Jake Valentine had been born a filius nullius, the Latin term for “son of nobody.” His mother Edith had been a maidservant for a well-to-do barrister in Oxford, and his father the selfsame barrister. Contriving to rid himself of mother and son in one fell swoop, the barrister had bribed a loutish farmer to marry Edith. At the age of ten, having had enough of the farmer’s bullying and beatings, Jake had left home for good and struck out for London.
He had labored in a blacksmith’s forge for ten years, gaining significant size and strength, as well as a reputation for hard work and trustworthiness. It had never occurred to Jake to want more for himself. He had been employed, and his belly had been full, and the world outside London held no interest for him.
One day, however, a dark-haired man came to the blacksmith’s shop and asked to speak to Jake. Intimidated by the gentleman’s fine clothes and sophisticated bearing, Jake mumbled answers to a multitude of questions about his personal history and his work experience. And then the man astonished Jake by offering employment as his own valet, with many times the wages he was now getting.
Suspiciously, Jake had asked why the man would hire a novice, largely uneducated and roughcast in nature and appearance. “You could have your pick of the finest valets in London,” Jake had pointed out. “Why someone like me?”
“Because those valets are notorious gossips, and they’re acquainted with the servants of leading families across England and the continent. You have a reputation for keeping your mouth shut, which I value far more than experience. Also, you look as though you could give a good account of yourself in a dustup.”
Jake’s eyes had narrowed. “Why would a valet need to fight?”
The man had smiled. “You’ll be doing errands for me. Some of them will be easy, some of them less so. Come, are you in or not?”
And that was how Jake had come to work for Jay Harry Rutledge, first as a valet, and then as an assistant.
Jake had never known anyone like Rutledge—eccentric, driven, manipulative, demanding. Rutledge had a shrewder understanding of human nature than anyone Jake had ever met. Within a few minutes of meeting someone, he sized them up with complete accuracy. He knew how to make people do what he wanted, and he nearly always got his way.
It seemed to Jake that Rutledge’s brain never shut off, not even for the necessary act of sleeping. He was constantly active. Jake had seen him work out some problem in his head while simultaneously writing a letter and carrying on a fully coherent conversation. His appetite for information was voracious, and he possessed a singular gift for recall. Once Rutledge saw or read or heard something, it was in his brain forever. People could never lie to him, and if they were foolish enough to try, he decimated them.
Rutledge was not above gestures of kindness or consideration, and he rarely lost his temper. But Jake had never been certain how much, if at all, Rutledge cared for his fellow men. At his core, he was cold as a glacier. And as many things as Jake knew about Harry Rutledge, they were still essentially strangers.
No matter. Jake would have died for the man. The hotelier had secured the loyalty of all his servants, who were made to work hard but were given fair treatment and generous salaries. In return, they safeguarded his privacy zealously. Rutledge was acquainted with a great many people, but these friendships were rarely discussed. And he was highly selective about whom he admitted into his inner circle.
Rutledge was besieged by women, of course—his rampaging energy often found outlet in the arms of some beauty or another. But at the first indication that a woman felt the merest flicker of affection, Jake was dispatched to her residence to deliver a letter that broke off all future communications. In other words, Jake was required to endure the tears, anger, or other messy emotions that Rutledge could not tolerate. And Jake would have felt sorry for the women, except that along with each letter, Rutledge usually included some monstrously expensive piece of jewelry that served to mollify any hurt feelings.
There were certain areas of Rutledge’s life where women were never allowed. He did not allow them to stay in his private apartments, nor did he let any of them into his curiosities room. It was there that Rutledge went to dwell on his most difficult problems. And on the many nights when Rutledge was unable to sleep, he would go to the drafting table to occupy himself with automata, working with watch parts and bits of paper and wire until he had settled his overactive brain.
So when Jake was discreetly told by a housemaid that a young woman had been with Rutledge in the curiosities room, he knew something significant had occurred.
Jake finished his breakfast in the hotel kitchens with dispatch, hurrying over a plate of creamed eggs scattered with crisp curls of fried bacon. Ordinarily, he would have taken the time to savor the fare. However, he couldn’t be late for his morning meeting with Rutledge.
“Not so fast,” said Andre Broussard, a chef whom Rutledge had lured away from the French ambassador two years earlier. Broussard was the only employee in the hotel who possibly slept less than Rutledge. The young chef had been known to rise at three in the morning to begin preparing for a day’s work, going to the morning markets to personally select the best produce. He was fair-haired and slight of build, but he possessed the discipline and will of an army commander.
Pausing in the act of whisking a sauce, Broussard regarded Jake with amusement. “You might try chewing, Valentine.”
“I don’t have time to chew,” Jake replied, setting aside his napkin. “I’m due to get the morning list from Mr. Rutledge in—” he paused to consult his pocket watch, “—two and a half minutes.”