The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 13)

“Come, lass. We need the cover of the crowd.” He began to crawl toward the back of the box on his elbows and knees, and Frannie rolled over to follow, her long skirts twisting and catching beneath her knees. Thom met her in the shadows behind the rows of seats and helped drag her farther back before reaching up with a small knife to slice the cord holding the privacy curtain. Once it fell, he stood to help her up in the complete darkness behind the fall of burgundy velvet.

Her knees wobbled, but he steadied her, one hand on each arm. The knife had disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, and she realized that she knew very little about Thom, outside of his altruistic profession and his kindness. She took deep breaths, trying to force herself into calm or at least sharpen her senses.

“The pet shop’s made of stone, aye?”

It caught her by surprise, and she had to think for a moment. “On the outside, yes. There’s wood on the inside in places.”

“Then it’s safer than the fire station. Can ye walk, or must I carry you?”

“I’ll let you know.”

He stifled a chuckle and took her hand.

Thom opened the door just a crack, and the sound of voices and the smell of overly warm bodies assailed them. Cold dread sneaked down Frannie’s neck, and she held back from the bright light beyond the door. The person with the crossbow could be out there. Thom tugged her hand, but she didn’t move.

“Don’t worry, lass. I’ve got you.”

He took off his jacket and slung it over the ripped shoulder of her dress. Much to her surprise, he reached under her knees to sling her up tight against his chest.

“Tilt your hat down,” he whispered, and she obeyed, letting the deep brim cover her face.

With his arms wrapped firmly around her, he shouldered open the door and plunged into the crowd. She tucked her head against his chest and squeezed her eyes shut. If an arrow was going to come for her, she wouldn’t be able to stop it, and she didn’t want to see it. Thom elbowed his way roughly through the crush of bodies, a trail of gasps and whispers in his wake.

“Must have fainted.”

“Perhaps an invalid?”

“Told you the Maestro makes all the ladies swoon, mate.”

She curled more tightly against Thom, her face crushed against the linen of his white shirt. His chest was hard underneath it—it would have to be, the way he wore his heavy fireman’s rig and hefted hoses and ladders about. In his arms, she felt safe and nigh invulnerable, his broad strides tearing a swath through the hall, down the stairs, and across the lobby, where his boots rang loudly against the marble as the first men from the pit dashed outside for a smoke.

It was a relief when he shoved through the door and into the night. The clammy kiss of London’s air brushed her cheek, and Frannie dared a look around. Thom was nearly running but not out of breath, carrying her with grim determination and stolid strength on the shortest path from the Vauxhall to the pet shop.

“Ye can relax a bit, dove,” he murmured. “Whoever was aiming for ye will be behind us now.”

“But that means they would hit you.”

“Let them try.”

The temperature went downright cold as he ducked into a back alley, and she clutched at his chest when she saw the first bright red gleam of bludrat eyes.

“A native Londoner scared of the rats?”

“Not usually. But I’ve forgotten my parasol. And my jacket is ripped. They can smell me.”

He chuckled, his chest rumbling against her palm, and hurried faster. “They can always smell ye. We’ve much worse things, where I come from.”

“I was curious how you could wander about with your . . . wearing a . . .” There was no polite way to end the sentence.

Another chuckle, this one a shade darker. “Oh, so ye noticed my knees, did ye?”

She hid her blush against his chest.

Finally, he stopped, and she could tell from the scent of baking bread and the sound of glad barking that they were at her front doorstep.

“I can stand.”

He gently set her down, his hands clinging to her shoulders as if he would have preferred to carry her all night against his heart rather than let her feet touch the ground. Once she unlocked the door, he gave her a meaningful look and stepped in first before ushering her inside, one hand on the small of her back. Everything was as it should have been, the birds rustling softly in their cages, a few sleepy heads peeking out from under fluffed wings. The puppies stopped barking and started whining for food, and Thom closed the door behind them. Warmth and comfort and rightness washed over Frannie, and she put up her chin and said, “Right, then. Tea.”

She handed Thom his jacket and went to busy herself in the kitchen. He followed more slowly, checking every dark corner of the shop.

“Would the animals know if something was amiss?” he asked.

She laughed as she measured out the tea. “Oh, yes. Clockworks are all well and good, but birds are the noisiest and most easily agitated of busybodies. If anyone they didn’t recognize had come in downstairs at night, they’d still be talking about it and tossing feathers and seed onto the floor. I think we’re safe now.” And she did. Not only because the pet shop slept but also because Thom was there, blocking the door. He leaned against the side, crossing his feet and narrowing his eyes at her. She fumbled the spoon.

“I know I asked ye before, but I must ask again. Does someone wish ye ill? Someone from your past?”

“I don’t believe I have any enemies. The one person from my past . . .” She stared into the stream of boiling water as it swirled with the tea leaves, turning them from a dusty gray to a warm, wet green. If only she had possessed some sort of magic, she would have read the leaves in her cup and his, later, to try to puzzle out why everything was changing. “He was indifferent, like a storm that leaves destruction in its wake. If anyone wished revenge, it was me. Crossbows were never his style, in any case. He preferred swords.”

“Anyone complain about a pet sale? Any threatening letters? Lawsuits?” She shook her head, and his eyes went sharp. “Thrown over any lads lately?”

She snorted and plunked sugar cubes too forcefully into his tea, although he hadn’t requested them.

“Until last week, I spoke to no one but Maisie and the odd nod with the neighbors. One might ask if you and Casper had enemies.”

It was his turn to snort as he took the tea and sat on the couch, holding the thin porcelain with excessive care. “I live a solitary life, and any man with a grudge can call me out for a good thrashing, if he wants one. It’s clear the Maestro has enemies aplenty, and for good reason, but it’s also clear they could have shot him onstage and finished him off. No, they were aiming for you, lass.” He blew on the tea and sipped thoughtfully. “First the incendiary device and now an arrow.”

Frannie blushed and looked down, stirring her tea with a small spoon. “And someone may have mailed me a viper.”

Thom choked on his tea and set the cup and saucer down to glare at her. “Ye might have mentioned that!”

She shrugged and sipped.

“Have you somewhere else to go, lass? Where you could lie low for a bit?”

She looked up at him, defiance snapping in her eyes. “Absolutely not. This is my home, and I refuse to run away in the hopes that someone would be too stupid or silly to follow me. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve no enemies.” She fingered the rip in her jacket. “And I’ve nowhere else to go, in any case, and no money to get there. So that’s that.”

“Then you’ll have to put up with having a great brute about for a bit.” He stood and pointed his chin at the stairs, the orange gaslights sparking off the stubble. “I’m sleeping in your hall.”


Of course she couldn’t sleep; Thom sat just outside her door. The gallant man had promised not to let himself drift off until she herself was firmly dreaming, and she suspected that he was alert to her every toss and turn. Heaven knew her head was full of enough snakes to keep an entire block of London bludrats hopping.

She’d been twitchy ever since the fire. The new glass in her window was even thinner than the pane that the device had shattered, flying into her room and setting the curtains ablaze. She hadn’t heard the crash then, just as she hadn’t heard the arrow thwack through her sleeve and into the plush velvet seat, a finger’s span from her arm. She had told Thom the truth: she didn’t know who would wish her harm. But she was more scared than she could admit. Having him near was becoming a habit, and not just because she knew that he’d already saved her life at least twice and wouldn’t hesitate to dive between her body and danger.

She heard him shift outside and sigh, the old door creaking against his back. Without meaning to, she echoed his sigh and turned again, the bedsprings squealing beneath her. Of course, she was afraid to fall asleep, when her dreams held nothing but the memory of blood on snow, the jangling of the traces on the black horses of the funeral carriage, and, more recently, the hot reek of fire. She’d held her secrets alone too long, and a desperate glance at the closet only made her more fretful.

“Stop worrying and sleep, lass,” Thom called through the door. “You’re safe, I promise ye.”

She rolled over, cheeks hot and red, the ribbons on her nightdress caught under her hand. “I’m trying,” she called back, and he made a Scottish noise deep in his throat that seemed to say he didn’t believe her, not one little bit.

Long memories of a foolishly broken heart and a dead family weighed her down, and she was on edge about the recent and random attempts on her life. But what really kept her wide awake in the middle of the night was the warm and restless presence of the Scotsman in the hall.

“I could make ye some more tea,” he said uneasily, and she snorted. He struck her as the sort of fellow who could do anything but boil water.

With a final, deep sigh, she sat up, her hands gripping the rough new wood he’d used to rebuild her bed. No point in pretending any further. The uncomfortable truth was that sleep wasn’t what she needed most. Sleep couldn’t ease her heart.