“You, sir, are a rogue!” Emily Payne scowled into the black marble gaze fixed on hers, determined to win the deadlock of stares. Horrid beast. Must he always triumph?
Without so much as a blink, the pug angled his head. Sunlight from the front door’s transom window streamed over her shoulder, highlighting each of his fuzzy wrinkles. The pup’s face squinched into a doggy smile, coaxing a sigh from Emily. Who could remain cross with that scrunched up muzzle?
“I should’ve named you Scamp instead of Alf, eh boy?” She smiled, then laughed outright when he snuck in a quick kiss on her neck.
Beside her, Mary, her maid, joined in—until Mrs. Hunt, equal parts housekeeper and sergeant-major, huffed into the entry hall. Emily glanced at the matron over the pup’s head. If the Admiralty were smart, they’d press her into service, and the royal navy would learn a new meaning for shipshape in no time.
“Sorry, miss. The little beastie got clean away from me.” Mrs. Hunt reached for the fugitive, the smell of linseed oil and hard work wafting with the billow of her sleeve. “Hand him over, if you please. It won’t happen again.”
“Hmm. Don’t be so sure.” Emily nuzzled his furry head with the top of her chin, well aware he ought not be encouraged, yet completely unable to stop herself.
Mary tsked. “He just can’t bear to be parted from you, miss, that’s all.”
“Which is more than I can say for the males of my own species,” she mumbled into the pup’s fur. Alf nestled against her shoulder. If only Charles Henley might become so attached, the empty void in her heart would be filled at last. After a last snuggle, she held the pug out to Mrs. Hunt.
But Alf wriggled during the transfer. His back paw caught the lace on her glove, tearing the sheer fabric. Frowning, she inspected the damage. “Oh, bother. Mary, would you—”
“I shall.” Her maid turned, but a rap on the front door spun her back around. “Right after I answer the—”
Emily shook her head. “I’ll do it. You see to the gloves.”
She opened the door to the height of fashion. By faith, the only thing Reginald Sedgewick prized more than his garments was his looking glass. “Uncle Reggie!” She smiled. “A bit early in the day for you, is it not?”
He nodded. Nothing more. Perhaps it was indeed too early for his usual cheerful banter. “Is your father home?” His voice crackled at the edges.
“I’ve not seen him, though that’s not unusual. Come in.” She stepped aside, and the scent of bay rum entered with him—or was it? One more sniff and her nose wrinkled. There was nothing bay about it. The man reeked of rum.
He doffed his hat, and she called to her maid, who by now was halfway up the stairs. “Oh Mary, would you be a dear and summon my father before you see to my gloves?”
“Aye, Miss.” Retracing her steps, Mary scurried past them and disappeared down the same corridor Mrs. Hunt had taken earlier.
Emily turned back to Reggie and swept her hand toward the open sitting room door. “Please have a. . .”
The words clogged in her throat as she studied him up close. His cravat knot hung loose. Buttons on his waistcoat did not match the proper holes, and no red carnation adorned his lapel. She shifted her eyes to his. “Is something wrong?”
His jaw clenched, and she suspected his fists might have too. Then, strangely enough, the angry wave subsided. “Nothing a good row with your father won’t solve, my dear.” A ghost of a smile softened the threat, or was that a grimace?
“How very strange. Usually it is I who am at odds with him.” She reached for the bell pull on the wall. “Shall I ring for tea?”
“No need. This shan’t take long.” He paused, turning the hat in his hands around and around. “Hopefully.”
A shiver crept across her shoulders. He was not only disheveled but anxious as well? That didn’t bode well, not coming from the jolliest fellow she knew.
Behind her, Mary’s footsteps clipped onto the marble flooring. “Mr. Payne is unavailable, sir.”
Red crept up Reggie’s neck and blossomed onto his cheeks. “Unavailable?”
Mary bypassed them both then halted near the balustrade at the base of the stairs. Did she keep such distance from conservation of steps. . .or fear? She studied the floor as she answered, making it impossible to read her face. “Yes, sir. Detained for the rest of the day. I suggest you call back tomorrow, Mr. Sedgewick.”
Reggie breathed out an oath, then jammed his hat on top of his head so forcefully, his valet would need a shoehorn to pry it off come evening. With a curt nod to them both and a ground-out, “Good day,” he swooped out the front door. A firm thud accentuated his departure.
Emily slid her gaze to Mary, who returned her wide-eyed stare. “That was. . .interesting. I wonder what father’s done to vex Reggie so?” Would it be business related or something to do with the recently widowed Mrs. Nevens? She suspected the latter, for they’d each been vying for the woman’s attention.
Mary merely bobbed her head. “I’ll see about those gloves, then.”
The girl disappeared up the stairs, and a fresh wave of mourning washed over Emily. Instead of tucking tail and running away in the name of duty, her former maid and confidant, Wren, would have listened to her conspiracy theories. Or likely more than that. . .Wren would have added a few of her own ideas to the mix. Emily sighed, frustrated that even a hundred Wren-would-haves wouldn’t bring her favorite maid back. Nothing would—except for a miracle, perhaps.
“Is Reggie gone?” Her father’s bass voice rumbled from the corridor. His head peeked out the study door, fuzzy as a downy-haired tot whose nightgown had just been pulled off.
Emily pursed her lips, shedding one glove after the other. “I thought you were unavailable, Father.”
“I am.” His big belly and stubby legs appeared. “Leastwise as far as Reginald’s concerned.”
She set the ripped lace onto the calling card salver then looked up at her father’s approach, narrowing her eyes. Something was off-kilter here. He often avoided her, but never his business partner. “Uncle Reggie was quite put out, you know.”
“I do know, but it can’t be helped.”
She opened her mouth to argue with the absurdity of his statement, but before she could speak, Mary descended the last step and held out a set of white gloves. “Here you are, miss.”
“Thank you.” She reached for the fresh pair, and a keen scowl slashed across her father’s face. “What are you frowning at?”
“You are not going out, I hope. In fact, I quite forbid it.”
“Don’t be silly.” She wiggled her fingers into the cool fabric. “Did I not tell you I’ve an appointment at the milliner’s?”
“You own enough bonnets to cover all the heads of Mayfair proper. No, no, I insist you stay home.”
“You do?” Her gaze shot to his. For one glorious moment, she imagined playing the part of papa’s little girl—finally—even if she were three-and-twenty. Regardless of the years, her heart leapt in her chest.
Then stilled when he spoke. “I am expecting someone I require you to meet.”
Inside her gloves, perspiration dotted the palms of her hands. The last man he’d brought home for her to meet had nearly been her ruination. Never again. She set her jaw. “Father, you can’t be serious. This appointment was confirmed ages ago. Besides which, I need one last fitting for my gown, and if I do not attend to it today, it shan’t be ready for the Garvey’s ball.”
“No more about it, Emily. I will be obeyed in this matter. You are not to leave the house this morning.” He lifted his chin and peered down his nose. “Am I understood?”
She took the time to straighten each ruffled hem of her sleeves before returning her gaze to his—a stalling tactic she’d learned from the best. Him. “Quite,” she answered.
“Good.” He wheeled about and disappeared down the hallway.
Disappointment burned at the back of her throat. Would that he might want to spend a day with her instead of foisting her off on one of his business associates. Swallowing the sour taste, she reached for the doorknob. Her entire future depended upon the upcoming ball—a future that did not include one moment more of pining for her father’s love.
Mary’s eyes widened. “Miss Emily! Your father said—”
“My father said not to leave the house this morning. But Mary, dearest—” she opened the door and winked over her shoulder “—did you know that right now it’s afternoon in India?”
Short of breath and lean on time, Nicholas Brentwood sprinted down Bow Street, dodging hawkers and pedestrians. Though patience was one of his own assets, it did not make the top ten of the magistrate’s virtues. Nearing the station, he splashed through a pool of waste that leaked into the hole of his right boot, but it was not to be helped. He was late.
Darting through the front door of the magistrate’s court, he shoved past milling gawkers waiting to be let into the sentencing chamber. With a “Pardon me,” he veered right and bounded up the stairway, two treads at a time. Fatigue stung his eyes, anguish his heart. Though he inhaled deeply the smell of oil lamps, ink, and lives hanging in the balance, the stench of disease yet clung to his nostrils.
He bounded down a narrow corridor, shoulders brushing one wall then another in his haste. Through a crack in the magistrate’s door, he slid in sideways and breathless.
Sir Richard Ford stood near the window, regarding the streets of London. Weak sunlight filtered through the soot-dusted glass, highlighting the man’s shorn head—a head that did not turn when Nicholas entered. Good. Reining in his heaving chest, Nicholas breathed out a thankful prayer that his less-than-decorous arrival had not been noted. Then he straightened the lapel on his dress coat, covering the rip on his vest beneath. “I’m here, sir. Please excuse—”
The man waved his hand in the air, batting away his gnat of an apology.
Galled that he was the offending insect, Nicholas advanced. “If you would allow me to explain—”
“Permission denied.” Ford turned from the window. A frown etched lines on either side of his mouth, deep enough to sink any thoughts of rebuttal.
Nicholas widened his stance and squared his shoulders, taut as a sail in the wind. “Yes, sir.”
The man’s frown deepened. “Sweet peacock, Brentwood, sit down.” Ford strode to the overstuffed chair behind a massive cherrywood desk and lowered his frame. “You make me nervous.”
He made the magistrate nervous? The same man who in mere minutes would don a wig as tall as a small child and sentence countless men to their deaths? Nicholas bit back a smirk and sank into the worn leather seat opposite the desk, grateful to set aside running for the moment. “I can only assume, sir, this is about my recent absences. By your leave, I should like to explain.”
The old fellow skewered him with a hard stare, one that might divide flesh from bone by sheer will. “I will have no explanations.”
Nicholas clenched his jaw. So, this was to be it, then? His career ended now when he needed money most? Not that he didn’t deserve it. God knew he warranted much worse than to be dismissed.
But Jenny surely didn’t.
Slowly, feeling every year of hard living and lack of sleep, he nodded and rose. “Very well. I understand. It’s been my honor to have served—”
“Reseat your backend, Brentwood. You don’t understand a thing.”
The chair held his weight, his mind a thousand questions. “Sir?”
Ford leaned forward, the desk becoming one with the man. “You think I don’t know about your sister? This is an investigative agency I run, with none but the best in my employ. Every officer knows how you care for her, and none fault you for it.” He sat back and lifted his chin. “Neither do I.”
The tightness in Nicholas’s shoulders eased for the first time in months. Though he hated that all knew his business, it was a relief to be able to stop hiding the burden—a trail he’d done everything in his power to conceal. But apparently not enough. He pierced Ford with one of his own pointed looks. “Did you have me followed?”
“Didn’t have to. A certain doctor came here, inquiring after you. Seems the fellow doesn’t trust you’ll be good for his wages.” One of the magistrate’s brows rose, a perfect arc on such an austere canvas. “Imagine that.”
A smile begged for release, but Nicholas refused the vagrant urge. Not yet. The magistrate didn’t often keep a courtroom full of brigands waiting. Something else was brewing. “If this doesn’t concern my sister, then why the summons? I don’t suppose you’re holding up court for tea and crumpets with me.”
“I’ve a task in mind for you, Brentwood.” Ford propped his elbows on each arm of the chair, angling his head to the right. One of his favorite bargaining positions. The man eyed him as he might a piece of horseflesh to be bought. “A task that must be tended to immediately, and I’m certain you’re the perfect officer for the job. In fact, I will consider no one else.”
Unease tickled the nape of his neck, and Nicholas rubbed at the offending sensation. Ford was generally spare with his praise. Why now?
“I appreciate your confidence,” he said.
“Bah.” The magistrate sniffed. “I’m certain you’re the man because you’re the one with the greatest need for funding. Am I correct?”
Nicholas shifted in his seat. Exactly how much did his superior know? “Go on.”
Ford laced his fingers and placed them on the desktop. “A gentleman of some means approached me with the business of procuring a guardian for his daughter. He’s willing to pay a tidy sum to see her well cared for.”
Scrubbing a hand over his chin, Nicholas chewed on that information as he might a gummy bit of porridge. Either the man was a reprobate too intent on pleasure to see to his own offspring, or the girl was a hellish handful. A frown pulled at his lips. “Why does he not look after her himself?”
“He sails for the continent on the morrow.”
Nicholas snorted. “Seems he ought to have obtained a guardian long before this.”
“Yes. . .well. . .” Ford cleared his throat and averted his gaze. “The point is the man is willing to pay a large sum to safeguard his only child, and it’s my understanding you could use that money. Yes?”
He tugged at his collar. A marmot in a snare couldn’t have felt more trapped. “I think that’s already been established.”
“Very well.” Sliding open a top drawer, Ford produced a folded bit of parchment. “The gentleman, Mr. Alistair Payne, will fill you in on the particulars of the agreement. Officer Moore’s got the streets covered and Captain Thatcher the roads, so I shall excuse you from your regular duties until this assignment is complete.”
Stabbing the paper with his finger, Ford skimmed it across the desktop toward him. “Here’s the address and the agreed upon amount.”
Nicholas unfolded the crisp paper. He blinked, then blinked again. Granted, the ink watered into grey at the edges, but even so, a figure stood out sharply against the creamy background. Two hundred fifty pounds—enough to send Jenny to the blessed moon should a cure be available there. He locked stares with Ford. “This is no jest?”
“Really, Brentwood, how often do you see me smile?” His lips didn’t so much as twitch. The only movement in the entire room was the pendulum ticking away in the corner clock—that and the rush of blood pulsing in Nicholas’s ears.
“Well?” Ford broke the silence. “What do you say?”
The only thing he could. “Yes.” He folded the parchment and tucked it into his breast pocket.
“Excellent.” Ford pushed back from his desk and stood. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a few cases to hear.”
As the magistrate stalked out the door, Nicholas ignored decorum and sat frozen, too stunned to follow. Amazing, that’s what. Did God seriously delight in dropping the jaw of a man such as himself? He rose and glanced at the cracked plaster ceiling, whispering a prayer. “Thank you, Lord. Your bounty never ceases to amaze me.”
He crossed the room and stepped into the hallway, hope speeding his steps—and landing him square into the path of a steel-bodied man.
“You’re in an awful hurry, Brentwood.” Dark eyes bore into his. Though clear of anger, a fearsome enough gaze.
“Sorry, Thatcher.” Nicholas sidestepped one way, Thatcher the other, an odd sort of dance in the narrow corridor. “On my way to a new assignment. Didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Surprise to me as well.” Samuel Thatcher straightened his riding cloak and planted himself in front of the magistrate’s door. “I was summoned for an early meeting with Ford. So early, I neglected to bring up my own inquiries. He still in there?”
Nicholas shook his head. “Not anymore.”
“Right.” Thatcher blew out a long breath. “Suppose I’ll head out, then.”
The big man turned the opposite direction, but two steps later, pivoted. “Hold on, Brentwood. New assignment, you say?”
Nicholas nodded. “Guardian position. Ought not be. . .what? Why the grin?”
A smile the size of Parliament slid across Thatcher’s face. He backed away, hands up. “Good luck with that one. You’ll need it.”
Nicholas growled. “What did Ford not tell me?”
Thatcher’s grin morphed into a low-throated laugh. He turned and stomped off. “You’re just the fellow for the job, Brentwood.”
“As are you to haunt the hollows on a horse. That’s it, run off like the coward you are.” His words didn’t stop the man from retreating nor douse the remains of his laughter.
Nicholas wheeled about and strode the other direction. Thatcher was batty, that’s what, likely from too much time spent on the byways wrestling with highwaymen. The man probably envied the soft position he’d just landed, holing up in a fine townhouse, watching over some proper little heiress. For all he knew, she might have a nurse or a governess, and all he’d have to do was recline in the man’s study, smoke cheroots and read the Times.
Descending the stairs, he grinned in full at his fortune and entered the foyer. His bootsteps echoed in the wide lobby, empty now that court was in session. He reached for the doorknob then jerked back when it opened of its own accord.
“Ahh, Brentwood.” A barrel-chested man entered, not as large as Thatcher, but every bit as powerful. All Ford’s chosen men were built like bulwarks.
Nicholas nodded a greeting. “Moore. How goes it?”
“Not bad. On my way to testify.” Alexander Moore swept past him, shedding his hat and brushing back his wild mane of blonde hair. Nearing the courtroom, he called over his shoulder. “And by the smile on your face, I assume you escaped that horrendous assignment ol’ Ford was trying to pawn off.”
The door slapped shut behind Moore, as soundly as the jaws of Ford’s trap snapped down on Nicholas. Replaying the entire interview in his head, the magistrate’s throat clearing and darting gaze stood out as the single tip-off. Apparently the gentleman, Mr. Alistair Payne, had tried to arrange for a guardian long before he set sail, a position both Moore and Thatcher had declined. Nicholas frowned. Ford hadn’t chosen him for any special reason other than he was the last resort.
Stepping out into the rank offense of Bow Street, Nicholas flipped up his collar against the chill and cast off any misgivings. After tracking down murderers, gamblers and whoremongers, how hard could guarding an heiress be?