Almost Guilty by Isabel Mere

Almost Guilty by Isabel Mere

Almost Guilty

by Isabel Mere

Highland Press

Print ISBN: 978-0-98003-569-8

[ Regency Romantic Suspense, MF ]

Accused of a heinous crime, Jacie Fielding flees to London, to the very man who can expose her. Determined to prove Jacie’s guilt, Gabriel Rayne risks losing his heart to the very woman he must accuse.

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Chapter One


London, 1826

A high-pitched scream stopped Jacie in her tracks. She tipped her head and listened. More a muffled squawk than a scream. Geese. Birds often make peculiar sounds during copulatus. She resumed walking the park’s sodden pathway, a slight smile on her lips. Several summers ago, she and her brother observed a pair of black grouse. The male’s chest puffed out like a great warrior, its feathers protruding as he strutted about the unconvinced female yelping and gurgling—enticing her to be his mate.

Another scream cracked the stillness, this one more urgent and un-gooselike. Jacie closed her left hand around the pistol nestled in her dress pocket. She had no desire to deal with foolishness today. She’d thought a brisk walk at dawn, without horses or pedestrians to maneuver around, would be the cure for distressing thoughts. Not so…and now this.

Annoyed, yet alert, Jacie strode off the path into a recess of Hyde Park.

A flash of bright blue caught her eye as she neared a clump of tall shrubbery. Distinct shushing sounds and shortened breathing, like someone engaged in vigorous exercise, seeped through the greenery. The breathing became a voice.

“You know this is what you want, Charlotte,” a man panted.

“No, James,” a fervent female voice puffed, “it’s what you want.”

Anyone, even if completely lacking in investigative skills, would ascertain that Charlotte was reluctant to accept what James was zealously trying to bestow.

Jacie withdrew her pistol and scraped aside a shrub. Instantly she wished she hadn’t.

A very bare, very white, male backside filled her line of sight.

She set her teeth. She had no tolerance for such repulsive doings.

“My brothers will kill you if they find out about this, James,” threatened the object of the man’s attentions.

“Your brothers don’t frighten me, lovey.”

Jacie advanced. “I will be happy to save them the trouble, miss, and rid you of this scoundrel myself.”

A contorted shriek joined a resounding curse. The bare-arsed man spun halfway around in Jacie’s direction. Her aiming arm held steady on her target, but she was obliged to look away. There were limits to the objectionable sights she could abide before breakfast. Until this moment, her acquaintance with male anatomy had been restricted to an ‘as required’ basis at patient’s bedsides. She’d never seen a man so near to naked, much less crouching in a park.

“Who in blazes are you?” he blurted.

“Get off me, James,” the lady huffed.

“Either raise your trousers sir,” Jacie advised, “or prepare to be used for target practice.”

Grumbled curses and much rustling followed. The man tossed a hasty goodbye to his hedge mate and without offering a hand to help her to her feet, marched to the path. Jacie watched until he disappeared into the fog and then turned her attentions to the lady.

One who looked to be no more than sixteen or seventeen.

She sat amid a limp heap of blue satin skirts and lacy petticoats. Fair, untamed strands of hair drooped around a pinkened face. Wide, light blue eyes brimmed with giant tears. She tugged her embroidered chemise down over her small, round breasts and with admirable grace rose to her feet.

“Could you put that away please?” Her attention focused on the barrel of the pistol in direct line with her bosom.

Jacie blinked. “Oh. Sorry.” She pocketed the pistol.

“That’s all right. I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful.” She fussed with her dress’ bodice. “It was just somewhat disarming. You standing there, pointing it at me.” She giggled as she stuck as many pins as she could find back into her drooping coif. “Now I know how James felt.”

 

“I hardly think so.” Jacie tapped two fingers against her thigh. “You are none the worse for wear then, miss?”

The gnat-brained girl giggled again. “No. James simply got carried away, you see. He thinks that because we are betrothed,”—she secured the garter around one stocking—“or will be soon, he has certain rights, if you take my meaning, ma’am.” She rolled the other stocking in place.

“It is none of my concern what you and a man are doing in the park at dawn,” Jacie said, her face implacable. “Good day to you, miss.” She shouldered her way out of the bushes.

“Wait.”

Jacie turned as the girl stepped through the opening in the greenery.

“Blast.” She looked forlornly at a fist-sized tear near the hem she’d evidently caught on a bush spike. “Mother will roast me for this.”

“She should,” Jacie stated, continuing swiftly in her previous direction. Stupid, feckless girl. She might have been done in by a footpad or far worse. To learn the girl was in the bushes with someone she knew…well…it served her right that her extravagant dress was torn.

“I want to thank you, even though I wasn’t in any, um, distress.”

“You are welcome. Again, good day, miss.” Jacie grimaced at the discomfort of her boots, now thoroughly wet and cold from the rain soaked bushes. She had no others and it would take all day for these to dry.

“But–”

Jacie whirled around, the damp skirt of her woolen dress adhering to her legs.

“I have been detained long enough,” she said stoutly. “I trust you can see yourself home, something you should do immediately, before your mama discovers you missing.”

“But you don’t understand,” the obtuse miss sputtered, hurrying to keep up with her as she marched on. “I love James. I have loved him forever, but my parents won’t care about that. When they meet him they will say he isn’t suitable for me and forbid us to be together.”

Despite agreeing with the parents—a man who chose bushes as the site for a liaison was indeed unsuitable—Jacie flinched at the familiar words of parental prohibition and the girl’s plaintive tone. She didn’t want to hear about her woes, especially those concerning matters of the heart.

Jacie raised a gloved hand. “Please, no more.” She rued the moment she’d come to her aid. Never again. No stopping to investigate cries of anguish emanating from the depths of a park’s foliage. “Go home. It isn’t safe here.” A protective instinct almost had her taking the girl by the arm and escorting her to wherever home was. Almost.

Jacie lengthened her stride and lowered her head. Her bonnet, its ribbons jostled loose, slipped low over her brow and she retied the bow without slowing her pace. Her words must have reached the daft girl’s brain this time because she no longer trotted alongside her. Curbing the urge to look back, Jacie disappeared into the fog.

Jacie was reviewing the appointment roster when Dr. Leggett billowed through the front entrance of his office.

“Mrs. Wright will be here any minute, Miss Kingfield,” he rumbled. “It was my bad luck to happen upon her a moment ago and she supplied me with her latest complaints.” He shrugged his greatcoat off his thick shoulders and heaved a sigh. “Gout is at the top of today’s list.” He continued past the desk to the rear of the office. “And she has master Lyle in tow,” he called before disappearing.

Jacie groaned. The unruly youngster needed a firmer hand than the one Mrs. Wright wielded. The morning promised to be challenging.

Don’t complain, she reprimanded herself as she prepared the examination room. I’m employed and not living on the streets of London. She arranged a stack of towels and a dispensing bottle on the counter and proudly surveyed the orderly room. Before Dr. Leggett took her on, she’d been turned away from other medical offices and clinics because she had no recommendations from London medical practitioners. No one cared that she’d worked alongside midwives and physicians since the age of fifteen. She’d thought ten years’ experience should speak for itself, but in a large city, who a person knew spoke far louder than what that person knew.

Calling upon Dr. Leggett had been a last resort and entirely at the recommendation of Dr. Gomes, her former employer. She’d not wanted to maintain a connection to anyone in her hometown, but was desperate for a position in London. As a favor to Dr. Gomes, a fellow member of the Royal Academy of Medicine, Dr. Leggett had hired her a fortnight ago. The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous for both of them. Dr. Leggett’s secretary had quit London suddenly and the doctor desperately needed a replacement.. Although hired as secretary, he’d given her opportunities beyond office duties to demonstrate her medical experience. Despite his brusque manner, the doctor was kind and fair and generously tutored her in the areas of his practice.

“Mrs. Wright’s gout is different from Lord Sherwin’s,” Dr. Leggett relayed as he reentered the room. “She responds well to colchicine.” He pointed a thick finger at the medicine cabinet. “Second bottle, third shelf. Especially when she adheres to the diet I recommend, which, sorry to say, is whenever she damn well feels like it.” Jacie retrieved the medicine and stood quietly while he scrutinized the room. One bushy grey brow rose at the sight of the small vase of lilacs beneath the eye chart. He pivoted his cask-shaped body around to inspect the areas behind him and nodded approvingly.

“After Mrs. Wright leaves we will visit Mrs. Attaca. She isn’t recovering as well as I would like.”

The previous week, Mrs. Attaca had delivered an overly large baby girl and the birth had been difficult. Before Jacie could ask after her, the front door slammed shut, clanging the announcement bell.

“Yoo-hoo, Dr. Leggett,” a shrill voice called out.

The doctor dragged in a long breath, extending his waistcoat to its maximum stretching capacity, and mumbled the opening lines of the Hippocratic Oath.

Jacie hid a smile and stepped from the room to assure Mrs. Wright that the good doctor was in.

The last place Gabriel wanted to be was in his mother’s drawing room. The summons had been urgent, he’d responded immediately and now waited. Another inane errand to run, he assumed, displeasure increasing with each pacing step. Being the youngest and most available son, Gabriel was whom she typically called upon to do her bidding. When he grumbled about it, his brothers laughed and declared themselves fortunate not to be their mama’s favorite.

Favorite, hah! He’d exchange his own fortune for their sort any day, for any price.

The whir of skirts and petticoats announced Lady Rosalyn Vernoff.

“Gabriel. Thank heaven you are here.”

“Mother.” He sketched a bow as she approached. “You look well.”

“Better than I feel, I fear.” She sunk onto the edge of the divan with a mournful sigh.

Gabriel steeled himself for the details of her ailments. She did look well, better than the week before when she’d taken to bed for five days. Lines around her eyes weren’t as deep, narrow face not as drawn. Still too thin, evident by the loose fit of her teal blue gown, but at least she was out of bed wearing something other than a dressing gown.

“I’m worried about Charlotte.”

A brow lifted. Concern for something other than her own ailments? Remarkable. “What about?”

“She is not herself. She cries without provocation, scarcely eats, and last night she refused to go to the Halvery ball.” Lady Vernoff patted her breast with an unsteady hand. “I am beside myself, truly.”

The fact that his spirited sister refused to go to a ball was unusual, but likely due to one of her many erratic moods. Gabriel said so. His mother scowled.

“I disagree. Charlotte is the age I was when I first experienced a shift in my nature. I fear she may be besieged with the very same.”

His mother’s ‘shift in her nature’ had been treated with every medicine created for anxiety as far back as Gabriel could remember. His sister had never demonstrated such tendencies. Refuting his mother’s concerns, however, would be useless. If she didn’t have something to fret about, she’d invent something. Charlotte’s behavior didn’t warrant a visit to the family physician, but he knew his mother’s manipulative techniques well and had no patience for her conniving games this evening. He’d make the suggestion and be done with it.

Actually, the timing was ideal. Just the opportunity he needed to meet the woman suspected of participating in the unsolved murder of two of his friends.

“If I take her to see Dr. Leggett, would that ease your mind?”

“Oh, Gabriel, would you?” Tears streaked her pale cheeks. “It’s asking a great deal, but I would be enormously relieved if Alvin examined her.”

Gabriel hid a smile, his willingness to see to one of his mother’s requests a rare surprise.

Jacie was tidying an exam room when the entrance bell rang after the closing hour. The doctor didn’t lock the door behind him, she thought hurrying out.

Not one, but two visitors stood in the small waiting room. Jacie stopped short, surprised to see a familiar face.

The girl from the park stared at her, cheeks paler than when she’d come upon her three days ago. In contrast to her fair features, the man next to her looked like the darkest demon.

“What are you–?” The girl broke off abruptly.

The man gave them both a sharp glance.

“You are acquainted?”

“Yes,” the girl blurted. “Not really. We weren’t introduced, but I saw her–” Her mouth clamped shut, face whitening further.

Once the confessional door cracked open, the young woman looked on the verge of crumbling if forced to walk through it.

Feeling a tug of empathy, Jacie remained expressionless and said, “I believe you have mistaken me for someone else, miss.”

The girl made a show of giving Jacie a thorough look. “Oh. Yes, of course. Silly of me.”

The man hadn’t moved but Jacie felt his eyes on her. Whom should she address? The girl seemed a safer choice. “Dr. Leggett has gone for the day. If you need to see him before tomorrow, I can reach him and have him call on you.”

On that last word the door swung open and Dr. Leggett rushed in.

“Ah, my eyes did not deceive.” He smiled broadly at the couple and shut the door. “You were headed this way and have met Miss Kingfield I see.”

“Not yet,” the girl said. “We just arrived.”

“Miss Kingfield, Miss Charlotte Vernoff and her brother, Mr. Gabriel Rayne. I have a long association with their family.” He winked at Charlotte. “I had the honor of ushering Miss Charlotte into this world, what, nearly twenty years ago, and one of her brothers before that.” The doctor scratched his grey beard. “Suddenly I feel quite old.”

Charlotte laughed too brightly. “Don’t be silly, Dr. Leggett. You’re nowhere near old, is he, Gabe?”

“Not at all.” His eyes slid in Jacie’s direction and he made a rigid bow. “Miss Kingfield.”

His voice, a mellow baritone, acted as a feather down her spine. Ignoring the baffling shiver, she raised her chin.

“Mr. Rayne.” She tipped her head to both. “Miss Charlotte.”

“You may be on your way, Miss Kingfield,” Dr. Leggett said, moving up the narrow hall. “This won’t require your assistance.”

The pair followed him. Jacie lowered her eyes and stepped aside as they passed.

Gabriel paused next to her. “I must take my sister to the eye physician after we leave here,” he said softly. “There is not another woman in all of London who resembles you.”

Jacie jerked her head up. Azure eyes studied her. A corner of his wide mouth lifted causing an indentation to its left, as disparate to the smooth, hard planes of his face as a dab of ink on fresh parchment.

Suppressing apprehension, she mirrored his fixed gaze.

“Many women live here, sir. It was an easy mistake.”

“A mistake. Yes, with that I agree.” He nodded once before joining his sister and the doctor.

Jacie didn’t move, bewildered by his words and her reaction. Not only the words, but the voice There was a dangerous appeal to it. And to him.

Relieved the doctor had excused her, she gathered her cloak and hurried from the building.

Gabriel stood at the window of the examination room and watched Miss Kingfield cross Sloane Street. Somewhat tall for a woman, she moved fluidly, her stride long and sure without appearing hasty, head bowed, cloak tucked in close. When she raised its hood over her tightly bound flaxen hair, blotting out early dusk’s sole color, he felt a twinge of disappointment.

Charlotte, an unskilled liar, had encountered her before today. Where, he couldn’t imagine. She’d taken his remark as a flirtation, unhappily so, but it had been an honest observation. The brilliant hair, brutally parted and bundled into a thick knot at her nape, unfashionably bronzed skin, and the tilt of those brandy-colored eyes were very distinctive. As distinctive as her apparel, the shapeless dress, surpassing ugly, its shade of brown as dull as dried leaves. Its high neckline must hinder swallowing and the loose-fitting bodice and skirt gave no hints to her figure. If the style meant to serve as camouflage, it succeeded. It had boosted his interest, teased his imagination.

A forbidden distraction. She associated with smugglers. And murderers.

Turning from the window as Miss Kingfield disappeared around the corner, Gabriel began plotting how to meet her again.

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