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Authors: Tasha Alexander

The Adventuress

BOOK: The Adventuress
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For Jane and Andrew, remembering our wonderful trip to the south of France. I am glad it was less eventful than Emily's.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Myriad thanks to …

Charlie Spicer (a dream of an editor!), Andy Martin, Melissa Hastings, Paul Hochman, Sarah Melnyk, April Osborn, Tom Robinson, David Rotstein, and Anne Hawkins. Working with you all is the best.

Kate Dyson, my wonderful friend who has proven essential when it comes to naming English estates. Thank you for finding Woodsford for Jeremy.

Jane Grant, more dear to me than any sister could be, for traveling with me to the south of France while I was doing research for this book. It would not have been half as good without your insights.

As always, my writer pals and dear friends, who make every single day brighter: Brett Battles, Rob Browne, Bill Cameron, Christina Chen, Jon Clinch, Charlie Cumming, Jamie Freveletti, Chris Gortner, Nick Hawkins, Robert Hicks, Kristy Kiernan, Elizabeth Letts, Carrie Medders, Kelly O'Connor McNees, Deanna Raybourn, Missy Rightley, Renee Rosen, and Lauren Willig.

Xander Tyska, research assistant extraordinaire.

My parents, who make everything better.

Andrew. Everything, always.

 

 

He must needs go that the Devil drives.

—WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE,
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

 

1

“The English duke is dead.”

The words, muffled and heavily accented, hardly reached me through the voluminous duvet that, while I slept, had somehow twisted around me with such violence that it now more closely resembled mummy wrappings than a blanket. Struggling against its bonds, I managed to extricate one hand before realizing my head was under a stack of pillows. I flung them aside and sat up, turning to discover my husband was no longer next to me. The words came again, and this time vanquished in an instant all of the confusion clouding my mind after being awoken from a deep slumber.

“Monsieur, the duke, the English duke, he is dead.”

“Jeremy?” I leapt from the bed, dragging the duvet with me (I had not been quite so successful in the removal of it from my person as I had hoped), and started for the narrow patch of light coming into our room from the door, held open by my husband, his dressing gown pulled around him. A chasm seemed to open inside me, as if my heart were splitting and filling me simultaneously with intolerable cold and heat. Jeremy Sheffield, Duke of Bainbridge, my dearest childhood friend, who had tormented me in my youth not quite so much as I had tormented him, could not be dead. I tried to step forward, but my limbs would obey no commands.

“Is he in his suite?” my husband asked. The man standing in the corridor nodded. “I shall come at once.”

He must have closed the door, but I have no memory of him having done so. I collapsed in an undignified heap, my legs no longer able to support me.

“Emily.” Colin knelt at my side, scooped me into his arms and deposited me back onto the bed. “I must see what has happened and will return as quickly as possible. Will you be all right?”

“Yes, of course.” I rubbed my face. “No. No. I must come with you.”

“I don't think you ought.” His dark eyes locked onto mine, and I could see pain and worry and just a bit of frustration in them.

“I have to see him. I—”

“No.” He squeezed my hand and slipped the dressing gown from his shoulders, finding and putting on the stiff boiled shirt he had discarded earlier in the evening with entirely no regard for its subsequent condition. After retrieving his trousers from the back of a chair and locating his shoes—one had disappeared under the bed—he shrugged into his tailcoat and walked to the door, pausing to turn back and look at me as he opened it. Had I not been so upset, I would have better appreciated the handsome dishevelment of his cobbled-together evening kit. “I am so terribly sorry, Emily.”

The tears did not come before the door clicked shut behind him, but then my eyes produced a worthy monsoon. Sudden storms are short, however, and this was no time for succumbing to emotion. I splashed water on my face and pulled on my dressing gown. There could be no question of returning to my own previously discarded garments: Ladies' gowns are designed to require assistance, and while this may allow for a more beautifully designed bodice, it proves an immense frustration when one finds oneself on one's own.

Fortunately, no one saw me slip out of our room as there were not yet other guests meandering through the Hotel Britannia, the most fashionable place to stay on La Croisette in Cannes, and arguably on the whole of the Côte d'Azur. A clock near the curved marble staircase told me it was nearly half five in the morning. Anyone awake now would either be a servant or someone staggering in from a long evening, probably spent playing baccarat at the Cercle Nautique. I climbed one flight to the top floor, where Jeremy had insisted on staying. The view, he said, was incomparable. His door was closed and locked, so I tapped on it, and a man I did not recognize opened it without delay.

“Madame, you would not wish—”

I pushed past him and went straight through the sitting room to the bedroom, where I saw my husband standing with two other men. On the bed was the prostrate form of a gentleman in evening kit.

I recognized the wiry individual closest to the supine figure as the hotel doctor. He adjusted the tortoiseshell pince-nez on his long nose and placed his unopened bag on a bedside table. “We will need to further examine him, of course, but there is no question—”

“There is no question,” I said, stepping forward with no regard for any of them, “because this is not the duke.”

“Emily—” Colin reached for my arm, but I pulled away and moved to the opposite side of the bed, closer to the body, determined to confirm the identity of the man. It was harder to move him than I had anticipated, but I managed to roll him over and reveal his face, the eyes staring and vacant.

“Chauncey Neville.” I was shaking rather violently now, and realized that I was barefoot and my teeth were chattering. “It is not Jeremy. Not Jeremy.” Mr. Neville, a shy, soft-spoken gentleman from Cornwall, had always seemed an unlikely friend for Jeremy, but the two had been close since their days at school. We often joked that they tempered each other, Chauncey reeling in Jeremy when he got too out of hand, and Jeremy prodding Chauncey to embrace joviality. Shy though he was, Mr. Neville never proved awkward in social situations, but instead was kind and thoughtful, always on hand to support his friends in any of their schemes.

“Come, my dear,” Colin said. “You will catch your death of cold. You know how chilly the seaside gets at night.”

Any person who has had the privilege of forming even the barest sort of acquaintance with Colin Hargreaves knows he is not the sort of gentleman to make such trite remarks. Rather, he is the most trusted agent of the Crown, a particular favorite of Queen Victoria's, and the individual most frequently called upon by the palace to assist in delicate matters that threaten the state of our great empire. My eyes focused better on the room now, and I saw the manager of the hotel wringing his hands.

“Fear not, Monsieur Fortier, this is not the first body I have seen,” I said. In fact, I had seen many. The work my husband and I shared—sometimes in official capacities, sometimes when we chose on our own to help those in need of assistance—had led us to reveal the identities of no fewer than nine cruel murderers. I was not a stranger to violent death. Whether my words soothed the concerned hotelier, I do not know. Colin removed me to our own suite of rooms before I could gauge the man's reaction. Regardless, the untimely demise of one of our party would dramatically alter what had been intended as a celebratory holiday on the Côte d'Azur.

Nearly four months ago, at Christmas, I had received a telegram from Jeremy, announcing his engagement to Miss Amity Wells, an American heiress who had realized her parents' dearest hopes by catching an English duke. Miss Wells's mother, a veritable battle-axe of a woman, far better suited to roping steers on the range than moving in high society, insisted on throwing an engagement party to celebrate the match, but would not content herself with a ball in Mayfair. Instead, she had planned a trip to the south of France, where all the closest friends and family of the bride and groom would spend a fortnight, culminating in a party she assured us would be more spectacular than any we had ever seen. England, she explained in a coarse whisper, was such a little island it could not possibly be expected to hold all her big ideas.

Colin and I had met mother and daughter over New Year at Jeremy's estate in Kent; the Wellses had cut short a trip to Egypt for the occasion. While Mrs. Wells could be described as a force of nature, one had to accept Amity as something akin to a dream. Her fresh-faced beauty, enviable figure, flair for fashion, and quick wit made her a favorite in London society. A favorite with the gentlemen, that is. I am sorry to say that my own fair sex proved far less generous with her, a judgment firmly footed in the lair of envy. I scorned this, knowing it to be unfair, but must acknowledge that my reaction to Miss Wells proved somewhat more complicated than I should have liked.

The estate of the Duke of Bainbridge lay adjacent to that of my own excellent father, and Jeremy and I had been inseparable as children. When it came time for him to leave for school, I cried for three days straight, and marked on my calendar when he would be home between terms, counting the weeks until I would see him again. By the time he had finished at Harrow and was leaving for Oxford, we no longer climbed trees together, instead finding great amusement in the knowledge that both our mothers longed to see us (and our families) united in marriage. Neither of us could think of anything more ridiculous, for although we adored each other, our temperaments and our interests could not have been more at odds. I had grown up studious and intellectual; Jeremy had championed the goal of being the most useless man in England. When his father died suddenly during his son's second year at university, everyone hoped the new duke would undergo a transformation à la Prince Hal and adopt a more solemn and appropriate demeanor. This served only to spur him into more questionable behavior.

BOOK: The Adventuress
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