“We both know how Joey gets his money. He’s working with the Patron. I don’t want to see you hanged.”
“Ha,” Robbie repeated.
Smite was unsure what Robbie was, but he was fast building up a list of things that he was not. He was not an adult. He was not Miss Darling’s lover. He was not a stunning conversationalist.
“If you go to work for the Patron, Robbie, so help me I will toss you out on your ear. It is not safe. Now promise me you won’t even try.”
Sullen silence. Then—“What, I’m not even allowed to try a little dipping, but you can do whatever you wish?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why else would you be so angry when I hit that cove? You were planning to sell it to him.”
Miss Darling gasped, and a slap echoed. That sound made the silence that followed all the more pressing. Smite could barely make out the details of the scene—Miss Darling, holding one hand in the other, looking down at her fingers as if she couldn’t believe what she’d done, and Robbie, his own hand rubbing his cheek.
“Right, then,” Robbie rumbled. He shoved away from the table and opened the door. Smite felt a breath of cool air against his face. “Charge him double. After all, he brought company.”
“Where are you going? You haven’t eaten.”
Smite turned his face toward the draft, but his head throbbed and he shut his eyes, dizzy once more.
“Going to smoke with Joey,” Robbie said. “And don’t give me that look—at least smoking’s healthful. Everyone says so.”
The door slammed, and the reverberation echoed through Smite’s throbbing head. But pain or no, he could reconstruct what had happened. Robbie had come upon Smite accosting Miss Darling, and had struck him a blow from behind. Presumably, the two of them had brought him up here, rather than leaving him facedown in the streets. Whoever Robbie was, he was looking for trouble…and dragging Miss Darling into it, right alongside him.
A mess, and Smite had landed himself squarely in the middle of it. He exhaled covertly.
Miss Darling was alone now. Her hair caught the last rays of the sun through what appeared to be a garret window. It seemed to catch into a brilliant orange—like a stack of foolscap thrown on the fire, bursting into flame.
She covered her face with her hands. “Oh, God,” she moaned. “What am I going to do?” Her body curled in on itself. She brought her knees up on the seat beside her and hugged them close, rocking back and forth. It was still impossible to judge her age. She looked young now. Alone and unprotected.
Not a comfortable realization, that. She hid her vulnerability so well that his discovery felt curiously intrusive. As if he’d seen her stripped to her chemise, and she hadn’t yet realized he was looking. He shut his eyes, giving her the privacy she thought she had.
He didn’t think she would want him to watch her weep.
Instead, she sighed and he heard the rustle of fabric, the sound of steam being released, and the dull clank of wood on metal. Stirring the pot on the hob, he guessed.
“No,” she said aloud. “You can’t have any. I’ve already got laundry to send out because of you.”
Another poor choice on her part. She had to eat. It was a foolish economy to skimp on her own meals to feed her surly charge; if she wasn’t eating, it was hardly surprising that she made bad decisions.
“You really don’t want any,” she continued. “Don’t give me that look. Dogs don’t eat gruel.”
His eyes flew all the way open and he half sat up. From this new vantage point, he could see everything: the carpets on the floor, so worn he could see the wood beneath them; the whitewash flaking from the walls. What furniture there was consisted of old trunks and barrels with blankets tossed over them. Miss Darling stood at the hob, spooning something white and porridge-looking into a bowl.
And yes, a dog sat next to her, watching with a hopeful expression that Smite knew all too well. Not that he could see it at this distance. But he recognized that expectant quiver in the dog’s haunches.
Of course, it was not just a dog; it was his dog. Suddenly Robbie’s line about bringing company made sense. Ghost had tracked him down. Smite’s eyesight blurred, and then focused on the creature’s silhouette. Gray muzzle. Gray chest. Paws… Damn. No longer white and pristine.
That smell he’d dismissed as a consequence of living in the slums? It wasn’t caused by poor sanitation. It was his dog. His own disgustingly filthy animal. Ghost appeared to have found every pile of horse manure between here and the Council House.
“Ghost!” Smite said sharply. “Get away from there. Stop your begging this instant.” His own voice sent a pulse of pain through his head.
Ghost turned, saw Smite sitting up on his elbow, and launched across the room. His paws were positively black, his chest spattered with drying mud—yes, Smite was going to call that dark filth mud out of grim optimism. Ghost, of course, had no idea that he was in disgrace, and so gave him a delighted bark, beating the air enthusiastically with his tail.
Turner shook his head. “What did you do with yourself? Drag yourself through a tour of the middens of Bristol?”
Ghost made an abortive attempt to leap onto him—the better to share the smell of those middens—and Smite made a sharp gesture, sending the dog to his haunches.
“You’re a disgusting animal,” Smite said, “and I’ll most likely rid myself of you in the morning. Now behave yourself. I’ve got someone I need to talk to.” He pushed himself up to a sit. His head spun dizzily, but so long as he balanced himself on his arms, he could hold himself upright and look over at Miss Darling.
Ghost danced around again, spinning in circles—
“You’re making me dizzy,” Smite told him. “Lie down and wait.”
There were a great many complaints one could make about Ghost. Palter, in fact, had made most of them. But when the animal was given a direct command, he obeyed. On that, he lowered himself to the floor and fixed his gaze on Smite.
Miss Darling was watching him, too, and unlike Ghost, she did not seem overjoyed to see him. Her eyes were red but dry.
“Are you going to arrest me, Your Worship?” she asked directly.
“No.” He rubbed his head and looked up. “My head is pounding too much to consider it.”
She walked to him. As she came closer, Ghost stood up and crossed to investigate her, gray head lifted, sniffing gently. She didn’t seem to notice the dog; instead, she sat on the straw tick beside him.
“You shouldn’t be sitting up, you know. You’ve had a head injury, and they can be quite perilous.” She was inches from him.
“I’m perfectly well,” he said.
She frowned dubiously at that. “You can never be sure. I knew someone who hit his head and then dropped dead the next day.”
She reached to touch his cheek, and he grabbed her hand.
“I said, I’m perfectly well.”
But he wasn’t. A flutter of…of something passed through him. Something barely recognizable. His hand fit around hers. She was warm, and he could feel calluses on her fingertips. She wasn’t a lady, no matter how exalted her accent at the moment; he could feel the evidence against his palm. Her rough hands should have reminded him of the gulf between them.
There were too many differences: he was wealthy; she was not. She’d appeared in his courtroom; he might have to see her again.
But when he took hold of her hand, he was most aware of the other sharp distinction between them. He was a man. And she was, undoubtedly, a woman.
She looked down at him, at his grip on her, and slowly, he let her fingers loose.
She pulled away. “Well. My apologies for interfering.”
His hand still tingled where he’d touched her; he made a fist of it. “If I’m going to drop dead, I’ll do so regardless of whether you prod at me.”
“Yes, but if you drop dead here, I’ll be stuck disposing of your body.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “I have enough
to worry about.”
It hurt to smile, so much so that he winced when he tried. “Well, then. I’ll do my best to drag my sorry carcass away if I feel the sudden urge to keel over.” He ran his hand over his face. “Why did you go to the records room?”
“Looking for records,” she muttered evasively.
“What sort of records?”
She paused and looked up to her right. “I have a friend,” she said slowly. “George Patten. He was put away two months ago, and due to be released yesterday, yet he’s disappeared entirely. He wasn’t let go. He’s not in gaol. I don’t know where he is.” There was a twitch in her cheek.
“Those records would be kept at the gaol,” Smite said. “You don’t imagine that the records of daily dealings at the gaol would find their way to the Council House a mere day after the events in question. Tell me the truth, Miss Darling.”
She raised her eyes and let out a long exhale. “Someone asked me to get a list of all the men employed by the police force,” she said quickly.
Likely, that was the truth.
“I don’t think you should have anything to do with someone,” he said.