Time for another teaser excerpt from True Pretenses! Remember, you can read the first chapter and pre-order the book here.
In this scene, Lydia takes Ash to visit the Lively St. Lemeston workhouse. Ash has a little more experience with workhouses than Lydia suspects.
“Here we are,” she said, stopping before a neat white building. Her footman raised the knocker and rapped with a sound like the clanking of chains.
Ash reminded himself that this was the ultimate swindle—a street urchin striding into a workhouse like a fine gentleman, the patroness on his arm. He was Daniel in the lion’s den, and it should have exhilarated him. But he’d played this swindle before. He’d been far too lucky that last time, left a scale unbalanced behind him. This was pushing his luck, and that was something he’d learned never to do.
Well, there was a twisted satisfaction in that, too. In courting destruction as if it were a woman you couldn’t resist when she’d already emptied your friends’ pocketbooks and broken their hearts. Ash would have stepped off the cliff ’s edge a long time ago, if it weren’t for Rafe.
The door was opened by a pigtailed adolescent girl. Ash followed Miss Reeve inside and let the workhouse door close behind him.
It was smaller and neater and less crowded than the London workhouses Ash remembered from his childhood. But it had the same strange smell of cleanliness without luxury or personality: brown soap, starch, human bodies and cheap food. It was too early for the able-bodied who couldn’t feed themselves. They would come in January and February when it was coldest. Now it was the old, the mad, the simpleminded, and men and women too sick or crippled to work, all pressed up against each other in one space like odds and ends shoved out of sight in the back of a drawer—and, of course, the children, forced to care for them all.
There was a little girl of eight or nine feeding an old woman in one corner. Ash saw her notice Miss Reeve, her posture changing at once from impatient boredom into something careful and correct. “Here you go, Mrs. Sykes,” she said, her voice syrupy sweet and pitched to carry. “Nice gruel, your favorite.”
Ash hid a smile.
Then another child of perhaps eighteen months toddled over and reached for the spoon. The girl snatched it away, and the child reached for it again. Ash saw the child’s mouth open wide, he saw the girl’s darting look of terror at Miss Reeve—
Even before the child’s first wail had run out of breath, he was swooping her up. “There now,” he murmured, nestling her against his coat. “Don’t cry.”
“She’s no trouble,” the girl said stridently. “She nearly never cries.” Her eyes were wide with fear.
“Of course not,” Ash said, pretending everything was ordinary. His heart pounded in his chest. “You seem like a very well-behaved baby, don’t you?” He wrinkled his nose at the child in his arms, and she giggled.
“Her’s too young for the workhouse,” muttered Mrs. Sykes.
“Is not,” countered the girl. “The overseers said she wasn’t.” She reached for the baby, her plain, square face made plainer and squarer with determination. “I can take care of her.”
Miss Reeve walked away, and Ash followed. “Some of the overseers think we ought to send Joanna to a nurse in the country,” she said. “They think it would be more healthful for her there.”
“Surely it’s better to be with her sister.”
“I wish I knew.” She sighed. “At a certain point you have to pray you’re making the right
“I don’t imagine you’d have liked to lose your own brother,” he said, an edge in his voice. He wasn’t doing a good job of distracting her. He shouldn’t have agreed to come here.
“But I could take care of Jamie. If I weren’t able to, perhaps I ought to have set aside my own comfort and let him go. His own welfare must have been paramount.”
“Yes, a two-year-old child, for his own welfare to be taken from his family and sent to strangers.” Could she hear his voice shake? He was shaking a little all over, wasn’t he? Just a fine tremor; maybe she wouldn’t notice. “Would a nurse in the country have loved him and cared for him as you did—and not only while she was paid to do it, but forever? Can you be so sure it would have profited him in the end? Absolute devotion isn’t so common a thing in this world that it should be held cheaper than a little clean air and fresh milk.”
She looked at him with approval. As if he had taken a political stance she liked. As if it were an academic question.
He laughed self-deprecatingly. “I’m sorry. I’m rather fond of my own brother, you know. I didn’t mean to talk your ear off.”
She put up a hand to her ear. It was a lovely ear. A shell-like ear, even. He had always thought that an odd phrase, but he could see it now—the creamy smoothness of the curve, the warm pink glow as it caught the light. If he leaned in, would he hear a mysterious seashore thrum from within her? “Oh, don’t apologize,” she said, smiling. “My ears are very well attached, I promise you.”