London, England 1801
“MOTHER!” Dominic ran into the house pell-mell, skidding to a stop in front of his mother and her guests in the sitting room.
Aureen Monaghan, Lady Sommersby, put down her needlework. Her youngest son had excess energy in spades and long experience had taught her that once worked up like this, anything but calm would only make him worse. She paid no mind to the other ladies who were smirking at her “untameable cub” and focused all of her attention on him. “What is it, Dominic?” she asked evenly.
Miss Miranda Otto, nanny to Dominic and his older brother Matthew, entered the room with much more decorum but just as much urgency on her face. “Pardon the interruption, milady, but there is something, I fear, that requires your immediate attention.”
Dominic looked between his nanny and his mother, nodding repeatedly, before turning and rushing out of the room as fast as he’d come in. Aureen turned to her guests. “If you will excuse me, please.” They waved her away, even as they began trying to guess what was happening.
Dominic was hopping from foot to foot by the servants staircase. “Good Lord, Dominic, what is it?” she asked, her tone still only mildly exasperated.
Dom grabbed his mother’s hand and pulled her toward the stairs. “Down here, Mama, down here!”
Her son’s urgency hurried her faster than was perhaps seemly in a well-bred lady, and Miranda followed close behind on the stairs. At the bottom, they took an immediate left to the servants kitchen. In his haste, Dominic let go of his mother’s hand and pushed through the door.
Aureen turned to Miranda, eyebrows raised in alarm. “Where’s Matthew?”
“Matthew is fine, milady. He’s just in there and never been healthier in his life. It’s…there’s been an accident, though, and…”
“An accident? Involving whom?”
Just then her eldest son Matthew poked his head around the door. “Mother, you must hurry! Mrs. Cranston won’t do anything without your say so and he needs help!”
Aureen entered the kitchen to see a blackened form lying on a pile of dirty cloth on the table, Maggie the scullery maid gently wiping at it with a rag. At first she thought it was an animal but as she came closer, she realized it was a small boy. “My God, has he been burned?” she cried, her hands flying to her mouth.
“No, Lady Sommersby,” Miranda replied evenly. “He is a chimney sweep. ‘Tis only the soot you see, not burns.”
“Oh, milady,” Cranston the housekeeper cried, out of sorts. “Maggie, Miss Otto and your boys brought him here, why I don’t know. He don’t belong here, he belongs at the workhouse with the other ‘weeps!”
“He does NOT,” Dominic yelled. He turned wide, pleading eyes on his mother. “They had him at the workhouse and they just dumped him on the street! We saw them!”
Aureen gasped even as she looked over at Miranda to confirm her son’s claims.
“It’s true, milady,” Miranda answered the silent question. “There were actually two boys but the other was already dead. I—we couldn’t just leave him there.”
“No one deserves that!” Maggie said forcefully from her position next to the child. “He’s just a boy!”
“You’ll not speak unless her Ladyship asks you a question, girl,” Cranston said crossly.
Maggie lowered her eyes, but her face and shoulders were still set.
Aureen looked at her scullery maid and saw her determined stance. The girl didn’t look to be much more than eighteen but it was obvious that she’d not seen the best life had to offer in that time.
“Should we send for some medical aid?” Miranda asked hesitantly.
Aureen sighed. “Will Dr. Michaels see him, do you think?”
Miranda bit her lip. “’Tis not Dr. Michaels I was thinking of, but Bloom.”
“Dr. Bloom?” Aureen shook her head. “I’ve not heard of him.”
“He don’t tend your class,” Maggie muttered as she bent over the boy on the table, gently brushing his arm.
“I—“ Aureen watched the tenderness with which the girl touched the injured child and couldn’t be upset at the impertinence. “Yes, of course, send for him. Go!”
Miranda gently pushed Maggie toward the door and then touched Aureen’s arm. “Leave the child to us, milady. Please do not worry. Maggie shall fetch Bloom and all will be well.”
Aureen looked at Miranda for a long moment. “The boys…”
“Will be fine here with me.”
Aureen nodded, looked once more at the still form on the table, and then, with a fortifying breath, left the room to attend to her guests. Cranston huffed out, furious at being undercut.
Miranda gestured Matthew and Dominic to her side. “We’ll have to finish cleaning him, lads. Orlando will need to be able to see if anything is outwardly wrong.”
Dominic obediently began to run a wet rag over one arm, Matthew taking the other with Miranda carefully rubbing at the small chest. They all jumped at the thin reedy mewl the boy let out as he flailed weakly; his eyes snapping open as he tried to get away.
“Hush, child, no one is trying to hurt you,” Miranda said in a low, calm tone. “Be still now.”
The dull green eyes tried to search out the truth of her words. “Mam?”
“I’m not your mam, love,” Miranda said sadly, running a fingertip down the side of the child’s dirty face. But I am going to help you get better and then maybe we can find her if she’s still alive.
His eyes closed at the gentle touch and soothing tone. He lay back, submitting to their attentions, a fragile body and a seemingly broken spirit encased in soot.
An hour later the boy was as clean as they could get him with a rag wash, and had been wrapped in an old blanket. They’d moved him up to Miranda’s room and Matthew stood guard outside, determined not to let anyone in but the esteemed Bloom. The boy lay still on the bed, eyes closed, head turned away from the door.
“What’s wrong with him?” Dominic whispered loudly.
“He’s waiting, Dominic,” Miranda sighed.
“I don’t know,” she replied, her hand dropping lightly to Dom’s shoulder. “Maybe to see if he’s to be beaten or taken away.”
Dominic broke away from his nanny and rushed to the bed. “Don’t worry, you won’t be beaten here,” he said, patting the other child’s shoulder none too gently.
There was a low hiss as the boy on the bed flinched from the touch.
“Carefully, Dom,” Miranda reminded her exuberant charge.
Dominic’s fingers lifted their pressure immediately and stretched out, brushing lightly over the rough and chapped skin. “It’ll be all right,” he murmured as he gently stroked the shoulder and arm.
A shudder wracked the emaciated body and Dom bit his lip and looked up at Miranda. After a moment’s pause, he began his soothing motion again. It wasn’t impossible to heal wounds of the spirit, Dom knew. It took work and patience but he’d done it with Tuppence, the cat he’d found and rescued from the streets, and he was sure he could do the same for this boy.
When he looked down again, he saw his charge had opened his eyes. He met the world-weary gaze squarely, his fingers tightening minutely on the upper arm. “We’ll take care of you, I promise. You’re safe now.”
As if unable to hold Dom’s earnest gaze, the boy’s eyes slid shut again, but he did not turn his head away and Dom continued on with his careful strokes.
Maggie climbed out of the carriage and raced into the rundown building they’d stopped in front of, up the rickety stairs to the first floor. She turned right at the top of the stairs and banged hard enough on the door to rattle it on its hinges. There was no answer so she thumped again, this time calling out, “Orlando!”
After repeating once more, the door swung open to reveal a tall, almost painfully thin man whose curly hair fell about his head in disarray. He blinked owlishly and ran his hand across his face. “Maggie, what—“
“Your services are needed.”
Orlando’s eyes slid closed. “Mag, can’t we schedule this? I’ve only just got to sleep—“
Maggie laid her hand on his arm. “This isn’t a ‘female issue,’ Orlando,” she said earnestly. “There’s a boy, a chimney sweep, and he’s been injured. No credible doctor would waste time on him and he needs help.”
Bloom winced at the ‘credible doctor’ remark before sighing and scrubbing his hand over his face again. “All right, Mag, all right. Come in while I…” He didn’t finish his sentence, only turned and disappeared back into the room.
Maggie followed, shutting the door and sitting on the corner of his rumpled bed. He was back in front of her a few moments later, pulling his braces over his shoulders and then buttoning up the shirt he’d just put on.
Grabbing his hand, Maggie led him down to the coach. He greeted the driver, whose ribs he’d bound two weeks ago, by name and then they were off for the Monaghan estate.
“Aren’t you even going to attempt to tame those curls, Orlando?” Maggie said to him from across the coach a few minutes into their trip.
“I’m going to tend to a chimney sweep, Mag,” he replied dryly. “Do you think it will matter to him very much?”
“Well I just didn’t think you were going to go to the house of a Peer looking as though you’d just rolled out of bed.”
“I did just roll out of bed.”
“True but you don’t have to look it. Here,” she said, leaning over and reaching up to help with his hair, “let me.”
Bloom gently captured her hands. “Mag, I’ve worked all night and I’ve had less than two hours sleep. I really couldn’t give a hang about the state of my person right now.”
Maggie settled back on her seat and eyed him before sighing. “Miranda will be there.”
Orlando shook his head, a half-smile forming. “You fail utterly at making matches, Margaret Boyd.”
“I haven’t failed, Orlando. I’ve only just begun.”
“God save us,” he muttered, winking as Maggie began to chuckle.
The coach pulled up in front of a series of elegant townhomes. Maggie led Orlando around the back of the end house and down toward the servants kitchen. Cook informed them that “the waif” had been moved to Miss Miranda’s room to make space for the preparation of luncheon. Maggie sighed and headed up the stairs to the third floor. At the head of the stairs, they saw Matthew standing at the door.
“On sentry duty then?” Orlando said, smiling down at the boy.
“Dr. Bloom?” he asked very seriously.
“Just Bloom, Matthew,” he replied. “The boy is in this room?”
Matthew nodded and opened the door.