away from her end. This man—whom she did not know—was completely wrapped around her, stifling her breathing and dangling the possibilities of her fate in front of her. She tried to drag air between the space afforded her by his hand, cursing the claustrophobic corset beneath her gown.
She heard Beth scream, “Stop!” outside and a chill slithered up her spine. Perhaps the non-footman had decided they were both more trouble than they were worth and was about to do away with Beth before they turned their full frustration on Lydia. She had to do something.
She didn’t know why she even tried, but perhaps it was her uncomprehending mind that talked her into it. In any case, she turned to Stone for help. She looked at him with her wide, tear filled eyes, the silence on the other side of the coach drawing more fear into her gaze as she whispered into his hand, “Please.”
Stone had a very animated face. Everything he was thinking was clearly communicated in his smirk or the twinkle in his eyes. Lydia braced herself for the look of complete indifference, prepared herself for the sure blankness in his eyes when he told her to keep quiet.
But that wasn’t what she got. Instead, his brown eyes scanned every inch of her face, recognizing that she was begging him. She wondered if he could tell she had never begged for a single thing in her life. His shoulders dropped just the slightest inch and his lips tightened over his teeth as he growled in aggravation. For only a split second, Lydia thought she had upset him and he was going to deal with her before his accomplice even came back.
He shoved her softly toward the door but she was so stunned that she tripped, landing hard on the bench, a cry of surprise spilling out of her. She glanced back at Stone with a question in her eyes and he gestured to the open door. “Go,” he mumbled, as if he already regretted saying so.
Lydia didn’t waste another second. She landed on the other side in almost a single step. She spotted Beth instantly, the only image she could recognize with the adrenaline coursing through her veins, and latched onto her arm. Beth’s hand covered hers as Stone stepped out of the coach next.
Stone smiled at Beth whom Lydia assumed held an expression of shock, holding on to his wounded arm as he explained, “The door was opened on the other side. It was the captain’s idea to hide in there.”
Beth looked between the two men and pulled Lydia closer to her, a protective mother shielding her young. But shouldn’t Beth need protecting, too? Why weren’t both women cowering? Lydia glanced at her best friend and recognized the fierce look in her eyes as one of annoyance and offense, but not fear. What on earth…
The captain—as Stone had referred to him—asked Beth, “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine. And now I’m leaving. Let’s go, Lydia.”
Lydia couldn’t push the words of agreement past her dry throat but she immediately started heading around the carriage, hanging on to Beth as if she would collapse without her support. Given the trembling of her knees, she was fairly sure she would.
But the captain blocked their path. “I’m afraid you will not be going anywhere.”
She supposed it was a coping mechanism, but with those words from the captain, Lydia’s mind simply turned off, like a wound up doll that had run out of turns. Her vision became blurry and the voices around her became muted. This was all just too impossible—her best friend was conversing with a couple of criminals as if they were normal people, as if their lives didn’t depend on them escaping these maniacs. She almost didn’t hear anything they said until Beth whispered, “You found a way to get me out of this book?”
Suddenly, Lydia’s eyes and ears were working perfectly and she stared at Beth in stunned silence, dropping her arm, though Beth didn’t seem to notice. Had she just said what Lydia thought she did?
The captain informed her that the person who possessed the knowledge she was seeking was a fraud, but Beth was gazing up at him as if he’d presented her with a pearl necklace. Her eyes sparkled with love and it was at that moment that Lydia’s blood ran cold.
All of them. They were all insane. Beth thought she was…trapped in a book? And the captain had gone in search of answers to that ludicrous idea? And Stone was watching Lydia like he knew she might bolt any minute and he was praying for it.
The captain continued talking about it, and it was just all too much and—“Who are you people?” Lydia screamed so loudly that her throat burned with it.
As one, their three heads turned to Lydia. She imagined she looked rather mad herself with her wide eyes, messed hair, and quaking form. Beth breathed in sharply, realizing what she’d said in front of Lydia, how it must’ve sounded.
Lydia locked her eyes with her best friend and asked, “Who are you?”
Beth took a cautious step toward her, hands raised. “Lydia,” she said calmly, “I promise I can explain everything.”
Explain everything? How could she possibly explain any of it? From her peripheral vision, she noticed the captain’s eyes were focused on Beth, and Stone was gazing up at the sky as if praying for strength. They weren’t paying attention to her. The mad people were distracted. Beth was still approaching her with that hushed, reassuring tone, and Lydia shook her head once before spinning on her heel and tearing down the cobblestone street.
Her feet pounded against the stones, strangers’ heads turning to watch her as she barreled at top speed. She could just barely make out the carriage where she knew her fiancé and James were waiting for them. Although she’d never felt any real warmness for the man, she’d give anything to be standing with Hugh at that moment. Hugh she could deal with. Hugh wasn’t some sort of criminal with a sword and blood on his hands. Hugh would be her salvation now.
Her heart rate spiked when she recognized heavy footsteps running up behind her.
She wrapped the fabric of her skirts around her hand and hiked them up as high as they would go as she forced herself to run faster. The corset dug into her ribs with every breath and her vision swam a bit but she shook her head and kept on. Hugh and James were just within reach. A few more meters and—
Her corset dug painfully into her skin and her knees buckled as waves slithered across her vision. It was only a second and then everything went black.
She awoke with an enormous gasp for air, as if she’d been drowning. Lydia’s eyes burst open, rolling around in her head as she tried to focus on what was happening around her. Her head throbbed painfully and her feet pulsed, but there was something missing. With a few more deep breaths, she recognized what it was: the familiar ache of her corset. But how could…?
She glanced up and could just make out the concerned brown eyes of her friend. “Beth?” Her voice slurred. “What’s going on?”
“You fainted,” she said. “And this man helped you gain consciousness.”
Lydia followed Beth’s gesture to the other person leaning over her.
Lydia’s eyes widened, and she tried to push herself away but was either too weak or too frightened to get very far. “No,” she said, shaking her head wildly, “no, you killed a man. I saw you do it.”
“Lydia,” Beth said, “we are going to go home now, all right?” She gently took hold of Lydia’s arm to help her to her feet.
Lydia whipped her head to stare uncomprehendingly at Beth. Had she really just ignored her? As if she hadn’t just accused a man of murder? Then she remembered what she’d overhead, the reason she’d run like the Devil himself was at her heels. “And you,” Lydia exclaimed. “You said—you are not from here—you said you are in a book—“ Her blood rushed in her ears and her heartbeat echoed in her head and it was all too much. “You are all mad!”
Stone’s deep voice penetrated the cacophony of her mind. “You hit your head when you collapsed, Miss Lydia.”
She blinked at him and dumbly answered, “I did?”
Beth and Stone seized that moment to grab Lydia’s arms and hoist her to her feet. It was so fast that her head spun and she clutched the nearest thing to hold herself up. Stone’s right palm rested against her back to keep her steady and his left held onto her hand as she used him for balance.
She pressed her sweaty palm to her forehead as she thought it through. They were claiming the entire thing had been a figment of a scrambled mind from her fall? That she had hallucinated? She supposed if she’d hit her head harder she’d have believed it, but, as it was, if she had imagined it, then why had she run away from them in the first place?
“Come along now,” Beth said as Stone transferred Lydia’s iron grip from his forearm to Beth’s elbow. She carefully steered Lydia in the direction of James and Hugh, her eyes filled with relief as if they’d averted a crisis by providing such a ridiculous explanation.
Lydia gripped Beth’s arm harder, digging her nails into her skin, and whispered in her ear, “I know what I heard, Beth. Tell me what is happening.”
A worried line wrinkled Beth’s forehead at those words, but Lydia continued, “Who were those people? Why are you helping them? What did you mean when you said you were in a book?”
Lydia could practically see all the different answers race through Beth’s mind and she drew breath as she prepared whatever excuse she thought would be best. She met Lydia’s gaze and Lydia saw her hesitate for a very short moment before saying, “Do you trust me, Lydia?”
Lydia blinked at her. Of all the things she was waiting for her to say, that was not what she had expected. Did she trust her? She hardly even knew the girl standing beside her. But taking in Beth’s familiar face, the open and unshielded gaze, she found herself nodding.
“Then you must do exactly as I tell you until we return to Springriver Manor. Then I swear I will tell you everything.”
Go back to Springriver with a madwoman? She very nearly took off at a run again at just the prospect. But she couldn’t deny the curiosity that was swirling through her head. How could Beth have possibly found herself in this situation with these men? What explanation would she give for her delusions? Whatever Beth would come up with was sure to be entertaining if nothing else. And Lydia was not a frightened lamb. Hugh and James were within sight, and Springriver was her territory. Nothing could touch her there, least of all Beth. She’d beaten her in every childhood scuffle their entire lives. If it were to just be Lydia and Beth, she thought she could handle it.
So Lydia stood straighter, pushing her shoulders back and releasing Beth’s arm. She inhaled deeply and said, “Very well. But you will tell me what is going on.”
Beth nodded quickly. “Yes, I promise.”
“All right.” A breeze blew through the street and gooseflesh spread over Lydia’s stomach. She looked down to see her bodice had been torn down the middle, corset ripped apart. Her eyes flew wide and she pulled the two pieces together, crossing her arms over it to keep it in place. “What happened to my dress?” Her voice was shrill.
“You needed to breathe. Stone thought this was the best way—“
She looked at Beth sharply. “Was that the man with no hair?”
Beth nodded. “Yes.”
The little bugger! “Right,” she muttered to herself. “I’m sure that brute thought the best way to help me was to rip open my clothes.”
Dear Lord, she was going to appear to the men as if she had been ravished in the street, and her reputation would be destroyed. What would her fiancé think of such a thing?