My historical entry in the 1k Writer’s Challenge on the eHarlequin Writer’s Circle Forum won first place. I must confess I wasn’t even sure I wanted to post it let alone think it would win. The other contestants had very strong entries so I am extra honored to have won.
Here’s my entry:
Lady Emma Musgrove touched the packet of papers in her pocket and smiled to herself as she waited in front of the moderately shabby house at Number 4 Bow Street. She had been sent to London by her aunt and uncle ostensibly to be a companion to their youngest daughter, Margaret, during her confinement. They had even called it a holiday, but Emma knew they sent her away so she wouldn’t be present to witness the changes they were making to High Meadow, her ancestral home.
Her aunt and uncle didn’t know it, but Emma had her own reasons for coming to London and they had nothing to do with her cousin, but everything to do with Henry Atherton.
Crowding closer to the building in an attempt to avoid the increasing foot traffic, she sighed. Her plan to conduct her business with London’s most illustrious thief-taker and be on her way before the streets around Covent Garden grew too congested was foiled by Atherton’s tardiness. Margaret wouldn’t notice her absence since her cousin rarely rose before noon but someone else might.
Emma clenched her hand around the papers that would offer proof her brother didn’t perish in last year’s shipwreck. If she could prove Richard was alive, her uncle could not lay claim to her home. Or to her.
Tom, the young stable boy she’d bade to accompany her, sidled closer, his small hand clutching her skirts. Emma knew the lad did not offer protection, but she’d dared not ask anyone else in the household for fear word would reach her uncle. If he suspected what she planned, he’d put an end to it. For Tom, the prospect of seeing the man whose daring exploits were the talk of London had filled the boy with barely contained enthusiasm.
“Mebbe he ain’t comin’, your Ladyship,” Tom said half an hour later, disappointment lacing his tone.
Emma wasn’t ready to give up and continued to search the increasing throng for a tall figure dressed in the distinctive blue greatcoat worn by the Bow Street Runners.
“Patience, Tom, patience,” Emma told the lad but she herself shifted from one foot to the other.
“Is he really as tall as they say?”
“I don’t know how tall they say he is, but I would guess he would make two of you.”
The boy’s eyes grew as round as shillings in his dirt-streaked face. “I hear tell he chased a murderer right into Fleet Ditch.”
A shudder ran through Emma at the thought of the teeming sewer. “I doubt even Henry Atherton would go to those lengths to apprehend someone.”
“Do you really think he got that limp because a jealous husband shot him when he—”
“Thomas! I beg of you, do not repeat such spurious tales.”
He cast his gaze down. “Yes, your Ladyship.”
“And who told you such a thing?” She knew she was wrong to encourage the lad but she couldn’t stop herself.
Tom raised his head and grinned. “One of the groomsmen. He said that—”
Instead of finishing his tale, the boy rose on his toes, pointing and shouting, “It’s him! It’s him!”
“Thomas. Please.” Emma gently grabbed the boy’s hand and held it in hers, but her breath quickened and her heart began to pound as she watched London’s most notorious Runner approach. Several people stopped him to say something and shake his hand as he made his way towards them.
Noticing the slight limp, she wondered if there was any truth to Tom’s story. She scolded herself as she had the boy, but not before heat rise in her cheeks. You are here to conduct business, nothing more. But she had to admit Henry Atherton cut a fine figure. His raven black hair was swept back from a face whose hard lines were softened and made attractive by deep blue eyes, a long nose and generous mouth.
Emma took a deep breath and stepped into his path before he could enter the building. “I must speak with you, sir.”
“Lady Emma. I did not expect to have the pleasure of your company again so soon. And I see you have brought your bodyguard with you.”
Young Tom puffed his chest out. “Aye, and I would give my life for her Ladyship just like when you protect the King hisself.”
“Let me commend you for inspiring such loyalty in your subjects, Lady Emma, I am sure King George himself would not inspire such blind devotion in one so young.”
Encouraged by the thief-taker’s praise, Tom blurted out. “Please, sir, if’n you don’t help us, poor Lady Emma will be forced to wed that odious Lord Wickham and I won’t be allowed to be in her comp’ny no more. And she promised to teach me to read and write my name.”
“Thomas, please. What have I told you about unwelcome and inappropriate outbursts.”
The boy shuffled his feet and hung his head but Atherton reached out and ruffled the boy’s sandy hair. “I agree with the lad. I have met Lord Wickham and he is a most odious fellow, but I am not sure what I can do to prevent this unfortunate pairing…short of marrying your Ladyship myself.”
Tom tugged on her hand. “I knew he would want to help.”
“Thomas, please, do be quiet.” She gave the lad’s hand a gentle squeeze wanting to take the bite out of her words. She knew her face must be as red as the scarlet waistcoats of the Bow Street Horse Patrol but she refused to back down. “I did not come here to propose marriage, sir. I came to seek your assistance in locating my brother, Richard, Lord Strathmore.”
Henry Atherton made a sweeping gesture toward the door of Number 4 Bow Street. “If you two will accompany me inside we can discuss this in the privacy of my office. But I warn you, Lady Emma, I consider a proposal of marriage far more agreeable than locating your wayward brother.”