Never Trust a Pirate

By: Anne Stuart


CHAPTER ONE

Somerset, 1869

 

 

MADDY RUSSELL CURLED UP on the window seat in Nanny Gruen’s tiny, spotlessly clean cottage on the very edge of the former Russell estate in Somerset, looking at the drizzling mist of a spring day. Somewhere, a mile away, lay their country house, Renwick, a place of considerable beauty that had once been her haven when things were bad. Things were bad now, but the house was no longer theirs. It had reverted to the Dark Viscount, as her younger sister, Sophie, liked to call him, and if he knew that two of the daughters of the house’s former owner were hiding at their old nanny’s cottage he’d soon put a stop to it. In fact, he didn’t even have to honor the gift of this small house to the Russells’ retired retainer, but so far he had. He could always change his mind.

Nanny Gruen sat across from her on the faded sofa, her eyes focused on her needlework, but Maddy had no illusion that this was an easy silence.

“You’re the most hardheaded girl I’ve ever known,” Nanny Gruen said. “What happened to my sweet little Maddy?” she added plaintively, finally looking up at her former charge, all five foot seven of her.

Maddy grimaced. “Your sweet little Maddy had a father who absconded with a huge sum of money and then abandoned his three daughters, leaving us penniless, disgraced. I’ve been deserted by my worthless fiancé, my older sister, Bryony, has disappeared with only a cryptic note, my younger sister does nothing but complain, and I refuse to sit around and wait for things to happen, not any longer. Since Bryony’s run off with the Earl of Kilmartyn, it’s going to be up to us to find out who framed our father and murdered him, because that fall from the cliffs in Dartmoor was no accident. And right now it’s going to be up to me.”

“And what is it you’re thinking of doing, missy?” her old nursemaid demanded. “Running off and getting into trouble, that’s what I call it.”

“We are already in trouble, Nanny,” Maddy said in a deliberately calm voice. “And sitting around on my posterior isn’t going to make things any better.”

“Miss Madeleine!” Nanny said, shocked. “A lady doesn’t talk about her… her limbs.”

“My posterior is not a limb, Nanny. It’s my backside.”

Nanny shrieked, putting her hands over her ears. “Your sister will hear you.”

“I did hear her, Nanny,” Sophie called from the tiny kitchen where she was currently experimenting with scones. “And she’s right.”

“Don’t you be using such language, Miss Sophia,” Nanny said sharply.

Sophie appeared in the doorway. She was coated with flour—Sophie didn’t consider her cooking adventures successful unless she ended up wearing half of her ingredients. “You don’t really think you’re going to follow Bryony.”

“Of course not!” Maddy said. “We can assume the Earl of Kilmartyn had nothing to do with Father’s disgrace and death since Bryony appears to have run off with him instead of finding proof of his guilt. That leaves Captain Morgan and Viscount Griffiths.”

“So go up to the big house and investigate the usurper,” Sophie said in dark tones.

“Viscount Griffith’s not a usurper—Somerset was built by his family, and we only lived there because Father won the rights to it in a gaming club,” Maddy pointed out fairly. “We were bound to give it up sooner or later if the mad viscount’s heir had the money to redeem the deed.”

“Well, apparently he did, thanks to the collapse of Russell Shipping,” said Sophie tartly. “Which seems awfully suspicious, given the circumstances. I think you should go after him.”

“Father had begun to distrust Captain Morgan. I don’t know if he was even aware of Viscount Griffiths. I certainly wasn’t,” Maddy said, stretching out her legs and climbing from her cozy perch, restless as always.

“Oh, and if you didn’t know, then no one must have,” Sophie shot back. “You don’t know as much as you think you do.”

“I know more than you, that’s a sure thing,” Maddy snapped.

“Girls!” Nanny Gruen said, and Maddy felt a flush cover her face. She was being childish, scrapping with her nineteen-year-old sister when she needed to be cool and controlled if she was going to succeed in their investigation.

“Sorry, Nanny,” she muttered.

“You should be apologizing to your sister.” As Sophie began to smirk Nanny turned to her. “And you should apologize right back, missy! The two of you—I wonder if you remember anything I taught you.”

Maddy crossed the small room and gave Nanny a kiss on her cheek. Sophie stuck her tongue out at her when Nanny couldn’t see, but Maddy ignored it. “Sorry, baby sister,” she said. “It’s easy to forget you’re a grown up.” That was just barbed enough to satisfy her annoyance. “But neither of you are changing my mind. Remember the note Father left? It said ‘never trust a pirate.’ ”

“Captain Morgan isn’t a pirate,” Sophie said, plopping herself down beside Nanny on the worn sofa. A cloud of flour billowed out from her peach-striped gown. “He was a privateer at one point in his long and checkered career, but he was hardly swinging a cutlass and making people walk the plank. You’ve read too many novels.”

“You’re the one who steals them from under my bed,” Maddy retorted. “And I have no illusions about Captain Morgan. I’ve met other captains Father employed. They’re old, weather-beaten, and have no use for women. Given what we know of Captain Morgan I expect he’s ancient—at least forty, and dull and dry. But there was a reason Father distrusted him, and I intend to find out why. We need to look at the facts clearly, without emotion. It appears as if Father embezzled a fortune from Russell Shipping, the very company he founded, ran off with the money, and then conveniently died on Dartmoor, with no sign of the money left behind, no word to his daughters. But why would he be heading for Devonport? If he’d simply been trying to escape from England he would have left from Dover. The captain is the obvious one to investigate first. I don’t know why Bryony decided to bother with Kilmartyn.”

“Because Kilmartyn was right there in London, you ninny,” Sophie said. “And the Dark Viscount is right here. It makes no sense to go haring off—”

“I’m not haring off. This is a well-thought-out plan, and I’ve even had Mr. Fulton’s assistance.”

“Our useless solicitor? What’s he done besides tell us that we’re penniless and disgraced and will never marry?”

Maddy could feel a nerve tick in her jaw. “We’ll marry,” she said grimly. “You’ll have men falling at your feet and they won’t care what our father did. But first I’m going to find someone titled and very wealthy, a baronet at the very least. Lord Eastham’s been writing me letters, you know. He’s got more than enough money to clean up our reputations.”

“But he’s so old! And what about Tarkington? Won’t he come back once he thinks about it?” Sophie said in a worried voice.

Maddy kept her face expressionless, ignoring the pain in her heart. “Tarkington is gone forever, and Godspeed. I’ve decided if I have to marry for the good of my family, it might as well be someone with a title and a bit more money.”

“I rather thought that was my job,” Sophie said. “You’re quite beautiful, Maddy, but you know I outshine you. People tend to prefer sweet, witless blondes to dark-haired viragoes.”

“I am not a virago!” Maddy was outraged.

“Girls!” Nanny said again, this time in a pleading voice. “You’re giving me a headache. Must you always bicker?”

“Things will be much more peaceful when I’m gone, Nanny, and by the time I return we can all leave and get out of your hair.”

“Now, Miss Madeleine, you know perfectly well I don’t want that!” Nanny Gruen said stoutly. “You can stay here as long as you like—for the rest of your lives if you wish.”

“Don’t worry—you won’t be stuck with us that long. It’s going to be fine. Mr. Fulton owes me a favor, after his total uselessness with Father’s estate. He happens to be acquainted with Captain Morgan, and he heard he was in need of a maid of all work. So I had Mr. Fulton tell him he knew just the girl.”

“You didn’t!” Sophie breathed, her bright eyes round.

“I did. And I know I can trust Mr. Fulton not to betray who I am. He feels guilty.”

“You could marry him and forget all this nonsense,” Nanny Gruen said sternly. “He’s a good-looking young man with prospects. A solicitor’s a respectable profession, not like a shopkeeper or something.”

“I have no intention of marrying anyone who has to work for a living,” Maddy said firmly. “If I don’t choose Lord Eastham then I’ll find someone with at least twenty thousand pounds a year and a title to boot. I’m not throwing myself away on a penniless solicitor.”

Sophie sighed dramatically. “Haven’t I already told you I’m the logical one to marry a title? You’re already twenty-two.”

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