The air teemed with scents and sounds as numerous and varied as the men who swarmed the Thames and its wharves, despite the chill of a misty morning. Tess strode through the bustle, quickly enough to convey a purpose but slowly enough to observe every movement around her. Hair powdered black and with her men’s clothing, she knew she could pass unnoticed among the crowd.
Wooden masts speared into the air, stretching as far as she could see in either direction. Men from Africa, India, the Orient—they all came here. To work, to trade. Between the great sailing vessels sprinted small, flat-bottomed lighters carrying cargo between ships and shore in the midmorning light.
The hard work on the wharves was simply a prelude to thievery in the dark, but everyone needed to eat.
She wanted to observe.
Tess turned toward the Northfield warehouse, where cargo was stacked and ready for loading or customs—and saw the devil himself.
The duke stood in the wide warehouse entrance, legs spread and confidently planted on cobblestones, inky hair ruffling in the river breeze, surveying the wharves and men as if judging their worthiness. The muscles beneath Northfield’s light-colored breeches were tensed and strained against the fabric. The duke knew he stood on his own ground.
His warehouse. His property.
A panicked shout made her whirl to her right, instinctively reaching for the pistol beneath her coat. Off-balance, she saw the waggon careening toward her.
Hooves clattered on stone, and she had only a moment to see the terrified whites of the horse’s eyes before the animal swerved to avoid the Thames. The waggon tipped over, skidding along the ground—and straight at her.
Tess tried to dive out of the way, but the bed of the waggon was too close, the raised box for the driver skittering toward her.
It hit with blinding force, catching her shoulders and ribs, then her right leg. Air burst from her lungs and her mind became a void. Her heart stilled as her body became weightless and the gray-white cloudy sky came into view.
Perhaps she had become a bird, flying on a current of air.
The foul, frigid river was a shock. It closed over her head as she gasped for air, but she succeeded only in taking in a mouthful of muddy, rank water. She dared not breathe in.
She was trained to swim, though she had never mastered it—and she could not do it now. Could not make her limbs draw her upward. Not with this blackness behind her eyes, the burning in her chest. Terror welled as she flailed her weakened arms, kicked her fatigued legs, and still sank.
She did not even know which way was up.
Her lungs screamed, desperate for air; her thoughts began to haze. And suddenly, she was breathing water, vision gone, and she did not care.
The darkness swept her under as a strong arm curled around her waist.
North kicked his legs hard, reached the surface of the river, and gulped in air.
Looping his arm around the man’s torso—or woman’s torso, he realized, as he felt small breasts press against his forearm—he swam toward the Frying Pan Stairs, tugging the woman’s limp form behind him. The water was bloody cold and tasted of mud and filth he didn’t want to think of.
He cursed his heavy wool coat. He hadn’t thought, hadn’t planned. He’d simply jumped into the river. Now the garment weighed heavy, threatening to drag them both down.
On the wharf above, shouting men followed their progress, but North only dimly noticed them. He focused on breathing, on keeping his muscles moving. A lighter fought against the current to reach them, but he knew the river would carry them to the steps before the vessel drew alongside.
The stairs loomed large in front of him, the air ripe with the scent of fish from the markets around the dock. Coughing, he reached the first step and relinquished his burden to waiting hands.
His own sailors and dockworkers carried the man—woman, he reminded himself, no matter how she was dressed—to the stone wharf above, then supported North as he clambered up the slippery stones. His boots, filled with water, squelched with each step, and cold air gusted around him, chilling his wet clothes and skin.
“Thank you,” he coughed as he regained his footing at the top of the stairs. Tightening his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering, he glanced around. “Where is she?”
Sighting a knot of people, he pushed through the crowd of gathering onlookers. They fell back as North crouched beside the drenched form lying prone on the ground.
He swore the person who had been pushed into the Thames had been dark, but instead, blonde hair lay in ropes over skin pale with cold, over lips blue with it.
Just as with his visit to The Devil’s Tavern, one thought ran through his mind.
I know that face.
Once again, Tess Murray wore the rough coat, breeches, and boots of a docker—and she was not breathing.
Fear shot through him, dark and hot. For Tess or for what information she could provide to him, he did not know. Nor did it matter just then. He only knew she was not breathing.
“Hell.” Gritting his teeth against the chills that threatened to engulf him, North turned her onto her side and wacked her back with the heel of his hand.
He tried again, then once more.
Finally, she choked, sputtered, and expelled what seemed like half the river onto the cobblestones. Chest heaving, she coughed again, then flopped onto her back with a groan. She twitched, as a fish just newly out of water might.
North kneeled over her, willing her to consciousness. Lashes fluttered on her cheeks, stilled, then fluttered again. He opened his mouth, unsure what he wanted to say, unsure whether it was temper clawing at his throat or the Thames. What came out, and was based in sheer courtesy, was, “Ma’am?”
“Don’t—” she croaked, eyes still closed, “call me ma’am.”