Authors: Prideand Petticoats
Middleton held up a hand. “Miss Burton, if you do not wish us to make assumptions, kindly explain for yourself.”
Charlotte continued to glare at the archangel. “Cade is—was my brother’s best friend in Charleston. We never—he was never…” She looked down.
The archangel stepped forward, once again crowding her into the berth. “If you are not Pettigru’s mistress, then what is your business with
him? He said he would come for you. What are you to him?”
“I told you. We’re friends. This was just a friendly visit,” she lied. She would never tell these bastard English why she was really here, how much pain and anguish their kind had caused her. Tears pricked at her eyelids, and she willed them away. Emotion would not sway this man. Like all warriors, he feared it.
“And you came all this way to visit Pettigru?” Middleton asked. “How long has he been a family friend?”
“Who are his contacts? His sources?” the archangel inquired. “How will he find you?”
Charlotte shook her head. The questions were becoming a rapid barrage, and she couldn’t concentrate as the men’s voices melded into each other’s. Who, why, when?
“Dash it all!” the archangel finally exploded. “Miss Burton, are you or are you not spying for the French?”
“What?” Charlotte stared at him, then at Middleton. “Are you both mad—”
“Cade Pettigru is a spy,” the archangel growled. “An enemy working with the French government and the Americans against England. My friend, a loyal Englishman, died today at Pettigru’s hand. I will not allow another of my countrymen to die at the hands of a spy or”—he gave her a hard look—“the soiled hands of a slave owner.”
Charlotte narrowed her eyes. “Who are you?” She glanced at the other men. “Who do you work for?” She was afraid she knew, but she had to ask anyway.
The archangel bowed low, sweeping his hand across his chest. “Lord Alfred Dewhurst, baron and agent for the British Foreign Office.”
Charlotte’s knees gave way, and she was glad to have the berth beneath her. Oh, George, but she was doomed now. British spies! How had she managed to stumble into the very men she most wished to avoid? “Please,” Charlotte murmured, “I am not a spy, and neither is Cade. This is all a terrible mistake—”
“No, Miss Burton. There is no misunderstanding,” the archangel said. “Cade Pettigru is a spy, and by association, you are as tainted with guilt as he. Now I suggest you either tell us what you know or you’ll be tried for treason and”—he lifted a strand of her copper hair—“burned for the witch you are.”
reddie groaned as the first wave of nausea hit. The men had released his cousin Sebastian’s yacht from its moorings, and it was now drifting steadily down the Thames. London Bridge swayed before Freddie’s eyes.
“Lord Dewhurst,” one of the crew said. “We’re under way.”
“Are you well, my lord?”
“Course. Splendid. Capital.”
The man gave him a dubious look before retreating. Freddie leaned over the rail and retched.
Sometime later—he couldn’t begin to say how much later, as he’d spent a good portion of his time with his head over the ship’s rail—they reached Westminster. Despite the melee, they had
not left their fallen comrade behind, and Sebastian went ashore to make arrangements for the body and to fetch Edwards. When he arrived, the cousins sat with their superior in a cabin adjacent to that of the American woman.
“I think you were a bit hard on the poor chit,” Sebastian said, spearing his mutton with a fork. “Her face went white as a specter when you said she’d be tried for treason.”
Freddie looked at his wine—a rather good merlot. He would have liked to sip it, but his stomach was still queasy. He’d ejected the whole of his insides, including several vital organs, over the rail of the ship, and he felt relatively sure nothing but his stomach itself could come up now, and at this point he wouldn’t mind losing that dashed organ, too. Bloody ships. They would be the end of him.
Freddie swallowed his nausea and pushed the wine aside. “Good. If she’s frightened, she might talk.” And the sooner he could return to his town house. The little hellion had torn the cuff of his Spanish blue tailcoat of superfine.
Edwards finished his wine and leaned back. “I think she’s told you what she knows,” he said, “but it matters not. She’ll protect Pettigru whether she believes him innocent or guilty. Her family was killed by our warships. She has no love for the English.”
Sebastian shrugged. “So what now? She’s loyal
to Pettigru, and we can’t exactly lock the girl up for the duration of the war.”
“No,” Freddie agreed, though that would have been the easiest thing. She had the temper of a hellcat and could plant a facer to rival Gentleman Jackson. This was no pink and powdered Society miss.
Still, all in all, not a bad bit. Her mourning dress was not fitted properly, so he couldn’t form a good impression of her figure, but she appeared unremarkable in stature and build. If he’d looked no further, if she hadn’t spoken, he’d have dismissed her from his mind by now.
But she had spoken, and her voice was slow and lush. No one could mistake that drawl, so typical of the Southern colonies. The words rolled from her tongue leisurely, her mouth rounding on each vowel and softening every consonant. As she spoke, he could not tear his eyes away from those full lips, almost too full for her face. The black bombazine didn’t suit her coloring, but neither did it tarnish her roses-and-cream complexion or dull the sherry-colored eyes, edged by thick lashes against her ivory skin.
And still he might have dismissed her as a mere inconvenience. He’d known beautiful women. It might even be fair to say that his acquaintanceship was largely restricted to women one might classify as not only beautiful but witty and stylish in addition. But his downfall—the reason he was still thinking of the colonist—was her hair.
It was the most glorious shade of auburn he’d ever seen, swept back in a simple style without all the waved curls ladies were currently wearing about their faces. Cinnamon with a dash of gold, it was a rich, warm color he found difficult to believe was natural.
He had a weakness for ginger-pated chits. A weakness he fought valiantly to override, considering the color was dreadfully unfashionable. But all the milk-and-honey blonds and peaches-and-porcelain brunettes failed to hold his attention like a woman with fiery tresses and a temper to match.
Freddie lifted his merlot, remembered himself, and set it down again. The last thing he needed was another woman on his mind. He’d been raised in a household of women: his mother and four sisters. Growing up, Freddie could not remember a time when emotions had not run high. His sisters were always overreacting to some perceived problem or other. From an early age, Freddie had learned to control his own sentiments. He would not tolerate another emotional female weighing him down.
Edwards pulled out his pipe, lit it, and said, “Am I the only one among us who thinks Miss Burton might be useful?”
“Yes,” Freddie said slowly, afraid he knew the direction of his superior’s thoughts.
“How would she prove useful?” Sebastian asked.
Edwards puffed on his pipe, then held it aloft between thumb and forefinger. “Pettigru himself
gave us the answer. He said he would come for her. We’ve watched him for months, but now he’ll be harder to find than a hare in a bramble. We could chase him all over the country, or we could let him come to us.”
“And Miss Burton is the bait?” Sebastian asked. “I like it.”
“But in the meantime, Pettigru has lists of British troops and supplies,” Freddie said. “Our national security may be compromised.”
Edwards shook his head. “The information is undecipherable using the old codes. What good are the lists if the French generals can’t understand them?”
Freddie considered this. Pettigru was a loyal American aiding the French under the assumption that a British defeat by the French on land would mean an American victory at sea. To that end, Pettigru filched the codes the British commanders used to cipher their missives to one another. He then sold them to the French army for a profit. But now the codes Wellington used had been changed and Pettigru’s information was useless.
“Pettigru will have to stay in London in order to lay his hands on the real codes,” Edwards continued. “And when he does, we’ll lure him out with Miss Burton. We’ll make her irresistible. He’ll come after her not only because she’s his friend, but because she has access to his enemy—to one of our best agents.”
Freddie stood. “Very well. How do we make Pettigru believe all that?”
Edwards smiled. “Couldn’t be simpler. In fact, all I require from you are two tiny words.”
Freddie rubbed his temple where a headache still drummed. Better and better. He wanted the whole business with Pettigru and the hellion behind him. The Season was over, but there still were many choice engagements he was missing. “Two words, eh? Good-bye?” Freddie said hopefully.
“No. Try, I do.”
She was going to die. They’d taken Addy, George knew where, and now Charlotte was going to die alone, in the dark, and no one would ever know or care. She’d been trapped in the cabin for days—at least it seemed like days. She was hungry, cold, and scared, terrified she’d never see Addy or Charleston again. She didn’t want to die in this dank hole. She sat on the berth, resting her head on her knees, which she’d pulled close to her body for warmth. At least Dewhurst had untied her wrists. Perhaps he was not made of stone after all.
There was a distant sound of footsteps, but she did not look up. She’d heard them many times over the hours and screamed for someone to let her out, but no one had come.
Now the footsteps were louder, closer, and Charlotte lifted her head to peer into the darkness. Nothing. The men had taken the lanterns with them, and
the darkness often preyed on her imagination. But as Charlotte peered into the gloom, a sliver of light and the creak of hinges made her heart race. She jumped up, tripping over her skirts as Dewhurst and Middleton entered, both carrying lanterns and followed by a servant with a tray of food.
Charlotte’s mouth watered, but she vowed not to touch the tempting fare. Five minutes before she might have sold her soul for the chance at freedom. Now, faced with that prospect—however slight—she wanted no charity from these men. Death was preferable. The smell of warm bread and cheese assaulted her nostrils, and she clenched her fists in her skirts to quell the desire to snatch the tray and wolf down the food.
The servant set the fare on the table, then quickly retreated, closing the heavy cellar door behind him. Dewhurst stood beside the table, watching her. Middleton spoke, “Miss Burton, you must be hungry. Please eat.”
Charlotte shook her head. “I want nothing from you, except my freedom.”
“That might be arranged,” Middleton said. Charlotte glanced at Dewhurst. He looked bored and disgusted by her.
“If this arrangement involves me lifting my skirts for one or both of you”—Dewhurst gave her a derisive glance before turning away—“you might as well kill me now, for I’d rather die than allow one of you to touch me.”
“Miss Burton,” Middleton said in a soothing tone that didn’t fool her for a moment, “you wound us. We are not going to hurt you. In point of fact, we need your help.”
Charlotte scowled. George, but she wished they would take the bread out of her sight. The smell was making her dizzy. “I already told you. I am not a spy. Mr. Pettigru is not a spy. I don’t know anything, and if I did, I wouldn’t reveal it to you lying British bastards!”
“Lovely,” Dewhurst said, pulling out a chair from the desk and settling in it with a bored air. “We’re wasting our time here, Middleton.”
“Give it a chance, coz.”
Charlotte watched the exchange closely. Cousins. Yes, that would account for the similarities in their appearance, evident even though their mode of dress was centuries apart.
“Miss Burton,” Middleton said, “if you don’t wish to aid us, are you willing to cooperate to help Pettigru? You might be able to clear his name.”
Charlotte pushed a heavy lock of her hair behind her ear. The red tangle was free of its pins and streaming down her back. She licked her dry lips, eyeing the flagon of wine. “What would I have to do?”
Middleton waved his hand. “Merely act out a part in a small play. Have you ever been on the stage, Miss Burton?”
“Ah, well, then this will be something new. We have reason to believe Pettigru will turn up again in London. If you were there as well, you might arrange to meet him, talk to him, help him clear his name.”
“Lure him out so you can hang him, you mean,” Charlotte shot back. Did they take her for a fool? She did not care if Cade was another Benedict Arnold. She would never betray her friend and countryman.
Middleton held up a hand. “I will not lie to you, Miss Burton. If Pettigru is guilty, then he will be tried, but with or without your assistance, we will catch him. That is inevitable. What is not inevitable is the matter of his guilt or innocence.”
Charlotte licked her lips again, and Middleton must have noted the gesture. He poured her a glass of wine and brought it to her. “I give you my word as a knight and an Englishman—” Charlotte snorted. “Very well, I give you my word as a man of honor that we will treat Mr. Pettigru fairly and take into account any evidence you find of his innocence.” He handed the glass to Charlotte. She took it, allowing herself a small sip. George, but the liquid felt good on her parched throat.
“What do I have to do, Mr. Middleton? You mentioned acting.”
“Ah, yes, but not in the theater. You will play your part on a different stage—that of the
. What we propose”—he motioned to Dew
hurst, who was sitting tight-lipped at the desk—“is for you to act as Lord Dewhurst’s wife—”
Charlotte’s jaw dropped. “What?
“No, no. It would be a counterfeit marriage, though you would have to give every appearance of it being genuine.”
Charlotte glanced at Dewhurst. His expression was dark. He didn’t want this any more than she. So why was he going along? “What exactly would I have to do?” Charlotte asked.
Middleton shrugged. “Live in Dewhurst’s town house, attend the social functions with him, play the dutiful wife. Pettigru knows my cousin’s identity now. He will be watching us, and when he sees you with Dewhurst, we do not think he can resist the dual temptation.”
“It seems too easy,” Charlotte said. Dewhurst gave a short laugh.
“It is anything but easy, Miss Burton.” He turned his full gaze on her, his green eyes hard and catlike in the dimness. “No one who knows me would ever believe I would marry a woman like you. You’re plain, uncouth, and completely without style. You’ll be tossed out of the first ballroom you step into and shipped back to the colonies.”
“The United States,” she corrected, venom rising in her blood. “And if you are so certain I will fail, then why are you going along with this asinine plan?”
He leaned back, silent for a long moment. “Are you a patriot, Miss Burton?”
She frowned. The answer seemed obvious. “Yes.”
“Then you understand what it means to love your country. I love my country, and I’ll fight for my country. Your friend killed my countryman today, and his actions will kill many more if he’s allowed to continue. Right now, you’re our best hope of catching him.”
Middleton spoke again, “Miss Burton, Dewhurst supports this proposal. He was merely trying to impress upon you the significance of what you will be attempting. To lure Pettigru out, you must be visible, which means you will have to go into Society with Dewhurst. You must be convincing as his wife and not draw undue attention with social blunders. Therefore, Dewhurst will teach you all you need to know to be a success.”
Charlotte frowned and sipped her wine again. It still seemed too easy. What would Dewhurst have to teach her? Perhaps something about titles, but surely she knew the rest. She had been to her share of society gatherings in Charleston before her family’s business faltered. But what would she get out of this? She was not so gullible as to believe these men would really give Cade a fair chance. But what good would she do Cade locked in this dungeon? If she went along with their plan, she might be able to save Cade.
And then what? What if Cade had no money to
loan her? She had intended to ask him to become a partner with her, loaning her money to buy back Burton & Son Shipping. But after seeing where he lived and now the troubles he was having with the British government, she wondered. Would he be able to afford to help her? She would help him no matter what, but perhaps she might find a way to repay the British bastards for the deaths of her father and brother.