The Girl with the Windup Heart Page 18

Finley frowned. “What’s that?”

Her father’s face took on a darkly grim expression. “Felix August-Raynes.”

Chapter Ten

Mila met the rest of Mrs. Rhodes’s boarders the following morning. All of the girls were Pick-a-dilly performers, some of whom she had actually seen perform when she attended the circus with Jack. There was Sasha, the tightrope walker, Marissa and Gina, who flew high above the audience on the trapeze, Lizzie, who did dangerous and amazing things with fire, and Millie and Henrietta—the twins.

The twins were perhaps the most amazing to Mila. They were pretty girls, both with dark hair and eyes, but they were literally joined at the hip. The circus called them the Gemini Sisters and they did things like juggling and playing instruments where the entire act depended on their cooperation and timing.

“Our entire lives have been about learning to work together,” Henrietta told her as she helped herself to another scone, and took one for her sister, as well. “It’s not really all that difficult to do what we do.”

“We know each other so well, it’s fairly simple to predict our behavior and actions,” Millie added as she slathered strawberry jam on the scones she sliced into halves. She set two halves on her sister’s plate.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Mila replied, and she meant it. She smiled at the table full of girls. “I’m so envious of each of you for having such exciting employment.”

Gina, a gorgeous girl with large blue eyes and tanned skin, made a scoffing noise as she poured herself a cup of coffee from the silver pot on the table. “Yes, it’s so exciting to risk our lives for the enjoyment of others.”

Helping herself to some eggs, Mila looked at her. “Is there something else you’d rather do?”

The girl seemed surprised by the question. “Of course not.”

That drew laughter from the rest of the table. Mila smiled, not quite certain she understood the joke.

“What do you do, Mila?” Lizzie asked as she slathered a thick coating of soft butter on a piece of toast.

“I don’t know,” she replied honestly. “I suppose that’s why I’m here. To find out what I’m good at.”

Marissa, a short but strong blonde, raised a brow. “But how do you pay the rent?”

Gina elbowed her. “That’s none of your business.”

“I have a little money,” Mila replied. She didn’t know exactly why, but she knew it was important not to say how much she actually had. It had been given to her for nothing, and these girls worked hard for every penny. Plus, then she’d have to explain about Jack, and she didn’t want to talk about him. Didn’t even want to think about him. It was bad enough that she’d dreamed of him the entire night.

“Excuse Sissy, Mila,” Lizzie said. “She likes to know everything about every person she meets.”

Marissa looked chagrined. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”

Mila smiled at the girl and accepted Henrietta’s offer of more coffee. She tried not to stare as Henrietta managed the coffee pot while her attached sister added cream and sugar. They managed to avoid collision despite how close their hands and arms often came. They were more impressively graceful and exact than many machines, a fact she found utterly fascinating.

“His Lordship came for Gracie last night,” Gina informed them all in a dramatically low voice. This announcement seemed to mean something to the other girls. Something important.

“She’ll be set for a while, won’t she?” Marissa asked no one in particular. “And it’s not as though he’s ugly.”

“He’s old!” That was from Sasha—tall and willowy and very pale with sable hair. She didn’t say much, but then she wasn’t given much of an opportunity.

“He’s handsome,” Henrietta allowed with a shrug, “but it could have been worse.”

“How?” Gina demanded. “She doesn’t love him.”

Henrietta looked around the table, her gaze settling on her sister’s face. “He could have chosen one of us.”

“Chosen you for what?” Mila inquired, glancing around. “And who is he?” She took a drink of her coffee.

“Lord Blackhurst,” Marissa told her when no one else spoke. Her expression was stoic—tight. “He likes circus girls.”

“So?” Mila liked pie, but she’d never been as grave about it as these girls were.

Henrietta reached over and patted her on the leg. “He likes to set them up as his mistresses, sweetie. Buys their clothes, pays their rent and in return expects them to share their bed with him.”

“Oh.” And then her brain caught up. “Oh.” He made the girl his doxies. Only Jack never paid anyone’s rent—not that she knew of. In fact, she hadn’t seen him pay any of the girls anything. His girls seemed to like him well enough. Perhaps they shared his bed for free.

She disliked them even more now. And she wasn’t quite certain how the idea made her feel about Jack.

“Such things are hardly suitable breakfast conversation,” came Mrs. Rhodes’s voice from the doorway.

The girls jumped. “Yes, missus,” Sasha said, and they all went back to eating rather than gossiping. Though a meaningful glance went around the table, and Mila understood it loud and clear—they would continue the conversation as soon as they could.

Later, as the other girls were getting ready to leave for the circus to practice their acts for the evening performance, Gina suggested that Mila come by and watch the show.

“I would like that,” Mila agreed with a grin. She had learned about friendship from Emily, and delighted in feeling the sort of warmth that came along with making a connection with another person. Plus, it would be boring hanging about the house all day. She could go out, but Jack was out there, and he just might follow her. If he was watching, she wanted him to see her with the girls, as part of the group and not by herself. She wanted him to believe that she was fine without him.

The girls all smiled at her as they filed out of the house. As the door closed there was a sudden and violent crash from the street. Shouts rose up and people screamed.

Mila pulled the door open. The girls were still on the steps and front walk, staring in horror at the sight just across the cobblestones. It looked as though a giant hand had reached down, grabbed up a couple of vehicles and gave them a good crumple before tossing them on the ground.

“He swerved to avoid a cart and the carriage went over,” Sasha informed her, eyes wide and face pale.

A steam carriage had indeed tipped and crashed, trapping its driver beneath it.

“The exhaust will burn him alive!” Gina exclaimed in horror, pressing her hand to the front of her corset.

The man was terribly close to the brass pipe that expelled the hot vapors from the engine. He cried out in pain as a puff of steam rolled out, burning and dampening his flesh.

Mila didn’t think, she simply reacted. People cried out, but no one moved. A bell clanged, summoning help, but the man would be horribly burned before anyone arrived. She jumped from the top step to the sidewalk and sprinted across the street. People jumped back when they saw her coming. Too fast. She knew she moved faster than a regular person and she didn’t care. She ran to the wreck, crouched beside the man and grasped the edge of the carriage with both hands—avoiding the discharging steam.

“What are you doing?” the driver demanded. “Get away, you’ll hurt yourself.”

The right half of his face was bright red, already burned.

“I’m going to lift this off of you. As soon as you can, you crawl out.”

“You’re mad! You can’t lift—”

She could, and she did. She squatted and gripped the edge of the frame, her fingers finding purchase on a thin lip of trim. The man’s jaw gaped as she pushed with her legs, lifting the heavy vehicle from his pinned body. She glanced down at him. “More? Or are you good?”

“G-good,” he replied, scurrying out from beneath the vehicle. Once he was clear, she lowered the carriage back to the street. The gathered crowd chattered around her, gasped and applauded. She heard the click of a camera and turned her head—a photographer had set up not ten feet away. He could stop to take photographs but not to help? What sort of man was he?

“I don’t suppose you could help us out, could you?” asked a voice above her head.

Mila looked up. A man’s head poked up through the door of the overturned carriage. He offered her a shaky smile. “We can’t quite climb out.”

“Oh, of course.” Bracing her palms on the carriage, she hefted herself up, opened the door and offered her hand to the man and young boy inside. She hauled the boy out first, then his father, and assisted them both to the street. She hopped down with the boy in her arms.

By then, the authorities had arrived. Mila gave the boy to his father, and slipped into the crowd. She was followed by a few people, including the photographer.

“Miss!” he called. “Miss, a word, please?”

She whirled on him. “Leave me alone. You didn’t even try to help.”

He looked at her as though she were mad. “Why would I?”

What a disgusting waste of humanity. An embarrassment to his kind. She turned her back on him and rejoined the girls at the boardinghouse. People watched her, but no one else approached. The girls stared at her.

“Well,” said Marissa with a grin. “I think we’ve found what you’re good at.”

* * *

From the number of poor people in London, Mila had thought getting a job was a difficult endeavor. Even Jack didn’t have a job. It turned out, however, to be quite simple to gain employment. All she had to do was walk into the office of Mr. Anders, the manager of Pick-a-dilly Circus, and pick up his desk.

With him and all the girls from Mrs. Rhodes’s sitting on it.

“I’ll be jiggered!” the man exclaimed from his perch, little round glasses sliding down his thin nose. “You start tonight! Go talk to Elsie about arranging the act.”

Mila peered up at from beneath their feet. She had lifted the desk almost completely above her head. “Should I put you down first?”

“A sound notion,” her new employer replied with a chuckle. He looked like a baby sparrow.

The girls giggled in glee as they escorted her to the main performance area where a petite, voluptuous woman with impossibly red hair piled on top of her head was arguing with a man easily twice her height.

“That’s Georges,” Millie whispered, leaning across her sister to do so. “He’s from France and just over ten feet tall!”

“Millie thinks he’s cute,” Henrietta added.

Her sister flushed. “Well, you like Elsie.”

Henrietta blushed, as well, and Mila stared at them both for just a second before looking at the man and woman about whom the twins spoke. The world was much more complex and incredible than she’d first thought. People came in all shapes and sizes, and apparently love didn’t care if the object of your affection was the same sex as you or not—though she’d read text that tried to make her believe otherwise.

And how extraordinary were Millie and Henrietta? On the way there someone had called them freaks. Mila wanted to punch the woman, but Millie just smiled and said, “Yes, and it’s contagious.” Then she pretended to sneeze on the woman and her companion, who scurried away, making all sorts of disgusted and fearful noises. All the girls had laughed, linked arms and continued on their way.

The moment Gina’s arm looped through hers, and Henrietta took her other, Mila knew what it was to have friends. To belong. She would do anything to protect these girls and that feeling.

“I wish I knew what they were saying,” Marissa whispered. “They sound angry.”

Mila glanced at her. “She’s saying that he has no romance in his soul, that he’s an embarrassment to Frenchmen everywhere and ought to be ashamed of himself for that abysmal performance.”

The girls all stared at her. “You understand French?”

Right, that wasn’t normal either. But these girls didn’t know she had begun life as a highly complex machine with a enhanced logic engine capable of infinite learning. “Yes,” she said. “And he just told her that she’s heartless because his routines are nothing but a study in passion.”

Beside her the twins sighed. Gina snorted. It was that rude noise that interrupted the fierce exchange going on just a few feet away. Elsie turned around and stared at them. “Oy, what do you lot want?”

Mila’s brows shot up. It was hard to believe that such flawless French could be followed by such a typical cockney accent. Then again, Jack could speak Latin. He would do that sometimes around the house. He said it was to keep both of their minds sharp.

“This is Mila, Elsie,” Gina said. “Mr. Anders just hired her.”

“To be wot?”

“The World’s Strongest Girl,” said Millie.

“Woman,” corrected her sister.

Elsie ignored them. “’Ow strong are ya?”

“Strong,” Mila replied with a shrug. She had no idea if there was a limit to her strength—it had never been tested.

Georges picked up a large pair of iron manacles and tossed them at her. She caught them easily—which seemed to surprise the giant. “What do you want me to do with these?”

“Put ’em on,” Elsie instructed. “Then try to break free.”

“That seems like a waste of time.” Mila grabbed the thick links of chain in either hand and pulled until the iron snapped apart. Easy. She tossed the ruined restraints back to Georges. “A ruin of good chain, too. Anything else?”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

Prev Next