Late August, 1815
Gentleman John Jackson’s Boxing Saloon
“What are you doing here?” Maximillian Smythe, the Earl of Carlton, glared at the gentleman stepping into the boxing ring with him. Both men were stripped to the waist and wearing boxing gloves, as was required of them by the owner of the boxing saloon, Gentleman Jack. Maxim’s bared torso revealed the many scars upon his skin, most especially the long and disfiguring scar that began at his lower back and circumvented his waist to stop just short of his navel. “Where is Devil?”
Dominik Sinclair, the Duke of Stonewell, gave a tight and humorless smile. “I advised he step aside after seeing the damage you have already inflicted upon Wolf and Dante this past week.” Nik quirked a challenging brow. “You have some objection to fighting me in his stead?”
“None at all.” Maxim needed an outlet for his present aggressive and agitated state of mind, and he had no preference which of his seven friends, known collectively in Society as The Sinners, chose to meet his challenge.
The other man nodded, and the two began the fight.
Within minutes, Maxim realized the two of them were equally matched, and that Nik had some aggression of his own to vent.
By the end of the fifth round, both men were bloody and bruised and breathing hard, their upper bodies covered in a sheen of perspiration. Nik also sported the beginnings of a black eye, and Maxim’s bottom lip was swollen and bleeding.
“Shall we call it a draw and be done with it?” Nik prompted as they stood outside the ring, toweling down and drinking water before commencing the next round.
Maxim was tempted to resume the fight, his bad mood by no means appeased. But he was wise enough to know he and Nik would only continue to knock the hell out of each other, with neither the winner. Besides, he had no real wish to cause his friend harm.
Nik was not the target of his anger. That was directed toward the female traitor who had passed on information that had enabled Napoleon to escape Elba earlier this year to once again wreak death and havoc across the Continent before his eventual surrender at Waterloo.
The deposed emperor was now safely on his way to a second incarceration, this time on the remote island of St. Helena, where he would hopefully remain for the rest of his life. But the search for the English traitor, known to be a woman, continued. Many soldiers had died during Napoleon’s months of escape, and someone must be brought to account for those deaths.
As secret agents working for the Crown these past ten years, the eight gentlemen referred to as The Sinners were the perfect choice to carry out such a mission.
Maxim nodded abruptly as he thrust forward a gloved hand. “Draw.”
Nik returned the gesture, the two gloves meeting as an end to the fight.
“Which of the ladies’ names did you choose?” the duke prompted as the two men finished drying themselves off before dressing.
“Does it matter?” Maxim saw no reason to pretend he did not understand the question, the eight Sinners having several weeks ago all chosen a woman’s name from Stonewell’s top hat for them to pursue and prove innocent or guilty.
Nik straightened his snowy-white cuff beneath his black superfine. “Perhaps you would care to exchange names with me?”
None of the other seven Sinners knew whom Nik had chosen on the night the eight men had picked those names from his top hat.
The three Sinners who had already pursued their lady of choice, and proven her innocence, had subsequently married the lady. Maxim knew there was absolutely no possibility that would happen to him and the woman he was to investigate.
“Perhaps.” Maxim nodded cautiously.
Nik reached into his waistcoat to bring out a scrap of paper similar to the one currently burning a hole in the pocket of Maxim’s own waistcoat. The other man handed it over.
Maxim unfolded the paper, brows rising to his hairline as he read the name. “Truly?”
“Truly,” his friend confirmed harshly.
He handed the paper back to Nik. “I believe I shall be traveling to my estate in Cornwall in the very near future after all.” The necessity of which was the true demon he had been fighting against this past week.
Nik nodded, his mouth a thin and uncompromising line. “Prinny has suggested you might use the guise of checking into the continuing problem of smuggling in the area as the reason for your visit. The last magistrate in the area was your late father, and Prinny has little faith in the gentleman who has taken his place.”
“Who is it?”
“Sir Walter Turner.”
Maxim’s brows rose. “Is that not a little like putting a fox in charge of the henhouse?” He knew Turner of old, and was aware he and his family had been actively involved in the smuggling in Cornwall for several centuries.
“No doubt,” Nik drawled.
Maxim now had a legitimate and open reason for visiting Cornwall, rather than the clandestine investigation of the possible female traitor.
Unfortunately, it was not a reason that would endear him to any of the Turner family.
The same family to whom the lady he was to investigate belonged.