I hate writing these things, but hey, you dug this far I should make this worth your while . . .
So here goes . . . I have been a member of this critique group for more than ten years. I write edgy historical romance. We are a multi-genre group and I was the first romance author to cross their threshold. It has been a learning experience for us all. I earned a Masters degree in Instructional Technology from San Jose State University, which before moving to Colorado with my family, I used to earn a living in Silicon Valley, CA. I am a PRO member of Romance Writers of America, which means I have completed at least one manuscript and had it rejected by at least one agent. (Actually I have several completed manuscripts and numerous rejection letters and emails to my credit. I have also won several second place honors in writing contests and had a portion of my work critiqued by the agent Jessica Faust in her ‘Pros on Prose’ column for Romantic Times Magazine. When I announced that I had submitted my work to this column one of my fellow critique group members said, “You must be into public flogging”. )
Perseverance is the name of this game. I have spent years honing my craft and storytelling abilities by sharing my work with my critique partners followed by hours of editing and rewrite. I am a better writer because of this review cycle and because I engage weekly in this process I am moved closer to my goal of publication.
The Reluctant Heart: Book II of The Sisterhood
Dublin, March 1811
Molly Flanagan knew common wisdom gave a woman access to the streets alone after nightfall for only two reasons: whoring or thieving. Neither occupation defined her or her solitary purpose.
The ancient stone walls surrounding her were glazed with moisture and blackened with soot. At this lamentable hour, the hovering twilight barely penetrated the narrow and crooked passages of the Liberties making her every step a challenge, side-stepping foraging rats and pools of slimy malodorous crud.
While other honest folk scurried indoors seeking the comfort and security of a barred door, Molly moved into the streets, having no other choice, since her employer owned her body and soul during daylight hours. Dressing herself as a boy, was both precautionary and practical, and if anyone did find her presence intriguing, a few well-placed kicks from Molly’s unencumbered limbs made short-work of this unwanted attention. She eased into a shadowed doorway, her ears searching the gloom for the telltale footfalls of someone following her. She heard footsteps all right, but not from behind. Ahead of her. Around the corner. Out of sight. Multiple sets of boots scuffling against paving stones, then a well-bred baritone demanded. “Who paid you?”
Molly grumbled. The quickest route back to the shop was now blocked, that is . . . if she remained uninvolved. She was so weary. A deep sigh escaped her lips. Taking a different route would delay getting home and oh how her lumpy mattress was calling to her. She needed sleep, not more trouble. Her eyes snagged on the willow basket slung over her arm full of costly pieces of hand-stitched silk embroidery, which she needed to keep safe so the widow would be paid promptly for all her hard work.
More scuffling noises.
If I keep to the shadows, perhaps I can sneak past without being drawn in. Squatting down she pressed her shoulder to the cold stone and peered around the corner.
Three men circled a fourth. The man in trouble appeared relaxed and radiated a confidence that didn’t seem warranted by the situation. Tall, he wore a dark, well-cut coat, encasing broad shoulders and snug-fitted breeches covering powerfully muscled thighs and tall boots made for riding.
The longer Molly watched, the more she sensed something deft in the way the three maneuvered the gentleman, for that’s what he was, a gentleman. But what was he doing in this part of town and on foot?
The coatless thug standing behind the gentleman had rolled back his shirt sleeves, exposing beefy forearms that matched the formidable size of his neck and shoulders. Trying to get a rise out of the gentleman, Coatless flicked the gent’s hat off.
The gent didn’t rise to the bait. Instead, he studied his adversaries, turning his head one notch, and then another, as he eyed each opponent in turn. Then he shrugged dismissively, as if saying I’ve sized you up and you aren’t worth much.
Molly was impressed how he kept his head, always an advantage.
The one standing in profile had a beak the size of Gibraltar and was just a shade taller than the gentleman. He was narrow through the hips but looked like he was carrying half a small keg of beer under that filthy shirt of his, making his gut protrude out before him like the prow of a ship. He nudged the third lout in the shoulder. “Clever of ye to get rid of his ‘orse that way. Led him right inta our hands, it did.”
So, this is a trap.
“Shut yer gob, ye great dromedary.” Compared to his cohorts this man was wiry and lacked their height, but his demeanor screamed ‘man-in-charge’. His face lay hidden beneath the brim of his grimy, misshapen hat and the gravel in his voice gave Molly the shivers. “Let’s get on with it.”
The gentleman threw up his arms and took a formal fighting pose.
Ha, Molly shook her head. Did he think these fellas were going to fight fair? Like they’d been trained up by Gentleman Jackson himself?
“Odds are against ye,” said the man in the hat.
The gentleman responded with a roguish grin, “I make my own odds.”
The priggers snorted.
The Beak pulled a knife from inside his boot, hunkered down and passed it from one hand to the other. He seemed to have some skill as a knife fighter.
“Put yer damn blade away,” Hat said. “I’ll no be dancing at the end of a rope over your foolishness. We was paid for a bit a mischief, dat’s all. Nothin’ for keeps.”
Beak bobbed his head. “Aww righ’.” He tucked his knife away.
Molly hated situations like this. No easy answers to be found. Leaving meant turning her back on someone in need. I shall put my basket over here, it will be safe and out of the way. I’ll just get home a little later, that’s all.
The gentleman rolled his shoulders. “Was it Hood?”
Coatless scratched his head. “Whatcha mean?”
Coatless had porridge for brains.
The gentleman addressed the man in the hat. “The one who paid for this interlude?”
No one answered.
They closed in.
Molly stepped from her hiding place and loudly cleared her throat.
The four men looked her way.
Beak waved her off dismissively. “Get out a here, runt.”
The man in the hat ran his coat sleeve under his nose. “This ain’t none of yer business.”
She’d taken a dislike to Hat. She’d deal with him first. Molly stepped closer.
The gentleman nodded at her. “I am obliged to you for your assistance, young sir.”
The brim of Molly’s hat shadowed her face. Her braid lay against her back, held in place by the collar of her shirt. The over-sized laborer’s coat hid any other evidence of her feminine form. She took a warrior’s pose, planted her feet the width of her shoulders, bent her knees, and lowered her chin.
Hat shrugged and turned to Molly. “Aw well, in for a penny. I’m gonna make you sorry ye wuz ‘er born, ye snot-nozed whelp.” He cocked his thumb over his shoulder. “You two takes care of ‘im.”
Hat grabbed for Molly.
She turned sideways.
He missed her.
She brought her boot heel down hard against the inside of his right knee.
His hat flew off as he landed on his face. He swung his head up. “Bastard. Who taught you to fight so dirdy?” Hat pushed up.
When there was a gap between his belly and the pavement Molly slammed the toe of her boot up into his ribs, lifting him off the ground.
Gasping, he rolled away.
She turned her head at the sound of the gentleman’s fist landing a pile-driving punch as he struck Coatless’ jaw.
Hat groaned and Molly sprang forward.
Clutched a fistful of his long greasy hair.
Then drove his forehead against the paving stones. He went limp.
Coatless teetered, then fell back against the wall and slid to the ground.
The gentleman spun to face the Beak who’d once again pulled his knife from its hidden sheath.
“Shite. Yer a pretty fare hand with your mitts for gentry.”
The gentleman’s voice was steady as he addressed the Beak. “Had enough, my friend?”
“Ain’t no friend of yours. We was paid for a good basting, and that’s wha’ ye got comin’.”
Coatless shook his fuddled head. Using the wall, he pushed himself to standing.
The gentleman didn’t notice Coatless’ recovery. Molly did. In another moment he’d be back in the fray. Molly slipped through the shadows until she stood behind the Beak.
Coatless lunged forward like a drunken bear. He came from behind and wrapped his powerful arms about the gentleman’s chest, pinning his arms to his sides.
The Beak guffawed. “Gotcha.”
Molly launched herself at the Beak. Her elbows locked, shoving him hard between his shoulders blades. Arms flailing, he crashed, face first, to the ground and his knife skittered away.
Molly raced to his knife. Something seized her ankle. She heard a growl and glanced back. The Beak had her. She tossed his knife into the deep shadows, slipped her foot out of her captured boot, and scrambled beyond her adversary’s reach.
The gentleman, still trapped in Coatless’ hold gave an explosive grunt and launched himself backwards, driving his captor against the wall. The crack and thunking sounds of the gentleman’s and Coatless’ heads colliding with each other and the wall made Molly wince. They both slid down the wall unconscious.
The Beak lay sprawled on his stomach clutching her empty boot in his fist. “Damn your eyes. Interferrin’ brat.” He flung her captured boot aside. Planted his hands on the ground. Grunting with the exertion, he pushed up. His belly, hanging over his thick belt, got in his way as he struggled to regain his feet. Before he could lever himself upright, Molly jumped onto his back. She wrapped her long legs around him, and locked her ankles below his gut to keep him from throwing her off. His clothes stank of dead fish and his labored breathing smelled of cheap tobacco and gin.
She circled his neck with her right arm and grabbed a fistful of his coat on his left shoulder, anchoring her hold, then she pressed her knees inward to give her leverage.
“Yer a girl! I feels yer tiddies against me back.”
“What of it? Girl or no, I’ve beaten you, you great stinking lummox.” She placed her left forearm behind his head and pressed downward.
“When I gets me hands on you, I’m gonna fuck you til you cannot stands up, then sells ye to one of them bawdy houses down at the docks.”
His words made Molly see red.
As he struggled to throw her off, he drove Molly’s remaining booted foot into his ballocks, heel first. He jerked upright and roared in pain. She sneered at the injury he’d caused himself and tightened her grip. Fueled by rage, she bore down harder and with a meanness that wasn’t necessary to achieve her end. Soon the vise-like pressure of her arms cut off the flow of blood to his head and caused him to black out. She jumped from his back as Beak tumbled into oblivion.
Landing on her feet, Molly threw her head back, drawing air into her burning lungs. The breeze fanned her heated cheeks and damp forehead. She pulled her hat off and used her jacket sleeve to wipe away the sweat before it trickled into her eyes.
When her muscles ceased trembling she found her discarded boot and pulled it back on. As she looked down at Beak, she contemplated looking for his knife so she could geld the bastard, then some rats scurried by, jolting her from her blind rage. Molly shook herself. It was time to leave. But first she had to help him on his way.
She walked over and squatted down between the gentleman’s sprawled legs. It had only been a couple of moments but he was still out. She addressed the unconscious gentleman. “You are an idjet. You walked right into their trap.” She shoved Coatless’ arms off the gentleman’s shoulders and felt no padding in his coat. His broad shoulders had nothing to do with his tailor.
What little light there had been at the beginning of this fight was almost gone now. Molly leaned in close to assess his damage. She used her finger tips to walk across the bridge of the gentleman’s nose and cheeks. She let her finger gently skim down the length of his patrician nose. She felt no blood and it didn’t feel broken. Her fingers came to rest against his full lower lip. It was warm and firm. He exhaled and she snatched her hand away. Then looked up at his eyes. They were closed. He was still out, which emboldened her. She brushed the back of her fingers against his stubbled jaw. She liked the feel of his skin against her fingers and the smell of him. He had the scent of a man from the country, not a townish fribble. A flicker of regret made her pull her hand away. It wasn’t right to take advantage of his insensible state, touching him when he couldn’t say yea or nay.
She stood and went to retrieve her basket. It was tipped over and its contents lay strewn across the paving stones. Dammit to hell. It must have gotten knocked about during the fight. She picked up the pieces of lace and embroidery. She didn’t need her eyes, only her nose to tell her they were ruined, covered in piss and muck.
What the hell was she going to do? Branna McCarthy would be furious. And Madame Lamartine was not the kind to advance anyone their wages. So how was Molly going to get her hands on the coin to pay her friend. “What a fine mess I’ve made.”
A male groan.
Molly jumped into a crouched fighting stance. Nothing moved. She scanned the area and her eye caught on the prostrate form of Hat, the leader of this band of no-gooders .
Hmm, you said you were paid for this, I wonder . . .
She went to stand over Hat. “Now where would a man like you be keeping his purse?” With caution, she rolled him over. He reeked of old sour sweat. Molly padded him down. Nothing. Touching this revolting specimen was nothing like touching the gentleman.
She held her breath as she pulled his boots off, one at a time, turned them upside down and shook. Nothing. “You’re not the kind to do a job without getting paid first, so where is it?” Molly eyed his crotch. “Naw.” The thought of running her hands over him there, or worse yet sticking her hands down his breeches made Molly want to vomit.
Her eyes lit on Coatless, the one with porridge for brains. “Ahh, now wouldn’t you make a handy strong box to hide things in.” Unconscious, Coatless sat propped against the wall with his chin resting on his chest. Molly patted him down.
His exhalations of cooked cabbage and onions. Sure enough there it was, hanging around his thick neck on a leather thong. A fat purse. She pulled the thong over his head and stuffed the pouch full of coins into the pocket of her coat.
Molly gazed down at the gentleman, wondering how much money he was carrying. Why not? You have caused me a lot of trouble this night and I have a feeling it is not over yet.
Molly leaned down, getting ready to check his pockets when a wave of conscience hit her.“No.” Instead she gripped the gentleman’s lapels. “Time to go.” He didn’t respond. She shook him hard. “Come on, boyo. Wake u-u-up.”