Duke of Pleasure(4)

By: Elizabeth Hoyt

And she’d imagined herself a bird as a child on the rooftops, free and flying.

Sometimes, even as a world-weary woman of one and twenty, she still did.

If she were a bird, the roofs were her home, her place, where she felt the safest.

Down below was the dark woods, and she knew all about the woods from the fairy tales that her friend Ned had told her when she’d been a wee thing. In the fairy-tale dark woods were witches and ghouls and trolls, all ready to eat you up.

In the woods of St Giles the monsters were far, far worse.

Tonight she’d fought monsters.

She flew over the roofs of St Giles. Her booted feet were swift and sure on the shingles, and the moon was a big guiding lantern above, lighting the way for her patrol as the Ghost of St Giles. She’d been following the Scarlet Throat gang—a nasty bunch of footpads who’d do anything up to and including murder for the right price—and wondering why they were out in such force, when she’d realized they were chasing Kyle.

In her daytime guise as Alf, she had a bad history with the Scarlet Throats. Most recently they’d taken a dislike to her because she refused to either join them or pay them to be “protected.” On the whole they left her alone—she stayed out of their way and they pretended not to notice her. But she shuddered to think what they would do if they ever found out her true sex.

Letting a lone boy defy them was one thing. Letting a woman do the same?

There were rumors of girls ending up in the river for less.

But when she’d seen the Scarlet Throats chasing Kyle like a pack of feral dogs, she’d not thought twice about helping him. He’d been running for his life and fighting as he went, never giving up, though he’d been far outnumbered from the start.

The man was stubborn, if nothing else.

And afterward, when their enemies lay at their feet, groaning and beaten, and her heart was thumping so hard with the sheer joy of victory and being alive, it’d seemed natural to pull his pretty, pretty lips down to hers and kiss him.

She’d never kissed a man before.

Oh, there’d been some who’d tried to kiss her—tried and succeeded—especially when she’d been younger and smaller and not so fast, nor so swift with a kick to the soft bits of a man. Despite that no one had gotten much beyond a mash of foul tongue in her mouth. She’d been good at running even when little.

No one had touched her in years. She’d made sure of it.

But the kiss with Kyle hadn’t been like that—she’d kissed him.

She leaped from one roof to another, landing silently on her toes. Kyle’s lips had been firm, and he’d tasted sharp, like wine. She’d felt the muscles in his neck and chest and arms get hard and tight as he’d made ready to grab her.

She’d hadn’t been afraid, though.

She grinned at the moon and the rooftops and the molls walking home in the lane far below.

Kissing Kyle had made her feel wild and free.

Like flying over the roofs of St Giles.

She ran and leaped again, landing this time on a rickety old half-timbered tenement. It was all but fallen down, the top story overhanging the courtyard like an ancient crone bent under a big bundle of used clothes. She thrust her legs over the edge of the roof, slipped her feet blind onto one of the timbers on the face of the building, and climbed down into the attic window.

If St Giles was the dark wood, this was her secret hidey-hole nest: half the attic of this building. The sole door to the room was nailed firmly shut, the only way in by the window.

She was safe here.

No one but she could get in or out.

Alf sighed and stretched her arms over her head before taking off her hat and mask. Muscles she hadn’t even realized were tensed began to loosen now that she was home.

Home and safe.