Regency Scandals and Scoundrels – Scarlett Scott

CRİSPİN FACED THE most dangerous and feared Spaniard on the Peninsula, and despite the unease roiling through his gut, he did not flinch. A dark, embittered figure flanked by two large, armed guards, the man always dressed in simple peasant garb. But his speech, commanding presence, and almost flawless English marked him as something more than the picture he presented. He was known as El Corazón Oscuro. The Dark Heart. To some, he was a fabled hero. Like an avenging knight of old, he fought against French tyranny and oppression, striking back against rampaging armies that decimated towns, pilfering and ravaging homes and families. He avenged innocent civilians who were left to bleed to death in the courtyards of their small towns. To the French army, there were far more appropriate appellations for the man. Le Diable, they called him, or Le Sans Couer. Anything less would be a misnomer for a man responsible for killing over a thousand French troops in guerilla attacks all across the Peninsula. But he did not stop at enemy soldiers. Anyone suspected of harboring the enemy was fair game for death and violence. Even the innocent. Unlike most meetings called by El Corazón Oscuro, this one was being conducted beneath the cover of an early spring moon in a home that had been commandeered and subsequently destroyed by the French.

Window panes and frames had been removed, and neither a stick of furniture, nor a jagged shard of crockery remained within. The place had been eviscerated as surely as if a howitzer had blasted it to hell. The air was crisp and cool, the scent of impending rain looming as surely as the siege that would soon unfold upon Badajoz. The time to strike had imbued Crispin and his men, as it always did, with a reckless, pent-up energy that could not be settled upon one task. He felt it now as he and his best friend and fellow intelligence officer Morgan, Marquess of Searle, stood shoulder to shoulder and stared down El Corazón Oscuro. Part of him wanted to charge the fortifications of the city now. Part of him wanted to withdraw his sidearm and aim it upon the Spaniard. He did not trust the man. Never had, never would, and something about the evening meeting, with its unusual stipulations and obscure location, chilled him to his marrow. He could not shake the feeling that he would either return to his post in the morning victorious, or he would die this night and rot into the earth the same way so many other soldiers before him had.

“More cannon,” El Corazón Oscuro charged into the uneasy silence. They had navigated this delicate dance many times before. Wellington supplied El Corazón Oscuro and his band of cutthroats and mercenaries with as many supplies, armaments, and funds as could be reasonably diverted. In return, the bloodthirsty men attacked vulnerabilities in the French line with a complete disregard for those they slaughtered. Last month, El Corazón Oscuro had attacked a French field hospital, the already wounded soldiers sheltering there nailed to trees to bleed to death. Crispin and Morgan, who had been friends well before their days as war comrades, exchanged a communicative glance. The Spaniard always asked for more at each meeting. But his campaigns against the French—limited, lightning-fast attacks—were too successful to resist. Inevitably, they would reach a compromise. Their commanding general had given them their utmost limits prior to their departure.

“How many more cannon?” Crispin asked. “We have seven to spare,” Morgan added. El Corazón Oscuro’s lip curled. “Seven? Do you jest, Coroneles? We require at least fifteen for the French blockhouses in this region alone.” The defensive blockhouses of the enemy dotted major arteries, providing garrisons for infantry that protected intelligence and supplies. Attacking the bastions led to disruption in communication and provisions the French could ill afford. Already, their messengers traveled with cavalry numbering in the hundreds. Crispin and Morgan had been sent on countless missions to ensure the loyalty and success of local guerilla bands in the last two years alone. El Corazón Oscuro and his men were no different. Except for the stark evil of the man.

War was hell, but murdering innocent women… Crispin’s gut clenched at the recollection of the aftermath of El Corazón Oscuro’s bitter campaigns of vengeance. Battle had a way of expunging all empathy from a man—he must either become impervious or succumb to death. But there remained some parts of his inner sensibility as a gentleman that he could not entirely dismiss. “We have seven,” Crispin repeated. Rumors regarding El Corazón Oscuro had begun to swirl, and Wellington had determined not to provide the leader and his forces more funds and armaments than any other band, in spite of his brutal successes. No one trusted the bastard. It was said El Corazón Oscuro had a French mother, which clouded his intentions beneath a shroud of suspicion, and that the chief motivator in all his actions was greed. It was also said that he could be easily bought. Even so, they had never denied El Corazón Oscuro any of his wishes before, having been given carte blanche to appease his bloodthirstiness. “Seven is insufficient,” growled the ruffian.

“We feel confident that seven is adequate,” Morgan offered smoothly in his bland, drawing-room accent. Morgan’s cool, unflappable air was the stuff of legend amongst their ranks. After taking a bullet to the tip of his pinkie at Talavera, he had lopped off what remained with his sword and continued to fight. “Adequate, you say.” El Corazón Oscuro grinned without mirth, the effect more like a snarl. The man’s barely leashed savagery, coupled with his rampant ire, sent a chill down Crispin’s spine. He pitied those who had seen this vagabond’s angry visage as their last sight before oblivion. Men buried alive to their shoulders so they could die a slow and painful death, unable to free themselves. And then there was the French captain who had met his end over the hearth of this very home, hung by his feet over the fire so that his head roasted. “Adequate,” Crispin affirmed, tamping down the bile that rose in his throat when he thought of the still smoking body of the captain.

The vile scent of charred human flesh would never leave a man. “Who are you to decide what is adequate, bonito Inglés?” he thundered, his gaze slicing to Morgan with dark, undeniable rage. “You with your fancy uniforms and your undying love from sweet-scented, pious hermanas and madres at home? You who have never had to watch your people be raped and killed. How the hell could you know what is adequate? We are tired of this cursed war, and we want it to end. It can only end with more cannon, more French cerdo blood. Give us the cannon, and the heavens will open to rain escarlata.” “French cerdo blood is it now?” Morgan raised a brow, challenging their reluctant ally for the first time. “How odd for you to react thus when I am given to understand you are half French yourself. With the rumors surrounding your… heritage, one cannot help but wonder at your true loyalty.” “My heritage,” El Corazón Oscuro repeated, his tone taking on a deadly quality.

A quiet, violent rage. “Elaborate, bonito.” Bloody hell. Both the Spaniard cutthroat and Morgan vibrated with aggression as they squared off, looking like two wild dogs about to fight to the death. “Idle rumors often abound,” Crispin intervened. “Some question your motives. I am afraid that such word has reached our superiors. You understand, surely, they cannot allow for a surfeit of armaments to be put into the hands of forces that cannot be trusted implicitly as allies. El Corazón Oscuro spat. “Our ravens are hungry for their daily feast of Frenchmen, but perhaps they would like pretty Englishmen just as well.

” “Do you dare to threaten us, vile son of a French whore?” Morgan gritted. El Corazón Oscuro’s eyes flashed. “You will regret your words, Searle. I will take great pleasure in making you eat them before I let the birds peck out your tongue.” He gave a jerky nod. A splitting pain crashed through Crispin’s skull in the next moment, and his vision went black. Chapter One London, Six Months Later “READ THEM ALOUD once more if you please, Jacinda. I think I may have inadvertently missed a number, for the sequence has no notable pattern.” Jacinda glanced up from the carefully transcribed document to her father. He was beloved in the lamp glow, his white hair askew from his familiar habit of running his fingers through the thinned strands whilst in thought.

Their deciphering sessions grew increasingly tedious and fraught with blunders. At first, she had suspected his eyesight had grown worse than he wished to admit. Now, she could not help but wonder if something far worse was at work. Worry lanced her stomach, curdling the modest breakfast she had consumed not an hour before. But, she nevertheless lowered her eyes to the copy of the enciphered dispatch that had been discovered on the body of a French aide-de-camp. “One hundred. Ten. Twenty. One-and-thirty. Three.

One hundred and four. Fourteen…” Painstakingly, she recited the numeric ciphers that had been transcribed for the eighth time. She had been reading aloud the documents that had arrived from the Peninsula, written in precise, small script, because Father could not read them. He recopied each number painstakingly in large scrawl his double spectacles rendered legible. Father frowned. “I do believe I transposed this fourteen to one-and-forty,” he murmured, bent over his task, nose frightfully near to the paper he scoured. “How many fourteens have you, Jacinda dearest? I have two-and-thirty at most recent count.” “I do as well,” she said gently, wondering how she could broach the subject with him. How he hated to see his physician, for being the preeminent decipherer in London meant he could afford no weakness of body or mind. “According to my charts, fourteen is the most commonly appearing number in the dispatches written in the new method of enciphering.

” “Yes.” Father raked his wizened hands through his hair without glancing up. “If only we knew what fourteen substitutes. Is it a word or a letter?” Jacinda’s mind turned to the matter of cracking the new French cipher, one so complicated that Wellington’s field officers could not unravel its mysteries. Like Father, who descended from a line of deciphers and remained one of a small, elite handful that worked for the Crown, she loved the sport of decoding. So much so that after James’ death, aiding Father was all that kept her feeling alive. “Dispatches number three, seven, eight, and ten all contain a combination of words,” she pointed out, confident they could exploit the weakness in the cipher by using the slipshod methods of the harried soldier who had not bothered to encrypt the entire communication. “Of course you are correct, as always, Jacinda.” Pride underscored Father’s words. “You are sharper than a rapier, my dear girl.

Together, we shall unlock the keys to this and our army will have the advantage it requires against the enemy.” Tenderness rushed through her. Mama had died when she was quite young, and it had been just the two of them for so long now. She was grateful he had taught her everything he knew, that he prized her mind and encouraged her pursuit of knowledge. Not every gentleman possessed his heart of gold. “Thank you for always believing in my capabilities,” she said softly, tears pricking at her eyes. She refused to allow them to fall. She had not wept since the day she learned of James’ death. Nor would she cry now, for she had promised herself nothing could ever hurt worse than the certain knowledge that her soldier would never come home to her. “You have been blessed with both the intelligence and beauty of your mother,” Father said, smiling forlornly.

“Nearly twenty years later, and the ache only grows stronger. How I miss her.” He had been speaking of her mother with a marked frequency, which added to the misgiving swirling through her. Father was her only family, the strength that carried her through each grim day. The thought of losing him made her chest tighten and her stomach curdle. But before she could respond, a knock sounded at the study door. Their butler Graves appeared, a fellow who never failed to make an illustration of his surname. “Your guest has arrived, sir,” he announced in his dour accent. Guest? She and Father seldom entertained, for he was content to confine himself to his studies every bit as much as she. The outside world with its social calls and teas and drawing-room boredom held no appeal for her.

Hers was a life that needed purpose, and she found it in the hopes her efforts with Father, in some small fraction of a way, could help to defeat the enemy that had slain her husband. “Thank you, Graves. See him in, if you please,” Father announced, further startling her with his lack of surprise. Clearly, their visitor was an expected one. “I shall excuse myself,” she said, coming to her feet, for she was not dressed to receive company. “No, Jacinda. You must remain.” Father’s command, sharpened by an edge she could not define, stayed her. “But Father…” He sighed, the sound weary, and passed a hand over his cheek. “Forgive me, my dear.

I would have denied his request outright, but as it concerns a matter of great import, I could not do so. I have been meaning to speak to you about it ever since I received the missive yesterday, but we have been so consumed by this cipher, I forgot.” He had also forgotten his cravat yesterday. Two days ago, he had misplaced his most treasured possession, a text that had been passed down to him by his father before him outlining the methods of deciphering. She had located it in the library stuffed amongst the great philosophers with a pair of his spectacles haphazardly placed atop. “Father,” she began again, meaning to address, at last, the fact something was very much amiss with him. Once more, she was interrupted, but this time it was by the reappearance of the butler with their mysterious guest. “Lord Kilross,” Graves announced before disappearing and closing the door smartly in his wake. Her stomach clenched anew at the identity of their unexpected caller. Jacinda had met the Earl of Kilross on several occasions, and on this occasion, no less than those prior, he unsettled her.

Something about the man was repellant. She tried to keep the distaste from her expression as he bowed, for he was the man responsible for Father’s continued position of honor as lead decipherer. Kilross had made clear if he was displeased with Father’s work or if Father showed any hint of frailty, he would be replaced without hesitation. And Father’s work was his life. She would do anything in her power to keep Father happy and to hide his poor eyesight and absentmindedness from the earl. Even if it meant smiling as if she found the blackguard charming. But Kilross had no time for pretense anyway. He pinned Father with a pointed stare. “You have spoken with her, I trust, Sir Smythe?” Color suffused her father’s cheeks. He cleared his throat.

“I am afraid I have not, my lord.” “Then I shall have to tell her.” The earl clenched his jaw and swung his stare to Jacinda. “Your father assures me you are a proficient decipherer. And while I hesitate to believe the female mind capable of such complexity of thought, I am willing to witness a demonstration.” Jacinda bit down to keep from offering a retort. What a despicable creature the earl was. “What manner of demonstration do you require, my lord?” How she hoped it was one in which her palm connected with his insufferable cheek. “One of your ability to break a cipher, Mrs. Turnbow.

” His expression remained hard, as harsh as his voice. She glanced to Father, who refused to meet her gaze, and knew a sudden, consuming flare of panic. Her hands tightened on the fall of her serviceable muslin gown. “Forgive me, but I do not see the necessity for such a thing. I am not a decipherer at all, as you must know.” The last thing she wished was for Kilross to somehow use her ability against Father. From the moment he had assumed his position at the Foreign Office, the earl had been loathsome in his endless displays of the power he wielded. Was that what this was? One more way for the earl to attempt to remove her father from service to the Crown? Dear heavens, she hoped not. If Father should lose his position… “I do not require your protestations of false humility, Mrs. Turnbow,” he snapped.

“I require the demonstration for which I have asked. Have a seat, if you please.” Swallowing her resentment, she did as he ordered, resuming the seat opposite her father at his large, ornate desk. Kilross extracted a folded missive from his coat and opened it, laying it on the desk before her. “You have precisely one-half hour to tell me what this says, madam.” “She will have it solved in less than ten minutes, my lord,” Father said with calm, paternal faith. Jacinda stared at the paper before her, a mass of jumbled letters that contained no outward meaning. She was confident in her abilities, but she had never before been observed or timed. Her palms went damp. It would seem she had no choice but to play her role in Kilross’s despotic exercise.

“Your time begins now,” he clipped, hovering over her shoulder. Doing her best to blot out his odious presence, she took up her pen and put her mind to work. Alphabetic ciphers were often formed with the use of a cipher wheel. Testing her theory, she sketched out a square of the alphabet running in varied rows and columns. Observing the variance of the letters and the frequencies, in no time she was confident she knew the meaning of the simple cipher. “Full fathom five thy father lies,” she read aloud. “Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suf er a sea-change into something strange and rich.” The words were Shakespeare’s, and their subject sent an ominous quaver through her. Even so, they were not quite right. She glanced up at Kilross.

“The last line ought to be into something rich and strange. The rhyme is off, you see.” The earl’s lip curled as he leaned over her to study the page. The sour scent of sweat and pipe smoke assailed her. “Clever, Mrs. Turnbow. But one must take care never to be considered too clever, for it hinders one’s usefulness, I find.” An icy tendril of alarm licked through her. She kept her palms flattened to the desk, took a deep, calming breath. It would not do to betray her sense of disquiet to Kilross.

The man was like a dogged fox who had scented the weakness in his prey. But she would not allow either herself or Father to be taken up in his jaws and made his sacrifice.

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