His Rags to Riches Contessa – Excerpt
London, Autumn 1818
The woman The Procurer had come in search of had once been a regular street performer in the piazza at Covent Garden. The Procurer had seen her in action several times, and had been impressed by her skills and ability to work the crowd, particularly admirable in one so young. Becky Wickes’s looks, no less than her sleight of hand tricks had always drawn a large audience, for she was dramatically beautiful, with huge violet eyes, sharp cheekbones, a sensual mouth and a lush figure. When she passed the hat round she garnered a healthy collection of coins, though about a year ago, by The Procurer’s reckoning, she had abruptly disappeared from her usual pitch. It was clear now, from the very public scandal in which she was embroiled, and which the gutter press had naturally made the most of, what she had been doing in the interim.
The Procurer entered the infamous rookery of St Giles in the wake of her guide, a local urchin, son of one of her less salubrious contacts. Her target had not been at all easy to trace, but then people who so desperately needed to disappear rarely were. With very good reason in her case. Members of the Royal family, even minor ones, had a long and powerful reach. It had been a very grave mistake on Miss Wickes’s part to be caught in the act of fleecing one such.
The Procurer side-stepped the foul sewer which ran down the middle of the narrow alleyway, executing another side-step in order to avoid landing on the rotting carcass of a small mammal she did not care to identify. A gaggle of rough-looking men were drinking from pewter tankards outside one of the rookery’s many gin shops. She could feel their sharp, curious glances stabbing like knives in her back. Her black cloak was plain enough, but the quality of the wool would be enough to make her stand out. As would her looks. The Procurer was indifferent to her singular beauty, but she was not fool enough to deny its existence.
As her child guide led her ever deeper into the rookery, the alleyway narrowed. Hatches from the cellars had been flung open to allow the fetid air to escape the subterranean living areas. Even one woman rescued from this ocean of misery and deprivation was a victory, however small. As her guide pointed to the open door of a dark and gloomy close, The Procurer resisted the impulse to scatter her purse of loose change at the feet of the raggle-taggle band of followers her progress had attracted. When she was done here, and returned to safer streets, there would be ample time for dispensing such alms. To do so now might jeopardise not only her mission but her personal safety.
‘Stay here and do not move,’ she told the boy firmly. ‘You remember what you are to do if I do not return within the hour?’
Waiting only on his nod of affirmation, she ascended the worn steps to the third floor landing, rapping sharply on the first door to the right. There was no answer. Accustomed to encountering both suspicion and fear during this critical first meeting, The Procurer knocked again, listening intently. Yes, there was someone on the other side of the door, she could not so much hear as sense the tension emanating from them. ‘Miss Wickes,’ she said quietly, her tone conciliatory, ‘I come alone, and as a friend.’
After a brief pause, the door opened a fraction. The woman who peered at her in the dim light bore little resemblance to the one The Procurer recalled from Covent Garden. Her formerly glossy mane of black hair was dull, piled in a tangled knot of curls on top of her head. Her violet eyes were darkly-shadowed, the slant of her cheekbones so pronounced she looked almost gaunt. ‘What do you want? Who are you?’ Her panic was evident from the way her eyes darted over The Procurer’s shoulder.
‘I merely wish to speak to you, Miss Wickes.’ The Procurer stuck her foot against the jamb just in time to prevent the door being slammed in her face. ‘You need not be alarmed, I am not here to have you clapped in irons, but to put a proposition to you.’ Taking the woman completely by surprise, she pushed her way in. ‘Now, do you have the makings of a cup of tea? I would very much appreciate one.’
A startled peal of laughter greeted this remark. ‘Would you indeed?’ Hands on hips, Becky Wickes surveyed The Procurer through narrowed eyes. ‘What in the devil’s name is a woman like you doing in a place like this? Who are you?’
‘They call me The Procurer. Perhaps you have heard of me?’
Becky felt her jaw drop. ‘All of London has heard tell of you.’ She studied the intruder in her expensive wool cloak more carefully. ‘You aren’t how I pictured you. I thought you’d be much older. I certainly didn’t think you’d be a beauty.’
‘Then both our expectations have been confounded, Miss Wickes. Despite your own very striking beauty, you bear little resemblance to the woman I used to admire, performing in the Covent Garden piazza.’
‘That’s because I ain’t working the piazza no more,’ Becky said, deliberately lapsing into the harsh accent of her cockney roots. ‘What I’m wondering,’ she continued in her more cultured voice, ‘is what my appearance has to do with your appearance here?’
The Procurer, however, did not seem inclined to explain herself. Instead she nodded approvingly. ‘I knew, from watching you perform, that you were an accomplished actress. It is reassuring to know that you have also an excellent ear.’
‘You saw me on the stage? I’ve not tread the boards for nearly five years.’
‘I was referring to your performances in Covent Garden piazza. I confess, your strong local accent was something which did concern me. I am vastly relieved to discover it is not a problem.’
‘That is indeed a relief,’ Becky responded in a mocking and flawless imitation of The Procurer’s own accent with its faint Scottish lilt.
‘I do not intend any slight or offence,’ The Procurer said. ‘Firstly, for reasons which will become clear, it is important that your voice does not betray your humble origins. And secondly, I am relieved because your facility with language indicates that you will find a foreign tongue as easy to master as the accent of those who call themselves our betters here in London.’
Becky snorted. ‘Judging from your own accent, Madam, I’d say that you are in the other camp.’
‘I would have thought that you would know better than to judge by appearances, Miss Wickes, for they can be very deceptive. The performer I observed executing those sleight of hand tricks in the Covent Garden piazza was a very confident, almost arrogant individual. Very different from the female standing before me now. Your alter ego had a certain air about her, one may say.’
‘One might.’ Becky eyed her astonishing visitor with respect. Any doubts she’d had about the woman’s claim to be the mysterious Procurer vanished. ‘Most people only see what you want them to see.’
‘That is my experience, certainly.’
‘So there’s another woman behind The Procurer then? I wonder…’
‘I suggest most strongly that you dampen your curiosity.’ The frigid tone made Becky take an instinctive step back. ‘The first of my terms,’ The Procurer continued, ‘is that you will neither speculate nor enquire about me. And before you answer, let me assure you Miss Wickes, that I will know if you do.’
Formidable, that’s what the woman was. Well, so too was Becky, but she also knew there was a time for facing up to people, and a time for backing down. If she wanted to hear what The Procurer had to offer, then she’d better comply with The Procurer’s terms. ‘Fine,’ she said, throwing her hands in the air. ‘No questions. You have my word. And it can be relied on, I promise.’
She was rewarded with an approving smile. ‘I believe you. Now, to business. Do you have tea?’
‘I do, though I reckon you’ll think I’m serving you dishwater. If you will sit down I’ll see to it.’
The Procurer took a seat at the table, pinching off her gloves and unfastening her cloak, making no effort to disguise her surveillance of Becky’s spartan room. That clear, frankly intimidating gaze took in every detail: the rickety bed with its cast-iron headboard and thin cover wedged into the corner; the tin kettle on the hearth, and the battered tea pot beside it; the mismatched china cups and saucers which Becky set out on the scarred table with the wobbly leg. ‘I had heard that until your major faux pas you were rather successful in your, let’s call them endeavours,’ she said, as Becky sat down opposite her, ‘but I see none of the trappings of that success here.’
‘Major faux pas!’ Becky repeated scornfully. ‘That’s one way of putting it, and a lot more generous than some.’
‘I’ve seen the reports in the press. Written with a view to selling copy rather than telling the truth, of course. I prefer to rely on my own sources, Miss Wickes, and I believe I know enough of your circumstances to think that you have been, if you will forgive the pun, dealt a very poor hand.’
‘But one I dealt myself,’ Becky said bitterly.
‘Really?’ The Procurer raised one perfectly arched brow. ‘I was informed that the plan was hatched by a certain Jack Fisher.’
Becky gave a scornful snort of laughter. ‘Your sources, as you call them, are impressively well-informed. It was his idea all right.’ Her face fell, her mouth thinned. ‘But it was my decision to go along with it, all the same. Even though I knew – but there, it’s done now, and at least I’ve had my eyes opened where Jack Fisher is concerned. I should never have trusted him.’
‘Console yourself with the fact that it is a mistake countless women have made.’
Was that the voice of experience she was hearing? Becky opened her mouth to ask, remembering her promise not to do so just in time. ‘Well, I won’t be making that mistake again,’ she said instead. ‘Once bitten twice shy, as they say.’
‘I prefer my own mantra. Onwards and upwards.’ The Procurer took a dainty sip of her tea, her face registering mild distaste.
‘I did warn you,’ Becky said, surprised to discover that she could be embarrassed over a stupid thing like tea. ‘Dishwater, like I said, not whatever exotic blend you’re used to.’
She expected a polite denial. She was surprised when The Procurer smiled ruefully. ‘My apologies. I am fortunate enough to have a friend in the tea trade who indulges my passion for the beverage.’ She set the cup to one side. ‘Tell me, have you always resided here in St Giles?’
Becky shrugged. ‘Here and hereabouts. It’s the safest place to be, for those of us born and raised here, and the most dangerous for unwelcome visitors who were not. How did you find me? Was it Jack who tipped you off?’
‘I have not had the misfortune to meet your paramour. In fact I’m reliably informed that he is en route to the New World.’
‘I would rather you’d been reliably informed that he was on his way to the underworld,’ Becky said sharply. Flushing, she covered her mouth. ‘I don’t really mean that.’ The Procurer raised an enquiring brow. ‘Don’t get me wrong, he’s a lying, cheating…’ She broke off, digging her nails into her hands. ‘I wish I’d never set eyes on him. I fell hook, line and sinker for his handsome face and his charming ways and his lies. He played me like a fish, and I was gullible enough to believe every sweet nothing he whispered in my ear.’
Becky forced herself to unfurl her fingers, acutely aware of the cool gaze of the woman sitting opposite her. ‘I’ve learnt my lesson,’ she said with a grim little smile. ‘From now on, whatever happens in the future, it’ll be down to me and me alone.’
She’d meant to sound confident. Defiant. But something in her voice or her expression betrayed her thoughts. The Procurer reached across the table, briefly touching her fingers with her own. ‘It can be done, Becky. A fresh start. A new you.’
‘You sound so certain. How can you be so sure?’
‘Trust me, I speak from experience.’ The hand was withdrawn. The Procurer was all business again. ‘You can escape from here. The proposition I have for you will reward you sufficiently to set you up for life, whatever life you choose to lead, without having to rely on any man. Are you interested?’
‘What do you think?’
The Procurer eyed her coolly. ‘I think, Miss Wickes, that despite acting foolishly, you are very far from being a fool. A woman from your disadvantaged background, who has survived by her wits rather than succumbing to the many lucrative offers a beauty such as yourself must have been presented with is very much to be admired. I think that you deserve a second chance and I am in a position to offer you just that. As it so happens I am looking for someone with your unique combination of talents.’
A second chance! For two weeks Becky had been in hiding from the authorities, constantly dreading a knock on the door, left to take her chances by the man she had naively trusted, quite literally, with her life as it turned out. Hope flickered inside her. Becky tried to ignore it. ‘I want no part of it, if it means using my skills at the gaming tables to line someone else’s pockets.’
‘Isn’t that precisely what you did for Jack Fisher?’
‘It is, though I never knew it. Until I met Jack, my only aim was to keep belly from backbone. It was his idea, to move from the piazza to the tables. It took him a year to persuade me, and I only ever did it because I believed the pack of lies he spun.’
‘Had you been less principled, Miss Wickes, with a talent such as yours, you would not be living in a place like this. Pray accept my complements, and my assurances that the assignment I have in mind for you does not require you to use your most considerable skills to enrich my client in any monetary sense.’
‘Thank you. I appreciate that. I’d like to know what it is your client does require of me.’
‘Some ground rules first, Miss Wickes. I must have your solemn promise that you will never disclose the details to anyone.’
‘That I can easily promise. I told you, I’ve learnt my lesson. Trust no-one. Rely on no-one except myself.’
‘A commendable maxim. You should also know that you have no obligation to disclose any details of your life or your history to my client unless you choose to do so.’
Becky’s eyebrows shot up. ‘He doesn’t know who I am?’
‘I have a reputation for making the impossible possible. My clients come to me with complex and unusual problems requiring unique solutions. Solutions they cannot, by implication, come up with themselves. He need know nothing more than you choose to tell him.’
Becky frowned. ‘So he doesn’t even know you’re talking to me?’
‘Nor will he, unless you accept the contract offered. The reward for which, as I mentioned, is considerable.’
She quoted a sum so large Becky thought she must have misheard, but when asked to repeat it, the number was the same. Becky whistled under her breath. ‘That’s enough to set me up for life, and then some. I’d never have to work again.’
‘A life-changing amount.’
‘A life-saving amount! Enough to get me far from here before they find me and make an example of me by stretching my neck.’ Becky finished her cold tea and fixed The Procurer with a defiant stare. ‘Robbery and fraud, they’d hang me for, you know, and they’d have every right. I cheated. It doesn’t matter that he could well afford to lose, I still cheated.’
‘You did not act alone. Your partner in crime…’
‘Is half way across the Atlantic by now with his pockets full of gold,’ Becky said impatiently. ‘What a fool I was.’
‘Love can make a fool of the best of us, sadly.’
‘Love! It doesn’t just make a fool of us, it makes us blithering idiots. I thought the earth, moon and stars revolved around Jack Fisher. All I ever wanted was to make him happy. Was that love? I was certainly in thrall to him.’ To Becky’s shame, tears smarted in her eyes. She brushed them away angrily. She’d cried enough tears to mend the most broken of hearts. ‘Never again. I’ve learnt my lesson the hard way. As you have, I reckon,’ she added pointedly.
For the first time, The Procurer failed to meet Becky’s eyes. ‘To continue with my rules of engagement,’ she said brusquely. ‘If you accept this assignment, my client will require your unswerving loyalty. He will also require you to complete the terms of your contract to the letter. The terms, as I mentioned, are generous. I should caution you, however, that you will be paid only upon successful completion of your assignment. Half-measures will not be rewarded. If you leave before the task is completed, you will return to England without any remuneration.’
‘Return to England?’ Her anger and embarrassment forgotten, Becky leaned forward eagerly in her seat. ‘Where am I to go? Is your client a foreigner? Is that why you mentioned my – what did you call it, ear for language? I can’t imagine…’’
‘No, I don’t expect you can,’ The Procurer interrupted, laughing softly. ‘Let me enlighten you.’
Back to His Rags to Riches Contessa