Muse Books
The Duke's Men, Book 1
Release Date:

Jun 13, 2024



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The Lady and the Thief


Kate Moore

In 1835 London, companion Vivian Bradish daringly pursues her dream of being a writer by researching and notating her ailing employer’s new book–A Guide to London for Fearless Women. Posing as a mark, Viv boldly enters a street known for pickpockets. When she’s attacked, she accidentally shoots the handsome gentleman who aids her. She brings the wounded stranger to her employer’s home for medical aid, but they are caught in a compromising situation, threatening Viv’s position and dreams.

Her would-be rescuer, Lark, was once a Lost Boy, part of a gang of street urchins and pickpockets rescued by the Duke of Wenlocke. Reformed, he’s now Edward Larkin, posing as a gentleman and searching for clues to his past. Meeting Viv is unexpected, and to save her position in the household, he proposes a fake betrothal.

To “court her,” Lark promises to guide her through the streets of the London she’s never seen so she can finish the book, never dreaming his impulse to help Viv will lead him to his lost family.

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Chapter One

London, April 1835

Lark ducked into a shadowy by-street off the Strand. A narrow slit of fading blue to the west where the street rejoined the main thoroughfare told him the shops would not close for an hour or more. He fingered the ring in his pocket. He had expected the ring to trigger a memory of his mother, but the experiment failed. Now, as he had promised, he was to meet his former partner, Rook, at the meeting place Rook chose.

Babylon Street, as infamous for the display of erotic prints in its shop windows as for the grime on its cobbles, was a street where the clumsiest of pickpockets could do a prig. Even coppers stopped to stare at print shop windows, the target of all the proper souls of London’s Anti-Vice Society. As Lark slipped into a doorway to wait for Rook, his gaze caught on a chunk of clear ethereal-blue sky, where no sky should be, on the dirty stones in front of Number 36.

For a moment, it seemed to his disoriented senses as if London’s unusual spell of dry weather had cracked the sky like an old plaster ceiling, and a piece of it had fallen into the street. He grabbed the door frame where he stood, anchoring himself against a sudden tide of other memories, not the one he sought. He glanced up at the jagged line of gables and chimney pots, half-expecting to see a gaping black hole in the sky above them. The days when he and Rook and all of the lost boys, Robin, Finch, Raven, Swallow, and Jay, had roamed the rooftops of London under the sky with Boy, their leader, were long gone. Lark and Rook had stayed firmly on the ground for years, never speaking of old days or old friends. Even now when Lark had ended their partnership, Rook kept their original suite of rooms, and the charwoman Lark had hired to clean for them. For Rook, London offered an endless supply of gulls, unwary or distracted enough to give up the contents of their pockets. But Lark had investments now and money in Hammersley’s Bank, and a new set of rooms not far from Regent’s Park.

Memory was a teasing jade. When Lark worked to summon her and question her about the secret of his birth, she fled. Now she came on strong. Lark shook off the unwanted recollections of his old companions. Ten years had passed since he’d left them behind. What appeared to be a piece of sky was merely a woman in a fashionable blue dress. In Babylon Street that dress made her a mark.

The mark stretched out one feminine gloved hand over the display of dusty books in front of Number 36. A bag in rich blue velvet dangled from her wrist on thin gold cords. From the tautness of the cords, Lark put the bag’s weight at two pounds. The lady had come prepared to shop, and the titles on the sagging shelf above the pavement appeared to engross her. Lark should warn her that she was tempting fate. Rook made a pass behind her, close enough to brush against her skirts. She never broke her trance-like concentration. Rook would pass again. He glanced at Lark for a signal, which Lark refused to give. He was there to persuade Rook to quit the game and take up some legitimate enterprise.

Lark looked up and down the street, assessing the scene. Recent plans to tear the street down had come to nothing. From the north end a one-horse cab approached, forcing pedestrians to keep to the pavement under the gabled projections of the old houses. Today the usual mix of London’s citizens passed by, tradesmen and gentlemen, ladies and drabs. People who knew the neighborhood used the by-street to go about their business more quickly than the crowded Strand permitted. Other persons, the ones Rook watched for, came into the street drawn by its reputation for radical politics and erotic prints. The mark remained absorbed in her book. No doubt Rook pegged her as an easy prig.

Lark had his doubts. In the past, his job had been to read the mark and signal a yes or no to Rook. He gave the woman a more thorough scrutiny. The vivid freshness of her appearance in the grimy street was a mystery. She was more fit for Regent Street than for her sordid surroundings. Her gown of figured blue silk had the nipped waist and full skirts of the current fashion. A short dove-colored cape covered her from shoulder to waist. A plain close-fitting bonnet concealed her face, and made it impossible to guess her age. His mind rapidly calculated the sums she must have paid for fabric and dressmaker, shoes, and petticoats. Unlike the other women in the street, she appeared to be alone. He didn’t like it. Going unaccompanied to one of London’s most infamous streets spoke of bold independence.

A sign above Number 36 read SCHOOL BOOKS. Lark wondered whether the lady’s eyes had widened as she read the actual titles of the volumes on that hanging shelf. He knew them well. The Adventures of Lady Lovesport and The Lustful Turk were the tamest titles of the lot. She tipped a book free of its neighbors and held it open in one palm. With the movement of her arm, the heavy purse slid into the crook of her elbow. That bag bothered Lark. The bend in her arm would make Rook’s job harder, but the temptation was great, especially as the lady’s concentration on her book was deep. With her free hand she turned the pages.

Lark glanced up and down the street again. Nothing looked amiss. He did not see any other fellows on the game. A girl passed with a tray of flowers on her head, and a barefoot boy teased a dog with a stick. The blue of the mark’s dress and the memories she stirred were reason enough to warn Rook off. Lark caught Rook’s eye and shook his head.

But Rook went into his act anyway. Rook saw only a pigeon, and pigeons were made to be plucked. Coming along the pavement from the north, he pulled a bottle from his patched greasy coat, took a swig, and lurched forward. His boots, caked in river muck gave off a noxious stench that made people swerve into the street to avoid him. This time when he reached the mark, he slammed into her with his left shoulder, spinning her round. She dropped the book with a startled cry, stumbling back against the hanging shelves and flinging out a hand to catch hold of something. The purse slid down to her wrist. Rook snagged it and staggered on, bent low to the ground, dropping his bottle.

The dropped bottle was Lark’s old cue to enter the scene. He stepped out of the doorway and strode forward. “Miss, may I help? You look …” His voice faltered as he caught sight of her face. Nothing had prepared him for the effect of large, startled dark eyes above cheeks of pearl and roses.

Her dark glance flicked his way and swung back to Rook’s retreating figure. Her expression changed. She righted herself and reached under her short cape.

“Miss?” Lark needed to draw her attention to him. “Has something overset you?”

“No, thank you, I’ve got this.” From under her cape, she drew out a small pistol and pointed it toward Rook. Lark stared at the short-barreled gun, his thoughts scattering like dry leaves in a breeze. It was a Toby, a muff pistol with silver and gold chasings, expensive like everything about the mark. He’d seen such a gun in a shop on Snow Hill, but never in a lady’s hand.

“Stop, thief!” She leveled the barrel at Rook with a steady hand. “I’ll shoot,” she cried, cocking the firing pin with her thumb.

Lark stepped into her line of sight as the approaching cab pulled up beside him. The rumble of iron wheels on cobbles filled his ears. Her finger squeezed the trigger. A hot searing pain bloomed on his right side, and he pressed a gloved hand to his ribs. He had been right to distrust the lay. The lady was not the mark she appeared to be.

“Oh dear.” The woman, not much more than a girl really, lowered the gun. Lark doubted that she was a day over twenty. Her eyes were the deep brown of Turkish coffee, he thought irrelevantly. “How bad is it?” she asked. “Did the bullet lodge? Are you bleeding much?”

“Hard to tell,” he said. It cost him a sharp twinge to speak. “What were you thinking?”

“I might ask you the same. I meant to shoot the thief, not you.” She tucked the pistol away under her cape, and stepped forward. “Why did you come between us?”

“To be of assistance. I could have …” He couldn’t feel blood, just the burning sensation in his side, the sting of burned powder in his nose, and an unaccountable wobbliness in his legs.

“Chased him? I doubt it. I’m sure he’s disappeared across the Strand by now.” Her eyes had a look of disappointment. Something she wanted had eluded her.

A sudden spurt of anger heated him. He suspected that the heavy purse had been a decoy, and he didn’t know whether he was angrier at her or at Rook. “Are you mad?” he demanded. “What lady fires a pistol in a public street? Even the Peelers don’t shoot a man.”

She shot him a glare. “I was assured the police never ventured into this neighborhood.”

“One block from the Strand?”

She shrugged. “I came prepared. Never mind. Let me see what’s happened to you.” She stepped right up to him and gently lifted his hand away from his side. He caught the fragrance of her, something fresh and floral.

“You are bleeding,” she said. Her eyes were earnest now, full of concern.

Lark suddenly knew what verse-writing saps meant about drowning in a pair of eyes.

“I know someone who can help.”

“A good tailor, I hope. You’ve likely ruined my favorite coat.”

“A surgeon. Let me take you to him. That’s my cab, you see.”

He had the oddest feeling that he had been played, that she had seen Rook coming and laid a trap. He couldn’t think clearly, and he had no way to reach Rook. He did want a surgeon, and no questions asked. The only sawbones in this neighborhood had shaking hands and wiped them on his filthy linen. Lark should play out the scene. He couldn’t help Rook now. Rook would wonder where he’d got to, but he’d explain later. “Don’t you want your book?”

“The Spanish Brothers?” She bent down, scooped it from the pavement, and piled it back on the shelf. “No. I don’t need it anymore. Will you tell me your name?”

“Lark…in,” he said. “Edward Larkin.” It was the name he planned to use in his new life, if his old life didn’t do him in first.

She nodded. “Vivian Bradish.”

In the cab, Viv subdued her billowing skirts and stripped off her gloves. She brushed aside the edges of her cape, and twisted to see her companion, a bit startled at his nearness on the narrow seat, so close the scent of his shaving soap reached her, and his coat’s unmistakable tang of London smoke. She was grateful that he’d tipped his head back against the squabs and closed his eyes. His fine, full mouth was pinched. With his eyes closed, he looked young, almost boyish. She doubted he was thirty.

“We’ll be there in no time,” she told him. “May I see the wound?”

“Are you a doctor?” he snapped.

“I’ve done my share of nursing.” She supposed he was justified in sounding cross, as the cab jolted over the cobbles. Any distraction she could offer might help. “Do you have a clean handkerchief?”

“In my pocket.” He didn’t move, and his arrogant profile gave no indication which pocket he meant. Now that she could observe him more carefully, she noted the richness of his brown tweed coat with its velvet collar. His black silk tie was perfectly tied and held in place by a single gold stickpin. His waistcoat was an old gold silk jacquard, and his linen was dazzling. With one hand he clung to his hat, with his other hand he pressed his side where her bullet had grazed him. She hoped it was no more than a small groove in his flesh, but the ball might have hit a rib. Her Toby pistol was a lady’s gun, meant to dissuade would-be robbers, but at a distance of mere yards, it packed a punch.

If he did not have the sense to apply a handkerchief to his wound, she would have to do it. She dipped her hand into the outer pocket of his coat. Her fingers closed not around linen, but around a ring. She pulled it out and held it in her palm. The stone was a square-cut garnet, framed by two rows of tiny pearls, set in a gold band. It was a lady’s ring, and for a minute she could not imagine what it was doing there.

She became conscious of his gaze on her and lifted her chin. His deep-set eyes were startlingly blue.

“You’ve never seen a ring before?” he asked.

“I beg your pardon,” she said. “Were you about to propose marriage?”

He laughed and immediately groaned. “Do ladies always think of marriage when they see a ring?”

Up behind them on his perch, the driver turned the cab west into the traffic of the Strand. Viv dropped her gaze. She wasn’t going to admit past folly. Two years had passed since she’d been a green girl in a Bath ballroom, dazzled by a gentleman’s attentions. “I only meant that if there is a lady waiting for your addresses, we should get a message to her so that she doesn’t worry.”

“You think I was about to propose in a shabby street full of dirty books?”

“Oh.” She looked up again. She had stung him somehow. There was a curl to his lips and a tone of offended pride in his voice. She stuffed the ring back in his pocket and stared out over the horse’s head. He meant to be a disagreeable patient. She resolved to let him.

The cab rattled along, bumping her leg against his, and jostling them shoulder to shoulder, every move stirring awareness of his lean, taut body. She balled her hands into fists in her lap. He didn’t want her help.

“I have the ring because the lady … ended our betrothal.” He rushed the words a little, offering more than she’d asked. He leaned his head against the squabs again just as the cab stopped in the bottleneck of the Temple Bar. Over the centuries the monumental white stone structure with its single narrow arch for horse-drawn vehicles had become a traffic stopper. There was talk of tearing it down. Around them, drivers of every sort cursed each other to no avail.

“We’re not moving, so you’d better let me see to that wound.”

She didn’t wait for a reply, but opened the front of his coat. A bit of fine lawn cloth peeked from an inside pocket. She plucked it out and laid it in her lap. He plainly had a taste for expensive things. Gently she lifted his hand from his side, uncovering a singed black hole in his waistcoat. Around it, blood had stained the silk in streaks, like storm-reddened clouds at dawn.

“Why were you there?” she asked him. “It was oddly fortuitous, was it not?”

“If you call getting shot fortuitous.”

She ignored the sarcasm, unhooked the fob of his watch, and went to work on the buttons of his waistcoat until she could fold it open. The same black mark marred his shirt, and blood had plastered the sheer linen to his skin in a fist-sized blotch. The wound would need to be cleaned and dusted with basilicum powder. With her fingertips she peeled away the stained patch of shirt. A slight tremor shook him, and he inhaled sharply.

“What I can’t work out is why you stepped in the way?”

“I couldn’t let you shoot some poor wretch in the back.”

“I aimed only to wound.” She tugged at his shirt to free it from his trousers. His body arched briefly and froze. She halted.

“And you never miss? Lots of practice shooting fellows?” He spoke through gritted teeth.

“What makes you think the man was a poor wretch? Did you see him?”

“Who else would set upon a lady in broad daylight in a London street?”

“I expected the low ruffian. He was just what I imagined a pickpocket would be. Except for the stink.” She managed to free the long tail of his shirt.

“You imagined a ruffian stinking of beer and gin?”

“Oh, that would be a cliché. This fellow reeked of something much worse. But you … you just appeared, you know, completely out of character with the place.” Viv gathered the ends of his shirt in her hands. She had been falling backward, reaching for something to catch hold of when she heard him speak in a voice fit for a Mayfair drawing room. It had turned her attention from the fleeing purse snatcher.

“I was on my way to Lincoln’s Inn on business. You’re the one who was out of place, staring at those titles. Don’t you have any female …”

The cab lurched into motion. Viv pressed the folded handkerchief against his side. Her fingers brushed his skin, sticky with blood and pebbled with a chill. He sucked a breath through his teeth. She placed his hand back over the wound to hold the handkerchief and tied the ends of his shirt in a knot. He might look a little odd, but her arrangements would hold the wound until they arrived at Henrietta Street.

“Decency? Is that the word you’re looking for? I have no use for it.” She settled back in her seat. “I suppose you are one of those men who think women must be sheltered and coddled their whole lives as if we had no right to walk the streets?”

“You don’t mean that you were walking the streets,” he said. “And, if you’re so keen on an unaccompanied stroll, there are a thousand other streets to choose.”

“Why should women not freely go where men freely go?”

“Because they’ll be treated as doxies … or pigeons.”

“Wait. You think we women are helpless.”

“I don’t think it. I saw it. You were falling backward, and a bundle of rags, and probably lice, was running away with what? Your purse?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Things hadn’t gone exactly as she’d planned, but there was no need to tell him the true contents of that purse. He was already annoyed by her shooting him.

“I think it does. You looked quite disappointed to lose that purse.”

Somehow, he’d got the upper hand in the argument again. “Fine, if you must know, I was waiting for a story to happen. I collect them. A different story for each street. That’s what London is—a book of a thousand stories. Your pickpocket was my story. He’d already passed me once.”

“You were trying to lure the pickpocket to you?” He sounded incredulous. “You wanted him to snatch your purse? Are you cork-brained?”

“I did not want him to take my purse. Well, maybe I did, but only because I wanted to talk to him. A pickpocket must know London, and he must be a keen observer of his fellow man, don’t you think?”

“The way a stray dog is a keen observer of crumbs. A pickpocket sees his fellow men, as you put it, as gulls.”

“You are too harsh. I’m curious. I want to know London as it really is not merely its polite spaces.”

“Babylon Street is definitely not a polite space for a woman to be in.”

She twisted to confront him directly, and poked him in the chest. He pressed back against the side of the cab. “Well, is it any better a space for a man? Why didn’t the pickpocket target you? You are a no less a prize, a fine gentleman with a watch.”

“I was not standing idle with my head in a book.”

“Hah,” she said. “Next I suppose you’ll accuse women of being overcome by fiction.”

The cab halted in front of the house on Henrietta Street, and Viv reached for her purse, which wasn’t there. She clasped her hands in her lap. Again, her deception came back to bite her. Shooting Mr. Larkin over the few pebbles she’d weighted her purse with to lure the pickpocket was most inconvenient. She could hardly pull up her skirts to reach her concealed stash. She looked up at the house. Its neat stone exterior gave no indication of who might be standing ready to answer the door. She stiffened her spine.

“Let me guess,” he said, leaning to speak in her ear. “You just realized that it might be awkward to bring a bleeding stranger into your family’s drawing room.”

“Not at all.” She hopped down from the cab and turned to grin up at him. “But you’ll have to pay the driver, as my purse was pinched.”

End of Excerpt

The Lady and the Thief is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-962707-13-8

June 13, 2024

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