Faint, muffled shouts of alarm brought Louisa to her feet. She went to the door of the cell and gripped the iron bars. Boots sounded on the stone stairs.
Quinby, wearing his overcoat, came out of the darkness of the stairwell. In the flaring lantern light she could see that his features were set in grim, determined lines.
He had a large, old-fashioned iron key ring in one hand. In his other hand he gripped a revolver.
“What is it?” she asked. “What’s happening?”
“A fire has broken out somewhere upstairs. We can’t risk having the fire brigade find your body here. There would be too many questions. You’re coming with me. You’re going into the river now instead of later.”
He shoved the key into the lock of the cell and twisted. The ancient door opened reluctantly, grating and grinding on its hinges.
A glimmer of anticipation sparked to life within Louisa. A fire meant chaos and confusion. Perhaps she would have an opportunity to attract attention or even escape.
The door swung open. Quinby shoved the gun into the pocket of his coat and reached into the cell. His hand closed around Louisa’s upper arm.
“Hurry,” he ordered, yanking her arm. “There is no time to waste.”
“I trust you do not expect me to run in this gown,” she said. “It is quite impossible. Everyone knows that if you force a woman to move too quickly, her legs become tangled in her skirts.”
“If you go down I will drag you,” he vowed. “The choice is yours. Do not even think of screaming. No one will hear you.”
So much for her puny threat. The only thing she could do was go with him and wait for an opportunity. She reached down, caught fistfuls of her skirts in both hands and lifted them up to her knees.
Quinby’s hand tightened painfully around her arm. He jerked her forward. Her spirits plummeted when she realized he intended to take her out through the door in the wall of the outer chamber, not up the staircase. Her intuition told her that was probably not a good thing.
Quinby yanked her across the outer chamber and shoved one of the iron keys into the old lock that secured the door. The door opened slowly, revealing a stone tunnel. Louisa heard small, skittering sounds. Rats, she thought. A stomach-churning stench wafted out of the darkness.
“Surely you do not intend to go in there without the lantern,” she said.
Quinby paused, torn. He uttered a foul oath and tossed the heavy key ring down onto the floor. Maintaining his grip on Louisa’s arm, he went back to the table to collect the lantern. He was reaching for it when Anthony’s voice rang out from the stairwell.
“Release her, Quinby.”
Quinby reacted immediately. He wrapped an arm around Louisa’s throat and simultaneously whirled to confront Anthony.
Louisa’s back was pressed tightly against Quinby’s chest. He was using her as a human shield. She realized that he had taken out his revolver. The barrel of the gun was not pointed at Anthony. It was aimed at her temple.
She looked at Anthony. He stood at the entrance of the stairwell garbed in heavy boots and rough clothing. He, too, held a gun.
“Stay back,” Quinby gritted, “or I’ll put a bullet through her head. I swear, I will.”
“Let her go, Quinby, and I will not stop you from leaving through that tunnel,” Anthony said quietly.
“She comes with me,” Quinby said. “Drop the gun now or she’s a dead woman.”
“You don’t need her,” Anthony said, moving toward the wooden table. “Whatever you were involved in here is finished. You’re free to go.”
“Stop right there,” Quinby’s voice vibrated with an unstable-sounding fury, “or I’ll splatter her brains against that wall.”
“Very well.” Anthony stopped beside the table.
“Drop the gun on the floor and kick it away from you,” Quinby ordered.
“She’ll only slow you down,” Anthony said gently, “and you need to run for your life, because Clement Corvus knows that you have been serving two masters lately. He is not pleased.”
“Damn you, Stalbridge.” Quinby’s face darkened with rage. “I am my own master.”
“Unfortunately for you, Corvus doesn’t view it quite that way,” Anthony said, “and I doubt that Madam Phoenix does, either. They both see you as a servant, Quinby. Nothing more.”
“I’m not anyone’s damned servant,” Quinby shot back. “My father was a gentleman, you son of a bitch. I may have been born in the gutter, but my bloodlines are better than Clement Corvus’s and every bit as good as yours. Just because my father never saw fit to marry my mother doesn’t change a damn thing.”
“How long have you been Madam Phoenix’s lover?”
“Long enough,” Quinby said, triumphant. “She’s going to marry me.”
“Why the devil would you want to marry a whorehouse madam?” Anthony asked, sounding only mildly curious.
“Madam Phoenix is Victoria Hastings,” Louisa said.
Anthony raised his brows. “I see.”
Quinby smiled coldly. “I’m marrying up, Stalbridge. I know Society will never accept me, but it will accept my children and grandchildren.”
“I wouldn’t count on Victoria Hastings keeping her promise, if I were you,” Louisa cautioned him, “and she certainly doesn’t strike me as the maternal type.”
Quinby smirked. “She loves me. She needs me. She’ll marry me.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” Anthony asked. “If so, then you’re a fool.”
“They say a gentleman bleeds just as easily as a bastard,” Quinby pointed the gun at Anthony. “Let’s see if that’s true.”
Louisa heard the frightening rasp of metal on metal. Quinby had cocked the revolver. He must have realized that Anthony would never fire as long as she was in the way.
Horror crackled through her. It was all happening too fast. She did the only thing she could think of. She lurched backward.
Quinby had been concentrating all of his attention on Anthony. The sudden shift in weight caught him off guard. Reflexively he tightened his grip on Louisa’s throat, choking her. At the same time he took a couple of quick steps, struggling to keep his balance and readjust his aim, but Louisa’s weight, combined with the voluminous skirts of her gown proved too much. Quinby went down, dragging Louisa with him. Pain smashed through her when her shoulder struck the unyielding stone.
The revolver roared, deafening her. She dimly heard the ring of a bullet on stone.
Anthony moved in swiftly. He lashed out with one booted foot, kicking the gun out of Quinby’s hand. The weapon skidded across the floor.
Quinby grunted and released Louisa to seize Anthony’s ankle with both hands. He twisted violently. Anthony went down, sprawling on top of Quinby.
Louisa rolled out of the way. She heard dull, sickening thuds as fists smashed into flesh.
She lurched to her feet and started toward the nearest gun. More footsteps echoed from inside the stone stairwell. She realized she was unlikely to reach the gun in time. Even if she somehow managed to get to it she was not at all sure how to fire it.
She altered course, scooped up the iron key ring that Quinby had dropped on the floor, and dashed toward the stairwell. She pressed her back flat against the stone wall on one side.
The skirts of a black gown and the toe of a fashionable black kid boot appeared at the opening of the stairwell. Victoria paused at the foot of the steps and looked at the two men locked in mortal combat. A small derringer glinted in her black gloved hand.
She took in what was happening immediately and just as quickly dismissed Anthony and Quinby. She turned toward the half-open cell door.
“Come out, Mrs. Bryce. The house is on fire. We must leave at once.” She cocked the derringer and aimed it at the entrance of the cell. “Did you hear me? Come out at once. Surely you do not wish to roast to death down here.”
When there was no response from the interior of the cell, Victoria moved out of the stairwell and started forward.
Louisa came away from the wall in a desperate rush, swinging the heavy key ring with all of her strength.
At the last instant Victoria sensed movement behind her and started to turn, but it was too late. The iron ring struck her head just above her right ear. She fell to one knee, shrieking in pain. Blood flowed down the side of her head, but she did not collapse. Her eyes wild with rage, she started to turn the barrel of the derringer toward Louisa.
Unable to think of anything else to do, Louisa struck her a second time. Victoria sprawled on the stone floor. This time she did not move.
Just like Lord Gavin.
Louisa whirled around. Both men were still fighting furiously. As she watched, Quinby produced a knife. She ran toward the pair, but Anthony, evidently aware of the new danger, broke free and rolled away from Quinby.
Quinby got to his feet and charged, blade raised to strike. Anthony’s hand closed around the grip of one of the revolvers. He aimed, cocked the gun, and fired. Quinby jerked violently, spinning backward. He came up hard against the wall. The knife fell to the floor.
“Bastard,” Quinby stared at Anthony, raw hatred etched in every line of his face. “You ruined everything. Everything.”
He gripped his injured shoulder with his other hand, swung around, and stumbled away into the darkness of the tunnel.
The room went very quiet. Louisa went to Anthony.
“Are you all right?” Anthony asked. The heat of battle still burned in his eyes.
“Yes,” she whispered. “You?”
“Yes.” He got to his feet and looked at Victoria.
Louisa followed his gaze. Blood matted Victoria’s blond hair and pooled on the stone. Again the image of Lord Gavin, bloodied and dead, rose up before her, roiling her stomach. She gasped for breath. She could not be sick, she told herself. Not yet.
“Is she dead?” she managed.
“I don’t know.”
Anthony crossed the room and crouched beside Victoria.
“She’s alive,” he announced. “You didn’t kill her.”
Louisa’s stomach calmed miraculously. She breathed deeply. “What about Quinby?”
“He’s Clement Corvus’s problem now.”
Anthony tore a strip of fabric off one of Victoria’s petticoats and used it to secure her wrists. He repeated the procedure with her ankles.
Yet another set of footsteps echoed on the stairs, heavy boots this time. Louisa flinched and whirled around to face the opening. Anthony raised the nose of the revolver.
Marcus Stalbridge appeared. He smiled broadly when he saw Louisa. “Ah, I see you found her. Shall we be off, then? The police and the fire brigade will be along soon. It would be best if no one noticed our Mrs. Bryce emerging from a brothel.” He winked at Louisa. “Not that we couldn’t handle the problem if it arose, of course.”
“My cloak,” Louisa said. “It’s in the cell.”
Anthony disappeared into the small chamber. When he emerged he had her cloak in his hand. He secured it around her shoulders, covering her from throat to toe. He adjusted the hood so that it concealed her features.
“Come along, love,” he said gently. “It’s past time to leave this place. I think there has been enough excitement around here, even for an intrepid journalist such as you.”
Love? A figure of speech, she told herself, hurrying up the stairs behind Marcus. There was no time to dwell on the tiny endearment.
When they emerged into an empty hall, Louisa saw a strangely odorless thick white smoke drifting eerily through the air.
“I don’t see any flames,” she said.
“That’s because there aren’t any,” Marcus chuckled. “The managers of the Olympia Theater don’t want real smoke, you see, so I had to go about things somewhat differently.”
“I don’t understand,” Louisa said.
“I’ll explain later.”
“Take her to the carriage,” Anthony said. “I want to look around Madam Phoenix’s private rooms before the authorities arrive.”
He paused long enough to kiss Louisa hard on the mouth. Before she could question him he disappeared up a staircase.
“Come along, my dear,” Marcus said.
He ushered her out through the tradesmen’s entrance into a night filled with chaos and shouts. None of the people standing around outside in the alley paid them any heed.
A few minutes later Marcus guided her into a nearby lane. A closed carriage stood waiting. The door of the vehicle flew open. A woman garbed in a cloak leaned out.
“Hurry,” Clarice said, her voice bright with excitement. “We must get you away from here, Mrs. Bryce. We do not want to take the chance of you being seen by a member of the press. You know how those correspondents are when it comes to a story of sensation and scandal involving those who move in Society.”
Stunned, Louisa got into the vehicle. When she sat down she realized that Clarice was not alone. Georgiana Stalbridge sat on the seat across from her. She, too, was draped head to foot in a concealing cloak.
“Thank goodness you are safe,” Georgiana said. “We have been so worried about you. Are you hurt in any way, dear?”
“No,” Louisa managed. “I’m fine. Truly.”
“That is a relief,” Georgiana said. She looked at Marcus as he climbed into the cab. “Where is Anthony?”
“Stayed behind to have a look around before the police arrive,” Marcus said. “We’ll meet up with him at home.”
The carriage rumbled forward.
Louisa looked at Clarice, Georgiana, and Marcus in turn. In the dark confines of the unlit carriage it was difficult to see the expressions on their faces.
“I don’t understand,” she said to Georgiana. “Why are you and Clarice here? I know Anthony must have felt an obligation to rescue me, and it was very kind of Mr. Stalbridge to assist him, but surely there was no need for you and Clarice to take the risk of being seen this close to Phoenix House.”
Georgiana reached out and patted her hand. “Clarice and I refused to remain at home while Anthony’s future wife was in peril. In this family we stand together.”
Anthony’s future wife. Appalled, Louisa stared at her. “I fear there has been some terrible misunderstanding.”
“I’m sure that’s not the case,” Clarice said, relentlessly cheerful. “Now, we will go straight home and relax with a glass of brandy while we wait for Anthony.”