The DukeBy: Kerrigan Byrne
London, February 1876
Imogen Pritchard shuddered as the fine hairs on her body prickled with alarm. The usually oppressive atmosphere of the Bare Kitten Gin and Dance Hall turned electric with danger, charging every nerve in her body with the awareness of an advancing predator. After placing her armful of empty ale and gin glasses on the sideboard, she palmed a knife from the utensil bin, concealing it in the folds of her skirts as she turned to face the threat.
A cadre of scarlet-clad soldiers filed through the door, their lean, young bodies taut with masculine restlessness. Their eyes gleaming with feral hunger. They reminded Imogen of a roving pack of wolves, licking their chops and smiling their sharp-fanged smiles in anticipation of a macabre feast.
Since she’d been forced to work at the Bare Kitten, Imogen’s instinct for peril had been honed as sharp as the sabers hanging from the soldier’s waists. And these men, these young wolves, were on the hunt for trouble, only waiting—straining—to be unleashed by one affirmative gesture from their alpha.
As dangerous as they might prove to be, she knew at once that the young soldiers, now fanning into an arc, hadn’t been the source of her internal alarm.
Their leader had.
He was a point of disturbing quietude in their chaotic energy. He rose head and shoulders above them, looking down upon all in his path by the sheer necessity of his towering height. His was the iron fist that held them in check. His was the will upon which they lived or died. His was the command they executed without question.
And well he knew it.
Imogen couldn’t remember glimpsing such a haughty brow before, nor such astonishingly handsome features. The structure of his face would have been ideal fodder for the Greek sculptors. They’d have used their most precise tools to carve the aristocratic features, almost perfect in their symmetry, from only the best stone. Her fingers tightened around the knife, though they itched for her paintbrushes. She’d paint his long body in great, rigid strokes and broad, bold lines.
A stab of recognition pierced her. She’d seen him somewhere before, surely. Normally, a unique color palette such as his would have clung to her memory. It was as though God had sculpted him out of precious metals. His skin was brushed with a golden hue, his hair shone with a darker, more phosphorous accumulation of bronze, and his eyes, too luminous to be brown, gleamed in the dim lantern light like two smoldering copper ingots as they surveyed every shadow and nook of the great room.
That gaze landed on her and didn’t waver for an uncomfortably long time. His expression never changed from stony and assessing. Though something about the strain between his eyebrows, and the slack in what must have been a normally rigid jaw painted the hint of an emotion that bewildered her.
Was he … exhausted? Or sad?
As Imogen struggled to breathe, she became quite certain they’d never met before. She’d have remembered sharing the same room with him, let alone being introduced. And yet, she’d had a chance to admire the sharp, patrician nose. She’d traced the barbaric cheekbones and wide, square jaw that created the perfect frame for the acerbic slash of his hard lips.
Beneath the weight of his unrelenting stare, she found herself identifying with the deer chosen by the alpha to cull from the herd and take to ground. Retreating, she turned on her heel and almost ran into Devina Rosa.
“Mierda, but it’s going to be a long night,” she complained, tossing her sable curls and knocking back someone’s half-finished gin. Imogen had never been certain if Devina was her real name, or merely what the Spanish harlot called herself.
“Aye, it is at that.” Heather, a freckled buxom Scotswoman, agreed while adjusting the line of her bodice to reveal more of her generous breasts. “I know men with their marching orders when I see them. They’ll try to fuck their fear into us tonight.”
“I’ll fetch extra oils.” Devina sighed.
“And I’ll get them drunk,” Imogen offered.
“See that ye do, Ginny.” Heather called her by the moniker she used while working in this house of ill repute. “Make yerself at least somewhat useful.”
Imogen barely registered the bitterness in her words anymore. She knew many of the girls didn’t at all like the understanding she’d forged with their proprietor, stipulating that she didn’t have to spread her legs as they did.