To Please A Lady (The Seduction Series), p.1Lori Brighton
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2013 by Lori Brighton. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance
PO Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013909620
For my mother,
Your courage, compassion, and imagination are a constant source of inspiration.
About the Author
James McKinnon had struck it rich. It wasn’t a bucket of money, nor a chest full of pirate treasure, which would be odd anyway, considering he was in the heart of London. No, it was a basket of potatoes that tumbled from the back of a wagon as it turned a corner too sharply. But it was a treasure indeed to someone whose belly was cramped with hunger.
He huddled against the rock wall of the Deer Isle Pub, watching as the potatoes dropped and bounced, falling from the crate like golden coins gleaming under the dreary sunlight that managed to pierce London’s morning clouds.
Not just potatoes… turnips as well!
Wearily, he glanced around the square. Nary a soul could be seen, the morn too bitterly cold for most. He huddled deep within his woolen jacket, attempting to ignore the sting of snow as it whipped around him, pelting his face like bullets. Still, he knew others like him were out there, hiding in the shadows, waiting within the alleys for the right moment to pounce. Despite the chill wind piercing the holes in his jacket, James grinned. Aye, there were others waiting, but none as fast as he. He might be thin for his age, but he was as tough as any street rat.
He’d known, hadn’t he? This morning when his mum had been crying into her apron over their measly breakfast, worried that they’d have to find work in the factories, he’d told her something good would happen. He’d felt it in his gut. This late in winter it was a bloody miracle. He didn’t even like potatoes and turnips, but he still knew it was a gift from heaven, as his da used to say.
He waited until the driver was good and well around the corner and then jumped from his hiding place and scurried across the road, splashing through the sludge of snow, mud, and other things he was better off not identifying. At one time, when he was a young lad, they’d eaten the finest meat and best potatoes. He should have been training to be a footman by now, but that had been when his da still lived. Now they were lucky if they had one decent meal a day.
His foot hit a particularly deep puddle. James cringed, stumbling. Aye, he might be able to ignore the snow, but he couldn’t ignore the water that seeped through the holes in his boots, soaking his stockings and numbing his toes. He gritted his teeth, crossing his arms over his chest in an attempt to stay as warm as possible. It would be worth the discomfort when he saw the look upon his mum’s face.
Close… he was so very close to the treasure. He kicked off the ground, racing as fast as he could. He had to reach the food before the other street rats staked their claims. It wasn’t exactly stealing; after all, he couldn’t catch the driver to let him know. Besides, if he didn’t take the food, someone else would. He smiled. Almost there.
“Watch out!” a man cried out.
James spun around, just missing a drunken sailor weaving his way down the footpath. As James turned, regaining his balance, he noticed the three boys headed his way, darting from the alley across the lane. No! He couldn’t lose the treasure now. Frantic, he dove toward the pile, his patched trousers providing little protection as he slid on his knees toward the basket. When his numb fingers gripped the smooth wooden handle, he almost cried out in relief. But he couldn’t rest. If he didn’t get the basket and leave immediately, he’d have a fight on his hands. Aye, he was good, but against three he wouldn’t have a chance. He lifted the basket, clutching it to his chest, and turned, preparing to flee. His glee was short-lived, as he ran directly into a hard chest that smelled of unwashed body and ale.
Before he had time to react, firm fingers pinched his left ear… hard. “Caught ye, ye thief!”
James cried out, stumbling to his knees. The basket fell from his hands, the potatoes and turnips bouncing across the lane, splashing through snowy puddles. He could save them, if only he could scoop them up before another coach rounded the corner and smashed them to bits.
“No, sir! I swear I wasn’t stealing. I found the basket in the lane! Was just left there, it was!”
“Up with ye!” The man pulled hard, forcing James to his feet.
He bit his lower lip, refusing to cry out, although it felt as if his ear was being torn clean away. The food was gone, but he had more important things to worry about now. James stumbled after the burly constable toward an enclosed wagon. Already the other children were streaming over the basket of food. James could only watch them, his hope fading as he was shoved into a coach, the door slammed shut. He gripped the bars of the single tiny window and peered out onto the road. Gone… all of it. Picked over by hungry rats.
With a cry of anger and frustration, he slammed his fist against the bars.
“Won’t do ye any good,” a man chuckled behind him. “Why don’t ye come over here, let me have a look at ye.”
James spun around, spotting the beast standing in the corner. “Sod off!”
The man laughed, stumbling as the wagon took a sharp corner. “Young lad, ye won’t last long where we’re going. But maybe I can protect ye, for the right price.”
A shiver of unease raced over his skin, but he refused to show his fear. Where he was from, a man who couldn’t control his emotions was as good as dead. “Where is he taking us?”
“To visit the queen, of course!” He cackled, laughing so hard he stumbled off balance and fell into the dirty straw in the corner of the wagon and merely lay there. His laughter drifted away, and after a few moments the sound of snoring erupted from between his crusty lips. Disgusted, James looked out the window once more.
The pale faces of London rushed by as the wagon bumped along a cobbled road. Not one person looked his way; they were too busy with their own desperate lives to worry about an inconsequential, poor lad. His panic grew. He’d heard stories of children being taken to prison, whipped, and hanged, never to be seen again, and for silly little crimes, like stealing a bun. But no one cared.
“No,” he whispered. This couldn’t be happening. If he was in the gaols, who would feed his mum? His sister? “Please!” he cried out, shaking the bars. “Help me!”
But the wagon continued on, twisting and turning its way through the narrow streets of London until James’s legs gave out and he slumped to the ground. What would his mum think when he didn’t appear for dinner? James drew his knees close, trying to get
The door wretched open, squeaking in protest. The constable stood there, his chin covered with dirty gray whiskers, his dark eyes soulless. There was not an ounce of compassion on his bullish face. James would not beg, for the man would not care. “Come on, out with ye.”
Large, dirty hands reached into the wagon, latched onto his jacket, and pulled James outside. “I didn’t do nothing, I swear.”
“Shut your mouth.” The constable released James only to land a beefy fist against his mouth.
Pain exploded behind his eyes, followed by the metallic taste of blood seeping across his tongue. Dazed, he was barely aware when the man dragged him toward a massive stone structure. He didn’t have time to mull over his options before the guard pulled him into a long, dark corridor.
“Getting a pretty pence fer ye,” the man growled, pulling the door shut and locking it. Trapped. He was trapped inside a hell that smelled of waste and decay. He tried to ignore his fear and think of a way to get out of the utter disaster he’d suddenly found himself in.
Money for him? It must be a mistake! “Ye have the wrong lad, sir!”
The constable didn’t respond. James tried to twist away, but his grip was too strong. The man jerked him down the dark hall, past rows of cells where beady eyes peered at him through barred windows. The sickening scent of hopelessness hovered around each prisoner. His future looked bleak indeed. At the last door, the constable paused.
“Sir, I promise, you’ve got the wrong lad! No one wants to pay money for me!”
With a thick, heavy key he unlocked the cell and tossed James inside. He stumbled across the slick floor as the door slammed shut, trapping him. James fell into the wall, pressing his hands to the stone, his harsh breath echoing through the small room. It was dark. So dark he couldn’t see a bleedin’ thing, only a square patch of gray where the door stood. This was to be his life, then? He bit his lower lip and looked heavenward, refusing to cry. A soft scratch whispered across the floor. James froze. For a second he thought it was a rat, but no, it was too loud, too big.
James shoved away from the wall, his hands fisted at his sides. “Who are you? Who’s there?”
“Who are you?” a voice growled through the darkness. Not quite a man’s voice, but a lad probably the same age as he was. James’s curiosity grew, and despite himself he couldn’t deny the relief he felt. At least he wasn’t alone.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” James admitted, hating the way his voice caught.
“We don’t either.” Another voice, another lad.
“We?” Startled, James moved closer. Sure enough, as his eyes adjusted to the lack of light, he could make out two forms seated on a wooden bench. “You don’t?”
The lad shook his head. He was the smaller of the two, although still large, and apparently more talkative than his friend. “Was walking with my mates one moment, and the next, hauled into the wagon.”
Similar to what had happened to him. “And you?” James glanced at the giant. He was a good head taller than they were. But the giant didn’t say a word. James had a feeling he didn’t speak often. “How long have you been here?”
“A day,” the smaller gent said. Aye, he was a gent, James could tell from his refined voice. But a gent in a prison made even less sense. “And he arrived this morning. I’m Alex. He’s Gideon, but he doesn’t like to talk.”
A day? Despondent, James sank to the ground, leaning against the damp wall. No reasoning, no answers. Would he be stuck here forever? Rot and die? Trapped in this hell that smelled very much like death?
“I’m James,” he said softly.
“Will they hang us?” Alex whispered.
James didn’t respond, fear of the unknown keeping him silent.
“Most likely,” Gideon said.
James felt his entire body go still. He didn’t want to die. A cold knot of fear and sadness formed in the middle of his chest. “Blast it! I didn’t do anything!” His voice echoed around the small room. James stumbled to his feet. “Do you hear me?” he cried out. “I didn’t do anything!”
The soft fall of footsteps echoed down the hall, answering him. James stiffened, and the other two lads did the same. There was more than one… two? Three?
“Guards,” Alex whispered. “Damn you, why’d you have to say anything?”
The steps grew in volume, thick and heavy, but underneath the sound of thumping was something else… the light tap of a smaller shoe. The sudden sound of whistles and cheers from the other prisoners startled James. He stumbled back toward the other two boys, who had also stood.
“Why are they so excited?” James asked.
“Don’t know,” Alex whispered. “Maybe it’s something good. Someone important. Someone who can get us out of this mess.”
“We’re in the gaols,” Gideon growled. “How good can it be?”
“Anything is better than rotting in here,” Alex snapped back. “No matter what happens, I say we fight together.”
He didn’t trust these lads, but James nodded quickly, knowing it was always better in numbers.
The footsteps paused. James’s heart leapt into his throat. When the door screeched open they fell silent, still. A tense moment passed when suddenly a lantern burst to life, momentarily blinding them. James raised his arm, blocking the light.
“To yer feet,” the constable growled, having no idea they were already standing. The big bull stepped into the room, lantern held high. James glanced briefly at Alex and Gideon. He’d been right: they were all around the same age, at least within a year or two. Alex was dressed in fine clothes, his dark hair combed neatly into place. Gideon wore rags much like James, his dark hair overly long, hanging in front of eyes that glared at the door.
“Look lively, you street brats,” the constable growled.
“Now, Constable,” a woman said softly from the shadows, “is that any way to speak to such fine gentlemen?”
James went cold. A bleedin’ woman? The constable snorted in disbelief. But the woman didn’t seem to mind. She moved into the cell, her skirts rustling over the stone floor, two large brutes following her. Over the scent of rot and refuse, James could smell something sweet and utterly feminine. Heaven.
It was too bloody good to be true. When she stepped into the light James went speechless. She was small, not much taller than he. Her pale face was pure perfection, and for a moment he wondered if they had died and were being greeted by an angel. He heard Alex and Gideon gasp and knew they were just as stunned. She wore a light lavender gown that shoved her breasts up toward her face, and a bonnet that covered her hair. He couldn’t see her eye color, and he so desperately wanted to know the shade.
“Oh dear,” she whispered in a voice that held the slightest accent. Her pretty little mouth formed a pout and she shook her head in despair. “Wavers, do give them the baskets.”
One of the beasts guarding her stepped forward and handed first Gideon, then Alex, and lastly James a basket. He could smell roast chicken wafting from the container and he had to force himself not to tear it open. All three boys merely stood there, waiting.
“Can you tell us why we’re here?” Alex finally asked.
“Well,” she sighed, clasping her hands together. She wasn’t as old as his mum, but she was much older than they were. “You were all unfortunately caught doing something criminal, according to the constable.”
James glanced at the two lads, wondering what they had done, but neither spoke. She paced the small cell, the erotic scent of sweet flowers floating around them. James breathed deeply… lavender! He suddenly recognized the smell. His mum had grown the flowers in pots around the house.
“And unfortunately even young criminals are harshly punished here.”
She stepped toward him and rested her gloved hand on the side of his face. James froze, shocked. “I understand, but the constable is the law.” She released her hold and strolled toward the door. “Still, there might be a way to gain your release.”
They hesitated, looking at each other in wariness. Not one of them trusted the situation. His da had taught him to use his brain, but it was so very muddled at the moment.
“What?” Alex finally asked, a pleading note to his voice that they all felt. “What can we do?”
“You’ll come with me.” She stepped into the hall and glanced back. “Unless you’d rather stay here?”
She disappeared around the corner. The three of them merely stood there, staring at the empty door with mouths gaping wide in surprise. Finally, James managed to glance at Alex and Gideon. “What does she mean?”
“Come on,” a guard growled from the hall. “Ye got a chance out, I’d take it.”
That did it. Alex was the first to move toward the door, clasping his basket to his chest as he raced after the woman. James hesitated only a moment, then followed with his basket in hand. Gideon was the last in line. They trailed after her small, dark form, ignoring the growls, curse words, and whistles of the other prisoners. James didn’t know where they were headed, but surely this angelic being was offering them something much better than their prison cell. The guard unlocked the door and moved aside. Hesitantly, they stepped into the courtyard, the brilliant light of the rising sun startling.
But it wasn’t the dingy boys beside him who caught his attention. No, it was the woman leading them toward a purple carriage… a woman with hair that glowed like pale gold. A veritable angel she was, of such startling beauty that James found he could not speak. He’d thought her pretty, but he’d been wrong… she was perfect. The man named Wavers helped her across the cobbled courtyard and into her gaudy carriage. When the three boys continued to stand there, shocked speechless, she peeked outside.
“James,” she purred, fastening her gaze on him. “Do enter and sit, please.”
To Please A Lady (The Seduction Series) by Lori Brighton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes