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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Many thanks to the team at Kensington

for bringing this book together so beautifully,

with extra special thanks to my editor, Esi Sogah.

 

 

1

Whitechapel, London

June 1821

 

 

Portia Lamb strode swiftly along Maiden Lane, keeping to the pools of light cast by the street flares. Miscreants likely lurked in the shadows. So did poor young children who survived by picking pockets.

The children she was trying to help.

“Are ye sure about this, miss?” Pressed right up to her side—so close their skirts kept tangling—walked Merry Meadows, the oldest resident of her family’s home. Merry had stayed on to help with the children once she’d turned eighteen and was becoming a capable teacher. “I think we should’ve waited for one of yer brothers. There could be white slavers about. Your Ma always warned us about white slavers—”

“Merry, we are perfectly safe,” Portia said in brisk tones. “Yes, my mother always issued dire warnings about white slavers and brothel owners who pluck innocent women off the streets. I have been rescuing children and bringing them to the home for ten years and nothing terrible has happened to me.”

But under the cover of her cloak, she clasped the grip of a pistol. It was unloaded, but she’d discovered men didn’t want to call her bluff.

Mother had never wanted her to go onto the streets of the Whitechapel slums, looking for orphans and impoverished children who were in danger. Now Mother was frail and ill, sometimes so confused she often didn’t remember who Portia was. But when she’d had all her faculties, Mother believed Portia’s brothers should be the ones to patrol the streets. She felt a girl should stay in the house and its classrooms.

Portia had never agreed. Children were more likely to trust a young woman. Her brothers were well-meaning, but they could be brusque, impatient, and intimidating. And children were already more wary of men in the stews.

Yet now that her mother was so forgetful, Portia found she missed Mother’s dire warnings.

A sound came from an alley. Someone hiding? Rats?

“I’m still frightened, miss.” Merry moved so close Portia almost tripped over her.

“There is nothing to fear, Merry. We can take care of ourselves. And we’re clever. That counts for quite a lot.”

Merry, who possessed blond ringlets and large blue eyes, looked around and shuddered. Her hand clutched Portia’s arm. “Oh, heavenly stars, there’s men lurking, waiting for us, Miss Lamb,” Merry whispered, her voice a mere croak. “They’re in the shadows ahead.”

The other children used to call her Merry the Mouse, because she was shy and fearful. Merry also had the most remarkably attuned hearing and instincts. Portia couldn’t see anything yet, but if Merry said there were men in the shadows, Portia didn’t doubt her.

“Move close to the wall, into the shadows,” Portia instructed quietly. She drew out her pistol. She peered into the darkness ahead and made out the opening of a narrow alley. Then she heard them—the murmur of two men’s voices. A low, leering laugh made a shudder crawl down her spine.

Merry let out a squeak of fear.

“I heard something,” one of them said. “Think it’s the lass? Think she took the bait?”

At once Portia whirled to face Merry, her finger to her lips in a warning to be silent. The girl gulped but didn’t make any other sound.

The note had begged Portia to come to No. 10 on Maiden Lane, to take a young girl from a desperate mother who could not support all her children, and who was being pressured to hand the nine-year-old over to a brothel.

“It was a ruse,” Merry whispered. “We must flee, miss.”

Portia held her ground. “We don’t know that,” she whispered back. “There might really be a child in need, even if that child is being used as bait.”

“We must go, miss.”

Portia hesitated. If there was a child who needed her help, how could she turn her back and run? But if this were a trap, she wouldn’t be able to save the child anyway. Pressed tight against the wall, she peered at the mouth of the alley, her heart pounding.

What should she do? What if, by running, she condemned a little girl to a horrible fate?

“You can’t be foolish, Miss Lamb,” Merry whispered, her face a mask of fear. “I know you want to go forward, but we mustn’t. We must fetch one of your brothers.”

“She’ll come,” said a second voice. Portia smelled smoke. The man had only responded now because he was smoking a cheroot and he’d taken it out of his mouth to speak. “Keep yer bloody voice down and wait for the signal.”

The signal? Merry was tugging at her cloak, urging her to run. But what if there was a child in danger—?

A sharp whistle rent the air. Then their hackney driver flicked his whip and sent his horses galloping away, taking the hackney cab with them.

The two men ran out of the alley, faces splitting into wide, gap-toothed grins.

That must have been the signal. Their driver had been in the pay of these men. Blast!

She and Merry couldn’t outrun two men. Not in cloaks. And skirts.

Why had they been tricked? These men didn’t look cunning enough to have thought this up. They looked like the kind of thick-necked brawlers who worked for someone clever.

Breathing hard, she lifted her unloaded pistol and leveled it at the men. Meredith gasped at the sight of it. “You’ll shoot them? Miss, that’s murder.”

“Not if we’re defending our lives,” she said, with all the calm she could muster. “If I were you, gentlemen, I would run away as fast as you can.”

One man chuckled. He was the shorter of the two. Burly, with a dirty face, dark clothes, a dark cap. They were dressed the same, but where one was short and squat, the other was tall and thin.

The squat man stepped forward. “I know that pistol isn’t loaded.”

Portia was so scared it was hard to breathe, but she couldn’t show it. Don’t panic. Keep your wits. Father had taught her that. He’d been a great explorer before he settled down, got married, and opened the home for children. Wits were a man’s—and a woman’s—best weapon. In a commanding voice, she barked, “Of course it is. I’m not a fool.”

“I know it’s a bluff, missy. Ye never load the thing. And even if ye did, I were told ye’d never hurt anyone.”

 
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