Authors: Amy Corwin
A Lady in Hiding
A tragic case of arson sends Sarah into hiding to escape the terrible fate of her family. She works as a common laborer and manages to keep her secret safe for thirteen years until she receives an ominous note. The killer has caught up with her, and despite her disguise, she is once again in danger from a man determined to keep the past a secret.
William, an inquiry agent, is interested in the challenges presented by Sarah's case, and one look into her beautiful eyes has him hooked. He decides to help her, even though the evidence is scanty after so many long years.
But when an attempt is made on Sarah's life, there is a new trail, twisted though it may be, for William to follow. His growing attraction to the independent woman doesn't help him to remain disinterested, however, or to sift through the ashes of the old tragedy.
Love must find a way to bring the two together and outwit the cunning arsonist, or the last survivor of the long-ago fire will die.
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The sky glowed with morning as Sam passed St. Mary Magdalen’s, hurrying toward Crown Street. Studying the crowded road, she searched the faces for any fleeting sense of familiarity, unsure if she would even recognize Major Pickering. His note, now hidden under the rough fabric of her linen shirt, crinkled uncomfortably against her skin. The sharp edge of paper reminded her that she was late.
There are facts you must know about the fire in 1806. Meet me tomorrow morning at six at the corner of High Street and Crown.
I am your sincere friend, trust me, Major Pickering.
She didn’t need to see the heavy, dark scrawl to remember the words.
It was already well past the hour. She had overslept. In truth, she suspected she simply did not want to meet Major Pickering or hear what he had to say. The past was not something she cared to consider.
She passed St. Mary Magdalen’s and paused to catch her breath. The warm air from her mouth puffed out in small, gray-white clouds, crystallizing in the freezing air as she rubbed her burning thighs. After a final, raw breath, she headed toward the sharp corner at High Street.
Tension tightened her shoulders and stomach, and for once, she was glad to have missed her breakfast. She was uncomfortable enough without the heavy lead of one of Mrs. Pochard’s stale rolls burdening her digestion.
After all these years, why had Pickering contacted her? How had he found her?
Does he know who I am?
Nearby, a church clock chimed the half hour. Time—past time—to head toward work. With a sudden desire to be done with the matter, she started to run, elbowing past lackadaisical workmen who threatened to impede her progress. The brim of her hat whipped back in the chill, morning breeze. She clapped a hand to the crown, flouting the efforts of the wind to tear it away. Her heavy linen smock flapped around her thighs as she dodged through the busy streets, heart beating wildly.
The brim suddenly flattened over her eyes, obscuring her vision as she came around the last corner. She bumped into a fashionable young gentleman, apparently late for an appointment with his bed after a hard night’s drinking. A cloud of sour garlic and alcohol hung around him, clinging to his silken finery. The odor stung Sam’s eyes.
He thrust a sharp elbow into her chest and pushed her roughly out of his path. “Watch it, you damn fool.”
“Sorry, sir.” She nodded and stepped into the gutter to pass him.
The fool stumbled, however, and in a fit of rage, turned to hit her with his walking stick.
More by habit than anger, Sam swore at him and darted away. Then, because her cowardice irritated her already-taut nerves, she broadened her curse to include the indolent gentry in general and Major Pickering in particular.
This latest worry was his fault.
Her glance strayed along to the street. Ahead was the appointed corner. Most of the men crossing the intersection were common workmen like herself—no one of interest. She took a deep, calming breath and loped forward.
A half block away from the meeting point, she paused again, flattening the palm of her hand against the comforting, solid brick wall at the edge of the sidewalk. She cautiously considered the situation.
A ramrod-straight back caught her attention. A tall man wearing a dark green jacket stopped at the corner, turning to glance down the street. She studied him, suddenly sure he was the one she sought, Major Pickering.
He wore a black hat, precisely set on his narrow head, which hid the color of his hair. However, a neat, gray mustache curled over his upper lip, so he was not a young man. The skin over his cheeks and nose was a dark, patchy brown as if permanently burned by years in the sun. He turned impatiently, watching the ebb and flow of souls around him. Whenever someone staggered too closely, he vigorously wielded a black lacquered walking stick to push him away.
A man of action, then, she thought. A soldier.
The cool, misty dampness of April muffled the clatter and clang of the early morning London streets as she stood there. Teaming life bustled around her, awakening to the new day with intensity and hunger. But the hubbub receded into an inconsequential buzz as she hesitated, concentrating on the man less than a block away.
She could not fathom what Major Pickering could possibly know after all this time. It had been thirteen years since the fire. Years of confusion and anguish that never quite diminished. Time could not heal all wounds, despite common sentiment to the contrary.
Her last memory of her father remained as vivid and nightmarish as the night her life as a girl came to a tragic end. And sadly, she still remained uncertain about her life before that time. Broken memories and a vague uneasiness made her wonder if the man who saved her was, indeed, her father.
Yet, he had recognized her amidst the confusion. Although his voice, roughened by smoke, seemed frightening and unfamiliar as he urged her to escape. Ash and blood besmirched and hid his features. The fire, smoke, and a pounding ache in her head bewildered her, leaving her unsure of everything—even her own identity.
And in those last minutes, he had thrust a box into her hands and told her to run—run and hide while he went back to save the others.
Only no one else had survived the conflagration.
Now, as if aware of her scrutiny, Major Pickering caught her gaze across the street between them. His attention fixed on her. His body stiffened like a dog pointing at a likely grouse. Sam stepped closer to the brick building at the edge of the sidewalk seeking the safety of its towering shadow, her skin prickling.
She glanced around, trying to listen over the pounding of her heart. No one shouted. No one except the major showed any interest in her—other than sheer annoyance when she impeded the smooth flow of foot traffic.
Major Pickering raised his hand, his eyes intent on her face. She took a slow step forward.
Then without warning, he stumbled. His hand fell to his side. His gaze wavered. A look of confusion passed over his thin face. Glancing down, he pressed a hand to his side. And as he brought his palm up in front of his face, his legs buckled beneath him. He fell sharply to his knees, and with a shudder, he raised his head. His gaze once more met Sam’s as his mouth worked soundlessly.
A sense of urgency sent her running forward, hand outstretched. Alarmed by the pallor of his face, she tried to reach him to hear the words he uselessly mouthed. Then, although she couldn’t be sure with the jostling men between them, he shook his head slightly in warning. A spasm twisted his features.
Sam stopped and watched in agonized horror as he slowly crumpled, face down, onto the pavement.
A passerby dressed in black bent over him. His quick hands patted the major’s back and sides.
Several men trying to pass turned and exclaimed in surprise.
“What’s wrong?” one asked, his voice carrying above the crowd.
“No—murder!” another man yelled. “Fetch the constable! This man’s been stabbed!”
There was a scuffle as someone pulled back the man in black. More men stopped, glancing around, and Sam dove into the shelter of a nearby doorway. She leaned against the wall, heart thudding with a sense of her own vulnerability.
What if she had arrived on time and stood next to him as that blade severed his life? Would she have been the victim, instead?
He had died with his attention fixed on her, their gazes locked. They had been staring at each other across a street teeming with strangers and at least one murderer.
Had anyone looked in the direction of his gaze?
She took a deep, deliberate breath.
. No one noticed her. Why should they?
She was just another workman in a slouching, broad-brimmed hat and covered to the knees by a coarse linen tunic. She walked down this road every morning on her way to fetch the cart of bricks and her employer, Mr. Edward Hawkins, Master Bricklayer.
No one ever noticed a bricklayer’s helper.
One long, shaky breath followed another. She was alive and unremarkable—naught but a common laborer. She had to believe that.
Mashing her hat more firmly on her head, she straightened her shoulders and stepped out into the throng, her eyes on the ground. This time she turned at the corner and proceeded onward, quickly passing the growing circle of men surrounding Major Pickering. Her hands fisted with fear and frustration. If she had dared, she would have slipped into the throng and searched his pockets, herself.
The man in black might already have the contents of Pickering’s wallet.
Her chest tightened at the thought of what he might have carried with him. Was there a notebook or scrap of paper with her name and address on it? The thought made her stumble over a crack in the sidewalk. She caught herself, grabbing the corner of a nearby house in sudden fear.
He’d sent the note last night specifically to Mrs. Pochard’s boarding house. Further, the urchin who delivered it had asked for Mr. Samuel Sanderson. That could only mean one thing: Pickering had known her name and address. And he may have written it down.
The man in black could have that information from his hasty search of the Major’s pockets—if it had been a search. It could have been a simple opportunity to steal the unconscious man’s wallet. Or he could have been a doctor, on his way to Westminster Infirmary or Grey-coat Hospital. Just a man trying to assist a fellow human being.
As she walked, the first burning traces of panic cooled. Reason reasserted itself. If Pickering had something in his pockets, or if anyone noticed Sam, there was precious little she could do about it.
Fate would spin the events as it wished, as it always did.
For now, she had to get to work or lose her job. In the last thirteen years, she’d never been late. Samuel Sanderson was a hard worker, always punctual, always reliable, and never a bit of trouble.
And today would not be an exception.
Still uneasy, Sam managed to find her way to the stable and hitch the horse to the cart despite her shaking hands. She got the old nag moving, but she nearly passed by her employer as he stood fidgeting at the curb. By the time she finally reined in the horse, Mr. Hawkins’s ruddy face had grown even redder.
“Hey, there you are, my lad,” Mr. Hawkins said as he climbed with a grunt into the cart. “Almost given up on you.” He eyed Sam before slapping her thigh with a meaty hand. “Thought you held your wine with a fair head last night, but maybe I was mistaken, eh?”
Flicking the reins, Sam eased the cart out into the narrow road. Despite her attempts at concentration, she could not push aside the memory of Major Pickering’s anguished gaze as he crumpled to the pavement.
“No, sir,” she said at last. “Just late is all. Overslept.”
“Let’s hope you’ll not be making a habit of it come next Friday, eh? Can’t be late to your own wedding, son. The banns ’ave been read twice now. Just once more and you’ll be my son-in-law, all right and proper. Then Hawkins and Hawkins will again be true, just like in my father’s day.” He eyed her before his heavy features tightened into a frown. “You’ve not changed your mind, have you, about taking our name?”
“No, sir,” she replied glumly. “I haven’t changed my mind.” And at the moment, Mr. Hawkins misconceptions about the sex of his “assistant” were the least of Sam’s worries.
She might not live long enough to give Miss Hawkins the shock of her very short lifetime on their wedding night.
As they clattered along, Sam flexed and then straightened her shoulders. A sudden, itching sensation spread over her back. It felt as if someone stood along the road, staring at her. With cool deliberation, she slouched again, forcing herself to relax.
No one would follow a common workman.
Mr. Hawkins’s sharp little blackcurrant eyes flashed over Sam’s face. “You remember, lad. It was I as took you in when you was but a child and gave you work nigh on thirteen years past. ’Tain’t a love match, but you could do worse than my Kitty. And it’ll set you up with your own business. You could do worse—a lot worse.”
“Aye,” Sam agreed morosely.
She might have been on time this morning and gotten a knife in the back along with Major Pickering, too. That would have been worse, though not by much. And there was still time for that to happen if she wasn’t careful.
“We’ve drawn up the papers already. You’ve only to sign them. Then after the wedding, you’ll be Mr. Samuel Sanderson-Hawkins. I likes the sound o’ that. I’ve sore missed having a son, but you’ll do right nice. You’ll do, though you ’tain’t much to look at. Bit narrow in the shoulder. Howsom’ever, you’re sturdy enough and a hard worker.”
“Yes, sir.” She clicked her tongue to get the heavy dray horse clopping along at a marginally faster rate. Why can’t you move faster, she thought, trying to ignore the nagging itch between her shoulder blades.
Just what was she going to do?
Her carefully crafted life was somehow spinning out of her control. She should have avoided agreeing to Mr. Hawkins plans and tried to push Kitty into running off with someone more suitable, but she had not. And now Mr. Hawkins was determined to move forward with his appalling plans, and Sam was just another rabbit caught in a snare.