Captain Alasdair Gilbride, late of the Black Watch, eyed Aden St. George with distaste. “So, if I don’t return to that benighted castle, Dominic Hunter will haul my arse in front of Prinny and have me ordered back to the Highlands. Do I have that right?”
His cousin lifted the glass holding a generous portion of scotch, admiring the rich amber hue within the sparkling cut crystal. “You do. By the way, Alec, this is a very fine whiskey.”
“It should be. It came from one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland.” He didn’t bother to mention that his family owned the distillery. “But you’re dodging the issue, Aden. I refuse to believe that there isn’t some mission you could send me on. Surely there’s still a need for spies, even after we put the boots to Boney.”
Aden’s heavy sigh sounded more like an expression of sympathy than exasperation. Not that sympathy was likely to get Alec where he wanted to be, which was anywhere but Scotland.
The library of his grandfather’s London mansion was a gracious and noble room, if one’s taste ran to styles favored over half a century ago. Although the house was kept spit-cleaned and polished by a small but capable crew of servants, it hadn’t truly been a home in years. Alec couldn’t remember the last time his grandfather had visited London. The only reason the Earl of Riddick had kept the place was for Alec to occasionally camp out there during his infrequent trips from the Continent during the war. As such, the house seemed trapped in another era, even down to the books. Alec was willing to bet that no new volumes had been added to the library since the previous century.
“There will always be a need for spies,” Aden said, “but that doesn’t mean we need you to be running around in disguise, rooting out conspiracies and killers. We have plenty of agents on hand, so we do not need the heir to an earldom risking his life on dangerous missions. You’re getting too old for that, anyway.”
Alec scoffed. “Good Gad, I’m only twenty-six, you idiot. Considerably younger than you.”
“Then it’s time you listened to your elders. And to your superior in the service, I might add. I’m giving the orders now, Alec, and I’m ordering you to go home.”
Alec scowled at this cousin. When Dominic Hunter, the best spymaster England had seen in a generation, had retired, Aden St. George had stepped into his place. He now ran a significant portion of the Intelligence Service, and his word determined whether Alec would stay or go.
Aden stretched out his booted legs and dangled a negligent hand over the arm of one of the leather club chairs that faced Alec’s desk. To the casual observer, he looked like the average Corinthian, entirely at his leisure until he lounged off to a cockfight or to his club. But Alec knew how false that impression was. His cousin was still one of England’s most effective and lethal spies. Neither marriage nor his promotion to head of mission had changed that.
“Alec, you’ve earned the rest,” Aden said. “You spent ten years fighting. You’re heir to one of the most powerful titles in the Union. You have a place in the world and a role to play, and it’s time you faced up to that. And perhaps you could try, for once, to enjoy the privileges inherent in that position instead of running away from them. Most men would kill to be where you are.”
Alec almost inhaled a snort of whiskey at the idea that he would actually enjoy the obligations that awaited him back at Blairgal Castle. And as for whether he had a right to the attendant privileges that remained to be seen.
“Some might not agree that the earldom actually is mine in the first place.”
“You mean you might not agree,” his cousin replied. “To anyone that matters, you are the legitimate son of Walter Gilbride and his wife, Lady Fiona, the only child of the Earl of Riddick. And since Scottish earldoms can pass down through the female line, that makes you Riddick’s heir. Anyone who says otherwise will not just have your grandfather to deal with, but the Prince Regent.”
That was true enough. His grandfather had always stood by his daughter, even after her brief, adulterous affair with Prinny’s brother, the Duke of Kent. And so had Walter Gilbride, her husband and, for all intents and purposes, Alec’s father. Walter insisted that Alec was his true son, and the old earl was just as adamant that his grandson was the rightful heir to Riddick. Alec’s relatives had never been anything but steadfast in their loyalty to him and to his mother’s good name, denying any rumors or gossip that suggested he had been born on the wrong side of the sheets.
Too bad all that loyalty made him feel guilty as hell.
“Alec, it’s time to go home,” Aden went on. “If you give it a chance, you might find it easier than you think.”
“Easy for you to say,” Alec said absently as he swirled the last bit of whiskey in his glass. When he glanced up to catch his cousin’s ironic stare, he winced. “Sorry about that.”
In fact, it hadn’t been easy for Aden St. George to come out of the shadows and rejoin his family. Everyone knew that Aden was Prinny’s bastard, just like they knew that his mother’s husband had resented the cuckoo in his nest. Aden had been estranged from his mother for a long time, and only his stepfather’s death had allowed them to reestablish a relationship.
“You know how bloody difficult it all is,” Alec said. “Families are a royal pain in the arse.”
Aden laughed as he came to his feet. “With the emphasis on royal. But I’ve found it to be worth the effort.”
Alec rose and strolled around the desk. “And how is your wife? I trust Lady Vivien is no longer reaching for a basin every ten minutes.”
His cousin unleashed a grin that on a less imposing man would have looked almost fatuous. “Fortunately, Vivien seems to have gotten over that. Now she’s simply hungry all the time. I suppose she’s making up for two months of bland food and gruel.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I hope the rest of her pregnancy continues without further incident.”
“I’m sure it will. Let me know when you plan to leave London. Vivien and I would like to see you again before you go.”
“You’ll be the first to know,” Alec responded in a dry voice.
Never would be the answer if he had his druthers. But there was no point in delaying. The old earl was in declining health, and Alec would never forgive himself if Grandfather died before he saw him again. Ten years was a long enough time to avoid the inevitable. He needed to return home and face all that awaited him, including a very particular problem that had been a millstone around his neck for ages.
A discreet tap on the library door interrupted their good-byes. Dailey, the butler, soft-footed his way into the room.
“Forgive the interruption, Captain, but you have a most insistent visitor.”
Alec caught the disapproval in Dailey’s voice.
“And who is this visitor, or is it a secret?” Alec prompted after a few moments of fraught silence on the butler’s part.
Dailey finally pried his wrinkled old lips apart. “Mrs. William Endicott, sir. Alone.”
Alec and Aden exchanged a surprised glance. Since Evelyn Whitney’s marriage to Wolf, she’d become like a sister to Alec. Still, it wasn’t quite the done thing for her to come calling alone. It likely meant some sort of trouble with Wolf that she wanted to discuss privately.
“You needn’t worry, Dailey,” Alec said. “I’m not carrying on a madcap affair with Captain Endicott’s wife. Now stop looking like an outraged matron and show the lady in.”
“I would never presume to make such an offensive assumption, Captain Gilbride, you may be sure,” Dailey answered, making a magnificently disdainful bow.
“Excellent. And please bring us some tea,” Alec added. “If you’re not too scandalized by my shocking disregard for propriety.”
Dailey, who’d been with the family since the time of the pharaohs, didn’t bother to respond to that parting shot. It was petty, Alec knew, but twitting the old fellow occasionally was irresistible, a tendency that only showed how poorly suited he was for the life of a rich aristocrat. Alec had gotten used to the stripped down existence of a military spy, and was still having trouble adjusting to all the idiotic trappings and boring social restrictions of the British aristocracy.
Aden regarded him with arched eyebrows.
“Good Lord, you’re as bad as Dailey,” Alec said. “I have no idea why Evie finds it necessary to be making such a clandestine call.”
“Hardly clandestine, since it’s the middle of the afternoon.”
“Still, it’s not her usual style.”
A moment later, Dailey ushered Evelyn Endicott into the room. She halted when she saw Aden, but smoothly recovered, a warm smile curving her lush mouth. Alec got a jolt, both to his brain and to his groin. The latter was an unerring barometer when it came to one person in particular.
The gorgeous young woman who’d just swept into his library was no more the wife of Wolf Endicott than Alec was the King of Spain.
“Mrs. Endicott, what a pleasure to see you,” Aden said with a bow.
The faux Mrs. Endicott dimpled up prettily and returned his greeting with a brief curtsey. “And you, Captain St. George, although I see I interrupted your meeting. Please forgive me.”
She cast what she no doubt thought was a shy, apologetic glance at Alec. He raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest. Her brows, partly hidden by her spectacles, tilted down in a frown.
But a moment later she was directing another charming smile at Aden, who seemed completely taken in by her silly charade. Alec almost laughed out loud at the notion of the outrageous Eden Whitney pulling the wool over the eyes of England’s most accomplished spy.
“No apology necessary, Mrs. Endicott,” Aden said. He nodded to Alec. “I’ll speak with you later.”
Alec answered his cousin with a polite smile, enjoying the prospect of mocking him at a later date. But when Aden reached the door, he glanced over his shoulder, his eyebrows raised and his gaze glinting with laughter.
Clearly, the little minx hadn’t fooled Aden, after all.
The woman who was fast becoming the bane of Alec’s existence flashed him what she probably thought was an innocent, shy smile. It was nothing of the sort, of course. Eden Whitney exuded a mostly unconscious sensuality that could knock a man flat from twenty paces.
“I’m sure you must be surprised to see me,” she said in a sweet, quiet voice.
He had to admit she got the voice right. If he hadn’t been looking straight at her, he would have thought he was listening to Evie and not her diabolical twin.
“Give it up, Miss Whitney.” He took her by the elbow and steered her to one of the club chairs. “You’re not fooling anyone.”
She gaped up at him with astonishment. “Confound it, how do you do that? I haven’t been in the room for more than a minute.”
It wasn’t the first time Edie had switched identities with her twin, but it hadn’t worked any better with him this time than it had a few months ago. There were a dozen differences between the sisters, some quite noticeable. For one, Edie carried herself with a degree of confidence and restless energy her twin lacked. She cut a swath through the ton like a sharpened sickle through a field of ripe wheat.
There were more subtle signs as well, like the way her clothes hugged her generous curves just a little more snuggly than her sister’s. She might think she was fooling him by choosing a modestly cut carriage dress in dove gray, but Edie’s sense of dash always seemed to bleed through. No cautious ponderings or sober second thoughts for Miss Eden Whitney. To her, life was a challenge and a lark, something to be enjoyed to the hilt.
“Never mind that, you daft woman,” he said. “Have you no care for your reputation?”
She let out a disdainful snort. “Reputation? That’s rich, coming from you. You’re constantly doing outrageous things.”
“I’m a man. I can get away with it. You, however, cannot.”
“It’s so unfair,” she grumbled.
He went to sit behind his desk. When it came to Edie, he found it best to always have a large piece of furniture between them. If not, he might be tempted to shake her for acting so foolishly, or do something even stupider, like kissing her. And unless his instincts were completely off, she just might kiss him back.
Then again, she could also take his head off. Though Alec had little doubt that Edie was attracted to him, she’d made it abundantly clear that she found him thickheaded, annoying, and arrogant. On occasion that might be true, but he still didn’t much like that she had so low an opinion of him.
She pushed her borrowed spectacles up her nose and studied him with irritation.
“You can take those ridiculous spectacles off while you’re at it, especially since they’re crooked,” he said. “They make you look like you’re listing sideways.”
When she stuck her tongue out at him, he couldn’t help but laugh. She struggled with her bad humor for a few seconds then gave him a wry smile.
“I think I’ll keep them on, since it’s quite a nice change to be able to see more than ten feet in front of me. Besides, I don’t want to shock your snob of a butler any more than I already have. It wouldn’t do for him to think I’m not Evie, even though I have a perfectly good reason for coming to see you.”
“Did you at least bring your maid with you?”
“I wanted to, but I couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t tell somebody. Like my mother,” she finished in a gloomy voice.
“Good God, Miss Whitney, do you have any idea how much trouble we would both be in if anyone got wind of this little escapade?”
He expected her to starch up, as she usually did, but she just sighed and slumped into her chair. Behind the silver frames, her eyes were drawn and weary looking, and her pink lips were bracketed by unhappy grooves.
“I’m desperate,” she said. “I had to see you before anyone else got to you first, especially Wolf.”
“You can tell me all about it after Dailey brings in the tea. I believe I hear his lumbering footsteps in the hall and, as you so astutely noted, it wouldn’t do for anyone to see past your little deception.” Dailey’s footsteps were anything but lumbering, but Alec had very good hearing, honed by years spent dodging death, French spies, and irate husbands.
“I’d rather have a brandy,” she said, going back to scowling at him.
A moment later, the butler entered the room, followed by a footman carrying a loaded tea tray.
“Mrs. Endicott will pour, Dailey,” Alec said. “I’ll call if we need anything.”
“As you wish, Captain.” The butler radiated waves of disapproval.
He unbent a bit, however, when Edie flashed him a smile calibrated to penetrate the starched shirtfront of even the stuffiest domestic. He gave her a respectful bow before directing a fierce glare at the hapless footman for gawping at Edie.
The woman had a way about her—a way that usually led a man into serious trouble.
As she poured the tea, Alec rose and strolled to the whatnot tucked between a pair of bookcases. He extracted a bottle of brandy from one of the shelves, then returned to his desk and splashed a tot in each of their teacups.
Edie grimaced. “Oh, dear, I must look as dreary as I feel for you to take such pity on me.”
“Not in the least, although, it must be dire if you felt compelled to come to me for help.”
A rush of pink colored her cheeks, a riveting sight. He didn’t think he’d ever seen her blush before. It made her look like a creamy white cake with luscious pink frosting.
Her gaze turned cool and calculating, washing away the brief impression of vulnerability. She was once more the bold young lady who sought to control everything and everyone around her. Alec liked that Edie a lot, but he had to admit he wouldn’t mind seeing more of the sweet girl that sometimes peeked out from behind the dashing façade.
“You’re right,” she said in her usual frank manner. “Of course I’d rather not be coming to you for help. You must be positively deranged to think I’d forgotten how badly you and Wolf behaved with poor Michael Beaumont. You were terrible to him—and to me and Evie.”
Now it was Alec’s turn to scowl. “Are you insane, lass? We saved your precious Mr. Beaumont’s backside. Without us, he would have ended up swinging from the gallows.”
She perched her teacup on her knee and gave a haughty little sniff that he found rather endearing. “Things would have gone much better if you’d told Evie and me the truth.”
He stared at her in disbelief. He and Wolf had been under orders from the Duke of York himself to investigate Michael Beaumont for treason. The fact that the man was Evelyn’s fiancé at the time had made the whole business sticky, but it had eventually come out right. Beaumont had been cleared, and Evelyn had ended up with Wolf. Though Beaumont hadn’t been pleased about that part, it had seemed a small price to pay for his life.
“This may surprise you, Miss Whitney, but spies aren’t usually in the habit of divulging the details of their mission to the people they’re investigating.”
“As much as I would enjoy rehashing the past with you,” she said sarcastically, “I need to explain why I need your help. And not to put too fine a point on it, you need my help, too. This situation is a problem for both of us.”
Now, that sounded interesting, if a tad alarming. “Please proceed.”
For the first time since she’d entered the room, Edie looked uncomfortable. She took a hasty sip of the spiked tea, probably to fortify herself.
“Whatever it is, lass,” he said gently, “you won’t shock me. Just say it.”
Her gaze met his, and she gave him a reluctant smile. “Very well. I got myself into a spot of trouble last night at Lady Charlfort’s ball, and Mamma is furious with me.” She grimaced. “My parents are convinced I need to rusticate.”
Alec wasn’t surprised she’d gotten herself into trouble. As far as he was concerned, she was an accident waiting to happen. But it startled him to hear that Lady Reese was unhappy with her. The woman adored her daughter and, according to Wolf, was convinced that Edie could do no wrong.
“Would I be correct in assuming this trouble involved a man?”
There was that faint wash of pink again. This time, though, Alec wasn’t charmed. The idea of Edie getting into trouble with a man had him clenching a fist against his thigh.
“Who was he?” he asked sharply when she remained silent.
She seemed perplexed by his tone. “Sir Malcolm Bannister, though it really isn’t any business of yours.”
Now both his fists were clenched against his thighs. “Bannister? Are you mad? The man is a notorious rake.”
Edie set her teacup down on his desk with a loud click. Then she crossed her arms over her impressive bosom and gave him an ironic stare. That she was silently but clearly commenting on his reputation as a rake did not improve Alec’s mood. Yes, he liked women, but he never tampered with virgins or innocents.
“Never mind,” he growled. “Just tell me exactly what happened.”
“Nothing. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell everyone.”
“Then why the need for such drastic measures?”
“Well, almost nothing,” she grudgingly admitted. “I’d almost escaped from him when Lady Charlfort and her witch of a mother stumbled upon us.”
Alec closed his eyes, trying to ignore the fury turning his vision blood red. When he opened them, she was eyeing him like he was the one who’d lost touch with reality. And perhaps he had. The notion of Edie in another man’s arms made him want to commit several acts of mayhem.
“Did he hurt you?” he growled.
She blinked as if surprised by the question, then waved an insouciant hand. “As if I couldn’t handle a cad like Bannister. You can be sure he’ll never come within ten feet of me again.”
Her naïveté and reckless self-confidence bordered on criminal. Still, there was little to be gained in pursuing that point. The sooner he got the image of Edie in Bannister’s lecherous embrace out of his head, the better.
“As a result of this unfortunate encounter with one of the ton’s most notorious rakes,” he said, “you now find yourself in an awkward situation. Lady Reese is no doubt focused on the gossip.”
She was obviously irritated by his characterization. “Yes, Mamma is convinced the damage to my reputation will be quite severe. It’s an assessment I don’t agree with, by the way.”
“Imagine my surprise. And yet, your parents want you to rusticate. To Maywood Manor, I assume?” But what did any of this have to do with him?
She pressed her full lips into a grim line.
“Miss Whitney?” he prompted when she remained silent.
“Actually, Wolf suggested another alternative, something you’ll find as displeasing as I do, I’m sure.”
The familiar sense of premonition Alec never ignored prickled along his nerves. “Which is?”
“They want me to go to Scotland with you,” she blurted out. “For the entire winter. Can you imagine? I’d probably kill myself by leaping off the nearest Highland peak. Or we’d kill each other, which is, I suppose, the likeliest scenario.”
She rose from her seat, clearly agitated, then forced herself to sit back down. The air around her practically seethed with emotional disturbance.
“Well,” she snapped, “don’t just sit there gaping at me like the village idiot. You simply must put a stop to this immediately. You have to tell Wolf and my mother that it’s entirely out of the question.”
The wheels in his head—always lagging when it came to dealing with the force of nature that was Eden Whitney—ground into motion. A vague idea began to take form.
“Wolf suggested this?” he asked, playing for time.
She scowled. “Yes, the bounder. I couldn’t believe he was taking Mamma’s side.”
“And your mother thought this was a good idea?”
She rolled her eyes. “For some demented reason she seems to like you. Or perhaps she just likes all your lovely pots of money.”
Alec tried to look soulful. “You wound me, Miss Whitney.”
“You have the hide of a rhinoceros. Besides, what does it matter? It’s not like you’re going to agree to this.”
“I’m simply trying to ascertain the precise circumstances of the situation,” he said. “Presumably, you could only travel with me to Scotland with an appropriate chaperone. Did that come up for discussion?”
Alec prayed it would not be Lady Reese. The idea of spending the winter with Edie’s mother was enough to frighten any sane man. Perhaps it would be Wolf and Evie, although Wolf had a new assignment with the Foreign Office.
“What does it matter?” Edie exclaimed, waving her arms. The fabric of her carriage dress pulled tight over her generous breasts, something that never failed to distract him. “You don’t want me in Scotland, and I have no intention of going. What in God’s name would I even do there for an entire winter?”
Help me with my blasted family.
The wheels in Alec’s head turned faster as he stared at her, perched on the edge of her chair and glaring at him over the top of her crooked spectacles.
Not that he could come right out and ask for Edie’s help—not given how delicate and tricky his domestic problem in Scotland was turning out to be. And the dimensions of his plan were hardly more than a glimmer of an idea, so vague he could hardly articulate them. Besides, he had little hope of getting Edie to agree to anything without a great deal of work and some underhanded manipulation on his part. And for that he needed time, lots of time, with her.
It was a remarkably enticing idea, now that he thought about it.
“Well,” Edie demanded, “don’t you have anything to say?”
“I do,” he said, giving her a roguish smile. “Hasn’t anyone told you that winter is the best time to visit the Highlands?”