Sneak Peak Excerpt




August 11, 1863

On board a train passing into France from Luxembourg


Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up.

The repetitive rattle of the train’s wheels played, mantra-like, in Toby Cynster’s mind.

Previously, the goading spur had complemented his innate inclination to rush ahead, his eagerness for adventure, yet today, as he sat by the window with his gaze fixed on the fleeting scenery, he didn’t appreciate the constant reminder of time whisking past.

He’d been informed that this was to be his last mission for Drake Varisey, Marquess of Winchelsea, the nobleman who managed a slew of British agents deployed in pursuit of the empire’s interests around the globe. Drake also happened to be Toby’s cousin-in-law—second cousin-in-law to be precise—and therein lay the rub. Much to Toby’s disgust, mounting pressure from the ladies of their combined families, all of whom were hell-bent on seeing Toby suitably wed, had forced Drake’s hand.

As a gentleman of impeccable breeding, a junior scion of a minor branch of a ducal house and blessed with every advantage that came with such standing—the right schools, the right connections, and the entree into any social or recreational circle—as well as being independently wealthy and free of dependent ties, Toby was tailor-made to be a covert agent for the state, something Drake had recognized many years ago. Toby’s loyalty was beyond question, and his abilities had only grown in response to the challenges he had encountered over the years.

Toby knew Drake valued him, that he was, in fact, Drake’s most-experienced and most-trusted agent. That only testified to the degree of pressure that had been brought to bear to make Drake bow to it and declare Toby’s career as a covert agent at an end.

I’m only thirty-eight!

Toby suppressed a jaundiced grimace. In reaching thirty-eight years of age unwed, he’d avoided the parson’s mousetrap for longer than any of his familial peers. All of them—male and female—were now married and busy establishing families of their own. But he had never seen such a future in his cards and still didn’t. He’d always been content alone, dependent on no one; he didn’t need anyone but himself in his personal life.

With his three siblings plus all his cousins wed, his parents and their generation had more than enough grandchildren to keep them amused; they didn’t need him to add to the tally. As for his sisters’ insistence that he needed children of his own, he had theirs to play uncle to, and he rather fancied being the sole unmarried gentleman of the Cynster clan.

Surely, every large family should have one bachelor uncle per generation, and with his compulsion to pursue adventure and his liking for the thrill of the chase—a constant throughout his life—he couldn’t see himself “settling down;” he’d be bored within a month and itching to be off somewhere, doing something exciting.

Action and adventure had been the essence of his life for so long, the craving for them was steeped in his blood.

In that respect, this final mission wasn’t likely to bring him much joy. Collect a doctor and his daughter along with a packet of critical dispatches the Germans had misplaced and babysit the lot back to London; the prospects for excitement seemed slight.

Toby stirred. He rearranged his long legs, uncrossing and recrossing them, and glanced at the only other occupant of the first-class compartment.

Seated diagonally opposite at the corridor end of the well-padded bench seat, a grizzled gentleman wrapped in a thick overcoat with an Astrakhan collar was perusing a newspaper and frowning.

Businessman, possibly Bavarian, traveling to a meeting, most likely in Lyon.

That was Toby’s experienced assessment, and he would wager he was right.

He returned his gaze to the scenery outside. He, too, appeared to be a businessman. He’d adopted the look—expensive coat, elegant suit, gloves, hat, and cane—as soon as he’d reached Antwerp. Drake had arranged passage from Ipswich to Bruges, one of the less frequented cross-Channel routes. Toby had intended to quietly make his way to Vienna via Cologne, Frankfurt, and Nuremberg—a more or less direct route—but his contact in Antwerp had strenuously advised against it. Apparently, the Germans were seriously exercised over the loss of their dispatches and were keeping a heightened watch for any known foreign adversaries entering their lands.

Toby was definitely “known” to the Germans. Consequently, he’d opted to travel by Liege and Luxembourg and was currently on his way to Strasbourg and thence to Basel and Zurich. From there, he would travel via Innsbruck and approach Vienna by the less obvious route.

He tipped his head back against the leather-covered squab. The longer he remained unnoticed by the Germans, and the Austrians, too, the better for all concerned.

* * *

August 12, 1863

Vienna, Austria


Diana Locke sat beside her father as he lay on his back on the bed in his surgery, and she gently held his hand and waited for the now-rapidly approaching and utterly inevitable end.

While one part of her—the lonely little girl who had been the apple of her father’s eye for all of her life—roiled with emotion, inwardly railing and ranting against the nearing separation, the experienced nurse who over the years had sat beside more deathbeds than she cared to count catalogued the minute-by-minute changes with an almost-detached air.

Her father was sinking, his breathing growing shallower and shallower, his color—what little remained—leaching with each slowing heartbeat. The end would come soon.

In that moment, as her eyes traced the craggy, beloved face, she was supremely conscious of being both the little girl fearful of losing the single solid anchor in her life and the trained nurse, watching to see if there was anything she might yet do to ease her patient’s passing.

At this point, death was inescapable; the nurse knew and accepted that. Over the past three days, her father had steadily worsened, his previous robust health draining before her very eyes despite her best efforts and those of his clinic partner, Dr. Rudolph Herschel.

Two days ago, at Herschel’s suggestion, they had moved her father from his bedroom upstairs to the hard, narrow bed in the parlor he had used as his surgery—the room in which he’d treated countless patients over the thirteen years that he and Diana had lived in Vienna. She’d hoped that being surrounded by the atmosphere in which he’d spent most of his waking hours would be of some comfort as well as making it easier to care for him.

She and her father had left England in the year after her mother had died, both hoping that new sights would help their lingering sorrow fade. Initially, Vienna had been merely a place to visit, one of medical interest to her father, but the expatriate community there had welcomed them with open arms, and after consulting on the treatment of a senior member of one of the premier aristocratic families, her father had found himself in great and insistent demand.

He’d leased the house in Kleeblattgasse, and they’d moved in and never left.

For her part, Diana didn’t regret one minute of the following years. In supporting her father’s work, she’d found her calling. Her naturally bossy nature, inherited from her mother, had emerged in response to the challenges of managing a household and a busy medical practice in a foreign land and in keeping both household and practice functioning and revolving around a man who, while brilliant, dedicated, and clinically observant in his calling, was prone to be forgetful and given to absentmindedness in all other spheres of life.

She’d thrived on the constant demands on her efforts and her ingenuity and had developed the observational skills, quick thinking, and tact required to deal with his haughtiest patients. She’d kept the house and the practice running smoothly and had reveled in the task.

I owe Papa so very much, but with his passing…

Almost as if he’d heard the thought, her father’s lids fluttered, then rose. His washed-out brown eyes sought and found her face, and his hand, which had been lying limp in hers, gripped, albeit weakly.

He wasn’t quite smiling, but his expression was relaxed and showed no hint of pain.

Diana met his eyes and hoped her love for him shone in hers even as she hid a frown. Had Herschel given him something when she’d stepped out of the room? She’d been gone for only a moment, but that would have been long enough.

Her father’s lips lifted slightly. “Diana, my darling girl.” His fingers pressed hers… in warning? “I suspect I haven’t long, my darling, and we need to talk.”

She was conscious of Herschel hovering in the open doorway at her back. “Don’t worry about me, Papa. Save your strength.”

Her father’s lips quirked in gentle amusement. “For what? We both know the end is close, my sweet.” Her father’s gaze went past her to the door. “Herschel, my friend, if you please, a moment…?”

Diana glanced over her shoulder to see Herschel still hovering.

After a fractional hesitation, Herschel touched his heels together and bowed in respectful fashion. “Of course.” To Diana, he said, “I will remain close enough for you to call should you need me.”

She nodded, and he leant in, caught the doorknob, and drew the door closed.

She returned her gaze to her father and saw his expression transform into one of extreme seriousness.

His fingers tightened on hers. “Promise me that you will not trust anyone, and that includes Herschel. Promise me that you will wait and place your trust only in the man Winchelsea sends.”

She frowned faintly. “Trust in what way?”

“With the packet that you know of.” Her father’s gaze, surprisingly clear, held hers. “Promise me you will give the packet only to the man Winchelsea sends and that you will return to England with him—you will not be safe here, in Vienna, once I’m gone.”

The packet he referred to had unexpectedly fallen into his hands. As the local doctor, he’d been called to attend the injured after a brawl at a nearby tavern, only to discover one of the participants had been stabbed. In extremis, the man—a German who, naturally, her multilingual father had spoken to in German—had pressed the packet on her father and asked him to see it delivered. Focused on saving the man, he’d accepted the packet, but despite his best efforts, soon after, the German had died.

Later, on returning to Kleeblattgasse and seeking to learn to whom the packet should be sent, her father had opened it and discovered a sheaf of political dispatches detailing German plans regarding British assets in Africa.

Despite not having set foot in Britain for over thirteen years, her father was a loyal patriot. After studying the documents, he’d informed her that they contained information about serious threats to the Empire and that he would seek to get word to the proper British authorities through the embassy in Vienna.

She knew he had done so and that a person named Winchelsea had replied. It had been arranged that Winchelsea would send a trusted agent to collect the dispatches and also escort her father and her safely back to England.

Diana had resigned herself to quitting Vienna, but she’d imagined she’d be leaving by her father’s side. On top of that, she still had one patient—one critically ill and dying patient—whom she would not leave. “Papa—”

Alarm flared in her father’s eyes, and he gripped her hand even more tightly. “Promise me, my darling. It is, quite literally, the last thing I will ask you to do.”

There was no way she could deny him. She inwardly sighed and nodded. “I promise. When the man Winchelsea sends arrives, I will give him the dispatches and return with him to England.” After Adrian Fellows dies and I see his and Alicia’s children settled. Winchelsea’s man would simply have to wait; Adrian didn’t have many days left.

The tension in her father’s face eased. “Thank you.”

She waited, but his eyes, fixed on her face, slowly closed.

She shook his hand slightly. “Papa?” She leant closer and whispered, “You haven’t told me where you hid the packet.”

“Ah, yes.” His slight smile returned, and he opened his eyes.

Her heart caught and skipped a beat. She stared at his face, desperately committing the beloved sight to memory.

“Forever forgetting the important things.” Looking rather smug, he smiled into her eyes. “I hid it in the one place where I knew you would find it when you needed to.”

She gave vent to a faintly exasperated huff; when she was young, he had loved to play hide-and-seek with her, and he was diabolically good at devising hiding places that she never found. But this wasn’t any game. “Papa, please. Just tell me where.”

His smile deepened, but then his gaze slid to the side, going past her shoulder.

She turned to look and saw that the door was slightly ajar. She tensed to rise and shut it, but her father’s grip abruptly tightened. She glanced back to see his lids lowering, and he drew in a deeper, harsher breath and held it for a second, then softly, he sang, “Come, let’s go to bed, says sleepy-head. Let’s stay awhile, says slow.”

Tears gathered in her eyes as the near-forgotten lines of the lullaby, reproduced in the voice in which she’d always heard them, rolled over her, taking her back to her childhood, to when the man dying before her had been hale and strong and the center of her life.

Perhaps it was fitting that, as his life ebbed and he prepared to take his final leave of her, those four lines were the ones to which his mind, wandering, cleaved.

As he always had, he sang the single verse twice, his voice fading through the repeat.

Only this time, when he breathed the last word, it was his hand that fell limp in hers.

Tears streamed down her cheeks as she leant closer, touched her lips to his cheek, and murmured, “Papa?”

But she knew there would be no answer. Her father—her dearest papa—had breathed his last.

Slowly, she straightened on the stool, dimly aware that Herschel had reentered the room. He hovered for a moment by the door, then came forward, awkwardly laying a hand on her shoulder, then rounding the bed to check on her father, but the nurse in her knew there was nothing anyone could do.

Her father was gone, and she was alone.

The little girl within wailed as grief surged and rose and crashed down upon her.






September 1, 1863

English section of the city cemetery, Vienna


In the mild sunshine of the early-autumn morning, comfortable in his guise of a successful businessman, Toby stood at the foot of the grave of the man he’d been sent to escort to England.

The inscription on the marble gravestone stated that Thaddeus Locke’s life had ended nearly three weeks ago.

Toby had to wonder if Locke’s death was due to natural causes or if someone had had a hand in it.

According to Toby’s contacts in the city, a team of two Prussian agents with whom Toby had the ill fortune to be acquainted had arrived within days of the dispatches going missing. It seemed certain the pair were there to retrieve the documents, and that it was Jager and Koch who had been sent was a clear indication of how seriously desperate the Germans were to get their hands on the missing packet.

Toby wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the Prussians had been involved in Locke’s death, yet his contacts had assured him that the Prussian pair were still in the city and had shown no interest in Locke or the surgery in Kleeblattgasse. It therefore seemed that they hadn’t, as yet, traced the packet to Locke.

Presumably, that meant that the dispatches remained wherever Locke had put them.

Toby stared unseeing at the small bouquet of flowers placed at the head of the grave. For an agent of his experience, this should have been a boringly straightforward mission, yet here he was with his principal charge dead and no idea where the critical asset—the unexpectedly intercepted dispatches—might be.

Obviously, his revised goal was to salvage what he could of the mission.

To avoid drawing unwanted attention to Locke and his household, Drake’s minions in the city had been under orders not to make direct contact of any sort, so they had observed only from a distance. Consequently, all Toby’s liaison had known was that Locke hadn’t been seen about town for several weeks; the presumption had been that he was lying low until Toby arrived. However, forever cautious, before approaching Locke’s surgery, Toby had chatted with nearby shopkeepers and, from them, had learned of Locke’s unexpected demise.

Toby still harbored doubts over Locke’s death—he found coincidences of unexpected events hard to swallow—but that was neither here nor there. Locke was dead, so where to now?

He refocused on the flowers. The funeral wreaths were long gone. This bunch was newer, most likely placed there by Locke’s grieving daughter, but the blooms and leaves had started to wilt. Presumably—hopefully—grief was waning.

The apothecary on the corner of Kleeblattgasse had been especially helpful. Not only had he told Toby that Locke’s practice was continuing under his Austrian partner, a Herr Herschel, but that Locke’s daughter was currently staying with an English widower, one Fellows, an academic at the university.

Toby’s contact had mentioned the Fellows household as one at which the daughter had spent a great deal of her time over recent months. The presumed relationship had been the foundation for the suggestion that the daughter might not wish to leave the city.

Now Locke was dead…

If Locke’s daughter wanted to remain in Vienna with Fellows, presumably to marry the man, Toby wouldn’t argue. Her handing him the dispatches and bidding him to leave without her would suit him to the ground; he could travel more quickly alone, and the faster he returned to London and delivered the dispatches, the sooner he could turn his mind to the vexed question of what to do with his life henceforth.

He looked again at the gravestone, then dipped his head in silent acknowledgment. Locke had done his country a true service for which he deserved greater thanks than a grave far from home.

Toby settled his hat on his head and turned for the cemetery’s gate. Contacting Miss Locke—Fraulein Locke—was obviously his next step.

* * *

Later that afternoon, after inquiring at the university and, via a harassed but garrulous secretary, confirming that Fellows was, indeed, an Englishman, a professor of history currently on leave due to ill health, and a widower with three young children, Toby made his way toward Fellows’s house, which the secretary had informed him was located on the Lowelstrasse, within easy walking distance of the faculty building.

Toby chose to approach the house through the park on the opposite side of the street. The Volksgarten was a well-kept area of lawns dotted with mature trees. It also boasted a rose garden and, most useful in Toby’s view, a decent-sized replica of the Temple of Theseus situated almost directly opposite the Fellows residence.

The helpful apothecary had mentioned that Fraulein Locke was skilled in nursing and had been an asset to her father’s practice. It occurred to Toby that if Fellows was ill, Locke’s daughter might have a professional reason for haunting Fellows’s house rather than the personal one Toby’s contact had assumed. How that might impact Toby’s plans, he didn’t know, but clearly, it would be wise to learn how matters stood with Miss Locke before making any decisions regarding his way forward.

At that time of day, the park was popular with maids and tutors overseeing young children. Numerous youngsters gamboled about the lawns, and some were making a valiant attempt to fly a kite in the slight breeze.

In keeping with his adopted persona, Toby strolled nonchalantly along the walks, just another businessman taking the air. With his eyes shaded by the brim of his hat, he scanned the area, hoping he would be lucky enough to find Miss Locke with the Fellows children and so be able to make contact in an impromptu fashion rather than formally calling at the house.

Fortune favored him. He spotted three children—two boys of about eight or nine and a younger girl, the right ages for the Fellows children—playing on the lawn directly opposite the Fellows residence. A small terrier-sized dog of indeterminate breed was with them, and the children were playing a rowdy, laughing game of catch with a ball too big for the dog to snatch. Not that that stopped the terrier from running and leaping after every throw.

Two women were watching over the children. Judging by the older woman’s dress and demeanor, she was a nursemaid of sorts. The younger woman…

Unless Toby missed his guess, the willowy young lady with light-brown hair tucked neatly beneath an unremarkable bonnet with a wide black ribbon was Miss Locke.

His contact had given him only the vaguest of descriptions, but given the black ribbon and the way she watched the children, Toby felt increasingly confident that he’d found his mark. She was wearing a rather severe jacket-coat and matching skirt in a slate-gray hue suitable for mourning. The outfit looked new and chosen more for its practicality than for being in the height of fashion, yet the result was far from dowdy.

His ambling route had carried him closer to where the children were playing, and as they called to one another and laughed over the dog’s antics, their piping voices reached him; they were speaking in English.

Admittedly, there was an established English expatriate community in Vienna, but three children of the right age, watched over by a lady who could be Miss Locke?

Increasingly certain he’d found his quarry, he assessed the children’s positions, then strolled a little farther along the path and paused.

As he’d hoped, a minute or so later, a wild throw by the younger boy saw the ball soar over the little girl’s head and bounce Toby’s way. He stopped the ball with a booted foot, then bent and picked up the red sphere.

Predictably, the dog reached him first and halted a yard away, head tilting and eyes assessing.

Toby crouched and held out his free hand.

The brindle-coated terrier-cross inched forward, sniffing, then edged closer and, eventually, licked Toby’s fingers and slid its wiry-haired head under his hand.

He grinned and scratched behind the dog’s ears, then ran his fingers down the beast’s spine, reducing the dog to tongue-lolling canine ecstasy.

Of the children, the girl had been much closer and reached Toby next. Without waiting for her to ask, he held out the ball. “Here you are.”

Blond-haired and blue-eyed, the poppet gifted him with a brilliant smile. “Thank you,” she lisped. She reached for the ball, and he released it.

Just then, the two boys came pelting up, and the girl turned to them and declared, “He sounds just like Papa.”

Toby smiled at the boys and slowly straightened. “Is your papa English?”

“Yes,” they chorused, openly studying him.

He’d been careful not to look directly at the lady he assumed was Miss Locke, but with the maid in tow, she was approaching now, and he allowed his gaze to rise to her face.

What he hadn’t been able to see from a distance hit him like a punch. A powerful punch to the senses that left him staring. Mentally reeling.

She wasn’t beautiful in the sense of pretty. She was stunning and striking, her features classically sculpted and lit by an inner vitality that projected feminine strength and power.

To his eyes, she was a goddess-like creature, elegant, confident, assured, and capable, a combination that embodied a challenge that effortlessly claimed every last iota of his attention.

That realization set alarms ringing.

What is this?

As she halted before him, he blinked, trying to break her spell, but not entirely succeeding.

He forced himself to focus on her eyes—blue-gray, changeable and mysterious—and discovered that she was regarding him with outright suspicion.

Surreptitiously clearing his suddenly dry throat, he arched a brow. “Miss Locke?”

Her fascinatingly mutable eyes narrowed. “I’m afraid, sir, that you have the advantage of me.”

The words were delivered with a hint of steel. So… not just a striking face. He hid an instinctive, appreciative smile and simply stated, “Toby Cynster. Winchelsea sent me.”

Her lips tightened. “Ah. I see.”

Irritation tinged with resignation underlaid the words. The same emotions etched her expression. Neither were reactions he’d expected.

He saw her glance not at the children but at the dog, taking note of the animal’s wagging tail and ready acceptance of him.

No, indeed. Miss Locke is no one’s fool.

Deciding it behooved him to take charge, he ventured, “I had hoped to meet your father and was surprised to learn of his death. I take it his illness was sudden?”

Her eyes met his briefly, too briefly for him to be sure of their expression. “It was unexpected, yes.”

He inclined his head. “You have my condolences.”

“Thank you.” She gestured to the children, who had been listening to the exchange with innocent interest. “You will excuse us, I’m sure. We need to get back.”

He made no reply and waited while she herded the children into the care of the maid and urged the group toward the street. Before she set out in their wake, he said, “We need to talk.”

She flung him a glance. “Now is not a good time.” She stepped out, following the children. “I’ll contact you later—”

“That’s not how this works.” He fell in beside her.

She frowned. “This what?”

“This sort of situation.” He strolled beside her, entirely amenable to moving out of the public gaze. “You recognized Winchelsea’s name, so you know of your father’s arrangements.”

“Yes, but—”

“What you might not appreciate is that others also have an interest in the documents your father acquired, and I’ve been informed that at least one group of those others is in Vienna and actively hunting. I don’t believe they’ve traced the documents to your father as yet, but they will.” Calmly, he met her gaze. “It took me a little over five hours to find you. Once they realize your father might have had the documents, they’ll search and find you, too.”

Her expression stated she didn’t know what to make of that.

They’d reached the edge of the park, and the children were waiting, ready to cross the street.

The boys looked at him hopefully. “Can you stay and play ball with us?”

Sliding into his favorite-uncle persona, he smiled commiseratingly. “It’s too late today. It’s already getting dark. We’ll have to see what happens tomorrow.”

The little girl moved to his side and slid her tiny hand into his. She looked up, into his face. “Do you have children of your own?”

“No, but I have lots and lots of nephews and nieces the same age as the three of you.”

The poppet nodded sagely. “That explains it, then.” She tugged on his hand. “Come on. It’s nearly time for our supper.”

Unsurprisingly, the mention of food got her brothers moving, and in a group, they all crossed the street.

Diana moved with the others, feeling very much as if matters were unfolding entirely beyond her control. That was not a feeling she liked, but just being near Toby Cynster—just looking into his hazel eyes, let alone the ridiculous awareness of him that had streaked through her, racing like lightning along her nerves and seizing her senses—made the simple act of thinking sensibly suddenly exceedingly difficult.

It was as if simply by existing, he’d somehow derailed her thought processes.

That was the only explanation she could find for her meekly allowing him to follow her through the front door of Adrian Fellows’s house.

They paused in the hall to divest themselves of their coats and hats.

Adrian’s butler appeared to assist them.

Diana waved to their guest. “Huber, this is Mr. Cynster. He’s…” At a loss, she cast the distracting man an interrogatory glance. At that very moment, what he was was a complication she didn’t need.

He was taller than most men she knew, a full head taller than she. His shoulders were broad, and he walked with a long-limbed grace that screamed of athleticism and physical confidence. At a time when many men favored beards, he was clean-shaven, and if other men had the lines of face and chin he possessed, they would be clean-shaven, too.

The errant thought nearly made her blink as his hazel eyes—well set under a wide brow and framed by thick dark lashes—met hers, and for a fleeting instant, she feared he could read her mind.

Then he smiled disarmingly and turned the smile on Huber, the gesture holding just the right degree of somberness. “A friend of the late Herr Locke.”

Huber half bowed and readily took Cynster’s hat, cane, and coat.

Having already hung up her own jacket, Diana shook her skirts straight, noting that Bruno, the dog, was staring adoringly at Cynster. To date, Bruno had proved a sound judge of character. Inwardly, she frowned, although she couldn’t have said why. Surely, knowing Cynster passed Bruno’s assessment with flying colors should ease her mind.

Helga had organized the children and was herding them toward the kitchen and their supper.

The three threw smiles at Cynster, which he returned with a charming smile of his own, and even Helga, plainly finding Cynster’s presence reassuring and not in the least discombobulating, nodded politely.

Diana glanced at him warily. He seemed to disarm everyone by deploying some type of simple yet lethal charm. Even Huber was regarding him favorably.

In her few free moments since her father’s death, she’d wondered—idly—who Winchelsea would send, but at no point had her mind conjured anyone like Toby Cynster. That had to be the reason she felt so unexpectedly off balance.

Patently, he wasn’t amenable to being sent away, so what was she to do with him?

Obligingly, Huber volunteered, “The master is in the drawing room, miss.”

Of course! “Thank you, Huber.” She waved toward the open drawing room door and led the way.

Cynster followed, alert and assessing.

She wondered what he was thinking—what was going through his mind. Whatever his plans, she felt confident that Adrian would support her in explaining that she couldn’t leave Vienna just yet.

To Toby, she said, “When the dispatches came into Papa’s hands and he realized what they were, he discussed the matter with Adrian. It was Adrian who advised Papa about whom to contact.”

She swept into the drawing room and caught Adrian’s eye as, with a welcoming smile, he laid aside the newspaper he’d been reading.

With thinning reddish-brown hair and a pallid complexion, his features etched by long-term pain yet presently relaxed, Adrian was but a shadow of the robust man he once had been.

“Am I right in thinking we have a guest?” He looked hopeful. Since his illness had taken hold and his diagnosis had firmed, people rarely came to the house. Almost as if he were already dead.

She waved at Toby. “This is Toby Cynster. He’s the gentleman from London we were told to expect.”

“Cynster?” Adrian made the effort to rise from his chair; that he was able to do so indicated that today was one of his better days. His expression brightening as he took in his visitor, he held out his hand. “I knew Gregory and Nicholas at Oxford.”

Toby’s smile was genuine and wide as he shook Adrian’s hand. “I’m Nicholas’s younger brother.”

“Excellent! How are they both?” Adrian waved Toby to an armchair and resumed his own.

Diana sank onto the settee and listened, bemused, as the pair explored Cynster family news.

In the matter of the dispatches, other than herself, Adrian had been her father’s sole confidante and was fully conversant with the arrangements her father had made. Unsurprisingly, Adrian and Toby’s conversation eventually veered to that subject, with Adrian declaring that it was reassuring and no real surprise that Winchelsea had sent a Cynster to retrieve the documents and escort her father and her to safety.

Judging by Adrian’s tone, in his opinion, nothing could be better.

Diana blinked, then heard Adrian press Toby to dine with them.

None of this is progressing as I’d thought it would.

And again, she had no real option but to meekly go along with the flow of events.

When Huber came in to announce dinner, Adrian started to push out of his chair. She quickly rose and went to give him her arm, which he took with a resigned smile. Finally upright, he patted her sleeve. “Thank you, my dear.” To Toby, he said, “Come, Toby, and you can tell me more news of England.”

As Diana guided Adrian toward the dining room, she was aware of Toby’s presence on Adrian’s other side. She’d seen the flash of understanding in Toby’s eyes; he’d seen Adrian’s weakness, but had the wit not to make anything of it.

Once they were seated about one end of the table, Toby complied with Adrian’s wish and, throughout the meal, kept up a running and wide-ranging commentary on life in England.

He’s refreshing Adrian’s memories. With a start of wonder, she realized Toby was deliberately doing just that. He sought to identify Adrian’s specific interests, then expanded on those, re-immersing Adrian in the joys of exploits in a country he would never see again.

Almost unwillingly, she felt grudging respect and gratitude well. Toby Cynster had read the signs and had elected to give Adrian a gift no one else could.

As usual at the end of the meal, they returned to the drawing room, where Huber would serve them coffee.

Also as usual, the children, now ready for bed, came in to say goodnight.

Unsurprisingly, all three were delighted to find Toby still there. Discovering that their father was inclined to be encouraging, they peppered Toby with questions, some about his own interests like horse riding and fishing and some about the exploits of his nephews and nieces.

From Adrian’s contributions, let alone Toby’s answers, Diana realized the nephews and nieces were entirely real. No doubt that explained Toby’s ease with the children and theirs with him, which was also genuine and entirely unfeigned.

Sitting back and observing the tableau, she saw that Adrian, too, was taking note of the interaction between Toby and the children. The look on Adrian’s face puzzled her and left her wondering what thoughts were passing through his mind.

Then Helga came in, and it was time for the children to find their beds.

Their farewells to Toby were heartfelt, and in the last glances cast over their shoulders as they went through the door lived a clear hope that they would see him again. She noted their yearning with a pang, one that contributed to an unspecific yet welling sense of unease. The three were slated to lose so much over the coming weeks.

She looked at Adrian and saw him staring assessingly at Toby, whose gaze, kind and fond in an avuncular way, was still on the closing door.

Something—some nebulous force in the room—had shifted. Again, she sensed matters were spiraling out of her control. Worse, she had no idea in which direction she was about to be pushed.

The door clicked shut, and in a suddenly desperate attempt to seize the reins, she calmly stated, “I believe, Mr. Cynster—Toby—that you now understand why I cannot leave Vienna at this time.”

He looked at Adrian and simply asked, “How long do you have?”

“A week, maybe two.” Adrian’s tone stated that death no longer worried him, but he surprised her by asking, “How long before you and Diana need to leave?”

Toby glanced at her, then returned his gaze to Adrian. “A day, maybe two.” He looked at Diana. “Not more.”

Instantly, she responded, “Clearly, that’s not possible—”


It was Adrian who posed the question. Confused, she blinked at him.

Seeing it, he elaborated, directing the question at Toby. “Why do you need to leave so soon?”

She sensed that Toby didn’t know where the discussion was heading any more than she did, but of course, he was entirely willing to lay out his reasons.

She listened as he explained, this time in greater detail, about those also hunting for the dispatches.

“Generally speaking,” he said, “the pair most in our business refer to as ‘the Prussians’ tend to use brawn rather than brain and are slow to see and follow trails other agents perceive more rapidly. That said, eventually, the Prussians will realize that the doctor who tended the injured courier might have taken the packet of dispatches, and they will come looking.” He paused, his hazel gaze resting on her. “Apparently, the Prussians arrived in Vienna soon after the dispatches went missing, and they’ve been searching ever since. By now, they’ll have exhausted other possibilities or be close to that. Soon, they’ll start asking about the doctor who tended the courier. And soon after that, they’ll turn up at the door in Kleeblattgasse.”

Diana found herself trapped in Toby’s intense hazel gaze. With an effort, she wrenched free and glanced at Adrian, only to discover that he was also looking intently at her.

“My dear, you need to leave with Toby as soon as possible.”

Her eyes flew wide. “What?”

Toby waited until, patently stunned, Diana looked back at him. He caught her gaze again and stated, “To dally even by a day will be courting danger.”

He didn’t want to examine too closely the relief he’d felt on confirming that there was no romantic connection between her and Fellows and that instead, the link holding her there, in Vienna, was one of care. Caring for Fellows as he approached death and caring for his children. He hadn’t yet learned why that link was so strong—far stronger than that between a nurse and patient would normally be—but he recognized and accepted that she was deeply devoted to and entirely committed to Fellows and, even more, to his children.

She was well named. There was a fierceness in her he instinctively recognized, a protective impulse regarding those she considered in her care.

He could imagine her role in helping Fellows’s family deal with the approaching tragedy, could understand how crucial it might be, but to his mind, in this instance, her own safety had to take precedence. He hadn’t exaggerated the potential threat from the Prussians. There had to be others who could care for the children, and Fellows himself was past saving. Toby had to get Diana to think of herself and her own safety, and he knew he would need all the help he could get.

Luckily, Fellows felt similarly toward her as she did to him and, therefore, agreed with Toby.

He had hoped that would be so, and that meant he could rely on Fellows’s support in getting Diana out of danger.

That was now his most urgent and immediate goal. That and securing the dispatches.

She’d been staring at Fellows as if he’d grown two heads, and now, she started to slowly shake hers. “I can’t—”

Fellows held up a hand. “I have a suggestion. A request. A proposal and a plea.”

She blinked.

Suddenly alert, Toby switched his gaze to Fellows.

Lowering his hand, Fellows looked at Diana. “My dear, I know and understand how deeply devoted you are to the children. And these days, they are never happier than when they’re with you.” He glanced at Toby, then returned his gaze to Diana’s face. “I ask you both to consider carefully what I’m about to suggest. If you do, I believe you will see that my proposal is in all of our best interests. Indeed, in the best interests of everyone under this roof.”

Fellows redirected his attention to Toby. “I suggest that you, Diana, and the children leave Vienna as soon as possible and ask that you see the children safely to my aunt’s house in Hampshire.”

His mind whirling, Toby held Fellows’s gaze. Rapidly—lightning fast—he evaluated his options, from a point-blank refusal all the way to… A minute later, he blinked, then nodded. “All right.”

He looked at Diana. The reason for the silence that had given him time to think was that she had been struck dumb. His acceptance broke the spell.

Horrified, she stared at Fellows. “No! How can you—”

“Hear me out.” Fellows spoke with more strength than previously, clearly drawing on reserves. “My dear, I’m as good as dead. My only remaining thoughts are for the children.” His gaze softened as it rested on her. “And for you, my darling Alicia’s most-loyal friend, and mine, too.” Holding her gaze, he tipped his head. “Can you imagine how I would feel if you remained to take care of me and mine and because of that, harm befell you?”

Toby appreciated the small pause Fellows took, giving Diana time to think of that.

“But here we are, the three of us”—Fellows’s gaze included Toby—“and we have a chance, just one, tonight, to make a decision that will solve a great many issues in one stroke.” He focused on Toby. “Am I right in assuming that, once these Prussians learn of the doctor and come looking for Diana, if we at this house—on whose door they will eventually knock—inform them that she has left the city, the Prussians and anyone else seeking the dispatches will search for the trail of a single English lady—or possibly a lady and a courier—traveling as quickly as possible toward London?”

Toby nodded. “They would never think to ask after a family.”

“Exactly.” Fellows glanced at Diana, who appeared dumbfounded, then returned his gaze to Toby. “By taking the children to my aunt’s house, you will be doing me an immense favor. You’re a Cynster—you understand family. There is no one I would rather trust to take my three home. And in keeping them with you, you will also be furthering your mission. Their presence will help shield you and Diana from your enemies.”

The more Toby thought of it, the more he agreed. Being with children, having them about, never bothered him. Not that he’d ever traveled with children, but how hard could that be? And he couldn’t fault Fellows for seizing the chance to ensure his children would reach England safely and be well cared for en route.

“You were going to get a courier service to take the children back to England.” Diana’s tone suggested she was at least thinking things through.

Fellows nodded. “I have it in my diary to make the final arrangements and sign the papers later this week.” He trapped Diana’s gaze, his expression one of deep understanding. “What would you have done if this matter of the dispatches had never arisen?”

Instantly, the words were on her lips. “I would have gone with them.” She paused, then admitted, “Even if Papa hadn’t died.”

Fellows smiled. “I rest my case.”

And a very fine case it was, not least because it seemed the one sure way to convince Diana Locke to leave Vienna, and that, as soon as possible.

Diana frowned. “I can’t help but feel that taking the children with us will be tantamount to knowingly exposing them to danger, let alone denying them their last days with you.”

Toby stirred, but before he could speak, Adrian stated, “Quite aside from what I want, my dear, you know that taking the children with you and Toby is what Alicia would want you to do.” He caught her gaze and smiled wanly. “My days are numbered, and nothing can change that, but allowing me to farewell my three darlings with dignity would mean a lot to me.”

Holding her gaze, he simply said, “Please, Diana, do this for Alicia and me.”

Diana looked into his eyes and felt her heart break. He meant every word, and if he had the courage to send his children off with her and Toby—if that was his last wish—she couldn’t refuse him.

She sighed. “All right.” She needed to slow events down so she could grasp every detail and, ultimately, take charge. “But there’s no reason we need to rush off tomorrow.”

Toby took in the set of her chin, so very reminiscent of his sister Pru, who was innately bossy and liked being in control, and instead of arguing, switched tacks. “Before we can make any plans to leave, we need to secure the dispatches.” He met Diana’s eyes. “Where are they?”

She frowned. “That’s another thing. I don’t know.”

He managed to keep his jaw from dropping. “Your father had them.”

She nodded. “And from his last words, he hid them somewhere in the house.”

“Your father died three weeks ago. You didn’t think to look for them?”

“I haven’t had time.” Her expression was growing ever more stubborn. “Given they seemed well hidden, I thought I might as well leave them wherever they are until Winchelsea’s man—you—turned up.” She paused, then added, “I thought you might have a better idea than I where to search.”

He swallowed the urge to groan. She was probably correct about him having more notion of where the dispatches would fit.

Fellows added, “Locke gave me to understand that the packet was safely hidden in the house.”

Somewhat reassured, Toby nodded. Resigned to a night of searching, he looked at Diana.

She rose. “We can go to Kleeblattgasse now and search. Then you can take the packet with you. I would rather you held it than me.”

Amen. With a curt nod, he stood. He glanced at Fellows, then looked at Diana. “I take it you’ve been staying here overnight.”

“For the past few nights.” She glanced at Fellows. “We can’t tell when…”

Toby met Fellows’s gaze. “Once we’ve located the dispatches, I’ll escort Diana back.”

He looked at her and found her bristling.

Chin rising, she declared, “It’s not that far, and this is Vienna, not London.”

“Nevertheless.” He shared a look of fellow feeling with Fellows. “Given the Prussians are in town, I believe Fellows and I will both sleep more easily knowing you’re safely under this roof.”

She looked exasperated, but then shook her head and swept toward the door.

With a nod to Fellows, Toby followed.

They donned their coats, and he accepted his gloves, hat, and cane from the butler.

As they left the house and the door clicked shut behind them, Toby inwardly admitted that sensible procedure dictated that, once he had the dispatches in his keeping, he should immediately put distance between himself and Diana Locke and the household in Lowelstrasse, yet the thought of allowing her to walk back to Fellows’s house alone in the middle of the night rose in his mind only to be dismissed. With prejudice.

Keeping pace as she walked briskly down the street, he dwelled on the apparent reordering of his priorities that the past few hours had wrought.