|Author- Barbara Ivie Green|
London, England, 1863
“Oh, there ye are, luv,” Gurtie said cheerfully in her thick Irish brogue while opening the back door for Constance. She watched as the young woman made her way up the steps, the packages she carried threatening to topple at any moment. The plump cook took the basket from the top of the heap, uncovering the young woman’s face. “I was tinkin’ I’d best be after findin’ ye.”
Constance blew at a lock of hair that had fallen from her tight bun. “At least that’s over with,” she said as she entered the kitchen, her speech decidedly more cultured despite the worn servant’s dress she wore.
“You look all done in, ye do,” Gurtie fussed as she lightened the load further. “Why did ye not wait fer Iain te help wit’ those?”
“I didn’t want the eggs prematurely scrambled.” Constance gave her a meaningful glance as she set the rest of the packages on the table.
“Well now,” Gurtie chuckled, “seein’ as how he’s not blown the wash up in over a month, I consider us lucky indeed.”
“You have a point,” Constance said as she inhaled the aroma of freshly baked bread. Her stomach rumbled in appreciation. “Oh, that smells good.”
“Did ye not eat breakfast again?” Gurtie looked up at her as she went about emptying a basket of vegetables. When Constance didn’t reply, she tsked, “Shame on you, yer too thin as ’tis.”
Constance glanced down at her attire and sighed. The dress did nothing to enhance her figure, but that had been the point in wearing it in the first place. The last thing she wanted was to attract attention while acting as her own maid.
“Where’s de brisket an’ fish?” Gurtie asked, looking through the goods.
“Ugh,” Constance groaned yet again.
“That fishmonger didn’t try te manhandle ye again, did he? Because if ’e did. . . .”
Constance smiled as the older woman picked up a particularly large stalk of celery and wielded it like a club. “He didn’t.” She plopped down in a chair. “Our money didn’t stretch as far as I’d hoped, but there are plenty of turnips.”
“’Tis a shame, ’tis, but why yer out doin’ messages is beyond me, especially when Betsy—”
“I’ll not be swindled again, that’s why,” Constance interrupted. “Our coin is scarce enough as it is, and until that changes, I’ve decided I’ll be doing the shopping.”
“That being the case, why don’t ye be about askin’ our kind benefactor fer a wee bit more next month?”
“And have to explain to the executor of my father’s estate that my teetotaling, nearsighted, elderly maid has a weakness for dice?” Constance arched a delicate brow. “Even if I were to tell him that she was taken by a charlatan, I don’t think Lord Langston would be very understanding, do you? He might even increase his efforts to watch over us.”
“Speakin’ of which,” Gurtie gave her a knowing look, “you’d better get out o’ those rags. He’s already had the agency send another butler ’round.” She shook her head with a sigh. “As if we didn’t have enough te contend wit’.”
“He didn’t?” Constance groaned, “If we didn’t need the monies Langston provides I’d have done with his insisting we have a man about the house.” She nibbled on her bottom lip as she considered the problem the new butler presented. “I thought we’d have more time before they installed yet another.”
“They filled the post right quick, they did.” Gurtie nodded. “But don’t ye worry none, I’ve it all worked out.” She looked back over her shoulder. “That reminds me . . . don’t drink from de teapot in the salon.”
“You didn’t!” Constance looked at her with disbelief. “Poor Mr. Crabbits is probably still recovering from your treatment of him.”
“Now, I did ’im a favor, I did.” Gurtie’s pin curls bobbed as she spoke. “Even now he’s restin’ in the country on a fine pension, instead of toilin’ away as someone else’s butler . . . an’ in fine healt’, I might add.”
Constance couldn’t help the smile Gurtie’s reasoning brought to her lips. “I suppose there’s no help for it,” she said, then yawned. “We certainly can’t afford someone spying on us.”
“He’ll be sleepin’ like a wee babe is all,” Gurtie assured the exhausted young lady. “Which is what you should be doin’, rather than traipsin’ around all hours o’ the night.”
“You know why I must,” Constance replied tiredly.
Gurtie shook her head with a sigh. “I’ll just send up a new pot for ye, then. A nice spot o’ tea will do ye good, an’ I’ll just put a wee nip in it te put the pink back in yer cheeks.” Gurtie winked as she put the kettle on to boil.
“Pink is the last thing I’m wanting, but maybe just a little.” Constance picked up one of the freshly baked rolls and smelled it appreciatively. “I’ve got to go out again tonight.”
“All this runnin’ around, I hardly tink t’would be what your mum would want, God rest ’er soul. I’m sure ’tis not what she intended when she asked me te look after ye. Lordy, but since ye’ve come of age, yer a veritable hoyden.”
“I’ve always been, just now it’s legal.” Constance smiled as she contemplated the roll. Now that she was four and twenty she could finally act without the permission of her guardians.
Gurtie frowned at the news. “Ah-ah-ah!” She shooed Constance away from the steaming hot bun she was about to bite into.
“No?” Constance eyed the freshly baked morsel dubiously.
“Those are fer the new butler,” the cook warned. “I’m tinkin’ he’ll be stayin’ close te the lavvy tomorrow, ’e will.” She nodded with finality. “Ours are still in de cooker.” She indicated the oven with the plate she held.
“Just don’t kill the poor man.” Constance set the sweet back on the plate with the others, scooting them far across the table from herself.
“I would never do such a ting!” Gurtie looked positively innocent in her cap and curls. “I’m after helpin’ ’im on his way te his new post is all.” She rolled her eyes when the servant’s bell rang. “Though this un will be a pleasure, I tell ye,” Gurtie huffed as she placed the plate on a tray.
“Why is that then?” Constance raised her brow curiously. She could tell by Gurtie’s annoyance that something was amiss. “What’s the story?” The maid scowled when the bell rang once again. “Is he a threat?” Constance grew concerned.
“Gorr’s no,” Gurtie snorted. “But our Mr. Higgins is a cheeky one, he is. Why he’s already rung that bell a dozen times. You’d tink ’e’s the comp’ny, rather than de help, ye would.” She lifted the tray as the bell rang again. “A positive nuisance!” she muttered, looking over her shoulder. “Don’t be long, Connie, luv. I’ll send Betsy in te pour.”
Constance shook her head with a sigh. “Poor Mr. Higgins.” She couldn’t help but smile to herself. The butler would, no doubt, be wearing most of the tea with Betsy pouring, not to mention seeking a new post before the night was through. That is, if he knew what was good for him.
Samuel stood before the mirror in the salon. The image reflected was hardly that of the young Lord St. Clair. The only thing which looked remotely familiar was the blue of his eyes behind the spectacles. He moved the bushy white eyebrows up and down as he straightened his withered grey beard which made him look like the ancient man he was pretending to be. “Perfect, if I do say so myself.” The new wrinkle gel was a mite improved over the last formula the agency had produced. He smiled, inspecting the crinkles on his face as well as the false teeth he’d had made specially to cover his own.
“Good day, madam,” he said, altering his voice to project a gravellier one. “Hmm,” he cleared his throat and practiced it again. “Good day, madam.” With a satisfied nod, he turned towards the window. Affecting the posture of a much older gent, he walked slightly bent over with an obvious limp, which was only partially an act. The injury he had sustained on his last assignment was acting up. Must be the weather, he decided as he looked out at the crisp autumn day.
With a sigh, he withdrew his pocket watch. Adjusting his spectacles, he scrunched his eyes to read it. It was always best, he’d found, to remain in character. Quarter-past four. He sighed yet again, returning the watch to the pocket in his waistcoat. He’d already been waiting an interminable amount of time. He’d drained the teapot an hour ago and was starting to have a powerful need to relieve himself.
He went to the bell cord, pulling at it again in frustration. He then moved towards the chair by the fireplace, where he sat down, stifling a big yawn. At least he’d have plenty of rest during the day so he could continue his usual pursuits at night. He grinned. “A piece of cake.”
“What’s this about cake?” Gurtie asked as she bustled into the room.
“I beg your pardon, Madam McPhee.” Samuel cleared his throat. “I wasn’t—”
“Now none of that. I’ve told ye te call me Gurtie, an’ good news I have, too,” she continued. “Our Miss Connie is back from doin’ messages an’ will be down te see ye soon. I’ve just brought some o’ these freshly baked sweets for ye until she arrives.” She placed the tray next to the pot of tea. “I’m sure yer famished.”
“’Ey, Mum,” a young lad greeted her as he walked into the room.
“Well, there ye are, Iain. Come meet the new butler, Mr. Higgins.” The boy who entered couldn’t have been any more than seven or eight. “He’s a fine lad he is, not te mention the best footman here abouts.” Gurtie beamed proudly. “An’ he even pulls the weeds in de garden, he does.”
“Sir.” Iain bowed.
“Hum, hum,” Samuel cleared his throat, “Iain.”
“Yer not goin’ te get sick like the last butler, are ye?” he asked when he straightened.
“Och now,” Gurtie shooed him out of the room. “Run along like a good lad, an’ take Mr. Higgins’s trunk up te his room.” She turned back to the new butler with a bright smile on her face. “A bit of an imagination on ’im, but a good boy.” She busied herself by plumping a few cushions. “Go on now, eat up,” she encouraged as she checked the teapot beside him. “I make the best cakes from ’ere te ’Olandary, I do.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Samuel said as he sank his teeth into a hot bun.
Bump, bump, bump, thump, sounded from outside the room. “I’m alright,” Iain called from the stairs. Samuel could see the boy pulling his bags up the steps only to have them slip out of his grasp to end at the bottom of the flight again.
“I’ll just go see about a fresh pot.” Gurtie smiled brightly as she picked up the empty teapot. “Oh, an’ Betsy’s finished wit’ the wash, she has, an’ will be in te pour. Careful though, she 'as an eye fer the gents, she does.” She winked, smiling as she left. “What she can see o’ them, that is.”
Samuel barely heard her parting comment as he chewed. He wasn’t left long to ponder on it, however, as the spinster he’d been sent to babysit walked into the room. She was about as dull as the wallpaper in her crisp, white cap and high-necked day-gown of grey. The spectacles she wore were perched high on her nose, and her complexion was most peaked.
Samuel slowly rose from his chair as she approached. “Good day, Miss Applegate.” He experienced a rush of dizziness as he stood and, bent over as he was, almost toppled over as he bowed.
“Good day, Mr. Higgins,” Constance replied in the most somber voice she could affect as she watched him straighten. “I trust you haven’t been waiting long. I was unaware that the agency would be sending anyone around.”
“Of course,” Samuel’s gruff voice intoned, “Mrs. McPhee has been most gracious.” He indicated the hot buns as she seated herself on the other chair. “Would you care for one?” he asked, picking up the tray.
“Oh, no thank you,” Constance replied, almost too quickly. “I wouldn’t want to spoil my dinner.” Among other things, she thought as she watched the tray wobble. The poor man’s hand trembled so badly, she reached out to help him set it back down. She waited until he seated himself before continuing. “Your services are hardly needed here, I’m afraid. Your duties will be few and far between.
Samuel nodded as she continued. Fairly secure in the fact that she believed him to be old and frail, he sat back as she spoke.
“There is the women’s reading club I go to every Tuesday, and the ladies auxiliary on the second Thursday, but it is only once a month.”
Samuel shook his head. There was a definite buzzing in his ear, and he found himself needing to stifle a yawn on several occasions as she spoke.
“And then there is Lady Persse’s tea.” Constance looked over at him. “Mr. Higgins, are you listening?”
“Yes, yes,” Samuel replied as he refocused on her face. He was afraid her monotone voice was putting him to sleep.
“Actually, Mr. Higgins, no one ever comes to call. I’m afraid the only one who comes and goes by the front door is myself,” she sighed, fairly secure in the knowledge he thought her boring, “and even I use the servant’s entrance most of the time.”
Samuel felt sorry for the girl. It wasn’t her fault she’d been born with that complexion, or those looks. Maybe if she just did something with her hair? Unfortunately, it was red, which made two strikes against her already. And, if that wasn’t enough, it appeared she had a slight harelip. She looked down most of the time, so it was hard to see her eyes past her spectacles. Poor girl, there was no hope for her, and he had an eye for that type of thing.
His taste ran more towards buxom blondes. Samuel’s mind drifted away for a moment as her voice droned on. Take the twins, for instance, he thought, now there is a pair who have been doubly blessed. The ladies he’d recently met in Cairo, and had the pleasure of entertaining on the voyage home, were fair indeed. He sighed.
Her grating voice cut into his thoughts. “Yes?”
“Are you alright?”
“Quite.” Samuel cleared his throat, looking at her once more. Green, he noticed with surprise. Her eyes were green with gold flecks in them. She averted her gaze quickly when their eyes met, looking down.
“I was saying that, although you receive your pay from Lord Langston, I will not allow any disruptions,” she droned on in a colorless voice. Samuel fought the urge to yawn as she continued, “My household runs as smooth as clockwork.”
Before he could reply, Gurtie burst into the room. “Here we are, then.” She placed a new pot of tea down on the service. “Ye’d probably like a fresh cup.”
Samuel wanted to groan. If he had any more tea, he might float away. He’d never understood why it was so popular, anyway. He much preferred a rich cup of café, and if it was enhanced with a liberal dose of whiskey, it was all the better.
“Now, where is that Betsy?” Gurtie sighed. “I’ll just be about seein’ what’s keepin’ her.”
“You were saying?” Samuel asked the young lady seated so stiffly across from him as the cook left the room.
“Betsy!” Gurtie yelled from the hall. The volume she used was enough to shake the rafters. “What’s keepin’ ye?”
Samuel’s eyes widened in shock at the lack of decorum.
“I’m not deaf,” the maid yelled in response. “I was just after freshin’ up, seein’ as ’ow I’m meetin’ de new butler’n all.”
Gurtie returned. “She’ll be right down.” She smiled brightly.
Samuel was further amazed when Betsy appeared a moment later. The glasses she wore magnified her eyes, giving her an owlish appearance. Her grey hair sprang from under her cap at every angle, and when she bobbed a curtsey, he was sure he detected the smell of whiskey and lye soap in the air.
“Hello there, Mr. Higgins.” She batted her big eyes at him.
Her Irish accent was much thicker than the cooks, Samuel noted as he cleared his throat. “Madam.”
“Oh, t’would be miss.” She batted her eyes again. “I’m unwed.”
“You don’t say,” Samuel coughed.
“Now, would ye care fer a nice cuppa’ tea, then?” She leaned over the service, “Fancy a lump er two?”
“One, please,” he replied as she handed him his cup, without the tea. She then proceeded to pour as he chased the stream of liquid from the pot with his cup.
“Ye can call me Betsy,” she replied.
Samuel looked up to see her eyes focused on him, rather than the task at hand. “What did you say?”
“B-e-t-s-y,” she leaned closer to say as if he were deaf, pouring scorching hot liquid across his lap as she tipped the pot.
“Ah-Ah-Ah!” he yelped as the liquid seared him.
“Oh, dear me, but I didn’t mean te—oh, my!” Betsy put the pot down and grabbed her apron. Leaning over him, she dabbed at the spill. Her efforts only succeeded in pressing the scalding cloth against his skin.
“Stop that!” Samuel did his best to stand as he brushed her hands away.
“Oh, my.” Betsy stepped back, wringing her hands in dismay.
“Mr. Higgins,” Constance said looking at the man, “are you all right?”
“No, miss, I am not!” Samuel asserted.
“Betsy,” Constance replied calmly. “Could you see Mr. Higgins to his room, where he can change his trousers?
Samuel snorted indignantly. He seriously doubted she could see anything!
“I can.” Betsy bobbed. “Right this way then.” She smiled.
Samuel had seen wolves with that expression. He followed behind her, his posture bent. The only difference this time was he wasn’t faking it. Even in his pain induced haze, however, Samuel noted the creaks on the stair as he slowly went up. The fifth and third from the top were to be avoided in his nocturnal wanderings.
“Here we are.” She led him into his room, where his trunk lay broken open, the contents scattered across the floor. “Ah, how nice,” Betsy claimed as she turned large eyes on him. “It seems Iain ’as brought yer tings up.”
“Indeed,” Samuel commented, far too concerned with the burning in his nether region to worry about the pile of clothes spilt on the floor.
“Would ye like some help?” The owl blinked up at him.
“No,” he blurted out when it appeared that she winked. “No, thank you,” he crisply repeated while he ushered her out the door, turning the key in the lock.
It was the cook’s voice. . . . Standing in nothing but his shirt and stockings, Samuel felt out of sorts.
“I’ve come to tend te ye,” she called.
“That’s quite alright.” Samuel stole a brief look down. His flesh was scalded and bright pink. He watched in horror as the key in the door fell to the floor, pushed through from the other side by the cooks own master.
“Oh, pish!” Gurtie retorted, turning her key in the lock.
“Madam, you will kindly stay on that side of the door.” Samuel looked around frantically for something to cover himself. He grabbed the sheet off the bed just in time.
“There’s noting you have that I’ve not seen before.” Gurtie pushed the door open, carrying a hip bath. “Now, off wit’ it, an’ let me have a look.”
“I will most certainly not!” Samuel blustered, wrapping the sheet around him.
Betsy appeared in the doorway with a bucket. “Good ting the iceman came teday.”
Before he knew what was happening, Gurtie pushed him backward. The movement caught him so off guard that he fell into the tub. Unable to recover, he sat there while Betsy followed right behind her, pouring freezing cold water across his lap.
“Ahh-hh!” Samuel leapt out of the tub. As he moved, the heavy, wet sheet slipped from his fingers, parting in the front. He quickly turned away from Gurtie’s view, right into the owlish eyes of Betsy.
“Oh, my!” Betsy’s eyes grew even larger as Samuel jerked the sheet up.
“Well, what’s it look like?” Gurtie asked her.
“It’s all pinkish,” she replied.
“Well there’s noting much te it,” Betsy said. “’Tis shriveled up te a wee ting. I may ’ave burned it off.”
“It’s . . . It’s not been burnt off.” Samuel blustered. “It’s been frozen.”
“Are ye goin’ te let me see it, then?” Gurtie asked.
“Not if it’s the last thing I do!” Samuel stood by the door with the handle in one hand and the bunched-up sheet in the other.
“Suit yerself then.” Gurtie sighed as she turned to leave. “I’ll just leave the salve for ye.” She set a jar of green paste on the dresser. “Come now, Betsy,” she said as she passed Samuel and went out into the hallway. “How about a nice cup o’ tea?”
“That sounds like just the ting.” Betsy nodded, following her out the door.
Samuel shut the door behind them, throwing the bolt home, “Holy hell!” He rested his head on the door. “What kind of household is this?” He turned, bracing his back against the frame. “Runs like clockwork, indeed,” he scoffed. “It’s a bloody madhouse!”
“Works every time,” Gurtie chuckled as Samuel slammed the door behind them.
“I tink we’re gettin’ better at it.” Betsy nodded.
“’Tis a fine art,” Gurtie agreed.
“He did ’ave quite a bit o’ fight in ’im,” Betsy commented. “Did ye give him enough laudanum?”
“He’s not as frail as he looks,” Gurtie replied thoughtfully. “I’ll have te up the dose fer his dinner, I suppose.”
“Well?” Constance asked from the table as they entered the kitchen.
“He’ll be packed an’ out the door as soon as ’e gets his britches back on.” Betsy giggled as she set a plate of untainted rolls on the table.
“Iain commented about the last butler being sick, if ye know what I mean.” Gurtie took one of the three cups Constance had poured. “I’m afraid he’s pickin’ up on our efforts.”
“Oh, dear.” Betsy blinked her big eyes as she sat down, taking a cup.
“We’ll have te mix it up a bit.” Gurtie nodded. “We’ll start next time wit’ the itchin’ powder ye make, Connie, and perhaps forgo it altogether on this one.”
“Em,” Betsy blinked, “too late.”
“Ye’ve already powdered his britches?” Gurtie asked in surprise.
“Well, what did ye tink I was doin’ when ye called?” She snorted with laughter. “It’s not as if I was gettin’ pretty fer the ol’ codger.”
Their laughter filled the kitchen.
“All in a day’s work,” Gurtie sighed.
Samuel stood across the street from the spinster’s house and watched as a cloaked figure of a woman slipped out the back gate. He waited in the shadows as she passed him. It has to be the bookworm. She was the only one in that bizarre household he’d met who fit the description. The woman appeared to be the same height and size as Miss Constance Applegate, but where was she headed at this late hour?
It’s just my luck, Samuel thought with no small amount of frustration. Now I’ll have to follow, he sighed. Bloody hell, what next? He’d already had to cancel his plans with the twins because of the debacle this afternoon. Blistered in places he didn’t want to think of, the last thing he wanted to do tonight was follow the “ever spirited” Miss Applegate.
Looking up at the sky, he pulled up the collar of his coat against the chill. At least the large moon was partially covered by clouds, making it easier to blend into the shadows. It was the only bright side to a forced moon-lit stroll that he could see.
What could she possibly be thinking to come here? Samuel wondered as she turned onto Fleet Street. He was glad he’d thought to hide a spare set of clothes in the lining of his bag. The outfit he wore was not that of an aged butler, nor that of an English lord, but one of a worker from the lower class. He’d worn the disguise often enough when it suited him, and it suited him just fine tonight; especially since the woman he was following was headed to the dodgier part of town.
The din of music could be heard from the taverns as he rounded the corner. Samuel quickened his stride when he realized she was already halfway down the street in front of one such establishment when an especially large man blocked her path while another remained well in the shadow. “Bloody hell,” Samuel cursed his luck upon seeing it.
She appeared to be speaking to the larger of the two men as he approached. Laughing at something he’d said, she swept her hood back, allowing her dark red hair to fall down her back in a riot of cascading curls. Samuel slowed his step; he highly doubted that hair belonged to the bookworm.
“Go on wit’ ye, now,” she laughed again as she brushed past them.
Her voice had a sensual loft to it, causing Samuel to stop altogether. . . . He’d obviously mistaken the honorable Miss Applegate for someone else. But who is she? Is there another woman I’ve yet to meet living in that house? His interest in his new assignment piqued despite the day he’d had.
“’Et’s true,” the big one grinned, “I’m jus’ wai’in’ on ye te make an ’onest man o’ me.” The man’s voice was heavily accented, marking him as a true Londoner.
“Don’t fash yerself, Devon McGregor,” she tsked, “I know your ways.”
“Now, don’t go listenin’ te gossipin’ hags, Connie luv.”
“An’ who would ye be callin’ a hag?” She turned to lift a brow.
Samuel had his first glimpse of her face as the big oaf stammered. It definitely wasn’t the bookworm. This woman’s complexion was as rich as her hair, and her features were exquisite. He was intrigued by her surprising beauty. Despite the fact she wasn’t his mark, he lingered nearby as the two men remained by the tavern, the smaller one nudging the other as he joined him with a chuckle.
“Ye migh’ as well shoot fer stars wif at un’,” he laughed.
“She’ll get ’ers, she will,” the big one threatened as they entered through the door, following her. “An’ soon!”
Samuel stood looking through the window which read O’Grady’s in big, white letters. He watched as the woman took off her cape, revealing what was underneath. The dress she wore was a deep rich red, trimmed with black. As she turned to put her cloak on a peg he could see that the tight waist of the dress emphasized her lush curves. A smile lifted the corners of his mouth at the enticing vision she made.
He hadn’t liked the sound of the men’s conversation, but if she was somehow acquainted with Miss Applegate, it was his duty to watch her. Wasn’t it? The idea made his step lighter as he entered the tavern, the day’s events finally taking a pleasurable turn.
He skirted the dance floor, watching as she stopped several times to greet people. Whoever she was, she was well known here. The fiddler even started playing a song with a faster tempo when he laid eyes upon her. Instead of walking around the dancers in the center of the room, she started tapping her feet to the rhythm.
The crowd began to clap, making room in the center of the floor as she moved. She swirled, her arms in the air, letting her head fall back as her laughter rang out. She then lifted the hem of her skirt, revealing the intricate footwork of the dance. Going up to several of the women near the edge, she used her skirt to tag them. They, in turn, tagged others who all joined in as well.
Samuel stood mesmerized by the enchanting creature, dancing with complete abandon in the center of the room. Even the twins, he realized with surprise, paled in comparison to her stunning beauty.
The young men gathered around, whooping and hollering as the group of women kicked up their heels, whirling around one another. As the music increased in tempo, the men jumped in. Twirling the ladies to the outside, they took their place in the center. The dance became a more physical demonstration of strength as the women looked on appreciatively.
Samuel couldn’t help but smile as she stood clapping and cheering on the men with the rest of the women until the dance ended. Laughter erupted as several ladies were scooped up and twirled in the air. Caught in the throng, Samuel lost sight of her as the fiddler started up again.
“Laws, but aren’t ye a ’andsome one.” A buxom blonde, with more cleavage exposed than was covered, smiled up at him. She pressed herself into him breathlessly before pulling him onto the dance floor.
Forced to participate until he was able to work himself to the edge, Samuel followed the movements of the other men, spinning the buxom wench until they were both dizzy. Her cloying perfume clouded the air as she twirled and he fought the urge to sneeze.
A dark-headed man, who looked old enough to be her father, pushed inside the circle, taking the comely wench by the hand in an attempt to steal her away. It was all too obvious his interests weren’t paternal as she smiled coyly, flirting with him.
Oddly enough, she might have interested Samuel before he’d set eyes on the redhead. As it was, he had no intention of winning her favor and couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when her benefactor whisked her away.
Standing on the opposite side of the room from where he’d started, Samuel waited to catch a glimpse of the mysterious woman he’d followed. A redhead across the bar caught his attention, before another with curls down her back crossed in front of him. “Damn!” he swore as he looked around. It seemed as if every redhead in England was in attendance this eve.
He stepped back from the dancers as he surveyed the crowd. He was beginning to think he’d lost her when he finally caught a brief glimpse of her through the crowd. As he took a step forward, a tottering drunk blocked his path.
“I know ye were lookin’ at ’er, ye good fer noting letch,” a heavy-set, dark- haired woman, standing right next to him raised her voice in anger.
Shocked, Samuel eyed the disgruntled harpy who stood with hands on hips, her eyes looking right through him.
“Now, darlin’, ye know I only ’ave eyes fer you,” the drunken man on the other side of Samuel pleaded.
Samuel looked at the thin man on his other side then back at the woman. It seemed he had stepped back a little too far, managing to insert himself into the middle of a domestic squabble.
“Just ye wait till we get home!” the harridan wagged her finger.
Caught between the two, Samuel quickly traded places with the beleaguered man at his side who was doing his best to placate the woman.
“Yer de one I’m buyin’ drinks fer now, isn’t that right?” the man soothed.
Even Samuel wanted to roll his eyes at that one, the idiot was fighting a losing battle and going down fast. He shook his head and looked once more toward the spot he’d last seen the exotic redhead.
The woman snorted. “Ye know what ye can do wit’ yer bleedin’ drink?” She threw it at him. The man ducked. . . . Samuel didn’t.
Samuel gasped as the contents of her glass hit him in the face. “Bloody hell!” I probably should have seen that coming, he realized as he painfully blinked, wiping the rot-gut from his eyes with his sleeve.
“Och, now see what ye made me do!” The woman shoved her man.
“Me?” the man argued as he spat on the floor. “Now I ’ave te buy ’im a drink, an’ I’m all out.” He patted his coin purse.
“You’d buy ’im a drink ’afore me?” The woman shrieked with hands on hips. “I knew ye was off, but not so far!”
Samuel waved him away. “Don’t mind me, yer hands are,” he paused, looking at the harpy, “full enough.”
“Did ye not hear what ’e said about me?” the woman gasped. “Why aren’t ye defendin’ me honor?” She slapped the man’s arm.
“Now, luvie.” Samuel heard the man coax as he backed away from the two of them.
“Don’t luv-vie me, Earl O’Rourke!” the woman scolded as Samuel left them to their squabble.
“Yer not workin’ too hard now, are ye Maggie?” A woman’s sultry voice spoke from behind him.
That’s her! Spinning around, Samuel nearly collided with her as she greeted the barmaid. Her hair tickled his chin, a sure sign he was far too close in his observations. Bringing up his hand to cover his face, he turned away, walking towards the tables lining the wall.
“Ha!” the barmaid laughed. “What else would I be doin’ if I weren’t waitin’ on these fir jacks happy out havin’ a whale of a time?” Maggie rolled her eyes as she held up two mugs of ale.
“C’mere, Maggie luv, an’ hurry it up.” A man at a table a few feet away from Samuel held up his empty tankard.
“Right, I’ll show ye some luv, Henry Flannigan, if ye know what I mean,” Maggie warned, taking a step toward him. She chuckled as he grabbed his heart dramatically and sat the tankard back down.
Samuel found a place beneath the stairs, where he could observe, yet remain unseen. The barmaid stopped right in front of him, pausing as if remembering something.
Oh, I almost fergot, d’ere’s a message waitin’ on ye,” Maggie said, turning back to the young lady.
“It’s finally come?” The redheads relief was obvious as she glanced over toward the bar.
“It has. Yer Uncle Patrick has it in de back.”
“Yer the best, Maggie.” She kissed the woman on the cheek, looking past Samuel to the large barkeep who stood at the rear of the building.
“Go way outta that now.” Maggie beamed at the praise.
Samuel’s eyes flared with recognition as the gas lamp on the stairwell illuminated the mysterious woman’s face. He watched as she hugged the barmaid, the golden flecks in her green eyes shimmering in the light. He stood unmoving in the shadow as she passed him. There was always one thing which gave a good disguise away . . . the eyes.
Samuel could hardly believe this vibrant goddess and the pasty bookworm he’d met this afternoon were one and the same. Once more a smile lifted the corners of his mouth as he watched her. There was certainly more to Miss Constance Applegate than had originally appeared.
“An’ how about a tankard for ye, luv?” Maggie nudged him, disrupting his thoughts.
Samuel turned to see the barmaid smiling up at him. “’Twould be glad of it,” he nodded with a grin. He was looking forward to something other than tea. He’d had to choke down another pot which had been delivered to his room for dinner. . . . A lovely concoction consisting of boiled turnips and greens. The pushy cook and house maid wouldn’t leave him alone until he’d eaten every last drop. He swallowed distastefully at the memory.
“There’s me Connie. I thought fer a moment ye forgot about yer ol’ uncle,” boomed the deep voice of the barkeep as Constance hugged him over the counter.
The barkeep’s use of her name confirmed her identity, and Samuel couldn’t help but wonder what she was up to.
“Ha-wear-ya? An’ how’s that nephew o’ mine?” the man asked.
“I’m grand and Iain’s growin’ like a weed.” The large beefy man smiled proudly at her words. “I’ll tell him ye asked after him.”
“An’ I haven’t forgot about our night at de Covy comin’ up.” He lifted his fists in a play boxing move before he filled another tankard, handing it over to Maggie. “Besides the fisticuffs, I hear there’s te be a dancin’ bear, acrobats, an’ a herd o’ elephants.”
Constance laughed. “He’s most excited.”
“As he should. ’Tis not every day de circus comes te town.” His eyes danced merrily as he filled another tankard from the tap and set it on the bar.
“Patrick O’Grady!” Maggie shook her head at him as she picked up the mugs. “Don’t keep ’er waitin, ye tease.”
Patrick smiled at Connie. “Would ye be wantin’ that message then?”
“I would.” She nodded.
When he still didn’t retrieve it, Maggie chimed in, “It’s in de press.”
“There ye go now tellin’ me secrets, again,” he chided Maggie who rolled her eyes as she picked up several mugs off the bar and carried them away.
Patrick took the missive out of the cupboard and held it out of her reach. “I’ll give this te ye wit’ one understandin’.”
“An’ what would that be?” Connie asked.
“Don’t go thinkin’ unkindly of yer mither, no matter what ye find at de end of it.” When she nodded in agreement, he handed it to her.
Samuel stifled a yawn as he watched her open the note. Maybe there was something to the curse in the tomb, after all, he thought mordantly over his unusual tiredness. He couldn’t remember when he’d felt so exhausted. I probably shouldn’t have sniffed the contents of that Canopic jar. He coughed at the memory, wondering if he was suffering any ill-effects from it, albeit weeks later.
His thoughts were interrupted, once again, as the lovely bookworm spoke up. Her voice, he noted, had a far different effect on him than it had earlier that day.
“Did ye see who delivered this?” Constance looked up, her brow knit with concern.
“Is it not what ye were expectin’?” Patrick asked, and then, fixing her with a serious stare said.
“Oh, it is,” Connie said with a quick smile.
The bar keep looked unconvinced. “Promise me ye’ll be safe, an’ not let what happened te your mum, happen te ye.”
“I promise,” she nodded, tucking the missive into her décolletage.
“I told ye it would work.” Samuel heard the whispering behind him as she turned away.
“She fell fer it righ’ quick, she did,” another voice replied.
Samuel turned slightly in order to see who was speaking.
“’E’ll pay ’andsome fer ’er, ’e will,” the first man added.
The two men standing on the other side of the stair were the same ones who had spoken to her when she’d first arrived. Samuel pretended to watch the dancers while inconspicuously listening to them.
“Jus’ don’ go fer-ge’in’ yer lines,” the big one whispered as he spit toward a spittoon and missed it by a meter.
“Ge’ out o’ it,” the small one snorted. “A branch of de apple tree from Emain, I bring,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to effect an Irish accent.
“Don’t go makin’ a right bags o’ it, or ’ere’ll be hell te pay,” the big one warned.
Samuel listened to their Cockney accent and wondered how they fared in an Irish Pub.
“I go’ it!” the smaller one complained.
“Yeah well, let’s just ’ope she don’t find out yer no’ who she’s expectin’.”
“Wha’ do ye take me fer, a complete edjit? Besides, ’ere’s no way fer her te find out a’tween now an’ midnigh’, so stop yer bawbaggin’,” the little one replied as the barmaid strolled up to them.
“Devon McGregor,” the barmaid said as she walked towards them. “I can tell by de looks of ye two dossers that yer up te no-good.”
“Ay now, Maggie,” the smaller one complained.
“Don’t Maggie me, Sandy Donavan. I’ve got me eye on ye, as well.” She pointed. “Off wit’ ye now, before Patrick sees ye. I’ll 'ave no more loiterin’ by the likes o’ ye.” She shooed them away.
The barmaid’s response answered his earlier question. Seemed the two were trespassing and was glad he’d used a more Irish accent in his own response earlier.
Maggie turned as they left. “Here ye are, luv,” she grinned at Samuel. “On de house, first time an’ all.” She winked before brushing past him.
“Cheers!” Samuel lifted the mug to his lips, getting mostly foam. Before he could swallow, the beleaguered man with large female problems slammed into him, knocking the contents of the tankard down his shirtfront. Foam flew from Samuel’s mouth in a fine spray.
“Hey, watch who yer spittin’ on.” The man stumbled away from him, teetering briefly before landing in Flannigan’s lap. Laughter erupted from the table as he rolled onto the floor.
“An’ don’t come back!” his wife spat before dusting her hands off.
Samuel glanced down at the drunk who’d obviously been pushed.
“Give ol’ Earl a hand-up,” Maggie said to the group of laughing men at the table.
Samuel stepped away from the man sprawled on the floor and set the empty tankard down with a sigh of regret.
“Care fer another one, luv?” Maggie turned to him before hollering over to the table again. “Someone needs te take Earl off te bed!”
“Are ye askin’, Maggie luv?” The drunkard turned bleary eyes toward her as she shook her head. “’Ow about anot’er pint? I’m outta coin, but ye know I’m good fer it.”
Maggie snorted in response, “Like hen’s teeth. Jaysus, but yer half-ossified an’ wrecked trough.”
Samuel looked around for the lovely bookworm while the barmaid was distracted by the drunkard. The two men he’d overheard talking were heading out the door.
“Would ye care fer another then?” Maggie turned her attention back to him.
“I would, but later.” He winked at her before walking away.
“Now why is it I’m always asked out by de likes of you,” she looked back at Earl who was still trying to stand, “an’ not by a randy bloke like that ’un?” She complained as she pulled the drunkard up off the floor.
“I’m randy as dey come,” Earl verified as he leaned against her.
“That’s the problem.” She sighed, pushing him off in the direction of the door where he nearly collided once again with Samuel who side-stepped him.
The occupants of the back table once again dissolved into laughter but one tall thin man did come and give Earl a hand up.
Samuel almost swore when the drunkard blocked his way again when the man backed into a group of ladies who stood by the door. The action not only hampered his ability to follow the two men but sent one of the women falling back into his arms.
“How ’bout one of ye fine hens takes me ’ome,” Earl suggested as he staggered and backed into another of the ladies
“Off wit’ ye Earl!” Maggie shouted.
“Imagine trowin’ around a one like that and expectin’ sometin’ in return,” another lady said.
Samuel watched in frustration through the window as the two men disappeared down the street. “Pardon me,” Samuel said as he righted the lady in his arms.
As if suddenly realizing he was there, the ladies turned in unison from Earl to look at him. His eyes briefly met green one’s as he touched the rim of his cap before heading out the door.
“Gorr’s, now he’s fit,” the woman he’d righted exclaimed. “He can catch me anytime.” She raised her brows suggestively.
“Why, I’m thankin’ ye, Molly,” Earl leered at her.
“Not you, ye dolt!” Molly said as the ladies all giggled.
Samuel was able to catch up to the two men several blocks down. He couldn’t help but wonder why they were bent on capturing Miss Applegate as he shadowed them. Keeping back, he trailed behind as they left the busy taverns on Fleet Street and headed towards the business district along the docks. Staying in the shadows, he watched as they knocked on the door of a warehouse before entering.
Slipping into a darkened alley across the way, Samuel stood where he could see both ends of the building. With a big yawn, he checked his timepiece. Quarter to twelve, he sighed. Pulling his coat closer about him, he wondered again why he was so tired.
He was about to check his watch again when the back door of the warehouse opened, and a man wearing a hat and cloak walked out. He was carrying something in his hand which appeared to be a twisted wand shimmering in the moonlight.
Samuel thought he’d been seen as the man headed right towards him. He waited for the newcomer, but instead of confronting him, the man turned and settled himself against the corner of the building a few feet from where Samuel waited in the dark.
Must be my lucky night! Samuel thought as a slow smile curved his mouth. The man obviously hadn’t seen him, and now he was at the perfect spot. Samuel slowly moved closer to the unsuspecting man, his foot crunching a pebble just before he was upon him.
“Who’s there?” the man whispered as he turned.
Before he knew what had hit him, Samuel grabbed him in a chokehold, putting pressure on his jugular. The man was unconscious in a few seconds and slumped in his arms. There was no one the wiser as Samuel disappeared into the alley briefly, only to re-emerge a moment later as someone else.
Samuel adjusted the man’s cloak over his shoulders just as the big oaf poked his head out the back door of the warehouse and signaled to him. Samuel nodded, touching the stick the other man had held to his hat as he played the part. It appeared to satisfy the one called Devon, for he disappeared back inside.
Samuel leaned against the wall, glancing down at the glittery apple branch he now held. When he glanced back up it was into the eyes of the lovely bookworm.
“Eh-hem,” she cleared her throat hoping to prod him into action. When still nothing happened she spoke just above a whisper, “Do ye have someting for me?”
Samuel tried to keep his surprise at her sudden appearance to himself and the brim of his hat low over his face. “Em, right— de apple branch.” He held it out to her.
She stepped back, uncertain.
“Em, I mean,” he continued with a lopsided grin trying to remember the words the now unconscious man had recited back at the pub. “A branch of de apple tree from Emain, I bring.” How the hell could I have messed that up?
“Are ye—” she started.
“Shh,” he put his finger to his lips, “Yer in terrible danger, follow me.” He fell back into the alley, winding his way through to the other end of the street.
“Wha’ are ye bleedin’ doin’!” the big man yelled after them. “Yer goin’ ’e wrong way!” Samuel turned to see several men filing out of the warehouse, running toward them.
“Who’s that?” She glanced over at him, “I’m sure I wasn’t followed.”
“Just keep movin’,” Samuel ordered as they crossed the road and darted into another side street. He glanced behind them. “Damn!” He swore under his breath. Several men had appeared from the alley at a run, still hot on their trail.
“Stop!” the big one called.
She looked back over her shoulder, slowing. “Why, ’tis Devon Mc—”
“’Tis,” Samuel ground out as he grabbed her hand, pulling her along. “And unless ye want te be sold off like so much chattel, ye'll keep movin’,” he warned.
She pulled at his hand. “What are ye doin’?”
Samuel glanced again at the men who were fast on their heels. He’d been hoping to make it back to the taverns where they could disappear into a crowd. He pulled her into another dark alley. “Ye’ve been played like a cheap violin,” Samuel replied indelicately as he shrugged off the cape and tossed the hat into a refuse pile.
“What?” she gasped, trying to pull away from his grip.
He held firmly to her hand as they ran. “In here,” he said as he darted inside a door stoop dragging her with him. It was deep and dark enough to hide them both.
“I f’ink ’ey went ’is way,” they heard a man’s voice call out from around the corner.
“Bloody hell,” Samuel swore softly before stepping in front of her. “My apologies, but this is fer yer own good,” he whispered before covering her mouth with his. Stunned for a moment she did nothing.
It was difficult not to notice how she fit him like a glove, as they stood pressed together, breathing heavily from their exertions.
“Jus’ wha’ do we ’ave ’ere?” a man asked from behind him.
The little vixen in his arms chose then to grind her heel into his toe and tried to knee him as she spoke in a mumble. He kept his lips on hers, despite the pain which laced up his foot. He groaned when her knee made contact with the scalded skin of his groin. Making it sound like so much more, he did his best to make the movement of him doubling over part of the act. He rocked back, moving so that both knees were pressed between hers and she couldn’t do it again. As he did, he also placed his hand inside his coat pocket, palming the pistol inside.
“Show yerself,” the man ordered.
Samuel tore his lips away. “Leave off,” he grumbled, adopting the voice of a drunken sailor as he turned slightly, pointing the gun in his pocket towards the man. Mercifully, the bookworm stopped grinding his toes. He felt her inhale deeply, a sure sign she was going to scream.
Just when Samuel thought she might, a shout echoed down the alley. “If we don’t deliver ’e wench we’re in fer and I ain’t taken ’e fall.”
Samuel couldn’t have been more grateful for the timing of McGregor’s threat.
“Jus’ let me see ’er face,” the man behind them pleaded.
“Get yer own girl,” Samuel grumbled as he pulled back the hammer of his gun. “I’m busy.”
Surprisingly, it was the bookworm who spoke up, sounding much like a dockside whore. “I fought ye said ye knew a place where we’d have a bit of priv-acy?”
“Giz’ us a break,” Samuel added using the man’s own dialect.
The man anxiously stepped from one foot to the other before finally turning away. “Aw, it ain’t ’em,” they heard him yell as he turned the corner.
“That was close,” she whispered softly as he stepped away.
Samuel didn’t know what to make of her. Most women would be in tears, or worse, hysterical under such circumstances. At the moment, he was just grateful she’d stopped trying to injure him. “We’re not safe yet,” he whispered back as he released her and busied himself with the locked door.
She stepped back a little to widen the gap even further between them and breathed deeply. The smell within the alley was fetid enough without her savior reeking of alcohol. She dropped the silver branch and brought her sleeve up to her nose as she watched him warily, wondering at his motives . . . not to mention his kiss.
Samuel looked over his shoulder at the woman who looked ready to bolt. “In here,” he whispered, opening the door. Her expression was one of indecision as he waited.
They could hear Devon McGregor’s angry voice coming closer as he yelled. “Did ye see ’er? I told ye te make sure t’ain’t ’er, ye manky slag.”
“’Ey was mugging ’e face off each ov’er.”
“I’ll have yer bollocks, ye mingebags, if ye don’t find ’er.”
She dashed inside hearing the remark. Samuel quickly closed the door behind her; the only sound was the click of the lock as he turned it.
“How did ye unlock it?” she asked in a hushed voice.
“There’s not a lock made that can keep me out,” he boasted in a whisper as he lifted his finger to his mouth. “Shh!” He took her hand, pulling her away from the window. She resisted slightly, and he immediately stepped to the side to avoid another well-placed hit.
“’Ey ain’t ’ere!” A man’s voice called from the other side of the door.
“Ye’d better make sure.” Devon asked.
“Ye wasn’t even ’ere,” the man started to protest as the large shadow of a man outside stooped to pick up the discarded apple branch.
“Bluh’y ewll!” Devon McGregor struck the man beside him. “Ye made a roigt baws of it. I’ll ’ave yer heed fer le’in ’er ge’ away.”
“Ave ye lost ’e plot? It weren’t me ’at lost ’er in ’e first place,” the man whined. “It were Donavan.”
The sound of the man being struck was unmistakable as Devon delivered some of his frustration on the man. “It weren’t me fault,” the man pleaded.
“Find ’er or ih’ll be ’e las’ f’ing ye do.” Devon McGregor threatened as the sound of their voices trailed away.
Samuel and the spirited she-cat at his side waited in silence as several other men passed by the window. They heard the lock jiggle before they moved on.
When he was sure they had, Samuel drew her into another room. It was a printing office he discovered as he stumbled over a crate of paper, ending up sprawled across the press.
“Are ye alright?” she whispered as she watched him roll off the machinery onto the floor.
“I am,” he groaned, picking himself up. He was definitely off tonight. . . . If he didn’t know better he’d think he’d been drugged, but he’d only had a taste of the ale, nowhere near enough to leave him feeling like this.
Cautiously, he made their way around the machinery with her following.
“Wait,” she whispered, stopping before a stack of papers. “I’ll go no further until ye tell me who ye are.”
“All ye need te know is that I saved ye,” he spoke with a thick accent disguising his voice.
Constance narrowed her eyes at the sound of his slurred words. “Are you the Rogue then?”
Samuel could hardly believe his ears. So that was whom she thought she was meeting in the alley. Bloody hell! What could she possibly want with a notorious highwayman? Samuel stumbled as he stepped back into the shadows. “It depends on who’s askin’?”
“You said ye had answers.” She paused, but when he didn’t respond, she sighed.
Was he so drunk he didn’t remember why she was to meet him, or was it as he’d suggested and she’d been fooled in some way? “If ye don’t' know who me mither is then yer not the man I need.” She turned to leave.
“I know who ye are, Miss Constance Applegate,” he answered.
She turned back, looking at him curiously. “My mother told me, should I ever need help, I should call upon you.”
He noticed how her accent changed abruptly now that he knew who she was. “And just what ’elp would ye be seekin’?” he spoke softly, keeping his, keenly aware of the need to keep up the pretense.
Constance looked at him with confusion knitting her brow as he tried to stand without falling again. What is going on? Nothing made sense. He didn’t seem to know why she was to meet with him tonight. She’d sent a note via Betsy and had received a missive in return stating that if she wanted the answers about her mother and the past, they would come.
As a testament to his good intention, he had even contacted her through her uncle’s pub the second time and signed it, the Rogue. All she needed to do was wait for another missive to be delivered to O’Grady’s. It had taken a week, but tonight it had finally come.
The note had given her instructions on where to go and to wait for the messenger to deliver an apple branch from Emain, alluding to the wisdom of the keepers, but this man before her now, who claimed to be the Rogue, seemed to be suffering from a bout of memory loss. Or worse, she thought as she watched him stumble again and lean heavily against the wall.
Constance wasn’t about to reveal anything to this man who seemed ignorant of everything . . . and then there was Devon’s interference. She inwardly cringed at the thought of what that cruel bastard had meant for her.
She eyed the man who stood in front of her warily, not sure who was the lesser evil of the two men. Devon, she felt she could deal with. This one was another matter. She had the feeling he could be far more dangerous as she tried to make out his features in the dark shadows where he stood.
She had felt the muscles in his body when he’d pressed into her. He could easily overpower her if it was his intent. She looked down at his arm and hand which were the only things visible as he rested it on a filing cabinet.
“What can you tell me of my mother?” she asked, noting as she did that his nails were clean and smooth enough to denote a man of leisure. The corded muscles of his forearm, however, bespoke of hard labor. “You once took something,” she spoke softly, taking a step toward him. “A necklace.”
“Hmm,” Samuel replied noncommittally.
“You then returned it,” she raised a brow indicating a greater meaning as she lifted up a necklace in the shape of a Celtic cross from around her own neck, letting the ornate pendant dangle not far from her cleavage. The temptation he realized was to look closer, but that would expose his features to the light of the moon coming in from the high window. He remained in the shadow.
Constance, frustrated that her ploy hadn’t worked, stepped even closer. “Well, you returned most of it.”
Samuel rubbed his chin, leaning his elbow on the cabinet. “I see,” he said, letting his gaze dip down to the pendant that dipped enticingly into her cleavage once again as he spoke. The interlocking treskele, which made up the center of the necklace, appeared to be missing a piece. The temptation was too great this time, and he reached out, lifting it. His fingers lightly brushing the silky skin of her throat as he moved the disk in the moon light. The light glinted off the swirling circular cross, but his mind was solely on the woman. “What are ye proposin’ then?” he asked evasively.
Constance silently questioned his words as his fingers barely grazed her skin. The touch sent off a tingling sensation across her body which she was completely unprepared for. What did he mean by that? She narrowed her eyes as she considered it. Is he playing with me?
“I propose nothing,” she said. Does he not remember? She wasn’t sure if she could trust him or the way her body had responded to his interest in the necklace. He wasn’t at all what she had been expecting.
“Can I ask a favor then?” He let the necklace go as he spoke.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Not to be meetin’ strange men on street corners.”
“What?” Offended, she stepped back and straightened her spine. “You asked it of me.
“That I did,” he chuckled as if finally remembering. “Then let me ask—”
“First, I must ask something of you,” she cut him off, deciding to test him before revealing anything else. Besides, actions spoke more for a person than mere words. She skirted past him as she pondered the puzzle he presented.
“What is it?” he asked as his elbow slipped off the file scattering several papers across the floor. He attempted to catch them, but his efforts caused them to spill their contents across the floor.
She watched, wondering as she did, how one went about proving the identity of a highwayman. “Prove it.”
“Prove to me you are who you say you are and that you have it.” She continued to watch him carefully.
“It’s not like I have it on me,” he said evasively, wondering how deep he should dig himself into this mad scheme. “’Tis not like I can take ye raidin’, if ye know what I mean.”
“Why not?” She seized upon the idea.
“You want me te take ye raidin’?” His voice sounded choked. Why couldn’t I keep my mouth shut? He wasn’t thinking clearly.
“Yes,” she said with a nod, drawing up her shoulders as if daring him to give her a reason to doubt him.
Samuel rubbed his jaw and sighed tiredly. Bloody hell! She honestly wants to go out on the road with a highwayman? “I’m retired.” He hoped that worked. No one had heard from the notorious highwayman in roughly a year, at least he hadn’t.
“I’m sorry to have bothered you then,” she said, turning to look up at him and using the soft accent with devastating effect. “I’ve obviously got the wrong man.”
With the light of the moon illuminating her face and her full pouting mouth beckoning him, he had a powerful urge to lean forward and kiss her again. She tentatively licked her lips, as if she could read his thoughts. He had an inkling now of how women could lead some men to crime. “Would yer mum ’ave wanted it?” he asked.
She watched him for a moment with those beautiful green and gold eyes, and he caught a momentary flicker of pain flash within them before she turned away without saying a word.
“Wait,” he said, immediately sorry to have caused her any.
“Yes?” She glanced over her shoulder.
“I would see ye home,” he replied, “safely.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
Not necessary! There were a dozen men combing the streets for her even now. “I insist.”
A corner of her mouth lifted in a half-smile, and with her eyes half-closed, it was almost cat-like. Samuel had to quell his urge to pull her close and kiss the smirk off her delectable lips.
“You’re hardly in a position to insist,” she challenged.
“Am I not?” he asked, stepping closer. Bracing his hand against the wall above her shoulder, pinning her there, he stood looking down at her. Perhaps he could change her mind about the raid after all. “If goin’ on a raid is what ye seek, then I might ask a price, should I decide te help,” he said huskily.
“What price?” she asked. The way he was looking at her left little to the imagination as to his meaning. She nervously wet her lips with her pink tongue once again.
Seeing it, he acted impulsively, dropping his head to hers. His lips touched hers softly before demanding a much deeper kiss. He’d hoped to scare her off this ridiculous game she was playing at, but was more affected by the kiss than he’d like to admit. Even despite the heavy abuse he’d taken of late, his reaction to her was painfully obvious. Reluctantly, he ended the kiss, shifting to his left immediately to avoid a replay of the first kiss. “Why don’t ye just tell me what yer after?”
Constance wanted to stomp his toe again. Is he playing with me to get information? she wondered, until that is, he moved. His features, illuminated by the shaft of light coming in through the window high above, made her breath catch. It was the man from the tavern, and he was obviously accustomed to a woman’s advance.
His eyes immediately struck her. Blue as the sky on a summer day, she thought as he stood staring down at her far too intently, reading everything she thought in the details of her face. Ooh, how I’d like to slap the smug look from his face! She eyed his strong jaw dusted with stubble, which only managed to emphasize his masculinity, and sighed instead.
A soft, sensual smile played upon his lips as her gaze lingered there. Suddenly becoming aware she was staring, she pulled away and ducked under his arm.
“What is it?” he asked, his voice still far too intimate.
She glanced at him. He was far different than she’d thought the Rogue would be . . . and much more virile. She bit her lip, now completely unsure of her next step. What was I thinking? Her attempt to lure him out of the dark hadn’t gone without consequences. . . . she sensed she’d have to tread lightly. This was no mere boy to tease. This was a man . . . a man who practically oozed sexuality, along with the alcohol and feint smell of cheap perfume that clung to him.
“Nothing,” she said, trying not to breathe as he stepped closer. It amazed her she could even smell it over the strong vapors of alcohol which assailed her nose.
He chuckled, his deep throaty laughter made her stomach leap. She drew herself up slightly, lifting her chin. He might be one of the most handsome men she’d ever laid eyes on, but it was all too obvious that he knew it. “I must go.” Constance’s voice faltered.
Samuel watched her closely. Her breath came in shallow puffs, her bosom rose and fell revealing her emotions in the light filtering through the window. She self-consciously pulled a curl back from her face and combed it over her shoulder. Despite her façade of disinterest, he could tell she was not immune to his charm. “Wait here,” he whispered near her ear before stepping away, making his way to the side door.
Constance inhaled sharply as goose bumps rippled down the length of her body to her toes from his breath on her neck and ear. Gulping in fresh air to steady her nerves and breathe in something other than the stench of alcohol, she watched him stagger away, feeling a mixture of relief and disappointment. The man was a drunken womanizer who could barely stand. She’d be well off to remember that!
She watched as he tripped over a box on his way towards the door and shook her head with a sigh. It doesn’t matter, she told herself. She only needed him for one thing, and she’d be done with him soon enough.
Samuel opened the side door and checked to make sure it was safe. “Stay close,” he whispered, waving her over.
Constance was starting to wonder if he’d be able to find his own way home as she followed him through the twisting alleyway. She shook her head as she watched him head down one alley only to return, retracing his steps, and head down another.
“This way,” he said with a grin over his own mistake.
Reaching a street where several taverns were located, he paused near a garden wall. “I tink it’s best if we keep te the back streets. Those men are probably still lookin’ fer us.”
“I can make it safely from here,” she spoke softly.
He looked at her briefly before turning back to the street. “I would see ye home . . . and if ye need te reach me again, I tink it’s best we use another route. The last appears to have been compromised.”
She briefly wondered what else would be compromised if she continued down this path. “If you’re willing to take me raiding with you,” she said, glancing over at the park across the street, “I’ll meet you at the fountain in the park tomorrow at midnight.”
Samuel couldn’t help but feel annoyed as she spoke behind him. “Why are ye so determined te rob somebody?” he asked in frustration.
There was no answer.
He turned back around. The street was empty. . . . She had vanished. “Damn it all to hell!” he swore, shaking his head. “I’m getting too old for this!”
Samuel awoke to the sun’s early light streaming across the bed where he’d slept. It took a moment for him to remember where he was. He swallowed, smacking dry parched lips together. It felt as though he had cotton in his mouth and his tongue was five times too large.
He rolled over, swinging his legs over the side until he was sitting on the edge of the bed, his head throbbing. He looked down at the wash tub and winced as the memories of the night before came flooding back. The burning in his groin intensified as he remembered the debacle with the ice and then later meeting the real woman behind the bookworm’s façade.
He lifted the green jar off the dresser and smelled it, wishing almost immediately that he hadn’t. He winced as the strong ammonia fumes assailed his nostrils. It was enough to make him gag. “What the hell?” he coughed. They actually put this on burns?
He stood and went to the window, remembering how he’d waited in just this spot last night until she’d come home. Having traded the dress she’d worn for britches, her disguise as a young lad would have been convincing had he not been expecting her.
How did she disappear on me? he wondered yet again. There was certainly more to Miss Constance Applegate than had originally appeared, which had him questioning why she was leading a double life. “What are you up to?” he mused aloud as he rubbed his jaw.
Glancing down, he noticed his book, which still lay open on the bed. It appeared that he had attempted to draw the necklace she’d shown him while he waited the night before. The drawing was a poor attempt considering his usual efforts.
Still dressed in the street clothes he’d worn the night before, Samuel sniffed at the collar, wrinkling his nose at the smell. His stomach rumbled in dissent as a cramp tore through his lower regions. With a groan, he clutched his abdomen.
This isn’t good, this isn’t good at all!
He quickly changed into the clothes of the butler, hastily applying his false whiskers as another pain gripped him. He checked himself in the mirror quickly before leaving the room. He just hoped it was early enough that no one saw him, there wasn’t enough time to make it perfect, nor was their time to avoid making noise on the third and fifth stair as he stumbled down them in his haste.
“Have you seen the new butler?” Constance asked as she entered the kitchen.
“I saw him racin’ te the privy bright an’ early this morn’,” Gurtie said with a grin as she cracked eggs into a bowl and whisked them. “He was makin’ enough racket te raise the dead an’ movin’ so fast ’e nearly lost his wig,” she chuckled.
“Poor man,” Constance shook her head as she poured a cup of tea and seated herself at the table. “Has anyone checked to see if he’s still alive?”
“Oh, pish,” Gurtie snorted as she threw flour into the bowl. “He’ll be fine, cleansin’ his system is all.” The curls on either side of her head bobbed as she vigorously whisked the mixture. “He’ll be no worse than he was afore, anyhow.”
“All in all, maybe someone should check to see if he’s still alive?” Constance watched as dust from the bowl haloed Gurtie in a fine cloud.
“Already done,” Gurtie pronounced as she set the bowl down. “Betsy’s been checkin’ on him hourly, but he won’t open the door fer some reason,” she chuckled as she poured the batter into a skillet.
Betsy walked into the kitchen as Gurtie spoke. “Man’s dug in like a tick, ’e is.” She lowered her voice, “We may ’ave te use other measures.”
“Consider it done,” Gurtie smiled, lifting the lid to the pot in front of them on the table.
“What is it?” Constance cautiously leaned forward as Gurtie lifted the spoon, drizzling the thin lumpy liquid back into the pot.
“Turnips an’ porridge, o’ course,” Gurtie replied.
“That should do it.” Constance wrinkled her nose, sitting back.
“So, what of the night?” Gurtie asked. “Tell us everyting.”
“I had another dream of de fay callin’ me,” Betsy answered. “A devilishly ’andsome one, too.” She nodded as Gurtie looked on in disbelief. “Called me te fetch some water, he did, but there be shades black as pitch lurkin’ near de water’s edge waitin’ te capture me,” Betsy finished.
“Honestly,” Gurtie sighed and rolled her eyes. “Not yers. Hers.” She indicated Constance with her spoon.
“You show no respect for de auld ways,” Betsy responded moodily.
“I have plenty of respect, but ’tis the nineteenth-century, not the stone age. It must be takin’ wit’ a grain o’ salt is how I see it.” Gurtie looked to Constance as if seeking help as Betsy gasped over her words. “Now, tell us how it went last night. Did ye meet the Rogue?”
Samuel made his way into the kitchen, pausing outside the door when he heard the women of the household talking.
“Ye don’t say,” he heard Gurtie exclaim. “A drunken wastrel?”
“He could barely stand,” Constance replied. “He reeked of alcohol and cheap perfume.”
“Cheap perfume?” Samuel mouthed to himself. How was that even possible, he’d barely had anything to do with any other women? Unless it was from one or both of the twins as I made my excuses or the wench who pawed me when I was forced to dance.
“He didn’t?” Gurtie’s voice lowered in pitch.
“He said he’d retired,” Constance added. “My guess is he can’t sit a horse any longer.”
“An’ here I tought he was a respectable kind o’ criminal.” Betsy replied.
“Is there such a ting?” Gurtie snorted.
Samuel ducked into an adjacent room, picked up a vase from the shelf, and placed it against the wall.
“It doesn’t matter if he’s respectable or not.” Constance was saying when Samuel rested his ear on the end of the glass. “Although it would help if he were sober. Last night, I thought he may very well have forgotten who he was, let alone why we were meeting.”
“Wee nip never hurt a’body,” Betsy protested, “lest he’s usin’ it te bath in.”
Gurtie’s muffled voice echoed through the boards. “Well, I fer one will be glad when this is over.”
“After tonight’s raid,” Constance continued, “I’ll know if he can be trusted—”
“Raid!” Gurtie said loudly. “What have ye done now? I absolutely forbid it!”
“You cannot forbid it. I am of age,” Constance began. “Besides, I doubt it’ll come to be.”
“Pish! Of age or no, I forbid it.” Gurtie stood with hands on her hips. “Ye speak as if raidin’ is a right o’ passage.”
“He suggested it. When I asked for proof of his identity,” Constance looked at the women who’d raised her and realized she had better give it a rest. When Gurtie’s feathers were ruffled there was no soothing them.
“Aw, no, there’s no way ’round it. Yer not goin’.” Gurtie remained steadfast. “There must be another way fer ’im te prove himself.”
Constance nodded as Gurtie’s thoughts echoed her own and could only imagine the response if she told them of Devon’s involvement. Constance hated lying to them, but knew they would try to prevent her if they suspected she was still going.
Both Gurtie and Betsy looked at her with a great deal of concern etched on their faces. “I don’t know what I was thinking.” She sighed. “I hoped that if I could get him to talk I could find out about the missing piece.” Constance shrugged. “I don’t know. It all happened so quickly,” she responded sagging back into her chair.
“Well, yer not goin’ through wit’ it!” Gurtie said. “Yer mum, God rest ’er soul, would roll over in her grave, she would.”
“Her body was never found,” Betsy took exception. “She’s still alive.”
“My sister would never have left her babe,” Gurtie said. “There’s not a force in the world that would’ve kept ’er from her Connie, and ye know it.”
Gurtie’s voice was raised enough to hear easily through the wall. Samuel pulled away a little and glanced at the door.
Samuel almost jumped out of his shoes at the sound of Iain’s voice and nearly dropped the vase. Catching it in mid-air, he turned to see the boy behind him, looking at the wall curiously.
“Is it that rat again?” Iain turned bright green eyes on him.
“Ah— yes, the rat.” Samuel nodded stepping back from the wall.
Iain nodded sagely. “Last butler tried te listen fer him too, but the little bugger just can’t be caught. I’ve traps set everywhere,” he whispered conspiratorially.
“Keep up the good work,” Samuel nodded, “and— ah, let’s not mention this to the ladies. You know how women can be over these things.” He watched as Iain buttoned his mouth and skipped from the room.
“Guess what?” Iain yelled as he entered the kitchen.
Samuel groaned, shaking his head. Great!
“What’s this?” Gurtie turned to look at Iain in surprise, “Rushin’ in here an’ yellin’ at the top o’ yer lungs.”
“I can explain,” Samuel said as he hurried into the kitchen.
“Sandy Donavon got ’is neck stretched from the London Bridge last night,” Iain continued on excitedly.
“Explain what, Mr. Higgins?” Constance turned to ask him.
“Ah,” Samuel grasped for a new answer. “My tardiness,” he quickly added. He’d thought the boy meant to tell on him. “Please accept my apologies for not serving you breakfast in the dining room.”
“But I never have breakfast in the dining room, Mr. Higgins. I prefer to eat all my meals here at the kitchen table. I’m quite sure I mentioned it when we spoke yesterday,” Constance said disapprovingly.
He had absolutely no recollection of it. His mind must have drifted off during her exciting lecture on household habits. “How remiss of me, Miss Applegate, I will undertake to remember in future.” He watched her as he sat. She was once again dressed in the grey day gown, her complexion as pale as when they’d first met, and like before, her hair was pinned back into a bun so tight it defied any curls to escape.
“Did ye wash up fer breakfast?” Gurtie asked her son while placing a plate of hot cakes and eggs in front of him. “An’ what’s this about someone gettin’ their neck stretched?” She tsked. “Where did ye learn such a ting? An’ how is it that ye know of this Sandy Donavan?”
“Tommy, the butcher’s son, told me,” Iain replied. “’Tis true, I swear.”
Betsy snorted. “Well, that’s grand! I say good riddance te the low life, good fer noting letch. Couldn’t even run an honest game o’ dice, that one, if ye know what I mean.” She stopped talking when she noticed the alarm on both Constance and Gurtie’s faces as they looked from her to the new butler.
“Ah, hem,” Gurtie cleared her throat loudly.
“Just sayin’. Preyin’ upon unsuspectin’ ol’ ladies,” she turned to Higgins with a smile, “not that I’d know, mind ye,” she added and then looked back. “Serves him right gettin’ his due on the devil’s own gate.”
“Well now,” Gurtie ladled out a bowl of turnip porridge and placed it in front of Samuel, then added another pancake to Iain’s plate and watched as her son took a bite of it. “Seems as if ye’ve had a bit of excitement this day.”
Iain nodded, his cheeks bulging with the food he’d just stuffed into his mouth.
Samuel eyed the lad’s plate of fluffy, steaming cakes longingly before looking down at his own bowl. “Could I have some of—”
“I couldn’t ’elp but notice your extended stay in the privy this morn’.” Gurtie high browed him. “I’m not sure ’tis a good idea.”
Good Lord! Is nothing sacred to these women? Samuel coughed.
“After all, I fixed this porridge fer you, special,” she said with a note of disappointment in her voice and a look of steely determination in her eyes.
Samuel looked back at his bowl with a weak smile. “How thoughtful of you,” he murmured, eyeing the unappetizing slop. She smiled reassuringly as he picked up his spoon. All eyes were on him as he stirred the contents before slowly bringing the spoon to his mouth. The slimy texture made him gag as he forced himself to swallow.
He set his spoon down. “Perhaps you’re right, and I should just have tea,” Samuel squirmed in his seat, adjusting his position. There was more than one reason for his discomfort. Not only was his belly giving him problems, his groin was on fire as well, and not just from the burn. A rash had broken out across his nether regions, and there was no relief to be had from the itching. He slid uncomfortably forward on his seat.
Gurtie placed a hot, steaming cup in front of him as the knocker on the front door sounded. “Who could it be?”
Samuel continued to look at his cup while Gurtie cleared her throat. “Well, aren’t ye goin’ te get it?” They all stared at him. “Mr. Higgins?” Gurtie increased the volume of her voice. “Mr. Higgins?”
“What?” Samuel was startled to see them all staring at him. “Oh yes, quite right,” he stood awkwardly.
They watched him leave. Betsy broke the silence first with a whisper. “I’m beginnin’ te tink our Mr. Higgins isn’t all there. He seems a shillin’ short, he does.”
“He’s probably just reacting to the fine treatment he’s getting.” Constance smiled for Iain’s sake.
“I don’t know,” Betsy blinked. “I’ve never seen a butler ferget te open de bloomin’ door. If ye ask me, ’e’s a few cards short of a full deck.”
Samuel returned with a note for Constance a few minutes later. He held out a small silver platter, on which the missive sat, with all the decorum his station was due. The action marred only slightly by the trembling of his hand.
“How odd,” Constance replied after reading it. “It seems I’ve been invited to the Radcliff’s ball. My dear friend, Lady Persse, has asked that I accompany her tonight.”
“Oh, how nice of de storyteller,” Betsy replied, calling the president of the book club, Lady Persse, by the nickname she’d given her.
“Nice?” Constance groaned. “It’s the last thing I need.”
“Not much notice, is there?” Gurtie sighed. “I’ll air out your ball gown.”
“Perhaps if you accepted there would be more reason to come and go by the front door,” Samuel replied. He cleared his throat uncomfortably, adjusting his eyeglasses as all the ladies turned to stare up at him with varying degrees of censure. “Would you care to reply?”
“I will see her at the book reading today and give her my answer,” Constance eyed him coolly. “Thank you, that will be all.”
He realized as he watched her he was going to have to remember to hold his tongue. The morning sun made the gold flecks in her eyes sparkle, especially when she was annoyed. Nodding briefly, he asked, “Will you need a driver?”
“I will walk,” Constance replied crisply.
“Then I hope it will be alright if I go out today for a short while. I have some errands to run.”
“Of course.” She turned away, summarily dismissing him.
“Told ye he was a cheeky one,” Gurtie said when he left through the back door.
Samuel walked along the street until he was able to hail a hackney to a nondescript brownstone building in the middle of the business district. The plaque on the door advertised the agency as an employment office. He took the stairs up to the second floor, where a middle-aged woman sat behind a desk.
“What, come again?” The little secretary lifted her chin, narrowing her eyes at him, “Do I know you?”
“Why, yes, Katie, luv.” He winked, grinning. “I believe you do.”
“Oh, Lord St. Clair.” She gasped in astonishment. “What a clever disguise,” she chuckled. “Speaking of which, you’re going to love the improvements to your jacket the seamstress has made and these from Morrison,” she said speaking of the agency’s designer as she stood and went to a filing cabinet, retrieving a box. “Perfect for the disguise you have on now.” She smiled as she handed it over to him.
Samuel opened it to find six small, round, thin pieces of glass; two brown, two green, and two a smoky grey. He picked one up carefully and squinted through the cloudy looking glass.
“Careful now,” Katherine said. “They’re glass. They fit in your eye and can change the shade of it. The one you’re spying through is to make it look like you have cataracts.”
“Clever.” Samuel nodded, impressed.
“You just missed seeing the new director. He’ll be back later if you’d like to introduce yourself.” Katherine paused. “Nice man.”
“Please, no need to fabricate any details on my behalf. I’ve already had the distinct pleasure of making his acquaintance,” Samuel cleared his throat, mimicking the director as he pinned her with a piercing stare.
“Oh, dear,” she shook her head. “Lord Langston’s not nearly as bad.”
“Hmm, well he’s not the reason I’m here anyway,” he grinned. “What I need is something from you, but secrecy is of the utmost importance.”
She blushed as he gave her his full attention. Though not immune to Samuel’s considerable charms, she was also not one to be fooled either. She’d seen too much in the wars and with the agency to be anyone’s lackey. After listening to his request, she nodded. “I will get right on it.”
He kissed her hand and turned to leave.
“Oh, I almost forgot, you scoundrel.” She grinned, handing him his jacket. “You’d better try it out before using it. The spring-loaded triggers are quite improved over last year’s model.”
Samuel left the agency a few minutes later, hailing another hackney to take him to his townhouse, where he changed into his own attire. He then sat down at his own table, feasting on scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, sausage, and a muffin.
“Good heavens,” his mother said when she joined him. “Where have you been that you’re so starved?”
“That, Mother, is a government secret.” He smiled.
She shook her head in response to his evasive manner, not believing it for a moment.
“A note for you, sir,” Carson, the butler, intoned as he handed the missive to Samuel.
Samuel opened it quickly, recognizing Katherine’s handwriting. “Excellent, as efficient as ever,” he said as he read quietly.
The Rogue Bandit wears black, with a purple scarf masking his face. Leaves the wedding rings of the female victim only, kissing the woman on the hand, or cheek if she is especially attractive, earning him the name the Rogue. Hasn’t been heard of in six months, it is rumored that he’s dead.
The late Sandy Donavon was a petty criminal. Not much information on him at this time. Constable O’Malley is working the case.
Sharon McPhee, married to the late Sir Philip Applegate, was reported missing 17 years ago. Her body was never found. The agent working the case was found dead. I’ve checked the file on the incident, and it is either missing or has been sealed. Further research through our mission records revealed that the agent involved was your own father.
Be Careful. K
“What is it?” his mother asked curiously. She watched with an odd expression on her face as he lit the paper on fire and let it burn on his plate.
“Mother?” he looked up at her. “Do you have a purple scarf I might borrow?”
“Certainly not,” his mother’s voice was curt.
“Hmm,” he thoughtfully tapped his finger against the table before standing. He walked around the table and kissed her on the cheek. “Have a nice day, Mother,” he added, taking his leave.
“I just don’t know,” Lady St. Clair sighed, looking up at the butler. “He reminds me more and more of my late husband the older he gets. I’m starting to worry about the boy.” She stared thoughtfully at the door where her son had disappeared. “Have the maid lock my scarves in the wardrobe, will you?” She turned back. “And my lingerie, too.”
“Yes, madam,” Carson replied, bowing slightly.
Samuel ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time as he returned to his room. He picked up the clothes he’d so recently discarded in his haste to eat something other than turnips. Shaking out the trousers, he was amazed as a fine powder fell onto the polished wooden floor at his feet. He narrowed his eyes as he swiped a finger through the dust which had fallen. He sniffed it. Immediately his nose began to itch and his eyes watered.
“Augh,” he sniffed, clearing his head. Running another finger through the fine powder he tasted it. It was bitter in the extreme. Next, he rubbed a small amount onto the inside of his wrist. It wasn’t long before a red rash appeared.
He sat on the edge of the bed as the pieces started to fall into place. Last night, he’d felt as though he’d been drugged. Hell, he had been drugged, but not by anyone at the tavern. “Bloody hell,” he said under his breath, remembering his morning spent in the dunny, “Those sneaky little–” No wonder his drawing of her necklace looked like a child had done it.
A knock sounded on his door.
“Enter,” Samuel called out as he stood. “Oh good, it’s you,” he smiled when Carson opened the door. “Have these laundered, will you, perhaps boiled? No. Better to toss them, and I’ll need another pair of the same.”
“Yes, m’lord,” Carson took them without question. “I felt you should know your mother has ordered her underthings locked.”
Samuel gave him an odd look, “Why?”
“I believe she is concerned about your unusual interest in her wardrobe.”
“Unusual,” Samuel chuckled, looking at the butler speculatively. “You wouldn’t happen to own a purple cravat?"
Samuel sighed in disappointment before asking, “Do you remember what my father was working on before he was shot?”
“Perhaps your father might have mentioned it in the journal he left to you,” Carson replied.
Samuel looked at him thoughtfully, remembering the day the butler had given him the letter his father had penned for him to read when he turned fifteen. It had led him to a journal hidden in the attic. Through the pages, he had learned who his father really was, and what had inevitably led him to the life he was now leading.
“You might be right.” For a moment, Samuel considered the man who had been there for as long as he could remember. “Is Lugh still here, or is he at the stables?” Samuel asked.
“He’s still in the kitchen, I believe,” Carson supplied. “Since the cook took his leave, Lugh has burnt just about everything in the kitchen trying to comply with your request that he be your chef.”
“I thought breakfast was excellent.”
“Thank you, sir,” Carson slightly bowed his head.
“You cooked it?” Samuel asked, knowing it was true before the man nodded.
“I see, I’ll speak to him on the way out,” Samuel said.
“Will he be returning to the stables, sir?”
“Afraid not. It’ll look into finding a new chef when I get the time.” Samuel patted the overworked butler’s shoulder as he stood.
“I was afraid you might say as much.” Carson sighed.
Samuel found Lugh in the kitchen cussing over a tray of scorched balls of dough. “How would you like to take a ride tonight?” he asked.
“By Christ it sounds like sweet ’eaven compared te this!” Lugh said in relief. “Does that mean de bloody chore of kitchen duty ye have me doin’ is over?”
“Unfortunately, I still haven’t found a replacement.”
“Eh, that’s mighty low of ya. So what are ye askin’? Do ye need me te race Lightenin’ on Gretna Green again?” the small chef asked as he took a smoking pot of something off the stove.
“Ah-no.” Samuel grinned remembering the bets he won the last time they’d done that. “I thought you said you knew how to cook?” Samuel tried to cover his nose, coughed and stepped back.
“Shim be roight.” Lugh picked up a smoking ball of dough and flaked off the burned part with a knife. “An’ I never said the loike,” he reminded Samuel as he waved the smoke away. “Ye begged me te do ye de favor on account of ye needin’ someone ye could trust in the kitchen,” the small man reminded him. “Which ye promised te do roight away.” He glared at him for a moment longer before asking, “Why do ye need me te take a ride the night?”
“I’ve need of a man good with horses and women,” Samuel said, knowing the praise would encourage him. That and money.
“Yes’r, ye’ve come te the roight man.” Lugh winked. “I’ve the devil’s own luck wit’ both. What do ye need me te steal?”
“Actually, you’ll be the one being robbed,” Samuel answered, looking at the man who had been an invaluable asset on many assignments. If it hadn’t been for Lugh the secret documents of the enemy’s fleet and movements would not have conveniently fallen into their hands—nor would they have made it out of Amsterdam. “I’ll be playing the bandit tonight, and I only need a driver at this time.”
“Cor Blimey,” Lugh swore. “I shudder te think about what ye’re up te.”
Samuel smiled at him. If there was one thing about Lugh, he always had a way of over-dramatizing the difficulties in an effort to be acknowledged for his feats and increase his pay. “I’ll increase your salary,” Samuel bribed him.
“Bloody, right ye will!” Lugh said. “I never signed on te be makin’ scones an’ the loike.”
“Is that what those are?” Samuel asked, before having to defend himself against a barrage of burnt balls lobbed in his direction.
“Out of me kitchen!” the small man herded him out the door.
Hailing another hackney on the main street, Samuel emerged from the ride a new man, albeit an older one. Having used the rented coach as a changing station, he paid the driver and continued to increase the tip until the man’s expression turned from puzzled, over the bizarre change of his fare, to that of pleased.
“Fancy’s a strange set,” the driver said as he pocketed the money and drove off.
Dressed once again as Higgins, Samuel returned to the house with a renewed sense of danger looming over him. When he considered what the three ‘damsels in distress’ were capable of, a chill ran down his spine . . . especially when the only one in distress so far had been himself.
He called out when he entered the house. When no one answered, he carefully climbed the stair, avoiding steps three and five, and discovered two and ten were spongy near the banister. Making it to the second floor, he went into Constance’s bedroom and began to methodically search it. If there was a secret to be found, here was the best place to start looking.
He searched the usual places first, under the mattress, inside the drawers, the armoire, and the underside of all the openings. He searched for hidden latches and secret compartments, finding two. One in the trunk, and another in the dresser, neither of which revealed anything but a few pieces of jewelry. He was about to leave when the mantle of the fireplace caught his eye.
Samuel moved his hand expertly across the ornate woodwork, setting the screen aside; he looked up inside the flue. Noticing a brick without mortar, he took out his knife and slipped it around the edge and lifted the block out. Reaching inside the small hole behind it, he withdrew a small wooden box and carefully examined the ornate carvings. They looked decidedly Celtic in origin. He placed it on the bed before opening it.
“Here we are,” he spoke softly as he lifted out a rolled-up piece of old parchment. Something about it made the hair on the nape of his neck stand on end. It looked oddly reminiscent of another scroll he was all too familiar with. His suspicions were confirmed when he unrolled it. A seven-pointed star with ancient symbols within it stared up at him.
“I’ll be damned,” he breathed as he gazed upon the drawing, which was identical to the one on the map he had kept in his boot for eight months while crossing Egypt. He turned it over, expecting the Egyptian map on the other side. His brows lifted in surprise, however, when instead of the Egyptian drawings, he found himself looking at an image of two dragon type beasts entwined in the center of what looked to be runic symbols, woven within the Celtic style border.
****insert Celtic treasure map here****
“This is new,” he mused aloud as he studied the design.
The sound of the backdoor slamming echoed through the house a second later.
Samuel quickly rolled the scroll back up and placed it within the box and returned it to its hiding place. His heart beat frantically as he slid the brick back into place. He could hear the footsteps of someone running up the stairs as he quickly returned the fireplace screen to its place in front of the fire, his mind racing as the threat of being caught loomed near. He dove under the bed just as Iain raced past the open door.
Snap! Samuel winced in pain as something clamped down on his hand. He looked over at the source of his discomfort. His hand was inside some type of contraption that was squeezing down across his fingers. What the Hell?! Carefully, he worked his hand out, rubbing at the red welt the bizarre snare had left behind.
“Found ’em!” Iain yelled as he ran back down the hallway with a jar of marbles which scattered across the hall as he went, several rolled under the bed only inches from where Samuel’s face was pressed against the wooden floor. He just hoped the bed clothes covered enough of the space to hide him.
Holding his breath as the boy crawled along the floor near the door, Samuel watched as Iain stopped and scooped up some of the wayward pieces. If he chanced to look under the bed, Samuel would be caught red handed in more ways than one.
“Hurry up, or ye’ll miss yer ride,” his mother yelled from downstairs. Samuel breathed a sigh of relief as the boy left the rest where they were and ran back down the stairs.
Sliding out from under the bed, Samuel quietly closed the door behind him as he snuck out into the hall. Hearing voices coming up the stairs, he stopped in his tracks. . . . The ladies were coming up the stair. He looked to his left and then to his right. His own room was up a flight and down the hall in the other direction from the stair’s landing. If he could just make it to the stair at least he could pretend to be coming down.
“I should tink it would be lovely,” Gurtie was saying as Samuel scrambled toward the end of the hall.
“Lovely?” Constance’s spoke as if insulted. “That’s the absolute last thing I want.”
There’s no way I’m going to make it, Samuel realized as the ladies continued up the stair.
“Now why is that? You could find yerself a nice husband from among the ton an’ settle down nice an’ proper,” Gurtie said.
“A husband from the ton?” Constance’s voice raised slightly as she practically spat the words out. “It’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard. There’s not one who can be trusted. I can’t wait for the day that I no longer have to go to these functions and pretend any affinity for them.”
Frantically, Samuel backed away from the stairs. The last thing he needed was to be caught on the second floor near her bedroom. He tried the door to the hall closet, praying it wasn’t locked. Much to his relief, it opened. He darted inside and shut it just as the women reached the second floor. With his ear pressed to the wood door, he listened as they approached.
“I don’t tink it’s the worst idea at all,” Gurtie argued. “A wee babe of yer own would change your mind, I’m tinkin’.”
“A babe, yes, one day,” Constance conceded. “A husband, I suppose it’s a necessary evil. From the ton, never!” she added vehemently.
“Ye speak as if they’re evil spirits from the Otherside,” Gurtie chuckled as they made the landing. “Many a fili would long te be among them, but not our Connie. You equate the likes of them wit’ the Fomorii or worse.”
“You seem awfully eager to see me wed,” Constance complained.
“Since ye’ve come of age an’ are runnin’ amok, I’m a might more than eager,” Gurtie confessed.
Constance emitted an unladylike snort while Samuel breathed a sigh of relief when they passed his hiding place. He waited until they were safely in her room and the hall became quiet once again. He was just about to open the door a slit when it was suddenly jerked open. His eyes flared as the owlish maid, Betsy, blinked up at him. A smug smile spread across her features as she stepped inside with him, closing the door behind her.
Samuel jumped back into a pile of linens as she placed her hands on his chest and started undoing buttons.
“Mr. Higgins,” she breathed.
“Dear God in heaven,” Samuel begged as he chased her hands.
“Oh, but ’eaven waits,” she sighed, obviously mistaking his plea as she ran her hands through his hair.
He could feel the wig give way and desperately tried to right it. In the unguarded moment, she reached lower. He yelped.
“What on earth is that commotion?” Gurtie asked, looking out the door to where the distinct sounds of thumping and banging could be heard.
Curious, Constance joined her. They both stood gazing down the hall as the closet door burst open and a very disheveled Higgins staggered out, followed by Betsy.
“Hmm, hmm,” he cleared his throat as he looked at their surprised faces. “Ladies,” he dipped his head in acknowledgment as he turned away, his wig and jacket askew. Slipping on a few marbles, he skittered across the floor, his arms flailing before he regained his balance. They watched him retreat up the stairs to the safety of his room with suppressed laughter glittering in their eyes at the sight.
“Seems our Mr. Higgins got more than he bargained fer,” Gurtie chuckled when he disappeared around the corner. Constance stood with her hand to her mouth for a moment before she started giggling.
Betsy joined them a moment later with a grin of satisfaction on her face. Straightening her apron, she brushed her hands together. “That’ll teach ’im te be earwiggin’ in de closet.”
“I don’t tink he’ll go anywhere near the linens again,” Gurtie howled with laughter wiping a tear from her eye.
“I hope ye weren’t discussin’ anyting of importance,” Betsy lowered her voice.
“Only why I won’t have anything to do with men of the ton,” Constance shrugged.
Samuel entered the Radcliff’s ballroom and surveyed the crowd. He’d known it would be a crush. Even in a room the size of this one, he could hardly move.
“Ah, there you are, St. Clair,” Samuel heard the rumbling voice of the new director behind him.
“Lord Langston,” Samuel turned to shake his hand.
“Hardly recognized you,” the new director paused, looking at Samuel’s bright green, satin suit and the enormous side burns and mustache he now sported.
“Ah, yes.” Samuel grinned, running a hand through his hair, which had been slicked back. “Thought I’d try the stylish new trend.”
Lord Langston appraised him coolly before clearing his throat. “I was hoping to have a word with you.” The old lord lowered his voice as they moved to the side of the room. “Heard you stopped by this morning.”
“I was hoping to get some information.”
“And did you?”
Samuel wasn’t about to admit to the information he’d asked for, especially now that his own father’s death was somehow linked. He was glad now he’d told Katherine it was of the utmost secrecy until he knew what and whom he could trust. “Exactly how many butlers have come before me?” He hoped the question would lead the director away from his real inquiry.
Langston chuckled as he leaned on his cane. “Three defenseless females too much for you?”
“Defenseless?” Samuel scoffed. “That certainly wouldn’t be the description I would use.”
“You are the eighth.” Langston fixed him with a stare. “Do you want off this assignment?”
“Just tell me this,” Samuel paused. “are the others still alive?”
“Every last one.” Langston assessed him critically. “Why, is there something I should know?”
“Last night, I followed Miss Applegate to Fleet Street where she was nearly abducted.” Samuel kept an eye on the crowd as they spoke. “You wouldn’t happen to know what O’Malley has turned up on Sandy Donovan?” He turned back to look at the Director. “I had a run in with him myself last night when he and a few thugs tried to kidnap Miss Applegate.” At the director’s sharp glance, Samuel added, “Though he was still breathing when I left.”
“We’ve been watching that group for a while,” Langston replied thoughtfully. “Mostly petty criminals running crooked games, until last year, when they moved up to murder and now run a few of the opium dens in the stews.” He fixed Samuel with his piercing gaze, “You remember the Frenchman, Monsieur Blanoiś, the man Alec won the treasure map from?”
“Actually, I only met him after he shot himself.” Samuel looked over at the director’s grim expression. “I take it that it wasn’t a suicide.”
“No.” Langston’s expression turned serious. “As you know, I left no stone unturned in the search for my granddaughter and her ties to the map.”
Samuel nodded, knowing full well the extent he’d gone to in order to find her.
“I was surprised when the Frenchman turned up with it.” Langston appeared lost in thought until he looked back sharply. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one interested. Those same men who killed Blanoiś over the map, have also given Miss Applegate an inordinate amount of attention.” The old Duke’s piercing gaze was unwavering as he watched Samuel. “Which is why I assigned you the case. I want to know why.”
Samuel thought of the map he’d discovered that very morning as the director sighed wearily, and wondered if he knew of it. Samuel kept the information to himself, unwilling to inform his superior, at least until he knew more about who had hidden his father’s case and why. “Who are they?”
“Other than Donavan and his group?” Langston sighed. “As it is, I’ve been waiting, in hopes that whoever masterminded the murder would eventually reveal himself.” He paused to look at Samuel. “I’m afraid that until the man behind this is found, both Miss Applegate and my granddaughter are at risk.” Langston looked away, his gaze sweeping the room. “Will I see you at the newlywed’s homecoming tomorrow?”
The abrupt change of subject was as subtle as the man, Samuel thought as he considered the new topic. “How time does fly,” he remarked with a certain degree of surprise as he stood, contemplating Alec’s imminent arrival. It seemed like just yesterday he’d seen him and Genevieve off on their honeymoon.
Samuel could scarcely believe his friend was finally off the marriage mart. Of course, he had helped the situation along by arranging his marriage in the first place. Not something he was particularly eager to share with the man next to him, especially when one considered that Alec’s bride was the director’s long lost granddaughter.
Samuel had been sent not only by the director, but the Queen herself, to find the lost heiress. The tactics he’d used in accomplishing the feat had been somewhat unconventional. Bringing her back home when others had failed, despite his tactics, had certainly been an achievement, to say the least.
“As her grandfather and your director, it is my intention to make sure she is protected and safe now that she is finally home.”
“I can well imagine.”
“It had better be more than imagined.” The director’s eyes bore into him. “It had better be fact.”
Samuel nodded, understanding perfectly the direct order. So much for being in his good graces for more than a fortnight. Such is the life of the unsung heroes in the secret fields, Samuel mused as his thoughts turned to another woman who was at risk. He looked about the room to see if he could see “the spinster”. His grandmother caught his attention, as her regal frame, dripping with sparkling jewels, emerged from the crowd.
“Samuel darling, there you are!” her unmistakable voice called out.
Speaking of grandparents, Samuel smiled as he watched her walk toward them. “Lord Langston, I’d like to introduce my grandmother, The Grand Duchess of Norfolk, Lady Virginia St. Clair.”
“Madam.” Lord Langston bowed formally over her hand.
“Grandmother,” Samuel extended the niceties. “This is Lord Langston, the 9th Duke of Northumberland.” He had to hide a smile as he watched his grandmother work her charm on the man at his side.
“I am delighted to make your acquaintance.” Her cultured English had the barest hint of a Scottish brogue as she lifted her hand and gifted him with a smile that even to this day, could brighten a room. “Forgive me, but I must steal my grandson away for a while. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Of course not.” Lord Langston returned her smile with one of his own, which looked quite unusual on his stern features.
“What a charming man,” she breathed as she led Samuel away. “Is he married?”
“Grandmother,” he admonished.
“Oh bother.” She feathered her fan at his reaction. “Your grandfather has been gone for over two score years now.”
“I. . . .” Samuel looked down at the dimple showing in her cheek and sighed. Even the idea of the old lord playing some part of his family circle couldn’t stop him giving in. “No, I don’t believe he is.” He smiled at the expression which crossed her features. The director had no idea what he was in for.
“Well, I have your little mark down pat,” his grandmother spoke softly to him as she pretended to lean on his arm. “She’s over there along the wall with all the other spinsters.” She glanced up at him. “In the worst gown ever created, I might add. Are you sure you have the right of it? She hardly looks like the vibrant hoyden you described in your missive.”
“She’s clever,” Samuel raised his brows to heighten that particular insight, “Thank you again for your help in this. Nice touch; having your friend invite her.”
“Lady Persse owed me a small favor.” She smiled at one of the ladies they passed as they spoke. “Here is what we’ll do. You’ll lead me through this dance, then, at the end, we’ll walk over and I’ll introduce you.” She smiled up at him. “The rest is up to you, and all of that charm you’ve been blessed with.”
“Yes, m’lady.” He grinned at her audacity while leading her through the waltz. As the musicians struck the last chord, Samuel led her off the floor near the wall where the old crones were sitting. The wall of matrons was normally a place he avoided like the plague.
“Oh, Lady Persse,” his grandmother said. “How wonderful it is to see you tonight. How is your delightful granddaughter, Isabella? What is she now, twelve years of age?”
“Thirteen and blossoming into quite a bright and lovely young lady.” The older woman beamed to have her youngster noted by such a grand Duchess.
“You remember Samuel Augustus, my grandson,” his grandmother said, making Samuel want to wince at the use of his middle name.
“Yes, of course, though it has been years,” Lady Persse smiled up at him. “Let me introduce you to a dear friend of mine, Miss Constance Applegate, daughter of the late Sir Philip Applegate.”
Samuel bowed over her hand, trying not to stare at the puce-colored, greenish-brown dress she was wearing as he was introduced. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Constance pasted a sour smile on her lips. “Thank you,” her voice was monotone and lifeless.
“Would you care to dance?” he asked, wondering why she went to such great lengths to conceal her true self.
“I—I,” Constance stammered, “can’t.”
“Oh dear, you simply must,” Lady Persse insisted with motherly pride. After all, introducing Constance to one of the most eligible bachelors of the ton was quite the coup, even for her.
“But I’ve a horrible ache to my head,” Constance whined, hardly able to believe that the dandy in the bright green, silk suit was even speaking to her, let alone asking her to dance. She retreated towards her chair.
“A stroll in the garden then?” Samuel smiled. “The fresh air may help.”
“Oh, that sounds nice.” The elderly matron nodded.
The sheer audacity of the buffoon amazed her. Fine! Constance thought, a few stomps to his toes and I’ll be back pronto. “Of course.” She smiled deceptively. “A dance might be just what I need.”
Constance did everything she could to throw his movement off. She stepped on his toe, jerked back and forth in his hold, refused to step in time to the music, but he still managed to drag her across the floor. When they reached the other side of the dance floor, she was amazed to see him nod and wave at a pair of gorgeous blondes who called out to him.
Of all the rude, Constance thought, pulling herself from his grasp. “Well, of all the nerve!” she said and walked off the floor, leaving him staring after her in astonishment.
His grandmother glided up to him as he stood in the midst of dancers watching her go. “It seems your Cinderillon has run away from your charms,” she whispered in his ear, speaking of a character from Charles Perrault’s novel, as she took the scorned harridan’s place and continued the dance with her grandson.
“A matter of perspective.” Samuel smiled, looking over at the large grandfather clock that dominated one wall. “Considering it’s half past eleven, you could also say she’s running toward them,” he chuckled as he led his grandmother away from the dancers toward the gardens.
“Are you sure she will meet you then?”
“One can only guess, but we should be prepared just in case.” He smiled. “Are you ready?”
“Oh, yes! I’m so excited.” His grandmother’s eyes sparkled. “I’ve not done anything like this for years.”
He glanced down at her sapphire necklace. “I hope that is not real.”
“Of course it is.” She looked at him askance. “Would you have everyone know that I wear fakes? I must maintain my reputation.” She smiled. “Besides, I trust you will keep it safe.”