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Authors: Louisa Trent

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BOOK: Blooming: Veronica
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Outside, Talbot released his prisoner.

Not even a thank-you did he get in return. In fact, for Talbot’s act of charity, Rowe insulted him again, this time with a sneered epithet of “Hopping Giles” flung in his face.

Talbot had heard it all before and more wittily done. St. Giles was the patron of the infirm. The expression fit, but only in part. And he did not suffer fools gladly.

A tussle between two adjacent buildings ensued. Several blows struck, a knee applied to some floppy genitalia—the target was hopelessly small but Talbot’s aim was true—and he made quick work of gaining the upper hand.

Crouched atop Rowe, Talbot clamped Pearl across the reporter’s windpipe. “Who put you up to the story you wrote on Miss Veronica Cooper?” He lightened his hold so the reporter could speak.

“No one put me up to it. The scandal made for good copy.”

“Someone tipped you off. Tell me who, or breathe your last breath.”

The reporter wheezed, “Robert McDougal was the rat. He told me where to find them together. Fancy that—the lady’s own lover was my informer.”

As Rowe had no way of knowing of Talbot’s familiarity with the rat, gained through his voyeuristic activities, he pretended no prior knowledge. “Why would this…this… What was the name again?”

“Robert McDougal.”

“Ah, yes. Why would this McDougal have besmirched the lady’s reputation?”

“Could be, he had an ax to grind with the lady. Could be he wanted to ruin her. You and I will never know for sure, seeing how McDougal sneaked out of his boardinghouse in the dead of night owing money, then skipped town.” Rowe gasped a ragged breath. “Rumor has it McDougal left Miss Cooper in the family way. That story should bring in some sales.”

“Your form of mudslinging makes me sick, makes me want to puke. Sensationalized, irresponsible journalism hawked on street corners destroys lives.”

Rowe probed his bruised jaw. “So?”

“So this—” With a southerly reach between their bodies, Talbot coaxed some interest into the reporter’s deflated cock, rubbing his hand up and down the shriveled flesh until limp turned rigid.

“A word of advice, sweetheart,” Talbot purred while continuing to milk Rowe’s erection. “Next time you visit this brothel, try a male whore on for size. A pretty boy might be able to get a rise out of you without a whip.”

When Rowe spurted, Talbot dropped his hold on the shark and stumbled to his feet. “If I see another story written in your scandal sheet on Miss Cooper, any sort of story, I give you my word, I will send a tip to your publisher about you and me, a tell-all about jerking you off in this very alley, a makeup fuck after a lover’s quarrel inside a whorehouse. For the right amount of cash, I am confident Miss Tilly will be happy to substantiate our heated exchange.”

“A story like that could ruin you, Bowdoin.”

“That goes both ways.” Talbot shrugged. “See you behind bars, sweetheart.”

After blowing the reporter a kiss, Talbot limped away.

Hours spent sparring at the Boston Athletic Association and rowing on the Charles River kept his upper body toned and the rest of him reasonably fit—despite his old war injuries. And Pearl’s assistance had gone a long way to help. All in all, the scuffle had barely winded him. And though one of Rowe’s wildly thrown punches had partially sealed his eye, Talbot could still read the handwriting on the wall.

For whatever the reason, Robert McDougal had deliberately set out to destroy Miss Cooper.

Just as determined to see that attempt fail, Talbot crossed Boston Common to Beacon Hill. At Number 5 Chestnut Street, he picked up the brass doorknocker and let it drop back in place.

A maidservant answered the summons. “Yes, sir?”

“Mr. Talbot Bowdoin to see Mr. Cooper.”

“Have you an appointment, sir?” With barely concealed contempt, she looked him up and down.

And found him wanting.

Must have been his bloodied face and tattered tailoring.

“No appointment,” Talbot said imperiously. “But I assure you, refusing me entry will jeopardize your position in this household.”

A superior attitude trumped an inferior appearance every time, a lesson Talbot had learned long ago.

The maid gestured him to a wooden bench. “Please wait here in the hall. I will inform Mr. Cooper of your presence, sir.”

After slinging Pearl over his arm, Talbot took a seat and did some thinking.

For a certainty, Miss Cooper had lost her virginity. No surprise there as Talbot had peeped at the author after her book signing. At the time, he had applauded her loss of innocence. After all, her hymen had prevented her from becoming the mistress of someone more suitable.

For instance, Talbot himself.

Not that he differed that much from Robert McDougal. In fact, their backgrounds were most likely amazingly similar, rats being rats whether they clawed their way up from brothels or docks. Regardless of the origins, poverty was poverty the same the world over. Starting off poor in life either twisted a man’s gut or sharpened his mind.

His tombstone would have to make the call there, Talbot mused, massaging his hurting leg.

Oh, that reminded him. He and McDougal did have one major dissimilarity. Talbot had a handicap.

No, not his limp.

His principle.

He only had the one, but that barrier was thicker than any hymen and just as raggedy around the edges from all those outside influences trying to break it. Though poked repeatedly, that barrier refused to budge.

He would not marry without love.

Having never known that particular emotion early in life, he was committed to experiencing it now.

If he was capable of it, which might present an initial stumbling block to the ultimate goal. He did have some reservations on that score. In the orphanage where he was raised, children were not touched a great deal, and so he had never learned those demonstrations of affection, of comfort, of wordless interaction. No cuddling, no hugs, no small brushes of fingertips that meant so much. His first real intimacy with other human beings had consisted of the sexual. That sort of intercourse could be faked. It was only mechanics, and he had always excelled at mechanics, at making something out of nothing but an idea. Even grand sweeping romantic gestures could be imitated with practice. Lips pressed to a wrist, caresses behind a knee, an earlobe tickled—all those moves could produce pleasure in the recipient without the giver feeling anything. He was adept at foreplay, but with the exception of the written word, he rarely
felt
anything deeply himself.

For that reason, his past dalliances had only included experienced partners, no starry-eyed ingénues. Virgins tended to weep after the sharp prick and then had the temerity to expect to trade a few drops of spilled blood for a gold wedding band. Tiresome. Tears tried his limited patience. And left him confused as to how to proceed.

And so, he would not marry without love. With love would come those touches of affection, of comfort, of true intimacy, of intercourse that went past the physical into the spiritual.

That was his one principle, a tenet in which he firmly believed—love would show him the way. He might stumble en route, he might fall flat on his face, but eventually he would feel something deeply and receive those same profound feelings in return.

In the here and now, however, strumpets would gladly accept cash, promiscuous tarts a slap and a tickle, and worldly women, who looked to the future when their everything began to sag, would gladly invest in a long-term arrangement with a deep-pocketed protector.

All those situations were fine by him.

Because he would not marry without love.

Where did Veronica Cooper fit in there?

She was not an innocent, not a strumpet or a promiscuous tart either, and neither was she a woman of the world. What would suit her?

The stability of a mistress and a visitation schedule suited him best. A tight squeeze would fit every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday evenings into his busy life. In recompense, he would offer a rented house in town with well-appointed furnishings, the occasional bauble and theater ticket thrown in to keep a smile on her face and her legs flung over her head.

While he looked.

Sadly, taking a roll in the hay with her or with any woman was just wishful thinking on his part. All he required of Veronica Cooper was the occasional peep.

Was it not? Could he possibly hope for more?

The wait to speak with Mr. Cooper was long, and Talbot had done a lot of thinking. In the end, though, his one raggedy scruple made the decision for him. And he would act accordingly.

When the maid showed him into his meeting with Mr. Cooper, Talbot came right to the point. “No disrespect intended, sir, but I know about your daughter’s circumstances. It has also come to my attention that she is carrying her lover’s child and that the man refuses to wed her and give them the protection of his name. I propose to do both.”

Talbot took a deep breath and then plunged. “Mr. Cooper, I am here today to formally request Miss Veronica Cooper’s hand in marriage and to claim the baby as my own. I love her, sir. I did from the very first word.”

Chapter Seven

 

Papa had requested she meet with him in the library, and Veronica descended the staircase from her bedroom to the first floor like a shuffling old woman, one hand clutched to her heaving belly, the other holding on tight to the railing.

Mornings were by far the worst. At breakfast, she could barely keep down a cup of milky tea. Generally, by late afternoon, the nausea would fade and she could take a slice or two of dried toast. It was now early evening, and she still felt remarkably unwell, too ill to eat.

Was her baby all right?

Seven weeks along, or so she estimated, and she continued to spot her drawers. Not a great deal, but the bright red speckles on the snowy white linen frightened her. Was all as it should be with her pregnancy, or was this intermittent bleeding a sign of something dire?

As an only child with a mother long deceased, she had no one to whom to pose her concerns. The doctor who had confirmed her delicate condition had not been at all forthcoming as to the details of what she might expect. Unwed and ruined too, she was also removed from the homey information she might ordinarily have garnered from married ladies in her acquaintance. Her father meant well, but woman’s problems were not something she could discuss with him. And so she had told no one about the spotting, because there was simply no one to tell, even if she were to leave the house, which she most assuredly was not about to do. Too sick, too shamed, she stayed secreted away in her darkened bedroom with the curtains drawn.

Despite the precautions, prying eyes were everywhere. Even the chambermaids whispered behind her back. Humiliating.

Where was Robert? Why had she not heard from her lover?

She knew so little about him, not even where he resided. Some tenement, she would guess, but which one? Sending a note around to his door was impossible without an address.

The same did not hold true for him. He knew where she lived. Why had he not taken the initiative and contacted her, as he had done in the past?

After that terrible story appeared in the scandal sheets, a salacious indictment of her name without any mention of his, she had expected him to come to her house. But no. He made no effort to see her. Consequently, she had yet to tell him about the baby, that he was to be a father.

Not hearing from him was all so frightening. But for the sake of her child, she would not give in to her worry. Robert
would
come for her. He made very little money as a dockworker, but they would manage after their wedding. Somehow. Perhaps she would take in laundry to help make ends meet.

Veronica’s foot stalled on the tread. Oh dear. How did one wash clothing?

Hopeless. She was so utterly stupid about the running of a household. Why oh why had she not thought about the repercussions of her sexual activity?

But even if she had, even if she had considered contraception, what good would that have done her? Robert would never have cooperated. A good Irish Catholic like him take precautions? Use a condom? Practice withdrawal?

Ha!

And here she had called herself a proponent of free love. Free seemed to mean the man escaped all commitment and responsibility.

She covered her trembling lips with a hand. What would she ever do?

Her father might disown her, disinherit her, banish her to Europe until she gave birth…

If she gave birth.

Why was she spotting?

After making her slow way down the rest of the stairs, an attack of wooziness struck in the front hall. As black spots danced before her eyes, a man rushed lopsidedly to her assistance. Too ill to care, too ill for politeness, she made no attempt to focus her eyes on his face or to inquire over his name, but merely leaned against him for support while trying not to retch all over his shiny boots.

“Place your arm around my neck,” he said abruptly, his tone educated though stiff.

She wore no corset, no gown for that matter. Clad only in a loose wrap…and red-spotted drawers to catch the steady
drip, drip, drip
of crimson blood…she did as he bade her.

After settling her into his arms, he began limping up the stairs she had just come down.

“Which bedchamber is yours?” he asked.

“Last door on the left, the end of the second floor hall,” she gasped as a dreadful pain squeezed at her innards.

He noticed straightaway. “What ails you?”

She rested her head against the rock solidness of his chest, and spoke into the soft black wool of his coat. “I am bleeding.”

“From where?” he demanded to know.

How could she possibly tell him? Even the doctor had not looked at her
down there
. His examination had consisted of kneading her belly over her shift and asking about her monthlies.

My baby
, she wanted to scream through her chattering teeth.
Is something wrong with my baby?

Oh, God, she felt so alone. Why was childbirth shrouded in mystery?

BOOK: Blooming: Veronica
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