To Tempt The Devil Excerpt

Book 3 : Lord Hawkesbury's Players

To Tempt The Devil (Lord Hawkesbury's Players) by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

London: 1589

“I’m going to prison,” James said. Rafe Fletcher thought few things could shock him anymore, but it took him a moment to gather his wits. After a seven-year absence, they were not the words of welcome he expected upon his return to the family home.

“Why?” he asked.

James groaned and buried his head in his hands, but didn’t offer any more information.

Rafe stretched out his legs and regarded his brother sitting across from him in the small parlor. James was seven years younger, but it might as well have been more. He seemed so childlike with his thin frame and innocent eyes, it was difficult to imagine him doing anything wrong. Assuming he hadn’t broken any laws, there was only one reason why he could end up in jail.

“You’re in debt, aren’t you?”

James looked up. “How did you know?”

Rafe waved a hand, taking in the bare parlor. It was like an empty tomb with only two chairs and one small table. There was nothing in the way of comforts, not even a fire despite the chilly autumn air. It was vastly different from how their mother had kept it. Her embroidered cushions had adorned at least four chairs, a tapestry had hung on one wall, and the rushes had always been clean. James kept no rushes on his floor.

“I don’t suppose you have any money saved to loan me?”

James fixed Rafe with a wild-eyed stare. “I would pay you back as soon as possible.”

“Not yet. I’m sorry.” Rafe wished he’d saved the money from his missions and not given it all away in Cambridge. But then he remembered why he’d given it away, and to whom, and he didn’t regret it at all. “I’ll be starting a new job in a week and whatever I earn will go to your creditors, as long as I can stay here.”

“Of course!” Relief flooded James’s face. “Thank you. I’m sorry to do this to you. I didn’t want to ask you for money…”

“Why not? We’re family.”

“Barely.”

Rafe sucked in air through his teeth. He deserved that. They were half brothers, their mothers the same but their fathers different, and Rafe had been absent for a long time. He should have come home earlier, as soon as he heard about old Pritchard’s death a year ago. James had been alone since then, struggling to survive on an apprentice’s wage, and before that he’d had only the heavy-fisted Pritchard for company for six years. Without their mother to soothe the old man’s tempers, and without Rafe to protect him, James must have lived on a knife’s edge. It was no wonder he sometimes hated Rafe for escaping.

“What happened to your job?” Rafe asked. “Your last letter said nothing of problems with your apprenticeship.”

James sighed again. “I lost it. Cuxcomb went into debt himself and had to close the shop. Tailoring apprenticeships are hard to come by. Times are difficult. And some consider me unlucky, having lost both my previous masters one way or another.”

Rafe shook his head. Some people were ignorant, superstitious fools. Losing the apprenticeships wasn’t James’s fault. His father’s death, while welcomed by almost everyone who knew him, meant James had needed to find another master, and Cuxcomb’s debts couldn’t be blamed on him.

“I put off my creditors for a while,” James said. “But then they all called in the debts at the same time and I couldn’t pay. I’ve been ordered to go to the Marshalsea prison until the debts are dissolved.”

“It’ll only be for a week.”

“That’ll feel like forever.”

“I know,” Rafe said heavily. James rubbed his hands through his overlong hair, messing it up. “Is your new job a certainty?” Rafe hesitated. “Almost.”

“Almost?” James winced. “And how will you pay my debts off immediately upon starting? Your new master would have to be very generous to pay you in advance.”

“I can only ask. And if Lord Liddicoat doesn’t want to advance me some of my wages, then perhaps your creditors will agree to me paying off your debts in installments if I can prove I have secure employment. I won’t let you starve.”

“It’s not the starving I’m worried about, it’s the other prisoners. And the filth, the lice, and sickness. Have you ever been to a prison, Rafe? Have you seen the kind of base people housed in them?”

“They’re not all base,” he said.

James didn’t seem to notice his offended tone, which was just as well. Rafe didn’t want his brother asking why he’d been in jail, because that would lead to questions about his activities over the last seven years. He’d told James he was a mercenary, and while that had been true at first, in more recent times he’d taken on a new role with a new master. Innocents like his brother didn’t need to know what that employment entailed, especially now it had ended.

Returning to London was the start of a new phase of his life, a fresh beginning. The past was better left buried. Besides, he’d only been in jail twice and he’d escaped both times after a short stint. It hardly counted. But his brother had a point. If the prison’s conditions didn’t get to him, the other prisoners might.

“Do you have any friends you could ask for a loan?” Rafe asked.

“One or two,” James mumbled. “Well, just one.”

“That’s better than none. Who?”

“John Croft.”

“The neighbor?” Rafe remembered the Crofts. They were good, respectable people, but Rafe had not had much to do with them in years past, distracted as he was with his own problems. “They have three daughters, don’t they? The eldest married a lord a year or two before I left.”

“Lord Warhurst. Jane, the youngest, is living up in Northumberland with them in the hopes of bettering herself. Lizzy still lives at home.” His voice softened when he said her name and there was a ghost of a smile on his lips. So Lizzy Croft meant more to James than merely being his neighbor. “I hardly remember her. A shy little thing, wasn’t she? I don’t think she spoke two words to me her entire life.”

“She’s changed. She’s still a sweet-natured girl. Very good and kind. You’ll adore her, Rafe. Everyone does.” Such a glowing recommendation. James clearly cared for the girl. “You’re going to marry her, then.”

“One day. There’s an understanding between us. I can’t afford to marry her until my apprenticeship finishes and that’s some years off. If ever,” he added gloomily. “Then ask her father for a loan to pay your debts.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“He’s an old man now and doesn’t work. He’s still the tiring house manager for Lord Hawkesbury’s Players, but in name only. Lizzy does all the work as his assistant. Her wages support both her parents.”

“But surely the eldest daughter sends them money.” James shrugged. “I don’t think Lord and Lady Warhurst have much either, what with their own family and their miners to take care of. The Crofts live as I do. If they have money, there is little to show for it.” Rafe struck Croft off his list, but not his daughter. “Why not see if there is work for you at the players’ tired house?”

“Tiring house.”

“If you can show you’re working, your creditors might give you longer to pay them back.”

“Perhaps.”

“Perhaps? What do you have against the idea?” James sighed. “I don’t want to tell Lizzy what’s happened. She might…think less of me as a man. I couldn’t face her pity.” Bloody hell. Rafe hadn’t expected his brother’s pride to be larger than his fear of prison. “If she loves you, she wouldn’t think less of you for a situation that isn’t your fault.” Love. What did Rafe know about love? It wasn’t a sentiment men like him had the luxury of experiencing. “Her company is prosperous but I wouldn’t earn much as her assistant.”

“It would be more than what you’re earning now.” James’s shoulders slumped and he lowered his head. “True.”

“If you want to avoid the Marshalsea, brother, you need to ask her. And believe me, you want to avoid the Marshalsea.” He straightened. “You’re right, I will, just as soon as she gets home from the playhouse.”

“Glad to see you’ve still got some sense in that head of yours.” James gave him a withering glare. Rafe rose and clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m hungry. Got anything in your pantry?”

“There’s bread, but that’s it I’m afraid.” Rafe left him to inspect the provisions. He got as far as the kitchen when someone knocked loudly on the front door.

“Lizzy!” he heard James say upon opening it.

Rafe smiled. He was curious to meet the middle Croft girl again after all this time. For the life of him, he couldn’t recall what she looked like. It was shameful, really. He’d lived next to the Crofts for twenty-two years before leaving London, but Lizzy was faceless in his memory. He’d not even recalled her name until James mentioned it. Granted she would have been young when he left and he’d been an angry youth with burdens to bear, yet he felt some regret all the same now that she was to be his sister-in-law.

But first he’d leave the lovers alone for a few moments. It would give James a chance to ask her for work, then he’d join them to discuss what to do next. At least, that was his plan. He abandoned it when Lizzy’s voice rose above James’s.

“You have to marry me!” she cried. “And soon.”

Rafe frowned when James didn’t respond immediately. Then he sat down on the stool near the hearth. He wasn’t going in there. His brother needed to sort this out on his own.

“James?” Lizzy prompted when he didn’t answer her. “Did you hear me?”

“I…I…” James stared at her through dull, shadowed eyes that were usually a vibrant blue. “You look tired,” was all he said.

This was his response? “I’ve been rushing about,” she said, touching her hair and wishing she’d taken time to repin it beneath her hat before she left the Rose’s tiring house. She wasn’t sure how proposals of marriage should be given, but perhaps she would have received a better reaction if she’d taken extra care of her appearance. James had not seemed to care upon seeing her in disarray before, except for the one time a chamber pot had been emptied from a third-floor window onto her head. He’d laughed. She’d been humiliated and stormed home in tears. His laughter had rung in her ears for hours afterward, until he redeemed himself by giving her a square of crisp white lawn to make herself a new pair of cuffs. They’d been thirteen, and he’d probably stolen the fabric from his father’s shop, but she didn’t care. She was just so happy to not be mad at her closest friend anymore.

She stopped fidgeting with her hair and said, “I’m aware women do not usually do the proposing, but time is running out. I’m desperate, James.” She pushed past him and stood in the parlor, waiting for his sudden grin to light up the room and lift her heart. It did not. He glanced past her to the door leading to the kitchen area. She turned. There was no one there. Of course there wouldn’t be. James lived alone.

“Lizzy, I’m glad you’re here. I wanted to speak to you about something.”

“One thing at a time. First we discuss marriage. Well? What say you?”

“I say why the sudden urgency?”

“Sudden? There has been an understanding between us for years.”

“Yes, but you’ve never pounded on my door until it almost shattered, then demanded I marry you. So what has changed?” A lock of brown hair tumbled over one eye, making him look younger than his twenty-two years. A flash of dimples would have completed the effect of youth, but he wasn’t smiling.

Lizzy offered up a weak one in the hope he would return it but he merely stared at her from behind the curtain of hair and waited. She drew a deep breath. “Very well. Let me explain. I could lose my position with Lord Hawkesbury’s Players. We all could. The new Master of Revels, Walter Gripp, is going to shut us down. He’s already banned one play and has promised to continue until we are ruined. And if the troupe is ruined, what will I do? Who will employ me at such good wages? What will all my friends do? There isn’t enough work for them here in London.” She was rambling but couldn’t stop herself. She felt hopeless, and Lizzy had not felt hopeless in a long time. Not since she’d grown out of her crippling shyness. “I can do nothing for them, but I can do something for myself. Marry you.”

“I…ah…” He turned away and lowered his head. A few deep breaths later and he looked at her once more. “Lizzy, you’re in a state.” He took her by the elbow and steered her farther into the parlor. “Sit.” He indicated the chair nearest the fireplace, the best position in the house reserved for favored guests. She felt honored, even though the fire wasn’t lit. Perhaps his hesitation was because he wanted to do the proposing.

She sat with her hands in her lap in case he wanted to get down on his knees and clasp them. He didn’t clasp them or get down on his knees. He sat too, not in the nearest chair, but on another far away. Indeed, he didn’t even look her in the eyes at all, but looked again to the door that led to the kitchen, buttery, and pantry, then settled his gaze on the small ruff at her throat.

“Now, explain it again,” he said. “Calmly.”

She bit back the tears pricking her eyes. If she allowed herself to give into them, she could not be the calm woman he wanted. It wasn’t James’s fault that he wasn’t reacting with the appropriate amount of sympathy. He didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. Very well, she must make him understand.

“Walter Gripp is the new Master of Revels and he hates Roger Style. Not a mild, passing hatred, but a vicious loathing that’s grown deeper over the years.”

James shrugged. “I can see how someone would dislike a pompous prig like Style, but hate is a rather strong word.”

Lizzy spread her fingers in her lap and tried again. “Style stole Gripp’s wife.”

Roger Style? Not his brother?” She nodded. “Apparently they were secretly…you know…while they were both married. When Style’s first wife died, Mistress Gripp left her husband to live with Roger.”

“How did she get a divorce?”

“They didn’t divorce.” Despite old King Henry’s precedent, one had to have a great deal of money and influence to obtain a divorce. “She lived with Roger for a few months, then left him too. Left London altogether apparently. He wed the current Mistress Style a year or so later. But Walter Gripp never forgave him. As far as he’s concerned, his wife was a good woman until Roger corrupted her. He claims Roger seduced her with his wicked theatre ways as he calls it.” If it wasn’t so awful, she’d laugh. It was impossible to think of Roger as a seducer, let alone the troupe being wicked. They were all respectable men from good families. Most of them anyway.

“Walter Gripp adored his wife by all accounts,” she said. “He’s been trying to hurt Roger ever since. He’s threatened him with lawsuits and even placed his friends in our audiences from time to time to throw rotten fruit and jeer. Once he stormed in and announced he would ruin Roger by destroying the company. He was so angry he was foaming at the mouth and shouting like a madman. It was horrible.”

“I’m sure it was. But if Gripp hates Style so, why doesn’t he just challenge him to a duel?”

“Roger’s too cowardly to agree to one.”

“Run him through with his rapier in a dark laneway then.”

“And be hanged for it? He’s no fool. This way Gripp can ruin the troupe quite legally. Now that he’s the Master of Revels, he can ruin us too.” All new plays had to be read and passed by the Master of Revels before they could be performed. If he deemed a play too offensive or seditious, he could shut a production down. Doing that to every play submitted from Lord Hawkesbury’s Players would cause the company to lose money like a cracked barrel loses wine. They couldn’t keep rerunning old plays—the London theatre crowd demands fresh stories and would quickly grow weary of repeats. “It’s awful. I’m going to lose my job and the only solution I can come up with is to wed you.”

“Thank you,” he said, wryly. “Oh James, I’m sorry, that came out wrong. I do want to marry you.”

“Lizzy…” He rubbed his eyes and blew out a breath. “Getting married isn’t a good idea. Not now.”

“Are you worried your wages can’t support all of us?”

“Yes. Yes, of course. That’s it.” He looked relieved. “So you see the need to wait?”

“No, I don’t. I have a solution. You can come and live with us and let this house to boarders. Or if you prefer, we could live here and let out Papa’s house.” It was only next door. Her parents could move easily enough, frail as they were. “The extra income will stretch if we live frugally until your apprenticeship is complete.”

“You really have thought of everything.” He sounded as if his doom was imminent.

“I’m sorry,” she muttered. “Forget I said anything.” She dropped her head into her hands and tried to suppress the sense of hopelessness welling within her.

“Now listen to me.” He knelt in front of her and patted her arm. “Your company’s plays are tame. With Lady Blakewell writing most of them, she’s much too smart to put in even a veiled reference to dried-up old virgin queens who failed to put their country first and get an heir.”

Lizzy glanced around out of habit although there was no one to overhear them. The royal succession was a sensitive issue. Any plays alluding to it never found an audience beyond the Master of Revels. “It doesn’t matter what our plays allude to, subtly or otherwise. If Gripp wants to hurt Roger, he will.”

“Can’t Style ask the Lord Chamberlain to intervene?”

She snorted softly. “Don’t be a fool.”

He sighed again. “I suppose not.”

The Master of Revels came under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, but the Lord Chamberlain was patron of a rival troupe. He had every reason to keep out of the matter.

“What about Lord Hawkesbury himself?” James asked. “He won’t want to interfere either.”

Lord Hawkesbury was rarely drawn into politics, even the politics of the theatre, unless the queen commanded it. If the troupe of players who bore his name ceased to exist, he would simply become patron of another.

Lizzy groaned. It was all so awful, so uncertain and terrifying! She’d grown up with Lord Hawkesbury’s Players. The tiring house was as much her home as the house she lived in with her parents. She knew every costume in the storage room, every wig, every pin. She’d made friends with many actors and stage hands including some who’d become famous. She felt comfortable with them, not tongue-tied and awkward the way she often did around people.

The players spoke the same around her as they did around each other. And that was how she liked it. Yet it could all be destroyed by Gripp. Her friends would scatter and there would be no wage to support herself and her aged parents. Without it, they would be destitute or have to survive on the charity of her sister’s husband all the way up in Northumberland. So far from London and the people she loved. She would not burden Alice and Leo unless absolutely necessary. They had enough financial difficulty with a growing family and mines still in their infancy and not yet fully profitable.

No, Lizzy had to marry James to secure her future and remain in the city. There was no one else and besides, everybody knew they would one day wed. It was inevitable, so why not go through with it now to solve her problems? James had sold his father’s tailoring workshop after the old man’s death, but creditors had pounced on the money from the sale, leaving nothing. He had found another master tailor to oversee the last years of his apprenticeship, but apprentices earned little since they usually boarded free of charge with their masters. James had insisted on remaining in his family home, but his wage had not been raised accordingly.

“I think you’re overreacting,” he said. “Gripp is hardly going to abuse his position because of an old feud.”

She blinked at him. “Overreacting? James!” How could he say such a thing to her? “When have you ever known me to overreact?”

His gaze shifted sideways. “Well, there was that one time a chamber pot was accidentally emptied on your head.”

“I was a child!”

He shushed her and glanced past her to the kitchen again. He stood and took both her hands in his. It had been what she’d wanted him to do earlier. So why did it turn her blood cold now? “You have such a temper,” he said with half a smile. “But you only show it to me.”

“That’s because you’re my best friend—the only person with whom I can truly be myself.” Except that wasn’t entirely true. She was herself around most of the troupe, she just found no need to get angry with them. None of them would ever accuse her of overreacting. Their very definition of it was probably vastly different from James’s. He bent and kissed her forehead.

“You’re right and I’m sorry. You rarely overreact.” He sounded very serious all of a sudden. “So Gripp truly presents a problem?”

“If he decides to punish Roger, then the entire company will suffer. Including me.”

He squeezed her hands and massaged the knuckles with his thumb. It was a soothing motion but there was nothing reassuring in his grave expression. He’d gone quite gray in the face.

“You’ll find work as a seamstress elsewhere. Your stitching is very fine.”

“I wouldn’t earn a tenth of what I earn now.”

The only way a seamstress could make a good income was to open her own shop and Lizzy didn’t have enough money to do that, nor did she want to be a shopkeeper. The thought of conversing regularly with strangers made her gut churn. No, the only way she could earn enough to support her parents and herself was to stay with one of the good theatre troupes and neither of the other two main London ones needed new tiring house assistants.

“I’ll be without work soon,” she said.

“When you say soon…how long do you think? Would you need an assistant in the meantime?”

“Of course not. Roger Style hasn’t hired an assistant for my father before, why would he now when everything is so uncertain?”

“Yes. I see. I thought I’d ask anyway,” he muttered, bowing his head again. “Why? Do you need work?”

“A little extra would be nice.” No wonder he hadn’t agreed to her marriage proposal. His lack of money must be playing on his mind. Perhaps he was poorer than he let on. She’d noticed that his fire was rarely lit of late, despite the cooler weather, and that the house seemed barer, yet she hadn’t put the pieces together. Now that she looked, she could see his jerkin had more patches than original fabric, although it was difficult to pick them out, so good was the work. Lizzy felt terrible. She should have seen the signs earlier. Oh, James. Why hadn’t he said something?

“You believe Gripp will force the company’s closure?” he asked. “Walter Gripp is a vindictive man and he has the power to do it. There is nothing and no one standing in his way.”

“Want me to kill him for you?” The voice came from behind her. It was deep and low, quiet yet commanding. The sort of voice that belonged to men in control, respected men who didn’t need to shout to get attention. She recognized it although she hadn’t heard it in many years. She felt cold through to her bones even as a warm flush crept up her neck.

“He’s jesting,” James said.

Lizzy didn’t turn around but she could feel Rafe’s presence the way an anvil feels a hammer’s blow.

“Lizzy, you remember my brother,” James went on. “Rafe. Rafe Fletcher,” he added, perhaps to remind her that the brothers had different fathers. He’d left London suddenly on that terrible day when their mother died. Lizzy had no idea where he’d gone or what he’d been doing, because she’d never asked James and he’d never offered the information.

Indeed, he rarely mentioned his brother at all and never discussed the incident that had led to his departure. But Lizzy hadn’t forgotten him. Rafe Fletcher was not the sort of man a girl, or indeed anyone, could forget. And now he was back.

She forced herself to turn, but she couldn’t bring herself to look up at Rafe’s face. She stared at his boots instead. They were good boots. Sturdy with scuff marks on the toes and…was that a bloodstain? She suppressed a gasp but not a shiver.

“Light the fire,” Rafe said. “She’s cold.”

James hesitated, then did his brother’s bidding. Lizzy clasped her hands in front of her and kept her gaze down. Her insides roiled and surely her face must be the color of burning coals. It felt hot enough. She tightened her grip on her fingers.

“I doubt you remember me,” Rafe said above her. Far, far above her. “You were still a child when I left.”

Seven years ago, she’d been fourteen, hardly a child. She wished she could tell him that, but she just nodded instead. She’d tried so hard to leave the shy, speechless girl behind, yet here she was again with her flushed cheeks and twisted tongue. So much for all the practice she’d put in over the years. While the actors worked on remembering their lines, she’d studied them: the way they spoke to one another, what they said, when they laughed or teased or offered a sympathetic frown. She’d forced herself to imitate them when she’d rather have sat in the corner and hidden behind her sewing. Eventually she’d felt confident enough to put her observations into practice. Tentatively at first, then more often and with more people. It had worked. Old acquaintances commented on how she’d emerged from her shell, and new ones were none the wiser. None suspected the amount of effort and time she’d put into remaking herself. But Rafe Fletcher had stripped all that hard work away as if it were merely a layer of the thinnest silk. And she hadn’t even looked at him yet.

“So do you?” he asked. “Want me to kill this Gripp for you?”

“Rafe,” James warned. “Stop teasing her.”

“Who said I was teasing?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Lizzy saw a lit taper flutter into the fireplace and James’s booted feet turn at the same time. “Pay him no mind,” James said. “He’s not going to kill anyone.”

“It’s early yet.” From his light tone, she doubted Rafe was being serious, yet the thought of him killing someone wasn’t a stretch. He’d also nearly killed his own stepfather. And Lizzy had seen the whole thing from the first spray of blood to the moment Rafe walked away.

“Lizzy, sit down,” James said, taking her elbow and steering her back to the chair. It was much warmer with the fire blazing but not cozy with Rafe in the same room. Not in the least. “There’s something I need to tell you now that my brother is here.”

She hazarded a quick glance from one to the other. James seemed distracted, his brow lined with concern, and he kept giving his brother what she could only describe as warning glares. Rafe, however, didn’t seem to notice. He met her gaze with a mixture of concern and curiosity. She blushed harder and stared down at her lap.

Rafe Fletcher was as handsome as ever. He never had been boyish like James. There were no dimples, no big brown eyes, or errant locks. Rafe was all hard lines, dark shadows, and severely cropped black hair. If it wasn’t for the friendly eyes, she would have frozen in fear. That at least was different. The last time she’d seen him he’d been wound up like a tightly coiled rope, full of tension and threatening to snap. But he hadn’t snapped back then, not entirely. He’d gone into his house and come out a few moments later with a pack slung over his shoulder. He’d sported a black eye, a bloody nose, and a distant, detatched expression. His stepfather, James’s father, had lain half dead in the street. That memory was going to be hard to shake loose, no matter how friendly he seemed now. Yet she could pretend, for James’s sake.

She leaned forward slightly so that she looked interested and eager to speak to him. “Where have you been, Mr. Fletcher?” she asked in a strong voice.

“Call me Rafe like you used to.” She’d never called him anything. Indeed, this was the first time she’d ever spoken to him.

“Rafe,” she repeated dully. Then she attempted a smile. Smiles were a good way to make the other person feel comfortable. Not that Rafe looked uncomfortable. He looked remarkably at ease lounging against the mantelpiece, arms crossed over his chest, feet crossed at the ankles. Like he was the master and he was home.

“I’ve been abroad,” he said, curt.

“How interesting. Abroad where?”

He lifted one big shoulder. “Here and there.”

“How interesting.” She winced. You’ve already said that, fool. “I mean, what did you do abroad?”

“This and that.” Right. So he didn’t want to tell her. Indeed, why would he want to chat with her? He probably just wanted her to hurry up and leave so he could talk to his brother or get on with whatever business he’d returned to London to do. “I think I should go,” she said to James.

“Not yet.” He put out a hand to stay her. “I still I have something important to say. I have to go away for a while.”

She frowned. “Where to?”

“Out of London.” He must have taken avoidance lessons from his brother.

“Why?”

He looked down at his knee, jigging up and down. He pressed his hand to it and breathed in. “I have business to conduct.”

“Where?”

“A small village. In Dorset. You won’t know it.”

“I might.”

“Doebridge,” Rafe said. James glanced at him and then at Lizzy before staring down at his jigging knee once more. “Yes, Doebridge.”

“Is that far?” she asked. “Far enough.”

“Is Cuxcomb sending you?” And why was he sending his apprentice all the way to Dorset? Lizzy had once traveled through that county with her family to visit Alice and Leo. It had taken two days in good weather by wagon. With the recent rain, the roads that weren’t too muddy would be full of potholes. James could be gone awhile.

“How will you get there?” she continued. “Is he making you walk?”

“It really doesn’t matter,” James said. His leg stopped jigging and he finally fixed his gaze on her. She chewed her lip, unnerved. James was worried. Not quite afraid, but certainly apprehensive. “The important thing is, I won’t be back for some time.”

“How long?”

James stood and strode to the fireplace to stand beside his brother. He was slender next to Rafe’s broad-shouldered frame although they were of a height. Perhaps that explained why he looked the more approachable of the two, like someone you would stop to have a conversation with. Rafe looked liked someone you crossed the street to avoid.

“A week,” James muttered. “Maybe more.”

“That’s not too long. When you get back we can discuss the future.” She watched Rafe furtively as she said it but he showed no curiosity over her words which meant he must have heard her earlier. Wonderful. She’d had her marriage proposal rejected by her best friend as well as overheard by his brother.

“I’ve asked Rafe to take care of you and your parents while I’m away,” James said. He wanted his brother to take care of them? A man who’d almost murdered his own kin?

Lizzy made a sound of protest except it came out a whimper. Amusement shone in Rafe’s pitch-black eyes.

“So it seems you’ll need to speak to me after all.”