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Laurel Ames

She thought she must have dozed, for a sudden draft awakened her and subsequent covert sounds of liquid being poured indicated that whoever had come through that oddly placed side door was no burglar but was quite at home. The hall door opened and she heard confident steps.

“Gaspard, what news?” Bennet demanded in perfect French.

Rose gaped in the privacy of her chair as Gaspard revealed plans to free Napoleon from his island prison. He mentioned half a dozen ships, L’Inconstant by name, and a thousand men.

“They managed to evade the British cruisers then,” Bennet said. “Amazing.” Bennet’s contributions to the conversation, though in fluent French, were noncommittal. None of the news, though he demanded details, seemed to be much of a surprise to him. Rose listened to his inflection to see if she could tell if he were a part of this heinous plot, but she could not.

The door was flung open again and Rose thought the room was getting a trifle crowded. Her danger of being discovered was great, even if she made no sound.

“Leighton, come in,” Bennet said. “You are very late.”

“I just got Walters’s message,” the new voice said excitedly. “I had to dispatch a flurry of reports just in case.”

“Gaspard seems to have little doubt his news from the fishermen on Elba is true.”

The door to the library thumped open again and Rose moaned inwardly, drawing tighter into the cover of the wing chair.

“Bennet, I want to speak to you now,” Axel demanded drunkenly.

“Not now, Foy, can you not see I am engaged?”

“This cannot wait.”

“Oh, very well. Leighton, take Gaspard, go to your office and await me there.”

This last was spoken in English, Rose supposed, for Axel’s benefit. To her relief at least two of the men left by the exterior door.

“I am not asking permission this time. I am telling you. I mean to have Harriet.”

“Yes, of course,” Bennet replied. “Brandy?”

“What do you mean? She told you?”

Rose heard glasses being filled and wondered what Bennet was playing at.

“We discussed all this when I turned her inheritance over to her,” Bennet said calmly. “She is responsible for her own fortune now. It was nice of you to come to ask formally for her hand, but there was really no need.”

“But I didn’t,” Axel replied.

“But surely you intend to,” Bennet countered.

“You cannot stop me.”

“I do not mean to. I only stood in your way four years ago because of her young age. Since her attention has remained fastened on you all these years, I see now that I was wrong.”

“You admit you were wrong?” Axel asked incredulously.

“Yes, her love for you, compared to the length of most affairs in London, amounts to a grand passion. Without a doubt, you and Harriet belong together.”

Rose heard their glasses click together, but she did not imagine Axel was participating in the toast.

“We do? Yes, of course we do. So there are no settlements to work out?”

“Not between the two of us. You have only to deal with Harriet. Do you plan a large wedding?”

“I—we haven’t decided yet.”

“Allow me to put one of my traveling carriages at your disposal for your honeymoon. Also Harriet has taken a notion to have a London house. I can be no end of help to you there.”

“I prefer to make my own arrangements, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all. Just let me know if I can be of service.”

“I—I will.”

The door opened and closed with less assurance this time and Rose breathed a sigh of relief. If only Bennet would leave now. She heard him chuckling to himself. So, he was not really foisting his sister on such a villain as Foy, but was making a May game of the man. She heard footsteps coming toward the fireplace and closed her eyes as if in sleep. She detected a slight gasp when Bennet discovered her, but maintained her pose. He said nothing, but she could feel his weight on the arms of the chair, his breath on her forehead, then his lips on hers. Her eyes flew open.

“Wh-what are you doing?” she stammered as she shrank into the chair.

“Waking a very appealing sleeping beauty.”

“I do not think you really believed me to be asleep.”

“Of course, you were asleep. Otherwise I might suspect you of eavesdropping.”

“No one could have slept though Axel’s incoherent ranting.”

“Aha, that should have been my line, not yours.”

“Very well, I was pretending to be asleep to avoid embarrassment.” She stood and closed the volume.

“For you or me?”

“For both of us. And as long as I have been accused of spying—” she laid an accusing emphasis on the word but Bennet only grinned at her “—what do you mean by handing your sister over to such a rake?”

“But if I make it easy for him, he may decide he does not want her. Believe me, I know Axel.”

“I know him too.”

“I have been trying to forget that,” Bennet said with the first edge to his voice that she had ever heard. He put down his glass and deliberately kissed her. And she let him, only coming to her senses when she realized this was just the sort of thing she would have killed Axel for. But Bennet was nothing like Axel. Still, this was not a kiss of friendship, and she had to put him in his place.

When he finally released her she sniffed and said, “In your own way you are just as ruthless and manipulative as Axel.”

“Something tells me I should take offense at that,” he replied, trying to get close to her lips again and finding a volume of Diderot thrust in his face instead.

“Something tells me you won’t. I must go and find Stanley and Alice. It is time we were taking our leave.”

He did not try to detain her but chuckled again as he replaced the volume on the shelf. It was in French and if he knew anything about Miss Gwen Rose Wall, he could make a guess that she was not just looking at the pictures. He went over his conversation with Gaspard in his mind. Even if she spoke of it, and he did not think she would, she was scarcely likely to spook their quarry, not before the trap had been sprung. He really must remember never to underestimate her again.
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