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Prim waited until Jowett continued on his way before she crossed the intersection. Then she took to the roofs again. Jowett had a partner named Stark. Prim had been chased by them several times. They always moved together, so she would have to keep alert for the pair. She hurried across another flat roof and was about to leap down to a lower one when Jowett appeared. She crouched and watched him skulk down the road to stand almost directly below her. He stood there and turned his narrow, dirty head in a half circle, like some questing vulture. Then he leaned against the wall and dug out a tobacco pouch.

Prim waited a while, but Jowett had taken root. The longer she remained outside, the greater the chance she would be found. Prim set her basket down and glanced over the roof. It was littered with old newspapers, broken glass, and straw. Here and there lay bricks and chunks of mortar. Prim picked up a brick. Its surface was rough against her hand. She hefted it, but glanced up when she caught movement
out of the corner of her eye. Seeing nothing, she chided herself for being so excitable and looked over the roof at the top of Jowett’s head.

Still hefting the brick, she noted that the man wore a cap, but it was made of thin material. Prim stood with her feet planted apart and raised the brick in both hands. She had always been good at playing catch and throwing a ball with her younger brother. Pray God she still had the skill. Prim kept her eyes on her target, gripped the brick tightly, and hurled it down. The missile hit Jowett square on his greasy skull. He dropped to his knees and then to the ground, without uttering a word, his pipe and pouch still in his hands.

Prim rose and dusted her hands. Taking up her basket, she put her foot on the edge of the roof, preparing to spring across to the next building. She bent her knees and leaped, but something snaked around her waist and pulled her back. Someone had grabbed her! She sailed through the air and was set on her feet, but in her panic she lost her footing. The basket flew out of her grip and her skirt came loose from her waistband. She landed beside the basket on her bottom, her skirts above her knees, the hood of her cloak askew. Ignoring the pain in her bottom, Prim wrestled out of the tangle of her cloak and skirts and grabbed a nearby brick. Scrambling to her feet she backed away from the dark figure looming over her.

“Come nearer and I’ll bash you!”

If she had ever imagined the laughter of a demon, it would have been the sound that came tumbling at her. All mockery, chapel chimes, and evil, just like
what would issue from a fallen and corrupt angel. Fear wrapped a sheet of ice around her body. The man who had grabbed her sauntered closer, close enough for her to see him in the light of the moon. Silver illuminated his face. Slim, mobile lips curled into a smile that almost gave her relief. But she looked into his eyes—and was almost dragged into the depths of a black and perilous sea. It was then that Prim knew she was going to die.

The man put his hand beneath his coat and withdrew something. Prim nearly dropped her brick in her alarm that he had a knife, but he wasn’t even looking at her. He was looking at a picture. His gaze lifted to her face, and his brow furrowed. Then his expression changed again; the mockery and ruthlessness returned. She heard a soft murmur that should have allayed her terror but fed it instead.

“Choke me dead. It’s the old maid at last.”

2

This was one ruffian she hadn’t seen before. She would have remembered him: that air of amused menace, those eyes that rivaled the night in their darkness and malevolence, that loose, careless stance that belied the agility and speed of his movements. She would have remembered him, too, because he was clean. Black-haired, black-clad, black of spirit, he nevertheless wore his rough clothing as if it had been tailored for him. His hair was long, nearly touching his shoulders, and he had a habit of tilting his head down and looking up through a curtain of silken blackness. The gesture should have made him seem coy; the absence of a hint of conscience or pity in his eyes made it frightening instead.

The brief moment in which she glimpsed her attacker passed, and she realized that he was smiling at
her. Old maid? This hound of hell had called her an old maid! Ever since she’d witnessed the murder, Prim had been discovering things about herself. One was that she had little use for propriety and good manners in the rookeries of London; the other was that she liked not having to curb her conduct. While the ruffian continued to smile at her, she slowly bent and grasped her basket.

“You’re not near as ugly as your picture shows,” the ruffian said.

“I hope I may be pardoned if I don’t think you for the compliment.”

Prim waited for him to reply while she straightened, but his gaze dropped. She looked down to find that part of her skirt was still tucked into its waistband, exposing her legs. One stocking had ripped to reveal an expanse of white flesh from thigh to calf. She lifted her gaze and found that he had done the same. There was that habit again—his head was down, but he was looking up at her. And something violent and disturbing erupted in his eyes.

Whatever it was provoked a strange response in her. For an instant she wasn’t frightened but drawn, excited, and then he smiled again. The infamous creature knew what she felt! He’d given her that look deliberately. Her susceptibility frightened Prim, and her fear made her angry. She hauled the basket up and swung it, hitting the ruffian in the stomach.

“Ooffh!” He doubled over.

Following Hal and Hugh’s advice to hit an enemy when he was down, Prim then bashed her attacker on the head with the basket. He dropped to his knees. As
she raced across the roof, she heard a curse that would have earned the man a place in hell had he not already been assured one. She increased her speed as she neared the edge and sprang over the gap between her and the next roof.

She heard running steps. He was after her already, and he was too fast for her to outrun on the rooftops. Prim veered to the right and leaped to another roof that was lower by a story. Then she thrust herself over the side and half climbed, half slid to the ground. Not looking back, she ducked into the shadows, away from a gaslight, and slid between a stack of crates and the wall of the building from which she’d just climbed. Setting down her basket, she pulled her cloak hood over her head, flattened herself against the bricks and breathed deeply and quietly. She waited.

Her breathing hadn’t calmed when she heard a soft footstep above her head. Moments later a slim shadow seemed to melt down the side of the building not a yard from where she stood. Prim forced herself to breathe steadily. The ruffian stood still in the dim gaslight; his black silk curtain of hair swung as he turned his head, tilted it, listened. He turned toward her, and Prim nearly screamed. When he looked away, she silently thanked Providence.

Then, in the time it took her to blink once, he disappeared. That he could accomplish such a feat was more frightening than being chased. He would come upon her, and she would have no warning. Prim began to tremble and had to talk sternly to herself.

This is no time to lose courage. Take heart. What did Hal and Hugh say? When they’re chasing you, circle around so
that you come behind them. Circle, Primrose Victoria, make a circle
.

She waited a few more minutes before setting out. Eventually she traversed a section of the dock district, but it was a long trip. On the journey she saw no more of the black-haired ruffian, and she made her way back to the cramped dark apartment shared by all the Kettle family without further trouble.

She saw no more hunters for the next two days. Her time was taken up with nursing Betty Kettle, who was not recovering well from the birth of her ninth child, little George. The provisions Prim brought helped, but the family lived at the edge of an abyss created by the drunkard father.

Frightened, uncertain about how to remedy her dangerous situation, Prim spent much of her time alternating between trying to solve her difficulty and staving off terror that she would be discovered and bring ruin to the Kettles. The third day dawned, as dim and cheerless as a November day could be in a tenement with no water or facilities. The family shared an outhouse with the entire building. The communal water pump was down the road and often foul, as its water came from the Thames, which was used as the city’s dumping ground.

At the moment Prim was climbing the stairs to the third floor with two buckets of water. The younger children were playing in the street, and Sidney Kettle, Betty’s husband, had gone to the docks to hire himself out. Hal and Hugh were pursuing their nefarious occupations and wouldn’t be back until after dark. Prim
set the buckets on the landing and opened the apartment door. Alice Kettle met her holding baby George. The child looked too thin and weak to support the weight of the infant and his blanket, but Prim had learned that her appearance concealed strength of character as well as body. Alice managed all the children. Indeed, she managed the entire family, quite an accomplishment for a girl of ten.

“Mam is asleep,” Alice whispered. “She looks much better since you give her that meat, miss.” Alice hefted George onto her shoulder and patted his back.

“I’m glad.”

Prim set a bucket down and brought the other to the iron brazier that served as the family’s only stove. She poured water into a pan and set it on the brazier. It would take a long time to boil, but she had heard that heating the water would make it healthier.

“Now,” she said to Alice, “where is that mending?”

Alice pointed to a heap of clothing on one of the pallets that served as bedding for the children. While Prim sewed, she drew from Alice more of the family’s history, their hopes and their adventures. She listened at first, but after a while Prim’s thoughts returned to the black-haired ruffian, as they had too often since she’d first seen him. He’d been so different from all the others who had hunted her. His person and clothing had been clean; Prim had discovered long ago that poverty made cleanliness difficult. Therefore he was a successful ruffian.

And he was alarming in his perfection of form. Prim was ashamed of herself for dreaming of the man. She had created pleasant fantasies before, but these
dreams had little magic in them. In them she felt no sweeping, selfless love; she felt desire. Well-brought-up young ladies shouldn’t dream of touching a man as she imagined she touched this black-eyed villain.

Her dreams began with him standing over her, half in darkness, his head lowered in that mysterious and menacing attitude. His hair concealed all but his eyes. These were raised to look at her with that strange expression that frightened and attracted her at the same time. What was it about his eyes that gave him such power? When he assumed that stance with his head lowered, he didn’t smile. One might think he was about to threaten murder from the severity of his expression, but in her dreams, that look seemed the precursor to pleasure, dark, wild and forbidden. She hoped never to see him again.

“Are you still going to the fish market tonight, miss?”

“We must have something to eat.”

“But I can go, miss. I done it lots.”

“You do too much,” Prim said as she set a mended smock aside. “Tonight you must get some rest.”

Alice nuzzled her face against the sleeping baby’s head. “Pa wants more rent.”

When she had sought refuge with the Kettles, Sidney had demanded payment for room and board, then promptly went to the tavern down the street to drink until he’d used up the entire amount. If Sidney wasn’t supplied with drinking funds, he became violent. Alice and the children spent much of their time scrounging for money to keep him inebriated and pacific.

Prim lifted her skirt and withdrew a shilling from a pocket in her petticoat. Handing it to Alice, she said, “Give him this.”

Alice gave her solemn thanks and slipped the coin in her apron pocket. “You should go home, miss. It ain’t’ right you being here. This place isn’t good enough for you.”

“This place isn’t good enough for you, Alice, or for anyone. And you know I can’t go home. The man we saw knows me, and he’ll be watching Lady Freshwell’s house.”

Prim had no family except her brother, John Harold, who was at Oxford. After her father died, John Harold had inherited the family estate, and it was in trust for him while he was at university. As the son and heir, he had gotten almost everything. Like Sidney Kettle, Prim’s father had been fond of liquor and left his family with little upon which to live beyond the entailed estate.

Prim had a meager sum of her own, not enough to purchase her own home, but enough to provide her with food and clothing. With John Harold away at university there did not seem to be enough money to support Prim at home. A manager took care of the estate, but John Harold was to close the house. Eventually, out of duty, her aunt Freshwell had offered Prim a place as her companion. In desperation, Prim had accepted.

By now Lady Dorothy Freshwell no doubt thought Prim dead. Prim assumed her aunt had sent servants to search for her when she didn’t meet the carriage at the appointed time, but they had, of course, failed.
What she and her son Newton, Lord Freshwell, had done to recover their relative after that Prim couldn’t guess.

BOOK: Suzanne Robinson
10.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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