George Ellyson turned to his guests and glanced at them, blinking owlishly through his spectacles. Then, as if finally taking note of them, he did his best to sound congenial. “Going to Portugal, are you?”
“Yes, sir,” Justin Grey, the Earl of Clifton replied. Not to sea as most of the Greys had done before him, not even to command troops, as a few of his more “reckless” forebears had done. No, he had chosen to break with the family’s noble tradition of valiant (meaning obvious and highly visible) service to the King and England by skulking off to serve as a spy.
He could imagine the graveyard at Clifton House was full of skeletons rolling over in protest at such a plebeian choice. A Grey prowling about like a commoner? Taking part in underhanded and unscrupulous acts? Why, it wasn’t to be borne!
And yet here he was, not even sure himself why he’d come this far. Of what lay ahead…
Suddenly aware of the deep silence in the room, he glanced up and found Ellyson studying him. The earl hadn’t felt such an inspection since his first day at Eton… or that he was utterly failing either.
He shifted slightly, trying to draw his shoulders in a tauter line, pull himself up to his full height.
This did not impress the man before him.
“Harrumph. Pymm must be out of his mind,” Ellyson muttered. “But who am I to argue with him?” The man went back to thumbing through his rolls of maps, muttering unintelligibly to himself.
Clifton cringed. For this was George Ellyson. The George Ellyson. The man reputed to have been England’s greatest agent of the last century, until he’d been shot in the leg in Paris. A man of dubious origins and even more questionable honor, but nonetheless, he was regarded in some circles as the most brilliant mastermind who’d ever lived.
And now he served his country by ensuring that the agents who went out into the field were ready. It had been no easy measure to get this far, Clifton knew, but without Ellyson’s final approval, he and his brother, Malcolm, wouldn’t be given leave to venture a single foot off British soil.
“I assure you, sir,” Malcolm offered, “we have the will and the nerve.”
Ellyson paused all his anxious pacing and wandering movements. He stilled and turned slowly, casting his sharp, narrowed gaze toward Malcolm. “Do you?”
Clifton’s brother shifted, ever so slightly. “Certainly.”
“Ever killed a man?”
Malcolm shook his head. “Of course not.”
Ellyson glanced at them both, the chill of his eyes sending a shiver down the earl’s spine. “Can you?”
It was a question that took Clifton aback, for he hadn’t considered such a notion. Can I kill a man?
When neither of them answered — for truly how did one answer such a thing? — Ellyson went back to his pacing. “Bah! Running back and forth to the coast is child’s play. My daughter Mariana has done as much. You’re off to Portugal, you fools, not Hastings. Nerve, indeed!” Ellyson glanced at the door. “Demmit, where is that gel? Lucy!” he shouted just as the door opened and a young lady entered.
While the Earl of Clifton had been expecting a scullery maid or even a housekeeper to respond to Mr. Ellyson’s shouted orders, the minx who arrived in the man’s study was as much a contradiction to his expectations as George Ellyson was.
Her glorious black hair sat piled up atop her head, the pins barely holding it there, the strands shimmering with raven lights and rich, deep hues. It was a color that made one think of the most expensive courtesans, of Italian paintings and exotic bordellos.
Yet the illusion ended quickly, for beneath her shining crown of hair, the miss wore a plain muslin gown, over which she’d tossed a faded and patched sweater. There were mitts on her hands, for the rest of the house was cold, and out from beneath the less-than-tidy hem of her gown, a pair of very serviceable pair of boots stuck out.
This was all topped off by a large splotch of soot decorating her nose and chin.
She took barely a glance at Clifton or his brother, before her hands fisted to her hips. “Whatever are you doing shouting like that? I’m not deaf, but I fear I will be if you insist on bellowing so.”
Crossing the room, she swatted Ellyson’s hand off the map he was in the process of unrolling. Plucking off her mitts and swiping her hand over her skirts — as if that would do the task and clean them — she caught up the map and reshelved it. “I doubt you need Paris as yet.”
There was a presumptuous note of disdain in her voice, as if she, like Ellyson himself, had shelved their guests with the same disparagement that she had just given the errant map.
And in confirmation, when she cast a glance over her shoulder and took stock of them, it was with a gaze that was both calculating and dismissive all at once. “Why not begin with ensuring that they know how to get to the coast,” she replied, no small measure of sarcasm dripping from her words.
Ellyson barked a short laugh, if one could call it a laugh. But her sharp words amused the man. “Easy girl, they’ve Pymm’s blessing. We’re to train them up.”
“Harrumph,” she muttered, putting one more stamp of disapproval on the notion.
Clifton straightened. It was one thing to be dismissed by a man of Ellyson’s stature, but by a mere servant? Well, it wasn’t to be borne. He opened his mouth to protest, but Malcolm nudged him.
Don’t wade into this one, little brother, his dark eyes implored.
“I need to start with Lisbon,” Ellyson said, “but demmed if I can find it.”
“Here,” she said, easily locating the map from the collection. “Anything else?” Her chapped hands were back on her hips, and she shot another glance over her shoulder at Clifton, her bright green eyes suddenly filled with amusement.
Until, that is, her gaze fell to the puddles of water at his feet and the trail of mud from his boots.
Then she looked up at him with a thunderous glare that said, You’d best not expect me to clean that up.
Clifton could only gape at this bossy termagant of a chit. He’d never met such a woman.
Well, not outside of a public house.
Still, he couldn’t stop watching her, for there was a spark to this Lucy that dared to settle inside his chest.
She was, with that hair and flashing eyes, a pretty sort of thing, in an odd way. But she held herself so that a man would have to possess a devilish bit of nerve to tell her so.
Then she shocked him, at least, he thought it was the most shocking thing he’d ever heard.
“Papa, I haven’t all day, and I’ve a roast to see to, as well as the pudding to mix.”
Papa? Clifton’s mouth fell open. This bossy chit was Ellyson’s daughter?
No, in the world of the Ellysons, Clifton quickly discovered, such a notion wasn’t shocking in the least.
Not when weighed against what her father said in reply. “Yes, yes. Of course. But before you see to dinner, I have it in mind for you to become Lord Clifton’s new mistress. What say you, Goosie?” he asked his daughter as casually as one might inquire if the pudding was going to include extra plums. “How would you like to fall in love with an earl?”
Lucy glanced over her shoulder and looked at the man standing beside the door. Very quickly, she pressed her lips together to keep from bursting out with laughter at the sight of the complete and utter shock dressing the poor earl’s features. He had to be the earl, for the other man hadn’t the look of a man possessing a title and fortune.
Oh, heavens! He thinks Papa is serious. And in a panic over how to refuse him.
Not that a very feminine part of her felt a large stab of pique.
Well, you could do worse, she’d have told him, if the other man in the room, the one by the window — the earl’s brother from the looks of him — hadn’t said, “Good God, Gilby! Close your mouth. You look like a mackerel.” The fellow then doubled over with laughter. “‘Sides, I doubt Ellyson is serious.”
Lucy didn’t reply, nor did her father, but that was to be expected, for Papa was already onto the next step of his plans for the earl and his natural brother and therefore saw no polite need to reply.
“Sir, I can hardly… I mean as a gentleman…” the earl began.
Lucy turned toward him, one brow cocked and her hands back on her hips. It was the stance she took when the butcher tried to sell her less-than-fresh mutton.
The butcher was a devilish cheat, so it made ruffling this gentleman’s fine and honorable notions akin to child’s play.
Clifton swallowed and took a step back, which brought him right up against the wall.
Literally and figuratively.
“What I mean to say, is that while Miss Ellyson is…is…that is to say I am…” He closed his eyes and shuddered.
Well, a lady could only take so much.
Lucy sauntered past him, flicked a piece of lint off the shoulder of his otherwise meticulous jacket and tossed a smile up at him. “Don’t worry, Gilby,” she purred, using the familiar name his brother had used. “You don’t have to bed me.” She took another long glance at him, from his dark hair, the chiseled set of his aristocratic jaw, the breadth of his shoulders, the long lines of his legs, to his perfectly polished boots — everything that was wealthy, noble and elegant — then continued toward her father’s desk, tossing one more glance over her shoulders. “For truly, you aren’t my type.”
Which was quite true. Well, there was no arguing that the Earl of Clifton was one of the most handsome men who’d ever walked into her father’s house seeking his training to take on secretive “work” for the King, but Lucy also found his lofty stance and rigid features troubling.
He’ll not do, Papa, she wanted to say. She considered herself an excellent judge of character, for she’d spent a good part of her life watching the agents come and go from her father’s house. She knew them all.
And as much as she found it amusing to give this stuffy earl a bit of a tease, there was a niggle of worry that ran down her spine.
This Clifton would have to set himself down a notch or two if he was going to stay alive, at the very least, let alone complete the tasks he would be sent to do.
No, he is too utterly English. Too proud.
Too… too… noble.
In that estimation, she saw his future and it wasn’t good. Well-intentioned gentlemen were the bane of the Foreign Office. With one glance, she dismissed him. For this Clifton, this noble earl, would never return to England, no matter the effort her father extended to train him properly.
He’ll never come back.
Well, I don’t care, she told herself, crossing the room and putting her back to the earl. She opened a drawer and handed a folder to her father, who through this exchange had been muttering over the mess of papers and correspondence atop his desk. “I think you need these,” she said softly.
Her father opened it up, squinting at the pages inside and then nodding. “Ah, yes. Good gel, Goosie.” He turned back to Clifton. “Whatever has you so pale? I don’t expect you to deflower the gel, just carry her love letters.”
“Letters?” Clifton managed.
“Yes, letters,” Lucy explained. “I write coded letters to you as if I were your mistress, and you carry them to Lisbon.” She strolled over, reached up and patted his chest. “You put them right next to your heart.” She paused and gazed up at him. “You have one of those, don’t you?”