Authors: Laurie Alice Eakes
“Almack’s?” Frobisher asked. “And White’s, of course.”
“And no doubt Carlton House too.” Lydia curled her upper lip.
“We’ll be happy with Watier’s.” Barnaby didn’t seem in the least put off by her sarcastic suggestion that she could get them into the residence of the prince regent. “Prinney plays there, does he not?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Lydia managed to sound bored. “You’ll have to find a man to recommend you for the clubs. I’ll see what I can do about Almack’s if you stay away from my little sister.”
“Oh, no, we’re riding in the park tomorrow morning.” With a brilliant grin and a bow, Frobisher swung away and headed for the front door.
“We’ll see about that,” Lydia hissed after him.
Frobisher laughed and lifted his hat onto his curls.
“Perhaps you will go riding with me in the morning, Lady Gale?” Barnaby asked. “I’m certain I can meet the right persons while in your company.”
“Right for what?” Lydia demanded. “What do you want?”
Barnaby bowed. “Right for entering London Society. Is tomorrow at eleven o’clock too early? You do ride, do you not?”
“I ride.” Lydia hadn’t been on a horse since visiting her family the previous summer, but she could manage a gentle mount through the park. “But I need to take my sisters shopping tomorrow.”
“No, I wouldn’t do that if I were you, my lady.” Barnaby bowed and followed Frobisher to the door.
Lydia sighed. “I’ll be ready at eleven o’clock.”
If she didn’t find another way to avoid the men entertaining her and Honore. And if she couldn’t, perhaps she should request a spirited mount like the one Cassandra preferred. A broken leg would keep her from receiving unwelcome visitors.
She smiled at her own morbid humor and returned to the drawing room. Most of the ladies and gentlemen were taking their leave. Mama glowed from her chair at one end, as some of the best ladies of the
complimented her on her daughters and lovely house and promised invitations to more events than all of them could attend separately, let alone together.
At the far end of the room, Cassandra peered up at Whittaker, a beatific smile on her soft mouth as he talked and gestured and made those around him laugh.
Once again Lydia experienced that twinge of regret, of emptiness. Or was it apprehension for her younger sister? Lydia had gazed at Charles Gale that way, though not with Cassandra’s nearsighted haze. Lydia had hung on his every word—words about military life, about the pleasure of travel because of his military life, about how he’d been promoted without having to buy a further commission. Not until later, not until he departed for his regiment, despite claiming he would sell out and make a home for them on his family estate, did she realize what warning signs she should have read into his speech.
He’d never talked of anyone but himself and the Army.
Don’t let her make the same mistake I did.
She prayed without much hope of anything changing for Cassandra. God hadn’t seen fit to free Lydia from her current predicament.
And perhaps she was too jaded to see that Whittaker and Cassandra truly loved one another. People did live in happy unions. Her parents’ marriage had been arranged, yet they held a great deal of respect and affection for one another.
When they saw one another.
Perhaps therein lay the secret to the Bainbridges’ successful union—distance. Mama hadn’t come to London for the Season for two years. With Papa in the House of Lords, that left them apart nearly half the year.
As long as Whittaker gave Cassandra a large book allowance, she would be happy. As long as he understood that his wife should have been allowed to attend a university, he would be happy too.
Lydia didn’t want her sister to suffer. Yet every time she looked at the couple, she ached inside. Was it fear or envy?
She stopped looking at them. She began to gather up teacups, glasses, and plates until a small hand closed over her arm.
“We’re not at home,” Barbara whispered. “We have servants here.”
Lydia started and glanced around. A handful of remaining guests stared at her with surprise or disapproval. She smiled at them. “Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: so shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.” She quoted from the sixth chapter of Proverbs. After all, who could argue with Scripture?
“You would know about poverty,” a plump matron with a plain daughter at her side murmured just loud enough for Lydia to hear.
Ah, the cat claws of the Upper Ten Thousand.
Lydia smiled. “My husband served his country. Perhaps his country should have served him better.”
Just as she realized how treasonous those words could be taken in the right—or wrong—circumstances, Lemster entered the parlor bearing a silver tray. A sheet of sealed vellum lay on that tray. Lydia stared at it. It was nothing—an invitation, a letter from Papa or one of Mama’s many friends. Just because it looked exactly like the letter of introduction from the mysterious Mr. Lang didn’t mean it was anything sinister. Perhaps Lemster would carry it directly to Mama.
He carried it directly to her. “The gentleman asked me to bring this to you before I present him to you.”
“Indeed.” The hairs on the back of Lydia’s neck rose with a shiver down her spine.
Not again. Not another gentleman with a letter of introduction. Not . . . not . . .
She picked up the letter with her thumb and forefinger. She’d already done Mr. Lang’s dirty work, or at the least she’d begun it for him. Perhaps this was the man himself, showing himself to her in daylight instead of sneaking about in the dark or just out of her sight. Perhaps it was merely an acquaintance of her husband’s.
She slit the seal with her thumbnail and unfolded the letter.
The honorable Elias Lang wishes for his dear friend Lady Gale . . .
She was going to cast up her accounts. Right there in the middle of the drawing room and half a dozen ladies and gentlemen of the ton, she was going to be sick.
She took a deep, steadying breath and finished reading the missive.
Please welcome my associate, Monsieur le comte Christien de Meuse.
—a French affix.
Christien de Meuse
—a French name.
Her lips formed the word without a sound.
But the answer was yes. Movement in the doorway caught her eye. She glanced up in time to see him saunter into the drawing room—the man she knew as the chevalier Christophe Arnaud, now calling himself Christien de Meuse.
Christien’s lips stiffened the instant he saw the horror on Lydia Gale’s face. His morning bread and chocolate, which had been all the nourishment he’d consumed that day, roiled in his gut, and each breath made his chest feel as though he’d broken a rib or two on the way from Upper Brook Street to Cavendish Square.
This wasn’t his first covert operation, but it surely had to be his worst. Face-to-face with the lady he had every reason to believe had given him her last valuable possession to provide him with food and shelter, he preferred betraying all those who trusted him to carry out his mission to betraying the lovely widow.
But he had a family too. His sisters needed marriage portions in the upcoming years. His mother deserved security, and his brother wanted an education so he could go into the church.
He fixed the faces of his loved ones in the back of his mind and made an elegant leg to Lady Lydia Gale. “Good afternoon, madame. I trust I do not intrude overmuch on your guests?”
Those guests continued their conversations while peering at him from around fans and teacups.
“You.” Her straight, white teeth snapped together behind a smile that was more of a grimace. She dropped a slight curtsy. When she rose, she met his gaze, and her dark eyes glowed with an inner fire that sent a radiance of heat swirling through him. “This is our afternoon for receiving callers, so you are not intruding, monsieur. But pray tell, what brings a Frenchman into our English midst?” Under her breath she added, “And one who has lost much of his accent in a matter of weeks.”
“I have lived in England since I was ten years in 1792.”
Except for the ten years he’d spent on the continent with Napoleon.
Ah, the lies, the games, the need for nightly repentance that never assuaged his burden of guilt.
“How fortunate you were to keep your head attached to your neck and away from the guillotine.” Lady Gale tilted her head. As though a curl, like many of the guests smiling around them, believed her words flirtatious, it slipped from its moorings and brushed her cheek.
Christien wondered if he could keep his head around her. He raised his hand, nearly brushing that curl aside. He pictured himself lifting it to his lips, inhaling its honey-citrus fragrance, testing its silkiness against his cheek.
He shoved his hand into his coat pocket. “My family was most fortunate to keep our heads. And now I am even more fortunate that we have a mutual friend who has so graciously allowed me to make your acquaintance.”
“Indeed.” Lang’s letter crunched in her hand, mangled beyond recognition. “A friend of my husband’s, I presume?”
” At the sibilant French word, a few ladies waved their fans more vigorously.
Madame Gale gripped hers as though she would smack him with it or she wished it were a truncheon instead. “I suppose I need to introduce you to my guests.”
“I would be most grateful. London is a lonely place without friends.” He offered what he hoped was a charming smile.
She blinked, and a hint of pink rose in her cheeks, testimony to the fact that she was not as indifferent to him as she pretended.
His smile broadened. “And perhaps a drive in the park afterward? It is a fine day for the end of March in this cold country.”
“Yes, it’s likely raining in Tavistock, don’t you think? Or have you never been to Tavistock?” As though discussing the weather under normal social conditions, she took his arm and nudged him forward.
He resisted the urge to cover her fingers with his and press them against his forearm, reassure her that her family would come to no harm through her actions or his. At least he would do his best to keep them all safe—by beginning with pretending that her comment about rain in Tavistock hadn’t been uttered.
“Monsieur Lang has told me of the beauty of the Bainbridge ladies,” he said. “Having met you, I believed him.”
“Flattery will serve you nothing here, monsieur. Though my youngest sister is quite a beauty, she is barely out of the schoolroom. She isn’t here. Cassandra is on the settee at the far end of the room, speaking with her fiancé and a friend. Mama is here.” She made these announcements in a breathless rush and stopped a yard from a lovely middle-aged lady with silver-gilt curls and a gentle smile. “Lady Jersey, Mama, this is Monsieur le comte de Meuse.”
Lady Jersey, one of the scions of Society.
A step in the right direction. She was famous for her flirtatious ways. Even as he bowed over her extended hand, he caught the flutter of her lashes and felt the pressure of her fingers.
“An émigré?” she asked, holding his gaze too long.
, madame. My family lives in Shropshire.” Conveniently far from London.
“What has kept you from us for so long?” Lady Bainbridge inquired. “And how do you know him, my dear?” she asked her eldest daughter.
“I have been serving my country,” Christien responded automatically. At a start of movement beside him, he added, “My adopted country,
“His service is how I met him.” Lady Gale took half a step away from him. “I see that Lady Melby is leaving. I should say goodbye.”
Before Christien thought of a way to hold her beside him, she slipped away to a wispy lady old enough to be his great-grandmother.
“Are you a military man, monsieur?” Lady Jersey asked.
“An attaché to the foreign office only. But my uncle died last year, so I was graciously allowed to come home and have decided to spend this Season in London.” He reminded himself to make himself sound as much like an English family patriarch as possible. “I have two younger sisters who will reach the age for their come-out next spring, and another sister who has resisted a Season thus far, but should no longer.”
“Laying the groundwork for their success.” Lady Bainbridge’s smile was approving. “What a good brother.”
“And thinking of setting up your nursery?” Lady Jersey gave him a slanted smile.
“With the will of
le bon dieu
If God honored men who had made a career of lies enough to provide a wife.
His gaze strayed across the drawing room to Lady Gale. She stood by the door, talking with a lovely young woman with the same dark hair and eyes, and a young man who gazed at the second lady as though she were a treasure for which he’d sought all his life. Christien flicked his gaze back to Lady Gale and wondered if his expression resembled that of the younger man.
“From all I hear,” Lady Jersey said in an undertone that would reach no ears but his, “you’ll catch cold in that direction. Lydia Bainbridge Gale is little more than a recluse with no interest in a second husband.”
“A pity. She’s beautiful.” Christien glanced at the mother. She too watched her eldest daughter. Her face reflected sorrow.
“How did you meet Lydia?”
“I was able to perform some service for her husband many years ago.” Christien’s fingers curled into a fist before he could stop them. “Monsieur Lang and I, that is. I did not know his wife was such a beauty.”
“I have been blessed with exceptional daughters.” Lady Bainbridge began to rise.
Christien offered her his hand. She leaned on him for support, and he realized how frail she appeared, her skin translucent, her hand thin enough to show all the veins, her bones as fragile as a bird’s wing. Quite a contrast to her robust eldest daughter.
“You do not object if I take your daughter for a drive in the park?” he asked.
“I’ll wager she doesn’t go.” Lady Jersey trilled a laugh.
Lady Bainbridge clucked in disapproval. “No wagering in my household, Sally. And no, of course I don’t object. But it’s Lydia whom you will have to convince. She isn’t inclined to allow herself to be courted in any way.”
“I’ll convince her.” Christien smiled, bowed to the ladies, and wended his way through tables, sofas, and chairs to the door and Lydia.
Yes, she was Lydia. He’d thought of her as Lydia since reading her letters. He had to force himself to call her Lady Gale. Calling her Lydia would insult her. She was a lady, poised and elegant in her city finery. Poised and elegant in the shabby gown she’d worn to the prison. Both attested to breeding and manners.
He counted on those to get an opportunity to be alone with her.
“Are you departing so soon, monsieur?” she asked him at the door.
“Not unless you agree to join me.” He smiled at her.
Her sister giggled. “Lydia, you didn’t tell us you have a suitor.”
“I don’t.” Lydia’s knuckles whitened around her fan. “Monsieur le comte de Meuse, Cassandra, Whittaker.”
A curtsy and bows were exchanged.
“Are you truly French?” Miss Bainbridge asked. “I would love to talk to you about life during the Terror. One day I want to write a history of the French Revolution and . . .” She trailed off, her face reddening. “I beg your pardon. Perhaps you do not wish to speak of it.”
“I would not mind, but I was but a child at the time and my recollections may be corrupt. Perhaps one day you can meet my maman and get a better perspective. She is
and had revolutionary ideas, though married to my papa. I expect her to come to London next year.”
“And we’ll be in Lancashire.” She gazed up at the young man beside her. “We’re getting married in June.”
“An excellent month is June.” Christien turned to Lydia. “Can you leave now for our drive?”
“Our—” She compressed her lips. “I’ll fetch my pelisse and hat.”
“We’re off for a drive too.” Miss Bainbridge tucked her hand into the crook of Whittaker’s arm. “One never knows when we will have sunshine again.”
They exchanged polite farewells, and Christien slipped into the entryway behind the couple to wait for Lydia. And wait for Lydia. If she didn’t hurry, the footman stationed beside the door would toss Christien into the street for loitering. Several guests gave him odd glances as they departed. The sun began to slant too far to the west.
Just when he wondered if she intended to remain above stairs and leave him to cool his heels until dark, footfalls sounded on the upper floor, died on the runner down the steps, and Lady Lydia Gale rounded the curve of the stairway.
A hat of white leghorn straw with a nosegay of pink roses on one side perched atop a cluster of curls that appeared a bit disheveled, with two curls dangling against her cheek instead of the one from earlier. Several long white hairs adorned her pink pelisse, and a scratch reddened an inch of fine skin beside her left ear.
“Is all well, madame?” Christien touched the scratch before he could stop himself.
She flinched and looked away. “My cat doesn’t like being shut up in my bedchamber and finds ways to get revenge.” She plucked several hairs from her pelisse. “What should I expect but trouble from a French cat?”
Christien laughed and offered his arm. “Come. We shall discuss the French felines along the way to Rotten Row. I have a fondness for cats.”
“Right now I’d happily give you mine.” She took his arm, and the footman sprang to open the front door. “My husband gave him to me for a betrothal gift. I think he knew—” She caught her breath.
, madame?” Christien welcomed the coolness of the outside air despite the odor of coal smoke strong enough to taste. “What did your husband know?”
“It’s unimportant.” She released his arm the instant they reached the bottom step and stood beside his curricle. “Your horses are lovely. The foreign service must be good to you.”
“My family has prospered here, not the foreign service.” Christien leaped aboard the open vehicle and leaned down to offer the lady his hand.
She grasped his fingers like a drowning woman, stepped onto the spoke, and swung aboard with the fluidity of a sunrise banishing darkness. Even if clouds had filled the sky, he would have rejoiced to be beside her, inhaling her perfume, hearing her voice, feeling the occasional touch of her arm against his.
A man could not fall in love at first sight. Not outside the pages of a romantic novel like those his sisters read, but a man could fall in love with an action that shouted of a lady’s character. Christien had done so the instant she pressed her bracelet into his palm and promised him freedom.
If he didn’t win her to his side, she would rob him of freedom just as quickly.
He unwound the reins from the whip box, called to the lad holding the horses to release their heads, and set the curricle surging forward to bounce over the cobbles of the square before glancing at his companion and launching into his prepared speech. “Thank you for not giving me away. I know you could have easily done so, and I would have found myself right back in Dartmoor Prison. Probably in the black hole there.”
“I didn’t do it to spare you the deprivations of prison. Right now I’d like to see you back there.” She sighed. “No, that isn’t true. I wouldn’t wish any enemies to live like that, not even you.”
“I am not your enemy, my lady.”
“You are French, are you not? We are at war.”
“You are at war with Napoleon’s France, not Bourbon France. I am of Bourbon France.”
“And a month ago, you were an officer in Napoleon’s Army. Do please tell me which person is the true man—Christophe Arnaud or Christien de Meuse.”
She gave an unladylike snort.
I am Christien Christophe Arnaud de Meuse.”
“Please forgive me if I do not believe you.” Her voice held no true request for grace.
He granted her forgiveness anyway. “I understand your doubts, your distrust, your skepticism, your—”
“Outrage? Why don’t we begin with my outrage, monsieur.” She glared up at him with such ferocity he feared passersby would think he had said something improper to her.
He sought for words to calm her. “
, you have reason for outrage. I took advantage of your kindness—”
“And now are taking advantage of my love for my family and my fear that something terrible will happen to them if I don’t cooperate with whatever all of you want.”
Christien started. The reins jerked. The team of bays reared and halted. “What all of us?”