Rushed to the Altar Chapter One
The Earl of Blackwater moved through the crowd of drunken revelers outside the Cock tavern in Covent Garden and strolled in leisurely fashion along the colonnaded Piazza. His black garments would have been somber except for the rich luster of the velvet and the soft cream of the lace at his throat and wrists. He wore no jewelry, only the blood-red ruby embedded in his signet ring. His black hair was confined at the neck with a simple silver clasp and he carried a black tricorne hat, its brim edged with gold braid.
He paused to take a leisurely pinch of snuff as he gazed idly around the thronged scene. It was midafternoon of a glorious green and gold day in early October and folk were out in force, men and women of every class and occupation. Dandies lounged with painted whores on their arms. Covent Garden was a market where the main commodity was flesh, whether offered by fashionably dressed ladies accompanied by their footmen, or their less fortunate sisters standing in the doorways of
the coffeehouses and the wooden shacks that crowded the outskirts of the central court, lifting ragged petticoats to display the invitation of a plump thigh.
Jasper set his hat on his head as he walked, one hand as always on the hilt of his sword, both mind and body alert. The nimble fingers of a pickpocket were all too frequently encountered in Covent Garden and anywhere else in the city where crowds gathered.
He had just been visiting Viscount Bradley and felt the need to breathe some fresh cool air after the viscount’s overheated bedchamber. He had found his uncle as irascible as ever, but out of bed and seated by a blazing fire, imbibing, liberally and against his physician’s orders, the rich ruby contents of a decanter of port. Father Cosgrove, quill in hand, sat at the secretaire in the window embrasure, and the rather pathetic relief he had evinced at the earl’s unannounced arrival earned Jasper’s sympathy once more.
A slight smile touched his lips as Jasper recalled his uncle’s response to the offer his nephew had made to have his body transported to the family mausoleum at Blackwater Manor on his death—a response that had caused poor Father Cosgrove to seek the instant comfort of his rosary, his lips moving in silent prayer.
I don’t want to rot in the company of those sanctimonious, holier-than-thou ancestors, nephew. I’ve lived my life and paid for my sins, and I’ll lie with other good, honest sinners in a good, honest churchyard.
He had then demanded to know how far Jasper had
progressed in his search for a wife, a question that had reminded the Earl of Blackwater of his negligence thus far. He had left his uncle’s house and was now strolling in Covent Garden, mulling over what seemed an intractable problem. He had no desire to marry anyone, let alone some forlorn creature in need of spiritual salvation; he had enough need of that for himself. But without his uncle’s money, he was eventually facing debtors’ prison and a pauper’s grave, not to mention the irretrievable loss of everything the Blackwater family held dear. And, he had to admit, he had enough pride in his family’s name and lineage not to view its loss with sanguinity.
He realized his footsteps were taking him towards a pieman. The tray slung around the lad’s neck was laden with golden offerings, fragrant steam rising from the puffed crusts. Only then did Jasper recognize his own hunger. He hadn’t eaten since the previous evening and the scent set his juices running. He was reaching for the leather pouch of coins he kept in an inside pocket of his waistcoat when something ran headlong into his midriff.
A few minutes earlier Clarissa Astley had been weaving through the mass of people thronging the Great Piazza, trying to keep her quarry in view. Fortunately Luke was a tall man, and he wore a high-crowned beaver hat that made him even easier to keep in her line of sight. At nine
o’clock that morning her weeklong vigil had been rewarded. Luke had left his house on Ludgate Hill, walking with a purposeful air along High Holborn. Clarissa had followed, easily keeping a discreet distance, ducking in and out of the busy traffic on the thoroughfare.
She had no idea where he was going but could only hope that he would take her to her brother, or at least to somewhere that would give her a clue as to where Francis was being held. Luke’s destination had become clear after a few side turns, and shortcuts down alleyways and through shadowy courts. He was making for Covent Garden. So, she had come full circle, Clarissa reflected wearily. She had left King Street in Covent Garden early that morning and was now back there a mere four hours later.
She ducked into the colonnade of the Great Piazza, keeping him in view. He was walking more slowly now, glancing at the pamphlets on display in the booths lining the Piazza, and she realized almost too late that he had stopped dead outside one famous for its particularly obscene offerings. She just managed to stop herself from running into him and dived sideways, head down. She was brought up short when her lowered head met resistant flesh, and her shoulders were grasped ungently by a pair of hard hands.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” an annoyed voice declared. “Believe me, miss, I’m more than up to the tricks of a pickpocket.”
Clarissa raised her head and stared in incredulous indignation at the man holding her.
“Let go of me.” She tried to wriggle her shoulders free of his grip.
“Why should I? You were about to rob me,” Jasper pointed out almost affably.
Her voice, although clearly furious, was surprisingly melodious and he could detect no hint of a London twang. He scrutinized her intently. His hands were curled in a tight grip over a pair of slim shoulders. A pair of jade-green eyes gazed up at him in surprise and anger, and they belonged to one of the loveliest countenances Jasper had ever encountered.
“I most certainly was not,” Clarissa declared, outraged. “Why would I want to rob you?”
“Why would you not?” he asked mildly. Covent Garden held all sorts of ruffians and mountebanks of both sexes, and despite this girl’s beauteous countenance and the delicacy of her accent, there was nothing else about her to set her apart from the rest of the rogues in the Piazza. She was clad simply in a countrified linen gown and apron. Her hair was tied back in a kerchief and he could see only a few stray reddish-gold tendrils on her forehead. It was enough however to make him want to see the rest of it.
His anger was gone, replaced with curiosity and the most definite stirrings of a more personal interest. “I doubt you have much coin about you, which is the general case with pickpockets.” It was a guess but one he hoped might elicit more information.
“You’ve no right to make such an assumption,” she
declared. “What I have and don’t have is my business.”
“As long as you don’t have anything of mine, I would agree with you.” He frowned down at her. “If you weren’t attempting to rob me, what were you doing bumping into me in that deliberate fashion?”
Her attention seemed to have wandered, he realized incredulously. Instead of giving him an answer, she was peering around him with an air of acute frustration, ignoring the hold he still had on her shoulders. “Now I’ve lost him,” she muttered.
“Lost whom? Answer me, if you please. Whom have you lost and why did you so deliberately bump into me, if you were not intending to pick my pocket?”
“I was trying to hide from someone,” she explained impatiently. “And now, by detaining me, you’ve ruined everything.”
“My apologies.” His voice was dry. “Maybe one day I’ll understand the logic of that. As far as I can see, I haven’t revealed your presence to anyone with apparent interest in it.” He looked pointedly around. The crowd went about its heedless way as always, and he could detect no suspiciously attentive glances in their direction.
“Why do you need to hide from someone?” Jasper was unwilling to release his grip on her shoulder, although she tried again to wriggle free. He was certain she would be off into the crowd before he could draw another breath and he wasn’t prepared to lose her just yet.
“That’s none of your business either,” she said. “Just let me go, please. You have no right to detain me.”
“Are you from one of the nunneries?” he asked, hazarding a guess. It would explain her presence in the Piazza. Possibly she was running from an unwelcome proposition. She was certainly lovely and fresh enough to attract only the best custom, and he could well imagine any one of the pimps and madams who ran the many such establishments in and around Covent Garden would find her a valuable acquisition. Her simple dress didn’t indicate a top-class establishment, but judging by her accent someone had gone to some trouble to eradicate the rougher edges to her speech in preparation for a higher class of client, so maybe she was being groomed to take her place among the ranks of the elite courtesans in a good house.
Something flashed across the green eyes but he couldn’t read it. Then she said, “Maybe, maybe not. What’s it to you, sir?” Her eyes narrowed suddenly. “Why, are you in the market for a little play?”
It was almost as if she was issuing a challenge, Jasper thought. She hadn’t said one way or the other, but the obliqueness of her answer had to be confirmation of his suspicions. And then the obviousness of his next move made him laugh out loud.
The laugh disconcerted Clarissa. She was already regretting the ridiculous impulse that had prompted that last question. Sometimes the devil seemed to run her tongue and she was always having to deal with the unintended consequences of a glib statement or question.
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, just a rather delightful conjunction of supply and demand,” he said. “I think you’ll do. Oh, yes, I think you’ll do very well.”
“Do what?” She looked up at him, unease replacing her anger.
“A little job I need done,” he said.
“What job?” She took a step back, but he tightened his hold on her shoulder.
“If you come with me, I’ll explain.”
“You must be mad. Let me go or I’ll call the beadle.”
He shook his head. “No, if anyone’s going to call the beadle it’ll be me. And whom do you think he’ll believe?”
Anger flashed again across the jade eyes. “That’s not fair.”
“No,” he agreed. “But little in this life is. What’s your name?”
“Clarissa.” She had answered before she could stop herself and could have bitten out her tongue.
“Well, Clarissa, I suggest we go and find a glass of wine and something to fill our bellies and I will make you a proposition.”
“I have no interest whatsoever in any proposition you might make . . . whoever you are.” Her voice was as haughty as she could make it, acutely conscious as she was of the vulnerability of her position. He had the advantage in every way, as he’d just pointed out. No one would believe the word of a seemingly powerless, friendless girl roaming the colonnades of the Great Piazza
against that of a powerful gentleman oozing wealth and privilege.
“Jasper St. John Sullivan, fifth Earl of Blackwater, at your service, madam.” He smiled down at her, and the smile illuminated his expression as if lamps had been lit behind his eyes. “Would you do me the honor of dining with me?”
Clarissa blinked once and her gaze was suddenly both speculative and calculating. Was there an opportunity here? If her present quest had taught her anything it was never to overlook the possibility of an opportunity. This gentleman could be a most powerful friend, and if anyone needed a friend at present it was she. And if the encounter turned sour, she could look after herself. She had proved that several times already.
Besides, there was something about the man, something about those black eyes, that pulled her to him. She wanted to know more about this proposition; maybe if what he wanted was something she could supply easily enough, she could bargain for his help in exchange. And besides, on a more mundane plane, she realized she was hungry. It had been a long time since dawn, when she’d broken her fast.
“Very well,” she said, throwing caution to the wind. “The Angel has venison pie on Tuesdays.”
“Then venison pie it shall be.” He released her shoulder but instead took her arm, slipping it through his, and Clarissa felt as firmly if less obviously captured as before. It made her uneasy but she was in the most public
venue, surrounded by folk who would surely come to her aid if she screamed for help. And then again, of course they wouldn’t, she reflected wryly. But she knew how and where to place a knee to best advantage, and she had sharp teeth, and she could run faster than a man with a sword at his hip. She could vanish into the crowd before he’d realize which way she’d gone.
With such spurious comfort, she allowed herself to be led into the Angel tavern. It was dark, noisy, and crowded. At first glance she could see no empty space at any of the long tables and ale benches but her companion steered her effortlessly through the crowd to a small secluded table in a nook beside the fireplace. The two men sitting there glanced up as they approached, then, without a word spoken, they got up, took their tankards, and plunged into the fray in the center of the room.
The unspoken power of wealth and privilege again, Clarissa thought. “Amazing,” she murmured. “They vanish at a look. It must be quite something to have such power, my lord.”
He hooked a stool forward with his foot and gestured for her to take it. “Oh, one grows accustomed to it.” A smile glimmered in his eyes again as he took the stool opposite her, and Clarissa realized that he was probably a match for any attempts to puncture his complacence with sarcasm.
Jasper glanced over his shoulder and beckoned imperatively at the tavern wench threading her way
through the crowd, two overfull tankards spilling over her hands as she held them high above the throng. She responded with a nod, deposited the tankards on a table already wet and slippery with spilled ale, and weaved her way across to the nook, wiping her hands on her stained apron. Her quick glance took in the elegance of the gentleman and the rather drab appearance of his companion.
“What’ll it be, sir?”
“Two dozen oysters, two tankards of Rhenish . . . and then the venison pie with a bottle of mine host’s burgundy . . . the one he keeps in the back. He’ll know which one.”
The girl looked at him with a degree of admiration. “Yes, m’lord.” She didn’t bother to look again at Clarissa, who assumed rightly that the tavern wench had decided she’d seen her like before and knew exactly what commercial arrangement existed between them. “Jake don’t usually let them bottles out in ’ere. Keeps ’em for private parties an’ the like.”
“I think you’ll find he’ll make an exception.” Jasper took a pinch of snuff, then dropped the silver embossed box back into his deep coat pocket and regarded Clarissa with a speculative gleam.
“So, Clarissa, how long have you been in London?”
“What makes you think I haven’t been here all my life?” She was somewhat taken aback by the question.
“Oh . . . just something about you . . . about your voice. You don’t speak like a native Londoner.”
“But neither do you, my lord,” she pointed out.
“No, but then I too have my roots elsewhere in the country and count London as a place I visit.”
“But you have a house here?”
“That is true. So, how long have you been in London?”
“A few months,” she prevaricated, by no means ready to confide any personal details until she had established whether the earl could be of service to her.
“What part of the country are you from?” He leaned forward, sweeping crumbs off the table with his glove, before resting his forearms on the surface. His black eyes looked closely at her, but there was nothing unfriendly or dangerous in the look, Clarissa decided.
“Bedfordshire way,” she said with a shrug. “I came to make my fortune.” It seemed a reasonably vague explanation, one that could mean either any number of things or nothing at all. A throwaway comment. She laughed. “A fond hope, you might say.”
“Not necessarily.” He paused as the tavern girl leaned over his shoulder to put a platter of opened oysters in the middle of the table, the pearly gray mollusks glistening against the opalescent shells. She put two pewter tankards of golden wine beside the platter and backed away.
“Oysters are supposed to be an aphrodisiac,” Jasper remarked, slurping one from the shell, savoring the liquid as it slipped down his throat. “But of course you know that.” He reached for his tankard, drank deeply, watching his companion the whole time.
Why would she know that? Clarissa wondered, taking an oyster from the platter. It certainly wasn’t a fact either her mother or her governess had felt necessary to impart. She sucked the oyster neatly from the shell with a flick of her tongue, and then took another. She paused with the shell held close to her lips, wondering why he was looking at her so closely, before flicking her tongue again and sucking the fishy morsel out of its shell.
Jasper was momentarily mesmerized. It was the most audaciously seductive gesture, and if she was setting out to capture a wealthy client she was going about it in a very skilled fashion. But for some reason the seductiveness, which in another woman would have amused and enticed him, didn’t suit this one, and he realized that he did not like it one bit.
“What’s the matter?” she demanded, setting down the empty shell and reaching for another. “Why’re you looking at me like that?”
“Oh, don’t play the innocent with me.” He laughed with a touch of scorn and took another oyster. “I prefer my women to be straightforward, and my . . .” He hesitated, looking for the right word. “My arrangements . . . shall we say . . . to be equally so. A commodity is for sale, a price agreed, and all parties are satisfied.”
Oh, sweet heaven, why in the world had she thought her response a clever way of dissipating curiosity? She’d come to make her fortune. How had she expected him to interpret that? It was time to bring an end to this charade;
she was out of her league and just digging herself deeper and deeper into the cesspit.
She spoke with quiet vehemence. “I’m sure your women are more than happy to satisfy your demands, sir. I, on the other hand, don’t come into that category and have absolutely no interest in them.” She pushed back her stool, preparing to get up, but his hand shot out, pinning her own hand to the table.
“Just a minute, Clarissa. We both know what this is all about, so let’s not play games. Believe me, if you hope to increase your price with such artifice it won’t work. I don’t find it amusing or appealing.”
Clarissa, incredulous, stared at him in silence. But her incredulity was directed more at herself and her own stupidity. Of course she should have expected a proposition on these lines. He’d found her wandering the Piazza among the whores; she had not exactly denied that she lived in one of the nunneries—well, in honesty that would be hard to deny, but the circumstances were so different. She had to extricate herself as quickly as possible.
“Let me go, please.”
He didn’t move his hand, merely said impatiently, “My dear girl, you came with me to discuss a proposition. I could only have meant one kind of proposition, so don’t pretend to be insulted.”
Clarissa reached with her free hand for the tiny oyster fork and a second later the Earl of Blackwater, with a bellow of pain, brought his bleeding hand to his mouth.
Clarissa was gone on the instant, her stool clattering to the floor with the violent speed of her exit.
Jasper stared after her, then with an oath he jumped to his feet, nearly colliding with the tavern wench bearing a crusted bottle of burgundy and a venison pie. He paused long enough to throw a coin on the table, then pushed his way through the taproom and out onto the Piazza. He searched the crowd looking for the girl and thought he caught sight of her disappearing around the corner of the colonnade. He set off in pursuit, his long stride eating up the yards.
He saw her as soon as he’d turned the corner from James Street. She was some way ahead and once paused to look back. He ducked behind a pillar and when she started off again, he followed, keeping his distance. He didn’t know why he was bothering with this girl; there were plenty like her in the city. But he’d never come across one with quite such an arresting countenance, he amended. And there was something about her spirit, a quickness of wit that would make her the ideal player in the charade. And he was piqued by her quixotic behavior. Why would she treat a potentially well-paying client with such discourtesy? He rubbed his throbbing hand, conscious of a vengeful impulse to get his own back. She’d deprived him of his burgundy and venison pie into the bargain.
She had reached her destination. He stood in the doorway of a bagnio and watched as the girl disappeared into a discreet house on King Street. It was a nunnery
run by one Mother Griffiths. A top-flight brothel catering to the highest class of client, certainly, but a house of ill repute nevertheless.
So much for Mistress Clarissa’s protestations of innocence. Jasper smiled to himself. Whatever game she was playing, he could deal a better hand. He strolled across the street and lifted the brass knocker on the front door.