Early December 1816
The once beautiful young woman slumped against the cold stone of her prison cell, her knees drawn up to her chest, her tattered skirts pulled carefully down to cover her skinny limbs. She wondered if she would ever be free. It seemed no matter where she went, no matter how she changed her appearance, she was always found. Then, to avoid starving, she had stolen a measly loaf of bread and ended up here.
The very name was enough to strike fear into most human beings. But some were so desperate for food they took the risk to feed themselves and their families. Anyone unlucky enough to get caught faced deportation or worse, hanging.
Some actually viewed deportation as the worst of the two, but this young female prisoner was infinitely sorry she had been sentenced to hang instead. If she were deported, even as a criminal, she would have been able to finally escape those that pursued her, forget about her past, and start a new life.
She shivered and pulled her threadbare shawl tighter around her painfully thin body. It was very cold in her cell since prisoners of her kind did not rank high enough to warrant a fire or any type of comfort. What was the point? They would all die eventually anyway.
She almost laughed at the consternation that would quickly run through all those faceless men who had decided her fate if they were aware of who she was and exactly what position she held in the haute ton.
But she wouldn’t tell them. They wouldn’t believe her, of course, if she did tell them, but they might ask her family, who would reply with great breaths of relief that she had stubbornly run away and they had been searching for her this age. Then they would let drop that she was quite mad and cite several instances where she had appeared to be so. She would be handed over and locked up in a madhouse, where they said she belonged.
She would never go back there. She would die first.
And all this over a few measly pounds and paltry title she didn’t even want.
Perhaps it wasn’t a few pounds, she thought as a shuddering cough wracked her frail body. Sixty thousand a year made her one of the richest women in the country. The title wasn’t paltry either. There were very few women in England who could claim a title in her own right. But it was all very useless when there were several titled family members swearing to your insanity and doing everything in their power to lock you away. If she were proven mad, the family would have control of her money until the day she died, although the title would remain hers until that time.
A guard passed her cell and leered in at her and she knew it was only a matter of time before he had his way with her. She thought about it in a detached sort of way, by this time too jaded to really care and having lost her virtue long ago, she knew she was damaged goods, unmarriageable, so it didn’t matter. In cynical Society, if one man had had you, you might as well have given yourself to all of them.
And to avoid starvation, she had very nearly done just that.
She would have thought that her looks had gone off enough that she would not have to worry so much about being molested. Her red hair was dull and cut ruthlessly short by an inexpert hand causing it to fall in limp dirty strands all around her gaunt face, her skin was sallow and scarred, her figure had gone from seductively curved to miserably skinny, and even she knew that she smelled something awful having not had the luxury of soap and water for quite some time. The only claims to beauty that she seemed to have retained were her large green eyes, which still flashed with anger or mirth depending on her mood, and her deep bosom.
She reflected ruefully that of all the attractions she could have done without, her breasts were it. Breasts seemed to cause thoughts of lust in even the most staid of gentlemen, no matter their age, station or current marital status.
If she had had less spirit and less pride—and if the threat to her life had not been quite so great—she could have become some man’s mistress and lived her days out in comfort. Even though red hair was considered quite unfashionable, this particular lady was undeniably beautiful.
Was, past tense.
Now she looked like any hungry waif off the street, grimly awaiting the fulfillment of her sentence. It would be a release, she thought with resignation, suddenly not caring that they would hang her just so long as she didn’t have to hurt anymore.
She was so tired of running. She was tired of making friends only to have to leave them when it became too dangerous. She was tired of casting furtive glances over her shoulder fearing she was being followed.
She was tired of wishing that a certain gentleman were looking for her because he cared and not because her family had asked him to do so.
She heard the key grate in the lock and wondered which of the poor souls around her would go next. She didn’t turn to look at the man who owned the heavy tread but she dimly noted that he came her way. She just assumed it was the guard come to take his pleasure of her then turn her over to her fate.
“I had the very devil of a time finding you,” muttered an annoyed voice very close to her ear.
She turned her head wearily and smiled in defeat at the exceedingly attractive and very perturbed gentleman that crouched next to her. “What took you so long?” she asked conversationally. “Come to watch me dangle, have you?” She laughed bitterly and turned away, not wanting him to see the tears that unaccountably sprang into her eyes.
The very elegant Adam Prestwich wrinkled his nose fastidiously. “Faugh, you smell abominable!”
“And where, my charming sir, do you suppose I would get a bath? I can hardly trade my favors for hot water and soap when any man here can have me without going to so much trouble. I am the lowest bloody form of human life: a poor female criminal with no one to protect her,” she replied candidly, still not looking at him, her voice thick with sudden grief over her sorry lot in life.
“You speech is abominable as well. One would never know that you were once a lady. Or that you hold one of the oldest titles in the land,” her companion growled roughly.
Adam Prestwich looked at her with chilly gray-green eyes. She couldn’t read his thoughts since the man was so damn good at concealing them. But she knew he was not pleased to see her here.
“Why are you here?” she finally asked.
“Stand up” was his terse reply.
She obeyed since it was quite stupid to argue with any man when you were little better than a trollop and a thief and condemned to die. On the other hand…she was going to die.
When he turned away and commanded her to follow him, she balked.
“Go to hell,” she replied equably, a wraithlike smile twisting her thin lips. Some of the other female prisoners sniggered and one cackled at her to go with the swell and—the rest was better left unsaid.
He didn’t bother trying to convince her to go. He picked her up, slung her over his immaculately clad shoulder and marched from the cell. She pounded on his back ineffectually and finally attempted to kick him in a very tender area. She received a hard swat on her rump for her pains.
“Behave or I will take you back and let you die, brat.”
“Then take me back!” she retorted angrily.
He didn’t reply so she lapsed into furious silence, trying to block out the vulgar remarks and catcalls that followed them every step of the way from the prison.
She knew he would return her to her family. She didn’t know why. She had been running from this particular man for years now. He was determined to find her and return her to the bosom of her “loving” family. She wondered what sort of Haymarket scene of tender filial devotion he had been treated to.
The cold night air hit her like a hammer blow. Mr. Prestwich walked down the street and she wondered crossly if he was planning to walk all the way to Lancashire to deliver her to a fate worse than death. She began to shiver uncontrollably from cold, exhaustion, and long suppressed emotion.
They stopped suddenly and she was bundled into a closed carriage. Mr. Prestwich laid her on one seat with the utmost tenderness and covered her carefully with two heavy rugs. His solicitation frightened her more than if he had beaten her to within an inch of her life. Every traumatic thing in her short life converged on her in a rush of intense emotion and she fainted for the first time.
Adam watched her in the dim light thrown from the carriage lamps. He was surprised he had recognized her under all her rags and layers of dirt. How the devil had she ended up on the street and hungry enough to steal? It was sad to see a once pert and beautiful woman brought so low.
Which only made him wonder yet again what had kept her running. He had met her family and they seemed all that was proper in a loving family that feared for the safety of the runaway heiress. He was cynical enough to realize that it probably had more to do with her title and inheritance than any altruistic motives on their parts. But he had to wonder at the sanity of a girl who would rather hang as a thief than try to cope with even the worst of relatives.
The carriage swayed gently over the rough cobbles of London. Gaslights on the street shined in through the open windows of the conveyance highlighting the deathly pallor of his companion and he wrenched the curtains closed. It was unlikely that any members of the ton would see them at this time of the morning, but he didn’t want to take any chances.
The coach eventually turned into Berkeley Square and came to a stop before a mansion in Berkeley Street. Adam opened the trap and called up to the coachman.
“Go around to the mews, John. I want to go in the back.”
The coachman said nothing about this rather odd request but everyone knew the Quality had strange ways about them. Hadn’t he just driven his very elegant master to Newgate where said master had returned with a woman of skin and bones? John Coachman grunted, the trap banged shut and the coach moved on.
They stopped again and Adam leaned forward, gathering the unconscious girl in his arms. She didn’t move and for one brief panicked moment, he thought she was dead. The thought caused a strange twinge in his heart, which he put down to travel fatigue. He had searched practically the length and breadth of England for this particular quarry, always avoiding London since it would be damned stupid of her to enter the metropolis, and he was deuced tired. He was also annoyed to finally find her where he had never thought to seriously look.
He climbed down from the carriage and peered closely at her in the growing light of dawn. The air had a metallic taste, heralding forthcoming snow.
Her face was deathly pale, her eyes sunken in her head, and her lips were an alarming shade of blue. She suddenly inhaled and a ragged cough wracked her whole body.
He cursed as he strode swiftly into his mansion. He supposed he could have taken her to his friend’s wife, Lady Verena Northwicke, but that lady had only recently given birth to twins and Adam had already brought her enough grief with his groundless accusations and petty spite. No, he would have to look after Lady Brianna Derring, Countess of Rothsmere—better known as Bridgette—himself.