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The first thing that Gregor Ramsay noticed about the harlot was her delectable buttocks. It was hard to avoid the sight, revealed as it was while she engaged in a ferocious catfight with another wench on the sawdust-strewn floor of a squalid Dundee inn. It was not, however, the sight of her attractive rump that made him consider her the ideal accomplice for his task. That notion came later on in the course of events, but the vision certainly caught his attention, forbidding him to walk away.
Gregor had sought only a swift draft of ale, to begin with. The noise that emerged from the inn indicated trouble was afoot, and he almost turned away. But when he caught sight of that viewthat perfectly rounded womanly cushion with its enticing clefthe pressed on through the raucous crowd.
"Stand clear," someone shouted, as the two women rolled across the floor, intent on tearing viscously at one another, skirts flying, bodices torn, breasts all but completely bared to the onlookers.
Coins were being passed to a man who stood on the far side, the crowd laying wagers on which woman would win.
Meanwhile, on both sides of the challenge, insults were flying. The wench with the attractive arse seemed to relish the fight, taunting her opponent.
"Scrawny hoor," she accused, tossing back her unruly black hair. "A man likes a woman he can hold on to." She slapped her hip and chortled.
The redhead hissed. She was much less to Gregor's liking.
His attention kept roaming back to the raven-haired woman, who was determined to get her opponent on her back and keep her there. Once she had done that, she pinned the redhead down with the weight of her body, legs kicking. Then she rested her knees either side of the redhead's thighs, bent over her opponent and bit her shoulder. As she did, her skirt and petticoats flew up again. The sight of her bared thighs and bottomas well as her plump mound and dewy cleftbrought another cheer from the onlookers. It was indeed an enticing sight, and it made Gregor wonder what it might be like to plow her furrow, to ease his cock into that alluring niche. One glance at the men gathered around the scene assured him that he was not alone in that thought. They gaped and lathered at the view.
"What is the quarrel about?" Gregor inquired of a nearby patron, a toothless man in a dirty shirt and torn breeches.
"Eliza," he said, nodding at the redhead, "accused Jessie" he pointed at the raven-haired woman "of luring a customer from her. Jessie, oh, she's a wild one." He lowered his voice. "They call her the Harlot of Dundee." He gave a significant nod and paused before he continued with his explanation. "She said she would fight Eliza for the man's custom."
"The Harlot of Dundee," Gregor repeated. "And what has she done to deserve such a grand title?"
The man chortled. "'Tis on account of her spirit. She's not one for just lying there and collecting the coin, if you understand my meaning."
A spirited wench. How intriguing. Perhaps it was luck that had brought him to this particular establishment? Here by the harbor the inns were full to heaving, and he could easily have gone elsewhere. His trip to Dundee had been necessary in order to see off his ship, the Libertas, without him. A strange task and one he had not done before. The nature of the venture ahead and the absence of his familiar world made him tense, and ale was needed before he crossed the Tay back into Fife.
Now he was glad he had paused, for the spectacle was most entertaining. The Harlot was fierce in her attack, with apparently no regard to her appearance. Straddling her victim's thighs, she locked one hand around her opponent's bared nipple, and with the other she poked and tickled her puss through her skirts, prodding at her between her thighs. Gesturing with her hand as if it were a cock, she moved her hips back and forth, a lewd reference to fucking the woman who she had on her back. She was shameless. Gregor's attention was already loosely harnessed, and it was then that an idea began to form at the back of his mind. A whore with a winning smile might be a pretty lure in his game. His enemy never could resist a shapely lass, and was rumored to have bedded half the local lassies. Perhaps when the whore's tussle was over, he would approach her with a proposition.
The crowd roared their approval, and the woman on her back turned vicious, scrabbling with clawlike hands at her opponent. The Harlot dipped and swayed, avoiding the redhead's attack rather adeptly.
"Who is taking coins?" Gregor put his hand into his pocket as if readying to place a wager. He was curious as to who held the power here. Life had taught him that was the key to any situation. In his opinion, the darker-haired woman, Jessiethe Harlot, as he now knew her to be calledwould win.
"Ranald Sweeney holds the purse." The patron gestured across the crowded room as he slurred his reply.
Ranald Sweeney was a weasel-faced man who did not inspire Gregor's trust. He had a dirty grin on his face and a palm full of coins. While he was watching the two women, he exchanged comments with a man beside him. Gregor scanned them both quickly. The pimp was dirty and smug. The other man, who he assumed to be the one whose custom the women were fighting over, wore a heavy powdered wig. His coat was embroidered silk and his necktie made of the finest cotton. Despite his ostentatious garb, he seemed quite at ease in the wharf-side inna wealthy man who liked to step alongside the gutter when the urge took him. If he were in the same position, Gregor reflected, he would be less obvious about his wealth. Some men were not as circumspect, and reveled in such displays.
Gregor made his way through the rabble toward the counter, where his presence barely distracted the landlord from the show. "Ale," he requested, and pushed a coin across the wooden counter.
Without taking his eyes off the scrabbling women, the landlord nodded and sloshed ale from a jug into a tankard.
It was a rough brew and Gregor coughed out the gritty residue in his mouth after he had slaked his thirst. A squeal issued behind him and a body butted up against his side. Shoving the tankard back across the counter, he turned and stared into the eyes of the woman who had careered his way. It was Jessie, the raven-haired woman who had caught his eye.
"Pardon me, sire." She looked him up and down, and planted her hands on hips. Her eyes flickered with interest.
Gregor nodded at her. Her hair looked as if it had never known a comb, and even though she was in need of a good scrub, he couldn't help noticing that her lips were eminently kissable. Behind her, her opponent loomed. Judging by the expression on the redhead's face she was in a fury. Gregor nodded again at Jessie. "Your opponent approaches." Jessie stepped aside.
The other woman landed against him, having missed her target. He gave her a moment to steady herself and then turned her around and urged her back into the fray with a shove. Jessie laughed heartily and batted her eyelashes at him most enticingly before she resumed the fight.
Gregor surveyed the crowd as he downed the rest of his ale. Eleven years he had been away from Scotland. He had traveled far and wide, and he'd come home three weeks ago to a country that had been unwillingly united with the English. The prevailing humor was bad because of the union. In many ways, however, it did not seem so very different from the place he remembered. The people of Dundee had survived decades of war and hard times, one and all. Yet still the city thrived around the harbor where the world's ships came and went on the Tay, his vessel included. Eleven years earlier he'd left Fife a bitter lad without coin. His life as a mariner meant he was able to return with money aplenty. He now had a stake in the vessel he'd worked on.
A shriek went up from the skirmish at the center of the crowd. The onlookers jostled as if eager to back away. Gregor sought the cause of the shift in mood, his curiosity baited. Apparently he should have placed his bet, for Jessie stood triumphant, her opponent lying slumped at her feet.
Eliza was fast recovering, and cleverly saw a chance for a reprieve. Pointing with a suitably shaking hand, she cursed her opponent. "Witchcraft! She used witchcraft on me."
"Hush, Eliza," the accused woman declared, her cheeks flushing with anger. "I am the one who helped you through this winter last, and I won this fight fair and square. That is the truth of it."
"Witchcraft, 'tis witchcraft," Eliza spat. "She will poison us all with her strange brews and her foreign words."
The atmosphere grew tense, the crowd whispering one to the other.
"I saw her," an onlooker confirmed. "Her eyes rolled and then Eliza choked, as if on air." Two men pounced and held the accused, one on each arm, and she twisted and turned in their grasp, spitting and cursing.
Gregor glanced back at the woman on the floor, Eliza, the redhead. She had her hand at her throat, as if she had been winded. If it was true, it had likely been a trick with a fine piece of thread or a hair. Gregor had seen clever tricks the world over, and it was his way to investigate how it might have been done.
Someone was already out on the street and calling for the bailie of the burgh to arrest the whore-witch, Jessica Taskill. Amused at the turn of events, Gregor leaned against the wooden counter and considered the black-haired vixen, who would soon have half the town gathering with torches, eager for a hanging and a burning. When he'd been a lad at home, the stories of witches and their sins reached them in Fife from time to time. The ministers would lecture the bairns about the evil ways of those in league with the devil, and then horrify them with tales of hanging and burning. Gregor did not believe a word of it, for he did not give credence to such ludicrous claims. Much had changed about his birth country and yet some things had not altered at all, for the accusation of "witch" could still bring about a violent reaction. If the bailie took the word of those who spoke out, this woman would be dead within the week.
She was attractivea canny lass with a trick or two up her sleeve. It would be a shame to see such talent wasted to the noose and the flame. The idea of making her vanish from the baying crowd entertained him. He and his good friend and fellow mariner, Roderick Cameron, had once liberated a drunken shipman from a cell in Cadiz on a wager.
Gregor reminded himself that he should be on the road by now, back to Fife, where he had taken up lodgings. But the performance was not yet over. The woman called Jessica Taskill wriggled like an eel, cursing and glaring at her captors. Her plump breasts drew his eye, and her spirit entertained him. Once again Gregor considered her as a candidate for the task he had in mind. If he could get her out of her current situation she would be grateful to himindebted, too. He would have to teach her some manners, but she would clean up well enough, and her aptitude for brazen behavior was unquestionable. There would be pleasure in grooming her for the task, especially if it heralded his enemy's downfall.
The bailie arrived and quickly gathered the information he needed. "Take her to the tollbooth," he instructed. When she argued, the official shook his head, though with a regretful glance at her bared breasts.
As they took her away Gregor observed her angry, flashing eyes and pictured her on her back. It was an image that pleased him. A pretty lure she would make for his enemy, indeed. If Gregor found a way to free her, she would be in his debt and glad of the work. It would be worth the risk.
Jessie Taskill rubbed her hands over her face and glared at the bars of her cell. It would be simple enough for her to undo the lock and slip away by means of an enchantment, but it was the accusation of magic that had landed her here. What annoyed her most was that she had not even used her magic, not this night. Foolishly, she had tended Eliza with a Betony brew to cure her ails when she was sick the winter before, and in doing so had made herself vulnerable. As Jessie had often found out, that was the way of it for her kind. "What use is this gift," she muttered, "when it brings such a burden?"
Her moods had swung wildly since she had been thrown into the tollbooth, from fury to misery and back again, and no amount of pacing the meager space of her new abode would help. There was no chair, not even a cot. The only light that reached her came from candles that were set in sconces farther down the passageway. Apart from the putrid pail in one corner, old straw filled the floor.
Wrapping her hands around the cold bars, she pressed her face between them and peered along the narrow passage to where the guard sat. He was chomping on a chicken leg, and when he saw her look out at him he licked his greasy lips, taunting her.
Her belly growled. If she used magic now, she could collect the remains of his chicken supper on the way. It was tempting, too tempting. Fighting the urge to use her secret talent was growing harder each day, but if one more person witnessed her making magic the bailie would have her strung up before dawn, without a trial. There was still hope, for she knew the man frequented the whorehouses, and he would not want that news passed about. She had to bide her time and be clever about it. Dropping to a squat, she wondered if they had brought the straw here directly from the barn. The dismal hovel she shared with six other women was preferable to this place, and that was not something she had ever thought before.
Eliza was one of the women she lodged with. They had shared good times and bad, and yet Eliza had turned on her, calling her out for her craft. That saddened Jessie. They'd often argued, but not this way. They usually made friends again afterward. The customer had been Eliza's, but he'd shown a liking for Jessie, as well, and Ranald had leaped at the chance to draw attention to his girls by means of a fight. Perhaps Eliza had taken it bad, and if that was so, Jessie wished she had noticed.
Something had distracted her. It was a man, she recalled. Someone she had not seen beforea stranger with a scarred face and dark, hooded eyes. He was tall and watchful, and she'd found herself distracted by him. Fool.