The Redemption of a Rogue – Jess Michaels

It had all been a mistake from the beginning, but there was no changing it now. At least that was what Imogen Huxley kept telling herself as she stumbled down the long, dingy hallway of the Cat’s Companion. The brothel was in the very worst corner of London and yet she’d seen many a very important man haunting its not-so-hallowed halls. As many as in the finer establishments of its ilk. And Imogen had been to them all recently. Or at least it felt like she had. Since her husband’s death, since she realized that Warren had left her with absolutely nothing to her name… Well, what choice did she have but to seek a protector? By any means and at any location necessary. “You gonna stand in the way, luv, or go earn your keep?” The sharp female voice startled her from her thoughts, and Imogen pivoted. It was Maggie Monroe who stood there, hands on her hips, dark eyes barely visible through her smoldering glare. Imogen had met the woman once before, the first time she’d come here. The time she’d sworn she’d never come back. Maggie was abjectly terrifying then and it was no different now. “I-I was just about to go in,” she said, pushing her back against the wall so Maggie could pass her in the narrow hall. She did so, smacking Imogen with her shoulder as she moved. “You’d best forget you’re a lady right quick,” the woman snapped as she continued up the hall.

“If these bastards wanted a lady, they would have stayed home.” Imogen bent her head. She’d been a lady her whole life, daughter of a second son, wife of a third son. It was a sheltered life, she knew that now more than ever. Until it wasn’t. Until she’d been thrown out into the cold. She took a long step toward the door she was meant to pass through. In that room was a man who wished to bed her. If she pleased him, he might take her as his mistress, he might pay for her to have a home and a little allowance. Lying on her back could save her.

“God, I hope he’s at least a good lover,” she murmured, trying not to think about the inexperienced fumblings of the man she’d been with last time she was here. She shuddered as she lifted her hand to open the door. But before she could, there was a shout from behind it. A very drunken shout, indeed. “Where is that bitch?” the voice grunted, and there was a great crash. “I’ll not be made to wait by some poxy whore.” She stepped back away from the door, her heart racing as she flattened to the wall as if she could disappear into it. In that moment, she wished it were true. That she could sprout wings and fly away. There was a second bang from within the chamber, and she shook her head.

“I will not do this,” she whispered, clenching her hands into fists at her sides as she pivoted toward the front exit of the establishment. But up that hallway were a group of loud and very drunk men. They were watching her. Go that way and it was out of the frying pan and potentially into a very bad fire. So she turned the other direction, toward where Maggie had gone a few moments earlier. There were a dozen exits to this place, she knew that from the chatter of the other girls hired to work here on a more permanent basis. Plenty of modes of escape for client and lightskirt alike. Now Imogen just had to find one of them and get out. Find some other means of getting protection. At least her best friend Aurora would be pleased.

She hadn’t wanted Imogen to come back after the last time. Imogen pushed those thoughts aside and scurried up the hall before her intended client burst through the door and simply took what he wanted. She meandered through the halls, turning left, then right, lost in a maze of dark hallways and closed doors. Moans and cries came from behind them, some pleasurable and others that were…not. Her stomach turned and she blinked to clear the tears in her eyes. She needed to be focused now. There was a door ahead, one with a big rusty smokehouse lock that dangled open from the hinge. Those locks were often used to protect the outside doors, and Imogen gasped in relief as she pushed the door open. But what she found wasn’t escape but a staircase that led to a little courtyard one floor below, closed in by the building’s walls. It wasn’t a pretty garden, though, but a dirty bricked-in place, smelling of piss and garbage and despair.

She moved forward to look down into the square, hoping to find some direct exit onto the street. There would be hacks there, waiting for the customers to leave. She had just enough blunt stuffed in her slipper to get home. And then she’d have to work out what to do next. Her fingers closed around the rusty metal railing, and she looked down into the abyss. To her surprise, there were people down there. Maggie, from the looks of it, and two men with her. They were talking, not overly loudly, but the closed-in walls made the sound bounce back up toward Imogen. “Wrap her up in the damned carpet!” Maggie was snarling, pointing toward something at her feet. When she moved, Imogen gasped.

A woman laid there on the dirty brick, unmoving, blonde hair fanned out around her, her body twisted at an unnatural angle. Dead. Imogen realized in a horrible flush of a moment that she was dead. “Shut your whore mouth, Maggie,” one of the men said. “I’m a bloody earl—I don’t work for you.” “You’re an earl who just killed one of my best girls,” Maggie snapped back. “I swear, Roddenbury, you can’t keep doing this just because they don’t please you. Now help Charlie. We can have her in the river before sunrise and that will end that.” Imogen’s hand came up to cover her mouth as the full realization of what had happened dawned on her confused and horrified mind.

Roddenbury…an earl…a friend of her late husband…had murdered one of Maggie’s girls, and they were working to not only cover up that fact, but dispose of her body before anyone else knew. Imogen’s breath was coming sharper and harder as the truth of this matter washed over her. She needed to get out of here. Before they saw her. Before she joined that poor girl in the carpet. Bile lifted in her throat, and she swallowed hard to keep it down as she pivoted to go back into the bawdy house and find another escape route. As she did so, she staggered and her fist hit the door with a clang that echoed through the courtyard as surely as the voices below had. She froze in horror and then looked back over her shoulder. All three faces were turned up toward her from below. Maggie, Roddenbury and a huge hulk of a man she now recognized as the door guard.

“You there!” Maggie called up. “Stop!” But Imogen didn’t stop. She tore the heavy door open and ran. * * * Oscar Fitzhugh sat in his carriage in the alleyway behind the Cat’s Companion, staring up at the imposing building. His hands clenched against his thighs as he struggled to rein in the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. It was the same any time he came to this place. Anger. Grief. Bitterness. But mostly guilt.

He came here and guilt washed over him. “You should have done bloody better,” he muttered. But doing better was why he was here, wasn’t it? Why he came here once a month, every month. Why he circulated into the crowd and tried to determine facts that would somehow absolve him. Or at least facts that would avenge her. With a sigh, he opened the carriage door and got out. His driver glanced down at him with concern, but Bentley had long ago stopped expressing his uneasiness with this endeavor out loud. “Wait here,” Oscar said. “Yes, Mr. Fitzhugh,” Bentley said softly, his gaze darting away with something suspiciously like pity.

Oscar’s stomach clenched at the sight. No one fucking pitied him. Even when he was pitiable. He stepped forward, ready to make his way through the unlocked back door to the place. He’d been banned from the official entrance months ago. But this entrance allowed him to sneak in and blend in. Another faceless man in a sea of faceless men there to take their pleasure. Take advantage. But before he could open the door, it flew out toward him. He stepped back, just barely missing being cracked in the face, and opened his arms to regain his balance.

Which allowed the woman who had thrown the door wide and now raced from the darkened, smoky hall to collide directly into his chest. Oscar closed his arms around her, a natural reaction to keep them both from depositing themselves on the dirty ground. The moment he did so, she began to thrash, tugging to escape him. He was about to release her when she cried out, “No, please! Don’t! They’ll kill me! Don’t!” He froze at those words. How many months had he come here, searching for some proof that nefarious things were happening within these walls? Dark and desperate things, like murder. And now this slender reed of a woman all but shouted that proof in his face. The extremely beautiful and terrified face now turned up toward his. His heart stuttered at the abject terror reflected in a remarkable pair of amber eyes. Almost like a cat’s, they were so lovely. “What is going on, miss?” he snapped out, perhaps more harshly than he intended thanks to the shock of her crashing into his chest, her wild words and her lovely eyes.

“Please!” she wailed, her voice catching now. “They’re coming! They’re right behind me. You must release me or I’ll never get away.” He heard voices from behind the door, shouts within the walls of the building, and it kicked him from his shock. He grasped her arm and yanked her toward the carriage. She scrambled to escape as he hauled her up and slammed the door shut. “Stop kicking me,” he growled, tugging her even closer and speaking low against her ear. “I am trying to help you.” As he said the words, the door to the club opened and two large men burst out. Oscar leaned closer to the window, but didn’t recognize either of them.

Two of Maggie’s ruffians, it seemed. The woman froze in his arms, trembling as one of them shouted up to his driver, “Did you see a whore come out here?” “Went that way,” Bentley said from above, and the men took off toward the docks. Oscar smiled. He only hired the best. And Bentley would get a nice bonus in his wages this week for that lie. “Please let me go,” the woman said, softly this time, and Oscar realized she was still in his arms, pressed with her back to his chest, her breath coming short and heavy. He loosened his grip on her arms as he said, “Don’t run.” She ignored him and lunged for the door. He sighed heavily and caught her wrist to pull her away from the door as gently as he could. “Please don’t run,” he repeated.

“I’ve no intention of hurting you. As I said, I want to help.” Her struggle ceased, though from the way her body slumped, he felt it was more out of exhaustion than any kind of trust. She slid to the carriage seat across from his and he released her. She stared at him, wary, like a bird being stalked by a cat, and rubbed her wrist. He didn’t think he’d hurt her—he’d been trying very hard not to—but he wondered if she was trying to soothe herself with that touch. “Why were those men chasing you?” he asked. She didn’t respond, but folded her arms and looked longingly toward the door he was blocking. He arched a brow. “Did you steal something?” “No!” she cried out, indignant as she glared at him.

“No, sir!” “Then why were you running?” he repeated, more slowly, more firmly. She shook her head. “Won’t you please let me out?” she asked. “The men are gone, at least for the moment. It will give me time to get a hack and go home.” “That isn’t happening,” he said. “They could return at any moment. You’re clearly in danger, miss, and I am your best hope. Tell me what is going on.” She bent her head, and her breath came sharp and hard in the quiet of the carriage.

Oscar could see she was fighting tears. Winning that fight, though he wasn’t certain that would last long. Every graceful line of her body spoke of her deep fear. It wasn’t an act, it wasn’t a trick. In his line of work, he had long ago learned to spot those. No, this was real. “Please,” he said softly. Her gaze lifted to his, and for a moment their eyes locked. He could see her reading him, analyzing if he could relieve her distress, or if he was just another part of it. Then her eyes darted back to her lap and she whispered, “They…they killed a woman.

I-I saw her body.” His gut clenched, and for a flash of a moment he thought he might cast up his accounts all over the carriage floor. But he drew a deep breath, calmed himself as he’d learned to do over the years, and opened the carriage door. “Bentley, home,” he ordered before he closed them in again. She jerked to the edge of her seat. “No! Sir, please. You cannot take me. You must let me out. Please!” He leaned forward, hating that his presence was as much a fear to this distressed woman as anything else she’d been through that night. But he also knew he couldn’t let her go.

Not under these conditions. “Miss, you are in real trouble, and if I let you out of this carriage, you’ll be in even worse. Let me take you somewhere safe and we can work this out.” “Work it out on my back, you mean?” she snapped, and through the fear he saw a spitfire nature that he would have liked but for the horrific circumstances. “You were here for a purpose, weren’t you? And now you act like some hero come to save me? You are just as dangerous as those men after me for all I know. You’re nothing but a stranger who forced me into a carriage.” He blinked. She had a point at that. He leaned forward and extended a hand. “Mr.

Oscar Fitzhugh at your service, miss. I’m the owner of Fitzhugh’s Club. And while I agree that you have no reason yet to trust me, I do vow to you now that I won’t hurt you. I will try to save your life if you let me.”


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