Chapter 1

London, May 15, 1815

Sir Percy Foxstone took a slow sip of his single malt whiskey, savoring the rich flavor as it warmed his chest before he sank down into one of the deep leather armchairs in his office at Whitehall.
Lazily swirling the caramel-colored liquid, allowing it to lap against the edges of his glass, he regarded his friend with caution. “I’m deeply sorry it had to come to this, old chap,” he told him quietly.
Bryce Summersby, Earl of Moorland, nodded, his forehead furrowed in a thoughtful frown. “Do you see now why I never wanted Alex to get involved?” He shook his head in disbelief.
Bryce’s son William had joined The Foreign Office four years earlier when he was twenty-three years old. He’d had a number of successful missions during that time and had been personally thanked by The Prince Regent for uncovering a French spy who’d managed to infiltrate parliament.
Which is why it was so difficult to now believe that William was handing over valuable information to the French.
He’d gone to Paris in March, as soon as news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba had reached the British shores. Accompanying him on his mission was his longtime friend, Andrew Finch, who’d joined The Foreign Office a couple of years earlier, on William’s recommendation.
Percy picked up the most recent letter that Andrew had managed to send out of the country. “Judging from the tone of this, it seems Mr. Finch was completely caught off guard by William’s behavior.”
Bryce grunted before taking a swig of his whiskey. “I’m just not buying it,” he muttered, piercing his friend with a hard stare, his mouth set in a grim line.
“Is that an objective opinion or one based on the fact that William’s your son?”
“Bloody hell, Percy!” Bryce shouted, glaring at his friend. “Do you seriously believe William has betrayed us—that he’s a traitor?”
Percy let out a deep sigh as he leaned forward, his elbows resting in his lap as he studied the glass between his hands. “I have to accept all possibilities.” His eyes settled on Bryce’s in a hard stare. “My position demands it.”
“Who are you sending, Percy?”
Percy paused for a moment. The only reason he’d sent for Bryce in the first place was because he considered him a close friend. He’d already shared the details regarding William’s mission with him and was beginning to wonder how much more he ought to divulge. “I’ve settled on Michael Ashford, Earl of Trenton.”
“Thomas’ boy?”
Percy nodded, knowing Bryce was familiar with the Duke of Willowbrook.
“Thomas is a man of great integrity,” Bryce said rather stiffly. “I hope the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.”
“Would you like to meet him?”
“What’s your plan, Percy?” Bryce asked, ignoring his question. “Are you sending this Ashford fellow to kill my son?”
Percy sighed. “I’m not sending Ashford to assassinate your son, Bryce. I’m sending him to bring William back home so that he may face the charges against him. My hands are tied, old chap. You know treason’s an unpardonable offense.”
“And if he resists?”
“Let’s hope he’s wise enough not to.” Percy said softly, giving Bryce a meaningful look.
“Michael will assume he’s guilty of all charges and will do what must be done by all means necessary. Is that it?”
Percy nodded reluctantly. “Something like that,” he said, in little more than a whisper.
“Then by all means, show Lord Trenton in so I may meet the man.”
It was a delicate situation—one that Percy wished to have no part in. But now since he’d started down this road, what could he do other than hope it would soon be over?
He was inclined to agree with Bryce when it came to William’s character. William had always been an honorable man. It seemed unthinkable that he might have turned traitor. Then again, Percy had seen it happen before. As he went to the door and called for Michael to enter, he sent up a silent prayer that he would somehow manage to bring William home in one piece.
A moment later, Michael strode into the room with a confidence that made it clear this was no fledgling.
Before them stood a tall figure of a man, well over six feet, with broad shoulders, a powerful chest, and strong arms. In short, he looked like he could slay a dragon with one hand while protecting a damsel in distress with the other. His hair was dark and ruffled, his eyes sparkling with boyish anticipation.
“Gentlemen . . .” Michael followed his greeting with a slight nod.
“Lord Moorland,” Percy said, “May I present Michael Ashford, Earl of Trenton.”
Bryce rose to his feet, all the while assessing the man who’d soon be determining the fate of his son. After a moment’s pause, he grasped Michael’s outstretched hand in a firm shake.
“I’ve heard a great deal about you, Lord Moorland, from my father in particular,” Michael said. “He’s a great admirer of your military endeavors—says you’re quite the strategist.” He released Bryce’s hand with a wry twist of his lips. “He also says he’s never managed to beat you at chess.”
Bryce feigned a polite smile. It had been a while since he’d last seen Thomas, but he had fond memories of the poor man’s numerous attempts at beating him at his favorite game. “How is your father?”
Michael shrugged as he reached for one of the decanters on the side table. “Do you mind?” he asked Percy.
“Not at all. Help yourself.”
Pouring a glass of port, Michael glanced over at Bryce. “Still going strong,” he told him. “He will be sixty-two in a couple of months, but he’s still running around like a young lad. Trouble is, his limbs are stiffer than they used to be. I can’t help but worry he might hurt himself. In his mind, he’s no more than twenty years of age.”
“Just wait until you are as old as we are,” Bryce told him. “You won’t believe your eyes when you happen to catch yourself in a mirror. Indeed, you will most likely draw your sword wondering who the devil that stranger is staring back at you.” He raised his glass to Michael. “Enjoy your youth while you have it, Trenton. Lord knows it will be gone before you know it.”
“I briefed Trenton on his mission this morning.” Percy said, apparently deciding that it was time to get on with the business at hand. Bryce could only hazard a guess at how uncomfortable this whole dratted business must be for him. Nothing could be nastier than having to decide the fate of somebody’s child—especially not when that child was like family. But he also understood that responsibility weighed heavily on his friend’s shoulders. Percy would not be able to leave the matter alone—he had to investigate. As Bryce watched him sit back down in his dark brown leather chair, he desperately hoped that he truly did know his son well enough, and that Andrew was somehow mistaken about William’s actions. “He’ll be ready to leave in the morning.”
Bryce moved to the side table to refill his glass. “How long have you and my son known each other?” he asked Michael.
“Well,er . . . actually, I . . .”
“Trenton has never actually met your son, Bryce. You know we don’t allow our agents to meet unless they are working on the same assignment. It helps protect their identities when they are in the field.”
“Well, I certainly don’t mean to point out the obvious,” Bryce remarked, his voice laced with annoyance. “But how the devil is he supposed to find him when he doesn’t even know what he looks like?”
“There are ways.”
Bryce scoffed. “We both know that William is quite skilled at deception. He works well undercover—hence the reason you gave him such an important assignment in the first place.” Bryce took a large gulp of his whiskey to calm his nerves. “I want Ryan and Alex to accompany him.”
Percy’s mouth dropped open. “But you always said—”
“That was then and this is now. They will be able to identify their brother.”
“And you are certain that you want Alex to go as well?”
Bryce had no desire to let his daughter get muddled up in this mess, but she was a better horseman, a better swordsman, and a better shot than Ryan had ever been. In fact, the only reason he was sending Ryan at all was to act as her chaperone. “Quite certain.”
Both men turned to Michael. His expression was impossible to read as he absorbed the news that Bryce’s children would be tagging along. “It will be a perilous journey,” he stated. “They will have to hold their own. I have no desire to babysit anyone.”
“You won’t have to,” Bryce grumbled. “Alexa—”
“Is the best swordsman you’re ever likely to come across,” Percy said as he cut off his friend.
Bryce followed his lead and held silent, realizing that it would probably be a cold day in hell before Michael would ever agree to bring a woman along, no matter how much he and Percy might vouch for her. In truth, he’d likely quit first, and if Bryce knew Percy as well as he thought, then that was not a risk that he was willing to take.
“Henry Angelo is a good friend of mine,” Bryce added. “He’s spent a number of years at Moorland Manor polishing Alex’s skills.”
Mentioning the famous dueling master had its desired effect. Michael nodded his approval. “But what if Summersby is guilty of treason. . . . What if he fights back? I can’t afford to have his siblings standing in my way if I’m forced to take action.” He paused. “Do you think they’ll be willing to stand idly by while I kill their brother, or will they turn on me in a foolhardy attempt to save him?”
Bryce’s blood ran cold at Michael’s detached tone. He didn’t doubt for a second that the man before him was prepared to carry out his orders. Would Alex and Ryan let him kill their brother, even if he were a traitor? Absolutely not, but they gave him hope that he might see William again, and for that reason alone, he was prepared to say anything to ensure that they would be in a position to help their brother. “If they were to discover that he has been consorting with the French, then I cannot imagine that they would try to stop you.”
“Very well then,” Michael acquiesced. “We leave at dawn. Will they be ready by then?”
Bryce nodded. “I have already told them to prepare themselves in the event that they would be joining you.”
“There’s a tavern on the outskirts of town—The Royal Oak. Are you familiar with the place?”
“I am.”
“Good. Tell your sons to meet me there at five. I have no intention of waiting for them, so if they’re late—”
“They will be there,” Bryce told him sharply. “You have my word,” he added, reaching out to shake Michael’s hand.
“And you have my word as a gentleman that I shall act fairly,” Michael responded. “Sir Percy tells me that both of you find it unlikely that William’s a turncoat. I will discover the truth of the matter, and I hope you will trust me when I say that I would never dream of harming an innocent man. Furthermore, my prerogative is to bring him back alive, so if all goes well, you will see your son soon enough, Lord Moorland.”
“Thank you,” Bryce told him sincerely. “I shall await your return.” He raised his glass in a final salute before gathering up his coat and heading for the door. “You will keep me informed?” he asked as he looked back over his shoulder at Percy, his hand already on the door handle.
“You will hear from me as soon as I have any news. I promise.”
With a heavy sigh and a thoughtful nod, Bryce left Percy’s office with growing trepidation. He wasn’t a gambling man, yet here he was, willing to risk everything dear to him in order to save his firstborn child.
Though he had faith in both Alexandra and Ryan, he hated having to sit idly by in anticipation. If only he could go in their steadbut that was impossible. He’d grown too old to be of use on rescue missions, particularly with his left leg paining him as much as it did these days.
No . . . he had no choice but to send his children, and in spite of himself, he suddenly smiled. This was exactly the sort of thing that Alexandra had been dreaming about for years, and now he was finally ready to indulge her. If only the stakes weren’t so high.

 

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