Tag Archives: Dunham series

Dunham 51: Chapter Fifty-One

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May 15, 1780
Mélisande Gables
Berkeley Square, London

Elliott relaxed in his library alone with a glass of whisky in his hand after having sent Piefke to bed. The house was blessedly quiet, which gave him the opportunity to think without interruption.

Sandy and Lady Jane were affixed, at least temporarily, and Iddlesleigh had been put on notice that Elliott knew of his alliance with Sandwich. Not that he cared in the least because, as Fury had so astutely pointed out, Elliott had been a goodly portion of the Americans’ makeshift navy, but he would not hesitate to use information to his advantage.

Camille had narrowed her list down to one or two of the gentlemen with Viscount Merrill leading by a nose. The girl knew her business, he had to admit. Merrill was the heir to a minor Irish noble, was finishing his course at Cambridge, and seemed to have a stiffer constitution than Elliott had initially thought. Her single-minded determination to marry herself off by the end of the Season was no less forceful than anything her sisters and mother could muster. In fact, Milly was still out at some ball with Merrill, chaperoned by his mother, who didn’t seem terribly managing at all.

Niall had gathered some courage to request two dances from the Duke of Croftwood’s youngest daughter. In fact, Elliott had observed his singular, but bashful, attention upon the girl for quite a few moments more than proper because it amused him to no end. For a man who could stand in a courtroom with the utmost of poise to charm judge and jury into believing every word out of his mouth, this was rather concerning.

It was only because the house was so quiet that Elliott heard someone scratching at the servants’ door, likely one of the housemaids being summoned to the stable for a turn in the hay. Thus, he was rather shocked when a sleepy Lynch knocked on the library door and, at Elliott’s gesture, ushered in Fury’s lieutenant.

“Close the door, Lynch.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

Elliott eyed Papadakos warily and waved a hand toward the liquor cabinet. “Rum’s over there, if you’re of a mind. Then sit and tell me what I have done this time to make Fury furious.”

“Many thanks.” Elliott watched him choose the Greek spirit Fury was rather fond of, but did not drink very often, as it laid her flat with a sip or two. “I answered your summons once Jack granted permission, but your mother,” he spat, “thought me a dirty Gypsy beggar and ordered her staff to run me off the property. I have wasted precious time trying to catch the attention of someone from your crew who knows me.”

Elliott’s jaw ground. “I apologize for her and I will remedy that. You have a message for me, then?”

“Yes. We depart within the fortnight,” the young man said after he sat back and took an appreciative sip.

“Depart?” Elliott asked sharply. “Why?”

“She has her reasons,” he muttered, eyeing Elliott with some suspicion. “She simply wanted to inform you so you will not feel compelled to continue your search for her.”

“What does she want from me, Papadakos?” Elliott demanded with a great deal of frustration. “A declaration of undying devotion? Done. She has it. An offer to accompany her to Algiers? Done. I will do it. Tonight, if I must. A proposal of marriage? I can’t or we would be wed already.”

Papadakos took a deep breath, released it, then opened his mouth—

“Elliott!” Camille barked as she burst into the library, “I cannot abide another second—”

She stopped.

Stared at Papadakos, who returned it, his mouth slightly agape.

Turned on a heel and left the room as abruptly as she had entered it, slamming the door behind her.

“That was interesting,” Elliott drawled.

“I am not accustomed to seeing so many beautiful women so finely dressed,” he said with a shrug. “Captain Jack sent me to say goodbye. That’s all. We will not be returning to England even if we escape Algiers, and if we do, we will not be mooring in Rotterdam again.”

Elliott closed his eyes and fell back into his chair, feeling as if she had ripped his heart from his chest.

“I want to see her,” he rasped. “One last time. Please.”

Papadakos cast a glance at the door whilst he considered. “I’ll deliver the message, but she is angry. In that respect, she is no different from any other spurned or grieving woman.”

Spurned?! Was that how she thought of it? Hell’s bells, no wonder she was livid.

Then Elliott’s brows drew together. “Speaking of grief, were you present when Skirrow murdered her husband?” The man paled and his hand trembled slightly. Elliott cleared his throat. “Apologies, Officer,” he murmured. “I meant no harm.”

“I didn’t know the man but I grieve him,” Papadakos whispered, staring down into his glass. “We all who witnessed it do.”

“And that is why you’re willing to go with her to Algiers?”

His head popped up and his eyes narrowed. “I would follow her to the grave. I came up from a ship’s boy, as many of us did. I owe her my life many times over and for a surety, not the least bit for killing Skirrow. And it is a far better life than I could have imagined for myself.”

Elliott nodded and decided further questioning was useless. It was done. “I have a request, if you please. Instruct Croftwood to send a letter to his father. He is himself grieving for a son he believes is dead.”

The lieutenant blinked, then nodded. “I will. Thank you, Captain.” Papadakos arose and set the glass down. “Oh, one other thing. She bade me inform you that if you attempt to deceive her about a lack of wife to regain access to her bed, she will make sure you can never father children. And she will do it in the most painful way she can devise.”

Elliott laughed piteously. He should have known she would anticipate such a tactic.

“Understood,” he said low, gaining his feet and offering his hand to Papadakos. “Please . . . tell her I love her.”

Papadakos shook it and looked at him soberly. “I should not speak for her in this, but I believe she reciprocates, Captain.”

Elliott stood and looked at the closed library doors for quite a while, then picked up Papadakos’s glass and pitched it into the fireplace, where it shattered.

Like his heart.

• • •

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Dunham 50: Chapter Fifty

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May 15, 1780
Berkeley Square, London

“M’lord! Wait!”

“Vickers! Did you come to terms with your mother already? So that you may come to terms with me?”

Celia did not think she could despise Judas’s façade any more than she already did, but flirting with the young bucks of the ton while she was on his arm was on top of too much.

Viscount Vickers flushed. “Ah . . . no, m’lord. Are you . . . certain . . . of this? You would not— Ah, that is to say—”

“Ah, Vickers, you’d not cheat me of a truly scandalous scandal, would you?”

The boy had to have paled greatly for Celia to discern it from under his powder. “I’d not want it to get out,” he whispered.

Lord Macaroni shrugged. “Aye, then. There are other arses to bugger.”

Celia nearly choked and was forced to cough to keep from laughing. She was still struggling when Tavendish turned his back on the smitten viscount and took her with him.

“Lord Tavendish,” she said without a trace of emotion. “Would you rather entertain the young viscount, please do not let me detain you.”

He slid her a look—one she could classify as a Judas look—and casually led her ’round the ballroom. A young countess recently delivered of her husband’s second child stepped in their path. He eyed her salaciously and then tittered, “Just awaiting the next gavotte with Miss Simp—I mean, Miss Bancroft.” He cocked an eyebrow at her and said, “I’ll come for you later.”

She giggled behind her fan and, with a disdainful glance at Celia, murmured, “But will I?”

He pressed his hand to his chest and pouted. “You wound me, my lady.”

Lord, Celia thought as he once again took up his flirtation route, she was going to explode—with laughter or fury, she did not know.

“Ah, there we are. Let us dance.”

She was quite certain she had lost all sense. Last night she was despondent, grieving even, and had decided to run, to get away from this monster of a man she wanted regardless but could not have, and tonight he was seducing her yet again without realizing it.

Laughter was his best weapon against her, did he but know it, as she had been laughing at his antics from the moment she had seen her figurehead gone. It was taking every dram of her acting ability to betray nothing of herself.

He suspected her, even if he hadn’t quite rationalized it yet.

But perhaps he had . . .

It was her eyes, the only physical manifestation she had received from her mother. Of all the features she acquired from her father, she only coveted the one she hadn’t gotten: his sky blue eyes. Brown eyes were certainly not the most unique of traits and, in her opinion, rather clashed with her sun-drenched hair.

Judas had, many times, caught her gaze and held it, but had only remarked upon them once, however: You have beautiful eyes. Both Rafael and Talaat had found them as mesmerizing as Judas did, though Celia could not imagine why.

Now Lord Macaroni had noticed them in spite of her every effort to draw his attention away from them, as it seemed he was determined to keep company with her. It was almost as if he knew she was bamming him and had decided to wait her out, to play her own game with her, engaging her in a battle to see who would sink first—and she was as aroused as she had been the night she’d run the blockade.

She should not have attended this ball, but the temptation to witness Aunt Harriet’s rebellion against her husband was too much to resist. Harrie had to have ordered that gown weeks ago to have fostered its rapid duplication throughout the ton. Mary, however, had declined to attend, as she feared she would not be able to stop laughing and thereby betray her true state of health.

Thus, between Aunt Harriet’s war on Rathbone and Judas’s grand mischief, Celia was on the verge of bursting out in laughter.

But The Simpleton didn’t laugh, so Celia couldn’t.

Nay, this had been a bad decision, and Celia must think of a way to escape Lord Macaroni’s presence after the dance, when, she was certain, he would bear her to the garden to find relief from his façade. His sister was engaged with her many suitors and seemed to have no intention of divesting herself of admirers to assist her brother.

Celia, then, would press upon her uncle for a return to Rathbone House immediately following this dance. Certainly, the marquess would not be here at all but for his apparent need to keep a weather eye on his wife.

The music ended and Tavendish escorted her off the floor and, predictably, started toward the door to the garden. Before she could say anything, however, they were accosted yet again, but this time by a well-dressed man who teetered a bit on his heels.

“Tavendish! Shall I see you tomorrow at Gray’s Inn?”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly!” Lord Macaroni declared in his preposterous whine. “Those poor beasts!”

Celia saw the other noble’s lip curl slightly. “What happened to you, man? You were not so missish at Oxford.”

He leaned forward and flicked the man’s wrist with his kerchief. “La, did you not know? I was tried for treason.”

This time Tavendish’s friend did not try to hide his thoughts, and a beatific expression overcame his features. “Of course, Tavvy,” he said gravely. “‘Tis well enough, then. I understand two years in Newgate can do . . . much . . . to unman one.”

“Ah, yes, you think me insane,” he quipped with a wink. “‘Tis possible, I s’pose, and I’ll admit a tendency toward irregular behavior, but I am not certain of it. What I am certain of is that I have rather changed in my outlook since Newgate. I now simply abhor bloodshedding of any kind.”

Celia kept her snort to herself.

“Then you do not still fence.”

“I should say not! I am transformed, I tell you. A lover, not a fighter. Of course, if you should care to have a demonstration of the former—”

“No!” The poor man looked positively ill and cast about for any eavesdroppers. “No, thank you, Tavvy. And, ah, were I you, I should not speak of my proclivities so loudly and in mixed company, yet. ’Tis a hanging offense, buggery. But good to see you again.”

Celia watched him scoot away as quickly as etiquette deemed proper.

“Come, Celia,” Judas murmured with a nudge of his elbow into her ribs. “Smile. You cannot have missed the humor in that ridiculous exchange.”

Did she have a dagger, she would slice the earl’s throat. The only alternative to killing him was kissing him. That might raise a suspicion or two. “As you have not told me the entirety of the joke, my lord, I cannot truly ascertain the climax.”

“Gray’s Inn is—”

“I am aware, my lord,” Celia said. “Cockfighting is not an interest I would have anticipated you to hold.”

“Oh, it isn’t,” he assured her as if she had not informed him that she had already deduced that. “‘Tis a game for lessers.”

Lessers. Men who could only bear the shedding of blood by animal proxy. Celia heard it clear enough, yet The Simpleton would not know that so she said nothing.

Tavendish sighed. “They are gadflies, Miss Bancroft,” he muttered somewhat stiffly, his amusement at having successfully baited an old school chum seemingly vanished. “Bored ones, at that, although that may be somewhat redundant.”

“You are not bored, then?”

“Good God, no. With the hundreds of other things to do in London? I shall squire you to a selection of them.”

“Why would you do that, my lord?” Celia asked.

“Why, Miss Bancroft, do you not desire my companionship?”

“Of course I desire you, my lord,” she said dully.

“Good show!”

If he were bamming her, he was doing a delightfully skillful job of it, and now Celia felt herself challenged by this game. Who would unmask the other first in the fortnight before she could get her mother and her men to Rotterdam?

“What should you enjoy most, my dear?”

Celia pretended to consider. “I think I should like the opera, my lord.”

“The opera it is, then. I shall call upon you tomorrow evening. Please be so kind as to invite your dear mother.”

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Dunham 49: Chapter Forty-Nine

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May 15, 1780
Berkeley Square, London

“You’re doing it up a bit too brown, Unk,” Sandy muttered to Elliott once he had finished flirting his way around the room.

“I should say so,” Niall agreed, sipping at his arrack punch.

“Subtlety is boring and does not . . . ” Elliott trailed off as he, Sandy, and Niall watched, stupefied, as Marchioness Rathbone glided by in panniers six feet wide, in pink-embroidered white silk. That was de rigueur. What was not was the toy sword attached to her pink stomacher; or the tall, light blue wig; or the miniature ship sailing the sea of blue hair whose tiny stern had even tinier lettering: THUNDERSTORM.

“Dear God in heaven.”

Elliott didn’t know whether his brother or nephew said it, but it echoed his thoughts precisely.

“Elliott,” Niall said, nudging his elbow and directing his attention to his right. Another one, dressed nearly identically but for the embroidery. White and peach. Toy swords. Pink or peach or blue wigs. Ships in their hair or embroidered on their dresses.

“Lethal hoops to starboard.”

And that one, whose skirt was a ship, had soft black silk cannon bores popping out of the lustrous brown silk. Her bodice had standing rigging strung from her ribs to the far ends of her hoops.

It was an invasion of the first water, and every noble lady of substance was wearing some homage to the Lady Captain Fury.

“When did this happen?” Sandy whispered.

“It had to have been planned,” Niall whispered back.

“And a perfectly executed plan it is,” Elliott said low and tried to hide his smile. “Lud, Fury would laugh until she shattered.” He surmised from this display that Rathbone’s tête-à-tête with his wife may not have gone as well as one might hope. “Why do I not engender this outpouring of devotion?” he grumbled good-naturedly. “At least I’m British.”

“Say, Unk, where is Miss Simpleton? Is she not the reason we are here swimming in an ocean of Furys?”

“Actually,” Elliott drawled, “we are here because your Lady Jane is here and I am playing matchmaker for you as I promised. I am also looking for the object of all these women’s affectations.”

“Affections,” Sandy muttered.

“Alexander!” Elliott snapped, cursing himself for relaying the events of the previous evening, including Miss Simpleton’s guileless insults, which had sent the two of them up into the boughs with laughter. “I said ‘affectations’ because I meant ‘affectations.’ If you were not so quick to judge me an idiot, you would know it for a pun, thus who is the idiot amongst us is in question. You are quickly becoming de trop.”

The flush on his face could be seen even under the light coating of powder and he hunched a little in his tasteful coat. “Sorry, Unk.”

Elliott stood silent, grinding his teeth against his mounting anger. “Where’s the object of your affections?”

“There,” his nephew muttered, thoroughly cowed, then tilted his head slightly left. “With her père, who roundly disapproves of me. I wished to write my name on her card, but was sent off as if I were a footman attempting to steal a kiss.”

Elliott took a quick glance at the girl, who was clad in light blue silk, her blonde hair piled high, and her face unpowdered. She had one small black circle adhered just under the corner of her mouth.

“She is sneaking glances at you,” Elliott said under his breath, still using his cup as a shield. “Are you sure she would not welcome a seduction?”

“Elliott!” he groaned. “Are you mad?”

He cackled. Loudly. “Of course I’m mad, dear nephew!” he crowed. “My solicitor of all people should know that beyond a doubt!” All eyes were suddenly upon them, but most particularly those of Sandy’s tendre, which then slid to Sandy to watch him when the boy was otherwise occupied with cooling his still-flaming cheeks.

“You are not helping my cause.”

At that, Elliott shoved his cup into Niall’s hand and strode over to Lady Jane Iddlesleigh, ignoring her father’s glare, but noting the way she shrank away from him with barely disguised disgust. “My lovely Lady Jane, may I have your dance card?”

“Now see here, Tavendish!” the Earl of Iddlesleigh said with some bluster. “I’ll not have my daughter hanging off the arm of a traitor and, and, and macaroni!”

Elliott slid his attention to Lord Iddlesleigh and said smoothly. “Oh no? Even one with a bit of blunt to get you out from under your bad investments?” The earl inflated like a sea squab, but Elliott took a step toward him such that their bodies touched rather more intimately than permitted by etiquette and far more suggestively than Iddlesleigh would have liked. “My nephew, Mister Alexander Kerr,” Elliott whispered in his ear, “would like to pay his respects to your daughter and I am disposed to believe she would not rebuff him. Lest you see your every financial secret exposed in the Gazette, including what Sandwich is paying you to back him on his naval strategies, I suggest you allow him at least to dance with her once.”

Iddlesleigh’s throat bobbed.

“Should they continue together and they court in an entirely proper manner and find themselves in sympathy, I will settle upon you the aforementioned blunt. If not, no one is put out.”

“Except my daughter if his courtship has tainted her,” the man hissed.

“Or I can make sure your missteps damage her irreparably, at which time, Sandy will likely be her only reasonable alternative. After all, a highly respected and successful solicitor whose residence is in an earl’s household in Berkeley Square is not one’s common commoner. Your move, Iddlesleigh.”

“Very well. I’ll not forget this, Tavendish.”

Elliott had already turned to the young lady in question and held out his hand, into which she reluctantly placed her card. He scrawled his name on the line of the next gavotte, and then scribbled Sandy’s name on the allemande. Once finished, he clicked his heels and bowed to her, then walked away without saying another word.

Upon his return to his family, young Viscount Vickers caught his arm and pulled him close. “Your lordship,” he cooed. “Dare I hope you’d join me for coffee at Mary’s this eve?”

Elliott cast him a knowing glance. “Magdalen’s, do you mean?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Not this eve, alas,” Elliott sighed with exaggerated regret. “M’sister, you see. Once I get her married off, I should have more time to pursue my . . . manly pleasures.”

“And do I . . . please you, my lord?”

Elliott stepped back to inspect him with appropriate lasciviousness. “You’ve an alluring manner about you, Vickers. Prithee do not let me keep you and I shall avail myself of your services anon. But, Vickers . . . ” He leaned down to the boy, who could be no older than Sandy. “Get me your mother first.”

The viscount stepped back a bit, keeping his countenance carefully pleasant. Elliott was satisfied to see him adequately shocked. “My . . . my mother, my lord?”

He looked over the boy’s head to see his mother in one of those ridiculous Captain Fury gowns. She was beautiful, indeed.

“Aye,” he purred, still looking to her. He flicked his glance back to Vickers. “Do you want my cock riding your arse, I’ll have your dam’s cunt first.”

The boy gulped. Hard. Elliott wouldn’t be surprised if he cast up his accounts all over his hideous pumps. “Should— Should I send word if—if—if she agrees?”

“You do that.”

Elliott would have laughed, but he was reaching his point of fatigue and Camille had not yet seen fit to interrupt her selection of a husband to relieve him. Nor was Celia Bancroft in sight, even though her aunt was, which did not bode well for his opportunities to rest. He spent some time looking for Miss Simpleton and could not catch Milly’s eye (deliberately, he believed, the brat), but just when he decided to slip off to a dark, quiet corner where he could rest, the gavotte began. He sought out Lady Jane to claim her, and, as he had expected, she did not look upon him with disgust this time. In fact, she granted him a smile of shy conspiracy. Neither of them said a word during the gavotte (she was an excellent dancer, he noted), but when he bowed to her, he murmured, “I shall send Mr. Kerr along to you in a trice.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

He had just set Sandy to dancing attendance upon Lady Jane when Lord Rathbone and the Honourable Miss Bancroft were announced. She was dressed incredibly badly—worse than usual—and he wished he’d thought to approach Rathbone concerning her wardrobe.

She stood stock still and, as usual, staring ahead of her as if her mind was far away. Mayhap it was. In the past week, Elliott had collected a dozen salacious rumors as to where she had been all these years and what had been done to her.

If the rumors had not made her a target of everyone’s attention, her coif and cosmetics would have accomplished it. Piled lopsided upon her head, her unpowdered brunette hair stood out amongst all the white, pink, blue, peach, yellow, and silver wigs—his included—gliding, turning, and bobbing about the ballroom. Her face powder was splotchy and her rouge was badly done. Her red lips were painted too large for her gaunt face. Her pea-colored gown made her look as sickly as her mother.

In short, she was a calamity.

Elliott strode forward, wondering why Celia had arrived with her uncle instead of her aunt. The marquess was right behind her, bending low and whispering in her ear, gently guiding her with a hand to her shoulder.

Whatever else Elliott thought of Rathbone’s handling of his family, he could not deny that appearing here with his imbecile niece was a kindness most gentlemen of the ton would not have shown. Then again, Munro truly did not care for the ton or its opinion of him. He had one goal in his life, nothing would distract him from it, and likely he saw Celia as the personification of his own daughter.

As Elliott broke through the crowd, he called her name in the high pitch that near froze his throat. Rathbone saw him and sneered.

“Tavendish,” Rathbone said disapprovingly.

Elliott whined, “La, Admiral, a body would think you have no use for me!”

“Not in that custom,” he said flatly. “Your tailor should be run out of the country.”

He slid a glance at Celia and said, “Your household has its own sartorial crises, Munro. Seeeeleeeeaaaaa, how are you, my dahling gehl? Let me look at you. Ravishing, just ravishing, I say.”

“You would say, Tavendish,” Rathbone drawled.

“Your wife’s lovely tonight, Marquess, though I cannot fancy what would possess her to float a toy boat in her hair, blue or not. What in God’s name is the Thunderstorm? And why are all the ladies in Town wearing it?”

The look Rathbone leveled at him told him to be prepared for a pummeling later, but Elliott smirked. “Run along, now, Munro,” Elliott chirped as he took Celia’s hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm. “I’ll see she comes to no harm.”

“Celia?” Rathbone asked gently.

“Thank you, Uncle,” she said dully. “Lord Tavendish is my friend.”

If by “friend,” she meant he was—at the very least—using her to shield his deplorable acting, then yes, he was definitely her friend. “Come, my dear,” he cooed. “Walk with me whilst we await the next dance.”

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Dunham 48: Chapter Forty-Eight

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May 14, 1780
Rathbone House
Mayfair, London

Do you understand the phrase ‘engine of love assaults’?

For the first time in a week, Celia had reason to smile. If she had not been so very hungry and tired, so very much in despair, she might have laughed. She had watched Judas—Elliott (she still liked that name)—consider every possible explanation for how Miss Simpleton could be Fury, discarding them one by one until he had nothing left—except to see if she could maintain her façade through something he knew she not help but giggle at.

“Feeling better?” Mary asked softly as she stood behind Celia and brushed her hair out. It was a bother, fitting all of her hair up under her wigs, but she refused to shave her head as the wigmaker suggested. Powder was too easily shaken out and dye too unreliable.

“Aye, a bit,” she lied.

“How is it Tavendish accompanied you home?”

“He and the marquess are old friends, and he suggested to Rathbone that perhaps he should tend to his wife. So . . . he did. I think. He left us alone in the garden for, oh, hours.” Two hours and eight minutes, to be precise, as she had been watching the sky to keep time. “Did Rathbone and Harriet come home together?”

“Oh, they did,” Mary drawled with great disapproval. “And bellowing at each other fair to raise the dead.”

Celia shrugged. “’Tis more than they’ve done since he returned. Did they happen to finish that argument in bedsport?”

“Definitely not.”

“She is not mad, you know. She is grieving. Deeply. So is he. He told Lord Macaroni—” She stopped when Mary chuckled. “Glad you find that amusing. I don’t.”

“Oh, Celia, laugh. The man is preposterous.”

Celia harrumphed and continued. “Aunt Harrie bade him not to return without Sarah alive and sane, and he has been trying to do that for twenty years. I’m not even sure she remembers that. He also knows about her affaires and inability to sleep, but he certainly does not sleep any more than she does.”

Mary stared at Celia in shock, sorrow erasing the humor she had found in Celia’s jibe. “Oh, my.” Mary placed her hands on Celia’s shoulders and squeezed lovingly. Their images in the mirror could not be more disparate: Where Mary was slender and petite whilst retaining her splendid bosom, Celia was tall and—with near three stone gone—as ungainly as a drunken skeleton. When she wasn’t starving, she was a right Amazon. When she was, her tits collapsed like a sail suddenly without wind.

Where Mary’s skin was a light gold, smooth and without blemish, Celia’s was a pasty white that, unprotected, burned at the mere suggestion of sunlight. Where Mary’s hair was a pure white, turned from a dark golden blonde, Celia’s had darkened to its natural color, identical to her father’s once-orange mane. Once she was out of London and on the water, it would once again lighten to—

“Peach hair,” Celia grumbled.

“Judas found that particularly fascinating,” Mary said quietly.

Celia sighed. “Mother, what do you want from me with regard to him? One moment, you champion him though he cannot wed me. Another moment, you hate him for that very thing. I cannot keep up.”

“Things could change,” she offered with a weak smile. “I just want to see you happy, and I don’t know anything else that might do so. I have never seen you sparkle with joy so much as you did with him.”

Celia said nothing as she arose and climbed into bed. She refused to argue about this tonight, not when the vestiges of how Judas—Elliott—had been kind to Miss Simpleton lingered in her brain. He had needed to collect himself as Lord Macaroni, but he had not needed to entertain her beyond the point he had determined she was not Fury.

Fanny Hill.

Her smile remained melancholic as she recalled that day, the laughter and kisses.

If she had ever had a doubt that Ju—Elliott might be less amusing on land, his elaborate masquerade put it to rest. No, he did not care for it and it wearied him, but in entertaining himself with it, he entertained her. It was the same mischief that had spurred him to take her figurehead and made her long to reveal herself to him so they could share the jest and together do outrageous things in and to Society. The possibilities were endless.

In fact, his offer to assist her with her book report tempted her as nothing else had. Celia despised Hestia Grisham and Constancia Aynesworth, but not because they were cruel to The Simpleton. Everyone was, to varying degrees.

She despised them because they were not terribly intelligent, thus clumsy and uninteresting about their cruelties. So Celia thought it uncharacteristically clever of them to approach her to request she present Fanny Hill to a gathering, though they were not clever enough to know how badly such a prank could fail without guidance—particularly when it involved an illegal text.

The scheme was rife with weakness and begged a smarter, better prankster to blow it apart.

Thus, Celia had accepted their invitation, obliging her to read past page twenty-seven to the end, all the while either laughing hysterically or bored senseless, so that she could wring every dram of humiliation possible from the two who had, in their quest to be cruel, unwittingly given themselves over to . . . a pirate.

An educated one with nothing better to do.

And wouldn’t it be grand if she could draw Judas into it!

Celia sighed. She was loath to let him know who she was, for he would take her to bed and love her and she would be that much the worse when they again parted, as they must. She had wished for one last opportunity to feel him against her, in her, before she sailed to Algiers, had stayed in London so that he could find her. He was actively searching for her with the sanction of a government that had no idea he was a traitor.

But now that her wish was within her grasp, she could not bear it.

She could not bear the pain of another parting from him.

She could not bear the possibility she would weaken and consent to be his mistress.

As vulnerable as she was, she should not allow him access to her mind or her body—and God forbid he make her laugh, because that would shatter her will more effectively than bedsport.

But Aunt Harriet would continue to feed her as sparingly as she always had, and if Celia could not consistently slip out of the house every second or third night for a decent supper, she would be forced to reveal herself to him. He would soon become the only way she could get out of England before dying of hunger or being thrown in the Tower to die of hunger.

Unless . . .

“Mama,” she said abruptly. “Our purposes here have been stymied time and again. Talaat would say ’tis God’s will and a sign that we are not to be here, and at this point, I am half tempted to believe such a thing. That aside, between Bancroft, Rafael, Rathbone, and Woman, I’m hopelessly outgunned. I have never been too proud to run and I’ll not start now.”

“We’re leaving?” she whispered hopefully.

“Aye, within the fortnight, if not before. I will begin making arrangements as soon as I can slip away to my office. We will have to concoct an excuse—mayhap your French protector demands you hie to his side. Mayhap I can forge a missive from Rafael. I will devise something clever, but we cannot be seen to rush. As for Maarten— Either I will have to find another way to get his documents, or I will fail and live with the regret of an unpaid debt.”

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Dunham 47: Chapter Forty-Seven

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May 14, 1780
Mayfair, London

Was he so desperate for relief from this charade that he would rather spend the evening in the garden mindlessly lecturing the Honourable Miss Simpleton than go inside?

No. She reminded him slightly of someone he couldn’t forget—someone he couldn’t find and wouldn’t be able to until she saw fit to present herself to Mélisande Gables.

Her trump had him gnashing his teeth.

She knows who y’are, Cap’n. She’s right tart about it, too.

How tart, exactly?

Called ye the Earl of Iscariot.

Oh, damn. That’s tart.

His crewman had delivered the message verifying what the Admiralty thought—that Fury was amongst the ton. If he had not already expected that response, he would have had reason to believe his crewman had misunderstood, since she had also apparently told him to keep gravel in his pocket and Elliott couldn’t gravel any better than he could grovel.

So he had attended every ball, rout, masquerade, concert, salón, musicale, play, opera, ballet, and supper these past five days to see if he could solve the challenge she’d set him—prepared to grovel.

Not one woman he had flirted with could he connect to Fury.

Except this one—and that only because he hadn’t had the opportunity to flirt with her at all.

True, she was as tall as Fury, provided her heels were as high as his. Too, they were of an age. And those honey eyes . . .

I could be right under your nose and you would never know ‘tis me.

Playing the simpleton in Society would be the perfect masquerade: It would suit Fury’s puckish sense of humor, and she was angry with him enough she might allow him to be taken in by such a charade.

But if it was an act, it was certainly convincing:

Her voice held none of the color and vivacity of Fury’s, the accent was odd, and its register was far too low. However, any trained singer with an ear for languages and passing talent at mimicry should be able to accomplish this.

Her hair (brown, unpowdered) was all wrong. It could be a wig, but if it was, it was the most artful one he had ever seen.

Next was her face: Fury was well padded, her face soft and round. This woman’s face was gaunt, owing nothing to artful application of lead or rouge. He couldn’t tell much about her body under the hoops, but she was definitely much thinner than Fury. She wore a gown with a décolletage up to her collarbone, which was as atrocious as his own deliberate costuming. But no matter. It clung to her bosom to perfection and Miss Bancroft’s bosom was not nearly so voluptuous as Fury’s, to be sure. He could likely span this woman’s waist with his hands, but she was breathing comfortably, which meant her stays were smaller than Fury’s—and he should know.

There could be no explanation for this, as Fury ate well enough to maintain such curvature whilst being so active aboard a ship. She could not have lost such a great amount of weight being a land-locked lady of leisure with her appetite. Nay, she would have gained weight.

Not that he would object, oh no.

Additionally, if she were Fury, why in God’s name would she be living under Rathbone’s roof? The blockade had been risky enough, but living under her nemesis’s regard was risky in the extreme. She had told Elliott she had obligations in London (from which he had inferred such obligations had nothing to do with privateering), but to go so far as to sleep down the hallway from the man whose ship she had destroyed?

Unless she was spying, which would make complete sense except for the fact that she had been at Rathbone House the two previous Seasons, when Rathbone was not. He hadn’t darkened his own doorstep in five years and had not been expected home this Season, either, so Elliott couldn’t imagine that the marquess’s residence would hold anything of value to Fury’s superiors that hadn’t been there last year or the year before.

And if Celia were Fury, and she were spying, why, Rathbone had just given her everything she could possibly want to know. She would also know Elliott was not averse to betraying his former Navy colleagues.

But trumping all possibilities was the incontrovertible fact that the daughter of Baron Hylton, niece to Marquess Rathbone, could not also be the daughter of James Dunham, granddaughter of the Stewart-loyal Laird of Clan Dunham, with a long history of adversarial relations to the Crown.

This had no explanation, either, else the explanation was too convoluted to be deduced without more information. He could not begin to craft a hypothesis as to why a man who may have been cuckolded by his wife would go to such lengths to claim her lover’s child when that man also claimed her.

I wanna enjoy me time ashore with me protégée.

Then again, Dunham had not claimed her as his daughter, and Elliott could not verify his supposed resemblance to Fury.

That fact, together with an emaciated body that in no way resembled Fury’s voluptuous one—

His musings in that direction came to a standstill because he was presented with too many bizarre and complex possibilities to explain why Miss Simpleton might be Fury.

We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.

Old Ben had taught Elliott that Ptolemaic maxim when he was but a nineteen-year-old midshipman under Captain Nathan Bancroft’s command, and it had been the guiding principle throughout the entirety of his command.

Miss Simpleton and Fury had exactly three things in common: similar height, similar eye color, and similar age. Those traits together were likely shared by a fifth of the world’s women, but were not in such supply amongst the ton.

He had spent the last few days looking for Fury in every woman he met, finding the barest of evidence, and spinning out “what-ifs” at an alarming rate. It was utterly counterproductive to his purpose.

“Why are you here, my lord?”

Elliott was drawn up short at Miss Simpleton’s dully voiced question, posed right in the middle of his well-worn lecture. “’Tis a bit impertinent of you, don’t you think, Celia, to interrupt and question an earl?”

She immediately dropped a small curtsey and said, “Apologies, my lord.”

He sighed. Taking her hand and putting it back on his arm, he said, “No need. I am unused to women without guile. I can see that you are merely curious and likely bored.”

She said nothing.

Disconcerted, he blurted, “I’ve been looking for a wife.”

No reaction. He could see little in the faint light and her body had not betrayed any surprise or other emotion.

“That will not be easy for you, my lord,” she stated calmly.

Her astute observation piqued his curiosity. “Why?”

“No one wants to wed their girls to you. Except my father. And you refused to consider it.”

What was he to say to that? Was it possible the woman had feelings? “Pardon the delicate question, but did that offend you?”

“No, my lord. Conde Covarrubias is kind to me.”

“Then why did you make a point of it?”

“Because you have not returned to the ballroom. I don’t understand why you would rather tell me about . . . ”

“Venus.”

“Yes, Venus. It’s very nice. I would think you’d rather dance than entertain me.”

Good God, he was being flummoxed by a simpleton. “I am trying to be kind. ‘Tis my only motive.”

“Oh.”

Rather, for the unintended benefit of not having to watch his persona every second. His impromptu interview with Rathbone and his musings on Miss Simpleton’s inconsistencies had put him so far out of character he feared he would not be able to get back in. Had she even noticed the drastic change?

“Let me ask you: Would you not rather wed someone eager to wed you?”

She said nothing for a moment. “Yes, my lord,” she said thoughtfully, “particularly one who is so much more handsome.”

Elliott barely kept his mouth from dropping open. “Was that an insult, Miss Bancroft?”

She looked up at him and blinked owlishly. “I am not clever enough for insults, my lord.” She pulled away from him and curtsied yet again. “If I have offended you, I apologize.”

What did he expect? Children told truths adults wouldn’t, and this woman was near enough to a child as to make no difference. He had nearly called her one to her face. And, well, he had intended to look ridiculous. “Oh, please do stop bowing and scraping. And when we are alone, I give you leave to call me Elliott.”

“Yes, my lord.”

He sighed and looked for something, anything, to talk about. “Do you read?”

“Yes, my lord.”

By this time, they were in the center of the maze, and Elliott brought them to a halt at the moonlit fountain. There were at least a half dozen trysting couples rustling the leaves in blind corners, but Celia did not seem to have noticed.

“What did you read last?”

“I am reading a most peculiar work,” she said slowly. “It was given me.”

“Its title?”

Fanny Hill.”

Elliott choked back a laugh, but then he looked at the innocent soul beside him who had no notion that whoever had given it to her was likely playing a practical joke.

“Who gave you that book?” he demanded finally.

“Lady Grisham and Mrs. Aynesworth.”

Mean-spirited twats. “Do you . . . ” He had to be delicate. “Are you . . . enjoying it?”

“Nay, my lord.”

Of course she didn’t. Nothing made her happy. She had forgotten what joy was. She did not enjoy anything at all.

Except music, so he was told—another thing she shared with Fury, which brought the odds of Miss Simpleton being Fury down to . . .

. . . still too great to account for the skeleton in front of him.

“Why not?”

“I do not understand it at all.”

As compared to what she had likely suffered during her captivity so much that she had gone mad, the characters in Fanny Hill presented an entirely different experience of the act.

“What about it do you not understand?”

“It seems to me the woman moves house far more than is necessary and sometimes leaves her things behind. I should not like to leave my things behind.”

He took a deep breath. “Celia, tell me. Do you understand the phrase ‘engine of love assaults’?”

“No, my lord.”

Not one giggle.

Not one snicker.

Not even so much as a hastily hidden smirk.

That was that, then.

He turned to her and took both her hands in his. “Celia,” he began, attempting to keep any sternness out of his voice lest she think him angry with her. “If you do not understand a book, or like a book, you are not obliged to continue to read it.”

She blinked, as if surprised.

“Has no one told you that?”

“No.”

“Ah, well. I am giving you permission—nay, requiring you—to cease reading books you do not find amusing.”

She said nothing for a full six seconds. “Lady Grisham and Mrs. Aynesworth have asked me to give a report of the book at a small gathering Friday evening, my lord. What shall I say to them? I cannot disappoint, as they were so looking forward to it.”

Elliott was quite sure they were. “Though I believe book reports should be done in the schoolroom, not at an intimate gathering, if you insist upon fulfilling your promise, I will help you prepare.”

“Oh.” She paused, and then, as if she’d only just remembered her manners, “Thank you, my lord.”

“You are very welcome, Miss Bancroft,” Elliott said, feeling very proud of his goodness and humanity.

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Dunham 46: Chapter Forty-Six

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May 14, 1780
Mayfair, London

Celia stood alone on the edge of the ballroom, waiting for Rear-Admiral Lord Rathbone to bring her the cup of lemonade she’d expressed a desire for.

It wasn’t an idle desire, either: Her need for citrus was reaching crisis proportions such that the last time she was able to get to her office (which opportunities had become nonexistent), she ate oranges and sucked on limes until she was nauseated. Fortunately, because Rathbone was a sailor, he recognized this about her once she had managed to call his attention to it.

“Here you are, Celia,” Marquess Rathbone murmured when he appeared at her side. “You look rather like a sodden mop.”

If it had been any other time and place, Celia would have laughed. Tonight, she merely said, “Thank you, Uncle,” and took his offering.

“I shall instruct the staff to provide you with fruit if you wish.”

She never thought she would find Rathbone a godsend. “I would be very grateful. Thank you.”

“The music is atrocious,” Rathbone grumbled.

Celia couldn’t agree more, but why was she was shocked he could discern it? He had a library full of textbooks on the subject. She made no comment on that. “Please do not feel obliged to stand with me, Uncle,” she said dully.

Go away.

“I don’t,” he muttered absently. “I’m waiting for Lord Tavendish.”

Celia gulped. “You know him?”

“He served with me on the HMS Ocean,” he answered, apparently unaware The Simpleton would not engage in idle chatter or attempt to solicit information. He was paying too much attention to the ballroom doors. “I was a first leftenant and he a third. We . . . endured . . . much together.”

Asking What? would give too much of her away. The Simpleton would not think to ask. Besides, his tone informed her that he would not provide details. Was it possible Judas had endured something worse than being tried for treason, locked in Newgate for two years whilst he stood trial?

They stood silent for quite a while, and Celia let her mind wander. She knew she should stay alert, considering her most dangerous adversary was at her elbow, but this sojourn had managed to beat her into the deck in ways Skirrow had only dreamed.

All her plans had been set asunder by others’ machinations—unwittingly yet! and with the best of intentions!

She had bedded a man who was exactly to her taste and, predictably, she had fallen in love with him and, even more predictably, she had promptly gotten her heart broken.

The opinion of her stepfather she had held close all these years, the foundation upon which she built her anger, had shattered into pieces so tiny she could not see them. (At least Dunham was not present to crow that had she listened to him, it would never have built in the first place.) She was mired in rage that had nowhere to go except toward Mary because she had created this mess, but that she would not do.

Her mother was livid at everything in general and Celia in particular. No, perhaps Bancroft. Or Dunham. Rafael? Judas! Mary was no more prepared for the mess Celia’s life had become than Celia was and had no idea where to direct her frustration. She could expect more enraged mutterings from Mary’s side of the bed tonight.

Her uncle had received no word of a new assignment and he was chewing the walls to get back out to sea. Celia would have chewed them with him if it meant she could return to the library and Maarten’s task—the very reason she was in this stew in the first place. The marquess was still regularly rousing the house to find wayward Cousin Edward, bellowing threats to take him to sea, but he had to have a ship to make that good.

She hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since they arrived at Rathbone House and she was weakening from lack of adequate rations. Those few nights she managed to sneak out and take supper with her crew were not enough to assuage her gnawing hunger—never mind her lack of citrus.

Meanwhile, her ship and crew were in Rotterdam at anchor, doing absolutely nothing productive. Celia loved to spend money, but even she, with her spendthrift ways, chafed to waste any.

On top of all that, instead of tossing That Man overboard as she had intended, he had further wrapped her up in his life and troubles whether she wed him or not, with the missive he had left her before departing for Spain.

4 May 1780
Celia. Should I die before I return, this is what you must do to avenge me, as you swore: Go to Spain. Kill every male in the Covarrubias line. What you do with the women I will leave to your discretion, as long as none of them are increasing. Those, you kill. You will then go to my cousin in Madrid and inform him of the condadó título’s demise. He will be so thoroughly delighted to have those entails returned to him, he may not insult you overmuch.

Every time Celia and King Carlos had conversed, their opinion of each other lessened until they could not stand the sight of each other. Thus Rafael had brought her to court often for his personal amusement, and now he meant to laugh at them both from the grave.

As a second point of business, I have been made Rector of the University of Coimbra. I will take the seat at the new year.

Rector! That had shocked her. It had been his lifelong dream, and he had finally attained it.

I promised you may go back to the sea, but I do want you to be my wife in every way and I will do everything I can to persuade you to stay with me. I have only one thing to offer you, which is my vow to learn to love Captain Fury the way I have loved Celia Bancroft for fourteen years.

’Twould seem her girlish infatuation was far more powerful than she had suspected for this to tempt her. And tempt her it did in light of Tavendish’s unavailability.

Then came the final blow that might drive her back to Portugal after the war:

Remember these things: I love you. I have never lied to you. I have never reneged on a promise I have made to you.
RC

Fortunately, he had had the foresight to write the missive in Arabic, for when it had been delivered, Aunt Harriet had taken it upon herself to break the seal and attempt to read the letter first. Her confusion and frustration may have been comical but for the fact that Celia had panicked in truth.

With a screech about my things! Celia had snatched the letter out of her hands and run to her room, slammed the door, and locked it, wailing the entire time. Woman had popped out of her apartment and loudly demanded Celia be sent to the madhouse, at which point Aunt Harriet had offered to help Woman arrange other lodgings if Rathbone House did not suit her.

So between Celia’s hunger, her lack of citrus, Woman’s continued residency, Rafael’s devastating missive, and Aunt Harriet’s appropriation of it, Celia had been unable to stir herself from her bed for an entire week after its delivery. She would have preferred to stay abed, her sparse meals brought to her, but Aunt Harriet would not allow her to. Convinced Celia could be cheered with good music and pretty dresses, she had hounded and harried Mary to outfit Celia for the night’s rounds, ignoring any protests that Celia was fatigued and generally unwell.

“Ooooh, la! What a perfectly lovely gathering!”

And now, on her first evening out in over a sennight, she had to face that disgusting . . . thing. The one she had tupped for five days straight. The one who did not recognize her.

She didn’t start. Didn’t turn to look. She could barely stir herself to get from the ballroom door to the spot she and Rathbone occupied.

“Good God,” Rathbone whispered, horrified.

Celia was utterly numb, so Lord Macaroni’s appearance did nothing to stir her for good or ill.

His yellowish wig—and the miniature tricorn perched upon its pointy peak—added near a foot to his height, already heightened by his heels. There were two enormous sausage curls just over each of his ears. His coat was scarlet, his waistcoat and stockings a glaring turquoise, and his breeches saffron.

She blinked at the color of his heels: scarlet. He had the King’s ear?

The beautiful young woman again on his arm was exquisitely attired, and immediately borne away by a cloud of suitors.

“If he wanted to convince everyone of his madness, he’s doing a bang-up job,” Rathbone muttered in disgust.

A bit of panic worked its way through Celia’s numbness. Of course he would know this for a façade.

“At least his sister knows how to dress. She should be able to make a good match this Season.”

Sister?

“Lord Tavendish is not mad, like me?” Celia ventured. “I had heard . . . ”

“He is as sane as I, my dear. He must have a reason for this, though I could not fathom what.”

Celia was floating as if trapped in a soap bubble that would never land or pop. The sounds around her were muted, the colors dull, the scents flat, the shapes distorted. She observed everything around her with some measure of detachment.

Was this what it was to be truly mad? she wondered as she watched Lord Macaroni’s flamboyant entrance and even more flamboyant toilette.

She ought to be angry with him, but she was far too weary and heartsick for that.

Some time in the past week, whilst she kept to her rooms, Lord Tavendish had become, quite unexpectedly (and, to Celia’s mind, inexplicably), the ton’s darling. Even Aunt Harriet had been culled by some prurient charm that made everyone he spoke to—everyone he touched—think he or she might be the lucky one the earl chose to debauch that night.

Salaciousness oozed from his every pore as he slowly made his way around the room, greeting everyone, touching them, standing too closely, whispering things, laughing . . .

Every greeting was false. Every touch was anathema to him. Every move closer to a body made his more tense. Every laugh was forced.

To her, it was so obvious.

Would she be able to see this if she had not known him for who he was?

She did not know.

What she did know was that at this pace, he would tire of the act fairly quickly. He did not seem to have the stamina to continue such a ruse, most particularly because he found it so distasteful.

Ah, there. His sister—foil and accomplice, rather—came to press him for a dance, during which he allowed himself to relax a bit.

“He’s been at every soiree this past week,” came the whisper from somewhere to Celia’s right. “‘Tis as if he is in a frenzy.”

“My husband said ‘tis as if he were looking for someone.”

“La! A girl to wed.”

“Nay. Someone he knows.”

Rathbone stiffened.

For a certes, he was looking for someone.

He wants to see you, Captain.

Aye, I know, but don’t let him near me.

He had me followed last night, but I lost the chap.

That had stopped after Celia had bestirred herself one night to follow the man who was following Papadakos. She had slipped a garrote around his throat, put her pistol to his head, and jerked him into the nearest dark alley.

You tell your captain to cease this nincompoopery immediately. I’ll not tolerate it.

Cap’n Jack, please just speak widd’im. He’s pinin’ for ye, ’e is. He ain’ ’isself.

Oh, I know exactly who ‘hisself’ is. I’m sure you and the rest of his officers had a good laugh at my expense.

No, Cap’n, we didn’t, I swear.

If the Earl of Iscariot wants to find me, he needs to keep a weather eye on his milieu and a grovel in his pocket. No more following my men. No more rattling every doorknob of every brothel in London. No more raiding every vessel on the Thames. I—am—not—there. The next man, save the earl himself, who thinks to find me by any other means is a dead man. Understood?

Aye, Cap’n.

Seeeleea, my darling! Where the devil have you been all week? I’ve missed you dreadfully! May I write my name on your card?”

No acting was required to play the part of dullard. She slowly raised her eyelids until she looked into ice blue eyes that were out of place with his yellowish wig and stark white face. She dully offered her card, where he wrote his name with a hand so artfully powdered it appeared fragile, weak.

Most people in costume neglected to disguise their hands, but not Judas. Oh, no.

“Miss Bancroft?” he asked, his voice wavering between cautious tenderness and however he thought his persona should act. “Do you not remember me? We met last week.”

“Oh,” she said, and slowly dropped a curtsey. “Apologies, my lord. I . . . forget to . . . ”

His voice pitched lower and quieter from the raucous falsetto he had been using since he arrived in Town. “‘Tis quite all right, my dear. I understand such lapses all too well.” He paused. “You do remember me, don’t you?”

“Lord Tavendish.”

“Why, yes,” he cooed with a false smile, his mouth rouged a shocking red against the thick layer of white powder needed to hide his dark tan. He had no fewer than five patches adhered to his face.

“Tavendish,” Rathbone said low.

“Ah, my dear marquess!”

“Don’t,” he returned with the barest movement of mouth, the barest of breaths. “We have the same goal.”

They were working together? Surely not for the same reason?

Could Celia’s life get any worse?

“Let us walk,” Rathbone said, absently holding his arm out for Celia to take, which she did. Neither man spoke as they wended their way through the ballroom, down the stairs, and through the manor toward the garden. Lord Macaroni, however, did not spare any person they met along the way his fluttering and simpering attentions.

Why anyone thought this beast worth a tumble, she could not imagine.

Soon they were out of the house, on the pea gravel path, and well away from the lights and noise of the ball. It was only then Tavendish’s hips stopped swishing and he walked with his normal sailor’s gait.

“Kitteridge is dead,” Rathbone rasped.

Vlad the Impaler! Celia barely caught a gasp.

In the moonlight, she could see Tavendish’s—Judas’s—eyebrow rise, then he spoke equally low and in the manner she knew to be him. “Excellent. How did that come about and how do you know?”

“My return berth. We came upon the pay fleet still burning, and were becalmed long enough to search for survivors.”

“The pay fleet is gone?”

Good lord! He hadn’t been after the gold at all! And how she had lectured him! She was still ashamed.

Rathbone’s mouth tightened. “Aye. ’Tis a blow we may not recover from, as the Hessians are deserting.”

Celia nearly snorted. Pay the mercenaries before the regular infantry. Only the British.

“Have you any idea who might have done such a thing?”

“Judas,” Rathbone muttered.

“Ah, yes. The rogue Brit who’s been bedeviling your fleet and taken up with the American woman.”

“We think. He commands a British ship of the line, the lingua franca of the crew appears to be the King’s English, and he sails with every hallmark of a Navy captain.”

“Was Kitteridge the target, then? One of our fellow captives turned rogue?”

“Lud, I hope so,” Rathbone muttered, shocking the stuffing out of Celia. “Must admit I’d have liked to participate in that battle. But for the loss of the gold and the ships. Rather put a ball between his eyes, but sinking the entire fleet—”

“Means he may not have cared or known about the gold. Do you think he got it or did it go down with the ships?”

“We have no way of knowing.”

“Ah, well. To my mind, any amount of gold is worth his death. To be sure, the poor bastards under his command are better off with Davy Jones. No one escapes—escaped—Kitteridge’s command alive without a bloodied soul. Never mind the fact that half of Parliament will agree.”

Rathbone nodded. “Which is why no alarms have been raised. Whether Judas is working for the Americans or not, he has dispatched an enemy.”

HMS Ocean. Celia would have her men find out exactly what had happened that had seemingly bonded Judas and Rathbone so tightly. So much it had been a scandal in Parliament whose details had never gone outside its walls. So much Rathbone was happy about the murder of a noble and Navy fleet commander by a rogue English officer—and not incensed about the loss of the gold.

“The ship Judas sails is a third-rate with possibly seventy eighteen-pounders, but I cannot fathom how he could have taken that fleet alone. I suspect Fury’s and Gjaltema’s involvement, but of course, I’ve no way to prove any of it. I’m not even sure you could have taken that fleet alone at the height of your career.”

“You wound me, Munro.”

Come to think of it, Celia also would like to know how he had managed it. Now she was doubly ashamed.

“That aside, Judas is a menace to us. There were rumors, but we weren’t certain he existed until he helped Fury evade capture.”

“Speaking of her, I’ve no idea why the Admiral requested my assistance in finding this woman. Everyone knows I’ve been up north ridding my coastline of smugglers, you and Lucien are always out to sea, and he has never found it seemly to forward me news. I don’t know what she looks like and I’ve’n’t the foggiest what I am looking for.”

“You have a talent for spotting fakes.”

Not a blink of an eye to betray him. He might be a barely competent actor to her observation, but he was defrauding everyone else brilliantly.

“Say, Munro, why are we out here in some noble’s garden discussing this when we could be drinking whisky in your library?”

“It’s possible Fury has a spy in my house,” he said matter-of-factly. “Though I doubt it, I’d rather not take the chance until I am assured she does not.”

At this point, Celia’s spirits began to lighten.

“What, ho, then? What business of yours does she need? She’s a privateer, aye? She should be out hunting prizes.”

“I cannot imagine, but I must capture her, else I’ll not be assigned another command. Identifying her spy would be a good start.”

Celia would find a way to give him a “spy.” Her thoughts in that direction were belayed by Tavendish’s discreet clearing of the throat. “Ah, Munro . . . ”

Rathbone came to an abrupt halt, so Celia did, too. And Tavendish. “What do you know, Raxham?”

“Not what I know, but an opinion I hold.”

There was a long silence whilst Rathbone struggled with his temper. Celia could tell by the way his arm was trembling under her hand.

“Go on,” he finally said, his voice tight.

“Very well. Reacquaint yourself with your wife.”

Rathbone sucked in a shocked breath. Indeed, it was an egregious affront. “She is dead to me,” the marquess said flatly.

“Munro . . . ”

“By her edict, not mine. I will not be allowed back in her good graces until I find Sarah.”

Celia nearly swooned with shock, it was so great. She could not imagine that Aunt Harriet remembered it that way.

“Oh,” Tavendish said, bemused. “I thought—nay, everyone—thinks you have abandoned her.”

“I care not what the ton thinks.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“The further conditions,” he continued as if Tavendish hadn’t spoken, “are that she be brought back alive. I daresay she will also expect her well and sane, although . . . ” he drawled, tipping his head slightly toward Celia, “ . . . as we see, everyone but she knows that is not likely.”

There was no sound but the breeze stirring the leaves of the ornamental fruit trees and the boxwood hedgerows, though Celia thought her opinions of Rathbone’s lack of discretion could be heard if one listened carefully enough.

“She’s let my son go to rot whilst she rides every young stud in Town.”

Oh, Lord. Relations between her aunt and uncle were as complicated—and deceptive—as the ones amongst Mary, Bancroft, and Dunham.

More silence, then Rathbone sighed. “Say it.”

“I wouldn’t have said anything at all,” Tavendish murmured, “but I occasioned to meet someone who made me think one should bury one’s pride when confronted with situations such as yours.”

“A woman?”

“Her parents, rather. I’m willing to toss my pride for my inamorata, but my duty is not so easily jettisoned. So!” he said bracingly, “Since Lady Harriet is, in fact, your duty, too, p’raps you can use this time and . . . well, persuade her. She’s not wanting for amorous feelings.”

No answer. The three of them resumed their walk. There was a large park beyond the garden itself whose feature was a labyrinth. Celia didn’t like labyrinths, as she could not tolerate not knowing the way out.

“Munro,” Tavendish blurted, “your driving need to find Sarah is well known amongst the Admiralty and has been permitted all these years—nay, indulged. But now the Admiral tells me Fury’s bested you thrice, and, I think the latter possibly because of the former. The Admiralty may look askance at that. Mayhap if you put your house in order, the Admiralty will think your head is once again screwed on correctly.”

More silence as they drew closer and closer to the labyrinth.

“Celia,” the marquess said abruptly once they found themselves at the beginning of it, “I must speak with your aunt.”

Indeed he must, but he didn’t seem inclined toward amorousness and Celia couldn’t think her aunt would welcome any of his attention.

“I can see Miss Bancroft home,” Tavendish said low. “You don’t need a chi— You need to be alone, if ’tis your intent.”

A child.

“Are you certain?”

“Aye, and I hardly think we are in need of a chaperone, though do send m’sister out if you must.”

Rathbone grunted and cast Tavendish’s toilette a doubtful eye. “Can’t keep it up?”

Judas’s laugh boomed, and, at that moment, it was the most wonderful thing Celia had ever heard. “No,” he said with amused finality.

He turned, but then stopped. “Celia? Do you mind being left alone with Lord Tavendish? If so, I will escort you back inside.”

Time stopped.

Celia might have been able to forgive Judas’s lack of immediate recognition, but now she was furious he had refused consideration so soon after their introduction. He was desperate enough for an heir to sign his life away to a fifteen-year-old girl he had never seen, yet not desperate enough to spend a few days contemplating marriage to the daughter of a baron and admiral of the Royal Navy who was also his mentor?

Bastard.

Yet she would rather be anywhere but the ballroom. Bastard or ballroom? “Lord Tavendish does not seem the sort to take advantage of being alone with women, Uncle.”

They both stared at her in shock, then Rathbone began to chuckle. “Ah . . . right you are, then.”

“Munro,” Tavendish grated.

“At last he shows his true . . . glaring . . . colors.” He walked off laughing and now Celia’s mood had lightened from despondent to morose.

“Pay him no mind, Miss Bancroft,” Tavendish muttered. “How are you feeling after your swoon?”

Celia wrinkled her brow. Just a bit. “I have not swooned, my lord.”

“Indeed you have not. That was my point.”

This bore some thinking. He had nearly called her a child, yet he expected her to be chastened by higher logic than what Miss Simpleton was ostensibly capable of.

When she didn’t answer, his eyes rolled up to the sky and he sighed. “Never mind. Tell me, have you met with your father?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And the details of your marriage have been arranged?”

“I am to wed Conde Covarrubias at Christmastide, my lord.”

“Elliott, please.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“I want you to know how very happy I am for you.”

Of course he was. If Fury applied the same logic to Rafael as she had to Judas, she would cut Rafael off permanently once he married Celia Bancroft. Yet Tavendish still needed a countess, whom he had admitted could not be her, so why he thought his lack of a fiancée would make a difference to Fury, she could not say.

“Ah . . . are you not happy, Miss Bancroft?” Not lately, surely. “You seem . . . melancholic.”

“Nothing makes me happy, my lord.”

He opened that vulgar red mouth to continue speaking, then stopped. Blinked. “Nothing makes you happy?”

“No.”

“Does anything make you unhappy?”

Everything. “No.”

“Ah. Hm. Well, then. I . . . I simply don’t know what to say to that.”

“Neither do I, my lord.”

He cast her a cautious glance as if he did not know whether to laugh. Aboard the Thunderstorm, they would have both burst into gales, but now, Celia was not in the least bit amused.

After a small moment of discomfort, he blurted, “I am indebted to your father. Helped in my acquittal.” She looked up at him blankly, and he smiled wryly. It was a mere shadow of the one he had bestowed upon her during their mid-ocean idyll, but it was not Lord Macaroni’s smile, either. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

“My lord, you were tried for treason,” Celia said flatly, as if she were in the schoolroom dutifully reciting lessons that she had not truly learned.

He started. “Ah! Yes, quite right. Come,” he said briskly, leaning down to capture her hand and place it on his arm—big, finely muscled, encased in expensive, deceptive tailoring. She gulped when she thought about how it looked pressed against the bulkhead while he plowed her the way his ship plowed her figurehead.

Celia, with no energy to resist, simply left her hand where he placed it. Had she been less weary, she may have been tempted to squeeze, to dig her fingertips into his flesh. He had left the Thunderstorm with a myriad of wounds from her nails and teeth, though none from her cat. She knew he hadn’t trusted her temper (especially when combined with her ignorance of his needs), which was really quite reasonable of him.

He drew her into the labyrinth, into which she would not have gone alone, but with him . . .

Oh, she knew very well why he wanted to go into the garden and labyrinth with her: He had broken character and could not regain it without some preparation. He was using her to rest from his exhausting persona, but she wondered what he would say if it were remarked upon.

She was careful to keep her voice flat. “Why do you dance attendance upon me, my lord?”

“You always look so sad and lonely,” he said murmured so softly she could barely hear him.

Celia did not know quite what to make of that. “Oh.”

“But now that we know this is your normal state of existence, we’ll not dwell on it. Surely you can catch some bits and pieces of joy, can you not?”

“I forgot what joy is.”

That stopped him cold and he looked at her with a pitying expression.

“Celia— May I call you Celia?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“’Tis a lovely name.” Too lovely for you. She heard it as plainly as if he’d said it. “Look up at the sky. Tell me what you see.”

“The moon. Stars.”

She released a quiet, longsuffering sigh when he began to wax rhapsodic about the joy of watching Venus from the quarterdeck of a frigate as he led her through the maze.

• • •
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Dunham 45: Chapter Forty-Five

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May 6, 1780
Grosvenor Square, London

“It’s done,” Admiral Lord Hylton said tightly, staring over Elliott’s head, out the window of his library to the sun-drenched May day. “I was fortunate in Covarrubias. I think he will take good care of her.”

Elliott lazed in the chair across from his former commander. “But he’s taking her to Spain. How will you know?”

The admiral focused square on Elliott and sneered. “Do you think I would make this arrangement without ensuring I did the right thing?”

Ah. Of course he wouldn’t. Elliott nodded approvingly.

“But now that that is finished, I must attend to another problem.” He took a sip of brandy and savored it. “A man claiming to have been on Captain Fury’s ship when she blew the blockade in Chesapeake contacted Rathbone ten days ago.” Elliott looked at him questioningly. “You know the blockade wherein—”

“I heard something of it,” Elliott murmured, trying not to smile at the memory. “I will assume, because we’re discussing it, that he has valid information.”

“We think. Since Rathbone can place Fury by sight and he thought the man yet another opportunist, he bid the man write a report and submit it the following day.”

“What did it say?”

Hylton’s jaw ground. “There is no report. He was found dead the next day and not a scrap of foolscap in his room.”

“That’s convenient,” Elliott drawled, willing himself not to laugh and shifting in his chair in an effort to disguise his burgeoning cockstand. “Any clues?”

“He had a knife hole in his forehead,” Hylton said dryly. “I believe we can safely conclude he did not die of natural causes. We believe it to be Fury or one of her men. We also believe they were awaiting his arrival to dispose of him. He had only just got into port the day before he reported to Rathbone. Since Rathbone has interviewed every person in his household—all of whom have been there for years—but turned up nothing, he has concluded the timing of the man’s murder to be a coincidence.”

Coincidence. God, how Elliott ached to have her underneath him again. “I was cashiered and you’ve been a rather lax correspondent since I was acquitted. Why are you telling me this?”

The admiral released a heavy sigh and massaged the bridge of his nose. “Commander, I know that you have served this country well and faithfully for the last score years, and the king is very pleased with your efforts to keep the north coast free of smugglers. Not only that, but he is pleased with how well Tavendish Grange is doing and your stance on the American rebellion. But I am coming to you for help. We must find this woman. She is a wily adversary, and it would not do to underestimate her. She has outrun the rear-admiral twice and vanquished him once now, and that is not a simple undertaking.”

Elliott was ecstatic. He could not have planned this better. “You want her alive, I presume.”

“Most assuredly. ’Tis rumored she is Judas’s lover.” Elliott drew his brows together in confusion, which prompted Hylton to explain. “We have had a large number of our ships go missing. We had heard rumors of a Captain Judas and his ship, the Silver Shilling, who had set about bedeviling the Navy, but thought they were sailors’ tales of ghost ships and demon-bound crews and all manner of magical thinking. But according to Rathbone’s report, he does exist and flies a Jolly Roger of a hanged man.”

“That smacks of prophecy.”

“We can only hope. He came out of nowhere and covered the privateer fleet’s escape out to sea after Fury and the Hollander cleared the way. Rathbone believes that were it not for him, they could have sunk the Americans, even so handicapped. In any event, he somehow acquired Fury’s figurehead and the dead man did state that Fury and Judas are lovers, which confirms he does, indeed, exist.”

“And you want her to give over her lover.”

Hylton grimaced. “We want her in any event—any privateer we capture is one fewer to worry about. But yes, she is now more valuable to us for that.”

Elliott sat silent for long moments in contemplation. “If they are lovers working together, what makes you think she will give up his name?”

Hylton shrugged. “There are ways. We also hope to get word to Judas that she’s been captured. He may come for her.”

He quelled a laugh. It was true: Judas would come for Fury every chance he got. “Where would you have me look? Spying is not my forté.”

“We believe she may be part of the haute ton and since you are here specifically to find a countess, you will be attending all the events of the season. Thus, you are in the perfect position to watch for any telltale signs. Rathbone has consented to attending the Season with the excuse of squiring his wife about, as two sets of eyes and ears are better than one.”

“Is that why you haven’t sent him back out?”

Hylton drew a deep breath and released it slowly. “I thought it best he attend to his home life. Between his failure to find Sarah and his lost skirmishes to Fury, I believe he needs to . . . rest.”

“You’re preparing to promote or retire him.”

“Aye. Promote, preferably, but he may balk.” Hylton pursed his lips. “In return for your help and because I badly misjudged the last prospect, I will again attempt to find you a countess.”

Elliott sighed. That. Again. “Admiral—”

He sent Elliott a scathing look. “Commander! This navy owes you a great debt whether it wants to acknowledge it or not, and I count it God’s grace you didn’t break before you did.”

Oh, yes, Elliott had broken. There was a bevy of British Navy vessels on the ocean floor to attest to the measure of Elliott’s brokenness.

“And then you go on to volunteer your services to rid our waters of contraband. Remarkable, really. I cannot say I would have been so gracious.”

Elliott’s brow wrinkled. “If King George is so happy with me on three, dare I say, critical fronts, I would prefer his gratitude in the form of an official apology rather than via a third party who is requesting a favor.”

“Touché. You’ll not get an official one, but I have good cause to believe you will receive an unofficial one. He requests your presence Tuesday morning.”

That was a shock. Elliott’s mouth hung open a little. “Oh. Ah. Well then.”

“Back to the matter at hand,” Hylton said briskly. “Arabella has a cousin who—”

“Admiral, please. No. Cease this. If I never find a countess, ’twill be of no consequence. I have a brother who can inherit after I die. I have done my duty to the family and the house of Tavendish.”

Hylton stared at him, stunned. “You have! Of course you have, but you must continue. The job isn’t finished.”

“Strictly speaking, having an heir presumptive is adequate.”

“Elliott, you have never, in all the years I have known you, shirked your duty. I have known many men about whom I could say that, but I have known relatively few who went above and beyond, even when it would have been within their right to say, ‘No more.’ I have never known you to quit when the war is nearly won and only one battle remains to fully conquer the enemy. Why are you balking now?”

“I’m in love with a woman who cannot be my countess,” he said flatly.

Hylton shrugged. “Take her as your mistress, then.”

“She is not amenable to any arrangement less than marriage.”

Hylton looked at him as if he were as mad as his daughter. “And so you will fall in love again. Have you suddenly turned romantic? You must have done, because here you are drenched in melancholy. She cannot be the only reason you have come undone.”

Elliott could afford no more revelations. Confessing his love of an unspecified woman was a far cry from explaining his growing yearning for independence.

“That is enough, methinks. She is a remarkable woman, but entirely inappropriate.”

The admiral looked down into his snifter, his mouth twitching in thought. “It is possible to be in love with two women at once,” he drawled, as if Elliott should be able to glean something from it.

He did, but mayhap not what Hylton wanted him to. “Do you love Lady Hylton, then?”

“I do,” he said fervently. “But . . . things happen and . . . ”

Elliott’s brows rose when he realized he was not the only man in this room needing to confess tender feelings toward the women in their lives. “Admiral, what happened with Lady Hylton and Celia?” he asked bluntly. “Your story appears . . . weak.”

He cast a rueful smile at the floor. “I wondered when you would get around to that. Your brother—well, I should say, your nephew—only took the case to solve the conundrum that is my life. Neither of them bothered to ask me directly.”

This shocked Elliott. “Then . . . consider yourself asked. The case is closed, decided in your favor, so you lose nothing with the truth.”

“The truth is . . . shameful. To me and her, and whatever else lies between us, I’ll not dishonor her that way. You may ask me anything you want, but you’ll get few answers.”

Shameful. ’Twas an odd choice of words, but Elliott had expected he would not be forthcoming. “Were your women taken by pirates?”

Hylton remained silent for a moment. “Celia was taken by someone who should have cared for her. Lady Hylton was not taken, no. A . . . rift . . . suddenly appeared between us, a seemingly irreparable one of her creation. However, in my anger, I . . . said things. What she did might have been insurmountable, but it might not have been if I had controlled my temper. Simply put, I left her. However, what I said directly caused Celia’s madness and that is the greater sin between us.”

“Well? What did you say?”

“That, I find, I simply cannot repeat without a great deal of pain. I was young, hot-tempered, and leaking hubris. I envy men who have survived their youth with naught but an indiscretion or two.”

Elliott could understand that. There were things he had never spoken of and never would, no matter how pressed.

Hylton laughed suddenly. “You, for instance. I cannot imagine you did anything in your youth that you regret.”

“How can you say that?”

“No, Commander, that you did because you were prideful or cruel or in pain. Think on it. No, now. Right now. Tell me your worst act, the one you will regret until you die. Think.”

He did so.

He was silent for quite awhile as he reeled through his life. But for a few instances he regretted, his Naval career was stellar. Likewise, once he had gone on account . . . he did not regret a single ship he had stripped, then sunk. He did not regret a single bottle of brandy he had brought from France. He did not regret one gold coin he had stolen.

First son to heir. Second son to the military. Third son to the church. There’s an order to things, Son. Do your turn in the Navy and you can come back and manage the estate just as you’ve always wanted to.

“I regret the one thing I should have done, but didn’t.”

Hylton’s eyebrow rose. “We have spoken of this at length. You are not the only man who regrets obeying his father’s wishes, to his detriment or even destruction.” He chuckled sadly. “Who knows? Mayhap even the Lord Christ Jesus himself regrets it.”

Elliott grunted and took a sip of his whisky. “Why did you never search for Marianne and Celia after a space of time? Surely the thought had crossed your mind that all might not be well with them.”

Hylton paused. He was choosing his words carefully, as any good politician should. “It did. Many times. I tell myself that I thought they would be well provided for, so there was no need. Clearly that was not the case. However, I cannot say that that is a lie I tell myself, as I remember feeling certain of it at the time.”

The mystery was even more complex than it had seemed. Hylton would likely tell him no more, but what he had said reaffirmed Elliott’s opinion of him as a fundamentally honorable man who had done regrettable things.

“Lucien claims he knows nothing of this.”

Hylton laughed bitterly. “He was present when it happened. He simply chooses not to remember.” Elliott doubted either Niall or Sandy would believe that. “We are not close. He has always hated me for taking him away from his mother, and I can’t say I blame him. In effect, I lost both my beloved children that accursed day.”

“And you wanted custody of Celia—”

“For the exact reason I have maintained all along.” Elliott opened his mouth, but Hylton cut him off. “That is all I will say.” He chuckled sadly. “Now you may go back to your clever boys and report this interview, which will only whet their appetite.”

“I should say so.”

“They won’t find anything,” Hylton said bitterly. “Only my . . . wife . . . knows the full truth of it, and I dare say Marianne has kept her counsel for the same reason I do.”

•  •  •

As Elliott expected, Sandy greeted this news with a gleam in his eye. And neither he nor Niall believed one could choose not to remember an event and thus, simply not remember it—especially if one reacted badly to a participant of the event.

Elliott attempted to explain it, but he had seen and experienced many things he did not quite understand himself.

How could he explain that, whilst physically locked up in Newgate, he had lived across the ocean and five hundred miles inland? How could he explain that he had a life there, a wife and children, a home he had built, crops he had planted, and sheep he sheared?

Those images were as clear in his mind as if he had lived them, but he knew them for the reveries they were, the images he had deliberately constructed to save his sanity. But if he spoke of them . . .

He knew men whose similarly constructed images became real to them. He knew men who had taken their own lives because the reality outside their minds did not match the one inside. He knew men who could not remember anything but the memories they created for themselves.

Aye, he could believe Lucien did not remember one event as a child, no matter how significant, and still live a life of perfect normalcy as if it had never happened.

And Elliott’s constructed images were coming back to haunt him—at night when he was alone with his thoughts and in his sleep. His previously indistinct wife had a face now . . . and a long pink braid. She was not wearing a dress, but a plain shirt, breeches, and elaborately beaded moccasins.

There were others populating his dream-place now: A cook. A housekeeper. Field hands. Children everywhere, though not his. There were outbuildings and cabins and tents. There, from his vantage point high up on a river cliff, at dusk, he could see the small town on the horizon when lantern light began to twinkle from shop and home windows.

One thousand acres burgeoning with life and contentment and, dare he say it, happiness.

Nay, he could reveal none of this to his family. Not even Camille would understand, she who had so methodically made a list of acceptable husbands and instructed Elliott to pick one.

“Cap’n,” Lynch said from the door of the library, where Elliott sat in his desk chair drinking whisky, his feet up, and allowed himself to indulge in his visions. “Her ladyship would like to know if tonight’s supper menu will be satisfactory.”

“Of course not.”

Lynch struggled not to smile. “Ben said your palate was spoiled.”

“Irreparably. Find me a new cook. Preferably one who knows something about North African cuisine.”

“TAVENDISH!”

“Good God!” Elliott thundered, then poured the rest of his whisky down his throat. He thunked the glass on his desk. “Is that my dam I hear? And she is speaking to me?” Lynch slipped away while his mother wheeled herself into the library. “Bellowing at me, rather. You must be in high dudgeon to address me as Tavendish.”

She ignored his taunts. “You will not dismiss the cook. She has been with us for decades.”

Elliott yawned and took his feet off his desk. “Fine. I won’t put her out, but she can do something else in the kitchen.”

“And when have you been interested in the running of a kitchen?” she asked with a studied calm. “That is a countess’s job.”

“I became interested when I could no longer abide the food coming out of my kitchen.”

“It is the finest money can buy. How did you become so particular at sea?”

He snorted and sat up, then began thumbing through the parchments on his desk. “When I spent five days eating food out of a galley whose cooks could, in fact, cook. I still wish I’d snatched them away from her. Her purser too, come to think of it. With more people in the house, Lynch could use the help.”

“Elliott,” she hissed, causing him to look up at her—and she was livid. “I have ways of doing things, and I don’t appreciate your coming home and setting them all asunder. Even your father knew better than to do that.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Mother,” he said benignly, “do you know what the commander of a fleet of ships does?”

Her nostrils flared at his condescension.

“I will tell you: He commands. I know you remember me as that broken man who returned home from Newgate for your tender care, but that was not then nor is it now who I am. I’m coming to realize you don’t know me at all.”

She gasped, outraged.

“I’m the earl,” he said, his tone hard. Not one of his officers or crewmen would mistake it for anything but the warning it was. “And I daresay I’ll be a sight better one than the one before me— But wait, what’s this? I already am, you say? Quite right.”

“You have only been here three years out of the last twenty, and only a few weeks actually being the earl!”

With that, Elliott arose and strolled to the window, hands locked behind his back. “Tell me,” he said amiably. “How did the Grange look when I left it to begin smuggling? How did it look when I returned two months past? Quite a difference, no?”

“Lucy and I did that!”

He turned to look at her, his eyebrow raised. “With what?”

She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

“Even when I was not here, I was being the earl, providing for you, the estate, the tenants—providing a way to rebuild the earldom. I will not deny that you have done a glorious job with what I brought you, but now I am home and can take up my duties as any proper noble does.”

She huffed. “Proper nobles spend their time in the House and at their clubs.”

“And excellent ones see to their estates, which is the only part of this bloody title I ever wanted, but that has been done for me, hasn’t it? So here I am in London, sitting my seat, talking to the right people, speechifying against those damnable rogue children across the ocean. I have never, in my life, been so bloody bored. And this is my life now?”

“You should be looking for a countess.”

“What makes you think I am not?”

“The fact that you are mooning over your privateer.”

Elliott turned back fully to the room with a weary sigh and leaned over his desk to look at her, his fists bracing him. “Mother,” he said softly, “would you rather I go back to sea?”

She gulped and looked away, and he realized that she would—not because she didn’t love him, but because her command had never been challenged by anyone more strong-willed than she, especially not someone used to being in total authority.

And to her great shock and utter dismay, her second son, the quiet, mild-mannered, obedient, cheerful one, had become exactly what his father and brothers were not and never would have been—the usurper of her position.

“Elliott,” she said tightly.

“This is getting us nowhere. You and I are going to have to learn to work together, if not live together. If you find it unbearable here and wish to go back to the Grange, let me know, and I can roust a captain to take you there. But know this: I am the earl and head of this family. Unlike Father and Flip, I know how to command and will do so. And the first thing a commander should do when moving into a new position is get rid of everyone who served under the old commander.”

“I’m sure your privateer wouldn’t put up with this,” she hissed.

He smirked and shoved himself upright. “You’re right. My privateer would have thrown you out of the house immediately for daring to trespass and undermine her command. We sailors call that ‘mutiny.’ ’Tis frowned upon in certain circles.”

His mother was as furious as he had ever seen her. “You are an ungrateful son,” she spat.

Elliott looked at her soberly, aching to the bottom of his soul, wondering when his beloved mother and most staunch supporter had turned into his enemy. “If I were ungrateful,” he said quietly, “I would simply leave and never return.”

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Dunham 44: Chapter Forty-Four

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May 3, 1780
Casa de Covarrubias
Mayfair, London

She wept into Rafael’s bare chest that night, and the years fell away.

I swear to God I don’t know what to do with you, Lass.          Ach, don’t look at me like that. I’m not going to eat you.                    He didn’t mean it, you ken.

He— He— He—didn’t?

Nay. Honorable men don’t generally go about killing wee lassies.

But he—he—he—

There, there. Calm yourself. Take a deep breath, there’s a good lass. You don’t know who I am, do you?

N—n—no.

My name is James Dunham, and I am the captain of the ship we’re on. The Iron Maiden.

How—how long will I be here?

Ah . . . well . . . Ah, that is to say . . . Here, let’s clean your face a bit. Doesn’t that cold water make you feel better?

Ye—yes. Why—why were you doing that to my mother?

Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a man and a woman kiss before?

Not like that.

You have now. Are you hungry? Aye, of course you are. Come, let me show you to the galley and Cookie can fill your belly.

How long will I be here?

Well, Lass. You are my responsibility now, so . . . You’re here to stay. I’ll do the best I can, but this turn of events is as shocking to me as it is to you. I ken we didn’t get off to a good start, but do you think you could trust me just a wee bit?

She was still hiccuping even once the worst of her sobs had passed.

“Play wi—with m—my hair,” she whispered, expecting nothing, so she was surprised when Rafael complied. He didn’t usually care to indulge her in that manner.

She was almost asleep when he said, “We must discuss the figurehead.”

His heart thudded soft and slow under her cheek, but hers began to race.

“It has inside it the deeds to my unentailed lands in Andalusia, as well as some properties here in London, including this house, a plantation in Sint Eustatius, and a townhouse in Paris.”

Celia lay stunned, so shocked she could not speak.

“I returned to Spain some years ago to find that my brothers had found one deed to a property in Catalonia, then successfully had the courts transfer ownership to them. Naturally, the judge who decided that suddenly acquired half the property, but never mind that. I gathered up the rest from their hiding places, along with a few other valuables, jewels and the like, and had the sculptor hollow out the left foot for their secretion.”

Her mouth opened and closed. “Why in God’s name would you put such things in a ship, a vessel used for war, no less?”

“At that very moment, I had nowhere else to put them and I was pressed for time. I had thought to retrieve them on our voyage, but our . . . dealings . . . with each other were such that I simply forgot—and then you shackled me in the hold before putting me ashore without so much as an adios.”

“I hope you learned your lesson,” she grumbled.

“Sí, I did,” he sneered.

They were silent for a moment before Celia murmured, “You’re not poor?”

He laughed caustically. “Oh, my love, I am most certainly poor. My family ensures that, with the way they steal everything I provide my villeins. Those lands are investments I made while I awaited the day I wed you and left you in command of my estate.”

Celia blinked, stunned, attempting to parse what he had said. “You . . . All those years— You wanted me to . . . ”

“I needed a partner I could trust to take care of my people,” he said matter-of-factly, “who could control my mother and brothers as well or better than I could, until I could marry and produce an heir to prevent my brothers from inheriting. I was not expecting this person to be my condesa, but then you landed in my lap like a gift from God. Who better to rule my lands than the daughter of King George’s pet corsair?”

“You’re the conde,” she murmured, confused. “’Tis your responsibility to rule your lands.”

“I am the conde of barren lands whose villeins can barely scrape enough out of the ground to eat, much less pay their forfeit. What livestock they manage, my family takes. I am obligated to care for them, and the only way I have been able to do so is by my university wages and whatever I earn on my voyages as I cannot be in two places at once.”

“Oh,” she breathed. “But all those years, you spent so much money to give me whatever I wanted—”

“An investment, just like the properties.” Celia gulped and balled her hand up between her chest. “No, none of that.” He gently took her fist and attempted to open her fingers, but soon gave up. “My plan began to change,” he murmured, leaning forward to kiss her softly, “when I fell in love with you.”

She pulled in a soft breath. “When?” she squeaked.

“Your sixteenth birthday.” Her breath hitched. “When you went to the coast with the rector’s wife and her retinue. I slept alone that night for the first time since we had become lovers, and I was so lonely I could not bear it.”

That week, spent in the care of the only woman she could trust to help her and keep her secrets, had been one of the most miserable she had ever spent.

She banished those memories immediately.

“Rafael,” she said, raising her hand to massage the bridge of her nose, “find another way to deal with your serfs and your family. I am not going to marry you. I thought I made that clear.”

“The court has decided. You have no choice.”

She sighed. “I’m a pirate. I don’t honor contracts I have no wish to honor, and certainly not ones made for me, without my signature and against my will.”

“Why not?” he demanded. “You begged me to marry you for years.”

“Why did you refuse if you needed me so badly?” she countered.

“You weren’t ready to face my family.”

“And when I graduated?”

He said nothing for a second or two, caressing her forehead with his finger. “I wanted nothing more than to wed you. But you were yet young and torn between wanting to earn Dunham’s approval and wanting to be my wife. If I had asked, you would have defied your father only to grow restless with me and unhappy ere long.” He paused. “I loved you enough to let you go and hoped you would come back to me.”

Rage exploded in her mind and she jerked away from him. Sat up. Presented her back to him.

If she looked at him, she would strike him.

“When I left, you immediately took a woman to your bed,” she growled, “and then laughed at me when I lay with another man in retaliation. Explain that!”

There was a long silence before he muttered, “That was a . . . miscalculation.”

“A fatal one,” Celia snarled. “And now you expect me to resurrect the love I had for you ten years ago.”

“Given time, I can resurrect it myself.”

“Oh ho! The way you attempted to on our voyage? You cannot abide Captain Fury, much less love her the way you loved me then.”

“No, I cannot,” he snapped, “but she is who I need to assist me with my family.”

“GODDAMMIT!” she roared and twisted to look down at him. “If your father could do it, why can’t you?”

Rafael looked up at her stonily, then looked away again and rubbed his mouth. “My father was an honorable man,” he began, low, “but he was weak. What I have never known is if that was his nature or if he was being slowly poisoned.”

Celia’s jaw dropped and her eyes widened.

“Sí. My mother always hated him and, because he loved me and I him, she hated me, too. My brothers are hers, you see.”

A tiny moan of horror escaped from Celia’s mouth. No wonder he had never had any sympathy for her parental troubles.

“I have also wondered— Had I stayed in Spain instead of traveling the world, would he still be alive or would we both be dead?”

And he was burdened with guilt. It was a revelation of some consequence, as she had never thought of Rafael as a man who regretted anything. Celia felt lost and a bit dizzy. Why, he was no more the man she had loved than she was the girl he had loved.

“Kill your family,” Celia said finally.

“I would,” he gritted, “but I can’t do that alone. Celia! Are you not listening to me?”

Celia closed her eyes, utterly frustrated. Never, from her first moment in his astronomy class, had he been incomprehensible to her—until now. “I am listening,” she ground out, “but you are talking in circles. Tell me the whole of it, from the beginning and in a straight line this time, if you please.”

He heaved a great sigh. “My stewards,” he began, “whose loyalty I cannot rely upon, have sent word that my mother and brothers raided the village for everything I left them from my last voyage. Not even two months past. That is not unusual. What they have done this time is to post guards to keep my people from fleeing, and to keep them breaking their backs over ground that will not bear fruit. They have been enslaved.”

She gasped.

“Is it a trap,” he said airily, “or is it a declaration of war?”

“They would kill you?” she whispered.

“Without doubt. My brother would then be conde. The most pressing issue is to get my people to safety and get them fed, but I have no funds with which to do this.”

“Rafael,” she pleaded. “I can give you the money. I—my crew and I—we can help you free your villeins, kill your family, and rehabilitate your estate if you wish.”

His silence was tense, as if he were gathering what little patience he had left. “Gracias, but that will take too long, and they are starving now. You of all people should understand starvation.”

Celia gulped.

“In thirty-six hours, I will have your dowry. I will be able to catch a sloop to Lisbon immediately and ride to Antequera. I will be there in little more than a week to quietly lead them to safety under the cover of darkness and settle them upriver. Can you get your ship and crew to my estate that quickly?”

“No,” she whispered.

“And now you see my reasoning.”

“Bancroft will be enraged if you take his money and vanish.”

Rafael chuckled wickedly. “Oh, no, my dear. That is the beauty of my plan. I told him the truth of it and bid him verify it through his own sources, which he did. I also told him that in return for his trust, I will never seek your bed and, so long as you live, I will keep you safe and cared for handsomely. He was so taken with my dedication to my duty, he agreed eagerly.”

Celia sat stunned throughout this recitation when she realized . . . Whatever other sins Bancroft had committed, he was no fool and if Celia were, in truth, an imbecile, he could have chosen no better man. Tavendish certainly could not have promised as much: He would never have sworn to stay out of the madwoman’s bed in the case he could not pass off an illegitimate child as his heir.

“When I have finished settling my villeins, I will return and bid you take your crew and lay waste to my family.”

She dropped her head in her hands. “My point remains,” she muttered. “You do not need to wed me to accomplish these goals.”

“In this you are correct unless I die before I have done so.”

Celia sighed. “I would finish your work and avenge you regardless,” she said wearily.

“Sí, gracias. But you will have far more power to act in my stead if you are my wife. Celia,” he said, low bur urgently, “if nothing else, think on this: I love you. I always have. It’s the only reason Dunham allows me to live.”

She nodded vaguely, for it was true, but she sat silent, lost in thought. Finally, she murmured, “I’m not twenty anymore, Rafael, and I am no cull for weak arguments and declarations of love made to a woman you don’t like. Your family situation is tragic, but easily solved. What is your real reason for insisting on my vows to the point you threaten to expose me?”

She knew the answer to that question, which was precisely why she had asked it. She looked over her shoulder at him, her eyebrow raised, to see if he would admit to it. He glared back at her, mouth tight. She returned that glare second for second until he turned his gaze on the ceiling.

“Judas.”

“What about Judas?” she purred.

His Adam’s apple bobbed. Hard. “You’re in love with him.”

She scoffed. “That hardly signifies, as he is not the only man I love. I know you have been at the wharf sniffing out the gossip, most of which is likely true. So with that, follow the logic to its end, Rafael. I want to hear you say it.”

His fists clenched against the bed linens, but Celia had no fear of him. “He . . . is worthy of you.”

That was not what she had expected and she started. “Do you mean to say you think you are not?”

He rolled his eyes and looked at her with his most wry expression. “I seduced a fourteen-year-old girl to use for my own purposes. Of course I’m not.”

She blinked. Was that . . . guilt? “Ah . . . Rafael, you do realize that you made Captain Fury, do you not?”

He grunted. “I trained a mathematician. A master navigator and swordsman. I did not make Captain Fury. Skirrow did.”

She could not fault his reasoning.

He spoke suddenly. “Where is Judas, by the way?”

It was Celia’s turn to wriggle in discomfort. “Hither and yon,” she murmured, looking down at her hands, the fingers of which very much resembled a Gordian knot.

“I know you cannot have rendezvoused with him since you arrived, as you can barely escape to eat, much less carry on with two men at once.”

She declined to answer that.

“And so . . . ” he drawled, “is it possible he has cast you over?”

Tears stung her eyes.

“Can he wed you? Is he willing to wed you?”

She shut her eyes as tightly as she could and pinched the bridge of her nose to get rid of the sting. There was nothing she could do about the pain in her chest. Even balling up her fist and pressing her knuckles to her sternum as hard as she could do not help.

“Or has he a wife already?”

Aye, he had a wife, and her name was Duty. And Duty was a jealous bitch.

She sniffled, and did not care. “I did not refuse your . . . proposal,” she croaked, “in his favor. ’Twas ever for my own purposes.”

His voice was equally hoarse and without mockery when he said, “Do you mean to say you would refuse me in favor of being alone?”

“I have no faith you will ever come to love, or even like, Captain Fury,” she muttered.

“I will beg if I must,” he said briskly, sitting up in the bed behind her and wrapping his arms around her. He cupped her breast. Thumbed her nipple.

Which she could not feel.

She closed her eyes and felt tears roll down her cheeks.

“Marry me, Celia,” he whispered into her ear.

“You need not wed me to keep me from Judas’s arms.”

He scoffed. “I know when a man wants a woman badly enough to find a way to get her no matter the cost.”

Celia barked an unamused laugh. “You spent one evening at a card table with him.”

“And that is all I needed to know of him.”

“Your ability to assess men is not reliable.”

“Well then! I need your help.”

“That is not what a woman wants to hear from a man who professes to love her.”

He nuzzled at her throat. “I want you to be my wife.”

Celia heaved a great sigh. Here, now, Rafael was giving her—albeit for his own reasons—what she had wanted for so many years: a faithful husband and accomplished lover, a home, and not a word about requiring children.

It did not make her happy.

It did not salve her wounds.

It did not solve any of her problems.

Rafael pulled her gently to her back and swept his hand up her ribs until her jaw nestled in his big palm and he pulled her to him for a slow, deep kiss that, in spite of her best intentions, stirred her to arousal. Tavendish had the most wicked games, but Rafael knew her body in ways Tavendish hadn’t had time to learn and now never would.

I wanted a woman in whom to seek solace, but . . . I was desperate enough to take what I could get.

So would she.

“I will consider it,” she whispered once the kiss faded. “Since you will not take my funds or my assistance, make the contract. But be warned that I will likely not honor it. We are long past the time I was willing to allow you to manipulate me.”

He huffed, but ceased to argue, as he knew it was the best concession he would get.

“I,” he whispered as he kissed her, and wedged his hips between her thighs, “am not an honorable man, but I do not consider Judas my enemy. I owe him for assisting me through the blockade that, if I had not gotten through, my people would already be dead. Thus, I do not wish to engage in a duel over you. Besides, dueling over women is . . . gauche.”

“He will issue no challenge for me.”

“So you say, but I know what I saw and what I saw was a man intent on you. I want you to carry my name by the time he comes for you.”

He’d come for her quite a few times, and she wished he were here to do it again. But she said simply, “You’ve killed for lesser offenses.”

“So I have, my love. So I have.”

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Dunham 43: Chapter Forty-Three

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May 3, 1780
Grosvenor Square, London

Admiral Lord Hylton had aged so badly since Celia had last seen him, she could not control her gasp.

“My lord,” the butler intoned from his position at Celia’s side in the threshold of the admiral’s library, “your daughter has arrived. Lady Hylton awaits without.”

It was the most unnecessary announcement any servant had ever made, since Bancroft was staring at her as if she were a ghost, apparently equally shocked. But then he gathered himself and strode across the warm and cozily cluttered room with his arms spread as if greeting an old friend.

Get her out of my sight before I kill her!

Celia stepped back, pressing herself against the butler’s wall of a chest, and fashioned her expression into one of fear.

He halted and slowly dropped his arms, then looked down at the thick Persian rug and sighed. He did not look at her again, but turned away from her with a light gesture.

“Come,” he said low. “Please. Have a seat.”

The butler gently prodded her and directed her, but she went without a peep, as it seemed Bancroft was aware of his sins and would keep his distance from her. She sat in a leather chair on the wrong side of the desk, folded her hands in her lap, and directed her face toward the floor while watching him out of the corner of her eye.

He dismissed the butler and commenced to pacing once the library doors were closed. Though Bancroft had a tasteful wig in both style and color, it could not draw her attention away from the deep grooves worn into his face from his brow to his cheeks to his mouth to his jowls. He was still as tall—taller, with his heels—as she remembered, but he was much thinner, less muscular, and his hands were long and spindly where they had been broad and strong. His shoulders were a bit hunched, even accounting for the fact that he was striving to make himself less intimidating to her.

In short, he appeared to be carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders and would welcome death when it came, to relieve him of his burdens.

Excellent.

She would gladly assist him to the end of his mortal path.

“Your hair,” he said abruptly, startling her. “’Tis brown. I thought . . . Your fath—” He gulped, unable to say it. “I, ah, remember it a more vibrant color.”

Of course he would.

“I don’t remember,” she said tonelessly, making a note to give her wigmaker a handsome bonus.

“Ah . . . Oh. That’s . . . Hm.”

Celia took her eyes off the pacing admiral for a moment to study his library. It was a modest one, in a modest terrace near Grosvenor Square. The thick rug was a bit worn; the books that lined three of the walls were a bit dusty; the sofas were a bit out of date; and the leather of the wing chairs was a bit worn and cracked. The liquor cabinet was open and well-stocked; the hearth was cold and dark but clean; and the desk and floor around it were cluttered with carefully haphazard stacks of books, parchments, and various naval trinkets holding the papers down. Though it gave a good impression of it, this was not the library of an impoverished baron; it was the library of a powerful but overworked man.

For a wealthy baron, it was entirely modest, particularly as compared to the large, fine Philadelphia home in which she had spent the first eight years of her life.

Finally Bancroft seated himself behind his desk, his chair turned so that he faced the windows. He remained silent and still he would not look at her. His fingertips drummed the desk. Ten full minutes passed this way, but The Simpleton would not fidget because The Simpleton did not know boredom, only blankness.

“I have missed you,” he croaked.

Celia tensed. It was the last thing she had expected him to say to her, and she gulped.

“I . . . was despicable,” he continued, low. “You were there in the same room with Dunham, next to him. The resemblance was unmistakable, but— Clearly you were terrified of him and had no idea who he was. When he took you away . . . That I had caused him to take you away . . . ”

Celia blinked, unable to credit him with anything approaching regret. After all, he had never attempted to find her, never used his position to bid Dunham return her to him.

“Lucien is my pride and joy,” he said, “but you were . . . the light of my life. Oh, how I loved you, and have missed you every day of the last twenty years. Even though you are another man’s child, I have never ceased thinking of you as mine.”

He didn’t mean it, you ken. Good God, had Dunham been right all these years? Honorable men don’t generally go about killing wee lassies.

She sensed the admiral shifting, and watched him from under her eyelashes. “Celia,” he said gently. “Look at me.”

No. She did not want to. Did he intend to confess his sins, it would crack the very foundation on which she had built her anger. Then again, he thought her simple, possibly incapable of comprehending him, thus it could be he merely needed to bare his soul.

Could he not have confessed to a priest?

She steeled herself, cleared her expression, then slowly raised her head.

“What happened to you?” he whispered. “After Dunham took you?”

“I have no memory of that time,” she said dully.

His mouth tightened. He would believe that. Anyone who had lived through battle would, and he was an accomplished commander. He would know that people suffered many things they could not bear to remember.

“Where have you been all these years?”

“I don’t know.”

“When did you reunite with your mother?”

“Some weeks . . . months . . . years . . . ago. I don’t know. I cannot keep time.”

“You cannot have survived with your virtue intact.”

She looked at him blankly. Blinked.

He sighed. “You know I have settled upon you a dowry? So that you might wed?”

“Aunt told me.”

“Do you know why?”

“No.”

“To provide for you. Your mother is not well and Dunham seems to have abandoned you—God knows when. I’ve had many offers, but almost none from men I would entrust your care to. Lucien’s wife is—” His mouth tightened. “Lucien’s home is not an option, unfortunately. I could welcome you into my home and take care of you until my days are over, but I’d rather see you settled first in case I have made yet another grievous error I need to rectify before I die.”

Oh? “You are ill?” she intoned, as if she were not really interested.

He barked a humorless laugh. “No. Not ill. I am— Suffice it to say time is of the essence and I will not gamble your future any more than I already have. I can never make amends for what I said, what I did. But I cannot go to my grave having not made the attempt.”

He looked down at his blotter and pressed a thumb to the corner of his eye. It was then Celia blinked rapidly when her own eyes began to sting and hoped he would not notice their sudden moisture.

This was the man she had adored from her earliest memory.

“Rafael Covarrubias—” he muttered, his voice hoarse. “I am given to understand you have a tendre for him. Likewise, he seems genuinely fond of you. He is in need of the funds I have bequeathed upon you, but he is, so far as I can gather, a good man. He has a position in Portugal which will take most of his time, but he also has heirs presumptive and will not . . . burden you with his attentions.”

Celia would have laughed if she had the least amount of amusement in her.

“There is another,” Celia said, keeping her voice carefully flat, which was difficult to do at the moment. “Lord Tavendish.”

Bancroft started. “How do you know that?”

“Sometimes I can comprehend conversation I overhear.”

“Ah, he— Well. After he— Ah, I was not able to persuade him to consideration.” Celia sat perfectly still though she felt as if a jib boom had slammed into her chest. “Which is a shame, as I trust him above all men.”

Silence descended and lengthened while Celia attempted to catch her breath.

“Did you . . . ” He cleared his throat. “That is, are you perhaps a bit fond of him?”

“He has been kind to me.”

“As is Lord Covarrubias, I hope?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, good. So you object to neither man I would have chosen for you.”

The very opening she had hoped he would give her! She attempted to stay the course. “I do not wish to marry at all.”

He sighed. “Nay, I would not expect so after what you must have endured, but really I’ve no choice if I want to do my duty by you, which I do. I hardly think you’d rather be tossed in a madhouse, which is what will happen if your mother or I should—”

Now Celia was almost desperate. If he wouldn’t release her voluntarily, she would be forced to flee England before she could complete her task. “Aunt Harriet has offered me her home.”

He snorted. “I believe Lord Rathbone would have something to say about that. But no. Unfortunately, I cannot give you leave to refuse, as I am your guardian and you are . . . broken. I will not allow you to be shuffled from one household to another for the rest of your life.” His voice trailed off. Cleared his throat. “’Tis my fault,” he whispered, staring down at his desk. “All my fault. Oh, what did I do to you, my child?”

“You said you would kill me.”

His head snapped up. “You remember that.”

“Yes. It is the last thing I remember.”

“Oh, God!” he cried, standing and pressing the heels of his palms into his eye sockets. “I meant him. Dunham. I was looking at you, but it was him I wanted to kill and— I . . . misspoke. ’Tis that simple.”

It slammed into her breast, his deep remorse. Never could she have foreseen this, and her sudden urge to relieve him of his suffering by revealing herself shook her to her soul. She could barely keep herself from springing to him and declaring to him who she was and what she had become, for surely he would be pleased and comforted and proud of her . . .

But then, once upon a time, she had run to him to roust the orange-headed giant from their home, a giant who was accosting her mother—only to find herself slung over the giant’s shoulder and dropped to her feet aboard a pirate’s ship.

She was no longer eight years old and her papa’s little princess. She could no more predict Bancroft’s reaction now than she could then, when she had not been able to tell a passionate embrace from an attack. He would have to wallow in his guilt a while longer and perhaps someday . . .

“’Twas all,” he whispered. “He, she. It all . . . blended . . . together . . . ”

Celia had not felt this much pain since Talaat had been snatched and bound during one of their promenades through the bazaar, then beaten after she too had been subdued and bound.

She was barely able to gather words. “Mistakes were made,” she whispered. It was Smitty’s answer to anything where fault could not be assigned with any certainty. “I understand.”

“Oh, my poppet, my little minx, you cannot possibly understand, and that is the hell of it. Mistakes were made by all of us. Except you, the one who must bear the heaviest burden of it.”

They sat in silence, Celia struggling not to cry while Bancroft gathered himself back into the dignified Admiral Bancroft.

“So, my dear,” he said with forced robustness as he shuffled the papers upon his desk. “Lord Covarrubias and I will be signing the agreement Friday, after his solicitors have finished perusing it, and perhaps we shall have a lovely wedding some time during Christmastide . . . I remember you loved the snow. Do you still?”

Tears slid down her cheeks and dropped into her puce-satin-covered lap, leaving dark spots to betray their passage. “Yes.”

“Excellent. I had hoped a Christmas wedding would please you. In the meantime, I shall do my best to make you happy, or at least as happy as you are capable of becoming.”

Every commander knows that there will come a day when she will not have thought of an angle of attack, which, when implemented, would set all her strategies asunder and be her downfall.

Celia’s day had come.

Bancroft, in his attempt to pay her restitution before his death, which he believed to be imminent, had hit her in each of her most vulnerable spots, crushing her ability to counter the attack.

She was dead in the water and beginning to sink.

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Dunham 42: Chapter Forty-Two

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May 2, 1780
Rathbone House
Mayfair, London

“Marianne, I understand and respect your concerns,” Marquess Rathbone said as he paced in front of Celia and her mother, seated comfortably in the library Celia had not touched since Rathbone’s return. “But I am also in complete sympathy to his position.”

“But my lord,” Mary murmured. “Surely it cannot have escaped your notice that he did not attempt any rescue at all, much less go to the lengths you have gone. What honorable man would not pursue his family’s captors if he has the means to do so? You cannot imagine our suffering, and now to know he did not even bother . . . ”

Lord Rathbone took a deep breath and turned away from them, his hands behind his back, his head bowed.

“I don’t ken that, either, Marianne,” he said low. “I cannot explain it and I cannot demand an answer because he is my commanding officer. I do believe he regrets it.”

Regret?

Lord Rathbone began to pace and Celia kept her face carefully down while following his every move from under her eyelashes and in her periphery, as she would not be put off her guard. Being this close to him, this involved in conversation, in truth terrified her.

But Celia was not expected to speak. So she didn’t.

He went to his window and looked out upon the darkened glass that had raindrops running down it, sparkling in the candlelight. He had one hand on his hip and the other was massaging the bridge of his nose.

“I will not have her taken away from me,” Mary pronounced. “Not after she has been lost to me for so long.”

He sighed. “The court has decided, Marianne, and I’ll not finance an appeal. She will have to—”

“My lord,” came the grave voice of the butler at the door of the library. The marquess waved a hand. “You have a caller. He claims to have personal knowledge of the Lady Captain Fury.”

Celia’s heart raced, but Rathbone only harrumphed. “Another one. Send him in. One of these days, someone will appear with real information. Not even my house guests who spent weeks aboard her bloody ship can give me anything useful,” he grumbled.

As if the day had dawned with the express intent of making Celia’s life a living hell, in was shown Marcus Zimmerman, who had endured his flogging and recuperation, but not well or with any dignity.

He approached with the affect of a penitent, his clothes ratty, his face filthy, and his cap in hand. “My lord,” he said, and bowed.

“Yes, yes, yes. Who are you and how do you come to know Fury?” Zimmerman glanced at Celia and her mother, but Rathbone said, “Get on with it, man. I have more important business with these two than with you.”

“I was on the Thunderstorm when she blew the blockade.”

That got her uncle’s attention. “Really,” he drawled. “What is your name and how came you to seek a berth with her and what were your duties?”

“Marcus Zimmerman, sir. I needed passage and funds, my lord. I was set to various chores needing great strength to accomplish.”

Rathbone’s mouth pursed and he studied Zimmerman for a moment until the man became more twitchy than Celia had ever seen him. “You’ve the look of trouble about you, Zimmerman, and whatever else she is, Fury is not careless. I can’t imagine she approved of you.”

“She didn’t. Her bo’sun hired me.”

“Aye then. Why are you here, and make it concise.”

“I know where her ship is.”

Celia’s growing tension waned a bit. He couldn’t know, as she had set him ashore in Ireland. It was not such a habit for the privateer vessels to lay at anchor deep in Dutch waters. Calais, Oostende, even Dover, for those who were more willing to take the risk, were far more convenient for necessary covert ventures into England.

And Rathbone was no fool. “Aye, well, I doubt that.” He waved a hand. “Begone, Zimmerman, and take your tales with you.”

“She and Captain Judas are lovers,” he blurted.

Rathbone stiffened and he stared at Zimmerman, his head cocked to one side. “And how do you know this?”

“We were becalmed for a time, grappled to two ships. I believe they were the Silver Shilling and the Mad Hangman. ’Twas a near sennight of merrymaking.”

“You believe?” he asked calmly. “Where were you during this . . . party . . . in the middle of the ocean?”

“In the infirmary.”

“Why?”

He paused. “I . . . was flogged, Sir.”

“Why?”

“I . . . did not obey an order quickly enough to suit her, Sir.”

Rathbone cackled and slapped his palm down on his desk. “God, I love that woman as much as I hate her. If I ever get my hands on her, I’ll f—” Celia barely choked back a startled—nay, delighted—laugh. He cleared his throat. “Then what?”

Zimmerman gulped. “I was in the hold for the duration.”

“Ah, she threw you in the brig, did she? Why should I trust you any more than she did?” The great weasely fellow opened his mouth, but was cut off. “Can you identify Judas by sight?”

“Captain Fury only, Sir.”

Rathbone’s eyebrow rose. “I can identify Fury by sight. I need Judas, whom you cannot give me.” He paused, tapping one long finger on his desk. “Zimmerman, I will offer you this: Write a full report of your experience. You can write, can you not?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Give me your direction and I will send a lad to collect it tomorrow. If ’tis helpful to me, I’ll see that you are compensated for your time.”

Zimmerman rattled off an address that Celia was not familiar with, but would remember on pain of her life, then took his leave.

“Nasty business, that Fury,” Rathbone muttered as he wrote it out for himself before ordering one of the kitchen lads—whom Celia had every reason to doubt were, in fact, simple kitchen lads—to follow Zimmerman and report back. “Truth be told,” he mused, “I could use a few more captains like her. Her and that goddamn Hollander she sails with.” He shook himself. “Marianne, I’m terribly sorry, but Celia must attend Lord Hylton tomorrow.”

“I understand,” she whispered. “But . . . I fear he will take the opportunity to snatch her and lock her away, that perhaps this marriage business is a ruse.”

Rathbone speared her with a glance. “You do not know your husband very well, then, Lady Hylton,” he said stiffly. “Though I suppose that is to be expected after so many years apart. Dismissed.”

The simpleton and the invalid shuffled to their chambers together slowly. Oh, so slowly. But once they had entered and the door locked, Mary hissed a stream of curses that had even Celia raising her eyebrows.

“Man and Woman here! Then Zimmerman! And you summoned to Nathan’s home!”

Zimmerman was one problem Celia could solve—and quickly.

“One thing at a time, Mama. One thing at a time.”

•  •  •

May 3, 1780
Rathbone House
Mayfair, London

Murdered?!

Lord Rathbone’s enraged bellow fair shook the house the following day at precisely one o’clock.

Mary and Celia looked up from their stitchery in vague curiosity, but Aunt Harriet was looking at the door of the room where she was receiving afternoon callers.

“Get the Mockslings in here this instant!”

Woman cast a panicked glance at Aunt, who was not disposed well enough toward her to give her any encouragement. One eyebrow rose. “You heard him.”

“Why does that bitch not work for me?!”

Celia quelled a smirk and bent back to her stitchery, of which she was making an absolute botch, awaiting this moment when Rathbone would learn the fate of yesterday’s unexpected informant.

Cap’n!

Ah, now you are more willing to pay proper respect.

The only respect I’ll pay you is between your thighs, bi—

After she had gathered every piece of parchment in Zimmerman’s rooms and retrieved her dagger from his forehead, she had left him there, bleeding on the floor, and slipped out, heading for a busy tavern on the wharf. With great care, she had fed each sheet into the hearth fire.

“GODDAMMIT!” Everyone flinched when the sound of shattering glass sliced through the house. “No report? Did you search everywhere?”

The lad’s voice was low.

“That bitch is here in London, and she wants me to know it else she’d have disposed of his body. Interview every last creature in this house right down to the mice and then comb the wharf. FIND HER! MOCKSLING!”

“What have you done?” Mary hissed once Aunt Harriet left the room in a huff to shush her husband’s bellows and to inform him that Man had taken himself off to find—to Woman’s horror—gainful employment.

Celia never raised her head from her work and continued to struggle with the one piece of floss that refused to lie smooth while she prepared herself for her audience with the man whose name she bore.

• • •
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Dunham 41: Chapter Forty-One

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May 1, 1780
Berkeley Square, London

Elliott had taken Covarrubias at his word, and so was shocked when the man stalked out of the ballroom not a moment after he had told Elliott to bugger off. Since there were five more minutes until the intermission was over, he took the opportunity to claim the chair beside Celia. He felt her body tense only a fraction. “Oh,” she said, then relaxed again. “Hello, my lord.”

“Elliott.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Lady Hylton released a very unladylike snort. So. She didn’t like him any more than she liked Covarrubias. He didn’t know why he cared, but he did.

“Your guard dog is gone, I see,” Elliott said low. “I thought he was with you all evening?”

Miss Simpleton simply looked at him blankly. “I do not have a dog, my lord.”

Elliott sighed. He really should have left when Covarrubias had. Before he had heard Fury sing, he would have thought this soprano’s voice lovely, but now he knew it for the screech it was. And he had a megrim. But something about the way Miss Simpleton sat, flinched, and heaved great sighs at all the appropriately horrible points of the performance intrigued him.

He brazenly leaned over Miss Simpleton’s lap toward Lady Hylton and extended his hand, palm up. She cast a glance down at it and sniffed, so he pulled his empty hand away.

“I apologize if I have offended you, my lady,” he said as graciously—and as foppishly—as he could manage, but he had been in costume for two hours now and, Camille’s assistance notwithstanding, the charade was wearing upon him.

“Your very presence offends me, my lord,” she said low.

“La, you have broken my heart, Lady Hylton!” he exclaimed grandly to attract as much attention as he could. Marchioness Rathbone even interrupted her flirtation to look over her shoulder, her eyebrow raised. “How utterly cruel! Seeeleea, darling,” he cooed, picking up Miss Simpleton’s hand and pressing a kiss to the back, “will you be at Lady Enfield’s ball tomorrow night?”

“I believe so, my lord,” she said dully.

“Will you, Lady Hylton?”

“No,” she said flatly.

“Good.” He was gratified when Lady Hylton and Lady Rathbone gasped. “I am no gentleman, my ladies,” he said low, flicking his glance upward to include the marchioness. “Bad behavior will be met with bad behavior—and I doubt you can best me in that, though you are certainly welcome to try.” His mouth quirked suggestively at Lady Rathbone when she cocked an eyebrow and her expression changed to one of speculation.

Celia’s body twitched a bit, reminding him that he was nigh lying upon her, but when he cast a glance to ascertain how she had taken this bit of aggression, there was yet no expression on her face.

“I am protecting my daughter, Lord Tavendish,” Lady Hylton said tightly, but with the most gracious of smiles. “I tolerate your presence only because she has not objected to it. She is not usually so accepting of perfect strangers and, moreover, strangers who press themselves against her with such familiarity.”

He cast a somber look between the two women when he realized Lady Hylton was not, in fact, speaking to him, but questioning her daughter as to her behavior, which was as lively as a marble statue.

To his surprise, she turned slowly to her mother and said, as dully as he had ever heard her, “Lord Tavendish has been kind to me, Mother.”

Kind? He hadn’t been kind. He had wanted to needle Covarrubias for his own amusement but had, in the process, become more curious about this girl and her mother, their circumstance, and why it seemed so . . . off.

Lady Hylton, too, stared at Miss Simpleton questioningly, but nothing in Miss Simpleton’s face could answer whatever those questions were. ’Twas as if she knew something neither he nor Lady Hylton did.

“Well, then!” he exclaimed prettily when the intermission was drawing to a close. “I’ll be off. Lady Hylton. Miss Bancroft. Lady Rathbone.”

“Goodbye, my lord,” Miss Bancroft said.

“Good riddance, my lord,” Lady Hylton muttered.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Tavendish,” Lady Rathbone purred.

•  •  •

Mélisande Gables
Berkeley Square, London

“Why are you two in my sitting room?” Elliott demanded when he burst through the doors to his chambers to see his brother and nephew lazing about. “Can I not even undress without you both up my arse?”

“Your, ah . . . valet . . . was entertaining us with tales of your adventures while he was folding your cravats,” Niall said blithely.

Elliott scowled at Piefke, who busied himself with the aforementioned cravats.

“And how were this evening’s rounds?”

“Camille,” Elliott announced, as he began his evening toilette with his valet’s help, “is taking the ton by storm. It may be that neither my reputation nor my toilette will be a deterrent to her finding the man of her dreams. Or at least, of her list.” He turned so that Piefke could divest him of his tight coat. “Every unattached chap of the ton was dancing attendance upon her. I’m quite proud of her.”

“Oh? Even Covarrubias?”

He pursed his lips in thought as he recalled what he had observed between Covarrubias, Miss Bancroft, and Lady Hylton from his vantage point across the room.

“Except that one. He showed his face at Sussex’s opera at intermission and spoke to Miss Simpleton, but left by the time intermission was over. It seemed to me Lady Hylton drove him away.”

In fact, there had been much tension amongst the three of them. When Lady Hylton had cast a scowl at Covarrubias, Elliott had the most vague sensation he had seen that profile before. Then Celia turned to Covarrubias and there it was. Hers matched her mother’s.

Though Celia was as blank-faced as ever, she had spoken to Covarrubias at length, which made him scowl at her. She didn’t flinch. Then he took her hand and caressed it in the manner of lovers familiar. Her mother allowed it, but not without a barb, if Covarrubias’s sudden fist was anything to go by.

They were all three too familiar with each other such that they could conduct what looked like a somewhat unpleasant tête-à-tête in the middle of a ton gathering without attracting undue attention.

“There is something not right there,” Elliott said once Piefke had dispensed with every last scrap of lace on his person, falling into an overstuffed chair across from his brother and nephew. He propped his left foot on his right knee, pulled off his pump, inspected it. “These shoes are ghastly,” he grumbled. “Leave off those ridiculous cravats, Piefke, and get me a whisky.”

He looked up when the man handed it to him only to see Niall and Sandy exchange the type of knowing glance only men who work well together, are good friends or close relations—or all three—could have. There were volumes of information in that exchange Elliott was not privy to.

“What have you not told me?”

Niall took a deep breath. “Our current case is over who gets custody of the admiral’s long-lost imbecile daughter.”

“Aye, I know, and you won the point for Hylton. So?”

Sandy scratched his jaw. “I don’t believe the admiral’s telling the truth about the circumstance of his wife and daughter’s abduction by pirates.”

Elliott stared at his nephew as if he had cursed his mother to perdition. Why had that never occurred to him? “Explain.”

Sandy granted him a solicitor’s solicitous look. “If I could explain it,” he began patiently, “I would have done so already. I think he’s lying. I intend to get to the truth of the matter because I want to know what an admiral has to hide. How better to do that than being the man’s solicitor?”

“He testified on my behalf.” Which had ceased to mean anything some time ago.

Sandy sighed. “Suspecting something and verifying the truth of that suspicion is hardly betrayal. People lie to me all the time, Unk. I have no care for why they lie. I will even go so far as to say the truth is entirely irrelevant. My sole interest is in solving the puzzle they present me when they lie. It’s like being given a gift.”

“’Tis what makes him in demand,” Niall pronounced most unnecessarily.

“And he,” Sandy replied, pointing to Niall, “can follow my logic, no matter how much of a muddle I make of it, present it accurately and clearly in court, and persuade a jury to believe the most farfetched things. I have no interest in exposing the admiral for anything. He has given me a puzzle. I want to solve it.”

Elliott waved his hand for Sandy to continue.

“I find it very odd that an imbecile woman’s father and aunt have been at each other’s throats for two years to gain custody of a woman over whom, by law, he has guardianship. In that case, I must ask myself: What is between them that would make the aunt, acting on behalf of the mother—who is also the admiral’s wife—fight so viciously to keep her away from her father?”

Two years ago, Elliott would have taken great umbrage at these insinuations. Now he was simply intrigued. He made a note to call on Hylton and see this out for himself. After all, he was not under the admiral’s command any longer, and he was the ranking peer.

“What’s the marchioness’s position?”

Niall smiled, but Sandy replied, “Since Lady Hylton has been caring for their daughter since she was found and has, thanks to the marchioness’s generosity, the wherewithal to continue to do so, ’tis better not to disrupt the current circumstance. All they want is for Lord Hylton to go away and not bother them. Further, Lady Hylton wants nothing to do with the admiral and, so far as anyone can determine, the feeling is mutual.”

“But he’s still their daughter’s guardian,” Elliott said, confused. Many years lay between him and his last law class, but this seemed off. “Why did he not claim his right and do what he wanted?”

“His pockets are not quite as deep as the marchioness’s, he underestimated Lady Rathbone’s ruthlessness in keeping him away from her, and he has made unfortunate choices in representation because of it.”

“Until us,” Niall added.

Sandy nodded gravely. “The argument is that the admiral never demonstrated an interest in finding his wife and daughter after they were abducted. When compared to the lengths Rathbone’s gone to find his daughter, the admiral appears to have been . . . indifferent.”

“That’s generous,” Niall drawled.

“Further. Instead of setting sail to find them, he simply left America, came here, reported to the admiralty, inherited his estate, and not five years after the abduction took place, set up household with a married woman and had two children with her. He never made the slightest effort to find them though he had the means and opportunity, the implication being that his interest in her now is a bit . . . nefarious.”

Niall glanced at Elliott pityingly. “It does make one wonder.”

Indeed it did. Elliott was not in the habit of thinking of his mentor in such an unfavorable light, but he had learned much about what happened to a man once he became a bureaucrat and politician.

“We have taken the tack of presenting the girl as a burden on her mother, who is apparently on death’s door, and that the admiral should take over her care to both relieve her of this burden and secure the girl’s future against her mother’s death. We have convinced the admiral to cede time to Lady Hylton for the girl to make the transition from her household to his.”

“You say this has been going on for two years?” Elliott finally asked.

“Since the two of them first showed up on Rathbone House’s doorstep, yes. The admiral started proceedings the minute he heard of it because his wife refused to allow him any access to her at all. The marchioness had him thrown off the property on his bum.”

Elliott looked up and focused on nothing while he reflected upon everything he knew—or thought he knew—of his former commander. “His wife is sick unto death and the marchioness is said to be half-mad and getting no better,” he mused. “I don’t understand the animosity amongst them all, but I do know this man seeks only to see to his daughter’s future before they both leave her.”

“If by ‘see to his daughter’s future,’ one means immediately marrying the imbecile off to any title willing to spawn from said imbecile, then, yes, I suppose.”

“I cannot say it does not discomfit me,” Elliott said low. “However, a man who has evil intentions would not beg his most trusted protégé to marry his daughter for the express purpose of taking care of her.”

Niall’s expression took on a thoughtful mien. “I can accept that, especially as he has been careful in his selection of potential grooms. But!” he continued briskly. “We were hired not only to gain custody for him but to forestall any arguments against a marriage. The marchioness has appealed, but we expect to have that decided in our favor within the next day or so. Ostensibly good intentions aside, to all appearances, your beloved admiral does not seem to have the most admirable of motives here.”

A small, pained breath escaped him and dropped his forehead in his palm. “I have not yet expressed to him my unwillingness to wed the chit, but I have an interview with him tomorrow morning. I will glean what I can before I give him my regrets.”

“You’re willing to help us solve this riddle?” Niall asked, surprised.

Elliott raised his head and stared at his brother stonily. “Everyone in this family seems to forget I’ve been at war for the last twenty years. I’m always ‘at sea,’ as if I’m some common merchant in a boat paddling my way back and forth across the Atlantic, not a commander constantly assessing conditions for battle, planning my enemy’s death, and then implementing it. None of you has any idea what I do out there, what I’ve done for most of my life. I daresay you’d cast up your accounts if you were aboard for even one small battle. You say books about men like me are read, but obviously neither of you have read any.”

They looked at each other and, to Elliott’s grim satisfaction, they looked a little abashed. “I didn’t get to fleet commander by blindly trusting men who gave me reason not to—no matter how much I admired and respected them, no matter what favors they had done for me.”

“Unk, that’s a pretty sentiment, but don’t do or say anything that will jeopardize our case. We are representing the man.”

Elliott’s eyebrow rose. “You two really do think I’m stupid, don’t you?” They both flushed, but he relaxed further into the chair, now simply weary. He rested his head on the back of the chair and closed his eyes. “Sandy, do you have more clues to this riddle, or do I throw you both out? I am not kindly disposed toward either of you at the moment.”

Sandy cleared his throat and proceeded hesitantly, all traces of condescension gone. “Lady Hylton claims the girl was ripped from her arms and she was left for dead. ’Twas only the kindness of strangers that she survived at all and then did not have the wherewithal to begin looking for her husband, her son, or her daughter.

“Miss Bancroft claims she doesn’t remember anything from the moment she was abducted until the time she washed ashore at some unspecified location somewhere along the American coast. And found her mother. Absent Inquisitors, I don’t remember is the great unarguable loophole. Meanwhile, there are not enough details from any of the stories for a third party to either confirm or deny. Captain Lucien Bancroft, who would have been twelve at the time, has sworn he was not present and does not know what happened.”

Elliott continued to stare at the ceiling. “You have said you believe the admiral to be lying, but what I see is that there are two liars in this tale, if not three or four.” Noises of affirmation came from across the small table. He continued, “If that is so, they would have had to collude, and the rancor between them is too well documented for me to believe collusion.”

I,” Niall interjected, “would point out that since Hylton had taken a mistress and had a new family with her, that he’s embarrassed and does not know what to do. And Lady Hylton is understandably angry about this.”

“That would make sense if he were actually embarrassed, but he’s not. He’s furious, and I hardly think a man who loved his wife would be furious that she is not dead.”

“Unless,” Sandy drawled. Clearly he had given this a great deal of thought. “He knew she wasn’t dead and something drove them apart.”

“Or he holds her responsible for the girl’s abduction,” Niall said. “Lady Rathbone holds the marquess responsible for Lady Sarah’s disappearance.”

Elliott waved that off. “That is an entirely different situation.”

“Or,” Sandy interrupted, “they both know exactly what happened, but they each have their own reasons for the lie. If Hylton won’t speak to his wife but their stories match, then neither of them want the truth out.”

“And assuming Miss Simpleton is, in fact, simple, we cannot guess what she has locked up in her head,” Elliott murmured, thinking about his brief conversation with her. “I had the oddest sense tonight that she is not as simple as she is reputed to be, much less raving.”

“Ah, no, Unk, she is and worse than that. By all reports, she has terrifying fits of apoplexy when either her things are touched by people she does not know or when people she does not know get too close to her person.”

Elliott’s head snapped up. “I have been extremely close to her both times we have exchanged courtesies, and Covarrubias practically hangs off her shoulders.”

Neither Niall nor Sandy said anything, but both looked a bit confused.

“Captives,” Elliott began, sitting up and propping his elbows on his knees, gesturing with his hands, “have a general way about them, like dogs who have been beaten too many times by too many different people to trust any human at all. She, an eight-year-old girl, was taken by armed pirates and kept God knows where for twenty years having God only knows what things done to her. Even I have reactions to certain things that are vestiges from my time aboard the Ocean, and that was fifteen years ago. I was also an adult male officer who was only confined for two weeks.

“Both Covarrubias and I are not only sailors, we are both bigger than one’s average man—ships are not built for men our size—and we both wear swords that are not merely decorative. She has been completely at ease with Covarrubias and not much less at ease with me.” He turned to look over his shoulder at his valet, who was again fussing with Elliott’s cravats. “Piefke, does that sound odd to you?”

“Aye, Cap’n, it does, particularly with that enormous wig and grotesque costuming.”

Elliott grinned. “Have I destroyed your professional reputation, mate?” Piefke sniffed, but Elliott turned back to his family. “Her behavior with both of us is inconsistent with a woman who has spent twenty years in a pirate hell so hellish she cannot or will not recall. I might have allowed that she has spent enough time with Covarrubias to have grown comfortable with him, but it does not explain her comfort with me. I will also allow that it could be her preferred defensive posture—but you say you have proof she is given to mad outbursts?”

“Affidavits aplenty. Rathbone House maids, footmen, housekeeper, and butler.”

“Yet she attends all the Society events where she will be inundated with people pressing in upon her.”

“Also testified to—she becomes entranced by the colorful gowns and music so that she does not notice anyone else. It is, in fact, a way Lady Rathbone can control her outbursts at home by tempting her with such outings in exchange for good behavior.”

“If she heard Cap’n Jack sing,” Piefke muttered, “she would be cured of her imbecility.”

Niall started, but Elliott laughed. “I dare say you’re right, Piefke. Fury has the voice of an angel.” Elliott was fully aware his tone was veering into awestruck. “Nay, a siren. Tell ’em.”

“Aye, Sirs, that she does. She and her crew sang for hours one night— What was it called, Cap’n?”

Messiah. Handel.”

“Aye, that. All of it.”

“Piefke! Nay, I believe that was the first half or some such.”

The bo’sun-valet sighed as dreamily as any adolescent girl. “And then she summoned the wind . . . ”

Elliott snorted. “She did not summon the wind. Did you not see her on the platform with Ben Sunday afternoon? And her girls up in the rigging the rest of the day? They were prognosticating. She knew it was coming and about when it would arrive. Ask Ben if you don’t believe me.”

He started and looked at Elliott as if such a thing had not occurred to him. “She’s not a witch, then?”

“Nay. She has a gift for observation and using men’s imagination and superstitions against them.”

Piefke growled and turned away.

Both Sandy and Niall were staring at Elliott. “Gentlemen, I do swear to you that woman could sing me straight into hell and I would kiss her feet in gratitude for my own damnation.”

Niall barked a laugh. “You sound like a girl in the throes of her first infatuation.”

Elliott grinned into his empty glass, then reached for the crystal decanter for a third. “Aye, I am a lovestruck fool, and I feel no shame for it, either.” He paused. “Speaking of girls, did you two investigate every man on Camille’s list?”

“Yes,” Niall said. “And I am even more afraid of her now. I could find nothing more than what she had done. How she accomplished that all the way up north and without Mother or Lucy’s knowledge, I cannot fathom.”

He snorted without humor. “They don’t pay any attention to her. Sandy, did you draw up those papers for Sophie?”

“Yes. They’re in your library awaiting your signature. Are you sure that’s a wise decision?”

Elliott took a deep breath. “Some time ago, I was given a round lecture on the measure of a woman’s independence, which is to say, how much any one woman does not have. Sophie does not wish to marry at all, regardless what any husband may permit her to do after she produces two baby boys. Nothing will guarantee a husband who will allow her her interests. Even if she happened upon a man who’d be absolutely delighted with them, she would still be under his rule, and I simply cannot find it in me to subject her to that when she is so strongly against it. After all, ’tis far easier to find a husband later than to get rid of a burdensome one now. Mind, I would not have agreed if she did not have Mother’s sense.”

“This is Fury’s influence, I take it?”

“And her women, aye.”

Sandy drawled, “Is there anything else we can do you for you tonight, Cap’n? Move the world, perhaps? We’ll have to find a long enough lever first.”

Elliott snorted.

A smile teased at the corner of Niall’s mouth before he murmured, “Pirating has made you rather more democratic than the average earl.”

“Fury would disagree with that. By the bye, have you—”

“None to speak of,” Niall said with a yawn. “We know she’s here . . . somewhere. All her business is done as Calico Jack. It seems that those who have either met her or sailed with her refer to her as Captain Jack. Those who only know of her or sailors who’ve found themselves on the wrong end of one of her cannons refer to her as Captain Fury.”

“‘Fury’ was a joke that apparently stuck.”

“Interesting. At any rate, she has at least six of her men here with her—” Elliott’s eyebrow rose. “—but no one knows where they are staying. Her correspondence and messages go through a bordello, but we haven’t found which one.”

“Her men’s names?”

“Don’t know. We think the one who carries her seal and her papers is a Greek gent.”

“Papadakos,” Elliott said. “Her second mate.” He stared out his window into the night, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. “Find him. Ask him if he’d be willing to speak to Captain Judas. If he expresses any measure of suspicion or disbelief, tell him I wish to give Fury new laces for her stays.”

He caught their bewilderment out of the corner of his eye and grinned.

“Aye, that will establish your credentials.”

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Dunham 40: Chapter Forty

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May 1, 1780
Berkeley Square, London

The soprano’s last notes hung over the inhabitants of the ballroom like a noxious fog. What was worse, the woman was performing the very opera that had defeated seventeen-year-old Celia’s hopes to make her mark in the world as an opera singer.

If Monsieur Rameau had thought Celia sang no better than a strangled fishwife, he would have taken this soprano out behind the Paris Opera House and shot her dead for opening her mouth at all.

“Mother of God,” Mary whispered when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s guests began to rise to their feet to applaud her with great exuberance.

But Celia dutifully stood when Mary and Aunt Harriet did. They barely tapped their gloved fingertips into their gloved palms, and from under her brows, Celia stared daggers at the beaming soprano.

“If I had a pistol . . . ” Celia gritted once the crowd began to disperse for intermission.

“I would load it for you,” her mother muttered back.

“Oh, do let me out, both of you,” Aunt Harriet said testily. “Celia, move.”

She obeyed.

“I fear,” Harriet grumbled as she maneuvered her panniers past the chairs and into the aisle, “that everyone here is deaf as a stone.”

Celia almost laughed.

“May we take our leave?” Mary murmured.

“Sadly, no, as the duchess fancies herself quite the connoisseur of opera as much as Sandwich fancies himself a naval strategist.” That explained quite a bit. “’Twould be mistaken for a Cut Direct.”

“Not mistaken for one.”

“So right. But we can fetch a bit of air to brace ourselves for the rest of it. Come along, Mary. Celia.”

Far too soon they were back in their chairs for the remainder of the performance of Hippolyte et Aricie.

“Celia,” Harriet said airily as she wedged her panniers back down their row of chairs, following a handsome earl who had wedged himself into their party with promises of a night spent wedging himself between Harriet’s thighs, “secure a seat on the end for Lord Covarrubias.”

Celia’s mouth tightened and she traded unamused glances with her mother, which the marchioness did not see because she and the earl had seated themselves and begun their illicit contredanse in earnest. When, moments later, Rafael gracefully ensconced himself beside her, Celia gave him no chance to speak.

“Why are you here?” she hissed under the bustle and noise of the many guests returning from their gossip and assignations to find their chairs.

“I was invited, of course, because I am handsome, charming, and brilliant. Lady Hylton,” Rafael said respectfully to her mother, who gave him a withering sidelong glance and a slight sneer. It was not the Cut Direct, though had anyone observed it, it would be remarked upon with much speculation. “I forgot. Both papí and mamí disapprove of their probable future son-in-law. Excellent recommendation, considering said parents’ . . . praiseworthy . . . history.”

Mary blanched.

“That was cruel,” Celia hissed.

Rafael ignored that. “I will expect you tonight.”

“Whisht! I told you under what conditions I would return to your bed and thus far, I have heard no promises of fidelity.”

“Tell me something, my love,” he ground out behind a perfectly lovely smile, “if you refuse to live with me as man and wife, what would you have me do? Pledge eternal celibacy?”

“I would not believe you anyroad. Your yard is never satisfied.”

You satisfy it quite brilliantly—when you are about. But that fact would be inconvenient if you wished to continue your affair with Judas, no?”

“Aye, it would.”

“Her father and I approve of Judas,” Mary said out of the side of her mouth. That garnered the desired reaction, for Rafael’s nostrils flared, though he never dropped his charming demeanor. “And judging by what I heard, so does Celia.”

“She does, does she?” he growled.

God’s teeth. If it weren’t so maddening, it would be funny.

He appreciates my scars,” Celia murmured.

Rafael’s body tensed further, one hand slowly clenching into a fist. “Now I see where you get your sharp tongue, my love.” Celia sniffed, unimpressed. “Very well. You may have it. My fidelity.”

That shocked her so that she looked at him, still carefully keeping her face blank for any onlookers. “You truly hate him, don’t you?”

“I do not hate him. I simply don’t want him to trespass what’s mine any further than he already has.”

“Trespass?” Mary muttered. “One usually trespasses property, does one not?”

“Mama, please.”

“Baroness,” Rafael growled. “Explain that remark, if you would be so kind.”

“No, don’t.”

“You are exceptionally well educated, Dr. Covarrubias,” Mary returned calmly as if Celia had not spoken. “I’m quite sure you’re familiar with Pygmalion and Galatea, are you not?”

“Lady Hylton, if you were a man—”

The seats were filling, the orchestra was beginning to tune its instruments, and Celia was sitting between a spark and a fuse. She could feel a megrim coming on.

“You must be familiar with it, since you do, in fact, have two Galateas, one living and breathing and the other her effigy, so grand, so smooth and without flaw. Without scars.”

. . . pay homage to your power . . .

Celia’s chest tightened.

“She rides the Silver Shilling’s prow much better than the Thunderstorm’s, wouldn’t you agree?”

“You—”

“Stop it. Both of you. Would you have me discovered and captured for your battle of wits?”

Seeeleea! Oh, Seeeeeeleeeaaaaa! Where are you, my darling?”

She almost groaned at the very loud, high-pitched male voice coming from behind them.

Madre de Dios, he is a fright,” Rafael muttered, looking over his shoulder at what must surely be a hideously dressed Lord Tavendish. “Lady Hylton, even you must agree I am far more acceptable.”

Mary’s mouth tightened. “Barely, Dr. Covarrubias. Do not get too high in the instep over it.”

They were a good match, Lord Tavendish and the Honourable Miss Bancroft. Everyone said so. The Traitor and The Simpleton, because they were so very low that they deserved each other.

“Miss Bancroft!”

Celia wanted to slide down in her chair and cover her face, but instead she turned around in her seat, slowly, stiffly, to see him attired even more freakishly than last evening, now in scarlet brocade.

Though Celia was observing Elliott Raxham as he made his foppish way down the center aisle toward her, she saw Judas: tall, muscular, striding confidently on the deck of his ship bellowing orders, his bare torso darkened from the sun and gleaming with sweat, his long hair slipping out of its queue and floating on the wind.

This man had taken her every which way she could imagine a single man could take her and one way that had shocked even Nonny. God help her, she wanted him to tighten her stays until she couldn’t breathe, bend her over a chair, and plow her to a fare-thee-well.

Right then!

Yet he had not recognized her yestereve, though she—The Simpleton, who did not like being touched by people she did not know—had not only allowed him to touch her, but to dance with her and walk about the room with her hand on his arm all evening whilst Aunt Harriet kept Rafael away from her. She had waited and waited and waited for some spark of recognition . . .

Which now made her as angry with Judas—Elliott—as she was with Rafael, and utterly disinclined to want to fuck either of them.

Finally he was standing at her row of chairs, holding his hand out for hers while completely ignoring Rafael, who sat between him and Celia.

“Seeeleea, my love,” he cooed, raising her fingers to his rouged lips for a kiss. She had kissed that mouth and knew how skilled it was everywhere else on her body. It was her delicious secret to know what, exactly, that disgusting façade hid.

That, too, made her angry. She could guess his intent, but masquerading as an aging and desperately out-of-fashion macaroni was, in Celia’s opinion, far more than necessary.

Just like the Silver Shilling.

Except . . . he had had a reason for such excess, so perhaps he had one for this.

“My lord,” she said woodenly.

He flicked a glance down at Rafael then laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing lightly. “Did I see that you were leaving, Covarrubias?” he chirped.

“No,” Rafael drawled with a sneer. “Get your hand off me before I call you out.”

The earl removed his hand, but not without a bit of a caress. “Ah, well. I don’t go for those sorts of beastly encounters with men.”

“I presume you prefer other beastly encounters with men?”

Tavendish smiled wickedly. “Just so,” he purred.

Lord, what a predicament. Did she think they would consent, she would have both of them in bed with her and dancing attendance upon her pleasure.

“Seeeleea, will I see you later tonight at Lady Carlisle’s rout?”

“No,” Rafael snapped, glaring up at him. “Miss Bancroft is with me this evening and I have no plan to attend.”

Tavendish gasped, putting his hand to his chest, fingers splayed out. “Why, my handsome conde, I am no threat to your . . . claim.”

Mary laughed suddenly, but immediately forced it into a cough.

Rafael settled back into his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “Leave us, Tavendish. I am generally out of sorts and do not wish to flirt with you tonight or any other night.”

There was nothing the earl could do other than acquiesce with a click of his heels and a mocking bow.

“Useless fribble,” Rafael harrumphed once he had taken his leave with a swish of hips and kerchief. “You have no opinion?”

“He was kind to a simpleton last eve.”

“He was kind to a simpleton for his own purposes.”

“He is a useful fribble,” she murmured.

“Oh?”

“Aye. Think you not I have my own purpose for accepting the kindness of a peer, no matter how ridiculed he may be? I do not make alliances without purpose.”

Rafael grunted. “Some days I do not understand how your mind works—”

“That is a certainty,” Mary muttered.

“—and since I trained your mind, this is somewhat disconcerting.”

“For five years. You discount the prior six years with Dunham and you know nothing of my time aboard the Carnivale. You treat me like a child. I am not your pupil, and I grow weary of your condescension on land, to say nothing of your atrocious behavior aboard the Thunderstorm, which weakened my command. You’re lucky I didn’t toss you overboard.”

He said nothing for a moment. “It is . . . difficult,” he said low. “I freely admit it. When you are dressed thusly and act the simpleton.”

“Then I am satisfied that my ruse is so complete that even you are lured in.”

“I do not like you this way.”

“You do not like Fury, either.”

“No, I do not. She is a tyrant, locking me in the brig for half an ocean. Where is my brilliant lover?” he cajoled, tracing his finger over the back of Celia’s gloved hand.

“Did you misplace your masterpiece, Doctor?” Mary asked sweetly.

Rafael’s hand curled into a fist against Celia’s glove. “Lady Hylton . . . ”

“Begone, Rafael. I will come to you tomorrow night if I can manage to get away.”

“Sí, but will you come for me?”

Mary choked.

At Rafael’s raised eyebrow and refusal to move, Celia muttered, “I always do.”

• • •
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Dunham 39: Chapter Thirty-Nine

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April 29, 1780
Mélisande Gables
Berkeley Square, London

“There is no way in hell I’ll wed that woman,” Elliott snarled at his brother as he stormed into his library after having divested himself of that ridiculous costume.

“That bad?”

“Helpless. Soulless.” He ran his hands through his hair—his own blessed hair—and began to pace.

Niall winced. “But now you know how to find Georgina—”

“Absolutely not. Firstly, she is fifteen and I am three times larger and almost that much older. Secondly, her first impression of me is of a bloody, naked savage fucking her captain face-first up against the bulkhead to hell and gone.”

Niall pursed his lips. “Such an image would be a tad difficult to overcome, I’ll grant you that.”

“Thirdly, she’s fucking the bo’sun’s mate and I’ll not raise that child’s by-blow.”

“Child?”

“Well. No one knows, really, but the boy’s no stranger to copulation in any form.”

“Oh, so what. Marry Georgina, tuck her away for a couple of years while she does her duty, and then send her about her business. Nobody has to know.”

Elliott’s teeth ground. “I cannot—will not—tup a fifteen-year-old, especially one who’s had a taste of freedom, a gentle boy ’twixt her legs, and fancies herself in love with the aforementioned gentle boy.”

“You don’t know that.”

He leveled Niall with a look. “Kit’s cabin is next to Fury’s, and Fury thought them charming. The girl was nigh floating around the Thunderstorm.”

“Oh.” He paused. “Well, could you lead a girl—a virgin, no less—to climax when you were barely into manhood?”

“As a matter of fact, I was barely into manhood when I began to avail myself of every opportunity to learn how to do so.” He caught Niall’s look of disbelief. “Did you never have a village girl or housemaid offer to instruct you in the fine art of bedding a woman to her satisfaction?” He grinned when Niall flushed a bit.

“A virgin, though?”

Elliott held up two fingers. “Both came.”

“How old were you?”

“Seventeen, eighteen, I suppose.”

“And this boy is far younger than that, so my point stands.”

Elliott bowed his head. “Which is why you are the barrister and I am not.” He went to the door and bellowed, “Lynch! Get me some of that Italian wine!”

“Aye, Cap’n,” came the faint response from somewhere in the house.

Elliott stalked to a chair, threw himself into it, and dropped his head back. Camille chose that moment to breeze through the doorway, a dreamy smile on her face.

“Oh, Lord,” Elliott moaned. “You’re in love.”

Her dreamy expression shattered into a moue of disgust. “Elliott, you hideous troll.”

“I told you,” Niall said calmly and sipped at his whisky.

“No, I am not in love. I am thoroughly over the moon at how well our little masquerade turned off.”

“Oh,” Elliott said with great disgust. “That.”

“Eli, you were splendid. No one suspected a thing, although I did fear your heroism on Miss Imbecile’s behalf might give you away, but no. Your tailor is an artiste.”

“Heroism?” Niall asked. “And I presume the ‘Miss Imbecile’ in question is Celia Bancroft?”

“She took one look at me and pretended to swoon,” Elliott reported, though he did not know whether to be happy or angry. “I caught her.”

Pretended?” Niall and Camille asked simultaneously.

“You did not tell me that,” Milly said.

“Would an imbecile pretend to swoon at a strategic moment?” Niall mused.

Elliott shrugged. “Even imbeciles have some instinct for self-preservation. Likely ’tis a delaying tactic she used during her captivity and more a habit than anything else. She is perfectly at ease with Covarrubias and he seems to genuinely care about her welfare. It surprises me, actually.”

“Which is why you have no qualm in refusing Hylton’s request.”

“Exactly.” He turned to Camille, then, and cocked an eyebrow. “Speaking of which, how did you come to dance with Covarrubias? Twice? I thought that was settled last night when he rebuffed you?”

She flushed and her mouth pressed tight. “Lady Rathbone embarrassed him into asking and embarrassed me into accepting, for the same reason she made sure you were dancing attendance on Miss Simpleton all evening after she recovered from her swoon.”

Elliott stared at her, confused. “Why in the devil would she do that?”

“Lord Covarrubias told me she’s trying to keep him from marrying her niece.”

“He told you that?” Niall asked suspiciously.

“Not in so many words. He said something to the effect that she encouraged him to pay attention to all the ladies for, perhaps, a more suitable match than her niece.”

Elliott and Niall exchanged a look. “She doesn’t want him anywhere near her. Is she protecting her from him too?”

“Well!” Milly interrupted with a huff. “If you asked me for my opinion, which you did not but I will give it to you anyway, Lady Rathbone could not keep her eyes from him all evening and seemed rather possessive of him.”

Both men stared at Milly before bursting out laughing. “Good Lord, the woman’s jealous of her idiot niece,” Elliott said, but his amusement was short-lived when all the details of the evening started to settle in his mind. “Niall, there’s something not quite right with that situation.”

Niall sucked in a deep breath in the manner of a man about to present his opening argument to a jury. But he only said, “Save your conjecture until Sandy comes home. He has quite a few interesting theories.”

Very well. He had other things to put to rest. “Milly, your new assignment is to make absolutely certain that Miss Simpleton and Covarrubias are together at all these little soirees as much as possible.”

The girl’s face took on a wily expression Elliott had never seen before and suddenly felt privileged she trusted him enough to show it now. She had been a brilliant foil for his charade, and Elliott congratulated himself on his choice of accomplice.

“You can do that, I take it,” Elliott said dryly.

She cast him a wicked grin and swept out of the room without another word, leaving some moments of silence behind her.

“Why am I suddenly afraid of her?” Niall asked blithely.

Elliott laughed. “I need Covarrubias out of my path to Fury.” At Niall’s expression of utter bewilderment, he said, “Fury and Covarrubias have been lovers on and off for fourteen years. If he weds this chit, she will not continue with him.”

Niall’s mouth dropped open, but then he gathered himself. “You’re jealous.”

“I am and not ashamed to admit it. I want Fury.”

“You have had Fury.”

“Without Covarrubias hanging off her stern.”

“Do you really think his marrying Celia Bancroft will make him let go of Fury? Would any marriage make you let go of her if she did not want to be let go?”

“Nay,” Elliott said low, “but she will not compete for a lover and she will not be second, no matter how deeply her heart is involved unless he lies to her, which, by the way, is what I had planned to do.” Before his mother had pointed out the flaws in it. He sighed and dropped back into his chair. “God, what a predicament. The admiral thinks offering me his lunatic spinster is a favor. Do you believe it? I am without a bridal prospect, but it doesn’t in the least help me win Fury because I still need a wife who can bear children.”

“If you intend to lie to Fury about your lack of a countess, then the admiral’s lunatic spinster is the perfect woman to marry. She would not likely make a fuss over . . . well, anything. Likely she will not even notice you’re gone.”

Elliott pursed his lips. That was truly an advantage. The woman’s lunacy was not from birth and her presence would give his mother someone to fuss over. “If Fury catches me out,” he mused, “I can say my interest in her is mostly one of charity, and I wed her to give her lifelong security.”

At Niall’s raised eyebrow, he said, “Fury has twice as many people on board her ship as she needs to sail it. She tells me ’tis so she does not have to work so hard, but it seemed to me she is simply providing a good many of them a home. She might find my marriage in that case an acceptable exception.”

“A benevolent pirate, eh?”

“She seems easily moved to pity.”

Niall’s mouth pursed in mild disbelief, but only said, “If you do not wed the simpleton, though, it will be even more difficult to find a wife now that you have presented yourself to the ton as a badly dressed macaroni. What was your game?”

“I need to know if Rathbone can identify me as Judas. Fortunately, Bancroft—Lucien, I mean—caught a berth to the West Indies to join the fleet there, or so Rathbone tells me. No one in Society has seen me in years save Croftwood and you know how much he despises Society. When I go to Parliament, I dress like everyone else. The ton thinks I buried myself up north in utter shame, that I’ve only shown my face because I need a countess, and that I’m half-cocked. I am doing my damnedest to foster that opinion.”

“Ah.”

Elliott’s conversations with his mother wound through his head as they had done repeatedly since learning that the Mockslings had made a fraudulent contract.

“Niall, what do you think about Mother’s constant raging against the concept of Fate? Choice without cost, totality of control over one’s own life and all that rot.”

He shrugged. “I don’t think about it at all. Why?”

“Nothing important,” Elliott muttered, dropping his face in his palm to massage it.

He had asked his mother to think about what he’d said, but he had found himself once again pulled back into the seductive idea that he could control his life. But no. He was the earl and had hundreds of people depending on him to keep them safe and prosperous.

“I thought you said Sandy would be home soon. Where is he?”

“At Lady Iddlesleigh’s salón. He has a tendre for her daughter, who’s just out this season.”

Mister Kerr, a Raxham, thinks he can come up to scratch for an earl’s daughter?”

There was a clatter at the front door of Mélisande Gables and low male voices could be heard from the foyer.

“In the library!” Niall called.

Their nephew burst through the doors and stalked to the liquor cabinet to pour himself a more-than-generous snifter of brandy, which he proceeded to toss down his throat. And then another.

“Do you know,” the boy said conversationally as he threw himself into an overstuffed chair and thunked his feet on the low table in front of him, “if I were anyone but a Raxham, I’d have been suffered to wed the chit.”

Elliott and Niall exchanged suddenly unamused glances.

“We apologize for your lack of a suitable pedigree, Nephew,” Elliott said frostily.

Sandy heaved a great, exasperated sigh. “I didn’t say I wanted to be someone else. I want Lady Jane and a Mister cannot have a Lady. Also, I am a lawyer.”

“The unforgivable sin,” Niall intoned.

“Your mister-and-lady problem is easily solved.” The boy looked up at Elliott. “Compromise the girl.”

Sandy’s mouth dropped open and Niall rolled his eyes. “Elliott, your lack of morals is quite evident at this moment.”

Elliott smirked. “Sandy,” he said matter-of-factly, “how is this girl disposed toward you?”

“I don’t know,” he muttered, slumping down in the chair.

“You are a mister who received an invitation to a countess’s salon,” Niall said. “I think we can draw some conclusions as to her disposition toward you.”

Elliott nodded. “Aye. Well, I am obliged to prance around society for the next few weeks. I’ll test the waters for you.”

One of Sandy’s eyebrows rose. “You?

Niall sniffed. “You haven’t seen his persona under full sail. Harmless enough, but by all reports, utterly repulsive. Milly called him a ‘hideous troll.’”

“It’s effective. And amusing.” Elliott looked away, though, at the thought of the Honourable Miss Simpleton’s feigned swoon and scowled.

“Yes, you look quite amused,” Sandy drawled. “And completely harmless.”

Elliott shrugged, drawn back to his nephew’s charming little problem. In his complicated world, this would be a welcome diversion. “Leave it to me. But if you knew she would not object, would you seduce her?”

“Elliott!”

“People think he’s mad,” Niall remarked blithely, sipping at his whisky, “when he is simply evil.”

“Speaking of evil people, I need you both to help me find my lover, who may or may not be in London.”

“There are two of you? And you can breed? God help us. Who is this paragon of animals?”

“Lady Captain Fury,” Niall drawled, and Elliott could not help his cocky grin at Sandy’s astonishment. “He goes on about her like some love-struck cabin boy, such as, say, the one who’s tupping his formerly betrothed.”

Elliott barked a laugh.

Fury is your lover?” Sandy whispered in awe. Niall kicked his leg. “Ow! What was that for?”

“An excessive display of hero worship.”

Sandy scowled at Niall, but Elliott’s amusement vanished. “Sandy,” Elliott said. His tone got the boy’s attention. “Don’t. I am the least admirable man you will ever meet.”

“Not true,” Niall muttered, looking down into his now-empty glass. “You are . . . everything I ever wanted to be.” Elliott now stared at his little brother aghast. “’Tis not envy, as I have my own interests and accomplishments, but I— You are the kind of man about whom books are written.”

Sandy was nodding and Elliott looked between them in utter dismay. “Uh . . . You— Niall, you have a shining career ahead of you. Sandy, you too. Barristers and politicians of your caliber are written of and studied at university.”

Niall laughed then. “Ah, but, my dear Captain Judas, books about men like you are read.”

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Dunham 38: Chapter Thirty-Eight

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April 29, 1780
Grosvenor Square, London

Celia saw Lord Tavendish as soon as he entered the ballroom, prancing like an overly decorated mare on parade. His wig was two feet high and powdered pure white, as was his face, which had at least six ornaments plastered to it. His clothing was five years out of date and outrageous even by macaroni standards. His heels were higher than fashionable and painted a shocking turquoise that did not, in any way, complement his puce brocade coat, his puce-and-chartreuse-striped breeches, or chartreuse stockings. He had double—triple—falls of lace spilling from every cloth opening on his person. He minced and fopped and tittered, waving at people with a lace kerchief, calling out to them in a falsetto that grated on her nerves.

He had a woman on his arm, a young, beautiful one coifed with an elegant white wig and understated white robe à la française embroidered with heather and green flowers. Her stomacher and underskirt were a delicate mauve, and her panniers were so narrow they were barely fashionable. Her face was only a bit powdered and she had a small diamond-shaped patch on her cheekbone just under her left eye. She glided alongside her macaroni companion serenely, as if she were the owner of the overly decorated mare, proudly walking the animal around the ring.

“God help me,” Celia whispered, horrified that Bancroft had, just today, set Rafael aside to consider . . . that . . . as the more desirable candidate for her hand.

Rafael snorted with great disdain. Though his own high heels gleamed gold, the rest of his toilette—brown velvet coat, gold-embroidered brown brocade waistcoat, and buff doeskin breeches—was striking in its simplicity and rather too subdued to be fashionable. His cravat was not showy and his blond hair was both uncovered and unpowdered, caught back in a simple queue. No one would fault him for temperance though: By any standard, he was as beautiful as he was brilliant and could wear what he bloody well pleased.

“God help us if this is the best England’s nobility has to offer,” he muttered in Celia’s ear.

“Ah!” came Lord Tavendish’s high-pitched voice above the din. “And who have we here?”

He was talking to her, about her, around her, at her.

She kept her face perfectly expressionless as she watched him and his owner glide alongside him whilst he minced his way the last few feet toward her, her fern, and her lover.

He stopped short and looked around. “Where is someone—anyone—to introduce me to this ravishing creature?”

He was mad.

“Tavendish,” Rafael said coldly.

“Ah, Covarrubias, you handsome devil, you.” He winked and kissed the air at him.

Celia prayed desperately for a giant Scots corsair to burst through the doors.

“This is Miss Celia Bancroft, as you well know,” Rafael said stiffly. Lord Tavendish approached her, took her hand, and bent low over it. “Curtsey to the earl, querida,” Rafael rather conspicuously reminded her, as The Simpleton did have to be reminded of such things.

She did as she was bid, then looked up into a face from which gleamed the most lovely ice blue eyes she had ever seen.

It took every bit of discipline that had ever been beaten into her not to betray her shock, but knew she wouldn’t be able to.

Thus, she swooned.

•  •  •

He caught her, his overly muscled arms disguised under what she now realized was a coat cut and stitched so as to make his limbs and torso appear spindly. Only a sailor could manage to mince and fop and totter on those ridiculously high turquoise heels while striding through a ballroom carrying an unconscious woman to the nearest fainting couch.

“This way, Tavendish,” Aunt called to him.

You are British . . . What is your quarrel with your own countrymen?

That is not up for discussion, Madam.

Now she knew.

He placed her on the couch carefully while Aunt Harriet attempted to shoo off the onlookers.

“Tavendish,” Rafael drawled, and Celia wondered if he realized . . .

More to the point, she knew Judas had looked into her eyes and had not seen Fury. It was yet another blow, but she knew she had no right to expect him to recognize her. She had already deduced his place in the world, but he would have no reason to suspect that she would be part of his milieu.

Lord, what a predicament. If there weren’t so much at stake, she would make herself known to him, but there were too many extraordinarily curious people about.

Best to continue her ruse, as she needed time to reconnoiter her wits.

“I’m sure you have no wish to wed me, miss,” he whispered in her ear, the same way he’d whispered in her ear in the dark of night weeks ago. “I mean you no ill, truly. I do not care to foist myself upon innocents.”

Georgina!

Celia struggled not to laugh as every bloody detail fell into place, but kept her eyes carefully closed and her face blank.

It was a fight. He didn’t recognize her, but he knew she had not truly swooned. Was he intent on reassuring her of his intentions or lack thereof? Or he did not wish to wed The Simpleton and he was being gracious about it?

“My dear Conde,” he said in that falsetto that she already despised, but now realized held no small amount of contempt.

. . . Judas subsequently made it perfectly clear to me that he intends to supplant me in your bed.

“Could you please be so kind as to clear the room?”

Rafael could do nothing less to such a public and polite request.

“Camille, love, could you fetch a glass of lemonade for this poor gehl?”

Celia heard a swish of skirts and felt the breeze. Love?

This situation was really more than Celia could bear. Not even the knowledge that she was once again in Judas’s arms could comfort her, since this—creature—was not her lover.

Celia stood at the wheel of the Thunderstorm whilst Smitty and Bataar barked orders to get the ship underway. She watched the flurry of activity aboard the Silver Shilling, looking for Judas, who suddenly burst through the ordered chaos to stride down the deck to the ratlines. He was bare-chested, clad only in tight white breeches that looked just like hers, and his hair was tied back in a queue.

He swung himself around the standing rigging, arms bulging as he climbed, then turned when he got to the lower yard.

“Fury!” The grin he cast her was pure wickedness.

“Give me my figurehead back!” she yelled.

“NO!” The roar coming from every man on the main deck made her laugh.

“Show us how you go in battle, my love!” he yelled.

With that, half the men on the deck of the Silver Shilling whipped around to watch as she pulled her shirt off and held her arms out.

“Just so?”

The strong, sweet wind caught his laugh and took it away, on ahead of them. “Exactly so.” And with that, he grasped a line, jumped out over the ocean, and rode the long arc until he landed beside her.

In the blink of an eye, he hauled her into his arms and kissed her lustily, palming the bare breast that could not feel. She wrapped an arm around his neck and pulled herself close, aware of the raucous cheers of the five hundred sailors who were witness to this, but uncaring.

“When we reach Rotterdam,” he whispered, “will you stay with me for a time before you go to London?”

“I—Judas, ’twill only make parting more difficult.”

“Please?”

“Aye, then. Two days. ’Tis all I can spare. Your mutiny is scheduled for five days hence.”

“Aye, I know. How do you?”

“My boys were listening carefully whilst I was singing.”

“Ah, good. ’Twill give me a good reason to toss some of my Navy ballast, now, won’t it?”

She smiled against his mouth, and then he was gone over the rails, swiftly climbing the rope hand-over-hand while it swung out over the ocean. He landed on his own quarterdeck and took the helm.

“Give Fury’s arse one more good polish, lads!” he bellowed down to his crew, who roared and whistled and stomped their approval. “I’ve a feeling she’ll be bringing us yet more good luck! Fury! Stay in London! I’ll find you!”

He had.

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Dunham 37: Chapter Thirty-Seven

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April 29, 1780
Mélisande Gables
Berkeley Square, London

I will give it some thought, Admiral, but your daughter is nigh thirty and I need a countess who has better childbearing odds.

I understand your position, Commander, but with your history, you may not have a choice.

According to Elliott’s mother, he thought wearily as he relaxed back in his desk chair long after his interview with Admiral Lord Hylton, one always had a choice.

She was a very bright little girl, astonishingly bright, in fact. It’s possible her mind could be rehabilitated, but even if it is not, her madness cannot be passed on.

That was of some comfort, provided the woman could bear children at all. And tupping her—

Tavendish, please, I beg you, take care of my daughter.

He sighed. Well, that was what darkness was for.

The sounds of women returning after their first evening of Society rounds wafted up to him and he looked at the clock. Two in the morning. He had spent hours crafting the speech he intended to give on the House floor in the morning, and still was not entirely happy with it.

He began putting away his writing tools, losing himself in the soothing routine of it, and thought of Fury and her rituals. He was just finishing when the sharp rap of knuckles on the door startled him.

“Who’s there?” he barked.

“Milly.”

He sighed. “Come.”

She swept into the library, this decidedly not-hoydenish sister of his, in a dressing gown, her hair in a braid that fell over her shoulder. She, like the rest of them save Sophie, had raven hair that gleamed iridescent blue in the right light, complimented by ice blue eyes set in a pale face that would tan nicely if ever exposed to the sun.

She plopped down in the chair across from Elliott’s desk. He watched whilst she arranged her gown and fussed with her hair. His eyes narrowed when he saw a bit of red around her eyes.

“You’ve been crying.”

She stopped fidgeting and her mouth tightened.

“And you want to tell me why, but you’re embarrassed.”

“I was rebuffed by a man at Lady Spiffly’s ball tonight and everyone saw,” she muttered. “I’ll be a laughingstock by morning and we have only been here two days.”

Elliott’s eyebrow rose. Who would rebuff Camille? The girl was utterly fetching. And on top of that, charming, intelligent, and gracious. “Clearly the man is not in his right mind. Who was it?”

“Lord Covarrubias.” Elliott choked but she continued angrily, “’Tis Mother’s fault. She would not be happy with me until I signaled some interest, which, I will have you know, is nonexistent. He saw me acting the coquette, as did everyone else, and gave me the Cut Direct.”

Elliott grimaced, but she was not finished.

“And then Mother—who did not notice this—practically begged one of her old friends to introduce him to me and perhaps suggest he dance with me. Mother has no idea why her friend gave her the Look.” Here she demonstrated said Look. “Elliott, I am positively mortified.”

With that Look, he could see why. “Condolences,” he murmured with not a hint of amusement. Covarrubias was a tastemaker and his repudiation of a beautiful, wealthy Raxham girl would only make both Elliott and Camille more difficult to marry off than they already were.

Yet another thing for which he could hold the man responsible.

“Elliott, you must bring Mother under control. She has no idea what she has done.”

No, she wouldn’t.

She had not been in Society since Elliott’s arrest.

She had not been able to walk since the accident that had killed his father and brother, but everyone at home was accustomed to her chair; thus, she was unaware how unwelcome it would be to the ton.

And the years before that had seen her a beautiful, lively, scandalous Frenchwoman whose balls and routs were guaranteed to be a crush.

It would not have occurred to her that her standing in the haute ton had changed.

“What makes you think I can bring Mother to heel?” he muttered bitterly.

He was shocked when she stared at him in confusion. “You’re the earl,” she said simply.

Ah, so there was one person in his family who could grasp the concept. Excellent. His mouth pursed. “Do you know why she set her sights on Covarrubias?”

“Not him!” she cried. “She thinks I am so flighty I need any older, intelligent, and serious man to keep me in line. She has a list. In her estimation, a university professor who is also a count—in another country—would be ideal. It is not my fault I am flighty, but one would think the fact that I can speak French and German and Latin, and read the classics in the original Greek would disabuse her notions of my lack of intelligence, but no. In short, she thinks I’m stupid and need a keeper. Far away from her.”

Elliott sat through this tirade stunned.

“Lord Covarrubias was just the first one on that list who was at the ball, and Mother thinks I ought to be in raptures because he is also—so she says—handsome. But what good does that do me when God knows he is nearly on his deathbed.”

He barked a laugh. “He is not much older than I,” he said wryly.

Milly huffed and crossed her arms over her chest, staring at her knees with a pout. “He was dancing attendance on Miss Idiot all evening. There is talk he is the Lord Hylton’s top choice for her hand, and Mother was simply green that a man of his wit and beauty—that’s what she said—would choose an ugly old simpleton over me when my settlement is the same as hers.”

That might explain why the admiral was pressing Elliott to take the girl’s hand.

“Further!” she exclaimed, popping out of her chair to pace his sitting room. “She thinks I ought to apply myself to being more like Lucy. Lucy! Can you imagine? Lucy got swept away in a grand passion—” Here she clasped both hands to her bosom and released an overexaggerated melancholic sigh. “—and found herself enceinte when she was seventeen, for God’s sake. And see how she is treated just because her lover married her and bribed the rector to back-date the marriage, after which she produced ten more children, and became the estate steward. Her Royal Highness Lucille, the Princess of Tavendish.”

Elliott’s eyebrows rose when Camille made a deep, sweeping curtsey.

“And then there’s Sophie,” she recommenced once she had finished with that display, “upon whom you’ve settled her entire dowry and an estate under her sole control once she reaches her majority. It does not matter she has made a spectacle of herself with those damned dogs because she is not flighty! Do you know how much I hate those damned dogs? They invade my chambers and destroy my things, which both Sophie and Mother think is just the most adorable thing. But oh, no, she is far more sensible than I because she wears breeches as Lucy does, rides and works in the stables, and is, in general, without a manner to her name. ‘Why can you not try to be a little more like Sophie, Camille?’ Lucy says to me. I have Mother in one ear and Lucy in the other, urging me to be exactly what I am not, which is completely unacceptable in Society in any event. I daresay Mama would fight you to the death if you attempted to settle me without a husband the way you’ve done for Sophie.”

“Do you not want a husband?” Elliott asked carefully after having realized that he might be looking at the perfect accomplice for the scheme he had been laying for weeks.

“Oh, yes,” she said amiably enough. Then she stopped to dig in her sleeve. “In fact—” And yet here she pulled out a rolled-up parchment and handed it to him. “I have made my own list of acceptable names. Pick any one of them for me and I’ll be happy.”

Elliott did not think he’d ever been more stymied by a woman in his life. And he was developing a megrim to prove it.

“Sit down and be quiet for a moment.”

She cast him a moue, but did as she was told. He unrolled the parchment to see, in a tidy hand, nine names listed, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each. So far as Elliott knew of them, they were all hardworking, upstanding heirs of dukes all the way down to baronets. Their fathers were well-liked and respected in the House of Lords. The boys were also, to the last one, a bit dim and entirely innocuous. Camille would be able to lead every one of them around by the nose—and possibly all at once.

He rubbed his mouth, not knowing whether to laugh or be dismayed. “Well, are you not the little schemer.”

“Not that anyone would credit me with it,” she snapped.

“Milly,” he ventured, “it’s true that you and I don’t know each other very well—”

“I know you well enough to know you cannot be entirely without sympathy for my plight, considering we share the same place in the family. Beleaguered middle son. Unappreciated middle daughter. ’Tis why I decided to confide in you. As fortunately for me as for Sophie, you are the earl, but more than that, you have pulled Mother and Lucy into line. I knew you would. And you seem far more sympathetic to a woman’s plight than any other male.” She said that as if it were a crime to be male. Elliott hid his smile. “I could never have approached Father or Flip with this and God only knows how Niall would react. You cannot know how I prayed for rescue from Mother’s attempts to keep me on her potter’s wheel. She disapproves of everything about me.”

Every one of Camille’s complaints was eerily similar to ones he had had since he returned.

“Milly, forgive my confusion. I gathered you were excited about your Season, the gowns, the dancing, the suitors paying homage and writing bad poetry to your ravishing beauty.”

She sneered at him. “How am I supposed to react when I know my duty is to marry for position and wealth? The only power I have in the matter is to arrange things so that the meager choices I do have will not be completely repugnant to me.”

“I see,” Elliott said slowly.

“I want to wed one of those men. I don’t care which. And preferably by the end of the Season so I don’t have to go home with Mama.”

“Well!” he said briskly. “You’ll not have to worry over Covarrubias, as I would never approve such a union, even if he were amenable.”

“Thank God!

“But I don’t like these other fellows for you any more than I like Covarrubias.”

She gasped and now there were tears in her eyes. “Elliott . . . ” she whispered, devastated.

“No, listen to me. These boys are perfectly acceptable, I’m sure, but you would get very bored very quickly and bored wives of rich men find themselves in all sorts of trouble or sent to the country to rusticate permanently.” He almost laughed, remembering Croftwood’s description. “Not only that, but each one of them has a very managing mama. If you think our mother is overbearing . . . At least you know Mother loves you in her way and you do know how to manage her.”

She stared at him, horrified.

“Ah, you didn’t think of that, did you? And clearly, it doesn’t appeal. Excellent. I need more time to formulate a better plan or at least sift through the available males to find you a suitable husband. But we will delve into that later. For the nonce, I have a problem to solve, and I believe you are the perfect person to help me.”

“I’m too flighty and—and—and stupid to help people with their problems,” she muttered churlishly.

“And you will continue to allow people to think that, especially once you realize this will be a great deal of fun for both of us.”

Fun?” she scoffed.

“You may find yourself out of favor come morning, but that remains to be seen. I am most assuredly out of favor, but I have need of information I can only get in the thick of Society.”

Her brow wrinkled. “What information?”

“Marquess Rathbone may be able to identify Captain Judas.”

Milly clapped her hands to her mouth, her eyes wide in horror.

“Aye, now you see. And you, my clever little sister, are going to help me find out who knows what about whom.”

“How?”

He recalled the night he and his crew had sneaked aboard the Thunderstorm to cut off its figurehead. The same rush of grand, wicked mischief now suffused him.

He grinned slowly.

“If we are going to be out of favor, we shall make ourselves so outrageously out of favor we will be the toast of the Season.” He laughed at her expression of amused calculation. “Consider it a play within a play.”

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