Authors: Shirl Henke
Originally published by Leisure Books
Copyright © 2001 by Shirl Henke
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the author, except where permitted by law.
An amused young American, newly debarked on the London docks, observed an altercation began between a cadaverous cleric and a group of sinners. He put down his portmanteau and leaned indolently against the back wall of a warehouse building to enjoy the show.
"The Lord God Jehovah shall summon down the wrath of heaven upon ye sons and daughters of grievous iniquity!" The resonant voice of the street preacher exhorted the great unwashed in tones crackling with fire and brimstone. Tall and thin as a stork, dressed in crow-black raiment, he waved his Bible in the air with a dramatic flourish and pointed at a pockmarked young pimp and his harlot. "Repent and be saved, for the hour of judgment is at hand!"
"Aw, bloody stubble yer cheeseparing piety!" the pimp yelled out, then took a long pull from a gin bottle. A second exceedingly disrespectful sinner lobbed a rotten egg at the preacher's face, missing his mark.
"Go preach to old Holy Hannah," a young prostitute yelled defiantly at the preacher.
"Ya speaks like a apothecary. Best tell yer cork-brained banbury tales to the likes of Wilberforce an' 'is saints in Parliament," a burly sailor bellowed. He pulled the elderly preacher from his makeshift pulpit by seizing hold of the frayed lapels of his jacket, then lifted him into the air like a rag doll.
A tall thin female dressed all in gray elbowed her way past the observer and threw herself at the clergyman's attacker, pounding his mammoth shoulders with a prayer book. "Release him at once, Jem Barker! He's doing the Lord's work!"
"Now, Joss, be easy," the preacher wheezed. His attacker now turned his wrath on the female. In their struggles her thick-lensed spectacles were knocked off her nose and vanished in the melee, which now exploded like the starting gun at a free-for-all Georgia horse race. The shrill whistle of a charley sounded, but for all its piercing intensity, no one paid the slightest heed. Jem Barker grabbed the screeching female and picked her up like a sack of grain.
Angered at the sight of the big brute laying hands on a woman, even if she had instigated the attack, the American stepped past the sputtering preacher and seized the sailor's sweat-stained striped shirt. Barker dropped the flailing female and turned to face his opponent, but before he could do anything, the American's left fist connected solidly with a beefy red nose. The sailor staggered back just as the crowd surged forward, enveloping him and the preacher.
The American looked around for the woman, who also seemed to have vanished. Then he saw the fool female down on the ground, groping myopically for her spectacles. "You'll be trampled, you little idiot," he said with an oath, reaching down and grabbing her around her rail-thin waist.
As he lifted her up against his chest and began hauling her out of the melee, her hat fell off, revealing drab brown hair, center parted and pulled tightly back in an untidy clot of braids at her nape. At first he thought her the preacher's wife, but now that he held her up close, he could see the smooth youthfulness of her pink complexion. She was not as old as he would first have guessed.
"You are the most vile, lecherous man since Nebuchadnezzar! Release me this instant, you—you heathen miscreant!" Odd, she had never thought the great fat oaf of a watchman was so solidly muscled. She let fly her left hand with her prayer book clutched tightly in it, giving the man a sharp clap to his left eye before he wrested the awkward weapon from her and tossed it away.
She writhed and kicked, using her long legs and the solid wooden heel of her sensible shoes to excellent advantage. Whack! One heel caught her attacker squarely in the kneecap. At his snarled blasphemy, she took a deep breath and twisted about to claw at his face. With another oath, he set her firmly on her feet, just in time to save his skin, then shoved her against the brick wall of a warehouse.
"You dare to call yourself a member of the watch, Harry Wrexham, assaulting a lady while a man of the cloth is in danger of his life! Why, I—"
The shrill blast of the watchman's whistle sounded again, this time from the opposite side of the crowd. She blinked and squinted harder at the man looming over her. She was of an uncommon—many said downright ungainly—height, yet he had a good six inches on her. "You ... you aren't Harry Wrexham the watchman, are you?" she croaked in humiliated shock.
"Not the last I checked," he replied with a grimace. Scarlet stained her pale cheeks as she scrunched up her face, peering at him while fumbling in the pockets of the gray sack that passed for her dress. The situation might have amused him—if not for the wicked throbbing in his right knee and the fact that the scruffy little missionary lassie had probably blacked his eye as well!
She pawed frantically through her clothes until she found the spare pair of spectacles she always carried. Cursing the
fair skin and excitable nature that caused her frequent and uncontrollable blushing, she hooked the wire frames around her ears, then blinked and froze.
All the air in her lungs seemed to evaporate, leaving her unable to utter a word for what seemed an eternity. "You ... you're an American, aren't you? The accent...," she blurted out, then realized how gauche she must appear gawking at him. But she could not seem to help herself. He was not as handsome as an English dandy. No, not at all. He was the most exotic, wildly beautiful mortal she had ever seen. Dark gold hair, far longer and shaggier than was the fashion, framed a swarthy, sun-burnished countenance with deep-set, piercing, chocolate-brown eyes. His prominent, well-proportioned nose and high cheekbones gave an almost oriental cast to his face. The only thing that marred his beauty was the lump beginning to form alongside his left eye. His sculpted lips slashed into an entrancing smile.
"Yes, I'm American. Late of the sovereign state of Georgia and the Muskogee Town of Coweta. Alexander David Blackthorne, at your service."
Her mouth gaped open, revealing surprisingly white, even teeth, no doubt her best feature. Unless she kept out of further street brawls, she was unlikely to keep them much longer, he mused. Her eyes were pale but through the glare of the thick lenses of her spectacles, he could not otherwise discern the color. "Are you injured, miss?"
Better she should be asking me the question!
That smile did it to her again, robbed her both of breath and presence of mind. She stammered, "I'm sorry about your eye. I... I'm Joss—Jocelyn Angelica Woodbridge, the Reverend Elijah Woodbridge's daughter—oh! Papa! Those vile ruffians have been threatening to stop his preaching. They may have killed him!" Here she was acting all shallow pated over some wild colonial while her beloved father lay bleeding! "I must find him. Papa!"
Alex caught her wrist as she spun about, ready to lunge right back into the fray. "Wait here. I'll find the preacher."
He shoved her against the wall and locked eyes with her, willing her to obey. When she nodded woodenly, he released her and turned to survey the reigning pandemonium. Amid all the ragged denizens of the nearby eastside slums, the black-clad old man would have been difficult to locate were it not for the snowy whiteness of his frayed shirtfront. A rather nasty looking fellow, wearing a red velvet jacket as gaudy as it was filthy, had hold of the skinny old man. He and his equally unsavory companion were dragging their victim into a dark alleyway between two of the warehouse buildings.
Alex maneuvered through the melee, dodging fists, cudgels and even an occasional well-tossed brick. He came upon the alley just as Red Coat raised a knife in his right hand while his cohort held the preacher by the throat. It was apparent they intended cold-blooded murder. With not an instant to spare, Alex freed the knife he kept hidden in his boot and sprinted noiselessly between the buildings.
Using the heavy bone handle as a club, he rapped Red Coat on the back of his greasy skull. When his lanky frame collapsed like a house of cards, Alex reversed the knife and pointed it at the startled man still holding the struggling preacher. He was one of the pimps who had been heckling the reverend.
"I'd advise letting him go," Alex said genially to the bulldog-faced villain.
Grinning ear to ear, the pimp revealed a set of greenish rotted teeth. "Don't pay a cove ta stick 'is snout in th' trough. I just might 'ave ta cut it clean off wi' me cold iron." Shoving the coughing preacher to the ground, the man slid an evilly gleaming stiletto from his belt and advanced on Alex.
The two men circled, taking each other's measure. For such a burly fellow, the cutthroat moved with surprising agility, feinting one way, then dancing out of range of Alex's blade. They stepped over the inert body of Red Coat while the preacher stood pinned against the wall, unable to get past the deadly ballet.
The Reverend Elijah Woodbridge looked about the filthy dark alcove. Determining there would be no help save divine intervention, he fell to his knees and commenced to pray.
It was his voice that drew Joss over the ragged breathing and searing hiss of steel scraping on steel. "Papa?" She heard him yet could only see Mr. Blackthome's back as he faced one of the street toughs who lately had made a sport of disrupting the preaching efforts of her father. Then Alex moved and she could see the gleam of steel in the gloom. They were engaged in a life-and-death struggle—with her poor papa trapped in the thick of it beside the body of another ruffian!
Without considering her actions, Joss seized a piece of broken guttering lying at the entrance to the alley and ran pell-mell to join the fight. Green Teeth saw her coming, brandishing her awkward tin club and shrieking like a berserk banshee. With the cunning born of a lifetime on the streets, he lunged, maneuvering Alex directly into the line of fire as she swung the gutter pipe in a wide arc.
Alex heard a feral screech and sensed someone racing up behind him, yet he dared not take his eyes off his foe's deadly blade. Instead, as he turned to parry an uncharacteristically clumsy thrust, he ducked low to avoid being struck from behind.
It would have worked if the second attacker had been another street tough. The instant the woman tumbled across his shoulder with her weapon clattering against the wall, Alex realized his mistake. With a fierce Muskogee oath, he grabbed a fistful of gray skirt, attempting to yank her out of harm's way while simultaneously parrying his opponent's next thrust.
Red Coat chose that moment to return to consciousness. He sat up groggily with a bleat of pain, trying to focus his eyes. Sparing him not an instant's attention, Alex hauled Joss, kicking and flailing, behind him. "Stay the hell out of the way or you'll get us all killed," he hissed as Green Teeth moved in. The gutter pipe Joss had hurled against the wall bounced off and rolled under his feet, tripping the pimp. Alex seized the opening and plunged his blade to the hilt in his foe's belly, then yanked upward. The man's eyes rolled up in his head and a shocked grimace set his jaw as he died.
"Look out!" Joss shrieked as Red Coat, who had regained his feet, aimed the pistol he had pulled from his sash. As she cried the warning she ran toward the killer, head down, butting him in the side. The shot discharged harmlessly into the air. With a curse he threw the spent weapon aside and reached for the dagger inside his coat. Alex's fist smashed into his jaw with wicked impact, sending him crashing against the wall. His head connected with a loud crunch; then he slid down the bricks, out cold.
The riot had abated now and silence reigned, broken only by the loud petitions of the Reverend Elijah Woodbridge, who had not ceased praying since he first fell to his knees when the altercation began.
"I thought I told you to stay out of the way," Alex gritted out as he helped Joss to her feet.