Laurel Ames

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The young women spent a successful afternoon at the modiste and mantua makers’ shops. Rose found two evening gowns that needed no alterations, but Alice chose to have hers made from scratch and risked not having any for Harriet Varner’s birthday ball. When the carriage returned them to the hotel, Alice grabbed one small parcel of ribbons and left Martin and Rose to transport the large stack of bandboxes to the third-floor suite.

“What do you think of Bennet Varner?” Rose asked her groom as they trudged up the stairs.

Martin darted her an uncertain glance. “He’s a quick’un, miss.”

“Yes, I thought so myself. Though he acts the part of a jovial carefree fellow, I find myself expecting some hidden agenda.”

“But what could it be, miss? No one in London knows—”

“No one we know in London knows anything about what happened at Wall five years ago, but many people go to London.”

“Are you thinking of Lord Foy?”

“The war was over last year. I cannot imagine where else Axelrod Barton, Lord Foy, would be except London. Surely not at that Yorkshire estate that he described as moldering into the rock from which it was built.”

“But what are the chances of meeting him? It’s such a very big city, miss.”

“I am sure you are right, Martin, and I have nothing to fear. Ten to one Axel is still tripping about Vienna or haunting the gaming hells of Paris.”

“Besides, even if you were to encounter him, he knows nothing.”

“He remembers nothing. There is a difference and I should not wish to jog his memory.”

“I shall keep an eye out for him, miss, and warn you if he’s about.”

“Martin, don’t say anything to your sister, Cynthie. No need to alarm her unnecessarily.”

“Yes, miss,” Martin agreed as he deposited the boxes in the common sitting room for Alice and Rose to sort out.

Susan and Cynthie, the two maids, unpacked the treasures and the women spent a profitable hour planning several toilettes. Rose and Alice got on better when they spoke of trivialities. Rose truly had no intention of marrying, but she saw no point in being a dowd either. She had money and meant to enjoy it. She also knew that the best way to put forward their tour was to get Alice tricked out as soon as possible and in good twig for the crossing.

The chance that they could actually be traveling to where she might meet Lord Foy did not disturb her so much as encountering him in England. He was not likely to be touring museums or ruins. So long as they avoided British society abroad she would be safe. Therefore, the sooner they left England the better.

Bennet Varner sighed and paced from door to window for the twentieth time, looking out on the dismal courtyard below Viscount Leighton’s small room in the group of apartments known as the Foreign Office. Leighton growled and cast his pen aside, running his hand through his fair hair in exasperation. It suddenly occurred to Bennet he was annoying his best friend.

“You always get like this where there’s a woman involved,” Leighton complained. “Will this be another of those uncomfortable seasons when I am forever worrying about Foy blowing your head off?”

“That’s only happened once, and if you recall he merely wounded me,” Bennet said, throwing himself into one of the wing chairs pulled close to the small grate.

“Only because he knew you would not have him arrested for that. If he could have killed you with impunity he would have done so. And that was over your sister. Every time you make up to a woman, Foy seems to appear to take her away from you. When will you two stop this stupid competition? It started at school years ago, and you have never grown out of it, either of you.”

“I don’t know what you mean. Besides, my first meeting with Lord Foy was when I saved your skin on the playing field. Are you forgetting that?”

“I would like to. So what is this new inamorata like?”

“I don’t know what makes you think—”

“Heavy sighs from a man normally tied to his desk when he is not crawling about one of his ships.” Leighton pushed his papers aside and rose from his desk.

“She’s my mother’s goddaughter, just arrived from the country.”

“An innocent?” Leighton rifled through his desk drawers.

“Yes, in many ways, but not stupid. She is already suspicious of me.”

“Suspicious of you, a man without the sense to know when his intended has taken another man as her lover.” The slight man extended his search to the corner cupboard.

Bennet hopped up to pace again.

“Sit down. I’m sorry I said anything. Aha.” Leighton held up the brandy decanter triumphantly, sloshed some of the liquid into two glasses and handed one to Bennet as his friend paced past him. “What are you doing that she is suspicious of?”

“I’m trying to keep her in London and having a damned hard time of it.”

Leighton seated himself by the fireplace and jabbed at the small blaze with the poker. “Why keep her here, where Foy may get at her? You can follow her wherever she goes. A few weeks of dalliance in the country might be just the thing to ease your nerves.”

“To Paris?”

“Oh, that’s another matter, but the rumors may be completely false. When you think about it, does it not seem entirely fantastic that Napoleon could have any thought to leave Elba? France is facing economic ruin, the peace negotiations are nearly completed. Probably it is all a hum.”

Bennet threw himself into the other chair again. “Perhaps if I warn her of our suspicions she can delay her brother’s departure—”

“No, that you must not do, for we do not know what sort of economic panic such news would cause if it were to get about. You know what fools we aristocrats can be.”

“If I cannot tell her I will simply have to deceive Rose.”

“Rose, a country rose?” Leighton mused. “When may I meet this latest paragon of yours?”

“Harriet’s coming-of-age party tomorrow night. I don’t suppose you are in the market for a wealthy wife?”

Leighton looked sharply at him. “Not a chance, Bennet. Remember, I know Harriet Besides, she always said she was going to marry Foy when she was old enough.”

“Yes, I suppose there’s no stopping that now. Will you come anyway?”

“Yes, so long as there is no pressing business here. I will attend. I must meet the woman who has thrown you into such a fuddle.”

Chapter Two

Rose breakfasted in bed, a luxury she now allowed herself since Alice was not an early riser, and, judging from the hour at which Stanley had stumbled in, she rather thought he would be abed till noon. Of course, at Wall, she would have been up and riding two hours ago, but she was on holiday and should try to enjoy herself. She could enjoy herself now that Varner had expanded her horizons. Rose decided she could like London quite well now that she knew there was such a delightful place to ride.

Cynthie helped her into her green riding habit again, and Rose promised herself that she would buy another if Bennet appeared today. He had said they would ride every day, but it would be just like such a careless fellow to forget and leave her standing in the lobby of Greeves Hotel with Martin on watch in the street.

She spent the remaining hour before ten o’clock writing a long letter to her mother in the comparative privacy of the lounge off the lobby. Rose had just handed this over to be mailed when she saw the horses from the window and looped up the tail of her habit to go down the steps. Bennet leaped to her elbow and helped her to mount Gallant so solicitously she decided she would rumble his lay today. She would, at least, take up yesterday’s argument where he had interrupted it.

They had brought Victor for Martin to ride, and the two grooms kept a respectful distance back from Bennet and Rose.

“No horses for Stanley and Alice?” Rose asked, looking innocently around from her perch atop Gallant.

“Your brother told me Alice does not ride.” Bennet flicked an imaginary speck of dust from his plum-colored coat.
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