Lena Mae stepped onto the platform in London, ticket in hand. She was traveling to Paris alone. One might wonder what a young unwed woman was doing on a train all alone, had they realized she was a woman at all.
The young blonde woman had dressed as a boy, donning a hat with her head tipped down. She kept her hair pinned beneath the hat and her eyes below the rim of the lid, making certain no one ever saw her emerald gaze. Lena hated dressing as a boy and hardly ever did such an atrocious act, except perhaps when she was tangled up in trouble. It was easier to pretend to be someone else, especially if anyone witnessed what she had planned. They would describe the fellow as short, with a small build, and that he blended into his surroundings. That had been her plan with the boring beige overcoat and dark-brimmed hat. For a woman, she was of average height, but no fool would suspect a lady.
With her, she carried a bag that was nearly empty, with only a dress for her to change into when needed. It wasn’t that she needed the luggage now; in fact, it was getting in her way, making it difficult for her to shuffle down the aisle of the train. She found the nearest seat and shoved the luggage above her head. Lena lifted the large bag with ease. Thankfully, dressed as a man, no one offered her help or even spoke to her. Had she been wearing a gown, she would have attracted attention and perhaps even suspicion, at how light her luggage had been.
She breathed a slight sigh of relief, pleased that the journey thus far was going as smoothly as she had hoped.
“Is this seat taken?” a gentleman standing in the aisle asked.
Lena opted not to speak; her voice would only give her away as a woman, with her soft feminine tone. Instead, she shook her head and gestured for him to take it. She wished she’d brought a newspaper, book, or an article to read that would keep her distracted from the watchful eyes of a neighbor sitting beside her. She had barely glanced up at him, trying not to pay him any attention, not wanting him to wish to converse on the train ride between cities. Lena did not want to be remembered. It was easy to blend in and go unnoticed if no one paid her any attention.
She had visited Paris on a few occasions, but her trip today was not one for pleasure. It was strictly business and, hopefully, would result in a great deal of funds. She had a dowry from her parents, but it was not hers to have until she was wed, and even then, it belonged to her husband. How unfortunate was that situation? He would receive her money because they married? Lena found the entire idea preposterous!
Little did it matter. Lena had planned to rob the train of the gold that was being transported between London and Paris. She had learned of the stowage from a man who had been quite intoxicated during a dinner party with her parents. The grumpy old man had nearly bored her to tears. Worse, it had been her father’s idea for the two to meet, so that she might consider taking his hand. His behavior had been dreadful, with the foul smell of liquor on his breath and his bloodshot eyes. Her parents, too, had been embarrassed and had quickly escorted him out after their meal together.
That night had been dull, but it had sparked an idea for Lena. The train traveling between London and Paris was not heavily guarded until they reached their destination. She would be able to sneak away unnoticed, slip into the freight car, and steal away a few bars of gold. It was unlikely that anyone would notice the shipment had been tampered with, let alone the weight would only be slightly off. Perhaps they would surmise that the calculation had been incorrect when they departed.
Lena didn’t need much gold, just enough to melt down and live comfortably alone. There would undoubtedly be debts, once she had the ability to make them. She hadn’t spent the money yet; she wasn’t foolish enough, and besides, without coinage in her pocket, men were not going to give her credit. She had no husband, which meant she had no money, unless she earned it or stole it. Lena preferred getting her hands dirty; it was much more enjoyable. Besides, no one would be the wiser, and it wasn’t as though her parents cared much either way.
The train departed from the station in London, and Lena waited until they were moving at full speed and had several hours to go before standing from her seat. She didn’t bother with politeness as she grabbed her empty luggage and slipped past the handsome man who had asked her earlier if the seat across from her was taken. Lena did her best to avoid his stare. What was he looking at? Had she slipped up in behaving and dressing as a man? It would not be long before she could don her corset and gown again. She looked forward to tossing the men’s garb, her father’s coat and hat, the moment she stepped foot in Paris. If only she had remembered her shoes to go along with it!
She strode down the aisle, bag in hand, and slipped between the railway wagons. Perhaps she looked peculiar, and as Lena did not wish to rouse suspicion or alert anyone of her unkempt ways, she refrained from glancing behind her shoulder. She was a lady, after all, and if anyone grew the slightest bit of mistrust, then she would have quite a bit of explaining to do.
Wordlessly, she skated from one train carriage to the next, past the passengers and toward the freight car. The room smelled stale and of leather and iron, thick and heavy like a man’s cologne. Lena scrunched her nose as the scent tickled her senses. With light feet, she tiptoed across the floor toward the two iron safes, both locked and secured thoroughly. Quietly, she placed her empty luggage case beside the safe. She would need the items inside of it later.
Lena had experience with a lock pick. She had practiced many a day to explore the hidden rooms of their own home that she had been locked out of as a child. Her father had kept a safe of his own, and as a banker, he had been secretive about what documents were locked inside his home.
With a knack for curiosity, Lena had broken into the safe countless times, reading the pages but not quite understanding their meaning. There were deeds and loans, but for what, she wasn’t quite certain. She had thought it best not to ask, deciding her secret would prove much more useful if none were the wiser to her tricks.
She retrieved her lock pick set from her pants pocket, a rarity it was to have a pocket at all. Her dresses were full of material that fanned out and bustled her hips, but there were no pockets sewn in. The long metal slipped into the lock and she fussed with the top mechanism, attempting to feel the click as she fiddled with the iron material. It took more than just opening a padlock. Lena listened to the sound of the safe as she turned the lock, closing her eyes, listening for the slightly pitched sound that alerted her that she met the right number on the safe. It was difficult with the hum of the engine and clank of the wheels beneath the wagon interrupting her.
The room, though dark, held a hint of light as the sun gleamed in through the wooden slats of the train carriage. The wheels beneath the train were loud and clicked as the train shifted its weight on a turn, forcing Lena to let go of the lock pick and hold onto the safe so as not to fall. She was light on her feet, dainty, even dressed as a boy, and found it difficult to remain steady while in mid-turn. The shift of the train wagon jolted Lena about before she regained her composure and retrieved the lock pick set, bending slightly as she worked the lock. Her eyes were narrowed and her hands steady, feeling for the second click of three.
The sunlight streamed in against Lena’s back, the warmth caressing her coat, warming her even in the cool spring air. It was unseasonably cool for May, forcing Lena to button up her overcoat, which wasn’t a terrible feat considering she needed the jacket to hide her womanly curves.
The metal clicked at the perfect tempo, and she felt before she saw the door unlock. Slowly, Lena opened the iron safe door, relieved she could force her way inside. She wasn’t surprised by the door’s weight or size as it squeaked on its hinge. Inside, lay stack upon stack of gold bars.
Lena’s hands twitched and her heart raced. There were far more gold bars than she had ever imagined. She unlatched the luggage bag and began to shuffle the heavy bars of gold into the suitcase. Lena would have to refrain from returning to her original seat. It would look suspect for her to have changed train carriages and then return as though nothing had happened at all. Even more difficult would be for her to lift the bag above her head. She had done so with ease when it was empty, but now it would be a great struggle to put it above her on the luggage rack. Perhaps she would be better off to keep the luggage at her feet, close and tight.
She worked quickly to shuffle the bars of gold into the bag, lifting the handle, and making certain it wouldn’t be too heavy. She had intended to take only a few bars, but with the space that she had and the amount of gold left behind, Lena doubted anyone would notice. It wasn’t as though she had attempted to steal the entire lot of gold on her own. That would be foolish! She had never found a partner in crime whom she could trust. Risking her life wasn’t worth it.
As Lena shut the luggage bag, she heard the click of the door and ducked behind the safe, careful not to be seen. Who was visiting the freight car while the train was in route to Paris? Had someone suspected foul play? Lena had been cautious and quick to make sure that she hadn’t been followed. If she had, the intruder would have bothered her much earlier while she was picking the lock.
“This way,” a gruff male voice said.
There were several sets of footsteps that followed. She wasn’t alone, and by the sound of the heavy footfalls, there were three men who approached. Glancing up slightly, she caught sight through the sunlight slits of light bouncing off one of the men’s faces.
Lena had no time to shut the safe without the metal clasp being heard by all. As it was, she had her bag to slip out along with her, back through the doors where the men had come in from. Could she make it without being caught?
What were they doing in the freight car? Had they also known about the gold transfer? Her stomach tensed. If they hadn’t, she would be to blame, leaving the safe open for all.
With quiet precision, Lena carried her luggage out the door and back into the train cabin, doing her best to go unnoticed. Four cars back from where she had previously sat, Lena sat down and stuffed the heavy bag at her feet, paying no attention to the lady sitting across from her. With her head bent down and her hat tipped slightly forward, she kept her gaze down toward the floor, making sure the bag wouldn’t clank or slide in the slightest with the shift of the train as the tracks turned yet again. She waited to catch sight of the men who were robbing the train carriage, wanting to get a proper look at them.
No one ever reemerged. Had they escaped a different way off the train, or did they remain with the stolen goods?
The journey lasted quite a few hours, and Lena was anxious to get off the train unnoticed. She hadn’t thought enough ahead for how she would return to England. Would she chance bringing the gold bars back onto the train? Perhaps she would dress as a woman and would go unnoticed with her luggage. She eventually shut her eyes, pretending to sleep, desiring to draw as little attention to herself as possible. Breathing slowly, Lena tried to calm her heart that beat uncontrollably from her nerves.
What would happen to her if she were caught? She suspected that she would be sentenced and transported to the penal colony. Her crime didn’t involve harm to another, which meant at least she wouldn’t be hanged, as far as Lena knew. Besides, she was a woman. The officers would not look closely at her luggage or her as a suspect. She had seen how easily she was ignored over the years, barely even glanced upon.
The stern pattern of footsteps clunked down the aisle, forcing her heart to race.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” the gentleman’s voice she’d recognized from earlier asked the woman sitting across from Lena.
“Of course,” she gestured, making room for him, smiling and her cheeks blushing boldly. Did she think that he was interested in her?
Lena tried to hide the smile from her face as she swallowed the nervous lump forming in her throat. She opted not to open her mouth, knowing that her voice would betray her when she spoke.
“Your bag looks quite a bit fuller,” he said, staring down at Lena’s feet.
Her shoes were too big. The only ones that were suitable for a man were her father’s and his feet were much too big. She had stuffed the toes, making her capable of at least walking without a strange hobble.
Lena glanced down at her bag and merely offered a shrug. She decided it was best to continue the charade of not speaking. Thus far, he hadn’t surmised she was a woman, so perhaps when they arrived in Paris, she could slip off the train and disappear unnoticed. Surely, he hadn’t determined that there had been a gold heist onboard.
“Vos sacs semblent plus grands.”
Lena slowly lifted her head, meeting his stare. Had he thought that she didn’t speak English? She knew a little French; her tutor had certainly tried to teach her a great deal of the language, but she had not been overly interested. At the time, she had not found any reason to learn French. Her family was English; she would marry a man who was English. What reason was there for her to learn French? Of course, it would be deemed proper and ladylike, but she cared little for that reason.
“I speak English,” Lena said, coughing as she tried to mask her voice, as though she were slightly ill. Her gaze met his steely blue eyes before glancing away. He was handsome, no doubt, with his dark, rich chestnut hair. He was taller than Lena, though most men were taller than she was.
“I’m pleased to hear that. My name is William Mason, and I believe you have stolen something that belongs to me.”
Lena’s heart skipped a beat and her eyes widened. He couldn’t know. Surely, he wouldn’t have visited the freight car, unless he had suspected what she was up to. Had the men who had tracked her into the back-train carriage noticed that she had unlocked the safe? Were they responsible for her capture? She opened her mouth, but no words seemed to escape. Confessing without his outright accusation was foolish. She was not about to bury herself deeper, if possible.
“What is that?” Lena asked, her voice softer, more feminine. She coughed, again attempting to clear her throat, as though she were harboring a cold and not a dozen bars of gold in her luggage.
“When you were seated earlier, I had placed my scarf in the overhead bin above your bag. It had been quite foolish of me to use your space, but I thought it might help remind me that my scarf was even there at all.”
Lena refrained from commenting on how a scarf would not usually be necessary in May, but the chill in the air had been reason enough for her to bring along her mittens. Had she donned a scarf, Lena would have done the same.
“I am sorry, sir. I do not have your scarf. Perhaps it is lying on the floor?” Lena’s voice grew even softer, more feminine as she spoke and forgot to clear her throat.
William looked her over, his brow furrowed as he perhaps tried to make sense of her behavior. She had not intended to interact with anyone on the journey to Paris, but he had certainly been adamant about reaching out to her. “You are no gentleman at all,” he said, stepping closer, his eyes moving down Lena’s body. She would have felt far more uncomfortable had she not had several layers of clothes on covering her up.
“I do not know what you mean.” Lena continued to pretend to be confused by his demeanor. Perhaps he would leave her well enough alone. Could she be so lucky?
He laughed softly under his breath and stepped closer, making it so that only she could hear what he wished to say. “I do not know why you hide in clothes made for a young man, but I surmise that you wish to run away. Is that correct?”
Lena’s brow furrowed and she nodded slowly, offering him consideration of his words. He was not incorrect; she was leaving England, though it was less about absolute need and more in regards to desire. She had grown bored with her parents trying to set her up and choose a suitable husband for her. The dinner parties were tiresome and long. Leaving for a few days on an adventure seemed like a much more enjoyable plan. She had lied to her parents, promised them that she was visiting her Aunt Elizabeth and would return in a few days. No one would ever know what she had been up to.
They may, of course, question her sudden wealth, but she could pretend she had met someone wealthy and handsome, married him and he was away on business, as he would always have to be. Perhaps her father would gift the non-existent man her dowry, and she might have some additional funds granted to her, assuming she could give herself access to the money. It would not be easy, but Lena was a smart young lady with a creative mind.
“I do not wish to live in London where my parents desire to marry me to the next possible suitor who knocks on the door,” Lena said. She was not trying to make a joke of the situation, but William had apparently found it funny as laughter spilled past his lips. She wasn’t lying either. Her parents did wish to marry her off, should they find the right proponent. Lena wished for no such marriage to be arranged, quite happier on her own. The men had bored her terribly and seemed interested only in her dowry.
“Sorry,” he said, quick to apologize, perhaps having realized she was not laughing with him. “That must be difficult, being forced to marry a man whom you hardly know at all.”
Lena merely shrugged. “I ran away. There is no crime in starting anew.” She held her hands sternly on the luggage, making certain that William could not offer his assistance.
“Do your parents know where you are and that you are well?”
Her brow furrowed, curious why he cared what her parents thought or knew of her whereabouts. “They are fine. You do not need to concern yourself with my family.” She was not used to such intimate and harsh scrutiny. Usually, the attention was not on her. Though it was not because she wasn’t pretty or ladylike, she often paid men no time of day, refusing so much as to look at them, which they soon learned meant that there was little or no interest. Her parents had at least been generous in requiring a suitor to be to her liking as well. It seemed a marriage was never to happen, and Lena was just as grateful to be unwed as she was to be stealing gold from the train.
The woman who had been sitting across from Lena smiled politely and excused herself, walking down to an empty seat. Perhaps she had heard enough and decided she didn’t wish to be a part of their conversation.
“I do not have your scarf, Mr. Mason,” Lena said, remembering his name. It had been easy enough to roll off one’s tongue. She had hoped that he would wander back to the seat from which he had come.
William smiled and shrugged, making himself comfortable as he sat across from her. “William is fine. You do not need to worry yourself with proper salutation. It makes me feel much too old. As for my scarf, it’s quite all right. I didn’t care much for it anyhow. Tell me, how do you plan to eat, have a roof over your head and survive? I can’t imagine a young lady with no dowry has a great deal of funds. Surely, you have already arranged for a job? Perhaps as a schoolteacher?”
It was not uncommon for ladies to be teachers or tutors. Lena had no such experience and had decided it was much easier to steal the gold than to earn a few shillings. “Yes, I am to work as a schoolteacher in Paris,” Lena said. She tried to sound confident in her response.
“How is your French?” William asked, glancing her over.
Did he not think that she was sophisticated? It would not be a surprise considering the way she dressed, but she was not typically in clothes made for a young man.
“I shall manage. You do not need to worry about me.” Lena was not used to other men even considering her needs or thinking at all about her. She thought it best to change the subject and shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Tell me, what brings you all the way from London to Paris?” It was no secret that he was traveling alone. He wore no ring on his finger and Lena assumed it meant that he was unwed as well.
William kept his gaze steady on her as he seemed to relax in the seat across from hers. “My work.”
“Aren’t you the cryptic one?” Why was it that he could ask her questions, but he refrained from answering about himself? “What do you do for a living?” Lena asked. She always had a way of getting right to the point.
“I am a guard hired to secure certain items transported between cities.”
Lena’s eyes widened as she tried her best not to seem quite surprised by the news. He was onboard to protect the gold that she had stolen. What would happen if he discovered what lay inside her bag? Was he hired solely as a transport guard, or was he an actual officer with a weapon and handcuffs to detain a suspect? She didn’t want to discover the truth on her own.
“That sounds rather interesting, your profession,” Lena said. “Tell me more.” She smiled politely, leaning forward, feigning interest in his business. Was it not best to pretend to be attentive, to gather information than him discover the real reason for her curiosity?
“I don’t believe I can,” William said.
She smiled and leaned back in her seat. “Can you tell me what you are transporting that is worth hiring a man to watch over it?” Though, in fact, he wasn’t watching the safes directly, Lena realized he was studying the passengers on the train. Had he chosen her specifically because he believed that she was to blame for the robbery? Although it didn’t appear as though he was made aware that any gold had been stolen at all.
Lena felt only slightly bad to think that he very well may lose his job when they arrived in Paris and discovered the entire safe was bare. She may not have stolen all the gold, but having left the safe open, surely, it was emptied by now.
William laughed softly and shook his head. “You ask far too many questions.”
“You didn’t come over to me because of your missing scarf, did you?” Had he realized that, although dressed as a boy, she had in fact been a woman?
“I am missing my scarf,” William corrected her. “However, I did find you a little peculiar, barely meeting my gaze. I suppose I wanted to make sure that you weren’t robbing the train.” He laughed, as if the idea of a woman thief was preposterous.
She opted not to ask what was quite so funny that he was belly rolling from the joke. If only he knew what lay at her feet, he wouldn’t be laughing. Not wanting to arouse suspicion, Lena smiled softly and laughed too, deciding it was best to play along with him. “You caught me. I’m a woman.”
William glanced her over and nodded. “I see that.”
Though her curves were quite well hidden beneath the overcoat, the hat that had tucked her blonde tendrils had begun to fall with her laughter. She shifted the lid, fixing her hair. William may have known part of her secret, but she didn’t wish to draw further attention upon herself.
He sighed heavily and stood, leaning slightly forward into her personal space. “I shall see you later.”
“Where are you going?” Her voice hitched with anxiety as he glanced at the door to the train wagon.
“I need to check on what I’m guarding. Perhaps we shall dine together later?” William asked. He reached for her hand, taking her palm and pressing his lips to the back of her hand.
Lena’s cheeks flamed from embarrassment, excitement and nerves at what he would discover. She had intended for no one to pay her any attention on the train, but William had been drawn to her, for whatever reason, and now he would come back with more questions when he discovered the load was missing. Her stomach ached at the thought of what would happen.