Nicholas sighed as he placed the letter in the inner pocket of his coat. “In a romantic sense. My feelings for you have changed, Jane. You must understand that. And that was long before you decided to blackmail me.”
Her eyes narrowed, and Nicholas could see the malicious and manipulative woman she had always been. She whom he had not recognized until it was too late. She rose from her seat, absently smoothing her skirts.
“If that is what you want, so be it. You’ve made your intentions known. I’ll leave now and promise never to be seen in your company again.”
“And Lord Tulk?” Nicholas asked.
“That old man disgusts me,” Lady Ayles replied with a sneer. “I only accepted his invitation to accompany him to the ball because of you. But don’t worry. I’ll not warn him of what I suspect.” She then smiled. “As long as your money continues to fill my purse, that is. I may have a sudden revelation that requires a confession of all I know.”
Nicholas fought back the anger that welled up inside him. He was so close to putting Tulk out of his life—physically, at least. Losing his temper now would be of no benefit. Once Tulk was destroyed, the payments could stop.
“But that young lady is another story,” Lady Ayles said, the corner of her mouth twitching. “I’ll make no promises there. Who knows what I might say to her?”
Nicholas stared at her in stunned silence. She had always been spiteful, but to go after Miss Jenny was going too far. Images of what she would do only stoked his anger.
But he was not Lady Ayles’s first victim. He recalled a time after they had parted ways when he learned she had also blackmailed the daughter of a duke. Apparently, she had been seen kissing a young footman in a nearby park, and Lady Ayles had used that as fuel to receive several payments.
Until the daughter ran away with the footman, that is. Then she had to hide her knowledge or face the wrath of the duke for not informing him when she first learned of it.
“No, Jane,” he said in an even tone. “You’ll say nothing to Miss Clifton.”
Her light laugh made his skin prickle. “And what can you do to stop me?” Before he could respond, she kissed his cheek. “Goodbye, Nicholas.”
Nicholas dropped back onto the chair and rubbed his temples. She was right. There was nothing he could do to stop her. Any attempts would only bolster her words, making him vulnerable to being exposed before he could see his plans to completion.
Despite her vindictiveness, Lady Ayles would soon be back, hunting for a new husband. She was not the type of woman to enjoy a life of solitude. Now that he had made it clear he had no interest in her, she would have to find another man to pursue. Therefore, she would have no time for causing problems between him and Miss Jenny.
He returned to the study to retrieve several documents and made his way to the parlor. Lord Tulk sat in a high-back chair, a glass of brandy in hand as he stared into the fire.
“Forgive me for making you wait,” Nicholas said as he sat in the chair opposite. “I had unfinished business to see to.”
“I take it all went well?”
Nicholas nodded. “Indeed. But we’ve more important matters to discuss. Such as the documents I received from Thompson.” He handed Lord Tulk the papers. He eyed the glass the marquess held. It was a bit early, but given his nerves at the moment, he said, “I’m pouring myself a brandy. Would you care for another?”
The marquess waved him off without looking up from the documents in his lap.
Nicholas poured himself a drink, took a nervous sip, and added a bit more. The agreement was simple, and if Lord Tulk agreed to the terms, it would quickly send the man down a path to ruin. Yet the marquess would not be as easy to deceive as his counterparts. All Nicholas could do was hope the documents were convincing.
“Let me see if I understand,” Lord Tulk said after several minutes. “You’re asking me to invest in not only a ship but a fleet of ships. And a string of inns, as well?”
Nicholas nodded. He had rehearsed the story a thousand times and knew every aspect down to the minutest detail. And as Mr. Thompson had advised in his first letters, one must be willing to devise lucrative offers if he wishes to catch a shark. No single ship or one inn would be enough. Lord Tulk was far too wealthy.
“If we wish to bring in more goods, we need more ships,” Nicholas replied, pasting on a smile. “That alone allows for a great deal of profit. But now I would like to share a scheme that has my coffers overflowing.”
Lord Tulk raised a brow, but his eyes glinted with greed. “Go on.”
“You mentioned how you use a particular inn as a… let’s call it a coach stop for the sake of our discussion. My plan is to use the vessels not only to import wine and other goods but also as passenger ships.”
The marquess snorted. “I’ve no interest in hauling passengers, Dowding.”
Nicholas smiled. “Ah, but these are no regular travelers. These will be young women, under the guise of passengers, who will be sold to the brothels in London.” He leaned in closer, praying he would not sick up. He despised even speaking about such things! “Those who use these services have grown tired of the English harlots and are looking for something a bit more… exotic. There are many willing to pay a hefty price for French and Spanish girls offering variety. Now, I know what I’m proposing may be jarring. It was for me when I first learned of it. But I’m telling you, I’ve never made so much money!”
Lord Tulk threw back his head and laughed. “Such a young pup you are! I’ve sold more than a few servant girls in my time, so I’m no greenhorn. What stops me from using my own resources to do this on my own? I would be able to keep all my profits for myself rather than having to share them.”
Nicholas raised his drink. He was ready for this question. “Because one can sell only so many servants before people begin to whisper. Or bring in foreign women, for that matter. We can divvy the ships and inns into three groups, none in any particular order or group. Each of us will add his name to the deeds for his third of them. We’ll also sign documents—”
“Yes, yes, I understand the proposal, Dowding.” Lord Tulk pursed his lips in thought. “And Thompson can guarantee our success?”