Authors: Michelle Diener
Tags: #Regency, #Historical Romance, #Fiction
A Dangerous Madness
Copyright © 2014 Michelle Diener
All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be copied or distributed in any way without written permission of the copyright holder.
This is a work of fiction and all names, people, places and incidents are either used fictitiously or are a product of the author’s imagination.
A big thank you to my editors, and everyone who helped make this story the best it could be. To beta readers Julia, Jo, Lorna and Celeste, thank you for your great feedback! To my critique partner Edie, your suggestions were much appreciated. Thanks to Amy at AEMS for the technical side, and Croco Designs for the amazing cover.
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This book is dedicated to Grant and Chiara. I was working on the final proofs of this book while visiting them for their wedding. May true love always be with you.
Sunday, 10 May, 1812
hoebe stood next to the portrait of Sir Harold Fitzpatrick as instructed, the note the footman had given her crumpled in her fist.
She hadn’t seen Sheldrake all evening, had had to endure hours on her own of being either snubbed or fawned over, but he must have seen her—the note was evidence of that. Just one more odd instance in a string of them.
A waving motion caught her eye and she turned slightly to see a hand reach out from behind aquamarine velvet curtains. A man’s hand.
He grabbed her sleeve and pulled her into an enclosed nook that by day was a perfectly innocent bay window. Phoebe blinked, trying to adjust to the sudden dark after the well-lit gallery.
“Sheldrake?” She peered at the man taking up most of the small space.
“Good grief, keep it down, would you?”
Phoebe’s betrothed’s forceful whisper was as loud as her soft-spoken question, but she bit her tongue.
She wondered what her tongue would look like after they’d spent a lifetime together. Maybe one day she’d bite it in half.
“Look, dear thing, I needed to speak to you in private, without anyone seeing me here.” Even in the dark, Phoebe could see Sheldrake plucking at his lapels.
“Well, this is very private.” She waited patiently for him to enlighten her, and there was an uncomfortable silence. For the first time since she’d been jerked into the dark, into what would be considered a scandalous rendezvous, Phoebe felt the gentle hand of trepidation caress the back of her neck.
“My dear, dear thing. I…that is to say…” She saw the shadowy outline of his hand coming up to his head and realized he was mopping his brow with his kerchief, even though the Halliford’s house was made of such thick stone, it never truly got warm.
A buzzing started in her ears.
“I can’t marry you, Pheebs. I know that’s going to make things difficult for you and I want to go through with it, of course I do, it would solve a number of problems, but I don’t have the time for it, you understand?”
“You don’t…have the
for it?” Her words seemed to be coming from far, far away.
“No. I’m…well, soon I’ll be in a bit of bother, m’dear. Or I think I will. And I’m going to have to make a run for it. I thought I could hold out until I got my hands on your money, but it looks like I was a bit too optimistic.” He gave a sigh.
Phoebe wanted to shriek at him like a woman she’d once seen in the marketplace had shrieked at her husband.
Like a fishwife.
“You owe money?” She bit back the scream, forcing it down like too many pillows stuffed into a wooden kist. She’d had plenty of practice. Her voice didn’t even wobble.
“’Fraid so. But that’s not why I’m running.”
“Then why were you hoping to get my money early?” She tried to be calm and logical.
“Living in exile is more comfortable when you have funds.” He tugged at his kerchief as if he meant to tear it in half. “I already asked your father’s lawyers if your dowry could be made available before the wedding, but it appears not.” He sighed again. “And your trustees control it anyway. It’s not as if you could help me. They’d have to approve, and I know for a fact they won’t because I already asked one of them.”
Phoebe stared at him.
“Well. That’s that, then. Don’t say anything, will you, until tomorrow? About my jilting you and taking off. I’m due to catch a boat to the Continent from Dover tomorrow or the day after, and I’d like to have a clear run.”
“You’re leaving London tonight?” Phoebe’s voice came out lower than usual.
“Yes. The whole thing is coming to a head. If I don’t run now, I risk being closed in.” He shrugged. “You can put it about later that I was on my skids. Better a bankrupt, money-grubbing cad than a…” He jerked his waistcoat. “Well, never mind what.”
“Sheldrake, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“No. You wouldn’t.” He patted her arm, in the way he’d done countless times before. A way that made her want to jerk her arm viciously away and do him some bodily harm.
She drew in a deep, deep breath. Pulled her arm very gently from under his grasp.
Oblivious to her fury, he lifted his pocket watch to the thin stream of light coming into the alcove through a gap in the drapes, and turned it this way and that until he could read the time. He gave a grunt.
“My coach will be waiting.” He twisted his lips in a grimace. “Sorry, dear thing. Sometimes the best plans turn to ash and well… Don’t believe everything you might hear about me if this comes out. I was doing something. Taking action. But it’s all gone to the dogs. Our puppet has lost his nerve. I’m afraid he’ll crack or botch it, and it will all come out. I refuse to be sacrificed.” He rubbed his forehead one last time and pushed his kerchief into his pocket. “Be careful for the next few days, eh? Watch your step.”
With a last pat, he cocked his head, listening for any sign of someone nearby, and then opened the curtains to step out. Hesitated.
“You should be safe enough.” With a little nod of his head, he slipped out between the heavy curtains, leaving nothing behind but the sharp scent of his pomade and his sweat.
Phoebe collapsed onto the deep window seat, her fingers clutching at the thin cushions beneath her.
Her betrothal was over. And from the way Sheldrake had spoken, he was involved in something illegal, or at least immoral. He was running from the authorities.
She lifted a hand and rubbed it over her heart. She touched her face, but the tears she expected weren’t there.
After some time had passed, she couldn’t say how long, she stood and parted the curtains. Walked slowly back to the light and sound of the ballroom.
Her world, her future as she had thought it would be, was gone.
All she could feel was relief.
Monday, 11 May, 1812
y lord! His Grace is in his bath. You can’t…”
James heard the unusual sound of his valet in full panic moments before the door to his dressing room was wrenched open and Lord Dervish stepped, grim and breathless, into the room.
“It’s all right, Towers. Lord Dervish is welcome.” James said nothing more, and neither did Dervish until Towers had closed his mouth with a snap, closed the door, and retreated to wherever aggrieved valets go.
He was almost finished with his bath, but James lay back and raised his brows as Dervish continued to stand quite still, head cocked, as if to hear if Towers or anyone else may be trying to listen in.
They probably were.
“Move the water in your bath about so it’s harder for anyone to hear.” Dervish stepped closer, something stealthy in the move. He hummed with suppressed energy and adrenalin.
“What is it?” James didn’t deign to follow his instructions. Their voices were low enough to make listening at the door impossible.
“The Prime Minister has just been assassinated.” Dervish ran a hand over his stark, sharp face, and James could see it shook.
He sat up suddenly, and water slopped over the side with a splash. “You’re not joking.”
Dervish never joked, but James wondered if he could have made a mistake.
“I wish I were.” Dervish walked over to the window and looked out on the garden at the back of the house, his tall, wiry frame barely able to stay still.
James rose from the still-warm water and wrapped a towel around his waist, took up another and began to dry himself in quick, economical movements.
“Who did it?”
“Some fellow called Bellingham. Put the gun right against Perceval’s chest as he came through the lobby to the Lower House, pulled the trigger and then went and sat down on a bench nearby. Didn’t try to run, just sat, waiting.”
“Part of a group? Some conspiracy?”
Dervish turned as James pulled a fresh shirt over his head. “It’s the most likely explanation.” He turned back to the window, shook his head. “I know a lot of people hated Perceval’s politics, and with this current inquiry into the Orders in Council, they’ve been more front and center than usual, but when the word spread, when it got out that he’d been killed…” Dervish ran a hand through thick, dark hair winged with silver at the temples. “I had to fight through cheering, celebrating crowds to get here. They were all but dancing in the street. Calling for the Prince Regent to be next.”
James pulled his trousers on and considered things. He’d despised Perceval. It hadn’t been difficult to pretend to be a malcontent these last few years, because the sheer pomposity and self-righteousness of the prime minister had been everything he disliked in politics. In life in general.
But rioting in the streets and calling for the death of the regent? How could it end well? “What have you done with the killer?”
“They tried to take him to Newgate, but the crowds were too strong, too wild. Everyone was cheering him, trying to shake his hand. They had to take him back inside, wait for the guards to clear the crowds.”
For the first time, James noticed a small bruise high on Dervish’s cheek. Realized he’d been speaking literally when he’d said he’d had to fight the crowds.
“What do you want of me?” He’d already pulled on his boots, and was shrugging his way into a coat.
“The problem is, so many people wished Perceval ill. The slave traders. The manufacturers. The Luddites. The shipping industry. Bellingham claims he did it on his own, that it was for personal reasons. But I can’t bring myself to believe that. It’s too good to be true.”
“Yes.” James slung his cravat around his neck and started to tie it. His valet would be surprised to see how well he was able to accomplish the task. “A lone man with a grudge would certainly be the most convenient explanation. Leave no one with a cause to take up.” He pulled his shirt straight and began to button his jacket.
“We want you to focus on your area of specialization, Wittaker. There are plenty of noblemen who were being ruined by Perceval’s Orders in Council and he had such a grip on government—hell, he almost single-handedly
government—that some might have seen assassination as the only way to dislodge him.”
“I haven’t heard even a whisper about something like that.” James leaned back against his dresser and crossed his arms over his chest.
Dervish glanced at him sharply. “Yes, but you haven’t been hanging around your usual haunts for the past month and more.”
No. James had to admit he hadn’t.
The lustre had gone off his old lifestyle. Not that there was much lustre to begin with, though he’d felt he was helping in some way. But there was only so long you could wallow in the mire before the mud started to stick.
He shrugged. Let the silence draw out.
Dervish looked away. “Your help was always much appreciated. I know it wasn’t said enough.” He cleared his throat. “It’s not likely, but there are enough idiots in both the Upper and the Lower House who may have thought they were doing England and their family fortunes a favour by taking Perceval out of the running.”
“Even more manufacturers, exporters, and slavers who were being ruined.” James tapped his lips. “What are Bellingham’s connections?”