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"This lass is nowt like any whore I ever seen."
The man's thick Yorkshire accent pierced Grace's agonizing return to consciousness. Through the pounding ache in her head, she recognized the sound of home.
If she was back on the farm in Ripon, why did her stomach cramp with pain? Why couldn't she move her hands or feet? Fear iced her blood, froze the voice in her throat.
Remember, Grace, remember.
When she tried, she met only a terrifying wall of blackness.
"No question she's a whore!" a different man insisted from her other side. "What were she by the docks for if she's not a bloody whore? You heard her ask the way to the Cock and Crown. She'd want nowt there but to pull a gent with brass in his pockets."
A whore? They couldn't possibly be talking about her. Confusion eddied through the fog in her mind. How could anyone mistake respectable Grace Paget for a woman who sold herself on the streets?
Instinct stifled her protest. Something told her it was vital that these frightening strangers believe her still unconscious. Keeping her eyes shut, she battled the throbbing headache and forced her sluggish mind to function.
Stray details, each more mystifying than the last, filtered into her awareness. It was day. Light penetrated her closed eyelids. She was strapped to some sort of cushioned bench and she lay flat on her back, arms by her sides. Stout ties fastened each wrist and ankle and a thicker band stretched across her chest, restricting breathing.
For one suffocating moment, the broad strap seemed crushingly tight.She felt faint for lack of air. Sweat broke out on her skin, chilling her to the bone, although the room wasn't cold.
And still she stayed as mute as a stone.
Bewildering memories of violence and duress swam up through her nausea and dizziness. Her head filled with chaos. Chaos and swirling, acrid dread.
Clawing back from smothering panic, she forced herself to breathe. Where was she? Without benefit of sight, she could only collect jumbled impressions. No rumble of traffic. So a room in the country. Or at least in a quiet part of town. The reek of unwashed males mingled with an incongruous hint of spring air heavy with blossom.
The first man made a doubtful sound deep in his throat. "No self-respecting ladybird would be seen dead in them black rags. And she got a wedding ring."
His cohort gave a scornful laugh. "Mebbe she's new to the game, Filey lad. Mebbe the ring is part of the act like her la-di-da chitchat. Them toffs at the Cock and Crown go for that. If she's fresh to the trade, all the better. Lord John said make right sure we plucked a nice clean tart, not some clapped-out old jade."
Appalled disbelief flooded her. She was a lady, even if a lady with threadbare clothes and holes in her shoes. People treated her with respect, deference. Men didn't accost the virtuous Mrs. Paget for a quick fumble in the hedgerows.
Except if these brutes had troubled to abduct her, they must want more than a brief tumble.
Had they already raped her in her sleep?
Oh, please, God, I couldn't bear it if they touched me while I lay unaware.
The weight of her shabby dress was familiar. Hard to be certain without moving, but she seemed unharmed. So far.
But what now? A nightmare vision seized her of these thugs raping her again and again. Sour bile flooded her mouth. Only with the greatest effort did she remain silent when every nerve screamed to shriek and struggle and fight.
As she'd struggled and fought when they'd kidnapped her in Bristol.
Oh, yes, she remembered now. Everything.
Cousin Vere had offered her a home to save her from destitution but he'd failed to collect her from the mail coach. After hours of waiting, she'd gone out into the night to seek him. She'd never found her cousin. Instead, she'd met these two devils in human flesh.
Monks and Filey.
They'd been brazen enough to introduce themselves.
Desperately, she strove to recall that short, terrifying encounter in the darkness. She'd asked the two hulking brutes for directions. Lulled by their familiar Yorkshire accents, she'd accepted their escort back to the coaching inn. She'd been so frightened, lost in the labyrinth of dockside streets, that any help had been welcome.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
They'd trapped her in a narrow alley. Filey had held her while Monks forced laudanum down her throat. Filey's foul stench, repulsive, unforgettable, lingered in her nostrils. Now the noxious odor grew stronger as he lumbered closer.
"Aye, she looks right fresh. She's bonny enow to catch the marquess's fancy. But I still don't reckon she looks owt like a whore."
Monks grunted. "Any road, she'll play a whore's part until his lordship tires of her. Hope she knows a trick or two to keep a lad happy. Or she'll not last out the month."
"Happen we should have fucked her while we had the chance." Filey's regretful musings tested Grace's tenuous control on her roiling insides.
"The watch would have been on us. You'll get your turn after his lordship's had his fill. Let's go. The laudanum'll wear off soon. If she comes to and sees your ugly mug, happen she'll be in a right state for the marquess."
"I care nowt," Filey said. "She's got a grand pair of tits. I lay a penny to a pound her slice is even sweeter."
Stale gin-scented breath puffed into Grace's face. Rough hands wrenched at the high neckline of her dress. Horror kept her paralyzed as Filey ripped at her buttons. A meaty hand shoved under the edge of her stays to palm one breast with bruising force. He was so intent he didn't seem to notice that every muscle in her body tensed with revulsion.
Her heart raced like a half-broken horse given its head. A scream hovered behind her teeth.Untouched. Copyright © by Anna Campbell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.