The Devil Comes Courting
Captain Grayson Hunter knows the battle to complete the first worldwide telegraphic network will be fierce, and he intends to win it by any means necessary. When he hears about a reclusive genius who has figured out how to slash the cost of telegraphic transmissions, he vows to do whatever it takes to get the man in his employ.
Except the reclusive genius is not a man, and she’s not looking for employment.
Amelia Smith was taken in by English missionaries as a child. She’s not interested in Captain Hunter’s promises or his ambitions. But the harder he tries to convince her, the more she realizes that there is something she wants from him: She wants everything. And she’ll have to crack the frozen shell he’s made of his heart to get it.
“The Devil Comes Courting...is a book about the delight of discovery: of new things, of one’s own capabilities, of love, of things that were thought lost. It’s a book that addresses serious topics seriously, but it is also a book that sparkles.”
“It's amazing to watch Courtney throw off the shackles of what some folks think historical romance has to be and instead, write what fills her heart and soul. It fills mine too... If you just want a really damn good romance with some great grumpy sunshine bits that makes you want to hug the hero and also give him a noogie simultaneously, this may be the perfect book for you.”
“The themes of loss and discovery play out in many patterns against a fantastic historical backdrop of China in all its beauty and challenges. Milan’s THE DEVIL COMES COURTING is a sparkling gem that deserves to top your Must Read Now list.”
All my books get code names. This one is called: DINOSAUR EMOJI. Yes, you read that right. DINOSAUR EMOJI. RAWR.
Fuzhou, Fukien Province, China, 1870
It was midsummer in tea-trading season, yet Captain Grayson Hunter had not come to Fuzhou for tea. Tea was the treasure of traders with small aspirations—those who wished only to build fortunes through buying and selling. Grayson’s smaller aspirations had combusted in battle five years ago. He had come here to pursue much grander ambitions.
He had walked halfway up the hill on the southern side of the Min River where the Westerners lived. From this height, he could see all the signs of the warring empires. His cousin’s ship, brought carefully up the Min, was docked in the harbor below. From here, the Lenity seemed like a toy, barely distinguishable from the other Western steamships that clamored for space, fighting—politely, always politely!—for trade goods that would bring them their little fortunes.
Crowding the northern docks were Chinese river junks, low and flat, that had come from the tea plantations that were scattered through the hills and mountains farther inland.
Every single one of the people in the harbor believed that they traded in goods—tea, silk, grain—and every single one of them was wrong.
Grayson intended to control what really mattered, and the next step was here in Fuzhou.
His journey had been directed here after a chance meeting in Hong Kong two weeks ago. He’d been talking to a missionary by the name of Leland Acheson. Grayson had been gathering the principal item that he traded in: information.
He hadn’t mentioned the disruption in his plans. He hadn’t mentioned the two separate men who had quit his employ, claiming his aim was impossible. Grayson wasn’t a chatterbox to spill his secrets. But he had mentioned other people’s plans, and when Acheson had heard what they were doing, he’d laughed.
“Ridiculous,” he’d said. “That’s the most simplistic, useless scheme I’ve ever heard. I’ve an acquaintance who came up with a superior implementation years ago.”
It had not taken much—another glass of whiskey—for Acheson to provide more details. Now Grayson was here, looking for a man known as the Silver Fox.
“Brilliant,” Acheson had said before adding with a shake of his head, “Criminally underutilized.”
Grayson had never been one to mince words. “Would the Silver Fox be willing to be employed by a Black man?”
Acheson had looked at him again, and then at his whiskey. “I honestly cannot say. That exact topic has not come up. But I think that broad-minded is a fair description of my friend.” He’d said that with a conspiratorial smile.
So here Grayson was, with no actual name—only a direction, a code name, a letter of introduction Acheson claimed would give him as good a shot as any at a fair hearing, and the intense, unbounded requirements of his ambition.
The path curved up and up, past homes decorated with the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes, proclaiming fealty to countries that ruled from half the globe away. Grayson could see the other hills that made up Fuzhou—terraced gardens filled with trees and waving grain manned by the occasional worker who was visible only at this distance by a wide-brimmed hat. It wasn’t quite the height of summer yet. The air was still moving, and it was warm but not yet stiflingly humid.
A narrow-leafed lychee tree, boughs bending with strings of red-skinned fruit, had been planted at a curve in the road. He pulled one off as he went by, rolling the rough shell between his fingers. A little longer and Grayson’s plan would be moving forward once more.
He was eating the fruit when a woman came into view ahead of him. She was walking the same path as he, on the side of the cart ruts closer to the inner slope. She was dressed in Western garb—full skirts, bustle, long sleeves, bonnet and everything.
Grayson found himself grimacing involuntarily. At this time of year? Grayson was going to see an Englishman, so he’d brought a coat (currently slung over one arm) and a necktie (currently stuffed in one pocket). The buttons on his shirt were undone to his chest. Even with that degree of undress, he was uncomfortable walking uphill. The wool of his trousers was a little too warm, the linen of his shirt a little too close.
Luckily, Grayson didn’t care what foolishness Western women wore in China. He had one objective: Hire the Silver Fox. Pay him what he demanded so he could work his magic. Grayson’s telegraphic company would then gain an advantage over everyone else. It would become the swiftest, least expensive mode of communication in the entire world. Profit wildly; own everything; make up for all that had been lost.
He nonetheless could not begin to fathom the mindset that demanded women wear petticoats and corsets and whatever else it was that got shoved underneath their clothing in this climate. Grayson shook his head. It would be hotter still by noontime, but none of this was his problem.
By noon, hopefully, he’d have met the Silver Fox, ascertained what the man wanted, made and negotiated offers, and already shaken hands on an agreement to work together. He could be done with Fuzhou by the next high tide.
Even though the sun was high overhead, this walk felt like he was coming through the dawn—a transitional space between sleeping and waking—like that moment lying in bed when it was not yet time to get up but the mind started running through all the things that needed to be done, slotting them into their proper place.
Envisioning every step of the plan that had been made so many years ago always brought a sense of melancholy. But it also solidified his ambition. Each stride brought him closer to a future that had once been just pencil sketches on paper.
He was coming up behind the woman. He was taller than her and unencumbered by skirts; it was hardly a surprise to pass her. A moment’s hesitation hit him—what language to greet her in?
Western women were often surprisingly touchy about being addressed in any Chinese dialect. French? English? Either would probably serve, but at this point, he was growing close to the direction he had been given. The Westerners here all knew each other anyway. She might know the Silver Fox, and if he could address her in whatever her native tongue was…
He was ten paces behind her when she turned and glanced over her shoulder at him. Or, he supposed, it was intended to be a glance. But when she looked in his direction, her eyes widened.
Leland Acheson had told him that the Silver Fox would be able to work fairly with a Black man; there was no such guarantee with this woman.
Don’t, he thought. Don’t scream.
“Good day,” he said clearly in his American-accented English. He touched the wide brim of his hat, lifting it enough so she could get a clear view of his face.
She tripped over her skirts, hands flailing, attempting to catch her balance.
She was still a few yards ahead of him—a little too far ahead to attempt anything gallant like catching her, even if he had thought it wise to touch her. Her hands stretched in front of her, bracing as she hit the ground. He heard a loud snapping sound, like the breaking of a branch.
She stayed on hands and knees for a few long seconds.
Lovely. Just lovely. For a moment he contemplated leaving her behind. But civility mattered to people like this.
False gallantry won out. “Ma’am?” Grayson tried. “Have you hurt yourself? Can I offer you some assistance?”
The woman pushed herself up to kneel. Her bonnet was askew, and her bustle looked oddly misshapen. The blue fabric of her gown had somehow split right over her buttocks—and how a fall that didn’t land on her behind managed that, Grayson had no idea. He caught a hint of white underthings—and God, he knew better than to even look like he was getting an illicit eyeful.
He turned to face the river so that he could only see her in the periphery of his vision.
She wiped her hands and drew a deep breath. “Ga—” She cut off whatever word she had been intending to say. “Oh drat,” she said instead.
She was English then, by the sound of her speech.
“Well.” She dusted off the front of her gown, then slowly stood. “That’s two ideas that have gone completely wrong, and it’s not yet ten in the morning. Please don’t tell my mother.”
Grayson frowned at the harbor. “Do I look like the sort of person who would tell your mother?”
“Everyone looks like the sort of person who would tell my mother. If you haven’t met her, you wouldn’t understand.” There was a hint of wry humor in her voice.
From the corner of his vision, he could see her turning to look over her shoulder, as if assessing the damage to her behind. “H—” Again, she cut herself off. He heard the rustle of fabric and saw her lift her skirts.
He hastily turned to face entirely away. “How are you?” he asked the river below him.
“I will never recover.” She sounded mournful. More fabric rustled; something clacked. “How am I going to explain this? And Mrs. Flappert is supposed to arrive today. It’s going to be nonstop criticism. ‘I told you so, Amelia. You should be satisfied with what you have, Amelia. Why are you still talking, Amelia?’” Her voice dropped lower on those last sentences, as if she were imitating someone else. “I am doing ill, sir. Very ill.”
Grayson had no idea what any of that meant. “I was asking if you had been physically injured.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Physically. Well. That’s no problem. Are you any good at explaining things? I need a good explanation.”
“Is there a reason ‘I tripped, and it was an accident’ will not work?”
“‘I tripped’ won’t explain this!”
He turned back. It was the first time he had looked at her straight on, and his mind came to a standstill, sticking on three things that seemed utterly irrelevant.
Thing number one: Her eyelashes. They were long and black, framing large, dark eyes that were looking at him. Thing number two: Her nose. It was wide and small. Thing number three: Her skin. She was browner than the average Englishwoman even beneath that bonnet, possibly because she was not the average Englishwoman. She wasn’t any kind of Englishwoman at all.
Her hair was dark and glossy, what he could see of it. Her cheekbones were soft and tilted, the planes of her face smooth. She had a silver locket about her neck. She sounded English. She dressed like she was English. But if he’d encountered her in a Chinese robe, he would have thought her a native.
She was also inexplicably brandishing what looked like a rounded, broken cage of bamboo that contained a tiny bamboo version of the sort of wheel he might have expected to find on a paddle steamer.
“You’re right.” He blinked at her. “‘I tripped’ won’t explain that. What is that?”
“My bustle.” She sounded as if a tragedy had occurred. “Maybe? I had this idea, you see, because my real bustle is made of horsehair and it’s so dreadfully hot.”
“Hot.” He couldn’t take his eyes off her now that he’d looked. That little locket nestled right above her cleavage, drawing his eyes away from her bamboo…bustle? There was something engraved on the silver jewelry. Maybe a dog? He couldn’t tell, and he was hesitant to draw nearer.
“I thought I would make a bamboo cage instead of a big horsehair lump.”
He had no idea how he had come to be talking about a woman’s bustle. “That sounds reasonable.”
“And since it was a cage, I thought, well, what if I put a little paddle inside? That way when I walk, it will spin, and I’ll get a little air to cool me off. It would be like a fan.”
“No, not really.” She sighed. “I was just testing it. It doesn’t work; the paddle only spins if it has airflow, but with skirts over the top, it just sits in place, unmoving. I would have to propel it to make it spin.” Her eyes lit. “I could make a little wheel that ran on the ground! And then attach it so that—” Her fists clenched; she brought her hands up by her side. He could see her thoughts dart excitedly across her face. She bit her lip and looked up as if tracking something in the sky. Then her shoulders slumped. “Because, oh yes,” she said bitterly, “my mother would definitely not ask why I was making a rattling noise like wheels over cobblestones when I walked.”
“I see,” Grayson said.
He didn’t see at all. He didn’t know who her mother was, to have such distinctly English strictures when this woman looked to be so clearly Chinese. He didn’t know her age, but she seemed well into her twenties—too old to be clinging to her mother’s opinions on such frivolous matters. And he didn’t know why this delightful woman who immediately thought of ways to make paddles turn inside bustles had to hide the fact she was putting paddles inside bustles.
Her brow furrowed. “It would also make sitting down rather difficult. Which was admittedly a problem with this prototype as well. But the bamboo cracked when I tripped, and this bit jabbed through my skirt and tore the fabric. I don’t know how I’m going to explain it. She’ll be upset.”
He shouldn’t ask. He shouldn’t entertain any curiosity at all about her. Grayson looked over at the harbor, reminding himself why he was here. And yet he asked anyway. “Why would she be upset?”
“I’m always trying to make things easier on myself,” she admitted. “It’s a personal failing. You know what they say about when the devil comes courting.”
“I don’t, actually.”
“‘When the devil comes courting,’” she quoted, dropping into that same imitated voice once again, “‘he offers you what you want.’ Primrose path, et cetera and so forth. And look—my skirt has split, so she was right.” She sighed. “Again. Maybe if I sneak in quietly and sew it carefully, she just won’t notice.”
Grayson took his coat from around his arm and handed it to her. “If you tie it about your waist, it should shield you from any prying eyes for the time being.”
“Thank you.” She looked up at him, then smiled. “You’re very kind.”
He wasn’t. Kindness was an instrument, one that often got him what he wanted. She—he suspected—was just very naïve.
Still, he had a ridiculous thought. He had no idea how this woman had come to be on the south side of the river, living among the Westerners, and he frankly didn’t care. But the thought came unbidden—he could offer to take her away. She was pretty and clever and obviously unappreciated. Come with me, he imagined saying. You don’t need them. Come with me on my ship and make all the little paddles you want.
But he didn’t know her, and his ambition forcibly intruded. She was connected with the English people in this area. The mother that she spoke of—the one that Grayson was already writing off in his mind—might very well know the Silver Fox. And she probably didn’t deserve to be seduced away from the home she knew, however unappreciative it might have been, by a man who wouldn’t be interested in her for much longer than a handful of months.
He was going to be very, very polite to her. He was going to find the Silver Fox. And then he was going to leave this delightful woman precisely the same way he found her. He wasn’t going to touch her. He was just going to imagine it.
He touched his pocket in reminder—the letter of introduction was still there, all sealed up, with no notation on the front but two words—Silver Fox, in English—and two Chinese characters. He recognized the first, and was fairly certain that inscription said the same thing in a different language.
“I’m Captain Grayson Hunter.” He held out his hand.
“Oh!” She glanced at his hand and then colored. “My manners! Where have they been? Mrs. Amelia Smith.”
Mrs. Ah. She was married. The seduction plan might not have worked in any event.
“It’s very good to meet you, Mrs. Smith. I’m heading up to the Acheson household on some business. Maybe you can assist me in finding the person I’m looking for.”
“The Acheson household.” Her cheeks colored with a hint of pink. “Are you—you’re not, you’re not Mr. Flappert by any chance? No, of course not. You just told me your name.” Her eyes narrowed. “I’m sorry. I’ve already forgotten it.”
“Captain Grayson Hunter.”
“Captain Hunter. If I can assist you, I will, but as you may already have surmised, I have no memory for names. Who are you looking for?”
“If you don’t know him, perhaps your mother or your husband will.” There. He’d said it. Her husband.
“Oh. I’m not— That is, I’m a widow. Now who is it that you were looking for?”
She hardly looked old enough to be a widow. Grayson ignored the pulse of interest that went through him. It didn’t matter; none of his transient feelings mattered. Silver Fox, he reminded himself. Telegraphic empire. Ambition. Those were the things he cared about. “Yes. Well. As to that—the who of it—this is going to sound odd. I don’t have a name for the person I’m looking for.”
“You don’t have a name.” She frowned.
“I heard of him from a Mr. Leland Acheson—”
Her eyes widened, and she made a startled noise.
“You know him then.”
“Leland! But that’s my brother!” Her eyes lit. “You’ve come from Hong Kong? Did he give you a letter for me? Is that part of your business?”
Her brother. He’d met Acheson. The man had been white as white could be—orange hair, sideburns, and everything. “I— No. I’m sorry.”
He watched her face fall. Damn it. He didn’t care if he disappointed her. He didn’t care about her. He really didn’t. It was just that her face was so expressive that he couldn’t help but feel her emotions tugging at him.
“He sent me here because I was looking for someone who invented a telegraphic method for transmitting Chinese characters. The person involved is extremely clever, not doing much—criminally underutilized, he said—and might agree to work with me.”
Her eyes rounded.
“If Leland is your brother, you might know who I’m looking for,” Grayson said. “A man who goes by—” He stopped himself before the words came out of his mouth.
His eyes fell to the silver locket around her neck. The silver figurine of an animal was worked on that round locket, and it rose and fell against her breast. Not a dog. Of course it wasn’t a dog. That was a fox in brambles worked in silver, lifting with every one of her breaths.
Extremely clever. Criminally underutilized. Of course.
What a buffoon he had been. No wonder Acheson had been so cagey about the matter, refusing to give him a name. Come to think of it, had he ever referred to the Silver Fox as he?
Grayson looked down into Mrs. Smith’s eyes and thought about his plan. Hire the Silver Fox. Build an empire. Swim in profits.
So the Silver Fox was a woman. Did it matter? Yes, in the sense that Grayson had met her and wanted her.
But in the grander scheme of things? It mattered not one whit that he wanted her because now that he knew what she could be, he would never allow himself to have her. Not that way. Plans changed.
The calculation didn’t take long. If he walked up to her mother—whoever that woman was, with her ridiculous aphorisms about devils and courting and her constant scolding of her daughter—he would be tossed out on his ear. He would need a moment to figure out how to proceed, but proceed he would. If Mrs. Amelia Smith, criminally underutilized, was the one who had developed a telegraphic method for transmitting Chinese characters, then Grayson would hire her, give her all the money she demanded, and leave her very thoroughly alone.
He had a moment of regret in the Fuzhou sun—a single moment, which he immediately put behind him.
“Mrs. Amelia Smith,” he said with a nod of his head. “I believe I was incorrect. I do have correspondence for you from your brother.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the letter of introduction Acheson had given him, holding it so that the Chinese characters faced toward her. “I believe this is yours.”