This Duchess of Mine Page 7

Elijah felt like a fool, walking through the crowd in his brocade—not to mention his high heels and wig—but that was life as a duke. He’d resigned himself long ago to looking and acting in ways that most men found incomprehensible and that he, in the inner sanctum of his study, often found just as foolish.

He strode along, the heavy silk of his coat swinging around him, and the people fell back, letting him pass.

“We’d best make hurry,” James said, almost pushing him through the hole. “They say it’ll start soon.”

“How on earth do they know?” Elijah asked. He checked his pocket watch. The yacht had taken up anchor. But he couldn’t—wouldn’t—miss his appointment with Jemma.

“They know,” James said. “There’s the Thames, Your Grace. I’ll just ask one of the mudlarks about a boat. Wait a moment.”

Some minutes later Elijah sent James back to guard the horses, in the unlikely event that one of the barricades failed, and he climbed into a rowboat owned by a man with the less than inspiring name of Twiddy.

Even hadn’t he known of the Limehouse blockades, he could have guessed that something was afoot in London. Fires burned all over the city: not huge, uncontained fires, but small glowing ones, the kind that crowds of men gathered around to warm their hands, to talk and gossip.

Twiddy was a tired-looking fellow in a ripped coat who seemed to have only half his mouth at his disposal, since the other half was frozen by a nasty scar that split his face in two. “You’re wanting the king’s big boat,” he said now, out of the right side of his mouth.

“Yes,” Elijah said. “That is correct.”

“Riots’ll start any minute,” the man said. His face seemed to sneer, though it was perhaps only because the left side was immobile.

Elijah thought of asking whether the authorities had been notified, and dropped the idea. They’d be dunces not to have noticed, even if they weren’t officially informed. Oh, by the way, Mr. Constable, sir, there’s a riot due to start at ten o’clock tonight.

He would make his way onto the Peregrine, inform the captain of the impending riots, and manage to get the yacht steered to a safe place. Then he would take his wife, bring her safely home, and that would be that. London could—nay, London undoubtedly would— burn, but if he could save Jemma, it would be enough.

That was what his world had shrunk to: from his grand plans for the poor and the disenfranchised, to a desperate desire to be home in bed. With his wife.

Twiddy pulled up his oars. “The yacht’s gone toward the Tower of London,” he said.

Elijah leaned forward. “The royal yacht?”

“It’s down where the hulks are.”

“Then make all speed after it.”

Twiddy shook his head. “I can’t do that, Yer Grace.” He bent over and spat into the dark water lapping greasily at the small boat. The only light came from a torch burning at his back, affixed to the prow.

“I will pay you double,” Elijah said, realizing the moment the words left his mouth that he’d made a mistake.

Sure enough, the man’s face darkened and the immobile left lip pulled savagely down. “I stand to be arrested if I goes near the hulks, and I can’t do it. Not for yer gold, not for nothing. I got two daughters at home.”

“My wife is on that yacht,” Elijah said. “Why will you be arrested?”

He spat again. “I’m demobbed.”

A former soldier, Elijah translated. Which explained the damage to his face, but not why he couldn’t venture near the hulks.

“Iffen a former soldier even goes near the hulks, they shoot him,” Twiddy said. “Because it’s me friends on those boats. Me brothers-in-arms. I stood with them, out there, and now they’re shut up worse than chickens in a coop. I don’t do nothing with the riots.”

“The riots are coming from the hulks? Tonight?”

But Twiddy hadn’t meant to reveal that, clearly, and his face closed like a trap.

“I must get to that yacht,” Elijah said. “I will personally guarantee that you are not thrown in jail. I am the Duke of Beaumont, one of the highest in the land. I must get my wife off that ship!”

Twiddy stared at him, the left side of his face twitching slightly.

“I have a large estate in the country. If you wish, I will employ you there, and your children and wife can come with you.”

“Wife’s dead,” he grunted.

“Then your daughters will be all the better for fresh country air and safety,” Elijah said. “You sound like someone raised in the dells. Look about you, man! Is this the place to raise children?”

“Are you askin’ me if I choose to raise my girls here?”

Elijah cursed himself silently. For someone with a reputation for a silver tongue, he was certainly awkward tonight. “I’ll take you out of this,” he said, sitting back. His heart was thumping in his chest, and he didn’t want to think about that. “I’ll take you to the country and give you decent work for decent pay. But you must get me to that yacht, and get myself and my wife off it.”

“How’s we to do that? Likely they aren’t going to let someone like me draw up alongside the king’s yacht. Not on a night like this.”

“They don’t know,” Elijah said. “They don’t know about the riots, or they’ve decided to ignore them.”

Twiddy spat again.

Elijah felt like spitting too, but dukes didn’t spit, and it was too late in life to start. A second later Twiddy picked up his oars and started silently moving them upstream again. He stuck close to the banks as they turned into the main cleft, clearly unnerved by the great floating prison ships anchored in midstream. There were redcoats on all the decks, Elijah was glad to see. Perhaps they would head off the riots.

They tooled silently along, the drip from the oars drowned out by the frequent howling shouts coming from the shore.

“It’s up ahead,” Twiddy finally said with a grunt.

Elijah leaned forward, braced on the gunwale, and caught sight of the golden pearl that was the Peregrine. From this distance it seemed to be a glistening dream from a fairy tale, shimmering from the touch of a magic wand. But between them and the yacht floated two broken-down hulks, prisons for men who rotted in chains.

“Most of them don’t live the first year,” Twiddy said. It was like a curse under his breath.

Elijah had argued against the hulks for years now. “In fact, one-fourth die in the first three years,” he said.

Twiddy’s oars froze. “You know about them? I thought none of you even thought about them.”

“I fought for a bill against using the hulks as prisons. I lost.”

“A bill.” He spat.

“In the House of Lords.”

They drifted slowly past the first ship. The decks were thronged with guards. Clearly they, if not the king, knew about the impending riots, though whether they would be able to stop the conflagration hitting their own boat was debatable. One more ship lay between Elijah and the yacht.

Twiddy was edging along the shore, so close that reeds bent into the rowboat and brushed past Elijah’s elaborate coat. “Hist,” he said, so quietly that his voice was just another shush from the reeds.

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