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Hell In A Handbasket by Anders, Annabelle (1)

Chapter 1

Sophia tugged at the leading string to draw Peaches closer to the hem of her dress. She must keep her precious companion as close as possible.

The dog, small in stature, had very short legs and a long body.

Not that Peaches was strong enough to drag Sophia into the melee of pedestrians. But the passing humans concerned her. The crowded sidewalks bustled with activity today and busy passersby were not always mindful of twelve-inch-tall canines.

Sophia would not wish for Peaches to be accidentally kicked, or worse! She would take no chances with her beloved pet.

Peaches was her baby.

She — the dog, mind you — had short reddish hair with a brown streak that stood up whenever she was provoked or frightened.

In that moment, the streak stood out boldly.

And, as Sophia glanced up, she supposed that if she herself had a streak, it would be standing on end as well.

For rambling down the busy London street appeared a most unusual sight. In a line of tall wagons, all constructed with vertical bars, a caravan of vehicles transported a variety of exotic animals. Were they part of a traveling circus? Perhaps they were new additions to the Tower Menagerie in Regent’s Park.

She’d been once, to the menagerie, and although fascinated by the novelty of viewing the magnificent beasts, she’d sensed a wrongness to it all. A similar sensation swept through her today, as the carts rolled past with the animals caged behind bars.

Other onlookers had stopped to stare at the impromptu exhibition as well. A most unusual sight!

Not to go unnoticed by her dog.

For Peaches’ tail now curled between her hind legs and a low growl rumbled in her throat.

Oh, no.

Sophia glanced futilely toward the storefront where her friend, Rhoda, had disappeared a few minutes before. The doorway stood empty. Sophia and Peaches were no longer welcome inside of the fashionable milliner’s establishment. Well, Peaches wasn’t anyhow. Upon their last visit, a particularly lifelike bluebird set in one of the hats on display had appeared to Peaches as somewhat of a mortal threat. Peaches had attacked and subdued the bird.

The store’s owner had banned her for life.

And so, Sophia and Peaches would await Rhoda outside — “Just for a minute,” Rhoda had stressed — while she fetched the bonnet she’d ordered earlier that week.

As the train of animals rambled past, Sophia crouched to the ground, petting and soothing the trembling dog. “It’s all right, Peaches. Be a good dog now. That’s a good girl.”

But Peaches had other ideas and let out one sharp woof, quickly followed by a string of high-pitched barks.

The horses pulling the nearest wagon cage did not appreciate being taunted by such a ridiculously impertinent animal. In their nervousness, they began dancing and then — oh heavens — bucking!

“Shush, Peaches, Hush now!” Sophia tried infusing authority into her voice, but Peaches had by now worked herself into a frenzy.

“Woof, woof, ark, ark, ark!”

The horses’ agitation increased. In an effort to calm them, the driver had now risen to his feet and was tugging at the reins and yelling at them ineffectually. He brought a whip down sharply, hitting the ground near the sidewalk where Sophia stood. “Shut that bloody little bastard up!” he shouted in Sophia’s direction.

Suddenly the situation had become most unpleasant indeed. Feeling more than a smidgeon of fear, Sophia gathered Peaches into her arms and backed away from the roadway into a narrow opening between the hatmaker’s storefront and a neighboring jeweler.

But Peaches continued barking, and the driver lost control of his team completely.

One horse attempted to bolt while the other continued bucking. This combination created an unbalancing of the wagon as it rolled past Sophia.

Except that it did not roll past at all.

It listed toward her, and inside sat none other than a large golden lion with glinting eyes and a magnificent mane encircling his face.

Reacting to Peaches’ vicious snarls, the lion narrowed said eyes and emitted a growl of his own. As he did so, he slid along the bottom of the cage, toward the bars.

Toward Sophia!

He seemed to forget about Peaches for a moment and scratched and clawed at the floor in futility.

Sophia pressed backwards but was impeded by a brick wall. This was not an alleyway at all, but a cavity between the buildings, about three feet wide and three feet deep.

The cage continued tilting forward and Sophia huddled down, her body wrapped around Peaches.

She prepared to be crushed.

* * *

Captain Devlin Brookes was in a better mood than usual today. Just that morning he’d signed papers finalizing the purchase of a property near Surrey that he’d coveted for most of his adult life. Which was considerable, he grimaced to himself, at the near-ancient age of nine and twenty.

But he felt older than his actual years — military life did that to a man.

Yesterday, he’d sold off his commission. He was a civilian now.

The incident last month with the Earl of Nottingham had given him the nudge he’d needed to sell out. The poor bastard had taken a sword to the bollocks, damndest thing he’d ever seen. The tragic wound had not even happened on the battlefield.

Witnessing it, however, seeing the man’s life change in an instant, had stirred something inside of Dev.

He’d seen enough violence for ten lifetimes.

As nephew to a duke and no title to inherit, military service had been expected of him. He’d served for eleven years and felt he’d done his duty to both country and family. He was wont to pursue something of a peaceful existence. The estate near Surrey, Dartmouth Place, would allow him to do just that.

He might even marry.

But he needn’t rush. He could pop up to London for a Season sometime in the future, after he’d settled. Perhaps by then he would feel compelled to take on a wife. Or conceivably he would meet a young lady who already resided in the country.

Yes, that might be for the best, a country lass.

No hurry, though. He hunched his shoulders and stretched his back. The hours he’d spent with the solicitors that morning had left him feeling stiff. In addition to that, the civilian clothing he’d donned this morning felt unnatural. Since selling his commission, he’d no longer wear a uniform.

Just as he began considering the conversation he must have with his uncle and father, a loud clamoring commotion — Was that barking? And screaming, yes screaming — interrupted his contemplative stroll.

The sight that met him around the corner presented more than a hint of Bedlam.

Were those circus wagons? Oh, hell, a caravan of exotic animals. And one of them had tipped over onto the side of two buildings.

The situation would not be dire, really, except for the fact that the toppled wagon contained a full-grown lion.

Ferocious sounds arose from within the vehicle. And from behind it, barking. What in the world? Through the cracks between building and vehicle, he spied a hint of blond ringlets and pastels and lace, the ominous indication that a debutante was in the vicinity.

Yet another girl, with darker hair, cautiously crouched a few feet from the vehicle. “Sophia, are you all right? Are you hurt? Can you answer me, Sophia?”

A few shabbily dressed men paced about.

It was the driver, Dev presumed, doing all of the cursing and yelling at the current state of his conveyance.

Dev assessed the situation and sprang into action.

The chaos would continue, most assuredly, if allowed to go on unabated. Approaching the scene, he ordered the driver to discontinue his volatile language. The driver cowered at Dev’s command and obediently shut his mouth. Dev then approached the lady hunkered beside the tipped-over wagon and crouched beside her.

“Your friend, madam? She is trapped behind the cage?”

She turned clear and steady eyes on him. “With her dog.”

Of course, except the barking had ceased along with the driver’s barrage of colorful language.

“I’m all right!” a surprisingly steady voice called out from the rubble. “But the lion is none too happy right now… and he is… so very close to me.”

“What is your name? Madam?”

“Sophia,” she answered.

“Miss Babineaux,” her friend corrected.

The condition of the lion and the strength of the cage concerned him. “Miss Babineaux, does the cage appear to be intact from that side?”

A moment passed and then a tentative “I think so. But the bars are not as close together as I would prefer. And one of his paws is caught between two of the them.”

Dev rose and examined what he could see of the wagon. Made of a solid wood, probably oak, it kept the animal in check with iron bars.

It must weigh nearly a ton.

A few of the caravan’s laborers could be heard discussing how one might go about righting it. They apparently had less concern for the girl trapped behind it than for the condition of the lion. One of them suggested a chain be located and another unhitched the horses. Very good. Some activity. Dev, however, did not like the angle in which the cage listed.

If the wheels were to slip, the girl could be injured. Or worse.

Glancing about, he spied exactly what he needed stacked upon another cart parked nearby in the resulting gridlock. As Devlin approached it, this driver, more level-headed than the others, understood exactly what he was about.

Tugging at the timber stacked behind him, he twisted, and pulled and then handed Devlin a short piece of sturdy lumber and two blocks.

Not wasting any time, Dev shoved two of the blocks on both sides of one of the wheels that remained upon the ground, and tucked them in snugly. This would prevent them from rolling when the wagon was pulled back into an upright position. He then grasped the larger plank under his arm and jumped up onto a stone ledge that decorated the front of the milliner’s building. Tossing the lumber onto the overturned cart, he pulled himself up and climbed around to where the chit was trapped.

Large blue eyes peered up at him trustingly.

Stunned, for only a moment though, he hovered over the tiny space she’d managed to wedge herself. “Can you make room for me, sweetheart?” She was a lady, but the endearment slipped out nonetheless. Devlin had always found that women in unsettling circumstances responded well to a bit of coddling.

She gathered her pup close to her chest and nodded. “Watch the lion, though. I think his other paw can reach through if he feels so inclined.”

Dev didn’t fear for himself. The most he’d receive would likely be a scratch.

The girl pressed herself farther into the corner as he dropped into the space beside her. Not wasting any time, he reached up and grasped the lumber. He would find somewhere to wedge it so as to ensure the wagon would not fall on top of both of them, now.

He’d not bargained for the sweet proximity of the girl herself. So delightfully feminine.

A weakness of his.

She’d shifted her little dog to one side and reached her other arm around him, in order to make more room. “Don’t put your hand too close to the cage, love.” His body pressed up against hers. He still hadn’t managed a thorough look at her. The space was cramped and darkened by the shadow of the cart. After hesitating a moment, he felt her hand settle upon his shoulder.

Devlin was considerably taller than she. At least by a foot. Her hair tickled his chin and as he inhaled; her perfume teased his senses. Vanilla, sweet.

Dev maneuvered himself around and propped the wood strategically. Upon doing so, a calm set into him. Until that moment, he had not realized his heart had been racing.

Having turned to address the wagon, he now found himself staring straight into the eyes of the lion.

“He’s scared,” the girl said from behind him.

The lion? Yes, he supposed she had the right of it. Furthermore, the beast was injured and likely aggravated by the indignities of his circumstances.

“His paw is bleeding,” she added.

Devlin knew that if the lion took it upon himself to slash his other paw through the cage, it could reach him. Looking the lion in the eyes could rile it.

And so, he slowly turned back around to face the girl. At least he wore a thick wool jacket. It would protect his back somewhat if the lion chose to become aggressive.

“Are you hurt?” He looked down at this petite miss who had remained surprisingly calm in such an upsetting situation.

She tilted her head to look up at him, and his breath caught. She was exquisite.

Creamy white skin, rosy lips, and just a hint of blush on her cheeks. Her hair hung in spiral curls, but they somehow did not look ridiculous, as he’d often considered the style on other chits.

“It’s all my fault — mine and Peaches, that is. Which, in reality, means that the entirety of fault lies with me. I could not stop her barking when she watched the animals pass. And her barking upset the horses.”

It was the confounded driver’s fault.

The floundering idiot ought to have exerted control over his animals.

Dev would reassure this slip of a girl. “All of this? Somehow, Miss Babineaux, I do not think you can be blamed for such chaos.”

She took in a deep breath and then let it out in a long sigh. In doing so, she unwittingly pressed her breasts against his waistcoat. A low rumbling sound arose behind him. Dev crowded into the little doll protectively and tucked her head into his chest. “You are doing well to keep the pup silenced now. We don’t want to appear too interesting to our friend in the cage.”

“Oh, I rather think he’s interested,” she whispered. Up until then her voice had sounded like a song; the tenor of her whisper stirred him in a rather inconvenient way.

He touched a finger to her lips. “Any more than he already is,” he clarified in a low voice. The skin beneath his finger felt soft and plump. Hell, he was growing interested as well.

What were the gents doing out there? Did they intend to leave the wagon tipped over all afternoon?

“Poor thing, trapped in a cage. I hope he isn’t too badly hurt. Will they kill him, do you think? If he is injured?”

Devlin raised his brows at her question. A circus life seemed a poor substitute for the wilds the beast ought to live in. Perhaps death would be merciful.

“People used to pay to watch the lions at the menagerie eat small pets, did you know that? A very long time ago.” The girl continued without receiving an answer to her first question. “Humans can be the vilest of creatures sometimes.”

She tilted her head to look up at him again. “Oh, not you, sir. I simply mean in general.”

But her words had struck a chord within him. He’d witnessed far too much carnage brought about by humans, to contradict her statement. “I think you have the right of it, Miss Babineaux.”

And then she wrinkled her nose. A petite nose, just as her person was, and really quite adorable. “I’m afraid we’ve not been introduced properly.”

Devlin could not help but shake his head at her turn of thought. A proper English miss, indeed! “Captain Devlin Brookes, at your service.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed suddenly. “You acted as Colonel Harris’ second in the duel.” She knew about the duel? “It was unsporting of him, I suppose, to have, well, you know. But I rather think Lord Kensington deserved it.”

Who is this chit?

“Ladies aren’t supposed to be apprised of such nasty events,” Devlin said, taken aback that she’d been privy to the earl’s... accident. She even seemed to know the nature of the injury.

“I am well-acquainted with the countess.”

Ah, well, that would explain it. Lady Kensington needed as many friends as possible. What with a eunuch for a husband now.

Contemplating Kensington’s injury, Dev winced inwardly.

Miss Babineaux chose that moment to shift her weight. She was an enticing combination of sensuality and innocence. Did she realize it?

The clanking of chains dragging nearby echoed from the street on the other side of the overturned wagon. It would not be long before they had it righted, and Dev could be on his way.

He would leave the city soon. As a man of property, he would most likely become responsible, a respectable landed gentleman. It was something he’d desired, but he would miss a few aspects of the life he’d lived up until now.

On that thought, he wrapped his arms around Miss Sophia Babineaux, placing one of his hands just below the small of her back.

She furrowed her brows at him with questioning eyes.

Such a sweet bundle of womanhood. Long lashes fluttered in surprise when he slid his hand even farther and settled it upon her bum.

She tilted her head questioningly. It was all the encouragement he needed.

Ever so slowly, he lowered his mouth to hers. “Just a taste,” he murmured.

At first, she compressed her lips — a feeble protest — while he used his own to coax and persuade.

But then… ah, yes.

Giving in with a sweet sigh, her mouth softened beneath his.

Dev took full advantage of her acquiescence and slid his tongue along the relaxed seam.

Honeyed lips opened for him.

“So sweet…” He growled into her mouth before delving deeper into the pink, moist flesh. He was vaguely aware of the rattling of chains as they were attached to the wagon, and then voices, a brief argument, and some sort of agreement.

Undeterred, he had time yet. He explored behind her lips and along the line of her teeth and then sucked, ever so lightly at her tongue. He would miss this. The excitement of experiencing a woman’s arousal for the first time. The delight of hearing her breath quicken.

She liked it, he could tell, although he also presumed her to be shocked at his audacity. But she’d lifted her face up, closer to his. She must be on her toes.

Dev dug his fingers into the flesh of her derriere and the tremor that shook her body convinced him that, given the opportunity, she would enjoy more intimate play.

But Miss Sophia Babineaux was a lady.

He would have to be satisfied with but a kiss.

Except… He had been considering earlier… Finding some sweet thing

“Here she goes! You ready in there, sir?”

Dev pulled away and smiled into the passion-clouded eyes of Miss Sophia Babineaux. “Carry on!” he shouted without removing his gaze.

And then she narrowed her eyes. The debutante had returned!

“You ought not to take advantage, Captain.”

“Why ever not, Miss Babineaux?” he asked. “Don’t I deserve a boon for coming to your rescue?” He bent down and pressed his open mouth against the side of her neck.

She shivered and, contradicting her own words, tilted her head to give him better access.

Dev knew when a woman was willing.

And, in this moment anyhow, this woman was willing.