Seducing a Stranger (Victorian Rebels #7) - Kerrigan Byrne


London, Autumn 1855

The devil’s breath was a persistent cold prickle on Cutter Morley’s neck. He’d awoken with a start in the wee hours of the morning, propped up against the doorway to St. Dismas where he’d taken refuge. Vicar Applewhite had fallen ill, and so the rectory was locked against vagrants today. More’s the pity. He’d not been able to scrape together enough money to afford a flea-bitten room for the night, but the fact that his twin, Caroline, hadn’t met him in the abbey courtyard meant she’d found a roof to sleep beneath.

Or a protector willing to allow her into the warmth of his bed for a pound of flesh.

She wasn’t a prostitute. Never that. She was just… desperate. They both were.

But not for long. He’d a plan—one he’d implement just as soon as he was old enough, or rather, as soon as he looked old enough.

He was so close. Just one or two more winters. One or two more inches. No one was right sure of their ages… maybe thirteen or fifteen. Probably not older, but his recollection of the first handful of years was cagey so he couldn’t be sure.

They’d no papers.

The slick of oily disquiet Caroline’s new sometimes profession wrought within him was a mild hum compared to the symphony of peril and impending doom sawing at his nerves.

It haunted him as he set off from Spitalfields to Shoreditch, increasing with every step until he lifted his grimy hand to swat at the itch and smooth the hair at his hackles back against his neck. He had a hard-enough time staying warm with only the moth-eaten jacket he’d filched from a rubbish heap, but something about this day frosted the marrow in his bones.

He thought to lose the disquieting demon in the Chinese tent city, hoping it could be distracted by inhabitants of the cloyingly fragrant opium dens just as easily as he was drawn by the sizzles and aromas of food cooked in the out-of-doors. His gut twisted with longing, but he found no opportunity to filch a breakfast. People were extra wary today. Perhaps they, too, felt whatever portent hung in the air.

He wandered through throngs of peculiar and elegant Jews, his ear cocked to the lyrical Crimean accents of those escaping the violence in Russia, Prussia or the Ukraine. He thought their industrious bustle would perhaps chase away this unfathomable sense of bereavement. But alas, he made it all the way down Leman Street with the healthy sense that calamity watched him from the shadows of the palsied, rotten buildings, waiting to strike.

It wasn’t a matter of if, but when. Or… no… perhaps it had already happened. The thing. The terrible thing. And the world held its breath waiting to suffer some awful consequence.

Turning down Common Doss Street, he loped up to number three, a ramshackle place mortared with more mold than grout.

Mrs. Jane Blackwell land-lorded over the only seven rooms free from vermin. At least, vermin other than that of the human variety. In Whitechapel, vermin were as inescapable as the toxic yellow fogs belched up by the Thames and thickened with soot from the refineries.

Cutter didn’t need an invitation to shoulder into the doorway of the Blackwell common house, he’d been doing it since he was a lad.

The sharp smell of lye cut through the noise and stench wafting from men and women of dubious nocturnal vocations who had already begun drinking beer for the day at half noon. It drew him to the back of the house where a square of garden was connected by several alleys cobbled with grime. Clad in a dark frock and a soiled apron, Mrs. Blackwell stirred laundry over a boiling pot.

“More discarded bastards in these sheets than in all of Notting Hill,” she muttered with a grimace. “I’m charging Forest extra if he’s going to wank all over me linens, bloody pervert.”

She glanced up when Cutter ambled over, her marble-black eyes crinkling with a good-humor quite lacking round these parts. In a place where most humans were anything but humane, where corruption was the only legitimate business and vice the only escape, Jane Blackwell was a warm, if rough-handed oasis of compassion.

Cutter would have given his right eye for a mum like her, or any mother really. She was a crass and vulgar woman, but he knew nothing else. She’d inherited these rooms from her father back before the pernicious poverty had taken over Whitechapel so completely, and an addiction to gin rounded out her