The Pirate & I (A Novella)
Book 2.5 in the Devil’s Duke Series
Years ago, Miss Esme Astell fell hopelessly in love with Charles Brittle, an unassuming and highly respectable London bookmaker.
Then he disappeared without a word.
The last thing Esme ever dreamed was to meet Charlie again —
In a dark alleyway —
In a drenching rain —
In a chase with the police —
Can she resist falling again, this time for the dangerous scoundrel he’s become?
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The Pirate & I (A Novella)
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Footsteps echoed behind her, splashing fast and hard through puddles, obviously without regard for soaking stockings. The alley was empty, the rain falling heavier now between buildings that seemed to lean in upon each other from above.
Deeper shadows loomed ahead. The footsteps were nearing.
Esme threw herself toward the wall just as a man hurtled by. He wore no coat or hat, and his wet hair clung to his back below his shoulders that were broad and to which the wet shirt fabric also clung.
Not only his shirt clung.
With her back pressed to the stone, she watched the silvery darkness ahead swallow him.
She blinked and shook her head as she stepped away from the wall. Never before in her life had she looked at a man’s bum. She had not intended to. The tight, perfect ovals had flexed as he ran and her eyes had just gone there, like dogs to a bone.
It must be the effect of her enchantment over dreaming about Paris. And she should definitely not be dwelling on those perfect ovals now, or risking her safety another minute in this deserted alleyway. She started off again.
More footsteps pounded behind her, this time not one runner but many.
Jumping back to the wall, she watched them come. One carried a torch that illumined all five. She recognized them at once as members of the city’s police.
“Pardon, lass!” one shouted as they ran by.
“He’s gone this way, lads!” another cried, and they streamed around the corner of the building, taking the glow of torchlight with them.
Esme lowered her gaze, which she had lifted to avoid staring at any bums, and moved into the center of the alley again, her step still light. Nothing could dim her giddiness tonight.
Droplets of Eau de Aurora had soaked into her when she had been trying to mop it off the floor and the president of the perfumers’ society and Monsieur Poe. The scent arose from her damp skin now, curling sweet rose and tangy citrus and a hint of cardamom into her nostrils. She felt like singing. And dancing. She would, just as soon as she removed her sodden shoes and stockings. A girl didn’t need music to dance in the privacy of her own bedchamber, after all.
A man appeared in silhouette at the alley’s mouth. The criminal. The shoulders were unmistakable.
He paused, looked both ways, and then bolted straight toward her.
The policemen’s shouts echoed nearby. Esme’s pulse throbbed, but her sodden feet would not move.
Ten feet away the criminal dodged toward the opposite wall and slipped into a dark crevice in the stone. Forcing his wide shoulders back into the crack, he looked straight at her, lifted a forefinger to his lips, and shook his head once.
His long hair was tangled over his brow and thick whiskers. His chest heaved upon breaths but otherwise he was entirely still. His glittering eyes fixed upon her face, warning.
She opened her mouth to scream.
The policemen crashed into the alleyway, only three this time and without the torchbearer, spraying rain every which way.
“Lass, have you seen a scoundrel run past?” one demanded, smacking his club into his opposite palm.
From the shadow, the scoundrel’s gaze no longer warned.
Three against one. And the three were armed with heavy clubs.
“I haven’t,” she heard pop from her lips then gasped.
Nobody heard her gasp; the policemen were already past her and disappearing around the alley’s far end.
She was trembling. She had never lied in her life.
Poking his head out of the crevice, the man dragged his shoulders free of his concealment. In three strides he was across the street and upon her.
He was much bigger close up, all dramatic long hair and thick shoulders and clingy shirt and powerful arms that came forward faster than she could draw breath. His hands wrapped around her head, big and very strong. And shockingly gentle.
“Thank you.” His voice was a criminal’s, rough and low and intense. And English.
It couldn’t be.
Then, abruptly, his mouth was on hers.
For three seconds she was kissed—warm lips, firm intention, soft whiskers and, amidst all the transient scents of rain and sweat and wet linen . . . him.
Esme’s windpipe knotted itself around her heart.
Her ears occasionally lied to her. Even her eyes did. But her nose: never.
He released her.
Her damp lips fell open.
“Ch-Ch-Charlie?” she whispered.
Sparks flared in his eyes—beautiful, expressive eyes that she had thought she would never see again—eyes she had missed.
But there was no recognition in them. None whatsoever.
Frowning, he stepped back one pace. Then, without a word, he took off up the alley again at a sprint and was gone.
Her hands were shaking. Her entire body was shaking.
He was alive.
Since he had disappeared from London almost two years ago, no one on Gracechurch Street had seen him or heard from him. It had been entirely unlike him to simply go off without notice—or to go off at all. Devoted to his family’s print shop, hardworking, sober, and in truth the backbone of the business, he would never leave Brittle and Sons so suddenly, for any reason. So everybody on Gracechurch Street had believed him dead—fallen afoul of footpads, perhaps, but certainly gone forever.
Esme swallowed across her careening heartbeats.
He had not recognized her. How could he have not recognized her?
Amnesia! It was the only possible explanation that he had never written to his family, and never come home to the shop where he was desperately needed, the shop that was his life. He must have been in a horrible accident and bumped his head and now had no idea who he really was, and so he had turned to a wretched life of crime.
But probably not.
Of course not.
Amnesia was a silly widgeon’s justification for the months of grief she had silently endured when he disappeared. And she was definitely not a widgeon. She was on her way to becoming a world-renowned perfumer. In Paris.
The simplest explanation now was that he had probably gone off on an unannounced holiday, discovered he preferred that to working day and night so that his brother and father could dress in expensive coats with gold watch fobs, and had forgotten about all of them back on Gracechurch Street who were waiting for his return. And missing him.
Now he was running around Edinburgh’s dark streets and being chased by the police.
Now he was a criminal.
“Charlie,” she whispered again and lifted her fingers to touch the lips he had kissed without knowing whose lips they were.
How many times had she dreamed of him kissing her? How many times had she stood in the window of her flat that overlooked busy Gracechurch Street, watching the door of Brittle and Sons, Printers, for his departure at the end of each day, and whispered his name when finally at whatever outrageously late hour he completed his work he came through the door, locked it behind him, and walked down the street on the way to his family’s house in a much finer neighborhood? How many times had she sighed his name, making fog against the windowpane and wishing that once he would look at her and see her, really see her, and realize that she adored him?
Too many. Far, far too many.
And when he had disappeared, her heart had broken—her foolish heart that had ached for a man who spoke to her every week for three years without ever really noticing her.
Now he was alive. Not an amnesiac. Simply inconsiderate.
And a criminal.
Whatever he was doing in Scotland, and wherever he had been for two years, now meant nothing to Esme. Memories, regrets, and heartbreak were all entirely of her past.
Squaring her shoulders she walked the remainder of the way to the boarding house. After a good night’s sleep she would stride right into the meeting tomorrow and take all of those men by storm. She had her future to secure, and her sisters’ futures too.
That future had one name: Paris.
The second day of the perfumers’ meeting dawned sparklingly clear and blue. It passed much better than the first: she did not break any bottles of expensive fragrance, and Monsieur Poe actually peered at her for at least ten seconds before he rolled his eyes away.
By the time she was again walking along the alleyway in which she had abetted Charlie in escaping the law, she was so filled with excitement over all she had learned and talked about at the Society meeting that she did not even glance at the shadowy crevice in which he had hidden.
Gathering her bedchamber key and a smelly tallow candle from the boarding house proprietress, and promising she would wash up swiftly so that she would not be late to dinner, finally she allowed herself to spare a thought for Charlie’s welfare. If the police had caught up with him, he could be in jail. It would be a kindness to take him a basket of food.
But she did not have time for that, or extra coins. All of her energies and thoughts now must go toward impressing the perfumers. And every coin possible must be saved for her journey to Paris. Her sisters’ lives were at stake. And she had nothing to spare for a man who cared so little about his family and friends that he hadn’t even informed them he was alive.
In her tiny bedchamber furnished with a narrow cot, minuscule writing table and chair, and her own small traveling trunk, she hung her cloak and bonnet on pegs and sat to untie her boots. Her room lacked a fireplace, and her shoes had not dried properly the night before. She slipped her damp feet free and reached for her indoor slippers.
With a creaking grind, the window sash rose and a man climbed through the opening.
Esme yelped, leaped up, and bolted for the door.
That voice: low and harsh yet familiar. His voice.
Fingers clutching the door handle, she pivoted.
She had never thought Charlie Brittle a particularly large man. He needn’t be: he was a gentleman. Five years ago arriving in London from the countryside, where every farmhand was ruddy and bulky, she had instantly admired Mr. Charles Brittle’s pale skin and lean frame: markers of his gentility.
This man barely resembled that Charlie. He seemed to fill the room. In the golden glow of the candlelight, his skin was darkly tanned and his shoulders looked even wider than they had in the alley. Muscles strained his shirtsleeves, and his waistcoat barely contained a chest that was considerably broader than she recalled. He still wore no hat, but now his hair was bound in a queue, streaks of gold running through the sandy blond. His legs, encased in snug breeches, were set in a wide stance that revealed a wealth of taut muscle all the way down to his boots.
All muscle—the same as the backside of him.
Heartbeats punishing her ribs, she stared.
“Good evening, Esme.” Lips framed in whiskers barely moved as the words came from them like a husky growl. His beautiful eyes were two hard, cool pieces of flint. “I need your nose.”
End of Excerpt
The Pirate & I (A Novella)
is Book 2.5 in the Devil’s Duke Series
The full series reading order is as follows: