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17 May 1822
William Stanton frowned and sat up, rubbing his injured head. He'd been sleeping peacefully until his driver had reined the carriage to an abrupt standstill, causing him to hit his head on the brass hook that held the velvet curtains back. He glowered at the front wall of his carriage, in the general direction of his driver's back, but McGrath was already remonstrating loudly with some obstacle in the street.
'Wot th' bloody 'ell you doing?'
Will stuck his head out of the window and craned his neck to see what was blocking their passage. A vegetable-laden cart had apparently pulled out in front of them, and as it swerved to avoid them, it nearly overturned, losing half its load. The rotund greengrocer who'd been driving it was now collecting his belongings with deliberate slowness, picking up each cabbage head and carrot one at a time while smirking at McGrath.
Will sighed and sank back into his seat, regarding the scenery outside his window and wondering how long this would take. He'd been away for four days and was eager to get home. He'd neither planned nor desired to leave London in the first place; the event had been thrust upon him by one Miss Matilda Hume, headmistress of Miss Hume's School for Girls. His goddaughter, Mary Weston-Burke, was a student there. She'd become his ward three months ago, when her father died—meaning, apparently, that whenever she decided to put a newt in her French tutor's teacup it was now Will's responsibility to sort things out.
Frankly, he thought Miss Hume had made rather too much of what seemed to be nothing more than a childish prank. There was, he'd pointed out during their meeting, no actualtea in the cup, and therefore the newt had not been in peril. Miss Hume was more concerned about Monsieur Lavelle, who'd nearly suffered une crise cardiaque.
He hoped he'd managed to smooth things over. Apparently young Mary was a bit of a hellion, although he'd not have known it from the sallow, quiet creature he'd treated to tea.
McGrath had chosen a direct, but not picturesque, route through east London. Shabby buildings, many with boarded-up windows, lined the pockmarked road, and the only businesses that seemed to thrive were public houses. The curious stopped what they were doing to stare at his gilded carriage with resentful eyes. Filthy dogs with protruding ribs sprawled on the pavement unattended, while a group of ragged children entertained themselves by rolling a hoop.
And then he noticed a rather pretty girl, walking briskly not far from his carriage.
Will had known enough beautiful women that most did not turn his head, but he made an exception this time, perhaps only because she looked so entirely out of place. She was taller than most of the people who surrounded her, including the men. He'd caught just a glimpse of her face, but he'd noticed high cheekbones and full lips. Her skin was fair, in keeping with her unruly chignon of red hair. He wondered if she had freckles, and he wondered where she was going and what she was doing there to begin with. She was nicely, although not fashionably, dressed. Her high-waisted muslin gown followed the lines of the current style, but made no other concessions to trends. She appeared modest, respectable and perhaps even rather severe. And that just didn't make sense. For a woman with a face like hers, in a neighborhood like this, the only money to be made was on her back. But she definitely wasn't a doxy.
He realised he wasn't the only one watching her. Two men, sitting lazily on a wall in patched trousers and heavy labourer's boots, allowed their heads to rotate as she passed them. She seemed to be oblivious to the attention and walked on, head held high.
'Bloody 'ell, 'urry up!'
Will turned his head to see what his driver was shouting at now. The greengrocer was moving even slower, in apparent protest at this derisive treatment. Will lost interest and turned his attention back to the girl.
She was easy enough to locate, since she hadn't gone far. She'd stopped walking, in fact, and seemed to be scanning the crowd rather nervously as if looking for someone or something. The leather bag sat unattended at her feet, and Will felt his body tense. Even from a distance he could sense several pairs of eyes regarding it with speculative interest. He opened the carriage door and stepped out, waving to his disgruntled driver as he crossed the street.
He walked quickly. He didn't really know what he was going to do—offer his assistance, perhaps, although there was a good chance she wouldn't welcome it. Utterly foolhardy for her to be walking there, whoever she was. But he wasn't fast enough to offer anything. When he was still about ten paces away, a lanky youth hurtled into her, sending her off balance. She was quick enough to grab the bag's handle, but the boy latched on, as well, and he was stronger. The tug of war lasted about three seconds before he yanked the bag from her hands, sending her flying backwards on to the pavement. She started to scramble up, but the boy had already turned on his heel to flee.
Unfortunately for him, he wasn't looking where he was going. Two long strides and he'd collided with a very large and solid human form.
Will didn't do anything more than grab the boy by the shoulder, but the pressure was so strong he winced and instantly dropped the bag, spilling its contents on to the street.
Will was a full head taller than him, and as he looked down at the boy's face he saw fear. Real fear, that he would be arrested and hanged for attacking a lady.
He released the pressure.
The boy did as instructed and immediately disappeared down an alley. Will watched him go, wondering how his thus far pleasant day had ended up like this. The girl was at his feet, hurriedly trying to collect her belongings. He couldn't see her face. Just the back of her head and her slender neck. Her hair had become loose in the struggle, and a long curl was now tumbling about her shoulders. He realised he was staring and knelt to help her.
'Here, let me…'
She didn't acknowledge his presence, just started pushing things into her bag faster. Will's eye was drawn to one item in particular. A smart red morocco case, half-opened to reveal what appeared to be a pearl necklace. He reached out to retrieve it for her, but her hand darted out to grab it first.
'I don't need assistance, thank you,' she said, not even bothering to look at him. She hastily shoved the case back into her bag and closed it, carefully buckling it this time to prevent further accidents. Her voice sounded soft and rich… if rather hostile. She obviously thought he was as much of a threat as the boy had been.
She rose stiffly.
Will rose, too, proffering his hand in assistance as he did so. She ignored it, but finally looked up. He was struck once more by her beauty. It was an odd sort of beauty, and her features might have looked misplaced on any other face. Her lips, slightly parted in surprise, were luscious and temptingly kissable. Her nose was small, pert and sprinkled with freckles. His gaze wanted to travel down her neck, looking for more freckles, but with great willpower he managed to direct his attention elsewhere. He looked at her eyes instead—a disconcerting violet blue, very surprised and staring back at him.
Isabelle Thomas looked at the ground the second her gaze met his, but she couldn't conceal the blush that started at her neck and bloomed all the way to the roots of her red hair. She'd expected him to look like every other disreputable man she'd seen on the street; at worst, she'd expected him to look exactly like the man who—if she wasn't mistaken—had been following her all morning. The man she thought she'd finally managed to elude.
She'd certainly no idea that her wary gaze would settle on a gentleman, and an impossibly handsome one, at that.
She hadn't meant to speak so sharply to him… it was just that her nerves were on edge and she'd fully anticipated that he'd carry on where the boy had left off. She silently cursed her overly active imagination, but when she looked up once more, he seemed oblivious to her rudeness—that, or completely unimpressed. She rather suspected the latter.
She'd hoped he'd be less attractive upon second viewing, but he was still downright devastating. Too perfect, if that were possible. Tall and broad shouldered, with slightly dishevelled blond hair and emerald green eyes. Dressed impeccably in buff breeches and a dark blue, woollen coat. And she… oh, she, like a bedraggled grey mouse who'd just lost a bout with an alley cat.
It didn't help that he was still staring at her, but she quickly realised that he'd asked her a question and was simply waiting for her answer.
He moved a step closer, possibly because he now thought she was hard of hearing. Yet his voice was quiet. 'I said I hope you're uninjured.'
'I… I am all right.' She hadn't even had time to consider if that was true. Was she? She felt well enough, except for her backside, which had managed to land in a puddle. She couldn't bear to think of the state of her dress.
'Do you have everything? Is that your paper?'
She looked down at her feet, where a slip of paper floated in a shallow puddle the colour of milky tea. It was hers, and the address she'd scrawled across it that morning in black ink was gradually dissolving.
She moved quickly to grab it, but he leaned forwards at the same time. Their foreheads connected loudly. They both straightened immediately.
'I'm so sorry,' she said awkwardly.
He grinned ruefully, and she realised that in addition to golden hair and a chiselled jaw, he possessed dimples and straight, white teeth. 'That wasn't very coordinated of us. Shall I…?'
She was too embarrassed to protest, so she just stood there dumbly and allowed him to pick up the paper. He handed it to her. The writing was now barely legible, but she could just make out the words 16 Litch—luckily, she remembered the rest. Sixteen Litchfield Terrace. That was where she'd find one Josiah Fairly, surely an ironical name for a pawnbroker. She'd been given the address by Samuel, the boy who delivered coal to the boarding house where she'd taken a room. Fairly was his uncle and she'd been assured he'd offer an acceptable price for her possessions.
'Can you still read it?' the man asked.
'Read it? Oh, yes.' She stuffed the paper in her pocket. 'I must go. Thank you for helping me.' She turned to continue walking, but she felt his hand on her arm. Warm and firm— not hurting her, but not letting her go, either. She turned around slowly, looking down her nose at the offending object.
'You shouldn't be carrying that bag,' he chided. 'Not unless you want to be robbed again. I'll accompany you wherever you're going.'
She knew he was right. She'd known she was being foolish when she'd started out that morning. But she hadn't had much choice about it, and she didn't need him to tell her. 'Remove your hand, sir.'
He raised an eyebrow at her imperious tone, but did as bid. He also took a step closer. Although she was tall, she still found herself craning her neck to look up at him. She wasn't used to that. His voice remained reasonable, but she suspected he might be losing his patience. 'Half the street knows you're carrying something worth stealing. If you'd like to keep your possessions, I'd advise you to accept my offer.'
Her gaze darted quickly from left to right, assessing the risk. They made a conspicuous pair, to say the least, and several people were blatantly staring. If he walked away right now and left her there alone, then she'd no doubt that someone would soon relieve her of her belongings—in fact, her belongings were probably the least of her worries. She'd be lucky to make it home unharmed.
She returned her attention to his face. He was certainly big enough to make anyone think twice—and, if she really were being followed, that wasn't such a bad thing. And yet she didn't want him to come with her. It didn't matter that she'd no idea who he was and would never see him again. She was going to a pawnbroker's, and it was too humiliating.
Unconsciously, she bit her lower lip in indecision. She tried to sound confident, but she knew she didn't quite succeed. 'I'm going rather far. I imagine you have better things to do.'
He seemed to sense her uncertainty. His tone brooked no refusal. 'Actually, I have the afternoon free, and we could take my carriage. It's just across the road.'
She turned her head. His carriage gleamed with a fresh coat of glossy green paint, and two sleek bays waited impatiently to depart. His coachman, in green livery to match, had alighted in order to confront a cart driver over some infraction. A coat of arms surmounted by an earl's coronet decorated the carriage door.
Oh, God. He was not only handsome, but he was rich and probably titled, too.
'Your driver is making friends, I see,' she said drily. She was now more resolved than ever that he would not come with her. She'd some pride left—not much, maybe, but enough that she didn't want him to witness her sell the last of her valuable possessions.
He smiled again, and she wished she hadn't attempted humor. 'McGrath loves an argument. If we linger much longer, they'll be asking us to second them at dawn. Shall we go?' He held out his arm.
She stared at it for a second before simply starting to walk again, carrying on in the same direction. The pawnbroker's shouldn't be much further now, and she needed to get rid of him quickly. 'I think that would be unwise. I thank you for your help, but I no longer require it.'
He fell in beside her, easily keeping pace with her long strides. 'I can perfectly well understand your reluctance to ride in my carriage, but I assure you it would be wiser than wandering around here on foot. We'll probably both be robbed.'
'You needn't come with me,' she said stiffly.
He sighed. 'Much as I'm tempted to leave you here, I'm afraid my conscience won't allow it.'
She kept walking, looking straight ahead. She knew he was watching her face, probably hoping that his mild statement would elicit some reaction: eyes widened in shock, maybe even a verbal rebuke. She refused to indulge him.
'You're right to be suspicious, of course,' he continued after a few seconds of silence. 'I wouldn't trust anyone I met wandering around here.'