Elena had started pretending to be other people when she was five. At first, it was princesses and fairies. As she grew older, it became Russian heiresses and Turkish harem. She did it to escape the boring life she had always known – the balls, the rounds in the park, shopping for ribbons and husbands. Very few of people knew of her hobby – her maid, Annabelle, and her man, Dalziel. While both were very protective of her, they knew they had no hold on her, no way to make her stay when she hatched a plan.
When Elena's sister Elizabeth went missing, Elena put on a concerned, but passive front to her family and friends. She spoke to the guard, and then retreated back to her room to solace and to worry. But of course, that's not what really happened behind closed doors. She impersonated everyone from a footman to a duchess to a beggar, trying to gain information. At last, she found a trail of clues, leading to Scotland, where she believed a man held her sister in the attempt to keep Elizabeth's marriage to the Duke of Brunswick from fruition. Such a marriage would be beneficial to both families, and an heir would seal the duke's line.
After several failed attempts to find someone to escort and protect her on the journey to Scotland, she came up with one of her schemes. While no gentleman could even offer to escort a single, attractive, unworldly female across the country, either she had to seek out a man that wasn't a gentleman, or she had to become someone other than herself. She would fine a man who had no care for laws and what was done, and she would also become someone else. She would become a widow, someone unattractive, aging, and in no need for delicate care.
"Get up, man! Move your feet!" Kaden could hear the shouts around him, and he shook his head to clear the fog. Opening his eyes, he saw the two cloaked men, and the matching glints off the knives they held before them. He struggled to his feet, staggered, and squared his shoulders for battle. He inwardly cringed, hearing his thought of "battle", realizing that this was all the battle that was left. These ruffians, unpolished in their fight and weapons, were now the only threat to the crown, and to him. He charged forward, surprising the smaller of the two. In the moment of surprise, Kaden thrust his shoulder under the much lower arm of the attacker, hearing the satisfying clink as the knife fell to the ground. One more uppercut, and the cloaked man fell to the cobblestones with a thud.
Kaden faced the remaining man. While his face was still cloaked in darkness, he could see the sallow skin, and a recent gash across the man's chin. He picked up the fallen knife, and the two starting circling each other. He heard the rustle of clothing behind them, heard murmurs and knew they had an audience. He waited until the man tensed, preparing to strike, and then ducked and thrust. He felt his knife hit home and knew the fight was over.
He cleaned the knife off on his now dirty overcoat and shouldered his way through the crowd. He felt a tug at his arm and turned, rising his arm in protection. Although it was too dark to tell for sure, he saw an older woman, gray streaks in her hair. She motioned for him to join her out of the crowd. He followed, more out of curiosity than anything. When she stopped and turned into the streetlight, he observed her silently. The telltale gray put her age at late forties, early fifties, but Kaden knew all too well that sometimes life aged people before their time. He took in her pale, age spotted skin, wrinkles lining her forehead and mouth. Her lips were bloodless, almost as if the life had been sucked out of her. Her body was mostly covered by a large brown cloak, but he saw stooped shoulders, no chest to speak of, and everything about her seemed to wring true of someone that had had life thrust upon them, over and over.
"I would like to make a proposition to you, sir. I am in need of someone to escort me to Scotland, to the area of Tarlien. I believe my daughter is being held captive there and I will need protection to get to her. I can offer you in compensation the wedding trousseau she was to have had provided to her by her fiancé." The old woman spoke with a rough growl to her voice. He should not have been surprised. There was no beauty left in this woman. He found himself wondering at the life she had led. He began to turn away, when she again grabbed his arm.
"Please, sir. At least take a moment to consider it. I will offer you all that I have, in exchange only for your company." The lantern from a passing guard lit up the side of her face where the street lamp had not. He sucked in a breath, as eyes the color of violet fire looked up at him in earnest. If eyes were the window to the soul, he thought as he chuckled to himself, her soul was a treasure indeed. He felt the tremble of her hand, the yearning in her eyes, and sighed. Any other night he might have refused, but tonight, caught up in the boredom of the gentry and the never ending request to attend balls and tea times, he found himself agreeing.
Elena had to keep reminding herself to slouch. Raised with perfect posture, it was hard to change a lifetime of habit. She glanced to her side through her eyelashes and viewed her present company. He was large, very large – but then, that was why she chose him. She needed someone intimidating, someone that at the mere look of him, others would flee. He certainly had that. His green eyes pierced through to one's soul it seemed, his dark features cloaked in mystery and pain. He had beautiful dark hair, cut shorter than what was currently in fashion. The wave to it lent him a bit of carefree arrogance, the only thing soft on his person. He had thick dark lashes, tan skin, sharp cheekbones, and a strong jaw. His neck was as thick as both of her arms. His shoulders were the most impressive thing about him. They seemed to take up the whole carriage, forcing her into the smallest corner so she wouldn't unnecessarily brush up against him. He was obviously physically fit, and had an aura of danger. She looked back down at her hands, in a moment of vanity, wishing he found her attractive.
Kaden saw her rubbing her hands together, and wondered if she was cold. He was continually hot, a curse of his hot blood, said his mother. He saw her hover closer to the far side of the carriage, clearly shrinking away from him. He inwardly sighed. He knew his size was intimidating, and it didn't help that he had a wicked temper and a curse of bad luck for finding himself in the middle of fights. Most men were afraid of him, and while women tended to find his size tempting instead of frightening, he knew not all the women were the same.
"What is your daughter like?" His voice cracked into the silence like a whip. He saw her flinch, cursed himself for not easing into it.
"Elizabeth is...life itself. She is warm and kind and beautiful. Everyone has always loved her. She has golden hair and blue eyes that rival the streams. Even as a child, she was always trying to love and aid her kinfolk, and strangers. That is what I fear lured her into this man's trap. She was always very trusting. If someone had asked for her help, she would've went to them." Elena's voice trembled, and she fought to gain composure.
"Were you not with her when she was taken?" Elena fought not to defend herself at the accusation, saying, "While we were inseparable at one time, she was newly affianced. She spent lots of time in town, with her other married friends, and her fiancé. It was impossible for us to spend every minute together. She was leaving her friend's townhome in Sussex on her way to the Duke of Brunswick's home when she was taken. That is her fiancé."
Kaden thought over her comments for a moment. It was entirely possible someone had the intention of ransom since the Duke of Brunswick lacked for no need of funds. It was also possible someone thought to prevent a union, and thus, an heir to the Duke as well. The third notion, that this was just a grab and toss...Kaden tried to keep that to himself for the time being. No need to upset the chit's mother unnecessarily.
"Tell me then about how she was taken, how she was raised, everything I need to know to help." He tilted his head towards Elena, clearly intent on listening. She was surprised. She had planned to endure the trip in silence, and had never had any intention to ask for his aid. She warmed a little towards the brute, appreciating his humanity, if only for a short time.
For the next few hours, they spoke about everything – the way that Elizabeth grew up, her family and friends, and about Elena. Well, not the real Elena. Elena the widow that had loved and lost a few years ago and was now a broken, bitter woman. They spoke about Kaden as well. Elena thought perhaps he wanted her to feel at ease with him, sharing some boyhood memories, some fond memories of his parents before their passing. They shared a laugh over his adventures (usually disasters), and she lower her eyes in sympathy as he spoke about his parents.
When the coach rolled to a stop on the border, Kaden was surprised. He generally was not a very good talker. He did not like to share his details with another; that left him weak and vulnerable. This widow, Elena she had told him, was perhaps the only person since before he left for war that he had felt comfortable with. He felt like he could trust her, that she was someone of good intent and wisdom.
They changed horse and carriage to continue the next three day journey across the barren land. He eyed the horseflesh and decided on two spirited bays that looked hardy and well-fed. The carriage rolled on.
Kaden woke to a gentle snoring in his ear. He looked out under his lashes and saw Elena resting her head against his shoulder. With her face relaxed, she looked almost youthful. The lines on her forehead and around her mouth looked almost foreign. She must have been very beautiful, he mused. Picturing her with thick brown hair and those haunting eyes, she would've been the hit at any ball. Perhaps he might have even asked to court her a few years ago.
Her eyelids fluttered and he feigned sleep. He felt her jerk and then felt the cool air on his shoulder as she left him. In her movement, he smelled a sweet, flowery smell and smiled. She may not be easy on the eyes anymore, but with his eyes shut, and her smell in the air, he could think of her in the way that only a man thinks about an attractive woman.
The carriage shifted, and jerked, and then stilled. Kaden put his arm out to stop Elena from sitting up. There was another creak, and groan, and then an odd rocking motion. Kaden rose to the door and tried to push it open. It only opened a crack, but water flowed into the coach. He looked to Elena, knew she saw it. She must've been frightened, but her eyes met his and she waited for his command. Kaden saw that look, and felt the stitch of approval in his chest. He took the cane laying by the door and began to pound on the ceiling. After cracking a couple boards, and seeing no water come in, he began to demolish the whole ceiling of the carriage.
When he could see the dark sky, he grabbed for Elena. She reached up, planting her arms on both sides of the openings. He heaved up on her thighs, hoping she could gain purchase. She did, and tugged herself out of the opening. He grunted in appreciation for the strength she clearly had left. When her face peered back in, he motioned for her to get out of the way, and then launched himself up and out as well.
They both sat on the roof of the carriage and took in the stormy waters, the darkness, and the distance to shore. He asked if she could swim, and she jerked her head yes. He grabbed for her hand, felt hers clench around his, and then they both jumped into the chilled waters.
Elena gasped for breath, rising to the surface. They had lost each other's grip and she looked frantically around for Kaden, When she saw his dark head bob out of the water, she let out a yell and started to stroke for the shore. They both reached it at the same time, and he hauled himself out first. He grabbed her arms and tugged her up until they were both heaving and sopping wet on the shore, like fish.
Kaden felt for Elena's hand and squeezed it tight. He felt a weak squeeze in return. She must be worn out for the jump out of the carriage and the swim to shore. Even in his condition, he was still out of breath. He could only imagine the strain on her muscles now. He shakingly stood, helping her stand as well. Once up, he saw her shoulders drop and her heavy breathing. He murmured something about making camp, and headed out to collect wood and food.
Elena awoke to the crackle of a fire and warmth against her face. A blanket covered her hair and most of her face and body.
"I managed to salvage a few things from the carriage before it went under. We've some food and blankets, but that's about it." Kaden rose from his crouch at the campfire and handed her a mug. In the exchange his hand brushed against hers, and he caressed her skin briefly. He saw her flinch and retreat into her blankets, and cursed himself for scaring her. Clearly, she believe it to be inappropriate, and it was.
Elena shivered in her blanket, angry at herself for forgetting who she was and who he was. If her face was shown, no doubt the worry lines she'd spent so much time putting on her face with a makeup pencil were washed off by now. He would see she was lying, just when they had some semblance of trust between them. She had to be more careful.
"We'll need to bunk down out here for the night, and probably the next few nights on the ground. I suggest we stay close to stay warm and safe, but that's up to you." Kaden stood, uncertain of how close to get.
"I'm old, not stupid. Do whatever you think is best, and I will trust your judgment." Elena replied, wrapping herself in her bedroll. He laid his close, but with a foot or so of distance. He looked into the woods, and around them, and then nodded. This should be good enough. Close enough where he could grab her if necessary, far enough that he wouldn't pull her close at night. He laid down, listening to her breathing until it became a steady cadence, and then let himself drift off as well.
Kaden woke with a jerk, his senses alert to any noises. It was still dark outside, the sun not yet risen. His arm was asleep, and he tried to shift to relieve it. When he became aware of his body, he realized that he pressed against Elena in sleep. His arm was wrapped around her, under her ribcage, below her breasts, and under her body. Her legs were snuggled up against his, her backside pressed against his hardness. Her arm clutched his, her other hand entwined with his underneath her head. He shifted against her, trying to rise her to remove his arm, and groaned at the sensation against his manhood. Clearly, he'd been way too long without a woman. He tugged his arm free, and his arm drifted against her chest. He bit back a wave of disappointment, having always liked an armful of woman to hold. Elena was not blessed that way. Still, he could not deny that he was attracted to this older woman. He had never been that way before, but Elena was different. She was smart, funny, and wise beyond even her years. The love she felt for her daughter was real, and he admired her strength and courage.
Kaden and Elena awoke with alarm at the same time. The hoofbeats around their head, the flurry of horseflesh and men, alerting them to the danger they were in the middle of. Kaden was lifted to his feet, his arms behind his back. He got one powerful hit in, and then felt the rope cinch around his wrists. He snarled at the men that held him, and the one standing, wiping the blood from his nose.
"Lucky shot. Too bad there will not be another." The ground crunched beneath his feet as he moved behind Kaden to Elena. "Ah, and what have we here? Gentlemen, I believe we've caught ourselves an angel fish!" The men laughed, and Kaden struggled against his bonds. "This is not the woman we've been searching for, but what say we...try her out?" The men cheered, and Kaden snarled, "Don't even try it."
"Hmmm....", the leader walked around to look at Kaden, "so we've got ourselves a protector, do we? I think we should shut him up for the time being." He was hit twice and felt dizzying pain on the left side of his head. He felt something cool and wet trickle down his ear. He collapsed on the ground, silent in his agony. He heard a woman's cry, and tried to pick up his head to look at Elena.
"Now, my dear, I think you are wearing entirely too many clothes. Broden?" Elena felt sick as she realized what was going to happen. She threw a glance over to Kaden, saw the blood dripping out of his ear, and his head resting on the ground. She struggled, managed to get one arm free before she felt the backhand against her cheek. She gasped in pain, and willed her vision to stop swimming. She felt hands on her cloak, cool air touch her face and neck. She heard a rip, and felt the ugly drab gown being stripped off her cold body, felt the loosen of the special-made corset that allowed her to appear flat chested. She shivered, disgusted and embarrassed.
Kaden heard the gasps, and willed Elena to be strong. She was still a beautiful woman, even if these men could not see it through her aging body. He rose and lashed out at the first man he grabbed. He felled that man with one swing. In his rage, he didn't see the next man come at him from the left side. His fist plowed into the same spot, and Kaden saw spots.
"She is...something...isn't she, Giant? Though I do not see why you have been hiding her. Her beauty should be shared, no?" Kaden reared up, angered at the man's veiled sarcastic comments towards Elena. He thundered, "I will not share her with any man. She is MINE."
Elena gasped, touched. Never had she had any man overlook her outwardly foibles and care for her as a woman in this costume. She looked in the mirror every day, knew that no man would find her comely dressed as she was. She saw him sag once then, and straighten, knew his strength was waning.
"He is very possessive you see. Never wants me to have any...fun." On the last word, she put heat into her eyes and a come-hither look on her face. The leader walked right into the trap, dropping Kaden's head and walking towards her. Kaden flinched at the words, realizing something was not right. Either she had walked him into a trap, or there was something he wasn't understanding. He looked up to her, hoping to read in her face the answer. What he saw was....breathtaking.
She was backlit from the rising sun, and he'd never been so certain anyone was an angel. Her hair was dark and full, the sun highlighting deep red streaks the color of cherry wood. Gone were the wrinkles and gray hair. Her forehead was smooth, her coloring less pale and more golden. Her eyes were still violet fire, the lashes thick and dark. Her cheekbones were high and pink. Her lips were no longer bloodless, but a deep full red. Her chemise was thin, with pink laces, practically seethrough. He could see her golden shoulders, his gaze sharpening on the full bosom that had always been restrained. She seemed taller, definitely tall for a woman, with long smooth legs and trim ankles. Her feet were bare, and he had the crazy urge to warm them.
Kaden had to remind himself to swallow and shut his gaping mouth. This was the true Elena. Why she had been pretending, he had no idea. Never had he been so glad for the cleansing nature of water, revealing what she really was. His eyes rose to hers, and he saw the intensity. He saw her gaze tighten, and then drop to the ground. She had lied to him, that was true. But he could see why she had done so. Clearly, looking like her was a danger to her and to those around her. He willed strength into her, tried to think. His gaze returned to her, this time seeing the male hand that was caressing her shoulder like he craved to do.