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Authors: Joan Smith

Tags: #Regency Romance

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BOOK: The Great Christmas Ball
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“My good man!” Gordon said, bridling up.

“Do it, Gordie,” Cathy said, and sat on the floor.

“Lie down, face to the floor, toe to toe,” the man ordered. They did as he said. “You,” he said to Gordon, “take off your cravat and bind your ankles together.”

Gordon sat up, staring fixedly at the gun, undid his cravat, and did as commanded, but he tied the knot loosely. “Now lie back down,” the man said. When they were flat on the floor, he put his gun aside a moment, but within his own reach. “Don’t try anything,” he cautioned in a menacing voice. He removed his gloves and tightened the knot. Gordon hadn’t time, or perhaps courage, to try anything. The man picked up his gun and fled out the door.

As soon as he was gone, they both sat up and began struggling with the knotted cravat. “By Jove, a spy!” Gordon croaked, delighted now that the immediate danger was past. “I shouldn’t have let out about the code. Fancy the mawworm not knowing it.” When the knot proved incalcitrant, he took out his hasp knife and sacrificed his cravat.

As soon as he was free, he darted to the door, but of course the man was long gone. “His footprints are in the snow. I'll follow him,” he said, and darted out into the evening shadows while Cathy sat gasping, wondering what she should do. She soon knew her first duty was to inform Mr. Lovell.

Within minutes Gordon was back, his head and shoulders lightly dusted in snow. “I lost him at the corner. There were a million fresh footprints. You would think an army had passed by. There wasn’t a sniff of him.”

“He probably had a carriage waiting,” Cathy said.

“Damme! My first chance for a little excitement, and I not only let the bleater get away, I told him about the code.”

Cathy did battle with her conscience, and decided that sharing Mr. Lovell’s secret with her brother was the lesser of two evils, because Lovell must be informed at once, and she could not quite see herself going alone to Whitehall in search of him. She would tell Gordon the very minimum, just enough to ensure his help.

“That wasn’t the letter he was after, Gordie,” she said.

“Eh? What the deuce are you talking about? It was in German.”

“That was Mr. Steinem’s billet-doux. The man with the gun was after a different letter.”

“The devil you say! What letter?”

“He took it away with him, the man who asked me to translate it. That intruder must have followed Mr. Lovell here, for Lovell was not gone above five minutes when he landed in.”

“And who, pray, is Mr. Lovell?”

Gordon listened, entranced, while Cathy briefly outlined the visit.

“Wouldn’t you know I would miss it!” he said when she was finished. “While I was wasting my time on irregular verbs, we had a spy calling. Thank God for that billet-doux! At least I need not feel like a traitor. But do you mean to sit there and tell me you have been translating state secrets? I don’t believe a word of it. You’ve been reading Mrs. Radcliffe again.” His eyes traveled to the sofa by the grate, where the novel lay, facedown.

“You must help me, Gordie,” she said with such a sober mien that Gordon believed her. Besides, she hadn’t enough imagination to come up with a story like this. “I must inform Mr. Lovell of that man’s visit. Lovell does not realize he is being followed. He might be killed.”

“Where can I get hold of this Lovell?” Gordon asked.

“At Whitehall. He works for the Horse Guards.”

“He
is
a spy, then! Why, that’s just around the corner. I can be there in two seconds.”

“Yes, we must go. I wish I had gotten a better look at the man. His shoulders were hunched up, but he was tall, I think. He was so muffled up, I saw nothing of his face except his eyes. They were close-set, and squinty.”

“Nothing of the sort. He was a short fellow. His eyes were not really close-set. It was only his squinting that made them look that way. I noticed particularly. I caught a glance at his hands when he was tightening my cravat as well. I’d recognize those ugly digits anywhere.”

“Was he wearing a ring?”

“No, but he had those short, flat fingers like Cousin Marion—as if he had ten thumbs.”

“Oh.” That, did not sound like much of a clue to identification. “Perhaps Mr. Lovell will know who he is. We must go at once.”

“You cannot think I will allow a lady to accompany me on such an errand!” he exclaimed, reverting to his father’s manner.

Allow
her! She was the one who translated the letter. But emotion was not her way, and she said calmly, “You would not recognize Mr. Lovell.”

“They will steer me to him fast enough at Whitehall.”

“There is some little doubt that Lovell is his real name. The man with the gun called him Costain. I must go to identify him, for the letter was of strategic importance.”

“Really!” Gordon exclaimed. “What did it say?”

“I promised Mr. Lovell I would not tell a single soul.”

“Damme, you may tell me. I am no one—I mean, I am your brother.”

“I cannot tell even you, but it is of such vital importance that it may alter the course of the war, Gordon.”

Gordon gave a frowning “Hmmm,” but he was actually less interested in the details of the war than in having a bit of excitement. “Let us go, then, if you insist on tagging along,” he said.

“Yes—but what shall we tell Mama?”

“Why, we shall tell her we are working for king and country. She can hardly say no.”

“She will say no to me,” Cathy replied with irrefutable logic. “And besides, I was not supposed to tell anyone about the letter. I told you only because I need your help. You tell Mama I am waiting for Mr. Steinem, and will take my tea here in the office. You will have to sneak my bonnet and pelisse down to me.”

“I shall tell her I am bearing you company. She has Rodney with her to prose her ear off, so she shan’t mind. Best lock that door,” he said, and left.

Cathy hopped up and locked the door, then drew the blue velvet curtains to ensure privacy from prying eyes. She felt a thrill, to think that someone might be peeking in the windows. She hoped Mr. Steinem would not come, for she had lost both his original letter and her translation. She wrote out a rough translation as well as she could remember, to stick on the door when she left. Mr. Steinem could pick it up, free of charge.

The tea tray arrived, followed a moment later by Gordon, bearing her bonnet and pelisse. She dressed, and they went out, leaving Mr. Steinem’s note stuck to the door with a pin.

“I might very well be made a lord for this,” Gordon said as they pelted through the snow. They did not wait for a carriage, as the distance was short. “I daresay Miss Stanfield would not wipe her feet on a mere baronet.”

Gordon had his boots to keep his feet dry, but before they had gone a hundred yards, water was seeping through Cathy’s slippers and freezing her toes. The wind blew her hair and bonnet to pieces, and found its way under her pelisse. She was hardly aware of the discomfort. In minutes she would see Mr. Lovell again, and she would gladly walk through fire or ice for his approval.

The yellow brick of Whitehall looked dingy in the fading light, but the many lighted windows gave them hope that Mr. Lovell was still there. The clock tower of the Horse Guards soon loomed ahead of them. They entered unchallenged, although a few eyebrows rose to see a young lady breach this masculine preserve.

“I am looking for a Mr. Lovell,” Gordon said in a businesslike way to the guard.

The guard scanned his list. “No Mr. Lovell here, sir. Would it be the Admiralty you want?”

“Is there a Mr. Costain?” Cathy asked.

“Lord Costain, you mean, Lord Cosgrave’s new boy? He’s here. Went dashing out a short while ago, but he was soon back. Second floor, third door on your left.”

“That’d be him,” Gordon said. “Thank you, my good man.”

As soon as they had gone beyond earshot, he said, “Dashed out and back again—bound to be our man.”

Cathy had harkened to a different matter. “He called him
Lord
Costain!”

“No matter. It must be him.”

“Oh, yes, I am sure it is.”

They mounted the stairs, turned left, and counted three doors. The third door was ajar; a line of light issued from beneath it. Their pace increased as they drew nearer. Cathy felt nervous but excited.

Then Gordon turned to her and said, “What if it ain’t him?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if the fellow who brought you the letter was a foreign agent posing as Costain, and you handed him over a translation of sensitive information? Are you willing to confess it, and be landed in the Tower?”

“It’s got to be him,” she said with more hope than certainty.

“Let me handle it. If it ain’t him, we’ll say it’s a case of mistaken identity, we’re looking for
Mr.
Costain. We’ll dart home and ask Uncle Rodney’s opinion. He’ll know what to do. Put us on to someone important who won’t throw us in the Tower when we confess what you’ve done. A bit rash of you, m’dear. You ought to have called me in sooner.”

Cathy’s heart was in her throat as Gordon tapped lightly on the door.

 

Chapter Three

 

“Come in,” an authoritative voice called.
His
voice.

Cathy’s smile told Gordon all was well. He pushed the door open and ushered her in. “I am Sir Gordon Lyman,” he said, stepping forward and performing a ceremonial bow. “Have I the honor of addressing Lord Costain?”

Costain’s eyes flew over his shoulder to Cathy. She read in them a mixture of astonishment, anger, and accusation. Before he could speak, she flew forward.

“The worst thing has happened, Mr. Lovell! Er, Lord Costain.”

“How did you discover my name?”

“The guard downstairs told us there was no Mr. Lovell, but there was a Lord Costain.”

“You must do better than that, Miss Lyman,” he said, closing the door and staring at her in a vaguely threatening way. “It is unlikely the guard would leap from Mr. Lovell to Lord Costain with no additional clues.”

“It was the man with the gun who called you Costain,” she said.

“Gun? What man?” he demanded.

“The man who came to my office and demanded the letter you had brought me for translation. He must have thought it was a longer letter, that would require considerable time. That I still had it, I mean.”

“Good God! Are you all right? He didn’t harm you?”

“I am fine,” she said, pleased at his concern.

“I am most sincerely sorry to have involved you in this, Miss Lyman. The man—can you describe him?”

“Not very well, for he was all muffled up, but he was tall, with close-set eyes.”

“Short, with ordinary eyes, only he was squinting,” Gordon amended, “and he had stubby, spatulate fingers.”

“He looked tall to me,” Cathy insisted.

“That is because you’re a squab,” her brother informed her.

Costain looked from one to the other in forgivable confusion. “You had best have a seat,” he said. His worst fear had come home to roost. The hotheaded young brother was now in on the secret.

It was some quarter of an hour before the matter was fully revealed. “And that is why I had to tell Gordon, for I wanted to let you know
at once
that you were being followed, and I could not come out alone at night,” Cathy concluded.

Costain paced to and fro, with one hand shading his brow to aid concentration. “Who could this man be?” Their description added nothing but confusion to the matter. He was tall and short, with close-set, squinty, ordinary eyes and short fingers. “He must have followed me from this building. I wonder if Cosgrave is having me followed.”

“Lord Cosgrave?” Gordon asked. His questioning face told his opinion of this.

“Yes, he is my immediate superior.”

Gordon rose at once. “I see. Well, we’d best be running along, then. All set, Cathy?”

Costain knew he had lost the young man’s trust. Common sense told him the youngster’s next move would be to inform Cosgrave of the whole business. He set himself to the task of charming them, and when Lord Costain decided to charm, he could bring the birds from the trees.

“You must allow me a few minutes to enlarge on the situation,” he said. “Now that I have found such willing and able cohorts, I see I must tell you everything—on the understanding that it is strictly classified information. A glass of sherry, perhaps? His Grace sent me a few cases from Northland Abbey. You are perhaps familiar with the Duke of Halford, my father?”

As he spoke, he went to a cupboard and brought out a silver tray holding crystal glasses and sherry. Gordon hesitated. The words
willing and able cohorts
and
classified information
reeled in his head. Cathy gave a mental goggle at the casual mention of the duke, and fabled Northland, one of the finest estates in Kent. Even Mama would not object when she learned Mr. Lovell was the son of a duke.

“Perhaps a quick glass,” Gordon said, and resumed his seat. “We missed out on our tea. Not that I am complaining! Though there were hot scones and raspberry jam.”

“I used to like tea, but I gained a taste for sherry when I was in the Peninsula,” Costain said. He meant to throw in everything that might impress the young fellow.

“You were in the Peninsula?” Gordon asked.

Cathy was a little disappointed in her hero. He was beginning to sound like a common, garden-variety braggart.

“The third son of the Halfords traditionally joins the army. I was sent home with a ball in the leg. Badajos,” he said modestly.

“By Jove! What can we do to help you, Lord Costain?”

Costain trod a narrow path. It took him another quarter of an hour to convince the youngsters that they must not say a word to anyone, without giving them the notion Cosgrave was a traitor. He could not quite trust Gordon to act with propriety. He stressed the importance of secrecy, and of consulting with himself before doing anything.

“The very walls have ears,” he said, glancing at the closed door. “It will not be safe for us to meet here. I shall call on you to arrange such matters as require your assistance.”

“P’raps I could go with you tonight,” Gordon said.

BOOK: The Great Christmas Ball
10.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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