Wildcat McGuire thought of herself as something of a city girl, but as the dirigible she was on drifted toward the Hyde Park landing bay, Cat realized that Manhattan, where she’d grown up, was just an island. When New York was founded by the Dutch in 1624, London was already almost sixteen centuries old.
London was the biggest city she’d ever seen—sprawling out for miles. And the buildings! New York had its share of awe-inspiring buildings—towering ones—but London had so many! Some of them looked downright ancient.
The smells and sounds of the city rose to greet her as she stood on the deck, leather coat wrapped around her to keep the chill of the wind from seeping into her bones. Some of the smells and sounds were pleasant, others were not. That was something London and New York had in common—perfumed opulence piled on top of slums and stench.
But the most important thing about London at the moment was that her sister was here. Somewhere. And so was Jasper Renn, the gorgeous cad who had walked out on her twice. She might still have tender feelings for him—which made her hate him all the more—but she would never trust him with her heart ever again. With her life, yes, but not with anything that mattered.
Closer and closer to the ground the airship drifted. Its timbers creaked in the wind, sails flapping. A bell sounded, signaling their approach to port. Cat had her pack at her feet, ready to jump ship as soon as possible. Sparrow had a week’s lead on her, and she didn’t want to lose even more time. She just wanted to find her sister and take her someplace safe. Five Points was no longer that place, since it had been bought up and was about to be destroyed. She would find a new home for them, of that she had no doubt.
It was going on twilight, with the threat of rain, but that didn’t stop spectators from gathering in Hyde Park to watch the dirigibles land. Tarnation, she was going to be forced to depart in that slow-moving line just like everyone else. Jumping over the side would only draw notice. Usually she could be as patient as the moon, but not today. Not since she realized her sister had run away.
As she set foot on British soil, Cat cast a wary glance around. Either London was an exceptional city or this was the “good” part of it. She had read that Hyde Park was in the hoity part of town, and now she could see for herself. This large expanse of greenery was just as fancy, or fancier, than Central Park. The richies must despise having such a bustling center of travel so close to their mansions. Still, air travel was expensive, and those of the lower classes couldn’t afford it.
Cat was one of the few exceptions to that rule. She wasn’t poor anymore, but she’d been born into that dismal world, she and her sister. After Abe Lincoln abolished slavery, her grandparents had gathered up the children they still had and headed north. Her mother had been fairly young at the time, but she had scars from a whip on her back all the same. Her father had been born on a farm in Ireland, only to come to New York and live in the slums, where the air stank of poverty and ignorance.
But Seamus McGuire had been a fighter, and he made good money fighting. Her mother, Bess, knew how to sew, and she’d made beautiful clothes. It was enough to elevate them from Five Points—but not much. When her father was killed during a fight when she was twelve, Cat had known she’d need to take care of her mother and sister. She’d used her unusual talents and physical differences to steal, fight, run...whatever was needed. It wasn’t long before she had her own gang.
She’d turned leadership over to Mick before leaving Manhattan. She was done with crime. She’d lost her taste for it around the time Jasper Renn had strolled back into her neighborhood.
Speaking of neighborhoods...good grief. She hadn’t been paying attention as she walked, and she now found herself on the street outside the park. The traffic was similar to New York, with many fine gentlemen and ladies passing by in gorgeous carriages—both steam driven and horse drawn. Beautiful buildings lined the streets, some of them hundreds of years old, others more modern in their appearance. It was noisy, and smelled strange, but it was very, very grand.
“Be needin’ a cab, miss?”
Cat turned her head. Beside her stood a young man with carrot-red hair and bright blue eyes. If his coloring didn’t give him away as Irish, his speech would have for certain. His expression changed when he saw her face. Saw her skin.
“Aye,” she replied, falling easily into her father’s accent. “I would.”
The boy hesitated, then grinned, all teeth and freckles. He’d been all set to distrust her because of how she looked, but her voice won him over. Prejudice was such a strange thing.
The boy let loose a shrill whistle that immediately brought a black cab hauled by an automaton horse to the curb. The “animal” was flat black with gleaming brass. Intricately carved swirls decorated the black parts, making it a true work of art. A real craftsman had made this beast.
Her ginger friend took her pack and set it inside the coach before holding the door for her. She handed him a shilling for his help.
“Where to, miss?” he asked.
“The Continental,” she replied just before he closed the door and relayed the address to the driver. It was a new hotel. Upscale, but she could afford it. It was close to Mayfair, which was what made it all the more desirable. Mayfair wasn’t just the neighborhood where Jasper lived, but where she believed her sister now resided, as well.
She saw two women with skin like hers as the carriage pulled up to her hotel. One had to be the other’s mother. She had the arm of a handsome blond man, who also had the arm of the younger girl. People looked at them, but not with the same degree of surprise or disgust as she sometimes saw in America. Slavery had been abolished here half a century before the States finally put an end to it. She wasn’t naive enough to think that everyone in London would treat her in a manner that had nothing to do with her skin, but she hoped it wouldn’t be held against her. That sort of thing made her angry, and when she was angry she had a tendency to hit people. The only person who made her feel as though they were truly equals was Jasper, damn his eyes.