Wessex Manor, Devon
“Have we just returned from attending a wake or a wedding?” Lord Jericho Black, the Marquis of Wessex, frowned his impatience with the three morose-looking gentlemen currently seated in his study with him.
Two of those gentlemen answered at the same time with opposing opinions. The third, a dark-haired gentleman seated beside the fire, remained grimly silent.
“Not that we ain’t happy for Carlton,” Lord Jeremiah Worthington added heavily.
“No, not at all,” Lord Titus Covington, Viscount Romney, added as weightily. “God knows Maxim deserves all the happiness he has now found with Heather and young Ralph.”
“But?” Jericho prompted.
“Well, now there are only the three of us left.” Romney glanced toward the dark-haired man seated beside the fire. “Four of us,” he corrected dryly, “to ascertain which of the four remaining ladies under investigation is responsible for committing treason against the Crown.”
Jericho was well aware of that. As he was also aware that the lady he was to investigate, Lady Jocelyn Forbes, who also happened to be his ward, would any day now be returning from a visit to relatives in France.
A connection which, to outsiders, made Jocey very much a suspect in their search for the female traitor. Except Jericho believed Jocey never to have met any of her French relatives until this summer. Her mother had died giving birth to her, and afterward, her English father had refused to have anything to do with his dead wife’s French family. Possibly out of a sense of loyalty to his country, but Jericho was more inclined to believe it had been laziness and a lack of funds on Forbes’s part.
No, it was not Jocey’s tenuous French connections that Jericho found so depressing.
With Carlton’s wedding today, Jericho now knew he had no choice but to bestir himself into proving Jocey’s innocence or guilt in the matter of treason. As did Worthington and Romney.
The eight friends, known collectively as The Sinners in Society, had also long been agents for the Crown. As such, they had been chosen to investigate eight ladies, one of whom they knew had betrayed England, most recently by aiding in Napoleon’s escape from Elba earlier this year and the mayhem that had followed. Except they did not know which of those eight ladies was the guilty one.
Four of The Sinners had now not only proven their ladies’ innocence but also married them. Carlton was the most recent to have done so at this morning’s wedding.
“We are to investigate the Germaine twins,” Romney added in disgust.
“Two sillier young ladies I have yet to meet,” Worthington agreed morosely.
“So silly,” the dark-haired Romney agreed, “it is impossible to believe either one of them capable of doing anything more than getting out of bed in the morning. But only then so that they might be dressed by their maid to go on one of the shopping trips they talk of and giggle about incessantly.”
All aged five and thirty, The Sinners had little time or patience for the young debutantes who regularly appeared at the start of each new London Season. Jericho knew the Germaine twins only because they had made their debut in the same year as Jericho’s ward and were now two of Jocey’s closest friends.
But he agreed with Worthington and Romney’s assessment: the Germaine sisters certainly gave the appearance of being two of the most vacuous young ladies to have been introduced into Society in recent years. Their silliness could be a ruse, of course, merely a front so that one or both of them might hide their clandestine activities.
But that was for Romney and Worthington to decide. Jericho had his own cross to bear in that regard.
“I will offer any of you the same as I did Carlton last month.” The fourth gentleman, Dominik Sinclair, the Duke of Stonewell, rose to his imperious height of several inches over six feet. “Any of you might take my lady instead,” he explained harshly as they all looked at him questioningly.
He removed a well-worn scrap of paper from the pocket of his waistcoat, unfolding and holding it up so they could all read the name written there.
“Prudence Germaine is a pretty little thing,” the blond-haired Worthington assured hastily.
“Perhaps investigating Priscilla Germaine will not be such a hardship after all.” Dark-haired Romney nodded.
Stonewell’s mouth twisted with a derision he made no attempt to hide. “As I thought. How about you, Wessex?”
Jericho was still reeling from the shock of learning the name of the lady whom Stonewell was to investigate. “I could not, in all conscience, allow anyone else to investigate my own ward.”
Jocey was not strictly Jericho’s ward, but his father’s. But as that eccentric gentleman spent all his time in the Scottish Highlands hunting or fishing, Jericho had taken over as Jocey’s guardian three years ago, shortly before her eighteenth birthday. At that time, he had introduced her into Society and thereafter, for the main part, left her to be chaperoned by Lady Gwendoline Black, one of Jericho’s elderly relatives. Several young and worthy gentlemen had approached Jericho since Jocey’s coming out to offer for her hand in marriage, but she had steadfastly refused each and every one of those proposals. At the age of almost one and twenty, she was still very much an eligible young lady.
Stonewell nodded abruptly. “Then if you gentlemen will excuse me? I must return to London and see what further chaos my empty-headed mother-in-law has wrought upon my household in my absence.”
The three remaining gentlemen maintained a silence until the duke had left the room and was seconds later heard departing the house.
“Good God,” Worthington muttered with feeling.
“Indeed,” Romney acknowledged with a shudder.
Jericho had nothing to add to his friends’ incredulity or the pity they all now felt toward Stonewell. Not that the gentleman would appreciate the latter sentiment, but Dominik had their every sympathy nonetheless.
None of which made Jericho’s own task, proving Jocey’s innocence, any less burdensome.