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There must be reliable, conscientious, thoughtful men somewhere in creation. Phyllida stood back from the entrance to the narrow alleyway and scanned the bustling Customs House quay. Unfortunately my dear brother is not one of them. Which should be no surprise as their sire had not had a reliable, conscientious bone in his body and, his undutiful daughter strongly suspected, not many thoughts in his head either beyond gaming, whoring and spending money.
And now Gregory had been gone for twenty four hours with the rent money and, according to his friends, had found a new hell somewhere between the Tower and London Bridge.
Something tugged at the laces of her half boots. Expecting a cat Phyllida looked down to find herself staring into the black boot-button eyes of the biggest crow she had ever seen. Or perhaps it was a raven escaped from the Tower? But it had a strange greyish head and neck which set off a massive beak. Not a raven then. It shot her an insolent look and went back to tugging at her bootlaces.
‘Go away!’ Phyllida jerked back her foot and it let go with a squawk and went for the other foot.
‘Lucifer, put the lady down.’ The bird made a harsh noise, flapped up and settled on the shoulder of the tall, bare-headed man standing in front of her. ‘I do apologise. He is fascinated by laces, string, anything long and thin. Unfortunately, he is a complete coward with snakes.’
She found her voice. ‘That is unlikely to be a handicap in London.’ Where had this beautiful, exotic man with his devilish familiar materialised from? Phyllida took in thick dark brown hair, green eyes, a straight nose – down which he was currently studying her – and golden skin. Tanned skin in March? No, it was his natural colour. She would not have been surprised to smell a hint of brimstone.
‘So I understand.’ He reached up and tossed the bird into the air. ‘Go and find Sara, you feathered menace. He swears if he’s confined to a cage,’ he added as it flew off towards the ships at anchor in mid-stream. ‘But I suppose I will have to do it or he’ll be seducing the ravens in the Tower into all kinds of wickedness. Unless they are merely a legend?’
‘No, they are real.’ Definitely foreign then. He was well-dressed in a manner that was subtly un-English. A heavy black cloak with a lining that was two shades darker than his eyes, a dark coat, heavy silk brocade waistcoat, snowy white linen – no, the shirt was silk too. ‘Sir!’
He had dropped to one knee on the appalling cobblestones and was tying her bootlaces, allowing her to see that his hair was long – an unfashionable shoulder-length, she guessed – and tied back at the nape of his neck. ‘Is something wrong?’ He looked up, face serious and questioning, green eyes amused. He knew perfectly well what was wrong, the wretch.
‘You are touching my foot, sir!’
The gentleman finished the bow with a brisk tug and stood up. ‘Difficult to tie a shoelace without, I’m afraid. Now where are you going? I assure you, neither I nor Lucifer have any further designs upon your footwear.’ His smile suggested there might be other things in danger.
Phyllida took another step back, but not away from assaults on her ankles or her equilibrium. Harry Buck was swaggering along the quayside towards them, one of his bullies a pace behind. Her stomach lurched as she looked around for somewhere to hide from Wapping’s most notorious low-life. Nausea almost overcame her. If, somehow, he remembered her from nine years ago…
‘That man.’ She ducked her head in Buck’s direction. ‘I do not want to be seen by him.’ The breath caught in her throat. ‘And he is coming this way.’ Running was out of the question. To run would be like dragging a ball of wool in front of a cat and Buck would chase out of sheer instinct. She hadn’t even got a bonnet with a decent, concealing brim on it, just a simple flat straw tied on top of a net with her hair bundled up. Stupid, stupid to have just walked into his territory like this, undisguised and unprepared.
‘In that case we had better become better acquainted.’ The exotic stranger took a step forward, pressed her against the wall, raised one cloak-draped arm to shield her from the dockside and bent his head.
‘What are you doing – ‘
‘Kissing you,’ he said. And did. His free hand gathered her efficiently against his long, hard body, the impudent green eyes laughed down into hers and his mouth sealed her gasp of outrage.