Jasper could remember when his face had been whole. He could remember feeling the breeze on his skin instead of the sticky silk of the mask plastered to his raw, irritated flesh. He could remember when ladies’ heads had turned as he walked by. Now the ladies, and even the females who couldn’t rightly be called ladies, turned away.
The sun was hot as Jasper made his way through the village of Penbury on the southern coast of England. The breeze off the English Channel would have cooled him if he’d removed his mask, but it was bad enough being out in daylight. He’d send the people already staring at him running and screaming if he revealed his burn scars. As it was, the black silk covering his hair, forehead, and the upper half of his face attracted enough unwanted attention. He tried to ignore the whispers and furtive looks and followed the directions he’d secured from the local he’d treated to ale the night before in exchange for information.
Fewer and fewer people were about as he left the village behind and neared the rocky shoreline. Only then did Jasper realize he should have set out earlier. The trek would involve more climbing than he expected, which was his own fault. The Duke of Withernsea had warned him the woman was elusive. She’d managed to evade the other investigators Withernsea had hired.
But she wouldn’t escape Jasper. He hadn’t come on behalf of Withernsea. Even if the duke hadn’t been a miser too cheap to pay Jasper’s rates, Jasper wouldn’t have worked for the man. Jasper had no desire to drag women into matrimony with men they didn’t fancy, especially not to a man with Withernsea’s vices. Jasper would never understand why the girls’ parents had promised her to such a monster, but now that the mother, Viscountess Carlisle, was ill, and her dying wish was to see her daughter again, he didn’t think it appropriate to ask. The pleas of the viscount and his wife had moved Jasper. And surely Miss Carlisle would want to know that her mother was on her deathbed.
If not, well, Jasper didn’t exactly need the money. He could have used it, but as a retired member of The Survivors and the son of the Marquess of Strathern, Jasper had other means available to him.
Sweat streaked down his face, burning the sensitive tissue around his scar, and making Jasper wish, for the thousandth time, he could remove the mask. He’d gone far enough that the beach was mostly empty. Squinting into the distance, he spotted the large rock the informant had described. Jasper just had to climb up the narrow path marked by the boulder, and the cottage would be at the top. It was a clever arrangement. The cottage could not be seen from below, and there was enough soil on the outcropping that a dozen or more trees had grown there, giving the cottage additional shade and cover.
If the cottage was indeed up there. Only one way to find out.
Jasper started up, but halfway he paused to shake out his boots. The rocks stabbed the bottom of his feet, and he needed a drink. He sat on a small patch of leaves and dirt, pulled out his flask and drank deeply. The water was warm now, but it eased his thirst, wetting what felt like a desert in the back of his throat.
He took hold of one boot and struggled to yank it off. The effort almost caused him to fall back, but the boot came loose unexpectedly and shot out and into the path. “Damn it,” Jasper cursed under his breath. He moved to rise and retrieve the boot, then froze.
The stab in his ribs was all too familiar. He knew the feel of a knife pressed to his side, and he knew whoever held it was serious. The trickle of blood running down his skin was serious as hell.
“What do you want?” Jasper muttered, barely moving his lips. His instinct was to leap away, but he’d fallen on his arse when the boot came free and jumping up was out of the question.
“Your blunt,” came the hoarse reply. “And anything else of value.”
The accent was indistinguishable from any other, not lower class but not of the higher ranks either. Jasper couldn’t even determine whether it was from the north or south of England. He rather doubted this was purely by chance. His assailant did not want to be identified. A professional then? Surely not simply someone who happened upon him. Someone who’d known he’d come this way and who lay in wait.
“I have a wallet in my coat pocket,” Jasper answered.
“Get it out.” The man’s voice hitched slightly, indicating excitement.
“I have to reach for it.”
“No sudden moves,” the knife-holder cautioned.
Jasper blew out his breath. Sudden moves or not, the man with the knife at his flank would use it. Jasper didn’t care much about the money he’d lose. But he sure as hell didn’t intend to bleed to death on the side of a sea cliff with one boot on and one boot off. “I’m reaching for my pocket,” he said, moving his right arm slowly. The wallet was in his left inside pocket and the knife rested against his left side. Jasper’s hand slid inside his greatcoat then inside his tailcoat. But instead of reaching for the wallet, he lunged for the knife, gripping it with the fabric as his shield.
It was a risky move, but it took the assailant by surprise. He sprang back. Unfortunately, the knife went with him, and Jasper couldn’t keep hold of it through the fabric. Jasper lunged to his feet, but his awkward position hampered him, and the attacker came at him with the knife. Jasper raised a hand to deflect the blow, but he was off-balance and aimed too high. Instead of the weapon grazing his arm, he gave his foe an opening. The sharp prick of the knife took Jasper’s breath away as it slid through the fabric of his coat and into his skin.
The dull pain ratcheted up to a shrill scream of agony as the assailant yanked the knife back out. Ignoring the pain, Jasper threw a punch at the man with the knife, hitting him on the side of the jaw. The man went down, but so did Jasper. He fell hard, and when he tried to rise again, he saw black spots dancing in front of his eyes. His entire left side felt as though he had fallen into a pond. Blood was gushing from the wound. He struggled, but the attacker rose first. Jasper knew this because the man used his booted feet to land a hard kick to Jasper’s uninjured side. Jasper huffed out a curse and reached for the man, who landed another kick, this one to Jasper’s jaw.
That was when the spots grew too big for Jasper to blink away. That was when the light faded, and the last thing he knew was the feel of the man’s rough hands rummaging through his coat pockets.
Thunder sounded in the distance and Olivia was relieved to hear Richard’s voice approaching. She wanted him inside before the rains started.
“Come inside now, Richard. I don’t like the look of those clouds.”
“But Mama, I found something.” He held up what looked like a man’s boot.
Olivia had no idea where he would have found something like that, but anything related to men made her uneasy. “Leave it outside for now,” she said. Later she would go to the cliff and hurl it over the side. She wanted nothing of men near her cottage.
“But Mama! That’s not all. I found a man. He was lying beside the boot!”
Olivia was tempted to chastise her son for telling a wolf story—their term for a make-believe tale that demanded she save him—but though Richard had told many fanciful stories in his five years, he had never told one about a man or had a boot as evidence. Almost as though he could read her thoughts, Richard held the boot higher. “It’s true, Mama! Come and see!”
Olivia did not want to see. She wanted to go inside her cozy cottage, close the windows and bar the doors, and hold her son tightly. But she couldn’t ignore a man, not one who had come close enough that Richard discovered him.
“Wait here.” She might have to face a man, but she wouldn’t do so unarmed. She went to the high shelf where she kept her cooking knives and pulled down the largest, sharpest she had. Sliding it into her apron, she smoothed back her hair and took a deep breath. She’d known this day would come. She’d known she couldn’t hide forever. Now she just had to muster the courage she’d been praying for all these years and do what had to be done.
For her son and herself.
She strode out of the cottage, feeling the light mist of rain on her face. At least it hadn’t begun to rain in earnest or the path would be slippery and dangerous. Though she wore boots with her serviceable gray dress, even boots were no match against mud on slick, narrow pathways. When she reached Richard, she grasped his hand. He stood shifting impatiently from foot to foot, and as soon as she took his hand, he yanked her toward the path that descended toward the seashore below.
This was the path Olivia hated. She had to travel it once a month to go into town and buy what she could not make or grow. She always dreaded those days and did her best to appear unattractive. It wasn’t difficult. Almost five years on the sea cliff meant her looks were not what they had once been. Olivia didn’t care. Once, when she’d been seventeen and innocent, she’d cared very much about dresses and ribbons and all sorts of lace. She had not thought she could possibly exist without a lady’s maid, a modiste, and a copy of La Belle Assemblée. Olivia didn’t know that girl anymore. She’s been murdered, snuffed out, one careless night.
She gave a wistful look over her shoulder toward the path that wound behind the cottage and led to the garden she herself planted and cultivated. She would much rather be pulling weeds and harvesting the last of the ripe vegetables than taking this path towards the shore.
“Hurry, Mama,” Richard said, tugging her hand impatiently. His red hair lifted from his forehead as he ran, like a robin taking flight. “He might be dead by now.”
“Why would you think he is dead? And why are we past the boulder? You know you aren’t supposed to wander this far.”
Richard looked back at her, his big blue eyes apologetic. “Sorry, Mama.”
She’d have to have a word with him later, but it almost seemed like an exercise in futility. She wouldn’t be able to keep him hidden for much longer. At five he was still—mostly—obedient, but what about when he grew to nine or ten or even thirteen? He wouldn’t be content to stay in their little world forever. And though it was for his own safety, it was hardly fair to keep him from having any friends or even any company other than herself.
The path curved, and when they came around the other side, Olivia gasped and grasped at a small tree growing on the rocky slope. Richard grinned at her triumphantly. “Told you there was a man.”
There was definitely a man. And he was definitely missing a boot. One stocking-clad foot stuck out of the brush where he lay while the other boot-clad foot rested beside it. Neither foot moved, and from the position of the feet, she could tell the man lay on his belly.
“Is he asleep?” she whispered.
“He didn’t move when I crept close,” Richard said. He was looking at the man or he would have seen the way Olivia’s face went rigid with anger and terror and wouldn’t have continued. “I saw blood. A lot of blood, Mama.” He looked up at her now, his blue eyes full of concern.
Olivia felt relief. If he was injured, he wouldn’t be a threat. They could leave him his boot and after the rains fell and their footprints were destroyed, he’d never know they’d been there. “Run back to the cottage,” she told Richard.
“Why?” he protested. “I want to see the man again. I want to see if he’s alive.”
“Richard, go back to the cottage. It’s not safe.”
“Yes, it is. He’s not even awake.”
His shoulders drooped. “Yes, Mama. But how will you carry him back to the cottage on your own?”
This was precisely the reason she wanted him out of sight. Olivia had no intention of carrying the man back to the cottage and every intention of leaving him right where he lay and to whatever Fate had in store for him. But Richard wouldn’t accept that, and it would be better if she could return to the cottage and tell him the man had woken and went his own way.
She’d told more than her share. She’d never realized how many lies a mother had to tell a child. Too late she’d realized all the lies her own mother had told her.
“If I need your help, I’ll come for you,” she told him. “Now go.”
He sighed and trudged slowly, very slowly, up the path and back toward the cottage. When she was certain her son was gone, Olivia crept closer to the man. Her breath caught in her throat, making her lungs burn when she forgot to breathe. He was a large man, much larger than she, and quite powerful looking. He did indeed lay on his stomach, his face down, legs spread, and one hand tucked against his side. There was the blood Richard had spoken of. It stained the ground and the man’s great coat. The coat was finely made. She looked down at the boot she still held before dropping it. The boot was expertly made as well, the materials expensive and fashionable. Whoever this man was, he was not from Penbury.
Had he come looking for her?
She didn’t think she’d ever seen him on her trips to the village. She had to go into Penbury every few months to replenish her supplies. There she could sell needlework she’d done or even take commissions from those who wanted embroidery for something special. Mostly, she was self-sufficient, but she couldn’t make fabric or metal pots and utensils. She also had the money she had taken with her when she’d run away. It would not have been much if she had lived like she did in London, but it was quite sufficient if she was careful and lived modestly. Since she didn’t want anyone looking at her too closely, wondering where her coin had come from, she spent it sparingly and she tried to do business with women whenever possible. It wasn’t always possible, since women rarely owned shops or tended them. That was why Olivia dressed shabbily and kept her face ducked and her hats low. She even wore a half veil, though that tended to attract more attention.
Now she peered down at this man intently, but he wore some sort of black silk mask over the top of his face. She could not see anything above his lips and jaw. She knew his hair was golden-brown because the mask ended in the middle of his head, leaving the wavy hair at his nape exposed. A hat lay not far from his body, obviously knocked off when the man had...
What had happened? Had he fallen? Had he lost consciousness from whatever injury he’d incurred? She did not need to know that. She realized one hand had been curved about the hilt of her knife, and she released it now. She’d returned the boot. It was time to depart.
She took a step back and her gaze fell to the crimson splash blood again. The mist of rain had turned into a drizzle and little rivulets of blood had begun to run down the hill, away from the body. She should leave him.
But how could she leave him to die?
And how could she not? Perhaps he’d come to kill her.
She swore under her breath, torn between what she wanted to do and what she should do. Finally, she bent down and put a finger against the man’s neck. Please let him be dead. If he were dead, all her problems would be solved.
But there was no denying the weak pulse beating against her fingers. He was alive, barely, and if she walked away, she condemned him to the hereafter. She couldn’t do it. Not only because Richard would ask about the man and even a consummate liar like herself couldn’t look him in the eye and say the man had been fine and walked away. But also because she hoped she hadn’t lost all of her humanity. She was still a decent person. She still had compassion. This man needed all the decency and compassion she could muster.
She nudged the man’s shoulder with her hand. “Sir?”
He didn’t move.
She shook his shoulder, this time with more force. “Sir? Are you awake?”
Perhaps she should try to turn him and see his wound. She tried for almost five minutes to do so, but he was too heavy. Instead, she managed to move his hand, which was bright red with blood. She couldn’t see the wound under the layers of clothing. She prodded at it, though, and the man let out a low groan.
Olivia jumped back like a frightened cat. The man’s eye opened, the one on the side he wasn’t resting on, and he stared at her with an unfocused gaze. He had hazel eyes—not quite green and not quite brown—and he blinked at her once then closed his eye again.
Olivia’s heart pounded in her chest so hard she thought it might explode. Why did it have to be a man, a big man at that, lying on her path? And why had Richard chosen today of all days to disobey her? Would that she’d never discovered this beast of a man.
But she had, and somehow he’d become her responsibility. She had to find a way to move him up the hill. There was only one way she could think to do that, and she would need Richard and Clover’s help.