Excerpt: King of Hearts

Excerpt: King of Hearts

Book 1 ~ League of Rogues

Miss Peabody was one of those thoroughly rigid spinsters who had made it her life’s work to protect womankind from the evils of men. Gabriel had seen a few of those in his time, though none so embittered as she. Some man had brought her to this pass, he was certain. Under other circumstances, he might have been tempted to take up the considerable challenge of bringing a charitable light to her lovely blue eyes. He rarely minded a challenge when it came to women, but Miss Peabody would require more time than he had. Centuries, perhaps.

Anyway, he had to figure out how to get to Sinclair Isle. His jailers had removed what little money he’d had on his person. Handbills offering a reward for his capture had probably gone up all over London. Had he come to his senses while at Newgate, he might have sent word of his plight to his father’s solicitors, but he hadn’t even recalled his name until he awoke in Miss Peabody’s house.

It would be quite useless to contact them now. They knew better than most how impoverished was the state of his family’s affairs; it had been a decade since they received even a shilling from him. Nor would he have funds until the sale of Sinclair Isle was finalized.

Perhaps one day he would try to clear his name, but all he wanted now was to leave Miss Peabody’s bastion of bleakness, the sooner the better. The Flowers were nice enough, though the notion of outcast females being reborn as garden specimens was a bit bizarre, even for his tastes.

“Mr. Sinclair?”

Gabriel looked over the rim of his glass as Miss Peabody sailed into the parlor, the giant trailing in her wake. She took a seat at a writing table near the chair in which he had been enjoying her father’s port — one of the few things about this house he could commend. Certainly not the cuisine, for supper sat in his stomach like lead.

Though Lily had produced those excellent biscuits, Daisy had been responsible for the rest of the meal. She seemed proud of her dandelion greens and boiled turnips, but Gabriel had found the dish as appealing as seaweed.

No wonder the giant took his meals elsewhere. He probably had a secret supply of lamb or venison stashed in his cottage. Gabriel regarded the man with undisguised envy.

“I have a business proposition.” Miss Peabody sat stiffly in her chair, eyeing him as if he were a spoonful of bitter medicine to be endured. “I am prepared to pay you to help us free Miss Wentworth.”

Did she think him an idiot?

“I am a wanted man,” he said dismissively. “I would be a fool to do such a thing.” He drank deeply from his glass, then regarded her. “How much?”

“One hundred pounds.”

“That would not begin to cover my services.” But it would help toward the cost of a small boat, and some provisions besides. And it was a hundred pounds more than he had at the moment. Still, he would not risk his life for such a sum.

“One thousand, then.”

Gabriel blinked, certain he had not heard aright.

At his silence, she frowned. “Two thousand? Three?”

He stared at her in amazement. For three thousand pounds, he could buy the Royal Yacht, and more. “How is it that you possess such a sum?”

“My husband was very rich.”

Husband? This man-hating female was somebody’s wife? Gabriel stared at the giant, perched warily on a sofa much too small for him. He was the only other man Gabriel had seen here, but the giant did not look at her as a husband might. Wait — hadn’t she used the past tense? “You were married?”

“For six hours. He died on our wedding trip.” Her constricted features gave her the look of someone who had bitten into a sour apple. Gabriel tried to imagine Miss Peabody on a wedding trip and failed.

“Then…you are Mrs. Peabody?”

“No,” she replied quickly. “I have chosen to act as if the marriage never existed. Accordingly, I have not taken my husband’s name.”

“Only his money.”

She flushed. “The settlements had been duly prepared and signed. It was my due.”

“I see.” Married and widowed in six hours. A feat indeed, the mercenary little witch. Had she poisoned the man at their wedding feast?

“I doubt very much that you do, but that is neither here nor there. What say you to my proposition?”

Despite her firm tone, her lips trembled slightly and those blue eyes gleamed with unnatural brightness, perhaps evidence that the topic of her marriage distressed her. The notion of making her enticing person part of the bargain briefly entered his head, but he put it aside. That way lay disaster, on so many fronts.

Besides, money was what he needed, and Miss Peabody had the worst negotiating skills he’d ever seen. The Fates had handed him a gift, provided she had the funds.

“I would require half in advance,” he said warily.

She put on a pair of spectacles and dipped her pen into the inkwell. She scribbled something on a piece of paper, then handed it to him.

He eyed the document skeptically. The promises of a woman who dashed about the country causing mayhem were worth little. Now if she were to drop a pile of bank notes in his lap, that would be something else entirely.

“I cannot give you half today, as my trustee will not release my quarterly allowance for a fortnight,” she said. “He will balk at such a sum, but I have no doubt I can bring him around.”

Did the woman think him a slow top? Gabriel was not about to risk his neck for a promise, no matter that it came from a mouth as lovely as any he’d seen recently. With a contemptuous smile, he looked up from the promissory note. “This is all well and good, but —”

“I can give you a third now, however. Will that be sufficient?” She thrust something at him.

Gabriel’s gaze dropped to the large stack of notes emblazoned with the Bank of England crest. A thousand pounds. With this alone, he could purchase all he needed to sail to Sinclair Isle. Come to think of it, he wouldn’t need to carry out Miss Wentworth’s rescue at all. He could take this tidy little sum and —

“I am trusting you, Mr. Sinclair,” she said sternly, proving herself an uncanny mind-reader, “though I know it is unwise. But if Miss Wentworth is to be freed, I have no other choice.”

Gabriel plucked the notes from her hand. “Done.” He took a bracing sip of port to celebrate his unexpected fortune.

Miss Peabody wore a look of distaste, as if she could scarcely bear to look at him. She settled herself at her desk again and dipped her pen into the inkwell once more. She eyed him expectantly, her hand poised over the blank paper.

“What is your plan?” she asked solemnly.

The spectacles gave her a studious air and obscured the full, startling beauty of those blue eyes. Most women did not wear spectacles in company. Miss Peabody seemed perfectly content to do so, though if she did not mend her judgmental ways, she would end up with wrinkles before her time. Gabriel wondered whether she ever smiled.

“Mr. Sinclair,” she said impatiently. “I asked about your plan.”

Gabriel found himself studying those pink lips, which at the moment were pursed in disapproval. “Plan?”

“To rescue Miss Wentworth, of course.”

Gabriel took another sip of port. “Much depends on the type of ship on which Miss Wentworth is incarcerated. Can you tell me about the vessel?”

“No, but…” She looked uncertainly at the giant. “That is, David —”

“Cannot tell a warship from a barge, I imagine,” Gabriel said. The giant glared at him but offered no denial.

“David has seen the ship, so he should be able to provide sufficient detail,” she said.

Gabriel eyed the giant. “How many gun ports are there? Are they closed or open? How big are the hawseholes?”

No one spoke. Miss Peabody looked questioningly at the giant and then at him. “Gun ports — holes from which the guns would fire. Is that what you mean?” she asked.

Gabriel nodded.

“Well, now. That is simple enough.” Hopefully, she turned to the man. “Did it have holes, David? You know, little round holes in the side where the guns —”

“Square,” Gabriel corrected. “The holes are square.”

 “Square, then.” She frowned. “But I am sure I have seen round holes on ships —”

“Portholes. A ship’s windows, if you will. They are small. Smaller than gun ports and some hawseholes.”

“Oh, dear.” Miss Peabody looked confused. “Did the ship have any holes, David? Big or little or round or square or…hawse-shaped?”

“Hell and damnation!” The giant stood up. “It looked like a blasted big boat, Louisa, and that is all I know.”

Miss Peabody cleared her throat. “Does all of this really matter, Mr. Sinclair?”

Gabriel wondered about the relationship between Miss Peabody and Ferguson. They seemed to know each other well. Lovers, he might have said, if the frightfully earnest Miss Peabody hadn’t been the last woman in the world to take a lover. But he’d have thought her the last woman to take a husband, too.

The brief marital union had probably not been enjoyably consummated. Women who had experienced carnal pleasure did not pucker up like a dried prune whenever a man looked at them with any sort of frank appreciation for their beauty.

“Mr. Sinclair?” she prodded testily. “I asked whether it mattered if the ship had all these holes. Would you not stare at me as if I’d just said the moon was made of green cheese?”

“How do you know it is not?” he offered. No doubt about it: Miss Peabody had the armor of a prickly pear. It was child’s play to upset that carefully constructed universe of hers.

“I do nae think we are getting anywhere,” the giant groused.

“Nor do I,” she snapped. “Come, David. Mr. Sinclair undoubtedly needs time to devise a plan, and —”

“Miss Peabody.” Gabriel drained his port, set the glass upon the table, and rose. He let his shadow fall upon the paper on her desk. “If one intends to sneak onto a ship — or off it, for that matter — one has to find an alternative to the gangway.”

She frowned, and he could see she was beginning to understand.

“One must be enterprising, or else walk right into the guards’ arms. I should not like to see you behind bars. The experience is entirely too earthy.”

“I am not afraid of capture,” she declared.

“You should be. Do you have any idea what it is like in prison?”

She was silent.

“I thought not. Don’t worry — I will not subject you to my litany of complaints. I’m no Reformer, but neither am I fool enough to try to breach a ship without having a notion as to what sort of craft it is. Gun ports would provide the easiest entry, for the guns have undoubtedly been removed. The gun ports on the large prisoner-of-war hulks at Portsmouth have been covered over, but I do not know whether that is true of the river hulks. Such details are useful if one is planning something like this.”

“Mr. Sinclair —”

“I am not finished. The Thames hulks are anchored near the bank, not moored out in deeper waters as the Portsmouth hulks are. That’s fortunate, for the Portsmouth hulks are accessible only by boat. One can walk onto a river hulk from the dock plank to the gangway — but guards will be there, so that way is closed to us.”

She eyed him uncertainly.

“The only possible course is to sneak onto the ship from the water below, which requires climbing up the anchor chain, edging oneself along a very slender strip of wood, and slipping into one of those gun port openings the giant did not think to notice. Stealth is required. And agility, of course.”

She absorbed that with a troubled air. “I’m afraid we will have to do the best we can. I have done some research on these ships, Mr. Sinclair. Sir Samuel Romilly has spoken in Parliament about the great depravity and wretchedness there. Many inmates die — even children have been discovered among them. There are no beds. Inmates are stacked atop each other in hammocks. Disease and illness is rampant —”

“It is a prison, madam, not Brighton Pavilion.”

For a moment she appeared to struggle for composure. “The point, sir, is that every  day Miss Wentworth endures on that awful ship is an abomination. We simply cannot wait. I would like to be more prepared, but…” She trailed off.

An ineffable sadness filled her gaze. Somehow, it crossed the space between them and settled unexpectedly in his gut.

Suddenly, Gabriel realized that he wanted to erase that sorrow from those lovely blue eyes. She was delusional, of course, and he should not care a whit about her obsessive quest for justice against the worst odds.

Still, as much as he wanted to take her money and take himself off, he found himself drawn to her cause. He, too, had been on the wrong end of that justice system. It might be gratifying to tip the scales just a bit. There wasn’t a boat he didn’t know from stem to stern, be it frigate or merchant clipper. Without his help, she’d end up in a prison cell, looking out with those sad blue eyes.

It might please him to confound her expectations and do something honorable.

Yes, he would take her money, but damned if he didn’t want something else for his trouble, too. She was a strange woman with a prickly spine, not the sort of female he would usually waste his time on, but the knowledge that she could embrace such danger without a care for her own safety aroused him.

He lusted — if not for her, precisely, then for the possibility of shaping such passionate clay into raw sensuality. A woman who could face down death could certainly face sex. Something told him the earnest yet untutored Miss Peabody never did things by half-measures. He would ponder the sensual prospects.

But it was best not to let his imagination run amok. People didn’t change, and Louisa Peabody would have to change dramatically before he would contemplate any sort of congress with her, even a fleeting one. Still, a man could be alert for the odd chance.

He felt the giant’s eyes on him and looked over at the man. Ferguson stood with his arms folded across his sizable chest, as if daring Gabriel to touch one hair of Miss Peabody’s deranged head. His eyes held a black warning, as if he could read Gabriel’s very improper thoughts.

Gabriel shrugged. He would not apologize for the images that floated through his mind —  Miss Peabody lying naked under him, enslaved to the pleasures he could give her. If the giant had never seen her thus, it was his loss. If he had, then every instinct Gabriel had about women was false — and that was quite impossible.

“Illicit acts are best undertaken under the cloak of darkness,” he heard himself say. “A full moon would provide sufficient light so we need not carry torches that could give us away. We will need strong rope, a small skiff, a favorable tide, and someone with strong arms.”

She began to scribble furiously on her paper.

He stared at her, aghast. “Never say you are taking notes.”

“But of course.” She looked puzzled. “How else am I to remember?”

“Notes are of no use in the darkness. And there will be no time for reading once the thing has begun.”

She flushed. “Logic and planning do not come naturally to me. Writing things down makes them easier to remember.”

“And easier for someone to find out what we are about. Didn’t you say you wanted to keep the details from the Flowers?”

“Flowers?” she echoed, puzzled.

“Lily, Violet, Daisy —”

“Oh.” She hesitated. “The notes are only for me. I am terrified of leaving out some crucial detail that could result in disaster. I write everything down and look at it from all possible angles just to make sure I have not forgotten something.”

Gabriel sighed. “Then by all means take notes. Commit them to memory, then throw them into the fire. There is a full moon two days’ hence, I believe. That is when we undertake Miss Wentworth’s freedom.”

Abruptly, she rose to her feet. Her hands clenched in fists at her sides. Her blue eyes filled with fervor. She stood nearly toe to toe with him, her chin out, a soldier primed for battle.

“We shall!” she vowed. The feverish radiance in her gaze seemed to inhabit her entire person, for she positively trembled with excitement. “We shall indeed!”

Gabriel stared at her, astonished at the transformation. Before him stood a warrior, albeit one born into a decidedly female body. And, like many of the breed, this one was dosed with madness.

He glanced at the giant to see how the man was taking this uncommon display. Ferguson’s features revealed no shock or surprise. Indeed, his eyes gleamed with respect for her. It was a look a man might give his captain.

Miss Peabody grabbed his hand and shook it violently. “We will pull this off, Mr. Sinclair. We will work together and prevail. Justice will be served, and Miss Wentworth will be saved.”

Good God. Beneath that spinsterish exterior beat the heart of a bloody revolutionary — with spectacles.