Brigid had yet to figure out why she’d been the only woman allowed to keep her lengthy, dark hair, but she was far from upset by that fact. She stared at her blackened feet, clutching the pair of too-big shoes that had been shoved into her arms upon entering the cathedral. All the women were shackled, wrists and ankles, and the sound of the metal clanking together was near deafening as they crept forward.
The woman in front of her was bald, thin and tall, while the one behind her was busty and squat. They’d both glared at Brigid, jealous of her hair—of the semblance of femininity she still had. With a sigh, she bit her cheek and slowly followed, mind wandering to her little mouse. She’d stashed enough bread for the damn thing to live off of for a year, but for some reason the thought of leaving him behind tugged at her cold heart.
She realized, then and there as she stopped in the cathedral, that the mouse had been a companion, and one of the few things she’d ever let herself become attached to.
The mouse, though, was indeed small in the face of this new threat. Her stomach felt as leaden and heavy as an anchor, and she found herself picking her nail beds until she drew blood. Every woman in line shifted and shuttered in the drafty space, awaiting their fates. Brigid felt faint, clammy, as though she’d vomit at any given moment. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears, clouding her vision, as the women were ushered back against the stone wall.
For a church, there was hardly any decor, an ode to the hospital’s hellish nature, she supposed.
A priest stood at the pulpit, conversing in hushed tones to the unctuous Doctor Moreau, while the Scotsman stood beside the two, his attentions focused on his small journal. She recognized this man as the one who’d been helping the Duke that fateful evening. A steady tremble took root in her core; she was so very afraid, so very alone. Tears welled in her deep blue eyes as she wished for her mother. The woman had barely been there for Brigid through her childhood, but no matter the circumstance, when held to the flames, Brigid always wanted that maternal protection.
She craved it, yearned for it now with everything she had.
The doors to the cathedral opened once more, allowing sunlight to stream forth for a brief moment, before it was replaced by a heavy rain cloud. The sound of more chains greeted the women’s ears, and hushed whispers erupted all around her.
An equal amount of men filed in, their grimy appearances and jeering faces all-too excited, for their tickets to freedom now stood chained just a few feet away.
Brigid’s eyes slipped close, a few tears escaping and leaving a clean trail through the dirt on her pale cheek. A vision of her mother and grandmother formed in her mind for a moment, until the doors clanged closed, whisking her desires away before she could reminisce further. It was replaced, instead, with all the pain and fear and torment she’d endured with her husband. She set her jaw, looking past the men and to the crucifix, cursing the almighty himself for the hand he continued to deal to her. She knew in her bones that if she somehow didn’t find her way back home, her life would end altogether. Would God continue to punish her, then?
“I apologize, friend, but we must keep up this little charade. If any other convicts sense you’ve received special privileges, you will have a massive target on your back,” the Duke said to Erik as their carriage rolled to a bumpy stop.
Erik nodded once, holding out his wrists to aid the Duke in cuffing him once more. The metal rings back around his wrists, he felt the weight of his decision. Had he been a fool to choose this? How would his mother have ever approved of him marrying a whore or thief? He grit his teeth together, uncharacteristic embarrassment flooding through him at the thought of bedding his new wife.
“The captain of La Belle is a Scotsman, and I’ve told him you’ll be useful as a sailor,” the Duke carried on, shuffling through pieces of parchment. Erik sat, stoic and still and absorbing.
“He is under strict instructions to keep an eye on you. He will give you a spot as one of his crew, earning you and your bride private quarters. He is a good man, very trustworthy.”
The Duke shifted, rapping on the door to be let out. Erik’s mind swirled in the stuffy carriage.
“Why?” he asked.
“I beg your pardon?” the Duke asked, caught off guard with one foot out the door.
“Why are you helping me?” Erik said, gazing intensely into the man’s eyes. The Duke fixed him with a sour stare before sighing, many emotions scuttling across his expressive brow.
“Because…I feel partially responsible for your sister’s untimely fate. My nephew was a damnable fiend…and I…I should have known he was capable…” the Duke trailed off, giving a slight shake of his head. Erik understood what he meant, though. Setting his jaw, he pushed past the Duke and into the cloudy day. The doors to the church stood open wide, male prisoners shuffling into its belly. He felt the Duke’s hand grip the shackles on his wrists.
“I don’t suppose you’re too keen to marry someone you’ve not yet had the pleasure of meeting,” he said, voice low. Erik couldn’t seem to tear his gaze from the foreboding stone building.
“So, try to find someone you may have encountered before, eh?”
Erik’s surprised eyes searched the Duke’s face as lightning struck his veins. What had he meant? Who would Erik have known? A whore from the brothel they frequented? Perhaps the Duke’s own wife was being sent away for her transgressions?
“Come along, Norsky. Time to find you a suitable wife.”
Brigid felt faint as five or so guards made their way down the line of women, unchaining their ankles only so they’d be free to move about the space. Masculine voices dominated the stagnant, heavy air, the convicts jeering at their prospective pieces of property. To gain freedom, gold, and a woman was their fairytale come to life.
Brigid shook like a frightened, timid dog that had spent its life being beaten into submission. The metaphor, though, was more truth than anything else.
“Women, please select a man ye wish to marry. Quickly now, we havena’ got all day!” the Scotsman yelled above the tumultuous, chaotic voices. Eyes wide, Brigid could hardly focus her attention on any one of the men. She was jostled through the crowd as bodies collided and fought, and though the choice was given to the women, the men—also freed from their ankle shackles—were grabbing at women they found attractive enough to marry.
A hearty shove from behind sent her tumbling forward, one shoe slipping from her grasp. She crouched low, waddling to give chase. She needed shoes, however large they were on her. Grimy feet kicked the solitary shoe out of her reach every time she came near, and unknown to Brigid, her preoccupation was saving her for the time being.
Unseen by a majority of the men, she was passed up, ignored. She reached the slippery shoe, gripping it tight to her chest once more and standing. A thick figure loomed above her, medium height and build, tanned dark enough to be from Spain. Her eyes widened at his vile smile, his teeth grey with rot. He was bald, with tufts of black hair around his ears, his arms thick with fat and muscle and covered in even more wiry hair. It seemed to have migrated from his head to the rest of his body.
She turned, meaning to tuck tail and run, but his pudgy hand shot out, gripping the small length of chains that connected her wrists. He pulled her to him as her hammering heartbeat drown out almost all other noise.
“Bonjour, ma cherie,” he grinned, beady black eyes alight with excitement at finding such a beauty amongst so many destitute women. She gave a shake of her head, stumbling back as she mustered her bravado and glared at the man. He followed, eyes becoming angered at her disobedience. His eyes, however, traveled to her forehead, and then up and up and up. Brigid froze, sensing a presence behind her that made her hairs stand on end. The man released her shackled wrists, stepping away and dissolving into the crowd.
Her heartbeat surged as everyone around her was nearly finished pairing off, some of them already proceeding to give their names to the record keepers.
She turned around, slow and cautious, her eyes glancing up at the man before her. His dirty blond hair was left untamed, his face covered in dirt and ash, but his build and those icy blue eyes were unmistakable. He was indomitable, a beast, and as she searched his eyes once more, no trace of the gentleness or kindness she’d witnessed that fateful night was there. No, instead there was a quiet fury, a deep sorrow. Bruise-like shadows made his eyes seem sunken, but the rest of him was still strong and sturdy.
She gave a shake of her head, backing away, but he followed, jaw set. Her shoulders collided with a stone column, and she brought her shoes up, clutching them to her chest as though they could protect her from this man, this fate. He stood before her, engulfing her small presence with his own, staring her down. He quirked a brow, and in that motion was the question. He was still giving her the ultimate choice.
Brigid hated him for it.
This wasn’t something she wanted to choose, but it was something that she had been forced to do out of necessity. She’d learned to survive in whatever way she was capable, and she now hated herself, also, for this decision. She eyed the brute, his shoulders and arms bursting with muscle, his bearded jaw ticking as he waited. Another flash of fire tore through her veins, replaced soon with trepidation. Should she choose him, they would marry, and to marry meant to consummate.
Sure, her late husband had been awful—evil, to an extent, but she’d always been able to close off her mind in those moments spent in bed with him. The barbarian before her, though…she knew she was no match for his apparent strength and fortitude. He could and would dominate her every chance he got. She’d heard stories and rumors, of course, about the men of the north, how their viking ancestry still ran rampant through their veins.
She searched his eyes once more, praying she’d find any semblance of the man that had saved her that night, feeling tears well in her own. She set her jaw. No, he’d never have the satisfaction of seeing her cry. But there, deep within the depths of his glacier gaze, much harder to distinguish this time, was that softness. She knew she couldn’t rely on that, couldn’t trust it, but it was something. Something that made a bit of hope flicker in her chest.
He saw her defeat as it ran across her crestfallen features, and he reached out, gripping the chains that held her wrists together. She let him anchor themselves together amidst the chaos, their fate closing in around them.