About the book
Their love emerged from the shadows, bathed in dim moonlight…
Fate dealt Daphne Reed a cruel hand, when she saw her parents killed as a child. Determined to let go of the past and start anew, she takes a position as a governess. But she can’t help but feel that she has seen her employer before.
Fergus Collfield, the Earl of Summerhelm, can’t bring himself to mourn for his father. Remembering him as a cruel and abusive man, his death feels more like a blessing than a loss. A blessing that takes the form of the governess his mother hires for his younger siblings.
Like a harbinger of death, the smell of gunpowder rises from the graveyard, and the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son.
They know about Daphne and they intend to use her to drive Fergus into the pit of the snake. Racing against the countdown to their doomsday, Daphne and Fergus must face the monster of their story: a face they both know in their memories
In London, the night was never quiet, and although some might have found the sounds of carriage wheels and late-night revelers to be a bother, Daphne never had. Instead, she often laid awake in bed and listened to the noise rising from beyond the walls of her parents’ modest London home. She’d imagined what lives those people, those strangers, might have that she would never know a thing about.
It was a strange feeling, as though she’d invaded upon those strangers’ lives, and they would never know. Daphne rolled onto her stomach, the blankets tangling around her. She was eight years old, and the world seemed so vast and wonderful.
Daphne jumped. That sound was closer than the others. Rather than sounding like it came from the street, it seemed as if it might have come from just outside the house. Quietly abandoning her bed, Daphne slipped to the floor and quietly crossed the room. She shifted aside the curtain and peered outside her window. It was dark, save for spots of color cast by lanterns and gas lamps just out of view.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
She pressed her cheek against the glass of the window and strained to see. Daphne was almost certain that the sound now came from the door of the house, and the loud pounding was someone frantically beating on the door. Was it an emergency of some sort?
She bit her lip and crept to the doorway of her room. Across the floor, she saw the door to the house with a weak, flitting stream of light just beneath it.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“Daphne!” Her mother’s voice snapped through the quiet like a shot.
Daphne jumped and whirled around, gazing at her mother with wide, blue eyes. Her mother pulled her against her chest, filling Daphne’s face with the rose-scented fabric of her bodice.
“What is it?” the child asked, raising her face to her mother’s.
Her mother’s fair face furrowed with worry. With her dark hair all in disarray and her eyes wide, she looked disheveled and terrified, like a rabbit who’d found itself in the paws of a hungry cat.
Daphne’s father entered the room, looking as disheveled as her mother did. It seemed that they’d been fast asleep when the noise began, but more than that, they seemed terrified. They seemed to know that a danger lurked just beyond the door, and Daphne couldn’t figure out how they would know without even opening the door.
“Open up, Reed!” a voice barked.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“Hide!” her father whispered, seizing his wife’s arms. “Take Daphne and hide.”
“No, I can’t,” she replied.
“Do it!” he hissed.
There was a metallic ring from beyond the door, the sound of the doorknob being turned or wrenched. A cracking noise followed. Daphne squeaked in surprise and jumped reflexively in her mother’s grasp.
“Hannah, you must!” her father exclaimed. “Go! Hide!”
“What’s wrong?” Daphne whispered.
Her mother pressed Daphne’s head to her chest.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Then, her mother moved, hurrying across the floor. Daphne’s chest ached. Her heart raced, and she didn’t understand anything that was happening. Why were her parents so afraid, and what was happening so late at night? Why were men screaming from the other side of the door, and what did they want?
Her mother placed her on the ground and threw open the linen closet door with the screaming of hinges, which Daphne barely heard above the pounding at the door and the shouts of the men just beyond it.
“Get in!” her mother exclaimed.
The closet was small and filled only with a small amount of extra linens. Daphne wedged herself backwards into the dark corner. Her breath came in a sharp, little gasp. “What is it?”
“Be quiet,” her mother said. “Daphne, you must.”
Her mother dipped down and planted a kiss against her daughter’s forehead. Then, she took the blankets and wrapped them around her daughter. The door slammed shut, leaving Daphne in blackness. Outside, she heard something dragged across the floor and before the door, as if her mother meant to hide the closet further.
“What have you done?” her father exclaimed. “You—”
“I won’t leave you!” her mother replied. “Never! Not for anything in the world! And besides, they know I’m here. They know I’m with you. But they don’t know about—”
Crack! Light seeped beneath the crack at the bottom of the door, and Daphne scrambled to it. Her stomach hurt. She felt as though she might be sick, and she wanted nothing more than to leave the dark of the closet and run into her mother’s arms. Tears sprang to her eyes, as she pressed her cheek against the floor.
There were her parents’ bare feet and beyond them, three pairs of boots. Daphne’s heart beat so rapidly that it made her chest ache. Light swung across the floor. The men had brought lanterns, and Daphne could just barely see by them.
“You’ve no right to come storming into my house at so late an hour!” her father snapped. “You’ve frightened my wife!”
The hem of her mother’s gown swayed, and Daphne saw that she drew nearer to her husband.
“It isn’t as if your wife was unaware of your doings!” a man snarled. “Did you think you could simply leave? You do not choose not to be involved, not without His Lordship’s permission.”
His Lordship? Daphne furrowed her brow, unsure what one of the ton, what a lord, might have to do with her parents. Her father was a good and honest man! He worked in London every day and came home every night in high spirits, and sometimes, if Daphne was very good, he would bring her little candies.
A cruel laugh filled the air. “We’ve every right to be here.”
Boots slapped on the ground, as the man stepped closer. Daphne pressed her fist against her mouth, muffling a sob. Her mother had told her to remain hidden, and Daphne knew she wouldn’t be able to do anything against three men. But her vision was clouded with tears, and a terrible, twisting feeling filled her belly.
“You knew the risks in this line of work,” the man continued. He paced across the floor, his steps punctuating his words. “You must have realized that you couldn’t cheat him and yet you were foolish enough to try.”
“So you’re angry with me,” her father said. “His Lordship is angry with me. I understand. I will come with you, and—”
“Come with us?” the man asked.
One of the men laughed, although Daphne couldn’t discern which one. “Who said anything about coming with us?” another man asked.
Daphne swallowed hard. The man who’d spoken first, the one who kept walking across the floor, paused suddenly. There was a faint clicking noise, and her mother let out a small cry.
“We don’t need to do this,” her father said. “Not here. Not in front of my wife!”
“Did you think we’d leave your wife to tell everyone of our deeds?” the man sneered.
Daphne choked on her fist, tears falling down her face. The sound was loud and pierced through the wall into the closet. She yelled in surprise, and her mother screamed. Daphne heard a thud, and her father fell backwards onto the ground.
“No!” her mother screamed.
Daphne rubbed roughly at her eyes. She wanted to look away. She wanted to return to bed. She didn’t want to see her father laying on the floor or hear the desperation in her mother’s voice, as she pressed her hands against her husband’s chest.
Someone shot him.
Daphne’s breath hitched. She pressed the blankets against her face, trying to muffle her sobs, but she wanted to scream and rage. She wanted to storm across the floor and yell at that man for hurting her father.
Her father gasped for air, but Daphne didn’t think he was getting any. The strangers stepped closer, and her mother’s body grew tense. “Just leave! You’ve done what you came to do!” her mother screamed. “Leave, you murderers!”
One of them laughed, and her mother sprang to her feet. She launched herself at one of the men. As the pair vanished from sight, Daphne heard scuffling and yelling. The two other men disappeared in a symphony of pounding footsteps that went to the opposite side of the room.
I must stay quiet. I must.
But her mother was gone, and Daphne cried into her blankets. She didn’t want to hear or see anymore, but that same ear-shattering blast of sound happened again and again. There was an accompanying thud and more boot steps. Daphne squeezed her eyes closed. Her heart pounded so loudly that she felt sure the awful men, the men who’d killed her parents—
No, my parents can’t be dead. Surely, this is all just some terrible dream, and I’ll wake up any moment. My parents must be alive. They have to be.
Footsteps. Daphne’s eyes snapped open. A pair of dusty, brown boots shifted into view. “Well, that’s done.”
She hadn’t heard that voice before. He must have stayed quiet throughout the exchange.
“We best get out of here before the noise draws unwelcome attention,” the man continued.
“Agreed.” That was the voice of the man who’d laughed. “At least, he will be pleased.”
The men turned away, taking the light with them. Daphne didn’t dare move. She barely dared to breathe. Tears fell down her cheeks, and the silent seconds stretched before her. She remained still and silent in the blackness, pulling her blanket more tightly around her. As her eyes adjusted to the lack of light, she could just barely see her father’s form, still prone on the ground.
She swallowed around the lump in her throat. “Father?” she whispered. “Mother?”
No one answered. Biting her lip, Daphne sniffled and carefully unfolded herself from the blanket. She reached in darkness, searching for the doorknob, but she couldn’t find it. Unable to control her sobbing any longer, she cried freely and ran her hands over the wood of the door, trying to free herself from the closet.
An odd smell filled her nose. It was a bit like the smell of the wood that always popped in the fireplace, but this scent was somehow more bitter than that. And besides, the fireplace had gone cold much earlier in the night. It certainly wasn’t burning.
Daphne found the doorknob and twisted, but the door didn’t open fully. It had struck against whatever her mother had hauled in front of the door, and the tiny opening afforded by the closet door wasn’t enough for her to get through. Instead, she pressed her weight against the closet door, shoving with all her might, but she simply wasn’t strong enough.
“Help!” she shouted.
No one answered. Her eyes stung, and Daphne paused a moment to wipe the tears from them. Once the tears were gone, her eyes still burned, though. That smell was worse, stronger. She pushed against the closet again, and when the door didn’t give, she peered through the crack of the door.
But her father lay just before her, unmoving. Daphne swallowed hard and reached out, trying to touch him, but he was just too far away. She pushed against the door again. Once more, nothing.
Something changed, though. A small flicker of light shined across the floor. Daphne froze. She wondered if it was the men and if they’d returned for her, if they’d heard her screams. But no boots appeared. Then, she saw the first flicker of a flame.
“Fire!” she shouted. “Help!”
The house was on fire, and she was still trapped in the closet. Daphne screamed and shoved against the door, pushing and struggling. She tried to get through the too-small crack, but her arm wouldn’t even fit.
Her eyes burned with tears and smoke, as the fire came closer. The smoke had already reached her, and she heard the sound of wood popping and cracking. Their dear, little house was ablaze and burning around her, and she could barely breathe.
“Help!” When she shouted, smoke rushed into her lungs, sending her into a fierce fit of coughs as she desperately tried to clear her throat.
Her chest ached, and she wailed again. Wood cracked, and something heavy pounded against the floor. Daphne sobbed against the floor. She could barely see, but she could hear just a little beyond her own sniffles and the blazing house.
There were footsteps.
“Reed?” She recognized the voice. That was the neighbor Edward Collins. “By God! Reed!”
His footsteps were frantic. Wood popped and flames crackled. The house was so hot and so filled with smoke that Daphne could scarcely breathe, but she gathered all the air she could and screamed. She beat her fists against the closet door.
“Daphne!” Collins shouted. “Daphne! I’m coming!”
Coughing, the man crossed the room. He stepped over her father’s body and heaved something heavy aside. Daphne realized it must have been her mother’s chest, the one she’d been given for her marriage. The closet door was wrenched open, and Collins stood there, backed by the light of the flames. His face was already dampened with sweat from the heat of the fire, and his green eyes were wild.
“Oh, God. There you are! Don’t worry. I’ve got you!”
She sobbed, and without hesitation, Collins bent down and hauled her into his arms, wrapping the blanket tightly around her. He ran from the house, through the crackling light and heat of the flames, and onto the London street. A cry went up at his approach. Already, a small crowd had gathered. Some had water and were trying frantically to fight the blaze.
“Gertrude, take her!” Collins rasped, his order punctuated with coughs.
Collins’s maid hurried forward, and Daphne wordlessly let herself be passed to the woman, who pressed the girl against her chest and bounced her in her arms. “What about her parents?” the maid asked.
“Dead,” Collins replied. “Take the girl home. There’s nothing more we can do here.”
“Dead?” Gertrude exclaimed.
“No!” Daphne screamed, raising her head. “No! My parents!”
Through the thick layer of tears, Daphne could hardly see Collins’s face, but he shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing more we can do.”
The words settled in her belly like a hard and heavy stone. “No,” she mumbled. “No, they can’t be.”
When Gertrude turned away from the house, carrying Daphne with her, the little girl didn’t fight. She let her forehead fall against the maid’s shoulder and instead cried until she felt sick.
“Hush, now,” the maid murmured. “It’s going to be fine. Everything will be fine.”
Daphne tried not to cry. Her eyes hurt, and her nose was all clogged up. And her parents were dead. No amount of reassurances would make that better because those terrible men had killed them and set the house ablaze.
London nights had stopped being beautiful when Daphne Reed was only eight years old. Now, they were dark places where danger hid like wild animals, ready to pounce upon the unsuspecting. And a woman always presented a favorable target. She swallowed and pulled her cloak more tightly about her, concealing the basket she carried at the crook of her elbow, and she kept walking.
The Collins family would not approve of this. Since taking her in, they’d treated her as though she were an expensive ornament, made of glass and easily broken. But what good could any woman do if she was always confined to a happy home and never allowed to see, much less face, the injustices of the world?
And eventually, I will tell them. Once I’ve found the words to confess my transgression to them.
It was not as if the transgression was so bad, anyway. Daphne reasoned that there were orphans who were far less kind to their adoptive families and who were far less obedient than she was. Besides, if she was to commit some ill, wasn’t it better that hers bring fortune to those who had none?
A chill settled over her spine as she set her steps towards Southwark. It was not a part of London where the Collins family would ever let her visit alone and unescorted, but it was also the poorest. Those people were the most in need of Daphne’s basket filled with baked goods and small bottles of medicine to cut against the usual maladies of the springtime.
Here we are.
Daphne crossed the street and approached her destination, the Baker Orphanage. She knocked on the door and waited, brandishing her basket before her. Only a second passed before the door was opened. Anna stood in the doorway.
“Miss Reed!” she exclaimed. “A pleasure, as always!”
Anna was the daughter of the man who managed the orphanage, and while both father and daughter were the most heartfelt, caring pair that Daphne had ever met, the orphanage was perpetually in desperate need of money.
Daphne smiled. “I brought what I could,” she said. “I wish it were more. But there are some candies, which the children should love. And I’ve included a couple of shillings, which you might be able to use. I’ve also bought a bit of thread for mending.”
Anna curled her hands over Daphne’s. “Every bit you do for us is more than you have to, Miss Reed. I cannot even express how much the children’s spirits are raised when you bring them these little things. It brightens their days so much.”
Daphne nodded. A lump seemed to form in her throat at the praise. Although she often brought the children little gifts, it seemed that lately she’d begun to feel more and more ill at ease during her visits. She was seized by the insidious thought that she was never doing enough. And maybe she never could do enough.
Anna turned and retrieved the basket, which had been hidden just out of sight inside the orphanage. “Here is the last one you brought me.”
Daphne looped the basket over her arm, letting it swing at the crook of her elbow. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you for all that you do. Would you like to come in and meet the children?”
Daphne laughed and shook her head. “You ask me that every visit, and always, I give you the same answer. The children are all asleep in their beds. I cannot possibly—”
“I’m certain the children would be delighted to be awakened from their sleep if it meant that they may be able to meet the young woman who always brings them such wonderful gifts.”
Perhaps. But Daphne knew that children liked to talk. As a young girl, she’d never been able to keep a secret, and if her late-night visitations were to continue, she needed her identity to remain a secret. She couldn’t chance word reaching the Collins family.
“Wish them well for me. As always,” Daphne said, taking a step back.
“And I shall,” Anna replied. “Travel safely home, Miss.”
Daphne inclined her head slightly and pulling her hood further over her face, set off to return to the Collins family’s home. A shiver traced her spine as she moved further away from the orphanage. She’d emptied her basket, though, so any potential thieves would see that she carried nothing valuable enough to steal.
But there are other villains who might stop me.
Daphne rubbed her forearms, trying to warm herself. She bit her lip, forcing away the memory of her parents’ death. It seemed unfair that a woman of three-and-twenty years ought to still be haunted by something which happened when she was eight, but she found herself perpetually returning to the event. In any moment of uncertainty, her parents returned to her.
They would have been proud of me, though. I think.
As a grown woman, Daphne wondered now if she might have missed some of her parents’ flaws. There was much that she still didn’t understand, like what her father might have done to draw the ire of his Lordship, and it was pointless to reflect on those questions. No matter how cruel the deed, she knew she’d never have justice for her parents’ deaths. All evidence of her parents’ murders had vanished with their house.
A low whistle split the air. “It’s not safe for a woman to be walking alone.”
Daphne straightened her back. A figure peeled away from a nearby building. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with thick, brown hair. His face was pleasing, handsome even, but when he grinned, the gesture was cruel and edged.
“It is improper,” she replied, “But it is not unsafe as long as there are no villains seeking to imperil women.”
She pulled the hood down a little further, as if by doing so, she could hide herself from the man. This was not the first time she’d been interrupted on one of her midnight adventures, and she’d emerged from those incidents unscathed.
“Are you under the impression that there are no villains in London?” the man sneered.
Daphne forced her face to remain confident. If she balked, it would only amuse the scoundrel, so she must feign bravado. It was a simple matter of convincing the man that vexing her would be more trouble than it was worth.
“No, I’m quite aware that scoundrels haunt London’s streets and alleys,” she replied.
She tried to step around the man, but he blocked her path. Daphne swallowed. Her grip tightened on the basket, although she knew it would hardly protect her from a villain, even if she swung it.
“What do you think, Jack? Should we escort this young woman home and protect her from the villains of London?”
The shadows shifted, and another man crossed the street to join them. Jack, Daphne assumed. He was a stout, muscular man with dark hair and a confident stride. A long scar split across his right cheek. This was a rough man, one accustomed to being involved in fights.
“I think that would be a fine idea, Benjamin,” Jack said, grinning. “We can’t let the woman wander the streets alone.”
“I am not unaccompanied,” Daphne said.
She could tell that Benjamin was attempting to move behind her, so together, he and Jack might cut off any potential route for her escape. The young woman shifted, trying to put her back to the wall of the nearest building. Her eyes darted over the street, silently searching for anyone who looked as if they might intervene.
A few people milled about the streets, but none of them seemed particularly alarmed or invested in what was happening to her and the ruffians before him.
“Oh?” Jack asked, holding his arms out. “I don’t see any man accompanying you.”
“I’ve lost him,” she said, thinking fast. “But he’ll doubtlessly be looking for me. If you hurt me, he’ll be very displeased, and you don’t want to fight him. He’d destroy both of you without a second thought.”
Jack chuckled, and Benjamin elbowed his companion in the ribs. “Did you hear that, Benjamin? Maybe we ought to escort her to her male friend. Otherwise, she might meet some terrible misfortune.”
“I suppose that would be right gentlemanly of us, wouldn’t it?” Benjamin asked.
They stepped closer. Daphne rolled her shoulders back and tipped her chin upwards in defiance. “You don’t want to do this. I’ll scream, and I’ll fight. I don’t have anything for you to steal, so you’d best leave.”
Jack lunged forward. Daphne swept to the side and raised her arm. She swung the basket as hard as she could, so it collided with the man’s head. Then, she broke into a run. These men wouldn’t be easily deterred, so she had to put as much distance between herself and them as she possibly could.
Her feet pounded against the cobblestones, and her hood flew back against her shoulders, baring her face. Still, she ran. Without warning, something struck her hard in the back of the head. She stumbled and turned around. Jack’s face swam in view. He leered at her and clawed at her face. She screamed, hoping to draw someone’s attention.
Jack grasped a handful of her hair and twisted it around his hand. Sharp and tingling pain burst through Daphne’s skull. She cried out and stumbled, as Jack pulled her against him.
“Release me!” she exclaimed. “Release me at once!”
“After you hit me?” Jack asked, shaking her.
Daphne raised her hands to her hair, trying to break his grip and free herself, but the man’s fingers were unyielding. Benjamin joined them, his face stretched into a cruel sneer.
“She likes to fight, huh?”
“So she does,” Jack agreed. “She’s an attractive creature, too. Very pleasing.”
Her heart hammered against her ribcage. The Collins family was wealthy and respected, but it wasn’t as if they were a part of the ton. Their name might be enough to reassure a respectable man, but it wasn’t enough to threaten brutes like these men.
Daphne twisted, turning to face Jack. Pain swept along her scalp, and without warning, it was suddenly gone. Jack released her and shoved her hard, so she fell to the ground. She scraped her forearms on the cobblestones, sending dull, throbbing pain through her.
Daphne clenched her jaw and rolled over to face her attackers. Jack and Benjamin leered over her, their eyes dark with cruel intentions. She wondered if the men who’d killed her parents had looked like that. She had only caught glimpses of them beneath the closet door, but she’d have been willing to bet that they had looked at her parents that exact same way.
“You don’t want to do this,” Daphne said. “There’s no point in it.”
“Oh, there is a point,” Jack said. “It’s nothing that a sheltered girl like you would understand, though.”
Benjamin seized her arm, dragging her to her feet. She stumbled in her attempts to find her footing, but Benjamin pulled her flush against him. Her chest collided with his, and Daphne instinctively stretched a hand out against his chest, trying to put whatever space she could between her body and his.
“Don’t,” Daphne said, trying to sound threatening.
It was difficult, though, because she had nothing with which to threaten. She was a woman who believed in peace and justice, and the Collins family was, too.
Benjamin tightened his grip, as if to remind her just how powerless she was. “I don’t think we have to listen to a little girl like you,” he sneered. “You were the one foolish enough to be wandering the streets unaccompanied.”
“Let go!” Daphne repeated, beating a fist against his Benjamin’s chest.
A throat cleared. Her head snapped in the direction of the sound. Another man stood across the street, leaning against the building. The hood of his cloak obscured most of his face and his form, but from what Daphne could see, he was a tall and broad-shouldered man.
Her pulse quickened. It seemed there was no shortage of scoundrels wandering the streets of London that night, and worse, they all seemed concentrated around Southwark.
“Don’t you have anything better to do than stand around staring at folks?” Jack asked, crossing his arms.
“You’d best get to moving somewhere else,” Benjamin said.
The villain’s arm snaked around Daphne’s waist, lighting at the small of her back. She tried once more to pull away, but the scoundrel refused to release her. Instead, she went still, hoping to lure the villain into a sense of security. If he’d let down his guard, she suspected that she might have a decent chance of escaping. All she needed to do was get the man to loosen her for just a second, and when that second came, she’d be free.
“And if I don’t want to?” the man asked.
His voice, smooth like silk and as dark as a night sky, wrapped around Daphne and set her senses ablaze. It was a strong, confident voice and lightly accented. A voice of breeding if she’d ever heard one. And yet it carried a strange undercurrent, a peculiar deepness to it, as if the speaker was making an attempt to disguise what he truly sounded like.
“If you don’t want to, we’ll have trouble,” Jack said, pulling a knife.
Daphne drew in a sharp breath at the sight of the bladed weapon, which gleamed beneath the warm light of the gas lamps. A few people, who’d been near enough to see, backed further away into the alleys. She swallowed hard. Her breath kept coming in awkward pants.
“A lot of trouble,” Benjamin sneered.
“Is that so?” the man asked, crossing his arms.
“This doesn’t involve you!” Jack snapped.
“No one asked you to interfere,” Benjamin snarled. “So why don’t you keep walking?”
“I think the lady asked me to interfere when she politely requested that you release her, and you refused,” the man replied. “She didn’t need to speak with words. I saw it in her eyes.”
Daphne bit her lip. She’d wanted to be saved. That was true. But she began to wonder if she’d reacted very foolishly. This one man couldn’t possibly face these two brutes and hope to prevail, not when one—if both—of them wielded a knife.
“It’ll be the last thing you do!” Benjamin snarled.
The villain backed away, taking Daphne with him. She curled her fingers around his, trying to wrench his grip free from her arm.
“This is your last chance,” Jack said. “Leave or you’ll regret it.”
“That’s right,” Benjamin replied. “This girl isn’t your business.”
The man stepped closer. Beneath the hood of his cloak, Daphne could see only a pair of brilliant, blue eyes. “Well,” the man said slowly. “I suppose we’ll have to fight, then.”
Fergus Collfield, the newly named Earl of Summerhelm, was not a gambling man, unlike his late father. Fergus was not one to take chances, and he wasn’t exceptionally practiced in fighting. All his instincts were screaming at him to stay safe and not get involved, and yet there was something strong inside him, something that noticed the fear in the wide, blue eyes of the woman before him.
Saving her would mean fighting the two villains who’d gotten in her path and resolved not to release her. The whole situation sounded vaguely like it ought to belong in one of those silly stories that the ladies of the ton liked to read. The knight rushing in to save a Lady.
“Skin him, Jack,” said the man, who still restrained the woman.
Fergus’s eyes flicked to Jack, the villain who held a knife, and steeling himself, Fergus steadied his stance and raised his fists. “You can try,” he said. “But you won’t succeed. You’d best quit while I’m feeling merciful and release the woman.”
Jack smirked and lunged. The knife flashed in the air, and the woman screamed. Fergus raised his arm. His forearm collided with the man’s arm, so his aim went crooked and struck empty air. Then, Fergus swept in and punched the man’s belly as hard as he could.
Groaning, Jack fell back. Fergus clenched his fists. His pulse jumped, and blood roared in his ears. Jack struck again, like a viper with a blade. The metal flashed in the dim light, and Fergus jumped back, avoiding the edge. When Jack attacked again, Fergus seized the man’s arm and tried to force it behind his back. Jaw clenched, Jack struggled. The men stumbled and grappled as they backed over the road, each trying to get the best of the other.
The knife came slicing towards Fergus’s face. Behind him, the woman screamed. Fergus heard the sound of her shoes sweeping over the ground and the muffled grunts of the villain who held her still. It was wrong to touch a woman, to treat her so harshly, and the thought of that poor woman being at the continued mercy of those men made his blood boil.
“Let go!” Jack snarled.
Your friend didn’t release that woman when she asked to be let go.
But with a burst of inspiration, Fergus released the man. His absence was so sudden and unexpected that Jack lost his balance, and in that moment of weakness, Fergus punched the man’s jaw. Jack fell to the ground, swearing and clenching his chin. Then, Fergus’s eyes snapped to the woman.
The man who held her shoved her away. Her hip struck the building behind her, and a sharp cry tore from her throat. A quick glance confirmed that Jack, even with his knife, wouldn’t be a threat soon.
I need to somehow get between them and the woman.
“You’re really going to be sorry now!” the other assailant snarled.
When the villain lunged, Fergus stepped deftly to the side and then, turned. Now, his back was to the woman. He didn’t turn to look at her because the man before him looked ready to fight, but Fergus knew she hadn’t left. The woman’s quick gasps for air confirmed it.
“I think you’d better leave,” Fergus said, forcing every ounce of noble authority he could into that one demand.
“Benjamin,” Jack groaned, still on the ground. “The girl isn’t worth it.”
Benjamin clenched his fists and scowled, and Fergus tensed, prepared to continue the brawl for as long as it took. Even if he managed to fight the villains away, Fergus knew that his defeat had to be absolute. If it wasn’t, the villains would simply wait until he left. Then, they’d attack the poor woman again, perhaps more harshly than before.
“I’m not going to let some man just treat me how he wants!” Benjamin snapped. “This is my street!”
What a fool. That man wouldn’t be nearly so bold if he realized that he stood before an Earl, but Fergus also knew there would be consequences for revealing himself. It would be—for one thing—a much more complicated return home. Then, it would mean an end to his nighttime activities, for his mother would certainly not agree to this.
“He’s not worth it,” Jack insisted.
The villain stumbled to his feet. Somewhere in the fight, he’d lost his knife. That evened the odds a little. Benjamin’s fist came rushing towards Fergus’s face, but before the blow could land, a basket struck him in the face. The woman, it seemed, wasn’t content to simply watch the fight.
Seeing Benjamin distracted, Fergus kicked the man hard in the belly. With a loud, wheezing noise, the villain fell back. And for the first time, Fergus had a really good look at the young, imperiled woman. Her cheeks were flushed a soft pink which embraced the peach-gold freckles spanning her nose and cheekbones. The woman’s eyes were a cold, icy blue and seemed to contain all the beauty of the sea in their depths. Her hair was dark and wild.
The woman, herself, seemed fairly wild. Fergus grasped her hand, soft and delicate, in his. “Come on!” he ordered.
He broke into a run, and without hesitation, the woman followed. They raced down the streets, away from the villains. He kept one hand to his hood, so his face remained hidden. There was a chance that the woman would recognize him, and that wasn’t one he was willing to take. Finally, gasping for air, Fergus came to a halt.
The woman dropped his hand and gasped for air. Out of the corner of his eye, Fergus saw her bend over, hands to her knees. Dark curls slipped past her shoulders and lingered at the hollow of her pale, slender throat. The Earl tore his eyes away. It would be improper to let his gaze linger upon the woman.
He cleared his throat. “You should not have tried to attack that man. I had the situation well-handled, and you should’ve let me finish dealing with the matter myself, as I was doing.”
After he’d said the words, Fergus internally winced. It was important to sound stern and reasonable, and it had been a foolish thing the woman had done. But perhaps he shouldn’t have mentioned it. The woman had been very brave, after all, and after such an ordeal, she was hardly deserving of chastisement. She must have been terrified.
“I—I appreciate your help,” the woman said. “No one else was willing to interfere.”
“And they likely won’t in the future,” he said, eyeing her empty basket. “What was so important that you had to venture from your home this late at night and all alone?”
Now that he was looking at her properly, Fergus realized that the woman dressed as if she came from a respectable family. She wasn’t a streetwalker or the usual woman who he’d have expected to wander Southwark unaccompanied at night.
“I sneak out and give presents to the orphans,” she admitted, sounding a bit sheepish.
Fergus raised an eyebrow. He didn’t entirely understand the woman’s reasons, and her explanation was the last one he’d have expected. Could she not give presents to orphans during the day when London’s streets were safer? But then, he also had a tendency to sneak around during the night, something which would doubtlessly displease his mother. His father would have been horrified.
My father likely would have joined those villains in harming this poor woman.
Fergus forced the memories away. This wasn’t the time. He became suddenly conscious of how closely the woman stood to him and how intensely her blue eyes tried to discern his face, even beneath the shadow of his hooded cloak and the flicking, faint light offered by the gas lamps.
He stepped back. “I think you’d best return,” he said thickly.
That woman was very pretty. No, not even that. She was astonishingly pretty. Beautiful, even. She was like a rare species of lily, and Fergus thought of how soft her slender hand had felt in his own calloused palm. As if sensing his thoughts, that woman raised her hand and lifted it delicately to his hood.
“I must gaze upon the face of my—” the woman began.
He turned and bolted into the shadows.
“Wait!” the woman exclaimed.
Fergus kept going. He quickened his pace and darted behind a building. His breath came quickly. Suddenly, he felt as though all the foul air in London rushed into his lungs, and he couldn’t draw in enough good air to breath. His cloak suddenly felt stifling. He pulled the hood down, baring his face to the moon, which hung high and silently in the sky.
He felt as though the moon was judging him, as if she was stripping his soul bare. As though the moon was displeased with what she saw. How good could his soul be, when his own father’s had been so tainted?
And yet, I cannot be wholly bad. I saved that woman, didn’t I?
He’d saved her, and then abandoned her on the street when she threatened to expose his face. Fergus sighed and breathed in the sharpness of straw and the dampness of recent rain.
“I’m not ready,” he confessed to the moon. “I’m not ready to take my father’s place.”
And why should he be? It wasn’t as if the late Earl of Summerhelm had been a good, honest Lord. It wasn’t as if he was, in any way, admirable or kind.
Fergus stood and lifted his hood again. It wouldn’t do to linger on such dreadful thoughts away from the estate, or he might do something reckless. He needed to be cold and calm, like the first breath of winter cast upon the earth. At least, though, he could ensure that the woman found her way safely home.
But I must hurry if I am to do that.
Fergus slipped from behind the building and peered down the road. He could just barely perceive the woman’s form. Her red cloak caught the faint breeze and flapped about her legs. She’d pulled the garment tightly about herself, and the form its folds hinted at was lovely and elegant.
Fergus let out a low breath and pursued her. He kept quiet and didn’t dare linger close, for the woman might hear him. Even if she did not notice his presence, he began to wonder if he would have resolve enough not to speak to her.
Why would a woman like her, a respectable-looking creature, need to do her charity by night?
Perhaps she was employed by some cruel family who refused to give any charity. That reason did not ring true, though. Surely, such a kind being would not abide long in such a despicable household.
A curious woman.
Fergus followed her. At first, she’d kept a quick pace, just shy of running, but as the woman walked further, she gradually slowed. It was difficult to say if she’d tired or merely grown more familiar with the way. As she wove through a few, scattered souls, no one stopped the woman. She did not speak to anyone, either.
Perhaps she is an orphan herself?
Despite his resolve not to wonder overly about the woman’s motivations, Fergus couldn’t help but keep returning to them. Why would any person need to give their charity by night?
Is she like me? She has a face which people might readily recognize?
Maybe she wants to give but not be recognized or lauded for it. Possibly, she acts from modesty.
Fergus felt a spark of admiration. The woman’s motives didn’t matter. Assuming that she’d not lied to him, she was doing a good deed and for orphans! She was willingly aiding those weaker than her, seemingly just because she could, and at risk to herself.
And she’s just a woman! She’s not one of the ton. My father could’ve accomplished so many wonderful things with his title and money. He could’ve aided so many people.
Instead, the late Earl of Summerhelm had torn lives apart. Fergus felt a sudden and profound weight settle upon his shoulders. It was as if all his father’s misdeeds collapsed onto him all at once. There were just so many transgressions committed, and it was not as if he could ever hope to fix or correct all of them. How many people had been hurt by his father? How many would Fergus never even learn of?
The woman reached a house. It wasn’t very large, but it looked as though the occupants were well enough off. Fergus pursed his lips together, trying to discern who the young woman might work for. He had assumed she might be a parlor maid. She was certainly beautiful enough. Mayhap she was instead someone’s unwed daughter. This house looked as though it might belong to a well-educated man.
I could learn.
That was tempting, and the longer Fergus stood and watched the woman’s slender form slip into the house, the better an idea it seemed.
But I can’t. I mustn’t. I followed her home, and she didn’t even realize it. Even though I mean her no harm, that would be encroaching upon her privacy.
He turned away and forced his feet to move in the opposite direction. A wave of protectiveness rose inside him. That was understandable. That was reasonable. There were so many women in London who were at the mercy of men like Jack and Benjamin. Villains were becoming increasingly common in London, and it seemed as if no one had been able to present an effective solution to them.
Maybe I can think of something.
For the safety of the people of London, something must be done to prevent the rise of crime. Fergus felt a twinge of guilt and wondered how much of that crime his own father had encouraged or contributed to. With a sigh, the young Earl let his thoughts wander finally in that dismal place. He’d always known London could be dangerous, especially in places like Southwark, which were poor and loud and seldom received the careful attention of the ton.
On the few previous times he’d been in Southwark, he’d helped a few beggars. Sometimes, he’d done as the mysterious young woman had—he’d left a few shillings to the orphanages and the poorhouses. It was different now. He’d put a face to that plight, to someone who was not a member of the ton.
I should’ve gotten her name.
Fergus wasn’t certain what good that would do. It would be highly improper to seek out that young woman, especially since his sole aim would be to know her. She was an intriguing, beautiful creature, and he longed to return to her house and learn more about her.
As he set foot upon the estate grounds of the ancestral home of Summerhelm, the young woman’s face appeared once more in his mind’s eye. He shook his head and tried to force the thoughts away. It wasn’t as if he’d ever see her again. So why should he keep thinking of her?
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