“The wind is dying,” David said, as he came back into the room with an armful of wood clutched to his breast and a basket depending off the arm with which he had opened the door. “They’ll be able to cross from the mainland today.”
“I will be pleased to know that Lord and Lady Penworth are safe,” said the woman whose code name was Mist, “but I will regret leaving this little sanctuary they made out of their prison.”
“I don’t want to leave, either,” David said.
He looked around the tower room that had been their refuge this last two nights, alone in a deserted castle on an abandoned island. It was very familiar to him now. At that table, they had shared information and pieced together the plot that had ensnared two earls and would have cost David his life had Mist not come to the island on a mission of her own. At that window, they had watched the boat carrying last of the fleeing villains turn away from the shore where constables waited to arrest them, and lose the gamble when the storm overwhelmed them. On that sofa, he had slept the first night, leaving the bed on the next floor to Mist. And on that rug, in front of the fire, they had made love for the first time yesterday afternoon before repairing upstairs to that same bed.
The thought heated his gaze as he placed the basket on the table, and Mist joined him to explore what his scavenging had produced for their meal. She blushed and lowered her eyes. He had not been her first—had not expected or wanted to be—but nor was she a wanton. Except at the appropriate moments, he amended, certain memories curving his lips. There would be time for another appropriate moment before their peace was invaded. And perhaps when they both returned to town?
She was cutting the bread he had found and threading it onto a toasting fork. Yes. Eating first was a good idea.
She was sitting on the rug now, the richly coloured banyan she wore pooling around her. It was the earl’s clearly and far too big for her, swamping her lithe form. David speared a piece of cheese to grill and sat beside her, enjoying the way she cleared the robe from his way so he could sit close enough for her to rest her head on his shoulder. Was she wearing anything beneath it? He rubbed his cheek against her hair, shifting slightly to ease the reaction the thought prompted.
Mist’s thoughts, though, were on food. “Toast, cheese, and apples. A feast, David.”
He loved the sound of his name on her lips. He had told her last night, after she had called out “Shadow!” at the height of her passion. The name she had known him by these last three years was not enough with her, though it had sufficed in the past with others. Those who served the Crown in this half-world of lies had code names to protect their identities, but he wanted Mist to know him, though he was not yet ready to think about why. “My name is David Wakefield,” he told her, as she lay limp and gloriously naked on the large bed. It stung a little that she had not shared her own name.
She held out a slice of toast, and he slipped the toasted cheese onto it, refurbishing both forks before taking a bite from the prepared treat and holding it to her mouth for her own bite.
“I used to make cheese and toast with my half-brother,” he told her. “Little scamp. He would come sneaking up to my room at all hours of the night with half a loaf of bread and some cheese that he’d charmed out of a kitchen maid.”
“You are the eldest then, David?”
“I was the eldest at the castle,” David temporised. Only God knew how many other by-blows the Duke of Haverford had or what ages they were. Certainly His Grace neither knew nor cared. “Aldr… my half-brother was the heir, though. Lived all by himself in a vast suite of rooms with servants to wait on him hand and foot. I never envied him that lonely life or the weight of expectations on him. It’s no surprise he used to escape to visit the by-blow in the tower.”
What was wrong? She had stiffened beside him, and when he looked down, her face was drained of colour. An icy hand closed around his heart, and he forced his next words out through a closing throat, already knowing that their idyll was over.
“Mist? Is something wrong?”
She denied it, but she would not meet his eyes.
“If you are sure, Mist.” He pulled away, standing to tidy up the remains of their breakfast.
“I should dress,” she said
“Go then.” She flinched at his sudden shout.
He moderated his volume, but not his angry tone. “You are not the first harlot to bed the bastard and then reject him. I thought you were different, but I should have known.”
At her ashen face, he regretted his sharpness, but she did not explain, did not deny his accusations. She merely turned on her heel and left.
Well, what of it? He had been rejected before for the circumstances of his birth and had survived. It was his own fault for believing she was somehow different to the women who had used and discarded him in the past. But it hurt. He could not deny it hurt.
London, January 1807
From within the protective camouflage of the gaggle of companions, Prudence Virtue watched her sometime partner and one-night-only lover drift around the banquet hall. No-one else saw him. Like the shadow he named himself, he skirted the edges of the pools of candlelight, but even when his self-appointed duties moved him close to a group of guests, they overlooked him. None of the privileged, not even the Earl and Countess of Sutton, whose party it was, noticed one extra footman.
He was very good. He had the walk, the submissive bend of the head, the lowered eyes. Even Prue—herself hiding as just one more brown-clad, unimpressive companion among a dozen others, waiting patiently in an alcove for the commands of an employer—did not detect him for her first half hour in the room.
But Prue’s body was wiser than her mind and left her restless in his presence, until her eyes caught so many times on a single footman among dozens she began to take notice. And she saw Shadow, for the first time since that one disastrous morning five months earlier.
Prue was here to meet her employer. She had arrived early to check the layout, wearing a plainer bodice in cheaper fabric over her modest gown, and a voluminous apron, blending into the army of servants bustling busily all over the house with the last minute preparations for this pre-season soirée.
And what a success the gathering was! With Parliament in session, more people than she expected were in town, and the winter cold did not prevent them and their families from sampling the events on offer.
Was Shadow here for the same meeting as her? If so, she would be calm, professional, indifferent. She would never let Shadow know how much she longed for him; how often she replayed that final morning, searching for the words that would lead to a different outcome. Perhaps if she had stayed instead of fleeing to hide her tears… No. She had not gone far, and when she did return to the rooms they shared, he had already left for the wharf where the boatman from the mainland was waiting, so that her questions and explanations died in her throat.
Prue stayed out of sight in the back of the alcove as the time for her to make her move approached. He had left the room several times in the hour she had been watching. With luck… Yes. There he went again. Now, if several of the dowagers would give orders at once, every companion would think she was obeying another… Done. Moving to where any of three or four ladies might be giving her instructions, she hurried away as if running an errand.
The key, the man she knew as Tolliver had taught her, was to fit into people’s preconceived ideas of the universe; to appear to be someone doing something for which they had—or didn’t need—an explanation. The key was to blend into the background of the story they were telling themselves. ‘Don’t notice me. I’m just a companion running an errand,’ her behaviour said. And five minutes after she left, not one of them would remember what she looked like or which direction she went.
Prue glanced quickly around to check that she was still unobserved, then slipped behind the curtain that half-masked the door to one of the network of passages that riddled the walls, allowing servants invisible access to every part of the vast mansion of the Earl of Sutton’s father, the Duke of Winshire. Narrow, dimly lit, unornamented, currently deserted, the passage beyond the door stretched into the gloom on the left past a row of service rooms, and terminated on the right in a steep flight of stairs.
She was almost at the stairs when a sound caught her attention. Whimpering? Then a woman’s voice, pleading. “No, my lord. Please. Let me go, my lord.” An expletive in a male voice, followed by silence
Prue retraced her steps, to listen at each door, throwing the third open. In the room beyond, the bangs and scrapes of a struggle ceased but a smothered whimper continued.
“Get out. This has nothing to do with you.” She could just make out the man who spoke, a shape in the dark room, looming upright over the woman he had pinned to a low bed or couch. Then he flinched back. “Ow! You bitch. You bit me.”
The woman spoke over his indignant protests, a young breathy voice shrill with fear. “Help me. Please help me.”
Prue moved so that the meagre light from the passage fell onto the small pistol she had retrieved from her reticule. “Remove yourself from the young lady’s person, my lord. Do so very slowly, or I shall shoot you for the mad cur you are.”
“Do you know who I am? You cannot shoot an earl.”
She gestured with the gun, and he reluctantly obeyed. She could still make out little more than his silhouette, a blacker mass than the darkness of the room behind. Then the girl was up and across the room in a flurry of silk. What was this? A lady? Prue had assumed that she’d caught some lordling bothering a servant, but the girl’s voice and the quality of her clothing put her in the ranks of guest rather than staff.
She put the girl behind her with her free hand, then pulled the door closed. Something thrown banged against it on the other side.
“We must get you to safety,” she told the girl, a very young debutante in a torn white gown, her honey blonde hair falling from its careful coiffure, the delicate oval of her face streaked with tears.
“I cannot… I did not… Everyone will think…”
“Take the child to Lady Georgiana.” Prue started at Shadow’s voice and the girl yelped and clutched at her for protection. Fussing over the girl gave Prue time to catch the breath that had escaped at his sudden appearance. He was leaning against the next door down, half concealed in the doorway. “There’s a small sitting room along there.” He pointed down the passage towards the far end, seemingly unaffected the meeting, while Prue was torn between spitting in his face and throwing herself at his feet to beg him to forgive whatever offence she had caused. “Half way to the corner. Lady Georgiana is in there. She’ll take care of your maiden, and I shall see to the assailant. Who is it?”
Prue shook her head, mostly to clear it. But it would do for an answer, too; in the darkness, she had seen nothing to recognise.
“He said he was an earl,” she offered.
Shadow looked at the girl, lifting one eyebrow in silent question, and she answered. “Selby. It was Lord Selby. No one will believe… I did not know. Truly. I did not mean…”
Selby? Prue had thought the assailant a younger man. The Earl of Selby, who was a distant relative of her sister’s husband, must be a man in his 50s or older. What was he doing assaulting debutantes in the service rooms? She put her questions to one side, shelved them with her foolish yearnings after her former partner. The girl came first. Shadow was holding the door shut against Selby’s assault from the other side, and they needed to get the child to safety.
Prue led her down the passage, saying, “I believe you. Lady Georgiana will believe you.” The Earl of Sutton’s sister, Lady Georgiana Winderfield, was known for championing women who had fallen prey to unscrupulous men, ignoring her powerful brother and her even more powerful father in offering them support and help.
Lady Georgiana was a delicately-built woman in her middle years, soberly if expensively clad in a dress of grey silk. Her hair, dressed in a plain chignon at the back of her head, was escaping to cluster in small soft ringlets around her kindly face. She took charge as soon as Prue arrived with the girl, draping her own shawl to cover the tears and sending a maid for the child’s mother.
Soon enough, Prue was able to leave, pausing in the doorway as a cluster of tall footmen passed, Shadow the shortest among them, hustling the assailant towards the far end. The glimpse she caught of him confirmed her impression of a younger man.
Tolliver was waiting in the room at the top of the stairs. Since she had visited in the afternoon, someone had made up the fire, and set chairs and a table near it. Two chairs. A set of decanters and two glasses. Just her and Tolliver, then. And that sinking of her foolish heart was not disappointment. She did not want to work with Shadow again. He could have found her if he wished any time these last five months. He clearly did not wish, and she would not yearn after a man who did not want her.
The fire and a three-branch candelabra on the table gave the only light. Most of the room was in darkness, especially along the side, where a wall of curtains hid a balcony that overlooked the banquet hall. In the Season, musicians would play on the balcony, and use this room to rest and refresh themselves.
“You are late, Mist.” Tolliver himself had assigned the code name by which she was known to the network of spies who served him, and through him, the Crown.
She ignored his rebuke, seating herself at the table, and pouring herself a drink. Tolliver shook his head when she gestured with the decanter. “What delayed you?” He asked.
“Is Shadow here on your business?” Prue asked.
Tolliver’s eyes widened, but he hid any other reaction. “No. You are certain it is him?”
“I spoke with him.”
Tolliver stared into the fire for a long moment. “It is unlikely to do with our business,” he said, finally.
“Which is?” Prue prompted.
Tolliver was uncharacteristically silent, staring unfocused into the fire. Since Tolliver first recruited her to his cause—to England’s cause, he would say, but sometimes she wondered—she had never known him to hesitate. Always, he began as soon as they were together, as if each minute of the meeting cost a guinea to be paid from his own pocket. He would lay out the facts in his dry solicitor’s voice, explain her role and his desired outcome, arrange her reporting schedule, and leave as soon as he could.
When they had first met four and a half years ago, Prue had been one and twenty and desperate to find a respectable way to earn money to keep herself and those she loved. Somehow, Tolliver knew about her first investigation over a year earlier; when she truthfully accused her employer’s grandson of theft, and was imprisoned for it, destroying both her first love affair and her chances of employment. Tolliver had offered a job that—if not precisely respectable—at least did not involve selling her body.
Prue’s success depended on her ability to observe closely, while remaining unnoticed. For four-and-a-half years, Tolliver had moved her into houses that he needed to watch; houses where secrets waited to be uncovered. He’d moved her from position to position: housekeeper, governess, companion, even ladies’ maid.
Tolliver left off his close observation of the fire and turned his regard to Prue.
“A serious matter has come to my attention,” he told them. “A matter of blackmail.”
“A nasty crime,” Prue said.
“Particularly when the blackmailer requires payment in secrets,” Tolliver agreed, “secrets of value to a foreign power.”
Prue lowered her glass. “The French?”
“Perhaps.” Tolliver refused to jump to conclusions. “Possibly the Colonials. Or the Prussians. Perhaps even the Turks. Or merely a local villain who wants a commodity that may, in the future, prove valuable.”
“You have a place for me to start?” Prue asked.
“According to my informant, it seems probable that a certain… lady of pleasure has acted as intermediary between the blackmailer and her… intimate friends.”
“She has been questioned?”
But Tolliver didn’t give the expected affirmative. “It was thought best not to alarm her or the blackmailer. Or to unduly inconvenience those of her friends who are innocent. A subtler approach is called for, we believe.”
Prue frowned. Placing such constraints on an investigation suggested the case had sticky tendrils into the upper reaches of the ton. The last such case had nearly killed her and Shadow before they triumphed. On that occasion, Shadow had been Tolliver’s agent, not Prue. If Prue had not been hired by the victim’s godmother, the outcome could have been very different.
“In the Wyvern case, you kept information to yourself. You put me and Shadow both in danger, and you jeopardised the investigation. I can’t work that way, Tolliver.”
Tolliver nodded. “I know. That was a mistake. I will give you all the information I have. But I must insist it remains between us two.”
The courtesan was Lily Diamond; not one of the first tier in the demi-monde, but well enough known. She would, Tolliver said, be in need of a housekeeper within the next week. Prue would begin her part of the investigation from within Miss Diamond’s house.
Tolliver suspected all those intimate with the courtesan, and those who hoped to be. He had a list of five names. “There may be more, but doubtless you will soon find out who else calls. Remember, any or all of them could be a victim of the man we seek. And one of them might be the traitor,” Tolliver said.
“Come. Three of the five are here tonight. I’ll point them out.” Tolliver blew out all but one candle then led the way behind the curtain, to the darkness of the small balcony.
Over the roar of conversation and music slamming up from the banquet hall, Tolliver pointed out Lord Jonathan Grenford, the younger son of the Duke of Haverford.
“It was the older son, the Marquis of Aldridge, who first alerted us to the problem. Young Grenford went to his brother when his first attempts to pay off the blackmailer led to more sinister requests.”
Prue was trying to get a clear view of the young lord, who was dancing with a tall blonde in silver. “Is he reliable, Tolliver? A victim or a traitor?”
“An idiot,” Tolliver grumbled. “More money than sense and nothing useful to do. Ah. There is our next suspect. Lady Georgiana Winderfield, daughter of this house.”
“I met her earlier this evening,” Prue said. In a private room off a service corridor, and Shadow knew exactly where to find her. What was he doing? And who for?
The lady was talking to her brother, Lord Sutton, giving no sign that she had more on her mind than the pleasures of the evening. “What connection has she to Miss Diamond?”
“She is a regular visitor.” At her enquiring look, Tolliver expanded on the remark. “Perhaps she reads the woman improving tracts. She is on the route to sainthood amongst our soiled doves, by all accounts.”
Prue ignored his dry sarcasm. “And the third of your five?”
“Yes. Young Lord Selby. He was here earlier.”
“Young lord, you say? The earl is new to the title?” she asked.
“He inherited just before Christmas when his father took a fatal tumble down the stairs. He visits the Diamond, but it is a mystery how he affords her, and the other high flyers he frequents.”
“Short of money?” Prue asked, though half her mind was on whether the death of the old earl would make a difference to her sister.
“The estate is in difficulties. The father was a heavy gambler. Young Selby will have to find an heiress to marry. I have heard a persistent rumour that he is married already, but if so, no-one has ever seen her.”
The cousins were alike in more than looks, then.
“I do not see him,” Tolliver repeated.
“He is no longer here. Lord Selby was the reason I was late, Tolliver. I stopped him in the act of raping a young guest, and he has been escorted from the premises.”
“He is an unpleasant young man. So you know what he looks like. Did he see you?” Tolliver shot her a sharp look.
“I could not see him in the dark, and I had the light behind me. I doubt he would know me again.”
“Hmm. Well enough. He is a guest at the Diamond house, and it would not do for him to recognise you. I must go. You know your assignment. Usual reporting methods.” With no more ceremony than that, Tolliver was gone.
Prue followed more slowly, retreating into the room where the curtain muffled some of the sound.
And then Shadow was there, his eyes quickly scanning the room as he slid sideways through the small gap he’d opened between door and frame. They settled on Prue and warmed briefly, the bland mask he made of his face lifting for a fraction of a second. He was pleased she was here?
Before she could be sure, the mask was back in place.
“Mist.” Just that one word, with no inflexion. Her code name.
“Shadow.” She copied his toneless voice.
“Do you have a minute to talk?”
Prue had no reason to refuse, except the conflicting irrational desires to throw herself into Shadow’s arms and to run as far from him as she could. She returned to her chair by the fire.
He crossed to the table. “Drink?”
She shook her head. She had not finished the drink she had started. She reached for it before Shadow could hand it to her. She didn’t need the touch of his fingers to know he still had the power to turn her bones to jelly. And as bad as it had been before the night they fell into bed together, it was ten times worse now.
“How have you been?” Shadow asked.
“Busy. Well.” Restless. Longing for something she could never have. “And you?” she asked.
He was thinner than he had been five months ago, with tired lines around his eyes. Had he been ill?
“The same,” he told her. “Busy. Well.” He moved as if to stretch his hand towards her, then changed the gesture to rub his head, shifting the footman’s wig to a precarious tilt. “Stupid thing. I forgot it for a moment.”
Prue fought to hold her hands at her sides, to keep her body relaxed, to stop herself from reaching to straighten the wig or, better still, to rip it from his head and cover his face with kisses.
Shadow reached out his hand but stopped before touching hers. “I saw Tolliver. You are on a job?”
Prue nodded. No point in denying it. “I am.”
“Me too. A private commission. Here in London.” For Lady Georgiana? Prue narrowed her eyes. She did not believe in coincidences.
“I will be working in London, too,” she said.
“Perhaps we could—” he started, but broke off.
“I will be living in,” she told him. She could not make herself vulnerable to him again.
His hazel eyes intent on hers, he began, “Mist, about that night…”
She interrupted him. “Don’t.”
“Do I owe you an apology?” he asked. “I thought you wanted…”
“I do not wish to talk about it. I should go.”
He made no move to stop her as she backed towards the door. For five months she had taken assignments in other cities, trying to forget that one night when she had been his and he had been hers. And she was still his, though she would die rather than let him know it.
Which meant staying away from him, for he was an expert investigator and would soon discover her unrequited longing. But London was a big city, and they both had assignments. Surely they need not cross paths?
But she did not believe in coincidences. Lady Georgiana and Miss Diamond were friends. What were the chances that Shadow’s investigation and hers were two sides of the same coin?
This case had too many links to the past. Not just the doomed affair between her and Shadow. Shadow did not know the dissolute Earl of Selby was related by marriage to her sister. Nor that she had guessed his relationship with the Duke and Duchess of Haverford, whose younger son was a suspect, and whose older son was Tolliver’s informant. Prue had her own reasons for being wary of the duchess, but nonetheless took the occasional commission from her, and she had once known the Haverford’s older son, Lord Aldridge—had known him very well indeed.
Exasperating woman. Three days after the soirée, David Wakefield, the Shadow, was still trying to extract more meaning from his encounter with the woman he could not forget. He had seen her as soon as she entered the banquet hall, drifting along the wall. She’d vanished among the companions, but he’d seen Tolliver and guessed she was there to meet him.
After his own meeting with the daughter of the house, interrupted to expel the Earl of Selby, he’d gone upstairs more eagerly than he wished to examine, hoping their time apart might have affected her as it did him. The guarded look on her face, the stiff way she held herself, stopped him in his tracks.
And her voice. Calm. Devoid of emotion. As if that passionate night had never existed. Or as if it meant nothing to her. It didn’t escape him that he had given her his real name on that night, but he knew only her code name, Mist, and a few of the invented names she changed job by job.
Perhaps, while David had spent five months yearning for her, she had moved on, and his presence was an embarrassment. Surely his own cravings created the longing he imagined in her eyes when she first saw him.
He should be thinking about the coming meeting instead of mooning over a woman who had decisively rejected him. Lady Georgiana had hired him to find out who was blackmailing her friend, the courtesan Lily Diamond, and had given him the names of her most persistent admirers. And one name on the list was very familiar.
He frowned at the fire in the small hearth. The private parlour he had hired was small and shabby, but at least its size made it easy to heat. And it was neutral ground, which mattered. David hadn’t had a prolonged conversation with his expected guest in a decade and a half.
He must have been seventeen or eighteen on the last occasion, staying at Haverford Castle in Kent between the end of the school term and his first term at university. The Duke of Haverford’s son and heir, the Marquis of Aldridge, would have been 12. The day had begun happily enough with the boy tagging along while David went out after small game with a gun. It had ended with David beaten and driven from the property.
Aldridge had tripped and knocked himself out, and Haverford, finding David leaning over his unconscious heir, had not waited for explanations.
Once the young marquis left school and entered Society, they met from time to time, usually when the Duchess of Haverford insisted on David coming to one of her entertainments. Her husband, the duke, was almost always engaged elsewhere, but her sons often attended. They paid their mother the courtesy of not being rude to her protégé, and he responded with the same polite reserve.
He was expecting Aldridge now. Older brother to one of the courtesan’s lovers. David’s despised father’s oldest legitimate son. His half-brother.
A knock on the door heralded Aldridge’s arrival. A maid showed him into the private parlour. He’d clearly been treating her to a display of his facile charm; she was dimpling, blushing, and preening.
David examined him as he gave the girl a coin “and a kiss for your trouble, my darling.” The beautiful child had grown into a handsome man. David had heard him described as ‘well-put together, and all over, if you know what I mean.’ The white-blonde hair of childhood had darkened to a guinea gold, and he had his mother’s hazel eyes under a thick arch of brow he and David had both inherited from their father.
Aldridge navigated the shoals of the marriage market with practiced ease, holding the mothers and their daughters off, but still not offending them, and carrying out a gentleman’s role in the ballroom with every evidence of enjoyment.
But his real success, by all accounts, was with bored widows and wives, where he performed in the bedroom with equal charm, and perhaps more pleasure. Society was littered with former lovers of the Merry Marquis, though he had the enviable ability to end an affair and retain the friendship.
Aldridge ushered the laughing maid out of the room and closed the door behind her, acknowledging David’s appraisal with a wry nod.
“Wakefield. You summoned me. I am here.”
David ignored the thread of irritation in the young aristocrat’s voice, and took a shot in the dark. Lord Jonathan was unlikely to be the blackmailer, Lady Georgiana thought, but was probably also being blackmailed. Would he have confided in Aldridge?
“I have some questions I wish to ask about the blackmail.”
Aldridge arched a brow, a trick they had both picked up from the duke. “Tolliver has engaged you?”
David hid his surprise at the spymaster’s name. “What is your brother paying blackmail for?”
Uninvited, Aldridge grabbed a chair and straddled it, resting his chin on his forearms. “Our brother,” he said, flatly.
“That won’t prevent me from turning him in if he is a traitor,” David said.
“He isn’t. He’s young. He’s an idiot. But he isn’t a traitor.” Aldridge met David’s eyes with an uncompromising glare of his own.
“Then you have nothing to lose by answering my questions.”
Aldridge held the glare for a long moment, then let his breath out with a huff and unfurled himself from the seat. David watched him pace, content to let silence do the job of convincing Aldridge to talk.
“You have to understand, Wakefield. If he hears what Jon has done, His Grace will… I don’t know what precisely, but it won’t be pretty. You don’t know what he is like. When he loses his temper, anything can happen. And once he’s said something, he won’t go back, no matter what.”
“Oh, I know,” David said. “I do know.” For a moment, he was seventeen again, the Duke screaming at him, the walking stick crashing on his shoulders and arms as he tried to protect his head. “But you haven’t explained to me why I should care what His Grace does to your brother.”
“Your brother, too,” Aldridge said again. “I don’t suppose you do care. Not about Jon, and not about me. And I daresay you’d do His Grace an ill turn if you could, and I would not lift a finger to stop you.”
David shook his head. Yes, he had resented the Duke for years. But he refused to waste the energy any longer. “No. Though I wouldn’t cross the road to help him, either,” he said honestly.
“But you care about Mama,” Aldridge insisted. “You do. You would not tolerate her soirées otherwise.”
David said nothing. He was not going to discuss Her Grace with Aldridge. The son of privilege could never understand what David owed the woman who had rescued her husband’s bastard after his own mother died, saving him from the workhouse, if not from death. She had his lifelong devotion just for that, but she’d done so much more. She’d paid for his education and keep, found him his first job, protected him from her husband, and never ceased believing in him.
“Mama would be heartbroken if His Grace disowns Jon, or sends him away, or worse. And, truly, Wakefield, he hasn’t done what they will tell His Grace. He hasn’t. He’s just been a fool, and any normal father would cut his allowance and give him a job to do.”
“If what you say is true, he has nothing to fear. I’m only interested in finding the blackmailer; not in causing trouble for your brother.”
“Our brother,” Aldridge insisted. “If you find that Jon is a blackmailer, or a traitor, I’ll stand aside while you do whatever you have to do. But you won’t.”
“So you’ll answer my questions.” David brought them back to the main point.
“You promise that this will stay between us unless you find something you need for your case.”
“I promise.” David didn’t want to be impressed by the man’s devotion to his brother. Far better for David’s peace of mind if Aldridge were the useless, self-centred fribble he appeared.
Aldridge said, hesitantly, “I’ve heard you are a man of your word. I’ll trust you.”
David waited, but Aldridge took his time.
“He went to The Diamond because she is fashionable, of course,” he began, after a while.
“She favoured him. Well. He’s a pretty boy, and will be rich when he comes into his own, for all he’s a second son.”
David nodded to show that he understood. Miss Diamond had welcomed young Jon to her bed in return for lavish gifts.
Aldridge continued. “Do you know Selby and that ghastly pack he runs with?”
“They were at school with me and Jon, but he has had nothing to do with them since he came up to town. Given how they hounded him at school, I have no idea why he… he met them again at the Diamond’s, and they are in this mess up to their necks. Whatever is happening, they are part of it, you can be sure.”
“He started playing with the card sharp, I take it?”
“That was part of it, yes.”
“He lost a lot of money.” David sighed. Such a predictable story.
But Aldridge was shaking his head. “If that were all… If it was just money, His Grace would blow him up, Mama would make him feel about two inches tall, I’d dress him down and then pay the bare minimum to keep him out of prison, and he’d go with pockets to let until the next quarter day. No. They set him up, Davey. They set him up well and truly.”
It was a measure of Aldridge’s concern that he slipped back into his boyhood name for his half-brother.
“Drink. Drugs. Women. But one morning, when he woke up, he was with a man. Well, a boy really; a naked boy.”
“Is he in the habit of…” How could David delicately ask if his younger half-brother had such inclinations?
“No, not at all.” Aldridge shook his head. “He adores women. All kinds. Put him in a brothel and he’s like a child in a sweet shop. He’ll try the whole range. He was horrified. He’s…” Aldridge shook his head.
“I take it there were witnesses.”
“A number,” Aldridge confirmed. “Selby and his pack among them. They all swore they’d keep it quiet. It’s a hanging offence, and you can be sure His Grace wouldn’t lift a finger. Even if we could keep him from the gallows, he’d never be able to stay in England.”
David knew what happened next. “But then the demands began to arrive. Money?”
“At first. He paid. He stole some of Mama’s jewellery and pawned it. Silly fool told me he only took the stuff she didn’t like, as if that made it better! Then the letters asked for papers from His Grace’s office. It was something to do with a land deal. He thought it wouldn’t matter.”
“Idiot. Couldn’t he see they were sucking him in deeper and deeper?” David shook his head at the sheer stupidity of the boy.
“I know. Even if His Grace could overlook the embarrassment of the first escapade, even if he forgave the theft from Mama, he isn’t going to let a theft of his ducal papers pass. He’d regard it as betrayal of the worst kind. More than lèse majesté. Blasphemy, really.”
They both contemplated the duke’s likely reaction. No wonder Aldridge wanted to keep this information between themselves. “So what happened next?” David asked.
“That’s when they overstepped. They asked for more papers, but when he checked the paper they wanted, he realised that it was… well, he didn’t tell me what it was. Just that it was information Napoleon would give his eyeteeth for. So, he came to me and told me the whole, and I made him tell Uncle Tolly. He has put a servant in the house. And hired you, apparently.”
Uncle Tolly? The Marquis of Aldridge called the aloof and secretive Tolliver ‘Uncle Tolly’? And a servant in the house. Mist, perhaps? It could be someone else, but if it were Mist… Would they be allies or opponents?
“So, now you have it,” Aldridge said, oblivious to David’s sudden stillness. “I’ve paid the gambling debt, of course. And redeemed Mama’s jewellery. Uncle Tolly thinks that will help to draw their fangs.” David shook off the red herring of the relationship between Tolliver and the Grenford family, and got back to the point.
“But they still have the duke’s papers, and the witnesses to the catamite incident.” What was he thinking? Saving his half-brother wasn’t his job, nor his inclination. He was here to catch the blackmailer. Still, if saving Lord Jonathan was a by-product, he would do so. For Her Grace’s sake, if nothing else.
As if following David’s thoughts, Aldridge said, “My mother knows nothing of this. For her sake, won’t you see what you can do?”
David nodded, shortly. “I’ll catch the blackmailer, and if I can, I’ll clear your br…” Aldridge opened his mouth to object and David conceded. “… our brother. Now, we go back to the beginning and you tell me everything you know. Who Lord Jonathan met at Miss Diamond’s; his card playing friends; Selby’s cronies; who was there the night they trapped him. Everything.”