“Oh,” she said. “Obviously.” She glanced at him and he realized that beneath her airy demeanor, she was on edge. “Why is it obvious again? Because, actually, if you recall the initial circumstances of our encountering one another—”
He sat down next to her. “Are you telling me that you performed tasks for this…this Patron that were illegal?”
“Oh, no. I never stole anything. Or hurt anyone. There might have been a time or two when I distracted a constable while someone else did something, but I personally never did anything wrong.” Her tone seemed easy, but she watched him carefully.
He winced. “I don’t think I wanted to know that. I suppose now is not the time to acquaint you with the complicated doctrine of vicarious criminal liability?”
She frowned. “No. No, it is not.” She twirled her hair around her finger. “I assumed I would be better off telling you about this, rather than waiting for the entire thing to blow up in my face. You did ask for honesty, after all. It seemed to be a matter of basic common sense. When one is threatened by a shadowy criminal figure, one goes to the magistrate that shares one’s bed rather than the shadowy criminal figure.”
By her voice, he might have thought her without a care in the world. By her hands… It suddenly all made sense. The investment. The nervousness.
She thought he was done with her. He should have been. A few weeks ago, he’d have been coldly annoyed at her declaration. But…but, God, he felt sick at heart just thinking of walking away from her. This wasn’t a hearing room, and she wasn’t accused of any crime.
She’d flat out admitted that she’d been involved in one. There was no excuse for what she’d done.
He sat down next to her. “Tell me, Miranda. Why did you go to the Patron in the first place?”
“You don’t want to hear my excuses,” she said. “I’m sure it was all the usual reasons. I was scared. I needed money.” She didn’t meet his eyes. “I had no choice.”
“You had a choice,” he said. “But maybe I want to know how you came to make it.”
She looked away. “I was seventeen when I first went to the Patron. I’d been in Bristol for a few months. And…and if you want to understand this, you need to know something about me.”
“I’m listening.” He pulled a seat from the wall and sat next to her.
She swallowed. “I enjoy a little bit of danger. I suppose I got the taste for it from my father. My parents always lived one step from ruin. Even when we were at our best, we had little money. If my father had a windfall, he tossed it away. If he found an extra sixpence, he bought me ice cream. If he got an extra ten pounds, we’d travel to London and see the circus. If he received fifty, there would be silks and cashmere as gifts, and extravagant lodgings. My father used to say that money was meant to be spent, not kept.”
“That sounds a precarious way to live.”
She shrugged again. “Perhaps. But when you’re a child and it’s all you’ve known, it doesn’t seem unusual. My mother always laughed at the worst of it. We would play this one game when I was younger. She called it ‘How Many Landlords,’ and we’d have to guess how many people my father would have to visit until he could talk someone into giving us a place to stay.” Miranda sighed. “Sometimes I think my father would talk to people he had no hope of convincing, just so I could win.
“In any event, you know how I came to Bristol. I was young and naive and friendless. I know I say that I was raised by actors, but they knew so much of the world that they managed to shelter me from the worst of it. And they did all that while leading me to believe that I was wise and prepared. My first months here were my initiation into a world I’d only heard whispered about.”
“Poverty?” Smite asked.
“No. Men. For the first time, men didn’t see me as my father’s child. They treated me like an adult. And they very much wanted to be treated as adults, too. There were some good ones—solid fellows who had steady work and decent prospects. I suppose if I had been a clever girl I would have married one of them.”
She glanced up at him. He should have felt the faint stirrings of jealousy, but something in her posture made him hold back.
“Naturally, I didn’t. The man I chose was utterly beautiful. He was dark and swarthy and muscular, and quite a bit older than I was. I was doing piecework at the time for a seamstress. He was the man all the girls whispered about. He was wicked, everyone said. No decent girl would want anything to do with him.” She gave a tight little smile. “Naturally, I wanted him. It was rumored that he’d committed dark deeds—that he’d nearly beaten another man to death. I was convinced that I would be the woman who would change him. I would heal the horrible darkness inside him, and reform him completely.”
“I take it that didn’t happen.”
“At first, it seemed to. He wanted me. For a few weeks, he was utterly sweet. We kissed. We did a great deal more than kiss, actually, all leading up to that one thing—the one thing he most wanted. I knew that all I had to do was give it to him, and he would be mine. Love would transform him forever.”
Her voice had taken on a mocking tone.
“We came very, very close one evening. I pulled away. I wish I could say that it was some degree of common sense finally coming to life in me, but it wasn’t. I just wanted him to pursue me more.” She pressed her lips together. “Instead, he backhanded me and told me that he’d had enough of my teasing. I was his and he was going to roger me as he pleased, and nobody would stop him. He only left then because Robbie walked in.”
She was still smiling, but there was a bit more tension in her face.
“Of course, I told him I never wanted to see him again. But after that, he was everywhere. He waited outside the seamstress where I worked all day. He would walk beneath my window, whistling, at two in the morning. He’d try to break down the door to my room; I’d lie in bed, praying that the trunks I’d piled in front would keep him out. Robbie didn’t understand what was happening, and I couldn’t bear to explain. That’s when I realized that dangerous is not always thrilling. Sometimes, it is just frightening. One day, one day soon, I was going to make a mistake and he was going to have me.”
She looked up at him. “So there you have it. That’s my excuse. I needed someone bigger and stronger. I crept out to visit the Patron’s men in the wee hours before dawn. I demonstrated my facility with accents and costumery, and explained how I could be of use. By afternoon, the news was everywhere: Marcus had been badly beaten in a public house. When he’d staggered outside, all doors had been closed to him, and his old friends had turned their backs. He was knocked over the head and stripped of his purse and his shoes. When he awoke and limped back to his quarters, those had been stripped bare of everything, too. Everything except a railway ticket to London and a man who issued him a warning. He left town that very day.”
Smite let out a long breath. There was a sort of rough justice to her tale. It painted both Miranda and the Patron in a more sympathetic light than he’d imagined. What she’d done was wrong; the law would have labeled it conspiracy to commit assault. But there was nothing simple about her story. What else was she to have done? Complained to the constables about a man whistling beneath her window? He knew the help she’d have received: they’d have said she deserved whatever befell her, and sent her on her way.
“There,” she said. “I arranged for a man to be beaten and robbed. I didn’t hold the stick, but I asked for it. Now are you going to lecture me on the complicated rules of vicarious criminal liability?”
He took a deep breath. “No,” he said.
She gave him a swift, bloodthirsty smile. “Good. Working for the Patron… It wasn’t right, I’m sure. But he was the only one who kept order in Temple Parish. He cared about justice, about what was right. Women could go to him, and receive help they’d not find anywhere else. I know it wasn’t right.” She made a faint noise. “But it wasn’t always wrong, either.”
know how to think of something that was neither right nor wrong. “Well,” he heard himself say stupidly. “I suppose that explains why you were still a virgin.”
“Yes,” she said simply. “It made me rather careful of men afterward. You see, I never lost my taste for dangerous men. I just realized that I needed to look for a man who wasn’t dangerous to me.”
So. She was biding her time. Still looking. He didn’t care. He had only so long with her, and he knew this wasn’t permanent.
“And that’s how I found myself here,” she said softly. “With the most coldly intimidating man I have ever met. He’s so good, that for a woman like me, he might as well be forbidden.” Miranda smiled up at him, almost sad. “I have always had a taste for the forbidden.”
“Do you, now.” His heart was pounding.
“When I got this—” she held up a scrap of paper “—I nearly ran to Temple Church. I wanted to do it all by myself, to prove that I could handle it on my own.” She handed him the note. “I can’t.”
It wasn’t just a piece of paper she gave him, or even a story. It was a piece of herself, complicated and confusing. She’d trusted him to listen. In return, he trusted that no matter what had transpired in her past, she would turn to him first. If someone had told him he’d find this kind of mutual reliance with a woman who’d associated with criminals, he’d have scoffed.
He glanced over the paper and then folded it and set it back on her desk. “Well. There’s no need to worry. Right, wrong, whatever he is—the Patron cannot threaten you with me.” He leaned close to her. “You’ve forgiven enough of my faults. I can overlook this little thing.” He paused. “I’m not even sure if you’ve described a fault or a strength. You survived. I cannot quarrel with that.”
She let out her breath and looked up to him, not quite believing what he was saying. He wasn’t sure what he was saying, either, but he felt as if he were slipping into some dangerous world—one where answers ceased to be easy.
He had only a couple of weeks left with her. He brushed a piece of hair from her mouth. “Come with me to the opera.” It was the stupidest whim, especially after the debacle they’d made of the theater.
“The opera,” he repeated. “Don’t let this bother you.” He set the paper back on the desk. “Come with me to the opera tomorrow, and show the Patron that you won’t be moved.”