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"There's something we need to discuss, Amelia," he said, leaning against the mantelpiece and gazing solemnly in his sister's direction. His hair, which had been carefully cut in the fashionable Brutus style, was at the moment slightly disarranged from working one hand nervously through it.
The fifth Earl of Welsford, however, was not particularly concerned with his appearance at the moment, though he had been known to spend the proper amount of time over his toilette on the odd occasion. His dark brown eyes were narrowed thoughtfully as he struggled for the perfect way to phrase what he intended to be a command. Knowing his sister as well as he did, he felt sure the matter of delivery was of paramount importance. She was not likely to sit quietly and accept a dictum from him.
Lady Amelia Cameron regarded him with one slightly lifted brow, as though amused by his hesitation. If she hadn't known it unsettled him, she probably wouldn't have done it, but there, he had that paternalistic gleam in his eyes, which could only mean some nasty sort of regulation was about to be handed down. The more discomposed he was, the better, from her point of view, because then he was likely to blurt out quite the wrong kind of brotherly advice, and she would be able to dismiss it without a qualm.
He meant well, of course, and he was four years her senior, though young at five-and-twenty to have come into the title, let alone be her sole surviving relative from their immediate family. Aunt Trudy was a God-send, to be sure, but it wasn't like having one's own mother and father ... Lady Amelia's lifted eyebrow abruptly fell.
"I say, Amelia," the earlmuttered, "no need to take on that Friday face. I wasn't going to scold you, heaven knows. It's just..." He shrugged a pair of wide shoulders, his mouth twisting ruefully. "I hadn't given enough thought to what you've been doing ... about the spying, I mean. It suddenly occurred to me that it's not at all the thing for you to be nosing out information. You could put yourself in danger."
One of his long, muscular hands came up as though to ward off her protest. "I know you don't do anything particularly hazardous in itself. There never seemed the least harm in having you ask a few questions here and there. But now I see it could cause suspicion in the wrong places, don't you know. And where there's suspicion, there's danger. Anyone who would be supporting the French cause in England isn't likely to be just your amiable dandy. They take this business as seriously as I ... we do, and they wouldn't hesitate to play some wretched trick on you. Believe me, I've appreciated the bits and pieces you've been able to pick up. More often than not they've proved more important than what I've come across, but, hell, Amelia, it's just not the sort of thing a lady does."
His sister had sat quietly through the entirety of his speech, her hands busy with a piece of tatting. Now she looked up and smiled at him. "Really, Peter, you'd think I skulked around gin palaces in the dead of night, the way you talk. I've never done a thing more than listen to some fool talk too much when he was a bit disguised. If I can relay something of interest to you, at least it repays me for having my feet stomped on during a country dance, which is more than I get for listening to most of the intoxicated gentlemen I meet at balls and parties. What's put this flea in your ear? Danger? Nothing could be further from the truth. I dare say most of them are too far gone to even remember dancing with me, let alone spilling something they shouldn't have. And how often have I been able to bring you something of use? Maybe three times in the last two years. You'd think I made a regular occupation of listening at keyholes in disreputable houses."
A log rolled forward in the fireplace and Peter kicked it back with his booted foot. He continued to stare into the grate, not really noticing the brass andirons or the cheerful blaze. It was early April, with spring taking its time in warming London and the surrounding countryside. At Margrave, his country seat, the leaves would be sporting a fresh green and there would be the sweet smell of new growth in the air. Surely Amelia wouldn't mind going to Margrave at this time of year. How they'd both loved it there as children! He grimaced at the smoke-blackened bricks and straightened his shoulders.
"I know you haven't done anything you'd consider dangerous, my dear," he said, turning to face her with a smile. "But a man might very well remember later what he let slip to you, and desperately regret it. We aren't dealing with softhearted fellows. Anyone who would betray his own country has a decidedly vicious streak in him, Amelia. I think you'd be better off out of London for a while."
She regarded him with genuine surprise. "Out of London? During the season? Whatever can you be thinking of, Peter?"
"Your safety," he grumbled.
"Nonsense. Lord, I'm surrounded by footmen who'd take a cudgel to anyone who crossed his eyes at me! There was never anyone so well protected as I am, never out of sight of some worthy protector. Escorted everywhere I go, pampered in the most disgusting fashion. Mother would never have approved of such cosseting, you know."
The reference to their revered parent made him wince. "I'm convinced neither Mother nor Father would have approved of what I've allowed you to do, Amelia. And that's the crux of the matter."
But he didn't meet her eyes and Amelia sat silent, waiting for him to continue. The tick of the grandfather clock in the corner and the hiss of the fire were the only sounds in the room. When he didn't speak, she cocked her head at him and asked, "What is it, Peter? What's come up to alarm you? Was it something I passed on from the rowing party? I've never heard so many loose tongues in my life, but I didn't think there was anything of significance there."
"It wasn't the rowing party."
"Then what was it?"
He glared at her across the room. "It doesn't have to have been anything in particular. I'm just saying I don't want you asking any questions anymore, or listening to those loose tongues. And maybe for now it would be a good idea if you went to Margrave."
The door to the room had opened without his noticing, and what appeared to be a disembodied head yelped, "Go to Margrave? During the season? Your wits must have gone begging, Peter." Gertrude Harting pushed the door farther open and steamed into the room, her graying curls quivering with indignation. Everything about her was round, from the sausage curls she sported, right down to her plump, short feet.
"I was going to ask if I could interrupt your discussion, but I can see you've need of a more mature head in this little gathering. You can't be serious about Amelia leaving London at this time of year. Why, there wouldn't be a soul in Sussex to have a cup of tea with. And what's more, there are two very distinguished gentlemen who are showing a decided partiality for her this season. You can't walk out on that kind of interest."
"Two?" Amelia asked, grinning. "Surely there are three."
"I don't count Rollings. He's not the least distinguished. In my day we'd have called him a fortune hunter."
"That's what we still call them," Peter murmured.
"Such a sweet man," Amelia mused, regarding a porcelain shepherdess on the mantel with mock wistfulness. "Such distinguished manners, such manly carriage, such a winning way about him. Why, I believe he's been willing to tear himself away from the card table at least once at each entertainment just so he could dance with me. How very flattering! I don't believe he's done it for any other young woman."
"None of the rest of them will dance with him," Peter suggested.
"Well, one feels sorry for the poor fellow. Such exquisite taste and not the money to support it. Did you see his waistcoat at the Brimptons'? The subtlety of it very nearly took my breath away. Black and gray stripes! I tell you even Brummel can't duplicate that kind of elegance. I had thought of a similar one for you for your birthday next month, Peter."
Her brother scowled at her. "You know I wouldn't be caught dead in that kind of finery, Amelia. Let's not stray from the matter under discussion. Margrave is delightful at this time of year. You and Aunt Trudy could do with a little country air after so long in the city. I dare say the pace of the season is wearing on Aunt Trudy."
Trudy, who never bestirred herself more than absolutely necessary, gave him a fierce look from under the bushy eyebrows of which she was inordinately proud. "You're talking pure drivel," she snorted. "Few things are more pleasing to me than taking Amelia about to the various entertainments. To hear you talk, one would think I was getting on for eighty, rather than forty. With two years to go, at that. Not that you need mention my age to anyone," she hastened to add, patting the plump curls around her face before continuing.
"I see all my friends at the balls and dinners. There's nothing strenuous about sitting on one of those little gilt chairs and catching up on the latest gossip, I assure you. Sometimes one wishes the chairs were a little larger ... But that's neither here nor there. Have you never watched your sister at a ball? Never a dance unspoken for, I promise you. She is greatly admired, as one might expect, with that glorious honey-colored hair, and those enormous violet-colored eyes, and that aristocratic nose. All the Camerons have the most amazing noses. She certainly didn't inherit it from the Harting side."
Amused, and slightly embarrassed, by the extravagant praise, Amelia interjected a change of subject. "Did you plan to come to Margrave with us, Peter?"
"Why, no." He ran a finger along the carving of the mantelpiece, only reluctantly looking up to meet her gaze. "I have commitments in town."
"As we do," Trudy remarked with a sniff. "Summer's the time to go to Margrave, when the sea breezes aren't making it insufferable. Why, at this time of year it would be dead as a doornail. No company to be found for miles around."
"Except that of spies and smugglers," Amelia added with a mischievous wink at her brother. "There are probably all sorts of French agents wandering around the Sussex coast looking for good spots for Napoleon to land a new invasion fleet. And smugglers who have routine contact with the French while importing brandy and silks. Oh, we'd have a marvelous time."
"Bath, then," Peter said. "Bath is a marvelous place for a holiday. The air is a great deal more salubrious than that of London, and there's plenty of company to be found there."
"Humph." Trudy punctuated her contempt with a disgusted flick of her pudgy fingers. "Retired military men and droning, elderly clergymen. Bath is for the old, the infirm, and the upstarts. Not at all like it was in my day. I remember my first visit there, when I was just eighteen. I suppose even then its glory was fading, but, my, how elegant everything looked to me. All the ladies and gentlemen dressed in the first stare of fashion, the bells continually announcing the arrival of some new worthy to town, the chairmen scurrying up the hills like mountain goats."
She gave a reminiscent sigh and lifted her shoulders in a gesture of regret. "But it's nothing like it was. Oh, there are those who still go there, and they still have the assemblies, but it's not the same. It doesn't hold the attraction it did for the young people, you see. And Amelia needs to be where there are young people."
"Eligible men, she means," Amelia clarified, smiling across at Peter. "Aunt Trudy is determined to see me married this season."
Trudy glared at her. "I should think so! With a little effort you could have brought more than one fellow to the sticking point, my girl. What is it you're waiting for? You're not as young as you once were. Men want the ones just out of the schoolroom, you mark my words. The more set in your ways you get, the less interested they are. They want a miss they can shape to their liking. Pretty manners and a good heart aren't enough."
Amelia heaved a sorrowful sigh. "I fear it's already too late for me, Aunt Trudy. Biddable as I am, twenty-one is too advanced an age.
"Biddable!" Peter exclaimed. "I can't think when I've met a less biddable female. And twenty-one is still practically in leading strings. What does anyone know at twenty-one? It's an age when older, wiser heads should prevail," he said meaningfully, leaving himself open to Trudy's misunderstanding.
"Indeed it is," she remarked, smugly surveying the two of them. "So I'm sure Peter will listen to my counsel about Amelia. Under no circumstances should she leave London when things are looking so promising for her here. It would be the greatest folly to remove her. The chances of finding a suitable match in Sussex are nonexistent, I assure you, and in Bath ... well, you must understand that the quality wouldn't be there."
Peter swallowed an exasperated sigh. Trudy was not a party to his activities, or even to Amelia's. The poor woman would be horrified at the thought of even a little circumspect information-gathering by his sister. Her disapproval was a foregone conclusion, even though, as Amelia had pointed out, there was very little she was in a position to do to serve "The Cause," as she sportingly called it.
Peter sometimes wondered if she took the matter seriously, or if she only undervalued it so he would consider her low-key attitude absurdly harmless. Which he had done until Verwood had called him on it.
Oh, God, he was expecting Verwood any moment and he didn't want Amelia and Trudy to still be with him when the fellow arrived. Peter had planned to be finished with this business and safely ensconced in the library by nine for the appointed meeting. He shifted restlessly to one side, trying to catch a glimpse of the grandfather clock without seeming to as he tugged down a cuff under the tight-fitting blue coat he wore.
Trudy was awaiting his reply to her remarks (which he couldn't remember) and Amelia was placidly working on her tatting, seemingly unconcerned. The muted sound of a knock on the front door reached them. "I have work to do in my study," he said abruptly. "We'll discuss the matter another time."
"What is there to discuss?" Trudy asked, offended. "Surely I've convinced you it would be most unwise for Amelia to leave London now."
"Yes, yes. I can see that." His brown eyes came to rest on Amelia's gently quizzing face. "There was another matter Amelia and I had to settle, but it will have to wait."
Even as he hastened to the door connecting the drawing room with the library, Bighton flung open the door from the hall, announcing. "Lord Verwood." The gentleman who entered stood several inches taller than the butler, and carried himself with the kind of bearing one expected in a military man. He entered the room without hesitation, though a slight limp was apparent in his firm step. Masses of unruly black curls had obviously resisted all efforts to train them into the semblance of a stylish coiffure, or perhaps it was merely that he hadn't bothered to rearrange them after removing his hat. He wore a blue coat, rather old-fashioned in its cut, and buff pantaloons that strained over his muscular thighs. His neckcloth was tied in a neat but unfashionable manner, as though he had attended to the matter himself, in no patient endeavor to be done with the task.
Altogether not an entirely imposing figure, Amelia decided as she studied the stranger. For he was a stranger to her. She had a very good memory for names and faces, and if she'd seen him at all, previously, it could only have been in a crowd. Certainly he'd never been introduced to her. She couldn't very well have forgotten his impressive height or the fierceness of his nearly black eyes, or even the suppressed energy that seemed to radiate from him. He didn't appear the sort of man who would suffer fools gladly, or even run tame at a polite social gathering. A man of action, she thought, not without amusement. A soldier not of the parade-ground variety, but of battle. She wondered how Peter had met him.
"Ah, Verwood," Peter said, seeming at something of a loss. "I thought we'd meet in the library. Should have told Bighton. Well, never mine. We can go through here."
If he thought by indicating the door he was going to escape without an introduction, he was sadly out. Trudy was not in the habit of watching young men wander through "her" drawing room without a proper greeting. "I don't believe we've met," she said, extending her fingers just slightly in the newcomer's direction.
Verwood's alert eyes instantly swung toward her and he executed a stiff, if minuscule, bow as Peter mumbled, "Aunt Trudy, Lord Verwood. Verwood, my aunt, Gertrude Harting." From her seat just opposite Trudy, Amelia watched in fascination as the man's eyes took in every detail of Trudy's appearance with the intensity of a beam suddenly loosed from a lantern in the dark. Though his countenance changed not a whit, Amelia had the distinct impression he'd formed an immediate judgment of the older woman, penetrated to some essential core of her, and extracted a definition he would not forget. It was an unnerving observation and she rather hoped Peter wouldn't bother introducing the dark fellow to her.
But in an instant the black eyes shifted to Amelia, subjecting her to the same sort of scrutiny as Peter reluctantly spoke her name. "Lady Amelia," he murmured in a voice as deep as a coal pit and about as warm. This was not the manner in which Amelia was used to being treated by gentlemen and she couldn't help the slight irritation which burgeoned in her bosom. She was aware that one of her brows rose slightly, though she had no control over it, but she couldn't possibly know that her long, thin nose, which Trudy had so recently called aristocratic, actually twitched.
If Lord Verwood considered this an extraordinary circumstance, he gave no indication of it. His bow to her was, if possible, even slighter than that to Gertrude, but there was no apparent disrespect in it. One so stiff, after all, might fall over were he to incline himself too far, Amelia decided.
"Verwood," Trudy was saying, her brow wrinkled with thought. "I remember a Vernon in Hampshire, but no Verwoods. And he was a baronet, if I'm not mistaken. What part of the country are you from, Lord Verwood?"
Trudy had expected a little more information than that, but she was undaunted. "And you still have a home there, do you?"
"To the best of my knowledge."
If he had said it with a twinkle in his eyes, Amelia might have warmed to him, but no, his face and those unnerving black eyes were as politely cool as ever. Trudy persisted. "Have you family there?"
"Ah, then they're here with you in London," Trudy surmised in the face of his unwillingness to be more forthcoming.
Which left her knowing precisely nothing. He might have family (a wife) who weren't either in Derbyshire or in London, or he might have no family (a wife) at all.
"Do you plan a long stay in London?"
"I haven't any idea, as yet."
"Have you a house here?"
"In South Street," Peter offered, to propitiate her bursting curiosity.
Trudy sat back a little in her chair, nodding as though satisfied. "There are some acceptable houses in South Street. For myself, I like the squares, but not everyone can live on one of them. South Street has the advantage of being so close to the park," she added kindly.
"There is that."
"Do you ride?"
"Yes, ma'am." Verwood stood at his ease, never shifting his eyes from Trudy to any other member of the small group. He looked as though he were prepared to withstand her inquisitive assault for hours, unperturbed. Amelia refused to join the questioning, or even to make some inoffensive remark.
From where she sat she could observe the rugged strength of his sun-browned face, the broad set of his shoulders. Definitely a military man, she decided. Probably wounded, accounting for the limp. A few years in the army could have roughed his polish, though she personally doubted that he'd ever had any. She'd seldom run into a man with less-agreeable manners, though one couldn't exactly fault him for impoliteness. She didn't observe brusqueness very often in her circles. Perhaps that's why she'd never seen him before.
"The Candovers are from Derbyshire," Aunt Trudy remarked. "I imagine you know them."
"Well, splendid. Then we'll probably see you at their ball next week."
Verwood's eyes for the first time left Trudy's to swing questioningly at Peter, who shrugged and said, "My sister and aunt aren't planning on leaving town after all."
"I should think not!" Trudy cried. "In the middle of the season! I never heard anything so totty-headed. This is precisely the perfect time to be in London." She smiled graciously at Verwood. "So we'll no doubt see you at the Candovers' next week."
Peter had had quite enough of the cross-examination, and felt a little more had been revealed than he could have wished. "I hope you'll excuse us, Aunt Trudy, but Lord Verwood has called on a business matter and I shouldn't like to keep him longer than necessary.
"Why, of course, dear boy. I wouldn't think of intruding on such a subject. You might take him into the library."
Amelia grinned at her brother's exasperation, but he merely pursed his lips in response. Lord Verwood followed him to the door before turning to bid the ladies a pleasant evening.
"Rather a strange man," Trudy confided when they'd gone.
Amelia continued to stare at the closed door. "Very strange indeed," she agreed.