tagRomanceAt Any Cost Ch. 05

At Any Cost Ch. 05

byAMY_Monaco©

Derek was considering moving them to the country. After the nightmare last night, the unsettling feeling stayed with him through the morning. With his dismissal from the Runners, nothing really kept him in the city.

The country would provide enough amusements for his young wife, he thought. And working with his tenants would offer him a worthy cause. He thought it over during breakfast, which Vivian did not attend, as she was still sleeping upstairs. While leaning against one arm of his chair, Derek hid his smile behind his hand. There was something quite satisfying about lying in one's wife's arms all night.

***

Nathan McGallagher was able to hide his brogue well when he wanted to. Not that he wasn't proud of being a Scot. It's just that, in his line of work...one had to possess a certain skill for acting. Deception -- and being good at it -- was a key point in survival.

He was hunched over the bar of a dank tavern, dim and smelling of ale and wood shavings. He had in front of him a large tankard of ale, the best of the house, he was told.

It tasted like piss.

But he drank it anyway, pretending to enjoy it.

"So yer travelin' to London?" Nathan asked, breaking his words down to those of the common folk. "Fancy nabobs they got there. With their hats and canes and horses."

The man next to him, already deep in his cups nodded. "Gettin' me a job there, that's why I'm goin'."

"Oh yeah?" Nathan asked, fighting the urge to wince every time he took a drink of the ale. "Good wages?"

"Yeah...yeah...very good. Man named Bergs. Owns a business there, you see."

"Business?" Nathan pretended to sound disinterested. "Everybody say they got a business. Me own cousin tried his hand at it. Sold trinkets an' such, to all those pretty ladies up in those high streets. Ain't made any money, the poor fool. I told 'im, I told 'im it wouldn't work...got him a good whore at one o' them brothels though. The whore loved those trinkets!"

Nathan lifted his drink as if toasting the whore. Caught up in the spirit of their discussion, the man clinked his tankard and drank. Then he slapped a hand over Nathan's back.

"Not just any kind of business. Bergs has got a successful 'un. He's into cargo."

"Cargo?" Nathan grunted.

"Cargo." The man nodded, then stared at Nathan for a long time and leaned in close. "You're down on yer luck, why don't ya come with me and see if I can get ya a job. We be moving shipment around. Pay's good and I heard we get to play with the merchandise."

"How's that?" Nathan put a dazed look into his eyes and took another drink. "What sort of merchandise?"

The man smiled almost gleefully, his arm hooking over Nathan's shoulder in camaraderie. "Women."

"Pshaw!" Nathan chuckled. "Yer be fantasin' about women too much. No man has women as cargo."

"Bergs does, I swear upon me own mum. He runs a business in...slavery. English roses," the man lifted his hand and waved it around as if reading a store sign. "Taken from their homes and brought to your own."

"They take young ones then." Nathan said with a bit more interest.

"He sells 'em as servants in America or in India. Or even to the highest bidder. As servants, private mistresses, mail-order brides, you name it. I plan on gettin' me one."

"I could use one meself." Nathan smirked. Satisfied, the man slapped him on the back again. "I'll see to gettin' you a job. You'll be thankin' me. It'll be like a harem there."

Indeed, thought Nathan. He finished his drink and after given some information about finding Bergs, he left the tavern. He was getting somewhere now, he thought. Bergs, the British slaver. The Runners had been onto him for a year now but finally were able to get a lead on where his so-called business was.

Bergs was responsible for kidnapping young girls and women of the lower and middle class to be sold off.

Compared to his other assignments, this one was proving to be an easy one. If everything went according to plan and if Bergs was indeed, still on English soil, he could be thrown in jail within a week.

***

His ward was returning from a holiday at Bath today. Lord Vincent Garner wasn't all too thrilled about it, namely because of his current mood. After last night's discovery of Vivian in the arms of Trentham, Vincent Garner had a restless and sleepless night. He sat in his study reading quietly in his favorite chair as the grandfather clock just outside chimed one.

Helen DeGarrick was twenty and his ward of one year. How she became his ward was a long, complicated series of events that didn't countenance explanation unless absolutely necessary. In short, her father left her with a modest inheritance and as she was still unmarried, had been thrust into Vincent's care.

Vincent barely knew her, as he and Helen's father had been school chums decades ago and rarely spoke. But Vincent must have left some impression on George DeGarrick, a strong one for the man to list Vincent Garner as the sole guardian of his only child.

As Vincent knew nothing of being a guardian and Helen being a shy young woman, those first six months had passed in silence. She was mourning her father and he had no courage to try to comfort a crying woman. A woman shedding tears had always left him feeling helpless. After that, Helen wanted to spend the remainder of her mourning period in Bath. He had no objection.

They barely knew each other, so combined with his mood of feeling pathetic and unworthy, Vincent wanted only the solitude of his book and a good cup of tea.

At one-fifteen, he heard the faint sounds of Helen's arrival. Fifteen minutes later, a soft knock sounded at the study door.

"Come in." He said curtly.

"Miss Helen, milord." His butler, Conrad announced. Vincent dreaded the moment he would have to reacquaint himself with his ward.

A slender, beautiful creature appeared at the doorway, dressed in sprigged white muslin and pink rosebuds in her black hair. An inner glow seemed to radiate from that pale skin and green eyes danced, though her lips were curled only in a slight smile of greeting.

"Lord Garner." Helen greeted.

Awkwardly, Vincent Garner stood up from his chair. "M-Miss Helen." Damn it, he was stammering again. He clenched his jaw together to try to control that quiver one felt when one could feel a stammer coming on. "I...hope your journey was pleasant."

His voice came out stilted and he silently berated himself for it when he saw some of the light disappear from Helen's eyes.

"It was uneventful, but comfortable enough. Thank you for having everything arranged." Vincent sat back down in his chair, but left his book closed. "I did what I had to."

He could see her glance around the room, debating whether to stay or leave. Then without waiting for an invitation, Helen took a seat on the sofa across from him. Her hands were ungloved and Vincent found himself watching as she folded them gracefully in her lap.

"Your holiday in Bath...was it well spent?"

She smiled. "Yes. I met some interesting people and the waters benefited my health." Then she paused. "I heard of your engagement...I'm sorry to hear it will not take place. The young woman, her name..."

"Vivian Locke." He supplied moodily.

"Yes, Miss Locke, she married another?"

Vincent broodingly opened his book again and forced his eyes to where he left off. "To Lord Trentham. I d-don't wish to s-speak of it." He clenched his jaw tightly. He wanted her to go away and leave him be. He didn't want to stammer or think of Vivian.

A long silence passed. Embarrassed that she angered her guardian so easily and on the first day of her return, she stood up and went to the door. "I will see you at dinner then, Lord Garner."

Dinner with Lord Garner was a lavish affair. The table was set like a grand dinner party complete with large bouquets of flowers and an elaborate setting of crystal, silver and porcelain. He owned one of the largest houses in the London and its rooms were matched in size by the scale of furniture and chandeliers that adorned it.

He sat stiffly in his chair and stared down at his plate as they waited for the first course. Helen studied him from beneath her eyelashes, trying to decipher him. He made her nervous, probably because of his abrupt and cold manner. Yet she trusted her father's judgment. She was convinced her father would never have entrusted her into the man's care if there wasn't some semblance of goodness.

"I've read in the newspaper that recently -- " Lord Garner scowled and looked up. "Why do you read the paper?" He grumbled. "Women shouldn't f-fill their heads with s-such stories of tragedy and coldness."

She frowned a little. "I'm afraid you're very old fashioned, Lord Garner. Women want to be informed these days."

"T-they should b-be tending to their husbands and c-children."

"I happen to think women are talented in many things and are able to stay well informed of England's happenings while being good wives and mothers."

He only shook his head and remained quiet for the rest of the evening's meal. Near the end during dessert, he said, "I'm going out. To the opera."

Helen's face lit up. "Oh, may I go? I've never been -- "

"You won't like it." He said quickly, his face flushing at the cheeks.

"Please?"

Fighting back a particularly strong stammer, he ended up barking, "Fine!" He hated it when it happened, so he stood up and tossed his napkin down. "W-wear s-something ap-appropriate."

He escaped while he still could, before he ended up making a complete fool of himself. He was making a terrible first impression on his ward and perhaps that was the reason why he felt the need to leave her company as soon as possible.

He wanted her to like him, even just a little. After all, he was her guardian until she married and for once, he wanted someone to talk to. He had dreaded her arrival hours before, but after seeing how pretty and sweet she was, he wanted her around after all.

It would be nice to have some company around. Loneliness began to eat away at him in the night and it hit particularly hard last evening when he thought of Vivian. His longing to have a family of his own had been killed the very moment he discovered she had married someone else.

So until Helen married, he would have the pleasure of her company...at least until his abrupt manners drove her away.

***

Men displayed their wealth by dressing their ladies in splendor. Attending the opera offered just an occasion for them to show off. Grand dames had their hair twisted up with elaborate feathers of exotic birds, while others adorned their tresses with jeweled clips and pretty blooms.

Helen DeGarrick did the latter, using pale pink rosebuds to compliment the white of her dress. It was an Empire waist gown, which was all the rage at the moment with puffed sleeves and a rounded neckline. The gown was simple compared to the other ladies' outfits, but it was chosen in good taste.

Lord Garner walked with his back straight and head high, escorting her into the opera with barely a glance at anyone. Yet men nodded to him in quiet respect and women still eyed him with interest, most likely wondering if he would ever take a wife. He was a man with a title and wealth, it shouldn't be too hard for him, they'd say. Surely a young woman could overlook his rather unpleasant appearance if she were promised a life of ease, others remarked.

Lord Garner at age forty-three would want a young wife, especially since his betrothal to the Vivian Locke hadn't taken place.

Helen wondered if Lord Garner knew what they said about him as he led her up the grand staircase. Many lingered there to greet friends and gossip and thus created a lovely display of satin, silk and fine gossamer; jewels of every kind winked and sparkled from the chandelier and candlelight. Gloved hands extended out to be kissed by gentlemen.

"Lord Garner."

Garner hesitated for a moment and then stopped, waiting for whoever it was to approach him. The voice belonged to the widow Friedwald, a large woman who had three daughters to marry off. She was approaching him with two of them in tow, meek creatures who kept their eyes down.

"Mrs. Friedwald." He tipped his head -- just barely -- in greeting. He spoke stiffly to avoid stammering. "Let me introduce you to my ward, Miss Helen DeGarrrick, w-who is just arrived from a long holiday in Bath."

Helen would tell by the critical expression of the Widow Friedwald's face that she was figuring how close she was to Lord Garner.

"I do hope you've enjoyed Bath, a wonderful place, for we visit there once a year. A lovely place to meet new people. And you, my lord, do you travel often?"

"Rarely." He said shortly. His eyes darted around. Widow Friedwald noticed she was losing his interest and stepped aside to introduce her daughters.

"My lord, allow me to introduce my two youngest daughters, Chastity and Frederica." The woman emphasized the name 'Chastity', for it was no secret that Lord Garner saw virtue as one of the requirements in his bride. Garner barely noticed.

Helen only smiled and turned to her guardian, whose jaw suddenly started to clench and a frown mar his face.

"If...if you will excuse us," he began rather abruptly. "We must find our seats."

Their private box was decorated in rich fabrics and comfortable chairs. Garner led Helen to her chair before seating himself.

"Have you met Mrs. Friedwald's daughter's before tonight?" She asked, hoping to start a conversation. Their carriage ride here had passed in silence.

"No." He sat up a little straighter. "Only the eldest, Miss Wendy Friedwald." Then he paused and his mouth set firmly. "Th-there is a rumor she has recently run off with s-s...some man."

"How terribly romantic." She smiled and turned her eyes to the crowds below, watching as other sound their seats, the orchestra preparing their instruments. The private boxes on either side of them were full of activity.

Garner frowned. "It's not romantic at all. It's shameful behavior. If...if the man respected the w-woman, he would wed her properly. Elop-eloping sh-shows bad taste."

His stammer was getting worse and she wondered what brought it on...then two private rooms down, she heard the light laughter of a woman, which caused her guardian to turn his head. He went pale, then red in the face. As Helen followed his gaze, she put two and two together and realized the woman must have been the one he intended to marry, before she decided to marry another in haste.

Perhaps this gave Garner reason to dislike the idea of elopement.

"So, you are saying, sir that you would not elope? Ever?" She inquired.

He turned to look directly into her eyes and against the dark green damask wallpaper covering their private box, his eyes looked even greener.

"No elopement. I..I would want t-to sp-spoil my bride with courtship and a wedding to her request."

***

That very same night, Derek found himself watching his wife more than the performance. He was eased back into his chair comfortably, his thoughts slightly distracted by the fact that Garner was just a few rooms down, when the performers must have done something extraordinary for the entire audience started applauding. Vivian was no exception, a smile lighting up her eyes as she clapped.

He was bored out of his mind, as sitting in one spot for hours on end tended to do that to him. But according to Lerner, the opera was one of the It places to escort one's wife. The more Derek spent time with his wife, the more he wanted to please her.

Yet the feeling of something happening kept coming back to him. He could sense it in the air like one would a downpour.

During intermission, Lerner pulled him aside, letting their wives mingle with the crowd.

"You've got that expression on your face. Tell me." He said.

"The assignment you sent McGallagher on, what was it?"

Lerner narrowed his eyes. "Classified."

Derek scowled. "Then how the hell am I supposed to explain to you?" His scowl deepened when two young men approached his wife and proceeded to charm laughter from her. Like a hawk, he watched them.

Lerner thought for a moment, then said in a low voice, "Bergs Exportation."

"The man who's supposedly made his fortune in shipping goods from exotic lands. You've got Nathan on his tail?"

"Trail's hot when there was a tip he's got cargo going out in a week. Fresh cargo."

"Women." Derek said grimly.

"He's managed to kidnap them from all over England, different times, different places so not to be suspect. He ships them out in smaller numbers, sometimes passing them off as the crewmen's wives. It's how he gets past the law."

"He's fairly green." Derek meant in criminal history, for he would have heard of Bergs and known more about him otherwise.

"Less than a year, but we've known almost from the start."

Derek shook his head. "I just had a feeling. It means nothing until I know more."

"That 'feeling' has jailed more criminals than nearly half my staff put together.

"Put me back on the job. I can help Gallagher."

"Gallagher knows what he's doing."

Derek's mouth set firmly. "Then refrain from asking me about my 'feelings'."

***

The performance was met with success and the audience left feeling satisfied. After seeing and sensing Vivian nearby, Vincent Garner had been tense all evening. He wondered if she'd seen him and if she would greet him. But she hadn't and he hadn't enough courage to approach her. Thus, he led his ward toward the staircase, only to be stopped once again by the Widow Friedwald.

"My daughters and I so enjoyed the performance. My Chastity has a passion for opera, my lord and often spends hours on the pianoforte as she practices her singing."

"A young lady should be accomplished." He said.

Widow Friedwald beamed. "Indeed, sir."

"Goodnight." Garner nearly growled out and immediately left the woman's company. Their carriage was waiting just outside and Lord Garner helped her in. In the darkness, Helen looked over at him.

"There are so many women out there, milord. You shouldn't feel so hurt." She said gently.

His eyes shot to hers and he held her gaze for a long time.

"You could have your pick of a wife the way those women offer their daughters."

"Money." He grumbled. "They only covet my mo-money."

"Not every woman wants money."

He let out a dry laugh, his lips curved into a deeper sneer-like line. "Young Helen...A man l-like me will only attract th-those who w-want wealth."

Her back stiffened a little. "I find it rather insulting that you think my sex to be shallow, money-hungry, unfeeling creatures."

"Isn't that what women are?" He growled out. "They a-a...are all silly cre-creatures who cuckold their h-husbands without a th-thought."

"Men do the same with their mistresses." She shot back.

He leaned in close, a lock of gray-brown hair falling forward. "I in-intend to be de-devoted t-to my w-wife."

Helen sat back into the cushioned seat. "And I intend to stay faithful to my husband. Pray, do not apply your assumptions of the female sex on me."

She was shaking with irritation inside. She fumed silently as the carriage turned and finally stopped in front of Lord Garner's home. The butler and maid took their evening things and she hoped to escape to her room before another disagreeable word could be exchanged between them.

"Y-you need n-new dre-dresses." He blurted out curtly.

So he thought her clothes not good enough. Oh, they were nothing compared to that Lady Trentham's gown, but she was a wealthy, married lady. Helen suddenly felt tears wetting her eyes and she hurried up the stairs toward her room, unable to bear crying in front of her guardian.

Vincent silently berated himself. He hadn't meant to insult her. He had merely meant to suggest that she go shopping for some new things. Yet, while holding back his stammer, which seemed worse tonight, he ended up blurting out a disapproving comment.

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