A woman on the run. A man with a tragic past. Neither are prepared for what fate holds for them.
New Orleans, 1895
Pain pierced her side as her bare feet slapped against the ground, her legs churning as she ran for all she was worth. Her heart raced as she glanced over her shoulder. Lilian had escaped Madame Giselle, but she knew there were men after her, could feel their breaths on the back of her neck as they ran her to ground like a fox. It had been sheer luck that she’d managed to slip away from the owner of Louisiana’s premium brothels and auction mart. Her feet pounded harder against the unforgiving sidewalk, her lungs ached as she panted for breath. Lilian’s family may have sold her to Madame Giselle, but that didn’t mean she had to sit there and take whatever the woman dished out. She’d been complacent as long as she’d thought one single man would own her, but after hearing that she was to be housed in the main brothel as a common whore, she’d dug deep and found the courage to escape.
She raced through the streets of New Orleans, clinging to the shadows, hoping to put the infamous Storyville far behind her. Sweat beaded on her brow as she chanced another glance behind her Lilian rounded a corner and recoiled off something hard and unyielding. Losing her balance, she tumbled to the ground, her breath leaving her in a whoosh as she sprawled on the sidewalk. Just five more minutes and she would have been free! She scurried backwards, away from the outstretched hand. Momentarily dazed, she was taken aback when someone brushed the hair out of her eyes.
A man knelt beside her.
“Are you all right?” he asked, concern etched on his handsome face, his chocolate gaze holding a tinge of worry.
Lilian nodded, still unable to speak. His kind eyes took in her rumpled clothes, what there was of the barely-there dress, and he reached out to finger her long red locks. He seemed harmless enough, but it was hard to tell these days. He couldn’t be completely respectable or he wouldn’t have been walking into Storyville. What was he doing on foot anyway? His clothes were far too fine for someone who lived in the area.
“Are you in trouble? Are you running from someone?” he asked.
Before Lilian could answer, she heard shouts coming from around the corner. They were close and getting closer. If she didn’t get up and move, they’d catch her for sure. And Lilian refused to be caught! Lilian shivered in revulsion just thinking about the fate that awaited her if she returned to Madame Giselle. A different man every night, their hot, sweaty bodies pressing her down into some filthy mattress. Her skin crawled and begged for a bath just thinking about such things.
The man glanced over her shoulder and helped Lilian to her feet. Wrapping an arm around her waist, he pulled her close. Lilian knew he was a stranger and she shouldn’t trust him, but something about him called to her. The gentleness of his touch, perhaps, or his softly spoken words. He seemed like a kind man, despite the fact he appeared to be heading into Storyville, probably looking for an evening in a whore’s bed.
With his strength surrounding her, he began to lead Lilian away from Storyville. She could still hear the men behind them, and she worried that they might cause trouble for the gentleman, and he couldn’t be anything less than with his fine manners and clothes. Lilian didn’t want him to get hurt just for being a Good Samaritan.
“Are those men after you?” he asked softly, as he helped her into a nearby carriage.
She swallowed hard. “Yes.”
Once they were settled, he tapped on the roof and the carriage lurched forward. She could hear the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves, pounding in time with her heart, as she sank back into the soft seats. The soft velvets seats of the well-sprung carriage bespoke wealth, something she’d never had and would never experience beyond this moment.
“You need to tell me why so I’ll know what I’m up against.” He studied her intently.
“I ran away from Madame Giselle.”
He didn’t look surprised, exactly, but she could tell he’d been hoping for a different answer. “You’re a…”
“Not yet. My family sold me to her last week. She’s been grooming me for the business, but I don’t want that life. I’d rather die in the gutter somewhere than make her rich by lying on my back night after night.”
He set his jaw, a steely determination entering his eyes. “Then you won’t live that life.”
“I wouldn’t have minded so much if she had planned for me to be with just one man, but… the thought of working in one of her brothels was more than I could take. So I ran away.”
“Well, you’re safe now. I won’t let them harm you.”
“You can’t stop them.”
“If I can’t convince them to leave you alone, I’ll just purchase you from Madame Giselle.” His gaze caressed her and she shivered.