Authors: Barbara Metzger
Queen of Diamonds
Book Three of The House of Cards Trilogy
By Barbara Metzger
Copyright 2011 by Barbara Metzger
Cover Copyright 2011 by Dara England and Untreed Reads Publishing
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright. Either the publisher (Untreed Reads) or author may enforce copyrights to the fullest extent.
First published in print by Signet Eclipse, 2006.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold, reproduced or transmitted by any means in any form or given away to other people without specific permission from the author and/or publisher. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to the living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Also by Barbara Metzger and Untreed Reads Publishing
Ace of Hearts, Book One of The House of Cards Trilogy
Jack of Clubs, Book Two of The House of Cards Trilogy
And Angel for the Earl
A Suspicious Affair
Queen of Diamonds
Book Three of The House of Cards Trilogy
A Regency-Set Historical Romance
To the Yankees, for the good times through the bad times.
The gunshot woke Lady Charlotte Endicott from her nap in Nanny's arms. Now Nanny was shrieking and Mama was reaching across the carriage for Lottie. Another shot rang out, and loud, angry voices. The horses were galloping faster than Lottie had ever gone. Papa would be angry. He was an earl and everyone listened to his orders.
The coach was rocking, and then sliding, falling, tumbling, crashing down a steep cliff.
So much noise, then silence.
Lottie crawled from the debris, clutching her doll, unaware of the blood on her pinafore or the cuts on her face. Nanny's black boots stuck out from under the roof of the broken carriage. One of the horses was standing, blowing. The others were tangled and still, but Lottie would not look at them.
Mama never answered her calls.
Then a man came scrambling down the cliff from where the road was. He was the new groom, not Neddy who'd promised to help Lottie name the pony that would be waiting for her at home at Carde Hall. Neddy'd been too sick to leave Kingston-Upon-Hull with them after Grandfather Ambeaux's funeral.
This man was using bad words. His leg was bleeding, too, and he was limping. He looked around, then looked up and back, as if he were listening for the baggage coach that was following them. Then he saw Lottie.
“Bloody hell. The brat.”
Lottie backed away, but stumbled over one of the broken wheels. The man grabbed her by the back of her gown and picked her up, doll and all.
“Do you know my name?”
Lottie nodded. “Dennis Godfrey. Nanny told me. I'm not s'posed to stare at your gold tooth.”
“Damn and blast.” He set her down and took a pistol from his belt. “I'm going to hang for this day's work anyway. Might as well make it harder for your papa to find me.” The pistol was empty, though. While he reloaded, Dennis Godfrey stared at the child, thinking. “A'course, your papa might pay a king's ransom to get you back. They say Carde's got it. And he mightn't be so quick to send the sheriff or the militia after me, iffen your life depends on it.” He tucked the gun back in his belt and squatted on his heels in front of Lottie, letting out a groan from the pain in his injured leg. He ripped the kerchief off his neck to wrap around the bullet wound. While he tied a knot he said, “Today must be your lucky day, little lady. Uncle Dennis is going to take you with me.”
He was a servant, not a relative. Lottie shook her head. “No, I wait here for Papa.”
Godfrey slapped her.
No one had ever struck Lady Charlotte Endicott in all of her three years. The shock and pain on top of everything else was too much. Lottie forgot to be brave, the way Papa had taught her. She was just a little girl, a baby, almost, and she wanted her mother. She wanted to go home.
She started to sob.
Dennis Godfrey grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “None of that now. You're coming with me and that's the end of it, you hear? You play your cards rightâthe Earl of Carde, eh?âand you'll be snug as a bug as soon's I get my blunt. One sound out of you, though, one word to anyone, and you'll never see your family again. I'll hide you so far away no one will find you. Do you understand?”
He was still shaking her, but Lottie managed to say, “My brothers'll find me.” Her adored older brothers always found her when they played hide-and-go-seek.
“You carry on, or you talk to anyone, or you tell my name or yours, and I'll find your precious brothers and shoot them dead!” He gave her a last, harder shake. “Like shooting rabbits. And I'll string them out for the vermin to find. Rats and crows and worms andâ”
Lottie went limp in his arms.
“Good. Less bother this way.” Dennis Godfrey rolled Lady Charlotte in his frieze coat, tossed her over the back of the one standing horse, and fled before anyone knew of that day's awful disaster.
To ensure the brat's silence, Godfrey added laudanum to his threats. He got the bottle from the same filthy-handed leech who dug the coach-driver's pistol ball from Godfrey's leg a day later. The small-town sawbones, who acted as barber, undertaker and veterinarian, also traded a sturdy mare and saddle for the high-bred carriage horse, no questions asked.
The cutthroat turned kidnapper, who acted as groom, hired bully, and occasional highwayman, rode on toward London after sending a message back to Kingston-Upon-Hull. Dennis Godfrey took byways and back roads when he could, traveling by night when the moon lit the way, giving no answers to anyone foolish enough to inquire about his haste or his burden.
Lottie woke up in a dark, dusty, stale-smelling room. Her whimper earned her a glare and a raised hand from the bad man whose name she was not supposed to say. She cringed back against the thin mattress on the floor, hurt, hungry, nearly paralyzed with fear. He threw her a piece of hard bread and a chunk of cheese, and pointed toward a chipped bowl in the nearby corner.
“You know how to use that, brat? If you don't, too bad. I'm not changing no nappies.”
Of course Lottie knew how to use a chamber pot. She wasn't a baby. But neither had she ever used a dirty one. Or eaten with dirty hands. Nanny would be angry, but Nanny was not here. The bad man was, and another, smaller man he called Eyes. Lottie could understand why, because the stranger's eyes stuck out, like a frog's. She ate the bread and listened.
“I say we're going to get rich,” Dennis Godfrey was saying from the bed, where he had his bandaged leg stretched out in front of him and a whiskey bottle at his side. “And get even. That damned fool driver paid for shooting me, he did, and now Phelan Sloane will pay. He never said the driver was armed, or so loyal.”
“But why should he pay for the girl when she's nobbut his dead cousin's brat?”
“Because he'll hang next to me if I get caught. He hired me to stop the coach, didn't he? That makes him guilty as sin in anyone's book. It wasn't my fault the driver wouldn't turn back. Sloane will pay enough to let me leave the country and live in style somewheres. I already told him what bank to send the money to, else I send a letter to Bow Street.”
“The earl's got deeper pockets.”
“And more influence. Let Sloane deal with him. I don't care where the money comes from, just that it's waiting in that bank in London. I'd wager Carde'll be on his way north before he could get my message anyway. Sloane won't say anything about me to him. How can he, without confessing? Soon's the earl gets back to town I'll send a regular ransom note.” He laughed, raising the whiskey bottle to his lips. “I'll collect from both the toffs and they'll never be the wiser.”
He looked toward Lottie's corner. “I might just have to send his lordship one of the brat's fingers to prove I've got her, iffen she gives me any trouble.”
Lottie popped her thumb in her mouth.
“I've just got to figure what to do with the chit meantime.”
“I say dump her in the Thames. You can cut off some of her curls first to wrap in the ransom note, to show you've got her. They'll recognize that fresh cream color sooner than they'd know a finger. You'll have your money by the time anyone finds the body. And I'll have my cut. That way we won't have to worry about her naming names or nothing.”
Godfrey took another swig. “I never killed no little girl. You?”
Ize, Ezra Iscoll, was more merchant than murderer, although he kept a knife handy. He generally sold used goods, of honest acquirement or otherwise; decidedly dishonest information regarding easy targets for cutpurses and burglars; and security, in the form of the secret spare rooms beneath his dingy shop in London's underworld.
Now he shook his head, looking more like a carp chasing a fly than a frog. “She don't look so good now anyway. What if she comes over sick?”
“She won't. Not if she knows what's good for her.”
Lottie kept sucking her thumb, her eyes almost as wide as Ize's.
Godfrey told his ally, “You go find Molly, tell her I need her, but nothing else, just in case. She'll come. True blue, my sister.”
“But your sister Molly's an old maid and a seamstress. She don't know nothing about babies.”
“She's got to know more'n we do. 'Sides, she ain't that old,” her brother loyally protested, “and if this deal turns into the gold mine I figure it for, she can buy herself a store instead of mending costumes at the theater. Maybe she can buy herself a husband.”
Ize's eyes popped a little more at the idea of plump, pock-marked Molly with a dowry. His own promised cut of this hugger-mugger wasn't all that big, not in light of the danger of crossing an aristo. Ize did not fancy spending the rest of his life in Botany Bayâif he had any life left after the Earl of Carde was through with himâif Dennis Godfrey got caught. He'd feel better with the infant elsewhere than on his own premises. He'd feel better if he never met Dennis Godfrey, his sister, or a stolen, well-born babe. Still, there was the money, and there was Molly.
There was no use sending her a note, even without the danger of it falling into the wrong hands, because Molly could not read. Dennis Godfrey could not go because his leg was paining him, so Ize took a hackney coach to the theater where Molly worked.
“What, are you dicked in the nob, thinking I could leave my job before the performance? What if that cow who plays Juliet splits her seams again?”
But Ize whispered about a fortune, and a foundling. He had decided not to mention the Earl of Carde, in case Molly's tender sensibilities were stirred, or her greed. Who knew if she'd rather sell information or the infant back to the nobleman? Dennis Godfrey trusted Molly. Ize trusted no one.
Ize clapped his hand over her mouth. “You coming or not? If your brother's scheme works, you won't be worrying over no lousy post that pays tuppence.”
Molly packed her few belongings, and a few lengths of material that belonged to the theater, and left with her brother's pop-eyed partner.
When they reached Ize's place of business, an abandoned-seeming storefront with one peeling door and one grimy window, down a garbage-strewn alley, Molly had second thoughts. Ize had her satchel, though, and pushed her through the opening. He led her through a midden heap of merchandise no one would ever buy, then toward a secret door and down a hidden staircase.
Her brother Dennis was asleep, or in a stupor, on the bed, with blood seeping through the bandage on his leg and an empty bottle beside him. Molly'd seen worse. She clucked her tongue and followed Ize's gesture toward an even darker corner of the cell-like room. She took up the single candle and stepped closer to the filthy bedding on the floor there.
“Lord above, there really is a child,” she said, slowly lowering herself to a corner of the mattress. She peeled back her brother's mud-stained coat. “And a pretty little thing at that, unless I miss my guess, under all that muck.” She brushed back snarled curls that must have been a rare pale blond color, and looked into eyes the color of summer skies, despite tear-reddened rims. “A regular beauty, I swear. Won't you break the gentlemen's hearts in a few years.”
Lottie kept sucking her thumb.
“Who are you, then, lovey?”
Lottie stayed mum.
“I'm Molly, I am, what's come to keep you company. What's your name?”
Lottie looked over to the bad man on the bed. He looked to be sleeping, but she could not be certain. Give her name? She'd sooner give up her doll, and the promised pony at home.
“What's the matter, lovey, cat got your tongue?”
Lottie looked around for the cat.
Molly tugged the little girl's fingers out of her mouth. “Didn't anyone tell you you'd ruin your teeth that way? Come on, now, ducks. You've got to know your own name.”
Of course Lottie knew her name. She was Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Endicottâand she would never tell anyone. She could never tell, not if she wanted to go home, not if she wanted to keep her brothers from being hurt.
“You can talk, can't you?” Molly asked.
“Well, that's a start, anyway.” Molly took a handkerchief from her sleeve, spit on it and started to wipe Lottie's face.
Lottie jerked back, clutching her doll tighter.
“You're a shy one, all right. Or maybe you're not used to such common ways,” Molly said after getting a better look at the child's clothes. They were in tatters and covered with stains, but no one could recognize fine fabrics and careful stitching better than Molly Godfrey. She sucked in a breath and glanced at her sleeping brother, then at Ize, who was paring his nails with a deadly looking knife. “What the devil have those two gallows-baits gone and done now?” she muttered. This was no street urchin. Even the doll wore richer apparel than any London orphan.
“Maybe your doll has a name.”
No one said Lottie could not say Dolly's name, but maybe she better not. Maybe she better not speak at all, to anyone, until Papa came to get her.
“Well, let's try this, lovey.” Molly stood and made a curtsy. “Molly Godfrey at your service, milady.”
Lottie had been taught her manners, especially toward servants. And Molly was being nice, and knew her title. Maybe she would take Lottie home if she knew the rest of her name. Looking first toward the bed, then at the man they called Eyes, Lottie stood and made her best curtsy, just like Mama had shown her. She held out the doll and whispered, “Queen.” The queen had given her the doll, so that was no lie. And everyone knew the queen's name was Charlotte, just like hers.
“Well, aren't you the proper little lady? I would have called you Princess, but Queenie it is. Now, your highness, let's see what's to do. I was right, and more's the pity, for there's nothing good can come from setting a peacock in the pigeon coop.”
Molly's brother would not hear of returning the child from wherever he'd found herâhe refused to say where or how, or why he was shot. He waited until Ize left the room to fetch another bottle of Blue Ruin before telling her, “The less you know the better. All you've got to remember is how much blunt we stand to make. I've got one toff by the privates, and another by the throat. They'll pay, and keep paying. Even giving Ize his percent, or what he thinks is his cut, we're set for life, Sis. Just like Ma said, I'm taking care of you.”