Her depressing thoughts were brought to a halt by a light tapping at the door.Sighing, she setthe almost empty rum bottle on the desk andsat up straight. "Aye."
Henry opened the doorand stepped silentlyinside.This time he was alone. Valoree did notknow ifthat was a bad sign … or worse.
Pausing before the desk, the quartermaster eyed her for a moment, then shifted uncomfortably and cleared histhroat. "The men have been talkin’ the problem over."
Valoree archedan eyebrow at him. "Which problem would that be? "
"The problem o’findin’ ye ahusband."
Valoree grimaced. Atleast it sounded as if hermenwere being realistic aboutit, and weren’tfooling themselves intopretending it would bean easy task. "And? " sheprompted.
"Well, we’re thinking thatthe docksare noplaceto meet up withsome of them there noblefellers. We’re thinkin’ we need to get youinto society."
Valoree nodded at his logic. "How? "
"How? " He frowned. "Well, er. .. I guess we’d have to be gettin’ yesomeo’ themthere invitesto some of them sorries."
"Soirees, " Valoree corrected dryly, then repeated, "How? "
"Aye. How? You cannot stealor force those at swordpoint, you know."
"Aye, well…." Hislips puckered briefly; then he backed toward the door. Her exceedingly quiet and calm manner seemed to be making him atouch nervous.Perhaps he’d learned over the last thirteen years that when she was calm, it usually preceded a storm. "I’ll be gettingback to you on that, " he ended lamely, backingthroughthedoor.
"I am sure you will, " Valoree snapped, then returned her attention to herbottle.
"We are here."
Valoree glanced about at theannouncement just as the coach came to ahalt. Shiftingcloser tothe window, she lookedoutat the town house they had stopped before, peeringat itthrough a jaded eye. They were about towaste a whole lot of time and coin pursuing the impossible.
Thiswasthe answerthe men had come up with for getting her "some invites to them sorries." They had determined that she must rent a town house for the "seasoning" and "have one o’ them therecomin’-up things."Brilliant.Marvelous.They were all mad. Howdid theythink rentinga town house would get her married? Itwasnot as ifthe members of the ton were liketo be overwhelmed by her grace, charm, and beauty.
The door suddenly opened and Henry appeared, offering a hand to aid her out. Sighing, she caught up her skirtsin a bunch, grabbed his hand, and clambered irritably down from the coach.
Once onthe ground, she released her skirts, givingthema slight shake so they would fall back in place, and glanced at the carriage parked in front of their own. The door to that one opened and a tall, slender, fair-haired man alit somewhat cautiously even as Henry helped Meg down from their own carriage.
"Lady Ainsley? " he asked hopefullyas he approached.
Nodding, Valoree automatically offered him her hand toshake.
"Lord Beecham, at your service, " he assuredher, giving asmile before bending to gallantly kissher hand.
Eyes widening in dismay as he slobbered over her fingers, Valoree glared briefly at Henry as ifto say this was all hisfault.
Quickly, she drew her hand back to gesture toward Meg asthe womanmovedforward, eyeing themanwith intent interest. "My aunt."
"My lady."The man could do no less than bend tokiss her hand aswell now, and Meg appeared asstunned by the act as Valoreehad been. Afterward, he straightened and smiledfrom one woman to the other. "The house is all in order. I had it cleanedas your uncle requested in hisnote. It has notbeen used for several months, soittook abit of doing.Ishallsendhimthe bill, of course."
"Of course, "Valoree agreed dryly with anotherpointedglance at Henry. He had written the letter, signing it as her uncle.
Womendid notperform such transactions.Either their man of affairs did, or a male relative. Henry had thought an uncle, husband to Aunt Meg, ofcourse, might be a good touch – so that it was not thought Valoree was withoutprotection. As for the bill, the town house was the men’s idea, so let them pay forit.
"Thehouse is pretty much yours foras long asyou need it, "
Beecham continued, turning to lead themup to the frontdoor.
"Justhaveyour unclewrite me a note shouldhe wish to stay longer than the six months he has already rented itfor."
Noddingmutely, Valoree stepped past himintothe houseas he opened the door for her. Inside, she stood glancing about the entry as Meg – Aunt Meg, she reminded herself – joined her.
"As youcansee, it’s justwhat your unclerequested. Large, top quality, and clean as a whistle."He ran his gloved handdownthe banister of the stairs that led to the second floor to prove his point, and Valoree nodded beforeturning to move into thefirst room on the left.
"Ah, now, thisis the salon, as you can see." Herhost hurried to keep up with her, rushing into the room atherheels and nearly running over Aunt Meg in the process.
Valoree was just wondering if she should comment on his rudeness when the woman spoke up for herself. "We can see whattheroomis, youngman, " she reproved gently, surprising Valoree. Considering the talent for tartness Meg had displayed overthepast couple of days, Valoree had expected a harsher chiding – a nice cutting comment, or an outright verbal slap.
Instead, the olderwomanwas smiling at the fellowalmost fondly.
She’strying to endear us to himbecause he’s a noble, Valoree thought bitterly. Sheconsidered the man to see if it was working.
Lord Beecham, realizing what hehad done, wasnowflushing a brightshadealmost as pink as the god-awfullivery Henry had chosen for Skully and One-Eye. He stutteredoutanapology. It was only then that Valoree took notice of his appearance. He wasn’t bad-looking, or very old really, perhaps twenty-five or -six. But he was the studious sort, she would guess. After spendingthe better partofher life inthe company of strong, fit pirates, Valoree thoughtheappeared weak and too skinny. His discomfort now didn’thelp either. Once hisaplomb wasgone, it seemed quite impossible forhim to regainit. It was almost painful for her to watch as he began to stammer out anoffer to give them afurthertour of the house. Itwas Megwho let him off the hook.
"That will notbe necessary, my lord.I think wecan find our way around now."
"A-aye, of course." He glanced briefly atMeg, but turned to Valoreeto speak again. "I… Your unclenever asked me to see to servants, so I – "
"That will not be necessary, " Aunt Meg answered for her again. "Wehavepeople coming later today."
"G-good. I’ll just – Oh! I nearly forgot. My mother, Lady Beecham, thought that if you were not too tired from your journey here, you might like toattend asmall soiree sheis having tonight." His voice trailed away when Valoree stared at him rather blankly; then he began backing outof the room."Well, nay, ofcourse not.You are probably rather tired. I – "
Hiswords came toan abrupt halt, as didhisretreat, when he managed tobackhimselfright into Skully.
The pirate stood in the doorway of the salon, eyeing the surroundingswithsomedisdain.
Jerking aroundto see what hehad backedinto, Mr.Beecham paled, his jaw dropping slightly. Valoree supposed he’d never seen the likes of Skully before. Apart from the man’s being dressed in pink, Valoree imagined that to anyone who didn’t know him, he wouldlooklike deathitself. His peg leg didn’t help.
Chuckling quietly, she waved the pirate out of the room, then took Lord Beecham’s arm and ledhim to the frontdoor."It is kind of ye – you, " shecorrected herselfquickly. "It is kind of you, LordBeecham. And you must thank your mother for us."
"And tell herValoree’ll be there, " Henry inserted from behind her.
Beecham’s eyes widened in amazement at such bold behavior from a servant, and Valoree wheeled, glaring furiously at the olderman. But Henry merelyglared rightback, and a glanceat theother men showed the same determined looks on their faces.
Grinding her teeth together, she took a deep breath, thenturned back toBeecham, forcinga smile."Ofcourseyou musttell her that wewould be delightedto attend hersoiree."
"You will? " theman asked, craning his necktopeer over her shoulder at Skully, who was grunting in approval of her concession.
"Aye, of course." Opening the door, she smiled at him cheerfully, then urged him through it. "Thank youagain for all your trouble, my lord, in attending to allof this forus."
"Oh, well, my lady, it ismypleasure, " he began modestly.
"Aye. Well, you do it well. Good day to you, " she said cheerfully.With that, she closed thedoor on hissmiling face and turned toglare narrowly at her men.
"See that! Gotus an invite already!" Henry crowed, ignoring herobvious displeasure.
Snorting in disgust, Valoree movedaway from thedoor and led the way back into the salon, where Meg was staring out the windowinto the street. "You got lucky, " she snappedirritably, dropping intoa chair and casuallyhooking onelegover the arm of it. "Lady Beecham is probably the only person in thiswhole townwho would make an impulsivegesture likethat, and you happened to rent the house from her son."
"Nay."Skully shook his head.
"Naywhat? " Valoree asked with asigh.
"I’d bet all my shares of the booty from that last Spanish galleon we tookthathis mother ain’tnever e’en heard o’ ye, "the tall man said, bringinga frownto her face.
"She – "
"Not she. He." When Valoreemerely stared at him blankly, he shookhis head andexplained. "The boy. Are ye blind, Val? He was sniffingaboutye like ye werea bitch in heat."
Meg snapped with outrage from thewindow. "You will leave that kindof talk outinthestreet, if you please. Lady Valoree alreadyhas a tendency to slip up without your bandying such foulnessabout."
Skully flushed bright red at the set-down, but Valoree went from pink, to red, to white. She didn’t know whethertodefend Skully, snipeat the woman, oragree withher.True, the "bitchin heat" remark had been a touch vulgar, even for Skully. She supposedthat was why he wasn’t snappingback at her himself.
That or hewas just as shocked bythe starch in her words as Valoreewas. Thewordsseemed exactly what a"lady" wouldsay, and – goodGod – the woman had actuallysounded the part.
"Were you ever onstage, Meg? " she askedatlast.
Ignoring thequestion, the womanturned to regard her."Skully is right, though, forallthat hissentiment could userephrasing.
Lady Beecham surely did notextend the offer. She does nothave the heart to think ofit."
"How would you know? "
Shrugging, Meg turned back to the window. "Everyone in London has heard of Lady Beecham and her mean-spirited, snobbish ways."
Valoree stared at her fora moment longer, then glanced toward the doorway of the salon as the front doorof the town house openedand closed.Bull and One-Eyewandered into the room a moment later.
"Mighty finedigs, "One-Eyecommented, glancing about the room. "We stayin’? "
"Aye, " Henry announced, drawing himself up and facing Valoreeas if expecting an argument."We’re stayin’."
When Valoree merely shrugged, he continued. "We’ll be needingsomemore things from the ship, though. Some more men toact as servants.And Petey."
"Petey? "One-Eye raised his eyebrow. "Who’s gonna cook for the men if webring Peteyout here? "
"They can fend forthemselvesfor a bit."
"We shall need thegowns, " Meg interjected. "In fact, if you expect her to attract a husband, she will need several more gowns."
"Moregowns? " One-Eye gaped at the woman. "Why? She’s alreadygotthree of them."
"One evening gown and two day gowns will not do, " Meg informedthem primly."She shall need at least adozen of each."
"A dozen!" Valoree looked no more pleased by that announcement than the men. "Why the hell wouldI need a dozen dresses? There’s only the oneof me."
"A dozento start with, " Meg repeated firmly.
"Now just a minute – " Henry began, but Meg cut himoff.
"She isseeking marriage. She must make as good an impression as she can.She cannot beseen twice inthe same gown, else she willbe thoughtto be too poor to be able to afford the proper accoutrements and thereforeless desirable as amate. Believe me, Valoreeneeds all the help she can get.She has none of the social graces considerednecessaryina wife in this day and age.She has grown up and spent her life around a bunch of rum-guzzling, tobacco-spitting, foul-mouthed pirates andit shows. Just lookat her."
Silence followed as the men glanced guiltilyat Valoree. She sat pretty much sideways in the chair, legssplayed, onethrown over thechair’scushionedarm, andthe other upon the floor. Herskirt was hitched up to reveal the boots and breeches she wore beneath. The men groanedas one at the sight, knowingthatevery word Meg said was true.
"Well, maybe if someone had told us that she was a girl."
One-Eye glared at Henry as he spoke. "Maybe then we would have donesomethings different."
"What? " Valoree asked dryly. "Like mutiny? "
"Nay, " he snapped, affronted. "Likemaybe throwin’ some of themthere grace lessons in along with the sword handling and fisticuffs."
"Oh, aye, " she said with a sneer, but was suddenly uncomfortable under theircensuring eyes as they tookin the way she was sitting. For the first time in her life she felt quite inadequate. She was the captain. She led some of the most ruthless, notorious pirates in the land, and they followed her orders. Yetshesuddenly felt like anignorant, uneducated child.
And shedidn’t likeit.
Slamming both her booted feet flat on the floor, Valoree stood andglared around the room."Well, I’ll beleavingall this decision making up to youto ‘vote’ on. Me, I’m going togo takea nap."
**** She didn’t sleep; shesat in thewindow seatin thebedchamber she had chosenand stared out at the passingpeople. Valoree had never seenso many peoplein one spotin her life. London was just bustling with activity. It was also overcrowded, and noisy, and it stank. She missed theopen sea:the breeze in her hair and salty spray on her face. She missed thesoundof the men singing their shantiesinto the wind asthey worked. Shemissedher cabin with its constant rolling sensation, and the safety she felt there.