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Even from here, the stench of soured ale accosted her, forcing bile into her throat. With one last deep breath, she sidled her way into the dank, drunken confusion, forbidding her gray serge skirts to brush against anything. Much less anyone. From every murky corner—and for a squared-off tea tin of a building, this tavern abounded in murky corners—eyes followed her. Suspicious, leering eyes, set in hard, unshaven faces. It was enough to make any young woman anxious. For a fugitive young lady of quality, traveling alone, under the flimsy shield of a borrowed cloak and a fabricated identity….
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An unseen someone jostled her from behind. Her gloved fingers instinctively clutched the envelope secreted in her cloak.
Seeds of irrevocable ruin, scattered with the wind. A cold sense of destiny anchored her rising stomach. There was no going back now. She could walk through far worse than this shabby pub, if it meant leaving her restrictive life behind. She could even endure these coarse men ogling her breasts, so long as they did not glimpse the secret strapped between them. Her resolve firmed, Sophia caught the eye of a bald-headed man wiping a table with a greasy rag.
He looked harmless enough—or at least, too old to strike quickly. She smiled at him. He returned the gesture with a completely toothless grin. She followed the direction indicated, moving through the crowd on tiptoe in an effort to keep her hem off the floor. The sticky floorboards sucked at her half-boots.
Toward the back of the room, she spied a boisterous knot of men and women near the bar. One man stood taller than the others, his auburn hair looking cleaner than that of his company. A brushed felt beaver rested on the bar nearby, an oddly refined ornament for this seedy den. As Sophia angled for a better view, a chair slid out from a nearby table, clipping her in the knee. She bobbled on tiptoe for a moment before tripping forward. The hem of her cloak caught on her boot, and the cloak wrenched open, exposing her chest and throat to the sour, wintry air.
In her desperate attempt to right herself, she clutched wildly for the wall—. His liquor-glazed eyes slid over her body and settled on the swell of her breasts. Had he mistaken her for some dockside trollop? Perhaps she was disguised in simple garments, but certainly she did not look cheap.
She tried to wriggle away, but with a quick move, he had her pinned against the bar. His grimy fingers dove into the valley of her bosom, and Sophia yelped. The brute released one of her arms to further his lascivious exploration, and Sophia used her newly-freed hand to beat him about the head. No use. His fingers squirmed between her breasts like fat, greedy worms burrowing in the dark.
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Her efforts at defense only amused her drunken attacker. Desperation clawed at her insides. But his fingers groped closer and closer to the one thing she dared not surrender. If he found it, Sophia doubted she would escape this tavern with her life intact, much less her virtue. Her attacker turned his head, angling for a better look down her dress. His grimy ear was just inches from her mouth. Within snapping distance.
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If she bit it hard enough, she might startle him into letting her go. She had all but made up her mind to do it, when she inhaled another mouthful of his rank sweat and paused.
His grimy ear was just inches from her mouth. Within snapping distance. If she bit it hard enough, she might startle him into letting her go.
She had all but made up her mind to do it, when she inhaled another mouthful of his rank sweat and paused. If her choices were putting her mouth on this repulsive beast or dying, she just might rather die. The repulsive beast gave a yawp of surprise as a pair of massive hands bodily hauled him away.
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Lifted him, actually, as though the brute weighed nothing, until he writhed in the air above her like a fish on a hook. With an easy motion, her rescuer tossed Bains aside. The brute landed some feet away, with the crunch of splintering wood. Sagging against the bar with relief, Sophia peered up at her savior. At least, she assumed him to be a gentleman.
His accent bespoke education, and with his dark-green topcoat, fawn-colored trousers, and tasseled Hessians, he cut a fashionable silhouette. But as his arms flexed, the finely tailored clothing delineated raw, muscled power beneath. And there was nothing refined about his face.
His features were rough-hewn, his skin bronzed by the sun. It was impossible not to stare at the golden, weathered hue and wonder—did it fade at his cravat? At his waist? Not at all? The more she peered up the man, the less she knew what to make of him. Then he smiled, and the lazy quirk of his lips tugged a thin scar slanting from his jaw to his mouth.
Mouth of a scoundrel, indeed!