Authors: Caroline Linden
Tags: #Romance, #Historical
To my dad, whose military history library would
have come in handy during the writing of this book;
and to my mom, who taught me to love the local
public library (which DID come in handy during
the writing of this, and every, book)
It was said that every sort of vice could be…
Penford didn’t appear to have changed much. Three stories of…
Alec strode toward the breakfast room early the next morning,…
Cressida Turner watched until the stranger rode away, down the…
Cressida’s plans had progressed no further than that when they…
The moment Alec had been dreading arrived all too soon.
Alec’s next encounter with Miss Turner happened purely by chance.
Cressida!” She jumped, startled out of her thoughts, and looked…
The man he had come to meet was late.
The invitation to Penford arrived the next morning. Cressida held…
Cressida found herself having a lovely time as the evening…
He took her at her word, and arrived early the…
It was, as Alec had expected, a tedious job. For…
Her curse amused him. She could see the curve of…
After the trip into London, there seemed to be little…
Visiting Penford and living at Penford were very different.
That Sunday Alec agreed to accompany the family to church…
Do you hear me?” The voice sounded strange, guttural and…
At the end of the week John Hayes’s mother and…
Cressida took her time returning to the house. She couldn’t…
Callie found her an hour after luncheon the next day,…
It took Alec a few days to recover from the…
If Alec had feared his confession would cause even more…
Cressida almost missed dinner. She had spent the afternoon poring…
Later, Cressida would be very thankful it had been so…
That day was one of upheaval, as John and his…
He was halfway down the stairs by the time they…
Those who had fought with the Duke of Wellington in…
But I can’t help,” Cressida said for the fourth time.
Alec found Angus Lacey in his study, dozing off over…
Lacey’s incredulity turned to disgust as he turned on Alec.
They rode home slowly, she before him on the horse.
To Alec’s great surprise, John Stafford himself arrived the next…
It was a tidy lane, dotted with a few small…
t was said that every sort of vice could be found in London, if one knew where to look. In the filthy rookery of St. Giles, one didn’t have to look very hard.
The fight had already started, a bare-knuckle match between two street fighters in a grimy pub cellar. The favorite, an Irishman native to St. Giles, was short and stocky and known for fighting dirty; in St. Giles, fighting dirty was applauded. The challenger was an African, dark and formidable, and jeered by the crowd. The cellar was packed with men who had paid their farthing at the door and were intent on recouping their money by placing bets with any and all takers. A musty odor of old smoke, spilled beer, and dried sweat clung to the walls; before the night was over, there would probably be a sharp scent of freshly spilled blood as well.
One spectator, pasty pale and a little too short to see over the rest of the crowd, wormed his way through the room. From time to time he bobbed on his toes for a glimpse of the fighters before resuming his search for a better vantage point. At last he seemed to find one that suited him, settling into a place against the wall opposite the stairs.
“Five quid on the Moor,” he said to the man beside him, a tall fellow in the hard-worn clothes of a drayman.
The taller man removed the cigar from between his teeth and blew out a puff of smoke. “The Irishman’s favored.”
The newcomer, Mr. Phipps, scoffed. “Bloody idiots, the Irish. Look at the Moor—solid muscle, a long reach, and such ferocity! He could beat a dozen Irishmen.” In timely demonstration, the African fighter struck, pounding several quick hits to his opponent’s belly. The Irishman staggered and looked for a moment as if he would fall to his knees. Phipps raised a fist in triumph.
His companion shrugged. “Perhaps. But the crowd wants the Irishman to win, Mr. Phipps. If the African wins, the losses will be heavy.”
“You’ve got no appreciation at all for the sport, have you, Brandon?” Mr. Phipps said crossly.
“No.” In the ring, the Irishman landed a punishing blow to his opponent’s chin, and the African fell back to his seconds, reeling in pain. The frenzied crowd roared, and even the colorless Phipps let out a shout. Brandon didn’t move, his eyes still restlessly roaming over the spectators.
“You’re the only man I know who wouldn’t relish this assignment,” Phipps told him in a low voice. “There’s men out doing a lot worse than watching a good mill.” Brandon just gave a quiet snort. Phipps shook his head and sighed, reluctantly turning from the fight. “Well, where is Pearce?”
“There.” Brandon tilted his head, indicating a balding man in a green coat across the room. “He met them just a bit ago and took a packet from them. Paid in coin.”
“And the Blackwoods?”
“By the ring, near the corner.” Brandon dropped his cigar and ground it under his heel. “They bet very heavily on the Irishman.”
Phipps nodded. “Good work.” He pushed up the brim of his cap and wiped his forehead, and his other men, scattered around the room, took note. With practiced ease they maneuvered toward the three men just identified. The two Mr. Blackwoods and Mr. Pearce would spend the night in Newgate Prison, although none knew it yet. Like many others before them, the Blackwood brothers had been brought low by their gambling, but unlike more ordinary sinners, they had resorted to embezzling stocks from the bank where both worked as clerks. Simon Pearce, a partner in the bank, was likely the architect of the scheme. Sir Thomas Broughton, another partner, was anxious to have Pearce removed while avoiding any embarrassing publicity that might ruin his bank. For discretion he had turned to John Stafford, chief clerk of the Bow Street Magistrates Court and spymaster for the Home Office, and Stafford had set Brandon to discovering how the Blackwoods transferred the stolen stocks to Pearce.
Brandon eased away from the wall. His job was done now. “I’ll leave you to it.” Keeping his head down, he started to head for the door at the back of the crowded room.
“One moment.” Phipps pressed a folded paper into his hand. “Condolences,” he muttered.
Brandon automatically closed his fist around the paper and shoved it into his pocket. “Why?” He looked back at Phipps, but the shorter man had already disappeared into the crowd surging toward the ring. A scuffle on the far side had broken out and was growing larger as more men turned from the staged—and probably fixed—match between the African and the flagging Irishman, and enthusiastically joined in the fight going on among the spectators.
He had no interest in joining that fight; his responsibility had only been to keep an eye on the Blackwoods and Pearce until Phipps could arrive to arrest them. That was Brandon’s specialty as a spy: watching. Now Phipps and his men would spirit the thieving clerks and banker away, to face who knew what, and no one in the disorderly crowd would notice or care.
Around him the roar grew louder, punctuated by cracks of a whip as the fight organizers tried to keep order. Brandon pushed through to the rickety stairs, taking them two at a time. When he came out into the back of the dingy pot-house, the owner gave him a sharp glance. The bare-knuckle fight going on in his cellar was hardly secret, but it was illegal all the same. Brandon’s lip curled at what the man would think if he knew several fellows from Bow Street were down there right now. Instead of leaving and fixing suspicion on himself, he leaned against the counter and motioned the publican over.
“When does the African fight again? He’s lost me some blunt tonight.”
The other man’s expression eased. “Thursday next.”
Brandon grunted and dropped a few coins on the counter. “A pot of heavy wet.”
He took the mug of ale and carried it to a small table. The room was busy, with men coming in for a drink before disappearing into the back, going down to see this fight or the next one. No one noticed him here, just another unlucky drayman washing down the loss of his weekly pay before staggering home. He pulled his woolen cap lower on his forehead and drew the guttering candle close before unfolding the note Phipps had passed him. Stafford didn’t waste a moment, sending him to spy on someone else before this job was even concluded.
But that wasn’t all the note said.
The bench scraped along the floor as he jumped to his feet, holding the note close to his face to reread it. He glanced toward the stairs to the cellar, then jammed the note into his pocket, leaving behind his barely touched ale and heading to the door. He strode through the narrow, twisting streets of St. Giles, jumping over the sewers running in the gutters and ignoring the catcalls of the whores. As he went north the buildings seemed to expand and brighten, the cramped poverty of the rookery giving way to more spacious gentility. The houses here were clean brick edifices, tightly fitted together with neatly swept steps and painted railings, their windows dark mirrors for the gas streetlamps. There were still thieves here, but they kept to the shadows.
After a few streets Brandon turned into an alley and went to the back stoop of a house near the end of a long terrace. The door was surely locked tight for the night, but he didn’t bother to try it. Instead he braced one hand on the door, stepped up onto the short railing beside the steps, and reached upward to grab the ledge of the window. He pulled a knife from the sheath strapped under his upraised arm and wriggled the flat of the blade beneath the sash of the window, twisting the knife until he could fit his fingers into the opening. With one hard shove the window slid up; holding the sill with both hands, he walked up the wall until he could pull himself through the open window and into the house. Brandon glanced around as his feet hit the floor, but he’d learned to do that trick almost silently. No sound of footsteps betrayed alarm in the house—not that it would have really mattered, except to his pride. The owner of the house left that window unlocked for just this reason, so Brandon could let himself in without any servant seeing him. He closed the window and went in search of the man.
Light seeped from beneath the door of the master’s study; Sir James Peterbury was still awake. Pausing only a moment to listen for voices, he turned the knob and slipped into the room.
“What the—? Bloody hell,” exclaimed the man who sprang to his feet, first in alarm, then in recognition. “You nearly scared me witless, man!”
“Sorry for that,” said Alec Brandon. He pulled Phipps’s note from his pocket and held it up. “Did you know?”
James looked at the note, then back at Alec’s face. “I presume you mean your brother’s death,” he said quietly. James always had been a quick one, Alec had to give him that. “Yes, I knew. I wanted them to tell you some time ago, but they insisted you were vitally occupied.”
Alec’s tense anger drained away. He dropped into a chair and hung his head. “He died months ago, and no one told me.” There was nothing he could have done, but he still should have been told. He rubbed one hand across his eyes, feeling the raw sting of grief in his throat. “Damn it. I should have been
James took the other chair by the fire. “My mother wrote that it was a lingering illness contracted in the winter. No one thought it was terribly serious, but he just grew worse and worse. You know Frederick never was very strong.” The Peterburys no longer lived only a few miles from Alec’s family, but James’s mother and Alec’s mother were still fast friends and wrote each other often.
Alec nodded, swallowing his emotions. He hadn’t thought of his older brother in some time, but James was right. Frederick might not have been as vigorous as Alec, but he had always been wiser, more dependable, and most importantly, always there. Alec had never expected Frederick to die. “And the rest of my family?”
“Your mother and sister are well, as are Frederick’s widow and children.” James cleared his throat. “I understand a cousin has stepped in to manage the estate. I suppose he thinks he’s inherited everything now.”
He knew what James was thinking. That cousin hadn’t inherited anything, because Alec was still alive. But only a handful of people knew that. To most of the world, Alexander Brandon Hayes had died a traitor to his country during the battle of Waterloo, his body ignominiously dumped into an anonymous grave. He had sworn he wouldn’t return home without proving himself innocent, but neither he nor James had been able to do it. For five years James had made every effort to locate the letters from a French colonel, found in Alec’s personal belongings after Waterloo, that branded him a traitor. But with Alec presumed dead—and unwilling to risk prosecution if discovered otherwise—James had had to tread with extreme caution, and had been utterly unsuccessful. Alec had become a spy, hoping his service to the Home Office would win him a reprieve, and instead he was being sent home, unmasked and still shrouded in disgrace.
But Frederick was dead and Alec was the head of the family. James would argue that that duty outweighed all others. Perhaps it did, for the sake of his mother, his sister, his brother’s widow and children.
“I’m returning to Marston,” Alec muttered.
His friend’s face shone with fierce satisfaction. “I knew you would. It’s time, you know, and I’ve been thinking about your situation. Wellington is Master of the Ordnance now and has politics more on his mind than old battles. If we could secure an interview with him, and perhaps have your present employer put in a word—”
“Wellington, who said he would have shot me himself if the French hadn’t been good enough to do it first?” Alec shook his head. “I’m not going to Wellington without proof.”
James fell silent. Both of them knew it was highly unlikely any proof of Alec’s innocence would surface now. “It’s still the right thing to do,” he insisted. “Going home, that is.”
Alec sighed. He held out the crumpled note from Phipps. “I haven’t got a choice.”
His friend took the note and read. Stafford was sending him home to Marston, not out of any tender compassion for Frederick’s death, but to find a missing man. Sergeant George Turner had gone to see Colonel Lord Hastings, a Deputy Commissary General for the army, in London and never come home to Marston. He’d been gone for almost four months now, and his daughters had appealed to Hastings, who had asked Stafford to look into it. Just another spy’s task on the surface, and a routine one at that. Only a terse line at the end—
I regret to inform you of the death of Frederick Hayes this past spring
—gave any indication Stafford was aware of the ramifications of sending Alec to that particular town, where he would be known and reviled by all.
“Bloody cold of him,” remarked James. “Who is this Sergeant Turner he wants you to find?”
“I’ve no idea.” As usual, Stafford gave very little information. He often sent Alec out almost blind, expecting him to quickly find his way and report back how things stood so Stafford could assign other agents most effectively. Alec was used to that; he had done much the same thing when he was in the army, helping guide Wellington’s army around the countryside of Spain and Portugal. In this case, though, Alec thought he might have earned the courtesy of more explanation.
“What’s Turner done, I wonder?” James murmured. “Hastings is a proud man. I can’t see him taking up for a lowly sergeant.”
He had wondered about that, too, but Stafford wasn’t above doing favors for people with influence, and Hastings was certainly in a position to command Stafford’s notice. By far Alec’s greater interest was in why Stafford had chosen
for this job. There was no question of masquerading as an old army mate of the missing sergeant or a clerk from the Chelsea pensioner board, not when everyone in Marston would recognize his face and know his name. He would have to return as himself, and that would complicate things on many, many levels.
“It doesn’t matter what he’s done, or who he really is. Hastings wants him found for some reason, and that’s enough for Stafford. I wouldn’t think anything of it if Turner hadn’t gone missing from my own village.” Alec took the letter back. “Stafford should have the spine to explain that part at least.”
“Do—Do you plan to refuse? I believe you should go, but perhaps not like this…”