In the nursery, the two little girls waited, sombre in their mourning blacks. Hugh, Baron Overton, had not paused in the hall below. He handed his gloves and his tall hat with its crepe band to the nursemaid, barely caring whether she caught them. He had eyes only for the poor, orphaned mites left in his care.
He knelt, so he didn’t loom over them, and they both shrank a little, clinging to one another. Were they frightened of him? He had never hurt them; in the four years he’d been married to their Mama, he’d barely seen them.
He could tell himself he’d been busy putting his unexpected inheritance back on a sound financial footing. And it had worked: those long voyages to secure cotton for the mill in Liverpool, trips to London for buyers, constant scurrying to and from the West Indies and the length and breadth of England.
But the truth was, he’d also been avoiding their Mama. Only after he’d married the widow did she tell him she hated him—only after the birth of her deceased husband’s daughter and her own reluctant consent to take him into her bed. Only then did she tell him that she couldn’t bear the scars on his face and body; that it made her ill to touch him.
Was it the scars the girls feared? He turned his head a little, so the light fell on the unmarked side of his face. What did one say to little girls of four and seven?
“Are you well, my dears?”
The older one stiffened her thin shoulders and stuck out her chin, all determination. “Papa?” she said. “Have you come to send us to the orfasemery, Papa?’
“I don’t plan to send you anywhere, Sophrania,” he said, “but I don’t understand? What is an orfasemery?”
She frowned with him, and repeated the words, articulating clearly and slowly. “The orfa semery. Where the orfas live. After their Mama dies.”
Orphans. He would not have understood, if he’d not been thinking the word himself. Later, he would find out which of the maids had been frightening his daughters with tales of an orphans’ seminary. For now…
“You live here, my dears, with me. I am your Papa. This is your home. No one will send you away, I promise. You are not orphans. You have a Papa.”
He settled back, so he was sitting on the floor with the wall as a backrest and his legs outstretched. “Come here, Sophrania. Come here, Emmaline.”
Cautiously, they approached his welcoming arms, each sitting gingerly upright on a thigh.
He rested a gentle hand on each small back, and—on a sudden inspiration—began telling them stories about his own time in this very nursery with his three cousins. And, moment by moment, they relaxed, until he had a little girl nestled on each shoulder, prompting a surge of tender protectiveness.
He had not been a good Papa, but he was all they had. He would have to do better.
1807, West Gloucestershire
Aldridge never did find out how he came to be naked, alone, and sleeping in the small summerhouse in the garden of a country cottage. His last memory of the night before had him twenty miles away, and—although not dressed—in a comfortable bed, and in company.
The first time he woke, he had no idea how far he’d come, but the moonlight was bright enough to show him half-trellised window openings, and an archway leading down a short flight of steps into a garden. A house loomed a few hundred feet distant, a dark shape against the star-bright sky. But getting up was too much trouble, particularly with a headache that hung inches above him, threatening to split his head if he moved. The cushioned bench on which he lay invited him to shut his eyes and go back to sleep. Time enough to find out where he was in the morning.
When he woke again, he was facing away from the archway entrance, and someone was behind him. Silence now, but in his memory, the sound of light footsteps shifting the stones on the path outside, followed by twin intakes of breath as the walkers saw him.
One of them spoke; a woman’s voice, but low—almost husky. “Sarah, go back to the first rosebush and watch the house.”
“Yes, Mama.” High and light. A child’s voice.
Aldridge waited until he heard the child dance lightly down the steps and away along the path, then shifted his weight slightly letting his body roll over till he was lying on his back.
He waited for the exclamation of shock, but none came. Carefully—he wanted to observe her before he let her know he was awake, and anyway, any sudden movement might start up the hammers above his eye sockets—he cracked open his lids, masking his eyes with his lashes.
He could see more than he expected. The woman was using a shuttered lantern to examine him, starting at his feet. She paused for a long time when she reached his morning salute and it grew even prouder. Then she swept her light up his torso so quickly he barely had time to slam his lids shut before the light reached and lingered over his face.
She was just a vague shadow behind the light. He held himself still while she completed her examination, which she did with a snort of disgust. Not the reaction to which he was accustomed.
“Now what do we do?” she muttered. “Perhaps if Sarah and I…? I will have to cover him. What on earth is he doing here? And like that? Not that it matters. Unless he has something to do with Perry? Or the men he said would come?” Incipient panic showed in the rising pitch and volume, until she rebuked herself. “Stop it.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Stay calm. You must think.”
Aldridge risked opening his eyes a mere slit, and was rewarded by a better look at the woman as she paced up and down the summerhouse, in the light of the lantern she’d placed on one of the window ledges.
Spectacular. That was the only appropriate word. Hair that looked black in the poor light, but was probably dark brown, porcelain skin currently flushed with agitation, a heart-shaped face and a perfect cupid’s bow of a mouth, the lower lip—which she was currently chewing—larger than the upper.
The redingote she wore fit closely to a shape of amazing promise, obscured, then disclosed, as the shawl over her shoulders swung with her movements. Even more blood surged to his ever-hopeful member. “Down, boy,” he told it, silently.
“Mama?” That was the little girl, returning down the path. “Mama, I can hear horses.”
The woman froze, every line of her screaming alarm.
Aldridge could hear them too, coming closer through the rustling noises of the night. The quiet clop of walking horses, the riders exchanging a word or two, then nothing. They must have stopped on the other side of the house.
“Sarah.” The woman’s voice, pitched to carry only as far as her daughter’s ears, retreated as she crossed the summerhouse. “Sarah, we must go quickly.”
“But, Mama! The escape baskets!” the girl protested.
“I dare not wake the man, my love. He might stop us.”
Aldridge responded to the fear in her voice. “I won’t stop you. I am not a danger to you.” The woman turned to a statue at his voice, her hand on the framework of the arched entrance, as if she would fall without support. He swung himself upright, wincing as the headache closed its vice around his skull. Though he slitted his eyes against the pain, he kept them open just enough.
“Mama?” The girl’s fearful voice released the woman from her freeze, and she moved to block the child’s sight of him. “Sarah. Watch the house. Do not turn around until I say.”
Eyes open, he could confirm his initial assessment as she spun to face him. Spectacular. Then she shone the lantern straight on him, and he flinched from the light. “Not in my eyes, please. I have such a head.”
She made that same disgusted sound again, then stripped the shawl from her shoulders and tossed it to him, taking care to stay out of arms’ reach.
“Please cover yourself, Sir.”
Aldridge stood warily, and made a kilt of the shawl—a long rectangle that wrapped his waist several times and covered him from waist to thigh. “I beg your pardon for my attire, Mrs…” he invited.
But she was ignoring him. While he’d been tucking in the soft wool of the shawl, so it would hold securely, she’d crossed the summerhouse again and lifted the lid of the bench, tipping the cushions onto the floor, pulling various bundles, baskets, and packages from the recess.
“Mama!” The child sounded panicked. “They are in the house.”
Aldridge, headache forgotten, moved to a better vantage. Yes. Lights moving through the darkened house. And the men were not bothering to be silent, either, calling to one another as they searched swiftly and methodically: the ground floor, then the next, then the attics.
A rustle and chink came from the other end of the garden, then an eldritch groan that cut through his head like a knife.
“The gate!” The woman’s eyes were wide and fearful. Yes, complaining hinges would make that noise, and clearly frightened her more than any unnatural denizen of the night.
“Sarah, come to me.”
At the woman’s soft command, the child brushed past Aldridge and rushed right into the woman’s arms, wrapping herself around her mother’s waist. She was a small thing, not quite short enough to fit under the curve of her mother’s breasts. The delicate features, a miniature of her mother’s, showed fear and a quite adult determination. Aldridge had little experience of children but she was much the size of his cousin’s stepdaughter, who was six or seven.
The woman was holding something against the child’s temple. In a swift movement, he was almost on her, but he held himself apart, afraid of frightening her into pulling the trigger of the small pistol.
Outside, a rough voice spoke in the kind of argot he’d learned when slumming in St Giles. “Keep by t’prads, I’ll see ’tis all bob. I’ll crash the culls if uns’ve banged that Rose.” “Wait with the horses,” he understood the man to say. “I’ll see that all is well at the house. I’ll kill the men if they’ve raped that Rose.” Heavy footsteps retreating down the path. If they were quiet, they could talk.
“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded, keeping his voice low enough to carry no further than her ears.
Her whisper was even lower, and he had to strain to hear. “Praying they will pass us by. For the love of all you hold holy, don’t give us away!”
“You cannot mean to hurt your child.”
“Better death at my hands than what they have planned for her,” the woman hissed. Her free hand, the one around the girl’s shoulders, returned the frantic hug, patting and soothing even as the other hand held the little pistol firmly in place.
“Better we all live,” he retorted. “Who are they?” He needed information. Damn his current state of undress. A fat billfold solved most problems.
“My… Mr Perringworth owes their employer money. He owns… he used to own the cottage. He came down this morning, said he had given them the cottage and everything in it, and it wasn’t enough. He has fled the country. He said…” She fell silent, her face bleak, but the little girl piped up. “They are very bad men, sir. You should hide until they are gone.”
“Why did you not run with this Perry person? Or after he left?” Aldridge was glad he had been woken by the woman rather than the bullies—the heavies of a criminal loan shark, unless he missed his guess.
“He locked us up,” the woman said. “We were to be part of the ‘everything’ he gave this man. It has taken us the whole day to break through the wall into the next room.”
Before she had finished, Aldridge was calculating his next move. The pistol was next to useless. Good enough to execute the child, but against at least four men, maybe more?
“I don’t suppose you have a sword or another gun in that seat of yours?”
She shook her head.
It would have to be his tongue, then. Well, many a woman had called it his finest weapon.
“Help me drop your bundles out into the garden,” he ordered. “I have a plan.”
She watched him warily, not moving, as he suited action to words and dropped a covered basket, then a hatbox, then a tied bundle, one from each of the arched sides so they would be hidden in the low shrubbery around the summerhouse.
“Now, let’s see how much room there is.”
The space inside the bench seat was big enough for a slender woman and a small child. He began clearing out the clutter that accumulates in such places. The woman suddenly seemed to realise what he intended, and bent to whisper in her daughter’s ear. Together, they silently moved around the small room, collecting the bits and pieces he found and dropping them out into the garden.
Aldridge put one of the cushions into the space for their heads, and offered his hand to help the woman in. She ignored it, lifting her skirt with her free hand to show one shapely leg, and then the other, as she climbed inside the space and lay down.
“Here, Sarah,” she whispered. “On top of me.”
It crossed Aldridge’s mind that he would welcome the self-same invitation. Perhaps the woman might be inclined to reward his act of knight errantry in what he had always suspected was the time-honoured manner. “Focus,” he told himself.
“Whatever you hear,” he told the woman and child, “don’t make a sound. Trust me. I’ll get you out of this.” He closed the seat lid and retrieved the scattered cushions, then opened the woman’s lantern to blow out the candle, and lay back down.
Just in time. Multiple boots on the path; voices talking, complaining, or so he understood, that furniture was all well and good, but the real treasure had flown.
He hoped the child couldn’t understand what they said. He could, all too well, and the woman—Rose? Was that really her name? It seemed too appropriate to be true. Rose was right to be frightened.
They might get away free and clear, if the thugs believed she was long since gone. One of them suggested the cove had taken the two with him. The cove, this Perringworth, presumably.
But Aldridge’s momentary hope was immediately dashed. Another laughed. He and his mate had Perringworth safe and sound, his legs broken so he couldn’t run again. And the cull swore he’d left this Rose and her get safely locked up, tied for good measure.
“Swore afore ya bruk ’is munch bones. Won’t do no yammerin’ now,” grumbled one. A broken jaw? Good to know Perringworth couldn’t deny whatever lies Aldridge spoke.
The group stopped on the path and argued about what to do next.
The boss was expecting to sell the woman and her child to recover the money he was owed, and more. And breaking Perringworth an inch at a time might act as a lesson to others, but it wouldn’t replace the money.
The London bullies were anxious to get back to the safety of their verminous slums. This wide-open countryside made them nervous. But they were more frightened of their master than the strange environment, and when one of them mentioned a name, Aldridge understood why.
Smite. Whether the single syllable was a given name, a surname, or a nickname that described the terrible power of his fist, nobody knew. But Smite was the uncrowned king of large swaths of the underbelly of London.
And, in some sort, Aldridge’s debtor, since the night Aldridge had waded into a fight for the sheer joy of battle, foiling an assassination attempt on Smite by a rival gang. If he could convince these men of his identity, he might pull off the rescue.
But they’d never believe him if they found him hiding. “Shut your noise,” he shouted. “I’m trying to sleep in here.” Instant silence on the path, then the moonlit entrance was blocked as several large men tried to enter at once.
“Don’t shine that lantern in my face,” Aldridge ordered, with all the hauteur of his generations of ducal ancestors, and the men—like the curs they were—responded to the voice of command and turned the lantern away. In the returning shadows, six large male shapes loomed over him.
“Who the hell are you, and what are you doing here?” Aldridge demanded. “Do you know where Perry’s gone?”
“It be the Merry Marquis,” said one of the men, pushing his way through from the back. Now there was a stroke of luck! Smite had sent one of his chief lieutenants. What did they call the man? Tiny. That was it. A typically laconic comment on his enormous size.
“Hello, Tiny,” Aldridge said. “You’re a step away from your usual haunts.”
Big Tiny might be, but he hadn’t come unscathed through a life of violence. His nose had been broken several times, was flattened and twisted towards his right cheek, which bore a livid knife scar from the outer edge of the eye to the corner of his thick, misshapen lips. He’d been beaten around the ears, too, many times, leaving them swollen and deformed.
Aldridge knew, though, that the rough appearance hid an incisive mind. Smite looked for intelligence in his lieutenants, and Tiny’s presence here, who knew how many days from London, and Smite’s control, was evidence of how much Smite trusted him. In this instance, intelligence was all to the good, if Aldridge played his game well.
One of the other men grunted a question. ‘Shall I take his head off?’ Aldridge translated. Thankfully, Tiny shook his head. “Smite likes ’im.” Useful to know, but not something to count on. Rumour had it, Smite’s rise to the top had been aided by a childhood friend, killed by his own hand when the friend dared to disagree with him.
The crime lord’s lieutenant turned back to Aldridge. “Whacha doin’ here, m’lord?” he demanded. “And whassat ya got on?”
Aldridge looked down at his improvised shawl kilt as if he’d never seen it before.
“This? The piece of perfection in the garden was most insistent. Didn’t want her daughter seeing my…” he waggled his eyebrows and made a graphic gesture with one hand, prompting a guffaw from the man who wanted to decapitate him.
“A skirt wiv a little un? Where is she?” Tiny wanted to know.
“Gone. She was in a hurry, said she and the little girl had a ship to catch. She couldn’t tell me where Perry was, either. Bastard. He’ll be sorry when I find him. Drugged me, the lowlife, treacherous cur. Stole my horse and my clothes. Swine. Exquisite female, though. Worth the trip, if she’d have had me. Pity she wouldn’t stop to… chat.”
Another guffaw from Decapitator, and a pungent comment about a better use for a female than chatting.
“’ow long?” Tiny was not to be distracted.
Enough friendliness. Time to remind them of their place again. He trotted out the ducal manner. Nostrils flared, chin lifted, a glare infused with scorn and disdain.
Tiny flinched, but persisted. “I needs to ask, m’lord; ’ow long since ya seen the skirt? She belongs to Smite. ’Er and the little un.”
“Really?” said Aldridge. “Dammit, that’s the last straw. I was promised first chance. Perry, damn his cowardly, lying eyes, said he was leaving the country, and she needed a new protector. And all the time… Smite? Really? I say! Do you think he’d consider an offer?”
“We ’ave to find ’er first, m’lord. ’Ow long since ya seen her?”
Aldridge sighed. “Really, I don’t know. It was around dusk. How long ago was that? After she left, I… I suppose I passed out again.”
Tiny let out a string of profanities, some Aldridge had never heard, and several that sounded painful, if not impossible. “Doxy’s got ten hours on us, but we ’ave to search,” he told the others, and began organising his men to search the garden, the house, the nearby village of Niddberrow, and the surrounding countryside.
He was near Niddberrow? The last Aldridge remembered, he had been just outside of Bath, half a day’s ride away. “If you’re off to search the countryside, perhaps one of you would take a message to my cousin in Longford, the Earl of Chirbury at Longford Court.”
“No time,” Tiny told him.
Aldridge sighed. “So much for Smite’s promises,” he said. “Ah well. I daresay I can walk to Longford, though it might alarm the local populace. When I get to London, though, I’ll be having a little talk with our mutual friend. ‘Anything you need, any time,’ he said.” Aldridge made shooing motions with his hands. “Go on, then. Go, if you’re going. I might as well get some more sleep.”
Tiny looked a little hunted. He’d witnessed Smite’s first meeting with Aldridge. Clearly, Tiny knew no better than Aldridge what the crime lord would expect of him now.
Aldridge let him stew for a minute, then offered him a way out. “I suppose whoever rides over to Longford could just give my note to a villager. That would do.”
Tiny agreed, and found a scrap of paper in one pocket and a pencil in the other. Pity. Aldridge had hoped to move the entire meeting up to the house, so Rose and Sarah could release themselves from their prison.
He wrote quickly and handed the message to Tiny, who read it before giving it to the searcher heading for Longford. Would Rede recognise his writing? He had no idea if his cousin had even seen a letter from him. Well, if no carriage came, Aldridge would have to think of something else.
Trapped in the seat, with Sarah’s light weight heavier by the minute, the woman known as the Rose of Frampton listened with growing appreciation as her rescuer played Smite’s men like an orchestra. She’d heard of the Merry Marquis—who hadn’t? The Marquis of Aldridge: one of the richest men in England, and one of the randiest, too, by all accounts.
Among mistresses and courtesans, his generosity with women of their kind was legendary—and of far more interest to Rose than his rumoured prowess in the act by which she made her living.
Aldridge talked circles around his audience: cajoling, commanding, teasing, amusing, coaxing; by turns haughty, friendly, and bored. Rose understood very little of the London argot, but the tension eased from the air, the men’s voices changed as they relaxed their battle-ready awareness and fell under Aldridge’s spell.
By the time he sent them off on their wild goose chase around the countryside, Sarah had fallen asleep. Rose hoped they would all leave, but the leader said he would wait here for his followers’ reports. Rose felt the bench seat shift slightly as someone sat on it, and she heard Aldridge’s voice directly above her, addressing the leader of the heavies.
“You do not have to keep me company, Tiny. I’m happy to go back to sleep until Rede’s carriage arrives.”
Tiny muttered something, and Aldridge answered as if he could not care a bean. “Search the garden? Why not. Help yourself, old chap.” His weight shifted above her, and suddenly his voice was only inches above her head. “I’ll just check out the back of my eyelids.”
Long moments passed before Tiny grunted, and his boots sounded on their way to the door and down the steps.
Aldridge spoke, his voice a whisper. “Best stay there, ladies. I hope you are not too uncomfortable.”
She whispered back. “Sarah is asleep. We can stay as long as we must. Thank you.”
“No talking,” he warned. She was tempted to tell him he had started it, but she stayed silent.
Sarah slept on as the minutes slowly passed. Rose ignored her increasing discomfort, straining her ears to hear Tiny as he searched the garden, grumbling loudly to himself. He must have a couple of men still here, since she heard him talking to one down by the back gate, and another up near the house. Thank all the powers of Heaven he didn’t think to poke in the low shrubbery around the summerhouse, where Aldridge had stowed their bundles.
Several times, he came into the summerhouse to talk. Aldridge asked after the woman they were hunting.
“She, I must suppose,” he said, “is this Rose that Perry spoke of so highly. I must say, if she is as good in bed as she is to look at, she’s worth every penny Perry wanted for her. If your men find her, I would like to make an offer.”
Tiny made an answer, in which ‘The Rose of Frampton’ was the only familiar phrase, and that only because Rose was accustomed to the label she’d been given, ten years ago, by the abbess who had taken her when her father cast her out.
After the brothel, she had moved from protector to protector. Perry, may he roast in Hell forever, was to have been her last. He’d promised her the cottage, showered her with jewellery, even let her keep Sarah with her. But when he tied her up, he’d told her the cottage was never hers, that the deeds he’d given her were fake. And he’d sorted through her jewels while she sat cuffed to the bed cursing him, leaving the ones he said were paste, and taking the few good pieces.
When she had stashed some clothes and jewellery in the bench seat in case she needed to run, she had laughed at her own fears. Why would she wish to escape from her own house? From her last protector, who was a gambler and a drunkard, but not a violent man? But her escape baskets were a habit established for years, and into the seat they went.
Now her only question was how much of the hidden jewellery was paste? How many of her previous protectors had played her for a fool? Perry, the belly-crawling sack of slime, had given her one piece of good advice: “You should have hired a solicitor, Rose,” he told her. “All the smart beauties do. Too late now, though. No lawyers in Smite’s world.”
If she had to find herself another protector, she’d insist on a written contract, and hire someone to check that he not only seemed wealthy, but actually was. She sighed, taking care to stay silent. She had hoped to leave this life behind her, to give Sarah a fresh start, away from this business. Her hopes were dust now. Even if the rest of her jewellery were real, it wouldn’t raise enough for them to survive.
And what were her other choices—assuming she and Sarah got out of this alive? With her past, no one would give her a respectable job, and what marketable skills did she have? It would be the workhouse, where they would separate her from Sarah, or another protector.
Perhaps she should try her luck in London, where rich men were more plentiful, or so she had heard. Perhaps Aldridge would help her. Perhaps…
Her heart, her breathing; everything stopped for a moment while she considered the thought that crept up on her. Perhaps Aldridge meant it when he claimed to be attracted to her, perhaps even when he said he wished to make an offer. Was he in the market for a mistress? And could a provincial whore hope to win his interest?
She was so busy remembering everything she had heard about the Merry Marquis that she almost missed the crunch of footsteps outside.
“Are you ‘Tiny’?” Another upper-class voice, consonants so crisp they could cut.
“Rede?” Aldridge said, the boards creaking as he shifted his weight. “Rede, you came yourself?”
The cousin replied, “With a message like that? ‘Stuck at Perringworth’s cottage just outside Niddberrow. No clothes, no horse, no money. Send closed carriage to the summerhouse, urgently. Your loving cousin, Aldridge.’ Fetching kilt, cousin. Pink roses on a green field. Setting a new fashion?”
Aldridge laughed. “I’ll bet you a gold guinea, at least a dozen people would imitate me, were I to walk through Hyde Park dressed like this. I did think it rather better than the alternative, especially if I had to walk all the way to the Court.”
“I have not been introduced to your friend,” the cousin said.
“Ah. A friend of a friend, shall we say. Tiny, aide-de-camp to Smite, of Seven Dials in London. He’s here on a debt-collecting mission. Our Mr. Perringworth has been a naughty, naughty boy.”
“Run orf, ’e as,” Tiny said. “An’ the skirt too. Smite, ’e’s not gonna be ’appy. ’Ad a buyer for the little ’un, ’e did.”
“We are talking, I take it, of The Rose of Frampton and her child?” the cousin asked.
“Perringworth left them as payment for his debt, but they seem to have disappeared. I don’t suppose I could borrow your jacket, cousin?”
“We can do better, I think.” Something was placed on the bench with a thump.
“You’ve brought clothes? Ah, good chap. I say, Tiny, if you could just wait outside while I change?”
The bully’s steps retreated down the stairs, and then up the path towards the house. Suddenly, the seat lid was opened. Rose was dazzled for a moment by the sudden light.
When her eyes cleared, two men were leaning over her. The sun had risen while she was hiding, and was shining directly into the summerhouse, giving both fair heads a halo of gold.
Aldridge was everything she’d heard. If Sarah hadn’t been asleep on top of her, she wasn’t sure she could have resisted poking his bare chest to see if his muscles were as hard as they looked. Or perhaps just shaping them with her hands… What on earth did Aldridge do for exercise?
She met his amused brown eyes, and he winked as if he knew exactly what she was thinking. She turned her head and met vivid blue, instead. If Aldridge were handsome, then his cousin was beautiful—classic high cheekbones, a firm mouth currently in a stern line, but with a lower lip that suggested a passionate temperament, and golden hair tousled from being trapped under his hat. He could have sat as a model for the archangel Michael. She wouldn’t be at all surprised if he slew dragons in his spare time.
“The Rose of Frampton, I presume,” he said. The voice was bland, non-committal, not a hint of judgement. Still, she blushed.
“We have no time for introductions,” Aldridge said. “My dear, is there another way out of the garden? Tiny has men on the front gate and the back.”
“We can get through the hedge,” said Sarah with a yawn, as she responded to Rose’s hand gently shaking her shoulder.
“Where will that take you?” As he spoke, Aldridge was dressing: stepping into a pair of pantaloons and pulling them up before he unwound the shawl, turning his back to don and tuck in a shirt. “We’ll bring the carriage as close as we can to pick you up.”
“The lane. It takes a turn past the house and runs beside the hedge for a short way,” Rose said. The angel man had helped Sarah from the cavity, and was now holding out a hand for her. Unaccountably shy, Rose held her dress at the knee as she climbed out.
Aldridge was sitting on the floor, pulling on boots. “Over the side with you, and hide. We’ll draw Tiny off. Don’t run for the hedge until we clear the corner of the house.”
“Aldridge,” said the angel man, “what am I assisting with here?”
“A rescue, dear cousin. You heard what they said about the child.”
The angel man smiled at Sarah with a sweetness Rose did not expect from such a stern man. “A rescue we can manage. Come. Let me lift you over the wall.” Sarah went willingly to his arms, and he swung her between the trellises into the garden beyond. Aldridge lifted Rose and did the same, the strength in his arms fulfilling the promise of the muscles now hidden beneath a gentleman’s waistcoat and jacket.
“Tiny!” Aldridge’s voice moved away from her as he spoke. “Tiny, the Earl of Chirbury and I would like you to take a message for us to Smite.”
Aldridge continued talking, and the steps of all three men retreated up the path. Rose waited impatiently until they sounded distant before daring to peek over the bush that was her hiding place. As soon as they disappeared around the corner of the house, she stood cautiously, checking all around her.
No one was in sight.
“Sarah, run for the hedge and hide under it until the carriage comes,” she said, before scurrying along the edge of the summerhouse, picking up the bundle, box, and basket.
She checked both ways again before running to join her daughter. Just in time. Tiny rounded the house and started down the path, calling for the man at the back gate.
Moments later, the carriage came slowly up the lane. Aldridge opened the door and leapt down to toss first Sarah, then Rose, then all of their baggage, up into the carriage. He swung in behind them, swiftly shutting the door.
“Stay down,” his cousin said to Rose, who was trying to pull herself up from the floor. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Rose sat at the earl’s feet, propping herself against the seat, taking Sarah into her arms.
The coachman must have had instructions to spring the horses once all the passengers were aboard, for the coach suddenly lurched forward, and Rose had to brace herself with her feet and one arm.
Aldridge, from the seat opposite his cousin, said, “I expect them to check on us, but they won’t follow us to the Court. You’ll soon be safe, ladies.”
“We have perhaps fifteen minutes until we are on my land,” the earl told her, “and then a further ten to the Court.” He raised his brows at Aldridge. “Time enough to tell me your story, cousin.”
The brief explanation they gave, all they were prepared to say in front of the child, clearly didn’t satisfy Rede. But he said nothing, even after they were met at the Court by Rede’s countess, the lovely Anne. But as soon as Aldridge delivered Mrs Rose Darling—a working name if ever he heard one—and Miss Sarah Darling into Lady Chirbury’s hands, Aldridge heard the command he’d expected.
“Aldridge, I’ll see you in my study.”
The courtesan had been subdued in the carriage, but he’d caught a speculative look in her eyes from time to time. Eyes of cornflower blue, in a face that fulfilled the promise he’d glimpsed in the night’s shadows. And her body brought his to instant, quivering attention.
He hoped her mind was drifting in the same direction as his. Rede’s house had many inviting nooks and crannies to provide cover for a couple in search of privacy.
“Aldridge!” Rede’s voice cut through Aldridge’s lazy speculation about Mrs Darling’s treasures.
Aldridge followed Rede, who went straight to a row of decanters in the spacious study. “Brandy? It’s early, but you look like hell, old chap.”
Now that the crisis was over, Aldridge’s headache had returned full force, and he was having trouble focusing his thoughts. Perhaps his lies about being drugged were closer to the truth than he’d thought.
Rede waved him to a chair. “You are planning to offer Mrs Darling carte blanche, I assume. Very well. The lady has to make a living. But while she is a guest under my roof, you will not bed her—or tup her anywhere else. Nor will you offend my wife with lewd talk or innuendo. I’ll have your promise before you leave this room.”
Aldridge didn’t have the energy to be offended at Rede’s poor opinion of his manners. Besides, he had intended all of those things. Except for lewd talk in front of Rede’s countess, obviously.
“I didn’t come down to see her,” he said. “I didn’t even know she existed. How does it happen that you’ve heard of The Rose of Frampton, and I haven’t?”
A two-pronged distraction, and thankfully, Rede picked up one of the lures. “If you didn’t come for Mrs Darling, what were you doing in her garden?”
“I have no idea, Rede. Last I remember, I was at a house party just outside of Bath. What’s the date?”
“The date?” Rede raised his eyebrows, but answered. “The 17th of October.”
“Really? The last day I remember was the 14th. I went to bed on the 14th of October, and woke up in the early morning of the 17th twenty-five miles away and in the garden of a complete stranger.”
“Who were you in bed with?” Rede asked dryly.
Aldridge tipped his glass to Rede to acknowledge the point.
A servant arrived in answer to the bell pull. Rede ordered a full breakfast to be brought to the study. “If you’ve not eaten for two days, you’ll be hungry,” he observed.
“My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut,” Aldridge agreed.
He was still thinking about the woman he’d been in bed with, and the others who’d preceded her during the house party.
On the one hand, any husband whose wife warmed the bed of the Marquis of Aldridge had only himself to blame. If they paid more attention to their wives and less to games of chance, drinking, and pursuit of other women at the party, their wives would have no reason to stray.
On the other hand, husbands seldom accepted that point of view. At least six men at the house party would consider themselves entitled to be upset with Aldridge. Make that seven, since one betrothed gentleman also had a neglected lady. Aldridge never made a show of his amorous adventures, but ladies often used an affair with him to punish their spouses, and any of them might have dropped hints designed to do the most damage.
Presumably, the perpetrators did not intend to reward him with the delectable Rose, so what was their purpose in stripping him and leaving him in Perringworth’s garden? They couldn’t have known, surely, that Smite’s boys were on their way?
“Tell me about Perringworth,” he said.
Rede steepled his hands and considered for a moment. “He’s a younger son. Brother’s a baron just south of Bristol. They’ve had a falling out. Perringworth had a legacy, and he’s blown it, by all accounts.
“A loose fish, that’s certain. And a big bruiser of a man. Has a reputation as handy with his fists, but lousy with money. Can’t resist a game of chance, and always thinks he’ll win the next one. Very jealous. Rumour has it, he put the Rose out at Niddberrow to keep her away from competitors. Likely, your friends thought it would be a fine joke for him to find you naked in her garden.”
Aldridge nodded. “Not much temptation in Niddberrow, I would think. Not many who would even acknowledge her, I expect.”
“Poor girl. It can’t have been much of a life for her.”
“Better than the one he was selling her into. Her and little Sarah.”
Rede swore, low and long, not repeating himself once in a several sentences. Aldridge agreed, but Perringworth had his own problems. He was unlikely to survive the encounter with Smite.
“They’re well out of it, and lucky your abductors chose to abandon you in that garden. Do you think they drugged you?”
“Possibly, but perhaps not. I was fairly drunk for most of the party.”
“Cousin, I don’t believe you’ve been sober since June—I’ve never seen you drink so much.”
Aldridge shook his head. He’d lost both of his brothers in June. One had fled overseas, and the other had pursued the first. Rede knew that, but didn’t need to know that Aldridge blamed himself.
He put the full glass down on the corner of the desk they’d been using as a table.
“No more,” he said, decisively. “You’re right; it isn’t helping. Rede, I’ll have to talk to Smite. He has a purchaser set up for the little girl. They’ll not be safe unless I can buy him off. Can they stay here till I have it sorted?”
Rede nodded. “If I have your promise not to swive Mrs Darling under my roof,” he answered. Aldridge’s cousin always had been a tenacious sort.
This ebook has short stories cowritten with other authors where the characters from our own fictional worlds meet and compare notes.
This ebook has four interviews: one with each of Becky, Hugh, Aldridge, and Her Grace the Duchess of Haverford.
Meet the cast – epub
Meet the cast – mobi