Tea with Joselyn

Joselyn, Lady Maddox, had resisted her cousin’s machinations for years, had helped feed the village through the troubled times when the men were away fighting Napoleon and harvests were poor, and had faced down a gang of smugglers.

“But I have never had afternoon tea with a duchess,” she informed the large raven who sat on the window ledge, watching her flutter from one place to another in her anxious preparations. She aligned the cups on the tea table, plumped the cushions on the couch, moved the plate of delicate cakes a little to the right, dusted a spot on the mantlepiece with her handkerchief, and swapped two of the cushions over for a more pleasing colour combination.

The raven made a derisory remark in Raven. “That is easy for you to say,” Joselyn scolded. “She is Felix’s godmother, bird. And I want her to like me.”

“I am already predisposed to do so, my dear,” said Eleanor Haverford, from the doorway. Behind her, the butler was gesturing helplessly. Her Grace had simply swept ahead of him, and what was a butler to do?

“Your Grace.” Joselyn curtsied, trying hard to ignore the blush she could feel heating her face and her chest. “Please. Come in. May I offer you a seat?”

The duchess took her by the hand, and she rose from her curtsey to be engulfed in a perfumed embrace. “You have made my godson a very happy man, my dear Lady Maddox — or may I call you Joselyn? A cup of tea would be lovely, and I would very much like to meet your raven.”

Jocelyn is the heroine of The Raven’s Lady, a short story in my collection Hand-Turned Tales. Hand-Turned Tales is free as an ebook — click on the name to see what other stories are in the book and to find links for download.

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Animals on WIP Wednesday

raven-73179_640I’ve been plotting a made-to-order story about a cat named Angel. A reader won it for the Cat Day promotion I supported, and I’ll be writing it over the next week. This set me thinking about animals in stories. Do you like them? Some writers always have them, and in some they barely ever put in an appearance.

My first made-to-order historical romance was The Raven’s Lady, which I’m currently revising and preparing for release in Hand-Turned Tales, a book of short stories and novellas I’m bringing out as a free book just before Christmas. (I published the original tale as a series on this blog—the link above leads to episode one.)

So this week, please share around nine lines from a current work-in-progress where an animal has a part to play in your plot. Here’s mine:

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.

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The Raven’s Lady – the villains foiled, our hero rewarded

Part 4 of The Raven’s Lady, the short story I wrote as a prize for Crystal Cox.

You can read part 1 here.

You can read part 2 here.

You can read part 3 here.

Frederick_Morgan_-_Off_for_the_HoneymoonThe planning session devolved into an argument over a different topic; first Felix against Joselyn, and then—when Joselyn convinced the others of the sense of what she said—Felix against the officers and part-time smugglers alike.

Felix did not want Joselyn taking her usual place down on the beach at the head of her women. Indeed, if Felix had his way, all of the women would be replaced with his trained soldiers.

Joselyn and her helpers agreed that the soldiers would form the main part of the workforce on the beach, disguised in skirts and with concealing shawls to keep their masculine features from giving away the ambush. But, Joselyn insisted, she needed to be there, head uncovered and face seen, so that the villains would believe they had her trapped. And her supporters insisted on joining her.

She was right. Felix knew she was right. He hated placing her in danger, but she was essential to the success of the plan.

Reluctantly, he had to agree.

By the time Cyril returned from his errand, all was prepared. Tonight, they would trap the Black Fox.

raven

Cyril clearly expected an outcome much more to his liking. He could hardly contain his glee when both Joselyn and Felix claimed tiredness early in the evening and retired to bed. And they had to hastily conceal themselves behind trees when he came crashing noisily down the path towards the clifftops, muttering to himself about tonight being the last night.

Reaching the clifftops themselves, they watched him hurry away down the path towards the village.

“I don’t want you going down there, Josalyn,” Felix told her. He wasn’t going to stop her. She had as much at stake as he—more, given her love for these people. But he wanted her to know he was reluctant.

Had she been this frightened for him, knowing he had gone to war? If so, he’d have to spend the next fifty years making up for his unthinking cruelty in staying away so long. He smiled at the thought of that, and she smiled back.

“I will be careful. And if the smugglers come this way, you will be in more danger than I.”

In the event, the Black Fox split his forces, and attacked from the sea as well as the cliff top. For a few minutes, Felix was too busy to worry about Joselyn, but once the thugs on the cliff top were subdued, Cyril among them, he hurried down the path to the beach, where clumps of people wrestled in the moonlight.

As he reached the sand, a sudden loud shout stopped him in his tracks. “I have the woman, and I’ll kill her if you try to stop me.”

It was the Black Fox, his arm around Joselyn’s neck, brandishing a pistol in his other hand. He was backing towards the rowboat he had arrived in, two of his henchmen flanking him on either side.

“Not another step!” the Fox shrieked at the soldiers following him. The rest of his crew were gone, subdued by the soldiers or Joselyn’s women. But no one dared approach these three!

Felix’s heart was in his throat, blocking his breath and pounding like the French cannon at Waterloo. He couldn’t attack without risking Joselyn, but if he didn’t attack, they’d take her with them to who knew what horrid fate.

At that moment, there was a loud caw. Immediately, and so fast that Felix couldn’t afterward untangle the order, a large black feathery missile hurled itself into the Black Fox’s face, Joselyn gave a twist and vicious upward punch into a portion of the Fox’s anatomy that made Felix wince, two shots rang out, and the two henchmen fell.

Within moments, it was all over, the smugglers captured and the raven marching up and down the beach cackling his satisfaction at his timely intervention.

Felix, with difficulty. restrained himself from wrapping Joselyn in his arms in front of half his tenants and all his soldiers. He’d never been so frightened in all his life. Thank God she was safe!

The Black Fox was hauled off in custody, along with his surviving men and Cyril, his co-conspirator.  They would face the magistrate on the morrow.

Joselyn and Felix walked home together through the dawn. The raven had flown off about his own affairs, and the housekeeper had gone on ahead, arm in arm with the farmer’s wife.

“Joselyn,” Felix said, “I have explanations to make, and excuses. I let everyone think I was dead because that was the best way I could serve in the war against Napoleon, but I didn’t think about how it would affect you. Dare I hope that you will forgive me? I will spend a lifetime making amends if you will permit.”

Joselyn was silent for a long time. He was wrong then. He had hoped she was beginning to like the adult him, at least a little. Eventually, she spoke.

“You seem very certain that we would suit,” she stated.

“I know we would suit,” he said. “Certainly you suit me. I did not think there was a woman in the world who so combined courage, intelligence and spirit with beauty and kindness. I wish for a chance to convince you I can make you happy. May I court you, Joselyn?”

She was silent again, but a quality in the silence gave him hope, and he waited patiently.

“I did not know there was a man in the world who valued spirit and intelligence in a woman. Certainly I have not before met a man who would allow me to lead my troops into battle, even though he wished to protect me.”

“I didn’t want you to go,” Felix admitted.

“But you respected me enough to agree,” she said.

She was silent again.

“I daresay, now that my last surviving relative is dead, my trustees will find me somewhere else to live,” she said after a while. “I cannot, of course, stay here as a unmarried woman in the house of a bachelor.”

That was true, Felix supposed, his heart sinking. He hadn’t thought of that. Would she leave him, then?

“I never knew… Felix, you really do want me, don’t you? Not just my money?”

“Joselyn, I’ve not taken my officer’s pay in eight years, and it has all been soundly invested along with my prizes. Believe me, you are the treasure I want, not your money.” He moved to take her back into his arms, but Joselyn stopped him with her hand.

“Then I wonder,” she looked down shyly, “if you would consider marrying me first, Felix, and courting me after?”

raven

So it was that Joselyn Bellingham and Felix Maddox were wed as soon as the bans could be called. And if there were some who questioned the sudden change in Viscounts, and wondered at the reappearance of one who had been thought dead these six years the older servants and villagers soon put them right. And if some said the bride should not have lived in the groom’s house that last fortnight, Viscountess Maddox’s supporters told them to hush their mouths. And if some raised their eyebrows when the bride was escorted down the aisle by a large raven, Viscount Maddox didn’t care a jot. After all, he said, the raven had found him his bride and saved him his bride, and that was all there was to that.

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The Raven’s Lady – Felix declares himself

Part 3 of The Raven’s Lady, the short story I wrote as a prize for Crystal Cox.

You can read part 1 here.

You can read part 2 here.

proposal

When Felix got back to the house, he could not find Miss Bellingham. However, he found the servant, Betsy.

“Tell Miss Bellingham, please, that I heard her cousin Cyril and the Black Fox plotting against her, and I need to see her now. I’ll wait in the library.”

After a shocked moment, Betsy hurried upstairs, and a few minutes later, Miss Bellingham entered the room.

She’d clearly been interrupted before she could complete her change. She’d put on a dress, but her hair was caught back in a long plait that brushed her rump as she walked. Betsy came in at her shoulder, and their glares were identical.

“Mr Matthews? What’s this about my cousin?”

“Not Matthews,” Felix told her. “My name isn’t Matthews. I was sent here to investigate the Black Fox for the Crown. I followed you last night, and I saw you bringing in your cargo.”

Now the women had identical looks of alarm.

“It is not what you think,” Miss Bellingham said. “I am not the Black Fox. And the women; they were just following my orders. I am the leader. Arrest me. Let them go.”

“No, Miss,” Betsy objected. “We all agreed. We’re all in this.”

“None of you are in this,” Felix said. “I’m not after you. I want the Black Fox. In any case, Miss Bellingham, I don’t wish to arrest an old friend, and I certainly don’t intend to arrest the wives and daughters of my tenants.”

Betsy was bewildered, but Miss Bellingham was examining him with narrowed eyes. “You are dead,” she told him.

“No,” he said.

She was shaking her head. “We were told you were dead.”

Joselyn still got a white pinched look around her lips when she was angry, Felix noted, and two bright spots of colour on her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” he said, not sure what he was apologising for.

“You should be. I cried. I wore black for a year. Why are you not dead, Felix?” And then she was in his arms, punching his shoulder and fighting back tears. “I am so glad you are not dead.”

He tightened his arms around her, but Betsy cleared her throat, and Miss Bellingham pushed away.

“You be Viscount Maddox, seemingly?” Betsy asked. “Come to take yer own, is it?”

“After we catch the Black Fox and Cousin Cyril, yes,” Felix said. He was finding it hard to focus on the job ahead of them, given how wonderfully Miss Bellingham filled his arms and how empty they felt without her. The idea of redeeming his boyhood promise was growing more and more appealing.

“Where have you been? Why have you waited so long to come home?” That was his Jocelyn; pestering him with questions.

“I will answer every question you have,” he told her. “But we don’t have time today. Today, we have to decide what to do with your enemies.”

Quickly, he told the two women what he’d overheard. Then he had to repeat it for most of the rest of the household. Not the valet or the butler who, Joselyn said, were from London, and Cyril’s men through and through. The local people, she said, could be trusted.

When Felix had finished his story, the servants were of a single mind.

“You can’t go, then, Miss,” said Betsy. “We’ll have to let the Black Fox have the cargo.”

“We can’t risk you, Miss,” one of the other servants said, and the others murmured their approval.

Joselyn turned to Felix. “I suppose they are right. But I hate letting Cyril and the Black Fox win.”

“I might be able to help there,” Felix said. “What if we went ahead with the move, as planned, but set an ambush for the Black Fox and our delightful cousin?”

They couldn’t settle their plans immediately. Joselyn would need to bring in the farmer’s wives who, with Betsy the housekeeper, were her chief lieutenants. And Felix needed the officers of the troops who awaited his orders in the nearby town.

“I’ll send messengers,” Jocelyn said.

“We can’t risk Cyril finding out,” Felix warned. “Is there somewhere else we can meet?”

Joselyn and her supporters fixed him with identical looks of exasperation. “We have a place,” Joselyn said patiently. “I’ll give your officers the direction.”

The servants went to carry out Joselyn’s orders, but Felix lingered, and so did Joselyn. Betsy, the last to leave, looked at her mistress uncertainly.

“Go, Betsy,” Joselyn told her. “I’ll just have a word with Lord Maddox and be along shortly.”

But when they were alone, she was silent. Was she shy, all of a sudden, his brave Joselyn?

On the cliff-top, she had referred to the last time they’d seen one another; that long-ago morning when his mother had carried him off to the other end of England. Should he start there?

“Joselyn,” he said. “I came back to redeem my promise.”

Joselyn laughed, her mouth turned up in a smile, but something unreadable in her eyes. “No, you did not, Felix. You came back to catch the Black Fox.” And then, suddenly sober, “After eight years of silence, Felix. Eight years!”

All his excellent reasons for staying away turned to dust in his mind in face of the angry tears pouring down her cheeks. In a moment, he had her in his arms, and was kissing the tears away, murmuring apologies and endearments.

Finally, they drew a little apart. “I have made your shoulder damp,” Joselyn said, brushing at it ineffectually.

“We had better join the others, my love,” Felix said. “We have a busy day ahead of us.”

“Your love, Felix? You hardly know me. And I am still angry with you,” she continued sternly. “Do not think to butter me up with a few kisses.”

“After the ambush, I will tell you my whole story, and make whatever penance you assign. But, yes, you are my love. Now and forever, Joselyn. Show me the way to this meeting place. We can argue later.”

Continued (and concluded) in Part 4

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The Raven’s Lady – a series of surprising disclosures

Part 2 of The Raven’s Lady, the short story I wrote as a prize for Crystal Cox. You can read part 1 here.

George Morland, Smugglers Isle of WightBut when Felix got to the room assigned to him—one of the guest rooms on the west frontage of the house—he couldn’t sleep. Perhaps a stroll in the woods: scene of many a childhood game when he and his widowed mother lived here with his grandfather. And a slightly older Felix often stole out on a night such as this, when the moon was nearly full, to trap game in the woods, or just to watch animals living their secret lives while the world slept.

No sooner thought than done; he let himself down from the window and was soon slipping into the shadows under the trees. As he had so many times before, he chose a trunk to lean against, stilled his movements, and slowed his breathing to wait for what the night had to show him.

There was a fox, trotting purposefully along the path. An owl swept by on silent wings. Two deer stepped daintily out of the undergrowth, then startled as they caught the fox scent and leapt backward again, crashing away into the deeper shadows.

No. Not the fox. Someone was coming from the house. Without moving a muscle, he prepared for action. A figure. But not large enough to be Cyril. The hope that he could clear this whole matter up this first night died, but his curiosity remained. Where was the lad going? For the person hurrying along the path was no more than a boy, surely; short and slender, with a youthful gait.

On an impulse, Felix followed, using all his woodcraft to stay silent and undetected, but still keep within sight of the boy.

They took the fork leading down to the cliffs. Below on the beach, clear in the moonlight, people milled around several rowboats in the surf. He’d found the smugglers after all! No legitimate cargo would be unloaded on a remote beach in the middle of the night.

The boy took the path down the cliff face, but Felix would be seen if he followed. He concealed himself in a rocky outcrop, where he could watch both the beach and the path from the village. If the smugglers planned to take the cargo inland tonight, that was the most likely direction for whatever transport they had arranged.

As time wore on, however, it became clear that the cargo was being stored in the old cave complex Felix used to explore as a child, before his mother married again and took him away. Good. He could bring a troop to watch until the smugglers came to retrieve the goods, and catch them all.

Oddly, the boy Felix had followed seemed to be directing the whole enterprise, people appeared to be coming to him for orders, and several times Felix saw him run into the surf to catch someone by the arm and redirect them.

The rowing boats went back for another load, and the night was beginning to lighten in the east before the last of them had its cargo removed and put back out into the waves.

Below, the smugglers began to slip away singly and in small groups.

Something odd struck Felix about the faces that looked up at the cliff before beginning to climb the path. No beards or mustaches. Not even the shadows one would expect on at least some of them after a day’s growth. His mind took a while to interpret what his eyes were telling him. Women. Every smuggler he could see was a woman.

He looked again at the boy, shaking his head to dislodge the wild thought. No. Not Miss Bellingham. That milk-and-water miss could not possibly be a smuggler. The boy—or the woman, in fact—could be anyone in the house, or could easily have come from one of the farms beyond the house. But he was definitely a she. As the light strengthened, the way she moved, and the curves inside the breeches she wore, became more and more obvious.

Then the raven swooped down to land on the beach beside her, and removed all doubt. Miss Bellingham’s pet cawed at her, a loud raven alarm call, and she looked anxiously up at the cliff. A few quick orders to the remaining women on the beach, and they all scattered, some heading for the path and some for the narrow way around the cliffs that had been uncovered as the tide fell.

Now what did he do? He stiffened his shoulders. Woman she may be, but smuggler she certainly was. He would do his duty, of course. Even though once, long ago, she had been Joselyn, the girl child who dogged his footsteps and whom he would have died to protect.

Miss Bellingham led a few other women up the cliff face, and stopped to speak with them a few paces from where Felix hid. The raven swooped in to join them.

“It will be enough, Matilda,” she was saying. “The money we raise will pay your rental and that of the other tenants and keep cousin Cyril from casting you out.”

“For another quarter, miss,” the woman addressed as Matilda said dolefully. “We canna keep doing this here smuggling though. If’n the Black Fox catches us, or the excise, we’ll all hang.”

Miss Bellingham nodded, her brows drawn anxiously together. “By next quarter, perhaps I will have thought of something else.”

“Master Felix had no business dying in foreign parts,” Matilda declared.

“I do not suppose he did it on purpose,” Miss Bellingham said. Was it just his imagination, or did her tone sound wistful?

“If’n he’d lived, tha’ could have wed him,” another woman suggested. Felix recognised her; she was a servant at the grange. “Tha’ always said he promised to come back and wed thee.”

“He was 14, Betsy. Even if he was alive, he would have long forgotten a few words said in haste when his mother took him away.”

“Mayhap you should marry that man your cousin brought home,” Betsy said.

Miss Bellingham gave an inelegant snort. “If I were inclined to marry, and I am not, I would certainly not marry anyone who was friends with cousin Cyril.”

“He’s a well-enough looking young man,” Betsy insisted, “and polite, too.”

“He is prepared to pay my cousin in order to get his hands on my trust fund. In any case, I do not think he wishes to marry me any more.”

“Only for that you’ve gone out of your way to discourage him,” Betsy said.

Miss Bellingham giggled. “I just listened to everything Cyril said he liked, and did the opposite.”

Why, the little minx. Certainly, Miss Milk-and-Water was unrecognisable in the laughing maiden he could see before him. He had told Cyril he preferred women with opinions, who could think for themselves and hold an intelligent conversation. He might have added that he wanted to wed a lady who put the welfare of his tenants ahead of her own, as this delightfully grownup Joselyn clearly did.

The women were splitting up, Miss Bellingham and Betsy taking the wood path, followed by the raven, and the other women heading along the clifftop to the village. He watched them out of sight, but stayed where he was. He had a lot to think about. Miss Bellingham was clearly not the Black Fox, even if she was a smuggler. And she was far more the Joselyn of his memories than he had believed.

The sound of shifting rocks attracted his attention.

Two men emerged from another rocky outcrop some distance down the cliff, and walked up to the junction of the two paths, talking as they came. One was cousin Cyril, the other a dark burly man who walked with the distinctive roll of a sailor.

“It’s my cousin, I tell you,” Cyril insisted.  “That damnable bird follows her everywhere.”

“I don’t care who it is,” said his companion. “She’s on my patch, and I’ll have her cargo and I’ll kill anyone who gets in my way, and so I will.”

“Look here, Fox!” Cyril was clearly alarmed. “You can’t kill my cousin. I’ve got a man up at the house who’s willing to pay good money to marry her.”

The Black Fox, for it must be he, looked interested. “How much is the wench worth?”

“2000 pound. And this Matthews is willing to stump up 500 to have the rest free and clear.”

“2000, eh? That’d go a long way to sweetening your exile!” The Fox laughed. “Worth more dead than alive, I’d say.”

Cyril shook his head. “She’s made a will leaving the lot to her sister’s children. Not that the brats need it. They’re wealthy orphans; inherited a packet when their parents died. I need her alive, I tell you.”

“You could marry her yourself.”

Cyril shook his head. “I tried that. She won’t have a bar of it. And I’ve no wish for a wife anyway.”

“Drug her, marry her, and then kill her before you run,” the Fox advised.

For a moment, Cyril looked interested, but then he shook his head. “Too complicated. I couldn’t have the bans called. Even if I could wait—and the real Viscount Maddox could turn up at any time—no-one here would believe she was willing. I’m just lucky that I heard two men discussing his unexpected survival, and his petition to the courts to be recognised as viscount. It has given me a little warning to sell off everything I can lay my hands on. Once the courts notify me, I’ll not be able to touch a penny.”

“A special licence?”

“Expensive. And chancy—she could still refuse me at the church. No; getting this Matthews to court her is the best plan.”

“Or…” The Fox fell silent, clearly thinking deeply.

“Or?” Cyril prompted.

“I could buy her off you. I’ll pay 400 pound, mind, and not a penny more! But I’ll be able to sell her to the Barbary pirates, a fair-haired virgin like that. She is a virgin, I suppose?”

Cyril nodded, eagerly.

“Yes,” the Fox continued. “It’s only fair, the trouble she’s caused me, taking cargoes on my patch. Yes, and I’ll take my pick of the other women she had with her.” He grinned, an evil leer that made Felix shiver. “Some to sell, and some to use on the way.”

“450,” Cyril said, “and you have a bargain. What’s the plan, then?”

The two men moved out of earshot, still talking. Felix hurried after them as soon as they’d cleared the open ground and gone into the trees, but they had horses tied in a small clearing, and he caught up only to see them ride away.

Time to return to the house, then, Felix thought. And past time for a little conversation with the lady smuggler.

Part 3 is here.

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The Raven’s Lady – the traveller returns

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.

TRL cover

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.”

Part 2: a series of surprising disclosures

 

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