An Irresistible Alliance
An original Cynster Next Generation Novel #5
Volume 2 in Devil's Brood Trilogy
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-39-2
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-02-6
Release Date: May 11, 2017
A duke’s second son with no responsibilities and a lady starved of the excitement her soul craves join forces to unravel a deadly, potentially catastrophic threat to the realm - that only continues to grow.
With his older brother’s betrothal announced, Lord Michael Cynster is freed from the pressure of familial expectations. However, the allure of his previous hedonistic pursuits has paled. Then he learns of the mission his brother, Sebastian, and Lady Antonia Rawlings have been assisting with and volunteers to assist by hunting down the hoard of gunpowder now secreted somewhere in London.
Michael sets out to trace the carters who transported the gunpowder from Kent to London. His quest leads him to the Hendon Shipping Company, where he discovers his sole source of information is the only daughter of Jack and Kit Hendon, Miss Cleome Hendon, who although a fetchingly attractive lady, firmly holds the reins of the office in her small hands.
Cleo has fought to achieve her position in the company. Initially, managing the office was a challenge, but she now conquers all in just a few hours a week. With her three brothers all adventuring in America, she’s been driven to the realization that she craves adventure, too.
When Michael Cynster walks in and asks about carters, Cleo’s instincts leap. She wrings from him the full tale of his mission—and offers him a bargain. She will lead him to the carters he seeks if he agrees to include her as an equal partner in the mission.
Horrified, Michael attempts to resist, but ultimately finds himself agreeing—a sequence of events he quickly learns is common around Cleo. Then she delivers on her part of the bargain, and he finds there are benefits to allowing her to continue to investigate beside him—not least being that if she’s there, then he knows she’s safe.
But the further they go in tracing the gunpowder, the more deaths they uncover. And when they finally locate the barrels, they find themselves tangled in a fight to the death—one that forces them to face what has grown between them, to seize and defend what they both see as their path to the greatest adventure of all. A shared life. A shared future. A shared love.
Stephanie Laurens’ heroines are marvelous tributes to Georgette Heyer: feisty and strong.” Cathy Kelly
“Stephanie Laurens never fails to entertain and charm her readers with vibrant plots, snappy dialogue, and unforgettable characters.” Historical Romance Reviews
“Stephanie Laurens plays into readers’ fantasies like a master and claims their hearts time and again.” Romantic Times Magazine
"In the second installment of her Devil’s Brood Trilogy, Laurens introduces a terrific new heroine who is by turns witty, winsome, and wise. Fans will relish the romance, engaging plots, and lush descriptions they know to expect from Laurens, but with that dash of the unpredictable that makes her novels such a delight to read." Angela M., Copy Editor, Red Adept Editing
"Vivid characters and a fast-paced plot captured my attention and drew me into the richly detailed world. I can't wait for the next one!" Irene S., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing
October 24, 1850
Lord Michael Magnus Cynster sauntered down the grand staircase of St. Ives House as the long-case clock on the landing chimed the quarter hour. It was nearing two o’clock in the afternoon, a perfectly acceptable time for an unmarried gentleman of the ton to be descending to meet the day.
Would that his day held any appeal; it stretched before him, a vast emptiness he had no idea how to fill.
Out of habit, he maintained an amiable, easygoing expression, yet he was bored and restless. The only bright spot on his horizon was the news—hardly surprising, but at least a touch intriguing—that his older brother, Sebastian, had finally opened his eyes and seen what had been plain to all around him for the past decade.
Michael had had the news from his man, Tom Simpkins; apparently, Lady Antonia Rawlings had returned from Kent with Sebastian the previous evening—and had, it seemed, spent the night in his brother’s bed.
If that didn’t herald the sound of wedding bells chiming throughout the house—and, presumably, through Sebastian’s thick skull—Michael would eat his hat.
As Michael stepped onto the black-and-white tiles of the front hall, Crewe, the family’s London butler for the past decade, walked out of the library.
Michael smiled genially. “What-ho, Crewe! I hear my brother has finally seen the light regarding the position of his marchioness. Has he popped the question, do you know?”
Crewe’s normally rigorously impassive mien eased into a small smile. “I believe Lord Sebastian is currently thus engaged, my lord. He and Lady Antonia left several hours ago for Green Street.”
Antonia’s father was the Earl of Chillingworth, and the family’s town house was in Green Street. Michael imagined the scene and chuckled. “I would give a great deal to be a fly on the wall when Sebastian asks the earl for Antonia’s hand.”
“I’m sure the earl will be delighted.”
“Indubitably, but for how long will Chillingworth drag out the interview before he admits that? That’s the question.”
“I’m sure Lord Sebastian will meet the challenge.”
Michael had no doubt of that, either; once Sebastian set his mind on a course, very little could turn him from it.
“Will you be going out, my lord?”
Michael had halted several paces from the front door. He glanced at Crewe as realization struck; Sebastian and Antonia’s upcoming union effectively released him from his careful existence of the past several years.
As he was not even a full year younger than Sebastian, until his older brother secured his wife—the future duchess—Michael had been almost equally in the matchmakers’ sights. One of them had to marry and produce an heir, thus securing the dukedom for the principal line; the whole family and all of society had expected that.
But now Sebastian had finally taken the plunge…
Staring unseeing at Crewe, Michael murmured, “As soon as the news gets out, which it will almost immediately, I’ll be able to slide out of the social spotlight. I won’t need to pretend an interest in balls and soirees anymore.”
The pressure to attend such events—to be visible and, supposedly, to cast his eye over the available young ladies as if possibly considering making a choice—hadn’t come so much from his parents as from his great-aunts and myriad female connections. That he and Sebastian had both been circulating had, to some extent, lessened the pressure each had had to bear, yet waltzing through the ton while avoiding all the snares and pitfalls strewn in their paths by ambitious mamas had been…a challenge for the first few weeks, but thereafter, intensely wearying.
Being pursued primarily for one’s social and financial status wasn’t, all in all, a gratifying experience.
But now…now he was free. Free from all matrimonial pressure.
He could return to his carefree bachelor existence, at least for the foreseeable future.
Until he decided otherwise.
Michael smiled and refocused on Crewe. “Yes, I’m going out.” Although he had no idea where.
Crewe duly retrieved Michael’s greatcoat and cane from the coat rack.
After shrugging into the greatcoat, settling it across his shoulders, and tugging down his coat sleeves, Michael accepted the black cane with its silver stag’s-head knob from Crewe. “I take it Their Graces have been informed?”
“Not yet, my lord. I understand Lord Sebastian intends to send a rider this afternoon. We anticipate the duke and duchess will arrive by tomorrow evening.”
“And my sister?”
“Lady Louisa is not due back for several more days. It’s possible she’ll call in at Somersham Place first.”
Michael nodded and turned to the door; as Crewe opened it, Michael said, “I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”
“Indeed, my lord.” Crewe bowed.
Michael walked onto the front porch and paused. He heard the door shut quietly behind him.
He looked out at the park in the center of the square, taking in the children playing on the manicured lawns under the watchful eyes of nursemaids and governesses. Fashionable couples strolled the graveled walks, while carriages rolled sedately along the streets surrounding the park.
His earlier restless boredom swirled and surged anew; he felt rudderless—he had no direction. While he might now be free to resume his previously hedonistic life, the endless round of drinking, gaming, parties, dinners, and more gaming and even more drinking had, somewhat inexplicably, lost its allure.
The word “crossroads” hovered in his mind.
Impatient with such unproductive introspection, he shook his shoulders, descended the steps, turned left, and set out along the pavement—and found himself staring at Sebastian’s back.
With Antonia Rawlings on his arm, his brother was walking east—but Green Street lay in the opposite direction. The pair must have already passed St. Ives House before Michael walked out of the door. But if they were coming from Green Street—and Michael had no reason to suspect they weren’t—where were they going?
Curious, he lengthened his stride, closing the distance between them.
Sebastian and Antonia were discussing something; given their intensity and their brief gestures, Michael didn’t think it was anything to do with a wedding.
Then the pair glanced up at the façades, slowed, and turned and climbed the steps to another house.
One glance, and Michael recognized the mansion. Wolverstone House.
Oh, ho! Something was up.
Intrigued, he followed the pair up the Wolverstone House steps.
Sebastian halted on the porch and rang the bell. At the sound of Michael’s boots on the stone, he and Antonia turned; when they saw who it was, both smiled.
Michael grinned. Ignoring his brother, he grasped Antonia’s hand and raised it to his lips. “I understand congratulations are in order, although you really would have done better with me.”
Antonia laughed. Her fingers briefly gripped his. “I seriously doubt that would have worked.” Using her hold on his hand, she drew him closer and stretched up to place a sisterly kiss on his cheek and received a similarly chaste buss in return. Sinking back to her heels, she studied his face. “But now you’re my almost-brother-in-law, I can legitimately ask: What are you doing here?”
Michael glanced at Sebastian. “I was about to ask you two the same question.” He grinned anew and thumped Sebastian on the shoulder. “What-ho, brother mine. I believe I should thank you for relieving me of the necessity of getting leg-shackled myself.”
Sebastian met Antonia’s gaze. “Don’t mention it.”
To Michael’s eyes, his brother’s expression appeared one step away from besotted.
The glossy black door of Wolverstone House swung open to reveal Hamilton, the Varisey family’s London butler. When he saw Sebastian and Antonia, Hamilton’s normally expressionless eyes twinkled, and his lips curved in a definite smile. “My lord, my lady.” He bowed them in.
Michael trailed the pair into the front hall.
After closing the door, Hamilton relieved Antonia of her mantle, then accepted Sebastian’s greatcoat, and finally, Michael’s greatcoat and cane. After passing the garments to an underling summoned with just a look, Hamilton turned to Sebastian and Antonia and bowed. “We understand congratulations are in order. I speak for all the staff at Wolverstone House in saying we wish you both well.”
“Thank you, Hamilton,” Sebastian said.
“And our thanks to all the staff as well,” Antonia added with one of her lovely smiles.
Sebastian’s next words, “Is the marquess receiving?”, answered Michael’s principal question. He’d worked with Drake on covert missions before and had wondered if that was why—indeed, he had hoped that was why—Sebastian had come there. Antonia’s presence, however, was a surprise. Even more than Sebastian, Michael, and the rest of their peers, Drake was rigidly opposed to the involvement of ladies in schemes such as his—in missions that had the potential to turn deadly at any time.
Hamilton informed Sebastian that the marquess was awaiting their arrival in the library. As Hamilton led the way, Sebastian caught Michael’s eye and faintly raised one black brow.
With a nod, Michael accepted the unvoiced invitation and fell in behind Sebastian as he followed Antonia down the corridor and through the door Hamilton held open.
The library at Wolverstone House was a cozy, comfortable room that was predominantly the domain of the males of the family—the current duke, his heir, Drake, and Drake’s three brothers. Glass-fronted bookcases lined the walls, the panes reflecting the flames leaping in the large fireplace directly opposite the door. The walls were covered in cream silk, and the areas between the bookcases played host to numerous paintings depicting hunting scenes and Northumberland landscapes. A large desk dominated one end of the room, but the primary focus was a setting of four well-stuffed, brown-leather armchairs and a long sofa arranged before the hearth.
As Hamilton shut the door, Drake rose from one of the armchairs. His gaze briefly scanned Antonia’s face, then shifted to Sebastian’s. Drake smiled. “Good afternoon. I take it the deed is done?”
Antonia swept forward. “If you mean are we officially engaged”—she glanced back at Sebastian—“then the answer is yes, as officially as we can be given Sebastian has yet to inform his parents.”
Sebastian met her gaze. “I’ll send a rider this afternoon—once we’ve finished here. It’s not as if there’s any doubt as to my parents giving us their blessing.” He looked at Drake. “However, for reasons that ought to be obvious, I don’t dare drag my heels over sending the news, which means that my mother, with my father in tow, will almost certainly arrive late tomorrow, and after that—”
“After that,” Antonia cut in, “while Mama didn’t mention an engagement ball, I’m sure she only refrained in deference to your mother, who is sure to have opinions on the subject.”
Sebastian fleetingly closed his eyes and groaned. “I hoped we’d escaped that.”
Antonia pityingly shook her head at him. “No chance. None whatsoever.”
Drake humphed. “For such as us, my friend, there’s no avoiding such things.”
Sebastian sighed. “As I feared, once the news spreads, our ability to assist with the mission will almost certainly be severely curtailed.”
Drake grimaced. “Indeed.”
“But”—Sebastian turned to include Michael—“we have someone here who, courtesy of Antonia’s and my engagement, is now free. Or at least, freer.”
Michael met Drake’s gaze and smiled winningly. “You might even say I’m at loose ends, so…” He looked from Drake to Sebastian, and finally at Antonia, and arched his brows. “What’s going on?”
“That, in fact, is precisely our question.” Drake waved them to the armchairs. Once they’d settled, Sebastian and Antonia on the sofa, Drake in a chair to their right, and Michael in an armchair facing Drake, he continued, “This is what we’ve uncovered so far.
“Foot soldiers of the Young Irelander movement—young hotheads in the lowest rank of the organization—believing they were acting at the behest of the Young Irelander hierarchy as a part of an officially sanctioned plot, obtained ten barrels of gunpowder. Exactly where from, we don’t know, but that’s largely irrelevant now. Connell Boyne, who was the manager for his brother, Lord Ennis’s principal estate northwest of Limerick, organized for the barrels to be taken by ship from Limerick to the east coast of Kent, where they were delivered to a cave on his brother’s English holding.”
Michael glanced at Sebastian. “You and Antonia went to Kent.”
Sebastian nodded. “We attended a house party at Ennis’s estate, Pressingstoke Hall.”
Michael blinked. “That must have been interesting.”
“It was,” Antonia dryly replied.
Imperturbably, Drake continued, “Ennis had sent me a letter saying he had word of some plot I needed to know about, but he would only tell me of it face-to-face. However, I’d had word of Young Irelander actions from my contacts in Dublin, and to follow that up, I had to go myself, so Sebastian stood in for me with Ennis. At that point, we didn’t know the two matters were definitely connected—that we were investigating two stages of the same plot. Unfortunately, his lordship was fatally stabbed minutes before Sebastian was to meet with him. Ennis managed to utter the words ‘gunpowder’ and ‘here’ before he died. Subsequently, Sebastian and Antonia discovered the cave and evidence that the ten barrels had been stored there, but by then, Boyne had moved the barrels on, presumably to London.” Drake paused, then, voice hardening, affirmed, “Almost certainly to London.”
Michael frowned. “If London was the destination all along, why not just ship the barrels directly here?”
“Because,” Drake said, “the movement of gunpowder within the capital is tightly controlled, but that control focuses on gunpowder produced by the local registered mills, both government and private, and any gunpowder brought in through the Port of London. By secretly landing the gunpowder in Kent and carting it in, Boyne—or rather, whoever was pulling his strings—avoided the net.”
Michael looked at Sebastian. “Where’s Boyne now?”
“Dead. He was killed by whoever he was reporting to.”
“Presumably,” Drake said, “to ensure he told no one who that person—the one he took his orders from—is.” His tone grew grim. “After my trip to Ireland, the one thing I can state with absolute confidence is that whoever is behind this plot, it isn’t anyone connected with the Young Irelander movement. They’ve been very cleverly used.”
Silence fell while they contemplated that, then Drake continued, “So now we have ten barrels of gunpowder somewhere in London. Ten hundredweight—that’s more than a thousand pounds, enough to blow up a very large building or several smaller ones—and we have no idea where it is, who is behind the plot, or what their target is.” He paused, then went on, “One factor that might work in our favor is that whoever is behind this, they’re being extraordinarily secretive. Extrapolating from that, it seems likely they’re running this plot in stages and closing off each stage as it’s completed—meaning killing off those involved to that point. As with Boyne, that effectively conceals not just the details of their past actions but also protects the identity of those giving the orders and their proposed next steps. If our plotters continue to adhere to such ruthless cautiousness, then while they may have meticulously planned each and every move all the way to lighting the fuse, they won’t have yet activated—meaning organized and set in train—the people and the processes for the next stage.”
He met the others’ eyes. “What I’m saying is that we may have a small window of opportunity in which to find the gunpowder. Several days—possibly as long as a week. In my educated opinion, it’s highly unlikely that the barrels were taken directly to the target. I think—I believe—that their true target is one fact those driving this plot will strive to keep secret from everyone, including all those they’ve used or think to use to achieve their purpose.”
“So,” Michael said, “the only people who know the true target are the instigators of the plot, and in fact, no one else will know until the very end?”
Drake nodded. “When even if those involved in that final stage wish to protest, it’ll be too late.”
Beside Sebastian, Antonia stirred. “That suggests the target is something…quite dreadful.” She met Drake’s golden eyes. “Something the Young Irelanders, or whatever disaffected ruffians the villains hire next, might object to—might balk at destroying.”
“Indeed.” Drake’s tone was clipped and hard.
After a moment of silence, Michael asked, “Is there any way we can identify the target?”
Grimly, Drake shook his head. “Not without finding the gunpowder in place and set to explode or learning the identities of the villains.” He grimaced. “And even knowing who they are, the specific target might not be instantly apparent. For example, if it had been a Young Irelander plot, their target or targets might have been any number of government buildings or places like the army barracks. But as this is not a Young Irelander plot”—he shrugged—“I don’t think we can even hazard a guess.”
Michael exchanged a glance with Sebastian, then they both looked at Drake, who appeared to have sunk into his thoughts—thoughts his expression stated were not pleasant.
“So that’s where we are as of today.” Sebastian caught Drake’s eye. “What’s next?”
Drake held Sebastian’s gaze for a moment, then looked at Michael. “We need to do our damnedest to find the gunpowder. Only by locating it can we be certain of stopping this plot.”
Michael nodded. “So where do we start?”
“That,” Drake said, “will be up to you, at least over the next few days.” He looked at Sebastian and grimaced. “I can barely believe it—and I’m starting to wonder if distracting me and getting me out of London is a part of this plot—but this morning, I received intelligence from two entirely separate sources that there’s some sort of Chartist plot under way somewhere in London.”
“The Chartists?” Sebastian looked incredulous. “When have they ever resorted to the sort of violence ten barrels of gunpowder implies?”
“Precisely. It was a stretch even for the Young Irelanders, although there have been smaller incidents of violence in their case. As for the Chartists, however, while they may protest and march en masse on Parliament, they’re devoted to achieving voting reform through peaceful, legal means. They want—have always wanted—reform via an act of Parliament. Blowing up the place isn’t in any way in keeping with their goals.”
“So who has suggested they’re involved?” Michael asked.
“No one—not in the sense of them being involved specifically with our ten barrels of gunpowder. But a contact I have in the London Working Men’s Association sent word he’d heard whispers among the local leaders—not Lovett or Hetherington but the leaders of the local militia, as they style themselves—of some action about to start, some messenger expected from their headquarters in the north with news of something designed to make Parliament sit up and take notice again. Normally, I’d rely on Lovett and Hetherington to ensure the organization wasn’t drawn into anything untoward, but—so my contact wrote—neither man is in London at this time. I’m not sure who is in charge, but it’s not anyone I know—I can’t just turn up and ask to be told what it’s all about. But there was worse to come. An hour ago, I received a communiqué from Whitehall—it seems there’ve been whispers in the corridors about some renewed Chartist unrest.” His expression one of disgust, Drake looked at Sebastian. “You know what they’re like in Whitehall. Mention unrest, and they imagine the worst. More, I know that if I try to hunt down who started the rumors, I’ll end chasing my tail.”
Drake sighed. He leant back in his chair and looked at Michael. “As matters stand, the fastest way to resolve the question of Chartist involvement is for me to go north and speak with Feargus O’Connor.”
O’Connor, Michael knew, was the de facto supreme leader of the Chartist movement and owner of the Leeds-based Northern Star newspaper.
“If anyone knows what those at the head of the Chartist movement have planned, it’s O’Connor—and he’ll tell me.” Drake’s smile was cold. “Once I explain the situation to him—how I believe someone is plotting to drag the Chartist cause into the mud, ultimately to see it outlawed—I’m sure he’ll tell me all I need to know about anything they have planned. And—as I doubt that they actually have anything planned—who to contact in London to set those in the London Working Men’s Association right about what their leadership truly wants.”
“How long do you think that will take?” Sebastian asked.
“Almost certainly longer than I would like.” Drake calculated then offered, “Three days minimum, but more likely four. In this season, I’ll be lucky to find O’Connor at his desk—I’ll have to chase him into the country and hunt him down.”
“Well,” Michael said, “while you’re hunting in the north, I’ll hunt down here.” He glanced at Sebastian, sitting on the sofa with one hand closed about one of Antonia’s—Michael wasn’t even sure his brother was aware of the contact; touching Antonia seemed to have already become an unconscious act—then met Drake’s eyes. “As our two lovebirds here are going to be busy, I’ll take on the search for the gunpowder.”
Drake inclined his head. “Good. Where are you going to start?”
Michael had already thought about that. “You said there was ten hundredweight of gunpowder. They couldn’t have moved that on one cart—not in one trip—so let’s assume two carts were involved, and those carts wouldn’t have been just any old farm cart with a rundown nag between the shafts. They would have had to be…well, carters’ carts. The sort of carts that could manage the journey along the highway to London, loaded with heavy barrels, and no one would look twice. Right?”
Drake nodded. “So where did the carts come from?”
“Exactly.” Michael glanced at Sebastian. “Might such carts have been hired locally from somewhere around Pressingstoke Hall?”
Sebastian pulled a face. “Dover’s to the south, but I doubt carters from there would want to take a load to London, knowing they would be empty on the way back—unless they had organized a load for the return journey, but that would mean they’d have to have known of the trip far in advance…”
“No.” Drake shook his head. “You’re right about having to use professional carters with proper carts, but our plotters—whoever they are—wouldn’t have risked using locals. Whoever drove those carts had to be prepared to move gunpowder illegally. There’s no way the carters wouldn’t have known what they were transporting, and they picked up the barrels from a cave off the beach—no chance of them not realizing no excise had been paid. So…” Drake tapped his steepled fingertips before his face.
Michael had seen Drake’s father—the current Duke of Wolverstone—do the same thing when thinking some point through.
Eventually, Drake said, “If I was the villain behind this, I would have taken the time to find and recruit carters—or drivers with access to suitable carts—who were Young Irelander sympathizers.” Drake looked at Sebastian. “Boyne had to be on the beach to lead them to the cave and the barrels—he would have got suspicious too early if the carters hadn’t been a part of the movement. Or at least Irish.” Drake tipped his head consideringly, then glanced at Michael. “Just being Irish would probably have been enough. They wouldn’t have been discussing politics while moving the barrels.”
His eyes on Drake’s, Michael slowly nodded. “So I’m looking for two men, at least one of whom is Irish, if not both, with access to the right sort of carts to transport ten barrels of gunpowder into London.” He paused, then added, “I seriously doubt I could fill that bill in any small town, and probably not even in Dover.”
“London.” Drake grimaced resignedly and sat up. “That fits with the care our villains are taking. You’re looking for two drivers, most likely carters, most likely Irish and very possibly Young Irelander sympathizers, working out of London.”
“As matters stand,” Sebastian said, “other than the villains pulling the strings, the men who transported the barrels to London are our only route to the gunpowder.”
“True.” Michael surveyed the others, finally resting his gaze on Antonia. “So who do we know who would know about carters?”
Antonia opened her eyes wide. “I would have suggested asking Hamilton or Crewe, but I think you’ll find that we—our households—use our own carts or carriages. We wouldn’t hire carters, not on a routine basis—not enough to know the ins and outs of the trade.”
Michael nodded. “So who do we know who has dealings with carters—the sort of carters we’re after?”
After a moment, Sebastian offered, “You might see if any of Lord Hendon’s sons are in town. They would probably have some idea—or at least be able to point you in the direction of someone who liaises with carters.”
“And if you can’t find them, try at the Hendon Shipping Company office,” Drake said. “The company moves all sorts of goods from the docks to customers and warehouses all around London and the Home Counties, so someone in the office will surely know enough to steer you onto a worthwhile trail.”
“Where is the office?” Michael reached for his notebook.
Drake looked nonplussed. He glanced at Sebastian, who shook his head.
When Michael looked at her, Antonia shrugged. “I’ve no idea.”
Michael shoved the notebook back into his pocket. “Never mind. I’ll find it.” He looked at Drake. “My one remaining question—how much time do we have? If the gunpowder is already in London and has been since…” He broke off and looked at Sebastian. “When would the barrels have arrived here—in the capital?”
Sebastian looked at Antonia.
She frowned, then said, “The barrels left the Kent coast on the night of the day before yesterday or very early yesterday morning.”
Sebastian nodded. “That’s correct. So if they were brought straight up to town—and most likely they were—then they would have arrived in London yesterday, sometime in the morning.”
“So the barrels have been here, in town, for twenty-four hours already.” Michael looked at Drake. “How many days do you think we’ll have to find the barrels before they’re moved on, presumably to the intended target?”
“As I said earlier, we can probably count on a few more days, possibly up to a week.” Drake pulled a face. “Successfully deploying that much gunpowder, in secret, into position to blow up some government building or monument will require extensive planning, and these villains have been so very careful, I can’t imagine they’ll rush at this point.” Drake paused, then met Michael’s eyes. “Let’s just say that I’m not expecting to hear of any explosion in the next four or five days.”
Michael grunted. “That’s not quite as reassuring as you seem to think.”
Drake shook his head. “Regardless, there’s only one trail to follow, and you’ll need to follow it step by logical step. That’s all you—or we—can do. Incidentally”—he trapped Michael’s gaze—“if you do happen to locate the barrels, watch them rather than seize them. I hope to be back before they’re moved, and given that the Young Irelander connection has proved to be a deliberately misleading façade—and I’m fairly certain that this supposed Chartist involvement will turn out to be even less substantial—then our only avenue to identifying who is really behind this plot is via those barrels of gunpowder. If we find the barrels, we need to watch and wait, see who comes to fetch them, follow the barrels to their destination, then capture those involved before they have a chance to light any fuse. Up to this point, other than those directing the plot, everyone who has played a part in it, however minor, is dead. We need to seize someone still capable of speech.”
With that acerbic comment, Drake came to his feet.
The others all rose.
Drake led them to the door. “I’ll set out at first light for Leeds. If O’Connor reacts as I expect he will, I hope to return with the necessary contacts to halt any active support from the London Chartists—hopefully in time to stop the gunpowder being deployed, at least by them.” He opened the door, waved the others through, then followed them into the front hall.
While Antonia donned her mantle and Sebastian and Michael shrugged into their greatcoats, Drake stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his feet apart, and studied the floor.
When the others were ready to leave, he looked up—at Michael. “You’re right in thinking that, with the gunpowder now in London, some clock is ticking—it has to be—but unfortunately, we don’t know on what timetable this plot is operating. However, there are already so many aspects about it that are simply not usual—not the way such games are normally played—that I’m in two minds over whether there’s any need for urgency.”
Drake paused, then went on, “I don’t know how best to direct you. If—when—you find the gunpowder, if I’m not back, you should play it by ear. If you feel the location is safe enough—that it’s not the target and you can mount a suitable watch over the place—then do so. If the barrels are already at the target, or what might be the target, then exercise your discretion.” He glanced at Sebastian and smiled faintly. “In such a case, between the two of you, I’m sure you can arrange to seize the barrels.”
Sebastian nodded, as did Michael.
“Don’t worry,” Michael said. “By the time you return, we’ll have all in hand.”
Drake looked skeptical. “I can only hope.”
Hamilton took that as his cue to swing open the front door.
As the four walked toward the doorway, Michael glanced at Sebastian and Antonia, then looked across them at Drake. “One thing—we’ll need to be careful about sending any messages to St. Ives House. Louisa’s expected back in the next few days. Crewe seemed to think she would call in at Somersham first, presumably to see Grandmama, but given Louisa’s propensity for turning up when you least expect her…”
His features hardening, Sebastian nodded curtly. “Indeed—and we all know what she’s like. The very last thing any of us need is to have Lady Wild involving herself in this.”
Sebastian, Michael, and Drake all shuddered, Drake most violently—most feelingly—of all.
“Lady Wild” was Louisa’s nickname throughout the ton. Glancing at Drake, Antonia thought he had even paled a trifle. Intrigued, she caught his eye and arched a brow.
He correctly interpreted her unvoiced question; he waved her over the threshold and, as she stepped onto the porch, replied, “Her brothers have grown inured to her ways, but I have not. Her sheer recklessness makes my blood run cold.” He halted in the doorway.
Antonia turned and fixed him with a disbelieving look. “You? Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?”
Drake arched his brows in his usual arrogant fashion. “Not at all. I am the epitome of sane and considered compared to Lady Wild.”
* * *
He sat in the shadows at a table tucked into a corner of the tavern in Weaver’s Lane. Patience didn’t come naturally to him, but tonight, confident and assured, with his wide-brimmed hat tipped forward to shade his face, he was prepared to sip his ale and wait for his contacts to arrive.
He might not be a guardsman, but he had his strengths; he could see why the old man had delegated this phase of the plan to him. There were, so the old man had informed him and the guardsman, three stages to the whole. And for each stage properly undertaken and successfully completed, he or the guardsman—whichever of them had been given that particular stage to run—would be awarded one third of the old man’s estate.
As gentlemen with no prospects but an innate taste for living well, both he and the guardsman had accepted the old man’s challenge. According to the old man, he would award the right to run the third and final stage to whichever of them completed their initial stage most cleanly—meaning who best ensured the old man’s wishes were carried out smoothly and in complete secrecy.
The guardsman had performed to the old man’s expectations in managing the first stage—in using the Young Irelander sympathizers to organize ten barrels of gunpowder, ship them to Kent, then transport the barrels by cart to London while leaving no trace that might lead back to either the guardsman or the old man.
Wrapped in the comforting shadows in the corner of the tavern, the man raised his mug of ale and took a slow, savoring draft. He’d been summoned by the old man that afternoon and given the location of the barrels, along with the keys to the warehouse in which the barrels were currently stored.
At an earlier audience, he’d been made privy to the names of those he needed to gull and all relevant information necessary to carry out the second stage. As far as he knew, the details of the second stage hadn’t been shared with his competitor; the guardsman knew where the barrels were, but not where they were going.
As per the old man’s instructions, the man had spent the first three days of that week rattling around the coffee houses and eateries around Whitehall, armed with names, positions, and many useful facts. He’d crossed paths with various, mostly distant acquaintances, had imbibed and eaten alongside them, and subtly raised hares; without actually stating anything as fact, he’d planted the seeds of the notion that the Chartists were stirring and action might be imminent. As he understood things, the rumors were designed to ensure that one Lord Drake Varisey, Marquess of Winchelsea—a nobleman the old man seemed to despise and hold in unqualified contempt, yet at the same time, be distinctly wary of—went off on a wild-goose chase, the better to pave the way for a straightforward and unfettered run through the old man’s second stage.
That afternoon, he’d been happy to be able to report that all was in readiness to proceed, exactly as the old man had wished.
Yesterday, when he’d received a note from the guardsman informing him that the barrels had been delivered and describing their location, he’d progressed to contacting the local Chartist militia leaders via the London Working Men’s Association headquarters. That hadn’t been as difficult as he’d feared. As usual, the old man’s information had been uncannily accurate; how the old boy managed it while remaining immured in the country, the man really didn’t know, yet such an absolute grasp of every little detail and nuance of the situation commanded his admiration.
He’d only had to mention O’Connor’s name to be assured that his message would be conveyed to the right quarters and the leaders would meet with him. He’d dropped only one hint of impending action; that was all the workers at the club had required to leap on his request.
He doubted the local leaders would be quite so easy to gull, but he’d nominated this tavern as a meeting place and tonight at ten o’clock as the time.
It was nearing the hour now. He sat in the shadows and, despite the impatience—a wish to push on—that rippled beneath his skin, reminded himself that all good things came to those who waited.
Even more specifically, he reminded himself of all the good things he would be able to buy with even one third of the old man’s estate. Two thirds, and he’d live out his life in luxury. He felt confident of carrying out the old man’s wishes to his satisfaction, if not his outright approbation—approval enough, at least, to convince the old man to entrust the third and final stage of the plan, whatever it might involve, to him.
In truth, this stage of the plan could not have been carried out by the guardsman; even in mufti, all guardsmen were instantly recognizable. Their stance, their rigid posture, gave them away; the Chartists would have taken one look at the guardsman and steered clear.
He, on the other hand, was a chameleon. He also had an abundance of charm; he fully expected to have the local Chartist leaders eating from the palm of his hand.
Or to be more accurate, swallowing his tall tale whole.
Barely audible above the raucous din, the clock on the wall above the bar weakly chimed the hour—and the main door was shoved open, and three men entered.
They were heavyset, middle-aged, and just a touch suspicious. They scanned the tavern. He made no move to attract their attention, just waited.
Eventually, they saw him, and hesitantly, sliding between other patrons’ chairs, they approached.
When they reached the table where he sat, the oldest—the white-haired one in the center of the three—studied him, then asked, “Is it you we’re supposed to see, then?”
The man smiled thinly and, with a wave, invited them to sit on the three empty stools arrayed around the table. “Please join me, gentlemen.” He raised his hand and caught the serving girl’s eye. As she walked over, he asked the three Chartists, “What’s your pleasure? This round’s on me…or rather”—he lowered his voice dramatically—“on Feargus O’Connor.”
The three Chartists exchanged a glance, then the serving girl was there, and they ordered pints of ale.
When the girl retreated to the bar, the Chartists studied him anew with an interest that was easy to read. The oldest eventually asked, “What’s this about, then?”
From under the brim of his hat, the man glanced past the Chartists, then murmured, “Let’s wait until you have your drinks in front of you—no need to chance anyone overhearing.”
His caution had the desired effect; the three were now convinced he brought highly sensitive information. He’d long ago learned that little touches like that carried more weight than protestations.
When the Chartists had foaming pints before them and the serving girl had departed, the three lifted their pints, took deep sips, then lowered the mugs. All three glanced guardedly around, then bent expectant looks on him, on his face shadowed by his hat brim.
He suppressed a self-satisfied smile; this was going to be even easier than he’d thought. He leant forward, fixed his gaze on the face of the oldest man, and quietly said, “O’Connor sent me down. He’s…unhappy about the way things are going, but of course, he can’t be seen to be inciting any action. Not now he’s in Parliament himself. But he and the others up north feel the movement needs to ginger things up—to remind people we’re here and that we’ve still got demands, demands the high and mighty haven’t yet addressed.”
The three murmured their agreement, keeping their voices down.
They leant in as the man let his voice sink even lower. “We need to make a bit of a statement, see? O’Connor and the others have agreed on that, and that the statement needs to be made here in London. They’ve worked out a plan, but their orders are that I keep all the details to the smallest number of people, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t explain.”
The three exchanged glances, then the oldest looked directly into the man’s shadowed eyes. “All right. But if you’re not going to tell us what this plan’s about, what are we meeting for, then?”
The man smiled and eased back; he knew he would get what he wanted. What he needed. “All I—well, O’Connor, really—wants from you is the loan of some muscle. I need four reliable men, but not just any men. Men who know how to do what’s required—O’Connor and the others were sure you had the right men in your groups to help me carry out their plan.”
The Chartists didn’t even pause to exchange a glance. All three leant even farther forward. “What men?” the one on the right asked.
“Just four?” the man on the left queried.
The oldest man, the one in the center, asked, “What do you need them to do?”
He outlined his requirements.
And as the old man stuck away in the country had assured him, the Chartist militia leaders knew just the right helpers to steer his way. They promised him they would have all four meet him the following night.
“What name shall we tell them?” the oldest leader asked.
“Sharp.” The man was sorely tempted to claim to be a captain, but that might be one contemptuous step too far. “John Sharp. And we won’t meet here.” He beckoned the serving girl. “The Dog and Duck tavern in Red Lion Street. Same time—ten o’clock.”
The Chartists nodded readily, accepting his murmured comment that no one in Weaver’s Lane needed to see the four of them together again, or even him with four of their fellows.
He tapped the side of his nose. “Best keep everything under wraps. O’Connor doesn’t want any whispers getting around, not before the action.”
He left the three at the table, sipping the second round he’d ordered for them. Only after he’d passed through the door into the welcoming darkness did he finally allow his triumph to show.
“Even easier than I’d thought.” The old man would be proud if he knew. Lining up the men to carry out the next stage of his plot had cost seven pints of ale in a dingy tavern.
The man in the low-brimmed hat strode off down the cobbled street, and the night swallowed him whole.
Much to Michael’s frustration, it was after ten o’clock the following morning when he finally found his way to the steps of the Hendon town house. He could barely credit that it had taken him so long to learn the address. “That’s what comes of searching for ton addresses in London in October,” he grumbled. “Most of the ton are somewhere else.”
He’d assumed Crewe would know the address, but the butler hadn’t. Subsequently, Michael had rifled the desk in the library, but his father had taken his address book with him. Reasoning that, if the Hendon sons—there were three of them—were in town, then they would appear at one or other of the customary haunts for fashionable gentlemen, he’d shrugged and gone out on the hunt. But trawling through the clubs had yielded only the information that the Hendons weren’t about, and no one he’d been able to find knew of their London address.
In the small hours, annoyed over having wasted an entire evening, he’d returned to St. Ives House and his bedroom. There, he’d grumbled about the problem to his gentleman’s gentleman, Tom.
Tom was two years older than Michael and had grown up on the Somersham Place estate. He’d originally been Michael’s groom, then his sometime carriage driver. When the time had come for Michael to go on the town, and he’d been informed he needed a gentleman’s gentleman to keep his clothes and effects in order, he’d asked for Tom to be trained by his father’s man, and so now Tom effectively filled all three positions—personal groom, sometime carriage driver, and gentleman’s gentleman—to the satisfaction of all concerned.
Tom was also Michael’s principal conduit for household information. In retrospect, Michael couldn’t understand why he hadn’t laid the problem of the Hendons’ address before Tom immediately.
Once apprised of his need, Tom had advised that he would investigate and see what he could turn up by morning.
After consulting with his colleagues below stairs, Tom’s morning suggestion had been to ask at the Half Moon Street house of Michael’s father’s cousin, Demon Cynster. Apparently, Lady Hendon was a superlative rider of exceptional horses, as was Demon’s wife, Felicity. As the Hendon estate was on the north coast of Norfolk, not far from Demon’s estate and stable complex outside Newmarket, it seemed likely the two ladies would be friends.
That prediction had proved accurate; although Demon and Felicity, better known as Flick, were in the country, the butler left in charge of the Half Moon Street house knew Michael well and promptly volunteered the Hendons’ London address.
Michael paused on the pavement, looking at the houses, confirming that he’d finally reached Number 12, Clarges Street. Then he walked up the three steps, seized the knocker, and beat a tattoo on the glossy green door.
Several moments passed, then footsteps, slow but steady—a stately tread—approached. A second later, the door opened, revealing a butler somewhat older than the norm, of middling height and girth, correctly attired, with soft white hair neatly combed over his balding pate, a worn, lined face, and kindly blue eyes.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Lord Michael Cynster.” Michael handed the man one of his cards. “Are any of the family—the gentlemen—at home?”
The butler studied the card, then raised his gaze to Michael’s face. “I’m afraid none of the family is currently here, my lord. Might I take a message?”
“I…no.” Michael grimaced. “I need advice on a matter associated with business, and I need that rather urgently.”
The butler regarded him steadily, then the man’s features eased almost into a smile. “In that case, my lord, if I might suggest, you could ask at the Hendon Shipping Company office. If you ask to see the office manager, I suspect you’ll be able to learn the answers to any questions you may have.”
“The office manager?”
“Indeed, sir. I believe you’ll discover the manager to be a font of information.”
Michael brightened. At last, a possible source—no, a font. Just what he needed. “Thank you.” He hefted his cane. “And where can I find this informative soul?”
“The Hendon Shipping Company office is located at the corner of Fenchurch Street and Lime Street in the City, my lord.”
“Excellent.” Michael raised the head of his cane in salute, then turned, clattered down the steps to the pavement, and hailed a passing hackney.
The hackney drew up.
“Corner of Fenchurch and Lime Streets,” Michael called to the jarvey.
“Right you are, guv.”
Michael settled on the seat as the hackney jerked into motion. Glancing out at the passing houses, he grinned. At last, he was off. At last, he’d found the opening to a trail, and his hunt for the gunpowder was—finally!—under way.
* * *
Miss Cleome Annabelle Hendon sat behind her desk in her private office. With her elbow on the desk and her chin propped in the palm of her hand, she stared at the three ledgers laid out before her.
Sales, Expenditures, and Profits, with all three ledgers reconciled to the last penny.
She surveyed the numbers—figures most businessmen would give their eyeteeth to boast of—and tried to discover inside herself some glimmer of the pride and self-satisfaction such a sight would once have brought her.
But it simply wasn’t there.
When she’d first claimed her position in the company, every week, she’d taken the better part of three days to do the company’s accounts. Now, she barely took two hours. She’d reduced what had once been a major battle to the most minor of engagements. Where once, every week, she’d savored a giddy rush of triumph, she now derived roughly as much satisfaction as she felt on correctly tying a bow.
In the early days of her occupying this office, there had been challenges galore. But now that she’d beaten every one of those challenges into submission, there was no longer any excitement left in her world.
Indeed, the office now ran so smoothly, so very much under her control even without her direct input, there was little reason for her to actually be there…
Her dissatisfaction—her disaffection with her present unchallenged and unchallenging state—welled. She set her jaw, picked up a pencil, and tapped its end on the desk.
Unbidden, her thoughts veered to her brothers. Jarred, Robert, and Christopher were all out of the country. They’d sailed that summer for the Americas to investigate trading opportunities. Jarred was in New York, while Robert and Christopher had sailed to New Orleans. None of them was due back until mid-November; she had no doubt all three were enjoying their adventures to the giddy limit if not beyond.
That was what she needed—an adventure. A satisfying adventure of her own.
Something to test her, to engage her faculties and sharpen her wits. Considering her parents’ colorful pasts, it was evident her family thrived on adventure; they might possibly even need it, at least in the sense of feeling fulfilled.
So her brothers were adventuring overseas, and in Norfolk, her parents were doubtless pursuing their own adventures of sorts. Meanwhile, she was the one left in London, holding the proverbial fort.
Admittedly, she’d fought to become the de facto lynchpin of the company, the one in control of all finances and more or less at the helm, deeming the position her sure route to independence and also a steady source of interest and excitement. She’d been correct about the former and even the latter; what she hadn’t counted on was her own competence reducing the role to one she now found too easy.
With something close to disgust, she shut the ledgers one by one—slap, slap, slap—then stacked them and pushed them away.
She needed to find some adventure, some novel enterprise to lift her out of this rut.
She was staring unseeing across the room when a tap on the frame of her open door had her glancing that way.
Fitch, the head clerk, neatly attired, precise, and sharp-eyed, stepped over the threshold and halted. “There’s a gentleman here, miss, asking for assistance with a matter of some importance. A Lord Michael Cynster—he called at your home, and Morris suggested he speak with our office manager.”
Cleo blinked and sat up. Morris knew perfectly well that she was the office manager, and along with all the staff both at the house and the office, generally steered gentlemen away from her. But not this one. What made him so special? “Lord Michael Cynster?”
Even as the name left her lips, she saw him saunter into the doorway behind Fitch. Fitch wasn’t that small, but Lord Michael filled the doorway, casting the slighter man into the shade.
Into near invisibility; Cleo’s eyes and all her senses locked on the tall, broad-shouldered figure.
Very broad shoulders. Wide chest. Long legs and impressive height, with his dark hair—a dark brown close to sable—almost brushing the upper edge of the doorway. Features so chiseled, so perfectly cut and constructed, they would reliably capture and transfix the awareness of all females within sight.
Quite aside from the clue provided by his name, she instantly recognized his sort; blessed with a commanding presence and an easy, almost nonchalant assurance underpinned by the innate arrogance of the nobility, such men were inherently powerful personalities. More, they were men about whom women flocked, to her mind indiscriminately; in her experience, such men invariably held a high opinion of themselves and of their attractiveness to women. Sometimes, perhaps, that opinion was well founded, but often, it was not.
Normally, such men affected her not at all; their power bounced off the shield formed of her will, her intelligence, and her determination.
But this one…
With an easy, strangely gentle smile, one that reached and softened his dark-brown eyes, which, she noted, were fringed by ludicrously lush dark lashes, he stepped past Fitch and approached the desk.
That smile shouldn’t have set butterflies flitting in her stomach, shouldn’t have sent a teasing warmth sliding through her, yet it did. She hurriedly firmed her features into a stiffer, unrevealing mask.
When he paused before the desk, she arched a haughty brow. “And you are?”
His eyes met hers in a steady regard. Then his smile deepened a touch. “As your”—he glanced back at Fitch, then looked back at her—“head clerk said, I’m Lord Michael Cynster.”
He drew a card from his pocket and offered it to her.
Cleo stared at the card, at the strong, slightly tanned fingers holding it. She didn’t want to take it, but she forced herself to reach out and pluck the card from his hand.
Sure enough, the warmth of his fingers lingered on the ivory parchment. She dropped the card on her blotter; looking down, she noted that, yes, the name was as he’d said—not that she’d doubted who he was for an instant. His clothes—superbly tailored from expensive fabrics and fashionably cut with a hint of the austere—let alone the way he wore them and the manner in which he moved, like some overlarge, prowling, predatory cat, all screamed his station. The power of his presence, the intelligence in his features, and the strength conveyed by his squared chin simply underscored that.
Tamping down her leaping senses—she couldn’t understand why they were so ridiculously exercised—she forced herself to look up at him, annoyed to find that it was, indeed, a very long way up. Keeping her expression studiously bland, in a distinctly chilly tone, she inquired, “I understand you’re seeking assistance in some matter. How may we help you?”
Michael wasn’t—definitely wasn’t—used to being met by prickliness. In that respect, Miss Cleome Hendon was giving an excellent imitation of a hedgehog—one riled and ready to shoot quills his way. He didn’t try a more beguiling smile; he had a strong suspicion that wouldn’t go down well. Instead, he glanced around and spotted a nearby chair. He looked at her and gestured to the chair. “Do you mind if I sit?” If he didn’t, she’d end with a crick in her neck and probably blame him.
She waved her permission. While he lifted the chair, set it before the desk, then leant his cane against the side and sat, she nodded to the clerk. “That will be all for the moment, Fitch. I’ll ring if I need you.”
The man bowed and departed, but left the door open. Michael glanced at it, but decided it didn’t matter; the room was at the end of a long corridor, and the nearest clerks were at a sufficient distance—no one would be able to overhear their conversation.
“Well, Lord Michael?”
He returned his gaze to her face. “Please, just Michael. Our families are acquainted.”
She dipped her head. A very pretty, well-shaped head with a wealth of strawberry-blond curls piled in a knot on top. The knot, a somewhat old-fashioned style for someone of her years, did not appear to be all that well anchored—wisps, even the stray lock, had already escaped and tumbled down to bob in lustrous curls about her heart-shaped face. Her complexion was soft ivory, with gently rounded cheeks delicately burnished with a rosy tint—a combination often referred to as peaches and cream. Quite delectable.
Eyes that were a combination of leafy green and golden brown regarded him steadily; for a gently bred miss, she had a gaze that was unusually open and direct. Almost challenging in its own right. Her features were delicate—finely arched brown brows over those large eyes, lashes a soft brown and long rather than thick. Her nose was straight, but with a slightly upturned tip. As for her mouth…
His lazy perusal halted with his gaze locked on her lips. Rosy pink, their curves distinctly lush, the upper straight, the lower full and ripe; he was suddenly conscious of a remarkably strong desire to taste them.
A strong enough compulsion to shake him into forcing his gaze to move on…to her figure. A swanlike neck, straight shoulders, and gently rounded, very feminine charms—that much was on show. With her perched behind the desk, he couldn’t gauge her height, but what he could see suggested curves to match her lips. Lush, full, ripe.
His educated guess was that she was a pocket Venus with her curves hidden—or was that disguised?—by draperies. Her clothes were, he supposed, appropriate for the post of office manager of her family’s company, being practical rather than fashionable—a rather severely cut jacket in honey-colored twill worn over a white lawn blouse with a ruffled jabot adorned with lace.
Her hands were delicate, fine boned, her long, slender fingers devoid of rings; as his gaze reached them, in a very deliberate fashion, she tapped the end of the pencil she was holding in her right hand on the blotter—a clear warning of mounting impatience.
He raised his gaze to her face and, more certain now, smiled easily. “I was hoping to speak with one or more of your brothers, but I understand they’re not available to be consulted.”
“They’re in the Americas.”
“In the country—at Castle Hendon on the north coast of Norfolk.”
He made a small grimace and nodded. And said nothing more; instead of demanding, he would rather she asked.
She spent several moments regarding him with a mixture of distrust and curiosity; eventually, curiosity won. She sat straighter, reached up and poked the pencil she’d been holding beneath her topknot—favoring him with an excellent view of her distinctly feminine charms—then she lowered her arms, folded her hands on the blotter, and fixed her gaze on his face. “Lor—Michael, as I am the manager of this company, perhaps, if you tell me what you wish to know, I might be able to assist you. Unless your query concerns some subject peculiarly masculine in nature, I assure you that I’m significantly more likely than my brothers to have the answers you seek.”
He was far too clever to grin. He hesitated for only a second before confiding, “I need to locate the drivers of two carts who delivered a particular cargo into London on Wednesday.”
She studied him levelly for several seconds, then bluntly asked, “Why are you”—her gaze fleetingly swept over his figure—“interested in the drivers of carts?”
He blinked. He hadn’t expected her to ask that. “I…need to find, to locate, the cargo they brought into the city.”
Her gaze didn’t waver. “Again, I ask: Why?” When he didn’t immediately reply, her eyes narrowed on his. “What is this cargo?”
Michael realized he’d made a serious misstep; provoking the curiosity of a woman—a lady—of her ilk was never a good idea. He stuck to his guns, but strove to make his tone conciliatory. “I just need to find the cargo—some barrels. Ten, to be precise.”
She opened her eyes wide. “Ten barrels of what?”
Cleo scented an intrigue; when she saw his jaw tighten and his lips—finely chiseled and distractingly mobile—firm into a straight line, she was sure of it. More confident, she leant forward, comfortably settling her forearms on the desk and holding his gaze with hers. “A gentleman of your ilk searching for barrels—barrels of anything? You have staff aplenty. And what possible interest could you have in barrels—again, barrels of anything—being brought into London?”
His face hardened. Absolute intransigence stared back at her. The line of his lips had turned to a rigid slash.
She studied his face, then smiled, letting her own confidence show. She lowered her voice and confided, “My brothers will tell you that there is no power in this world capable of overcoming my stubbornness. And trust me—they do know.”
He stared at her as if she was a strange and unexpected puzzle. She waited, unperturbed by his scrutiny.
A scrutiny that steadily darkened until it was close to a glare.
When, with her lips still curved, she simply waited, he finally flung up a hand in a fencer’s gesture of defeat. “Very well.” His accents had turned exceedingly clipped, his tone hard—more real to her ears than his earlier softer, polished, and charming drawl. “If you must know, I’m working with Winchelsea—Drake Varisey.” He pinned her with a penetrating glance. “Do you know about Drake? About what he does?”
She sifted through the accumulated information filed in her brain. “I’ve heard that he…works, for want of a more appropriate word, for the Home Secretary in pursuing those miscreants the usual authorities find it difficult to investigate.”
Michael nodded. “A sound description as far as it goes. Drake is also tasked with pursuing plots that have the potential to threaten the realm.”
She blinked and straightened. “And these barrels you’re seeking have something to do with the latter?”
His curt nod sent a surge of expectant excitement through her. It had been so long since she’d felt such a thrill, she took an instant to savor it.
“The barrels I’m trying to find contain gunpowder.”
The information acted like a bucket of cold water, effectively dousing her thrill. She stared at Michael Cynster’s face—at the determination and strength so blatantly on display—and accepted that he wasn’t in any way pulling her leg. “Gunpowder,” she repeated. “Ten barrels. Somewhere in London.” When he nodded again, she hesitated, then asked, “Are we talking about the usual barrels—a hundredweight each?”
Again, Michael nodded. “So now you understand why I’m searching for the drivers—I have to locate those barrels, and as soon as may be.”
“Hmm.” Her gaze now unfocused, Cleome Hendon stared past him at the open door. “Finding them will be a challenge.”
He could almost see the wheels in her head turning. He forced himself to rein in his impatience and wait…
Then she blinked and refocused on his face. “I believe I know how to locate the men who drove those two carts. Trust me when I say that no one else in this office is likely to have the same knowledge, at least not to the extent of being able to lead you directly to it. And I am, needless to say, willing to assist you. However, I have one stipulation.”
Her gaze locked on his face, she paused to draw breath, the lace of her jabot rising portentously; even before she spoke, he knew he wasn’t going to like what he was about to hear.
“In return for my help, I want to be included in this action, through all of it from now until the end—and as an equal partner.”
“What?” He gripped the wooden arms of the chair in an effort to remain seated and not leap to his feet.
With unshaken calm, she held up a staying hand. “Before you say anything, hear me out. My family thrives on adventure, but as the only girl, I have, thus far, been denied my…chance.”
Panic trailed icy fingertips down his spine. He knew far too many ladies like her—ladies with a liking for intrigues and adventures, murder and violence notwithstanding, but…not on his watch. Although he could empathize, she would have to find some other adventure to slake her need. He cast about for an argument—any argument. “Managing this office—this company—isn’t enough for you?” Even to his ears, his tone sounded faintly desperate.
“I thought it would be, but I was wrong.” Her greeny-gold gaze captured his eyes, and her sincerity commanded his awareness. “When you walked through my door, I was sitting here racking my brains over how to uncover some intriguing, potentially exciting adventure in which to embroil myself. You, my dear Michael, walked in with my ticket to that adventure—and I’ve decided to take it.”
He set his jaw. “No. I am not including you in this mission.” When her chin only set more definitely—more stubbornly—he continued, “Two men and one woman—two gentlemen and a lady—have already been killed, and that was just getting the gunpowder onto the carts.” He lowered his voice to a harsher register. “You cannot expect me to allow you to involve yourself in this.”
She held his gaze steadily, levelly, then said, “Who said anything about being allowed? You are not my keeper.”
Inflexible will met immovable object; he was determined to be immovable.
She seemed to read as much in his face, but to his disquiet, her confidence didn’t falter. Then her lips lightly curved. “Now I know you’re hunting these barrels, what’s to stop me going out and finding the drivers involved—which, I assure you, I can do—and pursuing those barrels myself?” She tipped her head slightly; the pencil she’d stuck in her hair slipped, but didn’t fall. “And of course, it’s easy to understand why you—and through you, Winchelsea—want to lay your hands on more than a thousand pounds of gunpowder hidden somewhere in London as soon as you possibly can.”
He wasn’t going to be so easily manipulated. “Someone else must know how to find those drivers—you can’t be the only one in London with that knowledge.”
She inclined her head, but that irritatingly knowing smile of hers didn’t wane. “That’s certainly true.” Her eyes locked with his. “But how many days are you willing to waste searching for that someone when you’ve already found me?”
He refused to give in. He held his ground.
Her expression hardened. “No, I am not going to change my mind and meekly tell you what you wish to know.” Temper laced her tone. “You’ve heard my price—I’m afraid it’s a case of take it or leave it, my lord.”
Obviously, she was a lot more accustomed to driving hard bargains than he. He needed to find those drivers and, through them, the gunpowder. No matter how much it went against his grain, he was going to have to bend on this… He caught her gaze again. “You definitely know how to locate the drivers involved?”
She nodded decisively.
When he continued to fight his inner battle, as if she could see or sense it, her eyes on his, she again tipped her head—loosening that wretched pencil further, but it still didn’t fall.
“Let me see if I can make this easier,” she said. “If I locate the drivers involved, then you will accept me as an equal partner in this endeavor—this mission—and will share all relevant information with me, both relating to the history of the mission and, going forward, as matters unfurl.”
That sounded like a contract—a binding agreement. Given her background, he probably shouldn’t be surprised. However…she hadn’t said anything about participating in any action, about being necessarily included in any action, but was only insisting on being kept informed of all developments.
If he had to agree to some degree of sharing in order to get her help, then that was an agreement he could accept.
“Done.” He sat up and, over the desk, held out his hand to seal the deal.
She smiled in triumphant delight, reached out, and placed her fingers in his.
He gripped her hand—felt the silk-softness of her skin, the fragility of her fine bones—shook, and pretended not to notice the sharp catch in her breathing, the widening of her green-gold eyes, or the sudden tinge of color that rose to her cheeks. His own reaction to such signs was entirely familiar and, given his experience, easy enough to ignore.
The instant he eased his grip, she pulled her fingers free.
“Right, then.” She looked down and bent to rummage in a drawer. Then she shut the drawer and straightened, a leather reticule and a pair of matching gloves in her hands. She plunked both items on the desk. “As time is of the essence, I suggest we go.”
He came to his feet as she pushed back her chair and rose. “Go where?”
She glanced briefly at him, then away. “You’ll see.” With brisk movements, she pulled on her gloves.
He kept his expression studiously impassive, but inside, he was smiling like the hunter he truly was. Well, well—who would have thought that the feisty Miss Hendon was every bit as aware of him as he was of her?
If, later, he had any trouble keeping her out of situations in which she had no business being…in light of that unexpected susceptibility, he, better than most, knew just how to convince her to run home.
She picked up her reticule and came around the desk, clearly intending to lead the way.
She was taller than he’d expected—a touch over medium height—making her a pocket Venus as to curves, but with longer legs. Her height also brought her topknot level with his eyes.
As she swept past him, he held up a hand. “One moment.”
She halted and regarded him through wide eyes. “What?”
The word was a touch breathless.
He smiled, strolled closer, and raised his hand. Slowly. He watched her eyes follow his fingers as he reached…for the pencil she’d anchored in her hair. He grasped it, drew it free, and presented it to her. “That seemed a rather strange ornament.”
She uttered a sound between a laugh and a snort, took the pencil, swung back, and tossed it onto her desk. “Thank you.” Briefly, she met his eyes, then she turned and swept to the door. “Come on.”
He followed her out of the office and down the corridor to the clerks’ domain just inside the reception area.
“Fitch, I’ll be out for the rest of the day.” She paused, then resumed her march toward the door. “Indeed, I may not look in for several days. If you have any questions, send a message to Clarges Street, and I’ll come in.”
“Of course, miss.” The head clerk glanced at Michael with something akin to surprise. “Er…enjoy yourself, miss.”
His office manager was already at the door.
Michael caught up with her and reached over her shoulder to hold the heavy panel open, so he heard her murmur, “As to that, Fitch, we’ll see.”
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