The Profits Of Thieves.

  • March 25, 2006 at 10:47 pm #1931

    So we'll go no more a-roving
    So late into the night.

    [Byron : So we'll go]

    The two men who had stopped her on the street had harmed her no worse than to cause a quick beating heart and a small tear in sapphire silk. In her hasty retreat from the would-be paramours, Miss Hughes turned abruptly down an alleyway while glancing back over her shoulder to wonder at her escape. And ran straight into a wall. Or so it felt as her body collided with another.

    “Well now,” the voice held the smooth tones of breeding, but something else turned it rough. Damaged a bit. Long fingers clasped against her shoulders to hold her still. “Doubt this is the alley you'd really wish to travel down, m'dear. Doesn't seem to suit you.” As she didn't look like the common trull to be found at alley mouths or close to public house doors. Not even on the streets walking with their roll of hips. Unless she was some madame's girl, he supposed, but she didn't have that look to her either. A bit of a bend in and black velvet eyes made a bold regard. “You've an idea of where you wish to be and where you are?”

    Heart in her throat and slightly out of breath — damnable corsets — the blue gaze startled to black like a flock of starlings shaken from a tree. “Forgive me,” she gasped, steadying her stance and drawing back, not wishing a repeat of her earlier encounter. Not after an hour of dealing with Cutter and the remains of a man whose name she did not know. “I was just–” A glance back over her shoulder to the alley's mouth that held no lingering threat and back again to the stranger of whom she remained unsure. “–looking for Hyde Park.” An inward grimace at the lameness of her story, but she was not about to give the man an idea of where her home was.

    His grin turned out to be badly crooked. The laugh, though, was truly amused. Not so much at her, but that she imagined this might be the way to Hyde Park. One dark brow lifted in a fox-sharp face. “Bit away from there, I'd think. Good deal away from there, truly. Now,” he looked her over, took in the wealth but whether than actually interested him or not would've been difficult to say, “it's not my business why you'd be here, alone mind, in some dark alleyway. However, should you like, I could walk you back toward the park. As you're in the wrong direction, m'dear. You'll only go deeper in from here, and I'd wager a small sum that's not your goal. Not tonight at least.” A bow followed the words. Dark hair fell foward, a bit long, rather like artists or poets might take to. The coat slightly shabby. Boots in need of polishing. But they were all nicely made.

    Her visits in this direction had never held so many dire consequences in their discovery. They had always been rather more discreet and less panic stricken. But she disguised it well, apart from the obvious fluster of running smack dab into a stranger in an alleyway, the lady began to appear somewhat at ease. That is, until another glance over her shoulder caught a glimpse of two seedy looking men on the far side of the street. Their leers were far reaching and she felt her skin crawl. A steady gaze was cast upon the stranger, the faintest smile on her lips, the kind that was pleasant and pleasing and meant for the Public World. “Would you? That is very kind. I would be grateful.” Out of the frying pan and into the fire, perhaps. Only time would tell.

    “Jack Corbie at your service.” The grin remained and he took her arm as easily as if they were at a dance instead of the a scummy alley. He did, though, follow the direction of her glance, and believed he understood. At least understood something. “We can carry on this way and just take the next block 'round. Nothing to worry for.” Not that he saw, at least. Of course, he didn't worry about very much.

    Folding her hand into the crook of his elbow with a pretended familiarity that she hoped would dissuade the other two men from continuing their pursuit, Ligeia shook out her skirts with a dusting of her palm to silk. As she allowed herself to be led away, she flickered a sidelong glance up to the profile of her unlikely rescuer before returning her gaze to the straight-ahead. “You are well met, Mr Jack Corbie.” For a split second, something tugged in the back of her memory at the sound of the name. And then, nothing. “My name is Ligeia Hughes.”

    “Indeed I am,” he agreed while maneuvering her easily about puddles and other less lovely assortments of alley adornments. “A pleasure to know you, Mrs. Hughes. I think a cab'd do you well for a good way out, don't you think? Unless you'd like something to steady your nerves a bit first.” He thought he knew the last name. Not well, really. He'd been abroad and England proper wasn't his home as it was. Though his voice didn't give him away so very much. Years of practice erased home. “You'll have a very worried husband, I suspect.”

    That elicited a brief laugh. It was a dissonant, brass-bright sound, somewhat tinged by something dark. Yes, she should have been married. Look at the state of her. Nearly thirty and still single. “More like a worried father and brother or two. But I pay little mind to them. Mrs Hughes was my mother, and she is dead.” A wry humor lingered in her tone, but it was not light. “You spoke of steadying my nerves?”

    “Your pardon then, Miss Hughes.” Good Lord, a woman without a husband–though his internal surprise wasn't in the shock or horror of society's norms. Rather most he fell in with, sometimes literally, tended to have annoying men in their lives sworn before God and country to love, honor and obey. Tedious creatures, those. “Worried fathers and brothers can be just a troublesome, I'd imagine. My father worried a good deal for me in his day. And I did speak of something like that, true. If you think you do all right with something about here?” Nothing snide to suggest she couldn't. Obviously there was some sterner stuff to bring her about after dark in the first place. It was more a consideration of what she might rather than what she could handle.

    “Better here than elsewhere,” was the reply. There was very little likelihood of her being recognized by one of her circle in this part of town, and in the company of one such as he. It was easy to understand. “I believe there is a good enough establishment just beyond the next street.” So she was more familiar with her surroundings than her Hyde Park story would have suggested.

    He gave her an amused look. “I think you're right on that,” he agreed, but made no comment otherwise. As he said, it was her business as to why she was here. And that was something he understood full and well. Not his concern really unless she decided to tell him about it. Which seemed doubtful. “Well, to steady your nerves, then. A gladsome thing when spring finally does come, don't you think?” Under the gaslights and past those on their own missions without any sort of hesitation.

    Behind the black lace of the veil that shaded her face, she kept a furtive watch on the countenances that passed. But she recognized none and none spared a first or second glance for the lady and gent whose proper station appeared hardly discernible as they walked in and out of shadow. A breath was expelled, something like a sigh but hardly wistful. “And it will be as brief as happiness ever is, coming late and never lingering long.”

    “That, Miss Hughes, is a grim outlook of things.” A nod with the words as they rounded the corner and the pub's sign creaked up ahead. “Prettily said, but grim all the same. Summer follows after so it's not so bleak as that. Autumn, well, autumn's fine enough. Winter's not even so bad, I suppose, once a person decided to make peace with it in their own way. Hm.” A sidelong glance to her. “Don't imagine your father would much want his daughter hunting anything through the snow, would he?”

    Her chin lifted so that her gaze found the sign that swung in the chill breeze. Brown curls shifted, flouncing against the nape of her neck. To match her words, the curve of her lips appeared grim. Pleasant, but grim. Her glance met his briefly. “My father's not of a mind to have me hunting in any season,” she replied with a chuckle.

    “Not even foxes?” That did surprise him a bit. Some ladies of fashion did join the hunt. Or looked the part of it. Some, he did allow, were fabulous on horseback. “If you're not allowed that are you allowed, oh, hm. Chess? Surely you can play a game of chess without worry.” He opened the door for her and ushered her inside to a haze of smoke and the thick scent of the lower classes. While it was better than some of the much darker and drearier places, it wasn't marble clad with polite waiters whisking from here to there and back again. A few men seemed to know him and gave nods that he returned. A few of the women as well, though their eyes went to Miss Hughes and catty narrowed looks were given. Jack only guided her light, as if this was a different sort of waltz to a side table and pulled the chair out for her. “Please.”

    “Thank you,” she replied, not completely unaware of the nods he exchanged with men or the looks from the women. She ignored them in her stride, for she was well accustomed to going relatively unnoticed by the opposite sex. Lowering herself to the seat, she adjusted back the veil upon her small, forward-set hat. The attitude of doing so lent a sort of wildwood grace to her outline, and revealed the sylvan features fully, though through the haze of pub smoke. “My only worry with chess is that I am not a proficient player. What about yourself, Mr Corbie? I suppose you are a rather accomplished hunter.” The blue gaze turned sharp and examining, the gaze of a surgeon bent on opening things up.

    At that, he chuckled. “Oh, well. I'm fair, I suppose. Depending on what it is, but I wouldn't say accomplished by any means. Truly, most of the time I feel pity for the animals. They're scared witless, chased from one end to the other by men on horses with hounds and all sorts of noise. Most hunts I've been on,” and he leaned forward a touch, “I've found it better to let the fox get away. Soothes my soul.”

    That cutting gaze narrowed faintly as the corner of her mouth tucked into her cheek and she matched his barely discernible lean. “I should say that is a good thing, but whether more for the fox or for yourself, I am as yet uncertain.” But her focused gaze was working out a problem. His name continued to tug a string at the back of her mind. Lashes widened a fraction, and from his vantage he would be able to see how the faint violet tinge beneath her eyes melted into the pure pallor of her cheek. “Oh, dear,” she breathed.

    “Oh dear?” The grin again, though he wasn't really sure what she happened to be 'oh dearing' about. There were a good number of things, but he hadn't done any of them. His hands remained folded on the table before him with long fingers lightly laced. “Oh dear for the foxes? They live to see another day and I'm called a fool for allowing it to happen. Do you know what you'd like? An ale, maybe?” Not that he could really picture that, but it would be interesting if she did.

    She abandoned the thought almost as quickly as it had come to her, discovering too late that her words had been spoken aloud. That realization brought a flush of color to her cheeks and she took the opportunity of his question to, she hoped, effectively change the subject and leave her strange thought behind. “Oh, well…” The inquiry gave her pause. She hardly supposed this was the place to order a decent cup of tea. And the faint note of incredulity she imagined in his voice at the prospect of her ordering an ale spurred her. “Yes.” A nod with what she hoped was nonchalant confidence. “An ale, I think.”

    “As you like then, Miss Hughes.” A hand flashed to the barman as the serving girls seemed either busy with other customers or pointedly ignoring them. Perhaps on account of him. Though it could've been due to the fact that other men were giving the young Miss Hughes a rather interested eye as well. “You're a brave one.” The grin came back like a cat, never so very far away from his mouth. “If you don't mind my saying, I have to wonder if this time of the night is a good choice for you. Being a young woman alone. You'd no one to meet you somewhere to see you home or the like?”

    If the men turned a glance in her direction, she was certain it was merely the fine fabric of her dress or perhaps the glint of a jewel at her throat that drew their attention. Whatever it was, she seemed either not to notice or to pay them no mind. A tilt of her head brought a fall of delicately coiffed chestnut curls over her shoulder. “It was not my intention to visit these streets at such a late hour, but circumstances beyond my control– Well, let's just say they necessitated a certain amount of imprudence on my part. I shant make the same mistake again.” A sniff then, not haughty but nearly so. “At least, I pray I never have occasion to.”

    “I don't blame you in the least. I'd not recommend it for a moonlit stroll. Not seriously.” In jest, perhaps. Or to someone of his ilk. Those would be different situations. “I hope you'll forgive me, Miss Hughes, I'd no intention to pry into your affairs. I merely found it passing strange and wondered if perhaps someone -was- waiting for you after all. I'd hate to make you late for it. Ah,” a smile to the disgruntled girl who brought two frothy pints of ale to them. “Thanks to you, Bet.” Coins changed hands and the girl looked as if she expected something more that Jack didn't give. “To your bravery, Miss Hughes, may you never lose it.” He lifted the pint to her.

    “They will not miss me, those who wait. Not yet. They've affairs enough of their own to worry over without turning a mind to me.” A sidelong glance at the girl who turned a bold look upon Miss Hughes, as bold as she would dare considering the woman from Grosvenor Square was decidedly out of her element. The pint meant for herself was lifted in kind before, with a wary sort of look down to the amber liquid that frothed in the glass, she brought it to her lips. In truth, she had never tried the stuff before.

    He watched her, the mirth still there, but said nothing about whether or not he thought she'd like it. If she didn't it'd be interesting to see if she'd carry on that she did. A long pull from it. True, not as good as some, but not as bad as others. Medium, he figured it to be. Not the worst to be had. “None at all would notice you gone from them? I find that a bit hard to believe.” Unlike some dandies who strolled about to dally, he didn't bother with candied flattery. He could've easily given her lovely eyes and hair. The delicate turn of her hand. Any number of things. Save she didn't strike him as the sort to believe such hollow words.

    The liquid touched her lips and then her tongue, the tiniest sip taken, not to be dainty but out of pure uncertainty. Ligeia was unable to hide the delicate wrinkling of her nose at the bitter taste, but it was not a gesture of dislike. Pursing her lips together with consideration, she lowered the glass to the table and lifted her eyes to him. A pleasant smile that didn't quite reach to warm the blues. “None at all.” A second small sip of ale, the rippling wrinkle of her nose. “What about you, Mr Corbie? You seem– known.” A polite enough word to reference the nods and glances. “I do not wish to keep you from prior engagements, should you have them.”

    He called her true to say she was brave. Pleased that she made the effort. Curious to see if it would continue. Ladies were nothing if not odd creatures. Elegant like rare birds and some of them just as easily frightened. A nod to her words while one hand rose to shove dark hair back from his eyes. “Oh, known enough, I suppose. But if you go any place for a space of time you become known in some way or another, I'd imagine. You're keeping me from nothing at all, Miss Hughes. And if you were, why, I'd take company before anything. Some days are meant to be alone, some are to be shared in some way.”

    Slender fingers tapped the glass as she wondered what effects a full pint of ale would have on a body unused to such consumption. “Is that alley a favorite haunt of yours, then, Mr Corbie?” she asked, a mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes. “Or should it be less strange to find you there than it seems to find me?” Because the glass was at her hand, habit dictated that she lift and sip once more. And thus followed the wrinkling of her nose.

    “A favorite haunt, no. Rather a way to get from one place to another. I'm not much given to lingering in alleys any longer. In my mispent youth, perhaps.” A curve of a smile and a chuckle. “It's an acquired taste. No offense to you if you're not enjoying it.”

    “I'm hardly able to acquire the taste if I don't attempt it, am I?” she asked, unaware of the facial tick that betrayed her. Another brave sip. At this rate, she'd have the pint gone by the morrow. “Besides, there remain nerves to be steadied.”

    “True enough,” came his agreement. “They lay hold of you, then? Those men?” Dark eyes drank her up. Long, slow sips of features. His own pint drained itself swallow by swallow, but he wasn't in a particular rush. There was no true place he needed to be. A card game later, if his interest still held true to that, but nothing much else.

    A clearing of her throat came as her gaze drifted to her lap. Her pale hand brushed down over sapphire silks and the torn seam that would be mended in time. “Only briefly, but I am unharmed, as you see. I do not think the tall one took kindly to having my fingernails so close to his eyes.” The brave smile was a farce, but she hoped it would suffice. Truth be told, she had been lucky indeed to escape from them; luckier still to run into that alley.

    “You came unarmed?” Both brows lifted at this idea. Perhaps it was because he dealt with ladies of a less noble rankings–the ones he carried any sort of serious rapport with where clothing stayed in place. And those molls kept something on themselves most of the times. Never knew when someone might decide to take more than offered. “Might I make a suggestion to you, Miss Hughes, should there be a next time?”

    The question startled a short burst of laughter from her. Perhaps due in part to the ale she had continued to consume. The thought of carrying a weapon of any kind seemed extreme, ridiculous even. She would not know where to begin. “Yes, please do.”

    Jack's face was ever so serious. From the pitchy eyes to the set of a razored jaw. “Next time, should there be one, my suggestion is that you carry a spoon along with you. Better than fingernails surely for eyes.” Utterly serious when he spoke it. Held her gaze through the faint haze of her veil and inclined his chin. “Only a suggestion, of course.”

    The faint light of mirth that had come to her and the heightened color in her cheeks faded a bit for a wavering moment. “A spoon?” Finely shaped brows knit together with the question. “But why a spoon?”

    “It would hurt more, Miss Hughes.” He watched the shift of her expression and then gave a laugh. “And you'd save your lovely hands, wouldn't you? If it was long enough handled.” He had to be joking with her. Really. Had to be. No one could be serious about gouging someone's eyes out with a spoon of all things.

    Ligeia Hughes had discovered an unnamed man dead in her attic room and had parceled him into oblivion, bit by bit. Always scientifically minded about it. But the thought of gouging out a man's eyes in defense of her own honor paled her cheeks. Another laugh, almost nervous. The sip of ale was meant to steady her nerves, but she wondered if the drink was having an adverse effect. “I suppose you're right.”

    “Ah, now you're worried? Well, perhaps I should've suggested something else.” Jack sighed and curved a hand under his chin. “Well, there must be a better topic of conversation. I've exhausted mine, or nearly.”

    “No, not worried.” She waved that off with a shaking of her head. “Just uncertain, I suppose.” A brow lifted. “Just nearly? What other topics do you have at hand for occasions such as these?” She would have asked if the remaining topics were suitable for a lady, but that qualification had not dictated the turn of their conversation thus far.

    “Just nearly.” He finished his pint off and gave her a square look. “You should be uncertain, rather–I mean, you've just cause for it considering where you've met me and all such things. The adventure of your evening. I'm afraid I'll disappoint whatever lady novelists write about, though. I've no unseemly wiles or dashing wit to offer you. Or a charger to carry you off. Just a pint.”

    “Refreshing,” she replied with a wry twist to her lips, lifting the pint glass in a toast. Hers was barely half empty by this time. But what exactly was refreshing, she did not say. The pint, perhaps. Or his distinct lack of wiles and wit. “I'm afraid I will disappoint, though, and not be so brave as to finish all that's been put before me.”

    “Well, I'm afraid I shall have to not think less of you for the attempt.” The grin worked up the left side of his mouth again. “We can be satisfied in disappointing each other. How many people can honestly say that without being married, do you think? If any?”

    “Siblings, perhaps?” she asked with a lifted brow. “I find myself quite satisfied with how disappointing at least one brother is.” Adjusting the veil once more, she sighed and clasped her hands atop the table, her gaze leveled across to him, blue to black. “Now, which way to the park?”

    “Siblings, I'd imagine so. Good of you to point that out.” A wry cast to his features as he rose to his feet and offered a hand to her so she could rise as well. “I'd get you as far as a cab if that'll do for you, Miss Hughes. Otherwise it's something of a walk and not an all together becoming one until much later on.”

    She placed her hand in his and rose from her seat, a whisper of silk layers accompanying her movement. “Thank you, Mr Corbie. That will do. I doubt a long walk would do me much good at this time of night.” Half a pint of ale left her faintly unsteady on her feet, and she found herself relying on his support more than she would have liked. And drawing sharper gazes from the women in the room than she had all night.

    “Catty jades,” he murmured to her as they left, “all of them. Pay no mind, Miss Hughes. Nothing much left of their claws these days.” It might not have been the most proper thing to say to a lady like herself, but it was one of the most honest. A flash-glance of the man under the name. A firm hold of her hand, arm twined about hers and it might've caused a person to wonder just how well he knew her. Or what his intentions actually where. “Not what you're used to, I imagine, the ale, yeah?”

    “No, I should say not,” she replied on a short sigh. The woman leaned upon the man more than was quite proper, given their respective status, the amount of time since their hasty introduction. In the morning there would, undoubtedly, be a headache. And perhaps some embarrassment at her conduct, but surely there was not so much unbecoming of a lady. “Not only an acquired taste, but I suppose one gets used to its effects with practice as well.”

    “Only if you wish it.” A careless tone to his voice, though he could afford to be careless. He hadn't paid the devil his due yet and heaven only seemed like an endless white boredom. Far as he could tell. The sound of their shoes mingled together and he conducted himself as one shoulder. Respectful and properly done. “Cab's there,” and he nodded toward it. A slice of dark hair grazed the lift of one cheekbone. “That one look all right for you?”

    A squint of her gaze discerned the cab through the pool of gaslamp light and she nodded before answering. “Yes. Yes, it looks all right to me.” The sensible boots laced at her ankles would hardly have borne her all the way to Hyde Park, let alone Grosvenor Square.

    “Good, then.” He led her toward it, called up to the driver and seemed to have woken the man from a nap. An introspective look was given Jack, then the lady, then Jack again with a shaggy gray brow lifting in some sort of unasked question. “He'll take you where you wish to go.” Now would've been the perfect chance to find out where she lived if he found the motivation to fleece her home. Instead, he only opened the door for her and used the toe of his boot to knock the fold-out step down so she could step up and in. “Just be sure to tell him you wish to have the straightest way there. Otherwise you'll be half over London until dawn.”

    “I–” On her way to ascending into the carriage, she paused awkwardly to find her purse. And open it. She felt she owed him something, for whether he knew it or not, he had saved her life. Of that she was certain. But what did one offer a perfect stranger on such an occasion? “I feel I owe you something, Mr Corbie. But I am at a loss.” The veiled gaze found his, and questioned him.

    One foot came to balance on the step and an arm wrapped about her waist. Fingers spread across her hip that hid somewhere under all the fabric and other nonsense women bothered with. With his free hand, he lifted her veil, just for a moment and kissed her very soundly, most improperly, and with a certain humor. “I'll accept that,” he told her when it broke and merry eyes found hers. “We're even now.” Unless she was going to slap him or send brothers after him. Some rot. A step backward brought him back to the ground and a bow, deep and elegant, given to her. “Should we meet again, Miss Hughes, I hope it's a better place than here.”

    He had stolen the kiss. And her breath. And her words. And her thoughts. Her hand lifted to her mouth, unbelieving at the impertinence, and she sank to the carriage seat, disappearing into the shadows within. If she had been able to react, she might have slapped him. As it was, her family would be the last to hear of it. Fingers were still pressed to her mouth, her open purse clutched tightly in her other hand, as the carriage door was closed and the driver snapped the reins.

    Jack Corbie stood a moment watching the cab take to the street with the lady safe inside. One hand hunted through a pocket for the silver case of cigarettes. Another found a match and set one to light the other. Amusement turned his mouth and he couldn't help but laugh, just for a moment, as her expression was better than the kiss. Nearly, at least. Satisfied with the way of his evening, he turned away in the direction of the card game he was due to sit at. Truly, profits all around.

    March 25, 2006 at 11:08 pm #2541

    Muhaha! Such, such fun. Thanks for it, m'dear.

    March 26, 2006 at 12:01 am #2542

    Looks like the beginning of a very unusual, interesting friendship… *grins* Nice work, both of you!

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