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By Lisa T. Bergren
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 Lisa T. Bergren
All rights reserved.
"If you spot him again, shoot him on sight," my father said. "I shall deal with the repercussions myself."
I gently pulled off my gloves and felt Will's grip on my elbow tighten. I looked about the room—at my younger sister, Lil; my brother, Felix; and one of our guards, Pascal, standing with Antonio and my father.
"What's this?" Will asked, leading me closer to the others, deeper into the Venetian palazzo's grand salon. I was thankful that the long windows were wide open, allowing the brine-laced breeze to waft through. "What's happened?"
"Oh, Cora!" Lillian cried, rising and entering my arms. She clung to me a second and then pulled back to look at me. "It was Nathan Hawke! I'm certain I saw him across the piazza today!"
"Truly?" I asked. "Nathan? If you're right, he's far less clever than I thought." I looked to my father, his words about shooting him on sight making far more sense now. Nathan Hawke was dangerous, instrumental in our kidnapping a week past, thwarted only because Will and Art had used other nefarious men to double-cross him. I lifted a hand to my temple and shook my head. "It makes no sense. He should be on a steamer to Greece by now. Not lollygagging about where one of us might spy him, report him. He risks imprisonment!"
"Unless he wants to be seen," Antonio grumbled, thick chin in hand.
"For what purpose?" Felix asked.
"To make certain that we know who is behind the next kidnapping," bit out my father, throwing up a hand in frustration. "So that we might pay the ransom without hesitation."
"His partners are in jail," I said. "What true threat is one man when we are so many?"
"It took only one to take our Lillian," my father said, his blue eyes steel cold as he leveled them at me. "And another to nab you as well."
"We are far less naive than we were when we began this journey. We never go out alone—"
"Not that that resolves our concerns," my father said. "What would you do if he leveled a gun at you? Or your sister? Or young William here?"
"Presumably our armed guard would protect us."
He paced back and forth, flicking one hand in the air. "So he draws his pistol, Antonio draws another, and you are caught in the cross fire?"
I bit my lip, stymied by both his logic and the sudden reminder that he might care for me and my future, regardless of the bad blood that had passed between us. I pinched my temples between thumb and ring finger. "We've been through this, Father. We cannot live in fear the rest of our lives. Like it or not, after that Life article, we'll be recognized wherever we go. Even more so once the next issue is off the presses and reaches Europe."
"Which will be soon," said Hugh Morgan, one of our traveling companions, his tone uncommonly gentle. "It'll be any day now."
I looked back at my father. Here, at last, was the gauntlet he'd warned me of—the trials of leading, of making choices. I had to show him I was up to the task. "If it's not Nathan Hawke, there will be others, yes? You have enemies. I, apparently, have enemies. This is our present reality. And we all must deal with that threat, here, now, so that we can be done with it forevermore."
"It would be easier at home in Montana," my father said. "We wouldn't be so exposed."
I held a breath, defeated by the idea of turning tail and running after all we'd endured. We'd fought to be here, earned the right to finish our trip, even if it was against Father's wishes. Hadn't we? But I recognized his fear, his concern for the others—my siblings, Felix, Vivian, and Lil, as well as the Morgans—even if I couldn't trust what he felt for me. I sighed and looked to Will.
"When is the earliest we could leave, if we wished to?" Father said.
"The Charleston ships out in a couple of weeks from Pisa. We might secure passage on her. But given that it's high season, she's likely sold every stateroom, and getting us all aboard, even if you all agreed to travel second class ..." Will shook his head. "No, it's highly unlikely we'd find anything above steerage. There's a slim chance we could find accommodations on the Charlemagne, the following week out of Naples."
"Oh, but the Charlemagne's a miserable ship," Pierre de Richelieu said, entering the room, his keen eyes covering each of us but resting on me. "Trust me. You'd never wish to board her wretched gangplank." His eyes narrowed as he took in the dour mood of the room. "What's happened?" he asked, his French accent growing thicker. "What is it?"
Antonio bent to whisper in his ear, and Pierre's handsome green eyes shifted to me, his brows furrowed in alarm—and then his gaze traveled down to Will's hand on my elbow. I knew he'd remained, even once Will and I began openly courting, hoping I might change my mind. He pinched his lower lip, then turned to a chair and sat down, heavily, as if beaten. He was due to leave for Paris within hours. I knew that this was perhaps the last time I'd ever see him, which made me alternately relieved and sad.
My father strode to the window and put a hand on the frame as he stared outward. "It is you that Nathan Hawke is after, Cora. An heiress, a millionaire in her own right, now. That's the story the press shall propagate. Luc Coltaire would've taken any of you. But a Montanan like Hawke? He's after you."
I let out a soft scoffing laugh. My sole inheritance—my claim on a portion of the Dunnigan mine—was in dispute. Father wished to hold it out before me like a carrot before a horse, forcing me to go in the direction he wished. I had secured an attorney and discovered I might have a chance at fighting for a portion, whether my father approved of my decisions—continuing the tour, allowing Will rather than Pierre to court me—or not.
"Perhaps you can flag Hawke down in the piazza," I said. "Explain to him that you are doing your level best to keep me and my parents from earning one dollar of our mine's bounty. That trying to wring a ransom from my banker will be as difficult as squeezing blood from a turnip since I have about three dollars to my name."
I heard the tiny gasp from my sister Lil. Everyone in the room seemed to take a collective breath, all eyes now concentrating on the two of us.
"Cora, this all mustn't be so trying," my father said, his blue eyes shifting in agitation to the others in the room. "And even if we weren't at odds about the Dunnigan mine, you know he'd come to me. Appeal to me as your father. I'm the known quantity."
"And we both know how far that would get him." I took a deep breath and looked to Will, then back to my father, feeling a wince of regret now over my harsh words and the shadow that passed through his eyes. "But if you feel it's me that Nathan is after, perhaps we should part company for a time. I don't wish to endanger the others."
"No!" Lillian cried, coming to me and taking my arm before looking back to our father. Her blonde ringlets by her ears bounced. "Please, Father. Don't allow her to go. It isn't safe!"
"We only have a few weeks left before the Olympic sails back home," I said, patting her hand. "We wouldn't be apart for all that long."
"But I agree with your family," Will said, surprising me. "It's far safer for you to be with the others, under guard, than on your own."
"No," my father said. "Listen to him. If we are to tarry here in Italy rather than return home immediately, it is imperative that we remain together."
Rising voices, floating down the marble staircase, drew our attention to the open doors. Vivian. And Andrew. They were getting closer, bickering, and then Vivian arrived, flushed and wringing her hands, Andrew directly on her heels. She looked up, belatedly realizing that so many of us had gathered and overheard them arguing.
I splayed out my hands and forced a smile, eager to relieve the pressure of the group's attention. "We were just discussing the possibility of parting ways for a time."
"Parting ways?" sputtered Vivian, her small features drawing together in a frown. "Who of us wishes to part ways with you?"
I almost laughed at Andrew's steady gaze behind her. He was one, for certain. Somehow, he seemed ready to pin their growing dissonance on me.
"I believe we are past that idea," my father said quietly. "Now we must plot our safest course."
I considered him and then cast my eyes about the room, thinking. "What if we changed course again? Get off the Grand Tour track. See Antonio's Italy together?" I gestured toward our guide and then folded my arms. "Nathan Hawke is resourceful, but I wager it was Luc Coltaire that kept them on our trail before. If we up and disappeared in the wee hours, this very night, would we not likely slip from the city without him knowing where we'd gone? And if we kept to the smaller towns and villages, rather than the grand cities, would we not be far less likely to encounter those that knew the first thing about us?"
My father's gaze shifted to me, his gray mustache twitching as he considered my plan. And it was then that I knew he agreed with me.
"But what of the big cities?" Nell whined. "I do so want to see Milan. Turin. And Florence!"
"We could stay outside of the cities. Come in for the day and disappear again," Will said, looking excited. He nodded his head, hope making his eyes sparkle. "It's far more difficult for a man to follow us on the small, isolated country roads than it is in the thick of crowded streets."
Pierre rose and nodded in agreement. "It is a good plan, to stay together and yet step off of Italy's stage for a time." He turned sad, warm eyes on me. "Regardless of how much you belong on it."
I colored under his steady gaze. Was there nothing I could do to dissuade him from his pursuit?
"You are off then, Richelieu?" my father asked, stepping up beside him. "To Paris?"
Pierre nodded, still staring at me. He forced his eyes to my father. "In a few hours."
"Then you have enough time for a proper farewell with Cora," my father said.
I started, straightened, and wondered what I could possibly say that wouldn't hurt Pierre's feelings further and—
"I did hope for that, yes," Pierre said. He turned toward Will, silently asking permission.
"That is up to Cora," Will said.
Will had my heart, but sending Pierre away brokenhearted wasn't what I wanted. He'd done nothing to deserve such sorrow.
Will sighed, reading my expression. "May I have a private word with Cora?"
My father waved us out, and we turned around the corner and into the spacious, airy hall of the grand Venetian palazzo, every nearby room empty except for the salon behind us. In the center, the palazzo was open to the skies above, and a small, tidy garden grew below, as it had for centuries.
Will crossed his arms and leaned against the wall, facing me. "Tell me," he said miserably. "Tell me," he repeated, an edge of anger in his whispered tone as he pointed out the hall, "that you are not hesitating saying farewell to him because you still feel something for him."
"I care for Pierre," I whispered back. "How could I not? He has been nothing but kind to me! But I love you, Will. I've always loved you."
His expression was a mixture of relief and trepidation. "Then I have no fear in giving the Frenchman a moment to say good-bye. He'll undoubtedly try and make you look his way one more time. You know that, right?"
"You have nothing to fear," I said. I gave him a rueful smile. "It is Pierre de Richelieu. You know he'll do his level best." I stepped toward him and wrapped my arms around his waist. "But I know who is better for me than even the grand Pierre de Richelieu."
He reached down and tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear, feigning ignorance. "Who? Hugh? Antonio?"
I smiled back up at him. "Why yes, either of them." Hugh Morgan was a womanizing cad, half the time—though he'd seemed to mature over the course of the tour—and Antonio was our sweet, fatherly fellow guide.
"It's been lovely," Will said, wrapping his arms around me and giving my forehead a careful kiss. "These last days, setting the tour aside, simply enjoying Venezia and each other. But now we must move forward. And we start by sending Pierre home." He put one hand behind my neck, his touch gentle, reassuring, and with his other hand, he stroked my cheek.
I smiled up at him and nodded quickly. He leaned down to gently kiss me, once, twice, until we heard voices coming closer from the salon. Quickly, we drew apart, and I took his arm.
Pierre lifted a brow in question, along with his hand, and smiled as I walked toward him. "Excellent," he purred, tucking my hand around the crook of his arm. He was impeccably dressed, as usual, in a fine suit of a delicate summer weight, crisp white shirt, and cravat in a blue-green that enhanced his eyes. "This way, mon ange ..." he said, gesturing toward the front of the palazzo, on the canal side.
"Pierre," Will growled. No doubt he'd heard Pierre's romantic name for me in French.
"Je suis si désolé," Pierre said with an apologetic moan, lifting a hand and casting Will a look laced with remorse. "Force of habit," he said, staring down at me in adoration, as if there really could be no other name for me than my angel.
Will trailed behind us to the top of the marble stairs that led down to the canal-level piano, what the Venetians called each level of a building, right along the water. "You're going outside?" Will said, frustration lacing his tone. "Can you not share a quiet word of farewell in the safety of the palazzo?"
"Nothing to fear, my friend," Pierre said. "I only wish to take a ride on the water with Cora. Unless this Hawke walks on water, he will not get anywhere near us. And if he does ..." He patted his jacket pocket, where he carried his pistol.
Will considered him. "See that you have easy access to that," he said at last. "And take Pascal with you. Those are my terms."
"Honestly, Will. Isn't that a bit much?" I asked. I considered it rather embarrassing, thinking of a private conversation in front of Pascal.
"Isn't it a bit much that Hawke dared come close enough for any of us to see him?" Will responded levelly.
I glanced with Pierre over to Pascal, the burly guard who was walking down the stairs behind us. He was so quiet, half the time I forgot he hovered near. And there would be no shaking my silent guardians, not after our kidnapping. And especially now, if Nathan Hawke was indeed lurking in the vicinity.
Hugh and Felix left out the back door of the palace, most likely to find a place for an afternoon glass of wine and a chance to flirt with the local young women. Wallace bit back a demand for them to stay inside, unnerved by this latest sighting of Nathan Hawke, but he knew it would simply agitate the young gentlemen. Glancing out the window, he comforted himself with the sight of Stephen, a lanky detective, following the boys.
Sam Morgan came up to the window beside him. "They'll be fine, Wallace. We can't keep an eye on them every minute," he said, biting down on an unlit cigar.
Wallace gave him a rueful smile and then turned to sit heavily in a chair in front of the cold, unlit fireplace. "You're right, of course. But if anything happened to any of the children ..." He bit his lip and looked over to the wide, empty doorway that led to the hallway.
"Perhaps it's best if you switch tactics with Cora now," Morgan said gently, taking the chair facing him.
Wallace stared hard at his old friend and business partner. Morgan didn't speak to him in such a direct manner often, but Wallace had learned it was wise to pay attention when he did. "Meaning?"
"Meaning," Morgan said carefully, stroking his short beard, "she is perhaps more like you than any of your other children. And the harder you press her, the more she'll press back."
Wallace waved his hand in agitation, encouraging him to go on, even while a good part of him wanted the man to remain quiet.
"She is naive in some ways, and yet wise to the ways of people. She understands what drives them, incites them. And she does not wish to be controlled."
Wallace studied him. "You think I've gone about it wrong. My desire to assert my authority as a father, guide her."
"She sees you more as a threat than a guide. When she did not come willingly, you tried to coerce her, which has only driven her further away."
Wallace sighed heavily and closed his eyes, rubbing them. "So? What do you suggest?"
Excerpted from Glittering Promises by Lisa T. Bergren. Copyright © 2013 Lisa T. Bergren. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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