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    Prologue

    From the Journal of James Swindler

    A darkness hovers inside me. It was born the day I watched my father hanged. A public hanging, with a festive air in the streets, as though I alone understood the loss, as though the object stolen was worth destroying both his life and mine.

    I had been born a mere eight years earlier, and with my arrival had come my mother’s parting from this world. So it was that with my father’s death, I became an orphan with nowhere to go and no one to take me in.

    Within the jubilant crowd of curious onlookers were two lads who recognized my plight—

    the tears streaming down my dirty face while others jeered and laughed, no doubt telling my story. My father had told me to be strong. He’d even winked at me before they placed the black hood over his head. As though his standing on the gallows were a prank, a bit of good fun, something we would laugh about later.

    But it wasn’t a prank, and if my father is laughing now, it is only the devil who hears. I was not strong that day. But I have shown strength ever since. The lads comforted me as boys are wont to do: with a slug on the arm and “stiff upper lip, mate.” They invited me to tag along with them. Jack was the older, his swagger one of confidence. Luke was wide-eyed, and I suspected it was the first hanging he’d ever witnessed. As we made our way through the teeming throng, their nimble fingers pilfered many a coin purse and handkerchief.

    When darkness descended, they led me through the warren of the rookeries to the door of a kidsman who went by the name of Feagan. He had little use for the likes of me until he’d gathered the precious booty from his workers. Children all. Only one girl among them. A girl with vibrant red hair and gentle green eyes. Her name was Frannie. Once I realized that Jack and Luke had brought me to a den of thievery, I lost all enthusiasm to stay. I had no desire to belong to a place that was certain to lead me straight to the gallows. But I had a stronger desire not to lose sight of the young girl. So I remained.

    I became very skilled at ferreting out information, helping to set up swindles. I wasn’t as talented when it came to thievery. I was caught on more than one occasion and took my punishment as my father had taught me—with stoicism and a wink. As a result, I became far too familiar with the fact that the legal system was not fair, and often innocence was the cost. I began to pay close attention when justice was meted out. Why was one boy given ten lashes for snitching a silk handkerchief while another was transported to a prison colony in New Zealand? How was evidence obtained? How did one determine guilt?

    More importantly, how did one prove innocence?

    In time I began to work secretly for the Metropolitan Police. I did not fear the shadows or the darker side of London. Even when I worked openly for Scotland Yard, I traveled where others had no desire to tread.

    I drew comfort in knowing I never arrested an innocent. Depending on the severity of the crime, I often sent the culprit on his way with a mere slap on the wrist and a warning that I was watching, always watching. Of what importance is a stolen bit of silk frippery when a man might have lost his life in the street? I was far more concerned with—and fascinated by—the grisly crimes.

    They appealed to the darkness hovering inside me, and so it was that they garnered my ardent attention…

    And eventually led me to her.

    Chapter 1

    London

    1852

    Revenge was not for the faint of heart. It might have bothered Eleanor Watkins that she was fairly consumed with the need to achieve it if she took a moment to give it any further consideration. But ever since she’d discovered and read through her sister’s journal, learned what horrors had truly befallen her sister when she’d traveled to London last Season, she had little time for anything other than plotting how best to avenge Elisabeth. Eleanor was determined that the man who had escorted her sister from sweet innocence into brutal carnality would pay as dearly for his sins as her sister had for her naivety.

    Her quest for vengeance controlled her every action, her every thought, from the moment she awoke to the song of the lark until she laid her head on the pillow to endure another night of fretful sleep and horrendous nightmares fueled by each stroke of her sister’s pen as she’d described the shame she’d endured at the hands of the Marquess of Rockberry. Eleanor’s obsessive need for retribution was the reason that she now strolled through Cremorne Gardens long past the hour when any respectable woman would be about. Even decent men had retired for the evening, but then the man she followed could hardly be declared reputable, although he gave a rather good imitation. She’d heard that the fireworks that burst into the air each evening at the gardens were spectacular. But of course, he’d not arrived in time to enjoy so simple a pleasure as watching brilliant flashes of light paint the sky. No, his pleasures leaned toward a darker, more foreboding nature.

    And so Lord Rockberry had waited until the good folk had removed themselves from the gardens and the depraved had arrived with mischief on their minds before making his unheralded appearance. His sinister laughter echoed through the pleasure gardens as he periodically stopped to speak with one rogue or another. Tall and slender, he strolled quickly through the throng, his cape billowing out behind him, adding to the sense that among the wicked he considered himself king. But even with his height and top hat, she had to dart around people to keep him within her sights—and she was determined to do it in such a way that he took no notice of her. She’d not fall victim to his persuasive charms as her sister had. If either of them fell, she was determined it would be him.

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