Read an Excerpt
Barely a Lady
By Dreyer, Eileen
Forever Copyright © 2010 Dreyer, Eileen
All right reserved.
Dawn, June 15, 1815
It would take a miracle to get him out of this alive. And he had the feeling he’d long since used up his share of miracles.
Warming his hands on a hot tin of coffee, he took a moment to assess his environment. The plain of Charleroi spread out before him like a green and gold patchwork quilt sewn together with hedgerows. Dawn thinned the summer sky to a watery yellow, and the smoke from a hundred cannons writhed through the morning mist. Relative silence temporarily reigned, but the battlefield was a site of frantic activity.
The air stank of cordite, overridden horses, and unwashed men. As far as the eye could see, men were preparing for battle. Campfires were being doused, weapons checked. The rolling landscape echoed with the rhythmic scraping of swords being honed, the nervous whinnying of horses, the sharp sounds of command.
In his own vicinity, men were stripping their kits of everything they wouldn’t need. Uniforms were straightened and checked, bad jokes exchanged, courage exhorted.
No one took any notice of him as he stood beside one of the doused campfires. He was just another officer trying to catch a quick smoke as he waited for the call to arms.
This was it, then. The final battle for Europe. How the hell had he ended up here? He’d only wanted to get back to Brussels. He had a mission to finish, a final gift to deliver, and nothing stood between him and success but the two armies massing to collide like great beasts.
If he had been a different man, or this had been a different time, he probably would have happily stayed to offer his life up on the altar of patriotism. Nothing played quite as well at home as a solemn memorial stone in the village church.
But he wasn’t that man. He’d already committed more sins to get here than a soul is allowed, and he couldn’t let himself be stopped now. He had to reach Brussels. And when he was finished here, he had to go home to England. He owed it to the people he’d left behind. He owed it to the ones who waited ahead. Most of all, he owed it to himself.
It was time to finally answer old questions. To do that, he needed to face Livvie and Gervaise. He needed to settle things with his family. He needed to get revenge.
Yes, he thought, pulling the cheroot he’d been smoking from his mouth and flipping it onto the grass, that was what he would live for. Revenge.
Whistles sounded up and down the line. Men gathered into the great columns that had terrorized a continent. He dumped his coffee on the ground and buttoned his tunic. Picking up his sword, he sheathed it with a lethal-sounding hiss. He checked the powder and priming on his pistol and retrieved the musket he would reload and fire on the run. He stood alone in the chaos, trying to see if there was any way to avoid this fracas.
A young soldier ran up and greeted him with a breathless salute. “Mon Capitaine. The enemy is in sight.”
He looked at the anxious young face before him and wished he could laugh. Was this a tragedy or a farce he was caught in? The lad who stood before him hadn’t even been introduced to a razor.
“Indeed, Private. And what is our job this morning?”
The boy looked confused. “To harry the enemy flanks, sir.”
“And so we shall. But for you, mon brave, I have a special mission. You are willing?”
If possible, the boy grew taller. “But of course, sir.”
“Excellent.” Pulling out a slip of paper and a nub of charcoal, he scribbled a note. “Deliver this request to the quartermaster. And then stay at his command until it is done.”
No matter what other sins lay on his soul, he was not going to send this child to be slaughtered. At least not this day.
The boy cast a brief frown over his shoulder to where the red British uniforms were beginning to materialize through the mist. He looked puzzled, but finally he accepted the twist of paper. Then, saluting, he ran for the rear.
Waiting only until he was sure the boy was well out of it, the captain straightened his blue tunic and shot his red cuffs. Then, giving the uniform he’d worked so hard to acquire a final pat, he set his shako on his head.
“Well, then,” he snapped to the rest of the men as he pulled out his pistol. “Don’t stand there like sheep. The enemy comes!”
As one, the squad of sharpshooters turned to jog through the receding mist. Along the plain, trumpets blared. The great drums began to beat the pas de charge. Thousands of strong voices took up the chant, “Vive l’empereur!” and the massive columns set off. The Battle for Quatre Bras had begun.
He had no choice but to engage.
God forgive him.
Setting off at a lope, he followed his ragged squad of blue-clad soldiers. A line of sharp, crimson uniforms became visible at the ridge. He raised his pistol and fired.
A soldier in blue jerked and fell.
Tossing away his pistol, he lifted the musket and fired again.
11:00 p.m., Thursday, June 15, 1815
All prey understands the need for concealment. Sitting at the edge of a crowded ballroom, Olivia Grace knew this better than most and kept her attention on the room like a gazelle sidling up to a watering hole.
Olivia couldn’t help smiling. Watering holes. She’d been reading too many naturalists’ journals. Not that there weren’t predators here, of course. It would have been impossible to miss them, with their bright plumage, sharp claws, and aggressive posturing. And those were just the mamas.
Olivia was safely tucked away from their notice, though. Camouflaged in serviceable gray bombazine, she occupied a chair along the trellis-papered wall, just another anonymous paid chaperone watching on as her charges danced.
The ballroom, a converted carriage house at the side of the Duke of Richmond’s rented home, was full to bursting. Scarlet-clad soldiers whirled by with laughing girls in white. Sharp-eyed dowagers in puce and aubergine committed wholesale slaughter of each others’ reputations. Civilian gentlemen in evening black clustered at the edge of the dance floor to argue about the coming battle. Olivia had even had the privilege of seeing the Duke of Wellington himself sweep into the room, his braying laugh lifting over the swell of the orchestra.
It seemed all of London had moved to Brussels these last months. Certainly the well-born military men had come in response to Napoleon’s renewed threat. Olivia had already had the Lennox boys, the Duke of Richmond’s sons, pointed out to her, and handsome young Lord Hay in his scarlet Guards jacket. Sturdy William Ponsonby was in dragoon green, and the exquisite Diccan Hilliard wore diplomat’s black.
With all those eligible young men afoot, it would have been absurd to think that families would have kept their hopeful daughters at home.
Tonight Olivia’s employer had insisted on shepherding her own chicks, which left Olivia with nothing to do but watch. And watch she did, storing up every bit of color and pageantry to record for her dear Georgie back in England.
“Oh, there’s that devil Uxbridge,” the lady next to her whispered in salacious tones. “How he can show his face after eloping with Wellington’s sister-in-law…”
Olivia had heard that Uxbridge had been recalled from exile to lead the cavalry in the upcoming fight. She’d also heard he was brilliant and charismatic. Catching sight of him as he sauntered across the room in his flashy hussar’s blue and silver, his fur-lined pelisse thrown over his shoulder, she thought that the reports had been woefully inadequate. He was breathtaking.
She was so intent on the sight of him, in fact, that she failed her primary duty. She forgot to watch for danger. She’d just leaned a bit to see whose hand Uxbridge was bending over, when her view was suddenly blocked by a field of gold.
“You don’t mind if I sit here, do you?” someone asked.
Olivia looked up to find one of the most beautiful women she’d ever seen standing before her. Even sitting against the wall, Olivia fought the urge to look over her shoulder to see who else the newcomer could be addressing. Women like this never sought her out.
For a second, she flirted with old panic. She’d spent so many years trying to evade exposure that the instinct died hard. But this woman didn’t look outraged. In fact, she was smiling.
“It’s quite all right,” the beauty said with a conspiratorial grin. “Contrary to popular opinion, I rarely bite. In fact, in some circles I’m considered fairly charming.”
“I do bite,” Olivia found herself answering. “But only when provoked.”
She should bite her tongue. She knew better.
The woman didn’t seem to notice, though, as with a hush of silk, she eased onto the chair to Olivia’s left. “Well, let’s see who we can get to provoke you, then,” she said. “I think what this ball needs is some excitement—more than Jane Lennox making cow-eyes at Wellington over dinner, at any rate.”
Olivia actually laughed. “I think you might get some argument from all those men in red.”
Her companion took a moment to observe the room through a grotesquely bejeweled lorgnette. “It never occurred to me. This is the perfect place to watch absolutely everything, isn’t it?”
“I wish I’d been sitting here when those magnificent Highlanders did their reels. I don’t suppose you caught a glimpse of what they wore under those kilts.”
“Sadly, no. Not for lack of trying, though.”
Olivia wondered why this peacock would choose to sit among the house wrens—especially since several of the wrens in question had taken umbrage. One or two sidled away. Olivia even heard the whisper of “harlot.” Again she fought the old urge to hide, but the attention was definitely on the newcomer.
As for that petite beauty, she appeared to take no notice. A Pocket Venus, she looked to be no older than Olivia’s four and twenty years. As fine-skinned as a porcelain doll, she had thick, curly mahogany hair woven through with diamonds and a heart-shaped face that might have looked innocent but for her slyly amused cat-green eyes. Her dress had been crafted by an artist. Draped in layers of filmy gold tissue, it seemed to flow like water from a barely respectable bodice that exposed quite an expanse of diamond-wrapped throat and high, white breasts.
“I noticed the way you watch everyone,” the beauty now said, lazily waving an intricately painted chicken-skin fan under her nose. “And I’ve been dying to hear what you’re thinking.”
“Thinking?” Olivia said instinctively. “But I think nothing. Companions aren’t paid enough to think.”
The lady gave a delighted laugh. “If you only did what you were paid for, my dear, I sincerely doubt you’d ever move farther afield than your front parlor.”
“The back parlor, actually. Closer to the servants’ stairs.”
Olivia knew perfectly well she was being reckless. Exposure was still possible, after all, and one gasp of recognition would destroy her. But it felt so good to smile.
Her new acquaintance laughed. “I knew I’d like you. Who is it who benefits from your companionship, might I ask?”
“Mrs. Bottomly and her three daughters.” Olivia gestured toward a group on the dance floor. “They felt that passing the season in Brussels might be… advantageous.”
The beauty turned to observe the short, knife-lean matron in pea green and peacock feathers smacking a rigid Mr. Hilliard on the arm with her fan as three younger copies of her looked on.
“You mean that flock of underfed crows pecking at my poor Diccan? Good Lord, how did she ever manage to acquire an invitation?”
“Ah, well,” Olivia said, “that would involve a well-timed walk along the Allee Verde, an even better-timed ankle twist that obliged the Duchess of Richmond to take Mrs. Bottomly up in her carriage, and Mrs. Bottomly’s tenacious confusion as to the nature of the invitations to tonight’s event.”
Her new acquaintance shook her head in awe. “Why ever has the creature wasted her time with a mere ball? Let’s introduce her to Nosey, and she can help him rout Napoleon.”
Olivia wryly considered her employer. “Not unless he has three eligible officers who might be offered in compensation.”
Just then, Mrs. Bottomly let off a shrill titter that should have shattered Mr. Hilliard’s eardrums. Olivia’s companion flinched. “Not something I’d want on my conscience. I’m afraid Wellington will simply have to rely on his own wits.”
“But what of you?” the beauty demanded of Olivia. “Surely you deserve better than service to an overweening mushroom.”
Olivia smiled. “I’ve found that life rarely takes what we deserve into consideration.”
For just a moment, her companion’s expression grew oddly reflective. Then, abruptly, she brightened. “Well, there are small mercies,” she said with a tap of her fan on Olivia’s arm. “If that dreadful woman had decamped from Brussels like everyone else who anticipated battle, I never would have met you.”
“Indeed you would not. For it is certain we couldn’t have met in London. Not even Mrs. Bottomly would dare to aspire so high.”
The woman turned her bright eyes on Olivia. “And how do you know that?”
Olivia’s smile was placid. “Your gems are real.”
Her friend gave a surprisingly full-throated laugh that turned heads. Olivia saw the attention and instinctively ducked.
Her companion suddenly straightened. “Grace!” she called with a wave of her fan. “Over here!”
Olivia looked up to see a tall, almost colorless redhead turn and smile. She was in the same serviceable gray as Olivia, although the cloth was better. A sarcenet, possibly, that did nothing but wash out whatever color the young woman had in her plain features.
Then she began walking toward them, and Olivia realized that she limped badly. Must have danced with the wrong clod, Olivia thought, and moved to offer her seat.
Her companion quietly held her in place. “Grace, my love,” she caroled, her hand still on Olivia’s arm. “What have you heard?”
The tall redhead lurched to a halt right in front of them and dipped a very fine curtsy. “Word has come, Your Grace. Fighting has commenced in Quatre Bras, south of us.”
Your Grace? Oh, sweet God, Olivia thought, feeling the blood drain from her face. What had she done?
Unobtrusively, she searched the room for Mrs. Bottomly and her daughters, but suddenly it seemed the entire crowd was in her way. Many of the officers now milled about uncertainly. Young girls wrung their hands and chattered in high, anxious tones. Wellington himself was speaking to the Duke of Richmond, and both looked worried.
It had begun, then. The great battle they had all been expecting for weeks was upon them. Awfully, Olivia felt a measure of relief. She would be invisible again.
“Ah well, then,” the duchess said, climbing to her feet. “It seems our time for frivolity is over. Noblesse oblige and all that. Before we go, Grace, come meet my new friend.”
Olivia stood and was surprised to see that the duchess came only to her shoulder. And Olivia was only of medium height.
“I’m sorry we didn’t have time to share more observations,” the petite beauty said to her with a gamine smile. “I think we could have thoroughly skewered this lot.”
Olivia dipped a curtsy. “It has been a pleasure, Your Grace.”
The duchess lifted a wickedly amused eyebrow. “Of course it has. Although by morning you will be notorious for speaking with me. ‘Oh, my dear,’ they’ll all whisper in outrage, ‘did you hear about that nice companion, Miss…’ ”
The little duchess suddenly looked almost ludicrously surprised. “Good God. I can’t introduce you after all.”
Olivia froze. Had she finally recognized her?
“We never exchanged names,” the duchess said, laughing. “I shall begin. I, for my sins, am Dolores Catherine Anne Hilliard Seaton, Dowager Duchess of Murther.” She wafted a lofty hand. “You may respond with proper gravity.”
Olivia found herself wondering at such a young dowager as she dipped a curtsy of impeccable depth. “Mrs. Olivia Grace, Your Grace.”
“Good Lord,” the duchess said, her eyes wide. “I’m a grace, you’re a grace, and, of course, Grace is a grace. A real grace, mind you, in all ways.” She patted the tall girl halfway up her arm. “Introduce yourself and make the irony complete, my love.”
With a smile that softened her long face, the redhead dipped a bow. “Miss Grace Fairchild, ma’am.”
“Grace is the daughter of that grossly bemedaled Guards general over there with the magnificent white mustache,” the duchess said. “General Sir Hillary Fairchild. Grace is one of those indomitable females who has spent her life following the drum. She knows more about foraging for food and creating a billet from a cow byre than I know about Debrett’s.”
Olivia exchanged curtsies. She liked this plain young woman, who had the kindest gray eyes she’d ever seen. “A pleasure, Miss Fairchild.”
“Please,” the young woman said. “Call me Grace.”
“And I am Kate,” the young duchess said. “Lady Kate, if the familiarity sticks in your craw. But never duchess or my lady or Your Grace”—she shot a glare at Grace Fairchild—“for how would we tell each other apart? Which would be unconscionable among friends. And we are friends, are we not?”
Olivia knew better than to agree. “It would please me immensely,” she said anyway. “Please call me Olivia.”
“Shall we see you later at Madame de Rebaucour’s, Olivia?” Grace Fairchild asked. “She is organizing the ladies of the city to help prepare for the anticipated wounded.”
“Never let it be said that I am completely without useful skills,” Lady Kate boasted. “I’ve become absolutely mad for rolling lint.”
“If my employer gives me leave, you can expect me there,” Olivia said, casting an eye out for that lady among the crowd.
Lady Kate gave her a wicked smile. “Oh, I can assure you she will. Simply tell her you accompany a duchess.” Flinging her zephyr shawl around her shoulders, she made to go. “We shall all help, like the heroines we are.”
“And sully those exquisite white hands?” a man’s voice demanded from behind Olivia.
Olivia froze. Shock skittered across her skin like sleet.
“Since these are the only pair of hands I own,” Lady Kate was saying lightly, “I imagine they will just have to adapt.”
Olivia couldn’t move. Sound suddenly echoed oddly, and movement seemed to slow. Lady Kate was looking just past her to where the man who had addressed her obviously stood, and Olivia knew she should turn.
It wasn’t him. It couldn’t be. She had escaped him. She’d hidden herself so thoroughly that she’d closed even the memory of him away.
“A generation of young exquisites would go into mourning if you suffered so much as a scratch,” he was telling the duchess in his charmingly boyish voice.
Still behind her, out of sight. Still possibly someone who only sounded terrifyingly familiar. Olivia desperately wanted to close her eyes, as if it could keep him at bay. If I don’t see him, he won’t be there.
She knew better. Even if she refused the truth, her body recognized him. Her heart sped up. Her hands went clammy. She couldn’t seem to get enough air.
And there was no escape. So she did what cornered animals do. She turned to face the threat.
And there he was, one of the most beautiful men God had ever created. A true aristocrat with his butter-blond hair, clear blue eyes, and hawkish Armiston nose, he stood a slim inch below six feet. His corbeau coat and oyster silk smalls were only a bit dandified, with a silver marcella waistcoat, half a dozen fobs, and a ruby glinting from his finger. He was bestowing an impish smile on the duchess, who seemed delighted by it.
Olivia had once thought that his handsome looks reflected a kind soul. She would never make that mistake again.
“Dear Gervaise.” Lady Kate was laughing up at him. “How thoughtful to persist in your delusion that I am a fragile flower.”
His grin was disarming, his laugh like music. “Been thoroughly put in my place, haven’t I? Daresay you’ll ignore my heartfelt wish to safeguard your looks, and then where will you be when they’re gone?”
Lady Kate laughed again and held out her hand to him. “Doing it up much too brown, Gervaise. You know full well that I’m content simply being outrageous. I’ll leave you to hold the torch for natural perfection.”
Gervaise bent over Lady Kate’s hand, but suddenly he wasn’t looking at her. He had just caught sight of Olivia.
She was probably the only one who caught the quickly shuttered surprise in his eyes. The glint of triumph. She wanted to laugh. Here she’d been hiding herself from judgmental mamas, when there had been a viper in the room all along.
“It seems I arrived just in time,” he said, straightening with a delighted smile as he shot his cuffs. “As quickly as this place is emptying, I might have missed you all. I know Miss Fairchild, of course, Kate, but who is this?”
“Make your bows to Mrs. Olivia Grace, Gervaise,” Lady Kate said. “Olivia, this is Mr. Gervaise Armiston. He is about to take me over to the door so I can see off our brave soldiers. I have no brave soldiers of my own. Only Gervaise.”
Gervaise chuckled good-naturedly and extended an arm. “I also live to serve, Kate,” he protested. “It’s just that I only serve you.” Giving Olivia a quick bow, he nodded. “Mrs. Grace.”
Olivia swallowed against rising bile. “Mr. Armiston.”
Lady Kate rested a slim white hand on his midnight sleeve. “Excellent. Come, Gervaise. Let us now go and remind our soldiers what they fight for. Grace, Olivia… tomorrow.”
The duchess had barely turned away before Olivia’s legs gave out from under her, and she sat down hard.
“Olivia?” Grace Fairchild asked, her face creased in concern. “Are you all right?”
Olivia looked up, trying desperately to quell her nausea. Suddenly, from the streets below, military drums shattered the night. Trumpets blared, and the Duchess of Richmond rushed about the ballroom, urging the men not to leave until after dinner had been served.
“Just another hour!” she pleaded.
Officers lined up at the doors to get a farewell kiss from the lovely Duchess of Murther. Some girls wept, while others swept off to dinner with the remaining men. And in the corner where the chaperones sat, Olivia’s world collapsed.
Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. She had to warn Georgie. She had to warn them all.
She couldn’t. Any contact with them would lead Gervaise right back to them, and that would prove fatal.
Just as it had before.
Grace touched her shoulder. “Olivia?”
Olivia jumped. “Oh…,” she said, trying so hard to smile as she climbed to still unsteady legs. “I’m fine. I suppose it’s time to go.”
“You’re sure you’re all right? You’re pale.”
“Just the news.” Gathering her shawl, she avoided Grace’s sharp gaze. Pasting on a false smile, she turned. “I wish I were more like Lady Kate. Look how she’s making all the men laugh.”
Grace looked to where the duchess was lifting on her toes to kiss a hotly blushing boy in rifleman green. “Lady Kate is amazing, isn’t she?”
“She’s a disgrace,” one of the nearby women hissed.
Several other heads nodded enthusiastically.
“Glass houses,” snapped a regal older woman at the end of the row.
Everyone looked over at her, but the woman ignored them. Reticule and shawl in hand, she rose imperiously to her feet. She was a tall woman, with exceptional posture and a proud face beneath thick, snowy hair. She’d taken only two steps, though, before she caught her toe and pitched forward, almost landing on her nose. Olivia jumped to help, but Grace was already there.
“Dear Lady Bea,” she said, steadying the elegant woman. “Do have a care.”
The older woman patted her cheek. “Ah, for the last Samaritan, my child. For the last Samaritan.”
“That’s good, Lady Bea.”
“Indeed it is,” the older woman agreed. Grace smiled as if she knew what the woman meant and ushered her on her way.
“Lady Kate’s companion,” Grace confided as they passed.
“Mrs. Grace!” Mrs. Bottomly screeched. She was bearing down on them like a particularly skinny elephant with her calves in tow. “We are leaving.”
Peacock feathers bobbing, Mrs. Bottomly herded her hopefuls toward the door. Olivia had no choice but to follow. Lady Kate waved as Olivia passed and then hugged a burly dragoon. Olivia saw that Gervaise wasn’t with the duchess anymore and instinctively knew where he would be. She almost turned back for the safety of the ballroom.
He was waiting for her, of course. Olivia had made it only a few steps into the hot night when he stepped out of the crowd.
“I’ve missed you, Livvie,” he said, reaching out a hand. “You’ll see me, won’t you?”
Not a request. An order wrapped in etiquette. Olivia couldn’t prevent the sick cold or trembling that beset her.
She could hold her ground, though. She could face him eye-to-eye. The days of downcast eyes and prayed-for escape were long over. “Why, no, Gervaise,” she said just as amiably. “I won’t.”
And before he could respond, she swept down the steps and into the chaotic night.
Saturday June 17, 1815
They had gone.
Olivia stood in the foyer of her little pension and stared at the battered portmanteau on the floor in front of her. She’d just run from the Namur Gate, where she’d spent the day caring for the wounded who had begun to flood into town the night before. She felt stupid with exhaustion, standing there in her stained, wet dress and trying to understand what that poor, solitary bag meant.
She’d gone to the medical tents that morning with Mrs. Bottomly’s blessing, just as she had the day before. “No, no, my dear,” the little woman had said, her mouth full of muffin. “You must help those poor men. We shall make do here until we can arrange transport home. Although I fear it might already be too late to leave.”
It was indeed too late, but evidently only for Olivia. Thunder cracked overhead, and rain beat on the windows. The skies had opened not twenty minutes ago, forcing everyone inside. Olivia had run for the shelter of her lodgings.
No, not her lodgings. Not anymore. Madame La Suire, the landlady, had just made that point clear when she’d briskly informed Olivia that the English madame and her so-stupid daughters had decamped not an hour after Olivia had left that morning. If Olivia chose to stay, she would need to pay the tariff herself.
Gone. While she’d been kneeling on the cobbles giving sips of water to wounded men, her employer had snuck away without her. It made no sense.
“Did Mrs. Bottomly leave anything for me, madame?” Olivia asked as the stout woman set down a pitifully small bandbox next to the portmanteau. “A letter? A small reticule?”
The reticule she’d left behind with Mrs. Bottomly, where it would be safe. Where she couldn’t lose it among the crowds of injured and dying who overran the streets, the civilians who clattered about, swinging from excitement to blind panic. She had every ha’penny she’d earned in the last six months in that reticule, ready to send home to Georgie.
“She said nothing, that one,” Madame said. “She gave nothing. I packed what you see here, and there is no reticule. She leaves with the oh-so-handsome English lord.” Casting a severe eye at her former border, she lifted a blunt finger. “And do not try to accuse me. I thieve of no one.”
Olivia couldn’t seem to think. She still had blood on her hands from the young dragoon who had spilled his life out on the road not twenty feet from the gates. She’d reached him only moments before he died, gasping and pleading and so very young, just one among hundreds stumbling back from Quatre Bras.
She’d held him in her arms as his lifeblood drained onto the cobbles, and she’d watched his eyes fade and still. She’d closed those eyes—Brown. Hadn’t they been brown? She had laid him down as gently as she could and run from the rain. And now she had nowhere to go, and it was all she could seem to think of.
Madame had turned away to leave Olivia in the foyer when she stopped. “The handsome English lord, he had a message, him.”
Olivia started. She managed to focus on the sour-faced woman. Lightning lit the room in a blinding blue, briefly stealing her vision.
“An English lord?” she echoed. The awful portent of those three words began to break through her confusion. “What English lord?”
Thunder cracked overhead. Olivia stood dripping all over Madame’s tiled floor and waited for the inevitable.
The woman actually smiled like a girl. “But, yes, the nice man, him, who arranged for the Bottomlys. He says you wait right here, and back he comes for you.”
There was only one handsome Englishman still in Brussels who knew Olivia.
Suddenly everything made perfect sense. Ignoring the departing Madame La Suire, Olivia spun around and grabbed her portmanteau and bandbox. She straightened to see that rain poured in sheets against the windows. Thunder pounded and growled, and the trees whipped in a frenzy. Lightning shuddered across the lowering sky.
She couldn’t go out in that. She’d be drenched in a second. Yet she didn’t have a choice. Madame had already disappeared back into the kitchen, and there was no one else she could turn to for help. Besides, the men she’d been caring for were still outside, lying helpless in that deluge. She had to get back to help them.
She had just balanced her things on one arm and reached for the door when it blew open. Before Olivia could react, Gervaise strolled in.
He was dripping wet, his umbrella turned inside out from the wind. Even so, he looked perfectly put together, the rain only making his hair glisten. And he was smiling.
Olivia detested that smile, for it seemed she was the only one who saw past it.
“Excellent,” he said happily as he closed the door behind him and set his umbrella against the wall. “You waited for me.”
Olivia fought the sheer terror those words incited. “I did no such thing. I was just on my way back to the medical tents.”
Gervaise took a considered look out the window. “In this? I think not.”
“In the last fires of Armageddon if I have to. Get out of my way, Gervaise.”
He stepped closer instead, so close Olivia could smell the tobacco he used, the vetiver cologne he preferred. The mingled scents turned her stomach.
She should have known. The minute she’d recognized him, she should have anticipated this very moment. She should have run.
He let his gaze drift to the neck of her dress. “Are you still wearing it, Livvie?”
It was all she could do to keep from reaching up and laying a protective hand against her chest, where her locket lay hidden beneath her dress.
He smiled. “Does it really help?”
Panic hit, a hot, sweat-producing urge to flee. Please God, don’t let him know.
“It’s the least I can do,” she whispered.
He nodded. “He was a beautiful boy. It’s so sad you couldn’t protect him.”
Another well-dressed threat. A reference to what he had done. What he would do again if necessary.
“It’s just one more thing I love about you, Livvie,” he said as if he meant it. “Your strong protective instincts. I could have helped, you know. Don’t you think I can now?”
She thought he’d destroy her, just as he had before.
Reaching up, he stroked a finger down her cheek. “You’re so brave, Livvie,” he said, his voice gentle and confiding. “I have to admit, I’m impressed. Going to the lengths of becoming a companion for one of the most odious cits I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet.” He flashed a mischievous smile. “She was aux anges when I happened on her in the Parc Royale. When I offered to help her flee the city, she was so grateful it never occurred to her to wonder why I wasn’t able to include you.”
Olivia was trembling, and it made her furious. She deliberately stepped back. “Do you have my reticule?”
“Only because I felt that if you had any money, you might be tempted to make an unfortunate decision. I’m the only choice you have, Livvie. This won’t be like those other times you lost your position because you were exposed. This time you’re hundreds of miles from home with no way back. And you know that even if you could get there, you’d find no one to help you. Certainly not your family. As for your friends here, they won’t last once they learn who you really are.”
She knew he expected her to weep. To plead. She held still.
“You know I love you, Livvie,” he said, stepping closer again. “Isn’t it better sometimes just to give in?”
Her heart was pounding; he had to hear it. “Not to you. Never to you. Now get out of my way before I knock you down.”
“And then what, my dear? Shall you get another position? Shall you throw yourself on the mercy of one of the other crow-faced women I saw you sitting with last night? They’d be more likely to chase you into the streets themselves. You, my love, are a notoriously ruined woman.” Horribly, his expression grew sad. He looked so damned sincere. “I offer you so much more. I always have.”
“And I have always refused. I haven’t changed my mind.”
“No, Liv,” he said. “Not always.”
She had to swallow to force the bile back down her throat.
Then he sighed. Sighed. “Oh, Livvie. When are you going to learn that I never give up?”
She saw how benign he looked and knew that even as he expressed nothing but concern, he was really envisioning her stripped and helpless, in his absolute control. And he would never think to question his right to have her there.
No. She had not come to this. She would not. Not with this man who had destroyed her life as if it were sport. She had been safe for three years. She would be so again.
If she could just get past him to the door.
He anticipated her. Before she could move, he grabbed her by the arms. Olivia bucked against him, suddenly panicked. She couldn’t let him do this. She couldn’t surrender after all he’d done to her. To Georgie and Jamie.
“Let me go!”
“Or what?” he asked, leaning closer. “You’ll scream?”
She opened her mouth to do just that when the door blew open again, shoving him into her. Struggling for balance, he pulled her closer. She rammed her knee into his groin.
Gervaise howled and crumpled. Lurching back, Olivia took better hold of her bags and bolted for the door. But it was blocked again. Lady Kate was standing in the doorway.
Olivia shuddered to a halt. She thought she was hallucinating. She blinked, expecting the duchess to disappear. What possible reason could Lady Kate have for coming here?
The duchess walked in as if on a morning call and shut the door. Olivia opened her mouth, but she couldn’t manage one word.
“Why, Gervaise,” Lady Kate crooned as she noticed him curled on the floor, his hands between his legs. “And I thought you had the smoothest address in the ton. If this is the best you can do, you should probably return to your lessons.”
“It was… an accident,” he groaned, still curled in a ball.
She smiled brightly. “I would never assume otherwise.”
Then she straightened to take in the sight of Olivia, standing there with her pathetic luggage clutched to her chest. “Isn’t it lovely that we actually do have a certain advantage over them, though?” she asked with a conspiratorial grin. “I’m delighted you aren’t too nice to attempt it.”
“Now, Olivia, haven’t we just been standing side by side at the amputation table? Can you truly not call me Kate?”
Olivia still felt so slow and dull-witted; she couldn’t think how to answer. All she knew was that she had to get out of this place. Gervaise was still writhing at their feet, but he would recover quickly. And here was the duchess, appearing like a provident angel, still looking sleek and neat in her bishop’s blue kerseymere round gown, even after a day of wading through the worst of the wounded and a surprise thunderstorm.
Olivia felt so overwhelmed she thought she might find herself laughing like a lunatic. Could she dare ask the duchess for help? Could she put this lovely woman at risk?
“I’m sorry,” she said, knowing how panicked she sounded. “Could you…? I mean, well, I must leave as soon as possible. You see, my patron, Mrs.—”
“Bottomly.” The duchess nodded, carefully brushing water droplets from her skirt. “Yes, I heard she’d done a bunk. Left you in a lurch, did she?”
“I’m afraid so. I thought I’d take my things to the tents with me. I will be able to look for another position later, when things… when…”
“When we know whether we’ll be speaking English tomorrow or French,” Lady Kate said with a brisk nod. “Yes. Well, you won’t have to worry. You have a position now. Amazingly enough, I need a companion. Dreadful having to fetch my own shawls. It’s beneath a duchess’s dignity, don’t you think?”
Olivia gaped like a landed fish. “What of Lady Beatrice?”
Lady Kate patted her like a child. “Oh, no. Bea isn’t my companion. She is my dearest friend. I am looking for someone who can help me organize my somewhat chaotic house.” Taking one last look at Gervaise, who by now had made it gingerly to his feet, she took hold of Olivia and turned her to the door. “Indeed, I think we should go right now. There is a prodigious amount for you to do. Fetching, carrying, fawning…”
“Lady Kate, it distresses me to say this,” Gervaise protested, his hand out. “But you don’t know who she truly is.”
Ah, Olivia thought, feeling her heart shrivel in her chest. Here it comes.
But Lady Kate was evidently in an eyebrow-raising mood. “Darling Gervaise, surely you know by now that while I enjoy gossip, I believe very little of it.”
“But you should know—”
The duchess glared him back a step. “No. I don’t think I should. And, I think I don’t want to know from you, most especially if it distresses you. It would sully that beautiful Botticelli mouth of yours. No, I insist you leave it all to me.”
Reaching over, she relieved Olivia of her bandbox and pushed her toward the door. “Now, Olivia, let’s be on our way. My carriage is here, and we have little time. I have accepted some of the wounded into my house, and they need care.”
Olivia should have protested. She should save her new friend the embarrassment of having to dismiss her when the truth came out, since that could be the only outcome. One look at the frustration that darkened Gervaise’s eyes made her decision for her. She couldn’t risk the truth yet, even to protect Lady Kate. Even to save her own soul.
“Thank you, Lady Kate,” she said, dropping a quick curtsy, her bag still clutched close. “I am grateful.”
Kate’s smile was incandescent. “I’m not sure you will be once you get wind of my household. But you’ve committed yourself, dearest Olivia. No turning back now.”
And with that, she pulled open the door to let in a blast of wind and rain. A footman waited outside with an open umbrella. Lady Kate sailed past him and ushered Olivia into the open door of her carriage, a sleek blue Berlin with ducal lozenges, which was drawn by what were undoubtedly two of the last horses in Brussels. The great shotgun Olivia saw lying across the footman’s lap might have had something to do with that.
Olivia was just about to lean back against the soft cream leather squabs when something outside her window caught her attention. A second man waited outside the pension door, huddled under an umbrella against the rain. What about him made her look? she wondered.
Then the pension door opened, and Gervaise walked out, umbrella up, to meet the man on the steps. Both turned to watch the carriage pass, and Olivia saw the second man’s face.
Middle-aged, lean, neat as a pin, with hair Macassarred back into a slick cap. Recognition flared in his eyes, and he quickly ducked, as if he could hide from her.
It was too late. Olivia had already recognized him. Her husband’s valet, Edward Chambers. Another unwelcome reminder of her past, another long-unanswered question. It seemed that he was now Gervaise’s valet. Answer enough, she supposed.
Turning away, Olivia closed her eyes. She was still shaking with fear.
There was so much at stake. More than her own honor. More than her life. More than any woman could bear. Because Gervaise wouldn’t rest until he dug out every one of her secrets to use against her. Until he tracked down the little cottage in Devon where Georgie hid and completely destroyed them all.
But she couldn’t put Lady Kate at risk either. She needed to tell her the truth. If she didn’t tell Lady Kate her real name, she risked Lady Kate’s reputation. If she didn’t tell the whole truth, she put that wonderful lady in danger.
But if she did admit the truth, Lady Kate would have to turn her out, and Gervaise hadn’t exaggerated—there really was nowhere else to go. No money. No way to evade Gervaise. No way to protect her little family, and everything she had borne the last five years had been for that one purpose.
She would tell Lady Kate the truth.
When she was rested. When she could think straight. When she didn’t feel such blind panic.
She just hoped Lady Kate didn’t suffer for it.
The next afternoon, Olivia found herself standing on the littered, trampled ground outside the massive stone wall that circled Brussels. She had never been so exhausted in her life. Lady Kate had indeed taken eight men into the house she rented on Rue Royale, but their care had been handed over to the house staff. Help was more desperately needed outside, where the situation had grown critical. Medical tents had been erected outside the Namur and Louvain gates, but the wounded had quickly overflowed them, spilling into the narrow cobbled streets and manicured squares of the medieval city. The crisis had left Olivia without a moment to speak to Lady Kate.
Aching in every joint and dizzy with exhaustion, she leaned against the cool ocher stone of the old wall. The late afternoon sun beat unmercifully down, wounded came without cease, and the distant sound of cannon fire came and went with the wind.
The great battle had commenced. Wellington had finally met Napoleon face-to-face in a field to the south of Brussels near the town of Waterloo. Already the list of dead was too long. Handsome young Lord Hay, who had enchanted every girl at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, was gone, lost at Quatre Bras. As was the Duke of Brunswick, whose black-clad soldiers had personally carried him back to the city from the battlefield. And those striking Gordon Highlanders who had danced in their bright kilts three nights earlier slaughtered almost to a man. God knew how many more, either on the field or along the twenty-five miles that stretched from the battlefield to Brussels.
Olivia stepped to the flap of the medical tent to see that Lady Kate was helping one of the surgeons at the amputation table, her brash, bright smiles easing more than one man through the ordeal. Grace Fairchild was bent over a dying boy who clutched a miniature to his shattered chest. Women were doing work no one had ever expected of them this bloody day, and Olivia wasn’t sure how they would ever recover from it.
She herself had spent the twenty-four hours since Lady Kate had rescued her bandaging and comforting and carrying until one face melded into another, only their uniforms distinguishing the smoke-smeared men. No, not men. Boys.
They were boys, so brave and so frightened and so alone in the last moments of their lives. She couldn’t get around to them fast enough with the water she carried, often the only comfort they got. She couldn’t find the right words to ease them. She couldn’t stand the sound of crying and groaning. But even worse were the hard silences. Men with terrible injuries who stayed grim-lipped and quiet so they didn’t distress their friends.
Anguish burned her throat and churned in her chest. She felt so petty and selfish, worried about escape when these boys had faced so much more. Then she saw Lady Kate looking her way, and she realized there were tears in those magnificent eyes. Olivia deliberately straightened and smiled and walked back out to the narrow cobbled streets where more wounded waited.
It could have been minutes or hours later when suddenly one of the men grabbed her by the arm. “Listen,” he urged.
Olivia wasn’t sure what he meant. She still heard the cries of agony, the pleas for help, for water, for death. She heard…
“They’ve stopped,” she said. She looked down at the young man, a handsome ginger-haired boy from the 20th Light Dragoons who would lose his arm before the hour was out. “Have they? Does that mean it’s over?”
He wasn’t watching her. His eyes were out of focus, as if pouring all his energy into listening. He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Olivia helped him sip some water and a bit of Lady Kate’s last reserves of brandy. They’d had conflicting reports all day long. Wellington had won. Wellington was in full retreat, and the French were poised to invade Brussels. They’d even had to avoid a full troop of Belgian cavalry thundering through the streets crying defeat. By now, Olivia almost didn’t care who won. As long as the carnage stopped.
“Well, I expect you to ask me for at least one dance at the victory ball,” she said to the boy.
His exhausted, haggard features softened into a smile. “It would be my honor, ma’am. Ensign Charles Gregson at your service.”
Olivia stood and dipped a debutante’s curtsy. “Mrs. Livvie Grace, Ensign. The Boulanger is my favorite.”
“Why, I excel at the Boulanger, ma’am.”
Olivia capped the brandy and smiled back. “ ’Til then, Ensign Gregson,” she said, and turned to the next soldier.
A white-faced Grace Fairchild blocked her way. Grace’s sweat-darkened hair was falling in an untidy lump from her bun. Soot smeared her face, and blood stained the apron that covered her practical gray dress.
“Olivia, may I ask a favor?” She looked as if she were holding herself together by the force of will alone. In the three days Olivia had known her, she had learned that Grace never asked for favors. Favors were always asked of Grace.
Olivia took hold of her arm. “Of course, Grace. What is it?”
“My father…” She looked toward the south, where the cannons had been heard all day. “I’ve had no word from him. He always manages to let me know how he goes. It’s been…”
She swallowed, as if the words were caught in her throat. Olivia wanted to put her arms around the girl. She had a feeling, though, that Grace had long since taught herself to withstand the worst. One show of sympathy might well defeat her.
“Do you know where he is?” Olivia asked.
Grace was still looking to the south. “The Guards have been fighting to hold Château Hougoumont. From what I’ve heard, the battle has been fierce there all day long. Its loss would cost us the western flank, you see.”
Olivia didn’t see. Her time on these streets was the closest she had ever come to battle. “Is there no one to go for you?” she asked. “You’ve been on your leg so long, I fear it will make your injury worse.”
For a moment, Grace looked confused. Then, gently, she smiled. “Oh, my leg. There’s no injury, Olivia. I was born this way. I assure you, it has withstood worse.”
Olivia flushed. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
Grace’s smile grew even softer. “Don’t be silly. How could I object to kindness? Would you mind coming along, though? My father’s old batman Sergeant Harper will accompany us. He is securing weapons. But he’d prefer I have a friend along in case… well…”
Wiping her hands on her own blood-streaked apron, Olivia cast a nervous glance toward the walls. “Of course. But are you sure you must go tonight? It’s already gone seven, and the soldiers say that the road is all but impassable.”
And those cannons stopped such a short time ago.
Grace smiled. “Not for an old campaigner.” She looked down at her hands, as if they fascinated her. “Don’t you see?” she asked with a stiff shrug. “I must know.”
Olivia looked up the shadowed ramparts to see the civilians holding still, as if to better assess the silence. She considered the steady procession of wounded who stumbled through the gates. It was hellish here. What could it possibly be like out there where the sounds of carnage had consumed the day?
Before she could give herself the chance to truly consider it, she gave a brisk nod. “Let me tell Lady Kate. With all those young men to charm, I doubt she’ll even know I’m gone.”
Grace’s face came the closest Olivia had ever seen to crumpling. “Thank you, Olivia. Can you fire a weapon?”
For the first time, Olivia smiled. “As a matter of fact, I can. My father had an inordinate fondness for guns. And I can’t think of anything I’d rather do right now than shoot anyone who kept us from getting to your father.”
Except maybe shooting Gervaise. But he’d been conspicuously absent since the duchess had rescued Olivia. Even he would never be so foolish as to challenge the duchess. She hoped.
No matter what her troubles were, though, Olivia knew they had to wait on Grace’s. So she threw her shoulders back, as she’d seen soldiers do before marching away to war. “Shall we arm ourselves like grenadiers, then, and follow Sergeant Harper into the field of battle?” she asked brightly.
Grace managed a smile through the tears in her eyes. “Indeed, yes. Adventure awaits.”
Only the fact that Sergeant Harper carried two shotguns across his knee ensured the success of their mission. It certainly wasn’t his size. Not much taller than Olivia, he was bandy-legged and had a shock of penny-red hair. But Olivia could see his bond with Grace and knew he’d never let harm come to her.
Lady Kate offered her carriage, her horses, and her coachman. They took the first two; the coachman had gone alarmingly pale when told of their destination.
Grace was the one who drove so the sergeant could have his hands free to defend them. Not anxious to sit alone inside the carriage, Olivia climbed up between them. Even the pepperpot pistol she carried in her big apron pocket didn’t soothe her as they crept down the Charleroi Road.
The land was undulating, with fields of wheat, rye, and barley spreading out in a tree-lined checkerboard to the horizon. The road was churned up, clogged with broken carts, dead horses, discarded gear, and wounded soldiers struggling to reach Brussels. Olivia saw more than one who had sat down beneath a tree for the shade and simply died. The smell was indescribable: death and smoke and blood, a stench Olivia knew she would carry in her memory the rest of her life.
She thought she had seen all manner of suffering in Brussels. One look at the men they passed dispelled that notion. To a man, they walked like the dead: haggard, soot-streaked, tattered, and bloody, holding each other up, sitting down right in the middle of the road when they could go no farther. They barely noticed the odd sight of women on their way to a battlefield. Those who did were more interested in the horses, but Sergeant Harper was enough to quell thoughts of theft.
For hours they struggled on, the late summer light guiding them. The rattle of rifle fire peppered the evening, and thick smoke rose here and there along the horizon. Olivia could see tents and lights to the east as they reached Mont St. Jean and turned west on the Nivelles Road.
“Close now, mum,” Sergeant Harper said, his head on a constant swivel, his finger never off the trigger as Grace maneuvered past another overturned cart. “See the smoke?”
How could he tell? There was smoke everywhere, blurring a fading sky. The sun had set and dusk was coming on, casting the scene in even greater shadow. Olivia squinted in the direction Harper pointed, and suddenly her heart fell away.
Oh, sweet Jesus, it couldn’t be real. How could anyone have survived? The fields of grain were gone. In their place was a carpet of the dead, bodies in red and blue and green, flowers blown over in a storm, lines of them, piles of them. The fading light glinted off swords and breastplates and guns, and hundreds of horses struggled in their death throes, some already bloating and twisted.
And there was screaming. Human. Equine. The awful, unearthly keening of the damned rising through the shattered trees and turning her insides to water.
“Christ preserve us,” Sergeant Harper whispered, and even he sounded shaken.
Already people with lanterns were bent over the fallen, and Olivia didn’t think they were all there to help. She wanted to leap down with her pistol and chase them off.
“There, I think, Sergeant,” Grace said suddenly, pointing, and all their attention was drawn to another column of lethargic smoke that lifted over the trees. “The western flank.”
Olivia saw it then too. A red brick wall. Shattered brick and white stucco farm buildings beyond, flames still licking at gaping windows. More bodies, piled along the walls, in among the splintered trees: alive, dead, torn apart like rag dolls. More smoke, blurring the outlines of the scene. Olivia swallowed hard and wiped her hands on her dress. How could they ever find Grace’s father? How could they even face such obscenity?
“Here, I think, Sean,” Grace said quietly as they reached the north wall of the compound. “By the gates.”
The carriage stopped, and Grace laid the reins across the sergeant’s legs.
“Let me look,” Harper said, taking her hand. “You stay.”
Grace patted him. “Nobody will notice women when a carriage and horses wait here.”
Olivia wasn’t so sure about that. Even so, Grace finally convinced Harper, and he handed Grace and Olivia down.
“We’ll stay in range,” Grace promised, and accepted one of the lanterns Harper passed down.
Much more slowly, Olivia followed suit. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t turn over one of those poor bodies. She couldn’t bear to surprise the stiff dead face of that great, mustachioed general and have to tell Grace.
At least the dusk was beginning to camouflage some of the worst. Taking one of the lanterns, Olivia followed Grace to the ragged wall.
The firing had stopped, and men had clustered by the arched wooden gate. Grace approached them and asked for her father. To a man, they shook their heads. The fighting had been too fierce, and the general had been stationed outside in the orchard.
Grace nodded and turned toward the trees. Olivia followed. She saw Grace turn over the first red-coated body and waited. Grace eased him back down, straightened, and moved on. Olivia squeezed her eyes closed a second, praying. Then she bent over her first body, and from then on focused on nothing but trying to identify a white mustache.
Night came on as they searched. A full moon rose, silvering the horrific scene. Her lantern bobbing erratically with her limp, Grace followed the eastern wall south, her movements quick and efficient. Not nearly as quick or efficient, Olivia followed. She didn’t know how much later it was when she first heard it.
A man’s voice, like so many others. She wiped the soot off a young guardsman’s face and closed his staring eyes before easing him back over.
“Please, my lady.”
Olivia looked up, expecting to see a wounded soldier.
He was no wounded soldier.
Olivia blinked, sure there was smoke in her eyes. That she was just too tired. But when she opened her eyes again, he was still there, not five feet away. Chambers, Gervaise’s valet. And he was clad in the red coat of a guardsman, as if he belonged on this killing ground.
“Please, my lady,” he said to her, his severe face screwed up in something close to terror. “Help me.”
“What are you doing here?” she rasped, looking around.
Then she froze. Oh, God. If Chambers was here, where was Gervaise? She realized then how far she’d wandered. She was alone in the trees except for Chambers and the dead and the deepening night.
“It’s all right, my lady,” he said, as if hearing her. “He is not here.”
“Stop calling me that,” Olivia snapped. “I am Mrs. Olivia Grace.”
“You must help,” Chambers begged.
“Who must I help?” Olivia demanded. “You?”
Chambers just shook his head. Olivia waited, wondering what the rest of the joke was, ready to tell him that no matter what, she had no intention of helping him. She had walked away from his world five years ago, been chased, like a thief with a purloined apple in her hand. She had closed that time away and had no intention of opening it back up again.
She turned to leave. Chambers was quicker, grabbing her by the wrist.
“Let me go,” she demanded, yanking back.
He ignored her. “I stole a horse and followed you here,” he said, inexorably pulling her into the trees. “I thank God it was here you were bound. I would have dragged you all the way across the battlefield if needed.”
She continued to struggle, even as he guided her over and around the dead who lay beneath the blasted trees.
“Let me go,” she demanded again. “I have to help my friend.”
“You have to help me.”
Her heart was beginning to stutter. This couldn’t be happening. She was dreaming. She’d fallen asleep in one of the tents, and now she was paying for her loss of control.
Chambers stopped. She almost slammed into his back. They had reached a stretch of woods where the bodies lay thick among the ruined fruit trees. The moonlight bathed them with a cold hand; the smell of cordite was sharp. Chambers grabbed the lantern from Olivia’s hand and went on his knees by one of the bodies.
“Look,” he commanded.
She looked. She stopped breathing. She was sure her heart had stopped beating.
It couldn’t be. It couldn’t. He was bloody, so bloody, with a ruined neck cloth tied around his upper arm and another around his leg. His hair was matted with the blood that covered his face and neck and chest. He was sitting, leaning against the tree as if he’d fallen asleep there after a prodigious drunk. His eyes, those beautiful blue-green eyes she’d once thought so honest and dear, were closed.
“Is he dead?”
For just a flash of an instant, the thought gave her vicious pleasure. It would serve him right, after what he’d done to her. But the feeling passed, just as it always did, and she was left with the grief that lived in its shadow.
“Not yet,” Chambers said, laying a hand against that bloody face. “Please help him, my lady. He needs you.”
“I think he’d disagree with you,” Olivia corrected him, unable to move, curling her hands against the compulsion to kneel. To take that battered body in her arms, where it belonged. To pummel at him for the pain he’d caused and then sob her heart out over him. “He threw me away, Chambers. He left me in no doubt as to what I meant to him. Nothing has changed.”
“He needs you,” the valet begged. “He can’t be discovered. Not like this.”
“Like what?” she demanded. “So he joined up. That’s very patriotic of him. Ask one of the other Guards to help.”
She squinted, suddenly uncertain. The Guards had defended this place in their bright red jackets and gleaming brass buttons. He was in blue. Only his stock and cuffs were red.
She’d seen those. Seen many of them, piled on the battlefield to the east. “What uniform is that?” she demanded, suddenly praying she was wrong. “I don’t recognize…”
But she did. She stopped. Stepped back. Of course she recognized it. She was surrounded by them, soldiers fallen in an attempt to take the château from the Guards.
John Phillip William Wyndham, scion of one of the oldest, most respected families in England, a belted earl, lay on an English battlefield clad in a French uniform.
Her husband was a traitor.
Olivia jumped back. “Jesus!”
A French uniform. Dearest God in heaven.
She hadn’t seen Jack in five years. Not since that day he’d slammed the door on her and had his bailiff escort her from Wyndham Abbey.
Alongside her, Chambers was wringing his hands. “I don’t know what happened, my lady, and that’s the truth.”
Olivia couldn’t seem to move. Her friend was out there, still combing the dead for her father. Her enemy was back in Brussels waiting for another chance to attack. And she was standing in front of the man she’d once vowed to honor and obey, and he was dressed in a uniform that branded him a turncoat.
“Please, my lady,” Chambers begged. “He needs your help.”
“Again you mistake me, Chambers,” she said, still unable to take her eyes off her husband. “I am no longer anyone’s lady.” She pointed to the man who had once owned her heart. “He saw to that. You all did.”
Five years she’d survived without any help from him. Five long, terrible years, until she had decided that she was finally quit of him. Her hand went instinctively to her locket.
“As God is my witness,” Chambers said, “I have no idea how he got here. I got a message to meet him here. By the time I reached him, he was as you see.” Chambers motioned. “No one can find him like this.”
“Indeed?” Olivia asked. “And you think I should be the one to help him? Why? For the memory of Tristram?”
Tristram, sweet Tris, who had died out on that empty heath at dawn with no one but her to mourn him.
“I suggest you call Jack’s cousin Gervaise,” she said, only still upright by will alone. “After all, he is your new master.”
Chambers looked over at her. “Do you really think Mr. Gervaise is the person to help him right now?”
Olivia squeezed her eyes shut. She clenched her hands into her skirts to keep them still. Of course, Gervaise wouldn’t help. Gervaise wouldn’t waste a moment to inform the world—most regretfully, of course—that his cousin the earl had been caught in a treasonous position.
His mother was French, you know, he’d say with a sad shake of his head. It would be enough to condemn Jack.
Her heart was thundering. Pain squeezed her temples, and she knew she was sweating. How could Chambers ask this of her?
But she had once loved Jack so. She’d thought it a miracle that he’d asked her to marry him: her, the daughter of a mere vicar who’d relied on Jack’s father for his livelihood. She had lived as Jack’s wife for eleven months and prayed for another three years that he would come to his senses and bring her home.
But she’d long since gotten over that idiocy. He wasn’t going to change his mind. He wasn’t going to beg for her return. He wasn’t going to ask her forgiveness. She had no reason to help him.
“You really don’t know how he got here?” she asked.
“The note he sent was the first I’d heard from him in two years.”
She nodded. She tried desperately to fan her outrage.
“What should we do?” Chambers asked, as if he’d already assumed her cooperation.
She couldn’t do this. She was already living on a thin edge. God only knew what could happen if she helped Jack.
It didn’t matter. She couldn’t walk away.
“Get him out of this bedamned uniform,” she snapped.
And suddenly she was on her knees, reaching out to touch Jack’s cheek. God, how was she ever going to survive this again?
She looked up to see Chambers just staring at her. Probably appalled at her language. She paid him no attention. Laying her fingers against Jack’s throat, she checked for a pulse.
Thready, yes, but regular. He was alive. “Strip one of the British dead of his jacket,” she ordered. Closing her eyes again, this time in a brief prayer for the sacrilege she was about to commit, she steeled herself to move. “I’ll undress Jack.”
Reaching out a trembling hand, she began to unbutton the bloodied brass buttons on Jack’s coat. The last time she had unbuttoned Jack’s coat, they’d been clawing at each other, too impatient to get their hands on each other to worry about popped buttons or ripped seams. He’d been insatiable for her. She’d been mesmerized by him.
It hadn’t been enough.
“Get a jacket from someone who suffered a bloody wound,” she instructed Chambers. “Nobody can question his appearance.”
At least she didn’t have to bother with the gray overalls. They were ubiquitous among both armies. But even the coat was a struggle. He was dead weight in her hands.
He was thinner. No matter what else she’d closed away, she had never forgotten his body. He was still as hard, his limbs long and elegant, his shoulders broad. Her hands itched to explore that beloved territory. But the well-tailored jacket hung from his once-broad chest, and his hips jutted.
She couldn’t think about that. Nor could she let herself dwell on the fact that this uniform could have been tailored specifically for the Jack he’d been twenty pounds ago.
“There was a dispatch bag on him,” Chambers whispered from a few feet away. “I put his personal things in it and hid it under him before I sought you out.”
Olivia unearthed the bag when she rolled Jack over. “Did you check its contents?”
“No. Wasn’t my business.”
Taking a second, she slung the bag over her shoulder beneath her apron. She’d go through it later, when she had time.
“Don’t,” she snapped, her arms once again full with Jack’s painfully familiar weight. “I’m holding on to my position by my fingernails. One mention of the Countess of Gracechurch, and even the Duchess of Murther will have to show me the street. Now, that might appeal to you, but it won’t help Jack at all, will it?”
Chambers stopped a few feet away, a bloody, soot-stained Guards’ jacket and officer’s sash in his hands. He opened his mouth as if intent on answering. One look at her obviously made him reconsider.
“I’ll need help getting him back,” he said, handing over the clothing. “The horse is gone.”
She shook her head. “No. You can’t expect it of me.”
“Please,” Chambers said, and she heard his desperation.
She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed for strength. “Try and get him to the road. We’ll be passing by.”
Careful not to further injure him, they slipped his bloody arm into the sleeve and pulled the jacket closed. Olivia was sweating in earnest now. She had to wipe moisture from her eyes as she tied the crimson sash around Jack’s waist and shoved the betraying blue jacket away.
“I’m going back to help my friend now,” she said, climbing to her feet and rubbing her hands on her apron.
Excerpted from Barely a Lady by Dreyer, Eileen Copyright © 2010 by Dreyer, Eileen. Excerpted by permission.
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