SURRENDER TO A DEVIL
The hackney smelled of a combination of odors; none of them were pleasant. Forrest Howarth tried not to think about where they had originated. He was on his way back to his family’s townhouse. He’d left the musicale early, insisting his cousins stay, as Ella, his daughter, was sick. He wanted to check she was well, even though he had left her in the capable hands of her nanny.
Life had taken an unexpected turn for Forrest when he came to London—for the better. Society wasn’t something he enjoyed overly, but as he owed his family a great deal, he went to balls, musicales, and other events to thank them for their support of him when he’d believed he was raising his daughter alone.
The hackney stopped suddenly. He had no time to brace himself and went flying. Staggering upright, he wrenched open the door and stepped down.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“A woman, sir, and a cripple. They got in me bleedin’ way!” The driver was standing, waving his fist.
Walking to the front of the hackney, Forrest saw a woman crouched on the street. He moved to her side and dropped to his haunches.
“Are you all right, madam?”
She didn’t reply, instead focusing on the boy lying on the road before her.
“Open your eyes for me now, brother.” Her voice was gruff with emotion.
“Did the hackney strike him?”
“Yes. We were crossing the road, and my brother cannot move with speed. Your hackney did not slow and knocked him to the ground.”
Forrest looked around and saw two crutches a few feet away. He found two large bags also, and what appeared to be a hatbox. There was no one else with the woman and her brother.
“’Ere, you need to move it along!”
Forrest rose and faced the driver.
“I will pay you to shut your mouth and wait. Have you no kindness or decency in your soul? Your vehicle struck this poor boy.” The words came out in a deep growl, and the driver must have heard the warning in Forrest’s tone, as he sat back down and folded his arms.
Grabbing the crutches, Forrest returned to the boy. He crouched opposite the woman now.
“He is waking,” she whispered.
Her cloak was black, hood raised. The bonnet beneath was also black. He had yet to see her face. Small, he thought—slender, he amended, looking at the gloved hand that touched the boy.
“Wh-What happened?” The boy’s eyes flew open.
“You were struck by my hackney, sir.”
The eyes went from the woman to him.
“I apologize. May I assist you to where you need to go?”
“Are you badly hurt, brother?” The woman ignored Forrest and addressed the boy.
“Help me rise.”
“You were knocked unconscious.” Forrest pressed a hand to his shoulder.
“Don’t touch him.” The woman snarled the words at him, reminding Forrest of a tiger protecting her young.
“I mean him no harm.”
“Leave now. I will get my brother to safety.”
An odd choice of words, and delivered in a voice that would not be out of place in his world.
“Safety or home?”
She lifted her head, and he had a fleeting glance of a thin face, wide eyes, and soft, pouty lips, and then she looked down once more. He wanted to rub his chest, as suddenly he felt a burning sensation there.
“Help me rise,” the boy rasped.
Forrest rose and then bent at the waist. Grasping the boy, he lifted him to his feet and held him until he steadied.
“My thanks, sir,” the boy said.
“Are you hurting?”
“His head is bleeding.”
“Ouch,” the boy said as his sister inspected the wound.
Pulling out his handkerchief, Forrest handed it to her. She took it with a muttered, “Thanks.”
“Hold it there, brother, while I gather our things.”
She turned, gasped, and ran to where two men were stealing their belongings.
“Stop!” Her scream didn’t stop them, so she set off in pursuit.
Forrest followed. “Halt!”
They turned and saw him advancing. Both men dropped the woman’s things.
“Come at me then,” one of them said, raising his fists. “I’m happy to take on a nob like you.”
“Easy pickings,” the other snarled.
“You are thieves!” The woman came to his side.
“Get back.” Forrest tried to push her behind him, but she would not budge.
“I will not! Those are our belongings. I will not have two unscrupulous scoundrels stealing them.”
The men advanced. Forrest nudged her sideways, then crouched as his cousins had taught him and prepared to fight.
“He can’t even fight like a man,” one taunted, jabbing his fist at Forrest.
Swinging his leg, he struck out and dropped the man. The next ran at him, so he jabbed him in the face, then swept him from his feet using his leg.
The men did not get up.
Forrest stepped over them and collected the woman’s belongings.
“Take the hat box.” He handed it to her and held the other bags in a hand, then grabbed her elbow and marched her back to the hackney where her brother waited.
“You can take my hackney to your lodgings,” Forrest said. “I will find another.”
“But they will come after you,” the woman said, shaking free of his grip.
“As you have already noted, I can look after myself.” Pulling out some money, he moved to the driver and held it up to him. “Take them wherever they wish to go.”
“As you wish.” He shrugged.
“I do wish. And I wish for you to show them some respect,” Forrest snapped.
The driver looked to where the two men were getting to their feet. Unsteady and wobbling slightly, they were soon running away.
“As you wish.”
The boy had picked up his crutches and was now leaning heavily on them.
“I have paid the driver enough to take you where you wish to go. In you get now.” Forrest loaded the bags into the hackney.
The couple had yet to move.
“It’s dark and late. The air is cooling, madam. Your brother likely needs that cut on his head seen to. Get in the hackney, otherwise you may yet face more of what you just experienced.”
It wasn’t a voice he used often, but when he did, most people did as he bid. Forrest expedited matters by leading the boy to the hackney. He was shivering and unsteady. Gripping his waist, he lifted him inside and helped settle him on a seat.
“You next.” He faced the woman, who had just finished instructing the driver where she wanted to be taken. She was hiding in the hood of her cloak, and he had the ridiculous urge to pull it back to get a better look of her.
“I have sounded ungrateful, sir, and am sorry for that. It has been a long and trying night.”
“It’s all right. In you get.” He lifted her gently inside. She stood hunched in the doorway, her face in the shadows.
“I can never thank you enough for your kindness to my brother. I doubt we would have made our destination had we not met. Your actions have saved us this night.”
“Two years ago I had a very trying day, in fact month,” Forrest said. “Someone came to my aid when I most needed it. It changed my life. I’m not saying a ride in a hackney will do that for you, but perhaps it will bring a little light into your long and trying day, madam.”
One of her gloved hands rose, and he heard the sniff.
“Thank you for your kindness.” She leaned forward, and he had a fleeting image of pale skin and wide eyes. He forgot everything when her lips touched his cheek.
He felt like she’d branded him. Then she moved away and took her seat.
“Good evening to you both.” Forrest nodded to them and then shut the door and stood back, watching them roll away.
He stood there until the hackney disappeared from sight, his hand cupping his cheek.