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Charlotte Elizabeth Nash, reading in the window alcove, shrank back against the wall when she heard people entering the cavernous, sparsely furnished drawing room. She did not want company. She was sick of people, the whisperers and sympathizers who couldn't ever quite keep their eyes from straying to the empty places on the walls where pictures had once hung.
She dropped her book into her lap and pulled the curtain partially covering the niche farther closed. But male voices, rare in what had become an all female household since Kate had "let go" the butler, piqued her interest.
At sixteen and not yet having made her bow, she knew that making her presence known would only invite dismissal. Charlotte did not want to be dismissed. She was as saddened as anyone by their father's death and equally affected by the ramifications, but she had the resilience of youth -- and its attendant callousness -- and over the long months of mourning had grown a little...well, bored. Besides, visitors might distract Kate from her constant litany about economy and Helena from donning her mask of forced optimism. And a little male attention might even bring a pink of pleasure to their mother's wan cheeks.
Charlotte inserted a finger between curtain and wall and peeked out. Her mother had taken possession of the lone settee left in the room and was reading a sheet of paper. Charlotte's two older sisters sat flanking her: Helena, pale as winter sunlight, and Katherine, heated and dark as a moonless summer night. They sat with their hands clasped lightly in their laps, their postures straight, their polite gazes numbed to the presence of the trio of young men standing before them.
Charlotte could not see them clearly, but she didn't dare risk pulling the curtain farther open. Instead, she dropped noiselessly to the immaculate floorboards and lifted the curtain hem. Ah. Better.
From this unseen vantage she studied the young men as they introduced themselves: they were decidedly not of the Nashes' class. Of what class they were remained to be seen.
She couldn't say exactly why she had come to this conclusion. True, their clothing, though scrupulously clean, was shabby -- cuffs frayed at the edges and fabric pulling across shoulders and backs -- but since the war with France had begun, many people had been forced to eschew fashion as money grew tighter. Nor was it their bearing that revealed them as something other than gentlemen in reduced circumstances. Indeed, they comported themselves in the most correct and circumspect fashion.
No, it was something subtler. More elemental. It seemed as if something untamed had come in through the front door, disturbing the air in the quiet York town house, something dangerous.
She scooted closer as the man in front introduced himself as Andrew Ross, in a deep voice touched with a Highland burr. Medium height, brown-haired and tanned, with a loose-knit physique, he smiled easily and looked genial. Except...when one studied him closer, one noted the wicked scar that traversed his lean cheek and the flint that belied the warm color of his brown eyes.
Beside him stood easily the most handsome man Charlotte had ever seen. Ramsey Munro, he'd said. Tall, slender, and pale, with black glossy curls falling over his white brow and deep blue eyes glittering between a thick bank of lashes, his features were both sardonic and aristocratic. Charlotte could imagine him in the ton, his grace masking a subtle but undeniable predatory aspect. Like the panther she had seen at the menagerie last summer.
The last young man -- Christian MacNeill -- hung back, his broad-shouldered figure tense. Raggedly chopped, overlong red-gold hair framed a lean, hungry face made remarkable by pale green, watchful eyes. He looked the roughest of the trio, with deep-set eyes, a wide, sensual mouth, and a hard, angular jaw.
Charlotte cocked her head. He reminded her of someone...Ah, yes. She remembered now.
Late one night several years ago, when she had been in the kitchen soothing a troubled stomach with a glass of brandied milk, she had heard a whistle outside. The upstairs maid, Annie, had come running in to fling open the back door. A man emerged from the darkness, everything about him troubling and exciting, and scooped Annie up in his arms, wheeling her about until he noticed Charlotte. He stopped wheeling, but he didn't put Annie down. Annie had left with him that night, her eyes wide with fear and pleasure. She had never returned.
This Christian MacNeill reminded Charlotte of that other man, that "born-to-be-hung blackguard" who'd stolen Annie away.
Not that Annie would be here now, even if she hadn't run off, Charlotte reminded herself. Except for Cook and a pair of overworked maids, all of the other servants had been let go.
"I don't know what they want," her mother suddenly murmured in the bewildered voice that had become hers the day she had learned she was a widow. She looked askance at Helena, who touched her shoulder consolingly. Wordlessly, Kate took possession of the paper and began to read.
"We don't want anything, Mrs. Nash," Mr. Ross said. "We have come to present your family an oath. Whether you see fit to avail yourselves of it is your decision. But whether or no you do, the oath stands for as long as any of us lives."
Charlotte's eyes widened in fascination. An oath? She knew the young men had, in some way, been associated with her father, and assumed they'd been members of his staff come to pay their respects.
"What sort of oath?" Helena asked.
"A pledge of service," Kate said, still reading the letter.
Charlotte regarded her middle sister with grudging admiration. Throughout the past year Kate, not Helena, had emerged as the family's bastion of strength, despite having more reason than any of them to be devastated.
Married at nineteen to a dashing lieutenant, Michael Blackburn, Kate had no sooner settled into her Plymouth home than her husband had died while en route to India. She'd returned to York a widow less than a year after she'd become a bride. Six months later, word came that their father had been killed in France, where he'd been secretly meeting with the deposed heads of Louis XVI's government -- at least those few with heads still attached.
The family had still been reeling from the shock when the solicitors arrived and informed them that the annuity they had lived upon had died with Lord Nash. Almost at once, tradesmen began scratching at the back doors, the servants began looking for more secure positions, and the new owners of the entailed town house commenced sending letters that her mother never opened. No one did.
Except Kate. She took upon herself the unimaginable task of selling their personal belongings, writing references for the servants, and settling unpaid bills. Kate. Kate who liked dancing more than reading, hated sums and loved gossip, who the matrons had tattled upon as being "flighty" and "capricious." Even now, Charlotte was amazed. She barely recognized her carefree, party-loving sister in the composed young woman calmly refolding the letter their mother had handed her.
"Thank you for your offer, gentlemen," Kate said now. "But we do not stand in need of your aid. Nor do we expect to."
Charlotte felt her mouth sag. They most certainly were in need. Dire need! But then, their needs began and ended with money, and clearly these three young men were no better off than they were. Mayhap less. Though that would have been hard to imagine.
She wasn't supposed to know about the family's financial straits. Her sisters maintained a facade of confident calm, but soft-footed as she was, Charlotte had heard enough through closed doors and in the late hours of the night to understand perfectly well how very desperate their situation had become.
"I see." Mr. Ross kept his gaze courteously fixed on the three women seated before him, and Ramsey Munro remained impassive, but Christian MacNeill's frosted gaze prowled about the room, pausing at the faded rectangles on the striped silk wall-covering, the dents in the Persian rug that revealed the absence of heavy furniture, and the lack of ornamentation on the single, lonely sideboard.
He knows, Charlotte thought. Yet what can he do in the face of Kate's refusal?
"We have no desire to burden you further, Mrs. Blackburn. But before we leave" -- Mr. Ross gestured vaguely at his companions -- "would you do us the great kindness of accepting something from us?"
He held up a canvas bag Charlotte had not previously noted. A small knob of wood protruded from the twine-wrapped top.
"What is it?" Helena asked.
"A rose, Miss Nash," Mr. Ross answered. "Should you ever find you stand in any need for which we might prove of service, you have only to send one of the flowers to the abbot at St. Bride's in Scotland. He will know how to contact us, and as soon as humanly possible we will come to you."
A small, confused smile touched Helena's lips. "Why a -- "
"A rose?" a female voice asked incredulously from the doorway. Their cousin Grace swept into the chill drawing room, all golden ringlets and dewy skin, untying a velvet pelisse from about her shoulders.
"Hello, my dears!" She bent down to place a perfunctory kiss on her aunt's cheek before straightening and regarding the young men with a faint touch of surprised superiority.
"Grace, these are the young men whom your uncle...who..." Charlotte's mother floundered, uncertain how to proceed. Helena saved her.
"These are the young men whom Father was able to aid in rescuing before his demise: Mr. Ross, Mr. Munro, and Mr. MacNeill. Gentlemen, our cousin, Grace Deals-Cotton."
Rescued? These were the young men her father died saving? Charlotte lifted the curtain higher, fascinated.
The young men bowed and murmured appropriate greetings and Grace smiled her catlike, three-pointed smile, her large eyes narrowed assessingly.
"I see," she said. "And you've brought a...rose? How very sentimental." Grace turned to her aunt. "Did Uncle Roderick like roses? I never realized. But then, I've only been with you a year." She smiled again. "This time."
"I am sure Lord Nash would have appreciated the roses very much," Charlotte's mother said with rote politeness. "As we shall when the plant blooms...later this year."
Her hesitation betrayed the thought unspoken but held by them all that they would not be here long enough to see the rose bloom. No one, of course, revealed this to their guests. They were proud, the Nashes were.
"But surely you can't mean to try and stay...Oh. You mean you will take a cutting when you relocate," Grace said. She took a seat on the far end of the sofa, picking up the embroidery hoop she'd abandoned last evening.
"You are moving household?" Ramsey Munro asked sharply.
"Yes," Helena said, darting an uneasy glance at Kate. "Eventually. The memories..." She trailed off vaguely, her hand rising and falling to her side.
Kate shot a daggered look at Grace, who returned her look with one of confused hurt. Charlotte let the hem drop a little, a touch irritated with Kate. Of course Grace hadn't purposely revealed their need to move from the fashionable town house but Kate would never believe that. The animosity between the two was long-standing -- perhaps because they were, or at one time had been, so much alike. Once Kate had been just as fey and artless as Grace. She ought to remember that rather than always finding fault with their vivacious cousin.
"As are you, Grace," Helena said, diverting everyone's attention. "Relocating, that is."
"Ah, yes!" Grace said, lowering her eyes prettily as she commenced embroidering. "But I, poor creature, am to be relegated to the wilderness, while you all shall at least be able to avail yourself of society." She smiled at Mr. Ross. "Five months hence, I am marrying Charles Murdoch. His brother is the marquis of Parnell. I daresay you won't be known -- "
She caught the faux pas before she had completed it. "You probably would not know him. His castle" -- there was no disguising the satisfaction with which she said the word, and why shouldn't she feel satisfaction? A castle was, after all, a castle -- "his castle is on the north coast of Scotland. We shall live there when we are not in London."
"London, not Edinburgh?" Ramsay Munro asked smoothly. "I own, I am surprised. The Scots are inordinately proud of Edinburgh."
Something about the manner in which he spoke to Grace told Charlotte that Ramsay Munro was not overwhelmed by her cousin's charms, making him, in Charlotte's admittedly limited experience, unique among young men.
"Edinburgh?" Grace repeated. The silk-strung needle flashed seemingly without volition as she pondered his words. Grace was a marvelous embroiderer, another similarity between her and Kate. "I suppose. In truth, I haven't given it much thought. The wedding has, I own, rather consumed my attention."
"My felicitations on your upcoming nuptials," Mr. Ross said. He turned to the other women. "Now, perhaps I might impose upon you for one last kindness?"
"Of course," Helena answered before Kate could demur.
"If we might see the rose planted?"
"Oh." Helena blinked in surprise. "Oh, of course. Kate, where do you think we might plant -- "
"No, darling, you must say. You and mother. You are the gardeners, not I."
Their mother looked up from whatever reverie she'd been lost in, and for a moment the smile that animated her face made her look almost herself again.
"The garden? Of, course." She rose unsteadily to her feet, and Helena gave her the support of her arm. "We shall do so at once. You must come too, Grace. You have an artistic eye."
"I am happy to be of service, Aunt Elizabeth." Grace set down the embroidery hoop.
Their mother, leaning on Helena, preceded the others out of the door and into the soft morning light. Charlotte, on the verge of slipping out from under the curtain and making her escape, froze as she realized that Kate had not gone with the others and that the green-eyed man, Christian MacNeill, had stopped beside the threshold of the door.
"After you, ma'am." His deep voice was smooth and polite.
"No, thank you, sir. I am certain my opinion will not see your rose more congenially situated. But please, you go ahead."
"I am just as certain three of us are not needed to plant that root," Mr. MacNeill returned wryly. "Do you mind if I wait with you?"
"Of course not." A dubious-sounding consent. "Would you like some...punch?"
Charlotte almost laughed at the picture her imagination conjured of Christian MacNeill drinking punch from a dainty cup. His large hands would simply swallow a delicate crystal glass. But then she frowned as she remembered they no longer owned a punch bowl. Kate had apparently forgotten it had been sold last week. Oh dear. Kate would be mortified if she had to serve punch in teacups --
"Thank you, no."
Charlotte sighed in relief. At least Kate was saved that embarrassment.
Christian MacNeill waited while Kate settled herself on the sofa's edge, looking as if she might bolt at any moment. What had gotten into her self-possessed sister? She is nervous, Charlotte realized in amazement. She could not remember when Kate had been discombobulated by anyone! Before Michael began his courtship, Kate had led a dozen young men a merry chase. No one, no matter how sophisticated or urbane, had dinted her laughing self-possession.
Charlotte scrunched forward, peering intently at the rough, gilt-haired Highlander. He'd come back into the room and stood over Kate, watching her. She'd turned her face to look out the window, and he looked amused. But still...hungry.
"I hope I am not discomforting you, Mrs. Black-burn," he said. His voice was a rough-smooth rumble. Like water over river rock.
"Not at all."
Liar, Charlotte thought.
"I am afraid I am a bit distracted. Forgive me." Kate arranged her hands in her lap in the same way she had in the schoolroom years earlier when she had been practicing her conversational skills with the governess. She cleared her throat. Minutes ticked by and the tall Scot remained almost preternaturally still, not a trace of unease in his expression or a hint of discomposure in his bearing. Kate, on the other hand, looked as if she might fly out of her skin in spite of the rigid self-control that kept her statue-still. Finally, she could take it no longer.
"If I have the correct understanding of the situation, you were imprisoned. I am sorry for your ordeal."
The words were polite and proper. His nod accepting her sympathy was the same.
"If I might ask, during the course of what battle were you captured?" she continued somberly.
"I wasn't in a battle," he said calmly.
"Oh." Kate frowned. "I assumed -- but then, how did you and your friends come to be in France during this time of war, Mr. MacNeill?" Real interest had replaced Kate's conversational tone.
"I have wondered the same myself, more times than I can tell you," he said. "It was because of the roses, I suppose."
Kate's smooth brow furrowed slightly, and she plucked at her fingers. She looked very young, Charlotte thought. Her skin looked pale against her dark hair, and her throat slender and vulnerable as it arched forward. And despite knowing that she was a bastion of strength, and a formidable one at that, Charlotte thought she looked very...slight. Fragile.
With the breathless sense of stepping through a door into an unknown and dark room, Charlotte wondered if all that had happened to Kate had been...well...quite as fair as she and Helena and even their mother might have made it.
"How did roses lead to your imprisonment?" she asked, her dark eyes darting up to meet Christian MacNeill's.
Mr. MacNeill clasped his hands behind his back. He looked down at Kate, his expression enigmatic. A shiver coursed through Charlotte. He was so much larger than she'd realized, his gauntness giving an impression of lightness that his proximity to Kate now belied. He was a terribly hard-looking young man.
"It's an uncomfortable tale, Mrs. Blackburn."
Her sister's stark words startled Charlotte. Their governess would not have approved. One did not make personal demands of an acquaintance, let alone a stranger. He did not seem to take offense. Indeed, something in his hard face relaxed.
"All of us had some knowledge of gardens," he said. "One of our duties was tending the roses where we were raised."
"I'm sorry." Her voice was ripe with sympathy.
He laughed shortly. "Don't waste your pity. It was not a workhouse. Workhouses, in my memory, do not have rose gardens. No, this was a sort of orphanage, I suppose. It doesn't matter."
"But because of the roses, and some other skills we had developed, my companions and I were approached by a gentleman who asked us to journey to France and, among other things, bring a lady an extremely rare yellow rose. In doing so we hoped to gain entrée to
her world and thereby" -- he shrugged -- "change the world."
"A lady who could change the world?" Kate said incredulously, and once more Charlotte felt a prick of embarrassment. No matter what a visitor said, one must never openly doubt his veracity.
"Her name was Marie-Rose, but her husband calls her Josephine."
Charlotte's mouth formed a soundless O! and she dug her knuckles into her mouth, barely suppressing her gasp. This man knew Napoleon Bonaparte's wife?
Kate, too, could not conceal her amazement. "You have met Josephine?"
Christian MacNeill's smile held no pleasure. "Once, and briefly, ma'am. Shortly after we arrived, our plans were discovered -- No." His face hardened into an expression from which Charlotte recoiled. "Our plans were not discovered; they were revealed. By a traitor. Someone who knew of our mission. We were taken prisoner and would have been executed had your father not intervened. One of our number was executed."
"I'm sorry." Kate said. "I'm sorry my father's sacrifice didn't come in time to save your friend." She looked up. "I mean, if one insists on being a martyr, one might as well have some good come of it -- Dear God! I am so sorry! I don't know why I said that. Please, I am...forgive me. I truly did not mean to offend you. It's just that...often" -- her voice dropped to a harsh whisper -- "my father's death feels like a betrayal."
Charlotte edged back into her alcove, stunned by her sister's confession. She'd had no idea Kate felt that way. She peered back into the room. The passion that had darkened Mr. MacNeill's face evaporated as he looked down at Kate, sitting with her head bowed above her lap.
Abruptly, he bent down on his knee, bringing his eyes level with Kate's. "I swear, ma'am, had it been in our power to keep your father from making such a sacrifice, we would have done so," he said softly. "We understood the risks of what we sought to do, and we would never have knowingly volunteered another to pay the penalty of our actions. It was not our choice to make, however. No one asked us."
Charlotte drew back farther, scowling. This was not a proper conversation between people who did not know one another! People did not ask one another pointed questions. People did not reveal the intimate details of their lives to one another on the basis of half an hour's knowledge. People did not speak passionately to strangers! Why, people didn't speak passionately to those they knew well! It was...bad form.
Charlotte was shocked, a little offended, and a great deal unsettled. She had been right to think of these young men as feral. They had come into her home and broken down the rules by which she and her family lived.
Sure enough, Kate's next words confirmed Charlotte's supposition.
"How did my father die, Mr. MacNeill? What happened? No one will tell us." The whispered words seemed to emerge from deep within Kate, desperate and aching.
A muscle leapt at the corner of Christian McNeill's jaw, a hard angular jaw recently scraped smooth. His skin was darkly tanned, not the pale, well-padded flesh of a gentleman. Little lines fanned out at the corners of his green eyes, making him look wicked. Should Charlotte do something?
With feline grace, he uncoiled from where he'd knelt and folded his hands behind his back. He moved restlessly about the room, finally stopping, half turned from Kate, fixing his gaze on the empty wall ahead.
"Lord Nash shouldn't have been there. It was a mistake. Our names chanced to be mentioned by some drunken officer who shouldn't have even known of our existence. Once your father heard we were being held and the duration of our imprisonment, he insisted on trading himself in exchange for our freedom."
"We were told my father died in a rescue attempt," Kate said.
"One does not rescue a man from a French dungeon, Mrs. Blackburn. One makes deals, promises money, or if one does not have the ready, one makes trades. Your father offered himself in our stead. Since he was a far greater prize than three filthy lads, the French colonel holding us seized the opportunity presented, doubtless thinking to make a name for himself. He proposed that during negotiations your father enter the castle where we were held.
"Lord Nash agreed, but only on the condition that we were first released," he continued. "The French colonel was furious, but your father refused to be coerced. Lord Nash waited at the bridge until we...walked out. Then he crossed over."
With that hesitation, MacNeill betrayed himself. However the prisoners had returned, clearly they had not simply "walked out." He looked down into Kate's upturned face. "He was supposed to return in a few days, a week at most, as soon as a ransom was arranged. He was supposed to have had diplomatic immunity.
"A few hours later, the gates opened again and a riderless horse emerged, a box strapped to the saddle." His eyelids closed briefly, as though he were trying to erase some image from his eyes. "In it was a note saying that your father was dead and that henceforth all British spies would be treated similarly. He died in our place. Your father was not a spy, Mrs. Blackburn."
She raised her head. "But you were spies. You and the others."
"We knew the risks," he answered obliquely. "We were prepared to pay the penalty. I did not foresee another doing so in my place, though. I have to live with that. That's why we are here."
"I see." Her gaze fixed unhappily on some place only she could see. "And are you still...spies?"
"I am, as you see me. A man without occupation or home or family."
"Hardly in a position to offer aid to another," Kate said, but mildly.
A little smile turned his hard mouth. "Without much, but still in possession of some talents. And determination." The smile faded. "That I own in abundance, ma'am."
"Do you?" he asked, suddenly fierce. "Can you understand?"
"Yes. Of course," Kate answered, but she sounded distracted. "You were going to be heroes. Young men aspire to be heroes, do they not? It is perfectly understandable. Only my father beat you to it, didn't he?
"He had no right, you know." Kate's voice deepened, became husky with emotion. "He never had the right to put himself in such danger. Not knowing, as he must have always known, that his death would see us -- "
Impoverished. Charlotte silently provided the word Kate choked off. But it hung there, as clearly as if she'd shouted it. Kate never shouted anymore. She never did anything untoward or unseemly or rash or passionate, yet this young man had peeled back all her social defenses, exposing her, revealing all her hurt and doubts and anger to Charlotte.
She hated it. It frightened her, and the world was already a frightening place; enough things had changed. She couldn't lose the idea of Kate she had held so long.
"I cannot promise to make use of your offer, Mr. MacNeill, however nobly meant." Kate took a deep breath. "I have had enough heroes in my life," she whispered. "I am done with them. You must find someone else to benefit from your gesture."
"You misunderstand if you think our offer noble or gallant."
"I do understand, though. I understand that you feel the need to repay us. You don't. Your debt is to my father."
He shook his head, and the light caught in his shining hair and carved shadows in the hard planes of his face. "You ask me to shoulder an impossible burden, Mrs. Blackburn, one which we cannot be relieved of unless we do something. I do something.
"I have to believe that someday I might be able to repay some of the debt I owe your family, just as I have to believe that someday I will discover who betrayed us. As you can see, Mrs. Blackburn, I haven't much in this world left to me but...honor. I must repay my debts and avenge my losses. So I will wait. For however long it takes."
Without another word, he strode from the room.
Copyright © 2004 by Connie Brockway