Eliza rode in William’s carriage back to Scotland Yard. She rubbed her hands together to keep warm and wished she had a blanket. Although he sat across from her, William did not speak. His expression was unyielding and looked as if carved from marble, except for his eyes. His eyes churned with the trapped energy of a volcano about to erupt. After receiving several one-word responses that were more like grunts, she gave up trying and turned her head to look out the window. Even though the last day of the year was two days away, storefronts were still decorated for Christmas, and the scenery was festive. It was a stark contrast from where they’d recently come.
“Wait in my office,” he said when they arrived at the Yard, and he escorted her inside. “I’ll accompany you home as soon as I’m done.” He didn’t say how long he’d be or what he was doing but rushed her into his office and shut the door. She sensed he’d lock it if he could.
She sighed and dragged a stuffed chair closer to the fireplace. She guessed she’d be there for a while. As she waited, she thought about the last four hours. And the moment that had started it all.
She’d been sitting at her desk in her office, fretting over money when the door flung open, and William’s head appeared.
“Ah, good, you ARE here,” he’d said. He stepped inside the door but kept his hand on the knob.
She closed her ledger and slid her chair back as she looked at him. “Do you need something?”
“I need your help.”
“A case? Right now? At this very moment?”
“Yes, right now. I’ll explain it all on the way.” He glanced at her and scanned her clothing. “Hmmm, good, what you’re wearing will do. Your cloak will help.”
She looked down at her sensible jacket bodice with a high band collar at her neck and matching navy blue skirts. She smoothed her hair. Her plait had been tidy that morning, but as she struggled with her finances, it had loosened somewhat. “What is this about?”
“Come on, we don’t have much time.”
“Does it pay?”
“All right then.” His anxiety affected her, and she stood up so fast she nearly knocked over the chair. “Let’s not delay.”
Eliza picked up her cloak and hat hanging by the door. William tugged at his ear and repositioned his hat while he waited for her to pull on gloves, only somewhat successful in controlling his sense of urgency. He then followed her down the stairs and out onto the street to the waiting carriage after taking her key to lock the door.
“Bethel Street, Arthur!” he called up as he stepped inside the enclosed space behind her.
She settled herself on the bench and demanded, “William, what is…” She stopped when she saw the look on his face. Something was truly wrong.
“I hope I don’t come to regret this,” he muttered to himself as he shifted in his seat. “We are dealing with a hostage situation. A husband is holding his wife and children at gunpoint in their home.”
Eliza squinted her eyes, and her forehead furrowed. “Scotland Yard has handled these types of situations before. Why do you need me?”
“The husband, John is his name,” he began as he gestured with a hand, “says he will only talk to his sister. We can’t find her, but she’s about your age and your height. I think you could help us with a solution. Ideally without anyone getting hurt. And, you should know,” he paused as his expression hardened, “he is threatening to blow up the house. Time is of the essence.”
She flinched, fully aware that gas lights made it possible for that to happen. And the potential for destruction would harm far more than property; a significant loss of life was possible. Scotland Yard would feel the impact, not only from the blow of the explosion but from the public reaction, especially if the papers became involved.
“All right. I am willing to try. Tell me all you know about his sister. What’s her name?”
“Mary,” he said, then she listened as he told her more information, which was very little, just a summary of what a neighbor had told the officers.
He pulled a folding knife out of a pocket in the carriage and held it out to her. “Here, take this just in case. Do you have a place to hide it?”
She nodded, took it from him, and examined it, the feel of the bone handle heavy in her palm. Her eyes widened as she watched William reach under his coat to pull his revolver from its holster. He checked it for bullets and held it on his lap. She swallowed to moisten her dry mouth. What were they going to find when they arrived? She tucked the knife in her boot as the carriage slowed and came to a stop.
“It’s the house on the corner. Number 88.”
He hadn’t needed to say it. The house was hard to miss since several other Scotland Yard carriages littered the street in front of the house, as did plainclothed officers and constables. She wondered if PC Honeychurch was somewhere among the mass of uniforms.
William weaved his way toward the house, leading her through the men. He stopped to speak with a circle of detectives. Eliza, however, kept walking.
Safe in William’s office, she shook her head as she remembered her actions. Did that really happen? She would have doubted it if she hadn’t been there. Now it all seemed like a horrible dream or more of an unimaginable nightmare. At the time, she hadn’t thought about the repercussions of her behavior, she just reacted. She’d seen four terrified children’s faces in the windows of the house, and that was it. She immediately realized that their father was using them as a shield. She’d never been more furious. She’d yanked her hat lower and pulled her cloak higher, so her face was barely visible. While William’s back was to her, she walked up the stairs to the door and pounded on it.
She knew all eyes were on her and even heard William call her name, but she’d focused completely on the door and what would happen when the man, the husband, the father, John, opened it. In that moment, consumed by anger, she’d pushed the fear aside and wondered what right the man had to claim those titles.
Thinking back on what could have happened was unsettling. Eliza stood up and wandered around William’s office to distract herself. Now that she was safe, she knew it had not been wise. But if she found herself in the same situation again, would she do something different? Without a doubt, the answer was “no.”
Tired of waiting and deciding to slip out without the scolding she knew was coming, she picked up her hat and cloak and opened the door. William was standing in the doorway. He’d caught her. Damn. She’d lost her chance to leave unnoticed.
He raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms. “Going somewhere?”
“I’m exhausted, and I want to go home.” She took a step back to make room for his powerful presence as he stomped into the room. He reminded her of the caged lion she’d seen when they visited the London Zoological Gardens, a beast far too large and mighty for an enclosed and confined space.
“I told you that I’d take you.” He removed his hat and hung it roughly on a hook, his ordinarily neat hair now released into a mass of messy curls. She wondered how much he’d pulled at his hair that day because of her.
She looked at the wall clock. “An hour ago. You don’t seem prepared to settle this right now. You won’t even talk to me.”
He closed the door firmly behind him, and now he did lock it; she heard the click. His voice was so low it sounded like a harsh whisper. “And why do you think that is?”
“You asked for my help, William. And once I saw those children, I had to do something. You saw their faces,” she argued, trying to explain her actions. “You told me that his sister was domineering, forceful. I used that. And it worked. He thought I was her.”
He began to pace back and forth. “You were supposed to stay outside so we could lure him out. So that he’d think you were his sister, but from afar. I never would have asked for your help if I thought you’d be in such danger.”
“You gave me a knife. You must have thought it was a possibility. And a good thing too because I used it.”
“I’ve learned to be prepared for any situation, but that doesn’t mean I expect it.”
She sighed and crossed her arms. “William, it is not your job to protect me.”
“That is true, it is not my job. It appears to be my fate.” He roughly scratched his beard. His carefully controlled calm was starting to unravel, and his eyes blazed. He snarled as the volume of his voice increased. “Do you realize what kind of trouble you’ve gotten us into? You entered a building! With a madman! Without fully understanding the circumstances! Without considering the consequences! What were you thinking?” He was nearly shouting as he finished, his breathing heavy. He dragged both hands through his hair, mussing it further, and turned away from her.
“Yes, it was risky.” She scowled at his back and his tone, concerned the officers in the hallway could hear. She held up her hands, reaching toward him. “But what choice did I have?”
He spun back to face her. “You could have DIED.” He took a step closer and jerked his hands toward her. The lion was on the hunt. “Eliza, have you considered what would happen if you were injured, or worse, killed while working for me, with me?
She dropped her hands and looked away. “Everything worked out all right. The family is safe. The man is locked up.”
“Yes. You are lucky. And they are lucky.” He took another step closer.
“No.” She held up only one hand this time, her eyes on him again. “Do not come near me when you’re this angry.”
He lowered his voice to a gentle roar. “Oh, I am not angry. I am livid.”
“You misunderstand me.” He took another step closer. “I am livid at myself. For allowing you to be in that situation at all.”
“William, we’ve been through this. You cannot protect me all the time. I have a job to do too, work I am good at. And I like it. It challenges me.” She did not back away, and wouldn’t, no matter how angry he was.
She stood and waited as he continued to step closer and closer. He was near enough that she felt the angry heat radiating from his body. She watched as he pushed a large pile of files on his cluttered desk to one side. He snagged her hands and sat back on the cleared surface, pulling her so that she was standing in between his legs, his knees trapping her hips.
He ran a hand through his hair again and lowered his voice to a ragged whisper. “I’ve never been so scared in my life when I saw you enter that building. You were inside for so long. It felt like a lifetime. Five lifetimes” She let him pull her against his chest and cradle her head against him, her face in the crook of his arm. “Please do not ever do that to me again.” He collapsed, wrapping his arms around her to envelope her body, holding her so tight she had difficulty breathing.
“You know I can’t promise you that,” she spoke into his shirt as she relaxed into him, feeling the tremors of emotion draining from his body. He made her feel safe and cherished, and a flicker of warmth ignited deep within her belly and lodged itself there.
They remained together, clasped tight until she leaned back against his arms. He loosened his grip just enough for her to scan his face.
She finally broke the silence. “What kind of trouble I’ve gotten ‘US’ into? Working ‘WITH’ you? Are we an ‘us’ and a ‘we’?”
He lifted his eyebrows and choked on a chuckle. “THAT is what you took from this conversation?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “Aren’t you proud of me, even a little?” she asked as she searched his warm eyes.
He snorted. “God Almighty, Eliza. Of course, I am. You are fearless.” He shook his head and added, “I am also terrified.”
She scoffed. “You once said that you cannot “handle” me. I don’t want you to, you do understand?”
“We are well beyond that,” he said and nodded, his curly hair moving with the motion. “You’ve proven time and again that you can handle yourself.”
“We make a good team,” she agreed. “You and your men entered the house at the right moment. I heard that it was at your direction.” She reached up to smooth the lines of his furrowed brow with her fingers. “We saved them, William,” she whispered. “It was a good day.”
“Yes. Yes, we did.” He sighed and his finger tapped her nose. “And I heard you donated your fee to the family.”
She shrugged again. “They need it more than I do, but,” she paused and lifted an eyebrow, “I am keeping the knife.” Before he could object, she asked, “Do you have any more cases for me?” She waggled her eyebrows. “For US?”
He huffed and shook his head. “You are relentless.”
“Thank you,” she said as she wrinkled her nose. “I’ll choose to take that as a compliment.”
“Hmmm. You would.” He paused as he rubbed a knuckle along her chin. “There is only one last question I have. Well, two.”
She lifted an eyebrow, waiting for him to continue.
“What will you do next?” he asked and then sniffed. “And will I survive it?”
She rolled her eyes, and her mouth curved into a wide grin. “I like keeping you in suspense.” She was pleased to see that his lips began to twitch. She grabbed his cravat and tugged him closer. She watched, entranced, as his eyes glowed under raised eyebrows. His grin became as mischievous as that of the Cheshire Cat. Her hands reached behind his neck, and her fingertips played with the fringe of his hair. When she covered his lips with hers, the mighty lion purred.