Never Kiss a Rake Online - Anne Stuart

CHAPTER ONE

MISS BRYONY RUSSELL SAT in front of the dismal fire in the tiny terrace apartment on the very edge of Whitechapel. It was a dangerous area, and well she knew it, but with the small amount of money left the three sisters hadn’t had much choice. Lodgings in London weren’t to be had cheaply in the thirty-second year of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Bryony looked at her sisters and cleared her throat. “I believe there’s no choice for it, we’ll have to go into service.”

Her sisters looked at her with a mixture of interest and horror. “Service?” her youngest sister Sophia echoed faintly. “As in, work? As a maid?”

“What else does ‘service’ mean, you silly goose,” her middle sister Madeleine said. “I think it’s a brilliant idea.”

“I don’t,” Sophia said decidedly.

Bryony surveyed them impatiently. “Not you, Sophie. You’d get fired within a fortnight. And I’m not saying you should do it either, Maddy, if you don’t wish to. But the only way we’re going to find out the truth about what really happened to Papa is to get inside the households of those we most suspect, and I can think of no better way.”

It had all happened so swiftly. One day they were the pampered daughters of a wealthy shipping magnate, the next they were destitute, orphaned, and under a cloud of shame. Eustace Russell had been a self-made man, amassing a fortune through the shipping company that had started out a mere fledgling business and ended up being the foremost company in England and half of Europe. He’d married a great and titled beauty who’d given him three daughters; he lived life well.

And six weeks ago he’d supposedly embezzled a massive amount of Russell Shipping’s finances and then died in a carriage accident as he raced for the Continent, plunging to his death over the high cliffs on the southwest corner of England. His three daughters were finally beginning to emerge from the shock and grief that had overwhelmed them, only to find they were in social disgrace as well.

Two banks had failed immediately following the discovery of their father’s perfidy, setting off a financial panic that had wide-reaching effects. It was no wonder the name of Russell was viewed with scorn and mistrust nowadays.

For the past six weeks Bryony and her sisters had been in a fog, numbed by grief and confusion. Everything was gone—the money, their good name, their faith in their father. Their former town house on Curzon Street had been set on fire, presumably by Eustace to cover his tracks, and the ruined shell of it remained, mute testament to the shame that had come to their family. Even Renwick, the vast country estate in Somerset, had been taken, the entailed property returned to the heir upon Russell’s death. The three daughters had arrived from the country with no place to stay, and it had taken all Bryony’s force of character to keep her sisters from feeling the shame and hopelessness that was crushing her. It was a blessing that their delicate, high-strung mother wasn’t still alive to endure the public recoil. It was hard enough on Bryony, and she accounted herself far sturdier than their mother had ever been.

It hadn’t taken long for Bryony to pull herself together, take a clear look at the so-called proof of her father’s iniquity, and realize it was all a lie. The scribbled note, in her father’s own hand, had further convinced her.

Don’t trust any of them. Someone’s stealing money, and it looks like Kilmartyn’s in league with them, no matter what excuses he makes. Don’t trust Morgan either. Never trust a pirate. Something’s going on, and I’ll get to the bottom of it, or

Don’t trust anyone. That’s what her father had dashed off, a note to himself, but for Bryony it was something else. It was purpose. The idea that there was actually something that could be done was a tonic to her soul. There was no way she could bring her father back, but if she could ensure whoever was truly behind this met justice it would give them all some kind of peace, or, at the very least, resolution.

“We don’t even know that he was murdered,” Sophie protested. “Simply because you found an odd note among Father’s papers doesn’t mean we should pay it any heed. Carriage accidents do happen, you know. And who’s to say that Father didn’t take that money?”

“Because Papa was almost maddeningly honest, and he instilled those values in all of us,” Bryony