Thursday, May 12, 1881
She never considered her life might end in a tawdry room with a stranger. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to her. Even her worst nightmares never conjured such horrors. Yet here she was, sick with fear and loathing, and her chances of survival limited.
Would death be the final solution?
Heavy footsteps in the hallway drove her head from the pillow. Fear thudded in her ears.
No. No. Not again.
Not another… Her stomach twisted. It was inconceivable she could endure such atrocities much longer. Frayed and bruised, surely she would go mad.
The footsteps stopped outside her door. Terror rose as a key jiggled in the lock. Eyes stretched wide, she swept a hand beneath the pillow and grasped the cotton fabric wound about the jagged shard of porcelain. How foolish of him to leave behind a water pitcher. With the proper thrust, she’d shattered the glass, and after taking what she needed, hid the rest under the dresser. If she were lucky, he wouldn’t notice its absence. Hope spread in her chest then died just as quickly.
When the door swung open she scrabbled to her knees, the crude knife obscured by the pillow and covers. She shook her head, dispelling the sluggish effects of the drug slipped into her drink last night. A means to keep her compliant and her brain addled.
Shivering and clad only in frilly undergarments, she yanked a sheet to her chin. She lost count of the number of days she had been held captive and used by men for their vile pleasure. Had it been five or six days? More? Another hour, a minute, even a mere second was more than she could bear.
Dressed in gentleman’s attire, he entered the room, his jowly face partially shadowed by lamplight from the dresser. “Charlotte,” his voice rumbled. There was no mistaking the man in charge, the man most to fear. She shrank beneath his cool gaze of indifference.
Towering and broad chested, his hands were the size of bear paws.
They hung loose at his side. “No need for alarm, Charlotte.”
“My name’s not Charlotte.” Where the strength came to refute him, she didn’t know.
“You’re mistaken about the name.” Though soft spoken, the tone of danger in his voice brought goose bumps to her arms.
A second man garbed in similar finery followed him through the doorway. When she recognized him, her heart lurched. Chin lifted in defiance, she glowered at the leering monster who had destroyed her innocence. A noise of distaste grated in her throat.
Expensive, well-tailored clothes, gentrified men, it made no difference. They were all pigs. He closed the door. The latch caught with an ominous click amid the silence.
“You remember Mister…” For the first time, the man in charge glanced at the portly fellow, whose color rode high in his rounded cheeks.
“Ah…Miller,” the second man supplied, his hesitation suggesting it wasn’t his true name. She didn’t care. She only wanted to be free of this bedchamber, to leave behind the garish room with stale air and the lone window nailed shut, hidden behind heavy drapes.
“Mr. Miller so enjoyed your company the other night. I trust you’ll welcome his attentions again, Charlotte.”
Her gorge rose at the heightened gleam in Miller’s eyes, a man of similar age to her silver haired father. Maybe if she spilled the contents of her stomach across the bed he’d be revolted enough to turn away and leave her alone.
“I’m not dressed for company.”
One enormous paw rose, quelling further comment. Clearly he would tolerate no argument. “I didn’t think it necessary to dress her for the occasion. However, if you prefer…”
Miller waved off the offer. “Either way, she’s enticing.”
It sickened her to recall herself styled as a ten-year-old girl, the pinafore, the cascading locks and the hair bow. Since then she’d been left with nothing but a robe and her undergarments. Hate rose like bile.
“Quite refined,” the big man boasted. He smoothed the hair above his ear, drawing attention to the missing end of his pinky finger. With vicious glee, she imagined the tip had been bitten or ripped off at the joint in an accident or in a fit of anger.
“Skin like a baby’s behind.” Eyes dancing with impatience, Miller stepped forward.
She reared back, and startled when her bare skin struck the cold brass bed rail, causing him to laugh. How she hated his wrinkled face. Had she been a succulent bird on the spit and he a starving man, he could not have appeared hungrier. Almost salivating, he dragged the tie from his neck as he came closer.
Shrugging off his jacket, he tossed it on a nearby chair. Never once did his gaze wander. It ate into her skin, raising the hair on her arms.
“I brought champagne.” The missing pinky man poured the liquid into two thin stemmed glasses on the dresser.
“I don’t want to drink.” Her voice wavered.
“You’ll drink and be pleasant about it. He thrust the glass her way.
Afraid the alcohol would dull her thinking, she hesitated, but his fearsome glower was worse, and reluctantly, she accepted the offering. After pretending to sip, she set the glass on the nightstand.
“Now, do be charming,” he advised with an unmistakable warning. “I’ll leave you to get reacquainted.”
Hope for an escape flared when he left her with Miller. With only one man to outwit, she had a chance. His predatory smile stirred another chill. Fighting off an urge to shriek and run, she forced a pleasant expression and beckoned him closer.
His bushy brows lifted with surprise. “Want it, do you?” He made a crude gesture, and her hand gripped tighter around the hidden weapon. He tugged off his shoes, half stumbling in his eagerness.
“Don’t be afraid.” He worked the buttons of his trousers. “I won’t hurt you.”
Right. The pain between her legs never went away. She was done with being hurt.
“So soft,” he crooned as plump, damp fingers slid down her neck. His gaze moved lower, as did his hand. She tried not to gag.
Instead, she imagined her body rising above the bed, floating like a cloud away from this brute. When he gripped her breast and squeezed, tears of pain stung her eyes.
Be steady, she urged herself and lowered her gaze to the pillow.
“You’re eager,” he chuckled, mistaking her intent. “Let’s lie down.” He pushed her against the mattress.
Strength, she prayed. Give me strength.
He reclined next to her, his head propped up with a hand.
The other hand roamed across her body, a painful tweak there, a pinch here, as though he had the right.
Biting back a sick taste, she touched his thick neck, disgusted by the folds of fat as she pulled him in for a kiss. Nausea roiled inside when his tongue slithered into her mouth. He tasted of wine and cigars and a foul metallic taste, like blood. Angling his body, his heavy weight anchored her against the lumpy bed. He pushed between her thighs.
Fury built, but she held it in check. Then, as he squirmed against her, grunting, she whipped out the weapon. It arced through the air, and with all the power she possessed, she stabbed the flabby muscle beneath his ribs. The impact juddered along her arm. A bellow of rage rang in her ears. His head shot up. Eyes wide with disbelief, he stared, not comprehending.
Again and again, fueled by an out of control rage, she struck him. He jerked like a landed fish. In defense, his arm swung up. He clutched her wrist as he screamed. Rolling to the side, he kicked out.
His arms flailed. Blood seeped into his shirt, spreading over the white linen.
“What the hell!” a voice roared.
The other man, the purely evil one, had returned. Her heart shot into her throat.
Strong fingers dug into her upper arm as she was yanked from the bed. Wildly, she jabbed with the knife, crazed with anger, determined to slash and maim. A mammoth palm slapped her face.
Stumbling, she hit the wall. Her ear blared.
He knocked the knife from her fingers, and with both hands, he shook her until her head wobbled. “What have you done?” His voice boomed. Miller whimpered in the background.
“I want to go home,” she shouted.
The veins in his neck stood out in livid ridges. His face wrinkled in fury. “Home? I’ll send you home.” He swung his burly arm and the impact knocked her off her feet. When she hit the dresser with a loud crack there was a flash of pain then nothing more.
*** Chapter One ***
“Ummmm.” Eyes closed, Cady Delafield savored the velvety concoction on her tongue. A hint of orange added a sublime touch to the chocolate mousse.
“I take it you approve.” Doyle’s voice skated over her skin as smooth as the creamy dessert.
Smiling, she looked at him across the table, beyond a low centerpiece of white flowers embedded in forest greens. Dressed in eveningwear as black as the lustrous hair on his head, he lounged against the padded brocade chair, the perfect image of strength and elegance. One arm draped casually over the linen tablecloth, while tapered fingers stroked the stem of a wine glass in a languid manner.
The tempo reminded her of his caress to her neck when they’d ridden to the restaurant. In the carriage, the light had been dim, seductive, and the subtle pressure of his thumb against her nerve points divine.
She wanted to moan again from sheer delight.
At other times, she wanted to pinch herself awake from this incredible dream and face reality. It seemed unbelievable a man such as Doyle, robust and attractive, a self-made millionaire and just dangerous enough to keep her on the edge of her seat, chose her to love. Yet time and again, he’d told her so. If she’d learned anything from their brief time together, it was to trust his word.
Her smile widened.
“Mousse? I adore it.” Her breathy tone had an immediate effect upon him. His blue eyes darkened with lust, stirring a delectable heated reaction. “I’ll have to get the recipe and make it every day.” She laughed lightly. “But then I’d get dreadfully plump.”
“You?” He canted his head. In the mellow glow of the table lamp, he gleamed, igniting an urge to stroke his tawny skin. “No need to worry. Should you ever get fat, there’ll be more of you to love.”
“Ha!” Their laughter peeled against the drone of other diners and the sweet music of a string quartet lodged in a far corner. How wonderful to laugh, she realized, pleased her malaise of the past few months had lifted.
Beneath his watchful gaze, her blood flamed. How could one man hold such power over her? Quivery fingers itched to stroke every inch of his magnificent body. Alone in her bed at night, she could scarcely sleep for the sheer want of his touch. Yet between them, he was the one who had shown restraint, who had kept her from indulging her deepest passions.
As wonderful as the dessert tasted, Doyle represented a much greater temptation. It would require a great deal of discipline, perhaps more than she possessed, to keep her hands to herself. Yet Doyle, traditional, respectful and stubborn, intended to delay their sexual completion until their wedding night. Could she do it? She had her doubts.
She took one more bite then settled the spoon on the gold trimmed dish, thinking she was the most fortunate of women. “To love and be loved is such a heady experience, don’t you agree?”
He answered with a smile that wrapped about her shoulders like a warm blanket on a wintry eve.
“Doesn’t it strike you as amazing such an outspoken administrator for a women’s vocational school, a progressive thinker and non-conformist, and a woman inclined to impulsive actions, should have attracted a man like you?”
At twenty-four-years old, an age many considered the portal to spinsterhood, she’d given up dreams of love and marriage.
Important needs, such as earning an income, had consumed her time.
Then along came Doyle and everything changed.
His strong brow pulled in question.
“It’s not as if I’m unfit to love,” she rushed to add.
“Although there is my horrid temper.” A temper which often got the best of her.
He studied her carefully. “I like a woman who doesn’t hold anything back.”
At the seductive implication, her breath stalled. “Then it’s fortunate for you I’m so outspoken.”
Overhead, electrical light transmitted through stained glass in the ceiling. It cast a mixture of colorful tones, which had the effect of giving his skin a tanned look, as if he’d spent days in the sun. The effect softened the strong angles of his chin and muted the thin scar that sliced through one eyebrow.
“Tell me, Cady. Do you possess everything your heart desires?”
How like him to be curious about her wishes and dreams. “I have your love, don’t I? What more could I ask?”
He squeezed her hand. “There’s one more thing you ought to have.”
Puzzled, she watched as he dug at his waistcoat pocket.
When he set the tiny box in her palm, her pulse leapt. Excitement skittered along her arms. Unlike him, she had never managed the art of masking her emotions. No doubt her face glittered like a Christmas tree as she opened the box. On an indrawn breath, she stared at the sparkling ring nestled in scarlet velvet.
“It’s beautiful,” she gushed. A dozen diamonds surrounded a much larger, perfect sapphire. It was the very color of his eyes. In the future, whenever she looked at it, she would be reminded of him.
“Our engagement wouldn’t be complete without a ring.” He beamed, pleased at his surprise.
“Engagement,” she muttered stupidly. “My mind has been so focused on the wedding, I quite forgot about a ring.”
“Cady.” The formality in his tone required she sit up straighter and take him seriously. She held her breath, sensing the occurrence of a momentous event.
“Cady. You are my love, for now and always. Will you marry me and make my life complete?”
His image blurred causing her to blink away the moisture clouding her eyes. This was so unexpected given he had proposed several weeks ago. Days later, prompted by a gushing tide of exuberance, she’d proposed to him. It seemed they couldn’t get enough of proposals, or both possessed the belief that certain events were so special they demanded more than one performance.
It was too perfect.
“Yes, yes, of course.” She swallowed the hard lump in her throat. “It feels so…” She considered digging a handkerchief from her handbag to dab her eyes. “To hear it said is so wonderful.”
He leaned closer, both arms resting on the table.
“Oh, Doyle.” She clasped his hand, needing the immediate connection of his skin, his warmth, the certainty of his solid touch.
“Do I dare jump up and kiss you in front of the entire restaurant?” It took a concerted effort to stay planted in her seat.
“You’ve a reputation to consider.” His winning smile was all sassy grin and even, white teeth.
“Bah! Reputation, indeed.” No doubt their relationship had set tongues wagging. Doyle’s very presence churned the gossip mill, and added a reality she would have to accept.
“Try it on.”
It wasn’t necessary to ask twice. Thrilled, she extracted the ring from its lodging. “I’m so happy, I could fly like a bird.” On a whim, she handed it to him. “Would you do me the honor and place it on my finger?” Giddy, she suppressed the urge to giggle like a five-year-old. “It’ll be good practice.”
“Practice for the wedding service,” he said, “when I slide the wedding band on your finger.”
“Yes.” Her whole body thrummed.
Looking happier than she’d ever seen him, he slipped the ring on her fourth finger. The metal felt cool but right. The weight of the silver and the jewels would be a constant reminder of his love.
“It’s a Ceylon sapphire. Exotic,” he said. “Like you.”
“Me?” she tittered, flattered. “About as exotic as a robin in a birdbath, I’d say.”
He relaxed in his chair, looking thoughtful. “One can always count on a robin to be there in the spring, year after year.”
“You value loyalty and consistency,” she observed. There had been doubts about their mutual suitability. Clearly, the misgivings were a thing of the past. As evident as the potted ferns on pedestals just beyond his shoulders, or the clink of cutlery on fine china, or the blue sparkle of her ring, they were meant to be together.
Since meeting him, they had withstood horrific events intended by others to ruin their lives. It hadn’t worked. They had persevered. Now the bond between them lay stronger than steel.
She said a quick prayer for a bright and carefree future. No matter what challenges occurred in the future, and she hoped they would be insignificant, they would tackle them together.
The continued seriousness of his tone grabbed her full attention and sent an ominous ripple along her spine.
“Know this, Cady.”
On edge, she waited for his next words.
“I love you. And to love a person is the greatest of gifts.”
Her shoulders slumped with relief. “And I love you, forever and always.”
“Forever and beyond.”
“A thousand days and then some,” she added and they both laughed.
Doyle raised a finger and singled the waiter to bring the check.
“Doyle, there’s one other thing I’d like to do before you take me back to Mrs. Dempsey’s boarding house.”
His dark head cocked with interest. “Just name it.”
“I’d like to stop at Grandmother Ophelia’s.” With pride, she held up her hand, showing off her trophy. “Mama and my sisters will want to see this.”
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