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The moment she saw the young man walking down the darkened hall toward her, twirling his walking stick, Finley Jayne knew she'd be unemployed before the sun rose. Her third dismissal in as many months.
She tensed and slowed her steps, but she did not stop. She kept her head down, but was smart enough not to take her gaze off him. Perhaps he would walk right by her, as though she were as invisible as servants were supposed to be.
Felix August-Raynes was the son of her employer. At one and twenty years of age, he was tall and lean with curly blond hair and bright blue eyes. Every woman who saw him called him an angel. Most who knew him thought him the very devil.
The other maids in service had warned her about Lord Felix her first day in the house. A mere fortnight ago. He belonged to a gang of privileged ruffians known for their facial piercings and lack of respect for anyone else, especially females. She had been hired to replace the previous girl hurt by the young lord. Rumor had it that the maid had required serious medical attention.
Finley didn't court trouble, but part of her-that part that was going to keep her safe, yet get her fired-hoped he'd try something. It was horribly delighted at the prospect of the violence to come.
The rest of her was terrified. Were it not for the steel boning of her leather work-corset, she fancied her heart might slam through her ribs it was pounding so hard.
Lord Felix smiled, teeth flashing in the dim light as he stopped just a few feet in front of her, blocking the only route to the servants' quarters where she slept. The tiny brass bar that bisected his left eyebrow-and proclaimed him a member of the Dandies-glinted. "Hello, my lovely. I had hoped to run into you."
Finley hesitated. Maybe he'd move out of her way and let her pass.
Or, a voice in her head whispered-her voice-you could kick his teeth in. She lowered her gaze, not wanting him to see the bloodlust there. Silently, she willed him to let her pass. For his own safety.
Instead, he closed the scant distance between them.
"You're new, aren't you?" he inquired, moving closer. He was already much too close for propriety and there was no one around to make sure he didn't overstep his bounds. The light on the wall above them flickered as though attuned to the fluttering in Finley's chest. This close, she could smell stale ale, cologne and the undeniable oily scent of mech-boxing on his fine suit. Lord Felix was a great patron of the sport.
Though why anyone would want to watch automatons pound the gears out of each other was beyond her.
"Please, my lord," she said softly, wincing at the pleading in her tone. Please don't make me hurt you. "I wish to retire. It's late."
It was after three in the morning, to be exact. She would have been in bed hours ago were it not for the fact that the darling debutante of the house had demanded her pink riding habit be laundered for the morning. As Lady Alyss's maid, it was Finley's job to take the ensemble down to the laundry where the air was thick with hot steam and the smell of overheated gears. She had washed the clothing and set it to dry. Right now her blouse and short skirts were damp, and her feet were sweating inside her high, thick-soled boots. She wanted nothing more than to unfasten the many buckles and take them off, along with her corset. She was going to be up early to collect the habit for Lady Alyss to wear.
And now this annoying twit stood in her way. Finley didn't like it. The thing inside her truly didn't like it. She used to think of it as an imp on her shoulder, urging her to be naughty, but lately she'd come to think of it as less mischievous and more dangerous.
Dangerous to whoever threatened her.
Lord Felix propped a palm against the plaster by her head, turning so that he pinned her against the wall with his own body. "What's the hurry?" he asked, beer breath hot on her face. "Don't you like me?"
Finley held her tongue. If she opened her mouth she'd tell him exactly what she thought of him, and she needed to keep this employment. She needed to get out of this situation without either of them getting hurt.
He slid his other hand behind her, down her back to her backside and squeezed. "Don't you want to make me happy? Smart little girls want to make me happy."
Finley turned her head as his face came down toward hers, and narrowly escaped being kissed. His wet mouth landed on her ear instead. She shuddered. "Please, my lord. Let me go." For your own sake.
His lips fastened on her neck instead. Nausea rolled through her stomach and then suddenly stopped as she felt his palm against the striped stockings that covered her thigh. He wasn't going to cease. He wasn't going to let her go. He was going to take what he wanted, because that's what rich young men did to girls under their control.
But she wasn't under anybody's control. Not even her own. She could feel it fracturing as something deep inside fought to get out.
Finley brought both hands up and pushed hard against his chest. He flew backward, hitting the opposite wall with enough force to crack the plaster.
Lord Felix stared at her, in both shock and outrage. "You nasty tart," he snarled as he brushed dust from his sleeves. "Like a bit of the rough, do you?"
"You've no idea," Finley heard herself reply coolly. "But make no mistake, my lord, I do not like you, so keep those damn hands of yours to yourself."
The young man's face reddened and his eyes shone with anger. "Bitch. No guttersnipe servant talks to me that way." He straightened and took a step toward her, shrugging out of his purple velvet frock-coat. "Someone needs to teach you a lesson."
She didn't see the blow coming, but she certainly felt it when it hit. Her head jolted back under the force of his fist, striking the wall. Lights danced in the darkness of her eyes as pain shot through her skull. But she did not pass out.
It would have been so much better for Lord Felix if she had.
She could feel blood trickling from her mouth and she wiped at it with the back of her hand. Vision finally clear, she saw that Lord Felix had also removed his waistcoat and was now rolling up his sleeves. The excited glint in his eye told Finley exactly what kind of lesson he intended her to "learn."
Something inside her stretched and pulled-still fighting to get out. There was no point in denying it anymore. She had been raised in a loving home with her mother and stepfather-a kind and honest man who doted on them both. He would never dream of such violence-no good man would.
But Lord Felix August-Raynes was not a good man. And it was time someone taught him a lesson.
The warm rush of familiar power brought a slight smile to her battered lips. She gave up all attempts to keep it reined in. It was the only way she'd survive this night with her virtue and bones intact. It was as though she was watching herself from a perch on the ceiling-all she could do was observe as her other self took over. Her boots shifted on the bare floor, right foot forward, left foot back and pointed out. She raised her fists.
"Coming back for more, eh?" Felix grinned at her. "I like a little fight in my girls."
She grinned at him, causing blood to dribble down her chin. "Then you're going to love me." The voice was hers, but deeper and throatier than she'd ever heard before. It was a dangerous voice, and even Felix paused at the sound of it.
Finley, however, did not pause. She drove her fist right into her attacker's throat. He staggered backward, eyes wide with shock as he coughed and choked and struggled for breath.
She bounced on her feet, waiting for him to recover. She should run and hide. She should be gasping in fear, lungs constrained by the tight lacing of her corset. But she wasn't afraid anymore and she wasn't about to run. She was going to
But first, a little fun. She hadn't hit the bully as hard as she could have. She was going to let him think he stood a chance first.
When Felix recovered enough to come at her again, she was ready for him. He swung and she ducked, landing another punch to his kidneys. When he doubled over, she grabbed his head and brought her knee up fast. Unfortunately, the layers of skirts she wore softened the blow. He struck her in the stomach, knocking the breath from her, and then hit her in the face again. She fell to the floor, rolling just in time to avoid being kicked by one of his boots.
She'd never been struck before-not like this. She'd never felt as though someone meant to kill her-or didn't care if they did. She gasped for breath against the polished wood floor, rolling again when he struck out with his foot once more. She moved faster than she should have, the pain from his blows already easing.
He called her all kinds of horrible names-guttural and nasty sounding. But instead of making her feel awful or frightening her, they only made her want to hit him all the harder.
She pulled herself to her feet. Her stomach and face ached, but not like it should have. It never hurt like it should.
Her hands grabbed Lord Felix by the front of his shirt. She pulled him toward her, hard, and smashed her forehead against the bridge of his nose. There was a snapping sound just before he screamed. Finley thrust him backward, satisfaction tickling her when she saw the blood coursing down his face.
He was good and mad now. He raised a hand to his nose, and when he saw the blood on his fingers, he made a growling sound in his throat. She'd ruined his pretty face and now he was going to make her pay for it. She smiled. Or rather, he was going to try to make her pay for it.
He came at her again, like a bull. Finley didn't think, she simply reacted and took two quick steps forward. With that slight momentum, she lifted her right boot to the wall and pushed up, grabbing the scrolled brass of the wall sconce for support and whipped her left leg out.
She kicked him in the face.
He keeled over like a milk bottle knocked off a step, hitting the floor with a solid thump. He lay there, motionless, an imprint of the heel of her boot smack in the middle of his forehead, blood trickling from his already swelling nose.
She hopped down from the wall and went to stand over him, victorious and self-satisfied. Adrenaline rushed through her veins, making her practically dance in her boots. Lord Felix had promised to teach her a lesson, but he was the one who had been schooled. He'd think twice before laying a hand on another girl.
But Finley's satisfaction was short-lived. In fact, it was over at almost the precise moment when she looked at Lord Felix's face. He was so still, so pale except for the blood. What if he was dead? All the fight whooshed out of her, leaving her trembling and cold in its wake.
"What have I done?" she whispered.
What you had to.
She felt his neck for a pulse, relief engulfing her as she found it. She hadn't killed him. At least she wouldn't hang. But she had still attacked the son of a peer of the realm and there would be consequences.
Three jobs in three months and they'd all ended with an experience like this one, although this was by far the worst.
She'd been let go from each position because of her behavior, something that had released this thing inside her. Urges to act in a way that was far from civilized, far beyond what she as a young woman should be capable of.
They'd bring the law down on her for this. They'd lock her up. Or worse, use her for scientific experiments in New Bethlehem Asylum-Bedlam. And they would experiment on her once they realized she was abnormal.
Run, the voice inside her whispered. Run away.
Listening to the voice had gotten her into this mess, perhaps this time it would get her out. There was no way Lord Felix wouldn't exact retribution upon her for harming him-either by finishing what he'd started or by bringing the authorities down upon her. There was no way she was going to let him do what he wanted to her. No way she'd risk having her brain dissected for giving him less than what he really deserved.
So Finley listened to the voice and ran.