Chapter One

Mayfair, London

October 1817

            “Lord Chesney?” Jensen’s voice cut through the midmorning stillness of the stables. “Are you here, sir?”

            Inside the end stall box, Thomas Matteson stilled, hoping the butler would simply leave and not interrupt his morning. The same morning he’d so carefully arranged by giving the grooms time off to attend Tattersall’s. He let the silence of the stables answer for him, broken only by the restless shifting of horses in their stalls and a pawing of hooves.

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            But Jensen persisted in his hunt. “Sir?”

            Stifling a curse, knowing he had no choice but to face whatever calamity had sent the man after him, Thomas stepped into the aisle and firmly closed the stall door behind him. He brushed pieces of straw from the sleeves of his maroon riding jacket.             “What is it, Jensen?”

            “A visitor, sir.” The portly butler hurried forward, silver salver in hand.

            Thomas fought to keep from rolling his eyes at the man’s formality. An employee of the Matteson household for nearly twenty years, Jensen took his position seriously, even during times like these when the duke and duchess were at their country estate and Thomas was the only family member in residence.

            And he was in residence precisely because his mother and father were not, needing the distractions of London and the freedom of turning Chatham House into bachelor’s quarters until his parents returned in January. Yet Jensen and the rest of the staff continued to serve with the precision of a military regiment, taking pride in their positions within a duke’s household even while the duke was away.

            And while the old lord was away, the young lord would play…or at least that had been his plan. To fill his daylight hours with as many frivolous activities as possible and his nights however—and with whomever—he could. But it was deuced hard when the staff followed his every move. For heaven’s sake, yesterday morning he’d caught Cook spying on him to make certain he ate breakfast!

            Most likely their close attention came at his mother’s orders. He would have found her concern endearing if it didn’t aggravate the hell out of him. And it was damned grating that nearly everyone he interacted with these days—including the household staff—still thought of him as fragile. Still not fully recovered. Broken.

            “My lord.” Jensen presented the card with as much flourish as if he stood in the gilded front hall rather than in the stable with his shoes dangerously close to a pile of manure.

            Irritated at being interrupted, Thomas read the embossed name on the card. The Earl Royston? Odd. Why the devil was he here? Royston was an old family friend and always welcome at Chatham House. But surely Royston knew his father was in the country, and Thomas couldn’t imagine what the earl would want with him.

            “I’ve put his lordship in the drawing room, sir.” Then Jensen hesitated and cleared his throat as if he dreaded telling him,             “And Lady Emily is taking tea in the morning room.”

            “My sister is, is she?” His lips curled grimly. Yet another person set on ruining his morning, apparently. “Tell Royston I’ll join him in a moment.” He arched a brow. “And tell my sister that she has her own town house and should bloody well stop haunting mine.”

            “Yes, sir.” Despite his curt nod, Thomas knew the portly butler had no intention of passing along that message.

Straw rustled inside the stall behind him. Jensen furrowed his bushy brows. “Should I call for a footman to help you with your horse, sir?”

            “No need.” At the sound of more rustling, he added, “Just a filly I’ve been attempting to break.”

            With a shallow bow, and careful to miss the manure, Jensen turned smartly on his heels and retreated toward the house. Thomas waited until the butler was out of sight before opening the stall door. Folding his arms across his chest, he leaned lazily against the post and looked at the woman standing inside.

            “Just a filly you’ve been attempting to break, am I?” Helene Humphrey, the young widow of the late Charles Humphrey, pouted with mock peevishness as she brushed at the straw clinging to her riding habit. The same habit that moments ago had been pulled down to her waist and bunched up around her hips as she’d straddled him in the hay. “How positively uncomplimentary of you, Chesney.”

            He shrugged away her scolding, not caring if she was offended. After all, he allowed her into his stables in the mornings only because he wanted to chase away any lingering anxieties from the nights before. And he wasn’t naïve enough to believe she visited him for any reason other than sex.

            Having settled into wealthy widowhood with all the restraint of an opera diva, Helene thrilled at indulging in a string of dalliances, including those she’d risked before Humphrey died. Which was one of the main reasons Thomas had selected her to be one of his lovers. With Helene a man got exactly what he saw. No secrets, no surprises…just a beautiful and eager woman with a hot mouth and a cold heart.

            “You’re the one visiting my stables, Helene,” he reminded her.

            “And where else am I supposed to take such a fine morning ride?” She turned her back to him so he could fasten up her dress.

            He obliged—of course he did, he was a gentleman, after all, and a gentleman always helped his lover freshen her appearance after a tryst, even if she made assignations with half of London society and had just ridden him off six feet from a pile of horse shit.

            “One of these mornings, we really should put you onto a horse.” As he fastened the last button, he lowered his head to brush his mouth against the side of her neck for one last taste of her. “I’ve got a new gelding you might like.”

            With a wicked smile, she turned in his arms and reached down to cup his cock in her palm. “Why would I want a gelding,” she purred, fondling him through his breeches more in possessiveness than in desire, “when I’ve got a stallion?”

            Dragging in a breath through clenched teeth, he reached down to grasp her wrist and pull her hand away as fresh irritation surged inside him. The last way he wanted to think of himself was as providing stud service. Even if the implication was true.

            “At least your guests have good timing.” She stepped back and tugged at her gloves. As with her hat and its beaded half veil, she’d kept her gloves and boots on the entire time he’d been inside her. Mercifully, though, she’d discarded the riding crop.             “Ten minutes earlier and I would have been extremely put out.”

            Ten minutes earlier. He would have been annoyed, but would he have truly cared?

            His chest tightened with the bitter ache of self-recrimination. Good Lord, had his life really come to this? Pre-appointed tumbles in a horse stall with a woman he didn’t even like, partaking of her pleasures more to release the acute uneasiness that pounded relentlessly at him than for physical satisfaction?

            Only one year ago, his life had still possessed meaning. He’d felt alive and happy, and he never would have sought out the company of such a shallow woman as Helene. In public he’d moved in the inner circle of English society, taking advantage of all the benefits life within the ton afforded, for all outward appearances seemingly concerned with nothing more than fast horses, faster women, and the odds in the book at White’s. But in private he’d served as a War Office operative, his skills highly valued and his work important. His life had been filled with purpose.

            Until everything had gone so horribly wrong one Sunday evening, right in Mayfair. That was the evening when he’d learned the difference between being alive and truly living. The evening when his life had become a living hell.

            Unconsciously he reached for his side, for that spot just above his hip where the bullet hole still hideously pocked his skin. His fingers trembled. Goddammit! Even now, even in the safety of his own home in broad daylight, he couldn’t keep himself from shaking.

            “Next Thursday morning, then, for our usual ride?” Oblivious to the darkness once more closing in around him, she trailed the end of her riding crop suggestively along his shoulder as she stepped past him into the aisle. “Although I have so been wanting to try a private ride in the park.”

            At the thought of her leaving, a sudden desperation swept through him. He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her back against him, eliciting a soft gasp of surprise from her.

            He’d found release with her just minutes ago, but a dark restlessness still pulsed inside him, one that now shifted toward panic. His heart began to pound hard as the familiar metallic taste of anxiety formed on his tongue, and he recklessly sought one last moment of distraction with her.

            “When it comes to riding, Helene,” he murmured as he nipped at her earlobe, hoping to arouse her enough to convince her to stay, at least for a few more minutes, “I suspect there’s nothing you haven’t already tried.”

            He coaxed a soft moan from her as his still-shaking hand fondled her breast through her riding habit, and his cock flexed at the feminine sound. Did he have time to take her again? Nothing more than a desperate diversion, certainly, yet one that would keep at bay the rising anxiety for a little while longer and perhaps let him get through the rest of the morning without falling into the darkness that preyed on him.

            Giving a throaty laugh, she slipped out of his arms.

            He clenched his empty hands into fists. Physical pain speared his chest as he knew he had to let her go, because if he made another grab for her then he’d look like a damned fool.

            “Insatiable,” she scolded with a teasing smile and smacked him playfully on the shoulder with the riding crop. “But I’m due for breakfast, and you have guests waiting.”

            She sauntered from the stable with a wide sashay of her hips toward her waiting carriage in the alley, completely unaware that the darkness was circling him again, ready to tear at him with its claws. After all, he’d become so very clever during the past year at hiding his distress. Even from the people who loved him.

            As he stared after her, he forced himself to breathe deeply and steadily, to push down the panic nipping at his heels and pounding the blood through his body so hard that the rush of it in his ears was deafening. A tight knot like hot lead burned low in his gut now, and he wiped the back of his hand across his lips as if he could easily brush clean the taste of fear from his mouth. As if he could wipe away the living nightmare his life had become.

            He looked down at his hands, now shaking uncontrollably, then squeezed his eyes shut and fought against the demons rising inside him. Not this morning— Dear God, not with Royston and his sister waiting inside.

            He knew what came next once the shaking started, and he willed it back with every ounce of his being. All the memories would come rushing back until he relived the shooting and its aftermath…the pain radiating from his side so searing that he couldn’t breathe, the fear that he would die and slip forever into the blackness. And worst of all, the sheer terror of waking in the dark, screaming in confusion and panic—

            Squeezing his eyes shut and concentrating instead on the stable around him, on the sounds of the horses, the smells of the hay and manure, and the chilly morning air against his hot cheeks, he forced himself to slowly count to ten. Then twenty. Then one hundred…By the time he reached three hundred, he’d managed to subdue the shaking enough that it was no longer visible and to stop the itching at his wrists, even if his heart continued to pound like a hammer in his chest. He took a moment longer to gather himself enough that no one would notice the agitated state that Helene’s departure had thrown him into, then left the stable.

            Blowing out a harsh breath, he stalked toward the house with his hands clenched in frustration so intense that his eyes burned with it. He knew he should be grateful for still being alive, that he still possessed a beating heart that could be sent racing and breath that could turn into anxious pants at even the slightest provocation. Because it meant he was still alive. But damnation, at what cost? How much more could he tolerate before it drove him completely mad?

            And how much longer before he accepted that his life would never again be what it had once been? Before he realized that he would never have that life back, no matter how desperately he craved it?

            He ran his fingers through his hair, cursing them for trembling. His work as a spy was finished. The War Office wouldn’t give him another field assignment now, no matter how good his skills. The shooting had made him too conspicuous for espionage work. Too wounded. And because of both the shooting and his position as the duke’s heir, he couldn’t get any sort of military commission now. Even the damned admiralty had rejected him.

            Apparently he wasn’t even good enough to drown anymore.

            Yet he couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the life he’d led before he’d joined the War Office, when he’d had nothing to do but wait for his father to die so he could become duke and then…well, then do nothing all over again until he died and his heir replaced him. After fighting against Napoleon on the Peninsula as part of the Scarlet Scoundrels of the First Dragoons, he found little meaning in being a society gentleman. In only a few months after he’d returned from the war, he’d worked his way through all the pursuits enjoyed by the quality—cards, horses, women, more cards, even more women—until nothing was left. But he felt just as empty as before.

            No wonder so many men gambled away their fortunes, became drunkards, or turned into rakes who sported in ruining young women. They were bored out of their blasted minds.

            When he thought about how little life as a peer held for him, the darkness now edging his existence, and both the increasing frequency of the attacks and their severity, he doubted he could survive. In the past year, he’d managed to hang on to his sanity only by clinging to the hope that he still had connections in the government who could get him back into fieldwork. But so far he’d had no luck. No one had been willing to recommend him.

            Jensen opened the front door as he bounded up the steps and stalked inside the town house. He paused at the foyer table to sort quickly through the morning mail, searching for one particular message, one specific—

            He saw the letter. His heart faltered with a desperate hope.

            Earl Bathurst.

            With a nervous breath—and damn his shaking fingers that he could barely get to work—he broke the wax seal to scan the message from the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, the man responsible for overseeing the War Office, and his last hope at returning to the life he’d known before the shooting. But each sentence he read caused the demons inside him to reach out for him again, and his heartbeat raced as the blackness crept in around him, strangling the air from him. He sucked in a deep breath to steady himself as Bathurst’s refusal to help fell through him. I remain unconvinced that you will be able to provide the kind of assistance we need…

            The ghost pain pierced him. Leaning against the table on one hand for support, he protectively covered his side with the other, even knowing full well that the wound was completely healed by now, no matter how raw and sharp the pain. He pressed his eyes closed to concentrate on his breathing. Slow, steady, controlled— One, two, three, four—

            “Sir?” Jensen arrived at his side. “Is there a problem?”

            Opening his eyes and pulling himself instantly to his full height, he turned to face the butler as he covered his humiliation with a shake of his head and an irritated scowl. “Only an annoying piece of correspondence,” he lied.

            Just as with Helene, he’d become an expert at hiding his distress from the servants. From everyone who cared about him, in fact. And he was good at it. After all, he had years of practice as a spy, forced to make himself look as if he belonged in the middle of groups where he never felt completely comfortable. Especially amid London society where his birthright declared he should belong.

            He blew out a tired breath and thanked God that the shaking hadn’t overcome him completely this time. The very last thing he needed was for the servants to think him ill. Or mad. “Put this in the study, will you?”

            He tossed the letter onto the pile and turned away. He would deal with it later when he was alone and could fully absorb the refusal of this last, desperate attempt at life. When he could let the darkness smother him and could fall helpless to it. But now the Earl Royston waited in the drawing room and his sister in the morning room, and he had to appear normal in front of them, no matter how agonizing the engulfing blackness searing his chest.

            Taking a moment to gather himself and pull his jacket sleeves down to cover his scratched wrists, he paused to lean his shoulder against the doorway of the morning room and looked in at his sister as she sat on the sofa, her feet curled up beneath her and an open book on her lap. He’d brought Emily such worry over the past year. Guilt for the hell he’d put her through only added to the tightening remorse that ate at his gut.

            But for now she was relaxed, happily humming to herself, and absolutely glowing. He took solace in the sight of her, and the darkness slowly retreated until his heartbeat stopped pounding and his breath slowed. Until he appeared normal.



           “Do you have a valid reason for being here, Mrs. Grey,” he drawled, hoping his voice sounded steadier than he actually felt, “or are you simply spying on me again?”

            “The latter, of course.” Emily smiled as she set the book aside and reached toward the tray on the low table to pour a cup of tea. His sister moved with an inherent gracefulness that turned women green with envy, and the sharpness of her mind only served to distinguish her more from those society ladies who could bore a man to death with their chatter about fashions and balls. “I know you have a visitor waiting for you—Royston wished me good morning when he arrived. But when you’re finished with him, I expect you to join me for tea.”

            Not a request, he’d noticed. “You know, as a marquess, I outrank you.”

            “Only a courtesy title, brother dear,” she reminded him, falling easily into the teasing jabs and barbs that were their wont.             “Although it wouldn’t hurt to put that title to good use and consider calling on some of the young ladies who—”


            She shot him a peevish glare over the rim of her teacup, which he ignored. He would have to marry someday and produce an heir, but there was no hurry. No need to punish some poor girl unduly by bringing her into the madness of the Matteson family sooner than necessary.

            “You came to check on me again,” he accused gently, although in truth he was glad to see her. The darkness never disappeared completely these days, but when he was with Emily, it receded.

            “I came because I had the day to myself for once, and I wanted to spend time with my loving brother.” Despite that obvious lie, she scolded lightly, “Shame on you for insinuating otherwise.”

            He arched a blatantly disbelieving brow. Emily was beautiful, charming, and elegant, and an absolute pain in the arse whenever she meddled in his business, which was most of the time. But he loved her, and he would gladly lay down his life for her—when he wasn’t set on throttling her himself. “Where has Grey gone off to, then?”

            “He and the colonel went to Tattersall’s to look at a hunter that Jackson Shaw has up for auction,” she answered far too smoothly, clearly having practiced her response in anticipation of the question. She never could lie well, not even as a child. “Kate and the twins are away at Brambly House. And I couldn’t bear the thought of being all alone at home, so I came here.”

            “You couldn’t bear the thought of me being all alone, you mean,” he countered, knowing full well that she had her son, his nanny, and a dozen servants to keep her company. “So you came here to torture me.”

            With a shrug she lifted the teacup to her lips. “If you can’t torture family, well, then, whom can you torture?”

            “And that,” he pointed out earnestly, “sums up every Matteson family dinner since we were five.”

            She choked on her tea. Laughing, she cleared her throat. “Go on, then. See to Royston. I’ll be here when you return.”

            “Dear God,” he grumbled painfully, “truly?”

            He saw the devilish smile she tried to hide behind the teacup, then turned into the hallway.

            “And give my regards to Lady Humphrey the next time you…see her.”

            He froze. Damnation.

            Rolling his eyes, he glared at her over his shoulder. “You’ve become as much of a spy as that husband of yours.”

            “Torture, spying—” With a wave of her hand, she dismissed him. “It’s all Matteson family business.”

            Yes, he conceded as he took the stairs three at a time, he supposed it was.

            Except not for him. Not any longer.

            Pushing the black thoughts from his mind, he forced a smile as he strode into the drawing room. “Royston.”

            “Chesney.” Simon Royston, Earl Royston, clasped his hand. “Good to see you again.”

            His chest lightened at the warm familiarity with which the earl greeted him. It was always good to see someone he could trust, especially these days. “And you.”

            Royston had been a family friend since the days when Thomas's father first returned from India and took a government post in London. Since then the two families had grown even closer. The two ladies often co-hosted soirees and elaborate parties that were the talk of the season, and the two men worked closely together in the Lords, with Royston an ardent supporter of several of Thomas’s father’s initiatives.

            In comparison to the Matteson family, with its duchy going back nine generations, the Roystons were recently titled, the current earl only the third in the line. But the earl’s grandfather had been well admired among his peers, and Simon Royston carried on that legacy, having become a rising star in Parliament and a trusted advisor at the ear of the prime minister. Thomas liked the man and his family. Royston had been one of the few peers to welcome his father to London long before inheriting had ever been a consideration, and Thomas personally felt a certain loyalty to the man that rose from Royston’s help in securing his captain’s commission with the Scarlet Scoundrels. Because of all that—and a niggling curiosity about what brought the earl to Chatham House during the off-season, a curiosity that just might distract him for the remainder of the morning—he warmly welcomed the earl.

            Thomas gestured to the liquor cabinet. “Whiskey?” Not yet noon, the hour was still early, but he noticed with concern the tension in the older man’s body, the dark circles beneath his eyes. The earl could use a drink. And truth be told, so could he.

Royston nodded. “Please.”

            Thomas poured two glasses and handed one over, then motioned for Royston to sit. He settled into his chair and watched as the earl tossed back nearly half the whiskey in a single swallow.

            “I haven’t seen you since August,” Thomas commented. “I hope you’re well.”

            “As fine as one can be in England in October.”

            But the forced jocularity to his voice raised Thomas’s concerns. “And your wife and son?”

            “The countess is happily fussing over the affairs of running Blackwood Hall, and Charles is finishing his last year at Oxford. I expect him to claim a first in mathematics.”

            He heard the tension edging the man’s voice and forced himself not to frown. “Good to hear.”

            “And you?” Royston’s eyes narrowed on him, and Thomas felt the peculiar suspicion that he was being scrutinized. Although, knowing the close relationship the earl had with his parents, his mother had most likely put the man up to checking in on him while he was in town. “It’s been a year since the shooting. Is everything back to normal for you?”

            If anyone else had asked him that question, Thomas would have told the man to go to hell. But he knew the deep regard in which Royston held him and his family, and he knew the question was asked with nothing less than true concern.

            “Yes,” he lied, raising the glass to his lips to cover any errant expressions that might flit across his face. “Back to my old self and doing my best to lay waste to whatever pleasures London can provide.” Then, purposefully turning the conversation away from himself, he commented, “Although this morning’s visit is a surprise, I must admit. I thought you’d be in the country until January.”

            “I had unexpected business in London,” he answered vaguely with a polite smile.

            Thomas respected the man’s privacy and didn’t press. “Of course you’re always welcome at Chatham House.” Over the years Thomas and his father had spent more hours playing cards and shooting billiards with the earl than he could count, not to mention all the dinners and political talk at various ton affairs. A visit from Royston wasn’t unusual, except…“Chatham is in the country for the hunting season. Surely you know that.” As should be every other man of landed property who had the good sense to avoid London this time of year. Including Royston.

            “I came looking for you, actually.” The earl paused. “May we speak in confidence?”

            He nodded, holding back a puzzled frown. Whatever could Royston want with him?

            The man leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and rolled the crystal tumbler between his palms. “There’s been trouble at Blackwood Hall.”

            Thomas had never been to the Roystons’ country estate, but he knew of the place, which had been granted to the earl’s grandfather when he received the title. Located in the heart of Lincolnshire, the estate was two days’ hard ride on horseback from London under the best of conditions; at this time of year, with the increasing cold and fall rains, a coach would be lucky to reach the estate in four. So whatever had sent the earl scurrying to London must have been serious. And it clearly wasn’t a social call at his mother’s behest.

            He studied Royston with concern over the rim of his glass. If there was anything he could do to help, he owed it to the earl for the years of friendship between their two families. And the earl’s troubles might just provide a distraction for him, as well. “What kind of trouble?”


            “Highwaymen,” Thomas repeated, and carefully kept his face stoic, not letting his disappointment at the mundane answer register.

            Royston grimaced. “I know what you’re thinking. What road in Lincolnshire doesn’t have highwaymen?”

            He had been thinking exactly that, but to ease the man’s pride, he instead offered, “Actually, I was wondering why you didn’t go to the constabulary.”

            “I have, but to no avail.” He finished his whiskey, then stared down at the empty glass. “It’s a damnable mystery.”

            With that odd comment pricking his interest, Thomas stood to refill his glass. “How so?”

            “There appears to be no pattern, except that there is.” When Thomas frowned at his contradictory words, he continued, “The only robberies have been of guests returning home from Blackwood Hall, and then, not all the guests and not all the time.”             Royston grimaced. “We’re being targeted. My guests. Me.”

            “I wouldn’t go that far.” Thomas tried to keep the patronizing tone from his voice, but truly, the description of the robberies struck him as simple paranoia. Yet Royston’s distress over it concerned him, and he frowned as he fetched the decanter. “You’re a wealthy landowner in Lincolnshire, so surely more of your guests than—”

            “I’m one of the wealthy men in the area, true, but not the only one.” He held up his glass to let Thomas pour more whiskey. “Only my guests have been robbed by this particular highwayman. No one else’s.”

            Well, that was odd. He set the decanter aside and sank back into his chair. “Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean you, specifically, are being targeted. Could just be a run of coincidence and bad luck.”

            Royston shook his head. “When the carriages are stopped, only the men are asked to hand over their valuables. One man in each coach, no matter how many others are present. And never anything from the women, not even when openly displaying their jewels.”

            Thomas leaned forward. A highwayman who robbed only one man per coach and left jewels? Finally he was intrigued. “How long has this been happening?”

            “On and off for the past two years.”

            A faint needling of suspicion, one he hadn’t felt since he stopped being a spy, tickled at the backs of his knees and made his heart skitter. “You’re just now noticing the pattern?”

            “I had noticed before, I’m ashamed to say. But it never needed to be addressed until now.”

            “What changed?”

            “I have grand hopes for the Lords next session. Some important positions will be opening, and I want to make my mark.” His eyes met Thomas’s intently. “With your help.”

            Shaking his head, Thomas set his glass aside. “I’m afraid you’re wasting your time. I’m not involved in anything of importance in the government.” Not anymore.

            Royston leveled his shrewd gaze on him. “I know things about you, Thomas,” he answered quietly, all polite pretense gone. “I know what you’ve done since you returned from Spain, and I have connections in the War Office who have vouched for your special skills.”

            Despite the electric jolt that pulsed through him at the earl’s words, Thomas remained silent and stoic, unwilling to either deny or validate Royston’s assumptions about him. Only a handful of people knew the truth about what he’d done for his country once he left the army, once his real fight against the French had begun. Despite the close friendship their two families shared, he wouldn’t endanger Royston unnecessarily. No matter how much he wanted to help.

            Besides, those special skills the War Office had assured the earl he possessed were the same ones they no longer wanted.

            “I want you to come to Blackwood Hall and investigate.” Asking for help from someone twenty years his junior was clearly difficult for the proud man, but judging from the exasperated look in his eyes, he’d found no other solution. “I want these robberies stopped, no matter the cost.” His gaze dropped back to his drink. “And if it goes well, I see no reason why I shouldn’t put in a good word for you with Lord Bathurst, assuring him that you have my full support and confidence. That you are truly back to being your old self.”

            Bathurst. Thomas froze even as his chest squeezed hard. This could very well be the opportunity he’d been seeking, his very last hope of returning to the life he’d led before the shooting. When he’d had purpose and meaning. When he’d last felt alive.

            “Do we have an agreement, then, Chesney?”

            Thomas nodded slowly, outwardly calm despite his racing heart. Stopping a highwayman was a far cry from the type of work he’d done as a spy, but it would also serve as a test to prove to Bathurst—and to himself—that his skills hadn’t deteriorated.

            “I’m hosting a house party at Blackwood Hall next week.” The earl set aside his glass and stood. “A chance for friends and associates in the area to gather for a sennight and break up the boredom of the country season. An irresistible target for the highwayman, I presume.”

            Thomas rose to his feet, his mind already whirling with this new assignment. “Make certain the guest list is common knowledge to your household staff.”

            Incredulity flashed over Royston’s face. “You think the highwayman could be someone within my own home?”

            “I think he could be anyone.” Fighting down the excitement that coursed through his blood and replaced the anxiety that had clawed at him less than half an hour earlier, Thomas slapped him on the shoulder and walked him downstairs. “See you next week, then.”

            With a grateful expression, Royston took his hat and gloves from Jensen and headed out the front door. “My thanks, Chesney.”

            And mine to you. More than the earl would ever know. His chest pulsed with the first real hope he’d had in a year. A highwayman in Lincolnshire…not exactly an enemy to the crown. But at this point, with all other avenues blocked, he would claim whatever small victories he could.

            Small victory? He laughed. Whom was he trying to fool? He knew the truth, no matter how reluctant he was to admit it.

A week at a boring Lincolnshire house party might just save his life.

            Emily looked up from her book as he sauntered into the morning room and slumped down next to her on the sofa. “Business concluded, then?”

            “Not business.” He grinned, feeling like the cat who’d gotten into the cream and the closest he’d been to his old self since the shooting. “Pleasure.”

            Her lips twitched mischievously. “Hmm,” she commented with mock innocence, “and here I’d thought Helene had already departed.”

            He shot her an icy look that made grown men quake in their boots but seemed only to amuse her. Brat. “Royston invited me to a house party at Blackwood Hall.”

            “Oh?” Her single bewildered word spoke volumes. She blinked, incredulity visible on her face that he would so eagerly gallop off to a party certain to be filled with dull dandies and old gossips.

            He dissembled by adding, “The earl has political aspirations and wants counsel on some recent matters which have been troubling him.”

            “And he picked you?” Astonishment rang in her voice. “He wants to succeed at these aspirations, does he not?”

            He grimaced at the teasing insult. She was needling him, trying in her own fashion to get the truth from him, but he would keep this investigation to himself. If the trip to Lincolnshire went as well as he hoped, it just might prove his salvation, and he would tell her afterward when all was set to rights again.

            And if not…well, there would be little she could do to help fight back the demons that would come for him, the suffocating blackness that would eventually devour him whole.

            “Getting away from London might do you good after all,” she added thoughtfully. “You might be introduced to a whole new group of potential wives.”

            Stifling an exasperated groan, he kicked his boots onto the tea table. “You know, brat, when you were a child, I sold you to the Gypsies,” he told her bluntly. “I’m still waiting for them to take you away.”

            Emily laughed, her blue eyes shining, and offered him a cup of tea.

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