“Let me go, you damned cur!” The voice rang out through the darkened alleyway. As the captive was wriggling and kicking like some trapped wild animal, it was no surprise that she was soon released and fell to the ground with a painful sounding ‘ooff’.
“You were being followed, you foolish chit,” the stranger growled out, knowing that his ribs would have bruises for days after the battering he had just received from her elbows.
“It was all under control,” came the ungrateful reply.
“So much so that you could not escape my grasp until I released you. Tell me, how were you intending to fight three of them off?”
“I had a plan.” It was clearly a lie, but was said with furious vehemence.
Hugh Weston, Earl of Bryn, laughed with genuine amusement, something those who knew him would find astonishing. The Earl of Bryn did not bark out a laugh; he sneered, snubbed and looked derisively through his quizzing glass. It was a fine day indeed if he smiled. But laughed? Never!
“This I have to hear. Tell me more, I beg of you,” he said, his disbelieving tone expressing fully his feelings about the comment.
“I would love to pass the time of day with you, but some of us have work to do,” came the dismissive reply.
Before Hugh could respond, she had jumped to her feet, turned on her heel and ran. Her movements were fast and without a sound across the rough pavements of the less salubrious streets of London.
For a moment, Hugh considered chasing her, but he knew when he was on a fool’s errand. Within seconds she had disappeared from sight, and with her black clothing she would soon blend into the dark night.
It had been pure chance he had seen her, and more importantly, the men who were clearly following her. At least they had disappeared the moment he had made his move to act the rescuer; if they had chosen that moment to attack, they would have had two for the price of one, so to speak, for the wriggling fish he had tried to hold meant he could not have protected them both.
He had recognised her gait as that of a female, even though she was dressed in male attire and wearing a large masquerade mask. One who was a keen observer of people had been quick to pick up on the unconscious signs she had betrayed. If her pursuers had caught her, she would have had a fate not worth dwelling on, for it would remind him how precarious life was on these streets, and for his own reasons, he could not acknowledge thoughts like that.
Picking up his cane from where he had abandoned it, he straightened his hat, brushed his frock coat down and walked into the night, in the opposite direction from which the young woman had run. She was on her own now, the foolish chit. It would have interrupted his own activities, but he was gentleman enough that he would have seen her to safety if she had remained with him. There was nothing more he could do for her; sometimes, one had to accept that you could not help those who did not want it, and she was clearly foolhardy in the extreme. He would probably read of her murder in tomorrow’s paper, for he was certain she could not protect herself, no matter how much she protested otherwise.
His frown did not mar his features as he thought about holding her, it was after all a usual expression for Hugh, but there had been something hard around her body when he had grasped her. It was as if she was wearing some sort of armour underneath her clothes. It was strange and had surprised him a little, hence she had been able to inflict far more injury on him than she normally would have achieved. He would regret his momentary lapse in concentration every time one of the bruises twinged.
As he walked, he could not dismiss the encounter as easily as he would have liked. What was her business? Her accent was not that of the usual people who lived and worked in the area, but then again, neither was his.
His lips tilted in a half-smile as he contemplated the looks of horror he would receive from his acquaintances if they knew where he was. Thankfully, he did not give a damn what anyone else thought; he had a job to do, and he had made a promise to himself. If it took him years, he would complete his task and right a wrong that haunted him.
Turning a corner, he nodded to his coach driver and the two footmen who accompanied his trips into the underbelly of the great city. They were fully armed and willing to guard the carriage, but when he went out, he went alone. Staying with the carriage, they were reasonably safe; he would not put them at risk amongst the people he had to speak to. That was his duty alone, and although he took precautions, he would not put anyone else in harm’s way, especially those who were in no position to object.
Leaning back as the carriage moved away from the squalor, he sighed, no results tonight. Again.
Crossing his ankles, he grimaced at the state of his boots, visible in the lit carriage. His valet was going to sulk for days at the scuffs on the fine leather. It seemed as if the chit had kicked half of London’s dirty streets onto his boots as she fought to escape. He could almost hear the peal his valet would ring over him, as any servant who had been in their master’s employ since he was a young boy felt they could do.
Hugh turned and looked blindly out of the window. For once, his thoughts were not about the next stages of his search; the woman in black filled his mind. Who was she, and what was she doing in such a dangerous place?
Julia leaned against the inside wall of the servant’s entrance to her home, breathing heavily to try to slow her pounding heart. She had run further than she had ever done before and faster and was feeling the effects of it. How had she been caught so easily? She cursed to herself as she tilted her head back in an effort to get as much air in her lungs as possible.
What had she been thinking? The last anniversary of her parents’ death had hit her hard. She had no idea why, whether it was to do with the past or the future, but whatever had caused it, she had come to a decision. She could not let others suffer the same fate as her parents.
Coming up with the scheme to patrol the streets at night and intervene if she saw anything amiss had seemed a good idea when she had been seated in a comfortable drawing room in broad daylight. Not so much when she was alone at night.
She could have stopped after the first night, but the need to do something was there, even though she was afraid. She had never done anything so outrageous in her life before, and whenever she returned home, safe, there was an overwhelming sense of relief. Refusing to let the fear control her, she determined to continue on her quest, though it would shock everyone who knew her.
Finally able to breathe normally, she forced herself off the wall and prepared to go up to her chamber.
“Is that you, Julia?” came the quiet voice of her uncle down the servant’s stairs.
“Yes, it is I,” she replied, trying to make her voice sound normal. “I will be up shortly.” Taking off her boots, which had been adapted to make less noise underfoot, she started the climb up to her uncle. Resigned to telling him what had gone on, she set her shoulders; he would be worried and concerned, but it would not alter anything. She was determined to keep helping those at risk in any way she could.
“Oh Julia, that was too close a call,” Uncle William said after Julia had explained about being followed and then taken by surprise. “I know I am no longer your guardian, but I hope I hold some sway over you, and I beg of you to stop this crusade you have embarked on.”
“Uncle, you know I cannot,” Julia said, trying to make him understand, but feeling compassion for him, for she knew he worried. “Tonight, those men were going to attack a couple who were just walking through the streets after an evening out. They had done nothing wrong and did not deserve to be robbed, or worse.” It was the same discussion they had shared every few days since she had started her night-time ventures.
“No one does, but it is not your responsibility to protect anyone foolish enough not to hire a carriage in the dead of night,” Uncle William counterargued.
“Are you saying we should not walk the streets after dark? You know that is not the answer. These people who are preying on the innocent need to be stopped,” Julia responded.
“I agree that they do, and that is why we have Bow Street Runners.”
“Pfftt,” Julia huffed. “I have never seen a single one on the streets at night; they are no use. You know the finest areas can employ someone to keep the peace, so there is less of a problem there, but that still leaves too many streets unprotected.”
“You are too vulnerable.”
Julia smiled at him. “I have your inventions to protect me.”
“Much good they did you tonight.”
“Yes, it shows I need something else in addition to the pepper solution you gave me. It proved great in the trials we did, but needing two hands to use it is clearly a disadvantage in practice.”
“I wish you would carry a gun.”
“No. I will not kill anyone. If I carry a gun, I risk an innocent person being killed for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
William reached across and squeezed Julia’s hand. “It was such a long time ago now. Is it not time to let them rest in peace?”
“It might be twelve years ago, but nothing has changed; innocent people are still being hurt,” Julia answered, tears making her eyes sparkle. It did not matter how much time had passed; it still hurt to have lost her parents in such a sudden and brutal way.
“I miss them too,” William said gently. “But they would hate to know that you put yourself in danger night after night.”
“I take as many precautions as my uncle can invent.” Julia grinned, trying to lighten the mood and deflect her uncle from the lecture about giving up her activities. She understood why he said that her parents would not be happy with what she was doing, but it hurt every time he brought it up.
“If it was up to me, you would be going out like some sort of knight of old, covered in armour.”
Julia laughed. “More protective, but not very good for running through the streets. Come, it is time for bed now. We can rest easy, knowing that the couple the gang were targeting will be at home now, safe in their beds and none the wiser how close they came to disaster.”
“Just be mindful that thieves will not be happy about having their prey protected. They will not be honourable like the gentleman who caught you,” William cautioned.
“He was no gentleman. I managed to escape under my own steam,” Julia lied. It would not do her case or her cause any good if her uncle was to know just how vulnerable she had felt to be captured and held against a firm, muscled body. She could almost feel his arms still holding her tight, the most intimate she had been with any man. She had panicked in her efforts to get away, and that was not good for her long-term survival.
She vowed to do something the very next morning to increase her chances against such foes. It seemed she needed more than just Uncle William’s inventions if she was to be undefeated.
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