No Place for a Lady, страница 1
No Place for a Lady
The Regency Rags to Riches Series
USA Today Bestselling Author
NO PLACE FOR A LADY
Awards & Accolades
2002 Madcap Finalist for Romantic Comedy
Romantic Times Hero’s Kiss Award for a Great Hero
"A fast-paced historical complete with side-splitting humor. No wonder the Madcap award for romantic comedy put [Jade Lee] right alongside Teresa Medeiros and Betina Krahn!"
~Harriet Klausner, Amazon.com #1 reviewer
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To the ladies who never hesitated to wade in when I most needed them:
Pattie, Cindy, Elisabeth, and Dixie.
London, England, February 1807
"'Ey, Fanny! 'Ow bout a diddle wi' me?"
Fantine Delarive winked as she swiveled her hips past a group of leering men, her smile friendly as she focused on the biggest of them all. "Ye ain't got enough t' diddle wi', Tommy boy. Talk t' me when ye grow a mite more."
She tweaked his cheek as she served him his ale. Then she passed on through the dingy pub, trading insults and affectionate pats with the customers.
They all knew her here, recognized her face, called her Fanny, but not a one knew the truth. They would never guess she had played maid to a princess or caught a French spy. They would never believe she could speak Spanish or cook a goose fit for the king. Nor would they credit that she planned to do such things again and again until she was too old to blow a kiss at an aged lord.
They would never believe what she had done, and she could never tell. So she teased the clientele like a two-bit tart, playing her role with consummate skill, because deep inside she did not truly credit it herself.
"Fanny!" called the keep, his gravelly voice carrying easily over the din. "'E wants ye. Tomorrow. Tea."
Fantine hitched her hip up to the edge of a bar stool, allowing a near-blind old man to feel the curve of her knee, but no more. "Tomorrow, tea," she echoed. "Guess I better put on me fancy togs. Not that I keep 'em on fer long!"
Then she laughed as loudly as the rest at her crude joke.
* * *
"Good morning, my lord. I trust you slept well."
Marcus Kane, Lord Chadwick, looked up, a single bite of egg poised precisely on his silver spoon. "Whom would you trust with such information, Bentley?" he asked dryly.
"Not even my sainted mother," the dough-faced man replied with a bland expression.
"Just so long as it is not my sainted mother," Marcus responded. "I trust that you have seen Paolina safely transferred from my bed to her own."
"Safely settled in, my lord."
A dozen possible responses came to mind, but Marcus washed them down with a sip of tea. His secretary would not understand a one of them, and so he did not waste his breath. Instead, he opened the morning paper knowing he could easily divide his attention between the news and Bentley's itemized list of the coming day.
He was wrong.
"I have canceled your appointment for tea with your sister, citing urgent matters with the Scottish estate."
Marcus's eye caught on a column detailing William Wilberforce's latest speech to the House of Commons, but at his secretary's news, he lifted his gaze.
"Do I have urgent matters at the Scottish estate?"
"No, my lord. But you do have an invitation to Lord Penworthy's home. The tone appeared somewhat urgent."
Marcus arched his eyebrows. He had not spoken with Penworthy since Geoffrey's funeral nearly three years ago. They had, of course, corresponded over political matters and seen one another in the House of Lords, but this was something else entirely. To be invited to his former mentor's house, and so abruptly, indicated something of supreme import.
Marcus set his napkin aside and rose from his chair.
"Thank you, Bentley. I now recall why I pay you so exorbitantly."
* * *
Marcus barely felt the carriage slow as it pulled up before Lord Penworthy's home. Though not in exclusive Grosvenor Square, Penworthy's home was stately enough for a fellow Member of Parliament (MP) and secluded enough to accommodate the man's more secretive activities on behalf of the Crown.
In short, Marcus liked it and the owner, and therefore was in a congenial frame of mind as he alighted from his carriage.
The mood would not last. He knew that. Marcus was in the dubious position of having to refuse whatever task his friend would no doubt request of him. But the decision was already made. It was time for Marcus to assume his responsibilities as eldest son, and that included an end to his favorite pastime.
Especially now that there was no other son to take his place should he make another costly mistake. He had not made many errors in his short time as a British spy, but the one had been enough. And Geoffrey had died because of it.
Marcus lifted the knocker, pushing it down with the force of a hammer, slamming his memories with the motion. Time heals all wounds, he reminded himself. Then he smiled bitterly.
Some wounds never fully healed.
The door opened swiftly, held by a man who could have been Bentley's twin except that his voice was cavernous, as befitted a butler.
"Good afternoon, my lord. His lordship is expecting you in the library."
Marcus crossed the threshold and handed over his hat and coat without demur, trying to shed the February cold as easily. He moved automatically down the hall, not bothering to wait for a footman to precede him. Then he realized no one was about. Even the butler had disappeared. In fact, the whole atmosphere of the house was hushed and secretive.
What Penworthy wanted must be serious indeed.
Marcus sighed, already steeling himself to refuse. Skulking in doorways, waiting through the night in some freezing ditch, all these things were over for him now, and he did not yet know whether to regret it or rejoice.
He knocked softly on the library door.
Respecting the mood of the house, Marcus entered without sound, closing the door carefully behind him. He could not see deeply into the room, but he smiled at the soothing scent of leather books and a fire built wit
"Chadwick, old boy! Glad you could come."
Marcus navigated past two wingback chairs before he greeted his old friend. "I would not have missed it for the world," he said easily.
Then he stopped and tried not to stare. Good Lord, what had happened to the man? Rather than the sturdy if aging gentleman of barely two months ago, Penworthy looked more like a monk bent with the weight of time. As he rose from behind his desk, his white hair waved wildly and his eyes were red with fatigue. Though his steps were quick and steady, the hand he extended was slightly curled and arthritic, his body thin and aged.
Naturally, Marcus could not ask what had occurred, nor even reveal his startled thoughts. So he merely smiled, forcing himself to bring out some pleasantry. "Fine day, is it not?"
Penworthy grinned. "What? No polite lie about how well I look?"
Rather than answer directly, Marcus gestured toward the desk and the stacks of paper scattered about. "Do the affairs of state weigh heavily upon you?"
"Not that lot," responded Penworthy with a jerk of his head. "I am merely growing old and have developed a cough that will not end. Brandy?"
"Certainly. Pray, allow me." Marcus stepped to the sideboard, pouring with practiced ease. He had forgotten that Penworthy was nearing sixty. The thought that Marcus might lose his longtime friend to a cough disturbed him greatly. But his morbid thoughts were cut short by Penworthy.
"What concerns me is a far more serious matter."
Marcus allowed his expression to relax, focusing his attention on the coming information. Finally, he would know what all this secrecy was about.
"I am, of course, at your dispo—"
Suddenly, the library doors burst open with an explosion of air that extinguished the desk candles, splattering hot wax across any number of state papers. Then a high voice cut into the room's serene atmosphere.
"'Ello, luv. Sorry I'm late."
To his shock, a diminutive streetwalker strutted in, her dress a blazing swirl of colors, her bodice cut low enough to reveal tantalizing glimpses of her curves. In her hands, she carried the tea tray, and Marcus wondered that she could keep the items on the silver with her hips swaying so very much.
"Fantine!" Penworthy said the single word with a mixture of dismay and amusement that was not lost on the young whore.
"Aye, ducks," she said, straightening from where she set down the tray. "'Ey now! Wot's this?" she cried as she lifted the brandy snifter from Penworthy's hand. "This Frenchie stuff will rot yer innards, it will!" Then, before the man could object, she neatly emptied the glass down her own white throat. "Aye," she said huskily as she smacked her lips. "Rot yer innards, it will. Now come 'ave some tea like a good nob."
Penworthy sighed, slanting an expression at Marcus that was half apology, half surrender. "Marcus, may I present to you, Fantine Delarive. Fantine, this is Marcus Kane, Lord Chadwick."
"Auw!" she cried, her accent thick enough to crack glass. "Wot a pleasure, t' be sure." Then she leaned forward, her hand extended as her ragged dress slipped lower with her every breath. "But me name's Fanny."
Centuries of breeding warred within Marcus. Politeness demanded that he rise and kiss her hand like a gentleman, and yet those very rules of behavior required that he ignore invitations from a backstreet tart.
In the end, respect for his friend won out. He rose, albeit stiffly, and took her hand. "Fanny."
She clucked appreciatively, her hand still extended, clearly expecting him to kiss it. He waited, knowing what she wanted, but finding the act difficult to perform. She smelled almost overpoweringly of stale beer, and her hand, though small and perhaps pleasingly formed, was dirty, the nails cracked and blunt.
"Come on, luv. I won't bite, less'n ye pay," she cooed.
"Fantine!" cried Penworthy, clearly exasperated. "Cease torturing the man." He pushed between them, breaking their contact, neatly pushing the whore into a seat before the fire. She collapsed expertly, her legs extended before her, giving Marcus a full view of their delightful shape.
Really, he thought as he settled into the other chair, he could almost understand Penworthy's attraction to the woman. Despite the tattered clothing and coarse attitude, the dark-haired tart was well formed, both graceful and sensual in her own vulgar way.
He had thought her extremely young at first glance, but now, as the sunlight slanted across her face, he saw she was a lovely woman of perhaps twenty-five. Her hair, though cut haphazardly, appeared a lush dark chestnut, and her complexion beneath the smudges of dirt seemed not quite brown, not quite clear. "Golden" sprang to mind. And her eyes were a sparkling bronze beneath long, black lashes.
What a pity that such beauty was given to one so vulgar. That Penworthy had such questionable taste in bed partners was none of his affair. If only the man would make quick work of it and send her away. Unfortunately, the whore gleefully relaxed into her chair as if intending to remain.
Stifling his irritation, Marcus decided to opt for expediency over good manners. Reaching into his pocket, he produced a guinea and lifted it up to the light. As expected, her eyes were drawn to the flash of gold, though other than that, her expression remained curiously bland.
"I see your stockings are in need of repair," Marcus said coolly. "Perhaps you would like to go purchase another pair." Then he flicked the coin into the air, not in the least bit surprised when it disappeared into her dress faster than his eye could follow.
"Auw!" she cried again, and this time Marcus could not restrain his flinch at the sound. "Want t' talk man t' man, do ye? Well, don't ye worry, ducks," she said, reaching forward to pat his cheek like a fond old aunt. "Ye ain't got nothing wot I ain't seen or 'eard afore."
Marcus stiffened, his temper fraying by the second. But before he could give voice to any of the blistering responses that came to mind, Penworthy once again interrupted.
"Fantine, would you like some tea?"
"Why, thanks, luv, but no' now. Perhaps later."
Marcus shifted his gaze to his friend, surprised for the second time that day. Surely Penworthy meant to send her away. She could not be part of their discussion.
Almost as soon as the thought formed, Marcus answered his own question. No doubt the woman had discovered some information through her sordid life on the street. Penworthy wished Marcus to question her.
Marcus relaxed, his faith in the elderly man restored. What the MP had done was quite right, quite right indeed. Meanwhile, he glanced discreetly to his left, seeing that the tart waited as well, though her gaze fell disdainfully on himself.
Before he could return the scrutiny, Penworthy began speaking, his voice tired and hurried. "There has been an attempt on Wilberforce's life."
Marcus did not move, but his attention sharpened instantly. "Is he harmed?"
"No, thank God. We were saved by a lucky accident. We cannot expect such felicity in the future."
No, agreed Marcus silently, they certainly could not. William Wilberforce was a powerful member of the House of Commons, one of the nation's most influential leaders. A diminutive man with thin, crippled legs, he still maintained high moral and religious standards. When he spoke, it was with amazing power and eloquence. His life was an example of Christian intensity and political power. In short, Wilberforce was one of the few men Marcus openly admired.
The thought that someone had attempted to kill the famous MP sent chills down Marcus's spine. "It must be because of the antislavery bill."
"My thought exactly," said Penworthy. "If Wilberforce were to die now, his reform bill might expire with him. But who would want that so much as to kill him?"
Marcus frowned, shifting through Parliament's faces and names, searching for the one man whose guilt made sense. "Harris. It has to be him."
"He has loudly opposed the bill, fighting it with everything from bribes to threats, but it all stopped this last month."
"Almost as if he had found an alternate solution?"
Penworthy nodded, his gaze thoughtful, and Marcus felt a surge of pride that he could have been of assistance. Then a rude snort broke his mood.
"Precious little to 'ang a man fer murder," said the tart. "Me 'eart goes out t' this 'Arris."
He turned to her, not bothering to hide his annoyance. How like the lowbred woman to assume Harris would come to such a violent end. "Rest assured," he said coldly, "the matter shall be dealt with appropriately. Despite the joy and increased trade I am sure you enjoy at a hanging, I am afraid that is not the end for an MP, even if he is a cold-blooded killer."
"Ew, la-di-da," she cried, clearly mocking him, but he had already turned his shoulder to her, confident that his tone and attitude would more than silence the unwanted companion. Indeed, he regretted that he had not insisted the wench remain outside the room. He did not like that she had heard the matter at hand. By nightfall, every tavern keep in London would know of their suspicions.
But before he could more than lift his snifter, her voice cut through his thoughts. It was not the screeching dockside wail he expected, but something entirely different. Suddenly, her voice was low and husky, stiff with matronly outrage and a gossip's undertone. It was so different that he caught himself looking about the room for another person.
"You are quite correct, my lord," she said. "I, myself, cannot abide such blood sport. Truly it is an act for the masses, though I fear we stir their passions overmuch. Why just last month I attended a hanging, and I saw two filthy boys brawling over a ha'penny. Imagine!"
Marcus turned back to her, his jaw slack. Then she leaned forward, reaching for the tea service with smooth and maidenly modesty despite her ragged clothing.
"Would you care for some tea, Lord Penworthy? I find that good English tea always stimulates the mind and the digestion. Most beneficial for weighty matters of state, do you not agree?"