Hello. Quite possibly the single most innocuous word in the whole of the English language. It was difficult to take exception to the word hello under nearly any circumstance. Unless, of course, it happened to be uttered in the wrong place, at the wrong time, by the wrong man—in which case that one simple word spelled disaster.
Esther Walker-Bales stood amid the bustling crowd of Paddington station. For several long seconds she did nothing but stare through the thick crepe of her weeping veil at Sir Samuel Brass. All six feet, three and a half enormous inches of him.
He smiled at her, full lips spreading beneath a thick, dark beard. It wasn’t a cheerful smile, though. It wasn’t even a friendly smile. It was an I am seriously put out with you, but we will discuss it later smile. The sort a child misbehaving in public might expect from a father, if one’s father happened to be a seriously put-out giant.
“I said…” Samuel leaned forward to tower over her, his deep voice edging toward a growl, “Hello, Esther.”
His misguided attempt at intimidation goaded her into action. “What are you doing here?” she demanded, then shook her head once. “No, never mind. It doesn’t matter. You have to go. Right now. Go.” She gave him a discreet push.
He didn’t budge an inch.
“No.” Straightening, he flicked the edge of her veil with his fingers. “Who died? A husband? A Father?”
No one had died, and he damn well knew it. “An interfering acquaintance of mine. A woman threw him on the tracks at…” She looked pointedly at the station clock behind him. “…Eight minutes past six.”
“You’ve taken the death to heart, I see. I’m touched.”
She was tempted to ‘touch’ him with the dagger she had strapped to her ankle. “You have to leave.”
“No. What are you doing in London?”
“Standing on platform number one in Paddington station.”
His smile grew a little more strained. “Why are you standing in Paddington station?”
“I like trains.” A locomotive began its laboring journey out of the station as if on cue, sending a billow of smoke and steam to the ornate ironwork above. Just the sight of it made her throat itch and eyes water. She didn’t like trains especially.
“Right.” Samuel threw a quick look over his shoulder at a noisy group of passengers. “We’re leaving.”
“No, I can’t.”
She gathered her own meager supply of patience. “Samuel, listen to me. I will tell you everything you wish to know.” Some of it, anyway. “But not right now. Please, if you won’t leave entirely, then at least go…” She waved her hand in the direction of an empty, and distant, alcove. “Stand over there. Pretend you don’t know me.”
“God, if only,” he muttered. “Esther, you will tell me what is going on, or I will haul you out of here. Over my shoulder if necessary.”
He could probably get away with it. Samuel had been a police officer once. He’d gained considerable fame nine years ago for his part in rescuing a kidnapped duchess, not to mention bringing her captor—the notorious gang leader Phineas Gage—to justice in the process.
He was a mere private investigator now, but he still retained some notoriety. In large part because he had survived being shot on multiple occasions. The Thief Taker Almighty. That’s what the papers had dubbed him.
It was all so very ridiculous.
It also meant he could be recognized, though. No-one in the station’s crowd would move to stop his departure, however unorthodox, with an unknown woman.
Still, he wasn’t likely to risk the attention, for the same reason she wouldn’t risk leaving her hotel without the veil. Neither of them could afford to be seen; his threat was empty. “You’ll not make a scene.”
“I will take a thirty second scene over arguing with you in here indefinitely.” He cocked his head at her. “Do you doubt me?”
Yes. Or maybe no. Damn it, she couldn’t tell if he was bluffing. “I’m waiting for someone.”
“None of your concern.” She half turned away, giving him her shoulder and, hopefully, giving the impression to passing travelers that the two of them were not together. As Samuel was staring right at her, however, she feared it was a futile gesture. “Please. Go away.”
“Are you waiting on a mark?” he guessed. “An accomplice?”
“What? No. I’m not a criminal.” Not anymore. Not for a long time.
“Then you’ve no reason for secrecy. For whom are you waiting?”
She honestly didn’t know if she was pleased or insulted by how quickly he dismissed the idea. “I don’t know. And I’ll not find out if you stay here. Go. Away.”
This last she punctuated by turning her back on him completely.
And that was when she saw him—a scrawny young man of maybe sixteen, with a long face, sallow complexion, sharp chin and filthy blond hair peeking out from under a ragged cap. He stood ten yards away and was staring at her as if he’d known her all his life. Only he didn’t. Esther had never seen him before. And he couldn’t possibly see her clearly behind the veil.
She sensed Samuel tense behind her. “Is that him?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
The boy’s gaze flew to Samuel, then he spun about and bolted in the opposite direction.
“Damn it,” Esther hissed.
Samuel brushed past her with a curt, “Stay here.”
The ensuing chase was oddly subdued, with the young man’s escape hampered by the crowd and Samuel slowed by his apparent unwillingness to draw attention to himself. Esther knew him to be quick and agile, particularly for such a large man. He would have no trouble running the boy down under normal circumstances. Today he strode after his prey in long, unhurried strides, neatly side-stepping people and luggage alike.
Esther lost sight of them several times as the groups of travelers shifted and reformed. A large family with a small mountain of trunks blocked her view for several seconds before they moved on and Esther spotted Samuel through the clearing. He was at the far end of the station, only steps behind the young man.
Grab him, she thought, heart racing. Grab him!
Samuel stretched out an arm, but the young man dodged left, dashed to the edge of the platform and leapt into the path of an oncoming engine. Nearby onlookers sent up a cry of alarm, but the young man was over the tracks and out of danger in the blink of an eye. Samuel, on the other hand, was trapped on her side of the station, his path blocked by the long line of passenger carriages that followed.
For a moment, Esther thought he might hop on the moving train and pass through the other side to continue the pursuit. In fact, she rather hoped he would. She’d not wanted him there, but since he’d been the one to scare the young man off, the least he could do was bring him back.
Samuel casually turned away from the platform edge instead, as if he’d merely been a curious bystander, and began a leisurely stroll back to her.
The young man was gone.
Esther balled her hands at her sides. Oh, this was awful. This was a dreadful, dreadful mess. Seething, she waited for Samuel’s return and wholeheartedly wished he could see her look of derision through the veil. “I knew you would ruin this.”
His grey eyes narrowed dangerously, but he didn’t respond other than to say, in the stiffest manner possible, “Shall we, Miss Bales?”
He offered his arm.
She glowered at it.
Samuel leaned in again. “Do you think to run?” he inquired in a soft voice laced with menace.
Of course she didn’t intend to run, not whilst encumbered by a thick veil, heavy skirts and a bustle. Still, she took some satisfaction in making him wait for an answer.
“Not yet,” she replied. Then she headed for the exit on her own.
Samuel fell into step beside her. His large hand came up to settle lightly at the small of her back, much to her chagrin, herding her out of the station and toward a public hackney.
“I’ve rooms at the Anthem Hotel,” she told him.
He didn’t comment, simply assisted her inside the carriage, spoke to the driver briefly, then climbed in after her.
The instant the door was closed and the curtains drawn, Esther lifted the stifling crepe veil and scowled at him. “How the devil did you find me?”
“I followed you.”
“What? All the way from Derbyshire?”
“No, I tracked you from Derbyshire.” The carriage started with a soft jolt and he pulled back the edge of a curtain for a glimpse outside. “I followed you from your hotel.”
“How did you know where I was staying?” It might have been easy for him to find out that she’d boarded a train headed for London the day before yesterday, but he couldn’t have known where she’d gone after that.
“London has a finite number of hotels.”
As finite didn’t necessarily mean small, she decided not to ask how long he’d been looking. “You shouldn’t have come after me.”
“I had no choice.” He let the curtain fall back into place. “You snuck away in the dead of night.”
“What rot. I departed from my own home at half past five in the morning in full view of my staff.” That wasn’t anywhere near the same thing as sneaking.
“You sent no word to your family.”
“Nor was I obliged to do so.” Her brother, Peter, was sixteen years old and away at school, and her older sister, Lottie, was traveling with her husband, Viscount Renderwell, in Scotland. It wasn’t as if they might pay an unexpected call upon her little cottage and be shocked to find her missing.
“They’ll worry,” Samuel pointed out. “London isn’t safe for you.”
She didn’t need him to point it out. “Of course they would worry. That’s why I didn’t send word. And neither will you. You’ll keep this to yourself.”
He lifted a brow at that. “Will I?”
“There is nothing to be gained from troubling them.”
“Lottie has a right to know.”
“She does not. Lottie is my sister, not my mother. I am twenty-eight years of age. I keep my own house and I may take leave of it anytime I please.” She gave him a taunting smile. “I may even sneak out of it if I so choose.”
She's a liar.
She's a con.
She's a thief.
And God help him, but he'll do anything to keep her safe.
Beautiful and conniving, maddening and brilliant, Esther is everything private detective Samuel Brass shouldn't want. Esther knows she's put herself in terrible danger, but nothing will stop her from making amends—not her family's enemies, not old fears, and certainly not the domineering, interfering, and undeniably handsome former officer of the Scotland Yard. Yet whenever he's near, Samuel makes her long for a life that can never be hers…and wish she were worthy of being saved.
Alissa Johnson, a RITA Award nominee, is the author of Tempting Fate and several witty historical romances. She grew up on Air Force bases in the United States and Europe and attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota. She currently lives in the Ozarks, Arkansas.