or that the secrets of his past will cost him his greatest love…
“Ye fought well today, lad,” a man’s voice suddenly spoke from directly behind him.
Bristling, Raphe set down his beer on the counter and turned to face his handler, whose attire—a purple velvet jacket and matching top hat—lent an air of flamboyance unmatched by anyone else. And yet, in spite of the fine attire, there was nothing cultured about this man, a scoundrel who’d gained his wealth through illicit deals and by taking advantage of others. His origins were questionable, but rumor had it he’d killed more than once in pursuit of power.
Raphe didn’t know what to believe. All he knew was that in spite of his own prejudices, crime in St. Giles had decreased since Carlton Guthrie’s arrival eighteen years earlier. Or so he’d been told.
“Mr. Guthrie. Good to see ye.” A blatant lie, if ever there was one.
Guthrie’s moustache twitched. “Likewise.” He sounded jovial, but only a fool would mistake that for kindness. Least of all when his henchman, a scarred boulder of a Scotsman by the name of MacNeil, stood at his right shoulder. Guthrie nodded toward Ben, who returned the salutation.
“Come. Share a drink with me,” Guthrie said, addressing Raphe. “We’ve much to discuss, you ‘n I.”
“And Thompson?” Raphe asked, not wanting to abandon his friend.
“I’m sure he’ll be willin’ to wait for ye till ye get back.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a gold coin and dropped it in front of Ben. “For yer trouble. What I ‘ave to say to Matthews ‘ere doesn’t concern ye. Understand?”
Raphe glared at Guthrie for a moment before
looking at Ben. “I’m sorry. I—”
“No worries,” Ben said, pocketing the coin that would keep his family fed for the next few days. “I’ll see ye tomorrow at work, aye?”
Nodding, Raphe watched him go.
“Well?” Guthrie’s voice drew Raphe’s attention back to him. “ ‘Ow about that drink then?” Eyeing first Guthrie and then MacNeil, Raphe gave a curt nod. “By all means.”
Guthrie’s eyes sparkled. “Excellent.” His lips stretched into a smile. “Follow me.” Turning away, he led Raphe through the taproom, where tobacco smoke mingled with the smell of roasting meat and beer. Dice rolled across one table in a game of hazard. A hand touched his thigh, inappropriately stroking upward until he pushed it away.
“No’ in the mood, luv?” the woman to whom it belonged asked. She was sitting down, her legs spread across the lap of a man who was busily burying his face between her half-exposed breasts. Pitying the life she’d been dealt, he told her gently,
“I’ve not the time.”
“La’er then?” she called as he strode away, not answering her question. Blessedly, his sisters had managed to avoid such a fate.
“ ‘Ave a seat,” Guthrie said moments later as they stepped inside a private room at the end of a hallway. It was sparsely furnished, with just a plain wooden table and four chairs. On top of the table stood a pitcher and a couple of mugs. “Some ale for me champion?” Guthrie asked, indicating the pitcher. Grabbing a chair, Raphe dropped down onto it and poured himself a drink, while Guthrie claimed the other chair with more finesse. “Will ye ‘ave some?” Raphe asked, indicating the same pitcher. Guthrie beamed. “Don’t mind if I do.” He waited for Raphe to pour before reaching for the mug and raising it. “To yer victory today.”
“To me victory,” Raphe muttered, downing the bitter resentment he felt with a brew to match.
“I’ve ‘igh ‘opes for ye,” Guthrie said, tapping a finger against his nose. “Unbeaten for the fifteenth time. That’s unprecedented, tha’ is.” Raphe saw the spark that lit his eyes, like the
promise of treasure or some such thing. “Wha’ do ye want, Guthrie?”
“So cynical, Matthews.” Guthrie’s upper lip drew back, revealing his teeth. “Must a man always want some’in? Can’t ‘e simply enjoy a drink wi’ an old friend?”
“Not when ‘e’s got ’im by the bollocks.” Guthrie’s mouth tightened, his eyes darkening just enough to offer a glimpse of his true nature. “Is tha’ ‘ow ye see our relationship, laddy?”
His demeaning tone made Raphe’s muscles flex. He glanced at MacNeil, who stood by the door, running his thumb along the edge of a wicked blade, and was instantly reminded of the punishment he’d suffered the one time when he’d been foolish enough to try and thwart Guthrie’s wishes. Shoulders tensing, Raphe returned his gaze to the man who owned him.
“ ‘Ow else should I see it? I’m yer puppet, ain’t I?” Guthrie nodded. “Aye, but ye’re me favorite one. Which is why I’d like to offer ye a deal.”
Raphe stiffened. “What sor’ of deal?”
“The sor’ that could set ye free, laddy.” A tempting notion, but surely too good to be true.
Still, he couldn’t help but ask. “What do ye have in mind?”
Leaning forward, Guthrie placed his elbows on the table, the fingers of his right hand reaching up to stroke his chin. “Ye see, there’s goin’ to be an opportunity soon—a grand one, at that.”
Raphe crossed his arms. “Ye don’t say.”
The corner of Guthrie’s eye flinched. “No need to get cocky, now.” Snapping his fingers, he drew MacNeil closer. “Give the laddy ‘is earnin’s.” There was a pause, and then a pouch dropped onto the table with a jangling thump. “Naturally, we’ve kept our share.”
A fat 90 percent.
“Naturally,” Raphe echoed. He didn’t bother to hide his displeasure.
“But . . .” Guthrie took another sip of his ale.
“Word ‘as it, the Bull will be comin’ to town in a month or so.” Raphe straightened in his chair, while Guthrie wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, removing a line of foam. “If ye figh’ ’im and ye win, ye’ll be debt-free. The winnings are gonna be that huge.”
Raphe didn’t doubt it. The Bull was, after all, the bare-knuckle boxing world champion—undefeated since beating Tobias Flannigan several years earlier.
Since then, he’d crippled several of his opponents. The man was a legend. “I’ll do it,” Raphe said without blinking.
“But if ye lose . . .”
“I won’t,” Raphe assured him.
“But if ye do . . .”
Grabbing the pouch that still sat on the table, Raphe pocketed his money. “I know the risk, Guthrie, an’ I’m willin’ to take it.”
with her family, swimming, cooking, gardening, watching romantic comedies and, of course, reading.