Authors: Anne Cleeland
Copyright © 2013 by Anne Cleeland
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Cover design by Eileen Carey
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For Hannah’s mom, who wished someone would write Regency adventure; and for all others like her.
Out of habit, Vidia ran a quick thumb over her pistol’s firing mechanism and tried to remember if she had reloaded both barrels after that little incident at Seven Dials a month ago—truly, she should have checked it before now but who could have foreseen that she’d need her weapon tonight of all nights. Walking forward with a brisk step that was meant to discourage interaction, she flipped one end of her wrap over the opposite shoulder and avoided eye contact with the wretched souls who littered this particular circle of hell, although most were no doubt insensibly drunk. Her object was a notorious tavern in this notorious corner of London’s underworld, but she was not dressed for discretion, having been called away from the ambassador’s soirée on some undisclosed emergency. Indeed, her thin slippers were already damp from an unidentified wetness and it would be best not to contemplate the state of her hem after this assignment—and the gown one of her favorites, too; red silk satin, the décolletage too low for good taste. Red was the color of choice in her line of work in that it camouflaged the occasional bloodstain.
“Ha’penny an’ yer prayers, miss.” The beggar made so bold as to grasp Vidia’s sleeve, pathetically hunched over and whining through his teeth with a slight whistling sound.
“Step aside, if you please.” From the looks of it, there would be dirty finger marks on her poor abused gown, but such hazards came with the territory in this part of town and she hoped it would not be necessary to take stronger measures; it was always best not to draw attention before the territory could be assessed—not that she held any real hope of evading notice, dressed as she was.
The beggar gave way, but not before lifting his face so that she caught a glimpse of shrewd grey eyes beneath the brim of his greasy hat. Making a show of straightening the seams of her gloves she paused beside him, the delicate contours of her face illuminated by the low light of the gas lamps. “You need to work on your technique, methinks. You cannot expect to make a living begging unless you tell me something complimentary—insist that you’ve never seen a tastier piece.”
The beggar leaned back into the shadowy alcove so that she could no longer see his eyes and the voice that emanated from the darkness was suddenly cultured and correct. “What point? You are immune to pretty compliments, I imagine. Better to make an appeal for pity, if one can assume a heart beats within that cold breast of yours.”
Vidia tilted her head so that the shadows hid her face except for her slow, curving smile. “Lord, you’ll not win a ha’penny with that kind of remark, my friend; I give you good advice—tell me I’m a pretty young thing—”
“Not so very young, after all.”
“Are you quite finished?” she asked in a mild tone.
The beggar bowed with exaggerated courtesy. “Your pardon; I forget myself.”
She lifted a graceful hand to check that both her diamond earbobs were secure, and continued as though she hadn’t been interrupted. “Flattery should be your stock in trade—or comedy. Anything is more appealing than pitiful—take it from one who knows.”
With an edge of derision, her companion openly scoffed from the recesses of the stained brick wall. “As though one such as you has ever had need to beg for anything—from anyone.”
“Only from God,” she assured him. “And with mixed results.”
He did not respond for a moment, and she leaned forward to smooth her skirts so that she could slide her gaze toward him—she dare not linger here for long in conversation with a beggar; he would risk his cover. “To what do I owe this honor, sir?”
From his position in the shadows the beggar jerked his chin toward the tavern behind him. “Carstairs has gone out of coverage—he’s in there and profoundly drunk, I’m afraid. He’s like to attract trouble or start spilling state secrets—neither course is acceptable.”
Carstairs. Vidia contemplated the dirty window behind him that proclaimed “The Bowman Inn” in fading gilt letters. The door opened for a moment and Vidia could hear raised drunken voices and the clatter of cheap tin cups before it closed again. Not a reputable tavern and apparently matters were urgent or she wouldn’t have been summoned on such short notice—she was in coverage, herself, and he wouldn’t have sent for her save as a last resort. “Poor man—there is nothing like a low place to make one feel doubly low.”
But the grey-eyed beggar had little sympathy and made an impatient sound. “Spare me the excuses—he should know better. An extraction is needful; best get him out before he breaks some heads or allows a French agent to seduce him.”
“Where do I deliver him?” With a twitch of silken fabric, she turned to rearrange her wrap over her elbows so that two men heading into the tavern could not see her face as they passed.
“Back to his cover—don’t take him home as yet; I will make an assessment to determine if any harm’s been done. A curse on all women—”
“Sirrah,” she admonished, daring to tease him.
The beggar made another exaggerated bow. “Present company excepted, then. If you need assistance you have only to signal—others stand ready but it would be best to keep a low profile.”
If she thought it odd that someone as recognizable as herself would be sent on a low-profile assignment, she left the thought unsaid; after all, the grey-eyed man was the head of their organization and he was presumably no fool. All in all, she was rather surprised he had taken a direct role in this retrieval—she usually received her orders from lesser beings and had little contact with the spymaster. But no question that Carstairs was too valuable to risk; he would be involved in only the highest-level assignments, which made his current situation all the more alarming.
Reaching into her reticule, she tossed the beggar a guinea, which he caught with a swift movement at odds with his appearance. “For your troubles,” she teased with her slow smile, then bowed formally as though she was still at the ambassador’s soirée. The beggar made a show of biting the coin between surprisingly white, even teeth. “Thank ’ee,” he rasped, his
firmly back in place as he scuttled off, hunched over and limping. She was all admiration—one would never guess he stood over six foot.
As she approached the door, Vidia took a quick, assessing glance at the assorted figures that loitered outside the building in various stages of drunkenness. She had learned a hard lesson, once, about the necessity of securing one’s retreat and did not care to repeat the experience. Squaring her shoulders, she pushed open the battered door to the Bowman and paused on the threshold to survey the interior, quickly estimating the size of the crowd and identifying potential exits. A hush fell almost immediately, but she hardly noticed; such a reaction to her appearance was to be expected and could be used or not used to her advantage, depending upon the assignment. If this one was to be low profile—well, she would do her best to be discreet but since one of her earbobs was worth more than anyone in the room could hope to see in a lifetime, this seemed a tall order. No matter; best get on with it.
Moving forward in a languid fashion, she quickly scanned the crowded room and spotted Carstairs leaning on his elbows at the corner of the bar, bringing a tin cup unsteadily to his lips and giving her the barest glance of disinterest. She had to give him credit—he knew better than to present his back to the room, even drunk as a sailor. There seemed little doubt he was quite drunk—small wonder the spymaster was concerned; Carstairs was the keeper of many secrets.
She advanced toward the bar and kept her eyes fixed upon her mark, hoping to extract him quickly and without inciting undue notice—or at least more than could be helped, given that she was so very noticeable. It was too much to be hoped for, however—one of the Bowman’s drunken patrons made so bold as to step before her to impede her progress, glancing at his fellows so they could appreciate his temerity. With an insolent grin, he looked her up and down and pronounced, “I gots wot yer lookin’ fer, me foine lady.”
Pausing, she openly assessed him with an amused smile on her lips. “That is as may be, my friend—but you don’t have what I am looking for, which is fifty guineas.”
The man whistled in appreciation, hitching his thumbs in his braces and glancing at the assembled men. “No one ’ere’s got that much o’ the ready in a twelve-month, lady—ye must be lost.”
“Not I,” she teased with a hand on his arm. “I am here to gather up the lost—do step aside.” She softened the command with a dazzling smile and a slow wink, then gently pushed him away, hoping it was enough to allow him to back down without losing face—but ready to twist the arm behind him, if needful. Fortunately, the gambit worked; the man chuckled in appreciation and backed away with a gesture of homage, the others around him murmuring in amusement. There was no ugly undertone as yet; Vidia could feel the weight of the pistol in her pocket and hoped she wouldn’t need it. She was adept at gauging the mood of a crowd and felt that at present it hung in the balance—but by this time of night there would had been heavy inroads made into the cask of Blue Ruin and reactions were therefore unpredictable.
Carstairs was contemplating the dregs of the cup he held before him as she sidled up beside him at the bar, shoulder to shoulder so that she could keep an eye on the crowd and the door. He did not lift his eyes to her but she knew he had recognized her the moment she entered the room—it was his job. He growled, “Go ’way.”
“Sorry,” she apologized. “I do have orders.”
He lifted his head to look at her, the movement causing him to lose his equilibrium. With an effort, he focused his steel blue eyes on hers and for a brief moment she felt a breathless sensation in the vicinity of her breast. “Bullock your orders.”
Laying a gentle hand on his arm she coaxed, “Be that as it may, I’m to bring you home. Come along, my friend, before the crowd has any say in the matter.”
He resumed the contemplation of his cup, unmoving, while she could feel the interested scrutiny of those who surrounded them, the combined scent of unwashed bodies and stale ale almost overpowering. With a bit more urgency she tugged on his forearm. “I shall see to it you get your own bottle, once home. You may drink yourself into a stupor with my blessing.”
Those intense eyes lifted to meet hers again, slightly unfocused. “She was so—she was so beautiful.”
Her heart rent by the quiet intensity of the words, Vidia squeezed the thick forearm beneath her hand. “That she was. But you must come along, now, Carstairs.”
To her relief he acquiesced and straightened upright, the movement again making him a bit unsteady on his feet. Bracing him with an arm around his waist, she had to remind herself that she was on assignment and should not enjoy the contact overmuch. Once she had him balanced again, he reached into his purse with a deliberate movement to pull out a coin and contemplate it at length, as though unsure of its value.
“Here,” she offered, tossing her own coin on the counter. “That should be enough.”
“You should not pay,” he scolded vaguely, his dark brows drawn together.
“It is my pleasure. Follow me and stay close, now—try not to speak to anyone.”
With one arm remaining around his waist, she steered him through the crowd toward the door, her gaze sharp around them as she watched for weapons. Just as she thought they might escape unaccosted, one of the patrons jostled into them, causing Carstairs to stagger. Before the man could melt into the crowd with Carstairs’s purse he was facing the muzzle of her pistol, an inch from his face. “I believe you have mistaken this man’s purse for your own. Pray return it.”
The thief, startled and then sullen, weighed his options and then complied with her request upon hearing the metallic click as the hammer drew back. Now on full alert, Vidia kept her pistol cocked and in plain view as she guided Carstairs and made a slow progress toward the tavern’s swinging door. The surprised silence around them was replaced by a murmuring undertone that she could not quite like, and she was grateful Carstairs was still able to navigate; if he had gone down she would have needed reinforcements and a public donnybrook would have ensued—not precisely low profile.
Once outside she looked for a hackney cab but they were scarce in this area of town as there was more chance of robbery than gainful fare. “This way,” she told Carstairs, steering him with pressure at his waist. “Up a few streets we should find a cab—quickly, now.”
“Careful,” he mumbled with an effort. “Men on corner.”
“I see them.” She was impressed that he could still make a survey, in the shape that he was—the instinct for self-preservation ran deep in their business. She closed a hand around her pistol but no heroics were necessary; the three loitering on the corner eyed the big man and his unfazed companion and decided to await an easier set of victims.
Shepherding her unsteady charge along the center of the unswept street, Vidia avoided the shadows and moved as briskly as his condition would allow. The damp soles of her satin slippers did little to shield her from the cold cobblestones, but on the other hand the cold air seemed to have a sobering effect on Carstairs; she noted he leaned a little less heavily against her as they made their way toward the next block. When she finally spotted a hackney, Vidia lifted a gloved hand and it stopped immediately—no one ever ignored her. With the aid of the jarvey, she managed to navigate Carstairs up the footstairs and he collapsed inside, his head tilted back against the cracked leather cushions and his eyes closed. His neckcloth was unbuttoned and she was forced to tear her gaze from his exposed throat as she gave his direction to the driver. Once under way, however, she allowed herself to study his sleeping form to her heart’s content, now that the opportunity had been given her. A fine specimen of a man, Carstairs was—with his broad shoulders and dark chestnut hair. The late Marie Carstairs had been a very lucky woman—until this recent turn of events, of course. Poor, grieved man; and to have wound up at the Bowman of all places—he was clearly in a bad way.
He muttered something unintelligible and she took his hand to hold it between hers—it was the least she could do—as the cab jolted over the cobblestones. Her heart ached to witness his grief even as she felt an inappropriate stab of envy; to have such a man mourn one was more than any woman could ask. Mentally she shook herself for the maudlin thought—it came of never knowing from one day to the next if she would survive long enough to see her current role to its conclusion. Not much longer, now, as long as Brodie held faith—