| More and More |
By Stella Cameron
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If there was one thing Finch More couldn't abide, it was being wrong and having to admit as much.
She was wrong.
She should not have returned to Whitechapel alone, and on foot, and when it was growing dark, and colder.
She should not have placed herself in the way of being frightened out of her wits by her own imaginationwhich could be overactive. Why, a moment ago she'd even mistaken a slight sound for someone speaking her name.
There it was again. She looked in every direction. The streets were all but empty, and the few muffler-swathed people still abroad walked with the certainty of folk who knew where they were going and were in a hurry to get there. Not one of them spared her as much as a glance.
"Silly female," she said aloud, and glared at a grinning boy with a big, sticky bun in one hand, who poked out his crumb-covered tongue as he passed. What did she care if a mannerless boy thought she was light-brained for talking to herself?
"They puts people the likes of you in asylums, they does," the boy said. He held the bun in his teeth, crossed his eyes, and rushed away with his arms flailing.
Why did Latimer insist upon keeping the business down here in Whitechapel, where all manner of sordid events occurred? "Cheap," she said, and glanced furtively behind her to make sure the boy was well enough away not to hear. Latimer watched every penny and insisted she do likewise. That was why she'd decided to walk rather than get a cab after she'd made the delivery of a small package. She should have continued home as Latimer had expected, but he was likely to stay at the warehouse all night, very possibly without eating, if she left him alone there.
A great bound of her heart made her feel quite odd. There, she thought, that was her name. Very softly spoken, to be sure, but definitely her name. Someone she couldn't see said, no, sang her name in a foolish manner to try to make her afraid. The back of her neck prickled.
Who? She didn't know anyone in London apart from the rest of the people who lived at Number 7. And the people Latimer did business with. Hardly likely candidates for playing tricks on her in the street.
Very soon she would be there, at the warehouse, and safe. Not that she wasn't safe now. After all, what could happen to her with buildings on either side of the street and people . . . There had been people only a moment ago, and there would be more any second. She pulled the looped ribbons of her reticule into the crook of an elbow. Only a country girl, a girl from a Cornish village or some such backward place, would start dreaming voices just because she was in London.
She whirled about. This time it had sounded closer.
A hand, clamped over her mouth, caught her next breath in her throat. Her bonnet tipped forward, and she couldn't see past the brim. She choked, and kicked at whoever stood behind her, but her slippered heels undoubtedly fared worse than what felt like a pair of solid boots.
The bonnet slipped sideways until it hung beneath her chin.
"This won't take no great time, miss," a voice said against her ear. Seams on his heavy glove bit into her face. "Better to keep your feet for walking, if you please." With that she was bundled through a gap in a high wooden fence and into a yard between two buildings. A squalid yard strewn with rubbish from what she could make out. And the buildings were of blackened brick with no windows and had roofs that blurred into a darkening sky where smoke scarred a faint purple haze.
Why would anyone bother to murder her? That's what he would do, wasn't it? This man was going to kill her.
Finch tried to scream.
"'Ere, 'ere," her captor said, and shook her. "You'd do well enough to 'eed my warnings and do what I tell you."
She had no opportunity to do otherwise before a shape materialized from the shadowed wall to her right, a tall figure with head bowed. His billowing cloak and top hat cast a fuzzy silhouette behind him.
Like a great bat.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Finch struggled, kicked, and squirmed, and bit hard at the gloved hand over her mouth. A muffled curse was her only reward. For the rest, she was lifted from the ground and flung down.
Flung down, but caught by the cloaked creature the moment before she would have hit muddy ground. When she tried to look at him, he spun her around, relieving her of her reticule as he did so, and finished what the other had started by depositing her facedown in a heap on the ground.
"Remain as you are if you please, and you will be unharmed," she was told in a voice so low of tone it echoed from its owner's depths. The man did not sound English, did he?
A shower of objects hit her back, and she cried out.
Shaking, placing her hands over her mouth, Finch did her best to do as she was told. She would die here in this filthy, smelly place with smoke burning her eyes and stinging her nose. Die in the chill of a young winter's night.
"Remember my words, Miss Finch More," said the voice from the earth. "The time is coming soon. The old tiger will give way to the new. Then the young tiger will eat its predecessor. So it reads. Each of us has a purpose whether it be great or small. Your small purpose will be served, and you will no longer be requiredbut you might be overlooked if you cause no irritation."
The speaker fell silent, but his speech echoed on. A meaningless dissertation. Part of their evil design to terrify their victims into complete submission.
Finch bowed even lower. What made them think she could do anything but be submissive?
Another hard article, and another, then several more bounced from her shoulders and neck to land among the stones and debris.
These creatures were tossing down the contents of her reticule. She opened her mouth to say she had nothing of value, but thought better of the notion. They would discover what a poor prize they had chosen soon enough, then there would be no need to wait longer to dispose of her.
"Keep your eyes closed, Miss Finch More. And you will put your hands on your ears. There will be loud noise. Like the roar of the tiger. It will be easier if you do not see or hear." She didn't know which of the men spoke, but she quickly clapped her hands over her ears. Her eyes were already tightly shut.
A loud noise? An explosion, perhaps? A pistol shot?
Finch moaned, and curled into as small a ball as she could make of herself.
Poor Latimer. He was so absentminded about anything but his treasures from the Indies and Chinaand the pieces he'd recently obtained from Egypt. What would he do without her? How would he remember to eat, or put on a neckcloth, or make sure the accounts for the business were kept in order, to say nothing of paying the rent to Lady Hester Bingham?
Latimer would never go to Papa for help because their father had disinherited his son when Latimer insisted on studying antiquities rather than going into Papa's business.
Poor Papa. He was a hard man but not without feelings, and he did love her. Finch just knew Papa loved her, and Latimer, of course. And since Papa was a widower of many years, he didn't have a wife to turn to in times of grief.
Finch's mind spun and spunand spun. Everyone she loved would be distraught at her death. When her pale, lifeless body . . .
She held her breath and parted her hands from her ears a scant distance.
Not a sound.
No one spoke harshly to her, or tried to stop her from moving.
She opened her eyes, and when she could see a little made out a shiny coin nearby. When she dared to raise her head a fraction she saw several more coins, and the silver cross that had been her mother's and which Finch always kept with her. Also there were a number of large buttons she'd bought for her collectionand the Hydrobia ulvae she'd been fortunate to find for her shell collection.
Finch sniffed. Tears spattered the backs of her hands.
Crying, for goodness sake.
She knelt more upright and checked around. Her attackers had definitely left.
They had left.
She was still alive.
They had not shot her.
"Of course I'm crying. I am not made of stone. I almost di-di-died here." She wiped her face with the back of a sleeve and kept on sobbing. Such a terrible shock was bound to make a woman cry and shake and feel unwell.
"I have been too strong for too long," she said into her sleeve. It was true. Always the strong one. Always the one to deal with the more unpleasant aspects of trying to make a life with only her own small allowance, Latimer's meager inheritance from their mother (portioned out in minuscule amounts), and what little profit could be squeezed from the fledgling business.
Still weeping, she clumsily retrieved her spilled treasures. Why hadn't those beasts taken her money? Little enough, it was truejust the coins she carried for emergenciesbut thieves weren't supposed to leave money behind.
Her hands hurt, and her knees, and her face, and other parts of her.
Oh how horrified Latimer would be when he saw her, and how angry that she had returned to him rather than go home.
When she stood up every bit of her ached. Now she must collect herself as best she could and try to ensure Latimer had no idea of exactly what had occurred. She must devise a suitable story. True, she abhorred lies, but on this occasion she would invent a small untruth for the purpose of saving her dear brother's temper.
A large untruth.
She did what she could to pin up escaped locks of hair and replaced her bonnet. Fortunately her pelisse and gown were of sensible brown chintz. The darkness made it impossible to see well, but she thought mud might be scarcely noticeable.
At last she could do nothing more to improve her appearance, and she set off to go the short distance left to the warehouse. The building was in a mean alley and flanked by two similar hulks at present unoccupied. On the opposite side of the alley hovels slunk together in a dismal line. Those who lived there were seldom seen.
The night was all but black now. A sullen moon barely bothered to stroke the edges of a single cloud break. Finch's soft half boots scuffed the cobbles. Cold struck through the thin leather to her feet.
She reached the door where a small (Latimer called it "discreet") sign announced, More & More, Importers, in white letters on a piece of polished wood.
Pushing her way inside the echoing cavern, Finch finally decided what she would tell Latimer and felt hugely relieved.
"Latimer," she called, hurrying between crates containing items Latimer had obtained from abroad. The space reeked of dust and mildew. "Latimer, it's Finch." A light shone through the open door to the large office they called their showroom. In truth they could only show certain items in the office. Anything too big, or too heavy, required that a customer make the best of viewing it in the warehouse itself, not an ideal arrangement but the best that could be offered at present.
"My what a day," Finch said, affecting a cheerfully exasperated tone. She walked quickly into the office.
With his back to her, Latimer bent over an open crate.
Lord Kilrood faced her from behind the desk.
Drat, Finch thought, and felt her false cheer sink beneath gloom. Of all the rotten luck. How could she have the misfortune to find him here tonight of all nights?
A number of weeks earlier they had met Lord Kilrood through Hunter Lloyd, the nephew of Lady Hester Bingham who owned 7 Mayfair Square. Kilrood had started doing some business with them. He seemed a decent enough sort, despite the superior manner one could expect from someone of his station, but he had an uncanny way of staring at her as if he found her a puzzle. Or perhaps she shocked him . . . Perhaps he could not believe that in his privileged life where he could surround himself with nothing but pretty women, he occasionally found himself in the company of a plain one.
She bobbed an abbreviated curtsy, not that it was worth the effort since he showed no sign of noticing.
He really stared.
Finch attempted to stare back, but he had the kind of disquietingly brilliant blue eyes that didn't blink. In fact they didn't even flicker. His eyelashes were very black and cast a shadow in that blue stare.
How rude. He should have been taught from childhood that open curiosity was incredibly rude.
She cleared her throat and made a great deal of cinching the ribbons on her reticule. When she glanced downward she noted with disgust that there were jagged rips in her skirt. And mud did show when it began to dryeven on brown chintz.
He interrupted her, "A moment, Finch. I'm looking for something."
Just as well. She prayed her hastily fabricated tale would be convincing.
Lord Kilrood came from behind the desk. He lowered his head slightly and peered at her more closely.
Finch nodded politelyalthough restraint cost her considerablyand she even smiled a little. But then she felt what she had felt on more than one occasion when in the company of this imposing man: wobbly inside.
Oh fie, of all the treacherous tricks of silly female vulnerability to the male. The man appealedwell, he caused some strangely exciting sensations, and she actually felt drawn to him. It was as if she wished, no, she did wish she were other than plain. And she did wish that he might look at her as a man interested in a womanas a womanlooked at that woman.
This was most muddling. After all, she was nine-and-twenty and had known love once. These feelings had not been associated with that pure and tragically lost love, not at all. Naturally there could be no question of loving a stranger anyway, but tonight's events, the manner in which she felt bemused in his company, suggested that her reaction to Lord Kilrood was motivated by something quite other than a pure spirit. Why it felt . . . carnal.
"Are you all right, Miss More?"
"Don't mind Finnie, Your Lordship," Latimer said from the depths of his crate. "You know how quiet she is. She has lived a very simple life in the country and is unaccustomed to making polite conversation."
Sometimes Latimer could be intensely irritating.
Lord Kilrood paid no attention to Latimer's comment. He did come a little closer to Finch.
She felt warm, which was ridiculous since she was obviously cold. Oh, her fearful experiences this night had been too much. They had made hershe hoped temporarilyfeebleminded.
"Miss More," he said, very quietly, "what has happened to you?"
Finch looked to Latimer's back and was grateful to see that he hadn't heard. She placed a finger on her lips and shook her head.
Lord Kilrood narrowed his eyes.
The wobbly sensation returned. He was a well-made man. A very well made man. Taller than she had thought she cared for because she didn't like feeling overpowered by another's size, but she felt differently about this man's person. He was tall, and broad of shoulder, and he had a solid presence that suggested his fine figure would be just as fine without his well-cut clothes.
A wild heat overtook Finch, and she couldn't stop her mouth from falling open. What had come over her? She closed her eyes tightly, then opened them again. Had she hit her head when that creature threw her down? She didn't remember doing so, but then, perhaps she wouldn't if it were bad enough.
A change of personality.
Without clothes? Of all the terrible, absolutely unsuitable, completely unforgivable thoughts.
"You should sit down," he said, blessedly keeping his voice low. "You do not look well."
She looked awful. Greville had liked the way she looked, God rest his soul, but that was because of their long familiarity. Everyone else said she was a fright.
Finch shook her head again, more violently this time. Lord Kilrood had a pleasing face. His cheekbones were high, his mouth . . . he had a most pleasing mouth. A finely cut face, that's how she would describe it. Finely cut but very much the face of a strong man. A strong, handsome man. Pleasing was a pathetic word that did little to convey a person's true feelings if those feelings were about something she thought marvelous.
He had a slow manner of speech, slow and considered, with the faintest hint of that most intriguing Scottish accent. There was a touch of red in his dark hair.
"Miss More," he said, sounding less concerned than determined this time, "I insist that you take a seat. You are not yourself."
Latimer stood up and turned around.
Finch braced herself. She must not cause him more worry. Providing for their livelihood was already enough strain on him. "Latimer, I don't want you to worry about me."
"Hm?" His thick, brown hair fell over his brow. He was examining a white figurine of a naked woman.
She would not allow him to blame himself for the outcome of her own careless actions. "I had a little accident. Nothing serious."
At that Latimer looked up sharply. "Did it break?"
"That perfect Grecian amulet. Not particularly old, but without a flaw. Did you break it, Finnie?"
"Er, no." She felt foolish. "I delivered it safely. Then I decided to come back here after all."
"Good, good," he said, smiling at her. "I say, Finnie, that dress is getting a bit tatty, isn't it? Even for you? Never mind. You wouldn't be good old Finnie if you gave a fig for such things. See if you can make some tea for His Lordship, would you?"
Excerpted from More and More , by Stella Cameron . Copyright (c) 1999 by Stella Cameron . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top