The Virgin Who Ruined Lord Gray – Anna Bradley

Sophia Monmouth was the first. She’d been six or seven years old at the time, a tiny, grubby little thing, indistinguishable from every other ragged street urchin in London. Lady Amanda Clifford might not have noticed the girl at all, if it hadn’t been for the blood. It had dried by then, Sophia’s mother having met her fate some days earlier, but such a quantity of blood—great, dark red gouts of it streaked across the child’s pinafore—wasn’t the sort of thing one overlooked. Then there’d been the child’s eyes. Green, rather pretty, but mere prettiness would not have swayed Lady Amanda in Sophia’s favor. No, it was the shrewdness in those green depths that decided her, the cunning. It was far better for a woman to be clever than beautiful. Lady Amanda chose the child’s surname to please herself. Arrogant of her, perhaps, but it was best when Lady Amanda was pleased. As for everyone else… In the Year of Our Lord 1778, Seven Dials was a sweltering, fetid warren of narrow streets, each one piled on top of the next like rotting corpses in a plague pit. One could only assume the doomed souls residing in Monmouth Street weren’t pleased either by the name or by their fate. But it couldn’t be helped. It was pure arrogance to think one could leave their past behind them, the past being, alas, a devious, sneaking thing, apt to spring up at the most inconvenient of moments, in the unlikeliest of places. One could never entirely escape their origins, and Sophia Monmouth—tiny, grubby little thing that she was—was no exception.

And so, her surname was Monmouth, despite it being a name that pleased no one, aside presumably from the succession of dukes who’d borne the title, excepting perhaps the first of them, who’d been beheaded several hundred years earlier. Treason. Grisly business, but then it so often was, with dukes. If Lady Amanda had suffered any misgivings about upending the child’s fate, she didn’t recall them now. And truly, who was to say what fate had decreed on Sophia Monmouth’s behalf? Not Lady Amanda Clifford. After all, if the son of a king could lose his head on the edge of an executioner’s blade, there was no reason to suppose a Seven Dials orphan—tiny, grubby little thing that she was—couldn’t someday turn the tide of history. Chapter One Great Marlborough Street, London Late July, 1793 There was a boy, lying on the roof of Lord Everly’s pediment. Tristan Stratford, Lord Gray, frowned down at the glass of port in his hand. No, it was still half full. He wasn’t foxed.

Delusional, perhaps? It didn’t seem so far-fetched a possibility as it once might have done. Even the sanest of gentlemen could be harassed to the point of hallucinations. But a boy, on his neighbor’s roof? It seemed a curious choice, as far as delusions went. Tristan abandoned his port on the corner of his desk and crept closer to the window. He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath, then snapped them open again. Blinked. There was a boy, lying on the roof of Lord Everly’s pediment. He was a puny specimen, all in black, more shadow than substance, more figment than flesh. Tristan was a trifle disturbed to find he’d conjured such a singular delusion, but questions of sanity aside, a boy on a roof must spark a tiny flicker of interest, even in a chest that had remained resolutely dark and shuttered for weeks. The boy wasn’t doing anything wrong.

Just lying there on his back, quite motionless, staring up at the sky. Still, a boy, on a roof? No good would come of that. Perhaps he should alert someone. It was what a proper neighbor would do. No doubt Everly hadn’t the faintest idea there was a boy on his roof. Even the most perceptive of men might overlook such a thing, and Everly wasn’t the most perceptive of men. Tristan had never cared much for his lordship, Everly being a shifty, squinty-eyed creature, but neither would he stand about gaping while a child thief stripped the man of all his worldly possessions. Whether the boy was real or a product of Tristan’s fevered imagination remained in question, but if he wasn’t a phantom, he was certainly a thief. There could be no innocent explanation for his presence on Lord Everly’s roof. After all, Tristan knew a thief when he saw one.

He’d been a Bow Street Runner, once upon a time. He couldn’t say what he was now. An earl who lazed about and sipped port while his neighbor was robbed, apparently. Another useless earl. Just what London needed. Still, since fate had doomed him to a lifetime of aristocratic idleness, he was obligated to do the thing properly. So, after weeks spent haunting his townhouse, Tristan had reluctantly agreed to accompany his friend Lord Lyndon to White’s tonight. He’d had vague notions of engaging in activities earls were meant to find amusing—drinking, wagering, that sort of thing—but Tristan hadn’t been amused. He’d found it all utterly pointless. He’d left early, and was nearly home before it occurred to him White’s was meant to be pointless.

Pointlessness was, in fact, rather the point. Given that the evening had been a spectacular failure, Tristan didn’t hold out much hope for any of the other gentlemanly pursuits London had to offer. Indeed, after tonight, he couldn’t think of a single reason to remain in the city at all. Aside, perhaps, from the boy on Lord Everly’s roof. Tristan retrieved his port, sank down into his chair, and tipped his glass against his lips. A proper earl didn’t waste perfectly good port. The boy was bound to do something interesting sooner or later. Tristan was content to sip his port, and wait until he did. And wait, and wait, and wait… Time didn’t hesitate to take liberties with Tristan—the past few weeks had dragged on for years—but never had the minutes crawled by as reluctantly as they did now. The shadows lengthened, the fire burned to embers, the long-case clock on the first-floor landing chimed the hours, and somewhere, an entire civilization rose and fell again.

And still, Tristan waited. Surely it was unnatural for any boy to remain motionless for so long? But even when it started raining, the lad never twitched. He simply lay there, still as a corpse— Tristan jerked to his feet, his empty glass tumbling to the floor. He peered down at the still figure, but it was too dark for him to tell if the boy’s chest was moving. Was it possible he was a corpse? How the devil would a corpse end up on Lord Everly’s roof? Then again, if a phantom thief could appear on a roof, mightn’t a phantom corpse do so, as well? No, no. That wouldn’t do. There were limits to what Tristan would tolerate in his delusions. A phantom thief was one thing, but a corpse quite another. That was one hallucination too far. And so, Tristan was left with a single, unavoidable conclusion.

There was a dead boy, lying on the roof of Lord Everly’s pediment. A dead boy on one’s neighbor’s roof wasn’t the sort of thing a gentleman could overlook, and that, Tristan would later reflect, was the cause of all the chaos that followed. If the situation had been even a trifle less alarming than a dead boy on a roof, he might not have ventured out at all. He might have remained in his library, helped himself to another glass of port, and gotten sotted, like a proper earl was meant to do. As it was, chaos found him, and once she had him, she showed him no mercy. She seized him by the neck, sank her talons into his flesh, and hurled him headlong into a tumult without even the courtesy of a second glance. * * * * If Sophia Monmouth had realized how easy it would be to scale the front of a London townhouse, she’d have left her footprints across every rooftop in Mayfair by now. A single leap, and she was balanced on the top edge of the wrought iron railing flanking the stone steps. A bit of a scramble and a discreet shimmy or two, and she was clinging to one of the columns on either side of the front door, her arms and legs wrapped around it, albeit in a most unladylike fashion. From there it had been easy enough to haul herself up and clamber over the edge of the pediment.

Unnecessary risk, Sophia. Lady Clifford’s voice often found its way into Sophia’s head at times like these. If ignoring it caused her the tiniest pang of guilt, Sophia had nonetheless become accustomed to shrugging it off. It wasn’t that Lady Clifford was wrong, exactly. Strictly speaking, Sophia hadn’t had to scale the front of Lord Everly’s townhouse. She could have hidden around a corner or behind a tree like an ordinary intruder, but she’d been curious to see if she could manage the thing. After all, a lady never knew when she’d be obliged to make use of some lord or other’s rooftop. It was a simple matter of knowing one’s capabilities. Besides, where was the fun in being ordinary? She was here now, snug as you please, lying on her back on Lord Everly’s roof. Goodness, he had a great many windows, didn’t he? Six of them on the first floor alone, marching in a tidy row across the front of the townhouse.

The symmetry was pleasing, but then aristocrats did like for things to be in their proper places. All things, not just their windows. Curious, she nudged the toe of her boot into a tiny gap at the bottom edge of the window above her and pushed. It slid open, and an amused snort fell from her lips. Heavens, the nobility were foolish. It would be the easiest thing in the world for her to slip inside the house and pinch the family silver. Truly, it was a pity she wasn’t a thief, because she would have been a tremendously good one. Most of the townhouses on Great Marlborough Street boasted wrought iron railings and columns on either side of the doors with lovely, wide pediments on top. No doubt the aristocratic owners were proud of their pediments, and considered all the cornices, columns, and canopies to be the height of elegance. Ah, well.

Pride was a wicked, detestable sin. Really, what was a wrought iron railing but a footstool, a column, a makeshift ladder, and cornices and decorative arches footholds and finger grips? Rooftops all across Mayfair were now crooking their fingers at Sophia, daring her to attempt them. That was the glorious thing about London, wasn’t it? Just when one thought they knew her, she offered an entirely new landscape, ripe for exploration. As for Lord Everly, his silver was safe enough from her. Fortunately for him, Sophia wasn’t here to steal. She wasn’t here for Lord Everly at all. No, she’d come for someone else, and now there was nothing to do but wait for her quarry to venture out the door. He might not do so tonight, but she’d happily come back for him tomorrow, and every night afterwards until he did. Sophia hummed to herself, gazing up at the dark sky as she waited. After a short time, it began to drizzle.

The fat raindrops struck the slate roof in varying notes, transforming what might otherwise have been a dreary evening into a symphony. She lay still, listening to the rhythmic patter. She’d never minded the rain, but neither had she ever noticed how pleasant the sound of it was. Then again, she’d never been as close to it as she was now. It didn’t have the same pleasing resonance when it hit the pavement, but from up here it was like music, or clocks chiming. The sky above Sophia deepened to an opaque midnight blue as the moments slipped past. The clouds that had been hanging over the city all day skidded this way and that, playing a game of hide and seek with the moon. Yes, she’d be spending more time on London’s rooftops, once this business was done. Her heartbeat took up the soothing tempo of the rain, and it might have lulled her into a doze if the creak of a door opening below hadn’t roused her. Sophia kept her head down, but rolled over and slid on her belly to the edge of the pediment and peered over the side, taking care to keep out of sight.

The street was thick with shadows, but the faint light from the entryway briefly illuminated the figure of a man before he slammed the door behind him. Sophia’s lips curled into a smile. He was a small, rat-like thing, stoop-shouldered and twitchy, easily distinguishable. A flaw, in Sophia’s opinion. Far better to blend, if one was a criminal. He had a pipe between his fingers, and he paused to suck on it before he ambled down the steps and turned left onto Great Marlborough Street, toward Regent Street. A thin stream of smoke trailed after him like a second shadow as he disappeared around the corner. Sophia let him go. There was no need to rush after him. She’d never once lost her quarry, and she wouldn’t lose him now.

She waited, still humming, until the sound of footsteps faded and a glance revealed nothing but the empty street below. She threw her leg over the side of pediment and dangled there for a moment before her foot found the narrow edge at the top of the column. She steadied herself, then shimmied down in the same shocking manner as she’d gone up. She didn’t bother with the railing this time, but dropped lightly down onto the top step, and tugged her dark cap down over her face. She’d been following this man for several weeks now, and knew far more about him than she ever cared to know about any man—which public houses he frequented, which Covent Garden prostitutes he preferred—all to no purpose. But Sophia had been patient, knowing he’d return to the scene of his crime eventually. They always did. * * * * The corpse had moved. That is, the boy—he was very much alive, as it happened—was of an acrobatic turn. He’d rolled across the roof with the ease of a billiards ball across the baize, and now he hung over the edge of the pediment, his legs braced on the roof while his torso hung suspended in midair.

He might yet end up a corpse. An unexpected twitch of a muscle or a sudden breeze and he’d topple over the side like overripe fruit from a tree. Tristan might have put a stop to the business right then—thief or not, he didn’t care to see the boy plunge to his death—but before he could stir, Lord Everly’s door opened and a man emerged. He closed the door behind him, snuffing out the faint light coming from the townhouse, but Tristan got enough of a glimpse of him to determine it wasn’t Everly. He was much smaller than his lordship, who was thick and squat, more spherical than otherwise. Tristan couldn’t see the man’s face, and given the number of people who went in and out of Everly’s townhouse on a given day, he didn’t bother to hazard a guess as to his identity. The man paused to raise the pipe between his fingers to his lips, and then he was off down the street, his gait cocky. Too cocky, the fool. He hadn’t the least idea he was being watched. Tristan didn’t bother to note his direction.

His gaze darted back to the boy, who’d turned his head to follow the man’s progress. He hadn’t moved, but Tristan sensed a sudden tension in that slight frame, the taut stillness of a predator in the seconds before it burst into movement. What were thieves, if not predators? The familiar, restless energy Tristan had given up as lost was now rioting in his veins. A few minutes passed, then a few more, and then…quickly, but as cool as you please, the boy was on his feet and over the side of the pediment. Tristan’s muscles tensed instinctively, as if preparing to catch the boy midfall, but he needn’t have worried. The lad made quick work of the column, scampering down like a monkey. In the next breath he’d dropped onto the street and was gliding after his prey, dark and silent as a shadow. Not a phantom, then, and not a figment. Not a corpse, and not a thief. Oddly, it was this last that surprised Tristan the most, but it didn’t appear as if the boy had been there to steal.

At least, not from Everly. He might intend to pick the pocket of the man he’d followed, but there were plenty of pockets in London ripe for the picking, none of which required a rooftop adventure. Why would this boy risk his neck for the privilege of picking the pocket of a man who, though small, was several heads taller than he was, and outweighed him by at least two stone? Tristan hadn’t the vaguest idea what the boy thought he’d do when he caught up to his victim, but he’d find out soon enough. He was still wearing his boots, and didn’t bother with his greatcoat. Ten seconds later he was on the street in front of his townhouse. By then there was no sign of the boy, but he couldn’t have gotten that far ahead. Damned if the little imp hadn’t perfected the art of disappearing, though, just like a proper phantom. But phantom or not, in the end it wouldn’t matter. Tristan could cross from one end of the city to the other as easily as strolling from his library to his study. He knew every road, every hidden alcove, and every filthy back alley in London.

The boy was clever and quick, but Tristan would catch him. * * * * He was going to make a fatal mistake tonight. Tonight, after tedious weeks of chasing this villain all over London, Sophia was going to catch him out at last. She could smell it, feel it, as if it were a scent in the air, or the glide of a fingertip across her skin. She no longer found it odd she should be able to sense such things. She must have been born with the mind of a criminal, if not the heart of one, because she knew instinctually how they would behave. She headed west down Great Marlborough Street, clinging to the shadows, pure intuition guiding her steps. Once or twice she thought she heard footsteps behind her, but when she paused there was nothing aside from the light patter of rain falling on the ground. Even if there was someone following her, they wouldn’t catch her. No one ever did.

She kept to the shadows as she prowled along behind her prey, who plodded toward Tottenham Court Road, utterly oblivious to the fact he was being followed. It seemed not to occur to him he might be held accountable for any of his crimes. His nonchalance wasn’t a result of innocence, but of arrogance and stupidity. It wasn’t until he turned onto Aldwych Street and she could see the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the spire of St. Clement Dane’s Church looming in the distance that Sophia’s heart began to pound. Of all the places a man might haunt on a dark night in London, this man had chosen to come here. Strange, considering what had happened to him the last time he’d lingered in this neighborhood. That is, what he claimed had happened. How strange he should wish to return by himself, at night, to a place where he’d been the victim of a crime.

But it was no accident he’d come here, and no coincidence. Sophia glanced about, paying particular attention to the shadowy corners before prowling after him, knots of excitement tying and untying themselves in her chest as she paused at one side of St. Clement Dane’s Church, waiting to see what he’d do. He didn’t appear to be concerned someone might see him, but approached the entrance to the church, checked his pocket watch, then fell into a casual slouch in the arched doorway and turned his attention back to his pipe. Another person might have been fooled by this show of unconcern, but not Sophia. His actions were too self-conscious, too practiced. To her well-trained eye it looked as if he were waiting there for someone, but wished to appear as if he’d just happened upon the church by chance, and by chance had been overcome with an irresistible urge to smoke his pipe while he was there. She smothered a derisive snort. He wasn’t very good at this.

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