St Giles Rookery was no place for a woman after dark. Or during the day for that matter, but Juliet had never let that stop her before and she had no intention of letting it stop her tonight.
She flitted through the darkness with the fluidity of a shadow, the worn leather soles of her boots scarcely touching the ground. The black cloak she had draped over her shoulders fluttered as she turned right and then left, navigating the twisted alleys with the ease and confidence of someone who had been born into them.
Jumping over a pool of foul smelling stagnant water and piss, she stopped in front of a narrow wooden door tucked away inside of an alcove. Raising her fist, she rapped her knuckles against the door three times. Waited for the length of a heartbeat. Knocked again. Creaking on its rusted hinges, the door swung open.
“Do ye have it?” The man who spoke was old and smelled of gin. Yet despite the map of wrinkles across his weathered face – or perhaps because of them – his watery blue gaze was cunningly sharp. “Do ye have the necklace?”
“Here.” She reached between her breasts and pulled out a small velvet reticule. But when the man made a quick grab for it she shook her head and took a step back, eyes narrowing to annoyed slits of green. “How long have we been doing business, Yeti? You know I require payment first.”
The old man growled under his breath, but after a moment’s pause he slapped a leather pouch into her extended palm. “There,” he said. “Now give me the bloody necklace.”
Juliet’s fingers tightened around the pouch as she tested its weight. One delicately arched brow lifted. “The rest, Yeti.”
He made a scoffing sound. “I don’t know what ye are–”
“The rest,” she said evenly.
“Ye drive a hard bargain, Jules.”
“A fair bargain,” she corrected as he dug into the pocket of his sagging trousers. “And more than you deserve for the shite you tried to pull last time. Did you think I wouldn’t realize those shillings were nothing more than painted copper? I should charge you twice as much for the trouble. It’s a good thing we’re friends, Yeti.”
“Friends,” he grumbled under his breath as he gave her a handful of coins. “If I’m your friend I’d hate to see how ye treat your enemies.”
“Yes. You would.” After quickly counting the coins to ensure she’d been paid in full, Juliet slid them into the leather pouch and tucked the pouch into her boot before she gave Yeti what he’d paid twenty gold pounds for.
Not a bad take for a night’s work, she thought silently. It would see her comfortably through to her next job, a townhouse on the edge of Grosvenor Square where another one of her buyers had his eye on a diamond bracelet.
Sliding the necklace out of its velvet pouch, Yeti held it up towards the lantern hanging above his door and whistled under his breath when the stones gleamed a deep, vibrant red. “She’s a beaut, ain’t she?”
Juliet’s narrow shoulders lifted and fell in a careless shrug. “I suppose. I’ve never particularly cared for rubies.”
“A jewel thief who doesn’t like jewels,” Yeti muttered under his breath. “What’s the bloody world coming to?” Quick as a wink the necklace disappeared into the folds of his coat. In his day he’d been the best pickpocket this side of the Thames. Time and too much gin had dulled his reflexes, but his fingers were still nimble.
“Don’t fancy what you take, Yeti. You taught me that.” Juliet’s neck abruptly swiveled when she heard the distinctive click of a stone being turned over. Frowning, she stared intently into the inky darkness, her hand inching down towards the knife she always carried on her waist. There was a pistol on her opposite hip. A dagger strapped to the inside of her thigh. And, just for good measure, a tiny pair of sewing shears tied to her wrist.
She’d never killed a man, but she’d spilled blood. Plenty of it. And for the past two nights she had been plagued by the uneasy feeling of being watched. But just as her hand began to curl around the smooth handle of her knife a yellow tabby darted across the alley and disappeared into a pile of wooden crates. Exhaling slowly, she turned her attention back to Yeti who lifted a scruffy white brow.
“Trouble?” he asked, scratching underneath his chin.
“Nothing I cannot handle.”
“Ye could always quit, ye know. Hang it up and walk away for good. I know ye have enough blunt.”
“No one ever has enough blunt.” Leaning forward, she pressed her lips to his rough cheek. The grizzled old man was as close as she’d ever come to having a grandfather. Or a father, for that matter. “You taught me that as well. Sleep tight, Yeti.”
“Aye.” He patted his coat pocket. “With this pretty under my pillow I’ll do just that. Watch yerself, Jules.” A line of irritation creased his weathered brow. “The runners are getting closer. Hans said he saw one of the bastards all the way down on Finley Street. It’s that damn Spencer. Never thought he’d be the one to go turncoat on us.”
“Would you rather he have ended up in Newgate? Or worse?” Not too long ago Felix Spencer had been the greatest thief in all of London. There wasn’t a painting he couldn’t pinch. A necklace he couldn’t swipe. He’d been the best…until he’d been caught. But instead of stretching him up by his neck or throwing him in prison, the new captain of the runners had given him a choice: spend the rest of his life rotting away in a cell or put his considerable talents to good use on Bow Street.
Felix had been a runner for nearly two years now, but it still gave her a jolt every time she saw him walking down the street in broad daylight. She could only imagine what it was like for Yeti. She knew the old man felt betrayed, especially since he’d been the one to teach Felix everything he knew, but what had he expected? She knew if she’d been in Felix’s shoes she would have made the same decision. Anything to avoid the hell on earth that was Newgate Prison.
“He’s not giving them names.” She squeezed Yeti’s hand. “If he were, we’d both be locked up already.”
“Aye,” Yeti grumbled after a pause. “I suppose ye are right about that. Still…”
“I know. It does not sit well with me either. One of our own, working for them.” The corners of her mouth tightened. “I’d be happy if I never saw another runner for as long as I lived. Cock sucking bastards.” Turning her head, she spat on the ground in disgust and Yeti chuckled.
“Easy, lass. Don’t go losing that Irish temper of yours over something ye can’t control.”
“For the hundredth time, I’m not bloody Irish.” And it annoyed her to no end every time he said otherwise. The truth of the matter was that she had no idea where – or who – she’d come from. Her parents very well could have been from Ireland. She had no way of knowing. They’d both perished in a fire when she was no more than a babe. To this day, she did not even know their names.
“Ye’ve the hair of one, don’t ye? Redder than the rubies ye just pinched. Never seen the likes of it in my whole life. Fine ladies would pay a pretty penny to have that color. As would fine men,” Yeti said meaningfully.
She took a step back and folded her arms. “I’m a thief, not a whore.”
“And I never said ye were, did I? But ye could be a rich man’s mistress. Ye have the look of one. Clean the soot off of ye face and trade those pants ye insist on wearin’ for a fancy dress and ye would blend right in with all the pretty ladies in Hyde Park. Ye could live in a big house in Grosvenor Square. Have yer own servants. Go to tea parties and balls and the like. Ye could get out, lass. Start a new life for yerself.”
“A mistress is just a fancy word for whore and I would rather die than belong to any man.” It was not an exaggeration. The life Yeti described held little appeal to Juliet. She may not have had dresses or servants, but she was free. Free to make her own decisions. Free to do what she wanted when she wanted it. Free to live her own life as she saw fit. Could those women in their fancy dresses and big houses say the same? She answered to no one, and there was no man on God’s green earth worth giving all of that up for.
“Ye say that now. Just wait until ye meet the right one. All right, all right.” Yeti waved his hand in surrender when her green eyes flashed. “Don’t get riled up on my account. Be safe out there, lass. Are ye done for the night?”
“I’ve one stop yet.”
“Well best be moving on then.”
Drawing the hood of her cloak up and over her head, Juliet stepped down off the doorstep and into the shadows. Skirting the pile of crates where the cat had disappeared, she walked quickly to the end of the alley. But instead of turning left as she should have done, she turned right instead and immediately flattened herself against the crumbling brick wall of an abandoned factory.
Someone was following her. She could feel it in her bones. In the whisper of awareness at the nape of her neck. In the accelerated pounding of her heart.
And it wasn’t a bloody cat.
Silver moonlight reflected off her dagger as she silently unstrapped it from her thigh. A gift from Yeti, it was surprisingly light for its size with a handle made from whalebone and a thin blade that was sharp enough to carve a man’s throat from ear to ear without spilling a single drop of blood.
She heard the muffled beat of approaching footsteps. A quiet exhale of breath. The rustle of fabric.
And the distinctive click of a pistol being cocked.
“You can come out from behind there.” The voice was deeply masculine, the vernacular clear and crisp and threaded with a hint of aristocracy. “With your arms raised, if you please.”
Gritting her teeth in silent frustration, Juliet lifted both arms and carefully stepped out from behind the wall. Several paces away stood a man holding a pistol. A pistol he had pointed straight at her chest. It was too dark to make out his features clearly, but his silhouette was all sharp angles and lean muscle.
She could tell he was tall. Taller than she by at least a head, if not more. His hair was as black as the shadows that crept along the walls. And his clothes were impeccably cut to fit his lanky frame, indicating that despite his current surroundings he was a man of wealth and substance.
“Come closer,” he said, gesturing her forward with a jab of his weapon.
Left with little choice in the matter, she edged forward a few inches, purposefully keeping her head tilted down. With her hair pulled back and her feminine curves hidden beneath the folds of her cloak, she passed easily for a boy. A young one given how smooth her porcelain skin was, but a boy nevertheless.
While being a female came with its own distinct advantages, there were none to be found at night in the middle of the East End. She still distinctly remembered the day Yeti had pulled her aside and asked what she wanted to do with her life. Confused, she’d blinked up at him, all wide green eyes and freckles and teeth that were still a bit too big for her mouth.
“What do ye mean?” It wasn’t until later that she had taken the time to rid herself of her cockney accent, and she’d spoken with the vernacular of a common guttersnipe.
“What do I mean…” he had muttered, pulling off his cap and skimming his hand through his hair. It hadn’t been gray then, but rather a thick, nondescript brown that he’d kept shorn close to his skull. “I mean ye’re getting older. Taller. Ye’re…filling out.” His gaze had dipped down to her chest and his cheeks had reddened before he’d abruptly looked away. “Ye are turning into a woman, lass. And a pretty one at that.”
“I am not!” she had cried indignantly.
“Aye.” He’d crushed his hat between his hands. “Ye are. The truth is ye would have done a sight better to have been born a boy, but I guess we don’t have much choice in those matters, do we? Ye are what ye are. And ye have a decision to make.”
“What sort of decision?” she’d asked suspiciously before her eyes widened in distress. “Ye aren’t going to send me away like you did Sam, are ye? Please don’t. Please. I’ll do better. I promise. I – I’ll start pinching twice as many purses. And I’m ready to start on the safes. I know I am. Please don’t–”
“Sam wasn’t sent away, lass. She left of ‘er own accord after I sat her down jest like I’m doing with ye.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No,” Yeti had sighed. “I can see that ye don’t.” The floorboards had creaked beneath his heavy boots as he’d walked from one side of the small, windowless flat to the other, careful not to step on the lumpy gray cot Juliet shared with Eddy and Bran, two pickpockets of a similar age. Not that any of them knew what their exact age was. They were all orphans, brought under Yeti’s wing when they were still small enough to squeeze through carriage windows and take what was inside.
Sometimes, when she was very tired, Juliet closed her eyes and dreamed of a woman with soft blonde hair and a kind smile. She liked to think it was her mother, but there was no way to know for certain. Yeti and his collection of orphans was the only family she’d ever known.
“Do ye know why I always have ye wear a hat and trousers, lass?”
Juliet had nodded slowly. “So my hair doesn’t get in my eyes and I can run away.” Her little chest had swelled with no small amount of pride. “I’m the quickest, ye know. No one can beat me. Not even Felix.”
“Aye, that ye are. But the hat and trousers serve another purpose. They make ye look like a boy,” Yeti had explained when Juliet’s head tilted in confusion. “Because no one bothers with boys. They’re a dime a dozen around here, and no one thinks twice about them. But girls…especially girls who look like ye do…well, that’s a different story. Do ye know what a lady of the night is, lass?”
“Yes,” Juliet had said solemnly. “Bran told me. They let men touch their tits for money.”
Yeti had snorted. “That’s the gist of it, I suppose.” He’d looked closely at her. “Is that something ye want to do? Let men touch yer lady parts for money? Ye would have a fine room all to yerself with a real bed. All the food ye could ever hope to eat. Silk dresses and pretty fans and fancy shoes.”
“That sounds nice, I suppose.” She didn’t care much about dresses and fans and shoes, but she did like to eat.
“Ye will have to sleep with men.”
“I sleep next to Bran and Eddy every night.”
“Aye, but that’s different. These men…they won’t always be kind to ye, lass. And they’ll be strangers. Strangers who use ye for yer body. It won’t be pleasant work. Ye won’t have a say in who comes to yer room or what ye have to do once they’re in there. Do ye understand what I’m tellin’ ye?”
She thought so. Or at least as much as a young girl could understand such things. “That’s what Sam is now? A–” she had paused as she searched for the right word “–lady of the night?”
She’d chewed on her bottom lip while she had mulled it over. “But what if I want to stay here, with ye and Bran and Eddy? What if I want to be a thief?”
“If that is what ye want, that is what ye can do.” Yeti hadn’t said in so many words that he was pleased with her decision, but she’d known by the approving light in his gaze that she had made the right one. “I’ll make ye the best thief the East End has ever seen, lass. Mark me words.”
That was the last night she’d slept beside Bran and Eddy. From that day forward she had her own cot, and whenever she left the flat Yeti made sure her hair was tied back and her breasts, small as they’d been at the time, were bound flat to her chest. He called her Jules, and instructed everyone else who knew that she was really a girl to do the same.
She had been pretending to be a boy for so long that sometimes even she forgot she was a female. But now, standing before the stranger with his dark wavy hair and lean, muscular build, there was no doubt in her mind as to her sex.
Even without having a clear glimpse of his countenance she knew he was handsome. One of the handsomest men she’d ever seen. Just as she knew that he was trouble, and the sooner she put as much distance between them as possible the better. Unfortunately, the stranger had over ideas.
“Closer,” he commanded, beckoning her forward as if she were a dog and he her master. But Juliet answered to no one, not even if they were holding a pistol, and instead of obeying his order she bared her teeth.
“Bloody hell,” she snapped. “Do you want me to climb up on your lap, then? Because if you’re looking for that type of service there are a few gents around the corner who would be happy to oblige. But I’m not one of them.”
His husky laugh did the oddest thing to her belly. The muscles in her abdomen clenched tight and then slowly released, her insides quivering as though she’d swallowed a mouthful of butterflies. Annoyed by the distracting sensation, she shifted her weight to her toes and fixed the stranger with a fierce glare.
“What’s so amusing?” she demanded.
“Your pitiful attempt at diversion. If I was after a good tupping I’d head to the nearest whorehouse. I want the necklace you stole, lad.”
“I don’t have any idea what you are talking about.”
“Don’t you?” The side of his mouth curved ever-so-slightly, as if he found her deceit amusing.
“No,” she said flatly.
“Then let me refresh your memory. Lord and Lady Munthorpe reported someone broke into their townhouse four nights past and stole Lady Munthorpe’s ruby necklace.”
Not by a single flicker of an eyelash did Juliet betray her guilt. Being a good thief involved more than squeezing into small spaces and taking things that did not belong to you. It meant being a good liar, and she was one of the best. Lifting one shoulder in a careless shrug she said, “Maybe this Lady Munthorpe merely misplaced the necklace. Did you consider that?”
“It would be easy enough to do, I suppose,” he said thoughtfully. “Given how much jewelry she has.”
“Precisely my point.”
“But that doesn’t explain the brooch taken from Elm Street or the sapphires that disappeared from a safe in Highland Manor, does it?”
Juliet hid her surprise behind a quick blink. How could he possibly know all that? Unless…
“Runner.” She hissed the word as though it was a curse, which for her and her ilk it might as well have been.
Comprised of nearly a dozen men, the Bow Street Runner’s patrolled all of London and its surrounding roads and villages. Emboldened by the Crown, they were worse than thief takers and bounty hunters combined because they could not be bribed.
A thief taker you could reason with. A bounty hunter you could slip a bit of blunt to and be on your way. But a runner…a runner wasn’t satisfied until the magistrate pounded his gavel. And this one in particular seemed more determined than most, for only a very brave runner – or an incredibly stupid one – would dare venture this deeply into the rotting bowels of St Giles.
Her eyes narrowed. How was it he had managed to do what all the others hadn’t? She’d had a few close calls over the years, but she’d never been caught. Not by one of them. How long had he been following her?
Long enough to know what her last three takes had been. Bloody hell, she hadn’t even told Yeti about the sapphires. Did he know about her other jobs? Or where she lived? Her chest tightened at the thought even as a surge of anger left a bitterly metallic taste in her mouth.
Damn the runners. She wasn’t hurting anyone. Yes, she was stealing, but only from those who could easily afford to lose what she took. What was one lonely ruby necklace to a woman whose husband had three carriages? Or a brooch to an estate that was nearly half the size of the East End? She could have wiped their coffers clean and there would have been no one to stop her, but she had restrained herself, hadn’t she? One piece from one house; that was her golden rule. The runner shouldn’t have been trying to arrest her. He should have been thanking her. And then going on his way to catch the real criminals. The murderers and the rapists and the brothel owners who employed girls as young as twelve and thirteen.
“You have no proof I stole shite,” she spat.
He made a tsking sound. “Ah, but I do. You yourself just admitted to stealing the necklace, and as you did not deny taking the brooch I can only assume you stole that as well. You’ve been rather busy, haven’t you lad?”
“Bollocks!” she cried. “I didn’t admit to anything because there’s nothing to admit to. I’m innocent.”
“Is that so?”
“Aye.” She gave a defiant toss of her head and met his stare for the first time. Emeralds, she realized, momentarily thrown off guard when she found herself glaring into the greenest eyes she’d ever seen. His eyes are the color of emeralds. “You – you have the wrong person.”
Bloody hell Jules, she thought in self-disgust when she stumbled over her own tongue. Pull yourself together. Green eyes or not, this bounder is about to haul your arse down to Newgate if you don’t think of something quick.
“How old are you, lad? I suppose it doesn’t matter,” he went on before she could reply. “You’re young yet. If you come in quietly I’ll put in a good word for you with the Magistrate. He’s a fair man. You’ll only serve four, five years at the most. When you get out you’ll still have your entire life ahead of. You can turn things around. Take an apprenticeship or better yourself through education. It’s not too late.”
Why did everyone think she wanted something different than the life she had? First Yeti, now this green-eyed runner who would have done well to keep his thoughts to himself. She liked her life. She liked what she did. She liked waking up every morning never knowing what the day would bring. Given the choice, there was nothing she would change. Given the choice, she would be a thief until she died. Which, given her current circumstances, could be any minute now.
“I’m telling you, you have the wrong person.”
“I don’t think so.” Keeping the pistol pointed at her with one hand, the runner used the other to unclip a pair of iron manacles from his belt. “Step lively now, I’ve other places to be that do not include an alley in the middle of St Giles.” His nose wrinkled. “Especially one that smells like piss. Honestly. How do you stand it?”
Eyeing the manacles as a wolf would a steel trap, Juliet started to edge backwards. “You can take those shackles and shove ‘em up your arse, you bleedin’ ratbag bastard. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Come now, lad. Is that any way to talk to your betters?” He sighed when her hand darted down towards her waist and the pistol that was strapped to it. “Be reasonable. There’s no need for violence.”
“Bugger off,” she said between clenched teeth. “I said I’m not going anywhere with you, and I meant it. You’ll have to shoot me dead first.”
His countenance softened. “No one is going to be shooting anyone. I’m not in the habit of harming children.”
Well in that case…
Spinning around, she bolted out of the alley as if the hounds of hell were snapping at her heels.