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Barton Abbeylate spring, 1816
'I wager I could find her.' Smouldering with anger against the woman who had destroyed his cousin Max's diplomatic career, Will Ransleigh accepted a glass of brandy from his host.
'Welcome back to England,' Alastair Ransleigh said, saluting Will with his own glass before motioning him to an armchair. 'Far be it from me to bet against "Wagering Will", who never met a game of chance he couldn't win. But why do you think you could find her, when Max, with all his official contacts, could not?'
'I never had much use for officials, Will observed with a grimace. 'Would have transported me for stealing a loaf of bread to feed myself and my starving mates.'
'You've cleaned up so well, I sometimes forget you were once gallows-bait,' Alastair said with a grin. 'But to be fair, where would one expect to look? Madame Lefevre was cousin and hostess to Thierry St Arnaud, one of Prince Talleyrand's top aides in the French delegation at the Congress of Vienna. The family's quite old and well known, even if they did turn out to be Bonapartists.'
'That may be. But it's those in the serving class who really know what goes on: maids, valets, cooks, grooms, hotel employees, servants at the Hoffburg, keepers of public houses. I'll use them to track Madame Lefevre.'
'When I visited Max at his wife's farm, he insisted he was content there.' Alastair laughed. 'He even claimed training horses is rather like diplomacy: one must coax rather than coerce. Except that horses don't lie and their memories are short, so they don't hold your mistakes against you.'
'Just like Max to make light of it. But all of usyou, me, Domknew from our youth that Max was destined to be one of England's foremost politicians Prime Minister, even! Would he choose training horses over a brilliant government career, if he truly had a choice? I don't believe it.'
'I was suspicious, too, at first,' Alastair admitted. 'Max, who never showed any interest in a woman who wasn't both beautiful and accomplished, happily wedding a little nobody who prefers rusticating in Kent to London society? But I ended up liking Caro. She rides better than I doan admission I make most unwillinglyand breeds top-notch horseflesh on that farm in Kent. She's quite impressivewhich is saying something, given my generally low opinion of womankind.' He paused, a bleakness passing over his face.
He's still not over her, Will thought, once again consigning to eternal hellfire the woman who'd broken her engagement and Alastair's heart.
His fury reviving against the latest female to harm one of his Ransleigh Rogue cousins, he continued, 'The very idea is ridiculousMax, involved in a plot to assassinate Wellington? I'd have thought his valour at Waterloo put a stop to that nonsense.'
Alastair sighed. 'The hard truth is that the attempt in Vienna embarrassed both the French, who were negotiating as allies at the time, and our own forces, who didn't winkle out the conspiracy. Now that Bonaparte's put away at St Helena for good, neither side wanted to rake up old scandals.'
'Couldn't his father do anything? He's practically run the Lords for years.'
'The Earl of Swynford preferred not to champion his son and risk further damaging his political standing, already weakened by Max's "lapse in judgement'',' Alastair said drily.
'So he abandoned him. Bastard!' Will added a colourful curse from his days on the London streets. 'Just like my dear uncle never to let his family's needs get in the way of his political aspirations. Makes me glad I was born on the wrong side of the blanket.'
Alastair shook his head, his expression bitter. 'Whoever set up the Vienna scheme was clever, I'll give them that. There'd be no approach more likely to elicit Max's response than to dangle before him some helpless woman in need of assistance.'
'He always had a soft spot for the poor and downtrodden,' Will agreed. 'His treatment of me being a prime example. We need to get Madame Lefevre back to England! Let her explain how she invented some sad tale to delay Max's rendezvous with Wellington, leaving the commander waiting alone, vulnerable to attack. Surely that would clear Max of blame, since no man who calls himself a gentleman would have refused a lady begging for his help. He found no trace of St Arnaud, either, while in Vienna?'
'It appears he emigrated to the Americas. It's uncertain whether Madame Lefevre accompanied him. If you do mean to search, it won't be easy. It's been more than a year since the attempt.'
Will shrugged. 'An attack on the man who led all of Europe against Napoleon? People will remember that.'
Alastair opened his mouth as if to speak, then hesitated.
'What?' Will asked.
'Don't jump all over me for asking, but can you afford such a mission? The blunt you'll get from selling out will last a while, but rather than haring off to the Continent, don't you need to look for some occupation? Unless did the earl come through and?'
Will waved Alastair to silence. 'No, the earl did not. You didn't really expect our uncle to settle an allowance on me, did you?'
'Well, he did promise, after you managed to scrape together the funds to buy your own commission, that if you made good in the army, he'd see you were settled afterward in a style befitting a Ransleigh.'
Will laughed. 'I imagine he expected me to either be killed or cashiered out. And, no, I've no intention of going to him, cap in hand, to remind him of his pledge, so save your breath.'
'Then what will you do?'
'There are some possibilities. Before I pursue them, though, I'll see Max reinstated to his former position. I've got sufficient blunt for the journey with enough extra to gild the right hands, if necessary.'
'I'll come with you. "Ransleigh Rogues for ever", after all.'
'No, you won't. Wait, hear me out,' he said, forestalling Alastair's protest. 'If I needed a sabre-wielding Hussar to ride beside me into a fight, there's no man I'd rather have. But for this journey.'
Looking his cousin up and down, he grinned. 'In your voice, your manner, even your walk, there's no hiding that you're Alastair Ransleigh of Barton Abbey, nephew of an earl, wealthy owner of vast property. I'll need to travel as a man nobody notices and the alley rats would sniff you out in an instant.'
'You're the nephew of an earl yourself,' Alastair pointed out.
'Perhaps, but thanks to my dear father abandoning my mother, unwed and increasing, in the back streets of London, I had the benefit of six years' education in survival. I know how thieves, Captain Sharps and cutthroats operate.'
'But these will be Austrian thieves, Captain Sharps and cutthroats. And you don't speak German.'
Will shrugged. 'Thievery is thievery and you'd be surprised at my many talents. The army had more uses for me after Waterloo than simply letting me hang about the hospital, watching over Dom's recovery.'
'He's healed now, hasn't he?' Alastair asked, diverted by Will's mention of the fourth cousin in their Ransleigh Rogues' gallery. 'Has he recovered?'
Will recalled the desolate look in Dom's one remaining eye. 'Dandy Dominick', he'd been called, the handsomest man in the regiment. Besting them all at riding, hunting, shootingand charming the ladies.
His face scarred, one arm gone, his physical prowess diminished, Dom would have to come to terms with much more than his injuries, Will knew. 'Not yet. Once I got him safely back to England, he told me I'd wet-nursed him long enough and kicked me out. So I might as well go to Vienna.'
Alastair frowned. 'I still don't like you going there alone. Max said the authorities in Vienna strongly discouraged him from investigating the matter. You'll get no help from them. It could even be dangerous.'
'Dangerous?' Will rose and made a circuit of the room. 'Do you remember the first summer we were all together at Swynford Court?' he asked abruptly, looking back at Alastair. 'The lawyer who found me in Seven Dials had just turned me over to the earl, who, assured I was truly his brother's child, dumped me in the country. Telling you, Max and Dom to make something of me, or else. I was rather unlikeable.'
Alastair laughed. 'An understatement! Surly, filthy, cursing everyone you encountered in barely comprehensible cant!'
'After two weeks, you and Dom were ready to drown me in the lake. But Max wouldn't give up. One night he caught me alone in the stables. I tried every dirty trick I knew, but he still beat the stuffing out of me. Then, cool as you please, he told me my behaviour had to change. That I was his cousin and a Ransleigh, and he was counting on me to learn to act like one. I didn't make it easy, but he kept goading, coaxing, working on me, like water dripping on stone, until he finally convinced me there could be advantages to becoming more than the leader of thieves in a rookery. Max knew that if I didn't change, when the earl returned at the end of the summer, blood kin or not, he would toss me back into the streets.'
Will stared past Alastair out the library window, seeing not the verdant pastures of Barton Abbey, but the narrow, noisome alleys of Seven Dials. 'If he had, I'd probably be dead now. So I owe Max. For my life. For giving me the closest, most loyal friends and cousins any man could wish for. I swear on whatever honour I possess that I won't take up my own life again until I see his name cleared. Until he has the choice, if he truly wishes, to become the great political leader we all know he should be.'
After studying him for a moment, Alastair nodded. 'Very well. If there's anything I can do, you'll let me know, won't you? If Max hadn't led you and Dom after me into the army, I might not have survived, either. For months after Di' he halted, having almost said the forbidden name. 'Well, I didn't much care whether I lived or died.'
Will wondered if sometimes, Alastair still didn't much care.
'I might need some help on the official front when it comes time to get the wench into England.'
'She may balk at returning. After all, if she proves herself a spy, the gallows await.'
'I can be persuasive.'
Alastair chuckled. 'I don't want to know. When do you propose to leave?' ' Tomorrow.'
'But you have just got back! Mama expects you to stay at least a week and Max will want to see you.'
Will shook his head. 'Your mama's being kind and Max would only try to dissuade me. Better I don't see him until after. If he asks, tell him the army still has business for me on the Continent. Besides, you were right; it's been more than a year. No sense waiting for memories to fade any more than they already have.'
'Do keep me posted. It might take some time to ride to your rescue.'
'Tonight, all I'll need rescue from is too much brandy. Unlikely, as you're being entirely too stingy with it.'
Laughing, Alastair retrieved the bottle and refilled their glasses. 'Ransleigh Rogues for ever!'
'Ransleigh Rogues,' Will replied, clinking his glass with Alastair's.
Vienna, Austriasix weeks later
Elodie Lefevre shifted her chair into the beam of afternoon sunlight spilling through the window. Taking up her needlework again, she breathed in the soft scent of the late-blooming daffodils she'd planted last autumn in the tiny courtyard garden below. Nodding violas added their sweet fragrance as well.
She paused a moment, letting the calm and beauty seep into her soul, soothing the restless anxiety that lurked always just below the surface. By this evening, she would have this consignment of embroidery finished. Clara would come by with dinner, bringing a new load of embroidery and payment for completing the last.
Against all the odds, she had survived. Despite the constant imperative gnawing within her to get back to Paris, she must remain patient and continue working, hoarding her slowly increasing store of coins. Perhaps late this year, she would finally have enough saved to return and search for Philippe.
A wave of longing gripped her as her mind caressed his beloved imagethe black curls falling over his brow, the dark, ever-curious, intelligent eyes, the driving energy that propelled him. Was he still in Paris? How had he changed in the nearly eighteen months since she'd left?
Would he recognise her? She glanced at herself in the mirror opposite. She was thinner, of course, after her long recovery, but except for her crooked fingers, most of the injuries didn't show. Her blue eyes were shadowed, perhaps, and long hours indoors had dulled the gold highlights the sun had once burnished in her soft brown hair, but otherwise, she thought she looked much the same.
Suddenly, somethinga faint stir of the air, a flicker of lightseized her attention. Instantly alert, moving only her eyes, she discovered the source: a barely perceptible movement in the uppermost corner of the mirror, which reflected both her image and the adjacent window that also overlooked the courtyard.
Scarcely breathing, she shifted her head a tiny bit to the right. Yes, someone was therea man, perched soundlessly on the narrow balcony beside the window, watching her, all but the top of his tawny head and his eyes hidden behind the wall and the vines crawling up it. Had she not chanced to look into the mirror at that precise instant, she would never have seen him move into position.
From the elevation of his head, he must be tall, and agile, to have scaled the wall so soundlessly. The minuscule amount of him she could see gave her no hint whether he was thin or powerfully built. Whether he was armed, and if so, with what.
Not that the knowledge would do her much good. All she had to defend herself was her sewing scissors; her small pistol was hidden in her reticule in the wardrobe and her knife, in the drawer of the bedside table.
But as seconds passed and he remained motionless, she let out the breath she'd been holding. The afternoon light was bright; he could clearly see she was alone. If he'd meant to attack her, surely he would have made a move by now.
Who was he, then? Not one of the men who'd been watching the apartment from the corner ever since Clara brought her here. No one had bothered her since the foiled attack; so small and damaged a fish as herself, she thought, was of little interest, especially after Napoleon's exile at St Helena put an end once and for all to dreams of a French empire.
Elodie kept her gaze riveted on the mirror as several more seconds dragged on. Despite her near-certainty the stranger did not mean her any immediate harm, her nervesand a rising angerfinally prompted her to speak.
'Monsieur, if you are not going to shoot me, why not come inside and tell me what you want?'