From The Prologue through Chapter Three
The Sinclair Residence
The morning sun beamed through the rippled windowpanes, bleaching the pale table linens to starkest white. Lord Grant Sinclair squinted against the glare. God, he should still be in his bedchamber sleeping off the effects of the whisky still clouding his mind.
He’d actually done it. He bloody well got engaged. No wonder his head throbbed.
But he’d had no choice. None at all. Oh, he and his brothers knew there would be consequences ... eventually. Hell, they owed practically every gentlemen’s club in London more than their annual portions combined. And last night, it finally happened. The first burly dun collector had come to their door. With many more surely to come.
The floorboards creaked in the passage just outside the dining room, propelling Grant to his feet. It was probably nothing, the arthritic bones of the house groaning against the cold. Still, he and his brothers, Killian and Lachlan, could not risk being overheard by their meager house staff, or their sister Priscilla. Not with what Grant was about to propose.
Silently, Grant crept toward the door, set his hand on its polished latch, and flung it open. A startled mouse skittered across the toe of his boot then disappeared into a blade of shadow slicing into the passage.
“No one there, eh?” His youngest brother, Killian chuckled soundlessly to himself. “Give it a rest, Grant. It isn’t as though a dun is going to steal into our home and break our legs in the light of day. We’ve got hours yet.”
“My concern is not that we have an intruder.” Grant turned around and took his seat at the head of the table once more. “Priscilla is my worry.”
“Damn me, Grant,” his other brother Lachlan washed down the bite of crusty bread with a draught of morning ale, “stop fashin’. Priscilla is still asleep, and even if she were listening from the passage, it is not as if she would tell anyone that her brothers are plotting yet another nefarious ruse to right our financial situation ... assuming, Grant, that is what you are about to propose.” Lachlan retrained his eyes on the freshly ironed newspaper before him.
Grant scowled. “I do not wish her to become frightened. It is better that she remain oblivious.”
“And she will,” Lachlan droned.
Grant flashed a warning glance at Killian, the youngest of the three. “Aye, assuming you do not confess all to your twin.”
Killian’s thumb and forefinger tightened around his ale glass.
The slight change in Killian’s grip wasn’t an indication of anger anyone would perceive, but then Grant’s eyes and mind were keener than most—which had always served him well, until word spread of his unnatural prowess at the card tables.
Killian lifted his gaze. “You have my word. Now, what is your plan?”
Lachlan suddenly burst out laughing, his levity completely out of place in the sober wake of Grant’s preamble. “Weel, we’ve made the on dit column ... again. Oh, and what have we here?” He raised the paper closer and read the column again. “Ha! This time we are referred to as the Lords of Sin.” He looked up at his brothers, the corners of his lips lifted upward in a cocky grin.
“The Lords of Sin.” Killian Sinclair leaned back in his chair, grinning. “Rather like that one.”
“It does sound suitably ... spicy.” Lachlan chuckled. “Much better than the Seven Deadly Sins at any rate, but then I suppose the rags canna continue referring to us that way—now that nearly half of us have managed to redeem ourselves and be welcomed back into the family.” He focused on Grant. “What say you, brother? The Lords of Sin does have a certain ring to it, aye?”
“Do you not understand the strife we are in?” Grant balled his fist and, in his frustration with his brothers, slammed it down upon the table sending their ale glasses wobbling. “When will you two addle-pates realize that having our exploits detailed in The Morning Post is not amusing? It is disastrous! Do you not understand that it is only a matter of time before Da’s man of affairs dispatches the column to him?” He opened his fist and turned his palm upward, toward Lachlan. “Whose head will be on the chopping block next? Which of us will be catapulted from this house to the streets for our misdeeds?”
“Weel, I expect yours, Grant.” Lachlan slid the newspaper before him and poked his finger at a swath of inked words. “The column focuses primarily on your prowess at gambling ... and the incident at Watier’s last Friday night—where you were labeled a cheat.”
Grant snatched up the newspaper and scanned the far too lengthy column. “Damn it all.” He crumpled the page in his hands. “I’ve never cheated in all my life! Never needed to!”
“Let it go, Grant,” Lachlan snatched the newspaper back. “Haven’t finished this yet. Might be something more. No mention of your betrothal though. Suppose you have a day or two before Lord and Lady Wrayford announce their daughter’s engagement. Gorblimey, she’s been on the shelf so long it’s going take a saber to cut the cobwebs away.”
“Da will hear of your engagement within a sennight at the soonest, a month at the latest. You haven’t much time,” Killian added.
“Blast, Grant. Look what you’ve done.” Lachlan grimaced at the wrinkled newspaper and tried to smooth it with his palms. “Now Poplin will have to iron the page all over again.”
“Nay, he willna.” Killian’s blue eyes flashed as he stood and yanked away the newspaper. He balled it tightly and then tossed it into the smoldering hearth. “You are finished reading it.” His features smoothed then and he returned to his chair. As he seated himself, his heated gaze never left Lachlan. “Grant has the right of it. The Duke of Sinclair will not allow the family name to be publically sullied by his own sons—again. Grant did what he must.”
Lachlan sighed resignedly. “Aye, we all agree on that point. So explain this plan of yours, Grant. Aside from giving up women and gambling entirely—which, I remind you, we have tried and failed miserably—what other brilliant ideas have you that are so sure to redeem us that you compelled us to rise an hour early this morning to discuss it?”
“I have two plans actually.” Grant leaned back in his chair. “The first, to remedy our immediate problem—lack of coin.”
Lachlan raised a digit in the air, interrupting. “Weel, I’d rank the death warnings a more immediate threat than being under the hatches.”
Grant thumbed his heavy signet ring, rotating it around his finger. “First, I am going to pawn my ring ... then breed the coin at the card table outside of London, perhaps Luton, where I am still unknown. I could catch a mail coach and be there in no time at all.”
“Are you mad?” Killian came to his feet, shoving his hand through his raven black hair. “Mother gave that ring to you, before she died—it belonged to our grandfather!”
The volume of his brother’s words sent a tension through Grant’s muscles. “Dinna you see, Killian, we’ve got nothing else of true value.” Grant stood and began to pace. For a moment he paused directly behind Killian. “Do you doubt my skill? Do you doubt me?”
Killian did not turn around but shook his head. “I know your odds of winning are great—if you are unknown to the punters.”
Lachlan began to shake his head as well, but for an entirely different reason. “The Morning Post has a far reach. Look, Grant, you’ve been branded a cheat. All it would take is one gentleman in the room to recognize you and your game will be over.”
“Then I willna go where any gentleman would dare show his face.” He grinned at his brothers. “Come now, you know it’s our only chance.” Lachlan and Killian did not reply. “And once I have the winnings, I will buy the ring back. Pay double if need be.”
Lachlan flung his hand resignedly in the air. “You’ve already made your decision. Why bother asking our opinion?”
“Because we need a long-term remedy to our financial woes. Da has forbidden our brother and sisters to assist us in any way. Our path to redemption has to be our own.” Both of his brothers peered up at him as he circled back around the table to his chair. “I believe I have come upon a solution.”
Slowly, he sat down, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, purposely delaying the delivery of his scheme. He needed their collusion or his plan had no hope of working.
It was brilliant, though rather crass, but they were desperate. It is not as if he would be asking his brothers to sacrifice any more than he had. Still, if this ruse was successful, it would be the answer to their prayers and they’d drop to their knees before him in thanks.
“Priscilla will be down to break her fast soon. It is nearly noon,” Killian reminded him. “If you’ve got a plan, better get on with it.”
“Verra weel.” Grant swallowed deeply, then set both hands atop the table and pushed up to his feet. “Our father considered Sterling, Ivy and Siusan sufficiently redeemed the moment they married proper members of Society,” he began. “Good people. Moral people.”
Lachlan snorted at that. “Weel, I think their redemption had a wee bit more to do with actually changing their ways than just wedding a proper lady or gentleman.”
“Aye, but how did Da know they had each transformed?” He looked at Lachlan, but finding no ready answer there, turned to Killian.
“Because they put aside their selfish ways long enough to allow someone to love them.” His brother shrugged. “Canna think of anything else, Grant.”
“But that, brother, is enough.” Grant clapped his hands together and twisted them, delighted that the premise of his plan had been swallowed whole.
“Grant,” Lachlan slapped the top of his own thigh. “What is this blasted idea of yours? I fear it must be quite fantastic given the length of time you have dedicated to preparing us to hear it.”
Grant drew in a breath, and then exhaled his plan. “You follow my lead. We all marry. Quickly ... but well. Making a proper match is key.” Grant opened his hands and spread his arms wide. “There you have it. So simple, and yet so perfect.”
“Me, marry? Are you serious or just absolutely mad?” Lachlan snorted at the ridiculousness of the notion. “I have no intention of getting leg-shackled ever.”
Grant shook his index finger. “Now, I vow you may change your mind once you hear the logic of my plan.” He waited until both of his brothers stilled and were no longer huffing at the absurdity of his idea. “We marry biddable, proper ladies of good breeding. Wallflowers, spinsters or bluestockings from the Quality. You know the sort. Skirts who will be so eternally grateful for being taken down from the shelf for a romp on the dance floor that they will never complain about late evenings, gambling, drinking ... or bits of muslin.”
Lachlan’s eyes grew wide. “A woman who will turn a blind eye as long as she’s kept in a fine home, able to retain her place in Society instead of being pitied as an aged ape-leader.”
Killian wasn’t so understanding. “Grant, you are talking about marrying. ‘Tis a lifetime commitment.”
“But we’ll be free. Once we marry, as long as we are a wee bit more careful—and do not draw the attention of the on dit columnists—our fortunes will be restored. Da’s man’s observation of us will become unnecessary, in his mind. We will be free to live our own lives, here, or even home in Scotland if we choose.”
Lachlan topped off his morning ale and drew the glass to his lips, silently pondering Grant’s outrageous proposal for some moments. Killian and Grant fixed their eyes upon him, waiting. “Not that I am agreeing with your scheme, precisely, but I am interested in where you think we may find these proper, well-bred, supremely-biddable lasses of which you speak?”
Grant exhaled in relief. Lachlan’s question confirmed his assent with the plan. “Sadly, we will be required to go a few places that wouldn’t ordinarily draw our interest. Musicales, charity hospitals, reforming societies, libraries ... ”
“Gorblimey. For how long?” Lachlan was already yawning. “I daresay, I doubt I could endure such numbing boredom for more than a week.”
“I expect the courtship period will vary for each of us—mine required no more than two days. The moment I showed Miss Wrayford favor, after just the lightest prodding from her parents, she confessed to falling in love with me at first notice. This shall not be so difficult.” He stood, set his palms on the bright white tablecloth and leaned forward. “You will become bride hunters. The sooner you bag your prey, the quicker we can resume our former lives—fully funded, of course.”
Lachlan and Killian exchanged meaningful glances. Several moments passed, then several more, until, at last, Killian raised his glass.
Grant smiled. “To the bride hunters. May our hunt be swift and our aim sure.”
Lachlan reluctantly raised his glass of breakfast ale
in the air.
The three glasses clanked together as the brothers cheered in unison. “To the bride hunters!”
Two nights later
Lord Grant Sinclair never could abide the dull. And though the company of the four thick-skulls he’d joined at the card table an hour before had fattened his pockets considerably, their inane conversation prickled his patience.
What addle-pates they were. Why, their mugs practically screamed out the exact cards they held in their stubby thieving fingers, while they turned the blame for their own idiocy on being light on luck.
What a ridiculous notion.
Being blessed with good fortune had nothing to do with winning at cards. Nay, it had everything to do with watching for tells, those tiny almost imperceptible flinches, grimaces or smiles, that communicate even the wiliest of liar’s honest reaction moments before his mind has the good sense to mask true emotion. Tells were Grant’s bread and butter.
His brothers, and aye, his sisters, too, had developed perception of others to a fine art. That is not to say this skill always benefited them, for indeed, many times, knowing what another is thinking only boosts supreme self-assuredness to a level that leads one to attempt too great of risks, thinking he has a clear advantage. This forges a path to recklessness ... and sometimes to a blackened eye.
Much like tonight.
Grant realized his mistake the moment he won the fifth straight hand, chuckling inwardly as he dragged more than fifty yellow boys across the card table. A heap of sweet guineas glittered before him and yet he held his countenance impassive. A misstep, for his lack of reaction, which would have warranted from anyone else a hoot at the very least, drew the attention of the other players.
“Why, ye’re a bleedin’ cheat.” The player’s words slurred, courtesy of the bottle of fine brandy Grant had paid the waiter to serve to their table time and time again over the past hour.
He couldn’t help himself but redirect the attention from his skill at cards to the brandy. “Hardly. But I am a Scot and our heads are hard.”
“Well, I don’t think that’s it at all, you sotting shark.” This man was a fair bit larger than the first, and Grant felt it was only wise to refrain from baiting him. “Here’s what I reckon. Ye’ve colored the cards or numbered them somehow.” He and the other men—for in this particular gaming hell, Grant was sure he was the only gentleman present—flipped over their cards and held them up before their crimson-threaded, glazed-over eyes. “How else would you always know exactly what we’re all holdin’ in our paws?” The hulk came to his feet ... followed by the other players.
As if on cue, they whisked back their coats, revealing knives, guns and even a small meat hook.
Now, Grant was a very large man, by any standards, but these four muscle-bound cutthroats had the advantage of numbers—and weapons.
Blast. Time to quit the premises. Promptly.
Hooking the tips of his fingers beneath the edge of the table, he flipped it over upon them. Not terribly original, but, hell, he didn’t have more than a moment to consider his escape.
The cost would be his bounty, but his life was more precious. His most recent pile of ill-gotten guineas spilled out upon them and clattered across the floor.
The thick-brows scrambled, providing Grant just enough time to whirl around and dash out the door.
The air was icy and for a moment, the thought crossed Grant’s slightly inebriated mind that the fogged plume of his breath would lead them straight to him, wherever he ran, like a trail of breadcrumbs.
He hastened to the top of the lane, hoping at this time of night, a hackney would be waiting at the stand to take him to the inn where he could await the mail coach. No such luck. He could already hear the gamesters bellowing at him from down the hill.
Despite the hour, he saw candlelight glowing in the windows from a building up ahead. The room appeared crowded and if he was stealthy enough, he decided he could slip inside and lose himself in their number. He made for it.
The pounding of his footfall sounded amplified in the still of the night, twisting his nerves tighter. He hurried to the door and to his relief, he found it unlocked and he was able to enter freely.
A gathering of several people stood at the front of a large, rectangular room. A bench in the front and a number of simple wooden chairs stood cheek by jowl in rows of six with a narrow aisle down the middle. Plainly dressed women filled the chairs on one side of the aisle, while men and older boys were on the other.
Not a word was spoken, though every soul turned around to peer at Grant as he entered. He nodded in a friendly manner, but he could see from their disapproving eyes that he had intruded upon some sort of meeting. And, while he knew he should leave at once, he simply could not. Not with Mr. Meat Hook prowling about outside. And so, he smiled sheepishly and quietly closed the door behind him.
At the front of the room stood a young woman wearing a sullen expression, her face as pale as her white muslin gown. She was all but surrounded by a stern-faced gentleman, a well-dressed man and a woman, who between audible sobs, dabbed a handkerchief to her eyes.
The young woman lifted her head and her gaze sought out Grant’s own. He smiled at her and immediately a flash of relief swept her finely sculpted features.
“Is that he?” The tall, elderly man barked, pointing rudely at Grant.
She lowered her eyes as she nodded. “I told thee he would come. He would not leave me to face this alone.”
What in God’s name is she going on about?
“Young man. Come here. We have been waiting for you.” The tall man beckoned Grant forward.
“I?” Grant settled his hand on this chest. “Are you referring to me, sir?”
“I am. Come forth.” It was not a request.
On the other side of the wooden door, Grant could hear the muffled voices of the card players as they called out to each other. It was certain they would discover him if he did not find some way to conceal himself here in plain sight. And so, he did what any man being pursued by a snarling pack of armed ruffians would do—he walked down the aisle toward the young woman.
As Grant neared, the miss’s wide eyes pleaded desperately with him. It was clear she needed his help, but in doing what? Her face paled as her chest rose and fell in a rapid succession of shallow breaths.
Damn me. He’d seen this collection of reactions before—just before his sister Ivy lost consciousness the day she was presented to the queen.
Grant hastened to her and when she reached out her shaking hands to him, he hesitantly took them into his own. As she raised her head, eyes the color of brilliant emerald sparkled peered up him. Wavy locks of Venetian blonde hair framed one of the most beautiful faces he’d ever seen. Tears collected in her lashes like spangles.
Och, aye, she was in a serious tangle, of that he was certain. But Grant was neck deep in a boiling stew as well, and so, for the moment—at least until the punters had gone— he would accept her plea and become her accomplice in some sort of grand charade.
Squeezing her hands, he gave her a quick nod to impart his agreement with her plan, whatever it may be. After all, better to play along than to be cast back into the street and into the hands of four men desiring to hack him into guinea-sized bits and feed him to the River Lea.
What happened next was damned odd.
Nothing. Not a bloody thing happened. They were led to two chairs set side by side and bade to sit. There they remained for several agonizing minutes in complete silence as Grant’s pursuers stalked past the windows time and time again.
The congregation did not stir. At one point, Grant leaned toward the young woman to whisper to her. He had to admit, he was feeling more than a little done in from the brandy he’d imbibed during the card game, and, perhaps, he missed the stern-faced man’s directions and whether he was supposed to say something.
The moment he parted his lips, the green-eyed beauty flashed a warning glance. He closed his mouth at once.
Finally, she took his hand and drew him to his feet. She turned to him. “In the presence of God and these Friends, I take thee to be my husband, promising with Divine assistance to be unto thee a loving and faithful wife as long as we both shall live.” Then, she squeezed his hand.
Damn me to hell. Grant’s eyes widened. This was a bleeding wedding! His. His keen bachelor’s instincts told him to run. He started to pull away, but she tightened her hold.
“Please,” she mouthed. Her eyes began to flood with tears.
Nay, this was going too far. Grant started to turn, meaning to quit the premises at once, but at that very moment the door opened and one of the brutes stalked in. Everyone turned to face the newcomer.
Grant turned back around and angled toward the young woman. If he could just remain where he was for a few moments, the wastrel might not see him and leave.
“Please.” The miss peered up at him. “Help me.”
Grant stared down at her. How could she possibly ask him to do this? She didn’t even know him.
Then it occurred to him that this is likely exactly why she wanted his help. They didn’t know each other. His name could not be upon any wedding license for until a few minutes ago, they’d never even seen each other.
This marriage ceremony was not valid in the least.
He hadn’t a clue why she was doing this, for whose benefit. He exhaled. “Very well.”
“Repeat after me, while the Friends are still distracted by the man in the back of the meeting house. I assume he is looking for you?”
Grant nodded. Had the angry heavy not been prowling the perimeter of the room, this whole adventure would be vastly amusing.
“Then, Friend, we have an agreement.” A sigh of relief escaped her full, pink lips.
“Aye, I suppose we do.” Why the hell not? After all, what a chuckle his brothers and sister would have when he tells them over breakfast them that last eve he married a chit he’d never even met. “Begin.”
She peered up into his eyes and spoke.
Grant repeated her words softly, but in a heartfelt manner so as to make the ceremony more believable to all present. “In the presence of God and these Friends, I take thee to be my wife.” He paused. He mumbled what few other words he remembered, and those seemed to suffice. For she smiled brightly up at him.
The door behind them slammed closed, and Grant could not help but whirl around. Thanks be. The ruffian was gone. His breathing came easier now. Another moment, and it would likely be safe enough to leave the building.
The young woman dragged him to a table in the front corner of the room. She took up a quill and dipped it into the ink. “One last thing. Scribble a name here. Any name, and then we are finished.”
The entire congregation had left their chairs and were moving toward them, and so, not wanting this farce to continue any longer, Grant set the quill to the parchment. The two older men who had been standing with the young woman took up the quill pen and signed the document as well while the older woman pressed a coin into her hand.
Grant gave a parting glance at the visibly relieved young woman as the congregation enveloped her and then he dashed from the room and back into the empty street.
The next morning
The Sinclair residence
“Excuse me, Lord Grant.”
Grant lifted one eyelid but he was not about to move from his pillow. “What time is it, Poplin?”
The Sinclair family’s elderly manservant stood before Grant’s bed. “Noon, my lord.”
“Too early. Verra long night. Need sleep,” he groaned, pulling the coverlet over his head.
“I must inform you that you have a visitor, my lord.”
“Poplin, my head pains me.” Indeed, Grant’s head throbbed with every word. “I am in no condition to receive a visitor.”
“Forgive me, my lord, but your sister was quite certain you would wish to receive this caller.”
“Who is it?” Grant rolled onto his back and lifted the edge of the coverlet from his face.
“The caller did not provide a name, though I believe Lady Priscilla is correct in her assumption that you would wish to receive this caller.”
Grant opened his eyes. The old man was clearly discomposed. He could not even meet Grant’s gaze. “Why are you and my sister so convinced I would wish to entertain a visitor now?”
“Because, my lord,” Poplin cleared his throat, “she claims to be your wife.”
Grant didn’t bother to dress. He hastily wrapped a striped dressing gown over his naked body, tied it at his waist and stormed from his bedchamber. Tearing down the creaking stair treads, he barged through the parlor door.
And there she was.
The green-eyed beauty he’d ... well, married last eve. Only they weren’t married. It was a charade, nothing more! And she damn well knew it.
“There you are, Grant,” crooned Priscilla, the youngest of the seven Sinclair siblings. “I realize you must have been in a great hurry to greet your beloved wife, but you might have considered at least wearing breeches for my sake.” She grinned over the lip of her teacup.
The young woman rose and fashioned a curtsey. “My lord.”
Grant did not honor her in the least. He narrowed his eyes and stalked angrily toward her.
“Thought I heard female voices down here! Who have we here, Priscilla?”
Grant halted and turned. Lachlan was moistening his lips as he observed the tasty morsel before him. “Care to introduce me to your lovely friend, Sister?”
The woman glanced briefly at Lachlan then retrained her eyes on Grant. “I fear I am not a Friend.” Though it seemed her remark was meant for Lachlan, her gaze remained fixed on Grant.
Lachlan chuckled and shifted his attention to Grant as well. He playfully punched his brother in the shoulder. “Och, now, what have you done to deserve that, Grant?”
“He married this lovely Quaker miss. Isn’t that right, Grant?” Priscilla’s lips lifted with the promise of more mischief.
Lachlan burst out laughing, but when no one joined in his merriment, he stopped abruptly. “She is jesting, Grant, is she not?” When Grant did not reply, Lachlan leaned to his brother’s ear and whispered into it. “Forgive me if I am missing something ... but she is not your betrothed.”
“Nay, she is not.” Grant growled, shoving Lachlan away. “I don’t even know her name.” He studied her without reservation.
She lifted her chin defiantly. “I am Miss Felicity Lightfoot.”
Priscilla grinned. “Or, rather you were until last night. Now, you are Lady Grant Sinclair.” She turned to look at Grant. “Isn’t that right, Brother?” It was evident that Priscilla could barely contain her laughter. She took Felicity’s hand in hers and squeezed it gently. “I know, the marriage happened so suddenly that your elevation and new name will take time to become accustomed to. But do not fret, my dear, it will come soon enough.”
Lachlan grasped Grant’s shoulder and shook him. “What in blazes is going on here?”
“I honestly could not tell you, but I intend to find out.” Grant pushed away his brother’s arm and headed for Priscilla. He whisked the dish of tea from Priscilla’s hand then abruptly pulled her to her feet and marched her toward the passage.
“Grant, you are being very rude!” Priscilla struggled to disengage his hand from her arm. When it became clear Grant was not about to release her, she looked back over her shoulder to Miss Lightfoot. “Do forgive your new husband, Felicity, he is generally most good-natured. Must have gotten up from the wrong side of his bed is all.” She looked up at Grant and laughed softly.
“Lachlan, will you please escort our most entertaining sister to the dining room?” He flung Priscilla toward Lachlan, who took her arm and continued into the passage.
“Absolutely, if you promise to explain—”
The moment Lachlan and Priscilla had passed through the parlor door, Grant closed and locked it behind them without a word of explanation.
“Miss Lightfoot, please be seated. Quite obviously, we have much to discuss.” He gestured to her chair and she quickly sat down. “Let us begin our interview with a simple question—why?”
Her lower lip trembled. “I had no where else to go ... no other choice.” She lifted her eyes and peered up at him, not seeming afflicted in the least with nerves. “And, you were so very kind marrying me.”
Grant raised his eyebrows at that. “We are not married!”
“Oh, but I believe we are.” She sounded so sure of herself.
“Do you take me for a fool, Miss Lightfoot? There was no license. Ergo, we are not legally married.”
Suddenly, there was a persistent knocking at the parlor door. “Grant!”
He turned his head toward the door. “Lachlan, please leave.”
“Nay, Grant. There is something I must tell you,” he yelled from the other side of the door. “Something very important.”
“Excuse me, please, Miss Lightfoot. My brother has something in his mind that cannot wait.” He rose, shaking his head as he stalked toward the door and, turning the key, he opened the door a hand’s width. Lachlan and Priscilla were standing just on the other side, each with a crystal glass in hand. They had obviously been listening at the door and using the glasses to amplify the sound. “What is it that could not wait,” he lowered his voice to a whisper, “until I have finished my discussion with this ... madwoman.”
Lachlan was shaking his head fiercely. “She isn’t mad, Grant. Damn me. She may be right.”
“What are you rambling on about?”
“I recall hearing something quite extraordinary—that the government does not require Quakers to possess a marriage license in order to wed legally.” Lachlan’s eyes were wild. “I remember thinking to take care to avoid Quaker women at all costs, since in a moment of passion—” Lachlan’s eyes flashed momentarily toward Miss Lightfoot. “Weel, brother, one might find himself ... in a most inconvenient position.”
“But ... banns were never read,” Grant protested.
“Grant, Quakers do not marry the same way Anglicans do. From what I understand, the bride and groom simply say that they take the other for husband or wife, and it’s done. Quite extraordinary, really.”
Grant’s mouth flapped open and then snapped closed again as he struggled to apply some logic to this. “Oh, blast it, get in here, Lachlan, I may need your help.”
He swung the door wide and Lachlan followed him inside. Priscilla did not wait to be asked, but practically skipped into the parlor uninvited.
Miss Lightfoot crossed her arms over her chest.
“Grant, dear, I believe she heard every word,” Priscilla quipped. “Did you, Miss Lightfoot—I mean Felicity Sinclair?”
“Indeed I did.” She unfolded her arms and set her gloved hands atop her knees.
Priscilla looked wide-eyed at her. “You and my brother simply married yourselves? There was no minister. No priest?”
“Yes, we did. And no, no officiate at all.”
Grant clapped his hands together. “There you have it, Lachlan. You see, I am not married.”
Lachlan shook his head solemnly. “Did you not hear what I said? From what I have heard, Quakers marry each other in the presence of God and the meeting of Friends.”
Shoving his fingers through his hair, Grant dropped back onto the settee. Slowly he looked up at Miss Lightfoot. “So, this is true ... we are married—legally married?”
“You heard your brother.” She rose from her chair and walked into the passage. Grant and Lachlan exchanged confused glances. When she returned, she carried a leather valise, and from it she withdrew a scroll of parchment. She handed it to Grant. “Our marriage certificate.”
Grant opened the scroll to review an ornately illuminated document.
Priscilla moved beside him and peered over his shoulder at the parchment. “Look, there is your name, Grant ... and yours, too,” she looked up at their visitor, “Felicity Lightfoot.”
Beneath were columns of other names. The meeting of Friends. Witnesses to the marriage. Dozens of them.
Grant began to feel nauseous. “If you knew this was legal, why in God’s verdant earth would you do this?”
Miss Lightfoot nervously fingered the small garnet cross dangling from the pearl necklace around her neck. “A young man from another meeting house, a warden’s son I was later told, stole a kiss from me not long ago. His inappropriate display was witnessed by two of the meeting’s elders. As I feared, my guardian was informed immediately, and, last night, though my aunt thought the punishment extreme, my uncle informed me I was to be disowned from the Quaker community.”
Priscilla moved closer to Grant and, though it was very faint, he heard her say, “Disowned ... as we may be.”
The skin bracketing the bridge of Miss Lightfoot’s nose pinched as she tried to comprehend Priscilla’s statement, but she continued on with her story. “My guardian’s wife, my mother’s sister, who is very dear to me, was greatly distressed by this. She pleaded with the clearance committee to agree that if I presented this young man, that we be permitted to marry before I was disowned, so, at the very least, I would not be ruined.”
“So why did you do just that?” Grant asked.
She turned her bright eyes up to him. “But I didn’t even know the young man’s name, and, because I was restricted to the house, I had no means to locate him.” She rubbed her fingers over her temples and began to pace. “I knew there would be no marriage—how could there be? And yet I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. She was so frightened for me!”
Grant sighed. “And so when I unexpectedly walked into the meeting and everyone believed I was the young Quaker you were to marry—”
Miss Lightfoot nodded. “I hadn’t the faintest notion what else to do. I went along with it.”
“You just went along with it?” Grant dropped the certificate to the table before him.
“Well, so did you! I did not know why, though I expect it had something to do with the other man who interrupted the meeting.”
Lachlan and Priscilla looked in unison to Grant for explanation. “One of the players I had taken for his money. Had a pistol and a meat hook.” Their gazes flashed back to Miss Lightfoot.
“I kept expecting you to walk out. Now that I could explain to my guardians. But you remained beside me. You went through with everything. You even signed the certificate—with your true name!”
“Because you told me I would be finished once I did!”
“I said to sign any name!”
“You might have been a little clearer! I was signing my own marriage certificate for God’s sake.”
“Well, my darling husband, now we are married—and the fault of our union lies with the both of us.”
The room remained silent for several moments, no one daring to speak.
Then, Poplin entered the crypt-silent parlor. “Shall I refresh the tea, Lady Priscilla?”
Priscilla’s expression instantly shifted from stunned to wicked delight. “Not just yet, Poplin.” Her eyes twinkled as an idea seemed to burst into her mind. “No tea, but would you please bring Lady Grant’s valise to Ivy’s former bedchamber?”
Grant’s mouth felt agape.
Priscilla grasped the young woman’s hand and drew her from the chair. “Come with me, Felicity. I may call you that, mayn’t I? After all, we are sisters now.” She smiled mischievously at Grant. “Oh, how wonderful is this? I have so missed having a sister in the house since Siusan married. You cannot imagine what it is like to live with a house full of men, Felicity. But now I know I shall not have to, for I have a new sister—and my brother has a wife!”
So he did.
Later that evening
Grant’s head pained him all that day, and into the evening too. But he could not blame the constant throbbing on the liquor he imbibed last night.
It was his new wife.
Or rather, the fact that he possessed a wife when he was currently betrothed to another—from a very powerful, noble family. A woman whose father was well acquainted with his own father. A member of the House of Lords, who would not hesitate to destroy Grant in the courts for breach of contract of marriage and for sullying his spinster daughter’s reputation and good, albeit rather dusty, name.
Aye, once the Duke of Sinclair caught word of his second son, whose head was so dulled with brandy that he had accidentally married a Quaker, his bid for the restoration of his inheritance would be forever removed from the realm of possibility.
His only choice was to annul this sham of a marriage before anyone of Society heard of it.
But Grant hadn’t the faintest notion how one obtained an annulment. He needed a barrister. A good one who knew the wormholes in law but could also be trusted to be very discrete in wiping away a most delicate and highly embarrassing matter.
It was a sound battle plan. Only, given his own proclivity for games of chance, Grant was not acquainted with quality barristers and, even had he been, his current economic circumstance would prevent him from hoping to engage such a man.
He’d rattled his mind and then quizzed his brothers for hours about how to secretly remove himself from the union, but even now, at the dinner hour, he was still at a complete loss. Grant sat hunched, peering out of the parlor window, glancing every now and again at the empty whisky decanter at his elbow, knowing he hadn’t escaped his pursuers with enough coin to purchase another bottle—or at least nothing worth drinking.
When the tall case clock on the passage sounded nine, Poplin appeared at the parlor door and announced the evening meal.
Grant dragged himself to his feet and walked down the passage to the dining room. A tinkling of female laughter met him at the doorway, knocking him backward two strides, flattening him against the passage wall like a craven coward.
Suddenly, there was a heavy hand upon his shoulder. He turned to see Killian behind him.
“There’s no logic in avoiding your wife, Grant.” His tone was low and quiet. “In fact, avoiding her is probably the most dim-witted thing you can do right now.”
Grant rolled on his shoulder along the wall until he faced his brother. He knew he looked utterly defeated but there was no helping it.
“Think about it. If you are going to somehow annul this marriage, you will need her agreement. Your best course of action now is to charm her. Work to convince her that she doesn’t want this marriage any more than you do. Make her your ally, your partner, and putting an end to your marriage before Da or anyone of Society hears of it will be all the more likely.
Grant dropped his head. “You’re right, Killian. It’s only that seeing her reminds me of what a huge tangle I’ve made of my life.”
“Well, no one, but a few dozen Quakers in Luton, know about the marriage. Priscilla confirmed it with Felicity. So you haven’t too much to worry about now.”
“She’s no longer Miss Lightfoot, and has asked to be called Felicity.” Killian shook his head, disgusted. “Talk to her. She’s most amusing ... quite lovely. You could have done a hell of a lot worse, Grant—and I suspect if you succeed with your plan to marry the Wrayford spinster, that is exactly what you will do.”
When Grant and Killian entered the dining room Lachlan had already taken his place between Priscilla and Miss Lightfoot ... Felicity. To Grant’s astonishment, the three were engaged in a conversation about au currant fashion.
“I am thoroughly enamored with changeable silk,” Felicity was saying. “Imagine a gown transforming from blue to purple to green with only the slightest turn. My aunt possesses one, though she rarely has occasion to wear it.”
Grant approached the table and, as he took his seat, he addressed his ... wife. “I was not aware that Quakers are permitted to wear gowns so à la mode.”
Felicity lifted a single eyebrow, as well as the edges of her lips. “It seems, dear husband, that there are a great many things about Quakers of which you are unaware.”
Priscilla covered her mouth to conceal her amusement.
“Perhaps then, my darling, you would condescend to enlighten me.” His attempt to rattle her was completely unsuccessful for Felicity rose from her place and took the empty chair beside him.
“Why of course.” She brushed the top of his hand lightly with her fingertips before settling her hands in her lap. “My guardian and my aunt practice relaxed Quakerism and set aside many of the restrictions identified with the religion, such as the requirement to wear only simple clothing and to avoid worldly society. My guardian is involved with banking and consequently, he and my aunt are not without means. They enjoy wearing the latest fashions and patronizing the theater, dancing at balls and attending routs.”
Grant was startled by this news, and shot a glance at Killian who had informed him that Priscilla confirmed that the secret of the marriage was safe, at least for the time being. But Felicity’s family were no ordinary Quakers and the risk of exposure was far more likely.
Felicity brushed an errant reddish-gold lock of hair from her face as she smiled across the table at Priscilla. “Once I came out, I, too, was permitted to enjoy worldly events.”
“Are you still permitted?” There was a sparkle of anticipation in Priscilla’s tone.
“Why, certainly.” The smile on Felicity’s suddenly disappeared as she sucked her lips into her mouth for a moment. Ah, a game was afoot. Grant could not trust any of her further words. “That is, as long as my husband is in agreement.” She lowered her head and peered up demurely through her lashes.
Priscilla burst out laughing. “Oh, you are wickedly amusing, Felicity! I actually believed you for a moment.”
Grant bristled. “I most certainly do not agree.”
Felicity flinched from the force of his words.
“What?” Priscilla shot from her chair. “I fear you must repeat exactly what you said, Grant, because I am sure we all misheard you.” She glared down at him. “For Felicity is a Sinclair now and may do as she wishes!”
Lachlan rose and ushered Priscilla back to her chair. “Priscilla, you know why Grant does not wish Felicity to come out in London Society.”
Priscilla snapped her mouth tightly closed, her blue eyes flashing like dueling blades in the light of the chandelier.
Killian appeared entirely focused on the task of lining his carrots into regimental rows upon his plate.
“Yes, we were married by accident, but nevertheless we are husband and wife. And while everyone else in this room may know why my husband does not wish for me to appear in public,” Felicity fixed her gaze on Grant, “I do not and, as your wife, I am entitled to an explanation.”
“You have to tell her, Grant.” Lachlan grimaced and pushed away his plate, not having taken a single bite of his boiled beef.
Grant immediately caught the plate’s rim and dragged it before himself. He skewered a bit of beef on his fork. “And she will have it. After dinner.”
Felicity was famished when at last Grant finished dining and asked her to join him in the parlor. Oh, plenty of food had been served to her, including a large wedge of putrid smelling fish, but she hadn’t been able to swallow a single bite of Mrs. Wimpole’s cooking. How Grant had managed to finish his dinner, as well as Lachlan’s, astonished her. His appetite seemed endless, and yet, there was not the least of fat on his muscular physique.
Felicity followed Grant into the parlor and, when he gestured to the silk settee near the large front window, she quickly sat down and folded her hands primly in her lap.
Grant’s gaze lingered on the settee, and she thought he might sit beside her, but then he seemed to change his mind and remained standing directly before her.
Criminy, she hoped his explanation would not take too terribly long to impart, for Grant Sinclair was a very tall man, and the only way to meet his gaze from the settee was to tilt her head until it touched the top of her back. Already her neck was aching.
To her relief, however, he realized his stifling proximity and instead began to pace the parlor, for some reason taking care to remain within the bounds of the inner blue frame of a most stunning Aubusson rug.
He ran his hands briskly though his mahogany hair as he alternately slowed and increased pace as he silently worked out his oratory.
She studied him as he walked. Honestly, his reasoning for not wishing her to be seen in public did not matter to Felicity. It did not take even a slightly superior intellect to know that he desired to annul the marriage before whispers of their nuptials spread through proper London. Were she Grant, she would likely demand the same thing of her unwanted spouse.
Only she wasn’t.
And, though her marriage to Lord Grant Sinclair was but a fortuitous accident, she had no intention of allowing it to be annulled.
For this union could well be her key to her mother’s freedom—as well as her own.
It was damned hard for Grant to focus on what he must say with Felicity’s emerald eyes glittering up at him in the golden glow of a pair of candles. Hardly sufficient lighting, but the Sinclair coffers were nearly empty due to his disastrous night at the card table last evening so two tapers would have to do. Absently, he moistened his lips as he passed the empty whisky decanter. Aye, there were too many necessities the Sinclairs would have do without—until he could right his marital situation and earn back his inheritance.
Felicity’s fingers began to fidget. “Shall I come back later, when you have had had more time to consider what you wish to say to me?”
This rather startled Grant. “No, madam.” He walked straight toward her then sat down beside her on the settee. “I know precisely what I intend to tell you.”
“Well, then.” It was then that he noticed her fingers weren’t fidgeting at all. Her hands were shaking. She was not nearly as brave as she pretended.
Purposefully, he cupped one of her delicate hands between his palms. Her hand felt so small and she looked so damned vulnerable. Grant started to lift his head, when he noticed a single freckle on the swell of her left breast. His cock twitched. Hurriedly, he shifted his gaze to her face. She was chewing her full, coral-hued lower lip. He felt the twitch again.
Christ. Get on with this.
“Felicity, our marriage was an accident and we both know it cannot continue.” He ran a soothing thumb over her smooth hand. “You see, lass, I am betrothed to another.”
“Oh, dear. That is a rather large problem.” She nodded her head in understanding.
Grant exhaled in relief. Perhaps this would not be as difficult as he had imagined.
“How will you explain to your fiancée, and her family, that you married another?” She leaned close and peered into his eyes. “She will no doubt be very hurt and may even wish retribution.”
“What?” Damn it to hell! She didn’t understand in the least! “Nay, Felicity. I cannot set my fiancée aside. Too much depends on our union.”
Felicity became very still and did not say a word.
“Lass, our marriage must be annulled. Quickly. Quietly.”
She slipped her hands from his grip. “Impossible. We pledged our union before God. There were dozens of witnesses!”
“Nonetheless, our marriage must be annulled and with the utmost discretion.”
Felicity leaped up from the settee and raced for the door, but somehow, before reaching it she managed to rein in her emotions. She turned and crept toward the hearth, her chin lowered, arms wrapped tightly around herself. She rotated another step giving him her back. “Forgive me, Lord Grant, but I cannot go back. I have been disowned I have no place to go.” Her tone was calm, her words deliberate. “I know I can make you happy. I vowed to be a good and faithful wife.” Over a span of several moments, she lowered her arms and drew in a deep breath. Suddenly, she whirled around, her chin now raised in challenge. “I am accomplished, educated and ... I can cook!”
Grant gave her a sad smile. “I have no doubt of all of that. Felicity ... you do not understand.”
“Then please, my lord, explain it to me so that I might.” She rushed to him and knelt, her hands resting on his knees. Her eyes were pleading with him.
Grant shook his head, disgusted with himself for the foolhardiness that had put him and this woman in this situation. “Priscilla showed you this house in its entirety, did she not?”
“She did. Most of the rooms.” Felicity shrugged her shoulders, not understanding the connection.
“What stands out to you most about this house?” He gestured at the furnishing in the parlor, at the two candlesticks illuminating the room.
Felicity glanced around then returned her gaze to his. “Only the public rooms are lavishly furnished. The rest of the house is nearly barren.”
“Exactly. What does this suggest to you?” As Grant started to stand, he took Felicity’s hands in his and brought her to her feet along with him.
“Your family, while noble, is lean in the pocket, but you wish to preserve the appearance of wealth—at least until your sister is properly married, I would assume.”
“But the family’s financial strain is of no consequence to me. I have endured far worse circumstances than two candles and a pallet on the floor as my bed. I can assume the duties of Cook and save you her wages. I can take in sewing. I can—”
“Stop, please.” He slid his hands up to her shoulders and peered into her eyes. You’re just so damned innocent! “Felicity, my sister Priscilla is not the only one of us who must marry well—we all must. Only then will our inheritances be restored.”
Confusion filled her eyes as she looked up at him. She was biting her lip again. It was now a deep red and had swelled to a very kissable plumpness.
His thoughts strayed for a moment to a very different wedding night. One in which he did not return to London, but instead tumbled into bed with this angel. Bloody hell. It wouldn’t help matters in the least to think of her that way. He dragged his gaze back to her eyes.
“There is something you must know, Felicity. My brothers, sisters and I do not have the best reputations here or in Scotland. Together, we are known throughout the land as the Seven Deadly Sins.”
She stared blankly at him. Though every newspaper in London regularly reported on their escapades, making them quite notorious, it seemed she was not familiar with their story.
So, Grant continued. “Not long ago, our father cast us out of our home and sent us to London, warning us to mend our wicked ways, to redeem ourselves and become worthy of the Sinclair name. Should any of us fail in this endeavor, they will be disowned and tossed out without a penny or a further thought.”
“But there are only four of you here—you, Priscilla, Lachlan and Killian.” She suddenly appeared dubious of his story.
“That is because my elder brother Sterling and other sisters Ivy and Siusan married—in my father’s eyes they redeemed themselves.”
Felicity’s eyes brightened. “And now, so have you.”
“Nay, nay.” Grant hung his head. “My situation is not nearly the same.” He drew in a deep breath then slowly exhaled it. “Felicity, I am betrothed to a noblewoman from a family of my father’s acquaintance. Then after a dangerous night of cards and drink, I accidentally married another—you.” He lifted his head and gazed down upon Felicity. “By marrying you under these circumstances, if my action ever became known, I will have brought great shame upon my family name.”
He was not certain, for the light in the parlor was so very low, but tears seemed to gather in Felicity’s eyes. “I have no choice. Please, you must understand this. I have no wish to hurt you, but unless our marriage is annulled before my father or my fiancée learns of it, I will be penniless.”
“And if our marriage is ended ... I will be ruined.” When Grant did not immediately reply, Felicity broke away to quit the room. Abruptly she stilled her step. “I ... I have nowhere else to go. None of the Friends will speak at me, set their eyes upon me.” She looked back over her shoulder at him. She was trembling. “Pray, may I at least stay the night, my lord?”
Grant’s heart twisted. His reckless behavior was about to destroy the life of this innocent miss—but there was no help for it. “Aye, of course, you may.”
Her shoulders relaxed.
“In fact, I insist you remain until the marriage is dissolved.” Her spirits seemed to lift. Oh, but he knew he had to be perfectly clear with her on this point. It would be cruel to give her false hope, no matter how meager it may be. “Just for a short time, until the annulment. It is the only way I can ensure our secret is protected.”
Felicity’s back stiffened, but she nodded resignedly . “How very generous of you, my lord,” She said coolly. Slowly she walked through the doorway into the passage.
Christ. That did not come out the way he intended all. Grant listened until the sound of her footfall as she ascended the stairs disappeared. Once again, his gaze drifted to the whisky decanter.
How well he knew the feeling.
The sky was still an ashen gray, the sun hidden, though its rays were beginning to outline with gold the rooftops of the western row of townhouses on Grosvenor Square. Felicity hurried down the front steps and headed for the hackney stand she’d noted just around the corner on Brook Street.
What she was doing was a risk. Three miles of roads stretched between Grosvenor Square and Newgate Prison, and in truth she did not know if she could go and return before the Sinclairs realized she was missing, but she had to try. Besides, when she spoke with Mrs. Wimpole in the kitchen last night, Cook had mentioned that the Sinclairs rarely break their fast before noon due to the late social hours they keep. If this was true, she had nearly six hours to make her trip.
As she boarded the hackney cab, she set the newspaper wrapped package next to her, resting a hand upon it lest the hackney turn too quickly and the meal of bread and cheese she obtained from Mrs. Wimpole fall to the dirty floor. The package was precious, for she was aware it might be the only food her mother would have all day—that is, if Felicity could even manage to get it to her.
Though this was the second time Felicity had been permitted to visit her mother, she still had not been able to prepare herself for the revulsion that assailed her senses as she approached Newgate Prison. It was a daunting structure built above one of the gates in the old city wall.
She stilled before entering, steadying herself. During her journey, the sun had crested over the city’s buildings, but not Newgate Prison. She peered up at it. Perched in the niches of the edifice were statues of the cardinal values Justice, Fortitude and Prudence, while on the other side were Liberty, Security and Plenty. Felicity shook her head, scarcely able to believe that these values were carved into a prison built on a foundation of injustice, oppression, abuse and destitution.
Gaslights hissed as Felicity followed a stoic turnkey down Newgate’s vaulted passages toward the women’s quarters. As they turned the corner, a gagging stench made her stomach heave. The horrifying sound of wailing, screaming and sobbing women filled the corridor, growing louder and more horrifying as they continued toward a barred door. Putrid odors of excrement, urine, vomit and alcohol filled her nose and lungs as the tortured cries of hundreds of women pounded in her ears.
Every instinct told her to turn and run, but she knew she could not. She was all her mother had, her only hope for survival.
Felicity’s heart slammed against her chest as the turnkey pulled open the heavy door and ushered her toward the iron grating. Suddenly the screaming and bellowing swelled to the unimaginable. She clapped her hands over her ears, only then realizing that she too was screaming. Her ears were surely about to burst!
The turnkey angrily clubbed the iron bars until, by degrees, the screaming stopped. Hesitantly, Felicity lowered her hands. Now only the cries of children and babies remained constant, joined every few moments by pained moans, coughs and doleful sobs.
In the dimness, broken only by a few glowing rush lights and a small cooking fire, clusters of cursing half-naked bodies writhed against each other. The turnkey raised his lantern allowing her to see a small portion of the room more clearly. The lantern illuminated the hell these women endured. Lice skittered through their eyebrows and hair, their clothes, such that they had, were tattered rags, soiled with human waste, menstrual blood, or even the unwashed stains from the fluids of childbirth. And there were hundreds of them, many, like her mother, untried in the Courts, all crammed into a filthy quadrangle framed by six wards and two small cells.
Somewhere, in this hellhole, was her mother. She peered through a double row of greasy bars spaced one or two feet apart frantically searching for a glimpse of her. Immediately several bony women shoved wooden spoons lashed to long sticks through the double grating separating them from Felicity.
“Come now,” one of them called out to her, “You have some food on your person, I can smell it. Give it to me.” Abruptly, she jabbed her beggar’s spoon at Felicity, startling her.
Cold sweat washed over her skin as she stared at the fracas. The overwhelming smell of offal, alcohol and the sweating bodies stung her nose and she stepped back from the bars.
The quadrangle was packed with coiners, thieves and prostitutes. Nearest to her, several women sat crouched over a deck of dirty cards, another picked nits from the hair of small girl.
She could not bear the thought of her mother being here. Panic gripped her. “Please,” she put her hand on the turnkey’s forearm. “Will you open the door and permit me to go inside so that I might find my mother?”
“Can’t allow it. I won’t even enter without another man or two.” He gestured to a heap of rags near the center of quadrangle. “Though, I think that is the woman you seek.”
Felicity was confused, until suddenly the rags began to move.She peered through the rusty iron bars at the frail woman lying on the floor. Her long auburn hair was matted with dirt and straw and her soiled clothing was in tatters. As if sensing her attention, the woman turned her pale gaunt face up at Felicity, turning her cold eyes upon her.
The woman suddenly became animated. She sharpened her gaze and crawled through the crowd to the bars, beckoning Felicity closer. “Tell me gel, why I am still here?” Her voice was a raspy whisper.”
Felicity leaned nearer. “Mama ... I—” She reached her hand through the bars.
Her mother’s knobby hand shot between the inner bars and, with a strength Felicity could never had imagined, grabbed a fist-hold of her sleeve. “I should have been set free by now.” She jerked backward and Felicity’s cheekbones slammed into the greasy bars.
“Mama, please.” Hot tears sprang into Felicity’s eyes. “Let me go, and I will explain everything.”
A group of other women huddled nearby cackled. “Ain’t it clear, Mortima? Your daft gel couldn’t do it. You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Mortima drew her face close to Felicity’s and exhaled a fetid breath. “Is this true, my dear one? Have you failed?”
A chill raced over Felicity at her mother’s tone. Her terms of endearment that were so often followed by a slap.
She swallowed, then hoisted what she hoped would appear a confident smile. “How little you think of me.” She pried her mother’s dirty fingers from her sleeve and leaned back to brush the rust and tears from her cheeks.
“So, you are married.” Mortima’s eyes sparkled at the prospect.
“Yes, Mama.” Felicity rose quickly and busied herself brushing the dirt from the floor from her skirts as she fought to steel her emotions.
“You are now the warden’s daughter.” Mortima sat back on her heels.
“No, his son never appeared.” Why would he? God, her mother would never understand. Felicity wasn’t like her mother. She didn’t have it in her to do the wicked things her mother demanded.
“Then, you are the warden’s new wife. Mayhap I did underestimate you.”
“You said you were married.” Her mother squinted at her, assessing her.
“I am ... but to another man.”
“A-another man? Devil have you, gel! How is that supposed to help me? It was to be the warden or his son! That was our plan.”
It was never my plan. “I had no choice, Mother. None! The warden’s son kissed me.”
“You let him kiss you? That is all?” Her mother huffed at that. “Worthless, gel.”
“It was more than enough! As far as the Friends were concerned, I was ruined. I was disowned from the Friends.” Felicity paced like a caged lion. “Then Providence intervened and delivered to me a means to my salvation—a well-heeled gentleman who was in as much of a stew as I was.”
“And he married you?” Her mother was clearly dubious.
“Yes. I never believed he would. I kept waiting for him to walk away, but he never did. Our marriage was an accident.”
Her mother sat quietly, cutting into Felicity with a daggered gaze. “As I said, worthless.”
Felicity’s heart clenched. She wasn’t worthless, though her mother told her so a thousand times. Still, she knew in her heart she had value. After her mother left Felicity behind, her aunt had taken in her in, raised her, loved her, and believed in her until she could finally believe in herself. She raised her chin. She wasn’t worthless. “Believe what you like Mother, but I am now Lady Grant Sinclair.”
“Go on.” She clearly didn’t believe her, at first. But as Felicity held fast, her mother gripped the inner bars and slowly pulled herself to her feet. “A lady, are you? In truth?” An oddly sinister expression lit upon her face.
She should not have told her mother about her marriage. And not simply because it was only a matter of time before it was annulled and Grant certainly would pay any mind to working to free her wicked mother. Felicity had merely wanted her mother to be proud of her, to think something of her. Just once. How weak of her to need approval so badly. Felicity felt sick.
“Ah, you’re your mother’s daughter alright. Tell me, how did you manage it?”
Felicity shook her head. “I didn’t plan it at all. As I said, it was an accident,” she mumbled. Remembering the bread and cheese, she reached beneath her mantel and withdrew the parcel of bread and cheese.
“Hold!” The turnkey shouted. “Give that to me.”
Felicity opened the parcel instead. “Bread and bit of cheese. Nothing more.”
The turnkey grabbed the bread and tore it into tiny pieces which he dropped back onto the newspaper. “Can’t be havin’ knives or the like smuggled in.” He broke a wedge of cheese from the block and popped it into his mouth.
“Please. Look at her.” She gestured to her mother.
The turnkey gave her a cursory glance. “She can wrestle for her food like all the rest of ‘em.” He broke off another bite of cheese and consumed it.
Felicity fumbled inside her reticule and withdrew the guinea her aunt has slipped to her after her wedding. It was almost all she had, but if it would insure that her mother would eat this day, and maybe another too, then handing it over would be worth it.
Even in the dimness, the turnkey spotted the coin immediately. Slowly, Felicity lowered the newspaper of bread and what little cheese was left and raised the coin.
He snatched it from her, then turned his back from the bars. “Now this might buy her a draught of spirits from the prison tap. If she behaves, that is.”
“Thank you, sir.” Felicity realized that whatever the turnkey didn’t see wasn’t against the rules. Balling the newspaper as fast as she was able, she shoved her arm through the bars. Her mother reached through from the other side, grabbed the food then hid it beneath her rag of a dress before the turnkey turned around.
“You need to leave now,” he told Felicity.
The other women slowly crept toward her mother. The moment the turnkey left with her, the food would be taken from her. They couldn’t leave. Not yet. “No, please. Just one minute more.” She forced herself to smile prettily at the ruddy-faced turnkey, distracting him, sparing her mother a few moments to stuff as much bread and cheese as she could into her mouth.
“I said now, miss.” He took her forearm and started her toward the passage. When she looked back at her mother, so frail and pathetic, she saw the other women swarming around her, but her cheeks were packed full. Her mother managed a small smile as her throat worked to swallow.
Tears welled in Felicity’s eyes. Her mother had abused her, emotionally and bodily, ridiculed her and then abandoned her for years. But this was no existence. No one deserved this, not even her mother.
She would free her mother from Newgate—no matter what she had to do to achieve it.