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They said she'd murdered her husband because she'd found him inconvenient. They said she'd set fire to the house to conceal her crime.
They said she might well be mad.
There was a standing wager in every betting book in every club in St. James Street. It offered a thousand pounds to any man who managed to spend a night with the Wicked Widow and lived to tell the tale.
They said many things about the lady. Artemis Hunt had heard the rumors because he made it a practice to stay informed. He had eyes and ears throughout London. A network of spies and informants brought him an endless tide of gossip, speculation, and snippets of fact.
Some of the flotsam that washed up on his desk was based on truth; some was only probable; some was blatantly false. Sorting through the lot required considerable time and effort. He did not waste either attempting to verify all of the information he received. Much of it he simply ignored because it did not affect his very private affairs.
Until tonight he'd had no reason to pay close attention to the gossip that swirled around Madeline Deveridge. Whether or not the lady had dispatched her husband to the next world had been of no particular concern to him. He had been occupied with other matters.
Until tonight he'd had no interest whatsoever in the Wicked Widow. But now, it seemed, she had developed an interest in him. Most would say that was an extraordinarily ill omen. He was amused to discover that he found it to be quite intriguing, one of the most interesting things to have happened to him in a long, long time. Which, he thought, only went to show how very narrow and circumscribed his life was these days.
He stood in the night-shrouded street and contemplated the small, elegant carriage that loomed in the fog. The vehicle's lamps glowed eerily in the mist that seethed and foamed around it. The curtains were drawn shut, concealing the interior of the cab. The horses stood quietly. The coachman was an indistinguishable mound on the box.
Artemis recalled the adage he had learned years ago from the monks of the Garden Temples who had instructed him in the ancient philosophy and the fighting arts of Vanza. Life offers an endless banquet of opportunities. Wisdom lies in knowing which ones to taste and which are poison.
He heard the door of his club open and close behind him. Loud, drunken laughter echoed in the darkness. Absently he moved into the pool of deeper shadow created by a nearby doorway and watched two men stumble down the steps. They clambered into a waiting hackney and shouted directions to the coachman, demanding to be driven to one of the gaming hells in the stews. Boredom was the enemy of their sort. They would go to any lengths to defeat it.
Artemis waited until the old vehicle lumbered off down the street. Then he glanced again at the dark, ethereal little carriage in the mists. The problem with Vanza was that, for all its arcane learning and instructive philosophy, it did not make sufficient allowance for the very human factor of curiosity.
Or at least, it did not make allowance for his curiosity.
Artemis made his decision. He moved out of the doorway and walked through the drifting fog to the Wicked Widow's carriage. The stirring of anticipation within him was the only warning he got that he might come to regret his choice. He decided to ignore it.
The coachman shifted and tensed as he drew near.
"Can I help ye, sir?"
The words were properly respectful, but Artemis caught the edge beneath the surface. It told him that the man, hunched beneath a many-caped greatcoat and a hat pulled low over his ears, served as guard as well as coachman.
"My name is Hunt. Artemis Hunt. I believe I have an appointment with the lady."
"So yer the one, eh?" The man did not relax. If anything, his tension seemed to increase. "Get in, if ye please, sir. She's expectin' ye."
Artemis raised his brows at the peremptory orders, but he said nothing. Instead he reached for the handle and opened the carriage door.
Warm amber light from the interior lamp spilled out of the opening. A woman sat on one of the black velvet seats. She was dressed in an expensively cut black cloak that concealed all but a glimpse of the black gown underneath. Her face was a pale blur behind a black lace veil. He could see that she was slender. There was a supple, confident grace about her form that told him she was no green, gawky girl fresh out of the schoolroom. He really ought to have paid more attention to the bits and bobs of gossip concerning her that had come his way in the past year, he thought. Ah well, too late now.
"It was good of you to respond so quickly to my note, Mr. Hunt. Time is of the essence."
The voice was low with a throaty undercurrent that ignited a spark of sensual awareness deep inside him. Unfortunately, although her words were laced with crisp urgency, he could detect no promise of passion. Apparently the Wicked Widow had not lured him into her carriage with the intent of seducing him into a night of wild, reckless lovemaking. Artemis sat down and closed the door. He wondered if he ought to be disappointed or relieved.
"Your message reached me just as I was about to play a hand of cards that I was quite certain to win," he said. "I trust that whatever it is you have to say to me, madam, it will make up for the several hundred pounds I was obliged to forgo in order to meet with you."
She stiffened. Her fingers, sheathed in black kid gloves, tightened around the large black reticule on her lap. "Allow me to introduce myself, sir. I am Madeline Reed Deveridge."
"I know who you are, Mrs. Deveridge. And, as you obviously know who I am, I suggest we skip the formalities and go directly to business."
"Yes, of course." Behind the veil, her eyes glittered with something that might have been irritation. "My maid, Nellie, was kidnapped near the west gate of the Dream Pavilions less than an hour ago. As you are the owner of those pleasure gardens, I expect you to take full responsibility for criminal actions that occur on or near your property. I want you to help me find Nellie."
Artemis felt as if he had plunged into an icy sea. She knew about his connection to the Dream Pavilions. How was that possible? When he had received her note, he had considered and discarded half a dozen reasons for tonight's unlikely rendezvous, but none of them came anywhere near this. How could she have learned that he owned the gardens?
He had known the risks of exposure from the outset. But he had thought himself sunk so deep into the Strategies of Concealment and Distraction that no one, with the possible exception of another master of Vanza, could have discovered the truth. And there was no reason another master would come looking for him.
"Mr. Hunt?" Madeline's voice sharpened. "Did you hear what I said?"
"Every word, Mrs. Deveridge." To conceal his anger, he deliberately infused his voice with the touch of ennui expected from a gentleman threatened with acute boredom. "But I must admit, I do not comprehend. I believe you have come to the wrong address. If your maid has truly been kidnapped, you must instruct your coachman to drive to Bow Street. There you will no doubt be able to hire a runner to look for her. Here in St. James, we prefer other, less strenuous pursuits."
"Do not play your Vanza games with me, sir. I do not care if you are a full master. As the owner of the Dream Pavilions, it is your responsibility to ensure the safety of those who patronize your establishment. I expect you to take immediate action to find Nellie."
She knew he was Vanza. That was even more alarming than the news that she was aware of his ownership of the Pavilions.
The chill in his gut began to spread. He had a sudden, maddening vision of his carefully wrought scheme brought down in ruins. This extraordinary female had somehow acquired a dangerous amount of information about him.
He smiled to cover his fury and disbelief. "Curiosity impels me to inquire just how you came up with the outlandish notion that I am in any way connected to the Dream Pavilions or the Vanzagarian Society."
"It hardly matters, sir."
"You are wrong, Mrs. Deveridge," he said very softly. "It matters."
Something in his voice obviously affected her. For the first time since he had entered the carriage, she appeared to hesitate. About time, he thought grimly.
But when she finally responded, she was astonishingly cool. "I am aware that you are not only a member of the Vanzagarian Society, but a full master, sir. Once I had ascertained that much about you, I knew to look beneath the surface. Those who are trained in that philosophy are rarely what they seem. They are fond of illusion and inclined toward eccentricity."
This was a thousand times worse than he had feared. "I see. May I ask who told you about me?"
"No one told me, sir. At least, not in the way you mean. I discovered the truth through my own efforts."
Not bloody likely, he thought. "You will explain yourself, madam."
"I really do not have time to go into this now, sir. Nellie is in grave danger. I insist that you help me locate her."
"Why should I bother to help you track down your runaway maid, Mrs. Deveridge? I'm sure you can acquire another readily enough."
"Nellie did not run away. I told you, she was kidnapped by villains. Her friend Alice saw it all."
"The pair went to see the newest attractions at the Pavilions this evening. When they left the gardens by the west gate, two men snatched Nellie. They bundled her into a carriage and drove off before anyone realized what had happened."
"I think it far more probable that your Nellie ran off with a young man," Artemis said bluntly. "And her friend concocted the kidnapping story so that if Nellie changes her mind, you'll allow her to return to her post."
"Rubbish. Nellie was seized straight off the street."
Belatedly he reminded himself that the Wicked Widow was reputed to be mad. "Why would anyone kidnap your maid?" he asked, reasonably enough, he thought, under the circumstances.
"I fear she was taken away by some of those vile men who supply innocent young women to the brothels." Madeline picked up a black parasol. "Enough of these explanations. We have not a moment to lose."
Artemis wondered if she intended to use the point of the parasol to prod him into action. He was relieved when she grasped the handle and rapped the tip smartly on the roof of the carriage. The coachman had obviously been listening intently for the signal. The vehicle rumbled immediately into motion.
"What the devil do you think you're doing?" Artemis said. "Has it occurred to you that I might object to being kidnapped myself?"
"I do not particularly care about your objections, sir." Madeline settled back into her seat. Her eyes glittered through the lace veil. "Finding Nellie is the only thing that matters at the moment. I shall apologize to you later, if necessary."
"I'll look forward to that. Where are we going?"
"Back to the scene of the kidnapping. The west gate of your pleasure garden, sir."
Artemis narrowed his eyes. She did not sound mad. She sounded extremely determined. "What, precisely, do you expect me to do, Mrs. Deveridge?"
"You own the Dream Pavilions. And you are Vanza. Between the two, I suspect that you have connections in places I do not."
He considered her for a long while. "Are you implying that I am acquainted with members of the criminal class, madam?"
"I would not presume to guess the extent, let alone the nature, of your web of associates."
The scorn in her voice was particularly interesting, coming as it did on top of her unsettling knowledge concerning his very private business affairs. One thing was certain: He could not get out of the carriage and walk away at this juncture. Her knowledge of his ownership of the Pavilions was, on its own, more than enough to wreak havoc with his carefully laid plans.
He was no longer amused by his own curiosity and anticipation. It was imperative that he discover not only how much Madeline Deveridge knew, but how she had come to learn such carefully concealed facts.
He lounged in the corner of the black velvet seat and studied her veiled features.
"Very well, Mrs. Deveridge," he said. "I will do what I can to help you recover your missing maid. But do not blame me if it transpires that young Nellie does not wish to be found."
She reached out to lift a corner of the window curtain and peered into the fogbound street. "I assure you, she will want to be rescued."
His attention was caught and briefly held by the graceful, gloved hand that grasped the edge of the curtain. He was unwillingly fascinated by the delicate curve of wrist and palm. He caught the faint, tantalizing scent of some flowery herbs she must have used in her bathwater. With an effort he brought his attention back to the more pressing issue.
"Regardless of how this matter is concluded, madam, I had better warn you that when it is finished, I will want some answers of my own."
She turned her head quite sharply to stare at him. "Answers? What sort of answers?"
"Do not mistake me, Mrs. Deveridge. I am extremely impressed with the quantity and quality of the information you possess. Your sources must be excellent. But I fear you know a bit too much about me and my affairs."
It had been a desperate gamble, but she had won. She was face-to-face with the mysterious Dream Merchant, the secret owner of London's most exotic pleasure garden. Madeline was well aware that she had taken a great risk by letting him know that she knew his identity. He had good reason to be concerned, she thought. He moved in high circles in the Polite World. He was on the guest list of every important hostess of the ton, and he was a member of all the best clubs. But even his fortune would not protect him from the social disaster that would ensue if Society discovered that it had admitted to its most exclusive ranks a gentleman who had gone into trade.
She had to acknowledge that he had carried off an audacious performance. Indeed, Hunt had crafted a role for himself that was worthy of the great Edmund Kean. He had successfully managed to keep his identity as the Dream Merchant a secret. No one thought to question the source of his wealth. He was a gentleman, after all. Gentlemen did not discuss such matters unless it became obvious that a man had run out of money altogether, in which case he became the subject of considerable scorn and a great deal of vicious gossip. More than one man had put a pistol to his head rather than face the scandal of financial ruin.
There was no getting around it. She had virtually blackmailed Hunt into helping her tonight, but she'd had no other choice. There would certainly be a price to pay. Artemis Hunt was a Vanza master, one of the most skilled gentlemen who had ever studied the arcane arts. Such men tended to be extremely secretive by nature.
Hunt had gone to great lengths to hide his Vanza past — a very ominous move indeed. Unlike his ownership of the Dream Pavilions, a membership in the Vanzagarian Society would do him no harm in social circles. Only gentlemen studied Vanza, after all. Yet he was intent on cloaking himself in mystery. That did not bode well.
In her experience the majority of the members of the Vanzagarian Society were harmless crackpots. Others were no worse than enthusiastic eccentrics. A few were quite mad, however. And some were truly dangerous. Artemis Hunt, she began to believe, might well be in that last category. When this night's business was finished, she could find herself facing an entirely new host of problems.
As if she did not already have enough to keep her occupied. On the other hand, given her inability to sleep through the night lately, she might as well keep busy, she thought glumly.
A shiver went through her. She realized that she was very conscious of the manner in which Hunt seemed to occupy a great deal of the interior of the small carriage. In overall size he was not as large as her coachman, Latimer, but there was an impressive breadth to his shoulders and a dangerously languid grace about him that disturbed her senses in some peculiar manner she could not explain. The watchful intelligence in his eyes only served to heighten the unsettling sensation.
She realized that in spite of all that she knew about him, she was fascinated by him.
She wrapped her cloak more tightly around herself. Don't be a fool, she thought. The last thing she had ever wanted to do was become involved with another member of the Vanzagarian Society.
But it was too late to change her mind. She had made her decision. Now she must follow through on her scheme. Nellie's very life might depend upon this bold stroke.
The carriage clattered to a stop, shaking her out of her uneasy thoughts.
Artemis reached out and turned down the carriage lamp. Then he grasped the curtain and pulled it aside. She watched, unwillingly riveted by the controlled power of his movements as he looked out into the night.
"Well, madam, we have arrived at the west gate. As you can see, it is quite busy, even at this hour. I cannot believe any young girl could be spirited off in a carriage in front of so many people. Not unless she wished to be carried away."
Madeline leaned forward to examine the scene. The grounds were lit with a multitude of colorful lamps. The low price of a ticket made it possible for people from all walks of life to purchase an evening's entertainment inside the Dream Pavilions. Ladies and gentlemen, members of the country gentry, shopkeepers, apprentices, maids, footmen, dandies, military officers, rakes, and rogues — all came and went through the brightly illuminated gates.
Hunt had a point, she thought. There were any number of people and vehicles in the vicinity. It would have been difficult for a woman to be dragged forcibly into a carriage without someone taking notice.
"The kidnapping did not take place directly in front of the gate," Madeline said. "Alice told me that she and Nellie were standing at the entrance to a nearby lane waiting for the carriage I sent to fetch them when the ruffians appeared." She studied the dark entrance to a narrow street. "She must have meant that corner over there where those young boys are loitering about."
His skepticism was palpable. Madeline glanced at him, alarmed. If he did not take the matter seriously, they would achieve nothing tonight. She knew that time was running out. "Sir, we must hurry. If we do not move swiftly, Nellie will disappear into the stews. It will be impossible to find her."
Artemis allowed the curtain to fall back into place over the window. His hand closed on the door handle. "Remain here. I shall return in a few minutes."
She sat forward quickly. "Where are you going?"
"Calm yourself, Mrs. Deveridge. I have no intention of abandoning the quest. I shall return after I have made a few inquiries."
He vaulted lightly down from the carriage and shut the door before she could demand further details. Irritated and dismayed by the manner in which he had suddenly taken charge, she watched him walk toward the entrance to the dark lane.
She saw him make a few deft adjustments to his greatcoat and hat and was astonished at the result. Within a few steps he had completely altered his appearance.
Although he no longer looked like a gentleman who had just come from his club, he still moved with a fluid self-confidence that she recognized immediately. It was so very similar to the way Renwick had carried himself that it sent a shudder through her. She would forever associate that sleek, prowling stride with skilled practitioners of the fighting arts of Vanza. She wondered again if she had made a grave mistake.
Stop it, she scolded herself. You knew what you were about tonight when you sent the message into his club. You wanted his assistance and now, for better or worse, you have got it.
On the positive side, in terms of his physical appearance, Hunt bore no resemblance at all to her dead husband. For some reason she found that fact oddly reassuring. With his blue eyes, pale hair, and romantically handsome features, Renwick had mocked the golden-haired angels in the paintings of the great artists.
Hunt, on the other hand, could have posed for the devil himself.
It was not just his near-black hair, green eyes, and stark, ascetic face that gave the impression of dark, unplumbed depths. It was the cold, knowing expression in his gaze that sent icy little frissons along her nerves. This was a man who had explored the outer reaches of hell. Unlike Renwick, who charmed everyone who came near him with a sorcerer's ease, Hunt looked every bit as dangerous as he no doubt was.
As she watched, he disappeared into the waves of shadow that lapped at the island of bright lights that was the Dream Pavilions.
Latimer climbed down from the box. He appeared at the window, his broad face creased with anxiety.
"I don't like this, ma'am," he said. "Should have gone to Bow Street to find a runner instead."
"You may be right, but it is too late to try that approach now. I have committed us to this path. I can only hope—" She broke off as Hunt materialized behind Latimer. "Oh, there you are, sir. We were beginning to worry."
"This is Short John." Artemis indicated a thin, wiry, unkempt lad of no more than ten or eleven years. "He will accompany us."
Madeline frowned at Short John. "It's quite late. Shouldn't you be in bed, young man?"
Short John's head came up in an unmistakable gesture of deeply offended pride. He spit quite expertly on the pavement. "I'm not in that line o' work, ma'am. I'm in a respectable trade, I am."
Madeline stared at him. "I beg your pardon? What do you sell?"
"Information," Short John said cheerfully. "I'm one of Zachary's Eyes and Ears."
"Who is Zachary?"
"Zachary works for me," Artemis said, cutting short what would obviously have proved to be an involved explanation. "Short John, allow me to present Mrs. Deveridge."
Short John grinned, jerked off his cap, and gave Madeline a surprisingly graceful bow. "At yer service, ma'am."
Madeline inclined her head in response. "It is a pleasure, Short John. I hope you can help us."
"I'll do me best, ma'am."
"Enough, we cannot waste any more time." Artemis glanced at Latimer as he reached for the handle of the carriage door. "Hurry, man. Short John here will guide you. We are going to a tavern in Blister Lane. The Yellow-Eyed Dog. Do you know it?"
"Not the tavern, sir, but I know Blister Lane." Latimer's face darkened. "Is that where the villains took my Nellie?"
"So Short John tells me. He will ride with you on the box." Artemis opened the door and glided into the carriage. "Let us be off."
Latimer bounded back onto his seat. Short John scrambled up behind him. The carriage was in motion before Artemis got the door closed.
"Your man is certainly anxious to find Nellie," he observed as he took his seat.
"Latimer and Nellie are sweethearts," Madeline explained. "They intend to wed soon." She tried to read his face. "How did you learn that Nellie had been taken to this tavern?"
"Short John saw the entire event."
She stared at him, astonished. "Why on earth didn't he report the crime?"
"As he told you, he's a man of business. He can't afford to give away his stock-in-trade. He was waiting for Zachary to make his usual rounds to collect information, which would, in turn, have been turned over to me in the morning. But I showed up tonight instead, so the boy sold his wares to me. He knows that I can be trusted to give Zachary his usual fee."
"Good heavens, sir, are you telling me that you employ an entire network of informants such as Short John?"
He shrugged. "I pay them much higher wages than the receivers to whom most of them used to sell the odd stolen watch or candlestick. And when Zachary and his Eyes and Ears deal with me, they do not risk being clapped into prison as they did when they were employed in their former careers."
"I don't understand. Why would you pay for the sort of rumors and gossip a gang of young ruffians might collect on the streets?"
"You'd be amazed at what one can learn from such sources."
She sniffed delicately. "I do not doubt that the information would indeed be quite astounding. But why would a gentleman in your position want to know any of it?"
He said nothing. He just looked at her. His eyes gleamed with humorless amusement as he withdrew into some dark place within himself.
What had she expected? she wondered. She should have guessed that he would be a thorough-going eccentric.
She cleared her throat. "No offense, sir. It is just that it all sounds somewhat, uh, unusual."
"So very arcane, complex, and secretive, do you mean?" Artemis's voice was far too polite. "So very Vanza?"
Best to change the subject, Madeline thought. "Where is this Zachary person tonight?"
"He is a young man of a certain age," Artemis said dryly. "He is out courting his young lady this evening. She works in a milliner's shop. This is her night off. He will be sorry to learn that he missed the adventure."
"Well, at least we know what happened. I told you Nellie did not run off with a man."
"So you did. Are you always so quick to remind people when you have the right of the matter?"
"I cannot be bothered to beat about the bush, sir. Not when it comes to something as important as an innocent young woman's safety." She frowned as a thought struck her. "How did Short John learn the location where Nellie was taken?"
"He followed the carriage on foot. He told me it was not difficult because the traffic was moving so slowly on account of the fog." Artemis smiled grimly.
"Short John is a bright lad. He knew that a young woman being carried off near one of the entrances to the Pavilions was just the sort of tidbit for which I would pay very well."
"I should think that you would indeed want to be aware of such criminal activity taking place in the vicinity of your place of business. After all, as the proprietor of the Pavilions you do have a certain responsibility."
"Quite right." Artemis seemed to withdraw even deeper into the shadows. "Can't have that sort of thing going on in the neighborhood. Bad for business."