Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the teahouse. . . .
Miss Charlotte Pettifer belongs to a secret league of women skilled in the subtle arts. That is to say—although it must never be said—witchcraft. The League of Gentlewomen Witches strives to improve the world in small ways. Using magic, they tidy, correct, and manipulate according to their notions of what is proper, entirely unlike those reprobates in the Wisteria Society.
When the long lost amulet of Black Beryl is discovered, it is up to Charlotte, as the future leader of the League, to make sure the powerful talisman does not fall into the wrong hands. Therefore, it is most unfortunate when she crosses paths with Alex O’Riley, a pirate who is no Mr. Darcy. With all the world scrambling after the amulet, Alex and Charlotte join forces to steal it together. If only they could keep their pickpocketing hands to themselves! If Alex’s not careful, he might just steal something else—such as Charlotte’s heart.
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Charlotte could listen no more in silence. For several minutes now a young man at the teahouse counter had been abusing a waiter with language that pierced her soul. She had tried to behave as the other customers and look away-after all, who did not understand the pain of being disappointed in one's hopes for a warm currant scone? But finally her patience broke, and she simply had to speak by such means as were within her reach-namely, a volume of Dickens she had been reading over tea and sandwiches.
Rising from her chair, she cast Great Expectations at the young man's head and then settled down once more to her luncheon.
The young man roared. Clutching his head, eyes blazing, he glared around the cafeteria. "Who did that?!"
Charlotte raised one delicate, lace-gloved hand.
"He did," she said, pointing to a dark-haired gentleman at a nearby table.
Several ladies gasped. Her chosen scapegoat, however, gave no reaction. Charlotte was unsurprised. She had seen him enter the teahouse earlier and noted at a glance how everything about him was rich, from his long black overcoat to his gold-handled briefcase. She could not imagine him paying attention to anyone he might consider lesser than himself. Indeed, he read his newspaper and drank his coffee as if she had not even spoken.
The angry young man had heard her well enough, however. He stormed across to snatch the gentleman's newspaper and fling it dramatically to the ground. The moment was rather spoiled by paper sheets fluttering about, one covering his face and thereby muting his tirade, but he pulled it away, scrunching it within a fist.
"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded, brandishing his knuckles along with the rumpled paper.
The gentleman blinked composedly. "I beg your pardon?"
"You threw a book at me! Stand up, mister, and face justice!"
"Don't be ridiculous," the gentleman replied, unmoved. Charlotte noted that his voice was rich too, with a slight accent woven through like gold thread. "Compensate me for my newspaper then return to whatever gutter from which you crawled. You are disturbing the peace."
"I'll give you disturbing!" The young man grasped the coat lapels of the older and hauled him from his chair.
"Goodness me," Charlotte murmured, leaning back as the men stumbled against her table. Screams arose from the other patrons, but Charlotte did not indulge in shock. Her teacup was rattling in its saucer. Her sandwiches almost leaped off their plate. If she sat around gasping, luncheon would be entirely spoiled.
With a sigh, she stood, laying her napkin on the table. She took a last sip of tea while the men knocked over chairs with their furious wrestling. She wrapped her sandwiches in the napkin, rescued her purse from the table moments before the men crashed onto it, then left the teahouse, picking up the gentleman's briefcase as she went.
A tiny bell tinkled as she opened the door and stepped out. A breeze plucked at her strawberry blonde coiffure but was unable to disrupt it. Charlotte paused, squinting against the lambent afternoon light, and considered her route ahead.
St. James's Street was busy as usual with a bright drift of ladies going about their regular business, shopping and sightseeing and generally making a promenade of themselves. A woman dressed simply in gray, with only one feather on her hat and the smallest bustle possible without being indecent, would stand out most regrettably amongst them. But there was no choice. She closed the shop door just as a teapot smashed against it. From within the premises came a lady's anguished cry, and then a man shouted: "Where is my briefcase?!" Charlotte straightened her modest hat, hung her purse from the crook of her elbow, and proceeded along the street.
She had not gone far when the tinkle of a doorbell shook through her consciousness. Without glancing back, she began to lengthen her stride. She managed to cover several yards of St. James's Street within moments and, nodding to acknowledge a police constable who veered in his path to make way for her, turned onto King Street.
Almost at once she found herself stalled by a half dozen ladies laughing together as they moved at a rate that barely qualified as strolling. Charlotte managed to tap her foot impatiently even as she edged forward behind them.
"Stop, thief!" arose a shout from St. James's Street, the force of its anger making it clearly audible despite the distance. Charlotte attempted to circumnavigate the ladies without success. Really, people had no consideration for others these days. How was one supposed to effect a robbery when dawdlers blocked the footpath in this disgraceful manner? They left her no option but to cast off all decorum and step out amongst the wagons on the road.
A driver hollered at her to immediately evacuate his intended route (or at least words to that effect). As she looked back, Charlotte saw the gentleman from the teahouse enter King Street, his coat billowing as he strode toward her. Realizing that she would not be able to outpace him, she muttered under her breath.
All of a sudden, the wagon's horses whinnied and reared, forcing their vehicle to a shuddering stop in the center of the road. Pumpkins flew from the back, bursting open on the cobblestones and causing ladies to scream as orange mush splattered over their gowns. A phaeton coming up behind narrowly avoided collision, and as its driver rose from his seat to shout abuse at the wagoner, various pedestrians rushed to join in.
Within seconds, the street was blocked.
Charlotte walked away from the tumult, her heels clicking delicately against the paving. Noticing Almack's public assembly house farther along, she began to aim for it.
A policeman's whistle pierced the clamor of the crowd, and Charlotte winced. Pain from the noise ricocheted along her nerves. If only she could leave London with all its cacophony and retire to Hampshire, birthplace of Jane Austen, where green peace whispered wild yet gentle poetry to one's heart. It was never to be-duty forced her presence in London, noble duty (and the fact there was not much of value to steal in the countryside)-yet still she dreamed. And occasionally took brief jaunts by train because, truly, there was nothing like leaving home for real comfort.
Thus imagining oak trees and country lanes while behind her the brawl intensified, Charlotte made her way without further impediment toward Almack's. Its door stood open, a delivery boy's bicycle leaning on the wall beside it, and the warm interior shadows promised respite from London's inconveniences-as well as a back door through which she could slip unnoticed by policemen, pumpkin carters, and aggravated briefcase owners. She was almost there when she saw the child.
A mere scrap of humanity, he huddled within torn and filthy clothes, his small hand extended pathetically. Charlotte looked at him and then at Almack's door. She came to a decisive stop.
"Hello," she said in the stiff tones of someone unused to conversing with children. "Are you hungry?"
The urchin nodded. Charlotte offered him her wrapped sandwiches but he hesitated, his eyes growing wide and fearful as he glanced over her shoulder. Suddenly, he snatched the food and ran.
Charlotte watched him go. Two cucumber sandwiches would not sustain a boy for long, but no doubt he could sell the linen napkin to good effect. She almost smiled at the thought. Then she drew herself up to her fullest height, lifted her chin, and turned to look at the gentleman now looming over her.
"Good afternoon," she said, tightening her grip on his briefcase.
In reply, he caught her arm lest she follow the example of the urchin. His expression tumbled through surprise and uncertainty before landing on the hard ground of displeasure; his dark blue eyes smoldered. For the first time, Charlotte noticed he wore high leather boots, strapped and buckled, scarred from interesting use-boots to make a woman's heart tremble, either in trepidation or delight, depending on her education. A silver hook hung from his left ear; a ruby ring encircled one thumb, and what she had taken for a beard was mere unshaven stubble. Altogether it led to a conclusion Charlotte was appalled not to have reached earlier.
"Pirate," she said in disgust.
"Thief," he retorted. "Give me back my briefcase."
How rude! Not even the suggestion of a please! But what else could one expect from a barbarian who probably flew around in some brick cottage thinking himself a great man just because he could get it up? Pirates really were the lowest of the low, even if-or possibly because-they could go higher than everyone else in their magic-raised battlehouses. Such an unsubtle use of enchantment was a crime against civilization, even before one counted in the piracy. Charlotte allowed her irritation to show, although frowning on the street was dreadfully unladylike.
"Possession is nine-tenths of the law, sir. Kindly unhand me and I will not summon a police officer to charge you with molestation."
He surprised her by laughing. "I see you are a wit as well as a thief. And an unlikely philanthropist too. If you hadn't stopped for the boy, you might have gotten away."
"I still shall."
"I don't think so. You may be clever, but I could have you on the ground in an instant."
"You could," Charlotte agreed placidly. "However, you may like to note that my shoe is pressed against your foot. If I am so inclined, I can release a poisoned dart from its heel which will penetrate boot and skin to paralyze you within moments."
He raised an eyebrow. "Ingenious. So you too are a pirate, I take it?"
Charlotte gasped, trying to tug her arm from his grip. "I most certainly am not, sir, and I demand an apology for the insult!"
Charlotte waited, but apparently that was the extent of his reply. She drew a tight breath, determined to remain calm. What would Jane Austen's fiercest heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, do in this situation?
"I consider myself a reasonable woman," she said. "I take pride in not being prejudiced. Although your behavior is disgraceful, and I shall surely have bruises on my arm, I do appreciate this has been a difficult afternoon for you. Therefore, I give you permission to withdraw."
"How kind," he said wryly, although he did ease his grip on her arm. "I am going nowhere, however, without my briefcase."
"But it is for the orphans," she said, her tone suggesting horror that he would deprive the poor, wretched creatures of whatever small comfort his briefcase might afford them.
"The orphans, indeed? And you're taking it to them right now?"
"Don't be ridiculous. It's afternoon. No well-mannered lady does business in the afternoon. I'm taking it home, selling its contents, and adding the income to my estate. It will support my general affluence and prestige, which in turn will lend weight to my opinion about the sad plight of orphans."
"I see. So by contributing to your personal wealth I am helping the poor?"
He grinned. "You sure you're not a pirate?"
"Certainly not! I am the opposite of a pirate. I am a good person. I only steal from the rich."
"And those who would be rich if they'd just put their minds to it?"
"Yes." She paused, frowning. "No. That is-" She broke off, muttering.
"I beg your pardon?" the man asked, then flinched as a pumpkin flew past his head, narrowly missing him before exploding against the wall of Almack's. Wet pulp splashed his coat, although by good fortune (and some reversal of the laws of physics) none touched Charlotte.
The man regarded her steadily for a long moment. Then with his free hand he pulled back her sleeve to reveal a delicate gold bracelet set with tiny jeweled bee charms.
"I thought so. I've heard of women like you. What is your name?"
Charlotte tried again to escape his grip, without success. "Very well," she relented. "I am Miss Anne Smith. And whom do I have the misfortune of addressing?"
"Captain Alex O'Riley, madam. Which, may I add, is my real name."
So he was Irish, as suggested by his mild accent. An Irish pirate in London. Charlotte could only imagine the unbridled poetry he was leaving in his wake. "I cannot say I am pleased to meet you, Mr. O'Riley. But if you leave me your card, I'm sure I'll acknowledge the acquaintance should we happen to encounter each other again at some public ball or soiree."
"Or," he countered, "I could just knock you unconscious, take back my briefcase, and kiss you before I leave."
He smiled wickedly. Charlotte almost gasped for the second time in twenty-one years. Her outrage was so great, she struggled to summon a witty retort. Elizabeth Bennet, consulted urgently, could only suggest that his arrogance, his conceit, and his selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to bypass her disapprobation and move straight to dislike! But Charlotte did not have time to express all that before he spoke again.
"Forgive me," he said without the slightest evidence of remorse. "I'm not usually quite so rough. But what else can a pirate do when he meets a lady of the Wicken League?"
He gave her a smug, challenging look.
"I have no idea what you mean," Charlotte replied.
"No?" He tipped his head to one side as if he might see her better crooked. "I once knew a lady with a similar bracelet featuring bees."
"It is a common symbol."
"For her it showed she belonged to a covert league of women skilled in the cunning arts. That is to say, although I believe it must never be said-" Glancing around to be sure no one could hear him, he leaned so close Charlotte could see the sparks of mockery in his eyes. "Witchcraft."
Charlotte considered this for a moment, then discarding Elizabeth Bennet in favor of Lydia, she stomped down hard on his foot.
Purple smoke burst from her heel. Bother-wrong shoes! The churl might sicken if he breathed in that smoke, but since it was some six feet below his mouth and nose, the risk of even that was minimal. She herself was in more danger, being shorter than him. Luckily, surprise had caused him to weaken his grip, and Charlotte yanked free, bashed him in the gut then under the chin with his own briefcase, and made a run for it.
"Stop!" he shouted, but did not follow, on account of being hunched over, clutching at his stomach. Charlotte knew, however, that he'd soon recover and catch up to her. Escaping on foot was going to be impossible. Almost without thinking, she grabbed hold of the delivery boy's bicycle and clambered on as quickly as her skirts would allow.