London, June 1817
Portia Chadwick was terrified. And furious.
Perched on the edge of her seat in the racing carriage, her legs braced for action, Portia clenched fistfuls of her skirts in a vain attempt to contain her panic. Not twenty minutes ago, her sister Lily had been abducted right off the street in front of their great-aunt's house in Mayfair. They had just arrived home after an evening out when the assailant had come out of nowhere, knocking their driver to the ground with one blow and hauling Lily off her feet. Portia had scrambled from the carriage just in time to see her sister being tossed into a waiting vehicle that took off as soon as the kidnapper climbed in after her.
Portia's immediate instinct had been to chase after the carriage with her skirts lifted to her knees. If her great-aunt hadn't shouted after her with the uncharacteristically rational observation that she had no chance of outrunning a racing carriage, Portia would still be sprinting down the street.
Angelique had insisted there was another way.
And now here they were, driving at breakneck speed to the East End to search the streets for a boy wearing a red cap.
It was ludicrous! Angelique had clearly lost her mind this time.
Portia's gaze darted toward the elderly lady. Despite the perilous nature of their current plight, the Dowager Countess of Chelmsworth appeared shockingly unperturbed. "We should have contacted the authorities," Portia argued once more, fear making her combative. "The authorities will do nothing but write up a report. Word of this will spread like a disease through the gossip mills," Angelique replied. A heavy French accent still colored her words, though she'd lived in England for decades. "We need to save your sister, and quickly, but the authorities will be more harm than help."
Portia wasn't sure she agreed, but she had accepted Angelique's lead on impulse and now had no choice but to follow it through.
She hated feeling so ineffectual, so bloody useless.
If only she had gotten out of the carriage first, then she would have been abducted instead of Lily. She would give anything to be in her sister's place right now. At twenty, Lily was more than a year older than Portia, but she was far too gentle and trusting to fare well in the hands of a ruthless kidnapper.
And Portia had no doubt her sister's abductor was quite ruthless. The kidnapping had to be the work of Mason Hale, who had been sending threatening letters to their oldest sister, Emma. The same man who had accosted Lily just two nights ago, demanding repayment of a loan their father had incurred before his untimely death.
But Hale had given them until the end of tomorrow to come up with his money. Why would he kidnap one of them now? It made no sense.
Unless it was not Hale after all...
Portia's throat closed up in fierce rejection of the thought. It had to be Hale.
"How in hell is a boy in a red cap going to help us?" Portia pressed again, desperately needing assurance that they were not on a fool's errand as they raced toward a corner of London's East End where no gently bred lady should ever consider visiting.
"The boy knows how to get in touch with a man who can help us," Angelique answered. "Trust me, darling. It is our very best chance to save your sister."
Portia's stomach twisted.
"What kind of man?" she asked. "Who is he? How do you know he will help us?"
"He is known to do many things...for the proper incentive," Angelique replied evasively.
"Incentive?" Portia's anxiety spiked. "But we have little money."
"We have enough to bluff, ma petite. Now stop arguing." The elderly lady leaned forward to peer out the window. "We are almost there. Keep your eyes alert for the boy. Remember to look for a red cap."