Authors: C.L. Stockton
“I couldn’t. You needed me to stay awake.”
I stared at him for a moment, attempting to work out whether that remark meant anything. His eyes were closed, and I was afraid he’d fallen asleep against the horse. Thankfully, a man came forward to take Brutus’ reins.
“See to it he receives the best of everything.” From my purse, I took a few marks and pressed them into the man’s hand.
“Yes, miss.” Brutus was led to the stables behind the inn.
“Thank you.” Back on his own feet, Colton wobbled alarmingly.
“You’re welcome.” This time, I put my arm around his waist, unsure how much was playacting and how much was real exhaustion. His arm came around my shoulders, lending an intimacy to our measured walk up the front steps.
Distracted by his nearness and the abrupt change from the sunshine to the dimness of the hotel interior, I paused a moment in the doorway. Colton’s head leaned closer to me. “You smell nice.”
“Er—thank you. Yes, we’d like a room, please,” I addressed the woman behind the desk as I cautiously propped Colton against the wall.
“Hello, dear. I’m Mrs. Whitlock.” The woman’s kindly face wrinkled as she looked at us. Round and short, she was the proverbial grandmotherly type. “How long will you be staying?”
“One night.” I thought it best to have the room until tomorrow morning, just in case Colton overslept. Eying his slumped form against the wall, that was a distinct possibility.
“Your room will be the first on the left at the top of the stairs. I’ll send a bath up as soon as you’re settled.” She pressed the key into my hand, a smile entering her kindly brown eyes. “Been riding your young man hard?”
“No.” Blushing, I accepted the key.
“A pity.” Mrs. Whitlock winked. She watched as I slipped my arm back around Colton’s waist. “Do you need help getting him upstairs?”
“I can manage, thank you.” The less Mrs. Whitlock knew about us, the better.
While we climbed the stairs, my mind was a million miles away. As soon as I had Colton settled, I planned on beginning inquiries about my father. The moment I determined he was asleep, I would be out the door. I may not even return, depending on what I found.
Attempting to fit a key into a lock while balancing a man on one’s side was harder than I anticipated. While Colton wasn’t fighting me, he was not helping by increasing the weight he leaned against me, nearly toppling us both into the closed door.
“Colton, really. Can you not stand by yourself for just a moment?” I elbowed him in the ribs.
“There is no need to become violent, sweetheart. Of course I am capable of supporting myself.” So saying, he immediately straightened. I began to wonder if he’d only been pulling my leg with this entire exhaustion routine. Then I saw his shoulders slightly slump.
“You could have done that earlier,” I muttered, easily unlocking the door to reveal a modest but clean room. A single bed stood against the near wall, a bureau next to that, and an armchair positioned in front of the windows made up the room. Through the door next to the bed, I made out the dim shape of a hipbath. Obviously this inn hadn’t discovered the joys of indoor plumbing.
“And ruin your fun?” There was a twinkle, albeit, a tired one, in his blue eyes when he looked at me. He ruined the effect by nearly stumbling over the crease in the doorway.
“Into bed!” I pointed a stern finger in the direction of the four-poster.
“Yes, ma’am.” I watched as he shrugged off his jacket, the much cleaner, whiter shirt beneath it only highlighting his travel stains. The forest wasn’t exactly the cleanest place in the world, and we were both covered in tree sap, dirt, and the like. I wondered when the hot water would arrive.
“Would you like help?” I asked, watching him struggle with a stubborn boot.
“No, thanks,” Colton grunted, the boot finally coming free of his foot.
Watching him undress was a strangely intimate act. He hadn’t even shown any skin and my heart was pounding, my blood racing. I crossed to the window, hoping he wouldn’t comment on my unease.
Behind me, I heard the second thud of a boot and then a long, drawn out groan, as he collapsed on the bed. When I didn’t hear anything further, I turned to look at him. Without bothering with the covers or the pillows, Colton lay sideways across the bed, feet still firmly on the floor.
I wondered if I should help him, but a knock came at the door. That would be the hot water.
The first maid nodded to me, before pouring her pitcher of boiling water into the hipbath nestled behind the open door. In quick succession, the maids filled the bath, closing the door to our room behind them.
As much as I hated to disturb him, Colton needed a bath. He certainly hadn’t bathed while staying with us.
“Colton?” I stepped closer to the bed, unwilling to get too close in case he was one of those people who awoke with a start, or kicked out.
“Mmmm?” He didn’t raise his head.
“Your bath is ready.”
“Mmmm.” His eyes remained closed.
“You’ll feel much better once you’re clean.” I grabbed his knee and wiggled it until he moved. His eyes opened, and he lifted his head off the bed.
“If I agree to bathe, will you promise not to wake me until afternoon?”
“That seems fair.” I folded my arms over my chest, and watched, narrow eyed, as he hefted himself off the bed and shuffled into the washroom. I listened to the soft thuds of clothing hitting the ground, then the splash of water and knew he was finally in the bath. “You better not fall asleep in there,” I called.
Grateful the door was finally closed and I was more or less alone, I subsided into a chair. I hated playing the innocent when I wasn’t. I knew exactly why my father sent me to Lisbon and what must be done. I also knew my father had no intention of meeting us, not when the man with me had been sent to kill him.
A few months ago, my father told me about what he claimed was failed assassination attempts. I thought he was crazy. My father was a slightly overweight cloth merchant. He was neither rich nor mean enough to arouse anyone’s anger to murderous levels.
Lacking an escape, I heard him out. According to him, he’d nearly been brained by a piece of wood after walking past the new house the next street over, been winged by an errant shot while out hunting, and finally, nearly drowned to death while crossing the bridge leading out of Sal de Mar after a push from a stranger.
I asked whether he had proof. He didn’t. Then I asked why anyone would want to kill him. He paused before saying a business deal had gone bad. No matter how hard I pressed, he told me no more. It was then he backtracked, saying it must simply be his imagination. Of course no one was out to murder him.
Deciding delving deeper would be useless, I allowed my father his lie. If he wouldn’t confide in me, I could not help.
Life went on as normal for me. I attended numerous afternoon teas and dinner engagements with Lady Michelle, a close friend of the family. Actually, she'd been my mother's friend and after my mother died last year, she'd taken on the responsibility of escorting me. While my family wasn’t titled, we were rich enough to gain entrée into most functions. Mother had wanted me to make a titled match, but none of the men interested me. Really, I only accompanied her because I was bored. There wasn't much to do in Sal de Mar if one didn't attend the parties.
Then things changed. It was a fine day in late June. We’d been standing outside the house, waiting for our carriage to be brought around so we could attend services at the local church. I turned my head to track the progress of a rather innocuous coach drawn by a pair of impressive chestnuts as they turned down our street. Only because I was watching did I see the reins tighten, turning the horses to the left until my family was directly in their path.
My father threw me to the ground, taking shelter behind the gatepost. At the last minute, the horses swerved, but the coach behind wasn’t as lucky. With a horrific crunch, it hit the gatepost my father hid behind. Not stopping, the horses continued down the street, dragging the crippled carriage behind them.
Thankfully, my father was unharmed, running down the street after the coach, shaking his fist and yelling about how they wouldn’t get him, not when the attempts were so obvious.
Later that night, he confided he was a wanted man, though he wouldn’t tell me what he was wanted for. All I needed to know is one day he would need me to do something for him, which he spent the next five minutes outlining. I asked how I’d know when to act, and he said our secret word would be Lisbon. If he ever sent me to Lisbon, I would know not to argue, and go immediately to Lisbon to find his contact.
It appeared my father had just activated my task, though why he’d sent me with Colton for company was worrisome. If, as I suspected, Colton came to murder my father, why would he turn around and send me to Lisbon with him?
Unless Colton wasn’t here to kill my father. They had spent the better part of two days in the study, and surely the man would’ve had numerous opportunities to kill my father. He must be after information, then. What did my father know that Colton didn't? I would have to find my father’s contact and hope he knew what was going on.
But where was the contact? I didn’t have an address or anything. I wished my father wasn’t so secretive, and it must be due to Colton’s presence that he hadn’t been more forthcoming, though his earlier explanation also left a lot to be desired.
Sending one’s daughter to a strange town in search of a strange man while in the company of another stranger certainly wouldn’t put my father in the running for Father of the Year. All I was certain of at the moment is Colton must not find out I knew more than I let on. He was too intelligent to fool for long and already suspicious.
I may as well see what was in the purse from my father. I hoped the object in the bottom would clear up some of my confusion. That letter certainly hadn’t made sense. Catching sight of Colton’s jacket draped over a chair, I smiled. Foolish of him to leave it outside the washroom.
A quick check of the pockets revealed nothing beyond a handful of marks, a compass, and some string. Hardly anything useful. The mystery about him deepened, however. What kind of man traveled without identification? I suppose he may keep important documents in his trouser pockets, but I knew with a certainty he wasn’t who he said he was.
Walking back to the armchair, I upended the purse onto the taut fabric of my skirt. I sifted through the marks, about eighty-five in all—plenty to purchase food and a ticket back to Bolien—and found a pendant given to me four years ago with a tiny scrap of paper wound around it.
In my father’s handwriting 1324 Bottomsleigh Street scrawled across the paper. I wasn’t familiar with the street, but I assumed it was somewhere in Lisbon. Quite possibly, this was the address of the contact he’d sent me to find (I suddenly felt very suspicious myself, even saying the word contact). As soon as I took care of Colton, I’d slip out and find the address.
The pendant was another matter. I turned it over in my hand. I hadn’t seen it since the day my father gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday. The ancient etching and dull gold chain hadn’t endeared it to me then and it didn’t work now. After my less than enthusiastic reception of the gift, my father snatched it back, muttering about ungrateful children.
Not sure what to make of it, I fastened the chain around my neck and tucked it down the front of my bodice. The neckline of my dress concealed the pendant, and hopefully Colton wouldn’t remark on the gold chain around my neck that hadn’t been there earlier.
“Find anything interesting?” Colton suddenly loomed over my shoulder, his blond hair and beard darkened several shades from the bath. His white shirt clung damply to the flatness of his muscled stomach, and rounded biceps. Tearing my eyes away from his impressive body, I met his blue eyes and felt my knees shudder. What had I gotten myself into?
I hastily crumpled the piece of paper, burying it beneath the money. “Only money.”
“What did you put beneath the money?”
My eyes widened innocently. “When?”
His eyes narrowed. “Just now.”
“You must be mistaken.” Thankfully, the scrap of paper was small. I wadded it up as tiny as possible and released it in my lap so I could take my hand out and show him the empty palm. “I simply like the feel of money.”
Reaching out, he turned my hand over. “Stand, please.”
“I cannot stand with money in my lap. It’ll make quite the mess.”
“Which you will then clean up.” When I made no move to follow his command, he frowned. “Stand or I shall pick you up.”
“Cranky when tired,” I muttered to myself.
“What did you say?” The bath appeared to have invigorated him, at least for the moment. His eyes were still encircled by dark shadows, and his movements were not as graceful or effortless as they’d been yesterday, but there was nothing wrong with his hearing.
“Nothing.” Gathering the marks into my arms, I stood. Thankfully, I didn’t see a blob of paper fall to the ground. It must be stuck between the assorted bills and coins in my arms.
“Now hand me the money.” I did, careful to drop a few coins between us. His hands, being larger than mine, held the assorted monies much easier than my own fingers. Still, he regarded me through narrow eyes.