"So, you see? I have no idea what to do." Lucy St. Clair's pretty blue eyes welled with tears, and her lower lip trembled, and she looked across at her two best friends in despair.
Abigail Bienville and Margaret Dorsey exchanged an uncertain glance, then looked back down at the letter they were holding between the two of them. Sylvester Green's handsome handwriting was spread across it, easily legible, so there was no mistaking the letter's import.
Abby looked up again. "What does Derrick say?"
"Oh, I cannot tell Derrick!" wailed Lucy. "He will tell me it is of no consequence. He will tell me not to pay it any attention."
"Then perhaps you should follow his advice," suggested Meg.
"No. I will not have Sylvester spreading rumors about his relationship with me. I will not have people doubting that Derrick's heir is his." Lucy spread her hands protectively over the swell of her abdomen.
"Is there reason for them to doubt?" asked Abby, tentatively.
Lucy laughed a little. "No. There is not even the slightest possibility that Sylvester has fathered the child. But people will talk. There were enough rumors that I had already been ruined by Sylvester when Derrick married me; if Sylvester confirms it, the rumors will never end. And I will not have Derrick talked about so, just because he was kind enough to marry me."
"Derrick did not marry you out of pity because you were ruined," Abby reminded her. "Derrick married you because he loves you."
More tears elegantly overflowed Lucy's lovely eyes. Abby fervently hoped that she would not likewise turn into a watering pot when she found herself with child. "I know he loves me. Though I scarcely deserve it. I will not have people say that I have cuckolded him. I will not have him put through it, all because of my stupidity with Sylvester."
Abby looked back down at Sylvester's letter, scanning it again in the moment of silence that followed, punctuated only by Lucy's pathetic sniffles.
"Well, what is to be done, then?" asked Meg, finally, striving to be practical. "Have you enough money to pay the sum he demands for his silence?"
"No," answered Lucy, miserably. "It is not that Derrick would deny me more money if I asked for it. But he would not provide me with money to pay Sylvester. I have already said that he would tell me to pay Sylvester no heed."
"You cannot wish us to ask our fathers for the money?" said Meg, skeptically.
Abby snorted derisively. "My father would never give me the money. My father already thinks I have too much independence. We are lucky he allows me to choose which bonnet I wish to wear when I leave the house. Anyhow, even if we were to pay him, it surely would not end there. He would continue to make demands on you, Lucy. He did not succeed in catching hold of your dowry, but you would end by supporting him, anyhow. No, we must come up with some other plan." Abby, thoughtfully, leaned back in her seat. She put the letter down and picked up her teacup and took a delicate sip. The grandfather clock in the corner of the room ticked softly.
Meg and Lucy remained silent. Abby was the schemer of the group. It was best not to interrupt Abby when she was developing a plan.
Abby put her teacup down abruptly and sat up. "You said Derrick would not give you extra money to pay Sylvester?"
"But, if you had to, do you have enough money to provide Sylvester, temporarily?"
"Temporarily?" repeated Lucy, blankly.
"Yes. For a short while. You will get it all back."
"Well," considered Lucy, "if I were to get it all back, I could easily provide Sylvester with the whole of my allowance. But how do you propose to get it back?"
"Well, we'll steal it back, of course. Who would he report the theft to? How would he explain how he came into such a vast sum of money? When all of the ton knows that he never has any ready money?"
"How will we steal it back?" demanded Meg.
Abby fixed her with a baleful look. "I should think it would be fairly easy for us to steal the money. We are ladies. He will never expect it of us. But do not worry; I shall do the stealing."
"What good will it do to steal the money, though, Abby?" asked Lucy. "It will not stop him from demanding more in the future, as you feared."
"He will not be able to demand more. You will force him to sign a document stating that you have paid the entire sum owed him."
"What if he will not sign it?"
"You will not provide him with the money."
"And what if he therefore decides to simply tell everyone everything that happened between us?"
"He won't," said Abby, confidently. "He won't be happy about losing his future source of money, but he is too desperate for some immediate income. He will take whatever he can get."
"Do you really believe this can work?" asked Meg, dubiously.
"Of course it will," answered Abby.
"I think it's devilishly clever," announced Lucy, sounding impressed, as she wiped at her eyes and regained her composure.
Meg looked a bit askance at Lucy's language but did not have time to call Lucy on it because Abby said, "You must send a letter to Sylvester setting up a day and a time to meet him. And then you must get him to sign the document proclaiming that your debts are shored up. Then, the next time he tries to blackmail you, it will be quite simple for you to remark that he is requesting money for debts that he has already agreed you have paid. He may wish to tell the sordid story of your past, but you may overshadow it with his ungentlemanly activity in demanding money although all debts have been settled."
"How is that more ungentlemanly than blackmail?" asked Meg.
"Well, it isn't, I suppose," Abby allowed. "But at least we are complaining about his breaking his word. We will never have to use the word 'blackmail.'"
"I think this is a magnificent idea." Lucy actually smiled. "Oh, Abby, I knew you would make everything better. Not that you haven't helped also, Meg, but you know this is Abby's strong suit."
"Now will you be able to be firm with Sylvester when he comes?" asked Abby, anxiously. "You must force him to sign the document. You must stand your ground. I would help you, but if I am going to steal the money from Sylvester, I would not like him to connect me with being one of your closest friends. We must hope that he is so busy ruining innocent heiresses to notice which of those heiresses talk to each other."
"I will help Lucy, when Sylvester comes," volunteered Meg.
Because Meg could be surprisingly steady in adventures of this nature, Abby smiled warmly at her and squeezed her hand. "Thank you. I know this plan will be a success, Lucy. You need not worry yourself any longer."
The butler at Newcombe House clearly did not approve of her ladyship's visitor. Sylvester Green did not let that worry him. He was not normally the most warmly welcomed visitor. He was fairly used to it.
"Mr. Green, milady," droned the butler, showing him into a well-appointed, generously proportioned, but overly sunny drawing room.
Lucy St. Clair, the sun burnishing her hair even blonder than it normally was, set aside her needlepoint with an air of boredom. "Thank you, Broderick."
"Lady Newcombe," said Sylvester, with a mocking bow. "Is the Earl not at home today?"
"Not at present," responded Lucy, coolly. "Do you know Miss Dorsey, Mr. Green?"
Sylvester glanced without interest at the rather mousy brunette sitting to Lucy's left. He supposed that Lucy's beauty would force everyone in her vicinity to pale in comparison. "I am surprised," he remarked, "that you wish to have an audience for this transaction." Without being asked, Sylvester sat, crossing his legs and balancing his hat and gloves on his knee.
"Miss Dorsey is acting as my chaperone."
"You are a married woman now, Lucy. You do not need a chaperone."
"I find that I am always in need of a chaperone where you are concerned, Mr. Green. Now. To business. I have the money."
Lucy turned to the woman beside her. "Meg? If you would be so kind?"
The brunette stood, carried a piece of paper over to him.
"What's this?" asked Sylvester, taking it and looking at it.
"I believe that you can read," responded Lucy. "It is therefore self-explanatory. Thank you, Meg." This as Miss Dorsey placed a pen and inkwell beside him.
Sylvester's eyes skimmed over the piece of paper. "You really think I will sign this?" he asked, incredulously.
"If you want your money, yes, you will sign it."
"And what if I refuse?" Miss Dorsey struck a match, lit a candle, momentarily distracting Sylvester.
"Then you will receive nothing."
Sylvester's eyes hardened. "Your husband has an heir on the way. Surely you do not want to cast into doubt the succession of your husband's family's lofty titles."
"I would prefer not to, naturally. But neither will I pay you an indeterminate amount of money for the indefinite future. So we shall have it out now, if you please. Say what you like. I assure you that my husband is quite confident of the paternity of this child. But, if you sign that document, you do at least get some money. A man of your intelligence should be able to perform such simple math."
Sylvester looked across at Lucy for a long moment. Lucy steadily held his gaze. Miss Dorsey walked over to him, carrying a candlestick.
"You will sign and seal it, sir," she said.
Sylvester frowned. He hesitated. Then he muttered, "Damnation," picked up the pen and signed the document. Miss Dorsey tipped the candle, allowing some wax to drip onto the paper.
"Your signet ring, sir," she requested, politely.
Sylvester glared at her, yanking his signet ring off and pressing it into the wax. Lucy stood, walked over to the table and signed her own name to the piece of paper.
"You have had your way," snarled Sylvester. "Now give me the money."
Lucy walked over to the small secretary set by one of the windows, opened a drawer and emerged with a package, which she handed across to Sylvester. "I look forward to never seeing you again, Mr. Green," she assured him, coldly.
Sylvester stood, angrily placing his hat on his head. "The feeling, milady, is mutual," he assured her, scathingly, and then walked swiftly out of the room.
Lucy turned to Meg, smiling. "Oh, you did splendidly! Having him seal it, too, was a stroke of genius."
Abby clambered out from behind the grandfather clock, where she had squeezed herself into the small space in order to witness the transaction. "Oh, that went just perfectly!" she squealed, in excitement.
"Yes, but now for the harder part of it," Meg reminded her.
"Oh, I have no concerns," said Abby, breezily. "He will surely go home with the money, and it will be easy enough for me to tumble through an open window somewhere and grab it and go."
"What if he puts it in a safe?" asked Meg.
"Do you really think Sylvester Green has a safe? What valuables would he need a safe for? Do not worry, Lucy. I will not let him spend any of it. Indeed, I shall go to his house now and wait for him to go out again."
"You do not think he will take some of the money with him when he leaves?"
"I should think he will save the money to pay his debts. He can simply keep extending his credit at the gambling clubs." Abby pulled on her gloves and assured both of her friends, "I shall return shortly."
Taking a carriage would have been too conspicuous, and Sylvester Green did not live far from the St. Clairs, and so Abby walked. It was a lovely day, spring just beginning to give way to summer. There was a small park in front of Sylvester's rented townhouse, and Abby sat in the park, enjoying the sunny day. She would freckle, she thought, and her parents would fret, but she did not care. Indeed, she smiled at the idea and allowed herself the little rebellion in the park.
After a while, though, she began to be alarmed. Sylvester should have been at home by the time she had walked there. It was confusing that he had still not come home. The day was falling swiftly into twilight. A chill was beginning to come on. Blast, thought Abby, watching the progression of the setting sun. Her parents were going to begin looking for her. She did not have much time to waste waiting for Sylvester. And where was he? Was he already off spending all of the money?
She was busy worrying over all of this, when his carriage finally turned down the street...and went past his house without stopping. Abby blinked, stood up and scurried to the street and flagged down a hansom cab. "I want you to follow that carriage," she told the astonished cab driver, who seemed uncertain what to do with an unescorted lady who clambered into his cab. "Oh, don't bother helping me in," she said, when he began to get off his seat, and lifted her skirts scandalously high and pulled herself into the cab. "Go, go, go," she shouted, hanging out the window.
The cab jerked into motion, following the carriage. Abby sat counting the pocket change she had on her and hoping it would be sufficient to pay for the cab. Well, if it wasn't, she would borrow a bit of Lucy's money once she had stolen it back, she decided.
"Are you sure you want to keep going, miss?" the cab driver called back to her, skeptically.
Abby looked up and around her. It was basically nighttime now, and she did not recognize the part of London they were driving through. It was one of the murkiest parts of London, one she would never be permitted in. It was that thought that confirmed it for her. She had to get the money back for Lucy, and, anyhow, what did go on in these awful places where she wasn't allowed?
"Yes," she said, firmly. "Keep following him."
The cab driver reluctantly urged his horse after the carriage. Abby sat with her face glued to the window, studying this unfamiliar place. She would have to thank Lucy for this lovely adventure, she thought.
The cab pulled to an abrupt stop, and Abby opened her door, frowned at the cab driver. "Why have you stopped?"
"He's stopped, miss. He's gone in there." The cab driver nodded morosely.
Abby looked. Sylvester's carriage was indeed stopped in front of a building that looked slightly less decrepit than the buildings around it. The building was ablaze with light. She could hear music coming out of it. "What is it?" she asked, curiously.
The cab driver hesitated. Then he said, as if to relish her reaction, "A brothel."
Abby's eyes widened a bit. She stared at the brothel. Oh, blast, she thought again. He was going to spend the money. Whatever he had not already spent, he was definitely going to spend at the brothel. She assumed the brothel did not accept credit. Setting her mouth in determination, she hopped out of the hansom cab. "Will you wait here for me?" she asked the cab driver, politely.
The cab driver gaped down at her, astonished. "Do you know what goes on in there?"
"I'm about to find out, aren't I?" She thought she should have said it grimly. She would like to imagine herself as being determined to make sacrifices for the sake of her friends. Instead, she thought she sounded quite gleeful. What did go on in brothels? She knew, vaguely, things that well-bred ladies such as herself were not supposed to know about. And, for that reason, this was irresistible.
She did know that brothels employed women. Possibly she could appeal to one of the women to help her in her errand. She would give her a bit of the money, naturally. And she thought Lucy's tale of woe would inspire sympathy in any feminine mind.
Abby stuck to the shadows. She was actually rather good at sneaking around. She'd gotten much practice, slipping in and out of the house when she was younger to do things like fish by moonlight. But she hesitated as she approached the brothel. She could not just walk in. Sylvester might spot her. She would certainly stand out, she thought. He might think something was brewing.
Abby thought for a second, then, still hugging the shadows, she walked around the back of the building and regarded the windows at the back. The back appeared to be deserted. She carefully walked up to the windows on the bottom floor, began systematically peeking in. Each of the rooms were occupied, and, shockingly, by people in various states of undress. Abby suddenly decided that she might not want to know what happened in brothels.
Abby took a step back and regarded the small balcony on the back of the building thoughtfully. Then, with the skill born of years of climbing dozens of trees in her youth, she began carefully scaling the elaborately curved wrought-iron railing of the balcony. The various curly-cues made the balcony post surprisingly easy to climb, and she soon pulled herself over the railing. She peeked into the window nearest her, and was relieved to see that the room was deserted. She tried to rattle the window open, but it refused to give. She kept at it, frowning in frustration, and was caught off-guard when it finally gave. She tumbled straight through the window, landing in an unceremonious heap on the floor.
At the same moment that the room's door opened, and a man walked in. "What the devil are you doing on the floor?" he asked.
Abby, momentarily surprised by his language in her presence, blinked up at him. He seemed uncommonly tall from her position on the floor, and he had hair the color of expensive gilding, the light bouncing off it shinily. He had strong, unyielding features, a stern mouth and a sharp nose and a strong chin. He was really, she thought, the handsomest man she had ever met. Blushing, she scrambled to stand up.He closed the door behind him and shrugged out of the fine coat he was wearing. "Well," he sighed. "Hurry up and get undressed so we can get on with it."