Authors: Stefanie Sloane
“Ah, sahib Bourne.” A deep sigh managed to sound both patient and long-suffering.
“You must remember: truth, contentment, forbearance, and mercy belong to great minds,”
Singh urged gently.
His beatific smile gleamed like some damn beacon in the night, Nicholas thought with
He closed his eyes and folded his arms across his chest. “Your wisdom will serve you
very little here in London, Singh. This is not India. War does not rage on our streets
in a traditional sense. Still, there is struggle, my friend. We humans cannot manage
to breathe without destroying.”
“Then I am doubly glad that I have come, sahib. It
sounds as though you need a holy man such as me now more than ever.”
“Stop calling me sahib, will you?” Nicholas growled, chafing at the respectful form
of address adopted by so many in colonial India.
The doorknob rattled as someone inserted a key. Nicholas released a roar of protest.
“Mrs. Fitzroy, have mercy on me, I beg of you.”
“I see you are alive—and as charming as ever.”
Nicholas opened one eye and peered over the back of the sofa. “Langdon, is that you?
I’ve only just arrived back in town.”
Langdon sauntered toward him as he tossed a key up in the air and deftly caught it.
“I was on my way to the club when I thought to check on you. Splendid bit of luck,
wouldn’t you agree?”
“That is one way of looking at it,” Nicholas quipped, opening both eyes and glaring
at his brother.
As usual, Langdon was dressed impeccably. A deep blue coat of light wool stretched
over his broad shoulders with nary a wrinkle, his cravat and linen shirt were pristine
white, and the black leather of his Hessian boots gleamed with polish.
Nicholas was abruptly reminded that his own boots were dull with dust. The ride from
the Primrose to London had left his own black Weston-tailored coat and fawn breeches
less than immaculate and imbued with the faint scent of horse and leather. And since
he’d released his valet just prior to leaving for the Inn, he’d have to find a new
man to care for his clothes and polish his boots. He nearly groaned aloud at the thought.
He had little patience for fussy valets who moped and grew gloomy when his boots were
A polite but forced clearing of a throat reminded Nicholas why he’d collapsed on the
sofa in the first
place. “Oh yes. Langdon, say hello to Singh, a friend from India.”
Singh padded to where Langdon leaned against the faded sofa and bowed. “Lord …?”
“Blast,” Nicholas uttered, already tired of polite society. “Lord Stonecliffe.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Lord Stonecliffe.”
“Langdon here is, as you’ve just learned, a lord,” Nicholas informed Singh, sarcasm
effortlessly lacing his voice. “And quite the lord he is, too. Responsible, kind,
“In short, everything that my little brother is not,” Langdon interrupted, playfully
landing a punch to Nicholas’s biceps. “Or so he’d have you believe.”
Langdon offered his hand to Singh and smiled when the Indian took it. “Don’t let him
fool you, Singh. There’s not a finer chap to be found.”
“We are in agreement, then, Lord Stonecliffe,” Singh replied enthusiastically.
Nicholas audibly groaned.
“I believe it is time for tea,” Singh announced.
“Oh, splendid,” Langdon said, smirking at Nicholas.
Nicholas closed his eyes. “I would groan in response if I did not recall doing so
only moments ago.”
“Indeed, you did, sahib,” Singh confirmed with a complete lack of guile, and then
quit the room.
“I like him,” Langdon said with conviction.
Nicholas frowned. “You would,” he answered. “Very much alike, you two. So full of
“Come now, Nicholas,” Langdon chided. “Must you always be so hard on yourself?”
Nicholas folded both arms across his chest. “Simply doing the dead lord proud.”
Langdon sighed, as he always did whenever Nicholas referred to their father by the
Not that he held the man in any more lofty esteem.
It was the principle of the matter; and to Langdon, that meant everything.
Nicholas could let principle hang, and often did. Especially as it pertained to his
father. The late Earl of Stonecliffe was not a violent man. Nor was he irresponsible,
dissolute, or particularly unlikable. No, he was simply uninterested in his second
son. Until Nicholas decided he’d
his father notice him. He could not do everything right—Langdon had already claimed
that role—but he could do everything wrong, and rather fabulously.
He captured his father’s attention, all right. And the man’s quiet contempt and disappointment.
Which only hurt more. And, in turn, encouraged Nicholas to push harder. Even now,
with the man dead and buried in the ground, Nicholas continued to hone his debauchery.
He couldn’t say why. It was simply what he did; or, to be more precise, who he was.
“Now, dear brother.” Nicholas opened his eyes and pushed upright. “Care to tell me
why you’re really here?”
Langdon’s angelic smile did not fool Nicholas for one moment.
“Your club is nowhere near the Albany, unless one was blind, drunk, and in possession
of a terribly misleading map.” Nicholas perused Langdon’s person skeptically. “None
of which applies to you.”
Langdon stretched out his legs and crossed his boots at the ankles. “I needed to see
for myself that you were well.”
“Is this to do with Carrington’s wedding?” Nicholas asked, shame bubbling to life
low in his belly. “I’d fully intended on being there. I must have misremembered the
“I do not doubt you, Nicholas,” Langdon assured
him. “But he is your dearest friend. I knew that something was wrong. If not for Corinthian
business I would have collected you myself.”
The shame began to boil in earnest. It was always worse when it came to Langdon because
his brother truly cared; judgment was never an ulterior motive with him.
Nicholas wished it were. Especially now.
“Look at you, though—back in London of your own accord. That’s something, brother.
Wouldn’t you agree?”
Nicholas could taste the bitter, familiar tang of self-loathing fill his mouth.
He nodded in agreement, earning a hopeful grin from Langdon for his efforts.
“Now, where is Singh with the bloody tea?”
The Fabersham Residence
Nearly three days after leaving Nicholas at the Primrose Inn, Sophia accompanied her
friend Mrs. Mason to a charity event at the home of one of fashionable London’s leading
They were a study in contrasts. Sophia wore a fashionable, deep yellow gown of fine
silk with a cream shawl draped gracefully around her shoulders. The toes of her matching
embroidered slippers peeped from beneath her skirt. Her hair was caught up in a bright
sunshine-colored ribbon, held in place with amethyst clips, and a delicate amethyst
pendant hung from a filigree gold chain about her throat. Mrs. Mason was clad in a
more serviceable gown of dark blue wool, her slippers sturdy black leather, and she’d
pinned her hair up in a restrained knot atop her head. Their attire spoke
clearly of the gap between their stations in life and yet there was an ease between
the two that could not go unnoticed by even the most casual of observers.
“Are you enjoying yourself, Mrs. Mason?” Sophia asked her companion. The two women
stood near the back of Lady Fabersham’s drawing room, where a tea was well under way.
Mrs. Mason forced a smile in response. The founder of the Halcyon Society was clearly
uncomfortable amongst the ladies of the ton.
“I know this is not precisely within your bailiwick,” Sophia replied with sympathy.
“Still, think of the good we can do,” she added, hopeful the distraction would ease
the woman’s nerves.
The Halcyon Society offered women in desperate situations a safe haven. Beyond shelter,
food, and clothing, Mrs. Mason supplied training and moral support for all who came
seeking assistance, ensuring that no one would fall back into the bad habits or heartbreaking
realities that had landed them on her doorstep in the first place.
Dash’s wife, Elena, was intent on establishing a sister institution in her home village
of Verwood. Such an undertaking required money. And lots of it. Which was where Lady
Fabersham and the other well-intentioned ladies of her acquaintance entered the equation.
Mrs. Mason fingered the modest neckline of her dark blue morning gown. “Of course.
And please don’t think me ungrateful.”
“I would never, Mrs. Mason,” Sophia assured her. “And believe me, I know all too well
the toll such events can take on a person.”
Mrs. Mason’s brow furrowed, causing her glasses to slip.
“Just because a person is born into a life with certain expectations does not guarantee
they have any real
talent for the task. Never mind an inclination,” Sophia added. “Our circumstances
do not dictate our fate. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Mrs. Mason’s lips softened into a curve of understanding. “Of course. But if I may
say so, one would never know it to look at you. The Furies’ work?”
“Yes,” Sophia confirmed, a fond smile blooming.
Everyone in London knew the Furies—or at the very least, knew
them. Three well-connected sisters with minds like wire traps and the wills to match.
They’d been friends of her mother’s and had willingly taken Sophia under their wings
after Lady Afton’s death.
“I thought so,” Mrs. Mason replied approvingly.
Lady Fabersham approached, anticipation coloring her full, round cheeks. “Lady Sophia,
Mrs. Mason. I believe we are ready.”
“Are you prepared then?” Sophia whispered to Mrs. Mason, whose face showed nothing
more now than polite interest. The small nod the older woman gave her before turning
to their hostess was answer enough.
“Excellent,” Mrs. Mason answered, a nearly imperceptible tremble in her voice.
“Please, come with me,” Lady Fabersham beckoned to her. “I will provide a brief introduction,
after which the floor will be yours.”
Mrs. Mason nodded and allowed her hostess to lead the way.
Sophia slipped into an empty chair near the doorway. The ladies clapped politely after
Lady Fabersham’s remarks, and then the room quieted. Mrs. Mason took her place behind
an ornate mahogany podium and looked out at the audience. Her simple dress was a stark
contrast to the deep rose of the sumptuous silk drapes framing the window behind her,
which looked out at a riot of spring blooms swaying on the breeze. She paused for
a moment to smooth gloved fingers over her already
tidy hair. “My ladies, I fear what I am about to tell you will be difficult to hear,
for my life has not been an easy one. Still, without my story, there would be no Halcyon
Society. And that is more terrifying to me than anything I have lived through.”
Sophia felt a surge of pride at the sound of the brave woman’s voice, now strong and
clear as she laid the foundation for her powerful tale. That very morning, she’d listened
to Mrs. Mason practicing her speech. The sorrow and despair of the woman’s former
life juxtaposed against the hope and healing of Halcyon House had moved Sophia to
tears; she felt sure the ladies in attendance would respond in a similar fashion.
Which was exactly why Mrs. Mason’s presence was so important. In her position as mistress
of Halcyon House, she possessed something that the other women in this room did not:
real life experience.
Sophia did not mean to be cruel. In fact, she very much envied her peers. If life
had been kinder, she would be amongst them now, sipping her tea and listening to Mrs.
Mason’s tale until her heart ached and her reticule felt far too heavy for its own
It was true enough that Sophia held a position in elegant society that her family’s
title commanded. She spoke the ton’s language. Behaved in the prescribed manner decreed
by good breeding. Attended all the right balls and soirees.
And yet she knew in her soul that it was all a sham.
She was not one of them.
Bearing the awareness of life’s darker side, indeed the very possibility of such a
thing, was a heavy burden and one Sophia would not wish on her greatest enemy. Just
enough insight so as to induce a charitable heart was noble, at least to her way of
thinking. Too much, and you risked injuring the organ beyond repair.
Mrs. Mason had reached the point in her story where
her redemption appeared to be an impossible goal. Sophia blinked back tears and surveyed
the room. Dainty handkerchiefs were earning their keep, almost every last woman in
attendance physically moved by the harrowing account.
Sophia had seen tragedy up close. Her mother’s death had robbed her world of light
and joy and left her feeling helpless. Alone. Her work with the Runners and the Halcyon
Society had done
. And now, with Nicholas’s help, she would find the man responsible for ruining so
Sophia joined in the rousing chorus of applause when Mrs. Mason concluded, a tentative
smile forming on her lips. Was it possible she, too, might one day live nothing more
than a normal life, free from her past and its constant presence?
There was only one way to find out. It had been three days since her trip to the Primrose
Inn, and still not a word from Nicholas. She’d waited long enough.