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Winterberry Spark: A Silver Foxes of Westminster Novella (Winterberry Park Book 1) by Merry Farmer (1)

Chapter 1

London – January, 1879

Gilbert Phillips pulled up the collar of his coat against the icy wind that blew through the West End and tucked his hands in his pockets. One street over, the bright gaslight and cheery music of London’s great theaters filled the air, bathing the whole area in its glow. An occasional peal of laughter split through the whistling of the wind around the cold stone corners of the buildings that weren’t quite posh enough for respectable people to frequent.

Somewhere on the brighter side of the street, Gil’s employer, Mr. Alexander Croydon, was enjoying a night at the theater with his friend, Lady Katya Stanhope. The two were strictly friends, but Gil didn’t see how. Lady Stanhope was beyond desirable, in spite of her age. Perhaps because of it. She had kept her tantalizing shape over the years, and she had an air about her of a woman who knew what she wanted and would teach you how to give it to her if you didn’t already know. And just one look at her told any man he had a lot to learn.

Gil laughed at himself and shook his head, dodging around a fellow pedestrian prowling through the dodgy section of town. He wasn’t the first man to go lusting after Lady Stanhope. In fact, it was something of a rite of passage to wake up from a dream about the woman with a raging erection. It was not as though he ever planned to do anything about it. But it’d been long enough since the last time he’d been with a woman that thoughts of Lady Stanhope made the prostitutes that lurked in the shadows he passed seem like a good idea.

“Lookin’ for a bit o’ fun, lad?” one of the ladies called from the street corner ahead of him. In spite of the January frost, she wore her ragged coat unbuttoned and falling off her shoulders, her exposed corset tugged so low that one of her ample breasts spilled out the top, her nipple pebbled.

“Uff, look at that hair,” the whore’s slimmer companion cooed as Gil passed under a streetlight. “I love me a ginger,” she added, swiping her tongue along her painted lips. Two of her teeth were missing, and the rest didn’t look like they would last much longer.

“No, thank you, ladies,” Gil chuckled as he passed them. “I’m working.”

“You’re certainly working for me,” the slimmer whore sighed, rubbing her crotch.

Gil shook his head again and hurried across the intersection, laughing. The sad thing was, he was laughing at himself more than anything else, because, God help him, he was tempted. And yes, he was on his way back from an errand in the City, meeting with Mr. Croydon’s solicitor to finalize a financial deal, but Alex had said he could take the night off when he was done. It had been so long since he’d sunk into the perfumed embrace of a woman, felt that rush of excitement as their skin slid against each other, the heady fulfillment of orgasm while buried deep inside of a willing woman instead of just his own hand.

He slowed his steps and scanned the street for available goods, cursing Lady Stanhope for sending his thoughts down the sinful path in the first place, though truly, it wasn’t her fault. It didn’t matter how much he reminded himself that paying for a whore was sinking pitifully low, that they were riddled with disease, and patronizing one would only perpetuate a terrible injustice to the fairer sex. His balls were so heavy with need and his cock stiffening so fast that it was getting hard to walk. A few shillings might mean the difference between life or death to some unfortunate woman. He would be doing her a favor, helping her survive, contributing to her income. His patronage might be just what she needed to earn her way into a better life, where she could stop selling herself. And if he picked out one who looked a bit cleaner than the rest….

“Gilbert, you fecking fool,” he muttered to himself. He sucked in a breath, ready to pick up his pace, cross the street, and get away from the temptation. A hot bath and a quick wank back in his room at Croydon House would be enough for him to—

“Do you want a friend?”

The shy, shivering voice startled Gil out of his thoughts. He stopped in his tracks, turning to look at the woman who had stepped away from the alley between two shops. Her face was pale and dark circles rimmed her eyes. Her mousy, brown hair hung in limp waves over her shoulders. She wore no coat, only a threadbare shawl that hardly covered her bare arms. The swath of exposed skin above her thin chemise and corset was almost blue with cold. But it was the pleading in her large, brown eyes that grabbed him and held him to his spot.

“Aren’t you freezing?” he asked.

She nodded jerkily, hugging herself for a moment, then flinching, as if she were reminding herself not to cover her breasts. “Y-you could warm me up,” she said.

Gil’s heart twisted in his chest. Her words could have been a saucy enticement, but he had the sickening feeling she was serious. His gut told him she was probably so desperate for physical warmth she wouldn’t care who lifted her skirts.

“Do you have someplace to go?” he asked, stepping closer to her.

She sucked in a breath, swaying into him. She opened the top button of his coat and slid her hand inside to rest over his pounding heart. It was like being touched by ice.

“Come with me?” Her voice quivered, and her eyes filled with supplication.

The overwhelming urge to wrap the poor whore in his arms and just hold her until she wasn’t an icicle filled Gil. “All right.”

That was all she needed. A tearful smile filled her pale face. She grabbed Gil’s hand and sped off with him down the frozen alley. Twin sensations of lust and grief warred within Gil. His body wanted what it wanted, but his heart throbbed for something else. How did women end up in such pathetic situations? Who had failed this poor woman so badly that she was forced to stand on street corners in the middle of winter, underdressed, selling her body just to keep from freezing? And was he a sinner or a saint to pluck her up and warm her with his needs?

They ducked through the door of a shabby building, filled with what Gil guessed were cheap flats, and up a narrow, stinking stairway.

“I’m at the top,” the woman explained with an apologetic smile.

Gil nodded and followed her, past three landings and several doors. A couple shouted behind one, a baby screamed behind another, and a woman moaned with what could have been pleasure or despair behind yet another. It was the most miserable place Gil had ever been. He wanted to turn and run, but he wanted to help the woman even more.

At last, they reached a tiny door with one corner cut off by the slant of the roof at the top of the stairs. The woman fished out a key, unlocked it, and pulled Gil inside. Her room was no better than a closet, with a narrow bed on one side, a basket piled with dirty blankets in one corner, and a battered suitcase against one wall. The wind howled against the roof above, screaming in through cracks that probably leaked in the rain.

“Let’s get you comfortable,” the woman said, her voice shaking and full of false cheer.

She shut the door, then started on the buttons of Gil’s coat, then his suit jacket. Her hands trembled so much that she had a hard time with it. Gil was speechless with misery as she glanced up at him with apology and sadness in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she squeaked at last, blinking back tears. “M-my hands are too cold to undo all these buttons.”

“It’s all right.” He drew her into his arms, wrapping his coat around her and closing her in his warmth. She was stiff as iron. “There, that’s better, isn’t it?”

She nodded, squeezing her eyes shut. Slowly, she relaxed, pressing closer to him. Her trembling eased, and she bend her head toward his shoulder. Gil swallowed the lump of horrified sadness in his throat, closing his arms more tightly around her. She rested her hands on his chest, then slowly lowered them to his waist.

She took a breath and reached for his crotch. Gil flinched as she cupped his fading erection, bringing it back to life again. The rush of pleasure her touch brought was eclipsed by a tidal wave of guilt. Every bit of moral sense he had told him to back away, but she unfastened his trousers and slipped both hands into his drawers to tease and stroke him. He let out a strangled sound of pleasured torment.

But it was another sound that caught his attention, causing him to gasp in shock. The plaintive cry of a baby.

“Oh!” The woman pulled her hands out of his trousers and stepped away from the heat of his coat. She turned to the basket in the corner. The blankets inside were writhing. A conflicted frown creased her brow, and she bit her lip. “She’ll be fine,” she said to herself, then turned back to Gil. “I’ll take care of you first.”

She pushed his coat off his shoulders, then made much quicker work of the buttons on his jacket and waistcoat than she’d been able to before. Gil stood frozen in shock as she tugged his shirt out of his loosened trousers and spread her hands along the hot skin of his abdomen. He couldn’t do this. He had to put a stop to things. The baby’s crying grew louder, but it was weaker than any other baby he’d ever heard. The woman’s face pinched in misery as she slid her hands back into his trousers.

“Oh, dear,” she gasped, leaning back and looking down. Wet patches had appeared on her chemise and corset over her breasts. The tangy scent of milk filled the air. “Oh, no.”

The woman stepped back, quickly unhooking her corset and lifting her chemise to expose her ripe breasts. Her nipples were taut and leaking. The sight was so arousing that Gil turned away.

“I’m sorry,” he heard the woman say as she crossed the room to the basket.

He listened as she lifted the crying baby. The crying was quickly muffled. Gil was certain that if he looked back, he’d find the woman nursing, which was even more arousing, not to mention shame-inducing.

He heard the woman sit on her pitiful bed, then gasp. “Oh. I should have asked.”

“Asked what?” Gil kept his back to her.

“Some men like milky breasts. I should have offered them to you first.”

Gil’s stomach turned, and he fought down temptation. He was a man with impulses, but more than that, he was a gentleman. Fury that the poor woman had been forced to offer her milk for a man’s amusement rather than her baby’s nourishment dampened his arousal. He edged around the room, keeping his back to her and refastening his trousers as he went, until he reached the basket. He bent to pick up a worn, old blanket, then handed it over his shoulder to her.

“You can cover yourself up,” he said.

“I—” A shocked silence followed, before the woman took the blanket.

Gil checked gingerly over his shoulder, making sure she’d covered up, then turned fully to her. Her breasts and the baby were fully concealed, and the poor woman stared at the top of the blanket, looking bereft.

“What’s the baby’s name?” he asked.

“Faith,” the woman answered.

Gil paused, feeling a thousand times more awkward than he’d ever felt in his life. “She’ll be all right, won’t she?”

The woman sniffed and dragged her eyes up to meet his. “I don’t know,” she said, her eyes filled with tears. “I can’t seem to earn enough or steal enough food to keep myself fed so that I can feed her.”

“I’ll pay you,” Gil said.

“That’s very kind,” she replied with a watery smile. She pulled the baby and the blanket aside, spread her legs, and started to lift her skirt.

“No, no.” Gil raised his hands and tried to look away from the beautiful sight of her full breasts. “I meant I’ll pay you without services rendered.”

The woman paused, swallowed. “Why?” Her baby began to fuss, so she reached for her, returning to nursing. “At least let me suck you off. I can do that once she’s fed.”

“No,” Gil said firmly. He glanced around the cramped space. It wasn’t exactly Mr. Croydon’s sitting room. The only place he could sit that wasn’t on the bed was on the floor against the wall. “That won’t be necessary.”

“But you must want something if you’re going to give me money,” she argued.

Gil sent her a lop-sided grin. “What I want and what I’ll ask for are two different things.” He paused, then asked, “What’s your name?”

“Ruby,” she answered, eyes downcast.

“And how did you get here, Ruby?” he asked, a little too much frustration in his voice. “How did it come to this?”

She stared down at the blanket covering her nursing daughter, taking her time to reply. At last, without looking up at him, she answered, “I had a job. Good, gainful employment in an important man’s house.”

“You were in service?”

She nodded, still not looking at him. “The master took a fancy to me.”

She didn’t say more, but she didn’t need to. Gil could fill in her entire story based on the one admission. He’d seen it far too many times before. An unscrupulous man in a position of power and authority used one of his servants when he had an itch that needed scratching. If the girl refused, she was sacked without a reference. If she submitted, nature inevitably took its course, and she was sacked without a reference for being with child out of wedlock. And a woman without a reference had few options left to her. A single woman with a child was unemployable.

Gil swore under his breath, frustrated with the injustices of the world. His life had been hard from the day his English father left his Irish mother when he was a year old, but at least his mam had had family and connections.

“Do you have enough food?” he asked, reaching into the inner pocket of his jacket where he kept his billfold. He was by no means wealthy, but Mr. Croydon paid him well enough.

“I have some,” she answered.

“Here.” He took two pound notes out of his billfold, handing them across the narrow space to her.

Ruby’s eyes went wide. “Oh, no, that’s far too much,” she said.

“Please,” he insisted.

She shook her head. “If I tried to spend a pound note, they’d accuse me of stealing for certain.”

Gil frowned. He hadn’t thought of that, but it was true. If a woman in Ruby’s condition paid for anything with a bill, it would cause more problems than it would solve. All the same, when she glanced down to her feeding baby, he tucked the notes into the side of the basket. Then he searched his pocket for loose change.

“How about this?” He handed her several shillings and a gold sovereign.

Her eyes were still wide. “It’s too much,” she said, hesitant, “but I can’t say no.”

She couldn't say no. The truth behind those words made Gil sick. He rose, his need to flee the squalor and sadness around him stronger than his need to stay and make sure Ruby was safe and warm.

“Are you sure you don’t want a fuck before you go?”

Gil had to swallow to keep the bile from rising up his throat. All things considered, Ruby was far too sweet to be using words like that.

“No,” he said. “Tonight is for you and your baby. Warm up, and if you can, buy yourself a thick coat in the morning.”

Her eyes shone with gratitude as she looked up at him. “Thank you, sir. Thank you.”

Gil nodded, straightening his clothes and buttoning what was still unbuttoned. He smiled at her. “I wish to God that things were different for you,” he said, his heart aching with the unfairness of the world.

She smiled back at him, the tears in her lashes like watery diamonds. He fled from the room before he could change his mind and make love to her just to make them both feel less miserable about the world.

London – June, 1879

The summer heat was oppressive as Gil rode through the busy thoroughfares of Kings Cross. His mind was elsewhere, rolling over the hoops that Mr. Turpin was making Mr. Croydon and his new bride jump through, like monkeys at a circus. It irritated him that Mr. Croydon had been forced away from his marriage bed the morning after his wedding just a few days ago. What angered Gil even more was that he had been duped into being the instrument that tore the new Mr. And Mrs. Croydon apart. Gil hated being played for a fool. He wouldn’t be held responsible for the things he might say if he came face to face with Mr. Turpin any time soon.

The carriage pulled to a stop in front of the St. Pancras Hospital and its adjoining workhouse. With a weary sigh, Gil pushed open the carriage door and stepped down. He hated workhouses, hated the very idea of them. If not for friends and the grace of God, he would have ended up in a place like the mournful, brick building in front of him.

“This shouldn’t take too long,” he told Ron, Mr. Croydon’s London driver, as he started off toward the workhouse’s yawning front doors.

Scents of lye, carbolic, sickness, and death filled his nose as he crossed into the front hall of the administration building that served both the hospital and the workhouse. The unfortunate souls whose life paths had driven them to the workhouse spent their days washing the hospital’s linens, cleaning its halls, and producing goods that were used at the hospital or sold to help fund it. In theory, it was a good system. The reality was more horrific. Disease, overwork, and malnutrition were the lot of the unfortunate souls who ended up in places like the one Gil strode through, heading toward the administrator’s desk. They were better than they’d been in Charles Dickens’s day, but that wasn’t saying much.

“Can I help you, sir?” the clerk behind the desk asked, adjusting his glasses as Gil approached.

Gil frowned, reaching into his jacket pocket for the papers Mr. Croydon had sent him with. “I’m here to receive an inmate,” he said, presenting the paper. “Miss Ruby Murdoch.”

Once again, the name struck him. Ruby. The same as the Ruby he hadn’t been able to get out of his head for six months. He still dreamed about the poor woman and her baby in their cramped and draughty attic flat. If he were honest, he still dreamed about her magnificent breasts and the way she’d stroked him before he put a stop to things. Guilt over those feelings had faded with time as his imagination had spun their encounter into a glorious night of passion that ended with him rescuing her and taking her away from everything. He wondered if she’d found his two pounds, if they’d helped her to get out of that life.

“Just a moment,” the clerk said, shaking him out of his daydream. “We’ve been expecting you. Miss Murdoch and her baby will be fetched at once.”

“Her baby?” Gil’s heart kicked against his ribs. It couldn’t be. Ruby was as common a name as John or Jane. But a Ruby with a baby?

He glanced anxiously at the door the clerk had disappeared through, hope making his mouth dry and his palms sweaty. Six months he had wondered about his Ruby, berated himself for not going back for her, or for refusing her offer for a fuck. Six months of thinking about her almost constantly in his free moments. It couldn’t possibly be—

But it was. He sucked in a breath as the clerk led Ruby, his Ruby, around the corner.

Instantly, his heart sank. She looked even worse than she had in the winter. Her face was more sunken, and as well as dark circles, her eyes had taken on a haunted look. She flinched when the clerk tried to grasp her arm to hurry her along, clutching her baby tight against her chest.

“Don’t be difficult,” the clerk hissed at her. “You’ve had an astounding bit of luck. This gentleman has come to take you away. You should be grateful.”

Ruby’s suspicious eyes raised to meet his. Instantly, she stood straighter, letting out a cry of shock and joy. “You?”

Gil’s heart flipped in his chest. The sensation was so sudden and so strong, that he rubbed the spot. His head told him he was a sentimental, fecking fool, that it was pure coincidence, and that he was simply following his employer’s orders, but he strode toward Ruby as though he was her knight in shining armor and had come to single-handedly rescue her from the world.

“We meet again,” he said when he reached her.

“Thank God,” she wept, throwing herself into his arms.

Gil embraced her, his eyes stinging like a maudlin idiot. The clerk gave them a strange look, but he didn’t care.

“I prayed that you’d come back to me,” Ruby whispered through hysterical breaths and tears. “I looked for you every night, every time I saw a ginger head. I hoped and prayed that you’d come back for me.”

“Ssh.” He stroked her disheveled hair, hugging her closer. “I’m here now. Mr. Croydon is a good man, and you’ll have a safe place in his household. And I’ll be there.”

“Thank God,” Ruby continued to weep. “I would have died if you hadn’t come.”

“You’re safe now,” Gil told her. The urge to kiss her was almost overwhelming, but he couldn’t cross that line, not with the clerk looking on and Mr. and Mrs. Croydon waiting at home for him to complete his job. “Let me take you home now.”

He shifted, sliding his arm around her shoulder and leading her to the desk so that they could complete all the necessary paperwork for her release. All that mattered was that she was back in his life to stay, no matter how crooked the road she’d taken to get there was. He could forgive anything in her past. It was the future that mattered now.