Being shot at always left Gabriel Pearce, Duke of Winterbourne, in a foul mood. It didn’t matter that this time he wasn’t the intended target. It didn’t matter that he had saved the Prince Regent by tackling him to the floor of his coach. And, it didn’t matter that the shot had narrowly missed Gabriel. Being shot at was a nuisance that meant his orderly life would be thrown into chaos for the unforeseeable future.
Three hours after his coach had sped down the rutted country road, whisking the Prince Regent to the safety of Carlton House, Gabriel stood in his dressing room attempting to tie his cravat into a perfect Trône d’Amour. He had performed the task countless times. One would think he could do it in his sleep. Apparently, with the events of today playing out in his mind, one would be wrong.
Peering closer at his reflection in the mirror, he tore the linen from his neck. Bloody hell! There should be no ripples in the knot, only one dent! Hodges, his valet, immediately handed him another freshly starched neckcloth.
‘Just tie it into a waterfall and be done with it,’ his brother Andrew called out, walking into the room and dropping into the wingback chair beside the mirror.
‘Too plebeian,’ Gabriel bit out, his attention fixed on the task at hand.
‘That’s how I tie my cravats.’
Raking a critical gaze over Andrew’s brown tailcoat and the unimpressive shine to his shoes, Gabriel arched a brow.
‘Ho, I see now,’ Andrew said with a smirk. ‘Some day I will shock you and wear something you deem acceptable.’
‘If you would finally allow me to find you an acceptable valet, that might happen sooner rather than later.’
‘I’m quite content with the one I have, thank you. How many neckcloths have you handed my brother, Hodges?’
‘Six, my lord.’
Andrew sighed and studied the coffered ceiling. ‘Shall I wait in your study? If you continue on this path to perfection it might take some time and I could be enjoying your fine brandy while I wait.’
‘I’ll be but a moment. There is brandy by the window.’ Gabriel closed his eyes and managed to push all thoughts of gunshots, shattered glass and a frightened Prince Regent from his mind. Concentrating on each specific turn of the cloth, he finally tied a perfect knot.
Now he could attend to more important matters.
He nodded to Hodges, and the elderly man quietly left the brothers alone behind closed doors.
‘Please tell me we caught the blackguard,’ Gabriel said, accepting a glass of brandy.
Andrew dropped back into the chair and stretched out his long legs. ‘Spence jumped from his tiger’s perch the moment the shots were fired and caught the man. He was taken to the Tower—however, he refuses to talk.’
Gabriel took his first sip of brandy since returning home. The heat sliding down his throat did nothing to relieve the tight tension in his muscles. ‘We need to know if he was working alone. I don’t care what it takes. Make him talk.’
Andrew pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and held it out. ‘My thought is he had assistance. We found this on him. I don’t believe our gunman had access to Prinny’s plans. Someone had to have given him this information.’
Scrawled in pencil were the date, the name of the road and town they had travelled to, as well as a sketch of Gabriel’s coat of arms. Apparently whoever had supplied the information to the gunman knew Prinny would be travelling with Gabriel today and knew where they’d be going. But how was that possible when Prinny had only approached Gabriel last evening about taking him to purchase the painting?
Bringing the paper to his nose, Gabriel sniffed the unfamiliar pungent oily scent mixed with tobacco. The letter ‘m’ had an interesting swirl to it, but other than that there was no way to identify the author. ‘There’s no cipher, so it appears we are dealing with an inexperienced lot.’
As he took another sip, he organised the information before him. He was the man ultimately responsible for protecting the Crown. Unrest was rampant throughout the country. If his people failed to protect King George and the Prince Regent, there was no telling what anarchy might occur.
‘How is Prinny faring?’ Andrew asked, interrupting his thoughts.
‘He is shaken but unharmed.’
‘I have this scratch on my forehead from shattering glass and my right shoulder is a bit bruised. As you know, I’ve survived worse.’ He handed the paper back to Andrew. ‘Show this to Hart. He may be able to identify the smell. Then remain at the Tower and notify me when the gunman is broken. I need to know who else wants Prinny dead.’
Andrew stood and placed his glass on a nearby table. ‘Please give my regrets to Olivia and Nicholas. I’m sure you’ll devise a plausible excuse as to why I had to miss his breeching ceremony.’
Demmit! Nicholas would be devastated his favourite uncle wasn’t there for such a momentous occasion, but Andrew was the only person Gabriel trusted completely. He needed answers and Andrew would make certain he got them. He shook off the guilt trying to settle in his gut. ‘Make an appearance, but slip away shortly after the ceremony begins.’
‘Very well, I will send word when we know more.’
‘And watch your back.’
‘I always do.’
Glancing at the ormolu clock on the mantel, Gabriel let out a curse. He was late. Now he would have to endure the customary icy demeanour of his wife. Tonight they might even be forced to actually hold a conversation. He took another sip of brandy, bracing himself for an encounter with the woman he had married.
* * *
Olivia, Duchess of Winterbourne, bounced her nephew on her knee and stole another glance at the longcase clock beside the drawing room door. The breeching ceremony should have begun twenty minutes ago. Her son was eager to take this first step towards manhood. How much longer would Gabriel keep them waiting?
She shifted her attention to her mother-in-law, who sat nearby talking with Olivia’s mother. When their eyes met, the Dowager gave her a slight sympathetic smile.
The sofa Olivia was sitting on dipped as her sister, Victoria, leaned closer. ‘Do you think he forgot?’
‘What man forgets his own son’s breeching?’ Olivia rubbed her forehead and