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Praise for A Lady's Revenge:
"Devlyn makes a unique mark on the genre with her powerful prose and gripping theme."—RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars...
Praise for A Lady's Revenge:
"Devlyn makes a unique mark on the genre with her powerful prose and gripping theme."—RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
The Stakes Are High, The Players in Position...
Catherine Ashcroft leads a quiet life caring for her precocious seven-year-old daughter, until a late-night visitor delivers a startling ultimatum. She will match wits with the enigmatic Earl of Somerton, and it's not just her heart that's in danger.
Let the Games Begin...
Spymaster Sebastian Danvers, Earl of Somerton, is famous for his cunning. Few can outwit him and even fewer dare challenge him-until now. After returning to his country estate, his no-nonsense neighbor turns her seductive wiles on him- but why would a respectable widow like Catherine risk scandal for a few passionate nights in his bed?
"Devlyn reveals the darkness of the spy game and entices readers with a talented and determined heroine."—Publishers Weekly
"Wildly romantic, quick paced, and entertaining from beginning to end."—The Book Girl
"Dark and sexy...full of adventure and mystery but also a powerful love story...a must read."—My Book Addition Reviews
August 6, 1804
London, Somerton House
“Please, my lord,” Catherine Ashcroft said. “If you would only read my husband’s letters.” She i...
August 6, 1804
London, Somerton House
“Please, my lord,” Catherine Ashcroft said. “If you would only read my husband’s letters.” She indicated the small packet she’d placed on the Earl of Somerton’s clutter-free desk moments ago, willing him to pick it up. Despite her personal misgivings about her humorless neighbor, she had made this godforsaken trip to the city to beg his assistance, hoping her late husband’s friend would know what to do.
With trembling fingers, she pushed the tattered, black beribboned packet across his desk. “These two mention you,” she said. “I have more at Winter’s Hollow. Could you please read them and tell me if anything feels amiss?”
He cast her a level stare. “Aren’t you in a better position to judge such things, Mrs. Ashcroft?”
From the moment she had entered his study ten minutes ago, he had treated her with courtesy and respect, but she had yet to witness a single emotion crease his strong brow or bend his full lips. It had always been so with him. Unlike her late husband, Jeffrey, she had never enjoyed a companionable relationship with the earl. Their acquaintance had always been one of distance and wary glances. A situation she now regretted, for Lord Somerton might be the only one who could help her locate her husband’s murderer. A murder she might have been able to prevent had she been home to receive his numerous missives.
Catherine’s gaze took in the earl’s wide shoulders and six-foot-something frame, both a formidable contrast to Jeffrey’s slighter build. Not for the first time, she noted his calm strength and an almost indistinguishable aura of danger penetrating the air around him.
“Indeed, sir.” Her fingers curled until her nails dug into the tender flesh of her palm. “I have already determined something’s wrong, but what, exactly, I do not know.” Had there been any other way of determining Jeffrey’s state of mind, she would have gladly followed it. Being in the earl’s company made her body hum with restlessness and her mind waver with doubt—a state that likely had her father, a highly decorated naval officer, convulsing in his grave. There had been no getting around this meeting, though. Jeffrey’s virtual abandonment three years ago ensured she knew little of her husband’s activities and even less of his desires.
Lord Somerton’s eyelids lowered a fraction. “What makes these letters different from the rest of Ashcroft’s correspondence?”
This was the difficult part. His lordship was known for his cold logic and his intolerance for theatrics of any sort. How could she explain the tenor of desperation that penetrated Jeffrey’s every word? Its subtlety would be easily missed by those unfamiliar with her husband. Most would think her daft to fault her husband’s written words of love, but Catherine knew them a farce. Would Jeffrey’s friend also read the message beyond the words?
“I’m not sure I can supply you with a satisfactory explanation, my lord,” she said. “It’s complicated, to say the least.”
He tapped his fingertips against the small stack of letters several times and then caught the telling sign of irritation and stopped. “I’ll be sure to listen very closely, Mrs. Ashcroft.”
Emotion, at last. But it came with a cost. His scrutiny intensified and the space between them turned thick and suffocating. Catherine smoothed her damp palms down her black pelisse, and a sudden urge to flee scraped against her nerves. What if she had been wrong about the character of Jeffrey’s letters? Maybe he really did wish to reconcile and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If that were the case, her entire trip to London was nothing more than a humiliating waste of time.
“Mrs. Ashcroft,” he said, “I don’t mean to press you, but I have another appointment at the top of the hour.”
Catherine parted her lips and pulled in a slow, steadying breath while directing her gaze away from the earl. The austere quality of his lordship’s study made her itch to return to Winter’s Hollow. Every room in her country manor was decorated with cheerful colors and warm, inviting furniture to make her guests feel at ease and welcome. But more than that, she ached to return to her six-year-old daughter. Sophie’s limitless curiosity and boundless energy always soothed Catherine’s nerves.
London held nothing for her but pain and loneliness and an acute sense of inadequacy.
She forced the tightness from her chest and the doubts from her mind. She had not been wrong in her assessment. From the disjointed nature of Jeffrey’s letters, she believed he was either suffering at the time he wrote them, or he was trying to tell her something. Both circumstances had kept her up long into the night until she had finally made the decision to seek out Lord Somerton’s help. That, and the knowledge that Jeffrey might still be alive if not for her absence.
Meeting the earl’s gaze, she said, “I don’t know that I can explain how they’re different, my lord.” She nodded toward the stack of letters. “In those words, I do not recognize the voice of my husband.”
When his features flattened, revealing the smallest hint of skepticism, Catherine knew she had failed. She closed her eyes briefly in disappointment before gathering what was left of her pride and then stood. She would have to find another way to decipher Jeffrey’s final scribblings. “I’m sorry for wasting your time, sir. I thought my word on the odd nature of my husband’s correspondence would be enough for you to at least read them, especially since your name appears more than once. But I can see I was wrong.” She held out her hand. “If you’d be so kind as to return my property?”
He scooped up the packet and strode around his desk. The closer he came, the smaller, more insignificant she felt. Then he stood before her, and the heat from his body reached through the layers of her clothing to her flesh.
Slowly, almost painfully, she lifted her gaze to meet his, and awareness stabbed through her center, splintering her mask of sophistication. An old weakness, one she had long since conquered, but not forgotten, washed over her. Oh, dear Lord.
Catherine’s intimate relations with Jeffrey had been sweet and calming, beautiful in their perfection. Not primal or compelling. Not hot and wanting. The earl’s big body and his I-can-see-into-your-soul eyes made her yearn for a night of mindless, unrestrained lovemaking.
She tore her attention away from his unusual luminescent eyes and focused on the letters. Always, she had sensed a volatile power lurking behind his cool facade. One that drew her, one that resisted all arguments of morality. Several years without a man’s caress had obviously taken a toll on her starving body.
Lord Somerton stepped closer. “Are you unwell?”
Yes. Never had her attraction for this man overwhelmed her senses so completely. Her urge to flee trebled. She gestured again toward the packet. “My lord?”
His hold tautened. “You no longer require my help, Mrs. Ashcroft?”
Catherine’s pulse jumped. Something unpredictable and menacing prowled behind his words. Dropping her arm to her side, she said, “Of course I do. But I sense your hesitance and I have no more time to persuade you to my cause.”
Her plain speaking caused both his eyebrows to arch high, and his eyes, a light blue mixed with steel gray, appeared to glow and pulse with an inner life. She had never seen such a startling eye color on anyone else and had always thought the uncommon hue haunting and beautiful. And impossible to forget.
“No more time?” he asked. “Why the hurry? Your husband was killed a month ago.”
Guilt slammed against her chest. Her love for Jeffrey might have vanished long ago, but she still cared enough to mourn his death, for her loss and for Sophie’s. “I know,” she said between gritted teeth. “My reasons don’t concern you.”
His lips thinned. “I am trying to understand the situation. I don’t often have a dead man’s wife sitting in my study asking me to read her private correspondence.” He waved the packet in the air. “So I must ask once again—what makes these letters any different from the others you had received from Ashcroft?” His features returned to their placid position. “I cannot assist you if you refuse to communicate the full extent of your concerns.”
“Please, my lord.” Not thinking, she gripped his arm. “Won’t you read my husband’s letters and tell me what you make of them?” She had come prepared to divulge the full scope of Jeffrey’s transformation and to confess the appalling circumstances of her marriage before his death, but now an unexpected embarrassment trapped the shameful words in the back of her throat.
He studied her face for several seconds before his gaze shifted to her hand. Catherine freed his arm, discomfited and shocked by her rash action.
Releasing a breath, he waved toward her chair. “Please, won’t you sit?”
Not until that moment had Catherine noticed the dark patches beneath his eyes and the deep grooves bracketing his full lips. Fatigue pulled at his handsome features, and Catherine felt an answering tug of empathy.
What would cause the Earl of Somerton to lose sleep? A family crisis? He had no close living relatives, only his two wards. Former wards, for they were both adults now. She found it hard to reconcile that the detached man before her was the same individual who had taken in two young children after their parents were brutally slain by thieves. All in the name of friendship.
“If I’ve come at an inconvenient time, my lord,” she said in a gentler tone, “I apologize. Would you prefer that I return tomorrow?”
“That won’t be necessary.” He indicated her chair again. “Please.”
Catherine resumed her seat, and the earl followed suit.
“I am persuaded to read your husband’s letters, madam.”
“But I must know what about their contents compelled you to travel all the way to London to seek me out.”
He was nothing if not persistent. Pulling in a fortifying breath, Catherine said, “Not long after my daughter was born, Jeffrey became involved in several reformation issues that required him to spend a good deal of time away from us.” She plucked at the soft fabric of her reticule. “At first, I applauded his passionate belief that he could make a real difference and even encouraged him to build political relationships that would aid his many causes.”
The earl nodded. “Ashcroft was well respected among his peers. He had distinguished himself as a man of honor and principle.”
“Yes, well,” she said, “during the first year, he wrote to us at the end of every week and came home as often as his schedule would allow. By the second year, his correspondence dwindled to once a month and his visits to three or four times a year. After the third year, he no longer bothered to make an appearance, not even for my daughter’s birthday or for Christmas, preferring to send gifts instead.”
“And his correspondence?”
“Nothing more than beautifully written instructions on estate management.”
“I see,” he said in a low voice. “Go on.”
Catherine forced herself to maintain the earl’s gaze. “Until my husband’s funeral, my daughter had not seen her father in three years and I hadn’t received a personal note from him for the same length of time.” She glanced away then, swallowing back the bitterness that rose to the top of her throat. “My husband’s silence came to an abrupt end a month before his death.”
He glanced at the packet. “Are you saying Ashcroft sent these, and the ones you have at home, all within the last month of his life?”
“Yes, my lord.” Her throat closed around the damning words.
“You are only now reading them?”
“When they first arrived,” she said, finding it difficult to speak, “I was burying my father, and my staff chose not to forward them. By the time I had a moment to read the letters, I received word that my husband had been stabbed to death by footpads.”
“I am sorry for your loss, Mrs. Ashcroft. On both accounts.”
“Thank you.” Her heart ached, not for her husband or even her father, for both had forsaken their families for their careers, but for her daughter, who would live the rest of her days without a father. “I regret the lengthy delay. However, once you read Jeffrey’s odd ramblings, you will see I was right to bring them to your attention.” She pressed on, knowing he would indeed think her a featherbrain after her next words. “My husband was in some kind of trouble before he died, sir. I can feel it in the depths of my soul. I no longer believe a random criminal killed Jeffrey. This situation has the stamp of something far more deliberate.”
Her declaration did nothing to disrupt the earl’s pensive expression. What was he thinking? Was he devising ways to get her out of his study? Was he measuring her words and wondering if he could trust her judgment? Or did he worry he was dealing with the illogical thought patterns of a woman scorned? Her knee began to bounce beneath her skirts.
“A rather sensational view of the matter, Mrs. Ashcroft.”
Catherine clenched her teeth against a sharp retort. She had prepared herself for his mockery, but that did not stop the sting of his words. “Read the letters and see if you still think so.”
He studied her for an interminable amount of time before he finally asked, “How long will you be in London?”
“Not long,” she said. “I must get back to my daughter.”
Nodding, he rose to his full height, and Catherine experienced the same sensation of smallness—no, delicacy—when his large frame towered over her. On one level, his presence was disconcerting, but on another, he calmed her, made her feel safe and secure.
“I have another pressing matter I must attend first, Mrs. Ashcroft.” His crystalline gaze roamed her face with a thoroughness that sucked the breath from her lungs. “Go home to your daughter. I will join you in a few days to review the rest of Ashcroft’s correspondence.”
Her limbs sagged, heavy with relief. “Thank you, my lord. I appreciate your assistance. Grayson and Mrs. Fox will be happy to hear of your return.”
“Do not bother informing my staff of my imminent arrival,” he said. “I do not plan on staying long.”
“Chief, we need the other letters.”
The Earl of Helsford’s pronouncement pulled Sebastian Danvers, Lord Somerton, out of his dark musings, which had occupied more of his time of late.
Sebastian shifted his attention from the black ribbon wound around his finger to his agent, Guy Trevelyan, Lord Helsford, who stood near the library window. “You’re sure?”
“As sure as one can be when deciphering the words of what appears to be a desperate man.”
If anyone could piece together Ashcroft’s message, Helsford could. As a master cryptographer, the earl’s talent at cracking complex codes was unmatched. A talent Sebastian had used well over the years to thwart Napoleon Bonaparte’s hunger for domination.
“Perhaps Ashcroft’s widow held the others back to lure you away,” Ethan deBeau, Viscount Danforth, interjected with his normal lack of finesse. He sank farther into the cushioned chair, propping his booted foot over the opposite knee. “After the failed attempt on your life, we must rule out nothing.”
As they were wont to do since yesterday afternoon, Sebastian’s thoughts turned to the widow, and his thumb pressed into the black ribbon. She had changed little in the last four years. Her blond hair, creamy complexion, and petite body were as lovely as ever. She wore the same conservative attire that proclaimed her English to the bone and of the country. But her confident tone and direct gaze were new. No longer did she hover behind a man’s protective shoulder or avoid lengthy eye contact. The woman he spoke to yesterday exuded confidence and vibrated with purpose and conviction.
She had come to him for answers, alone and unprotected. What would it feel like to have such a champion? To have a woman brave the city in order to beg the assistance of a virtual stranger on his behalf?
Sebastian pulled in a shallow breath. Dark, unproductive musings, indeed.
“He’s right,” Helsford said into the silence. “You are a direct threat to Napoleon’s success. We cannot be too cautious.”
Sebastian nodded, recalling the recent assassination plot Helsford had uncovered in time to save his life. A plot Lord Latymer, his friend and superior, had helped concoct. “I will keep your words of warning in mind.”
During his time with the Nexus, an elite group of international spies sworn to stop Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquering tempest across Europe, he had learned many things, often the hard way. But the one lesson he would never forget was that one can never know another’s true heart. A beautiful face could be a mask for the blackest soul, and the most horrific mien could provide protection for the purest heart. Worst of all, most people were not wholly evil or wholly good, but something infinitely more dangerous—a little of both.
Sebastian glanced between the two men who had been friends since childhood, men he had helped raise, train, mold. Helsford, silent and thoughtful; Danforth, a volatile mix of passions. Both lethal when the moment called for such actions. The only one missing from this reunion was Cora deBeau, Danforth’s sister and one of Sebastian’s best intelligence gatherers.
Over the years, he had wondered what their lives would have been like had Ethan and Cora’s parents not been murdered. The incident had set off a chain of events that turned the trio of friends into the brilliant spies they were today. Many thought Lord and Lady Danforth’s deaths resulted from an interrupted theft, but those close to the family knew otherwise.
Predicting the coming storm between England and France, his mentor, Roland deBeau, the late Viscount Danforth, had begun introducing unusual skill-sets to his two children to test their interest and aptitude. Of the deBeau children, Cora had always been the most focused, the most levelheaded. Those qualities, and many more, had made her an excellent pupil.
During one of their pickpocket training sessions, his mentor had asked Sebastian to evaluate his children’s progress. It was then the elder Danforth had extracted a promise from twenty-three-year-old Sebastian to watch over his children should something happen to him. Three weeks later, Danforth and his wife were brutally murdered by a French assassin and Sebastian became the guardian of two grieving children, Cora ten and Ethan fourteen.
Although he had little experience with children, he had been overseeing his vast estates since the age of twelve—which made him a perfect guardian for Ethan. He understood the young man’s grief and fear and lack of confidence. His resentment and his restlessness. For it was Sebastian’s restlessness and determination that had caught the attention of Roland deBeau, the former chief of the Nexus.
So Sebastian followed his mentor’s wishes and became Ethan and Cora’s guardian. To take their minds off their terrible loss, he continued their father’s unique training, shaping them into instruments of the Crown.
“Shall I pay Mrs. Ashcroft a visit?” Danforth asked in a low, silky tone, a voice he’d used to great effect in boudoirs across two continents.
The viscount raised a dark brow, sharing a glance with Helsford.
Sebastian understood their confusion; he was rather surprised by his quick response, too. Any other time, he would have ordered Danforth to employ his special skills. Women loved him. They happily revealed their husbands’ or lovers’ secrets for a few hours in his bed, where he made them feel special and desirable.
A vision of the widow surrendering to the agent’s well-honed touch tightened around Sebastian’s chest. Mrs. Ashcroft’s gentle beauty had always drawn his eye, and for that reason alone, he had kept her at a distance. He never dallied with his agents’ women. So the sharp swell of jealousy he suffered in reaction to Danforth’s query both surprised and confused him.
He shoved the ribbon into his coat pocket and discarded the disturbing image of Danforth and the widow. The task of removing the image from his mind took far longer than it should. He forced his thoughts toward a conversation he’d had earlier that morning with the Superintendent of Aliens. “According to Reeves, the Alien Office is investigating my part in Latymer’s deception.”
Danforth shot up from his chair and Helsford turned his back on the window.
“Are they mad?” Danforth demanded.
“What’s this?” Helsford asked.
Sebastian rose to refill his glass from the sideboard. He took a healthy, fortifying swallow of the brandy. “It is nothing I would not do if I were in his place.”
“That’s absurd and you know it, Chief,” Danforth said. “You nearly lost your life because of Latymer’s scheme. Besides, no one is more loyal to our mission than you.”
Sebastian stared into his now empty glass, debating whether to replenish it or not. “Ah, but it was my friend and my watch.”
“Latymer was also your superior. You can’t be expected to know his every move.” Danforth strode the length of the library. “Bloody nonsense, if you ask me.”
“What now?” Helsford’s calm question was a stark contrast to the viscount’s fierceness.
“Now I retire to Bellamere Park while the office determines the extent of my commitment.”
The viscount stopped pacing. “They’re exiling you?”
Sebastian resumed his spot at the sideboard. “Reeves suggested a holiday away from the city.”
“Who the hell does Reeves think he is banishing the chief of the Nexus?” Danforth continued his defense. “The man’s been in charge of the Alien Office scarcely a year.”
“Precisely,” Sebastian said. “Reeves has not been in his position long enough to develop a solid opinion of me one way or another. And who knows what nonsense Latymer might have been spewing in his ear.” He had intended to stop pouring at the two-finger mark, but the amber liquid kept rising. “I am inclined to follow his suggestion. It’s long past time I visit my country estate.”
“By removing you, he’s putting England at risk.”
Sebastian studied Danforth, growing more worried for the viscount’s peace of mind by the day. In the last year or so, his temper and volatility had grown. “I will not be gone so long as that.” He kept his voice calm and even. To Helsford, he said, “Did Ashcroft divulge anything else besides whispers of a faction seeking to destroy the Nexus?”
“Only a personal message to you, sir.”
Dread stirred in Sebastian’s gut. “Go on.”
“He asked that you look after his family.”
Anything but that. Sebastian tossed back half the glass’s contents.
“Doesn’t Ashcroft’s property abut Bellamere?” asked the ever-sensible Earl of Helsford.
A new light entered Danforth’s eyes. “Brilliant,” he said, oblivious to Sebastian’s mental turmoil.
Helsford understood, though. Empathy softened the man’s normally fathomless black eyes.
Danforth continued, “You can see to your estate, retrieve the other letters, and watch over Ashcroft’s family.” He smacked Helsford’s shoulder. “We’ll keep an eye on Reeves and his Inquisition from here.”
Such a neat bow tied around an untidy package. “Yes, brilliant.”
“What are you going to tell Mrs. Ashcroft about her husband?” Helsford’s soft query reminded him that the worst was yet to come. “We are still investigating the situation.”
Danforth’s expression flattened as understanding dawned. “I’ll do it.”
Sebastian sent him a grateful yet pained smile. “Thank you, but no.”
“There is no reason for you to deal with this alone, Chief,” Helsford said.
“My watch, remember?” Sebastian’s stomach churned unpleasantly. “You can help by finishing those ciphers and keeping me informed of Reeves’s activities.” He glanced from one man to the next. “There can be no announcement as of yet. Our men need more time to find those responsible.”
They all fell silent. The younger men were no doubt reflecting on the scarcity of information they had collected since finding Ashcroft in a filthy alley, lying in a pool of his own blood. Sebastian’s thoughts, however, had turned toward the future, toward Ashcroft’s widow and the truth about her husband.
The moment Catherine exited Grillon’s Hotel, a fierce midday sun stabbed her already burning eyes. She paused in the shade of the building until the white spots overwhelming her vision disappeared. She had hoped to be quit of the city well before now, but a putrid stomach had demanded she stay near a chamber pot all morning. Which gave her plenty of time to review her conversation with Lord Somerton, when she wasn’t scrambling for the pot.
Even now, a faint roiling deep in her midsection made her question the wisdom of embarking on a long carriage ride. But her parental instinct pushed her onward, despite the potential consequences to her pride. It was just her bad luck to have selected the pork instead of the fish.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” A young man motioned to the door behind her.
Her normal vision restored, Catherine gave up her shadowed spot. “My apologies, sir.” She continued on to where her maid, Mary, watched over her trunks while waiting for the carriage to arrive.
Lord Somerton’s delay continued to chafe her nerves. So much of her life had been wrapped around the act of waiting. Waiting for her father, waiting for her husband, and waiting for the denizens of Showbury to lower their pompous noses. And now she must anticipate Lord Somerton’s arrival and pray he could help assuage her terrible guilt by tracking down Jeffrey’s killer.
Then she could begin anew with her daughter and hope her conscience would ease its hold on her in time.
A large cat with matted fur darted across Albemarle Street, chasing a smaller scruffy black dog, whose short legs were nothing more than a dark blur.
“Oh!” Mary exclaimed, scurrying out of the way when the two creatures streaked by, ruffling Catherine’s skirts.
Catherine followed their zigzag path, hoping the little dog would make it to safety. She glanced at Mary and they shared a smile. But the disappearing animals made Catherine consider her own departure. Was she doing the right thing by leaving the city? The restless energy thrumming through her veins begged her to stay and search for clues. Whatever they might be.
“Good day, Mrs. Ashcroft,” a man called from the street.
She turned to find a blond-haired gentleman dismounting from a rather expensive piece of horseflesh. He handed the reins to a young hostler and approached her with a sure stride.
He removed his beaver hat, revealing an array of handsome curls, then bowed. “I am so glad to have caught you,” he said. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Frederick Cochran.” Sorrowful blue eyes gazed at her. “A good friend to your husband, or was, I should say.”
Mary backed away to a discreet distance.
Cochran, Cochran, Cochran. The name was so familiar, but she had never seen this gentleman before. Her mind scoured her memories for some mention of him, but nothing surfaced. Then, her eyes widened as a vague recollection danced on the periphery of her vision. No, surely she could not be so fortunate. In one of Jeffrey’s last letters, amidst his incoherent scribblings, was the mention of someone called Cochran. Or was it Corbin? Collins? If only she had brought all the letters, rather than a sampling, she could verify the name.
“Mr. Cochran? Your name is somewhat familiar, sir.”
“Indeed? Did your husband speak of me?”
“To be honest, I’m not sure how I recognize your name,” she said. “You were looking for me?”
He inclined his head. “Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to attend your husband’s services. When I heard you were in the area, I rushed over to offer my condolences.”
“I had not thought my arrival was widely known.”
“When one works at the Foreign Office, one hears all sorts of chatter.”
“Why, yes,” he said in a curious tone. “That’s how I came to know your husband.”
Catherine’s world narrowed to a small circle of vision, one that centered on Cochran’s mouth. She stared hard, waiting for more words to emerge. Words that would clarify his ridiculous statement. None arrived.
“Pardon, sir? Are you implying my husband was also employed by the Foreign Office?”
He searched her face. “You didn’t know.”
Time slowed, and Catherine’s heart slammed once, twice, three times against her rib cage. The crowd, the carriages, the squabbling vendors disappeared. Only silence remained. Punishing, unrelenting silence. Deafening, suffocating silence. “How long?”
He glanced around. “Is this your carriage approaching?”
She nodded, not removing her gaze from his face.
Taking in her small cache of luggage stacked behind her, he asked, “You are returning home?”
“Yes, Mr. Cochran,” she said with growing impatience. “Please answer my question.”
The carriage rocked to a halt, and Cochran motioned her inside. “Let me explain in a more private setting.”
Catherine considered the propriety of allowing a stranger into her carriage, especially while in mourning. But this was London, not Showbury. No one knew her here, and she had learned long ago to take matters into her own hands if she wished for a particular result.
“Very well, Mr. Cochran. Mary,” she called.
“Yes, ma’am?” The maid eyed Cochran.
“Would you mind riding with the driver for a short time?” Catherine asked.
While the hotel staff busied themselves loading her trunks, Cochran assisted her into the carriage and made arrangements to have his horse tied to the back. When Mary was seated and all was in readiness, he bounded inside and settled across from her.
They rumbled down the street in silence for what felt like hours. Her pulse pounded hard within her ears and sweat trickled down her right side. “Please do not torture me with this suspense any longer, Mr. Cochran. How long was my husband with the government and in what capacity?”
“I believe Lord Somerton brought him into the fold about four years ago.”
Catherine ignored the sharp clenching pain around her heart. “And his capacity?”
He brushed a few specks of dust from his coat sleeve. “Since Ashcroft is gone, I suppose telling you won’t do any harm. But I must ask you to keep what I’m about to impart to yourself. Discussing Foreign Office affairs—even old affairs—could have an ill-effect on current initiatives.”
“You have my word.” She would promise him anything at the moment. “I will not repeat your confidence.”
“Ashcroft was in the business of collecting sensitive information.”
“What sort of information?”
“I can’t go so far as to tell you specifics,” he said, “but he sought any type of intelligence that would protect England’s shores.”
“Do you mean he was a spy?”
He paused a moment. “The preferable term is agent.”
Jeffrey was a spy. For four years. Under Lord Somerton’s tutelage. Dear God. How could she be ignorant of something so important and dangerous? Could Jeffrey’s work for the government be the reason he all but abandoned his family to the country?
“He wasn’t always an agent, mind you,” Mr. Cochran said. “Somerton started him out as a messenger. Your husband made many forays across the Channel retrieving vital intelligence on Napoleon’s movements.”
Gut-churning dread washed over her, not only for the danger her husband faced but also for the role Lord Somerton had played in Jeffrey’s activities and his decision to keep this knowledge from her. How amused he must have been yesterday. “Are you aware of the details surrounding my husband’s death?”
“He was set upon by footpads, as I recall.”
“That is what was reported to me.” She studied him. “However, I have reason to believe something far more nefarious occurred.”
“What do you mean?”
“Based upon what you’ve disclosed and the nature of the letters I delivered to Lord Somerton, I can’t imagine any other outcome at the moment.”
“Letters?” A new intensity entered his tone.
“My husband’s,” she said. “Jeffrey sent me several pieces of correspondence before he died. They made little sense to me, but a few of them mentioned Lord Somerton, so I thought they might be of use to him.”
“Interesting, to be sure.” He stared out the carriage window. “Did your husband mention anyone else in his correspondence?”
Catherine hesitated, still unable to recall where she’d come across the man’s name, though the letters seemed the most likely source. “I’m afraid I don’t recall offhand,” she said. “Once I receive the letters back from his lordship, I’ll review them again and let you know.”
“Very well,” he said. “Since we are developing a temporary partnership, I will say that I share your view on Ashcroft’s means of death.”
“You think he was executed, too?”
“Not at all.” His face scrunched in a look of disgust. “The French execute their citizens. The English perform more civilized forms of removal.”
“What possible method of killing countrymen could be considered civilized?”
“One that is quiet and effective and not for the public’s delectation.”
Catherine stared at him, uncomprehending.
“Assassination, Mrs. Ashcroft,” he said. “Although I cannot confirm it for a certainty, my sources revealed that your husband sustained a knife wound to the underarm.”
An image of Jeffrey’s naked torso lying across a sheet-covered table in the parlor at Winter’s Hollow surfaced. “My husband endured a great many stab wounds, sir.”
“A ruse, no doubt,” he said. “Few but the most highly trained men are aware of the fatal location or of the technique used.”
“What technique did the murderer use?”
“The full answer would be difficult to hear,” he said. “Let me say only that the killer did more than merely stab your husband. He made sure to sever a vital artery.”
Catherine closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. When she had her stomach under control again, she asked, “Why did Lord Somerton not explain this to me as you are?”
“It is difficult to say why his lordship does anything. However, in this instance, I suspect he was more concerned about the investigation.”
Cochran grimaced, as if realizing he’d said too much. “The Foreign Office is investigating a few of its staff for aiding the French, and I’m afraid Lord Somerton has not escaped their notice.”
She thought back to her brief audience with the earl and recalled the dark circles beneath his disturbing eyes. “That is unwelcome news, sir.”
“Indeed, it is for all of us, ma’am,” he said. “Lord Somerton is known for his loyalty and willingness to defend those under his command to the death. If Lord Somerton is found guilty and that trust is broken, the Foreign Office shall never be the same.”
“Well, let us hope the investigation proves Lord Somerton’s innocence rather than his guilt.” Why she hoped so after the earl’s subterfuge she couldn’t be sure. But her husband believed him to be a man of honor and so would she—for now.
“Yes, yes, let us hope.” He cocked his head to the side. “Am I correct in that you share a border with Lord Somerton’s country estate?”
Something about the way he asked the question made her sour stomach take a turn for the worse. “Yes.”
“Very good,” he said. “Superintendent Reeves is a cautious man and will require Lord Somerton to leave the city while the investigation is under way. No undue influence, you understand?”
“Of course,” she said. “But why is it good that we share a border?”
“Because you can help us keep watch over Somerton while he’s away from the city.”
“Pardon?” she asked, incredulous. “Are you asking me to spy on his lordship?”
“Goodness, no, dear lady,” he said. “I would not put you and Sophie into such a dangerous position. All I ask is that you share with me any unusual activity you might witness and, in exchange, I will keep you apprised of our inquiry into your husband’s murder.”
Catherine stilled. “You know of my daughter?”
He nodded. “Ashcroft spoke of his redheaded moppet often. So much so, that I think of her as a treasured niece.” He rubbed the side of his forefinger along his full, bottom lip. Thoughtful, silent. His blue gaze conveyed a secret message she could not decipher. “Perhaps one day I shall meet her.”
Redheaded? Jeffrey hated his red hair and often bemoaned the fact that Sophie’s blond curls were interlaced with the atrocious color. This conversation had ventured down a path that made Catherine unaccountably ill at ease, but she couldn’t for sure say why. She strove for a noncommittal answer. “Yes, perhaps.”
“Splendid.” He rapped on the small sliding door behind his head. The carriage slowed. “I shall call on you in a few days. It will be a most productive visit.”
Her fingers tightened around her reticule, the black jet beads digging into her flesh. “Productive for whom, Mr. Cochran?”
He hopped down from the carriage and then turned to give her a knowing smile. “For us both, of course.” He shut the door but held her gaze as he accepted the reins of his horse. “Adieu, Mrs. Ashcroft.”
The carriage jerked forward, jostling Catherine as it regained a more even rhythm. She hardly noticed. Her mind spun so fast it felt like the large terrestrial globe that used to take up a good deal of space in her father’s study.
Around and around, her thoughts revolved, but they failed to land on anything that would help her understand the events of the last few days. What she’d hoped would be a sleuth-like bid for justice had manifested into an immersion of spies and intrigue.
One thing was for certain, though. Her rather mundane country existence was about to become a good deal more interesting.
“I would highly recommend “Checkmate,My Lord” you will not regret reading this title.” - My Book Addiction Reviews
“Checkmate, My Lor...
“I would highly recommend “Checkmate,My Lord” you will not regret reading this title.” - My Book Addiction Reviews
“Checkmate, My Lord was a wonderful book, full of romance and thrills. Romance lovers, you should definitely try this one out.” - Imagine a World
“This is Devlyn’s second romance thriller, and like her first, it comes with an exciting plot, steamy love scenes, and twists and turns throughout.” - Historical Novels Review
“I am very pleased to report that Tracey Devlyn has the skill to weave an intriguing, dangerous, enjoyable plot with a great mix of passion and romance!” - Love Romance Passion
“Checkmate, My Lord is an intense love story that offers redemption to the hero and heroine and gives them a happy-ever-after that the reader can rejoice in.” - Long and Short Reviews
“Devlyn has given dimension to her characters -- showing us multiple aspects of their lives and how they come to play in the decisions that they make. ” - Love Saves the World
“CHECKMATE MY LORD is an edge of your seat exciting read!” - Fresh Fiction
“Devlyn’s edgy and sexy series is gaining momentum, and historical-romantic suspense fans, particularly those who enjoy Brenda Joyce, will delight in this.” - Booklist
“If spies, danger, murder, suspense, sexual tension and a fast pace are what a reader craves, then Devlyn’s second Nexus novel is the perfect read. Devlyn delivers an emotional, powerful read.” - RT Book Reviews
“Devlyn’s seamless writing will entice readers and keep them eager for the next installment. STARRED REVIEW ” - Publishers Weekly
Length: 6.875 in
Width: 4.1875 in
Weight: 10.16 oz
Page Count: 416 pages