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Tempting the Rival

Historical Romance Novel
Scandals and Spies: Book 3

 

When newly minted spy Lord Gideon Graylocke is asked to put his botany skills to the test and concoct a serum vital to the defense of England, he eagerly agrees. Never mind that he has to combine forces with F. Albright, a crackpot scientist with whom he had recently been in a public feud. At least he’ll have a chance to prove this crackpot’s theories are pure bunk.

Felicia Albright has been her own woman answering to no one since the age of seventeen. But when the Duke of Tenwick elicits her aid in helping England, she can hardly refuse. Even more so when she finds out she’ll be working with the annoying botanist who has been trying to disprove her research. What better way to help her country and prove that she is right?

But when things don’t go as planned Felicia and Gideon have to not only fight their unwanted growing attraction but also the evil-doer who seems intent on sabotaging their work. Even worse, it can only be someone within Tenwick Abbey that is trying to subvert their mission. Someone in their midst is an enemy spy.

With their research in shambles and their lives in danger, Gideon and Felicia realize they can only trust each other. Will they be able to perfect the serum in time to protect England… and themselves?

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Excerpt

London, England

October, 1806

 

If Gideon Graylocke were to envision being woken up in the middle of the night by a beautiful woman, it would not be by his sister-in-law. The moment he opened his eyes to see Philomena Graylocke, the Duchess of Tenwick standing over him with a serious expression on her impish face and her auburn hair hastily tied in a braid, he knew there was bad news to come.

He bolted up in bed, clutching the bedsheet to his chest to keep from exposing himself to her in the light of the candle pooling from the table next to his bed. Although the nights were cool, his bedroom, situated over the kitchens in the Tenwick townhouse, was always sweltering.

“Where’s Morgan?” His voice was hoarse. Had something happened to his oldest brother?

“Here.” Morgan slipped through the doorway leading to the corridor. The glow of candlelight barely stretched far enough to illuminate his silhouette. Like all the Graylocke brothers, he was over six feet tall and solidly built.

Her expression tight, Phil said, “There’s been trouble. We need you down in the office.”

Giddy nodded. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes with his free hand. Phil looked at him expectantly.

“Are you going to leave so I can dress?”

Scoffing, she turned her back. “As if I’ve never seen a naked man before.” She rubbed her belly as she strode toward the door, where Morgan beckoned to her. The moment she nestled in the curve of his arm, he dropped his free hand to her belly, too.

The baby. They’d announced her pregnancy mere weeks ago. Surely this news wasn’t so troublesome that it would endanger the baby?

No. Giddy forced himself to take a deep breath despite the sudden constriction around his chest. Any baby of Phil and Morgan’s would inherit the Graylocke stubborn streak and Phil’s fierce independence. Nothing short of an invasion would threaten that baby. If Morgan had thought for a second that it would, he would have kept the news from his wife and braved her displeasure later.

The thought didn’t ease the trepidation gripping him. By the time he dressed and descended to the second floor, where his office resided, his palms were clammy. He wiped them on his shirt as he reached for the door handle.

Phil and Morgan weren’t the only people in the room. The third was a short, stocky man with a shiny bald pate and a bit of a paunch. In public, he seemed an affable, carefree sort of fellow. Unfortunately, whenever Giddy had the misfortune of meeting Lord Strickland, it was usually because something dire had happened to warrant the concern of the Lord Commander of the British spy network. Tonight, Strickland stood as stiff as a statue in front of the sideboard, the grooves around his eyes and mouth intensified by the branch of candles resting next to the decanters of spirits. The fact that none of these was opened told Giddy that this situation went beyond the pale.

Although many of the Tenwick servants in London also served the spy network, Giddy shut the door to circumvent eavesdroppers. Phil, seated in the stuffed armchair in front of the desk with her slippers kicked off, ran her stocking-clad feet over the plush burgundy carpet. Standing, Morgan clutched her shoulder. His black hair was as disheveled as hers. Had the white streak at his temple grown? Impossible. Giddy had seen him earlier that day. Or, given that it was past midnight, yesterday.

No one seemed to want to meet his gaze, despite the fact that they had summoned him from a solid sleep, the first he’d gotten in the months since his brother had recruited him into the spy network.

“What’s happened?”

Phil and Morgan looked at Strickland to share the news, so Giddy turned his attention to the shorter man as well. Strickland clenched his fists so tight, the hair on his knuckles showed stark against his blanched skin.

“I can’t dally long. There’s a meeting between the generals in London at first light. I need to tell them that we’re doing something on our end to mitigate this disaster.”

Giddy gritted his teeth. He counted backward from twenty, not wanting to insult the Lord Commander by repeating the question. By his brother and Phil’s grim expressions, they had already been informed of the situation.

Giddy, on the other hand, had been dreaming about the days when his only concern had been whether or not the glass in the orangery was sealed tight enough for his plants to withstand the elements.

Strickland ran his hand over his scalp. “Prussia has been defeated.”

When his knees weakened, Giddy braced one hand against the door. “Impossible. We only joined forces with them last month.” Napoleon couldn’t have defeated Britain’s new allies so quickly.

“They were… hell, they were bloody well decimated at Jena and Auerstedt yesterday. We just received word by semaphore.” Strickland’s voice and expression were bleak. His shoulders slumped in defeat. Meeting Giddy’s gaze, he delivered the bald facts. “I have eyes on the Prussian king, I know the way he thinks. He’ll pull Prussia’s armies—what little haven’t been slaughtered, captured, or fled—to regroup around Berlin, but he won’t hold for long. He’ll think first about the safety of his family and sign a bloody armistice.”

Next to his wife, Morgan muttered, “That’s if he doesn’t annex his country to France.” His voice was every bit as grim, to match the expressions of everyone in the room.

Throughout a long and tense armistice earlier in the year, Britain had clawed its way into some sort of upper hand in this bloody war. They’d achieved that by signing the treaty with Prussia. For the Prussian army to be beaten into submission a mere month after the coalition had been formed was a devastating blow to everyone involved.

Britain, especially. Without Prussia to hold Napoleon’s attention, who was to stop him from invading the British Isles? Russia, Sweden? Their borders resided much farther from France.

“How can we help?” Giddy said weakly. “We’re in London. Prussia is…” He swung his arm through the empty air. Far away.

Strickland’s expression hardened. What little trace of joviality he had left dissipated in an instant. “Napoleon knew where to expect Prussia’s forces. He knew exactly where and when to strike. His spies have infested some hole we don’t know about and are privy to sensitive information between coalition members. It’s my job to ensure that our leak is not in Britain.”

Reflexively, Gideon glanced toward his brother. The duke looked away, his piercing gray eyes clouding over with doubt. As Strickland’s second in command, Morgan trained the majority of the new recruits. He chose which men and women to trust with Britain’s secrets. If one of their spies had turned against them…

“We have loyal men and women,” Giddy said, his voice firm.

Although Strickland’s eyebrows twitched, he did not look amused. “I’m sure France thought so, as well, but we managed to turn one of theirs.”

“That was different,” Phil piped up. “My brother never would have spied for the French if he hadn’t been blackmailed. His loyalty has always been with Britain.” She reached up, clasping Morgan’s hand with a white-knuckled grip. Her stormy eyes narrowed on Strickland, accusing.

Frankly, Giddy was surprised the Lord Commander didn’t apologize. Although any number of people might have filled the role of spy, there was only one brilliant inventor among them, and Phil was it. That her brother, Jared, also worked for the Crown in the precarious position of double agent was a sore spot to her. But Strickland turned his back on her in clear dismissal as he settled his gaze on Gideon.

Giddy reached to adjust a cravat he didn’t currently wear, a nervous habit. “Why do I sense this is about me? I’m not selling British secrets!”

Lawks, he’d rather cut off his own arm than that. His family came from a long and prestigious line of loyal servants to the Crown. In fact, all of the Graylocke brothers served in the war in some way, most as spies.

Morgan sighed, running his hand through his hair. “We know you aren’t a traitor. We need your help discovering whether or not anyone is.”

Giddy stood straighter, pushing himself away from the door. “Another mission?” Ever since he’d pledged his assistance to the cause, he’d been beset with assignments. One after another, without break. This was war; there was no end to the integral work that needed to be done. And, given the swiftness with which Gideon had grasped the essentials of spying, he had soon become one of Strickland’s favorites to send out into the field, along with his second-oldest brother, Tristan.

Morgan gave a slight, surreptitious nod, though he didn’t answer Giddy’s inquiry. He left that for Strickland to do.

Turning his undivided attention to the spymaster, Gideon said, “This seems like a pivotal assignment. Why me and not Tristan? He has more experience.”

Strickland squared his shoulders. “We don’t need an experienced spy for this one. We need an experienced botanist.”

Giddy’s ears rang. He looked to his family for confirmation. Had he heard right…or was he dreaming? How in Zeus’s name was a botanist supposed to help catch a traitor in the ranks?

All eyes remained fixed on him, steady as they read his reaction. By Jove, they were serious. He ran his hands through his hair.

“I feel as though I skipped a page. Perhaps you ought to go back. Why would you need my skills as a botanist?” Despite the level, cogent way he tried to deliver the words, they sounded disbelieving. He straightened and added, “Not that I’m not flattered. And more than willing to help. But this doesn’t sound like the sort of thing a plant can fix.”

Strickland raised a bushy eyebrow as if to say, Are you quite done?

Giddy snapped his mouth shut. He clenched his fists as he awaited the explanation.

Morgan squeezed his wife’s shoulder one last time before he took a step forward. “You’ll recall about five months ago, we captured Lady Whitewood and faked her disappearance.”

Giddy nodded. It had been his first unofficial mission, and he’d provided a supportive role to Morgan and Phil, who had captured the French agent in order to liberate her brother from French influence. Not that it had worked out the way Phil had envisioned, considering that Jared had opted to remain a spy under British command. Lady Whitewood had been a piece in a puzzle that stemmed from Tristan’s mission six months ago, which had ended with the known French ringmaster in London dead at the Tenwick ancestral estate. Tristan, Morgan, and Gideon had been searching for the ringleader’s replacement ever since, an elusive Monsieur V. Lady Whitewood had reported directly to him, and was likely the only person of their acquaintance who knew his face. Everyone else, even Jared, dealt with the French spy’s underlings.

“She can’t have delivered this information, given that the coalition with Prussia hadn’t even been formed at the time of her capture.”

“She didn’t,” Strickland barked. “I have her under lock and key where no one has access to her.”

Gideon rubbed his head. He sensed he was making a fool of himself by not putting this together sooner, but he had to ask, “Then how does she signify into Prussia’s defeat?”

“She doesn’t,” Phil informed him, tucking her feet into her slippers once more. “At least, not directly.”

Well, that was a relief. His mental faculties hadn’t been softened by this incessant fieldwork, then.

With a brusque swipe of his hand through the air, Strickland said, “Forget Prussia for a moment. Our primary concern is to discover who Monsieur V is and whether he or his underlings have had access to sensitive British information regarding the positioning of troops on the continent. I’ve had my best interrogators working Lady Whitewood—”

Gideon wondered what, exactly, he meant by “working”. He didn’t peer too closely at Strickland’s methods, but it was well known that he was a hard man who would not, under any circumstance, allow the French to get the upper hand on Britain.

“—Hell, I’ve even tried to break her myself. Neither she, nor any of the other low level French spies we’ve dared to capture have been willing to give up their employer. Either this Monsieur V inspires great loyalty, or unfathomable fear.”

Giddy would lay his money on the latter.

He raised one shoulder in a half-shrug. “What do you want me to do about it, send him a bouquet of flowers?”

From the grim set of Strickland’s mouth, he wasn’t amused. “I need something to force her to talk. A truth serum.”

Now Giddy knew he was definitely dreaming. Did his superior just ask him to conjure the impossible from thin air? Laughter bubbled in the back of his throat, but given the look on Strickland’s face, he wasn’t joking.

Gideon shook his head. Slowly, at first, trying to deny the reality of what they were asking him to create, but it gained more conviction the longer he thought about it. “It isn’t possible. I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Phil sat straighter in the chair. “There has been chatter recently in some of the scientific journals that a plant from South America might hold the key to such a serum.”

He knew of the plant in question. Brugmansia, commonly called angel’s trumpets, and colloquially known as “borracherro” or the “get-you-drunk” tree. He also knew exactly who had been chattering in those scientific journals Phil had been reading.

A crackpot. Although there were sense-altering properties to the plant, that didn’t mean the person who ingested it was guaranteed to tell the truth. It was a bloody plant, not magic.

Calmly, he pointed out, “That chatter has yet to be proven.” And the author had been harping on the properties of that plant for well over two years now. If it was true, someone would have been able to produce a truth serum from it by now.

Strickland’s face hardened. “So prove it.” He strode directly for Giddy, looking like he might wring Gideon’s neck if he refuted the possibility one more time.

When Giddy jumped to the side, Strickland yanked open the door. He paused in the threshold to say, “I need to attend my meeting. Tenwick, you can take it from here? I think it goes without speaking that you’ll have every resource available.” His voice was edged with weariness.

No more than Morgan’s when he answered, “Yes, sir.”

Gideon waited for the door to shut before he met his brother’s gaze. The gray eyes that made enemies squirm had lost their sharp edge. As Phil stood, he wrapped his arm around his wife, tucking her into his side.

Over the past several months, Giddy had tried not to notice how content his two oldest brothers were to be married. Quiet moments like these weighed on him the most. It wasn’t the wicked grins the married couples shared, or even the kisses when they thought no one was looking. It was the way Morgan drew strength from Phil’s touch, as if he wasn’t whole without her nearby. Moments like this made Giddy wonder if he was missing out on something unspeakably wonderful.

You don’t have time to go hunting for a wife, he reminded himself. That was triply true now that he’d committed himself to the spy effort. Even so, a small part of him whispered that Tristan and Morgan hadn’t had time to find wives, either. Somehow, in the course of their work, they’d found them anyway.

Hoping to banish the uncomfortable notion, Giddy ran his fingers through his hair again, as black as any other Graylocke sibling though he didn’t sport the duke’s white streak. He scrubbed his hand over the thick stubble lining his cheek. “I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to do what you’re asking, let alone in the time frame that Strickland seems to be expecting. I work with plants. I’m no chemist.”

Morgan hid a yawn behind the back of his hand. “We know that. That’s why we’re bringing in help. The very best chemist to assist you. Between your knowledge of plants and theirs of serums, you should be able to come up with something.”

Grimly, Giddy muttered, “I’ll try.”

This was what you wanted, wasn’t it, a chance to dig in the dirt again and immerse yourself in a plant?

It was. It was also one of those moments when he was reminded to be careful what he wished for. He sensed this would be far from a holiday.

Wearily, he asked, “Who is my partner?” Over various missions, he’d been paired and re-paired, as the assignment necessitated. He’d even worked one or two with Tristan. Unfortunately, his brother was no chemist.

Phil answered, “F. Albright, the author of those papers I read on the plant.”

Gideon groaned. He rubbed his suddenly throbbing temple. Anyone would have been better. Zeus, they could have paired him up with Monsieur V and he would have been more thrilled at the prospect.

When he opened his eyes, he found his brother glaring at him. “Is that going to be a problem?”

A problem, working with the F. Albright, the crackpot with whom he had been who had been in a public feud ever since Albright had made some unfounded corrections to a paper Giddy had published? “No, of course not.” He managed to keep the sarcasm out of his voice when, in fact, the idea of being saddled with a whiny, arrogant chemist who had delusions of expanding outside his area of expertise was less then appealing.

Sullen, Gideon added, “He knows nothing about botany.” Even if the fool wanted to pretend otherwise with his embarrassing, heated letters through the Royal Botanical Gazette.

Gideon couldn’t help but be curious about Albright. With all the sparring back and forth in newspapers and journals, he’d never met the man, though he suspected F. Albright was actually Farnsworth Albright a somewhat reclusive scholar. An older gentleman, if what Gideon had heard was correct. Maybe he would tire easily and leave Gideon the room he needed to prove this crazy truth serum theory incorrect once and for all.

Morgan raised his eyebrows. “That’s why we need you to take point on this one. Are you able to do this?”

Giddy gritted his teeth. “This is for Britain, isn’t it?”

It was a rhetorical question, but his brother answered anyway.

“This is for us all.”

Put that way, Gideon couldn’t refuse. “I’ll do it,” he said, resigned.

Even if it meant that he had to work with his arch rival, F. Albright.