Her eyes widened at that, and she clutched the dressing gown closer to her nonexistent br**sts.
“The youngest. That would be … Henry, no?”
“It would. And how the devil do you know that?” he demanded, agitation making his voice harsh. A gap-toothed smile glimmered at him, but then went away as she saw the depth of his distress.
“One of his lordship’s footmen is a regular,” she said simply. “Thursdays; it’s his night off.”
“Oh.” He sat still, hands on his knees, trying to bring his thoughts—and his feelings—under some kind of control. “It—I see.”
“It’s late in the year to be getting messages from America, no?” She glanced at the window, which was covered in layers of red velvet and lace that were unable to keep out the sound of lashing rain. “Did a late ship come in?”
“Yes. Blown off course and limped in to Brest with a wounded mainmast. The message was brought overland.”
“And is it Brest ye’re going to, then?”
“It is not.”
A soft scratching came at the door before she could ask anything further, and she went to let in the porter, who had—without being asked, Grey noted—brought up a tray laden with tea things, including a thickly iced cake.
He turned it over in his mind. Could he tell her? But she hadn’t been joking about discretion, he knew. In her own way, she kept secrets as much—and as well—as he did.
“It’s about William,” he said, as she shut the door and turned back to him.
HE KNEW DAWN WAS near, from the ache in his bones and the faint chime of his pocket watch. There was no sign of it in the sky. Clouds the color of chimney sweepings brushed the rooves of London, and the streets were blacker than they had been at midnight, all lanterns having been long since extinguished, all hearth fires burnt low.
He’d been up all night. There were things he must do; he ought to go home and sleep for a few hours before catching the Dover coach. He couldn’t go without seeing Hal once more, though. Just to assure himself.
There were lights in the windows of Argus House. Even with the drapes drawn, a faint gleam showed on the wet cobbles outside. It was snowing thickly, but wasn’t yet sticking to the ground. There was a good chance that the coach would be detained—was sure to be slow, bogged down on the miry roads.
Speaking of coaches—his heart gave a sickly leap at the sight of a battered-looking carriage standing in the porte cochere, which he thought belonged to the doctor.
His thump at the door was answered at once by a half-dressed footman, nightshirt tucked hastily into his breeches. The man’s anxious face relaxed a little when he recognized Grey.
“Took bad in the night, my lord, but easier now,” the man—Arthur, that was his name—interrupted him, stepping back to let him in and taking the cloak from his shoulders, shaking off the snow.
He nodded and made for the stair, not waiting to be shown up. He met the doctor coming down—a thin gray man, marked by his black ill-smelling coat and the bag in his hand.
“How is he?” he demanded, seizing the man by the sleeve as he reached the landing. The doctor drew back, affronted, but then saw his face in the glow from the sconce and, recognizing his resemblance to Hal, settled his ruffled feathers.
“Somewhat better, my lord. I have let him blood, three ounces, and his breathing is grown easier.”
Grey let go the sleeve and bounded up the stairs, his own chest tight. The door to Hal’s suite of rooms stood open and he went in at once, startling a maid who was carrying out a chamber pot, lidded and then delicately draped with a cloth handsomely embroidered with large, brilliant flowers. He brushed past her with a nod of apology and went into Hal’s bedroom.
Hal was sitting up against the bolster, pillows wedged behind him; he looked nearly dead. Minnie was beside him, her pleasant round face gaunt with anxiety and sleeplessness.
“I see you even shit with style, Your Grace,” Grey remarked, sitting down on the other side of the bed.
Hal opened one gray lid and eyed him. The face might be that of a skeleton, but the pale, sharp eye was the living Hal, and Grey felt his chest flood with relief.
“Oh, the cloth?” Hal said, weakly but clearly. “That’s Dottie. She will not go out, even though I assured her that if I thought I was going to die, I should certainly wait for her return to do it.” He paused to breathe, with a faint wheezing note, then coughed and went on: “She is not the sort, thank God, to indulge in pieties, she has no musical talent, and her vitality is such that she is a menace to the kitchen staff. So Minnie set her to needlework, as some outlet for her formidable energies. She takes after Mother, you know.”
“I am sorry, John,” Minnie said apologetically to him. “I sent her to bed, but I saw that her candle is still lit. I believe she is at work this moment on a pair of carpet slippers for you.”
Grey thought carpet slippers were likely innocuous, whatever motif she had chosen, and said so.
“So long as she isn’t embroidering a pair of drawers for me. The knotwork, you know …”
That made Hal laugh, which in turn made him cough alarmingly, though it brought a little color back into his face.
“So you aren’t dying?” Grey asked.
“No,” Hal said shortly.
“Good,” said Grey, smiling at his brother. “Don’t.”
Hal blinked, and then, recalling the occasion on which he had said exactly that to Grey, smiled back.
“Do my best,” he said dryly, and then, turning, laid an affectionate hand on Minnie’s. “My dear …”
“I’ll have some tea brought up,” she said, rising at once. “And a good hot breakfast,” she added, after a scrutinizing look at Grey. She closed the door delicately behind her.
“What is it?” Hal hitched himself higher on the pillow, disregarding the bloodstained cloth wrapped round one forearm. “You have news?”
“Very little. But a great number of alarming questions.”
The news of Henry’s capture had been enclosed as a note for Hal inside a letter to himself, from one of his contacts in the intelligencing world, and carried an answer to his inquiries regarding the known French connections of one Percival Beauchamp. He hadn’t wanted to discuss that with Hal until he’d seen Nessie, though—and Hal had been in no condition for such discussions, anyway.
“No known connections between Beauchamp and Vergennes”—naming the French foreign minister—“but he has been seen often in company with Beaumarchais.”
That provoked another coughing fit.
“Little f**king wonder,” Hal observed hoarsely, upon his recovery. “A mutual interest in hunting, no doubt?” That last was a sarcastic reference, both to Percy’s disinclination for blood sports and to Beaumarchais’s title of “Lieutenant General of Hunting,” bestowed upon him some years previous by the late king.
“And,” Grey went on, ignoring this, “with one Silas Deane.”
Hal frowned. “Who?”
“An American merchant. In Paris on behalf of the American Congress. He skulks round Beaumarchais, rather. And he’s been seen speaking with Vergennes.”
“Oh, him.” Hal flapped a hand. “Heard of him. Vaguely.”
“Have you heard of a business called Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie?”
“No. Sounds Spanish, doesn’t it?”
“Or Portuguese. My informant had nothing but the name and a rumor that Beaumarchais has something to do with it.”
Hal grunted and lay back.
“Beaumarchais has his fingers in any number of pies. Makes watches, for God’s sake, as though writing plays weren’t bad enough. Has Beauchamp anything to do with this company?”
“Not known. It’s all vague associations at this point, nothing more. I asked for everything that could be turned up that had anything—anything not generally known, I mean—to do with Beauchamp or the Americans; this is what came back.”
Hal’s slender fingers played restless scales on the coverlet.
“Does your informant know what this Spanish company does?”
“Trade, what else?” Grey replied ironically, and Hal snorted.
“If they were bankers, as well, I’d think you might have something.”
“I might, at that. But the only way to find out, I think, is to go and poke at things with a sharp stick. I’m taking the coach to Dover in”—he squinted at the carriage clock on the mantel, obscured by the gloom—“three hours.”
The voice was noncommittal, but Grey knew his brother very well indeed.
“I’ll be back from France by the end of March at the latest,” he said, adding gently, “I shall be on the first ship that sails for the Colonies in the new year, Hal. And I’ll bring Henry back.” Alive or dead. Neither of them spoke the words; they didn’t need to.
“I’ll be here when you do,” Hal said at last, quietly.
Grey put his hand over his brother’s, which turned at once to take his. It might look frail, but he was heartened at the determined strength in Hal’s grasp. They sat in silence, hands linked, until the door opened and Arthur—now fully dressed—sidled in with a tray the size of a card table, laden with bacon, sausages, kidneys, kippers, shirred eggs in butter, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, toast, jam, marmalade, a huge pot of fragrantly steaming tea, bowls of sugar and milk—and a covered dish which he set ceremoniously before Hal, this proving to be filled with a sort of nasty thin gruel.
Arthur bowed and went out, leaving Grey wondering whether he was the footman who went to Nessie’s house on Thursdays. He turned back to find Hal helping himself liberally to Grey’s kidneys.
“Aren’t you meant to be eating your slop?” Grey inquired.
“Don’t tell me you’re determined to hasten me into my grave, too,” Hal said, closing his eyes in brief rapture as he chewed. “How the devil anyone expects me to recover, fed on things like rusks and gruel …” Huffing, he speared another kidney.
“Is it really your heart, do you think?” Grey asked.
Hal shook his head.
“I really don’t think so,” he said, his tone detached. “I listened to it, you know, after the first attack. Whanging away just as usual.” He paused to prod himself experimentally in the chest, fork suspended in the air. “It doesn’t hurt there. Surely it would, wouldn’t it?”
“What sort of attack was it, then?”
Hal swallowed the last of the kidney and reached for a slice of buttered toast, taking up the marmalade knife in his other hand.
“Couldn’t breathe,” he said casually. “Turned blue, that kind of thing.”
“Oh. Well, then.”
“I feel quite well, just now,” Hal said, sounding mildly surprised.
“Do you?” Grey said, smiling. He had a moment’s reservation, but after all … he was going abroad, and unexpected things not only could happen but often did. Best not leave the matter hanging, just in case something un toward befell either one of them before they met again.
“Well, then … if you’re sure that a minor shock will not shuffle off your mortal coil, allow me to tell you something.”
His news regarding the tendresse existing between Dottie and William made Hal blink and stop eating momentarily, but after a moment’s contemplation he nodded and resumed chewing.
“All right,” he said.
“All right?” Grey echoed. “You have no objections?”
“Hardly sit well with you if I did, would it?”
“If you expect me to believe that a concern for my feelings would in any way affect your own actions, your illness has severely damaged you.”
Hal grinned briefly, and drank tea.
“No,” he said, setting down the empty cup. “Not that. It’s just—” He leaned back, hands clasped over his—very slightly—protruding belly, and gave Grey a straight look. “I could die. Don’t mean to; don’t think I will. But I could. I’d die easier if I knew she was settled with someone who’d protect her and look after her properly.”
“I’m flattered that you think William would,” Grey said dryly, though he was in fact immensely pleased.
“Of course he would,” Hal said, matter-of-fact. “He’s your son, isn’t he?”
A church bell began to ring, somewhere in the distance, reminding Grey.
“Oh!” he said. “Happy Christmas!”
Hal looked equally surprised, but then smiled.
“The same to you.”
GREY WAS STILL FILLED with Christmas feeling when he set off for Dover—literally, as the pockets of his greatcoat were jammed with sweetmeats and small gifts and he carried under his arm a wrapped parcel containing the infamous carpet slippers, these lavishly embellished with lily pads and green frogs done in crewelwork. He had hugged Dottie when she gave them to him, managing to whisper in her ear that her job was done. She had kissed him with such vigor that he could still feel it on his cheek and rubbed absently at the spot.
He must write to William at once—though in fact there was no particular hurry, as a letter could not be carried any faster than he would go himself. He’d meant what he’d told Hal; as soon as a ship could set sail in the spring, he’d be on it. He only hoped he’d be in time.
And not only for Henry.
The roads were quite as bad as he’d expected, and the Calais ferry was worse, but he was oblivious to the cold and discomfort of the journey. With his anxiety for Hal somewhat allayed, he was free to think about what Nessie had told him—a bit of information he’d thought of mentioning to Hal but hadn’t, not wanting to burden his brother’s mind, in case it might hamper his recovery.