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Lady Wynwood's Spies, volume 4: Betrayer

A Christian Historical Adventure set in Regency England with romance and a supernatural twist
Part four in an epic-length serial novel

Beleaguered spies

Lady Wynwood’s team of spies are trying to heal from the physical and mental wounds recently dealt to them. However, their investigation into Apothecary Jack’s mysterious group has turned up only a few strange, disjointed clues, and the dangerous Root elixir continues to circulate in the London underbelly. It is only a matter of time before the Root is sold to Napoleon, which would give him overwhelming dominance in the war.

Sudden threats

Then Laura, Lady Wynwood, is unexpectedly attacked by a man she had trusted. Although Phoebe and her household staff manage to protect her, her life is now in danger and she must go into hiding.

Dangerous mysteries

Laura uncovers more secrets kept by her late husband that shed illumination on his enigmatic mistress, Bianca. In the meantime, the team follows the trail of Laura’s attacker, which might enable them to capture Apothecary Jack or his compatriot, the pale-eyed man.

All the while, they are unaware that the hunters have become the hunted.

PLEASE NOTE: Like the novels published in Jane Austen’s time, this is a novel in multiple parts. Each volume has a completed story arc, but this is NOT a stand-alone novel and ends on a cliffhanger.

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Laura awoke when the bed moved.

Ten years—nearly eleven—of finally living without Wynwood had still not cured her of her sensitivity at night, fostered by the ten years she was married to him.

Except that Wynwood was dead. And yet the bed moved.

Her heartbeat suddenly sped up. She couldn’t remember being so afraid. Even when Wynwood was at his worst, she knew it would hurt, but she had become used to it. She knew what to expect.

But now, there was someone in the dark with her. Someone she didn’t know.

--From Lady Wynwood's Spies, volume 4: Betrayer


Lady Wynwood’s Spies, volume 4: Betrayer

A Christian Regency Romantic Adventure serial novel
by Camille Elliot

For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.
Luke 12: 2-3 (KJV)

Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him:
but I will maintain mine own ways before him.
Job 13:15 (KJV)

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-30 (KJV)


Laura, Lady Wynwood, sat in the dark in her drawing room and waited for an intruder.

Her errand earlier that evening had taken her longer than would have been expected for a simple trip to Rachey Street and a one hour conversation. As usual, they had taken a roundabout route to the Senhora’s establishment, and after the meeting, a meandering path home. It had given Laura ample time to worry about the conversation beforehand, and too much time to brood over the information afterward.

So many secrets, tangled, knotting, tightening. The strands were cutting into her skin and making her bleed regret and guilt, anger and suffering.

None of the events of the past several weeks had been coincidence—not Sol’s actions in confronting a Ramparts agent at the Meynhill birthday celebration, not Phoebe’s meeting with Mr. Coulton-Jones on Hampstead Heath, and not the way those disparate moments connected to her late husband. And to Laura’s own actions.

Normally, it would signal the Lord’s hand over her life, over the lives of those close to  her. But to Laura, it simply felt like an accusatory finger that both judged and stirred up the morass of her past sins, which she’d spent years trying to forget. She should have known she couldn’t run from them.

The conversation with the Senhora tonight had tired her. The anxiety beforehand and the pain of facing her past, facing Wynwood’s past, had left her feeling like a burned out shell.

But she couldn’t sleep. She would toss and turn and nurture her pain like a madwoman, perhaps because everything had made her just a touch insane.

She had news that she knew Sol would want to hear, and she also knew he’d come to hear it despite how tired he might be himself. Upon returning from the Senhora’s place, Laura had sent Calvin to Sol’s townhouse with a message asking him to visit that evening if possible. Otherwise, she would await his presence at breakfast.

But he would come tonight. Or perhaps she willed him to come tonight so that she need not bear the burden of these secrets alone for much longer.

The servants were completing their duties for the evening before turning in to bed, and she could faintly hear voices and small noises from the kitchen in the half-basement at the back of the townhouse. She had hated asking it of her, but Laura had requested for Aya to remain awake in the kitchen so that she would be able to unlatch the back door and allow Sol into the house. Even if he arrived before the house was dark and asleep, she knew he would sneak in from the back so that her nosy neighbors would not spy him visiting so late at night.

She heard a change in the bustling in the kitchen, a subtle shift in the bumps and voices, and knew he’d arrived.

Sol’s steps were surprisingly soft and tentative on the stairs, and Laura realized she should have lit a lamp. When she started her vigil, she had felt more in sympathy with the darkness, and she had wished her neighbors to think she was either not home or had retired to bed unusually early for an evening during the height of the Season.

She was about to rise and open the drawing room door, which was only cracked, when flickering candlelight cut through the shadows, momentarily blinding her. She blinked, letting her eyes accustom to the light, and when she could see again, Sol was closing the drawing room door.

“Rather scandalous, Sol,” she said in a voice that sounded high-pitched and tight rather than carefree, as she had intended.

“Since we are both widowed?” Society dictated that he should leave the door cracked at the very least, but he engaged the latch firmly. “I gathered from the tone of your note that you have no wish to share this information with any other servants.”

“Only you could infer the tone of a short note.”

“Only your notes,” he said, placing the candle holder on a nearby side table.

She almost asked him to blow the flame out, but then chastised herself for being a coward.

She had chosen an elaborately carved chair facing the door, and he sat on the sofa beside her. She had forgotten about the splash of brandy she’d poured for herself earlier, and now gently pushed the crystal tumbler on the low table closer to him.

He sighed and downed the contents in a single swallow. Perhaps it was the dim light, but the shadows formed deep pockets under his eyes and drew long grooves alongside his mouth. “Gracious, Sol, you look exhausted.”

He rubbed his forehead with his long, square fingers. “I have come from the Ramparts, where I did a great deal of shouting.”

“About the deaths of the French agents?” Earlier that afternoon, she and Phoebe had been present—along with the rest of his team—when he’d received news that, due to senseless posturing between individual leaders in the Foreign and Alien Offices, the French agents whom they had captured had been killed.

He nodded. “Unfortunately, it yielded no purpose other than venting my feelings.”

It was a truly regretful ending to the hard work they had exerted to find these foreign agents and capture them before they could return to France. Laura then smiled at herself. She said “we,” but the ones in danger had been Sol, his agents, and Phoebe and Keriah.

He glanced at her, and even in the candlelight, the flecks of gold in his chocolate brown eyes glimmered softly. “I hope your message indicates you have something interesting to impart rather than more bad news.”

Laura grimaced. “Possibly both.” She hesitated. If Sol didn’t agree to her conditions, then all her effort—and the cost—would have all been for naught. “Before I tell you anything, Sol, I must have your solemn word that you shall not divulge to anyone—including to your superiors in the Ramparts—from whom you received this information.”

His dark brows rose in surprise, but he did not appear reluctant to grant her request. “May I ask why?”

“The men at the Ramparts mustn’t know that I was the person who imparted these facts to you. Any of them could surmise that there is no possibility that I would have already known any of what I am about to tell you. Therefore, they would assume that I must have received it from someone else, and I cannot have anyone looking into that person.”

He held out his hand as if to allay her fears. “The report would be only visible to a handful of people, the men in the Ramparts who know best how to keep secrets.”

She shook her head. “Sol, if my name is anywhere on your report, even if it is only for the eyes of the highest levels in your department, it is too dangerous. I am hardly an agent. Anyone with enough perseverance would find my connection to my … source. I cannot have any of those men, even men who keep secrets, to know about this.”

“This level of security seems quite excessive.”

“It is what is required of me.” The Senhora had always insisted that no one know of Laura’s connection to her.

Sol slowly asked, “What would you like to me to tell my superiors?”

“Anything you like. I assume you often receive confidential information from others in society, whose names remain anonymous on your reports except to your superiors. Perhaps you can say that you heard these things from one of them.”

His mouth set in a grim line for a moment before he spoke. “Laura, you are asking me to lie to my superiors.”

She swallowed. “I am sorry, Sol, but that is the price. Can you whole-heartedly assure me that if an important man at the Ramparts, tasked with the security of the nation, is intrigued by your report, that he would not investigate me and my ‘friend?’ And that he would not then instruct other agents to approach this ‘friend’ in hopes of other information?”

Her question caught him off-guard, but understanding lightened his dark eyes, although he said nothing.

Laura continued, “If even a whiff of a suspicion reaches my ‘friend,’ our relationship would be cut with the indifference of a woman snipping embroidery thread.”

He sat back in the sofa. “And this relationship is important to you?”

“It may be important to you, also. You may require information of this sort at some point in the future.”

He sat in thought for a minute, then finally nodded. “Very well. You obviously assign a great deal of weight to this connection, and I would not wish to force you to sever it. And if you believe that we should cultivate the favor of this person, then I will trust your judgment.”

Laura felt warmth radiating from her cheeks and neck, as if she’d remained too close to the fireplace for too long. He had used the word “we,” and he trusted her. It was a … nice feeling.

In halting sentences, she told him what the Senhora had told her tonight about Mrs. Bianca Jadis.

She never witnessed Sol so shocked as when she related her tale. Weeks earlier, he had already appeared rattled when he learned that Bianca’s pendant contained Jack’s mysterious symbol inside of it, but now, tonight, he kept asking questions about Bianca and appeared more dumbfounded the more he learned. Laura also told him what the Senhora had told her about Jack Dix and the group behind that symbol.

At one point, he requested paper and began taking notes as she spoke. He studied his slanting scrawl on the sheets spread out upon the low table before them. “Is this everything about Bianca?”

Hearing her name on his lips was strange for her, but it was also, oddly, a relief. It made her almost forget that “Bianca” was also Wynwood’s mistress. The woman had only been referred to as “Mrs. Jadis” by the spiteful society acquaintances who wanted to deliver the news to Laura to distress her, but the Senhora had only referred to her as “Bianca.” The tendency seemed to have taken root in Laura’s thoughts, perhaps because it distanced her feelings from the pain of the past, and she had used “Bianca” when speaking to Sol, who now copied her.

“Yes, I believe so.” She hesitated, then decided that Sol wouldn’t have such great pride that he’d resist a sensible suggestion. “There was very little information about Bianca because she was a lone woman, unmarried without father or brothers, lost in the sea of other women like her in London. But the most valuable items I acquired about her were the names of her protector, Mr. Field Emsley, and her husband, Mr. Carl Jadis. A high-flyer like Bianca could die and leave no trace of herself behind, but the men she associated with could not. They would have left documents about themselves which could be found, if you looked hard enough.”

“You’d need more than effort,” Sol grumbled. “You’d need a fair bit of luck.”

She couldn’t resist the opening to needle him. “I shall pray for the Lord’s guidance, which would be far more effective than luck.”

He scowled at her, but did not argue theology with her as he might have several months ago. Perhaps Phoebe’s strong faith and the coincidences that continued to fall into his lap were softening him to the concept of the Lord watching over them all.

“Have you the means to investigate these men?” she asked. “You perhaps may need an attorney you trust.”

“I shall try to do what I can myself. There are attorneys trusted by the Ramparts, but …” He grimaced again. “After the way my superiors botched the capture and questioning of the French agents, I have no wish to risk the wrong attorney letting slip these names.”

“If Bianca was part of this mysterious group, as we suspect, then her husband may have also belonged to them. His may be one set of initials in Wynwood’s pocket watch.”

Sol nodded, animation erasing the tired lines of his face. After the frustration of finding nothing about Bianca these past weeks, he now had a thread to pull to see what it unraveled. She knew him well enough to know that he was relieved to have something to do.

He suddenly stilled as he studied her. In a soft voice, he asked, “What were you forced to pay for this information?”

She had hoped he would not think to ask that. She swallowed, glancing down at her hands clasped in her lap, and forced herself to relax her stiff fingers. “It is nothing criminal, but it is better that you do not know.”

Laura thought Sol would vehemently object, not simply because he worked for a government agency, but also because he hated being uninformed of anything that impacted his work or his life. She and Sol were the same—both desperate to keep firm hold of the things and people around them, because it made them feel they had some sort of control over everything.

But instead, he said nothing for long minutes. Sol’s hand rose to rub his forehead and cover his eyes, but not before she saw him squeeze his eyes shut in regret. When he finally dropped his hand looked at her, his gaze was remorseful. “I am sorry you needed to pay such a price, Laura.”

“I have paid nothing,” she quickly replied. However, she would be risking a great deal next Season. But she would never reveal the truth to him.

“It should have been my responsibility to find this information and pay the person who gave it to you.”

“This person would never have met with you, Sol. Even meeting with me was a great favor to me and an expression of the trust between us.”

“Why was it necessary that it must be you?” He frowned at her, but she could tell he was concerned for her.

“It was not dangerous for me,” she assured him. “But you posses nothing that this person would want. Only I had that.”

He was silent in the face of that truth, but she could tell he still didn’t like it. He gusted a loud sigh and slouched back in the sofa, his head tilted back and staring at the darkened ceiling. She studied his shadowed face and realized that shame had been blurring his features ever since she started speaking about Bianca.

“What is troubling you, Sol?” she asked gently.

His eyes looked at her without moving his head. “I can never hide anything from you,” he complained.

“I’ve known you too long. Argued with you too much.”

“You’re probably correct about that.” He sighed again and returned his gaze to the ceiling. He didn’t answer her immediately, and she let him take the time to sift through his thoughts. Finally, he said, “We do not yet have definitive proof that Bianca belonged to this secret group, but it is becoming more and more likely.”

Silence stretched between them, but she knew he was simply trying to formulate the words for what was jumbling through his brain.

“When you told me weeks ago that you may know how to uncover more of Bianca’s background, I admit I only held faint hope that you could accomplish it,” he said. “At the time, I clung to my faith in my own abilities. I needed to trust in my abilities, because I was so dismayed by the revelation that she had the symbol inside her pendant. I was the one who had disregarded her. I had utterly missed any possible clues that pointed to her connection to a larger group with a larger agenda.”

“None of those clues may have existed at all.”

“We’ll never know. I’ll never know. You may not think too badly of me, Laura, but I know I failed when it came to Bianca. And what is more, my superiors know I failed. Some of them understand how I could have mistaken Bianca’s plans and secret motivations, but others are questioning my ability to investigate and lead.”

She chose her words carefully. “I cannot say anything in regards to the Ramparts. But Sol, none of us are perfect.”

“I must still expect the best of myself and the men I lead.”

“Yes, of course, but it is unreasonable to expect we shall never make a single misstep. It begins to affect the results of our work when we believe so strongly in only ourselves that we start to believe we are perfect.”

“I have never believed that I am perfect,” he objected, but with a hint of petulance in his tone.

“When I need a good dose of humility, that is often the exact moment when God gives me a swift kick in the rear end to remind me that I am not as wonderful as I think I am.” She leaned forward and tilted her head to the side, looking up at him with a hard, searching gaze. “Bianca is looking more and more like God’s foot up your backside, don’t you think?”

His mouth opened, then closed, and then he laughed, a sound tinged with chagrin. “Yes, I do believe so.”

She was relieved to see him attempt to move past his low spirits, but her smile was strained. She may have spoken confidently about not clinging to perfection, but it also reminded her that she could not move past her own sins.

She knew she needed to face the truth. She needed to tell him the truth, and yet she couldn’t. Her weakness only fed the anguish pressing against her chest, the one awful secret she was still keeping from him.

Sol left her soon after that, and she was not surprised to find Aya waiting for her in her bedroom.

“You should have gone to bed when you let Sol into the house,” Laura told her maid.

She smiled politely like an exemplary servant, and completely ignored her comment as she helped Laura remove her dress.

Aya was behind her, unlacing her stays, and as the stiff fabric loosened, it was as if everything it held in came flying out of her. “Aya, I might still have killed him.”

The words were quiet and scratchy in the dimness of the bedroom, like mice skittering through the walls.

Aya’s hands stopped moving for several seconds, then she continued undoing the laces. She didn’t need to ask whom Laura was referring to. “He was poisoned,” Aya replied in an equally quiet voice.

“I know that now, but it doesn’t matter. I might still have caused his death before the poison killed him.”

“You … We have lived with this for years. What has changed?”

“My relationship with Sol has changed.”

“Has it?” Aya drew the dress from her shoulders. “He still visits, day or night, whenever you send a note ’round to him. He is not colder or more distant to you. You still trust him.”

“He knew things about Wynwood.”

“He confessed those to you.”

“So shouldn’t I confess to him?”

Aya gave a soft sigh, then with strong fingers, clasped Laura’s shoulders and turned her around so that they faced each other. Laura moved obediently, like a lost child.

The expression in Aya’s face was that of a friend, not a servant, a woman who had always tried to protect her even against Wynwood, even on that terrible night. “If you tell him, it may cost your friendship. But you already know that. You may be willing to pay that price, but what will happen to Mrs. Rook and the servants who acted on her orders?”

Laura wanted to say that she knew Sol well enough to be certain what he would do, how he would feel. She wanted to say that he cared for her too much, that he knew what kind of monster Wynwood had been, that he would understand.

Sol was a good man. He also had a strong sense of duty and trusted the men he reported to, men whom Laura did not know.

From what she’d learned these past ten years through the women she’d met on Rachey Street, through the servants she’d collected in her household, there were some men who were honorable, like Sol. But there were other men for whom the law was flexible and easily bent for nobility, but hard and rigid for common folk.

And because of that, when she answered Aya, she said the only thing she knew was the truth: “I don’t know what Sol would do.”

It saddened her, because only a few weeks ago, she had thought she knew Sol better than she’d known her own husband. But ironically, it turned out that she had known neither of them very well.

No, that wasn’t quite true. “I trust Sol to help me.”

“Will he? Without hesitation, even if you tell him this terrible secret?”

“I trust in Sol’s heart. He could not have hidden it from me during all our years as friends.” Laura stared into Aya’s dark blue eyes. “But Sol also answers to other men in that secret department of the Alien Office.” She had not told all her servants about the Ramparts, but those closest to her, like Aya, knew the entire truth. “He has no reason to doubt those men.”

“But you do?”

Laura shook her head, looking down at her hands, which were open in front of her. When she spoke, it was in a whisper as if she were spilling a terrible secret. “For some reason, when I think of Sol’s senior officers and fellow agents, I feel … uncertainty.” It was like a worm wriggling in her heart, uncomfortable and faintly repulsive.

“Has he said something to make you doubt them?” Aya’s voice was calm.

“No. I have no reason for my feelings, but I still feel them.”

Yes, Sol trusted those men. But she could not.

Aya was silent as she pondered Laura’s words. Her hands dropped from Laura’s shoulders. “Then for now, perhaps you should trust your feelings.”

Laura was not surprised at Aya’s suggestion. Her maid was fiercely loyal, but tended to act on her emotions more than logic. She was a good contrast to the housekeeper, Mrs. Rook, who was cool and logical.

But Aya surprised her when she continued, “I do not know why, but I also feel some uncertainty when I think about the agents in Mr. Drydale’s department.”

Laura looked up at her. “You do?”

Aya bit her lip, her words tentative. “Like you, I have no reason to feel uneasy, but … something feels dangerous.” She gave a soft gasp as she thought of something. “Earlier today … or perhaps, yesterday,” she amended, and Laura realized it must be past midnight. “A man came to deliver a message for Mr. Drydale. The note was given to Mr. Coulton-Jones to deliver to Mr. Drydale at Stapytton House.”

“It was the news about the deaths of the French agents.” Laura had been at Stapytton House with Phoebe when Mr. Coulton-Jones arrived with the message for Sol.

“I remained in the servants’ staircase while they spoke in the drawing room,” Aya said shamelessly, but she knew Laura would have approved of her vigilance when there was a stranger such as that in the house. “When the man arrived, Mr. Coulton-Jones spoke to him at first. I couldn’t hear what was said, but the man’s tone was … belligerent. Eventually, Lady Aymer interrupted them. I believe it was she who convinced the man to give the message to Mr. Coulton-Jones to deliver to Mr. Drydale.”

“Why would he be belligerent?” Laura wondered aloud. “Why would a man from Sol’s department quarrel with Mr. Coulton-Jones? According to Sol, Mr. Coulton-Jones is working directly and officially under him.”

Aya gave a small shrug in answer. “I believe that is why I feel unease about the Ramparts.”

Laura nodded. “Thank you for telling me.”

“I apologize that I did not inform you about this earlier.”

“You have no need to apologize. Today has been quite an eventful day.”

Aya helped her into her nightgown and left her. When Wynwood had been alive, Aya had slept in Laura’s tiny dressing room next door, where there was barely enough room for the maid to sleep amidst Laura’s wardrobes and dressers. After his death, she had insisted that Aya was entitled to a private, larger room in the servants’ quarters on the top floor. Laura could hear Aya’s footsteps on the narrow servants’ staircase, soft and hesitant, as if reluctant to leave her mistress, but then there was the distant creak of a wooden door, and the house was silent.

She lay in bed and stared at the darkened ceiling. She had long ago removed the canopy from the ancient bed so that she would feel less suffocated, something she had desperately needed when Wynwood was alive. But now the open air above her made her feel exposed.

She could not tell Sol. Would there ever come a day when she could?

She wrapped her regrets around her like a frost-laden blanket, and the chill turned her heart into ice.

Chapter One

Two weeks later

Stapytton House, on the outskirts of London, had once held a ballroom with numerous windows that looked out over a quaint French-style garden. The garden, alas, had been overtaken by weeds, and the ballroom had ceased to look like one.

Every single window had been cracked, although it was questionable what act of nature could have destroyed so many panes of glass. The wooden floor, which once likely gleamed with polish, now was a motley of brown, black, and dark green, which made one feel that a misstep would cause a broken floorboard and a dangerous tumble down into the basement level. It also bulged with warping from water damage, so walking across it was like traversing a bobbing boat.

Michael slowed the wide roundhouse punch he threw at Miss Gardinier, but despite how his hand looked to be moving like a slug in mid-air, she just barely ducked under it. Then in side-stepping to try to angle for a counter, the uneven floor made her weakened leg wobble and give way.

He didn’t even hesitate at the sight of a woman in jeopardy. Without an ounce of mercy, he moved in with a slow jab. Rather, it looked slow to his senses, still enhanced by the Root formula Jack had forced upon him, but it was apparently too quick for Miss Gardinier. She took too long to notice his attack and jerked backwards barely an inch from his knuckles. She yelped as she lost her balance and landed on her backside.

“Heartless! Cruel!” she flung at him from her position on the floor.

He tried. He really did, but no matter how hard he pressed his hand over his mouth, it would be obvious to her that he was trying not to laugh at her.

Miss Gardinier’s gray eyes blazed with ire. “You saw I lost my footing. Could you not have given me a moment?”

Miss Sauber, watching from the edge of the ballroom, was the one who answered her friend. “A real attacker would not have given you a moment.” Miss Sauber likely had taken pity on Michael and spoken up in order to prevent more of Miss Gardinier’s wrath from thundering down upon him.

“Et tu, Brute?” Miss Gardinier said with a pout.

“That is the only thing you remembered from your Shakespeare,” Miss Sauber replied dryly. She reached a hand down to help Miss Gardinier to her feet.

“You would do better to remember more of your lessons from Mr. Armstrong,” Michael told her sternly.

Mr. Drydale had been taking Miss Sauber and Miss Gardinier to the Ramparts in the mornings to be privately trained by Mr. Alex Armstrong, who trained agents for both the Alien Office and the Foreign Office. A giant of a man, with muscles the size of headstones and a very impressive blond mustache, he often flashed his gleaming white teeth in a ready smile, which was nearly as blinding as the light reflecting from his balding pate. He was cheerfully relentless in training the two women in the many methods by which they could incapacitate an opponent using only their fists or weapons of opportunity.

Miss Sauber had been the one to approach Mr. Drydale and request some sort of fighting training, confessing that she had been woefully outclassed by the abilities of the French spy Brigitte. Michael was at Stapytton House when she brought the subject up to Mr. Drydale, and she apparently expected an explosive quarrel, because her face was screwed up as if her arguments were going to come spewing out of her mouth. Her jaw had actually fallen open when Mr. Drydale immediately agreed to her suggestion.

Now, after two weeks of training, Michael had bullied Miss Gardinier into sparring with him while they waited for Mr. Drydale to arrive at Stapytton House. It had become standard for either Michael, Thorne, or Mr. Drydale to travel with the two women in Lady Wynwood’s coach, driven by her coachman. They would remain in the house with them so that the two would not be alone in such a remote area, with only the coachman, who would be in the separated stable for part of the time, caring for the horses.

It was often boring work, to guard the two women, both of whom would hole themselves up in their respective work rooms, and Michael often spent time doing physical training or chatting with the coachman, Mr. Havner. Michael gave the man pointers on his fisticuffs technique, but the coachman was not a great fighter, and in a confrontation was was more effective with his accuracy with a horse-whip.

But since the two women had begun their training with Mr. Armstrong, Michael would instead spar with them to test their mettle. He now stood in his shirtsleeves and waistcoat, hands on his hips as he frowned at Miss Gardinier. She was breathing heavily and perspiration dotted the edges of the plain gown she wore when working in her stillroom, while Michael’s breath was still long and even.

“You are quick and accurate,” he told her, despite the fact she hadn’t landed a single blow, “but you are lacking in mobility because of your leg injury. So you must work to become more flexible so that you may avoid punches you cannot move away from.”

Miss Gardinier looked rather sullen, but Miss Sauber said to her, “Isn’t that the same thing that Vadoma told you before?”

Miss Gardinier groaned. “But stretching hurts so much …”

“Vadoma?” Michael asked.

“A gypsy woman who taught us how to fight with knives,” Miss Sauber said. “Keriah’s father allows them to camp on his lands every summer.”

He had seen the two women knife-fighting with Brigitte, and despite the stress and heat of battle with the French agents affected by the Goldensuit plants, he had remembered being surprised and impressed. Sep had also mentioned that he’d seen them fight, and that their skill was considerable, although their movements were unconventional.

Now Michael understood why their attacks would surprise an opponent. Their teacher would be nothing if not unconventional.

Still, he wanted to help prepare them for fighters even more skilled than Brigitte. He told Miss Gardinier, “You must strengthen the muscles in your abdomen and lower back, so that you may more easily bend your torso and dodge the blows that you cannot sidestep. Your most important skill shall be to buy yourself time.”

“What do you mean?” Miss Sauber asked him.

“You mentioned that when you cut someone with the sedative smeared on your knives, it is several minutes before it takes effect, isn’t that so?”

“Ah, I see,” Miss Gardinier said, realizing why he’d mentioned buying time. “Yes, it takes three to five minutes for a normal man, more for a man on the Root, depending on the amount of sedative.”

“So we must engage an enemy while we wait,” Miss Sauber said.

“If your knife is knocked away, you must be able to keep his attention with your fists alone,” Michael added.

Both women looked thoughtful. They were still new to the types of physical confrontations that agents were trained for, the flow of battle and the tactics needed to defeat an opponent.

“How many normal men could you incapacitate with a sedative knife?” Michael asked them.

“Just one,” Miss Gardinier answered slowly. “The sedative must be replaced after being used once, or at most twice if the first cut was shallow.”

Miss Sauber immediately understood the problem Michael had touched upon. “So the knives are not effective if we are attacked by multiple people,” she said.

He nodded. “You shall need the means to fight without relying on the sedative.” He motioned to Miss Sauber. “Shall we?” he asked, as if asking her to dance.

She was taller and her reach longer than the petite Miss Gardininer. The width of her shoulders was usually disguised by the puffed sleeves of the fashionable gowns she wore, but now that she was dressed in something plainer for working with the plants, he could see the play of her muscles under the fabric as she circled around him, her hands raised before her a little awkwardly.

She threw a punch. Miss Gardinier had fought wildly and punched with great enthusiasm, but Miss Sauber was surprisingly tentative. Well, she would need to learn to overcome that. He stepped in, faking a jab and intending to simply tweak a stray curl from where her hair had been gathered at the back of her head, to teach her lesson.

Except that she slammed a hard fist straight into his chin.

There was nothing tentative about that blow. Michael realized with surprise, and also approval, that she’d been faking her awkwardness to draw him closer so that she could land an unexpected hit.

Miss Gardinier crowed in triumph as though she had been the one to strike him.

Miss Sauber’s eyes didn’t waver as she studied him, not giving in to any surge of confidence from her attack. But he noted that her gown was like most of the current styles, and the skirt—or perhaps her petticoat—was narrow. She had difficulty stepping to the side, and her legs were too close together rather than forming a wider, stable base for the rest of her body.

He faked a left jab to the right side of her head, forcing her to pivot away from him. She was at the perfect angle to his body so that he could bring his right foot swerving toward her in a fast arc, striking between her Achilles tendon and her ankle bone. The sudden jolt, coupled with her too-narrow stance, swept her left leg out from under her and she began falling.

But the movement of his feint and his kick had brought his body close to her, and even as she fell, her hands grabbed the loose collar of his white shirt. He thought at first that she was trying to pull him down to the ground with her, but then she reared her neck back and delivered a sharp headbutt.

Stars exploded in front of his eyes, and he didn’t resist as her grip on his shirt pulled him down with her. Except that he landed on something soft instead of the hard, dusty floorboards.

He smelled wildflowers rather than the mold from the warped wood, but he still couldn’t see beyond the flashes of light in his vision. “Excellent headbutt,” he groaned.

“Um … thank you?” Her voice was a little strained.

His vision began to clear and he saw fabric rather than a face. He realized with horror that he had been speaking to her bosom.

He tried to rise, but his head swam in figure-eights, and she was so soft and smelled so nice. So he ended up propping himself on his elbows instead.

This put his face directly above hers.

Her forehead was bright red, making his own begin to throb as if suddenly reminded that he’d been clouted. Her sea-foam green eyes were also a bit unfocused, so perhaps she was still seeing the stars that framed his field of view. Her lips had parted, and he abruptly realized that her mouth was terribly close to his.

His chest was pressed against her so that he could feel the thudding of her heart. Its rhythm was quick and light—and as fast as his own.

Perhaps the headbutt had also muffled his hearing, because he didn’t hear the footsteps that should have sounded on the rickety main staircase. Instead, he jolted in surprise at Mr. Drydale’s booming exclamation, “Mr. Coulton-Jones!”

The two of them scrambled to their feet amidst tangled skirt fabric and clouds of dust. They both blurted out at the same time, “We were only sparring.”

Which, of course, made it sound like they had been doing something exceptionally scandalous.

Keriah began whooping in laughter, braying like a donkey.


Fortunately, Thorne chose that moment to also arrive at the house, his heavy bootstrap sounding on the stairs. Michael shrugged back into his coat and tried not to look at Miss Sauber, who swiped dust from her skirt.

Thorne paused in the doorway to the ballroom, and his eyebrows rose slightly. From Mr. Drydale’s deep frown and Miss Gardinier’s snickering, it was obvious he had missed something, but he seemed unwilling to ask what it had been.

He usually drove Isabella with him in his decrepit dogcart, but she was not with him today. “Did you have a little tiff with my sister again?” Michael asked his friend, knowing it would annoy him.

It did. Thorne glowered at him. “We never have tiffs. We have full-blown shouting matches.”

“At least this time, she didn’t smack you in the eye with her fan.”

His glower grew even deeper. “I’ll have you know that scratch she gave me with her fan sticks made my entire eyelid swell to the size of a Bath bun.”

Michael knew that banter like this only served to distract him from thinking about what had happened. Or rather, from thinking about what he’d been feeling when it happened.

With his work as an agent, he had disciplined his emotions so that they would not lead him astray, no matter what might be happening around him. But since Richard had died, he had found it more and more difficult to keep a tight rein over his state of mind. And now that he was dependent upon the Root …

His heart rate suddenly broke into a gallop. Where the physical action of sparring with the women had not caused him to even breathe a little faster, suddenly sweat broke out upon his forehead, the back of his neck, the middle of his back. He suddenly felt as though his throat had closed, and he had to fight not to gasp and pant.

He squeezed his eyes closed, bowed his head, and rubbed his temples with his fingertips. The circular motion reminded him of when his mother would calm him during a thunderstorm, and the sudden rush of anxiety slowly began to leak out of his body like a dripping faucet.

“Mr. Coulton-Jones?” The voice was soft, and concerned for him, and a sweet tone he could have picked out of an entire buzzing ballroom. Miss Sauber patiently waited for his reply, which somehow helped him to calm himself.

“I am well,” he told her. “Slight headache.”

When he looked up, he saw Miss Gardinier still standing by the wall, although her body was rigid and swaying ever so slightly toward him. She had apparently had to fiercely prevent herself from rushing to his side, but Miss Sauber gave a small motion with her hand to her friend, and Miss Gardinier relaxed.

He was grateful for that mercy. Miss Gardinier meant well, and she was very thorough in ascertaining that he was still in good health, but she tended to be rather intensely focused, darting about him and poking at him. He felt rather more like an experiment than a patient.

Perhaps he was an experiment. After all, no one else had ever become a Berserker and lived.

He shut that thought down before his emotions could fly out of his control again.

Very few rooms in Stapytton House did not have some sort of hole in the wall or windows, but one room that was relatively comfortable to gather in was the butler’s pantry in the basement. It had once been a wine cellar, but the rotting wooden racks had been removed and a fancifully carved table placed inside with a mish-mash of chairs encircling it.

The men sat, but Mr. Drydale did not begin the meeting until the two women arrived with a tea tray laden with treats from Lady Wynwood’s cook, which Miss Sauber had brought with her from the townhouse. Mr. Drydale had at first objected to the refreshments, which seemed overly frivolous during a discussion of such serious matters, but then he’d grudgingly admitted he liked having hot tea in the cold room.

As Miss Gardinier was handing out teacups, she announced, “Before we begin, I have a request for Mr. Rosmont.” She shot him a sour look. “I hereby officially request your physical presence in my stillroom here at Stapytton House after the meeting. Today,” she added forcefully.

Her oddly specific demand was the result of Thorne finding excuses to avoid her during the last two team meetings they had had here at the house. She was only checking his health to ensure he was still feeling well and had fully recovered from breathing in the Goldensuit pollen, so Michael didn’t blame her for being irked by Thorne’s successful evasions.

The days after the French agents had been captured, Thorne had suffered from symptoms much like a putrid cough, and Miss Gardinier had ordered him to bedrest along with some rather vile-smelling tinctures for him to drink (which, Thorne admitted to Michael, he had poured into the chamber pot). But the headaches, chills and sweating had eventually passed, and for the last week, he had appeared to be normal.

“Miss Gardinier,” Michael said as he nonchalantly sipped his tea, “I asked my sister how Thorne was feeling, and she confirmed he hasn’t indicated he is still in pain or uncomfortable in any way.”

Thorne grunted in surprise and embarrassment, but Michael gave him an even look. He knew his friend was too accustomed to hiding his weaknesses—a byproduct of his years under his tyrant of a father—and would not be honest with Miss Gardinier, who was simply worried about the effects of the pollen on his health.

Miss Gardinier smiled in gratitude at the news, but still skewered Thorne with a sharp glare. “After the meeting. Today.”

“Yes, yes,” Thorne replied, conceding.

“Might as well report on everyone’s health.” Mr. Drydale gave Michael the same even look he’d given Thorne.

Michael grimaced, but replied readily. “Miss Gardinier has examined me regularly, roughly twice a week.”

“He is in good health,” she affirmed to Mr. Drydale. “His strength is still abnormally strong, but since I did not know how strong he was before, it is difficult to guess a percentage. He is approximately three times stronger than Mr. Rosmont. His speed and reflexes have decreased slightly, but he is still almost four times faster than Mr. Rosmont.”

At being unfavorably compared to him, Thorne frowned at Michael, who returned a cheeky grin.

“How often must you breathe in the Goldensuit pollen?” Mr. Drydale asked Michael.

He was more hesitant as he replied, “It is inconsistent how much time passes before the headaches and weakness returns to my body. Sometimes days, sometimes over a week.”

“I have been weighing and monitoring the amount of plant matter he is dosed with each time he comes to me for treatment,” Miss Gardinier added.

Michael shifted uncomfortably in his chair as he remembered the last dose. There was something about the pollen that made him crave it, something about the scent that he longed for. And yet another part of himself was absolutely repulsed by it.

But it was only because of that pollen that he was alive.

Mr. Drydale’s voice cut through his disturbing ruminations. “Now then, as to Mrs. Bianca Jadis’s protector …”

He had explained to all of them the information that Lady Wynwood had somehow gathered about Bianca. It had surprised Michael, but he was used to receiving information for his missions without knowing the source.

Mr. Drydale said, “I have asked around discreetly about Mr. Field Emsley, but none of my acquaintance—or even their acquaintance—were friendly with him, beyond a passing nod if they saw him at a party. But last night at a social gathering, I happened to speak to Lord Bambrough.”

Thorne sneered at the name, for he had been a crony of his father’s.

Mr. Drydale saw the gesture. “Yes, I don’t particularly like him myself, but he apparently knew Emsley—at least, well enough to introduce me to Emsley’s heir, Mr. Giles Cooper.”

Nearly everyone sat up straighter in their seats at this news.

“I requested an audience with Mr. Cooper this morning so that we may discuss Emsley’s affairs in private. Mr. Field Emsley apparently died from a mysterious wasting illness only a few months before Bianca married Mr. Carl Jadis. Since most of his friends believed his mistress was dead in France, where he had abandoned her, suspicion of poison fell upon his wife. However, nothing was proven since Emsley had been in town and Mrs. Emsley had been away at their country estate, and had no means to put anything in his food or his drink.”

“Was Mr. Cooper aware that Bianca had returned from France?” Miss Sauber asked.

“He learned of it only after Mr. Emsley had died, and after Mr. Cooper had inherited Emsley’s country estate,” Mr. Drydale said. “He had been forced the sell Emsley’s London townhouse to settle the man’s debts, but he confessed he had simply thrown away any fripperies that may have belonged to Bianca. He only visits town occasionally, so he did not hear about her until several months later, but naturally he did not feel a need to speak to her.”

“He knew nothing about her?” Michael asked.

“He only heard the rumors about her and never met her face-to-face. But he mentioned that when Emsley took Bianca to France with him, it was likely in order to look over an estate that he had inherited from a French grandmother. That is probably where the couple stayed and where Emsley abandoned Bianca. Mr. Cooper now owns the estate—he mentioned the name and the nearby village—but he has not traveled to France because of the war, so he has not ascertained the condition of the house.”

“Was Emsley part of Jack’s secret group, do you think?” Michael asked.

“We have been calling them the Gentians,” Miss Sauber said.

Mr. Drydale apparently hadn’t heard that before, because he looked to her with eyebrows raised. “Why Gentians?”

“The flowers in the symbol they use are gentian flowers,” Miss Sauber said. “They mean ‘victory,’ but I couldn’t hope to guess at what the Gentians mean by it.”

“France’s victory over England?” Thorne suggested darkly. “Seeing as how they offered the Root to Napoleon.”

“Have they really been hoping for that outcome since Lord Wynwood’s time?” Miss Gardinier asked.

It certainly suggested something about their thoughts and motivations.

“Calling them the Gentians makes things easier for us, at any rate,” Mr. Drydale said. “As to your question, Mr. Coulton-Jones, I have discovered nothing that may indicate Emsley belonged to the group, but he may have been skilled at hiding it, as Bianca was. Even Wynwood’s connection would have remained unknown if Phoebe had not found the pocket watch.”

“We think perhaps Bianca’s husband, Mr. Carl Jadis, was one of them,” Thorne said.

“Oh?” Miss Gardinier shifted in her seat in interest.

“Lady Wynwood graciously gave us the address of Bianca’s townhouse from when she … er, visited her just before her death,” Michael said. He couldn’t forget the look of pain that crossed her face as she handed him the slip of paper with the direction of her husband’s mistress’s home in Soho. “From there, we searched every church in the parish but could find nothing, so we expanded into the nearby parishes.”

“We finally found church records for Mr. Jadis,” Thorne said. “Specifically, the record of the death of Miss Deala Jadis in 1791. She was apparently his older sister.”

“We also found the record of Jadis’s marriage to Bianca in 1792,” Michael said. “He died rather suddenly in 1793, and Mrs. Jadis had his funeral at the same church in which they married, which was convenient for us.”

“Convenient for her, too,” Miss Gardinier muttered, and Miss Sauber jabbed an elbow into her side for her crass comment.

“Jadis’s townhouse went to his widow, naturally, so we asked around the same parishes as the church and Bianca’s home, sniffing out gossip,” Michael said. It was something he excelled in, because he would approach different people depending on his disguise, and they would be more likely to share juicy tidbits with him. “Jadis had bought his townhouse only a year or so before his sister died.”

“Where had they lived before?” Mr. Drydale asked.

Thorne shook his head. “Neither of us could find the answer. None of Jadis’s neighbors could remember where Mr. Jadis and Miss Jadis lived before they moved to the townhouse. Some seemed to have forgotten, but others seemed of the impression that the Jadis siblings had specifically not mentioned it.”

“We also ventured into Rachey Street and the environs to speak to a couple women whom we heard were Bianca’s friends,” Michael said. “But as far as they could recall, Bianca never mentioned anything about her husband’s past to them.”

“Who owns the townhouse now?” Mr. Drydale asked.

“According to the neighbors, there was some irregularity about the affair after Bianca died,” Thorne said. “They didn’t completely understand, but through some legal setup, after Bianca’s death, the house was sold by the attorney to a rich merchant rather than being inherited by Bianca’s younger sister.”

“We think the name of the merchant was Mr. Jonah Farnam,” Michael said, “or perhaps Farnham. The neighbors were not certain. At the moment, the house is let to the mistress of Sir Adderly.”

“What of Bianca’s sister?” Miss Sauber asked.

“The neighbors remembered her because they were quite concerned about her,” Michael said. “She had been living with her sister, but the day Bianca was found dead, she disappeared. In fact, Bianca’s body was found not by her sister, but by a friend who had visited her that day. The sister—Zephyra Irvine—was already missing.”

“If she was not killed,” Thorne said, “she is running for her life. Probably from whoever murdered her older sister.”

“Was it obvious to the neighbors that it was murder?” Miss Gardinier asked.

“Not particularly, although all the people we spoke with were shocked by the suddenness of it,” Michael said. “They were all surprised that Bianca would take her own life, but none of them thought it was too unusual.”

“Or perhaps,” Thorne said, “none of them wanted to believe it was unusual and poke their noses further into it.”

Mr. Drydale nodded. “Likely.”

“One other thing we discovered,” Michael said, “is that Mr. Jadis was apparently a botanist. At least, that is what he told his London neighbors.”

“A botanist?” Miss Sauber leaned forward. “Did he have a greenhouse or a garden?”

Michael shook his head. “If he did, no one knew about it. And Bianca never spoke to her neighbors of a greenhouse or a plot of land outside of London.”

“Was it inherited by her sister, or was that sold to Mr. Farnam also?” Miss Gardinier wondered. “I have heard nothing pleasant about Mrs. Jadis, but I am beginning to feel some pity for her poor sister.”

Privately, Michael agreed. “I’m afraid we’ve come to a dead end in finding any other people in London who can speak about Mr. Jadis before he arrived in town,” he said, “but we will keep our ears open.”

“Yes, it may come to nothing, but we must discover where the Jadis siblings lived before they moved into the townhouse,” Mr. Drydale said. “If we speak with their former neighbors from their previous residence, someone might know the name of a relative.”

Michael said, “In the meantime, I will attempt to find and speak to the merchant who bought Jadis’s townhouse.”

“Be very cautious,” Mr. Drydale said. “Because of the way the house was sold, the merchant may be connected to the Gentians.”

“Of course,” Michael said. “I will remain in disguise.”

“Mr. Rosmont and I shall attempt to find the attorney who sold the house,” Mr. Drydale said. “Mr. Rosmont, please ask around the neighborhood, and I shall ask my contacts.”

“It likely goes without saying, but you and Mr. Rosmont should also exercise extreme caution, Uncle Sol,” Miss Sauber said in a chiding voice.

“Yes,” Miss Gardinier said, “Bianca’s attorney could very well be the same as Jack’s, or any other of the Gentians, and you mustn’t alert them to the fact that someone is looking into Mr. or Mrs. Jadis.”

The men nodded, and Mr. Drydale asked, “Miss Gardinier, how is Sep’s recovery coming along? I heard you spoke to Dr. Shokes yesterday.”

“He is improving,” she said. “Today marks exactly four weeks from when Jack injured his knee in the stable, and the swelling has completely gone down at last. When Dr. Shokes saw to him, Mr. Ackett was able to move his knee freely without any pain.”

“That is excellent news,” Michael said. “I had dinner with him this week and he looked very gloomy. I had to tease him about the sorry state of his nose.” While fighting Silas, just before he was captured by Jack, Sep’s nose had been broken in the fight. While Dr. Shokes had (quite painfully) straightened it, his once knife-straight nose was looking rather crooked.

“Didn’t you have dinner with him last week, also?” Thorne asked. “You are going to look like a fretting mother hen. Shall I call you Lady Cluck-Cluck?”

Thorne sat close enough for Michael to aim a well-placed kick on one of his long legs. The blow made his entire chair pitched upward for a few inches before thudding back down.

Mr. Drydale glared at their juvenile antics. “I have been visiting him when I can, as well, but he is often not at home.”

“He’s been at Aunt Laura’s house,” Miss Sauber said. “He’s searching for more of Uncle Wynwood’s hiding places.” She gave Mr. Drydale an admonishing look. “He’s well aware that it’s only meant to keep him busy.”

“Of course it’s meant to keep him busy,” he retorted. “I’ve known him most of his life. He’s likely to brood around his mother’s home and get underfoot of the servants.”

“However, it is undeniable that he has been quite clever and creative about coming up with ideas for where to look,” Miss Sauber said thoughtfully. “He found a hiding spot behind a wall in Uncle Wynwood’s dressing room.”

“He did?” Michael asked, at the same time Mr. Drydale demanded, “Why was I not informed of this?”

“There was nothing in it.” Miss Sauber shrugged. “I’m afraid Mr. Ackett is running out of places to look. But he appears to be moving about quite smoothly. His knee doesn’t seem to pain him at all, even when he was climbing into the attic.”

“He may appear normal, but because his normal level of activity has been hampered for four weeks, he is still weak,” Miss Gardinier said. “Dr. Shokes has been helping him to recover his lost leg strength.”

Michael idly supposed that Sep was missing his usual practice of running across London rooftops. “Will he be recovered soon?”

“I believe so,” Miss Gardinier said. “Phoebe, if he is at your aunt’s house today, ask him if I may see him tomorrow here at Stapytton House. And Mr. Drydale, I would appreciate if you would send him a note, in the event Phoebe does not see him.” Miss Gardinier preferred to treat their various ills here at the house, since her stillroom was now stuffed with all manner of medicines, poultices, and tinctures.

“I asked about Septimus because I’m afraid we need more boots on the streets of London,” Mr. Drydale said. “It has been difficult to find information on one or two specific men with only the three of us.”

“Isabella apologizes that she has not been available lately,” Thorne said. “Her mother ate too many lobster patties at a party last week and has been feeling poorly, so Isabella has been caring for her.”

“I thought she was feeling better.” Michael had visited her last week, but had left quickly because his mother had simply complained to him about his lack of attendance upon the Season’s parties. She was apparently being hounded by mothers of eligible daughters. It had been painful to him that he had to lie to her, and he hadn’t been able to endure the anguished expression that suffused Isabella’s face before she quickly hid it from their parent.

“Mrs. Coulton-Jones is feeling well enough to send Isabella running her errands and reading to her in bed, but not well enough to do without her company,” Thorne said.

“If she becomes available, I may ask her to infiltrate the merchant’s household,” Mr. Drydale said thoughtfully. “Disguised as a young boy, she would be able to discover things that grown men could not learn.”

“We could help you, Uncle Sol,” Miss Sauber said. Miss Gardinier nodded agreement.

“I would prefer you continue to work on your experiments,” he said. “Mr. Coulton-Jones’s life is dependent on your plant studies, and Miss Gardinier’s sedatives are the only things enabling us to match any of Jack’s men who are on the Root.”

“At the very least, we needn’t have one of you to guard us at the house,” Miss Gardinier said. “We shall be perfectly safe with only Mr. Havner.”

“That is why I wondered about Septimus’s condition. He may feel we are merely pandering to his ego, but his work at Laura’s house is quite important. I know Wynwood, and he would not have had only one hidden pocket space. He would have had several, with different things hidden within each. But if Sep is now coming up dry, and if he is on the road to recovery, it may be best to have him here, guarding you, where Miss Gardinier may monitor his progress.”

Miss Gardinier’s eyes lit up. “That would be most ideal. Dr. Shokes has recently shown me some exercises and stretches for Mr. Ackett to perform to strengthen his leg. He may perform them here. Dr. Shokes may even be able to come here to guide and direct his efforts.”

“The plants do not always require my entire day,” Miss Sauber said. “In disguise, perhaps with Calvin and Clara, I could help you and the others investigate the merchant …”

“Firstly,” Mr. Drydale replied dryly, “Laura would gut me. Secondly, I’m certain she has need of her pageboy and scullery maid during the day.”

Miss Sauber sighed, probably realizing—as Michael had—that Mr. Drydale and Lady Wynwood would not allow her to wander the streets of London alone, no matter how clever her disguise. “At the very least, direct me to whom I should speak with at evening engagements,” she insisted. “You are yourself gossiping with various men at your club, so why could I not chat with their wives or sisters at balls and soirees?”

The idea had merit, and Michael was surprised Mr. Drydale had not requested such from Miss Sauber in the past two weeks.

Mr. Drydale had the expression of a man about to be forced to down a particularly nasty medicine. “Actually, Laura and I discussed this two weeks ago. We even looked over the social events to which she had sent in both her acceptances and regrets. However, the men connected to Mr. Emsley, at least, are not of the highest caliber, and we had determined that they or even their female relations were unlikely to attend the events to which Lady Wynwood had been invited.”

Michael knew that Lady Wynwood did not value a person’s family name or titles or wealth, but she had strong moral requirements of the people she associated with. Those engaged in morally questionable activities were avoided, no matter if they were from an ancient family or owned the largest mansion in Grosvenor Square.

Michael had half-expected Miss Sauber to continue arguing, but she seemed to see the logic in his decision. However, her disappointment was writ large upon her face.

Perhaps to comfort her, Mr. Drydale added, “I can honestly say that if I thought there was a situation in which I could use your help, I would not hesitate. You have already proven you have sufficient mettle and your acting skills are superb. However, what you and Miss Gardinier are doing here is equally important.” He turned to Miss Gardinier. “Have you given everyone knives laced with sedative?”

“Yes, although …” She tilted her head in thought. “It might be best to have the sedative reapplied today or tomorrow. The paste loses its potency the older it is, and I should not wish you to enter into a fight with sedative that is less than full strength.”

At the thought of facing Berserkers with old sedative, several faces around the table grimaced.

“If any of you encounter a Berserker with only one or two sedative knives, I should hope all of you would have the good sense to run,” Mr. Drydale said sternly. “We can always gather together and come at them more prepared.”

“I have made copious amounts of sedative, so that we will have enough should something happen.” Miss Gardinier swallowed, and a look of worry flitted across her face as her eyes darted to Michael.

He knew she was not afraid of him, but she was right to be cautious. He did not know what might happen to him, and if the Root in his veins caused him to lose control again, he would want this team to be prepared.

“How much?” Mr. Drydale asked.

“Enough for five Berserkers, or ten to twelve men on the Root.”

“If we encounter both …” Thorne said.

“I am waiting on more ingredients to make more,” she replied. “However, I didn’t wish to make too large a batch only to have it be less effective by the time you must use it.”

Mr. Drydale nodded approval. “Have you finished the new sedative formula?”

Michael was about to ask why they needed a new sedative formula, but then he remembered what Thorne had told him weeks ago, when he first awoke. When they had gone to rescue Sep in the stable, Nick had become a Berserker and they had sedated him. But Silas had taken his unconscious body, and Miss Gardinier was concerned that Jack might be able to change the Root recipe to be able to resist the effects of the original sedative. It had also taken a much larger amount of sedative to incapacitate Nick compared to Michael, so she had wanted to make the sedative stronger.

“It is nearly completed,” Miss Gardinier said. “Perhaps a few days, perhaps a week. I cannot be certain.”

Mr. Drydale nodded. He asked Miss Sauber, “How are the Goldensuit plants we took from Jack and Maner?”

She shook her head. “I am at my wit’s end. The Goldensuit plants are very much like poppy plants, but they do not grow quite like poppies. I am uncertain if they have different nutritional requirements. Only two of the Goldensuit plants have died, fortunately, but the ones remaining are very sickly.”

“The Goldensuit is different from Jack’s hybrid? Which one is keeping Michael alive?” Thorne asked. His question was heartlessly blunt, but Michael could hear the concern in his tone. They had been friends since they were children, and although they had both undertaken dangerous missions for the Foreign Office, he had never heard Thorne sound so anxious about his well-being. It was perhaps because of the way Michael’s life had been rescued by Miss Gardinier’s sedative, when the Root should have killed kim.

“Only a few of the Goldensuit plants were flowering,” Miss Sauber replied. “We have much more pollen from Jack’s hybrid. We have tested the two types, and the Goldensuit has worked best, but we have too little pollen. Yet with the hybrid pollen, Mr. Coulton-Jones is ill again more quickly.”

“But even if we are able make the Goldensuit flower, using its pollen cannot be a long-term solution,” Miss Gardinier said. “Each time, the pollen’s effects are less and less potent.”

“What have you learned of Jack’s hybrid plants?” Mr. Drydale asked.

“I know now why Jack created the hybrid,” Miss Sauber said. “It is much easier to grow than the Goldensuit. However, the plant is very inconsistent.”

“What do you mean by that?” Mr. Drydale asked.

“We noticed this before, when looking at the Root sample, but it is more apparent now that we can compare different hybrid plants,” Miss Sauber said. “When we compare leaves under a microscope, the hybrid plants are all alike, but when we compare the roots, they look different from each other. And the roots of the plants are the main ingredient in Jack’s elixir.”

“I believe this may be why the Root elixir has been causing only some men to become Berserkers, and why Mr. Shokes reacted to the Root in a different way than Nick or Mr. Coulton-Jones,” Miss Gardinier said. “The plant matter in the different vials of the Root elixir are a mix of different types and perhaps cause different effects.”

“Have you discovered how Jack made the hybrid plants?” Mr. Drydale asked.

“Not yet,” Miss Sauber said with an apologetic look. “The French agents did not care for the plants very well, and almost all of them were dry and wilted when I first acquired them. It has taken all my effort to ensure they do not die.”

Thorne appeared to be alarmed to hear this, and glanced at Michael.

Miss Sauber noticed his reaction and said, “In trying to grow the Goldensuit, I have not yet exhausted my knowledge. We are doing all we can to determine how to wean Mr. Coulton-Jones from the Root, so that his life may no longer be in danger.”

It was encouraging that she seemed hellbent upon growing the Goldensuit successfully in order to try to save him. She might have shot him—twice—but she was working tirelessly so that he would not die.

He felt it again, that niggling twist of discomfort in his guts, the rapid fire beating of his heart. He wanted to close his eyes and rub his temples again, but he knew Miss Gardinier would insist upon checking him. So he turned his head to the side and stared at a dark corner of the wine cellar, concentrating on his breath, expanding his stomach to breathe in a thin stream of air through his nose, then expelling it slowly. After a few minutes, his heart rate slowed.

He couldn’t continue doing this. He couldn’t continue hiding this from people. He also didn’t know why it struck now, why he hadn’t been more emotionally unstable after he awoke. But it was only after the French agents had been captured and killed—nine entire days after he’d woken up—that he had started feeling these moments of anxiety.

And always it was about the Root and the inevitability of his death. He had faced mortal danger many times on missions, but this situation was turning him inside out. Perhaps because it was the dark, ominous dread that was approaching so slowly. Perhaps because this time, his sister was caught up in the storm and he regretted causing her so much sorrow. Perhaps because this time, he was regretting what—who—he was leaving behind, a woman who had become more than simply a strong fancy, who had become real and vibrant and dazzling.

When he felt more himself, he turned his attention back to the table. Mr. Drydale was speculating about the initials that had been found in the pocket watch, how the X in front of them may indicate that the person was dead when Wynwood wrote the note. It would explain why there was an X in front of “C. J.,” Carl Jadis, if those were his initials.

Then the meeting ended. Mr. Drydale was succinct and efficient and did not allow much time for rambling discussion.

As Thorne rose from his seat, his eyes fell on Michael with a troubled expression. Michael tried to ignore it, although with anyone else—such as Isabella—the act of avoidance would only make her nag him.

But this was Thorne, and he wouldn’t say anything in front of everyone else. So he blinked, and then his face became a neutral mask again. He nodded to the table in general as he left the butler’s pantry.

Michael was about to rise to his feet, but suddenly Miss Sauber appeared beside him, ostensibly taking his empty teacup. But she laid a discreet hand on his forearm, a signal for him to remain.

If it had been Isabella, he would have been certain he didn’t wish to hear what she had to say and would have ignored her with all the cheekiness and authority of an older brother’s rights. But this was Miss Sauber, and while he still didn’t think he wanted to hear what she had to ask him, he couldn’t find it in himself to ignore her.

And perhaps he should be more conscious of the conversations he would otherwise have avoided. Since he would soon not have them any longer.

He sighed to himself at his melancholy thoughts.

Miss Gardinier was the last to leave, pausing at the open doorway to glance at her friend, but there must have been something in Miss Sauber’s expression that conveyed some message, because she hurried out after that. And at last it was only himself and Miss Sauber in the room.

“I apologize if I am prying,” she said, uncharacteristically hesitant, “but … how are you truly feeling?”

His reaction was so automatic, he didn’t even stop to think. “I’m quite well, I assure you.”

The tendons in her neck tightened briefly, as if she’d endured a slap. She gave a small, tight smile and lowered her gaze. “Of course. After all, you look quite healthy.”

The hurt in her expression made him feel as if he’d been slapped. He was simply so used to hiding his feelings, not only in his capacity as an agent for the Crown, but also because he was used to hiding his feelings even from himself.

She continued gathering the teacups onto a tray, avoiding his gaze while the silence stretched between them tighter and tighter, and he tensed as if waiting for it to suddenly break. But then she simply curtsied and left him be.

That was perhaps even worse, because he’d driven her away. She had known he would likely not wish to talk to her, and she had known he had been lying directly to her face, and yet she had reached out to him. Because she wanted to help him.

He was such a wretched churl.

Disgusted with himself, he left the house as quickly as he could, saddling his horse and heading back to town. As he rode, the emotions began bubbling inside him, everything he’d been striving to hold down. But it was useless to simply slam a lid down on a boiling soup pot.

He didn’t manage his emotions well. He knew this, and he had always been like this. And now, everything was stewing inside him—the fear and dread of his possible death, the devastation and loss of Richard’s death, the frustration of being unable to find the killer.

Whenever he felt like this, uncertain and discomposed, he would speak to Richard, and his brother would always say something to help him feel better. Richard’s faith in God had seemed to grow stronger in the year after their father suddenly passed away and just before Isabella married. Michael had always been the wild, reckless one while Richard was the calm, dependable one, and as Michael grew older, he grew to need Richard’s presence and guidance more and more, especially during the short days or weeks when he would return to England between missions. It made Richard’s murder so much worse, because Michael was back on English soil, but his brother wasn’t here.

And now soon, Michael wouldn’t be here anymore, either.

If only he had been smarter and recognized that what Richard had found—the symbol, the scarred man who might have killed Albert—had been information much too dangerous for an ordinary citizen to know. If only he had been more concerned about Richard than his job as an agent for the Foreign Office.

But he hadn’t, and Richard’s death was his fault. He was whining about feeling upset that he was dying—when he’d faced death several times before this in France—and that Richard wasn’t here to cheer him up. But Richard wasn’t here because Michael had made a terrible, terrible mistake, and the consequences had been tragic. He had blundered like an ox in a china shop. Destroying everything.

He had destroyed Isabella’s peace, too. If he couldn’t speak to Richard, he would sometimes talk to Isabella. But his sister was barely keeping herself from flying into a million pieces. She had always been close to their mother, but now there was a horrid secret she was keeping from their remaining parent, and it was hurting her because she couldn’t speak of it to anyone. She avoided talking to Michael about what might happen to him, probably because she didn’t wish to distress him, but it was clearly distressing her. She would be alarmed if he revealed his emotional anguish. At the moment, her heart seemed exceptionally fragile, and he guessed that it was because she was afraid of losing him as she had lost Richard.

But Michael also didn’t wish to talk to her because then he’d have to confront the truth that he was the reason Isabella had lost her eldest brother.

He was so used to the guilt by now that it felt like a slow burning, like a festering wound. He knew he ought to clean it out but it was too swollen, too sensitive to the lightest touch, too excruciatingly painful. He didn’t want to disturb it.

He knew Isabella wouldn’t want to blame him. She would try to forgive him, but the truth was that what he’d done wasn’t something that should be forgiven. The truth that Michael had caused Richard’s death would be a thorn pricking her heart every time she looked at him.

And the knowledge in her eyes of what Michael had done would pierce that festering wound he felt. It was a wound that couldn’t be healed, so perhaps it was just as well that the Goldensuit would eventually kill him.

Until it did, he would fight to protect what was important to him, the people who were important to him.

Chapter Two

Laura rubbed her eyes. How strange, they felt dry and sandy. She stared blankly at the candle on the desk, wondering for a moment why it looked different, and then realized that it had burned down to a small nub.

She’d been too caught up in reading some letters she had received from friends. They were letters which she herself had written to them in the year before Wynwood died, and which she had requested they temporarily return to her. She’d been comparing the events in the letters with things jotted in her own appointment book and also Wynwood’s book, although understanding his cryptic phrases about his activities made her eyes cross more than once.

She set down her pen, only then seeing that she’d made a large ink blot on the paper where she’d been taking notes on the names of their acquaintance. So many people, who had all been in town for the Season that year, and yet none of them had struck her as strange or noteworthy. But perhaps she simply didn’t think with the suspicion of a spy.

She rose from the desk in the library, where she’d been working, and wrapped her robe more tightly about her. She hadn’t noticed the cold until now, but she hadn’t lit a fire when she snuck into the library. She shouldn’t have been up so late, but after Aya had gone to bed, Laura hadn’t been able to sleep, and so she’d crept down here to work on the letters she had received just this day.

Tomorrow she’d have to tackle Wynwood’s ledgers again, armed with a bit more knowledge of the events during that time period and the people they each had seen. She hated looking through the books, not because the numbers intimidated her, but because she wasn’t certain how to feel when she saw purchases that Wynwood most definitely hadn’t made for her.

In looking through the financial records during the time Wynwood had taken up with Bianca, it had been difficult to make out what his business transactions had been, exactly. She admitted that she also didn’t have a head for these sorts of things. For all his faults, Wynwood had taken excellent care of his lands and had a skill for making money, buying and selling properties and enterprises for great profits.

Yes, Wynwood had been many things. Excellent manager, savage bully, unfaithful spouse, and a traitor. Quite colorful.

She headed back upstairs to her bedchamber as quietly as possible so that Phoebe would not hear her wandering about. Sometimes, she could swear that Aya could hear her mistress sneeze two floors down from her own bedchamber on the top floor.

Laura crawled into her cold bed, blew out the candle, and quickly fell asleep.

She knew immediately that it was a nightmare, even though she was flying, which was usually a fun and exciting sort of dream. She was not flying very high. She could see the countryside, which looked familiar to her, but not enough for her to immediately identify where it was. There were no landmarks she could recognize, just trees, a few quaint houses. Then with that strange abruptness of a dream, she realized that the night sky was lit by a pale moon that was only a sliver more than half-full, occasionally hidden by drifting clouds, which was why she couldn’t see much beyond the tree line and the distant lights that may be a village.

She tried to fly toward a tree that stretched long branches toward her, but she was suddenly stopped. A man behind her grabbed her hand and brought her back to her feet. His face was hidden, but there was a giant plant on his shoulders, the roots digging into his flesh and wrapping around his neck, burrowing into his head and ears. The plant looked like a Goldensuit plant, except that instead of green leaves and stalks, it was colored blood red, and the roots were dripping blood. It was as though the plant were feeding off of the man.

A detached part of her mind knew that if Laura had been awake, she would be screaming in horror, but now she only looked at him with regret and pity.

Then suddenly behind the man there was a young boy, but she somehow knew that it was the same man when he was a child. She saw the boy being pitifully neglected and barely tolerated by a strict, unloving father. The boy was always alone, and he never cried.

Then the boy was abruptly a little older, perhaps thirteen years old. He was being held down on a bed by a woman as fat and lumpy as the Prince Regent, and she looked to be at least twenty years older than the boy. He was thin and small for his age, and although he tried to resist at first, the woman was too heavy and strong. The woman touched him, and he finally stopped resisting, but there was fear and revulsion in his face.

Laura felt the same revulsion, and stepped toward him to try to save him. But then the woman disappeared. The boy, filled with vengeance and ferocity, stood behind the man with the plant on his shoulders. The boy’s rage billowed off of him like smoke from a rampaging fire. The smoke-rage covered the man, and the weariness in his face melted away as his expression hardened. But his momentary resolve was quickly sapped away by the plant sucking the lifeblood from his body.

Laura shrank back from the man and the boy. She wanted to reach out to them, but the horrifying plant and the boy’s overwhelming wrath hissed at her, threatening to attack her.

And then she felt a cool, soft touch on her head, like the hand of her father when she was a child. She suddenly found that she could see dark spots covering the boy’s body. No, they were wounds—bruises, lesions, cuts, gashes. Some were still seeping blood, others were infected and oozing yellow fluid. Others were angry red scars that looked raw, only a step below an open sore.

They were not merely all over his body. She saw blood and dark blemishes covering a dimly lit form, shaped like an emaciated version of the boy, residing inside his body. She knew she was looking at his soul. His body and soul were injured, broken, bleeding.

The hand gently rubbing her head somehow seemed sad. She thought she felt the drip of tears falling upon her head.

She awoke when the bed moved.

Ten years—nearly eleven—of finally living without Wynwood had still not cured her of her sensitivity at night, fostered by the ten years she was married to him.

Except that Wynwood was dead. And yet the bed moved.

Her heartbeat sped up. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been so afraid. Even when Wynwood was at his worst, she knew that it would hurt, but she had become used to it. She knew what to expect.

But now, there was someone in the dark with her. Someone she didn’t know.