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No Longer A Gentleman
The Lost Lords
By Mary Jo Putney
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2012 Mary Jo Putney, Inc.
All rights reserved.
London, January 1813
Time to dance with the devil again. Cassie wielded Kirkland House's dragon's head knocker, wondering what mission awaited her this time.
The door opened. Recognizing her, the butler bowed her inside. "His lordship is in his study, Miss Fox."
"No need to show me the way." Cassie headed to the rear of the house, thinking that it was about time Kirkland sent her back to France. For years, she had moved secretly between England and France, spying and acting as a courier at Kirkland's direction. The work was dangerous and grimly satisfying.
Outwardly a frivolous gentleman of leisure, in private Kirkland was a master of intelligence gathering and analysis. He'd kept her in London longer than usual this time as part of a team working desperately to uncover a plot against the royal family. They had succeeded, a wedding and Christmas had been celebrated, and now Cassie was restless. Working to undermine Napoleon's regime gave her life purpose.
She knocked at the door of the study and entered at his call. Kirkland sat behind his desk, as well tailored as always. He rose courteously as she entered.
With his dark hair, broad shoulders, and classic features, the man could never be less than handsome, but today his face was etched with strain despite his smile. "You're looking more anonymous than usual, Cassie. How do you manage to be so forgettable?"
"Talent and practice, since anonymity is so useful for a spy," she retorted as she chose a chair opposite him. "But you, sir, look like death in the afternoon. If you don't take better care of yourself, you'll be down with another attack of fever and we'll find out if you're indispensable or not."
"No one is indispensable," he said as he resumed his seat. "Rob Carmichael could do my job if necessary."
"He could, but he wouldn't want to. Rob much prefers being out on the streets cracking heads." Rob had said as much to Cassie — they were close friends, and occasionally more than friends.
"And he is so very good at it," Kirkland agreed. "But I'm not about to fall off the perch anytime soon." He began toying with his quill pen.
"It isn't like you to fidget," Cassie said. "Have you found a more than usually perilous mission for me?"
His mouth quirked humorlessly. "Sending agents into France is always dangerous. My qualms increase when the mission is more personal than of vital interest to Britain."
"Your friend Wyndham," she said immediately. "Bury your qualms. As heir to the Earl of Costain, he'd be worth a few risks even if he weren't your friend."
"I should have known you'd guess." He set the quill neatly in its stand. "How many times have you followed possible leads about Wyndham?"
"Two or three, with a singular lack of success." And Cassie was not the only agent to look for proof that the long-vanished Wyndham was either alive or dead. Kirkland would never give up until there was evidence of one or the other.
"I haven't wanted to admit it, but I've feared that he was killed when the Peace of Amiens ended and all Englishmen were interned so they couldn't return to England." Kirkland sighed. "Wyndham wouldn't have gone tamely. He might well have been killed resisting arrest. He hasn't been heard from since May 1803, when the war resumed."
"Since he isn't in Verdun with the rest of the detainees and no other trace of him has turned up, that's the most likely explanation," Cassie agreed. "But this is the first time I've heard you admit the possibility."
"Wyndham was always so full of life," Kirkland said musingly. "It didn't seem possible that he could be killed senselessly. I know better, of course. But it felt as if saying the words out loud would make them true."
It was a surprising admission coming from Kirkland, whose brain was legendarily sharp and objective. "Tell me about Wyndham," she said. "Not his rank and wealth, but what he was like as a person."
Kirkland's expression eased. "He was a golden-haired charmer who could beguile the scales off a snake. Mischievous, but no malice in him. Lord Costain sent him to the Westerfield Academy in the hope that Lady Agnes would be able to handle Wyndham without succumbing to his charm."
"Did it work?" Cassie asked. She had met the formidable headmistress and thought she could handle anyone.
"Reasonably well. Lady Agnes was fond of him. Everyone was. But she wouldn't let him get away with outrageous behavior."
"You must have a new lead or you wouldn't be talking to me now."
Kirkland began fidgeting with his quill again. "Remember the French spy we uncovered when investigating the plot against the royal family?"
"Paul Clement." Cassie knew the man slightly because of her ties to the French émigré community. "Has he provided information about Wyndham?"
"Clement had heard rumors that just as the truce ended, a young English nobleman ran afoul of a government official named Claude Durand," Kirkland replied. "I know the name, but little more. Have you heard of him?"
Cassie nodded. "He's from a minor branch of a French noble family. When the revolution came, he turned radical and denounced his cousin, the count, and watched while the man was guillotined. As a reward, Durand acquired the family castle and a good bit of the wealth. Now he's a high official in the Ministry of Police. He has a reputation for brutality and unswerving loyalty to Bonaparte, so he'd be a dangerous man to cross."
"Wyndham might not have survived angering a man like that. But Clement had heard that Durand locked up the English lord in his own private dungeon. If that was Wyndham, there's a chance he might be alive."
Cassie didn't need to point out that it was a slim chance. "You wish me to investigate Clement's information?"
"Yes, but don't take any risks." Kirkland regarded her sternly. "I worry about you. You don't fear death enough."
She shrugged. "I don't seek it. Animal instinct keeps me from doing anything foolish. It shouldn't be hard to locate Durand's castle and learn from the locals if he has a blond English prisoner."
Kirkland nodded. "Dungeons aren't designed for long-term survival, but with luck, you'll be able to learn if Wyndham is — or was — imprisoned there."
"Did he have the strength to survive years of captivity?" she asked. "Not just physical strength, but mental. Dungeons can drive men mad, especially if they're kept in solitary confinement."
"I never knew what kind of internal resources Wyndham had. Everything came so easily to him — sports, studies, friendships, admiring females. He was never challenged. He might have unexpected resilience. Or, he might have broken under the first real pressure he'd ever faced." After a long pause, Kirkland said quietly, "I don't think he would have endured imprisonment well. It might have been better if he was killed quickly."
"Truth can be difficult, but better to know what happened and accept the loss than be gnawed by uncertainty forever," Cassie pointed out. "There can't be many English lords who offended powerful officials and were locked in private prisons. If he is or was at Castle Durand, it shouldn't be difficult to learn his fate."
"Hard to believe we may have an answer soon," Kirkland mused. "If he's actually there and alive, see what must be done to get him out."
"I'll leave by the end of the week." Cassie rose, thinking of the preparations she must make. She felt compelled to add, "Even if by some miracle he's alive and you can bring him home, he will have changed greatly after all these years."
Kirkland sighed wearily. "Haven't we all?"CHAPTER 2
Paris, May 1803
"Time to wake, my beautiful golden boy," the husky temptress voice murmured. "My husband will return soon."
Grey Sommers opened his eyes and smiled lazily at his bedmate. If spying was always this enjoyable, he'd make it a career, rather than something he merely dabbled in. "'Boy,' Camille? I thought I'd proved otherwise."
She laughed and shook back a tangle of dark hair. "Indeed you did. I must call you my beautiful golden man. Alas, it is time for you to go."
Grey might have done so if her stroking hand hadn't become teasing, driving common sense from his head. So far, he'd acquired little information from the luscious Madame Camille Durand, but he had increased his knowledge of the amatory arts.
Her husband was a high official in the Ministry of Police, and Grey had hoped the man might have spoken of secret matters to his wife. In particular, had Durand discussed the Truce of Amiens ending and war resuming again? But Camille had no interest in politics. Her talents lay elsewhere, and he was more than willing to sample them again.
Once more indulging lust led to drowsing off. He awoke when the door slammed open and a furious man stormed in, a pistol in his hand and two armed guards behind him. Camille shrieked and sat up in bed. "Durand!"
Grey slid off the four-poster on the side opposite her husband, thinking sickly that this was like a theatre farce. But that pistol was all too real.
"Don't kill him!" Camille begged, her dark hair falling over her breasts. "He is an English milord, and shooting him will cause trouble!"
"An English lord? This must be the foolish Lord Wyndham. I have read the police reports on your movements since your arrival in France. You aren't much of a spy, boy." Durand's thin lips twisted nastily as he cocked the hammer of the pistol. "It no longer matters what the English think."
Grey straightened to his full height as he recognized that there was not a single damned thing he could do to save his life. His friends would laugh if they knew he met his end naked in the bedchamber of another man's wife.
No. They wouldn't laugh.
An eerie calm settled over him. He wondered if all men felt this way when death was inevitable. Lucky that he had a younger brother to inherit the earldom. "I have wronged you, Citoyen Durand." He was proud of the steadiness of his voice. "No one will deny that you have just cause to shoot me."
Something in Durand's dark eyes shifted from murderous rage to cold cruelty. "Oh, no," he said in a soft voice. "Killing you would be far too merciful."CHAPTER 3
Cassie returned to the private boardinghouse that Kirkland maintained for his agents near Covent Garden. She stayed at 11 Exeter Street whenever she was in London, and it was the nearest thing she had to a home.
Packing didn't take long because whenever she returned from France, she had her clothing laundered and folded away in her clothes press to await the next mission. It was winter, so she selected her warmest garments and half boots. All were well constructed but drab because her goal was to pass unnoticed.
She was finishing her selections when a knock sounded on the door and a female voice called, "Tea service, ma'am!"
Recognizing the voice, Cassie opened the door to Lady Kiri Mackenzie, who was balancing a tray with a teapot, cups, and a plate of cakes. Lady Kiri was tall, beautiful, well born, rich, and confident to the bone. Amazing that they had become friends.
"How did you know I was here?" Cassie asked. "I thought you and our newly knighted Sir Damian were still honeymooning in Wiltshire."
"Mackenzie and I returned to town yesterday. Since I was near Covent Garden, I thought I'd take a chance and see if you were here." Kiri set the tray on a table. "Mrs. Powell said you were, so behold! I arrive bearing tea."
Cassie poured a splash of tea and decided it needed more steeping. "I'm glad you returned in time for a visit. I'll be leaving by the end of the week."
Kiri's face became still. "France?"
"It's where I am useful."
"Do be careful," Kiri said worriedly. "Having had a brief encounter with spying gave me a sense of how dangerous it can be."
Cassie tested the tea again and decided it was ready. "That was an unusual circumstance," she said as she poured. "Most of what I do is quite mundane."
Kiri didn't look convinced. "How long are you likely to be gone?"
"I'm not sure. A couple of months, perhaps more." Cassie stirred sugar into her cup and settled back in her chair. "Remember that I am half French, so I'm not going to a foreign country. You're half Hindu, so surely you understand that."
Kiri considered. "I take your point. But India can be dangerous even though I'm half Indian. The same is true of France. Rather more so since we're at war."
Cassie selected a cake. "This is my work. My calling, really." The cake was filled with nuts and currants and very tasty.
"From what I can see, you're very good at spying." Kiri chose a spice cake. Mrs. Powell's kitchen could always be relied on for good food. "Does Rob Carmichael mind you going away for so long?"
Cassie's brows arched in surprise. "I beg your pardon?"
Kiri flushed. "I'm sorry. Was I not supposed to know about your ... your relationship?"
Kiri must have seen Rob and Cassie together. Not surprising since the women had lived under the same roof for several weeks. "Our relationship is that we are friends," Cassie said astringently.
"And I should mind my own business," Kiri said, her voice rueful. "But he's a fine fellow. I ... I thought there was something more than friendship between you."
Cassie felt a sharp pang of ... envy, she supposed, that Kiri could believe in love. Not that her friend hadn't had problems to overcome. Her father had died before she was born, and since she had been raised in India with mixed blood, she had faced prejudice when her family came to England.
But Kiri had a loving mother and stepfather, not to mention wealth, position, and beauty to protect against an often cruel world. Cassie had been born with some of those advantages but had lost them early, along with her faith in happy endings.
Newly wed and madly in love with a man worthy of her, Kiri lacked the experience to recognize the many ways men and women might connect. A desperate need for warmth could draw people together even without love.
Not wanting to try to explain that, Cassie said merely, "Friendship is one of life's great blessings. It doesn't need to be more."
"I stand corrected." Kiri made a face. "I appreciate how patiently you've educated me on worldly matters."
"You learned quickly." Cassie chuckled. "Kirkland said he'd hire you as an agent in an instant if you weren't unfortunately aristocratic." She paused. "He probably has put you to work listening to what is said at Damian's since so many high officials and foreign diplomats choose to do their gambling there."
"The possibility might have been touched on," Kiri said with a twinkle in her eye. After demolishing another cake, she opened her reticule. "While in the country, I spent some time playing with a scent you might find useful." Kiri pulled a small vial from her reticule and handed it over. "I call it Antiqua."
"Useful?" Cassie accepted the vial with enthusiasm. Kiri came from a long line of Hindu women who were perfumers, and she created marvelous scents. "I thought perfumes were for allure and frivolity."
"Take a sniff and see what you think," her friend said mysteriously.
Cassie obediently unstoppered the vial, closed her eyes, and sniffed. Then again. "It smells ... a little musty, in a clean sort of way, if that makes sense. Earthy and ... very still? Tired? Not exactly unpleasant, but nothing like your floral and spice perfumes."
"If you caught this scent in passing, what would you think of?"
"An old woman," Cassie said instantly.
"Perfect!" Kiri said gleefully. "Scent is powerful. Dab on a bit of Antiqua when you wish to be unnoticed or underestimated. People will think of you as old and feeble without knowing why."
"That's brilliant!" Cassie sniffed again. "I detect a hint of lavender, but I don't recognize anything else."
"I included oils I don't use often, and when I do, they're usually disguised by pleasanter fragrances," Kiri explained.
"When I'm in France, I often travel around in a pony cart as a peddler of ladies' sundries. Ribbons and lace and the like. I make myself look plain and dull and forgettable, and this will add to the effect. Thank you, Kiri." Cassie stoppered the vial. "Would you have time to make more before I leave?"
Excerpted from No Longer A Gentleman by Mary Jo Putney. Copyright © 2012 Mary Jo Putney, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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