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Becket Hall, Romney Marsh
Dinner over, Ainsley Becket relaxed in his favorite chair in the drawing room, listening to his children as they discussed Bonaparte's adventures since escaping Elba several weeks earlier.
Breakfast, luncheon, dinner, the conversation never seemed to vary. What will Bonaparte do? Where will he strike first? Will the Allies cede all command to the Iron Duke? Will Wellington be able to defeat the man he had, remarkably, never before met in battle?
Ainsley let their individual voices fade into the background as he concentrated on his children.
Such a disparate group, all eight of his children; seven of them the children of his heart, and now all of them grown, some of them already gone their own way, with his blessing.
Morgan, a wife and mother now, lived on her husband's estate near London, her Ethan Tanner, Earl of Aylesford, undoubtedly laboring very long hours at the War Office.
Chance, Ainsley knew from the letter he'd received from his oldest son a week ago, was also back at work in the War Office, as all of England braced itself for the inevitable clash with the man they'd believed vanquished.
Ainsley sipped at his snifter of brandy, selfishly content that these two men had found a way to serve the Crown without exposing themselves to battle, and stole a look at his son Spencer, who was bouncing his young son, William, on his leg as Mariah Becket smiled at them both.
Would Spencer willingly leave his small family and go to war again? Ainsley planned a quiet talk with the boy, who had sacrificed enough in America, and needed to think first of his wife and son, and the second child Mariah now carried.
Eleanor and her husband, Jack, sat close together near the fireplace, a stack of Paris newspapers Ainsley had acquired in his usual secretive, inventive ways piled in Eleanor's lap. There still was no baby to be held in her arms, a sorrow she hid most times, but one that Ainsley knew ate at his oldest daughter's heart.
Callie, the youngest, and the only child born to Ainsley and his lost Isabella, continued her argument with her brother Courtland about the latter's assertion that he should buy a commission in the army Wellington was hastily forming to confront the French emperor, now that the majority of the Field Marshal's troops had been sent to fight the Americans. As it was, foreign troops would outnumber English troops two-to-one.
Courtland, always the solid one, the rock of the Beckets, firmly believed in duty.
Callie, with all the surety of a seventeen-yearold, firmly believed Courtland belonged to her.
"You and Jack have enough on your plates, Court," Ainsley said quietly now, making his point without overtly referring to the roles the two men played aiding the local smugglers, and Courtland nodded his reluctant agreement.
"I know, sir, but I believe you and Jacko are still reasonably capable and can run Becket Hall in our absence. Besides, we'll have Boney corralled and in a cage in a few months, if not weeks."
Callie, always sharp, sharper than most females were raised to be, spoke up. "In a cage, you say, Court? I believeyou'll correct me if I'm wrong, Papathat it was Marshal Ney who promised the now displaced King Louis that he would bring Bonaparte to him in an iron cage and place him before Louis's throne."
She grinned at Court. "Would that be the same iron cage, Courtland, hmm? Especially now that Ney is back to perching on a cushion at Bonaparte's feet, apologetically licking his boots?"
Mariah Becket laughed as she took young William from her husband and lifted him into her arms. "She's got you there, Court. You men. So much bluster, so many promises. Spencer? I'll see you upstairs, and meet you with a book tossed at your head if you dare to even hint that you'll attempt to follow the drum again."
Everyone waited until Mariah had left the drawing room before bursting into laughter at Spencer's expense.
"Well and truly tied to the apron strings, aren't you, old fellow?" Jack Eastwood asked, earning himself a speaking look from the love of his life. Morgan or Mariah would have delivered a sharp jab to his ribs, but the petite, ladylike Eleanor needed only to send a level look from her speaking eyes, and Jack subsided, murmuring a quiet, "Sorry, Spence."
"It's all right," Spencer said, walking over to the drinks table to pour himself a glass of wine. "I know I can't go. And neither can you two, not when the Black Ghost has to ride out with regularity, and definitely not when we still don't know where our old friend Edmund Beales might next show his faceand recognize yours. What if he's acting as Talleyrand has, and has now thrown in his lot with the Alliance, abandoning Bonaparte after the fiasco that was his attempt to free him from Elba last August? Bonaparte might not be quite in love with the man now, you know?"
Mention of Edmund Beales cast the room into silence for some moments, and Ainsley was, as always, thrown back in time, remembering the days when he'd considered Edmund his best friend and partner. Before Edmund's betrayal. Before Isabella's death at Edmund's hands. Before the massacre on the island that had brought them all to England and the protective isolation of Romney Marsh seventeen years ago. Before they'd learned that Edmund still lived, and had taken his study of Machiavelli's mad genius to heart, believing himself destined to control the destinies of half the world. Before
"It's true," Callie said, breaking the silence, as she saw the shadows in her papa's eyes, and wanted them gone. "None of you can be seen by Beales, as he may have seen all of your faces at one time or off to war. Except Rian, of course," she added, her pretty face marred by a frown as she thought about the day, a few weeks earlier, Rian had made his farewells and ridden away with an eagerness he couldn't quite disguise, his commission in his pocket.
"Our brother is so damn hot to play the hero, the fool," Spencer said, shaking his head. "We can only hope he'll stay cooling his heels in Belgium, and never even set foot on French soil."
"Amen to that, Spencer. I still find it difficult to believe the way the French have embraced Bonaparte, after damning him just over a year ago," Eleanor said, paging through the newspapers she'd been holding on her lap. "Just look at these, for pity's sake. Let me read the titles of the articles written over the course of the past weeks by the Moniteur, once so loyal to the Emperor. Here, darling, help me before they all slide to the floor."
She passed some of the newspapers to Jack, whom she asked to read the oldest one first.
"It would be my pleasure. Ah, here we go. 'The Corsican werewolf has landed at Cannes."
"Yes, the werewolf," Eleanor said. "Now this one is next, only a few short days later. 'The tiger appeared at Gap, troops were sent against him, the wretched adventurer ended his career in the mountains." They said he'd been killed, for pity's sake."
Jack reached for another newspaper. "And were forced to eat their own words. 'The fiend has actually, thanks to treachery, been able to get as far as Grenoble."
Eleanor continued with the title of a later article, "The tyrant has reached Lyons, where horror paralyzed all attempts at resistance." But, Papa, haven't your agents in France already told you Bonaparte was greeted with cheers and bouquets?"
Ainsley nodded. "Eleanor, you really expect truth from a newspaper controlled by the state? I thought I'd taught you to be more discerning than that. Read the rest, if you please. They are amusing, in a rather macabre way."
Jack lifted another newspaper, scanned it and smiled ruefully. "Ah, no longer the werewolf, tiger or tyrant, I see, but actually at last referred to by name. And in just a few days time. 'Bonaparte moves northward with rapid strides, but he will never reach Paris."
"And these last two," Eleanor said, shaking her head. "Tomorrow Napoleon will be at our gates." And, lastly, this, 'His Majesty is at Fontainebleau." His Majesty, is it? Hypocrites, all of them! But if that's how rapidly the French can turn their coats, can Bonaparte sleep easy at night?"
Ainsley drained the last of his brandy and stood, ready to return to his study and the maps he'd been poring over since first he heard of Bonaparte's escape, comparing those maps to the steady stream of information his money so cleverly bought. He'd correctly picked Cannes as the man's initial destination. Now he looked north, to the area around Brussels, feeling that to be the logical ground for Wellington and the Emperor to at last meet across a battlefield. He'd already forwarded his thoughts to Chance and Ethan, with little hope such an necessarily anonymous warning would be heeded by their superiors.
And Rian, God help them, was already in Belgium. "Remy," he said, referring to his informant in Paris, "has written me that Bonaparte paused on the steps of his palace the day of his arrival, to look out on the quiet city, and said, 'They have let me come, just as they let the others go." So, if that answers your question, Eleanor, I would say that the man knows his rule is tenuous, at best. Which I believe, sadly, means he will march out of Paris soon, to confront the Allies, rather than wait for them to come to him. He has to prove that he is still the strongest man in Europe."
Courtland, who had spent many hours poring over the same communiqués and maps as Ainsley, disagreed. "It will be the end of July before the Russians and Austrians can meet up with our own army, and neither we English nor the Prussians will be fool enough to engage Bonaparte until all of the Allies are together."
Ainsley smiled indulgently. "Don't think of rosy scenarios, where the world works to your hopes, Court. Better to think like your enemy. Can you conceive of a better reason for Bonaparte to move now? His people will want to see a victory, a bit of the old soldier in his battle-worn green greatcoat, even if that means coming out with a smaller army than he'd like. And I do not believe he wants that initial fight to be a defensive action, one that takes place on French soil. No, Bonaparte is first and foremost a soldier. War may have been declared on him by the Alliance, but he will take the initiative, attack. If only the fools in the War Office could understand this."
"Pray God they will, Papa. So
so Rian could be closer to this first battle, when it comes, than we believe?" Eleanor asked, slipping her hand into Jack's.
"That blasted girl!"
All heads turned to look at Mariah, who was standing in the doorway, her cheeks flushed, and clutching a thick lock of light blond hair. She held it aloft, shook it with some fury.
Ainsley looked at the hank of hair and felt a frightening chill, as if a goose had just walked over his grave. "Fanny?"
Mariah nodded, scarcely able to speak. Fanny Becket had pushed back from the dinner table the previous evening, complaining of the headache, and gone to her room. "I knocked on her door a few times today, but there was no answer. You know how can she can be, sulking ever since Rian left, and I decidedEleanor and I decidedto simply let her stay locked up in there until her stomach finally forced her out again. But tonight, well, enough is enough, so I commandeered a key and
and she's not there."
Callie turned in her chair to ask, "She's run away? Did she leave a note?"
"She didn't have to," Ainsley said, sitting down heavily, feeling all of his years. "We all know where your sister has gone."