The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 6)
The shop was tidy, most of the creatures sleeping. A secretive smile came over her face as she realized that with Casper gone, she could finally sneak through the hidden door in her closet. She had business to attend to on the roof, after all.
Hours later, as she prepared to drag herself inside and into bed, her eye was caught by a movement on the next roof over, down on Maisie’s building. Frannie’s row house had the tallest façade on the block, but there were decorative windows in the brick to encourage proper air flow. She could easily see what occurred on all the other roofs, which was mostly nothing. She glanced over, hopeful that perhaps the last of her clever crows had found its way home, but the shadow was gone. Strange that anyone or anything else would be about on the roof, in the milky light of the moon. She waited a while longer until a yawn nearly cracked her jaw, then finally went inside and gave in to sleep.
When Thom arrived the next morning, Frannie was sweeping the shop for the third unnecessary time. His knock was soft, and the first rays of the sun barely painted him pink when she unlocked the door and shyly let him in. Thom was wearing a different skirt this time—a kilt, she reminded herself. Her curiosity had been piqued by their last conversation, and she had looked up Edinburgh in her atlas to brush up on what little she had been taught about Scotland. For a country that was bloody close, things up north were terribly strange, and men with bare knees were the least of it. Compared with the native creatures of his homeland, bludrats attacking his skin must have seemed but a minor inconvenience. He certainly didn’t seem concerned about his shocking state of undress.
Clad all in grays and browns, he almost melded with the dreary stones and fug of London. His eyes were the lone bit of nature, warmly hazel. He grinned at her, and when he spoke, his voice was soft enough to keep from riling up the still-sleepy creatures.
“Ready to do some work, lass?”
“I am. Are you sure you don’t mind?”
In response, he shrugged amiably and scratched his chin. He looked remarkably awake and tidy for someone who’d been fighting fires all night, but she handed him her flask anyway.
“Bit early for whiskey, aye?” he said, but then he smelled it and murmured approvingly. “Coffee.” He sipped it. “With goat milk?” He drew back to look at her, and she smiled smugly.
“I have my ways,” she said, enjoying his incredulity. For a quiet London lass in a dowdy tweed suit, she held quite a few secrets. As long as Thom never found his way to the roof, she didn’t have much to fear.
“I’ve brought a bit of wood and glass and my kit. Mind if I bring it into the shop before we head upstairs to assess the damage? Never seen a city with such sticky fingers. They’d steal the hoses off the truck, if we weren’t careful.”
He eased a cart through the door, careful of the old boards and wrapped bit of glass. Frannie locked the door behind him, an oddly intimate gesture in the dusky morning. It was even stranger when he followed her past the curtain and up the narrow steps to the upstairs hall and into her room. The last time a man had been in there, the ensuing kerfuffle had ended worse than badly.
Thom went first to the window, his brow furrowing as he ran a leather-gloved finger over the jagged, fire-darkened remains of the glass.
“I couldn’t really see the damage last night, but the Brigade didn’t do this. Did you break it trying to escape?”
Frannie came closer but didn’t reach out to touch the thick, wavy glass. It wasn’t the newer, thinner glass that one could easily see through, but had been original to the house, too heavy to let in anything but a token bit of light.
“I didn’t touch the glass. There was smoke everywhere, and the curtains were on fire. I didn’t even look, really. But it would have taken a lot of force to do this much damage, correct? It’s as thick as my thumb!”
Thom looked out the window, mindful of the scorched shards as he scouted along the street below. Much to Frannie’s surprise, he dropped to his hands and knees and began to crawl around on the fire-blackened wood boards. She hadn’t installed her new curtains yet, and the light through the broken glass laid the room’s every fault bare. She was mortified when he stuck his head under the bed; surely the neglected dustbunnies were one step away from craving blood.
When Thom emerged holding a crude device of charred metal and fabric, Frannie was more confused and embarrassed than concerned. After all, she hadn’t moved her bed a single time in her entire life, and she hadn’t spent much time poking around under there, either. Having grown up with a mortal fear of bludrats, hanging about under a pitch-dark bed wasn’t something that interested her.
“Tell me, lass. D’ye have any enemies?”
“Not to my knowledge.” She had many secrets, but no one knew about them. And if anyone did, setting her home and shop on fire would have rendered them useless, anyway. “What is that thing?”
Thom stood, turning the object over in his dusty leather gloves. Although he held it easily in one large hand, when he gave it to her, she needed both hands to manage the size and weight of it.
“An incendiary device.” She cocked her head at him and raised an eyebrow, a trick she had picked up from the parrots. He moved closer, his arm brushing hers, to point at a blackened, pointy part. “Bit like a fire lighter. See, here, where the bit of slate strikes the flint? My best guess is that someone threw it through your window while it was on fire. That would explain why the flames were concentrated on the curtains, aye?”
Frannie handed it back to him, noting that for a fellow who seemed rustic and rough, his vocabulary was rather crisp. She stood before the window, the skin crawling on her neck as she thought about the only person who’d ever tried to hurt her. But this—this wasn’t his style. She was fairly certain it couldn’t be the neighbors, either. The building across the street was owned by a baker, and she knew the family well enough to be sure the device hadn’t originated there. In any case, the baker’s roof was sloped, not high and flat like her own.
“It must have come from the street,” she said. “But why me? The shop’s worth nothing burned.”
He shrugged, his shoulders stretching the gray coat. “Plenty of arson in this city, most of it never explained to my satisfaction. Did you sleep here last night?”
She blushed and stared at the bed, which was stripped to an old, singed sheet over the striped mattress.
“Of course ye didn’t. Good. Ye never know when they’ll try again. I’ll speak to the local Copper, make sure someone patrols this street at night. Have you considered barring the windows? Or setting a clockwork to guard?”
“My family has been here for thirty years without a single problem. This part of town is still good.” Her glare dared him to disagree, but he only raised his eyebrows. “I’ve never felt unsafe before.” She swallowed, crossing her arms over her chest as she stared at the cold, charred incendiary device. Metal was so impersonal. “Not like this.”
Thom set the device down on her bed and stepped closer. His hand half-lifted from his side, but in the end, he didn’t touch her.
“You’re scared of something more than the fire, lass. What’s amiss?”
She hugged herself and tried to smile, although it didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“It doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.”
“Was it that rakehell with the floofy shirt? Because I’ll turn his face into liver.”
She couldn’t help laughing, which surprised him. “He couldn’t hurt a fly, that one. Not my type, anyway. All bluster and no blood, as my father used to say.”
His eyes were crow-sharp, considering. “So you two . . . aren’t involved?”
“I took him in like a dying dog, and he’s paying me well to sleep in an empty room. That’s the depth of our involvement.” Looking up at him, she fluttered her eyelashes just a bit and said, “Why do you ask?”
He cleared his throat and stepped closer still. Frannie couldn’t help responding to his closeness, to the bulk of him and a warmer-than-warm radiance that made her think of the sun shining on the ocean. He smelled a little like heather and violets and salt, and she could tell the sea had suited him. As much as something about Casper pushed her away, something about Thom beckoned her closer.
She suddenly realized that she was focusing on his lips, barely parted, waiting for him to speak or kiss her or just keep breathing, near and warm and safe. It was possibly the first time in three years that she’d been close enough to touch a man and not wanted to bolt away and hide behind a locked door.
“Ye like what ye see?” he whispered, his voice teasing and deep, and she looked up quickly to find his eyes dancing with humor.
“I was waiting for you to answer the question,” she teased right back. “You were taking your time.”
“Aye, well, all the best things take a bit of time. Best not to rush into things. Ye never know what you’ll— Oh, hell.”
They’d been moving closer and closer all along, and he bridged the distance to kiss her, softly. His lips were warm and dry, settling firmly over hers as his hand splayed against her back to pull her closer. She stiffened, just a little, her nerves thrumming with forgotten sensation. He opened his mouth, his tongue seeking hers, and panic slammed into her heart. She gasped and bolted backward and tripped into his cart like a complete goose.
“I’m sorry, lass. I thought—”
But she was already downstairs, pulling a corgi pup into her lap and trying to remember how to breathe.
“I’ll just . . . take care of the window, aye?” he yelled from upstairs, and she nodded to the empty room.
Let him fix the window and the bed. Fixing Frannie was all but impossible.
Frannie went about her day in a muddle, running business as usual as the sounds of hammering and sawing drifted down the stairs. One of the parakeets had snagged a talon while lost in the streets, and catching it and touching the wound with iodine took the better part of the morning. Her thoughts churned all the while, trying to tease the present from the past, possibility from pain. She had known she was damaged, but she hadn’t known how very deeply the rot ran until the kiss that first thrilled her turned to torture. And poor Thom had looked so . . . hurt. Not that she had rejected him—that he had caused her pain.