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Wiltshire, England September 1815
The Honorable Christopher James Michael DeChambelle staggered to the ancient sideboard and plunked down his empty glass. Perhaps with enough whiskey in his belly, he would at last achieve blissful oblivionand hold the nightmares at bay for a few hours.
He'd started the evening with a single shot, just a little altitude to suppress the memoriesthe shrieks of terror, the tang of gunpowder, the rivers of blood.
When the first had proved insufficient to the task, Kit had added a second. And then a third and perhaps a fourth he couldn't quite remember anymore. And yet the scene still haunted him, and guilt and remorsehis two everpresent companions these past monthsremained lodged in his consciousness, their attendance overwhelming even the whiskey's power to let him forget.
He wrapped his fist around the neck of the bottle and commenced to refill his glass.
Familiar footsteps tapped against the hallway's woodenplank floor. "What are you doing here, Harrison?"
"How did you know?" Lawrence Harrison slipped around the doorway and into the dim study. "I could tell by your walk."
"A shame your sense of location isn't as proficient as your hearing. You might get more of that whiskey into your goblet."
Kit glanced at the puddle forming on the sideboard's dusty top. "I thought my choice of location rather inspired for one who wishes to be left alone. I didn't realize you would pursue me here. Now answer my questionwhy did you come?"
"Not because I desire to share your comforts." Harrison gestured to the hunting lodge's peeling paint and threadbare curtains. The heads of longdead stags stared down from the walls, their motheaten fur since replaced by layers of soot. "Alderston has men scouring the country to find you."
"Alderston?" Kit tilted his head back and downed what whiskey had reached the glass. He hadn't seen the director of clandestine services in several monthsNapoleon's defeat at Waterloo had suspended the government's need for Kit's special talents. Or so he had thought. "The war's over. What does Alderston want?"
"You, obviously. What are you doing here?"
"Escaping my mother's lectures."
Harrison stared at him, reading him with an uncomfortable familiarity borne of their years of friendship. "I think you hide not so much from your family as from the world, from life. From God."
Kit ignored the tooastute observation and searched the sideboard for another glass. "Drink?"
"None for me." Harrison leaned closer and nudged the bottle just beyond Kit's reach. "And I think you've had your fill for the night."
Kit hurled the goblet at the cold hearth. The glass shattered and littered the floor, the pieces sparkling like stars against a dusty sky. "I came to escape my family, and it's as if my mother followed me."
"Perhaps like her, I care enough to end your unseemly indulgence in guilt."
"Spare me. Few speeches are more tedious than the sermons of a sanctimonious friend."
"And nothing so tiresome as selfpity."
"If my behavior bothers you, leave. I didn't invite you."
Harrison threaded his arm through Kit's and led him to a nearby chair. "Aren't you the least bit curious?"
"I want no more of Alderston's dangerous secrets."
"What do you want?"
Kit plopped onto the chair. A cloud of dust poofed from the upholstery as he rubbed his fingertips against his throbbing temples. "Peace."
"The war is over."
"Peace from my past. So many times, I thought my life was over. I couldn't wait for the war to end. And now that it has, I feel lost. Purposeless."
"You can't change what lies before." Harrison pointed to the shards littering the hearth. "And whiskey will only make you a slave to its powerit won't bring the atonement you seek."
"But it does allow me to forget."
"At what cost? Your family? Your life? Your soul? Perhaps it is not forgetting you desire, but forgiveness."
Mattie Fraser wouldn't have suspected the headquarters of the formidable British Navy to hide such a tiny, briglike office. Not when the Admiralty's exteriorso grand in design and dimensiontowered haughtily above the streets. The other rooms she'd visited had offered at least token obeisance to the occupants' status, but this musty cubbyhole boasted not so much as a window to let her view drenched, dreary London.
Though her damp stockings still squished inside her shoes, the frayed hem of her skirt no longer clung to her ankles. She drummed her foot against the floor as she twirled her umbrella on its point. The large puddle beneath it had almost dried, but for one stubborn spot that refused to disappear.
For two weeks, she had bounced from room to room looking for the elusive official who could answer her questions. Through the maze of government agencies, she had inquired, cajoled and pleadedthus far, to no avail. Each stop had produced only the suggestion of another person, another location. Still, she persevered, refusing to let bureaucratic indifference halt her search.
A search that had led her here.
After an hour or more in the cramped quarters, she recognized every crack in the plaster, every watermark on the ceiling. A clerk hunched over his desk and scrawled furiously. Unlike the others who had been only too pleased to send her posthaste to the next department, this one was strangely reluctant to dismiss her. On more than one occasion she caught the shrewd, speculative glances he cast her way, yet he guarded Mr. DeChambelle's door as if it were the portal leading to the crown jewels.
The oil lamp slumping on the clerk's desk belched more smoke than lightsmoke that stung her eyes and choked her throat like the fires that had burned Washington the previous year. At least tucked away in this nook she no longer encountered the unnervingly familiar sight of English officers as they marched through the building's hallways, so like the way they stalked through her nightmares.
She hugged her coat, unaccustomed to such cold, damp days in September. Back home, the heat would have moderated to late summer warmth. Balmy breezes would stir the air and ruffle the sails of the ships on the Potomac, with only cooler nights to suggest the approaching autumn.
Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn't eaten since her last foray outdoors at noon. The remaining half of her meat pie tempted her from the depths of her pocket. Impatiently, she tapped the umbrella point against the floor. The tip found a drop of water and skittered across the tile. She tightened her griptoo late. The umbrella slid out of her hands and fell with a clatter that startled an expletive out of the clerk.
Face flaming, Mattie slid from the chair and reached down to retrieve her fallen umbrella. She charged to her feet
And ricocheted off something solid. Something that grunted.
Two strong hands clinched her upper arms, one on either side, and arrested her backward flight. Something male.
Soap and leather tickled her senses, a pleasant but disturbing combination after a fortnight of London's foul air. She frowned and focused on the dark wool coat only inches from her nose. The fabric swept across broad shoulders and puckered slightly where the arms stretched to clasp her own.
Laura? All that time waiting, and the miserable excuse of a clerk had her name incorrect. "I am not Laura."
Silence hung in the air like the smoke, then, "No, of course not. Are you injured?" The rich tones of the baritone voice drew her attention back to the man before her.
Her gaze wandered upward to a snowy cravat, then to his strong jaw with its shadow of afternoon stubble. Full lips thinned below an aquiline nose with a scar on the side that relieved his face of perfect symmetrytransforming it from mere prettiness to rugged masculinity.
Then she looked straight into eyes of the deepest blue, like the eastern sky at sunset. Their fringe of dark lashes contrasted with tawny hair that gleamed in the lantern's glow and fell in disarray across his brow.
"Madam, are you injured?" he repeated, concern darkening those mesmerizing eyes.
Suddenly aware of the hands wrapped around her arms, she drew back. He released hernevertheless, his grip left an invisible imprint where the warmth of his palms had seeped through her sleeves. She gathered her composure and snapped her shoulders back. "Only stiff from my long wait."
"My apologies." He scooped a pair of spectacles from the floora casualty of their collision?and settled them on his face, like a veil screening his eyes. The scar along his nose likewise disappeared from her view. "May I help you?"
"I am here to see Mr. Christopher DeChambelle."
"I am DeChambelle." He sketched her an elegant bow, then gestured to the gloomy room behind him. What with the dreary skies and approaching twilight, little light penetrated the sootclouded panes of its single window. "Won't you come in?"
Kit waited as his visitor marched past him, then he glared at Baxter, his clerk. "Why didn't you inform me I had a caller?"
"Sir, it is Mr. Alderston's wish that he speak to you as soon as possible."
Kit gestured to the five empty chairs. "And yet, he is not here."
"We did not expect you to arrive so precipitously."
"Harrison said Alderston needed to see me about an urgent matter, so I came at once."
"The director has searched London these many days for you. This morning he left for Somerset."
Somerset. The DeChambelle estate. No doubt Alderston's questions into Kit's whereabouts would generate a new succession of worries for his parents.
"I sent a messenger after the director, informing him of your return. If the messenger intercepted Mr. Alderston before he'd traveled far, the director will be here forthwith."
"And if your messenger hasn't yet reached Alderston? Did you expect the lady to wait all night? "
Baxter's gaze slid toward Kit's office. "Sir, you should delay this meeting with the woman until you have met with the director. Mr. Alderston may return while"
"Then let him take his turn waiting." Kit snapped the door shut on Baxter's protests and strode the three steps across the office where, so far as his family knew, he'd spent the better part of the war procuring supplies for Britain's mighty navy. "May I take your coat?"
His visitor ripped her gaze from its perusal of his desk and folded her arms over her chest. "No. Thank you."
"Well, then, please be seated." He grabbed a chair opposite his desk and held it for her.
Definitely not Laura, despite her sunandspicescented hair of the same cinnamon red. This woman was too short, with a nose too pert and lips too generousand a disconcerting way of staring into a man's thoughts. He swallowed, aware that any who looked too closely found nothing. Only the empty hole left from guilt eating away his soul. She gracefully settled to the seat, the back of her unfashionable coat brushing his hand and drawing him back to the present.
He slid around the desk and dropped onto the chair. "Now then, Miss."
"Fraser." Her voice held a hint of a drawl. "Martha Fraser."
"Welcome to England, Miss Fraser. You are from Virginia?"
"Not so far from Virginia then." Or perhaps not far enough, given the recent hostilities between their countries. "Were you in Washington last summer?"
"Yes." She raised her chin and probed him with a challenging brown stare.
"That must have been a frightful experience. I am sorry about the destruction of your city. Was your home spared?"
"General Ross designated an officer to guard my house from any too eager members of your army."
"Ross was a good man. I was sorry to hear of his death. Now how may I be of help to you, Miss Fraser from Washington?"
"I'm inquiring into the fate of my brother." The knuckles of her fingers whitened as she twisted her hands into intricate knots that suggested some other, less assured side to Miss Fraser. "The officer I met last yeara Major Andrew HarleySmithoffered to see what he could learn from a friend who worked at the Admiralty. However, it has been a year and I haven't heard from him."
Kit pushed up his drooping spectacles, their frame now loose and possibly bent from the impact with Miss Fraser. "I am probably the man you seek. Drew and I attended Oxford together, though it had been an age since I last saw him."
Hope lightened her gaze to a charming shade of amber and eased the determination in her mouth. "So then you know."
"No, I fear not. Major HarleySmith was killed in September of last yearin the fighting near your city of Baltimore."
Her back snapped straight until it no longer rested against the chair. Her eyes smoldered to umber again, the golden flecks glowing like sparks in their depths. "I'm surprised and dismayed that in two weeks of tramping from one office to another, no one has informed me of this until now."
Carriage wheels bounced against the cobbled streets outside, echoing through the room. Kit glanced out the window at the darkening sky that reflected his mood, so black since "Miss Fraser," he said at last, "our country has been at war a long time. The names of our dead are many."
"But you knew Major HarleySmith."
He turned away from the gloomy view of London and met the challenge in her eyes again. Freckles sprinkled her nose, adding to the sense of girlish innocence. "Drew began a letter to meone he unfortunately never finished, leaving me with no means of contacting youbefore his last campaign. It was among his personal effects when they were returned to his brother and didn't reach me until months later. By then, our war with America had ended." And Napoleon had escaped, and Kit was reassigned to France for one final mission.
"But my brother?"
"I fear I have more bad news, Miss Fraser. All the American prisoners were sent home some months ago. If your brother was not among them, you must assume the worst."
"But my brother wasn't a prisoner. At least, not that I am aware of. He was a sailor on a merchant ship when a British frigate stopped them and took several of the men, including my brother, for service in your navy."
"Ah. I fear Drew did not include that information in his note. When was your brother pressed?"
"A little over three years ago."
"Our officers were only supposed to enlist sailors originally from our country. Was your brother born in the United States?"
"Yes. Major HarleySmith thought there would be no problem getting him released because his citizenship is undisputed."
Kit snatched a sheet of paper from the corner of his desk. "What is your address here in London?"
"I'm staying at the Captain's Quarters."
"The Captain's Quarters?" He jerked his gaze from the paper and met her eyes. A face like that, in a place like that, could only effect trouble.