“Don’t assume every young lady is in need of rescue. Some of us wish to be a heroine who fights her own battles.”
—Journal of Clary Ruthven
Whitechapel repulsed Gabriel Adamson.
Grime and smoke hung so thick in the air that he could taste grit on his tongue. Narrow lanes conspired to trap the neighborhood’s fetid stench, and its tenements loomed above his head as if they’d crush him under the weight of their cramped, miserable inhabitants.
Now that he could afford proper togs for the first time in his life, he took care selecting the finest fabrics for his tailored suits and shirts. Today, he feared every stitch he’d donned would reek from the East End’s noxious stew of ash and muck.
The rain had been on and off and on all morning, but the heavens showed no mercy in a place like this. The sky opened the moment he alighted from the hansom cab, fat drops pelting his hat like the clatter of horses’ hooves on cobblestones.
Tugging up his fur-lined collar, he lengthened his stride and ducked under the awning of a grimy-windowed shop. He stared across the lane at Number 12 Doncaster.
The building slouched toward the street, its wooden frame worn by time and eaten away by moisture. The brick buildings buttressing each side were smart and modern by comparison, though their red bricks had been smoked to an oily black too.
As he gazed up at the house, echoes rang in his head. Raging shouts and desperate cries. The thud of fists on flesh. Bone meeting bone.
Peg Delaney was a cruel woman, but she was nobody’s fool. Gabe doubted she’d still be eking out a living in the last place he’d seen her. This venture was a fool’s errand.
He drew in a ragged breath, biting back a curse.
At least he’d had the good sense not to tell Sara of his trip. He couldn’t bear to dash his sister’s hopes, nor could he stand watching her fret over their mother’s fate when she should be focusing on her future and finally securing a bit of long-delayed happiness.
When the rain slowed to a sparse patter, he dashed across the narrow lane and knocked at the door. No answer came, and he suspected the landlord was far in his cups by this hour. The man had always been a wastrel. Trying the latch, he found the door unlocked and stepped into the dark, musty vestibule, choking on memories and stale air.
A discordant strain of music—a bow scratching at violin strings—echoed from upstairs. Gabe started up the worn slats. The wood creaked under his weight.
His mother’s door stood ajar, and nausea clawed its way up his throat when he caught a hint of her cheap perfume on the air. Bracing a gloved fist against the wood, he pushed inside and held his breath. Amid dried leaves and a cascade of cobwebs, the stench of rot turned his gut inside out.
Except for a single overturned chair, the room contained no furniture. Nothing hung on the walls. No personal effects decorated the space. She’d abandoned this place long ago, and no one had given a damn about the miserable lodging room since. Water ran down the walls, leaking from loose roof tiles.
Gabe strode to the back of the room and gripped a moldy edge of loosened wallpaper. Peeling back the paper revealed a gaping hole in the plaster. Reaching inside, he scraped his fingers around in the dust and dark until he felt a rounded shape. He tugged the object forward, grasping the tiny horse head in his hand.
Years ago, he’d found the knight chess piece in the gutter and had squirreled it away like a treasure. Even now, the chiseled quartz glinted in the weak light from the room’s single, cracked window.
“Wot you after?” A woman’s gruff bark sounded from the threshold, and Gabe turned, fists balled, muscles tensed.
“Mrs. Niven.” She’d been wrinkled and gray when Gabe was young. Now his old neighbor had the aspect of a wizened crone. If wizened crones wielded a violin bow in one hand and a revolver in the other.
Squinting until her eyelids were little more than creased slits, she shuffled forward. “Is it you?”
Gabe’s pulse slowed as he watched the old woman’s drooping mouth curl up in a toothless smile.
“Ragin’ Boy.” She drew close, reeking of smoke and soiled wool. “Never fought I’d see those eyes of yours lookin’ back at me again. ’Ow many years gone now, child? Five? Ten?”
Nine and a half years. He’d left Whitechapel at sixteen and never looked back. Never intended to step foot in the godforsaken place again either.
Tipping her chin, Mrs. Niven examined Gabe down the length of her bulbous nose. “Judgin’ by those fine togs you’re sportin’, I’d wager you’re not frowin’ punches for your supper these days, are ya boy?”
“Where is she?” He wasn’t here for small talk.
“Peg? ’Aven’t seen ’er in ages, boy.”
Gabe flexed his fingers. He fought the urge to throttle the old woman every time she called him boy. Mrs. Niven was thinking of another person. A child discarded long ago. An imp who woke angry every morning and spent his days fighting, striking out at anyone, anything that stood in his way. Bloodthirsty men had once had a use for him, betting on his skills in the ring. But he’d escaped. Taken a new name. Made a new life. Never looked back.
“You’ve no idea where she’s gone?” He couldn’t lose sight of why he’d come. If he thought of anything else, the memories would break in, and he’d lose control. Control was how he survived. Imposing order on chaos had been his salvation.
“Not a clue.” Mrs. Niven choked before bursting into a racking, hollow cough. “Wot you need ’er for?”
“I don’t need ’er at all.” Neither did Sara. This ridiculous venture was what happened when he gave in to sentiment. He needed to stop making that mistake. Reaching into his coat pocket, he extracted a silver sixpence. The woman’s rheumy eyes widened, nearly bursting from their sockets, when Gabe deposited the coin in her grimy palm. “Don’t drink it all at once, Mrs. Niven.”
He started across the leaf-strewn floor, stopped, and turned back. After extracting a calling card from his waistcoat pocket, he offered the cream rectangle to her. “Send word if you hear anything of my mother.”
Mrs. Niven was decidedly less eager to claim the slip of paper than she’d been to take his money, but she finally hobbled forward and retrieved the card from his fingers.
Gabe didn’t look back as he descended the stairs and made his way onto the rain-drenched street.
Let his mother find them if she wished. Nothing would ever compel him to return to this godforsaken place.
The downpour had diminished to a drizzle as he started down the lane, heading for the busier cross street, praying for a stray cab rattling by in search of a fare. Strangely, this area of Whitechapel had begun to transform. Run-down buildings had been replaced by newer brick structures, and a few thriving shops lined the streets. Outside of a tea room, the pavement had been painted in whitewash, and chairs were arranged outside, awaiting diners and a drier, sunnier day. If he’d possessed no memory of these streets from a decade before, he could almost be lulled into believing the neighborhood a respectable one.
At the precise moment such hopeful nonsense teased at his thoughts, a screech rent the air. A rowdy brothel had once thrived around the corner, but the sound echoing in the narrow lane wasn’t one of pleasure. More like agony. A man’s bleat emerged again, high-pitched and pained.
Gabe’s body responded like a soldier’s on the eve of battle—muscles taut, instincts sharp, pulse throbbing in his ears.
“You bloody bitch!” the man squeaked.
Gabe rolled his shoulders and tugged off his gloves. Whoever the man was, he’d chosen to menace the fairer sex, and Gabe never had been able to stomach a bully. Too many times as a child, he’d watched helplessly as his mother cowered on the losing side of a man’s fists.
Until he was old and strong enough to beat them off himself.
Rounding the corner, he expected to find a man overpowering a woman with his height and strength. A sight he’d seen a thousand times in these streets. Instead, he spotted a man bent at the waist, clutching his groin, glaring toward the entrance of the Fisk Academy for Girls, according to the sign above the door.
“I’ll smash that pretty face of yours,” the wounded blighter cried.
“I don’t think you will,” a feminine voice countered. “And don’t let me see you darken this doorstep ever again.”
A croquet mallet emerged through the doorway first, the cylinder of wood painted with jaunty blue stripes around the edges. Purple ruffles came next, the edge of a skirt kicking up as a diminutive woman stomped out to face the wounded man.
Gabe rushed forward to assist her and jerked to a dead stop.
Pert nose. Guinea-gold hair. Wavy strands glinting in a beam of afternoon sun that managed to break through the clouds.
He recognized her, yet he squinted, unwilling to believe the evidence of his eyes. Queen Victoria parading down the sodden streets of Whitechapel wouldn’t have shocked him more. What business could the young woman have in this soot-smeared place?
She was a country girl. Gently bred. And on the occasion of her twenty-first birthday, the little hellion would become his employer. Though when Leopold Ruthven entrusted Gabe with the running of his publishing enterprise, he never imagined answering to the man’s children one day.
Clarissa Ruthven couldn’t see him here. She wasn’t privy to his history, and if he had his way, she would never know he hailed from these grimy streets.
As surefooted as he’d been as child when he’d served as lookout to a notorious housebreaker, he retreated. One boot placed silently behind the other.
Then the bullying fool made an awful choice. Tucking his head, he hunched his shoulder forward and heaved toward Miss Ruthven. She lifted her mallet for a defensive swing, but the man moved quicker.
Gabe surged forward, one boot slamming down to break the man’s his stride. With a muffled yelp, the fool pitched forward, striking the wet pavement with a satisfying thud.
Clarissa’s mallet whisked through the air, and Gabe arched back just in time to keep the bloody thing from breaking his nose.
Ignoring her dumbfounded query, he pulled her nemesis to his feet. “Is this wretch troubling you, Miss Ruthven?” He didn’t glance at her, couldn’t bear to meet her inquisitive gaze.
“He’s infatuated with one of our students.” Her bodice brushed Gabe’s coat sleeve as she leaned toward her attacker. “And Sally has no interest in receiving your attentions, as she’s made clear on multiple occasions,” she barked, seemingly undeterred by the man’s murderous glare.
“Go,” Gabe said more succinctly, emphasizing his point by squeezing the man’s shirt front in his fist, twisting and tightening until the scalawag began to gasp. “Never come back.” When he released the bastard, the man stumbled forward, clutching at his neck and casting them a withering scowl before limping up the lane.
Gabe was intensely aware of Miss Ruthven’s perusal. He would have preferred to don a mask and disappear into the fog, like Spring-heeled Jack or one of the other characters in the penny dreadfuls he’d read as a child. When he finally met her gaze, her face puckered in a frown.
“What is it?” He should have spared a thought for what damage might have been done before he arrived on the scene. “Did he hurt you?”
“No,” she assured, though she continued to study him closely.
He swept a hand across his head and pulled at the lapels of his coat to straighten them. Dust and muck had soiled his pristine cuffs. He shoved his hands behind his back to conceal them.
“I’ve never seen you with a hair out of place,” she mused. “Dishevelment quite transforms you, Mr. Adamson.” From her expression, he couldn’t determine if she intended to praise or insult. “Thank you,” she finally said, waving her hand in the direction her assailant had gone.
Her clipped tone and taut expression didn’t surprise Gabe. Offering him gratitude must have galled her. The one fact he knew for certain about Clarissa Ruthven was that the young woman loathed him. On the few occasions they’d met, she’d refused all his attempts at gentlemanly civility—whether opening a door or pulling out her chair.
He suspected she was the last woman who’d wish to play the role of damsel in need of saving.
“You’re welcome, Miss Ruthven.” He spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable, taking care not to lapse into the Cockney accent he’d used with Mrs. Nivens. “Though I’m sure your mallet would have been an effective deterrent.”
She glanced down at the sporting equipment, more suited to a posh lawn party than fending off an East End thug, then narrowed an eye. “Why are you here?” Balling a fist at the swell of her hip, she demanded, “Did my brother send you to spy on me?”
“Of course not.” Like a match to dry tinder, his irritation sparked into flame. “Today I am master of my own hours.”
How dare she look down her pert little nose at him? As if he was were some lackey sent on her brother’s errands. He’d been running her family’s business for years, keeping the income flowing so that she could afford her fine dresses decorated with satin ribbons.
He stared at the unfastened length of ribbon at her neck, the cleft in her chin, and the tremor in her full, flushed lips. Then he found himself caught in the glare of violet eyes.
She was irritatingly pretty, with pale freckled skin, peach-plump cheeks, and a thick fringe of dark lashes over those unique lavender-hued eyes. He might be a ruffian playing at being gentleman, but he never lied to himself. Both the Ruthven sisters were lovely, but the younger Miss Ruthven stood out. If only because she was the most vexing female he’d ever met in his life.
Ridiculously independent in her views and behavior, she fully embodied the “New Woman” London newspapers lambasted with glee. Strident in her opinions about politics, society, and everything in between, she took special delight in discomfiting him—whether it was her annoying habit of leaving flowers, ribbons, or some scribbled scrap of paper in her wake, interrupting his sentences, or laughing at his need for order.
Beyond her beauty, she was precisely the sort of woman who held no appeal. What man wished to spend his life distracted by the mere sight of his wife? Or vexed by her quirks and odd habits? When he married, he wanted what he’d never had—peace and simplicity. Give him a plain woman with domestic inclinations and impeccable behavior any day of the week over a reform-minded harridan.
“What are you doing here, Miss Ruthven?” Gabe shoved his fingers into his gloves and scanned the streets for any sign of a cab. “Does your family know you spend your days fending off brutes in Whitechapel?”
“I’m not a child in need of a minder, Mr. Adamson. Kit and Sophia are aware of my charitable work.” She folded her arms over her chest and pursed her mouth. She’d make the worst sort of gambler. Her lying tells were far too obvious.
“But do they know where? This is hardly the place for a lady to spend her spare hours.”
She huffed at him and pivoted on her boot heel, not bothering to favor him with a reply.
He noted the mesmeric swish of her purple skirt and the wavy strands of gold hair escaping a messy bun at the back of her head. She spun to face him, catching his perusal. Heat infused his skin.
“Well? Don’t you wish to see how I pass my Saturday afternoon?”
From the first moment he’d set foot in Whitechapel, he’d wanted to depart. Yet he was curious to see the enterprise that brought a well-bred young lady to these streets.
A milling group of girls greeted them on the threshold, eyes wide, mouths agape.
“Shoulda landed him a facer,” one mumbled as he passed.
“All right, ladies. Mr. Keene has gone. I don’t think he’ll trouble us anymore.” Miss Ruthven clapped her hands together lightly. “Everyone back to your lessons.”
They scattered like dandelion fluff, floating off in different directions. Each girl seemed to know where she belonged, and they resumed their tasks swiftly.
“There are twenty girls here now,” Miss Ruthven informed him, her voice ringing with pride. “We hope to admit at least five more if we can convince the landlord to rent us every floor in the building.”
Gabe had been responsible for the welfare of his older sister for years. The notion of being responsible for twenty young women made his skin itch.
“Seems an enormous enterprise to take upon yourself.” The ragged school he’d attended as a child hadn’t provided lodgings, and only a handful of boys had been admitted.
“Oh, I don’t administer the school, nor did I start the enterprise. I was recruited as a volunteer and patron by one of my friends at college.” She turned and called over her shoulder. “Helen?”
A tall, spindly-limbed young woman stepped forward, assessing Gabe over the top of metal-rimmed glasses. “I heard Clary call you Mr. Adamson. Thank you for scaring Mr. Keene away. He’s a menace we’re glad to see the back of.” She offered him her hand in greeting.
“Welcome to Fisk Academy. As you can see, our young ladies keep busy here. Most attend for the day, though two are parentless and lodge at the school. They’re also the oldest and will be graduating soon. We’ll miss them.” She cast him a sad glance, as if expecting him to offer sympathy. “Oh goodness, I almost forgot to say, I’m Helen Fisk.” The lady spoke in a rapid-fire patter, as if she needed to impart as much information as quickly as she could. When she finally stopped, her breath whooshed out in a gust and color splotched her cheeks.
As he examined the schoolroom, he sensed her gaze on him. He turned back to find her watching him, as most women did. With a glint of interest in her pale green eyes.
Most women, that is, aside from Clarissa Ruthven.
“The school seems to be . . . thriving,” he said, attempting politeness, despite the chaos around him.
Unlike the dusty, unadorned rooms of the ragged school where he’d taken lessons as a child, Fisk Academy sported a riot of colors. There was far too much noise in the overcrowded room. Even the tables were oddly arranged, some pressed close together, others set apart, as if they’d been placed at students’ whims. Several girls bent over desks, but a cluster of others stood in a corner, working at canvases, applying seemingly random washes of paint. In another corner, three girls sat with their backs to him, carefully printing letters in cursive script. Another trio crouched at a low table with test tubes, a tiny gas burner, and a boiling liquid that smelled of metal and rotting sewage. They all chattered to each other as they worked.
He appreciated the efforts of Miss Ruthven, Miss Fisk, and other charitable ladies of their ilk. However, they desperately needed the input of someone with a sense of structure and efficiency to impose a bit of order.
“We ensure the girls are kept busy and challenged with a variety of tasks throughout the day.” Miss Fisk beamed beside him as she took in the disorganized mess. “I teach mathematics and composition. Miss Ruthven guides the girls in art.” She pointed merrily to the trio concocting God knew what over an open flame. “And sometimes chemistry.”
“Every lesson at once, apparently.” He cast her a dubious glance. “Why not one task at a time and then the next? In an orderly fashion.”
She frowned, and her glasses scooted up to meet the line of her brow. “Every student has her own unique aptitudes, Mr. Adamson. Not every task suits every girl.”
Gabe nearly choked on the chuckle tickling in his throat. Miss Fisk’s sincerity was almost as amusing as her naïveté.
He preferred to deal in reality, not fantasy.
“If you’ll excuse me, Miss Fisk, I have a prior engagement in the city.” He’d had enough. Of chaotic spaces. Of prim ladies and their charitable urges. Of rotting wood and the potent memories lurking around every corner.
Miss Fisk looked worried she might have caused offense, and Gabe sketched a gentlemanly bow to assuage her feelings. She managed a tight smile before he spun on his heel and headed for the door.
Being in Whitechapel again reminded him of how hard he’d worked to escape. To embrace a new life. One day he’d marry, have a home and business venture of his own. One day he’d forget the pit he’d dragged himself out of.
Halfway to the door, Clarissa Ruthven stopped him in his tracks. “I’m heading back too, Mr. Adamson. Shall we share a cab and save on fare?”
Her voice sent a strange shudder of awareness down his spine. She was, as the sister of his employer, a young lady he could not deny. Yet every instinct told him being near her would bring no end of trouble his way.
Turning back, he forced down the ire that came naturally and practiced the polite civility he’d spent years struggling to master.
“Very well, Miss Ruthven.” He lifted his arm as he’d been taught a gentleman should when escorting ladies. “Shall we set off?”
She raised her chin, eschewed his gesture, and swept past, as if determined to show him that a woman could and should lead the way.
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