Behind the Mask (House of Lords) (44 page)

BOOK: Behind the Mask (House of Lords)
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There was a knock at the door, and Georgina came in. “Oh, good,” she said, closing the door behind her. “I was worried you would be downstairs.”

“Are you hoping to escape our guests, too?” Eleanor asked, grinning.

Georgina laughed softly. “I must confess I am,” she said, crossing the room and dropping into the chair nearest her sister. “It does become rather overwhelming after a while, doesn’t it? All those people, all the gossip and banter. I feel out of my depth.”

Eleanor smiled. “You’ll learn. The longer you live in this world, the easier it becomes.”

Frowning, Georgina said, “I’m not sure I want to learn. Maris is far better at this than I am. Perhaps I should leave her to it. Do you think mother would ever allow me to just stay here at the Park?”

“Do you really hate it that much?” Eleanor was surprised. She had thought Georgina had been excited for her come-out last year and had enjoyed her Seasons in London. But the look of pure misery on her sister’s face as she contemplated returning to London for the endless round of balls and parties after the holidays made more tears spring to Eleanor’s eyes. She rose and went over to kneel beside Georgina, taking her hand.

Georgina nodded grimly. “I know I cannot stay here forever. I know that it is foolish to wish for such a thing. But oh, how I hate London, and the
, and society!”

“You have a choice, Georgina. Of course you do. I’m sure mother would allow you to stay at the Park when she and Maris go to Town after Christmas. You might grow lonely here, of course, but it is certainly an option.”

Shaking her head, Georgina said, “She might allow it, but she would make me feel guilty about it the whole Season. You’re only saying that to be kind. But I don’t want you to worry about me, Eleanor. Everything will be all right in the end.” She brushed a single tear from her cheek.

“That’s my brave girl,” Eleanor said, feeling as though she were far more than two years’ Georgina’s senior.

The door opened again, and their mother came it. “There you both are!” she cried, completely oblivious to the tender scene she had interrupted. “Eleanor, you are needed downstairs. Mrs. Parkinson says there are no more eggs and she still has to prepare a custard, and I really don’t know what to do.”

Eleanor smiled and rose, resuming the mantle of the dutiful daughter. “Of course,” she said. She squeezed Georgina’s hand and went out.


Colin delayed a little while in London in order to meet with his family’s solicitor, who dispatched a man to Brussels immediately to look out apartments suitable for a young diplomat and his wife. The solicitor promised that the rooms would be ready by the time Colin and Eleanor arrived in Brussels, though Colin thought that was a rather optimistic prediction, especially given the way Belgians generally negotiated over rents. Still, he was hopeful that he would be able to bring Eleanor to a place that could truly become their home, where they could be happy together. He could not forget the way she had looked as he said that she would become accustomed to his world, would adjust to fit into it. Had he really meant that?

He gave the matter more thought as he rode out of London and through the countryside. He had always imagined that when he took a bride she would acclimate to the diplomatic world, and would learn to fit seamlessly into the life he had already created. He had never thought that he might also have to make some adjustments, and he wasn’t sure he was prepared to do so now. Wasn’t it enough, after all, that he was giving up his lodgings in order to take her along with him? There were men, he knew, who left their wives in London or the British countryside when they took posts abroad on behalf of the Foreign Office. It would not be considered abnormal for him to do so as well, and if he had been asked a few weeks earlier he might not have balked at such an arrangement. But somehow he could not imagine leaving Eleanor behind.

She loved him. He had heard her say so when she thought he was sleeping. They might have a chance at a happy marriage, a marriage that was more than just the loose connection between two separate individuals that Colin had observed growing up.

When he finally arrived at Sidney Park in the late afternoon, however, it was clear that the discussion he had hoped to have with Eleanor would not be happening before the chaos of the ball began. Crawley was waiting for him in the hall.

“Well?” he asked.

“Palmerston has agreed to my proposal,” Colin said.

Crawley breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m glad to hear it, My Lord,” he said, following Colin through the door to the servants’ stairs. “I don’t like to admit it, but I’m actually beginning to like Mr. Udad. He’s an amiable fellow, for all that he’s made some poor choices in his youth, and I would hate to see him hanged or locked away.”

“So would I,” Colin said, feeling equally embarrassed to acknowledge his growing respect for their captive.

His admiration grew a little more when they reached the dressing room and found that there was no guard outside. The door was unlocked, and yet when they opened it they found Udad sitting quietly on his pallet, waiting for them. He had not tried to escape, though he knew the potential fate that had awaited him.

“You will be pleased to hear, Mr. Udad, that I have secured your freedom.”

Udad blinked up at him, looking rather puzzled. “Freedom?” he asked.

“You are not to be tried. You will be released.”


Colin crouched down beside him. “Our government does not find try you at this time, Mr. Udad. They would rather pretend that you do not exist. But there are a few conditions. You can never go back to Algeria.”

Udad nodded sadly. “I did not think they let me go there,” he said.

“You also may never return to England.”

Now Udad looked even more confused. “Then where will I go?” he asked.

Colin smiled. “To Brussels, with me. I am going to take you on as an assistant, Mr. Udad. You have some useful skills, and I think with some training you could be very valuable. Are you willing to do the work?”

The man still gaped at him. After a long moment he said, “I may either stay in England and die or go to this place with you and live?”

Colin was impressed with how much Udad’s English had improved in just a few days’ captivity. It only solidified in his mind his determination. If he could turn this man, earn his loyalty and trust, at least to Colin if not to the British crown, he would be an extremely valuable asset to the Foreign Office. “That is your choice, yes.”

Udad stood. “I choose to live,” he said. “Thank you, My Lord.”

Colin held out his hand. Udad took it hesitantly and shook it. “We will leave in the morning,” Colin said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to stay downstairs, but there will be no guards posted at the door. You are free to move about this level as you wish.”

Udad nodded, though he looked as though he would rather face death than risk encountering Mrs. Parkinson. Colin had to smile at that. Just then, Mr. Parkinson appeared at the door. “I’m sorry to intrude, My Lord,” he said, “but Lady Sidney asked me to tell you the guests will be arriving in an hour.”

“Of course,” Colin said. He gave Udad a friendly nod and then led Crawley out into the hall. “Will you be attending this evening?” he asked.

Crawley shrugged. “I was invited, My Lord.”


Another shrug. “I’m not really cut out for balls,” Crawley said. Colin could well believe him. With his height and muscular bulk, Crawley cut an intimidating figure in his everyday, drab clothing. With his tan skin and dark, brooding looks, he would be quite a formidable sight in evening dress. “And I have no costume,” Crawley added now, grinning wryly.

“Neither have I,” Colin said. “I’m afraid I didn’t plan for a masquerade when I was packing in Brussels.”

Crawley laughed at that. “It will be good to return to London,” he said, “and get back to real life.”

Colin nodded, but did not add that this
real life to most of the people in the house. He had become aware when he had first interviewed the three men who would be his aides that Crawley was the lowest-born of the three, and that he was rather sensitive about his parentage. He was the son of a bookseller in London’s East End, and had had to fight his way into a place at Oxford and then at the Foreign Office. To Crawley, life on an estate like Sidney Park was a fantasy, something far beyond his reach unless he somehow managed to scratch and claw his way into the upper echelons. At first acquaintance Colin might have said that the man didn’t have what it took, but now that he knew him a little better, he would not be surprised if the young agent went farther than anyone predicted. “What will you do when you return to London?” he asked.

“Get back to work, I suppose. Until I was assigned to you I was working on a new Russian code. But I’d also like to call on Yates’s family. He had a sweetheart, you know.”

“I didn’t know,” Colin said with a pang of regret. The poor girl would never see her suitor again. Meddur Udad’s was not the only life Strathmore had altered forever. “Have you ever considered diplomatic work, Crawley?”

“Are you looking for a replacement, My Lord?”

“Never,” Colin said with a smile as they went up the servants’ stairs. “But I’ve put in a word for you with Viscount Palmerston.”

Crawley shook his head. “It’s not for me, My Lord. I’m not highly born enough to be accepted in the drawing rooms of the Continent, as you are. No, I think it’s the shadier side of the Foreign Service for me, My Lord, and that’s all right. I like the excitement.”

“You’ll outgrow that,” Colin said, thinking of all the mistakes he had made. He only hoped Crawley did not have to learn the hard way, as he had.




Evening was falling when Eleanor finally managed to return to her room to dress for the ball. She knew Colin had returned—Leo had seen him riding down the drive—but there was no evidence that he had been up to dress yet. It was just as well. Eleanor would rather not say the things she had decided to say to him until after the party. She did not imagine that they would have a chance to talk during the evening—she could not remember the last time she had had a serious conversation with any man at a ball, and she did not suppose her husband would be any different.

Georgina and Maris came in just as Lily was putting the final touches on Eleanor’s hair. She had chosen not to wear a helmet, but rather a clever corsage of hellebore flowers in her hair, since they were one of Athena’s symbols. The corsage was secured with a silver clasp that matched the little dagger she wore at her waist. It was an ornamental piece, which had been presented to her grandfather for his service to King George III, though Eleanor had discovered earlier when she had almost cut herself with it that it was very sharp for all that it was meant to be decorative. Still, she thought it adorned her long white Grecian gown perfectly. She took one last look in the mirror. She had decided not to wear a mask, and instead Lily had used white powder to trace a delicate design of flowers and vines around her eyes. The effect was quite stunning.

“You look beautiful, Eleanor!” Maris cried, bouncing into the room. She was costumed as a lady pirate, with a leather waistcoat over a loose white blouse and a jaunty striped skirt. True to form, Georgina had chosen a less ostentatious costume. She was dressed as Juliet, in a dainty, high-waisted white gown with a red ribbon at the waist.

“Thank you,” Eleanor said, rising. “So do you, Maris, and you, too, Georgina. Have either of you seen my—”

But just as she was about to ask after him, the door flew open and Colin strode in, already in his evening attire, though he wore a black waistcoat and cravat over his white shirt.

“There he is,” Maris said, giggling. She took Georgina’s hand and dragged her out of the room. Lily made a little curtsey and then disappeared as well.

Eleanor crossed the room and went up on her toes to kiss Colin’s cheek. “You look quite handsome,” she said. “Whatever are you dressed as?”

BOOK: Behind the Mask (House of Lords)
2.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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