Unraveling Secrets (The Secret Trilogy), p.1
When her father's murderer returns from the dead to threaten her family, Abigail Bradford attempts to warn him off, but soon learns chasing a ghost is no easy task.
Stephen Nolton, Viscount Ashbury, stumbles upon Abigail in the dirty streets of London's East End. Able to read auras of good and evil after an electromagnetic experiment went terribly wrong, Stephen hovers on society's edge, keeping secret his unique skill and personal mission. Despite his fascination with the lady and her unique golden aura, he intends to keep his distance.
Desperate to protect her family, Abigail turns to the one man she believes can aid her. In Stephen's arms, she finds so much more than she hoped. Stephen tries to resist his desire for the independent beauty, afraid she'll unravel his secrets. But when he discovers the murderer is linked to his own past, he must decide how much he's willing to risk for love.
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London, May 1882
Abigail Bradford followed her quarry through the unfamiliar cobbled streets of the East End, her heart pounding with fear, wondering if she trailed a ghost.
“You’re certain that’s Simmons, miss?” asked Thomas, the brawny footman who also served as protector for her family.
“No. How could it be? Vincent Simmons was hung for murdering my father ten years ago.”
Yet his tattered bowler hat bobbed above the crowd just ahead in the evening twilight, the man blissfully unaware of his pursuers.
Thomas had spotted a man loitering outside their Mayfair home last week and chased him off. The same man had returned two days later, allowing Abigail to catch a glimpse of him—and she’d nearly dropped to her knees. His was a face she’d never forget, one that still haunted her nights.
Thomas had followed him to a tavern then to his lodgings in Alsatia. Tonight, they’d caught sight of him making his way home from The Ox and Crown Tavern where he seemed to be a regular, according to what little Thomas had discovered.
Abigail stumbled on the uneven cobbles, her gait awkward in the oversized boots she wore.
“Miss, no offense, but you walk like a girl,” Thomas grumbled. “Can you lengthen your stride?”
Abigail tried to do as he suggested, but the brown trousers she wore were a bit snug. The coarse shirt and wool jacket felt bulky on her slim figure. “Is that better?” she asked.
Thomas merely sighed. He’d been appalled when she’d insisted on coming along on this venture, advising her that a lady could not roam these rough streets. When she’d refused to stay behind, he’d procured a mismatched set of boy’s clothes to disguise her.
At sixteen, she’d witnessed her father’s murder when they’d interrupted Simmons burglarizing their country home. Now, a decade later, doubt warred with determination. She had to know if Simmons had somehow escaped the hangman’s noose.
“Shall I grab him?” asked Thomas, his height allowing him to track Simmons easily amid the lively street.
Abigail glanced around nervously. “Let us find a more deserted area to confront him.”
She and Thomas were out of their element here. A more secluded place would improve their odds. She kept the brim of her cap tugged low, leaving her free to stare at the foreign landscape, her senses flooded by the unfamiliar sights.
Dilapidated, soot-blackened brick buildings with broken steps and uneven doors lined the street, so different from the tidy, organized streets of Mayfair where they lived. Shouts and curses rang through the air and mingled with the clatter of horses and carts in the street.
People of all sorts thronged the sidewalk, jostling Abigail as they hurried by. Young boys with knee-length pants, suspenders, and bare feet hawked nuts at the door of a theater they passed, a musical lilt to their thick Irish brogues. An old grizzled man, his hat at a jaunty angle, carted a tray of hot elder wine for sale, calling out in a sing-song voice to entice customers.
The door to a tavern swung open as they walked by, giving Abigail a glimpse into the dim interior. Men, laughter, and music spilled out along with the scent of fried food, smoke, and ale.
“Stay close.” Thomas grabbed her arm to keep her from being swept along by the tide of humanity flowing into the pub.
A bare-headed woman with gin-glazed eyes leaned against a doorway, her generous bosom framed by a dirty red shawl. She sent Abigail a wink and licked her lips. “I like ‘em young. How ‘bout a quick tumble?”
Abigail’s face heated and she quickly lowered her gaze, but not before she caught the shock on poor Thomas’s face.
“God help us,” he muttered. “You should not be here.”
“At least we know my disguise is a success,” she offered with a stifled laugh. She refused to be daunted by this outing.
The footman shook his head as he moved closer to her side, walking at a steady pace through the crowded street. Fewer people wandered the streets as they traveled farther east.
“If Lady Bradford finds out—”
“We’ll be home before she and my sisters return.” At least Abigail hoped so. She didn’t want them to discover what she’d been up to. As the eldest, the responsibility of finding out if Simmons had returned from the dead fell squarely on her shoulders.
“Perhaps I should carry the gun, miss,” the anxious servant suggested.
“I know how to use it. Don’t worry so, Thomas.” She wished she could take her own advice. She touched her father’s pistol tucked into the waistband of her trousers. Her skills were rusty but she was sure she remembered enough of her father’s shooting lessons to protect Thomas and herself if necessary.
“We’d best catch him before he disappears into his lodging house just ahead,” the footman advised.
Abigail nodded. Her stomach burned with nerves, her palms damp. She breathed deeply to calm herself but regretted it as the foul stench of rotted food and human waste burned her nose.
They closed in on Simmons as he passed an alley. Abigail motioned to Thomas, who dashed forward and grabbed his arm.
“Here now! Leave off!” Simmons protested as he tried to pull away.
Thomas held on tight and backed Simmons into the alley entrance before releasing him. “We need a few words with you.”
“What fer?” Simmons asked angrily as he peered at them, no sign of recognition on his face. His voice was gravely as though from disuse. “I’ve no money if that’s what yer about.”
Abigail’s heart raced as she stared at him, unable to believe her eyes. “Vincent Simmons,” she called out to test her sanity.
He jerked in surprise, his hands clenched. “No. No, my name is Edward Smith.”
She froze with disbelief. Had she somehow gotten it wrong? She stepped forward and tipped her cap back to better see his face in the faint po
His eyes widened as he got a good look at her. A small smile turned his lips, and he brazenly dipped his head in acknowledgement. “Good evenin’ to ye, miss.”
His recognition of her erased all doubt as to his identity.
“How is it possible that you live?” She shook her head, unable to believe her eyes, trying to grasp how he could’ve escaped. She’d testified at his trial, heard his sentence, and within days, received confirmation of his death. Yet here he stood. Fear spiraled through her at what he might want.
“I’ve no idea what ye mean.” He shrugged carelessly.
“You were hung for murder,” she persisted. Had there been some mix up at Newgate Prison?
“Vincent Simmons hung. As I said, my name is Edward Smith.” He flashed a knowing smirk with his lie. “Ye won’t catch me admittin’ otherwise.”
Anger at the pain this man had caused her family chased away her fear. She slipped a hand inside her jacket and felt the butt of the pistol in her palm. The solid feel of it reassured her. How she wished she could simply draw the gun, squeeze the trigger, and be done with the lying murderer before her.
Then it would be over.
Her family would be safe again.
Her fear would ease and her nightmares of losing all of her family would end.
What did it matter how he’d escaped the hangman’s noose? She’d only be seeing his sentence carried out at last.
Yet she hesitated. Vengeance was not so easy.
Despite his crime, she didn’t think she could pull the trigger and kill him in cold blood. That would make her no better than him.
She studied his face in the dim light, noting that the past ten years had not been kind to him. His once ruddy face was pale, his cheeks gaunt, making his nose all the more prominent. Lines etched his eyes and creased his mouth. A head taller than her with a thin frame and ill-fitting, ragged clothes, his eyes darted to Thomas then returned to her.
“I wouldn’t expect to see a lady such as yerself ‘round here,” he said, the smirk still in place.
“And I didn’t expect to find you skulking about outside our door of late.”
“Well, I was just havin’ meself a look-see. No harm.”
“No harm?” Fresh anger washed through her until she shook with it. “You killed my father before my eyes ten years ago. What greater harm could you have possibly wreaked?”
Those few horrific moments had forever changed her family’s life. It seemed only fair that they’d changed his as well.
“Ye got it wrong.” He moved closer, his smirk fading.
“Stay where you are,” Thomas warned him.
“What game are you playing?” Abigail demanded.
“Like I said, my name is Edward Smith, just released from Pentonville Prison.”
Outrage filled Abigail. “That’s a lie! I won’t let you get away with it.”
Simmons cocked his head to the side. “Vincent Simmons hung before witnesses. I admit to nothin’. And no one will believe ye since ye’ve no proof.”
She swallowed hard, her heart sinking, for she feared he spoke the truth. How could she convince the police he lived when their records showed he’d been executed?
“Why are you bothering us?” Did he seek revenge for her testifying against him, or worse, did he plan to kill the rest of her family?
His eyes narrowed as he stepped closer still, keeping a careful watch on Thomas. “Since ye think ye know me, why don’t ye give over what I want and I won’t darken yer door again.”
Baffled, she could only stare at him. “What could you possibly want from us?”
“The rock. I need it. I’ll be back by yer place soon. Have it ready.”
Doing her best to ignore his menacing tone, she told him the truth. “I have no idea what you’re speaking of.”
A knife blade flashed in his hand. Fear caught in her throat, choking her. Thomas muttered an oath.
“Yer a smart lady. Ye’ll figure it out. Now both of ye step aside. I’ve got an appointment to keep.”
Thomas cast Abigail a worried look but she kept her gaze on Simmons. Determination filled her. She would not lose control of the situation. She needed answers in order to protect her family or this man would ruin their lives again. Gritting her teeth, she pulled the pistol from under her jacket. The sound of the hammer cocking echoed in the alley. “We’re not finished with this conversation.”
Simmons’ eyes widened. The surprise on his face was somehow satisfying. How good it felt to have turned the tables.
“You’re not leaving until you explain,” she warned, the pistol heavy in her hands.
He flipped his knife and caught it easily. “I’ll stick this between yer man’s eyes and snap yer little neck before ye can take aim. Now leave off.”
She could see he meant every word by the way he moved and knew from what he’d done ten years ago that he was capable of it. Her heart pounded so loudly she could hear little else, but she refused to allow him to flee. She leveled the loaded pistol at him and tightened her finger on the trigger, willing her hands to hold steady.
“Try it,” she bluffed, praying to God he wouldn’t. “I’m quite good with moving targets. Now tell me what rock?” She aimed the barrel at his heart.
Stephen Nolton, Viscount Ashbury, navigated the streets of the East End with ease, pleased with the results of the evening. His ribs hurt, his knuckles were bloody, but his opponent was in far worse shape.
The man wouldn’t be so quick to take what wasn’t his next time. In fact, Stephen was certain he would pursue a new line of work from this night forward. And that was exactly what Stephen wanted. One more person set on the path of right before he hurt an innocent.
The dark shadows that chased Stephen would be held at bay for another night. That was all he could do—battle each day to keep them back. To make up for his past mistakes. He sighed at the bleakness of his life, only to feel a sharp pain in his side as though prodding him to forget his own worries and focus on those who were truly in need.
As he neared the corner of an alley, a muffled curse sounded. The hair on the back of Stephen’s neck rose. In recent years, he’d become adept at detecting trouble.
Angry voices grew distinguishable and Stephen eased forward, trying to catch the words and locate the speakers.
“Tell me what rock!”
Stephen frowned at the educated diction to the woman’s voice—something completely out of place amidst the hopeless poverty of this neighborhood. He looked around the corner of the building into the alley where three shadows came into view.
The shadows of three men.
He studied the area more closely, trying to ascertain what was happening. The smallest—a boy judging by his size—aimed a gun at a man with a knife. The third man, dressed as a servant, stood just to the side of the boy. He couldn’t see where the woman was, but it was the boy who caught his full attention.
Despite his obvious ill intent as he aimed the pistol, golden light hovered around his head and shoulders.
In Stephen’s experience, a light-colored aura meant a good, honorable person. Yet this aura, speared with deep blue and yellow, defied description and left him speechless. The vibrant yellow meant success and intelligence. The dark blue indicated spirituality.
He doubted he’d ever get used to his ability to see auras, and rarely did he see anything but gray and black. But in the ten years he’d had the damned skill, never had he seen anything like this one.
The nervous servant’s aura was gray and murky—the color he saw most often as people’s auras were a mixture of their thoughts. The man with the knife had the imprint of the street on him—a worn, dirty jacket, a few days worth of beard on his thin, pale face, soot smeared on his cheek. His aura was dark with flashes of black permeating it, proof of bad intentions for certain. Auras told Stephen only a small part of the story, giving him clues to follow. The rest he had to discern by list
“Answer me,” the woman’s voice demanded.
Not a boy after all. Even as Stephen processed that fact, the man with the knife lunged forward.
“No!” The servant yelled as he rushed toward him, using his hand to block his advance.
“Thomas!” she cried out. The gun she held quivered, just like her voice, but she quickly steadied both. “Get back,” she ordered the knife holder.
Though she put on a brave front, she was clearly frightened and unwilling to fire her weapon. Stephen didn’t blame her. Killing a man was no easy feat, nor was it easy to live with.
He stepped into the alley. “What goes here?”
As he feared, the lady swung the pistol at him. He held up his hands to show her he had no weapon. He preferred to use his fists when the occasion called for force. “Aim that elsewhere,” he ordered.
“Who are you?” she asked as she moved the gun toward her intended victim. The bill of her cap cast a shadow over her eyes, but the delicate line of her jaw was visible. An overly large jacket covered her frame. Her disguise was quite effective and hid the majority of her femininity. Despite yielding the weapon, her aura remained bright and colorful. She held steady, obviously not allowing her fear to overwhelm her.
What on earth was she doing here?
“I was passing by and thought you might require assistance,” he answered at last, then tore his gaze from the woman to glance at the man with the knife.
Her intended victim remained in place, trying to decide if he should fight or flee, the lady’s wobbling gun seeming to add to his uncertainty. Stephen’s presence helped block his escape route.
“You’ve interrupted a discussion of a personal nature,” she informed Stephen. “Please continue on your way.”
“Miss?” The servant held out his hand. Blood dripped from a deep cut across his palm.
She gasped, her gun trembling when she saw the blood. “Thomas, are you all right?”
“We’d best hurry this discussion along.” The servant withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket to wrap around his hand.
“Answer me, damn you!” Clearly angry, she steadied the pistol once again at her target.