The Bareknuckle Groom – Holly Bush

James Thompson eyed the dainty brunette and the others as they approached him. She was dressed in festive colors with matching ribbons, sparkling up at him, her lashes fluttering, her cheeks pink. He was at some infernal gathering, one of many that the Pendergast family hosted, being a prominent Philadelphia family, though not as snobby and stuck on themselves as he’d expected when his sister Elspeth had first taken an interest in her husband, Alexander Pendergast. But the guests at their parties were exactly the kind of people James expected them to be, including the brunette, the two men on either side of her, one of them puffing out his chest, and certainly the tall blond goddess with the wide pink lips and pale blue eyes. She looked at him as if he were the lowliest of the low, barely a servant, one of the unwashed, or even a beggar. He did not know how a woman could convey so much disdain for a person with a smile, but this woman did exactly that. And he had plenty of experience with women. He loved women, and they loved him. It mattered little if they were tall or short or brunette or red-headed or coltishly thin or buxom. He loved them all. But those women were young widows or ones he met at the clubs he frequented or just women working at one of the many factories and offices in Philadelphia, his home since the age of eleven, when he’d come from Scotland with his family. They were definitely not the women at this party. A quick toss with any of these women would not happen, and if it did, exile to some remote location would be expected shortly thereafter or worse, marriage. Alexander and Elspeth joined the group, and his sister kissed his cheek. “Thank you for coming, James.

” He smiled down at her. She was the very picture of happiness and health, bright-eyed, blushing, and pretty, dressed as if she were royalty. Her husband gazed at her and patted her hand where it lay on his arm. He doted on her, and James was glad of it. Being the middle child in a large family, and the first to marry and leave the nest, could be daunting. She’d also been the victim of violence. Elspeth deserved Alexander’s adulation. “I was telling my friends that you’re a famous boxer, Mr. Thompson,” the brunette tittered. “Let me introduce you, James,” Alexander said, nodding to the brunette.

“Miss Gladys Bartholomew, Mr. John Williams, Mr. Alfred Dundermore, and Miss Lucinda Vermeal, or should I say Mademoiselle de Vermeal?” Alex said and turned to James. “Mr. James Thompson. My lovely bride’s eldest brother.” James nodded to the two women and shook the hands of the men. John Williams folded his arms across his chest. “I’ve always been told that these bareknuckle matches are a setup, just theater, with a winner determined ahead of the match.” Alexander chuckled.

“Hardly, John. You’ll have to come with me the next time James is fighting. It’s quite real and still very entertaining.” “That sounds fair enough,” Williams said and looked at Dundermore. “Will you join us if we go? Could be an interesting evening.” Dundermore yawned against the back of his hand. “I can’t see how that would be very interesting. And anyway, I’m usually busy at the Philadelphia Historical Club since my father has been the president these last five years. I rarely have time for frivolity.” James smirked and stared at Dundermore until the man looked away.

He turned to Williams. “I make sure Alexander and his father have tickets for my bouts. I can easily get one for you as well, if you’re interested.” “May I come too?” Gladys asked and leaned toward him. “I don’t think you’d like it,” Elspeth said, shaking her head. “I saw him fight once, and that was enough!” “Women aren’t welcome by the crowds that pay to see a match, and I don’t think it would be safe, Miss Bartholomew.” He smiled at her. “I couldn’t just step out of the ring if there was some unruly man bothering you, now could I?” “Oh,” she said with a giggle and waved her red-and-white striped fan in front of her face. “I suppose not.” The ice-cold one, Miss Vermeal, in her pale blue silk dress, with diamonds at her ears, wrists, and neck, checked herself before she rolled her eyes at Miss Bartholomew, but James saw her smirk even if it was not visible to others.

Her eyes were revealing, he thought as she turned to look at him, as if she knew he saw her subtlety and didn’t care. He was of little value and certainly of no consequence. He would like to show her his consequence, he thought, the bawdy comment ringing in his head. He could not deny that she was alluring. “Would you care to dance, Miss Bartholomew?” Williams asked. The woman cast a coy glance at James before turning to Williams with a smile and fluttering lashes. “It would be my honor, Mr. Williams.” “Mrs. Pendergast,” Dundermore intoned.

“With your husband’s permission, would you be so kind as to grace me with your hand for the dance floor?” James caught Alexander’s pursed lips and raised brows and hid a smile. As if Alexander could stop Elspeth, or any of his sisters, if they really wanted to do something. Alexander would have said just that when Elspeth replied. “Certainly, Mr. Dundermore. I am very interested to hear of your work with the Philadelphia Historical Society.” “Excellent, Mrs. Pendergast,” he said and winged his arm to her. “You’ll have to tell me how you and your worthy husband met.” James laughed as the couple walked to the dance floor, thinking of the day that Alexander and Elspeth had met in front of the whorehouse near Mrs.

Fendale’s hat shop. He belatedly realized that it was just he, Alexander, and Miss Vermeal still standing together. She was gazing serenely at the dancers as they took their places for a waltz. Alexander was gesturing to the dance floor, intending, it seemed, to partner with her when Graham, the Pendergast head of security, stepped between him and Miss Vermeal. “Ah, pardon me,” Alexander said. “Duty calls.” James watched Alexander walk away and blew out a breath. “Well, I suppose that means you are stuck dancing with me.” Miss Vermeal did not turn her head. “Or we could casually step away from each other, thereby negating the necessity for either of us to feel any obligation.

” “What if I want to dance with you because you are a beautiful woman who I’d like to hold in my arms, even if it is in the very public setting of this dance floor?” She glanced at him with no expression on her face or in those pale blue eyes. “You’ve said that word, beautiful, based on a fallacious belief. Do you know what that word means? Fallacious? Would you like me to explain it to you?” James stepped close to her and touched her elbow. “There is no mistaken belief in the idea that you are beautiful. You are.” “The mistaken belief is that you think I care for your compliments or good opinion, Mr. Thompson.” He smiled at her and waited until her eyes drifted away from his. “Dance with me, Miss Vermeal.” She huffed a little breath of annoyance.

“I suppose I must as you’ve been holding my arm for several moments and others are beginning to notice.” She moved away from his hand, turned, and walked toward the dance floor. She glanced over her shoulder. “Mr. Thompson,” she said loudly enough that several heads turned. “Do you no longer wish to dance with me, sir?” James Thompson smiled at her, just one side of that full mouth of his lifting up, revealing deep dimples and a small chip on the corner of his front tooth. It was a devastating smile, she thought, and men smiled at her all the time and she was rarely, if ever, affected. He was not as easily manipulated as she was accustomed to, but then she’d never known a boxer before. How gauche! It was if she were dancing with Laurent, the Vermeal butler! Thompson slid a hand around her waist and grasped her hand with his—calloused, strong, and large. She laid her palm on his shoulder and felt muscles bunch under her fingers.

It was a wonder his finely made jacket did not split its seams. She was used to an entirely different sort of man. Her father was tall and slender, still handsome, even though he’d been a widower for nearly twenty years. All the men she’d known in Virginia before her father had moved them to Philadelphia earlier in the year were the same. They were property owners and intellectuals, well-bred and mannered, certainly not working men. But even so, her father felt Philadelphia was more properly able to introduce his only daughter to a higher and more sophisticated society than what Virginia had been able to. He was sure his gem, his diamond, would be admired and courted and much sought after in the city of brotherly love. And she was! She was courted and admired until she was bored to tears. There was nothing authentic about her swains’ regard; she was a pretty—some said beautiful—prize with scads of money and a family history of French royalty and influencers. She knew exactly what they were after: aligning themselves with Henri Vermeal, his tobacco money, and his vast properties in America and Europe.

This man, this James Thompson, she said to herself, was nothing like any of the other men she knew, probably because they didn’t go around smashing their fists into another man’s nose to support themselves. But there was another difference. He was focused on her in a way she was unaccustomed to. His eyes had not left her face, his intense gaze slightly mocking. Even the chipped tooth and the stitch-mark scar she could see near his mouth, as she was close enough now to notice, did not detract from how handsome he was. In fact, his beauty was enhanced by those imperfections, turning a perfect face into a wildly attractive one. She felt a little breathless. A little overwhelmed. Not that she’d allow this ruffian to know he’d unnerved her. The music began, and he pulled her closer than was proper as they made the first turn.

“A little more distance between us, Mr. Thompson.” “Not playing the mistreated innocent now, are we?” he said, smiling and taking the sting out of his comment. He raised the pitch of his voice to mock her. “Do you no longer wish to dance with me, sir?” He looked at her directly, raising his brows. She had no excuse for playing the maligned young woman other than to put him in his rightful place, which was not holding her this closely in his well-muscled arms. “Careful, Mr. Thompson. High society isn’t a place you can just go about punching people that you don’t like. It calls for a degree of subtlety.

” He barked a laugh, making her feel as if she might enjoy his brand of happiness, if it didn’t make her breathless, as it did now. He pulled his hand holding hers to his eyes, wiping away his tears on the back of his knuckles. It was a startling intimacy. She stared at their joined hands for a moment before bringing her eyes back to his. There was a lazy confidence there that she did not care for, although she was certain there was little she could say or do to change it. “I hear a bit of the south in your speech, Miss Vermeal. Are you new to Philadelphia?” “I am, Mr. Thompson. My father moved us from Virginia last spring.” “Business interests?” “Some,” she replied.

“Mostly, he wanted me to benefit from the more formal society that Philadelphia had to offer, although as I’m dancing a waltz with a common street fighter, it seems his hopes were not fulfilled.” His eyes narrowed, and his lips thinned. A hit, she thought triumphantly. “I am not a street fighter, miss. I’m a boxer. There’s a difference.” “Really? How strange. I thought both occupations, if you could call them that, involved bloodying another’s face so the riffraff had something to entertain them and spend their coins on instead of on food for their families.” He whirled her through a series of quick turns, weaving in and out of other couples. She did not miss a step, and when he finally slowed, she raised her brows at him.

“Why, Miss Vermeal, it’s almost as if you intend for me to judge you as a snob. Perhaps you’d like to share some of those glittering diamonds around that long white neck of yours with the poor wives waiting at home for their men to bring home bread when they’ve wasted all of their coins on a fight.” “Gambling is always a waste, Mr. Thompson.” He hitched up the side of his mouth. “Not true. When the riffraff bet on me, they’re always the winner. I don’t lose.” The music stopped, and he continued to hold her, even as others left the dance floor. “May I escort you to your family?” “No,” she said and removed her hand from his shoulder and her other from his grip.

“I can find my own way, Mr. Thompson. You are quite superfluous.” Thompson shoved his hands into his pants pockets, quite an ungentlemanly thing to do, and smiled at her. He was, she thought as she turned away, the most handsome man she’d ever seen.

.

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