“Turn around.” Her voice was forged iron. “Your hands to the wall.”
When he simply stood there amused, she flushed. “I don’t care who you are as long as you go. But I will check you for weapons before I send you on your way.”
Foolish girl. He really ought to set her straight. “Of course,” he said.
The damp on the bricks seeped through his gloves as she reached around to skim her hand over his chest. The moment she touched him his senses snapped to attention. A light shiver passed over him. He tapped it down, thought of the Queen, pickled eels, or… the fact that no woman had been this close to him in years. For a moment, he was dizzy.
“Quality clothing. Carrying the scent of the sea. The sea and…” She trailed off with a noise that made him wonder what she detected. Did the unnaturalness in him carry a scent?
“You’re here to harass my father.”
His head snapped up, and she made a sound of annoyance.
“You are not the first to ooze from this alleyway in the dark of night, nor will you be the last.” Her hand slid over his belly. His gut grew twitchy, aching. “I assume he owes you money. Well, it is gone. There is nothing left. You cannot get blood from a stone, and I won’t let you take his blood in payment.”
He winced at the hurt in her voice, at what she had to face for the deeds of her father. It changed nothing; save he wanted to keep her away from her father’s inevitable demise. Tenderness warred with the deep, tight-chested anger that was his constant companion.
“How am I to respond?” he asked. “Deny it, and you accuse me of lying. Admit it, and you cut my throat.”
The tip of the knife dug in a little farther as her soft voice rumbled at his ear. “I may do both yet.”
He could only chuckle. “I am honored. You had this pig sticker in your boot, and you saved it for me.”
“I hadn’t the opportunity to use it on those fools. Not with you blundering in my way. But make no mistake, I would have done so.”
Brusque pats flanked his side. The touch was impersonal, and driving him mad all the same. His flesh tensed before each hit, waiting for the contact with taut anticipation.
“They might have taken your point to heart had you pulled out the knife from the first.”
He could feel her head shake. “Not those two.” A smile hid beneath the professional tone of her voice. “They would have leapt at the opening. They wanted the fight.”
Archer had to agree.
“Besides,” she said crisply as she ran a hand down his outstretched arm, before kneeling to check his boot. “I do not particularly like violence.”
Ha! “I’d say you excel at it.”
Her breath puffed warm against his thigh, making his quadriceps twitch. “Sweet talk won’t save you.”
He affected a sigh. “My own folly for protecting a child.”
“Child,” she scoffed. “I am nineteen years old. Older than most Mayfair debutantes offered up for sale. Hardly a child.”
Ah, yes, and didn’t he know it.
Cautiously, she felt along his right leg, before moving on to his left. Oddly, she didn’t pick his pockets. She left his money purse alone.
“Pardon, madam.” He glanced down to watch the top of her head bobbing about like a copper globe by his upper thigh. Illicit thoughts flared hot at the sight. He struggled to keep his tone light. “Save when one has lived as long as I, nineteen years is little more than a flicker in time.”
Amusement danced in her voice. “You’re an old lecher, are you?”
He was thinking of becoming so. Should she, say, move her hand a few inches to the left… He cleared his throat. “Old enough.”
She made a noise under her breath. “Liar.” She was at his left hip now. “Your form doesn’t feel elderly in the least.” If she only knew. “You’re musculature is quite—”
He felt the precise moment when everything changed—the subtle increase in tension in her hand, a stutter in the efficient way she moved, the shift in her breathing from strong and determined to light and agitated. The answer in him was instant, painful arousal. For a moment, he couldn’t think. He hadn’t been noticed as a man in so long that his mind barely held the echo of such memories. But his flesh… his flesh remembered the pleasure of touch all too well.
Slowly, her slim hand smoothed over the swell of his buttock, lingering there. A shocked laugh choked his throat, the sound muddled by a stifled groan that her intrigued touch elicited. The saucy little sneak thief was copping a feel. He felt inclined to turn around and let her get a handful. Christ, this was madness.
Her breath came in hard rasps, audible and so like those of a woman being tupped that Archer’s head grew light, all available blood surging down to the throbbing pain in his cock. His forehead fell against the brick wall with a thud. Bits of mortar drifted like dust over his wrists as he clung to the wall like a buoy.
Inquisitive fingers combed his inner thigh, testing its hardness, and surely feeling the trembling there. His c**k swelled, drawing so tight and hot it quivered. Sweet Christ. This time he could not bite back the low groan that filled him. It broke whatever spell she was under. Her breath caught sharply, and she snatched her hand away as if scorched.
He forced himself to turn, grateful for the protective cover of his cloak. She stood gaping at him as if she couldn’t quite understand what had happened. A lovely rose tinted her cheeks, her fiery hair swirling in the cold wind. Already she was fading away, stepping back into the moonlight. The heat in him cooled, leaving him with a familiar hollowness just under his breastbone. His throat closed in on him.
“No weapons,” she whispered.
“No.” He clenched his fist to keep from reaching out.
“Well, thank you, then.” She backed up another step. “For speaking out. Unnecessary, but kind.”
He stared blankly for a moment, not knowing what to do. When she looked as though she might move, he fumbled with his pockets. Give her something. Make her stay.
“Here.” The coin in his hand flashed in the weak light as he held it out. “Take it.”
She did not hesitate. One second it was between his fingers, the other it was gone. He watched as she inspected it, the red wings of her brows knitting together. “West Moon Club?”
“It isn’t proper currency,” he said as the frown grew. “Just a silly trinket made by men who have nothing better to do with their time. I’ve no use for it any longer.” No, because they had cast him out. The emptiness in him became pain. He hated the coin and everything associated with it. Of all the things he could have reached for in his haste, why had it been that?
One red brow rose as she glanced up at him, considering.
“It is pure gold.” He was babbling like a maiden. Irritation flushed within him. He bit it back. “Melt it down and sell it when you have need.” The idea gave him a certain joy.
Her fingers closed around the coin. “You think I’m too proud to take it?”
His lips twitched. “On the contrary. I think you pragmatic enough to make good use of it.” He didn’t offer her the wad of bank notes he had in his pocket. A gift was one thing. Charity was another.
Green eyes slanted up at him. “Silver-tongued devil. But you’re wrong. I don’t take gifts from strangers.”
He opened his mouth to protest when she flicked her wrist. The knife in her hand hissed through the air, embedding itself with a thud into the wall next to him.
“A trade, however.”
Oh, he liked this girl. Keeping his eyes on her, he pulled out the knife with ease. The slim, black-enameled hilt was warm from her touch. That she trusted him with the knife left him oddly expectant, as if for once the next sunrise might be a welcome sight. “A trade it is,” he rasped.
“Go on, then,” she said. “I’ll not leave until you’re well out of here.”
Deliciously peremptory. His gut tightened and went hot.
Come with me. He’d take her to a tavern, buy her ale and bread, tease her simply to hear her talk, to watch her all night and revel in the way she commanded those in orbit around her. Only then she’d see him. And run. The heaviness in his chest was a crushing thing.
“As my lady wishes.”
She gave a start. She hadn’t truly thought he’d obey, and it made him chuckle. God, he hadn’t smiled this much in years. The muscles along his chest ached from his recent laughter. When had he last laughed? He could not remember.
Desperate yearning returned, for in her unflinching stare, the way she did not hesitate to speak to him, he saw the reflection of his own salvation. A man no longer cast out to the shadows, but seen. If there was a greater gift in this world he knew not of it. Archer was not fool enough to turn away from a gift.
Hector Ellis’s daughter. So the man would have to live. Archer turned a new plan over in his mind. One Archer knew Ellis would agree to, for a man such as him would agree to anything to save his own skin. A little time was all that Archer required.
Taking a deep breath, he made himself say the words he must. “Good night to you, fair Pan.”
Three years later. London, September 1881
No, no, farther down… yes, that’s the one… there!” Satisfaction pulled at her lips. “Ah, how lovely.”
The man at the counter flushed in pleasure. His gaze strayed to her smiling lips and held for a moment past propriety. “The loveliest I’ve seen, Miss.”
His small boldness sent another wash of red over his fair skin. Miranda leaned farther into him. The glass countertop beneath her elbows gave a small groan, and the clerk swallowed hard, his gaze flittering between her mouth and the swells of her br**sts that plumped over her bodice. His grip tightened on the ruby bracelet he held in his hands.
So easy, really, to seduce a man with the simple act of arching one’s back. A woman ought to feel satisfaction in the sight. Miranda only felt as she always felt: dirty, wrong, empty.
“Set it down,” she murmured before clearing her throat delicately. “Let me see it in the proper light.”
Gently, he set the bracelet among the others, dozens of necklaces and bracelets strewn out over the small counter. Too many wares pulled out for display than was prudent or proper. So very accommodating. And a mistake only a befuddled clerk would make.
Miranda set her chin upon her hand, the act bringing her arm against the side of her breast, lifting it further into view. The clerk smothered a noise, his eyes riveted to the sudden increase in displayed flesh. Her skin crawled. She did not flinch, only looked up at him with a small secret smile. You and I understand this forbidden desire between us, it said to him. Her free hand settled with the lightness of a feather upon the pearl necklace lying near her ribs.
“Any one of these jewels would do you credit, miss.”
Her finger hooked over the row of pearls. Slowly. Slowly. Countless times she had done this, yet every time felt like the first. Every time filled her with terror. Never let it show.
She mocked a wounded pout. “The jewels credit me, sir?”
His thin mouth worked as he flushed. “You misunderstand. They pale against your beauty. Were I a ruby, I would despair at being noticed while in your presence.”
A genuine smile tugged at her lips. Plain and bashful, he might be, but the young man had a romantic heart and the beginnings of a poetic tongue. It was his whey-face and quick blushes that had made her select this shop that rested at the edge of respectability. The little shop specialized in fine jewels pawned by aristocrats whose wealth was dying. A place new wealth bought baubles for their town-kept mistresses. A place where a young, unescorted woman might go, pretend to shop for jewels far past her means so that she might flirt with the young clerk she had her eye on.
It was the role she played. Letting him see her walk by his window once a week. Making eye contact before turning away with a blush. And then working up her courage to finally enter. She dipped her head and blushed.
“You are too kind, sir,” she murmured.
He fairly glowed with pleasure, and her heart ached. Too good a boy to ruin. For he would be ruined when his master found out what he had let happen here. But she could not return empty-handed. It had been too long. On the inside she screamed. This is my life, and I hate it. I hate it. She returned his smile.
The shop bell trilled, and the young man started as if caught with his hand in the biscuit bin. Two plump matrons entered, giving him a curt nod. Like Miranda’s, their gowns were slightly out of date and well-mended, but unlike with Miranda, the clerk took notice and did not jump to assist them.
Miranda trailed a gloved finger down her neck.
“W-would you like to try one of them on?” he asked.
She licked her lower lip, a tiny flicker of pink tongue that kept him riveted. “I don’t think I should.” It took no effort to make her lips tremble. In truth, she felt like crying.
The matron’s exclamation made them both turn. The older woman pressed her hand upon her ample chest and grabbed hold of her companion.
“Oh, Jane, look who it is!”
Her friend paled and made an attempt to support her friend. “Who, Margaret?”
“The Dread Lord Archer! His coach is coming up the street!”
Both women craned their wrinkled necks to peek between the gold lettering upon the shop window. Miranda stopped short of rolling her eyes. What a pair, these two. Her fingers tensed to take her prize but she held firm. Slowly. Slowly. Marks always felt it if one rushed. It was instinctive.