ARTHUR KNELAND WANTED to be alone.
In his line of work, a crowd was the ultimate enemy. The gaslight on this small street off Knightsbridge barely illuminated the wooden walkway below. Shadows large and squat wove between the writhing mass of figures around him.
Wafts of brimstone-scented air came from the town house as a procession of ladies exited the building.
"Not how you envisioned your first night of private employment, is it? You've gone from protecting heads of state to looking after my stepmother."
Viscount William Greycliff—Grey to his friends—stabbed the walkway with his gold-topped cane while he spoke. One might assume the cane an affectation. From experience, Arthur knew that Grey carried a dagger hidden in that cane and could use it.
They'd both worked for a small sub-rosa group run out of the prime minister's office tasked with carrying out sensitive operations. In situations where it would have been impolitic for the British government to officially be involved, Grey had played the part of an indolent nobleman while gathering information.
Arthur rarely worked with other agents. The exception, one god-awful night in Brussels with Grey—which had included the poisoning of an aide to the Grand Duke William, the rescue of two whores locked in the personal carriage of Prince Frederick, a gunfight, and a serious drinking session with the orchestra of the Théâtre Royal—had resulted in the closest Arthur ever came to friendship.
"Protecting a little widow is indeed a change of pace," Arthur said, thinking of those whores and the copious amount of terrible wine they could drink.
Silence met his observation. Grey was distracted by a petite blonde taking charge of the departing ladies.
"Funny how chaos seems to follow behind certain women," Grey muttered.
Chaos indeed. "I did mention how I'm anticipating a quieter life, didn't I?" Arthur said.
Grey pulled a face. "Tonight is an exception. Besides, it pays four times what you would have made as an employee of Her Majesty's government for a similar job. You're the last person I'd expect to finish out his years rusticating in the countryside, but if you want to buy that farm you've always talked about, you'll need a nice lump sum. Look, it isn't so bad as the year the PM sent you to America."
Americans. Loud, partial to superlatives, and friendly to an uncomfortable degree. Arthur had no use for such easy camaraderie. It didn't make sense to have friends in a profession where someone was always either being shot at or shooting someone else.
"You are the best bodyguard we have," Grey continued, "and I mean to wring the most out of you before you disappear into the wilds of the Highlands forever. I'll pay you enough to start your new life if you do this one small favor for me."
A new life. The words unnerved Arthur. "New" life meant better, didn't it? Yes, he'd always wanted to live out his days on a farm. He'd said the words so many times they'd disentangled themselves from reality.
Time to make them real.
Until then, Arthur considered the scene before them. "You're certain you want me to do this job? It's the first time I've been back in England in twenty years. People have a long memory for scandal. What happens if someone recognizes me? Seems like it might be more trouble than it's worth."
As he spoke, Arthur studied the crowd. Something was off.
"You worry too much. I'll be finished up north within a month, then you're free to go. Besides, the scandal is two decades old. Since then, you've guarded some of the most influential and powerful men in the world." Grey clapped a hand on Arthur's shoulder, his cool demeanor thawing. "Lady Greycliff is especially dear to me. I couldn't leave her with anyone else. I trust you."
Arthur slipped free of the casual touch, hoping he was worthy of Grey's trust. At forty years old, he had dozens of assignments under his belt, and he'd failed only once.
One time too many.