The boy was in her territory.
Nay, no place in London truly belonged to anyone but him, the Devil incarnate, Mac Diggory.
Regardless, she answered to that blackhearted bastard and, just like everyone else, paid the price for his discontent. As such, she’d fight for these cobbles with her own life. Hers was forfeit anyway, if she did not.
Anticipation of the battle thrummed in her veins. She wove through the throngs of lords and ladies on their way to the theatre. All the while she kept her gaze trained forward on the gangly boy at her corner.
Nearly six inches past five feet, he had the height of most men and would surely grow to be a bear.
She didn’t care if he was boy, man, or giant; he threatened her safety and security.
He paused, his nervous stare darting about.
Tamping down her sound of disgust, she eyed her opponent.
Fidgeting with the hat that tipped low over his brow, he couldn’t be more obvious if he’d streaked across London with his bare arse hanging out.
The pathetic excuse for a street rat would be lucky to survive another week, let alone a year.
She ducked inside the alley, shot a hand out, and yanked the taller child by his threadbare shirt.
He gasped, stumbling back into the darkened recess. He made a grab for his knife.
She already had her dagger out and against his throat.
The muscles there convulsed as he went absolutely still.
“These streets ain’t yars,” she snarled, nicking him. A crimson drop beaded on his flesh. She forced him back against the wall, knocking his hat loose. “They’re—”
Her words trailed off as she stared, riveted by the small mark etched above his right eyebrow, an engraving left in his flesh.
The air hissed from between her teeth as a memory echoed around her mind.
“Oi’m not doing it to ’elp you,” she snarled.
“Then, why are you not turning me over?” he asked quietly, searching her face.
Why, indeed? When she’d see herself slain for betraying Diggory’s orders?
Footsteps sounded over her shoulder. She gave Connor a hard shove. “Unless you wish to be carted off to Diggory with yar entrails for his supper, go.”
That was all it had taken. He’d gone.
And now here he was.
Connor grinned coldly. “Still a slave to Diggory,” he taunted, and her neck fired hot.
She hated the slight tremble to her hand that came from his derision. “Ya don’t know anything about it,” she growled, pressing the blade deeper.
The muscles of his throat moved, and with a braveness she’d not seen even in Diggory’s most ruthless guards, he smiled mockingly at her. “You aren’t going to stab me.”
How did he know that? Unnerved, she firmed her grip. “Shut yar mouth,” she warned.
“So what are you going to do? Are you going to force me back?”
For his brave show, there was a spark of fear in his eyes.
As there should be. Since she was a small child toddling about, she’d heard the name Connor O’Roarke—the one who had slipped free in the dead of a night, made off with a hefty purse, and pillaged these same streets owned by Diggory. And Oi found ’im . . . again.
Feeling his eyes on her, she swallowed hard.
“This time I should turn you over,” she growled, as much for herself as for him.
Or better yet, she should let him get himself hanged so she could get on with her business and reclaim her streets. Connor O’Roarke wasn’t her business. He wasn’t part of Diggory’s gang, and he certainly wasn’t her friend or family.
“Or mayhap you won’t,” he murmured. He’d sensed her indecision. She heard it in his cocksure tone and saw it in his hardened gaze. “Mayhap you fear I’ll tell him of the other times you—”
“Shut yar damned mouth, bastard,” she hissed, reapplying pressure with her blade.
“What are you going to do, Lagertha?” he challenged.
Do you want to know why I call you that, Lagertha?
She had. She’d wondered it in the time since she’d last seen him. But she’d not, despite the curiosity that had gripped her then, conceded that weakness, and she wouldn’t now. Even as the need to know was as strong . . . nay, stronger.
She slowly let her arm fall. “Ya’re a fool.” Or a lackwit. “Ya want to get yarself caught by him. That’s the only way to explain it. Go . . . or next toime Oi will bring ya to him.” For if she didn’t . . .
The ghost of a smile on Connor’s lips hinted at one who’d spotted the lie.
Why had she always been a bloody fool where this boy was concerned?
Her feet twitched with the need to flee, hating that he saw too much, despising that she’d allowed him an upper hand in any way. “Go to ’ell, Connor O’Roarke.” Jaw tightening, she darted from the alley, leaving him alone—again.
Ya’re a fool. If Diggory knows what ya’ave done, and that ya’ave done it twice now . . .
A chill scraped its way along her spine as she tasted the same fear she’d smelled from Connor O’Roarke when she put a blade to him.
She had to find a fortune this night. Had to keep Diggory appeased, not happy, because the Devil was incapable of anything but cruelty.
Frantically, she searched the streets. Searching. Searching. Searching.
Her gaze landed on a gentleman striding with easy steps toward the theatre. She squinted, bringing every detail into focus: the stranger’s fine black cloak, his collar adorned in velvet. Everything about the man, from his garments to his stride, spoke of wealth.
Connor O’Roarke forgotten, she sprang into movement, starting through the crowds. At any time she despised her size for the easy way Diggory and his men managed to beat her down. Yet sometimes that smallness served a benefit. This instance, weaving between lords and ladies, a mere slip of a ghost, being one of them.
The nob paused to consult his gold timepiece, the metal shimmering under the street lamp he stood beneath.
But she didn’t have want of that watch. That was merely the distraction she required, for the real item he’d only briefly flashed as he’d descended his carriage.
She crept forward.
The moment he turned, she sidled closer.
From across the way, she felt eyes on her. She picked up her head, and her gaze locked on his. Connor O’Roarke gave a slight, warning shake of his head.
She frowned. This blighter would give her warnings? This, the same man who didn’t know that this territory belonged to Diggory, and if he were discovered here, his entrails would be ripped through his slit throat and fed to him as his last meal?
Jutting up her chin defiantly, she moved. She had her hand in the nob’s cloak and his velvet purse in her hand without even breaking stride. Stuffing it inside her front pocket, she paused to shoot Connor a triumphant look.
“You bloody street rat,” someone cried. A large hand wrapped around her wrist. Wrenching it back, a man forced her to the ground.
She tamped down the cry that sprang to her lips and knelt before the two men.
“What is the meaning of this?” the gentleman barked.
The constable stuck an accusatory finger at her. “The girl was stealing from you.”
Surprise lit the nob’s face. He felt around his jacket and opened his mouth. When he turned his attention back, she braced for a blow.
Except the gentleman stared contemplatively down at her. “What is your name?” he asked quietly.
Her name? He’d ask her bloody name? She trembled; the shake started in her toes and set her whole body to quaking. The shiver had nothing to do with the stinging pain of flesh scraped bloody from her fall.
Never show fear . . . never let them see . . . or Oi’ll cut ya loike Oi did yar sister.
The constable yanked her up from her knees. “What’s your name, girl?” he barked, giving her a hard shake.
Yet for the numbing dread, she’d been whelped and reared by the most ruthless blighter in East London. She shrugged her shoulders.
The crimson-haired constable looked over at the fancily dressed nob she’d nicked from with confusion in his eyes.
The pair exchanged a look.
“His lordship asked you a question,” the constable growled. Dragging her up by the front of her threadbare shirt, he shook her so hard her teeth rattled. “Answer the bloody question.”
Her lower lip quivered, and she bit it. She might hang for her crimes here, but she’d be damned if she let a constable break her.
Growling, she brought back her foot and kicked him in the shins with the tip of her worn boots.
He hissed. Using his distraction, she brought up her other leg and caught him square between the legs.
The constable’s eyes bulged in his face, and then releasing his tight grip, he went down hard on his knees, clutching at himself.
Heart thundering, she sprang forward, when a hard hand settled on her shoulder, killing her flight.
She hissed and snarled. So this is ’ow the cat her sister had insisted on fighting to make a damned pet had felt. Cornered. Terrified. Trapped.
The nobleman, well over two feet taller, may as well have been the giant in Diggory’s employ who roused terror just by his appearance alone for the way he now towered over her.
Hair greying at the temples, a diamond pin stuck in his snowy-white cravat, he’d the look of a king studying his subjects. He passed an unreadable gaze over her person, and she shivered. The fear of no reaction, she’d long ago learned, was far more perilous than a telling fury. One knew one’s opponent would ultimately attack. But when? How? All the questions added to the terror.
She gasped as she was wrenched back by the constable. The panting bastard brought his arm back, and she hunched her shoulders, braced for the blow.
The nob held up a staying hand, and she started, concealing her surprise at that brief show of mercy. “You won’t tell me your name,” he repeated, rubbing at his chin.
“Go to ’ell,” she snarled. Glaring at the fancy gent, she tossed back her head and spit at his feet, marring the gleaming heeled shoe.
The constable tangled his fingers into the hair she’d knocked loose in her fall a short while ago and yanked so hard tears sprang to her eyes. How had she made that bloody blunder? She never made a mistake. She knew the repercussions. She’d just believed the greatest danger came from Mac Diggory, the leader of these dark streets. Oi was wrong. The bloody law . . . it’s the law to fear.
“Newgate for you, girl.”
Vomit stung the back of her throat. “No,” she begged. “Please.” I don’t want to die.
A shout went up. “Wait.”
As one, they looked across the street. Connor weaved between passersby and observers taking in the display between her and the gent.
“Who in blazes are you?” the constable muttered, dragging her closer like one who sensed a trap.
With a dangerous glint in his street-hardened eyes, Connor took a threatening step closer, so close he knocked into her and the bastard with a strong grip on her.
“Watch what you’re doing, boy—”
“What are you doing with her?” he demanded, his tones not the rough Cockney of her and her siblings.
“On your way, boy,” the constable barked. “It’s not your affair. Unless you care to see yourself in Newgate like this one.” He shook her so fiercely her neck whipped back.
She cried out, hating herself for that pathetic display. Crying was weakness, and weakness got one killed. It was a rule ingrained into her since she drew her first miserable breath.
Again the nob lifted a silencing hand.
Connor narrowed his eyes into thin, menacing slits. “It is my business.”
The nob and constable spoke in unison, one man in his coarse East London tones and the other with the King’s English better suited for the palace.
“Your b-business, you say?” the constable sputtered.
By God, he’d always been arrogant; his conceit was enough to have earned the ire of Mac Diggory. Connor’s gaze met hers. “Yes, my business.”
As the two men in control of her fate exchanged looks, she ignored them, lifting her chin in furious anger toward the boy opposite her. Hating him for being free. Hating him for having managed to escape . . . in every way that she’d been unable to. He’d been one who’d gotten away . . . and remained elusively so.
“On your way, boy.” Angling his shoulder dismissively, the constable dragged her with him. “I’ll see this one to Newgate, my lord. My apologies that you’ve been abused by this trash—”
Connor stretched out an arm, and a monogrammed velvet bag twisted back and forth between his fingers, bringing the two men to an immediate silence.
What? She swiveled her gaze from her front pocket to his fingers and then to Connor’s eyes. Her lips parted.
“Impossible.” Despite his earlier confidence, the constable wavered. He lightened his grip but still retained a determined hold on her.
The gentleman in his fancy cloak frowned. “You took my purse,” he said slowly.
“Let her go.”
Why? Why would Connor O’Roarke do this?
At last the nob nodded slowly, breaking the impasse. “You heard him. Release the girl,” he ordered with an air of finality.
Just like that, one’s future had been saved and another’s fate sealed.
The constable let her go with such alacrity she stumbled back and landed hard on her arse. She lay there, briefly frozen, as the constable dragged him off with the nob matching their strides.
Connor shot a last glance over his shoulder.
“A debt paid,” he mouthed.
It was the motto ingrained into every one of the boys and girls miserable enough to find themselves in Diggory’s clutches.
A debt paid.