A broad grin spread across his face and he said to Isabel, "It is Julian and Charles and their wives."
While the servants at the back of the coach leaped down to help the ladies alight, the two gentlemen approached Marcus and Isabel. Isabel had met Julian, Lord Wyndham, as a child, but she had never laid eyes on Charles Weston, another of Marcus's many cousins. No one had ever told her that Julian and Charles could have pa.s.sed for twins and, when she first caught sight of them, she gasped at their similarity, right down to their keen green eyes. Like her husband, both of his cousins were tall, broad shouldered, and black haired, and though there was a lesser resemblance to Marcus, it was obvious that they were related.
Charles flashed a quick grin and said, "I see that your husband has not yet told you about his handsome cousins." He sent Marcus a look. "For shame!" Turning back to Isabel, he bowed and said, "I am Charles Weston and most happy to meet the woman who has finally brought him to heel."
Isabel giggled, charmed by his outrageous manner.
Julian smiled and said, "It is a pleasure to see you again, madame. And I congratulate you upon your marriage. I wish you happy." He flicked a glance at Charles and added, "You must forgive him. It is his nature to be incorrigible. Fortunately, he is also vastly amusing, so we put up with him."
Delighted though he was to see them, Marcus couldn't help saying, "You know that you are more than welcome, but what brings you so unexpectedly to my door?"
Wryly, Julian said, "Nell. She had a dream."
It was obvious Marcus and Charles understood the meaning behind that cryptic statement, but Isabel looked in puzzlement from one lean face to the other. Before she could demand an explanation, Nell herself came rushing up, followed by Daphne, Charles's bride of only a few months. The two women were very different in appearance. Nell's hair was a soft golden-brown, her eyes sea green in color and, though Nell was tall, Daphne towered over her by half a head. Daphne's hazel eyes were warm as she greeted Isabel and her thick black hair had been caught back in a neat chignon. Isabel, enfolded in scented embraces, could only marvel at fate. These beautiful women and handsome men were her relatives!
Several chaotic moments followed as the entire group wandered inside the house where a gaggle of servants was dispatched to help unload the coach and orders for bedrooms to be prepared were given. Eventually, they were all scattered about the library, Thompson happily overseeing the serving of refreshments. Once everyone had been served, Thompson waved the footmen from the room, bowed, and departed, shutting the big double doors behind him.
Conversation was general for several moments, the ladies sipping their tea, the gentlemen enjoying brandy, before Isabel asked Nell, "What did your husband mean when he said you had a dream?"
Her eyes somber, Nell murmured, "Marcus hasn't told you about...Charles's terrible half-brother, Raoul, and my nightmares about him?"
Scowling at her husband, Isabel said, "No. He hasn't."
Daphne leaned forward and asked softly, "Didn't he mention the ghosts we encountered at my brother's home in Cornwall either? It was only a few months ago."
Looking guilty, Marcus said quickly, "We're newly married, I didn't see the need to fill her head full of..."
He stopped and Charles finished dryly, "Nonsense?"
Isabel saved him by saying, "But what does any of that have to do with Nell having a dream?"
Deciding that now was not the time to drag up the past, Nell said simply, "I dreamed that you were in grave danger. I clearly saw you bound and gagged and blindfolded." She looked across at Marcus, her face compa.s.sionate. "I knew that Marcus was in anguish."
"She woke me," said Julian, "and insisted that we had to leave for Sherbrook Hall immediately, that we were needed here."
Charles took up the tale saying, "Daphne and I were visiting and when Julian woke me to tell me what was going on, we insisted upon coming with them."
"You knew I was in danger?" squeaked Isabel, incredulously. "But how?"
Nell made a face. "It is complicated to explain, but sometimes when I dream, I...see real events. I saw you and I knew we had to come."
Isabel's eyes got very big and round. "Oh, how very exciting!" she exclaimed. She looked eagerly at Daphne. "And ghosts? You actually saw ghosts?"
Daphne smiled. "Yes, we did. It was terrifying at the time, but the ghosts are at peace now."
Mournfully, Isabel said, "Such adventures you have had! I wish I'd been there to see the ghosts; nothing so exciting has ever happened to me."
Forgetting himself, Marcus protested, "You were abducted only yesterday. You were held for ransom. You could have died! Wasn't that exciting enough for you? It certainly was for me!"
Charles gave a crack of laughter. "I told you that a wife would shake you from your humdrum existence!"
An incredibly tender smile crossed Marcus's face as he looked at Isabel and, uncaring of who saw or heard him, he said, "Indeed, you did. I just never imagined that she would make me the luckiest, happiest of men."
But Isabel was not to be distracted and it was Marcus's turn to laugh when she looked around the room and asked brightly, "And now could someone please tell me about the ghosts?"
The hour was going on three o'clock in the morning when Duke Roxbury arrived home to his magnificent townhouse in London. For appearance's sake he'd spent an hour or two gaming at White's but he did not enjoy himself, his thoughts more on a missing memorandum and its far-reaching implications than the cards in his hands. Lord Thorne's arrival just before midnight had been unexpected, but the news he carried had been devastating. I was so sure we'd recover the memorandum, Roxbury thought to himself as he absently handed his hat and gloves to his butler. So sure. Yet, I was wrong. Right, he reminded himself, to suspect Whitley, but wrong to think that others, such as Le Renard, the notorious Fox, would not be following the scent. He frowned. But the abduction and theft of the memorandum from Sherbrook's safe didn't have the feel of the Fox. No, there were other players, players he'd overlooked.
Within minutes of Lord Thorne arriving on his doorstep, despite the hour, Roxbury had instantly notified several of the top generals. They were probably at this very moment considering other landings; he knew that nothing of real consequence would be accomplished for several hours yet. Once a full staff at the Horse Guards was a.s.sembled for the day, the real work would begin.
His thoughts strayed for a moment to Lord Thorne, currently sleeping upstairs. Jack had been white with exhaustion after his frantic ride to London, almost swaying on his feet when he had been shown into Roxbury's library, and once he had relayed his message, Roxbury had insisted he stay the night. Jack had gratefully accepted, not liking the disturbance his unexpected arrival would cause at the Thorne townhouse this time of night. Roxbury sighed. The young man had done his best and he sympathized with Jack's feeling of crushing failure. Garrett had yet to be notified of the disaster and Roxbury no more looked forward to telling him about the theft of the memorandum from Sherbrook's safe than he had imparting the news to the generals.
With a heavy tread and heart, the duke walked down the wide hallway to his private study at the rear of the house. He felt very tired and old as he walked and he wondered if perhaps his days of usefulness in his own unique way weren't coming to an end. I failed. It was a bitter draught to swallow.
Entering his study, he shut the door behind him and stared blankly around the large, candlelit room. It was a handsome, masculine room befitting a man of his wealth and t.i.tle. Amber figured bronze silk graced the portion of the walls not holding a series of floor-to-ceiling oak bookcases, their shelves crammed with leather volumes; drapes of amber velvet hung at the many windows. A pair of French doors opened onto a quiet terrace and a gold-veined marble fireplace dominated the opposite wall.
Roxbury fiddled with a few volumes of his vast collection of books, but nothing held his interest. Turning away, he strolled over to the French doors and, opening one, stepped out onto the terrace and stood looking up at the black sky as if he could find answers there. He sighed and, coming back inside, he walked over to his desk, where he sat for a few minutes, his fingers tapping aimlessly on the leather top as he stared blindly into s.p.a.ce. Getting up a moment later, he approached the array of crystal decanters and gleaming gla.s.ses and snifters neatly arranged across a marble-topped table. He stared for several seconds at the decanters before pouring himself a gla.s.s of rich, aromatic port. Gla.s.s in hand, he finally settled himself on a long leather sofa that faced the fireplace and gazed at the empty hearth.
The only comfort he could take from the entire debacle, he decided, was that he had been right to suspect Whitley of the theft in the first place. Not that he hadn't considered others and hadn't had those possibilities investigated. He had, and they had all come to naught. If there was anything good to come out of this, he reminded himself morosely, it was that at least they knew that the memorandum was in enemy hands-thank G.o.d, they were no longer dithering about that!
Intent upon his unpleasant musings, he had no indication that someone else was in the room with him until he felt the cold kiss of a pistol at the back of his neck and a man said, "If you value your life, your grace, do not cry out or turn around."
Roxbury sighed deeply. Just what he needed to end a perfectly foul evening: a brazen housebreaker!
"Take what you want," Roxbury said indifferently and took a sip of his port. "You'll not find much that is easily disposable in this room," he added helpfully. "Try the butler's pantry; there's bound to be a great deal of plate that would appeal to a common thief like yourself."
"Common?" mocked the man, a hint of laughter in his voice. "I like to think that there is nothing common about me at all and, while I appreciate the generous offer, your grace," said the man, "I'm not after silver candlesticks and utensils. I'm after gold...a great deal of gold."
His interest piqued, Roxbury asked, "And why should I give you a great deal of gold?"
The man chuckled. "Why, because I have something that you want very badly...a certain memorandum."
Roxbury stiffened and started to turn around, but the pistol pressed deeper into his neck and the intruder murmured, "No, don't turn around. I don't know for certain yet that we're going to do business and until I do we'll just keep things the way they are."
Irritated, yet undeniably excited by the man's words, Roxbury said, "I'm sure that we shall be able to come to an agreement, but I absolutely refuse to do business with a person I cannot see."
There was a hesitation, then the man sighed and said, "Somehow I expected you would say that."
Removing the pistol from Roxbury's neck, the intruder strolled around the end of the sofa where Roxbury sat and took a seat in a chair that was arranged at an angle to the sofa. There were only a few candles lit in the room and the intruder purposefully selected a chair that was half in shadows.
Roxbury watched him, noting the tall, broad-shouldered, loose-limbed body, the heavy black hair, and the cut and quality of the clothes his uninvited visitor wore. The dark blue coat looked to have come straight from the hands of Stultz, the man's linen was pristine, the starched cravat tied in a manner that would have won even Brummell's approval, and the black Hessian boots gleamed in the faint candlelight.
Roxbury smiled at the black silk mask the stranger wore. Lifting his gla.s.s, he indicated the mask and asked, "Do you think that fashion will catch on?"
The man smiled, his teeth a white flash in the shadows. "Perhaps, not, but it serves me well."
The light moment gone, Roxbury leaned forward and asked, "Do you have the memorandum with you?"
The man nodded and, reaching inside his jacket, extracted several folded sheets of paper and handed them to Roxbury.
Roxbury stood up and carried them to a candelabrum that sat on the far edge of the fireplace mantel. Quickly he scanned the material, his heart beating faster, his spirits lifting. It was the memorandum.
With a narrowed-eyed gaze, he looked at his intruder. "How did you come by these?"
The man stared down at the pistol he still held in his hand. "Not easily. Blood was spilt." Heavily, he added, "I doubt you'll find Whitley's corpse, but know that he is dead." Between the slits in the mask, his eyes met Roxbury's. "I did not kill him, but it is my fault that he is dead. As for those pages you hold, you know how I came by them. Lord Thorne is sure to have told you all when he arrived, just after midnight."
"You watched my house." It was a statement, not a question.
The man shrugged. "In my business one tends to be very careful."
Roxbury glanced down at the memorandum, already composing the note he would have delivered to the Horse Guards the moment he was done with his...guest. He considered the small pistol he always carried in his vest. Dare he risk it? He looked over at his visitor and discovered that the man's pistol was aimed at his heart.
"No tricks," the intruder said quietly. "If it will make it easier for you I suggest you think of this in the light of a mutually agreeable exchange. You get the memorandum and I get my gold."
For a long moment Roxbury studied him. As the man himself had stated, this was no common housebreaker. He had the manner and wore the clothes of a gentleman. There was arrogance in the set of his head, a cool confidence in the way he held himself. Even if his clothes and bearing did not bespeak the gentleman, his speech certainly did. And there was something familiar about him....
"Who are you?" demanded Roxbury. "Do I know you?"
"I don't think you need to concern yourself about that," he replied coolly. "Our business has to do with those sheets of paper you hold in your hand."
The man grinned, showing his even white teeth again, and said, "I'll take that nice leather bag of gold you keep in your safe just for fellows like myself and you may keep the memorandum with my compliments."
d.a.m.n the man! Roxbury fumed. Was there anything he didn't know? It was true he did keep a large amount of gold on hand for...He half-smiled. The scamp was right. It was for fellows just like this impudent jackanapes.
When Roxbury remained silent, the intruder moved restlessly and said, "I know you have it, so don't try to fob me off with some excuse that it will take you time to fetch it."
"You seem to have studied me quite extensively."
"As I said, in my business one tends to be careful. Very careful."
Roxbury nodded and walked to the bank of books that hid his safe. There didn't seem to be any reason to hide the location of his safe; he suspected the fellow already knew precisely where it was. Opening the safe, he pulled out a large, leather bag filled with gold guineas.
After putting the memorandum into the safe and locking it, he carried the bag of gold back to the intruder. Tossing it to him, Roxbury said, "You may count it if you like, to see if it is enough."
The man caught the bag easily, the heft of the bag and the c.h.i.n.k of the gold telling him that this night's work had been well worth the effort. Another grin was flashed Roxbury's way. "It will be enough, your grace." Rising to his feet, he bowed and said, "It has been a pleasure to do business with you."
He turned to leave and Roxbury commanded, "Wait!" When the man looked back at him, he asked, "You could have sold the memorandum to the French for far more than what is in that bag. Why didn't you?"
A bitter smile curved the handsome mouth. "There may be blood on my hands and I may be a thief and a robber and live by my wits, but I am no traitor to England."
Roxbury nodded. His gaze considering the man before him, he said slowly, "You're very clever and bold; I could use a man with your talents. Would you be interested in working for me?"
The intruder chuckled, shaking his head. "I work for no master, your grace. You'd find that I am not easily brought to the bridle."
"And do you think that men like Lord Thorne are easily brought to the bridle?" Roxbury asked curiously.
The intruder hesitated, then shook his head decisively. "I'm sorry to refuse you, your grace," he said with a hint of regret in his voice, "but Lord Thorne and the like have something I will never have. I would be of no use to you." And then he was gone.
Roxbury stared at the opened French door through which the man had disappeared. It never occurred to him to raise the alarm and, thinking of the precious memorandum resting in his safe, he decided that it had been a fair exchange, after all. Roxbury admired the boldness of the man, and oddly enough he wished his intruder well. There was, he mused, no reason for anyone to know that gold had been exchanged for the memorandum. It would be, he thought wryly, our little secret.
Seating himself behind his desk, he rang for his butler. There were messages to be written and delivered and he reached for his quill and ink bottle.
It was a few days before Jack and Garrett returned to Sherbrook Hall and related the amazing events in London. They came to call late one fine May afternoon and found Marcus and Isabel entertaining their guests, the Earl and Countess of Wyndham and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Weston, on the terrace. Garrett was vaguely familiar with both Lord Wyndham and his lady, and he had met Charles upon more than one occasion over the years. Daphne was new to him and he was instantly charmed by her friendly nature.
Jack had met both his cousins previously, but as with Marcus, they were almost virtual strangers and he had not yet met their wives. Introductions were made, congratulations were offered on his inheritance, refreshments served, and in no time everyone was at ease, chatting like old friends.
Isabel noticed immediately that both men seemed more relaxed and lighthearted and she puzzled over what had transpired in London to bring about this transformation. Once the niceties were dispensed with, unable to contain her curiosity any longer, she demanded, "Oh, Jack, tell us what happened! What did Roxbury say about the stolen memorandum?"
"Yes, do tell us," encouraged Charles. "Isabel and Marcus have brought us abreast of the situation, and we have all wondered how the loss of the memorandum will affect the war."
Jack hesitated, thinking of the stranger's admission to Roxbury that Whitley was dead. His gaze was uneasy as he took in the expectant faces of the women. "Uh, perhaps I could speak privately with the gentlemen," he finally muttered. "It, uh, isn't a topic for the ladies."
"Oh, pooh!" exclaimed Isabel. "We already know all about it, so there is no reason to think it is something only fit for the ears of gentlemen. I was abducted, Jack! I have just as much right to know what is going on as Marcus does." She gave his arm an impatient yank. "Now tell us. What happened?"
Marcus grinned at him. "You'll find that there is very little you can keep from intelligent women. You might as well tell them; they'll get it out of us eventually."
Jack capitulated. "By Jove! It is the most amazing thing," he said excitedly. "The very night I arrived, Roxbury had a visitor." He glanced at Isabel. "We're convinced it was your 'gentleman.'" His eyes gleamed. "Can you believe it? The fellow gave him the memorandum! He said he might be a thief, but he wasn't a traitor! So the French didn't get their hands on the memorandum after all." Looking around from one astounded face to the other, Jack laughed. "Yes, you may stare. I did when I woke in the morning and Roxbury told me that all was well. I didn't know whether I was on my heels or my head."
"The deuce you say!" burst out Marcus incredulously. "If he was going to turn it over to Roxbury, why the devil did he go to all the trouble of abducting Isabel and stealing it from us in the first place. We'd have turned it over to Roxbury."
Jack shook his head. "I don't know." He frowned slightly. "The man confessed to knowing that Whitley was dead. Knowing Roxbury, I'm positive that there is more to the matter than Roxbury is telling me, but the main thing, the most important thing, is that the memorandum is back at the Horse Guards where it belongs and Wellesley's plans are in full swing."
Alone in their private rooms later that night, Isabel said to Marcus, "I know it is unfeeling of me, but I cannot be very sorry that Whitley is dead. He was a bad man."
They were seated on a balcony just off Marcus's bedroom, enjoying the soft spring air, Isabel sipping a gla.s.s of warm milk, Marcus toying with a small gla.s.s of cognac.
Marcus nodded. "He probably didn't deserve to be murdered, though."
"How can you say that?" she demanded, outraged. "Marcus, he was trying to destroy Edmund's life and he was going to sell that memorandum to the French! Of course he deserved to be murdered!" She thought a moment, then added fiercely, "Or hanged."
Marcus couldn't argue with her logic and said, "You're right. Whitley got precisely what he deserved."
Satisfied that Marcus felt just as he ought, she asked, "What did you think of Jack's news?"
He shrugged. "It sounds like a Banbury tale to me. That fellow went to far too much trouble to simply hand the memorandum over so tamely. I think Jack is right. Roxbury isn't telling all he knows."
There was silence for a few minutes as they each mulled over what Roxbury might be hiding. Finally Isabel said, "It is very strange, isn't it?"