Stonewell House, London
Midnight, late July,1815
“Good God, Dante, what is wrong with you?” Dominik Sinclair, the Duke of Stonewell, opened the side door of his London town house wider so as to allow Dante admittance from the pitch black of the night outside.
Dante perfectly understood the other man’s surprise at his appearance. He had sent word to Nik earlier this evening of his urgent need to speak with the other man privately. His footman had returned immediately with Nik’s invitation for Dante to call on him at Stonewell House at midnight. A time, Dante knew, long after Nik would have ensured the rest of the household had retired for the night.
Dante was aware, as the fashionable and eligible Duke of Huntley, he was considered to be a gentleman of impeccable taste and style. Not so tonight. His dark hair, which was inclined to curl, was a tousled mess from hours of running his fingers through it. His clothing was less than sartorial or elegant, being slightly creased because he had been wearing the same jacket and pantaloons all day and evening.
“This is what is wrong with me.” He took a crumpled piece of paper from the pocket of his waistcoat for the other man to see.
The eight friends, known as The Sinners by Society, were also agents secretly working for the Crown. Two weeks ago, they had all chosen a piece of paper at random from Stonewell’s top hat, on which a lady’s name was written. Each of them was to pursue the lady whose name was written on their own piece of paper.
Evidence pointed to one of those eight ladies, and it was not known which, being guilty of assisting in Napoleon’s successful escape from Elba five months ago, allowing him to begin his hundred days of taking back much of his empire. All that had come to a halt at the Battle of Waterloo last month, when Napoleon’s army was defeated and he was forced to surrender.
The Crown wished for the traitor of five months ago to be identified and imprisoned, before she might offer further assistance to the deposed emperor as he waited to learn his fate for a second time.
Stonewell frowned slightly. “You have a problem with this lady?”
Dante scowled darkly. “I had hoped Wolf would be able to settle the matter this past week. Instead, he has proven Lady Hanwell’s innocence, announced it is his intention to marry her, and we are all invited to attend the wedding next month!”
Stonewell poured brandy into two glasses before handing one to Dante and resuming his seat beside the fire. “Leaving you with no choice but to now ascertain Lady Aston’s guilt or innocence. Time, as you know, is of the essence.”
Dante barely noticed the burn of the alcohol as it made a fiery path down his throat to settle uncomfortably in his empty stomach. Food had held no appeal for him today. Nor did he acknowledge the other man’s indication he should occupy the seat opposite his, as he instead began to pace on the carpet in front of the hearth. “Perhaps you have forgotten, but she was not always Lady Aston.”
“I did not forget,” the other man assured him evenly.
Dante scowled at the admission. “And what if one of our friends had chosen Bella’s name instead of me?”
Stonewell shrugged his broad shoulders. “Then I doubt I would be having this conversation.”
Dante frowned his frustration. “She was my cousin’s stepdaughter.”
The other man nodded. “Her deceased father was French and her mother Spanish.”
“That proves nothing,” Dante dismissed. “Many of England’s nobility have French and Spanish relatives.”
“I did not say it was relevant. I am merely stating the facts as I know them,” Stonewell gently rebuked. “I am also aware, after your cousin’s death seven years ago, his stepdaughter, Isabella Clairmont, became the ward of the same gentleman who was your own guardian until you reached the age of one and twenty. Your paternal uncle, the previous Duke of Huntley.”
Dante’s mouth tightened. “Why are you telling me what I already know?”
“So that you are aware I know.”
“Bella remained the duke’s ward for only one month before she eloped with Aston.”
Stonewell took another sip of his brandy. “And now she is a widow, and one of the eight—now seven ladies,” he corrected, “who are suspected guilty of treason. I am sure, if it is that much of a problem for you, one of the other Sinners would happily exchange the name of his own choice and take over investigating Lady Aston—”
“No!” Dante had to force himself to unclench the hand not holding the brandy glass. He could not accept the possibility of any of his six close friends investigating, or worse, seducing Bella into admitting her guilt or proving her innocence. “No,” he repeated. “I will do it,” he accepted heavily. Far better him than watching one of his friends pursuing Bella.
Even if being anywhere near Bella again was the very last thing he wanted.
Dante had absolutely no idea of the tormented man he had left behind at Stonewell House as Nik looked at the name written on his own crumpled and dog-eared piece of paper.
Only six women left for his friends to investigate before he would be forced into investigating her.