I reached the hotel swiftly enough, checking many times to ensure that Blake had not followed me while I fled. How he had happened upon that spot I did not know, but his obvious curiosity in me was dangerous. Though my feminine self could not deny that his interest sparked a response of my own, I could not entertain such thoughts. I had to reach my room and return to my guise as Alexander before my employer returned. But when I entered the foyer, I was met with a few suspicious gazes from the staff, the bellboy who had carried our bags upstairs giving me a once-over with heavy curiosity. Returning to my rooms would not be so simple; already, I could see the manager making his way over to speak with me.
Panicking, I spotted the maid who had previously propositioned Alexander Elton, and strode toward her. "Excuse me," I said breathlessly, relieved to see, from the corner of my eye, that the manager had been delayed by another guest. The girl turned to me with a question on her lips. "Can you help me?" I asked, hoping that she would.
She looked me over once and took a small step back. "The manager does not tolerate prostitutes" she whispered the last word with some embarrassment. "You had best find your way out of the hotel before he throws you out."
I looked down at myself and saw that my dress was falling open to reveal much more than was appropriate. Flabbergasted, I covered myself with my scarf. "Oh, oh! No," I said emphatically. "I'm not a prostitute. I... I need to get to m- Alexander Elton's room."
Disappointment flooded the girl's gaze. "I see."
"I'm afraid you don't, but time is pressing and... is there somewhere we can speak privately?" I knew what was going through her head. She assumed I was the reason that Alexander had refused her. And, in theory, she was correct. I was the reason he had rejected her; because he was me, and I was quite firmly interested in the opposite sex.
"Please," I put my hand on her arm. "I can tell you everything you want to know about Alexander. But I need your help."
She glanced behind me, and I followed her gaze to where the manager was waving off patrons to continue his pursuit of me. With a careful look at my face, she sighed, nodded, and called out, "Not to worry, sir, she will not come again.I shall escort her through the back." She took my hand and led me toward a back stairwell that I assumed all of the staff used to move from floor to floor. I had not seen any staff on the main stairs in my short time at the hotel.
But she went no further than the base of the stairwell. We were protected from view by the closed door, and she turned to me with a raised brow and expectant eyes. "Well?"
I wracked my brain for the simplest thing to tell her, and found myself unable to conjure a single lie to explain who I was, why I knew Alexander, and why I needed to get to his room. "I am going to tell you something, but I beg of you... please do not tell Lord Edward Blake. If he discovers what I'm about to tell you... it will be the end of me."
The girl's eyes narrowed, but more with confusion than refusal. "But Lord Blake is one of the most jovial patrons we know."
I ignored her. "Do you promise? To keep my secret?"
With a shrug, she nodded. "As long as you do not intend to harm him or Alexander, I see no reason not to."
Taking a deep, calming breath, aware of my limited time, I told her the truth. "I am Alexander Elton. Or at least, that's what I have led everyone to believe."
Shock and disbelief fell over the girl's face, and she stared at me for a few tense moments. Her eyes studied my face closely, taking in my height, my long hair, my features. I could see that she recognized some of Alexander in me by the way a light came into her gaze. "So this is why..."
"This is why he rejected you,"I finished for her. "As lovely as you are, I am... not inclined that way."
She laughed. "Nor I yours. But why... how... what are you doing parading as a rich man's valet when anyone could clearly see that as a woman you could have this same life in the lap of luxury... and Lord Blake?" With a conspiratorial tone, she leaned in. "Forgive me for being so bold, but he is a man I would not refuse should he call me to his room."
I swallowed a choke of laughter and replied, "it's a long story." Though we were behind the door, I could still hear the voices of those up late enough to be moving through the hotel, and a familiar voice boomed through the foyer and into my ears. He was back. "Right now, I must return to my room before he sees me."
Though she had promised to keep my secret, the girl hesitated.
I held out my hand. "Take me, and I will tell you everything. But come quickly, for I can hear him speaking to the manager and he will soon be on his way to his rooms... and possibly to ensure that I am well. That Alexander is secure in my... his... the rooms."
Glancing at my hand, then my face, then the door beside us, the girl nodded. She took my hand and hurried up the stairwell and through a short series of doors and hallways that allowed the staff of the hotel to move about without being seen. Pausing at a door, she motioned for me to wait, and poked her head out. Then, furtively, she pulled me along with her into the corridor, down a few doors, and to my rooms. I produced the key, which I was relieved to find still in my recovered purse, and felt a tremor go through me at the sound of feet coming up the stairs.
Unlocking a door had never taken so long. Behind me, the maid whispered, "I think it's him."
A loud click announced the door was ready to open, and open it did. With a bang. I rushed through the opening, pulling the maid after me, and shut it as quickly and as quietly as I could. Leaning my back against the door I asked her, "did he see us?"
She shook her head. "He saw me, but I don't think he saw you."
I closed my eyes, waiting tensely as footsteps paused outside my door. Would he knock? Would he barge in and discover me? Would I be ruined?
But the footsteps continued on, and the soft bump of a door closing assured me that he had gone to his own rooms. If my hearing was any indication, it was most definitely Blake as the door in question had sounded quite close to my own. My heart raced with the possibilities of what might have happened should he have seen me. What might still happen. Perhaps he had seen me, and he was now considering how he could best be rid of me.
The sound of a throat clearing brought me back to the matter at hand. The maid stood before me, waiting for explanation. But her expression was now worried as she studied my face, and neck, where no doubt the marks of my assailant now lay. I crossed the floor to the mirror, shedding my scarf and pulling my hair away from my face. As I suspected, a red mark was on my cheek, and my neck was beginning to bruise.
I clenched my jaw and turned to her. Before she could ask, I offered, "I was assaulted."
"Not by..." she trailed off, jutting her chin in the direction of Blake's rooms.
"No," I said firmly. "No, he... he saved my life, though I am fairly certain he never saw my face completely. I hope, at least." I crossed the room and sat on the bed, finally feeling the full effects of my few hours of freedom. My few hours as Isobel Erstwilder. They had been far more dangerous hours than I had imagined.
The maid followed me, and knelt. "Can I help you undress? Are you wounded elsewhere?"
I shook my head. "Only the neck. Well, and my shoulder. And my abdomen. But... only by fists. I'll... I'll be fine."
The expression on her face was akin to awe an horror all at once. "Who are you?"
She looked at me so openly and without judgement that I told her everything. I told her of my family, their wishes for me to marry into money, my distaste for society and the expectations put on me solely because of my sex. I told her of the interview, my shoddy disguise that had been precarious that first day but was only growing stronger the longer I masqueraded as Alexander. I showed her how I had learned to braid my hair, so tightly that it could be wound around my head and pinned in place with very little effort. As she watched, I transformed myself back into Alexander Elton, and I told her of the three short weeks of freedom I had experienced.
And I told her of that night, the irresponsible decision to venture out as a woman on my own, the assailant who had been after my purse, and Lord Blake's timely entrance. I ran the night over in my mind, picking apart his every move and reaction. From what I could tell, he was seemingly unaware that I and Alexander were one and the same. Only time would reveal the truth, I supposed. When I was done, the girl, whose name I discovered was Hema, stared at me with complete admiration.
"Never have I met a woman so brave as you. To take control of your own future! To leave everything and become a man!"
I shrugged and shook my head, removing my wig and slowly letting down my hair. The day was hitting me hard, and I was tired. "I am not brave. Only desperate."
Hema smiled. "You are brave. And, I can see, in need of a long rest." Standing, the girl made her way to the door. There, she paused. "I will not tell your secrets, Alexander Elton. And I shall help you in any way I can." With a small curtsy, she let herself out of the room and closed the door quietly behind her.
I stared at the door. I did not consider myself brave. I was merely a woman fighting desperately to make my own way in a world I did not yet fully understand. As I undressed, I sent up a furtive prayer that Blake would not recognize me and realize I and the woman in the alleyway were the same. I felt small regret that I had accused him of being a man who would stoop so low as to assault me, yet I had needed that time to return undiscovered to my rooms. And there was very little, I knew, that would deter Edward Blake from doing what he wanted to do.
The last thought on my mind before sleep overtook me was the way he had watched me walk away. There had been something in his eyes that brought a flush to my cheeks and a tightening to my belly. A look I understood well. A look I had received many times from many men, but a look that was never from whom I desired. Until now.
I wanted nothing more than to pursue that look. To illicit that response again. To feel wanted and protected, to know that I was attractive in the eyes of a man I greatly admired.
And if I valued my future and my life, that was the last thing I could ever do.
When the morning came, I found myself reluctant to rise from my bed for many reasons. My body ached in ways I had never felt before, and my eyes felt gritty and swollen. But more than the pains of my body was the fear that Blake now knew who I was, and would be waiting to confront me when I left this seemingly safe haven of a room. I had slept poorly, plagued by odd dreams and worried thoughts, unable to quite get comfortable, tossing and turning on the mattress until the sky began to lighten and I knew I must rise and face the day.
Swinging my feet over the edge of the bed, I sat up and gingerly moved my right shoulder; how was I going to hide this pain from my employer? I rose, walking over to the mirror to inspect the damage. The bruise on my neck, I could hide with a cravat; the handprint on my face had faded as I slept. And Blake would have no other reason to see the purple splotches that spread across my shoulder and the blue decorating my ribs. However, I would have to work hard to mask the stiffness of my arm and the pain in my abdomen.
A loud knock on my door startled me, and I whirled, pulling a shirt over my head as I turned. "Who is there?" I called out, thankfully remembering to lower my voice to Alexander's youthful tone.
"I have set an appointment with the tailor in one hour's time; I expect to see you at breakfast in no less than ten minutes." Lord Blake's familiar deep voice informed me of our agenda with no other introduction of who he was, and I let out my breath.
I had forgotten about the tailor. "Yes, sir," I replied, and reached for my trousers. How was I going to masquerade as a boy while being measured in detail by a tailor? I had been to a dressmaker many times, and recalled the unceremonious divestment of all clothing in order to gain the most precise measurements. Was it the same with men? I dreaded finding out.
Braiding my hair tightly, I could feel that my shoulder resisted movement. With each reach of my arm upward to pin my hair to my head, it shot through with soreness so sharp that at one point I had to bite my lip to keep myself from crying out. The man who had attacked me had known exactly where to strike to inflict the most damage, and this was a bruise that affected the deepest part of my joints and stretched down my arm with every move.
Once my hair was hidden, donning the rest of Alexander's clothing was swift. I knew I had taken more than ten minutes to ready myself, but paranoia kept me checking to ensure that my neck was covered and no evidence of the night before could be seen. I still feared that Blake was merely biding his time, waiting for me to face him before he ripped my facade to pieces with the evidence he very well could have acquired the night before.
I traversed the hallways swiftly, heart racing as I neared the dining area. I could see the dark head of my employer, standing taller than the manager to whom he spoke, shoulders straight but relaxed in his customary black suit. As his back was turned, I took a moment to calm myself. For all I knew, he had only a vague sense of what I really looked like, and in the darkness of the night there was very little possibility that he had seen enough of my face to identify me. I was Alexander Elton, a young boy in search of adventure, loyal to his employer, who had been in his room the entire night sleeping. I had nothing to explain, nothing to fear, and nothing to hide.
Stepping into the dining area, I nodded to a few staff members and felt a chill go down my spine when the keen attention of Blake turned my way. He finished his conversation with the manager and gestured to a table nearby, indicating that I was to sit with him. Was his gaze suspicious? Did my imagination play tricks or was he glaring at me with unusual intensity? He did not look as jovial this morning as he had the day before, and my heart began to race again.
"Good morning, sir," I decided to break the silence immediately. If he had accusations, it was better to get them out now and cease this wondering.
"Elton," he said, unfolding his napkin and placing it neatly in his lap. "I trust your night was uneventful?"
I shrugged, resisting the urge to baby my shoulder. "Truth be told, sir, I did not sleep quite so well as I had hoped, but one never does in a new environment." Perhaps if I avoided outright lies about where I had been and what I had done last night, I could avoid discovery. After all, the truth was the easiest thing to keep track of. And I hadn't slept well at all.
Blake studied me, and I was sure now that the intensity was not imagined. "You were not occupied last evening, then? Perhaps a late night rendezvous to the market?"
My heart skipped a beat. He knew. "Did you not once say that my private life was my own, sir?" I said carefully, holding on to hope that perhaps he was speaking of something else.
Leaning back in his chair, Blake speared me with a dark look and sipped his coffee. "Certainly. But there are personal things that even I cannot let go unnoticed, for they may very well affect the lives of those beyond yourself."
Surely he could hear how hard my heart beat from across the table. I willed the heated blush of discovery away and clutched my own coffee in one hand, using every iota of calm I had left to keep my hand from shaking. Should I give myself up now, and quietly take my leave back home to face the inevitable ruination of my reputation? Or should I force him to come out with it himself? Every cell in my brain screamed at me to fight for myself. In three short weeks I had gone from a girl whose life was not her own, trapped in a small bubble of society and never to be set free, to a boy who had traveled to places that girl would never have seen, taking charge of a life that otherwise would be bartered and traded to the richest male in the vicinity.
If I had the will to change my future so much in three weeks, I had the will to do whatever I wanted, as whomever I wished.
All of these thoughts ran through my head in a few short seconds, and I put down my coffee. "I apologize, Lord Blake, if I seem different to you now than I was when our journey first began. But I can assure you I have not changed."
He raised an eyebrow. "No?"
"No," I said firmly. "My abilities and loyalties are the same as ever they were. There is nothing I would do that would endanger your life or the lives of your crew, sir. This position is of the utmost importance to me. To my life, and my future, and nothing can come before that."
Clearing his throat, he nodded, and a small smirk graced his lips. "Ah, but infatuation is the most dangerous weapon of all."
"In- infatuation, sir?" Surely I had treated him rudely enough the night before that he did not sense my growing attraction to him. I had used harsh words; words that would incite many a man to fight, words that would ensure he did not follow me. And yet, here he sat, gazing at me with a knowing look in his eye and an amused smile on his lips.
"Yes, Elton. Infatuation." Calmly, he greeted a waiter who brought us our breakfast and left as quietly as he had come. Cutting into his omelette, he continued, "Infatuation leads to vulnerability, which leads to weakness and manipulation." He looked up at me. "And that, in turn, can lead to lies. There are many things I will tolerate from those in my employ, Elton, but a liar is the lowest of low. A man who lies is a man I cannot trust."
I slowly speared a sausage with my fork, and felt my heart begin to sink. I was not sure where infatuation came into place above my duplicity, but I was convinced he knew my true nature. Weakly, I uttered, "yes, sir."
There was a long and uncomfortable moment of silence while he ate his breakfast heartily, and I halfheartedly attempted to follow suit. He had not yet outright dismissed me, nor condemned me for the lie of covering up my true sex. But I knew it was coming. He would finish his meal, stand, and demand I take leave. He would put me back on a boat to England, where I would have to fight my way to retain this life of freedom, or give in to the pressure of society. He would scald me with his disdain and humiliate me for having the audacity to even entertain the idea of an attraction. And I knew there was nothing I could say to save myself.
But instead of any of this, he merely glanced up at me and shrugged. "The maid is pretty, Elton, but I do not deem it wise to continue... whatever it might have been that called her to your room late in the night."
"The maid?" I said dumbly. I had been so sure he would banish me that I did not expect this new direction of our conversation.
He nodded. "Of course, while I cannot forbid you from seeing her again, I feel it is my right as your employer to warn you the dangers of a foreign affair. You are young, Elton, and perhaps a bit sheltered from the more dangerous possibilities of a midnight liaison."
My mouth hung open as I processed what he was saying. Last night, he had seen the maid enter my room and I had assumed he would have also seen me in my female form. Yet, he believed me to be entertaining her as a lover. Heat rushed to my cheeks as relief flooded my frame. He did not know just how wrong he was, and I was suddenly released from all tension. It was all I could do not to laugh then and there at the suggestion that I was inviting Hema into my bed.
Sitting up straighter, I shook my head vehemently. "Sir, I can assure you there is nothing between the girl and myself."
His brow crooked. "Perhaps not in your mind, but women always expect more than one plans on giving."
"I have made no promises to her, nor will I to anyone. I can assure you without a doubt that she expects nothing of me." I felt my appetite return and I began to eat heartily. "That, I vow, sir."
Blake studied me intently and, seeming to find what he was looking for, nodded. "Very well, Elton." He glanced at his pocket watch. "Now, eat quickly for we have a tailor's appointment to keep."
And with those few words, he plunged me back into the word of trepidation. I was not yet away from the danger of discovery; one slip up at the tailor's could bring this entire facade crashing down.
The tailor was a short, dark man given to muttering under his breath in his native language. He seemed to know Blake well, and I began to wonder just how it was that everyone in this land seemed to be so familiar with my employer. The rumors in England could not all be true, but it was widely reported that Blake was abroad just as much as he was home. As such an elusive and worldly gentleman, and especially as a man of large fortune, he was a highly sought after guest at any dinner party, ball, or afternoon soiree. I could remember many a night spent listening to the titillating speculation over the life of Edward Blake, Lord of Pendleton Hall and Most Eligible Bachelor of Somerset.
Now that I lived alongside him, I could see the allure. As he instructed the tailor briefly on what was expected, I tried not to let myself study him for too long. Though his earlier words assured me that he most definitely assumed me to be exactly who I presented myself as, I felt intensely desperate to keep myself from doing even the smallest thing to give myself away. Even so, I knew that these next few hours could be to my detriment. If the tailor asked me to divest myself of all clothing, I would be ruined.
To my relief, I was led to a private fitting room and only required to remove my vest and suitcoat. The tailor measured me swiftly, adeptly, barking each number to his assistance and finishing with such speed that we had been there no more than thirty minutes before he informed Lord Blake that he had what he needed, and my first suit would be ready within two days. This, of course, threw a slight wrench into Blake's plans to have me appear as his business associate, and he subtly offered the man a higher sum in order to finish the suit with almost inhuman speed. The tailor did not refuse.
And then, I found myself hurrying after my employer, the tailor done with me and Lord Blake summoning me to his side. We did not return to the hotel as I had expected, but set off toward the waterfront. I glanced at Blake, whose long strides kept him a half step ahead of me. He did not seem inclined to reveal our destination, but as it turned out, he had no need for we arrived quite soon to a large warehouse. I learned that this was one of the many depositories Blake owned to store a plethora of goods. Fabrics, jewelry, pottery, dishes, household goods of all sort, clothing, and more filled his warehouses to the brim. He was, I discovered, a very successful and very detailed businessman who dealt in goods of all sort that brought him triple profit in England.
For several hours, we methodically toured five of the six warehouses that Blake told me he owned, taking stock of the contents, speaking to the overseer of each warehouse, calculating the expected profit, and generally seeing to it that all of Lord Blake's assets were in order. I was given a brief but thorough history at each stop. Fabrics, shipped to the best dressmakers in England. Millinery supplies, to the hatters. Spices to restaurants and markets, jewelry and loose stones to the jewelers, and so on and so forth. Blake was a man with a hand in many businesses in England, I was learning.
But there was one warehouse that I was refused entry to, and ordered to wait outside. Though I did so as willingly as Alexander Elton should, being a loyal and obedient right-hand man to my employer, I could not help but wonder: what was different about this place? Like every other warehouse we visited in that day, it sat unassumingly on the docks, and I caught sight of boxes waiting to be carted to Blake's ships for transportation. Nothing indicated that it was any different from the other buildings.
Yet, Blake emerged from this warehouse in a dark mood. A thin, tall man followed him, apologizing profusely. "Milord, we could do nothing!" the man insisted, his round glasses perched precariously on a beak-like nose. He was a balding man, but kept his stringy dark hair in a long ponytail, combed futilely over his balding spots in an effort to disguise his hair loss.
Blake glanced at me with annoyance, and I pretended not to hear as he turned and hissed at the man in a low voice. "Half of it, gone. Do you have any idea how much money this has cost me? How much money it will take to regain what we have lost? And you've done nothing to rectify the situation."
The thin man's face crumpled pathetically, and he folded his hands together in a pleading motion. "Sir, please... I have done all I can to discover the perpetrator. But I can only do so much, sir."
"You can only do so much?" Blake scoffed. "You can only lose half my profit for the year and do nothing but sit in your plush home that is paid for entirely with money I pay you, neglecting your job until I travel half the world to pursue the issue myself."
An ashamed blush flooded the man's face, and his unusually pale skin became blotchy. "Sir, I -"
"You are dismissed." Blake snapped. "I no longer require your services."
"... but my children..." the man whimpered. Though he was easily as tall as my employer, the withering slouch of his stature made him half the man.
With a withering look, Blake silenced whatever begging the man was about to commence. "You have twenty-four hours to find a lead and begin solving this problem, or your employ will be terminated without question."
I did not dare to inquire about the situation as I followed my employer away from the docks and warehouses. Instead, I queried on my duties while we investigated Blake's various warehouses and took stock of his assets.
At my question, my employer shot me a look, one eyebrow quirked. "Should you not be familiar with what I do, Elton?"
I shrugged. "I am a valet, sir. A much more involved one, I understand... and yet, I am still unsure what you expect of me in situations such as this."
Blake's long strides slowed, and I realized we were in a dark alleyway that seemed altogether too familiar - painfully so. It was the alleyway wherein only a night before I had been assaulted. I tensed.
"Elton, in your contract was written a clause wherein you were required not only to be thoroughly versed in the duties of a gentleman's valet, but also to ride, shoot, and fight, do you not remember?" His eyes studied me sharply, and I had no doubts he looked for any sign of fear.
Slowly, I nodded. "Yes, sir. And I can."
Gaze unwavering, he pulled his hat a little lower over his face. "For your own sake, I hope all of these things are spoken honestly. To be caught in a lie now would prove a grave mistake."
I felt his words hit me in my stomach. He turned away, yet the sharp tang of dread that had dropped over me with his piercing gaze did not leave my person. Did he yet suspect my true nature? Had this entire day been a ruse to find me out? I followed him without a word into the derelict establishment, a place filled with the pungent smell of pleasure, and felt the weight of dread settle on my shoulders.
If ever there were a place where I could be entirely and utterly exposed - and, likely, disposed of - this was that place. And the stony glare on my employer's face did nothing to dispel my fears.