Whenever Lily was alone in the workshop, she sat in her father’s chair.
He was out back with the new apprentice, showing him how to split a log into usable planks. From her seat at his desk, the familiar sound of sawing all but drowned out her sisters’ incessant chatter and the noise from the street outside. She leaned back and swung her boots onto the desk, taking up her file and setting to work on the toy in her hand. It was nice out here. The furniture for sale couldn’t tease her or pull her hair. It didn’t cry or scream or ask her for anything.
She could get used to this.
The door swung open and Tommy Henshawe rushed in. His cheeks were pink and he was out of breath, but he was smiling. He set a little cloth sack on the desk in front of her. “I can’t stay long, but I saved you some of these.”
Lily dropped her feet to the floor and leaned forward. “Cinnamon biscuits?”
He shook his head. “Raspberry this time. Grandma Ruta has a bush behind the bakery. I wanted to bring you some before they ate them all back home.” He opened up the sack to reveal half a dozen biscuits sticking to each other in the summer heat. They were golden and flaky and smelled like honey.
Lily snatched one and popped it into her mouth with a moan. “You have the best grandma,” she said between bites. “I thought she lived in the city.”
“She does.” He took a biscuit for himself. “She’s been coming around more to help mum until the baby comes.”
“How much longer?” Lily pinched another biscuit.
“Another month or two, I think.” He noticed the file and her half-finished project. “What are you working on?”
“I’m making a present for the baby. It’s a dagger.”
Tommy cocked his head. “I don’t know if babies are supposed to have daggers. They can hurt themselves.”
Lily rolled her eyes. “That’s why it’s wood,” she explained like he was stupid. “Mum and the girls are making blankets and clothes for it. Don’t tell your mum, I think it’s meant to be a surprise.”
Tommy grinned. “She’ll like that. Your mum’s so good at that. I haven’t been cold once since she patched my trousers. Are you going to learn to sew, too?”
“God, no.” Lily shuddered. “I’m going to grow up to be like my daddy.”
He nodded solemnly. “Me, too.”
The door opened again and a man stepped inside, looking lost. He was her mum’s age and dressed like a curate. He approached the desk slowly, no doubt surprised to find the shop being kept by a little girl. “Erm…good afternoon. Does Mark Virtue live here?”
Lily crossed her arms and looked him up and down. He was either a vicar or a lawyer, and she couldn’t think what either would want with her dad. “Who’s asking?”
“Eli Hartford,” he introduced himself. “I have a letter for him.”
He held the letter in one hand and his hat in the other. She had never seen such clean hands in her life. She didn’t trust him. “Why are your hands so clean?” She blurted.
He blinked at her, surprised by the line of questioning. “I work with lepers. Everything is clean.”
She nodded sagely, though she wasn’t quite sure what that meant. She got up and stuck her head out the back door. “Daddy! There’s a leper here to see you!”
Mark stopped dead in his tracks, the saw halfway through a log. “What?”
“I’m not a leper–” the man protested.
Lily shot him an impatient look over her shoulder.
Mark wiped the sweat from his face and pulled his shirt back on. He told the apprentice to take a break and strolled into the workshop. He looked relieved when he saw the man. “Lily, he’s not a leper, he’s a curate.” He shook his head. “How can I help?”
The man let out a sigh of relief and held out the letter to her father. The paper was thin and battered, as though it had traveled a very long way. “My name is Eli Hartford,” the non-leper repeated. “My sister Maude is indentured in the Carolinas and this was included in her last letter. She asked me to be sure you received it.”
The color drained from her father’s face. He seemed to know what it was. “Thank you, Mr Hartford. Do you know what it is? Is your sister well?”
“She’s well. She mentioned some trouble earlier in the year and that she believed you were looking for someone. That is all I know.”
Mark shook his hand. “I can’t thank you enough. Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”
The man shook his head. “My thanks, sir, but I must be on my way. I hope you find who you’re looking for.”
After the man had left, Mark all but ran to the house, tearing the letter open as he went. “Jane! Jane!”
Lily ran after him, and Tommy followed close behind. Her mother appeared at the door with the baby on her hip. “What is it?”
“Word from the Carolinas.”
Jane’s eyes widened and she met him in the garden. “Harry?”
“It has to be.” His family gathering around him, he read aloud. “Dear Mr. Virtue, We have received your letters. My master burns them. I am forbidden from replying, but I write to you to repay the kindness Mr. Townsend showed me during his time here.”
Jane swallowed, the hope on her face fading.
“Mr. Townsend worked here for four years. He was treated very poorly and my master kept your letters from him. I saved one from the fire and read it to him.”
“Are we sure it’s the same Harry?” Jane asked. “It’s not an uncommon name.”
“He robbed my master, seduced his wife, and incited a riot the likes of which has not been seen since Virginia in ’76. Servants and slaves have escaped and a number of farms have been burned to the ground.” Mark grinned. “It’s him.”
Jane gaped, but she didn’t look unhappy. “Good lord, Harry.”
“My master has sworn vengeance and hunts him to this day. If he finds him, he’ll be shot. I am loathe to bear this tragic news, and I pray Mr. Townsend finds his way back to God.” Mark punched the air in triumph. “He’s fine.”
Jane laughed. “What do you mean, he’s fine? It sounds like he’s in trouble.”
“Nah.” Mark shrugged. “He’s found his way out of worse.”
You can read more about Harry, the Virtues, the Henshawes, and the other residents of Southwark in Jessica Cale’s The Southwark Saga, out now. Mark and Jane’s book is Virtue’s Lady:
Lady Jane Ramsey is young, beautiful, and ruined.
After being rescued from her kidnapping by a handsome highwayman, she returns home only to find her marriage prospects drastically reduced. Her father expects her to marry the repulsive Lord Lewes, but Jane has other plans. All she can think about is her highwayman, and she is determined to find him again.
Mark Virtue is trying to go straight. After years of robbing coaches and surviving on his wits, he knows it’s time to hang up his pistol and become the carpenter he was trained to be. He busies himself with finding work for his neighbors and improving his corner of Southwark as he tries to forget the girl who haunts his dreams. As a carpenter struggling to stay in work in the aftermath of The Fire, he knows Jane is unfathomably far beyond his reach, and there’s no use wishing for the impossible.
When Jane turns up in Southwark, Mark is furious. She has no way of understanding just how much danger she has put them in by running away. In spite of his growing feelings for her, he knows that Southwark is no place for a lady. Jane must set aside her lessons to learn a new set of rules if she is to make a life for herself in the crime-ridden slum. She will fight for her freedom and her life if that’s what it takes to prove to Mark–and to herself–that there’s more to her than meets the eye.