Claude S. is on the move at last.
Meet me at Strand Hall near
Horsham, in Sussex. Tell no one.
It is this urgent message that brings together all the major characters from Patricia Veryan's previous Regency novels in the Sanguinet Saga for the most thrilling adventure yet.
The year is 1817, and Claude Sanguinet is restless again. His past machinations include an unsuccessful plot to overthrow the British government by kidnapping the Prince Regent. Sanguine is determined not to fail again: this time he will do away with Prince George altogether...
About the Author
Patricia Veryan was born in England and moved to the United States following World War II. The author of several critically acclaimed Georgian and Regency series, including the Sanguinet Saga, she now lives in Kirkland, Washington.
Read an Excerpt
By Patricia Veryan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1985 Patricia Veryan
All rights reserved.
Charity Strand's slight shoulders rose and fell in a deep sigh. Remarking this, her attendant groom shifted in the saddle and eyed her profile with a trace of anxiety. Mr. Best had served the Strands for most of his life, working his way up from bootblack to head groom, and his affection was as deep as his loyalty. He decided that Miss Charity's face, framed by the simple straw bonnet, was still much too thin. Her sister Rachel had persuaded her to have her hair cut short, so that the thick sandy braids no longer wound about the beautifully shaped head. Best wasn't sure that he approved of such new-fangled notions, but it was true enough that the fluffy curls lent a softer look to Miss Charity's delicate features. Even so, the fine eyes, somewhere between green and grey, appeared too large for her face, and the clear skin seemed almost stretched over the high cheekbones. Charity Strand had come a long way since her horse had fallen with her five years ago. For three of those years she had been trapped in a wheelchair, and although she had at last escaped that painful existence, she was far from being sturdy.
To Best's way of thinking, she would have done well to accept her brother's offer and make her permanent home at Silverings. Certainly, she knew that Mr. Justin and his lovely wife, Lisette, would have been nothing but pleased, for they both loved her dearly. The same could be said of Miss Rachel (though she wasn't a Miss any more, but was now Mrs. Tristram Leith). And not one could ask for a kinder young gent than Colonel Leith, even if he had been as good as cashiered after Waterloo! No, the problem was that little Miss Charity didn't seem to know where she belonged, poor lass. Forever drifting about from the old family home at Strand Hall, to Silverings, her brother's beautiful estate; or to Berkshire, where her sister and the Colonel spent most of the year. One would think as she be a old spinster lady, instead of barely two and twenty, and getting stronger and comelier every day now, bless her heart!
The object of these musings continued to look rather wistfully to the south, her eyes following the distant gleam of the river that wound for better than twenty miles to where Silverings spread graciously upon its banks. Justin and Lisette were away, of course, and the great house closed. It was because they were in Town, and she had preferred to remain in the country, that Rachel and Tristram had come down to be with her. And it was because Justin understood her fondness for their old family home that Strand Hall had been reopened for the month he would be away. They all had grown up at the Hall, Justin, Rachel, and Charity, but she was the only one who really loved the old house, and she yearned to make it her permanent abode. There was little chance she would ever marry, for she was neither pretty nor accomplished, and she had already planted a hint in her brother's mind that she planned to engage a chaperone and occupy Strand Hall year-round. She stifled another sigh. Her hint had not been well received. Justin, his blue eyes glinting, had said impatiently, "Oh, by all means, m'dear. I think it a splendid scheme. When you reach forty."
Best saw that second sigh, and he scowled. What was she thinking on, staring like that? Silverings lay that way. Was she remembering last year, when Mr. Justin had come so close to slipping his wind down there? Or were her thoughts drifting even farther away — to France and Brittany, and the terrors she had lived through at the hands of Claude Sanguinet? A rare lot of violence this slip of a girl had known in her brief lifetime. It wasn't good for her to brood on that Frenchy's wickedness! Wherefore, faithful soul that he was, Best coughed politely and observed that it was a "nice view from here. Will I be getting ye settled like, miss?"
Charity tilted her head a little and agreed that the view was lovely. "But I think it will be better from the top, you know."
Best had thought the same, but as he'd intended, his remark had broken her reverie, and she urged her mount up the hill once more. Satisfied, the groom slapped the reins against his horse's neck. Nosey started off with uncharacteristic reluctance. Come to think on it, the old fool had been acting a mite odd since they'd started up here. Dang it all! He should've noticed! Best called to Miss Strand and dismounted hurriedly. It took but a moment to determine that the chestnut gelding had picked up a stone in his hoof, and another moment to dislodge it, but Nosey, irreverently named after the Duke of Wellington, still favoured the leg.
"Oh, dear," said Charity, "he does not go on very well, Best. Do you suppose he has taken a stone bruise?"
Furious with himself, the groom nodded. "I fear he has, marm. The more fool I, for not noticing. Cut his hock as well — see here."
"Poor fellow. You must take him home at once."
Best replaced the little knife he always carried, and eyed the girl uneasily. "I do be that sorry, Miss Charity. And this the first nice day we've had in a week and more. But I reckon as how we better get back, else I'll have Colonel Leith ajumpin' down me throat." He grinned at this mild aspersion on the character of a man for whom he had the deepest admiration, and took back the reins Charity held for him. "I'll walk him, miss."
"Yes, do. And when you come back —"
Dismayed, he exclaimed, "Marm? Ye never mean to stay out here all alone?"
"No, pray do not look so aghast," she said, with a little trill of laughter. "We are less than two miles from home and this is Sussex, Best, not London."
"Aye, marm. And there be those across the water" — forgetting his earlier anxieties, he jerked his head in the direction of France — "as would hit out at the Colonel howsoever they might. And you being his lady's sister, they might just vent their spite on you!"
The fear that never failed to grip Charity when she thought of those terrible days in Brittany wrapped chilling fingers around her heart. She took a steadying breath. "It is almost two years now," she pointed out quietly. "I will not walk in terror of Monsieur S-Sanguinet forever." And knowing she had stumbled over speaking that dread name, she met Best's troubled eyes levelly and stretched forth an imperative hand. "My sketchbook, if you please."
The groom stared miserably at that frail little hand. "Mr. Justin would have my ears was I to leave you here alone, miss, as well you know."
"My brother," she argued with a faint smile, "would be the last one to have me creep about, trembling at every shadow for the rest of my days." And knowing that this good man's balking was prompted by love for her, she teased, "I know you mean well, but poor Nosey looks most uncomfortable. And, my faithful friend, can you really suppose anything evil could transpire in our gentle Sussex — especially on so beautiful a morning?" Seeing him frown uncertainly, she hastened to urge, "Come — it may start to rain again tomorrow, and I have promised Miss Rachel a painting of the Hall that she may take with her when they go back to Cloudhills."
Reluctantly, Best detached a flat and rather battered leather case from his saddle and handed it up to her. "You'll not wander off, miss?"
She promised to go no farther than the brow of the hill. "So be off with you. You can walk poor Nosey home at your ease, and by the time you come back I shall have a splendid painting for you to admire."
Her eyes twinkled merrily at him. And after all, what she'd said was quite true. The Frenchy had frightened Miss Charity and her sister half out of their wits, done his best to murder Colonel Leith, and pretty near crippled poor Mr. Devenish, but that had been in France — which everyone and his brother knew was a place fit only for snails and serpents! Best looked around at peaceful fields, drowsing woods, and the musical hurrying of the stream. England. Not even that ogre, Bonaparte, had managed to invade this dear old isle; what chance had a fumble-foot like Claude Sanguinet?
And so it was that, uttering a final stern admonishment that Miss Charity not talk to no strangers, Best took up Nosey's reins and started down the hill. "I'll be back in an hour," he called over his shoulder. "Or less, like as not."
Charity waved and rode on. If she knew Best, he would be back just as quickly as he could, and fond as she was of the groom, the opportunity to sketch without benefit of his critical and vocal appraisal of her efforts was enticing. She slipped from the saddle when she came to the brow of the hill, and tied the reins to a low-hanging branch in a copse of birch trees so that the mare might graze comfortably. The light was as good as she had hoped, and it was the work of a moment to spread the blanket on the damp turf and settle down with her sketchbook and colouring case.
With deft, rapid strokes, she sketched in the outlines of Strand Hall, the soar of its neoclassical columns, the deep welcoming terrace where Brutus was probably outstretched and snoozing at this very minute. She smiled, pleased with these first efforts. A long way off small bells were jingling erratically, a puzzling sound that was relegated to the back of her mind as she roughed in the pleasure gardens.
It was easier to draw the Hall than to get Silverings onto paper. During the three months she had just spent there with Justin and Lisette, she had tried several times, without success, to capture the house bathed in the dancing light from the river that had given the estate its name. Her thoughts dwelt fondly on her brother. Dear Justin, so happily settled at last, so adoring his beautiful bride. Sometimes, when he did not guess he was being watched, she had caught him looking at Lisette with an awed wonderment in his eyes, as though even now he could not quite believe the depth of happiness that had been granted him.
"Perhaps," thought Charity, "I do have a chance to find love. Perhaps the day will dawn when a gentleman looks so at me. ..." And at once she felt guilty even to wish for such a blessing when she had been given so very much. Two short years ago, her one prayer had been that the pain would stop. Now she was not only free from suffering, but she could walk and ride and lead a normal life (even though her dancing left much to be desired!). To ask the good Lord for more was pure greed.
The little bells rang louder and, intruding thus into her awareness, caused her brow to pucker. Bells? On a Thursday morning? And they had been chiming with that odd lack of rhythm since just a little while after she'd sat down. Curious, she set aside pad and pencils and stood.
Her scan of the surrounding countryside revealed no logical source of the sound, but it could be coming from the northern side of the hill. She walked up through the stand of trees and, coming out into the sunshine, halted, appalled by the scene before her.
A man, his shirt most gruesomely stained and his attitude one of mortal fear, lay on the ground at the foot of the hill, one arm thrown up in a feeble attempt to protect himself from the blade that menaced him. The individual who held that glittering sword, far from showing any pity, stepped even closer, until the point of the blade cut into his victim's throat.
Paralyzed with shock, Charity heard a soft, gloating laugh. A cultured voice observed with cold inflexibility, "Very well, then. This world is overburdened with your kind!"
The sword was drawn back, the hand holding it now aiming in such a way as to make his murderous intent very clear. The wounded man gave a shriek and began to babble frantically, but his words were drowned by the scream that burst from Charity's throat. Running pell-mell, she called, "Do not! Oh, you must not murder the poor soul!"
"Damn and blast!" The swordsman spun to face her.
Still running, Charity beheld a slim gentleman whose expression fairly hurled wrath. He was much younger than she had at first supposed. Even in that taut moment, a portion of her brain registered the fact that he was excessively handsome, his hair thick and dark, his nose high-bridged and Roman, his features of an aquiline cast, and his chin firm. The mouth, however, she judged cruel, with thin lips compressed into a tight, angry line, while the eyes — Oh, heavens! Had she ever before seen eyes of such an icy grey?
His voice a snarl of rage, he demanded, "What in the devil are you doing here, madam?"
The question was as arrogant as it was stupid. Ignoring it, she stood before him and panted, "You must not! It would be cold-blooded murder!"
A twisted smile curved his mouth unpleasantly. He sneered, "Much you know of it. My gift to England, rather."
"Oh! How can you be so wickedly unfeeling?" And noting from the corner of her eye that the wounded man had managed to stand and was tottering away, she said, "Have you never heard of good sportsmanship, sir?"
"My God! A missionary!" The grey eyes, glinting scorn, flickered in the direction of the hilltop. "Where's your keeper, ma'am? You are surely not allowed to run loose?"
He was as brutal and ill-mannered, Charity decided, as he was good to look upon. She said haughtily, "One might expect a gentleman to apologize for swearing at a lady, rather than to rail at her."
"And one might expect a lady to be accompanied by a maid or a footman, rather than prancing like any hoyden into affairs that don't con —" He had turned about as he spoke and, discovering that his intended victim was making good his escape, uttered a cry of rage and started off in pursuit.
With a cry of her own, Charity sprang to throw her arms about him. "No! You shall not!" she cried, heroically clinging to him.
She discovered her mistake at once, even if she did not repent it, for despite his slender build, he was all steel. Her determined clasp was broken in an instant and so violently that she fell headlong. The Villain was stamping off after his prey; he wasn't running, as she would have expected, but that he fairly slavered for the kill she did not doubt. Starting to get to her feet, Charity saw that the wounded man had reached a cluster of trees, but even if his horse was tethered there, he could not hope to get very far, and when his merciless opponent came up with him, would have no chance to defend himself. Nor could she hope to prevail upon such ferocity, unless ... She lay back and uttered a sobbing wail. Somewhat to her surprise, the Villain slowed and turned to scowl irresolutely at her. She moaned loudly. He hesitated, glaring after his departing victim, for all the world, or so thought Charity, like a wild beast deprived of its prey. The simile pleased her highly developed sense of the dramatic, but a moment later as he strode reluctantly towards her, she experienced a pang of fear. For only then did it occur to her that she was alone, far from help, with a man who would not balk at murder.
Coming up with her, he said grittily, "I suspect you mean to enact me a proper Cheltenham tragedy, no? What is broke ma'am? Your neck ... at the very least?"
Oddly enough, those scathing words eased her anxieties. She lifted one drooping hand. "I will trouble you only to help me rise, if you please." And with a saintliness that would have astounded those who knew her, she murmured, "I have been rather ill, you see."
He snorted derisively, but his hand went out and gripped hers. She was surprised to find it cold as ice, and shot a searching glance at him. He was very pale, which was fashionable, of course, and probably merely indicated a life of debauchery.
His strong tug having restored her to her feet, he sneered, "I collect it must be a forlorn hope to enquire if you've someone to escort you home, ma'am?"
Home? She had no intention of going home. She'd scarcely begun her painting. He wanted to be rid of her purely so as to hunt down and slaughter his wounded adversary. Bloodthirsty wretch! Charity had always felt a deep contempt for dueling, but she was well aware that in spite of the efforts of the Bow Street Runners and other minions of the law, the practice continued. She knew also that it was governed by a rigid Code of Honour. It was scarcely to be credited that a man so obviously well bred as this one should ignore every precept of that Code, but credit it she must. To divert him from his savagery would, she decided, be well worth the sacrifice of a morning's sketching. Therefore, she abandoned the pithy indictment of his manners and morals that she had been about to dispense and instead said in a die-away voice that her groom's horse had gone lame and he was walking the animal home.
"The fellow should have his wits refurbished for leaving a lady alone out here," growled the duellist. "Have you a horse nearby, ma'am?"
She acknowledged, quaveringly, that she had, and that it was tethered at the top of the hill.
He grunted and, putting fingers to mouth, whistled shrilly. A horse neighed. Charity heard fast approaching hoofbeats and from around the curve of the hill came a magnificent black mare, galloping with a smooth, effortless stride that was a delight to behold. For a moment it seemed that she would trample them, but at the last instant she plunged to a halt and stood sidling and snorting beside her master. She nuzzled at him fondly, but then flung up her pretty head and danced away, eyes rolling.
Excerpted from Sanguinet's Crown by Patricia Veryan. Copyright © 1985 Patricia Veryan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I: The Capture,
Part II: The Race,
About the Author,
Previous novels by Patricia Veryan,