Excerpt from SCANDALOUS DESIRES
Wolves, as Silence Hollingbrook well knew, are savage beasts, little given to pity or honor. If one must face a wolf cleverly disguised in human form, it did no good to show fear. Rather, one must throw one's shoulders back, lift one's chin, and stare the damned beast down.
At least that was what Silence told herself as she eyed 'Charming' Mickey O'Connor, the most notorious river pirate in London. As she watched, Mr. O'Connor did something far more alarming than any real wolf.
He smiled at her.
Mickey O'Connor lounged like the pirate king he was on a gilded throne of red velvet at one end of a lavishly corrupt room. The walls were lined with sheets of gold, the floor was a fabulous mosaic of different-colored marbles, and around her, piled high, were the spoils of thieving: trunks overflowing with furs and silks, crates of tea and spices, and treasures from every corner of the globe, all of it stolen from the ships that came into London's docks. And Silence stood in the midst of it all like a petitioner.
Mr. O'Connor picked up a sweetmeat from a tray offered by a small boy, holding it between long, beringed fingers as he examined her. One corner of his wide, sensuous mouth curled in amusement. "'Tis always a pleasure to gaze upon yer sparklin' hazel eyes, Mrs. Hollingbrook, but I do wonder why ye've come to see me this lovely afternoon."
His mocking words strengthened Silence's spine. "You know very well why I'm here, Mr. O'Connor."
The pirate lifted elegantly winged black eyebrows. "Do I, now?"
Beside her, Harry, one of Mickey O'Connor's guards and her escort into the throne room, shifted his weight nervously. Harry was a big man with a battered face—a man who'd obviously lived a rather rough life--yet he was just as obviously wary of Mickey O'Connor.
"Easy now," he muttered to her beneath his breath. "Don't want to get 'is temper up."
Mr. O'Connor popped the sweetmeat into his mouth and chewed, his black eyes closing for a moment in pleasure. He was a beautiful man. Silence could see that even if she found him quite repugnant herself. His eyelashes were thick and black, surrounding dark, liquid eyes, his complexion a smooth olive, and when he smiled...well! The dimples that were revealed on his cheeks made him look both as wicked as the devil and as innocent as a small boy. Had a Renaissance master wanted to paint all the seductive allure of Satan, he would've painted Charming Mickey O'Connor.
Silence inhaled. Mr. O'Connor might well be as evil as Satan himself, but she'd braved him once before and survived—even if she hadn't walked away entirely unscathed. "I've come for Mary Darling."
The pirate's eyes opened lazily as he swallowed his sweetmeat. "Who?"
Oh, this was too much! Silence felt her face heat as she shook off Harry's restraining arm and marched right up to the foot of the small dais on which the ridiculous throne stood. "You know very well who! Mary Darling, that sweet little baby girl I've taken care of for over a year. Mary Darling, who knows only me as her mother. Mary Darling, who you took from the foundling home where we both live. Give her back to me at once!"
So great was her ire that Silence found herself out of breath at the end of her little tirade and pointing her finger nearly in Mr. O'Connor's face. For a moment she froze, her finger only inches from his nose. Everyone in the room seemed to hold their breath. Mickey O'Connor had lost his smile, and without that expression to lighten his face, he looked quite, quite frightening.
Silence let her hand fall.
Slowly, the pirate straightened from his chair, his long limbs uncurling gracefully like a predator. He stood, his polished black jackboots thunking to the floor, and stepped down from the dais.
Silence could've backed up, but that would've shown fear. And besides, she thought she might've become rooted to the spot. The scent of lemons and frankincense drifted about her. She lifted her chin in defiance as Mickey O'Connor's smooth, tanned, bare chest nearly touched her nose—the man was so vain he left his extravagantly ruffled shirt unlaced—and looked him in the eye.
Mr. O'Connor bent, his mouth lightly touching her ear, and murmured, "Well, an' why didn't ye say so in th' first place, darlin'?"
And while Silence gaped up at him, he straightened, his gaze still locked with hers, and snapped his fingers.
A door opened and Silence finally found the willpower to tear her gaze from those black, impenetrable eyes. And then she forgot all about Mickey O'Connor. A servant girl had entered, and in her arms was the sweetest, most wonderful being in the whole world.
"Mamoo!" Mary Darling shrieked. She began a frantic bouncing in the servant girl's arms. "Mamoo! Mamoo! Mamoo! Up!"
Silence rushed to catch the toddler before she could completely squirm from the girl's arms. "I have you. I have you, my love," she murmured as Mary Darling wrapped soft, pudgy arms about her neck and squeezed.
Silence breathed in the scent of milk and baby, tears pricking her eyes. When she'd found the toddler gone...when she'd feared that she'd never see Mary Darling again, her heart had seemed to shrivel into a tiny, frozen thing.
"Mamoo," Mary Darling sighed, and unwrapped her arms to pat Silence's cheeks.
Silence ran her hands over Mary Darling's black curls, touching and squeezing and rubbing, making sure the little girl was as well as when she'd last seen her, half a day before. The previous six hours had been the most frightening of her life and she never wanted to repeat—
"Ahem," a masculine voice murmured nearby, and Silence suddenly remembered where she was.
She clutched Mary Darling to her breast and whirled to face the river pirate. "Thank you. It's most...most kind of you to have given her back to me. I really can't thank you enough." Silence took a step backward, afraid to take her eyes from Charming Mickey's face. "I...I'll just be leaving—"
Mr. O'Connor smiled. "Oh, certainly, sweetheart, do as ye wish, but th' little one will be a-stayin' with me, I think."
Silence froze. "You have no right!"
The pirate lifted one inky eyebrow and reached out to finger Mary Darling's black curls. His tanned hand was large against her little head. "Oh, don't I? She is me daughter."
"Bad!" Mary Darling glared at Mickey O'Connor, dark eyes meeting dark eyes, black curls framing a face that might've been a feminine miniature of Mr. O'Connor's own.
The resemblance was quite devastating.
Silence swallowed. Mary Darling had been abandoned on her doorstep almost a year ago to the day. At the time she'd thought that the baby had been left with her because Silence's brother, Winter, ran the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children. Now she wondered if there had been a much more diabolical reason. Fear that she was about to lose Mary Darling forever made her clutch the baby closer.
"You abandoned her upon my doorstep," she tried.
He cocked his head, eyeing her with ironic amusement. "I left her with ye for her safekeeping."
"Why?" she whispered. "Why me?"
"Because." He let his hand drop. "Ye were—are—the purest thing I've ever seen, me sweet."
Her eyebrows drew together, confused. He didn't make any sense, and besides, they'd wondered wandered from the main point. "You don't love her."
"No. But I'm a-thinkin' that don't matter when ye do, Mrs. Hollingbrook."
Silence felt the breath catch in her throat. "Let me leave with her."
Mary Darling squirmed again with one of those mercurial shifts of moods that toddlers are prone to. "Down!"
Silence let her slip from her arms, watching as the little girl carefully stood against one of the huge trunks of booty. She looked so small. So precious. "Why are you doing this? Haven't you done enough to me in this lifetime?"
"Oh, not nearly enough, m'darlin'," Mickey O'Connor murmured. Silence felt more than saw him reach out his hand toward her. Maybe he meant to fondle her hair as he had Mary Darling's.
She jerked her head out of his way.
His hand dropped.
"What are you about?" She folded her arms and faced him, though she kept Mary Darling within sight.
He shrugged, the movement making his shirt slip further off one muscled shoulder. "A man in me position has many an enemy, I fear. Nasty, mean creatures who don't let the thought of innocence or youth stop them from doin' terrible, murderous things."
"Why take her from me now?" Silence asked. "Are these enemies new?"
His mouth curved into another smile, this one entirely without humor. "Not at all. But me enemies have become more...er...persistent in th' last month, ye understand. 'Tis merely a matter o' business--one that I hope to soon tidy up. But in the meantime, should me enemies find th' wee child..."
Silence shivered, watching as Mary Darling grabbed for a dark fur and pulled it half out of the trunk. "Damn you. How could you have put her in this danger?"
"I didn't," he said without any signs of conscience. "I gave her to ye, remember."
"And she was safe with me," she said desperately. "What has changed?"
"They've discovered where she and ye live."
She shifted her gaze to him and was disconcerted to find him only a foot away. The room was big, and besides Harry and the sweetmeats boy, a gang of pirates sat around Mr. O'Connor's throne. Was he worried they'd be overheard?
"Let me keep her," Silence whispered. "She doesn't know you, doesn't love you. If there's truly a danger, then send men to guard her where we live, but let her stay at the home. If you have any decency in you at all, you'll let her go with me."
"Ah, love." Mickey O'Connor tilted his head, long coal-black locks of hair slithering over his broad shoulders. "Don't ye know by now that decent is the last thing anyone would be a-callin' me? No, the lass stays wi' me an' me men, here where I can keep m'eye on her night and day until I can put an end to this bit o' bother."
"But she thinks me her mother," Silence hissed. "How can you separate us when—"
"An' who said anything about separatin'?" Mr. O'Connor asked with feigned surprise. "Why, darlin' I said th' babe had to stay wi' me, I never said ye couldn't as well."
Silence inhaled and then found she had trouble letting the breath out again. "You want me to come live with you?"
Mr. O'Connor grinned as if she were a pet dog that had finally learned a trick. "Aye, that's the way of it, sweetin'."
"I can't live with you," Silence hissed furiously. "Everyone would think..."
"What, now?" Mickey O'Connor arched an eyebrow, his black eyes glittering.
She swallowed. "That I was your whore."
He tutted softly. "Oh, an' we can't be havin' that, now can we, what with yer reputation bein' all snowy white an' all?"
Her hand was half raised, the fingers balled into a fist before she even realized it. She wanted to hit him so badly, wanted to wipe that smirking smile from his face with all her soul.
Except he was no longer smiling. He watched her, his face expressionless, his eyes intent, like a wolf waiting for the hare to break from cover.
Trembling, she let her hand fall.
He shrugged, looking mildly disappointed. "Ah, well, it'd be a great inconvenience to have ye livin' under me roof anyway. I 'spect ye've made th' right decision."
He turned away from her, sauntering smoothly toward his throne. She'd been dismissed, it seemed. He no longer found her interesting enough to play with.
In that moment, with rage and grief, and yes, love, swirling all inside her being, Silence made her decision.
He stopped, still turned rudely away from her, his voice a rumbling purr. "Aye?"
Ah, but victory felt so fuckin' lovely. Mick smiled, his back still toward the little widow. She was so outraged, her dusty black feathers all ruffled, she probably didn't even feel the net tangled about her prim little feet. And yet, how easy it'd been to make her walk into his palace of her own volition, simply by kidnapping the babe.
He turned, eyebrows arched as if surprised. "Ye'll be stayin' with me, is that what yer sayin', Mrs. Hollingbrook?"
Her pointed chin was raised as if to challenge him in his own palace, poor foolish wench. She was an odd creature, Silence Hollingbrook, pretty, of course—or he'd not have looked twice at her in the first place—but not his usual type, oh no. She didn't flaunt her charms, didn't try to lure a man with titties overflowing from a low bodice or a wicked wink. She didn't try to lure at all, come to think of it. She held her womanliness locked up tight like a miser, which, on the whole, was a bit irritating.
Irritating and alluring at the same time—made a man want to find the key to her locks, truth be told.
Mud was splashed on the hem of her plain black frock; her shawl and cap were tattered, and yet her eyes stared at him all defiant like. Ah, but what eyes they were—large and wide, and a glorious hazel—made of golden brown and grass green and even a bit of gray blue. Hers was a face that might haunt a man's dreams, make him wake in the night sweating and lonely, the flesh between his legs heavy with longing. Why, it made him think of those ghost tales his Mam used to tell him when he was but a wee lad, crying for lack of a dinner and the welts upon his back. Wailing women, dripping water in the night, searching for their lost loves.
Mind, the tales might've been lovely, but his belly had still ached with hunger, his back had still stung with pain when he'd woken in the morning.
"Yes," Mrs. Hollingbrook said, her nose tilted proudly in the air, "I'll come and live in this...this place. Just to take care of Mary Darling, nothing else."
Oh, it was hard not to grin at those words, but he was strong, keeping his expression as solemn as a judge's. "An' what else might ye be thinkin' about?"
The color flew high into her pale cheeks, making her eyes sparkle. Making his cock twitch. "Nothing!"
"Yer sure now, Mrs. Hollingbrook?" He took a step closer, testing, watching for her to flee, for despite his enjoyment of this sparring, 'twas a serious matter that she stay beneath his roof. Her very life might depend upon it.
But she stood her ground, his little widow. "I'm quite certain, Mr. O'Connor--"
"Oh, do call me Mickey, please," he murmured.
"Mister O'Connor." Her eyes narrowed on him. "Despite what the rest of St. Giles thinks, you and I both know that my honor is quite intact, and I'll thank you to remember that fact."
She was a brave one, was Silence Hollingbrook. Her small chin out-thrust, her hazel eyes steady, her pale lips trembling. Any other man might've felt a twinge of guilt, a trickle of remorse for the sweet innocence he'd taken and smashed to the ground like a fine China dish.
Any other man but he.
For Mick O'Connor had lost any vestige of guilt, remorse, or soul on a winter's night sixteen years before.
So now he smiled, without any conscience at all, as he lied to the woman he'd hurt so cruelly. "Oh, I'll be sure an' remember, Mrs. Hollingbrook."
She heard the mockery in his voice—her lips thinned—but she soldiered on. "You said that you'll soon have your business tidied up."
He tilted his head in interest, wondering what loophole she thought she'd found. "Aye?"
"And when you're done with your...your enemies, then Mary Darling will no longer be in danger."
He merely watched her now, waiting patiently.
She inhaled as if to fortify herself. "When that happens—when your enemies are defeated and Mary isn't threatened anymore—I want to leave here."
"O' course," he said at once.
Oh, now, but the lass wasn't daft, was she? "She's me own flesh an' blood," he said softly. "Th' only soul in London related to me—or at least th' only one I'll acknowledge. Will ye be partin' a fond papa from his wee little one?"
"You've said you don't love her." Mrs. Hollingbrook ignored his pretty words. "I can provide a loving home for her, a wholesome, decent life."
Well, and he'd already admitted to a lack of decency, now hadn't he? The corner of his mouth curved, a bit too sharply. He glanced at the babe, playing with the furs from a chest. Her down-bent head was topped with hair the exact shade as his own—and his Mam's, come to think of it—and yet the sight didn't cause anything to stir within his chest.
He looked back at Mrs. Hollingbrook. "When I say th' danger's past, when I say ye can go, then aye, ye may take th' babe with ye."
She sighed a bit. He had the feeling she didn't like it, not at all—he'd not put a date on the day she could go—but she'd already made the bargain, hadn't she?
"Very well. I shall have to return to the home to retrieve my things and Mary's. We'll come back here as soon as—"
"Ah, ah." He shook his head with amusement. Did she think he'd toddled into St. Giles yesterday? "The lass stays here wi' me. Ye can take two o' me men wi' ye to bring back whatever ye'd like."
She must've known she was pushing the matter. She merely pursed her pretty lips, nodded, and bent to kiss the oblivious baby on the top of the head. "I'll be right back, sweetheart."
Then she turned to stalk to the door.
Mick admired the outraged sway of her hips for a second before jerking his head at Harry to follow the little widow. Harry touched his forehead and hurried after her. He'd get his cohort, Bert, and between the two of them guard Mrs. Hollingbrook to and from the home.
There was a squeak somewhere around the level of his knees. Mick glanced down and saw the babe's face turn a bright shade of beet-red as she watched Mrs. Hollingbrook leave the throne room. It was his only warning.
And then all hell broke loose.
"You don't have to escort me all the way back to the home," Silence muttered irritably some moments later.
"'Imself says we do, and so we do," Harry said somewhat obscurely.
He took one step for every two of hers and might've been out for a late afternoon stroll. The buttons of his frayed brown coat strained over his barrel chest and he wore a bright red scarf wound around his neck, the ends flung debonairly over his shoulders. The scarf was at odds with his battered face and massive broken nose—Harry looked like a pugilist who had lost one too many rounds. The early spring wind was chill with a nasty edge of damp, but Harry didn't seem to notice as he stumped along, his old cocked hat at a jaunty angle.
The same couldn't be said for his companion.
"And 'oos mindin' the palace, is what I'd like to know," grumped Bert. He was half a head shorter than Harry and was hunched inside the collar of his bottle-green coat like a turtle. A huge gray scarf wrapped around and over both his face and the seedy wig he wore, making his head look disproportionately swollen. "Sendin' us off in the middle o' the day wi' a wench!"
"There's a dozen o' th' crew at the palace," Harry pointed out. "An' Bob."
"Bob! Jaysus, Bob," Bert said in disgust. "Couldn't guard a kitten, could Bob."
"When 'e's not three sheets to th' wind 'e can," Harry said judiciously.
"'E's always fuckin' drunk!"
"Watch yer tongue," Harry said, and then as an aside to Silence, "'E's missin' 'is afternoon tea is Bert, and it makes 'im tetchy like. Normally the most placid of men is our Bert."
Silence, watched as “our Bert” spat through his missing two front teeth, almost hitting a passing mongrel. She was rather doubtful that the man was ever in a good mood, tea or no tea, but she wisely decided not to share this thought. For whatever reason Harry seemed to have taken a liking to her, and she was loath to spoil their accord.
If she was to live with Charming Mickey O'Connor she would need a friendly face.
Dear God. Only now as she walked the grimy streets of St. Giles, did the full impact of her decision hit her. She'd pledged to live in the same house as the most notorious man in St. Giles—a man she'd spent over a year hating and fearing. Whatever shreds of respectability she'd been able to pull together over her battered reputation in the last year would be truly torn asunder now. But what choice had she have? One look at Mary Darling's face and she would've walked through fire.
Silence shivered and pulled her cloak more firmly about her person. Mickey O'Connor had never actually hurt her—not physically anyway—and she had Harry as an ally. She would draw on her own strength, keep to herself, and avoid the company of Charming Mickey and his men as much as possible until his enemies were defeated and she could go home.
Pray that was soon.
She turned into a small lane and the modest door to the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children came into sight. It was the temporary Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children, sadly, ever since a fire had burned down the original home a year ago. A new building was being built for the home, but a series of setbacks had delayed their move to the new place.
The door was flung open before Silence could touch it.
"Have you found her?" Nell Jones, the home's trusted maidservant, looked eager, but her bright blue eyes dimmed when she saw Silence's empty arms. Nell's pretty face was flushed, one blond lock fluttering around her ear—her disorder a measure of how worried she was about Mary Darling.
"I did find Mary Darling," Silence said hastily. "But...well, it's a long story."
"And who are these two?" Nell asked suspiciously, eyeing Harry and Bert.
"Gentlemen what 'as seen yer mistress safely 'ome," Harry said. He removed the battered tricorne from his head, revealing a thinning patch of straggly brown hair, and bowed rather elegantly, considering his size.
"Huh," Nell sniffed, though her tone was less strident. "Best come inside, then."
The entryway to the home was narrow and cramped and the two men seemed to take up not only what little room there was, but the air as well.
Nell stared at them disapprovingly for a moment and then turned to a small boy loitering curiously behind her. "Joseph Tinbox, take these, er, gentlemen back to the kitchen and ask Mary Whitsun to make them a pot of tea."
"Why, that's quite kind o' ye, ma'am." Harry beamed.
Silence was surprised to see Nell fight to keep her face stern.
"Mind nothing goes missing in there," the maid said gruffly. "I know everything in that kitchen down to the vinegar shakers."
Harry placed his hand solemnly over his heart. "I'll keep me eye on Bert, 'ere. See that 'e don't pocket a spoon or nothin'."
With an indignant snort from Bert Joseph Tinbox led them off.
"Hurry," Silence said as she made for the stairs. "I had to leave Mary Darling behind and I want to get back quickly."
"Back where?" Nell cried as she followed Silence up the stairs, panting.
"To Mickey O'Connor's house."
"Dear Lord in Heaven," Nell muttered. "Is that where you hurried off to after reading the note? To see that devil?"
Silence had returned from the shopping that morning to find that Mary had somehow disappeared from the home's kitchen. Everyone in the house—all eight and twenty children, three maids, and the lone manservant—had immediately begun searching for her. But it wasn't until a mysterious note had been delivered hours later that Silence had even thought of Mickey O'Connor.
"The note was from Mr. O'Connor saying he might have something I'd want," Silence said breathlessly as they made the top floor of the house. The room she shared with Mary Darling was up here under the eves. "He's Mary's father."
"What?" Nell had finally caught up with her and she laid a hand on Silence's arm. "How long have you known this?"
Silence bit her lip. "I've suspected it for some time. You remember Mary's mysterious admirer? The one who used to leave presents for her on the step?"
"Yes." Nell sank onto the narrow bed in Silence's room, her pretty face creased with worry.
"A couple of months ago, just before Christmas, he left me a lock of hair." Silence pulled a small trunk from under the bed. She straightened and looked at Nell. "The lock matched Mary Darling's hair."
"And you think Mickey O'Connor left it for you?"
"I don't know." Silence shrugged. "But I think it must've been him. I thought I saw him watching me and Mary Darling once or twice last fall."
"If he's her father, why did Mickey O'Connor leave her with you?"
"He says he was trying to protect her from his enemies." Silence began to throw clothes into the chest. "Perhaps he thought her safely hidden with me. Perhaps he was merely playing a game to amuse himself."
Nell shook her head as if dazed. "But what of the baby's mother? Surely she had some say in the matter?"
Silence froze, her hand outstretched for one of Mary's frocks hanging on a hook. She turned her head and stared at Nell. "Her mother—my goodness, he never even mentioned the woman."
"Perhaps she's dead." Nell frowned. "Do you think Mickey O'Connor was married? I never heard of such, but he's a secretive scoundrel."
"I don't know." Silence took the frock with shaking fingers and placed it carefully in the trunk before closing the lid. "I only know that I must go live with him now."
"What?" Nell jumped to her feet in alarm.
Silence locked the trunk. "He says that Mary is in danger from his enemies and he won't let her leave his house. If I'm to be with her, I must live with him."
Nell lifted one end of the trunk even as she moaned. "But after what he did to you—"
"I haven't any choice, don't you see?" Silence walked to the door, the heavy little trunk between them.
"But the home—"
"Oh, goodness!" Silence stopped and stared at Nell.
She'd been so busy worrying over Mary Darling, she'd not thought of what her actions would do to the home. In the last year the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children had gained the patronage of several aristocratic ladies—ladies who cared terribly about appearances and reputations. The home depended on their donations. If they found out that Silence was staying with a man—a pirate—without benefit of marriage...
Silence's eyes widened. "You mustn't let anyone know where I am. We can say that I've gone to attend an ill aunt in the country."
"And Mr. Makepeace?" Nell muttered as they began to descend the staircase. "What shall I say to him?"
Silence stumbled, nearly dropping her end of the trunk. She'd forgotten she'd have to deal with Winter's disapproval as well. Her brother had made a journey to Oxford on business and thus had been away from the home when Mary Darling's absence had been discovered. This morning Silence had wished desperately for her brother's support in searching for the little girl. Now she was thankful he was away. Winter was a mild man, a schoolmaster by trade, as well as manager of the home, but she had no doubt at all that he would've locked her in her room before letting her go to Mickey O'Connor.
Just the thought made her hurry her step. "I'm truly sorry, Nell, to leave you with the chore of telling Winter but I can't stay. I need to go to Mary Darling."
"Of course you do," Nell said stoutly.
Silence shot her a quick smile. "None of this is your fault and Mr. Makepeace will understand that."
"I surely hope so, ma'am."
By the time they'd descended the rest of the stairs Silence was perspiring from exertion and anxiety. Winter wasn't expected back for days, yet she couldn't help jumping when the door to the kitchen opened.
"Take that, shall I?" Harry asked as he strolled out, a bun in one hand. He grasped one of the trunk's handles and easily swung it to his broad back.
Nell straightened, hands on hips and glared. "Watch you don't drop the mistress' things."
"O' course not," Harry said easily, earning himself a disgusted grunt from Bert.
Nell looked at Silence and her face seemed to crumple. "Oh, ma'am!" She threw her apron over her face and let out a loud, hiccupping sob.
"It's all right, Nell, really 'tis," Silence said helplessly.
She didn't know whether or not she believed the words herself, but what else was she to say? Tears were pricking her eyes now as well. She'd lived at the home for just over a year, learned of her husband, William's, death last fall here, discovered she was more than a wife here—that she could stand on her own two feet and be of use to others. Now she was leaving suddenly and without warning. She felt as if the very ground beneath her feet was unstable. She had no home now—hadn't really since William's death, really—all she had was Mary Darling.
"I'll be back," she whispered, not even sure she spoke the truth.
Nell pulled down her apron, her face reddened and damp, her blond hair trailing from its pins. She marched up to Harry and stuck a finger in his chest. "Just you watch out for her, you hear me, you great lout? A hair on her head gets harmed and it's you I'll be coming after."
The threat was ludicrous, Harry towered over Nell. Silence blinked, Bert scowled, but Harry himself was quite solemn. He took Nell's hand gently in his big paw and spread her fingers until he could rest them on his great chest, just over where his heart might be.
"Never you fear, ma'am," was all he said. "Never you fear."
And then Silence was out the door, the wind whipping her skirts flat against her legs as she headed into a new life.
Charlie Grady, better known as the Vicar of Whitechapel, poured himself a tankard of beer. Some might find it strange—his taste for beer—seeing as how he controlled the distilling of damn near every drop of gin in Whitechapel and indeed the whole East End of London, but there it was. Charlie liked beer, so beer he drank.
And if anyone did find his taste in drink strange, well...no one was foolish enough to tell him so to his face.
"What have you found?" he asked, watching as the foam in the pewter tankard slowly subsided. He didn't need to look up to know that Freddy, standing before Charlie's table, was studying his own big feet.
"'E moved the babe into 'is palace today." Freddy was a big bruiser, smarter than he looked, but not much for expansive talk.
Charlie grinned, only half of his face moving. "Always a smart one was Charming Mickey. He must have a real fear for what I'd do to the babe to take her out of his hiding place and move her to the palace."
Freddy shuffled uneasily. "There's more."
"A wench came to see 'im."
Charlie laughed, the sound a strange sputter. "That there isn't news."
His gaze flicked up in time to see Freddy look hastily away.
Freddy flushed, the red mottling his pitted face. "This one is different."
"How do you figure?"
"She's th' one 'oo lived in the orphan's home—the respectable one. Th' one takin' care o' the babe."
Charlie cocked his head, feeling the pull of old scars on the left side of his face and neck. "Ah, but that is news. Charming Mickey don't like the respectable ones much, now does he?"
Freddy knew better than to answer, so Charlie took a sip of his beer, the tart taste of hops washing down his throat.
He set his tankard back on the table and picked up the dice with his left hand—the one with the thumb and forefinger turned to claws. He'd had the dice for long years now and they were worn smooth, the paint gone from the carved pips, the edges rounded. They were old friends in his palm and when he threw them gently, they rolled with barely a sound on the bare plank table.
Deuce and trey. A five. Ah, now, five could be good or very good, depending. Depending.
Last fall he'd had plans to move into St. Giles. Take over the gin distilling there and become king of gin in all of London. Those plans had stumbled because of an aristocrat not afraid of blowing up his own still—and taking half of Charlie's men with it. But Charlie'd had time to regroup since then.
And besides, he had another focus now.
"My Gracie's dead and buried. What she wanted, what she kept me from doin'... now that's dead as well." Charlie stared with fascination at the greasy bits of bone. They seemed to wink up at him slyly. "All bets are off and Charming Mickey O'Connor would do well to look after his females."
He looked up in time to catch Freddy's horrified gaze directly.
"Best have our spy find out how much the lady means to Mickey, hadn't ye?"
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