Undressed with the Marquess – Christi Caldwell

When Lewis Tooley was hanged, to the more merciless crowd’s delight, and to the less hardened people’s horror, the man’s head popped right off. Thomas Winterly wetted himself the moment the bag was draped over his head. Or there was Mrs. Blythe Starwich, who went purple, and whose strangulation was so slow that even the most ruthless gluttons for displays of violence called out for mercy on the half-mad woman’s behalf. Now, having come to terms with these, his final moments, contemplating each of those possible outcomes for his own demise, Dare felt more . a detached curiosity about the end of his life. Unlike the ribald excitement that always filled the gallows on hanging day, there was a surprising quiet to the crowd. A somberness that didn’t fit with the affair. He did a sweep of the thousands assembled, all faces blurring together, a swath of tattered brown fabrics all blended as one into a blanket of sorts comprised of the masses. Tears wetted the coal-smudged cheeks of many of the spectators. It spoke to his ungratefulness, because Dare should be grateful for those tokens, ones that indicated some out there would at least regret his passing. And yet .

they were still the tears of strangers. They’d grieve over the loss of what he represented for the people here. There was one who might grieve, however . and as he looked out, it was her face he sought. The one who, years and years earlier, had urged him to the Devil and said he was dead to her . The guard grunted. “It’s toime, Grey.” He prodded Dare sharply at the center of his back. Dare stumbled and pitched forward, managing to right himself. He steeled his jaw. He’d be damned if anything but that rope knocked him down. Hisses and boos went up amongst the audience. “Free ’im .

” Those two words rolled slowly and quietly through the crowd, but then took on a steady beat until the crowd roared with demands for his freedom. And in the greatest of ironies, his guard shifted uneasily, moving closer to Dare. “Let’s get on with it,” the other guard shouted, his call barely rising above the deafening din. Catching Dare at both arms, they dragged him closer to that dais. He’d lied. He wasn’t at peace. Sweat slicked his palms and coated his frame. Vomit churned in his belly, and he swallowed rapidly to keep from retching before the thousands bearing witness. His gaze skittered frantically. For all the times he’d found himself in Newgate, there’d always been an almost calm understanding that he’d escape.

He’d never made it to his last meal and last rites. And this march. He’d never made this march. He choked on his bile, grateful for the near pandemonium that allowed him that smallest dignity. His stare landed on a gleeful face amidst the crowd. There was a vague familiarity to the stranger. And yet, for as many as Dare had helped, there’d been triple those whom he’d been unable to. Men and women he’d turned away. Or gang leaders whom he’d foiled. The man grabbed himself crudely.

“Deserve it, ya do . ” That triumphant spectator’s mouth moved, his words clear, even as they were silent amidst the pandemonium. Yes, there were those who’d relish his death. Dare’s legs knocked against the bottom step leading up to the dais. And the panic that had pounded like a drum within retreated and faded, leaving him numb once more. This was what the end was, then. Terror, ebbing and flowing like the tides rushing in and then out. Dougal, the burlier of the guards, grunted. “It is time to get on with it. Ain’t no one comin’ for ye this time.

” A faint hint of regret tinged that announcement. But then, in the thirteen times Dare had landed himself in Newgate for robbing some nob to give to the poor, he’d come to know many of the guards. Those same men had often helped coordinate the bribe which had seen Dare freed. This time, however, there’d be no escape. That reality did not erase Dare’s gratitude for what this guard, and others, had done in his past. He briefly held the other man’s gaze and nodded. “Thank you.” For all the other men had done before this moment. The guard gave the slightest, most imperceptible of nods that, had Dare not been studying him so closely, he would have missed. And oddly, that grounded him.

It gave him the courage and strength to place his foot on the first step. Nor did he believe his march, different from the customary shorter one, was anything but deliberate. No, everyone from the constables on down to the magistrate was making a pointed example of him. Dare made a slow climb up the last ten stairs he’d ever ascend. And then he reached the top of the dais. Drawing in a slow, steadying breath, he stared out at the sea of strangers below. Men, women, and children who’d have no one fighting for their justice and their survival. People there to be exploited. So much work left undone. And he proved very much the bastard Temperance had called him out as .

because he found himself thinking of just one: her. I wanted forever with you, Dare . but I’m not your first love. Your first love will always be your thieving ways . and I cannot—will not—be around when you finally fall . His throat jumped. She’d been right. She’d always been right about so much. Always honorable, Temperance had certainly been too good for the likes of him. But I wanted her anyway .

He closed his eyes, letting the crowd melt from his mind, wanting her face to be the last he saw. Not as she’d been the last time he’d seen her, but before that. Back when there was her laughter and his, melded together, as harmonious in their joy as they had been in making love— The guard jabbed him hard in the back, bringing the reverie to an end and Dare’s eyes flying open. A third guard stepped forward with a burlap sack in hand. In one fluid movement, the man shoved it over Dare’s head. Dare sucked in a breath as he was swallowed by darkness. No. A rope dropped about his neck. Terror plucked at the very edge of his consciousness, and he clenched and unclenched his bound hands, wanting to rip at that weighted cord about him. And then came the strangest of occurrences.

Silence. An eerie wave of it rolled through the crowd, punctuated by the periodic wail of a small child. And he found himself longing for the noise. The one that would keep the world from hearing the hammering of his heart or the ragged, frantic breaths he sucked in through lungs that were too tight. I’m not ready . “In the name of the king . ” The king . That monarch who’d never cared about his people. Not the ones who’d most needed his care. Rage swept through Dare, and he welcomed the white-hot rush of it.

He opened his mouth and shouted into the quiet, “Fuck the king!” Cheers erupted, a wild, raucous bellowing of approval so thunderous it dimmed the frantic discussion taking place amongst his guards. “In the name of the king”—that voice at his back shouted once more—“you are hereby ordered to cease . ” I don’t want to die . I don’t want to die . I don’t want to die . It was a litany that rolled around in Dare’s head. He was grabbed by the arms and lurched forward, all his muscles coiling tight at that violation, and it was all he could do to keep from trying to fight off those men propelling him onward to his death. Nay, he’d not die a coward. Then the enormous weight of the noose was lifted. Through the haze of panic and the adrenaline that pumped in his veins came confusion.

He was dead. There was nothing else for it. “Save ’im . save ’im . save ’im . ” And yet if he were dead, why did the crowds cheer still? Those cries and shouts pealed through the square. Where was the silence death brought? He staggered backward, nearly tripping over his feet at the pace set by his captors. His saviors? It was all confused in this moment. They continued dragging him down the steps . and back still, leading him off.

The din of those who’d assembled at the Old Bailey grew muffled and muted, indicating he’d been drawn away from the gallows. A long while later, those leading Dare abruptly stopped, dragging him to a halt alongside them. KnockKnockKnock. The rusty creak of hinges squealed. Dare was shoved into a room. “Remove that . bag . this instant.” An austere voice in the same clipped English as the king himself cut through the loud silence. Hands were immediately on Dare, struggling with the knot about his neck.

The sack was pulled from him. A blinding blast of light streamed through the glass windowpanes, and he squinted, bringing his hands up in a bid to blunt the bright rays. Perhaps he was dead, after all. And he was here to meet his maker and have his sins laid out before being cast into that fiery hell awaiting him. “And his hands,” that same voice ordered. Dare blinked; slowly his eyes adjusted to the light . and to the group of people assembled before him. The gaoler, Wylie, stood at the center of a trio: an elderly pair who couldn’t be a day younger than their seventieth years, both with canes clutched in their opposite hands. And a finely dressed young woman, who just then wordlessly looked Dare up and down. Dare rubbed at his wrists and assessed this audience of strangers.

Searching his mind and memory for past lords and ladies he’d robbed. And yet . there was nothing familiar about them. Nay, that wasn’t altogether true. His gaze settled on the youngest person there. Dark-haired, tall, and sharp-featured . there was something familiar about the woman. Dare searched his mind but came up empty. Tiring of the silence, he put a question to the one person he was all too acquainted with— Wylie. “Throwing me a party before I meet my maker, are you? That’s not a courtesy I thought I’d see from the likes of you.

” A hard smile ghosted the gaoler’s mouth. “It seems you’ve more lives than a damned cat, Grey.” He waved away the still-hovering guards. As they marched off, befuddled, Dare searched his still-slow-to-process mind for what the ruthless gaoler was saying. The white-haired gentleman limped forward and, holding a quizzing glass up to his eye, studied Dare for a long while. “Hmph,” he grunted, and let the scrap fall. “It’s him.” All the color spilled from the old woman’s cheeks. “My God, it can’t be!” Her mouth trembled. “There must be some mistake,” she cried, those words a plea.

“At least he can speak the King’s English,” the gentleman said, patting her hand. Dare kept his focus on him. “Only when Oi’m really trying.” The fancily clad lady wilted. Collapsing into a nearby chair, she grabbed for one of two gold chains about her neck. Uncorking the vial of smelling salts, she inhaled deeply. “He’s making a jest, Beverly,” the pragmatic lord, clearly the woman’s husband, said. “You remember how he was.” Everything about you is games and fun. You’ve no sense of responsibility .

no sense of understanding of what you’ll one day inherit . That voice came from a distance, an echo of long ago, words forgotten . buried away. The old man motioned once more to Dare, pulling him back from the past. “He spoke perfectly just moments ago. He’s merely trying to get a rise out of us.” Dare rubbed at his wrists to restore the flow of blood. All the while he eyed the gathering, this group of people who had knowledge of him. “Who the hell are you?” Dare put that to the leader of the little trio. Wylie opened his mouth to speak, but the commanding lord silenced him with a single finger.

“Leave us.” “You don’t want to be alone with the likes of Grey.” The gentleman thumped his cane. “I said, leave us.” And it was a testament to the man’s rank, power, and influence that he managed not only to silence Wylie but also to have the ruthless warden quit the room. Dare’s curiosity stirred all the more . as did his suspicion. He’d filched from enough powerful peers to know there was no friend for him amongst that class. “You don’t know who we are?” The gentleman put that question to Dare the moment Wylie shut the door behind him. Dare eyed the trio.

He shook his head. “I don’t.” “I am the Duke of Pemberly.” He racked his brain, searching desperately for a reason that this man and his wife should be somehow . familiar. A sense of unease skittered along his spine, scraping it and icing it over. “And you think your title should mean something to me?” he asked impatiently, frustrated at being the only one in the dark. “I don’t give a damn about it.” I don’t care about his title . He’s not so very scary .

He’s more fun than Father . An odd buzzing filled his ears. He jolted and looked unblinkingly at the duke. “The names mean nothing to you,” the duke murmured, more to himself. He indicated the old lady. “This is my wife, the Duchess of Pemberly.” Dare shifted his gaze over to the old woman. “Hullo.” The lady spoke in a quiet voice. Get down this instant, Darius, and kiss my cheek .

Your grandmother orders it . A child’s laughter pealed around the chambers of Dare’s mind, and he curled his hands tight, fighting the need to dig his fingertips into his temples. His skin prickled from the weight of the stares on him, and he made himself relax his hands. Because he didn’t want to look too closely at these people. He didn’t want to look and see . anything. The duke stared at Dare. Moisture glazed the old man’s eyes. Unnerved, and unable to meet that gaze, Dare shot a desperate glance at the closed door leading out . away from these people and the gilded world they belonged to.

And yet Wylie would be there. Dare was as much a prisoner now, before these lofty peers, as he’d been with a bag over his head and a noose around his neck. He made himself look to the last figure present: the young woman. She’d still not spoken, but rather continued to eye Dare cautiously. Smart lady. The duke gestured at the woman. “And this is Kinsley, your sister.” His sister. And the dais may as well have been kicked out from under his feet. He stared, unblinking, at the young woman .

“I . don’t suppose that name means something to you?” the duke asked with a gentleness Dare wouldn’t have believed any nobleman capable of. It is better that you’re gone, Darius . I know it . You know it . Life has gone on without you . And not for the first time that day, his gut churned and tossed. The duke swallowed loudly. “Hello, grandson.” Hello, grandson.

Dare made himself go absolutely motionless. All the while, wanting to flee. To escape. He was more cornered now than he’d been when his latest cell at Newgate had clicked shut, imprisoning him within its dank folds. And another cool sweat slicked his skin. “Grandson?” Dare scoffed. “You’re a long way from Mayfair, Duke. You don’t have any family in these parts.” They were the truest words he could have tossed to the old duke. Dare turned to go.

The duke called out, halting Dare in his tracks. “Do you deny who you are? What you are?” What he was . Your brother is better suited . Your brother is better suited . Turning back, he curved his lips into a cold smile. “My name is Dare Grey. And if you’re here looking for anyone else? You are wasting your time.” “Wh-what does it mean, th-that he’d deny it?” The duchess’s voice crept up a pitch. “He’d rather be hanged than join us, Harold.” She wept against her fist.

The duke ignored his wife. “You know what we’re talking about, Darius.” The elderly lord spoke with a quiet insistence. “We know Connor Steele came to you. We know you’re aware of who you are.” Aye, the same detective who had hunted Dare down in the streets and sought to bring him out of East London had been the one to contact his grandparents. “He went to you?” he asked, unable to keep the loathing from his lips. Dare had happily sent the man on his way . but it appeared he’d been undeterred. “He did,” the duke confirmed.

“And it is a good thing.” He looked meaningfully toward the doorway Wylie no doubt stood outside, at attention. Yes, if it hadn’t been for that intervention, even now Dare’s lifeless body would be getting cut from the gibbet. He balled his hands tightly and damned the duke for being correct. About so much. This was the world Darius had been born to. The one he’d only briefly considered rejoining . and only a very long time ago. Back when he’d been a boy of fourteen. It is better without you here .

It is better without . His mind balked at that also long-buried memory. For even then, he’d known the truth: he’d been away from that fairy-tale world too long, been too wicked, and done even more scandalous things—criminal ones, and not just the mischievous stunts of boys. As such, there was no other place for him. “I can’t help you,” he finally said, his voice deadened. He resumed his march to the door. He’d take his chances with Wylie over the group assembled here. Dare had reached to knock when the duke called out, freezing Dare’s hand midmovement. “But we can help you . Darius.

” And given that when he rapped upon the panel, he’d seal his fate with that inevitable trip to the gallows, Dare let his arm fall to his side. “If you are, in fact, the person I believe you are—my grandson?” This time, there was a question from the duke. If you are, in fact, the person I believe you are—my grandson? All he need do was just deny it. To confirm that the other man was dicked in the nob and that Dare had no bloody idea what nonsense had spared him the hanging he’d been moments away from. A sound of impatience escaped the young lady standing there. “Let us just leave.” She clipped out each syllable. “I’ve already told both of you, this is a waste of all our time.” A memory intruded, made stronger by the disdain emanating from the young woman across from him. You’ve wasted your time in coming here .

“I trust that would be best for you, wouldn’t it?” Dare taunted her. The young lady’s jaw tensed. “If it means protecting the title from a common street thief whom my grandparents are desperate to believe is the grandson they lost, then yes . that would be best, indeed.” She angled her shoulder dismissively and spoke in more gentling tones to the old woman. “Grandmother, come. I told you . Darius is dead.” They prefer you dead, Dare Grey . Live your life .

And yet . if he walked out and sent these people on their way, there would be no life. Fixing a smile on, Dare looked squarely at his late mother’s father, the duke. “Hello, Grandfather. How long it has been.”

.

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