About the book
And suddenly, she was his everything...
Having spent years working as an escort, Rachel Bell yearns for a chance at a different life, away from the sins of the past. That chance presents itself when a handsome young lord steps into the tavern.
Ernest Jackson, Marquess of Dalton, sees his mundane life take a dramatic turn the day he finds a mysterious box. On a mission to solve the mystery of his allegedly deceased sister, he discovers he has been lied to all of his life.
His search leads him to Rachel, who proves to be not only a skillful spy but also his sole ally...
But their questions raise suspicions and when Rachel gets kidnapped, Ernest needs to pay the ultimate price: his own life. Sooner than later they will both realize that some truths are worse than lies—especially when the liar wears a familiar face.
The men leaned forward with snorts of laughter, waiting with bated breath for the punchline. “And then he came home to find the little bobtail on his doorstep!”
A roar of laughter filled the dining room, the sound rising into the great fug of smoke hanging above the men’s heads.
“What d’you expect? The man’s the king of the bawdy houses. Those cats would all be out on their asses if it weren’t for him.”
Ernest Jackson, Marquess of Dalton, realized his laughter was forced. How long had this been the case, he wondered? How many nights had he sat in this dining room with his father and his acquaintances, and laughed a laugh that didn’t reach his eyes? Though he had only just become aware of his strained chuckling, Ernest knew quite well that he had not found the Earl of Landon and his wenching particularly amusing for as long as he could remember.
He took a sip from his port glass and leaned back in his chair, contemplating.
Is there something wrong with me?
Ernest had never thought himself to be a dull man. He was a fine whist player, was fond of a joke, and could strike up a damn good argument at the coffee houses. He loved sharp company, enjoyed a challenge, flourished around other men. And yet, this sorry excuse for humor that unfolded at Graceton Manor on a regular basis made him wish to be anywhere else on earth.
Good Lord, he thought. A dull ache was beginning to press behind his eyes as the Earl had gone to fetch the chamber pot. He returned to the room, producing it with a flourish, to a cheer far more befitting a knock-out blow at a boxing final.
The chamber pot was passed around beneath the table, eliciting an array of happy groans and sighs as it made its rounds.
The Earl took a long draw on his pipe and blew a line of smoke upwards. “I tried to take her to the cock fighting,” he told the men, most of whom were now jacketless, their waistcoats unbuttoned over bloated stomachs. “Next thing I know, she’s out cold in my lap.”
There it is again. That forced laughter.
Ernest had felt this way since his return from the war, three years earlier. After facing his own mortality, the flippant concerns of the ton seemed so pointless, so insignificant. How could a man be expected to care about the Earl of Landon’s latest exploits when he had watched his friends die around him?
Ernest was growing less and less tolerant as his thirtieth birthday grew near. Then again, there had always been a part of him that had found something mildly cringe worthy about a group of grown men passing around a chamber pot and pissing beneath the table.
His father, the Duke of Armson, who was sitting beside him, reached over to clap his son over the shoulder. “All right there, boy?”
No doubt he’d noticed the strain in Ernest’s grin.
Ernest nodded, smiled. “All right, sir.” He raised his glass and clinked it against the duke’s.
Ernest had a deep love and respect for his father that even a night with the Earl of Landon could not erase. Outside of the smoking room, the Duke was a well-spoken and intelligent man, deeply committed to preserving the honor of his family name. He had been a strong and imposing figure throughout Ernest’s childhood, but it had never been fear that Ernest had felt for the man. Rather, he’d sought to be as much like his father as he could—well-liked, well-respected and brave.
“You’ll notice Dalton here is rather quiet,” the Duke boomed, giving Ernest another hearty slap on the shoulder. “He’s never been one for animal sports, have you lad? Cock fighting and such.”
Ernest gave a quick smile. “No, sir.”
The Earl leaned forward, jabbing his pipe at Ernest. “What’s the matter, boy? The sight of blood makes you queasy?”
Ernest shrugged coolly and took another mouthful of port. “I prefer my sports to involve a little more skill.” Did he sound like some conceited fop? So be it. Rather a conceited fop, he thought, than a bawdy drunkard like the Earl of Landon.
The Earl snorted. “Like what? Bilbocatch?”
“Dalton was a fine fencer when he was younger,” the Duke announced, jabbing his butter knife into the air like a rapier. “Regional champion and all.” His voice swelled with pride, and more than a little port.
Fencing. Ernest had not thought of such a thing in years. Had not picked up a saber in years. But yes, he remembered. Once that sword had felt like an extension of his own hand. He smiled to himself, warm with the memory.
With the port bottle emptied and the room filled with smoke, the men stood wearily and made their way toward the door.
The Duke walked close beside Ernest. “I hope I didn’t embarrass you tonight.” His voice was low. “Speaking of fencing and the like.”
Ernest chuckled. “No, sir. It’s quite all right.”
He was glad of the memory. Glad to be reminded of a lost part of himself. Glad to remember a time when he had been far less disillusioned with this cigar-scented, smoking-room life than he was now.
Ernest lay in bed with his arms folded behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Despite the healthy serving of port he’d consumed that evening, he felt wide awake.
When had he last seen it? Certainly, before he’d been shipped off to fight. Probably before his days in Cambridge. Was it still in the house? And, more to the point, why had he suddenly become so obsessed with the damned thing?
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Ernest knew the answer to that. That sword was a tiny piece of his old, satisfied life—a life he longed to have back. The sense of feeling out of place was growing stronger with each passing year. A strange thing, he thought, to feel such a foreigner in the very house one had been born and raised in.
He slid out of bed and pulled on his trousers, tucking his nightshirt into them messily. He lit a candle and made his way out into the hallway. The house was quiet, save for one of the kitchen maid’s soft footsteps in an attic bedroom above his head. Outside the window, he heard the faint coo of an owl.
Ernest made his way past the closed bedroom doors of his mother and father, reaching one of the guest rooms at the end of the passage. He slipped soundlessly inside. This room, the smallest of the four guest chambers, was rarely used, the large oak bed draped with curtains that he was sure had not been drawn in years. A large wardrobe lined one wall. Ernest set the candle down and opened the large wooden doors. The hinges groaned in protest.
This wardrobe, Ernest knew, had become a veritable shrine to him, firstborn son and only surviving child of the Duke and Duchess of Armson. His mother had requested each piece of clothing he had outgrown to be placed in the wardrobe, along with other scraps of his childhood—school books and skittles, a set of faded toy soldiers.
Ernest had always known it to be strange behavior, of course, the way his mother had hoarded away every moment of his childhood. But he supposed he couldn’t blame her. Though the Duke and Duchess had been married more than thirty years, he and his sister, Unity, had been the only children to arrive.
Unity had died in the cradle—had been and gone before his time. She was rarely spoken about within the household. The only reminder that she had ever existed was the small, worn gravestone hidden amongst the resting places of the rest of his family.
Ernest brought the candle close to the rack and pushed aside the clothes. If his fencing sword were anywhere in the house, it would be here. The cupboard smelled musty and neglected, a sudden burst of dust making him sneeze. Had his mother ever once looked at these things, he wondered? Would she notice if he was to give them away?
Behind the clothes, he found an old pair of boxing gloves, along with battledore and shuttlecock rackets. No sword.
He moved to the other side of the wardrobe. More clothing: boy-sized waistcoats and ruffled shirts, a skeleton suit with a tear at the knee. Beneath the clothes sat a small wooden chest. Ernest peered at it curiously.
What is this?
He knelt, running his fingers over the delicate carvings on the lid. He had never seen such a thing before. Had it belonged to his mother? He lifted it from the wardrobe and sat it on the floor beside him. He opened the lid. Inside, a pile of clothes was neatly folded. Ernest reached in and took the garment from the top of the pile. It was a child’s smock, the neckline delicately embroidered with pink and purple flowers and a garland of intertwined leaves. The linen was soft and smelled faintly musty, but he could tell the garment had barely been worn. He sat it down and reached for the next item. A soft, cloth bonnet, its ribbons matched the pink and purple flowers embroidered on the smock.
Girl’s clothing. Unity’s no doubt.
Ernest stopped abruptly, the bonnet hanging from his hand. Unity had lived mere months, or so he had been told. And yet these were not the clothes of a newborn. These were a toddler’s clothes; smocks and gowns and bonnets made for a child to race around the square and play in the manor gardens.
He hesitated. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps these clothes had been his. He dug into the chest and pulled out the remainder of the garments, searching for something that might trigger a faint memory within him. But no. The clothes in the chest were all gowns and bloomers and embroidered smocks. They had clearly belonged to a girl.
Ernest closed the lid of the chest, suddenly feeling an intruder. He slid it back into the wardrobe where he had found it.
His thoughts were racing. Sleep, he knew, would not be forthcoming for many hours yet.
Those clothes in the chest had belonged to someone. And Ernest was determined to find out who.
Rachel Bell peered around the ballroom, searching for the man whose arm she supposed she ought to leave on. It was well past midnight, and the ball had descended into a noisy, messy affair. Men and women were howling with laughter and cursing like sailors. Most had dispensed with the masquerade hours ago, and now brightly-colored masks were strewn across the floor, flattened by footsteps and endless, drunken gavottes.
Rachel leaned back against the wall. She had not seen her client for at least half an hour. He had disappeared to relieve himself, then vanished into the crowd with a group of men he had seemed to know.
Rachel yawned, tapping her foot impatiently. She’d leave if it weren’t for the fact that the bastard hadn’t yet paid her.
Finally, she caught sight of him ambling across the ballroom, a wide grin on his face and his cheeks flushed. He was wearing his mask—some unimpressive black thing he’d clearly found on his wardrobe floor minutes before he was due to leave—but it sat crookedly across his face and appeared to cover one eye.
He kissed her neck. “My beauty.”
Rachel forced a smile. He stank of sweat and liquor. “My money?”
The man grumbled to himself, but dug into his coin pouch and handed over her fee. Then he slid his arm around her waist and guided her toward the door. Rachel had hoped he might have had a few too many visits to the punch bowl to bother taking full advantage of her services offered, but he was heading to an alleyway across the road with renewed vigor and a gleam in his eye.
Soon they were stumbling into the shadows like dogs.
You might at least have found us a decent room.
Rachel had come across men like him before. Men who liked the allure of the dark alley, the thrill that they might one day be caught. Men who liked to cast off the restraints of their station and become someone else for the night.
This man was all sausage fingers and skin that felt like a wet frog.
She looked away as he grunted and puffed and thrust inside her, fat fingers gripping her shoulder and his breath hot on her neck. Rachel willed herself away. She had become adept at letting her mind exit her body, for a few, blissful moments. She thought about Christmas time. Chocolate cake. Thought about the sea. What a long time it had been since she had seen the sea.
The man finished with an overly-dramatic groan. Rachel rolled her eyes, hiding a yawn. He straightened, tidied himself, then gave her a thin smile. And like that, he was gone.
She let out an enormous sigh, leaning back against the wall to count the money he had paid her. Her mask lay on the cobbles beside her, the feathers muddied and drooping.
She stuffed her coin pouch back into her pocket and made her way out to the street for a cab.
As she always did, Rachel asked the driver to take her to Bishopsgate. From there, it was a good mile’s walk to her tenement in Bethnal Green, but she hated to admit where she lived, even to a stranger. The area was cramped and filthy, waste in the streets and windows patched with rags. In the red silk dress she had worn to the masquerade, Rachel knew she could have passed for a lady. But to admit she lived in the Bethnal Green slums, it would have become clear she was nothing but an escort.
Still, she thought dully, no doubt such a thing was evident from the way she slunk home at this time of night without a husband at her side.
Rachel trudged up the stairs of her tenement and pushed open the door to her single-room apartment. She lit a candle and poured a cup of brandy from the bottle on the shelf. She sank into a chair at the rickety table in the center of the room and took a long sip. She felt the alcohol slide down her throat, easing the tension in her shoulders. The flickering candlelight made shadows dance across the table. Outside, she could hear drunken laughter and the distant barking of a dog. The first birds of the dawn twittered noisily. She could smell the faint waft of baking bread coming from the bakery at the end of the road. Rachel closed her eyes, exhausted.
One day soon, she told herself, this life would be nothing but a memory. One day soon, she would find a far better way to make her living. She would go to work each morning, and this edge of the night would be a time for sleeping.
She laughed to herself as she took another gulp of brandy. Fine ideas. And yet that far better way of making her living remained an elusive, unreachable thing. She couldn’t sew, and her reading and writing were messy and uncertain. She had no references that might see her hired in one of the grand houses that many of her clients lived in.
Still, plenty of the girls she had worked with had made better lives for themselves. Some had married clients and been swept away into lavish lives of manor houses and motherhood. Ellen Bailey had even scrabbled her way out of the taverns and brothels and masquerade balls and found decent work as a governess.
So, Rachel had hope, however faint and fading. Her parents had had hopes for her too. Her father had been a waterman, with a boat all of his own. He had made enough money to give his wife and daughter a comfortable home, a comfortable life. For a few years, Rachel had even attended the local charity school. She had learned to read and write, to do simple arithmetic. She told her parents she would grow up to become a governess. But then a brutal, unending winter had fallen over the city and turned the Thames into a ribbon of ice. With her father unable to work, their money had disappeared quickly. Within months, their comfortable home had been seized by the bank.
Her family had found lodgings here in Bethnal Green; a sorry, single-roomed apartment in a building that looked as though it would topple over with each breath of wind. There had been no fireplace in the room—not that they’d had money for coal anyway—and the patched windows did little to keep the winter outside. Their water jugs had frozen over, and they had shivered in their beds. Illness had seized her father first, then, less than a month later, her mother. Rachel had been sixteen years old when she had watched her parents’ coffins lowered into the earth.
And so, an escort.
It was not the life either Rachel or her parents had hoped for. But it was far better than frozen water jugs and a room without a fire. The room she had now was a palace compared to the place she had shared with her parents.
She had been living this life for three years. And while it often felt as though it had been far longer, Rachel had not lost that faint glimmer of hope that one day things would improve.
“You’ll be out of this life soon,” she told herself aloud.
She didn’t know how; she only knew she would.
Ernest awoke early, determined. He had slept little, but despite his heavy eyes and a lingering, port-induced headache, he felt full of energy. There were questions to be asked. Truths to uncover. Something about that box of clothing in the wardrobe was just not right, and he intended to find out what.
There was something strangely pleasant to his determination, something stimulating about having a renewed sense of purpose. With the season upon them, his life of late had been an endless cycle of balls, in which a parade of lacy, feathered, pink and purple potential wives had been thrust upon him. Ernest had danced and chatted and laughed that laugh that didn’t reach his eyes.
He knew, of course, it was high time he married. After the war, he’d told himself. But he’d been back from the war for almost three years. His bachelorhood was a thing he’d become reluctant to dispose of. The women he’d met at the balls had felt like copies of each other, dull and uninspiring. Their conversations had revolved around trivial things like the weather, or so-and-so’s upcoming marriage to the duke of who-cared-where.
No, Ernest had thought, he did not want any of those women as his wife. If he were to marry, it would be to a woman he would be excited to wake up beside. And the more balls and garden parties he attended, he felt that such a woman simply did not exist.
And so, a sense of purpose. Solving the mystery of the clothing in the chest felt far more pressing than finding a wife or entertaining the likes of the Earl of Landon.
Where do I begin?
Though he knew he was treading on painful ground, Ernest had to speak to his mother.
He found the Duchess in her withdrawing room, dressed in a shapeless grey gown. An embroidery sampler lay in her lap, the needle and thread dangling from her listless fingers. She was gazing out the window with faraway eyes.
“Mother,” said Ernest, “may I speak with you?”
The Duchess forced a smile. “Of course.” She gestured to the chair opposite her with a limp hand. Ernest sat.
“It’s about my sister,” he said bluntly, “about Unity.”
The last hint of color drained from the Duchess’ face. “Unity,” she murmured, turning back to the window.
“Yes, Mother. What can you tell me about her?”
The Duchess continued to stare vacantly for a for moments. She glanced down at her lap. Seeming to remember the sampler, she lifted it up and began to stitch. Ernest saw a faint tremor in her hand. “Your sister died as an infant,” she said, her voice low and cracked. “You know that.”
Ernest hummed noncommittally. “How old was she?”
The Duchess paused. “A few weeks. A month, perhaps.”
Strange that she would not remember such a thing.
Surely the date of a child’s death would be imprinted in her mother’s memory.
“A month,” he repeated.
“Yes.” This time there was more certainty in the Duchess’ voice. “A month. That’s right.”
But Ernest knew a lie when he heard one. Ought he press his mother? Tell her he had found the chest of clothing in the wardrobe? Admit he could see through this thin-veiled falsity?
He opened his mouth to speak, then hesitated. Regardless of whether or not his mother was lying, his sister was not in their lives. No doubt such a thing brought the Duchess great pain. He needed to find out more, but his fragile mother was not the person to press on the matter.
He gave her a short nod. “I see.”
Ernest found himself pacing across the parlor, his shoes clicking rhythmically across the floorboards. The conversation with his mother had left him even more certain that there were things he didn’t know about his sister’s death.
What if she is not dead at all?
The possibility swung at him suddenly. Was it completely mad to entertain such a thought? He had visited Unity’s headstone on countless occasions. But was there even a scrap of possibility that there might be no grave beneath?
Yes, Ernest decided. He had to consider that such a thing might be the case. If he was to find out the truth, he had to stay open to all possibilities, however strange.
So perhaps his sister was alive. She would be thirty years old by now, and would have a life of her own. Perhaps a family of her own. Ernest inhaled sharply at the thought. If his sister was really out there, he had to find her. But how? His mother had all but closed down on the issue, and Ernest knew she would be of no help at all.
Where does one begin when he seeks to find a woman within the heaving maze of London?
There was nothing, Ernest realized, to say Unity was even still in the city. Perhaps life had taken her to some far-flung county, or even another land. And then, of course, was the far more reasonable possibility that those clothes had belonged to someone else entirely. Perhaps they had belonged to a child of a servant or a cousin. Perhaps his bored mind was finding mysteries, instead of seeking out the most rational explanation. Perhaps finding his sister was just an intriguing distraction from the drudgery of finding a wife. Ernest heard himself laugh out loud at the bizarre path his thoughts had begun to careen down.
But then he stopped pacing. Unity was alive. He felt strangely sure of it. There was something stirring inside of him, a restlessness he had always been aware of, yet unable to explain. What if his missing, living sister was the cause of it?
He had to search. Had to know the truth. But, where to begin? Why, in the household itself, of course. There was a seemingly endless parade of scullery maids and grooms, stewards and lady’s maids who had come and gone as Ernest had grown up.
But there were also those who had stayed. Fresh-faced kitchen maids who had become hunched and greying women as the years had passed. Their butler had seen decades of visitors through the duke’s front door. And the groom, Phillips, was the only person the Duke had ever trusted with his family’s horses. Perhaps these faithful servants might have something to offer Ernest about his missing sister.
Mrs. Graham, the housekeeper, had been with the household for as long as Ernest could remember. She would be a fine person to ask.
He made his way down toward the basement kitchen, feeling very much an intruder. He hurried past the laundry and Mrs. Graham’s sleeping quarters, averting his glance in case he should see something not intended for his eyes. As he burst into the kitchen, Mary, their teenaged kitchen chambermaid, snorted a mouthful of porridge in surprise. She leaped to her feet, her spoon clattering against the bowl.
She bobbed a curtsey and used the back of her hand to wipe hurriedly at the milk dribbling off her chin. “Lord Dalton. I was just…I—”
Ernest gave her a warm smile. “It’s all right, Mary. Forgive me. I didn’t mean to startle you.” He looked about the kitchen. He had not been inside since he was a boy, when he and his cousin Thomas had sneaked in looking for sweetmeats. “I’m looking for Mrs. Graham.”
Mary knotted her fingers into her apron. “She’s upstairs, My Lord. Pulling that new housemaid into line. Shall I tell her you wish to speak with her?”
Ernest gave her another reassuring smile. “That’s quite all right. I can find her myself.” He nodded toward the porridge. “Please. Finish your breakfast.”
He found Mrs. Graham and the new housemaid in the parlor, exchanging terse, muttered words. Ernest waited in the doorway. At the sight of him, Mrs. Graham let out a gasp.
“Forgive me, Lord Dalton. I didn’t—”
Ernest made his way toward her, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “May we speak, Mrs. Graham?”
The housekeeper frowned in surprise, the creases on her forehead deepening. “Why yes, My Lord. Of course.” She shot a fierce glare at the housemaid, shooing her away with a leathery, lined hand.
Ernest folded his hands behind his back. “You were here when my sister passed away.” He kept his voice low, not wanting his mother to overhear from the withdrawing room across the hall.
Surprise flickered across Mrs. Graham’s eyes. Then she nodded. “Yes, My Lord. It was a sad time indeed.”
Was the old woman’s voice wavering slightly? Or was he simply imagining things?
“Can you tell me how she died?”
Mrs. Graham hesitated. “Why, she was a sickly baby. Weak from the moment she was born. We was all surprised she lived as long as she did.” She gave a sad, dramatic sigh.
The same story Ernest had been fed throughout his entire life. No doubt the household staff had been given the same tale. Or told to tell the same tale. Ernest felt that restlessness inside him shift and build.
Deciding he would get no more from Mrs. Graham, he made his way out to the stables.
Ernest had always liked their groom. As a boy, he had visited the stables often to hear Phillips’ tales of his time at sea; adventurous yarns populated with pirates and smugglers and cannon fire. Ernest had known, of course, that Phillips’ stories were most likely made up, but the fact hadn’t stopped him from enjoying them.
The Duke had frowned upon Ernest spending so much time with one of their servants, determined that his son associate only with people of his own standing. It was one of the few things Ernest and the Duke did not see eye-to-eye on. How could he come to know of the world, he argued, if he spent his time around people just like him?
“All the things worth knowing,” his father would say in return, “can be learned by spending time with people of our caliber.”
Ernest knew better than to fight with his father. And so, he had always waited until the Duke was out of the house to visit Phillips. His mother had always been too withdrawn to either notice or care.
Phillips looked up as Ernest swung open the door of the stables. He was running a comb through the mane of the piebald mare, rubbing the animal’s nose and speaking in gentle murmurs.
“You’re not taking her out again, My Lord,” he said, in a curt, husky voice. “You ran the poor girl ragged yesterday. She’s not as young as she used to be.” He turned back to the horse, as she nosed his shoulder. “You and I have that in common, don’t we, my girl.”
Ernest smiled. “I’ll let her rest, Phillips. It’s you I came to speak to.”
The groom raised his caterpillar eyebrows. “Oh yes?”
“It’s about my sister.”
Phillips didn’t speak at once. “Oh yes,” he said again. Ernest heard the strain in his voice.
This time, I’m not imagining it.
Ernest hesitated. “I believe she’s alive,” he said bluntly, watching the old man’s face carefully to gauge his reaction.
Phillips’ face gave nothing away. He turned to Ernest. “And why do you think that?”
Ernest held his gaze. “I have my reasons. What can you tell me about her? You were here when she—” He paused, “when she left.”
The old man turned back to the horse, combing her mane with renewed vigor. The back of Ernest’s neck prickled.
Phillips knows something.
Ernest felt a sudden swell of resentment for the household he had grown up in. There was rarely a hair out of place in all of Graceton Manor, yet there were so many unspoken things lying beneath the surface, Ernest felt sure. Secrets stuffed into wardrobes and pain hidden behind curtains of pipe smoke. Sometimes this place was simply suffocating.
He took a step closer to Phillips. “You know something,” he said.
The groom shook his head. “No. I arrived here just months before you were born. Your sister was already gone.” He rubbed his bristly chin, as though deep in thought. “But there’s a man you might speak to. George Owen. He used to tend the gardens here when you was just a lad. I heard him speak of the girl on more than one occasion. Said he used to cut the thorns from the roses, so she didn’t prick her fingers.” He ran a wiry hand along the horse’s mane. “I used to think it strange. After all, everybody said your poor sister died when she was just an infant.”
Ernest’s thoughts knocked together. He thought of a tiny girl playing among the rose bushes, dressed in a smock embroidered with flowers.
“This man, Mr. Owen. Where can I find him?”
Phillips shrugged. “I’m sorry, sir. I ain’t got any thought of where he is now. He was an east London man. Came from Bethnal Green. Perhaps you might try asking there.”
Ernest nodded, full of fresh determination. He nodded at Phillips. “Thank you.”
The old man narrowed his eyes. “Not a word to anyone about what I just told you. Your father would have me out on the street.”
As Ernest made his way out of the stable, he heard Phillips call to him. He turned back to face the old man.
“Be careful, My Lord,” the groom said, his eyes hard and determined. “If you go out there looking, make sure you’re ready for what you might find.”
Ernest stood in front of the mirror, feeling a right fool.
The patched grey greatcoat he had borrowed from Phillips hung from his shoulders. Too embarrassed to ask the old man for his unmentionables, he wore a pair of faded corduroy trousers he had found by raiding the laundry room.
He eyed himself. The trousers were far too big, and not wanting to give away the game by accessorizing with one of his own leather belts, Ernest had tied them at the waist with a length of rope. Phillips’ coat, in contrast, was so tight around the shoulders that Ernest could barely lift his arms. He buttoned the greatcoat to his neck, careful to cover the silk shirt he wore beneath. Catch a glimpse of such a thing, and the people of Bethnal Green would know he was a fraud. He combed his fingers through his thick auburn hair, doing his best to untidy it. His thick locks fell neatly back into place, half an inch above his collar. Ernest sighed and pulled on the blue woolen cap he had borrowed from the groom. Perhaps he might pass for a working-class man if he kept his collar up and his eyes down.
Out of sight of the Duke and Duchess, Ernest slipped out of the house and hurried through the grounds, careful to trudge through as many mud puddles as possible to take the shine from his boots.
It was a long walk from Pimlico to Bethnal Green, but he was determined to play the part, and so dug his hands into his pockets and began to stride through the city.
He watched the streets change from whitewashed avenues to winding, lightless lanes. Watched suits and embroidered waistcoats replaced by grimy shirts, flower sellers replaced by beggars. How foreign the East End was to him…
Despite his upbringing, Ernest had never considered himself a sheltered man. He had spent two years marching across Europe in the army and had seen plenty of his own country on holiday jaunts during his university days.
And yet this part of the city felt like another world. Here, houses were crammed together, and were so crooked they looked to be holding each other up. Through the windows that were not patched with rags, he could see countless people in each room. In the late afternoon light, men stumbled out of taverns and argued in the street. Women sat on street corners with wailing babes in their arms. And the smell, good Lord, that smell…that unidentifiable mix of waste and rot and death. Ernest had never come across anything so vile.
For a moment, he stood motionless on the corner of the street. How was it possible that so many people might live this way, while the ton swanned about comparing vintages of their favorite wines? The injustice of it began to burn inside him.
He hoped Unity had not ended up in this part of the city.
But he was not looking for Unity here, he reminded himself. He was looking for George Owen. A man who was little more than a name. Ernest had no idea where to begin.
Glancing down a shadowy alleyway, he caught sight of a sign swinging from the awnings. A pawn shop.
As good a place to begin as any.
Ernest pulled his hat lower over his ridiculously-neat hair and made his way down the alley. He pushed open the door. The shop was gloomy; its window bathed in dust and partially blocked by an enormous wooden chest of drawers.
The man behind the counter looked him up and down.
“Buying or selling?” he asked huskily.
Ernest frowned. “I beg your pardon?”
“Are you buying or selling?” the man repeated, impatience in his voice.
“Ah. Neither, I’m afraid. I’m simply after information.”
The shopkeeper studied him with narrow, flinty eyes. “Information? It’ll cost you.”
Ernest nodded and dug into his pocket. He hesitated. What was an appropriate sum for such a thing? Offer too little, and the man would refuse to speak. But offer too much and his ruse as a working-class man would be destroyed. He pulled a penny from inside his coat and dropped it on the counter. The man took it, sliding it into his pocket. He looked at Ernest knowingly.
“You got plenty more where that come from, don’t you now?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Ernest. “I’ve had little work this week. I’ve been too ill to venture down into the mines.” He could feel his cheeks flushing at the ridiculousness of his lies.
“Too ill to venture down into the mines,” the man echoed. “You’ve a tongue like a king, yet can only manage a penny?”
Sighing, Ernest dug into his pocket and produced a shilling. He’d only been at this game five minutes, and already his cover was blown.
The man grinned. “That’s more like it.” He scooped up the money. “Now what is it you want to know?”
“George Owen,” said Ernest. “Do you know him?”
The man flashed him a row of crooked, yellow teeth. “No, sir. I do not.” His smile widened. “But I thank you for your time.”
Ernest trudged back out to the street. A man stumbled past him, a bottle of brandy swinging from his fist. “Excuse me, sir,” called Ernest. “Do you know a man named George Owen?”
The man whirled around, stared at him, then burst into a wild cackle. He tossed back another mouthful of liquor.
Ernest sighed. This was pointless. What had he been thinking, striding into the city and just hoping someone might be able to help him?
He looked about him. In a nearby street, someone had lit a fire, and its orange glow was illuminating the shadows. On the corner sat a crooked stone tavern, men spilling out onto the street. Ernest could hear laughter coming from inside.
Good. I need a drink.
Weaving his way through the drunkards, Ernest pushed his way inside.
The tavern was dark and noisy, the room filled with loud voices and the clinking of glasses. Lamps flickered at each end of the bar, long shadows lying over the room. A curtain of pipe smoke hung in the air.
Ernest removed his hat. It wasn’t fooling anyone, he felt sure. It just made him look like more of an idiot. He pushed his way toward the bar and ordered a brandy. Glass in hand, he wove toward an empty table in the corner of the room, too self-conscious to stay in view. He tossed back the brandy. It was hot and fierce in his throat, nothing like the smooth vintages he was accustomed to drinking. But the burn of it made him feel alive. And so did the pulsing energy of this place.
Ernest had always known his life had been a privileged one. He had always known, of course, how lucky he had been to have been born into a family with money. He had always had everything he needed: food, clothing, entertainment. And he had always known that there were plenty of others who were not so fortunate. But that knowledge had always been a distant, theoretical thing. A thing he had not realized the full impact of until he had ventured out here to hunt down the mythical George Owen.
I need another brandy.
As he made his way back to the bar, a shout rose up from a corner of the tavern. Ernest turned to see a tall, broad-shouldered man waving an arm in the air wildly. The man’s other hand was clamped around the wrist of a young woman. She was dressed alluringly in a tightly-laced green dress, her blonde hair piled messily on top of her head. A working-girl, Ernest guessed, though he’d had little experience with such a thing.
The man pulled the woman toward him, her feet shuffling on the floor. Seized with urgency, Ernest shoved his way across the tavern, trying to reach them. But then the woman stepped closer to the man and pinned him with fierce eyes. She hissed at him with words Ernest couldn’t hear. The man let his hand fall. Tossing a lock of blonde hair over her shoulder, the woman turned and strode across the tavern.
Ernest found himself staring after her, a strange unbidden blaze beginning to take root inside him.
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