“Come wit‘ me, milady.” The patter of hard rain nearly washed away the hoarse whisper and she almost missed the words.
But a knife streaked through the drops, shining dully inches from her face. It was quite noticeable, as was the patched clothing and worn cap of the ruffian.
She was being robbed in the middle of Oxford Street.
Panic rose up, bright and hot, so that her heart clattered against her rib cage. Her gaze focused on the knife. It seemed alive, ready to strike. She fumbled with the drawstrings of her reticule as she tried to extract it from her wrist, but her gaze did not leave the knife.
She thrust the beaded bag at him. “Here, take my reticule.”
He shook his head, and Cat saw nothing but a scruff of dark whiskers beneath the brim of a cap pulled low. “Come wit‘ me, milady.”
“No, no. The money, it’s all in the reticule.” The knife was so close to her belly. She could not breathe. The blade was just there, only inches away. Rain beaded on the metal, drops swelling as large as her terror.
“’Tisn’t the blunt I’m after,” he rasped.
Wind gusted, lifting her skirts and whipping them around her ankles and calves. Thunder roared through the air again.
“Then what?” She cast about the street for a rescue, but the rain had become a horizontal assault. The street was empty save for a few carriages careening through mud and manure, occupants probably focused on returning home rather than an abduction on the street.
Where was her maid? Anyone?
“’Tis you I’m after,” the ruffian said. Fingers gripped her upper arm hard, pressing into the flesh. He tried to push her forward, shoving his unwashed body against hers so they would move down the street.
She balked, instinctively pushing back.
But the knife.
She felt it now, a slight pressure against her pelisse, but not a cut. There was too much fabric between it and her ribs. For now. Her mind reeled, terrified that such things could happen on Oxford Street. In daylight. But it was not daylight. The gray rain had forced an early twilight and she was alone. Which meant she could only rely on herself.
Cat let the man pull her forward by the wrist, let him think he had her cowed. Let him become complacent. Then—
“Bastard!” She drove her free fist into his jaw. Pain sang through her arm, mixing with rage and power.
He’d not expected it. She saw that in his shocked eyes clear enough. The man’s head snapped back, revealing missing and blackened teeth beneath the whiskers and cap.
She gasped as his knife went through the pelisse, just far enough to know she was lucky to be spared death.
Jerking away from him, Cat stumbled over her own skirts as she tried to run. Gentlemen down the street rushed from a carriage to a club to avoid the rain. She gathered her breath for a scream, but the ruffian’s arms snagged her middle, pushing the air from her lungs before she could make a sound.
Suddenly he was there. The man she had bumped into on Park Lane.
His greatcoat swirled around him as he lashed out at her captor. She stumbled as the ruffian freed her unexpectedly and she went down hard on her hands and knees. Even through her gloves, she felt the sting of the pavement on her palms. Struggling past her skirts, Cat staggered to her feet.
The man from Park Lane kicked out his foot in a fast arc. The ruffian had no chance against him—he was untrained and unskilled, that much was clear when he failed to even attempt to dodge. The foot of the man from Park Lane caught the ruffian mid jaw and he dropped to the walkway.
Cat had half a mind to assist in some way. She leaped forward with no definite plan—and stopped short when the man from Park Lane leaned down and grabbed the ruffian by the lapels, then jerked him to his feet.
“Who sent you?” The question was terrifying in its lack of emotion.
“No one!” The ruffian struggled, his hands gripping the fists of her savior.
“Don’t lie.” The man from Park Lane slammed the ruffian against the nearest wall. Once, twice. Held him there, feet dangling inches from the ground.
Cat flinched with each hit, but did not look away. She wanted to do the same.
“Don’t matter,” the man gasped, breath heaving as he looked up into the falling rain. “They aren’t after her. She’s just leverage they said.”
“What do they want?” her savior asked softly.
Cat stepped forward, pushing into the driving, whipping wind, unsure exactly what she was doing. But her would-be abductor shook his head and the man from Park Lane pulled him higher off the ground. The ruffian’s feet scrabbled in the air, useless appendages against raw fury.
“They want the gov’nor to fall in line,” the man gasped. “He’s not delivering what he promised.”
“What did he promise?” It was another question delivered in a low, soft voice that gave Cat chills. Then it was drowned out by a crack of lightning and a roar of thunder.
“I dunno. But—well, they don’t tell me.”
“I see. You just do the work.” Her savior stood unmoving, greatcoat swirling about him and still holding the man in the air. “Tell them she’s not to be touched or they’ll answer to me.” With that, her savior dropped the man onto the walkway. The ruffian stumbled, recovered, and ran. In seconds, he was swallowed by the streaming gray rain.
“I don’t understand.” Cat’s bonnet lifted in the wind, caught, an was ripped from her head. Rain pounded against her face, her body. She could barely see beyond the water clinging to her lashes and forcing her to blink. “Who are you? Who was he?”
“I’m Jones, my lady.” The man set a respectful finger against his bare head in introduction, as his hat had fallen somewhere in the scuffle. Water plastered dark brown hair to his skull.
“I don’t understand what he wanted.” She shouted it above the howling wind. It nearly lifted her from her feet and pushed her straight toward the man called Jones. He caught her, arms going around her and folding her in.
“You.” He looked down at her, eyes fixed on hers. The irises were brown—a deep, dark, rich brown, with no hint of green or gold. One of his arms fell away. The other ushered her toward the haberdashery, guiding her body with only a touch of his arm against her waist. She nearly turned into him, hoping for his arms to come back around her.
“I don’t understand,” she shouted again into the wind as he led her against the brick building. It was not shelter, precisely, but if she pressed herself close enough to the rough surface the rain seemed less inclined to pummel her.
And then he was there in front of her, blocking the rain so that it pounded on his back instead of on her. He leaned close, almost over her, the heavy fabric of his greatcoat cocooning her.
The cold water on her skin heated in the strangest way. The scent of man and rain surrounded her and she breathed deep, unable to help herself.