Long before the sun came up, Mark Virtue kissed his sleeping wife and dressed quickly in the darkness. The door glided open on well-oiled hinges and he crept into the hall like a shadow without his boots on. Twenty-four stairs stood between him and his coffee, and he needed to cross them all without waking any of the beasts that slept in his house.
One, two, three—skip the fourth, it creaked—five, the outside corner of the sixth, and he landed like a cat on seven. His breath was shallow and slow; even the slightest sigh could unleash unholy chaos. Eight, nine, ten, and he reached the floor below. The middle floor was the most perilous. Six of the little blighters were split between the two rooms nearest their parents so Jane could hear if one of them so much as hiccuped in the night. He passed the open doors on the balls of his feet until he made it to the banister at the top of the long stretch of stairs.
That final stretch was his favorite. Though he’d only installed them a few years before, they still creaked enough beneath his weight to give him away. Short of flying, there was only one solution.
He sat on the railing and slid on his arse to the bottom.
Mark dismounted with a smile, pausing to listen for any stirring from the top of the stairs. He hadn’t taken to the highways in years, but he was as quiet as ever, a fact that gave him no little satisfaction. As it happened, being a father required many of the same attributes as being a thief: patience, agility, awareness of one’s surroundings, and a loud, clear voice.
When two full minutes had passed without a sound, he carried on into the kitchen, started the fire, brought in a bucket of water from the well, and set the coffee to boil. It would be some time before it was ready, but Jane would appreciate it when the baby woke her up. God knew he would need it. He left it bubbling away and headed outside and through the back garden to his workshop, lantern in his hand.
Once he made it inside and closed the door, he let out a noisy sigh of relief.
“Good morning, Daddy.”
Mark just about jumped out of his skin at the tiny voice greeting him from the darkness. “Christ wept, child! What are you doing out here?”
Lily rolled out of one of the workshop’s dozen wardrobes with a yawn. “Mary snores. Is it morning already?”
“Not quite,” he yawned, the impulse contagious. “Tell me you didn’t sleep out here.”
She pursed her lips.
He waited. “Well?”
“You told me not to lie.”
Mark ran a hand over his face. “You’re too little to be sleeping out here on your own, darling. You should be in the house with the others.”
She shrugged and put on his old hat, looking more like a tiny cutthroat than a child of six. Without a word of argument, she meandered out of the workshop and into the house. He watched her until she was inside with the door closed. She was safe enough within the house, the workshop, and their little walled garden, but he knew his daughter well enough to make sure she didn’t try to jump the fence.
Alone, he sat at the desk and put quill to paper. He would have precious little time to himself and there was a letter he had been meaning to write. He had sent many like it over the past years, and would continue to send them until one of them reached his cousin.
10th May, 1679
I am writing you again with hopes this letter finds you. I do not know if you are alive or dead, or where you might be. You have a son. His mother did not survive his birth and he is with us now. We’ve called him Hugo after your father. He is four years old and he’s a good little chap, healthy and with your look. We love him as one of our own and he will always have a place with us, but he should know his father. Every day we pray you can find your way back
A coffee appeared at his elbow. Lily watched him with curiosity over the rim of her own mug. She took a noisy sip.
“That coffee won’t be ready yet,” he warned her. “It has to boil for an hour.”
“Tommy’s dad only boils it for ten minutes. Try it.”
Mark rolled his eyes. Ever since Meg had married Jake Cohen, all the children could talk about Tommy’s new father. He was teaching Tommy to box, he’d made Meg kinder, and by all accounts was making progress in fixing Chris Cooper’s busted leg. Now he could boil coffee faster than anyone. No doubt he didn’t have to use the bridge to get into town at all as he could walk straight across the river.
He was a long ways better than Tommy’s real father, so Mark couldn’t complain. He liked the man fine, he just didn’t need to hear about his accomplishments before he’d had his breakfast.
“It’s better,” Lily insisted.
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Mark gulped the coffee. Instead of the tepid water he’d been expecting, the coffee had a texture closer to ale than the thick, black sludge he was accustomed to drinking. It was much better. “I’ll be damned.”
Lily gave him a smug little smile but she didn’t gloat. “What are you writing?”
“I’m writing to your uncle Harry in the Carolinas.”
She wrinkled her nose, the one gesture she had in common with her mother. Everything else about her manner was him. “Will he come home soon?”
Mark’s heart sank. Transportation and the labor that followed was notoriously difficult. Few survived it, let alone found their way back to England. He hoped Harry was alive, but it got harder to hold that hope with every passing year.
If anyone could do it, it was Harry.
“I hope so, sweetheart.”
You can read more about Mark and his family in The Southwark Saga. 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.