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London, March 1816.
There were worse places to find a husband than Newgate Prison.
Of course there were.
It was just that, at present, Georgie couldn’t think of any.
“Georgiana Caversteed, this is a terrible idea.”
Georgie frowned at her burly companion, Pieter Smit, as the nondescript carriage he’d summoned to convey them to London’s most notorious jail rocked to a halt on the cobbled street. The salt-weathered Dutchman always used her full name whenever he disapproved of something she was doing. Which was often.
“Your father would turn in his watery grave if he knew what you were about.”
That was undoubtedly true. Until three days ago, enlisting a husband from amongst the ranks of London’s most dangerous criminals had not featured prominently on her list of life goals. But desperate times called for desperate measures. Or, in this case, for a desperate felon about to be hanged. A felon she would marry before the night was through.
Georgie peered out into the rain-drizzled street, then up, up the near-windowless walls. They rose into the mist, five stories high, a vast expanse of brickwork, bleak and unpromising. A church bell tolled somewhere in the darkness, a forlorn clang like a death knell. Her stomach knotted with a grim sense of foreboding.
Was she really going to go through with this? It had seemed a good plan, in the safety of Grosvenor Square. The perfect way to thwart Cousin Josiah once and for all. She stepped from the carriage, ducked her head against the rain, and followed Pieter under a vast arched gate. Her heart hammered at the audacity of what she planned.
They’d taken the same route as condemned prisoners on the way to Tyburn tree, only in reverse. West to east, from the rarefied social strata of Mayfair through gradually rougher and bleaker neighborhoods, Holborn and St. Giles, to this miserable place where the dregs of humanity had been incarcerated. Georgie felt as if she were nearing her own execution.
She shook off the pervasive aura of doom and straightened her spine. This was her choice. However unpalatable the next few minutes might be, the alternative was far worse. Better a temporary marriage to a murderous, unwashed criminal than a lifetime of misery with Josiah.
They crossed the deserted outer courtyard, and Georgie cleared her throat, trying not to inhale the foul-smelling air that seeped from the very pores of the building. “You have it all arranged? They are expecting us?”
Pieter nodded. “Aye. I’ve greased the wheels with yer blunt, my girl. The proctor and the ordinary are both bent as copper shillings. Used to having their palms greased, those two, the greedy bastards.”
Her father’s right-hand man had never minced words in front of her, and Georgie appreciated his bluntness. So few people in the ton ever said what they really meant. Pieter’s honesty was refreshing. He’d been her father’s man for twenty years before she’d even been born. A case of mumps had prevented him from accompanying William Caversteed on his last, fateful voyage, and Georgie had often thought that if Pieter had been with her father, maybe he’d still be alive. Little things like squalls, shipwrecks, and attacks from Barbary pirates would be mere inconveniences to a man like Pieter Smit.
In the five years since Papa’s death, Pieter’s steadfast loyalty had been dedicated to William’s daughters, and Georgie loved the gruff, hulking manservant like a second father. He would see her through this madcap scheme—even if he disapproved.
She tugged the hood of her cloak down to stave off the drizzle. This place was filled with murderers, highwaymen, forgers, and thieves. Poor wretches slated to die, or those “lucky” few whose sentences had been commuted to transportation. Yet in her own way, she was equally desperate.
“You are sure that this man is to be hanged tomorrow?”
Pieter nodded grimly as he rapped on a wooden door. “I am. A low sort he is, by all accounts.”
She shouldn’t ask, didn’t want to know too much about the man whose name she was purchasing. A man whose death would spell her own freedom. She would be wed and widowed within twenty-four hours.
Taking advantage of a condemned man left a sour taste in her mouth, a sense of guilt that her happiness should come from the misfortune of another. But this man would die whether she married him or not. “What are his crimes?”
“Numerous, I’m told. He’s a coiner.” At her frown, Pieter elaborated. “Someone who forges coins. It’s treason, that.”
“Oh.” That seemed a little harsh. She couldn’t imagine what that was like, having no money, forced to make your own. Still, having a fortune was almost as much of a curse as having nothing. She’d endured six years of insincere, lecherous fortune hunters, thanks to her bountiful coffers.
“A smuggler too,” Pieter added for good measure. “Stabbed a customs man down in Kent.”
She was simply making the best out of a bad situation. This man would surely realize that while there was no hope for himself, at least he could leave this world having provided for whatever family he left behind. Everyone had parents, or siblings, or lovers. Everyone had a price. She, of all people, knew that—she was buying herself a husband. At least this way there was no pretense. Besides, what was the point in having a fortune if you couldn’t use it to make yourself happy?
Pieter hammered impatiently on the door again.
“I know you disapprove,” Georgie muttered. “But Father would never have wanted me to marry a man who covets my purse more than my person. If you hadn’t rescued me the other evening, that’s precisely what would have happened. I would have had to wed Josiah to prevent a scandal. I refuse to give control of my life and my fortune to some idiot to mismanage. As a widow, I will be free.”
Pieter gave an eloquent sniff.
“You think me heartless,” Georgie said. “But can you think of another way?” At his frowning silence, she nodded. “No, me neither.”
Heavy footsteps and the jangle of keys finally heralded proof of human life inside. The door scraped open, and the low glare of a lantern illuminated a grotesquely large man in the doorway.
The man gave a brown-toothed grin as he recognized Pieter. “Welcome back, sir. Welcome back.” He craned his neck and raised the lantern, trying to catch a glimpse of Georgie. “You brought the lady, then?” His piggy eyes narrowed with curiosity within the folds of his flabby face.
“And the license.” Pieter tapped the pocket of his coat.
Knollys nodded and stepped back, allowing them entry. “The ordinary’s agreed to perform the service.” He turned and began shuffling down the narrow corridor, lantern raised. “Only one small problem.” He cocked his head back toward Pieter. “That cove the lady was to marry? Cheated the ’angman, ’e ’as.”
Pieter stopped abruptly, and Georgie bumped into his broad back.
“He’s dead?” Pieter exclaimed. “Then why are we here? You can damn well return that purse I paid you!”
The man’s belly undulated grotesquely as he laughed. It was not a kindly sound. “Now, now. Don’t you worry yerself none, me fine lad. That special license don’t have no names on it yet, do it? No. We’ve plenty more like ’im in this place. This way.”
The foul stench of the prison increased tenfold as they followed the unpleasant Knollys up some stairs and down a second corridor. Rows of thick wooden doors, each with a square metal hatch and a sliding shutter at eye level, lined the walls on either side. Noises emanated from some—inhuman moans, shouts, and foul curses. Others were ominously silent. Georgie pressed her handkerchief to her nose, glad she’d doused it in lavender water.
Knollys waddled to a stop in front of the final door in the row. His eyes glistened with a disquieting amount of glee.
“Found the lady a substitute, I ’ave.” He thumped the metal grate with his meaty fist and eyed Georgie’s cloaked form with a knowing, suggestive leer that made her feel as though she’d been drenched in cooking fat. She resisted the urge to shudder.
“Wake up, lads!” he bellowed. “There’s a lady ’ere needs yer services.”
Benedict William Henry Wylde, scapegrace second son of the late Earl of Morcott, reluctant war hero, and former scourge of the ton, strained to hear the last words of his cellmate. He bent forward, trying to ignore the stench of the man’s blackened teeth and the sickly sweet scent of impending death that wreathed his feverish form.
Silas had been sick for days, courtesy of a festering stab wound in his thigh. The bastard jailers hadn’t heeded his pleas for water, bandages, or laudanum. Ben had been trying to decipher the smuggler’s ranting for hours. Delirium had loosened the man’s tongue, and he’d leaned close, waiting for something useful to slip between those cracked lips, but the words had been frustratingly fragmented. Silas raved about plots and treasons. An Irishman. The emperor. Benedict had been on the verge of shaking the poor bastard when his crewmate let out one last, gasping breath—and died.
“Oh, bloody hell!”
Ben drew back from the hard, straw-filled pallet that stank of piss and death. He’d been so close to getting the information he needed.
Not for the first time, he cursed his friend Alex’s uncle, Sir Nathaniel Conant, Chief Magistrate of Bow Street and the man tasked with transforming the way London was policed. Bow Street was the senior magistrate court in the capital, and the “Runners,” as they were rather contemptuously known, investigated crimes, followed up leads, served warrants and summons, searched properties for stolen goods, and watched premises where infringements of bylaws or other offences were suspected.
Conant had approached Ben, Alex, and their friend Seb about a year ago, a few months after their return from fighting Napoleon on the continent. The three of them had just opened the Tricorn Club—the gambling hell they’d pledged to run together while crouched around a smoky campfire in Belgium. Conant had pointed out that their new venture placed them in an ideal position for gathering intelligence on behalf of His Majesty’s government, since its members—and their acquaintances—came from all levels of society. He’d also requested their assistance on occasional cases, especially those which bridged the social divide. The three of them not only had entrée into polite society, but thanks to their time in the Rifles, they dealt equally well with those from the lower end of the social spectrum, the “scum of the earth,” as Wellington had famously called his own troops.
Conant paid the three of them a modest sum for every mission they undertook, plus extra commission for each bit of new information they brought in. Neither Alex nor Seb needed the money; they were more interested in the challenge to their wits, but Benedict had jumped at the chance of some additional income, even though the work was sometimes—such as now—less than glamorous.
He was in Newgate on Conant’s orders, chasing a rumor that someone had been trying to assemble a crew of smugglers to rescue the deposed Emperor Napoleon from the island of St. Helena. Benedict had been ingratiating himself with this band for weeks, posing as a bitter ex-navy gunner, searching for the man behind such a plan. He’d even allowed himself to be seized by customs officials near Gravesend along with half the gang—recently deceased Silas amongst them—in the hopes of discovering more. If he solved this case, he’d receive a reward of five hundred pounds, which could go some way toward helping his brother pay off the mass of debt left by their profligate father.
He’d been in here almost ten days now. The gang’s ringleader, a vicious bastard named Hammond, had been hanged yesterday morning. Ben, Silas, and two of the younger gang members had been sentenced to transportation. That was British leniency for you: a nice slow death on a prison ship instead of a quick drop from Tyburn tree.
The prison hulk would be leaving at dawn, but Ben wouldn’t be on it. There was no need to hang around now that Silas and Hammond were both dead. He’d get nothing more from them. And the two youngsters, Peters and Fry, were barely in their teens. They knew nothing useful. Conant had arranged for him to “disappear” from the prison hulk before it sailed; its guards were as open to bribery as Knollys.
Several other gang members had escaped the Gravesend raid. Benedict had glimpsed a few familiar faces in the crowd when the magistrate had passed down his sentence. He’d have to chase them down as soon as he was free and see if any of them had been approached for the traitorous mission.
Benedict sighed and slid down the wall until he sat on the filthy floor, his knees bent in front of him. He’d forgotten what it felt like to be clean. He rasped one hand over his stubbled jaw and grimaced—he’d let his beard grow out as a partial disguise. He’d commit murder for a wash and a razor. Even during the worst scrapes in the Peninsular War, and then in France and Belgium, he’d always found time to shave. Alex and Seb, his brothers-in-arms, had mocked him for it mercilessly.
He glanced at the square of rain visible through the tiny barred grate on the outer wall of his cell. Seb and Alex were out there, lucky buggers, playing merry hell with the debutantes, wives, and widows of London with amazing impartiality.
The things he did for king and bloody country.
And cash, of course. Five hundred pounds was nothing to sneeze at.
Tracking down a traitor was admirable. Having to stay celibate and sober because there was neither a woman nor grog to be had in prison was hell. What he wouldn’t give for some decent French brandy and a warm, willing wench. Hell, right now he’d settle for some of that watered-down ratafia they served at society balls and a tumble with a barmaid.
A pretty barmaid, of course. His face had always allowed him to be choosy. At least, it did when he was clean-shaven. His own mother probably wouldn’t recognize him right now.
Voices and footsteps intruded on his errant fancies as the obsequious voice of Knollys echoed through the stones. A fist slammed into the grate, loud enough to wake the dead, and Benedict glanced over at Silas with morbid humor. Well, almost loud enough.
“Wake up, lads!” Knollys bellowed. “There’s a lady ’ere needs yer services.”
Benedict’s brows rose in the darkness. What the devil?
“Ye promised ten pounds if I’d find ’er a man an’ never say nuffink to nobody,” he heard Knollys say through the door.
“Are they waiting to hang too?” An older man’s voice, that, with a foreign inflexion. Dutch, perhaps.
“Nay. Ain’t got no more for the gallows. Not since Hammond yesterday.” Knollys sounded almost apologetic. “But either one of these’ll fit the bill. Off to Van Diemen’s Land they are, at first light.”
“No, that won’t do at all.”
Benedict’s ears pricked up at the sound of the cultured female voice. She sounded extremely peeved.
Copyright © 2019 by Kate Bateman