Abused by those who should protect her, Bri must accept the help of a man she believes she loathes.
Running for her life, Bri finds herself in a situation she cannot escape-under the power of Adam Prestwich. Returned to the clutches of her money-hungry family, she tries her best to endure the petty cruelties and indignities inflicted on her by her family and her betrothed. When the abuse becomes too much, she must rely on her friends to save her even though she has done everything in her power to drive them away.
Adam Prestwich is keeping secrets. Owning a title he'd rather not acknowledge is the least of them. Falling in love with a woman he despises quickly becomes the worst of them. When the actions of her family once again place her in his care, he must distance himself to avoid an entanglement that would cause nothing but misery.
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.