The extract below is from A GAME OF HAZARD, which features in the WEDDING WAGER anthology. You can pre-order the anthology HERE. Every author is a bestseller or award-winner. You can’t go wrong with this collection! And it’s only $0.99.
Miss Alexandra Isaacs had learned many things at finishing school, but how to run a vast smuggling empire in Regency England was not one of them. This was why she’d spent the best part of the night trying to discover—without being arrested—if one of her men had been watering down the Dorset Circle’s brandy. Such treachery would never have happened in Papa’s day—no one would have dared to cheat the infamous Isaac Abrahams.
Alex was currently attired in men’s clothes, these being better suited to nefarious nocturnal dealings. She’d scrambled over gates, scaled walls and pushed through hedges, and had been about to give up the entire enterprise when she discovered an unlocked French window.
Huzzah! This gave her direct access to the library in Lady Pandora Osbourne’s Bath residence—there was bound to be a decanter of contraband brandy in there! Yes, there it was, on a low side-table. She stole across the room, removed the stopper, and took an unladylike swig of the cognac.
“Merciful heavens! What the devil are you up to?”
Alex spun around, hurriedly gulping down the liquor. It burned her throat—but not as much as it should. A million curses on whoever had watered it down!
“Madam, please don’t be alarmed.” Her voice was rough from the brandy, hopefully concealing the fact that she was no man. “I’m from the Dorset Circle, come to make sure your cognac is of good quality.”
How daft that sounded—couldn’t she have come up with a better line? Standing with her legs apart, she prayed she looked like a man and locked gazes with the new arrival.
The black-clad female raised a quizzing glass and examined her, taking in everything from Alex’s battered boots and worn woolen jacket to the old-fashioned tricorn hat that concealed her russet curls.
Alex exhaled slowly, her fingers still clutched around the decanter. Thankfully, the woman hadn’t screamed upon finding a strange man in the house, but such scrutiny was dangerous. She stepped into the shadows. Hopefully, the lady would only see what she was supposed to—a tall, gangly youth, narrow-shouldered, and lacking in muscle.
“It would take more than this to alarm Pandora Osbourne. You don’t fool me for one moment.”
Alex’s jaw clenched—she’d been discovered by Lady Osbourne herself—what appalling luck! The crystal decanter trembled in her hand, so she set it down quickly and remembered to bow rather than curtsy.
“I swear I’m telling the truth, madam—the butler or the housekeeper normally deals with the Circle.” Was she managing to sound like a man at all? Maybe she should stop talking. Or wave her pistol around a bit to frighten the unwelcome intruder, then escape.
No. That was the last resort. “I’m no thief, I promise you. If I were, I’d have been out of that window in a heartbeat.”
“Move into the light.”
“I will not.”
“Pah! No need—it’s plain enough that you’re no man. Come now, explain yourself.”
This female was used to command. Alex was rapidly losing control of the situation.
“I’d best not linger, your ladyship. It will be full dark soon, and I can’t risk being caught by the watch.” Or by the soldiers. There were far too many redcoats in Bath at present.
“Nonsense.” Lady Osbourne strode across the room, snapped the shutters closed, then lit a lamp on the desk. It picked out silver glints in her elaborately curled hair, and Alex could see she’d once been strikingly beautiful. Unlike herself.
“You’re going nowhere, my girl.”
Why hadn’t she made a run for it when she had the chance? This was a foolish errand—she should never have come in person. Her mind returned to the pistol tucked in her belt and the knife sheathed in her boot. They were there as deterrents or for self-defense—but how did one defend oneself in a situation like this?
“I regret disturbing you. I’ll be on my way now.” She took hold of the shutter bar, hoping she sounded authoritative.
“I have but to make one movement or cry out, and my footman will have you by the heels.”
Alex turned slowly. Lady Osbourne was by the fireplace with the bellpull in her hand.
“A scream could summon the entire household but would be undignified.” She pointed to a chair. “Be seated—I wish to speak to you.”
Short of shooting her way out or assaulting one of the Circle’s best customers with a knife, there was little Alex could do. She must brazen it out.
Lady Osbourne steepled her fingers. “Don’t tell me again that you are not a girl. Speaking as if you have a throat full of gravel is not enough to hide your femininity, nor is your inelegant way of moving.”
Inelegant, was she? Well—she knew it. Her teachers had utterly despaired of training her in the skill of deportment. Alex had hoped this lack of female refinement would enhance her disguise. But, evidently, she was less convincing than she’d hoped. It was the kind of mistake that could get her killed if she wasn’t careful.
“I don’t wish to appear feminine.”
Men’s clothes, breeches, and stockings, or trousers, were far more convenient when going on rum runs, bestowing barrels in secret cellars, or leading donkeys along the narrow coastal paths of her home county of Dorset. She felt—she hoped—that dressing up like one of the men made the other smugglers respect her more.
“Nonsense. I daresay you have some hare-brained reason, but every girl likes to be beautiful. You would be mad not to want to.”
But who would she look beautiful for? That boat had sailed long ago, when she’d developed legs as long as a stork’s, cultivated a rash of freckles, and grown so tall that she overtopped every other female in the school, including the adults.
She pushed the chair back and stood but was prevented by an authoritative gesture.
“I’m not finished with you yet. No, don’t scowl at me. You know you can’t go until I let you. I’ve already seen that bulge beneath your jacket, but we both know you won’t use your weapon. You can’t escape through the house. And even if you get out through the French window, you’ll still have to scale the wall. You must be adept at climbing.”
“I suppose I must be.”
Lady Osbourne stared at her intently a moment, then nodded to herself. “Well, I’d prefer you to do less of that in future as no doubt would your mama. I presume you’re Mrs. Louisa Isaacs’s daughter—I read in the Chronicle that you’d lately arrived in Bath. You take after your father rather than your mother—I met him once. Isaac Abrahams. Could you not have changed your surname to something a little less obvious than his Christian name, if you wished for anonymity?”
Alex’s jaw dropped. How could her identity have been discovered so swiftly?
“I can see that you are, indeed, Miss Abrahams. I mean, Isaacs—your expression says it all. Never challenge anyone to a game of cards, child—you would betray your hand the instant it was dealt to you.”
There was no point in further denial. Alex straightened her shoulders and spoke normally. “Of course, I won’t shoot your ladyship, or attack you—it would be bad for business. Now—I sense you want something from me. Does it have something to do with contraband?” She hoped she sounded forceful and confident.
“Aha! So, it is as I surmised. Your late father did not abandon his wicked ways when he turned informant in exchange for a pardon. He must have known he was in his last illness when he did so, and that he had nothing to lose. He was just cocking a snoop at the authorities and when he died, his smuggling empire carried on without him. I wondered who’d inherited his empire—he had no son that I ever heard of. Your mama? Surely not—she is very much the fine lady. You?”
Lady Osbourne moved closer and raised her quizzing glass. Alex eyed the door beyond and wondered if it were true about the footman just outside. Was it worth the effort of escaping? Although she had come here with the best intentions, her plan was unraveling by the second—and this woman already knew too much.
Gliding over to the decanter, her ladyship poured two snifters of brandy, handed Alex a glass, then took a seat opposite.
Alex sipped her drink and grimaced.
“I must apologize for the cognac, your ladyship. It’s why I came, to find out what was amiss with that batch of liquor. There have been complaints—we’ve lost custom.”
“What made you suspect he was watering it down?”
“I know about that wall-eyed villain who sneaks our supplies in through the coal cellar. Be assured—I know everything that goes on beneath my roof, child, wherever that roof happens to be. The man has been watering down the spirits to make them stretch further and pocketing the extra money he makes. You, of course, objected to this and required proof before confronting him. Which means you are in charge. Interesting.”
So that was that. Alex might as well admit to it all. “Exactly. I have a purse here so I can reimburse—”
“I don’t want your money—I don’t need your apologies. But I may be able to find a purpose for you.”
Alex spluttered into her brandy. “What use could I be?”
“Never mind that now. For the moment, I’ll make myself useful to you—I’ll help you sort out your double-dealing miscreant, and if I can’t do it directly, I’ll find someone who can. I mean to present you with a potential husband.”
A husband? What was this woman playing at? What on earth did Alex want a husband for? That would risk everything she held dear.
She held Lady Osbourne’s gaze. “I have a business that requires my full attention, and the fewer people who know what that business is, the better. A husband would be a hindrance rather than a help.”
Her ladyship lifted her chin. “On the contrary. You need a husband to run what you must surely by now have discovered to be a man’s business. You won’t get the respect of your underworld associates by simply dressing as a man. But your husband, if he were the right sort of man, would command exactly the loyalty you need. And the person I have in mind for you is just such a one.”
She had someone in mind already? This Lady Osbourne was a shrewd woman who could wield more power with a word or a look than a general with an entire army at his back. But Alex mustn’t succumb, simply because her opponent was of superior birth. There was too much at stake.
“You’re asking a great deal of me.”
“And you’re risking a great deal. I’m sure you’d rather fall in with my plans than feel the noose tighten around your neck or be transported to the colonies. Make no mistake—you’d have a babe in your belly by the time you arrived onshore, and no idea which of the men who’d forced himself on you was the father. Trust me—my way is far more civilized. I don’t wish to expose you, but be in no doubt that I can cause you, your mama, and your customs-avoiding friends a good deal of harm.”
Alex swallowed. How could she counter this kind of threat? Perhaps her father’s second-in-command, George Prowse, was right—she should have let him take over. A woman was far more vulnerable than a man. Perhaps then he wouldn’t have felt obliged to line his pockets by short-changing the customers. If it was him…
She stalled for time. “So, how exactly do you plan to find me a husband? And what makes you think anyone would be interested in me? I’m not exactly the toast of the town, nor what you would call a diamond of the first water.”
Lady Osbourne’s eyes glittered at the word ‘diamond’.
“I can see that you are not, but I don’t need you to improve your appearance or behavior. The man I choose for you won’t care for any of those things.”
Gazing at her ladyship’s determined expression, Alex spared a moment’s sympathy for whoever the unlucky fellow might be. No doubt he had been—or was about to be—blackmailed in a similar fashion to herself. Maybe they could be fellow conspirators and escape both the leg shackles of marriage and the influence of the implacable Lady Osbourne.
“If I can’t beautify myself, how will I attract a beau? Unless you’ve inveigled some poor fellow in the same way you have me. I wonder that your conscience can allow you to importune people so.”
“Perhaps one day you’ll find out and understand my motives. But for now, be assured that I won’t force you to marry. Once you’ve been introduced to your suitor, I’ll leave you in peace and play no further part in the courtship. And if, by the time the Bath season starts in earnest in October, neither of you has seen the sense in your marrying, our arrangement will be at an end. You may both continue depressingly, joylessly single.”
Lady Osbourne came to stand before Alex’s chair, so she rose and unwillingly shook the hand that was extended to her.
“Do we have an agreement?” Her ladyship’s hand was as cold and hard as her nature.
“We have an agreement.” At least for now. “So, may I take my leave?”
Her ladyship’s mouth widened, and her eyes sparkled. “Which way do you intend to go, may I ask? Shall I have you escorted to the front door? Or will you scramble back over the wall? I must have some prickly bushes planted beneath it and ensure that this door is locked at all times.”
Alex knew how much servants talked, and dared not test her disguise out on the main street. “I’ll leave the same way I entered,” she said stiffly.
“Very well. You and your mama will receive an invitation from me to attend a ball at the Assembly Rooms at the end of the week. Be sure to come—I shall accept no excuses. You know what’s at stake.”
A cloud of dread descended on Alex as she raised the bar and pulled the shutters open. How could she possibly allow herself to be courted by a gentleman for a whole month? It didn’t matter that she’d be freed from her obligations thereafter—if any man spent time with her, he’d have to be a fool indeed not to discover the source of her income or the unconventional way in which she spent her time. Once unmasked, how was she to save her neck? She also had responsibility for the well-being of those who risked themselves and their families for the Dorset Circle. Low-life they might be, but there was a code of honor common to felons. Even more importantly, the well-being and security of her mother were at stake.
This was a game of hazard she could not afford to lose.