Lord of the privateers, p.9
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       Lord of the Privateers, p.9

           Stephanie Laurens
 

  The carriage was rocketing along; they’d passed onto a properly macadamed stretch, and the pounding of the horses’ hooves resembled thunder.

  After the coachman took a curve at speed, forcing her to steady herself with a hand against the side, she looked at Royd. “Did you say something to the coachman about being in a rush?”

  “I offered him ten guineas if he got us to Stanhope Street before three o’clock.”

  She considered that as the reckless, unquestionably risky pace continued unabated. The sooner they reached Stanhope Street—presumably where Declan and his Edwina lived—the sooner she’d be able to put some space between Royd and her, and the sooner her nerves, tense in a way she recognized from long ago, would ease.

  After weighing the risk against the reward, she concluded it wasn’t in her best interests to protest. She sat back and, like Royd, stared out at the scenery whizzing past and waited for journey’s end.

  CHAPTER 1

  The carriage slowed and drew up outside a town house in a typical Mayfair street. Royd glanced out. He didn’t have to check the house’s number—the door stood open, and as he looked, Robert and Declan appeared in the doorway.

  They hadn’t known he was on his way; he had to wonder what had brought them to the door—with, he noted, papers in their hands. He glimpsed Edwina beside Declan, and a lady with hair of a brassy shade that suggested she was a Hopkins peering over Robert’s shoulder. “It appears we’ve arrived at an opportune moment. For some reason, we have a reception committee.” He leaned forward, opened the carriage door, and stepped down to the pavement.

  He looked up at his brothers and their ladies for a second, then turned to the carriage and gave Isobel his hand. She put her fingers in his—such a simple, mundane thing, yet he felt possessiveness surge as he closed his hand about her slender digits and assisted her down the carriage steps.

  Once on the pavement, she straightened. With her hand still in his, she, too, looked up at the group filling the doorway. Then she smoothly drew her hand from his and turned to look up at the postboy and direct him to hand down her bandbox.

  By the time the postboy had retrieved the box, three footmen had emerged from the house. Isobel consigned the box into the hands of the youngest, along with Royd’s traveling bag. Leaving the two older, burlier footmen to wrestle with her trunk, she turned to Royd, just as, having paid off the coachman and postboy, he turned to her.

  He met her eyes, offered his arm, and quirked a brow. “Shall we?”

  Shall we operate as a couple? Shall we try it again and remind ourselves what it feels like?

  She looked into his gray eyes and read the challenge therein. Given that they would pursue his mission together—given the decision they would face when the mission was over and they returned to Aberdeen—seizing the opportunity to see how well they managed in this more social sphere was arguably wise. She arched a brow back, then, sternly suppressing her leaping senses, calmly laid her hand on his arm.

  Side by side, they faced his family, then she raised her skirts, and they climbed the steps to the narrow front porch.

  Swiftly, she surveyed the “reception committee”; she maintained a serenely assured expression, but inside, she couldn’t help but grin. While Declan and Robert were glad to see Royd, they were uncertain how to interpret her presence. They’d been at sea for most of her and Royd’s handfasting; she had no idea what they thought was the reason for the failure of the relationship. As they, of all people, knew, Royd rarely failed at anything. Yet knowing him, she sincerely doubted he’d explained anything at all about her; in the few seconds it took to reach the porch, she decided to assume that Robert and Declan knew nothing beyond the bald facts.

  In stark contrast to the wariness evident in the men, the fairylike blond beauty peering around Declan and the brassy-haired lady by Robert’s side appeared intrigued and keen to make her acquaintance.

  “Royd.” Declan held out a hand.

  Royd smiled, and the brothers clasped hands and buffeted each other’s shoulders.

  “Robert.” Royd and Robert repeated the process.

  Isobel struggled to suppress a grin; both Lady Edwina and Miss Hopkins were all but jigging with impatience—not to meet Royd but to be introduced to her.

  Declan turned to her. “Isobel.”

  She smiled and held out a hand. “Declan. It’s good to see you again.”

  He bowed over her fingers, then turned to his wife. “My dear, this is Isobel Carmichael, of the Carmichael Shipyards in Aberdeen. Isobel—my wife, Lady Edwina.”

  Lady Edwina’s cornflower-blue eyes widened fractionally as she made the connection; she would have heard of the shipyards when she’d visited Aberdeen. She beamed and held out her hand. “Miss Carmichael. Welcome to London and to our home.”

  Isobel clasped Edwina’s fingers and returned her smile. “Lady Edwina—it’s a pleasure to meet you. And please, call me Isobel. I understand we’re throwing ourselves on your hospitality, at least until Royd learns what Caleb has found and receives his orders.”

  Declan blinked, then he turned to Royd and Robert, who were exchanging news.

  Edwina brightened even more. Rather than release Isobel, she tugged her forward. “Do come in—you must meet Aileen.” She glanced frowningly at the trio of males, but they’d moved sufficiently to allow Isobel to slip past.

  She stepped into an elegant front hall.

  The brassy-haired lady had fallen back and stood waiting to offer her hand. “I’m Aileen Hopkins. I met Robert in Freetown, and I returned to London with him on The Trident.”

  Isobel clasped Aileen’s fingers. “I’m delighted to meet you, Miss Hopkins.”

  “Aileen, please. It seems we all have an interest in what’s been happening in Freetown.” The statement was a poorly disguised question, a transparent invitation to share.

  Apparently, neither Edwina nor Aileen was at all slow in observing and deducing. Isobel sobered. “Indeed. I’ll be traveling there with Royd in pursuit of one of my cousins. I understand both of you have been in the settlement, so I’m particularly keen to speak with you.” She glanced from Aileen’s hazel eyes to Edwina’s encouraging blue gaze. “I need to learn everything you can tell me about a Miss Katherine Fortescue.”

  “Miss Fortescue!” Edwina’s expression grew concerned. She put a hand on Isobel’s arm. “I greatly fear, Isobel, that Miss Fortescue has been captured by slavers. Possibly taken to work in a mine.”

  She compressed her lips and nodded. “Royd and I agree that her disappearance is very likely linked to his mission.”

  Edwina and Aileen swung their gazes to the men, still standing on the porch.

  Isobel looked, too; the three brothers were holding various papers and notes, shuffling, reading, and exclaiming.

  “You’ve arrived at the perfect moment,” Edwina said. “Hornby—one of Caleb’s men—arrived not five minutes ago with that satchel Robert’s holding. It’s full of reports and maps.” Edwina met Isobel’s gaze. “It seems Caleb has found the mine and has remained to keep watch over the captives.”

  “He might have sent a list of said captives.” Aileen narrowed her eyes on the three men. “But we haven’t had a chance to see.”

  Edwina exchanged a steely glance with Aileen, then looked at Isobel. “Do you need to go up and refresh yourself and rest or...?” She gestured toward the men.

  Isobel met Edwina’s eyes. “I’m not the wilting sort. Let’s get those papers and see what Caleb’s sent.”

  Edwina nodded once. Her chin firming, she bustled forward. Aileen followed in support.

  Isobel nodded to the butler, who was supervising the footmen as they ferried her and Royd’s luggage inside. She removed her hat, laid it on a side table, and pulled off her gloves. By the grace of God, she’d fallen in with like-minded women.
Edwina might be a slip of a thing, a petite, delicate-looking, golden-haired damsel with bright-blue eyes, but she possessed a great deal of energy and—for Isobel’s money—a spine of steel. Like recognized like, and Aileen Hopkins seemed of similar disposition. Isobel watched with approval as, with a ruthless efficiency the Frobisher brothers had no hope of resisting, Edwina and Aileen herded the three off the porch, into the hall, and into a cozy drawing room.

  Tucking her gloves into her skirt pocket, Isobel joined the women as, bringing up the rear, they swept into the room. Edwina paused on the threshold to instruct the butler—Humphrey—to prepare rooms for Isobel and Royd. Isobel grasped the moment as they arranged themselves on sofas and chairs to exchange greetings with Robert—like Declan, he viewed her with wary trepidation, but cloaked it better—then she sank onto a sofa beside Aileen.

  Royd claimed the armchair to her left. Edwina made a spirited bid to commandeer the satchel, but in that, she didn’t succeed. Royd had taken possession and stared her down. Then he leaned forward and spread the satchel’s contents on the low table between the twin sofas. “There’s no sense attempting to discuss anything while each of us knows only bits of the whole. I suggest we each take a portion of these documents, read and assimilate, then pass what we have to the right. Once we’ve all absorbed what’s been sent, we’ll see what we can make of the current situation.”

  No one argued. Royd divided the papers into six roughly equal piles, distributed them, and they settled to read.

  Silence descended, broken by the rustling of papers and the occasional “humph.” Accustomed to reading screeds of reports, Isobel reached the end of her pile first. She sat and let all she’d learned settle in her mind—like a jigsaw for which she was still missing too many pieces to even guess the shapes. Robert raised his head and tidied the stack of papers on his knee. Like her, he said nothing; from the slight frown on his face, she suspected he was adjusting some view he’d previously held.

  Aileen was the last to finish her documents—which included Robert’s journal. She humphed and passed her pile to Robert. They all handed on what they’d read, received the next batch from the person on their left, and settled to read again.

  By the time each of them had read all the documents, the afternoon was well advanced. Edwina rang for tea, and Humphrey and a footman brought in trays loaded with two teapots, cups, saucers, and plates, and a selection of cakes, including a heavy fruitcake sufficient to satisfy manly appetites.

  Royd waited until the ladies had sipped and nibbled, and he and his brothers had demolished the fruitcake—and their minds had had at least that much time to absorb all they’d just taken in—before, with the documents once again piled on the satchel before him, he said, “We should summarize what we’ve learned to this point, revised in light of what Caleb has sent.”

  His brothers nodded. The ladies directed alert gazes his way, but didn’t speak.

  Good.

  He set down his teacup. “We now know that three instigators—for want of a better label—living in Freetown devised the scheme. Somehow they learned of a deposit of diamonds deep in the jungle. It doesn’t matter how they learned of it, only that they did. Consequently, they set up a mine to operate in secret—presumably to avoid all fees and excise and any government intervention. Also so they could use slave labor, thus increasing their profits.”

  “That much seems clear,” Robert said. “We know that Muldoon, the naval attaché, and a man named Winter, who has access to mining equipment and supplies, are two of the three instigators.”

  “And the third,” Declan stated, an edge to his tone, “is someone on the governor’s staff, but as yet, we don’t have a name.”

  Royd nodded. “Initially, Lady Holbrook was a player in the scheme—whether by choice or under duress is immaterial as she’s taken herself out of the picture.”

  “Just as well,” Edwina muttered direfully.

  “In order to establish the mine,” Royd continued, “the instigators needed capital, so they contacted people willing to finance illicit ventures. The captives call that group ‘the backers,’ and there are several of them—how many we don’t yet know. The backers are most likely in England, and they are the ultimate perpetrators, as it’s unlikely the scheme would have come to anything without their support.”

  He paused, then went on, “Dreaming up villainous schemes is not a crime. Putting them into action is, and enabling such an action is equally a crime—arguably a greater one. As the backers are presumably wealthy men well able to finance such a scheme, it’s likely the bulk of the profits is flowing to them—which is raising the ire of the government, for various pertinent reasons.”

  Robert made a derisive sound. “The government had to make all sorts of reparations after the Black Cobra incident last year. In the aftermath, they made slews of rash promises, as governments are wont to do, assuming any repeat of a similar nature would be too far in the future to trouble them. Instead, they’re now facing a different but equally horrendous situation likely to stir the public to anger, scorn, and protest.” Robert met Royd’s eyes. “Given the current state of the government, given the dissatisfaction with the monarchy, they can’t risk another situation where the public sees them failing to act against perpetrators who are wealthy and influential.”

  Royd nodded. “Judging by the tone of Wolverstone’s communications, the government is exceedingly keen to have this scheme dismantled, the captives restored to the bosoms of their families, and the villains—instigators and backers alike—brought to justice. I’ve a strong suspicion my orders will focus on that last item, but once there, I’ll be in charge and, as usual, we’ll do things my way.” After a moment, he went on, “Our priorities should be, first, to rescue the captives and get them to safety, second, to dismantle the scheme—we don’t want it starting up again later—and third, to gain evidence to convict the backers.”

  Firm nods and murmurs of agreement came from the others.

  “Aside from all else,” Declan put in, “said backers are almost certainly here and not there. The best evidence you’re likely to get will come from the three instigators, and we’ll be seizing them anyway. Once they’re shown the noose, I imagine they’ll be only too happy to implicate the backers.”

  Robert grunted. “I can’t imagine there’ll be any honor among such vermin.”

  Again, all agreed.

  A moment’s silence followed, then Royd shifted in his chair. “Returning to the mechanics of what happened in the settlement, a local priest, Obo Undoto, was involved in helping a group of slavers identify adults from the European population with skills needed for the mine. As with Lady Holbrook, we don’t know whether Undoto was willing or acting under duress, and given Caleb’s success in eliminating the slavers entirely, at this point, we can ignore Undoto. By removing the slaver Kale and his men, Caleb has disrupted the supply of slaves to the mine and, from what Aileen had earlier learned, also the delivery of mining supplies. While those at the mine have alternative routes for delivery available, it will take time for them to realize they’ve lost Kale completely and put new procedures into place.” He paused, then added, “Having no immediate supply of new captives will increase the incentive to keep those they have in good health.”

  “Which can’t hurt,” Aileen put in.

  Royd nodded. “Viewed from all angles, Caleb’s action in eliminating Kale’s gang in the manner he did was inspired. As he himself wrote, not having to guard against the slavers supporting the mercenaries at the mine will be a significant advantage when it comes to seizing the compound.”

  After a moment, he went on, “To return to how their system operated—Undoto identified the adults, and Kale and his men kidnapped them and transported them to the mine. Acting directly, the slavers lured children into becoming captives, too. Although a heartless and ruthless man, Kale treated his captives well, apparently un
der orders from the mercenary captain actively overseeing the mine.”

  “The major cost in running the mine would be the mercenaries,” Robert said.

  Royd considered the papers piled before him. “The mercenary captain is called Dubois. In taking the compound and freeing the captives, he will unquestionably be our biggest obstacle.”

  Declan had tilted his head the better to study Royd’s face. “You’ve used the terms ‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘our’ several times. Does that mean you intend us”—with his gaze he included Robert—“and our crews to be actively involved in your leg of the mission?”

  Royd met Declan’s gaze, then his lips curved. “Did you expect to remain here and enjoy”—he waved—“the social whirl?”

  “Good God, no!” Declan looked appalled. “But I wasn’t sure if our ships would form a part of your plan or if we’d just be following, tagging along.”

  Royd nodded at the documents before him. “Judging from the numbers Caleb has sent, even though my crew are unquestionably the most experienced in such exercises, I’m going to need far more men. Even more telling, we’ll need to go in simultaneously at two different locations—the mining compound and the settlement. I can’t see any way around a two-pronged approach. And while it’s helpful that Caleb recruited Lascelle on his way down there, if we’re to get the captives out safely, we’re going to need overwhelming numbers.”

  His gaze on the papers, he went on, “Between them, Caleb and Lascelle have given us a detailed account of the threats, dangers, and obstacles we’ll face. Add in the reports from inside the compound—from Dixon and Hillsythe—and the need to ensure that, once we initiate an attack, the mercenaries cannot reach the captives is clearly paramount. Exactly how we’ll accomplish that is impossible to say, not without viewing the compound ourselves and assessing the possibilities, but one thing is clear—we’ll need significant numbers, more than Caleb’s, Lascelle’s, and my crews combined.”

  Royd glanced at Robert and Declan, then waved the point aside. “We can discuss numbers and how we get them later. The first thing we need is the basic framework of a plan to successfully carry off this mission.”

 
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