London, 1604, outside the Globe Theater

He gestured toward the stage door. “Of course you wish to go in. You’re shivering.  Do you have a cloak inside? May I get it for you, lass?”

“No, I don’t have one.” I hated to admit that. “Just a shawl. I’d rather not…”

“Ah, say no more. It doesn’t match your gown. I have sisters. I understand.” He took off his own short cloak and set it on my shoulders. “There. Is that better?”

“Yes, and I thank you.” It smelled like him. Like man and wool and a hint of something dark and mysterious. Silly of me. What could be mysterious about a simple man in a kilt?

“Will you walk with me?” He held out his arm.

I glanced around. We were alone in the alley except for a few vendors counting their coins. Maiden Lane was just steps away. His smile coaxed me and his eyes… Yes, they softened as they swept over my body, lingering again on my bodice. I left the cloak open, reminding myself of why I’d come. What harm could a walk do? And there might not be another night when an interested man singled me out so quickly. I could not afford to hesitate.

“Yes, I will.” I still held the second meat pie, a firm reminder of what this man had done and could still do for me. I took his arm. We strolled to the end of the alley until we reached the entry to the wider lane. I took a breath of the cold night air. The smells were a little better here–some foul, most better not identified. I turned to him, my smile dying when I saw him reach for his sword.

“Don’t move, Gloriana. I’ll return in a moment.” With a move so fast I could have sworn he leaped an impossible distance, Jeremiah Campbell faced a pair of armed men who had jumped out of a dark doorway and into our path. Metal clanged and sparks flew as his sword hit a knife, knocking it to the ground.

I gasped, falling back against the stone wall, as a man screamed and clutched his belly, desperately trying to hold himself together as blood pooled around him. I stuffed a fist in my mouth, trying not to retch when the man died in front of me. The other man swung his sword, the ring of metal on metal loud in the air.

“Help! Someone help!” I screamed. Would no one come to aid the Scotsman? But it seemed the lane was suddenly deserted as the two men circled each other, lunging, their swords clashing. They tried to stab each other in the way I’d seen on stage, only this was deadly, not play acting at all. They struggled, pushing against each other until a sword flew across the stones and a dagger appeared in the stranger’s hand.

“He has a knife!” I shrieked.

I needn’t have bothered. The Scot’s fist closed around the other man’s wrist and I heard a sharp crack, then a curse, before the attacker stumbled and fled down the street. I fell back, propped against that wall. My heart thundered and I realized I had crushed the meat pie in my fist. I gagged, trying desperately not to lose the first decent thing I’d had to eat in more than a month.

“It’s over, Gloriana. Are you all right?” Jeremiah drew me against him and pulled me back toward the alley. Of course none of the tradesmen there had ventured out to help. They knew better than to interfere with a fight or to show one of the king’s men that they might carry their own weapons.

“All right?” I staggered, not sure I wasn’t going to swoon, then shook my head. “You just killed a man.”

“I had no choice.” He leaned me against the wall and ran his hands over my shoulders. “Let me get you some wine.”

“I—no!” I breathed through the urge to cast up my accounts and finally looked up into his face. “Are you hurt?”

“No, not at all. Sorry you had to see that. I am sure you took a bad fright. ’Tis not the first time I’ve been attacked since I’ve been in London. It seems some people don’t like the Scots here with King Jamie. A more prudent man would put off his plaid, but I am proud of my clan colors.” He had obviously called for the vendor and now put a goblet of wine to my lips. “Drink. It will settle your stomach.”

I did as he asked, sipping carefully. The wine was sweet, which was almost more than I could stand, but it did warm my insides. I took the goblet from his hand and drank it down.

“Would you like some more?” He drew his thumb across my lips where I must have spilled a drop of wine.

That intimate touch made me shiver and sway toward him. Was it the strong spirits? Or the gleam in his dark eyes? He was clearly excited after routing his foes. Men! Yes, he’d want to celebrate his victory with a lusty romp in his bed. Michael had been randy too, after a successful night trodding the boards.

This was what I’d come out here for, wasn’t it? I should give him a seductive smile now, throw back my shoulders and offer him a good look at the swells of my breasts. Instead, I pulled his cloak tight around me.

“More wine?” He took the empty goblet from my hand and set it on the stones at our feet.

“No, but thank you. Were those the king’s enemies who attacked you?” I wanted to keep him talking. Blood ran down the middle of the alley. Not far away were the feet of the man he’d killed without a second thought. I shuddered. I wasn’t used to such violence.

Then again, I had to admire the way he’d vanquished his foes. He’d been so strong and fearless. And had protected me as well as himself. Was that reason enough to lie with a stranger? Don’t be a fool. You have many more reasons than that to allow him to seduce you.

“The king’s enemies or mine. There’s a neighboring clan from home that my family has been warring with for years. But those men tonight weren’t Scots. They could have been hired to ambush me I suppose but ’tis not a Scot’s way to send others to do our killing.” He shook his head. “No matter. Obviously they should have sent more than two for that job.” He grinned and put his hands on my shoulders. “I’m that sorry you were frightened, lass. There was no need. Louts like that are easily dealt with as you saw.”

I blinked. Impossible. His smile. I’d admired his straight white teeth before. But now? I took a breath, the blood of that dead assassin fresh in the air. Blinked then looked again. His eyes narrowed and he stopped smiling. But it was too late. There was only one lantern here but I’d seen what he was hiding. Jeremiah Campbell no longer had the perfect teeth from before that fight in Maiden Lane. Now he had two enormous fangs sprouting from his upper jaw, pressing against his upper lip and changing its shape.

I reached up, as if touching them would make them go away. He jerked back his head, proof enough for me that those terrible, frightening things were not going to disappear.

Oh, God. The alley grew dim and the meat pie slipped from my fingers. I’d just spent the last few minutes trying to seduce a monster.

© 2017  Gerry Bartlett. All rights reserved.


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