Read an Excerpt
Lord Winston took his position on the fencing strip and injected as much boredom and hauteur into his voice as he could without insulting his young opponent. Why Monsieur Angelus had assigned him this tall, almost gangly youth as a sparring partner, Winston could not guess. His purpose in patronizing this particular academy was to meet with London's most challenging adversaries. But today, the fencing master had paired him with someone who had the look of an untried novice, a youth so green that he wore a protective mask. When they had lifted their Italian foils in their opening salute to each other, Winston could even see a slight tremor in the boy's hand, a sure sign he would have no trouble dispensing with him.
"Mais non, monsieur." Flawless French spoken in an alto tone revealed that the youth's voice had not yet changed. What a foolish youngster to come out and play with grown gentlemen. "Vous en garde."
So he meant to launch the first attack. Winston smirked.
"Très bien, enfant. Proceed." Expecting a wild lunge, he prepared to deflect the boy's foil and make quick work of this match so he could advance to a more exciting opponent.
But the aim was steady as he thrust his sword at Winston's heart. Winston jumped back to avoid the "fatal" touch of the button-shielded weapon on his padded vest. Interesting. Now he truly was on guard, for the youth was proving to be a real adversary. Winston lunged, searching for a weakness that he usually found in an opponent's eyes. But that ridiculous mask hid such unintentional signals. No doubt he was a pretty boy whose mother demanded that he wear the unmanly protection.
The boy grunted softly as he sidestepped to avoid the touch, holding his foil in the proper defensive position. With a clink of metal on metal, their two saucer-shaped hilts caught and held, and Winston stared into the mesh of the mask, seeking a weakness in the dark, shadowed eyes. All he saw was hatred.
For the briefest instant, shock overrode his customary coolness in this sport. Why should this stranger despise him? No doubt he was a Napoleon sympathizer, bitter over his emperor's recent defeat and exile. Winston would happily teach him a lesson in British superiority. He shoved the boy away and took a more aggressive tack. Using every trick his father and Monsieur Angelus had taught him, he bore down upon his opponent with aggressive parries and rapid ripostes, at last striking the boy's right hand hard with his buttoned blade.
The lad gasped and dropped his foil, then straightened and spread his arms to accept the "fatal" touch.
Unexpected compassion filled Winston's chest. For his surprising skill, the lad deserved another chance. "Not at all, my boy." He pointed his weapon at the dropped sword.
"Pick it up."
Without a word of gratitude, the Frenchman grasped the foil with his left hand and lunged at Winston. Another surprise from this astonishing foe. Again they parried back and forth. Their ripostes increased in speed. The metallic clink of the blades grew louder, the boy's grunts more frequent. Winston found himself breathless, as well. He became aware of other gentlemen stopping their own matches to watch. Good. That was exactly the kind of attention he required in his quest for political influence, especially since the Duke of Kent could be among the onlookers.
In the second it took for Winston to foolishly locate the king's son, the French youth found an opening and lunged. Warning cries went up from the crowd, and Winston saw the unshielded foil coming at his heart. Fear shot through him. Did the boy mean to kill him? No, for he hesitated, doubtless aware of the lethaland illegaldanger he was imposing upon his opponent. Winston seized the moment to deflect the weapon and strike his own blow on the heart-shaped target on his opponent's padded vest.
"Touche." Winston straightened, unable to hide a triumphant smirk amid the applause of the other gentlemen.
The boy should have lifted his foil in a salute. Should have congratulated Winston on his victory. Should have removed that ridiculous mask to reveal his identity.
Instead, he threw down his weapon and shoved his way through the crowd, disappearing down a back corridor, utterly depriving Winston of his chance to act the gracious victor.
Catherine du Coeur thought her heart might leap from her chest. Pulling off her mask, she stumbled against the wall, but caught herself from falling as she scurried down the back corridor of Monsieur Angelus's fencing academy.
Never in her twenty years had she encountered such arrogance. True, she knew little of London's aristocracy, but Lord Winston's pride would put a peacock to shame. Vanity and conceit were written across his all-too-handsome face, which was framed with blond hair so curly she could almost envy him. Then there were those intense gray-green eyes and that straight, narrow nose he'd peered down to look at her as if she were some sort of inferior being. She could see from the way he carried himself, the way he ruthlessly defeated her, that he would have no scruples about using false evidence to send an innocent Christian gentleman to the gallows.
Perhaps she was just making excuses. God had been merciful in staying her hand when she had the chance to plunge the unprotected foil into the baron's evil heart. No, she would not be the one to kill him, merely the one to expose and destroy him for what he did to Papa.
"Very clever, my dear." Mr. Radcliff came out of the shadows at the back door and flung her black woolen cloak around her shoulders. "How did you remove the button?" He gave her arm a paternal pat. "And why did you hesitate? You could have killed Winston and been done with it."
She pulled the hood over her head. "Hurry. We must get away before anyone pursues us." To gain her admittance to the academy, Mr. Radcliff had forged a letter as if from Papa to Monsieur Angelus, who was all too willing to let his old friend's "son" fence at the Haymarket academy. She could not imagine what Mr. Radcliff included in the letter to persuade Monsieur Angelus to overlook the scandal and lies attached to Papa's name. But it would only add to her father's disgrace if that "son" was discovered to be a girl.
They exited the back door of the elegant stone building into the sweltering heat and entered the waiting hackney. Only when they were seated and on their way could Catherine breathe out a long sigh of relief. When she inhaled, the stink of horses and sewage nearly sickened her. How she longed for her country home, but until Papa's name was cleared, she must endure the miseries of a London summer.
"I did not remove the button. It broke off when the baron knocked my foil to the floor."
"Ah." He pointed to the gloved hand Lord Winston struck. "Is the injury severe?"
"'Tis nothing at all." No doubt bruised, but fortunately, ladies wore gloves at all times, even in the summer, so she could keep the injury covered. She brushed back her hood and pulled a linen handkerchief from her sleeve to mop away the perspiration streaming down her face. "Is London always this hot?"
"It is unusually warm this year." Mr. Radcliff retrieved a black linen fan and waved it before his pale, slender face. Understanding filled his dark gray eyes, and she could see he would ask no more questions about her duel with Winston. This gentleman knew she could not commit murder. Just as Papa had always done, he was letting her learn through her experiences. And today she had learned much about Lord Winston. Now she could plot her revenge.
She gazed at Mr. Radcliff fondly across the small carriage. How like an uncle he was with his care for her family. Vaguely resembling his cousin, Lord Winston, he was perhaps five and forty years old, a little older than Papa and Mama. But he appeared much older due to his thin, frail body and wispy gray hair. The three of them had been friends long ago. This winter past, when Lord Winston had falsely accused Papa of being a Bonapartist and conspiring to assassinate the French king, who had taken refuge in England, Mr. Radcliff had helped Papa escape imprisonment. Then he befriended the family when no one else would. Now, as secretary to Lord Blakemore, he had secured a position for Catherine as Lady Blakemore's companion, providing her with fabricated references to keep anyone from associating her with someone all deemed a would-be assassin. Catherine's family owed him so much, but he asked nothing in return for all of his kindnesses.
A rush of gratitude swept into her chest. "Dear friend, I wish you could attend the marchioness's ball this evening." She gave him a playful smile, such as she might bestow upon Papa. "I would dance every dance with you."
"What?" He chuckled. "And scandalize your gracious employer, not to mention my beloved wife?" His expression fell. "No, no, my dear. Such gaiety is not for the likes of me. I had my youth. Now it is your turn."
She guessed he had suffered some great loss, but she would not ask him about it lest it remind him of his sorrows. Perhaps in helping her, he was somehow finding comfort.
The hackney wended its way through the London traffic much too slowly for Catherine's taste. Today was her half day off, and she needed to be back at Blakemore House soon to prepare for the ball. But Lady Blakemore was a tolerant employer, so she did not worry excessively. Moreover, this afternoon's charade had served an important purpose. She had evaluated her enemy and knew his greatest weakness, which was nothing short of overweening pride. How easy it would be to use that fault to destroy him or at the least force him to admit that his evidence against Papa was false.
She would somehow arrange an introduction, flatter him and win his friendship, perhaps even his love, then coax him into confessing his crime to her. Last, she would go to Lord Blakemore and beseech him to ruin Lord Winston with the information. Even though he was a peer, Winston would be punished, perhaps imprisoned. Papa would be absolved of all guilt and could return home. Only then would she be satisfied with her revenge.
A vague memory scratched at the back of her mind, a Bible verse advising that vengeance belonged to God alone. But surely the Almighty would understand she was the only one who could save Papa from execution for a crime he did not commit.
Winston surveyed the ballroom, looking for another partner. Of the three young ladies with whom he had already danced, not one excited his interest. Their mutual indifference was obvious in the way they continued to cast glances at the uniformed soldiers who dotted the room like a measles rash. Not that he would have any of the silly chits, but surely his wealth, his pedigree and his barony of writ that extended back to the days of Henry III should garner some interest among the marriageable misses in Society. No doubt it was the uniform. Had Father not forbidden Winston to join His Majesty's army to fight Napoleon, he, too, could be attracting a bevy of colorful butterflies.
What vain and foolish thoughts. What care did he have for their frivolous choices? His features and physique were passable, or at least not repulsive, yet he would much rather strengthen his inner man, his character, as Father had always instructed from the Scriptures. Likewise, in his necessary pursuit of a wife, he must search for a sensible, refined lady of good pedigree. Yet after twice losing his targets to other gentlemen, his confidence had begun to falter, especially tonight as the gallant, crimson-coated heroes forced him to the sidelines. On the other hand, what better place to observe which young ladies might have the essential character his wife must possess?
He must not make the same mistake Father made some twenty-five years ago. After burying two wives and their unborn children, the previous Lord Winston married a lady thirty-two years his junior in his final attempt to produce a living heir. Such a tenuous beginning always humbled Winston, for he and his sister would not exist had those poor souls not perished. How often he wondered if he would ever live up to God's expectations for himor Father's. Certainly Mother had not. Although Winston loved her, he had long wondered what shortcoming had caused Father to banish her to their country estate some seventeen years ago, while Winston was a small boy.
But again, these were vain and foolish thoughts. He must concentrate on his search and find a sensible lady of good family and connections. Perhaps if she were plain, she would not be inclined to silliness. He would leave the silly girls to their soldiers. If this evening did not produce at least one candidate for him to pursue, he would be forced to accept Countess Lieven's invitation to Almack's tomorrow evening, a prospect he did not find agreeable, despite the countess's well-regarded political influence.
Across the room, Miss Waddington stood chatting with her mother, Lady Grandly. The young lady had the deportment required of a diplomat's wife, but she was given to occasional giggling. Winston shuddered. Perhaps he could school it out of her. With a sigh, he began his trek toward her. Although she had refused him the last time, perhaps she would look with favor on him this time.
Guests whirled about the floor in a waltz, obscuring his view of the lady, so he skirted the dancers and ambled toward her. At that moment, a red uniform bowed over her hand. Winston spun away with not a whit of disappointment. Yet when he noticed newlyweds Lord and Lady Greystone nearby, gazing at each other with obvious adoration, a surprising pang struck his chest. What would it be like to find a lady who loved him, one whom he could love in return? How did a gentleman go about finding such a jewel? Considering Father's apparent disappointment with Mother, Winston feared he would make the same mistake in his haste to wed. And wed he must. A wife was as essential to a diplomat as linguistic skills. Yet here he stood in a room full of young ladies, utterly unable even to find a supper partner, much less a candidate to wed.
He clenched his jaw. If this ball were not so important to his career, he would leave. But one simply did not leave the marquess's ball before supper. Perhaps he should give up his quest for the evening and find an old dowager to dine with. He had always appreciated the wisdom of the older generation, and most of them seemed to find his company agreeable, as well.
"Ah, there you are, Winston." Lady Blakemore accosted him near the refreshment table. "I must ask a favor of you."