Read an Excerpt
One week later
The door to the pawnbroker's stood slightly ajar, beckoning the wary. A swinging wooden sign read: Money Advanced On Jewels, Wearing Apparel And Every Description Of Property.
The large display window held but a meager sampling of the wares offered within. Today's teasers included a distinguished-looking portrait of someone's grandfather with a pipe dangling from his lips, a few prayer books, a mismatched set of spoons displayed fan-style and a multitude of brooches.
Claire Wentworth stood outside the little shop, clutching the heavy wooden box that contained her grandmother's fine silverware. Hesitating before going inside, she stared into the display window, examining an old brooch. The brooch, too, had belonged to her grandmother, along with one of the prayer books stacked atop a pyramid-style display. Claire hadn't been able to redeem them, and now the items sat awaiting a new owner.
It couldn't be helped.
Her brother was all she had left in this world. No amount of money or possessions could compensate for his death. The silverware could be replaced, she decided. Whatever memories they inspired were hers to keep, despite their loss.
But there was only one Ben.
Resolved, she took a deep breath and pushed open the whitewashed door, stepping into the now all-too-familiar shop. As the sign promised, inside were all manner of wares: furnishings, tapestries, snuffboxes, jewelry, blankets, an assortment of dusty hats, clothing and just about anything else one might imagine, including a heavy old sword that must have been wielded by some-body's noble ancestor in some ancient battle. Its hilt was worn to the wood and the blade borethe scars of many blows--someone's history sold for the price of a week's rent. The thought of it sickened Claire, but such was life and there was no use bemoaning her circumstances.
No prayer or rueful wish could change the facts: Their father's death had left them in debt. Ben had intended to honor those debts, but he'd chosen to do so by gambling away the remainder of the estate and he'd ended up in far worse trouble than debtor's prison.
Now, it was up to Claire to rectify the situation. Making her way toward the privacy closets, she passed through the common shop, choosing the compartment second to the end. (The last one was, apparently, occupied because the door was closed.) Once inside, she bolted the door, feeling safer even though she knew that was an illusion. With a sigh, she heaved the silverware box onto the counter to await the clerk.
At least four gas lamps lit the dust-filled shop, but none of their dusky light reached the privacy closets, which were open only to the counter. The goods offered here were cast in shadow, along with the faces of their owners. Either the occupants were ashamed of their circumstances or they were thieves peddling ill-gotten wares.
The clerk was occupied with someone in the last stall. That door had been closed, or Claire would have chosen it instead. The occupant of the darkest little closet was weeping softly. Fortunately, the clerk on duty seemed the most compassionate of the three--Claire recognized his voice--and he spoke to the girl gently.
"What name shall I write?"
The girl paused. Claire imagined she swallowed before answering. The first time Claire had ventured in here, she'd been unable to find her voice.
Claire didn't recognize the name. But then, she hadn't used her true name, either.
Once released into the shop's inventory, Claire's possessions would be lost forever. Even if she could manage to raise the funds, she wouldn't raise them in time to redeem her belongings, of that much she was quite certain.
"Your own property?" the clerk interrogated.
It was an obligatory question, but Claire doubted it was a true concern for the shop owner. She'd noted the shady sorts who frequented the shop, and not once had a clerk requested proof of ownership from Claire. For all the clerk knew, Claire might have stolen the items from an employer.
The girl's reply was soft. "Yes, of course."
"Three shillings," the clerk offered.
Claire wondered what the girl was selling. The girl gasped, clearly affronted. "But, sir! This is fine--"
"Three and six," the clerk snapped, and Claire recognized the finality in his tone.
"Please...take a look at the stitching," the girl argued. "The gown was purchased from one of London's finest--"
"My patrons won't pay more," the clerk interrupted, unimpressed. "Three and six--take it or leave it."
He wouldn't offer more. Claire had sold the man enough by now to recognize when negotiations were over. He would stand silently, his face an emotionless mask, waiting for the decision to be made.
"Very well," the girl relented, sounding defeated.
"Three and six."
As though he had expected her decision, Claire heard the clerk count out the coins at once. The compartment door opened and closed and the girl's footfalls hurried away. Claire waited patiently, knowing her position in this gloomy place. Here, the shopkeeper ruled and the genteel were no more respected than the downtrodden.
Fortunately, she didn't have long to wait. The clerk appeared at once, his graying hair hanging over thick, dirty glasses. He brushed his greasy bangs aside and gave her a nod, recognizing her. And well he should; he owned nearly half her possessions by now. With a heavy heart, Claire lifted the latch of the box, then the lid, revealing the precious contents.
"Splendid!" he exclaimed, dispensing with formalities. He gave her an assessing glance. "And you're quite certain you wish to part with it?"
She wasn't certain about anything except that she was in a terrible pinch.
He seemed to think about it a moment, and then offered, "Eight guineas."
Claire's gaze snapped upward. "Eight guineas!" she repeated, aghast.
Whatever pleasure the clerk had expressed at seeing her offering now vanished behind his mask.
Claire arched a brow, knowing better than to bait him, but she couldn't help herself. She had at least a shred of pride left. "Surely you mean eight guineas just for the box, sirrah!" The box alone was worth far more, as the lid was inlaid with ivory.
The man smiled, amused, though he shouldn't have been. Claire was hardly in the frame of mind to be entertaining.
"Nah. I'm overstocked on silverware as it is--be rid of the lot. Eight guineas it is."
Claire tried to reason with him. "But these are pure silver!" she explained, laying a hand protectively over her grandmother's heirlooms.
His mask didn't crack.
Claire used the clerk's own bargaining tactic against him. She remained silent, waiting for him to speak, realizing that the first to open his mouth would be the one to lose.
It didn't work quite as well as she'd hoped. "Bah!" the clerk exclaimed. "Silver isn't worth as much as it once was. Nine guineas is my final offer."
Claire narrowed her eyes at him. "Nine guineas wouldn't buy me a hat and a blessed pair of shoes!" she informed him tautly, slamming down the lid. A lady didn't use vulgarities, she knew, but she couldn't help herself. "No thank you, sir!" she said with as much aplomb as she could muster and, with some effort, lifted the box from the counter, fully prepared to lug it the entire distance home. For that insulting price, she'd take the silver to her grave! Nine guineas wouldn't put a dent in the remaining one hundred-fifty thousand pounds she owed for Ben's ransom.
"Be seein' you," the clerk said a little smugly. Claire was so furious she didn't even bid him farewell. Seething, she marched through the common shop and right out the door, tears of frustration pricking at her lids.
What was she supposed to do now?
She was down to her last possessions and still she hadn't raised nearly enough money to cover Ben's debts. To some, two hundred thousand pounds might not seem like much, but she had scarce more than fifty thousand now after selling nearly everything she owned. The remaining one hundred and fifty thousand pounds seemed quite impossible.
Lord, but it was a dreary day--as dreary as her mood. Cursing the mist, Claire started home, preoccupied with her thoughts. As she reached the corner of Drury Lane, sensing a presence at her back, she turned to find a stranger about twenty paces behind her, his focus settled unmistakably upon her box. Looking sinister in his dark overcoat and wide-rimmed hat, he strode with terrifying purpose toward her.Alarmed, Claire quickened her pace.
Could he be one of Ben's captors, following her to make certain she complied with their demands?
More likely, it was just some petty thief.
She tried to remember whether she had spied the man in the pawnbroker's shop, but there had been no else one inside she could recall except the weeping girl and the clerk.
Had the man followed her to the shop and waited outside while she took her business inside?
No, Claire didn't think so. She hadn't noticed him before now, and as suspicious as she was becoming, she doubted she would have missed him.
Her heart skipped a beat.
He could have already been inside the pawnbroker's shop--perhaps in one of the privacy closets. He would have been able to overhear everything she had been saying. Nine guineas might not be motivation enough for her to sell her grandmother's fine silver, but she was quite certain a thief wouldn't care about its real or sentimental value. If he could get the nine guineas from the pawnbroker, that would certainly be motivation enough.
Or had the pawnbroker set the man upon her? She trusted no one these days. It behooved her to remain wary.
The mist turned to rain. She could almost hear the man's footfalls behind her, but she was afraid to turn around. Her breath caught painfully in her lungs as she hurried through the crowd.
Please God--don't let him be after me! she prayed silently, and thought perhaps the sound of his footfalls ebbed. It was difficult to tell with the rain pattering down on her head. Her hair must be a horrid mess by now--her curls were stuck to her face.
Calm down, Claire, she commanded herself. Think clearly.
Maybe he wasn't following her after all? Maybe it was just her imagination? She was beginning to see conspirators on every corner.
She cursed Ben's infernal gambling habits and said a quick prayer that he was well--wherever he might be. She hadn't actually spoken to him since the morning he'd gone missing. She had only his captor's word that he was alive and well.
She had considered hiring a private investigator, but how would she pay the man? And even if they were able to find Ben and free him, there would be no guarantee the criminals wouldn't come after him again. He would still owe them the money, after all.
Rain pelted her and she spit a few strands of hair away from her lips. Lord, she should have kept at least one good hat. Weaving through the mob, she ducked beneath umbrellas, clutching the box of silver to her breast as she looked about for a hansom. To her dismay, there were none to be found.