Samuel Morrison’s mind was racing, but that was not unusual. His mind was always racing. Even on this most beautiful morning as he strolled down Bond Street at the height of a shopping day. His thoughts wandered to Lady Pierson, who had just slipped a note to the flushed and very young Mr. Cooper. Then it hopped to Lord Simpleton, er, Simpson, who appeared to have left his home without his hat. Or a clean shirt. Ah, that was because he was coming from the brothel, Samuel realized, mainly from the unmistakable scent of smoke and perfume that trailed in the man’s wake. And from the man’s smile. Obviously, poor Lord Simpson was arrears in his funds, because he was walking down this side stretch of Bond Street rather than hailing a cab from Nightingale Street.
Samuel’s mind wandered on, noting everything from the style of one person’s clothing to the rubbish on the street. He did his best to ignore his thoughts. It was really the only way to survive without complete lunacy, but his mind kept chattering away, this time about the dark-haired boy with the bad cough who was trying to get up the nerve to pick someone’s pocket. About four yards away, a gypsy woman was watching closely, most likely as the boy’s instructor. Not mother and son, he realized, because of the different facial features. More likely from the same gypsy family, though, because of a certain twist of the head. An aunt, he guessed.
Following their gazes, Samuel realized their victim was likely to be Lord Histlewight, who had obviously just returned from Northampton because his shoes were new. The fine stitching of his footwear proclaimed them as Northampton made. Unlike Samuel’s own; his feet had lately begun to throb from his very cheap and poorly made shoes.
With a sudden veer, Samuel decided to turn left rather than suffer the moral choice of preventing a pickpocketing crime or keeping a silent witness. Normally he would have warned the child off, but the boy was thin and ill and would probably make better use of the coin than Histlewight ever would.
But a moment later, Samuel spun on his heel and turned back. His sense of justice prevented him from allowing any crime, even against an ass like Histlewight, to go unchecked. He made it to the street barely two feet ahead of the boy. Quick as he could, he grabbed the child’s arm and hauled him up. It was pitifully easy. The boy was stick thin and too frightened even to scream, so Samuel had ample time to speak harshly into his ear.
“No thieving today, my boy. There’s a butcher shop seven blocks that way.” He jerked his head in the right direction. “Talk smart and polite to Mr. Braun, and compliment his smoked bacon. He’s extraordinarily vain about his pork. The man’s looking for a new apprentice, as the last one ran off. No matter what your aunt says, thieving leads to the gallows or worse. Not every man is blind or stupid. Someone always sees.”
He held the child a moment longer. The boy was shaking in terror, but Samuel didn’t release him until he had caught the aunt’s eye a block away. The boy was too young to know better, but the older one would see that Samuel would not be crossed on this. It was a lie, of course. They could move their business two blocks over and he would not be there to prevent it. But perhaps it was an illusion that would hold. Perhaps the woman would make the right choice, apprentice the boy to the butcher, and turn from their life of thieving.
So he held the woman’s dark gaze and whispered a quiet prayer on the child’s behalf. And then he let the boy go. The kid dashed away on wobbly legs, catching up to his aunt before tugging the woman away down toward the butcher. Perhaps he had done a good deed, he thought, though he doubted the lesson would stick. Gypsies, as a rule, did not like to be tied to regular jobs or regular homes.
Meanwhile, his mind had tired of the gypsies and wandered off to notice other things. Mrs. Worthington had lost some weight. She had a new charge this season—two girls fresh from the nursery. One was pretty, the other canny. He gleaned that in an instant from their clothing, the way they moved, and the way the canny one kept her head down but her eyes always roving. Her gaze stopped on him and she flashed him a flirtatious smile, but he was already turning away down a side street to avoid having to chatter with the females. Meanwhile, he noticed that the meat pie cart had a weak spoke on its left side wheel. And perhaps he ought to check his own pocket to be sure it hadn’t been picked while he was about his good deed.
He shoved his hand into his pocket and was relieved to feel that his few meager coins were safe. He had enough to last him until quarter day, but not much beyond that. Perhaps he ought to avail himself of his own advice, he thought. Find a regular job, focus on a regular task as so many younger sons were forced to do. He didn’t truly need the money, except for right now. His investments would return handsomely in the next few years. But for the moment, a job would relieve his cash flow difficulties and, much more important, give him something to do.
Then the most extraordinary thing happened. His mind noticed one thing more before falling absolutely silent. It was a woman with a too thin build and above average looks. She was carrying a child and a satchel while being bodily evicted from a shoemaker’s shop. No one else noticed what he saw, though there were a dozen people watching the spectacle. She was arguing, the child was crying, and none of the constabulary appeared to care despite her large gestures and vehement protests. Only he saw that all her noise was for show, covering the fact that she had just tossed a small bag at a pile of rubbish.
It was a poorly tied bag with thin seams. As it landed, to wedge between the brick wall and leather scraps, the stitching burst and something distinctive tumbled out. Something that silenced the noise in his head and left his thoughts utterly speechless.
She’d just discarded Lord Winston’s left foot.
Penny Shoemaker was furious. And not the kind of fury that made tears burn in her eyes. This anger was like a living thing under her skin that drove her to madness. If someone had given her a knife right then, she would have easily sunk it hilt deep in the constable’s throat. A tiny part of her was horrified by that, but it was only a tiny part lost beneath the weight of anger fueled by humiliation.
She was being thrown out of her home. While she’d been quietly feeding Tommy a real breakfast of bread and eggs—their first in weeks—, armed men had banged on her door. She’d picked up her nine-month-old brother and answered the door. She’d been told in round flat tones that she was no longer owner of their home. That everything they owned—from the tools in the shoe store on the first floor to the clothes in their home right above—had been sold to that bastard Cordwain, a small-time hack of a shoemaker.
Well, she’d told them flatly that they were mistaken. She’d never sold anything, hadn’t been paid a groat, and they could bloody well leave. Then she slammed the door in the constable’s face.
She knew it wouldn’t work. She recognized the face of Authority when it came in the guise of armed men and a constable’s badge. It didn’t matter that her eviction was wrong. That she hadn’t sold their home or that for the first time since her parents’ deaths, she’d found a way to support herself and her brother. It didn’t matter to those bastards outside. To them, she was a woman alone with a babe. Her parents had been murdered less than two months ago, and she was now vulnerable to every kind of horror that the uncaring world could throw at her.
“Bleeding curs,” she spat as she dashed for the workroom. There was only one thing of true value in her home and she would be damned if Cordwain got his hands on it. It was in a satchel because her father had been a slob. He had always planned to put everything on display or at least organize it in a closet, but that had never happened. And now Penny had cause to be thankful for his forgetfulness. She was able to grab the bag and her coin purse. Then she was back upstairs, Tommy crying in her arms as she stuffed clothing and the like into another bag.
But she was out of time. Their door burst open and the men tromped upstairs. Before she could do more than scream, rough hands wrapped around her waist. She kicked and screamed, but she had no purchase as she was lifted off the ground. The bastard was strong, his grip bruising, and his smell even worse. She knew without looking that the greasy head of hair belonged to Jobby, Cordwain’s nephew and all-around brute. He flipped her over his shoulder and carried her outside. How she kept hold of both Tommy and her bags, she didn’t know. Except that it was her life and her brother that she held and she’d be damned if she dropped either one.
Jobby banged her head three times on the way out of the house. She barely cared. She was more interested in protecting Tommy’s head than her own. Still, the pain made her head throb and gave birth to that living fury just beneath her skin. Once outside, the constable ordered Jobby to set her down. Normally she wouldn’t have heard it, but the man had a whistle that he blew right in Jobby’s face to get the idiot’s attention.
“There’s no cause for that!” the constable bellowed. And so Jobby put her down, copping a feel of her bottom as he did. So she kicked him hard as she could right in the privates.
Luck was with her. She connected. Not as hard as she would have liked, but enough that Jobby went down with a howl. Every man there winced in sympathy, and that gave her time to toss the satchel of important things to the side, where hopefully no one would notice. Then she started screeching like a madwoman by way of covering. If anyone had noticed what she’d dropped, hopefully they’d get distracted and forget.
She focused on the constable, as he was the authority here. His eyes had darkened as he watched Jobby writhing on the ground, but now he focused on her.
“There were no cause fer—”
“He had no cause to be doing what he was doing to me bum, either,” she snapped, her language deteriorating as her fury grew stronger. “And you’ve no cause to throw me out of my home!”
The constable sighed, the sound coming from deep within him. If she were less furious, she might have felt sorry for him. He had the air of a man keeping doggedly on simply because there was nowhere else to go. A soldier, she thought, in a forced march. But then the image was gone as Cordwain blustered forward.
“Got the bill of sale right here, my girl. As of dawn this morning, yer property is mine.”
She snatched it from his hands, all but ripping the document. She would not have him waving the thing in her face. Problem was, she still had Tommy wailing in her arms, clinging to her like he was terrified. Which he was. Just as she was, but she controlled it better than the toddler. And while she was struggling to control the boy, Cordwain turned to Jobby, who was just now getting to his knees, his face a pasty white.
“Get inside. Make sure she didn’t steal nothing!”
“It’s not yours!” Penny snapped in reflex, but the constable just shook his head, his hands shoved deep in his pockets.
“I’m afraid he’s right, Miss Shoemaker. I made sure of it before I came. Everything’s sold to him.”
“By who? How can someone up and sell my home right out from under me?”
Cordwain rolled his eyes. “Aw, listen to the tart. Lying bitch. I paid you all my damn savings for this place. You’re rich, you bloodsucking whore. And you won’t be denying me what’s mine!”
Penny gaped at him, her mind rebelling at all the things that were absolutely wrong with everything he’d just said. But before she could get a word past the dam of fury clogging her throat, another man sauntered up. A gentleman, by the looks of him, and a useless one at that, given the worn state of his clothing. He was tall and somewhat thin, and his dark curly hair went every which way about his head as if his brains were exploding by way of his hair.
“If I might have a word, Constable—”
The official all but groaned. “Sir, this is hardly the time.”
“Yes, I know, but in the interest of the writ of law, I thought I’d point out something.” He gestured with his hand, and in that one movement alarm bells began to ring in Penny’s mind. He was looking at the satchel. He knew and was about to tell. Bloody hell.
“You want justice?” she snapped. “Here, hold Tommy for a moment.” Her words made no sense, but she had to distract him somehow. And how better to distract a toff than to hand him a squirming, screaming toddler?
Too late. She’d shoved the boy into his arms, much to both males’ terror. And with her hands free, she could finally look at Cordwain’s false bill of sale while keeping half an eye on whether the toff hurt Tommy or not. He didn’t, thank heaven, but neither boy nor man was pleased with the situation.
“Can you read it?” sneered Cordwain.
“’Course I can. Enough to see that you didn’t pay me for my property. And as I’m the one who owns this place, I’m the only one who can sell.”
“I did too pay!” snapped Cordwain as he grabbed the bill out of her hand. “Right here. Payment to one Thomas Shoemaker.”
“Tommy! That’s Tommy!” She pointed at the squirming babe. “And he can’t sell anything but his drool.”
“Look, you lying piece of—” Cordwain’s next words were drowned out as the constable blew one long shrill note on his whistle again. The noise was so loud that everyone stopped to clap their hands over their ears, Tommy included. Then, while their ears were still ringing, the constable stepped forward, speaking in a low, reasonable tone.
“It wasn’t Tommy himself who sold your home, Miss Shoemaker. It was his guardian.”
“I’m Tommy’s guardian,” she snapped.
“No, miss. You’re not.” As proof, he lifted up the bill of sale and pointed at a signature. Right there in dark ink she saw the signature of Mr. Reginald Addicock, solicitor and trustee of Thomas Shoemaker.
“What’s a trustee?” she asked.
“Legal term for guardian,” inserted the toff from behind Tommy’s head. Apparently during that shrill whistle blow, Tommy and the gentleman had come to some mutual agreement. Tommy was wrapped around the toff’s neck like a monkey and he wasn’t screaming anymore. Meanwhile, the man supported Tommy’s bum with one hand while angling for a better view of the bill of sale.
“But he can’t sell my home!” Even as she said the words, a worry niggled at the back of her mind. She knew Mr. Addicock. He had been one of her father’s friends. But surely her father would have said something if he’d named Addicock guardian. Or had that been just another thing her father had meant to do but forgot?
“He can and he did!” bellowed Cordwain.
“You’ve never even heard of him?” asked the gentleman. “How long have your parents been gone?”
“Seven weeks! Don’t you think that in nearly two months, the man would have presented himself?”
“Well, yes, that would be typical, wouldn’t it?” The man reached over and picked the bill of sale right out of Cordwain’s hand. No one disagreed. He had that kind of confidence that people went along with. As if he had the right to step in and solve the problem. Which he didn’t. But as he was working on her side, Penny saw no reason to stop him. Meanwhile, he was frowning down at the document. “It does look official, but—”
“’Course it is,” said Cordwain. “It’s this lying—”
“Call me names again, and I will scratch your eyes out!”
“You will not!” inserted the constable. “But I will blow this whistle until you are both too deaf to hear it. So stubble it, Cordwain. You got no cause to be saying things like that to her. Especially since you got the law on your side.”
“His side!” Penny cried. “But none of it is true!”
The constable grimaced. “Everything I got is legal and true, Miss Shoemaker. It says he purchased your shop and everything in it.”
“But how? I haven’t received any money, I haven’t talked to this solicitor, I don’t know anything about this at all!”
The constable just sighed again, and the sound seemed to pull his shoulders down. It was the look of a miserable individual, but one who would do his duty no matter if it were wrong or not.
“It’s not right,” she said.
“Don’t matter,” inserted the toff. “It looks right from his end. He’s got no cause to stop it.”
“But it’s wrong,” Penny repeated, trying desperately to find a way to stop this. “All of it is just . . .”
“Legal,” said Cordwain with a sneer. “All legal. Now get gone from here, girl. And take your brat with you. I can’t have the likes of you around my place of business.”
That was the final insult. The living fury beneath her skin broke free. She launched herself at Cordwain with the only weapon she had—her nails and her fury. But she never connected. Before she even realized she’d leaped, the toff had her around the waist. It was no small feat, given that he still had Tommy wrapped around his neck. And for a too tall, no-good toff, he was damned strong.
“We’ll have none of that,” he scolded, not winded in the least despite the way she was flailing in his one-armed grasp. “It’s too late; surely you can see that,” he continued.
He was right. While she was trapped by the toff, the constable had stepped between her and the bastard Cordwain. Jobby, too, had recovered and was now looking as dark and violent as she felt. Still, she would have fought on if it weren’t for Tommy. All her struggles were putting the toddler in danger. Apparently the stranger knew that, too, because he was quickly shoving the boy into her arms even as he set her back onto her feet.
“There, now, hold the boy before he gets hurt,” he said.
“That’s right, you b—”
“Enough, Cordwain,” cut in the constable. “Damned if you don’t know how to make a bad situation worse every time I see you.”
The bastard puffed himself up, his face flushed and his mouth starting to open, but the toff was there beforehand, his manner somewhat bumbling but his eyes very keen.
“One question, Mr. Cordwain, if I may. Did you know this solicitor before the sale?”
“How close were the two of you?”
“I didn’t know the damned man before he took my money!”
“Well, that’s clearly not true,” said the gentleman with an eye roll. “You don’t just give a man money for a store out of the blue. How’d you know he was Tommy’s guardian? ’Specially since the lad’s sister didn’t even know.”
Cordwain’s brows narrowed and he looked to the storefront. “Everybody knows I’ve wanted this property. Been trying to buy it, but her dad wouldn’t sell.”
“I see,” said the gentleman, his brows drawn together in a frown. “But what has that to do with Mr. Addicock?”
“He contacted me. Said as he knew I wanted to buy it, and would I do it now? And for a bloody high price, too!” Cordwain’s face snapped around to glare in their direction. “Had to spend all my savings for it. Every last groat!”
“Well, every last groat except for the men you’re paying right there.” He gestured to the three sour-looking thugs loitering around the shop’s front door. “Five men plus the constable to evict one woman and a babe? Seems rather excessive, doesn’t it?”
“I knew she would be trouble,” the bastard growled. “And I was right.”
“Huh.” That was it. Just a grunt more than a word, accompanied by a glance at the constable, who simply shrugged.
“No!” Penny cried. “No!”
“I’m afraid so, Miss Shoemaker. It’s the law. Do you have someplace to go? A relation perhaps? Or a friend?”
Penny stared at them. Cordwain, the constable, Jobby and his henchmen, then the toff last of all. They all stared at her like mutton. Blank male faces of differing personality, but all dumb, all blind. “Can’t you see . . . ,” she began, praying that one of them would help her. After everything she’d done since her parents’ murder, everything she’d survived, this final humiliation was too much. It was—
“I’ll see to her, Constable,” the gentleman said. “Just let me get my bag.” Then, without so much as a by-your-leave, he strolled straight over to her satchel and flipped it over his shoulder.
“Best go with him,” the constable said, giving her a sad smile. “Nothing to be done here.”
“But . . .” Her gaze traveled to her home. She’d been born in the upper story of that building there, as had her father. The shop had been her grandfather’s pride and joy, and her father’s after that. One month ago, she had found a way to save it. She’d just begun to dream of opening its doors again to show her wares just like a Shoemaker had for over fifty years. It couldn’t be taken from her. Not without warning. Not like this.
“Come now,” said the gentleman as he gently cupped her elbow. “There’s stuff to be done and it isn’t here.”
“Just walk,” he ordered. Not harshly, but with enough authority that she obeyed. She spoke not a word, and to her added fury she found she was crying. Big, wet tears leaked down her face. She couldn’t stop it, and she damn well couldn’t hide it.
They were three blocks away when the toff finally said something that jolted her out of her misery.
“Tell me why I’m carrying a bag of body parts.”