London, June 1817
Now that the moment was here, Lady Penelope Wakefield’s heart felt as though it might beat right out of her chest. She was certain her chaperone, who was also her mother’s cousin, Mrs. Hall, who stood beside her peering at an exotic stuffed bird, would hear the way Penelope’s pulse pounded through her veins.
It was now or never.
“Oh dear,” Penelope said in mock distress as she reached for her bare earlobe, having dropped the earring some time ago in another area of the museum. “I’ve lost my earring.”
Mrs. Hall, a severe, pinch-faced woman, swung a perturbed look at Penelope, her lips practically disappearing beneath the weight of her distaste. “How clumsy of you. I suppose we must find it. Your mother will not be pleased if you’ve truly lost it.”
Her mother was rarely pleased, but the loss of the pearl earring she’d given Penelope at the start of the Season would infuriate her. However, it was a small price to pay for freedom. Which was precisely what was at stake.
“The museum will be closing soon,” Penelope said. “Perhaps you should look here and in the last room while I retrace my steps farther back.” She held her breath, for if Mrs. Hall didn’t allow her to go, Penelope’s plan would be over before it even began.
Mrs. Hall’s brow furrowed as her lips turned in a deep frown. “We should look together. But you are, unfortunately, correct. The museum will be closing, and you must find that earring.” She pursed her lips. “Although, it would serve you well to return home without the earring and explain your carelessness to the marchioness. On second thought, you’ll do that whether you find the earring or not.”
Irritation ground through Penelope’s anxiety, but there was no point in responding to Mrs. Hall’s directive. Penelope would “find” the earring on her way out of the museum—to freedom.
“Shall we go together, then?” Penelope prompted, mentally crossing her fingers that Mrs. Hall would say no…
The older woman exhaled with grave annoyance. “We will divide our energies. Meet me at the entrance at closing time.” She leaned forward slightly, narrowing her eyes. “And we won’t speak a word of this to anyone.”
Relief and exhilaration shot through Penelope. Hiding her emotion, which was second nature, she merely nodded with a somber expression. “No, we won’t.” She turned before Mrs. Hall could change her mind and went in search of the earring.
Penelope made her way through the rooms to the staircase, pausing briefly to pick up the earring where she’d dropped it near a display of stuffed giraffes. With a backward glance to ensure Mrs. Hall was nowhere to be seen, Penelope hurried down the stairs and wove through the library to the rear entrance.
She encountered just two people and made sure to keep her head down. She’d worn a bonnet with a particularly wide brim to aid in shielding her face, just as she’d worn a costume in the most nondescript color possible. That had been a difficult feat since her wardrobe had been crafted to draw attention—specifically the attention of a would-be husband.
While her clothing and her beauty—so she was told—had made her a focal point of the Season, she’d striven to deter courtship, usually telling gentlemen that she preferred to wait until the end of the Season to make a match. She told her parents it was best to ensure they considered all possible candidates before choosing the best one. Her father had liked her selective approach, but as the end of the Season approached and no gentleman came forward to express his desire for a match, the marquess had arranged the most terrible marriage Penelope could imagine. Now she had no choice but to take drastic measures to avoid it. She had no intention of wedding the odious Earl of Findon.
The exterior door came into view, and Penelope hastened toward it. Just before she stepped outside into the bright afternoon, she feared she would be stopped.
But she wasn’t.
Freedom was hers! Or at least it was close. Looking behind herself one more time, she was once again relieved to see she hadn’t been followed. Now she just had to make her way to the rendezvous point.
Crossing Great Russell Street was her biggest challenge, but she managed it, even as she darted nervous glances toward her coach parked just past the museum. Hurrying down a side street, she was sure the museum must be closing. Any moment, Mrs. Hall would realize Penelope was gone.
Would she raise an alarm and have them search the museum? Or would she keep Penelope’s disappearance quiet and return to Mayfair to inform her parents? If Mrs. Hall thought her mother would be upset about a lost earring, just imagine how furious she and Penelope’s father would be when they learned Penelope was lost.
Penelope suffered a moment’s regret for the chaperone, but only a moment. Mrs. Hall was a willing and gleeful participant in belittling Penelope and ensuring she was completely scrutinized. While Penelope didn’t wish to cause anyone distress, she also acknowledged that this was her only chance to avoid her father’s machinations. If she didn’t change her fortune, she would soon be the Countess of Findon.
Following the directions Maisie had given her, Penelope wound through the neighborhood toward their designated meeting location. For the hundredth time, Penelope said a grateful prayer for Maisie, the warm and supportive friend she’d made during her first visit to the Church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields three months ago. Without her ingenuity and kindness, Penelope would be forced to marry Findon.
It felt strange to walk about without a chaperone or a footman or any companion whatsoever. Strange and maybe a bit…naughty. Or reckless.
It was all those things. It was also necessary. Findon was nearly old enough to be her grandfather, and he treated her as if he already had a claim. But then, he thought he did. Nearly a year and a half ago, she’d been betrothed to marry his son, who’d died of a sudden illness before they could be wed.
Barely six months later, Findon had begun to hint to Penelope’s father that he would be willing to marry her instead. Then this Season, he’d become bolder, taking his case directly to the marquess. Findon reasoned that she would still get the title she’d hoped to gain, and he’d father a son to replace the one he’d lost.
When Penelope failed to secure another match, her father had warmed to the idea. In truth, it was he who wanted Findon’s title—namely, the boroughs Findon controlled and would allow her father to control via the marriage.
Penelope’s preferences were never taken into account, which was why today’s endeavor was absolutely vital. Maisie had understood that she didn’t want to meekly accept her fate—she wanted to change it.
At last, Penelope reached the neighborhood of St. Giles. While she’d been to the church to deliver clothing and other goods with her mother and other Mayfair ladies many times throughout the Season, she’d never gone into the rookery of St. Giles. It was a den of vice and poverty and, above all, danger, especially to someone like Penelope.
Her skin prickled as if everyone around her, suddenly aware that a Mayfair lady had strolled into their midst, was about to pounce. However, as she looked around, she saw people going about their business.
She took a deep breath to relax her nerves and crossed the street. Walking swiftly, she found the entrance to tiny Ivy Street, where Maisie would be waiting to take her to an inn.
Ivy Street was narrow and dark, even in the late afternoon. Ungodly smells wafted from all around her. Penelope lifted her hand to her nose and was glad that her glove smelled faintly of lavender. Where was Maisie?
It was a small intersection, and there could be no mistaking that Maisie wasn’t there. Perhaps she’d been held up. Penelope took another deep breath and immediately regretted it. She pressed her fingertips to her nostrils.
“Ye’re a pretty bird.”
The comment was followed by a deep chuckle from somewhere behind Penelope. She swung around and saw two young men, though older than her twenty-one years, walking toward her.
“This must be ’er,” the one with the lower voice said. He was tall and long-limbed, with an angular face and choppy dark hair.
“Oh, I think so,” the other man whispered. He was actually nice-looking, with sandy-colored hair waving over his collar and dark eyes that seemed to glow from beneath the brim of his hat. The smile curling his lips wasn’t nice, however; it was sinister. “Come, little bird.”
Too late, Penelope noticed the bag in the taller man’s hand—just seconds before it came over her head and plunged her into darkness.
“Ye scream, and we’ll have to hurt ye,” the handsome one said near her ear.
The threat was unnecessary, for fear had paralyzed her vocal cords. It was like every nightmare she’d ever had where she cried out for help but made no sound.
Her last thought as they grabbed her arms and began to move her was that she hoped Maisie hadn’t suffered the same calamity.
Hugh Tarleton made his way along Dyott Street. To most, it was the heart of one of the roughest neighborhoods in London, the rookery of St. Giles. To Hugh, however, it was familiar, and those who lived here treated him with respect and, for the most part, kindness. They were his parishioners—the people he cared most about in the world save his siblings.
His siblings, though, did not need him the way these people needed him.
Clouds were starting to move in. He looked up as if the sky could tell him whether it would rain. Not that it mattered. He was on his way home for the evening.
Something struck Hugh on the arm, causing him to stop and glance down. A shuttlecock lay on the cobblestone next to his foot. Bending, he picked up the cork and noted that the feathers were already matted.
A boy holding a racquet walked toward him with a sheepish cast to his head. “Sorry, Mr. Tarleton.”
“It’s quite all right, Ned.” He handed the shuttlecock to the lad of ten. “Looks like you’ve been enjoying the game. I’ll get a replacement for you soon.”
Ned’s dark eyes lit. “Yes, sir! We can’t thank ye enough for giving it to us.”
“It’s my pleasure. You took the bread to your mother earlier?”
“Straightaway,” Ned said with a responsible nod. “She said to thank ye.”
She’d been sick the past fortnight and was finally on the mend. Hugh hoped her job as a seamstress would still be available to her when she returned in a day or two, but if it wasn’t, he’d speak with her employer.
Hugh clapped a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “That’s a good lad.”
Ned grinned, then tore across the street to where his younger brother stood, no doubt to share the news of the new shuttlecock. Hugh would have one of his staff make a few. It couldn’t be difficult. He waved at the two boys then continued along his way.
A flash of pale yellow fabric in the narrow darkness of Ivy Street drew his attention. Two men held the arms of a woman whose head was covered with a sack. Alarm crashed over Hugh, and he sprinted toward them.
“Stop!” he called as he increased his speed. He caught up to them before they reached Carrier Street. Extending his arm, Hugh clasped one of the men by the elbow and tugged him backward.
The miscreant was forced to let go of the woman, and his hat toppled to the ground as he fought to maintain his balance. “What the bloody hell?” His gaze connected with Hugh’s, and recognition sparked between them.
“Joseph, what are you about?” Hugh demanded of the too-handsome ruffian who turned most ladies’ heads in St. Giles.
“None of yer affair, Tarleton.” Joseph bent and retrieved his hat, slapping it back on his sandy-haired head.
“Everything in St. Giles is my affair.” Hugh glared first at Joseph and then at Edwin—one of Joseph’s underlings—who still held the mystery woman. “Unhand her.”
Edwin looked to Joseph, who swore beneath his breath but ultimately nodded. Joseph pinned an angry stare on Hugh. “Don’t meddle in things ye don’t understand, Tarleton.”
“I understand plenty. I can see you have a woman of considerable means with a sack over her head. Don’t endanger yourselves with the law.”
“The law?” Joseph asked before breaking into laughter along with Edwin. “We don’t care nothin’ about the law. There’s no law here.”
Hugh couldn’t argue with that. All manner of crime occurred in St. Giles, and it was accepted as normal. “I care. I’ve no idea what you plan to do with her, but you’re going to have to forget about it.” He started to move past Joseph to get to her.
The man grabbed Hugh’s arm right where the shuttlecock had struck his bicep. “Leave ’er be.”
“If you think I’m going to allow you to kidnap someone, you don’t know me very well.” Hugh glowered at Joseph as he shrugged him away. Then he reached out to pull the sack from the poor woman’s head, gasping as recognition sped through him. This was the daughter of the Marchioness of Bramber, who occasionally visited his church on “charitable” endeavors.
Joseph, who was probably five years younger than Hugh’s thirty but looked older, tried to insert himself between Hugh and the young woman. “How about I cut you into the profit? We’re goin’ to ransom ’er. She’s a fancy chit with money.”
There was no point in asking how they knew this—the young lady’s costume gave her station away. Her expensive bonnet hung around her neck by a wide ribbon, which left her head exposed. Dark hair pulled back from her heart-shaped face with curls adorning her temples. Her eyes were brown but held a golden glow that made them appear amber. Right now, they were wide with fright, and Hugh had to fight an urge to pound Joseph and his cohort into the pavement.
Hugh pulled the young woman against his side. “You’re not ransoming anyone. You’re going to continue on your way and forget you even saw her.” Hugh let go of his anger and dug into his compassion. Joseph had been alone in St. Giles for nearly twenty years, and he showed signs of turning himself around. Hugh had made a point of paying him attention when he’d moved to the parish three years before. “Joseph, there is a better path. If you would stick with one of the jobs I’ve found for you, you’ll find that fulfillment will be at hand.”
Joseph exchanged a look with the other man and snorted. “You say that, but opportunities like this fall into my lap.”
Opportunities? Hugh felt the young woman quivering beside him. She’d pressed into his side, as if she could adhere to him. How had she come to be in St. Giles all alone?
“Where did you find her?” Hugh asked.
“Jes’ walking along Ivy Street,” Edwin answered.
Hugh’s anger surged once more. “I highly doubt she would venture into St. Giles by herself. Try again.”
“She was alone, we swear,” Joseph said. “Weren’t ye, dearie?”
Hugh glanced down at her and saw her slight nod. “I was,” she whispered.
Well, blast it all.
“Wh-where’s Maisie? You better not have hurt her.” The young woman’s voice had faltered at first, then gained strength. Hugh knew a Maisie in St. Giles, but how would Bramber’s daughter know her?
Joseph and Edwin laughed once more. “Maisie’s waitin’ for us. Did ye really think she was yer friend?”
Hugh felt the young woman slump and quickly clasped her tight to keep her from collapsing. “It will be all right,” he murmured. He was desperate to get to the bottom of whatever was going on, but first he needed to get her safely away. The question was to where. He returned his attention to Joseph and Edwin. “This woman is under my protection now. Her father is a peer and a powerful member of Society. If anything happens to her, you’ll be in more trouble than you can imagine.”
Fear stole into Edwin’s gaze. He pulled on Joseph’s sleeve. “We don’t want no trouble. Not from a fancy gent. We already have the money Maisie gave us.”
Curiosity got the better of Hugh. “Maisie Evans?” She attended services on occasion and sometimes sold scarves that her grandmother made. Had she paid them to kidnap Bramber’s daughter?
“Yep, that’s ’er,” Edwin answered as Joseph elbowed him.
“Shut up,” Joseph said with a growl.
What was she doing tangled up with Joseph? That was a question he wasn’t going to bother with at present. It was past time to see the woman beside him to safety. “Joseph, you should return that money to the lady.”
Joseph shook his head. “Already spent it—had to pay off a loan.”
Hugh wasn’t surprised. He flicked a glance toward the young lady and apologized before returning his attention to Joseph. “I trust this will be the end of this matter. If I hear of you or Maisie troubling this young woman further, I’ll make sure everyone knows what you’ve done. Including your mother, Edwin.” She would be none too pleased to hear of her son’s malfeasance.
Edwin tapped Joseph’s shoulder. “We should go.” He looked toward Hugh. “Beggin’ yer pardon, Mr. Tarleton.”
Joseph grunted, then gave Hugh a surly stare before retreating into the shadows of Ivy Street.
Hugh exhaled with relief. He didn’t think Joseph would challenge him, but was glad to have Bramber’s daughter safely away. Or he would when he could return her to Mayfair.
He realized she was still tucked against his side, a feminine warmth he hadn’t felt in some time. Pivoting so they had to separate, he looked down at her with an encouraging smile. “Now then, let’s get you home. Where is that?”
She shook her head briskly. “I can’t go home.” Her brow furrowed. “Maisie paid them to kidnap me?”
She couldn’t go home? He’d get to that in a minute. First… “How do you know Maisie?”
The young woman replaced her bonnet atop her head and retied the ribbon beneath her chin. “I met her at your church. She was my…friend.” Her mouth curled into a deep frown.
A burst of sympathy washed over Hugh. It seemed Maisie had swindled her. “You’re Bramber’s daughter, aren’t you?”
She nodded. “Lady Penelope Wakefield.”
He realized several people were staring at them. While he would hardly draw attention, Lady Penelope most certainly would. “I really should get you home.”
She shook her head firmly. “I told you, I’m not going home. I was supposed to go to an inn with Maisie.”
An inn… There were several in St. Giles but only one where he’d take Lady Penelope. They could at least get off the street so he could fully investigate this matter. “Come, I’ll take you to an inn where we can sit and talk.” He offered her his arm as if they were taking a promenade at the park instead of in the center of London’s most notorious rookery.
“Thank you.” She placed her hand on his sleeve, and he set off to Carrier Street where they turned right toward Buckridge. The Craven Cock, St. Giles’s best-kept inn, stood on the corner.
Hugh led her into the large common room. Set with pockmarked tables and mismatched chairs, the space was almost empty of patrons. One man sat at a table near the wall, eyes closed, his head cushioned on his arms, which he’d folded atop the table. Another pair of men sat on the opposite side of the room and appeared to be deep in conversation.
Hugh guided her to a table and held her chair while she sat. He took the one on the opposite side of the small square table and set his hat on one of the two remaining chairs. “Now, if you don’t mind, please start your tale at the beginning.”
She hesitated. Just enough that Hugh wasn’t sure he was about to hear the truth. “I needed to get away from home—just for tonight. Maisie offered to help me. I paid her. Now it appears she had an altogether different scheme in mind.” She shook her head and looked down at the table. “I can’t believe I was so foolish. On second thought, yes, I can. I was desperate.” She shot him a worried glance tinged with fear.
Hugh was more confused than ever, and yet he was certain that Lady Penelope was indeed telling the truth—she’d felt cornered. He was also certain Maisie had promised her a way out and taken advantage. “Why did you need to get away from home for tonight? Is there something going on that you’re trying to avoid?”
She lifted her gaze to his and laughed. The sound was dark and hollow. It sent a chill into his bones. “Yes, I am most definitely trying to avoid something: marriage.”
Her answer didn’t entirely dispel his confusion. “You’re getting married tonight?”
“Not tonight, no, but the man my parents are forcing me to wed is coming to dinner, when our betrothal will be announced.”
Forcing. He didn’t like the sound of that. “Why are you being forced?”
She straightened, her shoulders stiffening. “Because my father wants this marriage. However, if I’m ruined, the groom won’t want to marry me. Maisie suggested I get kidnapped.”
Hugh tried to wrap his mind around such a scheme. “So you expected Joseph and Edwin to throw a bag over your head.”
“I didn’t. There wasn’t supposed to be an actual kidnapping. I slipped away from my chaperone to meet Maisie on Ivy Street. She dispatched a faux ransom note to my father and another to the Times so that my abduction would be public knowledge. I can’t be ruined unless everyone knows about it.”
“This was all Maisie’s idea.” Anger and disappointment tore through him. “And you met her at my church.” Maisie had preyed on this young woman as surely as Joseph had meant to.
“Well then, it’s up to me to make things right.”
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