Isabella’s Secret Summer – Tabetha Waite

Ridge Claymoore walked in the front door of the White Horse Cellar Inn and paused, allowing his exposed eye to adjust to the dimly lit interior. His other was covered with a black eye-patch, for his intimidating guise as the sailor One-Eye had served him well in the past when it came to gathering information. It appeared his reputation continued to precede him, as, without fail, patrons at the tables he passed shifted their seats out of the way to allow him a wide berth, their eyes quickly darting away rather than choosing to meet his direct stare. At long last, his search for Simon Hindercray, Viscount Wistenberry, had led him here. While his missions for the Home Office generally consisted of smugglers and hardened criminals, Wistenberry was wanted as a foreign spy, and in times of warfare, such a treasonous offense was regarded as even more dire. Well-placed spies could easily be the deciding factor between who took home the victory and who suffered defeat, and with England facing off against the French and the growing conflict in the American Colonies, the effects could be devastating, if not crippling. It was Claymoore’s job to make sure that didn’t happen. After assisting the Crown in taking down one of the largest smuggling rings England had ever seen, it was brought to his attention, by one of his fellow agents, the Duke of Chiltern, that a silver snuffbox had been found that bore Wistenberry’s initials, connecting him with Lady Cordelia Westchester, the Marchioness of Worthington . Unfortunately, by the time they realized the part Wistenberry had played, he was nowhere to be found. At the same time, it was discovered that Lady Isabella Resenfeld had gone missing. After putting the pieces together, it was concluded that Wistenberry had convinced the lady to run away with him, as they had recently been seen in close proximity together. So Ridge, along with fellow agent, Logan Montgomery, had set off for Gretna Green in Scotland, the most likely choice for a hasty elopement. However, they’d arrived too late, so they had headed back to London, stopping at every coaching inn along the way in the hopes that they might be able to catch Wistenberry and his wayward bride on their return. They finally uncovered a fortunate tip fitting the couple’s description, which had led them here. Ridge scanned the interior, searching every face for his quarry, but there was no sign of him, nor his new wife.

At this point, he was starting to get frustrated. Weeks of travel had yielded little fruit and he was ready to put an end to it. And that was when he spied the barkeep. A slow grin spread across his face, for it was someone he knew rather well. It was one of the crewmen from his previous endeavor on board the Clara Belle, one who had also managed to elude the authorities after the raid. Apparently, he thought it would be in his best interests to hide in plain sight. He was wrong. And while the other man now knew who he was, that didn’t mean Ridge couldn’t still inspire fear. He walked up to the counter. *** Isabella thought her dreams had at long last come true.

Unfortunately, the reality was quite a different matter altogether. She stared at the simple silver band encircling the third finger of her left hand with a heavy sigh. Her new husband had placed it there, just over the border of Scotland at Gretna Green. It hadn’t needed to be encrusted with jewels, for she’d loved the simplicity of it, because it was a symbol of the vows she had Simon had just taken. It might not have been the wedding she had always pictured as a child, but at least she could call herself Lady Isabella Hindercray, Viscountess Wistenberry. Her heart had been near to bursting with happiness — at the time. It hadn’t taken her long to find that the fairy tale ending she’d been hoping for had been nothing but a sham. She realized, too late, that all the sweet words and compliments Simon had showered on her when he’d been pursuing her had been empty and meaningless. After a rather unremarkable wedding night, where their coupling had been uncomfortable and brief, with no show of affection whatsoever, she’d lain there and stared at the ceiling, tears stinging her eyes, while her new husband had rolled over and gathered his clothes. “You should get dressed.

” His tone had been almost curt, without even a hint of the love she held for him. “We need to return to London.” With that, he’d walked out of the room, shutting the door behind him with a cold finality. Looking back, she realized how naïve she’d been to believe a single word from a scoundrel like Simon Hindercray, but she had been blinded by her devotion to him. She’d easily fallen prey to his ploy of devoted suitor, ignoring the warning signs that told her he was merely after her dowry, but she’d ignored them all, because he had promised her the only thing she had ever wanted. Love. For a shy red-haired wallflower, she had told herself long ago that she should be content to live the life of a spinster. But when Simon had asked her to dance that fateful night at the Kensingtons’ ball, a man she’d adored for the past four years, she had seen a chance to live the life she’d dreamed about during the nights she’d lain awake alone in her bed. Ever since she’d been a girl, she’d been a hopeless romantic, praying for the handsome knight to sweep her off her feet with a breathless kiss. She’d harbored this hope in her heart, locked it up inside, telling herself that someday her prince would come.

But never in all of her four and twenty years had she ever imagined the surprising turn of events that her life would take. While it was true she wouldn’t have to live with the scorn of being a spinster, it sounded so much worse to imagine that she’d been abandoned after a mere two days of marriage. Upon arriving in London that morning, Simon had taken her to the White Horse Cellar, a bustling coaching inn in Piccadilly. He’d escorted her into the travelers’ room and told her to wait there for his return while he took their marriage certificate and went to speak to her father alone, in hopes of diffusing any unpleasantness that might arise from their elopement. That had been hours ago. And while she hadn’t wanted to believe it, she could find no other cause for his disappearance, other than he had left her to her fate. Of course, she could return home with her head hung in shame, but she wasn’t sure she could face her family and admit her ignorance. She considered taking the mail coach to Bath, for surely there was some sort of distant cousin there upon whom she might prevail, but then, she carried a handful of coins at her disposal. If she arrived with no prospects… She sat near the edge of the room, her valise in her lap, holding the few hastily packed belongings that she’d thrown together when Simon had convinced her to run away with him. As she stared at the leather that held everything that she’d thought was important to her at the time, her vision blurred.

A selection of haphazard clothes and personal toiletries was all that remained of her life as Lady Isabella Resenfeld. A single tear slid down her cheek, but that was all she would shed. She didn’t bother wiping it away, for the rim of her straw bonnet hid her face well enough, and even though the room was starting to grow crowded as the day wore on, she had been blessedly ignored until that point, fading back into the wallpaper like she always had. Suddenly, a demanding, deep voice separated itself from the rest of the murmured travelers around her. Curious, she glanced up and saw a tall man at the bar, speaking to the man behind the counter. He was dressed as a commoner in simple, brown trousers and a matching jacket with dull black boots. His sandy-blond hair was tousled from the wind. She wasn’t sure why he might have interested her, for he appeared as any other traveler she might have encountered at the White Horse that afternoon. But then, perhaps it was the fact his tone was almost hostile in his conversation with the innkeeper. As his voice rose on a threatening growl, she clearly heard him say, “Don’t lie to me! I was told they came through here earlier today!” When he pounded a fist on the wood, Isabella jumped.

The racket inside the inn dissipated as much of the activity came to a halt and several heads turned to watch the scene being playing out. As if performing an act on stage, the man reached across the counter and grabbed the barkeep’s cravat in one fist, twisting it until his eyes bulged for lack of air. “I know you’re scared to speak out against a gentleman of the nobility, but rest assured—” He shoved his face inches away from his captive. “—you’ll fear much more from me than your miserable life if I don’t find Lord Wistenberry.” Isabella’s heart stopped in her chest. But it wasn’t until the innkeeper’s face turned pale from a lack of oxygen that he turned in her direction and nodded fiercely. The stranger also turned. Isabella began to tremble, and oddly, not just from fright, as she was pinned with a single, dark stare, his left eye covered by a menacing, black eye-patch. He didn’t take his eye off her as he released the man behind the counter. But the moment he took a step toward her, she rose to her feet.

He paused, his lips quirking slightly in the corners as if he could tell she was about to flee — and was looking forward to the chase. Isabella didn’t wait to see anything more. She turned and weaved her way as quickly as possible through the crowd. She didn’t look behind her to see if the stranger followed. She didn’t have to, because she had no doubt that he was. She could feel him stalking her like a predator trailing the scent of blood from its wounded prey. Every breath she took threatened to consume her with panic, but she tamped it down and concentrated on moving forward. She forced herself to put one foot in front of the other, until she arrived at the side door of the inn. When she had her hand safely on the doorknob, she turned to see where her pursuer was. She choked on air, for he was but a few feet away, his dark eye gleaming as that earlier smile slid into a dangerous grin.

Isabella pushed open the door and shoved it closed behind her, looking around for something she could use to wedge it shut from the outside. From out of nowhere, someone grabbed her from behind and pressed a cloth to her nose. She clawed at her assailant, struggling to break free, but a pleasant scent drifted to her nostrils with every breath, and her eyelids sagged as her head became light. She tried to scream, but all she accomplished was taking in more of the sweet fragrance. She blinked several times, her strength waning and her limbs growing heavy. It wouldn’t be long before she was unconscious. As she slumped against her captor, the door burst open. Groggily, she watched as the stranger strode toward them. She thought perhaps they were in league together, but then he withdrew a pistol from the waistband of his trousers and directed it at a point behind her. “Release the lady or pay with your life.

” “If it ain’t th’ traitor from th’ Clara Belle,” the man holding her sneered. “Aye,” the stranger concurred. “And if you don’t wish to meet the same fate as Spalling and your cohort inside, then I suggest you do as I say.” Instead of releasing her, the man’s grip tightened, although the cloth over her nose eased somewhat, so that she was able to gasp in a slight bit of oxygen. She closed her eyes in relief, but her head was still spinning. “I don’t think so, One-Eye. This ledy has a price on ’er head. Ye think I’m jus’ gonna give her over t’ ye tha’ easy?” Isabella’s forehead creased. Did he just say…? But surely he was mistaken. No one would want her.

Even her own husband had left her. She forced her eyes back open, although the darkness wanted to pull her down into its depths. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy.” The stranger cocked the pistol, the eye that was revealed narrowing menacingly. “But neither will I take no for an answer.” She heard the sound of a matching click of a hammer. “Then it appears ye an’ I are at an impasse.” Isabella knew she had to do something. She didn’t know why, but the thought of seeing the stranger fall to his death made her chest ache. With all of the energy she could muster, she stumbled backward into her captor.

Her momentum set him off balance, and he uttered a curse right before the pistol was discharged to the side, missing its mark completely. The moment his grip lessened, Isabella pushed away from him. Her vision was blurry, her legs unsteady, as she stumbled away from the turmoil. She heard the sounds of a scuffle behind her, but she didn’t dare look back. Keep moving. She kept repeating the words to herself, even when she fell to her knees and continued to claw her way forward. Every move she made was foggy and disoriented, and she feared that she wouldn’t remain conscious for much longer, but she wouldn’t give up. But while her determination was strong, her body refused to cooperate. Her arms started to tremble with her weight, and she realized she was faltering. She collapsed onto the hard ground and realized that everything had fallen silent around her.

She feared for who had won the battle, not sure if she was comfortable with either outcome, but neither could she go any farther. The sunlight on her face was warm and inviting, her every thought lethargic and displaced as she closed her eyes. The last thing she heard was the chirp of a bird in the distance as the drug closed in and eclipsed everything else. *** Ridge shook his hand after that last punch. While it had sent the lady’s captor into dreamland, he wouldn’t be surprised if he’d broken a bone or two. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time, nor would it likely be the last. As a seasoned agent for the Home Office, he’d had his share of fisticuffs. And worse. But instead of going down that same, dark path, he walked over to Lady Wistenberry and bent down near her still form. He knew he hadn’t made the best first impression by wearing his eye patch, for the fear in her eyes had been unmistakable.

He noticed her breathing was set into an even rhythm, and he decided it was probably for the best that the ether had taken effect; otherwise, he’d likely have an overset woman on his hands. He reached out and untied the bonnet beneath her chin then gently removed it from her head. When her brilliant copper-red hair was revealed, he swallowed hard. He’d seen many beautiful ladies in his lifetime, but she was in a class all of her own. He lightly touched her pale cheek and something clenched in his chest when he found it to be as soft as it appeared. His gaze dipped down to her pink, full lips, which looked perfectly kissable…

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