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Jack Harcourt, sometimes known as Captain Manton and various other aliases, lately of His Majesty's Dragoons, secret agent and aide to Wellington for some years, sat in the library of his London house, staring moodily into the empty wine glass in front of him. Had life no more to offer than this? A full bottle that was there for the drinking, and an inner emptiness that would be eased only by refilling the glass and swallowing its contents again and again, until he could no longer feel the pain.
As Captain Manton, Jack had helped to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte; he had battled against spies and enemies of the state, but this bitterness, the bleakness that had come upon him of late, was harder to fight. He was a peer of the realm, wealthy enough for his needs, an attractive man in the best of health but he had tasted wormwood too often and, at this moment, he wished that he had died on the bloody battlefields at Waterloo. Instead of that, he had been heaped with praise and honours, received by the Regent privately, and told that he was the backbone of England, a man the prince was proud to shake by the handbut nothing had eased the deep grief that lived within.
'Why was I not here when you needed me, David?' he spoke the words aloud. 'Why did I not hear as you lay in a ditch, bleeding of a fatal wound, alone and friendless?'
In life a man might count his true friends on the fingers of one hand. Jack had other friends, men he valued, but there was a special reason why David Middleton's death had affected him so deeply. It was a cruel fate that had led to his friend dying at the roadside, a victim of a highwayman, robbed of the personal possessions he valued most. Jack could not put the picture from his mind, for it haunted him day and night, and he seemed to hear David's voice calling out for justice. But it had happened some months ago, when Jack was in France fighting for his country, and he had known nothing until his return. At the moment he had no leads, nothing to help him discover the truth. The frustration of being so helpless, together with the knowledge of the pain David's death had brought to another, had left him feeling deeply at odds with himself. His hand was reaching for the wine decanter when a knock at the door halted him.
'Come!' he barked and the door opened to admit his butler.
'I am sorry to disturb you, my lord, but there is a letter.'
'At this hour?' Jack's brows rose. 'Who brought it?'
'I am not sure, my lord. It was given to the maid Rose, as she went into the street to buy some eggs from the dairymaid.'
'Very well, you may leave it, Henshaw.' Jack dismissed it with a flick of his hand. 'I may read it later '
'Rose was told it was urgent, sir.'
'Was she, indeed?' Jack picked up the note, which was sealed with wax but did not bear the signet of any man. He was frowning as he broke the wax and unfolded the paper, reading what was written there. 'Good grief!' he shouted and jumped up, striding over to the window to look out. However, the street was ill lit and he could not see beyond the pool of light outside his house. He turned to look at his butler, who still hesitated by the door. 'Fetch Rose to me. I would hear more of this messenger.'
As the man went off to do his bidding, Jack read the few brief lines again, frowning over their meaning.
If I came in person, you would not see mebut I know David Middleton was a friend you valued. If you seek his murderer, you need look no further than Sir Frederick Colling-wood. Collingwood is a cheat at the card tables and Middle-ton found him out after losing to him. This much is certain, for it is well known. I can give you no proof, though I am sure of Collingwood's guilt. There may be more to this, a deeper motive, but for the moment all I know is that the murder lies at Collingwood's door. The rest is up to you, Harcourt. This warning comes from someone who was once proud to be your friend.
The letter was unsigned, and might be malicious, but somehow Jack sensed that it was genuine. He knew his friend well enough to be sure that if David had discovered he had been cheated, he would not slink away with his tail between his legs. He would publicly denounce the man who had cheated him. It was very possible that he had been murdered to stop him doing just that and yet the letter hinted at something furthera more sinister reason for his friend's murder. Yes! Jack had not been able to accept the facts of David's death, and the letter confirmed that he was right to be suspicious. He got to his feet with a new sense of urgency; his mood of despondency had lifted as swiftly as it had come to him that night.
He would think no more of seeking solace in a bottle of wine. He had been given what he needed. If this message were true, he would seek out the murderer and bring him to justice one way or the other. He wondered who had sent the letter it was not a close friend, for it had said that he would not see the writer in person.
Jack frowned, because it might well be a false trail, but something was telling him it was not. The writer might be someone who felt that he owed Jack something someone he had helped at some time. It did not matter! He would seek for the truth of his friend's death first, and discover the identity of this mysterious writer after
'Mama! There is a letter for you.' Lucy Horne ran into the parlour where her mother and great-aunt were sitting at their embroidery. 'It is from Marianne!'
'I have been expecting it,' Mrs Horne said, looking fondly at her youngest daughter. Lucy was eighteen now, a beautiful, sweet-natured girl who asked for very little except to be with her family. She took the letter, breaking the impressive seal that her eldest daughter was, as the Marchioness of Marlbeck, entitled to use. She scanned the few lines Marianne had penned and smiled. 'It is as I thought, Lucy. Your sister agrees that it is time for your come-out. She suggests that we all go to stay with her and Drew for the christening of their daughterand then she and Drew will accompany us to London and we shall stay there for a few weeks.'
'Mama! Is darling little Andrea to be christened?' Lucy asked, her face lighting up. She had seized on what was for her the most important part of her mama's news. 'How lovely! It seems ages since we saw either of my sisters.'
'You know that Marianne did not wish to travel immediately after the birth,' Mrs Horne said. 'But it is no more than six months since we were there and Jo visited with us a matter of five weeks ago.'
'It seems longer,' Lucy said and bent to kiss her mama's cheek. She was happy living with her mama and Aunt Bertha, and she had made many friends, with whom she visited most weeks, but she was never happier than with her sisters. 'It is so good of Marianne to think of it, Mama.'
Mrs Horne nodded. 'I asked for her advice, because I had thought of Bath, but Marianne insists it must be London, my love.'
'Yes ' Lucy nodded. She had been to Bath once or twice with her mama and her Aunt Bertha, but she had not attended the public dances, only private affairs given by their friends. Although she was used to mixing in company, she was not officially out. Lucy wasn't sure how she felt about the coming Season, for she knew that it was usually seen as a chance for girls to find a husband. 'It will be so much better if Marianne is with us.'
Lucy went over to the window, standing with her back to her mama, gazing out at the garden, which was very pretty at this time of year, the herbaceous borders just coming into flower.
'We must start to collect your wardrobe,' Mrs Horne said. 'Though perhaps it would be best to wait until we are at your sister's. Marianne is so good with that sort of thing and she will know what the young girls are wearing this Season.'
Lucy hardly heard her mother's words. She liked pretty clothes, but often clung to things that she favoured long after her mama thought they should be discarded. She still had the blue velvet pelisse that Jo had made for her before they left the Vicarage where they had all grown up; it was one of her favourite things and she refused to part with it, even though she had more stylish ones in her armoire.
She was thinking about someone a gentleman she had met at Marianne's wedding, which seemed such a long time ago now, but was just over three years. So much had happened since then. Marianne had married her marquis, and Jo was married to Hal Beverley. Yet the memory of Captain Harcourt's smile and his teasing had remained with her, almost as bright as it was at the first. Of course he was Lord Harcourt really, but he had left the army some months after Napoleon Bonaparte's defeat at Waterloo and only then adopted the title that had become his on his father's death.
Lucy pushed her fine, silky hair back from her face. It was the colour of moonlight, more silver-blonde than yellow, and set her apart from most other young ladies she met. Her complexion was soft cream and rose, her eyes were the colour of an azure sky, but could turn darker when she was distressed or angry. Lucy was not often angry, which gave others a false impression of her nature. She seemed a dreamy, gentle girl, mild mannered and perhaps a little insipid at first sight. In truth, she was far from that, for she had a temper when roused and she was a brave girl, but she took after her father. Papa Horne had always been a mild-mannered man, thoughtful, quiet, peace lovingbut Lucy had once seen him thrash the sweep who had dared to set a fire under the climbing boy sent to clean the Vicarage chimneys.
He had not known she was there, and when he discovered that she had witnessed the thrashing, he had looked ashamed and begged her to forgive him for subjecting her to such a disgraceful scene.
'I lost my temper, Lucy,' he had told her. 'I should not have done it. I should have reasoned with the man, restrained him if need bebut what I did was unforgivable.'
'No, Papa,' Lucy told him with a smile. 'I think that what you did was justified. He was a cruel man and needed to be taught a lesson. You were provoked by his cruelty and I think that God would understand your loss of temper.'
Papa had smiled, shaken his head and kissed her. Lucy thought that her papa was the most perfect man ever to have lived and it had caused her terrible grief when he had died and they had had to leave the Vicarage. However, that was in the past now, and she had the future to look forward toand she would be foolish to let her childish daydreams stop her enjoying her Season in town!
She turned back to her mother with a smile. 'I think I should like a yellow silk dress, Mama. I have seen some very pretty material that would make a lovely ballgown.'
'You will need a great many dresses, Lucy,' Mrs Horne said. 'And, thanks to your aunt and sisters, you will be able to have the wardrobe you deserve.'
Jack came in from the street, tossing his gloves into a bowl on the hallstand, his hat following it. He did not notice that it slid to the floor, or see the expression of his footman as he picked it up and brushed it with his fingers. He was frowning as he picked up two letters from the silver salver, taking them with him as he went into his library.
One was from Lady Staunton, Jack's only sister Amelia. He had no other relatives to speak of other than his sister and her family, and he was fond of her, but at the moment Amelia's problems were not his immediate concern. He had looked for Sir Frederick Collingwood, but the man was not to be found in town, and he had learned this morning that he had possibly gone off to Newmarket. Jack was considering whether to post after him, and settle this thing at once, or give himself a breathing space. He opened the first of his letters, reading the brief lines his sister had penned. It had been sent from her home in Hampshire and told him that she had returned to England alone a month ago, because her son David had been suffering badly from the climate.
Her letter said nothing of her unhappiness, though the tone told him that nothing had changed. The only reason Staunton had allowed her to leave India and return to England without him was that he feared he might lose his heir.
Jack cursed as he tossed the letter down. If he had his way, Amelia would leave Staunton for good, but he knew that there were too many difficulties. The man was a brute, damn him! If there were any justice, Amelia would be able to divorce him and retain her son and her place in society, but the laws were all heavily weighted on Staunton's side.
There was nothing he could do while Amelia refused to take his advice, though he knew that she was desperately unhappy. He opened the second letter, which had come from Drew Marlbeck, inviting him to attend the christening of his daughter Andrea.
A smile touched Jack's face, for Drew was one of the few men he valued and he knew how proud he was of his little girl. As one of the richest men in England and the holder of a proud title, Drew could have been forgiven if he had been disappointed that his firstborn was a girl, but not a bit of it. He adored her and left no one in doubt of itor his love for his beautiful wife.