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Authors: Kasey Michaels

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BOOK: Beware of Virtuous Women
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Jack Eastwood slouched on the velvet squabs of the Becket traveling coach, his booted feet crossed at the ankle, his arms folded over his chest, his chin on that chest, the wide-brimmed black hat he favored pulled down to shade his closed eyes.

He sat in the rear-facing seat, as it was the duty of a gentleman to make any female in his company as comfortable as possible. That, and the fact that he didn't much care for the idea of the two of them sitting side by side, mute, staring into space.

He was tired. Weary as hell, in both mind and body. He'd spent a long week skulking about on the shores of France, buying and beating information out of his contacts there, the men he had helped make rich—that they'd all helped make rich. Greasy, sleazy bastards who'd sell out their own mother for a two-penny profit on a few inches of hand-sewn lace, Lord bless them.

He'd picked up or outright purchased several interesting bits of information about Bonaparte during his trips across the Channel with the Black Ghost Gang these past two years. Information he'd passed on anonymously to the War Office. That eased his conscience some as he continued doing what he was doing.

Because he was not about to stop, walk away. He was still no closer to the leaders of the Red Men Gang, no closer than he'd been when he'd first carefully ingratiated himself to Ainsley Becket.

He allowed himself a small smile as he remembered how he'd done it. How he'd paid a Greek sailor to deliberately fuzz the cards, then quietly pointed out to Ainsley's man, Billy, that he was being cheated. The more-than-three-parts-drunk Billy didn't remember that part, only the tavernwide fight that followed, and his "rescue" by his new friend. Jack's own wounds had come courtesy of the Greek, who hadn't appreciated not being fully informed of Jack's plan.

But Ainsley Becket wasn't the leader of the Red Men Gang. Jack had been so sure, but he'd been proved wrong. Worse, he'd grown to like the man, respect him. Ainsley was a reluctant smuggler, his main concern the people of Romney Marsh, those who suffered because of the low prices for wool, for all their goods, people who didn't smuggle for profit, but to exist. The Black Ghost Gang only rode to lend protection to those they clearly considered to be their own people.

Even more laudable, the man didn't take a bent penny for his efforts, his family's efforts. Not that the Crown wouldn't hang them all just as high if they found out about them.

Jack had been worried as he'd traveled back to Romney Marsh on the
Respite,
concerned that Ainsley and that damnable Jacko would decide to call it a day, shut down the entire operation. But they hadn't, had even offered up Ainsley's strange daughter to him.

And what in bloody hell he was going to do with her was beyond him. She looked, and acted, as if she not only wouldn't, but couldn't say
boo
to a goose. Lord knew she'd said no more than a few dozen words to him since they'd left Becket Hall the previous afternoon. Putting her in a position where she'd be attempting to neatly ferret information out of the wives of his suspects was almost laughable, and could prove dangerous.

He should have said no. Thank you, very generous of you, but no.

But there had been something about the look in Eleanor Becket's huge brown eyes, a hint of both desperation and determination that had affected him in some way he didn't want to examine.

What a mess he'd gotten himself into. Out to catch a smuggler, he'd become one, at least peripherally. Oh, hell, he couldn't persuade himself that he was only acting as an agent, a go-between. He was a smuggler. He'd be hanged as surely as the Beckets if he was caught.

What a far cry from the soldier he'd been in Spain... until word had come about his cousin's disappearance. His cousin's murder, most probably, and presumably at the hands of smugglers.

"Mr. Eastwood, are you asleep?"

Jack lifted his hat slightly and looked at Eleanor Becket out of one barely opened eye. "My apologies, miss."

Eleanor watched as he unhurriedly sat up straight, as if he truly cared to listen to what she had to say— but not all that much. "Oh, no, apologies aren't necessary. You've every right to be weary. That inn was abominable. Dirty, the food inferior, and with faintly damp sheets. I should have thought to bring linens from Becket Hall. I only thought. ..um, that is, we're nearing London, I suppose, and perhaps you wish to discuss how we're to...to go on?"

"You're right, Miss Becket," Jack said, removing his hat, running a hand through his hair as he wondered what Miss Eleanor Becket would think about sleeping on the ground, in the mud, while being pelted by a cold, hard rain. With his rifle in his arms, at the ready. Faintly damp sheets? Hell, he hadn't noticed. "But the thing is, I really don't know
how
we're going to...go on, as you say."

"Really?" Eleanor blinked twice, pushed away the thought that the man surely should have had
some
idea of what would come next, or else he shouldn't have embarked on the plan in the first place.

But that was the practical part of her, the part that had, according to Morgan, sealed her fate as an old maid. Still, she was who she was, and what she was, and clearly someone had to take charge.

"Very well, Mr. Eastwood," she said, unclasping her gloved hands that had been resting in her lap these past three hours, while inwardly she'd longed to use one of them to tip that ridiculous hat off the man's head and tell him to sit up straight and stop acting like Spencer in one of his sulks. But she'd resisted, even lowered the shades and sat in the half-dark so that the sunlight would not disturb him.

"Very well
what,
Miss Becket?" Jack asked, wondering if he should pretend not to notice the twin spots of color that had appeared on her cheeks. The little fawn had a temper. How interesting.

Lifting her chin slightly, Eleanor began to count on her fingers as she rattled off her thoughts with the precision of a sergeant barking orders to his troops. "Number one, Mr. Eastwood, we are married, at least to the world, which includes your staff in Portland Square. Therefore, I am Mrs. Eastwood to the staff, and Eleanor to you. And you are Jack."

"Not
darling?"
Jack asked, the devil rising in him now. "I had so hoped for a love match."

Eleanor dropped her head slightly, lowered her gaze, then looked over at Jack through remarkably long, thick black lashes. "If I might continue?"

Well, that had put him in his place, hadn't it? "My apologies.. .Eleanor."

"Accepted. This is difficult for both of us, I'm sure," Eleanor said, longing to kick herself for being so formal, for being such...such a
stick!
"If you prefer the diminutive, Elly will also do."

"Very well. But you can still feel free to call me darling,
Elly."

Eleanor clasped her hands together and pressed her knuckles against her mouth, trying to keep her lips from turning up into a smile. "Now you're being facetious."

"I only sought to ease the tension between us. We'll be fine, Elly, I promise. My staff are very incurious, and that's by design."

"Very well. I really don't look for any problems there, as I've read extensively about the proper running of a large domicile, although I much prefer my experience at Becket Hall. I will, of course, need a maid assigned to me, if I'm to go out in public without you. I also read that somewhere—that ladies do not walk about unaccompanied."

"You plan to do a lot of walking, Elly?"

He kept calling her Elly. She'd really rather he addressed her as Eleanor, that she had not suggested the diminutive. She was not, after all, his sister. "I would like to see some of the sights, if at all possible."

"So I'm right in assuming this is your first trip to the city. You never had a Season when you were younger?"

"Is my advanced age so obvious?"

"Well, that was putting my foot in it, wasn't it? Then you're younger than your sister, the countess?"

"No, you were correct. I am the oldest, already into my majority. I preferred not to have a Season."

"Because of your—damn. I can't seem to say anything right, can I?"

"No, Mr.—Jack. We probably should get past this, as I'm cognizant of the fact that you know little about your new
wife.
I am one and twenty, I never had a Season, and I suffered an injury to my leg and foot as a child that has left me with a slight limp. It pains me in prolonged stretches of inclement weather or if I overexert myself, but is otherwise simply a nuisance. I'm neither ashamed nor proud of my... condition, and would prefer you ignore it rather than concern yourself. I am, I assure you, more than capable of the mission I've accepted."

"All but bullied your way into taking. Made a case for yourself against your father's wishes, actually, but who's quibbling?" Jack commented, once more holding back a smile. "I simply want to know why you were so willing to volunteer."

If being a Becket qualified Eleanor for anything, it was the acquired ability to lie smoothly and without suspicion. "I have been no farther than a few miles from Becket Hall since I arrived there as a child of six, which is when I...became a part of the family. I know you are aware that only Cassandra is Papa's natural child, and that the rest of us came to him as orphans."

"Yes, I do know that. It's all very intriguing, actually."

"Not really, not if you knew Papa well. At any rate, Morgan's delightful stories of London have intrigued me, and I finally realized I should like to travel to the metropolis. Not for a Season, I don't delude myself into aspirations at that level, but I couldn't pass up this opportunity. Plus," she ended, looking at him levelly, "I am as eager to rid us of our current problem as are you. It's my family, after all, that could be put in danger."

"I see," Jack said, aware that the coach was now riding along well-cobbled streets, even without raising the shade to look out the window. He moved to the front-facing seat, sat beside her. "How do you plan to approach the ladies?"

Ah, good. They had left the subject of her life behind them. As for the rest, she'd simply ignore his proximity. She was almost used to being in his company. Almost. "I don't. I plan to sit very quietly and listen to the ladies. I've learned that most people rush to fill a silence."

Jack considered this, even as he became uncomfortably aware of the silence in the coach and, damn the woman, rushed to fill it. "I begin to feel that I am the amateur here, Elly. Does Ainsley know just how well you've been
listening
as you bend over your embroidery or paints, which is all I can picture of you when I think of my previous visits to Becket Hall?"

"I'm flattered that you are able to recall me at all," Eleanor said, her voice steady even as he actually said what she'd always felt. That she was near to invisible to him, when he had become the center of her life.

"Ouch! I believe I can almost feel the flat of your hand on my cheek for that careless insult," Jack said, then surprised himself by lifting her gloved hand to his lips. "I can promise you that I will do my best to make up for my sins by being an extremely devoted husband."

Eleanor gently tugged her hand free, even as she continued to look at Jack, fought to control her breathing. "I doubt that most of the
ton
behave as Morgan and her Ethan do. Civility will be enough."

He'd hurt her. He'd be damned if he knew how, but he'd definitely hurt her. And, if he had any sense at all, he'd drop this subject completely and get on with the business of how he would further infiltrate the trio of men he suspected of being in league with the Red Men Gang.

Only later, once he was alone, would there be time to think about this strange, fragile-looking young woman who, as Jacko had said, seemed to be formed of finest Toledo steel.

"Tomorrow we'll begin," he told her as the coach stopped, then started off again at a near crawl, caught in the crush of early-evening London traffic. For a woman who'd professed an interest in the London sights, Eleanor Becket seemed content to have the shades drawn tight on the coach windows. Just a naturally secretive little thing, wasn't she? Or she liked sitting in the half dark, which was silly, because she wasn't a bad-looking woman.

"Yes, Jack, tomorrow will be soon enough. How do you plan to begin?"

"With Lady Beresford. We may not be in London long enough to take advantage of the association, get out into wider society at all. I hope not, frankly. But I'll present Ethan's letter to her anyway."

"A bit of honesty covers many a lie, Papa says. At the very least, you could then honestly drop her name into the conversation as you ratchet up your pursuit of the men you mentioned at Becket Hall." Eleanor spoke each word carefully, not wishing too appear too anxious to hear about the men...the man.

"Yes. But remember, I've already begun with Harris Phelps, as he frequents several gaming hells on the fringes of Mayfair. Gilly—that's Sir Gilbert Eccles—is more of a cipher, I suppose you'd say, definitely a follower and not a leader. Where Phelps goes, Eccles will follow."

Eleanor wet her lips, swallowed. "And the third? I believe you said he was an earl?"

"Earl of Chelfham, yes. The estimable Rawley Mad-dox. He's the oldest of the trio by a good twenty or more years, as I already told Ainsley, and definitely the smartest. He's why I'm bothering with Phelps and Eccles at all—they're to be my way in to Chelfham. It's his bride I'd most particularly hope you can cultivate. She's Phelps's sister, which may explain why Chelfham bothers with him. She's also young, probably not more than a few years older than you, in fact."

"Really? How...interesting."

"Not really. He's trying for an heir is how I heard the story. His first wife died in a fall down the stairs, the second in childbed. If Chelfham dies without issue, I believe the earldom goes vacant."

Eleanor's head was spinning. "I believe the proper term is
extinct,
if all possible heirs have died. A title is
dormant
if no one claims it or his or her title can't be proved, and
in abeyance
if more than one person is equally qualified to be the holder."

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