The Husband Mission, Book 1 in the Spy Matchmaker Series
Originally published May 2002 (ISBN 0-8217-7279-1, Zebra Regency Romance)
Electronic edition published March 2011 from Regency Reads
Revised and reissued May 2017 by Edwards and Williams
Coming in May 2017
Katherine Collins is certain that she is a managing female. With no means and few prospects, she is financially beholden to her stepsister Constance, who stands to inherit a large fortune--if she marries before she turns twenty-one. Katherine has no choice but to play matchmaker, starting with spying on Alexander Wescott, Viscount Borin, the object of her sister's devoted affection.
Alex cannot help noticing the people following him about London. Rejected for service by England's spy master and encouraged to set up his nursery instead, Alex ought to be searching for a wife. But what wife can compare to the excitement of international espionage? Unless, of course, she's up for a little espionage herself.
Originally published as Lord Borin's Secret Love, the book has been published in hardcover as well.
"Regina Scott pens a fast-paced riddle of a tale . . . Her excellent cast of characters brings great charm and humor to this romantic romp." -- RT Book Reviews
"With sparkling dialogue, humorous antics, and realistic interactions between the characters, this well-written, entertaining tale is sure to please . . . I highly recommend this book to all romance readers who like heart-warming, unique love stories with delightfully original characters." -- AOL's Romance Fiction Forum
Alexander Wescott, Viscount Borin, leaned back in the leather armchair of the Marquis of Hastings' private office in Whitehall. He pulled out the pocket watch from his tastefully embroidered celestial blue waistcoat and flipped open the gold filigree case. But he did not consult the time. His gaze never left the man behind the desk.
Lord Hastings gave him no clue as to his thoughts. The marquis' deep brown eyes remained on the papers on the walnut, claw-foot desk before him, one hand stroking his walrus mustache. Alex felt the seconds ticking off. He heard young Captain Randolph, who stood guard behind the marquis, shift impatiently in his Oxford blue regimentals.
"An interesting account, Borin," Lord Hastings said at last. "I imagine it was rather entertaining to discover you were being followed."
The tone was characteristically chipper, but Alex wasn't fooled. Under the well-cut navy coat and dapper demeanor beat the heart of England's spy master, a heart after his own, he hoped. He snapped shut his watch and replaced it without rumpling his dove gray morning coat. "I rather hoped you would find it interesting," he told Hastings, "given the rumors circulating about the ton."
Hastings raised a brow as iron gray as his short-cropped hair. "That nonsense about a French spy infiltrating society?"
"Is it nonsense?" Alex pressed, planting his boots firmly in the thick blue carpet. "It seems to me I have seen your men more in London than ever in the past. Rumor has it that you suspect one of the Beau Monde of sharing secrets."
The captain's dark eyes lighted, but Hastings leaned back with a small smile on his mobile mouth. "What I suspect and what is real may be two different things, my boy. It is no secret I recruit my agents from among the aristocracy. It is also no secret that none of them would be easily induced to part with information. If there is a spy circulating at the London balls this Season, he is no doubt merely looking for a wealthy heiress to subsidize his activities."
Alex tried not to look disappointed. "But surely you need additional men to chase down these cursed rumors. I offered to join you last March. I repeat my request to be of service. The fact that I am being followed should be proof to you that someone suspects I already belong to your staff."
Hastings met his gaze at last, and Alex nearly flinched at the sympathy in the man's eyes. "I said it was interesting that you are being followed, my boy. However, I would suspect it has more to do with your gambling or flirting than your attraction to espionage."
Blood roared in his ears. Alex surged to his feet. "Do you impugn my honor, sir? Give me the names of your seconds."
Randolph squared powerful shoulders and stepped forward menacingly even as Hastings sighed. "Oh, do sit down, Borin. It is entirely this sort of thing that makes you unsuited to the Service."
As quickly as the temper had come, it left him. Alex sank back upon the chair. "I beg your pardon, sir," he replied with a formal nod. "But if you knew what this appointment means to me."
Hastings sighed again. "I understand. You are thoroughly bored with the entertainments of London and you were never the type to rusticate in the country. But it does not follow that espionage will be your salvation."
Alex leaned forward, eager to make his case. "But I know I would be good at it. I am an excellent swordsman and a bruising fighter--ask Gentleman Jackson. No horse has been born that I cannot ride, no vehicle built I cannot drive. I speak, read, and write French, Italian, and Spanish. And I am a dab hand at acting."
The spy master smiled. "Yes, I had heard you hung about Drury Lane rather frequently, but I thought it had more to do with a certain beautiful opera dancer than improving your military skills."
Alex willed himself not to react but the captain's grin was catching. He gave it up and grinned back.
"Very well," he allowed, "I admit it. But my dedication to my previous pursuits should prove to you my determination. Whatever I have set my hand to flourishes. Yet I am stagnating. I need a new challenge. Will you not accept my services?"
That irritating sympathy never left the older man's eyes. He pushed the papers away from him, and Alex's heart sank. "Forgive me, but I must decline. I have known you since you were in leading strings. You have a heart for adventure, Alex, but no stomach for hard work. Things have been too easy for you to have developed the trait of persistence, I suspect. Find a nice girl, settle down, and manage your estates."
Alex rose and offered him a bow. "Your servant, sir. I must, of course, respect your decision. However, you are wrong about me and I hope to someday prove it to you."
He refused to meet Captain Randolph's gaze as he walked stiffly from the office.
Once outside the building, he faltered. What was he to do now? The future yawned bleak before him. Was he such a care-for-nothing that no one could believe he could be useful?
He straightened his sagging shoulders and forced himself to stroll up the street with his usual ennui. He would let no one see how much the blow hurt. Refused by the War Office, not once, but twice! And this while England begged for soldiers to fight Napoleon. He passed around Whitehall for Pall Mall and could not suppress a shudder at the sight of a captain leading in a group of raggedy men for recruits. There was always room in the infantry, if he could stomach the work. Surely there were better ways to entertain himself.
But what if not the Service? His personal affairs needed no attention. His estate in Hampshire was run by an experienced, honest, capable steward. He had no interest in assisting. The few times Alex had sat in with him, the discussions of enclosures, rents, and pasturage had gone in one ear and out the other.
His townhouse was run by an equally capable butler, his stables by a consummate master of horse. He did, of course, pick his own mounts at Tattersalls, but he left the care, feeding, and training thereof to more experienced hands. As long as the horse was fast and did not clash with his riding jacket, he did not question his horse master's decisions.
No more did he need to dabble in the Exchange. His considerable fortune was managed by an astute financier. He was vaguely aware that he was invested in a number of activities like rubies in India and sailing ships in the Caribbean. It seemed he might even own an estate in Canada of all places. As long as he had funds when he needed them, he saw no reason to meddle.
He also didn't feel particularly useful in political circles. He had tried to do his duty in Parliament, but the endless speeches dulled his mind and most of the measures seemed petty or of little use to anyone. The intrigue of trying to convince various members to vote for a particular measure was mildly interesting, but who could stand to compete with a high stickler like Castlereagh or the mindless chatter of Sally Jersey?
At one time he had even tried to do something to improve the country. After hearing of several worthwhile charities, he'd gone to a meeting of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Climbing Boys. Unfortunately, while he had endowed their cause with a sizable donation, he could not find it in himself to sit week after week and discuss the burning and maiming of children.
No more could he stand to simply return to his previous pursuits. One could only win so many carriage races. Chas Prestwick currently held the record in that arena anyway, and he had no reason to challenge his friend. Gambling was of no interest when one could be virtually assured of winning. And while he could not deny a certain attraction to the ladies, even the attentions of the delightful Miss Lydia Montgomery, his current mistress, had begun to cloy.
Perhaps Hastings was right--life was too easy for him. He had excelled in school, on the practice fields, and in the ballrooms. Too many other pursuits were simply boring. He felt as if there were a vacuous hole in his life, sucking him down. All the more reason to take on a new challenge.
And what better challenge than to embrace the duties of an agent for the King? He could easily imagine dodging behind enemy lines, seducing duchesses for vital information, and daringly eluding capture to return the information to England. There were those who would consider such exploits as beneath a gentleman, but he could see how vital the role was to defeating the Corsican monster. Wellington's war on the Peninsula couldonly accomplish so much if military information was already in the hands of the enemy. The French were notorious for their use of secret agents to ferret out England's most closely held information.
He shook his head as he turned down Pall Mall. He would not be the one to stop them. Hastings had been clear in his refusal. He thought Alex as a wastrel. What a conundrum! His wastrel life was entirely what he hoped to change! He had thought surely the fact that he was being followed would be sufficient for the old boy to reconsider his case.
The problem had started several weeks ago, shortly after the opening of this 1813 Season. For the last year he had taken to walking from diversion to diversion. His coachman complained of boredom and his valet lamented the wear on his boots, but what could one do? A man could not count on a vehicle or animal for transportation behind enemy lines. He needed to be fit to join the Service. He already boxed twice a week and fenced three times. Walking provided additional exercise and kept him limber. Occasionally a friend would raise a brow at his habit--none of them were willing to soil their slippers; however, most people paid him no attention. Perhaps that was why he had noticed when he developed an extra shadow.
Sometimes it was a shabbily dressed man, hat pulled down to shade his face. Other times it was an urchin boy with a gamin grin. Whichever, they clung to his heels like bottom mud from a country stream. Twice he had attempted to give chase, and both times they had eluded him. He would have thought them no more than footpads except his staff had reported them hanging about the mews as well. He was being watched.
But to what purpose? He could not deny that he had hoped it had something to do with his earlier offer to support the War Office. Perhaps the enemies of the Crown did not know he had been refused. He had been rather pleased they thought him intriguing enough to follow. It was nothing but annoying to think it had something to do with his current life instead.
Yet he could not see how. For all his exploits, he was a gentleman. He paid his debts promptly and never dallied with married ladies or unwilling lasses. He never cheated or lied or stole. And he liked to think his physique was muscular enough to deter common thieves. In short, he could think of no reason why anyone would wish to spy on him.
He was half way down St. James's when he saw his shadow again. It was the boy this time. Glancing back, Alex saw him dart behind a lorry as if to avoid detection. So, they were still after him. He should alert Bow Street. If the War Office couldn't be bothered, at least the magistrates might look into the matter. Yet after his refusal by Hastings, Alex was in no mood to ask anyone's assistance. He started back to try to catch the boy once again himself, then hesitated.
He had threatened to prove to Lord Hastings that he was wrong. Alex was capable of working hard, however distasteful he found the prospect. What if, instead of merely catching the lad, he managed to follow the boy to his master? What if he uncovered whatever nefarious scheme they hoped to enact? If it had anything to do with the spy in society, so much the better. Wouldn't that prove to Hastings that he was a worthy to join the Service?
He tipped his hat to a passing lady as if that had been his intent in turning all along. She regarded him with an interested smile but he turned before she could question him. Then he sauntered up the street and around the corner. With a quick glance back, he saw the boy follow.
He led the lad a merry chase, turning first one direction, then another. Finally, he spotted a shop with a large front window. He ducked inside and stood back from the light, watching. His pursuer stood just outside, glancing in all directions. Up close, the boy looked to be about eight, with a none-too-clean round face and eyes that were narrowed in concentration. A dusty cap hid all but the fringes of his hair, but it looked to be a deep auburn. Alex held his breath as the boy's shoulders sagged in obvious defeat. The lad turned to go.
"Might I assist you, sir?" a young female shop worker asked politely. Glancing quickly back at her, he took note of his surroundings. Lacy corsets and dainty chemises decorated the walls and sewing forms. Every person from the patrons to the shopkeeper was female and all of them were staring at him with various degrees of amusement, shock, or disapproval. He tipped his hat to them and hurried after the boy.
He did his best to be inconspicuous. It wasn't difficult in the shopping district. He had never realized just how many tall, blond gentlemen strolled about in dove gray morning coats and black trousers. He'd have to speak to his tailor about something more original. For now, he was thankful to blend in so well. The boy scurried along as if he had no idea he was being followed. He even had the temerity to skip when the cobblestones became more even. The few times he glanced back, Alex was careful to duck out of sight.
He fully expected the lad to detour toward a seedier part of town and was surprised when he at last made his way down the alley behind a set of modest townhouses at the edge of Mayfair. With bold-faced impudence, he jumped a short kitchen gate and scurried up the walk to enter one of the houses. Had the rascal been hired by someone of the ton, then? Alex waited for a moment, but the boy did not return. Surely this was the boy's home. He had located the lair of his nemesis. Anticipation curled in his stomach. Oh, he was definitely made for this. All he had to do was catch the culprits and Lord Hastings would have to admit as much.
Yet he couldn't simply stride up to the back door and demand the boy. He could scarcely expect the kitchen staff to give him up so easily. He rather thought criminals protected their own, if only to prevent them from telling tales to the magistrates. He'd have to try something else.
He counted the number of houses from the corner, then hurried back around the terrace. He had to learn who owned the house and whether they knew their pot boy or stable boy had been spying. It was possible someone else had hired the boy, or that he held more than one job. The only way to learn more was to meet the owners of the house. He could decide from there how much information to provide them, and how much he could weasel out of them. He had to restrain himself from rubbing his hands together with glee.
From the front, the house looked no different from others along the street--three floors of windows and a door to the left. It had not look like a den of iniquity. The steps were clean swept, the trim in good repair. Perhaps he had been misled after all.
He nearly turned back, but decided to knock just in case. As he approached the entry, however, he could not help but hear a commotion inside. His hand raised to knock, he paused. Doors slammed, voices shouted.
What on earth had he gotten himself into?
Excitement surged through him, and he rapped sharply at the door.