Excerpt from The Girl in His Shadow by Audrey Blake, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Girl in His Shadow

by Audrey Blake

The Girl in His Shadow by Audrey Blake X
The Girl in His Shadow by Audrey Blake
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    May 2021, 384 pages

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Elisabeth Cook
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Water, she mouthed. There was none in the room. "I'll be right back," he said and went to find the kitchen. There was no water to be had, but in the teapot on the table was an inch of cold brew gone sludgy at the bottom. It would do.

He tried dripping it onto her lips, but the liquid rolled away before she could catch it. Anxious now, he soaked it up with his handkerchief. When he laid the wet cambric on her mouth, she sucked. Her fingers, already skeletally thin—cholera was terrifyingly aggressive—came up to clutch the cloth. He let her work on it, then had to pry it away to soak again. Her grip was stronger than he'd expected, but he warned himself against hope. It was easy, depressingly easy, to imagine patients looking better. Hadn't he thought the old woman would pull through? This child looked as fragile as a dandelion puff.

She couldn't stay here alone. She must be bathed and put into clean clothes. Someone must soak the handkerchief for her and, in all probability, watch until she gave up and died.

Ah. There were curtains. Good enough, and probably the cleanest linen in the house. With two hands, Croft gripped the child's soiled nightdress and tore it down the front. She flinched, but whether it was his hands or the noise that disturbed her, he couldn't say. She was too blue, too thin. With the spare, efficient movements of a battlefield surgeon, he peeled the dirty garment away and pulled at the curtains. The rod broke, and the rings tore and crashed to the floor in a swirl of dust and plaster as sunlight knifed into the room. He squeezed his eyes shut and coughed. The girl made a sound. Leaning close, he cataloged the flicker of her hollowed eyes, the tremor of her lips.

"Hush. We'll get you covered. These curtains will do."

He picked her up and swathed her in the yards of sturdy cloth. Even with the wrapping, she felt no heavier than a good-sized border collie. Croft was sturdy and used to lugging around deadweight, but the extra fabric was a hazard, tangling his arms. He looped it around her slack legs and carried her down the stairs. No one stopped him on the way out, but he made himself knock at the neighbor's door.

"You must send for someone to carry away the bodies," he said to the tired-eyed woman peering suspiciously through the peephole.

She blinked. Croft resisted the urge to blast her. The fool woman must have known the Beadys were ill but hadn't moved an inch to help them. "And that one?" she asked.

"I'll take her."

The woman didn't argue, blind or indifferent to his contempt. In the street, the eyes that found him and his burden swerved away. By the time he got home, he was breathing hard, unable to manage his key. He had to knock and wait for his housekeeper.

"What's this?" she demanded. "You can't bring corpses in the front door." His regular deliveries always came in the dead of night, at the back, because flaunting the fact that he bought stolen bodies was a good way to get his windows smashed.

"This one's alive. You're blocking my way, Mrs. Phipps."

Her face blanched. "You can't bring cholera here!" But she stepped aside. Croft marched upstairs, Mrs. Phipps fretting behind him. "She's sick! What am I supposed to do with her?"

"Get her some water. No, sweet tea. We'll try that. And fetch something for her to wear. One of my shirts will suffice. I'll need your help to bathe her."

No response. He looked back, fixing his housekeeper with a stern look. "Everyone in her family is dead."

Mrs. Phipps sighed with exasperation. "And you think you can save her."

Horace lifted one side of his mouth. With the girl in his arms, it was impossible to shrug. "Probably not. But I'll try." When he reached the next floor, she called after him. "Not the blue guest room! Those are the best sheets!"

~

Unlike her employer, Mrs. Phipps was religious. When she arrived with a sponge and a basin of water, she forgot her desire to safeguard the best household linen. "God in heaven," she murmured. The girl's skin was almost transparent, her eyes sunk in hollows of plum-dark bruise. Her dark-blond hair spilled in a tangled mass against the pillowcase.

Excerpted from The Girl in His Shadow by Audrey Blake. Copyright © 2021 by Audrey Blake. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks Landmark. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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