About the book
"Love is the death of duty. No. It is the birth of vengeance..."
Raised by her neighbors after she was orphaned at a young age, Veronica McLusky knows what it means to lose everything overnight. Armed with determination and a basket, her nightly excursions around town to help the less privileged are her greatest secret.
Phineas Desmond, newly appointed Duke of Norhall, can’t bring himself to mourn for his recently deceased father. Feeling responsible for his mistakes, Phineas dons a hood and helps the common folk under the cover of night. When he saves a young lady from a pair of thieves though, he never expected to see her outside his house the very next day, introducing herself as his siblings' new governess.
When omens of death show up outside their doorstep, Phineas realizes that his efforts to distance himself from his father's past were for naught. To atone, three lives must be sacrificed. Starting with Veronica.
“Goodnight, my dear girl,” Mrs. Martins said as she leaned down to kiss her young Veronica on the forehead. She drew a breath to blow out the thin candle, one of the batch her obedient daughter had made at the coal stove that morning, but the girl put out a hand to stop her.
“Mother, I was wondering something,” Veronica said in a small voice, a tremble of fear in her words.
“What is it, poppet?” her mother asked, still sitting on the edge of Veronica’s low wooden cot near the fire.
“Those men who came up by the house today,” she said, twisting the edge of her heavy blanket in her small hands. “What did they want?”
“’Twas only some business of your father’s, nothin’ for you to worry about, my dear,” her mother said with the sort of finality that made Veronica hesitant to ask anything further.
But she was far too worried to keep quiet about it for long.
“Mother, they were some fearsome-looking men though. And they seemed to cause Father to be afraid. What if they return here and cause him harm?” Veronica asked, her deep brown eyes beginning to glisten with tears.
“Never you mind about such things as that, your shoulders is too narrow to be carryin’ such a heavy burden. All will be well, poppet. Now go on to sleep with ya,” her mother said reassuringly, kissing Veronica’s dark curls affectionately.
Veronica smiled at her mother’s tender words and pulled her quilt up higher until only the top of her head poked out. At the other end of the small cottage, she heard her father grumble in his sleep as her mother woke him slightly by climbing beneath their covers.
She had no way of knowing the hour, only that she had fallen asleep for a time, when she was startled awake by the sound of several voices drifting down from the chimney nearby. They spoke in hushed but insistent whispers, and given her fright from earlier that day, Veronica was jolted awake at once.
“Ma!” Veronica called out in the darkness, keeping her voice low. “Ma!”
“I’m here, girl,” her mother answered, already on her feet. “I know not who they’ll be or what they could want. Here, into the cupboard with you now.”
Her mother pulled Veronica from her bed by her arms, lifting her high before setting her on her feet. She pushed Veronica through the kitchen until they reached the rough-hewn cabinet that held sundry items. Veronica scrambled over their spare table cover before hitting her knee sharply on one of the dough bowls. She held back a cry of pain, clamping her hand over her mouth instead.
The door to the cabinet closed behind her just as the sound of splintering wood filled the cottage. The door came down with a heavy sound, shaking the floor beneath her. Loud shouts and unintelligible words filled the house, and for a moment, Veronica was certain that their neighbors who lived nearby in their south London alley would hear and come to their aide.
“Where’s he at?” one of the men bellowed before a distinct slapping sound filled the small room. Veronica peered out of the door and saw only darkness, but she could make out the shadowy figure of her mother stumbling backwards from the assault.
“Mother, no!” Veronica whispered, greatly relieved when her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she saw her mother come to her feet. Another figure helped her up, undoubtedly her father, judging from the way her mother clung to him.
“What do you want from us?” her father shouted at the men while trying to dodge their blows, shielding himself and his wife with his upraised arm.
Veronica heard the sickening sound of her father’s arm breaking under the club one of the men carried. When he fell to the floor in pain, dragging his wife down with him, the barrage of blows continued while Veronica wept silently.
“Blaze it,” one of the men shouted to the others when he finally tired of striking Veronica’s parents. He looked down, the moonlight seeping through the windows showing the vicious sneer he wore. He spit on the floor where the poor couple lay then turned on his heels and left.
Veronica dared not venture out of her hiding place, not even as the men doused some foul-smelling liquid throughout the room. Only once they had finished their brutal task and tossed a lit matchstick near the door did she scamper out of concealment.
“Mother! Father! Please wake up!” Veronica shouted as she shook her parents. There was no sound from them, no fluttering of an eyelid. The flames licked up the walls around them, and even without knowing the true meaning of the word, she knew this—her parents were dead.
Let the fire take me as well, she thought, clinging to her mother’s body as she laid down beside her.
Overhead, the billows of smoke danced across the ceiling, illuminated by the hateful flames. Soon, Veronica knew it would descend on her and choke, its thick blackness stealing her breath as the fire consumed her.
Instead, as she cried tears of anguish and loss, unseen hands lifted Veronica and tore her from her mother, bearing her weight and taking her outside into the cool air. The difference in the deadly oven that was her house and crispness of the blue night made Veronica cough, great gasps for air mingling with horrifying sobs.
“My mother! Father!” Veronica cried, pushing against the hands that held her tightly. “Let me be, I must go to them!”
“There, there now, all will be well,” a woman said, rocking Veronica as she held her close. She smoothed back the girl’s hair and wiped at her tears. “You’re all right now, I’ve got you.”
“I want my mother!” Veronica cried out, pushing against the woman’s broad frame.
“Hush now, dearie. Come home with me, it’ll be all right,” the woman said.
The woman, Mrs. Dowell who lived across the alleyway, stood up and lifted Veronica in her arms, cradling her close to her ample bosom as she hurried across the cobblestones to her own unscorched house. Over her shoulder, Veronica took one last glance at the house where she had been born, the house where all the love she knew in the world was at that moment falling in on itself as sparks leapt overhead.
“She cannaw stay here,” a man called out gruffly as Mrs. Dowell went in through the door. “That family’s brought trouble on us all. I won’t have it now.”
“Oh hush, you. ‘Tis my house, not yourn. I’ll be decidin’ who stays here, thank ya,” Mrs. Dowell told her husband as she carried Veronica to her own children’s bed. “Move on then, make some room there.”
The Dowells’ three children did as they were told, their eyes wide with fright at the arrival of their friend. The smell of smoke clung to Veronica’s clothes and hair, filling the corner of the front room with its charred stench.
“I told ya that man was trouble! What right did he have of lookin’ for lawbreakers, turnin’ their business into our trouble?” Mr. Dowell demanded, coming closer to rant at his wife.
“Oh hush. Ya know them Bow Street runners is keepin’ us all safer these days. The least we can do for one who’s done us such a service is look after his wee child now. And that’s what I aim to do.”
Veronica watched with wide eyes as the couple argued, Mr. Dowell looming over his short, stout wife. In the end, he knew it was useless to take the opposite view. He threw up his hands and stormed from the front room, leaving Mrs. Dowell to turn and look down at Veronica, a fixed smile on her face.
“You’re safe now, love,” she crooned softly. “Those men won’t think to look for ya here.”
“Where’s my mother and father?” Veronica asked tearfully, her shoulders shaking.
“Don’t you worry none about that now. Just get your rest and we’ll talk more in the morning.” Mrs. Dowell smiled at her and patted her children’s heads, then put out the lamp. “Everything will be better in the morning, you’ll see.”
“Hurry and put a brush to your hair, my dearie,” Mrs. Dowell said, taking the drying cloth from Veronica and getting to work on the rest of the dishes from that morning’s meal. “Mrs. Ambrose will be here any moment and she said she has some important news for you. Given that she is employed by the Duchess of Northall, it might be a very keen opportunity.”
“I don’t know if I’m up for any opportunities,” Veronica replied with a weary look. “The last two offers she found were for a scullery maid. If I wanted to spend my life sweeping floors and washing dishes, I’d have stayed on at the church school and earned my way.”
“Oh, don’t trouble yourself thinking on that,” Mrs. Dowell said sympathetically. “You had mighty fine teachers for the years you were there. I don’t think they would have taught you anything further. In my mind, they only wanted another laborer under their thumbs.”
“Could be,” Veronica said, walking over to the small glass beside the front door and looking at her reflection, just the same. “Either way, I know I wouldn’t have learned anything of importance. They only offered the good subjects in order to convince wealthy parents to entrust their girls to them. Once we were past writing our names, reading a recipe, or adding up the sums to do the shopping, they were not interested in teaching us anything more.”
“Tis a shame, and far too many girls don’t even get that much. I’m glad you stuck it out and learned all you could,” the older woman said, smiling at Veronica. “But this time, I think ‘tis different. Mrs. Ambrose seemed very keen to bring us this news, even going so far as to inquire if you’d be at home. I wonder if ‘tis not a better position. Oh, perhaps a lady’s maid!”
“Do you think so?” Veronica asked, sounding worried. “I don’t know anything about that sort of thing. I would have to know about the gowns and the hair and the manners… I would be a failure before I ever began!”
“Don’t trouble yourself until you know, only listen and see what she has to say,” Mrs. Dowell counseled gently. Coming closer, she stood in front of Veronica and looked up at her, reaching forward and brushing back a lock of brown curls. “You know, my dear, I think of you like my own child. You’re my family, ya have been since the day I took you in. I only want the best for you, you know that.”
“I know, and I love you like my own mother,” Veronica said, taking the older woman’s hands and holding them. “I would have been lost if not for your kindness, sent off to a foundling home or a workhouse. It is only your generosity that kept me from such a fate.”
“I could never have left you to such uncertainty, your dear mother meant too much to me. And to be lost in such a terrible way, some days I think of her when I’m not paying any mind. I just get gripped with a terrible sort of sadness that chokes the breath out of me for a bit.”
Veronica came closer and put her arm around Mrs. Dowell’s shoulder, leaning her head against hers.
“I feel the same way sometimes. Most days, I think I only imagined that night, that I did not see those awful men,” Veronica said sadly. “But I know it’s the truth, their angry faces branding my mind with their horrific deeds. Then, I remind myself that my mother and father would not have wanted me to live a life filled with grief. They would want me to be happy, to celebrate every moment.”
“You’re an angel, girl. Ya always have been,” Mrs. Dowell said, patting Veronica’s arm. “Now you go and freshen up. Be ready to take on any good thing that comes your way!”
Veronica did as she was told, aware that in her three-and-twenty years, there had been more than a few discussions about her prospects. Would she marry? Likely not with so many years behind her, at least not unless she happened to turn the head of some young laborer. And with her work helping the Dowells in their meat shop, she wasn’t likely to be a delight to any of the customers—at least not any of the sort of men she might be interested in.
There was always learning a trade herself, but that sort of schooling took funds or a family connection. Oh! Perhaps Mrs. Ambrose had learned of someone in need of an apprentice. A seamstress, perhaps, or a modiste. Veronica had once met a young woman only slightly older than she who worked as a button-maker, which was a very respected position.
No sooner had she finished tidying herself up than there was a knock at the door. Veronica opened it herself and smiled politely at Mrs. Ambrose, who was herself the lady’s maid to the Duchess. Veronica could only imagine the impossible amount of knowledge such a lofty position required.
“Good day to you, Mrs. Ambrose, do come in,” Veronica said, at least attempting to sound mannerly. “I will go and fetch Mrs. Dowell for you. Should I ask her for tea?”
“No, no, I must take tea with the Duchess on Thursdays as it’s the only day she does not receive visitors or her children,” Mrs. Ambrose said primly, her hands clasped in front of her. “I do not have a great deal of time. I’ve only come to state my purpose.”
At the sound of voices, Mrs. Dowell emerged from the other room and greeted her cousin warmly.
“How have you been getting on, Catherine?” Mrs. Dowell asked, her characteristic empathy softening her features as they finally sat down. Veronica perched on the edge of her seat nearby, waiting silently for their pleasantries to pass.
“I must be getting on then,” Mrs. Ambrose said after they’d conversed for a good while, “but I’ve come to inform Miss Martins about a position at the house. Her Grace is in need of a governess for her children, and I think Miss Martins would find the opportunity quite agreeable.”
“A governess?” Veronica asked, her eyes going wide. “But I have no qualifications. Who would ever hire me?”
“Well, it’s possible that I might have put the thought in Her Grace’s head,” Mrs. Ambrose said with a wry look. “And perhaps I might have taken a few liberties with the nature of your own education.”
“So the old Duchess doesn’t know that it were only a church school?” Mrs. Dowell asked with a worried look.
“Heaven’s no. But Miss Martins did have a number of tutors at the school, did she not? Additional classes that she learned in her own time, and at your expense, if you remember correctly? That is certainly sufficient for this position.”
“But what if I’m an utter failure?” Veronica asked, a pang of disappointment hitting her at the realization that yet another position wasn’t right for her.
“My dear girl, you cannot be,” Mrs. Ambrose said, standing to go and looking down at Veronica. “There are three children, and the youngest charges are ten years old, a boy and a girl. They are half-wild and most likely could not pen their own names unless forced. I am not in a position to speak ill of the household, given that I enjoy my employment there, but you must know that all is not well.”
“How do you mean?” Mrs. Dowell asked, an intrigued look on her face.
“I’m sorry, but it would be untoward of me to gossip in such a way about the very people who pay my wages. Only know this,” Mrs. Ambrose said, turning her remark to Veronica, “the children need only gentle guidance and a firm but understanding hand. Any dolt could teach them their letters and their sums. When they are of age, they will likely be shipped off to schools—and it’s a wonder they haven’t been already for all that their mother pays them any mind.”
Mrs. Ambrose went to the door and placed her hand on the knob, but turned back to add something more.
“The position is all but yours if you’re willing, and the good Lord above knows that you’d be the ideal choice. I’ve seen how you’ve been with dear Mary’s children in this house all these years, how kind you were while still expecting them to mind their manners and obey their parents. You could do quite well for yourself here. And when these children are old enough for school or tutors, this could lead to further positions with other noble families.”
Mrs. Ambrose finally left, and Veronica sat down hard on the chair, her eyes wide with interest. The thought of being a governess had never occurred to her, certainly not with her lack of parents and schooling, and the fact that she was merely a shop girl to a butcher.
“My dear, can you imagine? Governess to the children of the Duchess of Northall?” Mrs. Dowell said excitedly. “How brilliant of Mrs. Ambrose to think of you!”
“But I could never, I am not educated nor come from a good family like many other governesses,” Veronica protested, though she wished in her heart that she could take the role.
“They don’t know that,” Mrs. Dowell reminded her sharply. “Besides, you heard my cousin, these children need you. Just think, what if they are in a home without any sort of love for them? Without anyone to pay them any mind, to read them a story or see to it that they ate a hearty meal. Heavens, what if they are left in the care of the cook when they are ill instead of having someone to look after them?”
Veronica was torn. To finally earn her own wages—meager though a governess’ salary was, to be sure—and put an end to her days as a burden to the Dowells was more than she could hope for. Perhaps she could even put aside money for them after all they had done for her these past many years!
“All right, I’ll accept it if Mrs. Ambrose thinks it will work,” Veronica said firmly. “But only because she has recommended me so highly. I will strive to live up to her great compliments.”
“That’s my girl! And who knows, perhaps there is a young man in service to the household who might take a liking to you?” Mrs. Dowell said with an amused look.
Veronica shook her head. “Absolutely not. I will have far too much to do in trying to appear like a qualified governess. If I should take this position, those children are my only priority. There’s not a gentleman alive who could sway me from my course.”
“Mother!” Phineas bellowed, dropping the corner of his newspaper and calling out to no one in the room. “If you do not come and get these two, I shall be forced to put them aboard with my next shipment to the Americas!”
At the Duke’s threat, two sharp squeals of delight came from beneath the wingback chairs on the far sides of Phineas’ study.
“I know you two are there, and you know that you should not be,” he growled to the chairs. “Come out at once and stop this nonsense.”
“Aww, Finn,” his brother Henry said, sliding across the floor on his stomach and elbows until he was free of the furniture. “We was only playing.”
“Yeah, we’re hiding to see how long it takes the maid to find us,” Eleanor added, crawling out from beneath the other chair and coming to stand beside her twin brother.
“It should not be taking anyone any amount of time because you should not have run away from her,” Phineas said, finally looking over at them. “And stand up straight, Henry. You’re the brother of a Duke, you must always look the part.”
“What part?” Henry argued with a sour look. “You get to be a Duke now that father’s gone, and I only get to be the second boy. I’m only around in case you get your head squashed in like a pumpkin if you fall off your horse or something.”
“Ha,” Eleanor scoffed. “At least you have something to look forward to. I only ever get to be the useless sister that nobody wants around.”
“Neither of those things are true,” Phineas said, his voice somewhat softer in light of his siblings’ sentiments. “You are Father and Mother’s dear children, the light of her life now that Father has passed.”
“Oh really? Have you seen her any lately?” Henry asked rather impertinently. “When was it we saw her last, Ellie? Two weeks ago now, or was it three?”
“Are you sure it wasn’t a whole month?” Eleanor chimed in, crossing her arms in front of her and leaning down on her brother’s shoulder, the difference in their height almost comical.
“I need both of you to return to the nursery where you belong. I shall send the maid up soon with your trays—” Phineas put up a hand to stop their protest, “—and if you go quietly, I will tell her to make sure there is cake on the tray.”
“Cake!” both children cried, before running out of the room and thundering up the staircase.
“I can only hope they’re actually on the way to the nursery,” Phineas muttered, returning to the report he’d been reading on the state of imports.
At times, he felt as if he had gone down with one of his ships and he was only just keeping his head above the waves, clinging to a broken timber until it would become waterlogged and pull him under. With his Father’s death at the end of last Season, Phineas had learned a terrible truth—their fortune had been gambled away on one venture or another, their only income arriving from some of the most unsavory business dealings imaginable.
Even while the old Duke had been alive, Phineas had heard some of the talk. Dropping in for a visit at White’s back then was sure to cause some eyebrows to go up and some conversations to suddenly cease. But however dark his father’s dealings might have been, the fact remained that it was now Phineas’ problem to pull them up out of ruin, restore their good name, and see to it that his mother and the twins were looked after.
What were you thinking, Father? Phineas had found himself pondering on several occasions. In truth, he knew that his father hadn’t been thinking, or at least not thinking of anyone but himself. He’d been a cold, distant, and at times brutal man while alive, and hardly anyone in the household—or even in the ton—seemed to be sad about his parting.
“Your Grace, beggin’ yer pardon,” a terrified-looking housemaid said from the doorway, curtseying frantically and wringing her hands, “but I can’t seem to find the children.”
“I’ve only just sent them to the nursery, Gretchen. Do not fear, they were hiding in here and you had no way of knowing,” Phineas said politely.
“Thank ya kindly, Your Grace,” the maid gushed, curtseying again and hurrying off to look for the children.
Phineas was angered that his mother would foist the children off on one of the maids, an unqualified girl who barely knew how to do her own job well, let alone that of a governess. He would speak to her at once about the issue and demand that someone be hired straight away.
Phineas knocked on the door to his mother’s chambers, but there was no answer. He knew she was within, and her refusal to come to the door angered him somewhat. After all, he was now the Duke of Northall—whether he was glad of the title or not—and mother or not, she was to defer to him in matters of the family.
“Mother, I know you’re in there,” Phineas called through the door, fuming.
“Go away,” his mother called from the other side. “I do not receive visitors on Thursday.”
“I am not a visitor, I am the Duke of Northall! Open the door!” Phineas called out.
For several moments, he wondered if she would truly not do as he said. Just as he was considering the ramifications of having the door removed by a smith, he heard the latch turn.
“What is it?” the Duchess asked, opening the door only enough that he saw the outline of her face.
“Mother, your children are out of control. They are driving the staff mad and need your attention,” Phineas began, but his mother only laughed.
“I don’t look after children on Thursday, either. Gretchen has them in hand, I’m sure of it,” she said, sounding rather silly as she laughed again and waved her son off dismissively.
“She most certainly does not,” Phineas snapped, pushing the door open wider with his hand to keep his mother from closing it in his face.
Before his mother could stop him, Phineas looked into the room and saw something that churned his stomach. Edwin Shackley, Marquess of Bolton, sat idly in a chair just beyond the door, a seat unnecessarily close to his mother’s sofa.
Phineas turned his attention to his mother, unable to keep the accusation out of his stare.
“As you can see, I have a guest,” his mother said blithely. “Tell Gretchen to be sure and feed the twins sometime today.”
The door closed in Phineas’ face, an occurrence that had been all too common throughout his life.
“I don’t know why she didn’t eat her young at birth like the wild creature she is,” Phineas fumed as he stormed away, intent on escaping to White’s.
At the sound of a loud shriek from overhead, Phineas stopped short. It had definitely been a young woman’s cry, but it was followed by raucous laughter from the twins.
I will be hiring a governess myself then, Phineas thought angrily as he went downstairs for his coat and hat. Today, if possible.
Darkness fell and supper had been cooked and consumed. Mr. Dowell had turned in already, a wool-wrapped warm brick from the fire clutched in each hand to soothe the ache from butchering for fifteen hours a day. Mrs. Dowell, for her part, had the strength to listen pleasantly to the younger ones’ conversation before letting her head fall to the side and snoring softly, exhausted from her work alongside her husband.
“I think that should be our cue to turn in as well,” Veronica whispered to the Dowells’ two daughters and son with a smirk.
“You go on, I still have some hems to finish for Madame LaRue,” the eldest daughter, Amelia, said with a tired sigh.
“Go on and sit by the window where the light is better, where the lamplight shines back from the glass. You don’t want to vex your eyes while earning your wages,” her sister Lydia said sympathetically. “I don’t mind sitting up and keeping you company, if you want.”
“No, no. You have to be up before dawn to walk to the mill. You go on to bed, I’ll be up soon enough,” Amelia answered.
When they’d left the table, Veronica made quick work of washing up the dishes. After mixing the dough and setting it to rise for morning then sweeping the floor, she peeked into the front room. She was relieved to see that Amelia had finished and gone to bed, evidently waking Mrs. Dowell and prodding her off to her bed in the other room as well.
Veronica lifted the heavy basket of items she’d stowed inside and crept to the door. Turning the latch as quietly as possible and lifting up on the door slightly so that she might not cause the hinges to creak, she slipped out the door and down the steps.
After only a few minutes’ walk, Veronica came to her destination. Perching the heavy basket on her hip and clutching the handles tightly, she walked along the road until she found a low door. She knocked at the door very gently, one of its hinges long since rusted through until it hung crooked on its lone remaining hardware.
“Who it be?” an old woman called out from within.
“Tis me, Veronica,” she replied softly, not wishing to draw unwanted attention.
Veronica heard the familiar sound of something scraping against the floor on the other side, reminding her of how the old woman pushed her table against the door each night in an attempt to ward off any intruders. The bent woman opened the door a crack and peered out before moving back further and permitting Veronica to enter.
“My dearie, ‘tis so good to see ya!” the woman cried, revealing a nearly toothless grin.
“And you as well, Mrs. Yelton. I’ve brought some provisions, and a bit of a poultice for your chest to keep away the cough,” Veronica said, opening her basket and pulling out a few of her parcels.
“Yer a saint, my girl! I don’t know what I’d do without ya!” Mrs. Yelton answered, clearly trying not to grab the foods straight out of Veronica’s hands.
“I’d best be going, I’ve a few more people to see tonight,” Veronica said. “Be sure to bar the door well when I’ve gone!”
And so it went. Veronica stopped at addresses she knew by heart, names she’d learned over the years, homes that were barely more than a dark hovel carved out of the damp stone foundation of some of the seediest buildings around. In every house, she left behind some bread and scraps of meat, some leftover pieces of cloth she’d saved, or some poultices and brews. In every instance, she was rewarded with tearful, heartfelt thanks and pleas to return.
I may not have much in this world, Veronica thought hours later as she began the walk home, but I will be returning to a soft bed and a warm fire. May God grant that these people enjoy some of those comforts very soon.
Barely steps away from the corner where she would turn to go to the Dowells, Veronica heard a strange noise behind her. It sounded almost like a scraping of wood against the ground, followed by the faintest whisper of laughter. She turned to glance over her shoulder, but all was dark behind her.
As Veronica turned back to look forward again, she let out a small cry as she collided with something soft but solid that had appeared before her. Her senses were assaulted by the strongest whiff of gin and turpentine, a combination so potent that it caused her eyes to water.
“Aye there, pretty girl. Where ya be off to at this time o’ night?” the man drawled, his words hardly intelligible.
“I’m headed home, my mother is expecting me,” Veronica stammered, though she tried to sound firm in tone.
“Oh, you’re a mama’s girl then,” he said, slurring a bit as he stepped in front of her. “Do she know her girl’s so lovely?”
The man reached up a hand to brush Veronica’s cheek, but at the same time, a second man came up from behind her and took hold of a lock of her curls. He laughed rather close to her ear and whispered to her.
“She should take more care to let you out of her sight then. There’s no tellin’ what sort o’ harm could come to a pretty girl out at night alone.”
Veronica froze, the fear rising up in her until she could not even reason what to do next. When she felt the second man’s kiss at the side of her face, she let out of a terrifying scream that was instantly silenced by a slap from the first man’s hand.
“Shut ‘er up then, she’ll wake every house!” the first man hissed.
Veronica felt herself grow lighter on her feet as she was dragged towards an alleyway back in the direction she’d just come. She knew what was back there, nothing but high walls and no avenue for escape.
Instead of permitting them to drag her towards a certain unthinkable end, Veronica screamed again, ignoring the sense that she might be struck once more. This time, she flailed her arms and legs as she cried out, intent on causing any onlookers who chanced by to know that she was not a willing companion to these men.
“Aye then, I told ya to keep her quiet!” The man shoved his friend away so that he might grab Veronica and throw her over his shoulder. No sooner had he lifted her high up than Veronica tumbled back to the pavement, striking her chin at the last moment and crying out from the pain.
“What’s the meaning o’ this?” the second man demanded.
It took a moment for Veronica to realize he was talking to someone else, a third man who’d appeared. Before he could shout again, the third figure—cloaked entirely in black with a hood obscuring his face—dealt him such a blow as to send him reeling backwards.
“Run!” the newcomer hissed at Veronica, turning to look at her at such an angle that the moonlight made his eyes shine like those of a terrible cat. “Get out of here!”
Without even stopping to give voice to the enormous thanks she felt, Veronica scrambled to her feet and bolted from the alleyway. She stopped only long enough to scoop up the basket that had been tossed aside when she was first accosted, then ran all the way home without looking back.
“No, don’t turn away. I know it smells rather foul, but ‘tis the best thing for cleanin’ such a scrape as that,” Mrs. Dowell said, brushing back some of Veronica’s hair. “There’s no tellin’ where that pig of a man’s hand has been.”
Veronica winced as the liquid stung at the scrape on her cheek and the small gash on her chin. Mrs. Dowell appeared to be fighting back tears as she finished her work silently.
“There you are,” she finally said, stepping back and turning Veronica’s head this way and that. “You’re sure there’s nothin’ else hurt? You didn’t turn your ankle runnin’ away or nothin’?”
“No, thank goodness. If I had, they could have caught up with me for sure,” Veronica said, still trembling slightly though it had been nearly an hour since she’d reached home.
“Best not say a word to Amelia or Lydia about this,” Mrs. Dowell said quietly. “No, don’t look at me that way, I do plan to tell ‘em. They need to know to keep a close watch where they walk and who might be near. But I’ll be the one to tell ‘em, so as not to make them more fearful than they have to be.”
“And what of Mr. Dowell?” Veronica asked, thinking of the gruff man of few words who’d first refused her a place in his house. Still, she had grown on him until she was nearly as much a part of his family as his own daughters. “You don’t think he’ll try to go after those men, do you?”
“He might, knowing how stubborn he can be,” Mrs. Dowell groused before looking a little proud. “He does take good care of his family, that’s for certain. I’ll be the one to tell him, too. Perhaps by then, someone will have sniffed out those villains and thrown ‘em in the Thames with a rock tied ‘round their necks!”
Veronica looked wide-eyed. It wasn’t like Mrs. Dowell to be so callous, but under the circumstances, she understood her sentiment.
“You don’t think… no, never mind,” Veronica began before changing her mind.
“What is it, girl?” Mrs. Dowell asked, coming to sit down across from Veronica and pushing back her night cap slightly.
Veronica frowned. “I know my father did some sort of work in finding criminals. You don’t think this was because… because of who he was?”
“Like these men were after you?” Mrs. Dowell asked. Veronica nodded, but the older woman shook her head vehemently. “Not at all. No, I’m afraid the world is simply overrun at times with those who care only for what they want, and not for how it hurts anyone else. There’s always been this sort of criminal lot in the world, ever since that first man killed his own brother.”
Veronica smiled, remembering back to the lessons at the church school. But something still bothered her.
“What was it my father did?” she asked hesitantly. “I’ve only heard bits of things here and there over the years.”
Mrs. Dowell looked uncertain, but finally closed her eyes for a moment and nodded.
“Tis only natural that you’d want to know. What poor orphaned child wouldn’t? My girl, as ya know by now, your father was one of the men known in these parts as the Bow Street Runners. They were a feisty lot, fiercely determined to seek out the worst sorts of villains and bring them to their end before the magistrate. Your father was one of their finest, but it made him a good deal of enemies… powerful ones at that.”
Veronica was quiet, trying to bring to mind an image of her father’s face. She remembered only his full mustache and the vests he wore, a modest watch always concealed in a small pocket at the front. Other than that, all details about him were lost to her, no matter how hard she tried to think.
Her mother’s face was somewhat clearer, having spent so much more time in her mother’s company while her father was off at his work. Her hair had been brown like Veronica’s but fell in gleaming waves when she brushed it out rather than the airy curls that Veronica constantly tried in vain to tame with pins. Though there had surely been times of anger or upset, Veronica could only remember her mother smiling, looking down at her tenderly or speaking to her in some adoring way.
Memories are like that if they are good ones, she’d thought plenty of times. I must remember that I have only good memories of my parents, all but for that horrible night…
“I remember the night they died, you know,” Veronica said quietly, looking down. Near her, Mrs. Dowell seemed to stiffen, but Veronica continued. “I remember seeing several men come into the house. Mother had concealed me in the cupboard, but it was dark and I dared to open the little door and peer out. I don’t know that I shall ever forget what I saw, even if I wanted to.”
“Why would you not want to, my dear?” Mrs. Dowell asked in a small voice.
“Because it’s all I have left, the very last time I spoke to them,” Veronica confessed. “And because if I were ever fortunate enough to have a single wish granted, I would wish for the death of the men who took them from me.”
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