Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

A Bit of Rough by Jackie Barbosa

A Bit of Rough

Book 1 of the The House of Uncommons Series

Lucas Delgado Guerrero’s skin is too brown and his accent too foreign for him to feel truly at home in England, but returning to Mexico, which he scarcely remembers, is hardly a choice. So he remains in London, publishing an illegal newspaper devoted to reformist and revolutionary causes. One of his most popular writers is the intriguing and mysterious Polly Dicax, who delivers sharp, witty screeds by messenger every week.

At twenty-five, Lady Honora Pearce is too busy writing seditious treatises to pay much attention to men. Especially when marrying would mean giving up the very rights she argues for in her fierce diatribes. She is, however, intrigued by the editorials written by one of her publishers. Here, at least, is a man with worthy ideas and ideals. Not that she ever expects to meet him, since both their identities must remain secret. But everything changes when circumstances force her to deliver her weekly column herself and, on the heels of her arrival at the printer’s shop, the police raid the premises.

To protect the shopkeeper and themselves, Honora and Lucas must hide together in a small chamber. They shouldn’t have to kiss, but somehow, they do. And when Honora finds she can’t stay away, Lucas discovers he can’t refuse her, even if he can never be more than her bit of rough.

Book Details:

Series: The House of Uncommons #1
Release Date: 07/01/2021
Publisher: CIrce Press
eBook ISBN-13: 9781735320526

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“A woman’s only tangible asset is her virtue. Whether she guards it like a treasure or trades freely upon it, it is her one reliably marketable resource.” – Polly Dicax

London, April 26, 1831

Lady Honora Pearce glanced furtively to her left and right before making the right turn onto Clerkenwell Road, where Rickert & Sons Printers was located in the center of the block.

Dressed as she was in male clothing, she should not be easily recognizable as the youngest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Ormondy, but she would be foolish to take chances. Even with her long brown hair tucked beneath her cap and her shape disguised by the clever cut of the jacket she wore over trousers, shirt, and waistcoat, there was a remote possibility of encountering someone who knew her and her family well enough to note the resemblance of this “boy’s” face to members of the Pearce family. Her father’s square jaw in combination with his silver-gray eyes were difficult to conceal. But she saw no one on either side of the street who looked familiar to her, and the sidewalks bustled with sufficient activity that she thought it unlikely anyone would take particular notice of a youth carrying a small package in the direction of the print shop.

Despite her relative confidence that she was in no danger of being recognized, her stomach fluttered with nervous anticipation as she strode down the pavement, weaving through the jumble of pedestrians who strolled sedately along and stopped every now and then to peer into a shop window.

She was about the meet Luke Evangelista.

Oh, she knew that was not his name, any more than hers was Polly Dicax, the nom de plume she affixed to the columns she wrote for half a dozen underground newspapers. No publisher of a paper like The Weekly Disciple, which not only advocated radical causes and revolutionary reforms but did not pay the required stamp taxes, could afford to publicly acknowledge his identity. Any more than she could allow her true name to be printed beneath her own militant compositions.

A portly gentleman in a top hat and bespoke suit exited the door of the shop adjacent to the printer and very nearly collided with her. Grateful for her trousers, which allowed for much greater mobility than heavy skirts, Honora managed to dodge him without his apparent notice, but her heart skittered as she realized how close a call it had truly been. The gentleman was none other of than Lord Van Allen, who sat in the House of Lords with her father and to whom she had spoken face-to-face on more than one occasion. Had he been paying the slightest attention, she had no doubt that he would have recognized her in a trice despite her disguise.

This was why she had never before attempted to personally deliver a column to any of her publishers. She would not have done so today, either, had she any other choice, but the messenger boy who normally performed the task had failed to appear at the designated time. When an hour and more had passed with no sign of him, she had concluded that he would not come at all. Since the only alternative to conveying the document herself would mean failing to deliver the expected column at all, she had chosen the lesser of two evils. While she did not depend upon the income she made from her essays for her living—her parents were both indulgent and broad-minded enough that they continued to support their spinster daughter without a hint of displeasure—she did not want the publishers who paid for and printed her columns to think that she did not care about fulfilling her promises. Not to mention that she liked earning her own pocket money; it gave her a sense of power and of purpose. And should her parents ever tire of housing and maintaining her…well, then she had the means to provide for herself.

Anxious to put Lord Van Allen well behind her, she quickened her steps and was within ten feet of her destination when a commotion rose up behind her. At the cries of distress and irritation, Honora glanced over her shoulder. A stone of dread formed in her chest. For there, pushing their way through the crowd and headed right in her direction—or more accurately, in the direction of the print shop—were three uniformed constables and a tall, aging man in a gray suit who could only be the magistrate.

Bloody hell.

Rickert & Sons was about to be raided by the police, no doubt on suspicion of printing untaxed periodicals. A suspicion that was in every respect accurate.

The wisest course of action would be for her to continue past the print shop and simply write off The Weekly Disciple—the only newspaper she wrote for that was printed by Rickert & Sons—as lost. Quite a few of the publications for which she wrote had suffered similar fates, but another always sprung up soon enough. Radical underground periodicals were as plentiful and prolific as weeds in the spring, and Polly Dicax was a popular enough essayist that she could pick and choose between the newcomers when one of her existing publishers was put out of business.

And indeed, if the police had been in front of her or already inside the shop, she would undoubtedly have done the wise thing. But her conscience informed her that they were at least thirty seconds behind her and therefore she had time to warn the unsuspecting owner and other occupants of the shop of the impending invasion. Perhaps it would be too late for them to conceal the evidence, but at least they would have a chance.

So she ran the rest of the way to the front door of the shop and burst through it, shouting her warning as she entered. “The constabulary is right behind me!”

Four men turned to look at her with a combination of perplexity and alarm. Three of the four were obviously Mr. Rickert and his eponymous sons, for they wore heavy leather aprons stained with ink over their workaday clothing and one of them was stout with graying hair while the other two appeared younger and, if not much leaner, certainly fitter. One of the sons was setting type while the other operated the printing press.

Mr. Rickert stood apart from the machinery and had obviously been talking to the fourth man, whose back had been turned to her when she entered the shop. This man’s hair was very thick and very dark, its nearly black curls covering his jacket’s collar. When he turned around, she saw that his skin was also a deep shade of tan, taut and unlined, and his features were finely hewn and arrestingly handsome. He wore a closely trimmed beard and mustache, and his sharp eyes burned into her like coal. Instinct more than reason told her he must be Luke Evangelista, and her pulse jolted into an even more erratic pace.

Fortunately, all of the men immediately grasped the import of her words and did not stop to question her.

Mr. Rickert barked orders to the young men while beckoning her to approach him. “Pull out the nameplate and as much type from that frame as you can, James. George, make sure nothing’s lying about that can get us into trouble.”

When Honora was within arm’s reach of Rickert, he grabbed her left wrist and the other man’s right. “Got to get the two of you out of sight. Come with me.”

The printer didn’t precisely drag them to the rear of the shop, but both she and the man she presumed to be The Weekly Disciple’s publisher had to trot to keep up with him. Rickert steered them toward a door to the left of the press, releasing his grip on their wrists so he could throw it open. The interior was lined with shelves stacked with paper of varying weights and sizes and jars of black, red, and blue ink.

“There’s a hidden compartment back here,” Rickert said, striding into the closet. Reaching the rearmost shelf, he shoved a roll of paper to one side and did something that caused a latch to click. He pulled on the shelf, which separated cunningly into to two halves, and opened what was otherwise a completely undetectable door. “Get inside. I’ll come let you out when the coast is clear.”

Honora exchanged a glance with the man she presumed to be Evangelista. Beyond the opening in the wall she could make out a space that looked to be no more than four feet wide by perhaps two feet deep. Once the door was closed again, there would be no light and precious little space or air for two people. If Rickert and his sons were carted off to the police station, who would release them?

Evangelista—if she was indeed correct about his identity—raised his eyebrows and shrugged, then stepped into the indicated chamber. She heard the shop door open and knew there was no time to consider an alternate means of escape. A frisson of fear laced with excitement rolled down her spine as she followed him inside. The door closed behind her with a solid clunk as whatever mechanism Rickert had disengaged slid back into place.

It was completely dark, just as she had expected. What she hadn’t expected was the heat emanating from the male body next to hers or the slow, even sound of his breathing beside her ear or the intoxicating spice-and-musk scent of him in the air that surrounded her. Her eyes had already informed her that he was a comely specimen of the masculine persuasion, but she had seen plenty of attractive male persons in her lifetime and was thus somewhat inured to purely visual appeal. Too often, an alluring exterior belied a quite unpleasant interior.

But the lack of sight seemed to heighten her other senses and, to be fair, she had never been alone with any man in such a confined space. Perhaps that explained her body’s strange response to his physical proximity, for her skin felt too tight and her innards strangely warm and soft. And, of course, if he was Luke Evangelista, then his mind was every bit as desirable as his body.

A shiver coursed through her limbs at the outrageousness of considering a man’s body desirable. Goodness, not two minutes alone with this man, and she scarcely recognized herself. No wonder society mamas and papas were so keen on keeping the sexes either apart or under constant supervision.

“You are not Dicax’s usual messenger boy.”

She flinched, just a little, at the sound of his voice. He spoke quietly, not quite whispering, and the syllables rolled out like gentle waves lapping a lake shore. His accent was unfamiliar; though his pronunciation was perfect, there was a musical lilt to the words that must be native to some other language. Spanish, perhaps? Portuguese? Might he originally hail from the Philippines? Or Cape Verde? That would explain both his dark coloring and his penchant for editorializing on the evils of British colonialism, for the question confirmed her suspicion as to his identity.

“No,” she agreed, since there was no point in arguing his perfectly sound observation.

“In fact,” he continued, his tone low and honey-smooth, “you are not even a boy.”

Her internal organs did a wild somersault. This was a turn of events she had not anticipated. How had he penetrated her disguise when he had not seen her for more than half a minute? He might merely be guessing, in which case she should flatly deny the charge in the hope of maintaining the ruse. On the other hand, she did not want to risk antagonizing someone with whom she was trapped for who knew how long.

She settled on asking, “What makes you say that?”

He inhaled audibly. “I doubt there is any boy in London who smells like orange blossoms, Miss Dicax. Or is it Mrs?”

Wry amusement colored his words, and she could imagine that at least one corner of his mouth was dimpled with a smile. Why that should make everything below her waist go buttery-soft, she could not understand. But she was well and fairly caught. Given how easily she could detect his scent, she could hardly be surprised that he had perceived hers.

“Miss,” she admitted and immediately regretted it. Pretending she was married might have been wiser. But it was too late now. “The messenger boy failed to arrive today,” she went on, “and I didn’t have time to find someone else.”

“Poor timing all around,” he remarked. “I would prefer we had met under less…trying circumstances.” His rumbling chuckle was more of a caress than a sound and raised hairs from the nape of neck down to her wrists. “I cannot even sketch you a proper bow, for I know when I am in the presence of one of my betters.”

Curse it! She should have realized that her accent would give away her class. On the other hand, if he had read anything she had written for his newspaper—and she felt certain that he had—he would be well aware that she considered the whole notion of birthright superiority to be utter hogwash.

So she responded, “You should not insult your sex so, sirrah. Or should I rather say Mr. Evangelista?”

Again, a low sound of mirth purred from his throat. “Touché, Miss Dicax. Though that name of mine really is a rather pretentious affectation. I wish I had been a trifle subtler in selecting my nom de plume. Yours is considerably cleverer. In fact, until just now, I was not certain that Polly Dicax was a woman, though your many discourses on the oppression of the female sex led me to suspect as much.”

Honora found herself unaccountably pleased by this compliment of her pen name. She wondered whether a majority of readers grasped the play on words, since doing so would require a working knowledge of both Latin and Greek. When she’d invented the pseudonym some six years earlier, the surname had come first: Dicax meant “sharp-tongued” in Latin. She’d then cast about for a synonym for “citizen” to use as a given name, but Latin had offered her no good options. Only when she’d begun to think of Greek words had she hit upon “politis,” which she’d then shortened to Polly. She’d thought her invention quite witty at the time, but since she could hardly ask anyone else’s opinion, she’d had to keep her satisfaction to herself. To discover that Evangelista got the joke and thought it artful was altogether too gratifying. She was rather glad they were in the dark, for her cheeks were hot with a blush she would otherwise have been unable to conceal.

Taking an unsteady breath, she was about to remark that she considered his pen name altogether appropriate and not at all pretentious when the very obvious thunk of someone deliberately banging on the door to the closet interrupted her. On the heels of the sound, she heard a muffled voice which became intelligible when the door opened a few seconds later. “…ly a storage room, your lordship.” Despite the intervening wall, Honora was certain the speaker was Mr. Rickert. “You inspected it on your last visit, if you recall.”

“And I’m inspecting it again,” a man responded curtly. The magistrate no doubt. “Look for hidden compartments, lads. There’s got to be something we missed last time.”

Her knees weakened with dread as the rattle of shelves being pulled upon and the thud of items crashing onto the floor commenced. She winced at the unmistakable sound of glass shattering and, more on instinct than reflection, reached out in the darkness to grab onto the arm of man who stood beside her for support. Apparently understanding the mute request for reassurance, Evangelista placed his own hand over hers and gave it a soothing pat.

The wall in front of them shuddered but held firm despite the efforts of the police constables to locate the opening. Whatever mechanism Rickert had installed must be well-hidden and sturdy indeed, for the men were obviously putting considerable effort into their search.

Her heart raced like a frightened rabbit when a loud crack resounded in the tiny chamber. Certain their hiding place had been discovered, she gritted her teeth and awaited the inevitable. She would be arrested and her father would discover that she was behind the articles his colleagues in Parliament considered tantamount to treason. And while she would suffer little more than a restriction of her privileges, what about Mr. Evangelista? He had no wealthy, titled, politically powerful parent to protect him from spending weeks or even months in prison. Certainly, she would never see him again, and they had only just met.

Perhaps Evangelista had the same fear of detection, for he turned toward her and pulled her into his arms as though to shield her from the imminent invasion. She buried her face in his chest and squeezed her eyes closed, anticipating the sudden shock of light flooding into the room. His body was comfortingly warm and solid, and his scent was more pronounced, the spicy aroma of anise and clove becoming distinct from the heavier, sweeter undertones of fresh ale and clean human skin. The combination calmed her but also stirred a deep and primitive longing within her.

The noise abruptly ceased.

“Nothing, milord,” a gruff, Cockney-accented voice said. “If he’s hiding aught in here, me mum’s the queen.”

A short silence intervened, during which Honora imagined that the magistrate ground his teeth and muttered imprecations under his breath. “Very well, sergeant,” he said at last. “It appears you’ve slipped the chain again, Mr. Rickert. But I know you’re printing The Weekly Disciple and eventually, I’ll prove it and put you and Evangelista out of business once and for all.”

The storeroom door slammed shut.

Honora lifted her head from his chest and opened her eyes, though the second act was futile since it remained as pitch black as ever. “I suppose we are safe,” she murmured, although she made no move to escape his embrace. She liked it too much.

“On the contrary,” he said, his voice a gentle rumble, “I fear we are in greater danger than ever.”

And then his mouth closed over hers.

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