From Pippa and the Prince of Secrets © 2021 Grace Callaway
Timothy Cullen surged awake on a wave of agony.
Each breath jostled cracked bones and torn flesh, and when he bit his lip against a moan, he tasted blood. Feral gratitude flashed through him because pain meant that he was alive. The bastards hadn’t killed him, hadn’t…he scanned his body, hot relief pushing against the back of his eyes. While Crooke and his gang had beaten the stuffing out of him, they hadn’t violated him in a worse fashion.
Cull’s last moments in the flash house returned. Crooke’s brutes had strung him up to a post and flogged him until he’d blacked out. They had wanted to make an example of him; at fifteen, he was one of the oldest mudlarks, the urchins who made their living scavenging the Thames. Since the death of their leader, the Prince of Larks, men like Crooke had tried to take over the gang, wanting to profit from the children in despicable ways.
Cull welcomed the searing throb of his injuries because it was the pain of resistance. Of not standing down or giving in, even when your enemy thought you were too powerless and weak to matter. Even when you doubted yourself.
“A mudlark’s strength lays in his loyalty.” The Prince of Larks had drilled this message into his charges. “Alone, we are easy to defeat. Together, we are invincible.”
Other than his eleven-year-old sister Maisie, the mudlarks were the only family Cull had. No bastard was going to take over and force them into working for a bloody bawd—not if Cull still had breath to fight.
He took stock of his present situation. Patting himself down gingerly, he discovered that someone had dressed his wounds and wrapped him up in enough bandages to rival an Egyptian mummy. His eyes were nearly swollen shut—the brutes had given him twin shiners—so he carefully pried one open with his fingers, huffing out a pained breath…and then one of surprise as he got a good look at his surroundings.
“Bleeding ’ell,” he said hoarsely. “’Ow’d I end up in a castle?”
Afternoon light seeped through a crack in the velvet drapes, casting everything in a golden glow. He was in a huge tester bed with a feather mattress. The room was fit for a king, with walls covered in blue silk and a soaring white ceiling where plaster cherubs gamboled in the corners. The place even smelled nice…like the flower market in Covent Garden mixed with a lady’s expensive perfume.
Maybe I’ve cocked up me toes and gone to ’eaven after all, Cull thought, bemused.
His gaze landed on a small table next to the bed. When he saw the gleaming silver pitcher of water and spotless glass, his parched throat clenched. He wondered if whoever had fixed him up would mind if he helped himself. As he was reaching for the pitcher, the door opened. He jerked his hand back like a thief, wincing when his injuries protested.
“Oh. You’re awake.”
The voice was the prettiest Cull had heard. It reminded him of an exotic bird he’d once seen at a fair, which had sung a tender song from its cage. A girl came into view, and even through the puffy slits of his eyes, he saw that she was a Diamond of the First Water.
Curls the color of sunshine framed her oval face. He guessed she was near his own age, her slender figure in the first bloom of womanhood. Beneath her white beribboned frock, which probably cost more than he’d earned in his entire life, she had small, high breasts and a waist that made his hands itch to span it.
She came closer, bringing with her that clean, flowery scent. When she peered at him, he saw that her eyes were an angelic blue. He felt a stirring beneath the blankets…Jesus wept, was he getting hard? He was no stranger to lust, having lost his virginity to an experienced milkmaid two summers ago, but getting randy while beaten to a pulp was a first.
“Maisie will be so relieved,” the girl said in her musical voice.
“Maisie?” His voice was sandpaper against his throat. “You know me sister?”
The girl’s gilded curls swung against her cheek as she nodded.
“Maisie is a student at the academy run by my parents,” she explained. “She’s been by your side for the last two days. I offered to watch over you so that she could have a lie-down in one of the guest bedchambers. Perhaps she has mentioned me? My name is Pippa Hunt.”
Since Cull’s younger sister chattered like a magpie, he couldn’t keep track of all her ramblings. He spent time with Maisie when he could…which hadn’t been too often, given the pressing troubles of the mudlarks. Although he made his living in the underbelly of London, he didn’t want the same for his sister. She deserved better.
After their mam died a year ago, he’d debated taking Maisie to live with him at the Nest, the flash house and headquarters of the mudlarks. Instead, he’d brought her to the Hunt Academy, a school for orphans that was known to treat its students well and train them in respectable trades. He’d interviewed the founders, Gavin and Persephone Hunt, to make sure they weren’t a pair of dodgy bamboozlers. The pair had earned Cull’s trust, which was saying a lot. He hadn’t survived fifteen years by being a gull.
The Hunts had tried to get Cull to stay on at the academy, but he wasn’t a domesticable sort. Maisie, however, had blossomed in her year at the school, learning her letters and improving herself. Cull was relieved and proud of her progress. During his visits, she’d prattled on happily about the other pupils, and now that he thought of it, she had mentioned this Pippa, claiming that the Hunts’ daughter was sweet-natured and kind, never putting on airs.
What Maisie hadn’t mentioned was that Miss Hunt was also every lad’s bedtime fantasy.
Realizing that he was staring at his hostess like a booby, Cull opened his mouth to reply but was seized by a coughing fit. Pain punched him in the ribs.
“Here, try some of this,” Miss Hunt exclaimed.
She held a glass to his lips, tipping it slowly. The cool liquid soothed like a salve. He sucked down the water in greedy gulps.
“You mustn’t drink so fast, you poor dear,” she said. “You might choke again.”
Cull couldn’t remember anyone calling him a “poor dear.” Among friends, he went by the shortened version of his surname that was as rough-and-ready as he was. Among enemies, he was referred to as one of the three B’s: bastard, bugger, or blaggard. An alley rat born and bred, he was used to respectable folk looking down at him from their high horses, yet Miss Hunt seemed oblivious to their differences in station. Setting down the emptied glass, she dabbed stray droplets from his lips with a soft scrap of linen.
The handkerchief smelled like her. Flowers warmed by sunshine.
She handed him a paper packet filled with white powder. “This is willow bark. It tastes dreadful, I’m afraid, but the doctor said it would ease the pain.”
Cull downed the contents, which did indeed taste like shit.
She gave him more water and smiled at him. “Feeling better?”
He was, but he didn’t think it was on account of the medicine. Her eyes…up close, they were mesmerizing. Rare and unique. Golden suns surrounded her pupils, illuminating her blue irises, and though he was no poet—hell, he could barely write his own name—her eyes were the exact shade he imagined heaven would be.
Time halted as he lost himself in her gaze. He saw only her; her eyes held only him. The rest of the world vanished as he leaned closer, drawing her scent into his lungs. Breathing her in. Her mink-colored lashes swept up, but she didn’t move away. Her lips, which were the shiny pink of a boiled sweet, parted ever so slightly…
“Tim, oh Tim!” Maisie’s voice shattered the spell. “You’re awake!”
Cull jerked his gaze to his sister, who came running toward the bed, her brown plaits bouncing against her thin shoulders. She looked scared, her freckles pronounced against her pale cheeks. Knowing she needed reassurance, he braced himself and held his arms open. With a sob, she ran into his embrace.
The hug hurt like the devil, but he managed not to grimace.
She took a step back, studying him with anxious eyes. “Are you badly hurt, Tim?”
“Nah, been clobbered worse.” He chucked her beneath the chin. “Nothing to worry your pretty li’l noggin o’er.”
“Patrick brung…brought me to you,” Maisie whispered. “He said Crooke had his men beat the stuffing out of you after you refused to let the mudlarks be sold to a bawd.”
Cull hated that his sister knew about such things. Although their departed mam had made her living on her back and drowned her sorrows in blue ruin, he had tried to protect Maisie against the harsher realities of life. It was why he’d taken her to the Hunts—to get her away from the filth of the streets. Even though he knew Patrick, a fellow mudlark and his best friend, had only wanted to help, he wished the other hadn’t involved Maisie.
“Patrick should’ve left you out o’ it,” he muttered.
“If it weren’t for Patrick, you might be dead,” Maisie said, her voice hitching. “We were trying to get you free when Mr. Hunt and the Earl of Revelstoke arrived. They took care of that nasty old Crooke and brung…brought you here.”
Cull added Hunt and Revelstoke to his mental tally. A mudlark never forgot a favor or a wrong. He would be paying his debt when he could.
“You’ll stay, won’t you? You won’t leave me again?” Maisie’s pleading look twisted his insides with guilt. “There’s plenty of room at the academy.”
As much as Cull wanted to reassure his sister, he wouldn’t lie to her. It was just a matter of time before another bastard like Crooke made a move. The mudlarks needed Cull—needed someone older and stronger, in truth. But he was all they had; he couldn’t let them down.
His temples throbbed. “I’ll stay for as long as I can,” he said.
“How long?” Maisie persisted.
“Your brother looks like he could use some refreshment,” Miss Hunt cut in gently. “Perhaps you could fetch some of Cook’s beef tea, Maisie?”
Maisie hesitated, then said, “All right. I’ll get some beef tea for you, Tim. You’ll like it.”
His sister scampered off, leaving him with Miss Hunt.
“Thank you,” he muttered. “For looking after Maisie.”
“She is a dear.” Miss Hunt studied him. “I think, however, that she would prefer that you be the one watching out for her, Mr. Cullen.”
He knew that. And Miss Hunt’s well-intentioned words plunged the blade of guilt deeper.
“I do wot I can,” he said gruffly. “And it’s Cull.”
“Cull. That’s wot me friends call me.”
“Oh.” Her silky lashes fanned upward. “Well, my friends call me Pippa.”
“Pippa.” He liked the feel of her rolling off his tongue. “That’s a right pretty name.”
Although her cheeks turned pink, her gaze was amused. “Sir, are you flirting with me while sporting a pair of shiners?”
He flushed. Jesus wept, what was he about, trying to dally with this goddess when he looked like something the cat dragged in?
“I didn’t mean no offense,” he said.
“None taken.” A smile edged her lips. “I had best inform Mama and Papa that you are awake; they’ll want Dr. Abernathy to take another look at you.”
She turned to go.
“Wait,” he called.
She pivoted slightly, looking over her shoulder. “Yes?”
Don’t go. Stay wif me. Let me rest me sore eyes on you, ’ear your sweet birdsong voice…
“I…I’ll be seeing you later, then?”
She smiled. “If you wish, Cull. Now get some rest.”
He watched her leave the room. Surrounded by soft linens and her lingering scent, he drifted off. And when he dreamed, his dreams were of her.
Pippa Hunt Lumley tracked her target, Viscount Hastings, through the dusk-filled streets of Limehouse. The close of the week drew out the rowdiness of the neighborhood, home to those involved in the seafaring trades. She avoided the sailors stumbling in and out of the dockside taverns and bawdy houses, situated conveniently side by side. Some men opted for the cheaper prostitutes flitting beneath the streetlamps like gaudy butterflies.
As Pippa passed a dark vein between two buildings, animal sounds spilled out. The glow of a fire pit limned two figures, a man leaning against a brick wall, a woman on her knees in front of him, her head bobbing. A shiver chased up Pippa’s spine; she ignored it and continued on.
At eight-and-twenty, she was no innocent miss. She was a widow whose husband had died because of his involvement in a disreputable business. The last year had made her immune to shock.
The past is done, she told herself. Concentrate on the mission.
Pippa continued her discreet surveillance of Hastings. She’d followed him from a dockside gaming house, where he’d lost a sizeable sum in less than an hour. When he turned onto a narrow lane, she counted to ten before following him. This was an infamous street, the glow of opium dens forming a red constellation, the sweet scent of oblivion perfuming the air. Despite Limehouse’s shady reputation, opium lured men from all strata of society to its crooked streets.
Pain pierced Pippa’s chest like a swift dagger. Her dead husband, Edwin, the Earl of Longmere, had been a victim of a terrible drug…and she had failed to help him. Failed to see through his excuses and lies until it was too late.
Hastings paused in the street, pivoting suddenly, his gaze landing on her.
Months of training kept her composure in place. As she and Hastings traveled in the same circles, she knew him to be an immoral rake. On several occasions, with their spouses within earshot, he’d suggested that they “get to know one another better” beyond the ballroom. The advances, and the predatory flash in his eyes when she’d refused him, had made her skin crawl.
Despite his prior lewd interest, she doubted that he would see through her present disguise. She looked nothing like the Countess of Longmere, paragon and grieving widow. She’d tucked her blonde tresses beneath a short brown wig, a battered cap shadowing her eyes and a mustache obscuring the shape of her face. The drab, loose uniform of a dock worker concealed her figure as she adopted the stumbling gait of a fellow three sheets to the wind.
Losing interest in her, Hastings started down the lane again.
Pippa felt a spark of triumph. The months of training under the guidance of Lady Charlotte Fayne, founder of the Society of Angels, a covert female investigative agency, were paying off.
Pippa had joined the agency after Edwin’s death. Tonight, she and the other agents, known as Angels, were working on behalf of Lady Julianna Hastings, who’d hired them to monitor her husband’s activities. Armed with information, Lady Hastings could make better decisions about her future. She would not have to stumble in the dark of ignorance, filled with uncertainty and fear…
Tamping down her emotions, Pippa continued after the viscount. She conceded with a pang that Jeremy Hastings reminded her of Edwin. He was tall and handsome, with a similar refined build. Clad in exquisite tailoring, he moved with arrogant assurance, a peacock ripe for the plucking to the denizens watching him from the shadows. When he took another turn, this time down an alleyway into a courtyard bordered by decrepit tenements, Pippa hesitated.
Lady Charlie’s instructions rang in her head. Observe Jeremy Hastings, but do not leave the dockside until reinforcement arrives. Angels work best as a team, and you must not take any unnecessary risks. I mean it, Pippa.
Pippa was on thin ice because of the last mission, when she’d tracked down a jewel thief. With insufficient time to alert her fellow Angels, she had made the decision to apprehend the target on her own. Despite Pippa’s successful handling of the case, and the reward paid by the grateful client, Charlie had deemed Pippa’s behavior “reckless.”
For most of her life, Pippa had been the opposite of rash. She was the conventional and easy-going member of her family. Mama was a famous novelist who wrote dashing sensation novels, and Papa had risen from the underbelly of London to become a successful industrialist and philanthropist. Pippa’s younger brothers, Garrett and Hugh, were lovable rogues prone to mayhem.
Pippa, however, was a lover of ordinary things. She liked domesticity and managing the household. Her favorite activities included spending time with family and friends, painting in sunlit solitude, and working with the children at her parents’ academy for foundlings. Yet after Edwin’s death, everything had changed.
Edwin’s cousin had inherited the townhouse where Pippa had lived. Her parents had wanted her to return to their home, but she’d declined, preferring to be alone. As much as she loved her family, her marriage had strained her relationships with them—with her papa, especially—and their time together was a stilted and painful reminder of the mistakes she’d made.
Thus, she had used her small stipend to rent a cottage in Bloomsbury. She had her independence, yet she still felt…lost. Her relationship with Edwin had slowly eroded her identity; without knowing how or when it happened, she’d lost parts of herself.
Now she no longer knew who she was. Her beloved routines failed to hold her interest. Painting, which had once been a source of joy, roused terrible guilt. Edwin, a rising painter, had died because of his art…and Pippa had unwittingly hastened his demise.
When she picked up a brush, she saw it dripping with his blood.
She hadn’t painted in months and might never again.
Trapped by the unrelenting weight of bombazine, grief, and other festering emotions, Pippa had felt herself unraveling. Needing distraction, she had jumped at Charlie’s offer to train her to be an agent. Even now, her memories lurked, ready to pounce and shred her equilibrium to pieces. Luckily, danger had a way of absorbing her senses, helping her to evade the claws of the past.
Once upon a time, she’d striven to be a proper countess, a good wife who would make her husband proud. Now she had only herself to please.
The other Angels will catch up soon, Pippa reasoned. I must discover what nefarious business Hastings is up to.
She entered the mouth of the alley, her footsteps stealthy on the packed dirt. The shadows sucked her in like a tar pit, the air heavy with overripe smells. When something squished beneath her boot, she shuddered. She made it into the courtyard, where the light from the surrounding tenements illuminated rows of clotheslines. The garments swayed like a field of frayed ghosts.
Is Hastings hiding here? Pippa drew back her shoulders. There’s one way to find out.
Pushing aside a patched sheet, she ducked beneath the clothesline and looked down the row: the only movement was the flutter of fabric. Indistinct shouting and laughter came from the nearby buildings as she advanced another row, then another. Soon she was halfway through the field of clothes, her nose itchy from the fumes of lye and starch.
Did Hastings go into one of the tenements? Or did he pass through here?
She swept aside a sheet…and a hand closed around her arm. She was yanked backward into a man’s chest. Cold metal pressed into her temple.
A pistol. Cocked and loaded.
“Why are you following me?” The tremor in Hastings’s voice betrayed his fear.
He pressed his forearm against her throat, a hold she could escape. Her next moves flashed through her head. Stomp on his insole and drop down before he pulls the trigger. Kick out low, knock him off his feet. Grab his pistol and gain the upper hand.
That would be a last resort, however. Her goal was to gather information about Hastings, not give him a beating. As satisfying as the latter option might be.
“Gor, guv, you’ve got the wrong fellow.” She used a Cockney accent and pitched her voice low. “I ain’t following ye. I’m ’ere to visit me kin.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Hastings hissed. “I saw you earlier. You followed me from the docks, and you’ll tell me why—or I’ll put a goddamned bullet through your brain.”
Dash it. His arm was shaking.
If I don’t calm him down, he might shoot me out of nerves.
“Easy there, guv,” she soothed. “I ain’t lying. Me sister lives ’ere, and I’ve come for a visit—”
“Uncle Peter, you’re ’ere!”
Hastings jerked at the sound of the child’s voice, and Pippa tensed, ready to carry out her escape plan if necessary. But three children burst through the sheets. The tallest one, a brown-haired boy around twelve years old, held a lantern that lit up the trio’s cherubic faces and shabby but clean clothes.
“Mama made ’er special hotchpotch, and we’ve been waitin’ on ye…” The boy was addressing…Pippa? He trailed off, his gaze landing on Hastings and the pistol aimed at her head. “Crikey, what are ye doin’ to me Uncle Peter?”
“Nothing.” Hastings released Pippa with a shove. “It was a misunderstanding.”
“Me ma will ’ave your ’ead if ye ’urt ’er favorite brother,” the second tallest child, a pretty girl with blonde ringlets and a fierce scowl, declared. “A word from us, and she’ll be down ’ere in a blink wif ’er frying pan.”
“Ma’s pan packs a wallop.” The warning came from the youngest child, a tow-headed boy whose huge spectacles magnified his wide-set eyes.
“Bloody hell, I said it was a mix-up,” Hastings muttered. “I don’t have time for this.”
He stalked off, shoving his way through the field of laundry, leaving fallen fabric in his wake. As Pippa watched him exit the courtyard, she debated following. Sighing, she acknowledged that she couldn’t risk further action. She was lucky that Hastings hadn’t seen through her cover.
Actually, it wasn’t luck. Why had the children intervened on her behalf?
She turned to thank her diminutive rescuers…only to see them scampering off.
“Wait,” she called. “Why did you help me?”
They didn’t look back and kept running, disappearing down the alleyway from which she’d entered. Her curiosity hooked, she took off after them.
Despite their short legs, the tots ran like the wind. They dodged people and vehicles with seasoned ease. She tried to catch up, but they were too quick. They ran down a pier, leaping onto a docked barge. By the time she reached the dock, the barge had glided off on the black water of the Limehouse Cut, a canal bordered by tenements and manufactories.
Catching her breath, Pippa braced her hands on her hips and stared after the vessel. A lamp at the stern limned a large, cloaked figure. She squinted…it was a man, tall and broad-shouldered, his face obscured by a hood. He lifted his hands, and the mournful notes of a flute stirred the hairs on her nape.
The flute was the signature instrument of the Prince of Larks, a mysterious and powerful figure in the London underworld. The prince ruled the mudlarks, children who scavenged the Thames for second-hand goods, but whose real trade was that of information. It was said that little happened in London without the prince’s knowledge; if one wanted answers, he could provide it…for a price.
The price could be money or something dearer. Part of the prince’s mystique lay in his ruthless and mercurial nature. Rumors swirled about how his enemies disappeared, never to be seen again. Even his face was a mystery, for he ruled from the shadows and behind a mask. Charlie, on occasion, employed his group to discover information. Yet even she, formidable lady that she was, urged caution when using his services.
“The mudlarks are driven by forces beyond the understanding of outsiders,” Charlie had said. “Never underestimate them or take any favors unless you know what is expected in return.”
Pippa’s chest tightened. From personal experience, she knew better than to accept anything from the prince. For swathed in that cloak of mystique was none other than Timothy Cullen, the lad who’d spent a month recovering in her home fourteen years ago. An image flashed in her head of the handsome boy who’d befriended her and given her a kiss…then left.
Without so much as an adieu.
Just another male who has exited my life under mysterious circumstances, Pippa thought darkly. Why did Cullen interfere in my plans tonight? What is his purpose?
She curled her hands. She was no longer a naïve chit, a pawn in any man’s game. After burying Edwin, she’d vowed that she would learn from her mistakes. She, and no one else, would decide her fate.
Scanning the canal, she saw that the barge had come to a stop. The boat ahead of it had gotten stuck beneath the low railway bridge that crossed the canal about a hundred yards ahead. She gauged the distance from the bridge to the deck of the barge and judged it to be less than ten feet.
In a split second, she made her decision. She ran from the dock to the street parallel to the canal, sprinting toward the railway bridge. With a glance to make sure no train was approaching, she dashed onto the bridge and peered over the railing. The previously stuck boat was now sailing under, the mudlarks’ barge approaching.
From here, the drop looked a wee bit farther than she’d calculated. Her blood rushing through her veins, she climbed over the railing and prepared to jump. To discover what, after all these years, Timothy Cullen wanted from her.Return to Pippa and the Prince of Secrets
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