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Fortune Favors the Wicked
Royal Rewards #1
Released March 29th, 2016
As a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Benedict Frost had the respect of every man on board—and the adoration of the women in every port. When injury ends his naval career, the silver-tongued libertine can hardly stomach the boredom. Not after everything—and everyone—he’s experienced. Good thing a new adventure has just fallen into his lap…
When courtesan Charlotte Perry learns the Royal Mint is offering a reward for finding a cache of stolen gold coins, she seizes the chance to build a new life for herself. As the treasure hunt begins, she realizes her tenacity is matched only by Benedict’s—and that sometimes adversaries can make the best allies. But when the search for treasure becomes a discovery of pleasure, they’ll be forced to decide if they can sacrifice the lives they’ve always dreamed of for a love they’ve never known…
“The stew is as good as the ale. Make of that what you will.” The intriguing Mrs. Smith’s tone was warm as she replied to Benedict, with a bubble of laughter in it. “And I must add, since you tell me you are blind and therefore might be unaware of this detail, that you are quite right about the effect of your uniform on certain females. Mrs. Potter, who owns the Pig and Blanket with her husband, has granted you the only smile I have ever seen cross her sour features. If you wish to return it, she is across the room and to your right.”
And that was that. She noted and accepted his blindness, and that was all she had to say about it.
“It is most gratifying to know I can turn a woman up sweet. Or at least that my coat can. Thank you,” Benedict replied, grateful to his veiled companion for far more than her appraisal of the cookery at the Pig and Blanket.
Feeling his way through the world was a skill that had taken years to hone. As was the ability to smile when one felt not at all like smiling, and to ask for help when one would rather curse the darkness.
He had not felt much like smiling since his dreadful interview with George Pitman. But just now, it was not so difficult. He even pointed a bit of the smile to his right, in the direction of the unknown Mrs. Potter.
“Not at all.” Just when he thought she had no more to say, she added, “You are correct that my name is not Mrs. Smith. But if you would continue to call me that, I should be grateful.”
“Very wise of you to keep your counsel. One will not find a stolen treasure by trusting every random encounter with valuable secrets.”
“My identity is not a valuable secret, Mr. Frost. Nothing of the sort.” The bubble of laughter had popped.
“I meant to imply nothing of the sort. I am certain your identity is a matter of complete dullness. Only the plainest people with the most tedious of lives go about veiled under a false name.” Before she could ask how he knew of her veil, he waved a hand. “You— there’s something in front of your face. It gets in the way of your voice.”
“It gets in the way of a damned sight more than that,” she muttered, just low enough that he could pretend he hadn’t heard a lady curse.
The word carried a little shock, almost like coming upon a lady undressed. And there was no question that she was a lady, though she was alone and passing under a false name. Her voice was well-bred, well educated. Accent was everything in England; the way a person spoke or dropped their aitches was enough to open or shut the doors of society.
God. This country was such a cursed prison. Cursed streets, cursed thieves, cursed coaches that didn’t run precisely on time to the schedule one had memorized.
Most of all, cursed George Pitman, because of whom Benedict was still in England and not scudding across a springtime sea.
Oh, the publisher had enjoyed Benedict’s accounts of his travels. Found them everything he’d been promised through their earlier correspondence. Was perfectly happy to publish the piece on commission.
As a novel.
There’s no way a blind man could have done these things, Pitman said. The chair behind his desk creaked as he leaned back; the scent of cheap tobacco arose from his clothing, assaulting Benedict’s nostrils. You’ve got a wonderful imagination, Frost, but this is a fiction, not a memoir. Anyone could see that. And then he laughed. A blind man could see that.
The precious manuscript pages, marked out with the guiding lines of Benedict’s noctograph, had not been left with Pitman. Nor with any other printing house; they had laughed him out almost as soon as they met him.
There would be no fortune of his own making. Not if it were up to the publishers of London.
Had he thought he wanted stew? His throat closed, choking him.
With a deep breath, Benedict summoned calm. Not-Mrs. Smith was speaking to him. “I have heard it said that one’s other senses become more acute when sight is lost. Have you found it so, or is that rubbish?”
I’ve found that to be utter shite. But the question was posed with courtesy, and so he answered it in kind. “I have been told that, usually by sighted people intending to comfort me as my sight failed. But the effort I’ve invested in making my way about a sighted world has convinced me otherwise. Rather, I have trained myself to notice things others need not.”
“Like a veiled woman.”
“I doubt I am the only one who noticed you, madam.” Surely anyone who caught sight of a veiled woman would be curious.
Benedict had never dropped the habit of wondering what people looked like, even after four years of living by his ears and wits. Mrs. Smith possessed the voice of a beautiful woman. But beautiful in what way? Was she buxom and dark? Slim and golden? Buxom and golden? Slim and dark?
There were so many ways a woman might be beautiful, and he missed seeing them all. If he had met her at another time, in another place—at an ambassador’s party, maybe, or even among the long shelves in the bookshop that had once been his parents’—he might have been flirt enough to read her features with his fingertips.
“I hope you are,” she replied, and for a moment he thought she was granting him permission to do just that.
“I . . . beg your pardon?”
“I hope you are the only one who noticed me, I mean. I am here to listen, not to draw attention.”
Ah. Yes. That made more sense than a mysterious, cultured woman craving the attentions of a rough stranger. “Would that I could achieve the same,” he said lightly. “But when one enters a room by smacking a cane on the floor, one must expect to be looked at.”
“It is certainly an effective way to announce one’s presence. There are—I imagine—men and women aplenty in the ton who would adopt the same method at a ball, if they only thought of it.”
“My sister is twenty and covets a season of her own. Perhaps I will recommend the use of a cane to her as a method of becoming notable.”
His metal-tipped cane, solid and dependable as a third hand, didn’t clear a path through the world so much as it revealed its shape. Different floors had their own unique feel; the movement of air about a room told Benedict something of its size. This common room, for example: its air was humid and close on his face and ungloved hands. A great crowd surely sat within, then, each pair of lungs a bellows and each heart a tiny hearth. People could be felt, just as floors could. Stillness could be felt too, when a crowd became silent bit by bit. How could he learn their secrets if his mere presence bought them to silence? How could he gain the royal reward amidst useless clamor and gossipy whispers?
He ought to have begun by using his friend Hugo Starling’s letter of introduction to the local vicar, instead of taking his chances with a public house. What clue could he hope to gather on his own that a longtime vicar would not be able to tell him more quickly? Hugo’s friends, The Reverend John Perry and Mrs. Perry, were expecting him sometime today.
He might as well leave at once; there was no purpose to sitting here longer. No reward would come his way from sitting with a woman, no matter how presumably lovely she was.
He shoved back his chair, flipping his cane to its spot at his side as he stood. “I must be leaving, madam. I wish you good luck on your search.”
“So soon, Mr. Frost? But you have taken no food.” She paused. “Of which you are aware, of course. Excuse my obvious remark; I’m only surprised. You seemed determined to fortify yourself before joining the horde of treasure seekers.”
“But you did tell me the stew was as good as the ale—and I’ve had better to drink on board a ship three weeks at sea.” A roguish grin. “I’ll find something else. There’s nothing more to be found here.”
He had to be careful, so careful, to smile and put people at ease. Otherwise he would become a caricature, like the growling hero of La Belle et La Bête. His sister, Georgette, had loved those old contes de fées as a child, even reading them in the original French. An advantage of having parents who owned a bookshop.
An advantage of being able to read words on a page. Those who took such a thing for granted were fools.
“I hope,” said the satin-rich voice of not-Mrs. Smith, “that there is more to be found here after all. I intend to brave the stew and wait a few more hours.”
“You are going on faith now? Better you than me.”
“Right.” She said this more quietly. “Right. Well. One does what one must.”
“Thank you for the opportunity to make your acquaintance.” He bowed a farewell.
The path back to the door was easy to follow; he reversed the steps in his mind and wound his way to the foyer, then the door of the inn. There was no need to thump his cane on the floor this time, listening for echoes. He might leave without making a spectacle of himself.
And he had to leave—to find Hugo’s friends, to learn what they had to share. Then go somewhere, do something to find those damned gold sovereigns. And once he did, once he had collected the reward, he would make the life he and Georgette deserved.
The world might think a blind man couldn’t write a book about travel. But even the most doubting ought to realize: there was no one better at finding a path others had overlooked than a man who couldn’t see.
Historical romance author Theresa Romain pursued an impractical education that allowed her to read everything she could get her hands on. She then worked for universities and libraries, where she got to read even more. Eventually she started writing, too. She lives with her family in the Midwest. Please visit her at theresaromain.com.