Behind the Mask (House of Lords) (2 page)

BOOK: Behind the Mask (House of Lords)
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The last two sheets were an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Sidney Park and a discussion of the family that inhabited it. From the sloppiness of the hand Colin guessed that the papers had been prepared after he had left the Royal Palace, and much of the information in them he knew already. Still, he read them dutifully.

He had not seen Leo Chesney in more than seven years. Back then he had been simply Lord Chesney, Viscount Sidney’s only son and heir. Colin remembered a tall, blond young man with an effortless athleticism that belied his uneasy, awkward way with women. When he looked over the papers he saw that Leo had three sisters, two of whom were only a few years older than the Princess Victoria.

Carefully Colin memorized each of the documents. Then he ripped each paper into several little pieces and stuffed them back into the envelope. Slipping the packet back into his coat, he went to the back of the ferry. It was a bright, sunny day, and there were several people out on deck, but none of them noticed as Colin took the packet from his coat and dumped its contents and then the envelope itself into the sea.

 

TWO

 

August 27, 1834

 

“Leo, where have you been?” Eleanor cried as her brother came in. It was nearly eleven, and he had insisted last night that he wanted to leave before the morning was out. But then that letter had come for him at breakfast, and he had gone off, promising that he would be back in an hour.

“I’m sorry, Eleanor,” her brother said, handing his hat to the butler and taking out his handkerchief. In the last week the heat of London had become rather unbearable, and now he patted his brow as he said, “I had to see an old friend.”

“Oh?” she asked.

“Yes, and now I need to speak with you,” he added, taking her elbow and leading her into the drawing room. When the door had closed behind them he turned to her, his blue eyes shadowed beneath his brows as he frowned. “I’ve invited Lord Colin Pierce to come to Sidney Park with us, Eleanor.”

“You’ve invited—but the princess and her entourage will be arriving there in a week!” Eleanor cried. “We can’t have a houseguest while we are preparing for her arrival. There’s too much to do as it is without me having to entertain some friend of yours.”

“He’s not just coming for a visit, Eleanor. He’s coming for the princess’s stay as well.”

Eleanor felt suddenly dizzy. Perhaps it was the heat—that would be better than feeling faint over something as silly as an unexpected houseguest. But she had been preparing for the princess’s visit to Sidney Park, her family’s ancestral home, since she had learned that the Chesneys were to be favored with her presence three weeks ago. A flurry of letters had been sent back and forth to the steward and staff in Norfolk. New linens and furniture had been ordered, menus planned, and party invitations sent out. Still, there were so many things to do, so many elements involved in a royal visit, that it made Eleanor’s head spin. Her mother had turned most of the work over to her under the pretense that it would one day be Eleanor’s duty to plan such events on her own, and that the practice would be instructive. Eleanor knew that these protestations were a cover for the fact that her mother loathed parties and balls and all the other accoutrements of society and would rather not be bothered with them. But with her younger sisters too occupied with their social schedules to provide any assistance, all the work had fallen to her, and she had been running herself ragged the last three weeks. Eleanor had been forced to give up the other work in which she was engaged, helping her friends Cynthia and Clarissa, the Duchess of Danforth and the Countess of Stowe, and Cynthia’s sister-in-law Imogen Bainbridge, set up a boarding house and school for indigent children. It had frustrated her to no end to have to write to Cynthia and tell her that she would have to put aside the work for a few weeks for this infernal visit. She had been looking forward to a few days of relaxation at Sidney Park before chaos descended. “Oh, Leo,” she said, putting a hand to her temple. Perhaps she had a headache.

“I’m sorry, Eleanor, but it couldn’t be helped,” Leo said, looking meaningfully at her. “Lord Colin Pierce works for the Foreign Office, you see.”

Now she really would faint. “Leo, is there something wrong? Why is the Foreign Office sending a man to Sidney Park?”

Leo shrugged. “It’s just routine, he says.”

“And do you believe him?”

“Eleanor, we went to Cambridge together. Pierce is a good man. He won’t get in your way, and he won’t cause any trouble. But he will be journeying up with us this afternoon. Or with you, I should say.”

“Where will
you
be?” Eleanor asked.

He shifted uncomfortably. “That’s the other piece of news. I have to stay in town at least another day.”

She almost grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Leo!” she cried, dismayed. “How could you?”

“Eleanor, it can’t be helped. Brougham and the others want me to present our proposals for next session to the king.”

“But the session is six months away.”

“Apparently he likes to have a few months to ruminate,” Leo grumbled. “Listen, it’s not what I want either. If I could I would have been in Norfolk last week, although I would have missed that very entertaining afternoon with Lord Marsh on Sunday,” he added, grinning. Eleanor blushed and looked away. She had hoped that everyone would forget that debacle, though of course her hope had been an extraordinary one in view of the fact that she had only known Lord Marsh for about two weeks before he decided to propose to her. It hadn’t been his fault, she supposed—if he had known what sort of woman she was, he would never have been so foolish. But the dunce had decided not to wait for a better acquaintance, which had resulted in a rather embarrassing scene in the drawing room on Sunday. Realizing that she had no comment to make about the unfortunate affair, Leo said, “But it isn’t up to me. I promise you, Pierce won’t be any trouble. Just pretend he isn’t there.”

“With Maris in the house?”

Leo frowned. “He’s too old for Maris. And he’s a sensible man. He’ll avoid her if she tries to flirt with him.” Then his expression shifted slightly. “You, on the other hand, might want to consider him.”

Eleanor blushed. “Leo, I don’t even know the man.”

Her brother grinned. “Very well,” he said. “Will you tell mother? I really must get back to Westminster.”

“I suppose I will,” Eleanor said dutifully.

“Thank you, Eleanor. I’ll be with you by Saturday.” He kissed her cheek and was gone.

Sighing, Eleanor took a moment to collect her thoughts and then went out into the hall, trying to decide what she should say to her mother. She was just starting up the stairs when someone cleared his throat behind her.

Eleanor whirled. A man stood near the door, holding his hat in his hand. He was tall, taller even than Leo, and he had a shock of close-cropped dark hair and a rakish moustache. He was dressed for riding in a pair of breeches that fit him perfectly and a dark gray coat. “Excuse me,” he said. “You are Miss Chesney?”

“I am,” she said, turning and crossing the hall towards him. She held out her hand and he took it. “You are Lord Pierce, I suppose,” she said, giving him her most charming smile.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said. “Thank you for accommodating me.”

“No trouble at all, Lord Pierce. I was just on my way to tell my mother the news. She should be ready to depart within the hour.” She turned to go.

“A moment, Miss Chesney, if you would? Is there somewhere…private where we might speak?” She led him back into the drawing room. When the doors closed behind him, he said, “It would be best, Miss Chesney, if your mother and sisters did not know the true purpose of my accompanying you to Sidney Park. I gave Leo permission to tell you because he said you were the most sensible of his sisters.”

“That much is true, at least,” she said wryly. “How would you like me to explain your visit, then?” The man could hardly expect her to come up with a pretense for him.

Clearly he had given it some thought, for he said almost immediately, “I am an old school friend of your brother’s. My father, the Earl of Townsley, wishes to make improvements to the great house at Townsley and has sent me to view your arrangements. I am also a friend of the Duchess of Kent, and she had asked me to stay on to see her and the Princess Victoria when they arrive.”

Eleanor stared at him. Was the man some sort of spy, that he could come up with a cover story so quickly? “Is any of that true?” she asked.

He shrugged. “The part about the Earl of Townsley is. I am his son. And I
do
know Princess Victoria’s mother a little.”

“Well, we shall have to hope that this is one of my mother’s gullible days,” Eleanor said brightly, her hand on the doorknob.

“Does she have many of those?”

Over her shoulder, Eleanor muttered, “Not enough. Wait here, please.”

She crossed the hall slowly, taking a moment to collect her thoughts. Leo was a beloved brother, and she would do almost anything in the world for him, but she had not lied to their parents on his behalf since she was six, and she had never expected to do so again. It was even worse that she had to lie not for him, but for this friend of his. But if there was some danger to the princess or to her mother the Duchess of Kent, who was not very well liked in England, then Eleanor supposed it was her duty to do what she could to protect them.

Her mother was sitting in her bedchamber, already dressed in a sensible blue-gray traveling costume. “Eleanor, dear, you’re not yet changed!” she cried when she saw her.

“No, mother. There has been a development that has kept me rather occupied.”

“Oh?”

“Leo will have to stay in town another day at least. A friend of Leo’s will be traveling up to Sidney Park with us.”

Her mother frowned. “He didn’t mention this.”

“Apparently his friend, Lord Colin Pierce, has just arrived from the Continent. His father, the Earl of Townsley, wishes him to visit Sidney Park to get ideas for renovations to the great house at Townsley, and then he will stay for the princess’s visit. He is a friend of the duchess’s, apparently.”

“Really? How extraordinary,” her mother said, but to Eleanor’s relief she looked rather pleased by the compliment of having an earl send his son to view her home. “Is he here now?”

“He is downstairs in the drawing room. I must go and change, mother, and we will leave as soon as may be.”

“Very good. I’ll just go down and introduce myself,” Lady Sidney said, rising. Eleanor allowed her mother to precede her out of the room. Then she went down the hall to change her dress.

It would certainly be an interesting journey.

 

Colin stood staring at the door, his hat clutched very tightly in his hands. Leo hadn’t mentioned that his sister was a beauty. When he had said that Eleanor, the oldest sister, had more sense than the rest of them, Colin had pictured a girl with more prudence than looks, already well on her way to spinsterhood. Miss Chesney couldn’t be more than twenty-one, and she looked as fresh-faced and youthful as if she had just had her come-out. What was more, she had exactly the sort of looks that usually appealed to Colin—bright blond hair, peaches-and-cream skin and startling blue eyes. If the younger two girls were half as pretty as their older sister, Colin was in serious trouble.

Perhaps he
should
have taken a mistress in Brussels. Perhaps if he had, he wouldn’t have felt the stirrings of arousal he had when Miss Chesney had stood so close to him just a few moments ago.

Feeling rather like a clod, Colin began to pace around the large drawing room. He must keep his mind on his mission. He had two weeks to prevent an assassination, and very few resources with which to work.

He had met the three men assigned to him by the Foreign Office the day before. John Yates, Michael Crawley and Simon Strathmore were all young, impossibly young and rather too green for his taste. He had sent Yates, who seemed the most capable of the three, up to Norfolk ahead of them to scout and do the advance work. Strathmore would ride with them today, though he would stay far enough behind that the ladies did not notice him. Crawley would go immediately to Ormesby, which the Foreign Office had decided was the most likely port of entry for the assassins, and then on to join the princess and her retinue as they journeyed from Hafeley to Sidney Park.

BOOK: Behind the Mask (House of Lords)
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