Book Excerpt from Mr Thorne & The Witch

Perhaps she could sneak into the crowded tavern, just for a little while, to escape the cold. If someone happened to leave an unfinished meal at their table, who would miss it? She might be able to score a crust of bread, a slice of cheese, or a piece of bacon. Anything to take the edge off her hunger.

She tried to be discreet, but only a few minutes after entering the tavern, a bouncer cornered her. He crossed his impressive arms and shook his head.

“You got money to pay for something?” he barked.

Karene drooped. She hadn’t managed to snag a single bite of food. Outside the snow continued to pile up along the streets, and the temperature dropped as the hour grew late.

“Out you go.” The bouncer spoke gruffly, pointing at the door. “We aren’t running a charity.”

“But I—”

“Out!”

Seeing no way around it, Karene started for the door. As she passed by, someone touched her elbow, and she turned to meet the gaze of a man rising from a nearby table. He gave her friendly smile, his hazel eyes holding both kindness and concern.

“I believe the young lady is joining me for supper,” he said to the bouncer. “Please stop harassing her.”

The bouncer looked them both over and shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he muttered, walking away.

“Please,” the stranger said, indicating Karene should sit down at his table.

She considered. What was his angle? Did he think she’d trade favors for a meal?

“I’m quite harmless,” he assured, spreading his arms as if to show he carried no weapons.

The man’s reddish brown hair grew unfashionably long, and he hadn’t shaved in a number of days. His clothes were of high quality, though rumpled. Clearly grooming wasn’t a priority, and yet there was something undeniably decent and appealing about him.

“I don’t have anything to give you,” she clarified. “There’ll be no trade for the food.”

“I didn’t expect there would be.” Again he gestured for her to sit down. “You look cold and hungry, and I want to help. Is that so hard to imagine?”

“Mostly people ‘help’ when they want something in return,” she said, taking a seat. At least she could rest her aching feet for a while.

“So you’re a cynic?” he asked, also sitting and waving for a server.

“You’d be cynical and pessimistic too, if you’d lived my life.”

“Perhaps. I suppose it’s hard to know.” He turned his attention to the serving maid. “Bring the lady anything she wishes. I’m almost done here, but I’ll pay for both of us before I leave.”

“Very good, Sir.” The rosy young woman turned to Karene, brows lifted in a question.

“I’ll have a meat pie…beef if you have it.” Surely that wasn’t too greedy. He’d said she could choose anything.

“We’ve got beef pie, with potatoes, mushrooms, and peas. Will that do, Ma’am?”

Karene nodded, at a loss for words. When was the last time she’d eaten honest to goodness red meat?

“Bring her a mug of hot cider as well,” the man said. “Oh, and one last thing. Please make sure no one hurries her. She should take as long as she likes with her meal.”

His generosity broke through Karene’s defenses, and fresh tears welled in her eyes. She wiped them away, turning her face so he wouldn’t see. The stranger focused on the remains of his meal, giving her time to master her emotions.

“I’m sorry if I seemed rude…before,” she said. “I just haven’t had…I mean…no one has shown me such kindness, in a long time. I didn’t expect it.”

“I’m glad to offer assistance.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out several coins, and slid them across the table. “Here. Take these. It’s not much, but it might help you through the cold spell.”

“I can’t take your money. It wouldn’t be right.” She said the words as a reflex, regretting them the instant they left her mouth.

“Of course it’s right,” he countered. “I’ve just signed a lucrative contract for my business, and I’m feeling flush. Let me do this small thing for you.”

She looked up, meeting his gaze, encouraged by the intelligence and compassion in his eyes. He was a good man. Something in her knew it, without a doubt.

“Thank you. This means a great deal to me.” She scooped up the coins and deposited them in a deep pocket of her cloak. He grinned, looking as pleased as if she’d just done something nice for him. How marvelous. She’d quite forgotten there were people like this in the world.

“I’m Malcolm Thorne,” he said, offering his hand.