I have returned to bring you the most delicious gossip. It must be noted that the existence of a certain club has recently reached my attention, one called the Wicked Earls’Club. Only the most wicked of titled earls are said to be members. Naturally, my mind has run away with thoughts of a most dangerous nature. Who belongs to this club, and do you already know them? Is the politeearl you danced with last night at Lady Allerton’s ball all that he seems? Is there more to the tall, dark-haired gentleman who tipped his hat as he rode past you in Hyde Park this fall? I AM MİST. I am moonlight. I am the smoke of an extinguished candle. I am the shadow you do not see, but only feel . Adam Beaumont, the Earl of Morrey, let the words of his private mantra flow over and through him until he believed them to be true. As he moved through the crowded ballroom of Lady Allerton’s home, the words worked a subtle magic. They rendered him nearly invisible to the husband-hunting ladies prowling around him, their matchmakingmamas leading the hunt. Given that he was an unmarried, young, and attractive gentleman with a title, that was quite a feat. If the ton knew what sort of man he truly was, those young women and their mothers would not be so eager to snare him.
He swept his gaze over every face in the packed ballroom, seeking that cunning gleam in a pair of eyes or an overly observant glance in his direction. He listened carefully for clever discussions designed to collect information best kept hidden. A loaded pistol would have been a welcome companion tonight, but he could not conceal such a cumbersome weapon on his person. No, the only friend he carried tonight was the slender dagger pressed flat against his chest beneath his waistcoat. He dared not risk a dance, lest the blade dislodge and become a danger to him. If only the ton knew what sort of man stood in their midst. A man whose job was to end any threat to the Crown. An agent of His Majesty who worked to keep the monarchy safe,as well as to protect the kingdom from foreign threats. He was the knife in the dark that claimed the life of anyone who came here to do his nation harm. It was a burden Adam had never wanted, but he had been given little choice. Many thought that wars started and ended on the battlefield, but Adam knew the darker truth. Wars began in drawing rooms and ballrooms, where men let down their guard and becometargets for spies and assassins.
He’d learned that after losing his friend Lord Wilhelm. It had been two years sincehe’d watched a French spy take the life of his dear friend. John Wilhelmhad struggled with a French assassin on a bridge over the Thames. Adam had been too late to stop the man from plunging a knife into John’s back, butJohn had taken the murderous bastard with him over the bridge and into the dark, swift waters below. Adam had rushed to the spot where his friend had gone and leapt over the side into the water himself. The fall had nearly killed him,andit had been for naught. He’d searched the water for what felt like an eternity before finally crawling up the bank and collapsing in exhaustion. As he lay gasping for breath, a man Adam had seen once or twice before at social engagements had emerged from the darkness and rushed to help. That was the night Avery Russell,the man who would become London’s new spymaster a year later, had recruited Adamto the Court of Shadows. After the previous spymaster, Hugo Waverly, died last year, Avery had taken control and restructured the spy network.
Many of the older spies had retired, and fresh blood like Adam had been brought deeper into the ring.Adam promised himself he would have his revenge upon John’s killers, for as Avery had taught him, French agents worked in pairs, a master and his loyal left hand. Adam did not know which one had perished in the river with John, the master or the left hand, but he would someday find out. Becoming a spy was his penance for being too late to save his friend that night. A quiet voice broke through Adam’s dark thoughts.“Morrey?” James Fordyce, the Earl of Pembroke, his new brother-in-law,came to his side. He was a fellow member of the private Wicked Earls’Club and had recently married Adam’s halfsister, Gillian. He and James had a passing acquaintancethrough their membership in the Wicked Earls’ Club. There were only a handful of members he’d been close enough to get to know in the last few years. Adam hadn’t been particularly active in the club or pursuing any rakish wickedness of late.
He’d been preoccupied with matters of England’s security. But that didn’t mean England had been the only matter on his mind. He’d been searching for his long-losthalfsister who’d been working as a lady’s maid in London,and that had brought him deeper into James’s circle of friendship, for which he was grateful. He trusted the man with his secrets in ways he couldn’t trust anyone else. “Pembroke, good to see you,” Adam replied. James had been the only one to notice him tonight. One of the few who wereable to see past Adam’s ability to disappear into crowds whenever he wished to. “Is Caroline with you? Gilly was hoping to see her.” A silent question lurked in James’s dark eyes, as if he wanted to ask what had Adam on edge. “No, not tonight.
” He had convinced his sister Caroline that there would be other balls this week to attend. Once he’d informed her that he had a mission to fulfill tonight, she’d understood the dangers and thankfully had remained home. “Should Gilly, Letty, and I leave?” Pembroke asked as he and Adam stepped deeper into the shadows at the edge of the ballroom. “Yes, I would if I were you, but be calm about it—let no one suspect anything. Tonight the devils are among us.” It was the warning he had devised with Pembroke to let the other man know when danger was close at hand. Pembroke was not a fool. From the time they’d first met, James had sensed that Adam was more than merely a titled lord searching for his long-lost halfsister. So without putting James too much at risk, he’d let the man know that he worked for the Home Office in some secretive capacity, though he never went into details unless lives were at stake. “Right.
Well, I see Gillian but not Letty. She must have gone to one of the retiring rooms. I’ll go and fetch her.” Adam was only partially listening. He’d caught sight of a woman leaving the ballroom, with another woman upon her arm. Viscount Edwards’swife, Lady Edwards, the woman he was to protect this evening, was leaving the safety of the ballroom with a dark-haired woman whose face he could not see. “Find your sister and go, quickly,” he said to James beforehe slid through the crowds now gathering in rows to begin a dance. The pair of women vanished at the doors on the far end,andAdam’s fear spiked. Lady Edwards was in grave danger. Her husband had lately been an ambassador to France, and Avery had recruited her to be a spy while she was on the Continent, as he and the Home Office worked in connection with the Foreign Office.
She had memorizeda verbal cypherthat she was to give Avery this very evening, and it was Adam’s duty to make sure no one silenced her before she could relay it. Adam reached the partially open doorway leading out of the ballroom and stepped into a dark corridor. He pressed himself against the wall and moved swiftly from door to door, checking for the presence of Lady Edwards and her unknown companion. “Hold still. Do not move,” a soft, alluring voice said close by. “Be very still,Lady Edwards, lest I prick you. We wouldn’t want that.” Christ, he was too late. Some foul French wench likely had a stiletto blade pressed to Lady Edwards’s throat. Adam’s hands curled into fists as he moved toward the doorway where he’d last heard the voices.
He reached up to undo the first two buttons of his green waistcoat and slid his dagger free. Still concealed by the edge of the doorframe, he drew in slow, steady breaths. “Be still, I say!” the feminine voice commanded.“I don’t wish to hurt you.” Lady Edwards began to beg. “Oh, please, do have mercy on me. I—” Adam didn’t wait another second. He shot around the doorframe and into the room, running straight for the feminine figure in a dark-blue silk ball gown. He caught the woman around her waist with one arm and jerked her back against his chest while he held his dagger to her throat. “Make a sound and you will not live to regret it,” he warned in a harsh whisper.
The woman in his arms gasped and went stiff with terror. “What?”Lady Edwards spun around. Her hands flew to her mouth.“Lord Morrey, what are you doing?” Her blue eyes were wide with fear. He gave the spy in his hold a tighter squeeze, and she wriggled in his arms.“Saving you, my lady.” “She’s not a spy!” Lady Edwards insisted in a frantic whisper. “She had you at her mercy—I heard her,” Adam said. “Don’t be silly. My hair came undone.
She was putting the pins back.” Lady Edwards held a pair of jeweled hairpins up for him to see. Diamond-studded pins glittered in muted lamplight as the reality of the situation sank in. He’d made a grave error. Still holding the woman captive in his arms, Adam slowly lowered the blade. Her breath quickened as though she’d been too afraid to breathe the last few seconds. As he released her, he caught her wrist to keep the woman from fleeing until this matter was settled, and she was sworn to secrecy. She turned to face him, and this time he was the one who forgot to breathe. Letty Fordyce, James’s little sister, a beauty he had admired— desired—from afar these last few months, was his frightened captive. He released her wrist,and she pulled free.
She retreated to the safety of Lady Edwards. “Lady Leticia,” he greeted in a gruff rumble barely above a whisper. The dark-haired beauty held a hand up to her neck and gazed at him in terror. “Oh, Letty, I’m so sorry.” Lady Edwards grasped the young woman’s shoulders and tried to soothe her. “What . ?” Letty stared at him. “Why?” “We haven’t time,” Lady Edwards said to her. “Morrey, have you seen Mr. Russell?” “I haven’t.
I fear something may have happened to him.” “I must give you the message, then,” Lady Edwards murmured. “No, not me. I am no messenger,” he reminded her.“I was only meant to protect you.” He was not one of those spies who played with coded messages and costumes on missions. He was a harbinger of doom, a hand of death for those who tried to harm his country. “He must be told tonight, Morrey,” Lady Edwards said. “What are you talking about?” Letty had finally found her voice. “Why did he hold a knife to my throat?” “I’m sorry, Letty, dear—not now.
We haven’t time—” A creak on the wood floor outside the retiring room made Adam spin around. A pistol barrel, half-illuminated, was aimed straight at them. He launched himself at the two women, tackling them to the ground. The crack of the pistol made him flinch as he hit the floor with the women beneath him. A moment later, he rolled off them and leapt to his feet, blade at the ready, but whoever had fired upon them had fled.He charged into the corridor, seeking any sign of where the assailant had gone. The crowd in the distant ballroom soon turned to chaos as someone screamed about a pistol being fired. Half a dozen men ranin his direction, and Adam ducked back into the retiring room. Lettyseemed to have collected herselfand was assisting Lady Edwards up off the floor. Letty was pale,but she wasn’t weeping or fainting dead away.
She was no wilting rose, and for that he was glad. “Did you catch them?” Lady Edwards asked as she brushed out the wrinkles in her gown. He shook his head. “A crowd is gathering, searching for whoever fired that pistol. You must go at once, my lady. We cannot be seen together.” The lady spy nodded and rushed to the open window that led into the gardens outside. Thankfully, they were on the first floor, and Lady Edwards could drop three feet onto the grass outside. She gathered her skirts and slipped through the opening, vanishing into the darkness beyond. “Godspeed, my lady,” Adam said as he closed the window behind her.
Then he turned toward Letty. “Lord Morrey, what—?” “Lady Leticia, I’m sorry about this.” “About what? What just happened? Why did you hold a knife to my throat?” “I’m sorry about the fact that I have to kiss you now.I cannot be seen in here alone, not if I wish to avoid being connected to that pistol.” Letty’s eyes widened as the sounds of the men in the corridor grew louder.“Why can’t you be seen alone? Wait . kiss?” He swept Letty into his arms, holding her tightly to him. And he claimed her parted lips with his. She drew in a shocked breath as he kissed her soundly. Lord, the woman tasted sweet, too sweet.
At any other moment he would have gotten drunk on her kiss. But he kept his focus on the closed door,waiting for the moment it would burst open. When it did, he purposely held Letty a moment too long, making sure the men who’d entered the room saw the girl was quite clearly compromised. “Good God, it’s Morrey!” one man said. Another man called out for Adam to let the girl go. Adam stepped half a foot back from Letty, his hand still possessively gripping her waist, implying that they had been about to make love. Then he faced the men and dropped his hold on the poor young woman whose reputation he had just put the proverbial bullet through. “Morrey, what the bloody hell do you think you’re doingwith my sister?” James demanded. He started toward Adam, vengeance in his eyes that Adam knew would likely end up with his face a bloody mess if this matter was not resolved. “I .
” Adam struggled for words as he pushed Letty behind him, keeping her well out of harm’s way, lest her brother take a swing at him. He’d given Lady Edwards a chance to escape, but now he was to face an entirely different peril that he could not escape. “We heard a pistol go off,” a man said in confusion. Adam recognized him as Jonathan St. Laurent. “We feared something had happened. We thought it came from this room.” “I can’t say I heard anything—I was rather preoccupied,” Adam said with a rakish grin. He’d become a good actor in the last two years, showing only what he wished and hiding what he needed to. “That much is clear,” Jonathan snorted, his gaze fixed on Adam’s chest.
Adam reached up to touch his waistcoat and realized the two buttons he’dundone to free his dagger were still out of their slits. It painted the situation with Letty in an even worse light because it looked as though he’d been in the process of removing his waistcoat. “We should let Pembroke handle this,” another man in the party said. “She is his sister,after all.” “Yes, leave him to me,” James growled. “Continue your search.” The other men left the room, leaving James alone with Adam and Letty. Pembroke closed the door, trapping Adam in the room with him and Letty. “Morrey, what the bloody hell happened?” James demanded, his eyes straying to his sister, who stood nearly silent behind Adam. “I thought you told me to leave because you were up to something dangerous, and then I find you kissing my sister.
I expect there to be a damn good explanation for this.” Adam saw the hurt and fury in James’s eyes. He had every right to assume the worst. Adam would have, had he been in James’s place. “There is, but I cannot explain here. It may not be safe,” Adam replied. James rubbed his closed eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “You’re telling me that what happened tonight was connected to . ?”