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Authors: Stephanie Laurens

The Lady Chosen

BOOK: The Lady Chosen
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Table of Contents

The Bastion Club

Prologue

“His Royal Highness’s straits must be dire indeed if he…

Chapter One

Lust and a virtuous woman—only a fool combined the…

Chapter Two

Extending along one side of the house, the large library…

Chapter Three

He couldn’t risk lighting a match to check his watch.

Chapter Four

It wasn’t the first time in his career that he’d…

Chapter Five

Tristan nodded to Charles St. Austell and reached for the doorknob…

Chapter Six

The conservatory was her domain. Other than the gardener, no…

Chapter Seven

He considered every option before replying, “At times.”

Chapter Eight

Arranging to be seduced, Leonora was perfectly sure, wasn’t supposed…

Chapter Nine

She had cooled; he hadn’t. He seriously doubted she had…

Chapter Ten

When he called to take her driving in the park…

Chapter Eleven

Over breakfast the next morning, Leonora considered her social calendar;…

Chapter Twelve

There was very little Tristan didn’t know about establishing a…

Chapter Thirteen

“Excellent!” Leonora looked up as Tristan walked in. Quickly tidying her…

Chapter Fourteen

He’d insisted on escorting her home. Only their hands had…

Chapter Fifteen

Accomplishing that goal—making her peace with Tristan—arranging to…

Chapter Sixteen

The next morning, Leonora breezed down to the breakfast parlor…

Chapter Seventeen

The day was fleeing, whipped away by grey squalls, as…

Chapter Eighteen

For all his relative naïveté, Jeremy was correct in one…

Chapter Nineteen

“It’s all still a mystery to me. I can’t make…

Chapter Twenty

“I’m so sorry!” Leonora helped Humphrey out of the closet.

Announcing the next book in the Basiton Club Series

Author’s Note

About the Author

By Stephanie Laurens

Copyright

About the Publisher

The Pavilion, Brighton
October 1815

“His Royal Highness’s straits must be dire indeed if he needs must summon His Britannic Majesty’s best simply to bask in the reflected glory.”

The drawled comment contained more than a little cynicism; Tristan Wemyss, fourth Earl of Trentham, glanced across the stuffy music room, packed with guests, sycophants, and all manner of toadies, at its subject.

Prinny stood in the center of a circle of admirers. Decked out in gold braid and crimson, with epaulets high and fully fringed, their Regent was in genial and expansive good humor, retelling heroic tales of derring-do drawn from the dispatches of recent engagements, most notably that of Waterloo.

Both Tristan and the gentleman standing beside him, Christian Allardyce, Marquess of Dearne, knew the real stories; they had been there. Easing free of the throng, they’d retreated to the side of the opulent chamber to avoid hearing the artful lies.

It was Christian who’d spoken.

“Actually,” Tristan murmured, “I’d viewed tonight more in the nature of a distraction—a feint, if you will.”

Christian raised heavy brows. “Listen to my stories of England’s greatness—don’t worry that the Exchequer’s empty and the people are starving?”

Tristan’s lips quirked downward. “Something like that.”

Dismissing Prinny and his court, Christian surveyed the others crowding the circular room. It was an all-male company primarily composed of representatives from every major regiment and arm of the services recently active; the chamber was a sea of colorful dress uniforms, of braid, polished leather, fur, and even feathers. “Telling that he chose to stage what amounts to a victory reception in Brighton rather than London, don’t you think? I wonder if Dalziel had any say in that?”

“From all I’ve gathered, our Prince is no favorite in London, but it seems our erstwhile commander has taken no chances with those names he volunteered for the guest list tonight.”

“Oh?”

They were talking quietly, out of habit disguising their communication as nothing more than a social exchange between acquaintances. Habit died hard, especially since, until recently, such practices had been vital to staying alive.

Tristan smiled vaguely, indeed
through
a gentleman who glanced their way; the man decided against intruding. “I saw Deverell at the table—he was seated not far from me. He mentioned that Warnefleet and St. Austell were here, too.”

“You can add Tregarth and Blake—I saw them as I was arriving—” Christian broke off. “Ah, I see. Dalziel has only allowed those of us who have sold out to appear?”

Tristan caught his eye; the smile that was never far
from his mobile lips deepened. “Can you imagine Dalziel allowing even Prinny to identify his most secret of secret operatives?”

Christian hid a smile, raised his glass to his lips, and sipped.

Dalziel—he went by no other name or honorific—was the Foreign Office taskmaster who, from his office buried in the depths of Whitehall, managed His British Majesty’s foreign spy network, a network that had been instrumental in handing victory to England and her allies both in the Peninsula campaign and more recently at Waterloo. Together with a certain Lord Whitley, his opposite number in the Home Office, Dalziel was responsible for all covert operations both within England and beyond its borders.

“I didn’t realize Tregarth or Blake were in the same boat as we two, and I know of the others only by repute.” Christian glanced at Tristan. “Are you sure the others are leaving?”

“I know Warnefleet and Blake are, for much the same reasons as we. As for the others, it’s purely conjecture but I can’t see Dalziel compromising an operative of St. Austell’s caliber, or Tregarth’s or Deverell’s for that matter, just to pander to Prinny’s latest whim.”

“True.” Christian again looked out over the sea of heads.

Both he and Tristan were tall, broad-shouldered, and lean, with the honed strength of men used to action, a strength imperfectly concealed by the elegant cut of their evening clothes. Beneath those clothes, both bore the scars of years of active service; although their nails were perfectly manicured, it would be some months yet before the telltale signs of their unusual, often ungentlemanly erstwhile occupation faded from their hands—the calluses, the roughness, the leatherlike palms.

They and their five colleagues known to be present had
all served Dalziel and their country for at least a decade, Christian for nearly fifteen years. They’d served in whatever guise had been required, from nobleman to streetsweeper, from clerk to navvy. There had, for them, been only one measure of success—discovering the information they’d been sent behind enemy lines to acquire and surviving long enough to get it back to Dalziel.

Christian sighed, drained his glass. “I’m going to miss it.”

Tristan’s laugh was short. “Aren’t we all?”

“Be that as it may, given that we’re no longer on His Majesty’s payroll”—Christian set his empty glass down on a nearby sideboard—“I fail to see why we need stand here talking, when we could be much more comfortable doing the same elsewhere…” His grey gaze met the eyes of a gentleman clearly considering approaching; the gentleman considered again and turned away. “And without running the risk of having to do the pretty for whichever toady captures us and demands to hear our story.”

Glancing at Tristan, Christian raised a brow. “What say you—shall we adjourn to pleasanter surrounds?”

“By all means.” Tristan handed his empty glass to a passing footman. “Do you have any particular venue in mind?”

“I’ve always been partial to the Ship and Anchor. It has a very cosy snug.”

Tristan inclined his head. “The Ship and Anchor, then. Dare we leave together, do you think?”

Christian’s lips curved. “Heads together, talking earnestly in hushed and urgent tones—if we make for the door unobtrusively but determinedly, I can see no reason we shouldn’t walk straight through.”

 

They did. Everyone who saw them assumed one had been sent to summon the other for some secret but highly significant
purpose; the footmen rushed to get their coats, and then they strode out, into the crisp night.

Both paused, drew in a deep breath, clearing the stultifying stuffiness of the overheated Pavilion from their lungs, then, exchanging faint smiles, they stepped out.

Leaving the Pavilion’s brightly lit entrance, they emerged onto North Street. Turning right, they walked with the relaxed gait of men who knew where they were going toward Brighton Square and the Lanes beyond. Reaching the narrow cobbled ways lined with fishermen’s cottages, they dropped into single file, at every crossroads changing place, eyes always watching, searching the shadows…if either realized, realized they were now at home, at peace, no longer fugitives, no longer at war, neither commented nor tried to suppress the behavior that had become second nature to them both.

They headed steadily south, toward the sound of the sea, soughing in the darkness beyond the shore. Finally, they turned into Black Lion Street. At the end of the street lay the Channel, the border beyond which they’d lived most of the past decade. Halting beneath the swaying sign of the Ship and Anchor, they both paused, eyes on the darkness framed by the houses at the end of the street. The smell of the sea, the brine on the wind, the familiar tang of seaweed reached them.

Memory held them both for an instant, then, as one, they turned. Christian pushed open the door, and they went inside.

Warmth enveloped them, the sounds of English voices, the hop-infused scent of good English ale. Both relaxed, an indefinable tension falling from them. Christian walked up to the bar. “Two pots of your best.”

The landlord nodded a greeting and quickly pulled the pints.

Christian glanced at the half-closed door behind the bar. “We’ll sit in your snug.”

The landlord glanced at him, then set the frothing tankards on the bar. He shot a quick glance at the snug door. “As to that, sir, you’re welcome, I’m sure, but there’s a group o’ gen’lemen in there already, and they might not welcome strangers, like.”

Christian raised his brows. He reached for the flap in the counter and lifted it, stepping past as he picked up one tankard. “We’ll risk it.”

Tristan hid a grin, tossed coins on the counter for the ale, hoisted the second tankard, and followed on Christian’s heels.

He was standing at Christian’s shoulder when Christian sent the snug door swinging wide.

The group gathered about two tables pushed together looked around; five pairs of eyes locked on them.

Five grins dawned.

Charles St. Austell sat back in the chair at the far end of the table and magnanimously waved them in. “You are better men than we. We were about to take bets on how long you’d stand it.”

 

The others stood so the tables and chairs could be rearranged. Tristan shut the door, set down his tankard, then joined in the round of introductions.

Although they’d all served under Dalziel, they’d never met all seven together. Each knew some of the others; none had previously met all.

Christian Allardyce, the eldest and longest-serving, had operated in the east of France, often in Switzerland, Germany, and the other smaller states and principalities; with his fairish coloring and facility for languages, he’d been a natural in that sphere.

Tristan himself had served more generally, often in the heart of things, in Paris and the major industrial cities; his fluency in French as well as German and Italian, his
brown hair, brown eyes, and easy charm had served him and his country well.

He’d never crossed paths with Charles St. Austell, the most outwardly flamboyant of the group. With his tumbling black locks and flashing dark blue eyes, Charles was a magnet for ladies young and old. Half-French, he possessed both the tongue and the wit to make the most of his physical attributes; he’d been Dalziel’s principal operative in the south of France, in Carcasonne and Toulouse.

Gervase Tregarth, a Cornishman with curling brown hair and sharp hazel eyes, had, so Tristan learned, spent much of the last decade in Britanny and Normandy. He knew St. Austell from the past, but in the field they’d never met.

Tony Blake was another scion of an English house who was also half-French. Black-haired, black-eyed, he was the most elegant of the group, yet there was an underlying sharpness beneath the smooth veneer; he was the operative Dalziel had most often used to intercept and interfere with the French spymasters’ networks, a hideously dangerous undertaking centered on the northern French ports. That Tony was alive was a testament to his mettle.

Jack Warnefleet was outwardly a conundrum; he appeared so overtly English, startlingly handsome with fairish brown hair and hazel eyes, that it was hard to imagine he’d been consistently successful in infiltrating all levels of French shipping and many business deals as well. He was a chameleon even more than the rest of them, with a cheery, hail-fellow-well-met geniality few saw beyond.

Deverell was the last man Tristan shook hands with, a personable gentleman with an easy smile, dark brown hair, and greenish eyes. Despite being uncommonly
handsome he possessed the knack of blending in with any group. He had served almost exclusively in Paris and had never been detected.

The introductions complete, they sat. The snug was now comfortably full; a fire burned cheerily in one corner as in the flickering light they settled about the table, almost shoulder to shoulder.

They were all large men; they had all at some point been guardsmen in one regiment or another, until Dalziel had found them and lured them into serving through his office.

Not that he’d had to persuade all that hard.

Savoring his first sip of ale, Tristan ran his eye around the table. Outwardly, they were all different, yet they were, very definitely, brothers beneath the skin. Each was a gentleman born of some aristocratic lineage, each possessed similar attributes, abilities, and talents although the relative balance differed. Most importantly, however, each was a man capable of dicing with danger, one who would accept the challenge of a life-and-death engagement without a flicker—more, with an inbred confidence and a certain devil-may-care arrogance.

There was more than a touch of the wild adventurer in each of them. And they were loyal to the bone.

Deverell set down his tankard. “Is it true we’ve all sold out?” There were nods and glances all around; Deverell grinned. “Is it polite to inquire why?” He looked at Christian. “In your case, I assume Allardyce must now become Dearne?”

Wryly, Christian inclined his head. “Indeed. Once my father died, and I came into the title, any choice evaporated. If it hadn’t been for Waterloo, I would already be mired in issues pertaining to sheep and cattle, and no doubt leg-shackled to boot.”

His tone, faintly disgusted, brought commiserating smiles to the others’ faces.

“That sounds all too familiar.” Charles St. Austell looked down the table. “I hadn’t expected to inherit, but while I was away, both my elder brothers failed me.” He grimaced. “So now I’m the Earl of Lostwithiel and, so my sisters, sisters-in-law, and dear mother constantly remind me, long overdue at the altar.”

Jack Warnefleet laughed, not exactly humorously. “Entirely unexpectedly, I’ve joined the club, too. The title was expected—it was the pater’s—but the houses and the blunt came via a great-aunt I barely knew existed, so now, I’ve been told, I rank high on the list of eligibles and can expect to be hunted until I surrender and take a wife.”

“Moi, aussi.”
Gervase Tregarth nodded to Jack. “In my case it was a cousin who succumbed to consumption and died ridiculously young, so now I’m the Earl of Crowhurst, with a house in London I haven’t even seen and a need, so I’ve been informed, to get myself a wife and heir, given I’m now the last of the line.”

Tony Blake made a dismissive sound. “At least you don’t have a French mother—believe me, when it comes to hounding one to the altar, they take the cake.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Charles raised his tankard to Tony. “But does that mean you, too, have returned to these shores to discover yourself encumbered?”

BOOK: The Lady Chosen
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