The thought barely crosses my mind before it races ahead to the romantic scenarios I’ve read in the copper-apiece adventure novels I began to purchase when Grandmother was no longer around to tell me they are cheap and tawdry. Because of them, I know a hero is supposed to kiss the damsel in distress once the peril has passed.
Will this man expect a kiss in exchange for the valiant services rendered? Would I let him kiss me if he tried?
But that’s a ridiculous question—I certainly would.
The rogue thought makes my face heat. I don’t even know this man. Yes, he saved me from the goblins, but that doesn’t mean his intentions are pure.
Besides, with the way he’s dressed, he must be a bandit. Gustin would have my head if he found out I was entertaining these sorts of thoughts about a common thief.
Not that Gustin is a pillar of virtue himself. If he was, he wouldn’t be languishing in a debtor’s prison in West Faerie after gambling away our family’s estate in a game of chance with Lord Ambrose. Only a fool falls into a Fae’s trap.
Only a fool would barter with that same Faerie for her brother’s life.
Perhaps it runs in the family. Sister like brother, I suppose.
“Why are you in the forest?” the man asks, pulling me from my wayward thoughts. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to pass the boundary at this time of day?”
“I have business with Lord Ambrose. I must have dozed off in the carriage, and I didn’t realize…”
How did I fall asleep on such a short trip? And what happened to my coachman and the horses?
Like a command, the man replies, “You have no business with Lord Ambrose, or any of the Fae. Go back to your side of the bridge, where it’s safe.”
“I have nowhere to go,” I admit, wondering why I’m sharing that bit of information with this man. “And I have come to work off my brother’s debt.”
“There is nothing you can offer Lord Ambrose that he will want,” my rescuer says, almost as if he’s growing bored of the conversation. “You’re a lovely girl. Go home—knock on the door of any eligible bachelor. Surely he will take pity on you and your plight, and you’ll be married in a week.”
I bristle, unsure why that statement sounded like an insult but certain it was.
“Do you, bandit, have personal insight into Lord Ambrose’s desires?” I say hotly. “I am an artist, renowned and respected. People come from cities near and far to sit for one of my portraits. The Fae are known both for their love of art and their narcissism. How dare you tell me I have nothing to offer?”
The man jerks his head toward the smoldering remnants of my belongings. “That may be, but I imagine it’s difficult to paint without supplies.”
Though my heart wrenches, I hide my anguish. “That is none of your concern. I’m thankful you saved me, but I ask you to now go about your own business. I can tend to mine.”
The man shifts, and though it seems as if it would be impossible for us to come any closer, I now feel as though every inch of me presses against every inch of him. Thankful for the cover of night, I swallow.
“What’s your name?” he asks, his tone laced with amusement once more.
Having no intention of answering, I tilt my head to the side, refusing to look at him.
The man chuckles under his breath. “You’re willing to involve yourself with a Faerie as cold and callous as Lord Ambrose, but I don’t even get your name after saving your life?”
Perhaps it’s his laugh that captures my interest, or maybe it’s because I’ve never allowed a man to hold me like this. But no matter the reason, I suddenly feel like a moth drawn to a dangerous flame.
“Alice,” I finally answer, hoping he won’t hear the hitch in my voice.
“Alice?” He sounds skeptical—as if perhaps he thinks I’m lying. And maybe that would have been wiser.
“That’s right,” I answer, this time a touch hesitant.
“Very well. I will give you a choice, Alice,” he says solemnly after another few long seconds, acting as if we’re about to enter into a contract. “I will accompany you back to the boundary, or I will escort you to Lord Ambrose’s estate. Take my advice and choose the first. Even wandering the streets without a copper to your name is preferable to making a deal with Lord Ambrose.”
“What business do you have on this side of the fence?” I ask instead of answering. “Why don’t you take your own advice and go home? Surely stealing from the Fae is far more dangerous than stealing from humans.”
I can just make out his smile in the night. Amused, he asks, “You have pegged me for a thief?”
“What else could you be in that mask?” I demand.
He leans in. The side of his jaw brushes against my cheek as his words caress my ear. “The only things I’ve ever stolen are hearts, Alice. Go home before I’m tempted to claim yours.”
I jerk back, startled by the bold words, and he laughs again.
“Have you made your decision, fair painter?” he asks. “Where will I take you?”
I stare at the man, my breath shallow and my cheeks warm. I want to pull the mask from his face and look at him in the dusky starlight, but I’m not that brave.
“To Lord Ambrose’s estate,” I say firmly. “Right now, there is nothing for me in the human world.”
He nods, looking resigned to my decision. “Very well.”