In my next release An Unpracticed Heart, Lord Cowden’s story begins with a fight… A fight in which he accidentally kills a man. This event speeds up an already downward spiral in his existence, and takes him up to Scotland where he’ll meet up with our lovely heroine and…
Well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
In today’s excerpt, I bring you a fight. A boxing match, actually. Told from Hartley’s (Lord Cowden) perspective. Be aware, he is not a man who minces words or passes up an opportunity for one good punch.
The sound of his name made him wince.
“Damn you, Hartley! Get up!”
He raised a hand to his face and touched something warm on his cheek. Blood? Possibly. His own? More than likely. An experimental movement of his jaw brought out a groan from deep within his chest. He wondered if he still possessed all of his teeth, but his tongue felt too thick and heavy in his mouth to aid in his finding out.
“I’ve got ten guineas on this fight, and if you don’t get up off your ass…”
He managed to open his left eye at that. A mistake, as the face of his cousin swam before him in a most nauseating fashion.
“Only ten, Ballard?” Hartley swallowed quickly as the taste of bile rose in the back of his throat. “I would’ve thought you had more faith in me than that.”
Edward Ballard gripped his cousin under his arms and hoisted him up until he had almost returned to something that resembled an upright position. “I didn’t say I’d wagered it on you,” he shouted in Hartley’s ear, before one firm push sent him hurtling back towards his opponent.
Hartley wiped at his face a second time. A glance at his fingers showed him the crimson streak of blood that had trickled from his nose. His opponent—an ox of a man whose name he’d promptly forgotten once the first hit had sounded against his jaw—stood near the edge of the makeshift ring, no wounds or obvious injuries on his person. Only the faintest sheen of perspiration on the man’s forehead showed the slight amount of effort expended in what was shaping up to be a clear victory for him.
Hartley gave his head a shake and tried to clear his vision. He’d toppled larger men than this, but that had been half a dozen years ago and while sober. He’d arrived here this morning still struggling to digest the enormous supper—not to mention the bottle of wine—he’d demolished the night before.
Unfortunately, those were the only details of the night he could remember. So it had been more than a shock to find himself forcibly dragged from the comfort of his bed this morning and bundled off to some hovel in Wapping for a fight. A fight in which he was apparently the main attraction.
He recognized a few of the men on the outskirts of the circle. There was Lord Chadwick, Marquess of Beningfield. And just to his right was that damned Baron Oaksley. Hartley would’ve suspected his involvement above all others if he’d had a spare minute to think. But at that moment, he had no more spare minutes.
The man—the ox—came lunging towards him; not light on his feet or darting with any sort of strategy, but simply using his sheer mass as an advantage, ready to tear down whatever object might lie in his path. Hartley, still dazed from the last punch, moved back a step. And then another. The ring of onlookers that surrounded them gave him little room to maneuver. The shouts and curses of their audience rang through his head, distracting him, confusing him.
And the worst part? He couldn’t even recall why he was here. What foolish boast on his part had brought about this fight? And who was this man stalking towards him, one massive slab of a fist already raised and ready to break Hartley’s skull?
He ducked as quickly as his dizziness allowed—not quite quick enough as rough knuckles grazed his ear. That brought on more ringing in his head, but he recovered with some speed, stepping back until the jeers of the crowd overwhelmed him and he was once again pushed forward from behind.
“Enough.” The word came out under his breath, a breath that burned its way out of his lungs. He would have to end this, or else allow every tooth to be battered loose from his jaw.
He never took his eyes off his opponent. The other man was huge, his massive size his greatest asset. But it made him clumsy. Hartley noticed how every time the man moved forward, arm lifted to swing, he left his face—his entire upper torso, in fact—open and unprotected. And this was where Hartley would put his speed and agility to good use. Well, what speed and agility were left to him since the first collision of the other man’s fist against his skull.
The shouts from the circle of spectators grew to a fevered pitch. They must have noticed the change in Hartley’s behavior, the way he began to dart forward, testing his balance as he teased his opponent into making more brazen and thoughtless attacks, the other man depending on nothing but his breadth and width to save him.
And before he knew it, there it was. The opening Hartley needed. It was the briefest of windows. A single glance to either side and he would’ve missed it. He heard nothing from the crowd around him, felt nothing but the point of contact between his fist and the underside of the other man’s jaw.
The pain came a second. His hand, his arm, his entire shoulder reverberated from the shock as if recoiling from a pistol shot. No doubt he’d broken something, possibly something important. Better your hand than your head, he reminded himself and took a step back just as the large man’s frame—all twenty stone of it—dropped to the floor.
Someone in the crowd—probably Ballard, though he couldn’t be sure—tossed a clean, white handkerchief to him. Hartley wasted no time wiping the effluence of blood and perspiration from his face. More blood trickled down the back of his throat. A ragged cough scraped it clean before he spat out the foul substance onto the floor beside him.
Still too dazed to revel in his victory over the giant, Hartley bent over, bracing his forearms on his knees. Already, various twinges in his muscles foretold the agony he would experience later, when he began to relax. Copious amounts of alcohol would be needed to dull the oncoming pain. He cursed the rapid deterioration of his physical state for preventing him from participating in the raucous joy currently spreading through the gathered crowd. Or at least the minority of them who had seen their pockets lined by his victory.
He glanced over at his opponent, sprawled across the floor, his head thrown back and one arm pinned beneath his side. A flurry of movement surrounded the man, and then a harsh shout went up, quickly echoed by a half dozen others.
“Hartley.” Ballard’s hand gripped his arm, to restrain him or urge him forward, he couldn’t tell.
“What…?” Hartley couldn’t keep his voice strong enough to finish the question. The cries he’d heard were for a doctor, but it was an unheeded request. He had only to look at his former opponent’s face, his eyes wide open, his unseeing gaze evidence enough of a life that had been so suddenly snuffed out.
“Come along.” Ballard tugged at him.
“But I didn’t…” Before he could protest further, Ballard’s grip on his arm tightened as he was pulled towards the back of the room.
“An accident, old man,” he heard Ballard say. “No one’s fault. You must have struck him in just the right spot. Or the worst spot, as it were. Simply one of those things.”
Hartley was pushed into a chair, a silver flask pressed into his hand. He held onto it, his knuckles changing color from red to white, but he didn’t take a drink.
“Just stay here.” Ballard’s tone was unlike anything Hartley had ever heard before. “Stay here and I’ll—”
“Ballard.” He caught the edge of his cousin’s coat between fingers that didn’t want to work. “What happened?”
Ballard opened his mouth and closed it again.
Ballard nodded once, his expression stricken.
“I killed him.”
“Yes.” Ballard breathed out the word on a sigh. “Yes, old man. I’m afraid you did.”
Charlotte Claridge lives a life dictated by her stepmother’s whims. Sent to live with one family member and then another, she finally arrives in Scotland, on the doorstep of a crumbling estate abandoned by its owner. With her aunt, she spends her days mending curtains and peeling potatoes, a quiet existence that changes with the appearance of a carriage bearing a coat of arms.
From out of the carriage falls Hartley, Lord Cowden. Drunk, unconscious, and bleeding, Charlotte and her aunt carry him into his ancestral home. As he recovers in Charlotte’s care, Hartley confesses to a crime that nearly sent him spiralling towards his grave. But can she entrust him with her own secrets while coaxing him back from the dead?
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