The Undercover DukeBy: Jess Michaels
(The 1797 Club Book 6)
For Jenn LeBlanc, Kate Smith, Grace Callaway, Sara Ramsay and all the wonderful writers who have helped me figure out what to do and reminded me I love to do it.
And for Michael. Twenty-one years and you still listen to me as I pontificate about Star Wars, soap operas and the best kinds of cheese. You are a saint.
It was wrong. It was all wrong. Lucas Vincent, Duke of Willowby, felt that wrongness like an icepick in his gut as he crept around the perimeter of the country estate. He paid attention to the feeling, for he had long ago learned to trust his instincts. They were what kept a spy alive.
Of course, that didn’t mean he didn’t still do his job. Today he moved forward despite that feeling. Perhaps because of it. After all, he’d also long ago determined that it was his destiny to die in the field, for his country, with honor.
If today was that day, then so be it. There was little to live for beyond that sense of honor. He had no relationship with his family and he had cut away his friends—his dear friends who had once been like brothers—over the years since he had discovered the truth of himself.
The harsh whisper of his name drew him from maudlin thoughts and he turned, weapon drawn, to find George Oakford’s wise, lined face peeking out from behind a shrubbery. Oakford was a friend and a talented surgeon who used his extensive gifts to save the lives of those who served the crown.
He was also not supposed to be here.
Lucas eased over to him. “What are you doing here?” he whispered.
Oakford looked toward the house with a scowl. “I heard rumors that you were coming here to suss out a traitor,” he said, rage potent in his low tone. “And since we’ve lost three good men under terrible and suspicious circumstances in the last six months, men I’ve watched die because I did not have the talent to save them, I knew I had to come and support you. Orders be damned.”
Lucas reached out and gripped the older man’s arm. There were very few people in this world he trusted more than George Oakford, and relief washed over him in a wave. “I admit, I’m pleased to find you here. I have a sense of dread and I wouldn’t mind the support of your presence.”
Oakford’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “It’s just you?”
Lucas nodded. “Yes. I was meant to only observe, Stalwood’s orders. He has an abundance of caution, as you know.”
Oakford’s lips pursed. “He always has. Sometimes I think to his detriment.”
Lucas couldn’t disagree, even though he respected the spymaster, as he knew Oakford did, too. He continued, “When I saw the men unloading weapons round the back, when I saw them bringing carriages full of lightskirts as entertainment for their evening, it was evident something very big is happening here tonight. If I can stop it before it does, it could save the lives of thousands of men on the battlefield. And perhaps keep even one more spy from dying for this operation at the hands of a craven coward.”
Oakford held his gaze for a long moment. “You’ve always been the best of your kind, Willowby. Whoever is running this operation should fear the consequences you are about to rain down on them. I’m certain they deserve it.”
“We’re raining those consequences down, Oakford,” Lucas said. “But I need to get a look at who our traitor is. There’s been activity in that chamber up there, but I haven’t been able to get a clear view of whoever is inside.”
He pulled out his spyglass and handed it over. Oakford looked up at the window Lucas had indicated and lowered the glass. His finely wrinkled face was pinched in an expression of disgust. “I see what you mean,” he said. “What’s your plan?”
“There’s a trellis along the north wall,” Lucas explained. “It leads to a thin ledge on that second floor, which I can use to creep around the window of the chamber next to the one our traitor is occupying. If I can manage to get inside, I might even be able to incapacitate him without causing a stir. We could be in and out without a fight.”
Oakford lifted his eyebrows. “I’m impressed with you, Willowby. But then, I always am.”