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Emma was going to be fired.
She never should have given in to her parents' entreaties to lie down and rest awhile after supper before she returned to her employers' house. But Emma had been so tired that a chance for a nap had been too tempting to resist. Opportunities for rest at the Roth residence were scarceher young charges saw to that. But Emma had assumed her parents would wake her before the hour grew too late. It appeared that in this case, as in so many others, they hadn't employed simple common sense.
Emma bid a hasty farewell to her parents, both of whose eyes were bleary with sleep and surprise after she barged into their bedroom. The clock in the hall struck midnightwhich had been the alarm to rouse Emma from her slumberand was still chiming as she closed the front door and stepped out onto the street.
At this hour, there was little to no chance of finding a hackney cab on her parents' quiet, shabby street. Her best opportunity at hiring a hack to take her back to the Roths meant going a few streets over where there was more trafficand rather more danger, as well.
Even this late, that part of the city still bustled with activity. Light, laughter and the smell of gin poured out from a pub she passed. Emma wrinkled her nose in disgust. She was leery enough passing through this area while visiting her parents during the day, and now with night bearing down on her, she was frightened.
Minutes into her walk, the feeling of something creeping along the back of her neck made Emma stop in her path and turn around. Other than some ruffians many paces behind, however, no one was there. Chiding herself for being paranoid, Emma pulled her pelisse tighter around her and quickened her step.
Footsteps on the stone walk behind her made Emma tense again. This time, however, she kept walking without turning to see what was behind her. She didn't have time for any foolishness. Her employers had been expecting her return four hours earlier. If Emma didn't find a hack soon, she would have to walk, which would add another hour or so to her journey.
And Lady Roth didn't brook such tardiness.
Possibly it was nothing but a trick of the mind, but Emma felt like when she sped up, the steps behind her sped up, as well.
Something coming from the left caught Emma's attention, and when she looked, an attractive gentleman was approaching her with all possible haste. The glint of determination in his eyes made her step falter. For a moment, all Emma could do was stand stupidly on the sidewalk, watching the man come closer.
I'm about to be robbed. Or murdered.
Emma's hesitation gave the stranger enough time to come abreast of her.
"Darling," he said, taking ahold of her arm and propelling her forward, "where have you been?"
Emma stared at him, her mouth agape. In her surprise, the stranger was able to drag her forward several steps.
"Get away from me," she said after a second's pause as she dug her heels into the sidewalk to slow the onward progression. But the command lacked any heat or force
no doubt because she was too shocked to be authoritative.
Clearly her lack of forcefulness was amusing, because the gentleman laughed, loudly
as though he was playacting for an audience. "Don't play your games, my love. Someone might think I'm trying to abduct you."
Did he just nudge her?
No matter how hard she pulled or twisted, Emma couldn't break herself free of his hold. "That's exactly what you're trying to do," she hissed back. Screaming wouldn't have been much help because thus far no one had paid their little tableau any attention. No doubt such interchanges were commonplace in this area and hardly worth notice or intervention.
"No," her assailant murmured in a voice solely for her ears. "I'm trying to protect you."
The statement was so ludicrous, Emma couldn't even respond. Clearly the only person she needed protecting from was him.
"A man's been following you," he whispered.
Abandoning her attempts to free her arm, Emma swiv-eled to look behind them. That would explain the chills along the back of her neck. And the footsteps. But she hadn't seen anyone. So far, the only person to accost her was the man pinned to her side.
"Just let me go
please," Emma pleaded, "I'll be fine."
He huffed. He actually huffed. "Could you be quiet? I'm trying to think."
Think about where you 're going to dispose of my body?
The man might be nicely dressedmuch too nicely for this part of townand Emma might have thought that his expression, when he smiled, was most pleasant. But just because the stranger was handsome didn't mean he wouldn't murder her and dump her body in an alleyway. So this time, she yanked against his hold.
Instead of freeing herself, though, she caused them both to stumble. Emma's shoe caught on the hem of her dress, and there was a suspended moment when she lost her balance. Instinctively, her grip on the gentleman's arm tightened, probably to the point where she was digging her nails into his skin. And when she flailed her free arm at the same time that he leaned forward to offer assistance, Emma's elbow connected with something hard.
And if his muffled "oomph" were any indication, the something hard was probably his face.
That further startled her
to the point that she wobbled even more wildly. Emma would have fallen face-forward if the man hadn't hauled her upward and against his chest.
Her first thought was that his embrace felt unexpectedly nice.
Of course he had to spoil the effect when he opened his mouth.
"Enough," he snapped. "I'm only trying to help you." His annoyance was impossible to miss.
Emma was supremely agitated herself. Both because of his interference and the fact that she couldn't seem to push herself away from him
maybe a little more so about the latter. An interlude with a possibly deranged strangeralbeit a handsome onewouldn't have been welcome at the best of times, but this was really not a good day. Lady Roth was probably watching the clock, ticking off each passing minute with a mean-spirited glee. The viscountess didn't much care for Emma. Which was fairEmma didn't much care for her, either, or the very spoiled Roth children. But she needed to keep this job. Her parents were almost entirely dependent on her income.
"No one's around now," she said to her self-proclaimed rescuer, casting a look about them. "So while I thank you for your help, I must be on my way."
He opened his mouth, probably to argue, but Emma didn't give him a chance.
"Let. Me. Go," she said forcefully.
And apparently loudly enough to arouse the curiosity of a passing constable.
The short, stocky officer retraced his steps, walking back toward them. Emma could have cried with relief.
"What's the trouble here?" the lawman asked.
I'm being harassed by a bedlamite, Emma wanted to shout.
She didn't have a chance to utter the first syllable, however, because the man, who smoothly released her from his hold, was already chatting with the officer.
"How are you, Constable Hilliard?" the stranger asked, tipping back the brim of his hat and making his face more visible.
The law won't care how attractive you are, you're still going to Newgate, she thought when she got a better view of his face.
It was admittedly very attractive. Dark eyes. High cheekbones
a nose that would have been the model of perfection if not for the small, almost unnoticeable bump from where it had likely been broken. And his lips, which were curved in a strained smile, most certainly weren't unpleasant to look at. Her eyes traveled back up his face, locking momentarily with his. Emma wanted to shiver at the depth of them.
In the few minutes that had passed, however, his eye was getting increasingly swollen. For a brief moment, Emma felt a pang of guilt for elbowing him, but had he only let her go, she wouldn't haveaccidentally, of coursegiven him what would likely become a black eye. And he was clearly crazy
possibly homicidal. She needed to keep reminding herself of that before she softened or allowed herself to feel too badly.
When the constable saw the gentleman's face, he floundered for a moment. Then, after several seconds of righting his uniform, seemingly making sure no crease was misaligned, he executed a smart little bow. "My l I mean, Mr. Fairfax, I didn't recognize you at first. How are you doing, sir?"
"Fine, Hilliard, fine." The man now identified as Mr. Fairfax indicated Emma with his free hand, "I'm just seeing this lovely lady home safely. There are some ruffians about tonight."
The lawman, who seemed eager to please, bobbed his head in agreement. "There certainly are,"
"Haven't had any trouble out here tonight, have you?" Mr. Fairfax asked.
"Not too much," Constable Hilliard answered automatically. But then he looked at Mr. Fairfax closer. "Though it looks as if you might have met your share of trouble."
Mr. Fairfax's hand went up to touch his swollen and bruised eye. "Oh, this," he said. "Only a bit of an unexpected tussle."
"Something you'd like me to take care of for you?" the constable asked, eager and ready to please the man on Emma's arm. Apparently he was someone of importanceor at least of more importance than this neighborhood usually boasted.
And with that thought came the sudden fear that Mr. Fairfax might try to have the constable apprehend her. Emma felt faint.
But when the moment came that Mr. Fairfax could have exposed Emma for her unintentional crime, the strange man waved off the constable's question. "It's of no concern," Mr. Fairfax dismissed.
"Well," Constable Hilliard said, for the first time addressing Emma, "it's a good thing Mr. Fairfax found you. He'll get you wherever you're going safely."
And that would be helpful, she thought, if he could somehow manage to get me there four hours ago. As it stands, I'm growing later by the minute, and this additional delay is hardly helping. She smiled tightly at the constable in response.
As if he sensed her frustration, Mr. Fairfax swiftly drew the exchange to a close. "Good night, Constable Hilliard." Then he wasted no time pulling her away and down the sidewalk. "My carriage is not far. I'll take you home," he said to Emma.
Emma let herself be pulled along, while trying to decide exactly what she should do.
It was hardly ideal to accept an escort from a man she had not properly met. If she saw anyone who knew her, the resulting scandal would be sensational. But who were they likely to encounter at this hour? And the constable had seemed entirely convinced that Mr. Fairfax was respectable. The most compelling reason of all to go along with him was that she wouldn't have to walk back to the Roths, costing herself even more precious time in the process.
So Emma allowed him to guide her past the puddles of indefinable liquid on the street, away from the leers and jeers of men congregating in their path. And it was actually rather nice not to feel exposed and in danger.
Mr. Fairfax's carriage appeared in the distance. Within minutes, she was safely ensconced in the luxurious coach and had given Mr. Fairfax the Roths' address, which he conveyed to the driver.
"I appreciate your assistance," Emma said rather grudgingly once the gentleman took a seat across from her.
The man had helped her a great deal. Emma had not spotted a single hack during her exchange with Mr. Fairfax and then the constable. Were it not for Mr. Fairfax's offer of his escort, she would be facing the unpleasant prospect of a long walk through some rather unsafe streets.
Not that a carriage ride would save her from being fired.
"Why so pensive?" Mr. Fairfax asked quietly.
"I'm wondering what my employer will say about my tardiness." She didn't know what possessed her to share that; her plan had been to enjoy the ride in stony silence, not wanting to converse with Mr. Fairfax any more than necessary.
"Employer?" he repeated. "You're going to work at this hour? What do you do?"
"I'm a governess."
"Ah," he said.
It was on the tip of Emma's tongue to ask him what that meant, but she bit the question back.
Mr. Fairfax stretched out his long legs, and because of the close confines of the carriage, Emma felt even more crowded. She resisted the urge to shy away from him.
"What were you doing in this part of town so late?" he asked.
Emma had no intention of answering that question.
"That's personal." The words came out more snappish than she'd intended.
Mr. Fairfax frowned. "This isn't a safe place for a gently bred lady to be."
"I hardly think that would concern you at all." Emma bristled at his tone.