A Husband's Wicked Ways, страница 1
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TO WED A WICKED PRINCE
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A WICKED GENTLEMAN
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“Intriguing and satisfying…. The captivating romance is buttressed by rich characters and an intense kidnapping subplot, making this a fine beginning for Feather’s new series.”
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A HUSBAND’S WICKED WAYS
CORUNNA, SPAIN, JANUARY 16, 1809
THE MAN KNOWN TO HIS enemies only as the asp stepped into the shadow of a doorway in the narrow village street, his saber drawn. The sounds of the battle were all around him, the screams of horses, the clash of steel on steel, the roar of cannon as the tattered remnants of Sir John Moore’s army fought their last-ditch rearguard battle in the village and on the heights above Corunna. Below in the bay, one hundred British transports escorted by twelve ships of the line waited to evacuate what was left of the general’s army after the devastating retreat through the winter-locked Cantabrian Mountains.
The asp waited as the pursuit came closer to his doorway. He wasn’t sure how many men there were, but he must hold them off until the ensign carrying the document was safely aboard one of the British ships. Thirty minutes should be long enough for the man to attain safety, and if the asp prevailed here, he would have time to make his own way to the harbor. If he did not…
His expression hardened. He would at least have secured the safety of the document, duty done. He was a soldier and always had been. It was a hard truth that men who fought battles tended to die in them eventually. But losing colleagues in battle didn’t become easier, and even less so when they were as close a friend and partner as Frederick had been. If he could avenge Frederick’s death in these streets this evening, he would take pleasure in doing so.
The French were searching the street, soldiers banging on doors, shouting commands and questions. But the inhabitants of Corunna were staying tight behind their doors, waiting for the raging battle to cease. When the asp judged the moment right, he stepped out in the lane facing the two men as they slammed the hilts of their sabers against the door across the lane.
“Messieurs…are you looking for me?” he inquired gently.
They spun around, swords at the ready. The asp kept the doorway at his back as he took a further step towards the enemy. Only two of them. He had more than a chance…unless there were reinforcements on the way.
He could hear only the distant mayhem of the battle, however, and with a grim little smile, he lunged. They were no novice swordsmen these two, he reflected, as he parried thrust after thrust, striving always to keep the doorway at his back as he danced, pirouetting, beating back the seemingly indefatigable blades. He saw an opening. The man on his left faltered as his boot tip caught on an uneven cobblestone, leaving his side open. The asp’s blade slid into flesh, and his opponent’s sword clattered to the cobbles, the man swaying for an instant before crumpling, his hand pressed to the pumping wound under his arm.
The asp turned his attention to his remaining assailant. He was tiring himself now, but the knowledge that he had only one man to defeat and a death to avenge brought him a renewed burst of energy. His opponent fell back, feinted, then lunged. The asp’s point slipped beneath his guard and drove deep between his ribs.
The asp stepped back, holding his sword, point down, as the other man slid to the ground with a grunt, his sword dropping useless beside him. The victor kicked both weapons away from their wounded owners and stood looking down at them for a moment with cold gray eyes. Then he shrugged with faint resignation. Vengeance was one thing, cold-blooded murder another. He leaned down to pull the kerchief from one of the men’s necks. Fastidiously he wiped his sword.
“I am probably going to regret this,” he observed almost amiably. “But I have always found the prospect of killing a disarmed and wounded opponent distasteful. So, gentlemen, this is your lucky day.”
He sheathed his saber, dropped the stained kerchief to the ground beside its unconscious owner, and loped off down the lane towards the harbor, his part in the battle now done.
As long as he could avoid any further encounters with the French on his way to the ships, he would win free…for this time anyway.
LONDON, MARCH 1809
AURELIA FARNHAM INSTINCTIVELY quickened her pace as she turned onto Cavendish Square from Wigmore Street. The footsteps behind her speeded up as she did. Her heart began to beat faster. Was he following her? More to the point, who was following her?
She slowed deliberately, and the footsteps adapted. It was late afternoon, the sun sinking behind the city’s roofs and chimney pots, but the evening was by no means drawing in, and plenty of people were still around. Or at least there were on the busy streets she had just left; the square was rather quiet, no sounds of playing children coming from behind the railings of the large central garden.
But Aurelia’s apprehension was giving way to annoyance. This was her home ground, and if an individual couldn’t feel safe a mere twenty yards from her own front door, then something was seriously rotten in the state of Denmark.
She stopped abruptly and spun around. The man behind her stopped. He swept off his high-crowned beaver hat and bowed.
“Lady Farnham?” he inquired, his tone slightly clipped.
Aurelia gave a faint nod of acknowledgment. “Do I know you, sir?” There was nothing in his appearance to alarm. He was dressed with impeccable respectability, carrying nothing more threatening than a slender, silver-knobbed cane.
“Unfortunately, ma’am, we have not been formally introduced,” he said, replacing his hat. “I left my card at your house an hour past, but…” He paused with a slight frown. “Forgive me, but I had little confidence that it would reach your hands. The…uh…servant to whom I entrusted it seemed disinclined to take it and did so only with the greatest reluctance. I thought I would return and try my luck again.”
“Ah, that would be Morecombe,” Aurelia said with something approaching a sigh. “His manner may be a little off-putting, sir, but I can assure you he can be relied upon.” She regarded him interrogatively. “Is there something I can do for you?”
He offered another little bow. “Colonel, Sir Greville Falconer at your service, ma’am. Forgive this unconventional introduction, but I was a friend of your husband’s.”
“Of Frederick’s?” Aurelia looked astonished. Her husband, First Lieutenant, Lord Frederick Farnham, had died at the Battle of Trafalgar, over three years earlier. He’d have been a much younger man than this colonel, she reflected. Sir Greville seemed t
“Yes, of Frederick’s,” he agreed. A gust of March wind caught his hat, and he grabbed it swiftly. He glanced rather quizzically around the blustery square.
Aurelia remembered the courtesies, although nothing obliged her to offer hospitality to a stranger who’d accosted her on the street. But if he had been a friend of Frederick’s, then she owed him more than the street. “Would you care to accompany me into the house, sir?”
“Thank you, ma’am.” He offered her his arm. She took it with a politely noncommittal smile, immediately returning her hands inside her swan’s-down muff. They walked the last few yards and up the steps to the front door in a silence that Aurelia found awkward, but that she was convinced her companion did not. He radiated confidence and self-possession.
Aurelia slipped one gloved hand from the muff and extracted a key from her reticule. The house’s owners, Prince and Princess Prokov, had decided on the line of least resistance when it came to dealings with the ancient Morecombe. He could not be relied upon to hear the door knocker, and even when he did, his progress was so slow many visitors had given up in despair long before the door was opened to them. A modern lock had now been installed, and if the elderly retainer was on duty at the door, rather than the extremely efficient Boris, the house’s occupants took their own keys.
She opened the door and stepped inside, inviting her companion to follow her.
Morecombe shuffled in his carpet slippers from the kitchen regions, peering myopically at the pair in the hall. “Oh, ’tis you,” he declared.
“Yes, Morecombe, and I have a visitor,” Aurelia said patiently. “We shall go into the salon.” She turned aside into a large and beautifully furnished drawing room. “You must forgive Morecombe’s eccentricities, Sir Greville. He has been a retainer here for many, many years.” She set down her muff and drew off her gloves.
“Won’t you sit down, sir.”
The colonel had removed his hat and was looking appreciatively around the handsome apartment, his gaze drawn to the portrait over the fireplace. A rather beautiful woman in full court dress looked out from the canvas, her startling blue eyes seeming to follow the room’s occupants. “A relative?” he asked, absently brushing at his hat brim.
“Not of mine,” she said. “A close relative of Prince Prokov’s. The house belongs to him and his wife, a very old friend of mine. I am staying here while they’re in the country with their staff for several months. The princess awaits her confinement.”
“I did wonder how you came to be living here,” he observed, turning his gaze on her. A dark and unreadable gaze.
Aurelia was suddenly uneasy. Why would he wonder anything about her at all? Who was he? He was somehow giving the impression that he knew things that he had no business knowing. She had the strangest feeling that, as he looked at her, he was assessing her, comparing her with something, some image, some perception. And abruptly she wanted him out of the house.
“Forgive me, Colonel…it was pleasant to meet you, but I’m afraid I have another engagement in an hour and must change my dress,” she said, moving towards the door with an ushering gesture in his direction.
“I understand, ma’am, and I won’t keep you long, but I have not as yet discharged my business.” He did not move from his place before the fire.
Aurelia’s nostrils flared with a surge of annoyance that did nothing to dispel the unease. She turned back to the room, standing close to the door. “Indeed, sir?” Her brown eyes had lost their habitual warmth and her fair eyebrows rose.
He smiled, a flash of white in a lean, tanned countenance. His eyes were a dark gray beneath thick, straight eyebrows, and disconcertingly, he had the longest, lushest eyelashes that Aurelia had ever seen on a woman, let alone a man. But apart from that feature, there was nothing conventionally handsome about his appearance. His countenance had a rather battered air, as if it and its owner had been through a lot together. But it was strangely compelling nevertheless.
And even as she thought this, she realized that her moment of taking stock had given her visitor implicit control. She should have pressed on with his dismissal; instead, she had looked at him far too closely for a mere casual and uninterested observation.
He set his hat and cane down on a console table against the wall and drew off his gloves, regarding her with a slight frown in his eyes as he slapped the gloves rhythmically into the palm of one hand. “I expected to find you in the country, at Farnham Manor,” he said, and Aurelia, to her increased annoyance, thought she could detect a note of irritation in the statement.
“Indeed?” she said again in a tone of haughty indifference. “I wish you would tell me, Sir Greville, why you would go to such trouble to find me. My husband’s been dead for more than three years, it seems a little late for a visit of condolence.”
“Would you sit down, Lady Farnham.”
It was not a question, or a request, it had all the force of a command. Aurelia stared at him. He was presuming to give her orders in what for the present was to all intents and purposes her own house. “I beg your pardon?”
“Believe me, ma’am, it would be better if you were to sit down,” he said, gesturing to a sofa.
“I have no intention of doing so,” Aurelia snapped, laying a hand on the back of a chair as if to emphasize her upright posture. “Now, state your business, Colonel, if you must, then oblige me with your departure.”
“Very well.” He nodded slightly. “Your husband, First Lieutenant, Lord Frederick Farnham, was alive until January sixteenth of this year. He was killed at the battle of Corunna.”
“You are mad,” Aurelia said, her fingers curling tightly over the chair.
He shook his head. “I witnessed his death, Lady Farnham.”
What kind of cruel practical joke was this? Aurelia’s knees shook a little, and there was a tight band around her head. She took a step sideways and dropped onto the sofa, gazing up at her visitor in dazed incomprehension. She couldn’t dismiss what he’d said. He was regarding her with both understanding and something akin to compassion, and she knew that he was telling the truth, however unbelievable it was. He had the unmistakable air of a man who knew exactly what was going to happen next and was calmly prepared to deal with it.
He turned away and strode to a sideboard. He filled a glass from the cognac decanter and brought it over to her. “Drink this.”
Aurelia took the glass in numb fingers and gulped. The fiery liquid scorched her throat, made her cough and splutter, but it warmed her belly and brought her back to full awareness. “I don’t understand,” she stated.
“No,” he agreed. “How should you?” He returned to the sideboard and poured himself a glass of port. He came back, moved a chair slightly so that he was facing her, and sat down. “I will explain as much as I can at this juncture. Drink the cognac.”
Aurelia took a more cautious sip. A flickering resurgence of her customary self wanted to tell him that he had no right to help himself to port without an invitation, but she recognized the urge as merely an attempt to reestablish some kind of control over her surroundings, since she had no control over what was happening, or of what would happen next.
“Frederick Farnham worked for me,” her visitor announced, swirling the liquid in his glass.
“He was a first lieutenant in the navy,” she protested. “You said you’re a colonel…they don’t have colonels in the navy.”
“True,” he agreed calmly. “But there is some overlap between the services.” He gave her his white smile again. “We do all serve King George.”
Aurelia stared at the contents of her glass, her mind a violent swirl of incomprehension. Finally, she looked up and said as steadily as she could, articulating every syllable as if
“Many died in that battle,” her visitor said. “But your husband was not one of them. He was not at the battle, he was with me in Bavaria, at Ulm, where General Mack was negotiating an armistice with Napoléon.”
Aurelia shook her head. “Why was Frederick there? He was in the navy.”
“Your husband was only peripherally attached to the navy. In fact he was an agent of the secret service.”
“A spy, you mean?” Aurelia struggled to attach such a label to the man she thought she knew…the man who’d been a childhood companion, and her husband. The man she’d shared a bed with for close to four years. That man had been open, generous, kind. Above all, honest and honorable. He had no time for deceit or lies, even of the most trivial. Such a monumental deception as this was impossible.
She shook her head again, more vigorously this time. “I don’t believe a word you’re saying.”
Greville inclined his head in acknowledgment. “I don’t really expect you to take my word for it. But I hope you will take Frederick’s.” He reached into his coat and withdrew a packet. He tapped it lightly against his knee, looking at her with that same slight frown in the gray eyes. “This is from your husband. It was sent to you at Farnham Manor. I went there in search of you…Frederick assumed that you would still be there. With your daughter…?” He raised an interrogative eyebrow. “Frances, I believe is her name. Franny, Frederick called her…she must be about six now?”
Aurelia said nothing, just gazed at him with all the fascination of a mesmerized rabbit.
“Anyway,” he continued, when it seemed clear she was saying nothing, “I went in search of you and was told I would find you both here, in Cavendish Square. This”—he gestured with the packet—“was delivered to you a few days ago…your staff were preparing to send it on here by the mail coach.” He gave a tiny shrug. “I saved them the trouble.”