A Dangerous Lord by Laura Beers

 

Chapter One

England, 1814

Lord Evan Corbyn had a dangerous job; one that meant life or death, and not just for himself. He was responsible for all the agents of the Crown. It was a position that he took very seriously, and it consumed nearly every moment of his waking hours. To him, nothing else mattered but ensuring England remained safe from domestic and foreign threats.

The sun had set hours before, but he was still sitting in his small, poorly decorated office, reading through all his correspondence. It was no small feat. All the agents were required to provide an update on their assignments every few days. Some would appear in person, while others who wished to remain undercover would drop off missives at their convenience. Most of the correspondence required no action on his part, but he was always prepared to offer his assistance, if the situation warranted it.

Corbyn dropped the paper in his hand and started rifling through the remaining missives. He had yet to see an update from Hannity, and he was starting to worry. It wasn’t like Hannity to miss a deadline.

“Sanders!” Corbyn shouted.

The door promptly opened, and a tall man with a broad, crooked nose stepped into the room. “Yes, Corbyn.”

“Have you seen or heard from Hannity lately?”

Sanders shook his head. “No, sir.”

Corbyn frowned. “That is concerning. It has been nearly five days since I have last heard from him.”

“He is undercover,” Sanders attempted. “Perhaps he couldn’t get away.”

“That shouldn’t matter,” Corbyn replied. “Last time, he had a street urchin deliver the note, and he is usually prompt with his missives.”

“Would you care for me to investigate?”

Corbyn shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. I shall go myself.”

“As you wish, sir.”

“His rented room isn’t far from here, and I can be back within the hour.” Corbyn rose, then waved his hand over his desk. “I still have hours of reading before I am finished with all these missives.”

“I would be happy to accompany you.”

Corbyn came around his desk. “I appreciate your concern, but I am well acquainted with the rookeries.”

Sanders tipped his head. “I shall wait for your return, then.”

“Will you inform Hobbs and Bond that I will be returning?” he asked. “I refuse to make a ridiculous bird call to alert them of my presence.”

Sanders chuckled. “That was put into place by your predecessor.”

“He was an idiot.”

“You could always change it, sir.”

“I could, but I must admit that it is rather effective,” Corbyn remarked as he plucked his top hat off a hook on the wall. “You don’t hear too many bird calls in this part of Town.”

Sanders backed out of the office. “That’s true.”

Corbyn stepped into the long, dark passageway and headed towards the main door. He exited the dilapidated brick building and started down the narrow streets. He was acutely aware of the men loitering in the alleyways as they tracked his every movement. He was not foolish enough to dismiss them altogether, despite having multiple weapons on his person. He had two overcoat pistols tucked into the waistband of his trousers, a muff pistol in his right boot, and a dagger in his left boot.

He was accustomed to fighting, but that didn’t mean he ever sought it out. No. He preferred to keep the peace, if at all possible. It hadn’t always been that way, but he had grown since he became the leader of the agency. An agency that didn’t technically exist. It was under the Alien Office, but it was rarely spoken of. They were given ample freedom to ensure their assignments were completed skillfully and tactfully.

The streets narrowed and the buildings grew darker as he headed deeper into the rookeries. There were no gas lights in this section of Town, making it appear even more destitute in the evening. Even the air felt heavier, sticking to the back of his throat.

He passed by a woman with a dirty face and sunken cheeks, holding hands with a young girl who was dressed in a shapeless frock.

“I’m hungry, Mother,” the girl complained softly.

A pained look crossed the woman’s face. “We already ate today.”

“But I didn’t get enough.”

“You shall have to wait until tomorrow.”

The girl lowered her head dejectedly in response.

Feeling compassion swell in his heart for their situation, Corbyn reached into the pocket of his waistcoat and pulled out two coins.

“Excuse me,” he said as he turned on his heel.

The woman stopped and cautiously turned to face him.

Corbyn stepped closer to her and extended the coins. “I couldn’t help but overhear your plight, and I would like to help.”

“We don’t take charity, Mister,” the woman said with a frown on her lips.

“Your daughter is hungry, and this money will go a long way to fill your bellies.”

The woman glanced down at her daughter with uncertainty. “May I ask what you want in return?” she asked hesitantly.

“Nothing,” he replied.

The woman’s eyes widened. “Truly?”

The young girl looked up at her mother with a hopeful expression. “Does this mean we can get bread?”

Tears welled up in the woman’s eyes as she reached her hand out to accept his generosity. “It does, Sally.”

Corbyn dropped the coins into her hand and tipped his hat at the woman. “I wish you luck, Ma’am.”

The woman clutched the money in her hand as she murmured, “Bless you, Mister.”

With a parting glance at the girl, Corbyn turned around and continued walking down the street. He was pleased his simple contribution would help the woman and her child, but he knew it would never atone for the sins he had committed in the past. He had done some terrible things in the name of the Crown. However, he knew that he would do them again, without the slightest hesitation, if it meant keeping England safe. He would always be first, and foremost, an agent.

As he turned the corner, he saw a crowd forming in front of a three-level brick building. He approached the group and was shocked to see a familiar man sprawled out in the center of the crowd.

Hannity.

Corbyn pushed his way through the people and saw a pool of blood under Hannity’s head. He crouched down next to Hannity to look for any signs of life, but he saw none. Hannity was dead, his ivory waistcoat saturated with blood, a hole in it where a bullet had entered.

“What happened?” Corbyn asked, turning his attention towards the crowd.

The men and women stared back at him with blank expressions.

“Someone must have seen something!” he exclaimed.

A man stepped forward and pointed towards a window on the third level of the building. “He jumped out of the window.”

“I think not,” Corbyn declared with a shake of his head. “This man did not jump to his death.”

“Perhaps he fell?” the man suggested, shrugging.

“This man has been shot,” Corbyn revealed as he stood up.

The men and women all turned towards each other with shocked looks on their faces, but no one came forward with additional information. It became clear that no one saw anything relevant, and they were just there to gawk at the dead body.

With quick steps, Corbyn hurried into the building and raced up the stairs to the third level. He knew it was only a matter of time before a constable arrived to investigate the death, and he didn’t want to be here when that happened. Frankly, he didn’t have the time or energy to answer questions from a lowly constable.

Corbyn arrived at Hannity’s room and saw the door was slightly ajar. He removed his pistol and pushed the door open with his shoulder. Stepping inside, he saw that it was in complete and utter shambles. The chair and bedframe were overturned, the mattress had been sliced open, and feathers covered the cluttered floor. A bloody handprint marred the worn blue-papered walls near the window.

It was evident that a struggle had occurred, resulting in Hannity being killed. As his eyes scanned the room, they landed on a note resting on the window frame with Corbyn’s name scribbled on the front. It was completely out of place in the chaos of the room. He stepped forward and unfolded the piece of paper.

He deserved to die, just as you do.

Corbyn calmly turned the paper over, but there was no indication as to who it was from.

He tucked the note into the pocket of his waistcoat and stepped closer to the open window. He glanced down at the growing crowd around Hannity’s body, wondering who had killed one of his top agents. That was no small feat. Hannity was brawny, and he would have fought until his last breath. He was sure of that.

He surveyed the room again, looking for any clues that would aid in the investigation. He walked over to the desk and saw an unfinished letter that was addressed to him. The inkpot had turned on its side and the contents had spilled over the bottom half of the paper. His eyes quickly scanned the letter, hoping it revealed something of importance, but it was just an update on his assignment.

Hannity had joined a radical group but had surmised that they posed no real threat to the Crown. At least, that is what the top half of the letter stated.

Corbyn wondered if one of the people from the radical group found out that he was a spy and silenced him because of it. But hadn’t Hannity said they posed no threat? So why would anyone seek revenge? And that still didn’t explain why someone would write Corbyn a threatening note. There were too many questions at this point, and he didn’t have the luxury of time to sort them out.

He ripped off the top portion of the letter and left the ink-soaked bottom half behind. He tucked it into his jacket and pulled out a desk drawer, revealing a small handful of crumpled up two-pound notes. Why did Hannity have his money out in the open for someone to steal? That didn’t sound at all like him.

Hearing a commotion outside, he glanced out the window. A dark-haired man was kneeling next to the body and shouting orders. It appeared that the constable had arrived, and Corbyn knew his time was up. He exited the room, leaving the door ajar.

He hurried down the steps and slipped out a back door into the alleyway. He saw a weathered man sitting on the ground, resting his back against the wall with a threadbare blanket hung over his thin shoulders.

Corbyn came to a stop next to him and waited for the man to look up at him. “Did you see someone leaving the building a short time ago?”

“Aye,” the man replied.

“Can you tell me anything about him?”

The man held his hand out. “Information don’t come cheap, Mister,” he replied in a thin, raspy voice.

Corbyn reached into his pocket and pulled out a few coins. He dropped them into the man’s waiting hand. “Now will you tell me what you saw?”

Clutching the coins, the man replied, “He smelled real good.”

“He smelled good?” Corbyn repeated back in surprise.

“Like oranges.”

“Can you tell me anything else about him?”

The man gave him an apologetic look as he tugged on the sides of his blanket. “I was asleep when he ran into the alley. I woke up to the noise of the door slamming against the wall. I’m afraid I only got a passing look at him.”

“Did you at least notice what color his hair was?” Corbyn asked hopefully.

“It was dark.” He paused. “Yes, I am pretty sure it was dark.”

Corbyn took a step back as he attempted to hide his disappointment. He had learned over the years that most people were oblivious to their surroundings unless it directly pertained to them. It baffled him how few people had a keen sense of observation.

He exited the slime-coated alley, keeping his head low, and passed by the crowd that still surrounded Hannity’s body. Young children had joined their parents and were staring at the corpse as if it were something to entertain them. The morbid curiosity of some people always surprised him, although it shouldn’t after so many years of observing them.

As he headed down the street towards his office, Corbyn knew it was going to be a long night. There were too many questions that needed to be answered before he could retire for the evening.

Lady Jane Radcliffducked as her sister-in-law, Lady Hawthorne, swung her gloved hand at her, barely missing her head by a few inches.

“Very good,” Lady Hawthorne praised as she stepped back. “You are progressing nicely.”

Jane rose and kept her own hands, also encased in mufflers, in front of her in preparation for another well-timed blow. “Why wouldn’t I?” she questioned, her breathing labored. “After all, I have the best teacher.”

“Flattery?” her sister-in-law joked.

Jane moved to jab Madalene in the jaw, but was startled when her sister-in-law hit her first, causing her to stagger back.

“You left yourself open,” Madalene explained.

Ignoring the pain radiating from her right cheek, Jane approached Madalene with her gloves up. “I won’t be making that mistake again.”

Madalene gave her a reassuring smile. “You always say that.”

“One day, it will come true.”

Jane tried to punch Madalene, but she easily side-stepped the blow.

Madalene eyed her with concern. “You are tired.”

“I am,” Jane admitted as she felt the sweat on her brow. “Boxing is exhausting.”

“It will keep you nimble and healthy,” Madalene remarked. “Perhaps we should stop for today and resume tomorrow with my boxing instructor, Mr. Payne.”

Jane nodded in agreement. “I think that sounds like a brilliant idea.”

Madalene motioned to a footman, who promptly came over to untie her mufflers. “Do you still intend to join me at the orphanage today?” she asked.

“I do.”

“I think it is wonderful that you are volunteering as a French teacher until we fill that position.”

Since he had finished with Madalene’s gloves, Jane extended her mufflers to the footman. “And I think it is admirable what you are doing at the orphanage.”

“I suppose we both will just have to admire one another,” Madalene joked.

“Frankly, I was surprised that my mother agreed to it.”

“I think Baldwin had something to do with that.”

Jane smiled ruefully. “Baldwin is most definitely her favorite child.”

“I don’t think your mother has a favorite.”

“Every mother has a favorite,” Jane remarked. “It is just the truth of it.”

Madalene laughed. “Regardless, I don’t believe your mother neglects you in any fashion.”

“No, she does not,” Jane agreed. “She is relentless in the rearing of me.”

“If you want me to feel pity for you, I don’t,” Madalene said, amused. “You have a mother that dotes on you something fierce.”

“She now dotes on you, as well.”

“That she does.”

Another footman approached carrying a tray with two glasses of water, and Jane reached for one. “How did you get so good at boxing?” she asked after a refreshing sip.

“Lots of practice,” Madalene replied.

“I hope, one day, that I will be as good as you.”

“You will.”

“How can you be sure?”

Madalene smirked. “Because you are one of the most stubborn people that I know.”

“You say that as if it is a bad thing,” Jane said, smiling.

With a laugh, Madalene remarked, “We should go inside before the sun gets too high in the sky.”

“Now you sound like my mother,” Jane teased as she extended her empty glass to the footman.

“Your mother is very wise.”

“Only about certain things.”

Madalene shook her head. “I won’t tell her you said that.”

“Thank you.”

“Will it be all right if we depart within the hour for the orphanage?” Madalene asked as they walked the short distance to Hawthorne House.

“I’ll be ready,” Jane said, smoothing out her white cotton gown. “Will Baldwin be joining us today?”

“No, he has a meeting at the House of Lords, but he has insisted that we take along additional footmen to watch over us.”

“That sounds like the brother I know and love.”

Madalene glanced over at her. “You two appear to have gotten closer these last few weeks.”

“It is true,” Jane agreed. “I find Baldwin to be much more tolerable.”

“That is good.”

“I still don’t fully understand his reasons for leaving for three years after my father died, but I am beginning to accept it.”

A footman opened the rear door and they stepped inside the townhouse. Before they could advance any further, Baldwin approached them with a smile on his face.

“Are you finished boxing on the lawn?” he asked as he came to stand next to his wife.

“We are,” Madalene confirmed.

Baldwin leaned forward and kissed his wife on the cheek. “I was hoping to speak to you privately before you leave for the orphanage.”

“Oh,” Madalene murmured. “I hope everything is all right.”

Baldwin leaned closer and whispered something into her ear.

A hint of a smile played on Madalene’s lips. “That does sound most urgent. We should discuss it at once.”

“I agree,” Baldwin remarked as he offered his arm to his wife.

Jane took great delight in the love that was so evidently displayed between Baldwin and Madalene. They were most definitely a love match, and the envy of the ton.

As they walked away, Jane hurried towards the entry hall and was surprised to see her other brother, Oliver, speaking to their butler.

He was dressed in wrinkled clothing, his dark hair was tousled about, and he had splotches of dirt on his face. He looked terrible.

Oliver shifted his tired eyes towards her. “Good morning, Jane.”

Her back stiffened as she came to a stop in front of him. “I see that you finally returned home.”

“Yes,” he replied. “I find that I am rather famished.” He smiled, no doubt in a foolish attempt to disarm her.

Not amused by his antics, she asked, “Does Emmeline know that you are home?”

Oliver shook his head. “Not yet. I only just arrived.”

“Do you think it is wise to be gone for days when you have a wife waiting for you at home?” she asked, placing her hand on her hip.

“Not this again,” he sighed. “Emmeline understands my reasons. Why can’t you?”

“Your reasons?” she questioned. “You go to gambling hells and drink yourself into oblivion.”

“I also spend time with my friends.”

“Oh, how could I have forgotten that?” she mocked.

Oliver grew solemn, making him look even more tired. “Need I remind you that I do not answer to you, Jane?”

“And I am most fortunate for that.”

“Then why do you keep harping on me?”

“You have only been married to Emmeline for a month now, yet you still act like a bachelor.”

“I have my reasons.”

“They are foolhardy, then,” Jane said, dropping her hand to her side. “You need to be home with Emmeline. Your wife.”

“I am well aware that Emmeline is my wife,” he remarked dryly.

“Are you?”

“Yes.”

“Then act like it,” she declared.

Oliver frowned. “As usual, I have enjoyed our little chat, but I would like to go speak to Emmeline now.”

“That is the first intelligent thing you have said this whole conversation.”

As Oliver walked past her, Jane shook her head at her brother. He was a fool. He had a doting wife, but he was too selfish to give her any heed. He only seemed to care about gambling and drinking with his friends. She truly hoped he realized how lucky he was before it was too late.

The heavyset butler spoke up. “May I get you something, Lady Jane?”

“No, thank you.”

With a kind smile, Pratt commented, “I couldn’t help noticing that you seem distracted.”

“My brother is just so…” Her words trailed off as she tried to think of the right word, “Vexing.”

Pratt wisely did not comment, just tipped his head in acknowledgement.

“If you will excuse me, I need to change before Lady Hawthorne and I leave for the orphanage,” Jane said as she started walking backwards.

Jane turned on her heel and headed up the stairs. She walked down the hall, which was lined with portraits, and stopped by her brothers’ pictures. Their appearances may be similar, but that is where the similarities ended.

Baldwin left shortly after the death of their father and had stayed away for three years. Even though he was vague on where he had been, he still embraced his role of husband to Madalene. Whereas Oliver was still a despicable cad, and she feared that nothing was going to change that. Not even for Emmeline.

She continued down the hall to her bedchamber and opened the door. She had decorated her room with pale purple paper on the walls, a four-poster bed, and a velvet camelback settee that sat in front of the hearth.

Her petite, blonde lady’s maid was busy cleaning up her dressing table, but glanced up when she walked into the room. “Are you ready to change, my lady?”

“I am.”

Susan straightened up and walked over to the bed. “I selected a pale blue gown for your visit to the orphanage,” she shared, holding up the gown for her inspection. “I hope that pleases you.”

“It does.”

“I assumed you would want to dress in something simple for your visit with the girls.”

“You would be right.”

After she dressed, Jane sat at her dressing table so Susan could style her hair.

Susan removed the pins from Jane’s hair and placed them on the dressing table, then started to brush out her brown tresses.

“Did you enjoy boxing this morning?” her lady’s maid asked.

“I did,” she replied, “but I pale in comparison to Madalene.”

“Is that so?”

Jane nodded. “Madalene has been boxing for years.”

“Then you must not be too hard on yourself.”

“It is hard not to,” she replied. “I have yet to land a well-timed blow on her.”

Susan twisted Jane’s hair as she styled it in a chignon. “Patience has never been one of your virtues, has it?” she teased.

“No, it has not.”

“Are you pleased with your hair?” Susan asked, stepping back.

Jane turned to the side to look at her reflection in the mirror. “It’s perfect,” she replied. “I believe you have properly transformed me into a teacher.”

“I think it’s admirable that you will be teaching the girls at the orphanage.”

“It’s only until a proper teacher can be found.”

“Regardless, it is most generous of you.”

“It’s the least I can do to help Madalene,” Jane replied.

Susan walked over to a table and picked up a blue reticule with white lace along the top. She walked it over to Jane. “Will there be anything else?” she asked.

Jane accepted the reticule and slipped it over her right wrist. “Is my muff pistol in here?”

“It is.” Susan gave her a curious look. “Does your family know you started carrying a pistol in your reticule?”

“They do not.”

“Do you think they would disapprove?”

“I know they would.”

“Then why do you have one?”

Jane gave a half-shrug. “I want to be able to defend myself, should the need ever arise.” She walked over to the door and opened it. “I shall be back later this evening,” she informed her lady’s maid.

As she walked down the hall, Jane knew her family all too well, which is why she never told them she had started carrying a muff pistol on her person. She felt safer with it, and she had no intention of stopping.