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“Don’t assume every young lady is in need of rescue. Some of us wish to be a heroine who fights her own battles.”
—Journal of Clary Ruthven
Whitechapel repulsed Gabriel Adamson.
Grime and smoke hung so thick in the air that he could taste grit on his tongue. Narrow lanes conspired to trap the neighborhood’s fetid stench, and its tenements loomed above his head as if they’d crush him under the weight of their cramped, miserable inhabitants.
Now that he could afford proper togs for the first time in his life, he took care selecting the finest fabrics for his tailored suits and shirts. Today, he feared every stitch he’d donned would reek from the East End’s noxious stew of ash and muck.
The rain had been on and off and on all morning, but the heavens showed no mercy in a place like this. The sky opened the moment he alighted from the hansom cab, fat drops pelting his hat like the clatter of horses’ hooves on cobblestones.
Tugging up his fur-lined collar, he lengthened his stride and ducked under the awning of a grimy-windowed shop. He stared across the lane at Number 12 Doncaster.
The building slouched toward the street, its wooden frame worn by time and eaten away by moisture. The brick buildings buttressing each side were smart and modern by comparison, though their red bricks had been smoked to an oily black too.
As he gazed up at the house, echoes rang in his head. Raging shouts and desperate cries. The thud of fists on flesh. Bone meeting bone.
Peg Delaney was a cruel woman, but she was nobody’s fool. Gabe doubted she’d still be eking out a living in the last place he’d seen her. This venture was a fool’s errand.
He drew in a ragged breath, biting back a curse.
At least he’d had the good sense not to tell Sara of his trip. He couldn’t bear to dash his sister’s hopes, nor could he stand watching her fret over their mother’s fate when she should be focusing on her future and finally securing a bit of long-delayed happiness.
When the rain slowed to a sparse patter, he dashed across the narrow lane and knocked at the door. No answer came, and he suspected the landlord was far in his cups by this hour. The man had always been a wastrel. Trying the latch, he found the door unlocked and stepped into the dark, musty vestibule, choking on memories and stale air.
A discordant strain of music—a bow scratching at violin strings—echoed from upstairs. Gabe started up the worn slats. The wood creaked under his weight.
His mother’s door stood ajar, and nausea clawed its way up his throat when he caught a hint of her cheap perfume on the air. Bracing a gloved fist against the wood, he pushed inside and held his breath. Amid dried leaves and a cascade of cobwebs, the stench of rot turned his gut inside out.
Except for a single overturned chair, the room contained no furniture. Nothing hung on the walls. No personal effects decorated the space. She’d abandoned this place long ago, and no one had given a damn about the miserable lodging room since. Water ran down the walls, leaking from loose roof tiles.
Gabe strode to the back of the room and gripped a moldy edge of loosened wallpaper. Peeling back the paper revealed a gaping hole in the plaster. Reaching inside, he scraped his fingers around in the dust and dark until he felt a rounded shape. He tugged the object forward, grasping the tiny horse head in his hand.
Years ago, he’d found the knight chess piece in the gutter and had squirreled it away like a treasure. Even now, the chiseled quartz glinted in the weak light from the room’s single, cracked window.
“Wot you after?” A woman’s gruff bark sounded from the threshold, and Gabe turned, fists balled, muscles tensed.
“Mrs. Niven.” She’d been wrinkled and gray when Gabe was young. Now his old neighbor had the aspect of a wizened crone. If wizened crones wielded a violin bow in one hand and a revolver in the other.
Squinting until her eyelids were little more than creased slits, she shuffled forward. “Is it you?”
Gabe’s pulse slowed as he watched the old woman’s drooping mouth curl up in a toothless smile.
“Ragin’ Boy.” She drew close, reeking of smoke and soiled wool. “Never fought I’d see those eyes of yours lookin’ back at me again. ’Ow many years gone now, child? Five? Ten?”
Nine and a half years. He’d left Whitechapel at sixteen and never looked back. Never intended to step foot in the godforsaken place again either.
Tipping her chin, Mrs. Niven examined Gabe down the length of her bulbous nose. “Judgin’ by those fine togs you’re sportin’, I’d wager you’re not frowin’ punches for your supper these days, are ya boy?”
“Where is she?” He wasn’t here for small talk.
“Peg? ’Aven’t seen ’er in ages, boy.”
Gabe flexed his fingers. He fought the urge to throttle the old woman every time she called him boy. Mrs. Niven was thinking of another person. A child discarded long ago. An imp who woke angry every morning and spent his days fighting, striking out at anyone, anything that stood in his way. Bloodthirsty men had once had a use for him, betting on his skills in the ring. But he’d escaped. Taken a new name. Made a new life. Never looked back.
“You’ve no idea where she’s gone?” He couldn’t lose sight of why he’d come. If he thought of anything else, the memories would break in, and he’d lose control. Control was how he survived. Imposing order on chaos had been his salvation.
“Not a clue.” Mrs. Niven choked before bursting into a racking, hollow cough. “Wot you need ’er for?”
“I don’t need ’er at all.” Neither did Sara. This ridiculous venture was what happened when he gave in to sentiment. He needed to stop making that mistake. Reaching into his coat pocket, he extracted a silver sixpence. The woman’s rheumy eyes widened, nearly bursting from their sockets, when Gabe deposited the coin in her grimy palm. “Don’t drink it all at once, Mrs. Niven.”
He started across the leaf-strewn floor, stopped, and turned back. After extracting a calling card from his waistcoat pocket, he offered the cream rectangle to her. “Send word if you hear anything of my mother.”
Mrs. Niven was decidedly less eager to claim the slip of paper than she’d been to take his money, but she finally hobbled forward and retrieved the card from his fingers.
Gabe didn’t look back as he descended the stairs and made his way onto the rain-drenched street.
Let his mother find them if she wished. Nothing would ever compel him to return to this godforsaken place.
The downpour had diminished to a drizzle as he started down the lane, heading for the busier cross street, praying for a stray cab rattling by in search of a fare. Strangely, this area of Whitechapel had begun to transform. Run-down buildings had been replaced by newer brick structures, and a few thriving shops lined the streets. Outside of a tea room, the pavement had been painted in whitewash, and chairs were arranged outside, awaiting diners and a drier, sunnier day. If he’d possessed no memory of these streets from a decade before, he could almost be lulled into believing the neighborhood a respectable one.
At the precise moment such hopeful nonsense teased at his thoughts, a screech rent the air. A rowdy brothel had once thrived around the corner, but the sound echoing in the narrow lane wasn’t one of pleasure. More like agony. A man’s bleat emerged again, high-pitched and pained.
Gabe’s body responded like a soldier’s on the eve of battle—muscles taut, instincts sharp, pulse throbbing in his ears.
“You bloody bitch!” the man squeaked.
Gabe rolled his shoulders and tugged off his gloves. Whoever the man was, he’d chosen to menace the fairer sex, and Gabe never had been able to stomach a bully. Too many times as a child, he’d watched helplessly as his mother cowered on the losing side of a man’s fists.
Until he was old and strong enough to beat them off himself.
Rounding the corner, he expected to find a man overpowering a woman with his height and strength. A sight he’d seen a thousand times in these streets. Instead, he spotted a man bent at the waist, clutching his groin, glaring toward the entrance of the Fisk Academy for Girls, according to the sign above the door.
“I’ll smash that pretty face of yours,” the wounded blighter cried.
“I don’t think you will,” a feminine voice countered. “And don’t let me see you darken this doorstep ever again.”
A croquet mallet emerged through the doorway first, the cylinder of wood painted with jaunty blue stripes around the edges. Purple ruffles came next, the edge of a skirt kicking up as a diminutive woman stomped out to face the wounded man.
Gabe rushed forward to assist her and jerked to a dead stop.
Pert nose. Guinea-gold hair. Wavy strands glinting in a beam of afternoon sun that managed to break through the clouds.
He recognized her, yet he squinted, unwilling to believe the evidence of his eyes. Queen Victoria parading down the sodden streets of Whitechapel wouldn’t have shocked him more. What business could the young woman have in this soot-smeared place?
Check out the other books in the
- Rules for a Rogue
- A Study in Scoundrels
- How to Woo a Wallflower
Rules for a Rogue Synopsis:
Kit Ruthven’s Rules (for Rogues)
#1 Love freely but guard your heart, no matter how tempting the invader.
#2 Embrace temptation, indulge your sensual impulses, and never apologize.
#3 Scorn rules and do as you please. You are a rogue, after all.
Rules never brought anything but misery to Christopher “Kit” Ruthven. After rebelling against his controlling father and leaving the family’s etiquette empire behind, Kit has been breaking every one imaginable for the past four years. He’s enjoyed London’s sensual pleasures, but he’s failed to achieve the success he craves as London’s premier playwright. When his father dies, Kit returns to the countryside and is forced back into the life he never wanted. Worse, he must face Ophelia Marsden, the woman he left behind years before.
After losing her father, Ophelia has learned to rely on herself. To maintain the family home and support her younger sister, she tutors young girls in deportment and decorum. But her pupils would be scandalized if they knew she was also the author of a guidebook encouraging ladies to embrace their independence.
As Kit rediscovers the life, and the woman, he left behind, Ophelia must choose between the practicalities she never truly believed in, or the love she’s never been able to extinguish.
A Study in Scoundrels Synopsis:
Sophia Ruthven is the epitome of proper behavior. On paper at least, as long as that paper isn’t from one of the lady detective stories she secretly pens. She certainly isn’t interested in associating with the dashing Jasper Grey, the wayward heir to the Earl of Stanhope, and one of the stage’s leading men. But when she learns Grey’s younger sister Liddy has gone missing, she can’t deny her desire to solve the mystery…or her attraction to the incorrigible scoundrel.
Responsibility isn’t something Grey is very familiar with. On the boards and in the bedroom, he lives exactly how he wants to, shunning all the trappings of respectability and society. Grey knows he should avoid the bewitching Sophia, but he’s never been able to say no to what he wants. And having Sophia in his arms and his bed is quickly becoming the thing he wants the most.
As Sophia and Grey’s search for Liddy continues across the English countryside, can this scoundrel convince a proper lady that he’s actually perfect for her or will their adventure leave them both heartbroken?
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