Authors: Annette Blair
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
The Rogues Club, Book Three
First published in paperback by Kensington Publishing
Copyright 2003, 2012 by Annette Blair
Published by Annette Blair, January 13, 2012
All rights reserved.
This is a historical work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events and establishments is entirely coincidental.
The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the internet, or via any other means, including those not yet invented, without the permission of the copyright owner, is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
Tricia and Theresa,
The best nieces, ever,
With worlds of love and pride.
Thanks for the memories,
And the Kidlets.
David, my favorite brother.
Mary, my new and awesome sister.
Thanks for happy holidays,
Hours by the pool,
Love, laughter, and support.
And as always,
In loving memory of Georgiann.
The Rogues Club, Book Three
Painswick, The Cotswolds, England
Vicar Clive Pomfret remembered the smell of blood in the Sunnyledge tower that night....
He’d gagged as he descended the dank stone stairs to inform Edward St. Yves, Earl of Barrington, of his wife’s passing. At the salon door, Clive stopped at the sight of his sister, Thea, kneeling before the Earl. Thea—a Vicar’s sister and a devil’s mistress—replacing a wife about to give birth, shaming him before his flock.
“Poor Clive,” Thea drawled, her smile spiteful. “Papa always said you had a mean scowl.”
would be a whore, and he was right.”
The Earl cursed with impatience. “What about my heir?”
Barrington shrugged. “See to the burial. The child?”
Clive fisted his hands. “Twin boys.”
Barrington grinned, and Clive knew that the devil would raise those boys to be just like him. “Both dead,” Clive said, the justice of his pronouncement confirmed by Barrington’s vulgar oath.
Half way back up the tower stairs, Clive ordered a maid, big with child, to follow him. He could not save his sister’s soul, but he would save those boys, body and soul, and if Barrington suffered in the saving, so much the better.
To the maid, Clive presented the twin with eyes as dull and gray as the English sky. To the midwife, he gave the active twin suckling a fist, his eyes as bright as hellfire—devil’s eyes.
Clive fixed the serving women with his gaze. “Name and raise the boy you hold as your own. Tell him nothing of his roots or of his twin’s existence. Leave Sunnyledge tonight, and go your separate ways. There’s a fat purse for each of you, now, and another yearly until they are grown.”
The maid’s eyes widened at the mention of money.
“It is the will of God,” Clive intoned, a Vicar calling upon the fire of righteousness,” that the events of this night remain forever sealed. His wrath upon you and yours for eternity should you reveal them!”
At the sound of her name, coming as if from afar, Thea tore herself from her brother’s deathbed memory—and her first shocking glimpse of that thirty-year-old scene. In the present, once more, she knew, finally, that Edward’s sons had lived.
she heard a babe’s cry that night—an omen that the Barrington line must continue through her.
But Edward had never married her.
“Right my wrong,” Clive begged, now, with hellfire so near, he must surely feel the heat of it. “Tell the boys who they are.”
She laughed in his face. “No one will believe their father’s whore, Clive.”
“I have proof,” he said, fighting for every breath.
Thea rose so fast, she spilled a ewer of water all over him then she grasped his sodden shoulders and shook him. “You have proof where? Damn you.”
With the shock of cold water, he began to cough. “Book.” He coughed up blood. “Cask—”
Thea stepped from his entreaty and watched, unaffected, as he gasped, gurgled, and slumped over ... dead ... finally.
“If you do not go straight to hell,” she said, turning to rifle through his desk, “then the place does not exist.”
She found their names and directions, and there beside her brother’s dead body, Thea Pomfret wrote identical, anonymous notes to Reed Gilbride, Essex, England, and to William Somers, Beaupre, France.
“April 4, 1817. You are the missing St. Yves, Earl of Barrington, heir to Sunnyledge. See Everard Sennett, Executor, Gloucester, England. Beware there is one who would steal your heritage.”
Gloucester, England, May 1817
“Are you stealing those children?”
Caught at a second-story workhouse window, Chastity Somers swallowed a scream and gathered the little ones close. The moonless night, perfect for her scheme, became her foe. She could discern nothing, no one, save darkness in the alley below.
The owner of the deep, disembodied voice seemed to linger, but
dare not. She must get her new and unexpected brood to safety, or fail her husband’s young cousins the way she had failed William, himself.
With no choice but to brazen it out, Chastity nodded her hood further forward and readied her best English accent. “Do not be ridiculous. You cannot steal what is already yours.”
The intruder made no reply, so she lifted the last of the four children out the window and shut the sash.
“Kitty?” Luke’s version of her name echoed loud and alarming as he tugged at her sleeve. “You
“It’s all right, Sir,” Matthew called down. “We wanted stealing.”
Galvanized by the boy’s defense, Chastity shook herself. “Mark, take Bekah’s hand. Stay by the window, all of you, and hold the sill.”
They would not be taken away from her, again, Chastity vowed, as she lowered herself from the attached shed’s eaves and dropped the remaining distance to land on her bottom in the dirt.
Amid a discord of giggles, a hand grasped her upper arm, racing Chastity’s heart, trapping a scream in her throat, but her captor must sense her fear, for he gentled her, somehow, with the same touch that alarmed her in the first place.
His nearness, his scent—horse, leather, and man—put her in mind of ... rescue and ... sanctuary, as William had once done, except that her sense of well-being seemed stronger now than it had ever been with—
Chastity shook off the foolish notion. “I did not hear your horse approach,” she said, seeking the ordinary in an extraordinary situation.
“I call him Stealth,” the man said. “He served me well at Waterloo.”
Relieved by her fancy that the military man meant no harm, Chastity allowed him to help her stand. She should be afraid, she supposed. He had fought her people at Waterloo, but her sheltered convent background—hardly conducive to a judicious caution—taught her that all men were all God’s children.
Besides, she’d judge him as trustworthy by the tone of his voice alone.
“The children are not afraid of you,” he said, revealing his surprise.
“Of course they are not. How do you know?”
“Frightened children rarely laugh.”
Neither lonely ones, Chastity knew from personal experience, hoping she employed the same faultless instincts as the children, where this man was concerned.
Reassured, yet unnerved, by his hand on her arm, Chastity nevertheless regretted the loss of human contact when he released her. But she had no time to regard it, for Bekah’s cough urged their removal from this unhealthy place, and fast, lest the children be incarcerated, again.
Fact was, she would bargain with the devil to keep her little ones safe. “I have to get the children down,” she said. “Thank you for your help, but we can manage on our own.”
The devil had the impertinence to laugh.
“Be quiet,” Chastity hissed.
“You are sixpence short a quid,” said he, “and will get exactly what you deserve for this night’s work. Children are nothing but trouble.”
“Children are gifts from above.”
“Hah! Vengeance, more like.”
Chastity perceived some vexation in the man, but no real threat.
For all his curious notions, he seemed of a mind to let her and the children go. “We shall be fine. Truly. Thank you for stopping, but you may be on your way without further concern for our welfare.”
“‘Tis not concern detains me, but astonishment. Why would anyone seek the encumbrance of children?”
Shaking her head, Chastity turned toward the four atop the workhouse shed. “All the world and his wife would step over a dead body in the middle of St. James’s,” she snapped. “But I do something the least ... uncommon, and am observed by someone who investigates. Matthew, lower Bekah to me.”
As she received the littlest one, Chastity hugged her close. “Good. Now Mark, then Luke.”
“Kitty, I’m hungry,” Luke said, as she set him on his feet.
“I know, darling. Hush, now.”
Deep within the bleak bowels of the parish workhouse, a bell began to toll. “Jump, Matt,” Chastity ordered, thrusting Luke into the stranger’s arms. “You’ll have to help,” she said, scooping Bekah into her own arms. “Hurry.”
Reed Gilbride heard, rather than saw, the woman hasten away, her stolen brood hard at her heels. Then he realized that if he failed to follow, he would be stuck with the urchin dangling before him. “Damn.” Reed slung the lad under his arm like a sack of grain and gave chase, his horse trotting behind.
Despite being carted off by a stranger, the lad’s giggles over his tumbling ride testified to the rare joy in his short life.
Reed had to give the woman credit, pluck to the backbone, she was. Either that or daft, he thought, as he followed her through noisome village by-ways, dodging running steps and reeling vagrants, all the while wondering why he’d got involved.
Previous to finding them, he had reached Sennett’s office hours too early, and gazed about, thinking to find a light at an inn, when in the alley across the way, a cloaked form in the window, silhouetted against the dim interior of the workhouse, had caught his attention. A matron of the asylum, he thought, until he noticed the children’s profiles atop the attached shed roof. A curious sight, yes, but he should never have stopped. What cared he for a flock of raggle-taggle street brats and their provoking protector?
The bell from the workhouse faded in the distance, and when the woman slowed, Reed set the lad in her path. “Here, you snatched him, you take him. I’ll not be left to foster somebody’s brat. I’ve had enough of children to last forever.”
“You need to have that ice chipped away.”
Birds called their first good mornings. Too bad it needed an hour or more ‘till full light, for he conceived an urge to see her face, discern her age and examine her features. Her words and manner contradicted his impression of her as a matron of any kind. “What did you say?”
“The ice around your heart,” she repeated. “You should have it removed.”
If he owned a heart, her honey-warm voice might melt said ice on its own, Reed mused, before stifling the maggoty thought. “What the devil are you about?”
“Watch your language around the children. We were running because ... because of a—”
To his surprise, she laughed, the sound a balm to his senses. “I
He damn near laughed with her. “What a whisker.”
“Oh, no, not at all. Telling falsehoods would set a bad example.”
“And stealing children would not?” He winced at her gasp. “Pardon my lack of faith in your mothering,” he added by way of reparation.
“Kitty ain’t our mother.”
“Hush, Luke.” She ran a hand through the rag-mannered lad’s hair and brought him close for a quick hug—not the action Reed expected of a reprimand.
Even if he managed to peel away her hood, as he itched to do, dawn was still too far away to make a glimpse worthwhile. Yet something about her, with her odd accent, and odder notions, called to him, which he liked not a whit. “Where are you bound?” he asked.
“What difference does that make?”
“None, make no mistake, but it will matter to someone before long. You have money, of course.”
She hesitated a fraction too long. “Of course.”
Reed shook his head. “Of course not!” He took her hand and slapped a guinea into it. “Feed them. If you scuttle down back alleys, you’ll get pinched, but if you stroll hand in hand, as if you haven’t a care in the world, no one will notice you.”
They would not come looking, Chastity knew. Fewer mouths to feed would trouble no one, not in that hellhole. “Why should I take your advice, and why would you give a perfect stranger money?”
“Perfect, no. Daft, more like, stealing children in the middle of the night. Damned if I know why I bother, or you should listen, except that you seem to care about them.”
“While you care about nothing.”
“I’d care if I got tossed into Newgate with you. Nevertheless, if you keep from getting pinched, I think you might do right by the brats. Good-bye,” he said, “and good luck.” Reed saluted, grabbed Stealth’s reins, and walked away.
“Come along, children,” he heard the daft woman say.
That their footsteps kept time with his, Reed found alarming. He stopped.
Shaking his head, he turned. “Are you following me?”
“Of course not.”
“Yes we are, Kitty.”
“Hush, Luke. Which way are you going?” she asked. “Toward Eastgate or the Island?”
“Which way are you going?” he countered.
“Ah, well then, I am going toward The Island.” In truth—as directed in his odd, anonymous note—he was returning to see Mr. Sennett, the solicitor whose office sat diagonally across from the workhouse. “Good day to you.”
“God go with you,” the woman said, “whoever you are.”
Reed stopped and turned with a laugh. “Sorry, Kitten, God and I do not keep company.”
A moment of dismay held Chastity as the stranger’s chuckle faded, and she resisted an urge to call him back. An enigma was he, that faceless man who professed to dislike children but would foster a lad rather than abandon him.
Chastity watched until dawn broke over the horizon, and he disappeared from sight, his benevolent guinea warming her palm.
With her four exuberant charges, she began the seven-mile trek from Gloucester to Sunnyledge in Painswick.
As they walked, Chastity thought back to her previous day’s meeting with the solicitor to whom William had been directed in his anonymous note.
“Where did you get this?” Mr. Sennett had asked after he finished reading the note.
“It was sent to my husband, William,” she said. “And it prompted us to travel here from France. He wanted to settle an injustice, which I assumed amounted to claiming the inheritance due him, except that he was taken by a wave in a channel storm on the way, and drowned.”
“Please accept my condolences, Mrs. Somers.” Mr. Sennett shook his head in dismay. “While I am the executor of the Barrington Estate, I have no idea what this note means or who might have sent it.”
“I had hoped it meant that Sunnyledge belonged to my husband, and now to me.”
“Even if your husband was the Barrington heir, which I doubt, the claim would now be that of his son. Is there a son?”
“No.” Chastity sighed. “I wanted the estate for a children’s home, Mr. Sennett.” If she had remained a nun and taken vows, she would have opened such a home at the Abbey. Now, for the sake of William’s young cousins—the children God had surely placed in her keeping—she must make it happen.
Chastity raised her chin. “Though an inheritance would have helped, I will open a home for orphans. Workhouses are a disgrace, you see, and no child should be raised without love. Perhaps you can direct me to someone with a philanthropic nature? The sisters who raised me care for the sick with such contributions. Or perhaps one of your clients has a house?”
Mr. Sennett frowned as if startled. “Fancy Barrington’s estate coming to light, now. And fancy you having the one argument in the kingdom that could move me.”
He sat forward. “According to the will, if no heir is found, twenty years from the date of the Earl of Barrington’s death, which is three months from now, I am to award the estate to a charity of my choice.”
The solicitor settled into his big leather chair. “Tell me about your children’s home, Mrs. Somers, every detail.”
So she did, his interest encouraging her to elaborate. “The opportunity to love, and have that love accepted and returned, is essential to all of us. My home will be special, as my children will feel wanted. They will have a sense of belonging by working toward its upkeep. The older children will care for the younger. In that way, they will become close.”
“Family members are not always close, my dear. As a solicitor, I have seen many a family rift.”
“Do you not think that abandoned children would be more inclined to appreciate familial relationships?”
At his approving smile, Chastity opened her reticule. “I listed the cost per child, per week, month, and year, for food and clothing. I have added a bit for dolls and— I do not know what little boys play with.”
“Tin horns, toy drums.” He smiled. “Boys are noisy.”
“I—” She almost said she knew—she had learned as much at finding the children in William’s aunt’s cellar. “I imagine so.”
“Your ideals make me fear for your practicality in this matter,” Mr. Sennett said. “You have listed nothing for a caretaker, a housekeeper, nursemaids, tutors.”
“I will do what must be done. The children will help.”
“I haven’t seen a child yet who could run a house. Listen to me in this. If I allow you to have Sunnyledge....”
Chastity thought her heart would leap from her chest.
“On a trial basis,” the solicitor cautioned. “You must hire the necessary help. The caretaker left about a fortnight ago; hire another. As you will no doubt set the house to rights, I will pay you a housekeeper’s wages and give you a monthly allowance for upkeep and maintenance. You will need supplies, though the house should provide much in the way of necessities.
“I cannot believe you would— Are
Mr. Sennett chuckled. “Hardly, my dear, but there is little likelihood that an heir to Sunnyledge will be found at this late date. I must find a worthy charity soon. Who knows? Your children’s home might prove to be the very one. As a boy whose mother drowned in gin, I met the worst and best of men. Helping to fund a children’s home may be the way for me to repay the gentleman who took me in and raised me.”
The solicitor sat forward. “In asylums, in workhouses, everywhere, there is greed, cruelty, evils I will not name; I doubt you know of their existence. But I occasionally come across a person of caring and compassion. The man who raised me was such a man. I believe that you are such a woman.”