Lord Ravencroft was not delighted to be summoned in a peremptory manner to Whitehall. His favorite three year old, Scarab, had sprained an ankle at the St. Leger's race at Doncaster, which necessitated a visit to Cheveley Park, the preeminent stud farm at Newmarket, to choose some new horseflesh. He also wanted to visit Cheyne Bay, his estate in Hampshire, to discover how a new strain of milcher recently introduced to his herd was performing.
Yet despite his reservations, a sense of curdling excitement grew inside him. One never knew what new assignment old Sir George might have in mind for him. Ravencroft set his curled beaver at a cocky angle over his eye, picked up his malacca walking stick and York tan gloves and went out to his waiting curricle.
Within minutes his long legs were striding through the labyrinthine corridors of Whitehall toward an unmarked door that led into the office of Sir George FitzHugh, the chief of Admiralty Intelligence. He tapped the paneled door with the knob of his walking stick and strolled in.
"Well, Fitz," he said, "what's up?"
Sir George drew his pudgy frame from his chair, went to the doorway and peered up and down the empty corridor. Before opening his budget, he closed the door, resumed his chair behind his extremely messy desk and tapped his nose to indicate that what he was about to say was top secret.
"Bransom is missing," he announced in a solemn tone. "As I've had no word from him for three days, I must assume the worst. You know what he was working on, of course."
Ravencroft nodded. "You want me to run down to the coast and see what happened to him?"
"That, certainly, but more importantly, to replace him. It seems the information I received from Easton is correct. It is imperative that I have my best man there. That is where the forged bank notes are coming into England, wreaking havoc with our economy. You may be sure the good money paid for the worthless paper is being used to buy supplies for Bonaparte. A double blow. You won't be working entirely in the dark."
Lord Ravencroft listened with careful attention, then asked, "Bransom had made some headway?"
"I'll give you his notes. We have another fellow there on the scene, but not active due to age. You wouldn't know him, but no doubt you have heard of the legendary Cougar, though he was well before your time." A beatific smile moved Sir George's lips. "His work for us during the early days of the revolution in France was the stuff of legend."
"I have heard of the Cougar, of course. I know the agents gave themselves foolish nicknames in the last century," Ravencroft replied in a bored drawl.
"Not entirely foolish. There were times a message had to get out of France, preferably without a signature. It was also a sort of code of seniority. The first agent was Aardvark. That was Montagu. The second was Badger--myself." He made a modest bow. "The third was the Cougar. He is now the most senior living agent in the field, although as I said, semi-retired. I still use the old system of identification for my private files."
"May I know how you have designated me? Am I fish, fowl, or furred?" Ravencroft asked, with mild interest.
"Zebra? Rat? Or am I Aardvark the second?" he prodded, gently insistent.
"You are the Wolf." A vestigial smile touched Ravencroft's lips. Sir George continued. "The Cougar hasn't been active for eons, but he lives there on the coast and keeps himself very much au courant."
"You're talking about old Ashworth? Good God, he must be eighty by now."
"Thereabouts," Sir George agreed, impressed at how quickly Ravencroft had identified the man. Within thirty seconds his sharp mind had scanned the notable families living in that part of the country, called up which gentlemen were still living and of the right age. "Ashworth sends me bulletins from time to time that have proved entirely accurate and very helpful. He is too frail to provide any physical help, you understand."
Ravencroft emitted a long, weary sigh. "Good! You know I prefer to work alone, Fitz."
"Aye, but you'll be contacted by Ashworth. He lives a few miles north of Dover at Bratty Hall, near Easton. He'll meet you at the Easton market at noon tomorrow."
Ravencroft scowled. "If you tell me I am to wear a posy on my hat for identification--"
"That won't be necessary. He will know you. You will be greeted with the phrase, 'warm for the time of year,' to which you will reply, 'we had a late spring.' He wants you to stay at the Greenman, using the name Mr. Vincent. I rather thought he would invite you to stay with him ..." A frown grew between Sir George's blue eyes.
Ravencroft lifted one well-manicured hand and examined his fingernails. Then he slowly raised his dark, intelligent eyes and spoke in a quiet, authoritative voice. "Let me make myself perfectly clear, Fitz. If I go--if--I am in charge. I do not take orders from superannuated octogenarians playing at spying and giving themselves childish names. I shall meet the fellow and hear what he has to say as a courtesy to his age and past history, and to please you. But I decide what is to be done and how to do it. Compris?"
It was Sir George's turn to sigh. He much preferred working with his paid, non-titled agents. They did as they were told, and were glad to get the work. These high and mighty lords, however, had skills and connections that were useful at times. Ravencroft had proven himself extremely capable in the past. He would get the job done, hopefully without getting himself killed into the bargain.
Sir George smiled a thin-lipped smile and said, "Of course, my dear fellow. Of course. But do treat Ashworth with respect. You, too, will be an octogenarian one day--if you're lucky."
Ravencroft gave a cynical laugh. "Haven't you heard the rumor, Fitz? Only the good die young."
"Then I must be a bad egg."
"Not at all, merely--a bad logician. Not all who are good die young."
"Humph. Here is a copy of the notes I have had from Bransom. Study them before you go, then destroy them."
"You'll be hearing from--the Wolf." Ravencroft slid the notes into his pocket, bowed and left, smiling.
All thoughts of horseflesh and milchers fell from his mind as he drove home to his mansion on Berkeley Square. He would not travel as Mr. Vincent and he would not put up at the Greenman. That would be a hint to the Cougar that he worked independently. He would drive his unmarked carriage and register as Mr. Stanford at some other inn. Now, what interest could he claim to account for a stay of indefinite duration at a small town on the coast? And in October, an unlikely month for a seaside holiday. A yachtsman looking for a house in the neighborhood would account for the forays into the countryside he would be making.
He would take his groom and valet. Glover and Spinks were handy fellows to have about, not only for the performance of their traditional chores--and his horses and toilette were of no small interest to Lord Ravencroft--but for any extra-curricular jobs that might occur.
Once at home, he spoke to his groom and valet before taking a copy of Debrett's Peerage to his study to refresh in his mind the details of the Earl of Ashworth. Of course nothing was mentioned of his secret work with Sir George. He had a long and distinguished career in parliament. Ravencroft skipped through it to confirm what he already knew. Ashworth had no son to carry on the title, which would fall to that foolish fop, Felix Bratty. Please God Felix would not try to involve himself in this business!
He carefully read the Bransom notes twice before setting a light to them. His next move was to go to the wall and examine the large map of England and its coastal waters that hung between two windows. The coastal area around Bratty Hall, Ashworth's estate, seemed like good smuggling territory, well away from the dangerous Goodwin Sandbanks. Even without Bransom's notes, he would have suspected that if large quantities of forged currency were entering England, the brandy smugglers were involved.
Ravencroft left that afternoon for the seventy mile trip to Easton, the seaside town where Bransom had been staying. He stopped for the night at Tunbridge Wells, which was not at its best in autumn, but still offered some pleasant diversion for a bachelor. By rising early the next morning, he arrived at Easton at ten and made a fresh toilette before going on the strut to view the town.
At Bratty Hall, Miss Bratty called for the carriage at eleven o'clock that same morning. The trip to Easton would take less than half an hour, but she wanted an opportunity to observe "Mr. Vincent" before approaching him. Sight unseen, he was already a figure of mystery and romance to her. Sir George had assured her he would be replacing Bransom with his best agent. Even his cognomen, the Wolf, caused a ripple up her spine. He would not be looking for a lady as his contact, so he would pay no heed to her while she studied him. Amy admitted with a wince of regret that she was not the sort of lady gentlemen noticed.
She was of average height and size, neither an antidote nor a beauty. Her wavy auburn hair was so unruly that she kept it bound up behind. Her green eyes were not outstandingly large or lustrous, but they were very sharp organs of vision. Her complexion was more ruddy than she liked, with a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose. She was careful to wear a sun bonnet at the beach and in the garden at home, but when she rode, and she rode as often as possible, she liked to feel the sun on her face.
When she reached the quarter century mark that summer, she began wearing darker, more severe gowns that made her appear older. If caps were not such a nuisance, she would have set on her cap as well. She wanted to look as old and dull as possible, to discourage Cousin Felix from offering her marriage. She might have to marry him eventually, but since taking on the career of spy, her life had become so interesting she was in no hurry to change it.
Being the mistress of Bratty Hall, which sounded magnificent, was actually more duty than pleasure. The duties consisted of performing charity works in the parish, looking after her papa, and overseeing the running of his estate. Lord Ashworth was her stepfather, but he was the only father she had ever known. She called him Papa, and loved him as if they were of the same flesh and blood. He had adopted her legally, giving her his prestigious name and a position of importance in the parish. But it was a small, provincial parish, and with a sick father to curb her social life the past years, she had become restless--until that summer.
The groom set her down at the market and stabled the carriage at the Greenman, as he always did when she attended market day. At five and twenty, she did not feel the necessity of a footman to accompany her. He would join her later to pick up her parcels. A cold wind, redolent of seaweed and fish, blew in off the ocean, yanking at her pelisse and lifting her skirts.
She drew her pelisse more closely around her as she walked alone along the noisy stalls, where farmers and fishermen pedaled their wares. Great mountains of turnips and potatoes, bins of carrots and cabbages and apples jostled cheek by jowl with the housewives' contribution of baked goods and stitchery. She hefted turnips and marrows and complimented the growers, selected a few barrels of apples. Ashworth did not grow apples at Bratty Hall. The stench of fish greeted her as she advanced to the fish stalls. She choose a turbot for dinner. And while she ambled along, she scanned the throng for a new face.
The regulars, both sellers and buyers, were known to her by name. Over the years, she had met them all, either at church or in town or when they came to the Hall to request Lord Ashworth's assistance in some difficulty. She had no trouble spotting the Wolf. His head rose a few inches above other heads. His elegant curled beaver and bored expression looked entirely out of place amid the provincial throng. He belonged in a crowded London saloon surrounded by beautiful ladies, or at Drury Lane on the grand tier--or on the stage, for there was an aura of drama in his stride and the haughty way he looked down his well chiseled nose.
He was not precisely handsome. That nose was too long for perfection. A black slash of eyebrows lent an air of severity verging on anger to his expression. His lips were thin and his jaw prominent. His exquisite tailoring revealed a long, lean, well-shouldered body. Altogether he was an impressive sight as he moved through the throng, acknowledging with a nod the raised hats and "G'day's" that greeted a stranger to town.
After she had looked her fill, Miss Bratty approached him, just as he reached the edge of the fish stalls and strolled a little beyond the crowd. She nodded and said in a pleasant voice, "warm for the time of year."
Lord Ravencroft was in no good humor. On the lookout for an elderly gentleman, he barely glanced at the woman in the plain round bonnet and navy serge pelisse. If he had bothered to think about her, he would have assumed she was the vicar's lady, or perhaps a school mistress. She had an odd idea of warm weather! That demmed ocean gale went right through his blue superfine. He had been loitering about this raucous, smelly place for half an hour, and was about to return to the Rose and Thistle, and to hell with Ashworth.
From the corner of his eye he spotted an elderly gentleman coming toward him. In an effort to be rid of the lady, he said, "I am near perished with the cold," and turned away, pulling his collar up to protect his neck.
Her eyebrows rose in surprise. Was this not the Wolf? She hesitated a moment, then pressed on. "What do you think can account for it?" she asked in an uncertain voice.
The elderly gentleman passed Ravencroft without a second glance. "How the devil should I--" He looked at her more closely, and saw the intelligence in her green eyes, and the frown on her face. It couldn't be --
"We had a late spring," he said, staring at her.
She didn't smile, but a look of satisfaction told him he had met his contact. "Shall we go to the refreshment tent for tea, Miss--"
"No, no!" She peered around to see if they were being watched. "This is much too public. Meet me at the abandoned brick house at Three Corners at five o'clock."
"Where is this place?"
She made as if to shake hands, while slipping him a map. "Don't drive," she said. "A strange carriage on that road would be noticed. You have a mount?"
"I didn't bring one."
"You can hire one at the Greenman, Mr. Vincent."
"Actually, I am putting up at the Rose and Thistle."
A flash of fire gleamed in her eyes. "You are not following the Cougar's orders," she hissed.
"I want to meet the Cougar. I don't deal with messengers."
"The message comes from the Cougar. It is important that you follow his orders."
Follow orders! From this provincial spinster! "See here, who the deuce are you, Miss? This is not some game."
She directed an angry, gimlet stare at him. "I am very well aware of it, sir. Mr. Bransom was staying at the Greenman. The men who got him may still be there. Change inns, at once. Five o'clock at the abandoned house at Three Corners. Try not to be followed."
She turned on her heel and strode off, strangely upset at the meeting. She sensed that Mr. Vincent was going to prove difficult to deal with. And with Ashworth hors de combat, it was she who would have to handle the angry, intractable Wolf.
Ravencroft stood looking at her rigid back as it was swallowed up in the throng of marketers. Why the devil didn't the Cougar just send him a note to meet him at the abandoned house? And why on earth use a lady in this dangerous business? And if a lady must be used, why couldn't she be pretty at least?