About the book
"You are blood of my blood, bone of my bone, I give you my heart that we might be one..."
Lady Gabriella Griffith longs for a chance to be free.
When a bout of rebelliousness leaves her lost in a disreputable part of London and at the mercy of miscreants, her savior comes in the form of a handsome commoner.
Raised in a brothel, life in the slums is everything Damian Turner has ever known. He never expected that rescuing a Marquess’ daughter would secure him a position as a stable hand. Or a broken heart.
When Gabriella’s best friend announces her impending nuptials, Damian is asked to accompany her. And walk straight into a deadly trap.
With someone wishing Damian dead and Gabriella forbidden from seeing him, the key to their salvation lies in the portrait of a stranger from Damian’s past. A past he has been in the dark about all his life…
His heartbeat raced as he flew through the hallway. His breath burst in and out in tandem with the creaking floorboards. Damian jumped the stairs two at a time; his terror mounted with every step. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead, and the door appeared before him. He kicked it down.
His midnight blue eyes darted nervously across the room.
“What is going on in here?”
The air was stuffy and smelled of sweat and sex. Squeaking and creaking and moans and giggles escaped from the other rooms along the hallway.
The older man tensed his wide shoulders, squinted his angry eyes at the interruption, and rumbled, “What the bloody ‘ell do you want?”
Damian clenched his teeth and continued to scan the sight. Clothes were strewn about the small room, and bedsheets tossed on the floor. He spotted the jack weight standing over the terrified young blonde. Damian didn’t care if the man flared his nostrils, or his beady eyes looked furious. He was focused on her. He noted one eye was blackened, red marks marred her delicate, nude skin, and she was crying. The man held a folded belt in his hands.
Damian glared at the ruffian. “What do you think you’re doing? No gentleman is to strike a lady in here.” He felt his face getting hot. “It is strictly forbidden.”
The man slapped his pot belly and bent over laughing. “Well, when I find a lady, I’ll make sure not to ‘it ‘er.” The crown of his head was bald, and his sideburns were long and dark. “But this ‘ere,” he bared his yellow teeth and raised his chin, “this ‘ere is nothing but a run of the mill doxy, and I’ll be damned if I let someone like you tell me what I can or cannot do.”
Damian sighed and raised his hands. He needed to control himself. This wasn’t the time for violence. Meryl lay on the bed and obviously needed care. “Look.” Damian kept his voice controlled and steady. “Just put your clothes on and come out peacefully. We can sort this out like civilized men.” Come on, I’m offering you a way out. Take it!
The man’s skin flushed. “You?” He shook his head and his neck corded. “You think you can throw me out?” He cracked his neck from side to side. “Do you have any idea who I am, boy?”
Oh, that’s how you want to play it? Damian smirked. “From what I can tell, a fat bully, who’s too much a coward to take on a man, so he takes his frustrations out on helpless women.” His muscles quivered. “Did I miss anything?”
The older man’s wild eyes widened, and he screamed as he lunged at younger man.
Damian dodged the punch.
The fat man’s veins strained against his reddened skin as tried to hit his target.
But the younger man was faster.
Controlling his breathing and harnessing his fluttering chest, Damian danced around his tiring stout foe. His heart pounded. An opening would appear at any moment. His expression tightened. There. The man dropped his guard. Damian smiled and unleashed a savage right hook on his jaw.
The defeated man fell on his hands and knees. He was wheezing, and his entire body was quaking. “You –” He spat blood on the carpetless floorboards. “You’re dead.” He jumped up with a guttural roar. His hand clenched a knife.
Oh darn. The fear of imminent death was stabbing at Damian’s mind and thoughts, and he took a step back. This wasn’t good. A fistfight was one thing, but with a knife in play… He frowned. A chill went down his back. Just dodging was no longer an option, he’d have to block.
He panicked. But block with what? The room was scant with bare walls holding only one window, and the only furniture being a simple wooden desk and the wide bed.
The man slowed his breathing and narrowed his gaze at the younger man.
Damn it, he’s calming down. Though, at this point, I doubt he’d consider talking. Damian sighed and shook his head.
The clothes were an option, though an unsafe one. He gulped. He could use a pillow, but getting to those would be tricky. He’d have to time it perfectly. What should I do?
The man pinched his mouth and stepped forward. His lip curled. He swiped a few times, but nothing hit.
Okay, this is how it has to be. I can do this. He took a deep breath and waited. The man struck again. Shivers ran through Damian. He rolled forward under the strike instead of dodging and landed next to the bed. His stomach became a bottomless pit. His mouth dried out. This is it! He lunged forward, grabbed a pillow, and turned around to block. His heart skipped a beat as the knife stabbed up to the hilt into the pillow. Yes!
He chuckled. “I got you now!” With a racing heartbeat drumming in his chest, he threw the pillow and knife away and kicked his adversary in the stomach as hard as he could.
The man wheezed and coughed as he fell down. His lips were smiling, even as his eyes were glaring. “You fool.” He spat at the feet of an approaching Damian. “You have no idea what you just did. You have no idea who you’re messing with.” His jaw clenched. “You’re dead.” Then he suddenly laughed. “Your harlots are dead.” He raised his chin and eyebrows. “This building will burn.”
Damian approached the brute. No, not a man. This was an animal. “Oh yeah? And what makes you so confident of that?”
The man grinned and raised his head, a mad glean filling his eyes. “I’m Jack Baxter’s brother.”
Damian’s next punch knocked the man unconscious, and he proceeded to drag the porker outside and dump him into the rain.
“This was a huge mistake on your part, Turner.” The spindly woman was sitting behind a mahogany desk full of papers, and her thin lips were pinched.
The coils in his stomach were wound so tight, he wanted to scream, but instead, he shook his head and sighed “Well, what was I supposed to do?” He had that exasperated look on his face. “He was beating Meryl.” No one got to hurt his sisters and get away with it. No one.
She pinched the bridge of her nose and drummed her fingers. She had the now-that-was-dumb look on her face. “Be that as it may, there had to have been a better way of handling this.” Her face was diamond shaped, with hints of wrinkles on her eyes, and her cheeks were sunken.
The room they were in was big, with paintings lining the walls. Two bookcases sat behind the desk, and a red wool rug laid on the floor. There were also two more chairs in the room, as well as a sofa. Flames were crackling in a fireplace. The air was heavy with perfume, and the inarticulate —and not so pleasant —grunts and groans thankfully did not penetrate.
He snorted, but his voice had no power in it. “He attacked me.” He avoided meeting her gaze. She had this bad habit of staring into your soul when she was angry with you. He shuddered, internally, of course. Heavens forbid she see him and ask what was up. “He pulled a knife on me.” With another sigh, he looked into her brown eyes for the first time since coming in. “He never gave me a chance, madam.” Yup, there’s the soul stare.
Her shoulders slumped. “Well. What’s done is done. But we still need to handle what is to come.” She looked at him with eyelids half dropped. “What do you know of Jack Baxter?”
“Pretty much nothing.”
“I’m not surprised; he keeps to himself as much as he can help it.” She giggled. “Though, you could say that we ran into one another a few times. Concerning business, of course.”
He chuckled. “Of course.” Humph, who knew the madam had a love life? Not that she was ugly, mind you, but – his stomach rolled, as fingers of cold glided down his neck – who knew what those creepy eyes of hers could do in a situation like that. “But why is it such a big deal, then, if he’s such a recluse?” Besides, that line of thought was pretty much thinking of the love life of one’s mother to him… Aw, great, now that picture is stuck in my head.
She stared at her palm. Her voice thickened. “Because his crew isn’t.” Her posture sagged. “Baxter runs a hell down under old man Mercer’s abandoned factory.” She made vague gestures with her hands. “Runs a thief and thief-taker business on the side, too. Not to mention that he has so much blunt he can practically drown in it.”
Damian dropped his head into his palms. “And I beat up his brother…” Stupid, Damian, stupid!
The madam nodded and took a deep breath. “Now you see our problem.” She shook her head. “Not to mention what a mean crew he has. They carry guns at all times and aren’t afraid to use them.”
“And now I’m in their black books…”
The magnitude of his decision hovered over him like a vulture circling its next meal. What should I do?
He felt a heavy weight settling on his chest. I could run.
He bit his lip. No, that wouldn’t work. I’d have to spend the rest of my life running and looking over my shoulder.
He closed his eyes and rubbed them. Not to mention what they’ll do to the girls here. So, that’s not an option.
He swallowed and cracked his neck. Could I kill him?
He pressed his hands on his stomach. No… No, I couldn’t. I’m no killer.
He chuckled. Besides, I’d get jumped way before I ever got to him.
He took a deep breath and crossed himself. No, there’s only one choice…
“You done having an internal breakdown?”
“Huh?” He snapped his gaze up, only to see the madam smiling at him. Cursed old women, thought they could make fun of him! Oh, who was he kidding, he would’ve done the same to her. “Yes, sorry. I was just thinking about what I could do.”
He shrugged. “I’m just going to play it by the ear. Meet with him. Try to work things out,” his gaze dropped, “or at least try to make sure he takes his revenge only on me and leaves you all alone.”
Her chin tremored as she stood up and approached him; he rose from his chair. “You come back to me, you hear?” She caressed his cheeks and high cheekbones. “You come back.” She hugged him.
He nodded and left with no goodbyes. What could he have even said? “I promise not to die?” His heart tightened in his chest as he stepped onto the street. Nonsense. He started walking. As if he could tell her something like that.
Old man Mercer’s abandoned factory loomed over him like the gallows. His face was ashen, and cold sweat rolled down his neck. This was it. He wanted to move, but he was frozen to the spot. Stuck, watching those would-be gallows and the noose tightening around his neck. I can do this… There was no going back now. He took a step forward…
And then something hit him on the back of the head hard enough to knock him out.
He groaned and rapidly blinked. Ugh, what hit me? His head was heavy and dropped down. He was dizzy. His mind was a haze.
Where am I?
He tried moving, but he could only struggle. Apparently, he was tied to something. A chair? Heat rushed through his body.
I feel like I’m forgetting something really important right now. What was he doing before? He shook his head. He was back home this morning… He was minding his own business, when…
Oh, damn! He opened his eyes and looked around. He was in an empty room with torches—of all things— lining the stone walls.
“I have a flair for the dramatic, you see.” The voice was gruff and came from behind him.
He shook his head and cracked his neck. “What?”
A man appeared in front of him. “I assumed you would ask about the torches.” He was tall, though not as tall as Damian, and broad shouldered. “Everyone always does.” He shrugged. “They are purposely made to be very medieval.” He grinned; a missing tooth was visible in the flickering light. “Then again, you are in my dungeon, so…”
Damian snorted and offered a friendly smiled. “Jack Baxter, I suppose?”
The man bowed his head. “At your service.” Then, he smiled. “My two friends behind you are Rick and Tom.”
“What two…” His question was interrupted, quite rudely in his opinion, by two slaps on the back of his head. Wonderful, he has gorillas here too. As if life hasn’t already bent me over enough…
He nodded and slumped his shoulders. “Well, I wanted to meet you. This is as good a chance as any.”
“Quite.” Baxter chuckled. “I have to say, you are a tall lad.”
His tone was monotonous, and his face blank. This really wasn’t a good time to dillydally. Get it over with and go home, as Damian always said.
“I’m here to talk about what happened with your brother.”
The older man gestured a “no” with his finger. “There’s nothing to talk about there, my friend. You did what you did, and I’m going to do what I’m going to do. That’s all there is to it.”
Damian’s brow furrowed. This smells funny. His jaw set. “Really?” There was a strong coppery feel to the air, and it smelled of human excrement. “Then why am I still alive?”
Baxter’s smile failed to reach his eyes. “I like to consider myself a businessman first and foremost. We’re here to talk about what you can do for me.” He spread his arms. “After all, reclusive I may be, but I’m no fool. I’d rather get a man in dun territory than darken his daylights.” His smile widened into a grin. “So, tell me, Mr. Whatever-Your-Name-Is, what can you offer me to save yourself?”
Damian dropped his gaze, and his hands went limp. Like you don’t know my name… Humph… You knew everything there is to know about me before I even approached this dreadful place. His heart thudded dully in his numb chest. What can I offer you, though? He had a tight dry feeling in his throat and the inability to see a positive outcome. I have no money, nor business… I have no useful acquaintances, or connections. I have no political power…
He clenched his jaw and looked straight at the older man. “For you, Mr. Baxter, I only have my sincerest apologies to give.”
“Ah…” The man shook his head. “That won’t do. If I start letting people off easy like that, I’ll find myself dished up.” He scratched his pointy chin and focused his small, brown eyes at his captive. “Tell you what, I’ll take over that establishment of those lovely light-skirts you were so keen on defending. I must say, it’s kind of poetic.” He chuckled. “I’ll need you to handle the transfer of ownership, of course, I’d rather not run into the madam again, thank you very much.”
Take over? Damian’s skin flushed, and he struggled against his binds like a raging bull. This upstart criminal wanted to invade his home? Oh, he’d kill him. He didn’t know when and how, but he’d kill him. “You leave them alone!” His voice was hoarse and cracked, and his eyes mad. “You go nowhere near them, you hear me?!”
The man tilted his head and laughed. “Temper, temper.” He clenched his jaw and glared at his captive. “Alas, you should be more mindful of it. You are in less than a favorable position to be making threats.”
I don’t care! I’m going to find a way to get you! But… He sighed. Gosh darn it, he’s right. I can’t be rash now… He deflated and dropped his gaze to the floor. “I apologize, you’re right.” He gulped and looked into the man’s eyes with his own glistening. “Anything else, I beg you. Just leave them be.”
Baxter tapped his nose and raised his head. “Hm. What to do with you…” He snapped his fingers. “I know!” His attention went back to Damian with a grin. “You can help me out a bit. See, there’s some people that really need to go away, and—”
The man squinted and flared his nostrils. “Then we are at an impasse. And, since you can offer me nothing…”
Before Damian could reply, however, Baxter looked behind him and disappeared. It seemed as if he was talking to someone, although Damian couldn’t really tell what it was about. He made out something about “an estate,” a “Mr. Macon,” and “taking over.” Then, Baxter came back with a grin reaching from ear to ear.
Damian raised an eyebrow. “Good news?” Hopefully, whatever it is, has put him in a good enough mood to help my situation.
The man clapped his hands and laughed. “Oh, just the best.” He put his hands on the younger man’s knees and got into his face, his grin became shark-like, and his voice grew deeper and chillier. “I’ve decided what I’m going to do with you.”
Her heart raced as she tiptoed through the dark hallway. Her wide grin showed her pearly white teeth, and her dark eyes sparkled with gleam. She was actually doing it! Her body was as light as a feather. She was actually sneaking out while everyone listened to her aunt’s boring speech! Her hands were tingling.
“Going somewhere, are we?”
She froze. The melodious voice coming from behind her was far too chipper and far too familiar to her. She turned around and made a shushing gesture.
“Sorry, I’ll speak more quietly.” The girl standing before her was lithe, with a heart shaped face and lustrous, long dark hair. She giggled. “We mustn’t let anyone find us, after all…”
Gabriella sighed and got in the girl’s face. “What do you want, Josephine?”
The girl pulled back and put her hand over her mouth. “Lady Gabriella, that is most improper.”
She giggled. What? Nobody said she had to be all prim and proper in her mind. She had to have some freedom. Not like anyone could read it anyway. Though, she did avoid thinking certain words, just in case…
“Stop it. Nobody saw you leave.” She squinted and pursed her full lips. “Nobody saw you leave, correct? You managed to make your escape unfollowed?”
The taller girl waved her hand. “Be at ease, we may speak freely.” She had high cheekbones and was wearing an emerald green gown. “Not only was I unnoticed, but I managed to ensure that your little escapade remains unseen.”
She raised her eyebrow. “How so?”
“I’m unsure if I should tell you…”
The two girls huddled in a long narrow hallway, where and paintings, marble statues, and knights’ armors covered its walls. Beneath them ran a plush blue carpet.
This was going to be something extremely stupid and either funny to her friend or extremely bad for her. There was no third option with Josie. Gabriella frowned and tilted her head. “Why wouldn’t you tell me, oh my dear Josephine?”
The girl pouted and raised her wide chin. “Because you were rude.” The air was stale, but the smell of perfume and exquisite flowers lingered.
Indeed. Stupid it was. Oh, God, why now… She ran her hand over her face. “Must you make me ask?”
Josie remained silent.
Gabriella sighed. “Very well.” Her expression was pinched, and her eyes narrowed. “Why was I rude, Josephine?” She crossed her arms and started tapping her foot.
“Fine, fine, no need to be angry with me.” The sounds of the party reverberated through the corridor. The speech was still going strong. “Your aunt was looking for you before the speech.” She smirked and leaned in. “She said she had a lovely young man whom she wanted you to meet.”
Troublesome aunts. Gabriella groaned and squeezed the back of her neck. “Of course, she did.” She drew a long breath and sneered. “Because that is what I need— more high-in-the-instep peers who want nothing more from me than to be obedient and pretty.” God forbid anyone ever ask her about her feelings or anything. No, seriously, that would be asking for too much. Which wasn’t proper. She snorted. Stupid society.
Josie gently squeezed her friend’s shoulder and lowered her voice. “Gabby, are you okay?”
Yeah, I’m so happy I’m just about to jump up and dance. She shook her head. No! Bad Gabby! No insulting Josie. She sighed, and her voice was strained. “No, Josephine, I’m not okay.”
Josie smiled and raised her eyebrow. “Do you feel like the only purpose society has is to ruin your life in as many ways as possible again?”
Humph… Stupid Josie, knowing her so well. “No!” Her throat closed up, and her stomach hardened. “Maybe…”
Her chest tightened. She sighed. “I just don’t understand.” Her lips pinched together. “I can’t comprehend this society, which expects the sole purpose of my life to be to marry and be a good wife and lady.”
Her nostrils flared, and her jaw clenched. “What about what I want?” Her face reddened, and she ground her teeth. “What if I want to explore the world? Go on an adventure? Start a company?”
Her body tensed, and heat flushed through her. “I’m smart. I can work, and I’ll bet you I’d be better at it than most men.”
The other girl rubbed Gabby’s back and spoke in a soothing tone. “There, there. It will be fine, you’ll see. Society will change… Eventually.”
Yeah, in about a hundred years. A hundred and fifty tops. Her lips spread into a narrow smile, but her eyes watered. “I’m not so sure it will. It’s all right, Josephine.” She stepped away and held her friend’s hands. “Can you go back in there and cover for me? I really need to get away for a while…”
The girl nodded and slipped back among the guests, while Gabriella escaped the house with her gaze dropped down and a sour taste in her mouth.
However, when she descended the steps into the cold night air, which smelled of recently passed rain, one more voice greeted her. It was deep and strong, but kind as well. “Where are you going?”
She stopped in her tracks and closed her eyes. Damn. “You tell me, Father.”
“Ah, I see. This would be about your aunt’s newest attempt at getting you a good suitor, wouldn’t it?”
She crossed her arms and lifted her chin. Stupid Father, knowing her so well. “You and I seem to have a different understanding of the word.” She turned around and glared at him. “Then again, I’ve forgotten that the selfish desires of girls to lead a life they would be satisfied with are… selfish.”
Her father was just a bit taller than her and had a skinny frame. His brow wrinkled, and his bushy eyebrows furrowed. “My dear daughter, are you…”
“Do not finish that sentence!”
He chuckled. “Feeling like the only purpose society has is to ruin your life in as many ways as possible again?”
I am not dignifying that with a response.
He sighed and shook his head. “We’re not trying to hurt you, daughter.” He stepped towards her, holding his hands behind his back. “We’re trying to help you.” He shook his head. “We just want you to be happy…”
“Do not tell me that.” Her hands shook, and her voice vibrated. “I will never be happy in a loveless marriage in which I am little more than an obedient bed warmer.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “It doesn’t have to be loveless, my darling. You simply need to give it a chance. Knowing one another comes with time, and, with that, will come love.” He gazed at her with sorrow. “Or are you insinuating that your mother and I have a loveless and poor marriage?”
Oh, low blow, Father. But I shall not be bested yet! Her lip curled, and her shoulders pushed back. “Mother doesn’t share my values. We have different desires and ambitions.” She put her hands on her hips. “Do not drag her into this.”
He raised his arms and nodded; he was giving up. “Very well. This is a pointless argument right now as it is.” He approached her and hugged her. “I sincerely apologize, my dearest. I did not come here to quarrel with you.”
Ha! Take that! Victory for Gabriella. However, she then remembered that her father and Society were still winning the war that was her love life, so the sweet nectar of victory became the bitter bile of defeat. Not that she was going to be a bad sport about it, mind you. She leaned into his embrace and smiled. “I know, Father. Thank you.”
“I assumed you’d want to leave, but I want you to promise me one thing?”
She squinted and stepped away from him. “Which would be?” Please don’t say what I think you’re going to say…
He smirked. “Do not slip away from your escort this time.”
She hung her head. Damn him, he saw right through her master plan. “Do I have to?”
Curse you, Father, and your tyrannical ways! She tilted her head. Then again… “All right. You win. I promise I will not move away from my escort.”
He pressed his lips together and squinted. “Curiously specific.”
Ha! Spot that loophole if you can! She giggled and nodded.
He shook his head and went back inside without a word.
Weightlessness and warmth infused and permeated her body as she stepped on the street and ambled ahead. Her genius scheme had worked! Her stomach fluttered. Her heart raced. She smiled from ear to ear. I never promised I wouldn’t hide and let him move away from me…
Chills unrelated to the weather sprung up within her. She’d gotten lost. Her chest tingled and weighted down with confusion. I don’t understand— how did this happen? Her limbs were shaking. I kept to the main street. I took that one left turn and that one right… Her heartbeat was sluggish. Well, no use thinking about it now. I have to find a way back.
She discovered the alleyway she was in was narrow and long. Seriously, what was it with Society and narrow alleys? She walked slowly, dragging her footsteps. There was little light, and buildings loomed far above on each side, like grand trees in an evil forest. Her oval face was contorted and cringing. All of the side passages were identical to her. For which, of course, she blamed her hated enemy. Society! She held her elbows close to her sides.
Where am I supposed to go? She gulped. How am I supposed to get home?
Hairs lifted on her nape and arms. A clanking sound had come from one of the side passages. That wasn’t normal, right?
Must’ve been a cat… Hopefully…
Her face steadily turned ashen as more sounds resounded from other passageways. Metal hitting wood, clanking of metal against metal, and mewing. Her hands were clammy. All right, that was definitely not normal.
What is going on here? Her chin trembled. Her heart raced. What is it with all this noise? She held her breath and sped up. The streetlamps flickered, and the shadows danced around her like imps, ready to devour her. Ice and numbness oozed into her stomach. The noise rumbling around her became a thundering cacophony. Then she saw them. Shadowy faces, standing all around her, with only their leery smiles visible. She shuddered. Her breathing quickened and shallowed. None of them had eyes, but she knew they were wolfing every inch of her with their gazes.
I need to get out of here. She hyperventilated and sprinted away. What do I do? What do I do? The shades flew after her. The unseen faces and their leery smiles hunted her. Spots appeared in her vision. Oh, God, they’re catching up to me. Her chest hurt. Adrenaline and pain coursed through her legs.
“Hey, you! Stop!” The deep voice came from behind her.
Oh no! Heartbeat racing and body quaking, she turned around without breaking stride. There was a tall, muscular man hunting her, a frown on his face, and his jaw clenched shut. Her lungs were on fire. Her feet were lead. She couldn’t fail!
Wind beat against her face. Her limbs were tingling with fatigue and numbness. The bang of her shoes against the rough, chipped, and filthy cobblestones echoed through the dark alley. Her heart ached. This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening… Tears fell from her eyes like a waterfall from a mountain peak. Why me?
Pain erupted from her back as she was pushed down. Her face banged against the rough stone, and a weight pressed down from above her.
She sighed, and her cheeks burned. This is it, huh? Her chin tremored. No escape now… She started sobbing.
The deep voice was but a whisper in her ear. “Finally. I’ve got you.”
Every inch of his body screamed at him in pain akin to the one of being burned alive as he hobbled down the darkened alleyway. Each bruise was like a crater pulling tender flesh in. Yet, his chin was high, and his neck exposed. A smirk was on his face, and, underneath the screaming pain, warmth coursed through his body.
His walk was unhurried, his movements relaxed. Yet, his chest was aching, and his throat sore. There was a shortage of energy within him, like a streetlamp running out of oil.
Had he won or lost? He couldn’t tell.
He shook his head. There was a time for thinking about what had happened, but it was not now. He had preparations to make.
Well, he had had preparations to make until he saw a young woman, wearing a ruby red dressing gown of all things, running by him as if the devil himself was after her.
He furrowed his eyebrows and started blinking rapidly. What the deuce was that about? He shook his head and massaged his temples. And who wears a dressing gown to this part of town? His face tightened, and he pressed his lips. Whoever she was, she obviously needed help. Rich folk like that didn’t belong in the slums. Not if they valued their lives and possessions anyway.
Well, at least it would be easy to catch up to her… Right?
Good Lord and heavens above, it wasn’t easy to catch up with her. He shook his head. How did she manage to run that fast? She was like a woman possessed. He was panting as he finally managed to tackle her. I wish I didn’t have to be so rough, lady, but you left me no choice. He was still wheezing, so all he could manage was a whisper in her ear. “Finally, I got you.” It was time to get some answers.
Unfortunately, she stayed silent. Odd, considering he did his best to tackle her as painlessly as possible. Hmm. This calls for a change in tactics!
“Hey, if I let you go, will you stay still and have a civilized conversation with me?” He raised an eyebrow.
She gasped for breath and nodded.
He slowly let go of her and stood up. His breathing was coming back under control, and the burning in his muscles was fading. The rest of his body still hurt like hell though.
She hugged her knees and dropped her gaze.
Somehow, she still seemed less than willing to talk. Which was kind of odd, considering she really had nothing to be that afraid off. Honestly, she was behaving like he was some kind of psychopath. He spoke softly and made peaceful gestures with his hands. “It’s all fine, you can talk to me.” Come on, rich girl, ease up; I’m no threat.
The girl was shorter than him, though that made her about as tall as anyone else these days. After all, he was a tall lad. She shook her head, making her long, curly black hair swivel and swing.
He relaxed his posture and slowed his breaths. “What’s the problem?” His muscles eased. “Are you afraid of me?” For some reason?
The girl gulped down a ball of air and slowly nodded. Seriously? What did I do to deserve such blatant bias?
She had an oval face with soft features, as if they had been drawn by a feather and left there to become bones and cheeks. Yet, they were symmetric and harmonious, and fit together like pieces of an intricate puzzle.
He loosened his limbs, and the tension and stress left him. “Look…” He ran his fingers through his hair. “It doesn’t have to be like this…” He grinned and offered his hand. “Let’s just do this the easy way, huh? Let me help you.”
She smiled and allowed him to raise her up. Finally, she was seeing his benevolent nature. Lightness sprung up in his chest. This was easy enough. Now all he had to do was get her home, and his good deed for the… “OW!” Her foot found a way between his legs, and pain in his nether regions erupted like a volcano.
She sprinted off again, without ever so much as a glance backward. He shook his head, kneeling on the cracked cobblestone, and gingerly held his crotch. He felt the wind knocked out of him as he lay on the ground in a defenseless fetal position waiting for the pain to subside. What was that about? I was trying to help you, you silly girl! Damn, this hurts!
His groin kept throbbing – seriously, he was beginning to wonder if he’d ever have children – and his injured body still in pain. He struggled to his feet and rushed after her as the icy air bombarded his face.
Beyond question, he promptly caught her again. Not that he’d expected anything less. Besides, he couldn’t let something happen to her. He was invested now. This time, however, he made her sit on the back of her legs.
“Please don’t do that again.” His trembling voice reverberated through the empty alleyway. One didn’t go out into the dark in the slums. Not when only one in five streetlamps worked, and even those always had little oil. Which made him wonder why in heaven’s name was he out in this ungodly hour… Oh, right, the Baxter problem. “It really hurt.”
She glared at him in silence.
“I don’t understand…” His voice was strained, his throat closing up. “Why are you being so difficult?” He could feel pressure building in his skull. “I’m trying to help you, you dumb cow.”
A bull-like snort rushed through her flared nostrils. “Oh, I’m aware of how you intended to help me, sir.” Her expression tightened, and her face reddened. “And I refuse to sully and dishonor the name of my family by allowing you to do so without resistance!”
“What are you even talking about?” He threw his hands in the air in surrender. “I’m trying to be nice here, stupid!”
Her lips curled. “Oh, I’m sure you are.” She tried to stay strong on wobbly legs. “Violating and possibly murdering me will feel really nice for you, of that I am certain.”
His eyebrows shot up, and his mouth fell open. “What?” He took a step back. Her response made his skin prickle in disbelief. “I’m not going to violate and possibly murder you!” Then again, we are alone… in the slums… at night… and I tackled her to the ground from behind…
He just managed to stop himself with a quick slap. I’m a bloody idiot.
A passive-aggressive smile spread on her face, and she blinked “Oh, then you must intend to violate and definitely murder me.” She pursed her lips and clenched her jaw. “Good to know.”
He let out a long breath and closed his eyes. “Look…” His gaze met hers. “I’m not…” He ground his teeth. “What is it with you and being violated?” Honestly, was this lady that paranoid?
She shrugged. “I’m a good looking, aristocratic, young woman.” Her jaw tensed, and she looked into his eyes without blinking.
All right, that much was true…
“And men are randy pigs, who only ever think of sliding between a woman’s legs.” She smirked.
That was also true. He really should have been more ardent in spending time with other men. This was just embarrassing…
He crossed his arms, and his eyelids dropped. “I don’t only think of sliding between a woman’s legs.” Ha! Beat that!
She squinted at him. “Are you a sodomite?”
She’s beaten it.
“I most certainly am not!” The veins in his neck pulsed.
Her ears turned red, and she cleared her throat. “All right, all right, just checking.” Her posture slumped. “So, if you’re intending to neither violate nor murder me, might I ask what you want, good sir?”
Stiffness took hold of his neck. It was about bloody time… The headache was drumming like it was directing redcoats. “I just want to help you get home.” He sighed and squeezed his forehead. “If I may?”
She angled away from him and wrinkled her brow. “Why?”
Because I’m a Good Samaritan, obviously. However, then his gaze lost focus on a moment, and a smile tried to creep up on his face but failed. There was another reason, of course. One that was as ingrained in him as the rule to never enter any room in the brothel without knocking. Ever! “I was raised by a group of women.” His breathing slowed, and his body relaxed. “They taught me to never abandon a lady in need.” His shoulders pushed back. “And, as ugly as it sounds, dressed like that, you’ll find yourself robbed in this part of town.” His chest tingled and burned. “And definitely violated and possibly murdered.” He sighed. “So, please, just let me help you get home safely. All right?”
She smiled. “I would very much appreciate that.”
He returned her smile and bent over to help her get up. “Damian Turner.”
She chuckled. “It is my most sincere pleasure to meet you, Mr. Turner.” She curtsied. “I am Lady Gabriella Griffith, only daughter of the Marquess of Ashtanshire.”
Oh, bad. A sudden coldness cut through his stomach. “Oh, Lord…” Very, very bad. His ears flushed red. “I could tell you were rich, but nobility?”
They’ll kill me, for sure. His chin trembled, and he had to force the words from his mouth. They’ll put a chain on my legs, and a noose on my neck. Oh, I’m going to end up like the poor bread guy… He gulped. Best try to make this right quickly. “I apologize for my informal tone, my lady. I swear, I’ll speak to you correctly from now on.”
Her expression pinched, and she crossed her arms. “Now, now, none of that.” She poked him in the chest, and her tone was sharp. “You didn’t know, so that makes it fine. If Society wants to do something about it, it can…” She put her hand on her lips. “Never mind.”
He shook his head. “Nothing.” He could’ve sworn that he was about to witness a lady of high society cussing, but alas, fortune wasn’t with him today. The hairs on his arms lifted. “Are you sure they won’t hang me?”
She snorted. “You’re exaggerating.” She nudged him. “No one is going to hang you for calling me by my name.”
He gulped. “I must disagree, my lady,” his voice cracked. “I once heard about a man hanged for stealing a loaf of bread.” Seriously, he’d been having trouble eating the stuff ever since. He looked around. The street was still empty. Thank God. “I’m not taking any chances.” A cold wind ruffled their hairs and clothes as it chilled their very bones. “I wonder if the Americans will hand me over.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Are you really that stupid?” Her posture straightened. “You do realize those were most likely just rumors, right?”
The headache started pounding in his head. “Don’t you call me stupid, miss I’m-a-filthy-rich-girl-who-got-lost-in-the-slums.”
“Hey, that was an accident!”
“What, daddy bought you a red gown when you wanted a green one, so you ran off crying?” He shook head. “Rich people…”
Her squint was harsh, and her delicate eyebrow leapt up. “How much do you value your freedom?”
An ugly, twisted sneer appeared on her mouth. “I don’t mean freedom as in ‘not being in prison’, I mean freedom to choose what you want in life?” Her nose wrinkled. “How much do you value being able to go where you please, when you please?”
His eyebrows were a millimeter away from merging. That was a rather awkward question. “What do you mean?”
Her quavering chin was raised high. “You could get up tomorrow and move to China, if you wanted.” She ran her finger through her collar, trying to loosen it, and kept her gaze ice cold upon him. “You could spend the next three months traveling Europe with a gypsy caravan.” Her tone deepened. “You can work.” Her shoulders shuddered. “If you had enough capital, you could even open a business.” Her tone was a venomous whisper, akin to the hiss of a snake. “How much do you value being able to do all these things?”
He broke eye contact. “I… I don’t know?” His entire face was heating up. “I’ve never really thought about it.”
Tension tightened her body like a drawn bow. “I have.” She stared away into nothing, her voice far away and lost. “I think about it all the time.” She balled her fists. “Because I can’t do any of those.” She whirled around, glaring at him. “You think I have it so well, huh? Money and dresses and parties?” She snorted. “Good enough for other ladies, perhaps…”
He looked down. “But not for you?”
A bitter laugh fought its way out of her mouth. “Oh, definitely not…” She turned away from him again, her attention was more lost into an endless void. “I’m a songbird, Mr. Turner. A songbird trapped in a gilded cage.” She crossed her arms. “I want to fly, and explore, and have fun, and…” Her voice strained and her tone jumped up. “I want to live! I want to taste everything life has to offer me.”
His hand hovered above her shoulder, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. How can I comfort her with this? How can a mere stranger help her with something he’s never experienced? Something he doesn’t understand…
Tears rolled down her cheek. “Instead, all I’ll get is some lord or another to marry. I’ll stay at home and watch the estate.” She let out a long breath. “I’ll raise the children, and go to parties, and pretend to like all the other ladies.” Her sarcastic and bitter giggle filled the stagnant air. “I’ll force out laughs and smiles, and then go back home to my miserable, gilded life.” She turned around and, walking backwards, poked him in the chest with each word. “So. Don’t. You. Talk. To. Me. About. Running. Off.”
She suddenly screamed out in pain and fell backwards. His heart skipped a beat. Not good, not good… He rushed down to her. His face turned ashen. Oh, if they weren’t going to hang him already, he was doomed now… Her foot had got stuck between a few missing cobblestones and was now bent in a way that was certainly not natural.
He needed to get her out, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. “Hold still.” He forced his breathing to slow down and his voice to remain steady. This was a horrendously stupid idea. Not that he had any other choice, though. “I need to pull your foot out, but it’s going to hurt like hell.” He squeezed her shoulders, and made sure her eyes didn’t leave his. “I need you to be tough for me now, all right?” He ripped off a piece of his shirt and folded it into a ball.
She bit into it and nodded.
He took a deep breath. “All right, I’m pulling it out on three. Ready?”
She glared at him and nodded again.
“All right… One…”
Her teeth sunk into the fabric with a muffled scream, as he snatched her leg out in a single movement. She just lay there, panting, with tears running down her face. He was crouching next to her, his eyebrows drawn together, and his posture open.
After a few moments of shaking there, on the cold and rough cobblestone road, she looked up and started hitting him on the shoulder.
He raised his hands. “Hey, hey, what’s that about?”
She punctuated each word with another strike. “You. Complete. Bloody. Jerk. Damian. Turner!” Her breathing was noisy, and she was scowling. “Do you have any idea how much that hurt?”
He laughed and caught her hands. “Well, I’m sorry, miss I’m-rich-and-unused-to-pain, but that was the best way to do it. Sudden and quick but hurts less in the long run.”
She snorted and looked away. “Be that as it may, that still hurt like hell.” She tried to move her foot, but only got a pained grimace. “Ugh, still hurts like hell.” She tucked a loose strand – See? This is why you don’t run with a fancy hairdo – behind her ear. “Either way, I apologize for cussing at you and for hitting you, Mr. Turner. It was unacceptable and unbefitting of my status.”
He waved her off. “It’s fine.”
A smile creeped out from her frown. “Thank you. That is most kind of you.”
Well, as touching as that was, they still had another problem. A rather immobile problem, one could say. He pressed his lips together. “I see. You can’t move it at all?”
She dropped her gaze and shook her head.
“Well, we have no choice then…”
Hangman’s noose, here I come.
She squinted. “What are you going to…”
In one fluid movement, he picked her up and started carrying her bridal style.
She laughed. “Well, someone no longer fears the gallows.”
Um… not true! I fear them! I fear them very much! He shrugged. “Well, what can I say, you’re worth it.”
She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Like I said…” Her lips slowly stretched into a smirk. “Randy pigs.”
He threw his head back. That was a poor choice of words. No, that was a “beggar on the street with no home or bread” choice of words. “Please don’t let anyone hear you, they’ll actually hang me…”
She giggled. “Relax, you have a good excuse.”
He pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow. “You know, you’re really relaxed for a noble lady.”
Her visage darkened. “Thank you, I try. If Society wants to cage me and make me follow its rules, I’ll…”
“Follow them to the letter?”
She pouted. “No! I snub it with my relaxed demeanor.”
He chuckled. “Something tells me, you only admit that when no one can hear you.”
Her gaze dropped down, and she pouted. “Not true… I do it with my best friend. And now with you.” Her eyes narrowed at him. “You won’t tell anyone, of course.”
“Oh, but of course.”
She snorted and shook her head. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Well, here I am, telling you my life story, and you’ve told me nothing about you.” She poked his chest. “So, tell me, who is Damian Turner?”
“Ah… well, not much to tell, I suppose.” His voice quieted. “Grew up here in the slums, never knew my parents.” His head tilted to the side. “Now I just sort of… scuttle about I guess.” And deal with homicidal gambling hell crews. His belly fluttered, and his muscles relaxed, even under the girl’s weight. Which, if he thought about it, really wasn’t that much. “Do what I can to survive and help my family.”
“You’re talking about the women who raised you?”
His chest heaved with a sudden jolt. “Yes.” Warmth sailed through his body. “You’ll never find a group of people more kind or considerate.” His lips spread into a genuine smile. “They made me who I am today. They taught me to be strong but kind. Never to look on others from above, never to judge, never to hurt.” He chuckled and shook his head. “They also helped me get a bit of learning.”
“A lot of educated people visit them, so they managed to get them to teach me some stuff every now and then. It’s not much, but I can read and write, do some math…” Apparently, scholarly people loved brothels. Who knew?
Her eyelids lowered. “They sound like very good people.” She took a deep breath. “Who are they, if I may ask?”
His eyes gleamed. “Prostitutes, here in the slums.”
“Ah, my sincerest apologies, I…”
“Why are you apologizing?” He raised his eyebrows. “I’m not ashamed of them. They do honest work, like everyone else, and theirs is much tougher, in its own way.” He chuckled. “I think you, of all people, can respect the fact that I snub the society that scorns them for what they do, when we all have no choice to do what we must to survive.”
A gruff voice came from behind them. “I agree.”
They turned to see a thin man with patches of grey hair on his head. “I need to do what I have to do to survive too, I’m afraid.” He was wearing a shabby and ripped coat and had no shoes on. “I’m really sorry for this, you look like a lovely young couple, but…” He pulled out a gun and pointed it at Lady Gabriella.
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