“This is no place for you, Miss Goode,” Paul Foley said.
His thin, spare features settled into disapproving lines as he surveyed the dockside tavern. Neither the dimness nor the smokiness could hide that this was a disreputable place. The patrons were rowdy, the drinks cheap; the air was thick with the smell of unwashed bodies and roasting meat.
In her eighteen years, Maggie Goode had been in worse places. She wiped down the sticky counter in front of her friend and gave him a reassuring smile.
“I’m grateful for the work, Mr. Foley,” she said. “The Crown ’n Anchor pays two shillings more a week than Mr. ’Arper did.”
“I suppose that explains your choice to leave the butcher shop,” he replied with a troubled sigh.
Leaving Harper’s butcher shop hadn’t been her choice, a fact she wasn’t keen to share.
“Can’t say I mind leaving behind the blood ’n guts,” she said brightly.
At that moment, a patron began spewing his guts out nearby, his cronies roaring with laughter as they jumped out of harm’s way.
Mr. Foley’s greying brows rose over his spectacles.
“Least there ain’t blood,” she said with a shrug.
She’d started at the Crown and Anchor a fortnight ago. As she’d been working since the age of thirteen (and before then, she’d helped her departed ma, a dockside washerwoman), she’d gotten the lay of the land quickly. Friday nights like this one were boisterous. Local men and passing sailors arrived, their week’s wages burning a hole through their pockets.
“This is no place for a young lady,” Mr. Foley insisted.
The fact that he considered her a “lady” was one of the things Maggie liked about him.
She’d first met him when he’d wandered into Harper’s butcher shop. His spectacles and rumpled garb had marked him as a scholarly gent. In a cultured voice, he’d confessed to having a hankering for a roast supper yet knew nothing about cuts of meat or how to prepare them. Before Mrs. Harper, the butcher’s wife, could swoop in and sell him a costly beefsteak he would undoubtedly ruin, Maggie had told him the name of a local cook looking for work.
The relief in his faded blue eyes had almost made up for the flogging she’d later received from Mrs. Harper’s sharp tongue.
To Maggie’s surprise, Mr. Foley had returned to the shop a few days later, this time with a list in hand from his new cook. His visits became a weekly event, and Maggie learned that he was a bachelor in his fifties. He’d taken up residence in the village to pursue his study of fossils, which were plentiful here on the Dorset coast. She’d been shocked at the amount that Mr. Foley claimed his fellow collectors would pay for old bones.
As Ma used to say, some folks had more money than sense.
Unfortunately, Maggie came from a family that was infamous for having neither.
There goes another No Goode was a familiar refrain in the village. The Goodes were notorious for being hot-blooded and feckless. Maggie’s father had died when she was young, breaking his neck during a drunken ride. Her older brothers carried on his legacy through their tavern brawls and shady money-making schemes. Delilah, her older sister, got entangled with one dishonorable fellow after the next.
Take care o’ your siblings, Maggie. They ain’t got your sense. On her deathbed, Ma’s voice had been weak, yet urgency had lit her green eyes. Most o’ all, don’t let your Goode blood lure you into sin. Don’t be like me and Delilah, looking for a prince to sweep you off your feet. For us Goodes, there won’t be no fancy violins, flowers, and faerie tale endings. But if you work ’ard and be a good girl, maybe you’ll find the respectability that we ne’er did.
More than anything, Maggie craved respectability.
She dreamed of one day opening a flower shop. Ma had had a way with flowers, and she’d passed that love onto Maggie. Maggie couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than to work surrounded by fresh blooms and foliage, her favorite roses scenting the air. As a successful proprietress, she’d dress in spotless bombazine and learn to speak proper-like, too (with Mr. Foley’s help, she was already working on refining her accent).
Then people would no longer look down their noses at her. She would prove that a Goode could make something of herself. She’d start a new family legacy, one that she’d be proud to pass onto her own children…
“Oi ain’t paying you to be idle!”
At the shouted words, her dream dispersed like a dandelion puff. Mr. Marsh, owner of the tavern, was a short man with an even shorter temper, and he was scowling at her as he drew ale into tankards. “Can’t you see the pool o’ vomit on the floor? Quit palavering and clean it up!”
“Yes, sir,” Maggie said hastily. In order to attain her dream, she needed this job. She turned to Mr. Foley. “Can I get you another ale afore I go?”
“Thank you, no. It’s getting late, and I’d best be going.” Mr. Foley left his stool and a generous tip. “Adieu until next week.”
Fetching a mop and bucket, Maggie went to take care of the mess.
After that, she wove through the noisy room, replenishing drinks and platters. Along the way, she wiped down tables, collected dirty vessels, and dodged wandering hands. Her last stop was the table in the alcove next to the back door.
She approached warily as the pair of brutish newcomers sprawled in the seats were well into their cups. From their salt-chapped hands and Cockney accents, she guessed they were seamen passing through. Their florid, leering faces spelled trouble.
She took a breath, pasted on a smile. “Good evening, sirs. What’ll it be?”
“What’re ye offerin’, dove?”
This came from the sandy-haired man seated to her right. Her skin crawled as his piggish eyes roved over her, lingering on her breasts. The lout on the left had a striped kerchief wound around his neck, and he was looking his own fill, licking his thick lips as he eyed her bottom.
Not for the first time, she cursed her appearance. Why couldn’t she be a respectable-looking female—a slender blonde, say, with an angelic blue gaze? Instead, all Goode women were cursed with wavy reddish-brown hair, full curves, and green eyes, a combination that proved to be a lightning rod for randy bastards.
She kept her smile fixed in place. “The ale and meat pie are some o’ the finest in the county.”
“Reckon ye ’ave more than that to offer a man,” Striped Kerchief said, winking.
“Food and drink are all I serve,” she said firmly. “Now if you be needing time to decide—”
He reached out, grabbing an unruly tress that had escaped the knot at the back of her head. When she tried to pull free, he stabbed his fingers into her hair, yanking her face to his. Pain shot through her scalp.
“What I need is a good ruttin’.” His breath puffed hotly against her cheek. “And ye look like just the wench to give it to me.”
Her insides lurching, she snapped, “Let me go, you blighter!”
“Saucy wench, eh? I like lively sport.” He nodded toward the nearby door, which led to the alleyway behind the tavern. “Let’s get to know one another be’er.”
Maggie raced through her options. She was no missish female, and if this were any other situation, she’d have walloped the blighter. Her ma and brothers had taught her to defend herself: she could wield a frying pan like a weapon and knew how to disarm a man with a well-placed knee.
But she didn’t dare create a fuss. Not here. Mr. Marsh had made it clear that any bar maid causing a ruckus would be sacked, a threat he’d carried out twice since she’d started working here.
After the fiasco at the butcher’s shop, she couldn’t afford to lose this job, which she’d been lucky to get, given her family’s reputation. If she was dismissed from this position too, she might never find work in the village again. And her dream of the flower shop would be forever out of her reach.
The bastard yanked again, and she gasped, “All right, I’ll go with you. Just let me go.”
I’ll run for the bar. The bastards won’t be bold enough to rape me in public.
The instant the pressure on her scalp eased, she jerked away, ready to bolt. Her back slammed into a beefy chest. Pig Eyes—he’d crept up behind her. Before she could cry out, his thick hand smothered her breath.
“No need to put on airs, wench,” he hissed in her ear. “Blind man can see ye make yer living on yer back. Come out back wif us, and we’ll make it worf yer while.”
Panic thumped in Maggie’s chest as Pig Eyes locked an arm around her waist, dragging her toward the back door. He was giving her no choice. Job or no job, she would have to fight back—
“Beg pardon,” a deep, aristocratic voice said. “I must ask that you release the lady.”
Despite Maggie’s predicament, she couldn’t help but gawk at the man who stepped into their path. He was the most dashing gentleman she’d ever seen. His exotic hazel eyes gleamed beneath dark, slashing brows. Shadowed by the brim of his fine hat, his face was chiseled and strong, his golden skin a virile contrast to his snowy cravat. His tall, lean figure was garbed in understated elegance, and his lord of the manor bearing could only come from centuries of blue-blooded stock.
“Get out o’ my way,” Maggie’s captor snarled.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible. You are absconding with the serving maid, and I am in want of ale.” The gentleman smiled wryly. “Or what passes for ale in this establishment. At any rate, for the sake of my thirst, I must insist you release her.”
Pig Eyes faltered at the banter, his hand falling from Maggie’s mouth although he kept her trapped against him. She wasn’t sure what to make of her would-be champion, whose pleasant drawl was laced with a quiet threat. She sensed the restrained power beneath his polished façade, and it set off a strange, quivery feeling in her stomach.
She knew instinctively that only a fool would challenge the man.
Striped Kerchief surged forward. “Ye can shove yer fancy words up yer fancy arse.”
Aye. Only a fool.
Maggie’s breath held as the brute threw a punch. The gent dodged the attack easily, catching the bastard’s arm with one gloved hand, twisting it behind the other’s back. Quick as lightning, he used the limb as leverage, forcing his opponent onto the ground, his polished boot planting into the other’s back.
Striped Kerchief groaned and struggled but could not free himself.
Pig Eyes pushed Maggie aside, readying to help his comrade.
“If it were me, I’d choose another alternative.” With his free hand, the gent pulled out a pistol. Cocked it. “I’m a fastidious sort, but if I must, I’ll make an exception. Luckily, my valet has a knack for removing blood stains.”
Pig Eyes’s gaze widened. While Maggie doubted he knew what “fastidious” meant (to be honest, she wasn’t sure herself), the rotter definitely understood the meaning of the loaded pistol.
Raising his hands, he stammered, “Don’t w-want no trouble.”
“Make your apologies to the lady. Be quick about it,” the gentleman said sharply.
“S-sorry miss.” Pig Eyes wet his lips. “A misunderstandin’, it was.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Maggie spotted Mr. Marsh charging toward them like a bull.
“No ’arm done,” she said in a panicked rush.
“And you?” The toff directed his inquiry to the man still trapped beneath his boot. “Will you apologize to the lady, or shall we go another round?”
“Meant no disrespect,” Striped Kerchief gasped out.
The gent released him. “Begone.”
At the command, the ruffians hustled out the back door, disappearing into the night.
No sooner had the door closed then Mr. Marsh was upon them.
“What’s going on ’ere?” The proprietor jabbed a stubby finger at Maggie. “You be the cause o’ this trouble, girl?”
Her heart thrashed against a cage of fear. “N-no, sir, I weren’t doing nothing—”
“Oi should’ve known better than to ’ire a Goode,” Mr. Marsh spat. “Ramshacklum drunks, slommocks, and drawlatchets, the lot o’ you!”
Maggie willed back the humiliating tears. As if it weren’t enough that her dreams were crashing down like a house of cards, her shame was being aired in front of the gentleman who’d gallantly defended her. She prayed that he didn’t understand the local vernacular Mr. Marsh used to describe her kin: a “slommock” was a slattern and “drawlatchet” a lazy person. “Ramshacklum” meant “good for nothing”—and was a common prefix to her family’s name.
She couldn’t meet the gent’s eyes, didn’t want to see the all too familiar disdain.
“You are the owner of this establishment?”
The gentleman’s curt words cut off Mr. Marsh, who sputtered, “Aye, sir. And you may rest assured that this slommock won’t be bothering—”
“She wasn’t bothering me. Quite the opposite. In point of fact, she was lending a hand.”
At that, Maggie peered up.
Mr. Marsh squinted. He clearly didn’t believe the gent but also didn’t want to offend an obviously well-to-do customer. “With what?”
“I wished for a seat in the alcove and offered to buy the occupants a drink in exchange for their table. They, however, took offense.” As the gent shrugged his broad shoulders, nary a wrinkle appeared on the deep sapphire superfine. “Your employee here…Miss Goode, is it?”
His unexpectedly gentle tone eased some of the knots in Maggie’s midsection.
“Yes, sir,” she whispered.
“Rhys Jones, at your service.” He inclined his head.
Maggie dipped her knees in an awkward curtsy.
“Miss Goode saw what was happening and tried to intervene. Alas, even her gentle diplomacy could not dissuade the two brutes, and I had no choice but to respond. Now that the unpleasant business is concluded,”—Mr. Jones’s commanding tone indicated that he was done with explanations—“you may fetch me a bottle of your finest brandy and a collation. A round for the house as well. Forthwith.”
The cool dismissal propelled Mr. Marsh into action. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” To Maggie, he barked, “Well, don’t just stand there like a loplolly. Bring the gent ’is bit-an’-drop!”
She rushed off to collect the food and drink. In the kitchen, she snuck extra slices of ham onto the platter while Cook was looking the other way. It was little enough but the best that she could do to thank her rescuer.
When she returned, Mr. Jones had settled in at the table. He’d removed his hat and gloves, and in the candlelight, his brown-black hair gleamed like a luxurious pelt. He wore it a trifle overlong, the thick waves framing his patrician features. He looked to be a few years older than her, perhaps in his early twenties. His brilliant hazel eyes and golden-hued skin added a foreign flair to his English bones.
She wondered about his heritage. Working in a dockside town, she’d seen sailors from all over the world. But she’d never met a man as striking and unique as this one.
For all his worldly refinement, there was also a restless, untamed quality about him. She felt an odd tingle watching his hands idly play with the supple leather of his gloves. She remembered a story her mama had liked to tell her, about a dashing pirate prince who ruled the seas, defying kings and rescuing damsels in distress. If she closed her eyes and imagined that make-believe prince, she would see this man.
“Ah, you’re back. That was quick.”
His friendly tone made her duck her head, a stray strand brushing her cheek. She wished she’d taken the time to neaten herself before returning. Not that it would have made any difference.
She was an ill-kempt, gawky tavern wench. He was male perfection, lounging in his chair as if it were a throne. He was above her in every way, and the only reason he’d done her a favor was because he was a gentleman in the truest sense.
Keeping her gaze on the items she unloaded from the tray, she said in a low voice, “I wanted to thank you, sir, for what you did. I swear I didn’t—”
“You are not to blame for the brutes accosting you,” he said briskly. “Nor for the actions of your relations, whatever your idiot employer might believe.”
Startled, she saw that his handsome face showed no sign of mockery.
“You’re the first one who’s e’er said that to me, sir,” she said honestly.
The only one who’s e’er seen…me. Just me.
“I’m an expert on distancing oneself from family.” Before she could puzzle out the meaning of his words, he tasted his brandy. “First-rate. Amazing, isn’t it, how the finest French imports can be found in sleepy coastal villages?”
She was fairly certain he was referring to the smuggling that was as common as fleas in these parts, but she could hardly admit that the Crown and Anchor dealt in ill-gotten goods. Or that her brothers were oft times the purveyors of said goods.
As she chewed on her bottom lip, debating what to say, he laughed. The sound was rich and vibrant, warming her insides like a posset.
“A discreet thing, aren’t you?” His lips curved faintly. “Something we have in common.”
That this elegant prince of a gentleman would think they had anything in common made her speechless. She felt giddy, as if she’d partaken of the bootlegged brandy. Flustered, she reached to straighten the platter she’d placed on the table.
His hand moved at the same time; their fingers collided. A sharp spark crackled between them. It danced over her skin, jolting her nerve endings. She jerked her hand away, her lips parting in shock.
His long, black lashes swept up. Up close, she saw that flecks of green were buried in his golden-brown irises like emeralds amongst pirate’s gold. His gaze flashed; she’d watched a storm once, standing on a cliff overlooking the sea, and she felt as breathless now as she did then.
His long-fingered hand cupped the brandy glass, the amber liquid swirling.
“Pardon, Miss Goode,” he said.
His well-bred manners and raw charisma were a potent combination. A hot, pulsing urgency awakened inside her. When she wetted her lips, his gaze followed the motion.
“Folks be calling me Maggie, sir,” she offered shyly.
“Well then…Maggie.” If he wasn’t already the most beautiful man she’d ever seen, his slow smile, which revealed a mesmerizing set of dimples, would have made him so. “Call me Rhys.”