Authors: Charis Michaels
“Yes,” he agreed, a reflex.
She backed away from him. “Thank you so much. Godspeed to you.”
And then she turned her back and jogged a diagonal path across the park.
“May Iâ” he called after her, but then he stopped.
He ran a few steps to be heard and started again. “I will inquire after your health on my next holiday. I should like to know that you've been looked after.”
“Please do not follow me,” she called over her shoulder.
“Of course,” he mumbled to himself, watching as she grew smaller and smaller in the distance. When a milk cart passed between her silhouette and his view, he lost sight of her altogether.
She was gone.
lisabeth darted into the servant's stairwell and whipped the door shut on her aunt's party.
Bryson Courtland stood not ten yards from her, on the other side of the door.
In her aunt's entry hall.
Sipping wine from a goblet. Staring at her.
After all this time.
She closed her eyes and put a hand over her mouth, willing her breathing to settle.
But how had heâ
And then she realized. Bryson Courtland was Viscount Rainsleigh now.
was the viscount her aunt had invited to her party. He was the bachelor lord with all the money, the benefactor, the charity prize, the new house in town. It was
Lillian had cajoled Elisabeth to attend tonight.
She stared at the closed door, her heart pounding.
Bryson Courtland. Here. Staring at her.
Fifteen years reconvened in the blink of an eye. The last time he'd seen her, she had been all of fifteen years old, terrified, out of her mind with grief.
Meanwhile, he was . . .
Well, he looked very much the same as he did now. Less wiry as a full-grown man. Broader chest. Thicker.
He was stillâ
“What's happened to
?” Four steps down the stairwell, Elisabeth's errand boy and lead raider, Stoker, chewed on a green bean from the kitchen.
, Stoker,” she managed, staring at the parchment still clutched in her hand. “A word, if you please. You may not go until we've spoken.”
He took another bite. “You look like you've swallowed a beetle.”
She scanned the letter, seeing nothing. She scanned it again to the same result. In her head, she saw only the viscount's gaze, locked on her face, or Aunt Lillian's innocent expression this morning, casually inviting her to live out one of her most mortifying dreams while society friends slurped soup around the table.
“I won't go to Yorkshire,” Stoker said, jerking her back to the letter.
go,” she shot back. “You've barely considered it.” She could have had this conversation in her sleep, thank God.
“You can't force me, Lady E, and I won't do it. Even if I have to stop raiding for you.”
“I don't intend to
, Stoker. I intend to convince you. And that begins with reading the letter. What luck that you turned up.” She extended the letter to him. “The formal acceptance arrived only today. I was counting the minutes until I could show you. Here, take it. Read it yourself. See what they've said about you.”
He didn't move.
Elisabeth sighed and continued. “It's a lovely school, Stoker. It will change your life. You won't be restricted to rescuing girls from brothels for me and living in Rotten Row. You'll never have to set foot in a brothel ever again. You may take a job in a bank. Or as a teacher. You may work in an office or a laboratory. Who can say what you might achieve? The tutors have given you a fine basis of knowledge, but you are cleverer still, and there is so much more to know. Literature. Art. Mathematics. Languages. For this, you'll need a proper school, and this one
. They want you, Stoker.” She waved the letter again.
Stoker leaned against the wall of the stairwell. “And what would I do, working in a bank? Sounds like a bloody bore. I'd rather work for you, Lady E.” He pulled a half-smoked cheroot from his pocket.
“Do not smoke in here, Stoker. You know I cannot bear it.” She scanned the letter again. “Don't you see? This means that you will have choices. Your notion of a fulfilling occupation may change after you've been to school. Why, after graduation you may work in the foundation
, not in the streets.”
“The office? While who runs the raids?”
“You . . . you may train Lewis to do the raiding.” This would never happen, but she said it again. “Before you go, Lewis can learn.” Stoker had been working as a stable boy for Elisabeth when she'd welcomed her first-ever prostitute to the foundation. It had been Stoker who volunteered to breach the brothel's high security and steal the girl out. He and a ragtag team of street boys had been raiding brothels for girls on Elisabeth's behalf ever since.
“Lewis?” Stoker scoffed, naming his hapless second in command. “Lewis gave us the slip tonight. Again. It's why I've come. We're down to five lads. But don't worry. It's sorted. Less is better, actually, in the rain.”
“If Lewis cannot replace you, I'll find someone else. I refuse to keep you from a hopeful future so you can muck around in the gutter for me. This has always been my fight, Stoker. I am grateful for your help, but this is why I am sending you away. I owe it to you.”
“I muck around in the gutter to keep you out of it, m'lady.”
Elisabeth sighed. “You are loyal to a fault, Stoker. I would not have bothered with your education if you had not been so loyal or so bright.” She raised her eyebrows, waiting. The boy spun his hat on his finger.
Elisabeth tried again, “Look, Lady Banning and I have gone great pains to have the school consider you. You are sorely mistaken if you think I will simply let it go. You must come to terms with it. This is your future. You
go, even if I have to drag you to Yorkshire myself!”
“Think of the girls we save, Lady E. Think of them.”
She wanted to stomp her foot in frustration. “I will take on more help. Paid muscle is readily available in the London streets, but only a few, choice young menâand literally no one with your historyâhave the opportunity to attend to a real university.”
“Paid muscle?” The boy looked as if he would cry.
She shook her head vigorously. “Stop. No one can fully replace your instincts or courage, but you may assist when school is not in session. In the interim, I will hire off-duty policemen. Or soldiers on leave.”
“Less money for the girls.”
“So be it. We can only do so much. Or I will raise more money. You have gifts, Stoker, and you cannotâ”
A knock sounded on the door behind her, and Elisabeth jumped, dropping the letter. She lunged for it in the same moment as Stoker. They both came up with a corner, ripping it in two. Elisabeth exclaimed in frustration, half sigh, half shout.
Another knock, more insistent this time. Elisabeth whirled around, irritated. “Who couldâ”
The door opened, just a crack.
“I beg your pardon, but are you quite all right?”
Elisabeth shut her eyes.
“I thought I heard . . . conflict.”
She opened one eye, but he was still there.
Bryson Courtland, Viscount Rainsleigh. Inexplicably, mortifyingly. Standing in the hall outside the now-open door.
She opened her mouth; closed it.
The viscount prompted. “Miss? I heard shouting. Is the boy causing a bother?” He leaned to one side, studying Stoker on the stairwell. Stoker dropped his gaze and slouched down to steps, the embodiment of supplication.
Elisabeth's mind raced.
Was it possible that he
did not remember
She shook her head. “There is no trouble,” she said to the half sheet of parchment in her hand.
Elisabeth stifled a shout of frustration and then elaborated. “This boy is in my employ, and we have disagreed about an errand. Our voices were raised but not in anger. There is no bother. I apologize for disrupting your evening.”
“ 'Tis no disruption,” said the viscount carefully. “I am inconveniently attuned to raised voices.” A pause. “I apologize for the intrusion.”
“ 'Tis no intrusion,” she said quickly. She glanced at Stoker in time to see him quietly retreating down the stairs.
She was forced to look at the viscount. “You are kind to inquire.”
He nodded but remained in the doorway.
She ventured, “If you'll excuse me.”
He didn't move.
She tried again, “Good night to you, sir.”
, she thought.
He blocked the door to the hall, so she had no choice but to follow Stoker down the stairs. She turned, collected her skirts, and began to descend.
“Forgive my boldness, miss,” he called after her, “but are you . . . ”
She paused, her foot hovering above the fifth step. Her heart hammered. She squeezed the handrail.
He finished, “Are you the countess's niece? Lady . . .
Her lungs tightened and the knots in her stomach cinched into a tight pit. For a horrifying second, she thought he would call her out, right there and then. She averted her face and nodded to the wall.
“Forgive me again, but . . . won't you attend the dinner?”
She forgot herself and looked up.
His stare did not waver, and before she could stop herself, she scanned him, head to boot. His height and breadth filled the doorway. He'd worn buckskins and shirt sleeves that night, so long ago, but tonight his evening attire was solid black wool, leather boots, a creamy white cravat. The fit was precision, despite his considerable size. His face had grown to accommodate his strong featuresâwide jaw, aristocratic nose, ice-blue eyes, now creased at the edges by tiny lines. Surely he would have been freshly shaven before the party, but now his jaw was smudged with the shadow of a beard.
He cocked his head, just a little, aware of her scrutiny.
She cleared her throat. “I'm afraid the party is out of the question.” She gave a dismissive smile and turned to go.
“Why is that?”
She stopped. “I beg your pardon?”
“I wonder why the party would be out of the question.”
His persistence was rude, even by her standards, and she almost laughed. She was about to venture an outright lieâa headache, another engagement, an allergy to the fishâwhen Aunt Lillian swept through the doorway behind him.
“Aha, so you've found her,” trilled the countess. She shot her niece a heavy look. “But what an unfortunate corner of the house. Elisabeth, darling, what are you doing in the footman's stairwell? Please, come out at once, so I may introduce you.”
Elisabeth gritted her teeth. “Actually, I was justâ”
Lillian continued, “After that, you may run upstairs. I will hold dinner while you dress.”
Oh, no you will not
. Elisabeth looked at her aunt, then the viscount, then back to her aunt.
The viscount coughed. “I beg your pardon, my lady. I made the acquaintance of your nieceâoutside the bounds of the party, I'm afraid, with no formal introduction. But I heard shouting in this stairwell. I was alarmed and feared the worst. I did not mean toâ”
“Shouting?” Lillian chuckled, feigning shock. “Oh, horrors, what you must think. Yes, well, we reside in a very spirited household, I'm afraid. Thank you for your chivalry, but do not allow the odd ruckus to alarm you. Elisabeth,” she continued, her voice tight, “please. Come into the hall so you may be properly introduced.” She looked over her shoulder. “Lady Beecham would not speak to me if she knew the guest of honor had been lured away by a ruckus in the stairwell.”
Elisabeth shook her head slightly and stepped down one step. She could feel the color burning in her cheeks. If he had not recognized her, it was only a matter of time. If he
recognized her, he was feigning ignorance for the purpose of . . . She had no idea why he would lie about it, but she could guess a myriad of humiliating revelations, each worse than the last.
She would not give him the opportunity. The life she'd built since her parents were shot had been carefully, painstakingly rebuilt. It included her aunt and Quincy, her charity, and the girls she saved. It did not include him.
Something has come up
,” she told her aunt firmly. “With Stoker. I was just managing it. He and I had not yet finished speaking; in fact, I believe that I mentioned to you that I am
tonight, Aunt. For the party. I would preferâ”
“Ah, but the
would prefer the pleasure of your company, and he is my honored guest. If you come to dinner, you may tell him all about dear Stoker and the shouting match that so alarmedâ
“It was hardly a shouting match. We were merelyâ”
The viscount interjected, “Truly, my lady, if she does not wish to attend . . . ” His voice was cutting and flat.
The countess interrupted, “Nonsense. Of course she wishes to attend. Come, darling, up, up.” She extended her gloved hand and gave an urgent
with her pointer finger and thumb.
Rainsleigh tried again, his voice now a sharp grind. “If the lady does not wish to make myâ”
Elisabeth shook her head and said, “It's nothing to do with you, my lord. 'Tis merelyâ”
to do with you, my lord,” cut in Aunt Lillian. “She wishes to approach you about your charity prize, but she does not wish to compete with my cause.” To Elisabeth, she said, “I will not tell you again; the viscount has seen quite enough.”
In the end, Elisabeth was given no choice. She nodded. She took up her skirt and raised her chin to hold her head high. It felt momentarily betterâat least she no longer spoke to the wallâbut she refused to go so far as to look Rainsleigh in the eye. Not that it mattered. If he recognized her, he gave no indication.
She glanced at him quicklyâone swift look and then away. His expression had gone stony, almost grim. He nodded curtly, watching her ascend.
“It would seem that I shall attend the dinner after all,” she said primly, looking straight ahead.