He studied her, aware she was unabashedly doing the same to him. This was undoubtedly Rebecca St. Claire; there were other gingers in Eastbourne — the Delaney family on Mill Street, for instance — but none of them had a habit of wearing fine pink lace gowns or silk stockings. Although her clothing had undoubtedly been in pristine condition when her maid had dressed her that morning, the dress was dirty now, and her stockings had spots and tears at the knees; El recognised the tell-tale signs of repeated falls. There was dirt streaked across her cheek and forehead, and from the smears on her dress, El guessed she’d tried to rub her dress clean and then had got the dirt on her face. Her hair was an odd colour between red and blonde; it was pretty, El supposed, but he’d never seen hair that particular colour before. Although it had probably been curled and neatly tied back when she’d left home, the curls were straggling and the pink ribbon was untied. Her green eyes were surrounded by long lashes that made her look fragile, but El was used to sizing up people in a glance and recognised that the Lady Rebecca’s fragility was deceptive. She might be frightened — as she certainly was — but she wasn’t a fragile flower of the ton, even at twelve. Her gaze was much too direct, her chin too determined, her shoulders too straight. In fact, El thought, the way her body was squared up to his…if she’d been one of his mates he’d have reckoned she was readying herself for a fight. Interesting. She didn’t look much like Lady St. Claire, from what he’d seen of her through the carriage window; although Lady Rebecca showed the same promise of beauty that her mother fulfilled in maturity, the blonde Lady St. Claire’s beauty was washed-out and lifeless.
“You must be the Lady Rebecca,” El said. “You’ll have the whole of Eastbourne out lookin’ for you by now.”
She drew herself up to all of her small height and held out one hand. “I am Lady Rebecca St. Claire,” she said. “What is your name?”
He ran his tongue along the inside of his teeth and rocked backward on his heels. Don’t get involved, don’t get involved, don’t get involved… “You can call me El,” he said, ignoring his misgivings and gripping her hand in his. The movement clearly startled her. Probably expected me to kiss it, he thought. “This ain’t your neighbourhood,” he said, executing a neat sleight-of-hand and pulling a coin from behind her ear. He deposited it in her hand and asked, “How’d you get separated from your ma?” “How’d you get separated from your ma?”
She hesitated, and then said defiantly, “I ran away.”
“’Scuse me?” El said in disbelief. “What would you go and run away for? Can’t imagine the life on Kensington Hill is such hell you couldn’t wait to get away.”
“How would you know?” she flashed. “You don’t know anything about my life.”
His eyebrows lifted. “You can afford silk stockings. That says somethin’.”
She gave an exasperated sigh that made the corners of El’s mouth quiver at the corners. Hiding a smile, he continued, “Say for a minute your life ain’t so great as we down here in the slums might think. Why the hell would you run away into Eastbourne? You could’ve picked a better spot, love.”
She stamped her foot, her brows knitting together and her mouth drawing into a thin line. “I don’t exactly have lots of opportunities to get out of Kensington. I’m only twelve.”
“You don’t say.”
Glaring at him, she said, “Papa almost never takes me anywhere, and whenever Mamma takes me somewhere it’s always in Kensington, and if I slipped away there someone would recognise me and bring me back. I tried it once. I think I managed about seven minutes before Lady Ormond’s footman spotted me on my own and returned me to Mamma.”
“Clearly you need lessons in stealth,” El said, amused.
“And I’m hardly allowed to take out a carriage by myself, or go riding off the estate, so I can’t ever get away.” She sighed heavily. “So I took advantage of today’s situation. No one would recognise me in Eastbourne, I thought.”
“You forgot there ain’t many twelve-year-old girls wearin’ silk that got your particular colour hair in Eastbourne,” El said gently. “As far as runnin’ away goes, it’s usually helpful to stay inconspicuous, and you ain’t.”
“But I did so well,” she protested. “Mamma and I left home this morning specifically to come to Eastbourne, as Papa is a patron of the Royal Brompton Orphanage and Mamma wished for me to see how the less fortunate live. The Orphanage isn’t very far from here, you know,” she said knowledgeably. Then the facade faded as she added, “At least, I don’t think it is. I’m not quite certain anymore where I am.”
“It’s about fifteen minute’s walk,” El said, sticking his hands in his pockets and fingering a jack. “Can’t say I’m surprised Lord St. Claire’s a patron; Royal Brompton’s got a list of patron’s as wide as the Andalus. Doesn’t mean they do much.”
“But Mamma and I went down this morning,” she said, “and the Matron gave us a tour, and then I purposefully stepped on Mamma’s hem and tore it. And while she and her maid were occupied with fixing it and John — the driver — was flirting with one of girls employed by the Orphanage, I ran away. And nobody noticed. And I ran and ran, and then I fell down, and then there were some exceedingly disagreeable boys who whistled and chased me, but I kept running and hid under a blanket and lost them, and I have been walking since.”
A nasty feeling settled in El’s stomach as he considered the number of unpleasant things that could have befallen the girl between the time she left her mother that morning and the time she ran into him. Eastbourne was full of amiable, if rough-edged, individuals, but it was equally full of troublesome and distinctly unpleasant people as well.
He hesitated, and then said, “Look, Becks, it ain’t none of my business, but Eastbourne ain’t safe for a girl like you. You’re lucky you ain’t run into trouble yet. You’d be best to get home as soon as you can.”
“I won’t,” she said. “I refuse.”
“Well, I ain’t going to be responsible for you,” El said, determined to wash his hands clean of the girl. He absently turned the ring on his finger as he looked down at Rebecca’s wide eyes.
“You don’t have to be,” she said staunchly. “I can take care of myself just fine, thank you very much. I have not asked for your help, Mr. — El.” She swallowed, and then lifted her chin and said, “I shall take my leave of you now, if you please, and go in — that direction.” She pointed at random.
El laughed. “That road dead-ends in the river. You won’t get far.” Seeing her cross face, he said, knowing he’d regret asking, “Why don’t you tell me why you’re so damn determined to run to run away?”
She chewed on her lip and looked away. “You won’t understand.”
“Probably not,” he agreed cheerfully, “but you might as well tell me anyway. Don’t seem like you’ve got anyone else to talk to.”
She teetered back and forth for a moment, and finally burst out, “My parents are going to marry me to my cousin Richard.” Her eyes flew open wide and she clapped a hand over her mouth in shock.