Scoundrel

Scoundrel

Cheryl Holt dazzled readers around the world with her “Lost Lords of Radcliffe” trilogy. She continues the fun and excitement by telling Chase Hubbard’s story…

When readers last saw Chase—the most debauched wretch in the world—he was adventuring down the Nile where he ultimately disgraced himself by betraying his best friend. With his life in shambles, he fled Cairo, but what happened to him after he left Egypt?

Only Chase could land himself in the most outrageous jam of all…

FAITHFUL NEWTON always thought she wanted to be a nun. But as a novitiate at the Sisters of Mercy convent in rural Scotland, she can’t ever seem to take her final vows. When she’s offered a chance to travel to Rome to visit the Vatican, she happily agrees to make the journey, thinking the trip will push her into a decision. Yet while crossing the Mediterranean, catastrophe leaves her alone, robbed of everything, and abandoned on the north coast of Africa. She’s in deep trouble and desperately needs a hero who can protect her and help her return to Britain safe and sound.

CHASE HUBBARD has never been anything but a cad and scoundrel. As the bastard son of a French count, he’s always had to scrape and scrounge just to get by. A flagrant womanizer and con artist, he enjoys his wicked ways and has never aspired to better behavior. So he has no desire to play the part of hero for anyone. He’s content to loaf in Africa, where he’s suddenly found the means to live like a king, and he’s definitely in no hurry to return to London. But when pious, devout Sister Faithful crosses his path, the pretty, petite virago intrigues him as no other female ever has.

With lives on the line and love in the balance, Chase may have finally met the woman who can push him to become the man he was always meant to be…

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“After everything Chase Hubbard did to Bryce [in HEART’S DEMAND], he deserved a bad end! But he’s such a loveable scoundrel! I think Sister Faithful was just the punishment he deserved. Cheryl Holt hit it out of the ballpark with this one!! This story had it all!! Action, romance, theft, comedy, all thrown together just right. I was so happy to find out what happened to Chase! Wonderful! Five stars!!” ~ Beverly

CHAPTER ONE

North Coast of Africa, 1815…

“Are you sure this is the place?”

Faithful Newton, who was usually called simply Faith, glanced at the driver of the cart in which she was riding.  He couldn’t speak English, but he seemed to understand her question.

He gestured to the house out on the cliffs by the sea, indicating they had arrived and she should get out and let him be on his way.

She peered over at her friend and traveling companion, Rowena Bond, and asked, “What do you think?”

“It’s awfully isolated, isn’t it?” Rowena replied.  “What if the property is abandoned?  What if this oaf tots off and leaves us in the desert to starve?”

Faith scowled.  “No one is starving, Rowena.  Watch what you say please.”

They had three little girls with them, Millicent, Martha, and Mary McKenzie, ages five, six, and seven.  They were a trio of blond-haired, blue-eyed siblings who were cute as cherubs.  Considering the catastrophes their small group had recently endured, they were extremely apprehensive over what might befall them next, and Faith couldn’t blame them for being concerned.

She was terrified every minute of the day.  She didn’t need Rowena adding to their list of worries.

Mary, the oldest of the three, tugged on Faith’s sleeve and nervously inquired, “Are we going to starve?”

“No,” Faith firmly stated.  “Rowena was joking.”

“No, I wasn’t,” Rowena griped under her breath.

The driver gestured again, to the house, the path leading out to it.  He was intent on hurrying them along, and Faith knew she should climb out, but she couldn’t move.

Even though she was loath to admit it, Rowena had a point.  If the seaside villa was abandoned, it was a lengthy distance back to the port town from which they’d come.  It being the middle of the afternoon, the blistering sun was scorching.  Any sane person would have stayed in town, would have been loafing in the shade.

Faith definitely wondered if she was sane.

Every decision she made turned out to be wrong.  Every choice ended in disaster, yet the girls and Rowena were counting on her, expecting her to be in charge and in control, when Faith had proved—over and over—that she had no ability to guide anyone.

Although she and Rowena hadn’t spoken their final vows, they were novitiates with the Sisters of Mercy order of Catholic nuns.  They were from England, but Papist institutions were few and far between in their home country, so their convent was located in Scotland.

They were wearing their black skirts and white wimples.  They looked like nuns and were treated like nuns, but they were stranded in Africa among the Moorish people.  They were alone and unprotected, their Papist roots as blatant as if their foreheads had been branded with crosses.

She’d been told there was a European—possibly an Englishman—living in the villa, that they might gain assistance from him.  At least she assumed that’s what had been said.  On the desolate, exotic coast, where customs and languages were so strange, it was difficult to communicate.

When they’d departed for the villa, it had seemed perfectly logical to seek out the only European in the area.  But now that they were outside his abode, she wasn’t so sure.  Perhaps she should have left Rowena in town with the children.  Perhaps she should have come on her own to see if aid was likely.

As swiftly as the idea arose though, she shook it away.  They oughtn’t to be separated.  Not for a single second.  Of that fact, she was absolutely certain.

The driver barked a comment in Arabic, his gestures becoming more adamant.

“Yes, yes,” Faith mumbled, “I understand.  We’re here, and you must be off.”

She slid down, Rowena too, then Rowena lifted down the girls.  Yet the man didn’t continue on.  He held out his hand, demanding to be compensated.

“What does he want?” Rowena asked.

“I’m guessing he’d like us to slip him a coin for giving us a ride.”

“Greedy blighter.”

“Rowena!  Such language.”

“It’s obvious we’re religious devotees who’ve taken vows of poverty, so he is greedy.  I’m just stating the truth.”

“I don’t need quite so much truth in front of the girls.”

It was a constant topic for quarreling.  With all that had transpired, Rowena believed the girls should toughen up and grow more wary, but Faith wasn’t so heartless.  She thought she and Rowena should pretend—as much as they were able—that everything was fine.

They were all sufficiently on edge, and it was cruel to unduly alarm the children.  Rowena disagreed, feeling that they weren’t nearly alarmed enough.  Rowena was correct, but Faith wouldn’t admit it.  If calamity struck and Faith and Rowena perished—God, forbid!—what would happen to the three girls?

The prospect didn’t bear contemplating.

She had a purse strapped to her waist.  She opened it so the driver could peek inside.  It was very, very empty.  She shrugged in apology, hoping she looked contrite.  As he realized he get no reward, he muttered a remark that had to be an epithet, spat at her feet, then clicked the reins.  His goat pulled the rickety vehicle away.

“Honestly!” Faith fumed as Rowena huffed, “Well!  I never…”

Rowena picked up a rock as if she’d throw it at him, but Faith grabbed it away.  Rowena had never wanted to be a nun, and her temper and patience were exhausted.

“Let him go,” Faith scolded.  “Don’t make a fuss.”

“Good riddance,” Rowena hurled to his departing back.

“Good riddance,” the girls echoed like a chorus, but they quieted when Faith glared at them.

“We didn’t like your stupid old cart anyway,” Rowena yelled.

Shortly, he disappeared over a hill, and they were all alone, the only sounds the crash of waves down on the beach and the rustle of wind swishing over the sand.  They turned toward the sea, toward the villa that faced the sapphire water.

The building was quite large, and she wondered who had constructed it.  The spot was so bleak.  Who had chosen it and why?

In front of them, the Mediterranean stretched to the horizon.  Behind them, the desert dunes rolled to infinity.  The road they’d journeyed on wasn’t really a road at all but a line of wagon tracks cut into the dirt.  There were no other houses, neighbors, farms, fences, animals.  There was just the sea and the sand and the gulls cawing.

It seemed as if they’d arrived at the end of the Earth, as if they might take a wrong step and plunge off the edge.  They might have been the very last people on the planet, as if disaster had felled everyone else and they were the only humans left.

How had her life reached such a ridiculous point?

She might have stood there forever, pondering her pathetic lot, but Rowena and the girls were staring, waiting for her to tell them what to do.  Ever since Mother Superior had died a few weeks earlier, Faith had become their leader, a position she hadn’t sought and didn’t relish.  But if she hadn’t taken charge, who would have?

She was twenty-five, and Rowena twenty.  Rowena was hot-headed, quick to rile and even quicker to lash out.  She could be wild and erratic and had none of the traits necessary for the peaceful solitude of the convent, but her parents had locked her away anyway.

In a crisis—which was definitely how Faith would describe their current predicament—Rowena shouldn’t be deciding any issue.

So…there was just Faith, and she was trying desperately to keep them alive and fed and safe until she could figure out how to return to Scotland.  It was her sole motivation, her sole objective.

“Shall we go in?” she asked them.  “I’m anxious to discover what type of fellow is here.”

“Do you suppose he speaks English?” Rowena said.  “I hope he does.”

“If he doesn’t,” Faith replied, “I speak French and a bit of Spanish, and the girls speak Italian.  We should be able to communicate in some fashion.”

“He’ll help us, won’t he, Sister Faith?” Mary asked.

“Of course, he will,” she staunchly insisted.  “A gentleman—most especially a British one—can always be counted on to assist a lady who’s in trouble.”

“Are we in trouble?”

At Faith voicing the word trouble, she could have kicked herself.  “No, not trouble precisely.  We’re in a little jam, but we’ll get out of it.”

“Are you sure?” Mary pressed.

“I’m positive.”

Rowena shot her a glower that oozed skepticism, but Faith pretended she didn’t see it.

“Come.”  She started toward the villa.  “I’m eager to meet him.”

“So am I,” Rowena claimed, but her snort of derision told the truth.  She believed in the adage that anything that could go wrong would go wrong.

They tromped up the path, the trail easy to maneuver.  And they had no luggage to slow them.  Their possessions had been stolen while they’d languished in quarantine at the harbor.

They crested the bluff, then stopped in their tracks.  The villa was fully in view, the beach below, the sea calm and very blue.  Waves lapped on the shore.  It was a glorious sight, a sort of oasis.  The white marble walls glimmered in the hot sun, and through the main entrance, there were shaded walkways and gardens.

She wanted to stroll into the foyer, wanted to lie down and stretch out on the cool tiles of the floor.  The ferns and palms beckoned to her, begging her to come in out of the heat.

Down on the beach, two men were racing on horseback.  They were laughing, appearing carefree and delighted with themselves.

They were too far away for her to glean much about their features.  Both were dark-haired, their hair long and whipping out behind them.  They were attired in trousers and boots, but weren’t wearing shirts, so she could observe much more flesh than she should have.

Their skin was tanned as if they regularly romped outside without their clothes.  Or perhaps they were natives, their skin normally bronzed.  Whoever they were, they were muscled and fit and athletically inclined.

She should have glanced away, but she couldn’t.  They were so happy.  They made her wish she were a man, which was a sentiment she’d often suffered.

Men ruled the world.  They dressed how they pleased and acted how they pleased.  They traveled when they liked, cavorted and debauched without consequence.  She would love to strip off her heavy garments, to run barefoot across the sand in only a chemise and petticoat, but such liberties were never allowed to a female, so she was destined to remain buttoned up in her stifling black nun’s habit.

“Ooh, would you look at that,” Rowena crooned, staring with too much curiosity at the scantily-clad pair.  “Could that be our host?”

“I have no idea,” Faith said.

“This jaunt just got a lot more interesting.”

Faith yanked away, and she grabbed Rowena and turned her too so they couldn’t ogle the virile duo.

“Spoilsport,” Rowena complained.

“We have more important matters to attend.  Let’s get inside and see what we can learn.”

“I swear you’ve been living in the convent too long.  You’ve forgotten how to appreciate a handsome man.”

“I can still appreciate a handsome man,” Faith countered.  “At the moment, I simply have other issues on my mind.”

They reached the portico, but no servants rushed out.  No butler greeted them.  She listened intently, trying to hear any sounds, but it was eerily quiet.  Was the house abandoned?

If it was, she wouldn’t be surprised.  It would merely be one more stroke of ill luck in a long string of ill luck.

She straightened her shoulders and marched under the archway.  As she stepped out of the bright sunlight, she was temporarily blinded, and she had to blink and blink to regain her vision.

Suddenly, a very large native man blocked her way.  He towered over her, his shoulders massive, his demeanor menacing.  His head was shaved, and he had a gold earring in his ear.  He had a lengthy, braided beard, strange tattoos on his chest and arms, and he carried a lethal-looking sword on his belt, the blade curved in a perfect arc to make it easy to decapitate foes in battle.

She blanched with terror, and Rowena shrieked with dismay.  The girls screamed, and they—with Rowena—raced out.  Faith was left to face him alone.

He didn’t speak, but displayed no threatening moves, and she smiled, praying she seemed pleasant and harmless rather than frightened and ridiculous.

“Hello.”  She waited for a similar salutation, but didn’t receive it.  “I am Sister Faithful Newton.”  She gestured to Rowena and the girls.  “These are my friends and traveling companions.”

He stared, but didn’t respond.

“I am with the Sisters of Mercy.  Our convent is located near Edinburgh in Scotland.  Have you…ah…ever heard of Scotland?”

She repeated her remarks in French, then Spanish, but he didn’t exhibit the slightest hint that he understood.  He might have been a stone statue, but she was undeterred.

“We’ve been in Rome at a convocation, and we were on our way home, but we’ve had some trouble.  In town, we were told there is a gentleman here who might assist us.  We were hoping we could—”

Before she could finish the sentence, he held up an enormous palm, so she stopped talking.  There was a bench in a shaded alcove.  He pointed to it, indicating they should sit, then he spun and went into the house.

She glanced at Rowena and the girls, motioning for them to approach, but they were frozen in their spots.

“It’s all right,” she soothed, feigning confidence.  “Get out of the sun.  Come join me.”

She walked to the bench and continued gesturing.  Ultimately, they hobbled over, but it was clear they were prepared to bolt at the least sign of danger.

“Is he a giant?” Martha asked.

“No.  He’s just a very large man.”

“He looked like a giant to me.”

“He isn’t.  He’s simply very tall.”

“He was scary.”

“He wasn’t scary.  He was…different from what we’re used to.  I’m sure we surprised him as much as he surprised us.”

Rowena peeked over at Faith and, in her usual pessimistic tone, said, “I have a bad feeling about this.”  Anymore she was never anything but pessimistic.

“I can’t imagine why,” Faith replied.

“One swipe with that sword of his, and you’d have been a head shorter.”

The girls stiffened with alarm, and Faith snapped, “Rowena!  Please!”

They quieted down, with Faith determined not to provide Rowena with an opening to utter another overly dramatic comment.  They dawdled for an eternity, until Faith began to wonder if they’d been forgotten.

She was about ready to give up, when he appeared and motioned for Faith to follow him.  When Rowena and the girls rose too, he scowled, indicating they should remain on the bench.

“Faith,” Rowena hissed, “you can’t go in there alone.”

“Nothing will happen to me,” Faith insisted.

Rowena leaned nearer and whispered, “What if you never come out?”

“I’ll come out.  I swear.”

“How long should we wait for you?”

“As long as it takes for me to discover if we’ve found a knight in shining armor.”

“There aren’t any of those left.”

“We’ll see.”

“Be careful!”

“I’ll be fine, Rowena.”  Faith nodded to the girls and said again, “I’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.”

Hot and miserable and forlorn, they were such a bedraggled little group.  She whipped away, unable to bear their searching gazes.  They were positive she knew what she was doing, that she would fix what was wrong, but she hadn’t a clue as to how.

Ever since they’d sailed out of the harbor in Italy, ever since disaster had struck on their ship, she’d been bouncing from one idiotic decision to the next, and no matter what choice she made, they were never a single mile closer to Scotland.

Her escort walked into the house, and she hurried after him, not having time to assess the surroundings or décor.  If she had to suddenly turn around and escape, she had no idea how to get back to the front entrance.

Still though, she tagged after him.  What other option was there?

Eventually, they stepped out onto a marble verandah.  The Mediterranean provided a scenic backdrop.  It was the most spectacular spot she’d ever viewed in her life.

At the far end, under a raised, shaded arbor, a man was sitting in an ornate chair that was fancy as a king’s throne.

Two lithe, dark-eyed nymphs stood on either side of him, fanning him with palm fronds.  The spritely pair was scarcely dressed, shockingly attired in trousers and vests and showing too much skin.  She could see their flat bellies, their naked arms, and an exorbitant amount of cleavage.  Their wrists and ankles were covered with gold bangles that jangled when they moved their hands.

As to the man, she thought he might be one of the equestrians from down on the beach, but she wasn’t certain.  If it was the same fellow, he’d changed his clothes.

He was wearing an odd, flowing sort of trouser that was sewn from a colorful, shiny fabric.  His feet were bare, his chest bare.  He had a European ancestry, but he was so bronzed from the sun that it was difficult to predict whether he also had native blood in his veins.

His eyes were very, very blue, his hair black, long, and hanging over his shoulders.  He looked bored and decadent and too handsome for his own good, and he was staring at her as if she was an alien creature he’d never witnessed before.

Her escort vanished into the shadows, and she couldn’t figure out if she should approach or tarry until summoned, so she hovered, feeling nervous and unsure as she hated to ever be.

He studied her, starting with her face, then taking a slow meander down her torso and back up again.  She wondered what he saw, but guessed there was no detail that would tantalize such a masculine cad.  In light of the willowy girls fanning him, it was obvious what kind of female he enjoyed.

In her dreary nun’s habit, her shapely figure was concealed by the heavy material, so she had no traits that would entice him, and she thought he was precisely the type of libertine who would like to be enticed.

With her auburn hair and merry blue eyes, she’d always been pretty, and though she’d been a novitiate with the Sisters of Mercy for eight years, she retained a feminine spark that was abruptly ignited.  She wished he’d notice her comely features.  But in her dusty, sweaty garments, her wimple firmly in place, it was impossible to appear fetching, and the fact that she yearned to present a more flattering picture was irksome in the extreme.

She’d joined the convent at age seventeen, deeming it the perfect way to escape pressures at home.  She would become a nun once she was ready for the final vows, so she hardly needed to flaunt herself to a strange man.

“Well…?” he ultimately said, his British accent very clear.

“Oh, you speak English.  Good.”

She marched over, stopping directly in front of him.  His throne was on a dais, so he was up above her, but even without the added elevation, he seemed very large and much grander that she’d expected him to be.

With him seated, she couldn’t exactly discern his height, but she suspected he’d be tall, six feet at least.  He was a bit older than she was, probably thirty or so, and with her standing so close, she had to admit that he was an excellent male specimen, broad-shouldered, tanned, hale and fit.

She was flustered by him though, by his bare flesh and piercing gaze, by his superior size and semblance of authority.  He made her feel small and poor and insignificant, and she’d like to request he put on a shirt, but she wasn’t certain how to broach the subject.

“You are…?” he inquired in a derisive fashion.

“Sister Faithful.”

“Sister…faithful?  Are you commenting on your piety or is that your name?”

She’d had a lifetime of jokes about her name, so her smile never wavered.  “Faithful is my given name, sir.  To whom have I the pleasure of speaking?”

“The pleasure?”  He chuckled.  “I don’t believe anyone has ever viewed it as being pleasurable to speak with me.  We’ll converse for a few minutes, then you can decide what you think.”

She noted that he hadn’t supplied his own name.  Was he on the run from the law?  Was he a criminal?  He lived by the sea.  Was he a smuggler or pirate?

“What is this place?” she asked.

“The locals call it the Ghost House.”

“Why?”

“Because there are ghosts in it, Sister Faithful.  Why would you suppose?  I’d tell you the Arabic name, but you couldn’t pronounce or remember it.”  He leaned back and studied her again.  “What can I do for you?  What has brought you staggering to my door?”

“I didn’t stagger,” she huffed, offended by his boorish tone.

“Fine.  You didn’t stagger.  How did you arrive?”

“I walked part of the way and rode the rest in a farmer’s cart.”

“You came from town?”

“Yes.”

“Deliberately to find me?”

“Yes.”

“To what end?”

“I need your help.”

She hadn’t meant to simply blurt it out like that.  He was being particularly surly, as if he’d never learned any manners, but there was no reason for him to be so impolite.  He was the first British person whom she’d stumbled on in weeks.  He couldn’t disappoint her.  She wouldn’t let him.

“You need my help?”  He looked flummoxed.  “As I’ve never previously laid eyes on you, what makes you imagine I’d be inclined to provide it?”

“I don’t know where else we can turn.”

“We?  Who is with you?”

“My fellow sister, Rowena, and our three charges.”

“Charges?”

“Little girls.”

“There are…what?  Five of you?”  He was horrified by the number.

“Yes.  They’re in the foyer, waiting for me, and now that I see for myself you’re British, and clearly you’re a gentleman—”

He snorted with amusement.  “I am a gentleman?  Your powers of discernment may be a bit off.”

“No, I’m positive you’re a gentleman, and we throw ourselves on your mercy.”

He waved a decadent hand.  “Don’t be throwing yourself anywhere.  Just tell me what you want.  If it’s in my power to bestow it—which I doubt very much—I shall give it to you.”

He seemed imperious and bored, and she felt she should talk faster so she could say all she had to say before he was done listening.  Like a lazy despot, he flicked his wrist, and a servant appeared out of nowhere and slipped him a goblet.

She was so hot and so thirsty, she could smell the contents, could sense the goblet contained red wine.  She’d never been much of a drinker, and wine was never available at the convent, but she’d developed a taste for it in Italy where it had been poured freely.  She was a hairsbreadth away from falling to her knees and begging him to offer her a glass too.

“I’m guessing you should start from the beginning,” he said.

“That would probably be best.”

“What are you doing in Africa?”

“We had traveled to Rome with Mother Superior.”

“From where?”

“Our convent is in Scotland.  There was a confluence at the Vatican.  In addition, the Mother Superior’s sister, who was living in Rome, passed away.  She was mother to the three girls who are with me.  We’re taking them to Scotland.”

“You still haven’t explained why you’re in Africa.”

“On the trip home, there was illness on our ship.”

He blanched.  “What sort of illness?  A plague?  Cholera?  Dysentery?  What?”

“I don’t know what it was.”

“Have you delivered it to my doorstep?”

“No, we’re healthy.  All of us are fine.”

“You seem quite sure about that.”

“I am.  We’ve been quarantined for the past month.”

“Who quarantined you?”

“I think he was the harbormaster.  I don’t speak the language, so I wasn’t certain of details.  Many of the sailors were violently sick—”

“How sick?”

“They died.”

“Died!”

“Yes, and the captain couldn’t continue with the small crew that remained.  We limped into the nearest port.”

“But with a contagion on board, they wouldn’t let you debark.”

“Well, we—Rowena and the girls and I—were allowed to debark, but we were locked in a shed until we were deemed free of any infection.”

“You have yet to clarify why you’re still in Africa.  If I were you, I’d have purchased passage on the first boat heading out to sea.”

“That was my plan, but when the quarantine ended, and we were released, our ship had sailed.  We had money and clothes and other items, but all of it was gone.”

He scoffed with disgust.  “Robbed, were you?”

“Of everything we had.”

“And your Mother Superior?”

Faith had to swallow twice before she could say, “Dead of the contagion.”

She’d been a kind and caring individual, and she’d picked Faith to be her secretary, the coveted position guaranteeing Faith had been required to travel to Rome with her to write letters and keep records.

She’d been the mother Faith had never had, and Faith was suffering terrible guilt over the woman’s demise.  Why had the devout, pious nun been taken?  Why had Faith—who was vacillating and insecure in her spiritual convictions—been spared?  It made no sense, and she’d love to have a long conversation about what had occurred, but she wasn’t about to have a philosophical debate with the odd, exotic man.

He pondered her predicament, drummed his fingers on his chair, signaled for his goblet to be refilled.  “You’re in a bit of a jam, Sister Faithful.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The people in town suggested you discuss it with me?”

“They felt you might be able to assist me.  Or that you could assess options with me in my own language.  At least, I think that’s what they were hoping.”

“They sent you to your own kind.”

“They sent me to you,” she saucily retorted, “but whether you’re my own kind is questionable.”

He laughed and laughed, and as his mirth waned, he asked, “What is it you want from me?”

Money, aid, advice, friendship, safety, shelter, protection…

How was she to return to Scotland?  How was she to get Rowena and the girls there?  When they’d emerged from quarantine and found their worldly possessions had been stolen, and the local men claiming no knowledge of what had happened, her every religious impulse had fled.

She’d wished again, as she so often did, that she were a male, that she’d been armed with a very large pistol.  If so, she’d had shot every single one of them right between the eyes.

“I need to keep on to Scotland,” she boldly declared, “and I need you to help me.”

“How would I?”

“Could you leave with us?  Could you escort us?”

“Since we’re strangers who’ve only just met, I consider that to be an extremely brazen request.”

“I realize it is, and normally I wouldn’t be so crass, but I’m exhausted and starving and thirsty and afraid.  I can’t force myself to be meek and polite.”

“I’ve noticed that about you.”  A fascinating smile curved his lips.  “I have no funds to purchase fares for you, and even if I had, I would never escort you anywhere.  I wouldn’t get back out on the ocean for all the tea in London.”

“Are you from London?”
“Yes.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Hiding and playing, Sister Faithful, and I don’t intend to ever stop.  So I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time by coming to me.”  He pointed to the door.  “If you’ll excuse me?  I’m busy today.”

“Busy?” she sputtered.  “As far as I can see, you’re drinking and loafing.”

“Yes, I am.  It’s what I do every day, but I can’t do it while you’re standing there, and I most especially can’t do it while there is a gaggle of young girls in the house, so…if you’ll excuse me?”

She gaped at him, wondering if she’d ever previously encountered such an indolent, unlikeable rogue.

Though it was idiotically foolish, she’d pinned such hopes on him.  She’d imbued him with traits it was ludicrous to have envisioned.  She’d pictured him as courteous and charming, useful and pragmatic.  She’d assumed he’d be sympathetic and obliging.

He was handsome enough, but the pretty exterior shielded a heart of stone.

“May we…we…stay the night?  It’s such a lengthy distance to town.  I don’t know if we could make it before the sun sets.”

“I’m really not prepared to entertain guests, Sister Faithful.”

“Please?”

To her horror, tears swarmed into her eyes, and the oaf detected them.

“Are you crying?”  At the prospect, he was aghast.  “Don’t you dare cry.”

“I can’t help it,” she mumbled.

She was fatigued and furious.  Who would treat a stray dog as he was treating her?  Who would cast women and children out into the desert?

If she wasn’t so weary, she’d have stepped up to his fancy throne and shook him until his teeth rattled.  But she didn’t suppose rage would move him.

Before she could prevent herself, before she could think better of it, she dropped to her knees and flashed her most woeful expression.

“I’m begging you, sir.  For one night.  The girls are only five, six, and seven.  And all of us are so tired.  Surely you aren’t so cruel as to evict us when we’re in such a reduced condition.”

He scowled.  “Get up, Sister.  There’s no need for groveling.”

“Please?” she said again, and it dawned on her that she probably couldn’t get up.  She was that beaten down.

He studied her where she was prostrate and shamefully pleading.  His scowl deepened, and he dithered, sipped his wine, dithered some more.

Finally, he grumbled, “Just one night.  Just one!  Not a second more.”

“Thank you,” she murmured but she didn’t rise.  She couldn’t.

“I don’t care how fervently you beseech me tomorrow.  I don’t care how poignantly you stare at me with those pretty blue eyes of yours.  You’re leaving in the morning.”

“Yes, we’ll go.  I swear.”

Strong arms grabbed and lifted her, and she was whisked out of the room.  She peeked up to see that the tattooed giant was carrying her off, her toes brushing the tiled floor.

She peered back at the arrogant despot.  He was watching her, a bored look on his attractive face.  If she’d had any effect on him at all, there was no sign.

“What is your name, sir?” she called to him.

“Didn’t I say?”

“No.”

“Chase Hubbard, formerly of Cairo, Egypt, and London, England.”  He toasted her with his goblet.  “At your service, Sister Faithful.”

Then she was hurried around a corner, and he vanished from view.

+ Fan Reviews

“After everything Chase Hubbard did to Bryce [in HEART’S DEMAND], he deserved a bad end! But he’s such a loveable scoundrel! I think Sister Faithful was just the punishment he deserved. Cheryl Holt hit it out of the ballpark with this one!! This story had it all!! Action, romance, theft, comedy, all thrown together just right. I was so happy to find out what happened to Chase! Wonderful! Five stars!!” ~ Beverly

+ Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

North Coast of Africa, 1815…

“Are you sure this is the place?”

Faithful Newton, who was usually called simply Faith, glanced at the driver of the cart in which she was riding.  He couldn’t speak English, but he seemed to understand her question.

He gestured to the house out on the cliffs by the sea, indicating they had arrived and she should get out and let him be on his way.

She peered over at her friend and traveling companion, Rowena Bond, and asked, “What do you think?”

“It’s awfully isolated, isn’t it?” Rowena replied.  “What if the property is abandoned?  What if this oaf tots off and leaves us in the desert to starve?”

Faith scowled.  “No one is starving, Rowena.  Watch what you say please.”

They had three little girls with them, Millicent, Martha, and Mary McKenzie, ages five, six, and seven.  They were a trio of blond-haired, blue-eyed siblings who were cute as cherubs.  Considering the catastrophes their small group had recently endured, they were extremely apprehensive over what might befall them next, and Faith couldn’t blame them for being concerned.

She was terrified every minute of the day.  She didn’t need Rowena adding to their list of worries.

Mary, the oldest of the three, tugged on Faith’s sleeve and nervously inquired, “Are we going to starve?”

“No,” Faith firmly stated.  “Rowena was joking.”

“No, I wasn’t,” Rowena griped under her breath.

The driver gestured again, to the house, the path leading out to it.  He was intent on hurrying them along, and Faith knew she should climb out, but she couldn’t move.

Even though she was loath to admit it, Rowena had a point.  If the seaside villa was abandoned, it was a lengthy distance back to the port town from which they’d come.  It being the middle of the afternoon, the blistering sun was scorching.  Any sane person would have stayed in town, would have been loafing in the shade.

Faith definitely wondered if she was sane.

Every decision she made turned out to be wrong.  Every choice ended in disaster, yet the girls and Rowena were counting on her, expecting her to be in charge and in control, when Faith had proved—over and over—that she had no ability to guide anyone.

Although she and Rowena hadn’t spoken their final vows, they were novitiates with the Sisters of Mercy order of Catholic nuns.  They were from England, but Papist institutions were few and far between in their home country, so their convent was located in Scotland.

They were wearing their black skirts and white wimples.  They looked like nuns and were treated like nuns, but they were stranded in Africa among the Moorish people.  They were alone and unprotected, their Papist roots as blatant as if their foreheads had been branded with crosses.

She’d been told there was a European—possibly an Englishman—living in the villa, that they might gain assistance from him.  At least she assumed that’s what had been said.  On the desolate, exotic coast, where customs and languages were so strange, it was difficult to communicate.

When they’d departed for the villa, it had seemed perfectly logical to seek out the only European in the area.  But now that they were outside his abode, she wasn’t so sure.  Perhaps she should have left Rowena in town with the children.  Perhaps she should have come on her own to see if aid was likely.

As swiftly as the idea arose though, she shook it away.  They oughtn’t to be separated.  Not for a single second.  Of that fact, she was absolutely certain.

The driver barked a comment in Arabic, his gestures becoming more adamant.

“Yes, yes,” Faith mumbled, “I understand.  We’re here, and you must be off.”

She slid down, Rowena too, then Rowena lifted down the girls.  Yet the man didn’t continue on.  He held out his hand, demanding to be compensated.

“What does he want?” Rowena asked.

“I’m guessing he’d like us to slip him a coin for giving us a ride.”

“Greedy blighter.”

“Rowena!  Such language.”

“It’s obvious we’re religious devotees who’ve taken vows of poverty, so he is greedy.  I’m just stating the truth.”

“I don’t need quite so much truth in front of the girls.”

It was a constant topic for quarreling.  With all that had transpired, Rowena believed the girls should toughen up and grow more wary, but Faith wasn’t so heartless.  She thought she and Rowena should pretend—as much as they were able—that everything was fine.

They were all sufficiently on edge, and it was cruel to unduly alarm the children.  Rowena disagreed, feeling that they weren’t nearly alarmed enough.  Rowena was correct, but Faith wouldn’t admit it.  If calamity struck and Faith and Rowena perished—God, forbid!—what would happen to the three girls?

The prospect didn’t bear contemplating.

She had a purse strapped to her waist.  She opened it so the driver could peek inside.  It was very, very empty.  She shrugged in apology, hoping she looked contrite.  As he realized he get no reward, he muttered a remark that had to be an epithet, spat at her feet, then clicked the reins.  His goat pulled the rickety vehicle away.

“Honestly!” Faith fumed as Rowena huffed, “Well!  I never…”

Rowena picked up a rock as if she’d throw it at him, but Faith grabbed it away.  Rowena had never wanted to be a nun, and her temper and patience were exhausted.

“Let him go,” Faith scolded.  “Don’t make a fuss.”

“Good riddance,” Rowena hurled to his departing back.

“Good riddance,” the girls echoed like a chorus, but they quieted when Faith glared at them.

“We didn’t like your stupid old cart anyway,” Rowena yelled.

Shortly, he disappeared over a hill, and they were all alone, the only sounds the crash of waves down on the beach and the rustle of wind swishing over the sand.  They turned toward the sea, toward the villa that faced the sapphire water.

The building was quite large, and she wondered who had constructed it.  The spot was so bleak.  Who had chosen it and why?

In front of them, the Mediterranean stretched to the horizon.  Behind them, the desert dunes rolled to infinity.  The road they’d journeyed on wasn’t really a road at all but a line of wagon tracks cut into the dirt.  There were no other houses, neighbors, farms, fences, animals.  There was just the sea and the sand and the gulls cawing.

It seemed as if they’d arrived at the end of the Earth, as if they might take a wrong step and plunge off the edge.  They might have been the very last people on the planet, as if disaster had felled everyone else and they were the only humans left.

How had her life reached such a ridiculous point?

She might have stood there forever, pondering her pathetic lot, but Rowena and the girls were staring, waiting for her to tell them what to do.  Ever since Mother Superior had died a few weeks earlier, Faith had become their leader, a position she hadn’t sought and didn’t relish.  But if she hadn’t taken charge, who would have?

She was twenty-five, and Rowena twenty.  Rowena was hot-headed, quick to rile and even quicker to lash out.  She could be wild and erratic and had none of the traits necessary for the peaceful solitude of the convent, but her parents had locked her away anyway.

In a crisis—which was definitely how Faith would describe their current predicament—Rowena shouldn’t be deciding any issue.

So…there was just Faith, and she was trying desperately to keep them alive and fed and safe until she could figure out how to return to Scotland.  It was her sole motivation, her sole objective.

“Shall we go in?” she asked them.  “I’m anxious to discover what type of fellow is here.”

“Do you suppose he speaks English?” Rowena said.  “I hope he does.”

“If he doesn’t,” Faith replied, “I speak French and a bit of Spanish, and the girls speak Italian.  We should be able to communicate in some fashion.”

“He’ll help us, won’t he, Sister Faith?” Mary asked.

“Of course, he will,” she staunchly insisted.  “A gentleman—most especially a British one—can always be counted on to assist a lady who’s in trouble.”

“Are we in trouble?”

At Faith voicing the word trouble, she could have kicked herself.  “No, not trouble precisely.  We’re in a little jam, but we’ll get out of it.”

“Are you sure?” Mary pressed.

“I’m positive.”

Rowena shot her a glower that oozed skepticism, but Faith pretended she didn’t see it.

“Come.”  She started toward the villa.  “I’m eager to meet him.”

“So am I,” Rowena claimed, but her snort of derision told the truth.  She believed in the adage that anything that could go wrong would go wrong.

They tromped up the path, the trail easy to maneuver.  And they had no luggage to slow them.  Their possessions had been stolen while they’d languished in quarantine at the harbor.

They crested the bluff, then stopped in their tracks.  The villa was fully in view, the beach below, the sea calm and very blue.  Waves lapped on the shore.  It was a glorious sight, a sort of oasis.  The white marble walls glimmered in the hot sun, and through the main entrance, there were shaded walkways and gardens.

She wanted to stroll into the foyer, wanted to lie down and stretch out on the cool tiles of the floor.  The ferns and palms beckoned to her, begging her to come in out of the heat.

Down on the beach, two men were racing on horseback.  They were laughing, appearing carefree and delighted with themselves.

They were too far away for her to glean much about their features.  Both were dark-haired, their hair long and whipping out behind them.  They were attired in trousers and boots, but weren’t wearing shirts, so she could observe much more flesh than she should have.

Their skin was tanned as if they regularly romped outside without their clothes.  Or perhaps they were natives, their skin normally bronzed.  Whoever they were, they were muscled and fit and athletically inclined.

She should have glanced away, but she couldn’t.  They were so happy.  They made her wish she were a man, which was a sentiment she’d often suffered.

Men ruled the world.  They dressed how they pleased and acted how they pleased.  They traveled when they liked, cavorted and debauched without consequence.  She would love to strip off her heavy garments, to run barefoot across the sand in only a chemise and petticoat, but such liberties were never allowed to a female, so she was destined to remain buttoned up in her stifling black nun’s habit.

“Ooh, would you look at that,” Rowena crooned, staring with too much curiosity at the scantily-clad pair.  “Could that be our host?”

“I have no idea,” Faith said.

“This jaunt just got a lot more interesting.”

Faith yanked away, and she grabbed Rowena and turned her too so they couldn’t ogle the virile duo.

“Spoilsport,” Rowena complained.

“We have more important matters to attend.  Let’s get inside and see what we can learn.”

“I swear you’ve been living in the convent too long.  You’ve forgotten how to appreciate a handsome man.”

“I can still appreciate a handsome man,” Faith countered.  “At the moment, I simply have other issues on my mind.”

They reached the portico, but no servants rushed out.  No butler greeted them.  She listened intently, trying to hear any sounds, but it was eerily quiet.  Was the house abandoned?

If it was, she wouldn’t be surprised.  It would merely be one more stroke of ill luck in a long string of ill luck.

She straightened her shoulders and marched under the archway.  As she stepped out of the bright sunlight, she was temporarily blinded, and she had to blink and blink to regain her vision.

Suddenly, a very large native man blocked her way.  He towered over her, his shoulders massive, his demeanor menacing.  His head was shaved, and he had a gold earring in his ear.  He had a lengthy, braided beard, strange tattoos on his chest and arms, and he carried a lethal-looking sword on his belt, the blade curved in a perfect arc to make it easy to decapitate foes in battle.

She blanched with terror, and Rowena shrieked with dismay.  The girls screamed, and they—with Rowena—raced out.  Faith was left to face him alone.

He didn’t speak, but displayed no threatening moves, and she smiled, praying she seemed pleasant and harmless rather than frightened and ridiculous.

“Hello.”  She waited for a similar salutation, but didn’t receive it.  “I am Sister Faithful Newton.”  She gestured to Rowena and the girls.  “These are my friends and traveling companions.”

He stared, but didn’t respond.

“I am with the Sisters of Mercy.  Our convent is located near Edinburgh in Scotland.  Have you…ah…ever heard of Scotland?”

She repeated her remarks in French, then Spanish, but he didn’t exhibit the slightest hint that he understood.  He might have been a stone statue, but she was undeterred.

“We’ve been in Rome at a convocation, and we were on our way home, but we’ve had some trouble.  In town, we were told there is a gentleman here who might assist us.  We were hoping we could—”

Before she could finish the sentence, he held up an enormous palm, so she stopped talking.  There was a bench in a shaded alcove.  He pointed to it, indicating they should sit, then he spun and went into the house.

She glanced at Rowena and the girls, motioning for them to approach, but they were frozen in their spots.

“It’s all right,” she soothed, feigning confidence.  “Get out of the sun.  Come join me.”

She walked to the bench and continued gesturing.  Ultimately, they hobbled over, but it was clear they were prepared to bolt at the least sign of danger.

“Is he a giant?” Martha asked.

“No.  He’s just a very large man.”

“He looked like a giant to me.”

“He isn’t.  He’s simply very tall.”

“He was scary.”

“He wasn’t scary.  He was…different from what we’re used to.  I’m sure we surprised him as much as he surprised us.”

Rowena peeked over at Faith and, in her usual pessimistic tone, said, “I have a bad feeling about this.”  Anymore she was never anything but pessimistic.

“I can’t imagine why,” Faith replied.

“One swipe with that sword of his, and you’d have been a head shorter.”

The girls stiffened with alarm, and Faith snapped, “Rowena!  Please!”

They quieted down, with Faith determined not to provide Rowena with an opening to utter another overly dramatic comment.  They dawdled for an eternity, until Faith began to wonder if they’d been forgotten.

She was about ready to give up, when he appeared and motioned for Faith to follow him.  When Rowena and the girls rose too, he scowled, indicating they should remain on the bench.

“Faith,” Rowena hissed, “you can’t go in there alone.”

“Nothing will happen to me,” Faith insisted.

Rowena leaned nearer and whispered, “What if you never come out?”

“I’ll come out.  I swear.”

“How long should we wait for you?”

“As long as it takes for me to discover if we’ve found a knight in shining armor.”

“There aren’t any of those left.”

“We’ll see.”

“Be careful!”

“I’ll be fine, Rowena.”  Faith nodded to the girls and said again, “I’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.”

Hot and miserable and forlorn, they were such a bedraggled little group.  She whipped away, unable to bear their searching gazes.  They were positive she knew what she was doing, that she would fix what was wrong, but she hadn’t a clue as to how.

Ever since they’d sailed out of the harbor in Italy, ever since disaster had struck on their ship, she’d been bouncing from one idiotic decision to the next, and no matter what choice she made, they were never a single mile closer to Scotland.

Her escort walked into the house, and she hurried after him, not having time to assess the surroundings or décor.  If she had to suddenly turn around and escape, she had no idea how to get back to the front entrance.

Still though, she tagged after him.  What other option was there?

Eventually, they stepped out onto a marble verandah.  The Mediterranean provided a scenic backdrop.  It was the most spectacular spot she’d ever viewed in her life.

At the far end, under a raised, shaded arbor, a man was sitting in an ornate chair that was fancy as a king’s throne.

Two lithe, dark-eyed nymphs stood on either side of him, fanning him with palm fronds.  The spritely pair was scarcely dressed, shockingly attired in trousers and vests and showing too much skin.  She could see their flat bellies, their naked arms, and an exorbitant amount of cleavage.  Their wrists and ankles were covered with gold bangles that jangled when they moved their hands.

As to the man, she thought he might be one of the equestrians from down on the beach, but she wasn’t certain.  If it was the same fellow, he’d changed his clothes.

He was wearing an odd, flowing sort of trouser that was sewn from a colorful, shiny fabric.  His feet were bare, his chest bare.  He had a European ancestry, but he was so bronzed from the sun that it was difficult to predict whether he also had native blood in his veins.

His eyes were very, very blue, his hair black, long, and hanging over his shoulders.  He looked bored and decadent and too handsome for his own good, and he was staring at her as if she was an alien creature he’d never witnessed before.

Her escort vanished into the shadows, and she couldn’t figure out if she should approach or tarry until summoned, so she hovered, feeling nervous and unsure as she hated to ever be.

He studied her, starting with her face, then taking a slow meander down her torso and back up again.  She wondered what he saw, but guessed there was no detail that would tantalize such a masculine cad.  In light of the willowy girls fanning him, it was obvious what kind of female he enjoyed.

In her dreary nun’s habit, her shapely figure was concealed by the heavy material, so she had no traits that would entice him, and she thought he was precisely the type of libertine who would like to be enticed.

With her auburn hair and merry blue eyes, she’d always been pretty, and though she’d been a novitiate with the Sisters of Mercy for eight years, she retained a feminine spark that was abruptly ignited.  She wished he’d notice her comely features.  But in her dusty, sweaty garments, her wimple firmly in place, it was impossible to appear fetching, and the fact that she yearned to present a more flattering picture was irksome in the extreme.

She’d joined the convent at age seventeen, deeming it the perfect way to escape pressures at home.  She would become a nun once she was ready for the final vows, so she hardly needed to flaunt herself to a strange man.

“Well…?” he ultimately said, his British accent very clear.

“Oh, you speak English.  Good.”

She marched over, stopping directly in front of him.  His throne was on a dais, so he was up above her, but even without the added elevation, he seemed very large and much grander that she’d expected him to be.

With him seated, she couldn’t exactly discern his height, but she suspected he’d be tall, six feet at least.  He was a bit older than she was, probably thirty or so, and with her standing so close, she had to admit that he was an excellent male specimen, broad-shouldered, tanned, hale and fit.

She was flustered by him though, by his bare flesh and piercing gaze, by his superior size and semblance of authority.  He made her feel small and poor and insignificant, and she’d like to request he put on a shirt, but she wasn’t certain how to broach the subject.

“You are…?” he inquired in a derisive fashion.

“Sister Faithful.”

“Sister…faithful?  Are you commenting on your piety or is that your name?”

She’d had a lifetime of jokes about her name, so her smile never wavered.  “Faithful is my given name, sir.  To whom have I the pleasure of speaking?”

“The pleasure?”  He chuckled.  “I don’t believe anyone has ever viewed it as being pleasurable to speak with me.  We’ll converse for a few minutes, then you can decide what you think.”

She noted that he hadn’t supplied his own name.  Was he on the run from the law?  Was he a criminal?  He lived by the sea.  Was he a smuggler or pirate?

“What is this place?” she asked.

“The locals call it the Ghost House.”

“Why?”

“Because there are ghosts in it, Sister Faithful.  Why would you suppose?  I’d tell you the Arabic name, but you couldn’t pronounce or remember it.”  He leaned back and studied her again.  “What can I do for you?  What has brought you staggering to my door?”

“I didn’t stagger,” she huffed, offended by his boorish tone.

“Fine.  You didn’t stagger.  How did you arrive?”

“I walked part of the way and rode the rest in a farmer’s cart.”

“You came from town?”

“Yes.”

“Deliberately to find me?”

“Yes.”

“To what end?”

“I need your help.”

She hadn’t meant to simply blurt it out like that.  He was being particularly surly, as if he’d never learned any manners, but there was no reason for him to be so impolite.  He was the first British person whom she’d stumbled on in weeks.  He couldn’t disappoint her.  She wouldn’t let him.

“You need my help?”  He looked flummoxed.  “As I’ve never previously laid eyes on you, what makes you imagine I’d be inclined to provide it?”

“I don’t know where else we can turn.”

“We?  Who is with you?”

“My fellow sister, Rowena, and our three charges.”

“Charges?”

“Little girls.”

“There are…what?  Five of you?”  He was horrified by the number.

“Yes.  They’re in the foyer, waiting for me, and now that I see for myself you’re British, and clearly you’re a gentleman—”

He snorted with amusement.  “I am a gentleman?  Your powers of discernment may be a bit off.”

“No, I’m positive you’re a gentleman, and we throw ourselves on your mercy.”

He waved a decadent hand.  “Don’t be throwing yourself anywhere.  Just tell me what you want.  If it’s in my power to bestow it—which I doubt very much—I shall give it to you.”

He seemed imperious and bored, and she felt she should talk faster so she could say all she had to say before he was done listening.  Like a lazy despot, he flicked his wrist, and a servant appeared out of nowhere and slipped him a goblet.

She was so hot and so thirsty, she could smell the contents, could sense the goblet contained red wine.  She’d never been much of a drinker, and wine was never available at the convent, but she’d developed a taste for it in Italy where it had been poured freely.  She was a hairsbreadth away from falling to her knees and begging him to offer her a glass too.

“I’m guessing you should start from the beginning,” he said.

“That would probably be best.”

“What are you doing in Africa?”

“We had traveled to Rome with Mother Superior.”

“From where?”

“Our convent is in Scotland.  There was a confluence at the Vatican.  In addition, the Mother Superior’s sister, who was living in Rome, passed away.  She was mother to the three girls who are with me.  We’re taking them to Scotland.”

“You still haven’t explained why you’re in Africa.”

“On the trip home, there was illness on our ship.”

He blanched.  “What sort of illness?  A plague?  Cholera?  Dysentery?  What?”

“I don’t know what it was.”

“Have you delivered it to my doorstep?”

“No, we’re healthy.  All of us are fine.”

“You seem quite sure about that.”

“I am.  We’ve been quarantined for the past month.”

“Who quarantined you?”

“I think he was the harbormaster.  I don’t speak the language, so I wasn’t certain of details.  Many of the sailors were violently sick—”

“How sick?”

“They died.”

“Died!”

“Yes, and the captain couldn’t continue with the small crew that remained.  We limped into the nearest port.”

“But with a contagion on board, they wouldn’t let you debark.”

“Well, we—Rowena and the girls and I—were allowed to debark, but we were locked in a shed until we were deemed free of any infection.”

“You have yet to clarify why you’re still in Africa.  If I were you, I’d have purchased passage on the first boat heading out to sea.”

“That was my plan, but when the quarantine ended, and we were released, our ship had sailed.  We had money and clothes and other items, but all of it was gone.”

He scoffed with disgust.  “Robbed, were you?”

“Of everything we had.”

“And your Mother Superior?”

Faith had to swallow twice before she could say, “Dead of the contagion.”

She’d been a kind and caring individual, and she’d picked Faith to be her secretary, the coveted position guaranteeing Faith had been required to travel to Rome with her to write letters and keep records.

She’d been the mother Faith had never had, and Faith was suffering terrible guilt over the woman’s demise.  Why had the devout, pious nun been taken?  Why had Faith—who was vacillating and insecure in her spiritual convictions—been spared?  It made no sense, and she’d love to have a long conversation about what had occurred, but she wasn’t about to have a philosophical debate with the odd, exotic man.

He pondered her predicament, drummed his fingers on his chair, signaled for his goblet to be refilled.  “You’re in a bit of a jam, Sister Faithful.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The people in town suggested you discuss it with me?”

“They felt you might be able to assist me.  Or that you could assess options with me in my own language.  At least, I think that’s what they were hoping.”

“They sent you to your own kind.”

“They sent me to you,” she saucily retorted, “but whether you’re my own kind is questionable.”

He laughed and laughed, and as his mirth waned, he asked, “What is it you want from me?”

Money, aid, advice, friendship, safety, shelter, protection…

How was she to return to Scotland?  How was she to get Rowena and the girls there?  When they’d emerged from quarantine and found their worldly possessions had been stolen, and the local men claiming no knowledge of what had happened, her every religious impulse had fled.

She’d wished again, as she so often did, that she were a male, that she’d been armed with a very large pistol.  If so, she’d had shot every single one of them right between the eyes.

“I need to keep on to Scotland,” she boldly declared, “and I need you to help me.”

“How would I?”

“Could you leave with us?  Could you escort us?”

“Since we’re strangers who’ve only just met, I consider that to be an extremely brazen request.”

“I realize it is, and normally I wouldn’t be so crass, but I’m exhausted and starving and thirsty and afraid.  I can’t force myself to be meek and polite.”

“I’ve noticed that about you.”  A fascinating smile curved his lips.  “I have no funds to purchase fares for you, and even if I had, I would never escort you anywhere.  I wouldn’t get back out on the ocean for all the tea in London.”

“Are you from London?”
“Yes.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Hiding and playing, Sister Faithful, and I don’t intend to ever stop.  So I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time by coming to me.”  He pointed to the door.  “If you’ll excuse me?  I’m busy today.”

“Busy?” she sputtered.  “As far as I can see, you’re drinking and loafing.”

“Yes, I am.  It’s what I do every day, but I can’t do it while you’re standing there, and I most especially can’t do it while there is a gaggle of young girls in the house, so…if you’ll excuse me?”

She gaped at him, wondering if she’d ever previously encountered such an indolent, unlikeable rogue.

Though it was idiotically foolish, she’d pinned such hopes on him.  She’d imbued him with traits it was ludicrous to have envisioned.  She’d pictured him as courteous and charming, useful and pragmatic.  She’d assumed he’d be sympathetic and obliging.

He was handsome enough, but the pretty exterior shielded a heart of stone.

“May we…we…stay the night?  It’s such a lengthy distance to town.  I don’t know if we could make it before the sun sets.”

“I’m really not prepared to entertain guests, Sister Faithful.”

“Please?”

To her horror, tears swarmed into her eyes, and the oaf detected them.

“Are you crying?”  At the prospect, he was aghast.  “Don’t you dare cry.”

“I can’t help it,” she mumbled.

She was fatigued and furious.  Who would treat a stray dog as he was treating her?  Who would cast women and children out into the desert?

If she wasn’t so weary, she’d have stepped up to his fancy throne and shook him until his teeth rattled.  But she didn’t suppose rage would move him.

Before she could prevent herself, before she could think better of it, she dropped to her knees and flashed her most woeful expression.

“I’m begging you, sir.  For one night.  The girls are only five, six, and seven.  And all of us are so tired.  Surely you aren’t so cruel as to evict us when we’re in such a reduced condition.”

He scowled.  “Get up, Sister.  There’s no need for groveling.”

“Please?” she said again, and it dawned on her that she probably couldn’t get up.  She was that beaten down.

He studied her where she was prostrate and shamefully pleading.  His scowl deepened, and he dithered, sipped his wine, dithered some more.

Finally, he grumbled, “Just one night.  Just one!  Not a second more.”

“Thank you,” she murmured but she didn’t rise.  She couldn’t.

“I don’t care how fervently you beseech me tomorrow.  I don’t care how poignantly you stare at me with those pretty blue eyes of yours.  You’re leaving in the morning.”

“Yes, we’ll go.  I swear.”

Strong arms grabbed and lifted her, and she was whisked out of the room.  She peeked up to see that the tattooed giant was carrying her off, her toes brushing the tiled floor.

She peered back at the arrogant despot.  He was watching her, a bored look on his attractive face.  If she’d had any effect on him at all, there was no sign.

“What is your name, sir?” she called to him.

“Didn’t I say?”

“No.”

“Chase Hubbard, formerly of Cairo, Egypt, and London, England.”  He toasted her with his goblet.  “At your service, Sister Faithful.”

Then she was hurried around a corner, and he vanished from view.