The Masked Baron – Anneka R. Walker

ANDALİN STARED AT THE SKETCH of the Dark Rider. Papa had bought it for five pence on one of his trips and pinned it to the shelf of their small lending library. All those who frequented their shop stopped and commented on the crude image of the infamous baron turned highwayman. Andalin memorized all the tidbits they shared. Then the customers left like always, on to exciting places Andalin could only dream about. She picked up her duster, knowing work still needed to be done, and trailed it along the few ribbons and things purchased from a haberdashery at the nearby market town only to be resold here. Various sizes of salt-glazed vases lined one wall, opposite the odds and ends. Instead of giving her pride in Papa’s trade, they seemed to press against her, trapping her in the small room for yet another day. Andalin’s senses dulled, and her mind wandered to the stories of the Dark Rider. The man terrorized the villages of Northumberland, so she should certainly be grateful Corbridge had been spared thus far. She imagined the Dark Rider storming Papa’s shop and stealing her away, only for a rich duke to swoop in and rescue her. Of course, love would spiral from the heroic act, but the greater good would surely be in saving Papa from insolvency. A heavy sigh escaped her lungs, only to catch on her lips when a shadow passed outside the door. It was silly for her to jump to conclusions, but suddenly she wished Mr. Young, Papa’s elderly assistant, was not absent—especially with Papa out peddling his wares in a nearby town.

The door swung open, and Mr. Crow sauntered in. He was not as intimidating as the Dark Rider was presumed to be, but Mr. Crow carried an air of domineering importance. Andalin was never easy in his presence. “Good afternoon,” Mr. Crow said, dipping his head as if she were some great lady. He wore his new suit, she noticed—one of several he’d gone all the way to London to have made and fitted. He looked the part of a real gentleman, and despite what others whispered about him, he acted the part too. She released her pent-up breath, but her muscles remained tense.

“Is there anything in particular you came to purchase, sir?” “I’m here for a pleasure call,” Mr. Crow said, oblivious to Andalin’s wary posture. In the back of her mind she heard the voices of her neighbors contradicting Papa’s opinions and urging her to encourage Mr. Crow’s attentions. “Oh?” “You must have heard I’ve a second carriage now, Miss Durante. My pub here and my new inn in Tyndale are thriving.” “Yes, I heard.” Andalin busied herself with dusting again, intrigued despite her better judgment. Mr. Crow was tall, broad, and generally considered handsome.

He wore his wavy curls combed forward, with long sideburns, in the Titus fashion he said was all the rage amongst high Society. Mr. Crow cleared his throat and checked the door again to ensure they were alone. “I’m looking to buy an estate, and I need a wife to help me maneuver through the social circles. I could have anyone, anyone at all. Do you take my meaning?” Andalin’s heart pounded both from nerves and disbelief, but she kept her face impassive. “You require a wife.” “Yes.” Mr. Crow’s lips curled with pleasure.

“I am a generous man, willing to condescend for the right woman. Miss Durante, I’d like to offer for your hand.” Andalin lowered her gaze and fingered the handle on her feather duster. She did not love Mr. Crow, but he was the most important man she knew, and he flattered her vanity. Marrying him meant a life outside the store and a new world of possibilities. If she wanted to leave the store, marriage seemed the only solution. “My father would not like it.” “Your father is an imbecile.” Andalin could not hold back her annoyance.

“My father is nothing of the sort.” Papa always cautioned her to hold her tongue, but surely she must defend his name. “He doesn’t care for you, and that is all.” “Forget him. I will speak to him. I only wanted you to adjust to the idea before our wedding.” She did not like how he assumed there would be a wedding. At the same time, she could hardly believe he would choose her for his wife. Indeed, if the thought did not turn her stomach, she might consider it. “You don’t want me.

I am a lowly tradesman’s daughter, a nothing in this world.” “That may be true now, but I shall have you.” His tone changed from persuasive to forceful. “You are too refined for this life, and I shall show you off as the prize you were meant to be. I will buy you gowns and jewels, and every man will look at me with envy.” Andalin took a step back against several bolts of cloth. Mr. Crow’s eyes gleamed with insatiable hunger. Entertaining any thought of accepting such a proposal now seemed ludicrous. She remembered Mr.

Young saying he would return from his deliveries before dinner, but that was a few hours away yet. Mrs. Young usually looked in on Andalin, but the woman was feeling poorly today. To be alone with Mr. Crow now seemed as formidable as any highwayman. Mr. Crow closed the gap between them and then lifted his large hand to her face. She held her breath as he ran his thick fingers against her cheek. “Soon, my little dove, I will take you away from all of this.” *** Greenhead Village, Northumberland, England Ellison watched from his place on the main floor through an open window smeared with dust as Hezekiah Durante rode up to Thirlwall Castle.

The middle-aged man wore plain clothes rumpled from travel, and the hair beneath his hat was peppered with gray. He tied up his horse and lifted his hand to knock when the rotting door of Thirlwall swung in on its own. Ellison’s lips twitched in humor. Lord Kerrigan’s generosity in temporarily extending the use of his castle did not include the upkeep of the place. Apparently, his friend possessed too many holdings to oversee all of them with equal attention. Traces of vermin and decaying masonry testified that a vacant house never fared well. Even Ellison’s own neglected home, Braitwood Hall, had not fallen into such extensive disrepair. However, he would not complain about the conditions of Thirlwall Castle when it provided the ideal secluded meeting place. Ellison closed the glass pane and made his way to his guest. He’d spent many years tracking down Mr.

Durante, and finally he would have answers. He noiselessly stepped into the foyer, startling the poor tradesman when he turned and saw Ellison. Mr. Durante’s eyes widened. “The Dark Rider,” he said breathlessly. Ellison smiled menacingly. He hated that name. “One and the same. And I am to assume you are Mr. Durante?” The man removed his hat and gave a curt bow.

Oddly enough, his face did not register fear—just wariness. Everyone in England believed Ellison to be the baron-turned-villain. “I am surprised, even impressed, you came.” Mr. Durante’s grim expression did not falter. “Your business proposal interested me.” “As it should, if you have any love for money. Follow me, and we shall discuss the details.” Ellison led the way to the earl’s table, where he’d brought fare from the local inn for them to dine on. “Please, you’ve had a hard ride.

Eat while we talk.” Mr. Durante’s eyes gave him away—he couldn’t believe Ellison did not just strike him a blow and rob him for all he had, which wasn’t much, based on Ellison’s inquiries. He could have laughed, but he needed to lure Mr. Durante into a feeling of security. The man watched Ellison sit before taking a seat himself. Ellison pushed over the plate of battered chicken legs and a bottle of Madeira brandywine. “I am serious about wanting to invest in your salt-glazed stoneware. Your designs are unique and beautiful. I heard the Duke of Northumberland has several of your vases on display at his home in Alnwick.

” “A craftsman must know his market.” “And a good craftsman knows that in a rural location with little resources, a deal with me could set him up for the rest of his life.” Mr. Durante picked at the food, clearly wanting to expedite his business. “I don’t have a love for money like you’ve suggested. It’s a necessity.” “Oh? Beyond just bread and a roof overhead?” “My family—” “Oh yes, your daughter is quite the beauty, I hear.” Mr. Durante’s calm demeanor faltered, and he clenched his jaw. “How did you hear of my daughter?” Ellison’s patience waned, and he yearned to pelt the man with all the questions he’d collected for the last decade.

He pulled out his knife and sharpener from his boot and began pushing the blade against the stone. He’d found this activity aided him when bargaining. And while he did not want to overly intimidate Mr. Durante, he did want the man to respect the power that came from Ellison’s position. “I didn’t plan to share all my cards, Mr. Durante, but you must understand I know everything there is to know about you. I know your circumstances are drastically reduced from the inheritance you would have received had you not abandoned your family.” The color drained from Mr. Durante’s face, but Ellison pressed on. “I know your daughter is all you have left and you would do anything to give her the life you once had.

Oh, you’ve tried well enough. She’s as well-read as a Cambridge graduate, and her speech is as refined as that of the gentry, but she’s still a poor little tradesman’s daughter without a dowry or a future.” “What do you want from me?” Mr. Durante asked, pushing to his feet. Ellison touched the blade of his knife gently with his hand, testing its sharpness. A trickle of blood was enough to satisfy him. “Believe it or not, I am the kind of man you want on your side. This”—Ellison held up the knife—“is a harmless tactic to uphold my reputation and no more. If you are capable of trusting me, we can help each other.” He flipped the knife around so the handle faced Mr.

Durante. “Here. If you agree to work with me, you must be on your guard.” Mr. Durante stared at him for a long moment, not moving to accept the proffered gift. “You are not the only one who did his research before this meeting. Your knowledge of Andalin surprised me, but only that. I could share a few secrets of yours, if I was so inclined.” Ellison raised his brow with impressed wonder. “Excellent.

I think this equal footing will serve us well.” Mr. Durante’s lips turned up into a half smile, and he finally accepted the knife. “What are your terms?”

.

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