Read Behind the Mask (House of Lords) Online
Authors: Meg Brooke
Eleanor allowed him to help her into her saddle, and then they rode down the hill to tell her mother of their engagement.
When Eleanor had disappeared into the trees, Colin turned to the man who had once been his friend. “Leo,” he said, though he was not sure what on earth he meant to say next.
“Don’t,” Leo said, holding up a hand. He dropped gracefully out of the saddle and came towards Colin, his eyes full of menacing wrath. “Don’t say a word. How
you, Colin? I trusted you with my family’s safety. You promised me you would protect them. Weren’t those your exact words not five days ago in London? And now not only have you allowed a man to be murdered on my property, but you have...for God’s sake, Colin, she’s my sister!”
“I know,” Colin said, holding up his hands in surrender.
Leo crossed his arms. “And?”
Colin shrugged. “I wish I could say I was sorry,” he said. “But I’m not.”
So quickly that he had no time to prepare, Leo raised his fist and punched Colin, hard. The blow landed beneath his left eye. Colin staggered backward, though he managed not to cry out in pain. When he stopped seeing stars, he said, “I deserved that.”
“You deserve a good deal more,” Leo growled. “But I need you alive to make an honest woman out of Eleanor. Lord, who would have thought it of her?”
“You mustn’t blame her,” Colin insisted. “She did nothing wrong.” It was not strictly true, but Colin would never admit that it was Eleanor who had started the whole thing.
“You don’t have to tell me that,” Leo said, “Of the four of us, Eleanor is the one who never puts a toe out of line. I would have expected something like this of Maris, but Eleanor?”
“I will, of course, be asking her for her hand. If you approve, that is.”
“How can I possibly refuse now?” Leo demanded. He rubbed a hand over his face as though he were trying to wake up from some terrible nightmare. “What a time for this to happen.”
“What does that mean?”
“Sir John refused to alter his plans,” Leo said. “They will arrive as expected on Wednesday.”
Colin nodded stiffly. It was no less than he had expected, and yet somehow he had still allowed himself to hope that the man would see reason. “And the Duchess of Kent?”
Leo shook his head sadly. “Determined to go through with it. The good news is that there was a letter waiting for me at the great house from Colonel Taylor, who is stationed in Stokesby. He and forty men will be arriving tomorrow morning. Once they arrive, I will ride to Norwich for a special license, and you and my sister will be married on Tuesday. It cannot possibly wait any longer than that—to have the two of you living in the same house without the benefit of marriage vows while we entertain the future queen of England is unthinkable.”
“Very well,” Colin said, seeing that there was no point in arguing.
“I cannot see how it could possibly matter to you, but she has a dowry of forty thousand pounds.”
Colin had nothing to say to that. Of course, he could provide for Eleanor without the help of her dowry. It would go into a trust for any children they might have. But before he could think of such possibilities, there was another bridge to cross. “I suppose I had better go and propose,” he said.
“I suppose so,” Leo agreed. Colin started towards his horse, but Leo put a hand on his sleeve to stop him. “I am glad it is you, Colin, and not that pup Hollier. It is unfortunate that it had to happen this way, and I don’t want you thinking I’m not furious, but once I have gotten over it, which may be many years from now, I’m sure I will be grateful to you for keeping her from him.” He paused, and for a moment Colin thought he would let him go without saying any more, but then Leo sighed and added, “She may have loved him once, but he was not worthy of her, and she still believes that it was she who was not good enough. If you break her heart, I will put a bullet between your eyes. Don’t think I can’t do it.”
Colin was certain Leo was capable of anything where the happiness of his sisters was concerned. “I won’t let you down, Leo. Thank you.” Then Leo released his arm, and he got back on his horse and rode away through the trees towards the great house.
When they finally rode back into the stableyard, John Mowbray came out to take Eleanor’s horse. As she climbed out of the saddle, feeling rather sore and completely exhausted, Eleanor gave her old friend a wan smile. For a second she considered telling John what had happened—not at the lodge, of course, but that she and Colin were now engaged. But then she cast a nervous glance up at the windows of the great house. Her mother ought to be told first, she supposed.
As she followed Colin into the hall, she asked, “What have you told my mother?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I think Leo asked her if you had returned, and when we realized you hadn’t he and I tried to keep it quiet. He didn’t think it was wise to worry her.”
“No,” Eleanor said quietly. “No, she has had enough of that. Thank you for not alarming her. I suppose we ought to go up and tell her now.” She cast a resigned glance into the salon, which housed the grand staircase leading up to the family rooms. Somehow she could not make her feet move in that direction.
Colin’s fingers laced through hers. “We can wait until tomorrow, if you like.”
But Eleanor shook her head stubbornly. “No, it must be tonight. But I suppose you need to confer with Mr. Strathmore.”
Colin nodded, looking grim. “He had not returned yet when last I was here—he went down into the village to see if there was any news about Yates’s body, apparently. But even if he hasn’t returned, I’m sure there will be plenty to keep me occupied. There are a great many things to be done before the militia arrives tomorrow.”
She turned to face him. “The militia are coming here?”
“Colonel Taylor’s regiment is coming up from Stokesby. Forty men.”
She blanched. “Where on earth will they stay?”
He shrugged, and she felt a sudden rush of gratitude to her brother for hitting him so that she didn’t have to attempt it. How could he be so casual about this? “Aren’t there rooms for them here?”
“Every room is spoken for,” she cried. “It was trouble enough finding space for you and Strathmore! Now I must house a colonel and forty men?”
He put a calming hand on her shoulder. “We will figure something out, Eleanor. But we need those men.”
“I know,” she said resignedly. He was right, of course. But the arrival of forty men in addition to the princess and all her party might be more than she could handle. “I certainly have my work cut out for me. And I must plan a wedding on top of it all.”
He kissed her temple, “I’m sure you’ll manage it admirably. You are the most capable woman I’ve ever met. I’m quite fortunate, actually—just think, in two or three years with you by my side I could become Foreign Secretary!”
She must have looked terrified at the prospect, because he laughed wryly. “Don’t scare me like that,” she said, trying to sound serious. But suddenly the whole situation seemed so funny that she could not resist laughing right along with him. Her shoulders shaking, she leaned into his embrace and gave herself over to the absurdity of the whole thing.
“How on earth did we get ourselves into this mess?” she asked.
He released her and smiled down into her eyes. “I think you’ll find that these sort of messes happen with alarming frequency in the Foreign Service,” he said. “But I have faith in you. If anyone can handle the daily round of disasters and fiascos, it’s you.”
She gripped his arm. “Will we go to Brussels, then, when all this is over?” They had only been engaged for an hour. Still, she knew that sooner or later they would have to have a serious conversation about their future. In little more than forty-eight hours she would be married to this man who was not much more than a stranger. She did not know how or where he lived, where they would go once they were wed, what they would live on. She knew almost nothing about his habits and his foibles. There was so much uncertainty that suddenly her question seemed rather foolish. She ought to have started with something like, “Do you care for olives?” But she took her future rather more seriously than that.
He blinked down at her. “I suppose we will, eventually. First I would like to take you to Townsley to meet my parents.”
Her grip on his arm tightened. “Your parents,” she said softly. “What will they think of me?”
He smiled. “They will like you a great deal, Eleanor.”
“But you have barely been in the country a week. What will they think when you tell them you have married a woman you never met before last Wednesday?”
“They will think you must be infinitely charming,” he said.
“Be serious for a moment, Colin.”
“You cannot imagine that I am not taking this seriously,” he said. “And much as I am quite content with the idea of being your husband, I know that the timing will seem...abrupt to some. But the fact remains that we must marry, and that it must be before the princess arrives.”
Another thought struck her. “Won’t this be a great distraction for you? There are so many other things to do—”
He hushed her, dropping his lips to hers for a reassuring kiss. “Don’t worry about that, Eleanor. We both have a long list of things that must be done before the princess and her party arrive, and we cannot allow ourselves to lose focus. But Tuesday will be a happy day for us both. I am confident that we will look back one day and think on it with pleasure.”
She nodded, though she was not quite convinced. For a moment she considered telling him her secret, but the moment was too perfect; she could not bear to spoil it.
“Let’s go upstairs and see my mother now,” she said at last. “I don’t think we can reasonably put it off.”
He shook his head. “No, indeed.”
She took his hand, and together they turned and started up the stairs.
As they made their way to her mother’s private sitting room, Colin allowed himself to finally consider everything that had happened.
This had all started out so simply. Was it only a week ago that he had been sitting the Duchess of Wittelsbach’s salon, thinking of nothing more than how he was going to secure his latest contact? Now the list of ways his life had changed was staggering. He had not even begun to think of what would happen after Tuesday until Eleanor had asked him, but now those questions were spinning through his head. Where would they live? He would certainly have to find someplace better than his bachelor lodgings in Brussels. Beyond that, he had no earthly idea what he would tell his parents, Viscount Palmerston, or Sir Robert.
But he had no time to worry about those things now. Of more pressing concern were the militia arriving in the morning, the assassins still on the loose, and the princess who would be appearing on the doorstep in three days.
They were certainly not the circumstances under which he would have wished to be wed. Colin had never really expected to marry at all. There was Miles to do that duty, to give his parents and Colin the heirs they needed. And it had always been his firm belief that a wife and family would make his work for the Foreign Office far more difficult.
He still held to that belief. Eleanor would not make anything in Brussels simpler; indeed, with a wife in tow the Foreign Office might decide that he was no longer cut out for the work he had loved.
These were problems he had not considered when he had thrown himself into the passion he felt for the woman now walking rather stiffly at his side. He glanced over, worried that she might look just as troubled as her rigid posture suggested. But she had a determined expression fixed on her face, as though she meant to face whatever lay ahead with grace. He admired her more in that moment than he had ever admired a woman before, and he knew that, whatever happened, the fates had arranged matters to give him a wife of whom he would be proud.