Authors: Anne Stuart
For a moment Annelise said nothing. Hetty was a great deal smarter than her father gave her credit for, but that was probably a lost argument. “Did Mr. Dickinson propose marriage?”
“He did indeed, the impudent boy! As if I'd let any treasure of mine go so easily. She'll have a title or my name isn't Josiah Chipple.”
Unfortunately, she suspected it was, indeedâno man would choose such an undignified name. And there was no argument she could come up with at this point, exceptâ¦perhaps one.
“He's at least a more respectable choice than Christian Montcalm,” Annelise offered.
Mr. Chipple scowled. “Has that fellow been sniffing around her skirts?” he demanded crudely. “She can do better than him. I'm not saying he wouldn't do in a pinchâman's going to be a viscount, after all. That's nothing to sneeze at. He's a bit of a scoundrel, I gather, but a wife can change all that.”
“Perhaps you don't quite understand the severity of
the situation. Christian Montcalm is more than a scoundrelâhe's considered persona non grata at the best houses. His reputation is such that he is cut by some of the most influential high sticklers in society. His behavior in the past has been so questionable that it's unlikely to be salvaged, and marriage to your daughter wouldn't help her any. She'd be as ostracized as he is, perhaps more. People are more tolerant of men's bad behavior, but they'll have no reason to welcome your daughter into their houses.”
Mr. Chipple stopped to consider this. “How very enlightening, Miss Kempton. I'm glad to see I didn't make a mistake in having you come join us for the season. You understand things that are quite beyond my experience. But if Montcalm is not accepted at the best houses then why do we keep running into him?”
She could hardly tell him that the nouveau riche Chipples were also unwelcome in the best houses. After all, there was only so much their sponsor, Lady Prentice, could do, and even Annelise's unexceptional presence in their household could only elevate their social standing one small notch. “He makes it his business to seek your daughter out. Mr. Montcalm's quite determined to marry her, and your daughter finds him very attractive. I've tried to warn him off but he pays no mind.”
“Of course he doesn'tâwhy would he listen to a woman?” Chipple replied. “So clearly I'll have to step in to make certain he receives the message that his attentions are unwelcome. Do you expect there will be a problem?”
Annelise remembered the cool mockery in Montcalm's laughing eyes. “I don't think he'll give up without a fight. As you've said, your daughter is both beautiful and possessed of a remarkable fortune. Most men wouldn't admit defeat lightly.”
“Then I'll have to make sure Montcalm understands,” Chipple said. “It's a shame, though. She did seem to fancy him, and it got her mind off young Will until the little basâerâ¦until he showed up again. And a viscountcy was the most promising so farâI'd hate to settle for anything less.”
Again, Annelise thought, there was the problem of not being invited to the more exclusive gatherings. But with determination, that could changeâdespite Josiah's working-class drawbacks Hetty was really quite charming, and many society matrons would overlook the smell of the shop for such a well-endowed wife for one of their sons. “I think we need to be patient, sir,” she said carefully. “As long as Christian Montcalm knows that he's wasting his efforts, and if it turns out that Mr. Dickinson is truly unacceptable, then we can move forward.”
Indeed, it grieved her that the young lovers were going to be parted. Her sentimental streak was coming forth againâWill and Hetty had looked so sweet together.
But the undoubted blessing of involving Mr. Chipple would be that Christian Montcalm would no longer trouble be Annelise's responsibility. She had little doubt Chipple would make it very clear that any alliance was out of the question, and Montcalm would have no
choice but to turn his attentions elsewhere, sparing Annelise from her very disordered feelings.
“Trust me, Miss Kempton. I'll take care of Mr. Montcalm. In the meantime, you distract my daughter from any romantic memories she might harbor for Dickinson. She's not marrying a farmer no matter how much she cries.”
Had Hetty cried for Will Dickinson? Interesting, since she'd said her father would give her anything she wanted. Unless it interfered with his own ambitions, apparently.
“Certainly, Mr. Chipple. In the meantime perhaps we might miss the ball tonightâChristian Montcalm is certain to be there, and you won't have had time to discourage him effectively.”
“Oh, I will most definitely have enough time, Miss Kempton. I'm an efficient man, and once I decide on a course it's as good as accomplished. I don't expect you'll be seeing Montcalm at Lady Helton's, or anywhere else for that matter. I'll make certain there's no room for misunderstanding in my message.”
She thought she detected a faintly ominous edge to Chipple's hearty voice. Must be her wild imagination again. “In that case perhaps I should go and have a rest before the evening's festivities. Unless you had something else you wish to discuss?”
“Not at all, Miss Kempton,” he said, rising this time like a gentleman. “You've been very helpful to me. Go get your rest while I attend to business. I want you to be fresh enough to keep an eye on my daughter.”
No one was ever that fresh, Annelise thought with a trace of asperity, noting that Chipple hadn't suggested she might benefit from a beauty sleep. Like most men he would consider it a lost cause.
But indeed, she was unaccountably weary after the stimulating day. It was the time outdoors, not the company that had exhausted her, she decided. After all, Christian Montcalm had only subjected her to his unwanted presence for a few short minutes.
Annelise's room was still and quiet, and when she lay down on the bed, she felt the paper press against her breast. She reached inside her gown and pulled the note and handkerchief free. The small fire was burning in the grate to ward off the evening chill, but she was too tired to climb off the bed and toss the note in. She could accomplish that simple act eventually. There was no great rush.
She looked at the lacy handkerchief in her hand, then brought it to her face. It smelled of her scent, of course, the subtle rose that she favored. But it smelled of him as wellâsomething spicier, foreign and mysterious.
She reached under the coverlet and shoved the offending handkerchief under her pillow, along with the note, then wrapped herself in the throw at the foot of the bed. Easy enough to dispose of later, she thought sleepily. There was no hurry to get rid of the things. Now that she'd managed to get rid of Montcalm himself.
hristian Montcalm knew quite a bit about women, and he knew when to advance and when to retreat. He'd been quite assiduous in his attentions to the silly Miss Chipple, and she'd jumped like a trout for a piece of bait. A night or two of absence would no doubt begin to eat away at her blithe certainty that he was hers for the takingâthe chit was far too sure of herself.
He didn't have the slightest concern that the appearance of Hetty's childhood sweetheart would prove an obstacle in his plans. Miss Chipple was young and impressionable enough to be distracted quite easily, and she'd be married before she even realized she wanted someone else.
he thought. Too damned bad, he corrected himself. He hated it when he absently lapsed into the French that had been as familiar to him as English. He found himself doing it more so, in fact, since he'd lived in France with his family.
But that had been a lifetime ago, and there was nothing French about him. Not even his lovely mother would recognize him.
A night at the cards without the distraction of Miss Chipple and her dragon proved very pleasant. His luck held, and by the early hours of the morning he was pleasantly at peace with the world. Two bottles of wine had contributed to that mellowness and the plump size of his purse moved things along. Even though he'd turned down the generous offer of the beautiful Mrs. Hargate, he still strode home through the early-morning streets a comparatively well-pleased gentleman.
He managed to live in a decent part of town, but no area was safe at that early an hour. Not that Christian had any particular concern. He had a certain reputation, even on the streets, and most men of the criminal class gave him a wide berth. Perhaps it was respect for a fellow transgressor, he thought with some amusement.
So it was with some surprise that he turned the corner into the narrow street where he lived and realized he wasn't alone.
They were hiding in the shadowsâat least two of them. He wondered whether they were waiting especially for him, or if they were looking for any victim who happened to wander into their path. He was about to find out.
He whistled an old country song as he made his way down the alley, stumbling slightly as a drunken man should, muttering to himself and giving the perfect impersonation of easy prey. They let him make it as far as his door before they emerged out of the darkness. Two of them, sailors by the look of themâbig menâ
neither as tall as he was but far bulkier. Which would give them more brute strength, but make them move slower, he thought as he deliberately fumbled with his key. They would be easy enough to take and a fight would be invigorating, but he wasn't certain he wanted to be bothered.
They thought they were creeping up on an oblivious, drunken gentleman. He rattled the keys once more, put his hand on his sword and said in a clear, distinct voice, “Let's not do this.”
It stopped them cold. He turned to look at them. It was nearly dawnâhe hadn't realized he'd been out that late, and the night was brisk. The men were shiveringâobviously not used to England's climate.
He'd managed to totally confuse them. And then the larger one, whom he presumed was the brains of the operation, took a bullying step forward. “It ain't up to you. We've got a job to do and we aims to see we do it.”
“But I'm afraid I don't agree. I'm not about to hand over my money without a fight. A fight, I'm afraid, that you'd lose.”
The brains of the operation proved sadly lacking. “Two to one, and there's not much brawn to you. And we're not here for the money, though I imagine Smitty and I can help ourselves with no one the wiser.”
“Really?” His tone held nothing but polite inquiry. “Then I can only presume you've come to kill me. An even more difficult task than robbing me, I'm afraid.”
“We'll manage,” growled Smitty.
“I doubt it. Is there any particular reason you chose
me to murder? Do my clothes annoy you? Are you revolutionaries from France trying to spread democracy?”
“Frenchies?” The first man spat on the ground in disdain. “We're being paid. Nothing personal, you understandâit's just a job.”
“I shan't take it personally,” Montcalm said gently. “And exactly who hired you? I can think of at least a dozen people who'd want me dead, and half of them would have the means to hire ruffians to come after me. But most of them would know I'm not easily taken down.”
“All men die sooner or later,” the first man said. “I've killed enough that I know how easy it really can be done.”
Christian's faint smile would have chilled a smarter man, but his two assassins failed to notice the danger. He could dispatch the two of them at any timeâhe was graceful and unaccountably lethal with sword and knifeâand equipped with both. But he was not about to use them before he found out who hired the two men.
“So who have I offended now, that he went to the docks to find thugs?” Then it dawned on him. “Oh, how naive of me. He already knew you, didn't he? You must be employed by Josiah Chipple.”
Smitty looked disturbed. “Should he know that, Clemson?”
“It won't matter, idiot!” Clemson snapped. “He'll be dead.” He turned back to Montcalm and grinned, exposing his blackened teeth. “And if you think we're simple sailors, then you don't know much. You can run as fast
as you like and I'll catch you. I can take down a man in seconds.”
“And why should I run?”
“For your life, man,” Smitty broke in impatiently. “âlike the blacks we chase in Africaâ¦”
“Shut up, Smitty!”
“You said it doesn't matter what he knows,” Smitty whined. “He'll be dead. We can cut his throat to make sure he can't talk.”
“If he's dead he can't talk anyway. And I have every intention of cutting his throat. Too bad there's no market for someone like himâhe'd fetch a pretty penny if we sold him to some stinking Arab. They like men, and this one's got such a pretty face. A nice arse too, I'll wager.”
“Maybe we shouldâ”
“We'll kill him, Smitty. Can't you see he's just trying to distract us? Prolong the inevitable?”
“That's delay, not prolong,” Montcalm corrected in a polite voice. “Assuming you mean the inevitable is my gruesome death at your hands, then I'd want to delay it, not make sure the experience lasts.”
“I don't have time for this,” Clemson exploded, starting toward him, his knife drawn.
Montcalm sighed wearily, pulling out his own small, jeweled dagger, better suited for a gentleman's hand, half the size of Clemson's weapon.
Clemson looked at it and laughed. “You think you can cause any damage with that tiny pig-sticker? You're a bigger fool than youâ”
He stopped speaking, because Montcalm had thrown the knife with deadly accuracy, and Clemson was down on the ground in a pool of blood.
He was making choking noises from the knife lodged in his throat, but he would die quickly. Montcalm turned his gaze to Smitty, arched an eyebrow and said, “Next?”
Smitty was a smarter man than Clemson, after all. He was backing away, nervously, and Montcalm let him go. In the end he wasn't in the mood for a chase.
Before Smitty could break into a run he called after him. “You might inform Mr. Chipple that I'm a harder man to kill than he thinks.”
“I'm not going anywhere near the man,” Smitty stammered. “You don't fail Josiah Chipple and then live to talk about it.”
“But I need you to give him a message.”
“Take it yourself,” Smitty said in a panic, and he turned and ran down the alleyway.
Montcalm watched him go. Clemson was dead by nowâno great loss to society, apparently. Christian walked over to the corpse and looked down, then pulled his dagger free. So Josiah Chipple was a slaverâwhat a fascinatingly useful piece of information. Most people preferred to ignore the fact that men made fortunes trafficking in human flesh, and so far Josiah had managed to keep the source of his success in shipping a secret.
Not anymore. It wouldn't matter how pretty Hetty Chipple was, how rich, how virtuousâwhich he certainly doubtedâor how bright. If she was the daughter
of a middle-class slaver there would be no respectable offers, certainly no titled ones.
Except, of course, for someone like Christian Montcalm, whose reputation was already in shreds.
It wasn't as if he intended to spend the rest of his life in London. He would inherit nothing from his elderly uncle but the title, but he already possessed Wynche End near the coast of Devon. It had belonged to Christian's great-aunt, and it was almost uninhabitable, though if his grandfather had found any way of depriving Christian of it he would have.
Christian had often considered selling itâthe house was in shambles but the land was extensive and some of the finest farming plot in all of Devon. Fifty years of lying fallow had only improved the soil. He could have sold it to someone like Chipple, to whom money was no object, and whoever bought it would have torn down the rambling old house and put up something shiny and new. But he had a great affection for the house, even in its current state of disrepair, and Hetty's money would provide the perfect infusion the poor old place needed. And out in Devon it wouldn't matter where the money had come fromâmerely that the bills would be paid.
A shame for poor Hetty if the truth came out about her father. If she behaved herself he would have no problem allowing her to go off to London to visit her father and enjoy herself discreetly. As for him, once he left London he had no particular wish to return. He'd tasted all of its pleasures and vices, and while they'd been intoxicating, he'd had enough.
His rooms were cold. He could only afford a day servant, and Henry wouldn't be arriving for hours. The logical step was to go to bed and seek the respite of a good morning's sleep.
But he could build a fire as well as the next man, and he was in no particular mood to put off his duty. His hands were bloody from the knife, and it put him in a particularly foul mood. He would like to be more sanguine when he was forced to kill, to simply shrug it off as an unpleasant necessity.
But he hadn't been able to inure himself to it, not quite. And perhaps he was just as glad he hadn't.
He washed his hands and the knife in a basin of cool water, carefully drying the weapon and laying it back down on the counter. It had been a gift from his mother on his twelfth birthday. She would have had no idea when she gave it to him just how frequently he would use it over the years.
But then again, maybe she did. She was, after all, French.
He found himself smiling faintlyâan unusual occurrence. Thinking of the French tended to put him in a foul mood, but thinking of his beautiful mother warmed him, and there was no denying that his mother was, indeed, a Frenchwoman. Born, raised and died at the hands of her murderous people.
It was interesting to see just how terrified Smitty had been at the thought of facing Josiah Chipple. Of course, it might have been simply the shock of seeing his part
ner in crime die so suddenly, but he doubted it. Slavers were an unsentimental lot, and death was an integral part of their trade, both for their cargo and for those who tried to interfere.
Unfortunately for the not very clever Smitty, if Josiah Chipple was as formidable as he thought he was, then he was already doomed. A man like Chipple wouldn't let even a small detail escape his attention, and Montcalm's botched murder was no small detail.
He was going to have to decide just the most effective and remunerative way to deal with Josiah Chipple. Something with finesse, something insulting, and definitely costly. No man set hired thugs on him without paying a very steep price indeed.
He would take Chipple's money, he would take his pride, and he would take his daughter. And enjoy every moment of it.
Annelise should have been in a much better mood. There had been no sign of Christian Montcalm at Lady Helton's party, no sign of him the following night, as well. Josiah Chipple's subtle warning must have been surprisingly efficient, and Annelise could rejoice that she would probably never come closer than the other side of a crowded ballroom again.
Unfortunately, she wasn't in the mood for rejoicing. It was probably the rain. It had been pouring steadily the last twenty-four hours, and even when she tried to open the window to let some air into her stuffy bedroom the rain lashed inside, and she had no choice but to shut it
again. She felt smothered and stifled in the Chipples' opulent house, and even the monstrous Greek statues in the hallway seemed particularly glum.
Hetty was equally miserable, rising late with swollen eyes, moping around the house, alternately sighing noisily or snapping at anyone who crossed her path. Annelise was not about to put up with her charge's rudeness, but she couldn't help but wonder whether it was the absence of Mr. Montcalm or Mr. Dickinson that was breaking Hetty's heart.
It probably didn't help matters that the house was rife with tension. Mr. Chipple was holding a party that eveningâdinner, cards and dancing for forty, and even the experienced London servants were in a tizzy trying to prepare for the event. Hetty had changed her mind about her gown at least seven times, several of them with Annelise's helpful prodding, since some of Hetty's gowns rivaled her father's taste in decor. Even Annelise was on edgeâwhile most of the guests were from the lower echelons of high society, a few were coming simply out of respect to Lady Prentice and her goddaughter, and she cringed at the thought of Josiah Chipple meeting some of the starchiest of women with his faltering manners. The disapproving, formidable women who were above reproach, invulnerable, and never, ever wrong.