The idiotic ways in which people deluded themselves, against all better reason and judgment, had long since ceased to surprise Nathaniel Stokes.
He, for instance, did not view a well-documented meeting in the middle of Hyde Park at the height of visiting hours as discreet. Neither would he have thought that wearing an enormous yellow hat and an unseasonably heavy cloak lent itself to being unnoticed, but then he hadn’t arranged the rendezvous. That honor belonged to the elongated face and plucked triangular eyebrows beneath the hat. And the black-gloved fingers sticking out from the enormous black coach’s window and beckoning him closer, spiderlike. Ah, very subtle.
Of course he’d taken his own precautions in order to ensure that the residents of London in general, and Mayfair in particular, saw the portrait of him that he intended. Therefore, as he swung down from Blue, his dark gray gelding, he adjusted the pair of glass-lensed spectacles that bridged his nose and pulled his ebony cane from its well-fashioned holster in his saddle.
He needed neither, but required both. Or rather, his particular brand of hobby required, he’d learned from careful observation, a certain air of both absentmindedness and trustworthy gravitas. Spectacles did that with a minimum of discomfort, while the cane made him look harmless—especially when accompanied by the slight limp that tucking a button into the bottom of his left boot elicited. No one else needed to know about the razor-sharp rapier tucked inside the ebony wood—but he knew about it. And how to use it.
“Lord Westfall,” the female beneath the hat whispered, ducking back into the shadowed recesses of the coach, “do join me.”
And then there was the largest part of his disguise. Nate found it ironic that Mayfair’s blue bloods had found him worthy of hearing their darkest secrets only after he’d become the Earl of Westfall—not because the title wasn’t legitimately his, as an army of solicitors had deemed it to be—but because of all the disguises he’d ever worn, this one of aristocrat had the illest fit. And it also seemed to be the only one he couldn’t take off and set into the wardrobe at the end of the day.
Favoring his left leg, he stepped up into the carriage and pulled the door shut behind him. “Are you certain your reputation is safe with me, Lady Allister?” he asked with a smile, removing the dark blue beaver hat from his head and setting it on the posh leather seat beside him.
The dowager viscountess giggled, color touching her pale cheeks. “At my age I shall risk it,” she returned, still using the same conspiratorial whisper she’d assumed for each of their half-dozen conversations. “Were you successful?”
Nate nodded, reaching into the wrong coat pocket and then the correct one to pull out an old, gold-rimmed ivory brooch. The carving was rather delicate, the silhouette of a young lady with an elongated face and high-piled, curling hair. “I leave it to you to decide if you wish to know where it was located,” he said, handing it into Lady Allister’s black-gloved fingers.
“Oh, dear,” she said, gazing at the small thing before she curled her fingers around it and clutched it to her bosom. “I hate to be sentimental, but it is the only image I have remaining of my younger self. The fire took the portrait my father had commissioned. By Gainsborough himself, you know.”
“It’s a lovely piece. The craftsmanship, and the subject, are remarkable.” That seemed to be what she wished to hear, anyway. As he’d spent the past week looking at half a hundred of the things as he trailed one small brooch across central England, he wasn’t certain how qualified he was to judge at the moment.
Light blue eyes lifted to meet his. “I will only ask this: Was it sold from my son’s possession, or stolen?”
He’d discovered the answer to that question early on. Gambling debts and an overreaching lifestyle had rendered the current Viscount Allister with a less than desirable quantity of funds. As he looked at the damp eyes of Allister’s doting mother, he settled his expression into a frown. “Stolen, I’m afraid. A group of young brigands who’ve already been seen to justice for other crimes.”
The woman’s shoulders lowered. “It’s as he said, then.” She cleared her throat. “And your fee, Westfall? You have certainly earned one.”
“Twenty-five pounds, as we agreed, my lady.”
“In exchange for your efforts and your discretion.”
And there the word was again, as rarely as it was actually spoken aloud. He couldn’t imagine anyone else would care a fig whether Lord Allister had sold his mother’s brooch or not, but she’d convinced herself that her entire family’s reputation rested on his silence. So be it. “Of course.”
She handed the coins into his hand, briefly gripping his fingers as she did so. “Thank you, Lord Westfall.”
Nate opened the coach’s door. “And thank you, Lady Allister.” Then he grimaced for effect. “Ah, my hat.” Reaching back, he retrieved the last bit of his disguise and descended to the ground.
He stepped back as the coach rolled away. The first time a peer had asked him to find something, he’d made the mistake of attempting to perform the deed gratis. After that had nearly sparked a duel with the fellow, he’d realized his error. If he didn’t ask a fee, that meant a client—as he’d come to call them—owed him a favor. It meant that, however trivial the deed or misdeed, he held a piece of their privacy, their reputation, over them. Payment for services rendered made them even. And so whether he required the additional income or not, or whether the fee matched the efforts he’d made or the expense he’d truly gone to, he named a nominal price and they paid it. And the dearer the secret they felt the need to protect, the larger the price they demanded he ask.
Pocketing the blunt, he stowed his cane and swung back up on Blue. Whether the dowager viscountess believed his talk of the brooch’s travels or not, he’d said what she wanted to hear. Sometimes that seemed to be of more import to his clients than the recovery of the missing item. It meant more lies heaped upon his head, but after the life he’d lived and some of the tales he’d told as a consequence, some of the truths he’d told that cost men’s lives, improving the character of someone’s son or cousin or uncle hardly made a dent.
The front door of Teryl House opened as he climbed the top step. “Welcome home, my lord,” Garvey said with a nod, stepping aside to allow him entry. “You have a letter on the hall table, and a caller in the morning room.”
Nate retrieved the missive and broke the wax seal. “Who’s here?” he asked the butler as he unfolded the note to read through it. Evidently his younger brother had earned an enforced holiday from Oxford, the idiot. He barely glanced at the details; it wouldn’t be the truth, anyway. That, he would have to learn from Laurie face-to-face.
“He didn’t say, my lord.”
Ah, another one of those. Nodding, Nate shoved the letter into a pocket. “Send in some tea, will you? And we’ll need a guest room made ready. Laurence is coming down early for the Season.”
“Very good, my lord. It will be splendid to have Master Laurence about again. He’s quite … lively.”
Nate wasn’t certain that he would have used the same adjectives, but he had no intention of bantering with Garvey over whether lively and splendid or bothersome and complicated were the more appropriate terms. “Yes, it will,” he said aloud, and finished removing his gloves and hat to hand them over to the waiting butler.
Generally he preferred to know with whom he was conversing in advance of a meeting, but in all practicality such a thing was a luxury. And he did enjoy the process of discovery, after all. With that in mind he resettled his spectacles, tapped his cane on the floor, and pushed open the morning room door.
His caller stood before the front window, his gaze on the street beyond. With a swiftness bred from equal parts practice and necessity, Nate tallied him up—highly polished Hessian boots, a dark green coat of superfine and not a wrinkle or crease across the square shoulders, a large signet ring on his right hand, the stance of folded arms and braced feet. Neatly cut blond hair and the closest shave a face could have. A man accustomed to people looking at him, and one with money enough to appear in the manner he wished.
“Good afternoon,” Nate said aloud, pulling the door closed behind him.
The figure turned around, lidded dark eyes regarding him with the same thoroughness he’d just used on his visitor. “I’ve heard some things about you, Westfall,” the fellow finally said, in an accent that bespoke southwestern England. “Are they true?”
“That’s a rather broad canvas,” Nate returned in his best tone of cool, slightly distracted indifference. “Would you care to elaborate?”
“Certainly. Who am I?”
Ah, a test. At best he had only a passing acquaintance with his new peers. Given his visitor’s age, attire, and speech patterns, though, he would put the man as either Viscount Delshire or, taking into account his visitor’s obvious arrogance, the Marquis of Ebberling. Considering the way the fellow had arrived at the house without giving a name, however, coupled with the suspicion with which most of his clients regarded his powers of deduction, Nate only squinted one eye and adjusted his spectacles. “Have you lost your memory then, sir? I’m acquainted with several competent physicians. I have a penchant for finding things, but a person’s memories … Hm. That would be an interesting endeavor. Fascinating, even.”
“Never mind that. I’m Ebberling—the Marquis of—and I wish to engage your … services.”
On occasion, Nate thought in passing as the tea arrived and he gestured Lord Ebberling to a chair, it would be pleasant to be surprised. The nice sort of surprise, though; not the firing-of-a-pistol-in-his-direction kind. Once the footman left, he poured himself a cup and dumped two sugars into the mix. “What is it you’ve lost, then, Ebberling?” he asked, noting that the marquis sat squarely in the center of the comfortable chair, his weight balanced and not an ounce of slouch in his posture.
Considering that he’d once avoided being shot because he’d noticed that his dinner companion kept one leg around the side of his chair rather than on the floor in front of him, Nate took account of everything. And from what he could tell, the marquis had lost something valuable. Vital, even. And he wasn’t happy about going anywhere for assistance in locating it.
“What assurances do I have of your discretion, Westfall?” Lord Ebberling asked, ignoring the tea.
“I like finding things. The what and why of the task don’t actually concern me. And since I wish to continue in my hobby of finding things, I have no intention of betraying the confidence of anyone who hires me. Does that suffice?”
For another moment the marquis eyed him. “I suppose it will have to. Very well, then. Five years ago, my wife hired a young lady to serve as a governess to my son, George. Three years ago a very valuable diamond necklace vanished from my wife’s dressing table, along with the governess.”
“A stolen necklace,” Nate said with a nod. He was becoming a bit weary of hunting for misplaced jewelry, but London’s haut ton seemed to have very slippery fingers. “I think I can manage that.”
“That isn’t quite everything,” the marquis countered, sitting forward an inch or two. “The afternoon Miss Newbury disappeared, my wife was killed in a riding accident.” He cleared his throat. “Actually, the horse returned to the stable without Katherine, and everyone went searching for her. We found her in a ditch, her neck broken. It was only afterward I realized that Miss Newbury hadn’t been among the searchers. When I returned to the house, her things were gone, along with the necklace and the girl, herself.”
“So you think this Miss Newbury murdered Lady Ebberling?” Nate asked slowly, studying his client very carefully. Hands clenched, jaw tight, eyes lowered—anger. Deep anger that this governess had escaped without paying for her misdeeds.
“The physician said Katherine’s fall was possibly an accident. What I think is that something untoward occurred. Perhaps Katherine saw Miss Newbury with the gem, or … I don’t know. But if you can find the diamond necklace, then perhaps you will also have located Rachel Newbury. And I would pay three thousand pounds to recover one or the other.”
Four years ago, Nate’s annual salary from the Crown had been three hundred pounds. Today, as the Earl of Westfall, his annual income was somewhere in the realm of eight thousand pounds. In theory he would have offered all of it to find the killer of his wife, certainly. But he would hope that the man he hired wouldn’t accept it. “My lord, three thou—”
“And another five thousand pounds if you deliver her to me and allow me to contact the authorities.”
To Nate both that comment and the amount of blunt being offered spoke volumes. Ebberling wanted to find that woman very badly, and when he did, Miss Newbury would likely never reach the authorities. If Nathaniel meant to be squeamish, however, he’d missed his chance a very long time ago. And he knew quite well that women were perfectly capable of being vicious and murderous. In some ways they were deadlier than their male counterparts, because who would suspect them of such foul deeds?
Above—or below—the morality of it all, the prospect of hunting down someone who’d vanished into the shadows three years ago fascinated him. For God’s sake, he could use a damned challenge. He awoke some mornings with his mind feeling positively mossy.
“May I ask why you’ve decided to embark on this venture now?” he queried, settling his spectacles as he did when he wanted to look particularly unthreatening. “It has been three years, as you said.”
“I was patient for a very long time,” Ebberling replied, “waiting for Bow Street and the local magistrates to do their duty. But now I’ve made plans to remarry. The idea that the woman who may have had something to do with Katherine’s death—who stole from me and betrayed my trust—is still somewhere in the world perhaps waiting to do harm to me and mine again is intolerable. I won’t have that hanging over me any longer.”
It seemed as good an answer as any. “I’ll need whatever information you can provide me about this Rachel Newbury. Age, appearance, breeding, education, birthplace—any of it could be the key to discovering her whereabouts,” he said after a moment. “And that of the necklace, as well.”
Ebberling nodded. “My wife hired her, of course, but I do know her present age would be somewhere between twenty-three and twenty-five years. She was a tall chit, with an air about her, as if she thought herself just a bit more clever than everyone else. Brown eyes, yellow hair that seemed to want to curl every which way, though she always wore it in a perfect knot at the back of her head. Pretty enough, I suppose, and very proper. And I recall that she had a fondness for strawberries and liked to ride. And read. She always had a book in her hands.”
Standing, Nate walked over to the writing desk and pulled free a piece of paper. “I’m a fair hand at drawing,” he said, finding a pencil and taking a seat again. “I’ll make an attempt at sketching her if you’ll guide me through it.”
“Excellent,” the marquis returned, finally reaching for a teacup. “Rycott said you were the man for the job.”
The name startled him. “Rycott?” he repeated, facing his new client. “You’re acquainted with Jack?”
“You mean do I know you served Wellington as a spy?” Ebberling countered, filling his cup and then moving over to the writing desk. “I have my connections. I required someone who could successfully complete this task. Jack Rycott said that would be you. And I haven’t seen or heard anything from you to cause me to doubt his opinion.” He gestured at the paper. “An oval face, as I recall.”
“So Rycott simply told you I worked for Wellington?” Nate said, setting down the pencil and using every bit of willpower he owned to keep from dropping the marquis and permanently silencing the man before he could go about wagging his tongue to anyone else. “I doubt that.”
“Very well, he didn’t say it directly. In fact, he said he’d heard that the new Earl of Westfall liked to find lost cats. And then he said, ‘Why a man would go from lions to cats I have no idea, but there you have it. He’ll do you for the job. And then some.’ When I deduced the rest, he didn’t deny it.”
Now that sounded like Jack Rycott. “I won’t deny it either, then,” Nate said aloud, “though I will clarify that I consulted with Wellington during the war. There’s a large difference between tracking down a lion and going into a cage with one.” It sounded believable, anyway. “Cats—and females—are in my experience much more manageable.”
And given what the Marquis of Ebberling thought he knew, the sooner Nate could find this particular female and be done with it, the better. Then he could drive himself to Brighton and have a little chat with his former comrade and remind Colonel Rycott just how little he appreciated being gossiped about. Or mentioned at all, for that matter. He’d found and trapped and killed his share of lions. More than his share, according to the French. And now cats and females and the occasional piece of lost jewelry suited him just fine, thank you very much.
Once Ebberling was satisfied that the drawing accurately depicted Miss Rachel Newbury—or her image as of three years previously, anyway—the marquis handed over a hefty stack of blunt along with his address both in London and in Shropshire’s Ebberling Manor. Nate sat back and studied the pencil sketch. She was pretty, with that lifted-chin haughtiness Ebberling had described. In truth she could be anyone, residing anywhere in England. Given the supposition that she wouldn’t want to be found, however, he’d never encountered a better place to lose oneself than in the crowded streets of London.
A stranger in a small village would be noticed. People would ask questions. Rachel Newbury wouldn’t want to answer questions, and she wouldn’t want to be remembered. She would likely be employed in some quiet, nondescript occupation where she was unlikely to encounter anyone from her prior life—as a seamstress or a baker’s helper, a shopkeeper’s assistant or even an old lady’s companion.
Yellow-blond hair, brown eyes, haughty, and highly intelligent. Not much to begin with. But he’d found people in Europe in the middle of a war. That had been a matter of life and death, of security for England. This would be fun.
The moment Lord Ebberling left the house, Nathaniel summoned his valet. “Franks, retrieve my saddlebag from the attic, will you? I’ve a bit of traveling to do.”
The valet wrinkled his long nose. “My lord? How long will you be gone? I can’t possibly pack such a small bag with adequate garb and your toiletries. Allow me to fetch you a proper valise.”
“A valise won’t fit on my saddle,” Nathaniel returned, the stifling robes of earldom beginning to close on him again, not that they’d ever fit well. For Christ’s sake, until two years ago he’d practically lived out of a saddlebag, acquiring additional things as necessary and discarding them once they were no longer needed. Evidently an aristocrat didn’t pilfer shirts from clotheslines, however.
“Please reconsider, my lord. Wherever it is you’re going, you will have need of pressed shirts and starched cravats. You—”
“Very well.” Cursing under his breath, Nathaniel motioned the servant toward the door. “One small valise. And tell Garvey I’ll be taking the phaeton. To Shropshire and its environs, since I’m evidently to inform people of my comings and goings now.”
From his expression, Franks didn’t quite know how to respond to that, but Nate wasn’t in the mood to explain himself. He’d done his duty by the Crown, and now he did his duty to his family by taking the title his cousin Gerard had vacated after falling from a boat in the Lake District. What grated was the remaining wish to do something for himself, something that he wished to do for his own curiosity and interest. At the moment, that was riding—no, driving now—to Shropshire and the neighboring villages to look for a trace of Miss Rachel Newbury. And by God, he meant to find her.
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