At night the
invisible line of demarcation between the City of London and its East
End became more pronounced as the narrow streets east of Aldgate took on
an eerie sinisterness. Even the sounds were different here in the East
End than those emanating from the solid edifices of The City. Cackles
induced by too much gin, incessant crying of unwanted babies, and coarse
solicitations from flea-bitten whores were as intrinsic to this
neighborhood as its rickety, bulging buildings. Here, human life held no
value. Cutthroats would kill a man for two pence.
Which was one reason
why William Birmingham never went east of Aldgate at night without a
On his normal
nocturnal forays to the docks where the Birmingham yacht was moored he
was accompanied by a virtual army of his family’s trusted guards.
Tonight he came
requested that he do so. And when thousands of pounds were at stake,
William could be commanded, especially since MacIver was one of the few
men he trusted.
As William neared
the docklands tavern where he would meet MacIver, he patted his coat and
was oddly comforted by the steely feel of his pistol. The very threat of
danger accelerated the thump of his heartbeat. In a good way. While his
brothers made their fortunes taking risks on the stock market or in
staid banking circles, William thrived on risking his own life and limb.
He courted adventure with the same fervor that guided Nick and Adam to
seek ever-higher interest rates. Nothing could induce him to settle down
with the family business on Threadneedle Street. Not when he could help
the Birmingham coffers in capitals throughout Europe--or in seedy little
taverns in London’s East End.
The Howling Hound
public house -- aptly named for its raucous noises -- was located a
hundred yards from the docks and had long been a favorite haunt of
sailors. William circled the tavern’s exterior twice, looking for any
shadowed figures lurking in doorways. Once he was satisfied he was not
walking into a trap, he dismounted to wait outside the tavern for
He did not expect
danger, but a rich man must be careful in this neighborhood. William had
chosen to disguise his wealth by covering his finely tailored clothing
with a worn, outmoded greatcoat that did little to protect him from the
January chill. He would not, however, concede to riding a nag. Had he
need for a fast getaway, he wished to be assured of a fleet-footed
Mellow yellow light
from the tavern’s window spilled onto the dirt street outside, and the
night was filled with the sound of foghorns and cockney voices
alternately arguing and laughing lustily. Before two minutes had passed,
MacIver came swaggering up to him. Neither man spoke until the gap
between them was less than an arm’s length.
“‘Tis good to see
ye’ve followed me instructions to a tee, Mr. Birmingham,” the older man
“Only because you’ve
earned my trust.”
narrowed as he peered into the Howling Hound, then lowered his voice.
“Let us move away a wee bit.”
The two men strode
into the middle of the street. William could barely see his companion’s
craggy face in the night’s misty darkness. “You’ve got the bullion?”
“Aye, but we’ve got
to be careful. What with the cutthroats and the authorities, a gent
can’t be too careful.”
“Then you won’t be
able to deliver it to my brother’s bank?” William asked.
MacIver shook his
head. “Not for this transaction, guv’nah.”
dipped. “Have you not been well paid in the past?”
“Aye, but I’m merely
a go-between this time.”
William could not believe that MacIver had ever been anything but a
go-between, a bridge from the smugglers to the Birminghams, England’s
wealthiest family. He shrugged. “It’s of no importance how we get it to
my brother. As you know, my family does not lack for safe conveyances
and well-armed guards.”
“Aye. That’s what
will be needed now.” MacIver lowered his raspy voice. “This shipment is
considerably more valuable than the others.”
“How much more
valuable, indeed. William tamped down his excitement and spoke casually
in his cultured voice. “How do we take possession?”
“Ye must wait until
had changed. The man had previously been too greedy to trust anyone
else. Of course, previous bullion shipments had never exceeded twenty
thousand pounds. “And who will be contacting me?” William asked.
“A . . . lady.”
“And how will I know
this . . . lady?”
“She will be lovely,
and her name is Isadore.”
“I’d rather be dead
than wed.” Lady Sophia glanced down at the solid earth some forty feet
below and was sickeningly aware of how close she was to fulfilling her
statement. She prayed the ledge upon which she stood would not give way.
“But ye are wed,
Depend on her
pragmatic maid to take things so utterly literally. “Wed, but not bed --
and I believe that is a vastly important distinction.”
Her maid snorted.
against the wall, Lady Sophia inched toward the corner of the building.
“I’m shaking so hard
I fear I’ll tumble to me death,” Dottie said. “Ye know how fearful I am
“No one held a
pistol to your head and forced you to come out that window with me.” Why
must she always speak so flippantly in grave situations? Seriously,
Sophia wouldn’t at all like to see her trusted servant splattered on the
gravel simply because she herself had made the dreadful mistake of
marrying Lord Finkel that very afternoon.
“I’ve been with ye
since the day ye was born, and I’ll not leave ye now. Besides, I didn’t
want to be around when yer bridegroom discovers ye’ve fled. The servants
say Lord Finkel has a fierce temper.”
Finkie? A fierce
temper? Sophia could hardly
credit it. An affable baboon was closer to the mark. Why oh why had she
ever consented to wed the bore? Perhaps because he was titled, terribly
handsome, paid uncommon homage to her beauty -- and had protected her
sister’s reputation. In what was undoubtedly the most moronic moment of
her life she had decided that being Finkie’s marchioness was preferable
to being a spinster of the advanced age of seven and twenty.
That was before he
kissed her. The only physical reaction his most unsatisfactory kiss
elicited in her was nausea. Because of the kippers. Lord Finkel’s breath
smelled -- and tasted -- distinctly of kippers.
And that bit of
knowledge added to the tusk business sent her packing her bags before he
had the opportunity to offend any more of her senses.
In all fairness to
Lord Finkel, it wasn’t his fault about the tusk business. It only
happened that once -- the day his valet was abed with fever and had been
unable to shave the tufts of nasal hair that protruded from each of
Finkie’s nostrils like a pair of elephant tusks. But still, whenever she
thought of Lord Finkel after that she had been unable to dispel the
vision of those dark brown tusks jutting from his nose.
All of this made her
seem excessively shallow and unduly sensitive to sensory assaults. Which
she really couldn’t deny. But there was something else about Finkie that
put her off, though she could not express it any more than she
understood it. She supposed it all boiled down to the fact that -- try
as she might -- she could not admire the man. He was even more shallow
If she and Dottie
could just make it to the corner of the building, they could lower
themselves onto the steep roof of the orangery and from there could
shimmy down to the shrubs. “Should you like me to hold your hand?”
Dottie sucked in her
breath. “No, please. I beg you, don’t touch me!” Her maid’s voice
quivered with terror.
Curling her toes and
gripping the stone wall, Sophia ever so slightly swivelled her head to
face Dottie, but the night was so inky black she could not see her.
“Then allow me to take your valise--or should I say, Lord Finkel’s
valise. Then I’ll be balanced with a valise in each hand.”
“I ’av a better
Her maid’s utterance
was followed by the distant thump of the valise hitting the ground.
“A very good idea.”
Lady Sophia let go of her own valise. “Oh, dear,” she whispered, “I do
hope no one heard the noise.”
“If they did look
out the window,” Dottie said in a low voice, “they’d likely not see
anything to rouse suspicion.”
Of course. Dottie
was always right. (A pity Sophia had not listened to her when she
disparaged Lord Finkel.) Anyone who may have heard the noise would be
looking for people, which they wouldn’t see because these people were
still flapping against a wall three floors up.
“You don’t suppose
his lordship will ’av me arrested for stealing his valise?” Dottie
“I daresay he won’t
even miss it. Had he need of it, it wouldn’t have been just sitting
there quite empty in his library. You must own, it looks a bit tawdry
for a man of Lord Finkel’s extravagant taste.”
“Aye, that it does.”
Soon Sophia reached
the corner of the edifice and negotiated a turn, relieved to see the
silvery looking top of the orangery. She drew a deep breath and lowered
herself until she was sitting upon its roof. A moment later, a trembling
Dottie joined her. “What now, milady?”
“We’re going to
scoot to the lowest part, then climb down those yews.”
“Ye’ll get yer cape
filthy -- if ye don’t break yer lovely neck.”
“Don’t be so
pessimistic. The hardest part’s behind us,” Sophia called over her
shoulder as she pushed off. Somewhere between the apex of the glass
building and the yew trees which skimmed its side, she wondered how long
a bridegroom would wait for his bride to prepare for bed. Would Finkie
be pounding upon her door yet? Or worse still, would he be using his
considerable strength to tear it down? She needed no greater impetus
than the vision of her exceedingly strong bridegroom – enraged -- to
send her sprawling into the yew branches. Rip. She winced at the
damage to her silk dress but scurried down the tree, grateful her gloves
protected her hands.
gathered up her courage to follow her mistress, Sophia collected the two
valises, but when she returned, Dottie just sat atop the glass building
whimpering. “I can’t.”
Sophia drew an
impatient breath. “If I can do it, you can. I assure you, this is a most
“But it don’t have
limbs like a proper tree. I fear I’ll topple on me head.”
“You put your feet
first,” Sophia said through clenched teeth. “And I beg that you hurry.
We really must be away from Upton Manor when Lord Finkel discovers me
The maid eased each
dangling leg over the roofline. “I can’t.”
“Just leap onto the
tree and slide down. That tree’s not going anywhere. Besides, I’ll be
right here to catch you if you fail.” Sophia came to stand directly
beneath her maid.
That seemed to ease
A moment later, amid
a great deal of whining and gasping, the maid’s feet touched solid
ground, and the two women began to tread across the frosty grass of
Sophia sighed, her
breath forming a cloud in the frigid air. “A pity I didn’t get married
in the summer.”
“Why do you say
that, milady?” Dottie asked, breathlessly.
must be the coldest night of the year.”
“Aye, it’s blustery,
all right, but at least it’s not snowing.”
“A good thing, too.
Our tracks would be devilishly hard to erase in the snow, and I
shouldn’t like for Lord Finkel to find me and bring me back.”
“He’s sure to go to
the posting inn in Knotworth.”
“That is why we
shall go to the posting inn north of Knotworth. He will, quite
naturally, be expecting me to return to London.”
“We aren’t going to
“Of course we’re
going to London.”
“Yer too clever for
me. Clever ye were, too, to ’av us dress in black so we’ll blend in with
the night, but why did you insist on me wearing one of yer lovely
“Because Lord Finkel
is sure to send servants searching for me, and they will quite naturally
be seeking a well-born lady traveling with her maid. I have therefore
decided that we will travel as sisters, and I shan’t wish for anyone to
suspect that I’m anything other than a genteel lady of middle class.”
“I won’t tell anyone
yer a fine lady.”
“Of course you
won’t. You’re to be a mute.”
“One of them people
who can’t speak?” There was a smidgeon of outrage in Dottie’s voice.
* * *
He had waited a very
long time to make Lady Sophia his own. He could scarcely believe his
good fortune. For years every eligible bachelor in the ton had
begged for her hand in marriage, but it was he who had been so
singularly honored. He alone possessed the three things that had
endeared himself to the beautiful lady: his title, his good looks, and
his ability to protect her sister’s good name.
Lady Sophia need
never know she had been one of dozens he had duped or betrayed over the
years, nor did she need to know his greatest source of income came from
his arrangement with the publisher Smith. Because of his own
exalted position, Lord Finkel possessed all manner of information that
wealthy aristocrats would pay handsomely to prevent from being
published. The prevention of one particular piece relating to Lady
Sophia’s younger sister had won him Lady Sophia’s profound gratitude.
Now he had what he’d
always wanted. His wife was beautiful, came with a large dowry, and in a
few minutes he would slake his intense hunger for her between two
smooth, ivory thighs.
The very thought
But what in the hell
was taking her so bloody long to ready for bed? She had said she would
come to his room through the dressing room that linked her chambers to
his. During the hour he had waited, he had schooled himself to be
patient. He had anticipated this night for years. A few minutes more
would not matter.
He strode angrily
across the carpet of his bedchamber, yanked the stopper off a decanter
of Madeira, poured himself a glass, and drank it in one long swig. This
wasn’t how he'd planned this night. Knowing his bride was a virgin, he
had intended to relax her with a glass of wine as they cozied up on the
settee by his fire while he touched her in places that would have her
begging to be carried to his bed.
Now the scenario
He was much too
hungry for her to waste time on foreplay, and he was so angry that a
swift deflowering would give him great pleasure. Cursing under his
breath, he began to pace the carpet.
Another half hour
passed. Damn, but he could be the gentleman no longer! He rushed to his
dressing room and stormed through it, throwing open the door to his
wife’s bedchamber. His eye went straight to the large tester bed that
was draped in emerald silk. It was empty. His gaze circled the silent
Not a soul in sight.
Was the damn wench
still in her dressing room? He stalked to the door and swung it open.
The gown she had worn that day puddled on the floor, but neither its
owner nor her maid where anywhere in sight.
What the hell?
Seized by a blinding fury, he reentered her bedchamber and scanned the
sumptuous room. A piece of parchment was propped up on the gilt
escritoire. His brows scrunched down, he stalked to the desk and began
Dear Lord Finkel,
I’ve had a change
of heart. I do not wish to be your wife. Please don’t try to bring me
back. I shall consult with my brother. Perhaps he can propose an
agreeable manner in which we can dissolve this marriage. I’m truly
thundering rage bolted through him. He sure as hell was going to
bring her back! She was his, by God. If he had to rape her, he’d make
her his. He returned to his chamber and rang for a servant.
When his puzzled
valet appeared, Lord Finkel spit out his orders. “Gather up all the
footmen and have them meet me in the library.”
He swiftly dressed
and went downstairs to the book-lined chamber. As soon as he took a seat
behind his desk, he glanced at the floor and realized his valise was not
there where he always kept it. His heart pounding, he leaped to his feet
and began to search the room. But the bag was gone.
The first servant
who entered the room had to bear his wrath. “Who in the hell’s taken my
“I couldn’t say, my
Lord Finkel pounded
his desk. “Evans! Come here at once.”
A few seconds later
the panting butler entered the library. “My lord?”
“My valise is gone!”
Lord Finkel said. “Do you know anything about it?”
“No, my lord.”
One of a pair of
youthful footmen who came striding into the chamber answered him. “I
believe your wife’s maid had it, my lord.”
“My wife’s maid?”
Lord Finkel thundered. “Why in the hell didn’t you take it from her?”
shrugged. “’Twern’t my place. I thought — because it was shabby like —
you’d given it to the lady.”
He would gladly kill
the bitch. And her mistress, too. His mouth set firmly, his voice grim,
he appraised the room full of servants. “The woman is a thief. She and .
. . Lady Finkel have disappeared with my valise. I want all of them
back. Whichever of you finds the . . . ladies will be rewarded
* * *
Several hours later
Sophia and Dottie, so exhausted they could barely set one foot in front
of the other, exclaimed at the sight of the welcome lantern glow that
illuminated the exterior of the posting inn at Shelton. It had been more
than two hours since they had seen a single halo of light — not even a
carriage lamp. Which was really not surprise. Only a lunatic would brave
these muddy country roads at night during a wretched rain storm.
More than once
during the miserable trek Sophia had asked herself if she would have
gone out Lord Finkel’s window had she known that she would have to brave
so savage a storm. No sooner had they cleared Upton Manor than thunder
began to rumble and prodigious amounts of rain started to pound down
upon them. Her merino cape was of little protection against the deluge.
Indeed, not even the linen shift closest to her body remained dry. Her
wet boots rubbed big, raw blisters on her feet. And she had never been
so cold in her entire life. Despite all the physical discomforts,
though, she thought she would rather be traipsing through a blizzard
than be in Lord Finkel’s bed — beneath him.
Voices filled the
livery stable, and the inn yard was crammed with conveyances. It was
just her luck that on the night she fled Finkie’s bed the tiny village
of Shelton had become a Mecca for aborted London-bound travelers. Before
she and Dottie ever proceeded through the aged timber door of the
Prickly Pig she knew there would not be an available room.
She only hoped they
could find a dry spot to wait for the morning post chaise -- if the
innkeeper did not toss out the pair of bedraggled women. She clutched
Dottie’s bony forearm. “Remember, you are not to speak.” Then she threw
open the door.
The blazing fire
that warmed the room was a far more welcome sight than the forty or more
persons — all men and all gaping at her — who crammed into the small
She flipped off the
hood of her cape and held her head high as she regally strode to an
aproned man who looked as if he could be the innkeeper. “My sister and I
should like chambers,” she said.
Roars of laughter
greeted her words. Her first thought was that everyone knew Dottie was
not her sister, then she realized they could not possibly know such a
thing. Therefore, they must be laughing at the improbability of her
securing a room on such a night as this.
“I’m sorry, miss.
We’re full up tonight,” the man said in a kindly voice. He no doubt took
pity on the deranged woman who stood before him soaked from head to toe.
She sighed. “If you
could just secure a dry corner for us to wait until the morning post
chaise . . .”
shrugged. “I’m sorry, miss, but this taproom’s the only place.”
She favored him with
a radiant smile. Since she had left the school room (long ago) she had
discovered that a smile from Lady Sophia Devere was as treasured by men
as a gift of shiny guineas. As she stood there smiling insipidly, her
gaze flicked to the jagged tears in her costly cape and to the
mud-encrusted boots. She ran a hand through her dark locks. It was
rather like petting a wet duck. How perfectly UNappealing she must look!
Even if she was flashing her best smile. Heaven help her if he took her
for a doxie.
“I’ll see if I can
find two more chairs,” he said, disappearing behind a swinging door.
She drew a sigh of
relief that he’d not thought her a loose woman.
A moment later he
returned with a spindleless chair in each hand. “I’ll sit you ladies in
the corner and bring you some ’ot tea.”
“We would be
exceedingly grateful,” Sophia said.
During the next hour
as she sat there unable to talk to Dottie because of Dottie’s orders not
to reply, Lady Sophia took the opportunity to observe the drunken men
who surrounded them. They must be servants of the persons of quality who
no doubt were fast asleep in comfortable beds upstairs. Though she was
seven and twenty years of age and considered herself a woman of the
world, Sophia had never before been in a room full of low-born men.
At the very instant
she came to that realization, an exceedingly well dressed man came
striding into the taproom, with an older, less elegantly dressed man
tagging behind him. No doubt, his valet. He tossed off his dripping
great coat, handed it to the man on his heels, and scanned the room, his
gaze flitting past Sophia before he made eye contact with the innkeeper
and began to address him.
The room was so
noisy Sophia could not hear what the man said, but she could not seem to
remove her gaze from him. Without the enormous coat, he was uncommonly
handsome. Though he was a gentleman from his starchy cravat to the tips
of his shiny Hessians (which, unlike Sophia’s boots, were NOT muddy),
there was a ruggedness about him. She could see him striding the bow of
a pirate ship with broadsword in hand, his golden hair waving in the
breeze, his exceedingly wide shoulders straining against a creamy linen
shirt. His skin glowed with a healthy summer-like tan despite that it
was the dead of winter.
She watched as the
innkeeper solemnly shook his head, and the handsome newcomer nodded. A
moment later, still standing at the bar, he tossed down a bumper of ale.
To keep from staring
at the handsome man, she lifted the curtain to peer out the window. Her
heart nearly exploded at what she saw. Two men whose Finkel livery
showed beneath their gaping coats were handing their horses to an ostler.
“Come, Dottie, quickly,” she commanded as she whipped out of her chair
and strode to the bar to stand beside the Adonis. “Well met, sir. I’ve
been searching for you,” she said boldly to the well dressed man.
He set down his
drink and turned to regard her. She was careful to keep her back to the
door while yanking Dottie’s arm so that she would do the same.
Remembering her torn clothing, she prayed he would not mistake her for a
His very green eyes
raked over her, and it was a moment before he replied. “Then you must be
It was several
seconds before she found her voice. “Indeed I am, and this is my elder
sister, Dorothea, who is a mute.”
She prayed Isadore
was NOT a trollop.