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Authors: Anita Mills

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Regency

Secret Night (9 page)

BOOK: Secret Night
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It was a point to be considered, given the woman's reputation as an opium user. Patrick wavered, then nodded. At that moment the door opened again, and the doorkeeper ushered the thin, wan Pearl inside. The girl wore only a shapeless dress of faded muslin, without any wrap about her narrow shoulders. Before Elise could protest, Maddie Coates herself went to the brass rack inside the door and took down a heavy shawl. Not looking at Elise, she draped it around Pearl.

"Good riddance ter ye," she muttered. "Ye can go wi' yer fancy mort like ye was wantin'."

The girl tried to speak, only to be overcome by coughing. The bark was deep and hollow, drawing Patrick's attention. As he took in the yellowish skin and the sunken eyes, he felt a deep pity for her. She was not long for this world.

Elise reached to take what appeared to be no more than a dress bundled into a rag. "Come on, Pearl," she said briskly. "We shall see you are better fed and cared for. I am taking you to London Hospital." As she said it, she glanced defiantly at the madam.

But the girl quaked. "Not Lunnon—not the Lun-non, miss!"

"Why not?"

"It ain't far from the poorhouse," Maddie Coates answered for her.

"Don't never want ter go back," the girl insisted, whimpering pitifully.

"All right, then—the Royal Hospital in Chelsea," Elise decided. "Good day, Mrs. Coates. Mr. Hamilton."

With that, she took Pearl's arm and hastily thrust the girl through the door. The footman hesitated, then followed.

"Come back when ye ain't with her, me fine buck, and Maddie'll fix ye up with a girl as knows what she's made fer!" the madam shouted after him. "Humph!" she grumbled, turning back to Patrick. "Don't know why the preachin' fools don't leave well enough alone. It ain't going ter make no difference if she was to get ter a doctor," she declared with feeling. "What's he goin' ter do fer her, I ask ye?—give her a bleedin' or a physickin'? At least I gave 'er clean sheets, and I wasn't lettin' the' customers at her."

"Then why did you sell her?"

The woman shrugged. "Fifty pounds is fifty pounds, ain't it?" A slow smile turned her rouged cheeks into round apples. "Besides, I got your bill ter pay, ye know." Moving to a carved wooden cabinet, she unlocked it and drew out a heavy box. Lifting the lid, she took out a bag and began carefully counting out a goodly sum of money. Frowning, she stopped and brought a wad of banknotes to him.

"Well, it ain't quite all I owe ye," she admitted. "But ye'll get the rest within the week, I promise ye."

"All right." He slipped the money beneath his coat.

"Aye, I'll get yer money," she said, her expression suddenly odd. "I think I know where ter get it."

"Don't lift any purses," he advised her. "My services come dearer the second time."

She smiled secretively. "Old gents get queer starts, don't ye know," she murmured. "Aye, they do. And I got one as wouldn't want me ter blabber."

"Maddie, don't do anything that could get you into more trouble."

"Eh? No, I got real rich coves as spends their gold wi' me." She leaned closer, nearly whispering, "I had this one old gent, rich as a nabob he is, but he wasn't wantin' the regular—and me gels didn't like 'im at all." Her expression grew distant, her voice low. "Had a fancy for Peg oncet, but she was afeared of 'im, so I put a stop to it." Abruptly she changed the subject. "Well, it don't matter now, anyways, as Peg is dead, and I got me bills ter pay, don't I? Tell ye what—ye go on, and Big Tom'll bring ye the rest o' what I owe ye tomorrow."

"I know a heave-ho when I see one," he said.

"Well, if ye was wantin' ter stay, I got a gel upstairs as can make ye think she's Quality, I swear it. Pretty hair, pretty face, and pretty manners—got white hands like a latly. I don't let any but the gentry coves have her, ye know," she added slyly.

"Not today. Besides, if I were to take my fees in trade, I'd have an office filled with sheep and chickens, I'm afraid."

The woman grinned broadly. "Aye, ye don't have ter pay fer the gels anyways, do ye? Ye got 'em all a castin' out lures to ye, don't ye? Well, then off with ye, and let me tend ter matters."

"Good day, Maddie. Try to stay away from the opium until I am paid, will you?"

"Ye'll get yer money—ye will."

As he emerged out into the gray day, he could see that Elise Rand and the girl still waited at the curb. The footman, who'd not uttered a word inside, had disappeared, probably to fetch a carriage. He would have gone on without saying anything further to them, but the corner of his eye caught a careening coach headed toward the women.

"Watch out!" he shouted.

But neither of them saw it. Without thinking, he lowered his shoulder and ran at them, hitting Rand's daughter with such force that she struck the pavement hard and rolled with him in a tangle of arms and legs as the vehicle jumped the curb. The coach teetered precariously, then fell. There was a sound of splitting wood and the neighing of frightened horses. One of the wheels spun in the air above Patrick's head.

Elise Rand lay still beneath him, but he could feel the rise and fall of her breast beneath his chest, and he could hear her gasp for breath. Gingerly, he rolled off her and sat up, narrowly missing the iron-clad wheel.

"Are you all right?"

Her blue eyes widened as she stared up at the underside of the coach. She turned her head toward where Pearl lay and saw the blootly gash on the girl's forehead. With an effort Elise crawled to her.

"Pearl!" The girl did not move. Elise shook her, but there was no response. With that, she sat up, leaned her head on her knees, and began to cry softly.

Patrick moved between them and cradled Pearl's head against his leg. Leaning over her, he listened carefully to her chest, then straightened. "She's alive."

Elise swallowed hard. "Are you certain? She doesn't—"

"She took a bad blow, but she'll survive that at least." Gently easing the girl off, her stood up and dusted his hands on his buff trousers. "Near thing though."

"Yes—yes, it was." From where Elise sat, he looked so very tall. Forcing a painful smile, she managed to struggle to her feet. "Thank you, sir. 'Twas a very brave thing—I expect I owe you my life."

Her expensive walking dress was torn, and her red-gold hair straggled about her face. She reached to touch a bleeding scrape on her cheek carefully, wincing.

"You'd better get home and tend this," he said, dabbing at it with his handkerchief.

"Miss! Whatever—?" her returning coachman gasped. As his eyes took in the overturned carriage, he shook his head. "Gor blimey—ye nearly bought the ticket." Then he looked down at Pearl. "Lud a-mercy."

"Yes, she is going to be all right, Will," Elise said without conviction. "But we've got to get her to the hospital."

By now, a crowd had gathered, and several were clamoring that the driver ought to be punished, but the fellow had apparently fled down an alleyway. A few stout men climbed over the wrecked coach, then one shouted, "Ain't anybotly inside!"

"Can you lift her, do you think?" Elise asked her coachman anxiously.

"Aye, miss." To demonstrate, he bent down and picked the slight girl up, staggering slightly as he shifted her over his shoulder. One of her arms hung limply at her side, and her feet dangled below his waist. "Which hospital?"

"The Royal, I think."

"Lunnon's closer."

"Yes, but she has no wish to go there." Holding out her hand to Patrick, Elise met his gaze briefly. "I am in your debt, sir."

He didn't want to let her go. "While Will is taking the girl, I'd see you home, Miss Rand."

"Someone has to admit her, and I expect there will be a charge." She glanced to where Will was alreatly laying the girl onto the velvet seat of her father's carriage. "I expect I ought to go with her."

"If you do, you'll be ogled by every jack in the place." He reached under his now dirty coat and drew out his money. Peeling off several banknotes, he walked over and handed them to the coachey. "Give them this so they know she is not a charity case."

"Aye, sor. But—"

"They'll require her name." Elise turned to Maddie, who'd belatedly come out of her house. "I'll need her full name, I expect."

"She don't have none," the woman answered. "She was a foundling—'twas me as named her Pearl. I got girls as is called Opal, Jewel, Ruby, like that. I called her that 'cause she was so pale. There's men as likes the delicate ones, ye know."

"No, I wouldn't know," Elise muttered. As Will stood waiting, she decided, "Yes—well, perhaps we ought to say she is a Smith, then." She looked down at her torn dress, saw the street grime on her arms, then sighed. "I expect I'd best bathe ere Papa sees me," she decided. "Otherwise I shall be quite in the basket."

"If Miss Pearl don't stay, where am I ter take her?" Will inquired nervously.

"I doubt they will release her today. But if there is not a bed for her—" Elise hesitated, knowing full well that her father would not take the girl in. She looked up at Patrick hopefully.

"No, Miss Rand, I will not."

"Well, I did not expect
you
would, but I thought perhaps you might know of someone, and—" "No."

"For a moment I forgot who you were, didn't I?" she muttered.

"Gratitude is such a fleeting thing, isn't it?" he chided her.

"Alas, but I am rather vexed just now," she retorted. "Will, you are to go on, and I shall try to come to the hospital later to see how she fares. You'd best stay with her until I get there." She walked to her father's coach. "Pearl, you are going to be all right," she promised the limp girl. "As soon as I can, I shall come to see you."

The coachman eyed her balefully for a moment, then heaved himself into the seat across from the girl. "Ye ain't going ter let yer papa turn me off, are ye?"

"Of course not. Hopefully, he will not notice anything is amiss, but if he does, I will make certain he knows the fault was mine." Turning back to Patrick, she exhaled heavily. "Well, I'd best not tarry."

"Afraid Rand will read a peal over you?" Patrick asked gently.

"Well, I have hopes he will not be at home."

He took her arm and started toward his hired hackney. "You could say you were set upon, I suppose."

"Mr. Hamilton, I am not given to telling lies."

"Nonsense, Miss Rand. You are, after all, a female."

"Of all the impolite things to say," she declared sourly as he gave her a boost into the coach. Sinking back against plain leather squabs, she waited for him to take the seat across from her. Her eyes took in the stark interior curiously. "One would think you did not prosper," she observed.

"I'm afraid I leave ostentation to those above and below me."

"A set-down, Mr. Hamilton?"

"No more than yours," he countered cheerfully. "Actually, I find it easier to hire a hackney than to put my pair to my gig, particularly when I am going to have to leave them standing somewhere."

"Then how are they properly exercised?"

"I have a boy who walks them every day, and I take the whole rig out on weekends when court is not in session."

"You must surely be the first gentleman I've met who will own that he works for anything," she murmured.

He leaned back against his seat and regarded her quizzically.

"I would you did not do that."

"I could say I was paying court to your beauty."

"You'd best save your Spanish coin for those who can appreciate it."

A faint smile played at the corners of his mouth. "You cover yourself with quite a shield, don't you?"

"Mr. Hamilton, I am on the shelf."

"And determinedly so."

"Yes."

"Why?"

"That, sir, is none of your affair."

"But it is a sad waste." As she turned her head to stare out the hackney window, he could not help admiring her fine profile and the way the light filtered through stray strands of her unusual hair. "Someone played fast with your heart, didn't he?" When she did not answer, he said softly, "I cannot think you were jilted, Miss Rand."

For a moment she continued to stare silently, then she swallowed visibly. "Only by death, sir."

"Then there was someone."

"Yes." Almost defiantly, she turned her face toward his. "His name was Benjamin Rose," she said evenly.

If she expected him to show surprise, she was destined for disappointment. He merely digested the name and nodded. "Samuel Rose's son."

"Yes. Does that shock you?"

"No. Sam Rose is a good man. I've sent more than one client to him."

"Papa called him a heathen cent per cent and worse," she recalled bitterly. "For two years, he would not hear of it, and then when he finally realized I would not change my mind, he allowed the engagement to proceed. Not the marriage—only the engagement. But," she acknowledged, "Ben's father felt much the same way as Papa."

"Why didn't you elope to Gretna?"

She stared unseeing out the window again, this time looking backward in her mind. It was a question that did not bear the asking, yet this time she answered it. "Because Ben had too much honor," she whispered. "He believed Papa would come to understand."

He felt acutely sorry for her. On impulse, he reached across to cover her hand with his. "I read the newspaper account of what happened," he said gently. "And I am truly sorry."

"Everyone is sorry—even Papa—but that changes nothing. Ben is still dead." When she met his gaze again, her eyes were dry yet haunted. "They slit his throat, sir, and left him to bleed to death alone. For a purse of less than fifty pounds, they murdered him in the street. Everyone is sorry, but no one has paid for it but Ben and me."

There had been no witnesses as he recalled, and given the lack of any real constabulary, he knew no one would ever hang for the crime. "I'm sorry," he said again.

She looked down where his fingers held hers. They were warm, strong, alive. And the ache in her breast was nearly too much to bear. "Thank you," she managed.

He released her hand, and leaning back again, he tried to keep his voice light. "And so now you have devoted your life to the poor and downtrodden, eh?"

BOOK: Secret Night
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ads

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