1865 – Marietta Hughes never wanted to be a spy, but the family legacy of espionage is thrust upon her as the War Between the States rolls on. Unknown to her, the Knights of the Golden Circle – a Confederate secret society bent on destroying the Union her brother died for – has been meeting in a hidden lair beneath her home. Faced with the secrets of her late husband and his brother, whom she thought she could trust with anything, Marietta’s world tilts out of control. Can she right it by protecting a Union agent infiltrating the KGC?
Slade Osborne, an undercover Pinkerton agent, is determined to do whatever is necessary to end the conflict between the North and the South. When he infiltrates this secret cell, it isn’t just their inner workings that baffle him – it’s the beautiful woman who seems to be a puppet for the new leader and yet…so much more.
Do they dare trust each other in this circle of intrigue? Will their shared faith sustain them? And can Mari and Slade stymie the enemy long enough to see their beloved country reunited?
January 16, 1865
Marietta Hughes was the worst widow in the history of mourning. She smoothed a hand down the lavender fabric of her dress and felt the twist in her stomach that shouldn’t have been so long absent. The punch to her heart that hadn’t made itself known since the first month after Lucien died.
Squeezing her eyes closed, her fingers found the smooth mahogany of the grand staircase railing. Mother Hughes, still weak, her voice feathery, had looked so hopeful when she’d asked Marietta to don the muted colors of half mourning. How could she have refused her? True, it had only been a year and three months since Lucien’s death. She had only been three months in second mourning—black relieved only by a white collar—rather than six. But there were so many others with fresh losses to grieve. Her widow’s black had made a mockery of them.
Her widow’s black had made a mockery of her.
She descended a few steps, but her eyes burned. Her husband was no doubt in heaven begging the Almighty to send a divine bolt to strike her. And not because of the color of her dress.
“I’m sorry, Lucien.” The words came out a breath, but still they seemed to taunt her. She should have said those words long before he fell prey to the violent streets of Baltimore. Said them for every thought gone astray, for every too-long look, for every wish she never should have made.
A low whistle made her jump and brought her gaze to her front door, to Lucien’s brother. And her stomach twisted again at the object of those stray thoughts. The apple to her Eve.
Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup.
Marietta’s feet pulled her down the stairs, toward where Devereaux Hughes stood with one hand upon the latch. His gaze swept over her, making her cheeks flush even as those words from the Holy Book pounded.
Wicked. Wicked. Wicked.
Sometimes she wished she had never read the Scriptures, so that they couldn’t haunt her.
Sometimes she wished she could be, as her parents had advised time and again, good.
She swallowed back the regret and guilt—a skill she had mastered nearly six years earlier—and smiled. “Heading home, Dev?”
He leaned into the door, folding his arms so that the fabric of his well-tailored greatcoat strained against his muscles. Glory, but he was a fine-looking man with that charming smirk of his. “I have missed seeing you in color, Mari. Black never suited you.”
A fact that shouldn’t have bothered her as it did. How vain was she, that she had dwelt on such a truth this past year instead of on the loss that necessitated it?
She smoothed out the wrinkle her fingers had made in the skirt and gave in to the tug that always pulled her closer to Dev, close enough for him to slide an arm around her waist. Given the quiet morning halls, the servants all tending to breakfast or Mother Hughes, she made no objection. Though her heart thudded its accusation.
Her throat tightened. She had never betrayed her husband, not in deed. And who would hold her thoughts against her? Other, of course, than God. And Lucien. She forced a swallow. “Your mother asked me to move into half mourning. I was so glad to see her up and able to speak this morning that I hadn’t the heart to argue.”
Dev’s jaw ticked. “I just saw her. She looks better, but if the doctor is not as hopeful as I expect when he stops in later—”
“I know.” Her gaze landed on his cravat. “Dev…”
“Ah, how well I know that look.” He bent his head, and when his lips touched her neck, her eyes slid shut. “Hope and regret mixed into perfect beauty. Do you recall when I first saw that expression upon your lovely face?”
As if she could ever forget. “The nineteenth of December, eighteen sixty.”
His chuckle sent a pulse of shivers down her spine. “How quick you are with the date.”
And usually she would have forced a hesitation. But she needn’t with that particular recollection. “It was the day before my wedding.”
“The day I met my brother’s bride.” His chuckle went bitter. “Had I obeyed my father and returned to Baltimore a year earlier, it would have been I you met at that ball. I who would have claimed you. I who—”
“Don’t.” She pulled away, though his arms granted her only another inch of space. She’d had similar thoughts—much to her shame. “Please, Dev.”
Too late. His eyes, blue as July’s sky, had already blended in her mind with Lucien’s deep green. The parade through her memory had already begun. Each time she had let her thoughts go where they ought not. When she had held Dev’s gaze a second too long. Had smiled too warmly.
She was despicable.
“I love you.” Vulnerability sparked in his eyes, but his arms were still like iron around her waist. “I have loved you since I first set eyes on you.”
The sob came out of nowhere, erupting in a gasp. She covered her mouth, squeezed shut her eyes, and jerked away. Dizziness washed over her when she tried to breathe. Cora had laced her corset too tight when she retied it—that was why the air wouldn’t come. Her corset. Just her corset.
“Darling.” His fingers closed around her shoulders, so warm against the January chill. “Why does that make you cry? You have known so long how I felt.”
Too long. She had known and had held it to her heart, a secret blacker than the gown she had just ordered Cora to pack away. “Tell me I made him happy. Tell me he never knew.”
“Mari.” He turned her to face him again and tipped her chin up with a gentle touch. What was it about that narrow nose, that tapered chin, those two slashes of dark brows, that made her melt? He thumbed away a tear. “I have pushed you from mourning too fast. Yet I feel as though I have waited forever to claim you.”
Her gaze dropped, all the way to the yards of lavender fabric that declared her ready to ease back into society. Why did the declaration make her want to run and hide, when these fifteen months she had struggled so against the confines of black? “I should have better mourned him.”
She should have better loved him.
Dev’s hand rested on her cheek. “Finish your mourning and take what distance you need, darling. When these final three months are finished, you will be mine.”
She didn’t know whether to tip her mouth up to invite a forbidden kiss or to pull away. Whether to breathe in his bergamot scent with a smile or let a storm of tears overtake her.
A loud rap on the door saved her the decision and made them both jump. Pulling all those frustrating emotions back in, she waved away the servant who appeared from the kitchen corridor and opened the door herself.
Her smile went from halfhearted to full bloom when she craned her neck up, and up still more to take in her dawn visitor. “Granddad. What are you doing here so early?”
“Your father just made port, and I went to tell him about Fort Fisher’s fall yesterday—”
“Fort Fisher? In North Carolina?” Hope surged up, though Marietta settled a hand on her chest to contain it. It would be a mighty blow to the Confederacy, but that did not mean the war was over.
“Hadn’t you heard? Then I’m glad I thought to pay a call on my favorite girl while I was out.” Thaddeus Lane grinned, tapped a finger to her nose as he had since she was a tot, and strode inside. A blast of icy air came with him, against which she shut the door. When she turned again, his smile had faded to a glower aimed at Dev.
“Mr. Hughes. What are you doing here so early?”
Dev was never one to be flustered, though his smile looked strained. “Mother took a bad turn last night. We feared the worst. She pulled through, praise the Lord, but I couldn’t leave until I was sure of it.”
Both men sent her a glance. Dev’s, full of shared worry and relief and that black secret. Granddad Thad’s, full of censure. Marietta opened the door again. One of them at a time was plenty. “Shall I see you at dinner, Dev?”
“Dismissed.” He chuckled but obeyed the dictate and made for escape. “You shall. And do send a note to tell me what the doctor says, even if it is good news.”
“I will.” Her lips pulled of their own will into a soft smile for him. Though after she shut the door, all softness evaporated under the scathing regard drilling into her back. She turned around and looked at her grandfather with arched brows. “Must you treat him that way?”
Granddad’s scowl only deepened. “I am your grandfather, young lady. I will treat a man any way I please when I find him in your home at seven in the morning. Now get your cape. You are taking a walk with me.”
“I am not. It is freezing out there.” But even as she said the words, she reached for the heavy woolen cape on the rack. Granddad never issued orders. Not unless it was of the most vital importance. “You cannot condemn a man for being concerned for his mother.”
“If he were so concerned, he would move her into his house.”
Marietta fastened the toggle and wrenched open the door again. “Must we have this conversation for the ninety-second time?”
“Ninety-two, is it?” Amusement crept its way into his voice. “Is that an approximation or an exact count?”
She glared at him over her shoulder.
He pulled the door shut, and for a long moment held her gaze with glinting amber eyes. “How is it you can know the exact number of times I have said a certain thing, yet cannot see the wisdom in obeying? Go home to your parents, Mari. Or take the money your husband left you and set up house somewhere else. Go to Alain in Connecticut—”
“No. This is my house, my home.”
He had to have known she would say it, just as she had the other ninety-one times. So why did he look so sorrowful as he offered her his elbow?
She tucked her hand into the crook with an exhalation blustery enough to rival the wind off the Chesapeake. “I am a woman of three and twenty. I am perfectly capable of maintaining my own living, and Mother Hughes needs me.”
He sighed, led her down the walk for a few steps, and then turned toward the drive.
Marietta dug in her heels. “You said a walk, Granddad. Why would we need to go to the carriage house?”
“We are walking to the carriage house. We need to talk, and that is the safest place.”
No, no it wasn’t. The carriage house was anything but safe. “We can just keep going down the street—”
Her throat went dry. He hadn’t used her full name in so long…and that spark in his eyes was like a fuse. “What is it? Is something wrong? Grandmama? Mama, Daddy?”
“Something is wrong, but not with them. Please, Mari. For once in your life, stop fighting and do what I ask.”
He looked so serious, the lines in his face deepening. She nodded and complied, even though her corset seemed tighter with each step they took.
She had managed to avoid the carriage house and stables for more than a year and would have been happy to make it two. Not that any sour memories were connected to this particular building. It was the similar one at her parents’ that made her teeth grind together.
And the arrogant, infuriating man who had once mucked stalls there and now stood in her outbuilding, pitchfork in hand. She should have dismissed him years ago. Should have refused her brother’s pleading. Should have slapped that patronizing smile from Walker Payne’s face the first time he put it on.
Walker went still. He used his coat sleeve to wipe his forehead as he turned, a bit of a flush in his pale brown skin, an icy calm in his strange silver-blue eyes. “Mr. Lane.” His gaze landed on her. “Princess.”
Marietta withdrew her arm from Granddad’s so she could fold it with her other over her chest. “Are you still working here? I’d have thought you would have run off by now, looking for the next rush of adventure.”
Rather than rising to the bait or mentioning the wife and child that kept him chained to her household, he looked back to Granddad. “Are you sure about this, Mr. Lane?”
Were she a cat, her hackles would have risen. Whatever Granddad wanted to say to her, Walker obviously knew about it.
“It’s the only way.” Granddad drew in a long breath and caught her gaze. “Mari, I need to know where you stand. On the war.”
Of all the… “You question my loyalty? And in front of him?”
“Walker is family.”
“One’s great-grandmother being your housekeeper does not make one family!”
Walker, for some reason known only to the convoluted workings of his self-important mind, smiled. “How sorely I’ve missed you, Yetta.”
A breath of cynical laughter slipped out. He was no doubt as unhappy about his presence here as she was but just as bound by his word to Stephen.
“Could you children stop snapping at each other? We only have a few minutes.” Her grandfather led her deeper into the building, where the nauseating scent of hay and horses filled her nose. “Mari, I have no choice but to question you. Baltimore, all of Maryland, is a house divided. You married into a family with firm Southern roots—”
“Really, Granddad. Mother Hughes has been questioned enough on this subject. She may be from New Orleans, but her husband was as solid a Union man as you.” Her arms slid down to wrap around her middle. Just an attempt to keep her hands warm, that was all.
“I am asking about you, Mari.”
Why was she born to live through this blasted war? All she had wanted was to go to the theater, to entertain her friends, to dance until her feet ached. A world that seemed so far removed now. “My brother gave his life for the Union. How can you question where I stand?”
“Your cousin gave his life for the Confederacy in the very same battle. How can I help but question?”
Again tears stung…though tears for Stephen seemed somehow different than those born of regrets for Lucien. “Stephen was my best friend.” Her only friend, when it came down to it.
Granddad slid closer. “Does that mean his cause is your cause? One you believe in enough to fight for? To risk dying for?”
Her arms went limp, and icy air nipped at her fingers. “You are scaring me.”
“I mean to. Walker?”
Her brother’s friend nodded and motioned them to follow him. “This way.”
A draft of vicious wind whistled through the building, making a chill skitter up her spine. “Where are we going?”
Granddad rested a hand against the small of her back. To lend comfort or to spur her onward if her feet faltered? “What do you know about the Knights of the Golden Circle?”
“The KGC?” The wind seemed colder. “That they’re a Copperhead group. A Southern-sympathizing social club that boasts hundreds of thousands of members.”
“Social club?” Granddad’s short laugh sounded dry. “Perhaps for many of those hundreds of thousands, but not for the high-level members. It is a very serious organization, one with a very dangerous agenda.”
“Promoting slavery. I know.”
Walker came to such an abrupt halt that she nearly ran into his back. His eyes shot shards of ice at her. “You want to say that a little more flippantly next time, princess?”
She dimpled and batted her lashes. “Perhaps I could try if you could be more sensitive to the subject.”
“Enough.” Her grandfather’s tone sounded mournful, bringing her gaze back to his face. “This is serious, Mari. A matter of murder and treason, of the deliberate destruction of the Union—and of which Lucien had a part, and Devereaux too.”
“Nonsense. They both pledged their loyalty to the Union.” Words that came so easily.
Conversations between the Hugheses buzzed in her ears, images flashed. If she were to look at them in that light…but no, it couldn’t be. She shook it off. “Half the city likely belongs to the KGC.”
The two men exchanged a glance that made her want to grit her teeth again. Granddad nodded, and Walker moved onward, his pace quick.
Marietta held her cape closed and wished she had taken the time to grab gloves or a muff. Her fingers were at the painful place between chilled and numb. “What does this have to do with me?”
“You will see soon enough. First, answer me this. What color dress were you wearing on the fifteenth of May in eighteen fifty?”
Of all the random… “Yellow, but I don’t see what—”
“What is the first word on the third line on the second page of the fifth book upon the shelf in your room?”
He wanted to play games? Out here in the cold, in the smelly stables with that patronizing man? She lifted her chin. “I haven’t read the fifth book.”
“The fourth then.”
She shook her head and stared at Walker’s back when he stopped in the last stall and fooled with the hay. “It’s ‘yesterday,’ but I—”
“What was the eighth word I spoke to you the last time we had dinner?”
“ ‘This,’ though I can hardly think what—”
“Well, it’s time to think, Mari.” Granddad’s gaze combined sorrow with determination. “Time to use that mind of yours for something other than drawing room repartee. Your memory is perfect.”
Walker knelt down and slid aside a board.
Marietta waved a hand at Granddad’s words. “A parlor trick.”
“A gift of God.” He gripped her arm, a silent bid for her to look at him. Though when she saw the furor in his eyes, she wished she hadn’t. “You have perfect recall, beyond even your grandmother’s. Perhaps she can draw anything she sees, but you—your recollection extends to what you’ve heard, what you’ve done, when things happened. Do you not realize how rare that is? How special you are?”
“Come see.” Walker held out his hands, as if they were still children. As if she could trust him.
She took a step back. “If you think for even a moment that I will descend into some dank pit—”
“We have a very small window of time, Mari. Go.” Granddad’s hand on her back urged her onward.
But it was the glint of challenge in Walker’s eyes that made her huff over to him. She tamped down the shudder when he lowered her into the black, yawning space. Followed him with chin held high when Granddad handed down a lantern and brought up the rear.
A tunnel. They were in a tunnel that stretched toward her house. “What is this?”
“I didn’t want to bring you into this business, Mari.” Her grandfather’s voice echoed strangely off the timber walls. “When my parents passed the mantle of the Culpers to me, and then when I shared it with your father and uncles and Walker and Hez, there was always an understanding that we would shield the family who wanted no part of it. You. Ize. Most of your cousins. But we have no choice now.”
Each word fell like a hammer upon a chisel, etching themselves into her mind. Yet with more force than normal words, with finality. “Culpers?”
Granddad prodded her onward. “The Culper Ring started in the Revolution. My mother was a spy in British-held New York, passing information through a collection of friends until it reached General Washington.”
“Great-Grandmama Winter—a spy?” Impossible. Her portrait made her look like such a normal woman.
“When I took over during the next war with the British—”
“You?” The world tipped. Her laugh did nothing to right it. “Granddad, you are not a spy.”
“Here we are.” Walker set down the lantern and put his shoulder to a break in the timbers. “It will open only a foot, but it’s enough to get a glimpse. It’s a Knights’ castle, no question.”
A castle, one of their secret lairs? Here, between her home and her carriage house? It could not be. And to prove it could not be, she grabbed the lantern, thrust it through the opening, and stuck her head in after it.
The walls were papered with charts and maps, lines drawn over them helter-skelter. Some of the North, with stars upon the major cities, some of the South, stretching all the way to Texas. One of the entire hemisphere, with a circle drawn around Havana as a center. Papers pinned with what looked like gibberish upon them. And there, nearly out of the dim circle of light, one of Lincoln’s election posters. But with “King” scrawled above his name, and a cruel-looking X drawn through his face in an ink more red-brown than lampblack, something nearly the color of…
“Oh, God in heaven.” Blood, it was blood. She stumbled back and would have dropped the light had Walker not rescued it. Would have fallen had her grandfather not caught her.
He held her fast. “That had better be a genuine beseeching of the Almighty, Mari, because we need to fall to our knees before Him. They are going to harm the president if we don’t stop them. And we’ve done all we can from the outside.”
“Not Dev. Please, not Dev.”
Walker eased the opening shut and watched her closely in the golden light. “He’s the captain of this castle, Yetta. He took over after Lucien died.”
No. She squeezed shut her eyes, but that did nothing to blur the implications. If Granddad spoke rightly, then both of them had lied to her. Had told her she was the most important thing in the world but had undermined all her family stood for. Had made a fool of her. Had they been using her, her family’s connections?
If it were true… “What is it you want from me?”
Granddad gave her a squeeze. “Allan Pinkerton is sending in a man. He has been in communication with Dev and ought to be arriving in town any day. You cannot let either of them know you realize what they are about, but you have to protect him where you can, Mari. Make sure he has the opportunities he needs to find information.”
“His name’s Slade Osborne. A New Yorker by birth, but more recently of Chicago. He’s part of Pinkerton’s Intelligence Service.” Walker reached out and took her hand in his. Audacious, yes. Inappropriate too. And oh, how it reminded her of happier days. “Can you do this, Yetta?”
She saw again that red-brown slash upon the yellowed poster. Shivered at the hatred that must have inspired the defacing. Had the same hand that so recently cupped her cheek marked the president’s image for destruction? Had the lips that had kissed her sworn treason?
She didn’t know. And the not-knowing made her knees want to buckle. For the first time in too many years, she turned her mind to prayer.
Oh, God, if it’s true…What have I done?
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Slade Osborne planted his feet on the wooden platform at Camden Station and waited for the locomotive’s steam to clear. In the bleak January sunshine, Baltimore looked as he had come to expect—gray, dreary, frayed. A city on the edge of chaos. Hence the many Union uniforms milling about with dour-faced soldiers inside them.
He scanned the buildings, the muddy streets. Even never having seen Devereaux Hughes, he would know him. He would be well dressed, have a charming smile, and eyes as hard as the rails that paved his way to fortune. He’d no doubt send that skitter of warning up Slade’s spine. The self-same one that had made him spin around a second before his brother meant to put a sledge to his skull.
His jaw clenched, he hooked a finger in his waistcoat pocket and stepped away from the stream of pedestrians. His train car was being hitched to horses for the trip through the city to President Street Station, but he wouldn’t be joining his fellow passengers.
He spotted a few men who matched Hughes’s general description. Mid-thirties, dark hair, blue eyes. But he’d place his bets on the one striding from the building far behind the depot. The man was too far away to see eye color, and a top hat covered his hair, but Slade knew authority.
He leaned against a lamppost, though it was likely to earn him soot marks on his worsted wool suit. Despite the gnawing inside that made him want to hurry, he would wait. Pinkerton had trained him well in how to assume a role, and the biggest trick was never to overplay one’s hand.
Even when the role one was assuming was one’s own.
Of their own volition, his fingers found the silver chain of his borrowed watch fob. The metal was warm against the bitter air, warm as a long-gone memory. Odd how aware it made him of the price of war, the soul-breaking cost of betrayal. Of how his chance to set it all to rights was ticking away.
What an ugly time they lived in.
He released the fob and folded his arms, expelling a long puff of white breath. The passers-by hurried along, mothers adjusting their children’s coats as they stepped out of doors, gentlemen pulling hats down. The man he had been watching drew nearer, near enough to spot Slade in their agreed-upon location. He knew he, too, matched the description Hughes would have been given. A shade taller than average, hair nearly black under his bowler, lean. A description that fit any number of men milling about.
That had fit one too many before.
He waited for the man’s gaze to wander his way and then lifted his right hand to rub his forefinger above his lip. Recognition kindled in the other set of eyes, and the answering left hand came up, thumb and forefinger taking hold of his left ear.
Slade pushed away from the lamppost and let his coat fall into place around his knees while the man closed the distance between them, hand extended. He knew the Knights’ grip—that he must press his thumb against the knuckle while they shook—but it felt odd.
“Mr. Osborne, I presume. I’m Devereaux Hughes.”
Slade nodded and reclaimed his hand. “Good of you to come meet me, Mr. Hughes.”
“Good of you to travel to Baltimore.” Calculation sharpened the blue of his eyes, though his smile was the epitome of Southern charm. “You spent several years in Washington City before this, correct?”
It took all his willpower not to curl his hand into a fist. Several years nearly undone by the last three months in the field. “That’s right.”
Hughes waited, but Slade offered no more. Words, he had learned long ago, could hang one as quickly as a rope. After a moment’s pause, the other man smiled and motioned to his right. “Shall we go? I have sent a note to my mother and sister-in-law that we would have a guest for dinner tonight.”
“Certainly.” And that was the part of this business he was not looking forward to—socializing. But at least, with the war having washed all the color out of this gray, drab world, no one would expect him to be jovial.
After giving instruction to a stevedore to take care of his trunk, he followed Hughes toward a waiting carriage. Neither spoke until the door closed upon them, the thunk of the trunk sounded on the roof, and the driver’s “Yah!” prompted a lurch into motion.
Then Hughes’s eyes went sharp, and he leaned against the cushion. “I admit, Mr. Osborne, that your letter of introduction piqued my curiosity. You say you have not been officially inducted?”
Slade made himself comfortable. “Not in Washington. Too many old friends watching.”
Those sharp eyes sparked. “Indeed. Though I am curious as to why someone so…dedicated, shall we say, to one cause should turn so suddenly to the opposite view.”
A question he had pondered long and hard himself. Only one conclusion presented itself. “I suppose it wasn’t so sudden.”
“Hmm.” The man regarded him for a long moment and made no attempt to hide his perusal.
Let him look his fill. Slade knew well what he would see. The picture Ross had crafted for him—hard shell, empty insides. A picture easily donned again when he realized how deep his brother’s hatred had run.
At length, Hughes nodded and relaxed. His acceptance couldn’t possibly be so easily won, but Slade was happy to forego an interrogation here and now. He’d had enough of those for a while.
The man adjusted his gloves and offered a smile. “I understand you are from New York City. Are you related to the Osbornes of Fifth Avenue?”
He nearly snorted. “My father is a minister in Brooklyn.”
Hughes’s eyes dimmed. No doubt if Slade didn’t have the information he so wanted, he would have booted him to the cobblestones with a kick to his poor Yankee posterior. Rich, powerful Northerners were of the utmost interest to the Knights. But common ones?
His host studied the fine wool of Slade’s coat. “You seem to have risen above such humble origins.”
How many years had he wasted trying to do just that? Rise above what didn’t need leaving? But the Slade Osborne this man needed to know hadn’t realized the error of his ways. He kept his face neutral. “I’ve done well enough.”
Hughes smiled full and bright. “Well, I hope you enjoy your tenure in our city. Have you found lodging yet?”
“I was hoping you could direct me to a boardinghouse.”
Hughes waved that off. “Nonsense. I have rooms aplenty. You are welcome to stay with me.”
Southern hospitality? Slade suspected not. He knew that particular shade of smile, and it was self-serving. This, despite his confidence and charm, was a desperate man. There was no way the captain of the Baltimore castle of the KGC would invite a stranger into his home otherwise.
Slade’s blood quickened. Did he want to spend every hour in Hughes’s company? No. But then, if he were staying in the man’s house, he would be more likely to find time to poke around. He forced a smile. “Thank you.”
“Excellent.” Hughes’s fingers tapped on his knee. “There is a meeting tonight. If you are earnest about joining—”
A corner of Hughes’s mouth turned up. Something about his expression reminded Slade of his sister’s husband. The way he could charm a crowd with a few well-delivered sentences. Make whomever he was speaking to believe they were the only one in the world who mattered.
Slap a woman till she saw stars and convince her it was her fault.
“I appreciate your eagerness. But let me make something clear.” Without so much as a shift in his countenance, Hughes’s welcome throbbed with threat. “I will induct no more rabble interested only in the allure of a secret society. The time for society has ended. And when—if—I swear you in, it will be with the understanding that we both mean each and every word of the oath.”
For a moment, Slade held his gaze. No urge to flinch, no second-guessing. How could he, at this point? He had already lost everything but his life, and that phrase his father had taught him echoed constantly these days.
To live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Not that he was ready to give himself to eternity quite yet. “I would love to reassure you, Hughes, but given that I don’t know what the oath is…”
Amusement joined hands with the threat. “Let’s just say you’ll be swearing to act solely in the interest of the order—or to never act again.”
Death. The word crept its way into the carriage, despite the half smile and vague words. Slade had known when he signed on for this mission that the stakes could be no higher. Maybe it was the former gambler in him that had made him exchange that silent, irrevocable nod with Pinkerton. To be willing to risk it all for a chance to bring down the beast.
Or maybe it was because that gambler was gone. He had changed. And now he saw the world needed changing too.
Into the face of that silent echo, he pursed his lips and nodded. Sure, if this man knew the truth about him, he would draw that pistol from under his fashionable coat in a heartbeat. Nothing new. Slade had spent the last three months surrounded by thousands of men who would have done the same.
“The war has taken its toll.” Hughes trained his gaze out the window, so Slade followed suit. Weary buildings, brick covered in soot and wood desperate for whitewashing. “Crime abounds, so step carefully and be ready at all times to defend yourself. My neighborhood is one of the safest, but even so…”
“Mobtown. I know.” Baltimore’s reputation for murder and assault put even New York City to shame. “Ever think of leaving?”
“I did a decade ago. I should not have. When I returned, my brother had been handed everything.” He looked to Slade again. No reminiscence clouded his eyes, no regret. Just that same cold charm. “Have you any brothers, Mr. Osborne?”
And his father had said his hours at the poker table would avail nothing but trouble. If only he knew how schooling his features could now save his life. He kept watching the muted cityscape roll by. “I had one.”
A pause. Hughes cleared his throat. “The war?”
“The war.” Indirectly.
“I’m sorry. Losing a brother is never easy. Mine fell to muggers some fifteen months ago.”
Slade already knew that, and a sketch of information about the Hughes family besides. But because he wouldn’t have, had Pinkerton not provided him with a file, he looked back at his host as if surprised. Made sure his eyes softened, as if it created some kind of bond. As if his own loss weren’t so much fresher. And so much crueler. “My condolences.”
Silence held for a minute, and then Hughes turned to the latest news from the front. Slade seldom added a word. It was enough to grow accustomed to the cadence of the man’s voice. To learn the way his eyes shifted. To note each street they passed.
At last they turned into Monument Square, without question one of the wealthiest sectors of the city. Here the effects of the war were less obvious. The grounds looked tended. A black woman—slave or employed?—pushed a pram down the walk. A gaggle of ladies sashayed along as if they hadn’t a care in the world.
Scarlet curls peeking from one of the bonnets caught his gaze, and the face they framed held him captive. An appreciative noise slipped out. He may have reformed his ways, but a man still had to give credit to the Lord’s craftsmanship.
Hughes chuckled. “I see you have spotted our neighbors. Though several of those ladies are married, so do be careful who earns those hums of approval, Osborne.”
She was middling in height. Her fashionable coat probably provided little warmth, but neither did it hide her figure. And an admirable figure it was. “The redhead?” Not that he could afford divided attention, but a man had to know these things.
He felt Hughes stiffen before he glanced over and saw his smile freeze. Ice snapped in his eyes. “My brother’s widow. She is still in mourning, you understand.”
He understood his one little sound of admiration had just labeled him as someone to be watched. Blast it to pieces. His mother had been right. Nothing good ever came of letting one’s eyes wander.
Glancing out the window again, he chose another young lady at random. “What about the blonde there?”
Perhaps Hughes relaxed a degree. Or perhaps it was wishful thinking. “Miss Lynn. She had a sweetheart at the start of the war, but…”
“Miss Lynn.” He put a grin in his voice as he tested the name.
Mrs. Hughes glanced their way as they rumbled past and smiled. No innocent greeting of her brother-in-law, that smile. No, there was something far more in her cat-green eyes. Something that contained both recognition and question. Both passion and…anger?
The carriage turned into a drive, and Slade’s host barely waited for the door to open before jumping down. “Come. I’ll show you to a room. We have half an hour before we must repair across the street. My mother is a stickler for promptness, even though she has been bound to her rooms this past month.” His face finally softened, a light in his smile.
Slade slid on the old, carefree grin he hadn’t worn in so long. “Mine is the same way.”
But when he stood in the silence of a guest bedroom a few minutes later, he didn’t rush for the basin of water. He didn’t loosen the cravat he wanted to take off altogether or poke around the room’s elegant appointments. He strode to the window and leaned against the frame. He closed his eyes and, for the first time since he boarded the train in Washington earlier, dared to draw in a long breath. To be the man he was rather than the man he had once been.
Father God. Another deep breath, to clear his mind and cleanse his heart. Father God, here I am. Where You sent me. Keep my heart focused on You.
Any further prayer was cut off by the entrance of the manservant who had driven the carriage, Slade’s trunk bowing his back. Though he nearly stepped forward to help, he stopped himself. He even let a second man fuss over wrinkles and cuff links. And then he went down, twenty minutes later, to find his host waiting by the door.
Hughes nodded at his appearance and led him outside, across the street to an edifice even larger than his. “The family home,” the man said, motioning at it. “I was fortunate to find a house so near when I moved back to Baltimore four years ago.”
Had Lucien willed it to the missus despite her giving him no heir, or did Devereaux let her continue living there with his mother out of the goodness of his heart? Or out of something, anyway.
A black man in livery opened the door for them before Hughes could even knock. “Evenin’, Mr. Dev. Sir. Come right on in outta that cold, now.”
His host made some reply, but Slade couldn’t have said what. He’d no sooner taken off his hat and handed it over with his overcoat than he spotted her. First the deep flame of her hair, and then the swish of her pale purple skirt. She came their way from somewhere down the hall, gliding forward with that grace Southern mamas seemed to instill in their daughters from birth.
“Good evening, Dev.” Her voice was what he’d imagined it would be. A warm alto, thick with honey.
He recognized the tug in his gut for what it was. She was beautiful. Too beautiful, the kind that knew well the power it gave her over the male half of the species. And if he read that calm control in her eyes aright, the kind that used it like an overseer would a whip. Still, recognizing it didn’t stop the tug from repeating when she turned those pale green eyes his way.
“And this must be Mr. Osborne.” Her smile was all rehearsed charm as she held out a hand, wrist limp. “So good of you to join us.”
He took the hand because propriety said he must and bowed over it, but he stopped shy of pressing his lips to her knuckles. She would call it bad manners—he called it survival instincts. “Good of you to have me.”
Hughes stepped to her side and cupped her elbow. The curl of his fingers looked like a shackle. “Allow me to make proper introductions. This is Slade Osborne of New York, a security agent trained by Allan Pinkerton. I’m considering hiring him, what with all the sabotage to the rails. Mr. Osborne, my sister-in-law, Marietta Arnaud Hughes.”
“Arnaud.” It took him a second, but likely only because of how distracting it was when she arched those fiery brows. “Any relation to Commodore Arnaud of the USS Marguerite?”
Her father was one of the Union’s most vital naval commanders? He didn’t dare look at Hughes, but he had to wonder. Did that fact gall him, he with his Confederate sympathies? Or was it, in fact, a mark in her favor?
He supposed he would find out if he did his job well.
Another man may have commented on Commodore Arnaud’s legendary bravery. But because she obviously knew the stories better than he, Slade simply nodded again. And, when she motioned to his right, turned.
“Do make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen. I just need to check in with Tandy in the kitchen.”
His gaze snagged on Hughes’s, and his host jerked his head toward that room to the right—a library—while he pulled Mrs. Hughes to the left. “You get settled, Osborne. I need a word with our hostess.”
Seeing no reason to argue, Slade strode into the library, taking in the fine furniture with a slow turn and sweeping glance…which made its way back to the hallway just as Hughes pulled the lady close, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her like there was no tomorrow.
Subtle. With a snort, Slade turned away. About as subtle as Ross’s sledgehammer.
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