Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE
Months later
The English countryside

"Blasted animal," Sarah Bumgarten muttered as she strode down the tree-lined country lane. She had started this search near the main house, and ventured farther and farther—until she now found herself almost to the village, still on foot in unsuitable shoes. It was an exceptionally warm day, and she was annoyed to have to spend it looking for her dog when there was so much to be done at Betancourt. Every footfall on the gravel of the road sounded like teeth grinding.

Consarned dog. She pushed her hair back from her face. Running off to hell and gone, again. The last two times, she had found him in Betany terrifying the locals. Nero was more dog than most of the villagers had ever seen...Irish wolfhound with a bit of heft that probably came from a mastiff somewhere in the line. He was tall and gray and had red-brown eyes as bright as copper pennies. He was stunning. And intimidating. And he had a grin that could melt an iceberg. All of which had combined to lure her into rescuing him from London's mean streets. She had no idea how an Irish wolfhound pup came to be running free in London's West End, but she wasn't one to pass up a hungry, frightened animal when it came her way.

It wasn't long before the Iron Penny Inn and Tavern came into view. The rambling stone and half-timber structure had served as the social center of the village of Betany for generations. If anyone had seen Nero in the vicinity, it would be Bascom, the sturdy, taciturn innkeeper. He kept an eye on the village as well as his own property. If he hadn't seen Nero, there was a good chance she could get him or his son William to help her search.

Raucous male voices and harsh laughter from the far side of the tavern caught her ear as she approached the inn. That low, wicked rumble was punctuated by a yelp of surprise...anger...pain.

Damn and blast!

"Bascom!" she shouted as she ran past the open tavern door. "Bascom, I need help!"

A dog was in trouble, and she would have bet her best riding boots which dog it would be. Her heart gave a furious thump as another yelp and then some snarling reached her.

Around the corner, in the side yard of the Iron Penny, four men surrounded her wolfhound. Nero was growling and showing teeth as he crouched defensively and looked for a way out. But the men were steadily closing the gaps between them, hefting rocks and taking turns taunting Nero. As she caught her breath, one of the four lobbed a rock at her dog, who dodged, but only into the path of another missile hurled at him. He yelped and shrank for an instant, then came back growling and baring teeth.

She bolted toward the fray, yelling, "Stop! This instant!"

The men turned on her, surprised—by her appearance as much as her demand. She had dressed for a day of visiting the local vicar and a few tradesmen: a yellow cotton day dress printed with blue flowers, made with French-blue piping, and satin ribbon laced through the bodice. She had meant to present a ladylike appearance to the people of Betany—to reassure them that someone was upholding Betancourt standards. However, her hair was down and windblown—she hadn't had time to put it up when housemaid Mazie stumbled up the stairs to tell her that Nero was missing again.

"Well...look wot we got 'ere," one of the men said, turning to her with an ugly grin filled with dark gaps and yellowed teeth.

"That's my dog." Her anxiety rose as two of the others closed on Nero. "You leave him alone!"

"Ooh, hear that? Orders. We got us a duchess, boys," another, taller fellow declared before giving an enormous belch. Fumes from spent liquor wafted in her direction as he made a sloppy bow of deference.

Drunk, she realized. At this hour of the morning.

"Yer mutt near took my leg off when I went out back to take a piss," the farthest wretch snarled, glaring at Nero as he removed his belt. "He needs teachin'." He drew back with the strap and found his arm stopped—held. His wrist was caught in the grip of a man with long hair, hands like iron bands, and eyes filled with heat like forge flames.

"Lemme go." He turned and swung at the stranger with his free hand, but his ale-sodden reflexes were no match for the stranger's quickness. The blow was deflected and the next minute, the stranger's fist rammed into his gut and all hell broke loose.
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