No Choice But Seduction Page 4

The annoying mewling noise started up again. If she were in her own home, she would immediately have investigated. She couldn’t bear to think of animals in pain, hungry, or being abused. She’d chased farmer Cantry about the village square once with his own stick, having grabbed it from his hand when she caught him using it on his horse. Deer ate apples from her hand, they had such trust in her. And two of her neighbor’s cats left field mice on her porch regularly as gifts.

Again the sound grated on Katey’s ears and heart. Finally she threw off her covers, grabbed the robe she’d left at the foot of the bed, and was out the door before she’d even belted the robe. She was about to pound on the door to the other room when she arrested her fist just in time. She didn’t really want to wake anyone else just because her sleep was being disturbed.

She pulled her long black hair out from under the robe as she debated what to do. It was probably just a cat trapped in an empty room. This would be the second time she’d come across that situation in her travels, if that was what this was. It had been late summer when she’d arrived in England, it was now early fall, and innkeepers left windows open, even windows in their vacant rooms, to keep them fresh-smelling as long as they could before the weather turned too cold. Stray cats found their way in through those open windows looking for food, then forgot how to get out and made a racket about it.

Trying the door would tell her immediately if the room was occupied. If it was locked, she’d have to consider going downstairs to complain to the innkeeper. If it opened, the noisy cat would likely scurry out into the corridor and run off, and her problem would be solved.

The door opened when she turned the knob. She pushed it wide enough for the cat to run out, but no cat appeared. There was an orange glow in the room as if a fire was dying out, or a lamp was turned down low, which indicated the room was occupied by people rather than stray cats.

She closed the door quietly, embarrassed now that she’d opened the door to someone’s room. She didn’t move, though. What had caused the mewling sound? A baby? That had been her other thought. The parents might be so used to the sound that it wouldn’t wake them. But there it was again, that mewling, and oddly, it sounded more desperate now.

She was just going to have a little peek, she told herself as she opened the door again and stuck her head around its edge to see into the room. A lamp was turned so low it was probably going to extinguish itself at any moment. There was the bed, occupied by a couple of people under the sheets, one softly snoring.

She looked quickly for a basket on the floor that might contain a baby, and if she found it, she was going to wake its parents to take care of it. But she found a pair of wide eyes staring at her instead, eyes that seemed to be pleading with her, belonging to a child who was gagged and sitting on the floor in the corner. Boy or girl she couldn’t tell, nor could she see if the child’s hands were tied, too. A blanket concealed that, but she guessed that they were, since no effort had been made to remove the gag.

The sensible thing to do would be to close the door and run downstairs for help. But Katey didn’t care about being sensible. She had to get that child out of there. She’d worry later about whether she had any right to interfere. A visit to the local magistrate would clear that up, and if the child had to be returned to its parents, maybe the magistrate could instill enough fear in them to keep them from mistreating their child again.

That mistreatment infuriated her and carried her straight across the room without a thought for the two people sleeping in the bed. But when she reached the child and removed the blanket, which revealed the long copper hair of a female child, Katey saw that the mistreatment was much worse than she’d thought. Not only was the girl tied hand and foot, but a long strip of cloth also secured her in place, one end tied around her ankle, the other tied around one of the legs of the bed. That’s why she hadn’t tried to wiggle or roll her way out of there.

Katey quickly untied the long strip of cloth and picked up the girl. Now she was more mindful that the people in the bed could wake up at any moment. Whispering “Shh” to the child just in case she didn’t realize she was being rescued and started making noise again, Katey furtively tiptoed out of the room and managed to close the door behind them without having to set the girl down. She then rushed to her own room, placed the girl in the room’s single chair, quickly locked her own door, and lit a lamp so she could see what she was doing before she tackled the ropes.

The ropes turned out to be thin strips of rough cloth, with knots that were much too tight to work loose, since the child had apparently strained against them. But Katey traveled prepared for minor mishaps and emergencies.

While she usually left her main clothes trunks tied to their coach if they were only briefly staying in a place, with their driver sleeping in the coach to guard them, she carried a valise with an assortment of underclothes, an extra traveling dress, and a small sewing kit.

She fetched the little pair of scissors from the sewing kit now and quickly snipped through the girl’s bindings. But no sooner was the child released than she made a mad dash for the chamber pot in the corner of the room, stumbling and tripping on the way no doubt because her limbs were numb from having been constrained for so long. The poor child! No wonder she had been making such pitiful noises.

Katey turned aside to give the girl a moment of privacy. She opened the food basket she and Grace had taken to carrying ever since they’d gone to bed hungry one night because they’d arrived at an inn too late to get a meal.

“Are you hungry?” she asked as she pulled out some bread and broke open the round of cheese.

“I’m famished.”

“Well, come sit down here. It’s not a feast by any means and a bit stale, but—”

“Thank you so much,” the girl cut in, and snatched the bread from Katey’s hand.

“If you wait a moment, I’ll make you a plate.”

“I can’t wait,” the girl said around a mouthful. “This is fine, really.”

Katey frowned. “When did you last eat?”

“This morning. Or was it yesterday morning? I don’t know what time it is.”

Neither did Katey. It could be nearing dawn for all she knew. With the curtain in the room closed, she couldn’t tell. But she was staring appalled at the girl now.

“How could your parents do this to you? Did you misbehave so horribly?”

“My parents would never treat me this way,” the girl said, her tone almost offended. But she paused when she saw a pastry in the basket and grabbed that before she continued, “If you mean the man and woman in that other room, I’ve never seen either of them before in my life.”

Katey found that highly doubtful and started to say so, but held her tongue. The child was desperately hungry, eating everything in sight. She had been tied and left on the cold floor to sleep. If those were her parents next door, then they ought to be shot.

“So how did you come to be there?”

The girl sat down in the chair at the table and ate more slowly. Katey now saw that she was exceptionally beautiful. Her sun-gold hair was streaked with copper, and although it was mussed up, it was still clean and shiny. And her eyes were such a dark, lovely shade of blue. She had a scratch on one cheek. And while the pink velvet riding habit she was wearing was dirty with dust and what even looked like a cobweb clinging to the skirt, it wasn’t an old garment. The material had the sheen of being quite new, and it fit the girl perfectly. It must have been made for her, which meant she must come from wealth.

And then the girl’s little voice broke into her thoughts. “The woman pulled me off of my new horse and said she’d cut my throat and leave my body in the bushes if I made any noise. I don’t know why I don’t remember what happened after that, but when I woke, I was tied up on the floor of an old coach. And then I was carried into that room.”

“They stole you!?” Katey gasped.

“The woman did. The man, it sounded like he’s a cousin to my mother, and I remember her talking once about a cousin who gave her a lot of trouble before I was born. It wasn’t his idea to bring me here, though. He wanted to take me straight back to London. He seemed to be very afraid of my father and what he would do to him. But the woman refused to let me go. She wants the fortune she thinks she’ll get for me. And she seemed to have the final word.”

Katey was starting to have a few misgivings now that she knew a relative was involved. He wouldn’t have allowed the girl to be seriously hurt, would he? Then again, he’d kept her tied up and hadn’t even fed her!

She glanced at the child again, still stuffing food in her mouth, and her misgivings went away. How dare they mistreat this child!

“I’ll see that you get home,” Katey said with a reassuring smile. “I’m traveling to London myself. We’ll leave first thing in the morn—”

“Please, could we leave now?” the girl interrupted, her expression turning frightened. “I don’t want them to find me again. I heard them say that the lock on the door was broken, when they tied me to the bed, so they’ll know someone helped me out of there, that I couldn’t do it myself.”

“And they’ll look close by,” Katey concluded with a nod. “Very well, we’ll leave now.”

Chapter Four

KATEY’S MAID, Grace Harford, grumbled about setting off down the road before dawn. Well aware of Katey’s habit of embellishing ordinary events into dramatic stories, she didn’t believe a word of Katey’s explanation of why they were leaving the inn so early accompanied by a little girl. Hadn’t they escorted Katey’s neighbor’s nieces all the way to England? Didn’t an innkeeper in Scotland ask Katey to escort his young son to the boy’s mother in Aberdeen when he heard she was heading that way? People took one look at Katey Tyler with her big green eyes, dimpled cheeks, and winsome smile and instantly trusted her, even with their children. Judith Malory, as the girl had introduced herself, was just another child who had been entrusted to Katey’s care for a journey, and that was that, as far as Grace was concerned.

People did take a liking to Katey as soon as they met her, but Katey wasn’t sure why. Not once did she think it was because she was pretty. Her mother had been beautiful with her coal black hair and emerald green eyes. But while Katey had taken after her, no one had made much of her looks when she was growing up, so she didn’t either. In her opinion, her maid with her wealth of freckles and curly red hair was more interesting-looking than she was.

Katey was quite tall at five feet nine inches. When her father had died, when she was ten years old, she’d already been as tall as he was, and she’d kept growing after that. She’d turned out to be five inches taller than her mother. Adeline had claimed Katey got her height from her side of the family, because her own father had been rather tall.

Now Katey rarely thought about her height and only felt self-conscious when she got near a man who was shorter than her, but that didn’t happen often. What bothered her more than her height were her curves. She’d heard men describe her as a fine, strapping wench. Too many times she’d caught men staring at her ample bosom, even the old men in the village!

But aside from that, Katey had felt comfortable in the tiny village of Gardener, and she’d been outgoing and always willing to lend a helping hand if someone needed it. Even strangers had been drawn to her. She could be standing in a group of people, and a passing stranger would ask her for directions and ignore everyone else, not that many strangers had passed through that tiny village.

But the same thing could be said of her neighbors in Gardener. They often came to her because she was accessible, friendly, and if she couldn’t help with something, she usually knew someone who could. And she added a little excitement to their lives in the tales she told.

Katey wasn’t a bit surprised that Grace had concluded this was just another of Katey’s tales. Five years older than Katey, who had just turned twenty-two, Grace had come to live with the Tylers ten years ago and had made herself invaluable as a housekeeper and a friend. But she was stubborn in her opinions, so Katey didn’t try to convince her maid otherwise. She just sat back in their coach on the way to London and smiled to herself, savoring that for once the exciting tale she’d told was actually true.

Judith was surprised, though, and as soon as the maid curled up on the seat opposite them and went back to sleep, the girl whispered to Katey, “Why didn’t she believe you?”

“You don’t have to whisper,” Katey replied. “She’s a very sound sleeper. Shaking her is about the only way to get her to wake up. Shouting doesn’t even do it. But as to why she doubted me, well, that’s a bit of a story in itself.”

“I’m not tired,” Judith said as if encouraging her to tell the story.

Katey grinned at the girl. “Very well, where to start? I grew up in the most boring town you can imagine. It wasn’t even a town, just a small village. There were no shops other than the general store my family owned. There was no inn, no tavern. We had one seamstress, who worked out of her house, and one farmer who dabbled at carpentry and sold furniture out of his barn. Oh, and we had a butcher, though he wasn’t really a butcher, just a local hunter who kept the wildlife from roaming through the village.”

Judith, wide-eyed with interest now, said, “Animals roamed your streets?”

“Oh, yes. Nothing too dangerous, mind you, though a moose did tear down Mrs. Pellum’s fence one year. It probably would have left peaceably if she hadn’t tried to chase it off with her broom. But a village can’t be much smaller than Gardener. If someone needed a doctor, or a lawyer, they headed down the road to the town of Danbury twenty miles away. No new families ever moved to our village, and children left as soon as they were old enough to do so.”

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