Viscount Kelkirk ran down the narrow lane and past the shops, his long legs covering the distance with ease. “Minerva’s Miracle Cures,” he muttered, glancing at the sign above one of the shop fronts. As if crushed eye of newt and several cloves of garlic with a pinch of the ridiculous could cure anything. Put a label on something and call it the elixir of life and desperate and foolish people tended to buy it.
Skirting two boys playing in a puddle, he increased his pace, thinking of the horse he was going to buy if he made it to the rendezvous with Daniel in time. At the end of the shops, he turned right and ran into someone coming the other way. Catching the body as she cried out, he staggered backwards until his back collided with a wall. The air expelled from his lungs in a loud whoosh. Wrapping his arms around the woman as she tripped on his feet, Simon pulled her into his chest until she steadied.
“Please accept my apologies, madam. Are you unhurt?” he said as he fought for breath.
“Forgive me, sir–in my haste, I did not see you coming.”
He knew that voice.
“Dear god!” She stumbled back a few paces, staring at him, her brown eyes wide and stricken.
“What’s wrong?” Simon said, advancing, which made her scurry further backwards. “Claire, why are you here alone…dressed like that?” he added, looking at her worn black coat and bonnet. Searching around them, he saw no sign of a maid or anyone who should be accompanying her. His eyes narrowed as they returned to her and took in her shabby appearance. Claire Belmont was never anything but elegantly attired. Every item she donned showcased the beauty of her soft cream skin, strawberry blonde curls, and lush body, yet dressed in that, she could have passed for a servant.
“I…uh, have to go.”
She was pale and scared; fear announced itself in every line of her face and the rigid way she held her body. She was looking everywhere but at him, almost as if she was searching for someone.
“Who are you looking for?
Her eyes quickly returned to his, the brown depths wary. “I must leave at once, Lord Kelkirk. Please excuse me.”
“If you think I’ll let you walk about here unescorted in a distressed state, then think again,” Simon reached for her arm as she prepared to leave, but she evaded him and then, to his stunned surprise, she picked up her skirts and ran. “Claire!” She didn’t stop as he roared her name, and in seconds, he was following. She was fast–he’d give her that–but he was bigger and his stride longer, and he was soon gaining on her. She turned briefly to see how close he was, and that gave him the opportunity he needed.
“Claire, stop.” He grabbed her arm, but she swung her reticule, and whatever was inside connected with his jaw, sending him stumbling backwards. She didn’t pause as he cursed, and in seconds, had fled. Simon waited until his ears stopped ringing and then followed. Once out of the lane, he looked up and down the street. There were plenty of carriages and hackneys but no sign of Claire. She could be inside one, but he had no hope of catching them and opening each to look. Slowly retracing his steps to where she’d collided with him, he looked down the narrow lane. Why was she here dressed in old clothes, and what the hell had the haughty Claire Belmont so upset that she would run from him like that?
He had known her for two years, since their best friends had married, but their relationship was not what one would term close. For the most, they rubbed along with each other, however when he was with Lady Claire Belmont, Simon always felt as though someone was jabbing him in the side with a dull edged instrument. It was a nasty, irritating feeling he had never been able to shake even though he’d tried. She wasn’t like other women, who seemed more than happy to like him. Claire challenged him constantly. She said he needed provocation, as most women just gazed at him adoringly. Of course he provoked her back, because there was nothing quite as enticing as seeing Claire Belmont ruffled, her usually immaculate feathers standing on end.
His eyes went to each of the shops. Had she come to visit one of them? Walking slowly towards the first, he looked in the small window filled with bottles and oddities. Deciding it was in her best interest to investigate further, he entered. If Claire was in trouble or ill, then she needed help and he would offer his services; however he wanted to know what he was dealing with first.
An elderly woman appeared, dressed in so many colors that Simon blinked several times just to assure himself his eyes had seen her accurately. He was fairly certain she was wearing every color of the rainbow, starting with the large yellow bow placed on the top of her tight grey curls.