The Spy Who Seduced Her

 Book 1 in the >Brethren Series

See why Tessa Dare says, “A Christi Caldwell book never fails to touch the heart.”

In this spellbinding new Regency series by Christi Caldwell, The Heart of a Duke meets the Brethren of the Lords. The stakes are high and passions flare hot in Regency England! 

A widow with a past… The last thing Victoria Barrett, the Viscountess Waters, has any interest in is romance. When the only man she’s ever loved was killed she endured an arranged marriage to a cruel man in order to survive. Now widowed, her only focus is on clearing her son’s name from the charge of murder. That is until the love of her life returns from the grave.

A leader of a once great agency… Nathaniel Archer, the Earl of Exeter head of the Crown’s elite organization, The Brethren, is back on British soil. Captured and tortured 20 years ago, he clung to memories of his first love until he could escape. Discovering she has married whilst he was captive, Nathaniel sets aside the distractions of love…until an unexpected case is thrust upon him– to solve the murder of the Viscount Waters. There is just one complication: the prime suspect’s mother is none other than Victoria, the woman he once loved with his very soul.

Secrets will be uncovered and passions rekindled.  Victoria and Nathaniel must trust one another if they hope to start anew—in love and life. But will duty destroy their last chance?


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Excerpt:

Chapter 1

The Brethren of the Lords comes first: before everything and everyone.

Article I: The Brethren of the Lords
Spring, 1820
London, England

Nathaniel Archer, the Earl of Exeter, had gone from a once battered, beaten, and bruised spy captured by an Irish radical to leader of the Brethren of the Lords.

Shaped by his imprisonment and two years of torture, he’d become a man who’d no time for anything or anyone outside the Brethren. His work filled his days and nights, and had become the family he’d never had nor would ever have.

Where other noblemen were content with a carefree life, taking part in mindless ton events, Nathaniel despised those frivolities as much as he had as a young man just out of Oxford. He’d always preferred the purposefulness that came in ensuring England was secure and its people safe.

The twelve hours he’d spent seated behind the great, mahogany desk examining a list of potential future members of the Brethren for the one vacant post, stood as a testament of his devotion to his work.

Opening the next file, Nathaniel quickly passed his gaze over the top sheet.

…No field experience. No military experience…

“This is what we’ve become, then,” he muttered under his breath as he continued reading. A secret agency under the discretion and direction of the Home Office that the King sought to fill with indolent lords; peers who put favors to him for a role within the Home Office for their equally indolent sons.

Ultimately, however, Nathaniel, in his role of Sovereign of the Brethren, had the final decision. It did not preclude him from having to go through the motions, all to appease the King. And though he’d simply toss out those lords who would not suit, the task drained time and energies away from the organization.

“I take that as a ‘no’ on Lord Hammell,” his assistant, Mr. Lionel Bennett, drawled from the same seat he’d occupied for the better part of the day, opposite Nathaniel.

“A firm no,” he groused as he set aside the sparse folder. Leaning back in his chair, he rolled his stiff shoulders. “Surely there are more qualified candidates than this?” He stretched his arms out before him, giving a slight shake to strengthen the blood flow to the limbs.

With a droll smile, Bennett handed over another. “I present Lord Sheldon Whitworth.”

His lips twitched. “You, present?” he asked, taking it from the younger man.

His assistant widened his grin. “Rather, the King recommends Lord Sheldon Whitworth.”

Lord Whitworth: a rogue and a rascal in dire need of reform. “Of course,” he mumbled. The Brethren had more than enough of those types in their midst. The manner of men Society would never take for anything else but reprobates. A familiar annoyance stirred. He’d tired long ago of being tasked with maturing the King’s hand-selected nursery of lords.

Bennett chuckled.

Nathaniel had to hand it to the other man. After half a day at the task, most would be rumpled, fatigued, and disgruntled. Bennett, however, who’d served the Brethren since his days at Oxford had an unruffled affect that only a man of his five and twenty years could manage. To be young again. But then, having been born the child of a former agent, the Brethren coursed through the younger man’s veins.

“He is six and twenty,” Bennett was saying. “Second son of the Duke of Sutton.”

All the lords of London with second and third born sons who’d disavowed the clergy and military, thought to foist their spares upon the Home Office, as a way to both exert and expand their influence and importance. “I can read as much,” Nathaniel said dryly, not lifting his focus from the next illustrious candidate. In defense of those peers, they could not know the same offspring they sought posts for would be considered for field agents of the Brethren; that secret organization known only by the King, its members, former agents, and the Home Office.

Lord Sheldon Whitworth:

Served in His Majesty’s Navy

No field experience

No sea battle experience

He made quick work of reading through the file. Another military upstart with a right to a position in the Home Office.

“There is a letter of commendation attached at the back,” Bennett volunteered.

Flipping to the next page, he skimmed the praise-laden letter from… “The Duke of Sutton,” he muttered under his breath. Yet another powerful peer exerting his influence on behalf of his kin.

“It makes one wonder, if those same lords knew the risks their spares would take on if selected for the post, whether they’d volunteer their names to the King,” Bennett mused aloud, in echo of Nathaniel’s earlier thoughts.

“Your own father did,” he felt inclined to point out. When Nathaniel had received control of the organization and been tapped by the King as Sovereign, one of the first requests for employment had come from a previous member of the Brethren.

“My father was clever enough to know that nothing could stop me from taking up work for the Home Office.” Bennett flashed a half-grin. “I simply did not know of his ties to the Brethren.”

Lord Lucien Bennett was one of those to serve as Delegator, handing out assignments to agents. He had gathered precisely the manner of work he’d submitted his son’s name for.

Despite Nathaniel’s initial reservations, he’d learned almost instantly the young man was far more than his familial connection. With a sound of disgust, he abandoned yet another folder. He stared expectantly back at his assistant.

Obligingly, Bennett held out the next.

Opening it, Nathaniel surveyed the file. He lifted his head, unable to keep the incredulity from his query. “Quimbly’s spare?”

His assistant nodded.

The Duke of Quimbly had petitioned the King no fewer than two times on his son’s behalf… and that was only in the two years that Nathaniel had been appointed the Sovereign. The meticulous records kept indicated there had been four previous requests put before his predecessor.

“Is there a role in the Home Office for him?” Bennett ventured. “Not the Brethren, necessarily,” he spoke on a rush. “But some other assignment, elsewhere.”

Stitching his eyebrows, Nathaniel scrutinized the younger man. Methodical, efficient, and wholly dedicated to the Brethren, he’d never before shown a weakness. “You know the gentleman?”

Bennett turned his palms up. “He was a classmate at Eton. Clever. Mocked by other classmates for being too clever. Quiet.”

“And yet, he was interviewed by the Home Office and found unsuitable for a post within that division?” Dismissively, he set the file aside. “If they are not fit for the post of agent, they are not suitable for any role within the Home Office.” Nathaniel grabbed his pen. Dipping it in the crystal inkwell, he proceeded to cross off the twelve candidates he’d reviewed that day.

Bennett drummed his fingertips on the arms of his chair. “You rule solely by the articles of the organization.”

“There is no other way.” Nathaniel sprinkled pounce upon the wet ink and then blew. He had given more than two decades to the Brethren and then inherited the rank of leadership within it. The secret agency was more than just another division within the Home Office. Where other men had sweethearts, wives, or children, the Brethren had come to be his everything—his life. His skin pricked with the feel of the other man’s eyes on him and he looked up.

“Sometimes… there is… more to a person, a case,” Bennett nudged his chin at Quimbly’s discarded file. “A candidate.”

His assistant spoke with a candidness Nathaniel appreciated, and also an experience of an agent twenty years his senior. Those attributes had shown through at his interview and were the reason he had made Bennett his assistant. “There may be,” he acknowledged. “But duty before all. The organization—”

“Comes first,” Bennett supplied. It was a credo that had been passed down for centuries. “Oh, lest I forget. I have another candidate for you to review.” Leaning down, he fetched a folder from under his seat and rested it on Nathaniel’s desk. “He is not one of the King’s picks. I came across his credentials at the bottom of the pile.”

Intrigued, Nathaniel looked to the folder in question. After Bennett had taken his leave, Nathaniel stacked the folders of rejected candidates; countless men whom the King would exert his influence to see staffed within the Brethren. He flexed his jaw.

A once elite organization that had existed for too long with outdated rules of governance, when he’d taken over the helm, the Brethren had been nearly defunct. It had been a group within the Home Office in dire need of restructuring and modernization. And that is precisely what he’d spent these past two years doing: rebuilding so that his influence was everywhere. From the manner of missions undertaken by agents to threats to the Crown and crimes against the peerage to the rules of governance. He’d rewritten the articles that guided the organization, systematically interviewed, and then dismissed agents who’d proven unreliable over the years, and kept on only the finest—a handful of men and women who’d not a single mistake to their career. Hiring and keeping on agents who were clever-minded, unswervingly loyal people with a like drive to ensure the security and prosperity of Crown and country.

His work would not be complete until the Brethren was restored to its former glory.

Nathaniel sighed.

Removing his reading spectacles, he tossed the wire frames down and they landed atop that stack of leather folios with a quiet thump. Time inevitably changed all: everyone and everything. However, it had been vastly… easier when the King had not interfered with the business of the Brethren.

Nathaniel again rolled his stiff shoulders and, donning his glasses, examined the file left by Bennett. He proceeded to read through the accolades and accomplishments of Mr. Colin Lockhart.

One of London’s finest Bow Street Runners and a bastard-born son of a duke—a duke who’d not written a letter on the man’s behalf. Intrigued for the first time since he’d begun his evaluation for future members of the organization, Nathaniel leaned forward.

Not long ago, the only men and women afforded a place within the noble ranks of the Brethren had been lords and ladies born to power and privilege. When he, the first man born without a title, only having been bestowed one for acts of heroism, had ascended to the head of the organization, he’d instituted a shift within those considered for the vacancies that arose. The men working as Runners demonstrated far more grit, and a greater grasp of the types of cases the Brethren undertook.

Wetting the tip of his index finger, he turned to the next sheet of vellum that enumerated Lockhart’s impressive list of closed cases.

A knock sounded at the door.

“Enter,” he called, not bothering to look up from his examination of Lockhart’s credentials.

“My lord,” Bennett’s voice slashed into the quiet. “Fergus Macleod arrived a short while ago.”

“Macleod?” Silently cursing, Nathaniel glanced over to the longcase clock. Bloody hell. Forgetting a damned meeting. He was getting old. There was no other accounting for it.

His assistant coughed into his hand. “Would you rather Lord Fitzwalter see to the appointment?”

“No. No,” he said hurriedly. Lord Fitzwalter had been appointed by Nathaniel as the Delegator. There were few men he trusted more. Regardless of how many hours worked or appointments seen to, Nathaniel’s duty and responsibility to the Brethren always came first. Why did that leave him oddly restless? “Show him in,” he instructed. Mayhap it was the parade of younger men, all who served as reminders of the passage of time, and the expectations he’d once had for his own life… after he’d retired from the Brethren.

The nearly silent fall of Bennett’s footsteps, and the click of the door, indicated the other man had gone.

Macleod was the most recent addition to the Brethren. A young man born the third son of a Scottish earl, he had spent the better part of a year undergoing training in the Bristol countryside. Today, he’d receive his fourth task and would enter the world as a member of the Brethren, carrying out assignments for Crown and country. When Nathaniel had taken over the role of head of the Brethren, that had been the first change he’d implemented: in addition to the regular meeting with all agents of the Brethren, he demanded private appointments with his youngest recruits. It was then that Nathaniel was able to ascertain their readiness for a mission.

So that no one ever made the same mistakes he had.

After successfully completing a handful of assignments as a young man of under twenty, Nathaniel had developed a brash confidence that had seen him captured and nearly dead for his missteps. Sitting down with two Irish radicals he’d been charged with investigating, he’d drunk deeply of drugged ale they’d procured. And it cost you far more than your life…

Lady Victoria Tremaine’s heart-shaped visage slid forward.

“Are you always this arrogant, Mr. Archer…?”

That teasing husky-contralto rang in his head as clear now as when that spirited young woman of years ago had breathed them against his lips.

His fingers tightened reflexively upon the page. He slid his gaze over to the misshapen circle upon the top of his hand. Unmoving, Nathaniel stared at the hated mark there.

“If you move, it’ll only go worse for you…”

“No. Please… noooooo…” Screams of long ago blended the past with the present.

Fear licked at the edges of his senses, driving back the joyous memories he’d had with Victoria, and leaving darkness in its place. Nathaniel gave his head a firm shake and wrenched his focus away from the marks made by his captors. If he had been less cocksure, he’d never have been captured. He’d have returned and she’d have been there waiting.

His throat worked.

Abandoning Lockhart’s file, he sat back and stretched his arms out to his sides. His body protested that sudden movement and he smoothed his features to conceal the agony rolling through him in waves. A well-placed dagger by the ruthless radicals, Fox and Hunter, saw Nathaniel suffering all these years later. Still, his work for the Brethren had long ago drummed into him and all the members the need to conceal any hint of pain or suffering. Weakness could be used against a man. Hadn’t he learned that firsthand during his captivity? His palms grew moist. The problem was, the moment he allowed Fox and Hunter to get hold of his thoughts, they held on with a tenacious control.

Do not think of them… do not think of them… you are master of your memories…

Except this time, they’d slipped too far in and could not be so easily silenced. A cold sweat popped up on his brow as his torturers, the two long-dead Irish radicals, fought for control of his thoughts.

“You have anyone you are missing, Archer? Ah, I see you, do.” Fox guffawed with laughter. “A sweetheart, I’m thinking. A pretty English lady. We can find her, Hunter. I wager she’ll prove useful to us…”

“No,” Nathaniel rasped, fighting against his bindings. The cords cut into his already bruised and bleeding flesh. “I’ll kill you both. I’ll—ahhh… my God, no. Please, nooo.”

His tortured screams of long ago peeling around his mind, Nathaniel curled his nails into the leather arms of his chair, willing those demons gone.

He briefly closed his eyes and concentrated on drawing in steadying breaths—until his past faded, and he was left with the same hollow emptiness that had greeted him upon his return. To the time when he’d learned the only woman he’d loved had married in his absence.

Damn you, Victoria. Damn you for not waiting…

And damn him for not having made peace with her decision.

“Enough,” he muttered. Even as he despised the still-present ruefulness and pain of years ago, both served as an eternal reminder of not only what he’d lost, but the need for… “Clarity and focus,” he breathed, needing that oath spoken aloud.

Or is that simply a creed you now ingrain into young men and women, the way it was pressed upon you?

Footsteps sounded in the hall and he slackened the death-grip he had on his seat.

Bennett opened the door, admitting Macleod. “Do you require anything else, my lord?”

Lifting a hand in declination, he thanked his assistant. “That will be all.”

Even after Bennett backed out of the room, the young agent remained stoically silent at the entrance, his envelope in hand.

“Macleod.” Nathaniel came to his feet, grateful for the focus that his work had always demanded. His missions had gotten him through the hell of those two years… and then the pain that had greeted him upon his return to London. “Please join me,” he urged, motioning the younger man over.

Tall, not even a hint of a scar marring the sharp planes of his face, with the excitement brimming in his eyes, Fergus Macleod may as well have been a replica of Nathaniel when he’d first been made a member of the Brethren. “My lord,” the dark-clad agent dropped a respectful bow and took one of the indicated seats.

Reclaiming his chair, Nathaniel steepled his fingers before him. “I understand your first year has been largely a success.” It was a statement, not intended as a question, meant to gauge the other man’s confidence.

Macleod gave no outward reaction to that handful of words.

When he’d been of a like age, Nathaniel had thrived on the praise and commendations bestowed upon him. Having been the spare to his brother’s heir, he’d always placed pressure upon himself to establish his place in a world ordered by rank and title. Macleod, however, revealed none of that same hunger.

Good.

That lack of approval from others would serve him well. A member of the Brethren didn’t work for a man—not even the King—but rather, for the good of England.

“You have received your fourth assignment,” he segued to the reason for the younger man’s presence.

“I have.” Those two, flawlessly delivered syllables spoke of Macleod’s affluent origins and family’s influence.

Arching an eyebrow, Nathaniel extended a palm. Leaning forward, Macleod handed him that envelope written in Fitzwalter’s hand. He paused, his gaze caught upon the sapphire seal: the fierce lions rearing protectively about the Crown remained the same symbol that had been used by the first men who’d formed the Brethren long, long ago. All that had changed was the ink’s color, as selected by the man who served as Sovereign. “Well?” he asked, reaching for his glasses.

“A murder investigation, my lord.”

“A murder investigation?” he echoed.

Macleod nodded. “The incident in question took place inside the Coaxing Tom.”

“Ahh.” Through the years the Brethren had their eye on the Coaxing Tom, a den where suspicious activity was frequently carried out.

Their organization was one that had seen members of the Brethren embroiled in precarious missions all over Europe. They’d secured intelligence to help end battles and wars with some of the most ruthless leaders all over the globe. Over the years, the Brethren had also begun to take on investigations into the murders and suicides of kings, princes, or distinguished lords—but only as they connected to plots against the Crown.

Shifting the envelope, Nathaniel shoved his spectacles back on and skimmed the file.

“It involves the murder of a viscount,” Macleod explained, his cool tones as casual as one discussing London’s weather, and not the ruthless death of a nobleman. “He was discovered with his neck slashed and his belly slit up to his heart.”

In his five and forty years, however, Nathaniel had known too many drunken nobles who’d risk life and limb for the forbidden pleasures of those streets. “Is there reason to believe the victim had links to treasonous activity?”

“It is my understanding from Lord Fitzwalter,” the younger man explained, “that the gentleman was in quite deep to a number of men; members of the peerage and… dregs from the Dials.”

A murder case only, then. It hardly mattered what type of man the nobleman had been while living. The Brethren served Crown and country. As such, it was their responsibility to uncover anyone who would orchestrate or conduct the killing of—

He turned the page abruptly and stopped.

Macleod’s voice droned on and on, as Nathaniel stared at the ivory vellum.

Chester Barrett, Viscount Waters.

That single name, inked in black and underlined as was done with all victims and suspects, stood out stark at the top of the sheet. Numb, he moved his gaze over the detailed biography of the murdered lord, bypassing the gruesome details, searching, searching… and finding—

Widow

Lady Victoria Barrett, the Viscountess Waters, age three and forty. Mother to three: the Duchess of Huntly, the Marchioness of Rutland, and Andrew Barrett, Viscount Waters. Respected member of the peerage…

All these years, he’d faced death so many times. But he struggled on and survived a heartbreak far greater than the blades and bullets he’d taken. He’d believed himself immune to the pain of seeing her name.

Nay… her name, linked with another man’s.

Another man’s when it should have been me.

But then, he’d given up that right with every mission that had taken him away from her. He’d known that every time he’d slipped out of her room and life that was the risk he’d faced. That logical understanding had never made the agony of it any less.

“There are suspicions the murderer was, in fact, the man’s son, Andrew Barrett, now Viscount Waters…” Macleod was saying. That perfunctory statement brought Nathaniel whirring back to the moment.

“What?” he asked on a quiet whisper. Victoria’s son was the leading suspect? His gut clenched. Bloody, bloody hell.

“A case of patricide, Your Grace,” Macleod needlessly clarified, misinterpreting the reason for Nathaniel’s horror.

“The murder took place…” He scanned the document. “Two months ago.” And only now had an investigation been undertaken?

The other man cleared his throat. “Safest way to flesh out a criminal. It is—”

“—through a sense of false calm,” he cut in, impatiently. Having born, bled, and lived the Brethren for six and twenty years, he well-knew the oldest of the credos that served as the foundation of the organization. “I believe I’m acquainted enough with the rules of organization,” he added, infusing a false drollness into his retort, when inside his world was ratcheting down about him.

I’ll have to see her again.

Victoria, the only woman he’d ever loved. He’d given his heart to her and, in his absence, she’d found another. And now that gentleman lay dead with Nathaniel’s agents responsible for the investigation into the murder.

Macleod’s cheeks fired red. “Forgive me.”

Waving off the apology, Nathan urged the investigator on. “The Barrett case.” He dragged forth a lifetime of experience in subterfuge to deliver those three words so calmly.

“Yes, of course. Fighting was heard between the two on the gaming floors. The witnesses who were interviewed claim it was over a whore, but recent research into the murder revealed the younger Barrett’s outrage over the family’s finances.” His earlier ease and confidence restored, Macleod flipped through the notebook in his hand. As he searched his papers and provided details about his case, Nathaniel sought to focus his thoughts.

This is just another case. He’d encountered enough gruesome murders and violent attacks and underhanded schemes, where this was just another. Or it should be. His heart thudded a peculiar beat and he stared on at the man, casually turning the pages of that book.

By God, I am the Sovereign; leader of the Brethren, required to be nothing but calm and level-headed.

But then, he never had been logical where Victoria Cadence Tremaine had been concerned. Her hold, all these years later, was as strong as in their youth.

“Waters’ throat was slashed and he was gutted.” Another man would have been chilled by the horrific recounting. He’d witnessed far more horrific sights than the one being described before him now. Instead, Macleod’s telling snapped Nathaniel back to his familiar role of superior.

“A robbery?” he asked, hopefully. When one visited the dregs of London, those were, after all, the risks one took.

“Not a single scrap or purse was even lifted from the room,” Macleod explained.

Bloody, bloody hell. He’d not ascended to the rank of Sovereign by accepting the most obvious clues. “Most noblemen’s sons hate their fathers and find themselves in debt.” Hadn’t his late, noble sire left his family in the very same straits? “Why should the Waters heir be any different?”

Macleod pointed to his forehead. “The markings carved on his face and body, Your Grace.”

Frowning, Nathaniel dropped his gaze and flipped through the file.

“Left him so there couldn’t even be a formal viewing of the body.”

Nathaniel skimmed the report. This remote, emotionless discourse about case details may have been any other official exchange. Only, this was not any other nobleman or noblewoman’s child. This was Victoria’s son. A son who belonged to another man… who now lay dead.

“The assailant carved ‘adulterer’, ‘whoremonger’, ‘drunk’, and ‘reprobate’ on different parts of him.”

Spectacles slipping, Nathaniel pushed them back into place and found those details. Yes, no whore or simple street thug would waste their time and risk discovery by desecrating a fancy lord’s dead body. Nor would they leave a purse—he paused—regardless of how few coins were in it. As Macleod’s voice droned on, Nathaniel lingered his gaze upon the accounting of Waters’ body.

Whoremonger… drunk… adulterer… reprobate…

They were just words. Yet, they were words that described the man Victoria had wed. His stomach muscles contracted painfully. For all the time resenting that she’d married another, he’d only ever wanted her happy. You deserved so much more than this fool who’d met his end in the arms of a whore. Not that Nathaniel had ever been worthy of her, either. But she’d certainly belonged with a man who loved, honored, and cherished her.

“The boy’s a pup,” Macleod went on. “I expect with little effort I’ll have a confession from him.”

“A pup who, if your suspicions are accurate, and the evidence gathered thus indicates, is capable of murder,” he pointed out. A flush mottled the other man’s cheeks. Such a statement on Macleod’s part spoke to his ability to falter. As I myself did. Back when the Fox and Hunter, Irish radicals, had captured him and attempted to torture the secrets from him. Gone too many months, life had carried on without him a part of it, and the one person he’d loved, forever lost to him.

“You are correct, my lord. I’ll not underestimate Waters’ capabilities.”

The boy already had. Setting aside the file, he held Macleod’s gaze. “Where is the late viscount’s wife living?”

Befuddlement flashed in Macleod’s eyes. “The viscountess?” He scratched his brow. “Hadn’t considered her as a suspect. I will add her to my queries.”

Rage burned through him and he modulated his tone. “Do not presume a question that wasn’t asked from my lips,” he said on a steely whisper.

The color bled from Macleod’s cheeks. “Aye. Of course.” He yanked at his cravat, rumpling the silk. “My apologies, my lord. Viscountess Waters is currently residing in her Grosvenor Square townhouse with her son.”

Something foreign, something unpleasant, something he’d not felt since the day he’d escaped the Fox and Hunter’s clutches, stirred deep inside—fear. Victoria now lived with a man suspected of murder. Her son, and yet also a gentleman, who, by the early reports, was responsible for killing his own father.

“With your ability to sneak about, Nathaniel, I expect when we have babes of our own, they’ll have little hope of securing any successful hiding places…”

He absently rubbed that place a bullet had pierced his chest. She’d been within her rights to marry Waters. The moment Nathaniel had been captured, days turned over to weeks, and weeks into months, and months into years, and he’d still held out hope that she would be there—waiting. That hope had sustained him when the blissful ease of death had beckoned. Through every lash and blow he’d suffered at his captor’s brutal hands, and the agony of being starved and deprived of drink, she had been the dream he’d clung to. His mouth twisted into a macabre rendition of a smile.

Only to return and find her gone to him—wed to another, mother to one.

Since his return, he’d lost himself in his work and forced all memories of Victoria Tremaine into the distant, far corners of his brain; a place never to be accessed.

Macleod cleared his throat. “Are you all—?”

Nathaniel subdued that query with a hard, narrow-eyed stare. A mottled flush marred the other man’s cheeks and he swiftly lowered his gaze. One didn’t question the Sovereign on the state of his wellness. Not without casting aspersions upon his character and worth. Then, neither would the Sovereign sit here lamenting what had once been and all he’d lost. “You’re dismissed, Macleod.”

Revealing the second crack in his control, Macleod jumped up with alacrity. “My lord,” he murmured, dropping a deferential bow. He waited, his gaze trained on the pages still clasped within Nathaniel’s hand.

Nathaniel followed his stare, and made to hand the assignment back over. To turn over Victoria and her family… “You are dismissed from this case,” he clarified.

The younger agent turned ashen.

Of course, to be removed from a mission could only ever be interpreted as a failing on one’s part. “I will see you placed on another case, instead. You’ll receive the details tomorrow morn.” He made a silent point to speak first thing to Fitzwalter regarding a new post. “This matter, however,” he lifted the envelope, “belongs to another,” he said, offering Macleod more explanation than he’d have given most others.

Guilt knocked around inside. You, who’ve prided yourself on conducting each mission with the utmost integrity, should think nothing of your history with the suspect’s mother…

Questions reflected in the other man’s eyes. However, he quickly shuttered them. “Thank you, my lord.”

“You are excused,” he said briskly, eager to be rid of the agent.

Offering another bow, his most recent spy took his leave.

As soon as he’d closed the door behind him, Nathaniel returned his focus to Viscount Waters’ murder. “Bennett,” he called.

His assistant instantly appeared in the doorway. “My lord?” The young man had an uncanny ability to anticipate when his presence was required.

Nathaniel held up the folder he’d lifted from Macleod. “The Waters murder. Why is this the first I’m learning of it?” He’d trust his life and England in the other man’s hands. However, not even he knew of Victoria Tremaine. No one had.

Bennett furrowed his brow. “I trust that is a question reserved for Lord Fitzwalter.”

Of course it was. He cursed his muddled mind.

“I want Macleod reassigned,” he finally said.

Removing a small notepad and pencil from his jacket, Bennett scratched several notes onto that page. “I’ll provide him with another assignment.” He continued writing. “Do you have someone in mind for the Waters case?”

Nathaniel nodded tightly. “I do.”

Bennett paused and glanced up, expectantly.

“Me,” he said grimly.

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