About the book
Trust is a dangerous game…
Thrown into a world she never chose, Leah Benson was raised to be the perfect thief.
When her own partners turn against her, Leah must run for her life. With an ingrained dislike for nobility, she never thought she’d end up under the wing of the Duke of Worthington.
Kenneth Wilson, Duke of Worthington, saves a young woman from being assaulted by unsavory individuals. However, he doesn’t anticipate the secrets her presence alone will expose about his very own past or the feelings she will evoke within him.
In a race to discover the one that wants them dead, there is something important that Leah and Kenneth don’t realize: someone’s set a trap for them and they are walking right into it…
The August wind blew through London, forcing its way round corners and down cobbled corridors. Dark clouds filled the skies as the day came to an end, bowling into each other with gusto. From those twisting shapes came the irregular, forcible splatter of rain, crudely and absentmindedly discarded by the storm.
The citizens of London, wise as they were to the August weather, took shelter in their homes, penny houses, workplaces, and hideaways. Taking advantage of the storm, the adventurous few remained against the gale ever ready to seize whatever wealth they could find.
Leah Benson tried to hide the scar on her face. She adjusted her borrowed cap and lowered her head. The wind sliced through the thin gentleman’s coat she wore – drenched as it was – and chilled her to the bone. Her clothes were matted with sweat at the neck and on her collarbone; she crouched, panting, letting the torrent of water surge down around her in the alleyway.
Too close, she bit her lip and staggered to stand against one of the dirty brick walls. The windowsills and garden boxes above her gave some shelter from the pelting rain, but not enough. I was far too careless. They nearly had me.
In an abrupt instant – as it often seemed to happen – the storm gave way. A strange sense of quiet befell Leah as the pounding of raindrops on flagstones ceased, replaced only by the hard whistle of the wind and the dribble of gutter spouts. Then her serenity was rudely interrupted.
“Snatch her, boys!” Leah heard Nash’s slurred words coming around the corner, and she sprinted for the alley.
Taunting screams and hollering came from behind her. The grubby pack of foxed pickpockets was made up of street urchins and ruffians belonging to her old crew. Leaping and bounding like wild dogs, they charged after her, waving looped belts and slick knives.
She’d been found, despite her greatest efforts. The men gave chase as she weaved through the alleyways, ducking under clotheslines and hurtling over low fences. The stench of sewage and toxic waste in the air thickened as she drew near the river, but she didn't much mind it. She had spent more than enough time in the bad parts of town to become acclimated to the stench of an urban industrial city.
Leah tucked a lock of hair into her ragged cap and pushed over a wagon of rubble to divert her chasers. The barrels bounced and bashed against the street, causing her pursuers to scramble. One went down howling over his toe, but the others pressed on, tossing only a few insults his way.
Nash laughed when he jumped over the wreckage, avoiding the diversion with an ease that spoke to his years as a runner. As one of Riphook’s most trusted anglers, he held the loyalty of almost every thief in England, or at least, those that mattered.
Nothing happened in the underground without Riphook hearing about it and having a say so. To act without Riphook's permission was on a bad day a death sentence and on a good one a beating. The world of London crime was his to lord over, and he had become very efficient at doing so.
As a child, Leah had been taught how to move quickly through the city. The key was to be smarter. In that jungle of side streets and courtyards, one had to know every route in order to survive.
Riphook had trained her to fight, thieve, and hide with the best of them. There was a time when they had been the only real family she’d ever known. Thick as thieves the saying went, and none knew it better than she. It was these criminals who had fed her, clothed her, and looked out for her. It was those same criminals that now chased her through the streets with knives and rotten teeth.
Everyone knew Riphook was building an empire. He started by recruiting gypsies, then rogues and pickpockets, and eventually anyone who was looking to make a bit of coin, and didn't mind a bit of dirt. Now it seemed every hired blade and sneak thief in town was in Riphook's pocket, and that was the way he liked it.
But Leah knew Riphook was afraid. He was a paranoid man who ruled with an iron fist, and the larger his power became the cagier he behaved.
Riphook was changing London. He was turning it into the town he wanted, not the one he had taken through lies, corruption, and violence. With that change came disappearances. It was a normal cycle, but at its height, it was pure madness.
Beneath those brewing storms, Leah had resolved to leave the life behind. At least in London, at any rate. Things were becoming tense at all times; danger lurked beneath every overlooked overcoat.
It had been three months since her friend Teller had disappeared. He was a fence – a damn good one too – but he did some side business outside of Riphook's influence, working with sailors from the West Indies. Leah ran some of her high-end scores through Teller, rather than Riphook, largely because Teller scared her far less than the other.
For a time, this was all well enough. Riphook still got some money from Teller from the street rackets, and things seemed to progress unhindered. But then Riphook took over the Smithfield Market, and soon after, he wanted the ports.
People started to go missing. At first only a few of Teller's anglers and one of Riphook's. Everyone knew what had happened to them. They even teased one another about who the murderers had been.
Then one of Teller’s go-betweens was found dead in a lodging house, cut up bad. The war was as good as over. Leah had tried to calm Teller down, to convince him to pay Riphook whatever he wanted, and end the violence. Teller hadn't listened, and soon enough, he was missing as well.
Leah knew it was time for her to leave. For the past two months, she had been preparing. She had found a captain willing to take her across the channel unregistered. His confidence came with a price and had left her with near to nothing in her purse.
Realizing she would be as good as dead in France without money, and cursing herself for spending so much on bribery, Leah had set out in the storm. She had that afternoon to make one last score that would carry her to a new life.
Leah had disguised herself as a man. It was easier this way, both for her safety and for maintaining a low profile. A woman on her own, out and about, now that was something to look at. A slim man with his face tucked into his collar on the other hand, was not. It was not difficult to fool the rich folk of London; it was something that she practiced regularly. She set out to bilk an unsuspecting gent in a desperate attempt to leave the city; however, it was the scar that gave her away. It was a reminder of the past she ran from, but the fate she could never escape. No doubt they were looking to snag her to gain some proper loot; Riphook had put quite the bounty on her head.
Leah faked a right turn and headed toward the event at the Assembly Rooms taking place down by King Street. She dodged a particularly nasty tackle as she changed course, sending a thug crashing into a cobbler with his covered cart. The man had no time to protest before the wave of hoodlums washed over him, hollering all the while.
One of Nash’s men hurled something large at her, and she heard it crack across the brick wall beside her. Leah hit the ground and rolled to the right, beneath the wheels of a covered carriage, and sprang up on the other side.
“She's over there!” Nash shouted, waving his hands wildly. “On her, boys! On her there!”
Leah sprang forward and splashed through puddles of questionable liquid as she retreated into the shadows. It began to rain again, and the rhythmic pattering worked to drown out their screaming.
“Get her, boys!”
“We'll have you drip dryin' before the night's out!”
“Run on, doxy! Run on!”
The men barked insults and threats as she picked up speed. Her heart thrummed in her chest as they whistled to the carriers posted at the inn to join the pursuit. The carriers left their post in a hurry, surging ahead of the four lagging thugs with their fresh legs.
The carriers moved to cut her off at the turn while Nash and his minions came up behind her.
I will be trapped here.
Leah tripped over some bloke sleeping on the street while she glanced around hurriedly, scanning for some sort of escape.
She felt a biting grip squeeze her arm suddenly. She dropped low to throw her attacker off balance and used her momentum to trip him up with an arcing sweep of her leg. He hit the ground with a wet thud and an irritable grunt, the dirty water drenching him.
She was free! The garden box. Leah took a running leap, springing off of a stoop, and grappled with the low-hanging garden box from the balcony above. With a grunt of effort, she hauled her body using abdominal strength in a brilliant arc above the carriers. She landed with a great splash beyond them, and before they could spin around, she was gone.
“I said get ‘er, you fat-headed cloves!” Nash looked to be in a panic, gasping for air along with the rest of his men. To him, it likely seemed as if she were going to get away. He could not allow that to happen, and Leah knew it. Not only was she going to be his income, but also his reputation. A failure like this was hard to come back from, in Riphook's eyes.
Leah let out a cheeky snicker and turned toward St. James’s Street. Riphook’s men wouldn’t openly attack her in front of the highborn members of society, lest someone recognize Nash and the gang.
It was a delicate relationship. The city of London had no standardized police force. Instead, each neighborhood made up their own militias of night watchmen and constables. In the more comfortable parts of the city, blatant criminal action was forbidden.
Among the wealthy citizens of London, it was a game of sneak thievery, of pick pocketry, and sly con men. This was in direct contrast with the majority of the city, where the poor lived overcrowded in the shadow of manufactories and markets and were directly affected by the criminal underground. Among the poor, crime was an open expression of society, but there on St. James’s Street, crime was a horribly-hidden secret.
It was a balance that Riphook had worked hard to attain. The framework had been there always, but it required a good deal of coin to bring it to fruition. One of the reasons Riphook was so successful was because he understood one simple thing: the rich folks didn't care one way or another what happened across the river. As long as their shop fronts were clear and their gardens unmolested, they would pay no mind to the goings on a few blocks over.
This truce was enforced with coin to the constables, and even, it was rumored, a judge or two. While Leah knew that the thugs chasing her would stop at nearly nothing, she also knew that they would not dare break the truce of St. James’s Street, or there would be high hell to pay.
Leah smiled while she neared her destination; the high-fenced gardens of the nobility were coming into sight. She could just imagine the fashionable ladies of London in their flowing gowns at the marriage mart, trying to run away from the pack of hooligans.
What a sight that would be. Perhaps they needed a bit of excitement. While it was a fun thought, she knew she had to take a different route, and aimed to climb a wall into one of the private gardens. One could disappear for what seemed an eternity among those winding hedges, and that was what she meant to do. The rain at that moment ceased again, and the cold wind blew at her from the side.
She headed towards an iron gate and jumped at the bars, hauling herself upwards.
You've got to keep moving.
The iron was slick, and the gate drenched from the rain; her hand slipped up when she reached the top, and she grunted out desperately as she plummeted awkwardly on the other side.
She hit the ground clumsily, twisting her ankle on impact. It was a lance of pain rocketing up her leg, but she had no time to think on it.
“Bloody git!” Nash hissed from the other side of the bars. “Where do you think you're goin'?” he began to climb the iron bars and signaled for his lackeys to swing around.
Leah turned and dashed into the hedge rows. If she could make it across this garden, then she could take shelter from the goons in the bustle of St. James’s Square. There, she would finally be safe.
The other men followed, careful to stay to the darkest parts of the streets. She cursed their parentage and made a mad dash towards St. James’s Square. They were trying to cage her in, and it was working. She had to get clear before they got around her completely.
“Them royals ain’t gon’ save you, little Leah,” Nash yelled from somewhere behind the hedge rows. “They’d rather watch you bleed out dry!”
She had to remind herself that he was only half correct. The members of high society didn’t care whether her kind lived or died; however, their well-lit streets would keep Nash from killing her in the open. Her life meant nothing to them, but the sanctity of their streets was all important.
Even if the storm had forced most people inside, the aristocratic businesses of the main stroll all boasted magnificent windows that looked out beneath the street lights. It was early in the day yet, and the shops would be full.
Leah knew it was doubtful that the patronesses of the Assembly Rooms would allow her entry, but the closer she was to the crowds of aristocrats, the safer she’d be. Her disguise was shot to pieces from the chase, and she knew that masquerading as a gentleman would no longer work.
She caught sight of the final fence, and on the other side was an alleyway servicing St. James’s Square. That was her route. She pumped her legs faster than before, pushing the pain in her ankle aside, pumping fiery acid through her veins to close the distance.
Nash was behind her. She could hear his heavy footfalls, his ragged gasping, and his mumbled curses.
I am faster than him. Prove it!
Leah vaulted over the fence, her ankle biting out in protest of her landing.
To her right, she saw two thugs closing the distance, but to her left the way was clear. Nash grunted, jumping halfway up the fence, struggling to keep up with her. She was free.
“So long, sailor boy,” she grinned, winked at Nash, and dashed around the corner before the thugs could catch her.
“I'll ruddy kill you! Doxy! Cit!” Nash spat, ran his mouth, and watched her disappear.
As Leah came soaring around the corner, a tall nobleman exited his carriage with a slight hop. The unusual movement for someone so well dressed threw Leah off balance, and she half expected him to turn and lay her out flat.
He was finely dressed, as only the truly rich were, but his physique was not that of the far-too-scrawny, or far-too-heavy royal frame that she was used to seeing.
He had broad shoulders that seemed they could carry the weight of the world. His face had the brief glimpse of curiosity, rather than anger, at her appearance, and Leah was thrown off guard.
She nearly knocked the man over, colliding with one of his shoulders, but she regained her footing with a grunt. Pain shot again through her ankle, but she could not linger on it.
Leah pushed past him over the cobblestones as the rain started to come down again in its random spurts. As she limped away, she cursed herself.
I could have had his pocket book.
Kenneth Wilson, the Duke of Worthington, brushed away the impact mark on his greatcoat as the lad shoved past him. He was about to be received by his guest atop the stairs, in the entrance to the Assembly Rooms, but instead he had been run into by some lad in a hurry.
Kenneth followed the runner with his eyes for a moment before turning his gaze back to the large nobleman atop the stairs. He raised his shoulders in a half-hearted gesture as if to say, “Well what was all that about?”
His host, who had been appalled to see such an encounter, took Kenneth's good nature as an indicator on how he should behave.
“My,” the nobleman huffed. “in a hurry, isn't he?”
“It would seem.” Kenneth replied. He checked his coat once more, and satisfied with its appearance, began to walk up the stairs towards his host. “Perhaps on account of this weather.” Kenneth gestured upwards to the turbulent sky with the handle of his cane.
“Most likely,” his host grunted. “come in, come in, we were just discussing your bill – ”
But he was cut short by the shouting of seven men, all in varying states of distress. They conglomerated just beyond Kenneth's carriage, and pointed excitedly towards the lad that had run into him, limping down the street.
“I say.” the Marquess huffed. “What is this?”
“There she is!” Nash shouted. “Come on lads!” The pack tore after her like hounds on the hunt.
“Criminals!” the Marquess gasped. “Call the constables!”
“She...” Kenneth muttered, watching them run down the street. His eyes moved up their trajectory, past the gaggles of people clustered beneath business and porch awnings. There he was. The limping lad. Then came a gust of air that caused Kenneth to brace in his greatcoat, and he saw the hood fall from the runner's head.
It was no lad, but a woman, that Kenneth could see now. Long, flowing tresses streamed behind her as she ran, and she glanced back in terror at those chasing her.
“It is a woman.” Kenneth said abruptly, turning away from the stairs as it began to rain again.
He watched as she kept her breathing even and looking straight ahead. The sheer determination in her eyes was palpable.
Kenneth did not hesitate. He handed his cane and top hat to the Marquess and took off down the street after them, much to the flabbergasted dismay of his would-be host.
Of course, if anyone from the House of Lords would be seen chasing hoodlums down the block, it would be Kenneth Wilson.
Since he was a boy, he had cultivated a reputation among the nobility as the daring, adventurous type. A young man of seven and twenty, Kenneth had already seen his fair share of danger. During the invasion of France in 1812, he had enlisted not as a captain or lieutenant, but as an ensign, and he had shared the hardships of the ground with his tight, cohesive unit. The army had loved him for it, but the Lords hated him for earning the respect of the men. From France, he had gone to America to fight the colonists, and from New England he had gone back to France, to fight at Waterloo.
Upon retiring from the army at the rank of captain, Kenneth had turned his eye towards London's poor. Abroad, he had seen the harshness of the world beyond his gated grounds. He had seen the chain reaction of poverty, war, and crime. He had seen the cycle of children turned into thieves, thieves turned into killers, and killers turned into corpses play itself out time and time again.
There were issues that fellows of his prestige chose to ignore, for it played no part in their world of embroidery and brandy. It was no secret that Kenneth wanted to focus the efforts of his affluence on the poor; naturally, his work had fallen prey to the artfully well-mannered mocking of his present company.
So, it was well understood to the Marquess on his steps why the Duke of Worthington might dash off down the block to save some rain-soaked lad from a beating. Nevertheless, he, like anyone else present, found Kenneth's actions abrupt and out of place.
The young woman turned down a darkened street with the men on her heels. No woman of respect would be seen on St. James’s Street, much less unaccompanied by a husband or chaperone. Now that her disguise was forfeit, she was an easy mark for the gaggle of goons behind her.
The sound of boots thundering in the streets ricocheted off the buildings, mixing with the splash of overflowing rain gutters. Kenneth followed their trail at a jog for several blocks until the sounds came to a sudden halt. They were close.
Only Kenneth’s labored breathing could be heard in the chilling silence as the rain decided to let up. He slowed to a brisk walk, side stepping the massive puddles as to not make a noticeable sound. Kenneth peered into every crack and corner that he passed.
Perhaps they are gone. The thought discouraged him.
Imagining this unresolved conflict would rack at his brain. Who was she? Why was she running? Will she be alright?
Kenneth began to despair. It was a hard fact that still he labored to accept, even after the years he spent in war-torn countries; he could not help everyone.
As he was about to turn back, muffled voices reached his ears. I've got you.
“Quiet, pretty. We don’ want none of them highborns cuttin’ in on our little dance. You thought you could get away, proper ripe that is.”
Leah twisted her face away from Nash’s foul breath as he pinned her to the brick, spitting out his venomous words like an angered snake. The wall was wet with rain, and it soaked through the back of her jacket, finishing off any dry patch once and for all.
Tears burned her eyes, but she refused to allow Nash the privilege of seeing them spill.
They followed me through the square, she cursed to herself. She had gambled that their fear of Riphook's rage at their publicity would overpower their desire to provide him with her head. It seemed she had gambled wrong.
She was trapped now, stuck against the wall between four sour cutthroats. They had her restrained, but she could try to outsmart them. It was the only chance she had of escaping the knife at her belly.
“I’ve got quid comin’,” she squirmed her face a bit further from his. “I can offer a split, between you and your chums. No doubt more than what Rip’s offerin’ you, Nash. All yours, I don't even need a piece.”
Only laughter followed her offer. No one in Riphook’s crew would accept disloyalty within the ranks. It was said a ship was sinking when the rats jumped overboard. Riphook hated rats, and he would not tolerate them one iota.
Despite what the highborn or any oblivious outsider might assume about the underworld, the new leaders of the underground had a code of honor that was strictly abided by. They also had an accord with the rovers, the crooked clergy, and what remained of some pirates holed up on the French coast. No one would cross him it seemed, no one but her.
“I got papers. A list of names involved in a banned cargo trade with royal seals on them. Papers Rip will be wantin’ fierce. Take 'em and be off, eh? I'll still get you that quid.”
“One plumper after another, eh? I’d bet me own nutmeg you ain’t got no job in the works, nor no papers in your bosom,” Nash spat a fat glob onto the pavement, and it washed away in the resumed downpour. “After the stunt you pulled, you be lucky Rip didn’t come for you himself. Real bad sight that'd be, eh? You know how he be when he gets emotional. Thought you could just pack up and run without Rip sendin’ us to find you out?”
Leah attempted to pry a loose brick out of the wall behind her back, working at the grout with her fingernails, scrapping the skin from her fingertips. Nash saw this and slammed her back against the brick, forcing her arms outward, and restrained them above her head. “Naughty, naughty, little Leah! Still tryn'a get away!” His breath was hot and rancid. “I promised me mum I weren’t ever gon’ hit a girl. But you ain’t no girl, is you? You're a right spitting image of a man!” He drove his knee hard into her stomach, taking the air clean from her.
Leah gasped, collapsing to her knees in the rain, clutching at her stomach, trying to breath. The thugs around them chuckled at her pain. The rain began again.
“No, I won’t be killin’ you, little Leah. I want to see the fire leave your eyes first, like the bleedin' spitfire you are, so me and the boys is gon’ have us some fun before takin’ you back to Rip, ain't that right lads?”
Nash pressed his rusted blade to the sun-kissed column of Leah’s neck while the thugs picked her up and again pinned her to the wall. One of them gave her another blow to the stomach while she was held there, and she wheezed in pain.
Nash licked his lips like a salamander and smiled wickedly, showing off a rotted set of teeth that hung haphazardly about his gums. Leah started to realize that she wasn't getting out of this one. She was pinned, immobile, outnumbered, and there was a knife at her throat. The only thing she had left was defiance.
“Big word for you, ain't it? Emotional,” she sneered back into Nash's haunting face. “Wa’ the devil you been readin', Nash?”
“Shut it!” Nash pushed the knife against the old, crooked scar running down Leah's cheek, angling the edge into it. A thin line of blood sprouted and dripped slowly down the blade. “Should we open this up? See what daddy left us?”
Leah spit in Nash’s face, and one of the thugs must have struck her, for pain exploded suddenly through her jaw, vibrating up into her skull. The arms that were holding her in place gave way and she fell. Time seemed so slow to her then, and she gracefully slumped to the cobblestones as blood trickled from her mouth and cheek. Then it began.
The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth as they encircled her, striking out with their boots, again and again. She jerked back and forth with the blows, the rain pelting ever downward.
“You fight like a chambermaid,” she taunted, rolling over onto her back. Leah laughed upwards to Nash's face, challenging him with a twinkle of resistant fire in her eyes. She lay in a swelling puddle, and her vision danced back and forth as another kick came across her brow. “Poor little Nash,” she cackled against the pain as shock began to overpower it.,
“Shut up!” he screamed down at her, kicking again.
“Where's your wife, Nash?” She laughed up at him. It seemed to her she would die as his boot stuck her. Something changed then, with that strike. This had gone from a beating to a killing, and she could feel the difference in her ribs. “Run off with your brother, hasn't she?” she croaked up through her split lips. If she was going to die, at least she would haunt the bastard in his dreams.
“Time to die, cit!” Nash raised the rusty blade.
“Go to Hell, Nash,” Leah looked up at his raging face. It was a horrible last thing to look at.
“Stop! You there!” It was a man's voice that caused them to turn together. A voice that belonged to nobody in the group. A voice that meant their cover had been blown, a voice that brought with it a witness, and thus the murder could not take place.
A thug who had been minding the end of the alley stepped up to challenge the newcomer. Leah could not be sure of what she was seeing as another set of blows rained down on her, but from what she could tell the man cast the thug aside as if he were merely a sack of flour with a snap from his elbow.
“Split!” one of the thugs shouted, and they were everywhere at once, barreling away from the silhouette at the end of the alleyway.
“Hold there!” the voice challenged, and the man began running towards them. “Give pause, bastards!” he called, charging on ahead.
Nash spat down, gave Leah one final kick, and dashed off. The final blow sent her reeling, jarring her back against the wall, and everything swam circles in her head. It was a bright, warm feeling, radiating from the back of her head that enveloped her then. A great lightness, as if she were among the clouds and free as a bird. She moved to stand, but she could not, and she collapsed into a heap.
The shouts of Nash and the other men drifted off into the distance. The warmness overtook her, washing white the slate of her vision. For a moment, she thought she saw the glimmer of finely-polished shoes enter her line of sight.
What a fine buckle that is, and then darkness consumed her.
Kenneth smashed the thug in front of him hard with his elbow and moved past the collapsing man towards the woman. She lay in a crumpled ball, being whaled upon by these animals, and he was set on saving her.
“Split!” one of them shouted, and they began to scurry about.
“Bugger off,” the one identified as Nash turned, and snapped at him. “She belongs to us!”
Kenneth sprinted the distance to Nash with speed that shocked everyone present and threw him against the same wall he had pinned the young woman to. The force of the movement caused Nash to drop his blade, and it spun off into a puddle.
For a brief moment, Kenneth was able to take proper stock of the man. Scars crisscrossing his right shoulder seemed to tally the innocent people who’d lost their lives, and their fortunes to this man. There was a deep-set hatred in his eyes, one that could be directed towards whatever or whoever caused him ill. Kenneth knew this type well; Nash represented exactly what he was working towards eliminating in England.
“There be lots more pain comin’ her way ‘cause of you. No one to protect her when you leave, puppy. You may as well gut her yourself,” Nash cackled into Kenneth's face, spitting beads into his cheeks. “You don't know who you're dealing with.”
“I could say the same to you,” Kenneth said through his teeth, holding fast on Nash's shirt. “You will answer for this!”
Then one of the thugs struck Kenneth across his back, and he was forced to release Nash with a grunt. Kenneth whirled about and struck the man responsible hard in the abdomen, forcing him to double over. When he spun back, Nash was gone.
Kenneth looked down the alley to see the criminal disappearing around the corner. Turning around once more revealed that the man who had just struck him was gone as well out the other end of the alleyway. Even the one he had struck in the nose had vanished.
All was suddenly silent, and Kenneth turned towards the wounded woman on the ground. She was badly beaten, he could clearly see. Her face was terribly swollen, and she curled in a way that indicated broken ribs and terrible pain. Kenneth had seen plenty of injuries, and he knew within a few moments of looking at her that she would live. She would be terribly sore for weeks, but she would live.
Kenneth knelt beside the girl and brushed aside a lock of silken, chestnut hair from her battered forehead. His breath caught at the sight of her bloodied lips and bruised cheeks. He had not seen injuries of this magnitude since his time in the army. Beneath her right eye, his attention was caught by a long, pale scar that ran down her face.
Although the scar was a blatant feature of her face, it did not detract from her somewhat angelic appearance. Her cheek bones rested gently around her thin lips. She looked to be at the age of consent to marry, which begged the question of her guardian’s whereabouts; however, as Kenneth observed the young woman’s appearance, he noticed the dirt beneath her fingernails and the calloused palms of a hard worker. Those factors, coupled with her beaten body, indicated a curious set of circumstances.
She wore ill-fitted gentleman’s clothing and her body was covered in more dirt than the ground beneath her, but there was no mistaking her for anything other than female. Kenneth checked her over for any severe injuries but kept his eyes and ears sharp in case the gang decided to return.
There was no doubt in his mind that she was meddling in something dangerous and drowning in more danger than she was capable of handling, but something within compelled him to lift her from the wet ground. He brushed his fingers gently across her soft, honeyed complexion. Her small frame was so different in comparison to his solid build, and he marveled at her ability to withstand the gang's assault.
Kenneth removed his hand from her face as she began to stir, the shame of touching her lingered in his mind. She blinked open vivid emerald eyes with impossibly long lashes. Like a painting of an enchanting pagan goddess, she honored him with a phantom smile as her mouth barely curled at the edges despite the swelling and bruising about her face.
“Anybody there?” he called out into the rain. “Somebody, help!” but no one seemed to hear him. The square seemed so far away, like a distant portal.
Kenneth considered the consequences. If he left this woman here in the rain, she would likely die. If he carried her back to his coach, as was his first inclination, he could be inviting a whole world into his life which he had not intended.
Her head twitched in his arms and she stifled a sound. Kenneth looked down to her as one of her eyes moved over him, the other one fluttering shut.
“My apologies, good sir.” she croaked out. “I mean no inconvenience.”
“Come now, it is none at all.” Kenneth reassured her, bracing her against the wall.
“You’d think I’d have learned not to bait a man when he’s drunk as a wheelbarrow.” the woman feinted a laugh. “I can walk, set me down.” Kenneth could tell that she was trying to push him away.
“That's all that was, eh?” he asked, helping her to stand on her own. She could not support herself, and he gave her his arm to lean upon.
“It is nothing.” she mumbled, shaking her head, likely dizzy from the beating.
Kenneth watched as her lip began to tremble. Her emotions fought against her pride to keep the tears at bay, a sign of a girl who had learned long ago to be wary of the world. He pulled the cravat around his neck until the knot gave way. Kenneth used the cloth to dry the dampness on her face and sop up some of the blood on her cheek.
The night was coming on in full now. In the faint light from a nearby window, he could just make out the hollows of her cheeks and the dark circles under her eyes. The poor girl was exhausted. There was no telling how long she’d been running from those men.
“What is your name?” he asked gently.
“Leah,” she managed, reaching out vaguely for the wall in front of her. “Leah Benson. Release me now, really, I am fine,” she released a shuddered breath, stepping blindly forward, and she once again fell unconscious.
Kenneth positioned his arms carefully and lifted her from against the wall where he had steadied her. Her head lolled to the side and came to rest on the breadth of his shoulder. He felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility for this mysterious woman as he cradled her, marching back to the street. It was a strange feeling; Kenneth had preached the good of the common folk for some years now, but beyond that he had never taken personal action such as this.
In this, he was directly responsible for someone other than himself and his estate, and that thought was a forgotten one that he would have rather left behind. I must get her to the carriage. One thought at a time.
Footsteps sounded through the night, accompanied by voices calling out his name. Kenneth took inspiration from Miss Benson and maintained a firm grasp on his pride, not caring what lingering stares or hushed whispers he would face as he stepped from the darkness with her in his arms.
“I am here.” he called out. “Bring the coach, quickly!”
The male members of the search party met him near St. James’s Street while the ladies kept their respectable distance. His rushing off from the Assembly Rooms had apparently attracted quite the crowd of onlookers, despite the off-again, on-again rainfall.
Several of the ladies present gasped with indignation at the sight of him being so familiar with a member of their gender, and then gasped even more when they could see the state of the poor girl.
Some mentioned the unconscious woman as if she were a novelty, although he very much doubted their irate nature was due to the fact that she was unaccompanied by a guardian or husband, but more so to do with the telltale signs of poverty she wore.
Practice what you preach.
The disdain in the atmosphere was hard for him to tolerate, and for some reason there was a slight hint of embarrassment at the back of his mind.
“Daniel,” he addressed one of his footmen. “Bring the coach about and ensure that Miss Benson is comfortable for the ride home.”
“Right away, Your Grace.” Daniel took Miss Benson from his arms, supported by another servant, and made quick work of his tasks.
“Worthington,” the Marquess huffed, approaching Kenneth from the crowd. “You have given us quite the show.”
“So, it seems.” Kenneth replied. “Although apparently it has been made an unnecessary spectacle.” he addressed the crowd that had amassed with his last line. He was glad that no one had seen the fight in the alleyway. There would be talk enough of this. Plenty already thought him too rambunctious, and it had impacted his ability to find a wife.
The Marquess was unenthusiastic about Kenneth's display of valor and made it known, “Whoever this woman may be, she should not be trusted so readily. This ‘Miss Benson’ you speak of is likely a criminal intent on robbing you when you least expect it, Duke. You are always fast to act, 'tis true, but you must be sure you act in the proper manner. The drink hour has been spoiled now.”
Kenneth was unwilling to neither explain himself nor feed into the chatter already surrounding the evening.
Let them make their own ideas.
He was eager to return to Miss Benson and see that her needs were attended to.
“I bid you all a grand evening,” he said as he placed his top hat upon his head and climbed into the back of the approaching coach.
Miss Benson had been placed gently across the bench, covered with the footman’s tailcoat. Kenneth sat beside her and covered her more carefully. He stuffed himself into the corner to ensure no part of him was making contact with her body, lest she wake and think the worst of him. He resolved not to bother her; she had been through enough for one night.
Kenneth had strove for many years to avoid the repute of a libertine. Although moralities were changing with each passing year, Kenneth wished to uphold at least a few facades of modesty, especially when in public. While he tended to go against the grain of nobility, there were some things that were still imparted, and he took seriously. The first of which, being his family name.
Leah awoke to the scent of wet horses and the sounds of clattering wheels.
I am in a coach.
She peeked beneath the lashes of her eye that would open at the man who rode across from her on the cushioned bench. He had short, mahogany hair that was gently dusted with flecks of silver. Despite the day’s worth of stubble cropping up on his jaw, his features were generally handsome, which was more than could be said of most men at the time.
He wore a grim expression on his face as he searched through the rain for unseen enemies lurking in the shadows. He seemed at ease, yet restless all the same; his shoulders caged, waiting to spring open like a Bengal of India. They were an odd pairing of contradictions that intrigued her more than she thought they should.
He struck her as a man who cared for others more than his own well-being – possibly too much. She had known her share of people like that. They always meant well, but they always botched things up. The furrow in his brow was evidence that he worried quite often, but the slight wrinkles at the corners of his eyes spoke of a man who smiled often, or at least used to.
Leah was content with observing him as the sounds of trickling water calmed a place in her heart, which otherwise screamed for her to run. She moved her eye about for the doorknob. This man had shown her kindness, but she could not afford to owe a debt to a man of his evident wealth and status. Leah refused to be controlled by anyone other than herself any longer, this rich man included, kind as he may be.
She looked around the confines of the remarkable transport. Having only stolen a coach for Riphook, she’d never had the privilege of riding in one, especially one this fine. Leah felt tiny raindrops splash her face. She’d always loved the rain. It washed away the dirt and grime that stained her skin and soul. For Leah, it was redemption, freedom, and grace all rolled into one.
The wonder on her face drew the attention of her companion, who moved his gaze idly from the window. Leah was unprepared for the depth of his articulated, raspy voice as he spoke, “You are awake,” he sounded surprised. “Sooner than I might have expected.”
“This is your coach?” she asked, struggling to bring herself to a sitting position.
“It is,” he said softly. “How are you faring, Miss Benson? It has been a difficult evening for you, it would appear.”
She cleared her throat, praying the silence would return. She could handle silence; it was the talking that made her uneasy. Talking revealed too much about a person, and Leah wasn’t interested in baring her soul to anyone, much less the man beside her. He looked at her expectantly but remained patient in his waiting. The city streets slowly faded into muddy country roads.
“Seen better days,” she finally answered abrasively. She was thankful that the man hadn’t tried to assist her in sitting up. Her body could withstand many beatings, but her ego could take no more.
“I can imagine,” he gave a friendly smile. It seemed after another pause that he did not know what to say next. Leah appreciated that he sat silently instead of saying words that meant nothing and thought for a moment about how to proceed.
At least he doesn't talk too much. Perhaps I will be safe with him, at least for tonight.
She gingerly touched the cut on her lip and winced. It was time to change tactics. I should take full advantage of this opportunity.
“May I know your name or title, sir? I would like to properly thank you for saving my life, for upon consideration I find myself completely in your debt,” she spoke suddenly with a composure that surely shocked him. It was likely that he, like every other noble, thought her incapable of reading. The use of elevated language was a disarming tactic she employed often with the rich.
“Certainly,” he sat back, raising his eyebrows. “My name is Kenneth Wilson, Duke of Worthington.” There was a note of regret in his voice. He more than likely assumed she would hate him on principle; strange thoughts were often swirling about in the brains of the highborn. Leah didn’t hate his kind, she simply treated them as they had treated her – an untrustworthy stranger.
She didn’t understand their world, so she was indifferent to most of it. One thing she had a proper handle on was housekeeping; it was how she earned her living. Not actually cleaning the houses but robbing them disguised as a house servant. Beyond that, she was near clueless about the upper class.
“Thank you for saving me life, Your Grace,” she said. “I cannot imagine the tarnish upon your status that your actions have caused, but I will find a way to repay you for your kindness,” she uttered, attempting to sit correctly, but still she was bruising, and her left eye had begun to blacken.
He seemed pleased by her efforts and offered her a kind smile, saying, “There is no need to pretend. Take rest.”
Leah looked down at her appearance and for the first time in her life, she was ashamed. Wearing a dingy old chemise tucked into muck-covered trousers, a bloke’s patchwork jacket with tears in the side, and shoes that were too big for her feet, beneath all of which was a body so beaten that she could not breathe without some pain, Leah felt the cruelty of her reality.
Kenneth watched as a flush of color touched Miss Benson’s cheeks. He imagined she was resisting the temptation to fidget with her hair or pick at the threads of her clothing. Apparently, she was anxious, but hiding it well, and where he had first been excited, he was now nervous. He did not know where to proceed from here.
He had rescued this woman from street thugs, in part because of his personal code of chivalry, and in part because he felt a rush in the strange events that were such a welcome break from the monotony of his life. Something inside him had hoped for an adventure, nay, assumed one of this battered woman. He felt a slight flare of disappointment.
Clearly, Miss Benson was no different from everyone else in his life. A person with the same base desires and emotions, nervous in an unfamiliar setting, and reeling from a recent physical assault.
He remembered the Marquess' blunt words upon his departure. ‘Intent on robbing you when you least expect it.’ What nonsense!
For once, he wished others would not worry about perception of wealth or image. Anyone else would have left her on the street. They would not have followed into the alleyway.
Kenneth accepted that his role in this woman's story was a limited one, and realized he had to be content with what little adventure he had gleaned from her thus far. It had been ages since he had been in a fist fight, after all.
“It was my duty and honor to assist you, Miss Benson,” he said, tipping his hat.
“Leah,” she corrected boldly.
“Beg pardon?” he blinked twice.
“My name is Leah. I’m not a lady with a title of my own; I’m just someone down on her luck, is all. I know you’re guessing me as a vagabond or a thief, but that’s not who I am,” Miss Benson switched back to her normal, informal dialect, slouching down into a comfortable position on the bench. She chewed her nails nervously.
She glanced down at her hands and winced at the dried blood and dirt that covered them. Seeing her distress over the blood, Kenneth handed her a crinkled-up cravat from his pocket. She accepted the offer and wiped her hands before folding them neatly in her lap.
“I always like them to be neat,” she said absently, admiring the folded cloth. Miss Benson appeared to be lost in her thoughts momentarily. She then asked, “If you don’t mind me asking, why did you save me? I mean no insult but not many of your position would do such a thing, not that I’ve seen anyways. They will give you proper gossip for it too.”
“Yes, well,” Kenneth cleared his throat against the strong language. “I have a proposition for you. Let us cast aside any prejudiced opinions of one another and simply exchange in polite conversation. If you wish to inquire upon the societal standards of the high society, I will not indulge in your curiosity, for I find it one of the dullest subjects there could ever be. However, if you wish to speak to me of the joys and wonders of life, then I would be happy to share my own experiences with you.”
Kenneth took a deep breath before he continued, “I shall only speak honestly. It is the least you deserve. There is no profound reason as to why I intruded upon your encounter with those men. I saved you because firstly it was the right thing to do, and secondly because it was thrilling.”
Miss Benson avoided his penetrating stare as he spoke with sincerity he assumed she was not accustomed to. She continued to glance out the window as if the rain could summon the words she needed. Unfortunately, at that moment, it switched off once again.
“Were you injured on my account, Your Grace?” she asked, wincing as the carriage went over a series of bumps.
“Nothing I am unequipped to handle, Miss Benson,” he replied gallantly.
“Leah,” she corrected once again.
“Of course. So, you’ve stated.” Kenneth smiled playfully in her direction, hoping to put her mind at ease. He watched as she studied his profile and found himself becoming uncharacteristically self-conscious. “I was in the army for some time.”
She stroked her fingers against the bench like a painter creating something beautiful on a canvas.
“Fightin' old Bony?” she croaked coyly. Despite her wit and charisma, she was still injured.
“And the Americans.” he indulged, popping his eyebrows. It seemed that her spirit was lifting a bit.
She chuckled softly, playing along, “Bloody rebels.”
“Quite.” he answered, adjusting his hat with the hilt of his cane. He found himself smiling, even blushing a bit perhaps. It had been some time since he had found even an extended conversation with a woman at all enjoyable.
Kenneth was aware that he caught the attention of many young ladies despite being nearly thirty years of age. His skin was pale, and his eyes were dark. He lived quickly, and with passion, and made it clear for all to see. There was power in that image, and he wielded it as a great suit of armor against the world. Yet here it seemed this woman could see through him, like some sort of mystic of old. He was disarmed but pleasantly surprised. Miss Benson had a warm complexion and the brightest green eyes he’d ever seen. How do I proceed? I know not how to speak with her, it seems.
“Do you enjoy being a Duke?”
Kenneth was taken aback by her inquiry. No one had ever asked him if he enjoyed his position. He had assumed, like everyone else, it was an unspoken duty to the crown. Of course, he was aware of his privileges, but he did not mind too much to go without them. It never occurred to him that he could be anything different or if he would want to be anything else.
“I suppose, like everything else in life.” He handled his palm and thought about it. “There are good sides and bad sides to what I do –
“Am,” she interrupted him. “It's more of an 'am' than 'do' sort of life, isn't it?” Her eyes shone with bravery and the fearless young woman before him leveled her stare with his. Kenneth shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny of her gaze, but he maintained the eye contact she had established.
“I suppose you are correct.” he uttered, idly stroking the ruffles at the sleeves of his shirt. He gave no indication of his thoughts. She rose to the challenge and asked, “What are the good sides?”
“I would like to think that what I do matters, that I am part of something larger. It is good to feel important, valued, and to know that I have some power, what little there is, in making things better.”
Kenneth knew that making big changes was complicated. There were always two sides to change: the ones who wanted it and the ones who didn’t. It’s much easier to talk about change than it is to go about making it happen. His father had spoken about change many times, but the only ones who’d benefited were those who didn’t need it. The wealthy often flourished at the expense of the poor, but this had been a repeating cycle for thousands and thousands of years; it was not likely to be uprooted.
“Life, I suppose. Crime, for one thing.” His eyes looked pointedly at her bruises and cracked lips.
“Good luck to you.” she snorted, but it brought her great pain from her middle and she winced.
“What about you, Miss Benson? I'm sorry, Leah. What is it you want most in the world?” Kenneth asked, having sensed her thoughts turning dark once more. He would have to be careful and tread lightly. Her trust would not be won in the space of a single carriage ride.
She sucked in her breath a bit, contemplating, and puffed out her cheeks in thought. Then after a time she delivered a manicured reply.
“I want to live in a cottage somewhere out in the French country, so I can finish my paintings and garden. A village would do, I suppose, but I would prefer my own farm. Chickens and cows, most likely, though I do love a good goat. They'll eat anything. I want to visit the sea in the winter, and watch the sea slam the sand, eat iced cream, laugh about whatever I please, and never think about the boroughs again.” She thought for a second longer and added, “And I'd like to never need money again. Not as if I were rich, but as if people didn't need money. They all just sorted themselves out nice and like.”
Kenneth was struck by the wistfulness in her voice, as if she believed those things could only be accomplished in dreams. He was saddened to think that she was without redemption. Surely no burden she carried could kill her spirit so easily, for he’d seen passion within her as she fought for her life.
No woman, who held such bravery in her heart, would let the cruelty of the world best her. She is a true survivor. I remember what they look like.
Kenneth unbuttoned and shrugged out of his greatcoat and wrapped it around her shoulders. She was startled by the gesture but did not deny him. “I hope you are rewarded with such fortune, Miss Benson.”
“I wish you the same, Excellency.” She cocked her head a bit and adjusted to the coat. “Whatever fortunes you desire lest they be undesirable.”
“Ha!” Kenneth laughed out at her wit. “It's Your Grace, by the way, you had it right before.”
“I am a Duke, so you refer to me as Your Grace, not Excellency.”
“Oh.” She stared at him through her one good eye.
“No, no, come, it is no matter.” Kenneth felt ashamed for correcting her despite how she had corrected him multiple times.
Suddenly her eyes seemed to grow wide, and she looked to him worriedly. “You have been to France?” she asked him urgently after sheltering beneath the greatcoat.
“I have, twice in fact.”
“So, it's real?”
“France. It's a real place, isn't it? I mean you can go there, you can go to Paris. It's real isn't it?” she was pressing, working herself up into some sort of minor panic attack.
“Yes.” Kenneth said, startled. “It is real. Why ever wouldn't it be?”
Perhaps it is her injury. I have seen worse hallucinations.
“Sometimes…” Leah began to calm down, and after a few breaths she shrugged, slinking further into the folds of the coat. “Sometimes I look out at the water and think that's where the world ends, and that they just made everything else up to keep people from killing one another, and there isn’t even a real place to get away from here.” Leah rested her head on the window and looked distantly outwards.
“I – ” but Kenneth had no words to respond.
How full she must be of despair. It wracked at him, slicing inwards. She was wounded, deeply, both outside and in. Eventually he mustered up, “The world does not end there.”
“Where are we?” she asked, turning her head back from the window. “It is pitch black out there.”
“Somewhere between London and my estate.” Kenneth answered honestly. “I had thought that you might recover there, as before you woke, I had no inclination of when that would occur. Please, forgive me if I have overstepped. Will my estate be suitable grounds for your recovery? I believe several of your ribs to be broken, that requires rest, and much of it. I swear you will be accommodated with privacy and whatever you require.”
“Estate…” She chuckled a bit. “Don't hear that every day, do you?” Her pursuant sense of humor amazed him, and even forced him to smile.
“No, I suppose you don't.” Kenneth laughed. “Will that be acceptable to you, Miss Benson?”
“My name is Leah.” she retorted, and pulled the great coat further about her. She nodded her thanks to his offer and curled up on the bench shamelessly. Kenneth couldn’t imagine the physical pain she was experiencing. She had been struck many times, and if he knew anything about bruises, he knew she would feel each of the blows on the morrow. Kenneth had been there before, and so, he sympathized with her wounds. How strong she must be to endure such brutality. I should have been quicker! I could have had those brigands in custody.
Kenneth watched as she folded in on herself as if that were all the protection she needed. As if she were an alpine fox, tucking itself in for a storm. Her lashes trembled. She fought the sleep that threatened to consume her, but curiosity won the battle in the end and she passed into a deep slumber, letting loose a healthy snore that caused Kenneth to sit back, chuckling.
“What will become of all this?” he wondered aloud, resting his head back on the jostling window. The mystery had taken hold of him, and he had no way of knowing how far it would take him.
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