Edinburgh, Scotland, August 1815
The low ceiling and dark beams of the Oak and Thistle ought to have felt claustrophobic, but to Dougal MacNair, the space was a warm hug, holding him close after too much time away. Glancing across the small, worn table at his cousin, Robert Clark, who was just three years younger than Dougal’s twenty-eight, he felt a surge of affection. He was only sorry it had taken the sudden death of his brother to bring him home.
“Ye’re going to be the earl, then?” Robbie asked.
“Eventually.” Dougal still couldn’t quite believe it. He’d created a life for himself—one that he liked very much—that didn’t include being an earl or even living in Scotland. Now he had to change everything. On top of losing Alistair, it was too much to contemplate. And so he preferred to avoid thinking about it too deeply. At least, not yet. The time would come, very soon, probably, when he’d have to face it. For now, he just wanted to be with his family, both here in Edinburgh and just north near Stirling, where his father’s seat, Stagfield, was located.
A tall Black man brought tankards of ale and deposited them on the table. “If we weren’t busy, I’d plant myself right next to ye and hear what ye have to say.”
Dougal looked up at his Uncle Rob and nodded. “I know. Just as I know Robbie will tell you everything.” Well, almost everything. As cousins, they shared certain secrets.
Uncle Rob grunted. “Aye, he will. I’m glad ye made it to town.” Town being the Old Town of Edinburgh, where Rob’s tavern was tucked into a basement along the Lawn Market. Rob owned the building and leased out several floors. He and his family lodged on the second floor. The New Town, where Dougal’s father owned a new, fashionable house in Charlotte Square, was not at all what Uncle Rob had meant. Dougal might stay there when he came to Edinburgh, but this was as much a home to him.
Leaving them alone, Uncle Rob returned to the bar on the other side of the common area. Dougal took a long drink of ale, the taste taking him back to the many summers he’d spent here before he’d gone south to Oxford. He looked over at Robbie. “When are you going to start making your own ale?”
“Och, not for a while yet. I just started the apprenticeship last winter.” He sipped his ale and narrowed one eye at Dougal as he set his tankard back down. “Ye sound like my father.”
“We’re both enthusiastic about your future. You can hardly blame us.”
Robbie stared at him a moment. “What about yer future? Ye going back to London?”
That answer fell firmly in the category Dougal preferred not to think about at the moment. “Yes, at some point.” He at least wanted to meet with his superior at the Foreign Office, even if it meant he wouldn’t complete another mission. The thought of that made him anxious. He had unfinished work.
“I dinna think your father will like that.”
Perhaps not, but he would understand. Still, Dougal hated leaving him, and it was more than just the grief of losing Alistair. So much more that Dougal wasn’t yet ready to face. “He knows I need to go back, at least for a short while.”
“Yer father’s a good man, and he loves ye like no other,” Robbie said with a confident nod before taking another pull from his tankard.
What he said was true, and it was remarkable because Dougal’s father wasn’t his sire. He was white, just as Dougal’s mother had been white. She’d stepped outside their marriage, which hadn’t troubled her husband. Their union wasn’t a love match, and after four children, they’d agreed to take comfort where they might since they would not with each other.
When Dougal’s mother’s affair with a Black ship captain had resulted in a child, Dougal’s father hadn’t hesitated to claim the babe as his own son. He’d raised Dougal with love and ensured that no one questioned Dougal’s parentage—at least not to their faces. There were always whispers. It wasn’t unusual for a man to raise his wife’s bastard as his own, but in Dougal’s case, it was rather obvious he wasn’t the product of his two white parents. He was a Black man in a white household, and there was no hiding that. Nor did Dougal’s father—or any of the rest of his family, which had included another brother besides Alistair and two sisters—make any attempt to do so. They loved and included Dougal as one of their own.
That hadn’t meant that Dougal didn’t notice he looked different from them. When he asked his mother about that, she never wanted to discuss it. So he’d asked his father, and he too had avoided answering, which Dougal had later learned had been in deference to his wife’s wishes. She hadn’t wanted Dougal to meet his Black relatives. Aunt Mairi said it was because she feared they would want to take him away, and that Dougal would want to go.
After his mother died when Dougal was eight, his father had brought him to this very tavern to meet his sire’s family. By then, Captain John Clark had perished at sea when his ship had gone down in a storm, but the rest of the family had been thrilled to learn that John had a son. They had, in fact, asked if they could have him, but Dougal hadn’t wanted to leave his father. Instead, they’d agreed that Dougal would spend time with them each year when the earl and his family came to Edinburgh.
Robbie sat back in his chair and smirked as he regarded Dougal. “Will ye still come here when ye’re the earl?”
Dougal scowled at him. “Of course I will. Why would you think otherwise?”
Leaning forward, Robbie sobered. “I was only jesting. I know ye’ll still come here. We’d drag ye if necessary.”
“It would never be necessary.” They were his family, just as his father and the white brother he’d recently lost to an accident were. “Forgive my bad humor.”
“To be expected as ye’re grieving.” Robbie’s dark eyes gleamed with sympathy. “We’re all so verra sorry. We loved Alistair too. Family is family.”
That was a phrase they all shared. So much that it ought to have been their family motto. In addition to the brother he’d just lost, Dougal had lost another brother along with their mother to fever. He also had two white sisters who were long married with children of their own. Here in Old Town, he had Robbie, his Uncle Rob and Aunt Mairi, several other cousins, and another aunt and uncle who was a tailor. They’d all come to Stagfield to mourn with Dougal and his father. Family was family.
“I know you loved him,” Dougal said quietly. “That has always meant a great deal to me.” Just as it had always touched him that his white family loved his Black family. They’d all come together—for him.
“What will happen with your position in London?” Robbie knew the truth of Dougal’s life in England, that he worked in a…special capacity for the Foreign Office. That was because Robbie had been with Dougal in the Black Watch when Dougal had been recruited for this work. He was the only person, outside of the people he worked with, who was aware. Dougal had never told his father or his brother. He shouldn’t have even told Robbie, but he’d been there and discovered what was going on. Besides, Dougal supposed he’d wanted, or needed, to tell someone.
And now Dougal had to consider whether he would tell Robbie another secret. About his father. He wanted to, but the words wouldn’t come. If he spoke them, they would become all too real, and he wasn’t ready for that. Not yet.
“I’ll have to tell them I’m leaving. But there’s something I’m rather desperate to do first.” Dougal spoke softly so no one could hear him.
Robbie leaned over the table. “Desperate?”
Dougal oughtn’t share this either, but he would. He needed to talk it out. “Before Alistair died, there was some difficulty with two of my missions. In the first, I was given what seems to have been a sham message.”
“The courier system was compromised?” Robbie asked. He’d acted as a courier before leaving the Black Watch and understood how things worked.
“I believe so, particularly since the following mission resulted in the death of the courier.” Dougal thought of poor Giraud, a Frenchman who’d come to England after the revolution and pledged his allegiance, his throat torn open.
“Bloody hell,” Robbie breathed. “Do ye think there’s someone working against ye in the office?”
“I don’t know, but I have to be open to the possibility.” Dougal pressed his lips together. “Now you see why I must return to London.”
“Aye. I wish I could help ye.”
“You’ve got your apprenticeship,” Dougal said.
“But if ye needed me, ye’d ask?”
“I would,” Dougal assured him. “There are few people I would trust to help me, and you are one of them.” The others were close friends of his in England, namely Lord Lucien Westbrook, who also served the Foreign Office in a secret capacity.
A young Black girl dashed toward their table. It was Aila, who at nine years old was Dougal’s youngest cousin. “This was just delivered fer ye, Dougie.” She handed him a sealed letter. “Footman from Charlotte Square brought it.”
“Thank you, Aila.”
“Off with ye,” Robbie said with a wave when she seemed to want to linger.
She blinked at them. “But Da wants to know what it says.”
Dougal smiled to himself while Robbie laughed. “I’ll tell him later. Now off with ye,” he repeated.
Aila shrugged before spinning about and going back to where her father stood behind the bar.
The familiar seal told Dougal where it came from—Lucien. As Dougal scanned the short missive, the tension he’d carried since Alistair’s death intensified, drawing him tighter than a bowstring.
“Doesna look like good news,” Robbie said before taking another drink of ale.
Dougal refolded the paper and put it in his coat. “I need to return to London immediately.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know.” Lucien’s note had been short, which was to be expected. He wouldn’t write anything of import, just that Dougal was needed back in town at his earliest convenience. That was Foreign Office-speak for get your tail to London as quickly as possible.
“Will ye go back to Stagfield first?” Robbie asked.
“Of course.” Though it meant heading north before heading south, Dougal couldn’t leave without seeing his father. Whatever the Foreign Office needed would keep for one extra day.
As it was, they were going to have to get used to not having him at all.
Jessamine Goodfellow finished the last letter of the cipher she was solving and set down her pencil with a satisfied smile. Spinsterhood was going to suit her just fine. But then, she’d long thought it would, not that her parents agreed. Surely after six Seasons, they would see that it was time to just give Jess her dowry and permit her to live her life unwed. Two of their three daughters had married well. Surely that was enough?
“Did you finish?” Kathleen Shaughnessy, Jess’s relatively new but very good friend, asked from the other side of the table where she was sketching furiously on a large piece of parchment. They were both the houseguests of Lady Pickering, one of London’s most respected ladies, who was acting as their temporary chaperone while their families were out of town.
Jess nodded. “I did. This one was quite challenging.” Every week, she received two to three ciphers from the mysterious Mr. Torrance, whom she’d met at the British Library. A charming older gentleman, he’d seen her solving a riddle and given her a cipher to try. She’d been instantly enthralled, solving it quickly. Torrance had been delighted to offer to send her more, if she was keen to continue. She’d leapt at the chance, and for the past few months, she’d enjoyed her new hobby very much. “Once I determined that frequently used terms were given two or three numbers, everything came together.”
“Well, I am not finished,” Kat said with considerable annoyance. She was very particular when it came to her drawings, pouring all her energy into her work, just as Jess did with her ciphers.
Jess craned her neck to see Kat’s sketch. “You’ll get it.”
Kat scowled at the drawing. “I may have gone too far to fix it. I should probably start over.” She sat back in her chair and looked over the table toward Jess’s completed cipher. “Well done, you. You’ve been working on that for, what, three days?”
“Yes. That was the last of the latest batch from Torrance. I expected a delivery yesterday, but nothing came. It was as if he knew I was struggling to finish the last one.”
“How interesting.” Kat didn’t appear overly interested, however, as her focus was on her drawing. She could be rather single-minded about things, and if she was unhappy with her work, she would be fixated on it until she wasn’t.
“Do you want to start your drawing over?” Jess asked, knowing Kat preferred to discuss that.
“I think I must,” she said with great resignation. Then she launched into a lengthy monologue at what she needed to do better and how she might accomplish that. At last, she looked toward Jess, her expression slightly sheepish. “My apologies. You are the only person who allows me to go on and on. You’re such a considerate friend.”
Jess gave her a warm smile. “I’m always eager to listen.”
“I can’t tell you how glad I am that Lady Pickering invited us both to stay here when the Season ended. I was determined not to return to Warefield with Ruark and Cassandra.” Ruark was Kat’s half brother and the Earl of Wexford. He and his wife, Cassandra, were visiting his estate in Gloucestershire where Kat’s mother and sisters lived. Kat had begged him to remain in London, where she’d taken up residence with Ruark during the Season after causing a scandal back in Gloucestershire. Her desire not to return had far less to do with that, however, than with her love of London.
Jess agreed with her wholeheartedly. “I am equally pleased I didn’t need to return to Goodacre with my parents.” She did miss seeing her grandfather, to whom she wrote often. However, she’d needed a respite from her mother.
Kat set her drawing aside. “Lady Pickering rescued us both.”
“I credit my grandfather,” Jess said. “He asked Lady Pickering if I could stay with her.” They were old friends, and he knew Jess needed a respite. It was especially kind of him when he would have preferred to have Jess visit.
“Your grandfather didn’t help me, obviously, so I have to wonder how I came to be invited. I suspect it was Lord Lucien.”
Jess had heard he liked to help people. He owned one of the most popular clubs—and probably the most talked about—in London. “Why do you think that?”
Kat shrugged. “He knows everyone, and he’s a close friend of Ruark’s, who was trying to find a way to allow me to remain in London.”
Jess wrinkled her nose. “If I could be officially recognized as a spinster, then I could have served as your chaperone.” This was the primary point of contention between her and her mother—that Jess hadn’t married and didn’t want to. She didn’t understand that Jess wanted more than to be some man’s wife. She wanted to do…things. Unfortunately, she hadn’t yet determined what those things could be, other than traveling farther than Kent, which she longed to do and was nearly impossible for an unmarried young lady.
“That would be deuced convenient,” Kat said. “But we didn’t know each other until a few weeks ago.” When Lady Pickering had introduced them. Jess had liked Kat immediately.
“Perhaps in future, I can be your chaperone,” Jess suggested.
“Until I’m a spinster and no longer require one.” Kat frowned. “That seems so far off. You’re twenty-five, and you aren’t entirely on the shelf.”
“I most definitely am, even if my mother refuses to acknowledge it. I came out at nineteen. No one will marry me now.” Though, it had seemed possible at the start of the Season when the Earl of Overton had paid her attention. Jess’s mother had been positively overjoyed. But then he’d been rumored to be seen kissing a maid at the Phoenix Club, and Jess’s mother had declared him irredeemable. Jess had argued that gossip ought not ruin him, to which her mother had responded—not for the first time—that Jess would never understand how Society worked.
Good, because Jess didn’t care to.
“I’m hoping I can avoid Society events altogether next Season,” Kat said. “Thankfully, I wasn’t dragged to everything this year.” Her shoulders twitched, and she stood. “I think I need a walk around the square. Perhaps up to Oxford Street and back, if you’d care to join me?”
“I would, thank you. It’s a spectacular day.” Jess rose from the table and followed Kat to the door of the library.
Lady Pickering appeared at the threshold. Her sharp blue-green eyes glanced toward Kat before fixing on Jess. “Jessamine, may I have a word?” She spoke with a regal imperiousness that had taken a bit of acclimation. Buried beneath her somewhat intimidating exterior was a warm and generous woman of great compassion.
“Of course.” Jess moved to the side.
“I’ll fetch our hats and gloves,” Kat said. “And let Dove know.” Dove was the ladies’ maid they shared, provided by Lady Pickering. She accompanied them on all their walks and errands.
After Kat had gone, Lady Pickering closed the door. That simple act catapulted Jess’s interest into rampant curiosity. She gestured for Jess to join her at one of the seating areas.
Lady Pickering sat in a chair, her posture impeccable. Her still-dark hair—she was in her middle-fifties and had scarcely a strand of gray on her head—was coiled into a sleek, elegant style, and her features were that of a younger woman, with very few lines marring her dark ivory skin. Jess wondered if it was because she smiled somewhat sparingly. It wasn’t that she didn’t possess good humor, she just conveyed it differently—with a subtle raise of her brow or a slight quirk of her mouth.
Curiosity burned within Jess as she perched on the wide settee. “I’ve a letter for you, dear.” Lady Pickering held a small, sealed piece of parchment, which Jess hadn’t noticed. “It’s rather sensitive, and I’m afraid you can’t discuss it with anyone other than me. If you can solemnly agree to that, I’ll give it to you.”
Jess’s heart had begun to hammer. This was all so surprising—and intriguing. It didn’t occur to her to decline. “I agree.”
Presenting the letter to Jess, Lady Pickering didn’t release it immediately. “I can’t overstate the importance of keeping this secret. There could be repercussions if you don’t.”
Jess swallowed. “I understand, and I vow I will say nothing.”
Lady Pickering placed the letter in Jess’s hand. Taking a deep breath, Jess stared at the missive. It was blank on the outside. She broke the seal and glanced toward Lady Pickering.
“Do you know what it says?”
“Not specifically, but I know its purpose.”
Jess tipped her head down and read.
You have been identified as a cryptographer of great skill. Resultingly, the Foreign Office requires your assistance. Specifically, we ask that you undertake a mission of dire importance and secrecy. The person who delivered this note is your primary contact and will ensure you receive the preparation necessary for this endeavor.
This contact has not read the contents of this note, and you must not share them with anyone outside the Foreign Office. In addition to potentially decoding messages on this mission, you will determine if your partner, who will be revealed to you soon, is working against us. You must use all your intellect and abilities to investigate his activities and motives. You will be expected to deliver a report upon your return. Your contact is not aware of this part of your assignment.
Burn this missive immediately after reading.
With gratitude and expectation,
The Foreign Office
Jess’s heart felt as if it would burst from her chest. Her breathing grew rapid. She swallowed, trying to calm herself. This was monumental. The Foreign Office was asking her to be a spy.
Reading it a second time did not settle her nerves. She was simultaneously thrilled at the prospect and terrified by the expectations. How on earth was she to determine the secret activities and motivations of another spy? Someone who likely had more experience than she did, seeing as she had none.
“You’re awfully quiet, dear,” Lady Pickering observed.
Jess looked up from the note, folding the parchment and eyeing the cold hearth. As it was August, there was no fire. And she needed to burn this right away. Indeed, it felt as if the letter with its incendiary contents might scald Jess’s hand.
“I’m rather shocked,” Jess said over what seemed to be the roaring of her pulse thundering through her head. But of course, Lady Pickering couldn’t hear that. Taking a steadying breath, Jess asked, “How did this happen?”
One of Lady Pickering’s dark brows peaked. “Are you not an excellent cryptographer?”
“I enjoy solving ciphers.” Jess’s neck turned cold. The seemingly innocent occurrence of an unknown but kindly gentleman noting her working on a riddle at the British Library and asking if she might like to solve a cipher wasn’t remotely innocent at all. “Who is Mr. Torrance?”
Lady Pickering shrugged. “I’m sure I don’t know.”
Jess wasn’t sure she believed her, but she wouldn’t press to know more. At least for now. It seemed obvious that Torrance was somehow connected to the Foreign Office. Just as Lady Pickering apparently was. That alone was extraordinary.
This was a great deal to comprehend. “This is an exceptional opportunity. Pardon me.” She had to get rid of this paper.
Standing, Jess went to the fireplace and struck flint into flame. She set the parchment ablaze before dropping it into the fireplace. The paper twisted and burned before Jess’s gaze. She did not return to the settee until there was nothing but ash.
“Well done,” Lady Pickering said. “You will spend the next week learning how to perfect a disguise and adopt a new identity.”
A week? Jess’s heart rate had finally begun to calm, but now it sped again, making her feel as if she’d dashed around the room about forty-seven times. “For the mission?”
“Yes. You will be playing the part of Mrs. Smythe. Further details will come later. For now, you must learn to adopt new mannerisms and to speak differently than you normally do. You must also carry yourself as a married woman.”
Every part of Jess tensed. “Married?”
“Yes,” Lady Pickering confirmed. “You will have a partner on this mission—your ‘husband.’ You would never be asked to complete a mission on your own, at least not in the beginning.”
A ball of unease formed in Jess’s stomach at the thought of gaining a pretend husband whom she would be investigating. This was beyond risky. Even so, there was no way she would refuse the opportunity. This was everything she’d dreamed of. No, it was far more than anything she could have expected. It could change her life completely.
“Does this come with compensation?” she asked, thinking she could perhaps live without her dowry if her father refused to give it to her.
“Yes. However, that cannot be your only motivation for accepting this invitation.” Lady Pickering eyed her expectantly. “It will not be easy. You must carry out your disguise and behave as Mrs. Smythe, as well as decipher whatever you and Mr. Smythe might find on your mission.”
“I understand.” It was more than a trifle overwhelming, but didn’t she want that? She’d been longing to feel challenged, to be excited for something.
“Good. Tomorrow, you will see the modiste who will fit your new wardrobe. We will go on an errand without Kathleen, not that she will mind.” Lady Pickering was right that Kat wouldn’t care at all that she was left out of an errand. Unless they were going to a museum, library, or bookstore. “Remember, you cannot tell her anything at all.”
Jess nodded. Her mind kept turning back to the fact that she was to pretend to be married. Married couples behaved in many ways. Were they to pretend to be in love? Share a chamber? A bed? “How married will Mr. Smythe and I be?”
Lady Pickering’s features mellowed, and she gave Jess a slight smile. This was the expression that made her the most approachable—when she seemed to let down her commanding exterior. “I think I understand. Don’t be concerned, behind closed doors, everything will be quite respectable, I assure you.”
Jess could almost hear her mother shrieking in horror, screaming that Jess would be ruined. “No one will know who I am?”
“You will be disguised with a wig, and you will learn to comport yourself differently. You should not be recognized, especially given the remote location of this mission. You will be on the Dorset coast. Indeed, it is possible the only people you will encounter are those you are investigating. And their household, of course.”
Jess had many concerns and reservations, but the thrill of this opportunity far outweighed any of that. Still, her parents would return to London in several weeks, and if she was still in Dorset, her absence would be noted. Furthermore, what would she tell Kat? “How will my absence be explained?”
“You are going to accompany me to my home near Winchester for a visit. This allows me to travel with you for part of the way to your destination. Your partner will meet you at my home, and you will continue from there.”
“What about Kat?” Jess asked since Lady Pickering was also her chaperone.
“Wexford will be back before then.”
Jess hadn’t realized her time with Kat was coming to an end so soon. “You’ll remain near Winchester while I’m on this mission?” Jess wondered how long that might be.
“I’ll stay for a week, but if you take longer than that, I’ll return to London and simply say you are enjoying your time in Hampshire.” She spoke with a confidence that demonstrated she wasn’t the least concerned how this would work. It was likely she’d done this many times.
“You must work for the Foreign Office,” Jess said.
Lady Pickering pressed her lips together. “I do not. I help with things from time to time.” Her gaze held Jess’s for a moment. “It’s best if you don’t think too much on me or how this assignment came about.”
On the contrary, Jess would think about those things a great deal. Lady Pickering wasn’t aware of the full scope of Jess’s assignment. She would need to learn to question everything and everyone as she conducted her investigation.
Lady Pickering stood. “You ought to go on your walk with Kathleen.”
As Jess rose, she felt suddenly taller, more substantial. She also felt light and giddy, the latter of which she tamped down. She must contain her enthusiasm.
That’s easy—just think about pretending to be some stranger’s wife. And trying to determine if he’s working against the crown.
Jess wiped her brow as Lady Pickering left the library. Moving toward the doorway, Jess wished she’d asked more about Mr. Smythe. She knew nothing other than that he was an experienced spy.
That wasn’t precisely true. She also knew he wasn’t to be trusted. No one was to be trusted, not even Lady Pickering. It seemed Jess would need to maintain an extraordinary level of secrecy from absolutely everyone.
She suddenly thought of her mother. She’d be apoplectic if she found out. And her father? Jess couldn’t decide how he’d react. Nor could she guess if he’d express himself at all. He typically left that to her mother.
Thankfully, they wouldn’t know a thing. Lady Pickering had planned everything—or someone had, and she was merely executing the details.
Before Jess stepped from the room, Lady Pickering came back toward her, another piece of paper clasped in her hand. “There’s a slight change in plans. Your partner has returned to town, and you’ll meet him this evening. Be ready to depart at half six.”
Lady Pickering turned, leaving Jess to stare at her back and wonder how she was going to quash her anticipation for the rest of the afternoon. She’d have to manage it since hiding things was something she needed to master—and quickly.
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