Book Detail

London

October 1820

The smell washed over her as she stepped over the threshold of the Green Dragon. Sour ale. Pungent wine. Gin. Tallow candles. Cheap scent masking stale sweat. The smell of home. Or what had once been home. It was sharper than she remembered. Or perhaps it was her senses that had changed.

The floor seemed to have sagged. The uneven boards poked against her feet. Or perhaps that was the kid soles of her half boots, softer than anything she’d worn in the old days. Bet picked her way through the crowd, looking for familiar faces. Jack Watkins, whom she’d played tagged with when they were five, shared her first kiss with when they were eleven, and more when they were fourteen, glanced right past her. Jenny Green, who had been both a friend and a competitor for clients, stared at her for a moment, opened her mouth as though to speak, then shook her head and looked away.

“Can I get you anything, miss?”

It was a waiter who had started less than a month before Bet left St. Giles to move in with Sandy. Tim, she thought his name was. She smiled in greeting. His gaze flickered over her face, and for a moment she thought he recognized her. Then he shook his head. “Sorry, miss. You remind me of someone I used know. Begging your pardon, but this isn’t the best place for a lady. Do you need help finding a hackney?”

“No. Thank you. I’m meeting someone.”

Confusion and uncertainty flickered across his gaze, as though he was revising his first impression of her. “If you’re in trouble—”

Funny how a well-cut pelisse, an elegant bonnet, and a better accent could bring on protective instincts. No one had ever worried much about her in the old days. Those who paid attention to her at all assumed she could take of herself. Which she had done. But if anything, she was stronger now.

“I’ll be fine,” Bet said in a firm voice. Though it was odd to realize the one place that had been home wasn’t home anymore. Because Sandy’s flat in the Albany could never really be her home.

Another waiter, whom she didn’t remember, came over to her. “The gentleman is upstairs.”

Tim cast a worried look at her. Bet smiled at him and followed the second waiter from the taproom. She lifted the skirt of her sapphire blue silk pelisse as she reached the stairs. The boards creaked and sagged. When she put a hand on the stair rail, the splintery wood scarped through her doeskin glove. Up the stairs she had often climbed with a gentleman or to meet a gentleman. Funny, she’d been quite matter-of-fact about that sort of encounter. Wary, because one never quite knew what one was getting into, but it had been her life and she’d made the best of it. Until Sandy. After Sandy it had grown difficult to think of anyone else in that way. Though she might have to when—

Bet resolutely shut her mind to the future as the waiter indicated one of the doors off the landing. She nodded and opened the door. With more trepidation than she had felt going to any past encounter here. After all, with those sorts of encounters, at least one knew more or less what to expect. She wasn’t even sure quite whom she was meeting, save that the message had made it imperative she keep the appointment.

She opened the door. The room was in shadow, lit only by a single lamp on a table across from the door. The smell of brandy, much finer than that generally served at the Green Dragon, wafted towards her. Until she’d met Sandy, she hadn’t known that smell. The man sitting in a chair by the table with the lamp got to his feet at her entrance. That was unexpected.

“Miss Simcox.” That was unexpected too. At the Green Dragon, she was Bet, not Miss Simcox. “Thank you for coming.”

He spoke in the accents of Sandy’s world, Eton or Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, Brooks’s or White’s. He wasn’t a tall man, but he radiated power. His gray-streaked hair might be brown or dark blond. The lamplight picked out sharp, imperious features. He looked to be in his late fifties.

She closed the door. “From the tone of your letter, I didn’t have a great deal of choice.”

“One always has a choice, though sometimes one or more of the options seem untenable. May I pour you some brandy? I bought it with me.”

“Thank you.” Somehow accepting the drink put them on the same level. And she could use it.

She sat in the chair on the other side of the small table with the lamp and the bottle of brandy and pulled off her gloves. The stair rail had left dark smears on them.

He poured a glass of brandy and set it on the table beside her. “I see no sense in prevaricating. Do you know who I am?”

“I don’t believe we’ve ever met.” She made it not quite a question. Dear God. He wasn’t someone she’d spent the night with, was he? She’d have sworn not. But could she really be sure she’d recognize all of them?

“No, you’re quite right. We haven’t met. My tastes never ran to St. Giles.” He took a deliberate drink of brandy and set his glass beside her own. “But I’m your lover’s father.”

The world spun, though she hadn’t taken a sip of the brandy. Sandy still thought of Lord Marchmain as his father. But Bet knew, because Sandy had told her, that in pure biology Sandy’s father was Alistair Rannoch. Who supposedly had died over three years ago, in a carriage accident that may not have been an accident.

“That’s generally the response of people I’ve revealed myself to recently.” The gentleman sank back in his chair. “Suffice it to say, I had my reasons for disappearing. And believe me, I don’t reveal myself lightly.”

Bet pulled her second glove from her fingertips. Her gaze locked on the black stitching on the pale gray. As though somehow the neat stitches held a code that would explain this confusing world she had stumbled into. “So you must have your reasons for wanting to talk to me.”

“I generally have reasons for what I do.” He took a sip of brandy. “I want to see my son.”

Bet’s gaze locked on that of the man across the candle from her. His eyes might be blue or green or gray. They were hard as agate. “Sandy doesn’t think of himself as your son.”

“No, I don’t imagine he does. He doesn’t know me at all. Which is all the more reason for me to get to know him.”

“Why?” Bet asked before she could think better of it. “Why now? You’ve known you were his father since he was born.”

“True enough. But it’s not the sort of thing one reveals to a child. At least, not unless one is my putative son, Malcolm Rannoch, who does things in ways few others would. Sandy is no longer a child. And my own circumstances have changed.”

“If you want to talk to Sandy, you should reach out to him.” That was true, though perhaps a mistake to put into words. “I don’t see where I come into it.”

Alistair Rannoch twisted the stem of his glass between his fingers. “I think you underrate yourself, Miss Simcox. You obviously mean a great deal to Alexander.” He ran his gaze over her. A polite gaze, but it seemed to slice through her silk pelisse and the sarcenet gown beneath and even the laces of her stays and her muslin chemise more effectively than the sharpest knife. “I’m sure you have ways of persuading Sandy. Just as you do other gentlemen.”

Bet lifted her chin. “I don’t need to try to persuade Sandy of anything. And there haven’t been any other gentlemen for a long time.”

He sat back in his chair and regarded her, glass held between two fingers. “No, I don’t suppose you’ve needed anyone else since he’s been keeping you.”

“Sandy and I are—”

“Yes?”

Bet gripped her hands in her lap, fingers tight round her gloves. “It’s none of your affair.”

Mr. Rannoch inclined his head. “You’re fond of him. That helps. I’m sure you want what’s best for him.”

That was the sort of thing Sandy’s parents said. Or at least that she assumed they said. She’d scarcely spoken to either of them except for one disastrous meeting at the Carfax ball last June, which had mostly involved Lady Marchmain’s hurling insults while Bet and Lord Marchmain tried to separate Sandy and his mother. “I don’t think Sandy’s and my relationship is any concern of yours.”

“I’ll admit I haven’t been a conventional father, but a son’s domestic arrangements can’t but be a father’s concern.”

Bet reached for her glass and took a deliberate drink of brandy. “Then you should ask Sandy.”

Alistair Rannoch swirled the brandy in his glass. “In addition to wanting what’s best for Sandy, I assume you want what’s best for your brother.”

Bet’s fingers bit into her glass. “Of course I want what’s best for Robby.” And her brother Robby’s future (as in his safety in the next week, or even the next hour) had frequently been a source of concern, even after she moved in with Sandy. But Robby was now employed as a groom to the new Lord Carfax and doing very well in his position, so no longer quite such a frequent source of concern to Bet and her sister Nan.

Mr. Rannoch took a sip of brandy. “You must have been pleased when Carfax took him on.”

“We have a number of reasons to be grateful to Lord Carfax.” Still so odd to use that name for a man she had once called Mr. St. Juste, and now improbably addressed as Julien, for he told her couldn’t abide being called Carfax.

“Yes, you have powerful friends, but I don’t know that they’ll be able to help you now.” Alistair Rannoch returned his glass to the table. “I am desolate to be the bearer of bad news, Miss Simcox, but your brother is presently under arrest at the Bow Street Public Office.”

Bet’s glass tilted in her fingers. “At the—”

“Unless he’s already been taken to Newgate.”

Panic closed round her throat. The fear of arrest had been a commonplace part of her life growing up. Her father had been arrested for stealing a pocket watch when she was six. He’d been hanged five days before her seventh birthday. But Robby was too clever for thievery now. Julien—Lord Carfax—paid him well. And Robby was intensely loyal to Julien. “He wouldn’t—”

“Difficult to know what anyone would or wouldn’t do, I find. But as it happens, he didn’t steal. He fired a pistol at the Duke of Wellington.”

The knot round her throat tightened. That should be even more incredible. But—

Alistair Rannoch held her gaze, his own as cold and lethal as a knife’s blade. “At the duke’s carriage, I should say. The unrest in London is an epidemic these days. Perhaps not surprising your brother was caught up in it.”

London had been at a fever pitch since the summer over the new King George IV’s efforts to divorce his long-estranged wife, Queen Caroline. Most common folk were (quite sensibly, in Bet’s opinion) on the queen’s side. There had been demonstrations outside Parliament, where the trial was taking place in the House of Lords, and demonstrations outside of the houses of many prominent noblemen in the government, such as Wellington. The trial was about to resume with the queen’s defense. Robby had worn a white cockade in support of the queen for months and had gone to several demonstrations, Bet knew. But he didn’t even own a pistol. “If the duke—”

“Wellington is unharmed. But the bullet struck a bystander, who is under a doctor’s care.”

Her stomach lurched. “If there was a crowd, they can’t know Robby did it.”

“No, that’s true.” Alistair Rannoch lifted his glass and took a slow drink of brandy. “But the case against him is strong. It would take considerable influence to get it dismissed.”

Bet drew in and released her breath, willing the tightness in her throat to relax enough that she could say what needed to be said. “What do you want me to do?”