Authors: Meg Brooke
After his meeting with the three young men, Colin had gone to see Viscount Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary.
“I wouldn’t worry too much, lad,” Palmerston had said. “We get threats like this quite often. Although not usually with so much intelligence attached. Still, I have faith in you. And if anything goes wrong, Pennethorne’s only an hour’s ride away.”
Colin had had to fight not to sneer at the name. He had always disliked Lord Pennethorne, the baron whose property abutted one end of the Chesney land. Lord Pennethorne was something of a darling around the Foreign Office for his work during the Belgian Revolution four years earlier, and he was still much talked of in Brussels. Colin had grown rather tired of hearing about the man, and he felt a sudden desire to do well in this assignment without Pennethorne’s assistance.
He had not voiced these feelings to Palmerston, however. Instead he had smiled politely and said, “I won’t let you down, My Lord.” But he had left feeling rather daunted. The princess was due at Sidney Park on the third of September. That left him with seven days to foil whatever plot was being carried out.
By the time he had gotten back to his hotel it was nearly nine, and he knew that Leo wouldn’t be home. He sent a note ‘round to Sidney House and then sat up late in his hotel room reading the packet he had been given by Palmerston containing more detailed histories of the various assassination attempts against British monarchs over the last ten years. At least four had been planned by a group called the Serraray, which was, the Foreign Office believed, based in French-controlled Algeria. The name was taken from a phrase in the Quran, the holy book of the Muslims who were the majority of the population that had been subjugated by the French. According to the report, the Serraray’s main targets were French dignitaries, but they were also responsible for the deaths of at least two former delegates to the Congress of Vienna and a grandson of the king of Spain. That
murder had been orchestrated by a new leader within the group, a man called the White Hand, who had apparently refined the organization over the last year. Now, with this newfound guide to pull the strings, the puppets the Serraray attracted from amongst the poor and desperate youth of the tribes in the Algerian deserts were more capable, more dangerous.
And now they wanted the heir to the throne of England and the United Kingdom, and the only thing standing between Victoria and impending disaster was Colin.
The door swung open and an imperious woman in a blue-gray traveling dress came in. Her graying hair was swept up under a neat little hat, and she already wore her gloves. Clearly she had been ready to depart long ago.
“My apologies, Lady Sidney, for delaying your journey,” Colin said, bowing his head a little. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Lord Colin Pierce.”
“Pierce,” she said, looking him up and down. Aside from her bright blue eyes she bore almost no similarity to her daughter. Her hair had once been dark, and she was smaller and curvier than Miss Chesney. The eldest Chesney children, at least, took after their father, whom Colin had met a few times when he still lived. Thinking of Leo’s sister’s lithe, lean form made Colin feel rather warm. He turned his attention back to Lady Sidney, who was saying, “You are the elder son of the Earl of Townsley, I understand.”
“I am, My Lady.”
She looked him up and down again, assessing. Colin knew that look well. He had seen it on the faces of a hundred scheming Mamas in two-dozen different ballrooms on the Continent. It was just as well, he supposed, for her to think that this was all some elaborate matchmaking scheme on the part of her son. It would distract her from his real purpose. “Well,” she said at last, “you will be very welcome at Sidney Park, young man. Will you travel in the carriage with us?”
“No, My Lady. I prefer to ride. It has been quite some time since I have had the freedom to do so.” In truth, he had done a fair bit of riding over the last two days, but there was no earthly way he was riding inside with four curious women for three days.
There were voices out in the hall. Lady Sidney turned to the door. “Shall we?” she asked.
Colin opened the door for her and followed her out.
Eleanor came downstairs to find everyone waiting for her in the hall. The twins, Georgina and Maris, were both talking animatedly at the same time. Clearly Lord Pierce had asked them something about the season, because Eleanor caught the words “gowns” and “balls” amidst the jumble of words. Lord Pierce seemed to be listening intently, though she was sure he was going slowly mad inside.
“Ah, Eleanor,” her mother said. “There you are at last.”
“I am sorry for the delay,” she replied. “I was writing to the Duchess of Danforth that we will have another member of our party.” They were planning to stop at Starling Court, the country seat of the Duke and Duchess of Danforth, for a night on their journey.
Lord Pierce followed them out to the carriage. A groom was waiting with his large gray charger, but he helped the ladies into the carriage before mounting.
As they rolled down the street, Maris said, “He
handsome, isn’t he, Eleanor?”
She smiled. There was no point in denying it. “Very.”
“Do you think Leo means him for one of us? If he does, it must be you.”
Eleanor looked at her mother, who was staring very fixedly out the window. Lady Sidney pursed her lips but said nothing. It was just as well. Arguing with Maris or telling her that her behavior was inappropriate only seemed to make things worse. “Honestly, Maris,” Eleanor said calmly, “I don’t think Leo planned this in advance at all. Lord Pierce wrote to him and asked to see Sidney Park, and Leo invited him up. Apparently Lord Pierce is a friend of the Duchess of Kent.”
“Still, we’ll have him all to ourselves for almost a week before anyone else starts arriving.”
Eleanor nodded, turning her attention out the window. Nearby, Lord Pierce was riding, his attention fixed on the road. He had singular focus, she decided. What was it that had caused him to affix himself to their party? As they traveled further and further from London, the anticipation with which Eleanor had looked forward to this journey began to fade in the face of her dread. What sort of danger were they all in?
Colin only glimpsed Strathmore once during the day’s ride, and that was when the man rode up through the thick woods at mid-afternoon to give him a curt wave before disappearing again. Otherwise, it was as though they were a perfectly ordinary party, the ladies riding in the carriage, a gentleman astride trailing close behind.
He doubted they were being watched, anyway. Strathmore confirmed it when they stopped at a coaching inn. He and Colin met behind the stables an hour after the Sidney carriage had pulled into the inn yard.
“Well?” Colin asked.
The young man brushed a horsehair off his sleeve. “I saw no one all day. We are not being followed, nor were we looked for here.”
“Good.” Colin hadn’t really expected the family to be followed. It was the princess the White Hand and his men wanted, and they wouldn’t bother with a party of travelers, even if they were headed for the same destination. It was far more likely that they were already in Norfolk, planning their means of attack. He highly doubted they would see anything suspicious until they neared the path of the princess’s progress. Still, they were close enough to the sea that the assassins might have put ashore nearby. “Do a lap through the taproom, would you, Strathmore? General questions: suspicious persons and the like. You know what to do.”
Strathmore nodded and disappeared without another word. Colin made sure the horse he had borrowed was bedded down properly and then went inside.
Upstairs, he nearly collided with Miss Georgina, who seemed rather surprised when he called her by name. He knew which twin was which already, of course. It was not difficult to tell them apart, after all. They looked quite alike, but Georgina was the one who never spoke, and Maris was the one who never stopped speaking. Still, the little mouse managed to murmur, “We are dining in Mama’s chamber if you wish to join us, Lord Pierce.”
“Thank you,” he said, though in truth he would rather have eaten hot coals than endured such an intimate meal with the Chesney women. He could not refuse, though, and so he followed Miss Georgina into Lady Sidney’s spacious room.
Supper had already been laid out, and he found himself seated between Miss Chesney and Miss Maris, the vivacious twin.
For a while they grasped at appropriate topics of discourse. Lady Sidney asked about Townsley and the great house. Miss Chesney asked about Brussels and the diplomatic set. Miss Maris asked if Colin had any siblings. He told them about his brother Miles, who was still at Cambridge. After that they ate in uncomfortable silence. He was relieved to finally escape to the taproom when the meal was finished.
Strathmore was waiting for him. The taproom was growing more crowded, but there was still space to stand at the bar. “No one has seen anything, My Lord,” he said in a tone that implied that it had been a waste of his time to send him on such an errand in the first place.
Colin ignored his attitude and took a slow sip of his ale. “I didn’t expect it. Things will get far more complex when we reach Sidney Park, Strathmore. Don’t feel as though you’ve left all the excitement behind in London.” Colin remembered his early days working for the Foreign Office, the tedium of being assigned to a job such at this.
“Oh, no,” Strathmore said, his voice suddenly eager. “I’m happy to be assigned to your detail. You may not realize it, but you’re a bit of an idol to many of us lads.”
Feeling a hundred years old, Colin said, “Oh?”
“We’ve heard stories about Vienna,” Strathmore said, his voice low.
Oh. “Well, I wouldn’t believe everything you hear,” Colin said carefully. Just what had the young recruits at the Foreign Office been told about those events?
“They say that you killed three Russian spies and broke up an assassination plot.”
It was almost the truth, at least. “It was only two,” Colin said.
“It was only two Russian spies. The third lived, though I believe he was later executed for espionage. I can hardly take credit for that.”
“Still, it’s the sort of thing to which we all aspire.”
Colin stared down into his empty mug. “Don’t be too eager for it, Strathmore. You do what you have to do in the moment, but even for your country, having to kill a man is no blessing.”
“Of course,” Strathmore said, though it was clear he thought otherwise. He would learn, Colin thought, just as he himself had learned that night in Vienna.
He tossed a coin on the counter. “I’m going to bed.”
They breakfasted early the next morning before setting off again. It was a long day’s ride to Starling Court. Eleanor was eager to get there and see her friend, Cynthia Bainbridge, The Duchess of Danforth. Her husband Charles was a good friend of Leo’s and sat with him in the Lords, where the two of them had made a goodly stir this year over the new Poor Laws. Eleanor knew that Leo was still not satisfied with the progress that had been made, but she was proud of her brother and his friends. They had worked hard, and Eleanor had been working just as doggedly to get the school up and running before the winter when the news had come that the Chesneys were to expect a royal visit. Most of the work had been handed over to Charles’s sister Imogen and their good friend the Countess of Stowe, who had remained in town expressly to oversee the hiring of teachers and staff.
“Of course you must go, Eleanor,” Imogen had said when she had paid a call last week to tell her of her going. “This is a royal summons, and you can hardly refuse such a thing. Everything will be taken care of here, I promise.”
Eleanor was grateful to them, but she would rather have been in town to help with the process herself. Still, it would be good to get to Sidney Park and have a few days to be idle and calm, despite the fear she felt of what lay ahead. More than ever this Season she had found herself missing the Park, the valley and the groves and the smell of the salt air. With a glance out the window at their companion she wondered what Lord Pierce would think of her ancestral home. Would his father be pleased with his report?