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Two

Dorchester, two weeks later

Mercedes Maxwell stepped down from the stagecoach, breathing a heavy sigh. The trip had been too long, and jostled her around so much the coiled hair style at the base of her neck fell in a disarray of curls. The constant sway of the coach made her feel like she’d been on a ship at times, especially when she closed her eyes. If not for all the dusty dryness coating her mouth, she would have thought she’d been tossed by waves instead. Thankfully it was early spring and the summer humidity wasn’t yet upon them.

“Lady Maxwell? Are ye all right?” Timothy trudged up behind her, pulling her trunk.

“Yes. I will be fine.” She surveyed the busy street, pushing strands of hair out of her eyes. “So long as we can find lodging before I am jostled again.”

Her servant, a man old enough to be her father, straightened and walked in front of her. “Although we’ve few shillin’s left, I’ll find a conveyance. Ye stay right ‘ere with the trunk. It shouldn’t take much time to locate transportation to yer brother-in-law’s.”

Sweeping the unruly mass of hair over her shoulder, she sat on the trunk and clutched her satchel. She must find lodging soon. Funds were low, which placed a greater urgency with her plans.

Especially now.

Tears stung her eyes as she reached into the pocket of her cloak and pulled out the letter she’d received from Dr. McClain at the asylum.

Lady Maxwell, I regret to inform you that your sister, Katherine Braxton, died after you left the hospital. She found a knife and cut herself. When I found her she’d lost so much blood, it was too late to save her. Accept my apologies and my deepest sympathy. I will send you the bill since your sister didn’t have the funds to cover it. Respectfully, Dr. McClain.

Mercedes swiped the tears from her eyes and placed the letter back in her cloak. There hadn’t been time—or money—for a proper burial. When Mercedes arrived at the hospital, the physician had already placed Katherine in the box and lowered her into the ground. All Mercedes could do was utter a prayer and lay a rose on top of the long wooden box. Not long after that, hatred had fueled her and she couldn’t wait to confront her brother-in-law. William Braxton will pay one way or another!

When she imagined meeting her brother-in-law for the first time, her heart pounded fiercely and fear caused her palms to moisten. She hadn’t yet written to him to inform him of his wife’s demise or about the added expenses of the hospital and burial. But that wasn’t foremost on her mind any longer.

Staying in Dorchester, Mercedes had planned to watch Mr. Braxton closely and gather as much information as she could in dealing with his traitorous actions toward his business partners. What words would convince him to treat her like family? She must figure out what she would say to him in order to get close enough to spy on him. If he were the demon Kat had accused him of being, he wasn’t going to welcome Mercedes into his home with open arms.

Off to the side, a street urchin standing near the apple cart drew her attention. The young lad’s gaze darted around the street, suspiciously. Dirt streaked his face and tattered clothes, and his hair appeared as if he hadn’t combed it—or even washed it—for weeks. When the owner of the cart turned his back on the boy, the lad’s hand snaked out, grabbing an apple.

That little thief! She stood as he ran past. Reaching, she tried to grab the imp, but only succeeded in stumbling forward. The owner of the cart swung around and faced her, his eyes widened the longer he stared.

“Oh…it’s you,” he accused, pointing his finger.

Panic enclosed around her heart. “No! I didn’t take it. It was that little boy.”

The man glanced up the street and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Constable, over here.”

She shook her head, but the cart owner wouldn’t listen. He continued calling for help, pushing aside patrons as he hurried toward her. He wouldn’t arrest her…would he? Nevertheless, she couldn’t take that chance!

I must get out of here. Panic surged through her and energy pumped into her legs. She lifted her skirt and ran nowhere in particular, just as long as she could get away from the cart owner and the man of the law. Ahead of her stood a building with hedges planted in the back. If she could get there and hide...

She turned the corner and paused, resting against the wooden frame of the building. Deep breaths heaved from her chest that burned from lack of air. Cautiously, she peeked to see if they’d noticed her. Indeed, they had and were still running after her, calling for her to stop.

Clutching her cumbersome skirt, she scurried toward the end of the building and ducked behind the far corner. Another street opened before her, spectators gawked at the commotion she created.

She didn’t stop to rest, but kept running until another alleyway loomed ahead. Looking over her shoulder, she breathed a heavy sigh that the men following were farther behind. But within seconds, more men had joined the chase.

She turned another corner and ran into a solid form. A scream tore from her throat as she grasped his arms to keep from falling. Two strong arms circled her waist. She looked up into the face of a soldier wearing a red coat; the symbol of those men serving England.

“My, my.” He grinned, tightening his arms around her. “What lovely package do I have here?”

Instead of being relieved to see a soldier, she worried he would believe she stole the apple just as the others did. “Please Sir, release me at once.” She squirmed, but to no avail.

“’Tis all right, my dear. I shall protect you.” He gave her a wink. “Have I not always been your champion?”

His words confused her, but she didn’t have time for an explanation. “Please, if you would be so kind. I must get away.” The shouts of pursuing men grew louder. “You do not understand. I cannot be caught. I fear they will put me in jail for a crime I did not commit.”

The soldier raised a dark eyebrow. “What stories are you telling now, Mrs. Braxton?”

She gasped and stared at the man holding her. Mrs. Braxton? He thought she was her sister? But of course he would. She and Kat were identical twins. And nobody knew Kat had died.

As she opened her mouth to deny his comment, heavy footsteps rounded the corner. Panic gripped her, and she couldn’t breathe. They had come to take her away.

Daring to peek over her shoulder, it surprised her to see the men’s expressions showed no anger. Instead of scowls aimed at her, their brows were creased, mouths pursed tightly as they glared at the soldier. Confusion filled her and she slowly shook her head, trying to understand what was happening.

“Release her at once, Sir,” the apple cart’s owner said to the soldier.

Surprised, she blinked, switching her attention back and forth between the soldier and the other man. Why did they dare talk to this officer so disrespectfully?

A chuckle rumbled through the soldier’s chest, but he didn’t let her go.

Thundering hooves of a horse bore down upon them. Mercedes switched her attention to the man on the steed. The small crowd parted, and the man atop the animal dismounted. His horse had whipped up a cloud of dust in the dingy alley and she waved her hand in front of her face to keep from sneezing. The sight of the rider left her speechless and a bit weak at the knees.

His rugged appearance shocked her, his strength evident in his muscled arms and legs. Rather than the fancy clothes of the English gentry, the beige shirt and brown leather vest of a farmer’s attire stretched taut across his wide chest, and the black material of his trousers molded to his legs and fit snugly into his black knee-boots. But this man was no farmer. That much appeared evident by the way he carried himself as he strode toward her, his step too confident, too graceful.

When he neared and she gazed upon his face, her breath caught in her throat. The sun had turned his skin a light brown, and the sureness of his jaw bespoke authority. Chestnut hair tousled by the wind framed his head, and she had a sudden urge to swipe the unruly locks off his forehead.

He was quite handsome, if she dared admit, and he literally made her lungs stop working. Never had that happened to her from just admiring a man. Looking into his fiery hazel eyes, she swallowed hard.

He stopped mere inches away, towering over both Mercedes and the soldier like a dark cloud of doom. She leaned her head back to take in his height.

The handsome man met the soldier’s stare. “Sir, will you kindly remove your hands from my wife?”

Her jaw dropped. Wife?

“Correct me, Mr. Braxton, but was your wife not running from you?” The soldier shook his head. “A few hours ago, I had heard that you reported your wife missing. Now here she is caught running. There must be a reason for that.”

She sucked in her breath. Mr. Braxton? This handsome and very powerful man was William Braxton, her sister’s husband?

The pulse in her temple grew stronger. She couldn’t speak, and she couldn’t think. Telling him about Kat’s death was crucial, yet she didn’t want to do that in front of all of these spectators.

If only her mind would cooperate with her tongue and voice, perhaps she wouldn’t feel like a trapped animal. But more importantly, why did she find her brother-in-law dangerously attractive?

When the man in question settled his eyes on her, his expression softened and a smile touched his mouth. “Yes, my dear. Please inform the captain and all these good people why you were running from me.”

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