Contessa jolted awake to a banging noise. She sat bolt upright, head whipping side to side in search of danger.
Her thoughts cleared as the noise came again and she realized it was simply somebody knocking on her door, if rather insistently. Contessa pulled on her dressing gown before padding over to the door and cracking it open. When she peeked into the hall, her jaw dropped in shock, and she immediately threw it wide.
Standing in the hallway was Mr. Woodrow, dressed in shirtsleeves and looking rather the worse for wear. His hair stood out at all angles, and he swayed slightly where he stood, holding on to the doorframe for support. Most shockingly, his shirt was splattered in something dark. In the dim light of the hallway, Contessa couldn’t be completely sure, but she thought it was blood.
“What happened?” she gasped. She might know the answer, but she was more concerned with why he had chosen to show up at her bedroom door in this state.
“Don’t worry, most of the blood isn’t mine,” he responded, trying to sound nonchalant even as he gritted his teeth.
Before Contessa could respond, he swayed again where he stood. Contessa found herself reaching out automatically to steady him, her hands landing on his firm shoulders.
“I do need some assistance, though,” he said, taking an unsteady step forward. Contessa moved to his side and let him lean on her as they made their way to the bed. He was much larger than her, so it was an awkward affair, but they made it until he could sit on the edge.
“The wound is on my back,” Mr. Woodrow said tightly. “I don’t know how bad it is because I can’t see it.”
“I thought you said most of the blood wasn’t yours,” Contessa pointed out.
“Most of it, not all of it,” he countered, his hands moving to the top button of the shirt to undo it.
Contessa’s face suddenly grew hot, and she floundered. “What about Gregor? He’s the one with the medical kit. I only know the basics.”
Mr. Woodrow’s fingers paused but remained hovering over the button at his neck. “I happen to know that Kristoff took Gregor out for the evening. If you’d rather me tend to my wounds myself, though, I can leave.”
Contessa didn’t argue with that, with the assistance he had needed to get to the bed, she doubted he could get far on his own at this point. The fact of the matter was, she had her sworn enemy injured in front of her, giving her the option to do nothing. She could let him suffer alone and possibly die from his injuries.
She was already shaking her head. If he was going to suffer for his crimes, it was going to be after a fair trial, not bleeding out on her bed while she watched.
“I’ll help you as best I can, although it might not be much.”
Mr. Woodrow nodded and resumed unbuttoning his shirt, the top of a muscled chest coming into view. Contessa ripped her gaze away from him, trying not to stare, but it seemed she didn’t know where else to look. She decided to busy herself with lighting the lamps so she would be able to inspect his injuries properly.
By the time she was finished, Mr. Woodrow had completely removed his shirt and angled himself on her bed so his back was to her. She was unsurprised to see his pale skin was not smooth, but dotted with thin white scars, and even a pink one that looked like it may be more recently healed. Most noticeable right now were the series of deep scratches running across his left shoulder blade and down to his mid back. They were still oozing, but it appeared he hadn’t been lying about most of the blood on his shirt not being his.
Contessa picked her way closer and perched herself on the edge of the bed next to him. He bowed his head so she could get a better look, and she leaned in to inspect the wounds. This close, she could smell the sweat and blood that clung to him, as well as something darker and more earthy. She found herself inhaling deeply.
Brushing those thoughts from her mind, she focused in on the task before her. In the deepest wound, she thought she caught sight of something glimmering.
“Is it possible there are pieces of glass in these wounds?” she questioned.
“It’s possible,” he conceded. “I think Gregor has some tools in his kit you could use to get it out. He should have left it downstairs.”
He directed Contessa to where the kit would have been left, and she scurried from the room to retrieve it. She was grateful for the moment alone to clear her head after the shocking turn her night had taken. Mr. Woodrow was now shirtless in her bed, although it wasn’t in the context she’d thought it would be when she’d married him. Perhaps more surprising was the fact that she was voluntarily helping him.
She hurried back up the stairs with the leather case clutched in her hands. When she pushed through the door back into her bedroom, she found Mr. Woodrow had laid down on the bed. He was on his stomach with his hands folded under his forehead so Contessa would have good access to his injuries. She found she was glad of the positioning, for at this angle, she couldn’t look at his face. Contessa could simply treat the injuries before her without having to think about who the torso belonged to.
Contessa settled herself on the edge of the bed, opening the kit and laying out the tools. She found a pair of pointed tweezers and a long needle that would serve her purposes admirably.
With her tools selected, she turned back to Mr. Woodrow. Blood trickled from his wounds and dripping onto the already red comforter, making it nearly black. Contessa leaned in and placed her hand on his side to steady herself as she selected her starting point. At the contact, Mr. Woodrow jumped. The movement caused the muscles in his back to tense, driving the glass deeper into his skin. He grunted in pain and Contessa jerked her hand back.
“I’m ok. Your hands are just cold.” Mr. Woodrow’s voice came out muffled from being facedown in the pillow.
Looking at the project before her, Contessa knew he had a lot worse than cold hands coming.
“I’m going to touch you again. Try to hold still,” she directed.
As Mr. Woodrow nodded into the pillows, Contessa slipped off her dressing robe and set it on the covers beside her to collect the shards of glass. The cool of the air chilled her skin to goose bumps, and she felt strangely exposed even though Mr. Woodrow couldn’t see her from his current position.
When Contessa placed her hand on him again, Mr. Woodrow did a better job of not moving, but she could still see tension across the top of his shoulders, causing the muscles there to cord and bunch.
She began with the shallowest of cuts, picking out the most easily visible fragments first. Mr. Woodrow hissed into the pillow but remained still. The muscles under her hand twitched with the effort. As she began to reach for deeper fragments of glass, she needed a better view. She scooted closer to see until the side of her hip was pressed flush against Mr. Woodrow’s ribs. She was overly conscious of his body heat seeping through her thin nightdress, and soon she found she was no longer chilled.
As Contessa finished cleaning the first cut, the silence in the room was thick, broken only by Mr. Woodrow’s breathing, which was so measured that Contessa was sure he must be counting his breaths to manage the pain.
Before Contessa began working on the second wound, Mr. Woodrow said into the pillow, “Could you…talk?”
“Talk?” she echoed in confusion.
“Just… to give me something else to think about,” Mr. Woodrow said haltingly.
Contessa furrowed her brow before an image came to mind—her mother perched on her bedside when she was ill, singing the sweetest melodies to distract young Contessa from the feverish ache in her bones. The songs told of princesses or knights, and Contessa became so engaged in them that the pains eased until she drifted off to sleep.
Contessa didn’t have a singing voice that would calm anybody, so as she picked the first shard of glass out of the next wound, she blurted out the first thought in her head.
“My mother used to sing to me to distract me when I was sick.”
“What kind of songs would she sing?” Mr. Woodrow asked through gritted teeth.
Contessa plunged ahead, too distracted by the delicate extraction of a particularly tricky piece of glass to think how odd it was to be telling stories of her mother to the man who was responsible for her death.
“Made up songs about dragons and heroes. They always made me feel better and lulled me off to sleep.”
The jagged piece of glass finally pulled free of Mr. Woodrow’s skin with a wet sound, and he let out a soft groan as she dropped the crimson-stained shard onto her dressing gown. Contessa rambled on as she investigated to make sure she’d removed all debris from the second cut.
“She was always singing around the house, as she embroidered or brushed my hair. Everybody always paused in what they were doing to listen, her voice was that beautiful. I swear the very sun seemed to shine brighter as she sang.”
Contessa ensured the second cut was cleared. Mr. Woodrow’s muscles trembled under her touch, and a slight sheen of sweat formed on his back with the effort it was taking him to hold still. She unconsciously ran her hand over his uninjured shoulder, trying to soothe him into relaxing.
Now it was time to move on to the largest cut, across the thick muscle of Mr. Woodrow’s upper back. There were several small fragments of glass embedded in the edges of the gruesome wound, with one large shard protruding from the center, glistening red with blood.
“She sounds lovely.”
Contessa had been so concerned with examining the task before her that she’d lost the thread of the conversation.
“She was,” Contessa murmured as she used the tweezers to remove the smaller pieces of debris.
“You must take after her,” Mr. Woodrow grunted into the pillow.
Her hand froze in midair, the tweezers poised above the largest shard as she processed what Mr. Woodrow had said. To buy herself time to respond, she grasped the glass and gently began to pull at it.
In response to her actions, Mr. Woodrow twitched and let out a choked grunt before going limp. It seemed that the pain of the process had finally become too much, and he had fallen unconscious. He must have been delirious during their entire conversation. It would explain that last odd comment.
With Contessa’s attention now completely free to focus on the task before her, she set to work on the last shard. She ended up having to employ a needle to dig out the base of the glass while tugging with the tweezers in her other hand. After long minutes, a piece of glass the length of her little finger came free of his back with a wet squelch.
Mr. Woodrow’s back now clean of debris, Contessa pulled some ointment and a piece of cloth from the kit beside her and set to cleaning and bandaging the wounds. Her work wasn’t as neat as Gregor’s, but by the time she’d finished, the cuts were no longer oozing blood.
Contessa admired her handiwork for a moment before realizing the predicament she was in. Mr. Woodrow was unconscious in her bed, and he was too large for her to possibly move on her own, much less without disturbing his injuries.
With a sigh, she bundled up the glass in her ruined dressing gown and brought it over to her dressing table. With Mr. Woodrow’s body no longer warm against her side, she began to shiver. She grabbed the blanket from the foot of the bed to wrap around her shoulders. Before she moved away, she paused, contemplating Mr. Woodrow’s bare torso laid across the coverlet. She hesitated only a moment before folding the quilt over, covering him up.
Then she made her way to the window seat and settled herself there to wait through the long night until Mr. Woodrow awoke.
Copyright © 2022 by S. C. Grayson.
The Talented #1
Most London socialites dream of marrying for love or status, but Contessa’s wedding is about justice—and revenge.
Nathanial Woodrow is known on the streets of London as the Beast, leader of the fearsome Lion gang who mark their victims with three slashes on their face. Since her mother was found dead with the signature slashes years ago, Contessa has wanted nothing more than to see her murderer brought to justice. However, the Beast has been impeccable at maintaining his façade as the high society Mr. Nathanial Woodrow, and nobody has been able to gather enough evidence to convict him. When the Beast unexpectedly asks Contessa’s father, the Chief of the Royal Police, for her hand in marriage, Contessa and her father hatch a plan to bring him down from the inside.
As Contessa enters the lion’s den in search of evidence to convict the Beast, she finds that not everything is as she once thought. Her father’s work, hunting down Talented that use their magic to rule the criminal underworld, is thrown into question with each glimpse of the kind-hearted man beneath the mask of a hardened gang leader. As Contessa navigates her search for justice, she finds herself questioning what side she’s really on, and why she finds herself drawn to a man she’s supposed to hate.
Romance Historical | Romance Suspense [City Owl Press, On Sale: January 26, 2023, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9781648983238 / ]
S.C. Grayson has been reading fantasy novels since she was a little girl, and that has developed into a love of writing and storytelling. She is currently focused on fantasy romance and magical realism.
When she is not sitting in a local coffee shop writing and consuming an iced americano, Grayson is a nurse working towards a PhD in nursing with a focus on breast cancer genetics. She lives in Pittsburgh with her loving husband and their two cats, who enjoy contributing to her work by walking across her keyboard at inopportune moments (the cats, not the husband).
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