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She might as well be in Newgate.
Lady Elinor Ashworth stared out the window of her bedchamber at acres of farmland sprouting new growth. Spring green brightened the vista, taunting her with the promise of freedom. After three long, lonely months trapped in this cottage, her spirit cried out for something more, something she could not name.
She glanced at the sketchbook in her lap. She had intended to draw the pastoral scene outside her window, but her hand had sketched a young lady forlornly staring through the panes of a window. A truer self-portrait had never been drawn.
Until the last few months, she had been allowed to wander alone through the Wiltshire countryside, but no longer. Not since Aunt Sarah came out of her melancholy and turned into a raving madwoman.
All her life Elinor had dreamed of adventure, so what she was planning to do should not daunt her in the slightest. She had read about people braving the ocean in small boats, exploring the jungles of Africa, searching for ancient artifacts in Egypt.
In contrast, stealing out of her aunt's house in the dark, walking to the nearest coaching inn and traveling by herself to London hardly qualified as an adventure. The merest of escapades, in fact. Or so she assured herself to calm the butterflies suddenly dancing in her stomach. Still, what other choice did she have?
But it all depended on Mimi's assistance.
Jumping up, she paced her small bedroom, eight steps forward, eight steps back, noting that the faced carpeting had begun to show the wear and tear of her impatience, a well-worn trail that led nowhere. Her immediate problem was finding a way to mail theletter to Mimi without her aunt knowing about it. In the past she'd been allowed to walk to the nearby village of Lacock, but lately…
With a sigh, she sat down behind her small desk and skimmed the letter she'd just written in decent, if not fluent, French.
Beechwood Cottage, Wiltshire
April 29, 1812
I have quite made up my mind to come to London and hope I may stay with you for a while. I would not ask except there is no one else upon whom I may impose. It will be only for a short time, until I can find a way to join my father in Portugal.
I have not heard from him in several months and fear our letters are being intercepted by my Aunt Sarah, whose behavior has become quite unpredictable. She has come out of the deep melancholy she suffered after dear Uncle Thomas's death, but she is often not herself. She sees French spies around every turn of a country lane, and of late, has begun accusing me of spying for Napoleon.
That is not the whole story, but I will explain more when I see you. Dear friend, do say I may stay with you. I eagerly await your answer.
Your little Ellie
Elinor folded her letter and had just picked up the sealing wax when her aunt burst into the room. Her graying hair had escaped from its bun and there was a wild look in her blue eyes. Oh, no, it was one of those days.
Before Elinor could stand, her aunt strode to the desk and towered over her.
"There you are, missy, I've been looking for you. What is that?" She snatched the letter from Elinor's hand and looked at it. "Ah, ha! This is the proof I've been waiting for."
Elinor's heart thumped madly. "What are you talking about, Aunt Sarah? Proof of what?"
"Spying. Here it is, writ in your own hand."
Fighting to keep her voice level, Elinor said, "That is merely a letter to mother's former maid. She prefers I write in French as it is easier for her. Shall I read it aloud to you?" she asked, thankful Aunt Sarah had never learned the language.
Her aunt barked a humorless laugh. "As if you would read it true. No, you'd make up some innocuous nonsense about fashion."
Elinor said nothing, for it was true. She could hardly read what she'd written about her aunt to her face. "As you suggested, nonsense about fashion is all. I do rely on Mimi to keep me up to date, in the event I am ever allowed a London season."
"Oh, so that's what this is about," Lady Sarah said, her face red and blotchy with anger. "Hoping to get to London where you can meet with your Frenchy contacts? Well, not if I have something to say about it, missy." She pulled a tiny pistol from her pocket and waved it under Elinor's nose. "And if any of your friends show up here, I'll take care of them myself, see if I don't."
When she put the pistol back in her pocket, Elinor let out the breath she'd been holding. "Please, Aunt Sarah. It is clear that we do not rub along well together. Let me go to my papa in Portugal."
Her aunt's eyes gleamed with malice. "So eager to ingratiate yourself into diplomatic circles, are you, girl? What better spot for a French agent?" She started pacing the room, gesticulating wildly. "No, you'll get no help from me. I know your papa has been sending you secret information. Hard to believe my own brother a traitor."
Elinor jumped up, her heart pounding. "Oh, no, Aunt. Papa is as loyal as any good Englishman. And, as I have not heard from him in months, how could you know what he tells me in his letters? Unless you have intercepted them, that is."
Copyright © 2004 by Linda McLaughlin