Chapter One

 

London, October 27, 1820

 

RAIN fell in a constant, heavy patter against the windows of his brother’s study as William Carey stared irritably out at the street. Watching the various heavily bundled shapes scurry past, he mused that the weather would keep most of the idle indoors today, allowing their servants and tradesmen the freedom to go about their business unimpeded by those with nothing better to do than clog the streets and walks—those like himself. Watching them now, he could not help but wonder if the men and women of the working classes actually preferred the rain for just that reason. He would have to ask Stubbs the next time he saw him.

William chuckled to himself at the thought. He could almost see his manservant and oldest friend’s reaction now. That grizzled face would deepen into an amused scowl, followed by a snort of derision aimed at “Sir high’n mighty,” for it was not so many years ago that William himself had been plodding the streets of St. Ives Bay and scrambling through the muddy caves and shorelines of Cornwall and Devon, with Stubbs at his side, in worse weather than this. The only difference between him then and the people on the street before him now was that he had never been forced to scrape out that living. He had done it because he had chosen to, to amuse himself and because he had wanted the adventure… naïve fool with more bollocks than wit that he had been in his youth.

He knew better now. Looking back, he’d been damned lucky. His thoughtless quest for high adventure could just as easily have ended on the back of the three-legged mare or on a knife in the dark as standing comfortably in his brother’s study with nothing better to do than watch the rain and good people of London at their toil.

He took another sip of his brother’s brandy and turned from the window, glancing sourly about the room. He had been waiting for his brother for nigh on an hour now, and he was more than a little restless and annoyed. As his eyes lit on the bookshelves behind the desk, he toyed with the notion of taking down one of the handsomely bound volumes to help pass the time. Horace kept the most rare and prized of his collection—the ones meant to be owned but not read—in this room, and William was tempted on several counts to break his brother’s unspoken prohibition and help himself. First and foremost among his incentives was that Horace had left him there, stewing, after summoning him so imperiously to his home. Second, there were quite a few rare volumes in the collection that William had yet to read. And last, but certainly not the least, for the look on his elder brother’s face when he came upon William reading said book and lounging in his comfortable leather chair with a glass of Horace’s best brandy in his hand. 

A small, wicked smile spread over William’s face as the image passed through his mind, only to fade away a moment later as he discarded the idea. He truly was not in the mood for reading, and the consequences of such a petty game would not be worth the rewards. If something should happen to the book, William would most assuredly never hear the end of it, and he would, more than likely, be forced to wait in the hall—or worse, in Eugenia’s gaudily decorated parlor—on any future visits. He shivered in mock revulsion at the thought. Horace’s wife did have the most appalling taste in decoration.

No, he had best leave the books alone and content himself with another drink. A self-satisfied grin curved his lips as he rolled the excellent vintage across his tongue. William preferred whiskey, but it wasn’t a gentleman’s drink, so Horace didn’t keep any in his private stock. His older brother would already be put out that William had picked the lock on his hidden cabinet and purloined some of his finest brandy. A second affront would indeed be pushing things a bit far. 

Sir Horace Carey, Baron Whitecastle, could be pompous and high-handed at times, but he was a good enough man all around and a much kinder head of the family than their father had been, that was for certain. He did not deserve more than a little prick to his pride for leaving his brother to cool his heels all afternoon. 

As William sat down in his brother’s chair and propped his boots on the edge of their father’s old mahogany desk, he wondered again what could have prompted Horace to send for him so unexpectedly. They did not see one another often, despite the fact that they both lived in London for most of the year. They tended to travel in vastly different circles, and that was exactly how William preferred it. In fact, the only time they met anymore was for family gatherings, and even then, only the private family functions, the ones that did not involve any of Horace’s Tory friends. 

William was well aware that he was considered the black sheep of the family and that his reputation was a rather sore point for Horace. Charged with upholding the family honor after their father’s death more than twelve years before, his brother was not at all pleased with the manner in which William chose to live his life… not that the fact bothered William overly much. At thirty-two years of age, he was well past his majority. He had his own fortune, completely independent of his family. His life was his own to live as he chose, and as long as he was not hurting anyone, he did not feel the need to answer to anyone for it. Needless to say, Horace rarely agreed with that sentiment. 

The most amusing thing about his brother’s disapproval was that the poor fellow did not even know the half of it. The worst Horace knew of him was that he was a bit of a gambler and a rake and may have had some less-than-upstanding business dealings and acquaintances in his youth. Though the London gossips had dubbed him everything from a buggerer of sheep to a murderous highwayman and pirate king, most of the stories were so outlandish as to be laughable, and few would openly admit to believing such fustian. Horace certainly would not. 

If his brother had any idea of the truth amongst all the fantasy, any idea of the means by which William had turned the pittance of an inheritance their father had left him into the fortune he now possessed—or, for that matter, the fact that his bed-partners, though not sheep, were not always of the fairer sex either—William felt quite certain the man would succumb to a fit of apoplexy from which he might never recover. As William certainly did not want that to happen, lest he be forced to shoulder the burden of Whitecastle until his little nephew Robert was of age, he made every effort to ensure that his past as Gentleman Black, infamous free-tradesman of Cornwall, was far behind him. In fact, the only connection to his misspent youth that he had not left behind or buried was his man, Stubbs, and no amount of caution would ever make him give that man up. 

William shifted in his brother’s chair, and a twinge in his side reminded him that Stubbs was not the only connection he had left to that time. He lifted a hand to his ribs, instinctively covering the spot where a well-placed knife had nearly robbed him of his life. The scars on his body were a daily reminder of the folly of his youth and, unfortunately, a source of fascination for his lovers. The physical testaments to his idiocy were ever the topic of speculation among those he took to his bed, and as he would never divulge where he had acquired them, they only served to add to his reputation and mystique. There was only one person with whom he had ever shared all of his secrets, and that lady was long gone now.

William shook his head and stood. He was becoming maudlin, and that would not do. He impatiently crossed to the window again. He hated being left to sit idle like this. It made him dwell on things best left buried and pain that would likely never heal. He would give Horace until he finished the brandy in his glass and not a moment longer.

Interviews with his brother were never what one would call a pleasure. Having to wait for one only compounded insult upon injury. William had errands to run and a box for the opera. Arnold and King’s Up All Night was a personal favorite, and he needed to get back to his own house soon if he was going to have time to dine and change before the curtain rose.

There was barely a swallow left in his glass when Horace’s coach pulled up in front of the house. His brother pushed open the door himself and raced up the steps to the house, trailed by a flustered footman carrying an umbrella, and William turned from the window with a relieved sigh.

At last.

William threw back the last of his drink in one gulp and set the empty tumbler on the corner of the desk. When Horace entered, his brief nod and mumbled “William” were gruff and unapologetic, as always, but William was at least given a measure of satisfaction when his brother caught sight of the tumbler on his desk and frowned, glancing at the closed door to his secret cabinet. William only smiled placidly at his brother’s sharp look and waited for his invitation to sit. He knew needling his brother like this was petty and childish, but it was a game he still enjoyed immensely, even after all these years.

When they were both seated, Horace set his elbows on the desk, steepled his fingers, and pursed his lips, but made no move to start their interview. As the silence stretched, William realized that something must be deeply troubling Horace for him to be so reluctant to begin. If William were a better man, he might have taken pity on his brother and opened the conversation himself, but he was not, and he was still a little miffed, so he simply leaned back, settled himself more comfortably in his chair, and studied his fingernails.

He did take the opportunity to examine his brother out of the corner of his eye, and what he saw did nothing to ease his mind. Horace had more silver in his hair than William remembered, and the lines on his face seemed to be etched more deeply into his forehead and around his mouth. William knew his own brown-black hair was littered with a few silver threads these days, but he liked to think they made him look more distinguished rather than simply older. He was not a vain man, but he knew well enough that his sharp good looks and devilish smile had gotten him more than his fair share in this world, and sharing those same features had not hurt Horace’s political ambitions in the slightest either. 

But as William looked across the desk at him now, in the gray afternoon light, Horace seemed old and tired more than distinguished, and William was given the impression that the world weighed quite heavily upon his shoulders. What with the Peterloo Massacre the year before and that awful conspiracy in February, it was no wonder the man looked tired. From what he had heard, William was not certain that political ambitions were at all beneficial to a man’s health. Luckily, he had none of his own. 

He had almost decided to concede defeat and open the conversation himself when Horace’s steel-gray eyes met his and he finally spoke.

“I trust Giles kept you comfortable until I could arrive?” Horace’s voice was tired and his tone formal, but it was the closest William would get to an apology and, recognizing it as such, he decided he would not dwell on his pique.

“Thank you, Horace. Yes, your man saw to it that I was comfortable while I waited.” He could not help stressing that last word, just a little, to drive home the fact that he was not pleased.

“I am sure you have engagements this evening that you would like to prepare for, so I will be brief,” Horace said, ignoring William’s jibe and looking away to a point on the opposite wall. Clearing his throat, he said, “I would like to ask for your assistance in a certain matter. It is somewhat delicate, else I would have written rather than requiring we meet in person.”

William raised his brows in surprise but remained silent. Horace never asked him for anything. It must be something “delicate” indeed if his brother was condescending to ask his aid. William watched patiently as Horace cleared his throat again and shifted uncomfortably in his chair before standing to pace the room.

Now William was doubly curious at his brother’s level of unease. He turned in his seat, following the older man’s progress as he paced to the windows, and waited for Horace to continue.

“Lydia has committed a bit of an indiscretion,” Horace began, staring out at the street. His mouth twisted a little as he continued, “She has allowed the attentions of a most unsuitable young man, past the point of propriety, though thankfully nothing irreparable has happened.”

William remained silent, absorbing the information. Lydia was Horace’s eldest daughter, a pretty little thing, though a trifle simple in William’s opinion. He was surprised more at the fact that she had been let out of someone’s sight long enough to do such a thing more than that she had done it. Horace kept a close watch on all his children, lest they commit any blunder that might prove damaging to his reputation and political career. Lydia must have more wit than William gave her credit for if she had managed to give her watchdogs the slip.

“Eugenia and Lydia have retired to Whitecastle with the rest of the children for a bit of a holiday while I see to things here in London,” Horace continued.

Translation: I packed my daughter and my wife off to the country while I see to the damage.

“Sounds as if you have things well in hand. What could you possibly need of me?” William asked, openly curious and relieved that it was not anything more serious than that. His brother really did take his reputation and honor a bit too seriously. It would be bad for his health if he continued to fret so over such trifles.

Horace grimaced and turned to face him as he said, “There is the small matter of some letters Lydia wrote the young man. Letters I would wish to see destroyed. I have attempted to contact him regarding the matter, without success, and I fear creating more of a scandal in retrieving them than if I had let the matter rest. You, however, have had more dealings with this sort of thing and might have better luck than I.”

As compliments went, it was somewhat lacking, but William was amused despite himself. All those years of being the black sheep, of being lectured about propriety by their father and even, to a small extent, by Horace himself, and now that William had finally taken to the straight and narrow—well, as straight and narrow as he could get—his brother needed him to do some dirty work for him. It was most amusing. The only question now would be how much he would make the man squirm for it.

William sat back in his chair and stroked his chin while Horace stood rigidly by the windows. After only a few moments, William sighed quietly and decided he would not bother, not today. He had his own affairs to attend to, and he would only be prolonging the inevitable by keeping Horace in suspense. Though he was not close to any of his family, William had enough honor, of his own sort, that he would not let Lydia come to any harm. She was his niece, after all, and a sweet enough girl. He would get the letters for her sake, if not for Horace’s, so there was no point in dragging this interview out any further.

“As you wish, brother. I will see what I can do about retrieving these letters for you, without a scandal. Give me the particulars, and I will look into the matter.”

Horace’s shoulders slumped as the tension left his body, and his face relaxed from the pained frown he had been sporting, though he did not smile. His brother never smiled anymore, and every time William saw him, he was grateful that Horace had inherited the title and not him. Having all that power and responsibility seemed to suck the gaiety out of life, and Horace seemed to become more like their father with every day he spent as Whitecastle. William shuddered at the thought, thanking Heaven that he had been spared such a fate and silently praying for Horace’s continued good health.

“Thank you, William,” Horace said, and William was sure that had cost him. “His name is Henry Bradshaw. They met on holiday in Bath, and he followed her back to town. He has no family or fortune of any note. The only connections he has are through a cousin, Edward Graves, fourth son of the Earl of Arundel. Graves is a member of your club, I believe, and I am told you can find him and Bradshaw there quite often of late.”

William did not remember ever meeting Bradshaw, but if he were a member of Graves’s circle, that would not surprise him. Edward Graves was one of the newest generation of young pups out to gamble away their inheritance before they even saw a penny of it, and William was long past that stage in his life. He still gambled to amuse himself, but he gambled to win, and he had learned long ago when it was best to walk away.

He had heard gossip that Graves might share some of his inclinations toward those of the same sex, gossip that Horace would not have been privy to, but Graves was a pompous little whelp, and though tall, fair-haired, and moderately handsome, he was not remotely attractive enough to entice William into seeing if a little training might improve him. William liked a challenge, but the rewards had to be worth the effort, and there was nothing that Graves had that William wanted. 

The extent of his association with the man had thus far consisted of William’s relieving him of his money at the gaming tables, and he had consequently found Graves to be a poor loser in addition to his other failings. William grimaced. His history with Graves might make retrieving the letters more difficult if Henry Bradshaw was close to his cousin.

William stood abruptly and straightened his coat. He needed to be on his way if he was going to accomplish everything he needed to this evening. “I will see what I can do, Horace. I will send word when I have news. Now, if you will excuse me, I have much to do before my engagement this evening.”

“Of course. Good evening, brother,” Horace said with a brusque nod.

William nodded in return, and made his way into the hall. When the footman brought his hat, gloves, cane, and greatcoat, he stepped out into the street and was relieved to find the rain had stopped. It would be easier to wave down a hack if he did not have to fuss with an umbrella. He was not in humor to wait for a servant to fetch a carriage for him. He had been cooped up in his brother’s study for far too long, and he needed to stretch his legs a bit and be away from that house. The brisk, late autumn wind felt wonderful on his brandy-flushed cheeks, and the tension that invaded his body whenever he was forced to enter his father’s house soon melted away. 

William was able to find a carriage after only a few blocks, and as he sat comfortably in the coach as it wound its way through the damp, narrow streets, he decided he would need to alter his plans for the evening. He had originally planned to attend the opera and make the rounds between acts, in hopes of finding a willing companion with whom to spend the night. Cordelia, Hyacinth, and Mary, the “merry widows,” as he called them, all loved the theater, and most nights he could find one or all of them in attendance and willing. He truly had not wanted to spend the night alone, this night of all nights, but now it appeared a trip to his club would be in order, and the widows would have to find companionship elsewhere.

When the carriage finally stopped as he directed, he looked out the small window and up at St. Olave’s gray walls in the evening gloom. All thoughts of his plans for the night, his niece, and the merry widows faded to nothing as a familiar, bittersweet sadness filled his chest. He opened the door himself and stepped out onto the walk. He bid the driver wait and borrowed one of the lanterns hanging from the carriage, throwing the man a shilling to silence any protests. 

The chill wind set his greatcoat flapping against his legs as he made his way along the outside of the church to the stone archway into the churchyard. He had a promise to fulfill, but it would not take long, and then he would be on his way home to a warm fire and a hearty dinner.

Smiling sadly up at the trio of grinning stone skulls above the old iron gate, William pushed inside with a screech of metal hinges and made his way into the quiet churchyard. The light was fading fast, and he had to hurry before they locked the gate for the night. Tower street ward was not a place he would choose to linger after dark in any case, though he had his cane and a few nasty surprises for any thief fool enough to think him easy prey.

In the weak light from the lantern, he managed to find the gravestone he was looking for quickly. He had been there often enough over the years that he could find his way with his eyes closed if it were necessary. In the back corner of the yard, a simple rectangular headstone, the name faded with age and barely discernible even in daylight, sat sheltered by a large tree. He knelt on the damp ground, heedless of the wet soaking through his coat and trousers, and pulled a small candle from his pocket. He lit the candle from the lantern and placed it in the ground at the base of the stone.

“Happy anniversary, my love,” he whispered into the chill night air, and he closed his eyes.

Even now, six years after her death, he could still picture Cora’s sweet and slightly wicked smile. The pain of her loss had lessened to a dull ache over the years, but he still missed her, most particularly on nights when he had not found a companion to while away the hours until dawn. During the day it was so much easier to keep himself occupied with one thing or another, though he was finding it harder and harder to keep himself from slipping into melancholy as his diversions failed, one by one, to hold his attention. 

Cora had been his wife for such a short time, but they had packed a lot of loving into their four-year marriage. She had been a true partner to him in every sense of the word, his helpmeet and his savior at a time in his life when he could easily have let his recklessness destroy him. 

They had met in St. Ives Bay, where he had been doing his damnedest to get himself killed. At the time, his recklessness with the excise men and coastguards had left even his partners believing him mad. Even Stubbs, loyal, stalwart Stubbs, had come close to walking away from him, fearing William would get himself and the rest of the band hanged. If he had not met Cora, William shuddered to think where he would be now. 

She had been older than he and far wiser, the eldest daughter of a respected merchant family, beautiful and brilliant, with hair as black as coal, the heart of a rogue, and the face of an angel. She had taken him in hand and taught him discipline and control over his passions, taught him how to harness them and use them to create a future for himself instead of pissing his life away in a vain attempt to prove something to himself and the rest of the world. She had given him purpose and created the bridge he had needed to make the transition from rakehell and smuggler to upstanding gentleman of fortune… and to reconnect with his family.

Though she came from a proud and wealthy family, Horace had not approved of her at the start. He thought her far too old for him, but once he had had an opportunity to know her and to see the transformation she had wrought within his younger brother, even he had succumbed to her charms. William had her to thank for everything he now possessed, and he was certain he would never meet a more fierce, determined, and unusual woman.

Smiling to himself at his memories, he blew a kiss at the candle and made his way out of the churchyard. He had promised her on her deathbed that he would light a candle for her every year on this day. She had not been a religious woman, far from it, but she had loved this little church with its odd, squat tower, its shadowed corners, and the gruesome trio of skulls welcoming you to the quiet yard. Hard to believe that in the bustle of Seething Lane one could find such a peaceful haven, but it was one of the reasons she had loved it so much. He grinned a little at the memory of how they had made use of some of those quiet corners and the bit of earth in front of the old gravestone where he had knelt, shielded by the tree’s curtaining branches. It was those occasions that had made him come to love the place almost as much as she did.

His smile faded a little as he remembered the other promise he had made to her at the end, as the fever had slowly stripped away the strength he had so adored in her. It was the only promise he had ever failed to keep. 

“Promise me you will love again, William. Your heart is too wild to be left without purpose. Promise me you will find someone so I will not have to fear that you will be consumed by your own fire.”

He had promised her. How could he not? But he had not been able to keep his word. He had tried, over and over, but he had never found anyone who captured his heart the way she had, no one who had even come close. He knew she would not blame him. He could not help that he had not found anyone whom he could love. A man was lucky to find a love like that once in a lifetime. He played the odds at the gaming tables often enough to know that only a fool would bet on that kind of luck coming around again.

But she need not have worried about him burning up in his own fire. Since her death, he had been listless and filled with ennui more than overcome with raging passions. Perhaps his years with her had tamed him, or perhaps it was just that age had tempered him. He did not know. He had simply sunk into a life of indolence and dissipation without any real aim, and had very little to show for the past six years of his life.

William grimaced. He was getting maudlin again. It was time to be on his way. Shaking himself back into the present, he stepped back out onto the street and pulled his greatcoat a little tighter around him. He could not spend the night wallowing in the past. Cora would have been furious with him.

As he reached the carriage and handed back the lantern, William decided he needed to add another stop before he headed home to Mayfair, so he instructed the driver to take him to his house in Cecil Court, the secret house he kept for assignations that required more privacy than his other home could afford. It was only a little out of the way, and he wanted to talk to Stubbs and his wife, Maud, who kept house for him there, before the hour grew too late. 

They might be able to aid him in his quest for the letters. Maud had been born and raised in the fetid stews of Jacob’s Island. Before she and Stubbs met, she had spent many a year scraping out a living on her back in the rookeries, and though she had left that life behind when she married Stubbs, they both still did what they could for the poor souls who were not so lucky. With their connections in London’s underbelly, his servants might be able to dig something up that William could use against Bradshaw or Graves, something to give him leverage in his negotiations. Lord and thief alike all found their way to the brothels of London, and any man’s secrets could be had for the right price.

In all probability, he would not need to go that far with the young man, but he would rather have something to fall back on if Bradshaw proved difficult, and he would rather set the wheels in motion tonight than lose time later. If he was quick about it, he could stop at his rooms there, have a brief conversation, and still make it back to his Mayfair house in plenty of time to eat and get changed for the opera.