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Forever a Lady (Rumor #2)by Delilah Marvelle
New York City—Squeeze Gut Alley, evening
The sound of hooves thudding against the dirt road in the far distance beyond the dim, gaslit street made Matthew snap up a hand to signal his men, who all quietly lurked across the street. The five he'd chosen out of his group of forty strategically spread apart, one by one, backing into the shadows of narrow doorways. Still watching the street, Matthew yanked out both pistols from his leather belts. Setting his jaw, he edged back into the shadows beside Coleman before whispering in riled annoyance, "Where the hell is Royce?"
Coleman leaned toward him and whispered back,
"You know damn well that bastard only follows his own orders."
"Yes, well, we're about to show that no-name marshal how to do his job. Again.'''
"Now, now, don't get ahead of yourself, Milton. We've got nothing yet. We're all standing outside a brothel that appears to be out of business, and most of our informants are worth less than shite."
"Thank you for always pointing out the obvious, Coleman."
They fell into silence.
A blurred movement approached and a wooden cart with two barrels rolled up to the curb, pulled by a single ragged-looking horse. A large-boned man sat on the dilapidated seat of the cart, his head covered with a wool sack whose eyes had been crudely cut out. The man hopped down from the cart, adjusting the sack on his head. Glancing around, he pulled out a butcher knife and hurried toward the back of the cart.
Justice was about to pierce Five Points. Because if this didn't look nefarious enough to jump on, Matthew didn't know what nefarious was anymore. Pointing both pistols at the man's head, Matthew strode out of the shadows and into the street toward him. "You. Drop the knife. Do it. Now."
The man froze as Coleman, Andrews, Cassidy, Kerner, Bryson and Plunkett all stepped out of the shadows and also pointed pistols, surrounding him.
The wool-masked man swung toward Matthew, tossing his knife toward the pavement with a clatter and held up both ungloved hands. "I'm delivering oats.
You can't shoot me for that." His clipped, gruff accent reeked of all things British.
Cassidy rounded the cart, his scarred face appearing in the glow from the gaslight before disappearing into the shadows again as his giant physique stalked toward the man. "oats, my arse. You Brits seem to always think you're above the law. Much like the Brit who had the gall to slit me face." Cassidy paused before the man. He yanked the wool sack off that head and whipped it aside, revealing beady eyes and a balding head. Cassidy cocked his pistol with a metal click and growled out, "I say we kill this feck and send England a message."
Matthew bit back the need to jump forward and backhand Cassidy. This was exactly what happened when an Irishman had too much justice boiling his blood. He fought against everyone. And woe to the man who also happened to be British. If it weren't for the fact that Cassidy was dedicated to the cause and would fight with his own teeth to the end for it, Matthew would have booted him long ago.
Veering closer to Cassidy, Matthew hardened his voice. "This has nothing to do with England or your face. So calm the hell down. We don't need dead bodies or the marshals on our arses."
Cassidy hissed out a breath but otherwise said nothing.
"Check the barrels," Matthew called out to Coleman.
Tucking away both pistols, Coleman jogged over to the cart and, with a swing of his long legs, jumped up onto the back of it. Angling toward the two wooden barrels, Coleman pried each one open, tossing aside both lids with a clatter. He glanced up, his chiseled grim face dimly lit by the gas lamp beyond. "They're both here."
A breath escaped Matthew.
Bending over each barrel, Coleman dug his hands in and hefted out a young girl of no more than eight, gagged and roped, along with another young girl of about equal age. He set each onto bare feet. Using a razor, Coleman sliced off the ropes and removed their gags.
Choked sobs escaped the girls as they jumped toward each other, clinging. The lopsided wool gowns they wore were crudely stitched and most likely not what they had been wearing when they had been taken from the orphanage.
Matthew's throat tightened. He knew that if not for the interference of him and his men, these two girls, who had disappeared from the orphanage all but earlier that week, would have been sold to a brothel. Shoving his pistols into his leather belt, Matthew gestured toward the balding man. "Rope this prick up before I do."
The man shoved past Kerner and Plunkett, and darted, running down the street.
Shite! All of Matthew's muscles instinctively reacted as he sprinted after the man, leveling his limited vision.
"I told you we should have killed him!" Cassidy boomed after him. "What good are pistols if we never use them?"
"Everyone move!" Matthew yelled back, running faster. "Spread out! Coleman, stay with the girls!"
Matthew refocused on the shadowed figure who was already halfway down the street, those thick legs splashing through muddy puddles as his cloak flapped against the wind blowing in.
Matthew pumped his legs and arms faster and sped into the darkness. Through the sparse light of the moon and passing lampposts, Matthew could see the man repeatedly glancing back, his self-assured run turning into a jogging stagger as the balding man huffed and puffed in an effort to keep moving.
The man wasn't used to running.
The man was used to the cart.
And this was where he, Matthew, who did nothing but run for a damn living, brought an end to the bastard's grand delusions of escape. Closing the remaining distance between them, and just before a narrow alleyway between two buildings, Matthew reached out and grabbed the man hard by the collar of his cloak.
Gritting his teeth, Matthew flung his body against that hefty frame, knocking them both down and into the mud with a skidding halt, spraying water and thick sludge everywhere.
As they rolled, Matthew used his weight to stay on top, shoving the man back down. The bastard punched up at him, hurling frantic blows that rammed Matthew's shoulders and chest.
Holding the man down with a rigid forearm that trembled against that resisting body, Matthew swung down a clenched fist, thwacking him in the head, sending his balding head bouncing against the mud beneath. "Stand down, you son of a bitch! Stand down before I—"
"We got him!" Bryson yelled, pushing in and setting a quick knee against the man's throat.
In between ragged breaths, Matthew scrambled up to his booted feet. He staggered back, feeling mud sloughing off his arms and trouser-clad thighs.
Cassidy skidded in, spraying more mud and shoved aside Bryson's knee. "I'll bloody show you how things are done over in Ireland."
Effortlessly jerking the man up and out of the mud, Cassidy swung a vicious arm around his throat, causing the man to gag and stagger. Bryson scrambled over with the rope.
Once the man's arms were tightly roped against his sides, Kerner jumped forward and, with a growl, delivered a swinging fist into the man's gut. "That's for every girl you ever touched, you feck!" He swung back his arm and delivered another blow, causing the man to gasp and stagger against the ropes. "You think you can—" Kerner jumped forward again and punched that face, a pop resounding through the night air.
"Kerner!" Matthew boomed.
Kerner stumbled back and swung away, his chest heaving.
Matthew swallowed, trying to calm the chaotic beat of his own heart. Despite the reprimand, Matthew knew all too well that Kerner, who had lost his twelve-year-old daughter to a brutal rape and murder just down this very street six years earlier, was relatively calm given the situation.
Sadly, a deeply rooted need to right the wrongs that had been committed against them was what had brought each and every one of them together. Their grief had become his own grief. They all struggled with anger. "I know this isn't easy for you. Breathe."
Kerner swiped at his bearded face with a trembling hand. "Aye. I'm sorry." As if lurching out of a trance, he said, "Tend to those girls. Coleman is probably scaring the piss out of them."
"Ah, leave off the man. He's not as rough as he lets on." Matthew flung off whatever mud he could from his hands and jogged his way back down the street until he reached the cart. "We got him," he called out to Coleman, who was bent over the cart, waiting for the verdict.
Coleman huffed out a breath. "Good."
Heading toward the back of the cart, Matthew leaned against the uneven planks of wood. Neither barefooted girl was crying anymore—thank God—but both were still tucked against the barrels they'd been removed from, huddling against each other.
Coleman gestured toward the two. "You should probably take over. They don't seem to like me. Or my stories."
Hopefully the man hadn't been sharing the wrong sort of stories. Swiping his muddied hands against his linen shirt, Matthew held out both hands toward them and gently urged, "All of us are here to help. My name is Matthew and this gent beside you is Edward. Now. I want you both to be brave and ignore the mud and the scary eye patch. Can you be brave enough to trust me? Just this once?"
They stared, still clinging to each other.
Matthew lowered his hands and smiled in an effort to win them over. "Tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it. Do you want me to act like a monkey? One-eyed monkeys are my forte, you know. Just ask anyone." He scratched his head with his fingers and softly offered, "ooh, ooh, eee, eee, aah, aah."
Coleman leaned down toward them. "I can do a better monkey than he can. Watch this." Coleman swung his long, muscled arms in the air and garbled toward them.
The girls darted away from Coleman. Their dark braids swayed as they scrambled toward Matthew in clinging unison, as if deciding that Matthew was a better choice than Coleman.
Matthew bit back a smile. Good old Coleman. He could always depend on the man to scare anyone into cooperation. Matthew held out both hands. "There's no need to be frightened. He's merely being silly. Now come. Give me your hands."
The girls paused before him, each slowly taking his outstretched hands, though they still clung to each other. Those small, cold fingers trembled against his own.
Matthew gently tightened his hold on them, trying to transmit warmth and support. He leaned toward them and whispered, "Thank you for being so brave. I know how hard that was. Are you ready to go back to Sister Catherine? She's been very worried."
To his astonishment, both girls flung themselves at his throat, bumping their heads against his shoulders. They sobbed against him.
Matthew gathered them, sadly unsurprised as to how little they weighed, and draped each girl around a hip, ensuring his pistols were out of the way.
The thudding of a single horse's hooves echoed in the distance. The girls tightened their hold against him as he turned toward the sound.
The lamppost beyond resembled a golden halo eerily floating in the bleak distance. The steady beating of hooves against the trembling ground drew closer as the silhouette of a man in full military attire with a sword at his side, pushed his horse toward them.
Marshal Royce. The bastard. Now he arrived.
Matthew glanced at each girl and chided, "This here man was supposed to assist, but the mayor wouldn't let him out of the house in time to play. The mayor is his mother, you see. And neither do enough for this city. Make sure you remember that when women are finally given the right to vote."
The horse whinnied as it came to a stop beside them. "I heard that," Royce snapped from above, his rugged face shadowed. "Why don't you also tell these girls how I always look the other way when you're doing something illegal?"
Matthew glared up at him. "Why don't you offer up your horse so I can take them back?"
Royce wagged gloved hands and commanded, "I've had a long night that included almost getting my throat slit. Why the hell do you think I'm late? Hand them up. I'll return them myself."
Their arms tightened around Matthew and sobs escaped them.
Matthew stepped back, adjusting his hold on them. "You know, Royce, I don't know if you care enough to even notice, but these girls have been through enough and don't need to hear about throat slitting. So tone down that voice and get off the horse. I'm taking them back. All right?"
Royce hesitated, then blew out a breath. With the swing of a long, booted leg, he jumped down and off the horse with a thud. Digging into his pocket, he held out a five-dollar bank note. "Take it to pay your bills," he grudgingly offered. "I heard you up and stole another shipment of pistols. Just know the next time you do something like that on my watch, I'll ensure you and your Forty Thieves end up in Sing Sing Prison. And believe me, men don't sing sing there."
The bastard was fortunate Matthew was holding two girls. "I don't need your money. Give it to the orphanage. They need locks on their goddamn doors."
"You won't take money from me and yet you have no qualms stealing." Royce shook his head from side to side, lowering the money he held. "Your pride is going to hang you one of these days."
"Yes, well, it hasn't yet."
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