THE SECRET HUNTER by Susanne Saville
When Gwenllian Lloyd literally knocks dashing Daniel Wyckliff off his feet in Bath's Sydney Gardens, she is unaware intrigue looms before her. The year is 1804. England fears invasion from Napoleon's France. Gwenllian has just met the man of her dreams, but is he a man she can trust?
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Bath, England 1804
Daniel Wyckliff could have sworn the pug was smiling. Its pink tongue lolling out of a mouth quirked in a wide grin, the dog careened across the strip of lawn and into the grove like a fat rabbit, forcing him to swivel on his good left leg to prevent the pug from running smack into his shins. He had a glimpse of a swiftly retreating curled tail before he turned and a body collided with his chest.
Already off balance, Daniel reeled back with the impact. His boot heels slipped on the grass still wet with morning dew, and he knew with dreadful certainty that both he and his assailant were going down. His weak right arm, hidden beneath his Carrick coat, was next to useless, but his reflexes raised his left, ready to repel his attacker.
As his hand clutched its shoulder, he felt soft flesh beneath thin muslin, and realized she was a woman. Pulling her toward him just before they hit the earth, he deftly managed to cushion her fall with his body.
His breath burst out in a painful rush as his back struck the ground hard and the weight of the girl thudded upon his chest. He blinked, tried to breathe. Then he felt her stir and he was looking up into pale gray eyes.
“Are you injured, sir? My deepest apologies, I was chasing--and I know I am far heavier than I appear. Oh, please be unharmed, sir.” She spoke with a slight lilt. Welsh, perhaps?
A sudden wheezing and snuffling manifested at the right side of his face and Daniel felt a hairy muzzle inspecting his cheek.
“No, Oliver,” the woman ordered. “The gentleman does not need any pug saliva.” She reached out and gently pushed the dog away from him.
Still flat on his back, Daniel gingerly tested a deep breath and chuckled with his exhale. “Why not? I have heard that pug saliva can cure most anything.”
Her eyes lit up. “Do you like pugs, sir? I find so few gentlemen truly appreciate what lovely, useful dogs they are.”
He fleetingly admired the poetic license she took with her choice of adjectives. Either that or the definition of ‘useful’--and ‘lovely’ for that matter--had changed this year.
“I like pugs,” he answered.
She beamed. It was a smile he felt all the way to his toes, setting his mind racing almost as quickly as his heart. Had she noticed his impaired limbs? With a flash of uneasy self-consciousness, he realized it was exceedingly important to him that this woman think him a vigorous, able-bodied male.
Attempting nonchalance, he reached across with his left hand and fondled the dog’s velvety, black ears. “I believe this is the first uncropped pug of my acquaintance. You have a penchant for the unorthodox, I take it?”
“I must admit that never before has a lady tackled me in Sydney Gardens. If this is a new fad come to Bath, then I am all for it.”
“Oh goodness, what am I doing?” she gasped, seeming honestly appalled with herself. “I assure you I am not. I shall remove myself from you at once, of course.”
She started to roll and he heard the distinct sound of tearing. She froze. “I believe my dress is caught, somewhere.”
She tried to look about her, but her loosened bonnet kept blocking her view. With an impatient tug, she pulled it off and tossed it to the side, revealing dark locks cropped and curled in the short, tousled Titus style. Rather daringly short hair for a lady. When she glanced at him again, he was struck by how light her eyes were in contrast to her tanned complexion and black hair. She had a wild, gypsyish appearance, too dark for fashion to consider her beautiful and yet…
“I cannot find the catch.” Her brows knit with concern.
“If you would permit me?”
His left hand explored her side with slow, deliberate movements, feeling for the elusive snagged fold of her dress. In so doing, he could not help noticing the ample curves of her body. He attempted to control his very improper response. Unorthodox she might be, but she was not a lightskirt, of that he was certain. Not only was her manner of speaking too cultured, but there was something naïve about her despite the fact that she had to be only a couple of years younger than his age of seven-and-twenty. She shifted on him again and he was graphically reminded that he had never been this close to a woman outside of a bedroom. She would slap him if she realized the extent of his licentious thoughts--and he would deserve it.
“If we are not disentangled quickly, some passerby will get a view of fauna to surpass the flora,” the dark woman jested, her voice merry though her eyes betrayed her distress. She paused to once again dissuade the dog from a snuffling inspection of their faces. “Will fearsome thoughts of a forced marriage hurry you to greater speed, sir?”
No sooner had the words passed her lips than Daniel heard the crunch of feet--many feet--along the nearby gravel path and a gruff male voice grumbling about moral turpitude. These newcomers could not have seen them, not yet. But the grove would not protect them for long. The passersby would be upon them in moments.
The woman’s eyes had blazed with panic at the sound of the oncoming man’s voice. She hissed several words that, while not actually swearing, were not quite ladylike. A chorus of rips and rending accompanied her mad scramble to her feet.
Daniel propped himself up on his elbows. The woman’s spotted muslin dress sported a gaping tear down the side. He could see glimpses of white stockings through a matching rip in her chemise. However, she seemed more concerned with collecting her pug than her dishabille.
“Did you see Mrs. Harris flaunting herself on the Ride?” A female voice interrupted the man’s grumbles.
“Now, now, Mariah, be kind.” Another female.
The dark woman had her pug in her arms. He could see her trying to decide if she had enough time to stoop for her bonnet.
“Where has your sister gone off to?” asked the man, very near now. “Gel’s a little hoyden, if you ask me.”
The woman met Daniel’s eyes, her expression a strange mixture of fear and rueful amusement, and he guessed she was the hoyden in question. Abandoning the bonnet, she dashed away down the lawn as if Bonaparte’s army were after her. Not an easy feat while carrying a cumbersome, two stone dog.
Daniel hoisted himself to his feet. A wave of impatience washed over him at the persistent awkwardness of his right limbs. While he had to admit the waters had done wonders, it was high time he was fully mended.
The three pedestrians rounded the corner into the grove. Daniel, brushing himself off, glanced after the woman, but her fleeing form had disappeared behind the far shrubbery. He turned his attention back to the newcomers.
The man, clad in the old-fashioned uniform of old money--complete with wig--waddled past looking neither right nor left, as if he had no time to waste on nature. He could have been walking with his daughters, for he was easily twice the girls’ age, yet Daniel fancied that scenario did not fit this group. He wondered if the stunning blonde was in fact the gentleman’s wife. She also possessed an air of wealth but, unlike him, she dressed in the current fashion: all white muslin, coquelicot ribbons on her bonnet, and a black gauze cloak. Quite the first-rate trophy to grace anyone’s arm. A pace or two behind walked the other girl, her eyes bent to the path and her fingers flitting from her stylish sprigged gown to the toffee-colored ringlets peeping out from beneath her bonnet, as if her life depended upon nothing being creased or out of place. Nature was not cooperating, and it clearly irritated her.
The blonde’s quick, light steps paused at the sight of the abandoned bonnet. “Wait, is that not Gwenllian’s?”
The other girl trudged on without looking. “I am not leaving the path,” she declared. “The grass is far too damp.”
Daniel stepped forward and bowed. “Your servant, ladies.” He bent, swooping up the bonnet with his left hand, and limped to the blonde’s side.
“Do you perhaps know the owner?” he asked as he handed the item to her.
“Yes, sir, I believe I do.” She smiled politely and started to turn away.
“Then might you return it for me, with my compliments?”
“Your compliments, sir?” The blonde glanced at the retreating back of the older gentleman, as if worried he might overhear.
Meanwhile, the other girl had turned her scrutiny from her dress to them, her avid eyes darting between him and the anxious blonde. Daniel decided she was the Mariah chastened for gossiping earlier. Remembering that he should be well-bred enough to know personal comments are considered rude, he cast about for something neutral to say. Something he could praise in safety.
“I simply mean to say that she has a fine dog.”
The blonde grinned and a crafty sparkle lit her blue eyes. “Then you are much in sympathy with Miss Lloyd, for she proclaims that opinion to all close enough to hear.”
Daniel made another bow and the ladies resumed their walk. As he limped away, Daniel could hear Mariah speaking, her voice gradually fading as the distance between them increased. “I, for one, do not think he was talking about her dog. Do you think so? Well, you would do. Oh, just wait until I tell Isabella. Who do you think he is? He is quite handsome. Do you think he might have money?”
A ridiculously delighted grin formed on his face, and he did not care. This was an auspicious morning. His right leg definitely seemed less of a hindrance and the kind blonde had deliberately provided him with the means by which to locate his dark lady.