For the space of a few breaths, Braden Kendrick contemplated the idiocy of taking unnecessary risks.
Should have listened to Logan.
He shifted his leather satchel to his left shoulder and pulled a knife from his right pocket. It was a dandy little blade, but laughably inadequate for facing two hulking brutes, one armed with a club and the other with a machete.
Only yesterday, his older brother had lectured him on taking proper precautions in Edinburgh’s Old Town. “What you need is a pistol. The criminals down there will gut you without hesitation, because it’s a damn sight easier to rob a dead man. You’ve got to properly arm yourself.”
Braden had pointed out that he’d never once been robbed while attending an emergency call. Logan had tartly replied that he’d be damned if he had to explain to the family why he’d allowed their little brother to get himself murdered in some backwater alley. Braden had just rolled his eyes and not given the matter another thought.
Well, regrets wouldn’t save him now, when he had to think his way out of an ignominious death.
“Gentlemen,” he said, adopting the tone he used on fractious toddlers and nervous patients. “Violence is completely unnecessary. I am more than willing to allow you to rob me. I’ll just extract my billfold and you can—”
“Shut yer yap,” snapped the one with the machete. He carried a small lantern in his other hand. When he raised it high, it cast a dim, ghoulish light on his face. “It’s other business we have with ye tonight.”
With full cheeks and a rounded chin, the man looked somewhat cherubic—but for his nose. That mangled feature resembled a grisly chunk of beef.
“I’ve got a good memory for faces, especially ones like yours,” Braden said. “But I don’t believe we’ve ever met.”
“Nae, but we know ye, Kendrick,” snarled the other man in a guttural rasp. “Bloody interfering bastard that ye are.”
Now that voice was familiar. The rasp was a result of a childhood injury, according to the man’s wife.
Braden’s odds of survival grew slimmer by the second.
“You’re Dougal Parson, Naomi’s husband. Or, former husband, should I say?”
“Thanks to ye,” the man bitterly replied. “Ye put ideas in her head, ye stupid nob. She were satisfied with her lot until ye told her to kick me out of my own bleedin’ house.”
“Actually, it was her father’s house. And I don’t regret suggesting that Naomi divorce you, since you beat her and shoved her down the bloody stairs. You almost killed her.”
Tragically, though, the evil bastard had killed Naomi’s unborn child. While Braden had been too late to save the unfortunate babe, at least he’d been able to save the mother.
And though he’d been unable to convince Naomi and her elderly father to go to the police—both were too frightened—Braden had convinced the girl to obtain a divorce made possible by Scotland’s more lenient marriage laws.
He’d also made a point of hunting down Parson, finding him hiding out in a tavern near Tanner’s Close. That time, Braden had armed himself with a pistol. He’d told Parson that if he ever bothered Naomi again, he would ensure that Clan Kendrick would mete out their own brand of justice for the lass, the kind that didn’t involve courts or tidy prison cells. The threat had done the trick, and Parson had disappeared.
Or so Braden had thought.
Now, the unrepentant thug aimed a gob of spit at Braden’s boot. Thankfully, it fell short, since Parson’s dental hygiene left much to be desired.
“Clumsy little bitch fell, is all. She was always fallin’ and hurtin’ herself. But ye wouldn’t listen, now would ye, doc?”
Braden’s fingers instinctively tightened around the handle of his blade, and he fought the impulse to charge. “I don’t make a habit of believing wife beaters and liars.”
“I can’t get no work in Old Town, cause everyone’s too scared of ye and yer bloody family. I’m flat broke.”
“How sad. Frankly, I’d rather see you dangling at the end of a rope than sneaking around Old Town like a diseased rat.”
Mangled Nose elbowed Parson. “Oy, ye gonna let him talk to you like that?”
“Of course not, ye stupid shite. I’m gonna kill him.”
“Well, get on with it. I reckon he’s got a pile of blunt stowed in them pockets, not to mention a gold watch.”
Braden chuckled. “Oh, I never wear my gold watch into Old Town. That’s just tempting fate.”
When the two thugs exchanged a perplexed glance, he took advantage of their hesitation.
“Finally,” he said, shifting to look past his moronic adversaries. “It’s about time you arrived.”
Proving they were indeed morons, both men glanced over their shoulders into the stygian gloom. As they turned back to him, Braden hurled his satchel at Parson’s face.
Hit squarely by the bag heavy with medical instruments, the man roared and staggered back. Braden bolted, dodging between the men and slashing with his knife. The blade caught Mangled Nose in the arm. He bellowed, stumbling aside and clearing a path.
Braden took off into the dark. Skidding around a nearby corner, he bashed his elbow into a brick wall. Ignoring the pain, he ran as fast as he dared over the uneven cobblestones. His attackers were already in hot pursuit, heavy footsteps pounding behind him.
Dark tenement buildings loomed over him like decrepit giants, blocking out the pale light of the moon. He couldn’t risk twisting an ankle on the uneven stones, or tripping over a doorstep. Fortunately, his assailants had to deal with the same problems. And since he was both younger and fitter, he just needed to keep on his feet until he reached safety.
Light shone at the end of the seemingly endless alley, with Cowgate just ahead. There’d be at least a watchman or constable nearby, and a few taverns would still be open. Braden had friends in those taverns, people he’d doctored over the years. They’d never—
His thoughts splintered as his boot slid through something wet and disgusting. He pin-wheeled his arms but went completely off-kilter, landing hard on his right hip and arm. The knife flew, clattering somewhere off in the dark. Though pain lanced through his body, he forced himself to scrabble up just as his pursuers appeared out of the murk, like demons loosed from the pits of hell.
Well, huffing and puffing demons, anyway. Mangled Nose was cradling his injured arm, and Parson’s mouth was bleeding.
But they were mobile and furious. Like the boy who’d kicked the hornet’s nest, Braden was now about to get thoroughly stung.
“Think yer so clever, don’t ye?” growled Parson, raising his club. “We’ll see how smart ye are now.”
Braden put his hands up, as if in apology. With a little luck, he might be able to deflect the club before it bashed in his skull.
“In all fairness, I did manage to get past you.”
“Only because ye sliced me up good,” Mangled Nose complained. “Ruined my arm, ye did. And I thought ye were a doctor.”
“I am a doctor, and I’d be happy to stitch and bandage you up, free of charge and no questions asked.”
The man frowned. “Ye would?”
“Fecking hell, but yer an idiot,” Parson snapped.
“That’s nae way to speak to yer best friend,” his companion sulkily replied.
“It certainly isn’t,” Braden said. If he could just keep them talking. “In fact, I think—”
“No one cares what ye think,” bellowed Parson, brandishing his club. “I’m gonna shut that gob of yours once and for all.”
He moved in for the kill. Braden curled up his fists, and—
Plaster exploded from the wall behind Parson, showering chips and dust down on his head. He staggered sideways, crashing into his friend.
Mangled Nose howled. “Dougal, that’s my bad arm!”
“Who gives a shite about that? Who the hell is shootin’ at us?”
Braden peered toward the end of the alley. “I believe they did.”
Two figures garbed in black advanced silently toward them. One was a tall, broad-shouldered man swathed in a greatcoat. He was carrying a pistol, so had obviously fired the shot. It had been an excellent one, too, stopping Parson dead in his tracks by barely missing him.
But the other figure? Braden shook his head, as if to clear his vision. That person was slender and not very tall.
“Dougal, that be a girl,” Mangled Nose said.
No, a young woman, Braden guessed.
Dressed in a black riding habit, her hair tucked under a brimmed cap, she carried a walking stick and matched her companion’s steps with easy, confident strides. The mystery man and woman both wore dark scarves wrapped around their lower faces, effectively disguising their features.
“What the hell?” Parson growled, facing the pair.
Braden snapped out of his astonishment. “Tough luck, old man. Good Samaritans have come to my rescue.”
Parson threw him an ugly sneer. “Some doxy and a bloke who just shot his bolt? I’m ready to piss myself with fear.”
He began to stalk toward the pair. As the silent man reached into his pocket, the woman darted forward, whipping up her walking stick.
Except the stick was actually a long, lethal-looking blade. When she deftly slashed it across Parson’s cheek, he roared with pain and reared back, clapping a hand to his face.
“Oy,” yelled Mangled Nose, charging forward, machete held high.
Another shot boomed out, fired from a second pistol the man in black had pulled from his coat. Shards flew up from the cobblestones, directly in front of Mangled Nose. With a shocked cry, he turned on his heel and staggered back up the alley. Quickly, he disappeared into the night.
Parson was made of sterner stuff. He held his ground, holding his bloody cheek and glaring at the woman, who slid over to stand beside Braden. Her companion joined them, a silent, threatening guardian.
“I should kill the whole lot of ye,” Parson snarled.
Braden cocked his head. “I just heard the night watchman blow his whistle. He probably heard the shots and is calling for a constable. You’d be wise to follow your friend, Parson.”
A string of truly vile oaths ensued as the bastard shot a final glare at Braden. Then the man took to his heels, following his partner in crime.
For a moment, Braden and the others stood frozen in a silent tableau, listening to Parson’s footsteps fade away. Then Braden reached to doff his hat to his rescuers before realizing he’d lost the bloody thing in the bloody alley.
He smiled instead. “Thank you. I’m hoping you didn’t save me just so you could rob me.”
The big man simply shook his head, while the woman huffed an impatient breath from behind her black silk scarf.
“Then you have my sincere gratitude for your excellent timing,” Braden said. “I doubt my skull would have survived the encounter with Parson’s club.”
The man shook his head again before gesturing toward the lights of Cowgate. He and the woman then strode off in that direction, leaving Braden to both mentally and physically catch up.
“Can I know your names, so I can properly thank you?” he asked, coming up behind them.
The woman didn’t even glance back.
Braden almost laughed in disbelief. This was turning into the most bizarre night of his life. And given his family’s history, that was a very high hill to climb.
As he followed close behind them, a flicker of movement caught his attention. The woman’s gloved hand moved in gestures that looked practiced and precise. Braden’s amazement grew as her companion responded with a few, sharp motions of his right hand.
They were communicating with some sort of sign language.
“So, I take it you are not going to talk to me,” he commented.
The pair continued to ignore him as they gained the entrance of the alley. The woman reached out and grabbed something. She slid her blade into the slender wooden sheath that had leaned against a wall. Instantly, her lethal weapon was transformed into a genteel walking stick.
Braden felt as if he’d fallen into a dream or some sort of upside down fairy tale, one where the mysterious princess did the rescuing.
They led him out into Cowgate, and Braden had to blink against the flare of gas lanterns lining the street.
His silent escorts stopped and turned, calmly perusing him from behind their extremely effective disguises.
Now that he could finally get a good look at her, Braden saw that the lass had a trim, neat figure, dressed in a close-fitting wool jacket over a matching skirt. Her walking stick appeared to be of polished ebony with a carved brass handle. As for the man, who towered over her by a good foot, Braden had the impression that he might be a servant. He stood a few inches behind the woman, patiently waiting, as if taking his cues from her.
If not a fairy tale, then Braden felt he might have stumbled into a corking good adventure. Unlike his brothers, he never fell into corking good adventures.
“If you won’t tell me your name,” he said, “then allow me to—”
A shrill whistle cut him off. They all glanced up Cowgate to see a sturdy watchman, lantern and long staff in hand, trundling toward them in the distance.
The woman glanced at her companion. He twirled a finger by his head and then pointed back to the alley. She nodded, and they turned in that direction.
Braden made a grab for her. “Wait, you can’t go back in there.”
As she gracefully eluded him, the man stepped in front of Braden, his stance all but yelling, back off.
He quickly put up his hands. “I just want you to be safe.”
The woman huffed out a ghost of a chuckle. Then she tapped the brim of her cap, saluting him before disappearing into the night, with the tall man at her heels.
Braden was still peering down the alley, his brain spinning with astonishment and questions, when the watchman finally arrived.
“Is that yerself, Dr. Kendrick?” the fellow asked in a worried tone. “Did I hear shots? Are ye all right?”
“You did, and I am. A pair of thugs tried to bash my head in. Fortunately, a warrior princess and her trusty companion came to my rescue.”
The watchman snorted. “Now yer pulling my leg, sir. But who were them two that were just with ye? And where did they go off to?”
Braden shook his head. “On both counts, I’m afraid I have no bloody idea.”