Charles let himself in the servant’s door and hung up the heavy cloak. It was wet but it wasn’t dirty. He made himself a cup of tea and raided the larder for bread and cheese–good, filling food. He piled it on a tray and took it to his room. There he built the fire up again. While he ate and drank, he undressed. Recalling the fuss over his clothes before, he hung them all up in his dressing room. Then he found some linen to dry himself off.
After he’d finished, he sat down and counted the money: twenty-five pounds. He pulled off twelve for himself. It was not what they had agreed upon, but Charles felt he should be paid for teaching Mister Zero how to shovel. And for being a nursemaid to him. He wondered if he’d made it safely home.
Now he could afford Doggety again. He’d find him and this time, pay him his due which was considerably less than before.
He paused. Maybe there was a better way. He could search out Hassam at his tavern and pump him for information with a few ales. He just needed an opportunity to get in a clear shot at Ailesworth and make his way to safety. It was confoundedly difficult to do it in the city. He needed to find out if Ailesworth was going to the country for Christmas.
He’d miss Christmas this year with his step-mama and his sisters. The girls were always full of Christmas cheer.
No need to maunder on about it.
Charles, now warm and full of good cheese, fell back against his comfortable chair. It all seemed like so much work, getting rid of Ailesworth. His dream of becoming Earl seemed to be stretched rather thin these days. He vowed he’d make one more go of it and then he’d give up and go back up North and rejoin his father and step-mother. And sisters. He didn’t forget Mary and Alexandra. Mary would be making her come-out soon and perhaps he’d be back in London.
He shook his head like a dog throwing off water and stumbled into bed.
* * *
Ailesworth knew he must tell the women of Carstairs’ death. It was hard to do. They were shocked and frightened. Alma told him that Jim had said that Carstairs wasn’t “the one.” Clearly the children had another enemy. Who could it be? They discussed the children’s safely but came to no conclusion.
The next night Esther found out that Ailesworth had been invited to Elmscourt and had accepted. Her pleasure was complete. Her first Christmas in the country since she was a girl and Alma and Ailesworth with her. He face glowed with her happiness as she ate her turbot with caper sauce. Ailesworth regarded her fondly but wished she had something prettier to wear. Perhaps she could take an advance from Arm-whatever and buy some clothes. He could buy her hundreds of gowns but he knew better than to ask.
Esther was prattling on about her day. She’d found that people in the neighborhood thought she’d come in for some money–thus her move to better quarters. Since the mailman was the neighborhood gossip, she’d told him a highly edited account of diamonds. Of course, by the time the story got around the neighborhood, it would be a vast fortune, inherited from her father, a mysterious figure, probably foreign, a prince or such, delivered to her across the battlefields of France.
“By an exhausted man in a battered but glorious uniform of some foreign country,” added Alma.
“Who died at my feet, the diamonds spilling out of their casket, his last words, ‘Hail, Princess.’”
The two women fell into giggles and laughter. Ailesworth regarded them fondly. They both glowed from their laughter and were beautiful beyond words. For the first time, Ailesworth wondered about Alma. Who was she?
But his eye and his mind quickly moved back to Esther. Who Alma was might be a topic of some midnight, bedtime chat. But tonight he would propose. The sapphire ring in his pocket was burning a hole in his side.
After supper they spent time together in the parlor, bigger than the one in Cargill Street. Esther had purchased some furniture from the warehouse where the children’s furniture had come: a comfortable armchair and sofa, arranged in front of the fire place. The fire place worked better too. It was newer and threw out more heat. They were all comfortable.
In a while, Alma excused herself and went to the children. Jessie visited them every evening and they were helping her learn how to read. Sally-Catherine was very patient with her.
At Alma’s arrival, Jessie leaped to her feet. She found learning to read excessively fatiguing and was beginning to be sorry she’d asked. Maybe they could get back to curtseying lessons. “Ma’am,” and she left.
Sally-Catherine looked after her with regret. “Mrs. Nelson, Jessie is having a hard time.”
“I know. Maybe if we had some reading from real life, that would help.”
“Oh, yes.” Sally-Catherine’s face glowed. “What could we get?”
“The newspaper and I could ask the butcher for his discarded signs in the butcher shop. Every week he has different meat for sale.”
“Oh, yes, Mrs. Nelson!” Sally-Catherine bounced in her chair. “And when Jim and I go out walking we could look for scraps of paper.”
“Yes,” Alma nodded. But now she wondered at the children’s safety. A man had been murdered. It was possible that before he’d died, he’d given Ailesworth’s name to his murderer. Ailesworth was easy to find and could be traced to Furth Street very easily.
“Excuse me, Sally-Catherine. I’ll be right back.”
She hurried down to the parlor but Esther and Ailesworth had retired for the night. She went back upstairs and said, “Children, don’t take any more walks until we get someone, some man, to walk with you. All right? I shall look for scraps of paper myself, if they aren’t of too small print.
“Shall I tuck you in?”
Both children were in bed and each nodded. She tucked them in and then pulled a chair to sit between the two beds. She tried to read to them every night. She’d found they loved fierce tales of lost children and maidens and dragons. Every night if she couldn’t finish, she tried to reach a point where the characters were temporarily safe, at least. Tonight she would finish and feared the worst for the children in it. But read it she must.
She pulled the door closed behind her and began reading, both children listening intently.
Ailesworth was undressing Esther and she was trying to undress him. She felt the bulge in his coat pocket, and said, “What’s this, Garick?”
He paused. “It’s for you, Esther.” He pulled out the jeweler’s box and opened it.
She gasped. Such a blue–deep and mysterious. He took it out.
“Will you marry me, Esther?” the ring rested on the palm of his hand.
She reached out and took it and tried it on. It glowed and sparkled–there were tiny diamonds surrounding the sapphire. She admired it for a few seconds and then took it off and put it back in his palm. His heart sank.
“No, Garick. I said I wouldn’t marry again.” She shifted on her feet and looked rueful. “To tell the truth”–here she cleared her throat–”to tell the truth, I believe I love you and–”
“Esther!” and he took her in his arms and held her tight, showering kisses on her hair and on her face.
She struggled weakly and finally pulled herself away enough to finally say, “Stop.”
He did. She gazed up at him. “Garick, I vowed I wouldn’t marry again after Jacob died. And now, with my money, it is not even necessary.”
“Good! Then when you marry me, you’ll do it for love.” His large hands stroked her back and buttocks, leaving a trail of fire.
“But don’t you see, I’ve decided not to remarry!”
“Good. Then you can undecide.” He was nibbling her ear and swirling his tongue around the convolutions of her delicate ear. “Your ears, you have the ears of a fairy queen–so delicate and sweet.”
Esther was melting and it took her a few seconds to find her voice. “Not…marry…Garick. Can’t….” and she heaved a great sigh. He was able to smooth her dress off her shoulders and down her hips.
He started on the ribbons tying her chemise and began swirling his tongue in her other ear. He murmured, “Marry me. Be my Countess,” and then he kissed her deeply and her knees gave way. He scooped her up and carried her to her bed. He followed her down, though he still had his pantaloons on.
He was caressing her breast and the other hand was between her thighs. He kept murmuring, “Marry me,” as his hands caressed her. He unbuttoned his trousers and thrust in.
She screamed and climaxed. He controlled himself and set to raising her to another peak. He kept murmuring in her ear as he prolonged his strokes: “Be mine, be mine.”
* * *
Alex de Sable got his money from George but it paid for only one suit of clothes. And he needed a haircut. He avoided his usual barber–best stay away from a man with scissors and razors if you owe him money and he feels aggrieved–and found another. He had to tell the man what to do, of course, and felt justified in leaving him with no tip.
Alex learned to starch his cravats and keep track of fraying threads. He still received invitations, or he thought he did. Since he had sneaked out of his lodgings at three in the morning, owing three months rent, he didn’t feel safe in returning for his mail.
Instead he was still able to find balls and musicales to attend where he was welcome. At each event, he discovered where the next evening’s entertainments were to be found. He turned up, looking almost like his usual glossy self. Hostesses were aware that he was on the verge of the sponging house, but he wouldn’t be the first or the last to go there. And, unlike some others, he graced their drawing rooms, always handsome, charming, clean and courteous.
When Alex thought of his grave robbing experience, he was unaware that he had been clever for once in his life. He preferred not to think of it at all, since his actions had certainly been very low, far beneath the dignity of a gentleman, an aristocratic gentleman. So he learned nothing from his experience, except to forget it.
When he entered Mrs. Pringle’s drawing room one night, Mrs. Pringle fell over herself greeting him and calling him “My Lord..” He first surveyed the room for Maria Castle. If she was present, he would do his best to avoid her and her mother.
They weren’t here. He greeted some men, Cits whose names he’d learned during his months of circulating in the homes of other Cits. Like Mr. Castle. He made his way to Miss Pringle, Chastity Pringle who stood with her best friend, Desire Druggerd.
These names were so harsh on his ears. He bowed. “Miss Pringle. Miss Druggerd.”
They curtseyed and both attempted smiles. He smiled and surveyed them. He couldn’t decide which girl was the homeliest. Desire had protruding front teeth and spots. But she did have a handsome head of hair.
Chastity Pringle had a round, moon-like face and a perpetual frown when she was not smiling and sometimes when she was. Her wide eyes, though, were an unusual blue-violet, her skin pure, her hair thick and her bosom immense. He turned to her. He had decided on her for a wife.
“Miss Pringle, how do I find you. Well, I hope?”
Chastity smiled up at him. She knew she’d be lucky if de Sable chose to marry her. Her dowry was large, large enough to pay his debts. “Good evening, my lord. It’s a pleasure to see you.” He always looked so glossy. She wanted to look like that. Her mother spent a fortune on her clothes but they never were quite right.
The three fell into conversation, though it took all de Sable’s skill to make it appear smooth.
“Is your father here tonight, Miss Pringle?”
“Oh, no, my lord. He eschews such functions as this. He considers them a waste of time.”
“Ah. I suppose he is usually to be found in his office in the city.”
“Yes, my lord. Although he travels to the North country often. We come from Yorkshire.”
“Oh, yes. I recollect so. Very good.” De Sable would need to find Mr. Pringle before he went to the Dunphys for Christmas. He’d need to be speedy in his courtship of Chastity Pringle. He’d heard that Pringle was a very tough man. He had made his money in the iron mills originally. Then he’d built mills for armaments. The late war on the Continent had enriched him beyond any usual expectations. And he continued to make money now that the war was over, but it wasn’t clear how.
Miss Druggerd began talking of what she knew of the hunt in Yorkshire: daring and difficult.
The next morning, Esther told Alma that Ailesworth had proposed.
“And you refused him?”
“I did, Alma. You’ve heard me often enough.”
There was silence. Esther continued eating her sausage and eggs. She looked up at Alma who had finished her breakfast and was staring into her teacup.
Alma looked up. “You know, I think you should accept.”
Esther was surprised. “Why? You know how I feel.”
This is different. You deny your past, but–”
“I don’t! You know I’ve accepted–”
“No, I mean taking your place again in the ton.”
“I never had a place. I care nothing for that!”
Alma sighed and was silent. Then she looked at the open door to the hall. “Come upstairs to my room. I have something to ask you. When you’re through.”
Esther finished quickly and followed Alma upstairs.
In her room, Esther sat in a chair while Alma sat on the bed.
“Esther, has Ailesworth been using any methods of controlling conception?”
Esther was taken aback. “He said he would. I don’t know anything about it.”
“Has he used a sheath for his penis before entering you?”
“No, I don’t think he has.”
“Does he withdraw before he ejaculates?”
Esther blushed. “No.”
Alma sat back. “Then as far as I know, he’s not trying to avoid conception.”
“But he said he would!”
“There might be another method I don’t know about. Josiah usually used the sheath, but when he had none, he would withdraw. He was very careful.”
Esther didn’t hear her. She was up and pacing.
“You need to wait, Esther, before drawing conclusions that may be false. Perhaps there is something new that I–”
“New! How could it be! How stupid I’ve been. He wanted to ensure he married me. Just like a man to use some devious reasoning, to trick me! I’ve been tricked! The devil take him!”
Alma rose and held Esther’s arms. “Esther. Remember what happened before. Don’t do that again. Wait for tonight and then ask him.”
Esther calmed down, slowly she calmed down. Alma was right. It wouldn’t do to go off half cocked. Go off half-cocked again. She’d be calm. She’d talk to him and not lose her temper.
“Yes, Alma. I shall do that. Calm and serene.”
“Serene might be taking it too far.”
Esther smiled, a slight painful smile. She left Alma’s room and went to her own. She sat by the window and looked out at the street, unseeing.
Had he done it again? Decided on his own what was best for her? He had, she knew he had. It would be the end this time How could she be free to make her own choices if he thought he knew best and constantly trumped her decisions?
Now she had trouble remembering when her last courses were. Was she already with child? She was so angry and confused she couldn’t remember.
Calm, Esther, calm. Calm, Elizabeth, calm.
Her back straightened.
He would agree with her and then go behind her back and do what he wanted. How could she know if any of her future decisions would not be rearranged behind her back? The house, the staff, the children. If they married. How many children would they have? How could she trust him, even about the number of children they wanted?
She hadn’t realized that her anger had abated until she found tears on her cheeks. Why was she crying? She knew why. She loved him. And now she must give him up again.
“Esther, my dear, don’t cry.”
Esther shuddered. “I have to give him up, Alma. I must.”
“Men are not like us, dear. He thinks himself clever, trapping you like this. Men hunt, remember. It’s not something most women like us do, or understand.
“I used to listen to the men who came to Josiah’s. It was only men, remember. They’d talk around me, as though I wasn’t there. I was a decorative piece, to be looked at, not conversed with. They usually weren’t men who hunted in the fields but they hunted: a new client, a new business proposition. They were predators, including Josiah.
“Men are predators who will do anything to catch their prey. And you are Ailesworth’s dear prey.”
Esther had stopped crying but she continued to stare out the window.
“I love him, Alma.”
“I must think on it.”
Alma squeezed her hand and left. She knew Ailesworth should not have misled Esther. But it was in a good cause. Why was Esther being so difficult about marriage, about marrying Ailesworth? She didn’t really know.
Esther’s thoughts tumbled about. She felt so bruised, emotionally bruised. And yet she knew he loved her. Surely he wanted the best for her. And the best was….
Becoming his wife. Why? So he could protect her.
Yes. He wanted that. She knew he wanted her safe. She had read the subtle emotions that crossed his face when she’d found her independence with those jewels. He’d been…chagrined, as though he was the one who’d caused her poverty. And kept her poor.
No! He was the conniving beast, the beast who hunted. Hunted her.
She felt confused. Hunter? Prey?
She had to smile. She’d tumbled her mind again.
Think controlling. Yes, that was it. He was trying to control her after she’d found herself free of ties. The money had freed her, hadn’t it?
Yes, it had, but what had she done with it? Spent most of her pounds from the fake jewelry on this house. Ailesworth had his man of business send over a bank cheque for the care of the children. She hadn’t cashed it yet, as she hadn’t needed it.
Did she feel freer? Had the money freed her?
It had freed her to take a lover. Was she, perchance, lying to herself? Hadn’t she looked for any reason to take Ailesworth into her bed?
Oh, she had a headache. She’d go for a walk and take the children. They needed exercise and fresh air as well as she. They’d be safe together. Surely no one knew the children were staying with her.
A half hour later, she, Jim and Sally-Catherine were walking. Sally-Catherine had said she must be Sally outside the house. Esther was determined to take them walking every day. They had proper warm outer garments now–Jim a heavy coat, very like Ailesworth’s and Sally a velvet pelisse lined with warm fuzzy wool. It came with a matching muff, all of sapphire blue. Esther had made Sally wear her mittens. She hadn’t wanted to–they didn’t match her muff. Jim had gloves also–handsome leather ones, and a cap to match his coat. Esther walked between them, holding Sally’s hand. There was a small park near their house. She was headed there when she felt a prickle of unease. She stopped and looked behind her.
There was no one there except for the butcher’s boy who smiled cheekily at her. “Got the young’uns out for a trot, Mrs. Beryll?”
Jim glared a him. She said, “Yes, Barty. Did you see anyone about?”
“No’m. Well, yes I did. A right ugly customer, but he was heading down Quant Street.”
“Thank you, Barty,” and she continued walking. Barty began making faces at Jim. Jim stopped and made a fist at Barty. Esther turned.
“Jim! Barty!” Barty was off.
Esther began to speak to Jim and changed her mind. Maybe a tussle with Barty would be good for Jim. But not in his new clothes.
Sally kept peeking around Esther to look at Jim. Jim was glowering. Sally looked impressed.
The park was leafless and there wasn’t much grass but Esther told them to run around. They began a game of tag in which Jim always caught Sally and let Sally catch him. She let out shrieks. To Esther’s ears, they sounded thin. She’d need to find ways to get the children more exercise. Maybe a footman. She could afford one.
Yes, a footman. She’d ask Ailesworth– No, she couldn’t. But how would she find a reliable one?
Oh, what a coil it was! Her head still ached. She needed to run around.
“Children! Tag me!”
Soon the three of them were racing around. Sally’s shrieks were louder now. Esther didn’t have the breath to shriek. My, she was winded. She collapsed against a tree and both children ran to her and tagged her. They collapsed in laughter, hugging one another
Riding–she needed a horse. She suddenly missed riding. She’d get a horse. Ailesworth could help….
“My youn’uns, it is time to return.”
The frown was back on Jim’s face. “I’d like to dust his–”
“Now, now. He probably fights dirty, Jim.”
Suddenly her humor vanished. She felt that unease again and she looked up. She saw a heavy-set man walking slowly past the far end of the park. He was observing them.
She froze. Sally whimpered and Jim looked to see what bothered her.
The man saw someone else coming and turned down Paisley Street. In a moment, because of the angle of the street, he was out of sight. Behind her, she heard voices. Two maids were hurrying through the cold streets, talking. An elderly gentleman followed them slowly, an umbrella in use as a cane.
“Let’s go home. Jim? Sally?” She took their hands and hurried them out of the park. She swung their arms, trying to put some lightness back into their day. But the nape of her neck still prickled.
As they went up the front steps, she glanced around. No one.
Once inside, she gave the children to Alma. Alma took them to the kitchen for cocoa.
Esther would wait. She’d talk it over with Ailesworth….
Oh, Lord, what was she to do? The walk hadn’t helped; that man had only added a new worry. Was that man an innocent passerby, or was he the one Barty had seen? She wanted to ask Barty but thought it might be a bad idea. The neighborhood would be full of rumors again: of assassins and kidnappers. Only this time the rumors would be true.
They were Ailesworth’s children. She’d need to tell him.
Oh, curse her wayward heart! At the necessity of talking with Ailesworth, she’d felt a lifting of her fear and pain. Yes, he’d make everything right, but at what cost to her?
She didn’t know, she truly didn’t know.
And then she remembered that he would not be there for dinner. She had better drop him a note. She sat down at her desk and pulled out a piece of stationery. She began writing.