tagRomanceAt Any Cost Ch. 06

At Any Cost Ch. 06

byAMY_Monaco©

She didn't bother to come down to breakfast, much to Lord Vincent Garner's disappointment.

At precisely eight o' clock, he waited in his seat at the head of the table, delaying his own plate -- even refusing to take a cup of coffee until Helen appeared.

At a quarter past, he was still waiting with no sign of his ward. Another fifteen minutes went by.

"Where the devil is she?" He asked gruffly. By now, he knew exactly why she hadn't come down to breakfast.

The footman nodded his head briefly. "Miss Helen has requested to take her breakfast in her rooms, sir."

"S-she will not."

Damn it. He knew he'd been rude last evening. He'd hoped to make it up to her this morning. His disappointment and dislike of himself overpowered his reasoning and he threw down the napkin he'd been fisting in his hand and stood up.

He walked up the stairs, intending to fetch her himself. Upon reaching her door, he took a deep breath and rapped on the heavy wood.

"Helen. Open the door this instant." He demanded more harshly than he intended. A few moments later, the door swung open. She wore a dress of spring green that had seen better days, but it nonetheless made her look youthful and quite pretty. Her hair had yet to be fully pinned up and hung over her shoulders in ringlets.

She looked beautiful. And very upset.

Her rosy mouth was pursed together and the fire in her eyes was like a stab to his gut. Suddenly his anger seemed pointless.

"Helen, please join me for breakfast." He said carefully.

"I would much rather breakfast in my room this morning."

"You will dine with me. I won't have the servants running around this house acting on the whims of an upset female. It's not practical."

"Is that all you care about? Being practical?"

"When it's necessary. Now, I shall wait for you to finish your toilette. But I suggest you hurry. Cook has prepared a fine spread and it grows cold as we stand here. Not to mention I have not yet eaten, because I have waited on your behalf."

Her lips thinned even more. "Fine, I shall join you. And I'm all ready."

Wordlessly, he offered his arm and she stiffly took it -- much to his relief.

Their meal was passed in silence, but he could hardly complain. At least she was here with him, eating. She owed him nothing more. But he itched to make up for last night. He hesitated as he finished the last of his coffee.

"Would you like to join me on a s-shopping expedition this morning?"

"Oh?" She questioned wearily.

He paused, his mind quickly trying to find an excuse of what to buy.

"I...I was thinking perhaps it's time to re-decorate the music room."

It was a lie. The music room was perfect the way it was.

"It needs new rugs...and the other sort of details women seem to know much about." He frowned, thinking perhaps she would be able to see through his lie.

But she seemed to be deep in thought.

"How...how much do you plan on spending for this project?"

"How much?" He grunted. Did she think he was cheap? He was almost insulted. "I shall leave it up to you on what will look best. I don't care how much you spend. We'll visit the shops and others you'd like on Bond Street."

When she said nothing, he decided the matter was settled.

In an hour, their carriage pulled up on Bond Street. Lord Garner felt a bit easier when Helen accepted his arm and allowed him to escort her from shop to shop.

In less than half an hour, he had discovered two things about his ward. The first, she was not an extravagant creature. She spoke with the shopkeepers and bargained for the best price possible.

The second, his ward had excellent taste. So far, the music room was getting all new wall coverings. Helen had chosen a robin's egg blue damask with gold foil.

"Let us stop in there for a bit."

"Hmm?"

He indicated M. Thompson's Dressmakers Shop. He'd heard it was the most popular choice for design among ladies.

The woman who greeted them smiled, but eyed Helen curiously.

"I would like to purchase a new wardrobe for this young lady here."

"Oh." Helen turned pink in the cheeks, surprised. "Lord Garner,"

"After all your help, it's the least I can do." He tried for a smile. She couldn't really think of what to say. A man buying her clothing seemed like such an intimate act, but the tone of Lord Garner's voice brooked no refusal. The dressmaker heard the exchange and seemed to be even more curious and slightly perturbed.

"Helen, why don't you take a look around and pick out w-what you like."

"Oh, but it's not so easy." Said the dressmaker. "We will need your wife's measurements, she'll need to choose from templates, fabrics, trimmings and come in for alterations."

"She is not my wife." He answered, not bothering to expand otherwise. He need not explain himself to anyone.

The dressmaker instantly stiffened. "My lord, we do not cater to men's paramours. I have a reputation to maintain and no amount of money can change my mind."

Insulted, Vincent Garner stiffened his own back and rose to his full height.

"My dear lady. You have lost yourself a valuable customer." He replied curtly. "Come, Helen, let us visit a different shop. I find this establishment displeasing."

"But why?" Helen asked from across the room. Though confused, she did as he requested and went to stand next to him.

"For the record, ma'am, she is my ward." He had the satisfaction of seeing the shock on the woman's face before he left. "Good day." As they left, she asked why they had left so abruptly.

He glanced at her. "She insulted us. So I forbid you to ever step foot in that shop. The lady will soon realize how sorry she is to offend our patronage."

"What did she say to make you upset? I insist on knowing."

"It's not for your ears, Helen."

"Oh, come now. I am not a weakling to faint at every inappropriate remark." He made an impatient sound. "Do not make me repeat such things."

"Please, milord."

"Fine." He practically spit out. "She thought you were my mistress." Helen's face turned red. "Oh."

"'Oh', is right. I didn't feel up to becoming a client of a woman who thinks someone as beautiful and innocent as you could ever be anyone's mistress."

Too much had slipped out and he clenched his mouth shut, embarrassed by her confessed opinion of her. He stared ahead at the street, not daring to see her reaction. But his heart beat just a bit faster -- that he couldn't avoid -- nor could he avoid the softness of her arm on his. He was aware of her as they continued down the street and suddenly, such a thing as simple as wandering the shops didn't seem so tedious with Helen accompanying him.

"We shall try this shop." He stopped in front of a smaller one. The doorbell chimed as they entered, which was followed by a rather cheerful greeting.

"Good morning! Welcome. My name is Miss Calloway."

The woman was rather tall and very slender. Her face was freshly scrubbed, unlike the other lady who's face was caked in powder. By her easy manners, Miss Calloway seemed friendly enough. The woman gave Helen a look and nodded in approval.

"My dear, you have wonderful features. I have a silk design that would bring out the color of your eyes." Miss Calloway said to Helen, then asked, "Is there anything in particular you two wish to look at?"

"She needs a new wardrobe."

"Your wife has come to the right place."

"He's...he's not my husband." Helen murmured, expecting some sort of rejection from this shop as well. Anyone could see they were not related.

"I am her guardian." Vincent said.

"Ah. I only wondered. It helps in the selection of garments. Well now, let us get you started. Would you like a cup of tea? My assistant shall bring some out along with a few pastries, while you wait. Come now, let us begin."

Relief washed over him and Vincent nodded, taking a seat on a wide ottoman, half listening to the rapid speed of the woman's chatter.

"Very good. If you will start my account here for Helen, we shall deal nicely."

***

Honest work agreed with Annie Hamill. Unlike her days in the whorehouse, where she could sleep in well into the afternoon, she rose early and made sure that hot water was ready for the washstand in her ladyship's chambers. Then she would pick out an appropriate outfit, unless her ladyship stated a specific activity such as riding. Annie would then see to her ladyship's hair and jewels.

She very quickly learned that the Trentham household had not the usual sort of servants. Most were larger than life, both in size and personality, and in her old line of work, she'd grown accustomed to some of the meaner sorts. Yet here, she felt safe amongst the houseful of men. They all went out of their way to help her when they could and the amount of kindness and welcoming she received from them was overwhelming.

She'd only been here one week and already she was feeling quite at home. But as there were no other maids yet hired, a lot of the chores fell on her shoulders. In this, Mrs. Barts, the housekeeper was not lenient on.

Annie was kneeling in front of the fireplace of one of the drawing rooms, emptying it of ashes so that a fire could later be built. She worked carefully, trying not to stir the ash into the air. She coughed a few times doing it at first, but soon gained a knack for it as long as her hand was steady. She was going into her seventh month of pregnancy soon and knew that once her belly got too big, she wouldn't be able to work. Knowing this, she saved every penny she earned now.

Absently, she thought about the future and heard nothing when Pete walked into the room.

"Hello, miss." He greeted in his deep voice.

At his approach, she jumped, startled by the sheer size of him. Her hand jerked in reaction, causing a cloud of ash to form.

"Oh, Pete, you gave me a fright." She coughed and tried to clear the cloud with a brush of her hand.

"Barty should be hiring maids to do this." He said matter of factly. He bent down on one knee and started to take the small shovel from her hand.

"No, you better let me. Or else Mrs. Barts will have my head." She cast him a look and took a firm hold of the shovel in case he objected. Their fingers brushed ever so slightly, but it was enough to feel his calloused fingertips. Her mind moved quickly to what it would feel like to have those very hands caress her in an intimate way.

Pete frowned, but said nothing else about it. He remained where he was, watching her. He liked being around her and damn Mrs. Barts and her rules and so called 'responsibility' for Annie. That housekeeper cared nothing more of Annie than the woman did for anyone else in this house. In the week since she's started, the male servants have avoided her.

"Once the maids get here, you won't have to do this sort of thing." He stated.

She offered him a small smile. "You seem bent on keeping me upstairs. Do you object to my working here among you?" She asked, referring to the role of lady's maid.

He made a noncommittal sound, but still he did not get up.

"Did you come in here for something?" She asked. Finished with her task, she stuck the shovel in the bucket and started to get up. Pete was there to steady her with a hand to her back and she immediately forgot about her question. He was looking down at her intently, and they were both aware that he let his hand linger at her back a few seconds longer.

"I need to go." She said hurriedly." "I have a few other rooms to finish."

Some ash was smeared on her chin and unable to help himself, Pete lifted a hand to rub it off. She had the softest skin he'd ever touched, and he wanted nothing more than to hold her face while he kissed her.

Pete cursed out loud when a loud banging sounded from the doorway. He knew it was Barty, there to act as prudent chaperone. Sure enough, when he looked up, the housekeeper had her eyes narrowed at the both of them, arms crossed over her wide bosom.

"Get to work, Annie. His lordship won't like a cold room."

Annie cast Pete a quick glance and hurried away. Mrs. Barts was still watching him.

"You keep away from her, you hear?"

"You can't tell me what to do." Pete merely said. In this house, he knew where his orders came from and it was definitely not from this woman. The only person who could ever kick him out of this place was Lord Trentham.

"By god, if I could -- "

"But ye can't." Sykes interrupted Barty, stepping through the doorway to stare down at the housekeeper. "Pete is under me responsibility, lady. So ye better lay off the man. Let 'im be if he wants the girl."

"Relations between servants are not proper in such a household." Mrs. Barts said in her best snobbish tone. "That girl's spread her legs for men before, she'll do it again. And I bet my bottom dollar that she'll be growing with child soon enough."

Pete was livid with anger by her words, but he kept it in check. Sykes' eyes narrowed in his ugly, scarred face.

"Ye better be watchin' what you say 'round here. We don't take kindly to words of them sort. Annie's a good girl, and she ain't botherin' anyone. She came here to work and she be workin'. Don't care if she be under yer care; if I see ye mistreatin' 'er I'll be forced to speak to 'is lordship. You let Pete an' Annie do what they wants to, else ye deal with me."

Mrs. Barts was no match against Sykes, and huffed before leaving. Frustrated, Pete started to leave, but Sykes stopped him at the doorway.

"Ye be careful with the girl. She's got a babe in 'er belly to think about." Sykes said wisely. "I see the way ye be lookin' at 'er. All of 'em can see it."

Pete said nothing. "I don't like it when Barty talks about Annie that way."

"I don't like it meself. But she be the housekeeper and she ain't leavin' 'til his lordship or 'er ladyship throw 'er out. You better watch yerself. That woman'll make it hard on Annie."

Pete's hands fisted and he merely nodded before leaving.

***

The ship was nondescript. Nothing out of the ordinary took place.

The dock Nathan McGallagher worked on looked like any other -- chaotic and noisy with men dressed warmly for the wee hours they started in. For several hours, nothing warranted his interest. But then he heard someone call him by his alias.

"Tom."

He was Tom Crane, man of all trades, traveling where the work was and a lover of drink and easy women.

Nathan recognized the man as the one he'd spoken to in the tavern. His name was Jimmy and as promised, had helped 'Tom' get into this job. Jimmy came forward. "I gots something to show ye, man. Come with me."

"Can't leave me station, mate." Nathan said in his best undereducated tone. "Or else I get the sack. I need me this money."

Jimmy gave him a hearty slap on the back. "Boss wants ye to see this. We go in." He led the way up the roughened plank into the ship. Cargo elevated by netting and rope crossed over above them, with men shouting orders and others reaching for it to land safely.

Nathan followed him down into the ship, well below to where some of the crews' cabins were located. Over the creaking of the ship to the shouts from above, Nathan could detect faint moaning and sighing, which grew louder as they approached a certain door. His eyebrows lifted and he gave Jimmy a look. The man only smiled and unlocked the door.

Sure enough, a man and a woman were locked in an embrace on the bed. Upon hearing the door open, the man on the bed looked up, frustrated and elated at the same time.

"Eh, what's this? I'm busy." Said the man.

Jimmy smirked. "Just showing Tom here what's what."

The man thrust into the woman and grunted at the tight feeling of her before getting up. He walked naked to the door, looking smug. He swiped a bottle from a nearby table and took a swing. His erection was very evident but he seemed to pay no mind.

"Told her if she let me ride her a coupla times, I'd let her go." Said the man, wiping his mouth with his arm.

Nathan felt bile rise in his throat, but he fought the disgust and instead, mirrored the reaction of Jimmy standing next to him. He did glance over the man's shoulder, seeing a young wide-hipped woman lying naked on the bed. He noted the slight bruises on her arms and wondered if that was the reason why she didn't bother to cover herself in their presence. It was obvious the women were punished.

"The thing is," continued the man. "She seems to enjoy it. She was a virgin, too!" He laughed, taking another swig. "Think I wanna keep her for a bit. Have her warmin' my bed. I could get her with child and sell it for profit."

Nathan wanted to kill the man right then and there. It would have been easy. He'd learned that a certain jab to the jaw could kill a man instantly. But then, he'd have to deal with the rest of the ship and god knows how many of them were in on this crime.

He didn't even realize he was fisting his hands until Jimmy made a comment.

"I can see yer anxious to get a virgin fer yerself." Jimmy said, glancing at Nathan's fisted hands. "Plenty o' that once ye see the runnin' of things."

The other man dismissed them and tossed the bottle aside, starting for the bed.

"Spread 'em good." He ordered the woman.

"No," she whispered desperately. She glanced at the door. "Please, they're still here."

Nathan wanted to leave as soon as possible, and was about to turn away when Jimmy, who was leaning against the doorframe, stopped him. He gave Nathan a sober, warning look.

"If ye want the job, ye better stay an' watch. Otherwise, it's six in dirt."

So this was the test. Easy enough for a man like Tom Crane who had no morels. But for Nathan McGallagher, it was enough to make him sick.

The man thrust hard into the woman who cried out, still sore from the earlier session. She did indeed seem to enjoy it after awhile.

Knowing there was an audience, the man forced the woman onto her knees and he thrust back into her.

Nathan endured it, however short it was. Have people watching must have turned the man on, for it didn't take long for him to finish. He made a big show of it, grunting loudly and slapping the woman's bottom as she trembled. The man collapsed on the bed, his cock limp now and smeared with blood and their spending.

She was a virgin all right, but it wasn't enough proof to send Bergs to prison. It was still too early. And Nathan had yet to meet the man. Nathan and Jimmy left, walking down the dim and narrow hall.

"We get to play with the cargo?" Nathan asked, remembering he was still in character.

"If ye like. But we get paid more if they stay virgins, ye see." He indicated a few doors. "We ship five or six per trip, keep 'em locked separately to keep em from getting' away. Play along if the authorities come 'round. Just say one of em's yer wife or sister, and the like. It's how we get 'em out of the country."

He opened the door, inside was a woman, her dress torn and she'd been crying. She was chained to the bed. Nathan clenched his jaw.

"Like this one. I been sayin' she's me cousin." Then he laughed. "I been feelin' up me cousin all week! If ye want a good suck on yer knob, she's yer lady." He paused and then he laughed again, as if he made a great joke of it. He slammed the door shut.

"Come on, we gots a few ladies to bring in."

"Where's Bergs?"

"Eh, he's never on the ship. He shows up sometimes to check on us and the cargo, but not often. Don't need to. He's livin' like a bleedin' king. Got a harem of women, he does."

***

The sentences were brief, so brief that the average reader could easily overlook it for the more exciting articles of gossip and scandal. But Derek's sharp eye for detail caught it. It spoke of the disappearance of yet another two young, unmarried women since Tuesday. Both were suspected to be elopements.

He folded the paper and glanced up at his wife. Vivian was going over the morning post. Sykes entered the room carrying a silver salver with a single calling card on it.

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