"Stop gawking about, Kit. We're nearly there." Stewart Brantley turned to give his daughter a half-annoyed glance and resettled his drenched beaver hat lower over his eyes as they hurried along the wet street in the darkness.
Curious as she was to view the sights, Christine Brantley had no objection to staying close behind her father as he hesitated and then turned north along a wide avenue lit by gas lamps and occasional flashes of lightning. It had been a long time since she had last set foot in London, and what landmarks she remembered were obscured by the night and by the rain that had been falling since they had left the ship at Dover. "I'm not gawking," she returned, the chatter of her teeth touching her voice. "I'm freezing."
"I didn't want to take the hack into Mayfair," Stewart Brantley returned. "Asking to be driven to Park Lane at this hour would--"
"--would bring us attention we don't want," she finished. Rain stung her cheeks, and she reached up to wipe a gloved hand across her face. "Do you truly think your Earl of Everton will see us?"
Her father glanced back again. "He owes me a large debt. He'll see us."
"I hope so," Kit replied, as thunder rumbled over the rooftops of England's wealthiest nobility. "I'd hate to think you dragged us out of Paris for nothing."
"I wouldn't have either of us here if I didn't have a damned good reason."
She sniffed, then grimaced, hoping she wasn't catching a cold. "I know." As much as her father detested England and the English, his being willingly back in London pointed to just how highly he rated the importance of this journey. It was for their lives, he had said, and she hadn't doubted him.
"And you also know what you're to do here," he added.
"I do." She paused, then had to hurry to catch up when he continued on without her. "But I don't like being a spy."
"You're not being a spy, Kit," he said shortly, what was left of his limited patience apparently leeched out of his bones by the downpour. "Fouché will have my head -- our heads -- if the damned English stop another of his shipments. All you have to do is tell me which bastard is working against us so I can bribe him off or outmaneuver him. That's not spying. It's . . ." He hesitated, then gave a short grin that didn't reach his green eyes. "It's good business. And no harm will come of it, except that more blunt will end up in our pockets." He looked ahead at a huge white mansion which dominated one side of the lane. "I trust that is acceptable to you?"
"Yes." She swallowed the dismay that ran through her as they stepped past the mansion's open gates and entered the short drive. The Earl of Everton's town house was massive even by London standards, the largest and most grand she'd seen since they had left the hack at Piccadilly and entered gilded Mayfair. "Of course it is."
Despite her heavy, caped greatcoat, Christine was soaked to her bones, and she shivered with cold and tension between the elegant, carved marble columns rising from the front portico of Cale House. If the place had been less magnificent she would have felt easier about what lay ahead, and about the part she was to play. All she could do in the face of such grandeur was hope that everything would go as easily as Stewart Brantley declared it would.
Her father tapped the heavy brass knocker against the door. The sound echoed into the bowels of the mansion for a long moment, and then died out into the rain and wind with no response.
Stewart Brantley frowned, then rapped again, louder. "I don't understand," he muttered. "Philip has always opened Cale House during the Season. He'd never be at Everton with Parliament in session."
Kit shrugged to disguise her relief. This was no petty pickpocketing or an evening's cheating at hazard that her father expected of her. "It is rather late, Pa--"
The door opened on silent, well-oiled hinges. The man standing in the entryway had donned the coat of a butler, though his baleful glare was made somewhat less impressive by the nightshirt and wool slippers he wore beneath the splendid garment. "Yes?" he demanded.
"I am here to see Lord Everton," her father returned, as if it were the most ordinary occurrence in the world for callers to come banging at the door in the middle of the night.
The butler did not appear to be impressed by his composure. "Lord Everton is to bed."
"Then wake him and inform him that Stewart Brantley is here and urgently wishes to speak with him."
"I don't believe that is sufficient rea--"
"Tell him it regards the payment of an old debt." Her father folded his gloved hands behind his back, the only outward sign he gave that he was less than utterly calm.
The butler's eyes narrowed. "Oh." He sniffed distastefully, then motioned them into the hallway. "Wait here." Without so much as offering to take their wet things, he turned and disappeared up the stairs that curved along the wall to the right of the entryway.
A moment later the sound of muffled, angry shouting echoed upstairs, closely followed by a door slamming. The butler reappeared and with an even deeper scowl indicated that they should follow him up to the drawing room. Her father shrugged and motioned Kit to precede him up the curved staircase. With most of the lights put out for the night there was little to see but darkened space on the ground floor, despite Kit's subtle efforts to look about. The place, though, had the smell of wealth, with real beeswax candles in the few lamps still lit along the hallway, and not the stench of a cheap tallow candle anywhere.
The grandfather clock on the landing boasted both a second hand and a half-circular cutout showing the current phase of the moon, and it chimed a beautifully-toned quarter hour as they passed by. At the top of the stairs the scent of an expensive woman's perfume, sweet and faintly French, touched the still air.
The drawing room in which the butler deposited them bespoke tasteful wealth, as well. Gold leafing decorated the engraved cornice running along the top of the walls, and an elegant Persian rug covered the center of the floor, while small leaded-crystal paperweights decorated the mantel, and a Chinese vase with delicate blue flowers painted across its surface sat carefully in the center of the occasional table. Despite the impressive trinkets, though, Christine was happier to see the glowing embers from a nearly dead fire in the hearth, and she pulled off her gloves as she stepped forward to hold her hands out gratefully to the fading warmth.
Stewart Brantley had stopped in the middle of the room to examine the portrait above the mantel, and after a moment she looked up at it, as well. A gentleman gazed down at her, dark hair faintly edging into gray at his temples. A faint smile touched his lean face, and he was quite handsome. His most striking feature, though, was his eyes. They were penetrating, almost mesmerizing, and the shade of blue was far too deep to be authentic. The artist must have taken some liberties with his palette. "Lord Everton, I presume?" she queried, studying the face of Philip Cale, the man they'd come all this way to see.
The word was spoken by an unfamiliar male voice, and with a faint start Christine turned around.
The room's third occupant stood just inside the doorway, one hand still on the polished brass handle, though she hadn't heard the door open. Slowly she drew in a breath. He was a good decade younger than the figure in the portrait, lean and tall, clad in rolled-up shirt sleeves and black breeches, the open neck of his shirt and slightly tousled dark hair the only signs that he had dressed quickly. His eyes, likewise, were wide awake and intently curious, the shade a piercing dark blue at least as penetrating as the gaze of the man in the painting. He was not at all poutingly pretty in the current French fad, but rather was astoundingly handsome, and utterly and unmistakably masculine. Unable to help herself, Kit took him in, from head to toe and back again.
"I believe there has been a misunderstanding," her father offered with a slight frown. "I need to speak with the Earl of Everton."
"I'm Everton." The eyes coolly assessed her father's wet attire. "And you are Stewart Brantley."
Her father's scowl deepened, then cleared. "Alexander Cale," he murmured, a hint of something Kit couldn't quite read in his voice. "I should have realized." He glanced up at the painting. "What happened to your father?"
"My father died four years ago." The other examined his nails, then looked up again. "I can direct you to Westminster Abbey, if you'd care to consult with his remains."
"You're the Earl of Everton?" Kit broke in, willing it to be some sort of misunderstanding. An unexpected shiver ran through her as his eyes and the aggressive intelligence behind them flicked in her direction. She felt electrified, like the storm outside. This would be trouble. This was no old man to be easily fooled.
The eyes took in her wet form with a thoroughness and an intensity she was unused to, and it was with difficulty that she kept her own gaze steadily on his face, on the high cheekbones and faintly arched eyebrows and the sensuous, cynical mouth. "I am," he said after a moment. "Also Alexander, Baron Cale, and Viscount Charing."
Her father cleared his throat, and the eyes left hers as the earl stepped farther into the room and shut the door. She took a breath, resisting the ridiculous urge to sag.
"You've grown up well," her father commented, in as close to a compliment as she'd ever heard him hand an Englishman. "I haven't set eyes on you since you were--"
"Nine, I believe," Everton supplied. For the first time a hint of humor touched his sardonic lips. "As I recall, you informed me that I should have a sterling career as a soldier-for-hire or a pirate once my father cut me off."
Stewart Brantley grimaced. "You were a rather . . . wild youngster."
"I've not changed much." Alexander Cale shrugged, dismissing her father's apology. Abruptly he was looking at her again. "And who might you be, boy?"
"Kit," she answered, feeling cold and awkward in her wet attire and wishing she could give into her desire to turn and run from the room before it was too late.
Lord Everton continued to gaze at her. Again she was certain he would discover her secret, though there was no real reason to believe so. The disguise she wore had years ago become effortless, and she could fool anyone with it until she chose to let them know otherwise. And she had no intention of enlightening any arrogant English lord.
Her father gestured at her. "Everton, my son."
"Mr. Brantley," the Earl of Everton acknowledged after a moment, inclining his head. The eyes remained alert, but she suspected that it was more because of their presence than a question over her gender.
"Everton," she acknowledged, meeting his gaze. He was likely a cutthroat card player, she thought abruptly, for she hadn't a clue about what might lay behind those sharp azure eyes.
The earl looked at her for another moment, then stepped forward to throw more wood onto the fire. "I would assume you both to be rather chilled this evening," he commented, straightening and gesturing for her to remove her greatcoat.
She looked up at him, standing only a few feet away. She was tall for her sex, and was very aware that he must be several inches above six feet to tower over her so . . . effectively. Uneasy at the idea of baring more of herself to his gaze, she reluctantly shrugged out of the wet garment. He took a step back to run his eyes down her wardrobe, and she couldn't help the flush that warmed her cheeks or the shiver that ran down her spine. "You dislike my attire, Everton?" she offered, scowling as much at her reaction as at the earl's presumption.
"French rags," he stated, turning to take her father's hat and coat and drape them over the back of one of the overstuffed chairs. He sank onto the couch, then gestured for her and her father to be seated. "Forgive my directness, Brantley, but I confess to a certain curiosity as to how you require me to pay my father's debt to you." Everton tilted his head. "Enough blunt to regain your footing in England, perhaps?"
"My lord," her father said stiffly, the annoyed look coming to his face again, "I do not require money. And I believe your father would agree that blunt would hardly be an appropriate repayment for this particular debt."
"You presume to know my father's mind. Quite impressive, for I did only rarely." Everton straightened from his relaxed slouch. "But do enlighten me."
"I saved you from drowning, my lord."
"Yes, twenty years ago. So I've been informed, though I confess to having little memory of the event."
"Surely your father told you I might be by one day and ask a favor," Stewart Brantley said, his voice and expression affronted. "I believe he took his word of honor quite seriously."
"Actually," Lord Everton said, sitting back again and stretching one arm carelessly along the back of the couch, "I rather believe he thought you were dead. It has been twenty years, after all." He gave a brief, unamused smile. "As, however, you appear to be still among the living, I will ask you once more what your request might be."
Stewart cleared his throat. "Very well," he returned. "My son is now of an age where he is expected to do his civic duty, along with other young men of his age and circumstance. With the current state of unrest in France--"
"Yes, that's right, Bonaparte has escaped Elba, hasn't he?" the earl noted, as though the return of the monster to Europe lacked significance. To his sort, it probably did.
"Yes. And I have begun to fear that Kit will be drafted into his army. France may be our home, but I will not have him die for that madman."
"I see," Everton said more quietly, looking in her direction again.
"I had therefore hoped to impose on your father, and now you, to look after him for a short time, until the situation returns to a more . . . even keel. Through the end of the month, anyway. By then I can make other arrangements."
"That's less than I thought you would ask, Brantley, I have to admit."
The earl turned his gaze on his hands, his lips thoughtfully pursed. Fleetingly Kit wondered if he realized how very attractive that expression made him look. His eyes flicked over at her again, as though he was trying to read something in her face, and she quickly looked away.
"I am curious," Everton commented, turning back to her father. "You are not without relations here, if memory serves. Your brother is the Duke of Furth, is he not? Why not let him wetnurse the boy?"
Her father paled, for the first time looking truly angry. "Never," he hissed.
"I don't need a wetnurse," Kit cut in. "I can take care of myself. And if he won't aid us, then we don't need him, Father." At the least they could find someone else for her to stay with in London. Someone who didn't have eyes as piercing as Alexander Cale's.
"I'm afraid we do need him, Kit." Choosing to otherwise ignore her protest, Stewart looked at Everton. "Do you wish me to beg you to honor your debt, my lord?"
The earl looked from one to the other of them again, then shook his head and let out a breath. "I suppose not." He grimaced. "But I don't have time to coddle the boy," he said, still hedging. "I have some rather pressing duties and obligations of my own."
"I don't ask you to go out of your way for him." Stewart looked at Kit for a moment. "Anything other than keeping him here safely is of course unnecessary. And as I said, it will only be till the end of the month. God willing, this madness will be over by then, anyway."
The eyes turned to her again, though she couldn't read the expression there. "God willing," Alexander Cale repeated, then stood. "Very well. I'll show you both to rooms."
Stewart Brantley gave a relieved sigh. "Thank you, Everton."
The earl shook his head. "As you said, a debt is a debt. But this will make us even. My father's obligation to you is hereby settled."
It seemed as much a threat as an insult, and her father's jaw clenched before he nodded. "That is all I ask."
The bedchamber the earl showed her to before he retired again for the night was splendid. Gold and peach wall hangings framed each of the two windows, and nearly a dozen pillows were piled at the head of the soft, quilt-covered bed. It made her cot in their appartements in Saint-Marcel in Paris look quite shabby. She ran her finger along the quilt, touching the soft, cool texture with some relish. With a regretful look at the warm blankets, she sat at the dressing table to wait. Everton had given in, when she had nearly been convinced that he would not. And his surprise capitulation left her even less at ease than had his bald suspicion.
Half an hour later the chamber door opened, and she turned. "What now, Father?" she asked softly, as he slipped inside.
He chuckled. "That was easier than I expected."
Kit didn't agree. "He nearly turned us out."
She took a breath, reluctant to argue with him. "Do you think I can convince him to introduce me about town?"
Stewart Brantley gave a brief smile. "My dear, your powers of persuasion are unmatched. And young Alexander's contemporaries would be more likely to be involved in government trickeries than his father's, anyway. This could not have worked out better if I'd planned it."
"You did plan it, didn't you, Father?" she returned, still unsettled and unable to resist needling him out of his self-confidence. "Except for Philip Cale's being dead for four years."
He glared at her. "Don't be insolent, girl. You let me know which of these damned blue bloods is interfering with us, and we'll teach him a little lesson."
"Do you think it could be him?" Kit whispered, gesturing at the mansion surrounding them.
Her father squinted one eye, then shrugged. "From what I hear, he's always been wild and a bit ramshackle. Hardly the sort old King George, unless he was having one of his mad fits, would have chosen to help uphold the proper British way of life." He grinned. "Be glad he thinks you a boy. From what I hear, it takes women, drink, or gambling to catch Alex Cale's interest. But be careful around him, just the same, until you're certain."
She would be careful around him, anyway. "I will."
He nodded. "I'd best be off, then, in case he changes his mind after a night's sleep. You remember where to meet me if you have news?" When she nodded, Stewart leaned closer. "You can do this. I need you to do this. For both our sakes."
She took a breath, unable to resist balking one last time. "You're certain Fouché can't be put off?"
"I've told you, the greater the risk, the greater the profit. We'll get his shipment through, and we'll all be happy and wealthy."
"It would be easier if I knew what we were shipping for him."
"Best that you don't," he answered, as he had every time she'd asked.
"This is not for vegetables and blankets," she stated, to see how he would react.
He didn't. "I'll see you in a few days. Trust your father, child."
"I always have."
He started for the door, then glanced over his shoulder at her and gave her a quick grin. "Good girl."
Christine watched him leave, then sat on the edge of the fine bed and slowly shed her damp clothes. For only a fortnight, she could do this. She could meet the Earl of Everton's precious blue-blooded cronies, and find out which of them had strayed from his regular duties and decided to begin interfering with their affairs of commerce, just when the Comte de Fouché had offered her father a partnership too lucrative to resist. Everton might have beautiful eyes and a devilishly handsome face, but she could fool him for a fortnight, just as she fooled everyone else. And these English would never know how Stewart Brantley had managed to slip through their fingers again. Not until it was too late and she and her father were long gone.
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