Authors: Andrea Pickens
“Is everything alright, Lady Caroline?”
The young lady in question had fairly torn open the letter right in the entrance hall of the imposing manor house in her haste to know its contents. Errant ringlets of honey-colored curls, still damp from the exertion of a hard morning gallop over the fields, obscured part of her face but couldn’t hide the furrow that slowly creased her brow as she skimmed the pages.
A look of grave concern came over the butler’s craggy face as the furrow deepened. He cleared his throat and spoke again. “I trust that His Grace and the young viscount are...well?” He forbore to say the word “alive” but the slight hesitation in the question made the meaning clear enough.
She raised her eyes from the travel-worn paper. Their rich emerald color, usually vibrant with laughter and high spirits, were clouded, and it seemed to take her a moment to realize she had been spoken to.
“Yes—yes, Papa and Lucien are fine, thank the Lord. It’s just that....” Her voice trailed off. She abruptly folded the letter and tucked it into the bodice of her navy merino riding habit. “Darwin, will you please find Mrs. Graves,” she continued. “Then meet me in the library as soon as possible.”
She hurried down the finely appointed hallway and pushed open a massive oak door. The room smelled of beeswax, Moroccan leather and the faint, masculine scent of bay rum. Her throat caught at the familiar reminder of her father—this was his favorite spot. She made her way to his ornately carved desk and sat down in front of a banked fire. Despite the warmth emanating from the logs, she couldn’t shake the chill she felt creeping over her. Taking out the letter, she smoothed the creased sheets of paper and re-read them once again. Oh, the words were clear enough. More than clear. Her father was very emphatic about what he wanted her to do.
She shook her head in consternation. It made no sense. He wanted her to leave Roxbury Manor immediately upon reading his words. She was to travel in an unmarked carriage, without her lady’s maid and regular luggage, dressed as plainly as possible, with only the coachman and one of the scullery maids to act as a companion. They were to make all haste to London, stopping only to change horses and for the coachman to grab enough sleep to be able to drive with mishap, yet he wanted them to avoid the main roads. Once in Town, she was to go directly to her Uncle Henry and stay there without revealing her presence to anyone until he and her cousin returned from the Continent.
Caroline raised her eyes from the paper and thought for a moment. She was well aware of what her father was involved in. There were too many visits to Whitehall, too many shadowy visitors at odd hours for her not to be aware of his part in the government’s efforts to defeat the Little Corsican, now that the rogue had slipped away from Elba and was on the march again. Though he usually credited her intelligence enough to discuss things with her as freely as he did with her cousin Lucien, on this particular mission he had been unusually reticent. Even his sudden departure three weeks ago was prefaced by only a terse explanation that he was needed urgently in Belgium for a short time. It was only slightly mollifying that he told her cousin no more—but Lucien got to go with him. Her eyes narrowed at the thought.
They got to use their wits and have all the adventure.
She sighed and looked back at the last paragraph of the letter. It was even stranger than the preceding ones. Her father wrote that a courier may appear at Roxbury Manor with some papers for him. While that in itself was not an uncommon occurrence, it was the next lines that sent the chill within her even deeper. The Duke’s orders were that, no matter what, the man get himself away from the manor and leave at once for London. He was not to stop until he had delivered what he had to the minister himself—and only him—at Whitehall. Most importantly, he was to be warned to stay on his guard, especially on the road. The she read the last line.
I beg you do exactly as I ask. Be careful and trust no one.
* * * *
“Hmmph.” Darwin looked over his wire-rimmed spectacles at Lady Caroline Alexandra Georgina Talcott. How well he recognized the set of her jaw and what it meant. He tried to recall when he had first noticed the gesture—it must have been when the lady in question was no more than four years old and had decided that she, too, was ready to ride a horse, just like her older cousin. He nearly smiled, despite the seriousness of the situation. When that look appeared, there was no earthly power he was acquainted with that could stand up to her. He only hoped she had come to the right decision.
“Hmmph,” he repeated as he passed the letter to Mrs. Graves, who had served the Duke of Cheviot’s family nearly as long as he had. “Your father’s orders are quite clear, Miss Caroline.” There was a slight pause as he fixed her with a stern look, doing a quite credible job of mimicking the Duke’s expression when he was not to be trifled with.
Caroline’s face took on an injured look. “I don’t willfully disobey my father…”
Mrs. Graves snorted. “Like hell ye don’t, missy.”
“Mrs. Graves! Language, if you please!”
The housekeeper fixed Darwin with a basilisk stare. “Oh, don’t be ringing a peal over my head. ‘Tis nothing that hasn’t tumbled out of her mouth or that of Mr. Lucien more times than can be counted.”
Caroline had to suppress a grin. The two old retainers had been going at it for more than her twenty years, or so she had been assured, and the battle showed no signs of abating—she imagined they would be utterly lost without each other.
Mrs. Graves turned her considerable bulk towards Caroline. “And don’t ye be putting on that air of innocence. You can hardly think to gammon us! We all know you are wont to do exactly as you see fit, but on this, I agree with Mr. Darwin. You do exactly as His Grace says.” She shook the letter at Caroline. “I can feel in my bones that something is dreadfully amiss.”
Caroline’s lips compressed in a tight line. She had sensed that too. There was a strange tone to her father’s words, something she had never felt before, as if he were.... She searched for the right word. Afraid? Certainly not for himself, but for what? Helpless? Because he and Lucien were so far away?
Damnation, she thought, mentally acknowledging that Mrs. Graves was right—her vocabulary did include a number of decidedly unladylike words. Why couldn’t her father have told her exactly what was going on? She couldn’t help but feel that if it had been Lucien, instead of herself, he would have explained matters more clearly. Her jaw jutted out a fraction farther. Regardless, she would give him no cause to worry. For once, she would do exactly as she was told.
Darwin and Mrs. Graves were watching her intently. Her mouth quirked into a thin smile. “You two needn’t look at me as if you were trying to decide just how much rope you’d need to truss me into a carriage.”
Darwin let out his breath. “I knew, of course, that your innate good sense would prevail.”
“‘Course it would,” muttered Mrs. Graves. “Females always show more common sense than men when trouble arises.”
Darwin shot a quelling look at her, then continued, his tone even more imperious. “Now, it is clear your father wants you to travel incon...incock...”
“Precisely, Miss Caroline. Now, there is a small carriage with no crest in storage in the east stable. It will be just the thing.” He rang for a footman and gave a number of terse orders. Turning back to Caroline and Mrs. Graves, he added, “John Coachman is a fine driver. He will get you to London and into your uncle’s care as quickly as can be done.” That he was also a bear of a man and handy with his fives or a pistol was an added benefit, Darwin thought to himself grimly. And like all the rest of the household, he doted on the Duke’s only daughter and would do anything to keep her safe.
“Your maid must take your plainest gowns—the grey and olive ones you wear when working in the gardens will do— and alter a seam or two to make them even more unfashionable.” Mrs. Graves was not to be denied her part in the planning. “They should be worn enough, though I dare say we could add some fraying at the hem and cuffs.”
“I don’t know why Papa does not want Mathilde to accompany me...”
Mrs. Graves rolled her eyes. “After all these years, Mathilde still can’t manage a sentence that makes any sense.”
“Mathilde speaks very good English,” said Caroline, more out of loyalty than truth. “At least, I understand every word,” she added.
“You and only you,” observed Darwin. “Besides, you speak French nearly better than she does. The point is, she will attract attention...”
“And attention is exactly what His Grace doesn’t want,” finished Mrs. Graves, ignoring the butler’s miffed expression. “You’ll take Polly from the kitchens. She’s a sensible girl and one who will keep her tongue to herself.”
Caroline frowned but didn’t argue.
Darwin rose. “I suggest you have Mathilde start on what needs to be done. Have her pack only a small valise, as befitting a country squire’s daughter. In any case, you will be in London in a matter of a few days and may send for your things at Grosvenor Square. I want you to leave at first light.”
She nodded but couldn’t refrain from adding, “I wish Papa had seen fit to explain things to me. If I had a notion of what was going on, perhaps I could think of a way to help him...”
“Lady Caroline!” There was a note of warning in Darwin’s voice.
“You needn’t bellow at me. I said I would do as Papa asks. But this all doesn’t make any sense to me. Why should I be in any danger?” She looked at the others, the question in her expression as well as her words.
“More than likely His Grace is mistaken, but ‘tis better to be cautious. In all likelihood you have nothing to worry about, save for a rather uncomfortable journey back to Town,” replied Mrs. Graves, with a bravado that sounded rather hollow to all their ears. Darwin remained silent.
In all his years, he had known the Duke to make precious few mistakes.
* * * *
Caroline let the book drop in her lap as she stared into the blazing fire. She had come back to the library after supper, knowing full well that sleep would be impossible just yet, even though she must depart at dawn. There were so many questions racing through her mind, not the least of which was why her father was so concerned about this particular messenger. It was not unusual for documents to travel between the Continent, the ministry and the Duke, many of them no doubt sensitive—Caroline had known for some time what sort of work her father was engaged in. No doubt a penchant for ferreting out information ran in the family! So why was this so different...
A loud noise jarred her from her thoughts. She shot up and hurried into the hallway. The sound was coming from the drawing room. Caroline threw open the door to find that Darwin, armed with a pistol and accompanied by two of the larger footman brandishing heavy cudgels, was already cautiously approaching the set of french doors that led out to the garden terrace. The banging came again, this time a much weaker sound. Darwin undid the locks and flung the doors open as he stepped back, pistol at the ready.
A body crumpled, face forward, onto the floor. With a muted exclamation of surprise, Darwin knelt beside the motionless form and carefully turned the man over. Caroline, already at the butler’s side, was horrified to see an ugly splotch of dark crimson spread across the front of the tattered shirt. The man’s face was caked with mud and sweat, his lips chapped and bleeding. They began to move ever so slightly. “The Duke...” he whispered, barely loud enough for them to make out the words. “Papers...” His hand clutched weakly at a small oilskin packet hanging by a cord around his neck. A cough wracked the man’s frame, bringing a trickle of blood to the corners of his mouth.
“Steady now. You are safe here.” Darwin took the man’s hand in his own.
The man’s eyes fluttered open. “From France. Names...he’s trying to get...” His chest gave a convulsive heave and the faint words trailed off.
“We must send for Doctor Belding immediately,” cried Caroline. “The poor man must...”
Darwin looked up at her. “I’m afraid it is too late for that.” Gently removed the packet from around the man’s neck, he straightened and took Caroline by the arm. “Ned and William will see to the poor fellow.”
He guided her to the library and then lay the travel-stained packet in the middle of the Duke’s desk. They stared at it wordlessly for a few moments.
Darwin cleared his throat. “It seems His Grace had every right to be concerned.” he said softly.
Caroline only nodded, then reached out slowly....
Her hand took up the packet, then she reached for her father’s letter opener.
“Lady Caroline!” repeated Darwin. “What in heaven’s name do you think you are doing?”
Caroline regarded him calmly, her eyes as steely as her father’s. “The man gave his life to get these papers to my father. I have to know what they contain so we may decide what to do “