Jem Baxter is hiding from past misdeeds with an assumed name when he encounters Clarey Parton and three members of a press gang working on the Liverpool waterfront in 1814.
And that's not even the major mystery of the story!
Here, meet Jem and Clarey joins forces to escape his impressment and her trafficking into a brothel in a very rough look at the second chapter.
Chapter 2 ~ The Hazard of Secrets
At the first scratching on the thin paneled door, Jem Baxter opened his eyes.
Far along the street, a church bell began tolling the late hour. He’d nearly fallen asleep waiting on the promised tryst with Berta. When he’d connected her with the frumpy companion to the naïve innocent across the hall, he’d been half a mind to warn Miss Blue Eyes that Miss Tompkins wasn’t as genteel as she presented herself.
He’d decided to tumble Berta and not concern himself with matters not his concern. Berta had made him wait an extra day. She flirted well, promised all sorts of delights with her practiced tongue, but—.
Jem didn’t remember the but. He’d thought of it while he ate his supper and listened to the Reverend Hodnett talk about the mission to India. It had vanished while he dozed, waiting for Berta.
Fresh off ship after working a passage back from Canada, he needed to find work. He’d had enough of ships. Climbing rigging to watch the ship leave port, jumping on the mast to get the sails to drop when sea-swollen wood stuck to wood, heaving his guts out below decks as the ship rolled through storm, he didn’t want to experience any of that ever again. He’d also had enough of the cold winter of Nova Scotia. The snow had been falling in Halifax when he boarded the Lady Mersey and set his sights back on England.
Yesterday he planned to leave, but Berta had stopped him, promising in that husky voice how she’d make the wait up to him if he’d stay just one more night.
The scratching came again, jerking him out of his doze.
He ought to make her wait.
He definitely wouldn’t let her think he was eager.
He linked his hands behind his head and crossed his ankles. “Come in,” he offered quietly. He had an end room and no one next door, but he remembered the blue-eyed innocent across the hall. No need to wake her.
The door opened. In the light of his single candle, he saw a cloaked figure slip inside then press the door shut.
Why was Berta wearing a cloak?
She turned and placed folded cloths on the chest beside the door. Then she straightened and stepped forward, pushing back her hood as she did so, revealing a round face with a pert nose and chin and big eyes.
Big blue eyes.
“Hell!” Jem threw back the bed covers and sprang up, grabbing his trousers and turning his trousers, turning his back while he stepped into them.
“Mr. Axminster, I must speak with you.”
Her voice shook, what he’d expect if she’d had a fright. An innocent like her, seeing a naked man, she was likely quaking in her kid boots. That didn’t kill his anticipation, not since he’d used those big blue eyes to inspire him every night since her arrival at the Three Fishes.
“Miss Parton, what the hell are you doing here?”
“You need to get back to your room.”
“Sh-h,” she insisted. “We must be quiet.”
He grabbed a shirt. “Don’t know what you’re thinking, but my room ain’t a place for—.”
“Do, hush, Mr. Axminster.” The vehement whisper wouldn’t have silenced him, but her ear pressed against the door did. “You are in danger. From a press gang. As am I.”
“I don’t know what you’re thinking—.”
“Roberta Tompkins is part of the gang. She wanted her cut first.”
He dropped the shirt back on the chair. “How you do know that?”
She faced him, her blue eyes unwavering. “Pure luck. We haven’t much time, sir. They planned—they were talking in the hall, just now, and I overheard them.”
His abrupt gesture cut her off. He hadn’t heard anyone talking. With her room directly across, how could she have heard? Yet in their few encounters, not once had she struck him as a needy miss desperate for dramatics to fill the tedium of her days. He peeked out the window, careful to keep to one side. Memory served up a trundle cart rumbling over the cobbles, coming from the twisting alley to the inn’s back entrance. A bearded man had pushed the empty cart while a fat-bellied man carried the lantern.
“How many?” he shot over his shoulder.
“Only two, I think.”
Two tallied with his memory.
“And Miss Tompkins. They said something about the master getting his cut, but the master didn’t need to know about the deal they worked with a local brothel for me.”
Her bitterness didn’t belong to a complete innocent. Her use of “the master” for the man who controlled Liverpool’s underground also tallied with his memory. Jem dropped the curtain and stepped well away from the window, not wanting a shadow on the curtains to alert any watcher. “A brothel?”
“Virginity fetches more money, although they know other ways to play with me.” Her words dropped like stones.
That brief description of the men’s planned degradation sickened Jem. “That’s not going to happen,” he assured her. “No brothel will get you. They won’t get their filthy paws on you.”
“Joan is the name Roberta said to them.”
Pope Joan’s brothel near the wharf was known for its open doors and occasional promise of something special. Jem stared at those wide blue eyes and her trim figure and knew she would be the sacrificial special lamb.
He needed a good plan. He had his fists, not enough against two braw men intent on evil.
A single knock fell on his door.
Miss Parton jumped.
“James,” came the husky voice he’d waited for, “time for play.”
Miss Parton dove between the bed and the wall, landing with a thud he hoped Berta thought was his feet hitting the floor.
“James.” She rattled the door latch. He was shocked Berta hadn’t opened the door. He had no idea what to do.
Miss Parton’s head popped up. “Don’t drink the rum,” she hissed then dropped back down. Her rump stuck up, clearly visible.
Jem opened the door and planted himself where Berta couldn’t see behind the bed.
And regretted she was working with a press gang.
Her ginger hair was fluffed around her shoulders. She smiled and wet her lips and drew fingers down her neck, drawing his attention to her bosom. The loose bodice gave him a view of deep cleavage, with chemise ribbons untied. She waggled a dark liquor bottle, already uncorked. “Oh, Jamesy,” she purred and stepped against him. Her hand planted over his heart, sliding a little so her thumb could brush his nipple. He didn’t try to stop his body’s reaction, but he wished he hadn’t groaned.
Berta pressed her full breasts against his chest and tiptoed to give his chin a wet kiss, promising more with a husky laugh. Then she drifted past him into the room.
He turned, watching her go to the table with its plate and mug left from his supper. With her shoulders thrown back, those breasts tempted him. He knew their plushness because he’d weighed them in his hands when Berta kissed him this morning. He’d tasted the salacious promise of her wet mouth. He wanted to tumble her on the bed and drive out the need that had hounded him since he’d seen the last of Halifax from the rigging of the merchant ship.
Miss Parton would lose more of her precious innocence.
Berta returned, offering the rum in the pewter mug. He looped his arm around her waist and pulled her in for a kiss.
Her tongue almost convinced him to forget Miss Parton. But the bite of her nails into his neck reminded him of the danger. He didn’t mind bites and scratches in the tumble of sex, but this was calculated pain, designed to test rather than arouse. Some men got off on pain, giving it, receiving it, needing it for arousal. Like the men who threatened Miss Parton. Berta’s pricking nails told him more about her experience than Miss Parton’s claim that Berta had called the local madam “Joan”.
Jem pushed her away and took the mug. “This whiskey?”
She touched the bottom of the mug, pushing it upward. “Rum,” another mark that reinforced Miss Parton’s truthfulness, as if he needed another one. Then Berta licked the blood she’d scratched from his neck off her nails.
Jem didn’t like her smile.
And he kept picturing wide blue eyes peering at them over the mattress.
He backed up. Berta followed. When she reached for him again, he caught her hand and spun her toward the table. Then he quickly shut the door and latched it. “No interruptions.” He hoped his grin looked like a leer.
She had picked up the bottle again and used it to motion at his pants. “Those have to go.”
“I’m ahead,” he retorted. “You catch up.”
She lifted the bottle to her mouth. He didn’t see her swallow. She pointed at the mug. “I’m ahead. You catch up.”
He lifted the mug to his mouth. As she unbuttoned her bodice, he stared at the clear liquid shimmering in the pewter. Whatever she’d spiked the rum with, he couldn’t see it. He wet his lips and pretended to swallow and noticed her smile increased.
She brushed past him to perch on the side of the bed. He pretended to drink again and once again. She finished unbuttoning her bodice but didn’t offer to push the sleeves down her arms. She swung her feet and lifted the bottle, pretending to swallow twice. So Jem drank again as well while his mind raced with what he would have to do.
He doubted he could muffle her and tie her up without a fight. She would be eager to use her nails. She wouldn’t hesitate to scream—which would bring the thugs. Worse odds when they burst in. And the parson down the hall would believe the men justified in hauling Jem off because he’d attacked a defenseless woman.
Any bleats Miss Parton made would be ignored.
He pretended to drink again.
“Jamesy,” Berta pouted, “I’m waiting.”
“And you’re still behind.” He gestured to his bare chest then to her. “I’ve been wanting an eyeful since the first time I saw you.”
She huffed then began pushing the gown off one shoulder. He watched and pretended to drink. And saw Miss Parton peeking.
He waited until one gown sleeve reached Berta’s elbow. She hadn’t undone her cuffs. She reached for the other shoulder. Jem set the cup on the bed table, then he lunged for her. He bore her back to the bed and jerked down the gown sleeve till it trapped her other arm. For a confused second Berta mistook his intent. Then her eyes narrowed. He clamped a hand over her mouth and muffled her scream.
“Miss Parton.” The calm of his voice amazed him. Berta thrashed and kicked. “Would you hold the rum before it empties all over the bed?”
She popped up. Wide eyes took in the woman struggling under Jem. Then she scrambled onto the bed and searched for the bottle. She snatched it up and shoved it at him.
“You’ll have to hold it.”
Berta heaved and writhed, but she couldn’t dislodge his hand from her mouth or his body straddling hers.
Miss Parton divined his purpose and planted herself at Berta’s head.
Those wide eyes lifted from the woman. His own grim determination was reflected in the blue. A fleeting thought wondered where innocent Miss Parton had learned the lesson of “needs must”.
“She’ll scream,” was her only comment.
He shook his head. “She’ll be too busy trying to breathe.” He shifted his hand to cover her nose as well.
The woman tried to throw off his hold, tried to buck off his bigger body. Then the need to breathe took control. Jem held his hand in place until her body convulsed, held longer until her lashes flickered.
“Now,” he warned and lifted his hand.
Berta sucked in a galeful of breath then choked as Miss Parton poured the spiked rum after it. She sputtered and coughed. Jem clamped his hand over her mouth, letting her breathe until her throat worked to swallow. Once again he covered her airways.
After the third dose, Miss Parton sat back on her heels, watching Berta writhe under him. “It’s cruel,” she whispered.
Jem looked up. Her determination had slipped. She was still innocent, wise to the world but not yet confronted by the brutality that required ruthlessness in order to survive. Without her action, he would have wound up trapped on another ship, sailing God knew where, and herself enduring cruelty no woman should. He’d taken to crime to win his mother out of that very life, and all the stains on his soul came from that attempt. He never thought it wasted, though she lived only a couple of months after he got her out of London. Then he had to pay his own debt to the boss with nearly two decades of crimes. The evil hadn’t started, though until the boss hooked them up with French spies. Three years of that had tarred Jem’s soul.
“Nothing to what those two men planned to do to you,” he reminded her. “Nothing to the life ahead of you in Pope Joan’s brothel.”
Those blue eyes lowered before his steady gaze. She stared at her former paid companion. “She seemed so—nice. I was looking forward—.” Miss Parton shook her head and lifted the rum. “I’m ready.”
After the fifth dose, Berta’s struggles lessened. Jem expected a trick and didn’t relent.
She lost consciousness after she swallowed the ninth dose of the spiked rum.
He lifted off carefully, ready to cover her mouth, but all Berta emitted was a snore.