“I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected…
He made me love him without looking at me.”
– Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
As far as solicitors go, Mr. Lux has never been particularly useful. Most of the time, River ignores his advice entirely and he’ll only sigh and draw up the necessary paperwork to fulfill whatever demand she lays at his desk. He’s always been amenable to her will, despite the pressure of a society quite convinced a woman could never and should never handle her own finances. River has never been one to let anyone else touch anything that belongs to her – and her money is most decidedly hers. Mr. Lux never forgets that.
Which is why she stares at him now with incomprehension, watching blankly as he fidgets behind his desk and wipes his perspiring brow with a handkerchief. “Sorry, what did you just say?”
Mr. Lux draws in a fortifying breath and repeats, “Your ex-husband is claiming you lied to him about your fortune when he divorced you. He’s suing you for everything you own. And since you have yet to marry another, he may very well win.”
Her hands curl into fists on her lap, gripping the fabric of her skirts until her knuckles turn white. Jaw clenched, she speaks through her teeth. “How is this possible?”
“You divorced Lord Hydroflax on the grounds of deception, Ms. Song, but the man is now claiming you deceived him in turn by hiding your fortune from him. Since you are still unattached, it is a fortune that is rightfully his should he prove your treachery-”
“I know how it happened, you rotund buffoon,” she snaps, leaping to her feet and pacing away from his desk. “I probably understand the law better than you do.”
Mr. Lux flinches, watching her stalk up and down the length of his office like a caged lioness. River pays him no mind, her heart thudding erratically and her lungs burning. Her corset feels too tight and every swish of her skirts as she moves sounds deafening to her ears. She can taste bile in her mouth and she swallows but her throat closes up and nearly chokes her.
Gripping the back of her chair in front of Mr. Lux’s desk, she steadies herself for a long moment and waits, knuckles white, until the rising panic abates and gives way to something more familiar – unchecked fury and determination. She lifts her head, eyes narrowed. “How do I stop him?”
“In a word?” Mr. Lux wrings his hands. “Remarry.”
River bites down hard on her tongue. “No.”
After her disastrous affair with Lord Hydroflax, she’d promised herself she would never again be in a position of subservience to another man and ever since then, she’s worked hard to ensure she never had to. These last few years, she’s finally been in a place where no one had power over her – not Kovarian, not her husband, not even a tax collector. And she won’t relinquish a drop of that freedom to anyone.
Mr. Lux sighs, as though preparing himself for battle. “If you remarry, your assets will become your new husband’s and any rights Lord Hydroflax might exercise over you would be absolutely null and void.”
“Yes and I would still lose everything to some greedy little toad of a man with more fingers than brain cells.” River whirls away from him, glaring hard at the floor. There’s still a flutter of fear in her chest but the longer she thinks of her odious ex-husband, the angrier she becomes. “I made my fortune after I escaped his meaty clutches.”
Most of it anyway. She can’t deny she’d absconded with his coin purse and a great deal of the silver but in the grand scheme of things, her thievery had hardly done more than keep her fed for a few months. After that, River had been forced to make her own way in the world and she had – using some unscrupulous methods, perhaps, but never taking advantage of those who didn’t deserve it.
She swallows back furious tears, grinding her teeth together. “Everything I have, I worked for.” Conned, swindled, at times outright stole. “He has no right -”
“Unfortunately, he has every right.” Mr. Lux shuffles some papers on his desk and River glances over her shoulder to find him avoiding her gaze. “But he won’t be able to touch a farthing if you and your fortune belong to another man.”
She stiffens. “I belong to myself, Mr. Lux.”
“All the same,” he says, waving her away. “You might want to consider your options. You’ll belong on the street if you don’t take action soon.”
Lifting her chin, she snatches up her gloves and her purse from his desk. “I have no prospects and you know it,” she snaps.
“Perhaps someone might want to marry you,” he ventures hesitantly. “If you weren’t so…”
Mr. Lux grimaces. “Well, you.”
Baring her teeth, River steps forward threateningly and delights in watching her solicitor yelp and recoil – like she might actually hit him. It’s almost enough to cheer her up. Turning on her heel while he cowers behind his desk, she marches for the door and calls over her shoulder, “I’ll be in touch, Mr. Lux.”
She slams the door behind her and it isn’t until she’s halfway down the street and still fuming that she admits perhaps Mr. Lux has a point. Among London’s elite bachelors, she’s practically a pariah. Wild, unscrupulous, and audacious to a fault, she’s hardly the sort most men want to take home to meet Mummy. Men think her very fine to look at and when she allows them to, they also find her very pleasing to touch but not one of them would ever consider actually marrying her. Up to now, that arrangement has suited River just fine.
The only time she’d ever shown any interest in holy matrimony, she’d been looking out for her best interest. She’d conned the wealthy Lord Hydroflax into marrying her, quickly realized she had been conned in return – duped into binding herself to a violent brute – and got out as quickly as she could.
Since then, the idea of tying herself to someone else has lost its appeal and not even the idea of gaining their fortunes has been enough to sway her. The thought of entering into such a union again in a desperate bid to keep everything she’s strived for since she was a sixteen-year-old divorcée makes her sick to her stomach.
Turning away from the crowded city street, River veers off down a less populated, narrow lane and comes to an abrupt halt. She wraps her fingers around a lamppost and braces herself against it, squeezing her eyes shut. She has not come all this way – from a pitiful little orphan to a wealthy London socialite – just to lose everything to her dim-witted bully of an ex-husband.
Whether it meant stealing, cheating wealthy men out of their undeserved earnings, or defying the dangerously omniscient woman who raised her in filth and violence, River has always done what’s necessary to keep her head above water. This time is no different. She straightens, uncurling her fingers from the lamppost and drawing in a steadying breath. Whatever it takes to keep her fortune, she’ll do it.
Mind already occupied with plans to find some poor sucker and con him into marrying her, she almost doesn’t notice the hand in her dress pocket – unmistakably attempting to filch her coin purse. Almost. Without looking, she catches the wrist of her assailant and bends it violently back, pinching with her thumb and forefinger.
Behind her, she hears a pained gasp of surprise.
“I’ve had a hell of a day, darling, and one little twist of my hand will be more than enough to ruin yours.” She bends his wrist just a bit more to prove her point, satisfied when she hears a yelp and a muttered curse. “So. That better have been my bum you were reaching for.”
“Afraid not. But I can certainly give it a go if you like.”
“Tempting but no.”
“Probably for the best. I’m a wee bit out of practice.”
Still holding onto his wrist, River turns slowly and comes face to face with her pickpocket. He’s older than she’d expected – fluffy gray curls peeking out from beneath a battered top hat. Tall and thin, he wears a shabby black coat and leans heavily on a walking stick. He’s staring right at her but his eyes are oddly blank and she realizes with a jolt that he’s blind.
“Well no wonder I caught you,” she mutters, watching him frown in her direction. “You can’t even see what you’re doing.”
“Actually, you’re the first to catch me,” he admits, and his brows waggle smugly. “I’m impressed. Irritated, mind, but impressed.”
River snorts, releasing his wrist. “Forgive me but I don’t think thievery is the best career choice for a blind man.”
He tilts his head in acceptance of the criticism, that smug expression never fading from his lined face. “The blindness is a recent development. I haven’t got round to picking a new hobby just yet.”
“I’d hurry, if I were you,” she advises, all the while wondering why she hasn’t shoved him into a puddle and stalked off yet. “Not many will be quite so merciful with a pickpocket.”
“Merciful?” His brows raise and he flexes his doubtlessly sore hand, frowning. “What do you do when you’re feeling vengeful? Behead? Draw and quarter?”
“Behave yourself, Granddad, and you won’t have to find out.” Leaning against the lamppost behind her, River studies him quietly. “How did you even know I was standing here?”
To her amusement, his whole face lights up at the prospect of explaining his own cleverness. She bites her lip against a smile before she remembers he can’t see her expression anyway. “You were muttering to yourself. Quite rudely, by the way.”
“Bad day, remember?”
“Lucky for me. I followed your voice.” He leans forward, like he knows instinctively where she is. He reaches out a hand and River stills, watching intently as his knuckles lightly brush her skirts. “And then I felt your skirts to assess the fabric. Expensive. And you smelled like Parisian perfume so I-”
“You deduced I had money,” she finishes, eyeing him appraisingly.
He shrugs, his hand falling away from her skirts and slipping into his pocket. “After that it was just a matter of finding your coin purse.” He frowns, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “It was almost too easy. You were distracted.”
“I wasn’t distracted,” she lies, bristling at the scolding tone of his voice. She’ll not be lectured by a pickpocket. “I was giving you a fair chance. I’m rich, I’m not rude.”
“Better rude than an idiot,” he chides, brow furrowed. “Not everyone would just pick your pocket and walk away.”
River stares at him, a surprised grin curling her mouth. “Are you worried for my safety, Granddad?”
“Not worried,” he says, scowling. “Reluctantly concerned, maybe, but not worried.”
She lifts her chin, watching his unseeing eyes stare right through her. “I can look after myself.”
Huffing a gray curl off his forehead, he mutters, “I’m starting to realize that.”
“You, on the other hand, might want to consider an alternative vocation before someone more cruel than I guts you and dumps you in an alley.” She wrinkles her nose. “Or worse.”
His brows lift. “Worse?”
River ignores him. “Might want to think about good old-fashioned begging.” Reaching out a hand, she taps the brim of his hat and he flinches from the unexpected touch. “And look, you’ve already got a collection plate.”
He swats her hand away. “People don’t give money to old men like me. Not even blind ones.” Gripping his cane, he adjusts his hat with his free hand and turns his back on her. As he moves slowly away from her and down the pavement, he calls over his shoulder, “Remember what I said, eh? Better rude than an idiot.”
River stares after him, not quite sure why she’s so reluctant to see him walk away but unwilling to let him out of her sight just yet. “Find a child,” she shouts after him. He pauses, turning to frown at her over his shoulder. “Or a dog. Some sweet-looking creature they’ll feel sorry for.”
He snorts. “Might work but I’m not exactly in a position to decide what’s visually appealing and what isn’t, am I?”
She bites her lip, watching him turn the corner and disappear. Once he’s gone, she pivots on her heel and walks in the other direction, hurrying home. It’s easy to push the strange encounter out of her mind, her thoughts instantly returning to her own misfortune. When she finally walks through the front door of her townhouse, they’re all waiting for her – her maid, her cook, and her coachmen loitering in the front hall entryway and trying to pretend they haven’t been on pins and needles since she left hours ago.
“Am I really so easy to look after that you lot have had nothing to do while I was gone?” She asks, smiling tiredly for their benefit as she drapes her cloak over the coatrack. “I’ll have to start being more of a bother.”
“You’re plenty bothersome,” Amy says, foot tapping impatiently against the marble floor. “We’re just that good.”
“I doubt don’t it,” River murmurs fondly, turning to face them at last.
Clara and Rory stand just behind Amy, their eyes anxious and questioning. “Well?” Rory finally asks when she only watches them silently. “What did he say?”
River sighs, forcing the words from her mouth. “He’s really trying to take everything.”
“Arse,” Clara mutters instantly, scowling. “Doesn’t he have enough already?”
Letting out a string of profanity made all the more amusing by the way her accent thickens when she’s angry, Amy shrugs off Rory’s quelling hand on her arm and steps toward River with a determined gleam in her eyes. “What do we do?”
“You won’t be doing anything.” River pats her cheek when Amy opens her mouth to protest. “Except going upstairs to run me a bath. I’ll deal with everything else.”
“A bath, please, Amy.” River massages her fingertips into her aching temple, giving her maid a pleading glance. “I need to get the stink of downtown out of my hair.”
“Fine.” Amy frowns, turning to head for the stairs. “But we are so not done talking about this.”
River watches her go, wondering how she managed to acquire the most impudent maid this side of the continent. Once Amy disappears, she turns and finds Clara’s sympathetic brown eyes on her. “Make me a drink?”
Clara nods. “Of course. Tea?”
“If you like. I’ll take mine with whiskey.”
“Coming right up.”
Clara squeezes her arm and bustles off, leaving River standing alone in the foyer with her coachman. Rory eyes her with fatherly understanding that he’s far too young to possess, asking softly, “Are you all right?”
“Fine.” She nods, refusing to acknowledge his knowing stare. “I just need to think.”
“We’re here, you know,” he says. “If you need us.”
“I know.” River smiles. “You always are.”
It’s only once she’s alone in the privacy of her bathroom, sinking into the steaming water of her clawfoot tub that she finally allows herself to panic again. It’s been years since she escaped Hydroflax’s clutches but it appears he’s still perfectly capable of backing her into a corner, defenseless and overpowered.
She flicks irritably at a few sudsy bubbles on her knee, setting her jaw. Her ex-husband may have been bigger and stronger than her but River has always been faster and smarter. She searches her mind desperately for some way around the predicament before her but no matter how hard she tries or how long she sits in the rapidly cooling water, no magic solution presents itself.
When she finally climbs out of the tub and wraps herself in the towel Amy had left for her, she stands dripping onto the cold tile floor and stares at her pale face in the mirror. One day, a long time ago, she’d promised herself to never marry again but it’s with a sinking heart that she determines there is but one choice left to her.
Tomorrow, she’ll have to start looking for a husband.