London, October 1867
Simon Belleville was no stranger to squalor. He’d passed his first fifteen years in Whitechapel, the worst of the London stews, among the moneylenders, whores, and immigrants of Eastern Europe. The brothel staircase upon which he stood was every bit as narrow, as filthy, as dank as the ones he’d played upon as a child. Only now he was a man of four-and-thirty. A man of property and experience. A man who’d traveled to India and back—to Hell and back—to make his fortune. A fortune he’d doubled, no, quadrupled, many times over since his return. In a country where wealth and position were bestowed by birth or not at all, he was a self-made man, a living legend. At East India Company headquarters in Leadenhall, directors and shareholders and counting house clerks all uttered his name in reverent whispers. When he walked into the Royal Exchange, a hush fell over the central court as investors strained to hear what stocks he would buy, what others he would sell. And now he was poised to realize his next great ambition: a seat in the House of Commons.
Backing his aspiration was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Derby’s Conservative government, Benjamin Disraeli. When Disraeli had suggested Simon head Her Majesty’s Morality and Vice Commission, he’d had no thought of refusing. Distasteful as his duties were—if women elected to sell their bodies for a few quid and food in their bellies, who was he to stop them?—still the appointment was his chance to prove his worth to Disraeli, to the Conservatives, perhaps even to Victoria herself.
Over the past six months, Simon had led raids on twenty-odd brothels. The present establishment, Madame LeBow’s, was the very last on his list. Like the others, it offered the standard fare of flagellations, deflorations, and fellatio at working-class prices. Patrons liked their sex rough, their wine cheap, and their whores young. The close air stank of spilled seed and stale beer, and at least four of the eight prostitutes incarcerated in the police wagon outside were younger than sixteen.
Stopping on the stairwell, he stripped off his gloves and stuffed them in his coat pockets. Gloves were de rigor, of course, the hallmark of a gentleman, and yet wearing them he never felt as though his flesh could properly breathe. Wrapping one blissfully bare hand about the scarred newel post, he looked below to the four blue-suited police sergeants flanking the first floor entrance. A fifth officer was posted outside to guard the women. Simon had been about to issue the order to pull out when he’d overhead two of the prisoners whispering about the new girl in the attic. He might dislike discharging this particular set of duties, still he was a thorough man. A clean sweep meant just that, and he had no intention of allowing even one rabbit to escape from its warren.
Inspector Tolliver, lantern in hand, walked up the stairs, stopping a few steps below him. “Shall I light the way, sir?”
Simon shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll go alone.” He reached for the lantern, which Tolliver reluctantly handed up.
At the last whorehouse where he’d allowed Tolliver to lead an arrest, the madam had emerged with a blackened eye and split lip. Tolliver claimed she’d tripped and fallen on her way down the stairs. Simon had his doubts.
Tolliver twisted one waxed end of his handlebar mustache. “Are you certain, sir? It could be a trap.”
Unaccustomed to having his judgment questioned, Simon snapped, “I believe I can handle it, Inspector. By all accounts, there’s but one woman up there, and if she’s anything like the others, she’s little more than a child.”
Tolliver shifted his narrow shoulders. “Have it your way, guv. The lads and I’ll be below if you need us.” He patted the club swinging from his belt.
Watching him fumble his way back down in the dark, Simon suppressed a snort. With its bicycles and billy clubs and smart blue uniforms, London’s eight-man detective department fancied itself a force to be reckoned with. But then Tolliver and his men rarely ventured into the East End. Those dark, crooked lanes with their stench of urine, rotting rubbish, and spoiled dreams were a foreign land to them. To Simon, they would always be home.
He continued up the remaining three flights to the attic, rotting floorboards groaning beneath his boot soles. It was nearly twenty years, and yet it might have been yesterday that he’d listened for the landlord’s footfalls on a set of creaking stairs much like these.
“This isn’t a charity house,” the landlord, Mr. Plotkin, had said, after delivering what amounted to a death sentence. The three of them—Simon, his mother, and Rebecca—had twenty-four hours to gather their belongings and quit the premises; otherwise, he’d have them all hauled to debtors’ prison.
It was the first time Simon had seen his mother cry since his father’s death. Wringing her work-roughened hands, Lilith Belleville had looked from one child to the next and then back at the landlord. Then she’d done the unthinkable. She’d sunk to her knees and begged.
“Have pity, Mr. Plotkin. If you turn us out, where shall we go?”
“That is not my affair.” Stepping past her, Plotkin’s shoe had landed on the hem of her worn dress, leaving a dusty footprint on the clean calico.
The scene, like so many painful episodes from his past, remained branded on Simon’s brain. Now someone else, some other cringing scrap of humanity, waited behind a closed attic door for him to deliver the edict that would result in her being dispatched to Newgate Gaol or, worse still, one of the prison hulks moored along the Thames.
Like grinding an insect beneath his boot heel, Simon moved to squash what piddling pity still lived inside him. “That is not my affair,” he said softly, gaining the landing.
The attic door was a narrow planked archway barely broader than his shoulders. He slid back the bolt and the warped wood moaned open on rusted hinges. Ducking beneath the low lintel, he entered.
Inside the air was foul as a draining ditch, the heat as stifling as Calcutta at midday, the darkness unrelieved by any light save the one Simon bore. A latticework of cobwebs hung from the eaves, catching on the crown of his beaver hat. Brushing them aside, he held up the lantern and took stock. There was an old seaman’s chest, a slop bucket—full, judging from the stench—and a rope bed wedged beneath the slanted roof, an elaborately arranged pile of rags draped atop.
Securing the door, Simon moved toward the center of the room, his free hand pushing through dust motes, his footfalls on the floorboards sending mice scuttling. As he closed in, the bundle on the bed shifted as he’d well suspected it would.
He centered his light on the bed. “You can come out now.”
A gasp greeted that suggestion. Flinging the bedclothes aside, the girl bolted upright. “Ye keep away from me, d’ye hear?” Wide set eyes of an undeterminable color flashed in warning, the eyes of a wilding.
Simon shone the light on her. “Easy now, no one will harm you.”
She blinked owlishly, her little face puckering. This girl looked to be the youngest yet, but then those in the maiden trade were adept at the art of illusion. The childish night rail she wore, white cotton and buttoned to the neck, made her appear innocent, almost virginal.
Simon knew better.
Whatever her age, she was no beauty. Her eyes were too large, her breasts too small, and her waist-length hair of brownish hue hung in greasy strands about her pinched face. That any man would pay to lie with such a sad little waif was almost impossible to fathom. Then again London was rife with males who found it diverting to prey on the young and innocent. He thought again of Rebecca, and the familiar ache in his chest throbbed.
A few more measured steps brought him to the foot of the bed. She cringed when he closed in, falling back on her hands as though the light hurt her eyes. There was a dark blotch on her forehead that could have been a bruise, a birthmark, or simply more of the same filth that stained the front of her night rail. But there was no doubt that the small reddish crescent on her left cheek was anything but what it appeared.
A freshly cut scar.
Simon’s anger, never far from the surface, surged. No woman, lady or whore, deserved to be so foully abused. Resolved that the manacles he’d brought would remain in his coat pocket, he summoned his most soothing voice to say, “I’ve come to take you away.”
She lifted her face, pinning him with her wide-eyed stare. “Truly?”
Before he could answer, she did the one thing for which he was completely unprepared. She drew up on her knees and hurled herself against him.
“Oh sar, I’ve prayed and prayed that someone would come and just when I were a’most ready to give up, ’ere ye are.” She snatched his hand and pressed the palm to her mouth.
Her lips were cool on his flesh, cool and ever so slightly trembling. Startled, Simon dropped his gaze and quite nearly the lantern. She still knelt before him, thin night rail twisted tight so that it hugged not only her hips and thighs but the mound between. The sudden urge to reach down with his kiss moistened hand and stroke her there, just there, shocked and sickened him. He’d never considered himself a passionate man, certainly not uncontrollably so. Self-mastery was everything to him, the cornerstone of his existence, the bulwark holding back the shadows. He couldn’t afford to lose it now. He forced his gaze back up to her face, safer terrain or so he thought. But the manner in which she met his stare, as though he was her personal messiah, unnerved him even more than his sordid, sensual fancies.
He snatched his hand away and set the lamp down. “How long have you been here, in the attic, that is?”
Kneeling still, she fretted her bottom lip. “A’most a week, I think, though ’tis terrible hard to tell night from day.”
Whoever she was, she was no Londoner. The rounded vowels of the Midlands were plain in her low voice. He looked beyond her to the small sealed casement window, the glass pane painted over with blacking. For a country-bred girl, being shut up thus would be an earthly hell.
Pity pricked his conscience. He fought it back, beckoning a businesslike briskness he couldn’t quite bring himself to feel. “Yes, well, you must dress and gather up your things. The others are waiting for us below. Outside,” he added by way of an enticement.
She beamed at him. “Oh, lovely, are ye rescuing ‘em too?”
The poor girl must be dim-witted indeed or mad or an opium fiend, perhaps all three. Looking into her dirty face for some sign of derangement, he observed that her eyes—brown, he decided—were clear, her cheekbones high, and her mouth full, the top and bottom lips near mirror images, an unusual and oddly tempting feature. How would it feel to have that mouth moving against his rather than only his hand? Soft, he imagined, and endearingly sweet.
He dealt himself a sound mental shake. Perhaps he was the one in danger of separating from his sanity? This girl was no sheltered innocent but an artful actress, a whore. Her feigned naïveté had likely persuaded a good many fools to part with their coin.
Simon was no fool.
He folded his arms lest she reach for him again. “You and the others will be conducted to Newgate where you will pass the night. In the morning you will be brought up before the Central Criminal Court.”
Her smile flattened and a furrow split her smooth brow. “The Old Bailey! But I’ve done naught wrong.”
Still hoping to take her the easy way, Simon steeled himself to patience. “Prostitution is a serious offense. Still, considering your youth… By the by, how old are you?”
Nineteen was well above the age of consent and yet young enough for Simon to feel sorry for her failed future. He cleared his throat, reminded of how very much older he was than she. “The judges may be prepared to show mercy… provided you surrender yourself quietly.”
Mercy? The workhouse instead of prison? Or perhaps if she were really fortunate, she’d be set free to… starve?
That is not my affair. He had only to carry out this last arrest and write up his report to Parliament, and then his obligation would be fulfilled. And another step—no, giant leap— toward the Parliamentary bench would have been made.
All he need do to get there was to stay strong, stay the course. Determined to squelch any remaining soft sentiments, he unfolded his arms and reached for her wrist. “Come, get up and get dressed.” Beyond all, he desperately needed her to be covered with clothes.
She wrenched free, the fierceness on her face confirming that further kisses were an unfounded fear. “I won’t.”
But she was trapped, and they both knew it. The window, assuming it could be opened, was too small for crawling through and, even if it weren’t, they were four flights above the ground.
Simon reached into the pocket for the manacles, hoping he’d only need them for show. “You are coming with me—now. Of your own accord, clothed or unclothed, matters not to me.”
Her bravado broke. She shrank away. “Oh please, sar, I’ve done nothin’ wrong. Can’t ye set me free?” She folded her hands, lacing the slender, nail-bitten fingers as if in prayer.
With her white clad form and guileless eyes, she was the very image of a supplicating saint he’d once seen in a stained glass window of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a saint with whom mere seconds ago he’d fantasized lying. His conscience niggled anew. Why not simply go below and say he’d found the attic empty?
Doing so would make me a damned fool, that’s why.
Disraeli rewarded those who served him well. He was equally lavish in punishing those who failed him. Without his endorsement, Simon’s dream of holding a seat in the Commons would remain just that, a dream.
“Regrettably I cannot.” Leaning over, he grabbed her sharply boned wrists in one hand, pulling her back up onto her knees, this time taking care to keep his gaze trained on her face.
“I ain’t goin’.” She hesitated. “Leastwise not wi’out Puss.” She swiveled to look over his right shoulder.
“Puss?” Still holding her, he swung around, wondering if she might have a roommate or, worse still, an armed keeper lying in wait.
Then he saw it. A skinny black-and-silver tabby cat slinked out from a wicker basket set in the corner. It stopped to stretch, striped forepaws straining as it regarded Simon with its slanted eyes. Rebecca had kept a cat just like it once. This flea-bitten beast might have been its twin. For the second time in as many minutes, Simon felt the keen stab of unwanted memory, a resurrection of the old soul splitting ache.
Stiffening, he turned back to the girl, her eyes vast and luminous in her thin, pale face. “You cannot keep a cat in a gaol cell.” Self-loathing roughened his voice. “And cease looking at me like that.”
“Like what?” Her eyes widened even further, making her look even more guileless if that was indeed possible.
“Like you’re some damned… innocent.” Maddened by the skill with which she worked her ruse, he seized hold of her upper arms, his fingers biting into flesh-veiled bone.
His manhandling won her wince. “But I am innocent! And I won’t go to gaol or anywhere else without my cat.”
Gentling his grip, he said, “You’ll go and do as you’re told from here on.”
She glared. “Your arse I will.” She turned her head and suddenly his left hand sang with pain.
Releasing her, he jerked back and stared down.
By God, the little bitch had bit him!
Pinpoints of blood welled where her teeth had torn. He reached inside his breast pocket for a handkerchief, allowing that shucking off his gloves had been an exceptionally bad idea. Wrapping the linen about his throbbing palm, he fumbled in his other pocket for the iron cuffs.
But when he turned his attention back to the girl, he saw the restraint would not be needed after all.
Holding his bleeding hand aloft, he ran his gaze down the length of her, doing his level best to observe her with a dispassionate eye. She was skin-and-bones to a shocking degree, shocking for all that Simon full knew what it was to hunger.
Feeling awkward, he gave her shoulder a sharp poke. “Girl, wake up.” Belatedly it occurred to him he hadn’t thought to take down her name.
He brushed a tickling finger across the bottom of one long, slender foot. She still didn’t stir. Satisfied she wasn’t feigning, he straightened, wondering what the devil he was to do. When she’d been awake and fighting him, the path had seemed so clear, but now… She was completely senseless, completely vulnerable, completely at his… mercy?
His gaze settled once more on the raw mark marring her cheek. He’d spent years armoring his soul until he’d satisfied himself it must be as callused as once his hands had been. But somehow this slip of a girl seemed to have located a heretofore hidden chink.
But it wouldn’t do to let Tolliver and the others see the damage his foolish dallying had wrought. He took a moment to pull on his gloves, wincing when the tight leather rolled over his swelling skin, the hand she’d bit as any cornered animal would do. Try as he might, he couldn’t hold it against her.
He slipped a forearm beneath her limp form and lifted her against him. She was so slight he might have held a bale of feathers in his outstretched arms rather than a woman grown.
Simon let out a curse from his dockyard days. “Whoever you are, girl, you’ve shown yourself a more formidable foe than the entirety of the Liberal Party leadership.”
Newgate Gaol would have to make do with one fewer inmate.