“Do tell me what terrible thing your valet did,” Isabelle, Lady Meunier commanded as she poured Jackson, Lord Sayres his tea.
Her tone was casual, but her eyes were sharp, and Jackson felt his gut tighten in reaction. This would be a dicey conversation, so he took his time answering. “My valet is exceptional, as you well know.” An exceptional spy, to be exact, and Jackson no longer wished the man in his home.
“And yet, you released him,” Isabelle pressed.
“I did.” He toyed with the finger sandwich set before him. Though he was hungry, he tried to appear reluctant to eat. He’d learned that Isabelle noted every show of appetite—for anything—and inevitably found a way to use it to her advantage. “I passed him to Lord Denbigh who was in need.” He smiled. “And as we were in need of information regarding Lord Denbigh’s Irish relations, I thought it an excellent opportunity.”
“There was no need to deprive yourself of a valet for such a thing. I could have provided another candidate.”
“There wasn’t time,” he lied. In truth, he and his valet had been long searching for a way to get them both out from under Isabelle’s thumb. Andrews’ opportunity had come first. “Denbigh took his entire household to Ireland the next day. I had to put Andrews in place immediately.”
Isabelle stroked her favorite ring, a large garnet that flipped up to allow poison to drip free. It was an implied threat. As far as he was aware, she’d never poisoned anyone. But she had ruined them financially, socially, and even once had a priest excommunicate an enemy. The lady was vicious when she felt betrayed, and so he stepped carefully.
“He has promised regular letters on Ireland,” he said. “We may learn several interesting things soon.”
“You understand that Andrews was my servant. You cannot dismiss my people without my consent.”
“He is still serving you. Indeed, that is his intent. But you need no longer pay the cost of his salary. Lord Denbigh will pay him very well.” Sayres had made sure of it.
“And yet, the problem remains. Andrews was my servant to deploy as I wish.”
Jackson said nothing. It would do no good to remind my lady that England allowed no slaves inside the country’s borders and that Andrews was free to seek employment wherever he wished. Isabelle felt ownership no matter the laws of the land and was displeased with this turn of events.
Or she should have been displeased. Instead, she continued to toy with her ring while her smile grew to an alarming grin. She never smiled like that except when she won.
Damnation, what had he missed?
Isabelle rang a small bell set at her elbow. The tinkling sound was pleasant to the ear, and yet it rang like a gong in Jackson’s head. He was about to learn of his defeat. He knew it to his bones, and yet he kept his expression calm despite the way his heart sank.
A footman stepped into the parlor room. Except he was no footman. It was Andrews dressed as the lowest bootblack in Lady Isabelle’s household. Bloody hell, what was the man doing here? He’d escaped!
“Andrews?” he said slowly. “You look remarkably solid for a man who is in Ireland.”
The man hung his head, his gaze fixed upon the floor. “Lord Denbigh found another valet more to his liking. One my lady suggested.”
How the hell had she managed it? How had she learned of Sayres maneuvering and switched in her own servant in the short twenty-four hours before Denbigh left? Good lord, the extent of Isabelle’s tentacles never ceased to amaze him.
“Just as well,” Sayres lied. “I found I’ve missed your service.” He gestured behind him to door. “You can wait outside. We’ll ride together back to my flat.”
He didn’t really think it would work. Isabelle was not one to let an escape attempt to go unpunished, but it was worth a try. As expected, Andrews did not budge.
“I’m afraid I’ve found service with my lady more to my liking.” The words were spoken like a dirge. It was an obvious lie, but why? “I have happy news,” continued the man in a tone that implied the exact opposite. “My wife shall present me with a child soon. She was most happy to learn that the babe will be born in England.”
So that was what happened. Isabelle had learned that Andrews had wed. Sayres had told him to keep it secret, but somehow the news had travelled, and once known, Isabelle had leveraged the wife and the child. The method didn’t matter. Far from escaping her control, Andrews now was deeper under Isabelle’s paw. He would be punished for a time as a bootblack, but eventually, he would be sent somewhere else useful in Isabelle’s vast information network. And he would go, fully chastened, in the knowledge that his own wife and child were in danger if he disobeyed.
That’s what came of falling in love. The man was now trapped with no hope of escape.
“I give you my felicitations,” he said, his own tone matching Andrews’. “I hope the child brings you every joy.” Because he would have little joy in his life from Isabelle for a long, unhappy time.
Andrews lifted his gaze. “Working for you was a great privilege. I am sorry to see it end.” There was truth in his words and misery in his gaze.
“But end it must,” said Isabelle. “You may return to your duties,” she said by way of dismissal. And once the door closed behind Andrews, Isabelle allowed her expression to become truly triumphant. “Now let us discuss your new valet. Here is how I wish you to use him—”
“No.” His word was hard and loud. It was a risk to speak so strongly against her, but he had grown tired of her manipulations. Andrews was a lost cause now, and so Jackson gave her that win, but he had no wish to engage in yet another dance of control with yet another servant. “I have no need of a new valet.”
“You have engaged another one? But you said, you have missed Andrews’ service. I assure you, the man already at your flat is superior in every respect.”
Meaning his loyalties were firmly lodged with my lady.
“I have no need of a new valet,” he repeated. Then he leaned forward, choosing to speak plainly. “Isabelle, have done. I value our working relationship and have no wish for it to end, but I cannot have you paying my servants.” It allowed her to spy on his every action and he could no longer tolerate such supervision, even from the woman who had taught him everything he knew about business.
“It is a gift, and one you did not refuse when you first came to London.”
It was a gift that made him into her cicisbeo, and he’d left her bed years ago. He’d fallen into her clutches at nineteen as a randy boy excited to learn the bedroom arts from a woman of such renown. That was ten years ago, and even then he hadn’t the stomach for some of her favorite entertainments. So he’d left her bed and become valuable in other ways.
Over the last nine years he’d been her investment analyst—nothing more, nothing less. As a wealthy widow, she had money to spend, but as a woman, she couldn’t access the kind of information she needed to make good decisions. Not easily. So she trained him to ferret out ventures, to investigate the men in charge, and determined their weaknesses.
In return, she paid his tailor bill and his valet. Nine years ago, he thought of it as his uniform. If she wanted him to discover certain information, she would have to outfit him such that he could move through society to learn whatever she wanted to know.
It worked beautifully for a time. What little money he had, he invested alongside hers. The returns had grown and now he had a sizeable amount to use as he saw fit. Isabelle wanted him to put it all in her canals. They were in need of repairs, and her own funds were spent elsewhere. But he wanted less entanglement with her, not more. More important, he wanted control, and Isabelle would never give him that.
“Isabelle,” he said gently. “Surely you understand that I want to find a venture of my own.”
“But you can have much more profit if you invest with me. I could make you an excellent deal.”
“You will give me a controlling interest?” he pressed, already knowing the answer.
“You haven’t enough money for that.”
He arched a brow at her—neither confirming nor denying the statement—and she raised her eyebrows as if intrigued.
“If you have that much blunt, then we can find other investments,” she said. “I have heard something exciting is brewing with Mr. Hollow near the docks. Something real this time.”
He doubted it. Mr. Hollow enjoyed flights of fancy, pretending to opportunities that never materialized. “There are plenty of men who would jump at the chance to partner with you.”
“But none with your insight. None who will climb into the water and work alongside the men to be sure it is done correctly. You know as a woman, I cannot do such a thing.” She leaned forward, giving him a full view of her cleavage. “I trust you.”
Isabelle trusted no one. He looked out the window because her assets—all of them—no longer appealed. “I will find my own venture, Isabelle, something I control.” He set his tea down untouched. “Now do you wish to discuss Mr. Hollow’s latest scheme? Or should I take myself off?”
She looked at him hard, her expression growing increasingly foul. “Let me speak plainly,” she began.
“I want your money for my canals. You want my support when you launch your sisters. Imagine how horrible it would be for them to come to London and find every eligible bachelor turned against them.”
His brows narrowed. “You would do that to my family? To me?” he pressed. “I have brought you countless profitable ventures and steered you away from the disastrous ones.”
“I taught you what to look for, what questions to ask. I showed you how to ferret out the truth—”
“And I crawled through mines, studied sewers, inspected hellholes, even risked gaol to learn what you needed.” He grabbed a tiny sandwich and ate it in measured, steady bites. “Our association has been fruitful.”
“For us both.”
More so for her, but he counted his education as a significant benefit. “Do not end it now just because I seek a little independence.”
She waited as she sipped her tea, her expression demure. For a moment there, he thought he had won. He’d given up his valet, frequented a different tailor, even moved to smaller rooms all so that he could cut any string between them. What remained was shared interest and mutual respect. She had a keen mind when she did not obsess over petty slights. He hoped that was enough to keep her well disposed toward him since she was still more powerful than he among the financial set.
“No,” she said, her tone taking on the cadence of a command. “I require your money in my canals.”
So much for mutual respect and shared interests. “Isabelle,” he chided. “You overstep.”
“I will add my voice to your sister’s come-out. She’ll be married within a month.”
It was a fair offer if she could accomplish it. Then she sweetened the offer.
“I will even help with all three of your sisters, not just the eldest.” She smiled at him. “That’s quite a commitment from me given that I know nothing about their talents. Come now. I’ve draw up papers.” She pulled an envelope out of a writing desk set close at hand. From it, she withdrew an investment contract and pushed it toward him. “You won’t get a better offer.”
That was likely true. But he did not like bargaining with vague things such as “help.” She could shade that any way she wanted. And yet he couldn’t resist looking through the papers. It didn’t take him long to see the flaw.
“This will not give me control of anything. I will slave on the repairs and get—”
“A handsome profit.”
“Assuming it is managed satisfactorily.”
She arched a brow. “I have done excellently so far.”
It was true. With his help, she had turned a significant profit. But she had not invested in the maintenance in her canals much less any improvements. And now she needed money that should have been spent years ago.
“Sell me these two and we have a bargain.” He pointed at the documentation of her two most problematic canals. He’d done the math. If a certain engineering design worked out as he hoped, he could have a steady source of income with minimal investment.
She shook her head. “I did not get to where I am by selling my assets.”
He had expected as much. “Then I’m afraid I cannot invest in your canals.”
“Then your sisters might as well marry Lincolnshire yokels, for they’ll find no one in London who will have them.” Her smile widened. “I’ll see to it.”
And here he saw Isabelle’s greatest strength and flaw combined in one statement. She was a smart woman with a focused mind who had accomplished impressive things. But she fixated on petty sleights, refused to relinquish control, and wielded her single weapon—gossip—to devastating effect. The woman could have been a shining example of female independence. Instead, she obsessed on stupid things, all in the endless pursuit of control.
No matter what she threatened, he would work for her no longer.
“You would destroy my sisters simply because I wish to find my own business opportunity?”
He sighed. “So be it.” There were worthy gentlemen outside of the London ton. He would find a way. He rose from his seat. “Good day—”
“I believe I shall attend your masquerade ball tomorrow night.”
Her voice cut through his departure, and though he didn’t sit down again, he did raise his brows in surprise. “You hate masquerades. You’ve called them crass invitations to debauchery by boring people.”
“I have,” she said. “If putting on a mask is all it takes to excite your imagination, then that is a failure of imagination.”
“Then why attend?” he pressed.
“Because last year’s event was the talk of the Season.”
Last year had seen an attempted murder. “I doubt anything so exciting will happen this year.”
“Then why have it? I’m sure the expense is exorbitant.”
He dismissed her question with a casual wave. “As you said, last year’s was so successful. Aaron wanted to do it again.” That wasn’t the whole truth. Jackson wanted to cement his standing as the host of one of society’s most talked about events. It would help when launching his eldest sister next year. Even better, a masquerade allowed for a relaxed guest list. He could invite people who were wealthy investors but weren’t part of the ton. The rich got to mix with the peerage, and he got to rub elbows with both. It was good business. Especially as he had a business concept that he wanted to explore with a few of them.
“I should like to attend,” she said firmly. “I should like to watch boring people with no imagination.”
Damnation, that was the last thing he wanted. Isabelle had a way of cocking up other people’s plans for her benefit. “You are welcome, of course, though I fear you will be disappointed in the plebian affair.”
“Perhaps I will find something to interest me.” Her gaze narrowed. “People who need to be warned against supporting your mad ideas.”
He grimaced. She intended to turn investors against him. It was a significant threat, but maybe not as dangerous as she wanted him to believe. Her patronage had opened doors for him, but he was the one who had walked through and established himself among the moneyed ton. He suspected that this afternoon’s show was to cover a position that was weaker than she wanted him to believe.
Still, it was painful to feel her betrayal.
“You will do as you wish,” he said with heavy accents. “Always.”
“You are nothing without me.”
He shrugged. “That may be true. Nevertheless, I must try.” He set his feet firmly and gave her his most honest assessment. “Are you willing to make me your enemy? When we have been so successful as friends?”
He watched her gaze waver just for a moment. A brief flash as intelligence warred with jealousy. “Get out of my sight,” she snapped. “You have until your ridiculous masquerade to change your mind.”
“I won’t,” he declared.
“Then I will take great pleasure in ending you by the midnight unveiling.”