Chris stared out the window of his bedroom in the cottage. Despite only having slept a few hours, he couldn’t fall back to sleep. His mind was full of Bianca.
The way she looked, of course, but also the way she’d felt, pressed to his side. Her scent. The soft little noises she made while sleeping. Her kindness and understanding.
He squeezed his eyes shut. He wished he could forget his past and dive headlong into a future with her. Could he? What if their children suffered the way he had? The way she had too? What then? It was a legacy he’d never wanted to pass down.
He opened his eyes again to see the very woman who’d filled his thoughts walking up the little cobblestoned street toward the cottage. Hell and damnation, she stopped in front, staring at the door. Was she thinking of him as much as he thought of her?
“Well look who it is. Bumbling Bianca.” He heard a man’s voice echo down the street. Chris straightened from the window. He was only in his shirt. His collar open, not that he cared. Grabbing his pistol from beside the bedside table, he thundered down the stairs and out the door. Bianca fled down the street, three men chasing after her.
His muscles twitched and he took off after them. They caught Bianca just before she reached the water and bile rose in his throat as Fred wrapped his arms about her, lifting her off the ground. He heard Bianca scream as she tried to slap at his face but the man ignored her, disappearing between two buildings.
Anger boiled in his veins as he pushed his legs into a dead sprint. Fred was going to pay.
He picked up speed as the other two men followed behind, Fred and Bianca disappearing from view.
Reaching the space between the buildings, he slid into the dim, shadowed alley and turned his gun in his hand. The first man stood laughing, facing away from him as he watched Fred’s disgusting attempts to k
iss Bianca. She struggled to escape the man’s assault.
A growl ripped from his throat as anger burst inside Chris. Every muscle in his body twitched as he brought the butt of the pistol down on the first man’s head. The fellow dropped like a stone. The second man turned toward him and Chris didn’t hesitate, he leveled him with a single fist to the nose.
Then he reached Fred, the man now still. Bianca had stopped struggling as well, her large blue eyes riveted to him. Both he and Fred knew that Fred was no match for Chris’s strength.
Fred took a step back, lifting his hands into the air. Bianca didn’t hesitate as she scrambled behind Chris, pressing her front to his back to hide behind him. Fred took another step backwards. “It was just a bit of fun,” he said, his voice shaking. “I wouldn’t really hurt her. I just wanted to get her back after the ball yesterday. That’s all.”
Chris’s chest squeezed, as his brain buzzed with rage. “I’m going to hurt you.”
“Chris,” she softly pleaded behind him. “Please.”
The sound of her sweet voice calmed his mind and drew in a sharp breath. “Let go of me for a moment, sweetheart.”
She did as he commanded and with a quick twitch, he stepped up to Fred, punching him with an uppercut to the jaw. Fred crumpled to the ground, not even able to get his hands up to defend himself.
Chris would have liked to hit the man several more times for good measure. His fingers flexed in and out of fists as he tried to calm the tide of rage rising in him. Goodfellow deserved a good beating. He dropped to one knee and lifted the limp body by the collar, his other fist rising in the air, but Bianca whimpered behind him. The noise pulled him from his anger and he rose up and turned back to her. Lifting her into his arms, he didn’t hesitate as he carried her out of the alley and back up the street.
She burrowed into his chest. “You can’t carry me like this. People will talk and—”
“I don’t care about people. What were you doing out and about alone?” His voice grated out of his throat, harsh and gravelly.
She shuddered against him. “I needed to talk with my father. I didn’t know what to do and I thought he could help.”
“Didn’t know what to do about what?” he asked, stopping to look down at her.
“About you, of course,” she answered, threading her hands about his neck. “I don’t know what to do about you.”
* * *
Bianca swallowed down her fear as he stood still, gazing down at her. She wasn’t physically afraid. She’d never been safer than she was in this moment. But her heart hammered in her chest. What would he say?
Likely he’d tell her there was nothing to be done.
Or perhaps he’d chastise her for hoping even after what he’d said last night.
But he didn’t do either of those things. Instead, he sighed. “I don’t know what to do about you either.”
Her fingers tightened around his neck as hope filled her stomach, making it bounce as they began moving again. “Where does that leave us?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I know I’m not putting you down now, so how do we get you home without being seen?”