Writing fiction ain’t for sissies. Sometimes, it means killing something you love.
Since September, I’ve been editing “The Thief of Hearts,” the Victorian-set historical romance I wrote before selling my Red Hot Russians series. Set in 1870s London, its the story of a runaway debutante determined to start an independent life, and the charming street thief with whom she falls in love.
On Friday, I reached a pivotal scene. In the original manuscript, it was handled as a prologue, told from the point of view of a non-central character. I thought it was an interesting, and unconventional way to start a novel. Mostly, it was a bad calculation by a newbie author, and routinely questioned by critiques and contest judges. Still I remained loyal to the scene, which was the first creative thing I’d written in ten years.
Flashback to Labor Day, 2009. After a summer-long historical romance binge, I craved a cross-class trope with a wealthy heroine and a hero who had nothing. Needless to say, there weren’t a lot of books fitting this description.
On a bike ride, the main characters and opening scene of this non-existent book came alive in my mind. After the ride, I wrote the scene. Later that night, I read it, and said, “damn, that’s good.”
Six months later, I finished the book. At RWA 2010, I landed an agent, who pitched it to editors. In a pre-Downton Abbey market, few saw an audience for a Charles Dickens/Upstairs Downstairs mash-up. I shelved the book, wrote about figure skaters in contemporary Russia, and life went on.
But now that I’m preparing to self-publish Thief, I realize that my beloved prologue has to be folded into the story, and retold from the heroine’s point of view. Which brought me to Kill-Your-Darlings time.
It’s tough to cut a scene you love, even tougher to cut a scene that brought you back to writing after a long time away. There’s a bit of irony in that I’m coming back from a hiatus this time, too. Not ten years, but long enough.
In any case, I want to honor the scene by sharing it with you. I realize this has been a longer than usual post, so if time doesn’t permit reading on, I understand. For those who do, THANK YOU! It means more than you know.
The Thief of Hearts
London, November 1871
The journalist had bloody well seen enough.
Newgate Prison was no better than a dungeon, a stone hulk of wild-eyed men, slump-shouldered women, and ragged children, whose chief crime was poverty. Man’s inhumanity to man was apparent, even in these supposedly enlightened times.
“You sure you don’t want to see more, Mr. Collins? I din’ get to show you where I keep the Tiger Bay Slasher boxed up. All o’ London can feel safe ‘cause me, Head Gaoler William X. MacAffee, got that fiend under lock and key. Tha’s ‘X’ for Xavier and MacAffee, spelt wi’ two ee’s at the end.”
“A tempting offer Mr. MacAffee, but I really must be going.” In his notebook, he jotted down a few words. “Headline hungry braggart.”
MacAffee removed a large ring of jingling keys from his belt and unlocked the door to his office. Collins followed him in to retrieve his umbrella. The weather had taken a fearsome turn after almost summerlike conditions yesterday. Cold rain made the entire place reek with a noxious bouquet of unwashed flesh, urine and infection. He couldn’t wait to be gone.
But the office was crowded with people; a pair of turnkeys, two well-dressed gentlemen who were likely barristers and a genteel young woman.
She was a pretty lass, in a fur-trimmed red coat. The younger of the two men, a stiff-jawed fellow, exquisitely turned out in a fine black overcoat, held her arm. She pulled away.“Father, I have to see him! I can’t leave until I do!
“Constance, my dear,” he answered in smooth, placating tones. “I brought you here as you insisted, to speak with Mr. Morgan. Now that you have done so, you must trust him to do his job and forget all about this wretched experience.”
“Forget?” Her bitter laugh sounded strange, coming from a well-bred young lady. “Father, I can’t possibly forget.” She turned to the other gentleman. “Mr. Morgan, I need to see him and I won’t leave until he’s brought to me.”
MacAffee prattled on but Collins strained to hear what the father and Mr. Morgan were whispering in the corner. The father heaved a sigh and gave the barrister a short nod, as if he’d agreed to something, but wasn’t happy about it. At last, MacAffee shut up and they both watched the barrister signal one of the turnkeys.
“Right away, gov’nor,” said the turnkey. He and the other guard disappeared behind a heavy oak door at the opposite end of the room.
MacAffee blew his red nose into a filthy handkerchief, then cocked his head towards the gentlemen and the daughter, who stood apart from them, arms crossed. “Bad business, that,” he said in a low voice. “Society girl, kidnapped by an East End ruffian. Made ‘er do God knows what and ruined ‘er, sure as I stand ‘ere.”
Less eager to leave now, Collins turned to a fresh page in his notebook. “You don’t say?”
“Caught ‘im on the docks, tryin’ to smuggle her out o’ the country.” The gaoler leaned closer, cheap gin heavy on his breath. “Bloke ‘ad already killed a man.”
A moment later, the turnkeys returned with a prisoner, not much older than the girl. Tall and lean, he had the hard eyes of an East End hooligan. Filthy ragged clothes, Collins wrote. Unfashionably long blond hair. Shackled hand and foot, a chain locked round his waist.
The guard holding the chain shoved him into the room. MacAffee chuckled. “Seems the saucy minx wants to confront him what stole ‘er virtue.” He stuck his finger in his ear and scratched.
Pencil poised above his notebook, Collins stood ready to take down every vile accusation the young woman hurled at the fiend. Instead, she rushed forward and embraced him. Collins’ shock was nothing compared to her father’s.
The girl pressed her cheek against the young man’s chest. “Oh, Alex thank God! I was afraid I’d never see you again.” Gazing up at him, she caressed his face. “Are you all right? Have they hurt you?”
The young man kissed her palm and his harsh expression gentled. His eyes were closed, one corner of his mouth lifted in a bleak smile. “I’m fine, luv. I’m all right. God, it’s good to see you, Connie. I miss you so much.”
She tugged at the chain around him, as if she could break it with her small hands. “I’m going to get you out of here. You shouldn’t be in here for something…” Her voice trembled and grew thick with tears. Again, she wrapped him in her arms and pressed her face to his chest.
The chains on Alex’s wrists rattled as he fought against them. His furrowed brow and grim mouth revealed his anguish at being unable to hold her. He murmured soft words of comfort as she clung to him. “Sshh, it’s all right, Connie. Don’ cry, luv. Everything’s gonna be all right.”
But it clearly was not all right. Collins couldn’t look away.
The girl took a deep breath and wiped her eyes with a lace-trimmed handkerchief. Then she clutched Alex’s arms and looked up at him, a determined set to her lovely face. “I’ll find a way to free you, I swear. I’ve told my father everything.”
“No!” He was adamant, rattling his chains again. “Damn it, Connie you promised. You can’t save me and even if you try, it’s too late. I’ve already confessed and no matter what you tell them, I’ll just deny it.”
Now here was a story. This girl had not been kidnapped. The young couple shared a secret—something for which the lad was willing to risk the gallows. What could it be? Whom did he kill? Just as intriguing, how did a pampered rich girl come to know and possibly even love, a penniless boy from the East End stews?
He scribbled as fast as he could, making special note of the despair in Alex’s voice.
“This would have happened one way or another. At the hands of the Count or the Crown, it ends the same for me. But at least you still have a future.”
“Yes, I do have a future. With you in America, as your wife. My father and Mr. Morgan have promised you the best defense money can buy.”
Collins glanced up, in time to see her father’s eyes widen. He turned to Morgan, who replied with a subtle shake of his snow-white head. Over the girl’s head, Alex cast a hard look at the two older men. Neither would meet his eye.
An ominous sign.
Then he shifted his gaze back to Constance, nestled against him. A handsome lad, his fate might have been altogether different, had he not been born into poverty. For the second time, a heart-wrenching mix of bitterness, despair and intense love played across his features. Alex shut his eyes tightly and pressed his lips together. When he seemed to have himself under control, he spoke tenderly to her. “’Course they have. Before you know it, we’ll be together again, just like we planned. ‘Til then, do something for me would you, luv?”
“Anything,” she whispered.
“Don’t blame yourself for what happened, and try not to be too sad. You gave me so much, showed me I could have a future and a beautiful, smart society miss to share it with. You are everything I ever wanted, and no matter how this turns out, I’ll not regret a day of it.” He brushed his lips against her hair, and breathed deeply, as if he were trying to capture every last essence of her. “I will always love you, Lady Constance.”
“I love you, Alex.” Smiling up at him, she slid her arms around his neck and kissed him. Not a chaste peck, but a lingering lover’s kiss. The journalist scribbled, “…a kiss no Mayfair debutante ought to lavish on a ragged Cockney.”
“Now see here, Constance!” Her red-faced father sputtered with rage. The barrister placed a hand on his arm but he shook it off and charged forward to claim his daughter. She ignored him and ran her gloved hands through Alex’s hair.
Then the guard holding the chain jerked it backward, wrenching the young man from her arms. She cried out as Alex stumbled, but managed to keep his balance. For a moment, he seemed to forget his shackles and charged in the turnkey’s direction. In an instant, the other guard pulled a short club from his belt and beat him across the back and shoulders, forcing him to his knees. Constance’s eyes grew wide, and she struggled as her father grabbed her by the arms and pulled her back.
Ghastly sounds of the cudgel striking Alex’s body and his low groans of agony filled the room. Then Constance’s scream drowned out both. “Stop it! You’re hurting him! Stop!!!”
The first guard unlocked the heavy door. His partner grasped the chain at the small of Alex’s back and hauled him up like a sack of bones. They shoved him through the door. Fear and defeat were etched on his face.
This was no murderer.This was an East London lad whose fate rested in the hands of two swells keen to see him dance at the end of a rope. Just the sort of vile injustice Collins had founded The London Reformer to expose.
Constance was crying now. Her father stood between her and the prison door, but she shouted over his shoulder to anyone who would listen. “Please, let him go! He’s innocent, he didn’t kill anyone! It was me! I swear to God it was me! Alex, I love you!”
But Alex was gone, swallowed by the impenetrable walls of Newgate Prison. Desperately, she clutched the lapels of her father’s overcoat. “Please, Father. We have to help him. I love him. I love him more than anything.” Her words collapsed into sobs as she buried her face against him.
Even as he patted her shoulder, the father wore a calculating expression. He and the barrister exchanged knowing glances. “There, there, dearest. You’re obviously overwrought. Of course, we will help your…friend. Mr. Morgan will do all he can. Come, it’s time to go home.” He circled his arm around her shoulders and guided her out the door.
Collins turned to MacAffee. “What will happen to him?”
The gaoler answered with a malevolent chuckle and blew his nose again. “Why, Mr. Collins, ain’t it obvious? He’ll hang.”