I grapple with the fingers clawed around my neck, fighting to pry them away. The strength behind their hold defies reason, and it’s beginning to make me sweat. My windpipe is being crushed, making me gasp for breath. Fucking hell, he’s going to strangle me to death. Flashbacks bombard me—his face, his voice loaded with evil intent.
I’m in a hospital, I remind myself. I’m safe in a hospital. The reminder is hard to believe when you’re choking to death. With no other option left, I lunge for the red emergency button above his bed, smashing my fist into it before trying again to pry his fingers away from my neck.
“Izzy!” I hear my name being shouted, and suddenly more hands are around my throat, helping me. “Frank, let her go,” Susan warns, as stern as usual. “Some help would be good, Pam!”
Pam appears, too, forcing Frank back to the bed by his shoulders. I nearly land on my arse when I’m released from the old man’s clutches, his long fingernails dragging across the delicate flesh of my neck as he’s forced away. Staggering back, I gasp for oxygen, drinking it down urgently as I leave Susan and Pam to calm Frank down.
My hands smooth over the side of my neck, the sting making me hiss a little. “Shit,” I breathe, checking the tips of my fingers for blood. There’s none, but, Jesus, it stings like hell. Frank has a few pointless shouts before relenting to the small army of nurses and flopping back on his bed, huffing and moaning about being held prisoner.
“Now, now, Frank,” Susan placates him, sounding all jolly. “That wasn’t very nice, was it?” She pats the covers around his legs. “Izzy was only trying to help you.”
“Sheila will be wondering where I am,” Frank barks, pointing a bent finger at Susan before turning it on me. “You Nazis! You can’t keep me here!”
Pam gives me a concerned look, and I shake my head, telling her I’m fine, before I straighten myself out and move in to help Susan.
“Let’s get you well and you can go home,” I say soothingly. I pour him some water and hand him the cup, being super vigilant for any sign he might attempt to wring my neck again. He snorts but takes the water and sips it, his hand shaking. The poor man. He won’t be getting well, and he won’t be going home. Sheila, his wife of five decades, has been dead for fifteen years, God love him. His daughter can’t look after him anymore, and he can no longer live alone. It’s not safe, which leaves him in hospital until alternative arrangements can be made. Whenever that might be.
I straighten and take the blood pressure monitor, rolling it away. Susan, the ward sister, falls into stride next to me, checking her watch. “You’ve been pushed and pulled about this week, Izzy,” she muses, giving me a sideways smile. “Let’s have a look.”
I wave my hand flippantly, brushing her off. “It’s nothing.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she scolds, pulling me to a stop and pushing my shoulder-length wavy black hair away from my neck. “I thought you asked Pam to cut his nails.”
I wince, not wanting to get my colleague into trouble. “I did?”
Susan rolls her eyes at my feigned ignorance. “C’mon. It’s the end of your shift. Let’s get handover done so you can go home.” She turns and marches to her office, her round bottom swaying, and I follow as I feel at my sore skin, damning myself for not getting through this shift unscathed. It just means more paperwork.
After half an hour of handovers and completing forms, I make my way to the maternity unit to see Jess before heading home. I spot her through the glass of the double doors, and her face lights up as she makes her way down the corridor to let me in. Her blond curls are pulled back into a tidy bun, with a few wayward strands poking out here and there, indicating that she’s well into her shift. She pushes the door open and ushers me inside, and the sound of wailing babies hits me from every direction. “Jesus, there’s some serious lung exercises going on tonight,” I say on a laugh. My best friend nods her agreement and wipes her hands down the front of her dress. She’s a midwife, and a great one. We met at college and have shared a flat since we were eighteen. She is literally my only family.
“There must be a full moon,” Jess says, her eyes landing on my neck. “Wow, that’s a bad one.”
I reach up and feel again, wincing, my fingers slipping across the antiseptic cream. “Frank made a bid for freedom.”
“Damn, girl, you should have followed my lead. Babies can’t strangle you.”
“No, but women in labor can.”
“That’s why we have birthing partners.” She winks, and I chuckle, buttoning up my coat, ready to face the cold.
“What time are you done?” I ask.
“Six in the morning.”
My face bunches in sympathy. The red-eye shift. “Don’t wake me when you come in.” I dip and kiss her check, just as an almighty bellow rings through the air, a woman in labor screaming to high heaven. “I’m never having children.” I shudder, backing away to the door.
“Yeah, me either,” Jess confirms. “Hey, only a week to go!”
The mention of our upcoming trip makes me grin like a fool. “Vegas, baby,” I call, hearing more screams. They flatten both of our smiles and remind us that we have a few more shifts to go before we can get really excited. “There’s a vagina awaiting your presence.”
Jess sighs and wanders off. “I’ve seen enough vaginas to last me a lifetime, but I plan on counteracting them with nothing but cock in Vegas.” She looks over her shoulder, all coy, and a laugh rumbles up from my tummy, erupting and drowning out the pleas for drugs coming from the room down the corridor. “Time to push, sweetheart!” she sings, all enthusiastic to her patient as she disappears. I smile and let myself out of the maternity unit.
After collecting a takeaway tea from the café, I break into the cool winter evening and start the long walk home. The fresh air instantly starts to soothe my tired body after my long shift. Walking to and from work isn’t just done out of necessity. On my way to the hospital, the brisk half-hour walk does a grand job of waking me up, readying me for my shift. On my way home, the lazy stroll helps me clear my mind and winding me down. Besides, I couldn’t afford a car even if it made sense to have one. Which it doesn’t. The drive would probably take twice as long as the walk, and parking at the Royal London is nearly impossible.
As I sip my tea, I check my phone, faltering a split second when I see a missed call from an unknown number. I clear the screen and round a corner, trying not to let my imagination run away with me. It’s probably just a sales call, I tell myself. Or one of those irritating marketing surveys. It couldn’t possibly be him after all this time. Ten years since I ran. It’s been ten years since I escaped him.
I stuff my hands into the pockets of my mac, bringing my shoulders up to my ears to keep the chill at bay, and march briskly on my way, pushing the memories away, but never the heartache. It’s particularly chilly tonight, but I smile, thinking Vegas will be hot, hot, hot. My first holiday in years. I can’t wa—
A loud noise from behind startles me, and I stop to glance back, wary, before scanning the street for other pedestrians. There are none, just the dim glow of the streetlights in the darkness. Warehouses on the other side of the street have stood empty for as long as I can remember, and the row of houses on the same side as me are mostly boarded up. Jess nagged me constantly when she found out I took this little shortcut, to the point I told her that I wouldn’t go this way anymore. But I’ve done it for years, and it shaves a good ten minutes off my journey. There’s usually someone taking the same route. But not tonight.
The hairs on the back of my neck rise as another crash echoes around me. It prompts my feet back into action, and I start an urgent walk away from the sounds, constantly looking over my shoulder. My apprehension lessens the closer I come to the end of the street, toward the main road, but then a low, pain-filled whimper pulls me to an abrupt stop. I turn around, hearing the sound of a car screeching off in the opposite direction. And as soon as the loud noise of the engine fades, more whimpers. Instinct kicks in and takes me back down the street, despite my uneasiness. Someone’s hurt. I can’t just walk away. Maybe it’s the nurse in me. Or maybe it’s simple human nature.
I break into a jog, trying to keep my footsteps as quiet as possible so I can listen for where the noise is coming from. I catch another low cry. It’s a woman. I pick up speed, reaching the entrance to an alleyway. I can’t see a damn thing. “Hello?” I call, pulling my phone from my bag.
“Please help me,” a woman begs, distress evident in her voice. “Please.”
“I’m here. Just a second.” I faff with my phone, searching for the light feature, flicking it on and shining it down the black alleyway. A woman comes into view, propped up against a brick wall. “Oh my God, are you okay?” I rush toward her, using my phone to guide me, until I’m crouched by her side, assessing her. She looks dazed, and as I shine the light in her eyes, I conclude very quickly that she’s concussed. I scan her slight frame, searching her body for injuries. Her clothes instantly make me wonder if she’s a hooker. Sadly, I see them at the hospital all the time.
“What’s your name?” I ask, pushing her hair from her face and finding a tidy cut over her eyebrow. My teeth grate, and she doesn’t answer, her head heavy and rolling. “Can you hear me?” I ask, dropping to my knees and putting down my bag. She still doesn’t respond, so I work fast but carefully, getting her into the recovery position. “I’m getting help,” I tell her, dialing for an ambulance.
But before the call connects, two hands grab me from behind and yank me back, shoving me aside with a pissed-off grunt. I yelp, shocked, and my phone topples and smashes against the ground. My only light is now gone, leaving me blind and panicked. I scramble back on my arse, my feet sliding across the dirty cobbles of the alley. Fear rips through me so fast it takes my heart rate from steady to wild in a beat. It’s a familiar fear, and that only amplifies my panic.
I can’t see a thing, but I can smell, and my nose is assaulted by the stale stench of old sweat and alcohol as flashbacks attack me, beating down the high walls that I fight to keep intact. A low whimper reminds me of the woman who is barely conscious next to me, and I reach for her, trying to find her fingers so I can squeeze some reassurance into her.
The sharpest of pains bolts through my hand when it’s callously kicked away, and I cry out, bringing it to my chest protectively and sucking back my tears. I’ve just walked straight into danger. What was I thinking? How could I be so stupid? But part of me can’t be sorry for venturing down here, for trying to help. At the very least, I hope I’ve halved the blows the woman next to me will be subjected to. After all, I can take them. It’ll be nothing I haven’t felt before. I close my eyes and see the monster who tormented me, and then his hand as it flies through the air toward my cheek.
I wince, my face bursting into flames when a hand, one that’s not from my memories, connects with my cheek. But I beat back my tears, locating the grit I called on many years ago but haven’t needed since, the strength and fortitude to just survive. I shut my mind down and wait for the next hit, breathing in more calm.
“You should have kept walking, bitch.” His foul odor is starting to get down my throat, making me heave, and my body jerks forward when he grabs the front of my coat, yanking me up, breathing all over me. I open my eyes, not only to remind myself that I don’t know this man, but because his face is close and I might get a glimpse in the darkness. Teeth—dirty, rotten, jagged teeth are the first thing I see, chapped lips grinning around them. “Tryin’ to help the poor slag, huh?”
I look up and see pure, filthy evil in his eyes, his pupils dilated. I’ve seen eyes like these before. They’re eyes full of cruel intentions. I keep my mouth shut, knowing I shouldn’t fuel the situation, but when his grubby hand reaches for my thigh and strokes up toward my stomach, and then to my breast, I whimper, my fear reaching new heights. I can take a few slaps, but that. No. No, I can’t go there again. I’ll fight him with all I have. “Please no.”
“Hmmm,” he hums, his nasty grin widening. “Think I’ll have a taste, since you seem so—” He’s cut off dead in his tracks when the roar of an engine saturates the air, and the alleyway is suddenly illuminated by headlights. I squint, blinded by the sudden brightness, and blink back some of the glare, working to gain some focus, my heart beating wildly. I can feel his grip on me loosen. “Fuck,” he curses, his voice now shaky rather than menacing. I hear a car door slam. I hear pounding footsteps. And then my attacker is suddenly catapulting backward with a startled yell, jerking me sharply as his hands are ripped away from my coat. The sound of him hitting the bricks of the wall opposite makes me flinch, and when my vision clears, I recoil, seeing the back of a rather large man towering over the trembling body of the scum who was about to…
I shake my head violently, not prepared to allow my mind to go there. Whoever has just shown up seems as menacing, though definitely better dressed. He’s wearing a suit, his blond hair wavy and falling to his ears. The headlights bathing the alley give me a perfect view as he drags the arsehole who just cuffed my face up the wall by his sweater. I’m held rapt by the widening of his eyes, the evidence of narcotics lessening by the second, being replaced with fear.
“No, please,” my attacker cries, pushing himself further against the wall.
The suited stranger says nothing, just holds him by his throat against the wall, making the man’s eyes bulge. I can’t move. Dare not, either. But when a faint whimper sinks into my ears, I look down at the woman beside me. She’s restless, her bare legs kicking out, her head rolling. My natural instinct has me on the ground next to her in a heartbeat, with no consideration for strange suited, large men and drugged-up arseholes.
I shush her gently and move in close, feeling so sorry for her when she turns her face into me and nuzzles into my neck, like she’s hiding. Like she’s looking for protection. I don’t know why, but I sense it’s here now. “It’s okay,” I whisper, rubbing her bare arm, feeling how cold she is. I quickly check her pulse and then remove my coat, fighting to get it around her shoulders, focusing on her and not what could be a pretty nasty scene a few feet away. I have no tolerance for men who knock women around. But I also can’t bear violence.
My attention remains on the woman until the sound of a car door shutting pierces the air. The spaced, even beats of shoes hitting the ground fill my ears, almost ominous in their approach. The suited guy is still across the way holding my panicked attacker against the wall, which tells me the footsteps are someone else’s. I wrap my arm around the woman’s shoulders and cast my eyes to the right until they find the car, which I note through my shock is a Bentley. And then my view is suddenly hindered by a pair of trouser-covered legs. Long legs. Thick legs. Strong legs. My eyes slowly start to creep upward, over thighs, a suit-jacket-covered torso, a neck…
Until I get to a face.
His piercing blue eyes force me to blink back the shine.
I swallow, inhale, and hold my breath as he looms over me.
He might be wearing a suit, but his strength isn’t concealed. He’s a muscular beast of a man. My mouth falls a little lax on my exhale, my mind unable to comprehend such formidable power. He looks frightening, yet those cobalt eyes hold a softness within them as he stares down at me, his brown hair limp and falling across his forehead. “Who are you?” His deep, rough voice penetrates my skin.
I remain mute, just staring, my mind working hard to try to tell me whether I should be scared.
“Who. Are. You?” he demands, sounding menacing.
“I was walking home from work,” I rush to explain. “And heard…” My words fade when I realize I don’t know the name of the woman in my arms.
“Penny,” he prompts, nodding toward the woman. “Her name is Penny.”
I swallow nervously, unable to stop my eyes from scanning the pile of muscle and power standing over me. He knows this woman? “I heard Penny. She sounded distressed.”
His head cocks in question. “And you came to help?”
I frown a little. “Yes.”
His stare starts to burn my skin, so intense it makes me want to look away before I turn to dust. He is positively terrifying, yet some primal instinct tells me I’m in no danger. And neither is Penny. The other man, however, most definitely is.
The guy standing over me flicks his gaze to his associate briefly before it lands on Penny for a second, obviously checking her, and then settles back on me. The deep warmth that rests under my skin makes me feel uneasy. He’s a handsome man. I can see it past the harshness of his expression—his bristly jaw tight, his huge body tense. But, God, anyone would have to be certifiably nuts to mess with him. I can’t help taking in as much of him as I can, and there’s a lot of him. It’s all inappropriately impressive. I wonder where my fear and terror have gone. It’s him. His presence, his voice. The second he showed up, I was no longer scared, and that’s just plain weird, since he’s freakishly big and actually quite frightening. But his eyes contradict his terrifying persona.
And then I find myself settling even more when I see the most minuscule curve at the edge of his straight lips. It’s not an evil smile; I’m all too familiar with those. It’s an amused smile, revealing a dimple that’s too cute for him.
Looking back to his associate, he nods, a silent instruction, and the guy holding the pimp in a choke hold starts pushing him on, forcing his arm up his back and kicking his feet to get him moving, ignoring the pleas for mercy. “What are you going to do to him?” I blurt, watching as he’s shoved down the alleyway to constant screams of panic—panic that intensifies when a truck pulls up. He’s thrown into the back, the door shuts calmly, and the truck is pulling away a second later.
I turn my attention back to the giant before me, finding he’s not moved one inch. He doesn’t answer me. “Here.” He offers me his hand.
I clamp my lips together and hold my breath, instinctively bracing for contact. It’s beyond me, but when I reach forward and he swoops in to claim my hand, I feel an immediate boom in my chest. He gives me an almost dirty look, one laced with annoyance, as his hand squeezes around mine. I’m on my feet in a second, feeling light-headed. Intoxicated. Totally unstable. What the fucking hell is that?
He quickly pulls his hand free, and I take a few steps back as he watches me putting distance between us, looking deep in thought. “What?” I ask, if only to break the suddenly uncomfortable silence.
“Your hands are so warm,” he says quietly, looking down at them. “And it’s so cold tonight.”
“Did I burn you?” I ask on a nervous laugh, and he frowns, once again ignoring my question as he turns toward the other suited man, who’s back and collecting Penny up from the ground, cradling her in his arms and carrying her to the Bentley.
“Get her back to the Playground,” the guy before me orders brusquely.
“She’s concussed,” I blurt. I have no idea what the Playground is, but I realize that it’s not a hospital.
He moves forward a step, almost threateningly. I don’t move, finding the strength I need to stand my ground, and he’s surprised, judging by the slight tilt of his head. “Concussed? How do you know that?”
“I’m a nurse,” I explain. “She needs to go to a hospital.”
“You’re a nurse?”
I nod, and intrigue springs into his eyes. “She needs medical attention. I was calling for an ambulance before he…” My intended words disappear. I can’t finish.
His lips twist, abhorrence rampant in his expression, taking a fraction of his good looks away. The sight, though actually very scary, fills me with reassurance, even more than his formidable presence. “No hospital,” he declares, leaving no room for argument, stepping forward again.
No hospital? That’s crazy. I don’t care how big he is, or how frightening he appears. That woman needs treatment. “I’m afraid I have to insist,” I say firmly, breaking free of his iron stare to see his associate lowering Penny carefully into the back seat of the Bentley. “I don’t mind accompanying her if your presence will be a problem or spark unwanted questions.” I’m not stupid. I don’t know this man, but everything is telling me that people prying into the circumstances of Penny’s injuries wouldn’t be gratefully received. Or people prying into him, for that matter.
“What makes you think that?” His voice is deep and low. It’s rough but silky, threatening but soothing, and his cobalt eyes seem to dance as I stare at him. He’s getting a little thrill from my approach. He likes me challenging his authority.
His lips quirk a touch, that dimple forming again, his eyebrows rising in amusement. His humor irritates me now, and I muster up some fortitude and step forward, showing him my determination. The look of shock on his face fascinates me. He’s surprised that I’m standing up to him. Frankly, I am, too. “She needs a hospital.”
His dimple deepens. “What’s your name, girl?”
“Izzy.” I don’t hesitate to tell him, and I have no clue why. “Izzy White.”
“Izzy White. I’m Theo. Theo Kane.” I fall victim to his eyes again, staring in wonder. There’s a certain prettiness beyond the hardness of his face, making him appear younger than I initially thought, yet his presence is that of a far more mature man.
He steps forward, offering his hand. I stare at it and roll my shoulders to rid myself of the tremor of apprehension. “Take it, Izzy.”
I do, immediately, and he tugs me forward, my front coming dangerously close to his. He gulps, his hand beginning to shake, and he pulls away but doesn’t release his grip, like he’s having a fight with himself over whether or not to let me go. I look up at him in question, seeing that battle in his eyes. This close, I get to truly appreciate his height, my level vision falling just below his throat. Jesus, he’s a mountain.
Constricting his hand around mine, he takes another tiny step forward, almost as if he’s approaching me with caution. His persona and behavior could be interpreted as intimidating, but I feel nothing but intrigue. He’s studying me closely. The sharp stubble of his jaw is perfectly even, his lips parted just a fraction. “You have soft hands,” he murmurs quietly. “Warm and soft. I like the feel of them.”
Oh my God.
I look away, completely stunned. “She needs professional care,” I say mindlessly, feeling his grip flex around mine. I try to pull away, but he laughs in the face of my strength, keeping a firm hold of me. “I strongly urge you to take her to the hospital. It’s the best place for her.”
“You don’t think I can care for her?”
“Forgive me, but you don’t look like the type to have any medical knowledge.”
“But you do,” he replies gently, seeming to take no offense, his hand shifting a little in mine, roaming and feeling through my fingers. “So you’ll come with me.”
“What?” I blurt, my eyes darting upward. Is he crazy?
“Your concern for Penny is touching,” he goes on. It’s now him trying to pull free from my grasp, but nerves have suddenly made my grip tighten. His jaw stiffens, and he yanks himself free with a hiss. My arm drops to my side as I stare up at a face that is hovering on the line between irresistible and dangerous. “I’ll ensure everything you need is waiting for you when we arrive.”
“I’m not a doctor,” I point out. “I’m a nurse. My medical knowledge isn’t as broad as a doctor’s.”
“I have faith in you.” Theo gestures toward the big, impressive Bentley, watching as I follow his extended arm. “Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you, Izzy,” he says on a mere whisper, turning those big hands over and showing me his palms. “That I promise you.”
I have no reason to believe him, and despite sensing that he’s no danger to me, I know I should be wise. And it wouldn’t be wise for me to get in that car with these two huge men. I shake my head and step back. “Please, won’t you just take her to a hospital?”
On a sigh, he reaches back under his suit jacket, pulling something out. “I can’t do that.” He holds something out to me, and I look down to see what.
“Oh my God,” I murmur, clumsily stepping back, my composure long gone. “Okay, I’ll come.” I hold up my hands.
“Hey, calm down,” he says, way too gently, considering he has a gun aimed at me. What does he expect? But then reason finds me, and I peek at the weapon in his hand. He’s not holding it. It’s simply lying in his palm. “It’s for you.” He steps forward and takes my hand, putting the gun in my grip. “An insurance policy.”
The weight surprises me, and I look up at him, confused. “What?”
“If you feel like you’re in danger, go right on ahead and shoot me.” He smiles that cute smile again, and I’m forced to look away. “I’m sorry for scaring you.”
With his apology, I immediately fall under the spell of the contradicting softness and hardness of his stare. He won’t hurt me. Or Penny. I know the signs of a man who throws his weight around. I bet Theo throws his weight around all right, but not with women.
I swallow and straighten my shoulders, handing back his gun. “I don’t think I’ll need this.”
He cocks his head in interest as he accepts. “Why?”
“Because I have my own,” I joke and roll my eyes, and he gives me that roguish smile again. Damn that smile. It shouldn’t suit him. “Where do you live?” I ask, wondering who Penny is to him.
“You don’t need to worry about an address.” He slips his hand onto my shoulder, and I jump under his hold, fire racing through my veins. It’s making my head spin. “You’ll come with me, and I’ll have my driver take you home once you’ve seen to Penny.” His grip flexes, his big hand practically blanketing my entire shoulder. The odd warmth that melts deeply into me as I move toward the car is confounding, and I can’t think past the whoosh of blood pumping in my ears. Who the hell is this giant?
PRE-ORDER GENTLEMAN SINNER & GET TWO FREE GIFTS!
Jodi Ellen Malpas and her publishers are excited to offer two exclusive gifts for U.S., Canadian and UK readers who pre-order Gentleman Sinner.
You are invited to order a copy of Gentleman Sinner from your favourite retailer and help spread the word using #GentlemanSinner on Twitter or Instagram.
Participants will receive a two-part giveaway of JEM goodies:
- A free download of a bonus scene from With This Man by Jodi Ellen Malpas; previously only available in the UK paperback edition sold exclusively at ASDA.
- An exclusive print of the poem featured in Gentleman Sinner by Jodi Ellen Malpas
Here’s how it works:
- Upload a proof-of-purchase on the form relevant to your country by following one of the below links. (Receipts with book purchases before January 11 will count.)
- You will receive a link to access your free download of a bonus scene from With This Man.
- Your exclusive Gentleman Sinner print will be mailed to you in February 2019 (while supplies last). Participants must be able to receive mail in the United States, Canada & the UK only.
The Poem in Print