“I should be offended, not gettin’ an introduction,” Tom said lightly.
Billy shifted his feet. “Blimey, Tom, didn’t think you’d want to bother wi’ such riffraff.”
“Thought wrong, boyo.”
A soft chuckle went through the group as though they were one entity.
Stiffed-backed, her pulse throbbing, Miranda could only stand and wait. The black eyes of the boss hadn’t left hers for a moment.
“Tis me kinsman from the East End,” said Billy through white lips. “A simple lad, really. Right nickey in the noggin’, he is.”
A scant brow rose. “Get on wif you, Billy. Havn’ a laugh at our expense? Why, it’d take a flat not to know toff from a toffer. Even in cove’s clothes.”
Strong hands wrenched her from Billy’s side. Her head hit the iron lamppost as two roughs pinned her against it for Tom’s inspection. At that, the small man doffed his cap and offered an eloquent bow. “ ’Ello, there, darlin’.”
Resignation pulled down Billy’s long features as two others took hold of him. The boss stepped in close, the smell of gin and unwashed male hitting her nostrils like a brick.
“Wha’s your name, then, luv?”
“Meg,” she mumbled, trying to sound as simple as Billy claimed. A useless endeavor. A simpleton would only be easier sport.
A dirty finger traced her cheek, his long nail scraping flesh as he licked his wet lips. “But you’re a fine bit o’ stuff, aren’t you now.” A smile split his cragged features. “This ’ere’s my bit of dirt you’re standin’ on.” He took a step closer, and the men held firm, their hard fingers bruising her flesh. “Wha’ come on my turf is mine. An’ I takes wha’s mine.”
Male arousal hung thick in the air, a palpable excitement that turned her stomach. Crowds of people milled about, not one of them looking, not one of them foolish enough to do so. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard, their laughter penetrating the weak veil of darkness. She was as good as raped and dead if she did not act. Yet a cold sweat broke over her skin at the thought. She shivered, sickness and rage gaining purchase with equal speed. The sounds of the night came in from all sides. A street filled with people. Witnesses all. And innocents as well.
A thumb caressed her bottom lip. Blood thundered in her ears and with it the gathering storm. Do it. I cannot. Quite suddenly she wished for Archer so desperately that tears threatened. Don’t think of him.
The sound of laughter and joviality rang out down the street. Yet here… Hot breath hit her cheek, hot as the air that gathered around her. “Fancy a toss, luv?”
She felt rather than heard Billy move, and the resulting scuffle. Her eyes flew open to see her friend held fast with a knife at his throat. His eyes bulged, fear making him quiver.
“You workin’ me, Billy Finger?” Tom said without taking his eyes from Miranda. “Denyin’ me my piece?” The man spoke lightly but the evil flatness in his eyes betrayed his tone. He’d gut Billy and enjoy every second.
Billy’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “Don’t—” The knife at his throat cut him short.
Black Tom cocked a thick brow. “Don’t, wha? Hurt your littl’ toffer?” Rotted teeth flashed. “She mean that much ta ye, then?”
Billy licked his lips quickly. His skin took on a grayish hue as sweat seeded over his high brow. “Don’t piss ’er off,” he managed.
The stovepipe hat on Tom’s head tilted back as the man gaped. “You bammin’ me?” His laughter cracked out, joined by the rest.
“ ’Ere now, lad,” he said through chortles, “ ’as no man ever taught ye how to ’andle a haybag?” Tom’s cold black eyes snapped to Miranda, hatred and pleasure burning in them as he took another step forward. Sick dread overflowed in her belly, leaking down her limbs and setting them to shaking.
“You need a toss, sweetin’.” A blow to her head knocked her hat free, sending half of her hair awkwardly over her cheek. A throb of heat went down her spine, and with it, the urge to hurt. No. Too many people.
“Don’t.” She did not want to do this. The face before her wavered as her control was overwhelmed by need.
A warped smile winked at her. “Too late for beggin’.”
White-hot heat stretched her skin tight and crackled through her hair. Dimly, she heard Billy moan, saw him strain to pull away from his captor, away from her. But the coarse hands of Black Tom kept reaching for her. The laughing eyes of his crew looked on as he ripped her coat open. Cold air blew through her thin lawn shirt. A small child ran between the legs of the men, chasing a broken bottle. Too many innocents. Blood throbbed in her ears.
“Very nice, indeed,” he muttered a moment before he grabbed her br**sts and squeezed.
A roar lit through her ears. She could not think; the thing had her. It broke in a terrible wave of heat. The gas lantern above her head exploded in a volley of fire and pelting glass.
Tom flew back, blazing with yellow flames. His scream mingled with the loud pops of the lamps down West Street exploding like cannon fire.
Chaos erupted, men and women screaming as the hapless onlookers scrambled to get away. A stream of rushing men and women caught her up and carried her along as the fire danced toward the ramshackle building behind. The aged timber and empty rooms acted like a tinderbox to the fire’s greed, and the structure roared to life with a burst of scorching air.
Screams of mass panic swallowed up her dry shout. Black Tom rolled upon the ground, an inhuman sound vibrating from him as the fire ate him.
“Billy!” Her knees cracked against the hard cobble and the red leviathan grew higher. It looked her in the face, kissing her cheeks with a hot blast. For one blessed moment, she spied the familiar outline of her friend against the flames as he ran off into the wild night, then a hard blow from behind brought her down.
Smothered by the foul stench of fish and wet wool of a lady’s skirt, she struggled to get free of the woman lying on top of her. Arms tangled with limbs as they both tried to rise.
“Get off!” shouted the frantic woman. A sharp kick to Miranda’s ribs sent her flying back, and the woman scurried away. A foot crushed her hand, and she sobbed. Blinded by fleeing bodies and thick smoke, she could not tell up from down.
Suddenly hands had her, strong and sure. She surged upward, pulled into a hard embrace. Black smoked burned down her throat as they hurtled forward, knocking people down like pins, crashing through an old wooden door and into the cool quiet of an abandoned brick building.
Panting in the dark, she tried to move. Her rescuer kept her crushed in his embrace, pressing her tight against the wall. Heated breath touched her ear as he turned his head. She reared, flailing her limbs in useless protest. A large hand clamped over her mouth, the arm about her a vise.
“Stop,” he hissed. “Stop, I say!”
She kicked out, finding a shin, and a grunt wrung from the man’s lips before his embrace tightened.
“I saved your life, you.”
Her struggles slowed as the vague familiarity of the voice seeped through her panic.
“There now,” Lord Ian Mckinnon breathed, letting his hand fall. “Easy. I don’t want to receive the same treatment as that poor prig did back there, I can tell you.”
As usual, letting the fire out had drained her physically. She sagged against a cold, damp wall and took a deep breath of air. It was dank and smelled of decay, but was blessedly free of smoke. In the distance, the clanging of the fire brigade bell rang. Mckinnon eased back, but he did not break his embrace. Miranda blinked up to find his strong features arranged in a grin.
“That is quite the trick, lass.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Sharp canines showed beneath his thin mustache. “You know precisely what I mean. I saw it all.” He leaned in until their breath mingled. “Even the moment when it broke free.”
Her stomach lurched, but she affected calm. “You watched me get attacked,” she said, ignoring the obvious. “And did nothing?”
The caress of his voice at her ear sent little prickles of unease down her spine. “I watched you defend yourself. I saw the look in your eyes. You were never truly afraid.” He edged back to look into her eyes. “That interests me.”
“What do you want?”
With slow ease, he studied her. “What are you doing here?” he asked after a moment. “Don’t tell me it’s to play dress up. I won’t believe you.”
She shoved at his bulk but he did not budge. Rather, he settled in comfortably, letting his length nestle along hers. A tight knot claimed her stomach. His embrace might have been intimate, yet it left her cold and irritated.
“Get off, will you?” She shoved again.
“Not until you tell me.”
“I owe you nothing.”
He laughed shortly as she struggled again to free herself. “I saved your life.”
Which was precisely the reason she couldn’t feel the burning anger toward him that she felt for Black Tom. It did not stop her from wanting to smack the smug look off of his face, however.
Mckinnon laughed again. “Never mind,” he murmured against her ear. “I know.” His hand plunged into her pants.
Screeching, she bucked, the heat rising once more. But suddenly he was off, dancing back with haste.
“Easy now,” he said lightly. “Cool yourself. I was simply looking for this.”
He lifted his hand high, and a golden flash caught the weak light. Archer’s coin. Inwardly, she groaned.
Mckinnon gave it a glance and then raised a questioning brow. “You’re trying to clear his name, aren’t you?” He smiled. “If you think learning West Moon Club’s secrets will absolve Archer, you are wrong.”
She fell against the wall with a small gasp. “You know of West Moon Club?”
He flicked the coin high and then caught it neatly. “My father is a member, aye?” Mckinnon tossed her the coin. “I know more than I care to know.”
“Then will you—” She stopped, and he grinned.
“It’s never that easy, is it?” he said.
A pregnant silence ran between them as his gaze held.
“I’m leaving.” She moved to go but he stepped forward, not touching her, but pinning her to the spot just as effectively.
“You’re right to worry. Archer’s back is to the wall, and he knows it.”
Her shoulders hit the cold brick behind her as she edged away from McKinnon’s advancing form. He stopped, seeing the movement, and regarded her with shrewd eyes.
“You’d do anything to protect him, wouldn’t you, lass?” Soft wonder filled his voice.
She pressed her hands into the wall. “I believe you are overreaching.”
Mckinnon shook his head slowly, a feral grin creeping over his shoulders. “I don’t believe so.” He took a small step closer. “Shall we find out?”
The Rusty Spanner was located in the middle of a crooked narrow street two blocks off of the London Docks. The scent of tar rising from the sail maker’s shop next door overrode everything: the thick perfume of tea, the briny sharpness of sea water and dried fish, the sulfuric smell of the tanneries, and the general stench of too many people and goods forced into one small area.
Archer tried to ignore the burning in his nose as he walked down the street, the low-lying buildings leaning this way and that like a set of jumbled bottom teeth in an overcrowded mouth. It was dark here, save for the golden light spilling from the tavern windows and the sound of merriment within. Someone had procured an accordion, and from the sound of the boisterous singing that accompanied the instrument, the patrons within were already well in their cups. Not well enough. The music stopped the moment Archer came through the door, the dying wheeze of the accordion punctuating his entrance. Through the thick, gray haze of tobacco smoke, a multitude of glassy eyes stared at him. But only for a moment. The song started up once more, the singer’s voice unsteady at first, and then the accordionist began to play. The patrons returned to their fun but Archer knew better than to feel safe from attack. Hard stares bore into his back as he made his way toward the bar. He kept his head bent, the rough-hewn beams overhead so low he might brush them should he stand in full.
He could only imagine the scene if he’d come dressed in his usual fashion; the black top hat, mask, and cloak would have caused an outright revolt. He’d dressed like one of them, donning a heavy peacoat—the collar turned up high, thick woolen skull cap pulled low—then wrapped his face with linen. Even so, sailors were a superstitious lot. At best, they thought him a victim of a tragic accident, which made him bad luck. He couldn’t blame them. He remembered his days of sailing and that feeling of helplessness mixed with excitement. It took some nerve to put your life in the hands of that tempestuous mistress, the sea.
He did not feel fear now, only a sick knot of hope mixed with fury. Fury for Cheltenham. His fists ached to strike something when he thought of the elderly man slaughtered like a pig. And hope. That coil of emotion stuck like soggy pudding to his gut ever since Leland had sent him a note telling him of Dover Rye, Hector Ellis’s old manager and sea captain. Apparently Dover had been stealing out from under Ellis all this time, a bit of larceny among thieves. Dover had been the captain of The Rose when it had pirated Archer’s ship. Only Dover lived. All this time, he’d been hidden away in some forgotten taproom.
The man behind the bar watched Archer come forward. He was a big fellow, chest like a full sail, masts for arms, ginger-haired and skin reddened by the sun. He set down the mug he’d been wiping.