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Lady Wynwood's Spies, volume 4: Betrayer - Chapter 1b

I’m posting an excerpt of Lady Wynwood’s Spies, volume 4: Betrayer!

Part four in a Christian Regency Romantic Adventure epic serial novel with a supernatural twist

Beleaguered spies

Lady Wynwood’s team of spies are trying to heal from the physical and mental wounds recently dealt to them. However, their investigation into Apothecary Jack’s mysterious group has turned up only a few strange, disjointed clues, and the dangerous Root elixir continues to circulate in the London underbelly. It is only a matter of time before the Root is sold to Napoleon, which would give him overwhelming dominance in the war.

Sudden threats

Then Laura, Lady Wynwood, is unexpectedly attacked by a man she had trusted. Although Phoebe and her household staff manage to protect her, her life is now in danger and she must go into hiding.

Dangerous mysteries

Laura uncovers more secrets kept by her late husband that shed illumination on his enigmatic mistress, Bianca. In the meantime, the team follows the trail of Laura’s attacker, which might enable them to capture Apothecary Jack or his compatriot, the pale-eyed man.

All the while, they are unaware that the hunters have become the hunted.

PLEASE NOTE: Like the novels published in Jane Austen’s time, this is a novel in multiple parts. Each volume has a completed story arc, but this is NOT a stand-alone novel and ends on a cliffhanger.

All the posted parts are listed here.

***

Chapter One (part 2)


Fortunately, Thorne chose that moment to also arrive at the house, his heavy bootstrap sounding on the stairs. Michael shrugged back into his coat and tried not to look at Miss Sauber, who swiped dust from her skirt.

Thorne paused in the doorway to the ballroom, and his eyebrows rose slightly. From Mr. Drydale’s deep frown and Miss Gardinier’s snickering, it was obvious he had missed something, but he seemed unwilling to ask what it had been.

He usually drove Isabella with him in his decrepit dogcart, but she was not with him today. “Did you have a little tiff with my sister again?” Michael asked his friend, knowing it would annoy him.

It did. Thorne glowered at him. “We never have tiffs. We have full-blown shouting matches.”

“At least this time, she didn’t smack you in the eye with her fan.”

His glower grew even deeper. “I’ll have you know that scratch she gave me with her fan sticks made my entire eyelid swell to the size of a Bath bun.”

Michael knew that banter like this only served to distract him from thinking about what had happened. Or rather, from thinking about what he’d been feeling when it happened.

With his work as an agent, he had disciplined his emotions so that they would not lead him astray, no matter what might be happening around him. But since Richard had died, he had found it more and more difficult to keep a tight rein over his state of mind. And now that he was dependent upon the Root …

His heart rate suddenly broke into a gallop. Where the physical action of sparring with the women had not caused him to even breathe a little faster, suddenly sweat broke out upon his forehead, the back of his neck, the middle of his back. He suddenly felt as though his throat had closed, and he had to fight not to gasp and pant.

He squeezed his eyes closed, bowed his head, and rubbed his temples with his fingertips. The circular motion reminded him of when his mother would calm him during a thunderstorm, and the sudden rush of anxiety slowly began to leak out of his body like a dripping faucet.

“Mr. Coulton-Jones?” The voice was soft, and concerned for him, and a sweet tone he could have picked out of an entire buzzing ballroom. Miss Sauber patiently waited for his reply, which somehow helped him to calm himself.

“I am well,” he told her. “Slight headache.”

When he looked up, he saw Miss Gardinier still standing by the wall, although her body was rigid and swaying ever so slightly toward him. She had apparently had to fiercely prevent herself from rushing to his side, but Miss Sauber gave a small motion with her hand to her friend, and Miss Gardinier relaxed.

He was grateful for that mercy. Miss Gardinier meant well, and she was very thorough in ascertaining that he was still in good health, but she tended to be rather intensely focused, darting about him and poking at him. He felt rather more like an experiment than a patient.

Perhaps he was an experiment. After all, no one else had ever become a Berserker and lived.

He shut that thought down before his emotions could fly out of his control again.

Very few rooms in Stapytton House did not have some sort of hole in the wall or windows, but one room that was relatively comfortable to gather in was the butler’s pantry in the basement. It had once been a wine cellar, but the rotting wooden racks had been removed and a fancifully carved table placed inside with a mish-mash of chairs encircling it.

The men sat, but Mr. Drydale did not begin the meeting until the two women arrived with a tea tray laden with treats from Lady Wynwood’s cook, which Miss Sauber had brought with her from the townhouse. Mr. Drydale had at first objected to the refreshments, which seemed overly frivolous during a discussion of such serious matters, but then he’d grudgingly admitted he liked having hot tea in the cold room.

As Miss Gardinier was handing out teacups, she announced, “Before we begin, I have a request for Mr. Rosmont.” She shot him a sour look. “I hereby officially request your physical presence in my stillroom here at Stapytton House after the meeting. Today,” she added forcefully.

Her oddly specific demand was the result of Thorne finding excuses to avoid her during the last two team meetings they had had here at the house. She was only checking his health to ensure he was still feeling well and had fully recovered from breathing in the Goldensuit pollen, so Michael didn’t blame her for being irked by Thorne’s successful evasions.

The days after the French agents had been captured, Thorne had suffered from symptoms much like a putrid cough, and Miss Gardinier had ordered him to bedrest along with some rather vile-smelling tinctures for him to drink (which, Thorne admitted to Michael, he had poured into the chamber pot). But the headaches, chills and sweating had eventually passed, and for the last week, he had appeared to be normal.

“Miss Gardinier,” Michael said as he nonchalantly sipped his tea, “I asked my sister how Thorne was feeling, and she confirmed he hasn’t indicated he is still in pain or uncomfortable in any way.”

Thorne grunted in surprise and embarrassment, but Michael gave him an even look. He knew his friend was too accustomed to hiding his weaknesses—a byproduct of his years under his tyrant of a father—and would not be honest with Miss Gardinier, who was simply worried about the effects of the pollen on his health.

Miss Gardinier smiled in gratitude at the news, but still skewered Thorne with a sharp glare. “After the meeting. Today.”

“Yes, yes,” Thorne replied, conceding.

“Might as well report on everyone’s health.” Mr. Drydale gave Michael the same even look he’d given Thorne.

Michael grimaced, but replied readily. “Miss Gardinier has examined me regularly, roughly twice a week.”

“He is in good health,” she affirmed to Mr. Drydale. “His strength is still abnormally strong, but since I did not know how strong he was before, it is difficult to guess a percentage. He is approximately three times stronger than Mr. Rosmont. His speed and reflexes have decreased slightly, but he is still almost four times faster than Mr. Rosmont.”

At being unfavorably compared to him, Thorne frowned at Michael, who returned a cheeky grin.

“How often must you breathe in the Goldensuit pollen?” Mr. Drydale asked Michael.

He was more hesitant as he replied, “It is inconsistent how much time passes before the headaches and weakness returns to my body. Sometimes days, sometimes over a week.”

“I have been weighing and monitoring the amount of plant matter he is dosed with each time he comes to me for treatment,” Miss Gardinier added.

Michael shifted uncomfortably in his chair as he remembered the last dose. There was something about the pollen that made him crave it, something about the scent that he longed for. And yet another part of himself was absolutely repulsed by it.

But it was only because of that pollen that he was alive.

Mr. Drydale’s voice cut through his disturbing ruminations. “Now then, as to Mrs. Bianca Jadis’s protector …”

He had explained to all of them the information that Lady Wynwood had somehow gathered about Bianca. It had surprised Michael, but he was used to receiving information for his missions without knowing the source.

Mr. Drydale said, “I have asked around discreetly about Mr. Field Emsley, but none of my acquaintance—or even their acquaintance—were friendly with him, beyond a passing nod if they saw him at a party. But last night at a social gathering, I happened to speak to Lord Bambrough.”

Thorne sneered at the name, for he had been a crony of his father’s.

Mr. Drydale saw the gesture. “Yes, I don’t particularly like him myself, but he apparently knew Emsley—at least, well enough to introduce me to Emsley’s heir, Mr. Giles Cooper.”

Nearly everyone sat up straighter in their seats at this news.

“I requested an audience with Mr. Cooper this morning so that we may discuss Emsley’s affairs in private. Mr. Field Emsley apparently died from a mysterious wasting illness only a few months before Bianca married Mr. Carl Jadis. Since most of his friends believed his mistress was dead in France, where he had abandoned her, suspicion of poison fell upon his wife. However, nothing was proven since Emsley had been in town and Mrs. Emsley had been away at their country estate, and had no means to put anything in his food or his drink.”

“Was Mr. Cooper aware that Bianca had returned from France?” Miss Sauber asked.

“He learned of it only after Mr. Emsley had died, and after Mr. Cooper had inherited Emsley’s country estate,” Mr. Drydale said. “He had been forced the sell Emsley’s London townhouse to settle the man’s debts, but he confessed he had simply thrown away any fripperies that may have belonged to Bianca. He only visits town occasionally, so he did not hear about her until several months later, but naturally he did not feel a need to speak to her.”

“He knew nothing about her?” Michael asked.

“He only heard the rumors about her and never met her face-to-face. But he mentioned that when Emsley took Bianca to France with him, it was likely in order to look over an estate that he had inherited from a French grandmother. That is probably where the couple stayed and where Emsley abandoned Bianca. Mr. Cooper now owns the estate—he mentioned the name and the nearby village—but he has not traveled to France because of the war, so he has not ascertained the condition of the house.”

“Was Emsley part of Jack’s secret group, do you think?” Michael asked.

“We have been calling them the Gentians,” Miss Sauber said.

Mr. Drydale apparently hadn’t heard that before, because he looked to her with eyebrows raised. “Why Gentians?”

“The flowers in the symbol they use are gentian flowers,” Miss Sauber said. “They mean ‘victory,’ but I couldn’t hope to guess at what the Gentians mean by it.”

“France’s victory over England?” Thorne suggested darkly. “Seeing as how they offered the Root to Napoleon.”

“Have they really been hoping for that outcome since Lord Wynwood’s time?” Miss Gardinier asked.

It certainly suggested something about their thoughts and motivations.

“Calling them the Gentians makes things easier for us, at any rate,” Mr. Drydale said. “As to your question, Mr. Coulton-Jones, I have discovered nothing that may indicate Emsley belonged to the group, but he may have been skilled at hiding it, as Bianca was. Even Wynwood’s connection would have remained unknown if Phoebe had not found the pocket watch.”

“We think perhaps Bianca’s husband, Mr. Carl Jadis, was one of them,” Thorne said.

“Oh?” Miss Gardinier shifted in her seat in interest.

“Lady Wynwood graciously gave us the address of Bianca’s townhouse from when she … er, visited her just before her death,” Michael said. He couldn’t forget the look of pain that crossed her face as she handed him the slip of paper with the direction of her husband’s mistress’s home in Soho. “From there, we searched every church in the parish but could find nothing, so we expanded into the nearby parishes.”

“We finally found church records for Mr. Jadis,” Thorne said. “Specifically, the record of the death of Miss Deala Jadis in 1791. She was apparently his older sister.”

“We also found the record of Jadis’s marriage to Bianca in 1792,” Michael said. “He died rather suddenly in 1793, and Mrs. Jadis had his funeral at the same church in which they married, which was convenient for us.”

“Convenient for her, too,” Miss Gardinier muttered, and Miss Sauber jabbed an elbow into her side for her crass comment.

“Jadis’s townhouse went to his widow, naturally, so we asked around the same parishes as the church and Bianca’s home, sniffing out gossip,” Michael said. It was something he excelled in, because he would approach different people depending on his disguise, and they would be more likely to share juicy tidbits with him. “Jadis had bought his townhouse only a year or so before his sister died.”

“Where had they lived before?” Mr. Drydale asked.

Thorne shook his head. “Neither of us could find the answer. None of Jadis’s neighbors could remember where Mr. Jadis and Miss Jadis lived before they moved to the townhouse. Some seemed to have forgotten, but others seemed of the impression that the Jadis siblings had specifically not mentioned it.”

“We also ventured into Rachey Street and the environs to speak to a couple women whom we heard were Bianca’s friends,” Michael said. “But as far as they could recall, Bianca never mentioned anything about her husband’s past to them.”

“Who owns the townhouse now?” Mr. Drydale asked.

“According to the neighbors, there was some irregularity about the affair after Bianca died,” Thorne said. “They didn’t completely understand, but through some legal setup, after Bianca’s death, the house was sold by the attorney to a rich merchant rather than being inherited by Bianca’s younger sister.”

“We think the name of the merchant was Mr. Jonah Farnam,” Michael said, “or perhaps Farnham. The neighbors were not certain. At the moment, the house is let to the mistress of Sir Adderly.”

“What of Bianca’s sister?” Miss Sauber asked.

“The neighbors remembered her because they were quite concerned about her,” Michael said. “She had been living with her sister, but the day Bianca was found dead, she disappeared. In fact, Bianca’s body was found not by her sister, but by a friend who had visited her that day. The sister—Zephyra Irvine—was already missing.”

“If she was not killed,” Thorne said, “she is running for her life. Probably from whoever murdered her older sister.”

“Was it obvious to the neighbors that it was murder?” Miss Gardinier asked.

“Not particularly, although all the people we spoke with were shocked by the suddenness of it,” Michael said. “They were all surprised that Bianca would take her own life, but none of them thought it was too unusual.”

“Or perhaps,” Thorne said, “none of them wanted to believe it was unusual and poke their noses further into it.”

Mr. Drydale nodded. “Likely.”

“One other thing we discovered,” Michael said, “is that Mr. Jadis was apparently a botanist. At least, that is what he told his London neighbors.”

“A botanist?” Miss Sauber leaned forward. “Did he have a greenhouse or a garden?”

Michael shook his head. “If he did, no one knew about it. And Bianca never spoke to her neighbors of a greenhouse or a plot of land outside of London.”

“Was it inherited by her sister, or was that sold to Mr. Farnam also?” Miss Gardinier wondered. “I have heard nothing pleasant about Mrs. Jadis, but I am beginning to feel some pity for her poor sister.”

Privately, Michael agreed. “I’m afraid we’ve come to a dead end in finding any other people in London who can speak about Mr. Jadis before he arrived in town,” he said, “but we will keep our ears open.”

“Yes, it may come to nothing, but we must discover where the Jadis siblings lived before they moved into the townhouse,” Mr. Drydale said. “If we speak with their former neighbors from their previous residence, someone might know the name of a relative.”

Michael said, “In the meantime, I will attempt to find and speak to the merchant who bought Jadis’s townhouse.”

“Be very cautious,” Mr. Drydale said. “Because of the way the house was sold, the merchant may be connected to the Gentians.”

“Of course,” Michael said. “I will remain in disguise.”

“Mr. Rosmont and I shall attempt to find the attorney who sold the house,” Mr. Drydale said. “Mr. Rosmont, please ask around the neighborhood, and I shall ask my contacts.”

“It likely goes without saying, but you and Mr. Rosmont should also exercise extreme caution, Uncle Sol,” Miss Sauber said in a chiding voice.

“Yes,” Miss Gardinier said, “Bianca’s attorney could very well be the same as Jack’s, or any other of the Gentians, and you mustn’t alert them to the fact that someone is looking into Mr. or Mrs. Jadis.”

The men nodded, and Mr. Drydale asked, “Miss Gardinier, how is Sep’s recovery coming along? I heard you spoke to Dr. Shokes yesterday.”

“He is improving,” she said. “Today marks exactly four weeks from when Jack injured his knee in the stable, and the swelling has completely gone down at last. When Dr. Shokes saw to him, Mr. Ackett was able to move his knee freely without any pain.”

“That is excellent news,” Michael said. “I had dinner with him this week and he looked very gloomy. I had to tease him about the sorry state of his nose.” While fighting Silas, just before he was captured by Jack, Sep’s nose had been broken in the fight. While Dr. Shokes had (quite painfully) straightened it, his once knife-straight nose was looking rather crooked.

“Didn’t you have dinner with him last week, also?” Thorne asked. “You are going to look like a fretting mother hen. Shall I call you Lady Cluck-Cluck?”

Thorne sat close enough for Michael to aim a well-placed kick on one of his long legs. The blow made his entire chair pitched upward for a few inches before thudding back down.

Mr. Drydale glared at their juvenile antics. “I have been visiting him when I can, as well, but he is often not at home.”

“He’s been at Aunt Laura’s house,” Miss Sauber said. “He’s searching for more of Uncle Wynwood’s hiding places.” She gave Mr. Drydale an admonishing look. “He’s well aware that it’s only meant to keep him busy.”

“Of course it’s meant to keep him busy,” he retorted. “I’ve known him most of his life. He’s likely to brood around his mother’s home and get underfoot of the servants.”

“However, it is undeniable that he has been quite clever and creative about coming up with ideas for where to look,” Miss Sauber said thoughtfully. “He found a hiding spot behind a wall in Uncle Wynwood’s dressing room.”

“He did?” Michael asked, at the same time Mr. Drydale demanded, “Why was I not informed of this?”

“There was nothing in it.” Miss Sauber shrugged. “I’m afraid Mr. Ackett is running out of places to look. But he appears to be moving about quite smoothly. His knee doesn’t seem to pain him at all, even when he was climbing into the attic.”

“He may appear normal, but because his normal level of activity has been hampered for four weeks, he is still weak,” Miss Gardinier said. “Dr. Shokes has been helping him to recover his lost leg strength.”

Michael idly supposed that Sep was missing his usual practice of running across London rooftops. “Will he be recovered soon?”

“I believe so,” Miss Gardinier said. “Phoebe, if he is at your aunt’s house today, ask him if I may see him tomorrow here at Stapytton House. And Mr. Drydale, I would appreciate if you would send him a note, in the event Phoebe does not see him.” Miss Gardinier preferred to treat their various ills here at the house, since her stillroom was now stuffed with all manner of medicines, poultices, and tinctures.

“I asked about Septimus because I’m afraid we need more boots on the streets of London,” Mr. Drydale said. “It has been difficult to find information on one or two specific men with only the three of us.”

“Isabella apologizes that she has not been available lately,” Thorne said. “Her mother ate too many lobster patties at a party last week and has been feeling poorly, so Isabella has been caring for her.”

“I thought she was feeling better.” Michael had visited her last week, but had left quickly because his mother had simply complained to him about his lack of attendance upon the Season’s parties. She was apparently being hounded by mothers of eligible daughters. It had been painful to him that he had to lie to her, and he hadn’t been able to endure the anguished expression that suffused Isabella’s face before she quickly hid it from their parent.

“Mrs. Coulton-Jones is feeling well enough to send Isabella running her errands and reading to her in bed, but not well enough to do without her company,” Thorne said.

“If she becomes available, I may ask her to infiltrate the merchant’s household,” Mr. Drydale said thoughtfully. “Disguised as a young boy, she would be able to discover things that grown men could not learn.”

“We could help you, Uncle Sol,” Miss Sauber said. Miss Gardinier nodded agreement.

“I would prefer you continue to work on your experiments,” he said. “Mr. Coulton-Jones’s life is dependent on your plant studies, and Miss Gardinier’s sedatives are the only things enabling us to match any of Jack’s men who are on the Root.”

“At the very least, we needn’t have one of you to guard us at the house,” Miss Gardinier said. “We shall be perfectly safe with only Mr. Havner.”

“That is why I wondered about Septimus’s condition. He may feel we are merely pandering to his ego, but his work at Laura’s house is quite important. I know Wynwood, and he would not have had only one hidden pocket space. He would have had several, with different things hidden within each. But if Sep is now coming up dry, and if he is on the road to recovery, it may be best to have him here, guarding you, where Miss Gardinier may monitor his progress.”

Miss Gardinier’s eyes lit up. “That would be most ideal. Dr. Shokes has recently shown me some exercises and stretches for Mr. Ackett to perform to strengthen his leg. He may perform them here. Dr. Shokes may even be able to come here to guide and direct his efforts.”

“The plants do not always require my entire day,” Miss Sauber said. “In disguise, perhaps with Calvin and Clara, I could help you and the others investigate the merchant …”

“Firstly,” Mr. Drydale replied dryly, “Laura would gut me. Secondly, I’m certain she has need of her pageboy and scullery maid during the day.”

Miss Sauber sighed, probably realizing—as Michael had—that Mr. Drydale and Lady Wynwood would not allow her to wander the streets of London alone, no matter how clever her disguise. “At the very least, direct me to whom I should speak with at evening engagements,” she insisted. “You are yourself gossiping with various men at your club, so why could I not chat with their wives or sisters at balls and soirees?”

The idea had merit, and Michael was surprised Mr. Drydale had not requested such from Miss Sauber in the past two weeks.

Mr. Drydale had the expression of a man about to be forced to down a particularly nasty medicine. “Actually, Laura and I discussed this two weeks ago. We even looked over the social events to which she had sent in both her acceptances and regrets. However, the men connected to Mr. Emsley, at least, are not of the highest caliber, and we had determined that they or even their female relations were unlikely to attend the events to which Lady Wynwood had been invited.”

Michael knew that Lady Wynwood did not value a person’s family name or titles or wealth, but she had strong moral requirements of the people she associated with. Those engaged in morally questionable activities were avoided, no matter if they were from an ancient family or owned the largest mansion in Grosvenor Square.

Michael had half-expected Miss Sauber to continue arguing, but she seemed to see the logic in his decision. However, her disappointment was writ large upon her face.

Perhaps to comfort her, Mr. Drydale added, “I can honestly say that if I thought there was a situation in which I could use your help, I would not hesitate. You have already proven you have sufficient mettle and your acting skills are superb. However, what you and Miss Gardinier are doing here is equally important.” He turned to Miss Gardinier. “Have you given everyone knives laced with sedative?”

“Yes, although …” She tilted her head in thought. “It might be best to have the sedative reapplied today or tomorrow. The paste loses its potency the older it is, and I should not wish you to enter into a fight with sedative that is less than full strength.”

At the thought of facing Berserkers with old sedative, several faces around the table grimaced.

“If any of you encounter a Berserker with only one or two sedative knives, I should hope all of you would have the good sense to run,” Mr. Drydale said sternly. “We can always gather together and come at them more prepared.”

“I have made copious amounts of sedative, so that we will have enough should something happen.” Miss Gardinier swallowed, and a look of worry flitted across her face as her eyes darted to Michael.

He knew she was not afraid of him, but she was right to be cautious. He did not know what might happen to him, and if the Root in his veins caused him to lose control again, he would want this team to be prepared.

“How much?” Mr. Drydale asked.

“Enough for five Berserkers, or ten to twelve men on the Root.”

“If we encounter both …” Thorne said.

“I am waiting on more ingredients to make more,” she replied. “However, I didn’t wish to make too large a batch only to have it be less effective by the time you must use it.”

Mr. Drydale nodded approval. “Have you finished the new sedative formula?”

Michael was about to ask why they needed a new sedative formula, but then he remembered what Thorne had told him weeks ago, when he first awoke. When they had gone to rescue Sep in the stable, Nick had become a Berserker and they had sedated him. But Silas had taken his unconscious body, and Miss Gardinier was concerned that Jack might be able to change the Root recipe to be able to resist the effects of the original sedative. It had also taken a much larger amount of sedative to incapacitate Nick compared to Michael, so she had wanted to make the sedative stronger.

“It is nearly completed,” Miss Gardinier said. “Perhaps a few days, perhaps a week. I cannot be certain.”

Mr. Drydale nodded. He asked Miss Sauber, “How are the Goldensuit plants we took from Jack and Maner?”

She shook her head. “I am at my wit’s end. The Goldensuit plants are very much like poppy plants, but they do not grow quite like poppies. I am uncertain if they have different nutritional requirements. Only two of the Goldensuit plants have died, fortunately, but the ones remaining are very sickly.”

“The Goldensuit is different from Jack’s hybrid? Which one is keeping Michael alive?” Thorne asked. His question was heartlessly blunt, but Michael could hear the concern in his tone. They had been friends since they were children, and although they had both undertaken dangerous missions for the Foreign Office, he had never heard Thorne sound so anxious about his well-being. It was perhaps because of the way Michael’s life had been rescued by Miss Gardinier’s sedative, when the Root should have killed kim.

“Only a few of the Goldensuit plants were flowering,” Miss Sauber replied. “We have much more pollen from Jack’s hybrid. We have tested the two types, and the Goldensuit has worked best, but we have too little pollen. Yet with the hybrid pollen, Mr. Coulton-Jones is ill again more quickly.”

“But even if we are able make the Goldensuit flower, using its pollen cannot be a long-term solution,” Miss Gardinier said. “Each time, the pollen’s effects are less and less potent.”

“What have you learned of Jack’s hybrid plants?” Mr. Drydale asked.

“I know now why Jack created the hybrid,” Miss Sauber said. “It is much easier to grow than the Goldensuit. However, the plant is very inconsistent.”

“What do you mean by that?” Mr. Drydale asked.

“We noticed this before, when looking at the Root sample, but it is more apparent now that we can compare different hybrid plants,” Miss Sauber said. “When we compare leaves under a microscope, the hybrid plants are all alike, but when we compare the roots, they look different from each other. And the roots of the plants are the main ingredient in Jack’s elixir.”

“I believe this may be why the Root elixir has been causing only some men to become Berserkers, and why Mr. Shokes reacted to the Root in a different way than Nick or Mr. Coulton-Jones,” Miss Gardinier said. “The plant matter in the different vials of the Root elixir are a mix of different types and perhaps cause different effects.”

“Have you discovered how Jack made the hybrid plants?” Mr. Drydale asked.

“Not yet,” Miss Sauber said with an apologetic look. “The French agents did not care for the plants very well, and almost all of them were dry and wilted when I first acquired them. It has taken all my effort to ensure they do not die.”

Thorne appeared to be alarmed to hear this, and glanced at Michael.

Miss Sauber noticed his reaction and said, “In trying to grow the Goldensuit, I have not yet exhausted my knowledge. We are doing all we can to determine how to wean Mr. Coulton-Jones from the Root, so that his life may no longer be in danger.”

It was encouraging that she seemed hellbent upon growing the Goldensuit successfully in order to try to save him. She might have shot him—twice—but she was working tirelessly so that he would not die.

He felt it again, that niggling twist of discomfort in his guts, the rapid fire beating of his heart. He wanted to close his eyes and rub his temples again, but he knew Miss Gardinier would insist upon checking him. So he turned his head to the side and stared at a dark corner of the wine cellar, concentrating on his breath, expanding his stomach to breathe in a thin stream of air through his nose, then expelling it slowly. After a few minutes, his heart rate slowed.

He couldn’t continue doing this. He couldn’t continue hiding this from people. He also didn’t know why it struck now, why he hadn’t been more emotionally unstable after he awoke. But it was only after the French agents had been captured and killed—nine entire days after he’d woken up—that he had started feeling these moments of anxiety.

And always it was about the Root and the inevitability of his death. He had faced mortal danger many times on missions, but this situation was turning him inside out. Perhaps because it was the dark, ominous dread that was approaching so slowly. Perhaps because this time, his sister was caught up in the storm and he regretted causing her so much sorrow. Perhaps because this time, he was regretting what—who—he was leaving behind, a woman who had become more than simply a strong fancy, who had become real and vibrant and dazzling.

When he felt more himself, he turned his attention back to the table. Mr. Drydale was speculating about the initials that had been found in the pocket watch, how the X in front of them may indicate that the person was dead when Wynwood wrote the note. It would explain why there was an X in front of “C. J.,” Carl Jadis, if those were his initials.

Then the meeting ended. Mr. Drydale was succinct and efficient and did not allow much time for rambling discussion.

As Thorne rose from his seat, his eyes fell on Michael with a troubled expression. Michael tried to ignore it, although with anyone else—such as Isabella—the act of avoidance would only make her nag him.

But this was Thorne, and he wouldn’t say anything in front of everyone else. So he blinked, and then his face became a neutral mask again. He nodded to the table in general as he left the butler’s pantry.

Michael was about to rise to his feet, but suddenly Miss Sauber appeared beside him, ostensibly taking his empty teacup. But she laid a discreet hand on his forearm, a signal for him to remain.

If it had been Isabella, he would have been certain he didn’t wish to hear what she had to say and would have ignored her with all the cheekiness and authority of an older brother’s rights. But this was Miss Sauber, and while he still didn’t think he wanted to hear what she had to ask him, he couldn’t find it in himself to ignore her.

And perhaps he should be more conscious of the conversations he would otherwise have avoided. Since he would soon not have them any longer.

He sighed to himself at his melancholy thoughts.

Miss Gardinier was the last to leave, pausing at the open doorway to glance at her friend, but there must have been something in Miss Sauber’s expression that conveyed some message, because she hurried out after that. And at last it was only himself and Miss Sauber in the room.

“I apologize if I am prying,” she said, uncharacteristically hesitant, “but … how are you truly feeling?”

His reaction was so automatic, he didn’t even stop to think. “I’m quite well, I assure you.”

The tendons in her neck tightened briefly, as if she’d endured a slap. She gave a small, tight smile and lowered her gaze. “Of course. After all, you look quite healthy.”

The hurt in her expression made him feel as if he’d been slapped. He was simply so used to hiding his feelings, not only in his capacity as an agent for the Crown, but also because he was used to hiding his feelings even from himself.

She continued gathering the teacups onto a tray, avoiding his gaze while the silence stretched between them tighter and tighter, and he tensed as if waiting for it to suddenly break. But then she simply curtsied and left him be.

That was perhaps even worse, because he’d driven her away. She had known he would likely not wish to talk to her, and she had known he had been lying directly to her face, and yet she had reached out to him. Because she wanted to help him.

He was such a wretched churl.

Disgusted with himself, he left the house as quickly as he could, saddling his horse and heading back to town. As he rode, the emotions began bubbling inside him, everything he’d been striving to hold down. But it was useless to simply slam a lid down on a boiling soup pot.

He didn’t manage his emotions well. He knew this, and he had always been like this. And now, everything was stewing inside him—the fear and dread of his possible death, the devastation and loss of Richard’s death, the frustration of being unable to find the killer.

Whenever he felt like this, uncertain and discomposed, he would speak to Richard, and his brother would always say something to help him feel better. Richard’s faith in God had seemed to grow stronger in the year after their father suddenly passed away and just before Isabella married. Michael had always been the wild, reckless one while Richard was the calm, dependable one, and as Michael grew older, he grew to need Richard’s presence and guidance more and more, especially during the short days or weeks when he would return to England between missions. It made Richard’s murder so much worse, because Michael was back on English soil, but his brother wasn’t here.

And now soon, Michael wouldn’t be here anymore, either.

If only he had been smarter and recognized that what Richard had found—the symbol, the scarred man who might have killed Albert—had been information much too dangerous for an ordinary citizen to know. If only he had been more concerned about Richard than his job as an agent for the Foreign Office.

But he hadn’t, and Richard’s death was his fault. He was whining about feeling upset that he was dying—when he’d faced death several times before this in France—and that Richard wasn’t here to cheer him up. But Richard wasn’t here because Michael had made a terrible, terrible mistake, and the consequences had been tragic. He had blundered like an ox in a china shop. Destroying everything.

He had destroyed Isabella’s peace, too. If he couldn’t speak to Richard, he would sometimes talk to Isabella. But his sister was barely keeping herself from flying into a million pieces. She had always been close to their mother, but now there was a horrid secret she was keeping from their remaining parent, and it was hurting her because she couldn’t speak of it to anyone. She avoided talking to Michael about what might happen to him, probably because she didn’t wish to distress him, but it was clearly distressing her. She would be alarmed if he revealed his emotional anguish. At the moment, her heart seemed exceptionally fragile, and he guessed that it was because she was afraid of losing him as she had lost Richard.

But Michael also didn’t wish to talk to her because then he’d have to confront the truth that he was the reason Isabella had lost her eldest brother.

He was so used to the guilt by now that it felt like a slow burning, like a festering wound. He knew he ought to clean it out but it was too swollen, too sensitive to the lightest touch, too excruciatingly painful. He didn’t want to disturb it.

He knew Isabella wouldn’t want to blame him. She would try to forgive him, but the truth was that what he’d done wasn’t something that should be forgiven. The truth that Michael had caused Richard’s death would be a thorn pricking her heart every time she looked at him.

And the knowledge in her eyes of what Michael had done would pierce that festering wound he felt. It was a wound that couldn’t be healed, so perhaps it was just as well that the Goldensuit would eventually kill him.

Until it did, he would fight to protect what was important to him, the people who were important to him.

***


Start the series with Lady Wynwood’s Spies, volume 1: Archer:
Part one in a Christian Regency Romantic Adventure epic serial novel with a supernatural twist

She met him again by shooting him.

After four seasons and unmarried because she is taller than most of her dance partners, Miss Phoebe Sauber receives the shocking news that she is being callously banished from her father’s estate because he is remarrying. Feeling betrayed by her father and by God, and wanting to escape her family’s presence, she attends an archery tournament with her friends.

But her perfect aim fails her, and her arrow hits a piece of paper held by Mr. Michael Coulton-Jones, whom she hasn’t seen much in society in several years. But strangely, her arrow tears a section of the paper with a partial symbol that looks eerily familiar to her.

He met her again while searching for a killer.

Michael had quit his work as a spy for the Foreign Office when his brother was poisoned. His search for the murderer leads him to Apothecary Jack, a criminal underworld leader with a penchant for poisons, who is gathering a powerful army through an alchemical potion that can give men supernatural strength.

But his path unexpectedly crosses again with Miss Sauber, who saves him from a trap laid by Jack. She and her Aunt Laura, Lady Wynwood, have found a vital connection to Apothecary Jack and the mysterious group he works for.

Now Michael, who had vowed to never again allow civilians to come to harm, must work with a nobleman keeping dangerous secrets, a human lie detector, a chemist, a fellow former spy, and the one woman he’s never allowed himself to get close to.

And it is only this ragtag group that stands against a traitorous organization that could enable Napoleon to conquer the world.

PLEASE NOTE: Like the novels published in Jane Austen’s time, this is a novel in multiple parts. Each volume has a completed story arc, but this is NOT a stand-alone novel and ends on a cliffhanger.

Kindle
Paperback

Don’t have a Kindle?

Unfortunately, the book will only be in Amazon for now. However, if you buy a copy on Amazon and would like to read it on your non-Kindle reader, forward the receipt of your purchase to me at camys.loft@gmail.com and I’ll have BookFunnel send you an .epub copy of the file so you can side load it onto your ebook reader. (If you have any trouble downloading your review copy, please click the help link at the top of the download page. The friendly folks at BookFunnel will help you get your book.) You might also be able to download a DRM-free copy from Amazon through “Your Content and Devices” page on the Amazon website.

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