» Sample Moonlight on My Mind

Sample Moonlight on My Mind

Pic from Barnes and NobleComing from Avon Romance, March 25, 2014

Available for Pre-Order now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, Indie-Bound, and Bookish.

Scotland, October 1842

Though it was a thought she should have entertained far earlier, Julianne Baxter wondered if she ought to become a brunette before she sought out a man wanted for murder. A good instinct to have before she arrived in Scotland, but there was no helping it now.

It had been a hellish trip, first by train, then by four-horse coach with stops in Perth and Inverness. Now she was rattling into the little town of Moraig via a poorly sprung two-horse mail coach that was far better suited for hauling parcels than passengers. As the scenery outside her coach window shifted from pine forests to a smear of shop-lined streets, her mind twisted in this new—if belated—direction. Three long days spent sitting in trains and coaches, buttoned to the neck and hiding behind the brim of her bonnet, was enough to make even the kindest of souls cross. Julianne was admittedly not the kindest of souls.

Nor, regrettably, the cleanest.

The pretty green silk of her gown was now closer to a dull gray from the day’s accumulated dirt, much of it from the interior of this squalid little coach. She yearned for a bath full of steaming water, and a feather bed on which to collapse in a well-earned stupor. But while Julianne was indeed bordering on a stupor from lack of proper sleep, she doubted a bath was something she would see this side of the next sunrise. She had things to accomplish in this nowhere Scottish town before her toes touched a bath or her head hit a pillow.

But at the moment, the thought of even five more seconds spent in the chokehold of her bonnet was too much.

Julianne eyed the coach’s only other occupant, a portly man who had thankfully spent most of the eight-hour trip from Inverness sleeping. When he gave a reassuring snore, she plucked at the ribbons holding her bonnet in place and pulled it from her head, intending to let her scalp breathe. She enjoyed two heavenly minutes of freedom before the man sitting across from her sputtered awake.

He blinked a slow moment, his eyes settling on her hair with predictable tedium. And then he grinned, revealing teeth stained yellow by age and things best left unconsidered.

“Well, there’s a pretty sight,” he leered with a sleep-filled voice, filling the narrow space inside the coach with breath that suggested one or more of those teeth might be in need of professional care. “I dinna often see hair that bright, bonny color. I see you are traveling alone, lass. I’d be happy to show you around Moraig, personal-like.”

Julianne withheld the curt reply hammering against her lips. She was on a clandestine mission, after all, though she had little more than snatched bits of rumor to guide her. She was risking a great deal by coming here and following this lead without first contacting the authorities, but the shocking circumstances of the last week—from Lord Haversham’s death and funeral to his family’s desperate circumstances, the latter of which she feared could be laid firmly at her own feet—had forced her hand. Still, she did not relish the thought of discovery. No sense giving this stranger a voice by which to recognize her, on top of the copper-colored curls from which he seemed unable to detach his eyes.

When the passenger continued to ogle her, she determinedly settled the hated bit of straw and silk back on her head, this time leaving the ribbons untied. Deprived of his entertainment, the man finally looked away and turned his attention to a newspaper he pulled from a coat pocket. But the implications of his bald interest were not so easily defused. She hadn’t given her hair much thought upon setting off on this journey, although, to be fair, she hadn’t given any part of this journey a proper degree of forethought. Her father had ordered her home immediately after the earl’s funeral, but instead of going on to London as she was meant to do, she’d dismissed her maid—a flighty girl on loan from Summersby’s staff—and boarded the opposite train. And here she was. Alone and filthy, trying to avoid detection. She couldn’t jolly well depend on a bonnet to keep her safe from recognition for the length of this trip.

But she didn’t have to have red hair.

Indeed, for the purposes of this mission, it might be better if she didn’t. That the man she sought—truly, the man half of England sought—was rumored to have disappeared into the farthest reaches of Scotland suggested he didn’t want to be found. If he was warily watching over his shoulder, determined to avoid the gallows, the sight of her familiar red hair would give him a running head start toward escape.

Which meant her first stop in Moraig really ought to be a chemist’s shop.

As the idea firmed up in her mind, Julianne cleared her throat. Her traveling companion looked up from his rumpled newspaper. “Excuse me,” she said, remembering almost too late she was trying to avoid recognition. She readjusted her voice to a lower pitch and leaned in conspiratorially. “Perhaps I could use your help after all—”

A piercing blast from the outside horn cut her words short.

A sickening thud soon followed.

The coach lurched sideways, tilting Julianne along with it. Her head knocked against the latch to the door, making her teeth ache with the force of the blow. The vehicle hung in awkward indecision a long, slow moment, and then swung back to center before rolling several more feet to a stop. For a moment there was only the sound of her panicked breathing, but then a quick rap at the window sent both occupants jumping.

“Is anyone injured?” The voice of the coachman pushed through the thin glass.

“All is well.” The portly gentleman settled his bulk more squarely on the seat and calmly folded his newspaper, as if this sort of thing happened all the time. “Struck another one, have we, Mr. Jeffers?”

Julianne rubbed her throbbing head, realizing with dismay that her untied bonnet was now lying in a heap on the filthy coach floor. Her eyes reached for it, but her fingers refused to follow. She could not imagine placing it back on her head. It bothered her to even set her boots upon those sticky floorboards.

The coachman opened the door and peered in, his eyes owlish in concern. “Are you injured, lass?”

Julianne’s head ached liked the very devil and her stomach felt tossed by gale force winds, but she could feel no pain in her limbs suggesting an injury of grave magnitude. Still, she hesitated. The dust-covered coachman leaned farther in and his eyes lodged somewhere amid the strands of her hair, which, judging by the curls that swung wildly across her field of vision, had lost several hairpins in addition to the bonnet. Predictably, the driver’s lips tipped up in empty fascination.

Suddenly, she was not all right. The strain of the three-day journey, her fear of being recognized, and the past few pulse-churning seconds coalesced into a spiraling panic.

No one knew where she was. If she had died here today, her head dashed against the Scottish dirt, her body crushed beneath the wheels of this fetid little coach, her father would have … well … her father would have killed her.

The contents of her stomach—a dubious shepherd’s pie from the posting house in Ullapool—clawed for a foothold up her throat. She shoved past the driver, not even caring that she was abandoning all decorum along with her bonnet. She tumbled out into late afternoon sunshine, dodging the boxes that had come loose from the top of the coach. For a moment she swayed, breathing in the fresher air, willing her roiling stomach to settle. All around her, the town moved in an indistinct smear of browns and blues and greens, storefronts and awnings and people swirling in the maelstrom of the moment.

She almost missed it. In the end, it was the lack of movement that pulled her attention back for a second look. A small, still form lay in the street, perhaps thirty feet away. Behind her, strangers were already helping to heft the scattered boxes and trunks back onto the coach. She caught snatches of conversation on street corners, and the sound of clattering dishes and laughter trickling out of the open door of a nearby public house. No one seemed to care the afternoon coach had just mowed down one of their citizens, or that the body lay broken and unclaimed in the street.

The coachman picked that unfortunate moment to approach her. “I’ll ask you to step back inside, lass. We’re running late.”

Julianne glared at the man. Surely he didn’t expect her to just climb back on board, leaving the body in the street? “We have had an accident, sir.”

The coachman nodded. “Aye. Happens all the time. Poor little thing darted right out under the wheels. Back in you go, now. The posting house is but a few blocks away.”

Julianne took two deep breaths, praying for patience and calm—both of which she suspected would require divine intervention. “I am not getting back on that coach,” she ground out, “until someone calls for help.”

The driver lowered his voice to a more soothing tone, the sort she often heard used on frightened horses and recalcitrant toddlers. “’Tis a sad sight, I know, especially for a lady like yourself. But it’s common enough ’round Moraig. Why don’t you take yourself back inside the coach so you dinna see it? We’ll only be a moment to get the last of these boxes back up.”

Her thoughts flew around the driver’s words. It. So uncaring as to not even assign the poor victim a gender. This could not be happening. Good heavens … it was her coach. Her hurry. Her fault. Hadn’t she asked the driver to cut short their time at the last posting house, going so far as to press a sovereign into the man’s palm? She had come to Moraig find a murderer, not to turn into one herself. She gestured fiercely toward the form lying so still on the street. “A body’s been struck down beneath your wheels,” she hissed, “and you are worried only about the state of the luggage?”

The coachman paled. “I … I can’t do anything for it myself, miss.”

A new voice rubbed close to Julianne’s ear. “Might as well take the coach on to the posting house, Mr. Jeffers. I know your pay is docked for every quarter hour’s delay.”

Julianne’s hand flew up to stifle her gasp of surprise, and she whirled around so fast the earth quite tilted beneath her. She couldn’t breathe, could only stare up, and then up some more. An awful sureness settled over her, a sense that someone, somewhere, was having a hearty laugh at her expense. In fact, they probably had a stitch in their side.

Because Julianne had found Patrick Channing—the accused killer she had traveled three days to find—within minutes, not hours. And it was a little too late to find a chemist’s shop.

“Very good, sir.” The coachman’s voice echoed his relief to have the situation turned so squarely over to someone else. “I’ve a letter for you as well. Would you like to take it now?”

There was a beat of hesitation before Channing shook his head. “No, I’ll retrieve it later. After I see to the dog.”

   Dog? The word bounced about in Julianne’s skull for three long seconds before settling into something coherent. She eyed the still form lying in the street again. The body was not human then. Embarrassment washed over her for such a mistake. Behind her she could hear the crack of the driver’s reins and the creak of the wheels, but she scarcely registered the fact that her bonnet and bag were rolling away with the coach.

Instead, she suffered an almost painful awareness of the man towering over her.

He didn’t much resemble the man she had once waltzed with at a Yorkshire house party. He looked common, she supposed. And thin. She could see the angular edge of his jaw, the wisp of stubble marring the surface of his gaunt cheeks. He was as tall as ever—some things, a body couldn’t hide. But his coat hung loosely from his frame, and his sandy hair, once so neatly trimmed as to nearly be flush against his scalp, brushed the lower edge of his neck.

Did they lack barbers in Moraig?

Or was this part of his disguise, a diabolically clever way of hiding in plain sight?

Channing was studying her too, but the inspection felt clinical, imparting none of the wolfish appreciation offered by either her earlier traveling companion or the driver. And when he spoke, it was with a flat, disinterested baritone that made Julianne blink in surprise.

“Are you injured in some manner I cannot see beyond the state of your hair, miss?”

Julianne’s hand flew to tuck an unruly curl behind one ear, as surprised by his lack of acknowledgment as the mention that her hair might be in need of intervention. “I … no … I mean, I struck my head. On the coach door.”

He peered at her as if she was a specimen for dissection, rather than the woman who had once accused him of murder. “There is no visible blood. Your pupils are dilated, but no more so than might be expected after suffering a fright.”

Julianne fought a building impatience. How could he be so … impersonal? Day or night, this man had occupied a central place in her thoughts for eleven long months. He had kissed her senseless and she’d never forgotten, though she’d spent the better part of the last year trying—and failing—to replicate the experience. She wanted to scream at him. Shake him to awareness. Make him look at her as more than just a patient.

Instead, she asked, “Do you not remember me at all?”

His eyes continued their impersonal march across her various and sundry parts before settling back on her face. “Of course,” he said, his voice not changing inflection in the slightest. “You always did have a flair for a dramatic entrance, Miss Baxter.”

Julianne’s heart skidded sideways in her chest. However impassive the acknowledgment, he knew who she was. And yet, he hadn’t bolted.

She wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

Without another word of explanation, Channing turned and made his way toward the injured animal. Julianne watched as he shrugged—quite un-diabolically—out of his coat, one blurry shoulder after the other. “He’s unconscious but breathing,” Channing called out. “But he’s lost a good deal of blood. The leg will probably need to come off.”

He returned to proper focus with a black and white animal wrapped in his coat and cradled in his arms. “I’ll need to take him to my clinic and see what can be done in surgery. You might as well come along with me, Miss Baxter. That is, if you trust me.”

It was the closest he had come to acknowledging the odd history that bound them together. “I …” She hesitated, feeling the stares of a few curious Moraig residents on her, even though she couldn’t precisely see them. All she could see at this moment was this man towering over her, his arms full of beast and coat, a smear of blood wrapped around one wrist.

A memory snagged on the shards of her uncertainty, a groundswell of guilt and doubt that had begun at the funeral and chased her across all these miles. There had been blood on him the last time she had seen him too. A copious amount of it, vivid scarlet turned to rust. He had stood in his father’s study as if hewn from granite, covered in his brother’s blood. At the time, she had seen that blood and interpreted it as evidence of his guilt. But with eleven months of second-guessing behind her, she was no longer sure.

Now the old earl was dead, and the question of what came next was on everyone’s lips.

She had entertained no plan beyond finding Patrick Channing and convincing him to return home. This journey had been naught but impulse from the moment she’d boarded the wrong train, still shattered by her first close-up look at Patrick’s family since the infamous house party. Some of those in attendance had whispered the earl had died of a broken heart, and Julianne had shrunk against the bruised eyes and hollowed cheeks of Channing’s mother and small sisters. It was clear they were devastated, and not only because of the Earl of Haversham’s sudden death.

They needed Patrick, and they needed him whole.

And it was equally clear—as the inquest into the circumstances of his brother’s death lumbered to life in the wake of his father’s passing and the crowd’s whispers turned to certain conviction—that she was the only one who knew where he was.

“Quickly, please, Miss Baxter. An animal’s life may very well be at stake.”

Julianne stared at his bloodied sleeve. The facts didn’t match. He didn’t match. That, more than anything else, cemented her decision, sane or not. “I will come with you.”

She lifted her skirts, not even caring that she was probably exposing a good bit of ankle to the gawking townspeople. Perhaps, if she was lucky, that bit of stocking might distract them from the disaster of her hair, and discourage any speculation regarding why she was conversing—without a proper chaperone—with a man believed capable of murder.

“It’s a half-mile walk.” Channing’s gaze roved downward and settled on the exposed heel of one of her boots. “Try not to twist something en route, Miss Baxter. Because I assure you, I’d rather carry the dog.”

#

   Julianne. Bloody. Baxter.

She was here. In Moraig. About as far as a body could go in Britain and not plunge into the Atlantic. Which was really where he’d like to toss her, those tottering heels and fetching red curls be damned.

He still couldn’t believe she was following him home. It was a foolish risk for a woman to take, particularly after the terrible crime she herself had accused him of. It was an even more foolish risk for him to invite her. But surely it was better than leaving the impetuous chit standing in the street. It would have taken all of thirty seconds for her to start poking about the afternoon crowd at the Blue Gander public house, asking questions, spilling secrets. No one in Moraig knew of the circumstances of his past, not even his best friends. Until he knew what his future might hold, he preferred to keep it that way.

Patrick knew there were those in England who still bayed like hounds on the trail of a fox, demanding his blood and justice. He assumed Miss Baxter was of the same mind as his detractors, especially given the nature of their last encounter. Several of his own relatives had called for an inquest into his brother’s death, no matter his father’s firm insistence it was naught but a terrible accident. The most recent correspondence he had received from his father had been a month or more ago, and unless today’s letter carried some vital new information, it was not yet time for Patrick to return.

Miss Baxter’s unexpected appearance, however, might just force his hand.

With the unconscious dog in his arms and those disturbing thoughts in his head, Patrick kicked open the door to his derelict house-turned-clinic. He hadn’t needed to kick the door, of course. The latch didn’t catch properly, just one of a hundred things that needed fixing about the tumbledown place where he laid his head and stitched up the odd farm animal. He could bump it open with his hip, and frequently did so when his arms were full. But the extreme physical reaction and the satisfying thud of his boot against the wood improved his black mood.

Better still, it made the woman trailing beside him jump like a bird flushed from the heather, and that made him glad, for no other reason than it gave him a brief upper hand in this situation bound for nowhere good.

As he stepped inside, a ball of yellow fur came hurtling down the steps and wrapped itself around Patrick’s legs. Excited barking filled the air.

“Down, Gemmy.” He skirted the exuberant and slightly off-balance antics of his pet, the very first animal he had treated upon arriving in Moraig. “Sit,” he told the dog.

Gemmy stood.

His tail beat a furious rhythm in the air, and his pink tongue lolled happily. Miss Baxter removed her gloves, then crouched to rub the terrier’s ears. “Who is this ill-behaved beast?”

“The mail coach’s first victim,” Patrick said dryly.

The dog’s eyes all but closed on a satisfied groan as Miss Baxter’s bare fingers worked some kind of female magic on him. Patrick stared in perplexed irritation. Gemmy had always struck him as a loyal dog, a man’s dog. He liked to scratch himself exuberantly with his one remaining hind leg, and lick the area where his bollocks had been. He generally stayed on Patrick’s heel unless there was a chicken or rabbit in close proximity.

But now this “man’s” dog flung himself down worshipfully and presented the decidedly unmannish Miss Baxter with three limbs aloft and a belly to rub, which she proceeded to do with a familiarity that surprised him.

Though she bordered on slatternly this moment, with her hair falling down and her dress wrinkled beyond repair, Miss Baxter seemed a fussy sort of person, more concerned about the cut of her clothes and the curl of her hair than any reasonable person ought to be. To see her remove her gloves to pet not just a dog, but a three-legged mongrel, struck him as slightly absurd.

“How many mail coach victims have there been?” she asked, her voice tight.

“Four since the New Year. Mr. Jeffers is always running late, and the townspeople refuse to put their dogs on a lead. ’Tis bound to result in the odd collision.”

“I see you make a hobby out of lopping off their limbs.”

The reminder sent Patrick cursing under his breath. He had almost forgotten the bundle he carried, so disarming was the sight of Miss Baxter crouching in his dusty foyer. He strode down the narrow hallway that led to the kitchen. A plaintive bleating came from the part of the house that had once served as the front parlor, but though it was almost time for the orphaned lamb’s bottle, he ignored it for the moment.

He settled the newest patient down on the kitchen table and carefully unwrapped his coat from the injured dog’s body. Another jacket, ruined. This business was sending him to the poorhouse, sure enough.

Miss Baxter’s heels clicked on the weathered floorboards behind him. “Do you live here all alone? Honestly, you are the son of an earl. You could afford a domestic servant or two.”

Patrick didn’t answer. No sense telling her he refused to accept a single sovereign from his father while he languished in this self-imposed exile. No doubt Miss Baxter had never turned down a farthing in her sweet, pampered life.

He forced his gaze to remain on the mess of the dog’s leg instead of pulling to her. It was not an easy battle, because the sight of her was like a brightly colored lure, flashing end over end in turbulent water.

A lid clanged loudly somewhere behind him. “Do you even cook in here at all?” she mused. “These pans appear unused.”

Irritation yanked at the edges of his temper. By the devil, would she not shut up?

“The kettle works.” In fact, he kept it heated and at the ready, but his answer seemed to do little to deflect her prying. He swallowed his frustration over the feminine invasion and began a more thorough exam of his newest patient. The dog he had carried from Main Street was still unconscious, which concerned him. While there was no obvious damage he could see other than the mangled limb, the animal’s sluggish return to wakefulness suggested it might have sustained an injury to its head in addition to its leg.

But its continued state of unconsciousness might also present an opportunity. If he moved quickly, he could take off the crushed leg without the animal waking. But quickly was a bit of a stretch, given his lack of an assistant.

He glanced dubiously at Miss Baxter, who had moved on to the side counter and was running a bare, elegant finger over his clean, washed tools. No, she would be no help. Quite the opposite. James MacKenzie, his friend and former roommate, had once helped Patrick with these more challenging procedures, but the man was probably sitting down to supper in his new house across town, wallowing in what appeared to be a healthy dose of marital bliss.

There was no one here but the infinitely nosey Miss Baxter.

“I thought you were taking the dog to surgery.” She held up a long-handled implement with a vise clamp on the end. She raised it for a closer examination, squinting at it like a seventy-year-old woman who had lost her quizzing glass. She turned it left and then right, her lips pursed in study. “This is your kitchen,” she continued. “Surely you don’t see patients in here.”

Patrick considered telling her he used the thing to castrate calves. Decided better of it.

After all, she might decide to use it on him.

Instead, he reached for the surgical instruments he kept in the nearby cupboard, right next to his meager tin of tea leaves and the shaker of salt. “One table’s as good as another. I am not a particular man.”

“Clearly.” She laid the emasculator down on the far end of the table and came closer. Her eyes widened as she saw what was in his hand. “What is that?”

Patrick ignored her question, though that was not precisely the same thing as ignoring her. He hefted the bone saw—a monstrous, well-oiled thing with teeth the size of a man’s fingernail—on the table, and enjoyed the quick blanching of Miss Baxter’s already milky white skin as he placed it beside the unconscious dog.

For the first time since he laid eyes on her, he was tempted to smile. She believed him a killer, after all. He might even be—he wasn’t completely sure of himself, or the tragic events that had destroyed his family and reshaped his future into a frail, furtive thing.

And that meant the next few minutes should prove entertaining, if nothing else.

 

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