Alverstoke House in Berkeley Square was only a half a dozen doors down from Exeter House. As they approached, Eames decided that proximity was probably a good enough reason for the Dauntrys to venture out to the ball of a girl they could hardly know and had no connections to.
It was probably the reason for Lady Jersey’s presence as well.
They were admitted by a footman who conveyed them to the library, a pleasant room that was making the most of the weak sun available at that time of year. They had been waiting less than five minutes when Lady Alverstoke entered, wearing a rather fetching promenade dress trimmed with orange-blossom crape. Well, that was rather good timing. The Alverstokes must have only just arrived back at the house.
“Oh, I do hope you have not been waiting long!” she exclaimed, extending her hand in greeting. Eames bowed over it briefly, releasing it without an attempt to hold on a moment too long, which would have signalled a hope on his part to engage in clandestine activities.
Her smile widened, becoming more genuine. Her gaze flicked curiously to Arthur.
Eames was pleased to see her nod an acknowledgement with an intelligent interest in her eyes but other than that she made no move in the valet’s direction. Polite and welcoming, but not quite in the ordinary way, he was beginning to see what Alverstoke (at one time given up on by the matchmaking mamas in society as a confirmed bachelor) had found in her to attract him.
“Not at all, Lady Alverstoke.” He demurred smoothly. “I hope you don’t mind that my valet has joined me here me today. There is something that I must speak to you and your husband about and Arthur… is necessary.”
“No, no, I am pleased to make his acquaintance.” She said agreeably, smiling in a friendly fashion upon them both. “My husband will be with us momentarily. Please, take a seat. You too, Arthur, you look very awkward hovering there by the door. Can I get you any refreshments?”
“Tea would be lovely.” Eames smiled at her charmingly and took a seat close to the fire. Lady Alverstoke rang the bell, and asked the servant who answered to send a tea tray in, before turning to Arthur with her eyebrows raised.
“Thank you my lady, I would prefer to stand.” Arthur answered her unspoken question with dignity. Then he ruined the effect by flashing his dimples briefly as he bowed before walking over to stand behind Eames.
“You must know that I am consumed with curiosity,” Lady Alverstoke confided with sparkling eyes and an anticipatory air about her. “I never thought I would miss the trouble my younger brothers managed to get into, but since they have gone off to school I find my life sadly flat. My eldest son, Edward, is still too young to create much havoc, so the prospect of some excitement is most welcome!”
Arthur stiffened, his already rather formal posture going rigid. Eames glanced up at him warningly, and then turned to the Marchioness.
“I am afraid my news is not of the amusing variety, your ladyship.” He said apologetically. “I wish that it was, but it is more a matter of grave importance to your family and I felt we should inform you of it as soon as possible.”
Lady Alverstoke’s facial expression didn’t change a great deal but her eyes immediately dimmed and became more calculating. Eames’ respect for her rose even higher. This woman would be a formidable opponent should things come to that. It made him feel significantly better about his decision to inform her of the plot at the same time as her husband.
Just then Alverstoke, impeccably attired in morning dress with boots whose shine rivalled anything Arthur could achieve, entered the library immediately ahead of a footman with the tea things. Greetings were exchanged and tea was poured, and it wasn’t until the footman closed the doors on his departure that anything other than civilities were uttered.
Alverstoke raised his eyebrows in a rather aloof manner and inspected Eames thoroughly through his quizzing glass.
“So, you are Charles’ son then. I must say that I am somewhat surprised to see you, your lordship. Is there some way her ladyship and I may be of assistance to you?”
Eames found it difficult to stop the grin from forming on his face. He liked these people. It was rare to come across someone who managed to speak completely polite words, yet convey a meaning that was anything but.
Too often those of the ton simpered and smirked, while speaking insults as soon as one turned one’s back. This man would happily insult you to your face, but in such polite language it would be impossible to accuse him of provocation.
Here and now Alverstoke seemed to want to know what the devil Eames was about, and appeared to have little patience with obligatory small talk.
“Vernon, stop being so uncivil!” His wife remonstrated in a playfully chiding manner, “Lord Eames says he has something to divulge which is of grave importance to our family, so I’ll thank you to refrain from giving him a set-down! At least until we have his information.”
The Marquis’ glance towards his wife was not the slightest bit angry for being taken to fault in front of what were essentially strangers, and Eames was somewhat surprised when his stern countenance unbent significantly.
“Please, accept my apologies.” Alverstoke said, taking a seat on the sofa beside his wife. “What is this news that you have for us, Hatherleigh?” Unspoken was the question, ‘And why are you telling me whatever this is with my wife present?’
“Of course, and call me Eames, please, both of you,” Eames replied letting his amusement show for a moment. “Lord Eames was always my father, and I have been Hatherleigh for less than ten years. It still feels odd.”
“I know your meaning,” Alverstoke said with the ghost of a grin. “It took me at least a decade myself.”
“I will come right out with it.” Eames said heavily, his demeanour sober. “Two nights ago, I was… let us just say ‘out amongst some friends playing cards’, when I overheard part of a conversation. To be frank, the two… well, let’s call them gentlemen since a lady is present, remarked on your wealth and referred briefly to a scheme whereby they would liberate you of a substantial amount. By the means of abducting, ransoming, and then murdering your son.”
Lady Alverstoke gave a small gasp, but when Eames glanced in her direction he saw that she was maintaining complete control of herself. Lord Alverstoke covered her hand with his own, and turned his grim and foreboding countenance towards the two newcomers. His eyes gave Arthur a distinctly more thorough inspection, before returning to Eames, who was waiting to continue.
“Then it seems we shall be in your debt, Eames. What further information do you have of this plot?”
“I was able to hear of plans for a further rendezvous last night, and since I was otherwise engaged, as you are already aware, I sent my valet Arthur to do a little reconnaissance.”
The Marquis and Marchioness turned their attention to Arthur, who was attired humbly but with the exacting nicety of every highly-prized valet of the higher aristocracy. Arthur came forward, and spoke of the events of the previous evening, sparing none of the detail, and making sure to include descriptions of the eight conspirators present, leaving Baronet Prendergast for last.
Lady Alverstoke had gone stiff, either with shock or outrage, but her eyes were blazing in her pale face. She leaned into her husband’s support but it was clear to Eames that the Marquis was gaining as much support as she was.
“Prendergast?” Alverstoke asked after turning the information he had just received over in his head, a frown creasing his brow. “I’ve never heard of the man. This Mr Brown, however… he sounds familiar. Tell me Arthur, do you believe him to be northern or southern?”
“He spoke well, my lord, with no clear accent.” Arthur replied cautiously. “I could not give you a reason, but my feeling is that he’s a northerner. Perhaps some inflection to a word or two that sounded wrong to my southern ears. Most certainly of the aristocracy though. I would swear my life to it.”
“Yes, I wonder…” Alverstoke mused and then visibly gathered himself together. “I thank you both for telling us this. Hopefully with foreknowledge we will be able to forestall these despicable miscreants who plan to murder children.”
“Please, it was the least we could do.” Eames said, before releasing his restraint and giving free rein to the dangerous smile that had been trying to surface. “Now that you are aware of the situation, what are we going to do about it?”
“You will help us?” Lady Alverstoke asked gratefully. “Oh, thank you both so much. I do not know what I would do if Edward was taken from me. And, thank goodness Jessamy and Felix are away at school, Vernon. Can you imagine the mess they would make of this?”
“Only too well.” her husband agreed. “There is little to be thankful for in this mess, but your brothers’ absence and the good fortune and good nature of these two gentlemen is most assuredly such.”
“We cannot just remove you and your family to your estate at Alver.” Eames explained to the two worried parents. “We are aware of the current plot, if you were to be moved outside their reach they would no doubt choose some other wealthy lord with a young child to perpetrate this infamy upon. No, we must set a trap and be rid of these foul villains. The question is how to achieve this while putting your family in as little danger as possible.”
“I feel that resolving this matter may take some time.” Alverstoke said, rising to his feet and flicking the long tails of his morning coat out behind him. “My wife and I would be delighted for you both to join us for a light nuncheon, after which we can retire to a more private part of the house with some of my more trusted servants to come up with a way to ensure my children are safe. Then we can continue with the rest of the plan.
After eating they gathered in one of the upstairs sitting rooms, along with Knapp, Alverstoke’s valet, Wicken, the family butler, Curry, the head groom, and Walter and James, two of Wicken’s most trusted footmen.
Lady Alverstoke refused to be dismissed from the discussion at hand and listened intently to all speakers, remaining silent until it became clear that the best trap involved the use of her son Edward as bait, and that her husband was about to agree to the idea, at which point she entered the deliberations.
“No! No Vernon, I will not have it! I refuse to let you put my son into such danger! I absolutely refuse!”
“I cannot ask another man to risk his child when I will not.” Alverstoke’s voice was firm as he spoke to his distressed wife, but he did go to her and try to take her hands in his. She ripped them out again, and glared at him furiously.
“Do you want to be the one to explain to another mother that her son is less important than yours?” Alverstoke asked her gently. “There are no certainties, but I will have some measure of surety of this plan’s success before I consider agreeing to place our son anywhere near danger. If we cannot do so, then we will pack up and go back to Alver, I promise you.
“But Frederica… if we do not scotch this plan and destroy this group of villainous rogues while we have the chance, how will we ever believe ourselves to be safe? We must do this, Frederica, we must. I am sorry.”
With that the Marchioness threw herself on her husband’s chest, weeping while he stroked her hair. Fortunately, her despair did not last for long. Several very awkward minutes later, she extricated herself from Alverstoke’s embrace, blew her nose and then fixed them all with a stare that would have done a Sergeant Major proud.
“Very well, if it must be done it must be done. But I assure you, gentlemen, there is no place on earth you can hide from my wrath should this folly turn out badly.”
“Of course, my lady.” Eames said as reassuringly as possible. “Now, as far as the idea of constantly tailing the conspirators goes, the biggest problem I can see is the issue of finding trustworthy manpower.”
“Until Edward was born, my heir was a young gentleman of the name of Endymion Dauntry,” Alverstoke began, pacing before the fireplace. “When I bought him his cornetcy in the Guard,s I made the acquaintance of Colonel Charles Stanhope. Since the end of the war, the Colonel has been somewhat concerned with finding gainful occupation for his soldiers. If the matter is presented to him properly, he might be persuaded to lend some of them for this cause.
“Not to mention the no doubt many infantry men he will have knowledge of who are in need of employment. I would accept any he was to recommend as trustworthy enough, the question is, would they have the required skills at skulking around?”
“If the men we are considering served as infantry in the war and survived, I have no doubts that they are skilled and canny individuals.” Eames said, feeling more enthusiastic.
“Another question,” Arthur mentioned while they were thinking this over. “Shall we alert Bow Street? If the Life Guard is called upon to help, I don’t see how we can avoid it.”
“Yes, that’s true.” Alverstoke agreed. “Pity, it would make me happier if the perpetrators of such infamy had no chance to escape justice.” There was no doubt as to his meaning, but no one in the room looked surprised, or even disapproving. Lady Alverstoke practically beamed at her husband.
“Oh, I think you can be sure of justice being done, my lord.” Eames responded with a nasty grin. “My uncle Exeter spends all fall hunting with Sir Robert Baker, the chief magistrate. If my uncle were to ask him to take a personal interest in this case, I have no doubt that the whole affair could be tied up quite neatly, with no chance of the miscreants escaping the hangman’s noose. You will need to accompany me to Exeter House, however. I have a reputation for pulling pranks, and he may not believe only my word.”
“Just as soon as Walter comes back from observing the next meeting.” Alverstoke looked amused for the first time since Arthur had spoken of what he had witnessed. He thanked his servants and sent them on their way, before glancing at Eames’ chagrined expression.
“After all,” the Marquis explained with mock sincerity, “it behoves me to speak to the Duke with full confidence that what I say is indeed correct and not a joke being played by an impertinent nephew.”
Eames face was a study of wounded innocence, and he even went so far as to lay a hand on his heart.
“My Lord, I confess to astonishment that you could cast such aspersions on my character! You have quite hurt my feelings, sir!”
“Doing it a trifle too brown.” Alverstoke said with a twinkle in his eye. “And amongst my friends I am known as Vernon, or Ver. I would be honoured if you were to address me as such.”
Eames inclined his head in acknowledgement.
“And considering the service you’ve done and continue to do for my family, that offer is extended to you as well, Arthur. While we are in private, anyway.”
“I would invite you to call me Martin, but in truth none of my friends call me that.” Eames remarked, breaking the silence following Arthur’s shocked bow. “Come now, Arthur, it can’t be that strange to find decent human beings amongst the ton, surely?”
“There’s no way I can answer that question without being either insulting or untruthful.” Arthur replied dryly. “I think I will be asking Mr Dalliard about the possibility of having liver served with your breakfast for a while.”
“Oh darling,” Eames said sadly. “You would only be injuring yourself. I would eat your breakfast, and you would be left with the liver.”
“I like liver.”
“Darling, no!” Eames flinched back dramatically. “I had no idea it had gotten so bad.”
He turned to their amused audience.
“It pains me to divulge this, but perhaps you will not judge him so harshly. Arthur likes to eat healthily.”
“There is nothing wrong with that!” Lady Alverstoke came to the beleaguered valet’s defence. “It comes of growing up in the country, I think. We are used to eating vegetables that have just been picked, and meat that has not undergone the rigours of journeying to town. I find eating in the country to be a much more pleasant experience all round, even if there is less variety. Speaking of eating, will you gentlemen be dining with us tonight? I would like to introduce you both to my son Edward.”
That evening, both Arthur and Eames stayed home. Before they left Berkeley Square there had been discussion about Arthur joining Walter on his mission that night. In the end it was decided that it was too risky. Instead, they decided to both spend the evening in the apartments next door which Eames had also rented and that he had set up as a training area for his knife throwing ‘hobby’. This way Arthur could keep in practice as well, as long as they were being paid full price without the extra work, the Dalliards were only too happy to keep quiet about it.
Arthur had been almost silent since they returned home, and while he wasn’t precisely loquacious by nature, this level of introspection was unlike him. By the time they were eating a late supper, Eames finally had enough.
“Is there something bothering you, darling?” he asked, in as irritating a manner as he could manage.
“And that’s another thing!” Arthur burst into speech, as if a conversation had been going on the entire time. “Behaving in such a familiar manner in front of near strangers! We agreed on privacy, Eames, and today you seemed determined to display our… arrangement in front of two people with a staggering number of connections! Or do you forget the rumour that Sally Jersey used to be bosom-beau’s with Alverstoke’s sister? Do you want to be the subject of malicious on-dits? You can’t do this Eames, it’s just too dangerous.”
“Darling,” said Eames, highly startled at Arthur’s vehemence, “I wasn’t aware you felt so strongly about the matter. You’ve never indicated your preferences one way or the other before.”
“I’ve never seen you so seemingly intent on revealing ‘the matter’ before!” Arthur accused, his voice a study in anger and frustration. “The Marquis of Alverstoke is reputed to be a very high stickler indeed, and the last thing we need is for him to cut up stiff about things that he has no need to know about!”
“Did he really seem such an unreasonable man to you?” Eames asked carefully, as if each word might set off an explosion.
“No! Yes! I mean, I don’t know!” Arthur exclaimed, subsiding into one of the chairs. “That’s the whole point, isn’t it? We can never know for sure. And his wife! She seemed like a lovely woman, and she was certainly appreciative of what we had done and were planning on doing regarding the safety of her son, but when that is all over who’s to say she won’t let something slip in one of the gossip sessions the ton love so much? For all we know, when her son’s life isn’t in danger she’s an infernal gabster!”
“You’re right, of course.” Eames took a seat opposite Arthur. “I am sorry darling. I judged the risk to be worth it, I felt that their character was such that we would have no problems. But I’m not the only one involved, and I forgot that you had as much right as me to either reveal or conceal ‘the matter’. More in fact, because your whole livelihood is at risk, whereas I could just retire from society as an eccentric bachelor.”
Something about that statement caused Arthur to look briefly as if he wanted to be ill, but before Eames could properly analyse it, it was gone.
“Just-” Arthur broke off and put his head in his hands. “I think it’s better if nobody knows. All right?”
“All right darling,” Eames agreed, wanting to ease Arthur’s mind. He had been hoping that showing Arthur that he wasn’t ashamed of him in any manner would please his finicky valet, but it just seemed to have wound him up further. “I’ll be rather more circumspect in future, I promise you.”
“Thank you.” Arthur said, his voice muffled somewhat by the position he was sitting in. When he finally raised his face, he looked tired, and much older than he had any right to. Eames felt a twinge of guilt that he was the one causing the person he loved more than any other pain, and silently resolved to do anything to restore his presently angsty valet to his usual state of amused exasperation.
The next day, one of Alverstoke’s footmen arrived with a note asking Eames to accompany him on a visit to the Colonel of the Life Guards. Arthur fussed about until he was satisfied that Eames wouldn’t embarrass him, and sent him off at the agreed time with a stern warning to watch where he put his feet.
Eames laughed, delighted that Arthur’s bad mood appeared to have dissipated, and pinched Arthur’s bottom as he went out the door. He decided a quick getaway was probably in order, and quickened his stride at the sound of an outraged squawk behind him.
He found the Marquis waiting for him in a curricle drawn by two beautifully matched greys. They exchanged the usual greetings as Eames hoisted himself up to sit in the passenger seat, and then moved off at a steady trot.
“I must congratulate you on your eye for horse-flesh.” Eames remarked, watching the action of the pair in front of them. “I’ve rarely seen such exceptional horses so well matched. Their forward action is particularly pleasing, the high-steppers always appear too high strung to be comfortable.”
“Thank you,” Alverstoke replied. “They cost me enough. I was in a bidding war for them with Lethbridge and if it wasn’t well known at the time that his pockets were pretty much to let he might have won. But they’ve been worth every penny. They’ve never once in the six years I’ve had them come up lame for no discernible reason. They’re sweet goers too, well up in work. Do you handle the ribbons?”
“I am but the veriest whipster, I assure you!” Eames said modestly. “However, I do admit to enjoying driving. My father spent some time instructing me, and he was a charter member of the BDC, you know.”
“You never gave thought to joining yourself?” Alverstoke inquired as they reached Hyde Park Corner. There was plenty of traffic around, and Eames waited until the Marquis had finished skilfully wending his way through it before continuing the conversation.
“No, a bit too structured for my liking.” Eames basked in the look of scepticism cast his way. “I have never enjoyed conforming to disciplines that have been laid down by others.”
“I have yet to see a great deal of either discipline or structure in the BDC.” Alverstoke commented dryly, pulling up in front of the gates to the Barracks to await permission to enter.
Eames laughed. “Even a little can be too much at times.”
They were given leave to enter, so Alverstoke went through and shortly afterwards brought the curricle to a halt in front of some huge front doors. He handed the ribbons to one waiting stable boy while another went immediately to the horses heads.
They found the Colonel in his office going over drill rosters. The genial old man was delighted to have an excuse to put the paperwork aside for a time.
“It always looked like such glamorous position, when I was a lieutenant.” Colonel Stanhope said after the introductions had been performed, gesturing towards his laden desk as he joined them in chairs by the fire with a glass of claret. “No one ever mentioned the fantastic amount of organisation that falls to the dupe who agrees to it.”
“Is it not a royal appointment?” Eames asked curiously.
“Yes indeed,” answered the Colonel, “but traditionally the appointee ‘volunteers’ and only then is granted right to lead the guards. Load of ceremonial tosh, but there you have it. The military loves it’s ceremony.
“That lad you sent me Alverstoke, young Dauntry. Turned out to be one of my most capable men, don’t you know! Nothing in his brain-box, of course, but he was exceptional at following orders without trying for ‘interesting’ interpretations. Got the work done, and that was that. He has been missed around here since he sold out and took himself off to the Shires. Breeding horses, or farming, or some such, wasn’t it?”
“Yes indeed.” Alverstoke looked slightly bored at this glowing recommendation of the young man who had until recently been his heir. “He’s married to my wife’s sister and situated in Yorkshire, which is a happy distance.”
The Colonel let out a guffaw. “Yes, I can see as how you’d prefer not to be neighbours. He was a good chap to have under your command, but making conversation with the fellow was more than a trifle tedious. Nonetheless, you haven’t come to see me today to talk about that.”
After a quick glance between them, Eames gestured to Alverstoke to begin and so the Marquis laid out the events of the last few days, including the plans that had been tentatively put forward to ensure that the villains were stopped.
“What?!” Colonel Stanhope interrupted part way through the explanation, “Do you mean to say you told your wife of this?”
“I was not given the choice,” Alverstoke responded, casting a sardonic eye in Eames’ direction. “However, I would have told her regardless. My wife is a sensible woman, but I have no wish to endure her anger if I were to begin making choices for our whole family without her input.”
The Colonel looked staggered at this pronouncement, and even Eames, who had seen them together, felt surprised at the level of equality the Marquis’ words described.
Allowing a woman so much power in a marriage was almost unheard of, royal marriages excepted, of course. The Colonel said so.
Alverstoke just laughed at their expressions. “My wife almost single-handedly raised her younger brothers, chaperoned her sister, and organised the disposition of her father’s estate, and then, following his death, her eldest brother’s estate. All from the time of her mother’s death when she was little more than a girl. I can assure you, gentlemen, I allow her nothing. Now, if we may continue?”
From then on there were no further interruptions, and when the whole story was told, the Marquis finally sat back in his chair and sipped his wine while the Colonel thought things over.
“And you have confirmed this information, you say?” Colonel Stanhope’s whole manner had changed from that of genial squire to a demeanour that more resembled Eames’ idea of a battle-hardened General.
“Yes indeed.” Alverstoke nodded. “One of my most loyal footmen observed another meeting last night. Nothing was learned that we did not already know, other than the time and place for the next meeting, but it did allow me to corroborate Lord Eames story.”
“Is there any sort of time frame we are looking at here?” Came the next question.
“Not that we are aware of.” Alverstoke said, his voice mirroring his own frustration with the lack of information. “No doubt there is some sort of plan, but they have yet to discuss that part of things where our men can overhear them.”
“Hmmm.” Colonel Stanhope sat back, looking intently between the two men facing him as he drummed his fingers absentmindedly against the arm rest of his chair. “So, what aid exactly do you wish of the Life Guards? Most are good, loyal, men of the crown, but the sort of work you would need is beyond most of them. They’ve never been required to keep a low profile. Quite the reverse in fact. No, what you need are some of the infantry men. The problem there, is that there’s precious little work in London for a retired soldier, and most have made their way back to their original homes, or are working as labourers.”
“I am willing to provide a pension and acceptable living quarters on my land to twenty retired infantry men of good standing. If they can be vouched for,” Alverstoke made his offer in a level tone, his eyes conveying the seriousness of the matter. “If not otherwise employed they may be required to assist at harvest time, if it’s a good year, and they may leave my lands at any time with their pension intact.”
“A generous offer for what may only be the work of a week or two.” Colonel Stanhope remarked shrewdly. “We will need to be a little more specific as to how much this pension will be and what the living quarters will consist of, but I believe with an offer like that you shouldn’t have any trouble finding the men you need.”
“I agree.” Alverstoke replied, “If it were not imperative that I keep any defensive actions quiet I would advertise in the watering houses along all the main thoroughfares. However, I have neither the time to proceed cautiously nor the freedom to proceed openly, so I have come to you in the hope that you will know of some suitable men who can both perform the tasks I need them to perform and be trusted not to throw their lot in with my enemy in the hope of a larger cut.”
“Very well.” Colonel Stanhope’s face relaxed again, back to genial squire. Eames was impressed. “You did me a good turn the day you convinced me to accept your cousin into the Guards. I’ll have twenty men for you, the day after tomorrow. I trust that I will be kept informed of the progress of this mission? I may be able to render further assistance if matters should change.”
“You have my most heartfelt thanks.” Alverstoke said as he and Eames rose to their feet. “The Duke of Exeter is good friends with Sir Robert Baker, and Lord Eames and I are hoping to get some sort of official sanction for our side of what will no doubt occur.”
“Splendid!” Colonel Stanhope exclaimed and they exchanged bows of farewell.
On the way out to the curricle, Alverstoke asked if he would be expected to do all the talking with the Duke as well.
“No, no,” Eames replied. “So long as you are able to confirm that my words are true, he will have no difficulty in hearing them from me. A misspent youth coming back to haunt me, I fear.”
“Did you enjoy your youth?” The Marquis asked blandly.
“Why yes, I did rather.” Eames answered with a reminiscent grin.
“Then it was not misspent.”
Late that morning, Eames had sent a note around to his uncle informing him of his expected arrival on a matter of importance, so it was no surprise that they were shown immediately into the impressive library of Exeter House. Eames had never yet been in that sombre room without wanting to do something outrageous like swing from the chandelier. The whole room radiated smug affluence, and in Eames’ oft expressed opinion, it could do with a bit more excitement.
After the usual bows had been exchanged and the Duke had expressed his happiness at seeing his nephew again, they got down to business. This time Eames took the lead, and to his surprise the Duke never once asked that Alverstoke corroborate his nephew’s story.
When Eames expressed his hope that his uncle would speak to Sir Robert Baker in their behalf to ensure that there would be no official repercussions should some (or all) of the murderous ruffians meet their end in what was likely to be a rather extensive brawl, he was surprised when he received instant agreement.
“Of course, dear boy, of course.” The Duke of Exeter’s whole personality could almost have been designed to illustrate the term ‘avuncular’, and Eames reflected that he really could have done a lot worse when it came to family members. The majority of his family indulged him shamefully, even if they tended not to take him very seriously.
With that hurdle crossed, Eames managed to exit the house without finding himself inveigled into any family parties, which was an achievement in itself.
“Would you care to stop at Alverstoke House?” asked the Marquis as they made to re-enter the curricle. “I would like to introduce you to both my current secretary, Septimus Trevor, and his older brother Charles, who was my secretary before abandoning me for the post of secretary to the Prime Minister. They’ve recently been visiting with their father and arrived in town early this afternoon, not long before I set out. They’re both intelligent and discreet and they may be of great assistance in an organisation capacity if nothing else.”
“Of course.” Eames responded, wondering why they had bothered to return to the curricle, as Alverstoke House was only a few hundred metres down the road. Something of his feelings must have showed on his face, because the Marquis’ mouth quirked slightly with wry humour. He didn’t say anything though, and a few moments later they alighted again.
Septimus and Charles Trevor were revealed to be amiable young men with a marked family resemblance between them. Had Eames not already been made aware of their relationship to each other, it would have been perfectly obvious at first glance. Alverstoke didn’t appear to stand on much ceremony with either of them, and their manner towards him showed great respect as well as the expected deference towards one who was both more highly born, and very wealthy.
After Alverstoke had introduced the two young men to Eames, all four withdrew to partake of a rather fine nuncheon in the upstairs saloon. After the servants left the room, Charles opened up the conversation.
“All right then sir, it’s time to open the budget. Don’t go thinking you can gammon me with your coaxing ways. Something is very clearly afoot, and if I can, I wish to be of assistance. I am well aware of how I came to be considered for such a prestigious position, and it’s well past time I returned the favour. Not to mention, Chloë would be greatly displeased with me if she discovered I had done nothing to help you.”
Feeling like they had spent all day telling this story, Eames listened while Alverstoke went through what they knew again.
Charles and Septimus both listened intently.
When the recitation was over, Charles made a thoughtful noise before standing to go and stare out of the window for a few moments.
“This Mr Brown,” he said slowly. “He interests me a great deal. I think it’s important to identify him so that we know who exactly is behind all of this.”
“Agreed.” Alverstoke said, with a slight smile gracing his face. “That is why tomorrow night Curry will be going to spy on them. In disguise, of course. Anyone particularly familiar with me will recognise Curry, but in the same vein, he will recognise most of the men I’ve had dealings with over the years.”
“That’s a good plan. I believe Arthur and I will be able to be of assistance there,” Eames interjected smoothly. “We’ve had some experience in the matter of making ourselves unrecognisable and can give him some valuable tips on how to alter his voice and carriage in a manner that is convincing. Why don’t you instruct Curry to attend me at my rooms in Stratton Street. If he returns there to have his disguise removed and perhaps stay the night, anyone who might manage to tail him won’t be led anywhere near Berkeley Square and we won’t risk tipping them off.”
Once that was agreed, Charles and Septimus decided to retire to the library to draw up plans for the deployment of the men that they were hoping Colonel Stanhope would provide. Charles offered to perform the interviews – an offer that Alverstoke accepted with alacrity. Septimus asked to sit in on them, hoping to learn from his more worldly and experienced brother
“Whatever would I do without the Trevor family to organise my life for me?” Alverstoke only sounded slightly teasing. “I shall be all at sea when Septimus also leaves me for a brilliant career.”
“Our oldest nephew Eustace will likely be old enough to serve you by then.” Septimus said with a grin. “Fear not, sir, you won’t be abandoned.”
Eames snorted slightly, although by the time Alverstoke had turned back towards him he was able to show a blank expression.
“I shall leave you to it then, Vernon.” Eames said as evenly as he could. “Arthur and I will call on you the day after tomorrow to discuss anything new. If an emergency arises, please send a card around and we will be here as soon as possible.”
And because the weather was fine, if a little chilly, Eames walked home, eager to tell Arthur everything that had occurred.
That night, Eames made the rounds of the more prestigious of the clubs that he belonged to, finishing at and spending the longest at Whites.
After spending some time mocking the latest entries in the betting book, he joined a group of slightly older men that he believed to have been contemporaries of his father in a game of whist. They made way for him graciously enough once he’d introduced himself. They had needed another player so his arrival was fortuitous but he was aware the entire time the game was in progress that they were eyeing him speculatively.
Halfway through the game, Lord Stanton (who was facing the door) gave a slight start. “Oh I say!” he exclaimed, slightly louder than was polite, “Alverstoke has decided to grace us with his presence, has he?”
Blast! The last thing they needed was to be linked together socially after their drive earlier in the day. They still had no idea who the mastermind behind the plot was, and any unusual interaction might tip him off.
Eames didn’t let his dismay touch his expression, and raised one eyebrow to his neighbour in silent query.
“Alverstoke used to be one of the regulars, don’t you know, but since he got leg-shackled a few years ago he rarely makes an appearance in town, let alone his old haunts.” Mr Satterthwaite sounded immensely disapproving, as if Alverstoke’s absence had been a personal slight.
“His family’s still young, isn’t it?” Eames asked, as if looking for confirmation of something he’d heard.
“Well, that’s no reason to refrain from the more manly pursuits, is it?” Satterthwaite said in aggrieved tones. “Whoever heard of a man of means choosing to stay at home of an evening? The man’s gone soft in the head, I tell you. It’s what comes of marrying late. You take my advice, young Eames, and get yourself a wife before you turn queer.”
Eames choked on his mouthful of burgundy, and a snowy white handkerchief was proffered to him by a familiar looking elegant, yet strong and capable hand. A hand that he had spent some time watching handle the reins of a mettlesome pair, earlier in the day.
“Ah, Alverstoke,” Stanton said heartily, “we were just saying how delightful it is to see you gracing our poor establishment once again.”
“One does what one can,” Alverstoke murmured, with only one brow slightly raised. “Good evening, Stanton, Satterthwaite, Hatherleigh, Cavendish.” And then he moved away to where his old friend Mr Moreton was presiding over some dice.
Cavendish released a breath he must have been holding. “By all that’s wonderful, he doesn’t half give you a shiver, does he? How did he even get over here so quickly?”
The others were staring at the handkerchief Eames was still holding, although it was no longer snowy white. It had initials embroidered at one corner, a V and a D, entwined on a background of A.
It was quite lovely actually, and Eames spent a few moments admiring it until the stares of his companions indicated they were waiting for him to give some kind of explanation.
“I met him a few nights ago at my cousin’s come out ball?” he hazarded, looking to see if that was enough. It wasn’t. “I found his wife quite lovely, and apparently he knew my late father.” That appeared to do the trick and they went back to their game.
Eames carefully waited until one of the others showed signs of fatigue before he made his own motions towards leaving.
He’d had enough for one night. He hadn’t really wanted to go out in the first place, and right now he could think of nothing more desirable that joining Arthur by the fire, listening as Arthur berated him for some stain or mark that had appeared on his clothes. There were several new wine stains on what had been spotless and rather stylish light yellow shirtsleeves. Arthur was sure to go spare.
The next night, Eames and Arthur took great pains to ensure that Curry; firstly, looked nothing like himself, and secondly, did not move, sit or speak like himself.
“You are, for all intents and purposes, a spy for the evening.” Eames informed the groom as he corrected the man’s posture again. “You should know in advance, that spies who get discovered, get killed. In very nasty, painful, humiliating, ways. It’s not just young Edward’s life that depends on your deception tonight, it is your own. So, do it again. No! Don’t straighten up that way! Arthur, is there some way that we can tie him so that he can’t straighten up?”
“Here, try it like this.” Arthur said, and a few moments later Curry was trussed up like a Christmas goose. This time when he came into the room and went to greet Eames as per their training, he didn’t straighten up, instead giving a very realistic groan of pain.
“Much better!” Eames cheered. “Now, just make sure you use your ‘disguised’ voice, or do you think we should punch you in the throat to make that more authentic too?”
“No, no!” Curry said hurriedly, and then at Eames’ raised eyebrow, “No, no!” in the raspier version that they had agreed on for his spying mission.
“Very good.” Eames smiled benevolently down at the hunched over head groom, who was no doubt second guessing his offer to be the one listening in on the conspirators tonight. “Now, try it again from the beginning. In fact, from now on, you are in character. That means that every move you make, every word you speak, every thought you think, will belong to the man you are portraying. Now. From the beginning.”
When Eames and Arthur were both satisfied that Curry wouldn’t give himself away at the earliest opportunity, they let their disgruntled duckling go out into the world and sat down to play a game or ten of two handed bridge.
“I don’t know why I even bother.” Arthur muttered several hours later as he looked at the cards he had just been dealt. “It’s not as if I don’t know that you cheat.”
Eames just smiled charmingly and looked happily at the cards he’d picked for himself this time round. “Perhaps you should take over the dealers role permanently, darling.”
“Lethbridge!” Curry spat wrathfully the moment the door had been bolted behind him, Eames having done a quick check to ensure that no one unexpected was loitering around. “It’s that utter bastard Lethbridge! When I get my hands on that sorry excuse for a… it was that difficult, Lord Eames, not to go after him tonight! I reckon only the fact that I could hardly move for the pain stopped me, so I’ll thank you both just as soon as I get free of this confounded contraption. Because there were quite a few of them, you know, and in a soberer mind I’m not all that sure I wouldn’t have been squashed like a bug.”
“There, there,” Eames said soothingly as Arthur made short work of dismantling the harness he’d devised to keep Curry bent over like a cripple. “Now that we know who he is, we can do something about it. And if we warn the magistrate in advance, his runners can confirm it and we won’t have any problems ensuring that he swings for it.”
“I’ll be there to see it myself, if I have to beg, borrow, or steal the fee.” Curry said, and with his disguise completely removed Arthur could see just how upset the man was. “The things they was talking of doing to Master Edward! It was all I could do to keep me chaffer closed, I tell you. That scum don’t even deserve a trial, they should be left to rot with none to know where they are.”
“Come now, my good fellow,” Eames said bracingly, thrusting a glass of brandy into the overwrought man’s hands as Arthur set a tray of late supper down beside the no doubt hungry groom. “We’ve made up a bed for you over there on the couch by the fire. Tomorrow morning we’ll head over to Berkeley Square and get everything sorted out with your master.
“We’ll do our best to make sure young Edward comes to no harm. Arthur and I are hardly wedded to the idea of bringing the bastards to trial either, so there may be a few unfortunate accidents in the scuffle.”
“Good.” Curry said, holding onto his brandy tightly as he was shown to where his bed had been set up. “Good.”
When Curry told his employer that the mysterious Mr Brown was in fact Lord Lethbridge, Alverstoke didn’t appear quite as surprised as Eames expected him to be.
“He was one of the men I was considering.” Alverstoke explained, as Charles made a face of comprehension and took his brother urgently over to where some of the records were kept. “There have been several occasions where we’ve come into conflict, and as I am not in the habit of losing when something is important to me…”
Eames gave an involuntary shudder at the cold, merciless look that crossed the Marquis’ face.
Arthur’s description of Alverstoke (was it only a week ago?) as a man not to be crossed flitted over his mind, and he knew at that moment that Alverstoke had gained and maintained such a reputation by being completely ruthless in all of his dealings.
It made Eames quite glad, all of a sudden, to have placed himself and Arthur so handily within the sphere of Alverstoke’s protection, although that hadn’t been his intention when deciding to reveal the plot.
“Charles and Septimus are about to make their way over to the Barracks. You and I need to sit down and find a way to keep my son out of this. There is no way I will allow him, or anyone else I care for, to fall under Lethbridge’s mercy. The man is a sadist. I don’t know why I even considered it in the first place! Frederica was right, the whole idea is nothing but madness.”
“So, find another way, and perhaps find away to ensure Lethbridge ‘accidentally’ falls during the contretemps? Since it would appear that his death would be no loss.”
Alverstoke gave a wintry smile that was devoid of mirth. “No loss at all. In fact, I may have Curry put out the word discreetly that there will be a bounty paid to the lucky fellow who rids the world of that parasite.”
The next few days were very busy indeed for all of those involved in the counter-plot against Lethbridge, Prendergast, and their underlings. Charles and Sepitimus were highly pleased with the men that they had hired, and all twenty veterans were incensed at the cowardliness of Lethbridge’s plan.
It was one of the veterans who came up with a solution to the problem of using Edward as bait.
“I’ve a friend, works at a pub not all that far away,” he suggested, holding his hat in his hand as he spoke to the Marquis. “Right decent chap, but he was born a great deal shorter than any other man I’ve ever met. He don’t want for courage though, and he’s a dab hand in a fight, ‘less you’ve got full metal armour on. I’m sure he’d be delighted to take the lad’s place, if you take my meaning. That rum-guzzler won’t know what hit him when he goes to terrify a bantling and finds a wee rooster!”
So it was decided. Curry went with the retired infantry man to speak to the short man, whose name was Tim Dally, and in truth he was both very short and very willing to help. Especially when he heard the sum Alverstoke was offering in payment.
Gradually the plan came together.
On the day that the kidnapping was due to happen, Edward would be moved to the butlers quarters where he would be attended to by James the footman.
The staff would be told that the young master was ill, and Tim Dally would be installed in the young lords rooms with the Marchioness doting on him.
Wicken, Walter, Curry, Charles, and Sepitimus, would keep a discreet eye on the upstairs staff, and any that began to show unusual signs of stress would have a watch put upon them.
There would be a number of people watching Tim at all times and when he was moved there would be several people following him.
So far, there had been talk amongst the kidnappers of using two different places as rendezvous points, so Arthur and Eames volunteered to watch one each.
Alverstoke ensured they would have two of his new security force by them in case more hands were necessary, but the bulk would be stationed at various points around Berkeley Square and Alverstoke House.
Several carriages would be kept waiting and ready to go in the stables two streets away, and the Bow Street Runners were going to be on hand to identify the players – namely Prendergast and Lethbridge.
Meanwhile, Arthur, Eames, and the security force all did their best to find out as much about the two noblemen as possible, compiling the information they found. Everyone knew what his crest looked like, and he had several horses with very distinctive markings. Those descriptions were circulated too.
When news came back from the latest spy session that the kidnapping was due to happen at midnight in three days, they were as ready as they could be.
Arthur and Eames spent a great deal of time practising with their weapons, and they had several sparring matches to give their fighting technique a bit of a polish.
Now, it was a matter of waiting.