COURTESAN New York. 1866

PROLOGUE

Prologue

New York 1866

When the brass knocker fell for the third time at Clearbrook's front door, Margaret O'Sullivan left off her beeswax polishing and bustled from the parlor to the marble-floored foyer, her black bombazine skirts crackling with the heaving force of her stride. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, all the saints in Heaven, and Francis the ass in the stable, too. Sure and if 'tisn't enough I have to do with all the cleaning and the cooking without having to meet and greet the bloody visitors, too."

Still muttering under her breath, Maggie wrenched the door wide.

A dirty street urchin loitered on the stoop, and she rolled her sharp Irish eyes at the sight of him.

Humph. Another beggar looking for a handout.

"Be you daft coming to the front door?" She shelved her work-worn hands on her ample hips. "Rag collectors use the servants' entrance 'round back." With a wag of her double chin, she pointed the way. "Those working the pan handle can get themselves gone from me sight."

"No rag-picker am I, ma'am. No servant, neither. And I have never begged for anything."

Though visibly angry, the lad nevertheless removed his scruffy tweed hat, revealing fine manners along with a thick head of coal-black hair. Gorgeous hair 'twas, too.

And more than likely crawling with lice.

To put some space between herself and nit infestation, Maggie took a hasty step backward. From the safety of distance, she continued her once-over of the vagrant.

Imagine the scamp doffing his cap. She snorted. Like he was a gent. Tall and gangly, all limbs and cocky swagger, the boyo could have no more than thirteen years on his spare frame. For all that he comported himself more like a man than a boy, a telling lack of facial hair failed to support the boast. Ah, but put some meat on his bones, give him a nice long soak in a tub, a strenuous delousing with kerosene, and he would charm the drawers right off the colleens, that he would. Why, even ladies-born would eat from this one's hand.

And go down lower on him, too, if he placed the demand.

But Maggie had gotten ahead of herself. Ladies smacking their lips over his cock was a good deal off in the future yet. Today, he was only a young boy, short of wind from what must have been one hell of a good long run.

But why was he here? If not a panhandler come a-begging or a rag-picker looking for castoffs, why was the filthy mite darkening Clearbrook's grand front door? Did the lad perchance peddle cheap trinkets, gold sure to turn grass-green in less than a fortnight? Or, perhaps, he was a sweep in search of a sooty chimney?

She grimaced. God forbid he be a tinker, thinking to mend the household's metal utensils. Everyone knew gypsies would rob a household blind if given half a chance.

Hmm. Maggie tilted her jaw. With that wealth of coal-black hair and those flashing dark eyes, the lad did have the look of the Romany about him.

Dear Lord. Never should she have opened the fockin' door. A theft in the house, and she would be done for. Her employer, Michael Winslow, would give her the boot. The cruel man needed little enough reason to let his servants go, without severance wages or a note of recommendation either, and here she had given him cause.

"Well, speak up!" Maggie finally said, tapping her toe. "I have not the whole blessed day to stand about dawdling. State your name and tell your business."

"No disrespect meant, ma'am, but I tell my business to the master of this house, and nobody else."

With a gasp, Maggie dropped her jaw. Why, would ye look at the arrogance on him! Dressed in rags, still wet behind the ears, and yet the lad's confident bearing and self-possessed manner belied both his tender years and his lowly station in life.

Impressed, Maggie gave the unlikely toff the benefit of her doubt. "And who shall I say is calling?"

"His son, Sebastian"

"Son?" Her brogue as thick as clotted cream and dripping with sarcasm, she scoffed, "The master of this domicile has no son. Off with ye now, before I set the authorities on yer bony arse."

"Set whoever you like on me, ma'am. All the same to me, and neither here nor there. I ain't leaving 'til I have words with my father."

He lowered his eyes, and his belly grumbled. "My mother's last hope rests with Michael Winslow. Right now, all she has left is me."

Poor lamb! Maggie's heart went out to the brave lad. His dirty cap in hand, he was trying so hard to stay strong as his empty belly touched his backbone and the spit in his mouth leached dry. He fair choked on pride as he swallowed it down. Love for his ma had prompted this errand of mercy. How could she refuse love?

She never could.

With a sigh of resignation for yet another lost housekeeping position, Maggie stepped aside for the boy to enter. "Wait here in the hall while I ask if Mr. Winslow is at home to his son."

As luck would have it, her employer chose that instant to bellow, "Mrs. O'Sullivan! I need you. What keeps you at the door?"

Maggie turned 'round. And gawked.

There in the hall stood the self-important master of Clearbrook, himself. And saints be praised, he was holding a swaddled bundle awkwardly in his arms.

As Mr. Winslow approached, Maggie tried her best to sound coherent, but the words stumbled over each other on the way out of her mouth. "S-someone h-here to see you, sir."

"I told you, no callers today." Her employer shook his head. "Will this brat's mewling never cease?"

As if the wee little thing amounted to nothing but a big nuisance, Michael Winslow shoved the swaddled bundle at Maggie's matronly bosom.

"Here," he said. "You take her."

Straight away, the fretting month-old infant rooted for Maggie's pendulous breasts. Making sucking noises, the babe tried to latch on to the nipple.

Why, the child was hungry. In need of a hug, too.

Plenty enough hugs remained in Maggie's beefy arms, but alas, no babe had suckled at her flat teats these past thirty years.

What a sad state of affairs this was, indeed. Michael Winslow had demanded a son. Having received a daughter instead, he would allow no one to forget his bitter disappointment, particularly not his delicate new bride. As Mrs. Winslow had taken to her sickbed after the birth of her daughter, she would produce no heir anytime soon, if ever at all, at all. And so this innocent babe would pay for the mistake of her gender.

Margaret's Irish temper flared. Fockin' housekeeper position be dammed! Someone had to speak up to the tyrant, and it looked like the duty fell to her.

She glared at Michael Winslow. "This babe is starved. Without a wet nurse, she will not survive the week."

"Hire one," her employer replied.

Arrogant man. As if milk-laden teats grew on trees.

Still, Maggie furrowed her brow and tried to produce a name out of thin air.

Behind her, a voice chimed in as clear as a tolling bell. "There is Mrs. Thompson."

Hidden away in the corner as he was, the lad had clean slipped her mind. Not saying much but not missing much either -- leastwise, not as far as Maggie could tell -- the boy quietly waited for an interview with his supposed father. Though why the boy would want to lay claim to a monster like Michael Winslow for a papa was beyond her. Better he admitted to being the gypsy get he no doubt was"

Still, at his suggestion, she turned to face the boy. "Mrs. Thompson?"

"A washerwoman on the Bowery. Her baby came too soon and died day before last. She might be able to wet-nurse the babe."

Hearkening to the dignified lad, Maggie jumped at the proposal. "Tell this Mrs. Thompson to come over today. Otherwise, her milk will likely dry up. This little one's only chance rests with her."

"Mrs. O'Sullivan," Michael Winslow blustered, while pointing to the corner where the lad stood. "Who let that whelp over there in my house?"

Worried over her new charge, Maggie dispensed with pomp and circumstance. "I did. And glad I am now that I did. Your son, Sebastian, is here to see you."

"Son?" The master of Clearbrook's face turned florid. "What a preposterous lie. Boy, you are no son of mine. You have not a single drop of my blood in your veins. And what is more, stop spouting filthy slander about me."

"True, by birth, I am not your son, but when Mother and I lived here, you told me to call you Father."

The man who paid Margaret O'Sullivan's salary looked apoplectic. "That woman was little better than a maid in this household."

"How can you say that? Mother loves you, sir. And now she is sick. Consumption." Taking two paces forward, Sebastian grabbed hold of Michael Winslow's morning coat. "Without a visit from you, I fear she will die. Please, come with me now."

"If your mother has the wasting disease, she has one foot in the grave already. Nothing I can do for her," Mr. Winslow said with a shrug. "Now leave my sight, you impudent young fellow, before you spread your whore-mother's putridity." Turning on his well-shod heel, her employer stormed away.

Outraged, Maggie had all to do not to call after the sod and give him the dressing-down he so richly deserved. This time, the tyrant had gone too far.

Was the man blind?

Resentment shone bright in Sebastian's jet-black eyes, the kind of resentment that smoldered for years before igniting. Aye, Michael Winslow had made himself an enemy this fine day.

And then Margaret let her righteousness go. In the here and now, she had more immediate concerns than a man's cold indifference.

As the hungry babe in her arms squalled, Maggie regarded the dejected lad. "Will you still fetch the wet nurse?"

"I said so, ma'am. And I always keep my word."

He might not lay claim to noble lineage, but Sebastian clearly possessed a gentleman's honor. God help him, and Michael Winslow, too, if the lad also possessed a long memory.

Saying a silent prayer to the Virgin for the wisdom to accept what defied change, Maggie reached into the pocket of her apron. Pulling out a coin, she pressed the gold piece into the grubby lad's palm. "For yer troubles."

To Maggie's astonishment, the lad refused the alms with a shake of his shaggy head.

And then she knew. 'Twas as bright as the self-respect shining on the lad's too-thin face. There would be no beggarly soliciting for young Sebastian. No accepting of handouts, neither. And none of this asking for charity nonsense. He might not have come into life with a silver spoon stuck in his mouth, but he would find his rightful place all on his own.

Even if he had to steal it.

"Go on with ye now," she urged. "Pride is all well and good, but it makes for a poor meal. Take the coin for the sake of yer ma."

Peering down at the swaddling blanket, the dying woman's son accepted the money.

"Does the baby have a name?" Sebastian asked.

Maggie nodded. "Aye. That she does. 'Tis Miss Sarah."

"Sarah," the lad softly repeated.

Like a miracle, the babe's fretful wailing stopped. The infant fastened her big blue eyes on the boyo's grieving face.

"Not too close," Maggie said, setting things straight. "The likes of you are not meant for the likes of her."

Her warning came too late. Gurgling and cooing, Miss Sarah had already reached out her tiny baby hand from its blanket cocoon to take the lad's grubby palm.

Incredulous, the housekeeper watched what ensued. The boy tried all manner of maneuvers to break free of the infant's fierce hold. He twisted. Squirmed. Even tried prying the babe's dainty fingers off, one by one. Nothing worked.

No matter what Sebastian did to free himself, Sarah obstinately refused to let him go.

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