she reached up to brush the misplaced curls back. He took her hand and brought it to his lips. “Tell me.”
“Oliver knows a secret. It’s a secret so terrible that my mother would be devastated if it were made public, which he threatens to do if I don’t agree to announce our betrothal at the hunt ball. The scandal would destroy my sisters’ chances to make good marriages. Then, when Oliver succeeds to the title, he’ll make all their lives a living nightmare.”
“A cad who threatens women will make life hell for them no matter what.”
“Yes, I already assumed as much, but I have to try.”
“You would sacrifice your own future, any chance for happiness you might have, for your mother and sisters?” Could any woman truly be so loyal, so generous? Comfort never thought such a female existed. In his experience, the prettier the chit, the more selfish. He gently kissed Joia’s forehead, which seemed to be at the perfect height for such an homage. “I’ll make it right, sweetings, see if I don’t. If worse comes to worst, I’ll call him out.”
“But if you killed him, you’d have to flee the country. You mustn’t do so on my account.”
Comfort was beginning to wonder if there was anything he wouldn’t do for Joia’s sake. Obliterating Oliver seemed tame sport. “Don’t worry, the twit might be treacherous, but he’s too much the coward to accept my challenge. Besides, he cannot shoot. No, I’ll try to find another way. We have two days before the ball, don’t we? That’s plenty of time to come up with an alternative plan.”
“But not much time for a miracle.”
“Chin up, sweetings. Saint George is riding to the rescue. In fact, there’s another dragon that I need to be slaying for you, that worm who led you to this alley in the first place.”
“No, getting rid of that particular reptile will be my pleasure.”
* * * *
Tom Beacon was shoveling manure. Tom Beacon was always shoveling manure. Mucking out twenty-odd stalls, twice a day, was no picnic. Now, with all the horses from the Winterpark swells, he’d have another mountain of droppings to pick up and move. A bloke couldn’t be blamed for trying to make the extra shilling or two, especially when his dear old mum was feeling poorly. Tom laughed to himself. His mother had left him on some church steps when he was an infant, or so he’d been told.
The laugh turned into a cough when he looked up to find Lady Joia standing at the gate of the stall he was cleaning. With insolent slowness, Tom pulled the filthy cap off his head. “What can I do for your ladyship now? Would you be wantin’ your mare already?”
“What I am wanting is you gone from town. I’ll never feel safe when you’re around, you dastard.”
Tom scratched his head. “Well, since I’m a free man and no highborn bitch can tell me where to go, I don’t s’pose your feelings count for much.”
Joia had her arms crossed over her chest. “And what about my father’s feelings? He’ll shoot you down if he gets wind of what you did. Then there’s Mr. Humphreys, your employer, who put me on my first pony. One word from me and he’ll take the horsewhip to you. I’d say my feelings, my right to get a peaceful night’s sleep, count for more than your worthless hide. What do you think?”
“You can’t do that!”
“I can, but I don’t want your death on my conscience.”
Tom was strong, but Humphreys was the blasted blacksmith. The mort had the right of it. “But me mum is sick an’ she depends on me.”
“Pond scum doesn’t have a mother,” Joia said, hitting too close to the truth for Tom’s liking.
“But I didn’t do nothin’ wrong ‘cept try an’ earn some extra blunt,” Tom whined, still trying to win her pity.
“At my expense. I can and will go to Humphreys if you’re still here when my party returns for our horses. And don’t think anyone else will help you or hire you, for the villagers all depend on Winterpark’s patronage.