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A little flirtation...

       Jane was intensely aware of the man at her side, handsome, polished, and flawlessly groomed.  His black frock coat emphasized his considerable breadth and height.  She took two steps for every stride of his long legs.  Lord Wallace was at least a head taller and she felt so terribly, terribly, inadequate in her brown broadcloth pinafore next to his sartorial splendor.  She wondered if he noticed she had worn the same dress each time he had seen her.  Probably not, why would a man like him give her a second look?  She suspected her hair looked a bird’s nest after curling up with Pip on the bed, and her skirts were hopelessly wrinkled.
      She gave herself a mental shake.  Her appearance was the last thing the magnificent Lord Wallace would ever notice, but she wouldn’t be a red-blooded woman were her vanity not pricked by being seen at such a disadvantage.
      Jane was thrown further off balance when he followed her outside and helped her into the hack.  Her skin tingled on contact with his.  She snatched her hand away and settled onto the seat eager to be on her way, but instead of shutting the door, he leaned in.
      “Godspeed, Miss Gray,” he smiled warmly and Jane’s attention was drawn to his full, firm lips and perfect white teeth.  Her pulse jumped and she looked up to find amusement in his azure eyes.  It was as if he knew how he affected her.  Of course he knew.  For heaven’s sake, a man that breathtakingly handsome probably had women throwing themselves at his feet on a regular basis.
       An image flashed in her mind of Lord Wallace trying to walk down Bond Street while beautiful women dove into his path, creating great barricades of straw bonnets, frilly knickers, and lacy petticoats.  She could not suppress a snort of nervous laughter.
      “Did I say something funny, Miss Gray?” he tilted his head.
      “No!  No, you didn’t,” she pressed the back of her hand to her mouth, but a guilty chuckle escaped anyway.
      “When we know each other better, perhaps you will share whatever naughty thought inspired that giggle,” he said with a grin.  “Goodnight.”
      Flustered, she said, “Sweet dreams, my lord,” repeating the words she spoke to Pip every night.  Her face burned with embarrassment, the phrase was inappropriately familiar when directed at Lord Wallace.
      He flashed her a broad devilish smile that made him even more dangerously attractive, if such a thing were possible.
      “I am touched, Miss Gray.  I believe my dreams will be very sweet,” he bowed and pulled the door shut.

 

 

 

 

 

An excerpt from The Promise

           Jane took a shortcut down Tavistock Street, a narrow, gloomy thoroughfare between the bustling Strand and the equally busy market in Covent Garden.  The musty smell of old wood and crumbling bricks hung in the stagnant air.  Through paper-thin walls she could hear families inside the ramshackle tenements laughing and fighting and going about the mundane tasks required of living.
            It seemed a million miles away from the glittering West End where Jane would spend the morning visiting goldsmiths, finding the one willing to pay the most for the locket.  She had not taken the decision to sell it lightly, but the money it raised would go to a worthy cause.  It belonged to her daughter, and she was the one who would benefit from its sale. The only thing Jane would receive was peace of mind.
            A cholera outbreak in Soho had killed thousands the month before, including a close friend of Jane’s who had several young children.  Luckily they had a father and grandparents to care for them, but that was not the case with Pip.  The child would be left an orphan if an unexpected illness befell Jane. 
            An investigation had revealed that effluence from overrunning cesspools had been pumped back into the city, contaminating drinking supplies.  Engineers had traced the source to the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks.  It was a tragedy repeated all too often in the poor, overcrowded boroughs of London and the reason Jane now boiled all their water.
            The incident had nagged at her, forcing her to confront the many ways she could be taken away from her daughter.  A carriage might run her down or she could catch one of the fevers that swept through the city every winter.  A rickety building could collapse on her head or she could fall prey to a random act of violence.
            The streets of London were cruel.  Untold horrors awaited an unprotected child, especially a girl.  Jane shuddered to think of Pip among them.
            Mrs. East was not unkind, but Jane doubted her husband would agree to take in an orphan when they already had so many mouths to feed.  Pip would end up in an orphanage, a workhouse, or worse.  After a month of torturing herself, Jane had visited a solicitor to learn about trustees and conservatorships.  She was informed it would take a great deal more than she had saved to seed a fund large enough to raise a child.  He suggested a figure of five-hundred pounds and Jane thought of the necklace immediately.  It was the only way she could ever raise that much capital.
            And so she requested a rare morning off.  Mrs. East had grudgingly agreed on the condition that Jane complete the morning baking early.  As a result she had gotten little sleep.
            She woke Pip with a kiss and a cuddle.
            “Time to get up sleepy girl,” Jane gently rubbed the child’s back to ease her into the day.  “I picked out your favorite pink romper.  You are always as pretty as a picture in that one.”
            “It’s too early, Mama,” Pip complained, pulling the blanket over her head.
            Jane laughed.  “I agree darling, but you must get up.  Mrs. East won’t be able to bathe and dress you when she’s minding the store alone.”
            Pip jumped out of bed and stretched.  Jane lifted off her tiny nightgown and scrubbed the child’s face and hands with a wet cloth.  After she was dressed, Jane plaited her long blond hair and secured it with a pink ribbon.
            “Have fun and be good for Mrs. East.  Promise?”
            Pip nodded and hugged Jane around the waist.
            “I love you, Poppet!”
            “I love you too Mama!”  They rubbed noses.  It was the way they always said goodbye.
            She smiled and winked at Mrs. East.  “Don’t spoil her too badly.”
            “Too late for that.  You beat me to it, love,” she chuckled.

 

It had rained most of the night and Jane feared she might have to postpone her errand, but the sun had peeked through the clouds just after dawn and an hour later it had transformed into a perfect spring day.
            A scarf covered the gold chain that hung around her neck.  The locket was hidden in her bodice.  Jane felt nervous wearing it in public, but it felt safer around her neck than in the loose apron of her pinafore.  Either way, the odds of a pickpocket targeting her were slim.  She looked very shabby indeed next to the lords and ladies who shopped for luxuries in Bond Street’s extravagant boutiques.
            Her first stop was R & S Garrard on Panton Street off Haymarket.  After getting their best offer, she planned to show the piece to Hancock’s on the corner of Bruton & Bond, and then she would approach Harvey & Gore in the Strand.  Each of the jewelers purchased estate pieces and were known for being discreet.
Jane hesitated in front of the shop.  Through the window she could see row upon row of glass display cases filled with watches and dazzling jewelry.  Before she set her hand on the door, she steeled herself for a haughty greeting, perhaps even a quick rebuff.  She took a deep breath and gathered the courage to push inward.  Just as her hand reached the handle, a man in a dark blue uniform pulled it open for her.  He was massive and Jane suspected he was more than just a doorman.  Any place with this many jewels would need an imposing guard.  He was tall and broad enough to fit the bill.  She thought she saw the outline of a pistol beneath his waistcoat and wondered if he’d ever had cause to use it.
            He took her measure while she took his.  She thought he winked at her, but it happened so quickly it might have been her imagination.
            Jane had never entered such a fashionable shop.  The ornate wrought iron grillwork and carved marble ornaments that graced the building’s façade were intimidating, but that was nothing compared to the opulence within.  Emerald necklaces, sapphire broaches, diamond tiaras, ruby bracelets.  She wondered if there was a single thing in the inventory that she could purchase with a full year’s wages.  She suspected not.
A wealthy matron looked up from a tray of rings then frowned and wrinkled her nose as if she smelled something foul.  Jane knew it had nothing to do with her hygiene and everything to do with the fact that the woman had assessed her worth and found it wanting.
            She glanced over at the guard and caught a twinkle of amusement in his eye.  That wink again.  She flushed.  He probably spent all day every day being condescended to by such people, or treated as if he were invisible.  Although he and Jane were strangers, they belonged to the same class, one the matron probably considered subhuman.
            As Jane waited for a clerk to acknowledge her, she studied a display of fanciful jeweled hatpins in the shape of hummingbirds, parrots, and owls, each colorful bird encrusted with tiny pavé-set stones.  A sigh of longing escaped her lips over an enameled orchid pin with diamond-tipped stamens.
            She felt wistful, not so much for herself, but for Pip.  Her mother had come from a world where daughters were given these things as little tokens of affection.  Pip deserved a better life than Jane could provide.

 

Samuel Spilsbury’s lips thinned when he saw Jane approach.  He was in the back of the shop speaking with a stonecutter, but from where he stood he had an unobstructed view of the front door and display room. 
There were really only four reasons why someone who was dressed so humbly would enter his store.  And none of them involved purchasing jewelry.
            First and most likely, she had a family heirloom to pawn.  Since she was obviously too poor to have anything of real value, looking at and rejecting her “treasure” would be a waste of his time.  Down-and-outs looking to raise funds by selling their last earthly possession came in several times a week.  No matter how many times he had to do it, it always made Samuel feel wretched to see the hope fade from their eyes when he told them their items were worthless.
            Second, she could be trying to sell stolen goods.  Seasoned thieves knew better than to fence items at reputable jewelry stores and used an underground network to dispose of ill gotten gains instead. Professionals were aware the police department delivered new lists of stolen jewelry every week and if they tried to sell anything on that list, his massive security guard Hans made sure they stayed until the authorities arrived. 
            She didn’t look nervous enough to be trying something like that.
            Third, she could be so desperate and delusional that she hoped to slip something into her pocket when no one was looking.  Hans had not allowed it to happen in thirteen years, and he was unlikely to do so today. Samuel had no stomach for pressing charges against a poor woman who would hang for the offense.
            Fourth, she could be a doxy hunting for a wealthy customer in the West End.  If this were the case, Hans would throw her out before she batted her first eyelash.  While she was a pretty little thing, Samuel knew instinctively she didn’t belong in this category.  Her face was too open, unburdened by bitterness or disillusionment.
            To Samuel’s experienced eye she probably belonged in the first category.
            “Paul, go see what the woman wants then get rid of her.  And be quick about it,” he ordered his clerk.
            Paul scurried to meet Jane while his boss hovered within hearing distance.
            “Good morning, Miss.  May I help you?” he asked politely.

 

Jane stepped forward.  The clerk seemed friendly enough.  He had not scowled, nor had he ordered her from the premises before she had a chance to speak.  Everything seemed promising so far.
            “Yes, thank you.  I was told you buy estate jewelry.  I have a gold chain and locket that I wish to sell.”
            “We pay top dollar for finer pieces.  If the metal is high quality, but the workmanship inferior, we may be able to offer you something for scrap instead,” he answered cordially.
            She could see a patient, resigned look in his eye.  Clearly, he expected scrap.
            “May I see the item in question?”
            “Yes.  I think you’ll agree it would be a crime to melt this down,” Jane smiled and pulled off her scarf then turned her back to him for a moment to lift the locket from her bodice.  Without taking the long chain from around her neck, she handed the locket to the clerk.  His eyes widened for a moment, then he squinted up at her sharply.
            “Where did you get this?”  His tone held an implicit accusation.  A bolt of alarm knifed through Jane.  Out of the corner of her eye she saw the guard stiffen.  Something had put him on alert.
            “It was left to my daughter by a relative,” Jane explained.
            “It is very distinctive, probably a custom piece made for a peer.”  It was obvious he doubted the truth of her statement.  Insolent eyes scanned her from head to foot as if searching for signs of quality and finding none. Jewels adorned the front of the necklace, but a locket was hidden behind. On it was engraved a design with roses and lions.
            “I thought it might be a coat of arms, but I have researched the image in heraldry books and it isn’t a registered family crest or an armorial symbol.  Not one I could find at any rate.”  At one time Jane had hoped the symbols would lead her to Pip’s family.
            “It may combine symbols from two coats of arms, to mark the joining of two families.  It is often done,” he remarked.  He was gripping the locket so tightly that his knuckles were turning white.  The chain was chaffing her neck.
            “I never thought of that,” Jane gently tugged on it, but he held fast.  She was glad the chain was too thick to snap easily.
            He pressed a button and the clasp sprang open.  He raised his eyebrows and looked at her.  “Something is missing.”
            “I removed the portraits for my daughter.  They were her great-grandparents.”
            “Your grandparents then?”
            “Not precisely.”  Jane wondered if he was always so nosey.  She tried again without success to tug it from his grasp.  “Are you interested in the piece, sir?”
            He ignored her question.  “It would be more valuable with the portraits included, of course.  Enamel miniatures are highly valued by collectors.  Would you consider selling them as well?”
            “I would not,” Jane said firmly.
            “May I,” the clerk tried to raise the necklace over her head.
            Jane stepped backward and the locket fell from his hands.  “I’d rather not.”
            “To provide you with an accurate offer I must first weigh the gold and measure the jewels,” he pressed.  “Please remove it.”
            The atmosphere in the shop suddenly took on a strange tension.  Jane could see the wheels turning in the clerk’s head and the guard was moving closer.
            “I will summon the manager.  He is experienced enough to determine its value with a visual assessment alone.”  He looked at the guard and a silent message passed between them.  “Please wait here, miss.”
            The clerk walked through a wide hall behind the glass center counter and stopped in front of a well-dressed man she assumed to be the manager.  He had been watching her closely from the moment she entered.  The men whispered back and forth.  They seemed agitated and kept gesturing at her.  Jane’s anxiety level soared.
            She darted a wary glance at the guard.  The friendly wink had been replaced with a steely glare.  He seemed ready to pounce on her.
            The manager disappeared into a side room and reappeared with a sheet of paper.  He showed it to the clerk who nodded and both men began to walk with studied nonchalance toward her.  They moved as if trying not to alarm her.
            Every instinct told her to make a break for it.  She began to back away.  The guard took another step toward her just as the manager yelled, “Hans, stop that woman!”
            At that moment two elderly ladies entered and stepped in front of Hans, forcing him to lurch sideways to avoid a collision.  Jane feinted left and ducked past the women, then ran straight out the open door into moving traffic.  By some miracle she wove between the multitude of pedestrians, produce carts, and carriages packed into the street.  She darted down an alley with heavy footsteps sounding close behind her, but did not look back.  She ran for her life, tacking between empty crates and garbage to emerge on the other side of the block.
            Shouts of, “Stop!  Thief!” followed her.  Her heartbeat raced and her lungs burned as she gasped for air, but still she ran.  When she was confident she was no longer being followed, she slowed to a walk and tried to understand what had happened.  As she made her way back to Sugarman’s, she considered and discarded several possible explanations.
            As she entered the bakery, she forced a smile to her face.
            Mrs. East looked up.  “You’re finally back,” she observed sourly.
            “Yes.  Thank you again for letting me run my little errand,” Jane replied, lifting a canvas apron off a peg and tying it around her waist.
            “Was there a wind storm?”
            “Pardon?” Jane said.
            “A wind storm.  Your hair.  It looks like a monkey’s tumble.”
            “I’ll cover it with a scarf.”
            Jane hid her panic well, but it worked at her frayed nerves all afternoon.  Obviously the men believed she had stolen the locket.  If she met Hans or the clerk again on the street, she would see the inside of Newgate Prison within an hour.  Thieves were hung in London every day. 
            Had Daphne stolen the locket?  If she had, how could Jane prove she had not been an accomplice to the crime?  Could she be arrested for fencing stolen goods even if she did not know the goods were stolen?  She wondered if Daphne had pilfered it to raise the funds to start a new life.  The girl had been pregnant, alone, desperate… but had she been desperate enough to steal?
            Jane wished for the millionth time that she had pressed the girl to confide in her.  With more information about her family, she might have been able to give Daphne’s child a better life.  If she went to prison, what would happen to Pip?  Ironically, that very same concern had brought about her current disaster.  If she had not been trying to secure Pip’s future, she would have let that cursed locket rest beneath her floorboards for another fifteen years.
            None of it made sense.  Daphne had claimed the portraits were her grandparents.  Jane believed her.  There was a strong family resemblance between Pip, Daphne, and the woman in the portrait.
            The jeweler seemed to recognize the design.  Had it been made in that shop?
            She desperately wished she had someone to turn to for advice.  She dared not confide in Mrs. East.  If there were a reward, she would hand Jane over in a minute. 
            That night she spent more time than usual telling Pip stories and talking about the day.  After Pip fell asleep, Jane lay awake for hours, trying to come up with a plan.