“He wore a cloak with a hood coverin’ his face,” the serving girl held forth to an eager group of listeners. “But I looked beneath the hood and saw his eyes. They were demon eyes, red as fire!”
Behind her veil, Charlotte’s mouth curved. She could not help but roll her eyes—which were nondemon features, closer to the color of a leaf than a flame.
Alone of the reward seekers in the common room of the Pig and Blanket, Charlotte had heard Nance’s tale time and again. It was different with each retelling, and therefore each account revealed something different about Nancy Goff herself. About what she thought important, or shameful, or likely to win her the coins of a stranger.
Somewhere within that coil was the truth.
Which was why, for a second endless day, Charlotte sat alone, listening, in the corner of a Derbyshire inn’s common room. The Pig and Blanket was ordinary in every way, from the middling quality of the ale and food to the indifferent cleanliness of the tables.
Ordinary in every way, that is, save one. A week ago, in this inn, Nance had been paid with a gold sovereign. Since no one had gold sovereigns yet except the Royal Mint and the thieves who had stolen six trunks of uncirculated coins . . . well.
It was the first clue related to the theft, and it was a good one. And like seemingly half of England, Charlotte had followed it. All the way from the squalid rented room she had just taken in Seven Dials. She was in far less danger among the neighborhood’s thieves and cutthroats than she was in her luxurious town house, or promenading the rarefied streets of Mayfair.
In Derbyshire, she was still in danger, but of a different sort. Thus the veil.
And the solitude.
“I knew he was a wrong one,” preened Nance, tossing the brunette curls she had today left uncovered by the usual cap. A pretty young woman of about twenty years, she swanned about the common room of the Pig and Blanket, distributing drinks and scooping up coins. “Had that look about him. It was as much as I could do to carry his ale without spillin’ it. So afraid, I was! Shiverin’ in my boots.”
This last was spoken in a tone of such relish that Charlotte smiled again. Ten years ago, nearing the end of her teens, she’d had the same sort of vigor. Would she have told a story ten times, embroidering it more with each telling?
No, she would have told it eleven. Twelve. As many times as someone would listen, and in her dark-haired, bright-eyed enthusiasm, she might have looked much like Nance. Even now, she wanted to join in; even now it hurt to sit at the side of the room, alone. It hurt to cover her face with a veil, to miss the shadings of expression that flitted across the faces of others when they were interested. Bored. Curious. In thrall.
Despite the crowds packed into the common room to drink in Nance’s dramatic tale along with their ale, the other seat at Charlotte’s table remained empty. Somehow the sweep of blurry gray net across her face made her as fearsome as the demon-eyed stranger who had given Nance the gold coin.
The veil was a nuisance, like peering through smoke. But years of notoriety had taught Charlotte that sometimes the annoyance of a veil was preferable to the greater inconvenience of being recognized.
With a wiggle of her significant bosom, Nance scooped up a stray coin from a table. “’Twasn’t only his demon eyes that gave me that sort of shivery feelin’. No, it were the cloak, too. Nobody covers up like that in spring, does they? Not unless they has somethin’ to hide.”
Behind her covering veil, Charlotte chuckled. Nance was a shrewd girl.
The inn’s door was shoved open, marking the entrance of a new visitor. From her seat near the corner, Charlotte had a view of everyone who entered the small foyer before passing by or turning into the common room.
This was an odd sort of shove at the door, slow and deliberate and interrupted by several thumps. And the figure who accompanied it, washed by golden afternoon sunlight before the door closed behind him, was no less unusual. He was broad and large and dark, wearing a naval uniform. Through her veil, Charlotte could not pick out detail enough to determine his rank. But whether an admiral or a lieutenant, a sailor had no business in landlocked Derbyshire—unless he, too, were hunting the stolen coins.
Nance must have thought the same, for she cut off her tale and began swiping the nearest table with a grimy cloth and an expression of pious concentration. A few coins would set her to talking again, like an automaton being wound.
The boisterous common room had gone quiet, watching the new arrival progress across the room. Before each step, he smacked his cane against the floor like a gesture of emphasis. I have arrived, damn you. Look my way. And who could not? His determined features were like a thundercloud on this spring day: one ought to be wary lest a storm drew close.
Until he reached the center of the room and spoke in a low, pleasant tone. “Greetings, all. I heard such a welcoming din as I approached that I couldn’t help but enter.” His brows lifted in a puckish curve. “There is no need to end your party on my account. I’m quite a pleasant fellow, I promise you.”
His reassurance was enough to coax the din to recommence, first in a slow trickle, then like the tumble of the nearby Kinder Downfall after a torrential rain. Once Nance took the man’s order for ale, then picked up the thread of her tale about the cloaked visitor with demon eyes, it was almost impossible to hear the thumps of the cane on the wide-planked floor.
Until they sounded before Charlotte.
“I beg your pardon. Might I sit at this table?”
The broad figure was planted before her, the sailor’s tone quiet and courteous.
But for a man to ask to sit with a lone woman to whom he had not been introduced—this was so bold that for a moment Charlotte could only blink. “Here? With—me?” Of course with her. It was the only empty seat in the common room. “Yes, all right.”
To forbid him a place at her table would be to draw more attention than to agree. And within her left sleeve, the hidden penknife was reassuringly solid.
“You are very good, madam. Thank you. I don’t mean to bother you, I assure you. Ah—are you quite alone at this table?”
“As you see.”
“Right,” he murmured. “Right.” With a deliberate gesture, the sailor drew out the empty chair and settled his large frame within it. The cane that had announced his presence with solid thumps was now balanced across his thighs.
Not that Charlotte looked at his thighs; she was only looking at the cane. Lord. She’d had enough of men, and their thighs, and every other one of their parts.
Nance flounced over and slopped a tankard onto the table, naming a price that had both Charlotte and the sailor jerking with surprise. Every hour, the prices at the Pig and Blanket went up. How much was this
due to the owner’s rapaciousness during this moment
of fame, and how much to the serving girl spotting
the rare chance to line her own pocket?
A shrewd girl; very shrewd.
But one could never be shrewd enough, and Charlotte’s brow creased with worry.
“Thank you.” The sailor took a few coins from his pocket, tracing a thumb over them, then handed two to Nance. This won him a grin and a curtsy before she flounced off.
He cocked his head. “It was no gold sovereign, but she liked that well enough. Ah—did you want anything, madam? Shall I call her back?”
“I need nothing at the moment. Thank you.” Atop the smooth-rubbed wooden table was a single pottery tankard in which remained an inch of yeasty ale. She had sipped at it for hours, until the innkeeper’s wife began to cast resentful glances her way. Soon Charlotte would have to buy something else—another ale, maybe, or a bowl of stew—in order to keep her seat.
Her little sigh set the cloudy net veil to dancing before her face. How warm the day was; she wished she could sweep off her veil and deep-brimmed bonnet. She was perspiring under their unaccustomed weight.
All right, not only because of their weight. Too long had she hidden without taking action, and the knowledge prompted a dew of worry. But was it safer to stay or to leave?
“Thank you for the seat.” The man’s voice broke into her thoughts. “I’ve been traveling unexpectedly for some time, and the chance to sit is welcome. Benedict Frost is my name.”
“Of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, I see. Have you been traveling by land or sea?” Charlotte had learned the markers of rank; in her profession, one had to pick out the important men at a glance. Now that he sat close to her, she could make out the details of dress she had missed before. His high-collared blue coat looked well enough, but the gold buttons and the white piping about them proclaimed him a lieutenant.
In her previous life in London, she would have chilled him with a quelling flip of her fan, then passed him by.
Now . . . she wondered about him. The cane; the careful touch at the coins; the surprised lift of his brows when she spoke. Was his vision dim? If she could sweep aside her veil and look at him—really look at his eyes—she would be able to tell in an instant.
Not that it mattered for his sake. But for hers, it would mean that she wouldn’t have to hide her face from him.
“I’ve traveled by both land and sea within the past fortnight.” He sighed. “And river. On wheel and on foot, and if there are any other ways to travel, I’ve probably found them, too.”
“Horseback? Hobby-horse?” Charlotte thought for a moment. “Ostrich cart?”
“Ah, there you’ve got me. It has just become one of the great sadnesses of my life that I have never traveled by ostrich cart.”
Considering Charlotte had just made it up, this was no wonder. She had missed friendly conversation of this sort, so she added, “From where have you traveled, Lieutenant?”
“Most recently from France, then London. But I’m no longer active in the Navy.” A flash of white teeth against tanned skin. “I’ve still the right to wear the uniform, though, and ladies seem to like it.”
Some roguery made Charlotte ask, “What of the men?”
“Probably some of them do, too. But I admit”—he leaned forward with a conspiring air—“the true reason I wear it is because a man in uniform is always in fashion and need not concern himself with the changing styles.”
“Ah, you are practical as well as attractive.”
He pressed a hand to his chest. “You honor me, madam.”
“I simply repeat your own words.”
“You assume they are correct, though. You’ve only my say to support my practicality or my effect on the female sex.” He grinned, a sliver of sunshine.
Ha. She had more than his word for the latter; she had her own response. She had a weakness for strong men, for men who grinned at her as though she were delightful. A sunrise smile always made her want to open like a flower—a response that had led more than once to her plucking.
Benedict Frost cut a figure of rough elegance: hair dark as soot, and as curling as Charlotte’s was stubbornly straight. A strong jaw, a sun-browned complexion. Broad shoulders and ungloved hands. A cane that demanded a person look at him; a voice low enough to allow him to listen.
“Though I have naught but your word,” she replied, “the fact that you admit it is in your favor. In a coaching inn, no one knows anyone else. We all must go on faith that we are what we seem.”
Not that he should have a bit of faith in her, as she added, “I am called . . . Smith.” She could not give him the name familiar to the locals. And too many in London knew the assumed name of Charlotte Pearl; a sailor who hadn’t been in the Navy for some years might well be one of them.
He took a long drink of his ale. “Well, Mrs. Smith, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. But I haven’t the leisure for going on faith.”
“I don’t think the situation is so dire as to require that,” she said lightly. “These crowds are not here because of faith, Lieutenant Frost. They are here because of evidence.”
“The evidence of the serving girl,” he agreed. “And please, mister will do.”
This mention of the serving girl was timed excellently, for Nance had been persuaded by a table of
soft-bellied cits with Bloomsbury accents to relate her encounter with the cloaked figure. Again. “Eyes like a cat, he had!” the young woman exclaimed. “They glowed in the dark.”
Never mind the fact that her previous retellings had mentioned the afternoon sun picking out the coarseness of the mysterious customer’s cloak. He had left the gold coin at an hour much like the present one, divided in time by seven days. If only Charlotte had been here to see the truth for herself.
“The coin was real enough,” said Frost. “Yes, we have that evidence.” He spoke quietly, held his hands deliberately: first tracing the arc of the table before him, then sliding them to find the tankard. They were careful hands, a careful voice. As of one trying to hear rather than be heard.
He could not see—or not well. She was quite sure\ of that now, and relief drew from her a tension that left her shoulders aching.
“She thought it a guinea at first,” Charlotte said. “Nance, the barmaid. She hasn’t mentioned that in her tale lately, but she swore to it when the Bow Street Runner questioned her yesterday morning.”
The London officer had grown more and more impatient as Nance’s tale failed to yield identifying clues. Perhaps this was why each retelling now popped with a surplus of detail.
“Hasn’t mentioned it for a day, hmm,” mused Frost. “So she’s ashamed. Maybe that she did not know the difference between one gold coin and another.”
“Or,” Charlotte continued, “maybe she’s ashamed of the fact that she did know the difference, took a coin she knew to be stolen, and then lied to a Bow Street Runner. One or the other must be the case.”
“There is not much one won’t hide to escape trouble. Or for the promise of reward.” He took another long pull from his tankard. Charlotte had been unable to do more than sip at her ale; she had let herself grow fastidious during her London years.
All part of the job.
“Your name isn’t really Smith, is it?” he asked.
Charlotte pressed a hand to the anchoring wall at her side, the rough mortar and brick cold through her glove. “Why . . . should you think such a thing, Mr. Frost?”
“Because you don’t ask the question everyone asks when they meet me. And that makes me think you don’t want to answer questions yourself.”
He seemed so large, and they were quite alone near the corner of the room. Everyone else was watching Nance. Charlotte had created her cocoon well.
“You need not answer questions either,” she rushed. Why, she had not even asked his name; he had volunteered that on his own. She would not ask, for to seek an answer was to look behind a person’s veil. And she could not return the favor.
“It’s all right. You are wondering.” He rested his fingers around the tankard. “The answer is no, Mrs. Smith. I cannot see at all.”
As she fumbled for a gracious reply, he turned his smile upon her. “Now that’s been addressed, how is the stew here? I’ll need a good meal before I seek my fortune.”