Dark Historical Romance Author
Blood Red Roses Book Two of the Wayward Lords Series Chapter One London, January 1816 James Douglas stumbled down the slippery steps of Madame Hedone’s, landing face first onto the frozen pavement. As he struggled to his knees, a warm trickle of blood oozed down his forehead then splattered on the back of his hand.  There was no pain. He supposed, for once, the opium was of some use, beyond turning his life into a living hell. “Doctor Douglas, are you all right?” one of Madame’s beefy footman asked as he pulled James to his feet. “Yes, fine.” James waved the man off, colliding with two young bucks making their way up to the exclusive brothel on Dartmouth Street. One bounder assumed a position of challenge. When James met his gaze, the young man started back and gave the doctor a wide berth. That way madness lies, James mused as he watched the two men climb the steps. All he saw was failure. Failure he could no longer endure. With renewed determination, James continued down the lane and past the sleepy homes of Westminster toward the river. His life, he reflected as he walked through the brisk January air, began as a cold, albeit privileged one. Born the second son, or ‘the spare’ as the duke often referred to James, he had a semblance of freedom compared to his elder brother, ‘the heir’. The two might have been friends if their sire had allowed them to comingle. At Cambridge, he had studied what he pleased. After receiving his degree, James had wanted nothing more than to throw himself into a career in medicine, but his father had forbidden him. The Duke of Rochforth had demanded James return home, take his proper place among the family as a gentleman of leisure. Men in his position did not work for a living, his father had declared. “Gentleman of leisure my arse!” James spat as he crossed Tothill Street. Perhaps things might have been different if his mother had lived. Although memories of her were somewhat faded and distant, she had always been kind and devoted to her children. A sob tore at his throat as James stepped onto Westminster Bridge. No, he would not think of William, not now, not when his own end was so near. That wrong would be atoned for at long last. The pavement on the bridge was slick with ice and a light snow began to fall as James reached the center of the span. He leaned over to see the frigid waters of the Thames flowing past. The fall would not kill him, but the icy waters would quickly slow his metabolic rates, enough to seize his heart. A bloodless end, and perhaps a bit cowardly, but he could not abide blood, not after spending the past ten years covered in the stuff serving as ship’s surgeon aboard the Milton. He had failed everyone he ever cared for and this would be repayment for the havoc he had wrought. With one swift movement, James easily found himself standing atop the stone balustrade. “Sir,” called a soft melodic voice from behind. “I’m not a good swimmer, but I fear if you continue on your current path I may be forced to jump in after you.” An uncontrollable laugh escaped James’ throat as he turned to see a young girl in an oversized cloak standing resolutely on the pavement below. “If you’re fool enough to jump in after me, you will be dragged to the bottom by the sheer weight of that garment.” Her beautiful brow puckered into a frown. “Go on, little girl, before someone comes along.” “I am hardly a girl,” she huffed, placing her hands on her hips, or at least that is what James surmised by the way her voluminous cloak puffed out at her sides. “Forgive me, madam. There are watchmen about who would think nothing of dragging a pretty girl into an alley for a tupping.” James hoped to frighten her off, but she merely set her shoulders and lifted her chin in defiance. “There is no need to be vulgar,” she scolded, like the proper miss she appeared to be. Her full lips compressed into a thin line and James had the urge to jump down and kiss her, run his tongue across her pert mouth until she yielded to him so he could plunder the softness within. What madness is this? He shook his head and tried to clear the lascivious thoughts from his brain. Such imaginings led to nothing but misery. “I will not...” he began in anger. “This is not a social call! And you are distracting me from my purpose. Now, go away!” James turned his back on her, praying she would see the futility of her misguided goodwill. “Is your life really so bleak you would throw yourself into the Thames to drown?” “Yes!” he shouted without turning around. “And I do not plan on drowning. I will surely freeze to death first.” At least he hoped he would. Drowning was a rather unpleasant prospect. “Not if I can help it,” she muttered. A moment later, the little idiot climbed onto the balustrade beside him, minus her cloak and wearing only a simple, dark green woolen carriage dress. He had been right, she was young, but definitely not a girl. The lunatic standing beside him was pure woman. The bodice of her gown hugged voluptuous curves and the bitter wind over the river made her skirts cling to her long shapely legs. She cleared her throat, which brought his attention directly into contact with large chocolate brown eyes – correction, perturbed chocolate brown eyes. “I’m not dead yet,” James said glibly. The chit had the gall to roll her eyes heavenward. “Well?” she asked. “Well what?” he replied, cursing his stupidity for encouraging her. “Are you going to get on with it?” she said, waving her hand over the river below. “Contrary to what you may believe,” he rebuked, “you will not succeed in your purpose.” Who the bloody hell did she think she was fooling? James knew damn well she was grandstanding in order to trick him into relenting to her will. Of course he would never jump if he thought for a moment she might actually jump in after him. Surely she wouldn’t be so foolish, would she? “Please.” Her expression softened, warm compassionate eyes sliced through his resolve. “There must be someone who would mourn your loss.” “Nobody...” he replied unsteadily. “I cannot believe that.” She spoke in soft tones as she side-stepped a little closer and reached for his hand, her touch unexpectedly outweighing his desire to jump. He shook his head, unable to speak past the lump in his throat. “Well then, for my sake alone…” Closing his eyes James let out a deep sigh and stepped down off the balustrade, holding his arms out to help his foolish savior to the ground. “You are hurt,” she said softly, removing a folded handkerchief from her pocket and dabbing the cut on his forehead. “Who are you?” James was beginning to wonder if she were even real or if this angel of mercy was some opium and absinthe-induced hallucination. “No one of consequence,” his angel answered evasively. They stood very near one of the bridge’s gas lamps and a swath of golden light shone across her flawless skin, making the blond highlights through her otherwise brown hair glisten in the wintery air. She smelled of rosewater and almond oil, more intoxicating than any opiate or spirit he had ever consumed. A strange sense of peace and warmth enveloped him as he allowed her to tend to his wound – a feeling he had not had since childhood, long before the horrors of war and his many foibles had destroyed his sanity. Without thought, James grasped the girl around her tiny waist and pulled her body flush against his. Her startled gasp again enflamed his desire to kiss her. “What do you want from me?” he asked in a raspy whisper. “Nothing…I only want to help you.” James suppressed the stab of guilt. Her quavering voice a testament to the fright he had caused. “Why? For what purpose?” Tears stung his eyes. “Don’t you understand? I am beyond help, beyond redemption!” “No one is beyond redemption.” Pity stared back at him. The last thing he wanted was her pity. Without another word he captured her mouth with his, savoring her sweetness and innocence with every brush of his lips, taking from her what he could never again possess – hope. No one could save him, especially not this delusional girl. She stood rigid in his arms, her lips clamped tightly together. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to feel her response, hear her soft sighs of pleasure. James gentled his assault, desperate to reassure her that he was not the brute he appeared. He cupped her face in his hands, relishing her velvety soft skin, weeping inwardly that he would never again feel the pull of affection from another human being. Then, to his amazement she relaxed, and instead of drawing back in disgust, curled her fingers into his lapels and returned his kiss. Savagely, he broke away and marveled at his own breathlessness and her flushed complexion, the taste of tea and lemons still upon his lips. “I-Is there somewhere I can take you?” she stammered, pretending as if nothing had passed between them. “I have a carriage.” Her trembling hand belied her nonchalance as the girl pointed toward a waiting conveyance at the west end of the bridge. Taking a step back and out of his embrace, she retrieved her cloak from the ground and slung the immense garment around her shoulders, her feeble armor against his further advances. “Come, there must be somewhere you can go. I would not like to leave you alone.” “Perhaps you can take me to your lodgings,” James murmured as he closed the distance between them. Her eyes grew wide and a fresh blush stained her cheeks. He had not been serious, well not entirely. But for some ludicrous reason James half hoped she would say yes to his proposition. Her mouth fell open and James could not resist the urge to run his fingers over her full lips, relishing their softness desiring nothing more than to taste her again. “No, you cannot, my… You must have one friend in town.” Regret stabbed his heart as James let his hand drop to his side. Yes, he did have one friend – friends, in fact. But he dare not seek out Ian and Elinor, not after he had failed them so miserably. “Your friend will help you.” The chit must have read the tenor of his thoughts. “How would you know?” he growled. She reached up and caressed his cheek, sending another unexpected and unwanted shock of need through his frame. “I will wait with you…if you wish. And if your friend turns you away, I will take you elsewhere.” “Home with you?” “Perhaps…” she replied coyly, pulling her hand away from his face. The absence of her touch left yet another dark void in his heart. “Let’s away, then.” Angry with himself as much as he was with her, James spun away from the girl. He took two steps and swayed, dizzy and lightheaded. The laudanum and absinthe he had consumed earlier at Madame Hedone’s were wearing off and the blow to his head began to throb. An intense lethargy stole over his limbs and James had the sudden urge to lie down on the pavement and sleep. Before he could protest, the girl grabbed him about the waist and pulled his arm across her shoulders. She then proceeded to help him to her waiting carriage. “Where is your coachman?” he asked. “Or should we add that to your growing list of talents?” “He will return directly,” she replied, ignoring his sarcasm. She struggled against his weight but James lacked the strength to walk unassisted. “Miss!” a man called as he moved from behind the carriage as they neared. Her coachman could have easily passed as a pugilist. “Who the devil…” “It is all right, Thomas. This man is injured. I offered to take him to his friends.” Thomas eyed James with suspicion but appeared satisfied with his mistress’s explanation. Within moments James found himself seated across from his savior inside her rather shabby carriage. Leaning out the door, the girl shared a few hushed words with her coachman, frowning at the man's response to whatever question she had asked. “Where does your friend reside?” she asked after her coachman climbed onto his perch. Before answering, he contemplated how on earth he would face Ian and explain his disappearance for the past year. The truth, James decided after a time, he owed his friend the truth, no matter how much it shamed him. §§§ Catherine Wade watched impatiently as the handsome stranger pondered her question. Her inadequate attempt to nurse the wound above his left brow had done little more than smear the crimson gore down the gentleman's pale, lean cheek and nothing to staunch the bleeding. She longed to ask what had led him to consider such a drastic act – gambling debts, disinheritance, a woman? An unexpected jealous twinge twisted in Catherine’s gut. The man is a complete stranger! she scolded herself, a complete stranger that had kissed her senseless. The taste of sweet anise lingered upon her lips. She dared not examine how his kiss had affected her, nor contemplate her wanton acquiescence. She understood at once how an intelligent woman could be led astray by a handsome face and a simple caress, she thought gloomily. Giving herself a mental shake, Catherine gazed again at the man across from her. Her fingers itched to bury themselves in the sable locks curled lovingly around his collar. His straight nose and angular jaw could rival any depicted in the Elgin’s marbles – the epitome of a tragic Greek hero. Her question remained unanswered. “Who is William?” she asked. He had called out the name as he had passed her carriage, just before their encounter on the bridge. It was the reason she had followed him in the first place. Catherine had never in her life heard such despair in a man’s voice. “Is that the name of your friend?” His wary eyes snapped to hers. “What?” “As you passed before...before I met you on the bridge, you said ‘William’. I thought perhaps that was the name of your friend.” “No,” he replied wearily, but offered no further explanation and Catherine decided not to press him. “Where shall I instruct my coachman to take you?” “Harley Street.” With a deep sigh, he rested his head against the seat cushion. Catherine told Thomas where to go and closed the carriage door. The clop of horses’ hooves and rattle of carriage wheels cut through the silence as they lumbered through the city. The gentleman closed his eyes and she thought he might have drifted off to sleep, but he had not. “Why are you helping me?” he asked without opening his eyes. A fair question, she thought, though not easily answered without giving away her own purpose, a purpose that became more futile by the day. “You appeared in need of assistance.” Catherine motioned with her hand to indicate his injury. “You require a surgeon.” The gentleman laughed and opened his eyes, the sadness momentarily vanquished from their amber depths. “So now you’re a doctor?” Her cheeks warmed and Catherine fought back a blush with little success. “Anyone can see you’re in need of a doctor.” “I’m in need of a great many things,” he said, tentatively exploring the gash above his brow with the pads of his fingertips. “Why were you on the bridge?” Catherine asked. It was hardly polite to ask why a person would wish to kill oneself. “Atonement,” he replied, dropping his hand in his lap. “Why were you in such a place at such an hour alone?” She frowned and would not meet his inquisitive eye. He had an unsettling way of looking right through a person. “I was on my way home.” He raised his eyebrow and winced, remembering too late the wound on his forehead. “Even angels have their secrets,” he muttered, closing his eyes once again. After several minutes he appeared to doze, his breathing was slow and deep. Yes, she thought sadly, everyone had their secrets. Catherine peered out the window just as the carriage entered Mayfair’s brightly lit streets. Eerie shadows filtered into the compartment, making the gentleman’s already gray visage looked corpse-like. His brow twitched and his eyes moved rapidly beneath his lids. Even in sleep, he was restless and troubled. She would need to wake him soon to ask for the exact address of his friend’s residence on Harley Street, though Catherine loathed doing so. A few minutes more passed before she worked up her courage to stir him out of his slumber. “Sir,” she said softly. No response. “Sir,” she said a little more loudly but only elicited a deep breath and a frown from the gentleman. Bravely, she reached across the carriage and placed her hand over his. In a flash, he grabbed her wrist and roughly pulled her forward, almost sending Catherine sliding to the carriage floor. “The blood! I cannot save them all!” His eyes blazed into hers. He looked at Catherine but somehow did not see her. He was still in the midst of a dream, or nightmare by the sound of it. “Sir, you are in my carriage. We have reached Harley Street.” “What?” “You are safe in my carriage. There is no blood as you can see, aside from the wound on your head.” A myriad of emotions crossed his handsome face – confusion, fear, regret. “Forgive me. I lost myself for a moment.” He relaxed against the seat cushion and glanced out the window. “There is nothing to forgive. You have had a severe blow to the head and...I am sure you are not yourself.” “No, I am not,” he smirked. “I would never have let myself sleep in the presence of such a rare beauty.” Hungrily, he raked his eyes over her body. An unnerving sensation converged in the pit of her stomach and pooled hotly between her legs. “So where does your friend reside?” she said in a less than steady voice, his smile broadened at her discomfiture. “Middle of the next block,” he replied. Catherine opened the window and called up to Thomas, thankful to have a reprieve from the gentleman's riveting gaze. A few moments later, the carriage eased to a stop at their destination, all the while the man had not removed his eyes from her. “Do you have a name? Or does your kind not practice such mortal customs?” Her cheeks warmed again and she looked down at her hands. Not that he would know her family, he clearly was well above her in station, but it would not be prudent for anyone to know of her escapades tonight. Too many questions would be asked, and the chance for secrets to be revealed was too great. “No matter,” he said somewhat brusquely. “Thank you for your kind assistance, Miss.” Resuming a cavalier attitude, the gentleman took her hand and lifted it to his lips, placing a languid kiss upon her gloved fingers. “I am forever in your debt.” His voice thrummed over her skin with the promise of passion and pleasure beyond her wildest dreams. She could only imagine how charming – and dangerous – he would be if he were indeed himself. Catherine feared that her virtue would be very much at risk if she had met this man under different circumstances. Relinquishing her hand, the man hesitated a moment and looked apprehensively at the stately home on Harley Street. When he finally stepped down, he stumbled when his feet hit the pavement. “Thomas!” But Thomas was already at the man’s side, ready to help him up the walk. After a mild protest by the gentleman, Thomas stood aside and let him walk up the steps unassisted. Catherine closed the carriage door and pulled down the shade three-quarters of the way, making sure to lean into the shadows while still managing to watch the man’s progress. He stood with one hand braced against the door frame. What seemed like an age passed before he mustered the courage to knock. A servant opened the door and appeared to recognize the man, calling to his master and mistress to come quickly while, to Catherine’s horror, the gentleman collapsed upon the doorstep. Her fears were eased when three more figures came to his assistance, scooping the gentleman up and hoisting him inside the house and out of view. After several moments, Catherine resigned herself that she must trust that his friends would indeed care for him and help him rally again. Those that had come to the door seemed genuinely concerned for their friend. She told Thomas to drive on and left the stranger to his fate. Her own would tarry no longer.
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