The Handbook to Handling His LordshipBy: Suzanne Enoch
The idiotic ways in which people deluded themselves, against all better reason and judgment, had long since ceased to surprise Nathaniel Stokes.
He, for instance, did not view a well-documented meeting in the middle of Hyde Park at the height of visiting hours as discreet. Neither would he have thought that wearing an enormous yellow hat and an unseasonably heavy cloak lent itself to being unnoticed, but then he hadn’t arranged the rendezvous. That honor belonged to the elongated face and plucked triangular eyebrows beneath the hat. And the black-gloved fingers sticking out from the enormous black coach’s window and beckoning him closer, spiderlike. Ah, very subtle.
Of course he’d taken his own precautions in order to ensure that the residents of London in general, and Mayfair in particular, saw the portrait of him that he intended. Therefore, as he swung down from Blue, his dark gray gelding, he adjusted the pair of glass-lensed spectacles that bridged his nose and pulled his ebony cane from its well-fashioned holster in his saddle.
He needed neither, but required both. Or rather, his particular brand of hobby required, he’d learned from careful observation, a certain air of both absentmindedness and trustworthy gravitas. Spectacles did that with a minimum of discomfort, while the cane made him look harmless—especially when accompanied by the slight limp that tucking a button into the bottom of his left boot elicited. No one else needed to know about the razor-sharp rapier tucked inside the ebony wood—but he knew about it. And how to use it.
“Lord Westfall,” the female beneath the hat whispered, ducking back into the shadowed recesses of the coach, “do join me.”
And then there was the largest part of his disguise. Nate found it ironic that Mayfair’s blue bloods had found him worthy of hearing their darkest secrets only after he’d become the Earl of Westfall—not because the title wasn’t legitimately his, as an army of solicitors had deemed it to be—but because of all the disguises he’d ever worn, this one of aristocrat had the illest fit. And it also seemed to be the only one he couldn’t take off and set into the wardrobe at the end of the day.
Favoring his left leg, he stepped up into the carriage and pulled the door shut behind him. “Are you certain your reputation is safe with me, Lady Allister?” he asked with a smile, removing the dark blue beaver hat from his head and setting it on the posh leather seat beside him.
The dowager viscountess giggled, color touching her pale cheeks. “At my age I shall risk it,” she returned, still using the same conspiratorial whisper she’d assumed for each of their half-dozen conversations. “Were you successful?”
Nate nodded, reaching into the wrong coat pocket and then the correct one to pull out an old, gold-rimmed ivory brooch. The carving was rather delicate, the silhouette of a young lady with an elongated face and high-piled, curling hair. “I leave it to you to decide if you wish to know where it was located,” he said, handing it into Lady Allister’s black-gloved fingers.
“Oh, dear,” she said, gazing at the small thing before she curled her fingers around it and clutched it to her bosom. “I hate to be sentimental, but it is the only image I have remaining of my younger self. The fire took the portrait my father had commissioned. By Gainsborough himself, you know.”
“It’s a lovely piece. The craftsmanship, and the subject, are remarkable.” That seemed to be what she wished to hear, anyway. As he’d spent the past week looking at half a hundred of the things as he trailed one small brooch across central England, he wasn’t certain how qualified he was to judge at the moment.
Light blue eyes lifted to meet his. “I will only ask this: Was it sold from my son’s possession, or stolen?”
He’d discovered the answer to that question early on. Gambling debts and an overreaching lifestyle had rendered the current Viscount Allister with a less than desirable quantity of funds. As he looked at the damp eyes of Allister’s doting mother, he settled his expression into a frown. “Stolen, I’m afraid. A group of young brigands who’ve already been seen to justice for other crimes.”
The woman’s shoulders lowered. “It’s as he said, then.” She cleared her throat. “And your fee, Westfall? You have certainly earned one.”
“Twenty-five pounds, as we agreed, my lady.”
“In exchange for your efforts and your discretion.”
And there the word was again, as rarely as it was actually spoken aloud. He couldn’t imagine anyone else would care a fig whether Lord Allister had sold his mother’s brooch or not, but she’d convinced herself that her entire family’s reputation rested on his silence. So be it. “Of course.”
She handed the coins into his hand, briefly gripping his fingers as she did so. “Thank you, Lord Westfall.”
Nate opened the coach’s door. “And thank you, Lady Allister.” Then he grimaced for effect. “Ah, my hat.” Reaching back, he retrieved the last bit of his disguise and descended to the ground.
He stepped back as the coach rolled away. The first time a peer had asked him to find something, he’d made the mistake of attempting to perform the deed gratis. After that had nearly sparked a duel with the fellow, he’d realized his error. If he didn’t ask a fee, that meant a client—as he’d come to call them—owed him a favor. It meant that, however trivial the deed or misdeed, he held a piece of their privacy, their reputation, over them. Payment for services rendered made them even. And so whether he required the additional income or not, or whether the fee matched the efforts he’d made or the expense he’d truly gone to, he named a nominal price and they paid it. And the dearer the secret they felt the need to protect, the larger the price they demanded he ask.