Into the Fire
by Pam and Del
Love goes toward love like schoolboys from their books,
But love from love towards school with heavy looks.
---William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
PART TWENTY-THREE: "Rendezvous"
At the sign of the pineapple. Archie smiled crookedly as he hurried towards Berkeley Square: it sounded like something out of one of Mrs. Radcliffe's novels.
But the pineapple had long been the emblem of confectioners and a sign painted with that fruit had been displayed outside Gunter's Tea Shop, ever since the establishment had opened nearly fifty years ago. Its prime location and delicious wares had soon made the shop a favorite with the beau monde. During the earliest days of their romance, Archie had escorted Medora there and they'd partaken of ices or other sweetmeats, sometimes beneath the maple trees planted in the square, sometimes, less frequently, in the shop itself.
Even at this hour, there were several people strolling about the Berkeley Square garden: elegant ladies mincing along with parasols shading their faces and maids trailing at a respectful distance, gentlemen striding more vigorously as they took the air. Archie surveyed the ladies through narrowed, speculative eyes; he hoped Medora had not decided to adopt some outrageous disguise that would attract undue attention, then reminded himself not to underestimate her.
Then he saw her. At first glance, there was little to distinguish her from the other fashionable ladies promenading through the square: she was alone, of course, but strolling so unobtrusively beneath the trees that one did not immediately notice her, and her white and green walking costume seemed to blend in with the verdure around her. She carried no parasol but the projecting brim of her closed bonnet, also white and green, hid most of her face from view. The bulging reticule dangling from her wrist, however, completely gave the game away as far as Archie was concerned. Other ladies might carry nothing more than a handkerchief and a vial of smelling salts in their reticules, not wishing to distort its dainty shape, but Medora firmly believed that reticules should be functional rather than merely decorative.
Concealing a smile, Archie lengthened his stride just enough to overtake his betrothed. "Good morning, my dear." He kept his tone casual. "I hope you have not been waiting long."
"Not at all." Medora's tone was equally offhand, though the light in her eyes told a different story. "I am sure you had business to attend to."
"Concluded, for now," Archie assured her, relieved that his own walking gloves concealed his bruised knuckles. He did not wish to explain his recent contretemps with Kilcarron to her. The less she knew about his career as an agent, the safer she would be. "Shall we go within?" he inquired, offering his arm.
Once inside Gunter's, he guided Medora to a quiet table in the corner and gave their order to a hovering waiter. There were other parties in the shop, Archie noticed, but fortunately, beyond a straying glance in their direction, none paid any heed to him or Medora.
Resuming his seat, Archie glanced at his betrothed, now rummaging through her reticule. This morning, she looked as fresh and demure as she had appeared wanton and abandoned last night. Her spencer was the same shade as the leaves sprigging her white frock, and the ribbons on her bonnet lent a greenish cast to her eyes, making him think of the sea on a mild spring day. He could almost delude himself into believing that no time had passed at all, and they were still a besotted young couple in the throes of courtship.
"Here is the book in which you expressed such an interest, sir," Medora said brightly, laying something on the table between them. "Along with the recommendations made by -- our mutual acquaintance."
Archie glanced down at the copy of Shakespeare's sonnets lying at his elbow. Not the one she'd given him during their sole Christmas together, but an older, much-handled edition, slim enough to fit into a reticule. Deliberately casual, he picked up the book and leafed through its pages. He was not surprised to find the slip of paper tucked between Sonnets 128 and 129; the former had held considerable significance for them both. The paper itself contained only a list of locations that might prove suitable meeting places; he would study it more closely later. For now, however, he slipped it unobtrusively into his breast pocket.
"Thank you, ma'am. I assure you, I will give these the attention they deserve," he replied, his tone similarly light and inconsequential.
Their eyes met, and Archie felt his spirits lift infinitesimally. Medora had always been a capable conspirator; he need not fear that she would panic or lose her admirably cool head. If she could weather their first meeting--had it really been only two evenings ago?--she could weather anything.
Their ices came then, delicate pastel mounds glistening with frost: strawberry for him, lemon for her.
Medora's eyes brightened at the sight. "You remembered," she murmured, once the waiter was out of earshot.
Archie smiled. "I remember everything." She had said once that lemon ice tasted the way she imagined frozen sunlight might taste. "Have you been here before, this season?"
"Only once. Alice thought it would be a treat after a day's shopping. Since then--no." She gave him a glinting smile over her spoon. "I think ices taste best in company, don't you?"
"Entirely," he replied.
And for the next several minutes they behaved the way any couple at Gunter's might, consuming their treats and chatting easily together, their voices low and intimate. She told him about her morning--after breakfast and an hour's worth of practicing her music, she had sallied forth to Hatchard's before meeting him; her maid, Jane, had been given a half-day off. Archie was content merely to listen: it all sounded so blessedly ordinary and sane, a welcome contrast to his last two years.
"So then," he resumed, when their dishes were almost empty, "once I have had leisure to -- consider your recommendations, would you prefer matters to proceed apace?"
"Oh, very much apace!"
"As soon as -- tonight, perhaps?"
"Lovely! Only," she paused, her eyes suddenly clouding, "oh, dear, I had almost forgotten. I am promised to the DeGuises' this evening, for dinner."
Archie nearly choked on the last of his ice. He swallowed hastily, feeling the chill slide all the way down to his stomach, and suppressed a completely unrelated shudder. "You're dining with whom?"
"The DeGuises," she repeated. "French emigres of some note, I understand. Monsieur apparently holds the title of 'Vicomte' in his homeland."
"Yes, yes," Archie said, a bit distractedly. "But how do you--happen to know them?"
"Oh, it's a chance acquaintance, nothing more. But their son--the Vicomte's, rather--is engaged to a friend of mine. Julia Pearson, Lady Halstead's younger sister."
Oh, God. Of course. Archie swallowed again, strove to conceal his rising apprehension. "I -- had not realized you were on terms of intimacy. Is she not very much your junior?"
"Thank you," Medora said dryly, though her crooked smile showed amusement rather than affront. "Well, despite my approaching decrepitude, we have struck up a friendship of sorts. She's a sweet girl and she has asked me, along with her sister, to join them today so that she will not feel quite so alone among her future in-laws. Her intended assured us that we would be welcome additions to the party."
"Indeed." Archie's mouth was compressing, despite his best efforts. "Can you not--get out of it?"
She shook her head regretfully. "I fear that I have already accepted the invitation and it would be shockingly rude to cancel now."
"Not if you're ill," Archie said. "You could say you've a sick headache or a bilious attack."
Her eyes warmed. "Dear heart, you know I would much rather see you than attend this affair--"
"That's not it!" he broke in. "Medora, I want your word that you will not go there!"
Her brows drew together. "Just -- because you tell me so?"
"Just because I tell you so, yes."
"No?" Archie could hardly believe his ears.
"No," Medora repeated stonily, withdrawing the hand for which he was now reaching.
Archie bit back an oath. "Why can you not be sensible? I am warning you off for your own good!"
"Indeed." The look she was giving him was almost as cold as the ices they had just eaten. "And I presume, the silence of these last two years was intended for my own good as well?"
A hit, a palpable hit. Archie felt his face reddening, further protests congealing in his throat.
"I thought so." Medora's smile was no more than a sardonic curl of the lips. "If you wish me to heed your warnings, sir, then you must be prepared to offer some explanation for them."
"Very well." Archie knew his words sounded stiff and ungracious but he could not help that. "But, perhaps, ma'am, we should remove to a -- more discreet location, first?"
It had been several years since Green Park had been eclipsed by Hyde Park as the most fashionable parade in London, so there were mercifully few people about--a nursemaid with her young charges in tow, a man exercising his dog, but no sign of the ton.
Trees, more trees, and shrubbery--the overall effect was like walking through a woodland meadow. Unlike other parks, Green Park boasted neither lakes nor rivers, nor even fountains. There was only a small reservoir at the northeast corner, towards which Archie, promenading with Medora on his arm, directed his steps. There, they were most likely to find the privacy they required.
To his relief, Medora made no comment until they were strolling sedately around the reservoir. Indeed, she had been silent ever since they left Gunter's. Now, however, she inquired abruptly, "You asked me how I knew the DeGuises. How is it that you know them?"
Archie's reply was terse. "Through my new profession."
"They know what you are?"
"Of course not!" Archie grimaced, wondering, not for the first time, just how much she could be told--for her own safety and that of others. "Will it suffice to say that -- certain of their habits have come to my employer's attention?"
Medora's eyes widened in sudden enlightenment. "That's why you were at the Thornes' that night--you were observing them!"
"Among others," Archie conceded.
"Why?" Her gaze became more penetrating. "Is it because they are French? And their loyalties might be suspect?"
So sharp she'll cut herself. Archie bit his lip, feeling acutely uncomfortable. "Such speculation is premature," he said, trying to sound as quelling as possible.
"But not necessarily inaccurate," she countered. "If you--and others--were present. We have been at war with France for the better part of a decade, after all."
"The Vicomte has been here since the Terror," Archie pointed out, then mentally kicked himself for revealing that detail to her.
Medora was unperturbed. "But his wife has not. The Vicomte's son told me that his father's marriage took place during the Peace. Of course, I know it is -- a mariage de convenance."
"Good God!" Archie could not restrain the exclamation.
She glanced at him. "Have I been misinformed? I had heard that they go their separate ways in private."
"No, no--you haven't been misinformed." Somewhat distractedly, Archie raked a hand through his hair. "How the dev--deuce," he amended, "did you learn all that?"
She smiled wryly. "Friends in high places and low--as a mutual acquaintance of ours likes to remark?"
"Yes, well . . . " Archie cleared his throat. "Irregular domestic arrangements alone do not pique the interest of -- my colleagues." He wondered if he sounded as pompous to her as he did to himself, then wondered no more when he saw the ironic glint in her grey eyes. "Rather, more recent events have led to increased scrutiny of their activities. And loyalties."
"Indeed." Medora accepted all this with a brief nod. "My dear, do you not realize that I might be in a position to acquire information? Oh, I suspect the odds are not in my favor, but perhaps I might be able to discover something useful about my hosts or the company they keep? And as one of a large party--and an unimportant one, at that--I daresay I shall be quite safe. Safer even than you were, at the Thornes'."
Her words made sense, but Archie shook his head. "All the same, I cannot like it."
"I am not asking you to like it. Rather, I am telling you that I mean to go."
"And if I forbid you?"
Her eyes flashed. "You are in no position to do so! The law does not recognize your authority over me, Mr. Lennox!"
They glared at each other, neither willing to capitulate. Mouth tightening, Archie looked away at last. He wanted badly to swear; instead, he picked up a stick from the ground and flung it into the reservoir, watching morosely as it bobbed among the grey-green waters. Off in the distance, a dog was barking shrilly.
"I seem to have lost considerable leverage these last two years," Archie said, after a lengthy pause.
Medora's voice was taut. "You were not here to exert it." Then she saw his face and her whole demeanor changed. "Oh, my love," she breathed, reaching out to take his hands in hers, "never think I say this to wound! It's just that -- since you've been gone, I've had to learn to stand on my own. To be strong, hard even--not just for my own sake, but for our child's."
Archie swallowed, experiencing anew the bitter regrets for all the time they had lost. "My rose, if I could have protected you from that--"
Medora shook her head. "There is no protection against life itself. Do you not realize how fortunate we are, to have found each other again? And I mean to do whatever's necessary to preserve what we have. If I can uncover any small piece of information that might shorten your -- investigation, the sooner we can be together, and for longer than a few stolen hours." She smiled up at him, the tilted smile that never failed to make his heart turn over. "I assure you, I shall not take any foolish chances. Can you not trust me, my love?"
Archie groaned softly, leaning down to rest his forehead against hers. "Damn you for making so much sense."
Medora responded the only way a woman who had grown up with three older brothers could respond: she laughed.
Under a cloud of brooding discontent, Archie trudged back to Bedford Square. He had feared to tell Medora too much; now he fretted that, trapped by the need for discretion, he had told her all too little.
Two agents already dead, and one a woman. If he had revealed this to Medora, might she have heeded him at last?
Maybe you should have, you great fool.
Except that there was nothing to connect those deaths to the DeGuises, specifically. Damn, damn, and damn.
They had parted amicably at last, with plans to meet tomorrow morning at Hatchards' bookshop. She had promised him once again that she would be careful and he knew she would keep her word. Nonetheless, the uneasy frustration gnawed at him like a dog worrying a bone as he let himself in by the servants' entrance and made his way up the stairs. Not precisely desiring solitude at that moment, he directed his steps toward the common room. While he was still in the passage, however, Tiverton's voice came floating through the open door.
"--and a half-day off, to boot! Unbelievable! My dears, is there no end to this monumental injustice!"
"If I'd known I could get a half-day off for it, I'd 've swung at him myself!" a guttural, unfamiliar voice declared, and an unseen chorus agreed.
Archie stood rooted, feeling the color rise in his face. Turning away before he was seen, he nearly collided with Carmichael, also preparing to enter.
"Wondered if you were back yet," the commander said. "Come in, then."
Before Archie could demur, he was drawn into the common room in Carmichael's wake; the buzz of conversation ceased abruptly at his entrance. His face grew hot again.
"Over here." Carmichael guided him to a far corner. "Did you see to all your business?"
"Yes, quite . . . satisfactory," Archie managed. Although none of the other agents approached them, he had the uncomfortable sensation of being scrutinized, not quite approvingly, as if he were an unpredictable--even dangerous--breed of animal.
"What--?" he began, but was silenced by Carmichael's grin and nod at his hand. "You don't mean . . . "
"The tale's gone round since this morning."
Oh." Archie bit his lip and wished his face would stop
burning. "And . . .what's being said?" he asked finally,
against his better judgment.
"Our lot are just disappointed they didn't see it themselves." Carmichael chuckled. Archie could imagine the faces of the Edinburgh division. "Most of the London group believes it but can't think why you're still standing . . . except for one or two young'uns who don't believe it even happened at all. And Ferguson says he'll stand you a pint when this is all over."
"Grant," Carmichael said succinctly. "Ferguson's not always best pleased when Old Nick orders her somewhere unchancy. She reckons Old Nick's family, though, so she never turns him down."
Archie stared. "I -- never knew."
"Aye--they're cousins somewhere on her father's side. It puts Ferguson's back up sometimes. Think of it: you'd not like Old Nick ordering your wee wife into danger." Carmichael must have seen the change in Archie's face, for he shifted course immediately. "What is it, then? Don't tell me Old Nick did--"
"No," Archie stopped him. "No, he didn't but--she . . . well, she wanted to put herself in," he couldn't bring himself to quite call it danger, but, "an unchancy place. As it happens, she has some acquaintance with the DeGuises, and they've invited her to dine with them today -- she wouldn't let me stop her."
He half-expected a jest from Carmichael, but when he risked a glance, the Edinburgh commander's face was somber. "Thinking about your woman in danger . . . that's a brew I know the taste of," the other confessed. "And there's naught that improves the flavor."
"Commander Smith?" Archie ventured.
He was answered by a mirthless stretching of lips. "Who else?"
Many of Seaton's male nursery charges had been destined for military careers; despite the continual propriety of her appearance, she had never feared strong language, although she had rarely felt the necessity to use it herself. At this moment, however, viewing the shambles of the sordid little room, she could understand the temptation that her companion made no attempt to resist. As Latour examined the first huddled body, cursed, and moved on quickly to the second, she ignored him and fixed the agent in charge of the scene with a glacial eye.
"I trust you can explain this."
The luckless subordinate so addressed stood flushed and uneasy. "It wasn't supposed to . . . "
Seaton's voice was icy. "You may refrain from wasting my time stating the obvious. Acquaint me with the particulars, if you please."
"The room had been searched several times," Agent Withers began uncomfortably. "There was no sign of the papers so we judged our suspect must have kept them on his person. There seemed only one way to get that close to him. Agent Smith volunteered to undertake that aspect of investigation." Withers faltered, glancing briefly and reluctantly to where Doctor Latour knelt in a corner.
"We had decided on a signal, if there were any trouble we would create a diversion. Smith knew that as well as the rest of us. We were waiting--we kept waiting--for hours but there wasn't any signal, so we thought--" he stopped at the expression on his superior's face.
"And that," she inquired, with deceptive softness, "was the extent of your plan for contingencies? It did not occur to anyone that Agent Smith may have been prevented from producing such a signal?"
"We didn't expect--" Withers protested, then broke off again, shamefaced. "You're right, commander. There are no excuses for the oversight."
"Did Agent Smith recover the documents?"
"She did. I heard someone say they'd been in his waistcoat." Withers licked his lips. "One good thing, I suppose."
"The only thing," Seaton said coldly, "that may allow you to retain a portion of your skin. No further explanations, agent--you may save those for him."
She saw the younger agent pale as she moved away to Latour's corner, where he remained positioned between Smith and the rest of the world.
"As you might expect," Latour answered. "Though I cannot understand why she's still conscious."
"Perhaps--to avoid worse?" Seaton saw the physician's
grimace at the suggestion.
Smith's bodice was in tatters, the rips and stains all of a piece with the cuts and swellings that were discernible on her face and upper body. She turned her head slightly when Latour pushed the tangled hair back from her temple: more torn fabric fell aside, and the finger-marks on her throat became visible. Smith's eyes stared unseeingly down at her lap; Seaton, wincing, followed the locked gaze down to her blood-smeared hands and what she held clenched between her fingers.
"Shock, I fear. She won't speak, and she won't weep. And as for the knife--" Latour gestured. "Perhaps--if you speak to her, she may respond."
Seaton nodded. "Agent Smith?"
There was no reaction.
Seaton cautiously touched the younger woman's shoulder. Smith jerked at the contact, body tensing, hands closing around the knife, drawing back as if preparing to strike.
"No, it's all right, you're safe." Seaton went on, talking calmly in her best nursery tones. Smith remained tense, still not responding--but surely she could not avoid listening.
"Come now," Seaton reached out to touch Smith's wrist. "Let me have that, you don't need it any more."
Smith still did not speak. Seaton heard Latour's muttered oath behind her but did not look at him.
"Give me the knife," she repeated. "It's all over now."
She added one thing more, an odd little declaration perhaps, but something that seemed required by integrity.
There was a long moment of utter silence. Smith turned her head toward Seaton, then blinked. She drew a rasping, audible breath, awareness returning to the dark eyes, and her fingers relaxed on the knife's hilt.
Seaton took the weapon away. "That's better. The doctor's here, and I'm staying, too."
Smith closed her eyes, her body going slack. Seaton noted the blood still moist across the younger woman's fingers, then pushed up the stained, torn left sleeve to reveal the ragged gash across the elbow, still bleeding sluggishly. Lips compressed, she began to unwind the bandages Latour handed to her . . .
One scar just at the far side of the temple, hidden under strands of hair. Another, also hidden, started below her left ear and stretched to the back of her neck. The last scar ran jagged across her left elbow and into the upper arm, where she had flung it up to protect her head.
The marks were old now: faint white lines, showing even paler in the wan winter light. Easy enough to conceal, after three years.
Not so easily forgotten.
His lips were warm against her elbow, moving up her shoulder, then pressing against her temple and down to her ear.
"Do they trouble you?"
"They're not painful now," she assured him, burrowing into his warmth against the January chill. "But--no, not in any other way. There used to be . . . memories. Dreams."
Carmichael kissed the side of her throat. "It should never have happened."
Smitty blinked. "That's what she said--Seaton, I mean."
"She was right." He nuzzled her again. "You shouldn't have had to take such chances."
"That's not what matters. I healed." She tried to keep the note of impatience out of her voice. "I didn't tell you because it was troubling me but because . . . because I survived it all. And knowing it made me stronger. Unless--" despite her determination, she heard herself falter, "unless you find them disfiguring . . ."
"No." She felt him breathe warmly against her hair as he shook his head. "Honorable wounds, taken in battle. And not as if I didn't have my share."
A great flood of warmth and relief swept through her; she turned to find his mouth with hers, lips parted and arms closing around his shoulders. After what seemed a happy eternity she lay relaxed and secure, her head fitting against his collarbone, almost ready for sleep. She felt his breath ruffle her hair again as he murmured into her ear.
"But you see it's too dangerous for a woman. You must
give it up."
He saw her eyes fly open, ablaze with surprise and indignation . . . then felt the unexpected force of her hands pushing full against his chest and sending him off balance over the edge of the bed. His yelp of surprise just preceded the jarring thump of impact with the floor.
END PART TWENTY-THREE