He was a fugitive from justice...
Once a powerful laird, now a convicted murderer, Haydon Kent, Marquess of Redmond, had no hope of eluding the hangman's noose — until a mysterious beauty appeared in the dark shadows of his cell.
Escaping in the dead of night, he sought only to reclaim his life and prove his innocence. Instead he finds himself imprisoned once again — by an exquisite woman with red-gold hair who soothes his fevered body and tormented soul ... and stirs in him a passion unlike any he has ever known.
...until she imprisoned his heart.
An outcast from society, Genevieve MacPhail has devoted her life to rescuing wayward urchins from the brutalities of a corrupt prison system. Harboring an infamous escaped murderer will only imperil the beloved children who have become the center of her world. But she doesn't believe the disarmingly handsome nobleman is a cold-blooded killer — even if he does harbor a painful secret.
Determined to solve the mystery of who was trying to kill him, Genevieve will assume the role of Haydon's wife, only to find herself succumbing to a dangerous desire that could destroy them both.
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He cracked open a weary eye, his vision blurred by pain and fever.
"Evenin', yer lordship." A heavy set of iron manacles dangled ominously from the warder's grimy fist. "How are we keepin' tonight?"
Haydon regarded him warily and said nothing.
The warder laughed, exposing a jagged array of rotting teeth. "Quiet this evenin', are we?" With his muddy boot he nudged the dish of congealed porridge abandoned at the foot of Haydon's wooden bed. "What's this? Supper not to yer likin', milord?"
"The lad can have it." Haydon nodded at the scrawny figure opposite him hunched upon the frigid floor. "I'm not hungry."
The rawboned youth did not bother to look up, but remained huddled in a ball, his thin arms locked around his knees in a vain attempt to find some warmth.
"What say ye, Jack?" asked the warder, shifting his attention. "Are ye wantin' his lordship's supper to fill yer belly?"
The boy looked up, his gray eyes hard and glinting with naked hostility. A thin white scar marred the otherwise smooth skin of his left cheek. "No."
The warder laughed. The rations provided in the prison were as foul as they were mean, and he knew the lad had to be hungry. "Hard little bugger, ain't ye? Don't need a thing from anyone except for what ye steal, of course. Thievin' runs in yer blood just like whorin' ran in yer ma's, don't it, lad?"
The boy's lean body tensed. Haydon watched as his skinny arms tightened farther around his knees, fighting to keep his anger under control.
"That's the trouble with ye whores' bastards," continued the warder. "Ye're born with bad blood and ye die with bad blood, and in between ye do nothin' but stink and make life a misery for the rest of us. Well, today," he drawled, jangling his manacles ominously in front of the lad's face, "I'm goin' to see if I can't beat some of that bad blood out of ye."
A hint of fear seeped into Jack's cold gaze.
Haydon clenched his jaw as he slowly eased himself onto one elbow, fighting a wave of pain and dizziness. The beating he had received some two weeks earlier had broken several ribs, and fever had sapped him of much of his strength. Even so, concern for the lad made him force himself to a sitting position. "What are you talking about?" he demanded.
"Been sentenced to thirty-six stripes o' the lash, our young Jack has." The warder took perverse pleasure in the alarm that drained the blood from the youth's filthy face. "Did ye think I'd forgotten about that, lad?" He laughed, then spat on the floor. "The sheriff takes a dim view of scum like you stealin' valuables from honest folk. Thinks a little beating and a few years spent at a reformatory school in Glasgow might cure ye of yer evil ways. But we know different, don't we, Jack?" He sank his beefy hand into the boy's hair and hauled him roughly to his feet. "We know a filthy little shit like yerself can only end up dead, either killed by yer own kind, or hanged as a murderer, like his lordship over there." He shoved Jack hard against the wall. "Now, I suspect that bein' strapped to the whippin' table with yer wrists manacled and yer bare arse bleedin' beneath the lash of my whip ain't goin' to cure ye of yer wicked ways. All the same, I want ye to know," he finished, laughing, "that I am goin' to bloody enjoy it."
Rage, hard and hot, suddenly flooded the lad. With a quickness and strength that Haydon found surprising in a half-starved youth, Jack plowed his bony fist deep into the warder's flaccid gut. Sour air blew from the jailer's rotting mouth, part groan and part curse. Before he could recover, Jack had drawn his fist back and rammed it into his tormentor's jaw. The warder's head snapped back, cracking his decrepit teeth together with a sickening crunch.
"I'll kill ye!" the warder raged. He dropped his manacles and swung a heavy fist at the boy. Jack ducked just in time, deftly avoiding the blow. "Come here, ye rotten little prick!"
He swung a clumsy fist again, and Jack spun neatly beyond it, betraying an uncommon ability to evade assault. His fury augmented with frustration, the warder charged at the boy like an angry bull, ramming into him with all the power of his substantial girth. Jack went flying into the wall, his thin body and head crashing against the frigid stone surface. Pain glazed his eyes and he stood helplessly a moment, fighting to regain his strength and focus.
"I'll teach ye to dare raise a fist to yer betters!" roared the warder, pinning the boy against the wall as he prepared to smash the lad's face with his fist.
Powerful hands suddenly clamped upon the warder's shoulders with brutal force. In one swift motion, the warder was ripped from Jack and sent hurtling across the cell. He crashed into Haydon's wooden bed, shattering the structure beneath his considerable weight. With a groan, he extricated himself from the debris, then stared at Haydon with equal measures of surprise and fury.
"Touch the lad again," Haydon intoned softly, "and I'll kill you."
He forced his labored breath to come in shallow pants, trying to manage the pain tearing through his side. It was an effort just to stand, but Haydon could not let the warder see that or he would be finished. And so he stood tall and locked his legs beneath him, hoping to God that the dizziness swirling through his brain would cease before he was forced to succumb to it.
The warder hesitated. Haydon was a man of impressive stature, and a convicted murderer besides. Clearly his jailer was trying to assess his odds of besting him before he made his next move.
A drop of fevered sweat trickled down Haydon's cheek.
The warder's mouth split into an ugly smile. "Not feelin' well, are ye, milord?" Sneering, he rose to his feet.
"I'm feeling well enough to bash your skull in," Haydon assured him.
"Are ye now?" His opponent looked doubtful. "Somehow, I don't believe ye."
With that he grabbed a heavy wooden plank from the broken bed and smashed it with all his might against Haydon's injured side.
It was a blow that would have been debilitating for any man, but with his broken ribs and nauseating fever, it was unbearable. Haydon sank to his knees, fighting the agonizing pain racing through the muscle and bone of his fractured rib cage. Before he could shield himself from the next blow, the warder struck again. The heavy bat cracked against his spine, knocking him to the floor. Overcome, Haydon was unable to protect himself as the warder began to kick him savagely about the ribs and back with his heavy, mud-crusted boots.
"Stop it!" screamed Jack, springing onto the warder's back and pummeling him with his fists. "You'll kill him!"
The warder abandoned his attack on Haydon as he tried to knock Jack off his shoulders. He rammed backwards into the wall, effectively disengaging Jack's hold. "And I'm goin' to kill ye as well, ye stinkin' little son of a bitch!" He jerked the boy to his feet, locked his hands around his throat and began to strangle him.
"Take your hands off him," commanded an outraged woman's voice. "Now!"
Startled, the warder released his grip on Jack.
"Good God, Sims," gasped the prison governor. "What the devil is going on here?"
With excruciating effort, Haydon turned his head. Governor Thomson was a short, round apple of a man, with a badly receding hairline. He compensated for the lack of hair on his head by proudly promoting the wiry gray bush that sprouted from his chin, which he kept neatly trimmed in the precise shape of a gardening spade. He was dressed from head to toe in his customary black, which Haydon supposed was appropriate attire for a man who spent his days within the forbidding walls of a prison. In a way, he mused, Governor Thomson was just as condemned by his profession as those whose pathetic lives he imprisoned.
"These two prisoners were tryin' to kill me!" yelped the warder.
"Governor Thomson, is it your policy to permit the use of brutal force on mere children?"
The woman standing beside the governor was an apparition in gray, her face sheltered by her bonnet, her slender body lost somewhere within the folds of the dark cloak that enveloped her. And yet there was a self-assurance to her that was unmistakable, a dignified confidence and barely contained fury that filled the frigid little cell with righteous energy.
"Of course not, Miss MacPhail," Governor Thomson assured her, his head shaking nervously from side to side to underscore the point. "All our prisoners are treated with fairness and dignity unless, of course," he amended, glancing down at Haydon, "they pose a threat to others. In a situation like that, I'm sure you understand, Mr. Sims here is obliged to restrain them."
"They were tryin' to kill me!" the warder squawked, trying his best to look as if he had barely evaded death. "Attacked me like a pair of wild animals, they did I'll be lucky if I haven't broken anything." He rubbed his elbow, evidently in the hope of eliciting some sympathy.
"And why do you suppose they did such a thing?" demanded the woman icily.
The warder shrugged. "I was just takin' the lad for his whippin', when he suddenly went mad and"
"You were going to whip this boy?"
Haydon couldn't decide which was greater, her horror or her fury.
"The sheriff has sentenced him to be lashed," explained Governor Thomson, as if that somehow absolved him and the warder of any responsibility in the matter. "Thirty-six stripes, in addition to forty days imprisonment here. Then he is to spend a further two years in a reformatory school."
"For what crime?"
"The lad's a thief," Governor Thomson reported.
"Is he, now?" The woman's tone was blatantly caustic.
She turned and approached Haydon, releasing the ties of her bonnet as she did so. The dark headpiece slipped down her back, revealing a woman of far greater youth and beauty than he had initially suspected. Her face was pale against a mass of honey-colored hair tinged with red, which was carelessly escaping the pins she had used to try to contain it. Her eyes were large and dark against her milky skin, her features small and elegantly carved. Her beauty was as luminous as it was out of place in the foul darkness of the cell, as if a glorious flower had suddenly bloomed between one of the cracks in the filthy floor. Untroubled by the prospect of dirtying her clothes, she knelt beside Haydon, her brows drawn together with concern as she studied his pain-etched face.
"Are you badly injured, sir?"
Haydon regarded her in silent fascination. She was not so young after all, for the fine web of lines around her eyes and across her forehead were testament to a life lived at least twenty-five years, perhaps more. She had known trouble in those years, the faint shadows beneath her eyes and the furrows between her brows made that clear enough, but he sensed there had been much laughter as well. In that moment he longed for nothing more than to see her smile, to watch the warm light of amusement drift across her lovely face, and see the sweet lines around her eyes crinkle with pleasure.
"No," he murmured thickly. For all he knew, inside he was bleeding to death. It scarcely mattered. Dying upon the floor with this magnificent creature looking down upon him with such tender concern was vastly preferable to being hanged the following day before a jeering mob. He stared at her intently, willing her to stay near, afraid that if he so much as blinked she would be gone and he would be left to finish whatever remained of his miserable life alone.
She laid her hand against the rough growth of beard on his cheek, then placed it lightly upon his fevered brow. Her touch was soft and cool and sure. Somehow, it filled him with a kind of fragile hope. It must be the fever, he realized with vague disappointment. There was no hope for him.
"This man is gravely ill," she announced, her eyes never leaving his. "He is almost afire with fever and he has been badly beaten. You must send for a doctor immediately."
The warder snorted with laughter.
Governor Thomson was only slightly more courteous, regarding her as if she were utterly innocent in matters that were best handled by men. "I am afraid, Miss MacPhail, that this man has been found guilty of murder and is sentenced to hang tomorrow. Since his crime is of the most serious nature and his punishment but hours away, I'm afraid I cannot justify troubling the prison surgeon to examine him especially considering he will not live long enough to benefit from any treatment that might be prescribed."
Her body stiffened, although she was careful to keep her expression composed. Clearly the mention of murder and hanging had affected whatever her previous assessment of him had been. She withdrew her hand and Haydon felt lost, as if the gentle thread of compassion joining him to her had snapped.
"No," he protested, grasping her wrist and pulling her toward him again.
Alarm flared in her eyes, and he realized his mistake. He could well imagine how he appeared to her; a battered prisoner sprawled on the floor of a dank cell, filthy and unshaven and perhaps crazed by fever, trying to hold her against her will. He closed his eyes in despair, still clinging to her slender wrist, but his grasp was gentle now, and she could have broken free if she wished.
She remained where she was, the skin of her wrist clean and cool against his grimy fingers.
"I am no murderer," he murmured, unable to fathom why it should matter to him that she know this.
She hesitated a moment, studying him soberly. "I am sorry, sir," she finally said in a soft voice, "but that is now a matter between you and God." Gently she extricated herself from his hold. "Jack, would you kindly help me move this man to that bed?"
"I'll move him," growled the warder.
"Thank you, but I think it would be best if the boy and I did it," she returned firmly.
Jack obediently went to Haydon's side. Together he and the woman helped him to his feet and onto the remaining bed.
"If you will not call for the surgeon, perhaps you will permit me to send my maid to tend to this man this evening," she said, adjusting the coarse folds of a foul-smelling blanket over Haydon. "I see no reason why he should not be permitted some measure of comfort on his final evening."
Governor Thomson stroked his thick gray beard uncertainly. "It really isn't necessary"
"It would scarcely reflect well upon you or your prison were he not fit to stand during his execution tomorrow," Miss MacPhail pointed out. "It might give cause for some to question the treatment he received while he was entrusted to your care." She cast an accusing look at the warder.
"On the other hand, I see no harm to your maid paying him a visit," Governor Thomson relented.
"Very good." Satisfied that she had done all that was within her power to help Haydon, she turned her attention to Jack.
"Permit me to introduce myself, Jack. My name is Genevieve MacPhail, and I would like to speak with you"
"I never stole nothin'," he spat vehemently.
"I don't care whether you did or not."
Surprise flickered in his gaze, but he was quick to shroud it with sullen indifference. "Then what do you want?"
"I live in a house in Inveraray with some other children who, like yourself, have been through some rather difficult times"
"I'm not a child," he interrupted rudely.
"Forgive me. Of course you aren't. You must be what fifteen?"
He straightened his posture, pleased that she had overestimated his age. "About that."
She nodded as if greatly impressed by this. "Well, I was wondering, Jack, if instead of staying here in prison and then proceeding to a reformatory school, you would be willing to come and live with me for the duration of your sentence."
Jack's eyes narrowed. "You mean like a servant?" His tone was openly scornful.
"No," she replied, untroubled by his hostile attitude. "But you would have chores to do, the same as everyone there does."
He regarded her skeptically. "What kind of chores?"
"You would be expected to help with cooking and cleaning and washing, and all the other things that are necessary to run a busy household. And you would be required to spend part of each day learning to read and write and cipher numbers. You don't know how to read, do you?"
"I get by," he assured her tersely.
"I don't doubt that. But my hope would be, Jack, that after you finished staying with me, you would be able to get by far better than you have been."
He was silent a moment, considering. "Could I come and go as I pleased?"
"Unfortunately, no. Should you decide to come with me, you would then become my responsibility. That means that I would have to know where you were at all times. I'm afraid I would have to insist that you agree to that," she added, as a scowl twisted his sharply chiseled features. "And your days would be structured, so you would not be permitted to simply wander off and do as you wished. I can assure you, however, that you would find your situation far more tolerable than what awaits you at reformatory school. You would be well fed and cared for. The others who have come to live with me actually find it quite pleasant."
His answer was just a touch too quick, thought Haydon, to be genuine. It was clear to him that the boy had decided that going with this Miss Genevieve MacPhail was infinitely preferable to getting thrashed by the warder and spending any more time in jail. Once he had relieved her of a warm set of clothes and a decent meal, he would steal whatever he could and be gone, by tomorrow at the very latest. Haydon wished he had time to speak to the boy alone, to make him understand the incredible opportunity he was being offered.
"Can you get him out as well?" Jack inclined his head toward Haydon.
Haydon looked at the lad in surprise.
"I I'm afraid not," Genevieve stammered, startled by the question.
Her dark eyes were veiled with what appeared to be regret. Haydon thought that rather amazing, given all that she knew of him was that he had been convicted of murder. It was scarcely the kind of credentials that roused the more tender sensibilities of a gently bred woman like Miss MacPhail.
"Excellent," said Governor Thomson, pleased that the two had come to an agreement. "Let us retire to my office and work out the necessary details of this arrangement, shall we?" He scratched his beard in anticipation.
So that was it, Haydon realized. This Miss MacPhail was securing Jack's release in exchange for payment of some kind to the prison governor. She wore no jewelry, and a closer inspection revealed that her cloak was void of ornamentation and the fabric was cheap and somewhat worn. Whatever she was paying for the dubious privilege of taking on the responsibility of a half-starved, lying, thieving urchin, it was clear she could ill-afford it. The certainty that Jack was planning to take advantage of her well-meaning intentions and then abandon her made him feel sad for both of them.
Governor Thomson was already on his way out the door, evidently anxious to have the transaction completed.
But the lovely Miss MacPhail hesitated.
"I will send my maid to attend to you as quickly as possible," she promised Haydon. "Is there anything special you would like?"
"Do not take your eyes off the lad until you are certain he will stay with you otherwise he will be gone by morning."
Her dark eyes widened. Obviously she had expected him to ask for something simple and self-indulgent, like whiskey, or perhaps that a particular dish be prepared for him.
"There is one more thing."
She waited expectantly.
"I would like you to believe that I am innocent."
The warder snorted with amusement. "All ye murderers want the world to think ye're sweet an' pure as bairns especially before ye're due to have yer neck snapped."
"Why does it matter to you what I believe?" she asked, ignoring the warder's jeer.
Haydon regarded her intently. "It just does."
She was silent a moment, contemplating his request. "I'm afraid I do not know the facts of your case, sir, and therefore can pass no judgment." Her voice was soft and laced with remorse, as if she would have far preferred to tell him that she believed him.
He nodded, suddenly feeling immeasurably weary. "Of course." He closed his eyes.
"Come, then, Miss MacPhail," said Governor Thomson, who was waiting impatiently for her at the cell door. "Let us have this matter of the lad settled."
"I will have my maid prepare something special for you," Genevieve promised Haydon, perhaps hoping that he would be somewhat consoled by this.
"I'm not hungry."
"Then she will do whatever she can to see to your comfort," she persisted.
"Fine. Thank you."
He sensed rather than saw her hesitate, as if there was something more she wished to say to him.
And then she left the cell, leaving him to face his final hours alone in the frigid darkness.
"The contract is the same as those to which you have previously agreed, except, of course, I have included the particulars of the lad's sentence," said Governor Thomson, laying a sheet of paper on the desk before her. "I'm certain you will find it is all in order." It was clear he was most anxious to have the document signed and receive his payment.
"I'm sure it is," Genevieve replied. "But it would set a poor example if I were to sign it without reading it first. One must always read a document thoroughly before putting one's signature on it," she instructed Jack. With that she began to carefully read the contract.
"Well, now, lad, this is a fortuitous day for you, is it not?" asked Governor Thomson, lamely attempting to fill the awkward silence.
Jack said nothing.
Genevieve glanced up at the boy. He was staring intently at the passage beyond the doorway of the governor's office, apparently transfixed by Warder Sims, who was busy piling scummy porridge bowls onto a heavy wooden tray. Perhaps, Genevieve reflected, the boy was considering how close he had come to being beaten to death by the horrid man.
"Jack, you must respond when someone asks you a question," she instructed gently.
Jack blinked and looked at her in confusion. "What?"
"In polite conversation we don't say 'what,' we say 'pardon me,'" Genevieve corrected, deciding this was as good a time as any to begin work on the boy's manners.
He regarded her as if she were crazy. "What are you talkin' about?"
"Governor Thomson was speaking to you," she explained, deciding to put the issue of "what" versus "pardon me" aside for the moment.
"What did he say?" he asked, not bothering to look at the governor.
Later she would explain that it was rude to speak of someone who was present as if he weren't there. "He asked you if you felt lucky to be leaving this place with me," she said, realizing he would likely not understand the word "fortuitous."
Jack shrugged. "Anythin's better than this pisshole."
Governor Thomson's gray brows shot up and his face reddened with indignation. "Why, you ungrateful little"
"You're quite right, Jack," interjected Genevieve, untroubled by either the lad's surly indifference or his colorful choice of words. If anything, she admired him for his honesty. "Anything is indeed better than here." She smiled at him, then proceeded to study the contract.
Looking bored, Jack slumped in his chair and began to bang the heels of his filthy, worn shoes against the elegantly carved legs.
"Here now, stop that, you'll scratch the wood!" protested Governor Thomson.
Jack shrugged. "It's just a chair."
"It may be just a chair to you, you filthy ruffian, but it is solid mahogany and cost more than you shall ever earn honestly in your entire life!" the governor snapped.
Oozing defiance, Jack kicked the chair again.
"Why don't you wait in the hall, Jack," suggested Genevieve, trying to avoid an altercation between the two. "The governor and I will have completed our business shortly."
Needing no further encouragement, Jack stomped out the door and began to pace restlessly up and down the corridor.
"You'll have your hands full with that one, mark my words," huffed Governor Thomson. "I wager he'll be back to his lawless, pilfering ways and in here again before the month is through. My recommendation, Miss MacPhail, is that you take a firm position with him with a regular beating, just to keep him obliging."
"I am not in the habit of beating my children, Governor Thomson," Genevieve informed him coolly.
"The Lord tells us children must be beaten," Governor Thomson argued. "'He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.' Let the lad know in no uncertain terms that you own him now. If he gives you one whit of trouble, send him right back to me."
"What did he steal?"
"You mentioned in your letter to me that the lad had been found guilty of the crime of stealing. What did he steal?"
Governor Thomson pulled a pair of spectacles from his jacket and placed them on his nose before opening a file upon his desk. "He broke into a home and stole one pair of shoes, one blanket, one round of cheese, and a bottle of whiskey," he reported gravely. "He was later found asleep under the blanket in a neighbor's coach house. The whiskey and cheese were all but gone, the stolen shoes were on his feet, and the lad was thoroughly drunk." He regarded her seriously over the rims of his spectacles. "I'm afraid there was never any question of his culpability in the matter."
"And for the crime of being cold, hungry, and without decent shoes, he was to be imprisoned, lashed, and sent to reformatory school." Genevieve's tone was flagrantly bitter.
"We live in a lawful society, Miss MacPhail. Where would we be if everyone who was cold and hungry decided they could just walk into someone else's home or shop and help themselves to whatever they wanted?"
"No child should ever be that desperate," she argued. "We need laws to protect our children from starving, so that they don't have to resort to stealing food and clothing to survive."
"He did not starve while he was here, nor would he have starved at the reformatory school," Governor Thomson pointed out. "Regardless of whether you had decided to take him or not, his arrest was the best thing that could have happened to him. It usually is for strays like him. He claims his parents are dead and that he has no home or kin who might take him in. At least in a reformatory school he would have a roof over his head, a blanket to cover him at night, and three meals a day."
"Boys cannot live on thin gruel and water, and stealing some cheese and a pair of shoes scarcely merits being lashed and locked in a freezing cell with a murderer," retorted Genevieve. "As for our precious reformatory schools," she continued mockingly, "they are little more than a place where children are abused and forced to slave under intolerable conditions. If, somehow, they find the will and strength necessary to survive, they are then tossed onto the street with no appreciable skills or money, and callously told to get on with their lives. Which, of course, leads them straight back to thieving and prostitution."
"Regrettably, we who work within the system can only do so much, Miss MacPhail," Governor Thomson responded. "By bringing the lad to your attention, I hope I may have played some small part in the possibility of his salvation. The other children I have directed to your custody are doing reasonably well, are they not?"
"They are doing extremely well," Genevieve assured him. "Far better than they would have otherwise."
"And I don't doubt that you shall do your utmost to try to help Jack overcome his baser instincts and eventually, perhaps, lead a life that is both honest and productive. Let us hope so, at any rate, for his sake." He closed his file. "One more altercation with the law, and I'm afraid there will be nothing further that either of us can do except let him suffer the full burden of his sentence." He rose from his desk and regarded her expectantly, indicating that their business was all but finished.
Satisfied that all the details of their arrangement were in order, Genevieve signed the document, then retrieved the money she carried in the inner pocket of her cloak and handed it to Governor Thomson.
"Thank you, Miss MacPhail," he said, smiling as he quickly counted it. "I do hope this arrangement shall work out satisfactorily for you."
"I have no doubt that it shall." Genevieve rose and moved toward the door, ready to tell Jack that they were leaving.
Having completed his task of collecting the dirty crockery from each of the cells, the abundant Warder Sims was now struggling to hoist his heavy tray onto his shoulder. His back was turned to Jack, leaving him blissfully unaware of the fact that the boy had sidled up to him and was stealthily slipping the ring of keys off the warder's belt.
"Here now, what the devil do ye think ye're doing?" the warder growled suddenly, spinning about.
"Nothin'," said Jack, casually stepping away from him.
"Open yer jacket and let me see what ye've got there," Warder Sims commanded, "before I rip it off yer skinny hide myself."
Panic gripped Genevieve. If Jack was found stealing before he had even left the prison, Governor Thomson would have no choice but to forfeit their arrangement. Jack would be lashed and thrown back in his cell to half-starve before suffering years of abuse in a reformatory school.
"Mr. Sims, watch out!" she screamed suddenly, her cry almost ear-splitting as it reverberated against the cold stone walls. "There is an enormous rat by your foot!"
Pure horror blanched the warder's face. "Where?!" he shouted, hopping awkwardly from one foot to the other, as he valiantly tried to balance his tray. "Where?!"
"Right there!" she shrieked, pointing at his ankles.
The next thing Genevieve knew, he was flying through the air, yelping in fear, before crashing amidst a mess of gluey bowls and lumpy porridge.
"Get him off me!" he screeched, scrambling to rise. He raced toward her with outstretched arms, as if he expected her to save him. His foot got caught in a wayward bowl which skidded on some porridge, sending him barreling into Governor Thomson's office, where, fortunately, the governor's precious mahogany chair helped to break his fall.
The chair itself did not fare so well.
"For God's sake, Sims, what the devil is the matter with you?" thundered Governor Thomson furiously. "Just look at what you've done to my chair!"
"Is it gone?" whimpered the warder, staring frantically behind himself. "Is it?"
"I'm not sure," said Genevieve, searching the shadows of the hallway for Jack, who had disappeared.
"I don't see any rat," the boy reported calmly as he emerged from the darkness around the corner. "It must be gone."
He strolled past Genevieve into Governor Thomson's office. "Too bad about your chair," he remarked, his voice edged with sarcasm. He bent over to pick up the mangled piece of furniture. "Maybe it can be fixed."
When the chair was precariously righted upon its three remaining legs, Mr. Sims's prison keys were lying innocently upon the floor, looking as if they had simply fallen off when he crashed into it.
"My chair!" lamented Governor Thomson, turning over the broken mahogany leg. "It's ruined!"
"I'm sorry, sir," apologized Warder Sims, looking forlorn. "It's just that I hate rats."
"If there is nothing further, then Jack and I must be going," interjected Genevieve, anxious to have the boy out of there before he tried to steal something else.
"Yes, fine," said Governor Thomson, looking as if he was torn between weeping over his chair and cracking Warder Sims over the head with its shattered leg. "As for you, young man," he said, regarding Jack sternly, "see that you abandon your lawless ways and do everything Miss MacPhail tells you. One misstep and you will be back in this jail and on your way to reformatory school, do you hear?" He shook the fractured chair leg at him.
"I'm sure Jack understands his situation," Genevieve swiftly replied, afraid to let the boy speak lest he offend Governor Thomson yet again. "Good evening, Governor Thomson. Warder Sims," she added crisply, nodding at the dejected jailer, who still had gray globs of porridge stuck to his uniform.
She put her hand firmly upon Jack's shoulder and steered him toward the door, trying not to think about what the boy had wanted with the warder's keys.