Unraveled (Turner 3) - Page 3

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“See?” the mayor muttered to Clark, the other magistrate, in tones not quite low enough to escape Smite’s notice. “Now he’s in a tearing hurry. I’ll never make sense of the man.”

Smite ignored his colleagues, an

d instead removed his uncomfortable wig. Palter appeared behind him, advancing at a rate that would have been better suited to an octogenarian on the brink of permanent decline rather than a spry young clerk in his thirties.

“Your Worship,” the man said. He spoke as slowly as he walked. “I was brushing your coat. It was covered in dog fur.” Palter cast an accusing glance behind Smite as he spoke. But the object of Palter’s scorn had embarked on a vigorous campaign of ear-scratching, and took no notice.

“Never mind that.” Smite held out his hand. “I need it. Now.”

She’d called herself Daisy Whitaker this time. Nobody else would have made the connection—they’d have been blinded by the perfectly arranged blond hair, the well-made walking dress. But when she’d stood, she’d glanced warily from side to side as if she felt unsafe in her surroundings. Her eyelashes had been darkened. And her wrists… No gentleman farmer’s daughter had wrists so thin. Poor fare at the dinner table showed first on the wrists.

“You know how I feel about your going out covered in gray hairs.” The man’s eyes narrowed as he took in Smite’s shirtsleeves. “Your Worship. Never tell me you went out in the hearing room, not wearing a coat under your robe.”

Smite simply stared at him. “That robe is blazing hot,” he said. “Nobody can see beneath it. And my attire really is my own concern, and none of yours. Now where is my greatcoat?”

Palter was supposed to be just his clerk—a fellow who looked up legal precedents, when such were needed, who took dictation and handled the more laborious paperwork that arose. But within a few days of work, he’d appointed himself Smite’s valet-in-residence at the Council House. He’d made himself utterly indispensable on all fronts. That only meant that when Smite wanted him dispensed with, he was damned inconvenient.

“I heard what you said out there.” Palter strolled to the far side of the room once more, leisurely as you please. “Think about the dignity of your station. You ought to wear a coat to talk to an innocent miss.”

Innocent. Ha.

Everyone else had been fooled. But for years, Smite had been blessed with a superior memory. He had an eye for face and color, an ear for words. He remembered conversations that had taken place decades in the past. He could recall the precise shape of the brooch his mother had worn to his sister’s funeral.

And so it had taken only a few seconds to recognize the supposed Miss Whitaker. The last time he’d seen her, she’d had orange hair and freckles. She’d been wearing a simple frock of dark green, matching brilliant eyes that she had been unable to conceal now. She’d given a different name, too. It had been a year since that first encounter, but he’d thought he’d seen her more than once, dressed differently each time.

He didn’t know what she was up to, but he didn’t like it, and he was going to make her stop.

Across the room, his man opened a wardrobe and pulled out the missing coat.

“I see no reason to elevate my dignity to the level of pomposity.” Smite crossed the room in three quick strides, and took the garment. “In my experience, dignity naturally follows competence. I’ll look after my work, and trust my dignity to take care of itself.”

“Your Worship, you’ve got powder on the coat now,” Palter accused. “You could spare a half-minute for dignity. The girl will wait.” His clerk handed over a pair of gloves, which Smite jammed in his coat pocket.

A liar who had been prepared to commit bald-faced perjury? Unlikely she’d still be around. Smite simply shook his head and strode to the door. But retrieving the coat had been a cue: Ghost instantly perked up and moved to the door, a silent shadow. The dog looked up in entreaty. Liquid brown eyes begged: Take me with you. I’ll be good.

Oh, the lies that dogs told.

“Ghost,” Smite commanded, “you will stay.”

The dog let out a faint huff of protest. Palter, by contrast, made a muffled, choking sound in response.

Smite turned and raised an eyebrow. “Do cheer up, Palter. I took him for a long walk this morning. He shouldn’t careen off the walls more than five, six…” Smite paused and looked at Ghost. The dog watched, his paws practically quivering in frustrated want. “Maybe seven thousand times,” he finished.

Ghost sat as still as an animal scarcely out of puppyhood could manage. The expression on his face was deeply earnest.

“Ghost. Do listen. In the event that I need a squirrel brought to justice, I will go to you first. Until then…” He adopted his harshest tone. “Behave in my absence, or you will pay the consequences when I return.”

“Your Worship.” Palter’s voice trailed off plaintively.

“Keep the dog in,” Smite advised. “I don’t need him following me.” The last thing he saw as he stepped outside was Palter ducking his head in acquiescence.

Turner pulled the door shut behind him, stepping out into a larger hall. His footsteps echoed on the wood floor. A few laborers were dawdling in the antechamber, but Miss Whitaker—or Miss Darling, as she’d called herself the first time he’d seen her—was not present in any of her incarnations. Damn Palter, for robbing him of those extra seconds. Still, it had not been so long. She couldn’t have gone far.

Smite headed out the main door.

The Council House stood just behind him. High Street was crowded, faces shielded from view by hats and umbrellas and cloaks drawn tight about figures. It was, after all, raining. Nothing but a determined drizzle, but still, it was enough that he tamped down a frisson of unease.

Stop coddling yourself, Turner. Sugar melts; you’ll survive.

Instead, he crossed the street to stand in front of All Saints Church, and concentrated on the crowds about him. He was looking for a young woman, and he couldn’t depend upon the color of her hair or the style of her gown. She’d been disguised in the courtroom; she could be again. He was looking for how, not what.

He found his how a few seconds later. She ducked out of an alley, now dressed in a shabby cloak more appropriate to a serving girl. She glanced from one end of the street to the other with that telltale wariness.

He couldn’t say what it was about her that made him know she was the one. Her hair, whatever color it actually was, was hidden beneath a massive straw bonnet. She started down the street, and then glanced over her shoulder, toward the building beside the Council House. Where Smite was supposed to have met her.

She didn’t see him standing across the street.

He began to walk toward her. He’d left his hat—Palter would rant about it when he returned—and the rain plastered his hair uncomfortably to his head.

But before he reached her, she started off, her strides now swift and purposeful. He was taller, but he made little headway. She darted through the crowds with a determined agility. He followed her down one crowded cobblestone street, past a market and then another church. Buildings loomed, dark gray stone streaked by the rain. Smite’s cuffs became damp, and he pulled the gloves Palter had shoved at him from his pocket.

She was making her way to the Floating Harbour. Just beyond the crowds, he could see the stone wall that bounded the water. Masts of ships stretched skyward. Gulls circled and called as he pushed through the waterfront crowds. He could hear timbers creaking in the wind, the shout of men, and the shrieking complaint of a winch—the all-too-familiar sounds of Bristol’s lifeblood, trade and transportation. In the distance, he could see the high topmasts of the S.S. Great Britain where she waited, silent and lifeless, in the docks. Her funnel, a dark, imposing chimney against the sky, was cold. No smoke issued from it; no boilers worked below. She was the largest steamship ever built, and she was imprisoned where she stood.

He felt an odd sort of sympathy with the ship. They’d neither of them been served well by water.

He shook his head, dispelling the sentiment. Her straw bonnet bobbed down the street some fifteen yards in front of him, and she darted across the Bristol Bridge.

She’d crossed to the other side by the time Smite reached the edge. He came

to a stop.

There was nothing odd about this slow-moving body of water—it was a bit of liquid, nothing more. He was perfectly safe. The solid stones of the bridge had withstood the traffic of heavy-laden carts for almost a century. Its span stretched twenty feet above the level of the water. On a clear, sunny day, he could cross with only the slightest twist to his stomach.

Today, though, the waters were gray-green from a week’s worth of hard rains. They seemed closer than usual, and, as they slapped against the stones of the channel, they spoke a language all of their own. In Smite’s ear, the sound whispered of dark cellars and the rising tide of a flood.

Nonsense. He snorted. It wasn’t even a river. Besides, the level of the Floating Harbour never rose—it was regulated by locks.

“Don’t be an ass,” he advised himself aloud.

And she—whoever she was—was disappearing down the street. If he didn’t follow now, he’d lose her. With a deep breath, Smite looked forward. He set his gaze on the street across the bridge, where a team and horses stood, men loading goods into the cart. So long as he didn’t think of the water at all, it couldn’t bother him.

Smite looked at the solid ground on the far side and stepped forward. He had more important things to concern himself with today.

THERE WEREN’T MANY PEOPLE who felt easier in the dark corners of the slums than in the wide streets of the city center. But Miranda had lived in Temple Parish for three years. She knew the backstreets, the people. She knew the alleyways she shouldn’t visit, and the ones where she’d be watched by unseen eyes and kept safe. Here, she was free from the harshness of sanctioned order, arbitrarily enforced by constables in blue tailcoats. She’d paid for her freedom; she might as well enjoy it.

Tags: Courtney Milan Turner Romance
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