London, summer, 1814
Gordon was bored. Months had passed since anyone had tried to kill him. Luckily, this tedious spell of safety should end soon. Lord Kirkland had summoned him, and Kirkland was an excellent source of missions that required Gordon’s varied and nefarious skills.
Gordon was bemused by the fact that he and Kirk-land had become friends of a sort. They’d known each other since their school days at the Westerfield Academy, a small, elite school for boys of “good birth and bad behavior.”
Gordon had hated all the schools his father had sent him to, of which the Westerfield Academy was the last. He actually enjoyed learning, but he picked up new material very quickly, and then was physically in-capable of sitting still. When he was a boy at Kingston Court, he and his brothers had been tutored by a young curate who had allowed his most restless student to prowl around while his brothers struggled to master Latin or maths or the globes.
The marquess had never understood, so when Gordon reached an age to be sent off to school, he was placed in one of the most brutal academies in Britain so the masters would force him to sit still and behave properly. Despite the school’s best efforts to beat him into submission, Gordon had become ever more difficult. At the end of the year, he was asked not to return. The same thing happened at the next school. And the next. Gordon was rather proud of that fact.
By the time he reached Westerfield, he was so angry and rebellious that even calm, caring Lady Agnes Westerfield, founder and headmistress of the school, had been unable to reach him. He’d hated the school, hated his classmates, and rejected all friendly overtures. He skipped classes whenever possible, and when he showed up, he acted conspicuously bored and uninterested. To amuse himself, he’d perform brilliantly on exams just to madden his teachers.
Gordon had particularly hated Kirkland. Despite his youth, Kirkland had a cool, ferociously intelligent composure that was damned unnerving. Gordon felt disapproval whenever the other boy looked his way.
His hatred had been sealed during one of the school’s Kalarippayattu sessions. The ancient fighting technique had been introduced to the school by the half Hindu young Duke of Ashton, and learning it had become a school tradition. Gordon had enjoyed the fighting, which helped him work off his restlessness.
Despite his general anger with the forced captivity of school, he seldom truly lost his temper. But one day in a fighting session he succumbed to fury when matched against a sharp-tongued classmate. He might have killed the boy in a rage if Kirkland hadn’t intervened, yanking Gordon out of the fight, slamming him to the ground, and pinning him there. “Control yourself!” he’d ordered with razor-edged menace.
Later, Gordon was grateful he’d been prevented from committing murder even though he despised the little bastard who’d provoked him. But the public humiliation made him hate Kirkland even more.
Yet here he was, whistling as he climbed the steps of Kirkland’s handsome townhouse in Berkeley Square. He stopped whistling before wielding the knocker. It would be bad for his reputation to appear too cheerful.
Soames, the butler who admitted him, said, “His lord-ship is expecting you, Captain Gordon. He told me to send you to him immediately. He’s in the music room.” Soames gestured to the stairs.
“No need to take me up,” Gordon said as he handed over his hat. As he climbed the steps, he heard piano music. Lady Kirkland, he presumed. She was said to play superbly.
The door to the music room was closed. As he quietly opened it, the full power of the performance swept over him. Gordon wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about music, but he recognized skill when he heard it. He paused, drinking in the vibrant harmonies. No won-der young ladies were taught to create music. Though few would be this good.
He stepped into the room and saw that Kirkland and his lady were seated side by side on the piano bench and playing together. Their flying fingers perfectly coordinated as they produced that powerful, mesmerizing flood of sound.
Gordon caught his breath in surprise, and Kirkland looked up, startled. “Sorry, I lost track of time.” He swiveled on the piano bench and rose to take Gordon’s hand. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”
“My pleasure, Kirkland,” Gordon replied. “I never know what interesting project you might have for me.”
“I hope what he has for you isn’t too lethal.” Lady Kirkland also stood to greet him. She wasn’t a classical beauty, but her deep warmth was a perfect complement to her husband’s cool composure. “It’s lovely to see you, Captain Gordon.”
“I greatly enjoyed your playing,” he said honestly. “I’ve heard of your talent, but it was still a surprise and a pleasure. Even more so in your case, Kirkland. Beautiful ladies are supposed to be musical. Such skills are less expected in spymasters.”
Both Kirklands laughed. “Would you like to come to one of our informal musical evenings?” Lady Kirk-land said. “Every month or so we invite a few friends over to make music.”
“And talk. And eat,” Kirkland said. “Several of life’s greatest pleasures.” His fond glance at his wife suggested what the greatest pleasure was.
“That’s sounds enjoyable, but I have no musical ability whatsoever,” Gordon said. “I know nothing of instruments and have an alarmingly bad singing voice.”
Lady Kirkland smiled. “You don’t have to perform. It’s enough to enjoy. We performers need an audience, after all. I’ll send you an invitation the next time we have such a gathering.”
He inclined his head. “I will be pleased to attend if I can, Lady Kirkland.”
“Call me Laurel. I owe you too much for formality.” She brushed a kiss on his cheek and glided from the room.
Gordon touched his cheek as he gazed after her. “You’re a lucky man, Kirkland.”
“A fact of which I am very aware.” Kirkland gestured toward a pair of chairs set by a front window. “We might as well talk here. I’ll ring for coffee.”
After he’d done so, they settled in the chairs and Kirkland said, “I believe you’ve lived among our young cousins in the United States?”
Gordon frowned. “You know that I have. I’ll tell you now that I won’t do any spying against the Americans even though our countries are at war. I like them.”
“I don’t want you to spy against them. This particular war has been a damned fool waste of blood and re-sources and should never have happened,” Kirkland said forcefully. “There are reasons why our countries came to blows, but Britain should have stayed focused on France. Now that Napoleon has abdicated, Welling-ton’s Peninsular army has been freed to turn else-where, which means the war in our former colonies will become much fiercer.”
“All sadly true,” Gordon agreed. “What has that to do with me?”
“I’m hoping to enlist you in a rescue mission,” Kirk-land replied. “No politics involved. There is an English-born widow who lives in the American capital, Washington. That whole area has become a war zone, with the Royal Navy rampaging up and down the Chesapeake Bay, burning towns and farms and bombarding American forts. Anything might happen. Her family is concerned about the dangers and would like her to be brought back to safety in England.”
Gordon frowned. “Mounting a rescue across the Atlantic will take time and money. Anything could happen between now and when I’d reach America. Doesn’t this woman have the sense to get out of the way of an invading army if one appears?”
“There’s family estrangement, so they aren’t sure of the woman’s financial situation, but she’s likely in reduced circumstances.”
“Being poor always complicates life,” Gordon agreed. “But what if she doesn’t want to return to England?”
“Exercise your powers of persuasion,” Kirkland said dryly.
“I have done many reprehensible things,” Gordon said with equal dryness, “but I’m not in the business of kidnapping reluctant women.”
“Nor am I. I told the government official who asked me to arrange this that I wouldn’t countenance forcing a woman against her will.” Kirkland smiled a little. “Which would be not only wrong, but difficult since females tend to have minds of their own. If she doesn’t wish to return to the bosom of her estranged family, you’re authorized to escort her to a safer place, at least until the fighting is over. If she is impoverished, pro-vide her with what funds she needs. At the very least, discover her situation so her family will know how she is faring.”
Family matters were the very devil. Warily Gordon asked, “Why is the widow estranged?”
“I don’t know. The official who asked me, Sir Andrew Harding, wasn’t forthcoming, but I believe the woman is a relation of Harding’s wife.”
Gordon had heard of Harding. He was extremely wealthy and had a great deal of political influence. A man who expected results.
He shook his head. “I don’t think I should accept this commission. If the widow has been out of touch with her family, the address might be wrong. Even if I can find her quickly, she might not want to return to England if she’s estranged. Sir Andrew should save his money. He and his wife are unlikely to achieve what they want.”
“Quite possibly not,” Kirkland said quietly. “But sometimes, people need to do something because it’s unbearable to do nothing.”