Silence stretched through the crowd as all eyes aimed toward Mercedes. Even the horses seemed remarkably quiet. Panic grew inside her chest like rising dough, suffocating her slowly. They all expected an explanation—one she couldn’t give.
“My dear.” Mr. Braxton took a step closer. “Will you please clarify why you were running from me?”
All of this was a mistake. She needed to set the matter straight. Now. Although she assumed Mr. Braxton’s change of attitude was all for show, her heart leapt at the tenderness he displayed. That could be the only reason her mind had gone into a momentary dither.
She opened her mouth to explain about Kat’s death, but a thought struck her. It was as if Heaven had parted a different direction in her mind, washing away all other plans she’d made to confront William Braxton.
I could portray my sister. No one here knows of her death.
Obviously, these people didn’t know she was Kat’s twin. This mistake in identity might make the difference in getting the money she needed from Mr. Braxton and get him arrested for those illegal actions against his business partners. After all, pretending to be his wife would be easier since she’d have free reign of the house—and more freedom to follow him or eavesdrop. Yet what Kat had told her about her husband caused a wave of nausea to roll through Mercedes’ middle. It would be as if she were married to Lord Maxwell all over again.
The unspoken command to play along with Mr. Braxton loomed in the depths of his eyes. A warning buzzed through her head, commanding her to stop this insane idea of switching roles, but no other choice came to her. It had to be done.
Her tongue felt enlarged and her mind had turned to mush. “I—I was not running from you. I thought the cart owner was after me.” She switched her attention to the merchant. “A street urchin stole an apple, and I thought you were after me because of it.”
She glanced at the soldier then pushed away from him. “Thank you, kind Sir, for breaking my fall.”
The soldier shook his head. “But that does not explain why your husband felt the need to report you as a missing wife this morning.”
She gulped, feeling like her throat had dried considerably within seconds. Think Mercedes… “I had been to Preston to visit my ill sister.” She switched her gaze to Mr. Braxton. “Do you not recall me telling you?”
Braxton released a light laugh. “I do now.” He aimed his attention to the soldier. “I had a temporary loss of memory, but all is well now.” Mr. Braxton’s eyes softened as he met her gaze and held out his elbow. “Are you ready to return home, my dear?”
Could she be seeing right? He was acting like a gentleman instead of the monster her sister had described.
“Yes.” She placed a shaky hand in the crook of his well-muscled arm and he led her toward his horse. Another man followed and mounted a horse tethered nearby.
“Mr. Braxton.” One of the townsmen in the group stepped forward. “Do you still want those chairs delivered to your residence on the morrow?”
“That will be fine, Mr. Perkins.”
“Sir.” Another man doffed his hat. “My Mary wanted me to ask the next time I saw you when you’d be needing more eggs?”
“I’ll have my cook speak with her.”
“As you wish, Mr. Braxton.” The man nodded to Mercedes. “A good day to you, Mrs. Braxton.”
She smiled. “And a good day to you.” Odd, but the townsfolk seemed to respect Kat’s husband.
Without meeting her eyes, Mr. Braxton placed his large hands around her waist and lifted her onto his horse. Strange sensations flitted in her stomach and spread through her body until he released her. He mounted behind her, draping her legs over one of his. The intimate position had her shivering in a mixture of fear and awareness. Though this was the horrid man her sister had warned her about, a few moments ago she’d detected a softer side. His touch wasn’t as rough as she’d expected when he positioned her on the horse.
She sneaked a glance over her shoulder to peer into his eyes. These were not the same pair she’d seen a minute ago. Instead, they had turned incredibly cold. Had the monster she’d been warned about returned?
“Where have you been?” he hissed in a tone low enough so only she could hear. “I have been out of my mind with worry thinking you had been kidnapped…or worse.”
Finally, Mercedes was able to glimpse the atrocious man Kat had married. Apparently, he was only an angel of mercy in front of his acquaintances. The harshness in his voice caused Mercedes’ limbs to shake. What was he capable of doing in a fit of anger?
Before she had time to speak, his large arm tightened, holding her against him in a vise-like grip. He wouldn’t abuse her right out in the open, would he?
“You can explain after we get home.” The sharp tone in his voice made her cringe. “I don’t want to air our disagreement in public.”
He reined his horse, turning in the opposite direction of her trunk—and poor Timothy who probably thought she’d been kidnapped.
“Wait.” She touched Mr. Braxton’s hand. “We have to go back and retrieve my trunk.”
“Yes. It is at the mercantile.”
He growled but maneuvered the animal around. A man who’d been with Mr. Braxton earlier, followed at a distance as they rode the few minutes in silence. Mr. Braxton’s stiffness against her back conveyed his anger.
Ahead of them, Timothy stood by a wagon, loading her trunk. His skittish gaze roamed the street. The lines around his mouth gave evidence of his concern.
“Right there.” She pointed in her servant’s direction.
“Picking them older now?” Braxton sneered.
She glanced over her shoulder just in time to see his curt expression. “Pardon me?”
“The man. Who is he?”
He arched an eyebrow and shrugged. “Well, nonetheless, he can ride with Gabe.”
When they neared, Timothy’s gaze lifted to hers and his mouth hung open. His expression darkened as he switched his focus from her to Braxton. She tried communicating to him with her eyes to follow her lead.
Although under duress, she smiled. “Timothy, I have found Mr. Braxton, my husband I told you about. Can you bring the wagon and follow us home?”
Brows drawn together, Timothy’s skeptical gaze moved from her to William. Her servant’s mouth opened and shut a few times as if he wanted to speak but didn’t have the words. Mercedes’ heart hammered against her ribs. Hopefully, Timothy wouldn’t ask questions. She couldn’t have her plan ruined so soon. She focused her pleading eyes upon her servant.
What seemed an eternity passed before he finally nodded. “As ye wish, Madame.”
The man named Gabe dismounted and tied his horse to the wagon. He helped Timothy with her trunk before climbing onto the seat with her servant.
Mr. Braxton urged the horse forward, and they traveled through the middle of town. People greeted him and he answered in a kind, tender voice, but all were hesitant before addressing her, she noticed.
The busy section of town disappeared, and Mr. Braxton’s warm breath released on her neck in a heavy sigh. She gazed at his profile as he glanced over his shoulder at the fading town. The slight breeze made his intriguing scent drift to her nose, a mixture of cedar and leather. It roused her senses, and for some odd reason, she was eager to know more of him. Would pretending to be his wife bring back horrid memories of her marriage with Lord Maxwell? Was Mr. Braxton really the monster Kat had warned her about? So far, she’d caught glimpses of a totally different man underneath his hard mask of indifference.
Mercedes shook away those thoughts. She couldn’t think this way about her brother-in-law even if her sister was dead and buried.
He turned away from the town and looked at her. His hardened expression made the lines across his forehead run together.
Mercedes gulped. He was going to realize she wasn’t Kat. Taking a deep breath, she prepared herself for his anger.
“Thank you for not making a spectacle back there.” His voice was harsh, yet sincere.
She nodded, holding in the sigh of relief threatening to spill forward. Why had he said such a thing? After all, she’d been the one looking foolish not too long ago, not him.
“I am truly sorry for leaving. I hope I did not worry you.” She spoke in soft tones, wishing to calm his anger.
His brows drew together. “You are sorry?”
Trembling, she took a deep breath. Time had come to play the charade…to play the bold woman she’d never been. “Yes. Before I left, I wrote you a letter, informing you of my plans. Do you really remember or were you just saying what you had back there as not to cause a scene?”
“Trust me, there was no such letter.”
She swallowed, moistening her parched throat. “My sister summoned me. She was deathly ill, and I needed to leave quickly.”
His gaze snapped from her to the road. “We shall talk about this when we reach home.”
“Why?” She glanced at the others riding well behind them. “They cannot hear.”
“Because if we wait, I shall have time to cool my temper. I fear what I might say in my present state of mind.”
“As you wish.” He looked down at her. Confusion still marred his dark expression so she continued, “But know I’m sorry for causing you any worry.”
He shook his head as if he didn’t understand. “Please, cease your prattle until we arrive home. You are confusing me.”
He’d just shown clear evidence he was the ogre Kat had warned her about. The man seemed intent on a quarrel, refusing to accept her most heartfelt, if not completely honest, apologies. Instead of prodding him with questions, she kept her mouth closed and stared at the road ahead.
After a moment of silence, he grumbled. “What ails you now?”
She glanced at him over her shoulder. “What do you mean?”
“Where is the argument?”
“Cease playing the innocent victim, Mrs. Braxton. You know very well what I refer to.” He sneered. “Your only form of communication is to argue, so why have you suddenly changed?”
She scolded herself for forgetting her role. Kat did possess the talent to argue. Mercedes must try to remember this henceforth, but it would be difficult. Whereas Kat had a love for verbal sparring, Mercedes avoided confrontation at all cost.
She arched a brow. “Perhaps I am also waiting until we get home.”
She studied his face closely for a reaction and it wasn’t long in coming. The corners of his mouth lifted slightly and hinted at a smile. If not for the coldness in his gaze, she would have relaxed.
“Very well.” He nodded once.
After a short time, they rode into the drive of the most beautiful home she’d ever seen. A three-storied mansion with a massive chimney on each side loomed before her. Her breath caught in her throat. Two dormer windows accented the third floor while the other windows were in the Palladian style. On the surface, her sister appeared to have been the most fortunate woman in the world, even more so than Mercedes, who had married an Earl. Yet it was this house, and the very man who lifted her off the horse, that had caused Kat’s melancholy and eventually her death. Mercedes wished Kat had told her how Mr. Braxton amassed his fortune.
Once the wagon stopped, Gabe jumped from the seat and walked toward the back. Timothy followed. In one fluid sweep, Gabe lifted her heavy trunk, resting it on his shoulder while Timothy carried her satchel.
“Timothy, please let me carry that.” She stepped toward her servant, taking it from him.
Braxton’s bark of laughter made her stop to give him a confounded stare.
Her sister’s husband scratched his head. “Mrs. Braxton, you are full of surprises today. Gabe will take your luggage to your room.”
Realization dawned and she decided it best to comply with the man’s instructions. After all, how else would she find her sister’s bedroom? She gaped at the house’s magnificent façade, once again amazed at the grand place where Kat had lived.
“What about Timothy?” she asked. “Where will he stay?”
“I will make certain he is assigned to work an area around the house that best suits him.”
“Thank you.” She gave her sister’s husband a curt nod and followed behind Gabe. Although dressed in a similar style, Mr. Braxton’s servant didn’t fill out his clothes as well.
Quickly, she admonished herself. Although William Braxton had been blessed with the most favorable attributes—mesmerizing hazel eyes, smooth lips, hair a woman would love to run her fingers through—he was still an ogre on the inside. He cared about nothing but his precious money.
Silence reigned until she reached the bedroom on the second floor. She followed behind Gabe as he walked in and set her trunk down, then turned to look at her with distrust darkening his brown eyes. The more he watched her, the more his expression sharpened, causing her heart to hammer against her ribs. He stood too close for a mere servant, almost threatening.
She stepped back. “Thank you for helping me, Gabe.”
He took another step closer and she retreated further.
“Do you need anything else, Mrs. Braxton?” he asked.
Folding her hands together, she held them firmly against her stomach, trying to stop from shaking. “Thank you again, but that is not necessary. You may leave now.”
The man stopped directly in front of her. Unease turned to fear and her stomach wrenched. His glare was meant to frighten, but she would not cower.
“Good day, then,” he said.
She hadn’t realized she was holding her breath until he walked away, then she emptied her lungs in one big whoosh. What was that all about?
Stepping further into her sister’s room, she scanned the area from top to bottom, tilting her head, admiring the pearly white ceilings and walls. She moved to the green and yellow drapes on the window, pulled the cord to let the brightness from outside lighten the spacious room. A large marble fireplace ran alongside one wall. She walked to it, knelt, and peered inside, running her hand along the sandstone in awe.
On the other side of the room stood a hand painted silk screen depicting delicate birds perched on thin vines with a waterfall in the background. She stood and rushed behind it. Shock washed over her. She gasped at the copper bathing tub with brass clawed feet. Even though Lord Maxwell had had many expensive possessions while they were married, he had never owned a tub this size.
At the armoire, Mercedes swung open the polished cherry-wood doors. The delicate scent of lavender swirled around her. Her hand fluttered to her mouth. This couldn’t be correct. This wasn’t the prison Kat had described.
She grasped the scarlet material nearest to her. Smoothing the velvet between her finger and thumb, she closed her eyes and smiled. She’d always loved the feel of velvet, always loved the way it caressed her skin when she’d worn it. She tugged down the fur-lined muff, noticing the matching cloak. There wasn’t just one fur-cloak, but several.
Kat had mentioned William wouldn’t buy her anything, and yet these clothes looked as though they belonged to the Queen.
Concern washed over Mercedes like hot molasses. Her sister had lied. Why? Quickly, she pushed the negative thought out. Her sister hadn’t been in her right mind before she died. Something…or someone had caused it, and it had been in this house!
William Braxton was at fault, and Mercedes was determined now more than ever to get him arrested for whatever illegal activities he was doing.
Sighing, Mercedes plopped down on the enormous bed decorated with the most beautiful quilts and pillows she’d ever seen. Where did William get all of his money? And would his income have anything to do with his traitorous deals? There was only one way to find out, but unfortunately, she had to settle in her new place – and role – before she could spy on him. She couldn’t have him suspecting her true identity yet.
Why did she return?William Braxton paced the green and gold Aubusson carpet in the parlor, hands clenched into fists. Where was Mrs. Braxton? What was taking her so long? Rather than cooling off as he should since they arrived home, his anger intensified.Usually an understanding man, he couldn’t forgive her this time for leaving without a word, amongst the other crimes she’d committed since their wedding. For the past few months, his life had hung by a thread, and any more catastrophes could send him to his doom.
Mercedes furrowed her eyebrows. Why did that inconsiderate man question her attire? Studying her image in the fancy glass on the mirrored sidebar, she wiped her moist palms down her skirt. Nothing was wrong with her dress. It was certainly more proper than the gowns she’d found hanging in her sister’s closets.Her thoughts quickly came to a halt and her heart sank. Realization turned her blood cold. She’d have to dress in the same manner her sister had. Kat never once dressed modestly when she lived at home, so why would she change after marriage? Why hadn’t Mercedes thought of this before she decided to play her twin?
Staring at herself in the full-length mirror, Mercedes groaned and twisted her mouth in distaste. The indecent rusty-red evening gown trimmed with black lace looked horrid on her. Besides exposing a lot of her shoulders and bosom, it was much too tight. The stays nearly squeezed the breath right out of her. Several times she struggled to lift the shoulders so they wouldn’t drop down her arms so far, but they refused to go the way she wanted. No way would she be seen like this. She couldn’t even look at herself without blushing. How would she react when others rested their eyes on her?“Beth? Could you choose another gown for me?”
A new dawn crept through the partially opened drapes of William’s room, touching and stirring him from the depths of a dream he didn’t want to remember. Last night’s events had kept his mind awake into the wee hours of the morning. Despite his sluggish body, he pulled himself from his exhausted state and climbed out of bed. The refreshingly cool air stroked his skin, awakening him even more. With half-closed eyes he reached for his robe, wrapping the silk garment around his body before ringing for his manservant. A cool bath would bring him alert to the new day.His servant carried up buckets of water and filled the copper tub. Once relaxed in the liquid comfort, William’s foggy memory of the previous evening claim
Mercedes placed a shaky hand over the erratic beat of her heart. Once the door slammed, announcing William’s departure, she breathed a sigh of relief. Thankfully, she hadn’t humiliated herself in front of him by crying. He thinks I’m Kat, she tried to reason, but her trembling body would not listen to rationale. Changing his mind was most important. If he couldn’t trust her, he wouldn’t allow her into his life so she could spy on him.A nudge of guilt stemmed in her heart for the deception, yet when she remembered the way Kat had pleaded…begged for Mercedes to make William pay for ruining her twin’s life, Mercedes hardened her heart once more. Kat had been a loving woman at one time unti
It had been several hours since the sun had lowered in the western horizon. William rubbed his eyes, trying to decide what time it was. His guess; three in the morning. Maybe four. He climbed out of bed after tossing and turning for some time and walked to the window. A sheath of black cloaked the land, lightning flashed in the distance, followed by a low rumble of thunder. Storms had always soothed him, and he was content to sit and watch.He parted the curtain just enough to witness the slashes of light in the sky and made himself comfortable in a heavily cushioned chair. The storm advanced in slow degrees, rumbling and stamping its way across the peaceful landscape. Several times his body relaxed, but the persistent roar of thunder jol
Mercedes rode the horse hard toward the next town, not stopping to give the animal a breath or even take a rest herself. The cool breeze from last night’s storm stung her cheeks, dried her lips, and unraveled the ringlets in her hair. She didn’t care. This was her only form of release. She couldn’t let William see how his nearness affected her. For that matter, she couldn’t let anyone see.When she pictured William’s wounded face, guilt gnawed at her conscience. It seemed he’d been the person truly wronged. But he wasn’t the one who had gone mad and died, either. She must remember her sister above all else.
Mercedes hesitated to leave her bath of luxury that evening, but the cold water threatened to turn her skin to prunes. Towel drying herself, the lilac-scented soap assailed her senses, reminding her of home. Right after her father’s death, she’d boarded up his cottage on the outskirts of Bristol, and prayed all would be fine when she returned. She missed the neighboring cottages and yearned for the closeness she had with the families living nearby—families she considered part of her life.She pushed away the disheartening thoughts and changed into an evening dress. Although no guests had been invited to the supper meal, she wanted to look her best. Of course, the selection of dresses in her sister’s closet didn&rsq