To pay off her recently deceased brother’s debts, however, Lorna Robbins must take drastic measures. When she happens upon a resurrectionist gang stealing his corpse, she does the unthinkable and joins the criminal outfit to save her family estate and her younger sibling. For the first time in her lonely, duty-driven life, Lorna finds herself leading a treacherous and exciting double existence. By day, she becomes a popular lady of the ton, relying on society gossip to help her body-snatching gang. By night, she becomes the grave robber known only as the Blackbird.
Surgeon and anatomy teacher Brandon Dewhurst relies on resurrectionists to bring him the specimens he needs to further his research on pregnancy. When his usual suppliers become unreliable, and then downright sinister, he’s reluctantly drawn further into the black market. As Lorna and Brandon both target the same body—a pregnant woman who is still very much alive—they find themselves powerfully drawn together time and again while trying to maintain their own respectable facades. But this daring duo is courting danger, and romance is a complication neither can afford.
Of late, her meals had been gulped down without tasting the food. Almost every waking moment had been spent at Thomas’s bedside, watching the restraints. Twice he’d escaped. The first time, he kicked through a window, shredded his leg, and nearly bled to death before they wrestled him back into bed. The second time … Lorna winced at the memory of the maid’s ruined face.
After that, Thomas was kept under constant supervision. Lorna hadn’t thought it fair to leave the last remaining footman, Oscar, and the old butler, Humphrey, entirely in charge of tending him—especially since the servants worked out of loyalty now, rather than for a decent wage.
Lorna swept a few crumbs from the skirt of her black dress. The garment began its life a pale rose, but the necessity for mourning weeds had seen it dunked into a stinking vat of vinegar and dye just yesterday. Mrs. Lynch, the housekeeper, had smoothed an old sheet over Lorna’s chair before she sat, lest dye bleed onto the faded upholstery.
A knock sounded at the front door. Lorna set down her teacup and folded her hands in her lap a few seconds before Humphrey’s stooped form appeared in the parlor door. “A Mr. Wiggins is here, Miss Robbins,” he said, presenting the caller’s card.
“Show him in,” she said.
The name sparked no recognition, but Lorna did not know most of Thomas’s acquaintance. Fifteen years her senior, her half-brother had been mostly absent from Lorna’s life. She’d made rare, brief visits to London, and he came home with even less frequency, despite the family seat being only a handful of miles outside of Town. They’d spent no length of time together until six months ago, when one of his London companions unceremoniously dumped him, soaking wet and raving, on the portico. From what Lorna had been able to piece together, Thomas had no friends, only people to whom he was indebted. If this Mr. Wiggins had come from Town to pay his respects, though, perhaps he’d been a true friend to her brother.
Humphrey returned with her guest. The man was not much taller than she, several inches over five feet. Stringy gray hair inadequately covered a balding pate, and the man’s middle paunch had a sadly deflated quality to it, like an empty wineskin. His apparel looked fine at a distance, but when he took her hand in greeting, Lorna noted frayed cuffs and thin places at the seams. Not that I’ve room to judge, she thought, glancing at her own tatty furnishings.
“Miss Robbins,” he said, “please accept my condolences for your loss.” His accent carried the remnants of a working class upbringing.
“Thank you, Mr. Wiggins.” Lorna took her seat and gestured him to a chair. “May I offer you some tea?”
“With my gratitude.” As Lorna handed him a cup, he said, “I was hoping I might see Lord Chorley.”
“Oh.” Lorna faltered, grasping for delicate words. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. The viewing has ended. My brother has been moved to the church for burial. Unless …”
She twisted her fingers together, uncertain about the protocol of graveside services. “If you hurry to the churchyard, you might be able to see him before … But I really don’t know.”
Wiggins gulped his beverage and smacked his lips. “I’ll wait,” he announced. “I’ve got no pressing engagements.”
Lorna frowned. “I’m sorry, sir. Do you mean you wish to see the new Lord Chorley, not the deceased?”
“Just so,” Wiggins replied. “I’ve no wish to peep at a soul case.” His eyes narrowed on Lorna in suspicion. “Unless this is another ruse to get out of paying his notes. Has he skipped to Calais?”
Lorna suppressed a groan. So Mr. Wiggins wasn’t a friend, after all. “If it’s money you’re after, sir, I’m afraid I cannot help you.”
The man nodded. “Then we’re all right, miss. I wouldn’t dream of treating with a lady, so if you don’t mind passing me one of those cakes, I’ll just await his lordship’s return.”
One of her cakes, indeed. Lorna raised her chin a notch. “You mistake me, Mr. Wiggins. I run this household, not his lordship. Any understanding between you and my late brother is none of my affair, and I refuse to be drawn into his financial mishaps.” She stood, calling upon every ounce of her girlhood comportment training to maintain a polite tone. “I do thank you for your condolences, Mr. Wiggins, but I’m afraid I must bid you a good day.”
Wiggins wagged a knobby finger. “Now, now, missy, that dodge will never hold up in a court of law.” From a pocket he produced a stack of notes, which he handed to Lorna.
A cursory examination showed amounts to make her stomach clench. A hundred pounds. Fifty. Five hundred twenty. All carried her worthless brother’s signature, all dated within the last eighteen months. “Thomas was … sick,” she said, her throat catching around the allusion to his insanity, “when he borrowed from you.”
Wiggins sneered, all pretense of politeness dropped. “He’s not the first taken by the French disease, and he won’t be the last, but I’m out the coin anyway. My business is with Chorley. If the baron I knew has escaped to hell, then I’ll speak to the new man in charge. He’ll make good on these notes, all right, or I’ll have the law on him.”
The threat against Daniel turned Lorna’s despair to rage in an instant. “The new man in charge,” she said, venom dripping from her words, “is a boy of seven. You cannot hold him responsible for another’s debts.” She threw the stack of notes right back in Wiggins’s face, where they exploded like confetti.
A shadow darkened the moneylender’s features an instant before he chuckled. He reclined in the chair, more at his ease than when she’d offered him tea and pleasantries.
“Oh, but I can. Lord Chorley is responsible, and it doesn’t matter a whit to me if he’s a babe in arms. I’ll bring suit against the estate. It’ll cost you dear to have a barrister speak for you, and you’ll still have to pay up in the end.”
She closed her eyes and scratched at her head with both hands, an anxious habit she’d abandoned years ago—until Thomas came home. Now thin weals crisscrossed her scalp.
She winced as her nails dragged across them; the pain brought clarity. Lorna rounded on him. A faint smell of vinegar wafted from her skirts as they swished around her legs. “All right, Wiggins, look.” If he could drop the social façade, so could she. “I have perhaps twenty pounds to my name. Take it or leave it.” She looked down her nose, raising a brow in challenge. He guffawed.
“Twenty pounds, the chit says!” He wheezed through a laugh, his face going puce with the force of his amusement. “If that’s not the best demmed jape I’ve heard this age and more.” He wiped tears from his cheeks with the ratty cuff of his coat. Then he gathered up the promissory notes and tucked them into his pocket. “I’ll leave your twenty and take the fifteen hun’ret I’m owed, miss.”
He smiled as he rose to his feet, but the malice gleaming in his eyes sent ice to Lorna’s toes. Wiggins stepped toward her. Lorna instinctively retreated. “I will have my due. Need be, I’ll take this house and everything in it; I happen to know it ain’t entailed. Better for you to sell on your terms, than give it to me on mine. You have two months, then it’s pay up or else.”
Sell Elmwood? Everything inside of Lorna rebelled at the notion. For years, she had worked to keep the estate’s ledgers balanced. She had scrimped and cut back and done without, all to provide Daniel a safe, happy home. Thomas never did anything for his half-siblings. He couldn’t be bothered to visit the small property more than once every few years. No, it had been Lorna’s duty to keep everything running. And now Thomas was threatening to ruin her carefully ordered world from beyond the grave. She wouldn’t allow it.
“Absolutely not,” she declared. “I won’t give up my home.”
“Then you’ll have to cough up the blunt some other way.” Wiggins gave her an appraising look. “Might be you’ve something else to sell.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When she isn’t devising new ways to antagonize her characters, Elizabeth Boyce likes to spend her time devising new ways to embarrass her children. She lives in South Carolina.
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