Gentle Rogue

Page 1

Chapter One

1818,London

Georgina Anderson held her spoon up backward, placed one of the pared-down radishes from her plate in the bowl of the spoon, pulled the tip back, and shot the radish across the room. She didn't hit the fat cockroach she was aiming for, but she was close enough. The radish splattered on the wall only inches from her target, sending said target scampering for the nearest crack in the wall. Goal accomplished. As long as she couldn't see the little beasts, she could pretend she wasn't sharing accommodations with them.

She turned back to her half-eaten dinner, stared at the boiled food for a moment, then pushed the plate away with a grimace. What she wouldn't give for one of Hannah's rich, seven-course meals right about now. After twelve years as theAndersons' cook, Hannah knew just what pleased each member of the family, andGeorginahad been dreaming about her cooking for weeks, not surprising after a month of shipboard fare. She'd gotten only one good meal since she'd arrived inEnglandfive days ago, and that was the very night they docked, when Mac had taken her out to a fine restaurant just after they had checked into the Albany Hotel. They'd had to leave theAlbanythe very next day for much, much cheaper accommodations. But there was nothing else they could do after they returned to the hotel to find all their money missing from their trunks.

Georgie, as she was affectionately known to friends and family, couldn't even in good conscience hold the hotel accountable, not when she and Mac had both been robbed, but from different rooms, even different floors. It was most likely accomplished while the trunks were together on that long ride from the docks on the East End to Piccadilly on the West End, where the prestigious Albany was located, when the trunks were strapped on top of the hack they had rented, with the driver and his helper uptop with them, while she and Mac blithely ogled their first sight of London Town.

Talk about your lousy luck, and it hadn't even started there. No, it started when they reached England last week and found out their ship couldn't dock, that it might take anywhere up to three months before it was given quay space to unload its cargo. Passengers were more fortunate in that they could be rowed ashore. But they'd still had to wait several days before this was accomplished.

She shouldn't have been surprised, however. She had known about the congestion problem on the Thames, a very big problem because ships came in seasonally, all being subject to the same unpredictable winds and weather. Her ship had been one of a dozen fromAmericaarriving at the same time. There were hundreds of others from all over the world. The appalling congestion problem was one of the reasons her family's merchant line had keptLondonoff its trade routes even before the war.

Actually, a Skylark Line ship hadn't been toLondonsince 1807 whenEnglandbegan her blockade of half ofEuropein her war withFrance. The Far Eastern andWest Indiestrade was just as profitable and far less troublesome for Skylark.

Even after her country had settled its differences withEnglandwith the signing of a treaty at the tail end of 1814, the Skylark Line stayed clear of the English trade, because the availability of warehousing was still a serious problem. More times than not, perishable cargoes had to be left on quayside, at the mercy of the elements and the thieves who stole a half million pounds of goods a year. And if the elements didn't ruin perishable goods, then the coal dust that enveloped the whole port would.

It simply wasn't worth the aggravation and loss of profits, not when other trade routes were just as lucrative. Which was whyGeorginahadn't come toLondonon a Skylark ship, and why she wouldn't find free passage home on one, either. Which was going to be an eventual problem, what with Mac and she reduced to a grand total of twenty-five American dollars between them, all that they had been carrying on them at the time of the robbery, and they didn't know how long that would have to last—a good reason why Georgina was presently ensconced in a rented room above a tavern in the Borough of Southwark.

A tavern! If her brothers ever found out . . . but then they were going to kill her when she got home anyway for sailing without their knowing, while each was off in some other part of the world on his own ship, but more to the point, she'd left without their permission. At the least, she could expect to have her allowance suspended for a decade, to be locked in her room for several years, to be whipped by each one of them . . .

Actually, they would probably only do a great deal of shouting at her. But having five angry brothers, all older and much bigger than she, raising their voices in unison and accord, and directing that anger at her when she knew she deserved every bit of it, wasn't at all pleasant to contemplate, and could, in fact, be anticipated with total dread. But, unfortunately, that hadn't stoppedGeorginafrom sailing off toEngland with only Ian MacDonell as her escort and protector, and he no relation at all to her. Sometimes she had to wonder if the common sense allotted her family hadn't run out by the time she was born.

The knock came at the door just asGeorginapushed away from the little table the room offered for solitary meals. She had to bite back the natural tendency to simply say "Come in," which came from a lifetime of knowing that anyone who knocked on her door would be either servant or family, and welcome. But then, in the whole of her twenty-two years, she had never slept anywhere but in her own bed, in her own room, in her home inBridgeport,Connecticut; or in a hammock on a Skylark ship, at least until last month. Of course, no one could just come in with the door locked, whether she invited them to or not. And Mac was diligent in reminding her that she had to do such things as keep her door locked at all times, even if the strange, shabby room wasn't a potent enough reminder that she was far away from home and shouldn't be trusting anyone in this inhospitable, crime-infested town.

But her visitor was known to her, the Scottish brogue calling out to her from the other side of the door well recognized as belonging to Ian MacDonell. She let him in, then stepped out of the way as he sauntered through the doorway, his tall frame filling the small room.

"Any luck?"

He snorted before he sat down in the chair she had just vacated. "Depends on how ye look at it, lass."

"Not another detour?"

"Aye, but better than a dead end, I'm thinking."

"I suppose," she replied, but not with much enthusiasm.

She shouldn't really be expecting more, not when they had so little to go on. All Mr. Kimball, one of the sailors on her brother Thomas's ship, the Portunus, had been able to tell her was that he was "certain sure" he had seen her long-lost fiance, Malcolm Cameron, up in the rigging on the British merchantman Pogrom when the ships crossed paths during the Portunus's return to Connecticut. Her brother Thomas couldn't even verify it, since Mr. Kimball hadn't bothered to mention it to him until the Pogrom was well out of their sights. But the Pogrom's direction had been towardEurope, more than likely to its home port inEngland, even if it wasn't going directly there.

Regardless, this was the first piece of news she had heard of Malcolm in the six years since he had been impressed with two others right off her brother Warren's ship, the Nereus , a month before war had been declared in June of 1812.

Impressment of American sailors by the English navy had been one of the reasons for the war. It was the worst piece of luck that Malcolm had been taken on his very first voyage—and simply because he still had a touch of the Cornishman's accent, having spent the first half of his life in Cornwall, England. But he was an American now, his parents, who were now deceased, having settled inBridgeportin 1806, with no intention of ever returning toEngland. But the officer of the HMS Devastation wouldn't believe any of that, andWarrenhad a small scar on his cheek to prove how determined they were to impress every man they could.

And thenGeorginahad heard that the HMS Devastation had been taken out of commission halfway through the war, her crew divided up among a half dozen other warships. But there had been no other news until now. What Malcolm was doing on an English merchantman now that the war was over didn't matter. At leastGeorginafinally had a means to find him, and she wasn't leavingEnglanduntil she did.

"So who were you directed to this time?"Georginaasked with a sigh. "Another someone who knows someone, who knows someone, who might know where he is?"

Mac chuckled. "Ye make it sound as if we'll be going 'round in circles indefinitely, hinny. We've only been looking these four days. Ye could do wi' a wee bit of Thomas's patience, I'm thinking."

"Don't mention Thomas to me, Mac. I'm that mad at him still for not coming himself to find Malcolm for me."

"He would have—"

"In six months! He wanted me to wait another six months for him to return from his West Indies run, then how many more months for him to come here, find Malcolm, then return with him. Well, that was just too long when IVe already waited six years."

"Four years," he corrected. "They wouldna have let ye wed the laddie until ye were eighteen, regardless that he did the asking two years afore that."

"That's beside the point. If any one of my other brothers had been home, you know they would have come here straightaway. But no, it had to be optimistic Thomas, the only one of them who has the patience of a saint, and his Portunus the only Skylark ship in port, just my luck. Do you know he laughed when I told him that if I get much older, Malcolm will likely refuse to have me?"

It was all Mac could do to keep from grinning over that sincerely put question. And it was no wonder her brother had laughed if she'd said as much to him. But then the wee lass had never put much store in her looks, not having blossomed into the beauty she was today until she'd been almost nineteen. She'd depended on the ship that was hers when she turned eighteen and her equal interest in the Skylark Line to get her a husband, and Mac was of the opinion that that was just what had motivated young Cameron into asking for her before he left on the Far Eastern route with Warren, a voyage expected to last several years at the least.

Well, a few more years than that had gone by, thanks to British arrogance on the high seas. But the lass wouldn't heed her brothers' advice to forget about Malcolm Cameron. Even when the war had endedand it was reasonable to expect that the lad would find his way home, but didn't, she was still determined to wait for him. That alone should have warned Thomas that she wouldn't be willing to delay while he made his West Indies run, not when he had cargo to deliver to a half dozen different ports, for wasn't she just as adventurous as the rest of the family? It was in their blood. And didn't she lack Thomas's patience, and they all knew it?

Of course, Thomas could be forgiven for thinking that the problem wouldn't be his, since their brother Drew's ship was due in at the end of summer, and Drew always stayed home for several months between his trips anyway. And that fun-loving rogue could never deny his only sister anything. But the lass wouldn't wait for Drew, either. She had booked passage on a ship scheduled to depart just three days after Thomas sailed and had somehow talked Mac into accompanying her, though he still wasn't quite sure how she'd managed to make it seem his idea to do so, instead of hers.

"Well, Georgie lass, we're no' doing sae bad wi' our hunt, considering this hereLondon's got more folks in it than the whole ofConnecticut. It could've been much worse was the Pogrom no' in port, her crew turned loose. Now the mon I'm tae be meeting tomorrow night is suppose tae know the laddie verra well.

The one I spoke wi' today said Malcolm even left the ship wi' this Mr. Willcocks, sae who'd be knowing where he might be found if no' this chum of his."

"That does sound promising,"Georginaallowed.

"This Mr. Willcocks might even be able to take you to Malcolm directly, so ... I think I'll go along."

"You willna," Mac snapped, sitting forward to give her a frown. "It's a tavern I'll be meeting him at."

"So?"

"Sae what am I doing here if no' tae see ye dinna do some crazy thing worse than the coming here was?"

"Now, Mac—"

"Dinna 'Now Mac' me, lassie," he told her sternly.

But she was giving him that look that meant she was going to be stubborn about it. He groaned inwardly, well aware that there wasn't much that could move her once she set her mind to something. The proof was her being here, instead of home where her brothers thought her to be.

Chapter Two

Across the river, in the eliteWest Endof town, the coach carrying Sir Anthony Malory stopped before one of the fashionable townhouses on Piccadilly. It had been his bachelor residence, but it no longer was because he was returning now with his new bride, Lady Roslynn.

Inside the townhouse, Anthony's brother, James Malory, who had been residing with Anthony while in London, was drawn into the hall upon hearing the late-hour arrival, just in time to see the bride being carried over the threshold. Since he wasn't aware yet that she was a bride, his bland inquiry was perfectly in order.

"I don't suppose I should be witnessing this."

"I was hoping you wouldn't," Anthony said while passing James on the way to the stairs, the female bundle still in his arms. "But since you have, you may as well know I married the girl."

"The devil you say!"

"He really did." The bride laughed in a delightful way. "You don't think I'd allow just anyone to carry me over the threshold, do you?"

Anthony stopped a moment, having caught sight of his brother's incredulous expression. "Good God, James, I've waited a lifetime to see you at a loss for words. But you'll understand if I don't wait aroundfor you to recover, won't you?" And he promptly disappeared up the stairs.

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