A Custom House or Customs House was a building housing the offices for the government
officials who processed the paperwork for the import and export of goods into and out of
a country. Over the centuries, a number of Custom Houses came and went in London, all
occupying the same general location on the docks. The old Custom House featured in this story served sufficiently until the end of the eighteenth century, but with the growing trade, the opening of the docks, and the vast increase in the Customs Duties in the period of the French
wars, it had become insufficient for the business of the revenue. Under the authority of a
special Act of Parliament, the Crown purchased the Legal Quays to the west for the express purpose of providing a site for a new structure that would serve its purpose for many generations. During the building of this new Custom House, the old Custom House caught fire and was destroyed.
The Custom House fire of 1814 is an actual historical event. And while certain key plot points in this book are based on what little is known about the fire, the rest of the story is entirely a figment of my imagination.
Because really...don’t the best stories always start with a grain of truth?
Looks can be deceiving.
- The Duke of Lancaster
By all appearances, the group of young ladies gathered around the dowager Duchess
seemed like nothing more than the attendees of a high-society tea party. All were dressed in their afternoon best, all were sedately sipping tea and nibbling on biscuits, and every lady in the room had a pleasant smile on her face.
The room in which they sat was bustling with activity. The butler was directing two kitchen maids in the delivery of a fresh pot of hot tea and a delectable selection of finger sandwiches. The refreshments were settled on a truly exquisite table from the French Renaissance period, complete with intricate scrollwork and gold leafing. The ladies all felt completely at home in the presence of the duchess and her beautiful surroundings, but currently they were the souls of complete propriety, with perfectly rigid posture and the most impeccable manners.
Until the last of the servants left the room.
Then the five young ladies immediately relaxed their spines and expressions, set down their tea and biscuits, and leaned forward expectantly.
“So, what news have you heard, Lady Lancaster?” Hannah asked eagerly.
Hannah and the four other young women seated in Lady Lancaster’s Blue Salon were
visiting under the pretense of a weekly Young Ladies’ Garden Society meeting. As far as anyone knew, Lady Lancaster hosted the social gathering for these select young ladies—all of high ranking and highly respected families—out of the kindness of her heart, as was common of the society matrons of the aristocracy. Surely everyone thought the dowager Duchess was imparting her knowledge of deportment, social etiquette, and of course her gardening tips (Lady Lancaster’s garden was renowned across London) to the debutantes; however, this would not be nearly the case.
In fact, the dowager Duchess was using her status and connections to learn of deserving people in need of help and then, with the assistance of her “girls,” was
providing them aid.
While many of the deeds were charitable and completely acceptable endeavors for ladies of the ton, more recently, as whispers of their “Society” spread, the women were being asked to do more than just provide food to the hungry and garner jobs for those
undeservedly released from employment.
Many of their efforts now turned to the solving of mysteries and crimes.
The duchess learned long ago that gently bred young ladies were virtually invisible in most situations and, if they kept their eyes and ears open, they often could find themselves in the right places at the right times to learn all sorts of interesting things.
Most men thought women too unintelligent to understand even the simplest of business
dealings or intrigues and, therefore, did not always watch their tongues when a demure
young lady may be standing by.
It was with such knowledge that Lady Lancaster herself had assisted her husband, the Duke of Lancaster, in solving many war crimes in his role with the war office. He was a remarkable man who appreciated her acumen and insight when it was clearly not fashionable to do so.
After the Duke’s passing, Lady Lancaster found she was bored and in need of a new project to keep herself busy. She came up with the idea of the Young Ladies’ Garden Society after helping her maid’s family out of trouble with a tyrannical landlord. It is safe to say, that landlord no longer lorded over much of anything anymore, land or otherwise, except perhaps the four walls of his cell at Newgate Prison.
The sense of accomplishment she felt at seeing justice done inspired her to find young
women with fire and wit who she could recruit to her Society. She began to watch the young ladies of the ton carefully, seeking signs of intelligence and streaks of independence in their demeanor. So many of the debutantes were reticent and meek—as was expected of them —but she knew, if she looked closely, she would see signs of something more in a few of the girls, and those would be the ones she would approach.
Now, nearly a year later, Lady Lancaster was pleased with her selections.
There was quiet bespectacled Rose Warren: a pretty girl who managed to remain relatively unnoticed by the ton due to her extreme shyness. However, for all her demure ways, she hid a logical mind and a keen eye that noticed everything.
She was seated next to Hope Stuckeley. On the surface, Hope was passably attractive and clearly a people-pleaser; however, there was a side to her that most never saw. Hope had a way with numbers that would rival any Cambridge graduate and a smile that could light up a city. Lady Lancaster planned to make everyone, including Hope, see how much more the young lady had to offer.
The farthest away, in a chair relatively clear of other furniture and decorations, sat tall and clumsy Sarah Jardin. She had a habit of always saying the wrong thing and was a bit of a wallflower, but she also had boundless empathy for other people’s plights and an unending willingness to help. Lady Lancaster was loath to leave her to the society wolves and already, with her help, Sarah was starting to turn heads on the dance floor (and not for eliciting yelps from her partners after stepping on their toes...anymore).
A surprising member of the group was Emily Moss. Stunning, graceful, and petite,
Emily was this season’s Diamond of the First Water. Not the type Lady Lancaster
thought would meet her criteria, but this society prize was a master of disguises and
was already helping the poor by posing as a maid to deliver food and goods to the
underprivileged. It was an easy decision to bring her into the fold.
Then, of course, there was Hannah. Hope and Hannah were cousins; however, it was
Hannah who Lady Lancaster first invited to join her. Daughter of an earl, Hannah
was privy to all walks of society. She was very pretty, with dark blond hair and intriguing blue-green eyes. Lady Lancaster had seen her potential during the Waltham Ball, when she rescued a gentleman being ripped to shreds after he asked one of the more popular ladies to dance. The invited girl was most unkind in her refusal of Mr. Pomfret, a gentleman short of stature and even shorter of hair, causing her friends to snicker directly at Mr. Pomfret’s already painfully red face.
Lady Lancaster had silently cheered as Hannah swept in and asked Mr. Pomfret to dance—against all confines of social etiquette! The girls stood aghast as Hannah and the gentleman took to the dance floor.
This girl, and the other four, all had personality traits that reminded the duchess of
herself. And really, what better recommendation was there?
Sometimes the only thing more dangerous than the question is the answer.
—The Duke of Lancaster
During the summer of his tenth year, Simon Trumbull found himself walking into the craziness of the Holderness House. Five years prior, Lord and Lady Holderness had had a child—a rather sweet little girl with strawberry-colored hair and bright hazel eyes. They named her Rose.
Simon was not especially impressed with them for having had a daughter. He supposed he would have been a bit more excited had they had, say, a son. At least a boy would perhaps grow up to be a playmate of sorts, though at five years younger, even that seemed unlikely.
But Rose was apparently quite taken with Simon and she had come into the habit of calling him “Mine” whenever he was around. The parents (all four of them) thought that it was an amusing little nickname and did not discourage it. Nor did they discourage the way the child followed him around incessantly.
Simon found the whole thing positively annoying, and that year he had finally had enough.
At some point during that particular visit to the Holderness House, Rose had managed to find him underneath a large baroque desk that was covered on all sides by other pieces of furniture, the least of which included the eight matching chairs. He had had to move one of the heavy chairs out of the way to get under the table and thought by scooting it back into place he would be hidden sufficiently from little Rose.
He supposed the word little should have been taken into consideration, as the tiny girl in question was easily able to squeeze under the chair without any problem.
Once in his not-so-secret lair, she crawled endearingly into his lap, looked up at him with her big lash-fringed eyes, and said, “Mine.”
Rolling his eyes in an emphatic way that could only be achieved by a boy of ten, Simon pushed her out of his lap and said, “Why do you keep calling me that?”
Simon honestly had not expected an answer. To tell the truth, while he was fairly certain that he had been able to speak in relatively full sentences when he was five years old, he had not yet heard Rose utter anything other than that single word in all his experience with her. So when she did speak, he was astonished.
“Mama and Papa told me. You are mine.”
She looked at him as if that were all that needed to be said, and then she made as if to move into his lap again.
This time he was none too gentle in his efforts to keep her out of his lap, and Rose fell back on her bum with a thump. Simon watched somewhat guiltily as her eyes filled with tears.
With a sulky sniff, she crawled back out from under the cover of the table, but before she stood, she turned around and said, as stubbornly as only a five-year-old girl can say, “I don’t want to marry you no more…don’t care what Mama and Papa say.” And with that she got to her feet and stomped off in a huff.
Simon sat there with his mouth hanging open. Surely Rose was just an imaginative child who had gotten it into her head that she wanted to marry him. There was no way he would believe that her parents had actually told her that she would marry him someday. Right?
He made his way quickly out from under the heavy table and into the parlor where his parents could usually be found during their visits. Rose had beaten him there, of course, and he could see that Lady Holderness was trying to soothe the poor girl, who was quite beside herself.
It was there that Simon was told of the marriage contract signed by the two families when Rose was born—the contract that would tie him to the sniveling five-year-old for the rest of his life.
Needless to say, that moment directed the rest of his life. There was forever this “thing” hanging over his head…and her name was Rose Warren.
“Dreams can become reality, if only one acts upon them.”
~The Duke of Lancaster
When Michael returned with the records given to him by the committee of the Stock Exchange, Hope was ready for him. She had cleared off the top of her desk and moved another chair around to her side of the table so that they could both review the records together more easily.
Michael appreciated her preparedness, and honestly, it was the same set-up he had in mind, but as he took a seat next to Hope and caught a whiff of her beguiling scent, he
began to question the wisdom of sitting so close to her. Hope, on the other hand, seemed to have no compunctions about it whatsoever. Wanting to appear as equally unaffected, Michael tamped down his racing libido and began to organize the papers in front of him.
Hope looked over at Michael and smiled. “Are these all of the records?”
Michael swallowed hard, trying to get what was apparently a very large frog out of his throat. Funny, he thought wildly, I don’t remember trying to swallow an amphibian just before entering the room.
Choking back some nervous laughter over his own sad attempt at humor, Michael rasped out, “Ah, ha, ah, yes.”
“Is something wrong?” Hope asked.
“No, no, not at all…I just, ah, have something in my throat.”
“Oh, well I ordered some tea while you were fetching the records. It should be here any minute.”
“Thank you. That was very, er, kind of you.”
“I didn’t do it to be kind,” Hope replied. “I did it because it was only polite to do so.”
Sighing inwardly, Michael replied, “I see. Well, I still thank you.”
Forcing himself to focus, Michael was just beginning to understand what he was looking at when Rivers appeared with the tea. Putting the papers aside once again, Hope reached for the pot of tea at the same time as he. When their hands brushed against each other, Michael froze and stared at Hope for a long moment.
“I, uh…that is…ah,” Hope stammered, her eyes flicking toward his, “I believe it is proper for me to, er, serve you.”
“Really?” Michael drawled, giving Hope a heated glance before removing his hand. “Then please do, by all means.”
Michael motioned to the tea set with the sweep of his hand, but it was clear that he was not just talking about the pouring of the hot beverage.
Blushing warmly, Hope ignored the innuendo. “How do you, ah, take it?”
Michael simply quirked his brow and smiled wickedly.
“Your tea, Lord Lichfield! How do you take your tea?!” Hope clarified loudly, feeling once again very overheated.
“My goodness,” she muttered.
Sarah could not have been more shocked by the sudden turn of events. She had never once thought that David considered her as more than just the best friend of his sister. And it was only that connection that explained his rather odd tendency to be nice to her.
When Sarah had first come out into society more than six years ago, she had been initially quite popular with the marriage-minded gentlemen. She was the daughter of a wealthy and respectable viscount, and while she thought herself rather homely as a child, she had grown into something not too hard to look at once you got past her attire, and at first blush she appeared very quiet and docile—all great attributes in a wife.
However, all the interest quickly waned after her penchant for blurting out whatever was on her mind was discovered and, of course, after her absolute lack of grace on the dance floor left any number of men temporarily crippled.
David, on the other hand, never stopped asking her to dance. Sarah had trampled his toes so many times over the years, it was a revelation to her that he could still walk, but he always asked for a dance anyway. One dance at every event at which there was a dancing area established. Always with a kind word and a blind eye to anyone who would comment or snicker.
Sarah had never gotten up the courage to ask him why he favored her so, but she rather thought it was out of pity—much like a brother would feel toward an unpopular sister. Still, better to be pitied and held in his arms for a scant few minutes than to never feel such warmth again.
“Why do you dance with me at every event?” Sarah asked suddenly, apparently unable to stop her mouth twice in one night.
Now it was David’s turn to look shocked.
“Ah, I suppose because we are friends, as we just, er, established.”
“Not out of pity, then?” Sarah replied, cocking her head to the side thoughtfully.
Well, yes, David thought instantly, but very wisely did not utter aloud. That was probably what he would say if someone else had asked that question, but under no circumstances would he admit such a thing to Sarah. First of all, it would be quite cruel to say so, but also, somewhere niggling in the back of his brain, he knew that was not the reason he procured a dance with Sarah at the various balls and such.
Not the only reason, in any case.
Somewhere, deep inside, David knew that he always enjoyed his dances with Sarah, not his toes certainly, but she was a funny thing; her commentary on the party guests was always amusing and, of course, uncensored; she was tall enough to dance with and speak to without developing a crick in one’s neck; and she just felt nice in his arms, damn it. An added bonus was he didn’t have to worry about what he said to her. Sarah was the last person on earth he would ever court. That knowledge relieved all sorts of pressure the other ladies of the ton put on him.
“No, Sarah,” David found himself answering quite sincerely. “I do not dance with you out of pity.”
“Oh,” Sarah said, smiling. “Thank you, David.”
“For what, exactly?”
Echoing his shrug from earlier, Sarah replied, “For being my friend, I suppose. One can never have too many friends, wouldn’t you agree?”
Laughing, David stood and offered his arm to his new friend. “Yes, Miss Jardin, I completely agree. Now then, shall we go have our dance now?”
“Oh yes, please!” Sarah accepted joyously, jumping up from her chair with a happy bounce and taking David’s arm.
And then disaster struck…for next to the chair there was a small table and Sarah, being excited and happy and not paying attention, caught the edge of the piece with her foot and tripped.
She would have fallen if not for David, who caught her midway down to the floor in a sweeping bend reminiscent of a man leaning in to give his lover the most romantic of kisses.
It was at that very second that the door to the parlor opened and two women, one being the biggest (and loudest) busybody in all of London and the other being the laudable Lady Lancaster, walked into the room and saw what looked to be a very scandalous moment between Sarah and David.
David looked down at Sarah, still captured in his embrace, instantly realized what they must look like…
…and promptly dropped her.
Sarah hit the floor with a thud, but quickly scrambled to her feet and said, “This isn’t what it looks like…I fell, you see, Lady Lancaster, you know how clumsy I can be. And Dav— ah, Lord Rochester just happened to, er, catch me…”
Sarah then trailed off lamely, knowing there was no saving this situation.
Because beyond what they appeared to be doing, even if that could be explained, they were still alone in a room together. And despite the fact that she was Sarah Jardin, of all people, and he was David Rochester, the golden boy of the ton, and no one in their right mind would ever imagine that he could be interested in her, tongues would still wag, and Sarah would be completely ruined.
Not that she wasn’t, by now, practically on the shelf, four and twenty was a ripe old age for a debutante—Sarah was still an innocent, well-bred lady and thereby subject to the merciless nature of society.
Ignoring Sarah’s outburst completely, Lady Lymington—the busybody who was probably showing off her recently redecorated parlor to the dowager duchess—turned to Lady Lancaster and said,
“Well, they must be married immediately.”
When Rose and Alex found themselves unceremoniously pushed out onto Lady Lancaster’s front porch, they looked at each other in bewilderment.
“I suppose this means we are working a case together,” Alex said slowly, still not sure what had just happened.
“I suppose it does,” Emily replied with a look of utter revulsion.
Alex sighed and raised his eyes to the heavens. Lord, give me strength.
“I know this isn’t what either of us wanted, but can we try to make the best of it?” he asked wearily, “or do you want to go back in there and tell the dowager you won’t work with me?”
That changed Emily’s demeanor immediately.
“No, no, it will be fine, I will do this with you, but don’t think for one second I am happy about it.”
“I would have to be an idiot to think that, dear.”
Emily looked at him pointedly.
“I am not an idiot, Emily,” Alex replied. “And deep down I think you know that.”
“No, I do not. But I challenge you to prove it to me. That would make for a nice change of pace.”
“Argh! You make me crazy, woman.”
Apparently having nothing to say to that point, Emily turned to the maid, Harriet, and indicated that they should leave.
Alex started after them as he had before, and the threesome continued in silence for some way before Emily came to an abrupt halt.
“Why are you still following us, sir?”
“Because we are going in the same direction, dear.”
“But you live over there,” Emily retorted, pointing toward the houses to the right.
“I do, indeed, but my horse is still at your house. I need to retrieve him.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to remind her that she was still in danger from the man in black, but he rather thought she deserved whatever the villain might do to her.
Finally turning to look him in the eye, Emily said, “I will have the horse brought to you upon arriving home. I am quite sure you have better things to do than follow me around.”
Well, that was an understatement if ever he heard one, but they still had things to discuss.
“What of our missi—ah, appointment that Lady Lancaster, er, scheduled?”
“Oh, yes, that,” Emily sighed. “Come to my house tomorrow morning, in appropriate attire, and we will go.”
Alex supposed that meant he would need to find a costume of some kind to blend in with the less than affluent parts of London. Well, that shouldn’t be too difficult. Any one of his friends or his brother would likely have something appropriate.
“Fine, tomorrow morning. Nine o’clock?”
“Or thereabouts,” Emily tossed back, as if it were of no import. She started walking away without waiting for a reply.
“That chit better be ready when I get there or there will be hell to pay. This isn’t some courting visit where it would be expected for a man to wait,” Alex grumbled to himself as he headed toward home. He had half a notion to stop by the cemetery and check for a new note, but the day with Emily Moss had drained him completely.
This did not bode well for their plans the next day. Perhaps it would be a good idea to just go to bed early tonight. A good night’s sleep would hopefully provide him enough fortitude to face the bane of his existence again in the morning.