UNMASKED TO A DEVIL
TEN YEARS LATER
Mary heard the bird call from her position, crouched beside Zach.
“Nothing foolish, my love.”
“It is not I who constantly does foolish things,” she said softly.
Her husband snorted. “So you diving into that carriage last month was you not doing a foolish thing?”
“They were getting away.”
“And both men were armed.”
“Be quiet, Zach.”
“I nearly lost ten years off my life,” he said.
“Well, you’re not that old, so you can afford to lose a few,” she said, throwing him a cheeky grin.
It was dark and cold. They’d been here for long enough now that their eyes had adjusted and her knees creaked from crouching beside Zach as she straightened. He wrapped a hand around the back of her neck and pulled her in for a kiss. Hard, brief, and over too quickly.
“It’s important to me and our children that you stay alive, my sweet. Please remember that.”
“You heed that advice also, if you please. You are entirely too reckless for my liking,” Mary said, looking at the man she loved.
“I am not reckless. Every move I make is calculated,” Zach smirked. “Unlike you, who doesn’t think before you leap.”
He had a point. Mary got caught up in things easily these days and could be rash upon occasion.
“I will be fine,” she patted his chest. “I have you and the others watching over me, as I watch over you and them.”
Mary studied the face that she saw each morning when she opened her eyes, and last thing before closing them. She often thought she’d just gone through the motions of existing before she realized Zach was the man she loved.
He was now as important to her as breathing. Her partner, her love, and the man who understood her.
“I love you, Zach,” she added.
“You always say that before you walk into danger and it’s terrifying,” he said, kissing her again.
Her answer was to pat his cheek this time. He worried, as she did about him. But they had each other’s backs, and always would.
They then walked out of the opening they’d been hiding in. Arm in arm to wander down the street as if nothing greater than a stroll in the frigid night air was on their mind.
“Up ahead, there is a group of four men. The tallest is Lindle,” Mary said. “He’s the one we want.”
“I see Monty. He’s coming toward us with Forrest,” Zach whispered.
The tall figures of Zach’s cousin and Viscount Montgomery appeared in no hurry either, and out for a stroll.
When they drew level with the four men who they were after, Mary located Lindle.
The man had once worked in the royal household, and when he left, he’d taken more than he should have, including a ring that had been worn by a British monarch for centuries. Alexius had been hunting Lindle for months. As it turned out, he’d been living right under their noses.
Michael appeared on the other side of the small group with Nathan.
“Mr. Lindle, I believe? Zach said.
Mary knew it still cost her husband a lot not to grab her and push her behind him. It had taken her a while to train him, but to his credit, Zach had stopped doing that about five years ago.
“There is no one here by that name?” The man said, turning to look at them.
“Now we both know that is untrue. Our King was incredibly insistent about what the man who stole from him looks like,” Zach said.
Lindle’s eyes widened. He then saw the other members of Alexius had circled him. Deciding that Mary was his best escape route, he ran at her. She swung her fist at him and landed a good jab in his belly. The air wheezed from his lungs, and he doubled over.
“Nice work, my sweet,” Zach said before he started trading blows with one of the other men.
Mary grabbed Mr. Lindle and forced him to his knees by pinching the nerve in his shoulder.
“Where is the ring?”
“What ring?” He rasped, clearly in pain.
“Allow me,” the voice of her friend said. Monty then grabbed a handful of Lindle’s hair and tugged his face up. “I believe the lady asked you a question. I suggest you answer it.”
Dressed in black as they all were, Monty looked his usual dark, menacing self. But it was his face that Mary liked to look at now. His eyes were no longer dark and haunted. Now he was happy.
“Where is the ring?” Mary asked as Monty pointed the tip of his blade into Lindle’s neck.
“Yes, where is it, Lindle? When you left the service of our monarch, you took something with you. He wants it back,” Monty said.
“I think that was your husband’s nose, Mary.”
“It better bloody not be. I told him not to put his face where it was not needed anymore, but does that man listen?”
Monty snorted. “My mistake. I think it was someone else.”
“No, you are right. It’s bleeding,” Mary sighed.
“Now, Lindle. We do not have all day. Tell us where the ring is and you may not be hung. However, I am not making you any promises about that. Your fate will be in the King’s hands.”
“He cares nothing for anyone but himself,” Lindle snarled.
“That may be, but he is still our monarch and as such protected. Now, where is the ring?” Monty dug the knife in deeper, and Lindle yelped.
“I’ll take you now!”
After that, it was all fairly simple. The men were locked up, and Lindle took them to a small room in a boarding house where he had stowed one of the King’s most treasured and valuable items into his mattress.
Zach looked out the carriage window while beside him his daughter jumped on the carriage seat. London had put on a nice, if somewhat chilly, day for Mary’s birthday. The sky was bright and clear, yet your ears were likely too turn pink should you stride about in it without your hat for to long.
“Get your elbow out of my ear, daughter.”
Zach looked at the little girl beside him.
“Your mother hates it when you stand on the seats, Verity, so perhaps you should get down before we collect her.”
Zach had been married to Mary for ten years now. Ten years of arguments, love, and laughter. Zach often wondered if he’d been living a half life before he’d married his love. She’d changed everything for the better.
Before their children had started arriving, there had not been many dull days in their household. They had set up a room in their house to train, and he’d honed her fighting skills even more because Mary had made it quite clear she would not be leaving Alexius. Therefore, Zach had decided she needed to be able to defend herself better than he could.
Much as he’d wanted her to leave Alexius, it was not his decision to make. But he had stipulated that she did nothing without a Deville or Monty with her. She’d acquiesced, begrudgingly.
“I want to stand, Papa.”
Verity was seven and as strong willed as her mother. In fact, she was Mary’s replica in every way, right down to her blonde curls. She and her mother battled wills constantly, and Zach was usually called in to mediate, which was funny really as he’d been the trouble maker when living with his brothers.
“Daughter, you do know what day it is, don’t you?”
She looked down at him and nodded.
“And what do we do when it is your mother’s birthday?”
“Make her happy,” Verity said solemnly.
“The very thing, so perhaps you could sit beside me so she doesn’t see you standing on the seats of the new carriage, which we have only owned for a handful of days.”
She sat, dropping on her bottom like a stone, beside him. She then proceeded to swing her feet, kicking the back of the seat with her heel.
“Do you have your biggest hug and sloppiest kiss ready for your mother, Verity?”
“I do. Does your nose hurt, Papa? It looks very sore.”
“Like the devil, but I shall survive, and will have to keep my eyes open from now on so I don’t walk into anymore doors.”
Lindle was locked away, and the ring returned to the King. The monarch had thanked the Deville Brothers, and his gratitude was such that he’d commissioned brooches to be made for them, or so Geraint had told them. Mary, of course, was exempt from that, as no one was still comfortable with her being in their ranks, which vexed her excessively. It vexed Zach too, so he was doing something about it today.
She nodded. Seconds later, the carriage rolled to a stop outside their townhouse. Mary was sitting on the front step as if it was an everyday occurrence for her to do so, right where everyone driving by in carriages or walking on foot could see her. Before her, their five-year-old twin sons were hopping about the place like birds.
“What are they doing, Papa?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, my sweet. Shall we find out?”
“Hello!” Verity called as she jumped from the carriage before he could help her down. She then sprinted to join her younger brothers. “What are you doing?”
“Mother said we couldn’t hop and count out loud to twenty-five at the same time,” Anthony said.
“Of course we can and you need to be quiet, Verity, so we may continue,” Jonathan said.
They were not identical, and in fact had very different personalities. Jonathan was more like Verity and tended to charge into situations like their parents. Anthony was more like his Uncle Gabriel and would ensure he, and everyone close to him, was safe before doing so.
“They were bored, so I have been entertaining them,” Mary said as Zach reached her.
She wore a long, deep blue jacket and bonnet. The skirts of her dress beneath were peach. She looked as she had since the day he’d first fallen hard for her. Spirited, beautiful, and the woman who made his heart thud just a little harder when she was near.
“It looks like they’re entertaining you.” He held out his hand, and she instantly took it.
He tugged her upright and into his arms. Zach then kissed her soft lips.
“Ew,” Verity shrieked.
“Be quiet, you little wretch. I am wishing your mother a happy birthday.” He looked down at his wife. “Happy birthday, my love.”
Her smile was just for him. “Thank you.”
“Would you like your present?”
A frown wrinkled her brow. “I thought I told you no presents, as I have everything I want.”
“So you did, but as I’m terrible at following orders, I disobeyed your wishes.”
“Zach,” she muttered.
“Come along, my sweet.” He took her hand in his and started back toward the carriage. “In you get heathens.”
The children then hopped in single file toward it.
“We were never going to have well-behaved children, were we?” Mary sighed as they then attempted to get into the carriage on one leg.
“And I would have them no other way, Mary.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder. “Neither would I.”
“Why did we drop the children to Dimity? Where is Gabe? Have we Alexius work to do?”
“Which question do you want me to answer first?” Zach asked Mary, who sat across from him in their carriage.
“In order will do,” she said in that prim little tone that drove him crazy.
“Dimity is looking after our heathens while I give you my birthday present. Gabe is with his man of affairs, and yes, we do have to go to the church.”
“You didn’t tell me that?” She glared at him accusingly.
“Because it’s your birthday, and I had no wish for you to work, but it seems that the matter is urgent.”
“But why did we not leave the children at home with Peter and Miss Marble?”
“Because Dimity wishes for us to return there after and have a birthday tea for you. Plus, I believe the children are planning a concert.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Are you being truthful, Zach?”
Holding his hands wide, he gave her a steady look. Zach could lie with a straight face with ease, but Mary knew him better than most, so he had to ensure she believed him today.
“When am I not truthful with you, my love? You know all that I am and all that I do.”
Her eyes remained narrowed. “Now that’s a whooping lie. You’re a smokey character Zach Deville.”
He laughed, because who could not when faced with Mary Deville. His wonderfully infuriating wife. The only way to shut her up was to grab her. He then pulled her onto his lap and kissed her.
“I can’t believe that still works,” he whispered against her lips.
“Kissing you still subdues you.”
“It does not!” She grabbed his hair and tugged until their lips met. He was still kissing her when the carriage rolled to a stop.
Zach lifted her off him and onto the opposite seat again. He then bent to retrieve something from beneath the seat. “Here is your cloak.”
She put her’s on, as he did the same with his.
“Come along, my troublesome wife. Let us see what Geraint has in store for us this time.”
They walked up the worn path to the ivy cloaked church hand in hand.
“You knock, my sweet. You know it annoys Geraint when you do.”
“Are the others inside already, do you think?” Mary asked.
He nodded. They always worked together now. Also with the other Devilles and Monty.
She knocked four times, having refused to add the further one after they were married. The door opened and Geraint stood there. His hair was shot through with silver now, and the lines around his eyes were deeper. His expression was, it always had been, somber.
“Happy birthday to you, Mary.” He bowed, and then moved to one side. “Please come inside.”
Mary stiffened at his side, then turned to meet his eyes.
“What’s going on? Geraint has never once wished me happy birthday before.”
Zach shrugged. He then nudged her before him and into the church. The first thing they noticed were the candles. The room was lit with them.
“I don’t understand,” Mary said, stopping when she saw the men lined on either side of the table. “Zach?” She walked backward into him.
“Everything is all right, Mary. I promise.”
“Mary, it’s true I had no wish for you to be part of Alexius,” Geriant said, taking his place at the table.
Zach looked around the room as Geraint spoke. His brothers, Forrest, and Monty, were here. All had the hoods of their cloaks raised. But there was one other present that would surprise Mary
“But you have served your King now for many years, and it has been brought to my attention that I have not acknowledged the service you have performed for your country.”
“Oh well… I—”
“Quiet now, love,” Zach whispered in her ear. One of her hands held his in a fierce grip.
“It is my wish now to change that.”
One by one, his family lowered their hoods, Monty and Lord Blake were last.
Zach’s chest swelled with pride. He’d set this in motion and then his family and Monty had stepped in to make sure it happened.
“Oh my,” Mary whispered. “Papa?”
Lord Blake smiled. “I am proud of you, daughter.” He then walked to where she stood. “It’s true I didn’t know until your husband enlightened me. Lord Plunge has also been something of a revelation, but his secret is safe with me.”
Mary shot him a wide-eyed look.
“My brave daughter. All these years and I did not know you were one of us.” Lord Blake hugged her briefly before returning to his place beside the other men.
Mary sniffed loudly. Zach dug around for a handkerchief and found a square of linen. He then slipped it into her hand.
“Mary,” Gabe stepped forward to take Lord Blake’s place.
“I don’t think I can take many more shocks Gabe” she whispered.
“Of course you can, and it is my pleasure to place this ring on your finger, and tell you we are all honored to have you among our ranks. I am sorry it has taken many years for this acknowledgment, but all I can say to that matter is men are fools.”
The others in the room laughed.
“It’s widely known that women are the more intelligent among us. But I digress.”
It was rare his wife was silent, but now was one of those times.
“Lift your hand, Mary.” Gabe directed.
She did, and Zach saw it was shaking.
“This ring was not forged from the goblets used by William the Conqueror in 1066, Mary, but the ruby in the centre belonged to Queen Elizabeth.” Gabe then took her hand and slid the gold band engraved with the pledge onto her finger. The blood red jewel in the middle caught the light and sparkled.
“I-I, don’t know what to say. Thank you,” she dropped into curtsey. “Thank you,” she looked at every man in the room then.
“Veritas scutum tibi erit.” Gabe bowed.
They all came to acknowledge her then. Each bowing before her and then leaving the church. Zach felt the emotion as he nodded to his family and friend who were accepting his wife and what she’d done.
“I-I don’t know what to say?” Mary said to him when they were back in the carriage once more. “You did this for me, didn’t you?”
He nodded. “I started it. My brothers and Monty helped it to happen.”
She hugged him and cried some more.
“Of course now you also have a ring, and while I’m pleased for you, Mary, it does chafe at me that still my finger is unadorned.”
Together, as they always would be, they laughed for the remainder of the journey to Gabe and Dimity’s house, where they would take tea and celebrate the birth of his Mary.
Life, Zach thought, was exactly where he wanted it to be.