It was, without question, the worst week of Lord Hamish Doherty, Earl Leighton’s life. He lay sprawled on the main floor of the Two Toads Inn, near the Berkshire border. His eyes watered as pain ricocheted through his face, blood pouring from his nose, that no amount of dabbing with his handkerchief would halt. So much for his unblemished profile, the ladies of the ton would be most upset to see that his nose was now a little crooked.
“I told ye, no matter who ye think ye are, if ye can’t pay ye debt, I’ll belt the money out of ye,” the proprietor growled, his bulky frame distinctly menacing.
Hamish swiped at his nose, searching his pockets again for his purse, which was regretfully missing. Where the hell was it? He had it when he arrived three days past, had tipped the busty barmaid a gold coin after a very thorough servicing of his room, but after that his memory was hazy.
He'd gone for a ride yesterday to visit his good friend the Duke of Athelby at Ruxdon house, but with no need of funds there, he’d left his purse in the room. A stupid error of judgement considering the state his nose was now in.
Pushing away a surge of anger, he replied calmly, “This is merely a misunderstanding. I have funds. I left them in my room.”
“Are ye saying that they’ve been stolen? That my inn is an establishment that allows such theft from those who stay under its roof?”
The publican wacked the wooden baton against his hand, a sure sign that would replace the fist that smacked into his nose a moment ago. Hamish looked about the room and cringed that he was now the centre of attention of other guests who were privy to his humiliation. No doubt he’d be the on dit all over town next week once they knew who he was. “Not necessarily…only that I had it when I left yesterday only to find it gone today. And I’m not saying that it was stolen, but only that it’s missing, and I have not misplaced it.”
The barmaid who he’d tupped huffed out an aggrieved breath. “Sounds like ye are trying to pin the stealing on one of us.”
Hamish held up his hand when the publican took a step toward him. “I’m not, but I don’t have the funds to pay for my debt. Let me send word to my friend, the Duke of Athelby and he’ll pay the bill. I assure you.” The publican narrowed his eyes and seemed a little less sure of his abuse at the mention of the duke, but it was only short-lived as he seemed to disregard Hamish’s lofty contacts and took a threatening step toward him.
“Ye are a liar as well as a lout who cannot pay,” the publican accused.
Damn, if there was anything Hamish disliked it was conflict, and he didn’t wish to cause trouble so close to the Duke of Athelby’s estate, but nor would he allow being treated so poorly. He was a peer, being beaten like a low life criminal. If the publican did not watch his future actions, he would find himself before the local magistrate for battery and theft.
“I’m the Earl Leighton. Do not confuse me for a lout without money or influence. If you come any closer to me with that bat, you’ll find out quick enough just how true my words are.”
The publican’s eyes widened, and his advance stopped. Clearly the man was rethinking better of splitting Hamish’s head open. “How do I know ye not lying about being a toff?”
A pair of sturdy boots came up to stand beside his head and he noticed they were well worn and a little dusty, probably from the inn yard. The gown that followed the boots was a dull, grey color, good for traveling. The face that glanced down at him was nothing short of angelic.
“How much does his lordship owe?” this mystery woman asked the publican, stepping between him and the man who’d already given him a bloody nose, which by the way, refused to stop bleeding. He pinched his nose harder.
“Four pounds will cover it, Miss Martin, and may I say how glad we are that ye are here to stay with us again.”
She rummaged into her reticule and pulled out the correct amount, placing it into the publican’s hand. “Have our luggage moved up to our rooms and have his lordship’s carriage packed straight away. As for the gentleman’s claims of being Lord Leighton, I can assure you he is who he says. I can vouch for him as we have mutual friends.” She glanced at him quickly, her voice no-nonsense and calm. “I’m assuming since he was wanting to pay his account that his intentions were to leave.”
“Of course, Miss Martin,” the publican said, bowing and yelling out to the surrounding staff to do as she bade. “Apologies, my lord for any confusion. I hope you’ll understand not knowing who ye were made me actions necessary.”
Hamish glared at the bastard. “Let it be known I shall not shadow your establishment again, and nor will I ever recommend it.”
Miss Martin kneeled beside him, holding out her gloved hand for him to take. He did, and she helped him to stand.
For a moment Hamish stared at the angel who’d saved his poor carcase without his purse before she raised one, dark eyebrow.
“Lord Leighton, Miss Katherine Martin at your service. We’ve met before, at a ball I attended with my good friend Miss Cecilia Smith, now the Marchioness of Aaron.”
Hamish frowned, racking his brain to place the beauty before him and came up blank. How could he forget such a woman? She appeared a lady who commanded authority and also had a backbone of steel. Even the hefty, large-boned publican didn’t seem to faze her.
He met her piercing, intelligent brown orbs that were as dark as a rich coffee and his gut clenched. Upon standing one thing became perfectly clear, she was tall, almost as tall as him. She would never be regarded as a diamond of the first water, but Miss Martin was attractive. Her long, russet brown locks sat about her shoulders, neither tied back or accessorized with a bonnet. She stared at him with unwavering frankness, and as for her mouth, well, sensual and plump were two terms that came to mind…
“I’m embarrassed to say that I do not remember, but I’m very pleased to meet you and I thank you for your help today. I’m unabashedly ashamed of myself. I should have looked after my belongings better.”
“I have no doubt that you’ve been stolen from, and yes, please when staying in such locales in the future, take better heed of your things. I may not always be about to save you.” She threw him a grin and turned about on her heel, heading for the stairs.
“Wait!” he said, clasping her arm, gently urging her to face him once again, then releasing her. An inexplicable need to see her again welled inside him. A pretty blush had heated her cheeks possibly because of his familiarity, and he suppressed the urge to pull at his cravat like a schoolboy. “I must repay your kindness. We have mutual friends, shall I see you in town? How can I get in contact with you?” Hamish stopped saying anymore before he sounded like a desperate fool.
She rummaged in her reticule again, pulling out a small card. “We move in quite different social circles, even though my friend has married into the aristocracy. But perhaps we shall see each other again. As for repayment, should you or someone you know ever need a builder, please recommend my father’s company. You’ll not find more quality or better prices.”
Hamish looked down at the card, it read: Mr. Montgomery Martin, Master Builder. “I hope we meet again, Miss Martin.” No truer words had he said. She’d saved his hide, stepped in like an Amazonian warrior and fought off the evil publican. The need to meet again, not when he was bleeding like a stuck pig and dishevelled from being assaulted, burned though him. He wanted to see her again within his own sphere, his own terms. He would send a note to the Marchioness of Aaron on his return to London and see what she could arrange.
Miss Martin laughed, heading for the stairs. “Safe travels back to London, my lord. And please, remember my advice for the sake of that pretty nose of yours. I would hate for your bone structure to suffer any more ill effects from a fist.”
A warm sensation tugged inside his chest. “So, you think I’m pretty, Miss Martin?”
“I believe I remarked only on your nose, my lord. Is it possible you are fishing for a compliment?”
Hamish chuckled and watched as the impudent, delightful miss walked up the stairs, the last image he had of her the little black boots as they stepped out of sight.