Home > Firelight (Darkest London #1)(5)

Firelight (Darkest London #1)(5)
Author: Kristen Callihan

“I’ve seen him,” hissed Margaret. “Late one night on the way home from the theater. He walked along Piccadilly as if he had every right to do so. I swear I nearly swooned from fright!”

“You poor dear. What has the world come to when men such as he are permitted to roam the streets?”

Miranda had never heard such censorious drivel.

“My dear, he is aristocracy,” said Margaret, “and as rich as Croesus. Who would dare question him? I heard he has sent at least four men to hospital for simply looking at him in the wrong light.”

The conveyance came flush with the shop window. Miranda caught a glimpse of the black top hat and cloak of a coachman, a black coach with a white shield upon its door.

“Heavens, he looked at me…” Jane shuddered, and with a moan, her eyes rolled up in her head.

“Jane!” Her friend tried to grab her as the woman began to topple.

“Here! Here!” The clerk jumped up, running to catch the hare-brained woman.

There was something to say for flighty females. Miranda acted, slipping the necklace into her skirt pocket as she rushed to aid, accidentally brushing several necklaces off the counter in her haste. “Oh my,” she exclaimed, frantically trying to gather the jewels and succeeding in making a muck of it. Ropes of gold and gems fell to the floor, a hopeless muddle.

The clerk wavered between assisting her and struggling to help the matron on the floor. Perfect.

“What a mess I have made!” Miranda pressed a shaking hand to her brow. “I am sorry. And you have your hands full!”

She reached the door, her heart pounding. It pounded every time. Every time.

“Wait, Miss!” The clerk buckled, his hand outstretched as if he would pull her back.

Hand twitching on the doorknob, she shot the clerk a regretful smile. “Good-bye. I am sorry.”

His words were drowned out by the bell.

Outside, the coach in question was gone, swallowed up by street traffic and drifting fog. Only now did the gaping pedestrians begin moving on. Unsettled murmurs rippled along the streets before being drowned out by the usual clatter and clang of hacks, omnibuses, and coaches rattling along the cobbled road. Miranda decided she did not want to know what the unfortunate Lord Archer looked like. She had experienced enough horrors in her meager lifetime.

The slight weight in her pocket felt like a ton as she made her way home. Miranda’s steps stuttered to a stop as she saw the sleek, black double-brougham stretched out like a coffin in the front portico of the house. Thick whorls of yellow-green evening fog rose from the cobbled drive, ghosting over the coach’s large spoke wheels and coiling like snakes round the spindly legs of the matched black Friesians that stood placidly waiting.

Dread plucked at her insides. Long gone were the days when their drive filled with endless lines of landaus, barouches, and phaetons as nobility and gentry alike called upon father to purchase his wares.

With a jostle of rigging and the smart clip of hooves, the coach turned, and the crest upon the door flashed in the waning light. A white shield bisected by a heavy black cross bore the words Sola bona quae honesta upon it. Four sharp arrowheads slashed across the white planes of the shield. The hairs along her arm stood at attention, and she knew the source of her disquiet. The Dread Lord Archer.

The coach drew near, and the form of a figure, no more than a broad black outline of shoulders and the glimpse of an arm, appeared behind the window glass. As the coach pulled away, a finger of ice slid along Miranda’s spine, for someone was staring back.

“I shall not!”

Her shout bounded off the bare stone walls of the dark, cramped kitchen. High and rather thready, nothing like Miranda’s normal voice. She struggled to tone it down.

Her father moved around the battered wooden table that stood between them. His small brown eyes flashed. “You most certainly shall!” He slammed his fist to the table. “My word is law here!”

“Bosh.” She slammed her wooden spoon down as well, sending a splatter of mutton stew across the pudding. “Your control over me ended the day you sold Daisy off to the highest bidder.”

The wrinkled mask of his face went pale as Irish linen. “You dare!” His hand rose to strike but held, hovering in the air and shaking, when she did not flinch.

“Please try it,” she said quietly. Her eyes held his as the air about her began to coalesce, heating and stirring with an almost expectant agitation. “I beg of you.”

Father’s hand quivered then slowly lowered. “I’m sure you do, daughter.” Spittle slicked the corners of his shaking lips. “See me writhe and burn.”

Miranda shifted, heat and pain mingling within her belly, a surge that wanted out.

“Always calling upon the fire to protect you.” He took a step closer, his eyes burning into her. “Never mind the price.”

Like a flame in a draft, the heat snuffed, and with it, her father’s confidence seemed to swell.

“The worst of it is that I do this for you,” he coaxed, leaning in. “You’re not a lass anymore. Not for years. Did you think to live here forever with me?”

“No, I—” Her mouth snapped shut. She had not given the future much thought but simply lived from day to day. Surviving. No point exchanging the hell one knew for the hell one did not.

“I think you must believe so. You’ve scared off every lad that’s come this way ever since that fool Martin…” He swallowed down his words aware, for once, that even he might have gone too far. But he rallied quickly, and his bushy brows formed a white V. “It cannot have escaped your notice that this is the finest meal we’ve had in months.” His weathered hand swept over the meager meal of mutton stew and simple brown bread pudding that Miranda was preparing. “Who do you think provided the money for this meal?”

“I thought perhaps you’d sold the wool—”

His dry cackle cut the air. “With the price of wool being as low as it is, and the debts I owe, we’d be lucky to dine on fish-head stew. My creditors will take the house before the year is out,” he said quietly. “And you will have no home to come to.”

A home? She almost laughed. She hadn’t a true home in years. Not since her sisters had left.

“Doesn’t take much to imagine what trade a beauty like you will find,” he went on. “But once that beauty fades? ’Tis hardly fittin’ to say what’s to come of you.”

“Oh, stop!” Miranda snapped. “You paint a very grim picture, indeed. And one that’s hung over my head for years.”

“Bloody hell!” The pudding crashed to the floor in a mess of brown scum and broken crockery. “You owe me, Miranda!” Rage colored him red as he pointed at her. “If it weren’t for that fire, I’d have half my fortune! By God, you destroyed my bloody warehouse!”

“Years I have paid penance for my mistake!” she shouted. “Still, it is not enough. Well, I am done with it.” Her hand slashed the air as if the motion could somehow sever their conversation. “You cannot make me do this!”

Father’s thin lip curled into a sneer. “Aye, I cannot,” he agreed with sudden calmness. “The agreement states you must go willingly, or it is void.” He took a step closer, pressing up against the wooden table, and pointed with a trembling finger. “But I’ll tell you this: Should you refuse, you’ll no longer live here.”

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