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'We've found them, my lord,' Inspector Rawlings said in a voice of quiet satisfaction. 'And by all accounts, in good health and fine spirits.'
For a moment, no one spoke. Not the portly detective whose long-awaited words brought to an end a search that had begun nearly eighteen months ago. Not the beautiful, dark-haired lady whose briefly closed eyes spoke more eloquently of her feelings than words ever could. And not the tall, slender gentleman whose clandestine missions in France had been the reason for the investigation in the first place. Nothing disturbed the silence of the April afternoon but the steady ticking of the mantel clock and the rattle of carriage wheels on the cobblestones below.
'And there is no doubt in your mind that it is Sophie Vallois and her brother, Antoine?' Nicholas Grey, Viscount Longworth, asked at length.
Rawlings shook his head. 'None whatsoever. I've had my best man on it for months. There can be no mistake.'
'Thank heavens!' Lavinia Grey said with relief. 'To know they have finally been located. I cannot imagine what their life has been like.'
'Neither can I,' the inspector admitted. 'But I suspect they did what was necessary in order to protect themselves from those who would have murdered them in their beds.'
Lavinia's slender fingers tightened on the arm of the loveseat. 'Surely it was not as dire as that.'
'I wish I could say otherwise, but to those loyal to Bonaparte, what Miss Vallois and her brother did would have been viewed as an act of treason. The two would have had no choice but to lose themselves in the back streets of Paris.'
'Which they did most effectively for the best part of three years,' Nicholas murmured. 'Are they aware of having been followed?'
'No, my lord. Budge is my best man. He could follow the Prince Regent into the privy and not arouse suspicion. Begging your pardon, my lady.'
Lavinia inclined her head, though the dimple in her cheek suggested amusement rather than annoyance. 'And my husband's letter. Was it delivered?'
'According to my information, it was put into Miss Vallois's hands at half past four on the afternoon of the tenth,' the inspector said, checking his notepad. 'That being the case, you should be receiving an answer very soon.'
'If the young lady has any intention of replying.' Nicholas moved towards the fireplace, seeing in the flames the sweetly innocent face of the child he remembered. 'She might not even remember who I am. And if she does remember, she may wish to have nothing more to do with a man who was so instrumental in ruining her life.'
'You did not ruin her life, Nicholas,' Lavinia said with a touch of exasperation. 'Miss Vallois and her brother helped you of their own accord. It isn't fair that you should shoulder all the blame for what happened as a result.'
Nicholas smiled, touched as always by his wife's unconditional support of his actions. She was a remarkable woman, able to comprehend the rationale behind what he did without convoluted explanations or lengthy justifications. Her quick, intuitive mind would have made her an excellent intelligence agent had she chosen to turn her hand to it. And as he walked across the room towards the brocade loveseat where she sat, he thanked Godand his commanding officerthat she had not. 'You are, as always, the voice of reason and logic. Even if the logic is somewhat prejudiced in my favour.'
'Of course it's prejudiced, darling. I am your wife. How could it be otherwise?'
'Not all wives agree with their husbands.'
'Not all husbands are worth agreeing with.' She smiled up at him. 'You have always been a most delightful exception.'
Nicholas bent to press a kiss against her dark, shining hair. 'And you the reason for it.'
Across the room, Inspector Rawlings cleared his throat. 'Excuse me, my lord, but shall I inform my man that his continued surveillance is no longer required?'
Nicholas glanced at his wife. 'Well?'
Lavinia raised her shoulders in a gesture as eloquent as it was elegant. 'I suppose there is nothing to be gained by leaving the poor man in France now. Miss Vallois and her brother have been found and your letter delivered. There is nothing we can do but sit back and wait for her reply.'
Nicholas glanced at the inspector to see if he had anything to add, but assumed from the expression on his face that he agreed with Lavinia. They had all waited a long time for news that Sophie and Antoine Vallois had been found. Now that they had, and an initial contact had been made, there was nothing any of them could do but sit back and wait for her answer. It was frustrating, to be sure, but it seemed that once again, fate had placed his well-being squarely into someone else's hands. All he could do now was hope it would smile as favourably upon him today as it had all those years ago, when, but for a chance meeting with a young French girl and her brother in the darkened countryside of war-torn France, he wouldn't have been here at all.
The lumbering coach drew to a halt in the bustling yard of the Black Swan Inn; within minutes, a stable boy ran forwards to grab the reins of the lead horse. Carriage doors were thrown open, stairs were let down and a stream of weary passengers began to make their way into the inn.
Sophie Vallois was amongst the first to disembark and as she waited for her brother to join her, she smoothed her hands over the rumpled skirts of her well-worn travelling outfit. Thank goodness she had not worn one of her new ensembles. Quarters on board ship had been cramped, and cleanliness was not an issue with which the captain had concerned himself. Added to that, the rough crossing had been enough to test the mettle of even the hardiest sailor. Fortunately, the windswept sea had not sent them to their beds as it had so many others and, come morning, Sophie had been on deck to see the spectacular sight of the sun glinting off the white cliffs of the southern coast of England. Now, countless hours and even more miles later, they had arrived at the coaching inn where they were to spend the night before continuing on to London in the morning.
'So, we are to break our journey here.' Antoine Vallois stepped down from the carriage and cast a dubious glance at the exterior of the inn. 'I hope the accommodation is better than the inn's appearance would suggest.'
'It will be fine,' Sophie replied with confidence. 'Lord Longworth would not have recommended it to us otherwise.'
'Unless it has been some time since the gentleman had occasion to stay here himself,' Antoine murmured as he stepped around a steaming pile of fresh horse droppings. Thankfully, the interior of the inn turned out to be far more pleasant than the weathered timbers and muddy yard might suggest, and the fragrant smells wafting up from the kitchen did much to restore their spirits, as did the roaring fire burning in the grate. Instinctively Sophie moved towards it, anxious to banish the chill of the unseasonably cool April evening.
'Wait here while I see to our rooms and enquire about dinner,' Antoine said, placing their two small bags on the floor beside her. 'If Lord Longworth was unable to secure accommodations, we may find ourselves bedding down with the horses. And while sleeping in a barn is nothing new, I would rather not be plucking bits of straw from my clothes when we arrive in London tomorrow.'
Sophie's mouth twitched as she held her gloved hands out to the flames. 'I'm sure Lord Longworth would not care if you arrived looking like I'epouvantail. As long as we arrive safely.'
'The scarecrow, eh?' Antoine chuckled. 'Tiens, you have no respect for your brother and far too much for this English lord. You seem to forget that our acquaintance with the man was brief and the repercussions far reaching. I would have expected you to be more suspicious of his reasons for asking us to come to England after all this time.'
'I admit, the circumstances are curious,' Sophie agreed, 'but I do not believe he would have asked us to come all this way if his motives were anything but honourable.'
'I hope you're right,' Antoine said, though his eyes remained guarded. 'Wait here and speak to no one. I do not trust these English around my beautiful sister.'
Sophie resisted the urge to smile. 'Do you not believe your sister capable of defending herself?'
'Having seen the way you handle a pistol, I think my sister is more than capable of defending herself. It is the well-being of the English I worry about now.'
The remark was typical of the close relationship they shared, and as her brother headed towards the bar, Sophie realised how glad she was that he had agreed to make the trip with her. The last few years hadn't been easy for either of them. The strain of constantly having to move had been exhausting, and when at the beginning of last year they had finally settled into affordable rooms near the centre of Paris, she had nearly wept with relief. It was the first time since leaving home they had enjoyed anything close to a normal existence, so it was only natural that when the letter from Viscount Long-worth had arrived, inviting them to come to England, Antoine would be suspicious. After all, what did they really know about the man whose life they had saved all those years ago? The fact of his having stayed in their barn for two weeks meant nothing given that he had been either delirious or unconscious for much of the time.
It certainly hadn't been the time to ask him what had brought him to Franceor why he had been lying in a ditch with a bullet lodged in his side.
Because of her preoccupation with what lay ahead, it was a few minutes before Sophie realised that something was happening in the yard outside. An argument by the sounds of things, though the words were muffled by the thickness of the stone walls. Several of the inn's patrons glanced towards the door, but none seemed inclined to move, reluctant perhaps to involve themselves in something that might have untimely consequences. But when the sharp retort of a pistol split the night air, followed by a woman's high-pitched scream, Sophie knew the argument had turned deadly.
She turned to look for Antoineand felt her heart stop when she saw him running towards the door. 'Antoine!'
'Stay where you are, Sophie. I have to see if I can help.'
'Then I'll come too'
'No! If you would do anything, see to our rooms, then wait for me upstairs.'
For the space of a heartbeat, Sophie hesitated. If someone was seriously injured, Antoine would need her by his side. It would be almost impossible for him to do what was necessary without an assistant or the proper equipment. 'Wait, I'm coming with you!'
She was halfway to the door when a hand closed gently but firmly over her arm.
'The gentleman asked that you stay where you are,' a voice said close to her ear. 'I advise you to heed his request. You will only serve as a distraction if you venture outside now.'
The man's voice was as inflexible as his grip, but his high-handed assumption that Sophie would just be in the way rankled. 'You don't understand! Someone may have been injured.'
'I'm sure someone has, but your going out there now isn't going to help. If you promise to stay here, I shall endeavour to find out what has taken place.'
The man did not let go of her arm, and when Sophie finally raised her eyes to look at him, she realised he probably wasn't going to. He stood with legs firmly planted, radiating power and authority in a manner that suggested he was used to being in control. Clearly a man of means, he wore a well-tailored jacket and light-coloured breeches beneath his greatcoat, and though his leather boots were scuffed and in need of a polish, the quality of the workmanship was unmistakable. Dark brown hair fell across a broad forehead, over eyes bright with intelligence, and while his features were too rugged to be called handsome, he was still a very good-looking man. All of which meant nothing given that he was still holding her captive against her will. 'Kindly release my arm, sir.'
'Have I your word you won't do anything foolish?'
'You think a desire to go to the aid of an injured person foolish?'
'I think the intention noble, but the deed reckless.' Nevertheless, his hand dropped away. 'Your husband asked that you see to your accommodation. If you will wait for me at the bar, I shall offer what assistance I can and then return with any details I am able to uncover.'
'Oh, but Antoine is not'
But the man was already gone, his greatcoat billowing around him as he stepped into the night. Other men followed him to the door, but none ventured out, and, inexplicably annoyed, both with their cowardice and by the high-handed treatment of the stranger, Sophie walked briskly towards the bar. She wasn't used to being cast aside like some helpless female who swooned at the sight of blood. She had often assisted Antoine with his work. Why would he not look to her for help now?
Her mood did not improve when she had to raise her voice to gain the innkeeper's attention.
'All right, all right, you needn't shout,' the old fellow grumbled, shuffling back from the window where he'd been trying to see what was going on outside. 'What do you want?'
'I'd like to see about our rooms. The name is Vallois.'
The innkeeper, whose grizzled eyebrows looked more like slivers of metal than natural hair, opened a well-worn book and ran his finger down the list. 'Nothing like that here.'
Surprised, Sophie said, 'Perhaps they were reserved under the gentleman's name. Viscount Longworth?'