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What the devil was she up to now?
They had to be in the worst part of London’s seedy wharves and warehouses. The stink of rotten fish mingled with the even ranker filth flowing down the edges of the street. James Trelissick flexed his fingers and then clenched them again, the urge to block his nostrils almost too much. “Are you sure this is the address, miss?”
Her uncovered head leaned through the open window of the closed carriage beneath him and James had to fight an even stronger impulse to whip the horses until they were far away. Vibrant red hair and a fair complexion turned the spoiled young woman into a beacon. At least she’d had sense enough to don a dark cloak over her evening gown, although even a fool half blind and deep in his cups would note her station.
“Your job is not to question, John,” she reminded him.
James bit his tongue and held the pair still while his quarry opened her own door and stepped lightly to the blackened ground. It wouldn’t do to remind her once again that his name was James or that she should wait until he opened the door for her. Propriety was not something Miss Germaine would be able to learn at the age of one-and-twenty. You either had it, or you didn’t. She did not. He saved his breath and concentrated on the matter at hand.
His military-honed instincts rose to full alert as a shuffle from the right was accompanied by boot heels clicking against cobbles from the left. He should never have brought her to the address she gave him, not in a thousand years, but he couldn’t refuse without revealing his true identity.
“I will be some time inside, so you may drive around the corner and wait for me there.”
“Not bloody likely,” James told her, biting his tongue too late.
“I beg your pardon?” she hissed, her wild green eyes checking the shadows all around.
“I’m not going anywhere without you.” He added as an afterthought, “Miss.”
“You will do as you’re told.”
Inclining his head in her direction, James gave the horses a gentle flick with the ancient leather and the carriage moved off quietly, though the clamour of alarm bells in his mind was surely loud enough for even his stubborn mistress to hear. He should have taken her over his knee and spanked some sense into her. If she’d been his sister, he would have her locked in a room with padded walls and declared a bedlamite to keep her from self-inflicted harm.
Once around the corner, not even moving his head in the slightest to look back, James stopped the carriage, tied the reins tight and jumped to the ground. He hit hard but did not pause. As he rounded the back, he rapped two short sharp knocks against the luggage compartment.
“Shite.” His man popped out of the compartment and swung his dirt-stained face left and then right. “What the hell is she doing now?”
James shook his head and lifted his woollen cap to rake a hand through his hair. “I have no idea but you can bet it isn’t good. Watch the horses; don’t move from this spot but be ready to flee as soon as I say the word.”
He didn’t wait for Hobson’s nod or reply. His man would know what to do.
As he ran back to the warehouse his mistress-for-the-moment was intent on entering, he transferred a pistol from his pocket to his hand then pulled his ragged coat sleeve over the weapon. At some stage he would need to use it, of that he was sure. Trouble didn’t so much follow Daniella Germaine as she was the trouble herself.
Peering around corners and down dark alleyways, no sound met his ears and no other person came forwards. He found the door to the leaning warehouse and slowed to an unsteady walk when he saw two burly men standing guard.
“Evenin’, gentlemen,” James said in a servant’s accent.
“What do you want? You got no business ’ere.” The one on the left puffed his chest out and took a step in James’s direction.
“The mistress, she told me to come back and assist her.”
The two eyed him dubiously and James hoped like hell he’d said the right thing. “Come on,” he whined impatiently, “she’ll ’ave me ’ide if I’m not in there yest’dee.”
Finally they nodded and opened the door. James held on to his sigh of relief until he’d walked over the threshold but choked on it when the scene inside rushed to greet him.
Nearby stood a crowd of men joking, laughing, chatting. In front of them, beneath the sloping, decrepit roof, a stage of sorts with a roped-off pen had been erected and topped with an auctioneer’s podium. From what he could gather, the crowd were gentlemen, and in their midst lingered Miss Germaine, the bane of his existence and the answer to his many dilemmas. She stood in a dirty warehouse in a gown worth hundreds, surrounded by only men and filth, looking as calm as if she were in her brother’s drawing room.
Instead of approaching and asking her the dozen or so questions that first sprang to mind, he held his ground, and his cover. If she for one moment thought him more than a coachman, he would never find his mother or sister.
After only a few more minutes, a nondescript man stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat loudly. The crowd moved closer, the hush instantaneous.
“We’re all here for the same reason, gentlemen.”
There were titters from those closest to Miss Germaine but the announcer ignored it and went on. “Please remember the rules; and once a girl has been won, she’ll be taken off to the back for collection. Cold hard coin is the only currency and no amount is too high for me.” He eyed each member of the crowd, waiting for nods of agreement. His gaze paused on Miss Germaine, his beady eyes opening a fraction wider, his wide nostrils flaring, but then he spoke again. “Right then, let’s bring ’em in.”
James couldn’t quite believe his eyes. In filed twelve girls by his count. All were various ages, sizes, skin colours. No two girls had similar features but all wore the same look of fear and loathing.
“The first virgin up for bidding is a delightful little package…”
James stopped listening. What the hell could Daniella Germaine want from an illegal auction such as this? She might have been the daughter of a pirate but she was also the sister of a man knighted by the king. She should have had no knowledge whatsoever of such a thing as a virgin auction. But then Miss Germaine was no ordinary ton daughter.
Ordinary or not, if word got out, if one loose tongue let it slip that she was there, in that den of filthy degenerates, what remained of her shaky reputation would be in tatters and she would be exiled from London society by granddames and daughters alike—something he could not afford to see happen just yet. She had to stay in place for just a few weeks more…
Very covertly and quietly, James began to move towards her. If he could get her out of there before too many noticed her presence, the rumours could be laughed off, a lie woven, an alibi found.
“The bidding starts at twenty pounds. Do I have twenty pounds for this spitfire? Surely she’ll be a pleasure to tame.”
James didn’t stop to wonder at the asking price. Who’d have thought stolen virgins could be had for such a paltry fee? If indeed they were virgins.
“Twenty-five pounds,” he heard called from the other side of the room.
“Twenty-six,” came a reply.
“You can have her,” cackled the first. “I hope she gives you lice, Wetherington.”
James shook his head again. He knew Walter Wetherington, and had thought him a fine upstanding fellow in the House of Lords. Clearly what James thought he knew and the truth were two entirely different matters. He ducked his head, put the pistol back in his pocket and pulled his cap farther over his eyes. If Wetherington were in the room there could be any number of others able to recognize him. While he might not risk undoing the hard work he’d had to do to recover his good name from the muck—clearly the gentlemen of the ton were happy to be seen here—but he didn’t want to unmask himself to Miss Germaine just yet.
“I should like to bid on her, Wetherington.”
Damn that fool girl!
“Miss Germaine,” the announcer called with a short bow, and gestured for her to continue.
“Forgive me, gentlemen, Wetherington,” she said, as she gave them each an easy smile.
James tried to reach out, to grab a hold of her skirt, her cloak, any scrap of fabric to pull her back and right out the door, but then she started towards the stage.
“May I?” she asked the announcer before climbing the rough timber to stand before the cowering girl.
The silence deafened as each and every man, James included, held his breath waiting for Miss Germaine to speak again.
She didn’t make them wait long. “I realize this is quite unorthodox and I do hope you’ll forgive my intrusion but I should like to buy them all.”
James choked until the man next to him slapped him hard on the back. His splutters were otherwise lost in an uproar—the gentlemen bidders were all either outraged or overcome by bewilderment.
The announcer was quickest to retain his wits and his eyes sparkled with greed as he checked first Miss Germaine up and down and then the girls waiting their turn. “Three hundred pounds,” he said in a way that told everyone he thought the lady would not be able to meet his terms. James, however, knew enough about Daniella Germaine to know she never bluffed.
“Done,” she agreed with another nod.
The announcer turned back to the crowd. “It seems, gentlemen, that the lady has just purchased herself the twelve fine virgins I had to offer today. That brings our business to a conclusion until next month.”
“On the contrary,” Miss Germaine countered, her light tone turning seductive. “There is still one virgin to be bid on.”
All she had to do was smile that beguiling smile of hers and the spell was spun. James groaned, removed his cap and raked a hand through his hair. He contemplated taking his gun out and shooting her. Nothing else would make her cease these dangerous games.
“Who?” the announcer asked, looking behind her at the dozen pairs of eyes staring back.
She threw the edges of her cloak back, revealing an evening gown cut more scandalously than the lady was herself, straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. “Me.”
Never let it be said that Daniella Germaine was afraid of a challenge. Never let it be said she would back down or have her mind turned once it was set on a steady course. Although her heart thumped against her ribs and her mouth was dry, to those watching she would display only the utmost confidence and calm.
“Is this some kind of joke?” the man on the stage next to her stuttered.
“No joke, I assure you. Shall we start the bidding at one hundred pounds?”
“You can’t be serious,” someone called from the crowd.
“Are you questioning the sincerity of my purpose here, Lord Cumberland, or my virginity?”
Another voice called, “Your father would hunt down any man who dared touch a hair on your pretty head.”
She sincerely hoped so but couldn’t resist a jibe. “According to the Royal British Navy, my father is dead.” It was a good thing she was adept at telling fibs. Her father was still alive—she knew more than to believe the word of a starchy captain looking to be made a general in the war against those benefitting from smuggling and raiding. If he was dead, she would have felt it, or word would have reached her brother and he would have told her.
“No pirate as wily as Richard Germaine would let himself be had or bested by the navy.”
Daniella drew herself up to her full height of five foot two inches. “My father was not a pirate, he was a privateer. The rumours about him are wildly unfounded and laughably out of control.”
Biting down on her bottom lip to still the sudden tremble there, she inhaled, exhaled and then addressed the gentleman again. “Now, one hundred pounds is the bid and you needn’t worry about my father. He’s in a shallow grave at the bottom of the ocean and isn’t able to harm a flea, let alone a virile gentleman such as yourself.”
“In that case, I bid one hundred pounds,” the Duke of Leicestershire called, his hands rubbing together in a way that chilled her enthusiasm for her cause.
The auctioneer took over, the chance at easy money too good to give up, and bids came from the left and from the right and even the middle until the amount was a staggering three hundred and twenty pounds.
“The bid is with Mr Pendleton to my right, do I have three hundred and thirty?” the announcer called.
“Three hundred and fifty,” a voice said from the shadows at the rear.
“Step into the light, my good man, for your bid to be heard.”
Out of the darkness came John, her coachman. Daniella barely contained a shriek of outrage. How dare he intervene? He was going to ruin everything and she had neither the courage nor the funds to make a second attempt at this particular form of disgrace. “You do not have three hundred and fifty pounds,” she pointed out. “Pendleton, I do believe you have the bid.”
“Do you call me a liar?” John asked.
“I do,” she said with a firm nod. “Now hush before you lose your position as well as your pride.”
“Three hundred and sixty pounds,” Pendleton called.
“Six hundred pounds!”
All eyes swung to John, only now that she looked at him, really looked, she couldn’t be sure he was actually the man who’d driven her to the auction at all. Her skin crawled as she swung her gaze back to Pendleton with a silent plea. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Her friend Percy was supposed to win her. On a normal day she would never barter her innocence unless she knew it was a gamble she would win. She wasn’t stupid. Her calculations to date had been spot-on and flawless. Having plundered Anthony’s strongbox, she had precisely three hundred pounds in her reticule to pay for her virgins, and Percy had drawn generously on his next quarter’s allowance in the knowledge that her brother would be shamed into paying him back once he learned of his sister’s newest, most irredeemable folly. A Germaine paid his—or her—debts.
“Who are you?” the announcer asked the bid holder.
Removing his cap, his hard-eyed stare never wavering from Daniella’s, he said, “James Trelissick, Marquess of Lasterton.”
“He is not,” Daniella shouted over the renewed hubbub as her careful calm shattered to a thousand pieces. “He is my coachman and his name is John. Do not believe his lies if you wish to receive your money.” But she was horrified to see him open his filthy coat, reach into his pocket and withdraw a purse.
“Six hundred pounds for Miss Germaine,” he said waving it over his head as he approached. “And another four hundred when you feed these girls and deliver them to my estate in Dover. Untouched.”
“This is outrageous,” Daniella cried. Pendleton was supposed to bid on her. Her brother would have to repay exorbitant sums and wash his hands of her; her father would hear about her antics and rise from the grave to take her in hand. That was the plan. Who the devil was the Marquess of Lasterton to bump her off course?
In a matter of seconds, the said marquess had gripped her arm in his brutish hand and was towing her towards the door. “You can’t do this,” she rasped, and tried to twist free.
“Who is going to prevent me?” He came to a dead stop, his eyes wide and fierce, his grip tightening a fraction more. “Will you stop me, Wetherington? What would your wife say? What about you, Pendleton? Your poor mother would turn a fit to hear that you bid so callously on the innocence of a lady. I’m betting not one of you will want to mention this incident over breakfast tomorrow.”
Daniella let her chin sink to her chest. He had effectively silenced any rumour that would scotch her standing in London—or save her from him. Suddenly her well-thought-out plan seemed naive and silly and her cheeks burned with humiliation.
“I didn’t think so,” the marquess growled and pulled her so roughly through the door into the damp night that she almost fell.
Quickly, before the two guards could come to their senses, he towed her down the street, around the corner and into her own carriage. Before the door had closed, he yelled, “Plan B,” into the breeze and the horses shot off at a furious pace.
Daniella shuffled along the bench seat as far as the space would allow. “Where are you taking me?” she asked, her voice no more than a frightened squeak. Under the circumstances, she wasn’t surprised fear had taken over her usually more robust sensibilities.
He looked in her direction for only a second, his gaze shuttered, his mouth a thin line and said only one word. “Home.”
End of Excerpt