A Victorian Love Story
Trapped in a wretched slum, Sarah Ward feels powerless to keep her son away from a charismatic crime lord, whom she believes is responsible for her husband’s death. A lost letter offers her a chance to flee to her rural childhood home, away from the pounding factories and soot-filled skies. Yet escape means seeing Markham Litton again, her first love and the man who shattered her heart. She had been too infatuated to understand that he would never tarnish his wealthy family’s honor by marrying a lowly stone mason’s daughter. He had cast her aside, never learning about their child growing in her belly.
Consumed by the loss of his eldest child, widowed Markham struggles to be a good father to his remaining son. The only solace he finds is drifting in the memories of Sarah. In the late hours, he revisits the tender parts of their romance, like her gentle kisses, but not the tears she cried when he left her.
When old lovers reunite, Markham has a chance to show her that he’s changed. He can finally admit the feelings he had kept hidden for so long and try to heal old wounds. But Sarah has changed too. She isn’t the trusting, naïve young woman she once was. She knows from painful experience that some wounds can never be healed, and some secrets must never be told, especially ones that could rip her small family apart.
Dorian Hall. Essex.
Late Spring. 1867
Markham Litton peered into the darkness beyond the great arc windows in the drawing room as his guests prattled on. The night enjoyed a full moon. Usually, under such a celestial lamp, he could make out the dim shape of the church’s belfry rising above the churchyard trees. However, dense low-hanging clouds and rain concealed the landscape around Dorian Hall tonight. During the day, he could peer over the patchwork of fields to where the village church’s brick temple rose over the slate rooftops. There, beneath the sprawling yew tree in the churchyard, rested the graves of his son and wife.
Frederick Markham Tristan Litton
Beloved wife and mother.
Although their marriage had been a strained one, the passing of his wife had hurt him deeply. But nothing could stem the pain of losing his eldest son. At Tristan’s funeral, the vicar had assured Markham that the souls of the dead rested for the day when they would rise again and be reunited with their loved ones. Markham was never of the religious inclination. He didn’t know what he believed anymore. Nonetheless, it was comforting to think that his son Tristan simply slumbered in this bucolic setting, as peaceful as when he was an infant in his cradle, and one day, he would awaken to find his father at his side once again.
“Markham, old boy.” Lord Simon rested his hand on Markham’s shoulder.
Markham realized that his friend had been looking at him, waiting for a response, but he had drifted miles away. “My apologies,” he muttered.
Markham’s sister, Alice Grosse, flashed Simon a meaningful look from beneath her lashes. As much as his sister and friend tried to make their visit to Dorian Hall appear casual, their motive could hardly be disguised. They had joined forces, determined to “help” Markham.
“Brother, you can’t go on in this manner.” His sister clutched her hands together in entreaty. “Your mourning is, well, unnatural for this long. I could understand for a delicate woman, but a man who has lived in this world for over thirty years?”
Markham remained quiet. He tried to appear congenial with his son and household staff, but he didn’t expend his energy with his blunt sister.
Brother and sister were quite similar on the surface. Their parents had been cousins, and the siblings had inherited double portions of their ancestors’ dramatic features. Soft lips shared the same face with flinty cheekbones and hard chins. Their ivory skin appeared even paler beside onyx hair and eyes of such a deep brown that they seemed black.
Alice smoothed the deep red silk of her gown. “You must come to London. Everyone is asking about you. I hate to see Lady Hester so out of spirits because you aren’t by her side.”
Alice’s impassioned plea had merely blended with the droning rain until she’d mentioned Lady Hester, Lord Simon’s sister.
“Lady Hester,” Markham whispered, feeling a sting of guilt.
“You must go to London and be with her,” his sister commanded.
No. The shine of the metropolis had tarnished. It wasn’t the dizzying, ongoing party that it had been in his youth. And even though he had had no way of knowing Tristan’s small body had been consumed by fever while he’d rested in his school bed, Markham couldn’t forgive himself for attending an opera the night his son had died. No, he couldn’t go to London. He didn’t feel comfortable venturing more than half a day’s journey away from home and his remaining son.
“You should know Lady Hester plans to debut her dear Sophie next Season, as I do my Cecelia,” Alice continued. “Lady Sophie and Cecelia are like bosom sisters.”
Markham knew this was a lie. His sister’s greatest vexation in life was not obtaining a title for herself. The Littons were a respected old family of wealth and vast landholdings. Nonetheless, his sister acutely grieved not possessing a title like her mother. But she had been a dutiful daughter and obeyed their late father when he’d desired that she marry the Honorable Albert Grosse, a powerful earl’s younger son. Alice compensated for her lower precedence by toadying up to anyone with Lady or Lord attached to their name.
Alice leaned forward, placing her hand on her chest. “Lady Sophie needs a father, Markham. She needs you to guide her in society. It troubles me to think of fatherless, little Sophie alone in the world.”
Markham nodded toward Simon. “Sophie has her uncle. He would provide far better guidance than me.”
Alice bolted up. “Are you saying you aren’t planning to marry Lady Hester? The—the matter has been decided. Everyone anticipated the marriage before Trist—”
“I didn’t say that,” Markham cut her off. He couldn’t bear to hear the words Tristan died. He pressed his fingers to his throbbing temples. He had assumed he and Hester would enjoy a comfortable, companionable marriage. They were old friends, after all, who rubbed along well, and both being widowed, they harbored no illusions about marriage. Neither sought the foolish, fevered desire of youth. But in his mind, there was still ample time to ask for her hand. His days seemed longer and slower than those of his acquittances. He drifted through them, confusing one day with the next.
“What about Ethan?” Alice said. “Soon, he will go to Eton.”
Markham’s head jerked up. “Ethan isn’t going to Eton. I’m hiring tutors.”
“Not going to Eton?” The manicured nail on her finger resembled a small dagger pointed at him. “How shall he enter good society or know anyone who matters?”
“Unlike you, I care little for society,” Markham barked, “and even less about its opinion of me. I’m not sending another son to his death at Eton! Do you understand me?”
Silence followed in the wake of his words.
Markham cursed to himself. His emotions were volatile now and quickly slipped from his control.
Lord Simon placed his hand on Markham’s shoulder again. “We are worried about you, old boy. The letters you send us.”
“If my letters cause you to worry, I shall not send them.”
“Come, man,” Simon badgered. “You are not your old self.”
Markham gave a quiet, bitter laugh. Old self? That man was buried alongside his son. In his place stood a stranger.
“My sister misses you,” Simon said. “She desires only to love you. You know what a tender heart she possesses.”
Had Alice not been present, Markham would have admitted that he couldn’t be a good husband to anyone in his present state. But instead, he crossed to the side table where miniatures of his wife and Tristan rested beside crystal glasses and a matching decanter filled with sherry. He poured a drink—his third of the night—and took a swallow. “I don’t … I don’t wish to go to London. It’s too loud. I c-can’t think. And I don’t desire to hear condolences everywhere I go.”
Alice gasped as though Markham had uttered some heresy. “Everyone who matters wants you to—”
Simon sliced his hand through the air and said calmly, “There are other possibilities.” Simon joined his friend in pouring sherry.
Markham knew Simon was buying time to strategize. Simon was always looking for the soft spots in people for leverage.
“No doubt, my sister finds London trying,” Simon said. “And I can’t go anywhere without being interrogated about the Irish Nationalists. ‘Have you caught them?’ ‘When will you catch them?’ Since the killings in Liverpool, people imagine the Fenians are everywhere, waiting to murder them in the most appalling ways. Let us go, then …” Simon paused for dramatic purposes and took a sip. “To Yearley Park.”
“Yearley Park?” Alice gripped the edge of the sofa’s armrest. “Lady Hester in that drafty stone ramble? It cannot be borne.”
“She will adore it,” Simon said. “She has always been jealous of my school holidays when I unabashedly invited myself to Yearley Park, leaving her at home with her dour governess to recite improving poems and such while I tunneled about, covered in dirt and spiders, seeking that famed hidden treasure or living like a Celtic tribesman in the woods. I should think Hester would enjoy losing some hairpins while swinging from branches.”
Alice shook her head. Her stiff curls quivered about her pinched face. “Surely you are jesting!”
“Of course, he is,” Markham said quietly. Alice always misunderstood Simon’s slippery wit.
Markham had met Simon at school. Atop from being charismatic, handsome, and athletic, Simon was a year older than Markham—a significant difference in those years—and already the Earl of Bresbury. His father had passed away when Simon was two, leaving him and Hester under the guardianship of their uncle. Like all the boys at school, Markham had aped Simon, taking on his language and gestures, playing the same sports, and liking the same things as Simon to vie for his attention. Markham had been taught from the cradle to revere social position and power. His mother and father had spent a great deal of time discussing others’ stations in society and whether they should publicly acknowledge them. Markham had taken a chance on inviting Simon to Yearley Park for a school holiday. Markham had been old enough to be aware of his Machiavellian intentions to impress his father and gain a coveted place in the golden orbit around Simon. Markham hadn’t expected Simon to warmly accept and genuinely want to be friends with him. From then on, Simon had spent all his school holidays at Yearley Park.
Simon continued on as though he were making one of his parliamentary speeches. “Yearley Park would do Hester some good. She was always hopelessly grown-up, even when we were small children.”
“I haven’t been to Yearley Park since …” Markham trailed off as he pondered. Time was a tricky thing now. He’d visited just weeks before his wedding to present his bride to his father on his deathbed. The man had left this world, pleased that his son had distinguished the family by marrying a marquess’ lovely daughter—so far above his station. “I can’t imagine what state it is in now.” Markham had left his man of business to oversee the place. “I don’t … I don’t know.”
Simon spoke in a low, kindly voice as he struck a fatal blow to Markham’s defenses. “Ethan would enjoy it. He and Alice’s boys can roam the woods, playing pirates and what have you. He should know the carefree times that we knew as boys.”
Markham’s throat burned. “Perhaps.”
Simon brightened at his victory. “It’s a brilliant idea. All the memories are coming back to me. Do you remember all those forts we built? All the fish we caught and foisted on Cook? That mysterious King Arthur stone? And that maddening village girl who followed you about like an eager puppy? What was her name?”
Markham’s fingers clenched.
“Sally … No, no.” Simon tapped his lip. “Ah, Sarah! That’s right. Sarah. How we played such jolly pranks on her.”
Markham turned away.
“That horrid girl!” Alice cried. “She deserved them all. She never knew her place. That you would even give humor to our stonemason’s daughter shows your charitable nature, Markham.”
“Come now, how could she not be infatuated with Markham?” Simon spread his arms. “No one’s heart is immune from his charm. The poor, simple girl. I wonder what happened to her?”
“She married a man in the north,” Markham whispered. “She left Sulling. That … that is all I know.”
“Well, let us hope she has a stout husband and a passel of fat, healthy babies. Now back to important matters: I have decided.” Simon sat on the red sofa opposite Alice. He crossed his legs, draped one arm along the back, and tilted his head. “We will holiday at Yearley Park. Ethan and his cousins can be pirates while the ladies decide what hearts Sophie and Cecelia will capture next Season. I can enjoy the silence away from the Fenian uproar, and Markham will simply continue to enjoy silence.”
Simon was moving too fast.
“I shall consider it.” Markham finished his drink and turned back to the window. “That is all I shall commit to at present.”
The rain formed small rivulets on the glass. Although he hadn’t traveled to Yearley Park in years, memories from the place constantly played in his mind, giving him solace. Here, grief was trapped like stagnant air in the vaulting rooms and corridors, but he was loath to leave Tristan’s grave. He knew it was illogical, but he felt he would be abandoning Tristan if he left. Markham believed his daily visits to Tristan’s burial place somehow kept his boy from fading from this plane.
“You’re not leaving them,” Simon said quietly. Markham hadn’t heard him get up and come to his side. How long had Markham been lost in the mists of his thoughts?
“They would be saddened to see you like this,” Simon continued. “You must join the living for Ethan’s sake … for Hester’s … for mine.”
Markham’s ire flared. How could Simon be so presumptuous as to tell him what was best for him and Ethan? Markham was tired of sympathy and unwanted advice. He simply wanted to be left alone to grieve, yet others kept demanding things from him for what they believed was his own benefit.
Markham excused himself. “I must see to Mama and Ethan.”
He released a deep exhale of relief as he walked alone through the corridors. His sconce cast shadows on the walls and ornately carved ceilings. Once, he’d basked in the heady buzz of London and its raucous parties that had lasted into the early hours. Now, simply being around his sister and closest friend exhausted him, and he craved solitude again.
He knocked quietly on his mother’s door. The nurse answered, informing him that the rain had worsened his mother’s rheumatism, and she had taken laudanum to sleep. He nodded and then continued through the east wing, coming to his son’s room. The door was slightly ajar. Steeple, Ethan’s nurse, lectured the poor, ever-patient boy on many subjects, including the mortal dangers of drafts. Yet, it seemed Ethan had waited until Steeple left to sneak out of his bed and open the door again. Markham smiled at the small rebellion from such an otherwise sweet-tempered child. Markham slipped inside to find his son slumbering peacefully. Surrounding the boy on the mattress were his beloved books on myths, ancient coins, fossils, and other gewgaws that fascinated the curious child. He was prone to nightmares, and Markham figured having his prized possessions close created a magical protective shell around him.
Simon’s words echoed in his head. He should know the carefree times that we knew as boys.
Markham sank into the chair beside the bed and gently fingered one of his son’s wiry, honey-colored curls. Ethan lived a solitary indoor life, lost in books and his imagination. He should be learning how to ride horses and fish, like other boys his age. Markham blamed himself. He should be a better father. But as soon as Markham had any will, the heavy gloom returned. It filled his hours and bled away his energy.
Simon had given voice to Markham’s fears. Was his grief hurting his son? Was Markham protecting the boy at Dorian Hall like a prince in a tower because he was terrified of losing him too?
He studied his son. His hair had darkened, and his hands, tucked under his cheek, seemed to have grown too big for his small arms. Time was rushing by, and he couldn’t get it back.
He had to do something. They couldn’t go on in this sad manner.
At Yearley Park, Ethan could play with his boisterous cousins and be like other boys his age. And if Markham couldn’t be a good parent, he should go ahead and propose to Hester and give his son an adoring mother to make up for Markham’s failings.
Yes, they should go to Yearley Park, but yet, he hesitated.
As he listened to the steady rhythm of his son’s breath, he thought of his other son slumbering in the cold ground. He wouldn’t be leaving him if he went to Yearley Park, he counseled himself. Tristan lived in Markham’s heart, not in some coffin. Markham had to live for his remaining son. He had to find a way through the debilitating despondency.
He leaned down and kissed Ethan’s forehead. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to his sleeping son. He was sorry for so many things. Then he quietly left the room, leaving the door ajar.
Two doors away, in Markham’s chamber, his manservant had left a decanter of brandy on the table by the burning fire and a robe on the bed. Markham changed and poured a glass. Although he was exhausted, he rarely slept, because his mind constantly churned through the night, digging up memories and reburying them.
He sank into his chair by the fire and watched the flames dancing on the coals until Sarah’s face filled his mind. Her eyes shone like wet emeralds in the light from the lantern. The tree canopy and ivy had formed a hiding place, tucking them safely away from the world. A soft smile lifted her lips as she gazed up from the blanket at him, her pale hair splayed about her. Her skin was slick from perspiration, and he could feel the points of her nipples against his chest. “I love you,” she whispered in that soothing voice of hers.
I love you.
Markham was once again ashamed that he couldn’t summon such tender remembrances of his wife. In the first years after leaving Yearley Park, he had struggled to forget Sarah and suppress his emotions for such a lowly girl, which had embarrassed him and made him feel weak. Now he let those memories flow unhindered through the night like a calming narcotic. He wished he could crawl back inside that moment and remain there. He would do and say everything differently. He wouldn’t make her cry.
Three weeks later
Angel Meadow, Manchester
Nicholas should be home by now, Sarah worried as she weaved her needle in and out of the ruffle she was hemming.
She had sent her son off to fetch the lungwort, which sprouted around the old pauper burial ground. The errand should have taken but a few minutes, but Nicholas had been gone for over half an hour. Nicholas was as sharp as a fox and knew well the tangled maze of narrow, dark streets and to avoid people. And most twelve-year-old children worked in the factories all day and spent their evenings roaming the streets, untethered from any parental leash.
He was simply a few minutes late. Sarah needn’t be so anxious.
Still, she should have gone to collect the lungwort herself, even if they were struggling to finish the sewing order.
Sarah shifted her focus from her needle to her toddling daughter, Josie, who sat at her feet. The child, with a mass of wild blond curls, smiled happily up at her mother while continuing to bang her poor doll—a wooden spoon with a drawn-on face—against the kitchen’s stone pavers.
Her daughter’s sweet smile usually eased her worries. And in the warm kitchen of her friend Maisie Ryan’s home, where Sarah and her children now lived, the constant pounding of factories and the obscene songs belted out by the drunkards roaming the streets were muted to a hum. Bone broth and a tea for lung congestion simmered in the two pots on the stove. Their homey smells mingled with Sarah’s fragrant dried leaves stored in the bottles cluttering the cupboard. The alchemy of scents masked the reeking sulfur and human waste that saturated the city’s air. Yet, an unsettling sensation persisted in Sarah’s heart.
“Josie must be the jolliest infant in all of England,” Maisie commented as she cut another length of pink thread. Maisie sat beside her eldest daughter, Caroline, as they worked on an intricate floral design on the bodice of the dress. They were the true seamstresses. They created works of art with their needles. Meanwhile, Sarah and Maisie’s other daughter, thirteen-year-old Flora, were regulated to hems and seams.
“Little is required to delight Josie,” Caroline remarked and then roughly cleared her throat, forcing back the fluid.
“Nicholas will be back soon with the lungwort for tea.” Sarah nodded to the empty cup beside Caroline.
Caroline had awoken with a slight cough. It was nothing like the harsh, blood-ridden coughing fits she had suffered when Sarah had first met her. Maisie had beaten on the door of the cellar room where Sarah and her family had been reduced to living. Maisie had just lost her husband to a fire in a cotton-factory storeroom, and now her daughter, who had worked in the same factory, was hacking up blood because of the cotton fibers lodged in her lungs. “They say you know about herbs,” Maisie had cried, desperation in her eyes. “That you can help when the physician can’t.”
Now, Maisie’s seamstress skills and Sarah’s odd apothecary kept them and their children safe from the slow and grinding death in the factories.
“Tea!” Josie echoed.
“Would you like a cup of tea, dear?” Sarah asked in a feigned aristocratic drawl.
Josie nodded, her curls flying. Tea was her favorite game.
Sarah pretended to pour tea into Josie’s play teacup—a plain wooden block—that waited beside Sarah’s pincushion. She gave the block to Josie, who made a funny slurping sound and held it out again. “Tea!”
“No, no.” Sarah swooped up Josie. “I can’t play the endless tea game today.” She kissed the girl’s cheek. “Hmm, what if you were tea in a teacup? Would you taste as sweet as sugar and milk? Let’s see.” Sarah peppered Josie with peck-like kisses, enjoying the tiny girl’s shrieks of laughter, letting them soothe that niggling anxiety in Sarah’s chest.
Caroline laughed along with Josie until her laughs turned to coughs. She dropped her sewing and covered her mouth. Maisie glanced at Sarah, worry darkening her large, expressive eyes. Caroline’s cough didn’t cause Sarah alarm, but she understood Maisie’s maternal fears all too well.
“She’s well, Maisie. Don’t fret.” Holding Josie on her hip, Sarah crossed to the brewing tea and stirred the leaves.
“Can I help?” Flora asked, always eager to escape sewing. She had learned to make her sister’s receipts and followed Sarah and Nicholas on their pilgrimages past the city’s ever-expanding boundaries to search for needed plants and barks.
“We just need to steep it a bit longer when Nicholas brings the lungwort,” Sarah said.
“He’s been gone quite a while,” Maisie said.
Sarah studied the disturbance her spoon wrecked on the tea’s surface. He’s simply a few minutes late, she told herself, trying to ward off the fears that something had happened to him.
“Mrs. Joe Ward!” A harsh, clipped Englishman’s voice cracked like a whip in the air. “I say, I’m looking for Mrs. Joe Ward!”
Sarah’s gaze flew to Maisie’s. Her heart raced. Something had happened to Nicholas!
“Come, Josie.” Maisie held out her hands. “Come see Auntie Maisie.”
But Josie would have none of it. “No! No! No!” She leaned into her mama, refusing to be parted.
“It is well.” Sarah didn’t have the time to quell a tantrum. She grabbed her shawl and deftly wrapped Josie in it. She hurried through the front parlor, which served as her family’s bedchamber, and out the front door.
It was only marginally lighter outside than in Maisie’s windowless kitchen. The hastily slapped-up terraced houses shaded the lane from any sunlight that managed to break through the haze of smoke.
Sarah was relieved to see that the man calling her name wore an official crisp Royal Mail blue coat. So this wasn’t concerning Nicholas after all.
“I’m Mrs. Joe Ward,” Sarah said quickly to hush him up.
The letter carrier drew out a clean, white envelope from his coat.
Josie reached for the letter, opening and closing her chubby hand. “Me! For me!”
“No, luv,” Sarah gently admonished and took the letter, holding it safely away from her daughter’s clutches.
No stamps adorned the letter, just neat and efficient handwriting that read “Mrs. Joe Ward. Angel Meadow.” Her stomach tightened. It was probably a creditor or someone demanding reparations. Joe had died a little over two years ago, and yet, his dubious dealings still found their way to Sarah.
“It was sent to the wrong address,” the man explained, referring to the unusual address. “The letter is inside the envelope.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The man didn’t move along but continued to study her. “Pardon me, ma’am. But you sound English.”
“I am.” An edge entered Sarah’s voice.
He raked her up and down with frank, assessing blue eyes as he might one of the prostitutes loitering outside the Flying Skirts gin shop across the way.
“You’re an uncommonly pretty little totty, aren’t you? Your husband couldn’t have been the Joe Ward, that drunk Irishman they say killed Henry Pearson?”
She resented how his lip slightly hiked when he said Irishman, as though he were taking in a vile smell. People didn’t even try to disguise their scorn for the Irish after the Fenians had murdered those guards in Liverpool.
She stiffened her spine and gave her usual answer to the question she received too often.
“My husband was innocent.”
“He confessed to it and then hung himself in prison before the judge could.”
“He was innocent.”
“But the police found him with the knife, and all smeared in blood. He had the man’s ring and gold pin in his pocket.”
Sarah turned mute. She hated how people believed they knew more of the ugly, tangled story than she did because they had read an article in the paper or heard about it in a tavern.
The postman swayed on his feet for a few moments, as though waiting for Sarah to say more. Perhaps he expected her to indulge in some gruesome details. People outside Angel Meadow looked upon its habitants’ doings with lurid curiosity. A penny dreadful in flesh and blood. When she didn’t satisfy his dark yearnings, he tipped his hat. “You could be a little friendlier now,” he said, giving her one last rake with his eyes. “People would like you more if your manners were as pretty as your face. Then you wouldn’t have to consort with the likes of Joe Ward.”
He turned and walked on. The men drinking in the doorways of the Flying Skirts jeered at him. “Be off with your bloody arse!” one called out. Men in a uniform of any stripe weren’t welcomed in the Meadow.
Josie waved her tiny hand, saying, “Bye-bye” over and over.
Maisie and her daughters had assembled outside their front door.
“I’ve received a letter.” Sarah held out the envelope. The females huddled over the letter and studied it as though an ominous portent, like a raven, had landed on their doorstep.
Maisie touched Sarah’s arm. “Are you going to open it?”
“Maybe after we finish our sewing.” Sarah slipped the letter into her apron pocket so she didn’t have to see it.
“Aye, it’s Caroline and Flora!” The boy’s voice echoed down the street.
Sarah whipped around.
The retinue of neighborhood scuttlers swaggered down the lane. There must have been thirty or so of them, ranging in age from eight to seventeen. Their eyes resembled wet flint, and the edges of their mouths curled in malicious smiles. Each kept a thumb hooked near his shining belt buckle—their weapon of choice.
Maisie pushed Flora toward their door. “Go inside, girls!”
Her order came too late. Two of the older boys sprinted ahead and grabbed Caroline and Flora by the arms, whirling them in a wild jig. Caroline broke into coughs. Maisie tried to rip the boy’s hands off her sick daughter, but the scuttler only laughed and continued to swing Caroline about as though it were a jolly game.
“Leave the girls alone, lads,” a deep, authoritative, Irish voice resounded.
Sarah’s chest tightened. “No.”
The boys immediately released the sisters, and the group parted, making way for their idol. Guy O’Keeffe strode before them, sporting the same fine clothes as the factory owners. He walked with the ease of a man who didn’t have to prove his power in any neighborhood in Manchester. His wheat-colored hair was neatly barbered and oiled. His long face with its clifflike cheekbones was rife with numerous pockmarks and scars from fights. He nodded as a greeting. His lips hiked into a lazy half smile as his eyes, the color and luminosity of polished steel, took her in.
“Mama!” Nicholas stepped from behind Guy. He looked up unabashedly at his mother as he brushed away blood at the edge of his inflamed, smiling lips.
“Oh, my Lord, Nicholas!” She rushed to her son. “What happened?”
Guy rested his hand protectively upon Nicholas. “Don’t coddle him. Be proud of your son. Today was his first day as a man.”
Nicholas wrapped his blood-smeared fingers proudly around the brass buckle shining at his waist. “Look what Mr. O’Keeffe gave me.”
Sarah’s body turned rigid. She thought this kind of living had ended when they’d put Joe in the ground. She swallowed back a cry as a cheer rose from the scuttlers. Nicholas beamed as Guy affectionately shook the boy’s shoulders.
With one arm holding Josie, she knelt and cupped her son’s cheek with her free hand. “What happened?”
“They were making fun of me, Mama,” Nicholas growled.
“The Ancoat boys were throwing rocks at him for collecting flowers,” Guy explained in those infuriatingly calm tones of his, as though pelting her son with stones were nothing.
“It was the lungwort I needed for Caroline’s cough!” Sarah cried. “What kind of monsters—”
“I knew as much.” Guy waved his hand, casually dismissing her rage. “I told them that Nicholas was one of Angel Meadow’s, and they had to fight him in a fair fight. That’s how things are done.”
“You … you arranged a pugilistic match with my child?! I’ve seen those vicious Ancoat boys! They could have killed Nicholas!”
“No, they couldn’t, Mama. I’m a better fighter than any of them!”
The scuttlers agreed with profane cries of “Bloody hell, yes” and “Showed those Ancoat buggers.” They dramatically reenacted blows from the fight, making gruesome theatrical noises. All the while, Josie laughed at their play.
Sarah raised her head to meet Guy’s gaze. Like everyone in Angel Meadow, she was afraid of the man. She had tiptoed carefully around him because angering Guy resulted in danger. His overflowing gin and music halls were thinly veiled fronts for gambling, whoring, and other illicit enterprises. No one complained about them, because if a person had a grievance at work or needed food, he or she went to Guy. And if, by chance, a person was foolish enough to make real trouble in the neighborhood, Guy quickly remedied the problem with his fists or the knife or gun he concealed on his person. He ruled by fear.
Yet today, Sarah’s rage drowned out her better judgement. “You could have said he was in your protection, and they would have left him alone!”
Guy shook his head. “He has to learn to be a man, Sarah. And he’s a natural fighter. Aren’t you, Nickie-boy? Ducking and punching, just like I taught you.”
Nicholas blushed with pride, having earned one of the highest honors bestowed from Guy—a nickname. Nicholas might as well have been anointed a prince—a prince of hell.
Tears wet Sarah’s eyes.
“Now, don’t look so distraught,” Guy said impatiently. “These wounds are nothing. I was beaten tenfold worse more times than I can count when I was his age.”
And look what you became, Sarah mentally retorted. She tried to rise to her feet, still balancing Josie in her shawl. Guy cupped her elbow with his warm, strong hand and easily lifted her.
Guy leaned close to her ear and whispered, “I wouldn’t have let him fight if I didn’t think he would win. I wouldn’t have let him get truly hurt. You know that. I promised Joe I’d take care of you as though you were my own.”
Every time he brought up the bloody promise that he had made to Joe in his prison cell to watch over Sarah and her children, Sarah wanted to scream. How fondly Guy spoke of her late husband now. But Sarah harbored little doubt that Guy had been behind Henry Pearson’s murder and somehow had let Joe take the fall. In the last days of his life, Joe had been barely cogent from incessant inebriation. He hadn’t had the wits left to get through Pearson’s door much less rob the man. She simply couldn’t prove Guy was behind it, and, even if she could, no one, including the coppers, would take her word over Guy’s. After all, he paid them more than the Queen did. And they were probably secretly relieved to have Guy conveniently take care of Henry Pearson and Joe, one less crime lord and drunk they had to contend.
Justice was a little different in The Meadow.
“Uncle Guy-Gee,” Josie gurgled. Sarah hated that Guy taught her daughter to call him that. She wanted the man and all the violence that surround him out of her life, but he refused to leave, instead ingratiating himself further with her children.
Guy tapped Josie’s nose, causing her to giggle. “You’re so adorable I can barely stand it. A rare beauty—like your mother. And look here, I have something.” He made a show of drawing a white handkerchief out of his coat and opened the fabric. Nestled inside was the precious lungwort.
“Thank you.” Sarah managed to swallow down her ire.
Guy pulled some coins from his pocket. “You boys be off, and use the money wisely.” He winked at the scuttlers and tossed the coins. They caught the money before it even hit the pavers.
Guy clapped his fingers on Nicholas’ thin shoulder again. His heavy gold ring glinted in the sun. “Come on, Nickie-boy. Let’s go inside so your mother can tidy up your lip. Keep you pretty like.”
Guy kept his hand on Nicholas as they strode inside. Disgust darkened Guy’s eyes as he took in the straw mattress that Sarah shared with Josie and Nicholas and the scuffed dresser containing their belongings. However, he refrained from his usual lecture about how Joe Ward’s wife shouldn’t be living this way. In truth, Sarah was living better than she ever had with Joe. His wandering, dreamy nature had been at odds with being strapped to a machine all day and told what to do. He’d lost a dozen jobs in Liverpool, Manchester, and the surrounding small towns before they’d finally hit bottom in Angel Meadow, living in a cellar room that had smelled of the cesspool beneath the floor and had always been damp from the rainwater that dripped down the steps.
In the kitchen, Guy lifted Caroline’s sewing from her chair so she could sit. He studied the stitches. “Mrs. Hargrove tells everyone her dresses come from London. Have Mrs. Hargrove pay more money, or you’ll tell everyone the truth.”
Always looking for ways to control people, Sarah thought as she drew Josie from her shawl. “Flora, can you hold Josie?”
Flora opened her hands. “Come here, luv.”
“No! No!” Josie buried her head against her mother’s chest.
Guy bent down until he was eye to eye with Josie. “You won’t cry for your Uncle Guy, will you? Come now. Your mother needs to tend to the others.”
Sarah swallowed a scream as Josie happily let Guy draw her away.
“There now.” Guy drew the downy curls from Josie’s forehead. “It’s not so bad in Uncle Guy’s arms, is it?” He sat by the table and rested Josie on his knee, bouncing her as she giggled. “You’re going to cause me loads of trouble when you’re wee older. You’ll break as many hearts as your pretty mama.”
Sarah quietly snorted at the idea of breaking hearts. The only heart she seemed to have broken over and over was her own. She handed Flora the lungwort. “Please add this to Caroline’s tea. Let it steep for fifteen or so minutes before pouring.” Sarah went about making an ointment for her son’s lips.
Nicholas had plopped down, cross-legged, at Guy’s feet like a worshipful puppy. “I kept my arms up, protecting my face like you showed me.”
“You gave that boy a beating he’s not likely to forget for a long time. Now he’ll fear you and not cross you again.” This was Guy’s idea of a compliment.
“I’m going to practice fighting every day so no one will bother me.” A primal, violent gleam that scared Sarah burned in Nicholas’ eyes. Every man in her life had a cruel side—her father, Markham, Joe—and she tried to keep Nicholas from becoming like them. Was she fighting against a too-powerful tide? Could her love not temper the cruel blood of his father running in Nicholas’ veins, nor help him rise above the trappings of Angel Meadow?
Sarah knelt and began to wash the blood from her son’s face while she fought back tears. “Let’s not talk of fighting anymore.” She wished she could wipe away the pride burning in his cheeks as easily as the blood. Nicholas had the fine-boned face of an aristocrat, not one of a common scuttler. She could feel the heat of Guy’s eyes on her skin as she gently applied the ointment to her son’s injured lips.
“You’re a lucky boy to have your mother, who loves you so much,” Guy told Nicholas. “I haven’t told you the story of when I first met her, have I, Nickie-boy?”
“I don’t think we need to hear that now,” Sarah said, but her words were drowned out by Nicholas’ loud entreaties to Guy.
“When you first moved into Angel Meadow, you were a small lad.” Guy leveled his palm by his knee. “Not this high. I was keen on having a music hall over in Lower Mosley Street. The gentleman running that neighborhood and I didn’t see eye to eye on matters of daily governance. Joe was still … Well, this was before Joe turned—”
“Before Joe turned really bad?” Nicholas finished. No affection in his voice.
Guy nodded. “Aye, back when he was a proper mate. Back when I could count on him.”
Sarah rose and rinsed the soiled, bloody cloth. She checked the tea and nodded to Flora that it was ready. Joe had stolen a few things here and there between jobs, but he had never committed the kind of heinous crimes that Guy was willing to do. Joe had lost a job in a cotton factory when he first met Guy. He and Guy had come from the same area of Ireland and even knew a few of the same people. Joe thought he had finally found the place and people in this world where he belonged. But after a few months with Guy, Joe had turned quiet, sinking into himself, and drinking harder and earlier in the day.
Guy continued his story of that awful evening. “The man sent his boys around to Angel Meadow, where my mates and I were convening. He wanted to convince me to take my business elsewhere.”
“Was there a big fight!?”
“No more talk of fighting!” Sarah cried, accidentally splashing the tea she was pouring for Caroline.
“Aye, I’m upsetting your mother’s gentle nature.” Guy waved his hand. “Me apologies. I must practice being gentler. I’m rarely in the refreshing company of true ladies.” He nodded to Nicholas. “Let’s just say, when I rejected their proposal, they … Well, you left that Ancoat lad in better shape than the surgery they performed on me with their fists and whatnot.”
Sarah rescued Josie from Guy’s lap. The little girl snuggled into Sarah’s breasts. “Mama. Mama. Mama.”
Guy studied mother and daughter, an enigmatic glow lurking in his eyes. “I remember Joe and the lads carrying me to my bed.” Guy spoke softer, lower than before. “I woke up, and the morning light was soft on your mama’s face like she was a proper angel. I never had such gentle fingers laid upon me. I begged her, like a little boy, I did, not to leave me. And she stayed by my side all day, watching over me. Sometimes, I thought I was just dreaming her, but I would open me eyes, and she would be there. Steadfast, she was.”
Sarah didn’t correct Guy’s version of that day. She was hardly an angel. Joe had fetched her in the dark, early hours. A fine, large coat that hadn’t been his had hung on his slender frame. When he’d taken it off, his shirt had been bathed in blood. She remembered the tremor in her voice when she had whispered to him, “Oh, Joe, what have you done?” Sarah had stayed at Guy’s bedside only because Joe had begged her. He’d been properly terrified of Guy by then.
Looking back, Sarah believed Joe used the alcohol in a way that he couldn’t acknowledge to distance himself from Guy, the things Guy had required from him, and from thinking too hard about what Joe had become. Joe had always carried on about what a brute his own father had been. Joe had hope he could rise above Ireland, the famine, and his father. Manchester and Guy had crushed that hope.
“What did you do to the other men?” Nicholas asked.
“Hush,Nicholas.” With her eyes, Sarah implored Guy to stop.
Guy hiked the edge of his mouth. “Aye, Nickie-boy, that’s a story for a pint between men. Let’s just say I protect the people loyal to me. I take care of them. Like you must take care of your mama. That’s what a son … a man does.”
“Joe said he would take care of us, but he never did.” Nicholas’ nostrils flared with his breathing. “I’m glad Joe is dead!”
“Nicholas!” Sarah cried. “Don’t ever say that!”
“Well, I am.” Nicholas set his chin in that obstinate way. “He hurt you. I’m glad he’s not my father. No one will ever hurt you again!”
Sarah rubbed her temple, so tired of this discussion. “Joe is your father.”
“No, he’s not! He was a bloody drunk who pissed on himself.”
“I saw him, Mama! He had pissed all over himself and was begging for money. He was always carrying on how I was a bastard and that I was lucky that he didn’t leave me on the street.”
Nicholas didn’t remember Joe before gin had yellowed his ocean-blue eyes. Nicholas had been but a toddling child when Joe had still possessed his happy smile and called Sarah “his princess” in his lovely Irish lilt. Joe had managed to keep the demons from the famine inside then. But alas, they’d been too strong for him … and Sarah. She and Nicholas had fled from Joe just weeks before he had been arrested.
Guy tousled Nicholas’ hair. “Aye, don’t upset your mother like Joe used to.” The comparison instantly quieted the boy. “And, if you want to know the fine company you share, I’m a bastard meself. Don’t let anyone make you or your mother feel ashamed of it.”
“You are?” Nicholas was utterly in Guy’s thrall now. “Where’s your mother?”
Guy shrugged. “I hardly remember her now. She died when I was six, right after we got here. A man beat her. I couldn’t stop … I couldn’t …” His swallow audibly clicked. “Sorry, Nickie-boy, your mother wants me to keep my stories nice like. Anyway, I’ve been me own man ever since.”
This was the first crack in Guy’s hard veneer she’d witnessed. She knew nothing about his past, other than he came from Ireland as a small boy and a grew up on these streets, fighting his way up on the criminal hierarchy. Maybe it was some deep maternal instinct to comfort that made her unthinkingly reach out and touch his shoulder. By the time she had realized her mistake, it was too late. He locked his fingers around her, a dangerous, possessive gleam in his pale eyes. “Nicholas, take your sister,” he whispered.
Guy led her into the front room, shutting the door behind him. “Come here.” He drew her close as a predatory smile snaked across his mouth. Though his muscles were as solid as stones, his voice was a low purr. “Sarah, I’m not waiting anymore. See, I’ve given you plenty o’ time to forget about Joe. And Josie’s not a little infant now. It’s time you came with me. Look at this.” He gestured to the room. His gold ring glinted in the sparse light. “I can give you better than this. I’ll be better for you than Joe was.”
She gazed down. Her time was up. She had been fending him off with excuses: She was mourning for Joe, Josie was still suckling night and day. She had no more to give, but she didn’t want to consign her life away to another man or entrench Nicholas into Guy’s brutal way of living. But what she wanted had never mattered. Her feelings and desires meant as much to Guy as they had to Markham, her father, and Joe. Nothing. Everything in her life came down to what she had to do to keep herself and her children alive. Sarah had taken Joe’s drunken blows and shielded her son from them because Joe provided at home. At least, he had in the beginning. Now she was being forced into a relationship with a man who may have had something to do with her husband’s alleged crime and possibly even his death. Yet, she couldn’t live in Manchester with Guy as an enemy. She couldn’t protect her son if all of Angel Meadow and the nearby neighborhoods turned on her. Today Nicholas had Guy there to safeguard him, but scuttlers often pounded their enemies to death. Last year, the Ancoats smashed the skull of the fourteen-year-old boy who had lived further down the street.
Guy rested his long fingers on either side of her face, turning her head up. “Have a little faith in me, woman. You were mine from that morning I woke up and saw you. Joe wasn’t good enough for you. I knew you married him because you were scared. I don’t look down on you none for Nicholas’ circumstances. I see how you are with the children. You would sacrifice anything for them. I want you to feel that way for me.”
“I’m … I’m scared of you,” she admitted.
“Me? Scared of me? Have I yelled at you, or hit you like Joe did?”
He hiked his mouth into a half smile and touched her cheek. His eyes glowed with hunger. “I’d sooner punch a priest than lay a hand on your beautiful face.”
“I … I don’t want Nicholas to live like …” She stopped before she admitted that she didn’t want Nicholas to be like him. Guy dealt in violence. He had used his fists and weapons to establish his dominance in this ugly place. She didn’t want her son to turn as mean and vicious as Guy and the other men in his world. They lived short, brutal lives. She couldn’t bear to lose Nicholas this way. He was a gentle, beautiful boy.
“I-I don’t want Nicholas to get hurt.”
“If a man’s not willing to fight for his family or mates, what kind of man is he now? I’m trying to show Nicholas how to be a man. How to take care of you and Josie. Men sniff out weakness like a runt in a litter. For God’s sake, you have him collecting bloody flowers like a little girl. You say you don’t want him to get hurt, but I can tell you this, the more you coddle him, the more they’ll come after him, and the more he’ll get hurt.”
The man seemed to know the fears that jolted her from her sleep in the cold, dark, early hours.
“You don’t understand me because you’re better than me, Sarah. You’ve got a soft heart—all loving and kind. But you can’t take care of yourself. You’ve got to be protected. If it weren’t for me, who knows what the lads would do to you or Maisie or her girls? They stay away because they know you’re mine.” His warm lips grazed her neck. “I’m going to show you what that means.” His mouth closed over hers.
The kiss wasn’t unpleasant. He wasn’t rough or tasting of gin like Joe had. She could feel his carnal longing, yet she felt nothing inside. She had learned to placate Joe by shutting off her mind as her body had gone through the act like an automaton. Years ago, Markham’s merest touch had caused her body to heat with want. She wondered if the part of her that could feel desire had died. If so, it was for the best. Yearning brought her only pain.
Guy tore away. “Gather your things, Sarah,” he whispered, his voice hoarse. “I’m taking you away from here. I’m not waiting for you any longer.”
She glanced out the window. Through the wavy glass, she could see weary workers staggering in and out of the gin parlor, their eyes glazed with inebriation. A rail-thin prostitute beckoned to them as they passed. Sarah felt as though she were being pulled below Angel Meadow, its weight burying her alive.
“I … I need time to finish things with Maisie,” she stammered. “I can’t simply leave her. Give me a week. I must … make myself and the children ready. I shall wean Josie, for she still suckles at night.”
She kissed him again and pressed her breasts against him to stop further bargaining. One of the many hard lessons she had learned from Markham and Joe was that the only true power she possessed over a man was her body.
The letter remained unopened overnight on the kitchen table.
“It won’t read itself,” Maisie dryly quipped the following morning when she moved the letter aside to make space for neatly folding Mrs. Hargrove’s new gowns.
Sarah wrapped a damp, layered cloth around the handle of a hot iron and lifted it from the stove. The morning was peaceful, as if yesterday hadn’t happened. She wanted to keep it that way a little longer. Nicholas sat cross-legged by the stove, guarding Josie from it while playing with his toy soldiers. He possessed only one actual toy soldier, which Joe had obtained from somewhere. The rest of his army was fashioned of rocks and hay. Sarah smiled. Nicholas resembled her little boy again. “Let us worry about this order. Then perhaps I shall open it.”
The women carried the gowns to Mrs. Hargrove’s house and were admitted through the servants’ entrance. They returned home three hours later, a half sovereign richer and with Mr. Hargrove’s soiled laundry, as well as leftover meat bones.
The letter still waited.
“Shall Caroline open it for you?” Maisie nodded to the letter. Caroline had attended school for two years when her father was still alive and was the best reader of the children in their household. Nicholas attended school here and there as they moved about. Sarah had intended to teach him what little she knew. Yet, the mundane tasks keeping her family sheltered, clothed, and fed commanded all her time, so Nicholas’ education kept getting pushed off.
Another little pin of guilt jabbed in her heart. Maybe with Guy she could send Nicholas to school again. Was she being selfish to be so resentful toward Guy? She didn’t want to think this way. In fact, she didn’t want to think about Guy at all.
“Very well, I shall read the vile thing.” Sarah picked up the letter.
She took Josie’s hand and guided her out the door onto the small, bricked courtyard shared by the neighbors. The clotheslines zigzagged between the houses, drooping with damp pants and gowns. The smell of urine wafting from the communal privy further soured the air that was always thick with coal dust from the spewing smokestacks, which rose as high as the church steeples.
Sarah slid her small nail under the seal. Just as the letter carrier had stated, another letter waited inside in a badly torn envelope. It had been sent to Salford. She hadn’t lived there in seven years. The only word of the address that Sarah could make out was Sulling—her childhood village!
She ripped out the letter. A roar, like rushing water, filled her brain as she unfolded the mourning stationery. Oh God, not her mother! No! Not her. She ran her finger along the lines, picking out the words she could read.
Dear Mrs. Joe Ward,
I am Edward Harmon, the vicar in your childhood village of Sulling. Sadly, I must inform you that your father passed from this world on the 4th of December. Upon his death, your mother chanced upon your letters. She had not known these letters existed or that you had tried to correspond with her. Mrs. Creswick came to me in a most anxious state, imploring me to read the letters to her. Tears flowed from her eyes as I told her about your marriage and of her grandson, Nicholas. Although a number of years have passed since your last letter, I hope that this letter finds you and that you consent to grant your mother her most fervent wish of resuming your correspondence or visiting her.
Sarah squatted down and pressed her hand to her mouth.
“What does it say?” Maisie leaned against the doorframe. Sarah hadn’t heard her come outside.
“My father died. No—” She held out her palm, halting any condolences. “I’m not sad. He despised me so much that he hid my letters from my mother. He didn’t let her know … she …”
Hot tears streamed from her eyes.
Josie wrapped her chubby arms around her mother.
Sarah rubbed her cheek against her daughter’s silken hair. “Oh, luv,” she cried. “We’re going home.”
She rose, clutching Josie. Despite the sleepless night of sewing by the lantern while worrying about Guy, she felt energy surge through her body. She wanted to toss what belongings they could fit in a bag and leave on the earliest train away from this hell.
Maisie’s distraught face stopped Sarah’s progress. “If you go, will you come back? What about Caroline?”
Sarah paused, confused. Her mind had bolted like a wild horse, already yards away. Dear Lord! Maisie thought Sarah was leaving her and her daughters behind in this wretched place.
She remembered knocking on Maisie’s door on a frigid February afternoon. She’d hardly known anything about Maisie except that she’d been recently widowed, in possession of a home, and that Sarah had saved Maisie’s daughter Caroline from the brink of death. Maisie had cracked the door and peered out. Sarah’s eye had throbbed from where Joe had punched her. She’d clutched Nicholas’ hand as the boy whimpered, his frightened face wet with tears. She had missed her menses by several days by then, but she hadn’t been concerned. She hadn’t been able to carry a baby past two months since Nicholas. I can’t live with Joe anymore, Sarah had cried to Maisie. We’ve nowhere to go. I helped you. Please help me.
Sarah set down Josie and embraced her friend. “You and the girls must come, too, if my mother lets me stay. I’ll find a way. We are sisters now.”