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Lord Twickenham's address to the House of Lords on the Bill of Attainder for the Treasonous Acts of Lords Seduced by the French during the American Rebellion, July 8, 1783:
Mrs Ross convinced weak men of title and station to provide the French with secrets of his Majesty's Government during the American Rebellion. My own brother perished because of their treachery. How many other fine men died because it?
She might be gone, along with the evidence of her conspirators' crimes, but those deceitful men are still among us. My lords, I crave the day when proof of their villainy finally emerges and the full power of this Bill of Attainder is brought against them. If they think time can erase their guilt, then they are mistaken.
Through this Bill of Attainder, if evidence ever comes to light of their guilt, even if God has struck them from this earth, they will be convicted of High Treason as though they still walked among us. All their titles and lands will be forfeit to the Crown and their heirs will bear the burden of their fathers' disgrace.
London, July 1803
Rafe Densmore, Fifth Baron of Densmore, marched up the stone staircase of Mrs Ross's unimposing town house off Gracechurch Street. He rapped his knuckles against the door and the black ribbon hanging from the brass knocker fluttered in the breeze. He eyed it with a frown, wondering if the ancient courtesan's sudden demise would be to his benefit or his detriment. She'd been perfectly alive and well when she'd penned the letter in his pocket, summoning him to her sad doorstep.
The old shrew.
He shifted back and forth on his feet. Deep in his boot, his toe caught the beginning of a hole in one stocking.
Damned cheap wool. If he employed a valet, the man would do something about it. Perhaps he might charm Mrs Linton, his landlady, into mending it for him. Though if her needlework proved anything like what she did to the meagre meals she deigned to deliver to his room, he might as well mend it himself. He wondered if her meals were the true extent of her culinary skills or revenge for his grossly outstanding rent.
The hackney horse waiting at the kerb whinnied, failing to disturb the thin driver leaning against the vehicle, smoking a long pipe. The smoke swirled around his head before the wind carried it over the back of his stocky grey animal.
Rafe eyed them both. Whoever had hired the poor beast and his horse must still be inside and it was time for them to draw their business to a close. He hadn't fought so hard to reach Mrs Ross, or to raise the blunt needed to meet her demands, only to be stalled on the doorstep by a dawdling caller.
He raised his fist to knock again when the bolt scraped and the door creaked open to reveal the drooping eyes of a withered old butler. Rafe brushed past him and into the small entrance hall, his throat tightening from the thick dust covering every surface. A spider scurried behind a dark painting. Compared to this house, his current lodgings seemed breathtakingly opulent.
'Lord Densmore to see Mr Nettles,' Rafe announced. 'He's expecting me.'
'Yes, of course. This way, my lord.' The butler shuffled across the hall.
Rafe followed before something along the edge of his vision brought him to a halt at the morning-room door.
A tall, voluptuous woman draped in gauzy black silk stood by the cold fireplace. She didn't move or greet him, but remained silent beneath the dark veil covering her face. A slow smile spread across Rafe's lips, his fever in obtaining the register momentarily dampened. Despite her silence, something about her called to him and he moved closer to the doorway. The slight tensing of her shoulders made him stop, but not turn away. Her dress, dark and wispy like smoke, swirled around her curves. She clutched a book to her chest. The leather tome obscured the full roundness of her breasts, except for the creamy tops which were just visible beneath her black-net chemisette.
'Good morning.' He swept off his hat and dropped into a low bow, noting the few white petals scattered on the faded carpet at her feet, probably the remains of Mrs Ross's funeral. By her own account, Mrs Ross was a recluse, but apparently she wasn't completely devoid of friends to mourn her.
And what a delightful friend this is. Rafe straightened, admiring the woman's generous measure of height. Heat flooded through him as he imagined tucking the statuesque creature into the curve of his body and brushing his lips along the bit of exposed neck caressed by her short veil. He tapped his fingers against his thigh, sensing her height would match his perfectly, the way Cornelia's once did.
His hand tightened into a fist, the sharp edge of betrayal cooling his ardour. He relaxed his fingers and struggled to keep smiling. Why the deuce was he thinking of Cornelia? He'd left that business in France where, with any luck, it would stay.
He focused on the woman's face, trying to catch a glimpse of her features beneath the thick veil. Nothing was visible except the flush of skin and the faint red of full lips. Hopefully, her features were as appealing as the hint of body beneath the close-cut French style of her dress. If the solicitor proved problematic with the register, this woman might be more obliging.
'If you please, my lord,' the butler urged.
Rafe stroked the tall woman with one last glance, reluctantly offering a parting nod before following the butler to a room near the back of the house.
They reached the end of the hallway and the butler pushed open the door to an old study, the bare, sagging shelves held up by dust. A round man with spectacles sat at a desk, reviewing stacks of yellowed papers. He stood as Rafe entered, a wide smile drawing back the jowls framing his mouth.
'Mr Nettles, Lord Densmore to see you,' the butler rasped.
'Lord Densmore, what a pleasure.' A few loose threads from his cuff waved as the man motioned Rafe to the wood chair in front of the desk. 'Sit, please.'
'I'm sorry I didn't arrive when my letter said I would, but business in France delayed me.' It damn near killed me. If he hadn't enjoyed a small winning streak at the tables, he'd still be stuck in the stinking place. 'My condolences on Mrs Ross's passing.'
'Yes, poor woman. Takes her first trip outside in over twenty years and some runaway carriage strikes her. Terrible business.' The solicitor tutted as he lowered himself into his chair, the wood creaking beneath his weight. 'I suppose she was right to stay hidden away for so many years.'
'If would seem so.' If only the carriage had finished off the wretched blackmailer before she'd mailed the blasted letter. Then who knew whose hands the register might have fallen into. At least now there existed the chance of buying the entire rotten thing, not just the page with his late father's name on it, and the proof of his treason. 'Mrs Ross wrote to me while I was in Paris, offering to sell me a certain book of hers.'
'Yes, I know of it. Not a very interesting read. Nothing but lists of nobility and numbers next to their names. Probably accounts from the men who paid for her company in her youth. According to the butler, she was quite a beauty back then.' The man chuckled, his round belly bouncing up and down beneath his wrinkled waistcoat. Then his jowls dropped, giving him the look of an innocent bloodhound waiting for its master's command. 'Why do you want such a thing?'
'I have my reasons.' Rafe didn't elaborate, unwilling to enlighten the man on the true nature of the register.
'Yes, I suppose you do.' The mask of innocence slipped just a bit, reminding Rafe of an exceptional card player he'd once bested in France whose ability to bluff almost matched his. Then the solicitor rubbed his chins, the look gone. 'It's a pity you didn't arrive a hair sooner.'
Fear snaked up his spine, all thoughts of gambling or what the puffy man might know about the register gone. Obtaining it was almost the only thing he'd thought about since landing in Dover. He'd torn through Wealthstone Manor in search of anything left of value to sell to obtain it. The delightful set of silver spoons he'd discovered in the attic, wedged in their wooden box between two trunks and somehow missed by his father, had just been sold this morning.
Rafe shifted forward in the chair, his hand tight on the arm. 'What do you mean?'
'It seems you weren't the only one Mrs Ross wrote to about the register. Judging from her papers, she'd been in straitened circumstances for some time and was forced to part with a number of possessions. There are still outstanding debts and I'll have a hard time settling them with what valuables are left.' He grabbed a crinkled paper with each hand, flapping them in the air. 'Though it would be a might easier to sort through it all if she hadn't called herself Mrs Ross at one time, Mrs Taylor in later years and now Mrs Ross again. I wish she'd made up her mind about who she was.'
'And the book?' Rafe tensed, eager for him to get on with it.
'A young woman arrived just before you did, a French Comtesse, though she didn't sound French. I sold it to her.'
'Hell.' Rafe jumped up and ran to the door. He flung it open and raced down the hall, sending balls of dust whirling out of his way. At the morning room he stopped. Only the wilted white flowers greeted him. 'Blast.'
'Lord Densmore.' The solicitor came down the hall behind him as Rafe rushed to the front door and pulled it open. Outside, everything was the same as before, except for the hackney. It rolled down the street, a familiar face watching him through the back window before the vehicle turned the corner and disappeared in the traffic on Gracechurch Street.
Cornelia, Comtesse de Vane.
What's she doing here? Rafe slammed his fist against the doorjamb and a small splinter slid beneath his skin. She shouldn't be here. She should be in France, rotting away with her crooked old husband at Château de Vane, counting the silver or ordering the servants about, not stealing the register out from under him.
'Lord Densmore, I'm truly sorry for your inconvenience.' The solicitor puffed from behind him. 'Had I known the book was so important to you'
Rafe held up one hand to silence the man, in no mood to be polite. 'Thank you, Mr Nettles, but I'm no longer in need of your services.'
Rafe stormed off down the street, the slam of Mrs Ross's front door echoing off the buildings.
He moved into the bustle of Gracechurch Street, his toe sliding through the now-widened hole in his stocking. If it weren't for the crush of people, he'd pull off the boot and toss the offending garment in the gutter. Instead, all he could do was keep walking, the wool grating with each step like the memory of Cornelia watching him from the back of the hackney.
He passed a wagon loaded with apples and plucked one from the pile without the seller noticing, turning the smooth fruit over and over in his fingers. What's she doing here?
She couldn't have convinced her husband to abandon his native shore. The Comte wasn't likely to leave after everything he'd done to regain his ancestral home. It meant the old man had either given up the ghost in a fit of ecstasy over his nubile young bride, or Cornelia had spent her time at the château plotting to run out on him just as she'd so cleverly plotted to run out on Rafe.
His hand tightened on the apple, the hard skin pressing against the splinter and making it sting. If it hadn't taken him so long to raise the money to purchase the register page, he might have beaten her to it today.
Now she had it and the ability to destroy him.
He took a bite of the apple and cursed, spitting out the mushy piece and flinging the whole rotten thing under the wheels of a passing carriage.
Damn his luck. Nothing was working out as he'd planned.
Cornelia leaned back against the squabs and let out a long breath, relief flooding through her as if she'd faced a man at dawn and prevailed.
Her fingers tightened on the register, the leather cracking a little under the pressure. If she'd dallied a few minutes longer this morning or walked instead of hiring the hack, she might have lost the register to Rafe. Then all her plans to protect Andrew, her half-brother, would have come to nothing.
She eased her grip on the book and closed her eyes, struggling to see Andrew's dark hair tousled over his small head, to remember the warmth of his little hand in hers as they'd explored the river behind Hatton Place, their father's slurred and roaring voice blocked out by the rush of water over the rocks. However, one image remained stubbornly fixed in her mind.
His deep tones had rolled into the town house ahead of him, drawing her back two years ago to their first nights together in the tiny room in Covent Garden. The image of him standing over her as she'd lain in the narrow bed, his shirt open at the neck, his dark breeches tight against his hips, made her heart race as fast as it had when he'd smiled at her from across Mrs Ross's entrance hall.
Except today it wasn't desire quickening her pulse, but fear. If he'd recognised her through the veil or noticed the register clutched against her like a shield, who knew how he'd have reacted. Thankfully, more carnal thoughts had distracted him from seeing what was plainly in front of him.
She opened her eyes and shifted against the worn leather, irritated at the way her traitorous body warmed with the memory of Rafe's dark eyes caressing her like a fine shift. She swept her fingers across her neck, the light gauze covering her breasts suddenly as heavy as wool. After the Comte's waxy hands, even Rafe's gentle touch would be a welcome relief.
Emptiness slipped in beneath the desire. She rubbed her cheek, still able to feel the scratch of Rafe's shirt against it as he'd held her in their Paris apartment two months ago. She'd been so terrified that night, clinging to him as she'd repeated the rumours of British men being arrested once war was declared. She'd feared for him and their future. As a woman, she would have been free to go, but he faced the threat of being caught and left to linger in some disease-ridden prison.
If only he'd received such a deserving fate.
She clenched her hands, the black gloves pulling taught over her knuckles. Like a fool, she'd trusted him, sending him off to the card room with the last of their money, believing his promise to return with enough to buy their passage home. Instead he'd fled like a coward, saving himself and leaving her to her fate.
She banged her fists against the worn-out squabs. After all he'd done for her before, how could he have been so cruel?
The hackney made a sharp turn and she gripped the strap above the door. In the rattle of the wheels, she could almost hear Fanny, her stepmother, laughing at her change in fortune. Thankfully, her father would never learn of it. When the letter from Fanny had finally reached her, she hadn't cried. She couldn't bring herself to mourn the man who'd felt nothing for her his entire life.