The Bareknuckle Groom - Holly Bush

Chapter 1

December 1868


James Thompson eyed the dainty brunette and the others as they approached him. She was dressed in festive colors with matching ribbons, sparkling up at him, her lashes fluttering, her cheeks pink. He was at some infernal gathering, one of many that the Pendergast family hosted, being a prominent Philadelphia family, though not as snobby and stuck on themselves as he’d expected when his sister Elspeth had first taken an interest in her husband, Alexander Pendergast.

But the guests at their parties were exactly the kind of people James expected them to be, including the brunette, the two men on either side of her, one of them puffing out his chest, and certainly the tall blond goddess with the wide pink lips and pale blue eyes. She looked at him as if he were the lowliest of the low, barely a servant, one of the unwashed, or even a beggar. He did not know how a woman could convey so much disdain for a person with a smile, but this woman did exactly that.

And he had plenty of experience with women. He loved women, and they loved him. It mattered little if they were tall or short or brunette or red-headed or coltishly thin or buxom. He loved them all. But those women were young widows or ones he met at the clubs he frequented or just women working at one of the many factories and offices in Philadelphia, his home since the age of eleven, when he’d come from Scotland with his family. They were definitely not the women at this party. A quick toss with any of these women would not happen, and if it did, exile to some remote location would be expected shortly thereafter or worse, marriage.

Alexander and Elspeth joined the group, and his sister kissed his cheek. “Thank you for coming, James.”

He smiled down at her. She was the very picture of happiness and health, bright-eyed, blushing, and pretty, dressed as if she were royalty. Her husband gazed at her and patted her hand where it lay on his arm. He doted on her, and James was glad of it. Being the middle child in a large family, and the first to marry and leave the nest, could be daunting. She’d also been the victim of violence. Elspeth deserved Alexander’s adulation.

“I was telling my friends that you’re a famous boxer, Mr. Thompson,” the brunette tittered.

“Let me introduce you, James,” Alexander said, nodding to the brunette. “Miss Gladys Bartholomew, Mr. John Williams, Mr. Alfred Dundermore, and Miss Lucinda Vermeal, or should I say Mademoiselle de Vermeal?” Alex said and turned to James. “Mr. James Thompson. My lovely bride’s eldest brother.”

James nodded to the two women and shook the hands of the men. John Williams folded his arms across his chest. “I’ve always been told that these bareknuckle matches are a setup, just theater, with a winner determined ahead of the match.”

Alexander chuckled. “Hardly, John. You’ll have to come with me the next time James is fighting. It’s quite real and still very entertaining.”

“That sounds fair enough,” Williams said and looked at Dundermore. “Will you join us if we go? Could be an interesting evening.”

Dundermore yawned against the back of his hand. “I can’t see how that would be very interesting. And anyway, I’m usually busy at the Philadelphia Historical Club since my father has been the president these last five years. I rarely have time for frivolity.”

James smirked and stared at Dundermore until the man looked away. He turned to Williams. “I make sure Alexander and his father have tickets for my bouts. I can easily get one for you as well, if you’re interested.”

“May I come too?” Gladys asked and leaned toward him.

“I don’t think you’d like it,” Elspeth said, shaking her head. “I saw him fight once, and that was enough!”

“Women aren’t welcome by the crowds that pay to see a match, and I don’t think it would be safe, Miss Bartholomew.” He smiled at her. “I couldn’t just step out of the ring if there was some unruly man bothering you, now could I?”

“Oh,” she said with a giggle and waved her red-and-white striped fan in front of her face. “I suppose not.”

The ice-cold one, Miss Vermeal, in her pale blue silk dress, with diamonds at her ears, wrists, and neck, checked herself before she rolled her eyes at Miss Bartholomew, but James saw her smirk even if it was not visible to others. Her eyes were revealing, he thought as she turned