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The hour of her rendezvous was nearly upon her.
Worry made Grace's heart pound and her hand tremble as she stepped into her bedchamber and quietly closed the door. The music of a four-piece orchestra drifted upward from the drawing room downstairs. The house party, a gala event that had cost a small fortune, was an other of her mother's unending attempts to fob her off on one of the ton's aged aristocrats. Grace had stayed as long as she dared, forcing herself to make dreary conversation with her mother's guests, then pled a headache and retired upstairs. She had urgent business to attend this night.
Outside the window, a winter wind whipped leafless branches against the sill as Grace stripped off her long white gloves. Her palms were sweating. Uncertainty coiled like a snake in her stomach, but her course was set and she refused to turn back now.
Hurrying toward the bellpull, she kicked off her kid-skin slippers along the way, rang for her lady's maid, then reached up to work the clasp on the diamond-and-pearl necklace around her neck. Her hand lingered there, testing the smoothness of the pearls, the rough facets of the diamonds set in between each one.
The necklace had been a gift from her best friend, Victoria Easton, countess of Brant, and Grace treasured it, her only possession of any real worth.
"You rang, miss?" Her maid, Phoebe Bloom, was a bit of a featherhead at times but good-hearted nonetheless. She poked her dark-haired head through the door, then hurried in.
"I could use a little help, Phoebe, if you please."
"Of course, miss."
It didn't take long to get out of the gown. Grace managed a nervous smile for Phoebe, pulled on her quilted wrapper, and excused the girl for the balance of the evening. The music downstairs continued to play. Grace prayed she could complete her mission and return to the house before anyone discovered she was gone.
The moment Phoebe closed the door, Grace tossed aside her robe and hurriedly changed into a simple gray wool gown. She blew out the whale oil lamp on the dresser and the one beside the bed, leaving the room in darkness. Stuffing a pillow beneath the covers to create the illusion that she was sleeping if her mother chanced to look in, she grabbed her cloak and swung it around her shoulders.
As she headed for the door, she picked up her reticule, the purse heavy with the weight of the money she had received from her great-aunt, Matilda Crenshaw, Baroness Humphrey, along with a ticket for a cabin aboard a packet sailing north at the end of the week.
Raising the hood of her cloak to cover her auburn hair, Grace checked to be certain no one was out in the hall, then slipped down the servants' stairs and left the house through a door leading out to the garden.
Her heart was pumping, her nerves on edge, by the time she reached Brook Street, hailed a hackney carriage and climbed into the passenger seat.
"The Hare and Fox Tavern, if you please," she said to the driver, hoping he wouldn't hear the tremor in her voice.
"That be in Covent Garden, eh, miss?"
"That is correct." It was a small, out-of-the-way establishment, she had been told, chosen by the man whose services she intended to purchase. She had gleaned the man's name from her coachman for a few gold sovereigns, though she didn't tell him the nature of her business.
It seemed to take hours to reach her destination, the hackney winding through the dark London streets, wooden wheels whirring, the horse's hooves clopping over the cobbles, but finally the painted sign for the Hare and Fox appeared.
"I'd like you to wait," Grace said to the driver as the coach pulled up in front, pressing a handful of coins into his palm. "I won't be inside very long."
The driver nodded, a grizzled old man whose face was mostly hidden beneath a growth of heavy gray beard. "See that ye aren't."
Praying the man would still be there when she returned, and careful to keep the hood of her cloak up over her head, she made her way around to the back of the tavern as she had been instructed, opened the creaky wooden door and stepped into the dimly lit taproom. The place was low-ceil inged and smoky, with heavy carved beams and scarred wooden tables. A fire blazed in a blackened stone hearth and a group of hard-looking men sat at a nearby table. At the back of the room, a tall, big-boned man in a slouch hat and greatcoat sat at another of the tables. He stood as she walked in and motioned for her to join him.
Grace swallowed and dragged in a courage-building breath, then made her way toward him, ignoring the curious glances of the men in the tavern as she took a seat in the ladder-back chair he offered.
"Did ye bring the blunt?" he asked without the least formality.
"Are you certain you can see the job done?" Grace was equally forward.
He straightened as if she'd insulted him. "Jack Moody gives his word, ye can count on it. Ye'll get what ye pay for."
Grace's hand shook as she pulled the pouch out of her reticule and handed it to the man named Jack Moody. He poured a fistful of golden guineas into his palm, a dark smile lifting a thin pair of lips.
"It's all there," Grace said, trying to ignore the bawdy jokes and coarse laughter of the men at the table next to them, glad they were mostly occupied with their drinking and the lusty tavern wenches who seemed to keep them entertained. The smell of greasy mutton made her stomach roll and Grace felt a sweep of nausea. She had never done anything like this before. She prayed she would never have to again.
Jack Moody counted the coins, then dumped them back into the pouch. "As ye say, seems t'all be there." He rose to his feet, his features partly shadowed by the narrow brim of his hat. "The plan's been set. Soon as I give the word, t'will be done. Yer man'll be well outta London come mornin'."
Jack hefted the pouch, making the coins rattle. "This be all the thanks I need." He tipped his head toward the door. "Best get along now. Later it gets, more chance of trouble findin' ye."
Grace said nothing to that, just rose from the chair and cast a cautious glance at the door.
"Mind ye keep yer silence, lass. Them what talks when they shouldn't don't live very long."
A chill went through her. She would never mention Jack Moody's name again. With a faint nod of understanding, she drew her cloak around her and made her way silently out the back door.
The alley was dark and smelled of rotten fish. Mud squished beneath the soles of her ankle boots. Lifting her skirt and the hem of her cloak out of the way, she hurried through the darkness, her gaze darting back and forth in search of trouble. Once she reached the front of the tavern, she caught sight of the hackney carriage and the old man sitting on the driver's seat, and released a momentary sigh of relief.
The trip home seemed an even longer journey. The lights were still blazing in the windows of her family's town house as she made her way through the garden. Hurriedly climbing the servants' stairs, she slipped down the hall and into her bedchamber. The orchestra had stopped playing, but she could still hear a burst of occasional laughter as the last of the guests departed.
Grace sighed as she untied her cloak and returned it to its hook beside the door. At the end of the week, she would be leaving the house herself, traveling to Scarborough to visit Lady Humphrey, though the two of them had never met. If the escape tonight went as planned, the outrage that would erupt all over London in the morning would be of momentous proportions. Though she wouldn't leave for a couple of days, a lengthy journey seemed propitious.
Grace thought of the man in Newgate prison, Viscount Forsythe, who languished in a dank cell, counting the hours until dawn when he would climb the wooden stairs to the gallows. She didn't know whether he was innocent or guilty, didn't know whether or not he deserved the sentence he had been given.
But the viscount was her father and though no one knew the truth of their relationship, nothing could change the fact. He was her father and she simply couldn't abandon him.
Grace stared up at the ceiling above her bed and prayed she had done the right thing.
One Week Later
"I see her, Capt'n! The Lady Anne! She's there
just off starboard, left o' the foremast."
Standing next to his first mate, Angus McShane, Captain Ethan Sharpe swung his worn brass spyglass in the direction Angus pointed. Through the darkness, the lens caught the gleam of distant yellow lights shining through a row of windows at the stern of the ship.
Ethan's fingers tightened around the glass as he surveyed his quarry. An icy wind blew over the deck, ruffling his thick black hair, numbing the skin over his cheekbones, but he barely noticed. At last his prey was in sight and nothing was going to keep him from it.
"Come about, Mr. McShane. Set a course to intercept the Lady Anne."
"Aye, Capt'n." The weathered Scotsman had been in his employ since Ethan had commanded his first vessel. Carrying out Ethan's direction, the old sea dog ambled across the deck spouting orders to the crew, and the lads set to work. The sails began to flutter, luffing, then refilling with wind. The rigging clattered and clanked as the Sea Devil came about; the heavy ship's timbers groaned, then the hull settled into its proper course and sliced cleanly through the water.
The schooner was eighty feet long, sleek and fast, skimming through the waves as effortlessly as the sea lions who followed in her wake. She was built of seasoned oak in the best shipyard in Portsmouth, designed for a merchant unable to come up with the funds once the schooner was complete.
Ethan had stepped in and purchased the vessel at a more than reasonable price, though he knew he would only have brief need of it. One last mission, one final assignment before he assumed the duties of his newly acquired position as marquess of Belford.
One last bit of personal business that wouldn't let him rest until he saw it done.
His jaw hardened. The Sea Devil was the second ship he'd commanded since he had relinquished his naval commission eight years ago and begun a career as a British privateer.
He had commanded the Sea Witch then, a similarly well-equipped vessel manned by the best crew a man could have. His men were gone now, lost in battle or dead in a stinking French prison, the Sea Witch rotting in an icy grave at the bottom of the sea.
Ethan closed his mind to the memory. His men were gone, all but Angus, who had been away in Scotland caring for an ailing mother, and Long-boned Ned, who had managed to escape the French pigs who had taken the ship and make his way back to Portsmouth.
Ethan's men captured and killed, his ship gone, and though he still lived, eleven months of his nine-and-twenty years stolen from him. He carried a slight limp and the scars of his endless months in confinement. Someone would pay and pay dearly, Ethan silently vowed as he had a thousand times.
His hand unconsciously fisted.
And that someone rode now aboard the Lady Anne.
Grace Chastain took the high-backed, carved wooden chair held for her by Martin Tully, earl of Collingwood. The earl, a slender, attractive man in his early thirties with light brown hair and a fair complexion, was a fellow passenger. Grace had met him on her first night aboard the Lady Anne, the packet carrying her from London to Scarborough, where Grace planned a long stay with her great-aunt, the Dowager Baroness Humphrey.
Lady Humphrey, Grace's father's aunt, had extended an offer of assistance should it ever be needed. Grace had never expected to accept such an offer, but the matter of her father's imprisonment had drastically altered her circumstances, and she had accepted her great-aunt's help and money enough to free her father.
Grace prayed that by the time she returned to London, matters would have settled down. She prayed no word of her involvement in her father's escape a week earlier had surfaced and she would be safe.
The door of the salon swung open. She looked up to see Captain Chambers enter the elegant, wood-paneled room. An older man, short and stout with thinning gray hair, he waited till the rest of the passengers were seated, then took his place at the head of the linen-draped table, the signal for a pair of uniformed crewmen to begin serving the meal.
"Good evening, everyone."
"Good evening, Captain," replied the group in unison.
Since Grace and her lady's maid, Phoebe Bloom, had been traveling aboard the packet for the past several days, the shipboard routine was no longer daunting. And the passengers, especially Lord Collingwood, had all been agreeable company.
Grace flicked a glance at the earl, who sat beside her at the long mahogany table, chatting pleasantly with the woman to his right, Mrs. Cogburn, a plump matron traveling north to visit her brother. Mrs. Cogburn was a widow, as was Mrs. Franklin, her companion. Also seated at the table were a wealthy silk merchant from Bath and a newly married couple on their way to visit relatives in Scotland.
Lord Collingwood laughed at something Mrs. Cogburn said then casually shifted his attention to her. His eyes ran over her aqua silk gown, took in the auburn curls swept high on her head, lingered a moment on her bosom, then returned to her face.
"If I might say so, you look particularly fetching tonight, Miss Chastain."
"Thank you, my lord."
"And those pearls you are wearing
they're quite unusual. I don't believe I have ever seen a string so perfectly matched or of such a rich color."
Unconsciously her hand came up to the strand of pearls at her throat. The necklace was worth a fortune, a gift Grace probably should have refused, but Tory had insisted, and the necklace was so lovely. The moment Grace had put it on, she simply hadn't been able to resist.
"They're very old," Grace told the earl. "Thirteenth century. There's a rather tragic story behind them."
"Really? Perhaps you will tell me sometime."
"I would be happy to."