An Unexpected Mole

by Kit Miller
illustrated by melanofly

another round of Nothing But An Unassuming Valet

Spokehamshire, England. December 1885.

Yawning, David slumped into his chair. He muttered a ‘good morning’ to Ruth, the maid opening the curtains, and another to Jonathan, who was setting out the laden breakfast tray. David was known for having a voracious appetite in the morning, his breakfasts enough to feed two. This was because it was for two.

When Ruth had left, Jonathan fetched his own coffee cup and sat down on the other side of the small table, leaning over for a brief kiss. “Good morning,” he said.

“Good morning, my dear.” David smiled and poured him coffee.

“Your father will probably visit you this morning,” Jonathan said, buttering a slice of toast. 

“Thank you.” David didn’t ask how Jonathan knew this. He had more ways of acquiring information than a spiderweb had threads. “Do you know what he wants of me?”

“I cannot say for sure. It’s serious, but he’s in high spirits.” 

David sighed and pulled the paper towards himself. “Marriage proposal, I wager.”

Jonathan said nothing, and just shrugged while deliberating between strawberry and blackcurrant jam.

They drank coffee and ate in silence while David browsed the newspaper. One headline caught David’s eye. Daring Art Thief Still At Large! Police Useless! it lamented.

He chuckled. “Have a look at this.” David turned the paper over, but Jonathan only glanced at it.

“I saw that when I prepared it for you.” He bit into his toast — he’d chosen blackcurrant — and, chewing, he stared at David’s hair.

David sighed. “You do not need to cut my hair.”

Jonathan swallowed his toast. “I disagree.”

“Come now, Jonathan, it has barely grown!”

“It should appear to not grow at all,” Jonathan insisted. “It must be cut every fortnight. That is the proper way of things! And why are you laughing at me now!”

David pressed a hand over his mouth but could not stifle his laughter. “Jonathan, Jonathan, my dearest, forgive me — it’s so amusing to see you riled up over such a triviality! You, the notorious leader of an international smuggling operation, infamous throughout the Empire, losing your temper over my hair!”

In defeat, Jonathan sighed and finished his toast, washing it down with coffee. “I only wish you to live your life among your peers as comfortably as possible,” he said, putting the cup down, “without scandal, infamy, or petty grievances — and the only way I can do so is to be the most studious valet you could ever wish for.”

David reached over to put his hand on Jonathan’s. “Jonathan, my love,” he said quietly, “you are leagues better than anything I will ever deserve.”

“So early and already so romantic,” Jonathan murmured with a chuckle. “Does this mean you’ll let me cut your hair?”

David laughed and let go of his hand. “Yes, fine. Can I finish my breakfast first, though?”

“Of course you can.” Jonathan refilled their coffee cups, then he asked, “Have you heard from Sir Worsely yet?”

“I have,” David replied. “Last night. If all goes well, the objects will be on their way to India within hours of our acquiring them. Have you heard from Eóin?”

“He was ‘hired’ as a footman by Lady Featherstonehaugh. His injuries from the summer seem healed well enough. I believe he’ll be playing the part of ‘robber.’”

“Good, that’s good.” David felt himself relax a fraction. He’d known Eóin since the two were students at Oxford — Eóin had still been John Sullivan then — and if there was anyone David could rely on besides Jonathan, it was Eóin.  

The auction was next week. To be precise, it was going to be next Monday; today was Tuesday. It was going to be conducted by and take place at the small but highly prestigious Lewis Auction House and Trading Co., and the Earl was going there, with the stolen pieces, in five days. On the way there, a group of armed robbers was going to ambush the procession. They were going to abscond with the valuables. David, riding along the carriages, would give chase, but lose them and would have to return empty-handed. 

It was a rather ambitious plan. David would even go so far as to call it foolhardy. But right now, the artefacts were in a secure warehouse, and there was no way to get to them. All of Jonathan’s attempts to infiltrate the guards with his own people had been resounding failures. In the Lewis Auction House, they were only going to be even better guarded. The time they were on the open road was the only feasible opportunity they had. That David had to lead the pursuit went without question. He could claim the robbers turned into purple pigs and flew away, and his father would believe him.

Neat and conscientious Jonathan used the last bit of toast to mop a few blobs of jam from his plate, then he stood, rightened his waistcoat, and cleared his things away. David made to stand, but Jonathan just put his hand on his shoulder. David was happy to take his time finishing his breakfast and the paper. Jonathan fetched the scissors and comb, draped a towel over David’s shoulders, and went to work. 

The room went quiet and peaceful. David sipped his coffee; Jonathan snipped away at David’s hair. It lasted for all but five minutes: then, the door opened and the Earl of Spokeham, the Lord Jesse Prevost, strode in. Jonathan bowed and David stood.

“Sit down, boy,” said his father cheerfully. David sat back down.

Jonathan asked, “Would you like a cup of coffee, my lord? Or a cup of tea?”

“No, thank you, Mr…” The Earl trailed off and just stared at Jonathan for a moment.

“Benson, my lord. Jonathan Benson.” Jonathan’s voice was as bland as mashed potatoes.

“Thank you, Mr Benson. You may continue.” The Earl sat down in David’s favourite armchair. 

Jonathan bowed and went back to cutting David’s hair.

David’s blood was boiling. Jonathan had been in the Prevosts’ employ since he was nine years old, had been David’s valet for almost a decade, and David’s father still didn’t bother remembering his name.

When Jonathan turned towards his tools, he briefly put his hand down on David’s shoulder as if to steady himself on account of his bad knee. But David understood the gesture. Be calm. You and I both know who we really are, and that’s all that matters.

David sighed quietly. Jonathan’s hand tightened, then he took it away and went back to cutting David’s hair with precision and without expression.

“What brings you here this morning, Father?” asked David, making his voice much more cheerful than he really felt; to tell the truth, he was annoyed. Even though Jonathan had forewarned him that his father was going to pay him a visit, he had thought he’d have more time alone with his beloved Jonathan. “Is it about the auction?”

“Well, yes and no,” said the Earl. He cleared his throat. “David, I have promised you I would not make you marry anyone against your will,” his father began. He hesitated, fiddling with his tie.

David stiffened. His heart began to race. Was his father going to withdraw this promise? “And I am very grateful for this, Father,” he said cautiously.

Jonathan was thrown, too, but David doubted anyone but him would be able to tell. He himself couldn’t even say how he knew, just that he did.

“Don’t worry, I won’t go back on my word,” his father replied, to David’s surprise. He knew David better than David always assumed. “But I want to remind you that… well, you are twenty-seven years old. Surely you can’t intend to die a bachelor.”

“I don’t, Father,” David replied. And it wasn’t even a lie. He’d never been so delusional as to believe he could shirk his dynastic duties. And besides, lately he’d found himself approaching — like approaching a nervous horse, careful to not make it spook — the idea of himself as a father. He was beginning to suspect he was not averse to this idea at all. In fact, he wondered if he wouldn’t quite like it.

The problem was, of course, his complete lack of interest in the female sex.

He shook himself and turned his attention back to the Earl. “I do intend to marry one day,” David reassured him.

His father was smiling kindly. “I know, I know. And I myself was little younger than you are now when I married your mother, God rest her soul. Now.” He sat back, assuming an air that David knew meant business. “Mr Armand Lewis has three daughters. The elder two have made very good marriages; the youngest will be twenty in February. Mr Lewis has invited us to come to his estate tomorrow, to spend a few days at his house as guests before the hustle and bustle of the auction. A good opportunity for you and the girl to get to know each other, no?”

The rhythmic snip of Jonathan’s scissors had stumbled but was now once again as steady as the purr of a sewing machine. The plan as it stood hinged on multiple people being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time — there was no way he could get everyone together in less than twenty-four hours.

But David couldn’t object to the visit to the Lewis estate. He had no reason to, no business he could claim he had to conduct tomorrow, not even a friendly visitor he was expecting. His father was well aware that there was nothing for David to do at the moment.

So instead, he discreetly reached out for Jonathan in a way that his father wouldn’t see. I’m sorry. “Of course, Father, I’d love that.”

“Wonderful!” The Earl clapped his hands together like a little boy. He stood. “I’m sure you and Miss Lewis will have a grand time.” And he strode off.

*

Jonathan barely needed to consider what clothes to bring. He simply opened a wardrobe, assessed the contents with a glance, and picked out a number of shirts, waistcoats, jackets, and trousers. 

David, meanwhile, was writing note after note after note for a footman to take to the post later. On the surface, the notes were perfectly innocuous; thank-yous for gifts and previous hospitality, regretful declinations of invitations, and recommendations for literature, tailors, and even a coachmaker. But encoded within them all was the same message: The plan has changed. Make yourselves ready to come to the Lewis Auction House as early as you can, if you can.

“Have you got everyone?” asked Jonathan, walking over with a pile of shirts over one arm. 

David counted the envelopes. “Yes, they’re all here. Unless I’m missing someone?”

Jonathan, frowning, picked up one of the envelopes. “You’re even writing to Lady Tannenbay?”

David shrugged. “We need to cover every possibility.”

“David, she is eighty-two.”

“And thus a perfect distraction. She just needs to pretend to faint in the middle of the auction and it’ll halt all proceedings.”

“I don’t intend to let the auction take place,” Jonathan replied. David was very, very glad that the ire on Jonathan’s face was not directed at him. “I don’t want anyone profiting from selling stolen goods.”

“Neither do I, naturally,” said David, “but what if you can’t find any other way?”

“We will,” Jonathan retorted. He tossed the envelopes back on the desk and went back to packing more clothes for David than he could possibly want to wear in one week.

*

The Lewis Auction House and Trading Co. was not two hours or so away from the Prevost estate by carriage. All three Prevost carriages were used for the journey. The Earl rode in one. Jonathan and the Earl’s valet, Isaac Turner, were in another, and the third was transporting the artefacts, in wooden transportation crates stuffed with wool shavings. David had personally overseen the Dashavatara group be stowed away. 

David rode alongside the carriages, just as he would have done had the original plan not fallen through. Oh, well. Duchess, his horse, could use the exercise; he’d rather been neglecting her recently, the weather being too poor for any good riding. Not to mention that taking her to the Lewis estate would provide him with an excellent reason to get out by himself for an hour or two every day. He didn’t like being cooped up, either.

They reached the crossroads where they were supposed to have been ‘robbed.’ It gave David a pang that, after three months of careful planning, they just trotted along and passed it within moments. He glanced up at Abel, the Prevost groom driving the Earl’s carriage. Abel glanced back, gave a brief shrug, and turned his attention back to the horses. Abel was the only other member of Jonathan’s organisation who was accompanying them today. Few Prevost employees were in cahoots with Jonathan, and of those who were, nearly all worked on the estate grounds, and not in the house itself.

Half an hour later, they reached the Lewis estate, a country house nearly as big as the Prevosts’. The carriageway was lined by poplar trees, bare and shivering in the December air. The house itself was flanked by two rhododendron bushes reaching the first floor windows. Crowded on the entrance stairs stood a portly, balding man who repeatedly reached up to mop his shining pate with a handkerchief; next to him stood a young woman, nervously playing with her jewellery; and behind them, over half a dozen serving staff in blue livery. David did his best to memorise their faces. A Lewis groom was immediately by his side and held his horse’s reins while he dismounted.

David gave him a big smile. “Thank you. What’s your name?”

“Oh, uh, Hugo, my lord.” He was clearly taken aback by the question.

“Thank you, Hugo. This is Duchess.” David patted his horse’s neck, and quickly drew up the stirrups so they didn’t bump against her belly. “She can be a little grumpy, please do not hold it against her. But I think right now she’ll just be hungry, and easily placated.” He gave Hugo another bright smile. “I entrust her to you. I’m sure you’ll take admirable care of her.”

“I’ll do my best, my lord,” said Hugo, drawing himself up a little. With just a few words, David had endeared himself to him. He lingered a moment, watching Hugo lead Duchess away until he disappeared behind one of the rhododendrons, then he turned to join the Earl, who was marching up to the assembly.

Everyone bowed and curtsied. “My Lord Prevost,” said the portly man. “Welcome to our humble abode!”

“Mr Armand Lewis,” the Earl greeted him. “We thank you for your hospitality.” He beckoned David closer. “May I introduce my son, David.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Lord David,” said Mr Lewis, bowing again.

“The pleasure is all mine,” said David, smiling. Behind him, he heard the other carriages being unloaded. He resisted the urge to turn and see how Jonathan had fared on the journey; he had no reason to be concerned with a servant.

Mr Lewis put his hands on the young woman’s shoulders. “My daughter,” he said, chest puffed in pride. “Sophia.” He pronounced her name so that the second syllable rhymed with eye.

“How do you do, Miss Lewis.” David bowed and swept her offered hand into his for a kiss. She was pretty enough, and had a deft eye for coordinating her jewellery and her clothing. Her lavender dress was the exact same colour as the amethysts studding her jewellery.

Of course, she could be Aphrodite herself and David would still prefer Apollo. And if Apollo himself came down from Mount Olympus, David would naturally not have eyes for anyone but Jonathan. 

“I am well, Lord David,” she said. Her voice was high and girlish, and she stumbled over her words. “Welcome to our home.”

David smiled. 

“My men will help yours with your luggage and your goods,” said Mr Lewis. At a wave from him, the gathered footmen, like one man, moved past the Earl and David to the Prevost carriages. He added, “I shall personally see that all your goods are safe and secure.”

“I expected nothing less, Mr Lewis,” said the Earl.

Mr Lewis’ cheeks pinked and he fiddled with his tie. “But you must be hungry after your journey. Would you like some refreshments?”

“That’s very considerate.”

“I beg you wait for me a moment, as I must first change my clothes,” said David. He laughed and gestured to his riding clothes; he was stained up to his knees in mud and sludge. 

Mr Lewis laughed as if it was the best joke in the world and bid a maid show David to his rooms.

As he followed his father and Mr Lewis into the house, David allowed himself to cast one look back over his shoulder. A Lewis man was hurrying towards Jonathan, whose limp was so pronounced under the heavy weight of a suitcase, he could barely walk. David wished, ardently, that he could find some way to spare Jonathan these pains. But the man was stubborn, and reasoned, again and again, that if even the slightest doubt was cast over Jonathan’s fitness as a valet, he could easily be replaced. David, naturally, would protest that he would never let that happen; which Jonathan would counter with how people would mutter why David was so attached to a servant. And then he’d remind him of the law that had been passed in August. And David would fall silent.

Now, Jonathan let the Lewis man have two of the larger, bulkier cases. He still limped more than David would prefer, but at least he was walking. David turned away and smiled a pleasant smile at whatever it was Mr Lewis was saying about the old house. Something about the Roundheads?

The maid — her name was Joan — led him to his rooms. Jonathan joined him only a few minutes later, bringing David’s luggage with him, as well as William, the helpful Lewis footman. William insisted on helping Jonathan unpack, so David and Jonathan couldn’t speak freely while David changed, and only exchanged small pleasantries. Then, thrumming all over with frustration that he hadn’t been able to give Jonathan so much as a pat on the shoulder, David followed Joan to the dining room. The promised refreshments were served buffet-style, which David could tell his father was not exactly delighted by. David, though, heaped his plate up with whatever caught his fancy, and took his seat next to Miss Lewis.

She was nibbling daintily on a pastry and responded to his greeting with a shy smile. David initiated the conversation with ease, and they soon chatted about all sorts of things. She asked him more questions about being a member of the aristocracy than he could ever imagine, until he finally gave a laugh and asked her to tell her more about herself and her youth.

“There’s not much to tell,” she replied. “I split my childhood between this house and Provence, among the lavender fields. My dear Mama resides there still.”

Vous devez donc parler très bien le français,” he said.

Before she had a chance to reply, Mr Lewis, having overheard, leaned in with a wry chuckle. “Don’t waste your time, Lord David,” he said in English. “A French grandmother and a childhood in France have not managed to squeeze a drop of the language into her little head.” He winked. “Her talents lie elsewhere.” And he turned back to his conversation with the Earl.

Miss Lewis flushed very red and pushed at the lettuce on her plate with her fork.

“I did not mean to embarrass you,” David said after a few moments of painful silence. “I deeply regret doing so.”

“That’s all right,” she replied. But it was plain it wasn’t. David was ashamed he’d hurt her, even unintentionally.

“Your grandmother is French?” he said. “Is that your mother’s mother or your father’s?”

“My father’s. My maternal grandmother grew up in Yorkshire, near Halifax. Oh, the stories she would tell me!” Her face lit up again, to his relief. “About how there were women there conducting their own business and stalking about in top hats! Can you believe such a thing?”

He laughed with her. “I can believe all sorts of things. Though I admit, that does sound like something out of a novel. That reminds me, I’ve recently finished North and South. Have you read it?”

“I haven’t,” she replied.

Once again, Mr Lewis thought it appropriate to interject. “If I may, Lord David,” he said, and ignored David’s frown that clearly said he may not, “but don’t waste your time talking literature with the girl. All the brains in the family went to her older sister.”

David demonstratively turned to her, and ignored her father. Christ, but he was rude! “Perhaps I could lend you my copy,” he offered.

“Yes, perhaps.” She idly twisted the amethysts on her bracelet. All other attempts he made to rekindle the conversation, she parried with monosyllables. Mentally shrugging, David turned his attention to what his father and Mr Lewis were talking about.

*

The days at the Lewis estate seem to pass all too fast and excruciatingly slowly at the same time. David and Jonathan did what they could to scout the estate. Infuriatingly, breakfasts here were taken together in the dining room, which completely removed one major opportunity during the day for David and Jonathan to speak freely. The few snatches of covert conversation they could have were entirely taken up by matters relating to stealing back the artefacts. It was only during the evenings that David and Jonathan were truly left to themselves, and then, too, the upcoming heist was prioritised. Little but a few slow kisses was possible. Jonathan also left David’s room much earlier than he would have at the Prevost estate. He had to share his quarters with Turner, which David could only pity him for. Jonathan didn’t like Turner very much. He found him vainglorious and prone to sticking his nose into other people’s affairs, and Jonathan had to answer invasive and awkward questions whenever he retired to their quarters at a time Turner deemed unacceptable. Which times Turner did deem unacceptable, David gathered, was nearly impossible to parse.

David missed Jonathan’s company as keenly as if he’d left him behind at the Prevost estate. Just this afternoon, a Thursday, David had been reclining against the headboard of his bed, a book open on his knee.

“What are you reading?” asked Jonathan, sitting down on the edge of the bed. David suspected it was mostly to give his bad knee a moment of rest. David was all too willing, if not anxious, to allow Jonathan this moment of respite. During his busy workday, Jonathan rarely got the chance to sit down, and David hated himself for every task he set him when his face got like that.

“Something highly stimulating.” David held the book out and Jonathan took it.

The Sins of the City on the Plain? My God, what a title.” He flipped through the first few pages. His eye caught something and he read for a minute or two. He didn’t blush. For one, he was too good a valet to show something as base as emotion just over some erotic literature. And for two, what was described in those pages came fairly close to what he and David got up to on the regular. Minus the bit with the birch rod; that was not to either of their likings.

Jonathan closed the book and handed it back. “You just make sure that’s out of sight.”

David flipped back to the part where he’d been when Jonathan had interrupted him. “Would you like to borrow it when I’m done?”

Jonathan thought for a moment. “No.” He grinned. “I’d prefer if you read it out loud to me.”

David ran one hand through Jonathan’s wonderful, mahogany locks. “Right now?” he asked with a smirk. 

But Jonathan sighed. “Alas, I have duties to attend to.” He stood and leaned over to kiss David. David tried not to let his disappointment show. “But you enjoy yourself.” He turned back to David’s wardrobe.

David went back to his book, feeling like a surly child being told that he had to sit still and couldn’t go off to play just now. 

Publicly, David spent most of his time with or near Miss Lewis. She played the piano for him — badly — and talked at him for extended amounts of time about all the plays she had seen in Paris. To David’s amusement, she hardly ever spoke of Hamlet, or Othello, or Romeo, and instead gushed about Ophelia, Desdemona, and Juliet. She especially rhapsodised about the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who appeared in a female role one night and in a male one the next.

For an hour or two every day, he took Duchess out for a ride. He gave her the reins, galloping at full speed across the field and hills until the wind had swept every thought and worry from his mind and Duchess was snorting, foam was running down her bit. He took Sophia with him on Friday, but that remained the only time. Her pony was old, and she didn’t let the animal go any faster than a wheezing trot for fear of falling off. He’d not expected the ride to come even close to his exhilarating country gallops, but this was just absurd. Duchess had barely even broken a sweat by the time they made it back. To her credit, though, Miss Lewis doted on her pony, and personally brushed it down before allowing Hugo to lead it away. 

It was three days — much, much longer than he would have liked — before David found the opportunity to talk to Mr Lewis by himself. His father and Miss Lewis were always hovering close by, and while there really was nothing suspicious at all about David’s request, he still preferred to have as few witnesses to his scouting activities as possible. On Friday, he finally, finally found Mr Lewis on his own in the salon, pondering the contents of his liquor cabinet, while the Earl of Spokeham attended to some matter or another that he’d been alerted to via telegram, and Miss Lewis was off doing whatever it was she did in her spare time. Fawning over a photograph of Sarah Bernhardt, most likely.

David approached Mr Lewis with a smile he knew could disarm a Coldstream Guard. He engaged him in some easy chatter about this, that, and deftly led the topic to the upcoming auction. “Would it be at all possible to see where the items are stored?” David asked once he was certain Mr Lewis was securely on his hook. “Not that I doubt they are stored well and safely,” he added. “But I’m curious to see how you managed to do so.”

“Of course, of course! An admirable quality in a young man! Wait here, I shall go and fetch my keys. Help yourself!” He waved floppy hands at the liquor cabinet and bustled away.

David did not help himself to the drink. Instead, he paced up and down the salon, taking in everything he could find. There was a jib door between two bookshelves; he briefly opened it and, as he had expected, found one of the servants’ corridors. He closed the door again and perused the bookshelves. Judging by the heavy dust on top of the books, they were for show — never taken off the shelves, and nobody cared whether or not the servants dusted them properly. It may not ever even have occurred to the servants to dust them at all, if they hadn’t been told. David shook his head. Thaddeus Carpenter, the Prevost butler, would never let something like this stand.

Mr Lewis returned, a heavy ring of keys clutched in one hand. He beckoned David to follow, and led him through the dining hall to a cellar door, heavy and thick and incongruous with the rest of the building; clearly, a later addition. A Lewis man stood guard, bowing when he saw his master and David approach. David made an uneasy note of the handgun on the man’s belt. Mr Lewis unlocked the door and, with much huffing and puffing, went down the stairs. “This used to be the wine cellar,” said Mr Lewis. And laughed. “Well, a part of it still is the wine cellar. But now, this is where I store the most valuable of my goods. And your esteemed father’s items have the best and most secure spot, of course.” The cellar was large, maybe even larger than the house above it. David’s assessment of the small, overzealous man shifted a little. He must have chosen this house specifically for this reason; he must be a shrewder businessman than he first appeared. Now, Mr Lewis was rounding a corner and stopped in front of a semi-circular door made of iron bars. He took a large key brown with rust and unlocked the door.

The room was low-ceilinged and expansive. The transportation crates were stacked in neat rows. David casually opened this one and that. Everything was still where it was supposed to be. At the back of the room was a safe with a combination lock.

“Ah,” said Mr Lewis when David started towards it. “That, my boy, is where most valuable artefacts are stored. Everything that your father brought that is golden is in there.”

“It looks sturdy,” said David in an admiring tone, even though worry crept into his gut. If the Dashavatara group was in there, would Jonathan be able to get to it?

“It is! The best strongbox on the market, I assure you. Your father’s gold is safer than I keep my own daughter!” He laughed, the noise echoing. 

David made himself join in. “That’s a relief.” 

“Oh, you must have heard of this art thief that’s been making trouble.” Mr Lewis shook his head. “I count my lucky stars every day that he’s not left a calling card in this house.”

“He leaves calling cards?” David asked, playing up shock but really quite amused. Nobody in Jonathan’s organisation would be stupid enough to do something like that. The police wasn’t even certain that all these art thefts were committed by the same person — and, to be pedantic, they weren’t — and the press was attributing some thefts to the organisation that they had had no hand in.

“A figure of speech, my boy. But look around you.” Mr Lewis flung his arm at the other vaults. “Is this not the exact kind of booty this would-be Robin Hood is interested in?”

One vault seemed to be filled with nothing but bleary, grey paintings of English countryside, but David made affirmative noises. Let Mr Lewis believe it was just any old art Jonathan and his organisation were after.

“To confess, I was worried,” he lied. “Of course I’ve heard of this art thief, and I feared our little auction would make my father’s possessions a prime target. But I’m reassured to see how well they are kept. I’m sure not even the most audacious Robin Hood, as you call him, would be able to sneak in here!” He cocked his head. “Unless there’s another way into this cellar?”

“What do you take me for! Of course there is not. No, the only way in here is through the door upstairs, and the only way to that is through the front door, and that is always locked and guarded.”

David smiled beatifically. Locked and guarded, yes. But that meant nothing when the cat was already amongst the pigeons.

*

Jonathan received David’s report, delivered while he dressed David for dinner, with an impassive face. “Did you see who manufactured the lock on the door?”

“A B.V. & Co. Quite large. But old-fashioned. I think it might actually be just a simple warded lock.”

“How large?” asked Jonathan, and looked on with a frown of concentration when David gestured the size with his hands. Jonathan nodded. “I think I might have a skeleton key for that,” he muttered, more to himself, and held out a fresh shirt for David.

“I don’t think getting into the room itself will be much of an issue,” said David, putting the shirt on. “Not for you, anyway. The safe is going to be a different matter.”

“I agree.”

“As is getting everyone in without being noticed.”

“Yes. Blue or green?”

“What?”

“Your dinner jacket. Would you prefer the blue one or the green one?”

“Jonathan, my love, you know whatever you pick is going to be perfect.”

Jonathan nodded. “Blue, then. To suit your eyes.” He glanced briefly at the closed door, then gave David a quick, stolen kiss, all the sweeter for being an unexpected treat. 

David leaned in, suddenly starving for more. Jonathan put one hand on David’s sternum. “You need to get dressed.” His lips were quirking into a smile belying the sternness of his voice. “Dinner is in ten minutes.”

“I’m Lord David Prevost,” he retorted. “Dinner is when I arrive.”

“I don’t think your father will quite agree.” And yet, Jonathan let himself be caught and kissed once more. His cheeks, this late in the day, were beginning to roughen with stubble. David loved the scratchy feeling on his palms.

But when he pulled Jonathan even closer and not-quite-accidentally lifted his knee against Jonathan’s groin, Jonathan pushed him back firmly. “You definitely do not have time for that,” he said.

Sighing, David accepted defeat.

*

Dinner went much like it had the nights before. He was seated next to Miss Lewis, and she talked about plays he’d never seen, and he made references to books she’d never read. It was hard work, building up a conversation that they could both contribute to, but he eventually managed it. At some point, he mentioned having met Thomas Hardy, which caught the attention of Mr Lewis, seated opposite, and who immediately began to quiz him on the encounter. David, keenly aware of how this left Miss Lewis stranded, tried to make it as short as possible. But Mr Lewis’ questions had the force of a locomotive, and under the Earl’s watchful eye, David did not dare snub him. Once he had finally disentangled himself, dinner was almost over, and he had no hope of rekindling the conversation with Miss Lewis. With a feeling of dissatisfaction gnawing at the walls of his stomach, he went back to his rooms, where Jonathan was already waiting.

“You know, I do like her.” David shrugged the jacket off into Jonathan’s waiting hands. “I do wish she were more adept at conversation. I’ve got to do all the work. She’s not too bright, and it’s not helped that she suffers from a terrible lack of confidence. Though I think I prefer a mouse to a shrew, for a wife. She is kind, that must be said in her favour.”

Jonathan said nothing as he put the jacket away. He was never one for idle talk at the best of times, but this was a silence that was tense and meant something was amiss.

“Jonathan?” David reached out and put his hand on Jonathan’s lapel. He could feel his pulse underneath the fabric. “Are you upset?”

Jonathan twitched. “My lord,” he began, but David tutted and put a finger over his lips.

“None of that. The doors are locked. It’s just us.”

Jonathan looked up, his brown eyes meeting David’s. He sighed. David took his finger away so Jonathan could speak. “I find it quite impossible not to be upset whenever the topic of your inevitable marriage comes up.”

“Oh, my sweet man.” David pulled him into a fierce embrace. “You know my heart belongs to you, don’t you? The woman I will marry one day will know but a fraction of the adoration I feel towards you.”

Jonathan lifted his head as if to reach for a kiss, but instead, he said, in tones as flat, and hard, and painful as a hammerhead, “And have you ever considered how she would feel in such an arrangement?”

David blinked. His arms slipped off Jonathan. “I…” He had not.

“I am not upset you will be married one day,” said Jonathan. “Not much, that is. I know that this relationship we have will have to remain a secret we take to our graves. And I know that as the heir to Spokehamshire you have to get married at some point. I’m not deluding myself in these matters, though they sting. What upsets me much more, however, is that you are destined to condemn an innocent girl to a loveless marriage — and she will likely not have your privilege of an established, if secret, lover.”

David looked down at his feet in chagrin. “I have not thought of that,” he said quietly.

“You are preventing her from finding true love for herself,” continued Jonathan,  relentlessly continuing to make a point he had long since made. “She will be lonely, and always wonder why her husband is so distant. No, don’t give me that look. I don’t believe you would do this on purpose. But you know very well the kind of wall a secret builds between you and others. Would you really tell your wife about your inclinations? Would you” — and here his voice hitched — “would you tell her about us?”

“Not about us,” David said at length. He’d long since decided, should his own sexual activities ever be revealed — voluntarily or otherwise — he’d never breathe a word that Jonathan was involved. It was one thing to confess his own secret; quite another to spill Jonathan’s, too.

“David, no.” Fear made Jonathan’s voice shrill. “You can’t tell her anything.”

“What do you want to hear?” David heard how whiny he sounded, and took a breath to steady himself. He hated arguments, and he hated nothing more than arguing with Jonathan. “That I won’t tell my future wife, damning her to this lonely marriage you’ve just foretold, or that I do tell her, giving her ammunition to land me in prison, if she so fancies? You know as well as I do that not getting married in the first place is not an option.”

“No, I know. I know.” Jonathan sighed and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. He breathed deep breaths. “I’m sorry, I’m upset and irrational. I don’t want you to be so unintentionally cruel to anyone. Even if it can’t be helped. I know what it would do to you, and I don’t want you to.”

“And I don’t want to upset you,” David replied, drawing him closer by the hand. To his relief, Jonathan followed without resistance. If he were still angry, he’d dig his heels in like a mule. David interlaced their fingers. Jonathan’s hands were always so wonderfully warm; it soothed him immediately. “I have to marry a woman, and especially now that they’ve passed that bloody law. I don’t want to make my future wife, whoever she may be, suffer any more than you want me to. But who can say what will happen, hm? All I ask is that, when the time comes, you trust me to make the right choice.”

Jonathan was still frowning, but he sighed and said, “Of course I trust you.” He let David lift his chin and kiss him.

*

On Saturday, Lady Featherstonehaugh, accompanied by Lady Tannenbay, arrived at the Lewis estate. She wanted to contribute to the auction with some of her own artefacts. Jonathan had told David that half the goods she was bringing, she had liberated herself and was going to send on to Asia along with the Prevost collection. David was among the assembly welcoming Lady Featherstonehaugh to the Lewis estate. Her arrival was fussed over much as the Prevosts’ had been. David had gathered that members of the peerage staying as guests were a true novum. 

Miss Lewis was delighted to meet her, for sure. She beamed at the older woman, her face radiant, and curtsied perfectly. But when she chirped, “Lady Featherstonehaugh, welcome!” She pronounced her name catastrophically wrong, exactly as it was spelled. David felt terribly sorry for the girl. Had nobody schooled her on how it was pronounced to spare her embarrassing herself like this?

Lady Featherstonehaugh, for her part, merely smiled. “It’s pronounced ‘Fanshaw,’ my dear, but that’s all right.”

Miss Lewis gasped and covered her mouth with one perfumed glove. “My apologies! Father had told me, but I plain forgot, Lady Featherstonehaugh.” This time, she got it right.

“Please, my dear,” said Lady Featherstonehaugh and laughed. “You are far from the only one to make this mistake! Now — Lord David, what a delight to see you again!”

David grinned at her, bowed, and kissed her offered hand. She’d quite broken protocol by greeting him before she greeted his father. “The delight is mine,” he said. 

She chuckled, and discreetly shoved the folded note he had pressed into her palm up her sleeve. While she moved on to greet the rest, David hung back. He glanced over to Eóin, who, in Featherstonehaugh livery, was unloading the coach. David was relieved to see that every trace of the injuries he’d received in prison last summer had vanished. Their gazes met and parted just as quickly. All the same, David felt reassured. With these two here, their endeavour was looking a little less impossible.

All of Saturday, Sophia followed Lady Featherstonehaugh much like an eager puppy. Lady Tannenbay, small, elderly, and a peer only by marriage to her late husband, though she had been welcomed as kindly as the Earl of Spokeham and Lady Featherstonehaugh had been — if with much less fanfare — went largely ignored. Miss Lewis appeared positively disappointed by the bent, frail figure in front of her, and paid her little mind for the rest of the day. David, though, accepted her request that they play cards together with enthusiasm. And it wasn’t faked, either; he genuinely enjoyed playing cards with her. They drank tea by the bucket during their game, and talked until they were hoarse. To observers — if there were any — the conversation would be perfectly innocuous, nothing any old woman would say to a young man who could be her grandson. By the time they were finally done, though, Lady Tannenbay had been fully briefed on what Jonathan had come up with.

*

That night, David showed Jonathan the note Lady Featherstonehaugh had sent him in response to the one he’d slipped her that morning. In essence, it said that she was ready for anything and waiting for further instructions. Jonathan read it and passed it back before turning to taking David’s clothes off. In quiet voices — they weren’t sure how much could be heard through the walls — they discussed their plan, such as it were, and how to make use of Eóin, Lady Featherstonehaugh, and Lady Tannenbay  in the most efficient way possible. 

It didn’t occur to David that Jonathan had more in mind than just getting David ready for bed until Jonathan pulled David’s undershirt off him and, folding it with smooth motions, set it aside. David shivered slightly in the cold, but warmed up quite swiftly as Jonathan put one hand to David’s neck and pulled him down for a kiss equal parts sweet and spicy.

“But what about Turner?” David murmured at some point.

“Sod Turner,” Jonathan muttered. “He can mind his own business, and I’ll be sure to tell him so. I’m not letting him get between you and me.” And he kissed David with even more heat than before.

David leaned in and kissed him back with ardour. He was suddenly starving for Jonathan. How could it be that he was around him every day and could still miss him?

With one hand, Jonathan undid the buttons on David’s drawers. He didn’t even need to look. He pulled them down and David stepped out of them, kicking them aside.

Jonathan took a step back and took David in like he was a sculpture by an old master. Everything Jonathan did, he did deliberately and skillfully — and with an intense, singular focus. To be the subject of that focus was a thrill. As was standing in the middle of the room completely nude while Jonathan was still fully dressed. Despite the cold December night, David was hot all over. But mostly in his genitals. His penis was already hardening.

When Jonathan had seen his fill, he pushed at David’s sternum, walking him backwards until the backs of his legs hit the bed and he let himself fall onto the mattress. He watched while Jonathan, much less patiently than he had David’s, chucked his clothes. And Jonathan still folded each piece and set it aside with care. David couldn’t help but smile at him.

“What are you laughing about?” asked Jonathan, finally as naked as David, as he joined him on the bed. He straddled David’s hips, their cocks touching.

“Nothing, my love,” David replied, pushing himself up so he could kiss the side of his beautiful neck. “I just love you.”

Jonathan chuckled, baring more of his neck. “I know. I love you, too.”

“I know.”

“God, I’ve missed you,” Jonathan said, pushing himself up on his arms. He looked at David, almost as if he was close to tears. 

David swallowed, a lump suddenly in his throat. “Let’s make up for it,” he whispered.

“Yes, let’s.” Jonathan bent back down and nosed into the crook of David’s neck. For a moment, David was concerned that the way Jonathan was kneeling over him could be painful. But if Jonathan was kneeling, his knee wasn’t bothering him too much. David knew to let Jonathan set the pace when it came to this. David caught the top of Jonathan’s ear between his teeth and traced the shape of it with his lips.

Jonathan shivered all over and groaned something that David was fairly sure was his name. Jonathan ground down, his cock pressing against David’s. David whimpered, and Jonathan reached down between their stomachs to take a hold of their cocks, his grip just firm enough. David wished he could fuck Jonathan. But they didn’t have any of the necessary oil with them. And anyway, all sex with Jonathan was wonderful. The way he smelled, the way his skin felt under David’s roaming hands, the way his breath came faster and shallower, and the small whines and moans and groans that escaped them — all of it set David ablaze. He bucked his hips into Jonathan’s hand, felt the way his cock and that of Jonathan squished together.

“Look at me, David,” came Jonathan’s voice from what felt very far away. David opened his eyes — he hadn’t even realised he’d closed them — and met Jonathan’s. Jonathan grinned at him. “I love you.”

“I love you. Ah, fuck.” Jonathan had bent down and was nibbling on one of David’s nipples, while his hand kept leisurely stroking their cocks. “More,” David moaned, folding his arms around Jonathan and holding him close.

Jonathan was too happy to oblige. His hand down between them moved differently, now — he rubbed his palm over the sensitive heads, then danced his fingers down to the root, then he pulled back up with his whole hand and a firm grip. If it felt as good to him as it did to David, it was a bloody wonder he could keep a cool enough head to work with such skill and finesse — David’s thoughts were an incoherent mush of more and yes and I love him, I love him, I love him. His hands pawed at him without any dexterity to speak of. All he managed to do was lick his own thumb, reach down, and flick against the head of Jonathan’s cock. Jonathan gasped and jerked forwards. 

“Shall I do that again?” David asked.

“Yes,” Jonathan replied, and David eagerly complied. “Ah!” Jonathan grimaced. He gasped, “But maybe — not quite so — forcefully.”

“Of course. I’m sorry.” 

Jonathan just kissed him. 

David scooted a little closer to the headboard so he could sit up a tad and see what Jonathan was actually doing. And see his face. And kiss him properly. Jonathan followed him, chasing David’s lips with his own. David looked down in fascination. Jonathan’s hand and their cocks were glistening with moisture in the flickering candlelight. David flicked the head of Jonathan’s cock again, more gently this time. He was rewarded with another full-body shiver from him.

“Do you want to come?” asked Jonathan.

“Fuck yes, oh my God, Jonathan, please!”

Jonathan laughed into David’s collarbone. His hand was flexing around their cocks, the undersides brushing against one another, the heads knocking together — and with a shout he managed to stifle just in time with a bite to his wrist, David came, his cock pulsing and splattering his seed all over his stomach. Jonathan’s joined only moments later. Their emissions mingled in the coarse hair on David’s abdomen. Jonathan gasped, steadying himself with one hand splayed open on David’s chest. He took some time catching his breath. And then he leaned down and lapped it up.

David burst out laughing. “You animal!”

Jonathan looked up, eyes half-closed but still full of glee. He licked a stray glob from the corner of his mouth. “Tell me you don’t love it, too.”

“I would never lie to you, so I shan’t.” He arched one eyebrow. “But do get a rag.”

Jonathan shook his head in feigned exasperation and got off the bed. David watched him keenly, but his knee seemed not to hurt him too badly tonight. He returned with a washcloth and cleaned them up properly. Afterwards, he snuffed the candles and crawled under the covers next to David and drew him into a close, warm embrace. 

They didn’t speak for a long time; so long, in fact, that David twice heard the chime of a distant grandfather clock. “Do you think we can do it?” he finally asked into the darkness. 

Jonathan didn’t say anything at first. “If I didn’t think we could do it, I wouldn’t have us do it.” But he didn’t sound particularly convincing.

David turned his head. In the dark, he could just barely make out the shape of Jonathan’s head on the pillow next to him. “Are you as scared as I am?” Blast, but his voice broke feebly on the last words.

Jonathan sighed and rubbed his forehead against David’s shoulder as if he were a cat. “Yes,” he admitted. “I’m terrified. I can barely sleep or keep my head in order.”

“Oh.” David swallowed against a lump in his throat. It was so, so rare for Jonathan to speak so negatively. David reached out, attempting to put his hand on Jonathan’s cheek; instead, he accidentally prodded him in the side of the head before Jonathan turned his face towards his palm. David’s fingers lay across his cheek like they were moulded to one another. He didn’t think there was anything he could say to alleviate Jonathan’s fears. And so, he leaned over and gave him a kiss, instead.

*

It was just before three in the morning on Monday. The auction was supposed to take place nine hours later. David, Jonathan, Sophia, Lady Featherstonehaugh, and Eóin met in the dining hall. They said not one word. Sophia led the way to the cellar door, halting the procession with a hand. She peeked around the doorframe. David craned his neck; the guard positioned there was dozing sitting in his chair. When the soft clang of the grandfather clock announced the full hour, he stirred. He yawned hugely — and loudly — then laboriously lumbered to his feet and wandered off, presumably to relieve himself, just as Sophia had predicted he would. She turned and beckoned the others on.

In single file, they nipped down into the cellar. David kept an eye on Jonathan, but his limp was almost imperceptible right now. When they made it to the bottom of the stairs, Jonathan lit a lantern and led the way to the hidden door. So far, so good.

Jonathan ran his free hand over the hidden door, cursing quietly when he couldn’t find the handhold to open it. Sophia wordlessly went to stand beside him and, without even really seeming to try, opened the door. Lady Featherstonehaugh and Eóin gasped in surprise when the invisible door was revealed. But they had themselves together quickly, and Eóin went up the narrow steps, taking two at a time. Moments later, he came back, and in a low voice, he informed Jonathan that Sir Worsely, Mr Thomas, Mr Howard, and Abel the Prevost groom were waiting by the rhododendron with the horses. Jonathan nodded his understanding. Then, they all made for the vault holding the items stolen by the Earl of Spokeham.

David was usually not present for the actual stealing part of Jonathan’s capers. His was the role of misdirection, of dazzling, of drawing all eyes to him and away from the thieves. He was terrified of making some catastrophic mistake that would send them all to Newgate. His heart was beating fast and almost painfully in his chest.  He glanced around, certain that the people gathered around him would hear it, too. But everyone looked so at ease, so confident. The only one who appeared even a fraction as nervous was Sophia — not unsurprising; this was her first caper, too. Their eyes met by chance, and he gave her a smile he meant to be reassuring. She smiled back, a little wobbly. Jonathan noticed — he always noticed — but he didn’t smile. He only looked at David, but that was more than enough to calm his nerves.

*

Saturday night, an hour or so after dinner, Miss Lewis and the other ladies had already withdrawn to their rooms, while Mr Lewis and the Earl sat in the salon smoking their pipes and talking shop. David had excused himself and gone to his own room, where Jonathan began helping him dress for bed. He’d just pulled his tie away, and David had leaned down to kiss him, when there was a knock on the door. They practically sprang apart. Jonathan looked at David, and when he nodded, went to open the door. David turned to busy himself with the bookshelf.

“Miss Lewis?” Jonathan asked, the astonishment evident even in his soft voice. “May I ask what you are doing, knocking at my master’s door at such an hour?”

“I need to speak to Lord David,” she said, and David turned around in surprise. Her voice, while still recognisable, was noticeably lower in pitch. 

“Miss, I’m sure whatever it is, it can wait until after sunrise. Good night.” He went to close the door.

David jumped to his side and held the door open. “Now, now, not so hasty,” he said. “I’m sure Miss Lewis has good reason to seek me out right now.” He caught Jonathan’s eye. He wouldn’t be able to say why, but he had the feeling that there was more to this late-night visit than just girlish impertinence.

Jonathan narrowed his eyes just a fraction, but stepped aside and let Miss Lewis in. He went off to the side to fold David’s clothes, blatantly so he could appear busy.

Miss Lewis was still dressed in her clothes for dinner. She was clutching a small drawstring-bag  in her right hand.

“Well?” David prompted when she just stood there, silent, for a painfully long time.

Je parle un excellent française, en fait,” she said.

David blinked. He looked at Jonathan, but Jonathan was just as confused. “That’s… nice?” David replied, in English. It was too late to bother with French. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t see why you’ve decided to visit me in the middle of night to inform me of this.”

She drew herself up. David hadn’t realised she had been standing in a semi-stoop the entire time he’d known her. At her full height, she was a good two inches taller. Red spots started to appear on her cheeks. “My father said I didn’t speak French. He also said all my brains went to my sister and that literature is wasted on me. And you believed him. I could tell that all week, you indulged me like one indulges a child. You think me stupid.”

David felt himself blush to be so accurately criticised, but before he could say anything in his defence or her placation, she went on, “I do not blame you. I’ve not made any effort to correct you. It suits me just fine when people think me stupid; a woman is already underestimated, and an unintelligent one, even more so.” She hesitated. Then, she opened her bag and tipped the contents onto her open palm.

Beside David, Jonathan gasped. What tumbled into Miss Lewis’ hand was nothing other than Narasimha, Vishnu’s lion-headed avatar. David recognised the golden statuette immediately as part of the stolen Dashavatara group. 

“Where did you find this?” he demanded. “How did you find it?”

She met his gaze squarely. “I did not need to find it, for it was in my father’s safe.” She smiled a little. It was not a nice smile, but David could tell it was much more genuine than any of the flirtatious pouts she had been sending his way all week. “Your surprise and astonishment only proves that I was right.”

“Oh,” said Jonathan, and nodded slowly. Clearly it all made sense now. David did not agree. “So you know the combination to the safe?”

“I’m afraid I don’t. I tried asking, but Father refuses to give it to anyone. He doesn’t even have it written down anywhere. I asked about that, too, but he explained — quite elaborately — how he fixed it to his mind. He claims he’d rather forget my name than the combination.” The spots on her face were darkening. Her anger truly was a sight to behold. David had previously likened her to a mouse — a cat, he now thought, was more appropriate.  “No, I took this statuette when he locked away the artefacts your father brought. He turned his back to me for a moment, leaving the safe open. I had only to reach in and take it. He closed it, not even checking if everything was there.”

“And why did you take it?” asked David. Maybe Miss Lewis was trying to profit off the artefacts herself? No, that was ridiculous. Was it?

She took a breath. “All week, you have seen how my father belittles me,” she began. “He has done so all my life. He decided early on that I had no brains to speak of, and has never deviated from his opinion, no matter the evidence to the contrary. At a certain point, I realised it was to my advantage to feed into his view. But that is not all. My father is vainglorious, greedy, and dishonest. Half of the things he trades with, he acquired either through deceit or outright theft.” She lifted her chin, and, with both palms, she held out the statue of Narasimha. “Lord David, I understand  that you are the art thief that has evaded authorities for years. Take this, and the other things. Do whatever you will with it. I do not care what. I only care that for once, my father doesn’t get his way.”

David said nothing. He took a step back. 

Jonathan took a step forward and, carefully as if it was a baby bird, took the statuette from her. “My sincerest thanks,” he said. “I will do whatever I can to ensure it is restored to its rightful people.”

Her eyes were enormous. “You?” she gasped. “But — I’d assumed — Lord David —”

Jonathan’s smile was as wicked, and as genuine, as hers had been. “A servant, you will find, is just as easily overlooked as a woman pretending to be unintelligent. Lord David here is an invaluable member of my organisation, it’s true, but he is my deputy. I am the leader.”

“You — oh. I see.” She flushed. “I apologise, Mr, er…” She covered her mouth with her hand in embarrassment. “I’m afraid I don’t even know your name.”

He was grinning. “Which only proves I am right. My name is Jonathan Benson.”

She was nodding. “Mr Benson, then. While the assumptions I have made tonight have made quite the fool out of me, am I at least correct in assuming you are here to take the artefacts?”

“You are.”

She nodded. “Can I be of help?” Oh, David liked her!

“Hm.” Jonathan narrowed his eyes at her. Sophia fidgeted a little under his intense and admittedly quite frightening stare, but David knew he was just assessing where and how she could fit into their plan. “Do you have the keys to the vaults?” Jonathan asked.

“I’m afraid I don’t. But I have one to the cellar. And I know the usual comings and goings of more or less every soul in this house.”

“Excellent.”

“And I know another way in.”

Jonathan’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. David felt the same way. “You do?”

“Yes,” said Sophia. “There is another door. I don’t think even my father knows about it. It was nailed shut and the frame painted over long ago, perhaps even before he bought this place. But I discovered it when I was playing in the cellars as a little girl, and by then, the nails had rusted, the wood rotted, and the paint peeled. So even as a child I could easily open it.” She smiled. “I used it when I wanted to run away from my governess.”

“Where does it lead?” asked Jonathan, leaning on the table. Was his leg bothering him?

Sophia said, “It opens behind the stables. It’s rather overgrown. I could show you.”

“Yes,” said Jonathan, straightening. “Please lead the way.”

She nodded and turned. David and Jonathan followed, David remembering just in time to put his jacket back on. He fell in step beside Jonathan; it was getting late, and Jonathan had been running around for days with little rest. If his knee wasn’t hurting already, it probably would soon.  Should Jonathan trip, he could use David to prop himself up.

Sophia led them through the house. From the salon came the deep, belly laugh of Armand Lewis. The guard by the cellar door gave them a curious look, but let them pass. Ever since Mr Lewis had shown him the vault, David had made a point to be often seen going down into the cellar. 

Down in the cellar, Sophia walked briskly past vault after vault, until finally, she took a sharp left and stopped in a dead end. “Here it is.”

“I can’t see anything,” said David, frowning at the bit of wall.

“Well, it’s a secret door, my lord,” she replied drily. “It has to be even more hidden than servants’ doors, don’t you think?” She reached out, took hold of something that, to David, just looked like a seam of sloppily-applied paint, and wrenched. A door swung open with a wheeze, revealing a steep set of stairs.

“Up here,” she said, then paused and turned to Jonathan. “Can you manage, Mr Benson?”

“I can,” he replied. But he did reach out and held onto David’s left arm. 

She nodded, and led the way. Jonathan and David followed at a snail’s pace. Even though the stairs were steep, there weren’t even ten of them. But even so, Jonathan’s hand on David’s arm tightened with every step, and sweat gleamed in the light of Sophia’s lantern by the time they made it. She looked worried and sheepish; clearly, she had not expected to cause poor Jonathan such pain. 

“Allow him a moment,” David told her quietly, while Jonathan leaned on him and got his breath back.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he muttered after a minute or two. He straightened, though he did not let go of David. He looked around, and David did the same. As Sophia had said, they were behind the stables. David recognised the overgrown rhododendron; the three of them were in a small clearing between the bush and the wall.

Jonathan frowned. “If we let our people run through here, it will be quite obvious to see by the time we’re done.”

“We don’t need to have everyone go through the bush,” David pointed out. “We’d only need one or two. Or not even that; really, we only need to get the crates out through them. Look” —he pointed— “there’s much fewer branches lower to the ground. We would only need to push the crates through there. The others can wait at the other side, accept the crates, and whisk them away immediately.”

“Hm.” Jonathan gave David’s arm a tug, and David led him closer. Sophia had to press herself against the wall to let them pass, there was so little room. Jonathan let go of David’s arm. “Can you kneel down and see what the ground is like here? Damp, or dusty, or what?”

David did as Jonathan asked. “It’s dry enough,” he replied, brushing his hand over the hard, packed earth. “I don’t think we’ll leave many tracks we can’t easily cover up. And here — there’s old leaves all over the place.” He thought for a moment. “I think we should brush them aside before we move the crates. Then, we move them back. Nobody will be any the wiser.” He stood and turned to Sophia. “And you are certain nobody knows of this door?”

She nodded firmly. “I talked to my father before you came. I said I was worried about the art thief, and asked straight away if there was any way he could enter our house other than the front or back doors, which are guarded. He laughed and reassured me and even showed me the plans. The door is not marked on those. I am confident nobody but me is aware it is there.”

 Jonathan nodded, satisfied. “Thank you, Miss Lewis. This has been an invaluable revelation.” He turned towards the door, taking David’s arm again. He half turned and said to Sophia, “I’ll be in touch over the course of tomorrow.”

She nodded gravely. “I’ll be ready.”

*

They reached the Spokehamshire vault and Jonathan produced his skeleton keys. He’d only brought those he’d theorised would fit the lock, and even then, the ring was heavy with keys. He went through three, inserting them and taking them out again within moments, perceiving somehow that they wouldn’t fit even with one motion. Finally, Jonathan found one key that fit. The lock turned for a fraction, then it stopped. Giving a frustrated mutter, Jonathan jiggled the key this way and that, to no avail. He withdrew the key. “Lady Featherstonhaugh?” he said, and she immediately took his place. 

She studied the lock, probed inside with a lockpick, then held out her hand. “The key, Mr Benson.” He handed it to her, and she went to work with the key and the lockpick. David craned his neck to see what she was doing, but could not make heads nor tail of it. He wondered if he should join the thieving party more often. Within minutes, the lock clicked and she opened the door. She stepped to the side to let Jonathan through, David right behind him. 

Jonathan took up position in the middle of the vault. “These, these, and that one,” he said, his voice pitched low but still carrying well, and pointed at a number of crates. “Those we have no reason to believe contain any stolen goods. Leave them. The same goes for” —he paused and turned, his lantern held high— “yes, the ones in the corner there. And this big one right here.” He turned back to the group. With the precise gestures of a master conductor, he directed his followers. “Mr Ó Súilleabháin, if you’d take the ones by the door. Lady Featherstonehaugh, Miss Lewis, please take these ones over here. Lord David, I’d like you to start with those in the row back there.”

David almost saluted.

They made quick work clearing out the vault. David, Eóin, Lady Featherstonehaugh, and Sophia carried the crates to the secret door and up the stairs, carefully pushing them through the gaps in the rhododendron until another pair of hands took hold of them. Jonathan took the role of overseer; though not as bad as the other night, his leg was bothering him, David could tell. David wondered if he could try once again to suggest he use a cane, if only during times they were by themselves or working with the organisation. As it was, Jonathan leaned on the walls or crates, easing his leg. 

Finally, Eóin hoisted the last crate onto his shoulder and marched towards the door. Jonathan pushed himself off the wall and limped over to the safe. “And now for you, you ugly bugger,” he muttered, clearly just to himself. He reached inside his waistcoat and produced a device which David, in the dim light and so far removed from its expected context, at first didn’t recognise. Only when Jonathan slipped its two prongs into his ears did David recognise it as a doctor’s stethoscope. Jonathan knelt down, his face twisting in pain. He glanced up, caught David’s eye, and gave the smallest smile. Then, Jonathan placed the end of the stethoscope on the safe. “Quiet, please,” he murmured, and closed his eyes. He gave the dial an experimental spin. Moved the stethoscope. Tried the dial again. Having apparently found what he was looking for, he kept the stethoscope where it was and, slowly, in miniscule fractions, he began to move the dial. 

Time ticked by. David watched him in rapt fascination. Jonathan approached cracking a safe with the same cool and calculating demeanour he approached David’s wardrobe. He was a wonder to behold.

Suddenly, Jonathan gave a faint twitch. He opened his eyes and noted the position of the dial. Then he took hold of it again and turned it once more, this time in the other direction. David glanced around. Lady Featherstonehaugh was clutching her lockpicks; Sophia was wringing her hands. Eóin, standing guard, briefly turned to see what was taking so long.

“Shit,” Jonathan murmured. He opened his eyes again, quickly turned the dial one way, then the other. He slowed down and closed his eyes; David held his breath; and Jonathan opened his eyes again, noted the number on the dial, and turned it the first way again. David breathed out.

Jonathan turned the dial nearly all the way before there came a click that everyone heard. Jonathan winced; the sound must have been amplified painfully through the stethoscope. He swung the safe door open. “Et voilà.

Everyone crowded closer. Jonathan held out one hand and David helped him to his feet.

“How are you?” David asked, close to Jonathan’s ear.

“I’m confident I can see this through to the end,” he replied, which wasn’t much of an answer, which David knew meant he should best let it go. For now. He resolved to find some reason to grant Jonathan some time off, and if he had to send the stubborn git away on a fool’s errand. For now, he let Jonathan lean on him and rest, if only for a few minutes.

Sophia and Lady Featherstonehaugh needed no less than three crates for all the objects in the safe. They took great care to pack the crates, even taking wood shavings from some of the crates they were leaving behind to make sure the items were secure. “Mr Benson, there’s a problem,” said Lady Featherstonehaugh suddenly.

Jonathan’s eyes grew wide in shock. “What is it?”

“There’s only nine pieces of the Dashavatara group. The lion-headed man is missing.”

“Oh.” Jonathan gave a laugh, shrill with relief. “Fear not. Narasimha is here.” And he reached inside his jacket and produced the statuette. With great care, he placed it among its fellows.

She stared at him as if his own head had turned into that of a lion. Then, when Jonathan did not even begin to offer an explanation, she just shook herself and turned back to the safe. 

Within moments, the safe was empty, and Jonathan closed the last crate. Eóin picked it up, David hefted another, while Lady Featherstonehaugh and Sophia took the third. Jonathan closed the safe door, even spinning the combination lock, which David found quite unnecessary. One glance into the vault would reveal it had been emptied of most of its contents.

In single file, they marched towards the secret door, Jonathan in the lead and David right behind him. They handed the remaining crates up, then made for the cellar door again. They huddled behind it. Jonathan had one ear pressed to it, but it turned out that what was going on at the other side was plainly audible.

At exactly ten minutes to four, they heard the footman standing guard shift and ask, “Who goes there?”

“Oh,” came the startled, thin voice of Lady Tannenbay. “My goodness! I beg you, put that pistol away!”

“My… lady?” The poor guard was confused. “What are you doing here at this hour, my lady?”

“I woke in a strange bed. Goodness, I don’t know where I am! Oh, oh, my poor head! Oh, I fear I am going mad!”

David had to press his palm over his mouth to keep from laughing.

“Um,” said the guard elaborately. “Uh. Why don’t you come with me for a moment, my lady?”

“Are you going to help me find my way home?” asked Lady Tannebay, her voice growing softer. 

The guard’s reply, they could no longer make out.

Sophia’s assessment that this guard had a soft heart and would rather risk a reprimand than leave an old lady in apparent distress had been more than accurate. Now, Jonathan pushed open the cellar door, and they nipped out one by one. Sophia locked the door behind them, turning the key slowly so it made as little noise as possible. Then, they hurried back to their rooms.

And then, Eóin tripped and, throwing his arm out to keep his balance, knocked a painting off the wall. It fell to the ground with a crash that rang all through the house. They froze. Sure enough, there came the dreaded call: “Who goes there?”

Sophia was the first to react. She ran past Jonathan, uncaring of the noise she was making. She yanked open a jib door and waved everyone in. 

Lady Featherstonehaugh went first. David grabbed Eóin by the arm. “You help Jonathan. I can handle myself.”

Eóin didn’t argue. Jonathan looked like he wanted to, but he let Eóin take him by the arm and he half stumbled, was half-dragged through the jib door.

David hurried to Sophia’s side. She watched him come, but did not move. Her gaze was fixed to where the footsteps were rapidly approaching. When David drew near, she reached out and pulled him closer to her. “Kiss me,” she whispered.

David didn’t waste a moment. He took Sophia’s face in both his hands and pressed his lips to hers almost forcefully. She clutched at his sleeve.

The lantern light fell on them and the guard gasped. David recognised in him a Lewis footman that was often by Mr Lewis’ side. Clearly a loyal and trusted fellow; coin would most likely not sway him. “I — my apologies, I — what are you doing?”

David let go of Sophia and pushed her behind himself. Were they standing close enough to the fallen painting that they could claim it had been them who knocked it down? “Quiet, quiet, my good man,” he said, in much the same tone he used to soothe a nervous horse. “Miss Sophia and I merely — well, you wouldn’t begrudge a pair of young lovers a moment alone, would you?”

The guard was beet-red and stammered a bunch of gobbledigook.  “This is — I’m not — impropriety — my lord, how dare you!?”

David smiled a rueful smile. Out of the corner of his eye, behind the footman’s back, he saw Eóin nip through the hidden door. That must have been all of them, then. “No impropriety was intended,” he said. “It was but a kiss, I assure you. Nothing else was taken.”

Sophia popped her head up from behind David’s shoulder. “It’s all right, George,” she said in her girlish voice. “It was as much my own fault as Lord David’s.” She weaselled past him and skipped up the stairs. Halfway, she turned around, blushed — could she do that on command? — and amongst a flutter of giggles and skirts, hurried away. David was quietly in awe.

He turned to the footman. “George, was it?” David put a hand of camaraderie on his shoulder.

“It’s Phillip, actually,” the footman muttered.

“Oh dear,” said David, and laughed. “Forgive her! She’s got little but fluff between her ears.” He smiled broadly, and Phillip the footman relaxed a fraction. “And forgive me,” he added. “You’re right, I should have known to restrain myself better. But, well, for her empty head, she is a very pretty thing indeed.” He was disgusted at the words he was saying, he almost gagged. “Surely, you’ve got close with a girl once or twice even though you oughtn’t?”

Phillip the footman, whose face had slowly returned to a normal colour, blushed once more. “I, I, I… Well, I…”

David gave a laugh and smacked him on the back. “Exactly! You understand. We are both just men, after all. We’ve our urges.” And just like Sophia had done, he strolled up the stairs as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world, to be caught snogging an unmarried girl in her father’s house, in the middle of the night. Inside his chest, though, his heart was beating faster than it had ever done. That had been far too close.

When he slipped back into his room, there was Jonathan, perched on the bed. His face was pale, and his bad leg was outstretched in front of him. He stood with a grunt. “Lady Featherstonehaugh and Eóin are in their quarters,” he said. “I’m sure Lady Tannenbay is in hers.”

“That’s a relief.”

“How did you get away?”

“Sophia and I provided a plausible explanation.” He felt himself flush. “We shared a kiss.” Why did it feel like he was confessing to a crime?

But Jonathan’s lips quirked and he shook his head in amusement. “You dog.”

They fell silent and looked at one another. It all felt quite unreal. Finally, David asked, “Is it done?” The words came out of him all in a rush.

“It is,” Jonathan replied. His eyes were glassy, slightly unfocused. “Sir Worsely and Messrs Howard and Thomas are transporting the artefacts to Southampton as we speak.” He looked up, and his fuzzy gaze sharpened. His voice was soft and awed. “We did it. Darling, we did it.”

Words left David completely. He took Jonathan’s face in both his hands and kissed him with all he had. Jonathan’s lips tasted of triumph and thrill and, above all, love. Jonathan kissed him back fervently; his arms came up around David’s neck, and David pulled him even closer.

*

The theft was discovered while they were at breakfast on Monday morning. A footman, a boy with a face still plagued by pimples, came practically running into the breakfast room, announcing the crime in breathless gasps. 

The next few hours were a whirlwind.

The police were immediately called. Jonathan reported, in the one brief moment they could speak freely, that every single servant was being interviewed. He himself had just given his statement, and it seemed to have shaken him a little. He’d never got so close to the police before.

David was interviewed after lunch, and said he’d been in bed all night. The policeman awkwardly played with his notebook, stammered around a little, but soon let David go. The Earl, who was being interviewed by the captain or detective or whatever he was called, was not keen on it. His outraged cries of ‘What business is it to you what I did last night!’ and ‘You cannot seriously expect that I stole my own property!’ rang all through the house.

The real trial by fire, though, came just after tea. David and Sophia were summoned into Mr Lewis’ study.

Phillip the footman had reluctantly come forward and alerted the Earl and Mr Lewis that David and Sophia had not been in their rooms as they’d each claimed, but had in fact been up and about, and ‘improperly engaged.’ The Earl was furious, stalking up and down with his face like a thundercloud. Mr Lewis was devastated. He kept wiping his forehead with his red handkerchief, but it didn’t appear to do much good. David steeled himself for getting shouted at. To his surprise, the Earl was clearly doing his best to hold his rage at bay.

“So,” he said, his fists on his hips. “David, do you care to explain what in God’s name you were doing out in the hallways last night?”

“We merely wanted some privacy,” David replied, making his tone as meek as he could.

“Privacy?” Mr Lewis spluttered. Up went the handkerchief again; it was sopping wet by now. “What on earth could you want privacy for?!”

“Nothing,” Sophia exclaimed. It almost came out as a wail. Tears shimmered in her eyes. David was impressed. “Father, please don’t be so cross!” 

“We kissed, Father, Mr Lewis,” David said, giving his voice just enough of a tremor that it would seem he was fighting to keep calm. “It was nothing but a kiss. Rash and foolish, I can see now, but I swear we were engaged in nothing more than that.”

The Earl heaved a sigh and stared out the window. He stared for quite a long time before he asked, “While the two of you were ‘engaged’ in that manner, did you at least notice anything odd going on in the house?”

It took David a moment to fully comprehend the question and its implications. He glanced at Sophia to see his astonishment mirrored in her own face. It had not even crossed the Earl’s mind that David and Sophia could have anything to do with the other scandal that had transpired at the estate that night.

“No, father,” he said at last. He cleared his throat as if embarrassed. “We were… quite occupied with one another.”

Sophia gave a sound between a hiccough and a sob.

“Oh, my darling little girl!” Mr Lewis exclaimed. He went to her and put his hand on her head. “Did he throw himself on you?”

“Now look here, Mr Lewis —” David began, his outrage quite genuine. He would never —!

“No, Father, not he!” cried Sophia. “Not dear David! I’m afraid it was I who could not help herself!”

Mr Lewis heaved a heavy sigh, wiping his sodden handkerchief once more over his bald pate. “My darling daughter,” he said. “Oh, but you are no longer a little girl.” Oh God, was he about to start crying? David ardently wished himself anywhere but here.

“Armand,” said the Earl, squirming in discomfort. “Are we in agreement that our wayward offspring has committed no crime graver than youthful impatience?”

Behind their fathers’ backs, David rolled his eyes at Sophia. She stifled a laugh behind her gloved hand.

“Yes, yes, we are,” Mr Lewis sighed. He sat down at his desk. “I will have to contact my solicitors,” he said, shuffling papers around. “Were your goods insured?”

David and Sophia took this as an opportunity to slip away. Out in the hallway, they caught each other’s eye, and burst into giggles.

Sophia finally got out, “What a thrill!” She was flushed as if from a day of vigorous exercise, and seemed as buzzing. Her eyes were shining like twin stars. Really, she was quite fetching, and David was not blind.

He grinned at her. “Isn’t it? I was saying to Mr Benson —” But before he could finish the sentence, which was going to end somewhere incriminating, Joan the maid walked by. She gave the two only a cursory glance, but David was quite sure that their flushed faces and proximity was going to be everyone’s favourite topic to gossip about within the hour.

He leaned down to Sophia to murmur in her ear, “Please come to my rooms tonight. You, Mr Benson, and I can speak freely there.” He took a bow, sweeping her hand into a kiss. Her hand twitched in his.

*

As expected, Sophia knocked on David’s door an hour or so before midnight. Jonathan bowed deeply and thanked her, very formally and properly, for helping him and his conspirators. “I especially thank you for your swift thinking and personal sacrifice in preventing our discovery,” he said.

“Please, it was no sacrifice at all,” she replied. She laughed. “Only now our fathers plain expect that Lord David asks for my hand in marriage before the year is out.”

Jonathan’s smile became tight. “That matter, I shall leave between the two of you.”

David said, “For my part, I would not mind,” and immediately regretted it. Good grief, could he be any less convincing? What young woman did not dream of being proposed to with an ‘I wouldn’t mind’? Jonathan was right. David was making a total hash of this, and Sophia deserved marrying someone who loved her totally. “That is, I mean — well — you understand, Miss Lewis, that we’ve only known each other a few days.”

“Of course, Lord David,” she replied. 

“And the kiss truly meant nothing.”

“No, it did not.”

David hesitated. “I would not marry you for love,” he said bluntly. “For I do not love you.”

“No, I did not think you did. But, Lord David, if I may — I do not love you either. However, I would not object to be married to a decent man who is honest he does not love me rather than a brute who claims I hung the moon.” The bitterness dripping from her lips like venom hinted at an event in the past that David was curious to know more of, but that he wisely refrained from asking about. But her expression soon turned uncertain. “Perhaps you should reconsider for your own sake. I’m afraid I might not be quite suited to the companionship a wife should pay her husband.”

“I think one thing we can agree on is that this marriage, should it occur, would not be very conventional,” David said with a smile.

She grinned back. “What a relief. I find convention quite tedious. Don’t you?”

“I do,” said David. Nervously, he flexed his hand by his side. “Miss Lewis,” David said. “Before I publicly ask for your hand in marriage, I must confess one more thing.”

“David,” said Jonathan warningly. He immediately knew what David was going to say, and had gone white as a sheet.

David glanced at him. Trust me. It will be all right. He wished he could believe it himself.

Jonathan relaxed a fraction. He wasn’t happy about David bull-headedly barging ahead like this, but he was willing to go along.

“Miss Lewis, I… I’m afraid I…” Oh, dash it all. Why did his courage desert him now, and so abruptly? He cleared his throat. Pretended it was a line he had rehearsed for countless hours. He fixed his gaze on the spot between her eyebrows. “Sophia, I have never loved a woman as a man should. I am confident I never will. Rather, my heart has always been drawn towards… other men.” He very deliberately did not look towards Jonathan, even though he desperately wanted to. “This would not only be an unconventional marriage. It would be, truly, a marriage of convenience with not even the possibility of the kind of affection a woman deserves from her husband.”

“Oh.” She had seized her necklace and looked vaguely dazed. “I see. Well.” She, too, cleared her throat, delicately covering her mouth with a slender hand. “We appear to have something else in common, then.” She flushed. “Only, of course, that, well, er, in opposite directions. So to speak. I suppose.” She caught herself. “I love my own sex, too,” she said simply. She drew in a shaky breath. “And I just realised that I have never before said this out loud.”

“Oh. Well.”

“Yes.” She smiled, though there was fear and uncertainty in it. “So I think you understand how I can prefer a husband who won’t truly love me.”

“Quite. And I a wife who does the same.” This was surreal. He looked over at Jonathan — and damn the man, there was not even the hint of an expression in his face! He looked back at Sophia. “Shall we get married, then?” he asked.

She laughed. “I’d be glad to call you my husband, David.”

*

March 1886.

Jonathan leaned over the breakfast table to give David a brief kiss. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, dear.” David pulled him closer by the lapel to give him another kiss, then let him go and poured him coffee.

Jonathan buttered a slice of toast. “Anything interesting in the papers?”

“Only that you are still the most wanted criminal this side of the Atlantic,” David replied, showing him the headline of Art Thief Running Rings Around Police! 

Jonathan shook his head in amusement. “I’m only sorry that poor Sophia was caught up in the furore.” The scandal had put a sizable dent into the Lewis Auction House and Trading Co.’s reputation, and Sophia had had to endure a number of intrusive reporters and people snubbing her at dances.

But David merely smiled. “You needn’t worry. She’s hardy, that one.”

Jonathan gave a thoughtful nod, reaching for the strawberry jam. “That she is.” He bit into his toast, chewed, swallowed, and said, “The tailor is coming today at one o’clock.” David was in the middle of getting his wedding suit made. He himself had thought that one of his usual suits would do — perhaps cleaned properly and refitted. But Jonathan was adamant David needed an entirely new one made.

Now, Jonathan was narrowing his eyes at David’s hair. And David, finally having given up protesting, just said, “Yes, fine, give me a haircut, then.”

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5 thoughts on “An Unexpected Mole

  1. The power of underestimation in both the big and small plot points. I really enjoyed it. Nothing like actually speaking to someone to endear you to them, thinking of Hugo.

  2. I knew Sophia was going to be the lynchpin of this story but it still delighted me when it happened. really excellent. I’m glad they got their happy ending

  3. I’ve just caught up on this story and the previous and they are both so good! I enjoy the caper and how much we were fed as readers with all the good bits. Great stuff!

  4. So happy to see more of this group, and I love the new addition. From the moment Sophia was enthusing about the actress, I guessed that she might be lavender marriage material but I didn’t suspect the other depths she was hiding! Wow, her father is a jerk. I hope she’ll be much happier away from him, being gay and doing crimes. XD

  5. Put me down as someone who also suspected a lavender marriage but was delightfully surprised by the depths of Sophia’s character. Seeing more of the outward friction between Jonathan’s role in David’s life and Jonathan’s class was, of course, worth the price of admission for me all on its own, and I liked seeing how they adjusted to a plan they *couldn’t* have everything drawn up for weeks ahead of time. An excellent sequel that does everything the best sequels do: expand on established characters, raise the stakes, show character actions we haven’t seen before, and all around elevated the original work in hindsight. Fantastic!

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