Wed
Feb 9 2011 9:00am

Mine Till Midnight - Excerpt

From the first book in the sizzling Hathaway Series!

London 1848

Autumn

Finding one person in a city of nearly two million was a formidable task. It helped if that person’s behavior was predictable and he could usually be found in a tavern or gin shop. Still, it wouldn’t be easy.

Leo, where are you? Miss Amelia Hathaway thought desperately as the carriage wheels rattled along the cobbled street. Poor, wild, troubled Leo. Some people, when faced with intolerable circumstances, simply . . . broke. Such was the case with her formerly dashing and dependable brother. At this point he was probably beyond all hope of repair.

 

“We’ll find him,” Amelia said with an assurance she didn’t feel. She glanced at the Gypsy who sat opposite her. As usual, Merripen showed no expression.

One could be forgiven for assuming Merripen was a man of limited emotions. He was so guarded, in fact, that even after living with the Hathaway family for fifteen years, he still hadn’t told anyone his first name. They had known him simply as Merripen ever since he had been found, battered and unconscious, beside a creek that ran through their property.

When Merripen had awakened to discover himself surrounded by curious Hathaways, he had reacted violently. It had taken their combined efforts to keep him in bed, all of them exclaiming that he would make his injuries worse, he must lie still. Amelia’s father had deduced the boy was the survivor of a Gypsy hunt, a brutal practice in which local landowners rode out on horseback with guns and clubs to rid their properties of Romany encampments.

“The lad was probably left for dead,” Mr. Hathaway had remarked gravely. As a scholarly and forward-thinking gentleman, he had disapproved of violence in any form. “I’m afraid it will be difficult to communicate with his tribe. They are probably long gone by now.”

“May we keep him, Papa?” Amelia’s younger sister Poppy had cried eagerly, no doubt envisioning the wild boy (who had bared his teeth at her like a trapped wolverine) as an entertaining new pet.

Mr. Hathaway had smiled at her. “He may stay as long as he chooses. But I doubt he will remain here longer than a week or so. Romany Gypsies—the Rom, they call themselves—are a nomadic people. They dislike staying under one roof too long. It makes them feel imprisoned.”

However, Merripen had stayed. He had started out as a small and rather slight lad. But with proper care and regular meals, he had grown at a near-alarming rate into a man of robust and powerful proportions. It was difficult to say exactly what Merripen was: not quite a family member, not a servant. Although he worked in various capacities for the Hathaways, acting as a driver and jack-of-all-trades, he also ate at the family table whenever he chose, and occupied a bedroom in the main part of the cottage.

Now that Leo had gone missing and was possibly in danger, there was no question that Merripen would help find him.

It was hardly proper for Amelia to go unaccompanied in the presence of a man like Merripen. But at the age of twenty-six, she considered herself beyond any need of chaperonage.

“We shall begin by eliminating the places Leo would not go,” she said. “Churches, museums, places of higher learning and polite neighborhoods are naturally out of the question.”

“That still leaves most of the city,” Merripen grumbled.

Merripen was not fond of London. In his view, the workings of so-called civilized society were infinitely more barbaric than anything that could be found in nature. Given a choice between spending an hour in a pen of wild boars or a drawing-room of elegant company, he would have chosen the boars without hesitation.

“We should probably start with taverns,” Amelia continued.

Merripen gave her a dark glance. “Do you know how many taverns there are in London?”

“No, but I’m certain I will by the time the night is out.”

“We’re not going to start with taverns. We’ll go where Leo is likely to find the most trouble.”

“And that would be?”

“Jenner’s.”

Jenner’s was an infamous gaming club where gentlemen went to behave in ungentlemanly ways. Originally founded by an ex-boxer named Ivo Jenner, the club had changed hands upon his death, and was now owned by his son-in-law, Lord St. Vincent. The less-than-sterling reputation of St. Vincent had only enhanced the club’s allure.

A membership at Jenner’s cost a fortune. Naturally Leo had insisted on joining immediately upon inheriting his title three months ago.

“If you intend to drink yourself to death,” Amelia had told Leo calmly, “I wish you would do it at a more affordable place.”

“But I’m a viscount now,” Leo had replied nonchalantly. “I have to do it with style, or what will people say?”

“That you were a wastrel and a fool, and the title might just as well have gone to a monkey?”

That had elicited a grin from her handsome brother. “I’m sure that comparison is quite unfair to the monkey.”

Turning cold with increasing worry, Amelia pressed her gloved fingers to the aching surface of her forehead. This wasn’t the first time Leo had ever disappeared, but it was definitely the longest. “I’ve never been inside a gaming club before. It will be a novel experience.”

“They won’t let you inside. You’re a lady. And even if they did allow it, I wouldn’t.”

Lowering her hand, Amelia glanced at him in surprise. It was rare that Merripen forbade her to do anything. In fact, this may have been the first time. She found it annoying. Considering her brother’s life might be at stake, she was hardly going to quibble over social niceties. Besides, she was curious to see what was inside the privileged masculine retreat. As long as she was doomed to remain a spinster, she might as well enjoy the small freedoms that came with it.

“Neither will they let you inside,” she pointed out. “You’re a Roma.”

“As it happens, the manager of the club is also a Roma.”

That was unusual. Extraordinary, even. Gypsies were known as thieves and tricksters. For one of the Rom to be entrusted with the accounting of cash and credit, not to mention arbitrating controversies at the gambling tables, was nothing short of amazing. “He must be a rather remarkable individual to have assumed such a position,” Amelia said. “Very well, I will allow you to accompany me inside Jenner’s. It’s possible your presence will induce him to be more forthcoming.”

“Thank you.” Merripen’s voice was so dry one could have struck a match off it.

Amelia remained strategically silent as he drove the covered brougham through the highest concentration of attractions, shops and theaters in the city. The poorly sprung carriage bounced with abandon along the wide thoroughfares, passing handsome squares lined with columned houses and tidily fenced greens, and Georgian-fronted buildings. As the streets became more lavish, the brick walls gave way to stucco, which soon gave way to stone.

The West End scenery was unfamiliar to Amelia. Despite the proximity of their village, the Hathaways didn’t often venture into town, certainly not to this area. Even now with their recent inheritance, there was little they could afford here.

Glancing at Merripen, Amelia wondered why he seemed to know exactly where they were going, when he was no more acquainted with town than she. But Merripen had an instinct for finding his way anywhere.

They turned onto King Street, which was ablaze with light shed from gas lamps. It was noisy and busy, congested with vehicles and groups of pedestrians setting out for the evening’s entertainment. The sky glowed dull red as the remaining light percolated through the haze of coal smoke. Crowns of lofty buildings broke the horizon, rows of dark shapes protruding like witches’ teeth.

Merripen guided the horse to a narrow alley of mews behind a great stone-fronted building. Jenner’s. Amelia’s stomach tightened. It was probably too much to ask that her brother would be found safely here, in the first place they looked.

“Merripen?” Her voice was strained.

“Yes?”

“You should probably know that if my brother hasn’t already managed to kill himself, I plan to shoot him when we find him.”

“I’ll hand you the pistol.”

Amelia smiled and straightened her bonnet. “Let’s go inside. And remember—I’ll do the talking.”

An objectionable odor filled the alley, a city-smell of animals and refuse and coal dust. In the absence of a good rain, filth accumulated quickly in the streets and tributaries. Descending to the soiled ground, Amelia hopped out of the path of squeaking rats that ran alongside the wall of the building.

As Merripen gave the ribbons to a stableman at the mews, Amelia glanced toward the end of the alley.

A pair of street youths crouched near a tiny fire, roasting something on sticks. Amelia did not want to speculate on the nature of the objects being heated. Her attention moved to a group—three men and a woman—illuminated in the uncertain blaze. It appeared two of the men were engaged in fisticuffs. However, they were so inebriated that their contest looked like a performance of dancing bears.

The woman’s gown was made of gaudily colored fabric, the bodice gaping to reveal the plump hills of her breasts. She seemed amused by the spectacle of two men battling over her, while a third attempted to break up the fracas.

“’Ere now, my fine jacks,” the woman called out in a cockney accent, “I said I’d take ye both on—no need for a cockfight!”

“Stay back,” Merripen murmured.

Pretending not to hear, Amelia drew closer for a better view. It wasn’t the sight of the brawl that was so interesting—even their village, peaceful little Primrose Place, had its share of fist fights. All men, no matter what their situation, occasionally succumbed to their lower natures. What attracted Amelia’s notice was the third man, the would-be peacemaker, as he darted between the drunken fools and attempted to reason with them.

He was every bit as well-dressed as the gentlemen on either side . . . but it was obvious this man was no gentleman. He was black-haired and swarthy and exotic. And he moved with the swift grace of a cat, easily avoiding the swipes and lunges of his opponents.

“My lords,” he was saying in a reasonable tone, sounding relaxed even as he blocked a heavy fist with his forearm. “I’m afraid you’ll both have to stop this now, or I’ll be forced to—” He broke off and dodged to the side just as the man behind him leapt.

The prostitute cackled at the sight. “They got you on the ‘op tonight, Rohan,” she exclaimed.

Dodging back into the fray, Rohan attempted to break it up once more. “My lords, surely you must know—” He ducked beneath the swift arc of a fist,“—that violence—” He blocked a right hook, “—never solves anything.”

“Bugger you!” one of the men said, and butted forward like a deranged goat.

Rohan stepped aside and allowed him to charge straight into the side of the building. The attacker collapsed with a groan and lay gasping on the ground.

His opponent’s reaction was singularly ungrateful. Instead of thanking the dark-haired man for putting a stop to the fight, he growled, “Curse you for interfering, Rohan! I would’ve knocked the stuffing from him!” He charged forth with his fists churning like windmill blades.

Rohan evaded a left cross and deftly flipped him to the ground. He stood over the prone figure, blotting his forehead with his sleeve. “Had enough?” he asked pleasantly. “Yes? Good. Please allow me to help you to your feet, my lord.” As Rohan pulled the man upward, he glanced toward the threshold of a door that led into the club, where a club employee waited. “Dawson, escort Lord Latimer to his carriage out front. I’ll take Lord Selway.”

“No need,” said the aristocrat who had just struggled to his feet, sounding winded. “I can walk to my own bloody carriage.” Tugging his clothes back into place over his bulky form, he threw the dark-haired man an anxious glance. “Rohan, I will have your word on something.”

“Yes, my lord?”

“If word of this gets out—if Lady Selway should discover that I was fighting over the favors of a fallen woman—my life won’t be worth a farthing.”

Rohan replied with reassuring calm. “She’ll never know, my lord.”

“She knows everything,” Selway said. “She’s in league with the devil. If you are ever questioned about this minor altercation . . .”

“It was caused by a particularly vicious game of whist,” came the bland reply.

“Yes. Yes. Good man.” Selway patted the younger man on the shoulder. “And to put a seal on your silence—” He reached a beefy hand inside his waistcoat and extracted a small bag.

“No, my lord.” Rohan stepped back with a firm shake of his head, his shiny black hair flying with the movement and settling back into place. “There’s no price for my silence.”

“Take it,” the aristocrat insisted.

“I can’t, my lord.”

“It’s yours.” The bag of coins was tossed to the ground, landing at Rohan’s feet with a metallic thud. “There. Whether you choose to leave it lying on the street or not is entirely your choice.”

As the gentleman left, Rohan stared at the bag as if it were a dead rodent. “I don’t want it,” he muttered to no one in particular.

“I’ll take it,” the prostitute said, sauntering over to him. She scooped up the bag and tested its heft in her palm. A taunting grin split her face. “Gor’, I’ve never seen a Gypsy what’s afraid o’ blunt.”

“I’m not afraid of it,” Rohan said sourly. “I just don’t need it.” Sighing, he rubbed the back of his neck with one hand.

She laughed at him and slid an openly appreciative glance over his lean form. “I ‘ates to take something for noffing. Care for a little knock in the alley before I goes back to Bradshaw’s?”

“I appreciate the offer,” he said politely, “but no.”

She hitched a shoulder in a playful half-shrug. “Less work for me, then. Good evenin’.”

Rohan responded with a short nod, seeming to contemplate a spot on the ground with undue concentration. He was very still, seeming to listen for some nearly imperceptible sound. Lifting a hand to the back of his neck again, he rubbed it as if to soothe a warning prickle. Slowly he turned and looked directly at Amelia.

A little shock went through her as their gazes met. Although they were standing several yards apart, she felt the full force of his notice. His expression was not tempered by warmth or kindness. In fact, he looked pitiless, as if he had long ago found the world to be an uncaring place and had decided to accept it on its own terms.

As his detached gaze swept over her, Amelia knew exactly what he was seeing : a woman dressed in serviceable clothes and practical shoes. She was fair-skinned and dark-haired, of medium height, with the rosy-cheeked wholesomeness common to the Hathaways. Her figure was sturdy and voluptuous, when the fashion was to be reed-slim and wan and fragile.

Without vanity, Amelia knew that although she wasn’t a great beauty, she was sufficiently attractive to have caught a husband. But she had risked her heart once, with disastrous consequences. She had no desire to try it again. And God knew she was busy enough trying to manage the rest of the Hathaways.

Rohan looked away from her. Without a word or a nod of acknowledgment, he walked to the back entrance of the club. His pace was unhurried, as if he were giving himself time to think about something. There was a distinctive ease in his movements. His strides didn’t measure out distance so much as flow over it like water.

Amelia reached the doorstep at the same time he did. “Sir—Mr. Rohan—I presume you are the manager of the club.”

Rohan stopped and turned to face her. They were standing close enough for Amelia to detect the scents of male exertion and warm skin. His unfastened waistcoat, made of luxurious gray brocade, hung open at the sides to reveal a thin white linen shirt beneath. As Rohan moved to button the waistcoat, Amelia saw a quantity of gold rings on his fingers. A ripple of nervousness went through her, leaving an unfamiliar heat in its wake. Her corset felt too tight, her high-necked collar constricting.

Flushing, she brought herself to stare at him directly. He was a young man, not yet thirty, with the countenance of an exotic angel. This face had definitely been created for sin . . . the brooding mouth, the angular jaw, the golden-hazel eyes shaded by long straight lashes. His hair needed cutting, the heavy black locks curling slightly over the back of his collar. Amelia’s throat cinched around a quick breath as she saw the glitter of a diamond in his ear.

He accorded her a precise bow. “At your service, Miss . . .”

“Hathaway,” she said precisely. She turned to indicate her companion, who had come to stand at her left. “And this is my companion, Merripen.”

Rohan glanced at him alertly. “The Romany word for ‘life’ and also ‘death’.”

Was that what Merripen’s name meant? Surprised, Amelia looked up at him. Merripen gave a slight shrug to indicate it was of no importance. She turned back to Rohan. “Sir, we’ve come to ask you a question or two regarding—”

“I don’t like questions.”

“I am looking for my brother, Lord Ramsay,” she continued doggedly, “and I desperately need any information you may possess as to his whereabouts.”

“I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew.” His accent was a subtle mixture of foreignness and cockney, and even a hint of upper class. It was the voice of a man who kept company with an unusual assortment of people.

“I assure you, sir, I wouldn’t put myself nor anyone else to the trouble, were it not absolutely necessary. But this is the third day since my brother has gone missing—”

“Not my problem.” Rohan turned toward the door.

“—he tends to fall in with bad company—”

“That’s unfortunate.”

“—he could be dead by now.”

This excerpt is reprinted courtesy of the She Loves Hot Reads website.

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