The Scandalous Lady Mercy(4)

By: Maggi Andersen

“He’s flushed with success after two of his daughters married dukes, I daresay.” Hugh straightened his long narrow frame. “I have a yen to ask one of the Abbott sisters for the next dance.”

“Not particular which one?” Grant asked with a grin.

Hugh shook his head. “Pretty as peas in a pod.” He took himself off and strolled toward the dark-haired twins who sat with their chaperone.

When Lady Mercy parted from Bellamy, Grant walked toward her. Ahead of him, a tall broad-shouldered man loomed out of the crowd, his coppery hair gleaming in the candlelight. He reached Lady Mercy before Grant could. A friend of Grant’s, Lord Gunn turned to give him a sympathetic grin, then bowed before the slender girl and her mother. Grant paused, smoothed his gloves and watched Lady Baxendale’s distinctly cool greeting. He chuckled. Gunn was a favorite of the King and a wealthy landowner in Scotland, but he didn’t appear to be welcomed with any degree of warmth.

Grant turned away. Not like him to be caught by a young lady in her first Season, but she’d met his gaze with frank curiosity, which was not the usual debutante’s reaction to him. They either blushed and simpered or looked utterly terrified. Still, it might be wise to abandon the impulse to flirt with Mercy Baxendale. There was a very good reason why he couldn’t consider marriage, that even his closest friends and family knew nothing about. He needed to keep that in the forefront of his mind.

As Grant sat at the card table in the games room, Colonel Black rested a large hand on Grant’s shoulder and leaned down close to his ear. “Might I have a word with you in the library, Northcliffe?”

At a rush of smoldering excitement, Grant nodded. He threw his hand in.

Horace Porter glared at him across the table. He’d suffered heavy losses tonight. “Tossing it in rather early, aren’t you, Northcliffe? I’d like a chance to win my money back.”

“I may give you that chance, later,” Grant said, gathering up coins and vowels with a nod of polite apology.

Porter sniggered. “Perhaps you’ll have better luck with Lady Alethea.”

Tempted to teach the man a lesson in manners, Grant’s hands curled around the back of the chair. Remembering Black, he let the chair go. “You are welcome to try your luck there, Porter. But I suspect your bad luck will hold.”

Ignoring Porter’s snarl, and the laughs around the table, Grant left the room and headed down a corridor in the vast townhouse. He opened the library door and crossed the Turkish carpet to the upright figure, who stood with his back to the empty grate as if warming himself.

Black shrugged. “Force of habit.” He waved Grant into a chair. “Gossip doing the rounds about you,” he said in his gruff voice.

Grant sank back into the leather armchair wondering what was afoot. “So I’ve heard.”

The colonel offered him a cheroot, and when Grant declined, lit up and leaned back. “Not a bad thing to keep society guessing.”

“I’d prefer a different topic,” Grant said with a shrug.

“I daresay.” Black puffed out a circle of acrid smoke. “We have a job for you.”

Grant nodded and folded his arms, hiding his intense interest behind a cool exterior. He and Black had formed part of a shooting party at his father’s hunting lodge. Black had confessed admiration for Grant’s accuracy with a gun with some relief, after Black stumbled into a rabbit hole while in the path of a charging stag. Grant had felled it with one shot. Black later admitted that while seeking more recruits for intelligence, he’d done some digging into Grant’s past. He’d first dismissed Grant as a dandy, but after that shoot, and seeing what a cool head he had under pressure, he’d changed his mind.

It was true that after Oxford, Grant, at a loose end, enjoyed indolent pursuits with his university friends. When in the country, they indulged in shooting parties, hunted, and bet on the turf. During the Season, they visited the fashionable clubs, White’s and Brooks to play cards or Gentleman Jackson’s to box. Grant improved his aim at Manton’s shooting gallery. He drove his curricle around town with a team of horses, and exercised his gelding in Hyde Park. Their nights saw them at gambling hells, or the theatre with Cyprians.

The shallowness of such a life had long since palled when Black approached him. Perhaps because Grant’s father had refused his request to join the army and oust Napoleon at age sixteen, he snatched at Black’s suggestion with enthusiasm. And after a brief schooling in the art of intelligence work, he’d undertaken the covert and sometimes dangerous job of working for the Crown. There was another reason he’d accepted such work, deep seated, that Grant preferred not to revisit often; not to have his family believe him to be a wastrel. Grant sought to measure up to expectations before his grandfather died. His father was a more difficult proposition. Grant feared he grappled with depression after his mother died.