Sophia Monmouth was the first.
She’d been six or seven years old at the time, a tiny, grubby little thing, indistinguishable from every other ragged street urchin in London. Lady Amanda Clifford might not have noticed the girl at all, if it hadn’t been for the blood.
It had dried by then, Sophia’s mother having met her fate some days earlier, but such a quantity of blood—great, dark red gouts of it streaked across the child’s pinafore—wasn’t the sort of thing one overlooked.
Then there’d been the child’s eyes. Green, rather pretty, but mere prettiness would not have swayed Lady Amanda in Sophia’s favor. No, it was the shrewdness in those green depths that decided her, the cunning.
It was far better for a woman to be clever than beautiful.
Lady Amanda chose the child’s surname to please herself. Arrogant of her, perhaps, but it was best when Lady Amanda was pleased. As for everyone else…
In the Year of Our Lord 1778, Seven Dials was a sweltering, fetid warren of narrow streets, each one piled on top of the next like rotting corpses in a plague pit. One could only assume the doomed souls residing in Monmouth Street weren’t pleased either by the name, or their fate.
But it couldn’t be helped. It was pure arrogance to think one could leave their past behind them, the past being, alas, a devious, sneaking thing, apt to spring up at the most inconvenient of moments, in the unlikeliest of places. One could never entirely escape their origins, and Sophia Monmouth—tiny, grubby little thing that she was—was no exception.
And so, her surname was Monmouth, despite it being a name that pleased no one, aside presumably from the succession of dukes who’d borne the title, excepting perhaps the first of them, who’d been beheaded several hundred years earlier.
Grisly business, but then it so often was, with dukes.
If Lady Amanda had suffered any misgivings about upending the child’s fate, she didn’t recall them now. And truly, who was to say what fate had decreed on Sophia Monmouth’s behalf?
Not Lady Amanda Clifford.
After all, if the son of a king could lose his head on the edge of an executioner’s blade, there was no reason to suppose a Seven Dials orphan—tiny, grubby little thing that she was—couldn’t someday turn the tide of history.
Great Marlborough Street, London
Late July, 1793
There was a boy, lying on the roof of Lord Everly’s pediment.
Tristan Stratford, Lord Gray frowned down at the glass of port in his hand. No, it was still half full. He wasn’t foxed. Delusional, perhaps? It didn’t seem so far-fetched a possibility as it once might have done. Even the sanest of gentlemen could be harassed to the point of hallucinations.
But a boy, on his neighbor’s roof? It seemed a curious choice, as far as delusions went.
Tristan abandoned his port on the corner of his desk and crept closer to the window. He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath, then snapped them open again.
There was a boy, lying on the roof of Lord Everly’s pediment.
He was a puny specimen, all in black, more shadow than substance, more figment than flesh. Tristan was a trifle disturbed to find he’d conjured such a singular delusion, but questions of sanity aside, a boy on a roof must spark a tiny flicker of interest, even in a chest that had remained resolutely dark and shuttered for weeks.
The boy wasn’t doing anything wrong. Just lying there on his back, quite motionless, staring up at the sky. Still, a boy, on a roof? No good would come of that.
Perhaps he should alert someone. It was what a proper neighbor would do. No doubt Everly hadn’t the faintest idea there was a boy on his roof. Even the most perceptive of men might overlook such a thing, and Everly wasn’t the most perceptive of men. Tristan had never cared much for his lordship, Everly being a shifty, squinty-eyed creature, but neither would he stand about gaping while a child thief stripped the man of all his worldly possessions.
Whether the boy was real or a product of Tristan’s fevered imagination remained in question, but if he wasn’t a phantom, he was certainly a thief. There could be no innocent explanation for his presence on Lord Everly’s roof.
And after all, Tristan knew a thief when he saw one. He’d been a Bow Street Runner, once upon a time. He couldn’t say what he was now. An earl who lazed about and sipped port while his neighbor was robbed, apparently.
Another useless earl. Just what London needed.
Still, since fate had doomed him to a lifetime of aristocratic idleness, he was obligated to do the thing properly. So, after weeks spent haunting his townhouse, Tristan had reluctantly agreed to accompany his friend Lord Lyndon to White’s tonight. He’d had vague notions of engaging in activities earls were meant to find amusing—drinking, wagering, that sort of thing—but Tristan hadn’t been amused.
He’d found it all utterly pointless. He’d left early, and was nearly home before it occurred to him White’s was meant to be pointless.
Pointlessness was, in fact, rather the point.
Given the evening had been a spectacular failure, Tristan didn’t hold out much hope for any of the other gentlemanly pursuits London had to offer. Indeed, after tonight, he couldn’t think of a single reason to remain in the city at all.
Aside, perhaps, from the boy on Lord Everly’s roof.
Tristan retrieved his port, sank down into his chair and tipped his glass against his lips. A proper earl didn’t waste perfectly good port. The boy was bound to do something interesting sooner or later. Tristan was content to sip his port, and wait until he did.
And wait, and wait, and wait…
Time didn’t hesitate to take liberties with Tristan—the past few weeks had dragged on for years—but never had the minutes crawled by as reluctantly as they did now. The shadows lengthened, the fire burned to embers, the long-case clock on the first-floor landing chimed the hours, and somewhere, an entire civilization rose and fell again.
And still, Tristan waited.
Surely it was unnatural for any boy to remain motionless for so long? But even when it started raining, the lad never twitched. He simply lay there, still as a corpse—
Tristan jerked to his feet, his empty glass tumbling to the floor. He peered down at the still figure, but it was too dark for him to tell if the boy’s chest was moving.
Was it possible he was a corpse? How the devil would a corpse end up on Lord Everly’s roof? Then again, if a phantom thief could appear on a roof, mightn’t a phantom corpse do so, as well?
No, no. That wouldn’t do. There were limits to what Tristan would tolerate in his delusions. A phantom thief was one thing, but a corpse quite another. That was one hallucination too far. And so, Tristan was left with a single, unavoidable conclusion.
There was a dead boy, lying on the roof of Lord Everly’s pediment.
A dead boy on one’s neighbor’s roof wasn’t the sort of thing a gentleman could overlook, and that, Tristan would later reflect, was the cause of all the chaos that followed.
If the situation had been even a trifle less alarming than a dead boy on a roof, he might not have ventured out at all. He might have remained in his library, helped himself to another glass of port and gotten sotted, like a proper earl was meant to do.
As it was, chaos found him, and once she had him, she showed him no mercy. She seized him by the neck, sank her talons into his flesh and hurled him headlong into a tumult without even the courtesy of a second glance.
If Sophia Monmouth had realized how easy it would be to scale the front of a London townhouse, she’d have left her footprints across every rooftop in Mayfair by now.
A single leap, and she was balanced on the top edge of the wrought iron railing flanking the stone steps. A bit of a scramble and a discreet shimmy or two, and she was clinging to one of the columns on either side of the front door, her arms and legs wrapped around it, albeit in a most unladylike fashion. From there it had been easy enough to haul herself up and clamber over the edge of the pediment.
Unnecessary risk, Sophia.
Lady Clifford’s voice often found its way into Sophia’s head at times like these. If ignoring it caused her just the tiniest pang of guilt, Sophia had nonetheless become accustomed to shrugging it off.
It wasn’t that Lady Clifford was wrong, exactly. Strictly speaking, Sophia hadn’t had to scale the front of Lord Everly’s townhouse. She could have hidden around a corner or behind a tree like an ordinary intruder, but she’d been curious to see if she could manage the thing. After all, a lady never knew when she’d be obliged to make use of some lord or other’s rooftop. It was a simple matter of knowing one’s capabilities.
Besides, where was the fun in being ordinary? She was here now, snug as you please, lying on her back on Lord Everly’s roof. Goodness, he had a great many windows, didn’t he? Six of them on the first floor alone, marching in a tidy row across the front of the townhouse. The symmetry was pleasing, but then aristocrats did like for things to be in their proper places.
All things, not just their windows.
Curious, she nudged the toe of her boot into a tiny gap at the bottom edge of the window above her and pushed. It slid open, and an amused snort fell from her lips. Heavens, the nobility were foolish. It would be the easiest thing in the world for her to slip inside the house and pinch the family silver.
It was truly a pity she wasn’t a thief, because she would have made a tremendously good one. Most of the townhouses on Great Marlborough Street boasted wrought iron railings and columns on either side of the doors with lovely, wide pediments on top. No doubt the aristocratic owners were proud of their pediments, and considered all the cornices, columns, and canopies to be the height of elegance.
Ah, well. Pride was a wicked, detestable sin.
Really, what was a wrought iron railing but a footstool, a column a makeshift ladder, and cornices and decorative arches footholds and finger grips? Rooftops all across Mayfair were now crooking their fingers at Sophia, daring her to attempt them. That was the glorious thing about London, wasn’t it? Just when one thought they knew her, she offered an entirely new landscape, ripe for exploration.
As for Lord Everly, his silver was safe enough from her. Fortunately for him, Sophia wasn’t here to steal. She wasn’t here for Lord Everly at all.
No, she’d come for someone else entirely, and now there was nothing to do but wait for her quarry to venture out the door. He might not do so tonight, but she’d happily come back for him tomorrow, and every night afterwards until he did.
Sophia hummed to herself, gazing up at the dark sky as she waited. After a short time, it began to drizzle. The fat raindrops struck the slate roof in varying notes, transforming what might otherwise have been a dreary evening into a symphony.
She lay still, listening to the rhythmic patter. She’d never minded the rain, but neither had she ever noticed how pleasant the sound of it was. Then again, she’d never been as close to it as she was now. It didn’t have the same pleasing resonance when it hit the pavement, but from up here it was like music, or clocks chiming.
The sky above Sophia deepened to an opaque midnight blue as the moments slipped past. The clouds that had been hanging over the city all day skidded this way and that, playing a game of hide and seek with the moon. Yes, she’d be spending more time on London’s rooftops, once this business was done.
Her heartbeat took up the soothing tempo of the rain, and it might have lulled her into a doze, if the creak of a door opening below hadn’t roused her. Sophia kept her head down, but rolled over and slid on her belly to the edge of the pediment and peered over the side, taking care to keep out of sight. The street was thick with shadows, but the faint light from the entryway briefly illuminated the figure of a man before he slammed the door behind him.
Sophia’s lips curled into a smile.
He was a small, rat-like thing, stoop-shouldered and twitchy, easily distinguishable. A flaw, in Sophia’s opinion. Far better to blend, if one was a criminal.
He had a cheroot between his fingers, and he paused to suck on it before he ambled down the steps and turned left onto Great Marlborough Street, toward Regent’s Street. A thin stream of smoke trailed after him like a second shadow as he disappeared around the corner.
Sophia let him go. There was no need to rush after him. She’d never once lost her quarry, and she wouldn’t lose him now. She waited, still humming, until the sound of footsteps faded and a glance revealed nothing but the empty street below.
She threw her leg over the side of pediment and dangled there for a moment before her foot found the narrow edge at the top of the column. She steadied herself, then shimmied down in the same shocking manner as she’d gone up. She didn’t bother with the railing this time, but dropped lightly down onto the top step, and tugged her dark cap down over her face.
She’d been following this man for several weeks now, and knew far more about him than she ever cared to know about any man—which public houses he frequented, which Covent Garden prostitutes he preferred—all to no purpose.
But Sophia had been patient, knowing he’d return to the scene of his crime eventually.
They always did.
The corpse had moved.
That is, the boy—he was very much alive, as it happened—was of an acrobatic turn. He’d rolled across the roof with the ease of a billiards ball across the baize, and now he was hanging over the edge of the pediment, his legs braced on the roof while his torso hung suspended in mid-air.
He might yet end up a corpse. An unexpected twitch of a muscle or a sudden breeze and he’d topple over the side like overripe fruit from a tree. Tristan might have put a stop to the business right then—thief or not, he didn’t care to see the boy plunge to his death—but before he could stir, Lord Everly’s door opened and a man emerged.
He closed the door behind him, snuffing out the faint light coming from the townhouse, but Tristan got enough of a glimpse of him to determine it wasn’t Everly. He was much smaller than his lordship, who was thick and squat, more spherical than otherwise. Tristan couldn’t see the man’s face, and given the number of people who went in and out of Everly’s townhouse on a given day, he didn’t bother to hazard a guess as to his identity.
The man paused to raise the cheroot between his fingers to his lips, and then he was off down the street, his gait cocky. Too cocky, the fool. He hadn’t the least idea he was being watched.
Tristan didn’t bother to note his direction. His gaze darted back to the boy, who’d turned his head to follow the man’s progress. He hadn’t moved, but Tristan sensed a sudden tension in that slight frame, the taut stillness of a predator in the seconds before it burst into movement.
What were thieves, if not predators?
The familiar, restless energy Tristan had given up as lost was now rioting in his veins. A few minutes passed, then a few more, and then…quickly, but as cool as you please the boy was on his feet and over the side of the pediment.
Tristan’s muscles tensed instinctively, as if preparing to catch the boy mid-fall, but he needn’t have worried. The lad made quick work of the column, scampering down it like a monkey. In the next breath he’d dropped onto the street and was gliding after his prey, dark and silent as a shadow.
Not a phantom, then, and not a figment. Not a corpse, and not a thief. Oddly, it was this last that surprised Tristan the most, but it didn’t appear as if the boy had been there to steal.
At least, not from Everly. He might intend to pick the pocket of the man he’d followed, but there were plenty of pockets in London ripe for the picking, none of which required a rooftop adventure.
Why would this boy risk his neck for the privilege of picking the pocket of a man who, though small, was several heads taller than he was, and outweighed him by at least two stone? Tristan hadn’t the vaguest idea what the boy thought he’d do when he caught up to his victim, but he’d find out soon enough.
He was still wearing his boots, and didn’t bother with his greatcoat.
Ten seconds later he was on the street in front of his townhouse. By then there was no sign of the boy, but Tristan knew he couldn’t have gotten that far ahead. Damned if the little imp hadn’t perfected the art of disappearing, though, just like a proper phantom.
But phantom or not, in the end it wouldn’t matter.
Tristan could cross from one end of the city to the other as easily as strolling from his library to his study. He knew every road, every hidden alcove, and every filthy back alley in London.
The boy was clever and quick, but Tristan would catch him.
He was going to make a fatal mistake tonight. Tonight, after tedious weeks of chasing this villain all over London, Sophia was going to catch him out at last.
She could smell it, feel it, as if it were a scent in the air, or the glide of a fingertip across her skin. She no longer found it odd she should be able to sense such things. She must have been born with the mind of a criminal, if not the heart of one, because she knew instinctually how they would behave.
She headed west down Great Marlborough Street toward Poland Street, clinging to the shadows, pure intuition guiding her steps. Once or twice she thought she heard footsteps behind
her, but when she paused there was nothing aside from the light patter of rain falling on the ground.
Even if there was someone following her, they wouldn’t catch her.
No one ever did.
She kept to the shadows as she moved steadily along behind her prey, who plodded toward Tottenham Court Road, utterly oblivious to the fact he was being followed. His nonchalance wasn’t a result of innocence, but of arrogance and stupidity. It would never occur to him he’d be held accountable for any of his crimes.
It wasn’t until he turned onto Aldwych Street and she could see the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the spire of St. Clement Dane’s Church looming in the distance that Sophia’s heart began to pound. Of all the places a man might haunt on a dark night in London, this man had chosen to come here.
Strange, considering what he’d seen the last time he’d lingered in this neighborhood.
That is, what he claimed to have seen.
In her experience, people tended to avoid those places where they’d been victims of a crime, but now here he was again, alone, and in the dark.
It couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.
Sophia glanced about, paying particular attention to the shadowy corners before prowling after him, knots of excitement tying and untying themselves in her chest as she paused at one side of St. Clement Dane’s Church, waiting to see what he’d do.
He didn’t appear to be concerned someone might see him, but approached the entrance to the church, lit another cheroot from the glowing end of the first one and fell into a casual slouch in the arched doorway to smoke it.
Another person might have been fooled by this show of unconcern, but not Sophia. His actions were too self-conscious, too practiced. To her well-trained eye it looked as if he were waiting there for someone, but wished to appear as if he’d just happened upon the church by chance, and by chance had been overcome with an irresistible urge to smoke a cheroot while he was there.
She smothered a derisive snort. He wasn’t very good at this.
She ducked behind the column of a building across the street from the church. She had a clear view of her man from here, but she was already scanning the churchyard, searching for a better hiding place. She’d need to be closer to him if she wanted to hear anything.
Her gaze landed on the small, round portico to the west side of the church. It was nothing more than a half-circle of slender columns with a roof, but it would do, and she was already fairly close to it—just on the other side of the street. If she could reach it, she could creep around
the side, closer to the entrance of the church. From there she’d be able to see and hear whatever passed.
The dash across the road might prove a bit tricky, though. If the man happened to look in her direction while she was crossing, he’d certainly see her. But then he hadn’t proved particularly observant so far, had he?
Sophia assessed the narrow street in front of her, calculating the distance, then glanced back toward the entrance to the church, where her quarry was still slouched against the archway, looking about as alert as a sleepy child at a church sermon.
Yes, she could make it. Once that thick bank of clouds crossed the moon, she’d go. She waited, her muscles tensed to run, but just as the clouds began to edge out the moonlight, she heard a thin, high-pitched sound coming from behind her.
It sounded like…yes, it was. A man was coming down the Strand towards St. Clement Dane’s Church, and he was whistling.
Sophia froze for an instant, her heart pounding, then as quickly and quietly as she could she melted back into the shadows. Another glance toward the church revealed her quarry had tossed his cheroot aside and jerked to sudden attention. For one breathless moment Sophia thought he’d seen her, but he wasn’t looking in her direction.
He was waiting for the man who was making his way down the Strand. The man himself seemed not to realize he was the object of so much intense interest. He ambled along, whistling tunelessly, utterly at his ease.
Whatever criminal enterprise was about to unfold, the whistler wasn’t a part of it.
No, he was its victim.
She held her breath as the whistler drew closer to the archway where Lord Everly’s man was waiting. Even from this distance she could see he was already creeping forward, ready to pounce on his victim like a rat on a crumb of bread.
Then, just behind him, Sophia saw a flicker of movement in the shadows. Her eyes widened, then narrowed as she strained to make it out. For a moment it had looked as if there was someone else there, lurking behind the church door, but all was now still.
Her head snapped back toward the man coming down the Strand. He was moving steadily toward the front of the church, still whistling cheerfully, and utterly unaware of the mischief that awaited him.
It was pure foolishness for her to try and stop it now. She’d only expose herself, and put her mission at needless risk. Even so, Sophia’s mouth was opening, a cry of warning rising in her throat.
She never got the chance to voice it.
Just as it was about to burst from her lips, a gloved hand came down hard over her mouth. Sophia gasped in shock, but even when a long, muscular arm snaked around her waist, she kept her wits about her. This wasn’t the first time she’d been grabbed, and she wasn’t the sort of lady who succumbed to hysterics.
No, she was more the sort of lady who bit anyone foolish enough to put their hand over her mouth, and that was what she did now. Without any hesitation, she sank her teeth into the closest finger. She got a mouthful of an exceptionally fine kid glove for her trouble, but she clamped down onto the knuckle like a hunting dog with a bird locked between its jaws.
Her attacker didn’t think his glove fine enough to be worth saving, because he tore it off and let it drop into the dirt between them.
When the bite failed to secure her release, Sophia landed a practiced kick to his shin. Her lips curled in a savage grin when her heel hit bone with a satisfying crunch. The arm around her waist went slack for an instant, but he seemed to have a good deal of experience attacking people, because he didn’t release her. Anyone else would have, but he held her fast, a muttered curse escaping his lips.
So, she kicked him again.
He let out a pained grunt. “You’ll regret that soon enough.”
Before she could land a third kick, he swept her right off her feet and dragged her backwards into the shadowy graveyard behind St. Clement Dane’s.
Someone had been following her, and by some miraculous stroke of ill luck, he’d actually managed to catch her.
The kick found its mark as surely as if Tristan had a bullseye painted on his shin. It was a swift, vicious blow, and unexpected enough it might have secured the boy’s release if Tristan had been anyone other than who he was.
As it happened, the lad was out of luck. Tristan had been kicked by every blackguard in London, most of whom were stronger and burlier than this meager slip of a boy. Still, for all his flimsiness, he was fierce enough to have spoiled a rather nice glove with those sharp teeth of his.
Tristan left the glove in the dirt where it had dropped and grabbed the scuff of the boy’s neck with his bare hand. “Struggle all you like. I have you now.” He pinned the boy’s arms to his sides, wrenched him off his feet and dragged him into the gloom behind St. Clement Dane’s churchyard. “Ah, here we are, lad. We’ll transact our business in the dark, shall we? We won’t be disturbed here, and I can question you for as long as I choose.”
A sound burst from the boy’s lips. Given his current predicament a cry of fear was to be expected, but this wasn’t fear. It was a cry of wrath. In an instant he was struggling again, his slight body thrashing and twisting like an enraged fish on the end of a hook.
An exceptionally sneaky fish.
If he managed to squirm free, Tristan had no doubt he’d scramble up the nearest column and vanish in an instant. “Enough!” He tightened his arms around the boy. Not so tight he’d hurt him, but tight enough to hold him still. “You’re wasting your strength, lad, and trying my patience. You’re not going anywhere until I’ve questioned you, but I won’t hurt you. Now cease writhing, if you please, and I’ll put you down.”
Tristan expected this useful bit of logic to go unheeded, but to his surprise the boy ceased struggling and went as limp as a sack of flour.
“There’s a good lad.” Tristan set him on his feet, but he was careful to back him up against the wrought iron fence surrounding the graveyard. “Now, if you agree to keep quiet, I’ll remove my hand from your mouth. Not a single sound until I give you leave, understand?”
Tristan waited, one hand on the boy’s shoulder to prevent him from bolting until at last the boy gave the briefest of nods. “Well then, lad.” He eased his hand away from the boy’s mouth. “What have you to say for yourself?”
Not a damn thing, it seemed.
Tristan studied the narrow shoulders and bent head, and a reluctant chuckle escaped his lips. “You’re a proper little thief, aren’t you? Quick-witted, agile, and you know when to keep your mouth shut. I’ve seen grown men with less self-possession.”
The boy was, in fact, just the sort of clever, tight-lipped little miscreant who’d prove invaluable to older, more sophisticated criminals—criminals like those responsible for a recent rash of robberies plaguing London. The thieves had evaded the law for months, but five weeks ago a botched attempt at a theft had led to a grisly murder, and one of the gang of culprits had been taken up for the crime.
Strangely enough, he’d been taken up right here, in St. Clement Dane’s churchyard. A curious coincidence, really—or it would have been if Tristan believed in coincidences.
He didn’t, nor did he believe in innocent explanations. Those who engaged in suspicious activity invariably proved to be guilty, and this boy, in his dark clothes with his cap pulled low over his eyes was the very picture of a pocket-sized villain. “Come now, sir. Surely you have something to offer in your own defense.”
No reaction from the boy. He kept his head down, his face carefully concealed behind the brim of his cap.
“I’m happy to keep you here all night.” Tristan’s tone was pleasant, but he tightened his grip on the boy’s shoulder.
That earned him a shrug. Delicate bones shifted under Tristan’s fingers, but not a single word crossed the boy’s stubborn lips. Irritated, Tristan reached out and snatched the cap from his head. “You’ll look me in the eye when I speak to you, lad—”
He broke off, and the cap slipped through his fingers and dropped to the ground. A few hairpins went with it, and the long, silky hair that had been stuffed underneath fell down in a dark cascade of waves.
Tristan stared at her, flabbergasted. “Hell and—”
“Damnation,” the girl finished, with a toss of her gleaming head.
Some flowery scent wafted over Tristan, something rather like…honeysuckle? What sort of girl smelled like honeysuckle after a rooftop escapade and a mad dash through London’s filthy streets? No sort of girl Tristan had ever seen.
He turned his attention to the face that had been hiding under the cap, but it was as distracting as her scent. She had smooth, olive-tinted skin, heavily-lashed light green eyes and a stubborn, dimpled chin. That face was enough to scatter any man’s wits, and that was before he noticed the plump lips that somehow contrived to look fetching, despite the fierce frown she wore.
“What, you’ve nothing to say now?” She waved a hand at him. “You were about to deliver a proper lecture, I believe. I beg you won’t let the fact I’m not a boy dissuade you from your scold.”
Tristan was rarely struck speechless, but it wasn’t every day one found the boy he’d been chasing—the boy who’d climbed to the roof of his neighbor’s townhouse and then back down again, as cool as you please—wasn’t a boy at all.
He…that is, she…was a woman.
A woman, not a girl, for all that she was a small, dainty thing, no higher than Tristan’s shoulder, and didn’t look to be above nineteen or twenty years old. Indeed, she was so resoundingly feminine, so delicate his instinct to protect those weaker than himself might have rushed to the fore if he hadn’t caught the spark of a formidable temper in her green eyes.
The lady was far from weak, and even farther from innocent.
It was just the reminder he needed before he made an utter fool of himself by offering to escort her home, or some other gallant nonsense. She might be female, but it didn’t make a damn bit of difference to him whether she was a villain, or a villainess.
She’d been hiding on Everly’s roof, disguised as a boy, waiting for her victim to emerge so she could follow him here—a feat she’d accomplished with the practiced ease of a born thief.
The lady was up to no good. The only question was, what sort of no good?
She regarded him with one slim eyebrow arched, waiting to see what he’d do next. Tristan liked to think he was a gentleman of some presence of mind, but it took every bit of sangfroid he could muster to say calmly, “You didn’t answer my question, miss. Why are you sneaking about London in the dark, and what are you doing at St. Clement Dane’s Church?”
“Why, saying my confession, sir.” Her full lips curved in a mocking smile. “What else does one do at church?”
Much to Tristan’s disgust, he found he had to make an effort to tear his gaze away from her mouth. “Perhaps I could accept that explanation, if it weren’t midnight.”
She leaned closer and whispered confidingly, “I thought it best not to wait until morning. I’m quite wicked, you see.”
Her whisper hit Tristan right in his lower belly, but his only outward reaction was a quirked eyebrow. “I’ve no doubt of that, but there’s the trifling matter of your never having entered the church. I found you skulking in the churchyard, if you recall.”
“Skulking? Goodness, that does sound wicked. But you see, then, why I’d be so anxious to confess my sins.”
So many lies, falling from such sweet lips was…disconcerting. Tristan had never seen a lady lie with such cool impunity before. He traded only in truth, yet there was something striking about her audaciousness. “Perhaps you’d like to confess your sins to me?” He’d have the truth out of her one way or another.
The green eyes went wide. “Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly do that, sir. Whatever will you think of me?”
“What, indeed? But that puts us at odds. I can’t release you until you’ve explained yourself.”
“No, I’m afraid not, sir. Unless, of course, you’re a vicar?” She swept an assessing gaze over him. “You don’t look like one. You’re far too…clean.”
“Clean?” That startled a laugh out of Tristan. “Are vicars commonly dirty? I would have thought it was just the opposite.”
“Not dirty, but neither are they so…polished and shiny as you are.” She cocked her head, studying him, then gave a careless shrug. “You look like an aristocrat. Rather high, I think, given your accent and the quality of your gloves. A viscount, perhaps, or an earl.”
It was on the tip of Tristan’s tongue to say he wasn’t anything of the sort, but that was no longer true, was it? He was, in fact, an earl. Not just Tristan Stratford anymore, and not a Bow Street Runner, but Lord Gray. His lordship, despite having never aspired to the title, and being uniquely unsuited to it.
But this wasn’t a ballroom, and he wasn’t writing his name on her dance card. This was a deserted graveyard in the middle of the night, and she was…well, he didn’t have any bloody idea what she was, but certainly not a lady, and very likely a criminal.
Tristan didn’t explain himself to criminals. They explained themselves to him, and it was time she was made to understand that. “Perhaps you’d rather give your confession to the magistrate?”
“The magistrate!” Her eyes narrowed to slits. “On what charge, sir? There’s no crime in visiting St. Clement Dane’s Church, is there?”
“No, but I think the magistrate might be interested in knowing you’re desecrating rooftops on Great Marlborough Street. Scaling a townhouse is a rather singular skill, and not one common in innocent young ladies.”
That got her attention. Her gaze caught his before skittering away.
“Look at me if you please, miss. What you were doing on Lord Everly’s roof? No sense in denying it. I saw you from my window, and followed you here. I took you for a thief, and I imagine the magistrate will, as well.”
At mention of Lord Everly’s roof her face paled, but if Tristan expected a confession to cleanse the lies from those plump lips, he was disappointed. “That would be a damning charge indeed, sir, but there’s the small matter of my not having stolen anything. Insignificant, but there you are.”
He gave her a cool smile. “Not this time, no, but given the rash of recent thefts in London, I feel certain the magistrate would choose to question you. But perhaps you’ve changed your mind, and would rather speak to me than him?”
She didn’t seem to find that option appealing. She remained stubbornly silent, but by now, Tristan had run out of patience with her. “Let’s try this one more time, shall we? Who did you follow here, and what do you want with Lord Everly?”
“Lord Everly? Why, not a thing.”
She might deny it all she liked, but Tristan could see he’d struck a nerve. “This is your last chance to tell me before I take you before the magistrate.”
“A kind offer, I’m sure, but I believe I’ll save my confession for my vicar.”
Tristan studied her, but not a crack appeared in that smooth façade. Whatever her reasons for tonight’s adventure, she was determined to keep them to herself.
Unfortunately for her, he was as determined to find them out as she was to hide them. “Very well.” He took her by the arm and half-turned, easing her away from the fence. “Perhaps you’ll be more forthcoming with the magistrate.”
He was hard-pressed to account for what happened next. He didn’t feel her twist out of his grip, but one moment he had a hand around her arm, and the next he was grasping at air. He whirled back toward her, but somehow in those few seconds of freedom, she’d slipped through the wrought iron bars of the fence, and was standing on the other side of it.
Tristan gaped at her, open-mouthed. “How the devil did you manage that?”
The bars were generously spaced as far as fences went, but not so much so it ever would have occurred to him she could slip between them. It would take some clever twisting and maneuvering to do it. Even now, with her on one side of the fence and him on the other, he couldn’t see how she’d managed it.
Scaling townhouses, climbing columns, scampering about on rooftops, and now slipping between the bars of a fence? Good Lord, who was this woman?
“As I said, I believe I’ll save my confessions for my vicar.” She dropped a curtsy so mocking it may as well have been a rude hand gesture, and backed away from the fence, out of his reach. “I wish you a pleasant evening, sir. Oh, I beg your pardon. I mean, my lord.”
Without another word she melted into the shadows, her delighted laugh echoing in the darkness. Oh, she was pleased with herself, wasn’t she? But the lady was premature in celebrating her escape, because Tristan would be damned if he let her get away from him.
He was much too big to pass between the rails as she had, but the fence wasn’t more than eight feet high. Tristan gave the wrought iron a shake, frowning when the rails gave a protesting squeak. A bit flimsy, but it would have to do, because there was only one way to go from here.
Up, and over.
His exalted lordship—the Earl of Great Marlborough Street, or whoever he was—was utterly furious. Pity, but that was what he got for creeping about and making things difficult for
her instead of squandering his fortune at the clubs or trifling with his mistresses, as an earl was meant to do.
Sophia tried to smother her laugh, but the look on his face when he realized she’d slipped through the bars of her makeshift prison was the most delicious thing she’d ever seen. She would have liked to draw that furrowed brow, the glittering fury in those cool gray eyes.
He did look rather like a painting—one of those terribly elegant ones, where the gentleman posed rakishly at the bottom of a grand staircase, with a half-dozen hunting dogs gathered at his feet. Yes, she could easily imagine him on a handsome stallion, clad in a pair of buckskin breeches and a dashing hunting jacket, on a quest to ruin some poor fox’s day.
He certainly didn’t belong here, though to his credit he knew his way about well enough to track his quarry from Great Marlborough Street to Westminster. His quarry being her, of all the devilish bad luck. But then he hadn’t succeeded in cornering her, had he?
Not for long, at any rate.
Like most hunters, he wasn’t reconciled to losing his game, but short of climbing the fence there was little he could do about it. He couldn’t come after her. The fence was quite high, and the wrought iron had been fashioned into spikes along the top edge. She hadn’t come across many aristocrats who could match her for agility, and this one wasn’t likely to be an exception, so—
Blast him, what was he doing?
Sophia stared, the hair on her arms rising in alarm as he grasped the iron rails and gave the fence a determined shake. If she didn’t know it to be impossible, she’d almost think he was testing it for stability before he—
Climbed the fence.
She watched in horror as he swung himself up and reached out to wrap two impossibly large hands around the spiked tops. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Perhaps the better question was, what was she doing? It was pure foolishness to stand about gaping and asking questions when it was plain to see he was about to clamber over the fence.
“If you intend to flee, I suggest you do so now.” His gray eyes met hers through the iron bars. “After such an impressive escape, I’d be disappointed indeed if you didn’t lead me on a chase.”
No, surely not! She couldn’t be so unlucky as to cross paths with the one aristocrat in London who could actually scale such a monstrous fence. Why, it was absurd, impossible, and yet even as she watched, open-mouthed, it was happening, his long legs making quick work of it, hauling himself closer and closer to the top…
Sophia retreated into the thick shadows of the graveyard behind her. Her muscles were tensed to run, and her mind was busily picking out the best route towards freedom, yet she stood as motionless as the gravestones in the graveyard at her back, unable to tear her gaze away from him.
His big, capable hands dwarfed the spikes at the top of the fence. The knuckles of his ungloved hand were scarred, and there were nicks and scratches on the back of it that were utterly at odds with his elevated rank in life. How could a gentleman with such fine gloves have such coarse hands?
Sophia wasted so much precious time staring at his hands, by the time she gathered her wits enough to move, he’d made it to the top of the fence and was seconds away from dropping down to the other side. They stared at each other as he balanced on the top edge, a predatory gleam in his eyes. “Do you suppose you can outrun me?”
Those gray eyes. Dear God, he looked like a wolf about to devour an entire herd of sheep, and he was coming after her.
If he’d been another sort of man, Sophia would have said he’d never catch her, but this man was quick, long-limbed, strong. He’d gotten over that fence as easily as if he’d been mounting a horse, and there was no reason for her to suppose he was any less accomplished a runner than he was a climber.
Worst of all, he was cunning. So cunning he’d followed her from Great Marlborough Street to St. Clement Dane’s without her knowing he was there. How had he managed it? She’d never blundered so badly before—
A thump echoed through the silent graveyard, the sound of feet hitting the ground, followed by a low chuckle. “I hope you’re as quick as you are clever.”
To Sophia’s everlasting shame, her knees trembled at the sight of him. Why, he was positively enormous! If he’d been wearing a billowing black cape and had a bloody dagger to hand, he’d be every inch the sinister Gothic villain.
“Because if I catch you…”
The anticipation in his voice, his unmistakable pleasure in that prospect…
A chill rushed over Sophia’s skin. There was only one sensible thing to do.
“You won’t escape me a second time.”
She didn’t pause to respond to his threats, but whirled around and fled into the graveyard, praying the darkness would swallow her. If it came down to who was the faster of the two of them, she was doomed. He had the longest legs she’d ever seen. She hadn’t a chance of outrunning him. Her only hope was to get far enough ahead of him she’d lose him in the shadows.
Fortunately, there was no shortage of shadows in the graveyard. Crooked headstones jutted from the earth like so many broken fingers, beckoning her forward. The clouds had thickened again, and the night air had turned heavy with the threat of rain, but a few pale rays of moonlight struggled free of the gloom, and Sophia could pick out a path before her—a way around the headstones that would keep her hidden until she reached the other side of the graveyard.
Crouching low, she weaved her way silently through the haphazard rows. Some of the mausoleums were still intact, their crosses straight, the statues of the Virgin still safe in their recessed nooks, holding court over the dead. But as she passed into the older part of the graveyard the carefully tended plots gave way to weeds strewn with bits of crumbled stone, the once-smooth marble now marred by damp, mossy cracks.
She paused when she reached a derelict white marble crypt, its iron door hanging partway across the arched entryway, teetering on its broken hinges. For an instant she was tempted to squeeze past the ruined gate and duck inside to hide from her pursuer, but if he happened to see her and follow her inside, she’d be trapped, and at his mercy.
So, she crept on, the scent of soil and decay rose into the air in the wake of her footsteps, but Sophia didn’t pause to remark it, nor did she look behind her, even when the heavy thud of his footsteps brought him so close, she imagined she could feel his hot breath on her neck.
Panic hovered on the edges of her consciousness, but she resisted the urge to bolt. She kept her gaze fixed on the street beyond the graveyard until she made it there by sheer force of will. She didn’t allow herself to think about how far she’d come, or how far she still had to go, but simply kept moving, ducking down narrow alleyways and pulling out every trick she’d ever learned to evade a pursuer.
This man, though, was no ordinary pursuer. He seemed to know every hidden alcove and crevice in London as well as she did, and his determination to catch her never flagged, his long legs easily closing whatever distance she managed to put between them.
But this wasn’t a game of distances. It was a game of cunning and stealth, and Sophia excelled at both. He was faster than she was, but she was wilier in the way of the pursued, who generally had a great deal more to lose than their pursuer.
Slowly, steadily she made her way to Beak Street, and from there to Kingly, then north as far as Tennison Court until Regent Street appeared before her, wide and open. Just to the west was Maddox Street, temptingly close, where Lady Clifford would be waiting for her, and Sophia might squeeze into Cecilia’s bed with Georgiana and Emma…
She paused in the shadows of a building at the corner of Beak and Regent’s Streets, listening, but it had been some time since she’d heard the echo of his footsteps behind her. Was it possible she’d lost him earlier, closer to Golden Square, or was he still there, lurking in the darkness, waiting for her to come out of hiding?
She was close, so very close. Her throat ached with a desperate yearning to be safely at home, but she’d made it this far by suppressing her reckless instincts and letting caution and good sense guide her steps.
No unnecessary risks, Sophia.
She crept from her hiding place and dashed across Regent’s Street, her heart pounding and her harsh breaths echoing in her ears. As soon as she reached the other side, she ducked into the shadows again and crouched down, shivers darting down her exposed back as she waited for a heavy hand to land on her shoulder, a palm to cover her mouth, a deep, masculine voice to curse in her ear.
But when she dared to look behind her, there was nothing. No pursuer in a billowing black cloak. No ghosts, no bloody daggers, no Gothic villain. No aristocrat with one glove, scarred hands and glittering gray eyes.
Regent’s Street was deserted.
Sophia didn’t move, but remained crouched in the gloom, gulping at the air, one breath after another until her heart ceased its panicked thrashing. Then she rose on shaking legs and dashed down New Burlington Road to Savile Row, then to Mill Street, and from there—finally, finally—to Maddox Street.
It wasn’t until she was mere steps from the entrance of the Clifford School that she realized she’d made a mistake.
A dreadful, dreadful mistake.
She saw his shadow first, ghostly and terrifying and growing more enormous against the white brick wall with every step he took toward her.
Sophia stared at him, dumb with shock.
No, it was impossible he could have known she was coming here, except somehow, he had known. She hadn’t lost him near Golden Square. He’d gotten by her without her noticing, and he’d been here all along, waiting for her.
For long, frozen moments, neither of them said a word. She backed away from him, knowing even as she did so it was hopeless. He was too close, too big, and he was standing between her and her only escape. Even so, she turned to run, but she hadn’t gone a step before that big, scarred hand closed around her elbow, stilling her. The sudden tug upset her balance, and she would have fallen if he hadn’t snaked an arm around her waist and hauled her back against a chest so unyielding, she might have been slammed against a wall.
“You are wicked, aren’t you?” His voice, so low and soft she might have thought she’d imagined it if his lips hadn’t brushed her ear. “You told me as much. I should have listened to you.”
So close, so close…
The words were a howl in her throat, but she had no breath for a howl, and they left her lips as a whisper.
“Indeed. But not close enough.” His arm tightened around her waist—not so tight it squeezed the breath from her, but tight enough to be menacing. “I should have realized sooner you were one of Lady Clifford’s…creatures.”
Creatures? Dear God, that didn’t sound promising. Sophia said nothing, but a drop of sweat trickled from her temple into the corner of her eye.
“You told the truth about one thing though, didn’t you? You aren’t after Lord Everly. You’re after Peter Sharpe.”
Sophia squeezed her eyes closed.
He knew. Lady Clifford, Peter Sharpe, Jeremy Ives…
Whoever this man was, he knew. Somehow, he’d put all the pieces together—
“Now, why would Lady Clifford have such a keen interest in Mr. Sharpe she’d direct one of her disciples to follow him? I can’t help but wonder, you see, if it has something to do with Jeremy Ives—”
“Take your hands off the lady. Now.”
Sophia’s eyes snapped open at the sound of the deep, familiar voice, and relief flooded through her, so intense she sagged against her captor. “Daniel.”
Her pursuer’s body had gone rigid, but when he spoke his voice was calm. “Brixton. I should have known you were lurking about.”
“Aye. You should have. Let go of the lady, my lord.”
The arm at her waist dropped, and the chest at her back disappeared with such suddenness Sophia stumbled.
“Come here, Miss Sophia.” Daniel Brixton held out a hand to her, but he never took his eyes off the man still looming behind her.
She took a hesitant step toward Daniel, but her legs were so wobbly she stumbled again, and he was obliged to catch her. “Daniel, thank God. I—”
“It’s all right, lass.” Daniel righted her with a nudge of his massive arm.
“I wouldn’t have hurt her, Brixton.”
Daniel’s lips stretched in a grim smile. “Of course not, my lord.”
Sophia turned to find her gray-eyed pursuer standing a few paces behind her, his hands tucked casually into his coat pockets, no longer the stuff of nightmares, but just a man now, albeit a big one.
Not, however, as big as Daniel Brixton, Lady Clifford’s most trusted servant.
No one was as big as Daniel.
“Go on inside now, Miss Sophia.” Daniel gave her a gentle push toward the door.
Sophia didn’t argue, but stumbled up the steps on trembling legs and hurled herself through the front door. She slammed it closed with deafening thud then fell against it, tears in her eyes, and her lungs burning.
“Sophia?” A voice drifted down into the entryway from above. “Is that you?”
Sophia glanced up and saw Cecilia hanging over the third-floor railing. She was clad in her night rail and she held a book in her hand, her finger marking the page.
“Where have you been? What’s kept you so long? We thought you…” Cecilia trailed off when she caught a good look at Sophia’s face. “Sophia? My goodness, what’s the matter?”
Sophia turned, her lungs still clamoring for air, and peered through the arched window above the door. Nothing but darkness met her gaze. Daniel and lord…lord…well, she hadn’t any idea what or who he was lord of, but he was gone.
No, no. Not vanished. Of course, he hadn’t vanished. Daniel had sent him away, that’s all. Aristocrats didn’t simply disappear into the mist like specters—
“Sophia?” Cecilia was watching her with wide eyes. “Are you all right? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I think I…I think I have.” Sophia slumped against the door, patting her chest to calm her racing heart.
“It’s all right, Cecilia. Go back to your bedchamber, love. Sophia will be up soon.” A cool voice broke the silence, and Sophia turned to find Lady Clifford standing in the doorway to the drawing room, a faint smile on her lips. “Well, Sophia. Here you are at last, dearest. I don’t suppose I need ask how your evening went. You look as if the devil himself has been chasing you.”
The devil, a specter, or a very determined, vigorous lord. Sophia wasn’t sure which, only that she’d never seen anyone run like that in her life. “Not a devil, my lady. An aristocrat.”
But no ordinary aristocrat. Aristocrats were idle, sluggish things, with bloated bellies from too much beef and port, not—
“An aristocrat?” Lady Clifford raised an eyebrow. “My, how intriguing.”
“That’s not quite how I’d describe it, my lady.” Terrifying, yes, and eerily reminiscent of a gothic horror novel, what with the moon shrouded by clouds, the deserted graveyard and the wicked, aristocratic villain.
Even now Sophia’s body was convinced it was still tearing through the streets of London, fleeing her pursuer. Her poor lungs felt like cracked bellows, and she was bathed in sweat from her temples to her toes. Her black tunic was pasted to her back, and her breeches…well, the less said about them the better, and no doubt her cap was still lying in the dirt in St. Clement Dane’s churchyard.
Her best cap, too, blast him, but then she’d gnawed on his glove, so perhaps they were even. “An aristocrat with the longest legs in London. He caught me just outside the door. Daniel came along and chased him off, but I doubt we’ve seen the last of him.” Sophia thought of those wolfish gray eyes, and her head fell against the door behind her with a defeated thump.
Lady Clifford’s gaze sharpened. “Who was he?”
Whoever—or whatever—he was, he had remarkably keen predatory instincts. Sophia didn’t often find herself outwitted, being as wily as a thieving street urchin with a fistful of gold coins, but this man had managed to catch her out neatly enough. “Lord something or other. Daniel knows who he is.”
“This is all very curious. Come along then, and tell me the rest.” Lady Clifford turned back into the drawing room. “Will you have some sherry?”
“Yes, please.” Sophia’s throat was as dry as dust, and the inside of her mouth tasted like ashes.
Lady Clifford perched on the edge of a green silk settee, reached for a silver tray in front of her and poured a modest measure of sherry into a crystal tumbler. “Here you are, my love. This will settle your nerves.”
“My nerves might require the rest of the bottle.” But Sophia didn’t take up her glass, nor did she join Lady Clifford on the settee. Instead she paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, mumbling to herself as she tried to make sense of what she’d seen tonight before that tangle with the Earl of Great Marlborough Street.
After a bit more pacing, Sophia turned to face Lady Clifford and announced, “You were right all along. This whole business is suspicious from start to end.”
Lady Clifford sighed. “Our business so often is, isn’t it?”
“Someone’s been telling lies, my lady.” The sort of lies that led to an innocent man’s neck in a noose.
Not just anyone’s neck, either, but Jeremy’s.
Jeremy Ives had appeared on the doorstep of No. 26 Maddox Street years ago, begging for work, a ragged little street boy with big, guileless blue eyes. He’d won Lady Clifford over with those eyes, though to this day she insisted he simply happened to come along when she needed a new kitchen boy.
Sophia’s throat tightened. Her own heart wasn’t the soft, pliable sort, but from the first moment she looked into Jeremy’s sweet face, that frozen organ had melted like an icicle in the sun.
Jeremy wasn’t just her friend. He was the closest thing she had to a brother.
He wasn’t a pupil—the Clifford School didn’t accept boys—but Sophia had taken it upon herself to teach Jeremy his numbers and letters. It had been a painstaking process, but now at age eighteen he could work simple sums and read from children’s books.
Lady Clifford patted the seat beside her. “Come, Sophia. Sit here with me and drink your sherry. You look as if you’re about to succumb to a fit of the vapors.”
Sophia snorted, but she crossed the room and sank down on the settee. She took up her sherry, then set it down again without tasting it. “We all knew it to be a lie from the start, of course. Jeremy Ives is no more a murderer than I’m a debutante.”
Jeremy had been locked behind the great stone walls of Newgate for six weeks now, and they hadn’t heard a word about him since. Even Lady Clifford, with all her connections had been denied access to him.
Panic threatened, and Sophia curled her hands into fists to stop their trembling.
For all they knew, Jeremy could be—
“No, of course he’s not a murderer.” Lady Clifford squeezed Sophia’s hands until her fingers loosened. “Tell me what you saw tonight. Did you go to Great Marlborough Street again?”
Sophia drew in a calming breath. “I did, yes. I waited on the roof of Lord Everly’s pediment for Sharpe to come out, and then I followed him.”
“The roof? My goodness, child. How did you manage that?” Lady Clifford handed Sophia her sherry, nodding with approval when she took a sip.
“It was easier than you’d think, what with all the fences and railings and columns everywhere.” Sophia’s lips curved in a sly smile. “All it took was a bit of climbing, and I had an excellent hiding place.”
“You know what else is an excellent hiding place? The shadow of a tree, or around a corner, or across the street.” Lady Clifford tutted. “Unnecessary risk, Sophia. Not but what I admit it was clever of you, especially since you don’t appear to have tumbled over the edge. So, there you were on Lord Everly’s roof. What then?”
Sophia sighed, but she didn’t bother defending her rooftop exploit. She wouldn’t be going back to Lord Everly’s roof, not with his lordship’s meddlesome neighbor lurking at his windows. “I waited until I heard the door open, and when I peeked out, there he was.”
“Just like that? How kind of Peter Sharpe to be so accommodating,” Lady Clifford murmured, a faint smile tugging at her lips.
“Oh, he was—even more accommodating than you think. I followed him, and where do you suppose he went, my lady?”
Lady Clifford’s smile faded. “St. Clement Dane’s Church.”
“Yes. Astonishing coincidence, isn’t it?”
“Quite.” Lady Clifford set her glass on the table with a sharp click. “Not suspicious in itself, perhaps, but it is a bit strange Mr. Sharpe would return to St. Clement Dane’s at night after he witnessed such a ghastly crime take place there.”
Six weeks ago, a Bow Street Runner named Henry Gerrard had been stabbed to death in front of St. Clement Dane’s Church. Peter Sharpe was the only witness to the crime, and he’d identified Jeremy—their Jeremy—as Gerrard’s killer.
Dear, sweet, blue-eyed Jeremy was now an accused murderer.
A murderer, and a thief. The Bow Street magistrate had come to the wise conclusion that Jeremy— a young man incapable of doing all but the simplest of tasks—was part of a vicious gang of thieves terrorizing London. Jeremy, in league with criminals so clever they’d been thumbing their noses at the law since the thefts began earlier this year.
Henry Gerrard was meant to have unraveled the mystery of Jeremy’s identity, and Jeremy to have slit Gerrard’s throat for his trouble. Sharpe, who’d been loitering in the doorway of St. Clement Dane’s Church at the time, claimed to have witnessed the gory scene unfold right before his eyes.
Now here was Sharpe, at St. Clement Dane’s again tonight.
“You’d think he’d stay away, wouldn’t you? But Mr. Sharpe didn’t appear to be at all concerned for his safety. He didn’t skulk about, or make any attempt to hide himself. He marched right to the front of the church, as bold as you please, and hung about there as if it were the most natural thing in the world.”
“Hmmm.” Lady Clifford tapped her lip, thinking. “How long did he stay?”
“Long enough for me to suspect he was waiting for someone. He had that look about him, too—pacing about, peering over his shoulder. He checked his pocket watch three times, as if impatient for someone to appear.”
“Did anyone appear? Did you see anyone else?”
“Well, yes.” Sophia huffed out a breath, furious all over again at the way the evening had unfolded. Peter Sharpe had gone to St. Clement Dane’s Church for some nefarious purpose. She was certain of it. She’d been close to finding out what when the cursed Lord of Great Marlborough Street, who should have been off being an earl instead of sneaking about after her, had snatched her away. “But he wasn’t there for Peter Sharpe.”
“Who, then?” Lady Clifford asked, her brow furrowing.
“He, ah…I’m afraid he was there for me. Lord Everly has dreadfully nosy neighbors, you see. It seems this gentleman spied me from a window which looks out onto Lord Everly’s pediment, and took it into his head to follow me when I went after Mr. Sharpe.” Sophia snatched up her sherry and downed the contents in one swallow. “He plucked me up, dragged me into the graveyard, and threatened me with the magistrate.”
Lady Clifford was giving her a strange look. “Lord Everly’s neighbor, you say? A tall gentleman, rather forbidding, with dark hair?”
“He’s taller than any aristocrat I’ve ever seen, and certainly much larger than any aristocrat needs to be. He did have dark hair, yes, and absurdly long legs. Rather alarming, taken all together.” Even now Sophia hadn’t fully recovered from the horrid sight of him coming over the fence.
“Well, that is a surprise. I heard he’d retired to his estate in Oxfordshire after his brother’s death. I wonder what he’s doing back in London?”
Sophia’s mouth fell open. “What, you mean to say you know who he is?”
“My dear child, everyone knows who he is. He’s Tristan Stratford, otherwise known as the—”
“The Ghost of Bow Street.” Sophia’s empty glass slid from her numb fingers and dropped onto the silver tray. She patted at her chest to calm a heart now pounding with delayed panic, and spluttered, “Dear God, the Ghost of Bow Street chased me across Westminster tonight.”
But of course, it was him. Who else could have tracked her all the way from Great Marlborough Street to St. Clement Dane’s without her noticing him? How many aristocrats in London could scale an eight-foot fence in under a minute? Who but the Cursed Ghost of Cursed Bow Street could have chased her such a distance, and through every back alley in London?
Naturally, Lord Everly’s neighbor must turn out to be the Ghost of Bow Street.
The shock on his face when she’d slipped through the fence, the fury when she’d taunted him from the other side…
Sophia shuddered. The more arrogant the gentleman, the more fragile his ego. The Ghost of Bow Street was likely more arrogant than most, and not accustomed to being challenged. If he happened upon her again, he’d certainly come after her, and he wouldn’t let her escape him a second time.
“I can’t fathom why Tristan Stratford is in London at all. His elder brother died recently, leaving Stratford the Earl of Gray. He’s resigned his place in the Bow Street Runners, and if the gossips have it right, he’s not pleased about any of it. Apparently, he’s never wanted the title.” Lady Clifford shrugged. “It’s his now, however, whether he wants it or not.”
“He’s Lord Gray.” He really was an earl, then. An earl, and a ghost, and a Bow Street Runner, all at once. God in heaven, what a disaster. Of all the men whose notice she might have caught, why did it have to be his?
He knew her first name, where she lived, and he’d already figured out she’d been following Peter Sharpe tonight. He was so stealthy he was more apparition than aristocrat, and she’d done a remarkably thorough job of making herself memorable.
Just like that, any hope she’d had of avoiding him crumbled like so much dust in her hand.
Oh, why had she climbed onto Lord Everly’s roof tonight? She’d known she could be seen from the upper floors of the townhouse next door, but it had been so silent, and without a glimmer of light to be seen. What business did Lord Gray have, wandering about in the dark and peering out his windows?
Sophia groaned and covered her face with her hands. Dear God, what a mess.
“Now, there’s to be none of that.” Lady Clifford tapped her on the head. “Go on up to your bedchamber, dearest, and put this out of your mind for the rest of the evening.”
“Put it out of my mind?” How could she do that, knowing the Ghost of Bow Street was after her? “It’s too late for that, my lady.”
Lady Clifford gave her a distracted smile. “My dear child, it’s never too late for anything. Now, off you go. Your friends are waiting for you.”
Sophia stumbled to her feet. There wasn’t a blessed thing she could do about Lord Gray right now. She’d think it through tonight, and come up with something. “Goodnight, my lady.”
Lady Clifford patted her cheek. “Goodnight, my love.”
Sophia dragged herself up the stairway, every muscle protesting. She wanted her bed, but when she reached the hallway outside the bedchamber she shared with Cecilia, Georgiana and Emma, she paused.
“‘Farewell all,’ sighed she, ‘this last look and we shall be separated forever!’ Tears followed her words, and sinking back, she resigned herself to the stillness of sorrow.” Cecilia, who was reading aloud, gave a dramatic sigh.
“She can’t resign herself yet,” Georgiana objected. “It’s only the first page!”
There was the soft crinkle of paper, then Cecilia’s voice again. “‘He now seized the trembling hand of the girl, who shrunk aghast with terror—”
“Why are they always shrinking?” Georgiana demanded. “I’ve never shrunk aghast in terror in my life.”
“Hush, will you? ‘Shrunk aghast in terror,’” Cecilia repeated in a louder voice. “‘She sunk at his feet, and with supplicating eyes that streamed with tears, implored him to have pity on her.’ My goodness. That does sound promising, doesn’t it?”
“I do like it when their eyes stream with tears,” Emma allowed.
Sophia heard more pages turning, then Cecilia said, “Oh, listen to this! There’s a ruffian, a pistol pointed at someone’s breast, and a scuffle with some banditti coming up. Also, it looks as if Adeline is going to fall dreadfully ill with fever, so that’s something to look forward to.”
“What do you suppose banditti is, precisely?” Emma asked. “Have either of you ever seen banditti?”
“In London?” Georgiana scoffed. “Certainly not. There are no banditti in London, only in Italy.”
Sophia leaned closer to the door. They were reading Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, despite the late hour, and in flagrant disobedience of the society’s rules. She burst through the door with the sternest frown she could muster. “You were meant to wait for me before starting the book! Those are the rules.”
Three pairs of guilty eyes—blue, hazel and brown—shot toward her.
“All members must agree on a book, all chosen titles are to be read aloud, and no reading shall take place unless all four members of the society are present.” Sophia ticked the points off on her fingers. “Shame on all of you.”
“We’ve only just dipped into the first chapter a little bit.” Cecilia was sitting on the bed, the book balanced on her knees. Georgiana was by her side, and Emma at her feet.
Sophia raised a brow. “You’re only into the first chapter, and the heroine is already bathed in tears, and resigned to the stillness of sorrow?”
“Yes! Isn’t that wonderful?” Cecilia rubbed her hands together. “I think it’s going to be a very good one.”
“Have any of the virgins swooned yet?” Sophia asked. “Unless the virgins swoon in the first chapter, it won’t be as good as the last book.”
“Well, no, but I believe there’s a ruined abbey.” Emma sounded a trifle doubtful. “Surely a ruined abbey is a good sign? There’s usually a ghost or two or a headless corpse when there’s a ruined abbey.”
Sophia shrugged. “Swooning virgins are better. There were loads of swooning virgins in A Sicilian Romance.”
Georgiana gave a derisive snort. “Swooning virgins. What nonsense.”
Sophia and Emma nodded in agreement. All four of them were mad for gothic romances, but with the exception of Cecilia, who had a heart wider than the Thames, they adored and
disdained the heroines in equal measure. Adeline St. Pierre-de Montalt, heroine of The Romance of the Forest wasn’t likely to be an exception, no matter how engrossing her story. Soon enough they’d find themselves reacting to her with a mixture of breathless anticipation, amusement and mockery.
Swooning virgins were all very well in romantic novels, but a lady fragile enough to fall into a swoon in London would soon find her pocket picked, her person assaulted, and her limbs crushed under carriage wheels and horses’ hooves. Sophia in particular found it difficult to sympathize with a heroine who was continually either fainting, or bursting into floods of tears.
As for cruel villains and bloody daggers…
Sophia thought of Henry Gerrard, dying in the dirt in St. Clement Dane’s churchyard, and a wave of sorrow washed over her. Blood and murder were only diverting until they became real.
“We did try and wait for you to come, Sophia, but you know Cecilia can’t resist a romance.” Emma cast a reproachful look at Cecilia.
Cecilia bit her lip and turned her big brown eyes on Sophia. “We should have waited. I’m sorry, Sophia.”
No one—not man, woman, god or mortal—could resist the plea in those soft eyes. “It’s all right. Never mind, dearest.”
“We’ll start again, shall we?” Georgiana bounded off the bed and rushed across the room to seize Sophia in a hug.
Sophia let Georgie tug her toward the bed and flopped down, joining her three friends in an untidy pile of limbs. Emma twisted a lock of Sophia’s dark hair around a long, elegant finger. “Oh, your hair is wet. Is it raining?”
Sophia rested her head on Emma’s calf with a contented sigh. “Not anymore. It was earlier.”
“What in the world is that smell?” Georgiana pressed the back of her hand to her nose. “It smells like Gussie when his fur is wet.”
Gussie was Lady Clifford’s pinch-faced pug. He was dreadfully ugly, and had an unfortunate chronic nasal condition that made him snort. To add insult to these injuries, he’d been saddled with the name Gussie in his puppyhood, before anyone realized he was, in fact a boy dog. By then, the name had already stuck. Despite these drawbacks, he was much beloved at the Clifford School, especially by Emma, who was fonder of animals than she was of people.
“It’s not so bad as all that.” Sophia lifted her tunic to her nose for an experimental sniff, then winced. “Bad enough, though.”
“You look as if you’ve been hiding in a gutter.” Cecilia rose from the bed and crossed to the basin, then paused and turned back to Sophia with a doubtful look. “You haven’t been, have you?”
It was a fair question, given Sophia had hidden in gutters before. “No, not tonight, but I did spend some time on Lord Everly’s roof.”
The room went quiet for a moment as Cecilia, Emma and Georgiana exchanged looks.
“Is there any word of Jeremy?” Cecilia asked, an anxious frown on her brow.
Sophia bit her lip. Lady Clifford discouraged them from sharing information about their assignments with each other. The less her friends knew about Jeremy’s predicament the safer it was for all of them, yet Sophia knew they were as concerned about Jeremy as she was.
“No change there, I’m afraid.”
Sophia didn’t offer anything more than that, and her friends fell silent again until Georgiana approached Sophia with a damp towel in her hand. “Here. Take this, and give me your tunic.”
“What’s Lord Everly’s roof like?” Emma asked. “Nice and quiet, I imagine.”
“Not as quiet as you’d think. Not as private, either.” Sophia peeled her black tunic over her head. “As it happens, Lord Everly’s neighbor saw me up there and chased me from one end of London to the other.”
The other girls looked at each other, then back at Sophia. “Chased you?” Emma asked. “No one ever chases you. Not for long, anyway. Is Lord Everly’s neighbor a racehorse?”
“No, he’s a Bow Street Runner.” Sophia hesitated. “He’s, er…he’s Tristan Stratford.”
Two mouths dropped open at once.
“The Ghost of Bow Street?” Emma breathed. “Lord Everly’s neighbor is the Ghost of Bow Street?”
Sophia sighed. “Unfortunately, yes. If I’d known, I never would have climbed onto Everly’s roof in the first place.”
“Who in the world is the Ghost of Bow Street?” Cecilia looked from Emma to Sophia with a puzzled frown. “I’ve never heard of him.”
“Only you would ask that question, Cecilia.” Georgiana leaned over and grabbed a gossip sheet from the table beside the bed and handed it to Cecilia.
“I don’t care a whit for the gossip. It’s a waste of…” Cecilia’s voice fell away, the rest of her lecture left unsaid as she stared at the drawing in front of her. “That’s the Ghost of Bow Street? My goodness.”
Emma took the paper from Cecilia and stuck it under Sophia’s nose. “That’s him? That’s the man who chased you?”
Sophia glanced down at the page. Yes, it was him, all right. The drawing hadn’t properly captured the slash of his cheekbones, the sternness of his lips, the severe, aristocratic elegance of his face, but there was no mistaking him.
For better or worse, he wasn’t the sort of man one forgot. “Yes, that’s him.”
Emma gave her the slightly crooked smile that made every man she came across her devoted slave. “I would have let him catch me.”
Sophia thought of his cool gray eyes and the pressure of his hand against her mouth, and a shiver tickled down her spine. “No, I don’t think you would have. Not if you’d seen him for yourself. But never mind Lord Gray. Come, Cecilia. I want to hear about the banditti.”
Cecilia opened the book and read to the end of the first chapter, then she turned down the lamp and they tucked themselves into their beds. Her friends were soon asleep, but Sophia lay awake for a long time, listening to the soft sounds of peaceful slumber around her.
Ghosts and headless corpses, swooning virgins and bloody daggers…
A man lying in the dirt in St. Clement Dane’s churchyard, his life’s blood gushing from his slit throat, and Jeremy, an innocent man—no, a boy, really—taken up for the crime, and facing a ghastly death at the end of a noose.
Do you suppose you can outrun me?
Sophia tugged the coverlet tighter around her shoulders, but she couldn’t suppress a shudder at the memory of those huge hands gripping the wrought iron spikes, the pale scars on his knuckles, the icy challenge in his gray eyes.
I’d be disappointed indeed if you didn’t lead me on a chase…
She rolled over onto her side and squeezed her eyes closed, but sleep eluded her until at last she threw the coverlet aside and crept to the window.
The rain had returned. The street below was damp, but aside from the muted patter of the drops on the pavement, all was silent and still. Sophia stood there for a long time, staring into the darkness before drawing the drapes across the window with a determined tug. She returned to her bed, and this time when she closed her eyes, they remained closed.
She was no swooning virgin, and she wasn’t afraid of ghosts.