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The evening of 7 June 1815
No one had told him that she was beautiful. Jack Ryder crouched precariously in a stone window embrasure two hundred feet above the ravine river bed and stared into the candlelit room. Inside, the woman he had been sent to find paced to and fro like an angry cat.
He kept his eyes fixed on the image beyond the glass as he wedged himself more securely into his slippery niche. Below, the void beneath the castle was shrouded in merciful darkness, the faint sound of the river floating upwards. Although his whole body was aware of it, he ignored the cold fingers of fear playing up and down his spine, knowing full well that if he let his imagination have full rein he would never be able to move at all. His studded boots ground on the stone, and he froze for a moment, but the sound did not seem to reach her.
Jack gave himself a mental shake and began to work on the knot that secured the end of the long coil of rope around his waist. As it came free he gave it a jerk, flicking it outwards, and the whole length detached itself from the battlement high above and fell out of sight into the void.
Now his only way down was through that window. Despite his perilous position, Jack had no intention of going through it until he had a chance to size up the woman inside. The woman he had been sent to bring back to England by whatever means he found necessary, including force.
It was for her own good, as well as in the interests of both countries, they had explained at Whitehall. The officials had spoken with the air of men who were glad it was not they who had to attempt to convince the lady of this. They had told him a number of things about her SereneHighness the Dowager Grand Duchess Eva de Maubourg. Intelligent, stubborn, anti-Napoleonic, haughty, independent, difficult and demanding was how she had been summed up by the various men who had gathered to deliver the hasty briefing, fifteen days before. Half-French, they had added gloomily, as though that summed up the problem.
She had not left the Duchy since her marriage and was likely to be near impossible to move now, the officials added. That was all right; he was used to being asked to do the near impossible.
But there had been no mention of darkly vivid looks, of a curvaceous figure or the lithe grace of a caged panther. And Jack was having trouble believing she could possibly be the mother of a nine-year-old son. It had to be the thick glass in the window panes.
She was alone in the room; he had waited long enough to be convinced of that. Jack shifted his position, focusing his mind on opening the window and not on what would happen if he lost his balance. The flat of a slim blade slid easily enough between the casement and the frame. Thankfully the window opened inwards, for its height above the floor would make it impossible to use otherwise. He eased it ajar by inches, waiting long minutes between each adjustment so there would be no sudden drop of temperature or gust of wind to alarm her. If she screamed this would likely end in blood-shedhe did not intend that it would be his.
Grand Duchess Eva ceased to pace and sank down in front of a writing desk, her back to the window, her head in her hands. Jack wondered if she was crying, then started, with potentially lethal result, when she banged her fist down on the leather desk top and swore colourfully in English. He could only admire her vocabularyhe was tempted to echo it.
It was definitely time to get off this window ledge. He grasped the frame, put his feet through and swung himself down into the room. There was no way he could land silently, not dropping eight foot on to a stone-flagged floor in nailed boots. She spun round on her chair, gripping the back of it, her face reflecting the gamut of emotions from shock, puzzlement, fear and finally, he was impressed to see, imperious anger masking all else. They had not told him about her courage.
'Who the devil are you?' she demanded in unaccented English, getting to her feet with perfect deportment, as though rising from a throne. Her right hand, Jack noted, was behind her; he searched his memory for his survey of the room. Ah, yes, the paperknife. A resourceful lady.
'You speak English excellently,' he commented. He knew from his briefing that she was half-English, so it was only to be expected, but it was a more tactful beginning to their conversation than Put down that knife before I make you! might be. 'But how did you know I would understand you?'
She looked down her nose at him. Jack registered dark eyes, thinly elegant eyebrows arched in disdain, a red mouth with a fullness that betrayed more passion than she was perhaps comfortable with and one deep brown curl, disturbed from her coiffure and lying tantalisingly against her white shoulder. He focused on those eyes and banished the fleeting speculation about just how the skin under that curl would feel.
'You will address me as your Serene Highness,' she said coolly. 'I was thinking in English,' she added, almost as an afterthought.
'Your Serene Highness.' He swept her a bow, conscious of his clothing as he did so. He was dressed for the purpose of shinning down castle walls, not making court bows, but he managed it with a grace that had one of those dark brows lifting in surprise. 'My name is Jack Ryder.' He had wrestled with whether or not to tell her his real name and decided against it. His nom de guerre would be safer in the event they were captured.
'Then you are English, Mr Ryder?'
'So you have not come to kill me?'
That has taken the wind out of his sails, Eva thought, watching the narrowing of the deep grey eyes that had been studying her with what she could only describe as respectful insolence. There was absolutely nothing in this Jack Ryder's expression to which she could take exception, yet somehow he managed to leave her with a distinct awareness of her own femininity and his appreciation of it. It seemed a very long time since anyone had looked at her quite like that and longer still since she had felt her pulse quickening in response.
She managed to keep her breathing under control with an effort, and flexed the fingers cramped around the paperknife. If he was English it was highly unlikely that he was a danger, but she could not afford to take the risk, not after what had happened yesterday. And his unconventional entry through the window had to mean trouble.
'No, ma'am, I have not come to kill you.' A smooth recovery. Why had he not asked her what she meant? Eva studied him while she pondered the disturbing implications of that thought. Some years older than her own twenty-six, but far from middle aged. Slim, dark haired and grey eyed and in obvious control both of his bodygiven the way he had gained entry to her roomand his face. She had a vivid mental image of him with a sword in his hand; he had a duellist's balance. He was showing no emotion now, after that first fleeting reaction to her statement.
'Convince me,'she said, hoping he had not noticed the tremor that vibrated the hem of her evening gown. 'If you do not, I will scream and there will be two guards in here within seconds.'
He produced a pistol from one pocket. 'And one of them will be dead in as short a time. There is no need for this, ma'am.' The sinister black shape slid back into his coat. 'I am here at the behest of the British government. Your son's godfather is of the opinion that it would be better for the young Grand Duke if you were with him.'
'The Prince Regent? He has hardly shown any interest in Fréderic since he wrote to send the christening gift.' She wished she could move, but the necessity to keep the knife out of his sight kept her pinned against the desk.
'Nevertheless, ma'am, the British government keeps an eye on the Duchy of Maubourg and its affairs, and has done ever since the outbreak of war. To have a neutral country embedded within France can only be a diplomatic asset, however small it is.'
'Of course.' Eva shrugged negligently. He was telling her nothing she did not know all too well. 'Presumably you are aware that my late husband did what he could to mitigate the situation by acting as a go-between. He opposed the French, naturally, but he was too much of a realist to think we could resist in any way.'
'I believe you first met the late Grand Duke in England.' Ryder shifted position, his eyes skimming over the furnishings, searching the corners of the room. She felt it was more an habitual wariness than a search for anything in particular. His knowledge of her history did not prove he had received a government briefing; anyone with an interest in her affairs could have discovered that easily enough, it had made a big enough stir in the news sheets.
She inclined her head. 'We were in exile at the time. My father had died in the Terror, Mama returned home to her father, the Earl of Allgrave. I had my come-out in London and I met the Grand Duke at my very first ball.'
It had seemed like a fairy tale, looking back now. Louis Fréderic, tall, darkly handsome, sophisticated far beyond her experience, an exotic presence on the English social scene, was a catch outside her wildest dreams. The fact that he had been thirty years her senior and that she was barely seventeen had weighed neither with her mother, nor with her.
The Grand Duke carried out his mission by negotiating for an exchange of prisoners, enjoyed a whirlwind courtship and returned to Maubourg with his future Grand Duchess at his side. Eva stared back down the years of memory at herself. Had she ever been that young and innocent?
'And since your husband's death almost two years ago, his brother Prince Philippe has acted as Regent and you and he are joint guardians of your son.' Ryder was not so much asking, as establishing to her that he knew the facts. It seemed he was not completely up to date, but she did not hasten to inform him that Philippe had been confined to his room with some mysterious illness ever since the news about Napoleon's escape from Elba had reached them. That was almost three months ago and she was beginning to despair of his recovery.
'Yes.' Her legs had stopped trembling. Eva shifted her position slightly, resting her left hand casually on the chair back. She could swing it across his path if he lunged for her. 'I have not seen my son for four years. My husband judged it best that he should be educated in England.'
The pain of that, the sense of betrayal, still stabbed like a knife. Louis had not even given her the opportunity to say goodbye, justifying it by saying her tears would weaken the boy. First a private tutor, shared with the sons of a ducal family, then Eton. Little Freddie, will he even recognise me now?
'There is no easy way to say this ' Ryder began, and Eva felt the blood begin to drain from her face. No no they have sent him to tell me he is dead 'Your son has been the victim of a series of accidents in the last month No! Ma'am, he is quite well, I assure you!' She felt herself sway and he was at her side supporting her even faster than her own disciplined recovery.
'I am quite all right,' she began, then, as his solicitous fingers closed around the paperknife and whipped it from her hand, 'Give me that back!'
He lobbed it through the open window with scarcely a sideways glance to take aim, but stayed at her side. 'I prefer to remain unpunctured, should I happen to displease you, ma'am. Your son is alive, despite his run of bad luck, and even now, I am certain, is ploughing through his Classical studies.'
'What accidents?' Eva demanded, moving away. Mr Ryder's proximity was strangely disturbing. If she had not been a sensible widow she would have put it down to the close presence of a handsome, dangerous man. But it could not be that. It must be the relief at hearing that Freddie was all right.
He made no move to follow her, simply shifting his position to keep her in view. 'First, in the middle of May, there was a fall down a stone staircase, which was fortunately interrupted by a number of youngsters on their way up. They shared a number of interesting bruises I gather, but that is all. Then on the eighteenth, there was a runaway carriage in the High Street, which only missed the Grand Duke because he was pushed to safety by a passer-by. The carriage and its driver could not be traced afterwards. Then'
'Hoffmeister should have been taking better care of him,' Eva interrupted angrily.
'His personal secretary and tutor can hardly be expected to keep a lively nine-year-old in leading strings, ma'am. And to his credit Hoffmeister became suspicious enough after the third incident to make contact with Whitehall.'
'The inexplicable appearance of one poisonous toadstool in a fricassee of mushrooms that was set before Fréderic for dinner on the twentieth.'
'How ' Eva swallowed, fighting to keep her composure ' how did he escape that?'
'By being immediately and very thoroughly sick. His personal physician tells me that his Serene Highness has a very sensitive stomach.' She nodded, dumbly. 'On this occasion it probably saved his life. He has additional security now, believe me.'
This time she made no pretext of hiding her shaking limbs. Eva sank down on to the chair and tried to tell herself that Fréderic was safe, that all his servants, and especially Hoffmeister, would be guarding him closely now.
'I realise this may be hard to accept, ma'am' Jack Ryder began, then broke off as she lifted her head to look at him.
'No, Mr Ryder, it is not at all strange. I am fortunate, it seems, that Fréderic gets his sensitive digestion from me, for I spent a miserable few hours with a badly upset stomach two nights ago. At the time I put it down to shock after the accident when the wheel came off my carriage as we were crossing a narrow bridge. Only the parapet stopped it tipping into the gorge.