Ghost of a Chance

Kestrel MacRae survived the last five years in London living in hovels and in the dens of thieves. She can fleece a purse without making a sound and smile when she’s stealing bread. But when she picks the pocket of Devon Trevelyan, Kestrel enters a sophisticated world where words have double meanings, secrets become lies exposed, and trust is a matter of convenience. Devon fights to keep her with him, but will the truth tear them apart or will his dream become reality?

Ghost of a Chance – Kindle edition by Lynne, Tricia. Romance Kindle eBooks @

A blinding fog obscured the isolated edge of Islington Heath and cast the verdant leaves of the high ash trees into dark gray shadow. A bone-seeping chill blanketed the coming dawn, almost ensuring no one would venture out into the wet, miserable weather for an early morning walk. No one would stumble through the rocky trails to get to this hollow of mossy grass for a chance meeting or an intimate liaison. No one would venture into this secluded spot unless he had an appointment with death.
Devon Trevelyan squinted through the silvery mist into the black thicket of trees. He shivered against the cold and cast a wary glance around the circumference of the heath. It was damned inconvenient weather for a duel, especially when one couldn’t see a hand in front of one’s face.
The rattle of wheels split the silence. Devon whirled his horse toward the noise, seeing the red and gold seal of the Berkshire coat of arms through the haze. At the sight of his brother’s carriage, dread washed over him.
For the thousandth time that morn, he wished he had spent more time practicing his aim with pistols instead of an aim of another kind with a willing chambermaid. Mayhap, instead of the Duke of Marlborough, he could have served as Trevor’s second or he could have issued the challenge himself.
He dismounted and led his horse into the shadowy copse tying the reins to a tree before making his way over to the coach. The door opened, and Trevor jumped unaided to the ground. Gazing at his brother’s broad frame, another bolt of fear spiked through Devon. Dueling was illegal. If caught, his brother would be fined or locked in the Tower. For Trevor, one of Charles Stuart’s greatest spies, the price was high. But then, so was the cause.
Picturing their sister’s tortured face, Devon’s fingers clenched. If only he could wrap them around her husband’s throat and squeeze until Montigue breathed his last. But Trevor had spent years in the king’s army and could hit his target with a pistol from a half league away. The Duke of Marlborough followed Trevor from the coach, his swarthy face grave. He said something and slapped his brother on the back. At the sound of Devon’s footsteps, both men whirled.
Trevor’s cheeks reddened. “What in the hell are you doing here? Why aren’t you with Isobel?”
“You could not stop me from coming.” Devon met Trevor’s gaze head-on. “I need to be here.”
To see the bastard fall. Devon’s gut twisted anew. He alone knew the truth of what Isobel had endured the last two years of her marriage. She’d only told Trevor bits and pieces of it. She had been terrified Trevor would return to France and shoot the bastard, and then King Louis would hold an inquisition as to how the heir to one of France’s greatest fortunes had ended up floating down the Seine with a pistol ball lodged in his skull.
Instead, Trevor had insisted a duel in the predawn was the civilized way to deal with Montigue’s perfidy. Especially when the man had accused them of kidnapping their own sister. That Henri Montigue wanted Isobel returned to him only fed Devon’s rage.
“Damned fog,” Trevor cocked the hammer on his flintlock. He squinted down the field and aimed before he lowered the pistol. He shot Devon a look that cut to the bone. “Belike she needs you, and you left her alone.”
Devon flinched. They were the same words he told himself after he had found Isobel at the Palais-Royal. She had turned into a thin, frail shadow of her former self, afraid of every noise made, every casual touch. She had even shrunk from him, and the memory still shattered him.
The Berkshire coach rolled behind the trees, disappearing in the mist. Inside was the family physician in case the unthinkable occurred. Through the gloaming, a figure dressed in black ambled toward them. Devon’s breath caught. Montigue. Is it Montigue? Beside him, Trevor tensed.
“I’m not asking you, Dev.” Trevor thrust his pistol into his belt. “I’m telling you. Leave. This is no place for a boy.”
“Bugger off.” Devon snapped, his fingers clenching into fists. He took a breath trying to replace fury with reasonable calm. “You need me, Trev. You cannot see—”
He broke off as Henri Montigue’s slight frame emerged through the vapor. Dressed in elegant French fashion, Montigue looked as if he had an appointment with King Louis instead of one on a dueling field. His brother Robert walked by his side.
Seeing the man’s arrogant sneer, all thought of rational calm fled. Isobel’s stricken face flashed before him. Devon jumped and knocked him to the ground, hammering his fists against Robert’s flesh. Bone cracked, and Devon wound his fingers around the man’s neck. He was going to rip the bastard’s head off with his bare hands—He was going to—
Trevor and Marlborough tore him off. Trevor shoved him, and he stumbled back against a rotting branch, landing hard against a tree trunk.
“You bloody lack-wit!” Trevor exploded. “This is why I wanted you to stay home!”
Devon gazed past Trevor’s shoulder. Henri bent over Robert, his angular face drawn, lips tight. Blood ran down Robert’s chin. Whether from his nose or mouth, Devon couldn’t tell. His own knuckles stung, but he did not care.
Henri straightened, his furious gaze running over Devon’s face. “I shall kill you for that.”
“Then let’s get on with it.” Trevor interjected, “Unless you want to make this as uncivilized as my brother wishes it to be? I take it he is your second?”
Trevor gestured to Robert, who staggered to his feet and swiped the blood dripping off his chin. He met Devon’s gaze with a sneer and palmed his sword before he turned away.
“Oui, Berkshire. He is just as eager as I am to have my wife return home.”
Devon jumped to his feet, intending to strangle the man with his bare hands. Marlborough caught his arm. “He means to make Trevor reckless. Leave your brother to it. He is a master.”
Devon sucked in a breath. Mayhap, but Trevor didn’t understand the meaning of that taunt. Marlborough dropped his hand. After a check of their weapons, Marlborough gave the consent. “Twenty paces. I shall start the count now. One…”
Devon exhaled an unsteady breath. His chest felt as if it were being bludgeoned by his heart. No one could see past their own arm in this shroud. Already his brother’s back had disappeared.
Robert Montigue disappeared into the soup. Suspicion snaked down Devon’s spine. His fingers curled around the cold butt of his pistol, and he took off after Robert.
“Fifteen…” Marlborough’s gravelly voice cut through the fog. Bits of Robert’s black cloak flashed through the murk.
Robert cast a look over his shoulder and Devon melted into the trees. ‘twas dangerous to be here; one of Trevor’s balls could hit him. But, according to Isobel, the Montigues had no honor. They fought dirty. Fought to win.
Behind him, a twig snapped. Devon jumped. Cold sweat broke over him, and his fingers slipped on the metal. He gripped the pistol butt hard, trying to control their shaking. Trevor was his best friend. If anything happened to Trevor….
The counting stopped. An eerie silence fell over the heath. In the distance, a wild chorus of horse hooves filled the space, along with a riot of coach wheels. Muffled shouts broke the silence. Devon whirled, squinting through the shadowy copse.
Bloody hell! We’ve been caught!
Time slowed as if unfolding in a nightmare. Through the haze, Henri Montigue raised his pistol. Fear spurting through him, Devon fumbled for his flintlock, aimed at Montigue. Montigue jerked, his flintlock fell from his fingers, and he crumpled to the ground. Robert pivoted. Recognition flashed across his face. He gave Devon a sinister grin and lifted his pistol. The bullet whizzed past Devon’s shoulder. Another blast came through the fog. With a scream, Robert fell, clutching his leg.
Soldiers spilled through the trees onto the heath. Numb with shock, Devon melted into the copse swallowing bile. He had to find Trevor. This is Henri’s Montigue’s fault, all of it. This duel, Isobel’s abuse. If anyone should rot in the tower, it should be Montigue.
“Devon, this way, hurry,” His sister’s gaunt face appeared through the mist, her tawny eyes wide, her heart-shaped face bloodless.
Shocked, he gaped at her. “What in the bloody hell are you doing here?”
“Never you mind,” She snatched his hand and pushed him deeper into the trees. “We have to go.”
“Blast it Izzy, my horse—”
She grabbed his arm, pulling her with him. “We don’t have time, come on!”
Shaking the fuzz from his brain, he caught her icy hand in his and raced toward Islington Road. Through a lattice of branches, he spied a plain brown hackney. They darted toward it and scrambled in. Devon shouted for the coachman to drive, still trying to reconcile the fact Isobel was here in the flesh and not safe at home. If Montigue had known….
A tremor went through him, and he started to shake. “Trevor—”
Isobel shook her head. “He’s gone. The coach left.”
A few tendrils of hair escaped from their pins and slid down her shoulders, and she shuddered. “I saw it.”
His breath caught. “Saw what?”
The horror played across Isobel’s face. Devon crumpled inside. He felt as if he were dissolving into a puddle of bubbling ash. If Montigue had caught her, Devon might not have ever seen her again. He reached for her, and she sagged into him. Isobel did not cry. He closed his eyes against the tears pressing his lids. He was supposed to have stayed with her. Kept her safe. Instead he had failed in his duty to protect her, failed to keep his word.
They arrived at Westleigh at a record pace. Trevor met them at the gate, his face ablaze with fury.
“It’s done, no thanks to you.” He gave Devon a hard shove. Hard enough that Devon lost his footing and landed on his arse on the pavement. “You will have to leave England. You killed the bloody bastard. Now Cromwell will have your head on a pike.”
“Leave?” Isobel grabbed Trevor’s arm. “Where will he go? What will he do? He’s sixteen. He can not—”
“Italy. We leave for the Continent within the hour.” Without another word, his brother stalked past him, leaving him sitting in the driveway alone.

Chapter 1

September, 1664

“Bloody hell, you little wench! You picked my pocket!” Through the crowd, a bejeweled hand caught Kestrel’s grimy wrist in a viselike grip as the morning sun peered over St. Paul’s spire. Her mind went numb with shock. She, Kestrel Sinclair MacRae, self-proclaimed one of the best pickpockets in London, caught like a fly in a spider web. Her stomach twisted. She gasped and met the burning gaze of her captor.
“God’s bones!” She’d prigged the angel Gabriel by mistake. A vision of heaven dripping with golden lace, his facial features structured straight from a Rubens painting, turned her blood to ice.
“I dinnae do it, my lord, I dinnae!”
“Aye, your fingers were in my pocket!” the man growled. Proving to be no angel, he wrapped one arm around her waist, jerked her to him, and pinned her arms against his broad chest. He slid one hand into the folds of her ragged skirt. His fingers skimmed her thighs. His palm ran over her hips, crossing over her stomach. Kestrel sucked down a panicked breath. She tried to move and could barely wiggle her hips.
“I dinnae touch ye, I swear it.” Her words came out a garbled mess against his waistcoat.
Ignoring her, he found the rough strings she’d tied to her chemise and gave them a hard yank. Four silk purses brushed her calves, landing with a plop at her feet. Icy fear shot through her. “Sod off, ye filthy pisser! Keep yer bloody hands to yerself! Let me go!”
“Not ‘til I see what else you’re hiding.” His fingers slid over the bare skin of her inner thighs. She pushed against him trying to move. The scent of sandalwood filled her nose, making her head spin. His shoulders tensed. With another jerk, he withdrew the small dagger strapped to her calf. In one quick movement, he had her weapon sheathed into his own belt. “Aren’t we the fierce one?” He gave her a surprised glance, his grip on her waist tightening.
Kestrel started to shake. For years, she’d suffered on the dirty streets trying to save enough gold to return to Scotland. Twenty crowns more and she’d have enough for a fare. Now… now…I’ll be hung. Horror crawled through her stealing her breath. The calls of costermongers and fruit sellers and the rumble of dray carts and coaches turned into a dim roar.
“What’s amiss, Devon?” A satin-clad dandy appeared next to them. His shrewd gaze ran over her and then her captor. She recognized him as one of her earlier victims, and the knot of terror inside of her splintered apart. Trying to gather her wits, she sucked in a breath. Ye’ve been caught before. Think. Dinnae feel. Think.
“Your purse, Trevor,” He reached under her skirt and then threw his companion the wine-colored bag with his other hand. “I noticed her lurking by the poultry carts in Throgmorton Street.”
“’Twas not lurking, you muddle-headed fool. ‘twas buying a chicken, I was.” She lifted her chin.
His gaze wandered over her breasts. “Where did you stuff the poor fowl? Under your chemise with the purses? I don’t recall feeling one dangling between your thighs. If I had, I’m sure I would have noted it.”
Aiming for his crotch, she kicked him, hitting his knee instead. Swearing, he spun her around until her back hit the hard wall of his stomach.
“Don’t even try to escape, you little thief. You aren’t going anywhere.”
The man called Trevor surveyed her, shaking his dark head. “She’s just a child, leave off.”
“Obviously, children steal,” Her captor pulled her against him, and moved, nodding to her purloined purses lying in the street. “You might want to get those. And then there is this.”
He flashed the necklace along with a few coins he’d taken from her pocket, the evidence glinting between his fingers.
“She’s a little girl!” Trevor chided, his gaze running over her from head to toe before he bent to retrieve her bounty.
“They’ll hang her even so. Stealing is a crime.”
A small crowd gathered around them.
“Newgate is filled with such thieves.” Trevor’s dark eyes held a glint of sad resignation. “We should turn her over to the beadles or St. Margaret’s. They’ll deal with her there.”
She caught her breath, noting her captor’s high cheekbones, his strong square jaw, and the golden stubble dotting it. The man’s tawny gaze met hers. A hint of hesitation flashed in the golden depths before his jaw hardened.
He turned toward his brother. “Oh, aye, why not just hand over your purse and be done with it? You were complaining the other day that an honest man couldn’t walk the streets without being nipped. If we let her go she’ll do it again, you know it. Someone call the watch.”
He gazed past her shoulder. “You boy, I’ll give you a shilling to do it.”
“Aye, yer worship,” The boy disappeared into the crowd.
Kestrel inhaled a panic-stricken breath. Her mother’s pleading eyes flashed before her. If she went to Newgate, she’d never get to Scotland. Never clear her father’s name from the treasonous charge against him. Alasdair MacRae would always be remembered as the Scot who betrayed their king, while she would hang at Tyburn, or die from typhus with the rest of the criminals, her promise to her ’maman broken. She glanced around for an escape. The narrow streets of Cheapside were crowded even at this early hour. Hawkers, costermongers, and flower sellers flooded the dirty streets. Farmers from the country brought in overflowing vegetable carts, while city dwellers searched the thoroughfares, eager for a bargain. She spied a dim alleyway, its slim curve disappearing into the darkness. I can bloody well disappear in there. Her heart kicked up a notch.
“You can’t save all of London, Trev. It just doesn’t bloody work.” Her captor’s face flooded with bitterness. “Have Parliament petition the king for more gold for the poor, if you are so inclined.”
“As if there’s any gold to be had.” His brother snorted. Backing toward the curb, he motioned them out of the middle of the road.
The blond pushed her toward the front glass of Grant’s Apothecary. “Look at her; she’s a scrawny little thing. At least they’ll feed her in Newgate.”
He turned toward her, his jaw hard. “‘Tis far better for you to go to prison than taste the hangman’s noose. At least you’ll be warm in there.”
She tried to yank away from his hold. “Bugger off, you—”
A shrill scream exploded from the White Dog tavern’s doorway. Around her, the crowd scrambled toward the building. Without hesitation, she sank her teeth into her captor’s wrist. With a curse, he let go.
She fled down the lane toward the alley, pushing through a cluster of coaches clogging the curb. Cobblestones slick from the morning rain and mud made her path treacherous. She scrambled under a waiting hackney, startling the horses. Her lungs burned, her breath clogging her throat. I cannae be caught. I cannae!
She’d slept in too many sludge-filled alleys, too many cold cement doorways, and manure-filled stalls to fail. She ran past the fragrant shops of the flower sellers onto Paternoster Row, pushing through three splendidly outfitted women carrying bags. Ignoring their screams, she forged ahead, hearing only the roaring of her heart, seeing nothing but her ’maman’s pleading eyes. She cast a furtive glance behind. Her captor followed his face a mask of determination.
She reached the alley and ducked into the shadows, running through horse dung and refuse. Out of nowhere, Kestrel was tackled from behind and hit the ground. Murky sludge filled her mouth; the cobblestones scraped her elbows. Hard fingers bit into her shoulders. The man hauled her to her feet, whirling her to face him. He was not at all soft and thin, but wiry and taut, strung like a hemp rope. Glaring, she spat the muck at him.
“Mayhap you should be hanged!” He growled, his breath moist on her face, his fingers digging into her flesh.
Kestrel gasped. How dare he? His privilege should have been hers. Her father had fought for the king in the Rebellion and had been knighted for his service. Yet this man had never shivered in the cold, or had to fight whores and coney-catchers for a bit of food, or sleep in fetid alleys. Wanting to tear away every inch of his finery, Kestrel sprang at him. “Dirty Sassenach!”
She clawed his face, yanked his hair, screaming every swear word she’d ever heard from the Parisian back alleyways to the Highland shipyards, and the slums in London. Beyond reason, she socked him in the eye, and then kicked him hard in the bollocks.
With a groan, he dropped to his knees, gasping. Kestrel whirled, scrambling toward the street. Still panting, he grabbed her ankle pulling hard. She fell backward, landing arse first before he toppled on top of her.
“Stop, you little heathen,” He took a deep pull of air, his heaving breaths matching the rhythm of hers. His fingers curled around her wrists, his face burying in to her neck. She panted beneath him, her energy spent. He stumbled upright, clutching her upper arm in a fierce grip as he hauled her to her feet.
Her hair fell in wild tangles in front of her face. Through the strands, she gazed at the lines of blood trickling down the man’s chin onto his velvet waistcoat. His hair hung in wild disarray down his back. Now he was hardly the picture of the archangel she’d first thought him to be and more like a fallen demon.
Next to them, his brother skidded to a halt, his eyes darting from Kestrel to her attacker. “Wouldn’t it have been easier just to let her go?”
“Last time I let a thief go, I was bashed over the head and nearly drowned in the Grand Canal for my charity.” With force, he pinned her arms behind her back, then shoved her toward his brother. “In my experience, age does not matter, nor does sex.”
Kestrel stumbled back against the other man’s chest. With effort, she elbowed him in the ribs.
“You were sixteen and knew no Italian.”
“Does it matter? A thief is still a thief.” He slipped his hands into her cloak. Through the folds of her dress, he removed another gold timepiece, two diamond earbobs, and a small smattering of coins. Her captor dangled the timepiece from its chain, before handing the heirloom to his brother. “Here is great-grandfather’s watch. Didn’t Father give that to you on your eighteenth birthday?”
A shadow crossed his brother’s face. He fingered the fob before he returned it to his pocket. For the first time in years, shame sizzled through Kestrel. What else could she do? She’d found no other choice than to be a thief. She had failed as a governess. As a cook in a tavern, she would have gone to Scotland in her dotage.
His brilliant gaze ran over her body. “You could have lifted your skirts. Some toffs like girls young.”
“Bugger off! Would never lift my skirts to the likes of ye! Would rather rot in hell, ye pickle paddling quim-sticker!”
“Pickle paddling …you’d better watch that mouth of yours, else—”
She swore at him in French.
“Devon, don’t quibble with a cutpurse. ‘Tis beneath you.”
Wiping the blood from his chin, Devon ignored his brother. “Such charming manners, wench. Where-oh-where did you learn them?”
Trevor stared at her with renewed interest. “I wonder where she acquired the accent? ‘Tis authentic French.”
Devon shrugged. “Mayhap her mother was a French whore to some nobleman.”
The idea of her innocent mother who had died alone in a barren Paris flat being slandered in such a way was intolerable. Snarling, Kestrel sprang at him. His brother’s hold tightened into a vice around her arms. She couldn’t move. She had no escape.
The sudden reality twisted her insides. I failed my ’maman. I will never see Scotland, never clear Father’s name. She sagged against Trevor’s chest. “Mo thruith! What have I done?”
“What’s she saying?” Devon eyed her curiously.
“‘tis the Highlanders Gaelic,” Trevor shrugged. “It would explain her French as well as her presence in London. Many soldiers who fought for Charles in the war have come to London to reclaim their lands. The king doesn’t have the means to return them so now they wander the streets.”
“Mayhap, but does that give them the right to steal from honest civilians?”
“No doubt ye’d do the same if ye were starvin’ in the streets.” Kestrel shivered, looking from one man to the other. Devon’s jaw clenched, and he looked away.
Around them, the crowd had thinned, their attention caught elsewhere. They cared naught for a thief. On the streets, there were dozens like her.
Nae, not like me. The blood of kings run through my veins.
Two boys returned with three soldiers. They bound her arms in thick leather straps and listed the crimes against her. Wedged between the burly men she caught sight of the brothers, turning away already speaking of other things.
Outraged, she turned to her accusers and flashed them her sweetest smile. “I give you good morrow, kind sirs. I trust you’ve had a most enlightening day. May both of you rot in hell!”
The blonde’s amber eyes narrowed over her face. “Madam, you have just begun your descent.”
Kestrel lifted her chin. Squaring her shoulders, she allowed herself to be led away.
*** ***
Devon Trevelyan pushed past the crowded halls of Whitehall Palace, ignoring the opulence around him. He paused in front of a large, gold-framed-looking-glass to study his disheveled appearance. The skin under his right eye was turning blue; his mud-covered breeches were torn at the knees. His new black-satin waistcoat was beyond repair. He touched the clotted scratches marking his face. Grimacing, he met his brother’s gaze in the glass. “Of all days to get nabbed by a cutpurse. Mayhap I should’ve just let her go.”
“Aye, you should have.” Trevor glared. “But you’ve quite survived without drowning, this time, haven’t you?”
“Aye, well,” Devon fingered the lace hanging in tatters on his sleeve. “Not very presentable, am I? Explain again why His Majesty wishes to see me?”
“He hasn’t said. Mayhap it has something to do with Lady Somerset’s niece. If you hadn’t been so determined to catch that thief, you’d still look respectable. Hold still, you’ve mud all over you.” Trevor gave Devon’s jacket a brisk swipe and then turned toward the high wood doors that separated the hall from the king’s stateroom.
“Lucky for you, I retrieved grandfather’s watch. ‘Tis the principle of the thing. Why should we sacrifice our gold to line a thief’s pocket?”
“To be charitable?” Trevor lifted a brow. “Come, we’re late enough as it is.”
A small page opened the door, and he followed his brother to where Charles Stuart sat at the end of a gilded hall, surrounded by a few privy councilors and two scribes. Papers littered his lap and the floor at his feet. He looked up at their approach. Charles’ intelligent, dark eyes met Trevor’s, and then his own.
“Lord Berkshire, good to see you. You’ve brought your brother as I requested.” He held out his hand. Devon gave his sovereign the obligatory bow and perfunctory kiss, hoping none of his nervousness showed.
For nigh a year, he’d existed on the fringes of the court, unassuming in his participation except for what was required of him as Lord High Chancellor Clarendon’s secretary. He possessed no talent for anything except gaming and wenching, which he did with such passion that Trevor teased him about making it a family business. As Trevor’s heir, nothing was expected of him except to marry well, which he would do when he deemed himself ready.
Mayhap ‘tis what the king wants from me. Some match to an heiress. Bloody hell! Horrified, he gazed at Charles Stuart. He was not ready to marry. He was only four and twenty. He wanted at least another year of freedom before becoming entangled in some woman’s skirts.
The king’s gaze swept over his face. “My lord, though you’ve been here a while, I have yet to speak with you on a personal basis. Clarendon reports that you excel in your position, and you have a quick mind with a deft way with words. Your father held the same talent.”
Charles glanced over at Trevor before his gaze landed back on him. “It seems discretion and diplomacy run in the family.”
“I’m honored by your words, your majesty.” He bowed, trying to hide his surprise.
“So after the refined culture of Italy, how do you find life at my merry court?”
“Whitehall is filled with enough revels to match the playhouses in Venice. The Cock Inn Theatre glows with exuberance.”
“And the ladies, Trevelyan? Obviously, you’ve included a few of them in your observations.” A knowing smile danced across his lips.
“Of course, how could I not?” Devon grinned. He shook back a tangle of hair, relieved the king believed his bruised face the result of an offended lady. “Their beauty gracing these halls far outshines anything of gold hanging on your palace walls. One would have to be blind to not admire such a dazzling display.”
“No doubt.” Charles fingered his mustache and then turned to his surrounding councilors. “Leave us. I would speak to the Trevelyan’s alone.”
The two men bowed, hastily gathering up the scattered papers on the bench. Devon saw a flash of annoyance cross the Duke of York’s face. Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts to the British Navy, shot the king a chagrined look before he turned to leave. Two very influential men in Parliament and Charles interrupted their meeting to converse with me? Clearing his throat, Devon gazed at his sovereign.
He had always been a king’s man, even when the civil wars had torn England apart. Then he’d been a child, dreaming of the time he would go to court to defend the House of Stuart as his great-grandfather had before him.
“I can see you’re wondering why I wished to speak to you.” Charles nodded at him and then stepped down from the dais. He sauntered toward them, a tall and imposing figure. “Come walk with me to my stateroom.”
No longer able to contain his curiosity, Devon turned toward Trevor. He could read nothing from his brother’s stoic face. Together they followed Charles into the depths of Whitehall.
The king surveyed him, his gaze dark and assessing. “I must tell you, I’ve been watching you well over the past month. I must say I am impressed.”
Devon blinked, trying to think of a redeemable deed he’d done.
“You’ve made yourself a part of this court without fanfare or vanity. Believe me, that is something to notice. Have you no ambitions outside a comely wench to warm your bed? Every courtier walking these halls has his own motive for being here, yet since your arrival, you’ve asked for nothing.” Charles cast him a shrewd glance. “Belike you’ve plenty of pence to line your pockets, eh?”
“Aye, well,” Devon tensed, uncomfortable with the praise. Every man should wish to serve his sovereign for the honor and not for the gold. Yet, he was not so altruistic to say that money did not matter. “Everyone could use more, sire.”
Even a cutpurse. Gray eyes and a mass of black hair flashed through his mind. Startled, he forced himself back to the matter at hand. They headed into the garden, and onto a small-pebbled walkway surrounded by a beautifully layered tangle of exotic flowers and plants into a hall that led to the king’s chamber.
“Aye, and no one more than me,” Charles said dryly, shaking his head. “Nevertheless, I did not wish to speak to you about a loan for the royal coffers. I came out here because I have need of your services.”
“I shall be honored, Your Majesty.” Flattered, Devon dropped to one knee swearing his allegiance. What will I be doing? Mayhap an aide to the ambassadors? Serve in the royal bedchamber? Spy for England? Most second sons served in the Royal Navy. Until now, he’d resisted that path, wanting to prove his worth on English soil. Anticipation running through him, he gazed at his king.
“I have a problem of late. What I need is someone with your … eh … charm with the ladies,” Charles gave him a bawdy wink. “Pray, don’t gape at me like that, Lord Trevelyan. Arise if you please. It’s devilishly difficult to converse with you on your prayer bones.”
Devon jumped to his feet, giving his sovereign an uncertain smile. The king’s amicable façade hardened. “Let me explain. I have had a missive from a very reliable source that tells of a plot against the queen’s life.”
“Sire!” Devon tensed, alarm mingling with outrage. “Who would harm the queen?”
“A letter to Lady Castlemaine has been intercepted and brought post haste to me. It seems Barbara’s hatred for the queen has drawn the notice of a few members of Parliament. Because of the rampant rumors of the queen being barren, they believe I need to dissolve our union and marry an English wife. Someone has offered Barbara three hundred pounds to poison Catherine. I need to discern if she has taken the challenge.”
“I don’t understand,” He glanced at Trevor and then back to Charles. “You would have me spy on your mistress?”
“Nay ‘tis Jane Price I would choose for you to court. ‘Tis Barbara’s custom to have her friends carry out her plans. I’ve been told Jane is the one Barbara has picked as her ally. I know all too well Barbara sees herself as queen, and I cannot ease my conscience regarding Catherine’s safety until I know what Barbara has planned. I would remove her from the queen’s chambers—which would delight Catherine, as there is no love lost between them— but then I would damn Barbara without any tangible proof. Unfortunately, there aren’t many ladies in the chamber who are forthcoming on the subject. Many are too afraid of Barbara to talk.”
“And Isobel?” Devon glanced at Trevor.
“Isobel hears nothing, or so she says.” Trevor gave him a grim look over the king’s head.
Because no one but Catherine acknowledges her presence. He winced at Trevor’s unspoken words. His sister lived like a specter in the queen’s bedchamber, a known presence, yet largely ignored. In spite of her isolation, Isobel stubbornly refused to leave the queen for a quieter life in the country.
Interrupting his thoughts, Trevor cast Charles a wry glance. “So Devon is to court Jane to see if she carries any tales? Very well, I vow my brother is up to the task. He is ever the consummate flirt. I’ve no doubt Devon could have information within the week if he so chooses.”
Devon shot Trevor a killing glare. Could he help it if women threw themselves at him on a daily basis? Was it his fault he enjoyed their company, or that he knew how to pleasure one until she was mindless with sensation? Nay, surely God had bestowed that grand gift for his own pleasure. But instead of using his wits, he was going to use his…
He stared at his sovereign not knowing whether to be flattered or offended.
Regarding him from under hooded lids, Charles gave Devon a quick grin. “Jane is not without her charms, my lord. She has an impeccable bloodline. Her father is the Duke of Somersby. She brings six hundred pounds a year plus a good-sized estate in Somerset for her dowry. But I can see by your face marriage is not foremost in your mind?”
“Nay, sire!” Alarmed, he glanced at Trevor. His brother laughed.
“Your Majesty, my brother is still enjoying his bachelorhood, pray don’t tease him. There will be time enough for him to cast about for a betrothed.”
Charles pushed open the door to his chamber. Devon followed him inside.
“Getting back to the subject at hand,” Devon ground out, “is the queen aware of the threat?”
Charles sighed. “Catherine sees everything Barbara does as a threat. Barbara could offer Catherine her grandest gown, and my queen would deem it an insult. Yet, I cannot know everything. Catherine has many enemies at this court. I have to keep her safe. I would like to believe Barbara would not seek Catherine’s demise out of love for me and for the love she holds for our children, but I cannot be sure. Barbara can be volatile when she’s angry.”
Devon nodded. ‘Twas no secret that half the time she held the king by the balls, the other half, by his heart. Aye, Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, was beautiful, beguiling and dangerous.
“Mistress Price is a flirt and will love the attention. I’ve heard she holds a loose tongue. Nor is she as devious, or as astute as Barbara. I believe you will be able to sort out what is rumor and what has a grain of truth. What say you, are you up to the task? If you are successful, mayhap you will have your own reward.”
He would have liked to ask about the reward, but could not form the words. He dropped to one knee before his sovereign. “It will be an honor, Your Majesty.”
“Then it’s settled. You shall begin tomorrow. Hereafter, we shall meet every fortnight for an update. In a month’s time, we will proceed from there.” The king motioned them toward a small table strewn with papers, with three chairs surrounding it. “Shall we have a glass of Rhenish to celebrate?”
*** ***
Devon sat in his library staring into the fire. He had always dreamed of spying, spying amid the courts of France and Spain. Flitting from palace to palace, intrigue after intrigue, matching wits against men of state and military. After he had returned from Italy, he’d finished his education, and then spent days enjoying the company of his friends at the Cock and Pye, but that had proven a hollow existence. Now, after a year at Whitehall, he wanted to be an asset to the king. He wanted a reputation for more than just a handsome face or a court jester with a ready smile.
But he could not do that in Barbara’s staterooms. For the past fortnight, he’d been pasting on false smiles, moving through the Countess of Castlemaine’s inner-circle in the way a seal navigated shark-infested waters. Two weeks of overhearing whispered conversations opened his eyes to just how depraved and power hungry those of the king’s court were, and how low he held his own personal aspirations.
He regarded the ruby liquid in his goblet. Rubbing the smooth glass with his thumb, he took a long swallow. If there was someone unknown to the court, who could gather the information for me. Mayhap one of the players at the Duke’s Theatre…nay, that would not do; the person would have to speak fluent Scots.
Out of nowhere, a termagant with haunting gray eyes flashed before him. One that wielded a sharp tongue that cursed in three languages.
He choked on his wine.
The gutterbrat—you can take her to court.
He laughed at his whimsy. Imagine a mere street brat, a Newgate inmate, going to Whitehall. He took another long swallow of wine, and closed his eyes, trying to picture the girl out of her rags wearing satin and lace instead. He couldn’t. He would be mad to consider it. She could rob them blind.
He sighed, rubbing his tired eyes. Trevor had called her a child. Wasn’t well done of you, tossing a child into prison, Newgate is hell on earth. You’ve sent her there. It is filled with rape, buggery, and torture.
Images of Isobel chained to a wall swirled through his mind, turning into the gutterbrat’s face, her gray eyes entwining with his sister’s tear-stained face. Horror-struck, he poured another glass of wine, downing the contents in one gulp.
Trevor’s words rang through his mind. Was it possible underneath the grime of poverty ran the blood of kings? Devon chewed on his thumbnail, the guilty fear becoming a slow burn. I should rescue her. She speaks perfect French as well as Scots. Mayhap I could teach her to be a lady.
After all, a wench could spy in the queen’s chambers and hear first-hand about a plot. It would take tutoring, but then Charles would have another spy. It would also relieve Devon of his obligation to woo Jane. Mayhap then, Charles could find a more fitting position for him to fill. One that used his wits, rather than his prick.
The more he considered, the more plausible his plan became. He tried it out on Trevor. It took a bit of talking along with a pint of ale to convince his brother, but it worked. By week’s end, they would travel to Newgate to find the girl who haunted his dreams. If he were lucky, his decision would change his destiny.