Duke of Pleasure(10)

By: Elizabeth Hoyt

Ever since, Alf had tried to visit the girl several times a week. “And ’ow are you, ’Annah?”

“Go on,” Nell said to the little girl. “Better step out to talk to him and not let the cold in.”

Hannah came out on the step, accompanied by a smaller girl. This one had dark hair and a thumb stuck in her mouth. Both girls were wrapped in shawls against the cold.

“’Oo’s this?” Alf asked, crouching down to the smaller girl’s level.

“Mary Hope,” Hannah said. “She follows me everywhere and she hardly says anything at all. Sometimes I have to speak for her.”

Mary Hope glanced up at Hannah and grinned around her thumb.

“Ah,” Alf said, trying not to smile. “’Ow old are you, then, Mary ’Ope?”

Mary held up five fingers.

“No you’re not,” Hannah scolded. “Your birthday’s not for another fortnight, Nell says. You’re only four now.”

The correction didn’t seem to bother Mary, though. She simply nodded and leaned against Hannah.

The bigger girl gave a great put-upon sigh and wrapped her arm around Mary. “Mr. Makepeace is teaching us to read. Well, he’s teaching me and the big boys and girls. Mary and the little ones just play, mostly.”

“What’re you reading?” Alf asked, amused.

“The Bible,” Hannah said, sounding a little glum. “But Nell sometimes reads the broadsheets to us, and she said that when we’re good at reading we can read them ourselves—though,” Hannah amended conscientiously, “she says as how some bits aren’t for little girls’ eyes.”

“Aye, well, keep at your reading,” Alf said sternly. “You’ll need it to get any sort of good position, understand?”

Hannah nodded solemnly. “Yes, Alf.”

“Good girl.” She fished in her pocket and brought out a shiny shilling. “That’s for studying ’ard.”

Hannah’s face lit up in a grin. “Thank you!”

“And one for you, Mary, as well.” She placed another shilling in Mary Hope’s grubby little fist. “Mind you don’t lose it. Put it somewheres safe.”

“We will,” Hannah said, and uninhibitedly threw her arms around Alf’s neck.

Alf closed her eyes. This was such a lovely thing, this sweet girl’s touch, so fleeting, so momentary. For a second she was no longer a boy but a woman longing with all her heart and soul for the feel of pudgy arms about her neck. What she wouldn’t give to have this always. She felt the whisper of a damp kiss, and then Hannah stepped back, already bouncing with excitement over her shilling.

Mary leaned forward and pressed her warm, damp cheek against Alf’s.

Then the little girls giggled as the door behind them opened.

Nell shooed them inside as Hannah yelled her good-byes for the both of them.

The door closed, and Alf was alone again in the cold.

She sighed and stood slowly, wiped her face with one gloved hand. Sometimes she thought about what it might be like if she didn’t have to say good-bye to Hannah each time she saw the girl. If they could spend more than just a few hurried minutes together.

But that wasn’t possible. Not here. Not now.

Not with the life she led.

Alf shook herself, straightened her shoulders, and set off back the way she’d come, striding briskly.

St Giles was waking up by the time she stepped back out onto Maiden Lane. Porters and peddlers were making their way to the better parts of town. Those who begged and cajoled and sang for a living shuffled along, an outgoing tide as timeless as the Thames’s. The money was in other parts of London, not here. St Giles was where the poor lived and fucked, bred and died, but it wasn’t where they made their pennies.