Ethan deBeau, Viscount Danforth, hated being a drunkard.
The occupation enjoyed none of the creature comforts to which he was accustomed. Indeed, for the past hour, he had been forced to lounge on the hard ground, propped against a gnarled tree, in too-tight clothes that reeked of unwashed flesh and stale liquor. And if that weren’t enough, his surveillance position was directly above a rather active anthill.
Once Lord Somerton appointed him Chief of the Nexus, he would never again have to fend off insects, sit on the ground, or seduce secrets from unsuspecting women.
Of course, not being in the field meant long hours behind a desk, reading mounds of reports, and attending meeting after meeting. He wasn’t sure which would be worse—the ants or the paperwork.
One niggling thought caused his pulse to jump. Who was his competition? The Nexus was so shrouded in secrecy that one secret service agent could be dancing with another and not even know it.
He knew the identities of only two agents—his sister Cora deBeau and best friend Guy Trevelyan. Others he suspected, but it wasn’t as though he could insert the question into a conversation.
What would he say? Hello, I’m an agent with the Nexus. Are you?
A larger, more inquisitive ant took advantage of Ethan’s moment of inattention to race up his inner thigh, heading straight for his groin. He flicked it off, the movement jarring his too-large pilfered hat, so that it now blocked his view of the boys’ home.
With the jerky movement of the inebriated, he swiped his hand across his forehead and pushed it back into position. Just in time to see a child emerge from the lower-level servant’s entrance of the Abbingale Home for Displaced and Gifted Boys, also known as the Home or Abbingale. The boy, perhaps seven or eight years old, scrambled up the stairs to street level, then took off.
Ethan raised a half-empty bottle of gin to his lips while he followed the boy’s zigzag progress down White Horse Lane. Once the child disappeared into the crowd, Ethan turned back to the boys’ home and continued to mentally catalog every rippling curtain, passing silhouette, and inquiring vendor. He noted anything and everything of possible interest and would sort through the morass tonight.
As soon as he understood Abbingale’s daily operation, he would make plans to penetrate the home, search for Giles Clarke, and extract the boy. He had never heard of the child until a sennight ago, when a dying Lydia Clarke had begged the Nexus to rescue her son. And so they would, even though settling domestic issues was not one of the agency’s objectives.
The Nexus’s main purpose was more far-reaching. Some would say more important than saving a single child.
Operating under the auspice of the Alien Office, a little-known section of the Foreign Office, Nexus secret service agents worked tirelessly to prevent Napoleon Bonaparte from breaching England’s shores.
For now, he would see to the boy’s safety—assuming he was inside Abbingale—then turn his attention to discovering why a murdered Nexus agent would mention Abbingale Home in his last coded messages.
A black carriage, with a driver in front and two footmen hanging onto the back, rolled to a halt outside the boys’ home. Ethan’s senses perked up, even while his body slouched farther into its uncomfortable pose.
The footmen jumped down, one running to help his employer alight and the other to rap on the Home’s door.
Through the carriage window, he glimpsed two feminine profiles before their shadowy figures slipped out of sight. They reappeared a few seconds later, ascending the front steps. The women were opposites in every way.
One stood several inches above the other, with dark hair, square shoulders, and clothes stylish enough to grace any ton drawing room, while the shorter blond wore more sedate clothing and clutched a notebook to her chest.
The entrance door swung open, and the women strode inside.
His interest shifted to the bewigged footmen, who appeared, from this distance, to be a perfectly matched pair. Handsome, too. Bravo, he thought.
Accomplishing such a difficult feat assured their mistress a place of envy amongst the hostesses of her set. Why the wealthy put so much stock into something of so little consequence, he didn’t know. But then again, he had once spent an entire sennight searching for a matching pair of bays to complement his new phaeton.
When the footmen put their heads together in conversation, Ethan slung his knapsack over his shoulder and rolled to his feet. He drew hard on his gin bottle before toddling across the cobbles toward them in an uneven line. The more clean-shaven of the two footmen noticed his approach and eyed him like one would a rabid animal.
Ethan stubbed his toe on a nonexistent stone, making a big show of catching his balance. “Damn me, who put that there?” He glanced around while grumbling to himself and scratching the back of his head.
The eagle-eyed footman finally decided Ethan posed no threat and rejoined his companion. After a couple more tottering steps, he came within hearing distance.
“My bones hurt,” the stubble-faced footman said.
His partner sent him a sharp glance. “How long?”
“Not quite sure,” stubble man said. “You know how it is.”
“Make a guess.”
“No need to get testy, Mac. The pain started gradual-like. Sometimes it’s there for a while before my brain registers the discomfort.”
Eagle-eyed Mac sighed. “When did you first notice your bones, Mick?”
“When we were leaving the agency.”
Mac glanced up at the Abbingale’s facade. “You should have told me before now, dammit.”
Ethan veered around the two men and stumbled up onto the foot pavement, belting back a drink and swaying to the side.
“What?” Mick asked. “You think you could have stopped her?”
“That’s not the point. I could have warned her to stay alert.”
“Do you even realize what you’re saying? Have you ever known Miss Hunt—”
“Right.” Mick glanced around. “Have you ever known her to go into a situation with blinders on? Get your head out of your heart, brother.”
“My head is exactly where it needs to be,” Mac said in a lethal tone. “As will be my fist, if you don’t shut your trap.”
“There’s nothing that can come of it. You’d be better off paying more attention to the looks Amelia keeps giving you.”
“Amelia, is it?”
Mick’s mouth curled into a roguish smile. “Since you seem inclined to let another snap her up, I decided it should be me. I’ve become quite friendly with the wee assistant. Sweet thing.”
Mac stepped forward. “Keep your filthy hands off Mrs. Cartwright.”
“You can’t have them both.”
Hoping the footmen would continue their conversation, Ethan plopped down on Abbingale’s steps and curled up into a nap-worthy ball. His new position shook things up a bit, causing him to burp loudly. Gin fumes stung his nostrils.
The two brothers on the verge of a nice bout of fisticuffs turned to him. Both had the same rugged features highlighted by the lightest blue eyes he’d ever seen. They were indeed perfectly matched.
“Here now.” Mick grabbed his arm. “You can’t bed down there.”
He knocked the other man’s hand away. “I’ll cut ye heart out if ye try to steal me medicine again.”
“Medicine.” Mac snorted in disgust. “We don’t want your damned gin.” He moved to the other side.
Strong hands clasped him by his upper arms and yanked him into a standing position.
“Good God, man,” Mick said. “Are you drinking your spirits or bathing in them?”
“Let me go, ye bleeders. Ye got no cause to send me on me way.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Mac said.
“Can’t have you blocking our mistress’s way when she comes out,” Mick said. “Besides, don’t want you scaring any of the children.”
They half-dragged, half-carried him several feet away before propping him up against the building next door.
“Too fine a lady to walk around?” he mumbled, checking to make sure he still had his knapsack.
“The very finest,” Mac said.
Mick tugged on his coat at various places, presumably to make him more presentable. “Sober up first, my friend,” he said with a pat to Ethan’s shoulder.
He frowned, not understanding the footman’s advice. “First for what?”
But the stubble-faced footman only winked at him before they resumed their positions near the carriage.
Beneath the rim of his hat, he studied the twins, marveling at their firm, yet respectful care of him. They obviously held their mistress—Miss Hunt—in high regard. Every time they spoke of her, their voices took on a reverent tone.
Abbingale’s entrance door opened, and the estimable Miss Hunt and her assistant swept through the opening.
Halfway down the steps, Miss Hunt gave her footmen a hard shake of her pretty head. The action struck a discordant note with him, but he was at a loss as to say why.
From his new vantage point, he affirmed his earlier assessment of the lady and developed some new ones.
High cheekbones, black eyebrows above emerald eyes, and a strong, yet feminine jawline made her an intriguing contrast to many of England’s delicate, oval-faced beauties. The high-necked gown and pelisse did nothing to obscure the elegant quality of her statuesque frame. She not only walked with a confident stride, she held a man’s eye with no timidity.
Like she was doing with him right now.
Recognition struck him hard in the chest. His path had crossed with hers once before. But where? The answer danced just out of range, then disappeared altogether.
The woman raised a brow, and he realized he’d been staring. Cursing beneath his breath, he blinked owlishly. “Ye gents didn’t tell me yer lady was so buxom. I wouldn’t have been so easily removed.” He produced a belch for good measure.
She slashed another glance at her eagle-eyed footman, who shrugged his shoulders. “Come along, Mrs. Cartwright.”
The assistant nodded, and the women started down the steps.
“Mrs. Henshaw, your gloves.” An older woman emerged from Abbingale’s entrance door, holding out a pair of kidskin gloves to…Miss Hunt.
His gaze sharpened as Miss Hunt’s hard features transformed into a vapid expression he’d seen a hundred times in ballrooms across London.
“Oh, dear me,” Miss Hunt tittered. “I would have been quite distraught without my favorite pair of kids.”
He cast a brief glance to the footmen standing at the bottom of the steps. Mac’s stony expression revealed nothing, as usual; however, his brother seemed to be holding back a smile.
“Thank you.” Miss Hunt’s assistant accepted the gloves from the older woman and handed them to her mistress.
Miss Hunt clasped her kids to her chest and flashed a brilliant smile at the older woman. “Good day, Mrs. Drummond. I shall return soon.”
Twirling about, Miss Hunt led the way to the carriage. Once the women were settled inside, Mac secured the steps and closed the door. Within seconds, the carriage lurched forward and the footmen jumped onto the rear.
As they passed, Mick gave Ethan a jaunty salute.
Ethan swiped his nose.
The footman laughed.
After following the carriage’s progress for a while, he glanced back at the Home. What he saw there surprised him. The older woman—Mrs. Drummond—watched Miss Hunt’s conveyance roll away with something akin to hatred sparkling in her eyes.
What was going on?
A footman in love with two women, a well-dressed lady whose business at the boys’ home upset the staff? A lady who also answered to two different names? What did her footmen need to warn her about?
Any other mission, he would dismiss the incident and refocus on his original assignment. But his ultimate target was more than likely linked to this place, which meant he had to follow every possible trail. Besides, he wanted to know where he’d come across Miss Hunt before.
Something about her features had sparked an air of familiarity, one he was compelled to connect with again.
He turned to gauge the carriage’s location and cringed at how far it had traveled. Time to go. He would return to Abbingale tomorrow.
Careful not to break his cover, he took another drink of his gin and got to his feet, readjusting his knapsack over his shoulder. The older woman’s malevolent gaze shot to his location, and he raised his near-empty bottle in her direction.
The woman squared her shoulders and sniffed the air as if she’d caught scent of something offensive before pivoting to reenter the boys’ home. She shut the door with ominous finality.
Feeling a sense of urgency now, he wove his way down the foot pavement, stopping occasionally to scratch an inappropriate area or to cough up a disturbing amount of phlegm. A few minutes later, he straightened his spine, tossed his bottle in a bush, and laid his tattered coat across a bedraggled woman curled up beneath a lamppost.
He quickened his step. When Miss Hunt’s carriage turned a corner, he changed his stride to a full-out run.
His hat flew off, and he tightened his grip on his knapsack’s strap. Rounding the corner, he came to an abrupt and jarring halt. Miss Hunt’s carriage sat idle in the lane, waiting for traffic to clear.
He searched for a doorway, a cart, a building, anything large enough to hide his big frame. He started for a nearby alleyway when the sound of his name stopped him cold.
“Danforth,” an incredulous voice said, “is that you, old boy?”
Equal parts relieved and frustrated, he considered ignoring the Marquess of Shevington. The gentleman’s slurred words were a testament to too much drink and not enough sleep. Knowing Shev, he probably hadn’t slept at all and would likely not even recall hailing Ethan ten minutes from now.
He chanced a look at Miss Hunt’s conveyance, and found her footmen’s attention on the clog of carriages ahead and not the scene unfolding behind.
Decision made, he finger-combed his hair before facing the marquess’s squinting countenance.
“Good God, it is you,” the marquess said, hanging his head out the open carriage window. “What in blazes are you doing here, dressed like that?”
Striding forward, Ethan opened the carriage door and bounded inside. “Morning, Shev.” Instead of taking the open, back-facing seat, he squeezed in next to his old school chum. “Be a good man and tell your driver to follow the carriage with the green livery.”
The marquess dug out his handkerchief, flicked it open, and used it to cover his nose. “My word.” The linen muffled his words. “Someone must have tried to drown your aristocratic hide in a vat of Blue Ruin. Either that, or you’re harboring a dead animal upon your person.” He moved to sit on the opposite side of the carriage. “Tell me you did not leave the lush confines of Madame Rousseau’s last night for,” he waved a hand toward Ethan’s attire, “this.”
Ethan began digging items out of his knapsack and tossing them onto the bench next to his friend. “You had disappeared into the depths of the Pearl and Ruby Room, so I had to make my own way home.”
“You’re blaming me for your current dishabille?”
“In a word, yes.” Opening the door, he checked Miss Hunt’s location and gave Shev’s driver instructions to follow. Before sitting back, he drew the window curtain closed, leaving a small opening.
“Are you absconding with my carriage?” Shev asked, sounding more intrigued than put out.
The vehicle lurched into motion. “For a little while.”
He and the marquess had been in each other’s pockets since before either could speak an intelligible word. Shev knew nothing of his life with the Nexus, and Ethan went to great pains to keep it that way. Even though Shev had come across his friend in some odd situations—such as now—the marquess always seemed content with his less-than-descriptive explanations.
Lifting the tail end of his shirtsleeve, Ethan ripped off the foul-smelling coarse garment and rubbed his hands over his chafed skin.
“What, may I ask, are you doing?” Shev drawled.
He grabbed a clean shirt from the stash of clothes he’d pulled from his knapsack. “Your eyesight can’t be that bad, old man.” Soft linen cascaded over his bare torso, soothing his abraded flesh. He began working on the fastenings of his filthy breeches.
“Really, Danforth, must you do that now?” The marquess peeled back the curtain to peer outside. “What if we’re set upon by highwaymen and they thrust open the door to find you in your smalls? Do you know what that will do to my reputation and my chances of continuing on with my dissolute existence?”
Ethan pushed his breeches down and removed his stockings. “Have you always had such dramatic inclinations?”
The marquess sniffed and turned away from the window. “Protecting one’s reputation is a constant struggle.”
“You must be very busy.” He drew on fresh stockings.
“I suppose if I ask about your activities, you’ll tell me to get buggered.”
“You suppose correctly.”
“Why do I bother being your friend if everything is a secret?”
“Because of my charming wit?”
Shev snorted. “Please alert me when either your charm or your wit appears. I’d like to make a note of the occasion.”
“Continue along this same vein, and I’ll be forced to remove my smalls, too.”
“Good God, Danforth.” Shev leaned away. “No need to threaten me with blindness.”
Ethan sent his friend a quelling glance while he jabbed his feet into his breeches, arched off the bench enough to draw his buckskins about his waist, and fastened the front placard.
He tackled his neckcloth, tying it into a simple knot, before pulling on a buff-colored waistcoat shot with silver thread. His exertions left a fine line of moisture along his hairline, which he used to help bring some order to his tousled hair.
Spreading his arms wide, he asked, “How do I look?”
The marquess appraised his appearance with a discerning eye. “Like a degenerate viscount?”
The carriage jolted to a halt, and a liveried footman approached the window. “What would you like the coachman to do, my lord? The carriage stopped outside Fifty-seven Mansell.”
Shev sent Ethan a this-is-your-adventure-not-mine look.
He said, “Drive by slowly, but not so slow as to draw attention.”
Seconds later, the slap of reins and the jangle of tack reached Ethan’s ears before the carriage rolled forward at a sedate pace. Anticipation curled around his insides, gliding over each organ with aching slowness, squeezing gently, inexorably.
Number 57 stood at the edge of a long row of town houses. The building’s edifice looked as though it had received special care in the last few years, with new windows and a refurbished limestone portico supported by Ionic pillars. Flowers flourished in tall earthenware urns placed on each side of the entrance.
Above the door swung a sign. He squinted to make out the words.
“Hunt Agency,” Shev said near his ear before plopping back in his seat. “Charming. Are you going to finally hire a valet instead of depending on your poor butler for such duties?”
Once they had passed, he sat back. “You’re familiar with the agency?”
“Most households are.” Shev sent him a pointed look. “It’s only the most prominent staffing agency in London. Operated by the iron will and hand of Miss Sydney Hunt. I’m sure your housekeeper can provide more detail.” His eyes narrowed. “What is your interest in the proprietress of the Hunt Agency?”
“Curiosity, nothing more.”
The marquess released a long sigh. “There’s always something more with you, Danforth. Are you quite finished with your clandestine activities? I need to be rid of you, so that I might go home and sleep the day away.” He glanced out the carriage window, his head tilted in a way to suggest he was noting the blue sky and bright sunshine. “It’s far too cheerful-looking for one of my disposition.”
Chuckling, he said, “I don’t recall you being so querulous in the morning.”
“And I don’t recall ever having my carriage and person seized before.”
“I’m glad to be your first.” He draped an arm over the back of the seat, propped a booted foot next to the marquess, and waved his hand in the air. “You may proceed in getting rid of me.”
He thought his friend mumbled “Thank God” beneath his breath before barking out orders to his driver.
Would Miss Hunt complicate his mission to find Giles Clarke? Why was she poking around his boys’ home, using an alias and acting the featherbrain? Once he figured out their prior connection, he would coax the answers to his questions from the lovely Miss Hunt. Of this, he had no doubt. Because that’s what the Nexus paid him to do.
Seduce information from the most beautiful women in the world.
Anticipation unfurled in his chest, the sensation shocking due to its scarcity. How long had it been since he’d looked forward to such an assignment?
He rubbed his palm over his tight chest, over his thundering heart.
The corners of his mouth lifted into a predatory smile.