July 19, 1815
“Come away out of there, girl,” Kyla called into a crack that seemed impossibly small for a human to fit in. “I’ve got you some supper, so there’s a good lass.”
A little urchin crept out from behind the boxes piled behind the stables. “Have you bread for me, Kyla?” she asked in her high little bird-like voice.
“Bread and more,” she replied, tucking a lock of her black hair back behind her ear. “I’ve arranged for a place for you to sleep tonight.” Putting out her hand, she exchanged a thick slice of dry bread for the feel of thin little fingers. “Put a good foot under you, now. It’s a ways to walk. We’re going uptown, we are. Where the toffs live, you know. Stand up straight and don’t sniff.”
“Where are we going? Is it the workhouse? My da told me not to go there, no matter what. That it was better to die on the streets than go there.”
“Shush, wee Brena. We’re going to the school where I used to live and where I started work when I was no older than you,” she explained.
“Is it where you live now?” asked the girl, her voice full of wonder as well as fear.
“That I don’t. I got too big to stay at the school long years since. It’s for little ones like yourself. I worked there though, and it’s a grand place. The cook there says she can use a likely lass if she’s willing. You’ll have to have a bath, though, first thing. You can’t be running around Miss Morton’s School smelling like old shoes.”
“How can I smell like old shoes?” asked Brena. “I haven’t got any.”
“But you will have. Cook promised she’ll get you the castoffs from the students, just like I used to wear. And she’ll give you an apron of your own. It might even be the one I used. Won’t that be grand, now?”
“It will, but Kyla, will you be with me?”
“I will not, dear, but never fear. I’ll be close at hand, and drop by often. I’ve gone on to other things,” she replied as casually as she could. There was no use in the girl knowing under what unpleasant circumstances she had actually taken leave of the school not once, but twice. “Look, here’s where I stay now. And there’s the school. That brown brick three-story building in between the two white shorter ones.”
As they walked on, Brena began to hang back, forcing Kyla to pull her little charge along. “Why can’t I stay with you?”
“Like I’ve said before, dear, where I stay, they don’t allow kids. You’ll be much better off at the school. I loved it there. Why, I marched right up my first morning.”
“Who took you there when you were little, Kyla?”
“My da did, of course. He hated to leave me, but he was a sailor on one of those big ships you see down at the docks, with their sails flying, all white and full as they pull out into the harbor. Those sails just called to him, he told me. They pulled him along. He had to go and since my ma had passed long since, I had to stay at the school.”
“And did you get your shoes and an apron right off?”
“Well, at first, I didn’t wear an apron at all. I was a student there, you see. But when I was ten, da got killed at the great and glorious sea Battle of Trafalgar, there was no more money, and it was to the street with me, just like you.” Kyla gave a little smile, as if a child living on her own under old boxes was the most natural thing in the world. “But then three days later, Cook came out and found me secretly. She let me work in the kitchens as long as I stayed out of the way of the mistress. And that’s what you’ll do, too. You must remain quiet, little Brena. Do you understand that? The way to get along in this world is to keep as quiet as you can. Nobody can hurt you if they can’t catch you. Nobody will catch you if they can’t find you. Nobody will find you if they can’t hear you. Work quietly and they’ll leave you alone.”
The little girl, wide-eyed and solemn, nodded as if she was memorizing every word. “Quiet’s the word then.”
“And work hard. No one will give you anything in this life. You have to earn it or… find it.”
“Is that what you do now? Find things?”
“You could say that, young Brena. I find things of great value that nobody seems to want and then I find a place that they are wanted and will be loved. I found you, did I not? And then I found a place for you. You’ll do me proud, won’t you?”
“Yes, Kyla. I’ll be quiet and work hard.”
“There’s a good lass.” Kyla scratched on the door once, waited a moment and then gave a longer scratch. The door was opened but Kyla caught at the handle to allow a space just wide enough to admit the little waif.
“Are you sure you won’t come in?” Cook’s soft voice filtered through the crack.
“I can’t be seen here, Cook dear, and well we both know it. I’ll come by when I can. Look for a flower seller with a brown scarf wrapped around her head. And thanks again for taking the little duck. She’s a love and no denying!”
“You come by any night. I’m by myself down here. No one will know. And they’ll not be giving me the sack here at any road. Her nibs won’t pay enough to hire a younger girl if I were to leave.”
“I can’t take the chance. They might recognize me from when I was a student here, long ago as it was. There are some as suspect… well, anyway, may heaven smile on your kindness. Now, curse me roundly and I’ll be off.”
Kyla waddled away using the slouching limp she assumed when she wanted to disguise herself on the fly. Cook sent some half-hearted deprecations after her, which Kyla mumbled against incoherently. If anyone had seen the exchange, they would report that dear old Cook had acted correctly in sending away a beggar importuning a decent house at night when everyone knew only mischief was done by such people.
There was indeed mischief to be planned this night and Kyla angled her ambling toward her goal. She would only wait and watch again. These things took time to arrange, but it was conveniently close. She would be able to come and see Brena while she learned all she needed to know about her mark.
“Measure it again, if you please, Mr. Newbury. His lordship stands six feet four inches. His inseam cannot be only thirty-four inches.”
“So sorry, Mr. Fortnam.”
“It’s got to be right, Newbury. The mater will hear about it if it’s not perfect and I’ll then hear about it from her. Her majesty’s naval dress inspection was almost enough preparation for Almack’s but not quite.”
“And the color, my lord,” Fred went on. “She specifically wished for a light shade of brown to bring out your eyes and contrast to your dark hair.”
Newbury chuckled softly. “With those shoulders and that chest? My lord would look like a walking chocolate bar. Please, sir, dark blue is all the rage at the moment in the ton. With gold braid accents, his lordship will look just the thing.”
“Yes, but what sort of thing is the question. No, the ton will have to suffer through without another lord trying to imitate an officer in the royal navy,” the man being measured answered definitively. “The mater wants brown, so brown she will have.”
“But you aren’t imitating anything, my lord. If an admiral isn’t in the Navy, I don’t know who is.” Mr. Newbury scribbled another measurement on his pad. “And the youngest admiral in the history of her majesty’s service at that. Not to mention the bravest.”
The number was obviously more to Fred’s liking. “Much better. We might have left the Navy but the Navy has not left us.”
The lordly subject of all this measuring and speculating spoke up ruefully, his voice betraying a sense of good-natured patience under a bit of strain. “I wish you two could talk about something else. It’s bad enough to have to come home and resume civilian life without you two old salts reminding a fellow of what he’s given up.”
“So, no navy blue coats for his lordship,” Newbury repeated stoutly. “I’ll find an acceptable, non-chocolate–looking brown if I have to go to China and feed the silkworms myself.”
The tailor soon finished his work and took his leave with prepayment for the work and a generous tip in his pocket as well.
“Another letter has arrived from Lady Tynell, my lord,” Fred said as he came back in the room from seeing the tailor out.
Waving away the salver with the letter on it, his lordship replied, “You read it, will you? I’m due in the ring in an hour. My dear friend the duke of Balvane waits for no man. He’s liable to start sparring without me.”
While his master stepped into his handsomely cut breeches, Fred opened the letter and read, “Dear Almont, Your letter yesterday amused me greatly, but yes, you are correct in your surmise that had your father been alive to read it, you would never have survived to write another. I have no expectation that you should continue in his views. There is no dowry great enough to make up for the deficiencies in character you have thus far discovered in the young ladies of the ton.”
Fred broke off and looked up. “The communication is becoming personal, my lord. Do you wish me to…?”
Pulling his shirt on over his head, he rolled his hands over as if to signal the reader to continue. “Get on with it, Fred. If there was a secret between you and me, it died long ago.”
“I do hope, however, that you are not falling into your father’s other error of judging everyone too harshly and then letting all and sundry know exactly what he thought of them. That habit endeared him to no one, as you should well remember.”
Fred interrupted himself here to ask, “Do you think your lady mother heard about the Anne Shelton incident?”
“If she hasn’t yet, she will soon enough. One would think rash words spoken in the heat of a duel would remain private. That’s what I get for associating with a bounder like her brother. I’m tired of the lot of them, Fred. The whole ton could go to blazes for all I care. If only the mater had produced another heir, I might still be happily sailing the Venture.”
“No need to talk such nonsense when we’re alone, my lord. At least in private let us speak the truth. I knew when they made you an admiral that it wouldn’t suit you. That said, even if you did return to the Navy, it wouldn’t be to the good old Venture. You’d be on your last flagship, wrangling with other admirals and representatives from the crown, not sailing. Aside from… everything else, it was time to retire, my lord. That ship, as they say, has sailed.”
“Is that it for the letter? Surely she doesn’t go on to describe any more of my late unlamented father’s less desirable characteristics. She only mentions him, you know, when she really wants to yank the bit in my mouth.”
Fred cleared his throat and went on. “I was hoping for news of some sort of progress or even a decision on your part. Is there no one who has caught your fancy? Remember, it need not be love at first. Emotions grow with time. An intelligent, energetic girl with a ready smile can’t be so difficult to find. Please make me the happiest woman in the world by at least inviting two or three families with eligible females to Steadling for the ball at the end of the season.”
“Oh, bilge! The threat of that ball hangs over my head like a sword on a string.”
“You could choose one of the local ladies. It would be easiest, my lord.”
“It would also ensure a life of endless chatter and avoiding my own house. That’s why I came here! To avoid marrying one of the local gentry’s vapid, spineless simperers or even worse, someone exactly like myself.”
“Well, it’s clear you’ve met several young ladies of quality. I can tell by the number of duels you’ve been challenged to.”
“I have no intention of replacing spineless simperers with spiteful harridans.”
“There must be one worthy gem amongst the pebbles, my lord.”
“If there is, I’ve yet to discover her, but I will at least collect a pebble or two before I return home. I’ve got to show the mater I’ve been trying.”
“We’ll search Debrett’s and find one with no brothers.”
She had been scouting the place for a week. That was how she had remembered her old haunts and reconnected with Cook at her old school. Oh, the memories that first supposedly casual meeting at the market had churned up. All of them came flooding back. Her pride at helping her father by doing well at the boarding school he sent her to. Her happy anticipation as she waited for his visits. The blissful days and weeks they had spent together when he had come to take her to stay with him while he waited for his next voyage. Her devastation when she learned that he had not survived the great sea Battle of Trafalgar. So many of the turning points in her life had happened right there on that street.
It was there that she had first picked up an apple that hadn’t belonged to her. She had eaten it before realizing it was wrong. This soon led to her picking up other things that she used to bribe the bullies who occasionally hounded her to join their gangs or clear out of their territory. Then she learned how to gain entrance into larger houses and where to find the choicest items for resale or barter. And most important, she learned how not to get caught. The street had contained her first school where she had lived for five years until her father’s death. After that the street became her school where she had learned so much more.
So it was with a mixture of resignation and happiness that she wandered around the market where she knew her old friend would come to buy produce in the same stalls she had all those years ago. They had often come together, so it seemed the most natural thing in the world that they might meet. Cook had wanted to bring her to the kitchen immediately, but Kyla knew she had to resist. Her continued freedom depended on discretion and a total lack of social ties. No one could report you if they hadn’t seen you but once or twice. No one could find you if you didn’t sleep two nights under the same bridge.
Her target was an easy one, but she dared not relax. Her method had served her well for years, honed by experience and cunning acquired by listening to others in her profession but never believing or relying on anyone else. Oh, she had been recruited. Once or twice at knifepoint, men had tried to make her do things for money that she had no intention of doing, but she had always waited for her chance, kept quiet, worked hard, and slipped through their traps. If you take things that people notice, then you’ll be noticed. If you take things from empty houses and disused rooms, you might not get rich, but you won’t get caught.
The house was one she had been cultivating for years. A knick-knack here, a trinket there, always from very crowded cabinets where the loss wouldn’t be noticed. The toff who sometimes resided there had so much stuff, he couldn’t possibly keep track of it all. It was probably left over from his late father. She had seen the crepe mourning decorations go up, stay for a year and be taken down a year later, to the day. There was obviously no love lost between this father and son. The son only came to town for a few days any given season. She had carefully noted his habits when he was there and had observed him more than once coming in at hours rather earlier than other men of the aristocracy whose houses she regularly pilfered when they were empty.
She knew where all the ill-staffed and neglected places were. This one had only a skeleton staff, whether from the master’s parsimony or simple neglect, she couldn’t tell. In the larder, there was always food stored in tins that wouldn’t allow it to spoil, so he couldn’t be all bad. The charwoman who came in periodically had plenty to eat when she was on the premises. It was just that she came so seldom. It was perfect for Kyla’s purposes. Even when the master was in residence, he kept only a few servants and most of them went home every evening.
One more big strike was all she needed. Big for her, anyway. She would take the last two books from the botany collection. The used-book seller was eager to complete the set and would pay her handsomely. So, from her perch in the shadows across the street, she waited until the toff rode away in his fine carriage.
She almost missed him, so dark was his suit, even under the gas lights. He was slow in donning his top hat, she supposed because with it on, he would not have been able to fit through the door of the conveyance. That was her signal to wait another half hour. How many times had she seen her mark come haring back home having forgotten heaven only knew what inanity that he couldn’t possibly survive the evening without? Was it a cane or a pocket handkerchief or his watch? Perhaps she could understand if a man needed a ticket of invitation. She had observed plenty of those leaning up against mantels. Almack’s seemed to be a coveted ticket, though there were plenty of others. Whatever the silly fools forgot, she didn’t want them walking in on her, so she waited.
Her mark was going to Almack’s, as she recalled. She had seen the guest invitation ticket so she knew he wasn’t a standing member. No one of his rank who didn’t have scads of money and spend all his time in town cultivating relationships would have a permanent place on the list, Kyla thought. The houses of those sorts of men were the ones she only visited in the off seasons. They were in and out at all hours, totally unpredictable thus not worth the risk.
This specimen wasn’t of their ilk. He left the house at a shockingly early hour during the day, then came home in a scandalous state of disrepair, sometimes even sporting visible bruises or black eyes. Evenings were even more singular, though for her purposes his eccentricities were useful. He left the house early, came home early, and never entertained. No supper parties, no late-night trysts with ladies who came and went in closed carriages, no packs of drunken wastrels falling all over themselves on the stoop. In other words, the perfect gentleman for her.
The half hour passed without incident. Kyla slipped to the back and scanned the windows for a long time, watching for light or movement. Eventually it came. Like a good servant, Fred waited to make sure his master would not need him before he let himself out for the night. Another half hour wait and it was down to the coal cellar door for Kyla. She slipped her knife in the slit between the door and its frame, then inserted her tiny person down the hatch where only the coal delivery for the household was expected to traverse.
A quick rubdown so she wouldn’t leave tracks followed a donning of shoe covers. Up the cellar stairs she crept, happy when she saw the mice about their scuttling work. If she didn’t disturb them, she wouldn’t disturb anyone else. Even in the dark, she found the library without incident. This room was certainly one of the most cluttered in all of London, and she had visited enough to make a valid comparison. This dandy did like his books, but the most used ones were in the marine science section and of course travel. Botany books were relegated to a chaotic corner high up and out of sight of the main part of the room. They would probably never be missed.
The books were off the disorganized shelf and in her satchel faster than a cup of tea would cool. She considered fixing herself a quick snack in the kitchen as she had done before, but thought on the whole it was safest to make her exit now that she had what she had come for. On her way out of the library, however, she noted on the table, left lying around as if they had no value whatsoever, a pile of silver coins. What that could buy for little Brena! A pair of shoes that really fit. A warm cap for the coming winter. Or for herself, for that matter. A warm room for the night in some lodging house, this winter when the bitter wet snow wouldn’t cease its relentless hounding. They were in her hand before she could really weigh the morality of the action.
By her usual standards, this gentleman had already contributed his fair share to her maintenance with his generous, though unwitting, donation of the books. The coin was different. With the taking of something that was of obvious value to him, she knew she was crossing even her own rather wobbly line. Was she motivated by need, or was there that slight seed of bitterness she was watering as she stole the money? She tamped the sprout down in its native earth by denying its existence, knowing it would grow. All her life she had fought the bitterness, but there it was, creeping up around the door of her heart, like a vine that bore only thorns and no roses, as her father had always said.
“Put that back.”
The voice froze Kyla in place. Had she actually heard the dark sound? Where had it come from? There was still not a light in the house, not a creak from any door hinge. Maybe she had imagined it. Then she heard a key snick in a lock. She was trapped.
“I said, put that back. It belongs to me.” A hand clamped down on her wrist, forcing her fingers to obey the words.
The coins clattered to the floor. Kyla’s gaze followed them, not daring to turn around and see the man who had caught her in some kind of a hand-shaped vise. And man it was. Of that, Kyla had no doubt. The voice, the strength, the size, they were all male. But the scent was wrong. It didn’t repel her. He smelled clean, like the soap in the market and the leather at the saddler’s shop. And the feel was wrong. He wasn’t striking her or squeezing to cause further pain, but rather only holding her, keeping her from moving. She tried to jerk her hand away, but instead found herself dragged to the table where the lamp sat.
Her hope that perhaps this was merely a competing burglar, here on the same mission as she, fell flat. No one in her trade turned up lamps.
“You’re a girl.”
“Well spotted.” Where had that smart-aleck answer come from? She was in serious trouble here. He had caught her dead to rights. Could she talk her way out of it? No harm in trying. “If you wouldn’t leave this place in such a shambles, I wouldn’t have to clean up your beastly money. Now, if my lord pleases, I would like to continue my work.”
“Your work?” He was obviously not buying her line.
“Yes, my lord. You certainly don’t expect to know by sight all the servants you must have in such a large and prosperous household.”
“All the servants?” He loosened his grip ever so slightly. She already knew her escape route and was just calculating whether she would make it to the door without him blocking her way first when he strangled those hopes as well. “Has Fred taken to hiring maids now? I seriously doubt it.”
“Are we going to stand here all night playing this strange version of tug of war with my arm or are you going to lay off and let me get about my business?”
“And what business would that be?”
“Cleaning, of course.”
“In the dark?”
“I could see well enough.”
“Come now, little cat’s paw, give over. Where are they?”
Kyla noticed the man was looking around, casting glances at the windows and near one of the bookcases by the mantel, when he wasn’t staring at her. Those intense brown eyes met hers with a jolt. With an effort, she dragged her gaze away. How could he have noticed that the books were missing? “Where are what?”
“Not what. Whom.”
“You lost me. What are you talking about?”
“Where are your partners? I thought at first you were just here by yourself to take what you could get, but now I realize that no woman would rob a house by herself. You must have confederates who sent you in here. What did you do, break a window? I know you would never have been able to persuade Fred to leave the door unlocked for you. He’s incorruptible, no matter the temptation.”
“Why would I need anyone to send me in here?” she demanded, then realized her chance had come. “Except my mistress of course, who sends her regards but doesn’t wish to commit them to paper. I’m to tell you—”
A bark of laughter interrupted her perfectly crafted invention. “Good try, but please let’s not waste time. There’s no mistress sending me messages. You’d have done better to pretend you were an offended brother, calling me out for some imagined slight I made to his oh-so-eligible sister.” His tone sounded bitter and ironic at the same time.
So his nibs was single. There would be no wife or lady’s maid coming in to keep him from doing what men do to females that come under their power. Time for action. He was pulling her over to the settee. “Let go of me!”
The toff went on conversationally. “Obviously you slipped in someplace too small for the men to fit. Now your job is to go and let them in the back door so they can clean me out. So where are they?”
“Really, my lord, there is no one else. I’ve come in the wrong house entirely and must go finish my errand for my mistress. She’s out in the carriage waiting for me. I’m a particular favorite of hers. She’ll send in her footman directly if I don’t return.” That would give him pause and maybe dissuade him from his purpose, which was obvious now. He had seated himself on the settee by the fireplace.
With his free hand, he held up the satchel that swung from her side. “A great reader, your mistress? And you were in here borrowing books for her? I think not. Perhaps you are alone, though. More’s the pity. No judge will go easy on you if there’s no one to blame for leading you astray and making you steal.” He sounded genuinely regretful.
Panic set in. Kyla knew the penalty for stealing. Even a first offense could earn a girl a public whipping that might end in death. Whether he meant to have his way with her first or not before he handed her over to the authorities, she didn’t know, but instinct took over and Kyla started to fight in earnest.
“You’d do well to save your strength,” he intoned, hardly exerting any effort to keep her motionless as he crossed her arms in front of her and held her from behind, totally helpless. She couldn’t even reach any part of him to bite. “There’s no use in wearing yourself out beforehand. Calm down. Calm down!”
She kicked out with her legs, dropping all her weight on his hands but he held her securely. Breaking the rule of silence in crisis that had always served her well, she hissed, “Easy for you to say. You’re not the one facing the whip.”
He squeezed her even more tightly. “Neither are you. How can I turn a little slip of a thing like you over to some sadistic judge? I can wrap my arms around you twice, you’re so tiny. I think I can mete out a suitable punishment right here and now. No need for the authorities.”
She got still. “You’d do that? You’d not call the constable?”
“Seems too much by half, a whipping just for a couple of books and a handful of coins. And you’ve given me the first real laugh I’ve had in days. You deserve to have a little mercy tossed your way.”
“Then you’ll let me go?”
“Not just yet. I said a little mercy. Not an outright pardon. I run a tighter ship than that. Give a sailor an inch and he’ll take a yard. There has to be punishment, but more fitting to the crime. That’s why I came over here to sit down.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ll show you.”