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The Gentleman Rogue
By Margaret McPhee
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All rights reserved.
Emma de Lisle watched the man covertly from the corner of her eye. He was sitting at his usual table, over at the other side of the room, his back to the wall, a clear view of the door. On the table before him sat his pint of porter, his almost-finished plate of lamb chops and, beside it, his faded leather hat.
He moved the small ivory disc over the back of his hand, just as he always did, the trick making the disc look like it was magically tumbling one way over his fingers and then all the way back, forward and back, forward and back in that slow easy rhythm. He sipped from the tankard and seemed comfortable just sitting there on his own, eating, drinking, watching—a part of the bustle of the taproom of the Red Lion Chop-House, and yet not a part.
'All right?' A short brown-toothed man muttered as he passed, giving a sullen nod of his head in the man's direction.
The man gave a nod in return and the little disc disappeared from his fingers into his jacket. Emma had noticed him before. Just as she noticed him now. Because of the way he ran the small ivory circle over his fingers. Because a slice of one dark-blond eyebrow was missing, a tiny scar cutting in a straight line clear through it, and because the eyes beneath those brows were the colour of a clear summer sky. But most of all, she noticed him because he intrigued her.
The faded brown-leather jacket he wore was cracked with age. Beneath the table she knew he wore scuffed boots that matched the jacket. His hat was leather, too, worn smooth, smoky-brown, dark beside his hair. Clothes that had lasted a lifetime, ageing with the man that wore them. Yet beneath his jacket was a shirt that, in contrast to most others she saw in here, was good quality, white and freshly laundered, and his fingernails were clean and trimmed. He kept to himself and was always on his own. And there was something about him, something of self-containment and strength, of intelligence and power. But all of it understated, quiet, kept beneath the surface. He did not seem to care what others thought of him. Unlike the other men in Whitechapel he did not make any effort to either intimidate or impress. Never tried to make conversation, just kept his thoughts to himself. He was clean-shaven, handsome too in a rugged sort of way, although handsome men should have been the last thing on Emma's mind.
'Three mixed-grill platters!' Tom, the cook, yelled, jolting her from her speculation.
'Coming, Tom.' Emma dragged her eyes away from the man, her moment of respite gone. She hurried up to the kitchen hatch, and, using the cloth dangling from the belt around her waist, quickly shifted the scalding plates on to her large wooden tray. In a much-practised move, she hefted the whole tray up to balance it on her shoulder, before bustling across the room to make her delivery.
'Here we are, gentlemen. Three of our very best mixed-grills.' She presented each of the three men round the table with an enormous platter.
On the way back to the bar she cleared two tables, took two orders for more beers, and noticed a new party of men arriving to be fed.
'I'll see to the new boys, Em,' Paulette, the Red Lion's other serving wench, said as she passed Emma.
'Four pints of ale ready over here, Emma!' Nancy, the landlady, called, setting the last of the pints down on the bar with a thud that sent the froth of their heads cascading in a creamy waterfall down the outsides of the pewter tankards.
Emma bustled over. Collected all four on to her tray and went to deliver them to the table nearest to the front door.
'Thanks, darlin'.' The big black-haired man leered down the cleavage that her low-cut chemise and tight-laced bodice of her scarlet work dress exposed. She disliked this dress and how much it revealed. And she disliked men like him. He grinned, revealing teeth that matched his hair as his hand slid against her hip.
She slapped his fingers away, kept her tone frosty. 'Keep your hands to yourself.' Wondered if she would ever get used to this aspect of the job.
He laughed. 'You're a feisty one and no mistake. But I like a challenge.' His hand returned, more insistent this time, grabbing her buttock and squeezing as he hauled her close. 'Just as much as I like that fancy rich accent of yours. Makes you sound like a real lady it does. And I've never had a lady. Come on, darlin', I'll make it worth your while.' The stench of ale and rotten teeth was overpowering. His friends around the table cheered and sniggered.
Emma fixed him with a cynical and steely stare. 'Hard though it is to believe, I must decline. Now unhand me and let me get on with my work or you will have a bar full of thirsty, hungry men waiting to be served to contend with.'
Black-Hair's grin broadened. He pulled her to him, wrenching the tray from her hand, and dropping it to clatter on the floor. 'The other wench can see to them. You can see to me, darlin'.'
Oh, Lord! She realised with a sinking heart and impending dread that he was not going to release her with nothing worse than a slap to the bottom. He was one of those that would pull her down on his lap and start fondling her. Or worse.
'I will see to nothing. Release me before Nancy sees your game and bars you.'
She was only dimly aware of the shadow of the figure passing at close quarters. She was too busy trying to deal with the black-haired man and extricate herself from his grip. So when the deluge of beer tipped like an almighty cascade of brown rain over the lout's head she was as shocked as he.
Black-Hair's grin was wiped. Emma was forgotten in an instant. He released her, giving an almighty roar of a curse.
Emma didn't need an invitation. Making the most of her opportunity, she grabbed her tray and backed clear of the danger.
Black-Hair was spluttering and wiping beer from screwed-up eyes with great rough tattooed hands. His hair was sodden and glistening with beer. It ran in rivulets down his cheeks and over his chin to drip its teacoloured stain on to the grubby white of the shirt that covered his barrel chest. The shoulders of his shabby brown-woollen jacket were dark as rain-soaked earth. Even the front of his grey trousers was dark with it. He stank like a brewery.
His small bloodshot eyes swivelled to the perpetrator.
The hubbub of chatter and laughter and clank of glasses had ceased. There was curiosity and a whispered hush as everyone watched.
Emma shifted her gaze to follow that of the black-haired lout and saw the subject of her earlier covert study standing there. Tall, still, calm.
'Sorry about that. Slip of the hand.' The words might have offered apology, but the way the man said them suggested otherwise. His voice was the same East End accent as theirs, but low in tone, clear in volume, quietly menacing in its delivery.
'Oh, you'll be damn sorry all right!' Black-Hair's chair legs scraped loud against the wooden floorboards as he got to his feet. 'You'll be pissing yourself, mate, by the time I've finished with you.'
The man let his gaze drop pointedly to the dark sodden front of Black-Hair's trousers, then rose again to meet his eyes. There was a glimmer of hard amusement in them. He raised the eyebrow with the scar running through it, the one that Emma thought made him look like a handsome rogue. 'Looks like you got there first.'
The crowd sniggered at that.
Black-Hair's face flushed puce. His little piggy eyes narrowed on the man like an enraged bull. He cracked his knuckles as he made a fist.
By some unspoken command Black-Hair's four friends got to their feet, making their involvement clear. Any trace of curiosity and amusement fled the room's atmosphere. It was suddenly sharp-edged with threat.
The hush spread. Every man in the chop-house was riveted on what was unfolding before Emma.
The nape of her neck prickled.
'Settle down, boys,' said Nancy. 'There's no harm done. Sit down and drink your pints before they get warm.'
But not one of the men moved. They all stayed put, stood where they were, eyeing each other like dogs with their hackles raised.
'We don't want no trouble in here. You got a disagreement, you take it outside.' Nancy tried to come closer, but two men stepped into her path to stop her progress, murmuring advice—two regulars intent on keeping her safe.
No one heeded her anyway. Not the black-haired villain and his cronies. And not the man.
In the background Paulette's face, like every other, was lit with excited and wary anticipation.
The man's expression was implacable. He looked almost amused.
'I'm going to kill you,' said Black-Hair.
'And there was me thinking you were offering to buy me a replacement porter,' said the man.
'You ain't gonna be able to hold a pint of porter, let alone drink one, I swear.'
Emma's blood ran cold. She knew what men like this in Whitechapel did to one another. This was not the first fight she had seen and the prospect of what was coming made her feel queasy.
The man smiled again, a smile that went nowhere near those cool blue eyes. 'You really want to do this?' he asked with a hint of disbelief and perplexity.
'Too late to start grovelling now,' said Black-Hair.
'That's a shame.'
There was not one sound in the whole of the chop-house. The silence hissed. No one moved. All eyes were on the man, Emma's included. Staring with fascinated horror. Five ruffians against one man. The outcome was certain.
The black-haired man stepped closer to the man, squaring up to him, violent intent spilling from every pore.
She swallowed. Felt a shiver chase over her skin.
The man did not seem to feel the same. He smiled. It was a cold, hard smile. His eyes showed nothing of softness, not one hint of fear. Indeed, he looked as if he welcomed what would come. The blood. The violence. Five men against one. Maybe he really did have a death wish after all.
'Someone stop them. Please,' she said, but it was a plea that had no hope of being answered.
An old man pulled her back. 'Ain't no one going to stop them now, girl.'
He was right. She knew it and so did every single person in that taproom.
The black-haired brute cracked his knuckles and stretched his massive bull neck, ready to dispense punishment.
Emma held her breath. Her fingers were balled, her nails cutting into her palms.
The man's movement was so fast and unexpected. One minute he was standing there. The next, he had landed a head butt against the lout's nose. There was a sickening crunch. And blood. A lot of blood. Black-Hair doubled over as if bending in to meet the man's knee that hit his face. The speed and suddenness of it shocked her. It shocked the men in there, too. She could tell by the look on their faces as they watched the black-haired giant go down. The ruffian was blinking and gasping with the shock of it as he lay there.
Emma watched in disbelief. Every muscle in her body tensed with shock. She held her breath for what would happen next.
'Too late to start grovelling,' the man said.
Leaning one hand on the floor, Black-Hair spat a bloody globule to land on the toe of the man's boot and reached for a nearby chair.
'But if you insist ...' The man stepped closer to Black-Hair, his bloodied boot treading on the giant's splayed fingers, his hand catching hold of the villain's outstretched hand as if he meant to help him to his feet. But it was not help he offered. He gave the wrist a short sharp twist, the resulting crack of which made Emma and the rest of the audience wince.
Black-Hair's face went ashen. He made not one sound, just fainted into a crumpled heap and did not move.
In the stunned amazement that followed no one else moved either. There was not a sound.
'He might need a little help in holding his porter,' said the man to BlackHair's friends.
'You bastard!' One of them spat the curse.
The man smiled again. And this time Emma was prepared.
The tough charged with fists at the ready.
The man's forehead shattered the villain's cheekbone while his foot hooked around his ankle and felled him. When the rat tried to get up the man kicked his feet from under him. This time Black-Hair's friend stayed where he was.
The other three men exchanged shifty glances amongst themselves, then began to advance. One slipped a long wicked blade that winked in the candlelight. 'Really?' asked the man.
The sly-faced man came in, feigned attack, drew back. Came in close again, circling the man.
'Too scared?' asked the man.
A curl of lip and a slash of the blade was his opponent's only response.
But the man kicked him between the legs and there was an ear-piercing scream. Emma had never heard a man scream before. It made the blood in her veins turn to ice. She watched the knife clatter to the floor forgotten while the sly-faced villain dropped like a stone, clutching himself and gasping.
The man looked at the two remaining thugs.
For a tiny moment they gaped at him. Then they turned tail and ran, pelting out of the chop-house like hares before a hound.
The man stood there and watched them go.
But Emma was not looking at the fleeing villains. Rather, she was looking at the man. She could not take her eyes off him. There was what looked like the beginning of a bruise on his forehead. The snow-white of his shirt was speckled scarlet with blood from Black-Hair's nose. His dark neckcloth was askew. He was not even out of breath. He just stood there calm and cool and unperturbed.
The slamming of the front door echoed in the silence.
No one spoke. No one moved. No one save the man.
He smoothed the dishevelment from his hair, straightened his neckcloth and walked through the pathway that cleared through the crowd before him.
They watched him with respect. They watched him with awe. Soft murmured voices.
Fists and feet were what gained a man respect round here. Standing up for himself and what he believed in. Physicality ruled. The strongest, the toughest, the most dangerous. And the man had just proved himself all three.
Some regulars from the crowd half dragged, half carried the injured away.
The man returned to his table, but he did not sit down. He finished the porter in one gulp and left more coins beside the empty tankard than were needed for payment. He lifted his hat and then his eyes finally met Emma's across the taproom.
Within her chest her heart was still banging hard against her ribs. Through her veins her blood was still rushing with a shocked fury.
He gave her a nod of acknowledgement and then turned away and walked out of the place, oblivious to the entire crowd of customers standing there slack-jawed and staring at him.
Emma stared just as much as all the others, watching him leave. And even when the door had closed behind him she still stood there looking, as if she could see right through it to follow him. Six months in White-chapel and she had never seen a man as strong, as ruthless or as invincible.
'Don't think he'll be having any trouble for a while,' said Nancy, who was standing, hands on hips, bar cloth in hand, watching.
'Who is he?' Emma asked in soft-voiced amazement.
'Goes by the name of Ned Stratham. Or so he says.'
Emma opened her mouth to ask more, but Nancy had already turned her attention away, raising her voice loud and harsh as she called out to the taproom audience, 'Show's over, folks. Get back to your tables before your chops grow cold and your ale grows warm.'
Excerpted from The Gentleman Rogue by Margaret McPhee. Copyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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