Authors: Meg Brooke
But that was not the true purpose for his visit, she reminded herself. Indeed, though he had mentioned his father by name he had seemed rather loath to do so. Was he the sort of man, then, who disliked using his rank and privilege to get ahead in the world? The elder sons of Earls did not often go into the Foreign Service, and certainly not to the Continent. If he eschewed the benefits his name could buy him, however, she could understand how Pierce might have been forced to start lower in the ranks. He was a school friend of Leo’s, which meant they were of an age, and Leo was barely thirty. How many years had Lord Pierce had to work to get where he was now, squiring a noble family about the countryside? She wondered idly if this sort of duty was trying for him. Did he have a family or a mistress he had left behind in Brussels to come here and follow them to Norfolk?
Stop it, Eleanor
, she chided herself. These things were none of her concern. In three weeks the man would be out of their lives and they would never see him again.
That didn’t mean that she couldn’t appreciate the smart figure he cut in those breeches, or the way the cleft in his chin deepened when he smiled.
She started. Across the carriage, Georgina was holding a magazine out to her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was woolgathering.”
Georgina glanced quickly out the window but said nothing about their traveling companion. “What do you think of this gown?” she asked, pointing to one of the pictures.
Eleanor took the magazine and launched into a discussion of the fashions that would govern the ballrooms of London next season, trying to forget about Lord Colin Pierce and his muscular thighs.
At midday they stopped at a coaching inn to stretch their legs and have some tea. “I think I’ll take a turn about the yard,” Eleanor said to her mother as the others went inside. “Some fresh air would be welcome after all those hours inside.” It had been quite warm in the carriage by the end, and it would only get hotter this afternoon. There was no one else in the inn yard, and Eleanor removed the fichu she had been wearing about her shoulders and sighed at the feeling of the slight breeze on her skin.
“I’ve never liked traveling in August,” Lord Pierce said behind her. Eleanor turned. She had not realized he was still there, or she would never have begun removing articles of clothing before him.
She tried to maintain her composure. It was only her fichu, after all. “Nor I,” she agreed. “Unless one can ride astride as you do, that is.”
“Do you ride?” he asked, gesturing for her to continue her ambling. He took up the pace beside her, and they went out into the village commons where there was a tidy lane shaded by chestnut trees.
“I do, though I find that it is not as enjoyable in town as in the country,” she said amiably. “When I was a girl I would take my horse and gallop as fast as I could to the sea. My mother gave me up for a hoyden, I think.”
“It must be a comfort to her, then, that you have turned out so well,” he said, and then as if realizing the implications of his words he added, “Forgive me, my manners are more suited to the Continent.”
“Of course,” she said, but she was looking back at the inn where she was certain her mother was watching them as they progressed beneath the chestnut trees.
They were being carefully monitored, of course. For all that he was not officially a spy, Colin had a good enough instincts to know when he was being watched, and he could feel the eyes of Lady Sidney upon them from the windows overlooking the commons. He tried to keep a respectful distance from Miss Chesney as she inquired politely about his life in Brussels.
“How long have you been there?” she asked.
“I was in Vienna for three years and then in Brussels the last year and a half.”
They had exhausted the topic of the diplomatic set in Brussels last night, so she asked, “What is King Leopold like?”
He shrugged. “I am not much in his company. I mostly see his chief aide, Baron Stockmar, who is a decent fellow. The king is still rather young, though, and most people think him handsome.”
“I meant as a ruler. He has not been on the throne long,” Miss Chesney said quickly, and Colin realized that she had probably been offended by his assumption that she had only wished to know whether the king was handsome or not. Had he completely lost his touch with women?
He chuckled at his own foolishness. “No, he has not. But he cares deeply about the people of Belgium and their welfare. He has been working behind the scenes almost since his ascension to find some way to regulate the labor rules for women and children. He is often seen abroad in Brussels, though the death of his son in May was a terrible blow, I think.”
“Of course. He has endured so much loss, with the death of Princess Charlotte and their son as well.”
Colin nodded. He had been a boy when the princess, who had been second in line to the throne, had died in childbirth seventeen years ago, but he had still felt the aura of national mourning that had descended. Now that he had spent more than a year in Brussels, however, he had learned that it was widely believed there that Leopold had not cared much for the Princess Charlotte, though he had, of course, been troubled by her death, and had waited more than ten years before taking another bride. Now, however, King Leopold had a family he loved, and he included amongst its members the heir presumptive to the throne of England and her mother, his sister the Duchess of Kent. It was fortunate that Leopold took a keen interest in the affairs of his niece; otherwise they might not have received the intelligence of the threat to her life until it was too late. But since his ascension King Leopold—or, rather, Baron
—had monitored not only the intelligence pertaining to Belgian interests but also those of nearly every other country on the Continent and England as well. It was in his interests, after all, that Victoria lived and ascended to the throne, where he could influence the young monarch.
Somehow, Colin got the feeling that Miss Chesney knew most of this. She was more intelligent than he had given her credit for, he saw now. “Queen Louise is young. There will be more children.”
“Let us hope so,” she said quietly. Then, seeming to brighten, she said, “What was Leo like at Cambridge?”
He grinned. “If you want tales of his unsavory exploits, I’m afraid I have very little to offer. Your brother is...well...”
“A paragon,” she said wryly. “Yes, you are right. He very rarely puts a toe out of line. That is Maris’s job.”
He nodded thoughtfully, but said nothing. He could hardly agree with her that her sister was a determined flirt, even if it appeared to be the truth.
She laughed. “You don’t have to say anything. We all know it’s true, though we hope fervently that she will mellow with age.”
“I take your meaning,” he said, feeling grateful for the implied warning in her words. It would be foolish indeed if he allowed himself to become entangled with an eager young miss when he was supposed to be protecting the future queen.
What Miss Chesney did not realize, Colin thought as he watched her walk back towards the inn to rejoin her mother and sisters, was that she herself was a far greater danger to him than her enthusiastic younger sister.
When Eleanor returned to the inn she found her mother waiting for her in the dining room. “Have some tea, dear,” Lady Sidney said. “The girls have gone upstairs to refresh themselves.”
“Thank you,” Eleanor said, taking the cup her mother offered and a sandwich as well.
For a few moments they sat together in silence. But then Lady Sidney, looking up at her over the rim of her cup, said, “Well?”
Eleanor feigned ignorance. “Well what?”
Lady Sidney sighed and set her cup down. “What do you think of him?”
Shrugging, Eleanor said, “He seems to be a decent fellow.”
“That is not what I meant, Eleanor, and you know it.”
“Oh, Mama,” Eleanor groaned. “Leo has never acted as a matchmaker before, and he never will. I cannot imagine that he meant to set me up with Lord Pierce when he agreed to allow him to accompany us. Please, don’t look for more in this than is there.”
“If you say so,” her mother said, though she smiled into her tea. “But you are a beautiful young woman, Eleanor. You are young and vivacious and intelligent, and it would be a shame if you threw away a chance at happiness because you feel you must do your duty to your family first.” When Eleanor opened her mouth to protest, she cut her off. “I know you refused Lord Marsh because he was not worthy of you—and I don’t blame you in the least. But Lord Pierce is not like him, dear, or like...other young men you have known. Surely you must see that. Perhaps it would be wiser for you to make time to spend with him at Sidney Park. Let me take over the preparations for the princess’s visit if you like. I don’t mind.”
Eleanor shook her head. “But I know you do, Mama. And really, I don’t mind in the slightest. It gives me something to do, some active work to keep me occupied. You know that I cannot bear to be idle.”
Her mother nodded. “Of course.” Eleanor finished her sandwich and rose. As they went out into the inn yard, Lady Sidney added, “Think about what I said, Eleanor. Do that much for me at least.”
They arrived at Starling Court late in the afternoon. As the carriage rattled through Southwold, Colin scanned the faces of the people who paused in their work to look up at the passing visitors. They were simple, honest country folk, or at least they appeared to be. Still, he couldn’t help but feel suspicious.
Then he scolded himself for his rashness. Had he become so jaded in his years of foreign service that he saw sinister characters everywhere?
Starling Court was a grand old house, built in the Jacobethan style, with a large, well kept park surrounding it. As they neared the house itself, Colin saw a tall, fair-haired man standing at attention on the steps, a woman with bright copper hair beside him. Though her dress was cut high at the waist, it was clear that the woman was mere weeks away from her confinement.
Colin had gotten some intelligence on Charles Bainbridge, the Duke of Danforth, before leaving London. The man was a close friend of Leo’s, though he had attended Oxford and so was not known to Colin. Leo and Danforth sat in the Lords together, and had worked tirelessly during the session that had just ended to pass labor reforms and protections for the poor. Everyone Colin had spoken to had described Danforth as a hard and fast, lightning-witted campaigner, a man who always got what he wanted and rarely gave up until he was satisfied.
Dismounting as a footman came to open the carriage door, Colin hurried over to hand the ladies out. Lady Sidney preceded them up the stairs. “Your Grace,” she said warmly, taking the duchess’s hand. “How well you look!”
“Thank you,” the duchess said, smiling. “I feel big as this house.”
“Well, you look lovely. Thank you for receiving us so soon to your confinement.”
“It is no trouble, Lady Sidney.”
Miss Chesney stepped up next, embracing the duchess and then taking the duke’s hand. “It is so good to see you both again. I feel as though it is an age since we said goodbye.”
The duke smiled, but his attention was fixed on Colin.
“Your Graces,” Lady Sidney said, “may I present Lord Colin Pierce? He is a friend of Leo’s, traveling up with us from town to view Sidney Park.”
“Of course,” the duke said, extending his hand. Colin took it, looking him directly in the eye, realizing that he was being weighed and measured. “Good to have you,” Danforth said at last. “Welcome to Starling Court.”
When all the girls had been welcomed, they went into the grand foyer of the house. Though it was not truly his purpose, Colin still had to appreciate the architectural beauty of Starling Court, with its large great hall extending clear up to the top of the house. The duchess led the women off into a parlor, and Colin was left standing with the duke.