A LEISURE BOOK®
Dorchester Publishing Co., Inc.
276 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10001
If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."
Copyright © 1997 by Sylvie F. Sommerfield
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law.
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London, England, 1860
The last glow of the sun was fading rapidly. As night began to fall, so did a light, persistent rain. It made the cobblestone streets gleam beneath the gaslights, and encouraged people to remain inside at home or in the local pub.
Only the blue-clad bobby, making his way along his nightly beat, saw the woman who walked hurriedly down the street. She was coming toward him and as she grew closer, he could see she carried a bundle in her arms.
He touched his nightstick to the peak of his hat as they passed.
"Evening, miss. Be careful." He smiled to keep her
from being alarmed. "Stones are pretty slippery and it's a hard night to be out."
"Thank you." Her voice was barely louder than a whisper, and she drew the bundle closer. Because she was draped in a black shawl, he was aware only of large, honey-colored eyes. But he received the impression that the woman was both young and pretty, and certainly not the class of female that walked the streets of London at night.
There was time for no more questions as she made her way past him. He stood for a moment watching her, fighting the irrational feeling that he should follow.
The woman increased her speed after she had passed the bobby, as if she sensed his curiosity. She did not want anyone to follow. In fact, she was more frightened of that possibility than of the night.
She murmured softly, her lips pressed close to the top of the bundle she held so snugly to her.
"Shhh, love, don't cry. We'll be there soon. You'll be safe then. God knows I don't want to do this, but it's the only protection we've got." There were tears in her voice and she drew the bundle even closer to her. "Don't worry, we'll get back at them for this. One day, when the time is right, we'll make them regret they forced us away. Beasts is what they are, beasts. But I'll not let them hurt you and I'll not let them keep what's rightfully yours. Someday"
She ceased her crooning and her steps slowed as she neared an immense fortress of a building, surrounded by an eight-foot fence of iron bars, threateningly spiked at the top. She wondered at the sight.
This place did not have to keep people out. Perhaps it was to keep people in. For a moment she hesitated, gnawing her lower lip in indecision. The plaque attached to the front gate glistened with rain: "Safe Home Orphanage."
She sighed deeply and held the bundle even closer until a muted sound of protest made her relax her hold a bit.
She looked about her. Then, instead of opening the front gate, she walked to a narrow black alleyway at the side of the building. She moved down it swiftly, fear making her fleet-footed.
She stopped in front of an entrance that was protected by iron grillwork, through which she had to extend her arm to rap softly on the wooden door. She waited impatiently and had to reach through to rap again, a bit harder, before she heard the bolt slide and saw the door open a crack.
"Josine," she hissed in a sharp whisper, "it's me. For pity's sake, open the door. I've a great fear that I've been followed."
The door creaked open with a sound that told of years of neglect. A woman reached to unbolt the grillwork door.
"God's tooth," Josine Gilbert said. "I thought you were never going to come. You said someone followed you?"
"I don't know for certain. I never saw anyone. I'm just so afraid."
"'Course you are. That woman is fierce."
"You have to protect the baby, Josine."
"Didn't I give you my word I'd do that? Did you bring everything?"
"Then let's get this child into a bed and sit down with some tea and figure out what steps we take next. You look wet, bedraggled, and froze. Come along."
The grillwork door was relatched securely as was the heavy oak door. Then Josine led the woman and child down a semidark hallway. They went through another heavy oak door, which they also securely locked. Then they went to a room a short distance away. When they locked that door behind them, they breathed a sigh of relief. At this moment both women felt reasonably safe.
"There's a crib in the corner. Lay the child down while you rest yourself. I'll put the kettle on."
The woman moved to a darkened corner and laid the child gently down. Tears streaked her face as her hands tenderly tucked in the blankets. After a few minutes she set her jaw resolutely and turned from the crib.
When she was seated across a small square table from Josine, with a cup of hot tea before her, she appeared to relax a bit. Still, her nerves were so taut that every creak and moan of the old mansion made her shiver.
"You've kept your nerve so far, don't have any second thoughts now. You do, and the child won't see any more tomorrows," Josine said. "But what about you? Where are you going, and what are you going to survive on?"
"I have passage on the
. It leaves for
America soon. I've . . . I've indentured myself. But I'll be safe. Even if she does trace me, she will believe I've taken the baby with me. No one will be able to find her. Josine, that child's safety is the only way I can repay her for the horrible deed she's done. I've got to see that all she thinks she's gained never truly belongs to her.''
"I hate to think of a woman such as yourself in service to some unknown person."
"I'm to be a governess. That is not bad. I'll be all right. But the baby . . . she's in deadly danger."
"I'll see that nothing happens to her, and when she's of the right age, she'll be told the whole story. Perhaps one day she'll come for you."
"You are such a dear friend. I don't know how I would have survived all this if I hadn't had you."
"Well, we will survive. Where . . . where is the portrait?"
"It is hanging in Elliott Morgan's home. He is the only one besides yourself who knows about this. He has papers, too, proof of her identity, and all the jewelry that would rightfully belong to her. He can't protect us, but he will keep her heritage safe."
"Oh, Laura, what a disastrous mess we are in. That poor child!"
"She is beautiful and innocent, and she deserves more than a quick, ugly death. My life is of little value to me if it is paid for by hers." Slowly Laura stood. "I must go now. All my trust is in you. If there is a way, I shall try to let you know where I am."
Josine watched as Laura walked back to the crib. She could hear her soft whispered words and knew
she wept. Her heart was breaking, as was Josine's.
The two women looked at each other for what would most likely be the last time they would ever see each other.
"Good-bye, Josine, and may God bless you for what you do tonight."
"I will let you out. Laura . . . please, be very careful."
They retraced their steps, and after a tearful embrace Laura found herself in the narrow black alleyway again. She wrapped her shawl tighter about herself and in a few minutes was swallowed up by the night.
During the next few days Josine began to feel reassured that they had escaped their enemy's notice. But her sense of relief had come too soon.
She drew aside the curtains and watched as the elaborate carriage came to a stop before the front steps. Her eyes narrowed and her lips compressed into a thin line as she watched the woman who disembarked. Then she turned. It was time to go down and meet the enemy.
Glenda Hamilton was a woman whose beauty made passersby pause to look again. Her hair, fashionably styled, was midnight black and her skin was flawless cream. Her brown eyes were alive and glowed like amber. She had kept her body as perfect as it had been at nineteen. She knew her beauty and had long ago learned how to use it.
She smiled at the woman who opened the door,
intent on using all her well-practiced charm to find out what she wanted to know.
"Good morning, Mrs. Gilbert."
"Good morning." Josine matched her visitor's smile. "I'm afraid you have an advantage."
"I'm Glenda Hamilton."
"May I be of service to you, Miss . . . Mrs. . . . Hamilton?"
"Mrs. Hamilton." Glenda fought the anger that threatened to reveal itself in her eyes. What impertinence!
"Mrs. Hamilton," Josine said amiably. "As I said, is there something I can do for you?"
"Is there someplace where we can speak in private?"
"Of course, come to my office." Josine led the way, her heart pounding.
Inside the office, Josine sat behind her desk and motioned Glenda to a seat across from her. She waited patiently for Glenda to continue.
"I've come to talk to you about adopting a child. A female child, about a year old or so. My husband and I realize that we can have no children of our own, and I so wanted a daughter."
"About a year old, you say?"
Josine could see the way Glenda was literally licking her lips. "I'm afraid the youngest female child I have here is a little over three."
"No . . . no . . . that is too old, a child of about one is what I would really like."
"I have several girls. But, as I said, all of them are three or older."
"You've had no . . . recent arrivals?"
"No, not in the past six months. Would you like to meet my children?"
"Yes, yes I would. And I'd like to see your facilities, if I may." If this woman would not tell her everything, Glenda decided, then she would search for herself.
But a long and very thorough search did not turn up any child under three. Glenda was disappointed, but not dissuaded. She would continue her search. It would not end until she found the child she sought . . . and destroyed it.
Josine watched her leave, frightened. It would never do, she realized, to underestimate the cunning of her enemy.
Glenda's carriage stopped before the Hamilton mansion. She gazed up at it, possessive greed evident in her eyes. Randolph Hamilton, she had long ago discovered, was as wealthy as Croesus, and his estate was not entailed.
She had wanted this home and Randolph's wealth, and his wife's death at the birth of their daughter was an event that had played into her hands.
She had met Randolph Hamilton as a grieving widow with a nine-year-old son and soon convinced the grieving widower that she was a kindred spirit. But no sooner was the wedding formalized and her son adopted than she was seeking methods to destroy both Randolph and his daughter.
Randolph's death had been an easy affair to ar-
range. A slow and very rare poison administered carefully so his demise seemed an act of naturetook care of everything.
But the child had not been so easy. She had tried twice, but each time she was foiled by that diligent and aggravating woman Laura Dunham. A friend of Randolph's wife and nurse to her child, she was the only one who had seen through Glenda's perfect facade to the evil within.
Glenda stepped down from the carriage and walked up the walk. The front door flew open and a boy rushed out to meet her.
"Did you find them?"
"No, Gregory. But I will."
"The nasty old witch."
"Hush, Gregory, not outside. You needn't worry, love. You will be sole heir to the Hamilton estate. No matter what I have to do."
The boy was undeniably handsome, but he had yet to learn to hide his greed and disdain for others behind a mask. In time, he would.
By mid-afternoon Glenda was again in her carriage. It made its way through the London streets and stopped before a mansion.
She smiled as she looked at it, then went to the door. Ushered inside, she was asked to wait until the master of the house could join her. Within a few minutes he opened the library door and came in. His face was not touched by a welcoming smile.
"Glenda, what the hell are you doing here?"
"Why, Charles," she laughed softly, "is that any way to welcome me?"
"I repeat, what do you want?"
"Charles"Her voice now matched his in coldness"don't take that tone with me. I'm sure both Jessica and the London papers would like to know about our liaisons . . . and your son, Gregory."
"I pay enough to keep you quiet. What do you want now?"
"I need to find someone, and you must help me."