Read an Excerpt
London, December 1814
“My dear girl, it’s far too dangerous.”
“Nonsense,” said Miss Justina Travers coolly. “And I do wish you’d stop referring to me as a girl, Charles. I’m twenty-three years old.”
Lord Ormsbury’s plain but honest face pinkened slightly. “That’s not a terribly advanced age and”—he cleared his throat—“I do think of you as dear.”
“How can you say that? You don’t pay me a penny.”
Though Justina spoke with carefully judged playfulness and softened the words with a smile, she wanted to scream.
Not Charles too.
She was so tired of besotted men. The fact that she still wore mourning three years after Simon’s death should be warning enough. Perhaps she should have paid more attention to her older sister. Marina had warned, rather enviously, that black suited healthy blonds all too well.
Perhaps she should finally move into half-mourning, for grays and mauves had never become her. But she knew all her anxious friends and family would see it as a sign that she was finally “getting over it.”
She would never “get over” Simon’s death, or not until those responsible were punished. Every last one.
Charles was studying her as if he would say more, but he took the hint and dropped the subject, moving away to busy himself with the wine tray.
Justina let out a breath of relief. She liked and respected her superior at the Home Department, and the amateur spy-catching work she did with him had become almost essential to her sanity, but if he embarrassed her with attentions she would have to cut the connection.
He came over to top up her wineglass, once more the efficient administrator. “You simply can’t go poking around in the affairs of the duke.”
“Even if he’s a traitor?” Justina demanded, sipping the wine to humor him, though she rarely drank alcohol.
Ormsbury sat on the satin striped sofa opposite her chair and crossed one leg over the other. “I haven’t failed to notice your obsession with this man, Justina. Thus far, it’s been of little significance, but now . . .”
“But now he’s a duke he’s untouchable? Charles, that is horribly wrong.”
“But realistic. What shred of evidence do you have?”
Justina looked down at the tawny wine made mysterious by crystal and firelight. “You know what I have.”
“The fact that Lucky Jack Beaufort was the only survivor of the ambush in which your betrothed died,” he said crisply. “I’ve humored you on that, but I’ve checked into the story and I assure you there’s nothing in it.” He leaned forward, and his tone gentled. “War isn’t logical, Justina, and it certainly isn’t fair. Some men are simply blessed by fate. Beaufort gained his nickname before that event.”
She looked him in the eye. “Perhaps because he was working for the French all along.”
“My dear girl . . . !” Then he caught himself. “Justina, you must see that this is an unbalanced obsession! There has never been the slightest evidence that Beaufort had irregular dealings. And you have looked, I know.”
She felt herself coloring like a guilty child. She hadn’t thought her actions so obvious. “I’ve never had the opportunity to search in a likely place. All you’ve ever let me do, Charles, is listen to gossip and search houses in which I was a guest. It would have been the sheerest luck to come across evidence in that way, but now—”
“But now he’s a duke, he’s even farther out of reach!” Then he flashed her a keen look. “Unless you’ve already wangled an invitation to Torlinghurst.”
Justina put down her scarce-touched glass and rose to pace the room. “I could, of course. . . .”
“Then why not? You’d be safe enough as a guest, and able to poke around a bit.”
She closed her eyes briefly. He was humoring her. She hated to be humored. “He’d recognize the name of Simon’s promised bride. They were quite close.”
“That would give you the greater entrée.”
“But he would be bound to talk of him. . . .” Justina thought she had said it without great feeling, but then realized her hand had risen to cover the miniature she wore pinned on her bodice. She didn’t need to open the locket to see the image. Blond hair, crooked smile, laughing eyes.
Her heart and soul.
Charles’s tone gentled as he said, “Justina, my dear, it’s been three years. Surely you can at least talk of it.”
“Not with him! Not with the man who caused Simon’s death.”
She swung away to hide tears by staring at a lovely Raphael hanging on the wall, praying for the outward tranquility of that Madonna.
Revenge, they said, is a dish best eaten cold, and she had sheathed herself in ice in order to pursue her cause, not even permitting herself tears. Tears were weak, a sign of despair. She had chosen action instead, and resolved to destroy all those who had destroyed her hope of happiness.
Though her role had been minor, her work with Charles had helped bring down Napoleon, the man indirectly responsible for Simon’s death. The Corsican Monster was now defeated and languishing on Elba, and Justina gained some satisfaction from that.
But nothing she had done had touched Lucky Jack Beaufort. He’d even made colonel and been mentioned in dispatches before his cousin had unexpectedly died, making him Duke of Cranmoore. How could fate be so unfair as to clear the wretch’s way to such a title while Simon lay cold underground?
Or perhaps, she thought—and it almost seemed that the placid Madonna winked—fate had finally cleared the way to justice.
With a tingle in her head that almost made her dizzy, she felt that Simon was guiding her, guiding her to Torlinghurst, guiding her to the evidence that would avenge him at last.
With a steadying breath she assumed the Madonna’s tranquil smile and turned back to redirect the conversation. “As long as Beaufort stayed in the Peninsula he was out of my reach. If he’d returned as an ordinary man-about-town it would have been quite hard to search his possessions without being caught. But as the Duke of Cranmoore . . .”
“. . . he’s blasted untouchable!”
Justina’s smile became genuine and she returned to sit in her chair. “No, Charles, you don’t understand. As the duke, he’s part of a community. I’ve visited Torlinghurst. It’s a small town unto itself. Jack Beaufort’s only been there a month and can’t know everyone. With Christmas mere weeks away, the place will be filling with friends, relatives, and connections—all strangers to him. It’s easier to slip into such a huge place than into a set of rooms on Clarges Street. No one will pay attention to one more person at Torlinghurst.”
At last Charles showed guarded interest.
She pressed her advantage. “This idea came to me when Maplethorpe was wondering whether to go there this year for Christmas. He’s a connection, but he doesn’t know the new duke. Apparently just about all branches of the Beaufort family tree feel entitled to spend Christmas there. They always have.”
Charles worried his lips with his thumbnail, which meant that at last he was seriously considering her plan. “But how will you get inside? You’re not even a twig on the family tree, and you apparently don’t want to go as Justina Travers. If you’re thinking of passing as a servant, forget the notion. You exude breeding from every pore, and you’re far too beautiful.”
She didn’t protest the assessment. Her fine-boned beauty brought her no joy these days so there was no vanity in acknowledging it. “There are pretty maids.”
“Not for long.”
“You cynic!” she said with a laugh, but then shrugged. “In fact, I have no intention of trying to pass as a servant. It would not suit at all. Most servants never even enter the family’s part of the house, and a lingering servant is always an object of suspicion. No, I intend to pass myself off as a well-born young lady of limited fortune, and thus ignorable by all. The servants will not question me, and the company will assume I’m one of them but beneath their notice. I will be able to search Torlinghurst at leisure.”
The nail rubbed again at his lips. “Looking for what? If there was anything, he’ll have destroyed it.”
“It was you who taught me that villains keep dangerous mementos, Charles, and anyway, I doubt he’s changed his spots. You know there are people conspiring to restore Napoleon. He’ll be working with them.”
Charles shook his head, but he did not argue that point. “I have one serious concern, Justina. In your previous exploits there has been virtually no risk. I’ve always seen to that.”
“And I wish you hadn’t!”
He ignored her protest. “Even if you’d been caught prying, your high birth would have made it a mere embarrassment. If anything worse had occurred, I would have admitted that you were working for the government. But in this case, it would be impossible. Impossible to admit that the government was investigating a duke on no evidence at all.”
Justina reached to touch his hand. “Poor Charles. You’re looking so flustered. So you’re saying that if I do this, I do it alone?”
He covered her hand with his and squeezed. “I’ll help as best I can, you know that. But yes, in the end you will be on your own.”
It took only a moment to say, “So be it.”
“Oh, my dear . . .” His pleasant, intelligent, honest face was almost anguished. “If you do this and find nothing, will you put it all behind you?”
She wanted to drag her hand from his. She wanted to scream no! But in her heart Justina knew he was being reasonable. They were all being reasonable, all the family, all the friends, all the people who begged her to forget.
She met his anxious brown eyes and even squeezed his hand back a little. “If I have the opportunity to really search at Torlinghurst and find nothing, then yes, I will try to forget Jack Beaufort and move on with my life.”
He smiled as if she’d given him a precious gift. “Then I’ll help you all I can. What do you need?”
She gently freed her hand and rose, pulling on her black leather gloves. “Plans to Torlinghurst. It was built only fifty years ago. There must be architect’s plans somewhere. I need to know exactly where all the private rooms are, and the location of side passages and servants’ stairs.”
He assisted her into her sable-lined black pelerine. “That should be possible.”
She turned and bestowed her warmest smile on him. “Thank you, Charles.”
He laughed dryly. “Turning me up sweet? I know your tricks. The main reason I’m not objecting to this, Justina, is that you’d do it anyway. You’re too independent by far.”
“You can hardly expect me to admit to that.” She turned to the door and he opened it for her.
“There’s one thing you haven’t told me,” he said.
“How do you intend to get into Torlinghurst?”
“Oh,” she said with a genuine, teasing smile, “I rather think I’ll sneak in as Delilah.”