Bridget Lavery moved among her students, observing their penmanship. It was her last class of the day and comprised of about twelve girls ages eight to ten. Officially, she taught art, reading, and penmanship.
Unofficially, she taught counterfeiting.
What was counterfeiting currency but the melding of art and penmanship? These pupils were too young to try their hand at actual counterfeiting, but they were learning to copy the styles of writing on various bank notes issued by England, as well as other countries.
"That's very good, Susan," she said as she peered over the shoulder of a thin blond girl. Most of the work in this class looked rough and unrefined, but Susan's hand was exceptionally steady, and she had a good eye for her age.
"Thank you, Mrs. Lavery," Susan said, smiling up at her. The little girl had blue eyes, and whenever Bridget looked into them, her chest tightened. Susan's eyes were almost the same blue as James's. He would be the same age as the youngest girls in the room too. Just eight.
When Bridget looked at Susan's blond hair, she wondered if James's hair was still blond, or whether it had turned darker like her own.
Bridget forced herself to keep moving, to continue nodding and smiling at the girls' work, but her mind was elsewhere, lost in memories of a smiling toddler, arms out as he wobbled toward her on unsteady legs.
Bridget blinked and glanced quickly at Abigail, whose hand was raised. "It's past four o'clock. May we be dismissed?"
Bridget looked at the small clock on her desk. It was indeed almost five minutes past the hour. How careless of her! She had made the girls late to their pickpocketing class with Mrs. Chalmers.
"Of course. I am so sorry. Gather your materials, and we will continue with this practice next time we meet."
Efficient as always, the girls were filing out the door within moments, a sea of blue in their school dresses. As soon as the last girl filed out, Bridget gathered her personal items and rushed to follow. This was the worst possible day to be caught daydreaming. She had an appointment at half past four near Covent Garden, and she did not want to be late. She stopped by the room she shared with Mademoiselle Valérie Gagne—who taught French and accent modification—pulled on gloves and a hat, and rushed down the stairs, past a ballroom filled with older girls practicing sharp kicks to hay targets, and out the front door.
A few minutes later, she was jostling among the crowds on Piccadilly, wary of pickpockets, ignoring the cries of hawkers, and trying to stay clear of carriages with overzealous drivers. The boarding house was farther than she would have liked, but she couldn't afford any of the rooms in Marylebone. She'd investigated every vacancy. She located the street she sought, turned right, and slowed. The street was not as busy as many of the others and not at all what she would call safe. People sat in doorways and watched her pass. As she was dressed little better than they, though her clothes were cleaner, they mostly ignored her.
Bridget carried a knife in her pocket just in case. She'd never had to use it. On occasion, she'd had to pull it out, whereby the lad—almost always a young boy or boys—accosting her decided she wasn't worth the trouble. Usually, she never brought blunt with her when walking alone. Today, she had a shilling tucked in her glove. The rest of her savings was safely hidden back at Mrs. Brodie's Academy. Bridget doubted even Valérie could have found it, not that Valérie would ever steal from her.
But Bridget didn't trust anyone.
Yesterday, when Valérie had been teaching and Bridget had an hour's break, she'd locked their door, pried up the floorboard, taken the money out, and counted it. She had twelve shillings and six pence saved. It wasn't much, considering, but she hoped it would be enough to rent a small room in a boarding house. Once she had a room, she could claim James again—if she could find him.
She studied the numbers printed on the buildings until she found the one she sought. A Mrs. Jacobs had advertised "clean, furnished rooms at affordable prices."
Bridget tapped on the door and waited until a woman with messy brown hair and a dirty apron pulled it open. "What do you want?"
"I'm looking for Mrs. Jacobs. I sent a note inquiring about the room for rent and was told to come at half past four."
The woman's eyes slid down Bridget and back up again. "And who are you?"
"Bridget Lavery. Are you Mrs. Jacobs?"
"I am. Do you have a husband?" Mrs. Jacob's eyes narrowed. "I'm not running a bawdy house."
Bridget felt her cheeks color. "My husband is dead. I teach at Mrs. Brodie's Academy in Manchester Square. You may speak to Mrs. Brodie if you'd like a reference or proof I'm not a harlot."
Bridget hoped the headmistress was in London at the moment. She often traveled, and she hadn't seen her for a few days.
Mrs. Jacobs opened the door wider, nodding. "The school don't give you a room?"
"It does, but I have a young son, and the academy is for young ladies. If I want him to live with me, I must procure my own lodging."
The door inched closed again. "Boys can be trouble."
"This one won't be."
The two women eyed each other for a long moment, and then Mrs. Jacobs stepped back. "Come in, Mrs. Lavery. I'll show you the room."
Mrs. Jacobs led her through a dark common room and up a staircase with worn carpet. The subtle scent of mold and cooked onions lingered in the air. At the landing, Mrs. Jacobs continued to the second floor. Bridget frowned. She had been hoping for a room on the first floor, as the top floor would be hot in summer and cold in winter.
"The men's rooms are on the first floor," Mrs. Jacobs said, as though reading her mind. "The women are up here."
The second floor was dark, and Bridget squinted as Mrs. Jacobs led her to the end of the corridor, pulled out a large keyring, selected a key, and opened the door.
She motioned Bridget inside, and Bridget walked in cautiously. The room was small and dingy. It had a bed, a table with one chair, and a basin with a pitcher. "I thought the advertisement said the room was furnished."
"This is furnished," Mrs. Jacobs countered. "What more do you need?" She blew out a breath. "You even have curtains on the windows. Sewed them myself."
Bridget crossed to the window at the other end of the room, all of six steps, and opened the curtains. The window looked out on another building and down into an alleyway. She closed the curtains again.
"One shilling and two pence a week."
It was reasonable, though she'd hoped for better. "Is coal included?"
"What about meals?"
She could take meals at the school, but James needed to eat. "Water?"
"There's a well in the yard. Help yourself."
"I'll give you a shilling a week for it."
"It's a shilling and two pence, and I won't take less." Mrs. Jacobs folded her arms over her chest with finality. Bridget would not be deterred, however. For almost two years, she had been working toward the goal of reclaiming James. She had a plan, and obtaining a room was the last step before she sought James. She needed this room, dingy as it was.
"I'll pay a shilling and two pence if that price includes a pail of coal a week."
Mrs. Jacobs hesitated, then began to shake her head.
"I will give you one shilling now."
The landlady considered. She could continue to haggle, but then she risked the chance of having the room remain vacant. No tenant meant no blunt. She held out her hand. "I'll agree, provided that Mrs. Brodie vouches for you."
Bridget nodded, removed her glove, and placed the shilling in Mrs. Jacobs's palm. It was gone in an instant.
"I'll speak to Mrs. Brodie first thing in the morning. If she says you're a good girl, you and the boy can move in tomorrow evening."
"Very good. It will just be me for now."
"Why is that? Where is the boy living?"
"It will take me time to send for him," she said, keeping her answer vague.
Mrs. Jacobs nodded. "As long as he doesn't cause trouble."
"He won't." Of course, she couldn't know that. She hadn't seen James since he was barely three. She didn't know what sort of boy he'd grown into in the intervening years. And yet, she was well-versed in dealing with unruly children. She could handle her own son, and she would.
She just had to find him first. She'd gone to the orphanage where she'd left James before she'd been sent to Fleet Prison with Robbie, but the St. Dismas Home for Wayward Youth had burned down, and no one seemed to know what had happened to the boys who'd lived there.
She hadn't known how to go about discovering more. She considered hiring an investigator to look into the matter, but she feared the expense would be too dear.
Mrs. Jacobs, evidently convinced she'd shown the new tenant enough of the room, motioned her out and locked the door again. She began what sounded like a well-rehearsed speech about meals and noise and visitors as she led Bridget back down the stairs. Bridget made sounds of assent, but she was looking at the cracked paint on the walls and wondering what James would think of their new home. What would he think of her? Could he ever forgive her for abandoning him?
Finally at the front door, the two ladies said their goodbyes, and Mrs. Jacobs opened the door for Bridget just as a man was opening it from the outside.
"Pardon me, ladies," he said when he saw that he had blocked their way.
Bridget began to say something along the lines of, It is nothing, sir, but then she looked up and into his face.
Those eyes. She knew of only two people in the world with that exact shade of blue. One was James and the other his father.
* &bnsp; * * * *
Caleb Harris felt his smile fade. There had only ever been a few times in his life where he hadn't known what to do. Seeing her again was one of those rare times. He'd known it might happen when he was sent back to England and then to London. He'd prepared several speeches in the unlikely event that he saw her.
But looking at her now, her golden-brown eyes riveted to his face, her expression like that of a person who had seen a ghost, he couldn't think of a single word.
They stared at each other for what seemed like hours, though it was probably only a few seconds. It was long enough for Mrs. Jacobs to clear her throat conspicuously. "Do you two know each other?"
"Yes," he said at the same time that she said, "No."
Mrs. Jacobs looked from one to the other.
He was a bloody idiot. Why had he said yes? At least Bridget still had her wits about her. "I misspoke." Caleb removed his hat politely. "I'm afraid I have not had the pleasure of making this lady's acquaintance."
"Mrs. Lavery, this is Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith, Mrs. Lavery."
He nodded. "A pleasure, Mrs. Lavery." She hadn't been Bridget Lavery when he'd known her. Nor had she been married. Of course, he hadn't been Smith back then either.
"Mr. Smith." She nodded right back. He'd thought it impossible for her warm, golden eyes to ever look icy, but she managed it now. "If you'll excuse me."
He stepped quickly aside as she moved toward the door. Once in the doorway, she turned back to Mrs. Jacobs. "Thank you, madam. I will see you tomorrow."
So she was returning? Could she be renting a room here? He watched as she walked away until that view was obscured when Mrs. Jacobs closed the door. The landlady turned to him, but before she could speak, he started for the stairs. "Excuse me, Mrs. Jacobs. No time to talk now."
He took the steps two at a time, withdrew his key from his pocket, and had it ready at the door to his room. Once inside, he leaped over the traps he'd laid and made straight for the window. He pulled the curtains apart and looked out on the street. She was there, just now at the end of the lane. He could still catch her.
He yanked the window up, put one leg over, grasped a clothesline, and swung out. One hand on the clothesline, he reached for the drainpipe with the other, then shimmied down and ran to catch up with Bridget.
He shouldered past people, earning a few deserved curses, until he caught sight of her plain blue dress and white bonnet in the crowd. With a last burst of speed, he caught up to her, matching his pace to hers and walking beside her.
She looked over at him as though seeing him beside her, out of breath and hatless, did not surprise her at all.
"I thought you were dead," she said.
"That was what everyone was made to think. It was the only way to ensure my survival across enemy lines."
"The Foreign Office." Her voice held enough contempt to fill a sea. "I should have known they lied. I expect that of them." She glanced at him, her eyes still cold. "I didn't expect it of you."
"I couldn't tell you." He had to twist sideways to avoid bumping into two men walking side by side. "I couldn't tell anyone. I didn't even know I'd been reassigned until the day before I was to leave."
"So you did have time to tell me."
"I was ordered to tell no one."
She stopped so suddenly that he walked on for two or three steps before he realized she wasn't beside him. He turned and walked back to her.
"And what are your orders now, Mr. Smith? Surely not to speak to me."
She wasn't wrong. The last thing he should have been doing at the moment was speaking to anyone who had known him before. Unless he had a death wish. Which he didn't.
She nodded with understanding. "Well, then you had better not be seen with me, and since I am moving into Mrs. Jacobs's boarding house and have already paid a shilling I can ill afford to lose for the privilege, you had better move out."
"Mrs. Lavery. You're not the only one with a different name."
"I'm sorry I missed the wedding."
"You missed much more than that. Good day, Mr. Smith."
She turned and marched away, leaving him wondering and wishing things might have been different.
© Shana Galen