When your closest friends are strangers you meet on the street,
it is time to introduce your neglected, silly heart to a more meaningful beat.
-The School of Gallantry
London, England 1830
Clipstone Street, early afternoon
Miss Leona Olivia Webster was used to being a pariah. Yes, there were days it was difficult to accept that her only relative and all of society thought she was a whore unworthy of pity, but she had learned that wallowing in one’s misery left very little room for much else. As a mother, it was imperative she set a good example by showing her son one could and should remain optimistic. Even during the worst of times.
Which was why, without any visible regret, she lingered by the steps of the tenement and watched an array of her son’s expensive clothing and toys as they were carried down the cobbled street by unshaven creditors who spat out chewing tobacco every few steps.
Well. At least she didn’t owe anyone anymore money.
A small hand tugged at her skirts. “Mama?”
“They took Jesus.”
She paused. “What?”
“My bear,” he whined. “The one you bought for me last week. I named him Jesus like Mrs. Henderson told me to. And those men took him. They took him.”
Leona glanced down at her six-year-old son with a quirked brow. “Are you certain? Because I paid one of those gentleman two shillings to leave him behind. I was going to surprise you with it later. Mrs. Henderson had just enough to save him. He is waiting upstairs on the table.”
His lips pinched together and shook his head, sending strands of dark hair into his eyes. “No. He isn’t. They took him.”
She squinted. “Are you certain?”
“Yes. They stuffed him into a crate and carried him off like some…some…criminal! Whatever will become of him? I might die knowing I’ll never see him again.” He gaped up at her. “Speaking of death, Mrs. Henderson says children who aren’t baptized go to hell. Is that true?”
She tsked. “Don’t listen to what Mrs. Henderson says. Her husband used to commit forgeries for the aristocracy and was hanged for it. It scared the poor dear into going to church far more than any person should.” The elderly woman, who was a very, very distant cousin, went every morning, every afternoon and sometimes, when the spirit moved her, she would knock on the locked doors of the church at night, yelling about her need for salvation.
Jacob’s brows flickered. “Why haven’t I been baptized? Don’t I deserve to be?”
She softened her voice. “Of course you do. But the circumstance of your birth makes it difficult.”
“So I’m going to hell?”
“No. Of course not.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t. But if hell does exist, I hardly believe God would send a child into the flames merely because a bit of water wasn’t splashed on its head. You’re a good boy, dearest, and that is all that matters. Hell has nothing to do with it.”
Jacob chewed on his lower lip before tugging on her skirts again. “Mama?”
“Please don’t let the creditors take my bear. Please.”
She leaned down, and smiling as brightly as she could, tweaked his freckled nose. “I promise he isn’t going anywhere. They should have left him on the table, but obviously there could have been a mistake. Let me see if they accidentally took him. I’ll be right back.”
Jacob’s green eyes brightened. “Can we buy Jesus a new cravat? He needs one.”
She sighed. “Aside from the fact that we can’t afford it, can you please name him something else? It’s incredibly inappropriate.”
“But Mrs. Henderson thinks it to be a brilliant name.”
“And it is. Believe me, it is. But Mrs. Henderson also thinks we should crawl on our knees to Jerusalem.”
“I take it Jerusalem is very far?”
“Yes. Very. So very far our knees would disappear in an attempt to get there. The sad truth is, Jacob, I cannot and will not support a religion that won’t baptize you. It’s wrong.” She brushed his hair away from his forehead. “Now please. Name the bear something else.”
Jacob tapped his chin thoughtfully with two fingers. “What about Mister Moses?”
She supposed there were worse things a child could believe in other than God. He could be worshipping the devil. “I…fine. That name will do just fine. Now stay here. We don’t want Mister Moses disappearing into the Red Sea, do we?” Hurrying down the stone stairs of the tenement, she gathered her calico skirts and bustled down the busy street, dodging women and men on the pavement. “Gentlemen!” she called out to those loading the cart. “Gentlemen, pardon the delay, but my son seems to think you’ve taken his bear. Do you know where it is?”
One of them shoved her belongings further into the cart. Adjusting his sweat-soaked shirt, he playfully clicked his tongue at her. “I’ll be your bear.”
It was humiliating. And even worse? They didn’t care that it was humiliating. “I don’t associate with hairy clackboxes,” she tossed back in a much sharper tone. “Now where is the bear? Don’t make me climb into that cart, gentlemen, because I’ll throw everything out of it and ensure you’re here all week. Is that what you want?”
Eyeing her, they busily tied items into place with tangled rope.
Men. They thought because she was barely five feet in height, they could take advantage of her. She trooped over to the bearded male who had earlier taken her money. “I paid two shillings for my son’s toy to be left behind. I put it into your hand when you first came upstairs collecting items. Now where is it? It was supposed to have been left on the table.”
He shrugged. “I don’t recall touching it.” He lifted several items and passed them off to the others. “But if you yank on my cock a few times, I might remember.”
They all laughed.
She glared. “You bring nothing but shame to your poor mothers. My only hope is that they’re all dead so they don’t have to suffer knowing their sons are morons.” Letting out a disgusted breath, she shook her head and rounded the wooden cart. Standing up on the tips of her slippered toes, she lifted her chin to peer inside. Only she couldn’t see.
Propping up a leather slipper onto the cart, she hoisted herself up over the side to better see over the wooden railing and into the box below. She scanned the gathered items of mantle clocks, books, and other countless items belonging to other unfortunate souls whom the creditors had earlier called upon in the name of debt. She paused. In the very corner of all the clutter, directly below where she was propped against the cart, a bear made out of fuzzy grey wool with a satin cravat neatly tied around its throat caught her attention.
The bastards. Not even a child’s toy was safe from the world.
Leaning forward against the laced constraints of her corset, Leona reached over the side of the wooden cart. After a few huffing swipes, she grabbed it up by the ear using the very tips of her fingers and brought its arm up to her mouth knowing she had to keep her hands free to get down. Clamping her teeth onto the woolen arm, she leaned back and lowered herself off the cart, hopping back down onto the cobbled street. Removing the bear from between her teeth, she grinned and dusted it off in triumph, feeling as if she had climbed a mountain in Tibet for it.
Not that she would ever leave the country or climb anything outside of a few flights of stairs.
A grubby, hairy-infested hand seized her wrist hard, making her jump. “Put it back,” the bearded man rasped, his breath as rotten as his teeth. “Before I make you regret you have tits.”
She gasped. “You, sir, are as rude as you are disgusting.” She tried shaking the man’s hand off, while still holding onto the bear. “Now let go! I paid for it!”
The creditor grabbed the bear with his other hand and narrowed his gaze. “This here be the property of the debts you owe. Two shillings isn’t going to save this bear or anything else in the cart. Now unless you’re willing to fuck every last one of us right here on the street, you’d best put it back.”
If she wasn’t already wrangling for the bear with both hands, she would have smacked him into the street and out of England for such language. “Let go or I swear I’ll swing at far more than your pea-sized bollocks, you-you…rumpot!” Thankfully her son wasn’t within hearing distance. Because she wasn’t being a very good role model. She tightened her hold on the bear and gritted her teeth in an effort to hold on, praying the thing wouldn’t rip in half. “Now let go!”
“Not until you pay the debt!” The creditor kept tugging on the bear.
“One would think I owe you a hundred pounds! And I don’t! Now let go of the damn bear!”
A male figure loomed beside them. “Is there a problem?” The tone was like velvet, yet it was equally edged with steel.
“Yes!” she piped, still frantically tugging on the toy. “I paid two shillings for this bear. Two!”
“But you owe me five pounds!” the creditor yelled, sending spittle toward Leona. “Five!”
“Minus two shillings,” she sternly corrected, swiping at her face with her free hand. “Which means…I keep the bear. Now stop spitting on me!”
“I’ll do more than spit on you, you damn—”
She winced and held up the plush bear rigidly between them, half expecting to be struck.
It didn’t happen.
The creditor was yanked back hard and shoved against a nearby lamppost by a massive figure dressed in a great coat.
Leona blinked, awkwardly lowering the bear to better see.
The stranger, who was well over six feet, held the creditor firmly by the throat with one hand while digging into his own coat pocket with the other. His large gloved hand retrieved a five pound bank note which he crushed and tucked into the man’s left nostril. “There. Now she owes you nothing. Carry everything back in for the lady before I introduce you to the back of my fist.”
Leona bit back a smile. She had never seen anyone shove money into someone’s nostril before. It was unexpected and creative.
The creditor stilled, his gaze locked on the looming figure that still held him by throat against the lamppost. “I’ll…have my men put everything back,” the man wheezed out, the bank note in his nose twitching.
“You damn well better,” the stranger bit out. “Now get to it.”
Releasing the creditor with a rough push toward the direction of the cart, the gentleman let out a long audible breath. He paused as if realizing she was watching and swung back to her, his dark hair falling into his eyes. He cleared his throat. Adjusting the dark waistcoat that had shifted against his broad chest, he shoved his hair out of his eyes and set his massive shoulders. “People these days have no manners.” His voice broke with huskiness as he intently searched her face. “Are you all right?”
Leona’s stomach flipped as she pressed the bear against her chest in disbelief. Tally-ho. It appeared Hercules had a brother.