Authors: Mia Marlowe
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Diana Groe
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Cover art by Anna Kmet
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One of the things which distinguish the young from the old is the youthful ability to go blithely into folly. We who are blessed with a wealth of years are guilty of foolishness from time to time, but we do tend to blunder into it with our eyes wide open.
âPhillippa, the Dowager Marchioness of Somerset
1817, The Green Cockerel
Whitechapel's most notorious boxing crib
John Fitzhugh Barrett eyed the prizefighter in the opposite corner. John's friends rallied around him, crowding on either side, but however supportive they might be, John would be the only one climbing into the roped-off ring.
“The blighter's never been defeated.” Pitcairn barely restrained a shudder. He was a foxy-faced little fellow who would never be accused of an overabundance of courage, but John liked him in spite of his nervous nature. Besides, John couldn't be too choosy when it came to friends. The
wasn't exactly lining up to take him to heart, even after he'd been suddenly elevated to the title of Lord Hartley.
“Edgar Meek, they say he's called,” Pitcairn said.
“Don't fit him much, do it?” Smalley chimed in. His name didn't fit him either. With a protruding belly straining beneath his cutaway waistcoat, he wasn't the least bit small. He always claimed “Smalley” referred to the miserly allowance on which his titled older brother forced him to subsist. He'd been keen to try this illegal boxing crib for weeks and had finally convinced the rest of the Daemon Club to join him. Smalley was Oxford educated, as they all were, but he always affected a country accent when the club went slumming. “If any of the meek are like to inherit the earth, it'll be him. Gor, look at the size of him.”
“Perhaps he goes by Meek because Attila the Hun was already taken,” Viscount Blackwood said in a bored drawl. Before John learned he was heir to the marquessate of Somerset, Blackwood had enjoyed the highest rank among them. The viscount drained his jigger of whisky and smoothed down his russet mustache with the back of his hand. “What do you say, Hartley? Can you take him?”
John had difficulty thinking of himself by the new name. It seemed odd to answer to “Lord Hartley,” one of the marquess's lesser titles. He was still the same person he'd been when he was thought to be nothing more than a great man's by-blow. But it had recently come to light that John's mother's marriage to Lord Somerset had never been properly annulled, making him the unexpected
High ranking or not, John was the best brawler among the members of the Daemon Club by a long chalk. None of the others could hope to challenge the boxing-crib favorite. John reassessed Edgar Meek.
The fighter stripped off his shirt, revealing a broad chest and biceps rippling with muscle. A goodly sized man himself, John stood a bit over six feet. Hard work had left him well-muscled and tough. He'd emerged the victor in his share of fisticuffs during his school years, but Meek topped him by half a head and probably outweighed him by two or three stone.
Common sense told John to walk away, but he'd abandoned such gentle nudges of good judgment of late. The purse for this illegal prize fight was substantial. However, the real money was made with side bets. Since the reigning champion was a crowd favorite, the odds were heavily weighted in the challenger's favor. If John won, it would be a golden chance to put a bit of blunt into his friends' pockets. The Daemon Club wasn't made up of the most dependable of fellows, but through the years, they'd treated him a great deal better than his family had.
Still, Edgar Meek was a monstrous big chap.
“Oh, and did we mention the real plum that goes to the winner?” Blackwood said. “Here they come with her now.”
The greasy proprietor of the boxing crib and one of his bulbous-nosed henchmen came out from the back room, dragging a kicking and scratching girl between them. Her chestnut hair was disheveled, hanging down to obscure her face. With dear lace at the bodice and hem, her pale blue gown was of obvious value, but it was also dirtied at the knees and ripped in several places.
“What's this?” John asked with a frown.
“A lost lamb,” Blackwood said. “And a sacrificial one at that. She's no game girl, if that's what you're thinking. The fight promoters have the devil's own time convincing anyone to get into the ring with Meek. So when they find a young lady of quality who happens to wander where she shouldn't, they snatch her off the street and offer her up as a prize to the winner to do with as he will.” Blackwood licked his lips as he gazed at the struggling girl. “A tasty bit of baggage and probably a virgin to boot. Doesn't it make a man feel alive when a woman wants a bit of subduing?”
John ignored Blackwood's carnal preferences, which always sank to the lowest mark. Instead, he followed the progress of the captive onto a raised block beneath the sagging stairs. The proprietor trussed up the girl, tying her to one of the posts supporting a narrow interior balcony off the rickety upper story. Then he lifted a lantern near her face and pushed back her hair.
“Here you are, gentlemen,” he bellowed to be heard over the din as men crowded cheek by jowl in the boxing crib. “Pretty as a daisy, she is, and fresh as one too, if you catch my meaning.”
In the yellowish light of the lantern, the girl's eyes were wide with fear, but her mouth was set in a tight line. She obviously wouldn't give her captors the satisfaction of hearing her cry out.
John's gut clenched. He'd seen that girl somewhere. Oh, yes, the British Museum. She and another young lady had been standing before the Rosetta Stone. John had barely spared a glance for the acclaimed artifact, partly because he'd already studied it on a previous visit and partly because he was captivated by the girl's delicate profile. The tip of her nose turned up just slightly, which saved her from being so devastatingly pretty he wouldn't dare approach her.
He'd been the recipient of so many cuts direct since he came to London, he'd lost count. Even though it had proven false, the taint of bastardy still clung to him.
“The same decree is inscribed on the Stone three times,” the girl had read from the guidebook to her companion, her properly gloved finger following the words on the page. “Inâ”
“In hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek,” John had finished for her as he joined the two young women before the display.
Her companion had “hmphed” and pointedly looked away, her sharp, longish nose in the air. But the girl he'd been drawn to peered up at him. Her perfectly oval face was enhanced by a few chestnut curls that had escaped her bonnet at her temples. Her eyes were an unusual shadeâthe minty gray-green of the sea before a storm. A squall brewed behind them.
“Do you make a habit of interrupting the private conversation of others, sir?” she asked. Her voice was low and musical, instead of the girlish whine he'd come to associate with wellborn misses.
“Only if I wish to make their acquaintance more than I care whether it's good form to interrupt or not.” He gave her his best bow. “My only excuse is that you captivate me and if that be a sin, I ask your pardon, my lady.”
It wasn't at all the done thing, but she'd smiled at him in any case. The luminous expression erased any deficiency in the tilt of her nose and rendered her as exquisite as a Botticelli angel. If he'd seen her smile first, he'd never have screwed his courage enough to speak to her. But then her companion had grasped her wrist and flounced away, towing her along like a dinghy bobbing in the wake of a frigate under full sail.
John supposed her friend was right. They hadn't been properly introduced, but how was he to manage a proper introduction to anyone when the
shunned him as if he carried the pox?
The girl had seemed an angel in the museum. In the boxing crib, the young lady's face was pale as a ghost, and her hovering friend was nowhere in sight. John warranted she'd be more than grateful for his company now, however improper their meeting might be.
“Well, Hartley, is she worth the risk?” Blackwood asked.
Without a word, John removed his jacket and waistcoat and handed them to Blackwood. Then he reached inside himself for strengthening rage. He found it as quickly as the tip of the tongue finds an aching tooth.
“Lay your money down, gentlemen,” John said as he climbed into the ring and strode toward his opponent with fists curled. “The meek will not be blessed today.”
* * *
Miss Rebecca Kearsey strained against her bonds, but what her captor lacked in hygiene, he apparently made up for in knot-tying skills. She couldn't wiggle free.
Still, part of her heart sang a hopeful little song. She'd been praying for days to stumble across that handsome gentleman she and Lady Winifred Chalcroft had seen at the museum again.
She just never expected to have her prayer answered like this.
Winifred would call her a goose for looking for a bright spot in such a dire situation, but it was better to have found the fellow from the museum than not. Rebecca had stewed for several days after their encounter over who he was and why she'd never seen him at any of the usual assemblies or gatherings. She shouldn't have allowed Freddie to drag her away from the Rosetta Stone that afternoon. It wasn't every day that a gentleman professed to be captivated by the daughter of an impoverished baron. Most of them took one look at her minuscule dowry and looked elsewhere.
Besides, surely this gentleman who knew about the Stone without reading from a guidebook had to be a cut above the usual dandies and bucks who sought her out. If he spent time in museums, surely that spoke to a depth of feeling and a contemplative nature beyond the common.
But if that were the case, she could almost hear Freddie arguing, what was he doing in this boxing crib? And what were his intentions toward her should he win?
This was not the best of outcomes, after all.
Of course, it didn't appear as if Rebecca would have to worry about the gentleman's intentions. He was about to be pummeled to death before her eyes.
There seemed to be no proper rules to the fight, no referee to keep any semblance of order. Each of the combatants came out swinging and, though her gentleman was more agile, he was holding the short end of the stick when the fighters came together to exchange blows.
The bald giant connected another punishing jab to the gentleman's ribs. Rebecca's own side ached in sympathy. The one the crowd called Meek was so big, he completely blocked her gentleman from view at times. Meek was tough, too. The first time the man from the museum struck him solidly in the jaw, the fellow had merely spat out a bloody tooth and laughed.
The small candle of hope in her chest began to gutter.
But then Meek took a wild swing which the gentleman managed to duck. The ham-sized fist grazed the top of his dark hair, but evidently it was a glancing blow. The missed punch threw Meek's balance off. Before he could right himself, her gentleman clocked him a good one upside the head, at the spot where the thinner bone of his temple provided less protection for his brain pudding.
The champion staggered, dropped to his knees, and then toppled face forward like a felled oak. He did not rise.
The entire room went silent for the space of three heartbeats. Then it erupted in shouts and thrown fists as the onlookers realized most of them were on the losing side of their wagers.
The gentleman from the museum clambered over the ropes and elbowed his way toward her, knocking heads together when the ones in his path didn't clear out quickly enough to suit him.
A little thrill shivered over Rebecca's skin. During the course of their historical studies, Freddie had told her that in ancient times, women were counted as spoils to the barbarian victors and, according to her research, displays of masculine strength were said to be most invigorating.
Rebecca had no idea what that meant until now. A warm lump of something she'd never felt before flared to life, glowing in her chest.
A trio of well-dressed fellows fell in behind her gentleman, whether to serve as his rear-guard or to follow in his protective wake, Rebecca couldn't be sure.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded of her as he pulled out a pocketknife and sliced through her bonds with a couple of slashes. An evil-smelling fellow stumbled toward them, but her rescuer's fist lashed out. It connected with the fellow's jaw, and the odiferous man fell backward.
“I could ask you the same thing,” Rebecca said. Her gentlemanâFreddie would scold her for thinking of him like that, but she couldn't help herselfâdidn't belong here any more than she did. He should be strolling through an astronomy exhibit with her while she basked in an artificial representation of the stars.
“Time is of the essence.” One of his companions, a red-haired fellow, scanned the crowd, a nervous tick making his cheek jerk. “Hurry up with the girl, Hartley.”
The name seemed vaguely familiar. Freddie had been waffling on about a Lord Hartley once, but then Freddie waffled on a great deal about a great many people. Rebecca would go dotty if she tried to recall every
her friend insisted upon sharing.
The ginger-haired gentleman hefted a small pouch which clinked loudly enough to be heard over the crowd. “I've collected our winnings, but we'd better leave with promptness if we hope to spend it in good health. Come. I know where the back exit is.”
The redhead slithered through the crowd along the edge of the room. Hartley put a protective arm around Rebecca and followed, with the smaller fellow and the paunchy one close behind. They squeezed through the rioting swarm and pushed through a filthy excuse for a kitchen. Then the group fled through a door that was half off its hinges. The narrow alley behind the crib smelled better than the kitchen by only the barest of margins.