Read A Lady in Hiding Online

Authors: Amy Corwin

A Lady in Hiding (10 page)

She nodded. “I went back to the kitchen. I didn’t know where else to go. I thought the cook—or someone….” Her voice trailed off as her fingers blindly picked at her bandage. “All I could hear was screaming and crashing, as if the walls were falling in on me. I ran to the door, but I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t breathe.” She coughed reflexively, remembering the taste of ashes and the way it lingered in her mouth and throat for days. No amount of water seemed enough to wash it away.

“Sarah!” he interrupted her thoughts. “How did you get out?”

“I didn’t—I mean—I thought I was trapped in the kitchen, but my father came. He was shouting—his face black and covered with blood. He thrust a box into my hands and made me go to the door. We couldn’t get out, so he took the cook’s best cast iron pot and smashed a window. The wind
! I didn’t want to go—I didn’t want to leave him. I told him to go with me, but he wanted to go back. He wanted to find Samuel, so he pushed me through the window and yelled at me. He told me to run as fast as I could and hide.” She pulled at the linen bandages, trying to rip them off. She felt like they were tightening around her head, killing her. “I ran for weeks.”

She let a small, breathy laugh escape. Finally, her fingers found the knot and she unwound the bandage from her head.

Cool air threaded through her damp hair. She gingerly touched the painful lump, her fingertips finding the knots of the stitches amongst the hair. The wound felt fresh and vulnerable.

“Why did you take your bandage off?” he asked, getting up with a sigh.

“It itched.”

He took the cloth from her hand and gently moved a lock of her hair to examine her head. She was very conscious of the heat radiating off his chest and his scent as his jacket flopped open while he bent over her. He smelled of warmth and something that made her want to clutch at him. She looked the other way, staring out the windows, trying not to notice his nearness. Wishing he would notice

“It looks clean,” he replied, sounding gruff. Instead of going back around to the other side of the desk, he sat down on the edge near Sarah. He idly swung his booted foot. “So you managed to escape.”

She nodded, choking and surprised by tears.

After thirteen years, she thought the grief was over. Finished and buried like her previous life.

“I ran through the fields until I couldn’t run anymore. Then I stopped. I was in a nightgown with what was left of a lace collar and cuffs. Useless. So I found a pair of trousers and shirt on a clothesline and left my gown in exchange. Then I remembered he’d told me to hide. I was already wearing some farm boy’s clothes so what difference did it make if I was a girl of eleven? I cut my hair and became a boy. Then I stole a newspaper.

“No one survived.” She shrugged and met his blue eyes, wondering why it felt like she was falling through the sky. His gaze was so warm. She gripped her knees. “I kept walking. I knew I couldn’t stop. It took weeks, but I found my way to Clapham. And I slept in a barn. Found out later it belonged to Mr. Hawkins. His wife gave me an apple.” She grinned, trying to compose herself. “Like any stray dog, once they feed you, you stay. I ran errands for Hawkins, at first. For food. That was thirteen years ago. The rest you know.

“And I have to go to work,” she said finally, not wanting to get out of the chair. The padding was so comfortable to her aching body. While she sat, not moving, the throbbing pain behind her eyes seemed to ease.

“You didn’t read any other newspapers? Later?”

“No. Why should I? I knew they were all dead. There was nothing I could do. It was difficult enough just trying to get something to eat.”

“Then you didn’t see the later articles with the speculation that the fire had been deliberately set? Or that the doors had been sealed from the outside?”

“No, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. I knew something was wrong when I saw my father’s face—when he thrust that box into my hands and told me to run—hide.”

He nodded, his foot swinging faster. His blue eyes glowed. “The newspapers stopped printing articles about the fire after that speculation. I find that interesting. And there is your Major Pickering.” He dug into his pocket and threw a small object into Sarah’s lap.

She picked it up. It just looked like a mangled piece of lead. “What is this?”

“Someone tried to shoot you yesterday,” he said before adding in a dry tone, “In addition to the idiot who tried to kill you by throwing a jug of water at your head.”


Chapter Eight

“Well, they didn’t succeed, did they? So I’d best get to work,” Sarah said, bracing her hands on the arms of her chair, ready to rise and face the day ahead of her. Sitting there, listening to Mr. Trenchard unsettled her. She didn’t want to think about events that had happened thirteen years ago. And she didn't want to think about
. She couldn't think about any men—not any longer. It was impossible.

“You can’t go back to work.”

“Why not?” she asked, getting out of the chair and gesturing toward the locked door.

“Because one of the people who tried to kill you yesterday lives in that townhouse. I doubt they’re going to clap you on the shoulder and treat you as a long lost friend. I believe they recognized you when you initiated work on that wall. That’s what started this mess.”

After due consideration, she finally shook her head. “No. I’ve been watched for longer than that. I’ve been in London over two months now, doing brickwork. Anyone could have seen me. Anywhere.”

“Sit down.”


“We’re not done. I want to tell you something you’re not going to like.”

She grinned. “I’m not going to like it any better sitting down.”

“Just sit. It won’t take much longer.” He waited until she resumed her seat before he spoke again, his foot swinging ever more rapidly. “That townhouse—the one where you woke up—it belongs to an acquaintance of yours. I think they may have either known about the Longmoor fire in advance, or helped plan it.”

Sarah raised her brows. “I don’t require a lot of soft, coddling words and long explanations. Who do you mean?”

“Mr. and Mrs. John Archer.”

“Ar-Archer?” Her heart fluttered.

“Yes. They didn’t die in the fire. If you’d read the papers that came out a week later, you would have seen the correction printed. Apparently, they were at a neighbor’s house when it occurred.”

“At a
?” Feeling dizzy, her queasy stomach turned over and tightened. She pressed icy fingertips against her eyelids, trying to relieve the pounding thunder in her head.

The Archers were
? How could that be? After thirteen years? How could she have not

“I don’t understand…” she said at last.

“I’m sorry, but it’s too convenient that they, alone, survived.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” she repeated, feeling lost. Her head ached, and her heart thudded uncomfortably in her chest. She couldn’t think straight. Couldn’t think at all—just like after the fire.

“They weren’t at Elderwood during the fire,” he continued without mercy. “They must have known about it in advance. Then, when you showed up to build their garden wall, they must have recognized you. Or discovered your name, somehow.”

“No,” she shook her head and winced. “You're wrong.”

“John Archer is the one who threw the jug of water at you.”

“Mr. Archer threw a jug at me?”

“Yes. So you see, you can’t go back. Not today, at any rate.”

All she could think about was the box her father had thrust into her hands.

When she was very young, she had opened it, trying to understand what looked like simple statements of accounts, or bills. She hadn’t looked through them again, not for years. There was no point when she didn’t understand their significance.

Now, she just kept her locket and savings locked inside the box. A mere handful of sovereigns and bank notes.

“I have to go to Mrs. Pochard’s. I owe rent. It’s late.” She got up and went to the door, waiting for him to open it. She had to get her box—hold it in her hands and look at the locket again. Reassure herself that her memories were not false.

She couldn’t believe the Archers were involved in the fire. But somehow, the terror of that night was returning as she sat in this beautiful room with painted angels on the ceiling and a man who was inhumanely handsome staring at her.

How was she going to find a way to survive it all once more?

“Sarah,” William said, a dark, dangerous look in his eyes. “I need to know one more thing.”

“I’ve told you everything—”

He nodded. “Consider your answer carefully. How much of what you told me, do you actually

She stood, her body shaking with hot, volatile anger. “I told you what I
. Those are the facts, sir!”

He studied her and then lightly brushed the scar on her forehead with one lean finger. It left a lingering trail of warmth. She jerked back, knowing she could not have what she so craved.

Love was for someone else—a delicate woman robed in lace and silk. Not her with her work-roughened hands and sunburned face.

“So you know you went to the kitchen for cake and milk?”

No, I don’t.

Suddenly wary, she edged away another step. “I—I was barefoot, in my nightgown. I was on a narrow staircase—all the doors were open— everything was burning. I—I stepped on a piece of cake.” A giggle, edged with hysteria, escaped before she clapped a cold hand over her mouth. She could still feel that soft, sticky cake between her toes. Her eyes burned from the blood on her face and the smoke. “The fire blew open a door. I almost fell over a jug of milk.” She gazed at him, hardly seeing him. “I
to have been carrying them—I dropped them when I was hit on the head. What else could I have been doing?”

To her surprise, he pulled her into his arms and pressed her face against his chest. She resisted, trying to push him away, but he just held her, his arms stronger than she imagined. And within his embrace, she smelled the fresh, spicy scents of bay and lavender instead of the choking smoke that haunted her nightmares.

One strong hand stroked her hair until her trembling subsided. When she was able to breathe without shaking, he let her go. He studied her, his eyes filled with compassion.

“So you don’t really remember what happened before the fire, do you?”


“I’m sorry, Sarah. This is painful, I know, but if I’m going to help you, I need the truth. I have to know what you truly remember and what you simply surmised from your circumstances.”

“I don’t remember anything before the fire— before I was on those stairs.” She stopped before revealing her irrational thought that her life had begun on those stairs.

I was born in an inferno of Hell. I am from Hell, itself.

She couldn’t remember anything before she woke up, with her bare feet covered with cake and milk, and her head burning from ashes and blood.

“Fair enough.” He gripped her clenched hands and gave them a warm squeeze. “I wouldn’t have pressed you if it hadn’t been important. Now, what about this box you mentioned? Do you still have it? What happened to it?”

“I’ve got it, in my room.”

“What was inside?”

She shrugged. “A few papers. Looked like accounts to me. And a few birth records torn from some book. For Samuel and Sarah Sanderson.”

He seemed to consider this before focusing on her again. His eyes glowed a deep, intense blue. “I think I should see what’s in this box. If your father gave it to you, it must have been important.”

“That’s why I’ve been trying to get to Mrs. Pochard’s this past half hour. You’re welcomed to the contents of the box. It’s got your pay in it, as well. If you’ve no objections, I’ll bring it to you on my way to work.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No!” She shut her mouth with a click, striving not to yell. “No, I’ll fetch it and bring it here.”

She needed a few minutes alone, time to think. The world wobbled around her, unbalanced by facts she could not assemble into a proper pattern.

“I’m going with you,” he repeated, standing.

“No,” she replied. “I swear I’ll return with the box.”

“That’s not why I wish to accompany you—”

“What business have I in the company of a gentleman? The less we’re seen together, the better, to my mind. Have you considered it was
presence yesterday that started this wall a-crumbling? I took enough chances coming here when I did. And I don’t mind saying I bitterly regret it. Just as I’m sorry I paid heed to Major Pickering’s note. I should have burned the damned thing and gone on my way. This does no good—none of it.” She slid closer to the door and rattled the ornate fish-shaped handle.

“Too late for regrets, now,” he replied in what she considered to be an offensively cheerful manner. He scratched his shadowed chin. “However, I
like to change clothing and maybe sleep for a few hours. Since your head appears harder than any of us imagined, and you’re so eager to return to your bricklaying, I will allow you to leave—for now. I presume that’s acceptable?” He unlocked the door, but stood in the way while he stretched out a hand. “The bullet, if you please. And give your box to Sotheby. He’ll see I get it.”

She dug the bit of lead out of her pocket and dropped it into his hand. “At least I don’t spend my days draped over a chair, studying naked females painted on the ceiling.”

“Indeed. I find it enormously comforting that your Herculean labors can support my indolent ways. Whatever would I do if I actually had to
to pay for my miserable bread,-marmalade, and the naked ladies on the ceiling?”

His blue eyes sparkled in such a deplorable way that Sarah had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. Her insides fluttered. Suddenly, she felt shy and tongue-tied. She looked down at her heavy boots and sighed.

I'm a regular lack-wit when he catches me in that blue gaze of his.

And yet, despite her awareness of him, a trickle of annoyance arose within her breast. She felt indebted to him for taking care of her when she was struck unconscious. However, he had also taken foul advantage of the situation to discover things about her person that ought to have remained private.

As a result, when she passed him into the hallway, she couldn’t resist flinging one final, needling remark at him. “’Tis fine, then, that you’ve got such paintings. It’s doubtful you’ll ever have the energy, or opportunity, to view such fine ladies as those in the flesh.” She paused and glanced over her shoulder as Sotheby opened the door. “Seeing as how you’re only a younger son. And next to unemployed.”

Trenchard’s blue eyes flashed silver at her remark. However, he managed a cynical smile before Sotheby smartly slammed the door shut in her face.

The sun was well over the roofs of the townhouses when she stepped down the stairs, wincing as the light hit her eyes. She’d been a fool to start this inquiry. It was likely to result in her lying in a pauper’s grave if she wasn’t more careful. And Mr. Trenchard’s careless attitude upset her. She was paying him every shilling she had saved, and to the best of her knowledge, all he had done was stroll down to the newspaper offices on Strand and read a few articles.

Nothing she could not have done herself.

The news he gave her was not welcome, either. What was she to do with the information that the Archers were alive after all this time? Vague memories stirred, painful feelings she had tried to forget. She could not go to them. Not after thirteen years of living as a man.

She was ruined as a female. No way back along that road.

Her heart quivered at the thought. She couldn’t help a quick glance over her shoulder at Second Sons' imposing façade.

Well, even if she had known in 1806 that the Archers survived, she would have hesitated about going to them. She remembered only too vividly the desperate order to run and hide. If she had gone to the Archers, it would have placed them in jeopardy. Just as she was in danger, now, thanks to Major Pickering and her own ill-conceived notion to hire an inquiry agent.

Why hadn’t she left well enough alone? Her life, though hard, was uneventful. Except, of course, for Mr. Hawkins’s recent notion to have Samuel Sanderson marry his daughter. And he was so insistent upon opening new offices in London under the management of his extended family. He wanted to return to his original business in Clapham and leave his son-in-law in charge of the London office.

How she wished she could refuse and return to Clapham.

Sarah was a skilled craftsman because she loved the uneventful, methodical work. It suited her to spend the day placing one brick upon another, neatly aligned to form regular patterns. English, Flemish bond, or Rat trap—she knew all of them—although she didn't care for Rat trap. It wasn’t as strong as the others, it used fewer bricks, but it was all the poor could afford. Backbreaking work sometimes, work that frequently left her too exhausted to eat. But she savored that, too. During the first few years, it was only her exhaustion that let her rest at all when the nightmares burned through her sleep, filling her mind with smoke and screams.

Why had it all jumped up again? Why had Hawkins, in a sudden surge of expansionism, begun to accept jobs in distant London?

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride
. There was no point in worrying. What was done was done.

She could only hope Mr. Trenchard would bestir himself to discover who had been responsible for the fire at Elderwood. Then she could put an end to this, once and for all.

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