Publisher: Tule Publishing
Series: The Duke's Men, Book 1
Released: June 13, 2024
Lark caught Viv's hand and pressed it to the wound. Her fingers were cold as ice, the ring he’d given her loose on her finger, but he held her hand there, knowing with absolute clarity, that whatever happened if he were exposed and the masquerade ended without his kissing her, he was going to feel cheated.
“I’m going to kiss you,” he said.
-The Lady and the Thief
In 1835 London, companion Vivian Bradish daringly pursues her dream of being a writer by researching and notating her ailing employer’s new book–A Guide to London for Fearless Women. Posing as a mark, Viv boldly enters a street known for pickpockets. When she’s attacked, she accidentally shoots the handsome gentleman who aids her. She brings the wounded stranger to her employer’s home for medical aid, but they are caught in a compromising situation, threatening Viv’s position and dreams.
Her would-be rescuer, Lark, was once a Lost Boy, part of a gang of street urchins and pickpockets rescued by the Duke of Wenlocke. Reformed, he’s now Edward Larkin, posing as a gentleman and searching for clues to his past. Meeting Viv is unexpected, and to save her position in the household, he proposes a fake betrothal.
To “court her,” Lark promises to guide her through the streets of the London she’s never seen so she can finish the book, never dreaming his impulse to help Viv will lead him to his lost family.
London, April 1835
Lark ducked into a shadowy by-street off the Strand. A narrow slit of fading blue to the west where the street rejoined the main thoroughfare told him the shops would not close for an hour or more. He fingered the ring in his pocket. He had expected the ring to trigger a memory of his mother, but the experiment failed. Now, as he had promised, he was to meet his former partner, Rook, at the meeting place Rook chose.
Babylon Street, as infamous for the display of erotic prints in its shop windows as for the grime on its cobbles, was a street where the clumsiest of pickpockets could do a prig. Even coppers stopped to stare at print shop windows, the target of all the proper souls of London’s Anti-Vice Society. As Lark slipped into a doorway to wait for Rook, his gaze caught on a chunk of clear ethereal-blue sky, where no sky should be, on the dirty stones in front of Number 36.
For a moment, it seemed to his disoriented senses as if London’s unusual spell of dry weather had cracked the sky like an old plaster ceiling, and a piece of it had fallen into the street. He grabbed the door frame where he stood, anchoring himself against a sudden tide of other memories, not the one he sought. He glanced up at the jagged line of gables and chimney pots, half-expecting to see a gaping black hole in the sky above them. The days when he and Rook and all of the lost boys had roamed the rooftops of London under the sky with Boy, their leader, were long gone. Lark and Rook had stayed firmly on the ground for years, never speaking of old days or old friends. Even now when Lark had ended their partnership. For Rook, London offered an endless supply of gulls, unwary or distracted enough to give up the contents of their pockets. But Lark had investments now and money in Hammersley’s Bank, and a new set of rooms not far from Regent’s Park. Lark shook off the unwanted recollections of his old companions. Ten years had passed since he’d left them behind. What appeared to be a piece of sky was merely a woman in a fashionable blue dress. In Babylon Street that dress made her a mark.
The mark stretched out one feminine gloved hand over the display of dusty books in front of Number 36. A bag in rich blue velvet dangled from her wrist on thin gold cords. From the tautness of the cords, Lark put the bag’s weight at two pounds. The lady had come prepared to shop, and the titles on the sagging shelf above the pavement appeared to engross her. Lark should warn her that she was tempting fate. Rook made a pass behind her, close enough to brush against her skirts. She never broke her trance-like concentration. Rook would pass again. He glanced at Lark for a signal, which Lark refused to give. He was there to persuade Rook to quit the game and take up some legitimate enterprise.
Lark looked up and down the street, assessing the scene. The usual mix of London’s citizens passed by, tradesmen and gentlemen, ladies and drabs. People who knew the neighborhood used the by-street to go about their business more quickly than the crowded Strand permitted. Other persons, the ones Rook watched for, came into the street drawn by its reputation for radical politics and erotic prints. The mark remained absorbed in her book. No doubt Rook pegged her as an easy prig.
Lark had his doubts. In the past, his job had been to read the mark and signal a yes or no to Rook. He gave the woman a more thorough scrutiny. The vivid freshness of her appearance in the grimy street was a mystery. She was more fit for Regent Street than for her sordid surroundings. Her gown of figured blue silk had the nipped waist and full skirts of the current fashion. A short dove-colored cape covered her from shoulder to waist. A plain close-fitting bonnet concealed her face, and made it impossible to guess her age. His mind rapidly calculated the sums she must have paid for fabric and dressmaker, shoes, and petticoats. Unlike the other women in the street, she appeared to be alone. He didn’t like it. Going unaccompanied to one of London’s most infamous streets spoke of bold independence.
A sign above Number 36 read SCHOOL BOOKS. Lark wondered whether the lady’s eyes had widened as she read the actual titles of the volumes on that hanging shelf. He knew them well. She tipped a book free of its neighbors and held it open in one palm. With the movement of her arm, the heavy purse slid into the crook of her elbow. That bag bothered Lark. The bend in her arm would make Rook’s job harder, but the temptation was great, especially as the lady’s concentration on her book was deep. With her free hand she turned the pages.
Lark glanced up and down the street again. Nothing looked amiss. He did not see any other fellows on the game. A girl passed with a tray of flowers on her head, and a barefoot boy teased a dog with a stick. The blue of the mark’s dress and the memories she stirred were reason enough to warn Rook off. Lark caught Rook’s eye and shook his head.
Rook went into his act anyway. Rook saw only a pigeon, and pigeons were made to be plucked. Coming along the pavement from the north, he pulled a bottle from his patched greasy coat, took a swig, and lurched forward. His boots, caked in river muck gave off a noxious stench that made people swerve into the street to avoid him. This time when he reached the mark, he slammed into her with his left shoulder, spinning her round. She dropped the book with a startled cry, stumbling back against the hanging shelves and flinging out a hand to catch hold of something. The purse slid down to her wrist. Rook snagged it and staggered on, bent low to the ground, dropping his bottle.
The dropped bottle was Lark’s old cue to enter the scene. He stepped out of the doorway and strode forward. “Miss, may I help? You look …” His voice faltered as he caught sight of her face. Nothing had prepared him for the effect of large, startled dark eyes above cheeks of pearl and roses.
Her dark glance flicked his way and swung back to Rook’s retreating figure. Her expression changed. She righted herself and reached under her short cape.
“Miss?” Lark needed to draw her attention to him. “Has something overset you?”
“No, thank you, I’ve got this.” From under her cape, she drew out a small pistol and pointed it toward Rook. Lark stared at the short-barreled gun, his thoughts scattering like dry leaves in a breeze. It was a Toby, a muff pistol with silver and gold chasings, expensive like everything about the mark. He’d seen such a gun in a shop on Snow Hill, but never in a lady’s hand.
“Stop, thief!” She leveled the barrel at Rook with a steady hand. “I’ll shoot,” she cried, cocking the firing pin with her thumb.
Lark stepped into her line of sight as an approaching cab pulled up beside him. The rumble of iron wheels on cobbles filled his ears. Her finger squeezed the trigger. A hot searing pain bloomed on his right side, and he pressed a gloved hand to his ribs. He had been right to distrust the lay. The lady was not the mark she appeared to be.
“Oh dear.” The woman, not much more than a girl really, lowered the gun. Lark doubted that she was a day over twenty. Her eyes were the deep brown of Turkish coffee, he thought irrelevantly. “How bad is it?” she asked. “Did the bullet lodge? Are you bleeding much?”
“Hard to tell,” he said. It cost him a sharp twinge to speak. “What were you thinking?”
“I might ask you the same. I meant to shoot the thief, not you.” She tucked the pistol away under her cape, and stepped forward. “Why did you come between us?”
“To be of assistance. I could have …” He couldn’t feel blood, just the burning sensation in his side, the sting of burned powder in his nose, and an unaccountable wobbliness in his legs.
“Chased him? I doubt it. I’m sure he’s disappeared across the Strand by now.” Her eyes had a look of disappointment. Something she wanted had eluded her.
A sudden spurt of anger heated him. He suspected that the heavy purse had been a decoy, and he didn’t know whether he was angrier at her or at Rook. “Are you mad?” he demanded. “What lady fires a pistol in a public street? Even the Peelers don’t shoot a man.”
She shot him a glare. “I came prepared. Never mind. Let me see what’s happened to you.” She stepped right up to him and gently lifted his hand away from his side. He caught the fragrance of her, something fresh and floral.
“You are bleeding,” she said. Her eyes were earnest now, full of concern.
Lark suddenly knew what verse-writing saps meant about drowning in a pair of eyes.
“I know someone who can help.”
“A good tailor, I hope. You’ve likely ruined my favorite coat.”
“A surgeon. Let me take you to him. That’s my cab, you see.”
He had the oddest feeling that he had been played, that she had seen Rook coming and laid a trap. He couldn’t think clearly, and he had no way to reach Rook. He did want a surgeon, and no questions asked. The only sawbones in this neighborhood had shaking hands and wiped them on his filthy linen. Lark should play out the scene. He couldn’t help Rook now. Rook would wonder where he’d got to, but he’d explain later. “Don’t you want your book?”
“The Spanish Brothers?” She bent down, scooped it from the pavement, and piled it back on the shelf. “No. I don’t need it anymore. Will you tell me your name?”
“Lark…in,” he said. “Edward Larkin.” It was the name he planned to use in his new life, if his old life didn’t do him in first.
She nodded. “Vivian Bradish.”