"Well? Do anyof themappeal to you? "Meg asked.
Sighing, Valoree focused on the paintpots again, then shook herhead. "I donot care."
"Of course youdo, dear. You – "
"Nay. I don’t, " Valoree assured the woman grimly. "I am hungryand – "
"How canyou be hungry? " Henry asked peevishly."You ate that whole loaf of bread yerself."
Valoree’s mouth began to twitch at theresentmentintheold man’s voice. She had been aware of his hungry-eyedglancesat her loaf and cheese, but had ignoredthem, still irritated that he’d reneged on his claim last night that they wouldgive up this fool’s errand of trying tofinda husband.
Forcing heramusement aside, Valoree shrugged. "Well, I am.
AndIam also thirsty. Ihave not had a droptodrink since last night.So thetwo of you can make the choices, " she announced, turning toward thedoor. "Iam in searchof… refreshment." She said the word dryly as she walked out of the shop, knowing Henry wouldgather her true meaning.She wanted a damn drink.
A realdrink. Rum, or whiskey, or – "Ah, Lady Ainsley.What asurprise."
Valoree gasped and stepped to theside to avoid collidingwith Lord Thurborne as the man suddenly appearedbeforeher, but she did not slowher step. Shewas too damned thirsty to be bothered withthe irritating nobleman. Rather than leavingher to herown devices, the pestfell quickly into step beside her.
"I see I caught you without your blade again, " he saidlightly, reminding her ofher lastcomment the night before.She hadbeen frustratedto find the knife missing whenshe had finally gained the wall, but ithadonly been knocked off to landon theother side. She had snatched it up on her wayto the carriage.
"Aye. More’s the pity, "she muttered now.
‘Then I suppose I am safe, " he teased.Then, before she could comment, he asked, "Where is it we are headed exactly? "
"Iam headed fora tav – " Catching herself, she cleared her throatand tried for a less irritated and moreladylike answer."I am searching foran establishment in which Imightpartake of refreshment."
Valoree rolled her eyesatthequestion. She had been doing things alone since she was eleven. Disguised asa boy, mindyou, but alone nonetheless. Ladies, of course, would not take refreshment unescorted – especiallyin this lessthan idealpart of town.Damn! The rickety littleshop that Meg haddirected them to was in an area that had once been quite upmarket and expensive, butthat was years earlier. Now the buildings were crumbling and the shops were gradually moving out, a less pleasantelement moving in.
"I am not alone, " she told him grimly."My aunt anduncleare in the shopIjust left, and my men…servants… manservants…
are right there."She glanced toward theircarriage as she gestured to it, thenpaused, for while Skully still satupon thedriver’s seat, One-Eye was nolonger onthefootman’s stand.
A movement out of the cornerof her eye drew her attention to the manstanding a step or two behind Lord Thurborne.It was One-Eye, and he had a solemn expression on his face as he attemptedtolook the part of a footman. Impossible, of course, despite the pink livery he wore. The pink merely seemed to emphasize his long, shaggyblack hair, his eyepatch, andthe fact that he was armedto the teeth.Two flintlock pistols stuck out of his pants, his cutlasshung sharp andwicked at hisside, and a leatherstrap hehad fashioned yearsago hadbeen slungover his head and hung from one shoulder blade to his waist on the opposite side.It waspacked full of blades, all in varying sizes and shapes. He lookedlike what he was:a pirate who was deadly withknives. But that didn’t alarmValoree nearly as muchasthe factthat he had come downoff of his perch on the carriage to follow her. As if she needed protecting like any other lady! Fear rippledthrough her atthe damage that wasbeingdone to her image as a strong and capable captain. None of the men would have considered her inneed of protecting prior to this nonsense. None of them but Henry had even known shewas a woman before they’d arrived in London! Until thenthey had all stillsupposedher tobe Jeremy’s younger brother, about to claim hisestates andthetitle of lord.
"My lady? "
Valoree glanced at Thurbornebriefly, herbreath comingout on a small sigh. "I am sorry, my lord. Wait here a moment, please, "
she ordered. Then steppingpast him, she caught One-Eyebythe arm and jerked him aroundto lead him back to the carriage.
"What do you think ye’re doing? I don’t need protecting, One-Eye, I may be wearin’ a dress, but that don’t mean I’m suddenly helpless. I – "
His sharpwordssilencedher as she paused bythe carriage, and she facedhim questioningly.
"Well, " he explained, "Iseen a lot of ladiesout andabout since we got here, andnone of ’emseems to go anywhere without an older lady or aservantfollowingher about like a pup. So when ye came out o’the shop without Meg orHenry, I thought I’d best follow ye … For appearance’ sake."
"I see." She sighed, relief and gratitude overwhelming her brieflyso that she had to turn her head awayin alarm tohidethe moisture that suddenly dampened her eyes.What the devil was going on here? she wondered with dismay. She hadn’t cried since Jeremy’s death, yet hereshewas getting all watery just because One-Eye didn’t see her as helpless. Brilliant! If this wasaside effect of wearing a damn dress, she’d never put one on again once she finished this business.
Taking a deep, calming breath, Valoree blinked her eyes rapidly until mostof themoisture was dispersed, assuring herself that there was nothing to get upset about here. One-Eye was following her around for appearance’ sake, not because he suddenlysawher as a weak woman.Her title as captain wasstill safe. She hesitated toexamine why that should relieve her so, except thather ship and crewwere all she really had in the world right now, and maybe all sheeverwould have, unless shefound a husband and had achild to claimher homeagain.
Clearingher throat, she turnedback to One-Eye. "Well, now I haveLord Thurborne toescort me. You should remain here. But take offthose damnweapons."
"Take’em off? " he cried.
"Aye. This is London, not the high seas. You just make yourselflook like a silly pinkpirate withthem. Take ’em off and stick themunder the driver’s seat or something."
"All of ’em? "
Valoree wasabout to say "aye, all of them, " when she caught thepanic inhis eyes. The expression made her think for thefirst timethatshe mightnot be theonly one feeling like afish out of water, sufferingthe insecurity of new roles and such. No doubt going from a swaggeringswashbuckler to a pink-clad footman was a difficult transition to make. Sighing, she shook her head.
"One pistolandtwo of the smallerblades you can keep, but stick ’em in the top of your breeches and close yourcoat over them." Shegesturedto the pinklivery jacket he had left undone, and pushed backthe sides to reveal thewhite top and weapons beneath. "Justput the others somewhere out ofsight, butcloseat hand."
"Aye, Captain, " hesaid, apparently relieved.
"Good .. . And tieyour hair back, " she instructed.
One-Eye’s handwent tohis long black locks in alarm. Valoree sighed. "Only when you are out and about as a footman. Of course, youmay wearit as you liketherest of the time."
Sighing, he nodded reluctantly, and Valoree grimaced sympathetically, then glanced toward the man now stepping down from the carriage to join them. Her eyebrows rose. His namewas No-Nose, which came from the fact thathe had no nose, of course. Well, not really muchofa nose anyway.It had been shot off long ago whilehe wasa merchant seaman. The ship he had ridden withhadbeen under attack bySpanish piratesat thetime. Once he had healed, he had returned to his ship, butits captain had told him he wasn’t needed anymore. He’d been replaced; noone wanted to look onhis uglymug.
He was one of themen Valoreeand Henry hadhired on to replace the crew members who had died with her brother.
Neither of them had cared thathe washorribly disfigured. All they had caredabout was that he knew his businessand did it well. Yetshe wished he hadn’tbeen the one driving today. She hadn’t really paidattention towho was driving, simply assuming it was Skully. Now she wished hewere Skully. She didn’t care aboutthe man’s nose so much, but she did care that he had long hair. It was a limp, greasy brown, and he too was armedtothe teeth – his rotten, half-missing teeth. His presence brought a scowl to herface. "What thehell are you doing here? I thought you were still ontheship."
No-Noseshook hisheadand proppedhis hands onhis hips. He leanedto the side slightlyand spat ontheroad. "Nope. Came back with the others last night to help at the town house.
Volunteered. Didn’t know I’d be ‘spected to wear this here fancy-pants outfit, though."
"Hmmm." Ignoring his sneer ofdisgust at the pink livery her men were all being forced to wear, Valoree raised an eyebrow.
"Andwhere is Skully? Why isn’t hedriving today? "
No-Nose shrugged. "Went back to the ship for something.
Henry sent him."
"Hmmm, " she said again, then sighed. "Well, what I just told One-Eye goesforyou, too. Get ridofall your weapons but one pistol and twoshort blades. Stick ’eminthe top of your pants and closeyourcoat. Wearit proper. And find something to tie your hair back with.You bothlooklike a coupleof pirates."
No-Nosestraightenedslightlyat that. "Well, and so we should.
That’s what we are."
"Notright now, you’renot, " she said as if they were idiots.
"You’replaying the parts of servantsat themoment." They both stiffened, their chests puffing outslightly in offense, but Valoree smiled at them sweetly. "You allvotedon this, " shereminded them, then hersmiledisappeared. "Andif Ihave to run aroundin these damn dresses acting all ladylike, you two can play your parts, too. I expect my orders tobe carried out. If they aren’t…"
She let thesentencefade away, a mean lookonher face. There was no need tofinish the threat. All her crewknewwhat would happen if they shoulddisobeyan order … Something bad.
Chin lifting, Valoreewhirled away, actuallyenjoying the way her skirts flew out around her, imagining that it must look impressive as shestrodegrimly back to whereLord Thurborne patiently waited.
"Come on, Ineed a drink, " she said with a grunt, catching his arm anddragging himalong theroad awaysbefore tryingto pull him intoa tavern. She got him to the doorbeforehe balked.
"Just a moment."
Turning at his hesitation, she eyed him impatiently. "What? "
"Well…"Heglanced upat the sign over thedoor unhappily.
"Thisis a rather rough establishment for a lady. I do notthink – "
"Can you not protect me? " she asked withfeigned surprise. He stiffened.
"Aye, ofcourse I can, but – "
"Good." Whirling away, she hurried inside, leaving him to follow ornot as hewished.
Thenoise from the tavern washed overher likethunder as she opened the door, but was a very brief thunder. Her entrance seemed tobe notedbyeveryone rather quickly, and an ominous silence abruptly fell.Ignoring theirmute stares, Valoreewove her way calmly throughthe sea of sailors, ne’er-do-wells, and doxies, tothebar. Pausing there, she waited patiently as the barkeep hesitated, then made hisway to her.
He eyed her uncertainly. "Is there something I can help ye with, m’lady? " he askeddoubtfully.
"Youcan poorme a whiskey, "she answered calmly, sighing when the bartender’seyebrows rose. He glanced over her headat someone behind her.Undoubtedlythat someone was Thurborne.
Forcing what shehoped was asweet smile to her lips, sheturned and flashed itat the man, then murmured, "Whiskey settlesmy stomach, andI am feelinga touch nauseous just now."
Both the noblemanand the bartender continuedto stare at her rather blankly, and Valoree’s frayed patience was stretched a littlefurther. Eyes narrowing, she turned back to the barkeep.
"Isaid, it settles my stomach. Ye wouldn’t want me to bepukin’ on yer lovely barnow, would ye? "
That got a better response. A look of horror overtaking his face, theman snatched a mug from under the counter, slammed it on top, and produced a bottle from seemingly nowhere. He pouredout some golden liquid into it.
"Thank you, " she said with amusement, liftingthe glassto her lipsas Daniel gave his own order – ale, ofcourse. Probably for the best, she decided. They didn’t serve stuff like she was drinking in theplaceshe likelywent. This whiskey was thekind Petey could soakhis pots in andnever have toscour to get them clean.Onecould even drink theused whiskey afterward, and it wouldn’t taste any different. Yes, sir, this was the good stuff.
Swallowing therest of the liquid down, she slammed her mug onto the counter, a message to thekeeperthatshe wasready for more.The minute hehad refilled it, she moved to the nearest tablewithan open spot and settled herself on the end of the bench. Sheneededto drink and try to relax. Danielfollowed and settled acrossfrom her almost at once, glancingaround warily as the other patrons slowly began to speak again – about her, no doubt. They didn’tlike what they thought wasa ladyinvading their territory. Didn’t like it at all. That becamerather obviousin ahurry.
"Mayhap we should find another place to – "
"Nay, it’sfine here. Just ignore them, " she advised, but the approach of oneof thesailorsmadeignoring impossible. He was abig gawkyScot. The man was asbigas Bull, with hair asred as Valoree’sandawicked grinthat almost distracted her fromthe factthat hewas missingone ear andhad a scar in its place that randown tohis chin.
"Hello, lovey, " washis opening line, and Valoree arched an eyebrowathim.
"Is there something I canhelp you with? " she asked, suddenly aware of the way Danielwas tensing across from her.
"Actually, lovey, I was abouttoask ye theverysame thing."
He grinned suggestively."Mayhap alittle male companionship."
"She already has an escort, " Lord Thurborne said sharply, bristling all over.
"Does she now? " The bigScot glanced at him with amusement.
"Well, it wasn’tescorting I was thinking ofoffering."
Muchto Valoree’s surprise, Danielwas on his feet beforethe mancould finish turning backtoface her.Grabbing him bythe shoulder, Daniel wheeled the biglugback around, and coldly glaredathim."Isaidshe hasan es – "