Stanton Horne, eleventh Marquis of Wyndham, member of the Royal Four--cadre of the most powerful men in England--esteemed scholar of historical documents, and a damned handsome bloke to boot, looked down at the mess on the floor of his grand hallway and bit back a helpless sigh.
"I'm sorry, milord," the servant said quickly. "I'll clean that up right away, milord. So sorry, milord!" Stanton's stammering footman backed away from him rather like one would back away from a dangerous man-eating beast. Stanton raised a hand carefully to make an easing gesture, but the man squeaked and paled anyway. "S-sorry, milord!"
Stanton gave up. There was no reasoning with some people. He'd only meant to apologize to the fellow for rounding the corner of the hall so suddenly and sending his own tea crashing to the floor. Now, the footman would doubtless carry tales of a close call with the master's notorious temper, and of escaping a blow by the nearest margin.
The fact that he'd never raised his voice in this house in his considerably exact memory seemed to have no effect on the awe that his own dependents held him in.
Yes, he could be a demanding master. True, he was not one to socialize with . . . well, anyone, actually. Still, he considered himself a fair and equable fellow, not a great hairy beast who frightened beardless young footmen out of their wits and--apparently--their ability to carry a tea tray.
"Yes, Dobbins, of course." Stanton took another calming breath. "When you've done here, I would appreciate another tea tray shortly."
The man dropped to his knees as if he'd ducked a bullet and began to frantically gather the broken crockery. His hands shook so badly that the dripping shards flung droplets of tea onto Stanton's boots.
The fellow nearly fainted at that. "Milord! Oh, milord, I--"
Stanton could bear it no longer. He turned on his heel and strode away. Nothing useful would happen while he was present anyway. It seemed all that was required to send his household into spasms of terror was for him to walk into a room of his own house!
It was always thus. Wherever he went, mothers urged their children from his path and even the most belligerent of men averted their gazes. No amount of careful grooming seemed to erase their impression that he was actually a foul and frightening ogre.
It was enough to give a fellow self-doubts.
So perhaps he'd been a mite tense lately. Why wouldn't he be, when the mightiest spy England had ever faced had escaped him and his fellow members of the Royal Four yet again? True, at least this time the Chimera had come out somewhat the worse for wear, scarred and run to earth, hiding from their search efforts, only one step ahead of their best men.
The thought of the evil French nobleman--who had passed among them so easily as a young Cockney valet for so long--hurting and run ragged was a pleasing notion, but what Stanton truly wanted was to have the man's cold dead body laid out in front of him.
Alas, that cherished hope was proving difficult to fulfill. Though the Chimera's talent for disguises had been destroyed with the slashing of his face, there was nothing wrong with the man's brilliant mind.
Furthermore, the war against Napoleon had come to a troubled standoff with both sides taking heavy losses. Swords drawn at each other's throats, England and France currently stood equal, each uneasily waiting for some factor to tip the balance.
Thus the ample excuse for Stanton's touchy behavior lately. He was simply a bit . . . tightly wound.
As he walked away, he heard another footman join the first. Their dread-heightened whispers carried clearly down the hall.
"'Imself 'as been a right terror these past weeks, ain't 'e?"
Dobbins grunted in agreement. "I thought I was a goner, I did!"
"If he was t'ask me, I'd tell him to find himself a woman, I would. Bloke needs to let steam before 'e blows!"
"Won't 'appen. The master's not likely to find a bird who wouldn't run screaming from them cold eyes! Ain't no lady I've ever seen got the heart for someone like that bleak bastard!"
Bleak bastard? That was a new one. Colorful, if a bit alliterative. Stanton found he rather preferred it to "demon's spawn" and "ice-cold devil." He continued on his way without comment. What good would punishing them for their disrespect do him but create yet more fear?
Still, as he settled into his study to await the next version of his tea tray, it was hard to shake that last comment.
"Ain't no lady I've ever seen got the heart for someone like that."
Unfortunately, that appeared to be precisely the case, although not for quite the reason the footman assumed. If his presence ignited fear in the sturdy East End souls of his staff, it was nothing to what his presence did to the tender sensibilities of lovely and eligible young Society ladies.
Not that he was without fault there. He was not a smooth and flirtatious fellow, nor was he able to set ladies at ease with humorous anecdotes--for he could never think of any at the necessary moments. His lack of the pretty conversation that women set such store by did nothing to dissuade them of his reputedly sinister nature.
Still, what did it matter? Stanton had given up on women a long time ago and found himself better off.
The very last thing he needed in his complicated existence was a woman.
The door knocker rapped sharply three times, sending a resounding noise through the largely silent house. Stanton started, for he was unaccustomed to the sound. Voices came from the front hall through his partially open study door.
"I wish to see Lord Wyndham." A woman's voice, clear and strong. "He wishes to see me as well. He simply doesn't know it yet."
"I'm sorry, madam." The butler's tone was frigid. "His lordship is not inclined to be at home to uninvited guests."
Stanton twisted his lips. He rarely had guests at all, invited or otherwise, which was why the knock on his front door was such an unusual occurrence. Fortunately, Grimm wasn't the sort to disobey strict orders. The person would be gone in moments and Stanton would be able to return to his work.
"I cannot see that he is all that busy. He is sitting in his study, staring at the ceiling. I know because I looked through the window before I knocked."
Grimm, the most ruthless butler money could buy, was reduced to sputtering at such a scandalous statement. Stanton found his own well-cultivated curiosity was aroused. He rose to his feet, drawn by his own need to know. Who was that making such a commotion in his front hall? He leaned partway through his study door.
She was somewhat less than tall and very oddly dressed. Her shapeless gown was too long and dragged the ground, as evidenced by the street muck that the hem was now transferring to his own carpets. Her head was crowned with a hat several decades out of date, which sported a heavy veil that hid her profile.
An unworthy supplicant, Stanton had no doubt. Grimm would handle it.
He moved to step back into his study. Her head snapped around and he could nearly feel the glare piercing that dark veil.
"There you are," she snapped at him. "Tell your man to let me in at once. I must speak to you." Her voice at least was cultured and melodic, despite the irritated bite of it. She was entirely odd, with her commanding manner and her bizarre appearance.
Grimm sent him an agonized look. "She refuses to identify herself, my lord." Grimm looked as though another minute of the creature's company would cost him a major portion of his sanity.
Stanton decided there was no need to cause the butler to have some sort of apoplectic fit. It was hard enough for Wyndham House to keep good help as it was.
The fact that his growing curiosity was doing much to ease his bout of restless dissatisfaction had nothing to do with his decision.
He bowed to the woman and waved his hand to another door. "If you would do me the great favor of awaiting me in the green parlor, I shall be happy to attend you in just a moment."
She didn't curtsy back, or make any of the usual social noises. Instead, her veil remained facing him for a long moment.
"If you think I will simply leave eventually, you are quite mistaken," she said flatly. "I have no pressing plans for the rest of the day. In fact, I have no pressing plans for the rest of my life, so I would advise you to adhere to your word and take no more than a moment."
With that, she turned briskly and put herself in the green parlor, unassisted by Grimm, who was surprisingly slow on the take.
"Hmm." While the woman might appear to be an escapee from Bedlam, she more sounded like a short-tempered army captain. Stanton slid a glance to Grimm, who was staring after the woman with a mixture of glowering hatred and--unbelievably, since Grimm bowed to no one but him--a tinge of respect.
"Grimm, have tea and cakes brought in. Ladies like tea and cakes."
Grimm said nothing as he turned away, but as he walked down the hall, Stanton was fairly sure he heard his unshakable butler mutter something about serving "venom tea and dragon cakes."
Stanton returned to the study just long enough to shrug himself into his coat and tuck the papers he'd not been reading into a securely locked drawer. Depositing the key into its usual home in his weskit pocket, he strolled to the green parlor and let himself in.
Lady Alicia Lawrence turned from her position at the window to greet the man she had come so far in the rain to see. Stanton Horne, Marquis of Wyndham--the only man in London who might possibly listen to what she had to say before throwing her back into the street.
He was a handsome one, to be sure. She could safely admire the symmetry of his rather sharply chiseled features without any worry as to whether he found her similarly attractive.
It was uncanny, really, how much more time she had on her hands since she'd stopped worrying about such things. Of course, she had very little to do with that accumulated time . . . but there was no point in crying over milk already spilled.
She found her gaze lingering upon the rather sensual curve of his bottom lip and snapped her attention back to more of an overall view. What sort of man was this Lord Wyndham, whom everyone knew of but no one knew well?
Even she, cut off from Society as she was, knew that he was as wealthy as a king and as mysterious as a dark wizard in his tower. She did not believe the rumors of virgin sacrifices in the attic, but then again, what did she know of virgins?
He looked normal enough, if devastating dark eyes and an iron jawline could be considered normal. His thick, nearly blue-black hair was pulled back into a perfect queue, adding severity to a face that might otherwise be called beautiful.
She admired his adherence to a classic style rather than the tousled Byronic mop most men were sporting these days. Those who adopted any new fashion that came around tended to be easily manipulated. She ought to know, having been such a person herself once upon a hundred years ago. Lord Wyndham did not look as though a hurricane could push him about.
He bowed to her, a correct but minimal bow. She didn't bother returning the nicety. He'd quit such nonsense soon enough when her reputation came forth. "I am Lady Alicia Lawrence, daughter of the Earl of Sutherland. I have information about an attempt that will be made to kidnap His Highness, the Prince Regent. Are you interested in hearing it, or shall I find someone who cares?"
Stanton felt his curiosity seep away. Oh, drat. She was one of those, the sort that saw conspiracy about every corner. He'd dealt with a few of those irrational people in his years as the Falcon, but this was the first time one of them had sought him out directly.
Which posed yet another question. What had made her think the reclusive Marquis of Wyndham would be interested? Stanton decided that he would very much like to know the answer. After all, he made no practice of publicly being seen to be involved in anything even faintly political.
Perhaps he ought to take Lady Alicia more seriously. "May I have my man take your bonnet?"
She touched her gloved fingertips to her mildewed veil. "I would rather it remain."
He ought to insist, but she might ask the one question he did not want to answer.
He had no desire to explain himself, for to do so would only land him in Bedlam. How could he tell this woman that he needed to see her face in order to tell if she was lying? She would ask him how he could possibly know that, and he would not be able to reply with any sort of truth, for he did not know how his peculiar talent worked. He didn't even much like to think on it, for he took pride in being a rational man, and he was . . . but for this one thing, this ability that he believed in wholeheartedly, for it had never failed him.
For Stanton's entire life, he had somehow known when he was being lied to. As a child, he had detected the easy lies adults tell children as a matter of course. He had known he would not be stunted if he neglected to drink his milk, he would not die if he ran with scissors, and as much as a young lad might abuse himself, he would never, ever go blind.
As he matured, he found that he could detect even the withheld truth, or at least the act of withholding. He learned the lies people told to spare themselves shame, or effort. He became familiar with the lies they uttered in pursuit of money, or of love.
Veil or no, even he could tell that the person before him was losing patience with his inattention.
She waved a folded sheaf of paper at him and tilted her head. "If you had read my letter--for which someone in your household refused to pay the post--you would already have a full account of what I overheard," she said shortly.
She was annoyed with him. Stanton couldn't begin to describe how much he didn't care. "Lady Alicia, perhaps you might recount it for me now."
In a moment he was going to recall where he'd heard of Lady Alicia Lawrence before. He himself hadn't refused her letter, but he was sure Grimm had, under orders. Anyone with news of importance knew better than to trust the post with it, therefore it followed that there was no reason to clutter up his existence with letters and invitations he had no intention of responding to.
Lady Alicia seated herself at last. "Four nights ago, I overheard a conversation. Three men discussing the 'relocation' of the Prince Regent. They intend to capture him at a house party to be held at the estate of Lord Cross." She hesitated. "Do you think it's possible that the Prince Regent would actually attend such an affair?"
Not only possible, but probable. Cross's parties were notorious for the lascivious madness that went on. No one ever actually admitted attending, but rumor abounded concerning the nature of events.
"I think it is a certainty." George was not a man to pass up licentious diversions. Moreover, George's recent disaffection--to put it mildly--with the Four meant that they were overdue some royal misbehavior.
Relocation. George could be in trouble. Again.
This was not something Stanton would want to leave to commoner hands--and what could the Liars do? Only those of his rank and higher--not many of those either--could get close and stay close to the Prince Regent if the man didn't wish it, not even his bedmates.
Suddenly, Stanton remembered where he had heard of Lady Alicia Lawrence before.
Five years earlier, a young debutante had been caught with a stable boy in her bed--a simpleton stable boy at that. Bloody hell.
Stanton's carefully polite expression soured. This faded and ill-fitting disguise concealed one of the most notorious women to scandalize Society in a generation.
In typical Society fashion, the young lady's wild ways had become the stuff of legend. The uproar had cast echoes into all reaches of Society and the well-bred daughters of England had been guarded much more closely since that day.
The woman before him was a discredited wanton. What a waste of time, time he did not currently have to spare.
He stood. "Thank you ever so much, my lady. I shan't keep you any longer."
She stood as well, but remained where she was. He could feel her gaze piercing him from behind the veil.
"I see your memory is not faulty, Wyndham. I take it that you've just recollected my reputation."
He bowed perfunctorily. "Lady Alicia, I am a very busy man--"
"Of course." She did not curtsy, but merely turned and walked from the room. "You needn't see me out. I made sure to remember the location of the exit. 'Tis always best to be prepared." With that she was gone.
What a stunning bit of rudeness. He was well shut of her. He turned to leave the room himself. Now he could turn his attention back--
Damn. His curiosity continued to twitch despite the fact that the woman was obviously disturbed. He wanted to know more, but shuddered at the thought of inviting the creature back into his house.
Where was that letter? Ah, she'd left it on the side table.
Stanton picked up the folded sheets of paper and flicked them open in one motion. Ah, she had indeed written the entire account for him. She certainly was putting a great deal of effort into fluffing up her story.
Then his gaze caught the words "scarred man."
Bloody hell. There was only one scarred man on his mind at the moment.
He turned abruptly and ran from the house after the woman, but she was well gone. There were no hackneys on the street, nor any shabbily dressed pedestrians.
Lady Alicia had disappeared.
Copyright © 2006 by Celeste Bradley. All rights reserved. Celeste Bradley is the New York Times bestselling author of Scoundrel in My Dreams, Desperately Seeking a Duke, and the Royal Four and Liars Club series, among many others. Prior to giving writing a try, Celeste was a professional artist. Believing that storytelling is as much of an art form, she applies those skills to writing. She is a two-time RITA Nominee and winner of the prestigious Historical Storyteller of the Year from Romantic Times Book Reviews. Mother of two teen divas, Southern-born Celeste lives in the Southwest. Her hobbies include gardening, jewelry making and collage. She feels very strongly that literacy can change lives.