The Phantom of London. Enigma Earl. The Greenwich Recluse.
Half of his face, shadowed by gold and brown whiskers, showed male perfection, but the other half, a bizarre pattern of scar lines and puckered flesh. Truly, staring at his face was akin to seeing a painting of two men, split down the middle. Lydia recoiled as much from the hot anger flashing in his eyes as from astonishment.
HE'S A MYSTERIOUS RECLUSE
Lord Greenwich is notoriously elusive. His tendency to hide his face in public and refusal to appear in London Society have even earned him some choice monikers, including "the Phantom of London." Is he disfigured? Mad? Hiding something? With a reputation like that, no woman wants to get near the dark earl. And no one is more surprised than Miss Lydia Montgomery when she is betrothed to the earl in order to save her family from penury. But if Lydia wants a chance at happiness, she'll have to set aside her fear of Lord Greenwich and discover the man hiding behind the beastly reputation...
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Don't bargain for fish still in the water.
Edge of London
March 27, 1768
If a woman's old enough to wear a corset, she's old enough to know midnight meetings spell trouble. Lydia's sleep-fogged brain weighed this undeniable fact against family duty. Of course, duty won. Why else would she be cocooned inside a shabby hack on a dark and blustery night? The quicker she extracted her stepbrother from his latest mess, the quicker she'd be cozy again in her warm bed. Bleary-eyed, Lydia peered at the Blue Cockerel. The inn's shingle, a blue rooster cracked up the middle, squeaked a lively rhythm. The establishment was hardly worth a map's mention. Worse yet, the driver stopped a long, puddle-filled distance from the entrance. Lydia glanced down at her best and only pair of buckle shoes; tonight, the limits of family loyalty would be tested.
Outside the hack, her stepfather, George Montgomery, protested the driver's fare. His pockets always held dust better than coin. He groused and huffed but eventually dug deep for the requisite payment. That's when he caught her eye.
"Look lively, gel. Storm's kicking up...don't have all night," he snapped, wrestling down his hat against blasting winds.
"You asked for my help," she muttered and exited the hack.
Icy gusts nipped her ankles. Shivering, Lydia pulled her short red cloak tightly about. This time the blighter went beyond the pale. After all, wasn't he the one who pounded on her door, yelling she must come at once? Her trips to London were so rare, and she barely arrived two days ago. Why was her presence at this run-down spot so important? She hop-stepped from one cobblestone to another, piecing together fragments of what George had said on the ride over.
"Tristan's in a mess...really done it this time...need your help...keep quiet and cooperate...be a good gel...best for the family and all that."
"Good girl, indeed," she scoffed, absorbing the information.
As a woman of four-and-twenty, she had shed that biddable nature long ago. Not that he would know. Sparse communication weakened already thin family ties. A heady dose of drowsiness kept her quiet; all the better to be done with this business. Her stepbrother stirred up trouble one way or another.
Then her shoe squished in some questionable muck.
"Lud, even the road isn't decently cobbled." She inspected the damage and foisted her skirts higher. "No need to ruin a hem on this fool's errand."
Right then, the heavens conspired against her. A shock of rain poured down on her head, thunder boomed, and Lydia rushed after George. He pressed a shoulder to the inn's ramshackle door, and they burst into the common room.
Empty, it was.
Oh, a dying fire and a whiff of an unnamed, unpleasant aroma welcomed them. Lydia shook damp skirts and spied a boot wipe. The Blue Cockerel raised a notch in her estimation for offering the amenity. In the act of scraping one shod foot, she paused, her foot hovering over the bristled wipe. Old George's eyes nearly bulged from his head. She followed his stare to shafts of light spilling from a poorly hung door abovestairs. Signs of life. Lydia righted herself and noticed his Adam's apple bobbling up and down in the way of a nervous lad.
"George?" She touched his sleeve. "Are you well?"
"Well? 'Course...feel fine, fine." He slid a finger inside his collar and craned his neck like some strange bird. "Let me do the talking, eh? All else fails, think of your mother."
"Mother?" Suspicion edged her voice. "What's she got to do with this? Aren't we here to get Tristan?"
"We are. We are." George doffed his hat to finger comb stray graying hairs, avoiding eye contact.
Footsteps, a steady cadence in blackness, drew her attention again to that cracked door. Lydia peered into the gloom, and uncomfortable cold penetrated her skin. A sylphlike figure paced back and forth, back and forth. The tiny hairs at her nape quivered from another kind of chill.
There it was.
A large shadow. That monstrous shape, a floating specter, flickered past gaps in warped wood. Light slivered away when the figure moved. An occupied room at a public house shouldn't cause concern, but she swallowed hard at the sound of those eerie steps. Someone abovestairs waited for them. This had to be a different kind of trouble.
"Let's get Tristan and go home," she said, her voice uneven.
"Right." George tugged at his waistcoat and kept a cautious eye on that door. "Remember, be on your best behavior."
Lydia grimaced at George's back but followed him up creaking stairs in silence, doing her best to stave off worrisome nerves. How odd, this place. Everywhere, tables heaped with dirty dishes and half-empty tankards of ale, as if someone cleared the inn on a moment's notice. A pair of beady-eyed rodents, bold in their watch, hunched over a crust of bread. Lydia hugged her cloak tight, unable to shake the haze of being off center and ill placed. Even more, she was poorly prepared. In her haste, she failed to comb her hair or don a corset. Though well covered, she squirmed at that brazen fact. As she took a bracing breath, the room's odor assailed her again.
"Ugh, sour rags." She pressed a hand under her nose. "That's the horrible smell."
Somehow, identifying that mundane lack of housekeeping helped her calm.
George's fist pounded the door. "Shh, gel."
"Why? Are we insulting the rats?" She rolled her eyes.
"Enter," a male voice called from within.
A push against warped wood, and metal hinges whined their slow, high-pitched complaint. The door swung wide. Strangers-two men, tall and rather large-occupied the tight space. Tristan was nowhere in sight. A narrow, rumpled bed stretched vacant and forlorn. That alarm went off in her head again, yet George stepped into the room and waved her to follow. Lydia stepped past the threshold, and her inquisitive nature shushed those warnings for a better look at what she found inside.
A huge, sun-bronzed man leaned beside a tiny window, as nonchalant as you please. Her jaw dropped at the sight of him. Bald as an egg, he was, and sporting a full beard with three little braids to boot. A gold hoop gleamed from his ear. A pirate? Or a ruffler? He brought to mind those beefy men who roamed unsavory streets, smashing heads first, asking questions later, though he was nattily dressed in ruby-red velvet under his frock coat. Despite her best manners, she gaped.
Ah, but the other man was more mysterious, what with his collar flipped high and tricorn pulled low. A plain, oiled cloak covered him from his face down to his battered boots. A slit of eyes was the only sign of humanity. Any moment now, Lord Mysterious, a highwayman for sure, would brandish a musket, and they'd be done for.
"Montgomery," the cloaked man greeted George and gave her a fleeting look.
"Milord." George, hat in hand like an errand boy, spoke to Lord Mysterious but jabbed a thumb at her. "I've done as we agreed and brought her, but I haven't yet broke the news to...to her mother, leastways. There'll be hell to pay, if you know my meaning. Women can be all weepy and such about these things."
"Your parley with Mrs. Montgomery is no concern of mine," said Lord Mysterious.
For a highwayman, he spoke rather well...and George did address him as milord.
What was this again about her mother? And where's Tristan? Lydia hugged herself for warmth and inched closer to the door's shadows. George failed to inspire confidence the way he wiped his forehead and squirmed. She couldn't be sure if that was sweat or rain on his face.
"If I may, milord, you're a reasonable man. I was wondering, really, that is, I was thinking there must be another way."
"Another way?" The cloaked man's voice held a soft, menacing note. "You came to me with this bargain."
Bargain? What bargain? Her head snapped to attention. Lud, but she should've pressed for details. The unsettling way her stepfather kept curling and uncurling his wide-brimmed hat didn't bode well.
"If you could find a mite of forgiveness...maybe give me some time to find another remedy?" George spread his arms in supplication. "Lord Greenwich, please...surely, in your youth, you've done some reckless deeds-"
"Don't." Lord Greenwich's voice cut short George's blather.
The elusive Edward Sanford, Earl of Greenwich.
Thunder cracked overhead. The window's wavy panes rattled.
The cloaked man was none other than one of England's highborn sons, and Tristan and George's employer. Her sigh of relief was loud enough that both strangers glanced her way.
Tristan's in a pickle if nobility's involved, but at least they weren't in the company of common thugs. All things considered, a rare view of the eccentric Earl of Greenwich made the midnight rouse worthwhile. The men conversed in low tones, and Lydia indulged her curiosity, blatantly staring from the folds of her hood. Shameless behavior, of course, but why dither over that? Any woman in her shoes would do the same.
The Phantom of London. Enigma Earl. The Greenwich Recluse.
You had to be hiding in a cave to have not heard one of those infamous monikers. A scientist of note, he vanished a few years past from the public eye. Broadsheets claimed he never ventured out in the light of day. People whispered of a carriage bearing the Greenwich coat of arms, an ominous black conveyance tearing about Town, curtains drawn. Some said the earl suffered from madness. Some said he was stricken with a hideous, disfiguring disease. These silly stories came to mind because she read them to Great-Aunt Euphemia, who thrived on a steady diet of gossip pages.
Lydia pushed back her hood a fraction for a better look at London's favorite phantom. When he raised his head, she glimpsed dark eyebrows and strands of gold-brown hair framing what must be his face hidden behind the collar. Apparently, the Enigma was blond. She smiled, recalling the whimsies of Town chatter when it eventually made its way to humble Wickersham. Shrouded as he was, one could see why so many peculiar assumptions abounded. Truly, George conversed with a slit of eyes. At that picture, a yawning laugh escaped her.
"Something funny, gel?" George snipped.
"Did I laugh? Sorry about that." Lydia covered her mouth, not caring a whit. "I thought we were here to save Tristan, not have a midnight meeting with your employer. Not sure why I'm here."
"Like I told you in the hack. Silence, gel-"
Lord Greenwich stopped their exchange. "Be nice, Montgomery, or you'll find me less lenient. No more delays. She goes with me...as per the agreement."
Lydia snapped to attention. All vestiges of her hazy drowse vanished.
"What did you say?" Her head tipped toward the earl.
Lightning flashed. Pulsing brightness danced behind the nobleman's shrouded bulk.
"You heard me."
"Yes, I heard you, but I thought we were here to save Tristan. What's this about an agreement?"
His dark eyes narrowed on her. "You are here to save your stepbrother...in a manner of speaking."
"Then where is he?"
"His whereabouts are not my concern."
Now this was all very cryptic. Lydia planted a hand on her hip, and taking a deep breath, tried for clarity.
"But I thought he was in some kind of minor scrape."
"There's nothing minor about your family's troubles." The earl scoffed, and his cultured voice sharpened. "I wouldn't call your stepbrother borrowing money from some unsavory types minor. He came begging for help not long after he started his apprenticeship. My man of business"-he gestured to the well-dressed man near the window-"obliged him with a loan. When Tristan couldn't repay that debt, he stole from Sanford Shipping. Your stepfather made matters worse by trying to cover it up...from me." His lordship's tone lightened at this. "Even lifted some coin for himself. But we waste time. You know this already."
Lydia digested the news: Tristan and George were thieves; the earl found humor in the fact that they tried to pull the wool over his eyes; and he assumed she was fully apprised. Worse yet, Lydia was somehow embroiled in this mess, a mess that looked to be more than a paltry few coins lifted from a till. She glared at her stepfather, who shrunk under her withering stare, and then she faced Lord Greenwich.
"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, my lord, and this sounds like a worse muddle than what's typical. But I fail to see what this has to do with me." Irritation building, she enunciated each word. "If you please, sir, the hour is late, and my skirt is soggy."
She shouldn't take a nursemaid's scolding tone with nobility, but thunder cracked overhead, a reminder of the nasty storm, and her patience ran dry. She had things to do come daybreak. The hearth's fire flickered orange light across his lordship's exposed slice of humanity, and his dark-eyed scrutiny softened.
"I understand this is all very abrupt, Miss Montgomery. We need to begin with proper introductions. I am Lord Greenwich." The earl gave a small bow and motioned to the bald man. "And this is Mr. Jonas Bacon, my man of business."
Her gaze snapped to Mr. Bacon's hulking form. He managed a thin veneer of respectability by the fine clothes he wore and the good grace of a noble's company. Man of business? What kind of business was one question banging around her head among the others crowding for space, but good manners prevailed. Lydia curtsied greetings before taking a deep breath and trying anew with sleep-deprived tolerance.
"Yes, I know who you are. I've gathered that much. But what do you mean by this agreement?"
The earl's dark eyes widened under his black brim. "Are you telling me you know nothing?"
Doubt threaded his words, but she wouldn't let that bother her.
"I'm very much uninformed, sir. I knew my stepfather was in your employ as clerk, and recently Tristan, but this is the first I've heard of any thievery. Terrible news...but I'm at a loss as to how my presence makes a difference."
That slash of topaz-dark eyes searched her face, and the fine hairs on her neck bristled again. Heavens, she had nothing to hide, unlike these men. His lordship exchanged a glance with his man of business. Five of Mr. Bacon's fingertips braced a washstand in relaxed repose, yet his indifference belied a pair of alert, assessing eyes. The earl sighed behind the collar as he faced her.
"My apologies, Miss Montgomery, I was led to believe you were an informed party"-he cast a sharp-eyed look at George-"on all aspects of this predicament."
George coughed, and his thin body hunched within his greatcoat.
"Allow me to explain," the earl continued. "More than a fortnight past, I confronted your stepfather with evidence of the theft. Of course there'd be a trial...certain conviction due to overwhelming evidence...incarceration at Newgate...unfortunately for your mother, the Compter-"
"The Compter?" she yelled. "Are you mad? My mother won't go there...least of all for something George did."
"-until the debts have been satisfied," Lord Greenwich finished. "Of course, being past your majority, you are in no way under familial obligation."
Her stomach lurched at his casual discussion of her mother in that ancient Cheapside prison. Damp, moldy bricks reeked of death and excrement, casting its horrid pall long before the edifice came to view. Debtors and their families toiled in darkness, slogging for years before gaining freedom; others wasted to nothing, forgotten by the outside world. Scrawny children, released in daylight, begged and scrambled for ha'pennies while standing in filthy gutters, all in the name of repaying family debts. And the horrors of a woman alone...she shuddered. Lydia was of an age and free; her mother, shackled to George, was stuck. Forever.
"There must be another way." Her voice rose with each word. "How bad is this blasted debt?"
He raised a gloved hand to halt her onslaught of words.
"No hysterics, please-"
"You talk of sending my mother to the Compter, and you're bothered by hysterics," she bit each word at him and took a step closer.
His lordship's eyes closed a moment, as if he dipped into a well of forbearance. "If you'll remain calm, I'll finish."
Lydia scowled at George, who was too busy wiping perspiration from his forehead; she'd get no help from that quarter. She wouldn't put it past him to implicate her mother in some way just to weasel his way out of any consequence.
"There is an amenable solution...a plan, if you will."
"Yes, I'm most interested to hear what plan was concocted without my knowledge," she said, glaring at the earl.
"Please understand, Miss Montgomery, I thought you were in full agreement to the solution your stepfather presented." The cadence of his voice slowed. "Call it a creative remedy to satisfy an urgent requirement of mine."
"I don't care what you need. My mother will not go to that hellish place."
"Careful, Miss Montgomery," the earl cautioned. "You're in no position to make such pronouncements...such is the way of things with theft and debt, an imperfect justice system to be sure."
Lydia inhaled quickly, about to give his high and mightiness the sharp end of her tongue.
"Wait." He raised a gloved hand. "I'm not without compassion. Understand, the power to resolve this matter rests in your hands."
Lydia was sure she had the red-faced bearing of an angry fishwife. But he was nobility, and George and Tristan were clearly at fault.
"Go on, then." Her arms clamped over her chest, bunching damp garments. "You said something about a plan."
"Your stepfather overheard a conversation I had with my solicitor at Sanford Shipping. He knew of a particular and rather urgent need of mine. To get to the point-he offered you."
"Offered me? You want to employ me to pay off this debt?" Lydia canted her head sideways. "That's what this is about?"
Lord Greenwich had the nerve to be amused. At least she took the muffled sound behind the collar to be a laugh. Beside him, a heavy log rolled and split apart in the hearth. Firelight flared a bright dance of orange and yellow, exposing his splinter of skin.
"No, Miss Montgomery, I don't want to employ you." He paused, and topaz eyes scrutinized her. "I need you for a different purpose."
Though bare of corset or stays, Lydia couldn't shake the sensation of whalebone pinching her ribs. Breathing became difficult. Male stares bored into her, waiting. Her fingers dug at scratchy wool and muslin.
His lordship sighed overlong and repeated in a monotone voice, "Because Tristan and your stepfather stole-"
"No," she huffed. "I'm not a half-wit. I mean, why this odd trade? Makes no sense. If not to employ me and repay the debt, then what for?"
The earl's shoulders squared. His dark-eyed look reached across the space and pinned her.
"More precisely, I need your body."