“Buy an apple, guv? Best in London, they is.”
Richard paused as a plump, middle-aged woman wearing a kerchief over her dark hair stepped in his way. Offering his most charming smile, he said, “The best in London, you say? Well, I have no doubt they are, madam. However, I am quite set for apples. If only you had said scones. I do so adore a great scone.” He winked at her, and was pleased to see a blush rise up her tanned cheeks. “I will, however, buy one for your next customer.”
He flipped her a coin, and she giggled as she caught it. “That’s right decent of you, guv. Sure I can’t offer you nothin’ else?” She gave her ample bosom a shake, and he chuckled and shook his head.
“Tempting, madam, but alas, I fear you are just too young for me.” She laughed out loud at this, and he sketched a shallow bow, “I bid you good day.”
“Cor, t’is sure to be, now!”
He grinned and walked on, dodging a gangly young man as he darted past. Everyone seemed to move with great purpose, shouting to be heard above the clanking wagons and clomping of horse hooves. It had a rather—he searched for the right word—bustle-ly charm to it.
What was that?
Richard came up short, glancing around. He would have sworn he’d heard a woman scream. Around him, harried vendors continued to call out their wares as vehicles rumbled noisily up and down the cobblestone street. No one showed any sign that they had heard a cry of distress, too.
Still, he was certain he had heard it. He squinted past the glaring sunlight reflecting off the surrounding shop windows to peer at the interiors. Nothing amiss in the spice store or the candle makers shop. Striding forward, Richard looked into the small bakery past the spice shop just in time to see a large man in dark clothing advance on a young woman who stood behind the waist-high counter. Her eyes were wide with shock as she pressed her hands over her mouth.
Damn it all—the bounder was going to attack her!
Without a second thought, Richard pushed through the door and leapt at the man, slamming against a back that was every bit as solid as stable door. Richard had the advantage of a running start, and his momentum knocked them both over the counter in a cloud of powdered sugar and curses. Together they crashed to the wood floor with a bone rattling thud, pastries raining down on them as glass and pottery shattered nearby. Good God, the man was an ox—easily twice the size of the dainty young woman who yelped and scrambled out of the way as they flailed about on the floor.
Jamming his elbow between the man’s shoulder blades, Richard landed a solid punch to the attacker’s lower back. Pain erupted in his knuckles and Richard cursed and shook his hand. Bloody hell, perhaps the man was made of wood after all. Barn Door grunted and squirmed, calling out hoarsely for him to get off.
As if Richard would have mercy on the moralless man—and if that wasn’t a word, it bloody well should be. Attacking a defenseless woman in broad daylight was utterly unconscionable. For good measure, Richard ground his elbow harder into his opponent’s spine. “It wasn’t every day one had the opportunity to rescue a lady and thrash the scurrilous villain in the process.
“I’m going for help!” the woman shouted, and he looked over his shoulder in time to see her dash for the door and disappear. Barn Door took the opportunity to twist around and land a meaty fist against Richard’s temple, slamming him into the purple cabinets lining the wall. The screech of more breaking dishes clashed with the ringing in Richard’s ears as he fought back, grappling with the larger man to maintain his position.
Richard finally got his arms hooked around the bounder’s elbows and locked them into place behind the criminal’s back. Panting, his hair hanging limply in his eyes, Richard secured his hold on the struggling man beneath him. He wasn’t going anywhere.
“What the bloody ‘ell do you think you’re doing? Get your filthy hands off me, you betwattled fool.”
Instead of responding, Richard simply tightened his hold, drawing his opponent’s arms back even further behind him. He adjusted his position so he was more or less sitting on the man. Barn Door tensed and sputtered beneath him, grunting with pain as Richard tugged sharply upward. Served the blackguard right; Richard’s left eye hurt like the devil. He tsked and said, “I wouldn’t struggle, were I you. It will only make me pull harder, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Richard chuckled as the rotter growled in frustration. He hadn’t had this much fun since university. Things were always so damned civilized at Gentleman Jackson’s, it had been ages since he had really been able really let loose. He was no bruiser, but he could certainly hold his own. As he had just proved. He grinned to himself, tossing his head in an attempt to get the hair from his eyes.
The front door burst open, causing the bell situated above it to jangle violently at the intrusion as the woman and two men stumbled into the room. She was smaller than he’d realized, dwarfed by the two brutes beside her. She was damn lucky he had shown up when he did.
“That’s him, right there!” she panted, pointing to where Richard and his prisoner lay on the floor. Rather obvious, in his opinion. Who else, exactly, would they think was the perpetrator? The mouse in the corner?
Now that assistance had arrived, Richard eased his grip and jumped to his feet. The cavalry rushed forward, each one grabbing one of the intruder’s arms and yanking him none too gently to his feet. It was no less than he deserved. One couldn’t go around terrorizing innocent women, for God’s sake.
“Not him,” the shop girl yelped. She thrust her arm in Richard’s direction, her finger extended accusingly. “Him!”
Jane watched with satisfaction as Mr. Black and the watchman released Emerson and tackled the crazed man to the floor. He grunted sharply as one of the men jabbed a knee in his back. Good. She hoped it hurt. How dare he burst into her store and attack her cousin like that. She’d never been so happy to see someone in her life, and she hadn’t even been able to properly greet him.
With her heart still pounding painfully in her chest, she turned her attention to poor Emerson, who was shaking out his arms and moving his neck from side to side. He was covered from the top of his short, sun-kissed hair to the bottom of his massive brown leather work boots with the precious sugar that had moments earlier topped her beautiful treats. “Heavens above, Emerson, are you quite all right?” She wasn’t willing to move closer to him, since he was still standing next to the lunatic attacker.
He threw a disgusted look to where the men scuffled with the protesting intruder before skirting around them, glass and porcelain crunching beneath his boots as he walked. The sight of her mother’s china shattered on the floor was nearly enough to bring her to tears, but Jane willed herself not to cry. She would not give the criminal the satisfaction of seeing her upset like that. The delicate periwinkle pattern winked up at her from the broken shards littering the wood planks, and she clenched her jaw against the memory of Mama offering her a sample of fresh baked ginger biscuits from the now destroyed platter. She noted with approval that the crazed man, who was still sprawled on the floor with his cheek pressed into a cream-filled pastry, had yet to recover his breath. She hoped he would be very sore in the morning when he woke up in Newgate.
Looking away from the source of all the upheaval in her shop, she glanced to the damaged cabinet and breathed a sigh of relief. At least some of the cherished pieces survived, including her favorite piece, the large vase in the place of honor at the top shelf of the cabinet. Thank the Lord for small favors.
Emerson wrapped her into a warm embrace, his surprisingly solid chest a comfort to her jangled nerves. Pulling away he offered her a reassuring grin. “I’ll live, to be sure. Are you all right? That must have given you quite a scare. I’m just glad I was here, so you didn’t have to face him alone.”
He looked so different, with his lean frame now padded with muscles and his deeply tanned skin. He had certainly grown into himself since shipping out so many years ago. But his easy grin and clear green eyes where exactly as she remembered them. She could have cried with relief at having him home.
“I am not so much scared as angry. I haven’t seen you in ages and you are ambushed before I even get to say hello. I’m so sorry.”
“You know him?”
The strangled, rasping question came from the man on the floor, and Jane and Emerson turned in unison to look at him. He looked a fright, his blond hair—and the pastry crumbs—plastered to his red face. Powdered sugar coated his surprisingly well-fitting clothes. Apparently, a life of crime paid rather nicely.
“I thought he was attacking you,” he ground out, then craned his head to look up at his captors. “I thought he was attacking her, I was trying to help, for the love of God.”
Ignoring his blasphemy, Jane couldn’t stop the inelegant snort of disbelief, “Right, my dear cousin, fresh from years at sea, came all the way here to London to assault me.”
“I didn’t know you bloody well knew him!”
She scowled at his vile language as Mr. Black thumped his side with the toe of his boot in warning. Who did he think he was, saying something like that in her own shop? Besides, what did it matter if it was her cousin or a customer—attacking an innocent person was inexcusable. “So you chose to attack first and ask questions later?” She was not about to let the man snake his way out of the punishment he was due. In her experience, that happened all too often. She clenched her teeth, pushing away the powerful emotions that the injustices of her past evoked. Lifting her chin, she addressed her two rescuers. “Sirs, this man is a nuisance and a lunatic. Please take him away.”
None too gently, the two men dragged the horrible man to his feet. He was quite a bit taller than she had realized, and she took a few involuntary steps backwards. Despite his fancy clothes, he looked strong and powerful, and she wanted nothing to do with the man. Especially with the look of fury darkening his bloodshot eyes. He looked as though he would gladly throw her into the Thames if given even an inch of leeway.
“I am not a lunatic,” he growled, jerking his arms against the hands that held him. “I’m the bloody Earl of Raleigh!”