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London, February 1822
Fianna Cameron—at least that’s what she was calling herself today—slipped a hand inside her pocket and curled her fingers tight around the barrel of her father’s pistol. Her long, hurried strides had sent it bouncing hard against her thigh, but even that pain had not been enough to reassure her the weapon hadn’t disappeared, that she had only imagined hiding it there after she’d finally tracked her prey to his lair. When the time came for her to act, would she not find herself confronting the man empty-handed, shaking in impotent fury as Major Pennington offered her a condescending smile and walked on, just as he had so many times in her dreams?
The bite of cold metal, and the memory of Grandfather McCracken’s soft, broken voice reading the Bible verses that had first inspired her—For he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him who doeth evil— brought her back to her sense of purpose. She could not fail, would not fail, not now, not when she’d given nearly everything for this chance to bring her father’s killer to justice, and redeem the honor of his name. She’d risk her very life if it would bring a moment of peace to her grief-stricken grandfather, still mourning his beloved son more than twenty years after Aidan McCracken’s death. And to prove herself, bastard though she might be, worthy of her rightful place in the McCracken family.
The only family she had left—
Eyes darting between strangers and shop windows, carriages and carts, she searched the unfamiliar street for her destination. She’d feared—likely foolishly—she’d been followed, and had altered her path to throw any pursuer off her trail. But the evasion must have pulled her off course, as well; she’d come too far, missed Pennington’s reputed favorite haunt.
Retracing her steps, she discovered the Crown and Anchor Tavern lay not on the Strand itself, but behind that bustling street’s houses and shops. Stepping into the long, narrow passageway between two shopfronts, she forced herself to slow to a pace painfully at odds with the rapid beating of her heart.
The sight of the Crown and Anchor’s spacious stone-paved foyer brought her up short. In Dublin, no place this grand would ever be termed a mere tavern. Doric columns, conical skylights, a sweeping staircase ornamented with iron rails and what looked to be mahogany handrails—why, it seemed as elegantly-appointed as the Lord Lieutenant’s mansion. And so many people! How would she ever find her quarry amidst such a throng?
A man in dark livery broke through her dismay. “May I direct you to the Philharmonic Orchestra concert, ma’am? Or the temperance meeting? Both may be found on the floor above.”
Not just a tavern, then, this Crown and Anchor, but a public meeting hall of no small repute. What a lackwit, to call attention to herself by staring at its grandeur like the greenest bumpkin. Lucky, she’d be, not to be judged an impostor and thrown out on her ear.
Run! her body urged. Hide!
Instead, forcing her hand from the comfort of the pistol, she pushed back the hood that hid her face.
The footman took a step back, his eyes widening. How predictable, the catch of breath, the poleaxed, besotted expression. She’d long ago stopped wondering why God had cursed her with a face no man could pass in the street without falling guilty to the rudeness of staring. Lucky for her, men only seemed to care about the deceptive husk of her face, never giving a single thought to what ugliness might lie beneath.