Margaret Moore, page 1
About the Publisher
Robert Harding strode through the narrow alley in Bankside, that part of London south of the Thames. At a scurrying sound, his brisk steps slowed, until he spotted the rats fighting over a piece of rotting cabbage.
Deftly avoiding them, he hurried onward until he came to the end of the alley. The street adjoining it continued to the wharf and water stairs. From there, the Bankside denizens could cross the river to the richer parts of London, or those from the richer parts could disembark, ready to risk Bankside for their sport, whatever it might be.
As he got closer to the river, creeping fog began to obscure his vision, the feeble October moon doing little to provide illumination. The fog hung heavier at the wharf overlooking the dank waters of the Thames, and the moist air seemed more laden than usual with the scent of mud and decay.
A man lingered in the shadows cast by a torch stuck near a piling, the sharp stench of pitch joining that of the mud.
Alert for danger, Rob continued to walk boldly forward, his gaze trained on the man, making it clear he was not a fop or aristocrat lost and alone. The fellow slid back into the darkness, and Rob made a small, grim smile of satisfaction.
Then he saw the woman.
Shrouded in a dark cloak, she stood on the brink of the wharf, her slender form bent forward as if peering down to the murky depths below.
As Janet had probably done on the last night of her life. Was this unknown woman intending to end her life in that same watery grave?
This place was hardly conducive to soliciting business if she was a whore, and even less suitable for a clandestine rendezvous with a lover.
Perhaps if someone had come upon Janet as she stood on the wharf waiting to end her life and spoken to her, she would still be alive.
Not wanting to startle the woman, for the stones were wet and slippery and a sudden movement might make her slip and fall, he moved cautiously toward her.
“Madam,” he said, his voice low and gentle, “do you require assistance?”
She quickly turned around and thrust out her hand to ward him off. “Stop!”
She had nothing in her hands: no baby to abandon or drown like an unwanted kitten.
Suicide, then, like poor lost Janet.
“Leave me alone,” she ordered.
She did not sound desperate, yet her imperious words and manner did not dissuade him. This could all be bravado, a show to make him go away so that she could finish what she had come here to do.
“Madam, I cannot.” He took another step closer. “It is not safe for a woman to be alone in this part of the city, especially at night.”
“I will be safe enough once you have gone about your business, whatever it may be in this part of London at night.”
Although he could not see her face because of the shadow cast by the hood of her cloak, her voice belonged to a young woman of about twenty, he would guess, and well-to-do, if her accent and that fine cloak were anything to go by.
Spurned by a lover, perhaps.
He took another step forward. “You must allow me to escort you wherever you wish to go.”
“Escort me?” she demanded skeptically. “How do I know you will not murder me? If this place is not safe, what are you doing here but mischief?”
“I give you my word that I will not hurt you. I am a solicitor, with chambers in the city.”
“An attorney who does business in Bankside?”
“If my client is a poor honest widow who is being cheated out of her inheritance by her late husband’s dishonest partner and can afford to live nowhere else, I do.”
“So, if I believe you—and I assure you, sir, I am no babe in the woods to believe everything I hear—you are an honest man here on honest business. If so, I thank you for your chivalrous, if misplaced, concern, and now you may go on your way.”
“I will not leave you here alone.”
“Sir, I do not require any assistance,” she repeated.
This time, he heard the slight quaver in her voice. Determined not to abandon her, he took another step forward.
“Stay back!” she cried, again holding up her hand.
Then she lost her footing on the slick stones. Her arms flailed as she tried to regain her balance, and in that instant, Rob darted forward. He grabbed her and pulled her back from the edge with so much force, she collided against his muscular chest with a dull thud.
“Good God, I nearly fell in,” she panted, clutching his upper arms and steadying herselfas she looked back over her shoulder into the dark water.
Rob’s heartbeat thundered in his ears as he held her, acutely aware of the sensation of the voluptuous young woman in his arms. She smelled of roses and the fine fabric of her cloak slid softly under his hands.
And he could finally see her face beneath her hood.
Each dark eyebrow rose to a point in the center, as if she were some kind of questioning imp. Small, delectable little curls lay on her forehead, and longer curls bounced over ears bearing very fine earrings—an excellent night’s take for a brigand. Half parted, her lips enticed him, and her skin … her skin looked even softer than her cloak.
A rendezvous with a lover now seemed the more likely explanation for her presence here, and given her pretty face and shapely form, he could envy her lover, as well as curse him for putting her in such danger.
As he held her, he wondered if a woman of her obvious social status had any real conception of the danger facing a lone woman in Bankside, or anywhere else, for that matter.
“You made me slip!” she charged, pushing him away. “Let go of me!”
He did at once. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Please, madam,” he coaxed. “Forgive me if I frightened you. I mean only to help—and I will not leave you here alone. It is too dangerous. Your cloak alone makes you a target for a thief, and if so, a swift slitting of your throat could prove to be a blessing.”
She raised her chin and regarded him with a mixture of defiance and incredulity. “Don’t you think I know that? I am not a fool who has wandered here by accident.”
“Then what are you doing by the river?”
“That, sir, is my own business. However, I assure you that I value my life as much as anyone.” Her eyebrows drew together as she frowned. “Besides, if I had determined upon such a sinful course, throwing myself into that cesspool would not be the way I would choose.”
So, she was not like Janet, who had drowned herself rather than come back to him.
She owed him no explanation for her presence here, and yet he felt disappointed when she did not offer one. However, it was still a dangerous place for a lone woman, for any reason. “If you would keep your life and your honor, you must not be in Bankside by yourself. You have already had one narrow escape tonight, and I do not mean falling into the river. There was a man watching
“What did he look like?” she demanded, looking around as if expecting the man to show himself. “Was he a gentleman?”
“I didn’t see him clearly, but I am quite sure he was no gentleman. Were you here to meet one?”
She took a deep breath and fastened her steadfast gaze upon him. “No. I came here to get away from one.”
“Then it is even more imperative that you allow me to escort you home.”
“You misunderstand me, sir. I fled my home.”
“What can await you there that …?”
He suddenly realized what could be awaiting a vulnerable young woman in her own home. He moved closer to her, bending his head and speaking in the low, sympathetic whisper he had often used when Janet was upset, before she left him for another. “Are you mistreated there?”
She drew back. “Do you mean beaten? No.”
Again, he spoke with gentle sympathy. “Or otherwise mistreated? By your father or brothers, perhaps?”
She gasped. “No!”
He sighed with relief. “Then I think you should return home. Whatever your troubles, they cannot be worth endangering your life.”
She frowned and her brows lowered. “If I go home, I will be forced to marry a man I loathe.”
“Is that all?”
“All? That is a great deal. And I assure you, running away from my home is no impetuous, childish act. I have tried and tried to convince my uncle that I cannot and will not marry the man he wants me to, but he will not listen. I have reasoned,cajoled, pleaded and finally begged him to listen to me, all to no avail.”
He heard her sincerity, and her determination, and beneath that, the thing that touched his heart: fear, and the vulnerability that accompanied it. Despite that fear, however, she was so desperate for her freedom, she would risk danger to achieve it.
She was not a fool. She was brave, as brave a woman as he had ever met.
He would do his best to encourage her to return home, because there was another way out of her dilemma that he could offer her. “As a solicitor, I know many things about marriage law and property settlements—and how to avoid them. I would be glad to offer you my legal advice.”
Her beautiful eyes widened.
A door banged loudly close by, and she jumped, then shivered.
“Come with me out of the chill night air,” he offered. “There is a tavern nearby where we can talk.”
She regarded him steadily for what seemed a long moment, with a measuring gaze that reminded him of another person’s scrutiny many years ago.
Then she nodded. “If you can offer me a way out of my predicament, sir, I am willing to listen.”
More pleased than he had been in many a day,
Robert Harding held out his arm to escort this unknown, brave and desperate woman away from the black water of the river.
As Vivienne Burroughs allowed the stranger to lead her through the dark and foggy streets, her whole body trembled with suppressed fear. Her bravado had been an act, a desperate attempt to make a stranger leave her alone so that she could escape from her uncle, her unwelcome suitor and even London itself.
Surprisingly, he had been most determined to offer his assistance and protection, whether she wanted it or not. Even more surprisingly, she was willing to accept it.
From the first, his deep, kind voice and obvious concern had lessened her terror, and then he had saved her from falling into the Thames. If he had not pulled her back from the brink, she would have drowned for certain. She was wearing several layers of clothing—not wishing to have to carry any obvious baggage—and her wet clothing would have dragged her beneath the water as if she were weighted with stones.
She well remembered the taunt bulge of muscle in his arm as she had held on to him. He could have forced her into a dark alley and she would have been powerless to fight him off.
Therefore, she reasoned, he was either a truly chivalrous gentleman … or he had his own reasons for luring her away from the river.
She stole another glance at her silent companion, wondering if she should put her faith in a man she had never met before. Perhaps she should run away from him, too.
But what if he really was a solicitor and there was a way to avoid marriage to Sir Philip Martlebury that didn’t involve having to flee her home and be at the mercy of a world that had little use for women on their own?
They came to a brighter thoroughfare. Lanterns, hung outside the houses and shops by order of law, illuminated her companion’s face. His dark hair was brushed back from a wide, intelligent forehead. His nose was straight, his jaw strong, and his cheekbones prominent enough to cast a slight shadow. Despite the lean and angular nature of his features, his lips were full and remarkably sensual, as if there were a passionate portion in the man beside her. He was also younger than she had thought. She would put his age at about thirty.
She scrutinized his clothing. Living with her uncle, a silk merchant, all these years, she had learned much about fabric. This man’s jacket and breeches were made of coarse, dark wool. His linen, while apparently clean, was very plain. He may be a solicitor, but he was certainly not well-to-do.
Nor did he sound like any gentleman she knew. Of course, he might have been raised in the country, where there were any number of dialects.
“Here is the tavern,” her escort said as they reached a building with a sign above its entrance, rocking in the slight breeze off the river, declaring it to be the Bull and Crown.
“What is it?” he asked, regarding her with his mysterious dark eyes, so hidden beneath black brows, she assumed more than knew that they existed.
“I have never been in a tavern before.” And what if this is just a ruse, and once I am inside …?
“Ah. If you would rather not go in—”
“As you said, Bankside is a dangerous place. Perhaps I am wrong to trust you.”
“Perhaps,” he calmly agreed. He slowly crossed his arms. “If you leave me here, what will you do?”
“What I was going to do before—leave London.”
“How? By stealing a boat?”
She didn’t answer.
“If that is what you intended to do, I may have saved your life in more ways than one. Have you any idea what would happen to you if you were caught stealing?”
“I would be arrested,” she replied, trying to sound matter-of-fact, even though that possible fate terrified her. She had never been inside a prison, but she had heard about them, and it was enough to turn one’s stomach.
“You would be taken to a prison little better than your idea of hell and, if convicted, branded, transported or perhaps even hung. And what of the boat you stole? It might be some poor man’s only means of earning a living.”
“I had not considered that,” she confessed.
“I thought not.”
She did not need him to criticize her, too. Her uncle did that quite enough. “Then what am I to do? Marry a man I hate? I would really rather die—or try to fend for myself.”
“It is an easy thing to say one would prefer death to a less-than-ideal fate, yet I think you would answer differently if it truly came to that.” He lowered his voice, and a quiet calm infused his tone as he gazed into her face. “At least, I hope you would. A comfortable life is not something to be thrown away. And your family is not something you should abandon without better cause.”
“My uncle will abandon me if I continue to oppose his plans. He will surely cast me out of his house into the street with nothing but the clothes on my back.”
“Then why run away?”
“Because this way, I can …”
She fell silent. She had more than a few clothes on her back, and all her pin money and jewelry hidden upon her, too. “Have you ever been forced to do something you hated,” she asked, “something that seemed against your very nature?”
He nodded slowly, and a strange, world-weary expression flitted across his f
Before she could speak, he went on. “I am not ignorant of desperate situations, mistress. Please allow me to give you my professional advice. You will be safe with me, I promise you.”
Could she trust him?
How could she be sure he was even a lawyer at all?
In the end, all Vivienne could do was rely on her instincts. “Very well, sir, I will hear your advice.”
As she entered the tavern, Vivienne’s eyes stung from the sudden assault of smoke. She blinked and squinted as she tried to distinguish the shapes barely illuminated by cheap candles. Some were men sitting at tables, hunched over their drinks. Dogs wandered about, sniffing and snuffling along the floor. One or two people moved swiftly; by their curved bodies she guessed they were serving wenches.
“This way,” her companion muttered, taking her hand and leading her through the maze of benches, scarred wooden tables and drunken patrons.
She could see better now, yet wished she couldn’t at the sight of the filthy, curious or leering faces. They made Sir Philip’s lustful looks seem the height of propriety.
Her companion ignored them all as he made his way through this place as if he were the king of it, or as if he were oblivious to anything but the object of his quest, the empty table at the far end of the room.
When they reached it, he gestured for her to sit on the rough wooden bench nearest the wall. “This is as much privacy as a tavern such as this safely affords,” he said.
He waited until she had settled herself before sitting opposite her. Although she could see the rest of his face better now, the single candle burning feebly in its holder on the table did not do much to light his dark eyes.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“If I am to give you legal advice though I am not in your pay, I think it would be best if I do so anonymously,” he said, sounding very businesslike—or like an attorney, she supposed. “Nor should you tell me your name, or that of any of the parties involved.”
A serving wench appeared at the man’s elbow. She ran a curious gaze over Vivienne, then grinned. “Been a long time, my buck.”