About the book
Only a beautiful soul like hers would kiss the damned…
Miss Rose Parker’s life changed forever when her mother died tragically and she was forced to work to cover her father’s debts. At her wits’ end after he steals her hard-earned coin, she decides to flee.
Dorian Wilson, the Earl of Langston, is haunted by nightmares from his days on the battlefield. And he only feels alive when he puts himself in danger. Until a woman dares to look straight into his demonic eyes and set his long dead heart aflame.
When he offers her employment, he discovers that his passion might be the realest danger he has ever had to face. With his past coming back from the dead to haunt him, he is reminded why he forbade himself from loving. For it won’t stop until its pound of flesh is paid: Rose...
Artillery cracked like lightning across the quagmire of the battlefield as rain lashed down. Mud churned underfoot, sucking down those who could not keep their balance, like demons hiding below ground, snatching at the ankles of unsuspecting soldiers. Another enemy to add to the one they clashed with.
All around, the whistle and blast of cannonballs screamed past the ears of frightened men. For those who were hit, there was no time to say a prayer or think of loved ones back home in fair England. If lucky—though luck was a matter of perspective—they would escape with a missing limb. If not, there would be little to recognize them by.
“Cavalry! Ready!” The call bellowed above the din of the cannon fire’s terrifying thunder, echoing down the line of waiting horsemen. The beasts pawed the ground and snorted in nervous anticipation, their hides soaked, saddles slick from the storm. The riders stared dead ahead, water dripping from their peaked caps, the shadows concealing their terror from the enemy.
“Brace yourself, Hudson.” Dorian Wilson tossed a personal warning to the companion at his side as he prepared to call out again. His childhood friend and brother-in-arms, Mark Hudson. At home, they were the Earl of Langston and the Viscount of Bentley, respectively. Here, they were known only as Captain Wilson and Lieutenant Hudson. Soldiers, not lords. Though fate did not care, either way. War stole away the lives of poor and wealthy alike—the great leveler.
Hudson flashed a grin as lightning forked through the bruised sky. “Make the call, Captain. I will say a prayer for both of us.”
“Cavalry!” Dorian boomed, his horse stoic beneath him. Others were beginning to take a turn for the skittish. As though they could sense they were about to race headfirst into the seething fracas ahead. “Ready swords!”
The line of riders drew their weapons with a grate of metal, gripping the reins tighter with their free hands.
Dorian took in a deep breath, filling his lungs to the brim. “Charge!”
He dug in his heels, and his horse lurched forward, pounding across the battlefield toward the enemy. The infantry was already firmly in the fray, bayonets seeking out enemy flesh. Behind, the artillery on the British side paused, slipping into eerie silence. There would be casualties caused by their own people, in due course, as the cannons aimed wide, and the muskets continued to fire, but they were not foolish enough to shoot while the Cavalry was making their charge.
Will today be the day?
Dorian focused on the French as the dense muscle of his mount ebbed and flowed beneath the saddle, the beast snorting with the same fury that lay in his breast. They were both creatures of war, unafraid of what fate waited for them. His horse, whom he’d named Sergeant, had been bred to accept whatever may come. As for Dorian, he had nothing left to fear. Death would merely have been a blessing, a swift departure from the nightmares that taunted him instead of the constant endurance of existing with them.
A cannonball shrieked past his head, but Sergeant pressed on without a flinch. Nor did Dorian look back as he heard the unmistakable sound of a wounded horse. A bestial bellow that could not easily be forgotten. A human scream followed, and he knew there would be one more man carried away on a stretcher when the battle subsided. If he made it that far, that is. Come morning, perhaps there would be one more cross instead, bearing his name.
They will call him a hero, but his mother will weep for him all the same, and that word will do naught to ease her broken heart.
Dorian had swiftly learned that “hero” went by another word here, in the thick of it all: worm-fodder. He did not care for medals and accolades. He had not come here for that. He had come here to forget.
Hudson charged at his side, keeping pace, as the rain slanted down in icy sheets, and the horses struggled to stay upright in the thick mud below. Sergeant soared over the craters left by cannonballs, stumbling only slightly over the smaller, unseen dips in the terrain.
Finally, unscathed by enemy fire, Dorian and Hudson clattered into the enemy forces. Bayonets glinted in the dim light, and the roars of French tongues rose up to meet them. Dorian slashed left and right with his sword, the movements of conflict now second nature to him, the clash of steel adding cymbals to the symphony of combat.
I wonder where you all hail from. Who is waiting for you to return?
It was a curiosity to Dorian that he did not see actual faces when he fought. In truth, he saw nothing at all. He acted instinctively, letting some primordial part of his mind take over until he heard the bugle that would signal their retreat. After that, the fighting spirit drained out of him, leaving him exhausted and desperate to feel something once more. Not from the killing—he tried not to think of that if he could help it—but from the thrilling danger of being killed: the adrenaline, the anticipation, the racing of his heart.
Sergeant reared unexpectedly as a Frenchman tried to charge him, kicking out with his front hooves. Dorian squeezed his thighs to hold on, but as his horse landed, the French had other ideas. He felt hands snagging at him, yanking him down from the saddle and dragging him down into the quagmire. Bitter faces leered down at him; bayonets poised to end his life.
So… it is today.
“Captain!” Hudson’s cry cut through the war cries as he barreled through the cluster of aggressors with his saber drawn. He was no longer atop his horse but running with all his might, his face streaked with dirt and blood. “Do not even think of dying, my friend! It is not your day!”
A few of the Frenchmen ran from Hudson’s wild swipes and slashes, while others felt the bite of the blade. Given a brief reprieve, Dorian tried to haul himself to his feet, but the mud sucked him further down like quicksand. The more he struggled, the harder it held him. And he could not see Sergeant anywhere.
Spare him… I do not care for my own life but spare his.
A moment later, a firm grip grasped him around the wrist and pulled him up. Hudson grinned through a face that was almost entirely masked with muck.
“I thought you were doomed, Captain.” He laughed.
Dorian mustered a smile. “As did I.”
“Shall we?” Hudson pointed his saber toward the enemy.
“I believe we must.” Dorian plucked his own sword up from where it had fallen and prepared to attack. However, before he could put a single foot forward, he made the mistake of observing his surroundings. Bodies of animal and humans alike scattered the battlefield, while those who were not yet dead groaned and writhed in agony. It was not a new sight to him, but it never got any easier to bear. He may have been numb inside, but he was no monster.
Sergeant, where are you? He smeared the rain and filth and blood from his eyes, but the downpour blinded his eyes again as soon as he swept it away.
As he turned to his left to try and spot the absent steed, he froze. Out of the deluge, a white horse sauntered across the field of death and destruction, oblivious to the threat of artillery that had started up again from both sides. On its back sat a young woman with long, golden hair, a flowing white gown flapping in the wind. She was beautiful, her head crowned with a glowing halo.
Am I dead already?
He gulped as she brought the horse to a standstill and slid from the saddle. Her bare feet picked up no mud as she wandered toward him, pausing beside the writhing wounded to touch a gentle hand to their foreheads. Their agonized eyes stared up at her, only to turn vacant as she drew her hand away, leaving smiles upon their faces as they took their last breaths.
“Who is she?” Dorian whispered. He turned to his friend. But Hudson was not standing at his side any longer. He lay still on the ground, his eyes blank, a livid red gash trickling blood from his throat. And everything had fallen unnervingly silent. No-one fired, no-one shouted, no-one attacked. Indeed, as he looked around, he found there was no-one still standing but him. Everyone had fallen, though he did not know how such a thing could have happened.
His head whipped back around as the mysterious woman approached. As she neared, he thought she looked familiar. A face he had tried to forget for her sake as well as his.
“Why did you do that? Why?” Dorian yelled, his heart clenching in a vise of pain for all the dead who were strewn around him. Hudson, Sergeant, his entire cavalry unit, all of the British, even all of the enemy battalions.
The woman smiled and came to a halt just in front of him, her bare feet still unsettlingly clean of any dirt. “It was not me, Dorian. It was you. You did this.”
“How could I?” His cheeks were slick, the rain hiding his tears as they fell. He did know her, he felt sure of it. So why could he not remember her name? “How could I have done such a thing? I do not have the power for this devastation.”
“Oh, Dorian.” The woman reached out to touch his face. “You know why.” As soon as her fingertips met with his skin, the battlefield vanished.
He sat up, drenched with sweat and panting hard, in the familiar surroundings of his home. The sheets were twisted around him like a python, his bedclothes as sodden as if he had dived into the pond of his estate. He blinked rapidly, his heart hammering violently as he spied a glowing light in the corner of his bed-chamber. Had she followed him here into the waking world?
No… It is only the moonlight peering in through the drapes, he realized with an almighty gasp of relief. And a touch of sadness. For he was forbidden from seeing the young woman in his dreams again. That was the only place he could now find her, without taking drastic measures that would ruin the family name that he now upheld. Alone. No father, no mother, no siblings, no wife to help him bear the weight of it.
“I think I understand,” he said softly, thinking of his dream. “I think I have always known it.”
Rain pattered against the windowpane, softer than the storm from his slumber. It rustled through the trees outside, the winds rising up to a howl that whistled through the hairline gaps in the window frame. In his delirious state, he thought he heard it say what he feared the most, and what he had come to understand from that decimated battlefield of his nightmare—three harrowing words: You are cursed.
“I know.” He rolled his head in his hands as the tears came. “I know I am. That is why I am better off alone, so I cannot hurt anyone, ever again.”
As his stifled sobs filled the silent room, no-one came to comfort him. No-one ever did.
In the churchyard of St. Pancras, Rose Parker huddled underneath the protection of a yew tree as the rain poured down in bitter droves. Still, droplets leaped from the canopy overhead, refusing to allow her an escape from its icy touch.
She trembled ferociously in her too-thin dress and soaked woolen shawl, tucking her knees up to her chin as she stared out upon the shadowed landscape. Grave-robbers and body-snatchers favored this churchyard above the others in London, for its central location and sprawling site. And she was determined to protect her mother’s, though there was little to be thieved from her casket.
“We are ruined, Mama,” she whispered. “We are ruined without you.” She closed her eyes to picture her mother’s resting place nearby, which she could not see in the petulant darkness. The soil was not yet entirely overgrown with grass and determined daisies, the withering bunch of roses that Rose had placed there a week ago likely growing soggy in the rain, as the water trickled down the newly engraved headstone.
Rose hid her face in her peaked knees as heaving sobs overtook her. Her mother had passed not a month ago from tuberculosis, but the grief felt as fresh as though she had lost her yesterday.
“I don’t think anything will ever be the same again,” she murmured miserably. “He spends his days in the public houses and taverns. He has lost what little business he had left, and now we are without a home. I don’t think he wants to make things better. I think he just wants to forget, so he doesn’t have to think about life without you. I don’t want to, either, but one of us must. Tell me what I should do, Mama?”
Even her mind did not dare to reply as the churchyard echoed with the sound of raindrops and silent ghosts. It was an impossible question, for what could she do when her father had already chosen a course of self-annihilation? She could not even remember what he looked like sober, his eyes now perpetually bloodshot, his cheeks and nose spider-webbed with scarlet thread veins, his breath stale with alcohol, and his pockets forever empty after spending everything he had—and she had—at the gambling halls.
Just then, a voice split the air like a musket shot, startling her out of her sad reverie. “Rose! Rose, where the devil are you? Rose!” Her father’s voice, warbling with the effects of the whiskey he had undoubtedly drunk to the bottom of at least one bottle. “I know you’re out there somewhere! Old Riley said he saw you running in! Rose! Don’t you be hiding from me, else I’ll tan your hide!”
She sank back into the shadows of the yew tree and prayed he would not find her. For that seemed like the only way she might have a peaceful existence again. And if exposure claimed her before dawn rose… Well, at least she would have a warm place to go and her mother’s open arms to welcome her.
Nine Years Later…
Rose toiled away in the sweltering heat of the sewing house, her fingers stiff from driving the needle in and out of the endless fabric. A year ago, her hands had been smooth and delicate, prepared for a fine future that would not require much in the way of labor. Now, they were as rough as tanned leather, peppered with tiny silver scars where the needle had poked holes in her skin instead of the material.
“Miss Parker, what are you still doing here? It’s already past nine o’clock.” A gruff voice shouted down from the balcony above, where the overseer’s office took pride of place, giving a bird’s eye view across the sewing house.
Rose glanced up. “I don’t mind, Mr. Jennings. I can keep working.”
“Aye, well, I’ve told you, again and again, you earn the same as everyone else. I can’t be paying you past your time.” Mr. Jennings was the overseer who cracked the whip over the women who worked here. Rose knew he had something of a soft spot for her. That was the very thing she hoped to manipulate for a bit more coin to put in her pocket, though not by using the tawdry tactics that she had seen other ladies use to add to their income.
She widened her hazel eyes in desperation. “A sixpence more, and I’ll stay until midnight.”
“Out, now!” He jangled his keys as he headed down the stairwell from his office. “You might not mind staying until midnight, but I’ve got places to be. I’m sure you do, too.”
No, actually, I don’t.
As she did every evening, she would wait in the one-room lodgings that she shared with her father until he came home safely from whichever gambling hall or tavern he had gone to, to squander her hard-earned money. He did not care if she stayed up to make sure he was all right or not. Half the time, he was too inebriated to recognize her.
Sensing defeat on the horizon, she made a final effort. “Tuppence, and I’ll stay for another hour?”
“Out. Now. If you make me say it again, I’ll carry you out over my shoulder,” Mr. Jennings threatened.
Reluctantly, she set down her work and got to her feet. Her back ached from being hunched over the workbench since five o’clock that morning. “Very well, but only because I don’t want to have to contend with the obvious scandal.”
Mr. Jennings chuckled. “What would be the scandal? A handsome fella like me and a pretty bird like you? Sounds more like wedding bells to me.”
“Or a death knell for me,” she retorted.
A flicker of irritation passed across his face. “You still think you’re all high and mighty, don’t you? Let me give you a bit of advice, Miss Parker. The sooner you get it into your head that your pa ain’t some powerful businessman with a fancy house no more, and you’ll never be anything but a seamstress, you’ll see that your choices in life aren’t as broad as you might think.” He smirked. “I expect that’ll be the day you come begging for me to wed you and give you a half-decent life.”
Rose held her tongue. As dearly as she might have wished to rail at him for his insults, she could not afford to lose her employment for the sake of her wounded pride. In truth, there was nothing he had said that was not true. Even now, she occasionally awoke on her thin straw mattress in confusion, wondering why she was not waking in her soft bed in the apartments they had once rented.
Now, their income relied solely on Rose. Not that she got to use a penny of it. No sooner had Mr. Jennings handed it to her than her father snatched it away to spend on drowning his sorrows in alcohol and wagers. Perhaps, he thought he could find his dead wife at the bottom of a glass or in the triumph of a win. Perhaps, he merely wished to join her but feared the fires of Hell too much to end his life directly. Rose no longer dared to ask which it was.
“I didn’t mean to cause any offense, Mr. Jennings. I’m sure you’d make a fine husband for any woman,” Rose said sheepishly. “I just wouldn’t want you tarnishing your good name by settling for a lousy sort like me. You deserve loftier heights.”
His expression relaxed. “Looks like I misunderstood you. For what it’s worth, you don’t look downtrodden. You keep yourself neat. I admire that.”
“That doesn’t change my situation, though.” She felt the urge to remind him, realizing she was in a somewhat dangerous position. All of the other women had left the sewing house a good half an hour ago. There would be no-one to hear her call for help if Mr. Jennings decided to take what was not willingly given, though she hoped she was right about him not being the kind to do so.
He smiled. “Come now, you should get home to take some rest. I won’t have your numbers getting low because you’re too tired to work fast.” He paused. “And I’m sorry if I said anything hurtful before.” She breathed a sigh of relief as he led her out of the sewing house and into the tepid summer warmth of the street.
“Not at all, Mr. Jennings. You spoke the truth. I can’t argue with that.” Much as I would like to.
He chuckled wryly and took a small packet of coins out of his pocket before handing it to her. “Well then, let’s part on good terms for the night, eh? Here are your earnings for the day, Miss Parker. Spend ‘em wisely.”
She took them and forced a smile. “I will.”
Pa will swill it all down his neck and onto the card tables, and I will be lucky if I have a penny left to buy scraps to eat.
“I put in that extra tuppence since you did extra today.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Don’t tell a soul.”
Foolish tears of gratitude sprang to her eyes. “Thank you, Mr. Jennings! I swear, I won’t. Oh… thank you, thank you so very much.”
“Don’t say this to my superiors, but I think hard work should be rewarded.” His smile widened, his expression bordering on bashful. “So, there’s your reward. I can’t promise it’ll always be like that, but I’ll do what I can, so long as you keep sewing as fast and as clean as you’ve been doing. Now, get out of here before I take that tuppence back.”
Rose nodded effusively. “Good night to you, Mr. Jennings.” With that, she hurried away into the crowded streets of Whitechapel, heading for home.
In the gray fug of London, with rats and mice to call her fellow lodgers, it was hard to believe that she ever had hopes beyond the misery of living hand to mouth. Before her father tore their world to shreds, she had dreamed of becoming a professional dressmaker and designer for the ladies of high society and perhaps some of the gentlemen. Now, she sewed for a pittance. There was a cruel irony in that.
This is only temporary, she told herself as she plowed through revelers and drunkards. I will find a way out. I must, or I shall never forgive myself.
“I dreamed you were dead again last night,” Dorian announced to his dear friend, Mark Hudson, as they lounged together at the card tables of their favorite gambling hall in Shadwell. Here, they did not have to be well-behaved members of the social elite. They could blend in with the rest of the riffraff: a fine mix of incognito lords, Scandinavian seamen with a love for British ale, wealthy merchants, poor merchants, laborers and sailors trying to change their fortune, and everything in-between.
Hudson swished his brandy and downed it in one swallow. “I am beginning to take offense to all of these morbid dreams of yours, my good man. True, the French made a fair attempt to kill me, but I am much like a rare, white stag.”
“Would you care to explain?” Dorian chuckled, nursing his own glass of brandy.
“I am untouchable,” he replied confidently. “However, should someone manage to fire a fatal musket shot at me, it would prove a terrible omen that would bring misfortune upon their descendants for decades to come. The ladies would howl from their houses and tear out their hair, devastated that the only gentlemen worthy of losing their maidenhood to had passed.”
Dorian snorted into his drink. “You are wicked, Hudson. One of these days, a furious brother or father will challenge you to a duel, and you will not survive it.”
“That is why I always make sure I have you as my second.” He winked mischievously. “One look at your eyes, and they all quiver in fear, thinking they have looked upon a henchman of the Devil himself. They invariably throw away their shot after that, as you well know.”
Dorian drank the last of his brandy. “Do not remind me.”
He was infamous throughout the country, thanks to his acerbic tongue and his general distaste for anyone other than Hudson, but mostly for the heterochromatic eyes he had been born with. One blue, one green. It did not matter how tall or handsome he was, with a mane of fair hair and classically masculine features, high society took one look at his “demon eyes” and all but locked away their daughters to keep him from poisoning them with a single gaze. Not that he cared about seeking a bride. His heart sat within an impenetrable fortress, with walls that no-one could climb or batter down.
“Speaking of ripe maidens in need of plucking.” Hudson’s eyebrow shot up as a quartet of rosy-cheeked, red-lipped women sauntered through the gambling hall, dressed in gaudy dresses with daring necklines that marked them out as ladies of the night.
“I doubt they have been maidens for many a year, my friend. You were likely lying in a tent, dreaming of that French farmer’s daughter when they were first plucked.” Dorian laughed, already knowing how the evening would end. He did not partake in delights of the flesh, as his dear friend did, though Hudson would undoubtedly regale him later with his bawdy tales. As such, he would find other, less carnal distractions, until Hudson had exhausted himself.
Hudson grinned. “If your dreams are a portent, dear Captain, I must taste as many riches of this Earth as I can before I am violently exsanguinated by an imaginary Frenchman.” He still referred to Dorian as “Captain,” even though they had not been upon a battlefield for over five years, and they had known each other since childhood. Indeed, they had spent all of their formative years together, causing mischief through their time at Eton, maturing through a spell at Cambridge, and then becoming comrades at war.
“Take pains you do not end up syphilitic.” Dorian pushed his glass away and prepared to make a temporary exit from the revels. He had drunk and gambled enough for one evening, and he did not care for the idea of gambling alone while Hudson slunk away with one of those prostitutes. Or all of them, knowing his friend.
“Ah, do you think that is how I will meet my end?” Hudson quipped in reply.
Dorian shrugged. “I shall have to consult my dreams. If I see you covered in festering boils in my next one, I will inform you immediately and entreat you to send for the physician.”
“You are too kind.” Hudson loosened his cravat as the prostitutes neared their table, his focus already fixated on them. Dorian knew he could have danced an Irish jig on the card table itself, and his friend would not have paid the slightest bit of attention.
He does adore his ladies. Dorian smiled and got up, his good mood waning as he heard whispers coming from a nearby table.
“Is that the Earl of Langton?” an anxious voice murmured.
“I heard he killed thousands of Frenchmen, single-handedly, by conjuring a storm and striking them all down,” a second added.
A third snorted. “Goodness me, you are all as superstitious as fishwives. He is a man, as we are, nothing more. I thought you were men of logic?”
“But… the stories, Mackintosh,” the first voice interjected. “The stories. Did you not hear about—”
Dorian turned sharply, silencing them with a fierce look of annoyance. He recognized the gentlemen there as a trio of forgettable lords, who were no doubt thrilled to see a genuine pariah in the flesh. He made sure to give them one of his best glowers, to truly spook them. Sure enough, they all blanched and discreetly marked themselves with the Holy Trinity to ward off his evil.
“Good evening to you, gentlemen,” he said, as a finishing touch. “I hope you brought your carriages, as I have an awful feeling there may be a storm on its way.”
The three lords looked as though they might collapse in fear as Dorian turned back to his friend. “I am going to take some fresh air, Hudson. Do try to behave yourself.”
Hudson wafted a disinterested hand as two of the prostitutes descended upon him, giggling flirtatiously. “I came in your carriage, remember, do not depart without me.”
“I promise I will not.” Dorian took his cue to leave before the prostitutes attempted to fawn over him, too. They would only end up receiving the sharp end of his tongue and getting offended, which would ruin his friend’s enjoyment before it had even begun. Indeed, ladies were the one thing that Dorian never competed against Hudson for.
That is better… He breathed deeply as he wandered away from the entrance to the gambling hall and set out into the city’s labyrinthine streets. The change of atmosphere and the steady thud of his shoes on the flagstones struck his hazy mind with an instantly sobering effect. The reason he walked alone in the dark alleys of East London was not the soothing breeze.
He was on the prowl for danger to stir up the adrenaline that made him feel truly alive again. And these were his hunting grounds.
Dorian cut through alleyways and side-streets, listening out for the sounds of London’s nighttime creatures: thieves, miscreants, drunkards, brawlers, prostitutes, and beggars. He did not know what the darkness would hold for him. That was part of the thrill. His muscles tensed and his fists clenched, so he could launch into a retaliation if anyone lunged out of the shadows to try and attack him.
I suppose some would consider me quite mad.
He had not always been this way. As a child and a youth, he had been a cheerful, witty, sociable fellow, who adored everything that society could offer. He had danced at balls with abject glee and laughed with ease amongst groups of his peers, vying against Hudson to be the center of attention.
Then, at the tender age of ten-and-eight, his world had turned upside down. Events beyond his control had stormed his life and ripped out his heart, leaving an empty void there that could only be filled by the rush of putting himself in harm’s way. He had endured that pursuit of wholeness for twelve years now but had found no other cure.
War was my peace… He had only ever admitted that to Hudson, who never wasted an opportunity to chastise him for it. To his friend, the war was the closest thing to Hell on Earth. Still, Dorian missed riding into battle, not knowing if he would survive. He supposed it was his way of testing fate, and the heavens, to see just how far they would go to punish him. Thus far, no matter what he did, the heavens chose not to let him die. Evidently, they did not yet believe that he had paid his penance.
He walked on through the darkest streets, but the shadows refused to come out to play. Disappointed, he turned the corner out of a narrow back alley that ran behind one of the alehouses, praying for a thief or a vagabond when he emerged, who wanted to fight. Instead, he saw the familiar sight of Tower Bridge up ahead, the streets and roads around him devoid of people.
I wonder… Quickening his pace, he headed up onto the bridge and walked all the way along to the middle. There, he stopped and peered over the edge, staring down at the dark water below. A fetid stench wafted up from the moving current, carrying the sewage of the city beneath the surface.
He glanced left and right to make sure he was alone. Satisfied that no-one would disturb him, he carefully clambered up onto the stone balustrade and sat there for a moment, swinging his legs over the steep drop as though he were a child. The thrill did not come, as he had hoped it might.
Undeterred, he slid forward until his feet touched a narrow ledge and kept his arms behind him, his fingers gripping the inner edge of the stone balustrade. Taking a steadying breath, he leaned out over the water as far as he could stretch, the stone edge digging into his fingertips as they bore his muscular weight. He looked down at the black river, wondering if he would survive the fall if he just… let go.
“Please… let me feel something.” He leaned further until his arms burned under the strain. But the familiar sentiment that he craved would not come. It was as though his body knew that he would not release his grip and send him plummeting into the dark water, so it could not give any reward for the danger he had put himself in.
Frustrated, he pulled himself back into the side of the balustrade and clambered over to the safety of the solid ground, stretching out his arms until the burning faded.
“I am tired of London,” he muttered to himself. He only came here to appease Hudson’s thirst for women and gambling and to indulge in a brawl or two, where chance allowed. He much preferred the solitude of his home, Langton House, where he could ride until the hollowness did not feel as overwhelming. Hudson often resided there with him, usually for entire seasons. Dorian was grateful for that, for he had no other friends or acquaintances to distract him from his destructive thoughts.
I hope he is finished with his merriments. Puffing air through his lips, he began to retrace his steps back to the gambling hall, so he could haul Hudson away and return home.
He was halfway up the street where the gambling hall was positioned when a sound made him stop in his tracks- a blood-curdling scream, shivering through the still summer night and reverberating up his spine. Scenting the danger he sought on the tepid breeze, he whirled around and ran in the direction of the scream. He could not let such an opportunity pass him by.
Alone in the one-room lodging she called home, Rose stirred a pot of thin broth, where two paltry potatoes and some carrot and turnip tops bobbed sadly in the tasteless hot water. She yawned and rubbed her eyes, which were itchy from the fibers of the cloth she had spent the day sewing.
Dipping a ladle into the pot, she spooned out a bowlful of the broth and took it to the window so she could watch the street below as she ate. She rarely ate anywhere else, for it meant having to face the poverty that surrounded her and the suffocating feeling it elicited.
The lodging walls were dappled with mold, the ceiling stained with water damage from the room above, the floorboards warped and cracked, always spiking her feet with loose splinters. But the rents here were relatively cheap, and they might have lived a bearable life, had her father not stolen everything she earned and made appeasing the landlord a weekly nightmare.
Halfway through her bowl of broth, a loud bang on the door interrupted her peace. “Rose! Rose, are you in there?”
“Coming!” she shouted back, recognizing her neighbor, Mrs. Bowland’s voice. She left her bowl on the side and hurried over to the door, wrenching it open on its rusty hinges. Mrs. Bowland stood outside on the landing, her gnarled face twisted up in an irritated grimace. “Is something the matter?”
Mrs. Bowland snorted. “Aye, you need to get yourself another father, that’s what.”
“What has he done?” Rose’s stomach clenched. There were moments when her feelings toward her father verged on hatred, but he was still her father. She still loved him, and she did not know what she would do if anything bad were to happen to him.
“He’s sent word for you at the gamblin’ hall. Renfrew’s, or whatever it’s called. I ‘spect you know the one.” Mrs. Bowland leaned against the doorjamb. “He wants you there as soon as you can. Urgent, apparently. I ‘spect it’s money he’s after, eh?”
Rose sighed. “I imagine so.”
“Terrible shame, havin’ a daughter that looks like you and keepin’ you in a place like this.” Mrs. Bowland tutted. “You want to get yourself out before you end up dead, carryin’ his money ‘round places you’ve no business bein’ so late at night.”
“I’ll be fine,” Rose insisted, trying not to show fear. She did not think of herself as particularly beautiful, but there were many men who had no qualms about telling her of her assets whenever she passed by on her way to and from home, and between home and the gambling halls.
“Aye, well, give me a knock when you get back, so I know you ain’t dead yet.” Mrs. Bowland gave her a wave as she wandered back to her own lodging and closed the door with a shuddering slam.
Rose retreated back into her room and darted over to a splintered floorboard in the corner. She checked the open door to make sure no-one was watching and pried it up. It gave easily, used to the action, to reveal a broken flowerpot where she kept her worldly wealth. Reaching in, she took out the packet that Mr. Jennings had given her that day and took out the extra tuppence. She slid it into the bottom of her shoe and pocketed the rest, so she would have something to buy food with in the days to come.
What if I ran? What if I bought passage on a ship, or a stagecoach, this very night and disappeared from London altogether?
It had been a secret dream of hers to seek a more peaceful existence somewhere in the country, as far from the trials and tribulations of the city—and her father’s self-destruction—as possible. There was certainly enough in the packet of money to take her out of London. After that, she could walk until she found a place she liked.
“But what if he’s in serious trouble?” she asked aloud, hesitating. She was aware of her place in society as a woman and a daughter, and the duties she had to uphold toward her father. Nevertheless, even if it was not tonight, she was determined to leave this city and never give her father a single penny again.
Grumbling under her breath, she put back the broken floorboard and made her way out of the lodgings. It was much too late for her to travel to the countryside tonight, and she knew she needed more time to squirrel away more funds before she could abscond completely. For, in truth, she did not much like the idea of having to walk in unknown territory, with no idea about her destination.
Just for now, I’ll stay. Just for now, I’ll keep bailing you out.
After all, if she was going to remain awhile, she had no other choice than to give her father the money he had asked for. If she did not, he would only resort to violence when he returned, and she could not work to her best ability at the sewing house if she had one eye swollen shut from a drunkard’s punch… or worse.
Walking quickly and keeping her wits about her as she navigated the shadowed streets of London at night, she took a right down onto the riverbank. At least there, she had the space to run if anyone tried to accost her. And she could be incredibly fast when she wanted to be.
Keeping the flowing current to her left, she followed the water’s edge until she came to Tower Bridge. It lay eerily empty of people, despite it being a favored spot for the gamblers and inebriates who staggered out of the nearby alehouses and halls. It made her feel strangely uneasy, as though some higher power were telling her not to cross. She hesitated on her side of the river, patting the pocket where she had stowed her money.
“There’s nothing to fear,” she told herself. “There’s certainly nothing more frightening than my father if I don’t get this money to him.” That thought proved to be a potent motivator, prompting her to put one foot in front of the other as she crossed over to the other side and headed in the direction of Renfrew’s Gambling Hall, where she would undoubtedly find her father.
Cutting through a side-street, which would lead onto the alley that ran along the back of the gambling hall, she stopped at the sound of an odd cracking sound. Panic rose up to her throat in an acidic swell. Her hands bunched into fists, her breath rasping in her throat as she waited to hear the sound again. It came a few seconds later, from behind her.
I shouldn’t have come. I should have run. I should have fled while I had the chance. Slowly, she turned, bracing herself for what she might face. But the connecting alley lay empty of danger, with only the deep shadows to make her nervous.
“Who’s there?” She straightened her shoulders to try and make herself look less afraid. “I don’t want any trouble.”
“Ah, well, that’s a shame for you, then.” A voice hissed in her ear, as hot, sour breath crept up the side of her neck.
She tried to twist around, but two strong arms shot forward and gripped her about the waist, sandwiching her arms to her sides until she could not move at all. She attempted to kick back with her leg, to try and dent his shin or catch him in his groin, but he was too fast. He chuckled darkly, gripping her tighter until she felt as though her ribs might crack under the pressure.
“Let me go,” she wheezed, writhing in his grasp.
The man licked the side of her neck, making her shudder in disgust. “Nah, not yet. We ain’t done with you.”
We? She stared in horror as a man skulked out of the shadows up ahead, tossing a stone up and down in his right hand. He leered at her as he dropped the stone to the ground. It made that same cracking sound she had heard a moment ago when she had made the fatal error of turning around. As her heart thudded violently in her chest, she realized she had been fooled. And these men clearly did not intend to release her unharmed.
“Pretty little thing, ain’t you?” The stone-thrower smirked as he drew nearer. Rose flinched as he lifted a hand to her face, tracing a filthy line across her cheek with his dirtied fingernails.
“My father and my uncle are going to walk down this alley at any moment, so don’t you dare try and do anything to me,” she spat, hoping she might be able to trick them in return. “They’re way bigger than you, and one of them is a constable. I’ll give you a warning—they don’t take kindly to people hurting their family. So, if you want to avoid getting locked up for the rest of your life, I suggest you let me go while you still can.”
The stone-thrower laughed coldly. “Nice story. I don’t believe you. Now, I’m goin’ to give you a tender pat-down, so you can get an idea of what’s comin’.” He held his foul hands to her throat, so close that she could smell the rot of his mouth. He grinned down at her as he slid his palms down over her chest and moved them across to her breasts. She scrunched her eyes shut as he squeezed them hard and wriggled wildly to try and break free of the other man’s grasp. “Ooh, now I like that. Firm but soft. Very nice.”
“Get off me!” she shouted, realizing that she was in a dire position. They had not believed her tale, and no-one was coming to her aid. If she could not get away from them on her own, there was no telling what might happen. Perhaps, they would only dishonor her and leave her in the dirt. Perhaps, they would kill her after so she could not tell anyone what they had done. Either way, she knew they would not leave her until they had thoroughly violated her, and that terrified her to her core.
The stone-thrower snaked his palms further down her body, digging his fingernails into the supple flesh of her waist. She tried to buck away from him, to spare herself the humiliation, but it only made him dig his fingernails in harder. As he got to her hips, he paused and patted the pocket where she carried her money. Anger twisted her face into a scowl as he slid his hand inside the pocket and took out what belonged to her.
“Coin and tail. Must be our lucky day, Larry.” The stone-thrower grinned as he stuffed the packet into his own pocket. “Now, let’s see what’s under all these skirts, eh?” He crouched down and began to slither his hand up her calf, drawing up the edge of her skirt as his hand rose higher.
“I said, get off!” Rose roared, kicking out with her foot. The sole of her shoe caught him square in the face, while the movement knocked the other man slightly off balance. The latter’s arms loosened for a fleeting moment, giving her the lung capacity to scream as loud as she possibly could.
The stone-thrower glared at her, blood trickling out of his nose. “You little whore! I was goin’ to be gentle, but it looks like you need to be taught a lesson.” He grabbed her by the arms and threw her against the nearby wall. Her head smacked against the hard stone, black spots dancing in her field of vision as a blinding pain ricocheted between her temples. A cold, wet sensation trickled from the back of her skull to the base of her neck as she struggled to blink away the spots and stay conscious. Meanwhile, her attacker lunged for her skirts, his eyes glinting with malevolence.
She opened her mouth to expel one last scream when a blur rushed from the darkness and called out, “Unhand her, and you might live. Disobey, and I will gut you like a fish.” A blade glinted in the moonlight, the reflection cutting a silver slice down her savior’s face.
“How about you run along. Else you’ll be the one with your innards as outards. This ain’t none of your business.” The stone-thrower drew away from Rose to face off against the armed newcomer.
Her savior smiled and twirled the knife as though it were an extension of his hand. “Very well, but do not say you were not warned.”
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