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Annette Blair, NY Times & USA Today Bestseller

 

 

 

 

 

Unmistakable Rogue

The Rogues Club, Three

Gloucester, England, May 1817

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

“Are you stealing those children?”

Caught at a second-story workhouse window, Chastity Somers swallowed a scream and gathered the little ones close. The moonless night, perfect for her scheme, became her foe. She could discern nothing, no one, save darkness in the alley below.

The owner of the deep, disembodied voice seemed to linger, but she dare not. She must get her new and unexpected brood to safety, or fail her husband’s young cousins the way she had failed William, himself.

With no choice but to brazen it out, Chastity nodded her hood further forward and readied her best English accent. “Do not be ridiculous. You cannot steal what is already yours.”

The intruder made no reply, so she lifted the last of the four children out the window and shut the sash.

“Kitty?” Luke’s version of her name echoed loud and alarming as he tugged at her sleeve. “You are stealing us.”

“Hush, Luke.”

“It’s all right, Sir,” Matthew called down. “We wanted stealing.”

Galvanized by the boy’s defense, Chastity shook herself. “Mark, take Bekah’s hand. Stay by the window, all of you, and hold the sill.”

They would not be taken away from her, again, Chastity vowed, as she lowered herself from the attached shed’s eaves and dropped the remaining distance to land on her bottom in the dirt.

Amid a discord of giggles, a hand grasped her upper arm, racing Chastity’s heart, trapping a scream in her throat, but her captor must sense her fear, for he gentled her, somehow, with the same touch that alarmed her in the first place.

His nearness, his scent—horse, leather, and man—put her in mind of ... rescue and ... sanctuary, as William had once done, except that her sense of well-being seemed stronger now than it had ever been with—

Chastity shook off the foolish notion. “I did not hear your horse approach,” she said, seeking the ordinary in an extraordinary situation.

“I call him Stealth,” the man said. “He served me well at Waterloo.”

Relieved by her fancy that the military man meant no harm, Chastity allowed him to help her stand. She should be afraid, she supposed. He had fought her people at Waterloo, but her sheltered convent background—hardly conducive to a judicious caution—taught her that all men were all God’s children.

Besides, she’d judge him as trustworthy by the tone of his voice alone.

“The children are not afraid of you,” he said, revealing his surprise.

“Of course they are not. How do you know?”

“Frightened children rarely laugh.”

Neither lonely ones, Chastity knew from personal experience, hoping she employed the same faultless instincts as the children, where this man was concerned.

Reassured, yet unnerved, by his hand on her arm, Chastity nevertheless regretted the loss of human contact when he released her. But she had no time to regard it, for Bekah’s cough urged their removal from this unhealthy place, and fast, lest the children be incarcerated, again.

Fact was, she would bargain with the devil to keep her little ones safe. “I have to get the children down,” she said. “Thank you for your help, but we can manage on our own.”

The devil had the impertinence to laugh.

“Be quiet,” Chastity hissed.

“You are sixpence short a quid,” said he, “and will get exactly what you deserve for this night’s work. Children are nothing but trouble.”

“Children are gifts from above.”

“Hah! Vengeance, more like.”

Chastity perceived some vexation in the man, but no real threat.

For all his curious notions, he seemed of a mind to let her and the children go. “We shall be fine. Truly. Thank you for stopping, but you may be on your way without further concern for our welfare.”

“‘Tis not concern detains me, but astonishment. Why would anyone seek the encumbrance of children?”

Shaking her head, Chastity turned toward the four atop the workhouse shed. “All the world and his wife would step over a dead body in the middle of St. James’s,” she snapped. “But I do something the least ... uncommon, and am observed by someone who investigates. Matthew, lower Bekah to me.”

As she received the littlest one, Chastity hugged her close. “Good. Now Mark, then Luke.”

“Kitty, I’m hungry,” Luke said, as she set him on his feet.

“I know, darling. Hush, now.”

Deep within the bleak bowels of the parish workhouse, a bell began to toll. “Jump, Matt,” Chastity ordered, thrusting Luke into the stranger’s arms. “You’ll have to help,” she said, scooping Bekah into her own arms. “Hurry.”

Reed Gilbride heard, rather than saw, the woman hasten away, her stolen brood hard at her heels. Then he realized that if he failed to follow, he would be stuck with the urchin dangling before him. “Damn.” Reed slung the lad under his arm like a sack of grain and gave chase, his horse trotting behind.

Despite being carted off by a stranger, the lad’s giggles over his tumbling ride testified to the rare joy in his short life.

Reed had to give the woman credit, pluck to the backbone, she was. Either that or daft, he thought, as he followed her through noisome village by-ways, dodging running steps and reeling vagrants, all the while wondering why he’d got involved.

Previous to finding them, he had reached Sennett’s office hours too early, and gazed about, thinking to find a light at an inn, when in the alley across the way, a cloaked form in the window, silhouetted against the dim interior of the workhouse, had caught his attention. A matron of the asylum, he thought, until he noticed the children’s profiles atop the attached shed roof. A curious sight, yes, but he should never have stopped. What cared he for a flock of raggle-taggle street brats and their provoking protector?

The bell from the workhouse faded in the distance, and when the woman slowed, Reed set the lad in her path. “Here, you snatched him, you take him. I’ll not be left to foster somebody’s brat. I’ve had enough of children to last forever.”

“You need to have that ice chipped away.”

Birds called their first good mornings. Too bad it needed an hour or more ‘till full light, for he conceived an urge to see her face, discern her age and examine her features. Her words and manner contradicted his impression of her as a matron of any kind. “What did you say?”

“The ice around your heart,” she repeated. “You should have it removed.”

If he owned a heart, her honey-warm voice might melt said ice on its own, Reed mused, before stifling the maggoty thought. “What the devil are you about?”

“Watch your language around the children. We were running because ... because of a—”

“Fire?”

To his surprise, she laughed, the sound a balm to his senses. “I was rescuing them.”

He damn near laughed with her. “What a whisker.”

“Oh, no, not at all. Telling falsehoods would set a bad example.”

“And stealing children would not?” He winced at her gasp. “Pardon my lack of faith in your mothering,” he added by way of reparation.

“Kitty ain’t our mother.”

“Hush, Luke.” She ran a hand through the rag-mannered lad’s hair and brought him close for a quick hug—not the action Reed expected of a reprimand.

Even if he managed to peel away her hood, as he itched to do, dawn was still too far away to make a glimpse worthwhile. Yet something about her, with her odd accent, and odder notions, called to him, which he liked not a whit. “Where are you bound?” he asked.

“What difference does that make?”

“None, make no mistake, but it will matter to someone before long. You have money, of course.”

She hesitated a fraction too long. “Of course.”

Reed shook his head. “Of course not!” He took her hand and slapped a guinea into it. “Feed them. If you scuttle down back alleys, you’ll get pinched, but if you stroll hand in hand, as if you haven’t a care in the world, no one will notice you.”

They would not come looking, Chastity knew. Fewer mouths to feed would trouble no one, not in that hellhole. “Why should I take your advice, and why would you give a perfect stranger money?”

“Perfect, no. Daft, more like, stealing children in the middle of the night. Damned if I know why I bother, or you should listen, except that you seem to care about them.”

“While you care about nothing.”

“I’d care if I got tossed into Newgate with you. Nevertheless, if you keep from getting pinched, I think you might do right by the brats. Good-bye,” he said, “and good luck.” Reed saluted, grabbed Stealth’s reins, and walked away.

“Come along, children,” he heard the daft woman say.

That their footsteps kept time with his, Reed found alarming. He stopped.

They stopped.

Shaking his head, he turned. “Are you following me?”

“Of course not.”

“Yes we are, Kitty.”

“Hush, Luke. Which way are you going?” she asked. “Toward Eastgate or the Island?”

“Which way are you going?” he countered.

“Eastgate.”

“Ah, well then, I am going toward The Island.” In truth—as directed in his odd, anonymous note—he was returning to see Mr. Sennett, the solicitor whose office sat diagonally across from the workhouse. “Good day to you.”

“God go with you,” the woman said, “whoever you are.”

Reed stopped and turned with a laugh. “Sorry, Kitten, God and I do not keep company.”

A moment of dismay held Chastity as the stranger’s chuckle faded, and she resisted an urge to call him back. An enigma was he, that faceless man who professed to dislike children but would foster a lad rather than abandon him.

Chastity watched until dawn broke over the horizon, and he disappeared from sight, his benevolent guinea warming her palm.

With her four exuberant charges, she began the seven-mile trek from Gloucester to Sunnyledge in Painswick.

As they walked, Chastity thought back to her previous day’s meeting with the solicitor to whom William had been directed in his anonymous note.

“Where did you get this?” Mr. Sennett had asked after he finished reading the note.

“It was sent to my husband, William,” she said. “And it prompted us to travel here from France. He wanted to settle an injustice, which I assumed amounted to claiming the inheritance due him, except that he was taken by a wave in a channel storm on the way, and drowned.”

“Please accept my condolences, Mrs. Somers.” Mr. Sennett shook his head in dismay. “While I am the executor of the Barrington Estate, I have no idea what this note means or who might have sent it.”

“I had hoped it meant that Sunnyledge belonged to my husband, and now to me.”

“Even if your husband was the Barrington heir, which I doubt, the claim would now be that of his son. Is there a son?”

“No.” Chastity sighed. “I wanted the estate for a children’s home, Mr. Sennett.” If she had remained a nun and taken vows, she would have opened such a home at the Abbey. Now, for the sake of William’s young cousins—the children God had surely placed in her keeping—she must make it happen.

Chastity raised her chin. “Though an inheritance would have helped, I will open a home for orphans. Workhouses are a disgrace, you see, and no child should be raised without love. Perhaps you can direct me to someone with a philanthropic nature? The sisters who raised me care for the sick with such contributions. Or perhaps one of your clients has a house?”

Mr. Sennett frowned as if startled. “Fancy Barrington’s estate coming to light, now. And fancy you having the one argument in the kingdom that could move me.”

He sat forward. “According to the will, if no heir is found, twenty years from the date of the Earl of Barrington’s death, which is three months from now, I am to award the estate to a charity of my choice.”

The solicitor settled into his big leather chair. “Tell me about your children’s home, Mrs. Somers, every detail.”

So she did, his interest encouraging her to elaborate. “The opportunity to love, and have that love accepted and returned, is essential to all of us. My home will be special, as my children will feel wanted.  They will have a sense of belonging by working toward its upkeep. The older children will care for the younger. In that way, they will become close.”

“Family members are not always close, my dear. As a solicitor, I have seen many a family rift.”

“Do you not think that abandoned children would be more inclined to appreciate familial relationships?”

At his approving smile, Chastity opened her reticule. “I listed the cost per child, per week, month, and year, for food and clothing. I have added a bit for dolls and— I do not know what little boys play with.”

“Tin horns, toy drums.” He smiled. “Boys are noisy.”

“I—” She almost said she knew—she had learned as much at finding the children in William’s aunt’s cellar. “I imagine so.”

“Your ideals make me fear for your practicality in this matter,” Mr. Sennett said. “You have listed nothing for a caretaker, a housekeeper, nursemaids, tutors.”

“I will do what must be done. The children will help.”

“I haven’t seen a child yet who could run a house. Listen to me in this. If I allow you to have Sunnyledge....”

Chastity thought her heart would leap from her chest.

“On a trial basis,” the solicitor cautioned. “You must hire the necessary help. The caretaker left about a fortnight ago; hire another. As you will no doubt set the house to rights, I will pay you a housekeeper’s wages and give you a monthly allowance for upkeep and maintenance. You will need supplies, though the house should provide much in the way of necessities.

“I cannot believe you would— Are you a philanthropist?”

Mr. Sennett chuckled. “Hardly, my dear, but there is little likelihood that an heir to Sunnyledge will be found at this late date. I must find a worthy charity soon. Who knows? Your children’s home might prove to be the very one. As a boy whose mother drowned in gin, I met the worst and best of men. Helping to fund a children’s home may be the way for me to repay the gentleman who took me in and raised me.”

The solicitor sat forward. “In asylums, in workhouses, everywhere, there is greed, cruelty, evils I will not name; I doubt you know of their existence. But I occasionally come across a person of caring and compassion. The man who raised me was such a man. I believe that you are such a woman.”

He held her gaze. “But you must understand what I want, nay, demand of you, and why.”

“I am listening.”

“You must know, clearly, right from wrong, and teach those precepts to the children. Only in that way can you nurture them properly.”

Chastity considered the workhouse, where children died daily. She knew right from wrong, and leaving Matt, Mark, Luke and Bekah in that workhouse would have been wrong.

“If I find that you have acted in other than a moral, conscientious or lawful manner,” Mr. Sennett had continued. “You will lose Sunnyledge, and I will see that you never open a home for children, anywhere, ever.”

Chastity’s heart had raced as he spoke those words.

It raced now an entire day later, but she buried her guilt and worry. She had acted conscientiously and morally by telling the parish beadle she would raise the children. Taking them would have been legal, but for him, a corrupt church elder who sent them to the workhouse because she would not pay his wicked price.  

All would be well, she reassured herself as they continued their trek toward Sunnyledge. No man, save one, knew what she had done, and that man, she would never see, again.

In time, clustered cottages gave way to sprawling farms. Grasslands, divided by dry stone walls, became hilly uplands. Hillocks grew forested; roads narrowed.

By the time the valley before them revealed the jaunty jumble of structures, requisite to bustling village life, dusk streaked the sky with lavender. “This is it,” Chastity said, her sense of destiny so intense, a frisson of alarm stepped on its heels. “Painswick.”

By virtue of the steep cobbled track descending into the village, the children gamboled headlong hand in hand, Luke laughing all the way.

Amid hawkers’ songs and hot, spicy scents, Chastity admired a bonnet placed in a shop window by a barrel-bellied, frock-coated merchant. “Two pounds, three? That’s highway robbery,” she said.

Luke shifted the satchel that contained their clothes and William’s medical bag, and tugged at her sleeve. “I’m gonna buy that for you someday, Kitty.” As she bent to kiss his cheek, he ruffled her hair, freeing the powder she’d used to disguise and drear its chestnut hue.

After buying food and supplies, she bought her giggling band each a ha-penny pie and a peppermint stick for a thruppence. They ate while they watched village children roll misshapen hoops in the wheelwright’s dooryard.

Afterward, Chastity sought directions to Sunnyledge.

“Oh my, no,” said a buxom matron, all agog. “Not that God-forsaken place. It’s haunted, don’t’cha know. Many’s the night they’ve heard her pitiful wail, that lost soul searching for her missing babes. They died with her, some say, but their wee bodies were never buried.”  She whispered the last part.

Chastity held Bekah closer. “If you could direct us.”

The matron shook her head. “If you insist.” She pointed. “There it is, top ‘o the hill.”

A honey-gold manse stood guarding the valley, its chimneystacks straight as parade soldiers at full attention. Mullioned windows—as tall as the first floor, and wide as they were tall—reflected the sun, bright as that off the stone itself.

“It’s a bloomin’ castle,” Matt said.

“Magic,” whispered Luke.

Mark snorted. “Where our dreams will come true.”

“It is splendid,” Chastity said. “As if it’s made of gold.”

“That’s the sun on the stone—Painswick stone. The old Earl’s dead. That’s his house. You kin?”

“If you could tell me how to get there.”

“Go left at the yew row and take the hill straight up. Been abandoned for years. Except for a daft caretaker, now and again, most won’t go near the place.”

Chastity gave her thanks and they went on their way, the villager following. “It’s farther than you think. You got a key? Can’t get in, if you don’t have a key.”

Chastity kept walking.

“You’re braver than I,” the tenacious woman called from a distance.

Luke blew the shepherd’s horn Chastity had saved for him. WARRONNK!

Mr. Sennett was right. Boys were noisy. She would never be able to thank the solicitor for giving her the use of Sunnyledge—though if he ever learned that she rescued the children after he set down his rules— Well, just imagining the consequences of her actions made Chastity shudder, even as Rebekah began to wail.

“How old is Bekah?” she asked the boys.

“Three ‘cept we dunno’ when we’re gonna’ be the next number,” Luke said.

“Don’t mind that noise she makes,” Matt said. “She does that lots. Wish she would talk, though.”

“She’s dumb.”

“That will be enough, Mark,” Chastity said, coming to a faltering stop with a shiver.

Sunnyledge may have looked warm and inviting from the vale, but up close, after dark, it looked decidedly bleak, forsaken, and forbidding.

The key was useless. A mere nudge opened the door, the wind taking it the rest of the way. With the children attached to her skirts, Chastity stepped inside, stifling a nervous urge to giggle. “Hello? Is anyone here?”

WARRONNNK!

The sound made Chastity shriek and fall against the door, a hand to her fast-pumping heart. “That will be enough, Luke. Anyone here has expired from fright by now.”

Chastity tried to lock the door, but the keyhole turned with the key, so she pushed a chair against it, cutting off the last sliver of moonlight. “Bother, I am such an idiot. I do not even have a candle.”

“I can see in the dark,” Matt said. “We hid in Aunt Anna’s cellar so long after she died, we never saw the sun.”

“Do you think you can find the kitchen?”

“I’m good at finding things. Be right back.”

Chastity sat on the floor, Bekah, Mark, and Luke, cozy and warm, nesting in her black wool skirts. For once, she was glad William had not seen fit to replace her religious habits during their short marriage. She had, however, removed all symbols of her religious life, so that her gowns looked more like widow’s weeds.

“Found the kitchen, Kitty. And candles,” Matt called.

A short while later, the children ate some of the bread and cheese she’d bought, as exhaustion overtook them, and a sense of destiny, profound and peaceful, enveloped her.

Settled for the night with Zeke, their lame rabbit, on a mattress plumped with Chastity’s aprons and nightshifts, one old habit and one Sunday best, Luke said they hadn’t been so comfy since Mum left.

“I worried,” Matt said with a yawn. “That you wouldn’t come for us at the workhouse, like you promised.”

Mark scoffed and rolled to his side, presenting his rigid back. “We would never have gone to that horrid old place, if you hadn’t turned us in.”

If she failed to breach that barrier Mark kept erected around his heart, Chastity feared it would become as hard as the stone in these Cotswold Hills.

How could he be so angry, yet cuddle his baby sister so lovingly? Perhaps this child, who professed to need no one, needed her even more than his brothers and sister did. One thing was certain; Mark would never forgive her for trying to gain their custody through the proper channels first.

After she arrived on Britain’s shore, she had gone on to William’s Aunt Anna’s as planned. There, she found that his aunt had died, leaving his young cousins, abandoned at her passing, hiding in her cellar to keep from getting separated or going to the workhouse.

Chastity had marched them to the Vicar to say she would take them. The Vicar passed her to the Curate, the Curate to the Beadle.

Chastity shuddered remembering the Beadle’s lustful suggestion as to how she could purchase them. Since she refused to pay his price, however, the Beadle had relegated her children to the parish workhouse with nary a blink.

So much for following the rules, Chastity thought, unable to forget Mr. Sennett’s words, “If I find that you have acted in other than a moral, conscientious or lawful manner, you will lose Sunnyledge, and I will see that you never open a refuge for children anywhere, ever.”

At the workhouse, children younger than hers, died. She thought about the baby girl born the week she worked there, while trying to get hers back. How she’d wanted to take that babe as well. She thought of Matt’s protectiveness, Mark’s anger, Luke’s trust, and Bekah’s cough.

In taking them, she had acted conscientiously and morally. Except for the Beadle’s lust, her guardianship would be lawful as well.

Mr. Sennett said he tried to bring the conditions of asylums and workhouses to the notice of people who could improve them, and their lack of interest angered him.

“Do you never get so incensed,” Chastity had dared to ask, knowing she planned to rescue William’s cousins the next day, “that you wish to take matters into your own hands?”

“We cannot give in to such,” he said. “To have lasting effect, reform must be undertaken in a lawful, orderly manner. There is never an excuse to breach rules.”

Chastity sighed. Having been an orphan, the solicitor lauded her wish to open a home where children without parents would be loved. She only hoped that he would come to understand that taking these few had been necessary.

She bent to them now—warm, safe, unafraid, bellies full—covered a shoulder, stroked a brow, and prayed, for their sakes, that all would be well.

Then found a chair in which to take down her hair, and examined the kitchen, aglow from a fire in the old stone hearth.

Sunnyledge—a haven—someday perhaps, a home.

* * *

The hell of it was, Reed Gilbride thought, rubbing the back of his neck, looking up at Sunnyledge, the house was so damned big, he could search for years and never find the truth of his birth. As for secrets, the place fairly reeked of them.

Even the cryptic note he had received added to Sunnyledge’s aura of mystery—a note that roused an anger, tempered oddly by hope. Such anger, he usually reserved for the people who gave him life and threw him away. And the hope? Well, that just made him madder ... until Sennett killed expectation by saying the note must be a hoax. The solicitor said he’d seen more than one, worded exactly the same way. He also suggested that a Barrington by-blow had no claim, here.

Still, Reed could not give up. As a child, he would have settled for knowing who his parents might have been. Now he bloody well wanted to know why he had not been good enough for them to keep. Who gave a helpless babe to the Gilbrides, of all people?

He led his horse around back to find it shelter.

Why did the woman who raised him—if you could call it that—refuse to talk about Sunnyledge? Why act as if the devil would swallow her whole, if she did? Could this place hold the key to his past? Him, the Earl of Barrington, as the note suggested?

Reed mocked himself with a chuckle, raised his collar against a cold drizzle, settled Stealth in a rickety old stable, returned and picked up his satchel.

He might be a bastard in more ways than one, but with or without Sennett’s approval, he needed to find out.

Now that Boney had been defeated, and he’d retired from the Guards, Reed looked forward to a life of peace and quiet, and the occasional willing woman. But first he must search for his roots, this being the place to start.

“Damn, it’s cold.” As if fate heard, a blast of wind and rain smacked him in the face and opened the door with a flourish—the thunderous crack of it hitting the wall loud enough to wake the Sunnyledge ghost herself.

Reed saluted and stepped inside, a sense of inevitability filling him, as if he had arrived after a thirty-year sojourn, turned an invisible corner, and could not return the way he had come.

What was more, he did not want to.

In the kitchen, Chastity jumped at the thunderous sound, and shot to her feet. After a frozen heart-pounding beat, arms and legs prickling, she located a meat cleaver in a kitchen drawer and closed her trembling fingers around its smooth bone handle.

 

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© Annette Lague Blair, Last website updates: 10/12/2014 05:55 PM