Book 3 in the >Brethren Series
The 3rd Book in the bestselling series, The Brethren by USA Today Bestseller Christi Caldwell!
Martha Donaldson went from being a nobleman’s wife, and respected young mother, to the scandal of her village. After learning the dark lie perpetuated against her by her ‘husband’, she knows better than to ever trust a man. Her children are her life and she’ll protect them at all costs. When a stranger arrives seeking the post of stable master, everything says to turn him out. So why does she let him stay?
Lord Sheldon Graham Whitworth has lived with the constant reminders of his many failings. The third son of a duke, he’s long been underestimated: that however, proves a valuable asset as he serves the Brethren, an illustrious division in the Home Office. When Graham’s first mission sees him assigned the role of guard to a young widow and her son, he wants nothing more than to finish quickly and then move on to another, more meaningful assignment.
Except, as the secrets between them begin to unravel, Martha’s trust is shattered, and Graham is left with the most vital mission he’ll ever face—winning Martha’s heart.
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The world had never thought much of Lord Sheldon Graham Malin Whitworth.
When he was a boy, there’d been no shortage of opportunities for the world—father and brothers included—to remind Graham of his numerous failings: too short, not clever enough, not the best at riding or fencing.
By the time he’d grown to be several inches taller than both his brothers and had become a more skilled rider, fencer, and boxer, those accomplishments had ceased to matter to his father, the Duke of Sutton.
Until Graham had ceased to try and instead learned to live for only his own pleasures.
In what could only be the most clichéd of directions a duke’s second or third son could travel, Graham had contentedly wandered the path of rogue, uncaring about paternal disapproval.
Neither was he one who particularly cared for those all-too-frequent ducal lectures. The latest of which Graham now subjected himself to.
And had been subjecting himself to since he’d entered his father’s office twenty-five minutes earlier.
“Are you even listening to me?” the Duke of Sutton called. The affected shout boomed off the thirty-foot-high ceilings. Of course, Graham’s illustrious father was too distinguished and refined to ever do something so gauche as to actually bellow.
“Indeed,” Graham drawled. From where he stood at the duke’s floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Kent countryside, Graham glanced at his father in the crystal panes and caught the manner in which his father drew his thick gray brows together. And because Graham knew it would raise the sterling-haired patriarch’s ire, he tossed back a long swallow from the snifter in his hand.
The duke wanted to bellow. It was there in the bulging vein at the right corner of his eye. In Graham’s youth, his father’s slight, uncontrollable twitches had represented a triumph. Now, they meant nothing. They changed nothing.
As always, his father collected himself. “Your mother is having a house party.”
As if to punctuate that statement, a pink carriage rolled down the long graveled drive. “Yes, I see that.” Graham followed it with his gaze until the garish conveyance came to a stop. Liveried servants immediately poured from the front door, scurrying off to greet the just-arrived guests, like mice sprinting along the bowels of the naval ships he’d served on seven years earlier.
“She wanted you here.”
Graham could not fathom why. “Did she?” Oh, it was not that he doubted his mother’s love. In the way of devoted parents, she had bestowed equal affection and regard on each of her three—now two—sons. Even when she had every reason to hate him for the loss of one of her sons, she hadn’t. But taking the grousing from her husband because Graham was around hardly seemed worth the bother.
“She did,” his father said coolly, in tones that betrayed a like confusion.
Graham swirled the remaining contents of his glass.
“I wanted you here, too.”
The amber spirits splashed over the rim of his glass, staining Graham’s fingers and falling upon the hardwood floor. For the first time since he’d been summoned to the duke’s offices, Graham faced him. His mother had wanted him about through the years as much as the Duke of Sutton hadn’t wanted the spare to his heir underfoot.
“Wipe that surprised look off your face.” There was a faint pleading there so at odds with the Duke of Sutton who commanded all. “That is no doubt the reason both the king and I together couldn’t convince the Home Office to put you to some use.”
“This again?” he drawled, tension snapping through him, and he resisted it. People, all people, will attempt to use your weakness as a weapon against you. Do not…
This time, with that lesson reverberating around his brain, he dispelled the old hurts. This time, he refused to give his father the satisfaction of his fury, nor did he allow himself that show of weakness. It was enough that Graham knew the truth: That he, the unlikeliest of rogues, had been tapped as an agent for the Crown, trained, and set to serve.
His father thumped the surface of his desk. “Your mind is wandering again.”
What is wrong with you that you cannot—?
“Or what? You’ll drag out one of my esteemed former tutors to apply the rod?” The pain, indignity, and shame—of both the act and his pathetic self for failing to put an end to it—stung sharper than the wood instrument had all those years ago. As a child, he’d been unable to maintain any sense of self-control. His father, a ducal master of all emotion, had railed at Graham, ultimately hiring the sternest tutors.
“They did it to clear your head of cobwebs and clouds,” his father shot back, his cheeks flushed red. Was it guilt? Regret?
How utterly ridiculous to believe his father had any compunction about how he’d treated his youngest son. Ultimately, it had been Graham’s mother who’d put the humiliating punishments to an end.
“It did not work,” he said with a lazy grin, toasting his father. In the end, he had developed mechanisms on his own to help cope with an inability to attend his studies or… anything.
“Mayhap if your mother hadn’t coddled you, you would have been strong enough to merit a role with the Home Office.”
He curled his fingers. Let it be enough. You know the truth. At the end of the day, his father believed he’d been rejected, but Graham had been selected to the illustrious organization. Nonetheless, as the duke launched into his familiar tirade, Graham clung to every lesson doled out by his mentor within the Brethren and every strategy he employed to retain a grip on his self-control.
“I sent you to the Home Office with every opportunity,” his father was saying, “and it was just one more failing.” One more failing… among a countless number of them. Oh, how Graham would love to hurl the truth in his face. But the other man’s pompous—incorrect—assumption where Graham was concerned was perversely satisfying, too. “Wipe that smug smile from your face, Sheldon Whitworth.” He winced at having that hated first name tossed his way. “You went to them with connections, letters from me and His Majesty, and you blundered it at your first meeting.”
Graham’s entire body went taut. “You spoke to someone after my… rejection?”
“Of course I did.” His father bristled. “Do you think I didn’t have words with my connections and demand an answer as to why they passed you over for any post?”
Of course, there was that eternal concern for the Duke of Sutton about how he was viewed by his peers. Graham made his lips move up in a coolly mocking grin and again toasted his father with his drink. “How very loving you’ve become in your old age.”
The duke’s cheeks went red. “It had nothing to do with…with…”
“Love?” Graham supplied. His father had turned tail and ran whenever discourse moved into the emotional territory.
“That or any other puling sentiments.”
“I was being facetious, Father. Of course it didn’t.”
His father slashed a hand Graham’s way. “It had to do with the fact that you are approaching thirty, and you’re still the same rakish person you were ten years ago.”
Ah, but now Graham was more. “I have always been able to rely on you to provide a detailed enumeration of my failings.”
“Either way, that isn’t why you are here.”
“And here I thought I was invited for the annual Whitworth winter house party.”
“Don’t be a fool. You stopped coming to your mother’s festivities years ago. Can’t bother to tear yourself away from whatever whore you’re bedding or whatever wager you’re making.”
That had been the case, though it had been more about not wanting to. He had been the failure of a student his father accused him of being, but he’d not been such a fool that he’d have willingly put himself through any more of his father’s lambasting diatribes. This year, however, was different. His purposes for being here, for trying to meld more with Polite Society, at whom he’d otherwise spent his life turning up a middle finger, were quite different.
Graham downed the remainder of his drink. Strolling with long, lazy strides to his father’s desk, he set the empty glass at the edge of the perfect, gleaming mahogany desktop and sat. “Why don’t we move past all the dancing about, then, and have out with whatever it is I’m doing here?”
The duke’s hard lips moved, but no sound slipped forward. Of course, His Grace wasn’t accustomed to anyone compelling him to do anything. No one short of the king himself. It was why he’d taken such affront at the denials of his requests for a post at the Home Office for his reprobate son. It had stung his ducal pride. Something flashed in his steel-gray eyes, something that looked very much like pride. It was gone as quick as it had come and likely had been an imagined hope that the foolish part of Graham still carried for the man’s acceptance.
“You’ve been a disappointment in many ways…” Schooling. “Your schooling.”—Because, for his father, that was where Graham’s failings had all begun.—“Your reputation. Your—”
“Yes, yes, I think we’re all well familiar with the impressive list you’ve compiled,” he said dryly, looping an ankle across his opposite knee.
“I’m trying to help you, Sheldon.”
“How very…kind of you.”
His father went on over that droll interruption. “There is something you can do.”
“And here I thought there was nothing I could—”
“The Duke and Duchess of Gayle are expected any day.”
Oh, bloody hell.
“Along with their daughter, Lady Emilia.”
A joining of ducal families is what the Duke of Sutton craved then. “No,” Graham said flatly.
His father flared his nostrils. “I didn’t say anything.”
Yet. “We both know where this is headed.” And it would end nowhere.
“Your mother was friendly with her mother and feels badly about the girl’s circumstances.”
“Then send her a puppy and French chocolates. But sending the failure of a son?” He chuckled. “That hardly seems like an act of charity for any of the aforementioned parties.”
A knock sounded at the door.
“Enter,” His Grace called out.
A servant entered bearing a silver tray. “This arrived a short while ago—”
“Hand it over, then,” the duke said impatiently, snapping his fingers.
“It is not for you, Your Grace.” The young man glanced to Graham. “But rather, Lord Whitworth.”
At any other time, there would have been jubilation at seeing the duke effectively silenced. For it would be a bruising to his massive pride to have a letter arrive mid-meeting for his scapegrace son. Not this time. Graham stood straighter. Feeling his father’s stare boring a hole into his every action, Graham forced himself to accept the note with his usual boredom. After sliding a finger under the familiar wax seal, he unfolded the missive and scanned the handful of lines. Then, curving his lips into the usual lazy grin, he tucked the page into his jacket. “We are finished here.”
“Are we finished? We’ve only just started—”
“It was not a question,” he said dryly, climbing to his feet. “I’ve had matters come up.”
“An irate husband, no doubt.”
“Hardly.” Graham waggled his brows. “All the respectable ones who’d care that I’m bedding their wives are away from London until the Season begins.” Whistling a bawdy tavern ditty, he clicked the heels of his boots together and started for the door.
The duke’s chair scraped the floor. “You would simply run off,” his father thundered after him, his patience giving way, as it invariably did.
Graham paused with his fingers on the door handle and shot a glance back. “Oh, I’m not running off. I’m leaving. They are two very… you know. Who the hell cares either way?”
With his father sputtering and cursing after him, Graham let himself out.
“Of course, the one task I charge you with, you cannot even see through. You are a fail—”
The remainder of the accusation was lost to the heavy oak panel he closed in the duke’s face. Now he faced the man who might as well have been a mirror image of him, save for the blond hair.
Ignoring him, Graham started off in the opposite direction. “Withington?” he called after the servant stationed at the end of the hall. “Have my bags packed and my mount readied, please.” He didn’t have time for lectures, and there was no doubting that was precisely what had brought his brother to listening outside the duke’s offices.
Heath, however, was not to be deterred. “It’s really not well done of you. Upsetting him.”
“Withington?” Graham scoffed. “He’s more than capable of gathering my bags without—”
“Don’t be an obnoxious arse,” his brother muttered, joining him. “You know I’m referring to Father.”
“Yes, but it is a good deal more fun baiting you.” They hadn’t always been at each other’s throats. Graham and his two elder brothers had once delighted in making mischief together. Until the duke had taken Heath, the heir, under his proverbial wing, and the empty-headed rapscallion, as Graham had been called, had been cut out. Lawrence when he’d been living had retreated to his books. And just like that, the easy bond between Graham and both his brothers had been destroyed by the duke.
“It’s shameful that you’d take such pleasure in upsetting your own father, Sheldon,” his last living brother was saying.
Why can’t you be more like your brothers, Sheldon? Why…?
Graham flexed his fingers. Will your greatest weakness aside and let self-control triumph. That lesson, imprinted into his mind, brought his hands open, as he was in command of himself once more. “I’ve long moved beyond parental or fraternal lectures,” he drawled, lengthening his strides.
His brother adjusted his steps, easily matching Graham’s. “He wants what is best for you. He always has. You cannot fault him for that, Sheldon.”
“Actually, I can,” he said with a go-to-hell grin. And he did fault his father. The expectations he’d placed had always been too great, and Graham was never one who’d be able to meet them. Not with his many deficiencies.
Graham reached the end of the corridor and stopped. His brother skidded to a stop beside him, and the hopeful glimmer in his eyes suggested he thought Graham might turn back, make peace, and remain on for the interminable week-long festivities. Instead, Graham took his brother by the shoulder and lightly squeezed. “If you’re worried about the duke’s wishes being appeased, then you can wed Lady Emilia.”
Heath sputtered. “Don’t be ridiculous.” He bucked Graham’s grip from his shoulder. “Furthermore, this isn’t about Lady Emilia’s marital state.”
Graham folded his arms. “The hell it isn’t.”
His cheeks flushed. “Well, mayhap a small part of it has to do with Mother’s wish that the girl could be settled. But this goes beyond that. He’s getting on in years and wants to know that his remaining sons—” Heath’s features contorted.
And despite his bid not to give a single damn about what his brother or father had to say, pain lanced through him. It was, however, fleeting. “If you think His Grace gives two goddamns about me, then you’re a damned fool.” His father had never cared. Graham had long been the disappointment. One who very rarely served a purpose.
“You’re wrong,” Heath called after him, and this time, his elder brother allowed Graham to continue on, uninterrupted.
Until he reached the foyer.
His mother had positioned herself at the doorway, with the same height and carriage as the late Boney himself and, by the glint in her eyes, no less determined. “I believe this is a new record for you, Sheldon Graham Malin Whitworth.”
Several servants came forward with Graham’s belongings. With a word of thanks, he accepted his cloak from one of the footmen. Tossing the article around his shoulders, he adjusted the clasp. “Mother,” he murmured, with a bow for the graciously aging woman. “Using all four of my names? That never bodes well.”
She held a finger up, commanding the room with nothing more than that slightest of gestures. Just like that, the servants dispersed, fading into the shadows and quitting the rooms. Her hair still a pale blonde and her skin not marred by even so much as a wrinkle, she bore the same youthful aura she had as a mother chasing about her three wayward boys.
And she said nothing. The silence, however, struck a place of guilt deeper than any insult or word she could have leveled.
“I have to go.”
“You just arrived, Sheldon,” she said, her voice faintly imploring. Sailing over, rustling her satin skirts as she glided to a stop before him, she stared expectantly back. “You always leave, but never this quickly.” She did not attempt to make excuses for her husband. She’d always been a better mother than Graham had ever deserved.
“This time it is different.” And it was. He couldn’t say more than that. Wouldn’t say more.
“Is it because of Lady Emilia?”
“It has nothing to do with Lady Emilia,” he said simply, from a place of truth.
Her doubt was reflected in her eyes.
Always look a person squarely in the eyes for the answers you seek. A person’s gaze is a window into what they see or feel.
It was a lesson that he wished he hadn’t remembered at this moment, because then he wouldn’t see the disappointment in her eyes, too. She was the one person who’d given him far more credit than he’d deserved. “I have to leave,” he said again, adjusting the clasp at his throat.
She reached up and moved his hands out of the way to complete the task for him, much the way she had when he’d been a small boy. “Are you in trouble?”
Oddly, no. He winked. “Not this time.”
Mother pinched his cheek.
Graham winced. “I’m not,” he muttered. Or, at least not the trouble they expected him to find himself in. The urgency to quit this hall that had filled him when the note had been placed in his hand intensified.
His mother proved as resilient as always. She placed herself between him and the door. “Promise you’ll return for the holidays.”
Lie without compunction.
“I promise,” he said automatically, that lesson pulling the promise from him.
She sighed and slid out of his path. “I’m not sure if I believe you.”
Graham turned to go, and this time, he stopped himself. Leaning down, he bussed his mother on the cheek. “To the moon and back,” he said, repeating the vow of love she had made each night when she’d put him and his brothers to bed.
Her lower lip quivered. “And back again.”
A short while later, Graham left.
Sixteen hours later
As Graham dismounted and looped the reins of his mount around a nearby tree, he surveyed the heavily wooded grounds.
A tall figure stepped out from behind a barren oak tree, its trunk and limbs gnarled from age and weather. “You made good time,” the gentleman noted as Graham approached, his words a statement more than praise. “I feared you would be delayed with the slight snow.”
“I’m here,” he said evenly, adding nothing more for his superior. Though recently returned to the Brethren from his previous retirement, Lord Edward Helling, with his ink-black hair and unwrinkled face, might have been a man twenty years younger and new to the organization himself.
“I have your first assignment,” his superior said, handing over a file.
And there it was.
Graham’s fingers fairly twitched with the need to yank that coveted folio from the older man’s fingers. With unhurried movements, Graham accepted the file, flipped it open, and read.
High Town, England
Graham stopped and blinked slowly. He reread the words, but the detail there remained the same. “What is this?” he demanded.
“Your assignment.” Lord Edward gave him a long look that contained a warning—that Graham promptly ignored.
“You know what I meant,” he snapped. “A damned stable master.” This was what he’d waited for? “After months spent training in the damned English countryside and then additional months spent being mentored in London, this”—he held the file aloft—“is what I’m asked to do?”
Lord Edward rubbed his gloved palms together quickly. “You’ve a reputation for being skilled with horses, having trained with them as a young man.”
He growled, “I hardly think that makes me a damned expert. I cared for the horses in my father’s stables.”
“And mucked stalls and groomed and fed those horses. Why, you even took part in the birthings of five foals.” A smile ghosted his superior’s lips. “Yes, we know all.”
Graham studied the file once more, reading the details, and as he did, the greatest of ironies was not lost on him. With this, his first assignment, the task he’d so loved that his father had berated him for enjoying, and eventually had forbidden him from doing, should now see Graham trapped in a bloody thankless post.
“Every assignment is important,” Helling murmured.
He ignored that empty assurance. Frustration broiled in his gut. “I’m to be a servant, then, for…” He searched for that important detail on the first page. “A widow?” Graham laughed, the expression coated in cynicism. “Oh, this is rich.” He’d countless dealings and experience with widows, always sexual in nature. There’d been servant role-playing, but with the widows as naughty maids.
“Because you’ve a reputation for bedding widows?” Lord Edward put forward. “If I may point out at this time, your… reputation was one of the reasons you were initially overlooked by the Brethren. Furthermore, it is not simply the young woman you are reporting on. There’s a boy, too.”
Oh, bloody, bloody hell. His assignment had gone from a joke to a farce. “A boy,” he said flatly.
“A ten-year-old. Frederick Donaldson. He lives with his mother, Martha Donaldson. She is known as Marti to her family.”
“Charming.” He didn’t give a bloody damn if the woman went by the name of Virgin Mary. Graham’s first damned assignment would be to play stable master in a small country cottage removed from all society? “So I’m clear…” As if the inked words hadn’t spelled it out in very specific black letters. “I’m to spend fourteen days as a servant and report back on the woman—”
“And her son,” Lord Edward interrupted with a nod. “Precisely. This is an assignment that was abandoned by the recent leadership. I’ve taken the liberty of reinstating it.”
For the first time since the folder had been placed in his fingers, Graham felt his interest stir. The lesson, of course, was that people of all ages and genders were capable of treachery. “Is she a threat to the Crown?”
“Not at all.” The immediacy of the response confirmed the older man’s confidence.
Reining in his annoyance, Graham flipped to the next page. “Well, it must have been determined that this woman and her child offer something of value to the Crown.”
“Actually, no. On the contrary. The lady and her son offer nothing of specific value to the Brethren.”
Martha Donaldson was neither a threat, nor of any meaningful value to the Brethren, and yet, she was important enough that the moment he’d come out of retirement, Edward Helling had reopened her file. “I… see.” This… Martina… Martha… He searched the page again for her damned name. Martha Donaldson was Lord Edward’s mistress, then. Perhaps the boy, Frederick, was his bastard son.
His superior narrowed his eyes. “Careful,” he said warningly, having followed the unspoken supposition. “A former member feels a sense of responsibility to the young woman and asked that I have an agent assigned to her.”
“Why?” Being a member of the Brethren did not mean a man blindly accepted an assignment without questioning the ins and outs of every possible angle.
“Not quite two years ago, the Brethren agreed to see the woman was cared for. With the transition at the Home Office, the previous command deemed any oversight of Miss Donaldson supercilious. She’d fallen by the wayside. Until I… came upon the young woman’s file.” Out of retirement for an interim post, Lord Edward was also responsible for Graham’s hiring after the previous members had rejected him. “We’re trying to make contact with her once more and secure any information about her and her son’s current state of affairs.”
“What of the dead husband?” he asked, perusing his folder once more. “Who was he?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It always matters,” Graham shot back, one of many mantras of the Brethren.
The branches stirred overhead. That rustling let a shaft of moonlight through and briefly illuminated his superior’s face. An unanticipated approval glinted in the other man’s gaze. “In this case, it does not. It isn’t your need to know. The details surrounding her marriage are irrelevant,” Lord Edward said bluntly. “This isn’t a case that needs solving. She represents no threat, and there is no one at risk because of her. She is simply a woman a certain member of the Brethren is concerned after.”
Graham leveled a probing stare on the other man. Lord Edward might be Graham’s superior, and Graham new to his role, but he was astute enough to gather a key detail: The other man… nay, the organization was withholding details about Martha Donaldson for reasons Graham didn’t know and that they likely wouldn’t tell him. His suspicions deepened and put forward another probing question. “Is there reason to suspect she’s in any danger, then?”
“We do not believe so.” Another gust of wind whipped through the copse, sending their cloaks snapping loudly in the breeze. “It is our hope you locate the woman and confirm she and her son are well.”
“And that requires a whole fortnight?” Graham pressed. They’d have him play nursemaid for some widow and her son for fourteen damned days?
“The organization wants assurances about her well-being. You aren’t going to have that in a day or even two,” he said with a finality that indicated that argument was at an end. “After you’re finished, you’ll have another assignment. In the meantime, while you are there, remain unobtrusive. Make yourself as invisible as possible.”
A near impossible feat for a stranger to—Graham consulted the pages again—High Town, a tiny town on the northeastern crest of Luton.
“It’s your role to determine how to make yourself invisible.” The other man had correctly followed his ponderings. “Uninteresting people, regardless of how long they visit a place, lose notice quickly.”
Graham shook his head. He’d awaited his first assignment, and this was the role he’d been given. That of a minion put to work on a nothing case because some former member had called in a favor. He gritted his teeth. Oh, the amusement his father would have had with all of this.
Lord Edward rubbed his gloved palms together quickly. “I trust there are no problems, Whitworth.”
“No,” Graham replied automatically, which wasn’t a lie… There were any number of problems he had with the assignment. This assignment was no different than the years he’d served in the navy, a duke’s youngest son coddled by the men in command and kept from any truly purposeful work.
The other man slapped his shoulder. “I was you once.”
“You were never me,” he said curtly.
The faintest smile ghosted Lord Edward’s lips. “I was. New to the role, frustrated over the speed with which I was put into the field. Resenting the slowness of the process.” He held Graham’s stare. “Being the second son and, for that ordering of my birthright, always falling behind another.”
Yes, mayhap there was something they shared, then. For surely it was the way of all lords to have little use, appreciation, or regard for those youngest sons.
“There will be other assignments, Whitworth,” the other man said. “I promise you that.” He turned to go, but then stopped. “Oh, and Whitworth? I was ordered to give you one more instruction about your assignment.”
Graham stared back expectantly.
“Do not go seducing the young woman.”
Another spy for the Brethren might have been insulted by that directive. With Graham’s well-established reputation as a rogue, however, Helling’s was a fair order. “You’ve no worries there,” he drawled. The women he kept company had reputations as scandalous as his own. Wicked ladies with inventive skills in bed and morally bankrupt, like Graham himself. Not decent, young women tucked away in the English countryside.
Lord Edward touched a fingertip to his nose and then pointed in Graham’s direction. “Let us hope not.”
This time, with that veiled warning hanging in the copse, his superior left, and Graham was saddled with his first assignment.