“Given the evidence and the documentation offered to this court, I have no other choice, Captain Danvers, than to see you relieved of all duties and obligations in His Majesty’s Navy.” With those words said, the Lord High Admiral brought his gavel down on the court bar. The responding thump, like the last clap of a hammer on a coffin nail, was followed by stunned silence.
After all, the packed hearing room at the Admiralty had just witnessed the end of one of the Navy’s most brilliant careers, some said one that rivaled even Nelson’s.
Few doubted they would ever again see such a lofty and fatal descent in their lifetimes.
There wasn’t a man in the room, officer or jack tar, who wasn’t saying a prayer of thanksgiving that it wasn’t their hide being flayed, their livelihood sinking to the bottom of the icy Atlantic.
But then again, most of the men in the room held their posts as men bound by the honor and code of the sea, the written and unwritten edicts that Captain Colin Danvers had flagrantly violated. No one disputed the damning evidence of his treason and duplicity. Not even Nelson, the Captain’s staunch supporter and mentor all these years, had offered to attest to the man’s innocence and character given the irrefutable facts.
So the future that had once shone like the North Star for Captain Danvers now looked as bleak and murky as a Thames fog.
Cashiered out of the Navy.
Forfeiture of all his prize money—a sum that had made him the envy of his peers.
It was a moment worthy of silence.
As for the man himself, Captain Danvers stood before the Admiralty Board, his back ramrod straight, his shoulders squared like a taut reef bar. And despite the fact that he’d just been cast out, he faced his judges with the same indomitable spirit that had been his undoing.
“Is that all, my lords?” he had the audacity to ask.
The Lord High Admiral blustered, his whiskers shaking in anger. “Consider yourself lucky you aren’t hanging from a yardarm, you insolent pup.”
Several heads nodded in agreement. Truly, if it had been any other man, he would have found himself swinging before the day was out. But lofty familial connections had kept that prospect at bay.
Danvers, treasonous bastard that he was, had recently inherited his father’s barony. And if that wasn’t enough, the Captain’s maternal grandfather was none other than the Duke of Setchfield, a man few people dared cross.
No, the Admiralty couldn’t hang Captain Danvers, but the punishment they’d enacted was just as effective.
They’d taken the man from the sea. From society. From a life among his peers. A life about to be spent, some said, landlocked in a hell of disdain and scorn.
In the back of the hearing room, a pipe whistled the end of the session, and the trio of judges rose in unison.
Danvers bowed to them, making an elegant and noble show of it. Then, as if he had just been handed the command of the entire fleet, he turned smoothly on one heel and with his head held high, began the long march out of the room. The crowd melted apart leaving him a lonely aisle. He walked past the down cast glances, the whispered observations, and by many, the cut direct as they turned their backs to him.
Yet as he made his departure, it was as if he didn’t see any of it.
Damned, it was observed by an old captain hours later at one of the officers’ clubs, if the bastard didn’t walk out of there smiling like the devil himself.
# # #
Georgiana Escott stood before the door to her uncle’s private dining room, girding herself for the confrontation that was about to take place. The letter clenched in her hand, outlining the latest indignity to be heaped upon her by her uncaring relation was the final straw in a lifetime of enduring her uncle’s disinterest and parsimony.
If only Mrs. Taft hadn’t died, she thought. Then Georgie and her sister, Kit, would still be safely ensconced in the lady’s Penzance home where their uncle had deposited them for fostering eleven years earlier after their parents’ deaths.
Uncle Phineas had wanted nothing to do with his orphaned nieces then, so why should he go to all this fuss now?
Really, Georgie decided, if there was blame to place for this debacle, it was entirely the vicar’s fault.
If the righteous man hadn’t been so scandalized at the idea of Georgie and Kit remaining in Mrs. Taft’s small cottage after the lady’s untimely death and taken it upon himself to write to their uncle, she would not be in this position.
Then again, if the vicar had known the truth about Mrs. Taft’s past, he and his wife probably wouldn’t have called on the lady at all and counted her as one of his “finest” parishioners.
Oh, bother the interference of men. Georgie paced in front of the dining room doors. They just go about arranging women’s lives without so much as a “by your leave.”
Well, she wasn’t going to stand for it.
And certainly not this, she thought, clenching the letter in her hand even tighter. Marriage to a man four times her age! A man reputed to be the worst reprobate in all of England!
Luckily for Georgie, Lady Finch, an old family friend had written her detailing the wild rumors circulating the gossipy ton regarding her impending betrothal to Lord Harris. Knowing Uncle Phineas, Georgie had little doubt that he probably would have informed her of her nuptials with just enough time to dress for the ceremony.
Especially considering that her intended bridegroom had already buried nine wives.
Georgie had no intention of being the tenth. Why even that horrid old sot, Henry the Eighth, had had the good sense to go and die after six.
She straightened her shoulders and her resolve, and proceeded into the dining room without knocking.
Better to beard the lion in his den, Mrs. Taft had always said. But then she’d also added that surprise and cunning were essential tools in any lady’s repertoire when dealing with the deadliest of all beasts—men.
And beastly was a perfect description of Uncle Phineas.
“Uncle, I must speak to you,” she said, leaving him sputtering over his soup at her untimely interruption.
“What the devil do you want?” Phineas Escott, Viscount Brockett demanded once he’d finally regained his composure.
Georgie stood her ground. “What is this news that I am to be wed?”
Her uncle shot an angry glance in his wife’s direction.
Lady Brockett shook her head, her fat sausage curls bounding this way and that in alarm and denial. “I said nothing to the girl, Phineas. Not one word.”
“Aunt Verena had nothing to do with this, Uncle.” Georgie wasn’t overly fond of her all-too selfish aunt, but she wasn’t going to let the woman bear the brunt of her husband’s displeasure. “I received this letter not an hour ago from Lady Finch. She states she has it on good authority that I am to be wed.”
“How did you get your hands on that?” he demanded. “I gave orders for her letters to be-” He stopped short of admitting that he had been intercepting the girls’ private correspondence, so instead he turned the blame back to her. “A thief, that’s what I’ve got for a niece. A Seven Dials pickpocket under my roof.”
“Uncle, never mind Lady Finch,” Georgie said, not wanting to admit how she had obtained the letter. “I will have an answer. Am I to be wed?”
Lord Brockett huffed and sputtered, and then wiping his chin in a great display of impatience, said, “Yes. And I’ll brook none of your saucy tongue on the matter. The papers were signed this afternoon, and the only thing left is for the banns to be read.”
Georgie’s entire body shook with anger and the desire to give her uncle a lashing the likes of which he had probably never heard, though most likely deserved. However, she clung to her resolve and held herself steady with every ounce of mettle she possessed. “Is Lady Finch correct that my intended is Lord Harris?”
Again Uncle Phineas’s accusing glare spun toward his wife.
The curls bobbed and danced in denial once again. “I haven’t breathed a word of it to anyone, my dear,” Aunt Verena said. “I swear it.”
He looked anything but convinced as he took a sip of his wine, his hard gaze swinging back to Georgie. “You should consider yourself a lucky girl,” he told her. “You’ll be a countess. Which is far above what the likes of you deserves, if you ask me.”
“I don’t give a fig about becoming a countess,” she replied. “Not if it means marrying some infirm rotter, old enough to be my great-grandfather.”
“Bah!” Uncle Phineas shot her a glance that said he considered her the stupidest girl alive. “Don’t you see that this is to your advantage? Harris is old, I’ll grant you that, but he has no children and several fine estates that are not entailed. It will all be yours once he turns up his toes. And he’ll as likely die before the year is out, either from some ailment or another, or go aloft to get away from that scold’s tongue of yours.”
He laughed, a rude guffaw of a noise, that only made Georgie clench her teeth tighter to restrain herself from knocking him over the head with the nearest silver salver.
“I’ll not marry him, Uncle. I will not.” Georgie took a deep breath. “According to Lady Finch, he’ll demand… demand…” She had never understood society’s strict need to mince words, and she certainly wasn’t going to now. Not when there was so much at stake. “Oh, bother,” she said. “Demand an examination before we are to be wed.”
Uncle Phineas’s buggy eyes blinked several times, obviously trying to ignore what she was hemming and hawing about.
So Georgie spelled it out. “An examination of my person by his physician to determine if I’m a virgin.”
This forthright outburst sent her aunt swooning in her chair, while Uncle Phineas turned a stormy shade of red at the declaration of such an unmentionably private matter.
“Have you no decency, girl?” He took a fortifying swallow of his wine. “Though what should I expect, raised as you were by that disreputable harridan.”
“A woman you hired, Uncle,” Georgie pointed out. “And paid a pittance for the privilege.”
“Bah,” he said, casting aside her comment with an indignant flutter of his napkin. “You’ll marry Harris, and I’ll hear not another word on the matter. Now get back to your room and leave us to finish our dinner in peace.”
Georgie held her ground. “How could you approve of such a man? Worse yet, this horrid examination?”
“The Harrises have always demanded that their brides be virgins, and the current earl is a little more particular than most.” Uncle Phineas took another gulp of wine. “Apparently, the last Lady Harris wasn’t as pure as her family assured him. So this time he isn’t taking any chances. He demanded that the examination be part of the betrothal agreement. And that’s that. I’ll not hear another word of it. His physician will be here on the morrow, so there is nothing you can do about it. You’ll submit to this…this…this examination,” he finally sputtered out, “if I have to have every footman in the house hold you down.”
Tomorrow? So soon?
Georgie’s knees quaked, her stomach turning over. She thought she might get sick, right there and then on Aunt Verena’s best Turkish carpet. Not that it wouldn’t be poetic, but it certainly wouldn’t help her case. So she steadied her nerves and tried to think.
She and Kit could run away. Flee town.
How? They had no money, no family to shelter them, nowhere to go. At least not anywhere that Uncle Phineas wouldn’t find them.
Georgie shook her head. “How can you do this to me, your own niece?”
Before Uncle Phineas could reply, Aunt Verena stepped in. “This isn’t your uncle’s doing, Georgette. Your guardian found the arrangements highly favorable. All your uncle did was to do you the favor of finding a willing marriage partner.”
“My guardian?” Georgie stared at her easily befuddled aunt, who had yet to remember either her or Kit’s name once in all these years. “Whatever do you mean? Uncle Phineas is my guardian.”
“Verena, enough,” Lord Brockett hissed under his breath.
“I won’t have her speaking ill of you, my dear,” Aunt Verena retorted. “She might as well know who is truly answerable for this. While your Uncle Phineas has had all the responsibility and heartache of caring for you and Katherine—”
“Kathleen,” Georgie corrected.
“Oh, yes, yes. Kathleen, if you must. But that doesn’t change the fact that your uncle and I, your dearest and only relations, have seen fit to oversee your welfare since your parents’ deaths, while your legal guardian, that dreadful Lord Danvers, hasn’t cared two wits about you ungrateful girls,” the woman said before her husband could muzzle her.
Dearest relations? That was stretching matters a bit far.
Uncle Phineas and Aunt Verena had packed the girls off for fostering in Penzance three days after their parents had been laid to rest. And not once in the eleven years that followed had there been so much as a visit or even a letter hinting at such “concern” from their only relations.
No, concern had been the sole domain of Mrs. Taft and her seafaring husband, Captain Taft. They had looked out for the girls with all the concern, and yes, love, that their relations would never have thought necessary.
Georgie looked from her uncle to her aunt and then back to her uncle. “Is this true?” she asked him. “Is this Lord Danvers my legal guardian?”
Her uncle’s nose twitched, while his brow furrowed into one dark line. “Yes,” he finally admitted. “Your father left what money there was and your guardianship to Lord Danvers’ care. But make no mistake about it, I have borne the full brunt of your expenses. Your guardian has done little but approve a few meager expenditures and fob off his responsibilities on me.” He huffed a few times and then tossed his napkin down on the table.
Oh, the Devil take all, Georgie thought. Not only did she have Uncle Phineas directing her life, but now she also had some unknown, and obviously, uncaring guardian making her life miserable.
Didn’t any of these men have better things to do?
“Then I demand an audience with Lord Danvers,” she said. “I’ll tell him what I’ve told you. I won’t marry Lord Harris.”
“Lord Danvers hasn’t time to listen to the complaints of a self-serving chit. The documents are all signed and the announcements will be made in the papers day after tomorrow.”
“Surely this Lord Danvers can’t be so heartless as to marry me off without seeking my counsel?”
“Your counsel? Why would he want that?” Uncle Phineas shook his head in the same contemptuous way he did when Aunt Verena complained about the servants pilfering the good sherry or her inability to find a milliner who understood her difficulties in finding the perfect hat for her head. “Consult a woman about marriage. What utter nonsense!”
Georgie glanced over at the salver again, but restrained herself. “Hardly so, if I am the one who has to bear the indignity of this examination, let alone share a bed with a man who is rumored to carry the pox.”
“The pox,” Aunt Verena gasped, as if just saying the words would be her undoing. She began to swoon in earnest, her head lolling one way then the other, her yellow curls dancing like daffodils in a spring breeze, her breath coming in big wheezy huffs. “My salts! My vinaigrette!”
Lord Brockett reached over and patted his wife’s hand. “Steady there, old girl.”
“Such vulgarity,” Aunt Verena managed to gasp. “And at dinner, no less.”
“Now see what you’ve done, you faithless chit,” Uncle Phineas said, turning his attention back to Georgie. “I can see my money was ill-spent on your upbringing. If that worthless Taft woman weren’t dead, I’d insist on getting every shilling back. Why you sound like a Penzance doxy, not a decent miss about to become a countess.” He picked up his wine glass, then frowned when he discovered it empty, so he reached for the decanter. “Now off with you, baggage. I would like to finish my meal in peace.”
Georgie leaned over the table and moved the decanter out of his grasp. She met his angry stare with a stubborn one of her own. He could say all he wanted about Mrs. Taft, for certainly she hadn’t been the best choice to teach the girls to be ladies. But right now, Georgie was thankful that she learned other lessons from the worldly woman—like how to stand up for herself.
“Uncle, if you have no say in this marriage matter, then I will discuss it with Lord Danvers. Summon him here. Tonight if you must.”
He waived her off. “Impossible. The man is tied up with his own problems. And most likely has fled town by now. He was convicted of treason this morning, or so says the Times.” He shoved the newspaper laying beside his plate toward her. “You ought to consider yourself lucky that I had some say in this, or there is no telling who you would be engaged to right now.”
“A traitor?” She glanced down at the headline and saw only too clearly, that on this, her uncle was being honest. Treason. Her guardian had been convicted of treason. Other words from the long, detailed article leapt out at her.
Dishonorable. Cowardly. Appalling.
What had her father been thinking in leaving his children’s guardianship to such a man?
For the first time in her life, Georgie found herself wishing that her uncle was her guardian. And as much as it graveled her to admit it, she needed his assistance.
Why, she’d even cater to him if she must, for the lofty scepter of some old, smelly man taking her to his bed was enough to restrain her temper over the situation.
“Uncle, you did promise me a Season,” she said, edging the wine decanter a little closer to him, like a tempting bribe. “Let me have it so I can at least try to gain a better offer. ‘Tis only three months time.”
“A Season? For you?” Uncle Phineas shook his head. “Out of the question. Good money out the door on that one. Your sister mayhap, for she’ll fetch a fine fortune with some help from your Aunt Verena. But you? Hardly.” He laughed and his merriment stung even if it held some measure of truth.
At one and twenty, she was a little old to be venturing into the Marriage Mart, and she’d be the first to admit she wasn’t the delicate and cultured miss preferred by the men of the ton.
She was too tall, too rounded of figure to be called lithe or petite. And far too headstrong ever to keep her opinions strictly on such safe subjects, such as the weather or her favorite flavor of ices at Gunter’s. Especially when her favorite topics were Italian art and innovations in navigation.
Still it didn’t hurt to try. There had to be some man out there who would take her off her Uncle’s hands. She cast aside the last remaining shreds of her pride and resorted to begging.
“Surely, Uncle, even you can spare me the consideration of a Season, and if not for me, then out of respect to my father’s memory.”
The moment she said the words, she knew she’d gone too far, for Uncle Phineas’s face went a mottled shade almost as ruddy as the wine in the decanter.
“Bloody consideration? I’ve gone and found you a husband worth twenty thousand a year, and you throw it back at me like some spoiled Bath miss. And how dare you call on your father’s memory as if he were some saint. Bah! He made his choice when he took your mother to wife. French trash, that one. And did he listen to his family or friends? No! Well, he learned his lesson the hard way when she murdered him, and I’ll not see this family disgraced again with a runaway marriage or some equally grievous scandal.” He leaned across the table and shook a finger at her. “Listen very carefully to me, gel, don’t even think of brooking another word on the matter. You’ll marry Harris and you’ll be well-pleased in the bargain.” His finger went from waggling in warning to pointing at the door.
For a moment, Georgie considered all the things she could say, all the arguments she could offer, but knew they would be useless.
There was only one thing left to do.
Take matters into her own hands.