On night watch, this was the hour when anything seemed possible but nothing seemed likely to happen.
The longcase clock in the study had just struck one in the morning. Cassandra Benton heard it through the closed door, mere feet away from where she hid in the shadows beside the main staircase of Deverell Place.
This watch was a nightly ritual, one she'd adopted along with the guise of housemaid when she'd been hired a week ago under false pretenses. What with keeping up the daily duties of a maid and shadowing Lord Deverell each night until he went up to bed, she'd hardly slept since then.
Ah, well. One couldn't expect infiltrating a Mayfair household to be effortless.
One could, however, wish something would happen to break up three to four hours staring at a shut door. Her twin brother, Charles, always got the more interesting parts of a job. Placed as a footman due to his height, he could move around anywhere in the house. Their employer had asked Charles to keep an eye on the safety of the ladies of the family: his lordship's two half-grown daughters, plus her ladyship. In theory, this meant dignified vigilance.
In practice, Cass kept up the dignified vigilance in her maid's garb, and Charles disappeared for long afternoons alone with pretty Lady Deverell, the earl's much younger second wife.
She'd no idea where her fool of a brother was now, but finally, her own nighttime vigils had begun to yield results. The most interesting had been two nights before, when Lord Deverell, wearing worry like a mask on his dissipated features, had welcomed an associate to drink with him at midnight. Cass hadn't recognized the caller, but from her hiding spot, she'd memorized his features before the two men closed themselves into the study. She'd risked listening at the door after that, catching only one word out of every few. But she had caught the hush, the worry, the change in mood as they'd mentioned the special term: tontine.
That was why Cass was here, and Charles, too. George, Lord Northbrook—son and heir of the Duke of Ardmore—had hired the Bentons privately to learn more about this tontine, a wager placed decades before. And to make certain nobody died as a result of it.
Privately, Cass thought it was likely to be no more dangerous than any of the wagers noblemen were constantly placing. But for the exorbitant fee of five pounds a week, she'd hold her tongue and keep her eyes and ears open for Lord Northbrook.
So far tonight, the darkness pressed heavy, and the silence in the house was a weight. There was nothing to see but the faint outline of the study door, traced by the light of the candles within, and the great snaking spiral of the staircase stretching up overhead. Nothing much to hear, either, save for the crystalline clink she knew to be decanter against glass, decanter against glass. The earl liked his spirits strong and plentiful. Though for a while now, there had been no sound at all. Perhaps his lordship had gone to sleep, the lucky old dog.
She shifted against the wall, easing creaks and pops out of her spine. Being a housemaid wasn't a good cover identity. It was far more labor than investigating, and she didn't even perform the work all that well. If she did, her nose wouldn't be tickled with dust right now. But who had time to wipe down every baluster and newel post and bit of trim on the handrail—especially when there was an earl who needed to be observed?
She settled more deeply into the shadows, pinching at her nose to hold back a sneeze.
Then the screaming began.
Cass tipped her head. "That's odd," she murmured.
Screaming at one o'clock in the morning was always odd, but in this case, it was particularly so. The screaming was not coming from the study in which his lordship had sequestered himself, unaware of possible threats to his life. It was coming from upstairs.
And it was hardly the slurred baritone of a drunken lord faced with a pistol or stiletto. This scream was that of a woman, probably Lady Deverell from the timbre of it.
As Cass strained to hear, the scream changed from wordless panic into a call for help. He's fallen, it sounded like the voice was shrieking. He's fallen! Oh. That meant the scream wasn't odd at all. Cass blew out a breath, relaxing back against the wall.
All that had happened was that Charles had fallen out the window. Again.