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A Hero for Heather (Seven Suitors for Seven Sisters Book 3)

By Marion Ueckermann

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“YOU DIRTY piece of…”
Surrounded by darkness, Paxton Rathbone curled into a fetal position and blotted out the curse words, as he did the blows, with a prayer. How many times had he promised God if He got him out of a mess, he would turn his life around? Empty promises. If he could only die, the world would be better off without him. He groaned as another heavy boot landed full force against his side.
“Boys, that’s enough. We want to teach him a lesson, not kill him.”
He recognized that voice. The Nauti Buoyz’s captain. He’d heard him barking orders enough the past two days on the trawler. Two days, that’s all the time he’d needed to stay hidden. And he had. Getting caught as he sneaked off the boat—rotten luck, that was all. If he’d had the money, he would’ve paid passage on a ferry from Norway to Britain. But all he’d had was long spent. He tried to remember how he ended up in Norway, but everything about the past few weeks, maybe months, was fuzzy. Too much alcohol and party drugs. How far he’d fallen from the life of luxury at Levens Hall. He’d been impulsive, and stupid.
If Father and Mother could see him now, they’d be so ashamed. Davis would likely tell them he saw all this coming. Or would he? His older brother seemed to have been slowly changing. But that was almost eighteen months ago—anything could’ve happened to any one of his family members since the day he’d taken that chunk of his inheritance and hightailed it to Europe for a life of fun. Davis had been so mad at his decision.
He groaned. Some fun this was, lying on the side of a dark dock, reeking of fish, and getting bashed by a dozen angry fishermen. Even his black belt couldn’t get him out of this beating. He’d tried to defend himself, but there were too many. They kept coming at him, having their turns.
Paxton lay still on the hard, wet cement. A few more blows and his life could be over. At least that’s how it felt. He embraced the thought. No more worrying about how badly he’d screwed up. No more thinking about his parents’ reaction to coming home. No more mulling over different ways in which to make it all up to them. Just the bliss of sleep in death.
“Hey.” The effort of speaking made him cough and he spat a mouthful of blood onto the ground beside him. He wiped his lips, and his beard scratched the back of his hand. “Is that the…b–best you’ve got?” In good health, one-on-one, he would’ve had any one of these burly men begging for mercy. But he’d been outnumbered, and he had no more strength.
The fisherman closest to him turned, illuminated for a moment by the lighthouse’s lamp skimming across the sky above them. Muscles rippled as he flexed his arm, and the skull tattoo on his bicep laughed at Paxton. He lunged forward and grabbed Paxton’s collar. “You bag of—”
“Tom! Leave him be.” The captain again. “Walk away. He’s had his just desserts. Save your strength for the ladies, boy.”
Tom shoved Paxton to the ground, spat at him, and then joined the rest of the heckling crew.
Paxton wiped the foul saliva from his cheek.
“C’mon, boys,” the captain said. “Go enjoy your night in town. Tomorrow we dump this catch at the market before setting sail back to Norway.”
Tom smacked his hand against the captain’s back and grunted. “Maybe I’d rather conserve my energy for those Nordic blondes.”
Laughter rumbled like thunder, filling the night with comments of Tom having more than enough energy to go around.
Paxton had none. He was spent. Failure overwhelmed him once more as he peered through swollen eyes at the seamen heading toward the lights of Scarborough.
He couldn’t even succeed in getting himself killed.

***

Where was he? Paxton tried to open his eyes. He managed a crack. Still the sharp morning light seared his retinas. He clamped his eyelids shut. His body hurt from the beating he’d received merely hours ago. Everywhere. At least the rain had stopped. Or had it? Had he unknowingly shuffled his aching body to a place of shelter? No. Sharp light meant a warm cloudless day. Likely one of the last England would enjoy before autumn blew its way in.
He pulled the collar of his shirt higher, hiding his head. If he couldn’t see anyone, hopefully they couldn’t see him. Did it matter if they did? Nobody cared anymore in life. No one had compassion any longer. At least not for a homeless bum.
His mind drifted to his comfortable, warm bed back home at the manor house. If he could find a telephone… Paxton shoved the thought aside. He’d get home on his own steam. If he actually found the guts to take the walk up that long drive once he made it to Levens Hall. He’d played the scenario in his head more times than he cared to remember. The look on his family’s faces as he begged, no, groveled for their forgiveness, asking to be hired as one of their stable hands. He could surely brush, water, and feed those magnificent stallions and mares. He’d seen the hired help do it plenty of times after he and Davis returned from a ride. Or perhaps he could work in the manor gardens. Father was always employing new staff for the mammoth task of keeping those grounds immaculate. And he knew plants. Growing up, he’d spent much time with Malcolm, their head gardener since way before he was born. Until that first bee-sting. Then Mother had kept him away from the gardens as much as she could. He’d probably have to beg for the stables.
A shake on his shoulder drew him from what he’d left behind and the vision for his future.
“Are you all right?” A woman’s voice, filled with tenderness. Soft perfume wafted over him, a stark contrast to the stench he bore.
Paxton merely grunted. He turned his face to her. Did he look like he was all right?
The woman gasped. “Gracious, who did this to you? You need help. I work in that building right over there. It’s a day center—a shelter for people in your…situation. If you can walk, I can help you get there. The doctor is in this morning. He can examine you, and you can get some medical care.”
Paxton shook his head. He didn’t want help. He’d done this to himself—he’d get out of this on his own. Besides, he was probably delusional, imagining the sweet-sounding stranger’s offer to help. Humankind had no compassion. At least, he’d yet to experience it.
Maybe he’d died and gone to heaven, and this was his guardian angel come to fetch him.
No. If he’d died, he’d be in hell right now. It was what he deserved.
Perhaps he was.
The hand that hadn’t been scared to touch his shoulder lifted, then the sound of heels tapped against the concrete dock, growing softer the farther away she moved.
Paxton returned to his pain and misery. If he could drift back to sleep or unconsciousness, he wouldn’t feel how much it hurt.
Sweet oblivion.
It didn’t last nearly long enough. He shrugged away the tap on his shoulder. Months of being ignored, and suddenly he’s noticed twice in one day?
“I thought you might like something to eat and drink.”
She was back. He recognized the voice. And the perfume. Perhaps this was real.
“The tea’s a bit warm so be careful. I put in two sugars. Figured you could do with the energy boost. And the milk’s in first. It really does make the tea creamier.”
She was right. Mother had always insisted the same.
Paxton propped himself up against the wall then reached for the sandwich. Forgetting the etiquette with which he’d been raised, he shoved the food into his mouth. He barely tasted it before he washed his bulging cheeks with a swig of tea. Pain filled his broken mouth and lips from the heat, and curses almost spilled along with the hot liquid. Perhaps a good thing he’d gobbled the entire sandwich in one go.
He glanced her way, but his swollen eyes only permitted him the sliver of a blurred image of the one who knelt beside him. He could tell she had blond hair. That was about it.
“I brought you a blanket. The nights are getting colder. Also a bottle of water, two ibuprofen, and a few instant cold packs—use them on your face for ten minutes every few hours. It’ll help reduce the swelling. You can take ibuprofen?”
He nodded.
“All right. Take them now then.” She placed the tablets in his hand, cracked open the water bottle, and told him to put the tablets in his mouth before handing over the bottle.
Water spilled as he drank, quickly seeping through his beard until the moisture met his skin. He didn’t care.
“I’ll set all this stuff right here beside you.” She released a sigh. “I do wish you’d let me take you to the center so you can get help.”
Again he shook his head at her offer.
At the sound of her walking away, his heart sank. He opened his mouth to stop her, and then closed it again. Why couldn’t he just accept her offer to help? Stubborn pride to get himself out of this hole and return home in the way he’d rehearsed a thousand times in his head, that’s why.
Her footsteps paused. “If you don’t come to the center, I’ll stop by in the morning and evening with food and medication until you’re well again. I promise. But I do hope you’ll reconsider.”
Not going to happen. In a few days, or weeks, he’d heal, and then he’d continue his journey home. Until then, he’d accept the things she brought to help him through each day.

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