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Excerpt: Lord Difficult

Book 3: Maitland's Rogues

Chapter One

London, 1811

“A woman of modest beauty, independent means, and a tireless passion for marital, er, relations.” Emmaline hoped her frozen smile projected confidence, not desperation. “I will find just the right bride for you, Mr. Burwell.”

“Not too headstrong, mind you, Mrs. Stanhope.”

Emmaline looked aghast. “Oh, no. Headstrong is not the thing.”

“Her passions must be limited to the marriage bed. I want no intemperate shrew.”

“Ugh.”

He frowned. “What?”

“Certainly not,” she quickly amended, lowering her lashes. The floor, she noticed, had a new crack.

The vermin would be pleased.

“My work is very demanding,” he went on. “I won’t stand for a nagging wife. You’re certain you are not available?” He stood on her sagging front steps, a speculative gleam in his rather beady eyes.

“I am afraid not.” Emmaline’s voice filled with what she hoped was regret. “My heart will always belong to my poor husband, God rest his soul.”

“He was lucky to find such a helpmeet.” Mr. Burwell tipped his hat. “With your help, I suspect I will be lucky, too. Indeed, you have restored my faith in the future.”

He walked toward the street. Emmaline couldn’t suppress a surge of elation. The deposit he’d given her would see them through the month.

“Mind the Mail, sir,” she called. “The driver never has the courtesy to slow his team. You will wish to cross quickly to avoid his dust.”

Mr. Burwell pulled a watch from his waistcoat, which stretched tightly over his ample midsection. “Five o’clock. I didn’t realize the day was so far advanced.”

“Oh, yes,” she replied, with forced cheer. “You can set your watch by the Mail.”

And by the bill collectors.

And the drunken sots sleeping on the stoop each morning.

And the stench of cesspits in the night air. 

“There’s the rent, thank the Lord,” muttered a voice at her elbow.

Emmaline turned to her aunt. “Shhh. He will hear.”

“Not with the commotion of the Mail,” Aunt Heloise replied. “Ruins my afternoon nap.”

“When one lives on Oxford Street, one cannot be particular about noise.”

“Or clients.” Her aunt studied the man in the street. “If his middle was any larger, he’d not see his shoes. And that scruffy beard—pity the woman who marries him! Her complexion will pay the price. Do you have a prayer of finding him a bride?”

“His requirements are rather stringent,” Emmaline conceded. And loathsome. Why had she thought this wretched business would save them?

“Like all of them,” her aunt agreed. “The men want doxies, and the women want dukes.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t know any beautiful, well-fixed women with passionate natures.”

“Find him a woman who enjoys the marriage bed and he won’t mind about the other. One of the Covent Garden set will take him on, once she sees he’s a man of means. In my day, that lot was always on the lookout for the main chance.”

“Mr. Burwell is not seeking a prostitute.”

“Nonsense. All husbands want their wives to be whores in the bedchamber.”

Emmaline sighed. Ever since she had placed the notice for Harmonious Matrimony Services in the Times, they had been deluged with men of the worst sort. “If we don’t get more paying clients, we’ll have to return to fortune-telling.”

“I shouldn’t have given away my crystal ball,” her aunt said as they stood in the doorway watching their new client. “Bird in the bush, and all that.”

“Bird in the hand.”

“Hand, bush—what does it matter? It all boils down to money in the end.”

Emmaline couldn’t argue. “With Mr. Burwell’s funds, we can afford Dr. Black.” None of the other doctors they had consulted could help her aunt’s crushing fatigue.

Aunt Heloise patted her shoulder. “It pains me to see you spend your youth on me. In a just world, you’d be married to a prince by now and readying the nursery.”

“A prince? You sound like Father. But daydreams don’t pay the rent.”

“A woman cannot have too many dreams,” her aunt said. “By the time she’s my age, she’ll need every one of them.”

“Then let me dream of a cure for you,” Emmaline said. “Come. I will make tea. And you can tell me more about the magnificent Mr. Kemble.”

“Stepped on everyone’s lines,” her aunt grumbled. “We loathed him. Did you notice that the door hinges squeak, dear?”

“Candlewax will help,” Emmaline said absently.

Mr. Burwell was talking to an elderly woman, apparently giving her directions, for he pointed toward the park, then bowed politely as the woman, her back bent with age, wrapped her voluminous cloak more tightly against the wind.

But after the woman moved on, he remained standing in the road.

“Mr. Burwell,” Emmaline called, “the Mail is due any minute—have a care.”

Already, the dust cloud that heralded its arrival was in sight. The Mail guard sounded a blast on his tin horn to signal the toll keeper to open the gate.

Mr. Burwell did not budge.

“Lives dangerously, that one,” Aunt Heloise observed.

The thundering of hooves and the rumbling of the heavy coach roared nearer. Still, Mr. Burwell did not bestir himself. He wore a pleasant, but strangely empty expression.

Emmaline ran down the steps, nearly tripping as her leg tried to buckle. “Mr. Burwell! Sir, you must move this instant!”

He was still smiling when the Royal Mail ran him down.

***

If George Campbell, the sixth Duke of Argyll, hadn’t known beyond doubt that the man behind the desk was his deceased sister’s child, he’d be hard pressed to believe it. That Portia could have birthed such a cold creature as Robert Tavish defied comprehension.

The relentlessly recalcitrant Earl of Kent sat at his vast desk glowering at a scrawny yellow bird. Next to it rested a white bone as big as a man’s thigh.

Macabre images came to mind, involving cannibalism and the like. Unthinkable, even for his nephew—no matter that Robert looked but a step removed from the wild. His long hair was not in the current fashion, which favored short at the ears and longer on top so it could be swept into curls approximating some absurd notion of an ancient Roman emperor.

Instead, Robert’s sand-colored mane fell to his shoulders, as if he were a lion in training. Occasionally, he pulled it back in an old-style queue.

And while Robert’s father had been a fashion peacock given to embarrassingly colorful attire, the son never met a shade of brown that didn’t appeal. Now and then, he mustered a drab moss green; otherwise, he seemed determined to sink into mud-colored oblivion.

No oblivion to be had with that unruly hair, though. Or his hard jaw, high forehead, imposing dark brows, and gray eyes the color of unforgiving stone. Even the roaring blaze in the fireplace did not banish the chill he radiated.

If only Portia had seen fit to send him to town years ago to gain polish. But no, she’d taken him off to the wilds of Scotland, and Scotland had produced a beast.

The beast had rebelled.

Bringing him back into the fold would be a challenge. Robert rebuffed his every overture. He hadn’t so much as glanced up when George showed himself into the study.

Never underestimate a Campbell, however. There was no more politically astute clan. George had set his sights on high office. Already, he had purview over certain War Office matters—his sporadic alliance with Whigs notwithstanding. He was aiming for Privy Council, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and—in time, perhaps—Prime Minister.

But first, there was the matter of his nephew. Family mattered. Clan, above all. Inveigling Robert was a long game, but George had finally arrived at the perfect plan.

“There has been a death,” he began. “Unusual circumstances that fall, as it happens, within your area of expertise.”

His nephew’s disapproving glare remained fixed on the bird, which was staring back.

“The deceased, William Burwell, was a clerk in the War Office,” George continued. “He was under investigation for possible treason.”

This statement likewise had no discernible effect.

“Documents have been disappearing,” he went on. “Last month, the French obtained schedules for our supply ships to the peninsula. They sank one ship, damaged another.”

George paused to allow Robert to commiserate with England’s war woes.

He did not.

“We’d been shadowing Burwell, hoping to catch him in the act,” George said, more forcefully. “His sudden death was cause for consternation. We are no closer to identifying those behind this treachery.”

Those unnerving gray eyes blinked once.

George prided himself on his calm mastery of the vagaries of politics, London weather, and the silly social scene. He rarely spoke intemperately. Nevertheless, his blood boiled.

“The Mail ran him over.” He barely restrained himself from shouting. “By all accounts, Burwell stood in its path like a suicidal squirrel.”

An appreciative chirp came from the desk.

“Can’t you do something about that bird?” George demanded.  “Surely, your cook has a recipe for pigeon pie.”

“Canary,” his nephew corrected. “Most unsatisfactory in a pie.”

The low voice flowed like thick honey—the bitter kind from heather, not the mild stuff from orange blossoms. Portia’s voice had been pure and sweet. Robert’s left a distinct aftertaste.

With a muttered curse, George pulled a newspaper from his pocket and tossed it onto the desk. “Burwell died outside this woman’s establishment. She runs some sort of marriage agency. I’ve circled her notice.”

It read:

Gentlemen desirous of meeting agreeable ladies for marriage are requested to call at Harmonious Matrimony Services, 709 Oxford Street, where a Respectable Widow will assist them in the process of selecting a future mate. A small fee will ensure the happiest of outcomes.

“And this handbill was found in his pocket.” George thrust it under Robert’s nose. “Seems she also dabbles in fortunes.”

Fortunes told, wishes fulfilled, future unveiled. Madame Flora, 709 Oxford Street.

When Robert did not react, George turned the handbill over. On the back was drawn a skeleton in black armor riding a horse, its reins adorned with skull and crossbones.

His nephew blinked. “The Tarot death card.”

“Exactly. It’s possible she was involved in Burwell’s death and possibly his treason.”

Robert regarded the drawing thoughtfully.

“She lives with an aunt,” George said. “Nothing criminal in her background, but that death card has unnerved more than one investigator. Some suspect that mesmerism or other occult art caused him to stand in the path of the Mail.”

His nephew’s mouth curved in what might have been a smile, had he been one to indulge in frivolity. “I know of no occult practice capable of causing a man’s feet to stick to the cobblestones as death bears down on him.”

“Still, we lack an explanation as to why he didn’t save himself.”

“Rational explanation lies behind all unusual phenomena.”

“We don’t have one here,” George insisted.

“I tried to enlighten Parliament about this sort of thing years ago. Failed.” Robert picked up his pen. “I’ve a paper to finish, Uncle. What do you desire of me?”

“Visit this woman. Pretend to be a client in need of her matrimonial services. With your background, you’ll discern things others might miss.”

Robert’s pen moved smoothly over the paper. “No.”

“Do it for your mother’s sake, Robbie. You might prevent someone else falling victim as Portia did.”

His nephew looked up, his gaze hard. “You dare invoke her memory for such triviality?”

“It’s anything but trivial. With Massena on the run, the peninsula war’s at a turning point. We must discover who is behind this nefarious scheme.” George took a deep breath. His expression softened. “I honor you for what you tried to do in her name. Just because you failed to convince some quarreling Tories is no reason to—”

“It’s every reason,” Robert tossed his quill on the desk as the canary fluttered in protest.

Time to shift tactics. “I know you had a difficult boyhood—”

“I am thirty, Uncle. Boyhood’s a lifetime behind me.”

“Yet I cannot forget that summer Portia brought you to us.” Dangerous ground there, but George pressed on: “You were so lost.”

Robert’s features flattened, until they were empty of all expression. He picked up his quill once more but did not dip it into the inkwell. Instead, he began to move it back and forth.

“The woman’s name is Emmaline Stanhope,” George said. His eyes tracked the pen’s steady tempo.

No response.

The silence lengthened. The pen kept moving.

The bird, meanwhile, had gone still at the edge of his nephew’s desk.

In fact, everything seemed to freeze. There was only that slow-moving quill.

Robert’s gaze fixed unblinkingly on George.

George’s vision shrank to the tip of that quill. A strange heaviness beset him. Time seemed overcome by the same lethargy. His brain felt…scrambled. His legs were lead, his arms paralyzed. Whispered words penetrated the fog that engulfed him.

They ordered him to throw himself into the fire.

With great effort, George stepped backward. “What are you doing to me?”

Robert regarded him. “You’ve done it to yourself, Uncle.” He rapped his pen sharply on the desk.

The world struggled into focus. It was a moment before George could speak.

“I may have…lost the thread,” he said slowly.

“No, you’ve proven my point,” Robert said. “While the mind can be led, it inclines above all to survival. It will triumph over insidious efforts to subvert that instinct. You, for instance, declined to throw yourself on the fire. If your traitor was murdered, it was not by mesmerism.”

But George had recovered his senses. “I remain unconvinced. I insist that you investigate Burwell’s death and prove me wrong.” Spoken firmly, in a tone calculated to brook no argument.

It was a risk. His nephew was not one to be pushed.

Robert regarded him incredulously. “Am I to understand that you wish me to discover whether this Mrs. Stanhope put your suicidal squirrel under a spell?”

George shot him a pained look. “I am aware that sounds slightly ridiculous. Do this for Portia’s sake, if nothing else.”

Shameless tactic, that. But it had the desired effect.

Robert gave a curt nod. Abruptly, he rose. “Show yourself out, Uncle. I have papers to write. The beauty of science is that it is not dependent on human foolishness.”

His nephew, so pitiful as a child, had grown into the very devil himself. Complete with a familiar, which—freed from its own tiny trance—squawked loudly as George beat a swift retreat.

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