A lady does not enter a tavern. If Aunt
Harriett could see her niece now, she would surely perish of
apoplexy. For Miss Emma Hastings not only was the sole lady--indeed,
the only female--at The George tavern, but she had also committed
the most deplorable breach of decorum imaginable. She had no
Emma should not be chastised for these
mortifying transgressions. It was not her fault that her
uncle had failed to meet the post chaise that had carried her from
Upper Barrington to London.
When she'd disembarked from the vehicle and
gathered her own portmanteau, she'd been too exhilarated to be
alarmed that Uncle Simon was not there to greet her. Such a
cacophony of sounds she'd never before heard. Conveyances ranging
from pony carts heaped with turnips to grand carriages borne by four
matched bays all rattled and pounded along the broad street. The
laughter of ragged children, the snarling of hackney drivers, the
hawking of flowers from ill-dressed women all fascinated her.
Foghorns on the River Thames thrilled the young miss who'd never
been farther south than Nottingham. This was a thousand times more
exciting than the May Day Fair at Upper Barrington.
She continued to stand beside her portmanteau
in the innyard whilst she waited for Uncle Simon. One hour passed.
Had he not received her last letter telling him the time of her
arrival? Perhaps he had mixed up the time. Perhaps he had misread
her scratchy three for a five. After all, her penmanship was rather
lamentable. That had to be it! Uncle Simon would claim her at five.
But five o'clock came and went, and still Uncle
Simon had not come. It wasn't as if she would recognize him. She had
never actually seen him. Therefore, every man of an age near that of
Uncle Simon's five-and-fifty years had drawn her scrutiny. But the
lone young woman dressed modestly in sprigged muslin and a
hand-knitted red shawl standing beside a large portmanteau drew
little scrutiny from any of them.
It was when the rain started to fall that she
lugged her belongings behind her and took shelter within the tavern.
She'd taken a chair next to a small round table by the window and
far away from the taps, hoping none of these strange men would take
notice of her. Never trust a man. All they're interested in is
their vile needs. Or so Aunt Harriett had assured her--not that
Emma exactly understood what those vile needs were. Nevertheless,
Emma would not risk inciting her aunt's incendiary temper by even so
much as making eye contact with any of these men.
She would continue to peer from the window in
the hopes of spotting a middle-aged man who might be her uncle.
Though Miss Emma Hastings' knowledge of the
world was extremely limited, within a few minutes inside The George,
she knew from their voices, these men were not from her class. It
wasn't that she was nearly as high-and-mighty as Aunt Harriett, but
Auntie had raised her to be cognizant of their close kinship
to Sir Arthur Lippencott. They must always conduct themselves with
propriety--and not be too familiar with sottish men such as those
now sharing the chamber with her.
When darkness fell, panic set in. He's not
coming. There had been some terrible miscommunication. What was
she to do? She did not have enough money to pay for a night's
lodgings. Or even a hackney ride to Uncle Simon's lodgings at 302
Curzon Street. She hadn't needed money. Uncle was a wealthy man.
With pounding heartbeat, she watched through
the frosty window as the lanterns were lighted along the perimeter
of the innyard. She knew enough of the world to know that London was
its largest city. Thousands and thousands of people resided here.
How would she ever find her uncle?
She did know that he lived in the West End and
knew his address by memory. Perhaps she could try to walk to his
house, though lugging a portmanteau behind her would be difficult.
Drawing in a fortifying breath, she stood and
slowly approached the long bar. The man on the other side was
talking and laughing with patrons but stopped when he saw her
approach. The fellow turned to her, his manner reverent. She was
struck over the white hairs threading his bushy black eyebrows. "May
I 'elp you, m'am?"
"Indeed you can. Can you tell me if we're in
the West End?"
All the men standing up to the bar guffawed. He
did not. He merely shook his head solemnly. "No, m'am. We ain't.
This 'ere's the East End."
"How long will it take me to walk to the West
End?" she asked.
His eyes widened. "A lady can't go about
walking at night."
"You, sir, have not answered my question."
He drew a deep breath. "I suppose a body could
walk to the West End in about an hour."
"And which direction would a body walk?" she
He extended his arm forward. "That a way, but
we is south of the River Thames. If one wants to go to the proper
West End, one crosses the river first, then walks westward that a
way. North of the river be a might better place to be walking after
Emma considered leaving her portmanteau in the
care of those at the inn, but as it contained all her worldly goods,
she could not risk having it stolen. She would haul it herself--even
if it would hamper her progress.
As Miss Emma Hastings determined to find Uncle
Simon's house, she was equally determined that Aunt Harriett would
never learn of her niece's nocturnal foray in the country's wicked
At least the rain had let up, she assured
herself as she left The George. She walked the short distance to the
river and stood on the quay for a few minutes, watching the ships
and barges float down the busy Thames. All her life she’d wanted to
experience this. Fog rose up from the water to obscure from her
vision the other side of the waterway.
In spite of the fears which spiraled through
her, she was happy to be in London. I don't want to ever go back
to Upper Barrington. It wasn't that she didn't love Aunt
Harriett and was grateful to Auntie for raising her orphaned great
niece. But after twenty years living with a stern elderly woman who
was considerably older than her friends' grandmothers, Emma was
ready for adventure.
She crossed the bridge and was soon in a
section of London which was even more bustling than the area she'd
just left to the south. This was unlike anything she could have
imagined. Even though it was night, all the shops along this busy
street were open and brightly lighted. There were so many
conveyances on the street, they got snarled, and more than one
driver was heard saying words that would have sent Aunt Harriett
running for her smelling salts.
It was impossible to walk these streets and not
recall Aunt Harriett's tales of women being murdered by the madmen
who lived in the Capital. "They've fished their strangled bodies out
of the Thames and from the Serpentine in Hyde Park," her aunt had
Emma's heart pounded faster. If she walked very
fast, surely no madman would try to get her attention. How, though,
did one walk fast when dragging a portmanteau slowed her so
Her arms ached from the bones outward, and she
found herself panting for breath that most certainly had dissipated.
She had to stop every dozen paces to change hands--and to recover
her breathing. Even though she wore gloves, she could tell that the
strap had etched into the flesh of her hands.
When the rain returned, she could have wept.
Every piece of clothing upon her body got drenched, and with the
falling temperatures, she shivered so hard, her teeth rattled.
The likelihood of perishing from freezing was
far greater than dying at the hands of a madman.
Progress was slow.
She had covered at least a mile, possibly two,
when she looked up to see Westminster Abbey. She crossed a street
and came to stand in front of the towering Gothic edifice. Here, in
front of this awe-inspiring building where kings were crowned and
poets were buried, a sense of serenity washed over her. She stood
there for several minutes. Somehow, she knew she'd reached the West
End. Her sanctuary.
* * *
Adam Birmingham set down his empty brandy glass
and with narrowed eyes observed his brother stride into White’s.
From the expression on Nick’s face, it was clear he was as out of
charity with Adam as Adam was with him. The elder brother stormed up
to Adam’s table and spoke with measured anger. “I thought you must
“A pity a man cannot die of a broken heart,”
Adam slurred. “I am compelled to keep drawing breath though I’ve
lost the only woman I could ever love.”
Nick lowered his long limbs into a chair across
from him. “I never for a minute thought you’d perished from a broken
heart, but I was concerned when you weren't at the bank today. In
more than a decade you've never missed a day there. Your staff was
so alarmed, they alerted me.”
“I drank myself into a stupor last night." Adam
shrugged. "Woke up in a strange bed quite late thish afternoon.”
Nick eyed the empty brandy glass.
Adam nodded at the waiter, who rushed to
replenish it. “Leave the whole bottle.”
Nick shook his head. “I’m not staying.”
“I wasn’t offering. I plan to drink the whole
bloody thing. I will drink until I cannot remember the name Maria.”
“You’re only hurting yourself. It won’t bring
“She was the first woman I ever endowed with a
house, and look how I was repaid!”
“Has it not occurred to you that there are
things other than your wealth that a woman wants?”
Adam scowled. “I should have offered marriage
like that Italian bloke who snatched her away from me.”
“She obviously wanted marriage, but I’m not
saying that you should have offered for her. Were she The One, you
would have wanted her for your wife. I know it’s hard for you
to believe now—now when the pain of her loss is so fresh—but you
will love again. You will find a woman who you will love far
more than you ever loved Maria.”
“Impossible. Maria was perfection. So
beautiful. So talented. So . . . so affectionate.”
“Her affectionate nature is likely the reason
you didn’t offer marriage. She’d been with many men, and you don’t
want that for your wife.”
Adam’s black eyes singed. “How dare you impugn
the woman I love! Why, if you weren’t my duther, I’d challenge you
to a bruel.”
“You’ve had too much to drink. Come, let me see
you home. Why isn't your driver near?”
“I sent him away. I plan to drink until White’s
runs out of brandy.”
“It’s best you drink at Curzon Street. You
don’t want to humiliate Agar after he sponsored us at White's.”
“I’m staying here.”
Nick stood. "I cannot persuade you?"
Adam shook his head from side to side with the
determined sweep of a contrary lad.
* * *
Many hours later he collected his cape, top
hat, and walking stick, left the establishment on St. James Street,
and began to walk home.
Then he felt the patter of rain. What a fool
he'd been to send home his driver. It was beastly cold--and
thoroughly miserable. But even in the state of inebriation he knew
himself to be in, he could easily find his way home in a little over
five minutes. Better to rush along than to wait in this weather for
Not even the thick, silvery fog could disorient
him. He'd made the trek too many times. Of course those other times
he'd observed the route from the comfort of his luxurious coach
whilst his coachman guided them home.
His greatest threat could be footpads. He was,
after all, a Birmingham. They were known far and wide as the richest
men in the kingdom. Fortunately, there weren't many people out on a
wretched night like this.
After he crossed Piccadilly and heard a
dragging sound a short distance behind him, the hairs on the back of
his neck prickled. He turned around sharply but could see nothing in
the soupy fog. Clutching his walking stick which he could use as a
weapon, he stood there on the pavement, every sense alert.
There emerged from the fog a girl. Or was it a
young woman? She looked awfully young--possibly old enough to have
just left the schoolroom. He would have been powerless to determine
the color of her hair for she resembled nothing so much as a wet pup
in need of a good meal.
When their eyes met, she smiled. "You look like
a gentleman. I have refrained from speaking to any man who was not a
So she wasn't a loose woman. Her voice was
cultured. He bowed. "Your servant." It was then that he noticed she
was lugging a portmanteau behind her. What the bloody hell?
"Could you direct me to Curzon Street?" she
Bosky he might be, but this was a mighty
coincidence. Was this some ploy to rob him? He did not respond for a
moment. Soft rain slickening his face, he stood there gazing at the
young lady. There was something incredibly vulnerable looking about
her. She was small of stature and from her dress and lack of
sophistication, provincial. As she stood there, shivering, a
querying expression on her face, he knew she was sincere. A more
innocent face he'd never beheld. "As it happens, that is my
direction. I will accompany you there." He eyed her portmanteau.
"Please, allow me to assist with your trunk."
She brightened. "Do you know my uncle, Simon
"The name rings a bell, but I daresay it's not
someone I know well." If he weren't so inebriated, his recall might
be more accurate. He began to haul the cursed portmanteau behind
him, wondering what it beheld but refraining from asking.
The young lady moved to his side. "I shouldn't
like you to think me a doxy or something equally as frightful."
Good lord, he'd never heard that word pass the
lips of a gently bred woman. He did not know how to respond. He
could hardly tell her that because of his vast experience with
doxies he was assured that she was not of their ilk. Instead he
merely said, "Anyone would know you are a lady."
"Thank you. Though I have never met my uncle,
he's invited me to come live with him in London. I've just arrived
today from Upper Barrington, but Uncle failed to meet my coach."
So that explained why the lady was hauling that
monstrosity. "Could you not have hired a hackney to carry you to
She shrugged. "I have very little money and
very little idea of how much a hackney driver would demand for his
He stopped and whirled to her, his brows
lowered. "This your first-ever time in London? Your first day . . .
er, I mean night?"
"Do you not realize how dangerous it is for a
gal to walk about alone at night?"
"Oh yes. My Aunt Harriett has warned me about
the madmen in London who prey on women. Since I left the coaching
inn. I've raced along as quickly as I could. And I prayed the whole
time that the Almighty would keep me safe."
He cast a glance at her. How truly virtuous she
must be. "And stupid."
"Pardon? Are you saying I'm stupid?"
He'd thought it, but he hadn't meant to say it.
"Forgive me. I'm sure you are not stupid, but it is highly
unlikely the Almighty will descend into this metropolis to protect a
young lady from Upper Barrister."
Her manner stiffened. "Barrington," she
corrected. "Upper Barrington, and you, sir, must be a heathen."
He nodded. "Your Aunt Henrietta would be most
appalled over my heathen ways."
"Harriett," she corrected.
He screwed up his (admittedly handsome) face
and regarded her thoroughly. "Are you, by chance, a governess?"
"No. I am soon to be learning how to preside
over the Ceylon Tea Company, which my uncle owns."
"I say, the fellow who lives next door to me is
one of the owners the Ceylon Tea Company."
"Then you, sir, must live next door to my
uncle, who resides at 302 Curzon Street."
"Daresay you're right."
They walked along in silence for a good while
when he saw the huge lanterns that illuminated Nick's house. He
mumbled a curse. "We've gone too bloody far." The fog and the
distraction of the girl--not to mention his brandy-impaired
state--had caused him to miss turning onto Halfmoon Street.
Ignoring him, she strode to the iron gates and
seemed mesmerized by his brother's house. In addition to the
abundant lanterns, the courtyard was lighted from rows of huge
Palladian windows glowing from abundant candlelight. "I've never
seen anything so magnificent! Is this where the Prince Regent
"No." Though it was said to be the finest house
in London. "Me brother lives in that pile of opulentaciousness."
She whirled to him, eyes rounded. "Are you
"About the house or my brother?"
"Neither. Would you like to see the house?"
"Oh, I couldn't. Not the way I look at
present." She continued to eye him suspiciously. Did she think he
was lying about it being his brother's house? Finally, she spoke. "Opulentaciousness
is not a word. I declare, sir, have you been imbibing strong
"I can undersplain. I'm attempting to drown a
Her head cocked, she looked up at him and
asked, "Did you succeed?"
He shook his head ruefully. "Still remember the
"I see. You meant to drink until you could no
longer recall her name?"
"'Twas my intent."
"And what is the vixen's name?"
After a moment of contemplation, she said, "So,
do we turn back?"
"Indeed we do."
"So . . . that brother who owns that
magnificent house . . . I suppose he's the firstborn."
She sighed. "I suppose you wish you were the
firstborn to have all the advantages that go with it."
No sense explaining that since they were not
nobility, their father had divided his estate equally among his
three sons while providing a hefty dowry for his daughter as well as
an exceedingly comfortable income for his widow. "The only time I
wished to be the eldest was when Nick was bigger than me so I could
best him in one of our frequent fights."
"Do you get along now?"
"Brilliantly." Except tonight.
They walked in silence for several minutes. She
likely believed him a drunkard atheist.
When they reached Curzon Street, she seemed
impressed. "These houses are very grand."
"Daresay they're taller than what you see in
He came to stop in front of her uncle's house.
It was completely dark, even though the hour was not that late. The
houses surrounding it had many lighted windows. "This is your
uncle's house. Never been inside of it myself."
Her brows squeezed together. "Does it not seem
odd to you that it's the only house without candles? Is this my
"No. He's not known to be parsimonious."
"What can have happened to make Uncle fail to
meet my coach? To have even stolen away his servants?"
"I'm sure there must be servants--even if your
uncle has forgotten you." Not the best choice of words. "Er . . . I
didn't precisely mean your uncle has forgotten you."
"I shall find out." She mounted the two steps
to the shiny black door and rapped at its equally shiny brass
A minute passed. She rang again. Another minute
ticked by as she waited.
He let go of the portmanteau's strap. "Here,
let me try." He came to stand beside her and rapped at the brass
knocker, then pounded upon the thick wooden door with all his
strength. His efforts were no more successful then hers.
"Oh, dear, what shall I do?" she asked, her
voice more forlorn than it had been in the previous half hour of
He froze. A snatch of lucidity sharpened his
stupored mind like a magnifying glass to a blurred word. He suddenly
remembered why the house was dark, why no uncle had met her coach,
why the name Simon Hastings was familiar to him.
The man had died three or four days earlier.
Adam's valet had told him all the servants had been forced to find
But Adam could hardly break such sorrowful news
to the girl now. Not after the ordeal she'd endured the past few
hours. How terrified she must have been when no one greeted her.
Even more horrifying was the prospect of dragging her possessions
across the vast and strange city. At night. In near-freezing rain.
He turned to her and smiled. "Not too worry.
We'll put you up at my house tonight."