The pleasure of your company is requested at the baptism of Alexandra Emma Brandon Rohan, on the afternoon of March the eighteenth, in the one thousand eight hundred and forty-fifth year of Our Lord, to be held at the village church of St. Anne the Doleful in Upper Rippington, Suffolk, and to be followed by a reception at Starlings Manor immediately thereafter.
Brandon lowered himself carefully into the chair. He’d learned not to throw himself into furniture as he once had—the price he paid was far too dear. He was wet and cold—he’d spent the last three hours hiking among the unforgiving crags of Ben Tarquin in the Scottish Highlands, his home for the last three years of self-imposed exile, and steam was rising from his woolens as he edged closer to the fire.
“By the smell of those wet clothes, you’ve been giving yon Tammas a run for his money,” Noonan observed sagely, and Tammas, the springer spaniel who had traced Brandon’s every step, lifted his head at the sound of his name, then dropped it down again. The dog was even more exhausted after their long hike than Brandon was. He used a gnarled walking stick to help him keep his balance with his impossibly game leg, but Tammas had to run ahead and double back, leaping with excitement, while Brandon had learned to keep a steady pace, inured to their lengthy, daily excursions.
“Give me a chance to dry out, old man,” Brandon replied sourly. “I still haven’t taken a swim, and the water in the burn is colder than a witch’s tit. Let me just warm my bones before I subject myself to more punishment. And I might add that you’re smelling none too sweet yourself.”
Noonan cackled, pouring himself a deep dram of whiskey against the Scots cold. Brandon eyed the drink dispassionately. He had trained himself not to long for it, and he could even pour for someone else without his hands shaking, spend the afternoon with an open bottle and not break into a sweat. It was opium and its bitch of a sister, laudanum, that had twisted him in knots. The huge amounts of alcohol he’d consumed had only been to manage the effects of the stronger drugs, but he had no intention of ever going near any of them again.
He’d learned to work through those cravings by hiking no matter what wretched form of precipitation was coming out of the sky, and in the Highlands it was always something, followed by endless swims in the burns and lochs—sometimes breaking a thin film of ice in order to torment his body.
The results, slow but steady, were satisfying. His mother would have said positively remarkable, but his mother doted on her four children, no matter how badly they behaved, and he’d been the prize transgressor.
All this was well and good where he was. Returning to the bosom of his family, to civilization and all its temptations, would be another matter entirely.
Noonan was watching him from beneath his bushy brows, his expression wary. “So, are you going to go to the little one’s christening?” he demanded suddenly. “You missed the first one, and this wee one is named after you.”
Brandon’s head shot up. “How did you know about that? Have you been reading my mail?”
“Of course not, me boy,” Noonan said indignantly. “Your brother sent me a letter at the same time, asking me to make sure you do what he wants. It’s time for you to go back home.”
“This is my home,” he said stubbornly. “It’s not like this is Melisande and Benedick’s first child. Why all the bother now?”
“It’s the first girl, she’s named after you, and you’re her godfather.”
“I never agreed to that. And it’s only her middle name.”
“Can’t call a wee lass ‘Brandon’ now, can they?” Noonan snapped. His voice softened. “It’s time, laddie. You can’t hide away up here forever.”
Brandon said nothing, staring into the fire. They were in the kitchen of the gamekeeper’s cottage at Ballykeep, the estate his father had given him when he turned twenty-one—he’d refused to reside in the big house—and the peaty smell mixed with wet dog, wet wool, and whiskey was a familiar comfort.
Noonan was right, the sly old bastard, he thought wearily. There was no way he could live here forever until he’d faced his demons back home. There were ghosts back there, ghosts he had to lay. It was past time to face them and banish them once and for all. He had to make peace with Benedick at the very least, and see if he could find the answer to the half-memories that teased at him, disrupting a good night’s sleep and offering no clarity in return.
He gave Noonan a grim smile. “We’ll leave in three days’ time.”
“We will?” Noonan echoed in a startled gasp. “You know I don’t go south of the border, me boy. It’s no’ good for me health.” He managed a hangdog expression.
“I go, you go. They’ve forgotten all about you and anything you might have been involved in.”
“The blasted police never forget anything,” Noonan said glumly. “The only reason they haven’t found me is they’d never believe a good Irishman would hide out in an uncouth, backward, benighted place like Scotland.”
“It was over twenty years ago, and my family is not without influence in these matters. Either you come with me or I stay put. And what do you think the marchioness would have to say about that?”
Brandon knew perfectly well that Noonan was more afraid of Brandon’s mother than a horde of policemen, and Noonan’s glare left him unmoved. The old man reached out and took a drink straight from the whiskey bottle, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The rich smell of the whiskey almost overcame the homely smell of food cooking, but Brandon didn’t flinch.
Noonan eyed him gloomily. “Your mother isn’t even going to be there—she’s still travelling in some godforsaken place with your father.”
“It doesn’t matter. She’ll hear you failed in your duty. She won’t be angry, of course. She’ll just be very, very disappointed in you.”
Noonan shuddered. “God save me.”
“My brothers are intent on reforming me,” Brandon said. “Charles is convinced I should marry to redeem my reputation. He’ll probably be waiting with a special license and a bride at the ready. I need you to protect me, Noonan.”
Noonan snorted. “And you’re so docile you’ll go along with it without a whimper?” He blew out a disgusted breath. “You’re really going to make me go, aren’t you?”
“Same back at you, old man.”
Emma Cadbury was covered in blood. It splashed her face, her hands, up to her elbows, and she scrubbed away at it, at her nails, ignoring the discomfort.
The girl had died. Emma had done everything she could, and she’d been convinced that this time she’d won the battle, but the poor girl had died anyway. She was the third one in a week, and no matter what Emma had done she’d slipped away, nameless in death as she had been in life.
The smug, ill-trained coterie of men who served at Temple Hospital had refused to look at the girl, and when things had turned bad there’d been no one to save her. Emma scrubbed her hands more fiercely. This had happened too many times, and she should be used to it by now. She had yet to figure out why the women hadn’t survived when they appeared to be on their way to recovery, and she would not forgive herself for that.
She was alone now in the small room they’d set up for her, and she stripped off her bloody clothes, down to her chemise, kicking off the stained slippers and throwing everything into the bins, including the cap that covered her hair. Patients died. She couldn’t weep for each one.
She stepped inside the cold shower bath the hospital had grudgingly provided. They could hardly let her leave the place covered in blood, and the handheld pump was easy enough to operate. The head of surgery, the stately Mr. Fenrush, had accepted her under duress, but Temple Hospital was the best in London, in the entire country, and she’d wanted to work there rather than a glorified butcher shop. Benedick Rohan, her best friend’s husband, had generously seen that she did, and Mr. Fenrush’s outrage had caused her a little discomfort and a fair amount of quiet amusement.
She was anathema to him on every level. There were a few female physicians, with their very proper honorific of “doctor,” in other countries, but not in England. Female surgeons, ones who actually cut into flesh, beggared the imagination of all but the most broad-minded of men. Emma was content to work behind the scenes so as not to horrify English society. The fact that this particular surgeon had also been one of London’s most notorious madams in her early twenties would have made it even more appalling. The revolt that had followed her appearance had been long and ugly, led by Fenrush himself, who seemed to view her as a colorful combination of the Antichrist and the Whore of Babylon with a trace of Jezebel and Satan thrown in for good measure. He was a Godly Man, or so he had informed her, but instead of praying over her, he seemed more likely to cast her to the wild dogs, as Jezebel was, or into St. Matthew’s fiery furnace.
Instead he had no choice but to accept her presence, to treat her with the barest minimum of decency, since Benedick Rohan, Viscount Rohan, heir to the Marquis of Taverstock, was a major benefactor of Temple Hospital. If Benedick withdrew his support, there would simply be no hospital, and at least she labored in obscurity, and the men were more than happy to take credit for her successes.
Mr. Fenrush’s absolute hatred of her always struck her as extreme, but she’d run into it before, usually in similarly Godly Men. When Fenrush realized he couldn’t get rid of her, he had done what he could to make her presence invisible. She entered the operating room after the chloroform had been administered, and was shunted from the place before the patient woke up and discovered the horror of a female’s hands upon him.
But in between, she was learning everything, and some of the supervising surgeons had eventually let her participate and then conduct the surgeries.
She generally counted herself content, which was a triumph in itself. Between the hospital and her work at the Dovecote, her best friend Melisande’s charity for fallen women, she found her life filled.
A rough cough wracked her body again, and she let out a sigh of weary frustration. It had been a terrible week, and not just at Temple Hospital. She still had smoke in her lungs from the recent fire, and the foul London air wasn’t making it easy to get rid of the irritation.
The Dovecote had gone up in flames. Her dearest friend’s townhouse, the building that had served as a home for what were described as “the poor unfortunates,” and what Melisande’s husband had named the Gaggle, was gone. This place for the women to live and learn a new profession, a way station to a new life, was now a pile of rubble and ash.
It had been a close call. Melisande lived with her husband in Suffolk, and she’d already repurposed the dower house on the estate for her soiled doves. The last few women had left the day before the fire, thank God, or Emma would have been burying her old friends like Mollie Biscuits and Long Polly.
Instead Emma had been alone in the place when the fire broke out, trapping her, and if she weren’t so familiar with the house she would never have survived. As it was, she’d managed to escape with nothing worse than a lungful of smoke and a few scratches, minor inconveniences that were slowly abating.
Now she cleared her throat as she wound her braids around her head, securing them with a few rough stabs of the metal hairpins. She didn’t bother to check in the mirror someone had placed for her convenience. She knew her hair was neat, she knew what she looked like, and if she forgot, those around her reminded her.
Emma Cadbury was cursed with a beauty that no effort on her part could diminish. That beauty, that perfectly symmetrical arrangement of features, had only caused her misery, pain and disaster. She’d been forced to become a whore, and she’d spent five years servicing strangers until the woman who’d entrapped her died and Emma took her job. As the youngest madam in England, she no longer had to endure the pawings of men, and she’d been gloriously, happily celibate ever since. She had every expectation that pleasant state would last the rest of her life, at least if she had anything to say about it.
Her one regret was her loss at a chance of children. She was a born nurturer, and she expended that energy on her patients, on the never-ending supply of soiled doves looking for a new life, and on her friend Melisande’s babies. She’d just delivered Melisande’s second in three years—not that Melisande had needed much help. She was made for having babies, sailing through pregnancies with no trace of morning sickness or unexpected tears, and her labor and deliveries were fast and efficient. Considering that her panicked, overprotective husband had lost his first two wives in pregnancy and each time he’d expressly forbidden Melisande to get pregnant, this was a Very Good Thing.
Emma threw her drab cloak over her shoulders, ready to face the cool night air. She could feel the crackle of paper in her pocket: her formal invitation to the christening of Melisande’s daughter, and she was looking forward to it. Days of being coddled, the chance to check in on the doves at the Dower House near Starlings Manor, would enable her to return to the hospital rested and refreshed and ready. Ready to deal with Mr. Fenrush’s haughty superiority and attempts at sabotage, to deal with the myriad indignities heaped on her by his sycophantic followers.
In truth, she would have given a great deal to apply her impressive medical skills elsewhere. On the battlefield men wouldn’t be so picky. Had she been present in the Afghan War, she might have been able to treat the injuries of Melisande’s brother-in-law, Brandon, at the time they happened, instead of leaving him with a ruined face, a weak leg, and the need to disappear into alcohol and opium.
She would never have met Brandon Rohan had he not ended up in the ward of the charity hospital she’d been working in, and it had taken her a long time to recognize the connection between her best friend and the desperately wounded soldier who had no memory of his own name. She’d been foolish, letting down her guard, but then he’d disappeared, which she counted a blessing.
She had little use for men, but Brandon Rohan had been unlike any other. Broken as he was, his wry smile, the beautiful unmarred side of his face, his strong hands had made her think of things that should have shamed her. She wouldn’t have called it desire—that was not for the likes of her—but she had found herself wondering what it would feel like to be in bed with him instead of servicing a wheezing old man or a vicious young rake.
She knew that pleasure in the act of copulation, much less joy, was impossible for someone like her, but she thought of him sometimes and wondered what could have happened if life had been different. Before she had fallen from grace, she’d been a solidly middle-class country girl, far beneath his touch. Still, Brandon was a younger son of a marquess, and the Rohans were notorious with their refusal to follow the dictates of society. Anything could have been possible.
Not any longer.
She refused to think about it. Well, hardly more than the rare occasion when her defenses were down and her spirits were in the doldrums. Even good, sweet country girls didn’t marry aristocrats. She was content to know he was now safe and happy, far away in the Highlands, and no longer her concern.
She let herself out the back door into the cold, gloomy streets near the London docks. Mr. Fenrush had barred her from using the front door in case anyone suspected she might have a more active job than rolling bandages. The power wielded by Benedick, Melisande’s husband, was impressive, but it would never do to overestimate the amount of tolerance in the medical establishment. There was only so much an impressive donation could buy.
Emma moved down the back streets, her head down, unworried. She carried a pig sticker with her, and most of the denizens of the area knew who she was and kept a respectful distance. She was both one of them and a step above, and she was generally left in peace. If some drunken gentleman happened to wander off the beaten path and think she was fair game, she either disabused him of the notion or one of the locals would take care of it.
It wasn’t a long walk to her lodgings, for London neighborhoods were a confused mass of slums, the bourgeoisie, and the upper classes, and when you turned the corner you never knew what you might find. The shabby house in Dosset Street was clean enough, and a short walk along the docks to the hospital, and that was all she needed.
Viscount Rohan and his lady were still offended that she refused to stay in their mansion on Bury Street, but she’d been adamant. Someone had to keep an extra-sharp eye on the girls of the Dovecote, and Emma’s lodgings were just a short walk away from there as well. That excuse had gone up in flames, but she still had no intention of leaving her neat rooms. She’d already accepted more help than made her comfortable—on this she would hold firm.
The streets were busier than she expected. It was autumn, darkness was coming early, and she pulled her hood over her dark hair, threading her way through the crowds. This area was busiest at night, and she had no illusions as to how most people made their living. She had done more than her share of sewing people up, administering tonics, seeing to the dying. She helped anyone who came to her house, be they thieves, river pirates, whores, or runaways. Her path home led her down by the river, and the water was her guide when she didn’t want to look up and show her face. She was hurrying by, trying not to identify what was floating in its malodorous waters, when someone in the throng brushed up against her.
She didn’t like being touched, and she had already pulled her cloak more tightly around her when she was bumped again by the milling crowds. And then a third time, hard, and she felt herself falling, flailing, toppling into those dark, cold waters with a scream dying in her throat.
She sank like a stone as the river closed over her head, and for a moment she struggled, panicking, blinded by the murky water and the darkness. Almost immediately, though, her level head took hold, and she kicked, pushing herself upward toward the light, until she broke through, gasping for air.
No one seemed to have noticed she’d fallen, and she struck out, heading toward the dock and the slime-encrusted ladder that led to dry land, thanking God her country upbringing had included swimming. Her shoes were heavy, her skirts even more so, and the water was numbingly cold. By the time she crossed that short distance she was gasping for breath, her limbs leaden.
Her fingers slipped on the mossy wood rungs of the ladder on her first attempt, and she tried to call out for help, but her voice was only a muffled croak that barely reached the scurrying denizens of the docks. Taking a deep breath, she tried again, hauling herself upward with an unladylike grunt.
It took all her strength to hold on to the ladder, her heavy skirts pulling at her, and she stayed very still, trying to gather her resolve. Gritting her teeth, she climbed another rung, and then another, until her sodden skirts were free of the water. She knew she should unfasten her cloak and let it go, but she was unwilling to admit even that much defeat, so she simply kept moving, gasping for breath, until someone finally noticed.
“There’s a woman down there,” a rough voice called, and suddenly everyone was peering down at her as she clung to the ladder, unable to move any higher. Blessed hands reached down for her, and she was hauled out of her watery grave, pulled to safety as she sprawled on the filthy streets, fighting to catch her breath.
Remembering the unimaginable filth beneath her, she managed to sit up. Her rescuers gathered around her—Becky, who ran the pastry shop, was there, and Jem from the nearby hostelry. For a moment, she thought she saw Collins, one of Mr. Fenrush’s servants, but when she looked again he had disappeared into the crowd. She struggled to her feet with the help of her rescuers and managed a lopsided smile as she thanked them in a hoarse voice.
“Now, you come along, dearie,” said Becky. “You need some dry clothes and a warm fire . . .” The woman wrinkled her nose. “And a bath, I’m thinking. I’ll help get you home.”
Emma glanced around her. To her surprise she wasn’t far from her rooms, and she nodded with gratitude. She could have walked it by herself, her wet skirts dragging after her, but for once she was willing to accept help. She had treated Becky several months ago for a woman’s complaint and refused payment, so she could accept this much as a fair trade.
She even managed to inquire after Becky’s health. By the time they reached her front door she was ready to collapse, but she refused any more assistance, gathering her sopping skirts over her arms to keep them from making too big a mess, not caring if she exposed an indecent amount of leg. It wasn’t until she was safe inside her rooms on the first floor that she began to shake.
Holding onto a wall for support, she began to strip off her clothes—her cloak, dress and petticoats, her shoes, until she was just in her chemise and knickers. She leaned her head against the wall, uttered a low curse, and stripped off the rest, until she was completely naked. Her home consisted of two rooms—a parlor and a small bedroom—and she headed toward the back, immeasurably grateful that she always paid for water to be brought. There were two larger ewers, warm from being near the banked fire, and a strong carbolic soap she used to cleanse herself once more—she was a firm believer in cleanliness when it came to medicine, unlike the majority of her colleagues. Even her long hair smelled of the river, and she sighed as she leaned over the basin and scrubbed her scalp. If she lived at the mostly unoccupied Rohan house on Bury Street she could have the luxury of a warm bath—for now, she had to clean herself piecemeal. When she was as clean as she could get she drew on a warm, shabby robe and sank into her one comfortable chair, too weary to even stir up the fire. At least she would have a full bath when she arrived at Starlings Manor.
She leaned her head back against the chair. She’d had the devil’s own luck recently—first the fire, now this. She was well overdue for a rest. Until then, she needed a cup of strong tea, some toasted cheese, and the indulgence of the small and very expensive orange she’d bought yesterday. Then she would review her notes for the day, pack for her journey to Starlings, and fall into bed.
Where she would never, absolutely never, dream of Brandon Rohan’s beautiful, ruined face.