People smiled as she walked by, spoke her name and bobbed their heads. It never ceased to make Sparrow uneasy. She could never shake the fact that she had been one of them. No, she'd been a few rungs lower on the ladder actually. But now they all smiled at her like she was their most favorite friend and confidant. When the truth was, Sparrow didn't know most of the upper echelon of Bowerstone. She was more at home with the workers, the merchants and the lower class.
She'd done everything she could to make sure there were no more beggars in Bowerstone. Some slipped through her fingers but they were far fewer now than when she'd been a child. Lucian had indulged her in this wish endlessly. He'd often said it was good practice for when she would take over ruling Bowerstone, but underneath she knew he was really doing it to help her through her grief.
She never had truly gotten over Rose's death. Being adopted by Lord Lucian had been a bitter sweet gift in the wake of Rose' last wish. She'd tried to live it up enough for both of them, but life without her sister just wasn't the same. So she'd put her efforts into raising up other unfortunates before their stories became bittersweet. It felt good and right, even if the Council grumbled about better uses of city time and funds. To hell with those old fogies.
A small smile tweaked her lips as she stepped inside the tailor shop. Wouldn't those old stuffy men just have apoplexy if they saw her right now? Well they could gander all they liked when she made her return from her duty. Maybe she would even have a scratch or two to show off. Yes, that would make them go green under those poofy collars.
"Ah! My lady!" The tailor dropped his tape measure and rushed over to her, leaving his previous customer standing dumbfounded on a stool. He was far too eager to please. "Step right back this way! Everything is ready for you in the back room."
He was practically pushing her behind the counter to the open doorway, but still she managed to turn her head and flash an apologetic smile to the poor patron that had been there before her. And when her eyes latched on to the pretty, almost arrogant face of the man, she unwittingly rubber necked to keep her eye on him for a moment longer. He flashed her a smile. Then the tailor had her in the back room and was excusing himself so she could change.
She blinked and shook her head. She'd never seen that man in town before. She new all the upper class at least by sight if not by name. And this one stood out like a sore thumb. It was a puzzle. The way to the city was practically shut off from the outside. Traders were being robbed and kidnapped, and nearly all rotating commerce in Bowerstone had stopped. So where had he come from?
Perhaps she would ask him. But first she needed to change. And on that thought, she pulled the horrible powdered wig off her head and gladly tossed it across the room.
Reaver, under normal circumstance, would have shot the insolent tailor for abandoning him for another patron. But he would be the first to admit these were not his normal circumstances. He was "under cover", and therefore couldn't kill any of the towns people. Even if they did earn it.
Though, he had to admit, the pretty doll that he'd been abandoned for might have been worth it. She had taken a second look at him as she'd been hurried off, which demonstrated a healthy common sense. The poor little thing had probably never seen a real man in her life living in this town. Any lad who'd ever had an opportunity to sneak into her skirts likely had no idea what they were doing. Perhaps he could detour from his little quest for a few hours and properly educate her.
The idea appealed and put him back into a good mood. And when the tailor returned with fabric swatches he wasn't nearly as critical as he could have been about the quality. He even placed and order for two shirts from the better of the fabrics. He was just signing his assumed name to the order when he was met with a rather shocking surprise.
The girl immerged from the back room. It had to be the same one because he'd been the only one other than the tailor in the shop before she'd arrived, but any trace of the porcelain doll were completely gone. She was taller than he'd originally assumed, her skin a flattering tan that highlighted her exotically shaped green eyes. Long, unruly chestnut curls fell down her back, held at bay from her face by a simple cloth band. Her excellent figure was showcased in tight black breeches that blended into knee high leather boots. A black corset with red lacing emphasized her small waist and generous breasts. A highwayman's cloak finished the look, distracting one's eyes from the pistol and sword strapped to her hips.
Do keep your mind on the task at hand, Thief.
I'm fully capable of multitasking.
Sparrow has an impeccable reputation, Reaver. You would do more harm than good by trying to seduce her.
That was Sparrow? From what the blind witch had initially described, he'd been expecting some small delicate child, not this… this woman. Perhaps this little quest would prove entertaining after all
He smiled as he watched her settle her business with the tailor. And while she was busy scribbling her signature on an invoice, Reaver approached. He snagged a lace mask off of a mannequin head, and came up on her side just as she was straightening.
"If you're going to go about incognito, love, you should finish the look." He watched her startle, though she controlled it well. She hadn't expected him to come up so quickly, or so close to her side. The little heroine had a bit to learn yet it seemed. Unabashed, he held the mask up by it's farthest sides and lightly placed it upon her face over her eyes. He liked the look. The lace made her lashes stand out as she blinked at him.
"Ah, thank you," she smiled. He'd amused, or flattered her. "But I think that'd be a bit much."
"Nonsense! A lovely woman should always hold a bit of mystery about her. I can attest, men find it irresistible." He gave her a pointed once over, his gaze lingering a bit longer than polite on the curve of her hips, the swell of her breasts, before meeting those striking eyes again. "And if you are abandoning gowns, a mask can give the effect that breeches and corsets just can't provide."
Finally, she reached up and gently pushed his hands from her face. She'd allowed the familiarity for nearly a full minute. Perhaps the blind one was wrong about the bird's impeccable virtue. "I'm not really going for mystery. Just functionality."
"And what function are you performing in such an outfit?"
"I'm going to kill some bandits."
She must have expected it to shock him, because her lips curved in a slight smirk, as if waiting for his scandalized reply. But he had the insider scoop as it were, and shocked her instead with his unsurprised response. "Ah, well then, the mask is absolutely necessary then. When facing thugs, mystery in their opponent can breed both fear and doubt."
She gave him a curious, almost suspicious look, but her small smile stayed. Good. He was likely the only person who'd ever encouraged more… colorful behavior. But then again Reaver loved colorful women. "Killed your fair share of thugs, have you?"
"Oh, a few. Here and there." He waved his hand carelessly, but the pride was in his voice. He couldn't hide that. He was an excellent shot after all, and no one stood in his way if he wanted something. "And yourself?"
"These'll be my first." He heard the slight hesitation in her voice, like she was expecting him to laugh at her. And indeed under normal circumstances, he would do just that. But again, not his usual circumstances.
"Ah, well, it will be a moment you won't soon forget! Mind if I watch?"
She didn't know how exactly, but he'd talked her into letting him tag along with her. As they road along the path, Sparrow had the distinct feeling that somehow, she'd been railroaded. She was even wearing the lace mask over her eyes, like he'd insisted.
Yes, that was the word: insisted. She hadn't been able to resist, or hadn't been given the chance. Sparrow, Governor of Bowerstone, ward of Lord Lucien Fairfax, who could kowtow an entire room of councilmen with one cool stare, had been practically bullied into this situation. She frowned, feeling that somewhere along the line, she'd lost control. And she wasn't quite sure where.
She turned her head to look at her companion. He was a handsome devil, there was no mistaking it. Almost pretty in the face, but saved from it with an aristocratic nose, he had features that drew one's immediate attention. His attitude was a mix of familiar and alien behavior. One hand, he reminded her of all noblemen: arrogant, proud, a little overly self-focused. But on the other he was also funny in an odd way and flattering, and upon occasion his voice dipped into a lower tone that did funny things to her insides. She could tell he was quick witted. Otherwise, he wouldn't currently be riding alongside her on a rented gelding. But there was something that nagged her about him. She couldn't be sure what.
Chase, she felt, had the same opinion. He'd been waiting for her at the stables, snuffling around the horse stalls for fallen food. When the mutt had sniffed at her impromptu companion, Ryan he'd called himself, Chase had growled hesitantly and then almost snubbed him. A very strange reaction from a dog that was out for anything he could beg off any person. Even now the dog was keeping his distance, walking along side Sparrow's horse on the far side, and pretending the other rider didn't exist.
"Not really. Just thinking to hard I guess."
"Oh?" He sounded far to interested. "About what?"
Well if he was going to bring it up, why the hell not? "How exactly did you get through to Bowerstone, Mr. Ryan? Like I said, the roads are infested with bandits and highwaymen. Our traders have all but given up hope. You're the first new face that's been in the town for weeks."
He rolled one shoulder in a casual shrug, like the topic was the most trivial thing he'd ever discussed. "Like I said, love, I've killed my fair share of hoodlums before. If I want to go somewhere, I don't let a little thing like overly ambitious robbers stop me."
"Uh-huh… and where exactly did you say you came from, again?" She tried to catch his eyes with her piercing stare, the one that always guaranteed results.
"I didn't." He said with a smile as he drew his horse to a stop. "Oh, and I do believe we're here."
Sparrow focused back in front of her, and indeed he was right. They'd ridden into the thick of the forest, and in the near distance she could see the cabin that Thag had taken for himself. As strongholds came, it was a poor one, but then again, the bandit likely felt safe. No one had yet proved a credible threat against his reign.
Forgetting the train of their conversation, she dismounted, securing the horse's reigns to a low hanging branch. When she noticed Ryan dismounting as well, she shook her head.
"I think it's best if you stay back here. I wouldn't want to put you into unnecessary danger."
A wide grin burst across his face, like he was trying to laugh. "Oh don't worry about me, love. I'll stand back and promise not to cause you any trouble."
The wording and the smile made her feel suspicious about him all over again, but it was too late to do anything about him now. He'd have to take care of himself while she took care of Thag.
"Suit yourself then." She sighed it out and turned to get her roadways back.
A/N: Sorry this took so long to get out. I had to re-write the whole thing after my computer crashed on me. I hope it's worth the wait!