Excerpt for No Rest for the Wicked by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





No Rest for the Wicked

The Heart of a Hero Series


Cora Lee





Copyright © 2017 by Cora Lee


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.


ISBN 9781944477011


More Than Words Press

PO Box 480 042

New Haven, MI 48048


http://coraleeauthor.wordpress.com/more-than-words-press/


Cover by Elaina Lee, For the Muse Design.


Editing by Jude Simms.




To the everyday superheroes who fight to make this world a better place.

Thank you.





What if your favorite superheroes had Regency-era doppelgangers? And what if a group of them were recruited by the Duke of Wellington to gather intelligence for him during the Napoleonic Wars while they protected their own parts of the realm?


You'd get The Heart of a Hero series.


And this is how it begins.





He will soon find that there is no rest for the wicked, no place on earth wherein the criminal can hide his devoted head.

—Joseph Moser, Esq.

Zemira; or, The Fisherman of Dehli, An Oriental Tale, 1807



Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

The Heart of a Hero Series

Excerpt: Only a Hero Will Do

Excerpt: Once Bitten

Excerpt: Lightning Strikes Twice

Excerpt: No Hiding for the Guilty

Excerpt: The Marquis of Thunder

Excerpt: The Good, The Bad, And The Scandalous

Excerpt: The Archer’s Paradox

Excerpt: The Missing Duke

Excerpt: The Mercenary Pirate

About the Author

Other Books By Cora Lee



Chapter One


Dublin, July 1808


Joanna Pearson stood in front of the door deep within the part of Dublin known as The Liberties, trying to decide what to say to the occupant of the room beyond it and to quell the strange feeling in her stomach. Her previous missions had been straightforward enough: locate the subject, relay the invitation from her employer, and make arrangements for the subject to travel securely on the appointed day.

But none of the other subjects had been her estranged husband.

It had been five years since she’d last laid eyes on him, sleeping peacefully in their bed. Light from the rising sun had illuminated his dark hair and long lashes, giving him a faintly angelic appearance that contrasted starkly with the scars on his body. Her courage had nearly failed her then, and she’d had to stop herself from lying back down beside him. But a spy didn’t get to choose her missions, and Joanna had slipped quietly out of the door without looking back.

If only this door was as easy to negotiate as that one had been.

She could hear his voice inside, ringing with the refined English accent of the educated. There came several muffled responses, a flurry of movement, then the door flew open and a knot of children rushed out.

Joanna jumped out of the way, listening to them chatter among themselves as they made their way down the stairs. She peered around the doorframe and, seeing no further traffic, quietly entered the room.

Michael Devlin was bending over a small table paging through tattered books, his back to the door. But before she’d completed her first step inside the room he straightened.

“Joanna?”

He spoke without turning around—he’d always been good at detecting her presence—so she addressed the back of his white linen shirt in the soft Dublin brogue she’d been practicing. “Michael. It’s been a long time.”

He thumbed the topmost book closed. “If you’ve come looking for your husband, I’m afraid he might need some convincing to speak with you.”

“I expect he would—and I owe him that much, at the very least. But it isn’t my husband I need today.”

“Oh?”

She swung the door closed and moved further into the room. “I need to speak with the Demon of Dublin’s Hell.”

He turned sharply at that, his eyes locking onto hers. “Why?”

“I have a message for him.”

“What message?”

Knowing he wouldn’t come to her, she crossed the remainder of the small chamber before handing him a sealed letter. “Your presence is requested. Or rather, the Demon’s is.”

“By whom?”

“See for yourself.”

He took the letter and broke the wax seal, his brown eyes slowly scanning the page. “Sir Arthur Wellesley?”

Joanna nodded, catching the familiar scent of Michael’s shaving soap. “He’s a lieutenant general now, readying a large force to sail to the Continent.”

“How do I know this is really for me? It isn’t addressed to anyone, and the details are rather vague. It says only to meet him in Cork.”

“A security measure,” Joanna replied. “If the letter missed its intended recipient, no one would know who the recipient was—he’s doing business with plenty of people in Cork before he sets sail.”

“And you?” Michael lifted his gaze to hers, his lips pressed together for a moment. “Are you a security measure as well?”

She tilted her head slightly, giving his question some thought. “I suppose I am. Not only to deliver the letter—”

“—but to ensure my cooperation,” Michael finished, his boyhood brogue creeping in. That brogue only slipped out when he was tired or doing battle with his emotions, and Joanna was willing to bet this time it was the latter. “He thinks if he sends my wife with his instructions, I’ll be more likely to follow them.”

“I was sent to the others, too,” she told him, keeping her voice as matter-of-fact as possible. “But Sir Arthur did think you might be...more reluctant than the rest.”

“You said it’s the Demon of Dublin’s Hell that Wellesley wants. Does he know that I’m the Demon?”

“He does.”

Michael held the letter tightly with both hands and read it again. “What does he want with me?”

“A meeting.”

“Do you know what the meeting is about?”

“Not all of the details, but I know that it isn’t sanctioned by the Army. In fact, no one in a military or governmental position is officially aware of Sir Arthur’s request. This is strictly his own personal affair.”

“And?”

Joanna clasped her hands loosely behind her back. “And you are to arrive no later than one week from today.”

“A week?” Michael shot back, shaking the letter at her. “He wants me to just abandon my city and those who depend on me so I can run off to Cork...for reasons he won’t deign to share with me?”

Joanna didn’t even flinch at his display of temper. Michael was certainly capable of violence, but he’d always had a strict code about who was on the receiving end of it. And while a runaway wife suddenly returned would merit serious verbal censure, she knew he would never physically harm her.

“Arrangements have been made to take care of all your responsibilities while you’re away,” she explained in an even voice. “All of your responsibilities. And while I can’t tell you much about Sir Arthur’s plans in Cork, I can tell you exactly what will happen in Dublin while you’re with him.”

He sucked in a breath and held it for a moment, letting it out slowly before speaking again. “If I agree to go.”

“I know that this is a lot to take in. I also know that a dearth of information makes you uncomfortable, and I’ve provided very little.”

Michael threw her a glance that was all down-turned mouth and glowering brows, but he remained silent. She watched his chest rise as he took in an even deeper breath than before, watched his shoulders ease a fraction as he exhaled. He repeated the exercise once more, then dipped his chin in a curt nod.

“You are right, of course. The more information I have, the more comfortable I feel.”

The more in control he felt, though he’d never admit it. And with the paucity of information she’d supplied thus far, he would not be feeling very in control just now.

“Is there somewhere we can sit and talk like civilized people? I’ll tell you as much as I am able, and you may ask all the questions I know are buzzing about in your head.”

His whole body visibly relaxed at her pronouncement. “There’s a small sitting area in my bedchamber. We can talk quietly there without fear of being overheard.”

~~~

The second of his two rooms was even smaller than the first, with only enough space for a bed, a washstand, a diminutive writing table, and a single chair. Joanna occupied the chair, her features as placid and unrevealing as the plain black dress she wore. That unnerved Michael more than her abrupt appearance at his door—he had always been able to read her, even when she was immersed in a mission.

But not this time.

He settled himself at the foot of his bed, trying to decide which questions to begin with.

“You said arrangements had been made to cover my absence.” He pressed his palms against the mattress. “Tell me everything you know about them.”

A tendril of red hair had come loose from Joanna’s practical coif, and she tucked it behind her ear—a gesture he’d made for her so many times before he could still feel the softness of her curls against his skin.

“An associate of mine is making her way to Dublin as we speak. She can take up the Demon’s post and look after The Liberties in your absence.”

“Who is she?”

“Cara Campbell. She once occupied a position similar to the Demon’s in Belfast.”

“She once occupied that position? But not any longer?”

Joanna shook her head. “She does some lower profile work now. But she is more than qualified to take your place as protector for a time.”

“She gave it up?” His fingers curled into the rough blanket that served as a coverlet. “She just walked away from the people who looked to her for safety? How do you know she won’t do the exact same thing to Dublin?”

Joanna folded her hands together in her lap and leaned forward. “Because her guardianship of Dublin is for a finite period of time. As soon as you return, she can resume her own activities—or seclusion—as she desires.”

“I want to speak with her before I make any decisions.”

“As you wish. I will make the introduction when she arrives.”

He gave her a brief, uncertain nod, wondering how he’d won that point so easily. One of the ways they’d shown affection for each other had involved debates and arguments, all of which had been long and drawn out.

“What about my clients?”

“You have only one, which you should be able to hand off to a colleague before your departure,” Joanna answered without hesitation. He felt his eyes widen and the corners of her mouth turned up in a small smile. “Not really surprising—Catholics might be allowed to practice law now, but that doesn’t mean people will hire them.”

“I do well enough,” he replied, trying to keep the defensiveness out of his voice.

She gestured to the room at large. “Well enough to keep yourself in all this lavishness.”

Michael’s fingers slid forward to grip the footboard. “I am where I need to be.”

She was quiet for a moment before replying, “I know you are. No neighborhood gains the moniker ‘Hell’ because all is safe and well.”

His fingers loosened on the footboard. “But Wellesley wants me for something else, and I still haven’t heard what it is.”

“He is assembling a group of individuals to form an intelligence ring of sorts,” she explained. “Something he learned in India—spies and information gatherers are priceless commodities.”

“No doubt they are, but I’m no spy. Espionage requires a finesse that I do not possess.” He let his eyes take in her image, the picture of an ordinary working class Irish widow right down to the worn but serviceable shoes she wore. Yet she was none of those things. “Subtlety and cunning were always your strong suit.”

Her smile grew. “They still are. But you won’t need them. The idea is to gather everyone together in Cork, lay out your responsibilities should you choose to become involved, then send everyone back whence they came. Once you’re home again, you will pass along to Sir Arthur whatever you discover, but won’t be assigned any missions on the group’s behalf.”

“I see.” Michael would be free to resume both aspects of his life in The Liberties as though nothing had changed, then. And Wellesley had built up a reputation as a fine commanding officer with a good head for strategy during his time in India. He had also served a brief stint as Chief Secretary for Ireland, supporting a more moderate enforcement of the Penal Laws, to the relief of Catholics all over the island. Did that cleverness and open mind earn Sir Arthur the right to Michael’s presence in Cork? Would there be some benefit to The Liberties in the longer term if Michael established connections with others like himself? Perhaps. He had to admit the idea was intriguing.

Whether or not he would actually go along with this secret society of Wellesley’s remained to be seen.

Joanna settled back in her chair, her smile taking on a slightly smug quality. Michael guessed that she had watched his thought process play out on his face, knowing the conclusion he came to at the same moment he did.

“I will go, but only if certain conditions are met.”

“All right then, name your price.”

“In addition to meeting your Miss Campbell, someone must take over the children’s reading lessons while I’m away.”

Her brows rose a fraction. “Is that what they were doing here when I arrived?”

Good. There was at least one thing she didn’t know about him. He leaned back a little, shifting his palms back to the mattress. “They come when their families can spare them and I help them learn what they can. None of them will ever study at Trinity, but a good apprenticeship isn’t out of the question.”

“Then I will find someone to continue working with them.”

“I also want you to explain what happened between us. I awoke one morning to a vague note saying you needed to take care of something and that you’d be back in a month or two. It didn’t say I’d have to wait five years, wondering the whole time who you might be with, or if you were even still alive.”

Joanna was silent for long moment, her eyes focused on a point just beyond his shoulder. “After Sir Arthur’s gathering.”

Michael had expected that. She’d always insisted on reaching her objective before indulging in personal business. “Fine. When my dealings with him are concluded, I will hear your account.”

“Then I accept your conditions. All of them.”

“Good,” he said, pushing himself off the bed and stretching to his full height. “Assuming I approve of your Miss Campbell, I will go to Cork and see what Sir Arthur has planned. Though I reserve the right to revoke my consent at any time.”

“Of course. You aren’t my prisoner.” She stood beside him, the top of her head barely reaching his chin. “But first we must find you some new clothes.”



Chapter Two


“This is everything?”

Joanna stood beside Michael, staring at the traveling case that contained his everyday clothes. She’d rifled through it when he produced it from beneath his bed, but had frowned and stepped back after only a moment.

“This is everything,” he confirmed, wondering why his clothing was important. What did she want with a few shirts, several pairs of trousers, stockings, and smallclothes?

She swung her gaze to his. “You’re a solicitor—surely you don’t see clients in this attire?”

“Oh, of course not. I have finer clothes for clients.” He bent and pulled another case from under his bed, flicking open the latch and throwing back the lid for her inspection.

“Better,” she said, running her hand over a red silk waistcoat. Was she remembering that he’d worn it at their wedding?

He did, every time he put it on.

“This will do nicely.”

“For what?”

She lingered a moment longer over the waistcoat before answering. “For traveling. It is much easier to travel as a person of some fortune. One gets better service and more privacy that way, and we’ll need the privacy.”

“We’re traveling together?” He balled his hands into fists at his sides. Naturally there was more to the story than she’d told him. There always was. “And why will we need privacy?”

“There are still things to discuss about your stay in Cork, and we won’t want those conversations to be overheard.” She returned her attention to his clothing and began spreading things out on the bed.

“You will be playing the grand lady, then. But if I act as your footman or groom, any time we spend alone together will arouse suspicion.”

“We could probably still communicate with relative security, but traveling as a gentleman and his lady wife will be much less complicated.”

“Certainly.” Less complicated for her, perhaps. He was sure she’d played the part of another man’s wife more than once even before she’d become his. He, on the other hand, had never been anyone’s husband but hers, and he wasn’t sure he knew how to be that any more.

The skepticism must have been apparent in his voice because she turned to appraise him instead of his garments. “I believe you’re up to the task. You have the education and bearing of a gentleman. And I have funds enough for any expenses we might incur...including a new wardrobe, should one be warranted.”

She grinned and he felt his hands relaxing a little. At least she had a plan, even if she’d only give it to him in bits and pieces.

“You aren’t going to travel the countryside looking like a laborer’s widow,” he returned. “Is a new wardrobe being readied for you?”

“No—I already have the necessary items. Cravats?” She picked up his three best shirts, the red waistcoat, and a navy blue cutaway coat, putting them in their own separate pile on his pillow. As he crossed the small chamber to search for a suitable neckcloth, she continued, “I have a coach and horses waiting outside the city, and my more expensive things are with them.”

“Easier to blend in here if you don’t look like a person of some fortune.” That was how he walked The Liberties at night—dressed in the same manner as his neighbors, attracting as little attention as possible.

“Exactly so. See? You aren’t so terribly out of your depth.”

He returned with a length of white linen and handed it to her. “I suppose I do have some experience with deception. You know how hard I tried to belong at University.” He had claimed to be a distant relation to the Earl of Waterford during his time at Trinity, keeping his actual origin to himself—a nobleman’s kin, however distant, was more welcome than the son of a poor laborer.

“You did belong there,” she said firmly. “And you may actually be his lordship’s cousin. Wasn’t your grandmother a Talbot?”

“She was. I always wondered if it wasn’t her relations that paid for my education.”

Joanna wound the cravat around her hand. “You never found out who it was?”

He shook his head, taking the bundled linen from her and putting it with the other approved articles. “Whoever it was, he or she does not want to be found. Perhaps Wellesley can discover the truth. Or perhaps he already knows.” Michael paused, his hand still on the pile of clothing. “What does he know about me? Other than my penchant for taking nightly strolls around The Liberties.”

“He knows that you’re the Catholic son of a laborer, yet university educated. That your mother died at your birth, and your father was killed in a fight with his landlord when you were a boy.” She reached out and took his hand, squeezing it with a gentle pressure. “He knows that you are neither anti-English nor anti-Protestant, but you favor Catholic emancipation. And that you fulfill every obligation you take on.”

“He knows all that, yet he’s invited me to become one of his trusted spies when I am his opposite in nearly every way? Why would he do that?”

The incredulity was clear in his voice, and he suspected it was written plainly on his face as well for Joanna gave his hand another squeeze.

“Because I vouched for you.”

“You did?”

“Sir Arthur needed someone in Ireland in case the French made another invasion attempt, someone the people trusted. And I knew you would do anything to protect this city, this country.”

“So you convinced him to make me a part of it.”

“You’re a good fit for this group, for the work we will be doing.” Her gaze dropped to his chest for the briefest of moments. “And I needed a pretext to see you again.”

That statement spawned a dozen more questions in his mind, but only one stumbled from his lips. “A pretext to see your own husband?”

“The longer I was away, the harder it became to return to you...”

Her fingers shifted against his, and he reflexively ran his thumb over the back of her hand to soothe her. “But fetching me to Wellesley gave you a reason to contact me again, without involving your pride.”

“Yes.”

“And here you are confessing it all to me anyway.” Her hand was cold but steady in his grasp. If she was nervous or tense she wasn’t showing it.

Not that he was surprised.

“There will always be secrets between us because of what we both are. But those are professional secrets, a necessity for people like us.” She took a half-step closer to him, her sky-blue eyes focused on his dark ones. “But we kept too many other secrets from each other when we were together, and I don’t want to make that mistake again.”

“Nor do I. From this moment forward, we will be as open with each other as possible.”

Michael was suddenly taken with the urge to kiss her, to seal the bargain as they used to do, holding each other close. But he shook off the idea. Even if they reconciled—and he was not at all sure they would—it was too soon to be that intimate with her. Instead, he released her hand and began gathering up his rejected clothing to return it to its case.

“What other preparations need we make for this journey?”

~~~

Two days later Joanna stood outside the stable housing her horses, ticking off the conditions of Michael’s agreement in her mind one last time as she waited for him to arrive.

One: she’d introduced him to Cara Campbell the day before and had discreetly watched as he questioned Cara with the intensity of a French revolutionary in possession of a Royalist sympathizer. In the end he’d approved her as pro tempore Protector, spending much of the afternoon acquainting her with The Liberties in general and Hell in particular.

Two and three: Michael’s close friend, Fion Nash, had agreed—with considerably less turmoil—to take over the children’s reading lessons as well as the investigation into a missing will for Michael’s one current client.

Four was still a bit of a loose end. Their visit to the tailor had gone well enough, with the proprietor promising to hire extra help to complete their order on time. But Joanna wouldn’t know if he’d been successful until Michael appeared with the items.

The thought of him brought to mind another list she’d been mentally keeping—the list of things she needed to tell him before they reached Cork. Particularly the fact that she—

“Good morning, my lady.” He approached her with a sardonic smile, setting down the small trunk he carried to remove his hat and bow deeply before her. Clad in rather plain breeches and tailcoat with just a hint of embroidered waistcoat peaking out, he looked like any other gentleman preparing for travel. But that smile lit his face, and the hat had tousled his dark hair.

For just a moment, Joanna wished she could kiss him hello and smooth his hair as if they were a happy couple.

Instead she curtsied with equal deference, dropping her gaze to his somewhat battered boots. She left off her Dublin accent for the more cultured tones of the English upper classes. “And a good morning to you, my lord.”

A stable lad came to take the trunk, loading it onto the waiting carriage. Michael handed her in—with no outward sign of being affected by her touch—then settled himself on the rear-facing seat. “Tell me the rest of this traveling plan. How will we be known? Is there anything special I am to do?”

“Since there is no need to conceal who we are, we will simply be Mr. and Mrs. Devlin, a solicitor from Dublin and his doting wife.” The carriage jerked into motion and Michael’s knee brushed against hers. He again appeared not to have even noticed, and Joanna sighed inwardly. The next three days were going to be long indeed.

“That should be easy enough, then.”

Hadn’t she told him something similar only a few days ago? And it usually was easy to play the wife, to mimic the qualities the upper classes found pleasing in a woman. But sitting in the close confines of the carriage with the man she’d loved and left, it suddenly seemed a much greater task.

Fortunately, they had the business in Cork to discuss.

“There are nine others that Sir Arthur has invited from all over Britain. Some of them are peers with varying degrees of power, some gentry, and some who make their living with their hands.”

He snorted. “Lords and laborers. That should be interesting.”

“I think everyone will manage to get along in the interest of defending their country,” she replied.

“I’m sure you’re right. Am I the only Irishman?”

She stretched her legs a bit. “You are, though at least one of the lords has an estate in Ireland.”

His head dropped back against the carriage wall. “Yes, that’s nearly the same.”

“I only meant that you may already know of one of them.” Why was he being so contrary all of a sudden?

“Any women?”

And just like that he was back in her good graces. How many other men would even think to ask about female participants in this kind of organization? She stretched her legs again, sliding her feet across the floor until they bumped up against the far seat. “Only me, though I strongly suspect there are women who will indirectly be important parts of what we accomplish.”

He slouched down in his seat, folding his hands together over his stomach. “What are we to accomplish exactly? What will we be gathering intelligence about?”

“The overarching theme is defeating Napoleon and his army, but you’ll be watching and listening for anything that might compromise the security of the realm as you go about your usual business.”

His mouth pulled into a smile at that. “‘The security of the realm,’ is it? That sounds mighty important.”

“Not more important than ensuring the safety of your neighbors,” she replied, patting his knee. “Just a way to do so on a larger scale.”

“Yet, at least in my case, still working on a small scale.” He hauled his feet up onto the seat, inches away from her hip. “You should have led with that when you first came to me.”

“To appeal to your sense of protectiveness? Yes, that would have been a good way to get your attention.” Not to be outdone—and because he looked exceedingly comfortable—Joanna untangled her feet from the striped carriage dress she wore and kicked them up onto the seat across from her, crossing her legs at the ankle.

He reached over and carefully re-draped her skirt, making sure her legs were covered all the way down to the ribbons on her shoes. Whatever had made him so cross before had apparently passed. “So basically, when I return to Dublin I’ll resume patrolling The Liberties and just send word to Wellesley when I think I’ve come across something useful to him?”

“That’s it exactly. I don’t yet know if I am to be the go-between or if it will be someone else, but someone will always be in the area to convey messages to him.”

“And to help evaluate the importance of the message?”

“Like a partner? Perhaps.”

They debated the pros and cons of such a system until it was time to stop for a change of horses, then speculated on the practicalities of having messengers all over the country until the next change. By the time they’d run out of topics to discuss, the sun had nearly set and the carriage was pulling into the yard at what appeared to be a well-run inn.

“We’re not traveling at night, then?” he asked, taking his feet down and looking for his hat.

She found it in a corner of the carriage, near where her bonnet had landed when she’d tossed it away. “No need for this trip. We have four more days before you’re due in Cork and we can make it there in three while the sun is up. I’m not sure my driver would condone driving Irish roads in the dark, anyway.”

“Not as smooth as some of England’s,” he answered with a short laugh. “The Romans never conquered Ireland, so they never laid roads here.” He opened the carriage door and jumped down, letting the steps down himself before offering her his hand. “Ready, my darling wife?”

She allowed him to hand her out, then threaded her arm through his and pulled him close. “There is something I need to tell you first.” In all their conversation that day, she’d completely forgotten about the list of information she meant to impart to him. Some of the items had been mentioned, but there was one rather important matter that had been neglected.

He covered her hand with his, large and warm. “What is it?”

“I didn’t bring a maid,” she whispered. “And I cannot get into—or out of—my clothing without help.”

“The innkeeper’s wife or one of the serving girls would suffice, surely?”

She went up on her tiptoes to rest her cheek against his, bringing her mouth a fraction of an inch away from his ear. “They would if I weren’t carrying secret correspondence and weapons on my person.”

Michael’s whole body tensed beneath her touch. “It has to be me, doesn’t it.”

She kissed his check and pulled away, flashing him her most flirtatious smile. “Yes it does.”



Chapter Three


This was not how Joanna had envisioned their journey to Cork.

The carriage ride had been pleasant enough, particularly after Michael got over his little fit of pique. The innkeeper had practically fallen at their feet when they entered his establishment, ordering meals and baths prepared, offering up anything else he thought they might want or need. The food, too, had been good, enjoyed in the private parlor with Michael and a few happy memories of meals past.

But there had been only the one room available, and the prospect of discussing sleeping arrangements discomfited her more than she was prepared to admit. Nor could she partake of the bath that had been brought up without Michael’s help undressing, yet he stood motionless behind her as if the ties and buttons were some kind of mysterious puzzle.

“Don’t be so missish,” Joanna told him over her shoulder.

“I’m not being missish,” he shot back. “I simply don’t know where to begin. The last time I undressed you, your clothing wasn’t this complex.”

The last time I undressed you. That one phrase shredded her concentration and she could feel warmth creeping up her neck. Dear Lord, when was the last time he’d made her blush?

Probably the last time he’d undressed her.

“There are only buttons and ties. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”

He continued to stand statue-still behind her, and she imagined him watching the pink flush stain her skin. He used to kiss her where she blushed, brushing his soft lips wherever the color rose. Was he thinking of that? Was he fighting the urge to do it again?

“Michael.”

“Yes, darling.”

She choked back a laugh. His response had been almost reflexive, even after the years they spent apart—a far cry from the cold civility she had received from him only days ago. “At this rate, the bath will be ice cold by the time I get into it.”

“Right.”

She felt a tug at her waist as he untied the ribbon there, then a succession of smaller tugs as he made his way through the buttons down her back. Another tie negotiated, and the bodice of her gown fell into her waiting arms. She stepped out of it and her petticoat at the same time, draping them over the bed before once again presenting Michael with her back.

“Just laces?” she heard him ask.

Joanna nodded, catching the slightest whiff of lavender as he bent his head and set to work on her stays. She’d made him sachets of lavender before they were married to keep with his clothes, and the scent brought back a wave of memories. Not the big events, but the private moments they’d shared: curling up together before the fire on chilly evenings, clandestine looks exchanged across the room at social functions, kisses stolen while clearing the table after meals.

She’d never missed him so much as she did just then, and she mentally cursed the blackguard who had forced her away from her husband for five lonely years.

Her stays peeled away from her body and Michael stepped back, catching the letter that slid down her back. “What’s this?”

“Part of that secret correspondence I mentioned.” She turned and held out a hand, hardening her facial expression to shield her thoughts.

He placed it on her palm without comment, but watched with interest as she secured it among her belongings. “You were carrying it in your corset?”

“Who would think to look there?”

“Good point.”

He continued watching her as she placed a foot on the bed frame, rucking up her shift to unstrap a sheathed dagger from one thigh before repeating the process with a small flintlock pistol on the other.

“That’s new.”

“The pistol? Yes.” She handed it to him and adjusted her shift, noting that she was wearing practically nothing while he was still fully clothed. “I bought it the last time I was in London.”

He turned it over, running a finger across the engraving on the end of the barrel. “You never used to carry a gun.”

“I knew you didn’t like them.” She took it when he offered it back to her and set it on the bed with the dagger, then turned to him and began unbuttoning his tailcoat.

“And once I was no longer in your life, you decided my preference didn’t matter.”

“No. I needed the added protection of a firearm, and I’d promised you I would always keep myself as safe as possible.” She circled around behind him and helped him slide off the coat, breathing in the smell of lavender once again.

“You were honoring your promise to me, even after you’d left me?” He turned around to face her with a furrowed brow, his mouth drawn down into a frown.

Joanna nodded. “I left that day on an assignment. You remember?”

“I remember.” Those two words sounded more Irish than English and his eyes shifted to her shoulder.

She knew he was picturing the moment they’d said their goodbyes because she was picturing it, too—lying in his arms in their bed the night before she left, the down coverlet shielding them from the chill in the air.

“I was planning to return to you, Michael. I swear I was.” She tilted her head, catching his gaze and holding it. “I promised you a full accounting after we are finished with Sir Arthur, and you’ll have it. But let me say now that I didn’t stay away willingly. I never abandoned you, never stopped believing we’d be together again.” She reached up and stroked his cheek with the tips of her fingers. “I was always your wife, and I always loved you.”

He cupped his hand around hers and brought it to his lips, brushing a kiss over her cold fingers before releasing them. “You told me that you would always be honest with me, and I dearly want to believe you. But I spent five years with no communication from you in any form, and that’s going to be difficult to just let go of.”

Strictly speaking, she’d sent a note a few months after her departure from Ireland. But since there had been nothing for years after that, she decided not to argue about such a small detail. She took a half-step back, putting some space between their bodies. “I know it is. And perhaps when you’ve heard my side it won’t be so hard to believe. Until then, will you at least consider the idea that I didn’t simply walk away?”

“I will.” He said it without hesitation. For Michael, that was as good as a solemn vow.

Unless he’d changed in ways she was unaware of these past five years.

~~~

That night did not pass peacefully for Michael. He and Joanna slept side by side on the bed, she in her shift and he in his shirt, neither touching the other. The arrangement left him feeling confined and cramped, though physically he was neither. He kept waking up, afraid that he was laying on her long hair, that he had moved too close to her, that one of his arms or legs was somewhere it shouldn’t be.

Why had Joanna told him her exile hadn’t been voluntary? Why tell him that but nothing else? He finally gave up and grabbed his pillow, sprawling out on the hard floor in an effort to regain his sense of equilibrium. After two minutes on the wooden planks he knew he’d ache in the morning, but it would be worth it to calm his mind and relax his body.

The next thing he knew, he was being shaken awake as the sun was beginning to rise over the horizon. “Already? It feels like I just fell asleep.”

“I didn’t sleep so well, either,” she confessed. “But we can always nap in the carriage.”

Nap while his head banged against the window, she neglected to add. But it was better than sleep deprivation, and they needed to cover many miles today. Perhaps there was a pillow or two stored under one of the carriage seats. He pulled himself up from the floor and cast about for his clothing, distracted by the sight of Joanna standing before him holding her stays.

“Lace me up?”

Perhaps helping her into her clothes would trigger fewer emotions in him than helping her out of them had last night. It wasn’t just the physical aspect of undressing a beautiful woman that got to him, though that had its own merits. That he had loved—and still did love—the woman in question with his whole heart, that he had her back in his life after a years-long absence, had thrown him off balance. It was like the past and the future had mixed together in some sort of porridge, and he couldn’t tell the original ingredients apart anymore.

He rubbed his eyes and nodded. “Come here.”

They ended up helping each other to dress and repack the items they’d taken from their luggage, for Michael’s fingers were as sluggish with his own buttons and ties as they were with Joanna’s. But they were both ready when Joanna’s driver arrived to collect their things.

“Can we talk about why you slept on the floor last night?” Joanna asked, once they were on their way. “I thought we’d decided that the bed was big enough for both of us.”

“I needed space,” he replied with a shrug. When she narrowed her eyes in a hard stare, he clarified his statement. “I needed physical space to stretch out. It’s been five years since I slept in a bed with another person, and I’m no longer used to sharing.”

Her mouth opened as if she were going to speak, but no sound came out. She cleared her throat and tried again. “You never spent even a single night with...company?”

“No.” His brows drew down over his eyes. “Why would I?”

“Because I disappeared without a trace for far longer than I told you I’d be gone. Because I could have been dead, or captured, or mistress to another man.”

He was seated across from her once more, and slid his foot across the floor to touch hers. “You were my wife, and you continued to be so even when we were no longer in the same city. I’d never hurt you that way.”

“I didn’t...I was never unfaithful to you, either.”

Before her words could sink in, the carriage came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the road.

“What—”

“Stand and deliver!”

The shout came from outside the carriage, and Michael sighed softly. “This is the disadvantage of traveling as a person of some fortune.”

“There is a pair of carriage pistols in the compartment under your seat,” Joanna told him in a low voice. “Do you still carry your cudgel?”

“Yes, I have it. How fast can you get to—” He was cut off when the door flew open and the barrel of a pistol appeared.

“Out of the carriage,” a male voice ordered. “And keep your hands where I can see them.”

Michael exited first, noting that the highwayman had been considerate enough to let down the stairs, then turned to offer Joanna his hand. She trembled as she took it, her eyes wide and darting around.

“What do you mean to do to us?” she asked in a tremulous voice.

Michael nearly laughed. She was no more afraid of this highwayman than she was of a kitten, but her performance was magnificent.

The barrel of the gun motioned them away from the carriage and Michael drew Joanna’s arm through his, escorting her to the side of the road. “There, there dear, we’ll be just fine as long as we do what the gentleman says.” He shifted his gaze to the owner of the pistol, a younger man wearing finely tailored clothing. “Isn’t that right?”

The highwayman smiled. “Just so. We only want your valuables, then you’ll be on your way.”

Joanna’s hands covered her face and she began to sob. Michael slipped his arms around her, pulling her close and stroking her hair. “Shh, we’ll be all right.”

“There’s another one with the horses,” she whispered to him. “He’s headed this way.”

“Must have knocked your driver unconscious,” Michael whispered back. “Or killed him.”

“Let’s hope not.” She buried her face against his coat, holding his lapels in clenched fists and taking in great gulps of air as if she were trying to bring herself under control.

This second highwayman entered the carriage and Michael could see him searching the seats and floor. Looking for what? Joanna’s jewels—with the exception of what she wore—were packed away in her baggage, along with her expensive gowns. The carriage pistols were finely made and would fetch a good price if sold, but the highwayman found then pushed away the box that contained them.

“Something isn’t right,” he murmured, kissing her forehead.

The first highwayman fished a canvas bag from the pocket of his tailcoat and opened it up, approaching Michael and Joanna with a friendly smile. “Let’s get that jewelry off you, madam, and into my bag here. Sir, if you wouldn’t mind assisting your lady?”

Michael set Joanna away from him and turned her around to undo the clasp of her necklace. “Just stay calm, my dear. I’m sure they are nearly done with us.” He leaned down and kissed her temple. “I’ll take this one.”

She nodded and sniffled as he drew the necklace off. “Good.”

Michael turned, holding out Joanna’s necklace to the highwayman. When the robber reached for it Michael grabbed the barrel of his gun and yanked it out of his hand, crashing the butt against his head. Joanna disappeared—presumably to deal with the one searching the carriage—and Michael had to remind himself that the best way to keep her safe was to make sure she didn’t have any unexpected assailants. His blow to the highwayman’s head stunned the man but didn’t knock him out so Michael tried again with his fist, wishing he could get to his cudgel—it was specially made to deliver a forceful blow without killing the recipient, and kept Michael from injuring his hands by delivering punches.

Fortunately, this recipient went down with relative ease. Michael retrieved Joanna’s necklace and pocketed it before dragging the highwayman off the road and into the adjoining field. He’d wake up surrounded by vegetation which ought to disorient him, slowing him down should he try to return to his partner—the next best thing when there was no way to tie him up.

When Michael returned to the carriage Joanna had the second highwayman face down on the road, her little pistol pointed at the back of his head.

“Who sent you?” she barked.

“He didn’t tell me his name. Only that I was to rob a coach carrying a red-haired lady and no footmen, and I wasn’t to harm anyone.”

“What did he want?” When the highwayman didn’t answer, she placed her foot on the small of his back and pressed down. “What did he want?”

The highwayman groaned. “A letter. He said it would be for Sir Arthur Wellesley, and that it would be difficult to find. I’ve been robbing carriages all week looking for it.”

“Just your bad luck that you chose us, then.” He nodded a vigorous yes, squeezing his eyes shut as Joanna removed her foot from his back and knelt beside him. “Will you be robbing anyone else this week? Or ever again?”

“No, I swear.”

She glanced up at Michael and acknowledged him with a smile. “Hold this for a moment, will you please?”

She held out the pistol and he took it from her, keeping it carefully aimed at the highwayman on the ground. Joanna first removed one of her shoes, then slid her skirts up to her thigh and removed her silk stocking.

“Let’s get them tied up and get away from here.”

She bound the highwayman’s hands tightly with her stocking, then helped Michael drag him into the field with his accomplice, who was still unconscious. They bound him as well with Joanna’s remaining stocking and headed back to the carriage.

“Well, you were right,” he told her, taking her hand as they walked. “They didn’t think to look there.”



Chapter Four


Michael spent that night on the floor of their chamber again, and consequently passed much of the following day dozing in the carriage. His dreams were jumbled and vague, but at one point he swore he felt a soft body cuddle up against his and smelled the fragrance of lilies in the air. The next thing he was aware of was Joanna’s voice calling him back to the land of the conscious.

“We’ve arrived.”

When Michael straightened in his seat and looked out of the window, he got an eyeful of summer sun sinking slowly toward the horizon. Rubbing his eyes and trying the other side of the carriage, he saw what could only be described as the largest red brick mansion in Ireland.

“What is this place?”

A footman opened the door and let down the stairs, standing by as Michael climbed out and handed Joanna down. “This way please.”

Joanna slid her arm through Michael’s as they followed the footman to the main entrance of the house. “Glanmire House. It belongs to the Earl of Hartland, who is one of the invitees.”

“A building like this could house the entire population of Hell.”

“And yet, for the next few days it will house only eleven secret informants and the servants employed here.”

“And Sir Arthur,” a male voice added as they stepped into the entryway. “I’m Hartland,” he said, extending his hand.

Michael shook it. “Michael Devlin. And this is my wife, Joanna.”

Hartland’s gaze swung to Joanna. “Wait, you’re married? I thought you were a widow.”

“A widow?” Michael echoed. “You told him I was dead?”

She answered in a voice that might have been discussing a dinner menu. “It’s a way to hide my identity. I don’t use your name or mine, so few people know who I really am or who is close to me.”

“I can see the sense in that,” Michael admitted.

But Hartland was laughing and rubbing his hands together. “It’s going to be fun introducing you tonight. My housekeeper, Mrs. McKenney, will show you to your chambers where you can refresh yourselves. We’re having our after dinner port in the library if you’d like to join us.”

“We will.” Joanna answered before Michael could, taking his arm once again and leading him toward the staircase where the housekeeper waited. Once they were out of earshot, she leaned in and said, “He’s a good sort, but it’s best not to engage him too much when he’s like that.”

“Like what?”

“Gleeful.”

“The library introductions are not going to go well, are they?”

She slipped her hand into his and gave it a squeeze. “They will be fine. By the time we get down there, Hartland will have already told everyone about our marital status. They’ll be curious about you, but once they realize that you have skills to offer the group they won’t even remember that you have a wife.”

Mrs. McKenney stopped at one chamber, opening the door and smiling brightly at Michael. “This is yours, Mr. Devlin. Your trunk is just there, and the bell pull is here. If you should require anything at all during your stay, just give it a tug.”

Then she was leading Joanna away down the hallway, and Michael was left alone for the first time in three days. It was an odd feeling—though he’d lived by himself for five years he’d begun to get used to having Joanna with him again, talking to him, touching him. He’d fallen asleep the past two nights listening to the sound of her soft breathing, the rustle of the sheets when she was restless.

On the other hand, he wouldn’t be sleeping on the floor anymore.

A knock sounded at the door and Joanna slipped in with a fresh gown draped over one arm. “Can you help me undress one more time? I need to give that letter to Sir Arthur.”

“Even the maids here aren’t to be trusted, eh?” he smiled, reaching for the row of buttons down her back.

“With the weapons, maybe.”

“But not the correspondence.” He worked in silence for a moment. “Who helped you dress in the first place? You were wearing your fine clothes when I met you at the carriage the first day we traveled.”

“Cara Campbell. Lucky she was there, or you would have been dressing me in the stable before we departed.”

There was an image he didn’t need in his mind just before meeting a roomful of strangers. But instead of shoving it away, he tried turning the tables on her. “That would have been different. I don’t think we ever got amorous in a stable.”

Her shoulders rose a fraction as she sucked in a quick breath. “Well, there was that time in Kildare...”

“Our honeymoon? That was a meadow, not a stable.”

“But there were horses nearby.”

He laughed and began work on her stays. “Yes, there were. You said the piebald one was staring at us.”

“I’m a spy—I like being unnoticed.”

The letter slid out and he handed it to her, lacing her back up with a twinge of regret. Reminiscing about their tryst in the meadow had set his blood pounding in his ears...and other places. But there was work to be done this night, and he’d need a clear head for it. Nor did he want to entangle himself with this woman until they’d had a chance to sort through everything that happened between them. Joanna had said that her disappearance was forced, but what exactly did that mean?

He finished with her laces and helped her with the new gown, then allowed her to choose a clean waistcoat and breeches for him. When they were both ready, he offered her his arm.

“Shall we?”

“Let’s go.”

The library at Glanmire House was a vast room, the walls covered in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a large fireplace with logs and kindling ready to light, and various pieces of furniture made from walnut wood and leather scattered about the space. There were close to a dozen men clustered about the room in twos and threes, some talking in low voices, some with more animation.

“Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Devlin.” The Earl of Hartland disengaged himself from his group and came to greet them, shooting Joanna a sardonic smile and placing a slight emphasis on her surname.

“My lord,” she answered, dipping a curtsy with her eyes cast down in a show of demureness Michael suspected she didn’t feel.

He managed his own bow. “Lord Hartland.”

“Just Hartland is fine. Or Hart if you’re feeling friendly.” To Joanna he said, “Hoskins has something he needed to speak with you about. If you’d like to go see what he wants, I can introduce your husband around.”

Joanna looked at Michael with raised brows and he answered with a tiny nod. He may not have had the training in social graces that Hartland had, but he could hold his own in a less formal gathering like this.

“May I present to you Mr. Laurence Fortescue of Oxford, Mr. Hugh Bannerman of Devonshire, and Lord Adam St. Peters of Kent. Gentlemen, this is Mr. Michael Devlin of Dublin.” As handshakes were exchanged, Hartland continued, “You might also know him as the Demon of Dublin’s Hell.”

Michael fought the urge to both roll his eyes and hit the earl. Few people in the world knew that Michael was the Demon, and he’d wanted to keep it that way. But these men were supposed to be trustworthy, and it was clear by the smirk on his face that Hartland was doing his level best to shock his guests.

“I didn’t know Dublin had a Hell,” St. Peters commented. “Nice.”

“Not really,” Michael replied. “But it’s home.”

“Wolfgang of the Seven Seas and the Marquis of Thorston, or should I say Thunder,” Hartland continued, gesturing as he approached a pair of gentlemen glowering at each other a few feet away, “Meet Michael Devlin of Dublin. Also known as the Demon...and Mrs. Perkins’s husband.”

“She’s married?” Wolfgang growled, echoing Hartland’s own earlier words.

“She is,” Michael told him with more force than he’d meant to use. Wolfgang of the Seven Seas? What was that all about?

“All right then.”

Hartland moved to the last group without even checking to see if Michael was with him. “Lord Adam Bateman of Berkshire, Mr. Colin Hoskins of Kent, this is Michael Devlin of Hell.”

Bateman arched a single brow. “Hell?”

“It’s a area of Dublin,” Michael clarified.

“Not a good one, then,” Hoskins said with a laugh.

“That’s why I’m there,” Michael replied. “To make it better.”

Another gentleman joined the group, offering first a bow then his hand to Michael. “Captain Grant Alexander.”

Michael took his hand and shook it. “Michael Devlin.”

“Ah, Joanna’s Michael. She mentioned you when she delivered my letter.”

Michael struggled to keep his mouth from falling open. “She did?”

“She was excited to be going home to her husband. I didn’t realize you’d also been invited here. I’m pleased you could join us.”

She’d been excited to come home? Michael wondered if that was the word Joanna had actually used, or if it was Alexander’s interpretation. She’d never lived in the rooms he occupied now, but perhaps it was the notion of love and partnership that constituted home for her.

It certainly had for him.

~~~

After everyone had retired to their chambers for the night, Michael stole quietly down the hallway and knocked on Joanna’s door. Though why he was sneaking around he wasn’t sure—Hartland had indeed made sure the entire assemblage knew she was his wife.

A soft, “Who is it?” answered his knock.

“Michael.”

The door opened a moment later and she motioned him to come inside. “I was going to have one of the maids help me tonight...”

“Help you? Oh, with your clothes. That’s not actually why I’m here.”

“It isn’t?”

Michael thought she sounded disappointed. Had she been looking forward to reenacting the meadow scene? “I was hoping you’d go over the guest list with me, and tell me a little more about each man here.”

“I can do that.” She motioned toward a sofa positioned at the foot of the bed. “Shall we sit?”

He seated himself beside her after she was settled. “They all know about my role in The Liberties, but I realized that I know little about any of them outside of their names.”

“Well, Mr. Fortescue, Captain Alexander, and Major Bannerman are in the army, though in Fortescue’s case that’s rather sensitive information. They aren’t in the same unit, nor do I think they’ve ever crossed paths before now. Wolfgang and Mr. Hoskins are commoners—Hoskins is an archery master, and Wolf is...well, Wolf is a pirate. When he’s not at sea he spends most of his time skulking around places of ill repute.”

Michael turned to look at her, his eyebrows reaching for his hairline. “Why on earth was this Wolf asked to be a part of a secret intelligence-gathering group, then? And why does he have no other name than ‘Wolfgang’?”

“His name is a long story, but he’s proved—repeatedly—that he can be trusted. And besides, he visits places no one else here has ever been to.”

“That makes sense. It was the reason I was invited, too, wasn’t it? Because I go places no one else goes.”

“It was.”

Her arm brushed his as she reached out to smooth a wrinkle from her skirts he didn’t see. “It was why each one of you was invited. There are ten of you gentlemen and me—while our interests and locations may overlap in some cases, we each have a unique quality or two that makes us valuable to Sir Arthur and the struggle against Napoleon’s agents.”

“What’s Hartland’s unique quality?”


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