“Move, you fool!” Had the Marquis of Braithwaite not been deep in thought, he would have heard the warning. Instead, Nicholas’s reaction was delayed, and seconds later he was travelling sideways at speed. He came to an abrupt halt against the side of a building. His grunt was one of pain as his shoulder hit the unforgiving wood. A soft body pressed into his, and his arms had closed around her to brace them for the impact. “A-Are you all right, madam?” Nicholas knew she was female because he could feel her breasts crushed to his chest. Her scent was also soft and definitely feminine. A shiver of awareness traveled through him as he set her back on her feet. “I-I am.” “May I ask as to why you felt the need to propel me sideways in such a manner? Had you wanted an introduction, a simple hello would have sufficed.” Nicholas had received plenty of overtures from women, but never had they thrown themselves at him, literally. “I didn’t want an introduction! I was saving your life, you fool.” The day was a bleak one, so visibility was not good, but added to that her bonnet obscured a great deal of her face, and Nicholas had no idea what the woman looked like. “If I may?” He reached over and tugged the left side, righting it. “Thank you.
” “I’m sorry if you believed my life was in danger, madam, but I assure you it was not. Also, I am rarely if ever, a fool.” “I don’t care to know if you are a fool or not, only that I have no wish to witness your demise right before my eyes.” “I beg your pardon?” Nicholas leaned closer, attempting to see her eyes. Perhaps she was addled, and if so, who looked after her? Glancing about, he saw no one nearby. “There,” she turned and jabbed a finger behind her, “is a large hole in the ground that you were heading directly for. Had I not intervened, you would have likely broken your neck, sir.” Nicholas looked around the woman and saw the hole a few feet away. “Good lord.” “Indeed.
” “I wonder who the idiot was who left that open?” “Some fool who should have known better is my belief.” Her voice was quite deep for a woman, almost growly like his niece Meredith, who was just starting to understand how her lungs functioned. “It seems I owe you my gratitude, madam. I would have indeed been injured had I fallen through it.” “Yes, well, it is done. Perhaps in future you should show more awareness of your surroundings, sir. London is not a place to be distracted; there are any number of hazards about the place.” “You are right, and I shall endeavor to be more observant.” He had no idea the color of her hair, but her eyebrows were dark. Moving closer, he felt a jolt of awareness as he looked into her green eyes.
He knew quite a few people with just such a color, but this was something more… a recognition. They were set in a heart-shaped face, with pale skin and a nose that may be a touch too long on her, but he couldn’t be sure in this light… or lack thereof. Her lips formed a thin straight line of displeasure, no doubt for his behavior, so he had no idea of their shape either. In short, she was an interesting-looking woman. Nicholas would even say captivating but he couldn’t be certain without the benefit of more light. But what he was sure of was that he had seen her before. “May I have your name, madam?” “Of course you can’t! I don’t just give my name to anyone in such a willy-nilly fashion.” “Willy-nilly fashion?” “You understand my meaning, sir. Good evening to you.” She started to walk away.
“Wait.” “What?” She turned slightly to look at him over a shoulder. “Surely you should not be walking about in such a place at such a time of day. Where are your attendants?” Nicholas had a sister and would not want her in a location like this alone. Of course, her large, protective husband would not allow it either. “About.” She waved her hand in a circle but no direction. “And the hour is not overly late; darkness has not fallen completely. As you know, this horrid place loses the sun”— she looked upward—“or what there is of it at an early hour. Now I must leave or they shall grow concerned.
” “It does not usually lose the sun early in the summer months, however today is bleak and disagreeable.” Nicholas wasn’t sure why he was defending the weather. But he didn’t want her to walk away from him. In fact, he felt a desperate need to keep her close, which was odd. Nicholas rarely felt desperate emotions any longer, at least not since he was sober. Before that he’d pretty much been desperate for a drink at most times of the day and night. “I’m sure you’re right. Now, as I stated, I must leave as they will grow concerned.” “They?” She was a woman of good birth, he’d lay money down on that fact, but as he no longer gambled it would be figuratively. Perhaps she was a governess? Her cloak was thick black velvet, and the bonnet the same.
Her voice was not dissimilar to his sister’s, the daughter of a marquis who was now married to a nobleman. Where have I seen this woman before? “It is not safe,” he said, closing the distance between them again. He held her arm. “I shall see you to your carriage.” “That will not be necessary. I am more than capable of making my way to it myself.” He’d deliberately referred to a carriage, and she had not refuted his words. She was definitely from a noble family. “Good day to you, sir.” She pulled free and moved a few paces away from him before stopping.
Nicholas watched as she tilted her head slightly like he had seen dogs do when they heard a particular pitch. He could hear nothing. She turned back to face him, then closed the distance between them once more. “We must hurry, some men are coming. They said they saw you walk this way.” Her words were whispered. “You are in grave danger.” “What?” Nicholas had excellent hearing. “I hear nothing.” “Trust me, sir, your life is in danger.
Make haste.” She followed those words with a finger poke to his chest. “Look.” He used a gentle tone. Perhaps she was addled in the head? This thought had him even more concerned that she was out here alone. “There really is no need to worry about me. I assure you I am quite able to care for myself and have been doing so for years.” Perhaps not that well for a while there, but he was doing better these days . “Now let me take you to your carriage… please.” “Yes, I can see how well that was going for you as you nearly fell to your death in that hole.
” “I was preoccupied.” She made a small hissing sound that Nicholas had no idea how to interpret. “These men will rob you and likely slit your throat. Plus, I have already saved you, so you should trust me.” “I don’t trust on such a brief acquaintance.” He’d learned that lesson the hard way many times. She grabbed the lapels of his jacket and tugged them hard. “You’re in danger, you fool!” “I believe I told you I am no fool.” Addled she may be, but he wasn’t taking her insults. “I implore you to put your ego aside momentarily and move your feet… quickly,” she added, looking left.
“These men will not care a jot if they injure you or worse whilst stealing everything you have on your person!” “I hear nothing,” he said again. “And this is not about ego, I assure you, madam.” “You owe me for saving your life, now move it.” The finger jabbed him again. She certainly didn’t seem addled, and yet he knew some who hid it well. “Oh, very well.” Nicholas decided to humor her. Then he would see her safely to the home she lived in, surely under the care of someone. Taking her hand, he tugged her with him down the road until he found a small opening between buildings. “Come along, we shall stay in here until they are gone.
” She was likely harmless, so a few minutes longer in her company would not hurt. It saddened him that she was out here alone, obviously lost or strayed from her caregiver. “Oh, but they are not after me.” “You are alone, and if there are two men approaching, that sounds to me like it could present danger to you also. Now be quiet.” He played along. “In here,” he whispered. He’d give her a few minutes of his time. Perhaps it was a game she played often? “Sssh,” she hissed. Nicholas nudged her into the small space and followed.
“I don’t like small spaces,” she whispered furiously. “I’m not entirely fond of them myself, but as you insisted we needed to hide—” “You, not me! Sssh, they approach.” He fell silent, aware of the woman beside him. Her breathing had increased to pants, and yet they had not been running. He wondered again at her mental state. “I-I can’t do this.” “Do what?” He leaned over to whisper the words into her ear. “Stay in here.” “Then we shall leave at once.” “No, they are here.
” He turned her to face him. Not easy in such a small, tight space, yet he managed it. She had her eyes clenched shut. “Come now, there is no need to be scared.” Perhaps she was no longer enjoying the game. “Really scared,” she muttered. Nicholas placed a hand on her shoulder to reassure her. “Wh-what are you doing?” “I have no wish to hurt you, just ease your fears. My sister has this problem, and when she was younger, I used to hold her, but of course I will not do that with you. Still, a reassuring pat on the shoulder should help.
” “I am not a dog,” she whispered furiously. “No, they are much more appreciative. Come, enough now, the game is over, we shall leave here.” “They are here!” Her hands grabbed his lapels again, holding them tight. Nicholas was about to move when he heard the voice. “He went this way, Badger. Swear it, I do.” She was right. “You told us to wait, give him a head start, now we’ve lost him!” “Maybe he’s down here. Looked like he’d be plump to pick too.
” She rescued me again. The footsteps faded, and then there was silence. Nicholas became aware of two things in that moment. The first, that this woman had saved his life twice. The second, how good she felt in his arms. Her lovely body was now pressed to his chest, and he held her close, as if instinctively needing to protect her. “’Tis all right now, they have gone,” he whispered in her ear. “Please, I wish to leave this space.” “Thank you,” he said to the top of her head. “You saved my life again.
” He’d thought her in need of his help, and yet the opposite was true. She looked up, and this close he could see every feature of her lovely face. That jolt of awareness traveled through him again, but the memory was still out of his reach. “I must go.” “Yes.” Neither of them moved. Eyes locked, bodies touching, he found it suddenly difficult to breathe. The air around them had changed; it was now charged with tension. “Who are you?” His voice was gruff. She raised a hand and touched his chin, a fleeting brush that had him sucking in a breath.
“Tell me your name,” Nicholas breathed the words against her lips. “A-Alice.” “I’m going to kiss you, Alice.” She didn’t speak as he closed the last few inches between them. He was suddenly desperate to taste her lips. In that moment, he wanted this woman like he had no other. Nicholas had vices. He’d managed to rid himself of a few, but his love of women was not one of them. But this was different… felt different. She tasted like sin, and in seconds he’d forgotten his own name.
“Why did you kiss me?” She pulled back slightly. “I… ah, I have no idea. Why did you touch me?” “I don’t know, I-I just needed to.” “As I needed to kiss you,” he said, lowering his head and taking her mouth beneath his again. She took his kiss, arching into him, seeking more. He didn’t know how long they stood there, only that in this moment nothing but them existed. “Dear lord, what is wrong with me?” She wrenched her mouth from his. “And me,” he managed to rasp out. What the hell was the matter with him, kissing a strange woman like that? He hadn’t even a drop of alcohol in his body to blame for his reckless actions. “M-move at once.
” She placed a hand on his chest and pushed. “Of course.” He shuffled backward, out of the opening. She followed. He felt as if he was waking from a dream… a sensual dream where this woman played the starring role. “Tell me where you live?” He felt a desperate need to know how to locate her. He couldn’t let her leave now, not after what they’d just shared. “I cannot. Good evening.” She brushed past him and hurried away before he could stop her.
Nicholas shook off his shock and followed, but she picked up her skirts and was soon running. In seconds he’d lost her, as she had clearly ducked down one of the lanes he’d passed. Retracing his steps, he looked for her, checking every alley, every object she could hide behind, but it was no good, she was gone. Why did that thought make him feel empty inside? “What the hell just happened?” No one answered him, of course. “Exceedingly strange.” Shaking his head once more, he wondered if it was he who was losing his mind and he’d imagined the entire incident. He pinched his arm, the sting of pain assuring him he wasn’t. Walking away, he vowed silently to find her, his Alice, if it was the last thing he did.