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Authors: Allison Lane

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BOOK: The Purloined Papers
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Laura’s fury over her accident remained hot, for retiring from the world gave her too much time to brood. She blamed her predicament on everyone but herself, railing at her sisters, cursing her brothers, and heaping vitriol on anyone who came near her. Even Chloe, who was paid to care for her, found it difficult to remain at her post.

After two years on the job, Chloe questioned her own sanity. Granted, she had welcomed William’s offer, for she’d been desperate to escape Fields House. Without a dowry or powerful relations, and lacking the beauty that might have overcome those faults, marriage would be impossible, so she had to support herself. Fifty guineas a year had seemed a godsend, for she could save most of it. Eventually she would be free.

In truth, freedom was nearer than she’d originally planned. Laura’s two brothers-in-law augmented her savings whenever they visited Devonshire. Both despised Laura. Both were grateful that Chloe kept her under control. Chloe had initially balked at accepting their gifts, but in the end, practicality won. Without the vails, her patience would expire long before she could quit, for Laura had proved to be far more exasperating than expected.

Laura knew nothing about this extra income. She hated both Grayson
1
and Rockhurst
2
and was so incensed with her sister, Lady Grayson, that she refused to utter her name. Thus none of them had visited Moorside. Chloe met them in the market town of Ashburton twice a year to report on Laura’s condition. Laura never accompanied her. She had traveled beyond the nearest village only once in two years – a trip to Seabrook Manor that had not been a success.

Thanks to Lords Rockhurst and Grayson, Chloe now had a hundred and fifty guineas invested in Consols – enough to rent rooms if her situation grew desperate. But she wanted a cottage with a garden. Caring for Laura’s garden was the only part of this job she enjoyed. And a kitchen garden would reduce her expenses.

Chloe set the tea tray at Laura’s side, then snipped faded flowers from the perennial border.

Laura was netting a reticule, following the instructions in a year-old copy of
Ackermann’s Repository
, but the project wasn’t going well. She was too furious to concentrate – and not just over Mrs. Tubbs. She had been cursing the fish boy since his last delivery – he’d been singing a ditty about the two-faced witch of Moorside Cottage when he reached the door. Chloe had heard it several times in the village, but that had been Laura’s first exposure.

Laura’s sensitivity made taunting her a popular sport, especially among the children, but Laura refused to admit that it was her manner that drew comments, not her appearance. No one cared that the blacksmith was missing two fingers or that the baker’s forehead bore scars from setting fire to his hair. But Laura lost her temper at the first hint of ridicule, and sometimes even earlier. Her imagination could find mockery in the most innocuous statements.

Chloe dropped the last faded bloom into her basket, stirring delicious scents that promised a lovely potpourri for her room.

“Damn!  Damn!  Damn!” Laura snarled. “These instructions are worthless.”  She threw the reticule on the ground, dashing the teapot after it.

“What happened?”

“Whoever wrote this article is an idiot.”

“Let’s see.”  Chloe retrieved the reticule, scanned the instructions, then untwisted the last two rows. Her deft fingers quickly restored the proper design. “Instructions are often confusing,” she said placatingly. “But I think they intend you to continue for another four rows before changing the pattern.”

Laura batted the reticule away. “What is the point?  I won’t use it anyway. We never go anywhere.”

“We will be at Seabrook Manor next week.”  Chloe scooped up the shattered teapot, irritated at the waste. That made three porcelain teapots since she’d come to Moorside. This time she would replace it with pottery, no matter what Laura said.

“I’m not going.”  Laura turned away, again offering her beautiful profile.

“Lord Seabrook will send his carriage on Wednesday,” Chloe continued as if Laura hadn’t spoken. “He wants the entire family at his betrothal ball.”

“No.”  Surging to her feet, Laura stomped into the house.

Chloe sighed. Pandering to Laura’s conceit usually kept the girl under control, but this time it wasn’t possible. If Laura balked, William would send several sturdy footmen to drag her home. The Seabrooks were all stubborn to a fault, and William was no exception. Having decided to invite Laura, he would ignore her tantrums. Nothing deterred him from his chosen course.

So she had to elicit Laura’s cooperation. Unfortunately, the usual enticements wouldn’t work. Laura despised her family, and while Chloe might look forward to seeing friends and neighbors again, Laura would not. So what might convince her?

Revealing her own excitement would only make matters worse, for Laura might dig in her heels simply to punish her companion. And Chloe had no reason to anticipate the gathering, she reminded herself. She wasn’t attending as a guest and could no longer expect deference as a baronet’s daughter. Companions remained on the fringes.

But anything was better than weeks and months of Laura’s megrims.

* * * *

Sir Nigel bolted upright in bed, staring in horror at the figure cloaked in black. Light from a single candle glinted from a pistol.

“Return the letters. Now!” snapped the man, teeth flashing white in the gloom.

“What?  Who are you?”  But he knew. Sir Nigel’s heart lurched into a full gallop. How had they identified him?

His third request for a small payment had been a mistake. In the two months since finding the letters, he had amassed enough evidence to convict these men several times over. He should have been content. But he had forgotten the third mortgage when making his original calculations. Then Peter had again—

“Now!”  His caller cocked the pistol.

Mind racing, Sir Nigel slid from the bed. Producing the letters would cost him his life. So would refusing. Thus he must stall and pray for escape. The first step was to dress. He would feel less vulnerable when properly clad. Removing his nightshirt, he headed for his dressing room.

He’d hidden the letters where no one would ever find them and kept the other evidence in the priest’s hole so he could study it in private. If he failed to escape, Peter would find it. Pray God the boy would turn it over to the authorities.

Don’t think about that.
Stepping into breeches, he pulled on a shirt, then reached for a fresh cravat.

“We aren’t making morning calls,” snapped his visitor. “Stop dawdling and return the letters.”

“They are in the library.”  His voice shook so badly that he clamped his jaw shut. The library offered his best hope. It was a logical hiding place and contained at least one weapon.

Heart in his throat, he paced the length of the hall, exuding a confidence he did not feel.

In the library, he moved to the fireplace and tugged on the loose brick he’d noticed last week. It stuck. Cursing, he wiggled it until his fingers were raw, then used the poker to pry at it. Curiosity lured his visitor a step closer.

Sir Nigel whirled to strike.

* * * *

Captain Andrew Seabrook grimaced at the voices emanating from the billiard room. His brothers were arguing again. With Oxford’s fall term due to start, it was becoming a daily ritual.

“Absolutely not!” swore William, slamming balls together hard enough to be heard through the heavy door. “You will return to school and forget about the navy. Only a madman wants to be flogged every day of his life.”

“I wouldn’t—”

“You would. You are too stubborn to follow orders and too rigid to accept advice.”

“I’m not!” insisted eighteen-year-old Thomas. “Just because you enjoy herding sheep and grubbing about in fields doesn’t mean everyone does. I love the sea. I need to travel. I can’t tolerate another quarter of Greek and idiotic tutors.”

“You are too old,” snapped William. “The navy starts their officers as midshipmen – fourteen at most.”

“Not always.”  Thomas’s voice grew eager. “I spoke with Captain Marshal in Exeter last week. Piracy has grown so bold in every sea that they need more ships than ever. He would welcome me as—”

“No.”  William remained implacable. “It’s bad enough that Andrew nearly died serving the Crown. I won’t put another Seabrook in jeo—”

Andrew ducked into the library, closed the door against the noise, and poured himself a drink. Why did William keep dragging his name into the fight?  This wasn’t his battle.

William was right to insist that Thomas finish school, for the boy needed a career that would support him. He couldn’t rely on the navy. One injury could disable him forever. Few could survive long on half-pay.

Yet William’s edicts were heavy-handed at best and might prod Thomas down a path he would regret. William was a simple man with a limited sense of humor, puritanical views, and no imagination. His goals were to build Seabrook Manor into a prosperous estate and produce an heir who would care as deeply for the land as he did. He wanted Thomas to complete a gentleman’s education, then come home to help with the estate.

What William refused to acknowledge was that Thomas hated farming. He wanted to travel and seek adventure. Yet Thomas’s dreams could never be achieved in the navy. Shipboard life was hard and battle painful. Death was easy. Survival wasn’t – especially if one lost a limb or an eye. Even emerging physically whole left inner scars that Andrew would wish on no one, especially a brother. And once Thomas joined the navy, he would never escape.

Like him. Eleven years of war dragged at his spirits. Deep inside, he wanted nothing more than to sell his army commission, but that was impossible. His only skill was fighting. His only income was his military pay. Without it, he would starve to death.

He wouldn’t be the first to face that fate. For years London had been littered with soldiers who could no longer fight. Their condition deteriorated steadily. Now it was worse, for Napoleon’s defeat meant that the military no longer needed as many men. Thousands were being released. Few could find jobs. Many had no families. Competition for employment was keen, so those without skills could only beg – or worse. The newspapers already decried an increase in thievery.

He shuddered, forcing despair back into its hole. Succumbing to fear would make the next battle harder and could cost him his life – assuming his regiment took him back. It would leave for India soon. If his leg was not recovered, he would lose his commission. Only the fit would survive the regimental purge.

Draining his glass, he poured another.

All he knew was warfare. Estate management held no interest. Farmers seemed as alien as those black Africans he’d seen or the Chinese he’d heard about. Nor did he know anything about sheep. He’d known since birth that his life lay with the army – duty demanded that second sons serve the king – so he’d paid little attention to alternatives. Buying colors at sixteen meant he lacked the schooling to serve the church. Eleven years of following orders and castigating subordinates had destroyed any potential diplomatic skills. And he doubted anyone would hire a cynical warrior as a secretary.

So he had to recover from these damnable wounds. The military was the only life he knew.

He stared at the empty fireplace wishing for heat to loosen his thigh, but no one built fires in August – September now, he corrected himself. The coal scuttle was empty, and the servants long abed.

That was where he ought to be, but he couldn’t sleep. The worst part of recuperation was the restlessness caused by inactivity.

In the two weeks since he’d removed the splints, he’d worked the leg as much as possible. The limp was fading, but he couldn’t walk above a mile, and riding was worse. He’d barely managed an hour in the saddle that morning.

The pain was so bad he feared he would never be whole again. Fear raised anxiety for the future. Anxiety kept him awake. Sleeplessness left too many hours in which to fall into despair. The resulting lack of energy made the next day’s exercise even more painful. It was a never-ending cycle that might cost him his commission.

“Stop complaining,” he muttered, reaching for the decanter. “At least the damned thing is still there. And it’s healing. Harvey will have to eat his words.” 

Only his vehement protests, backed by Major Barnfield’s pleas, had saved the leg from amputation. Harvey had sworn that even if Andrew survived the inevitable infection, he would never walk again. Andrew had remained adamant. And Harvey had been wrong. The wound had not turned putrid, and the bone had healed. But unless he recovered his strength, it would do no good.

Stop thinking about it!

He shoved the decanter aside. Wine made him maudlin, and he was already blue-deviled enough. It was better to think about Harvey’s misjudgment.

To be fair, Harvey had worked for thirty hours without rest before reaching Andrew. Amputation was faster than the lengthy process of removing debris deeply embedded in flesh. With the battlefield’s perpetual lack of remedies and shortage of surgeons, damaged limbs usually developed gangrene anyway, so removing them saved lives. But Andrew could still feel the shock of that initial pronouncement. It had blocked his pain, muffled the screams of his fellow victims, and banished lingering images of the battlefield.

Don’t think about that day!

But how could he not?  Waterloo had been the worst battle he’d fought in eleven years with the 95
th
. Worse than Albuera. Worse than Badajoz. Worse than the bloody defeat at New Orleans. Mud. Smoke. Screams as the French cavalry drove again and again against his ever-diminishing square. Piles of dead and wounded. Rivers of blood.

Think about the future, not the past.

Right. The future. His leg was improving. Though it remained stiff, with a tendency to buckle without warning, time and exercise would restore its vigor. The flesh wasn’t pretty, but appearance didn’t matter. He would be in India soon.

You don’t want—

Of course he wanted to see India. It was full of strange animals and new customs. Lester, one of the army engineers, had served there for several years and described exotic buildings with amazingly intricate towers and carved spires. Wellington had also served there, as had others he knew. Many men had amassed fortunes.

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