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Authors: Theresa Romain

Fortune Favors the Wicked

BOOK: Fortune Favors the Wicked
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“WHY, MISS PERRY, ARE YOU SUGGESTING I SHARE INFORMATION WITH YOU?”
Somehow his hand had found hers again; they rested together atop the ruled surface of the noctograph. “That sounds suspiciously like cooperation.”
When one of his fingers began to stroke the back of her hand, her heart began to beat faster. “You swore you should not be my foe.”
“Nor shall I. I shall be the ears where you cannot go, and you can spend the time in . . . virtuous works.”
She choked back a laugh that trembled a bit.
“And in return,” he stated, rising to his feet and pulling her up to face him, “will you be the eyes for us both?”
“That sounds as though we would be one flesh.” Still, he held her hand, and her fingers could not seem to release his much thicker ones.
“Perhaps later,” he murmured. “In the meantime, I rather think we shall be unconquerable. Don't you?”
Other titles by Theresa Romain
 
Season for Temptation
 
Season for Surrender
 
Season for Scandal
 
Season for Desire
FORTUNE FAVORS The WICKED
THERESA ROMAIN
ZEBRA BOOKS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
http://www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Acknowledgments
Thanks and squishy hugs to my husband and daughter, who supported me and each other while I wrote this book, and to Amanda, critique genius and eagle fancier.
As always, I'm deeply grateful to my editor, Alicia Condon, who makes my books better, and to my agent extraordinaire, Paige Wheeler. Thanks and admiration to the wonderful artists, production staff, and publicity and marketing folks at Kensington Publishing Corp. who put their hearts into making books.
Last but never least, thanks to you, dear readers, for joining me for another story.
Chapter One
From the Slovene lands to the South Sea, no place in the world smelled like one's first whiff of London. The world of the London docks was acrid from coal smoke, pungent from yesterday's spoiling fish and the sludgy water of the Thames.
When Benedict Frost was a boy of twelve, new to the Royal Navy, these had once seemed the scents of home, of freedom from the small cage of shipboard life.
Now, as a man of twenty-nine, he would rather encounter them as a farewell before a journey—and the longer the journey, the better. If a ship were a small cage, England was nothing but a large one.
With determined strides, Benedict disembarked from the
Argent
. He wouldn't need to stay in England more than a few days. The
Argent
was leaving port before the end of the week, and he'd be back in his familiar berth when it did. Before then, all he needed to do was to deliver his manuscript to George Pitman and arrange payment. The precious handwritten pages were heavy in his satchel; in his right hand, his metal-tipped hickory cane thumped on the solid wooden planks underfoot.
“Frost!”
He took another step.
“Oy! Frost!” The unmistakable tones of a sailor: wind-coarse and carrying.
Benedict halted, donning an expression of good cheer at being thus summoned. He didn't recognize the voice, so he said only, “Oy, yourself. How goes your day?”
“Thinking of a treasure hunt. How about you? Goin' to seek the royal reward?”
The what?
Benedict covered confusion with a devil-may-care grin. “Not this time. A man's got no need to hunt treasure if he makes his own.” He ignored the snigger of a reply, adding, “Good luck to you, though.”
With a wave of his cane that fell somewhere between a salute and a
bugger-off,
he continued on his way.
But something was off about the docks. Step by step, it became more obvious. Where was the usual ribald clamor? What had happened to the sailors negotiating with hard-voiced whores, to the halloos and curses as cargo was unloaded? Instead, quiet conversations clustered behind broadsheets, the cheap paper crackling as sailors passed it from hand to hand.
“Theft o' the century, they're callin' it,” muttered one as Benedict walked by.
“Aye,” agreed another. “You'd want balls of brass to steal from the Royal Mint.”
Or balls of gold,
Benedict thought. Ever since the war with France had begun, England had been bleeding gold—so much gold, the whole system of currency had recently been revised. Still, creditors were reluctant to take paper money or silver.
Benedict couldn't fault them. He wasn't interested in paper money either.
And so he listened a bit more closely to the conversations he passed, easing free of his sea legs with long strides that carried him westward from the docks of Wapping. Miles of pavement, a test of his memory of London. On every street, the city shifted, with roughened naval types giving way to sedate professionals. But the sounds were the same. Newspapers rustled, and that odd phrase echoed from person to person:
the theft of the century.
Since the year was only 1817, this seemed a premature declaration. But as Benedict stowed away more overheard details, he could not deny that the crime sounded as audacious as it was outrageous. Four guards had been shot, and six trunks of the new golden sovereigns had been stolen before any of the coins entered circulation. The loss was estimated at fifty thousand pounds.
And that was it. There had been no further clue for weeks, not a single incriminating coin spent. The Royal Mint had just offered a substantial reward for the return of the money.
So. That was the royal reward of which the sailors had spoken. England would soon become a nation of privateers, hunting for coin in the name of the Crown.
Benedict turned over the possibility of joining them. He had attained the frigid summit of Mont Blanc; surely he could spend a few balmy May days to locate a hoard of coins on his native soil. The reward offered by the Royal Mint would allow him to increase his sister Georgette's dowry from
pitiful
to
respectable.
Tempting. Very tempting. The mere thought of a treasure hunt eased the hollow ache of being in London's heart. Why, it might be like . . . like not being in England at all.
But his manuscript would offer the same reward while still allowing him to depart on the
Argent
. Just as he had told the sailors: he had already drafted his own treasure. Now it was time to claim it.
He strode forth, cane clicking the pavement with his renewed determination, in the direction of Paternoster Row and the office of George Pitman, publisher.
 
 
Two weeks later
 
“He wore a cloak with a hood coverin' his face,” the serving girl held forth to an eager group of listeners. “But I looked beneath the hood and saw his
eyes
. They were demon eyes, red as fire!”
Behind her veil, Charlotte's mouth curved. She could not help but roll her eyes—which were non-demon features, closer to the color of a leaf than a flame.
Alone of the reward seekers in the common room of the Pig and Blanket, Charlotte had heard Nance's tale time and again. It was different with each retelling, and therefore each account revealed something different about Nancy Goff herself. About what she thought important, or shameful, or likely to win her the coins of a stranger.
Somewhere within that coil was the truth.
Which was why, for a second endless day, Charlotte sat alone, listening, in the corner of a Derbyshire inn's common room. The Pig and Blanket was ordinary in every way, from the middling quality of the ale and food to the indifferent cleanliness of the tables.
Ordinary in every way, that is, save one. A week ago, in this inn, Nance had been paid with a gold sovereign. Since no one had gold sovereigns yet except the Royal Mint and the thieves who had stolen six trunks of uncirculated coins . . . well.
It was the first clue related to the theft, and it was a good one. And like seemingly half of England, Charlotte had followed it. All the way from the squalid rented room she had just taken in Seven Dials. She was in far less danger among the neighborhood's thieves and cutthroats than she was in her luxurious town house, or promenading the rarefied streets of Mayfair.
In Derbyshire, she was still in danger, but of a different sort. Thus the veil.
And the solitude.
“I knew he was a wrong one,” preened Nance, tossing the brunette curls she had today left uncovered by the usual cap. A pretty young woman of about twenty years, she swanned about the common room of the Pig and Blanket, distributing drinks and scooping up coins. “Had that look about him. It was as much as I could do to carry his ale without spillin' it. So afraid, I was! Shiverin' in my boots.”
This last was spoken in a tone of such relish that Charlotte smiled again. Ten years ago, nearing the end of her teens, she'd had the same sort of vigor. Would she have told a story ten times, embroidering it more with each telling?
No, she would have told it eleven. Twelve. As many times as someone would listen, and in her dark-haired, bright-eyed enthusiasm, she might have looked much like Nance. Even now, she wanted to join in; even now it hurt to sit at the side of the room, alone. It hurt to cover her face with a veil, to miss the shadings of expression that flitted across the faces of others when they were interested. Bored. Curious. In thrall.
Despite the crowds packed into the common room to drink in Nance's dramatic tale along with their ale, the other seat at Charlotte's table remained empty. Somehow the sweep of blurry gray net across her face made her as fearsome as the demon-eyed stranger who had given Nance the gold coin.
The veil was a nuisance, like peering through smoke. But years of notoriety had taught Charlotte that sometimes the annoyance of a veil was preferable to the greater inconvenience of being recognized.
With a wiggle of her significant bosom, Nance scooped up a stray coin from a table. “'Twasn't only his demon eyes that gave me that sort of shivery feelin'. No, it were the cloak, too. Nobody covers up like that in spring, does they? Not unless they has somethin' to hide.”
Behind her covering veil, Charlotte chuckled. Nance was a shrewd girl.
The inn's door was shoved open, marking the entrance of a new visitor. From her seat near the corner, Charlotte had a view of everyone who entered the small foyer before passing by or turning into the common room.
This was an odd sort of shove at the door, slow and deliberate and interrupted by several thumps. And the figure who accompanied it, washed by golden afternoon sunlight before the door closed behind him, was no less unusual. He was broad and large and dark, wearing a naval uniform. Through her veil, Charlotte could not pick out detail enough to determine his rank. But whether an admiral or a lieutenant, a sailor had no business in landlocked Derbyshire—unless he, too, were hunting the stolen coins.
Nance must have thought the same, for she cut off her tale and began swiping the nearest table with a grimy cloth and an expression of pious concentration. A few coins would set her to talking again, like an automaton being wound.
Thump.
Pause.
Thump.
The boisterous common room had gone quiet, watching the new arrival progress across the room. Before each step, he smacked his cane against the floor like a gesture of emphasis.
I have arrived, damn you. Look my way.
And who could not? His determined features were like a thundercloud on this spring day: one ought to be wary lest a storm drew close.
Until he reached the center of the room and spoke in a low, pleasant tone. “Greetings, all. I heard such a welcoming din as I approached that I couldn't help but enter.” His brows lifted in a puckish curve. “There is no need to end your party on my account. I'm quite a pleasant fellow, I promise you.”
His reassurance was enough to coax the din to recommence, first in a slow trickle, then like the tumble of the nearby Kinder Downfall after a torrential rain. Once Nance took the man's order for ale, then picked up the thread of her tale about the cloaked visitor with demon eyes, it was almost impossible to hear the thumps of the cane on the wide-planked floor.
Until they sounded before Charlotte.
“I beg your pardon. Might I sit at this table?”
The broad figure was planted before her, the sailor's tone quiet and courteous.
But for a man to ask to sit with a lone woman to whom he had not been introduced—this was so bold that for a moment Charlotte could only blink. “Here? With—me?” Of course with her. It was the only empty seat in the common room. “Yes, all right.”
To forbid him a place at her table would be to draw more attention than to agree. And within her left sleeve, the hidden penknife was reassuringly solid.
“You are very good, madam. Thank you. I don't mean to bother you, I assure you. Ah—are you quite alone at this table?”
“As you see.”
“Right,” he murmured. “Right.” With a deliberate gesture, the sailor drew out the empty chair and settled his large frame within it. The cane that had announced his presence with solid thumps was now balanced across his thighs.
Not that Charlotte looked at his thighs; she was only looking at the cane. Lord. She'd had enough of men, and their thighs, and every other one of their parts.
Nance flounced over and slopped a tankard onto the table, naming a price that had both Charlotte and the sailor jerking with surprise. Every hour, the prices at the Pig and Blanket went up. How much was this due to the owner's rapaciousness during this moment of fame, and how much to the serving girl spotting the rare chance to line her own pocket?
A shrewd girl; very shrewd.
But one could never be shrewd enough, and Charlotte's brow creased with worry.
“Thank you.” The sailor took a few coins from his pocket, tracing a thumb over them, then handed two to Nance. This won him a grin and a curtsy before she flounced off.
He cocked his head. “It was no gold sovereign, but she liked that well enough. Ah—did you want anything, madam? Shall I call her back?”
“I need nothing at the moment. Thank you.” Atop the smooth-rubbed wooden table was a single pottery tankard in which remained an inch of yeasty ale. She had sipped at it for hours, until the innkeeper's wife began to cast resentful glances her way. Soon Charlotte would have to buy something else—another ale, maybe, or a bowl of stew—in order to keep her seat.
Her little sigh set the cloudy net veil to dancing before her face. How warm the day was; she wished she could sweep off her veil and deep-brimmed bonnet. She was perspiring under their unaccustomed weight.
All right, not only because of their weight. Too long had she hidden without taking action, and the knowledge prompted a dew of worry. But was it safer to stay or to leave?
“Thank you for the seat.” The man's voice broke into her thoughts. “I've been traveling unexpectedly for some time, and the chance to sit is welcome. Benedict Frost is my name.”
“Of His Majesty's Royal Navy, I see. Have you been traveling by land or sea?” Charlotte had learned the markers of rank; in her profession, one had to pick out the important men at a glance. Now that he sat close to her, she could make out the details of dress she had missed before. His high-collared blue coat looked well enough, but the gold buttons and the white piping about them proclaimed him a lieutenant.
In her previous life in London, she would have chilled him with a quelling flip of her fan, then passed him by.
BOOK: Fortune Favors the Wicked
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