After the tragic death of her beloved, Hester Aspinall vowed never to be ruled by her passions again. Still, she is drawn to her landlord, handsome adventurer Thomas Ramsay–but she doesn’t fool herself that a man of his station would look twice at a poor tailor’s sister.
With the sea for a mistress, Thomas has no intention of entering into matrimony. And yet, he can’t get the plain-spoken and desirable Hester out of his mind, even though she’s never tried to secure his attentions as other women do.
Everything changes the night Hester’s brother is arrested during a raid on a gay brothel, the infamous White Swan. With no one else to turn to, and terrified Robert will hang for his crime, Hester accepts Thomas’s offer to bear the cost of the defense. A true gentleman, Thomas expects nothing in return–but Hester can no longer deny her own desires…
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The ride to Bow-Street was conducted in near silence. All too soon, they reached the police station, an imposing stone building opposite the Covent Garden Theatre. The theatre was shuttered in the early afternoon—it would not open its doors until the supper hour—but the nearby pubs were crowded. A surprising number of men and women weaved boskily around the cobbled verges, and a vendor hawked eel-pies from a handcart nearby.
Securing his carriage, Thomas held out his hand and assisted her down from the high-set box.
“Thank you,” she said, distracted from her worries momentarily by the sensation of being lifted from the carriage by his strong hands. They spanned her waist easily, and she closed her eyes against the pleasure of his touch. But even through her lashes, she could distinguish his nearness and felt the tug of attraction he always seemed to exert on her senses. She opened her eyes and before she could help herself, she smiled. There was no occasion for it. Her brother had been arrested and their lives in turmoil, but it didn’t seem to dissuade the part of her mind that adored his proximity.
Thankfully, Thomas didn’t return her smile. His sculpted mouth remained even and his eyes distant, taking in a point above her head. He instead released her before stepping respectfully away. Reminding herself once again that such behaviour was to be encouraged, not regretted, she steeled herself and took his arm. But she couldn’t help but wish that just once, he might smile at her. Her heart thudded at the notion.
He led her inside.
The Bow Street police station was not what she had expected. Inside, crowds of people—prosperous and paupers, old and young, men and women—stood, awaiting their turn. The police wore no livery, and excepting their positions on the far side of the counters and desks, were indistinguishable from the criminals and petitioners who seemed to circulate in equal numbers throughout the large room. The walls were unadorned except for a plain clock and a rather grotesque bust of what Hester supposed to be Sir John Fielding, the blind founder of the notorious force, his homely likeness displayed with place of pride above the unlit stone fireplace.
Wide green shades covered the windows, no doubt in an attempt to keep out both the heat and the flies, but they had the unfortunate side effect of casting all within in a peculiar hue that hinted strongly at universal indisposition. Across the middle of the room, a waist-high railing divided the petitioners from the force and served to limit the size of the gathered crowds. A raised platform stood on the far right, overlooking a collection of desks and harried clerks while on the other side, a high counter was nearly invisible, such was the crush of men and women surrounding it.
“Let us begin by making enquiries of the clerk,” Thomas suggested, and she was suddenly profoundly grateful both for the strength of his arm beneath hers and for the safety of his tall, strong form beside her. He led the way to the counter, threading through the stifling groups of people, then waited until the officer had finished dealing with the aggrieved complaint of a querulous old man, whose rambling account of his dealings with a pickpocket were not quickly dealt with.
At last though, the policeman turned and straightened.
“Ma’am. Sir. Welcome to the Bow Street station,” he said politely, his pen poised above his account book. “And what is the nature of the crime you wish to prosecute?”
“No crime,” Hester assured him. “We are seeking information about my brother. He was reported arrested.”
“Arrested?” the officer seemed surprised. “What’s his name?”
“Aspinall. Robert Aspinall.”
Upon giving her brother’s name, the change in the officer’s demeanour could not have been more evident. Gone was the respectful tone and in its place a scornful iciness. He peered at them both, as though trying to discern their own criminal tendencies.
“Have we been rightly informed?” Thomas demanded when the other man failed to answer. “Was he detained last night and brought here before the magistrates?”
“And what was his fate?”.
“The short end of a rope, if there’s any justice. It’s detestable what those men were about. The sooner they’re hung and forgot the better. Repugnant, the lot of them. If you’d seen with your eyes what I saw with mine, you’d think they deserved more than just the mud and cobbles that were flung at ’em by them that were waiting when we brought ’em here from the gatehouse. I’d fling flames at ’em, for that’s where they’ll all be going soon enough.”
Hester’s lips trembled as the officer’s words echoed through her brain. It was only with effort that she was able to say, “Please, sir, will you not tell us where we might find him?”
“He’s not here. Them that couldn’t afford to make the bail or hadn’t a friend to acknowledge them, were taken in irons to Newgate.”
Newgate. The very name struck Hester chill, calling up in her mind an image of the dour, thick-walled institution that seemed to squat with such menacing intent not far west of St. Paul’s, infecting the very air around it.
“I must see him.”
The officer looked askance. “There’s not a man in there—nor woman, nor child—that wouldn’t do you violence soon as look at you. Your husband had best leave you at home, where you’ll be safe, and see to your brother himself.”
Beside her, she could feel Thomas stiffen at the man’s assumption. Her face burned with vexation at the mistake. And what must his own feeling on the matter be, to be linked so erroneously to a young woman so far beneath his notice? The thought of his mortification only intensified her own.
“We are not married,” he said in a clipped tone, and the clerk’s face darkened, clearly drawing an unflattering conclusion. That Thomas understood the direction of the man’s thoughts was only too evident by the fearsome scowl on his face and the way he gripped his gloves between tense hands.
“Mr. Aspinall is my tenant.”
The clerk frowned, his dubious glance travelling between them, no doubt taking in the fine cut of Thomas’s clothes and his unmistakable presence of command. “I beg your pardon,” he said sullenly. “We get all types through those doors and you can never assume they’re naught but a rum bunch, by and large.”
“Well, I can assure you, neither Miss Aspinall nor I are a ‘rum bunch,’” Thomas retorted. “Now, who has charge of this enterprise? I would like to speak with him immediately.”
There was no denying the authority with which he spoke, but the officer shook his head. “Mr. Read isn’t available at present. He’s conferring with the magistrates this afternoon and hasn’t the time to be speaking to all and sundry.” His tone suggested that all and sundry should be grateful for any crumb of information they might receive.
“Then to whom would you recommend we speak?” Hester interjected. “Is not there anyone here who might give us the news we seek?”
“You’ll want to be speaking to Mr. Taunton. He’s the one who had charge of the warrant. I can fetch him, if you like. But I doubt what he’ll have to tell you will be any different.”
“Fetch him. Now,” Thomas ordered.
His lips tightening at the unvarnished order, the police clerk moved slowly along the counter and into the centre of the room. Once there, he stopped to speak with a tall man, closer to forty than thirty by the looks of him, and conferred with him in an urgent whisper, punctuated by glances to where Thomas and Hester waited. At last, the clerk and the gentleman returned.
Mr. Taunton was thin, with unremarkable features. Had she passed him in the street, she would not have given him a second glance. But his eyes, while of a colour as nondescript as the rest of him, were keen and missed little as they surveyed Hester and Thomas from across the counter.
“Mr. Ramsay. Miss Aspinall. I understand you are making inquiries into the whereabouts of one of the men taken up in last night’s raid in Vere Street. Have I been rightly informed?”
“Yes,” Thomas concurred. “Your clerk would tell us little of Mr. Aspinall’s current situation, making the rendering of aid to the detainee impossible.”
“You wish to aid the prisoner. Very commendable, I’m sure,” Taunton said blandly, but Hester felt certain he was still sizing them up and reserving judgement on their motives until he had learned more. “Come. We will speak in my office.” He opened a narrow gate and gestured for them to follow him through.
Taunton’s office was as bland and nondescript as his person. He dismissed his clerks and gestured towards two empty chairs in front of his wide desk. When they were seated, he gathered a pen and paper and turned to Hester.
“Am I correct then, Miss Aspinall, in believing Mr. Aspinall to be your brother?”
“Yes, that is correct.”
He jotted something down, but she was too far away and the words too indistinct for her to decipher them. “You reside in London at present?”
“And do you have any other relations living at present in the city or elsewhere?”
“We have no relations at all, sir. Our parents passed away some four years ago. My brother is my only living relative and my sole support.”
“I see. And how did you come to be informed of your brother’s being taken up?” He spoke casually, as if the answers were of no import, but Hester was cognizant of his penetrating gaze.
“I was not informed of my brother’s situation directly. Naturally, I was concerned when he did not return home last evening but it was only through the efforts of one of Mr. Ramsay’s staff that we were able to ascertain my brother’s unhappy fate.”
“Mr. Ramsay being Mr. Aspinall’s landlord?” Taunton paused, glancing between them, as if considering his next words with great care. “It is very good of a gentleman such as yourself, Mr. Ramsay, to take an interest in such a sad state of affairs. Especially as concerns a tenant. Would I be right in thinking such involvement would not happen in the normal course of a day, sir?”
“In the normal course of such things, no.” Thomas said nothing further, meeting Taunton’s gaze. The officer looked away first.
“Quite so,” he said, returning his attention to Hester. “And what time did your brother leave last evening?”
She thought for a moment. “A little before seven o’clock, I believe. I did not note the time exactly.” Her interrogator made another notation and her frustrations began to build. “Surely, sir, such details are irrelevant? What matters here is discovering how my brother was taken up erroneously, not his comings and goings in the hours prior to the event.”
Taunton shrugged. “I am duty bound to investigate all avenues that appear before me, Miss Aspinall.” He paused, turning over the pen between his fingers. “But if you do not wish to help your brother, or find my questions burdensome…”
“I did not say that.” She was breathing hard, her hands making tortuous knots in the string of her small bag. Gently, Thomas touched her arm. A fleeting gesture, but it brought her back to herself and her surroundings. She willed herself to relax.
“To what do these questions tend, Mr. Taunton?” Thomas interjected. “The purpose of seeking an interview with you was not to allow you to subject Mr. Aspinall’s sister to officious and impertinent questions but to learn how we could mitigate his fate as quickly as possible. If you are unable—or unwilling—to provide us the information we seek, we will be forced to make inquiries of your superiors.”
The Bow Street officer seemed unfazed by the threat but he did set aside his notepaper. Steepling his narrow fingers, he peered at Hester for a protracted moment. “I will not deny, Miss Aspinall, that your brother’s situation is grave. Your faith in his character does you credit, but I must assure you, the evidence we have in support of the Crown’s case is strong. Very strong, indeed. A score of eyewitnesses of unimpeachable character. The testimony of many of the detained. Items of a personal nature, whose uses or descriptions it would not do to discuss in front of a young lady.”
As he listed each argument in his favour, he counted them off on his fingers, then, as if having satisfied the points in his own mind, met her gaze. “There was a similar case some three or four years ago, Miss Aspinall, in Lancaster. Would you like to know the outcome of that trial?”
He paid her objection no heed. “Five men, hung from the gallows. The courts were convinced of their guilt, as we are convinced of the villainy of those involved here. We are very sure when we proceed in such matters. Very, very, sure.”
The air seemed suddenly close and Hester had trouble breathing.
“And the men…who were condemned…they were charged with the same…same crime with which my brother is charged? You would…you believe him to be complicit in this evil? Despite my denials to the contrary?”
“Yes, I do. Such transgressions cannot be allowed to pass unchecked.”
Her mouth was chalk dry, and she had to swallow several times before she could refute Taunton’s claim. “My brother is innocent. I am sure of it.”
The police officer didn’t respond immediately. “That is for a judge and jury to decide. In the meantime, he’s been bound over for trial. If you’ve any money, I’d set it aside, and marshal your resources in hiring a barrister to speak in his defence.”
Hester blanched. She had been so concerned with locating her brother that she had not thought through all the ramifications of his incarceration. But the horrifying reality of Robert’s situation was now all too clear.
Robert could not earn a living, prisoner as he was. How long could the money they had set aside as savings last? And a lawyer! Hester had no idea where to begin to engage such a man but she could not imagine professional advice would be offered cheaply by members of the Inns. There would be those expenses too. And the apprentices to be paid their wages and the butcher’s bill for ten and four outstanding and…
Her mind was awash with worry, so many details and fears darting in and out that she barely noticed the interview now appeared to be at an end.
“I wish you well, Miss Aspinall, though my doubts of a happy outcome in your brother’s case remain fixed,” Mr. Taunton said, bowing slightly. “Nonetheless, if you are determined to seek him out, you should apply to the turnkeys at Newgate. They will be able to tell you into which area of the prison your brother has been taken.”
“The White Swan Affair” by Elyse Mady is available May 21, 2012 from Carina Press and other fine ebook retailers.