Read A Lady in Hiding Online

Authors: Amy Corwin

A Lady in Hiding (2 page)

Perhaps Kitty Hawkins wouldn’t take her vows too seriously. And Sam could escape the wedding bed and encourage Kitty to take an interest in adulterous affairs. At least then, Mr. Hawkins might get the grandchildren he wanted, and Sam could remain hidden in the guise of a bricklayer.

The question was: could she deceive a wife? Forever?

Well, if anyone could be fooled, Miss Kitty Hawkins was that one. So, there might still be a way for Sam to make do and stay alive. No reason to panic just yet.

Plenty of men were shorter than Sam’s five foot seven inches. Many were just as thin or thinner. No wonder, when hard work and too little food were the best a man could expect. Rickets, scurvy, and starvation bent backs and legs until some men could scarcely stand.

She could regain her peace.

Besides, she had been luckier than most. She had gainful employment that put plain food on the table and gave her a dry, private place to sleep at night. A workman’s smock covered her from shoulder to knee, and long trousers from knee to ankle, so there was little difference between her and the other men. Her hands were calloused and rough from work. And her cuffs covered her thin wrists.

A sudden slap on the back startled her. Mr. Hawkins laughed, clearly pleased with his future plans. He rubbed his heavy thighs with glee.

Grunting, she tossed him a grin. Sam felt a bruise forming, but at least it relieved the incessant itching. As the street grew more crowded, she concentrated on maneuvering the heavy cartload of bricks into the alleyway near their current work site in a quiet, but elegant neighborhood.

Her employer whistled off-key, leaning back in the narrow seat. His small, black eyes roved over the expensive townhouses towering over them. Their windows glittered like diamonds in the early morning sun, set into frames of freshly painted, glossy white wood and rich black shutters.

Mr. Hawkins smiled at the sight of all the tasteful, luxurious homes filled with wealthy gentlemen just aching for bricklayers to build them a new brick wall. “Next week, after the wedding, we’ll set you up here in London so I can go back to Clapham. A new business for my son-in-law, eh? Fancy brickwork, and you’re just the lad for it. Our employer’s the uncle of a duke, so look sharp. There’s no telling how far we’ll go.” He rubbed his hands on his smock before yelling at the other workmen slouching along the sidewalk, awaiting their arrival. “Unload it, lads! And no slubbering, you lazy sots!”

Setting-to with the rest of them, Sam unloaded the bricks into wheelbarrows and hods, keeping her eyes on her business. Nonetheless, despite her concentration, she couldn’t shake her anxiety. The occasional passersby sporadically paused at the entrance to the alley to gawk at the workmen. Their curious gazes felt hot against her back.

Sam tried to ignore the idlers, but suddenly, her short hair tickled the back of her neck. She stopped. She glanced over her shoulder, searching for a pair of watchful eyes. A quick movement caught her attention, but it disappeared around the corner before she could be sure of anything.

The mouth to the alley appeared empty. All the workmen were occupied unloading the cart and getting ready for the day’s labors. Mr. Hawkins had pitched in with the rest, unloading ten bricks at a time with his massive hands.

The sensation of being studied faded as Sam slipped through the alley to the back of the house. She carefully stacked her load near the decorative wall they were building. Then, she looked around, relieved that the townhouse blocked the view from the street.

Had the man who murdered Major Pickering followed her?


Perhaps she just didn’t like the city and it’s busy, crowded streets overmuch. Her uneasy feeling had started when they had arrived in London a little over a week ago, but it was hard to resist Mr. Hawkins’s joy over winning the bid. He had finally gotten an opportunity to gain a toehold in the great city, and all his men would profit from it.

However, Sam wasn’t interested in cities—great or otherwise. It wasn’t an opportunity from her perspective. The job was just another wall with an arched doorway leading into an herb garden. And now, London also presented the danger of a dead man who might have had her name in his pocket.

Not to mention Mr. Hawkins’s sudden and appalling scheme to marry his only daughter off to Samuel Sanderson, the lad who was going to handle their London office after the wedding. It was all a miserable tangle.

Glancing down at her empty hod, Sam shook the brick dust off her hat before going back through the alley for another load of bricks. Her chest thumped wildly as she got within sight of the bustling street. The hair along her arms rose under the long sleeves of her smock, feeling like spiders running over her skin. With conspicuous nonchalance, she turned her back to the road and filled the wheelbarrow with the last of the bricks. The sense of someone observing her gave her no peace.

Wheeling the last load toward the half-built wall, she took a deep breath and filled her mind with the comforting, solid geometry of bricklaying. The brick townhouse behind her glowed with deep rich red in the midmorning sun. Some previous bricklayer had spent extra time and effort to lay in a subtle design in the brickwork around the windows. The wall’s arch should match if they followed her plans, elegantly repeating the unknown bricklayer’s design.

Then, if they did well, Hawkins and Hawkins would expand to include a new London establishment. And she would be in charge, as Mr. Samuel Sanderson-Hawkins, the son-in-law to Mr. Edward Hawkins of Clapham. Pride swelled in her chest.

However, despite the soothing repetition of her work, she couldn’t ease her growing tension. Over lunch, she made yet another half-hearted attempt to dissuade Mr. Hawkins from his ridiculous idea to make her his heir and business associate.

He laughed, slapped her on the back, and commended her humility. None of the other men had been with him as long or worked as hard. None of the others could read or do sums. So Hawkins made it clear that Sam could either marry Kitty, his sole living child, or search for other employment.

And employment was not easy to find. Sam didn’t want to risk losing the only job she knew. Bricklaying was hard, methodical work but after her hands callused up, she’d grown to like the permanence of it. What she created would live on, well past her lifetime. One day, she would be the unknown bricklayer whose work was admired, or even imitated, by a fellow craftsman.

On a good day, when she stood back to contemplate her efforts, her heart nearly choked her as she examined the high, solid walls soaring toward the sky. The heavy bricks and mortar stood as an enduring testament to her existence. Her legacy.

So she’d done well by Mr. Hawkins, and he knew it. Her brickwork formed more intricate designs than Hawkins and Hawkins traditionally tackled, and because of this, business had grown from Clapham to London. His reputation was built upon her back, her ingenuity, and talent. And she took immense pride in that accomplishment.

Finally, as the sun drifted behind the steep roof of the townhouse, Mr. Hawkins slapped her shoulder. Sam stood up in surprise. A sudden wave of exhaustion rolled over her as she rotated her sore shoulders. It was after seven already.

The men were idling along the wall and waiting for dismissal so they could visit the tavern before heading home. Mr. Hawkins stood back and grinned as Sam laid the last brick for the day.

With a satisfied chuckle, Hawkins released the men.

Gritty dust covered Sam’s face. She rubbed the sweat from her eyes using the crook of her arm, which only served to deposit more reddish dirt over her cheeks than she swept away. However, the brick dust hid the fact that she alone of all the workers had no day’s growth of beard shadowing her jaw. Wiping her arm up over her brow, she smeared a bit more on her face as Mr. Hawkins strode along the wall to examine the work.

“Good job, lad. Another week like this, and we’ll be on to the next.”

“Yes, sir,” Sam agreed. She stacked the remaining bricks in the rectangular hod next to the wall and covered them with a canvas tarp before picking up her tools.

“To the tavern, then?” Hawkins asked in a voice rich with anticipation.

“Sorry, sir, not tonight,” she said. “I’ve got some personal matters to attend to.” After an uneasy day, she had decided she could not ignore the past any longer.

She had to find out what Major Pickering died trying to tell her. If she was truly under observation, then like as not, it was related to his murder—and her past.

And whoever was watching her might intend to kill her, too.

“Personal?” Hawkins eyed her with a frown. His face had the look of a round piece of partially-baked dough with plump cheeks, a soft, bulbous nose, and small blackcurrant eyes. Still, he had a friendly expression despite the beetling brows wrinkling at her. “What business could you have that I wouldn’t know about, eh, after thirteen years?”

She glanced at him and then stared down at her dusty shoes. Unconsciously, she scratched the codpiece she wore under her trousers to hide her sex. Then, realizing what she was doing, she felt a flush seep through the dust on her cheeks. “I’ve got something I’ve got to do, sir.”

Noting her actions, he laughed and clapped her on the back. “A visit to the apothecary, eh? I told you to leave old Peggy alone last night. Though I guess there’s nothing to stop a lusty young man from sowing his wild oats while he may. Crabs, is it?” Instead of anger, Mr. Hawkins appeared proud of Sam for allegedly doing what so many young men desired to do. Perhaps he thought it boded well for his chances of getting grandchildren.

Sam mumbled something under her breath and scratched again. Old Peggy was an understanding woman who liked nothing better than to sit on her rickety bed and talk to Sam for a few shillings. Indeed, according to Peggy, she had many customers who preferred to spend a few minutes gossiping instead of other more strenuous activities.

And although spending time in private with Peggy lead to many ribald jokes from the other bricklayers, there was no one who doubted Sam was exactly who and what she said she was after a half hour or so spent in a “confidential chat” with the woman.

So, if a case of the crabs could get Sam a little privacy tonight, then she was willing to have them.

“I’d best be getting along, sir.”

“The apothecary were closed, son. Hours ago,” Mr. Hawkins said, walking with her to the cart.

Sam unhitched the tan-and-white draft horse and led it over to Hawkins. He brought up the traces of the cart and held them while Sam strapped the horse into place in their familiar routine. The horse nuzzled her shoulder. Sam rubbed the warm velvet of its ears before fastening and readjusting the harness straps.

“I’ve one near my lodgings. I can catch him right enough and get what I need.”

“Sulfur and ashes, that’s what you want,” Hawkins said, climbing into the seat. “Rub it in every morning and night. You’ll be right again soon enough. Climb in, my lad.” He smiled before adding, “That is, son.”

Scrambling up, Sam took the reins and clicked her tongue, trying to ignore Mr. Hawkins. She didn’t want to think about Kitty tonight—or any other night. The horse clopped forward, head down, looking as tired and glum as Sam felt. The empty cart lurched and bumped as they moved down the cobbled road, renewing the ache in Sam’s bruised back.

As she drove, Hawkins warmed the cool evening air by talking about his plans for their new offices in London. He grew so entranced by the prospect that he fairly ignored Sam unless she failed to grunt during his brief pauses. When they got to High Street, she gave the reins over to him and scrambled down.

“I’ll get out here, sir. Good night!” With a wave, Sam slipped away, quickly cutting between the buildings and heading for her street, determined to put an end to the prickling sensation between her shoulder blades.

Across from the dilapidated boarding house where Sam rented a room, there was another townhouse with a small, brass sign. Second Sons, Discreet Inquires. Sam passed that building every day, morning and night, barely glancing at it.

The townhouse itself was unremarkable, built out of plain red brick with neat white window frames and black shutters. A narrow walkway abutted a black, wrought-iron fence embedded in a three-foot tall wall to keep the passersby at bay. The black door seemed almost invisible in the shadows of the entryway, but a brass knocker and door handle glittered in the dimness.

If Sam stopped to consider it overmuch, she would have passed the building by and returned home for supper, served at nine sharp. Her fellow lodgers were all working men who left at sun-up and returned at dark. With the spring days lengthening, supper moved along with the sunset to a later hour.

Sam’s stomach growled, but she ignored it. She stared at the building, torn between her need to know why Pickering was murdered and her cowardly desire to ignore the entire matter.

But she would lose her job if she missed work investigating on her own, and she had to know—the knowledge might mean her life. So, she had to have help, even if it meant spending a few of her carefully hoarded coins.

Indecision made her step back from the narrow walkway between the black iron railings.

What if she foolishly spent her pay and learned nothing?

She had little enough to live on as it was. Her hand gripped the cold iron as she tried to weigh her decision. She could hold back the rent a few times— let Mrs. Pochard complain—and make it up to her later.

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