A clamor at the window woke Vanessa from a deep sleep. She sat straight up in bed, heart hammering in her chest as she peered through the darkness toward the source of the sound. She’d left her window cracked in an attempt to catch a cooling breeze, but now it was fully open, the curtains fluttering in the wind.
At the foot of her bed she sensed a presence, a dark shape melding with the shadows. “Is someone there?” Her voice trembled with fear, and she edged toward her nightstand, where she kept a small, loaded pistol.
The shadow moved, stepping forward into a faint patch of moonlight. “Shhh,” a deep, male voice whispered. “I won’t hurt you.”
A sudden commotion sounded in the alley beneath the window as a group of men thundered through the usually quiet neighborhood. Dogs howled as sharp voices barked orders down below.
They’re looking for this man who has taken refuge in my room.
A new rush of fear washed through her. What sort of criminal was he? And more importantly, what did he want with her?
Tension spiraled between them as the shouts continued, then slowly faded off into the distance. After what seemed an eternity, the stranger gave a weary-sounding sigh and then abruptly struck a match, casting a small puddle of light as he looked around.
“Thank you,” he murmured, as he flicked on the gas lights and put out the match. “If you would have screamed, they’d have caught us.”
Us? She gave another nervous glance around the room, but he appeared to be alone.
He turned toward her, and she got her first glimpse of the intruder. She drew in a sharp breath, because his features were hidden by a fanciful mask of sparkling ivory and bone. The tall, broad-shouldered man wore a crimson cape, the deep color of blood.
She recognized the fearsome bandit dubbed Prometheus from the newspaper sketches. He’d burned down dozens of brothels, apparently rescuing children who’d been pressed to work in them against their will. Though the police wanted nothing more than to capture him, he’d become a hero to the people.
She crossed her arms over her chest, very aware of her state of undress. “They’re gone now.”
“I’ll leave as soon as it’s safe,” he assured her. “In the meantime, do you mind if I lay the child down?” He swept back his cloak, revealing a young boy asleep in his arms.
The child was as beautiful as an angel, with dark, curly hair. He couldn’t have been more than six or seven. Her stomach turned at the thought of what had been done to the poor boy. Giving a jerky nod, she scooted over to make room.
“Put him here,” she whispered.
Prometheus tenderly lowered the child to the bed, then returned his attention to Vanessa. “Do you have anything I can use for a bandage?”
“A bandage?” Some of her fear evaporated when he gestured to his left thigh and parted his crimson cape to reveal that the dark trousers beneath were soaked through with blood. “My God, have you been shot?”
He nodded briefly and sank into a chair.
She scrambled off the far side of the bed, reaching for the heavy satin robe that lay draped across her footboard. Wrapping it tightly around her, she bit her lip. “May I get some things to tend to you?”
He nodded abruptly, and she hurried down the hall. The thought of escape only crossed her mind briefly as she wet a washcloth and split an old white sheet to use as a bandage. She didn’t think he’d hurt her, and there was the child to consider.
“I’ll help you with your wound,” she told him when she returned. “But then you really must go.”
“Thank you, Miss Bourke,” he said softly.
“You know my name?” Her fears returned full force. Had he picked her flat on purpose?
He bowed his head, ripping his trouser leg to reveal a deep bloody hole. “I recognize you,” he murmured. “I’ve seen you play Celia half a dozen times.”
Heat rushed to her cheeks, along with a strange sort of pleasure. This man, who was making a difference, who put his life on the line for those less fortunate, had recently sat in the dark and watched her perform.
She crossed nervously to his side and handed him the wet cloth, along with the strips of sheet he could use as a bandage. “You should have that looked at as soon as possible. You mustn’t let it get infected.”
He took the wet cloth and swabbed at the blood, hissing a bit with the pain the pressure must have caused. “The bullet passed through. I’ll be all right. I just need to get home where I can clean it properly.”
She stared at the lower half of his face, the chiseled lips and strong chin revealed beneath the demi-mask. She’d lay odds he was devastatingly handsome. For the first time, she became very aware of him as a man.