Into the Fire
by Pam and Del
Many a beau without a shilling,
Many a widow not unwilling;
Many a bargain, if you strike it:
This is London! How d'ye like it?
--John Bancks, "A Description of London"
PART ELEVEN: "Observations"
Brown or grey? Archie mused as he examined the two suits of evening clothes laid out upon the bed. Remembering how he was to present himself, he wondered which color would allow him to blend in more easily, to play the insignificant escort while Caillean drew the eye--including, it was to be hoped, that of the Honorable Justin Ainsley.
Frowning over his options, he realized he had no idea what colors she might have chosen for her costume. Something bright, he supposed--she had the complexion to carry off vivid hues. Grey might present a more neutral contrast to whatever Caillean wore. And yet--hadn't Tiverton said something at the fitting about dark colors being more the fashion at evening affairs? Yes, Archie recalled, he had indeed.
The brown it was, then. Better to be dressed in colors favored by most other men than to be inconveniently distinctive. The decision made, Archie set about changing his clothes, even as his mind fixed upon those suspects they would meet tonight.
Not just Ainsley, but the Vicomte and Vicomtesse DeGuise. Granted, he and Caillean had not been officially assigned to surveillance of their movements, but Archie resolved to mark them well, so he might recognize them in other settings and circumstances. It was possible that the Vicomte's son and Miss Pearson would attend this drum too. And perhaps M. LeGrand--or rather, Monsieur le Baron, Archie corrected himself--would put in an appearance as well!
A wry grin tugged at his mouth. LeGrande and his new title had been the object of considerable speculation on the part of London and Edinburgh agents alike that very morning.
"'Saint-Jacques of the Hermitage'," Smitty had repeated, translating the words as Archie had. " 'Saint Jacques the Hermit'?" She shook her head. "It sounds like utter nonsense."
A quite informal meeting had been convened in the common room: both London commanders, Doctor Latour standing in for Kilcarron, and a handful of senior agents ready to discuss and disseminate any new information.
Smitty's eyes went to Latour, who shook his head in negation. "It's not any title I have encountered in France or out of it."
"Then . . . where does that leave us?" Archie asked.
"We keep watching," Smitty said at last
"And thinking." Carmichael's voice was cool. "He says he gets letters from Belgium. Does he go there so often, then?"
"He's not known to," Smitty was looking deeply abstracted now. "In fact--he doesn't seem to have left London in the past two years. That could count against him being our man. Someone known for traveling would be far more likely, of course--or in contact with someone who does. Do we have someone in LeGrande's household yet?"
"We will, in a day or two," Barrington replied. "They can begin by looking into that letter."
"Moreover," Latour put in, "Agent Marchand is leaving for Calais tonight with dispatches and orders for Fontaine and Bonnard overseas. They can make inquiries regarding this . . . last ancestral title. In the meantime . . . " he paused, steepling his fingers.
"'Jacques'," Barrington said aloud into the silence, a note of aggravation creeping into his voice.
"Indeed," the physician responded. "Is there any further news in regard to that matter?"
Arundel was frowning thoughtfully. "There's a Jacques LeBrun among the domestics in Parillaud's household--it was in the last report. When Parillaud was still serving with the army LeBrun was his batman."
"Worth watching, then," Carmichael conceded. "Very well--one Jacques from Parillaud, one from LeGrande: will anyone wager on Ainsley, Cotard, or the Vicomte?"
"Don't forget--'Jacques' could just as easily be an assumed name," Smitty warned, with the air of one bringing up something unpleasant but necessary. "The way an Englishman might call himself George or John or Jack."
A murmur of discontent greeted her reminder, but nobody disputed the possibility she had introduced. Latour rose from his chair.
"Keep an eye to Parillaud's household and see if Jacques LeBrun is sent abroad on any business. As to Monseigneur Le Baron--we can wait for the word from Bonnard and Fontaine."
Fontaine and Bonnard, Archie reflected, as he carefully tied his cravat before the mirror, were nothing if not thorough. In a way, it was a pity that they were overseas; as Frenchmen themselves, perhaps they might discern something about the émigrés under suspicion that had so far eluded their British colleagues. But if Kilcarron had truly believed that his London and Edinburgh operatives were incapable of unmasking the traitor, he would surely have taken them off the investigation by now. And in a way, there could hardly have been a worse punishment. Even a relative newcomer like Archie could see how much solving this case meant to the earl's entire organization: the Edinburgh division wanted authority, the London division craved redemption, and both groups were out for blood--that of Seaton's killer, to be precise. And considering how many lives the late commander seemed to have touched, Archie could not blame his colleagues.
Not for the first time, Medora marveled over how different three sisters could be. Corinna, Lady Halstead--née Pearson--had, in the six years since her marriage, grown into one of London's more notable hostesses, a role she enacted with great aplomb, like her dear friend Lady Langford.
By contrast, her younger sister Letitia had been shy and self-effacing, often ill at ease in society. Fortunately, she had married a country gentleman whose tastes and disposition very much suited hers and they lived in comfortable obscurity somewhere in Norfolk. This year, Lady Langford informed her dinner guests, Letitia and her husband had largely chosen to avoid London altogether, though they might come to town for Julia Pearson's betrothal ball--to be held in a few week's time at the Berkeley Square mansion owned by the bride-to-be's aunt.
Julia, the youngest of the three, was neither as self-assured as Lady Halstead, nor as timid as Letitia. Rather, she was wide-eyed and ingenuous, and the innocent pleasure she took in Society's various diversions had made her something of a favorite, as had her undeniable good looks. Fashion might be tending towards dark beauties these days but dainty blondes were often admired by conoisseurs as well. Miss Julia's hair was a true blonde, lighter than the soft brown of her sisters', falling in natural ringlets, and her eyes were as blue as forget-me-nots. Her first season, and she was already affianced to a handsome Frenchman, a Vicomte's heir, whose own eyes lit up whenever he looked at his intended.
Like Lord and Lady Halstead, Miss Pearson had extended a gracious welcome to Medora when the latter arrived at Grosvenor Square this evening. And although Julia had still been in the schoolroom during Medora's own season, the older woman found herself grateful for the younger's kindness.
Just six at dinner tonight: the Halsteads, Miss Pearson and her betrothed, the Honorable Frederick Halstead, a cheerful sprig not long past his majority, and Medora herself. Despite the small number of people present, conversation flourished. A chance inquiry by Lady Halstead led to Medora's giving a brief account of her meeting with Mr. Sheridan and Mr. Kelly two days ago, though her conversation with Kitty Cobham, she decided, was a private matter.
All her companions were diverted, however, by the prospect of a new production at Drury Lane.
"'The Fairies' Revels' will open tomorrow night? How wonderful!" Lady Halstead exclaimed. "My dear," she addressed her husband, seated at the opposite end of the table, "we simply must be there."
"The very thing, ma'am," the viscount replied, with his characteristic amiability.
"And you," Lady Halstead continued, turning to Medora, "must attend as our guest. It is, after all, your music the company will be performing."
"Well, some of it," Medora qualified. "I confess, I do not know quite how it will be."
"Based on what I saw and heard at my musicale, I feel certain that the audience will enjoy your songs very much," her hostess declared warmly. "And you should be there, to accept what commendation is due to you. Besides," she added, "I know of few more pleasant ways to occupy an evening than a performance at Drury Lane!"
"Indeed," Miss Julia's soft, pretty voice broke in. "I know *I* should like it above all things, Miss Tresilian--especially if I were talented enough to have *my* music played at the theatre! Edmond," she appealed to her betrothed, "might we not attend as well? I always did find 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' a delightful play."
"Ma doucette, it would give me a pleasure unparalleled," Edmond DeGuise replied, smiling fondly at his intended. "And it may be that mon pere et ma belle-mère will themselves wish to see this so delightful play! We shall use the family box, yes?"
"Oh, yes!" Julia breathed, her blue eyes positively beatific.
As the affianced pair once again seemed to forget the existence of everyone else in the dining room, Lady Halstead turned back to Medora. "So, my dear, is the matter settled?"
"It--would appear so," Medora conceded, with a reluctant smile. Not for the first time she wondered if Lady Halstead had been taking lessons in "managing people" from Alice. But she had always loved the theatre, had in fact been thinking of seeing "The Fairies' Revels" when it opened. The Langfords had a box at Drury Lane that she knew she was welcome to use, though the prospect of sitting there in solitary splendor--a reluctant cynosure--made her feel a trifle apprehensive. Better, she thought, to go with friends, to be one of several members of a party. "Very well--I accept your invitation with pleasure."
"Excellent," the viscountess replied and motioned the nearest footman to clear away the dishes and bring in the next course.
Once everyone had been served anew, conversation resumed. This time, the topic turned to the reception Julia and her betrothed planned to attend later that evening at Hanover Square. The hosts, Colonel Sir William and Lady Kendal-Jones, were apparently old acquaintances of the Pearson family, and the guest of honor was said to be an Italian soprano who had performed in several opera houses on the Continent.
Although Julia tried to persuade the others to join her and Edmond at the drum, all declined. Lord and Lady Halstead pleaded an early rise the following morning, while the Honorable Frederick shuddered and declared that he had always found opera to be "very poor stuff." Miss Pearson then turned her attention to the one remaining guest.
"Do think about accompanying us, Miss Tresilian," she entreated. "I am sure you would enjoy the music."
Medora glanced down at her peach muslin frock--well enough for dining with friends but by no means elaborate--and shook her head. "Thank you for the invitation, but I fear I am not dressed grandly enough for a reception--especially one in Hanover Square! Besides," she added, "as a betrothed couple, you have far more license to go about together. You should cherish every moment you have to yourselves."
Cherish every moment--as she and Archie had tried to do.
Edmond DeGuise came to her rescue. "Of a certainty, ma belle, Mademoiselle Tresilian speaks true. We must make the most of our time together, hein? And not always--allons de tout le monde?" His voice was suddenly low and surprisingly intimate.
Julia blushed and murmured an agreement as heartfelt as it was inarticulate.
Medora stifled a sigh, along with a pang of what might have been envy, and directed her attention once more to her plate.
An air of frosty civility prevailed in the common room, Archie discovered upon his entrance. Smitty, seated at a small table in the corner, was ostensibly reading her way through what appeared to be a stack of reports. Carmichael and Rory, on the other side of the room, were studying several maps laid out before them on another table.
Archie, observing the scene and sensing the chill in the atmosphere, was irresistibly reminded of two cats on opposite sides of the road, silently contesting which could ignore the other with greater intensity. After the most recent encounters with the two commanders, and Kilcarron, he was not sure which of them he should address first--or if it was safe to address either one at all. Deciding on caution, he remained silent until Carmichael raised his head.
"Oh, it's you. Come have a look."
Archie obeyed. Carmichael pushed the other maps aside, but spread one out so the three of them could share its perusal.
"This is Half-Moon Street. Ainsley's got a house there--part of a family legacy. Hasn't sold it off yet--so it seems a good idea to go and take a look round."
With Rory included in this consultation, there was no doubt what was meant: break in under cover of darkness and search the place.
"Tonight a good time for it?" Carmichael inquired. Archie blinked, surprised at the lapse.
"No, indeed! It's only a drum, after all."
"What's that?" Rory asked, brow furrowing.
"Like a very large reception, without dancing," Archie explained. "One is presented to the evening's guest of honor, mingles with fellow attendees--and may arrive and depart at one's own convenience, as long as it is courteously done. Even if you saw him leaving," he met Carmichael's eyes, sure that this elementary precaution would be taken, "he could return at any time."
"So--another night, then?" Carmichael was thinking aloud, rubbing his jaw with the back of his knuckles. "When we're sure he can be kept occupied. Perhaps Caillean--"
"Yes?" The response came from the lady herself as she entered. Archie blinked at the glittering vision: Caillean in a gown of flame-colored sarsenet, its bright hue enhanced by gold accents.
"Most becoming," Smitty spoke up approvingly from her corner. "The new style suits you."
"Why, thank you!" Caillean pirouetted, letting her skirts swirl around her. "What do you think, Mr. Stewart?" she asked, coming towards him in a shimmer of scarlet and gold.
"The . . . color looks very well on you," Archie ventured, sensing the need to say something polite and complimentary.
She smiled, lashes sweeping down briefly. "The only question left is--what scent shall I choose to wear with it? Something exotic and costly," Caillean raised her left wrist, "or something devastatingly simple?" She held up her right wrist in a similar pose. "Mr. Stewart, could you assist me in my decision?"
Archie blinked, but obligingly took the hand extended to him, raised the wrist closer to his face and inhaled: a sharp, striking scent, not unpleasant, of spice and musk.
"And now the other." Caillean offered her other hand, and Archie prepared to do the honors once more.
Lavender, he suspected as he raised her wrist to his face again--that was her usual choice. Then, bowing his head, he breathed in--the scent of rosewater . . .
A garden at sunset, the velvety petals and needle-sharp thorns of his sister's roses, and a girl's grey eyes meeting his over the richly crimson flower he had just plucked and offered . . .
No! Stop it . . .he'd be shaking in a minute if he didn't stop remembering. Stop it, damn you!
Archie forced himself back to the present with a wrench that was almost physically painful, He could feel the color draining from his face, leaving him pale and still as a statue, and cold all over.
"Mr. Stewart--" Caillean's voice held a faint note of perturbation.
Somehow, from somewhere, he found a smile and the right words to accompany it. "The first one, I think. It . . .it would make a better match--for the exotic color."
Caillean tilted her head, eyes narrowing as she studied his face; Archie tensed. Before she could speak, however, Carmichael's voice broke in, sounding monstrously aggrieved.
"Don't I get a chance, then?"
Striding forward, he caught Caillean's hand, and pulled her lightly toward him, made an exaggerated business of exploring the scents. Archie took a step backward, trying to collect himself and feeling inexpressibly grateful for the distraction. It might have been to tease Smitty, still in her corner or--there could have been a different reason. Carmichael missed very little of anything that took place.
"I'll agree with Stewart. This one." Carmichael turned Caillean's left hand over, kissed the palm, then turned it again and kissed the back.
Silent until now, Rory gave a loud, exaggerated groan. "Are you going to play that game with every man in this house?"
"Game?" Caillean echoed, all innocence.
Rory fluttered his lashes and launched into a high, mincing falsetto. "Oh, Stewart, Carmichael--I may be breaking into a house tonight. Shall I try the soot from the parlor fireplace," he held up one wrist in a wicked parody of Caillean's earlier gesture, "or the soot from the kitchen fireplace?" The other wrist went up as well.
"Neither, I think," Archie retorted, having recovered a little of his aplomb.
Carmichael grinned. "He's got you to rights, lass--you must admit!"
Caillean's eyes narrowed. "Someday, Rory, you are going to fall head over ears for some girl, and I'm going to be there to see it--and laugh at you!"
Rory hooted derisively. "Not a chance in bloody--"
Three voices chimed in simultaneously.
"Mr. MacCrimmon!" Smitty expostulated.
"Rory," Archie warned.
"Language!" Carmichael snapped.
Faced with a barrage of disapproving glances, Rory subsided, glowering. Archie seized the opportunity to change the subject.
"Shall I see when the carriage will be ready, Mrs. Munro?" he inquired to Caillean, using her work alias to recall them both to the situation before them.
"An excellent idea, Mr. Lennox," she responded, after only the briefest of pauses. "I'll finish up my toilette and meet you in the entrance hall."
Archie nodded and made a swift retreat, before anyone could question him further about his earlier reaction.
A brief silence descended among the three agents still in the common room, then--
"There is something--not quite right with that young man," Smitty observed thoughtfully from her corner.
Carmichael turned. "You saw it too, then?"
They stared at each other in mutual speculation, overlooking the fact that they were currently not on speaking terms.
Control, Archie told himself. Calm. Composure. He could not afford to lose any of them.
Sitting across from Caillean in the carriage, he forced himself to take several deep, slow breaths and settle a mask of impassivity--painstakingly cultivated over the last two years--over his features. Slanting a glance at his companion, he found to his relief that Caillean's eyes were closed, her lips moving slowly as though she were memorizing a speech. Perhaps she too needed privacy in which to collect her thoughts and prepare herself for tonight's masquerade.
His own thoughts, seething and churning like the sea before a storm, were proving far less easy to control than his countenance. Well, if he could not suppress them, he would have to confront them--and perhaps diminish their power over him in that way.
Since Kingston, he had thought of Medora as seldom as possible. What good would it do? She was as lost to him as if he had died indeed. That he still lived, to experience all the pain of their separation, was his own private hell, that he shared with no one in his new existence.
His friend. His love. So very nearly his wife. By Scottish rites, some would say his wife indeed. Not that that changed anything.
She had loved him, he knew, fiercely and utterly. It had been one of his great joys that she should feel so about him. But it would be foolish--conceited, even--to think that she would wear the willow forever, especially when she was still so young.
Young, accomplished, lovely, and loving . . . of course there would be other men eager to court her once she was out of mourning. He could think of two such men without even drawing breath--and it gave him no comfort whatsoever. Douglas MacLeod. Peter Carrisford. She could make a good life with either of them, if she so chose. And maybe someday he could contemplate that possibility himself without feeling as though a knife had been driven into his gut--and twisted.
Bloody ridiculous. And he was being a damned dog in the manger! He wanted her to be happy again, didn't he? What kind of man begrudged that to the woman he loved?
Of course you want her to be happy. Just -- not as happy as she would have been with you.
Oh, excellent. Makes perfect sense. How very rational of you, Mr. Kennedy. Agent Stewart. Agent Lennox.
Back to the job, Archie told himself sternly. He could not afford to dwell on the past--the demands of the present were far too imperative.
Their carriage was approaching Hanover Square, a location favored by many former military men, including Colonel Kendal-Jones. They halted at last before a handsome townhouse--fully four storeys high--made of red and grey brick. Despite her carefully cultivated air of sophistication, Caillean's eyes widened when she alighted from the carriage in Archie's wake and beheld their imposing surroundings, but she rallied almost instantly. Offering his arm, Archie escorted her up the walk to the front door . . .
Which of them?
Lawyers, poets, priests, physicians,
Noble, simple, all conditions,
Worth beneath a threadbare cover,
Villainy bedaubed all over.
John Bancks's old poem about London repeated itself in Archie's head as he considered the glittering and various throng. No priests or beggars, of course, but the many other stations in life were certainly well-represented. And among them all, one--if not more--was a Bonapartist agent. But how to discover which?
Lady Amhurst had approached them immediately upon their entrance--watching for them, no doubt--and presented them to their hosts, a distinguished couple who appeared to be in their fifties. Thereafter, she had circumnavigated the room as neatly as one of his Majesty's ships and brought them face to face with their objective.
The Honorable Justin Ainsley was younger than Archie had expected, given his description as such a reckless, insatiable gamester. He had envisioned someone older, harder, and more dissolute. Ainsley's appearance was somewhat raffish, true--his chestnut hair tousled, his clothes just a trifle disheveled. But there was nothing lacking in his address: easy, unaffected manners, and a glint of roguish charm in his eyes as he bowed over Caillean's hand. Most women, Archie suspected, would find him dangerously attractive.
Women black, red, fair and grey,
Prudes and such as never pray,
Handsome, ugly, noisy, still,
Some that will not, some that will.
And Caillean, Archie thought, was giving an excellent impression of "one that will." Indeed, her impression upon their quarry had been instantaneous. Watching her preen and sparkle, casting out her glittering lures to the not-at-all reluctant Ainsley brought another poem to mind:
The fish that is not catched thereby,
Alas, is wiser far than I.
Drawing back, since Caillean was in no need of his assistance as she launched her campaign, Archie did his best to blend in with the crowd and moved on. Lady Amhurst soon found her way back to his side and, at his murmured request, discreetly indicated the other guests under surveillance.
The Vicomte and Vicomtesse DeGuise made a striking couple: he resembled his son Edmond, but his dark hair was silvered at the temples, she was dark as well, slenderly built with a fashionable air of languor, and at least twenty years her husband's junior. No more than thirty at a guess, Archie decided, and possibly even younger.
Latour, looking surprisingly elegant in evening clothes, joined them shortly thereafter and pointed out the newly arrived Colonel Parillaud, a dark, powerfully built man in his thirties, with the upright bearing Archie had come to recognize as a salient feature of the military man.
In his guise as "Mr. Lennox," Archie studied them all but took pains to look aside when any of them glanced in his direction. It would not do to be caught staring; scrutinizing someone without appearing to do so had been one of the more difficult tasks he had had to master.
Nor could he be seen exclusively in Lady Amhurst's company lest he attract undue attention to her. After some ten minutes' perambulation, Archie let himself drift away from her to rejoin the mingling crowd. To his relief, most of the guests ignored him as completely as if he were the well-dressed nonentity he appeared.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a familiar couple conversing with the Kendal-Joneses: Ferguson and Grant, in appropriate evening attire as the "Finlays." With deliberate aimlessness, Archie wandered in their direction, pausing just within earshot.
"-- been given reason to hope for . . . a happy event in future," Ferguson was saying, his voice loud and jovial. Beside him, Grant smiled and lowered her eyes modestly.
A startled Archie remembered just in time not to react, dropping his own gaze quickly to the floor.
The colonel and his lady, however, were under no such constraints; rather, they offered smiling congratulations to their guests and pointed out several places where "Mrs. Finlay" might repair if she was experiencing fatigue.
Thanking his hosts, Ferguson then led his wife to a chair in a curtained alcove of the room and made a great show of seeing her comfortably settled.
After a few minutes, Archie strolled up and issued his own formal greeting to the couple. "Finlay, Mrs. Finlay--glad to see you here."
Grant did not hesitate to respond. "Mr. Lennox--a very good evening to you, sir."
Archie bowed over her proffered hand, taking the opportunity to inquire, sotto voce, "Are you really--?"
"Not that I know of," Grant replied in a similarly low undertone. "But you must admit, it's an excellent excuse for sitting down in quiet corners. And an equally good excuse for Rob to hover protectively--so no one can see what I'm doing."
Archie's glance went to her hands, saw the small pencil in one and the small sketchpad, concealed in the folds of a large handkerchief, in the other. Both, of course, could be easily secreted in a reticule.
"We've been here for the better part of an hour already," Grant continued. "Colonel Parillaud chose to put in a late appearance. So our -- friends suggested that I commit some other faces to memory. By now, I should have at least a dozen likenesses to work from, Mr. Ainsley and the DeGuises among them."
"A dozen?" It always astonished Archie, how quickly Grant worked, her stub of a pencil flying over the page to create a rough but accurate likeness within minutes. But then her father had been a drawing master, and she had obviously inherited his talent.
She smiled. "Safely stashed away, of course. Is not the reticule a wonderful invention?"
Remembering his betrothed's own well-stocked reticule, about which he had often teased her, Archie found himself smiling back. "Might I be of service, in any way? Mrs. Munro is currently conversing with Mr. Ainsley, and I am reluctant to disrupt so -- promising an acquaintance."
"Ah." Ferguson exchanged an eloquent glance with his wife. "We take your meaning, Lennox."
"Indeed we do," Grant affirmed. "And we agree that it would be discourteous to drag Mrs. Munro away from her new -- friend. Pray, bear us company a while. Besides," she added in a much lower tone, "if you would be so good as to stand right there, you would obscure my activities most admirably."
Amused, Archie took up the indicated position.
"There he is," Ferguson murmured, just audibly enough for his companions to hear.
Grant looked up from her sketchpad. "Parillaud?"
"The same. Alone now--he's finished talking with Kendal-Jones."
"Mm." Grant studied their quarry intently. "Well, let us see if he speaks to anyone else now."
Quite a number of heads--many of them female--turned as Parillaud made his way through the crowd, Archie observed. The Frenchman might not be in uniform this evening but he drew the eye nonetheless. Still, most of the glances directed his way were idle; none of the other guests detached themselves from their current groupings to follow him.
Towards the middle of the salon, Parillaud himself paused to accommodate a pair of ladies--one fair and rather quietly arrayed, the other dark and languid, but dressed in the height of fashion.
"Vicomtesse DeGuise," Archie murmured, recognizing her anew.
The blond lady glanced in Parillaud's direction, gave him a nod in response to his brief bow. Her companion, however, offered no such acknowledgement to the French officer. Without a word spoken, the Vicomtesse turned aside from Parillaud, too deliberately for it to be anything but a rebuff, and continued her progress towards the other side of the salon. After a moment's hesitation, the other lady hurried after her.
In the alcove, Archie, Ferguson, and Grant glanced at each other, startled and taken aback by what they had just witnessed.
"Was that . . .?" Grant's voice trailed off on a questioning note.
"The cut direct," Archie replied. "It -- appears so."
"But the Vicomte and Parillaud have always appeared to be on the best of terms." Ferguson's tone was speculative. "I would have expected the Vicomtesse to share her husband's sentiments in this, if only for form's sake."
"Perhaps she did. Once," Grant hinted darkly.
Archie stared at her. "Do we know that for a fact?"
She shook her head. "Unlike the Vicomte, with his long-established mistress, the Vicomtesse appears to have kept her amours discreet -- and short-lived. It took several weeks to identify even one of her former lovers."
"Do you think we can add Parillaud to the list?" Ferguson asked.
"We can certainly look into this matter further," his wife agreed. "Save for a difference in politics, I can think of few other things that might lead her to offer Parillaud so comprehensive a snub in public."
"And in the meantime," Ferguson consulted his watch, "something for Latour to take with him to his meeting with milord. I should just be able to catch him before he leaves. Look after her, Lennox," he directed Archie. "I'll be back."
Emerging from the alcove, he threaded his way expertly through the crowd. Archie watched his progress with some anxiety, but Grant assured him under her breath that there was no cause for concern: her husband was well-versed in the art of "blending in." Reassured, Archie turned his attention once more to the room at large, located his host and hostess, who were receiving more new arrivals.
A flash of dark blue at the colonel's side caught Archie's attention, and he was instantly alert. Naval uniform. He supposed ruefully that he would always notice such things. And to judge by the plentitude of gold braid and the gold epaulets on each shoulder, the wearer was clearly an officer of exalted rank: a captain of several years' standing at least--perhaps even an admiral. Then the man turned, giving Archie a clear view of his face.
Oh, God. Mouth dry, heart hammering, Archie took an instinctive step back, as if he could become part of the wall indeed. The elegant salon blurred before him--he was back in a sweltering courtroom in Kingston, the shocked murmurs of the crowd buzzing in his ears . . .
"Take this man down!"
He had not looked at his former captain after that ringing declaration, had felt only relief that Pellew had acted so quickly to bring the proceedings to a close. Meeting Horatio's eyes had been difficult enough--he had only hoped, then, that somehow his friend would understand. Or that Commodore Pellew might help him to understand what he had done--and why.
"Lennox!" Grant's voice, recalling him to the present. "Are you all right?"
He surfaced with a smothered gasp, met concerned dark eyes gazing up at him.
"Are you all right?" she repeated. "You look as if you've seen a ghost!"
Archie swallowed, licked dry lips, and managed a faint smile. "Not--a ghost," he corrected and was pleased to discover that he sounded lucid, even as his thoughts spun in dizzying circles.
Two years ago. And now here he was, hidden among this glittering assembly, with a new name and occupation, no longer subject to the Navy and its laws. He had been declared disgraced and dead; in all likelihood, he had been forgotten as well. Doubtless it would be prudent to remain so, to keep his head down and his present identity intact. And yet--if there was even the remotest chance that Pellew might know anything about the spy within the Admiralty . . . how could he pass it by?
Grant was still studying him closely. "If not a ghost, then -- what?"
Archie hesitated, then, "A contact, perhaps," he admitted.
She glanced in the direction where he had been looking a moment ago. "That naval officer?"
He nodded. "The very one. I think--I should like to try my luck."
Grant bit her lip. "I confess, I don't know who is included among m'lord's naval associates. Are you sure you should be taking such a risk?"
"With this man," Archie said slowly, "I think the risk will be worth it."
The crease between Grant's brows deepened. "At least--let Lady Kendal-Jones present you to him. She can dispel any awkwardness that might arise. And I shall be watching too: just glance my way and I'll come to your aid, directly."
Archie considered this, then gave a decisive nod. "Thank you," he replied, and slipped away before she could raise further doubts.
Try my luck. He knew, better than anyone, what kind of risk he was running. And yet--he did not think Pellew would betray him. All unknown until that last, fatal morning, they had shared a common goal: the preservation of a man they both held in high esteem. For Horatio's sake, at least, Archie thought, Pellew would keep his secret.
His breathing was steady, his heartbeat almost normal, by the time he reached Lady Kendal-Jones's side. Recognizing him as Lady Amhurst's acquaintance, she readily acceded to his request and led him to the other side of the room, where Pellew was standing, hands clasped behind him in his familiar quarterdeck stance.
"Sir Edward," their hostess began smoothly, "if I might present to you, Mr. Andrew Lennox--a guest of ours, from Scotland?"
Iron-grey was beginning to show in the admiral's dark hair, but the hawk-like intensity of his eyes, under the quizzically raised brows, was still the same.
Archie inclined his head respectfully. "Admiral Pellew. An honor to meet you, sir."
He saw the brief puzzlement on the older man's face. "Have I your previous acquaintance . . . sir?"
"Through a relative, perhaps," Archie said lightly. "A number of my family have served in the Navy--one of them aboard the Indefatigable."
The name of that well-loved ship did the trick. Archie felt the sudden, intense scrutiny, then--moments later--saw the quickly concealed flash of recognition.
"Mr. . . . Lennox." Amazingly, the admiral retained command of both his voice and demeanor, though the keen eyes were slightly narrowed. "As you say, I do believe we share some mutual acquaintance. Might I prevail upon you to dine with me tomorrow, sir?"
Archie swallowed. "I -- should be honored to do so."
"Indeed." Pellew's eyes were still studying him. "It may be that we have . . . a great deal to discuss. Will seven o' clock be convenient for you?" At Archie's murmur of acquiescence, he gave the younger man his direction: a house in Bond Street. "I shall be looking forward to our next meeting, Mr. Lennox."
"And I as well, sir--I assure you," Archie managed to say, before making a tactful -- and tactical -- withdrawal.
Grant was leaning forward in her chair when he returned to the alcove. "All's well?" she inquired tensely, eyes scanning his face.
Archie nodded, then abruptly discovered he was quite incapable of replying further at the moment. Reaction and relief set in at a speed that made him feel almost sick. Swallowing hard, he resumed his former position against the wall, using its very solidity to keep him upright and on his feet.
Grant's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps you should take my chair--at least for a few minutes. By the looks of you, I'd say you need it more than I do!"
The rest of the drum passed in a blur. There was a guest of honor--an Italian soprano--who was prevailed upon to sing. Caillean, Archie noticed, was quick to appropriate the chair next to Ainsley during the performance, a circumstance that did not appear to displease that young man. And Edmond DeGuise and Miss Pearson had also arrived in time for the musical entertainment. Archie watched them for a while, but the two were completely absorbed in each other, showing little interest in their fellow attendees.
Fortunately for Archie's own straying attention, Ainsley departed the drum soon after Signora Mancini's recital, obviating the need for Mr. Lennox and Mrs. Munro to linger further. After collecting a flushed, triumphant Caillean, Archie took punctilious leave of their hosts and soon they were in their carriage, headed back towards the Bedford Square residence that served as headquarters.
Caillean had good reason to look triumphant. Ainsley had apparently been so taken with her that he had mentioned his plans for the following evening--attending the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane and then proceeding on to a soirée in Soho--and encouraged her to join him at the latter, saying that the hostess was an old friend of his, who never stood upon ceremony and, moreover, was always delighted to make new acquaintances. Archie agreed that it did sound like a golden opportunity to find out more about Mr. Ainsley, then lapsed into silence, content to let Caillean continue with her account of the evening.
As for his own situation . . . he needed to speak to his commander, quickly and privately.
Which of them?
Archie paused just inside the common room and tried in vain not to think about the myth of Scylla and Charybdis.
Smitty, her work laid aside, was gazing into the fire; Carmichael was seated in a nearby corner, staring down at another stack of papers. While they were situated more closely than they had been at the beginning of the evening, the postures of each showed the continuing estrangement: they were both brooding, but quite separately, their mutual occupation of the same physical space a mere coincidence of geography. There was no acknowledgement of the other's presence by either.
Archie stood in silence, debating the issue. They were both counted as London commanders now, but he had, in a fashion, been assigned to Smith's division . . . he cleared his throat softly, saw them each look up.
"I made a contact this evening," Archie began tentatively. He wished he were speaking with Carmichael alone, as he was accustomed to doing--or only to Smitty, in her capacity as his temporary commander. This way felt like the worst of both worlds, with the two senior agents listening to his proposal and all too focused on each other. He had a strange, almost panicked urge to duck away from the cross-fire.
"What kind of contact?" Smitty asked.
Archie chose his words with care. "A man--highly placed in the Admiralty. He may be able to confirm things for us--or have more recent news. Before I was an agent, I had his acquaintance. He has invited me to call on him tomorrow, and--"
"And you believe it would be profitable to go," Smitty finished for him.
"Yes," Archie confirmed. After a moment he felt it prudent to add, "ma'am."
"Do you mean to go alone?" Smith inquired. "Remember you're still new to London."
"I believe he would be more--forthcoming--if I were unaccompanied," Archie responded with caution. He sensed Carmichael stirring silently but restlessly behind Smith.
"He knew you before you became an agent," Smith repeated. "And as it happens, I have learnt -- something of your previous circumstances. Can you be sure this man would not expose you for his own advancement?"
Archie tried to conceal the shock he felt, but doubted his success in that endeavor. "I would stake my life on his integrity!" he protested at last.
She frowned. "That is precisely what you are doing, young man." Her frown increased in ferocity as she looked up and studied him anew. On the verge of further expostulation, Archie remembered just in time the agent who had already been lost, and prudently held his tongue.
"Very well," the London commander said at last. "You may undertake this, if you think it necessary. But leave the direction of the house--it will be kept under observation, and if you do not return by a specified time, someone will be sent to investigate."
"No more than that?" Carmichael's brows lifted, and Archie realized to whom the words were really addressed.
"If I were to forbid it," Smitty said icily, "you would all the more readily say 'yes'. Let it be on your head."
Gathering up her papers, she left the common room. Archie watched her go, then became aware of tawny eyes regarding him intently.
"You knew him well, then? And trust him that much?"
"He . . . was once my commanding officer," Archie confessed. "He was honorable and fair, but it's more than that. When I was only a midshipman--there was . . . a great debt I owed him. I had a shipmate who was -- very capable. We suspected he'd have an exemplary career. The captain became close to him, gave him many opportunities, of course, and saw to his instruction but . . . I'll never forget--he lessoned me as well, and took some pains over it, gave me--it was a second chance. In the end--it was more than I had ever dreamed possible."
"He had faith in you," Carmichael said unexpectedly. "You don't forget a man who does that."
Archie blinked. "I suppose he must have," he agreed, then studied the senior agent thoughtfully. To know so much about it . . .
"Someone did that for you." The realization was blinding in its clarity. "Put their faith in you. Who was it?"
The words were spoken aloud before Archie knew it; he found himself flushing but did not retract his inquiry as Carmichael raised his eyebrows.
"Trained you a bit better than I thought," the older man observed.
"Was it Kilc--" Archie's curiosity bubbled over at last, but Carmichael was already shaking his head.
"Oh, long before Old Nick's time." The tawny eyes were bright with reminiscence. "A friend of his though, as it turned out. And he was a captain, too--though not on one of your bloody boats. Captain Ian MacAlister. " Carmichael was looking off into space. "He made me a sergeant. I served with him for ten years."
"What happened then?"
"They promoted him away--sent him to another regiment and another front. He made colonel, finally. Then he was killed on the battlefield, but he didn't die there."
"Wounds?" Archie guessed; his own seemed to twinge again in sympathy.
Carmichael looked down briefly, his mouth thinning. " He could have been as long as ten days, dying."
"'Could have been'?" The phrase immediately alerted Archie. Did Carmichael mean--?
"I wasn't there." His superior answered the unspoken question. "Old Nick was. He told me a long time after. That he saw to it that he didn't suffer . . . and that Cap'n Mac had asked him."
He couldn't believe his own voice, that it could sound so calm. Or his own ears.
"They're saying I can't live." The rasping voice, roughened by the smoke inhaled on the battlefield, was inexorable.
"Then they must be wrong." Blue eyes tried to turn aside. Ian, don't ask this of me.
Two days since he had arrived, and found himself too late. Two days of sitting at his friend's bedside, trying to ignore the doctor's stonily resigned expression. Four days since the gun-carriage had exploded, and the maimed and dying horse had rolled upon its rider.
"Don't make me beg, Crawford. You're strong, and you're cold. You can do this."
No. He couldn't trust himself to speak. Ian took his silence as a refusal.
"Then I'll do it myself." The hoarse voice was bleak. "Crawl out of this damned bed until I can find a knife, or a gun, or smash a glass--"
"No!" Abruptly, his voice was freed, he caught the dying man's shoulders. "Ian, I'll do what you ask. But I will not--cause you further pain." He tried not to think of the mangled body under the sheet. "I promise, Ian. But you must--wait--just a little longer."
"Nicholas." The hazel eyes, still lucid, met and held his own. "Your word."
"I won't fail you." The last promise he could make to his friend. "Only--you must wait for me."
The doctor, confronted by an avenging wraith, blue eyes afire in a bloodless face, was suitably unnerved. "But you're not my superior officer--" he protested weakly.
"For what I do, I will answer to the King's own ministers, if necessary. But I am also Colonel MacAlister's friend, and he has asked me for the coup. I will not see him suffer any further pain. Is this understood?"
Channel Islands, 1793
Ian's old regiment. The military encampment was crowded, bustling; still, he thought he glimpsed a familiar face here and there, and even an occasional hand raised in greeting or acknowledgement. Hard not to fall into the familiar pattern of scanning the crowd for Ian in his scarlet uniform, on one of the tall geldings he had favored.
Ian: sitting beside him in the schoolroom, splendid in dress regimentals at Cecily's wedding, laughing at him in Ireland after a tremendously polite but unmistakable rejection of his proposal. "I told you you wouldn't get him!"
A simple question or two gave him the location of the man he sought, down by the weapons-stores, overseeing the loading of a supply wagon.. As he reined in his horse, he saw the young sergeant's body straighten and grow still; dismounting, Kilcarron saw the quick calculation in the tawny eyes observing him.
The name came readily back to mind.
"Sergeant Carmichael. A few moments, if you would?"
"Thank you, sir." The young man's face was somber. Turning aside, he thrust his sleeve briefly under his eyes, cleared his throat. "So we wouldn't have to wait to hear the news about Cap'n--I mean, Colonel Mac." He used his sleeve again before turning resolutely back to Kilcarron. "It was good of you to come and let us know."
"He always thought--very highly of you, sergeant." Kilcarron found himself looking away too, as if they both needed the opportunity to collect themselves. Maybe they did. "May I--inquire about your future, sergeant?"
"Sir?" His voice was almost under control, now.
"I offered you a post at one time, if you'll recall--"
"Oh." A pause, followed by a slow inhalation. "I . . . don't think so, sir."
"Do you have your own plans?" Kilcarron regarded his companion curiously; saw the resolution on the younger man's face.
"Cap'n Mac would've wanted me to look out for the men, sir. But thank you for your kind offer. Good day, sir."
"Good day, sergeant." Kilcarron could admit defeat when it was inevitable, although he privately resolved that it should be only temporary. And perhaps--in the end--Ian MacAlister would not have begrudged him this victory.
END PART ELEVEN