“Press your back against the building, Giles, and stay out of sight.”
Once his son complied, William Townsend—Lord Latymer—tightened his grip on the knife he held and peered around the corner of the building. The front of the large Mayfair town house came into view. Deep shadows surrounded residence, transforming its redbrick facade into every shade of gray.
But Latymer didn’t need daylight to scent out a spy—each had their own special aroma. His years of overseeing the Alien Office, a little-known division of the Foreign Office, had given him the necessary tools to smell the Nexus agent long before he spotted him.
Soft lamplight fell upon a young, blond-haired man slumped against a tree. Everything about him—frayed breeches, overlarge coat, and askew hat—foretold of desperate times, of countless defeats, of lost dreams.
Everything except his eyes. His eyes searched, scanned, and assessed the area with a keenness that belied his low circumstances. Although Latymer couldn’t be certain from this distance, he guessed the spy served the Nexus, a secret service division of the Alien Office.
Doubtless he had been sent to watch over the powerful Undersuperintendent of the Alien Office—Sebastian Danvers, Earl of Somerton.
Latymer's former friend and colleague. The weight of all that he had lost pressed heavily on his chest, but he brutally shoved it away and continued to scan the area.
Even with the recent attempts on Somerton’s life, Latymer was somewhat shocked to find an agent guarding the spymaster. The earl knew a hundred different ways to kill a person and would chafe at the idea of using Nexus resources for his own benefit.
Perhaps the Ashcroft woman and her little girl had something to do with his old friend’s change of heart. Somerton would not bother with such protective measures for himself, but for the woman he loved . . .
The reason for the undercover spy’s presence outside Somerton House mattered little. Both the French and British authorities wanted Latymer dead. He had failed each government in very different ways, and now they both sought retribution. His sins would not go unpunished.
Eyeing the spy, he scraped the pad of his thumb over his knife, testing its sharpness. Not perfect, but it would do. The wonderful thing about human flesh was its pliability. Even the dullest steel could cut deep enough into a man’s throat to reach the killing artery, though it wouldn’t be swift or painless.
He glanced down and took in his nine-year-old son’s wary stance and the restless shift of his big green eyes. Lydia’s eyes. So much about Giles reminded Latymer of the boy’s mother—his shy smile, his mahogany-tinted hair, his intelligence.
Thoughts of his lover sent a bolt of pain straight into his gut, nearly doubling him over. If only he’d found Giles earlier, he could have saved Lydia from a French assassin’s blade, and the three of them would have been well on their way to a new future by now.
But he hadn’t, and now he must survive the guilt and grief and strength of two nations bearing down on him.
Bending his knees, Latymer slid down the rough stone wall until he was at eye level with Giles. His son clutched a cup and ball to his chest—a toy he’d refused to leave behind at the hellish orphanage when Latymer had rescued him from Abbingale Home for Displaced and Gifted Boys not but an hour ago. The subtle signs of his son’s distress caused his heart to constrict to the point of pain. He shoved emotion aside. He had to focus. He had to keep Giles safe and ignore all else.
Latymer lowered his voice. “This is Charles Street. A few houses from where we’re standing is a four-story redbrick home with a white door and the number thirty-five. Now repeat.”
From the moment Giles could speak in complete sentences, Latymer had played the “repeat” game with his son. Knowing the dangers of life in London, Latymer wanted to ensure his son was always keenly aware of his surroundings. Better to prepare than not. Now he was glad the game was proving its worth.
Shivering against the damp late-August evening, Giles cleared his throat. “Charles Street, four-story house, white door, number thirty-five.”
Latymer snaked an arm around his son, pulling the boy into his warmth. “Four-story redbrick home.”
“Four-story redbrick home.”
“Very good, Giles. In a few seconds, we’re going to emerge from our hiding place and stroll down the pavement as if it were three in the afternoon rather than bedtime. Your job is to memorize everything you see between here and there. Understood?”
His son started to nod, then changed his mind and shook his head.
Latymer strove for calm, but the passage of time wore on his every nerve. In two hours The Gladys would set sail—with or without them. They couldn’t afford to miss the ship, for the next one wouldn’t leave port for over month. Surviving another month with his enemies closing in would be virtually impossible.
“If something happens and we’re separated—”
“Keep your voice down,” Latymer said in a harsher tone than he’d intended.
Giles flinched, and Latymer’s jaw clenched at the small sign of his son’s fear.
“I will do everything within my power to keep us together. However”—his voice grew more serious—“the unexpected can happen, and I want to make sure you know where to go if ever you need help.”
“I won’t go back to that place,” Giles said with uncharacteristic defiance.
This time it was Latymer’s turn to flinch. The French had kidnapped and hidden Giles away, compelling Latymer to retrieve a list of Lord Somerton’s secret service agents. He had tried to make them understand that the spymaster wouldn’t even share the identities of his agents with his colleagues at the Alien Office much less jeopardize their safety by putting their names to paper.
But the French agents would not listen to reason. Nexus had done much to prevent Bonaparte from invading Britain’s shores, costing the emperor a good deal of time, money, and resources. Bonaparte wanted Nexus eradicated, and his followers desperately wanted to please their emperor.
Latymer knew there was only one way his family could survive the demands of the French and that was by removing the only leverage they had—Giles. He’d finally tracked down his son at Abbingale, where a French schoolmaster used the boys as political pawns. After they had served their initial purpose, the bastard sold the boys to generate more revenue for the emperor. Thinking about how close he’d come to losing Giles to such a fate made his stomach heave.
“No, you won’t go back to Abbingale,” Latymer assured him. “You’ll make your way to this safe house.”
“A place where no one will harm you. If we should get separated, you find your way here to thirty-five Charles Street, Somerton House. Lord Somerton is a friend.” Was a friend. “He will keep you safe until I can come for you. Now repeat.”
“Safe house. Thirty-five Charles Street. Somerton House.”
“Exactly right.” He squeezed his son’s side in approval, then stood. “Remember, Giles, you must memorize everything. Keep your chin up and your eyes sharp.”
“Follow me.” Latymer moved away from the protection of the building, listening for the telltale sound of his son’s footsteps behind. But there was no sound of shuffling feet or rustling clothing. Nothing but the silence of rebellion. “Giles,” he whispered urgently. “It’s time to go.”
His son shrank back.
Latymer frowned, not understanding the boy’s odd behavior. He scanned the area before moving closer. “Giles, we don’t have time for this.”
“What if you don’t come back for me?” Giles burst out. He rubbed the backs of his fingers under his chin in a gesture that was both anxious and angry. “What if Lord Somerton gets mad at me for talking? What if he sends me away and you can’t find me? What if he—? What if—” His voice broke off on a choked sob.
Latymer knelt down and grasped his son’s trembling shoulders. “Giles, I’m sorry about Abbingale. One day, when you’re older, I’ll explain what happened.”
“Why can’t you tell me now?”
“Because the explanation would take far longer than the few minutes we have.” Latymer cupped his hand around the side of his son’s neck. “Right now, what you need to know—no, what you must believe—is that if I could have rescued you from Abbingale sooner, I would have.” His grip tightened and his throat clenched. “I nearly ripped this city apart looking for you.”
Giles’s face crumbled, and Latymer pulled him into his arms. “Lord Somerton’s town house is nothing like Abbingale. I would never entrust your safety to just anyone. The earl is one of the most honorable men I know.”
His son nodded and buried his face into Latymer’s shoulder. “Can't we go home? Mama’s probably worried about me.”
For a terrible moment, Latymer couldn’t breathe. He’d known this moment would come, but he was still unprepared to deliver such devastating news. He eased Giles back. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
Desolation trembled in his son’s eyes. His small world was slowly, inextricably closing in on itself, and Latymer was about to knock down its final protective barrier.
He couldn’t do it.
Not here. Not now.
He would not sever his son’s last thread of hope. “Let us take this one step at a time. All right? First, we must familiarize you with the area around Lord Somerton’s residence. Then we’ll discuss your mama.”
Giles nodded, cradling his toy closer to his chest.
Coming out of the shadows, they strolled down Charles Street. Latymer rounded his square shoulders and added a slight limp to his step. Coarse, ill-fitting clothing and a tattered hat completed his disguise.
He kept his head bent toward Giles as they passed the spy, still propped up under the tree. He could feel the agent’s subtle but acute interest, though he made no move and remained for all the world like a man surviving difficult times. The fact that the young man did not solicit him for money further confirmed Latymer’s suspicions that he was, indeed, a spy.
Once they rounded the corner of Charles Street, Latymer flattened his body against a building and forced himself to wait ten seconds before checking the agent’s position. The spy no longer reclined against the tree.
Heart thundering, Latymer scanned the area swiftly. Movement on the opposite side of the street caught his attention. The agent now sat against the wrought-iron railing protecting the servants’ entrance of an adjacent town house, his eyes trained on an approaching carriage.
Latymer released a pent-up breath and turned away. The Alien Office’s recruits weren’t what they used to be. With a hand to his son’s back, he guided them south toward Green Park before turning toward the docks.
“Tell me what you observed,” he said.
Giles swallowed. “A white-and-tan dog slept near the front door of number thirty-nine.”
“What else?” Latymer increased their pace.
“Lord Somerton’s door knocker is shaped like an S.”
“Third town house to the west of Somerton’s—what color were the shutters?”
His son’s eyebrows scrunched together. “Red?”
“That’s right.” His son had always been good with details. “Did you notice anything unusual about the beggar sitting outside Somerton’s house?”
Giles shook his head.
“Think back to what you did and didn’t see.”
“I don’t want to play this game anymore.”
“We’re not playing a game.” Latymer paused at the intersection of Curzon Street and Half Moon Street. “What one thing about the beggar struck you as odd?”
His son shrugged.
Perhaps his son was getting tired. Or maybe he’d sustained too many shocks in the last several days. Whatever the reason, Giles had picked the worst time possible to challenge Latymer’s authority. Deepening his voice with as much menace as he could manage, he said, “I’m going to ask you only once more about the beggar. Think carefully about your answer, Giles.”
Several seconds ticked by while his son considered the consequences of further disobedience. Finally, Giles murmured, “He wore a large gold ring on his right hand.”
“Do you think a street beggar could afford such a luxury?”
“Only if he stole it.”
“True,” Latymer said approvingly. “But would he wear the valuable piece of jewelry while he slumbered on the pavement, or would he hide the piece in his pocket?”
“Probably in his pocket.”
“What do you think? Is our ragged man a beggar or not?”
Another shrug. “Maybe he’s not a very smart beggar.”
Latymer’s lips firmed. Patience. “Look around you, Giles. Learn this area before we move on.”
Walking quickly, he forced his son to memorize notable landmarks and unusual sightings, but his son’s continued reticence made their progress take far longer than he’d intended. When they finally reached the office building near the docks, Latymer’s nerves were stretched so taut he expected to hear them snap at any second.
Pausing outside one of the weathered doors, he pressed his ear to the wood panel and listened. Silence. Latymer inserted his key into the lock and turned until it clicked open.
“What is this place?” Giles asked, pressing his body into Latymer’s side.
He laid a reassuring hand on his son’s head. “Another safe place for us until it’s time to leave.”
“What about Mama?”
The vulnerability shining in his son’s eyes made the dangers Latymer faced pale in comparison. “Come inside.” He ushered Giles into the small office, locking the door behind them. The scent of days’-old neglect filled his nose, and the bite of damp air clung to the room.
To one side, a plain desk and cushioned chair faced the door, accompanied by two wooden guest chairs and a cabinet for files. A lamp, ink blotter, penholder, ledger, and a neat stack of papers adorned the desk. Anyone who entered this antechamber saw only what Latymer wanted them to see—a business establishment.
Crossing the room, he opened a connecting door and gestured for Giles to follow. In this chamber, the atmosphere was considerably more inviting.
Along the far wall, two leather high-back chairs flanked a small fire grate. A wardrobe and rectangular table stood against the adjacent wall—the latter held a drying cloth and a blue floral basin and matching pitcher. The most prominent feature in the room was a bed. Although not overly large or lavish, the bed’s plush pillows and expensive sheets revealed that the furniture’s importance went beyond a staged setting for curious visitors.
Off and on over the last month, Latymer had sought refuge from his enemies in these rooms while plotting his next move. The few who had seen him coming and going believed him to be a solicitor working on behalf of his employer, Mr. Dunhammer, who was the ostensible owner of the offices. Of course, if anyone had poked around too deeply, they would have discovered no such businessman existed.
“Sit here.” Latymer waved a hand toward one of the chairs, then bent to light a fire large enough to knock the chill out of the air. Taking his own seat, Latymer studied his son’s slumped shoulders and watchful, bloodshot eyes.
He needed sleep. They both did. Unfortunately, that particular luxury would not be available to either of them for several more hours.
Pulling out his timepiece, he examined the hands before shoving it back into his pocket. Five minutes. That’s all the time he had to break his son’s heart. “Giles, I wish I had more time to do this right, but I don’t.”
His son’s features flattened into an expressionless mask. The absence of emotion confused Latymer until he recalled where his son had spent the last month. Abbingale’s ruthless schoolmaster would not tolerate disobedience of any kind. Guilt once again gripped his chest.
“Your mother is not coming with us.”
“Why not?” Worry now blanketed his face.
The distance between them suddenly felt like miles of separation. “Come sit with me.” Latymer moved to the side, making room for his growing boy. He wasn’t sure if the arm he wrapped around Giles was for his son’s comfort or for his own. “She can’t come with us because she had an accident. Your mama”—he swallowed against the sudden ache in his throat—“your mama was killed by a runaway carriage.” Better a lie than the awful truth of her murder.
“No!” Giles shot up. “She’s not dead. She can’t be!”
“Shhh. Keep your voice down.”
Ignoring his command, Giles continued, “Monsieur LaRouche said that if I was good they wouldn’t hurt her. I was good, Papa. I swear I was good . . .” His eyes took on a faraway look, then widened. His face contorted into a look of horror, then tears flooded his green eyes. “No,” he choked out. “I didn’t mean to misbehave. I didn’t. Monsieur LaRouche said we couldn’t talk to visitors. He didn’t say we couldn’t look at them.”
Latymer knelt in front of his son. “Listen to me, Giles. You did not hurt your mother. Her death was an accident—nothing more.” One day, he promised himself, when this was all over, he would return to England and kill Abbingale’s schoolmaster with his bare hands.
Giles scrubbed the tears off his face. “How do you know?”
He cupped his hand behind Giles’s head, forcing his son to meet his unwavering gaze. “Because I was there. No one killed her because of your actions. An animal ran across the road, spooking the horses. The carriage overturned.”
Hope blossomed momentarily in Giles’s eyes.
“You did not hurt your mother. Repeat.”
Giles’s head dropped forward, hiding his face. Several seconds ticked by before he whispered, “I didn’t hurt Mama.”
Latymer kissed his son’s bent head. “That’s right.” He lingered for one, two, three heartbeats before standing. “There’s something I must do. I need you to stay here until I get back.”
Giles shook his head furiously. “I’ll come with you.”
“No, you won’t.” He adjusted the hidden sheath on his forearm that held his knife. From the depths of his wardrobe, he withdrew a sealed letter. He knew the contents by heart, had labored over each fragile word for hours. If all went well, the letter would remain sealed forever. If not, his son would learn that monsters do exist.
“Papa, don’t leave me here,” Giles pleaded.
Hardening his heart, Latymer secured the letter inside his coat pocket and strode into the outer chamber, stopping at the door. “When I leave, lock the door behind me. Then go into the bedchamber and lock the connecting door. When I return, it will be time to head to the ship.”
“Please, no, Papa.” Giles glanced around the stark office. “I don’t want to stay here by myself.”
“I can’t take you with me, Giles. You’ll be safer here than with me.” He grasped the latch and turned.
“What if you don’t come back? Like Mama. What am I supposed to do then?”
Latymer’s grip tightened on the door latch, and his chest grew tight. He leveled the hardest look he could manage on his frightened son. “If I don’t return in twenty minutes,” he said as he tossed his timepiece to Giles, “retrace our steps back to Somerton House and pound on the earl’s door until someone answers. Tell him you’re my son, and he’ll take care of the rest.”
His son’s features became tense with anger.
“Be brave, Giles. We’re almost free of this nightmare.” He stepped outside. “Lock the door.” He pulled it shut and waited.
After several long moments, Latymer heard the faint click of the lock turning in place. He released an anxious breath before turning his thoughts to his next task. He had forty-five minutes before they had to cross the gangplank to The Gladys. Barring any unforeseen incidents, he could do it.
If he hurried.
Latymer broke into a run.
Friar’s Head Tavern
Mac O’Donnell slammed his empty tankard down on the scarred table. “Adair’s not coming.”
“He is.” The Earl of Somerton’s ice-blue eyes never wavered from the tavern’s entrance. “Under the terms of our agreement, he’s due to collect a portion of his substantial fee once he has information on Latymer’s whereabouts. Since he requested this meeting, I’m assuming he has something to report.”
For the past five years, Mac had worked for Sydney Hunt, owner of the Hunt Agency. Sydney had established the agency to improve the deplorable working conditions of servants. If that entailed falsifying a letter of recommendation to right a terrible wrong, so be it.
As for Mac, he served Sydney in several capacities—assistant, footman, spy, bodyguard, confidant—whatever the circumstances called for.
The agency had an impressive array of contacts, both savory and unsavory. But they were nothing compared to what the thief-taker Cameron Adair had at his disposal. Crime victims hired Adair, or others of his ilk, to track down their stolen goods and to bring those responsible to justice. Adair’s ability to locate the most entrenched criminal in London’s underworld was legendary. Some believed too legendary.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Mac said to the earl. “Rumor has it that once Adair tracks down the stolen goods, he’s not above letting the thieves go free after they pay him a protection fee. If true, he’s established a lucrative, and diabolical, business for himself.”
“I daresay. But Adair knows enough about me to understand I’m not a man to be crossed.”
Undoubtedly true. Mac would never want to be on anything other than on Somerton’s good side. Unless, of course, Somerton tried to stop Mac from killing Latymer—then he would not care which side of the spymaster he was on.
An image of Amelia Cartwright’s beautiful, yet disapproving, face surfaced.
The outer door to the tavern swung open. Every eye in the establishment, including Mac’s, turned to scrutinize the newcomer, a difficult feat given the dense layer of smoke hanging about the room.
A gentleman wearing a black hat and clothes too fine for this working-class establishment, yet not fine enough for the ton, ducked beneath the doorframe. Cameron Adair doffed his hat, revealing dark brown hair and sharp chiseled features. His intelligent eyes cut through the gloom, searching until he spotted Mac and Somerton in a far corner.
He began a winding path toward them. His lean, athletic build moved through the clutter of tables and tightly pressed bodies with an odd masculine grace.
The last time he’d seen Adair, the thief-taker had been covered in the blood of Mac’s brother, Mick, after Latymer had buried a bullet in his twin’s chest.
Mac’s fingers tightened around his tankard’s handle in a white-knuckle grip. The logical part of his mind understood he owed Adair a debt. If not for the thief-taker, Mick would have died alone and in agony, rather than surrounded by family and friends. But the part of his mind consumed by grief and rage wanted to shout at Adair, “Why didn’t you get to my brother sooner?!”
When Adair reached their table, he said, “Lord Somerton. O’Donnell.”
Somerton rose to shake the thief-taker’s hand. “Mr. Adair, please have a seat.”
Adair nodded to Mac and ignored the chair Somerton indicated, which would have put the thief-taker’s back to the room. Instead, he dragged a chair from another table and set it near Somerton’s.
“Have you located Latymer?” Somerton asked.
“Yes and no.”
“Start with the yes,” Somerton said.
“I’ve come across paperwork that would indicate the baron either owns or leases several different buildings across London and a few outside the city.”
“Vast property ownership is not uncommon among the nobility.”
“True.” Adair’s voice cooled. “However, Latymer has taken great pains to conceal his association with each of these properties by placing them under different variations of the same name.”
“How do you know Latymer’s behind the name?” Mac asked.
Adair smiled faintly. “I saw the evidence with my own eyes.”
Mac wondered whose home or business Adair had invaded in order to find the information. Latymer would know better than to keep such evidence at hand.
“And the no?” Somerton asked.
“Latymer remains at large, though not for long.”
The muscles in Mac’s neck tightened. “How can you be sure? He could be on his way to France by now.”
“Anything is possible. There are far too many ways for a desperate man to escape the city. Given the fact that he was overheard coaxing his son from Abbingale with promises of sailing on a big ship, I’m concentrating my efforts around the docks. The question is, which one and when?”
“Where do we start?” Mac asked.
“My men have already begun the search,” he said dismissively.
Mac’s teeth clenched against the thief-taker’s unspoken refusal to involve him. “Give me the addresses to the buildings away from the river.”
“Likely a waste of your time.”
“Better to waste it doing something rather than nothing.”
Adair glanced at Somerton, who nodded his consent. The silent communication between the two men rankled Mac’s already stretched nerves. In the clouded, logical part of his mind, he understood. Adair’s contract to find Latymer was with Somerton, not him, nor the Hunt Agency. And yet . . .
Reaching into a coat pocket, Adair produced a folded sheet of paper and offered it to Mac. “This is a list of all nine properties Latymer has been associated with. I’ll take the top four. The next three are country estates. The rest—do with as you wish.”
Mac rose, fighting the urge to slam the heel of his boot into the thief-taker’s face. He grabbed the list, unfolded it, committed the addresses to memory, and tossed the paper onto the table. “I’ll start with the last two addresses in London. If neither bear fruit, I’ll be joining you at the docks.”
“I’ll come with you,” Somerton said.
“There is no need. I can handle this.”
“Keep me informed of your progress, O’Donnell.” Somerton’s voice held a harder edge. “The more we work together, the faster we can locate Latymer.”
Nodding, Mac strode from the tavern. He counted to ten before slowly rolling the tension from his shoulders. He needed to save his anger for Latymer. At the moment, nothing else mattered, because Somerton was right. The sooner they found Latymer, the sooner Mac could avenge his brother and move on with his life. An image of a petite, no-nonsense blonde danced fleetingly across his mind.
Mac definitely had something better to move on to.