In April, I sent Crystal Cox her made-to-order story, The Raven’s Lady. I promised her sole use of it for the month of May. Today, in New Zealand, it’s 1 June, and over the next month or so, I’m going to post this story, and Tiffany Reid’s Kidnapped to Freedom. I’m also planning to make them into ebooks for my newsletter subscribers (if you’re a subscriber, expect to get a link within a week). And sooner or later, I’ll give away enough made-to-order story prizes to have a collection. (The next one is at my friend Mari Christie’s party on 10 June. She’s launching La Déesse Noire, written under her pen name, Mariana Gabrielle.) So that’s the plan. Now, without further ado, The Raven’s Lady.
In the past eight years, Felix Maddox had spent more hours staking out suspects than he ever wished to remember. He couldn’t count the number of nights he’d spent awake, knowing he’d go into battle the next morning. He had even been imprisoned for six months.
This evening as a guest in what should be his own home was probably not the most interminable he had ever suffered through. At this moment, though, it certainly felt like it.
The lady he was supposedly here to consider as a wife was pretty enough, he supposed, if one liked milk-and-water misses who never looked up from their plates, and who answered every conversational sally with a monosyllable or a giggle.
She had sadly changed from the lively child he remembered. But that was long ago, almost another life. She was nine, and he was fourteen, the last time they parted.
The only interesting thing about her now, as far as he could see, was the raven she kept as a pet. He remembered the raven, too. He’d been the one to rescue the half-fledged bird from a cat, but Joselyn Bellingham was the one who tended it, fed it, and captured its affection.
He’d been startled when the raven flew in the library window that afternoon, fixed him with a knowing eye, then marched out the door and along the hall, to tap at the door of Miss Bellingham’s sitting room until she opened and let it in.
Now, though, at dinner, any sign of originality was absent. And as for his cousin, the fat oaf who had inherited the viscountcy when Felix was reported dead, the man’s conversation was all on-dits about people Felix didn’t know and off-colour jokes that were inappropriate in front of a lady, and not even funny.
Miss Bellingham rose to leave the gentlemen to their port, and Felix forced his face into a pleasant smile as he prepared to get fat Cyril even drunker and pump him for any knowledge he had of the Black Fox, the smuggler Felix had been sent to investigate.
A waste of time, in his opinion. Cyril couldn’t organise a bunfight in a baker’s shop. The condition of the lands and buildings on the estates of Maddox Grange showed the man was a total incompetent.
Felix couldn’t blame Cyril for thinking he was the viscount. Felix had decided to stay dead to more easily find the traitors who had given him up to the French. The released prisoner, Frederick Matthews, was no threat to them until all of a sudden they were behind bars. Then Colonel Webster, one of Castlereagh’s men, had approached him and said the identity he had painstakingly created could be used to help England win the war.
He’d stayed in that identity even after Napoleon was exiled to Elba, sure the emperor would not accept his defeat. The right decision, as it turned out—but Waterloo had finished Napoleon’s ambitions forever, and he was now home to claim his own; just this one last job for Webster to complete.
Felix had nothing against smugglers who simply sought to make a living, but he hated with a passion the type Webster was after; those who had smuggled French spies onto English soil. And the Black Fox—the smuggler leader on the patch of coast that belonged to Maddox Grange—was, by all accounts, the worst of the worst.
“So what did you think of her? Nice tits, eh?” Cyril made cupping movements under his own not inconsiderable dugs.
Felix resisted the urge to punch the fool. “She’s very quiet,” he said.
“Yes, that’s an advantage, don’t you think,” Cyril agreed. “Who wants a chattering woman? And she’s a good housekeeper, don’t you know? And used to living in the country, so you could just leave her at your estate—you did say you had an estate, Matthews?”
“Yes, I have an estate.” After the meeting with Webster, he’d been sitting at his club considering his options when Cyril Maddox came in with a group of cronies. That wasn’t so surprising. The Maddoxes had been members of Brookes since it opened. He hadn’t recognised Cyril; he hadn’t seen him since they were boys. But the group sat right behind him, and he’d soon realised that the supposed viscount was talking about raising money by selling Felix’s childhood friend.
“Does Miss Bellingham have a fortune, Maddox?” one of the others asked. “I’m not interested in a chit without a fortune.”
“A competence, rather. In trust till she turns 25 or marries,” Cyril said. “If she had a fortune, Peckridge, I’d be marrying her myself! But 2,000 pounds, gents! That’s worth an investment of 500, surely? And she’ll have control of it herself in less than three years. A sin against nature, that is.”
“22? That’s pretty old! What’s wrong with her? Secondhand, is she?” The others all sniggered.
Cyril was indignant, more on behalf of his sale than in defence of Miss Bellingham. Felix was indignant enough on that cause for both of them. He remembered Jocelyn Bellingham; remembered her well. She was Cyril’s cousin, not his; the daughter of Cyril’s mother’s sister, left to her aunt’s care after the death of her parents, “and as shy and modest a lady as you could wish to find,” Cyril proclaimed.
Even if he hadn’t had his mission, Felix might have spoken up at that point, for the sake of the child he remembered. As it was, he introduced himself (as Frederick Matthews), apologised for overhearing, and announced that he was interested in 2000 pounds and would be willing to consider taking a wife. It worked, and here he was, drinking his own port, in his own house, and listening to cousin Cyril describing a lady in terms that made him see red.
Suddenly, he could stand it no longer. His investigation into the Black Fox would have to wait for tomorrow. “I’m tired, Maddox,” he said. “I think I’ll turn in.”