Dublin, July 1808
Joanna Pearson stood in front of the door deep within the part of Dublin known as The Liberties, trying to decide what to say to the occupant of the room beyond it and to quell the strange feeling in her stomach. Her previous missions had been straightforward enough: locate the subject, relay the invitation from her employer, and make arrangements for the subject to travel securely on the appointed day.
But none of the other subjects had been her estranged husband.
It had been five years since she’d last laid eyes on him, sleeping peacefully in their bed. Light from the rising sun had illuminated his dark hair and long lashes, giving him a faintly angelic appearance that contrasted starkly with the scars on his body. Her courage had nearly failed her then, and she’d had to stop herself from lying back down beside him. But a spy didn’t get to choose her missions, and Joanna had slipped quietly out of the door without looking back.
If only this door was as easy to negotiate as that one had been.
She could hear his voice inside, ringing with the refined English accent of the educated. There came several muffled responses, a flurry of movement, then the door flew open and a knot of children rushed out.
Joanna jumped out of the way, listening to them chatter among themselves as they made their way down the stairs. She peered around the doorframe and, seeing no further traffic, quietly entered the room.
Michael Devlin was bending over a small table paging through tattered books, his back to the door. But before she’d completed her first step inside the room he straightened.
He spoke without turning around—he’d always been good at detecting her presence—so she addressed the back of his white linen shirt in the soft Dublin brogue she’d been practicing. “Michael. It’s been a long time.”
He thumbed the topmost book closed. “If you’ve come looking for your husband, I’m afraid he might need some convincing to speak with you.”
“I expect he would—and I owe him that much, at the very least. But it isn’t my husband I need today.”
She swung the door closed and moved further into the room. “I need to speak with the Demon of Dublin’s Hell.”
He turned sharply at that, his eyes locking onto hers. “Why?”
“I have a message for him.”
Knowing he wouldn’t come to her, she crossed the remainder of the small chamber before handing him a sealed letter. “Your presence is requested. Or rather, the Demon’s is.”
“See for yourself.”
He took the letter and broke the wax seal, his brown eyes slowly scanning the page. “Sir Arthur Wellesley?”
Joanna nodded, catching the familiar scent of Michael’s shaving soap. “He’s a lieutenant general now, readying a large force to sail to the Continent.”
“How do I know this is really for me? It isn’t addressed to anyone, and the details are rather vague. It says only to meet him in Cork.”
“A security measure,” Joanna replied. “If the letter missed its intended recipient, no one would know who the recipient was—he’s doing business with plenty of people in Cork before he sets sail.”
“And you?” Michael lifted his gaze to hers, his lips pressed together for a moment. “Are you a security measure as well?”
She tilted her head slightly, giving his question some thought. “I suppose I am. Not only to deliver the letter—”
“—but to ensure my cooperation,” Michael finished, his boyhood brogue creeping in. That brogue only slipped out when he was tired or doing battle with his emotions, and Joanna was willing to bet this time it was the latter. “He thinks if he sends my wife with his instructions, I’ll be more likely to follow them.”
“I was sent to the others, too,” she told him, keeping her voice as matter-of-fact as possible. “But Sir Arthur did think you might be…more reluctant than the rest.”
“You said it’s the Demon of Dublin’s Hell that Wellesley wants. Does he know that I’m the Demon?”
Michael held the letter tightly with both hands and read it again. “What does he want with me?”
“Do you know what the meeting is about?”
“Not all of the details, but I know that it isn’t sanctioned by the Army. In fact, no one in a military or governmental position is officially aware of Sir Arthur’s request. This is strictly his own personal affair.”
Joanna clasped her hands loosely behind her back. “And you are to arrive no later than one week from today.”
“A week?” Michael shot back, shaking the letter at her. “He wants me to just abandon my city and those who depend on me so I can run off to Cork…for reasons he won’t deign to share with me?”
Joanna didn’t even flinch at his display of temper. Michael was certainly capable of violence, but he’d always had a strict code about who was on the receiving end of it. And while a runaway wife suddenly returned would merit serious verbal censure, she knew he would never physically harm her.
“Arrangements have been made to take care of all your responsibilities while you’re away,” she explained in an even voice. “All of your responsibilities. And while I can’t tell you much about Sir Arthur’s plans in Cork, I can tell you exactly what will happen in Dublin while you’re with him.”
He sucked in a breath and held it for a moment, letting it out slowly before speaking again. “If I agree to go.”
“I know that this is a lot to take in. I also know that a dearth of information makes you uncomfortable, and I’ve provided very little.”
Michael threw her a glance that was all down-turned mouth and glowering brows, but he remained silent. She watched his chest rise as he took in an even deeper breath than before, watched his shoulders ease a fraction as he exhaled. He repeated the exercise once more, then dipped his chin in a curt nod.
“You are right, of course. The more information I have, the more comfortable I feel.”
The more in control he felt, though he’d never admit it. And with the paucity of information she’d supplied thus far, he would not be feeling very in control just now.
“Is there somewhere we can sit and talk like civilized people? I’ll tell you as much as I am able, and you may ask all the questions I know are buzzing about in your head.”
His whole body visibly relaxed at her pronouncement. “There’s a small sitting area in my bedchamber. We can talk quietly there without fear of being overheard.”
The second of his two rooms was even smaller than the first, with only enough space for a bed, a washstand, a diminutive writing table, and a single chair. Joanna occupied the chair, her features as placid and unrevealing as the plain black dress she wore. That unnerved Michael more than her abrupt appearance at his door—he had always been able to read her, even when she was immersed in a mission.
But not this time.
He settled himself at the foot of his bed, trying to decide which questions to begin with.
“You said arrangements had been made to cover my absence.” He pressed his palms against the mattress. “Tell me everything you know about them.”
A tendril of red hair had come loose from Joanna’s practical coif, and she tucked it behind her ear—a gesture he’d made for her so many times before he could still feel the softness of her curls against his skin.
“An associate of mine is making her way to Dublin as we speak. She can take up the Demon’s post and look after The Liberties in your absence.”
“Who is she?”
“Cara Campbell. She once occupied a position similar to the Demon’s in Belfast.”
“She once occupied that position? But not any longer?”
Joanna shook her head. “She does some lower profile work now. But she is more than qualified to take your place as protector for a time.”
“She gave it up?” His fingers curled into the rough blanket that served as a coverlet. “She just walked away from the people who looked to her for safety? How do you know she won’t do the exact same thing to Dublin?”
Joanna folded her hands together in her lap and leaned forward. “Because her guardianship of Dublin is for a finite period of time. As soon as you return, she can resume her own activities—or seclusion—as she desires.”
“I want to speak with her before I make any decisions.”
“As you wish. I will make the introduction when she arrives.”
He gave her a brief, uncertain nod, wondering how he’d won that point so easily. One of the ways they’d shown affection for each other had involved debates and arguments, all of which had been long and drawn out.
“What about my clients?”
“You have only one, which you should be able to hand off to a colleague before your departure,” Joanna answered without hesitation. He felt his eyes widen and the corners of her mouth turned up in a small smile. “Not really surprising—Catholics might be allowed to practice law now, but that doesn’t mean people will hire them.”
“I do well enough,” he replied, trying to keep the defensiveness out of his voice.
She gestured to the room at large. “Well enough to keep yourself in all this lavishness.”
Michael’s fingers slid forward to grip the footboard. “I am where I need to be.”
She was quiet for a moment before replying, “I know you are. No neighborhood gains the moniker ‘Hell’ because all is safe and well.”
His fingers loosened on the footboard. “But Wellesley wants me for something else, and I still haven’t heard what it is.”
“He is assembling a group of individuals to form an intelligence ring of sorts,” she explained. “Something he learned in India—spies and information gatherers are priceless commodities.”
“No doubt they are, but I’m no spy. Espionage requires a finesse that I do not possess.” He let his eyes take in her image, the picture of an ordinary working class Irish widow right down to the worn but serviceable shoes she wore. Yet she was none of those things. “Subtlety and cunning were always your strong suit.”
Her smile grew. “They still are. But you won’t need them. The idea is to gather everyone together in Cork, lay out your responsibilities should you choose to become involved, then send everyone back whence they came. Once you’re home again, you will pass along to Sir Arthur whatever you discover, but won’t be assigned any missions on the group’s behalf.”
“I see.” Michael would be free to resume both aspects of his life in The Liberties as though nothing had changed, then. And Wellesley had built up a reputation as a fine commanding officer with a good head for strategy during his time in India. He had also served a brief stint as Chief Secretary for Ireland, supporting a more moderate enforcement of the Penal Laws, to the relief of Catholics all over the island. Did that cleverness and open mind earn Sir Arthur the right to Michael’s presence in Cork? Would there be some benefit to The Liberties in the longer term if Michael established connections with others like himself? Perhaps. He had to admit the idea was intriguing.
Whether or not he would actually go along with this secret society of Wellesley’s remained to be seen.
Joanna settled back in her chair, her smile taking on a slightly smug quality. Michael guessed that she had watched his thought process play out on his face, knowing the conclusion he came to at the same moment he did.
“I will go, but only if certain conditions are met.”
“All right then, name your price.”
“In addition to meeting your Miss Campbell, someone must take over the children’s reading lessons while I’m away.”
Her brows rose a fraction. “Is that what they were doing here when I arrived?”
Good. There was at least one thing she didn’t know about him. He leaned back a little, shifting his palms back to the mattress. “They come when their families can spare them and I help them learn what they can. None of them will ever study at Trinity, but a good apprenticeship isn’t out of the question.”
“Then I will find someone to continue working with them.”
“I also want you to explain what happened between us. I awoke one morning to a vague note saying you needed to take care of something and that you’d be back in a month or two. It didn’t say I’d have to wait five years, wondering the whole time who you might be with, or if you were even still alive.”
Joanna was silent for long moment, her eyes focused on a point just beyond his shoulder. “After Sir Arthur’s gathering.”
Michael had expected that. She’d always insisted on reaching her objective before indulging in personal business. “Fine. When my dealings with him are concluded, I will hear your account.”
“Then I accept your conditions. All of them.”
“Good,” he said, pushing himself off the bed and stretching to his full height. “Assuming I approve of your Miss Campbell, I will go to Cork and see what Sir Arthur has planned. Though I reserve the right to revoke my consent at any time.”
“Of course. You aren’t my prisoner.” She stood beside him, the top of her head barely reaching his chin. “But first we must find you some new clothes.”
Copyright © 2017 by Cora Lee
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