It’s the start of a new year, and so here I am, beginning something new on my blog. The new thing? A story to share with you, in its entirety, bit by bit. Like the serials of old, I’ll be posting a segment every week until it’s finished.
The story? I’ve given it the working title of A Thief and a Lady, and it takes place in England in 1799. The characters? Esther Kirkpatrick, a young woman who makes her way picking pockets and cleaning up after her often drunk and gambling father. And we also have Jeremy Dudley, a younger brother who has inherited the title of Marquess after his brother’s untimely death.
So here is Part One of Chapter One, and I do hope you enjoy it!
A Thief and a Lady
Chapter One, Part One
He would be an easy one, Esther decided. She studied him from her place on the opposite side of the street, beneath the crooked sign for the butcher’s shop and beside a cart of mouldering potatoes that smelled of damp earth and dung. A cab trundled past, blocking him from sight for a minute, but she found him again quickly enough.
He stood with the confidence of one too often given his own way. He held his chin that half an inch higher than those around him, his dark hair combed in a style that gave him the air of a puffed up cockerel. The corners of Esther’s mouth twitched with the urge to grin. Yes, he looked a fool, and a bored one at that. She could only hope that he would be disinterested enough in the sights and sounds around him to prevent his noticing her progress towards him.
Esther tugged at the ends of her shawl and stepped off the pavement. Horses pulling all manner of vehicle clattered past her, leaving behind piles of droppings to be cleared away by the crossing sweepers. She maneuvered through the maze of traffic, both wheeled and shod, and found herself on the other side of the street, only a few paces behind the bored fool with the starched cravat.
People dashed about her on every side, taking no pains to mutter even the briefest of apologies as their elbows and shoulders knocked into her slight frame. That she was a diminutive creature often worked in her favor, allowing her to slip in and out of places that larger persons could not navigate without attracting attention towards themselves. As a child, she had lamented being given so small a figure. Now she rather enjoyed the benefits of being underestimated due to her petite frame. It always caught people off guard when she so deftly outwitted them.
A few more steps and she positioned herself near enough to the gentlemen to reach out and touch him, if she were so inclined. He stood with his back towards her, and she eyed the breadth of his shoulders, curious as to how much of that width was due to his own natural form, or if he sported some additional padding stitched into his bottle-green coat. Her gaze dropped down to his calves—purely to sate her curiosity, she told herself—and wondered if he wore a bit of padding down there, as well. All the better, she thought with an inner smile, if he were as stuffed as a partridge and unable to feel her as she brushed against him.
She watched as the traffic thinned for a moment, contrary to her purpose. Her bonnet itched, and she resisted the desire to reach up and scratch at her scalp. Of course, the more she thought about the irritation on her head and fought to push it from her mind, the more every other discomfort made itself known: the slip of her ill-fitted stockings, the dampness of her perspiration beneath the arms of her poorly washed chemise, the slide of the boots on her feet—too large and stuffed with rags at the toes to keep them from falling off her as she walked.
Another minute slipped away, the seconds ticked off by shouts from passersby and the jangle of harness as a score of cabs and coaches rumbled past. Esther saw her opportunity arrive in a group of young businessmen, their plain suits and ink-marked hands branding them as clerks in a solicitor or banker’s office. As they approached the fine gentlemen and moved to walk past him, she stepped forward, putting herself in their path. One of them bumped into her shoulder. She heard a muttered word that may have been either a curse or an apology, and then she tipped herself off balance a bit more than was necessary, until she stumbled over the hem of her skirt and fell against the side of the gentleman in the bottle green coat.
“Oh, I beg your pardon!” Esther pushed herself against his side, one hand seeking out his waist while the other slipped beneath the edge of his coat, her fingers trailing over lean planes of muscle and the edge of his rib cage until she found what she sought. His own hands went to her upper waist, his thumbs settling beneath her bosom as he attempted to set her back on her feet.
“Are you all right, Miss?”
She glanced up, caught off guard by his voice. It was deeper than she’d expected, and carried an edge of something to it, making him sound almost Northern. Perhaps not all the way from Scotland, but at least as far as Leeds. She had imagined something more genteel, such as the particular cadence of speech carried by all those rich young gentlemen churned out from Eton and King’s College. This gentleman had that, but with something else underneath.
She shouldn’t have been paying attention to his eyes, leastways not the color of them. But the flecks of green and gold in the midst of a brown the shade of honey made her look twice, and she hesitated before her fingers found their way into his waistcoat to snag the chain of his watch.
“Oh, I am dreadfully sorry,” she said, removing her hand from his waistcoat as her other hand drew out a handkerchief she kept tucked inside the cuff of her sleeve. She fluttered the handkerchief beneath her eyes—eyes that did their own share of fluttering beneath the gentleman’s lovely gaze—and moved to slip the watch into her own pocket while she distracted him with dabbing her cheeks and putting on an expression she hoped would be interpreted as a prelude to a faint. “I do try to look where I’m going, but these streets can be so awfully crowded, and people can be so terribly rough and rude to their fellow man.”
A quick brush of her hand, and she tucked the watch away in her skirts, along with the wallet she’d taken from the pocket sewn into the lining of his coat. She bowed her head, hiding her face with the frayed brim of her bonnet. She wanted nothing more than to get away before he noticed anything amiss, and so she bobbed a shallow curtsy and turned to continue down the street, her handkerchief disappearing back into her sleeve.
“Wait a minute, Miss.” A large hand closed around her wrist, preventing her progress forward. “I do believe you’ve a few things in your possession that belong to me.”
Bloody hell. She did not fight. She stood still, facing away from him and fully aware of her size compared to his own. She could scream, she thought. Put on a show of being taken advantage of by a man so much larger and stronger than herself. It could be enough to aid her in slipping away from him, before any explanations could be made or the shabby quality of her own bonnet and dress taken into account. For, of course, no one would take the side of an unwashed slip of a girl from a tenement in Wapping.
“There’s no reason to cause a scene,” the gentleman spoke from behind her, his fingers closing more tightly on her arm. “I’m certain we can resolve this situation in a calm and rational manner, hmm?”
Esther turned around. She expected to see a smile on his face, some indication that he knew he’d gotten the best of her and was prepared to mock her for it. But his expression was instead a solemn one, and any boredom she’d seen there only minutes before had been wiped cleanly away.
“Now,” he began again. “May I please have my watch? It belonged to my father, and I’d be most loathe to part with it.”
Her hands tightened into fists. There would be no use striking out at him. What could she do? Tousle that ridiculous hair? Put a wrinkle or two in his cravat? No, she knew her own physical strength, and how little of it she possessed. But quick fingers and a quicker mind? Those were the qualities her father had always praised, since before she’d graduated from pantalettes to stockings and garters. At least, when her temper didn’t sweep in and overwhelm her.
“Bastard!” She gave her wrist an experimental twist within his grip. She would find no easy escape there. One leg swung out from beneath her skirts to kick at him, and she experienced a thrill of satisfaction when the side of her boot planted a solid strike against his shin.
“Whoa, now!” He dragged her back towards him, his voice irritatingly gentle, as if she were nothing more than a spooked horse in need of calming. “Hold still, child!”
She most certainly would not hold still! But the more placid he remained, the more angry it made her. She wished he would treat her as all others did, shouting and pinching and hurling rude insults, rather than this infuriating complacency that belonged in a stuffy drawing room somewhere about St. James’s Street.
He gave her another tug, and then he had both her arms in his grip. He pulled her up until her toes barely touched the pavement, her chest pressed against his as he stared fully down into her face.
His eyes widened, and then a sigh, almost a chuckle, flowed out of him. “Why, you’re not a child at all, are you?”
He returned her to her feet, but didn’t release her. “Here now, there’ll be no need to bring the authorities into this, if that’s your fear. I’d hate to see someone dragged into the Old Bailey on account of me. And perhaps it was only a mistake, my belongings falling into your possession by accident. How’s that?”
Her throat was too dry to attempt to swallow. She licked her lips, tasted sweat on the skin beneath her nose, and put on a vestige of confidence she did not feel. “Oh, should I be thanking you now? Shall I get down on bended knee and grovel at your feet for being so kind as to take pity on a poor, downtrodden creature such as myself?”
The gentleman tilted his head towards her. “What’s got you in such a snit, hmm? If I’m not mistaken, I believe you’re the one in a very precarious position. So why all this vitriol being tossed back at me?”
She kept her breathing steady and even as he stood so close to her. Around them, the traffic on the pavement continued to increase, though no one seemed to give them any mind. This wasn’t the fashionable part of London, home of palaces and townhouses built out of the way of the smoke that hovered over the rest of the city. No one would pay any attention to a man, especially a gentleman, standing quite close to an unchaperoned young woman in a poorly mended dress ten years out of fashion.
He smelled quite good, she thought. Not of drink or bad breath or of an unwashed body harboured beneath the layers of fine clothing, but of soap and leather and starched linen. He pulled her nearer to him again, and bent forward so that his mouth came quite close to her ear.
“Why do you do this?” he asked. “You’re too intelligent to be a common criminal, you know. Find yourself some work in a fine house, or perhaps a dress shop, or something else a bit more honest and suited towards your temperament. I’d hate to see any harm come to someone who could help against it.”
He took a step back from, releasing her arms at the same time. “You and your incredibly nimble fingers,” he said, nodding towards the pocket in her skirt where she’d secreted his things. “You’ve a talent, but I find it shameful you’ve gone and put it to such poor use.”
He smiled then, the first full grin she’d seen on his face since she’d approached him. The expression brought out a dimple in his right cheek, and the humor illuminating his eyes stripped several years from his already young face.
She flexed her fingers, the ones he’d taken such care to praise, and gave him a hard slap. She had aimed for his cheek, succeeded in only reaching his jaw, but the strike succeeded in wiping the youthful grin from his face and erasing the dimple that had formerly taken up residence at the corner of his mouth.
“Piss off!” she spat at him, and before he could react, she turned and sprinted down the avenue. She grabbed at her skirts with one hand and held onto her bonnet with the other, while darting between gawking pedestrians and ignoring the shout of a greengrocer whose cart she had leapt over, knocking a dozen of his cabbages into the dirt.
She ran until her sides hurt and each breath burned like fire in her lungs. She ducked into an alley and leaned her shoulder against the filthy brick wall that loomed above her, her knuckles kneading at the cramp beneath her rib cage.
“Dammit,” she muttered, and chewed at the skin on her bottom lip. She had never been caught before, had never slipped up so badly. Her father would never know. Indeed, no one would ever have to know unless she chose to tell them, but still the shame of it gutted her, that a pair of fine eyes in a handsome face had been enough to distract her.
She pushed her bonnet back from her head and tugged her fingers through her tight blond curls. Sweat prickled beneath her arms and her corset had begun to itch like the very devil. She reached into another pocket in her skirt and took out a small, silver flask, bearing the initials “JBD”. Well, she hadn’t the foggiest idea who “JBD” was, but little did she know when she’d slipped the flask out of a pocket in his great coat that he had such rare taste in whisky.
The spirits burned the back of her throat, and she coughed once before wiping her mouth across her sleeve and taking another, larger swallow. The flask disappeared again into the folds of her skirt, but she allowed her bonnet to hang behind her as she gave her curls another shake and continued down the length of the empty alleyway. The alley led her to a dead end, but she easily climbed over the crumbling wall that blocked her way, using the broken bricks as toe holds before she vaulted herself over the top of it and into a dismal courtyard filled with lines of wet laundry.
Through another yard, along a few more streets, around a dilapidated shed that belched foul-smelling smoke from its chimney, and she slipped into a narrow doorway that led her up a flight of even narrower stairs. Another doorway—complete with a sound and functional door—stood before her, and she pulled out a key from her boot, jammed it into the lock, and gave the slab of wood an extra push from her shoulder as she stepped inside.
A sharp, bitter smell met her nose, and she glanced toward the cot in the corner of the room, her eyes narrowed until they adjusted to the light, or lack thereof, and she recognized the form of her father, snoring from amid a mound of blankets and flattened, mildewed cushions.
Esther untied her bonnet from around her neck and tossed into onto the single table that stood in the center of the room. With no measure of quiet or care for the person slumbering on the other side of the room, she lit the lamp on the table, shoveled the previous days ashes out of the stove, and banged around with the kindling and coal from the scuttle until the welcome shades of orange and red sparked to life inside the small stove.
“Home already?” A gruff voice spoke up from the pile of moth-eaten blankets in the corner, before a pair of short, stout legs swung over the edge of the cot and found their way to the floor.
“It’s past midday,” Esther said, and checked the kettle on the hob. Empty, of course. She glared at her father, but he scratched at the beard on his chin and rubbed his red, bleary eyes rather than notice his daughter’s disapproval. “Didn’t you get up to fetch water? Or food?”
Her father yawned, then stretched out his bare legs, sticking out from beneath the hem of his soiled shirt. “Can’t a man rest for a bit after a hard day’s work, eh?”
“Work,” Esther scoffed. “And that work, I suppose, is enough to send you stumbling home not an hour before dawn, smelling like dog’s piss and worse, right?”
The lecture spilled out of her as she picked up a chair her father must have knocked over some time in the morning, rendering the thing to fresh chunks of wood for the fire.
“Eh?” Her father stood up, listing slightly to one side as he attempted to tug at the collar of his shirt and dig his little finger into his ear at the same time. “And how’d you make out for takings? Don’t tell me we’re headin’ into another drought such as this time las’ year. My bowels…” He placed a hand to his chest, far above the level of his bowels. “… they canna handle the strain of it.”
“Poorly,” she replied in answer to her father’s question. “Not many out and about today, and everyone holding themselves quite closed up.” Esther dug into her pockets, into a panel stitched inside her bonnet, and even raised her skirt enough to fetch a silver and bone pocket knife from the garter tied above her knee. She piled her “takings” on the table, and allowed her father a moment to sift through them.
Esther watched as her father gloried over his spoils, her spoils, to be exact, but her father, of course, would take the greatest share of the credit. He had, of course, been the one to teach her everything she knew, before too many years of drink stifled his own talents at picking a man’s pocket.
“Anything else?” In all, she had given him the knife, a few coins, and a lady’s ring that would most likely turn out to be made of brass and cut glass rather than the gold and sapphires she could dream it would be.
She shook her head. “That’s everything you see before you,” she said, without a flicker of deceit in her eyes. The gentleman’s watch, his wallet, and the silver flask still sat in her pocket. If given over to her father, he’d simply spend the money made from them on cheap ale and cards. Better to take her cut now before he could gamble and drink it all away in a single night.
“Good lass,” her father said, his last word nearly cut off by the yawn that split the lower half of his face in two. “I’ll ‘ead out to Fitch’s an’ see what I can get for this lot. Mind you, it might be nothin’ but a pile of tin and brass, so don’t you be gettin’ yer hopes up, eh?”
“Fitch,” Esther muttered under her breath, but said nothing more. Fitch was as great a crook as her father, and with only half as much honor. She’d take the gentleman’s watch to her own man, where she knew she’d fetch a better price than anything Fitch would offer. The wallet she would glean for any bank notes the gentleman foolishly dared to carry on his person, And as for the silver flask? Well, that… That particular piece, she decided she might just keep for herself.