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Veiled In Blue
An Emperors of London Novel
By Lynne Connolly
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Lynne Connolly
All rights reserved.
Julius picked up the buffer and passed it over his perfectly polished nails before glancing at his valet. "I'll eat in an hour. Tell the innkeeper to serve the meal here." He put the pad next to the paring knife, absently noting their perfect alignment.
Julius patiently repeated the information in French. Whatever had possessed him to employ a French valet?
The dapper man bowed and smiled. "Oui, my lord." At least he'd learned that much, although Julius preferred his servants to address him simply as "sir."
Someone scratched at the door, and Lamaire went to answer it.
He returned with two letters, which he handed to Julius, carefully avoiding personal contact. Julius took them with a nod. He picked up the knife from the dressing table and broke the seal on the first one. It was from his mother.
Your father and I are expecting your presence shortly, and we trust your visit to your cousin will take no longer than a week or two. This is merely to inform you that your sister and your daughter arrived at the house today and are well. This time I must insist that Helena remain with me. You have not employed a companion for her on a regular basis, as you promised to do. Neither have you remarried. I cannot allow my daughter to live with you if you are unable to offer her the protection she deserves.
I have also invited some other of our acquaintances, and I am sure you will wish to meet them. Lady McComyn, Lady Murtagh, Lady Burton, and several others will be there with their families.
Julius swore viciously. Red rage filled his heart and burned in his veins. Damn the woman. By hook or crook, his mother wanted him married again, and she would hold his sister Helena to ransom until he selected one of the candidates of her choice.
Now she had Helena. Helena had been a bone of contention between his mother and him for many years. The duchess desired Helena to become her unpaid companion, the helpmeet for her old age. Julius was equally determined that his sister would have the life she wanted and the husband she deserved. Life with his mother did not bear thinking about.
But the duchess had won a march on him. The women listed in the letter were her particular allies, and their daughters would be firmly under their thumbs. His mother sought to control him through his wife. But if he was to rescue Helena, he would have to go to the Abbey and face her. Otherwise the duchess would never let her go. She would have him married before the end of the summer. In chains for life.
"My lord?" Lamaire stood by him, an enquiring expression on his sharp features.
Restlessly, Julius rose from his chair and took the other letter to the window, gazing out at the bustling inn yard below.
A young woman crossed the inn yard, her clothes simple and a cloth-covered basket on one arm. She progressed until she passed through the great arch that led out of the yard. She bore herself gracefully as she turned her head to smile at a man standing by the door to the taproom, her hips swaying slightly, her bearing almost regal. Julius smiled. The man doffed his hat to her. That meant she wasn't a doxy, but a respectable female with some business at the inn.
She progressed until she passed through the great arch that led out of the yard. Watching someone else, someone who had nothing to do with him conducting a life, calmed him and helped him to set his infuriating mother out of his mind, at least for now.
The young woman could even be his quarry. His spy, a servant he used to employ who was now working at this very inn, had told him the young woman occasionally came into town to shop on market day. The notion of a woman travelling without an attendant mildly surprised him, but since she presumably had no idea of her importance in the wider world, she would probably think nothing of it. He'd ordered his man to stop for the night here. It wasn't up to the usual standard he insisted on, the rooms cramped and the noise from the taproom too loud, but it would serve. In any case, luck might be with him, and that pretty dark-haired wench could be the one he was looking for. She was dressed respectably, though not fashionably, in a warm cloak with a dull-green-colored gown underneath, ankle length so as not to gather mud. Her basket was covered with a clean cloth, but in appearance, she could be a country wife rather than the granddaughter of a king, albeit a disgraced one.
Julius wrenched his thoughts back to the second letter. The outer part was scarred and creased. It had come a long way to find him. He broke the seal. This was from his brother Augustus.
My dear Julius.
What we suspected is, indeed, the case. Good luck in the hunt.
I trust this finds you well. I will be with you in England before the end of the month, if the weather stays fine.
The cryptic communication accompanied a letter he had in his pocket. He pulled it out now and read it again. This was entirely in the code Julius used with his brother, but he had transcribed it.
Here is the information you were looking for. I discovered this letter in the ruins of a house, and I have hopes of finding more. This copy is damaged by fire, so we only have two further names.
Julius had made it his mission to seek out and make safe all the legitimate children of the Old Pretender. They were not, as many supposed, the Young Pretender and his brother, Cardinal Henry Stuart, but the children of an earlier, secret marriage. The son of the last Stuart King of Britain had undergone a clandestine marriage to Maria Rubio, and after his short-lived official marriage, had returned to Maria.
They were political explosions waiting to happen.
Maria had given her children away at birth, either to secure their safety or to keep them hidden or both. She had chosen British tourists to Rome, of which there were legion, and Julius had had the devil of a job tracking them down. Now he had clues to the identity of one more.
Augustus had copied the relevant parts of the letter. It contained names they already knew plus two others. The one Julius was tracing here was from a man who was an academic at Oxford but had married and accepted a modest living in Appleton, Somerset, a few miles away from the inn Julius stood in. He glanced out of the window again. The woman had gone.
Ten miles from the village, Julius's cousin Alex had taken a house, so that his wife could undergo her confinement in peace. Julius's plan was to visit Alex, congratulate him on the birth of his son, and then travel on to his family home, to collect his sister and his daughter. During his visit, he could check the existence of the reverend and his family, ensure the child was cared for, and that nobody knew about her real identity.
But the sight of the woman unnerved him. Who else might be watching for her? And wouldn't a visit from a real life duke's heir cause some comment and cause the very fuss he was anxious to avoid?
Julius changed his plans. He would become Mr. Nobody of Nowhere for a week or two. He would still visit Alex, but he would not reveal his identity to the villagers. The child was a girl, Miss Eve Merton, purportedly the daughter of the Reverend and Mrs. Merton of Appleton. The thrill of the chase stirred inside him. He had a job to do, and by God he would do it before he walked into his mother's trap.
He snapped out his orders in French. "Pack a saddlebag with everything I will need for the next day or two."
"My lord?" Now Lamaire sounded confused, as well he might be.
Julius tipped back his head, closed his eyes, and drew air into his lungs, plans rapidly ordering themselves in his mind. "Go downstairs and hire me a horse. In the morning, use one of my coats and leave as if you are me. Go to my cousin's house. I will give you a note for him."
His last valet wouldn't have turned a hair, but Julius had spent years inuring him to his requests. Now, thanks to the man finding a wife and leaving his service, Julius had to start all over again. "I do not want anyone to know that I have left. I will travel as a gentleman." He thought of something the valet would definitely understand. "It is a delicate matter concerning a lady. Comprenez-vous?"
Lamaire's expression cleared. "Ah, I understand! I am most discreet, monseigneur. But would you not prefer a dress coat, something to impress the lady of your choice?"
Julius shook his head. "I don't intend to announce my presence in the village."
Lamaire nodded and bowed, the trace of a smile on his lips. "As you say."
That would keep him quiet and on Julius's side, even if the explanation was not completely accurate. The Frenchman would assume that Julius wanted to hide his identity so the lady would not pursue him. Julius could see that by the sidelong glances the man shot him. He could not be further from the truth.
"Pack the brown coat. I will wear the green."
When Lamaire presented him with the emerald green brocade Julius shook his head and indicated the duller one, in plain English cloth.
"That one." When he held his hand out, lace floated over the back of his hand. An ordinary man would not have anything so fine. He proceeded to pull away the neat running stitches and remove the Brussels lace ruffle. Then he unwound his cravat, exchanging both for plainer garments. He would be travelling incognito.
Half an hour later, Julius was on his way. With a pistol in each pocket, a sword by his side, and saddlebags full of clothes and other necessary items, he felt relatively safe. He'd exchanged his wig for a simpler one and his gold-braided cocked hat for an undecorated example. Instead of his sapphire signet ring, he wore a simple worn one of gold. Few would recognize it, but it was enough to identify him if the worst happened and he was waylaid and murdered. A man in his position must always consider that eventuality. The succession could not be put in doubt.
The vile mood engendered by his mother's demands still simmered. Once on the road, he released it. With nobody in sight he let rip, cursing a blue streak. He kept it up for at least half a mile before he could think clearly again. Ever since he had left home to set up his own establishment, his mother had fought to control him. It would not happen now. Or ever.
Julius was no nearer discovering a way to thwart his mother's attempted control of his life, except for one wild thought when he'd first glanced up from her letter and seen the young woman crossing the inn yard. He was tempted to follow the old legend of the king who'd promised to marry the first woman he saw.
Dusk was falling, and he had to pay attention, or the nag he'd hired would stumble in a rut on this none-too-carefully maintained road.
A slumped figure appeared ahead, someone in a shapeless heap of dark clothes. Since the person was bent over, Julius couldn't discern who or what it was, but he went on his guard, transferring the reins to one hand. He shoved his free hand into his pocket and curved it around the comforting butt of his pistol. Footpads would often appeal to the kindness of travelers. An old trick, but not one Julius intended to fall for now. He tugged on the rein, urging his horse to give the individual a wide berth.
The person straightened and revealed itself as a woman holding a basket, probably the same female he'd seen crossing the inn yard — perhaps even his quarry. He relaxed his grip.
As he approached, she stopped again, and bent once more. When she stood up this time, she gripped the handle of her basket harder than necessary. She had gloved hands, a sign of a gentlewoman. No country wench, this, and no footpad either.
Her shoes, barely visible below her ankle-length skirts, were sturdy, the buckles catching the light of the setting sun. She faltered. She was limping.
Julius drew level with her. He slowed his horse, his chivalrous instincts balking at the notion of passing her.
She glanced around and then snapped her head back to watch the road. Her profile was lovely, her nose straight and true.
"Are you in trouble, ma'am?" he asked her. "May I be of assistance?"
"No, sir." Her voice shook, but no discernible country accent tinged it. "I will manage. I merely caught my foot in a rut. I will be perfectly well shortly."
Julius pulled up and dismounted. "I insist. I am of no danger to you."
Coming to a halt, she put up her chin to glare. "I assure you, sir. I am fine." She bit her lip. "I should warn you that I am armed and I know how to use my weapon."
Julius caught his breath. Despite the plain clothes and tight jaw, she was truly exquisite, one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. The lines of her face were clean and clearly defined, her skin so pure it begged for his touch. Was he tumbling into a different kind of trap, perhaps? He was in peril of falling for his own fantasy.
Smiling, he drew his hand out of his pocket just far enough to show her that he was armed, too. When she shifted on the rough road, her shoes scraping against grit with an audible sound, he was sorry he had shown her.
He drew his hand from his pocket completely, leaving the pistol behind. "I beg your pardon, ma'am. As you can see, I have released my weapon. If you follow suit, I feel sure we shall be more comfortable."
If she bit her lip any harder, she'd draw blood. "Please to go on, sir," she said.
"I wouldn't dream of abandoning a young lady so unprotected."
He meant it. She was terrified of him, and she had good reason. Without a house in sight, they were alone together. It would be a matter of moments to overpower her.
Fortunately, Julius had no such intention, but he had no way of proving that to her. Normally he'd provide his card. Not in this case. He had no visiting cards, and if he started flaunting his wealth, his low profile would not last for long. Money didn't just talk; sometimes it screamed.
"How far do you have to go? Will the next village suit you?" If it did not, he would travel farther. "I will not leave you to be accosted by a real ruffian. Please, ma'am, let me help."
"Who are you, sir? What are you doing on this road? It hardly leads to anywhere important. If you are heading for Bath, I am afraid you have lost your way."
Smiling, Julius shook his head, rapidly inventing a history for himself. "I'm a man of business, and I am travelling to see Lord Ripley. I have some papers for him to sign."
"Oh." Her shoulders slumped when she breathed out. "Lady Ripley has just been brought to bed."
"You know them?" he said quickly.
"No, that is, I have met them once, but I cannot claim acquaintanceship. Lady Ripley's ... illness precluded that." She sighed, her bosom swelling enticingly under her plain blue gown. "Your name, sir?"
"Julius Vernon." He would not stray too far from the truth in case he was found out. Hiding under a completely false name would make this enterprise too shady. He wanted this woman to trust him.
No recognition of the shortened version of his name shaded her eyes. She touched his hand briefly when he held it out to her. "Eve Merton. My father was the vicar here before his death."
"I'm sorry." Julius's sympathy came automatically, but inside he was crowing his triumph. His luck had held. His quarry had fallen into his hands. The stars were in alignment, and the gods favored him today.
She shook her head. "I'm over the first grief of his passing. He died five years ago."
He nodded. "Still, losing a parent is never easy. I'm delighted to make your acquaintance, Eve Merton. Can you ride astride?"
She gave him a derisory glance, her mouth turned down, her eyes scornful. "I can claim it as one of my skills."
He cupped his hands. "Then please take your seat, Eve Merton."
She placed her foot in his hands and allowed him to throw her into the saddle. Before she settled properly, he swung up behind her. She flinched, but said nothing. He would love to know what was going on in her mind. Did she know who she was? Whose daughter she was in truth?
* * *
Apprehension clutched Eve's insides, tightening her throat. Would he prove honorable?
She had taken a rational decision, the only practical one in the circumstances, but she had not reckoned for him riding with her.
Excerpted from Veiled In Blue by Lynne Connolly. Copyright © 2016 Lynne Connolly. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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