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BOOK: Suzanne Robinson
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The threat of the pure-finder and the workhouse
drove him to seek apprenticeship under Inigo Ware, the most notorious thief in London. It had been a bargain with the devil. Inigo exacted payment for his training in a percentage of Luke’s spoils, and in cruelty. Inigo had given him the name Nightshade, and Inigo liked to pit Luke against another of his apprentices, Mortimer Fleet.

“Fleet, my dear,” Inigo would say. “Do you think you’ll ever be as pleasing to the eye as Nightshade? Or will you always be a dried-up stick insect?”

Or he would meddle. “Luke, my pretty. You’re fond of our young Jenny, but so is Fleet here. Which of you is going to have her, eh? I’m sorry, Fleet, but my money is on Nightshade. But if she can’t make up her mind, you can always fight for her. I’ll sponsor the match. Knives are the proper weapon for a duel between two rivals.”

By the time Luke was sixteen, Inigo had turned him into his most talented protégé. He could slip into rich town houses, plan and execute daring daylight jewel robberies, and pick pockets at society weddings and balls. Around him Luke gathered talented sorts like Badger, who could climb the highest building laden with housebreaking tools, and Prigg, a master forger. Of all of them, Jenny Jenkins had been the best. Pretty, saucy Jenny could pretend to turn her ankle in the street in front of a fat, well-dressed gentleman and come away with his watch, his money, and his calling cards.

He’d loved Jenny, but she’d fallen for Mortimer Fleet’s lies and blandishments. Fleet became Inigo Ware’s right-hand man. Jenny left Luke to follow
Fleet, and ended up floating in the Thames. Fleet always claimed some toff she’d robbed had done her. Such an end wouldn’t be surprising; they all risked their lives every day. However, Luke had always suspected Fleet of killing Jenny, because not two days before she was killed, she had promised to leave Fleet and return to him. If he ever discovered the truth for certain, he would do for Mortimer Fleet.

Thinking of Fleet reminded Luke of Miss Dane. She was sitting stiffly opposite him, watching him with a cat’s fixed gaze, tracking the movements of his hands, ready to spring out of his reach should he attack. He was never going to convince her of the truth with words. Not when those words came out in an east London accent lacking in beginning H’s and sprinkled with thieves’ cant.

She had stopped trembling. No, her hands shook when they moved to adjust her bonnet or her mantle. The dark bronze of her dress accented her pallor. He’d been rough with her. His irritation at having to become Nightshade again had caused him to resent her even before he’d found her. When she gave him the devil of trouble catching and keeping her, his pride had been hurt. Now that he bothered to notice, she was strung tight and near the limit of her strength.

Something powerful evil was worrying her. Something that had to do with Mortimer Fleet. Once he’d realized this, he’d sent people to make inquiries about events occurring on the day Miss Dane vanished. He’d instructed Badger and Prigg to nose around the taverns and gin shops to find out about Fleet’s doings. There was no direct link between his old gang and his
new life, but Luke had a method of receiving reports. He should know something in a few days.

Meanwhile, he would take Miss Dane home with him. He was looking forward to seeing her face when they arrived this evening. Her shock and discomfort would repay him for enduring her sneers.

“You just wait,” he said, but Miss Dane wasn’t listening.

She had fallen asleep sitting upright. Annoyed that he couldn’t tell her how much he looked forward to her embarrassment, Luke withdrew a small volume from his inner pocket. It was his traveling dictionary book. Several years with tutors had given him some education, but he was still left with his old manner of speech, which reappeared if he wasn’t careful.

He was determined to improve. It was but a part of his life’s plan, the ultimate goal of which was to put down roots. He wanted a family and a substantial home, for these meant safety, freedom from the terrors of a life spent in poverty and dread, never knowing when the chap walking past you might try to shove a knife into your belly.

“Spinster,” he murmured as he looked up the word. “ ‘An unmarried woman of gentle family, past the common age of marrying, who seems unlikely to marry.’ That’s her all right. Unlikely to marry, with her ‘Mr. Nightshades’ and ‘I decline to tell yous.’ ” His finger moved down the page. “ ‘Old maid, maiden, lone woman, virgin.’ Humph, virgin. Not a wonder. Nothing interesting there.”

He was searching for a more gratifying word to memorize when the carriage went over a bump and
made him lose his place. They had left London and were on their way west through the countryside. Luke put away his book and looked out at the fields and villages, always a spirit-enriching sight to him after all his years in the grimy, belching cesspots of London.

The carriage clattered around a bend and hit another hole. The entire vehicle jolted. Luke braced himself, but Miss Dane was tossed out of her seat and landed on him. He heard her cry out, but was too late to do more than catch her as she fell, pressing her body against his.

They ended up face to face, staring at each other, their mouths slightly rounded in identical expressions of alarm. Then Luke became aware of her chest against his, of her hand braced on his thigh. Out of nowhere came a thought: Was her cheek as soft as her breast? He’d never expected to know the feel of a lady’s breast without ever having touched her cheek.

Miss Dane was still staring at him. She seemed transfixed, as if she was afraid to look away. Her cry of alarm signaled her recovery, and she pushed herself back so that their chests no longer touched. In mid-movement, she stopped and looked down at her hand where it gripped his thigh. Luke followed her gaze and noticed how her fingers sank into muscle. Under her hand, his flesh burned.

Clamping his teeth together, he said, “Miss Dane.”

She continued to stare at her hand and didn’t answer. His hands were wrapped around her waist now, and he squeezed as he said her name again.

“Yes?” came a faint reply.

“Miss Dane, could you refrain from squeezing my leg? I’m trying to be a gentleman.”

She blinked at him, then gasped and turned crimson. Scrambling out of his lap, she shot backward into her seat and slid as far away as she could. Turning away from him, she stared out the window.

Luke shifted so that his body leaned in the opposite direction, staring at the scenery without seeing it. His thoughts were jumbled, flitting from memories of Miss Dane’s hand on his thigh to speculation about her troubles. Eventually he realized that the sun was low. They were driving down High Road, in the village of Langley Green. They were almost home.

He glanced over his shoulder at Miss Dane. She was still braced against the corner, but she was having a difficult time keeping her eyes open. As he watched her, she frowned and bent so that she could see the shops and houses of High Road.

“This isn’t …”

“Isn’t what?” he asked.

“The place I expected.”

“That’s what happens when you think you know everything. I told you we were going to my house.”

Miss Dane looked at the small cottages that marked the end of High Road. “Which of these is it?”

“Oh, it ain’t none of them. I live in the country.”

He let her wonder as the carriage turned off High Road into a lane that wound its way down the side of a valley thick with trees in their autumn colors. They crossed the valley basin and climbed the gentle opposite slope. Then the carriage turned into a dense forest.

After a few minutes, the trees began to thin until
they parted to reveal a rushing stream. The horses slowed to a walk and clattered over a stone bridge with three supporting arches. In the middle of the bridge, Luke knocked on the roof with his walking stick. The coachmen halted the carriage.

Turning to Miss Dane, Luke said, “I want to show you something.”

“You’re going to drown me.”

She was staring at him as if he were a Thames water rat, and he was growing tired of her suspicion.

“If I am, at least you won’t have to dread it no more.”

He could see her make up her mind. Her tongue sneaked out to pose at the corner of her mouth, then vanished. She pulled herself up straight, her spine rigid, and gave him a slight nod. Descending to the stone bridge, he offered his hand to her. She stared at it without moving from the doorway.

“Damnation! You think I’m going to throw you off the bridge.” Before she could answer, he gripped her hand, slipped an arm around her and swept her from the coach. He heard her suck in her breath. Knowing what she expected, he took satisfaction in releasing her as soon as she was on her feet. “There. You see? You’re still alive.”

Clutching her bag, Miss Dane eyed him warily for a few moments. When he failed to rush at her and toss her into the stream, she let out a long breath and glanced around her. She dared a peep over the edge of the bridge into the waters that danced over rounded stones and pebbles.

He joined her there, causing her to ease out of
reach, but Luke merely gestured toward the water. “Now don’t you feel a proper wooden-head, thinking I’d toss you into such a shallow stream. Can’t be more than five feet deep.”

“You might have tied my hands and—” She bit her lip.

Luke shook his head. “Afraid to give me ideas? Choke me dead if you’re not determined to suffer on this journey. Well, it’s almost over. All I wanted was to show you that.”

He pointed in the only direction Miss Dane hadn’t looked, straight ahead, and watched her. Beyond the bridge, rising out of the forest as if it had grown from it, lay a sheer mass of gray stone, the base of a castle tower. A defensive wall extended from it, its crenellated battlements marching out of sight.

Festoons of ivy hung from the tower and the wall, while trees and climbing vines hugged the castle base and cast long shadows across the stone. Beyond the defensive wall rose the shell of some ruined structure, broken by long rows of windows with pointed arches. A broad road extended from the bridge to a gatehouse formed by two monumental towers. A drawbridge lay across the gap of a water-filled moat, and over the drawbridge came a cart driven by a lad wearing a smock and munching on a hunk of bread.

“That, Miss Dane, is mine.”

“What?”

“I told you I was taking you home, and that’s my home, every last battlement, tower, and wall.”

Miss Dane gestured toward the castle. “This—this is yours?”

“Why, you look struck all of a heap.” He was grinning now, for her mouth hung open and she was gaping at the castle in a dazed manner that was most gratifying. “Come along. The household will be expecting us because it’s almost dusk.”

He helped his confused passenger into the coach. As they set off, the cart passed them, and the lad in the smock doffed his hat. Luke returned the salute with an inclination of his head and noticed that Miss Dane was staring at him again.

“Have I sprouted a second nose or something?”

She shook her head, and as they drove into the gatehouse, beneath tons of stonework, he couldn’t resist gloating. “Don’t worry, Miss Prim. I promise not to throw you in the moat or lock you in the oubliette.”

6

Prim tried to preserve what little composure she still retained by forcing herself to attend to her surrounding? Otherwise she would go mad trying to understand how Nightshade the thief and ruffian could own a castle. She stared intently at the ramparts as the carriage passed beneath the portcullis and plunged into the darkness of the gatehouse. Overhead she glimpsed the murder holes, through which defenders poured pitch or fired arrows at invaders.

When the carriage clattered into what had been the outer bailey, she beheld a vast expanse of green lawn, and behind it, a hill upon which sat a Norman shell keep. All around them rose the massive enclosure walls, their expanse broken by drum and square towers. Beyond the shell keep, nestled against the northern half of the surrounding walls, stood a conglomeration
of buildings. In spite of her confusion, Prim was fascinated. The gradual change from Norman to Gothic architecture in the structures spoke of centuries of building by an endless succession of owners.

As the carriage drove around the shell keep mound and along the gravel road to the central palace at the north end of the castle, the buildings seemed to grow out of each other in a continuous U shape. The jumble of residential and defensive structures boasted a soaring, buttressed chapel and residential palace, squat service buildings, and gargantuan blocks and towers that must have once been armories, barracks and treasuries.

At last the carriage stopped in front of the palace. She looked at the man who claimed to be Sir Lucas Hawthorne, and to her surprise beheld someone almost as reluctant to get out of the carriage as she was. He sat slumped against the squabs, his walking stick gripped in both hands, frowning. He didn’t move even when a footman from the house opened the door.

Prim ventured to address him. “Sir Lucas?”

He glanced at her and managed a wry smile.

“I forgot about Mrs. Snow.”

BOOK: Suzanne Robinson
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