IN THE LARGE TOWN house on Berkeley Square, Georgina Malory entered the dining room to join her husband for lunch. The twins, Gilbert and Adam, had just left the room, their empty plates still on the table, and raced past her on the stairs. At fourteen, the boys still hadn’t outgrown running to wherever they were going. She’d given up scolding them for it.
But now her mind was on her husband and his impending voyage, which she hoped wouldn’t commence before the end of the Season. So with one brown brow raised, a habit she’d picked up from him, and in a tone nearly as dry as his usually was, she said, “Another ship? Really, James, wasn’t one extra ship enough?”
James Malory looked abashed for the briefest moment when he asked, “How the deuce did you find out about that?”
“Your newest captain came by this morning with the message that he would be away for a few days to visit his family. He needs to inform them he has one more voyage to captain before retiring as they had been expecting him to do.”
James crossed his arms over his wide chest, but he was grinning now. “I can be persuasive as you well know. He was selling his ship. I wanted him and his crew with it.”
“But you already bought a second ship.”
“Contingencies, m’dear. In case I need to leave without your brothers.”
Georgina tsked at her husband as she sat down next to him. “You mean you hope for any excuse to do just that.”
“Nonsense. As long as I don’t have to endure their company for the voyage, I’m quite willing to accept their aid in this endeavor, even if they’re offering it only because their darling niece was used as bait and they want revenge for that.”
“Now you do them a disservice. With the Kidnapping foiled and the culprit’s demanding you in particular as the ransom, d’you really think they would just shrug this off as being over and done with and not give it another thought? When it could happen again? When I would be devastated if it happens again? Yes, yes, I was listening when you insisted we can’t just let this go. I even understand why you won’t let me accompany you this time.” But then she laughed. “But seven ships, James?”
“It might be eight. Nathan Tremayne has also volunteered his.”
She gasped. “Don’t you dare drag him away from his honeymoon. Well, that’s putting the cart before the horse, so don’t you dare depart England before we see Nathan and Judy married.”
“Bite your tongue, George. Watch Tony give away the bride when he doesn’t want to? I bloody well wouldn’t miss that.”
“Your brother agreed—”
“Under duress,” James cut in. “But you know how Ros can be, not to mention Judy when she puts her foot down. He was
quite outnumbered in the matter of his daughter marrying Tremayne.”
“You don’t object to a smuggler in the family?”
James chuckled. “Ex-smuggler, but I confess it was lonely being the only black sheep.”
She grinned. “I think I can safely say you still reign supreme in that regard—and you loved every minute of your notoriety, don’t deny it.”
He didn’t. The ten years he’d spent as Captain Hawke, gentleman pirate, had been among the best times of his life. “In either case, Nathan’s offer was appreciated, but I already intended to decline and my third ship is a ready excuse to do so. Don’t want to ruffle Nathan’s feathers when he can be so touchy about his welcome to our family.”
“I suppose your three ships are already crewed and ready to sail at a moment’s notice? Well, after this third captain returns.”
“Of course. As are Warren and Boyd’s ships, and yours.
“Drew will be joining us, too, either here if he brings us the information he’s gathered, or in the Caribbean if he sends us a missive. In the latter case, he’ll let us know where to meet up with him. We merely await his presence or a missive from him. But he’s had enough time to find out who our culprit is. If we don’t hear from him within the month, I will depart to personally assist in the search for answers.”
Georgina had never doubted that James would return to the Caribbean for retribution. You don’t provoke a Malory in the extreme manner in which James had been provoked by kidnapping his daughter and demanding he be the ransom without bearing the consequences.
Georgina’s five brothers had also been furious about Jack’s abduction, and their feelings of guilt had only exacerbated
their fury. But then they blamed themselves for Jack’s ordeal because they’d insisted she be allowed an American come-out before her first Season in London. They were still hoping she’d marry an American instead of an Englishman. If not for that, Jack wouldn’t have been in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where she was stolen right out of the Andersons’ garden. And Jack’s abductors had sunk every ship in the harbor that night so the Malorys and the Andersons couldn’t give immediate chase. But Nathan Tremayne’s timely arrival with a ship of his own foiled that part of the culprit’s plan. Nathan, James, and Judy, along with Thomas, Warren, and Drew Anderson, had been able to follow the kidnappers’ ship to the Caribbean. And fortunately, Jacqueline had managed to escape on her own unharmed and had been waiting for them in St. Kitts. She’d been unable to solve the mystery, though, of who wanted James dead.
“Regarding your departure,” Georgina said, “shall we settle on one month then? That will be almost the end of the Season, or were you planning on explaining to Jack why you won’t be here for the end of it?”
“Our darling girl barely notices I’ve been in attendance at those balls and soirées,” James reminded her.
That was a very real complaint. He didn’t even try to adjust his tone to disguise it. Georgina tried not to laugh but couldn’t help it, which got her one of James’s more intimidating stares, which he knew very well had no effect on her. He certainly had planned to frighten away all of Jack’s suitors. It had taken a long round of cajoling from both his wife and daughter before James had agreed to remain inconspicuous at the parties Jacqueline was invited to. And while it was definitely hard for a man his size to be inconspicuous, he did try to keep to the sidelines,
occasionally even standing outside by the terrace doors if the events weren’t large enough to have sidelines. As it turned out, Jack so bedazzled her beaus that the young lords didn’t notice him, which James found quite annoying.
Then again, James would never have agreed to try to be inconspicuous if Jack hadn’t assured him she refused to fall in love during her first Season and certainly wouldn’t be marrying anyone for at least a year. Georgina recalled that Jack’s cousin Judy had shared those intentions, but they all knew how that had turned out, with Judy’s wedding occurring this week. But Georgina wasn’t about to remind her husband that well-laid plans, particularly those involving the heart, could go awry.
To ease her husband’s annoyance at his lack of success in sending every one of Jack’s beaus running for the hills, Georgina remarked, “She doesn’t favor any of them, you know.”
That got a brilliant smile out of James, which earned him a glare and the complaint “Why are you so happy about that? The purpose of this Season is for her to meet and fall in love with a fine young man and get married. Instead, she wants to be like you. She’d be a rake if she could. She’d be a pirate if she could. She’s taken every one of the unladylike things you’ve taught her quite to heart. I should have drawn the line at swords and pistols. But fisticuffs? You wisely didn’t mention that, and I wouldn’t even have known if she didn’t offer to give me a demonstration.”
“Where exactly is the harm? She’s a Malory and my daughter. I want her to be able to protect herself with whatever is available to her, if I’m not there to do the protecting. And from what little Jack has told us about the time she spent on her abductor’s ship, she did put her pugilist skills to good use in
venting her anger on the ship’s captain and keeping him from taking unfair advantage of her. You can’t imagine how much I’m looking forward to getting my hands on that man m’self.”
“Still, you should have refused. It was so utterly inappropriate to teach Jack those skills. They didn’t help her defend herself when someone was intent on abducting her. Instead they made her think she could fight those men herself after the fact, when she was already captured—which could have gotten her more hurt than she was.”
When Georgina saw the thunderous expression appear on James’s face, she knew it wasn’t directed at her, but due to the impotent rage he’d felt at having been as helpless as Jacqueline had been to hurt the men responsible, so Georgina quickly changed the subject. “Well, she’s breaking countless hearts, you know—just as you did. And enjoying every minute of it. You weren’t really that callous, were you?”
But he didn’t like hearing that, either, and sat forward. “I know for a fact she’s not the least bit callous. She’s honest to a fault. She’s not leading them on, George. She’s not giving false hope. She’s just having fun. Isn’t that a good part of what this bloody Season is about?”
Georgina rolled her eyes. “You know very well it’s a marriage mart. For her to attend all the balls and soirées is misleading when she doesn’t want to marry yet.”
“Shall we cancel the rest of the Season? Problem solved.”
“By all means. You can tell her.”
He chuckled. She snorted. They both knew there would be no canceling when Jack had so been looking forward to this Season—if not to landing a husband during it.
“Well, I know that you’re as relieved as I am at how quickly she’s put that ordeal behind her,” Georgina said.
“But has she really? When her anger returns every time it is mentioned? So does mine, if you haven’t noticed.”
“Then I should have put it this way—at least she hasn’t spent the last month since we got home crying in her bedroom and refusing to step foot out of it, Season or no Season.”
That got a laugh from him. “Our darling girl? Cry?”
“Any other girl her age—”
Georgina didn’t finish as Jacqueline suddenly stepped into the room, saying, “Help me decide.”
Georgina raised a brow at her daughter, hoping she hadn’t heard what she and James had just been discussing. Jack’s neutral expression suggested she hadn’t.
Jacqueline was still wearing a robe and nightgown even though it was already past noon, but then she had no reason to prepare to receive her many callers when they continued to be turned away at the door. It was a bold move on her part, but it didn’t discourage any of them. Nonetheless, she had decided early on to simply enjoy the entertainments, not to be the entertainment herself. But she was breaking so many hearts. Her parents, her whole family, knew she would. She was too pretty, their Jack. Georgina was beautiful, but Jack didn’t take after her mother at all. She was taller at five feet six inches, and while she was blond and green-eyed like her father, her features were uniquely her own. High cheekbones, stubborn chin and disposition, a pert nose, and lips much too lush, and at the moment long golden curls loose about her back and narrow shoulders.
As for Jacqueline’s request, she held a mask in each hand, one a full porcelain mask that would cover her entire face, the other an exotic white domino edged with feathers that was long enough to conceal her face nearly to her mouth.
“Another ball?” Georgina said. “When did the invitation for a masquerade arrive?”
Jack shrugged as she came forward, dropped the heavier mask on the table, and swiped a sausage from her mother’s plate. “Yesterday would be my guess since we were quite busy elsewhere all day. And don’t worry, this ball isn’t until next week, after the wedding.”
Watching Jacqueline devour the sausage, Georgina said, “You haven’t eaten yet?”
“Who has time to eat?”
“We do,” James said pointedly.
Jack grinned and sat down next to her mother, yelling behind her, “I’ll have what my mother is having if there’s any left!”
Georgina remarked, “I requested breakfast. You wouldn’t rather have the sole that was prepared for lunch today?”
“I’m heartily sick of fish. That’s all Bastard offered on—” Jacqueline’s lips snapped shut and her cheeks flushed with furious color.
Georgina and James exchanged a concerned glance, seeing again what they’d just been discussing. Jack’s brief stay with the kidnappers continued to remain far too touchy a subject, and Bastard was the name she’d given the captain of the ship that had whisked her away from Bridgeport.
She’d never learned his real name, hadn’t been given even a fake one, and hadn’t found out whom he worked for. All she knew about him was that he was Catherine Meyer’s lover, if that was even the real name of the woman who had lied her way onto The Maiden George to cross the Atlantic with them, pretending to be Andrássy Benedek’s stepsister. Nor was it
true that Andrássy was distantly related to the Malorys as he’d claimed. The two scoundrels had told elaborate lies so they could rob the Malory women of all their jewels on that voyage and then kidnap Jack to boot once they arrived in Connecticut.
Every time Jacqueline was reminded of that unpleasant experience, she got angry all over again. Her parents had witnessed many of these sparks of rage and understood them. She’d been helpless, she’d been bested, and not one of the skills James had taken pains to teach her had come in handy during the Kidnapping. But at least the sparks of anger were brief.
Jack was already grinning when she changed the subject. “I’m running out of ball gowns. Shall we order a few more?”
“I suppose we must,” Georgina agreed. “I really wish these hostesses wouldn’t try so hard to outdo each other. There should be a law to restrict them to giving just one ball each per Season.”
“I like to dance, so I’m not complaining. Which mask?”
“The domino, of course. Full masks are far too hot and uncomfortable. You’d be removing it before we even arrive. Your father, on the other hand, should definitely wear one—then he won’t have to hide in the garden for this ball and I might even get to dance!”
James snorted. “Not bloody likely, George. But I’ll drag Tony along if you feel like dancing. He’ll need distracting for the duration of Judy’s honeymoon.”
Georgina laughed. Both of these Malory brothers hated balls, and everyone in the family knew it. If Tony did need distracting, he’d choose any means other than a grand social event.
Henry, who was serving as butler today, a duty he shared with his good friend Artie, hurried into the room with a look
of urgency and handed James a missive—which he didn’t open. Georgina raised a brow, waiting. Jacqueline raised a brow, waiting. But James just put the letter in his pocket and smiled.
That particular smile, filled with relish, suggested the letter was from Drew. James finally had what he’d been waiting for, which meant he’d be leaving for the Caribbean soon.
Both women drew that conclusion. Georgina sighed, but Jack crossed her arms over her chest, her expression and stance as stubborn as they could get, and told her father, “I’m going with you.”
“The devil you are.”
“I want revenge just as much if not more’n you do!”
“I’ll bring you home a full accounting, every bloody detail!”
Georgina smacked the table sharply with her hand to stop the head-butting before it got any louder. “Jack, use your head instead of your emotions. Your presence on such a trip will divide your father’s attention. Instead of dealing with the matter at hand, he’ll be worried about you if you’re anywhere near those waters.”
“I could wait at Gabby and Drew’s—”
Georgina cut in, “Their island is too close to St. Kitts, where whoever wrote the ransom note wanted your father to go to secure your release. And what’s the point of waiting it out there rather than here? You’d still be in the area where those villains operate, and you could get captured again while your father is pursuing the fight elsewhere. Then James would be helpless again to vanquish whoever is determined to harm him. Is that the outcome you want, to let them win?”
Jacqueline opened her mouth to protest, but, looking angry, said, “I get it,” then she stomped out of the room yelling, “But I don’t like it!”
Georgina sighed. “I can’t say I’m surprised. I had a feeling she’d make that demand.”
“I would have been surprised if she didn’t,” James agreed.
Georgina held out her hand for the letter even as she said, “Make damn sure you search your ship from top to bottom for a stowaway before you sail. She might have said she understands why she shouldn’t go with you, but that doesn’t mean her anger won’t get in the way of her common sense.”
“I can sail before she notices.”
“Better you see her standing firmly on the dock with me as you leave. Now let’s see if this letter contains the information you were expecting.” She read it first, then handed it to her husband. “I don’t think it does.”