The sharp pain and darkness that had carried Orlando into a unconsciousness began to lift. He fought the urge to moan, to groan, to rub his throbbing skull. Instead, he did as he’d been taught and remained as still as a corpse.
After all, that was what the Marquis of Bradstone, the man who’d just finished rifling his pockets and stealing the missive he carried, thought—that Orlando was dead.
And Orlando had no doubts that if his assailant knew he still lived, he wouldn’t remain that way for very long.
So what was he to do?
In another part of the house, the ball being thrown by their host, Lord Chambley, sounded as if it had reached its height. Music competed with conversations, and the jovial din reached even this secluded part of the elegant and spacious town house.
Ignoring that distraction, Orlando focused instead on the muttered curses and rustle of parchment rising from the other corner of the library where the Marquis of Bradstone was attempting to decipher the coded missive.
A missive that, in the right hands, would enable the English to unhinge Napoleon’s tight grasp on Spain—or just make Bradstone a very rich man.
Madre de Dios, he thought. I can’t let this happen.
With the other man occupied, Orlando did a furtive and silent inventory. His pistol, once tucked into his waistband was gone, but that much he expected.
His hand slid down to his boot top, his fingers closing over the silver hilt of the stiletto he kept tucked inside.
Orlando would have grinned if he wasn’t supposed to be dead. Instead, he stole another glance at the Marquis.
The man looked about to have a fit, his face contorted with frustration.
The code had obviously proven harder than the man had expected.
Keep trying, you greedy bastard, Orlando thought, then you’ll not notice when I slit your throat.
Just as he was about to take his revenge, the door to the library sprang open.
“There you are. I’ve been waiting,” Bradstone said, with his usual smooth charm.
Orlando cursed his foul luck, easing back into his spot behind the desk. Now he had two opponents to dispatch, instead of just one. That is until he heard the voice of this newest arrival.
“I’m so sorry, my lord.” The soft whisper of a woman stopped Orlando’s next breath.
A woman? Bradstone was in the midst of stealing a fortune and he was taking the time to have a midnight assignation?
Apparently so, for her footsteps padded lightly across the carpet as she swept past the desk. In her wake fell the delicate scent of perfume, roses, he thought, drifting over him like a feminine rain.
“I couldn’t slip away until my mother’s attention was completely diverted,” the woman said. “How thoughtful of you to send someone to play cards with her, especially when you know she is unable to refuse a good hand.”
Her voice surprised Orlando with its youthful innocence. She sounded young—far too young to be alone with the likes of Bradstone, or any man for that matter.
Bradstone was laughing. “Anything to be with you.” The sound of kissing followed.
Orlando had no compunction about killing his enemy, but the man’s mistress, now that was an entirely different matter.
“Oh, Robert, I have missed you so,” she said, breathlessly.
“And I you, my dearest Olivia.” More kissing ensued.
Orlando took this opportune moment to peer through his lashes.
Bradstone’s ‘dearest Olivia,’ was hardly what he expected. The girl in his arms was no Cyprian, no Haymarket bird. She wasn’t even some ingenue belle, the pretty, breathtaking kind of innocent femininity the ton liked to call an Original.
No, Bradstone’s paramour could hardly even be called that—she was, in Orlando’s humble estimation, a rather plain little sparrow of a miss. Sure enough her auburn hair fell in the requisite cascade of ringlets down over her shoulders, but its coppery luster seemed like a handful of dull farthings rather than some fiery silken mane to inspire such heated passion.
When she tipped her face toward him, and Orlando could make out her features, again he found himself astounded. The girl was young, there was no doubt there, but her features were not the kind that would make a man sit up and take notice when she entered the room.
Even her gown was rather dull, a soft yellow muslin that only made her hair look more orange than red, and did nothing to add color to her already pale cheeks and brow.
Orlando’s gut filled with ill-ease. Something was not right. Not at all.
What the devil was Bradstone doing summoning some innocent into his treasonous scheme?
“Come, my dear,” Bradstone was saying to her, his hands brushing back her wayward curls. “You know I find you irresistible.”
“You are too kind, my lord,” she said, a wistful hint to her words. She paused for a moment. “Did I decipher your note correctly? Did you really mean what you said? That you love me? That you have something special to ask me this night?”
Most of her astounding disclosure was lost on Orlando for one word had caught and held his attention.
“Of course you read my note correctly, Bradstone told her. Again the sounds of kissing filled the room. “You always do, my little bluestocking.”
Bluestocking? Orlando thought it an odd endearment between lovers, but the girl didn’t seem to mind, for she laid her head on the Marquis’s shoulder and sighed.
Something unfathomable began forming in Orlando’s mind. Could Bradstone possibly intend to use this girl to decipher the code?
Impossible. It was the throbbing in his head that was giving him such crazy notions.
Very quickly he realized that he’d once again underestimated his adversary.
“I promise tonight will be like no other for you,” Bradstone began. “That is, if you can do this one thing for me.”
Orlando heard the familiar rustle of parchment. The missive. He couldn’t keep his eyes shut. To his shock, Bradstone handed the future of the Peninsula and Britain to this mere slip of a girl.
“Oh, Robert,” the girl said breathlessly. “Anything.” She clutched the most coveted secret in the history of Spain to her bosom as if it were nothing more than a bit of heartfelt verse dashed off by an erstwhile lover.
The pair kissed again, while Orlando tried to fathom how Bradstone could believe this girl was capable of deciphering what eleven hundred years of learned men and treasure hunters had found unintelligible.
“Come now, we mustn’t,” Bradstone told her. “We cannot succumb to this madness. Not again. ” The Marquis purred those words like a triumphant alley cat, sure of his success and position.
Orlando’s noble-bound honor bristled at the thought.
She may not be comely, she may not even be of high and lofty rank, but it was obvious she was gently bred and innocent of heart—and her now inevitable fall from grace would destroy her.
English society wasn’t so unlike the strict rules of his homeland… once tempted into a man’s arms a young woman could give up any hope of living a respectable life.
And if what Bradstone implied was true, Olivia was thus tainted. Irretrievably so.
“No more,” Robert was saying, the kissing finally came to a stop. “Not until you tell me what this says.”
The girl sighed. “If you insist.”
Orlando heard her gown rustle again, and then her footsteps as she padded toward him.
He held his breath for what he knew was coming.
Sure enough, her shrill gasp was quickly muffled.
“Yes, I was going to warn you about that bit of business,” Bradstone said. “Now if I take my hand away from your mouth, will you promise not to scream?”
She must have agreed for a moment later, she asked in a soft tenuous whisper, “Is he—” Her question faltered.
“Dead?” Bradstone finished. “I fear so.”
Yes, you go on believing that, you arrogant dog, Orlando mused silently.
“Who is he?” she asked.
“A French agent. Here on Napoleon’s devilish business.”
French? Orlando bristled. The blood of seventeen generations of Castilian grandees flowed though his veins. Then he spied the girl moving closer to him, so he held his indignation and breathing in check.
“He doesn’t look French to me,” the girl said. “More likely Spanish.”
“Yes, well, he’s one of the Corsican’s Spanish lackeys,” Bradstone declared impatiently, pulling his unwitting accomplice away from Orlando, and back into his arms. The Marquis lowered his voice. “The man is here to bedevil our good King and country. It was up to me to stop him.”
The girl glanced back over at Orlando. “He looks rather young to be as nefarious as you say.”
“Yes, so I thought until he tried to kill me with this—” Bradstone said, brandishing Orlando’s pistol. “Thankfully, I was able to surprise him before he could carry out his plot.”
“Oh, Robert, how brave you are,” she said, wrapping her arms around his neck. “But what were his plans? Don’t keep this from me. If I am to be your… wife,” she said the word with a soft little sigh, before continuing, “then you must tell me.”
“And so I shall,” her lover said, disentangling himself from her embrace.
Once again, Orlando heard the rustle of the missive.
The Marquis continued. “He carried these instructions. They are in an ancient code, and you my dearest girl, being as extra ordinarily skilled as you are at deciphering, I knew you could help me.”
“‘Twas your good fortune and happy coincidence that we met at Lady Bloomberg’s puzzle party in May,” she said.
“Yes quite,” Bradstone said, but to Orlando’s way of thinking the man didn’t sound so truthful. “You left me astounded at your superior intelligence, for Lady Bloomberg fancies herself quite the encryption expert.” He held the note out to her. “Now I ask you to use your remarkable talent for me and for your King.”
Orlando’s heart hammered in his chest at these disclosures. But how could he stop this madness while Bradstone still held the pistol in one hand, and this innocent girl remained in the room? Orlando suffered no doubts that if he made a move, she may be harmed as well.
One thought cheered him though. They had yet to unravel the code. Perhaps all he needed to do was to wait and see what Bradstone’s bluestocking would make of it.
Then he would decide if her life was worth placing in such jeopardy.
He didn’t have to wait long.
“Someone went to a lot of work to make sure no one could read this,” she said. “It appears each pair of words uses a different cipher. The first uses a displacement of the Latin alphabet and replaces it with the corresponding sequence in ancient Spanish. You see, here and here,” she offered, pointing at the note before her.
“Yes, yes, that is quite brilliant, but can you get the message?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I can try, especially if this is as important as you say.”
“The message in this note is a matter of life and death.”
Life and death, Orlando mused. As if Bradstone cared one whit for the lives he would cost England by stealing this information. But on this, he’d fail. For Orlando still would have bet a shipload of gold that this snip of a schoolgirl couldn’t unravel the key.
And then to his horror she did.
“Oh, I see what they’ve done,” she declared. “El Rescate del Rey, it starts out.” She turned her face toward Bradstone, who shrugged at her use of Spanish. “The King’s Ransom,” she translated. “Does that make sense?”
“The King’s Ransom,” he whispered in an awestruck voice. “Yes. Yes. Go on. Go on.”
While Olivia struggled with the next section of the message, Orlando scrambled to control his own shock at what had just happened.
This chit had grasped the first part of the missive. Something no one else had done in eleven centuries. If she got the rest of it… Orlando didn’t even want to consider the consequences.
But the evening went from nightmarish to horrific as Bradstone slowly and silently cocked the pistol he’d stolen and held it behind the girl’s back.
A matter of life and death. A matter of life and death.
The Marquis’ previous words sang like an unholy refrain in Orlando’s throbbing skull.
Now he knew what the man had truly meant. Bradstone intended to kill her as well.
Silently, Orlando began to rise to his feet.
“Oh, here it is,” she sang out, innocently unaware that every refrain she provided her lover was one step closer to her own demise.
“What does it say?” Avarice laced Bradstone’s demand, filling the room with the man’s insatiable greed.
Orlando steadied himself on the edge of the desk. His senses reeled and swayed at having to stand, and he used every ounce of strength he possessed to stay still and not draw any attention to his movements.
Meanwhile, the little bluestocking continued. “This line reads, ‘In the Tomb of the Virgin.’” She bit her lip. “I’ve never heard of such a place. Certainly not here in London.”
Bradstone nodded in agreement. “Then try the last word-that one should reveal everything.” To urge her on, he kissed the top of her head, while behind her back Orlando’s pistol rose until it was pointed at the base of her skull.
For a moment it brushed over the hairs there and she flinched ever so slightly as if she sensed the nearness of death.
Life and death. Life and death. The words urged Orlando forward. His hand flexed over the hilt of his stiletto, and he took another silent step.
“I think I have it!” she said, slowly and deliberately. “The last word is… “Madrid.” She held it up for him. “The King’s Ransom. In the Tomb of the Virgin. Madrid.” Her lips pursed in concentration. “But it makes no sense. Why would a ransom for King George be in a tomb in Spain?”
“It doesn’t need to make sense to you,” Bradstone told her, his fingers curling around the trigger.
“Kill her, you bastard, and you shall be next,” Orlando told him. Both the girl and the Marquis whirled around.
Orlando took advantage of their surprise and leapt forward. He plunged the stiletto at Bradstone, but the man saw it coming and deflected the worse of the blade’s intent, sending it skittering across the library floor.
Now locked in a deadly battle with the man, Orlando struggled back and forth to gain control of the pistol wavering between them.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spied the girl standing near the fireplace. “Run. He means to kill us both,” he told her in Spanish, since it was apparent she had a good grasp of the language.
He saw a flash of yellow silk, and thought she was heeding his advice, but suddenly he found her coming at Bradstone with his lost stiletto. Bradstone saw her as well, and yanked the pistol free of Orlando’s grip and turned to aim it at her.
“No,” Orlando cried out, reaching for the muzzle and yanking it into a different direction, hoping to turn it finally on the Marquis.
And in that instant, a shot rang out. At first Orlando thought he had succeeded—that he had stopped Bradstone, but in that next moment, a hot, burning flame of lead passed through his gut. It tore at his senses, until all he knew was a wretched tangle of pain.
Her piteous cry pierced his thoughts, a mourning keen to comfort his last few seconds.
Sinking to the floor, he landed at her slippered feet. Her horrified gaze locked with his, her hand covering her mouth.
Down the hall, footsteps and shouts pierced the sudden, deadly silence of the room.
Bradstone wasted no time. He shoved the still smoking pistol into Olivia’s hand and went for the door.
“In here. Come quickly. There has been a murder,” he called out.
Orlando struggled to hold on, to hear what was being said, in case, just in case he lived, so he could tell Hobbe . . .
But he wasn’t going to live, for the pain spread throughout his chest, his body convulsing with wrenching finality. His eyelids grew too heavy to remain open, while a mixture of darkness and comforting light began blotting out his senses. As he started to drift away, a soft, warm hand cradled his, pulling him back.
Over the buzzing in his ears, he heard Bradstone’s voice saying, “Miss Sutton has committed a murder. That man there. She shot him.”
There were gasps and shouts, but not from the lady herself.
No, Orlando tried to tell the growing crowd of witnesses. She didn’t do this.
“¿Cómo podria ayudarle? ” she whispered in his native tongue. How can I help you?
He fumbled to free his hand, and with every last ounce of strength he possessed he pulled the ring from his finger. She still held the note in her hand, so he set the gold band atop it, and crushed his fingers over hers, tightening her grasp on his two most precious belongings.
The bright light now filled the room. It distracted his thoughts and strangely eased his pain. As much as he wanted to abandon himself to its comforting warmth, he couldn’t leave this girl behind to pay for his mistakes.
“Run, now,” he managed to say. “Go as far as you can. Hide where they cannot find you. Give this to no one but—” The pain overcame him and he stumbled over the name that should have come so easily to him.
“Who?” she pleaded. “Who should I give it to?”
“Hobbe,” he managed to whisper before he finally relented his life to what he could only hope were angels overhead.
The Kent Countryside, Seven Years Later
“Keates! Keates, where are you, you faithless girl?” Lady Finch clamored and bellowed from her wheelchair, the one she’d confined herself to for over twenty years and honestly didn’t need. “I want to see those London papers Jemmy brought down from town this morning before Lord Finch carts them off to his potting shed.”
Her ladyship’s tirade was punctuated with the clanging of a cowbell she kept at the ready for those trying situations when it seemed the entire house ignored her.
Keates, the target of Lady Finch’s tirade and her hired companion, hurried down the front stairwell in answer to her mistress’s strident cries.
Most of the servants felt it a cursed shame that such a kindly woman had not only been widowed at such a young age, but that her hardship had left her with no other choice than to work for such a harridan.
But then again, they all felt much that way about their own positions in the Finch household.
At the end of the stairs, Mrs. Keates was met by Lord and Lady Finch’s only child and heir, Mr. James Reyburn. The pride and joy of Finch Manor, Jemmy, as he was affectionately called by one and all, cast a furtive glance down the hall toward the room where his mother held court and was currently bellowing out another chorus of demands for the newly arrived papers.
“The old bird is in rare form this morning,” he whispered as loudly as he dared. Even at nineteen, Jemmy still regarded his mother with an unholy terror. That probably explained why the young man hightailed it back to London every chance he could. “Got to warn you, she’s in one of her moods. She’s been calling for you and the papers ever since she heard me ride up.”
Mrs. Keates sighed. “And why didn’t you just deliver them?”
“Me?” Jemmy asked in mock disbelief. “And face the dragon before dinner? Not bloody likely.” The cowbell clamored again. He winked at her and held up the bundle of posts, newspapers and cards he’d brought down from town, while in his other hand a pair of pistols dangled. “Why not ignore her and come shooting with me? For old time’s sake.”
Mrs. Keates smiled at the handsome young man. When she had first arrived at Finch Manor, Jemmy had only been twelve, and such outings had been quite acceptable. But in the last few years, she had tried to put a distance on their once chummy relationship.
It was better for both of them, she knew, especially when she saw the fond light in Jemmy’s eyes sparkling at her in invitation.
“They’re brand new,” the young man explained, “and all the rage with the Royal Fuzileer officers I met last month in town. When mother relents and allows me to buy my commission in the 21st, I will have a brace of them.” His gaze filled with youthful passion for his dream of making a military career. “But for now, come out and see how accurate they are. I’ll even let you have the first round—much more fun than spending your day with her dragonship.”
“Keates!” Lady Finch bellowed.
“Yes, your ladyship,” a resigned Mrs. Keates answered. “I’ll be right there.”
“What is holding you up, girl? Is that miscreant son of mine out there? If he is, bring him in. I will have an accounting for this bill I received from his tailor.”
Jemmy blanched at his mother’s wrath. He put a finger to his lips and shook his head furiously at Mrs. Keates.
“I haven’t seen Jemmy, my lady,” Mrs. Keates told her, “but he left the papers and letters here in the hall for you.”
“Harumph,” the old girl sputtered. “Well, what are you lolling about for? Bring them in.”
Smiling at his savior, Jemmy put one of the pistols on the highboy and whispered, “In case you get a chance to escape. Come join me in the east meadow.” He winked and then retreated down the corridor toward the kitchen, where she knew he would hide out until the coast was clear.
Picking up the bundle, Mrs. Keates sighed. Once the London news was delivered to her ladyship, she knew the rest of her day would be spent listening to her ladyship’s opinions, outrage and utter dismay at the moral decay of good society.
There would be letters written to editors regarding their blatant disregard for the truth, notes dashed off to friends chastising them as to their latest follies, and of course, inquiries made as to whom exactly the “Lady S” or “Mr. L” might be in the gossip columns.
All of which was dutifully and patiently penned by Mrs. Keates.
“There you are,” the lady huffed, as Mrs. Keates entered the room. “I think this entire house has gone deaf.”
She smiled at her employer and laid the papers down on the table next to her ladyship’s chair. Picking up the cowbell, she held it aloft. “If that is so, then I can only guess as to the cause.”
The lady harrumphed again. “You’ve too much cheek. I should fire you, Keates.”
Mrs. Keates grinned. “Should I write my notice before your correspondence or after?”
“You’d more than likely demand your full day’s pay since it is almost noon, so you might as well earn it before you start packing your bags.”
Mrs. Keates nodded in agreement, knowing full well Lady Finch wouldn’t dismiss her for any amount of cheek. Catching the edge of the lady’s chair, she wheeled her over by the window so she would have better light with which to read. “What shall it be first? The Times or the Morning Post?”
The lady fluttered her hand. “The Morning Post. I want to see if they printed my letter.”
Sorting through the stack, Mrs. Keates organized the collected fortnight’s worth of copies into chronological order, handing the first one to Lady Finch. Then she settled into her chair at the desk nearby, taking up a pen and waiting for her ladyship’s first order of business.
It didn’t take long.
“Keates, will you listen to this! Lady Bennington has gone and delivered a son! And at her age. How unseemly.” The lady made several clucking noises that were harbingers of a long letter and a healthy dose of unwanted advice. “I suppose Lord Bennington is strutting about town taking credit for the entire business himself. Why Miranda married that tiresome goat, I’ll never understand.”
“How old were you when you had Jemmy?” Mrs. Keates asked, knowing full well Lady Finch had been at least five years older when the Finch heir had made his unexpected arrival into the world.
“Harumph! That is none of your business.” Lady Finch’s lips puckered with vexation, and Mrs. Keates knew only too well her employer was considering how she could at least convey some portion of her displeasure with the situation.
Eventually her eyes lit with triumph. “Send Miranda a note of congratulations on the child’s safe deliverance along with that layette set we stitched last winter.” The lady glanced up at the hallway where Jemmy was in the process of sneaking out to go shooting. “Goodness knows, I’ll never live long enough to see my grandchildren wear any of these things,” she said, waving her hand over the basket of sewing that the lady always had at the ready.
Mrs. Keates smiled, as the sound of Jemmy’s pace doubled at the mention of setting up his own nursery.
“And don’t forget,” Lady Finch said, turning back to the paper at hand, “to make a copy of my instructions on the hiring of a suitable wet nurse and nanny, so that child is properly cared for.”
Mrs. Keates paused knowing full well that wasn’t all the lady would be sending.
And of course, it wasn’t.
“And add to the note a word of caution,” Lady Finch said in an offhand manner. “Counsel Miranda that now she’s provided that no-account husband of hers an heir, a separate bedroom with a good lock is entirely in order.”
Mrs. Keates nodded, holding back the smile that threatened to turn her lips.
Lord and Lady Finch still shared a bed, but Mrs. Keates thought better of mentioning that point of fact.
For the rest of the morning and afternoon, through a hasty tea and well past supper, Lady Finch continued to scour over her papers. From her chair, she directed Mrs. Keates to send the necessary notes to the various acquaintances she read about, to copy instructions from Lady Finch’s vast repertoire of advice for those in need, and to prepare admonishments for those whose deeds necessitated her immediate intervention.
Finally the lady drew to a close with the most recent paper Jemmy had brought up from town. Usually she skipped immediately to the gossip page, but this time, she stopped on the front page.
“‘Tis remarkable,” she finally muttered. “The man’s alive. And here I thought he was rotting in hell all these years.”
Mrs. Keates yawned, exhausted from a long day of unrelenting work, her head throbbing and her hand aching and stiff from all the copying and scribbling she’d done. She didn’t care if it was Nelson himself returned from the grave, all she wanted to do was to find a cold compress for her head and seek the quiet comfort of her bed.
“Listen to this, Keates,” Lady Finch said, before she began to read aloud. “It is said that miracles do not occur in these modern times, but one has to be astounded to hear the tale of the latest arrival in London. Declared a hero and being given a fête in his honor this Saturday, it is a story that will be oft-repeated for months to come.”
Nodding, Mrs. Keates tried to force a smile and wondered if she shouldn’t order another brace of candles. She could see her correspondence spreading into the wee hours just by the glint of excitement in Lady Finch’s eyes.
“Oh, here comes the good part,” her ladyship declared. “After surviving a sea battle off the coast of Portugal and days adrift, our brave son of Britannia—” The lady stopped her narrative. “Brave son of Britannia, that has a nice ring to it, don’t you think, Keates?”
“Yes, quite,” Keates acknowledged without even knowing what it was she was agreeing to. Her mind was caught by the first part of the tale.
…a sea battle off the coast of Portugal…
The remembrance of just such another story, filled the pit of her stomach with cold dread.
“Now here’s the rest,” her ladyship said, drawing the paper closer to her nose. “Our brave son of Britainnia endured nearly seven years—”
Seven years? No, it couldn’t be. Disbelief rose in Mrs. Keates’s chest, leaving her unable to breathe. He was dead. Dead all these years. All these seven long years.
“—as a prisoner of the French. Two months ago, our hero effected a daring escape from the garrison at Spain—”
Spain. The very name left her heart hammering. Memories of that name, of that night filled her mind.
“Keates! Keates! Are you listening to me?” Lady Finch’s agitation cut through the shock clouding her ears. “Why you look terrible! Call for Mercy to get you a tincture of my megrims cure.”
Shaking her head, and hoping that her own trembling didn’t show, Mrs. Keates braved a smile. “No, that won’t be necessary. Pray, go on, my lady.”
“Yes, well, if you say so.” Lady Finch straightened her paper, glanced one more time over the top of it, studying her companion with a keen and penetrating stare.
For her part, Mrs. Keates sat up straight and nodded for her ladyship to continue. “Where was I?”
“Spain,” Mrs. Keates prompted, the word like a brand on her tongue.
“Yes, Spain.” Lady Finch scanned down the column. “Oh, yes, here it is. Escaped from a garrison in Spain, and made it to the English lines in Portugal with the help of Spanish guerillas.” Her ladyship shuddered. “The poor boy. How glad he must have been to see our noble colors flying from a standard.”
Mrs. Keates nodded, only too afraid to speak. For fear she’d show too much interest. For fear the sick feeling in her chest would spill out, and she’d disgrace herself by tossing up her tea on the carpet.
It couldn’t be him. It just couldn’t be.
“From Lisbon, where he was much honored by Wellington, he set forth on the Archimedes and arrived in London, this Tuesday past, sending his mother into a fit of delight. The brave lady, her fight to save his title and inheritance well known to these readers, is hosting a fête in honor of his return.” Lady Finch shook her head. “And here I have been writing to Sarah all these years to forget about that scandalous scalawag she called a son and find another distraction other than pestering the House of Lords about his estate. I do say, those Parnells are a determined lot.”
Parnell. The only too familiar name hammered at her unwillingness to believe.
Her ladyship set the paper aside. “Well, well, the Marquis of Bradstone returned from the dead. And a hero to boot. I wonder if anyone remembers why he left. Now there’s a story that bears repeating, more than this taradiddle about him escaping the French. That was just before you came here, Keates. I don’t suppose you’ve heard it, though if you had, you surely wouldn’t forget it.” Lady Finch waved to her maid, who had arrived to help take the lady to bed.
Mrs. Keates managed to draw a slow, even breath. “Yes, my lady, I recall the tale,” she whispered as the maid rolled Lady Finch’s chair out of the room.
Mrs. Keates, née Olivia Sutton, hadn’t just heard it. She had managed to live through it.
As she made her way to her modest bedchamber, the events of that night played through her thoughts.
After Robert had pointed her out as the young Spaniard’s murderer, her life had turned upside down. One minute he was there accusing her of murder and the next moment, he was gone, having slipped into the crowd.
Hours later, locked in her room and under house arrest, she still couldn’t fathom how everything had gone so wrong. Even the blood-soaked note and band of gold she still held clenched in her hand, seemed unreal.
She’d looked around the darkened room and tried to find the words to voice her anguish. Yet all she could think of was what the Spaniard had told her.
Run, he had warned. Go as far as you can.
But to where and how? she had wanted to cry out.
No, running wasn’t the answer. But Lord Bradstone was.
Yes, that was it, she would go to him. He would see her name cleared.
Luckily for Olivia, the locks in her mother’s house had been in ill-repair, like the rest of their family fortune’s since her father’s death, so it was only too easy to pry the tumblers loose with a hairpin. Having packed all her jewelry and the pin money she’d been hoarding for her planned elopement with Robert, she’d made her escape past the sleeping guard who’d been placed in their house.
From there, she’d gone to Robert’s house, where a post boy had told her of overhearing his lordship ordering his driver to take him to the docks, for a ship called the Bon Venture. Olivia passed the boy’s directions to the hackney driver she’d engaged and in no time found herself at the galley way of a merchantman. But it had just slipped free of its moorings, and with it all her hopes, all her dreams.
Worse still, just then she saw Robert on deck, extending his hand to a woman nearby and drawing her into his embrace.
“Come my love, let us go below,” he was saying, his voice carrying over the water. “Now that I am well rid of that boring bit of baggage, we have much catching up to do.”
Olivia could only stare after them as they made their way out of sight. She’d staggered away from the docks, stunned and in shock, and only hours later did she find herself on the coach to Kent, without any real memory of how she’d gotten there.
But as luck would have it, there she had met Lord Finch. The poor man was returning home from London without the lady’s companion his wife sent him to fetch. Apparently the real Mrs. Keates had learned about her future employer’s unpleasant nature and begged off the position, leaving Lord Finch empty handed.
And so Olivia had offered herself for the post, taking the lady’s name so that Lady Finch was none the wiser.
It had seemed the only thing to do at the time.
So she’d done exactly as the dying stranger had advised. Hide. Hidden from her ruination, hidden from the scandal that rocked London for weeks with the publication of her letters to Lord Bradstone and the mad speculation as to the dead man’s identity.
Then her precarious position had been made easier by the sinking of the Bon Venture. Since Lord Bradstone had been seen in the company of a woman aboard ship, everyone assumed it had been her—so the search for the murderess Olivia Sutton had been given up and Olivia had remained hidden in Finch Manor.
And so for seven years, Olivia Sutton had lived as Mrs. Keates, poor widow of a mythical Army officer, and companion to Lady Bradstone. Really, how could she leave? She was wanted for murder, and even if she told the truth, that she hadn’t killed that man, who would believe her, when the only other witness was also dead?
Now the question remained, how would she live with the memory of that horrendous night, knowing that the Marquis of Bradstone, the man who’d brought down her ruin and murdered that innocent man, still breathed?
She glanced over at her narrow bed, where underneath she still kept stashed the small valise in which she’d carried away her meager possessions that night. Pulling it free from its hiding place, she slid her hand into the lining until her fingers wrapped around the ancient bit of bloodstained parchment there.
Then there was his gold ring. She wore it on the silver chain her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. The ring dangled over her heart, her personal talisman and remembrance of what that brave stranger had lost, and what she owed him.
Give this to no one but Hobbe.
She had thought of this mysterious man every day since, prayed for a way to find him, scoured Lady Finch’s papers for any hint of his existence, and had found nothing. She didn’t even know if Hobbe was a man, but something told her he was.
For if the boy had trusted this Hobbe so implicitly, he must be a man of impeccable honor and integrity.
And in her mind he’d become her own personal knight in shining armor. Her hero. A man of action and decisive power. Hobbe was handsome, darkly so. Not with Bradstone’s black-hearted nature, but with a rakish appeal. The kind of man who would sweep her off her feet and carry her to safety.
There were days when she believed that if Hobbe were to walk into a room, her heart would know him without a moment’s hesitation, so long had she spent dreaming of him.
Now if only she’d found him, then she and Hobbe could exact their revenge for the young man’s life—together they’d make Bradstone pay.
Bradstone. She shuddered at the very thought of him.
A hero. Being celebrated and fêted. Living with all the rewards society poured at his feet, while she remained trapped in this, her own personal prison for a crime she hadn’t committed. Her only crime had been trusting Bradstone. A man with whom she’d believed herself in love with. Well, she wouldn’t make that mistake again.
She glanced out her bedroom window, into the darkness of this January night and shivered.
On a cold night like this, how could she believe there was a Hobbe? For a bleak moment, she doubted she would ever find him.
So the task fell to her shoulders. To make damn sure the Marquis of Bradstone wished he’d stayed in that French prison. She finished packing her bag and set out to complete the vow she had made all those years ago. Not the one to the dying man, the one she’d made to herself.
And as she passed through the dark shadows of Finch Manor, she took only one thing.
The pistol Jemmy had left for her on the highboy in the hall.