May 14, 1780
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.”
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?
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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?
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.”
“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?”
“Does anything make you unhappy?”
“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.