Read an Excerpt
The letter had begun like every other previously.
But it quickly diverged from the cheer of the others, and each subsequent reading chiseled her brother Michael's shocking words more indelibly onto Kate Carteret's memory.
Her fist clenched spasmodically.
Kate glanced down. The paper's corners were crumpled in her tight grasp. She forced herself to loosen her fingers and smooth out the wrinkles before turning her gaze to the early morning light of approaching dawn, outside the post coach window. A jolt shook her as the vehicle rolled along the uneven surface of the road to London.
Beside her, her maid twitched in slumber. Sissy's snores, nearly obliterating the crunch of gravel under the wheels, aggravated Kate's headache.
She sighed. At least one of them could sleep.
After a quick check to be sure she was covered by her coat, Kate carefully folded the letter and slid it into her chemise. The paper scraped roughly against her skin as she leaned back and pulled the hood of her pelisse further down over her face.
She had been inclined to dismiss her brother's fear for her life as overreaction and ignore his order to leave the Manor. This close to planting time, she had too many preparations to oversee for a leisurely visit with their Aunt and Uncle Merrifield, as much as she might enjoy such a trip. And her brother took his duty as head of the Carteret family a little too seriously on occasion, as far as Kate was concerned.
The sight of her once peaceful, pristine bedchamber had changed her mind.
Vases had lain shattered on the carpet, the camellias they held blending with the pattern of thewoven wool. Books, papers, hairbrushes and gowns competed for space on the golden oak hardwood floor. Her writing desk, once full of correspondence, stood on its side upon her bed, its compartments now empty. Ink dripped from the overturned silver pot and soaked the white satin coverlet in a widening circle.
Her heart pounded with her expanding fury as she recalled her last view of her sanctuary.
Why would someone steal her letters? They had no value for anyone other than her. The destroyed crystal vases were worth several guineas each, but none were missing. Even the books scattered on the floor would fetch a few pounds. Nothing which might tempt a thief was absent.
Only Michael's missives and a few others were missing. She retained possession of the latest only because Jeffers delivered it after she returned from overseeing the plowing of the southern fields. Had she received it earlier in the day, the letter would have been tucked away in her desk with the rest.
Kate's teeth ached as she clenched her jaw. She closed her eyes, deliberately relaxing each muscle in her tense body. She needed to think logically. Rage and a copious dose of fear blinded her for the last several hours, but now a rational mind was vital. She must not forget Sissy's life was in danger as well.
The fluttery sighs of the woman seated opposite Kate joined Sissy's cacophony. Her reverie interrupted, Kate turned her head within the shadows of her cloak to peek at her traveling companions.
Neither the portly sleeping female nor her disparately frail daughter was awake, but Kate caught a glint of awareness in the shadowed eyes of the blond gentleman beside them. His mouth curled in a smirk. She quickly averted her gaze.
The acrid taste of fear flooded her mouth. Who was this man? Did she know him? Was he the one of whom Michael spoke?
Kate's head knocked against the wooden door as the coachman executed a sharp turn. She grimaced and rubbed her throbbing skull. If only she could rub away her headache so easily.
A shout of welcome drew her gaze to the inn outside.
The coach stopped abruptly. "Ever'one out! This is London!" The coachman's annoyed voice filled the cramped space.
Sissy jumped, startled.
"Gather your things, Sissy. We need to get inside," Kate murmured. The girl nodded sleepily and rubbed a hand over her face.
A small boy yanked open the door and Kate climbed out. She glanced around as she waited for Sissy. A stable hand in a filthy wool coat leaned against the side of the stable. When she glanced his way, he straightened and jabbed his neighbor with an elbow.
She reached up to be sure the hood covered her features before she turned back to the coach. Sissy had disembarked and waited patiently with their bags at her feet. Gesturing to her maid to follow, Kate lifted her own valise and started toward the inn.
She ignored the masculine voice from behind her. No sense in encouraging him.
"It's that man from the coach, Miss Kate," Sissy whispered.
Kate's pulse leaped. What could he possibly want?
"Should we stop?"
"No. Keep going." Her voice displaying her anxiety, Kate glanced over her shoulder at her maid and quickened her pace. The long hem of her pelisse swirled around her feet, nearly tripping her.
Rapid footsteps crunched in her wake, growing louder as the man drew closer.
Kate reached down, grabbed Sissy's hand and pulled her into a run. The thunder of her heart drowned any protest her maid might have offered. Once inside the inn, they would be safe.
She had just reached for the wooden door's icy handle to heave it open when Sissy squeaked. A rough hand jerked Kate around and her hood fell away. The man from the coach loomed over her, his face so close, she could not distinguish his features.
"Touch me again, sir, and I shall scream." Kate crowded Sissy against the wall behind her and clenched a fist. She refused to meet death without a fight. And perhaps if she made enough commotion as he dispatched her, the stable hands would come to Sissy's aid.
"My apologies, miss. I didn't mean to frighten you." He backed a step away and held up an azure silk reticule. "You left this in the coach."
Kate stared at her handbag hanging from his fingers. All that for a simple purse? Her hand quivered as she reached out.
"Th--" Blast it! Where was her voice? She cleared her throat. "Thank you."
He bowed, then opened the door and shot her a curious glance as he walked inside.
Kate leaned against the wood and daub wall of the inn, her hand pressed to her heaving chest, the reticule in her limp grip. She swallowed. Apparently, she had not accepted the threat of danger with as much aplomb as she had imagined.
"Are you well, Miss Kate?"
Kate glanced up. The focus of every eye in the stable yard was on her. So much for not attracting attention. Her plan to remain unnoticed was now shattered.
A visit with Uncle Merrifield, as her brother suggested, was all well and good. But whoever had stolen his letters had also taken some from her aunt. If she sought refuge with her aunt and uncle now, she could be jeopardizing their lives--not to mention those of her cousins.
Where could she go?
The answer struck her an instant later.
"I'm fine, Sissy." She took a steadying breath and inhaled the earthy barnyard scent of horses and hay. "I'm just fine."
Michael wanted her to go into hiding, so into hiding she would go.
But first, she needed a less conspicuous wardrobe.
"Disappeared, Your Grace? How could both of them be missing?" James Meredith, Earl of Ashton, leaned back in his chair facing the desk of the Duke of Foxborough and studied his grandfather's aged face through narrowed eyes. "Carteret is one of your best men. Perhaps he's simply late reporting to you and his sister went to visit friends."
James always loved this room. The scent of old books and tobacco lingered in the air. Mahogany paneling and shelves stuffed with books and trinkets made the study of Foxborough House feel like a cave filled with treasures from distant lands. As a child, on visits with his mother's father, the old man would gather James into his lap as he sat in the great leather chair behind the desk and spin wondrous stories of adventure and intrigue.
More recently, James had become the storyteller as he gave the duke reports of his whereabouts and missions. But today he was again the listener while his grandfather wove a tale.
"Without informing her staff? Do you know any woman who would simply leave her household with no information about her destination or return?" Incredulous, the duke shook his head. The leonine mane of hair was now an iron gray, rather than its original black. "You might, certainly, but the girl would never."
James refused to believe the tale. "Could the man have turned traitor, then, and fled to safety with the girl?"
"Unlikely, lad. I knew Carteret better than his own sister did. The man was as loyal as they come." The duke paused and sighed before continuing, his grief obvious. "No, he must be dead and I greatly fear the man who killed him abducted the girl as well."
Foxborough leaned forward in his chair, determination written plainly on his countenance. "James, I realize you've lost your taste for this kind of activity."
A bark of bitter laughter escaped James. "Lost my taste for clandestine killing? You jest. I never acquired a taste to lose."
Abruptly, he stood and stalked to the window. He gazed out over the back garden of the Grosvenor Square mansion as he leaned against the sill. In a few weeks, the landscape would burst with the radiant color and sweet perfumes of daffodils, roses and camellias. A feast for the senses. But today, the sight of a bare winter garden did not help to soothe the bleakness in his heart.
"We have discussed this before, sir. I did my duty to the best of my ability. I consider that duty complete. I do not wish to rehash the issue. Again." He infused his voice with finality and desperately hoped his grandfather would leave him in peace.
Foxborough rose from his chair and stood beside James. "Carteret's last communiqué indicated he was close to discovering the traitor. He would rendezvous with another agent and continue here to report as soon as he completed the assignment.
"Word reached me he landed at Drakemouth, his usual debarkation point, and procured transportation, but I've no further information of his movements. He would have sent word to me if he was still alive. Whoever killed him will have confiscated and most likely destroyed whatever evidence he possessed."
James moved to the small oak table between two towering bookshelves, poured himself a brandy and downed it. He needed the fortification against what his grandfather was about to say.
"Michael's mission was to uncover the identity of a highly dangerous traitor. Information has been leaking over the Channel and much of it has come directly from this office. I've already put another agent in place to find Michael's body and plans are in motion to send another to complete his mission. The disappearance of the man's sister, however, creates something of a dilemma.
"I want you to locate the girl--Catherine. They were extremely close and she may have information we can use. The French may also appreciate her importance to Carteret. Locate her, find out what she knows and keep her safe."
James sighed. He poured himself another drink, leaned his shoulder against the bookshelf and contemplated the glass in his hand. The amber liquor swirled, a small funnel appearing in the center. He felt himself being sucked into a similar whirlpool.
"You have other men, I believe, who could accomplish this task for you." Taking a sip of his drink, James savored the flavor of fine brandy. How ironic that his grandfather fought so steadfastly for England, but refused to allow his cellars to suffer the loss of French wine. The liquid burned a path to his stomach as he swallowed, as though taunting him for hypocrisy.
"You are asking why I want you to complete this mission for me." The canny old man studied James closely. "You are one of only three men I trust without reservation. The others are your cousins and they are already engaged in activities which preclude involvement in this matter. By default, you are the only man I can rely upon without hesitation to fulfill this request. Find the girl and protect her above all else."
The worry in his grandfather's eyes disturbed James. Never once in as long as he could remember had he seen such an expression mar Foxborough's countenance. Even when James' mother lay dying, the old man had displayed only sorrow and resignation.
Fear now twisted the duke's strong features. There had to be a compelling reason behind this request.
"What is this girl's importance to you?" James probed. "Why such an interest in her?"
"Carteret held a barony and his father was one of my first recruits. For that reason alone, I would be extremely concerned about her welfare. However, Michael also had the habit of writing letters to his sister in code. While innocuous in their appearance to her, they would be full of information for us. If he stayed true to form, he would have sent her a letter prior to his last discovery, containing information which may lead us to his killer."