Imposter Bride

Excerpt

 

The door of the coach opened.

Sophie’s heart jumped into her throat, choking her. She would be found out in a matter of moments. What then?

“Damnation!” she heard a male voice growl. The word was laced with a foreign accent, surely American, but with some other influence as well. And oddly enough, the deep voice sounded familiar.

“Captain Ramsay!” another voice called as someone else hurried toward the coach.

“Charles! I told you—”

Beggin’ your pardon, Captain, but it was miserable cold out here, and I—”

“Never mind. Take me to the club. I’m late.”

“Of course, sir. Right away, sir.”

The carriage shuddered as the driver climbed aboard and the captain—surely the same man who had visited Katherine earlier that day—entered the cab and shut the door behind him. She heard him sit down and sigh. Not a moment more passed before she felt a slight nudge of his boot on her flank. Then to her dismay, she saw the corner of the lap robe lift.

“What have we here?” The man leaned closer for a better look in the dim light of the coach.

She twisted to glance at his face, and caught a glimpse of his unpowdered hair, black as coal, a pair of swooping black brows, and sharp dark eyes beneath the shadow of his tricorne hat. A serious face. But not a cruel countenance.

“Please, sir,” she whispered. “Do not betray me.”

Before he could respond, she heard more hurried steps approaching the vehicle and tugged the lap robe back down.

“You there!” the constable called. “Driver!” Keener’s boots crunched the snow as he strode to the coach. “Have you seen a young woman run by here?”

“No, sir.”

“Brown hair,” Keener continued, “not much over five feet tall? Wearing a blue dress?”

“No sir. But my master, Captain Ramsay, might have seen something.”

Sophie heard the captain sigh again, seemingly put off by the mention of his name.

The constable rapped curtly on the door of the coach. Ramsay leaned forward and opened it slightly.

“Yes?”

“Good afternoon, sir. I’m Constable Keener.”

“What can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for a girl, a young woman. She ran into the square some moments ago.”

“And?”

“I was hoping you’d seen her. She’s very dangerous.”

“Oh?”

“She killed a man. In cold blood, sir. And now she’s run off.”

“What does she look like?”

“Middling height. Brown hair. Nineteen years old I’m told. Has a long knife wound on her right forearm. Cuts a slight figure.” The constable paused and sniffed, “A nasty-tempered maidservant. Goes by the name of Sophie Vernet.”

“Hmm.” The captain mused. “Sorry, but I’ve seen no one fitting that description.”

“She couldn’t have got far.”

“She probably ran into that victualing house.” The captain’s voice trailed off as he likely pointed out the place to the constable. “I’d look there.”

“Perhaps.” The constable fell silent and for a moment Sophie imagined that he was craning his neck to inspect the interior of the coach where she crouched like an animal. Had he been alone, he probably would have prodded her with the long metal-tipped staff he carried.

“If you don’t mind, constable,” Ramsay remarked with obvious impatience, “I am late for an appointment.”

“Certainly. Thank you for your time, Captain.”

“Not at all. Good day.”

Ramsay closed the door and sank back. Sophie didn’t move, and waited silently while he tapped the ceiling to signal Charles to drive on. The coach rumbled down the street, taking her safely away from her nemesis, but she remained in a huddled ball, too paralyzed with cold and fright to move.

A few moments later, Sophie felt the lap robe being slipped off her shoulders.

“You can get up now, Miss Vernet.” Captain Ramsay reached down for her, and before she could unfold her frozen limbs, he had lifted her onto the seat. She sank back into the shadows of the corner of the carriage and shivered.

“Thank you. For keeping my secret.” Her teeth chattered so much, she had to clench her jaw together, which made her voice quaver like that of an old woman. What must he think of her? “But I assure you that—”

“Don’t speak. Cover yourself.” The captain held out the red and black blanket. “This weather is nothing to trifle with. And you have no cloak.”

“Thank you.” She pulled the fine wool blanket up to her ears, grateful to conceal her figure from his inspection, though she doubted he could see much of her in the encroaching darkness. Truth be told, she couldn’t see all that much of him either, only the glint of his sharply ridged nose and the side of his left brow and cheekbone. It was difficult to guess his age or temperament, especially when his words were so brisk, bare of all amusement. Yet, what would he find amusing about sharing his carriage with a suspected murderess?

“I want to assure you, sir,” she continued, her entire body quaking now that she was out of imminent danger, “I did not kill anyone or steal anything.”

“That may be true.” He put his hand to the door as the carriage drew up in front of Maxwell’s, one of the newest and most fashionable clubs in London, a three-storied building made of buff-colored sandstone.

“However,” The captain rose, stooping to keep from brushing the ceiling. “I have no time to hear your story at the moment.” He stepped out of the carriage, and was so tall he could easily view her through the open doorway when he turned back around. “I shall instruct Charles to see to your needs. Then later this evening, you may tell me what trouble you are in.”

Did he expect her to linger in his home while the constable prowled the streets, looking for her? Better to keep moving than to stay in one place for long. “I appreciate what you have done, sir, but I have no intention of presuming upon your—”

“Do you have an alternative plan, Miss Vernet?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Done then. Good evening.” He touched the brim of his tricorne and closed the door. Then he said something to Charles, and the carriage lurched into motion once more. Sophie wrapped the top of the robe around her cheeks and drew her knees up to her chest, trying to get warm. Charles would see to her needs? How wonderful that sounded! A meal would do her good, a warm bath would be heavenly. She hadn’t been really clean or warm in weeks. And she hadn’t eaten for two days. Perhaps she would take advantage of the captain’s kindness, and then with a clearer head, make a real plan of escape.

On the other hand, what if his kindness included repayment of the sort expected from desperate women? No matter how cold and hungry she was, she would never compromise her virtue for a bowl of soup.

Why should she trust this Captain Ramsay anyway? What if he inquired about her at Maxwell’s and heard what people were saying about her, or saw one of the handbills about her being circulated by money-hungry thief-takers? The gossip and the leaflet would surely make her out as a blood-thirsty killer. A man of quality—which Ramsay obviously was—surely would not imperil his good name by harboring a murderess. Most likely after making inquiries, he would return with a constable and have her arrested.

Sophie knew what she had to do, no matter how hungry she was, how cold, or how tired. She had to slip out of the carriage at the first possible chance and vanish into the darkness.