Original Handcut Silhouette by Kathryn Flocken
And there it was, Jasper acknowledged. The question he had been asking himself for the last couple of minutes, and to which he had no true answer. Why had he suddenly decided that Freddie should become the next Countess of Trewarth?
He abruptly let go of Freddie’s hands, and sighed.
“For two reasons, Freddie,” he said, his voice giving way involuntarily. “First, I was desperate to find a woman willing to become my wife on short notice so that I can gain my rightful title. You were the first to cross my path, and I find you are well suited to fulfil the conditions, laid upon me by the Earl. Secondly, I am truly delighted with the manner you interact with my little Fiona and the way she responds to you. Fiona is the one that I cherish most in life, Freddie, and she likes you. That is what decided me ultimately, Freddie. You must be a good person because my Fiona already trusts you. If you will have me for a husband, you shall not regret it, as long as you agree to be a mother to Fiona.”
Winifred realised with a considerable shock that his eyes were burning into hers. She had not expected that from the matter-of-fact tone in which he had just stated his reasons for marrying her. It had all sounded so cold and businesslike. Jasper did not say that he cared for her and that hurt, more than she would like to admit. She was developing feelings for this man, and they frightened her. So now, when his eyes seemed to burn their way right into her soul, Winnie was lost. And confused, too. She needed to think, force her thoughts into some shred of order.
When the call for the last round came – indicating that the taproom was about to be closed for the night – Winifred stood. “I shall give you my answer after we reach Edinburgh, Jasper. First I have to learn about my father’s inheritance. I bid you goodnight.” And up the stairs she went, leaving Jasper to stare after her in astonishment.
Alone in his room on the floor above, Aloysius Bracknell clenched his fists in a sudden fit of rage. That brazen Lansing chit had found herself an ally!
Damnation! Rage coursed through him at the realisation that he had nearly overlooked the thin youth coming down the stairs. Oh, she had disguised herself very cleverly, indeed. She must have cut her hair, he mused. And, most importantly, she had managed to cling to that tall, strong fellow. The man must know she was not a young buck because he had not failed to see Aloysius’ interest in Miss Lansing, and had promptly hailed her to him as his ‘little brother’. Damnation, again! Aloysius hoped he had not given himself away because he meant to have the last say in this!
Winifred stepped into her room. She had barely closed the door when she was grabbed from behind. Her arms were being pinned on her back and wrenched upward, the movement lancing a sharp pain through her shoulders. The air was forced out of her while she was pressed against a wall by Bracknell.
“Well, ‘Freddie’…, He drawled, “I do not know if that fellow knows you for the minx you are, but I, on the other hand, recognised you right away. Did you reckon you could escape me, then? You had so unexpectedly disappeared from London after your mother’s death. Thanks to my cleverness, I knew for certain that you would go to Edinburgh. I took the precaution to read the letters that your mother so carelessly left on her desk. I think that Mr Archibald Spencer, your solicitor might have a pleasant surprise for you.”
Winifred gasped for air when his heavy body squeezed hers against the wall. She tried to free herself, but it was like trying to move the wall itself. Her mind was numb with fear – and fury because this scoundrel had apparently wormed his way into her home and taken advantage of her mother’s goodness! She gasped in fury which instantly made Bracknell tighten his hold on her.
“No sound, my girl, or I must do something nasty to you. I will not hesitate to inflict pain on you. You cannot escape me, wench, once I have set my mind on you. Not with the possibility of a fortune awaiting you in Edinburgh!”
Winnie was desperate enough to try and bluff her way out of this predicament.
“Mr Bracknell, let go of me this instant! You are breaching every rule of propriety, sir!”
His hold only tightened once more, and Winnie’s vision began blurring as her shoulders ached with a wrenching pain. Bracknell’s harsh voice sounded dimmed, but his angrily hissed words were still audible.
“What is your game, you little bitch? Are you trying to get that big oaf to marry you? Well, it is not about to happen. You will marry me and sign over all your money to me, do you hear! I know, for a fact, that you stand to inherit a fortune from your American father, because I stole those letters from your mother’s house, a long while ago. I could not have your suspicions of me come to life, could I? So listen what I want you to do. You will continue your journey and seek out that solicitor. Your bloke cannot be allowed to become suspicious, so you are going on as you were, posing as a boy.”
“No, no…I cannot…”
Winnie’s shoulders ached so much that she had to bite her lip to keep from screaming, but Bracknell’s grip did not loosen.
“Quiet, you conniving wench! I should horsewhip you for trying to double-cross me! Now, in Edinburgh, we will get a special license and marry. I will take you back to London and put you in one of my lesser tenements. There you will be at my disposal whenever I want you because you will have no other choice as my wife. You shall have only the tiniest amount of money, enough to keep a modest household. The rest of all that beautiful blunt will go to my very lucrative investments.”
Horror coursed through Winnie when she pictured all the scenes Bracknell described. How was it possible that she had experienced no such terrifying suspicions of him before? She must have been blind! She had to do something, her blurred mind screamed at her, but her body was limp and weak. Her aching shoulders prevented her from moving, and Bracknell was not loosening his grip.
Then, the temporary silence between them was broken by a knock on the door. Bracknell loosened his hold, just enough to pull a small clasp knife out of his pocket. He placed the blade against Winnie’s throat and whispered, “Answer that without opening the door, will you.”
“Freddie? Are you well?”
Jasper’s voice sounded muffled from behind the door but oh, how delightful it was to Winifred!
“Caution!” Bracknell hissed in her ear.
Winifred gasped, then coughed because of the pressure Bracknell exerted on her throat.
The knife point nicked her skin with a sharp pain. “I advise you to make him go away, woman.”
“Yes, Jasper, I…I am…W… Well, and very tired. Good night…” Fear coloured her voice with a stutter.
Silence. Then Fiona’s small voice was heard, wailing sharply. A second later, Jasper’s footsteps retreated from her door.
Bracknell snickered in appreciation, when he heard Jasper retreat to his room.
“Good work, missie! You could have gotten a job in Drury Lane with that quality of performance.”
With a hard shove, he suddenly propped her face first against the wall. The knife never left Winnie’s throat, where a sharp, short stab once again nicked the delicate skin. She felt the warm trickle of blood running over the delicate skin of her throat.
“This is the plan, wench. You will continue your journey, dressed as a boy, in the company of that fellow, and you do not say a word about me. I will not be travelling with the coach, but I shall be waiting in Edinburgh when it arrives. You will not see me, but I will be able to observe you at all times. My street days in London come to good use, when I want to spy on people without being seen. Go to the solicitor and claim your inheritance. I will be waiting, my lovely!”
Without forewarning, Bracknell punched Winnie in the lower back, and wrenched her arms upward one last time, which made her double up with fierce pain. The light was dimming when she heard Bracknell leave the room.
Peering through the crack of the door, Jasper felt his rage burn when he watched Bracknell sneak out of Freddie’s room. So he had been right after all, and that snake had approached her. Barely waiting for the man to disappear to his own room on the floor above, Jasper locked his door and hurried toward Freddie. Not bothering to knock, he went inside – and froze. Freddie was lying unconscious on the floor, causing his heart to leap in fear.
Jasper knelt by her side and carefully turned her over, placing her head into his lap. Lord, but she was hurt! A narrow trickle of blood ran from her throat and down onto her white shirt. What had that bastard been planning to do to her? Possession – fierce as a burst of flames – coursed through him. The inexplicable but immense need to protect Freddie dawned on him. He refused to go deeper into that sensation, for now. Freddie needed care, so he picked her up and brought her to his own room. When he lay her down onto his bed, Freddie’s eyes fluttered and opened.
“Shhh, be still, Freddie. You are hurt, and I must see to it first. You do not need to worry, dear girl. I have you safe. What has that blackguard done to you?”
Freddie winced when Jasper dipped a wet cloth on her throat, to cleanse the small wound she had sustained through Bracknell’s hand.
“Tell me everything, Freddie. Now.”
Winifred acknowledged the solid determination in Jasper’s voice and complied.
She narrated the story her mother told her, about her father dying just a few days after she was born. About Mama taking her to London, and making a life for herself and her small daughter. About Bracknell’s stalking, first in a civil manner, but now showing his true character. When she came to Bracknell’s plans for her, Winifred could not stop her voice from breaking. She swallowed her tears, not wishing to appear weak, but it was hard to keep up her courage.
Throughout Freddie’s story, Jasper had only felt his anger against Bracknell increase. He did not wish such a fate for Freddie because she was courageous, and witty, and sweet. Freddie deserved to be loved, not to be cowered into submission by a cruel scoundrel and reprobate. A marriage to Bracknell would destroy Freddie, for sure. Jasper could not let that happen, and he was now even more determined than ever to marry the girl himself.
“Listen,” Jasper said, when Freddie paused, “we will do as I said before and continue to Edinburgh together. What is the name of your solicitor in Edinburgh?”
“Mr Archibald Spencer. His office is in The Royal Mile, I believe.”
Oh, irony, Jasper thought, but he did not inform her about his own involvement with Spencer.
Freddie started to rise from the bed. “Thank you for looking after me, Jasper, but I will go to my own room now. We do not want to wake Fiona.”
“I think it better if you were to stay here, Freddie.”
In astonishment, Winifred stared at him. Then she understood and felt a sudden outrage. Jasper Danvers was no better – yet again – than Bracknell! He wanted her in his bed. She quickly jumped from the bed on the opposite side as to where Jasper was standing and started to run.
Surprised but quickly grasping what Freddie might have been thinking, Jasper covered the distance between them with his longer strides and caught her arm. His voice was an low, but urgent whisper.
“Freddie, wait! You misunderstood. I mean to protect you from further harassment from Bracknell. That man is dangerous, Freddie, and I cannot allow him to have easy access to you.”
Winifred looked up at him, confusion in her eyes.
“Jasper,” she ventured gently, “you are not under any obligation to protect me. I am obliged to you for helping me so far, but I shall no longer impose upon your good nature.”
“On the contrary, Freddie,” Jasper insisted, “since you are to be my countess, I feel by honour bound to protect you. At least, I shall assist you until I am certain that you are safely seen to.”
“Safely seen to? I do not understand…And I did not agree to marry you.”
She tilted her head in confusion, burning her dark, luminous gaze into his. Instantly, Jasper felt himself drown into those brown eyes. In an impulse, which he could not have quelled for the life of him, Jasper drew her close.