Byrnewood Manor, England
“Whatever reason you had to tear me away from London, it had better be important, sir,” Webb Dryden said to his father, seated at the imposing desk of his long-time friend, Giles Corliss, the Marquess of Trahern. Byrnewood Manor, Giles’ ancestral home was situated a few miles outside of Bath, and though it was a delightful town, London was where Webb wanted to be, not rusticating in the countryside in frosty depths of late autumn.
As far as he was concerned, other than an imminent French invasion, there couldn’t be reason enough to drag him away from the delights of town. He’d spent the last two years mucking through the wars and courts on the Continent, and had been recalled only after he’d been injured and needed the safety of home to recuperate.
And that had only been a month ago.
Damnation, he was bone weary of traveling and wanted only to yield to the comforts of a soft bed, and an even softer woman. Not that he’d found that in London.
He’d made the mistake of mentioning in passing to his worried mother that he was considering settling down. He’d only said it to appease her fears about his missions, but she’d taken his words to heart and had been dragging through the Marriage Mart ever since he’d mentioned possibly taking a bride.
“Why are you still limping?” his father asked, ignoring his rude inquiry. “I thought McTaggart patched you up in Paris.”
“He did,” Webb said. “He also said I needed rest, and to avoid bruising carriage rides across the countryside.”
“Harumph,” his father replied, not looking up from the papers before him. He’d arrived from their family estate, Webb knew, minutes earlier, for the Dryden coach with its plain trappings and small, tasteful crest still stood in front of Brynewood’s ivy-fronted entrance, the lathered horses prancing in their traces. The elder Dryden had used his extra time to appropriate the room’s most commanding seat, a leather bound monstrosity behind Gile’s large oak desk.
“Your note only said to meet you here,” Webb stated, bowing briefly to their hosts, Giles and his wife, Sophia, the Marchioness of Trahern, both seated on a sofa to one side of the desk.
As bad as all that, he thought, noting the worried frown marring Sophia’s normally unruffled features. Even in the toughest of spots, the lady rarely looked anything but enchantingly amused.
Surely the news of his little nighttime excursion into the Tuileries right past Boney’s guards hadn’t reached his father’s ears yet. They’d only winged him as he’d escaped and the fact that he’d survived the fall from that first story window was a testament to both his resiliency and the gardener’s laziness for not clearing away an enormous pile of autumn leaves. And even if the entire venture hadn’t received his father’s blessing beforehand, Webb had obtained the documents they’d sought.
For the life of him, other than that minor issue of insubordination, he couldn’t think of any other reason why he would be summoned into the country for an interview with this grim-faced tribunal led by his father.
Still, Webb had the distinct feeling he’d been summoned for a funeral.
His to be precise, gauging from Sophia’s sympathetic expression. More than likely another demotion. Or worse, a desk assignment in the catacombed basement of the Foreign Office.
Lord Dryden waved Webb toward an open seat. “I was just telling Lord and Lady Trahern the news, my boy. News far too delicate to discuss in my office.”
Too delicate for the formidable stone walls of the Foreign Office? His prospective desk in the damp basement took on the proportions of a looming coffin.
His father cleared his throat and announced, “Henri de Chevenoy is dead.”
“Henri dead?” he repeated quietly, startled out of his own selfish musings. But even then, an impish part of him drew a sigh of relief.
That meant his escapade hadn’t been bandied about as yet.
Webb watched his father slowly take off his gold-rimmed spectacles and wipe them with a white linen cloth. The measured movements told Webb that de Chevenoy’s death, a disastrous event in itself, wasn’t the only piece of bad news his sire wished to impart, merely the beginning.
But what could be worse than the death of Henri de Chevenoy? Webb wondered.
For nearly twenty-five years, de Chevenoy had been England’s primary agent across the Channel—and not just for the operations in France. De Chevenoy had been trusted to oversee most of England’s activities on the Continent. Once a high-ranking nobleman of Louis the XVI’s court, he had disappeared into the nominal safety of the countryside during the first deadly tides of revolution. Though not one to call attention to himself, de Chevenoy had never been far from the current administration du jour. With the ever shifting tides of the revolution, the man had developed an uncanny knack of disconnecting himself from one regime and latching onto the ascending fortunes of the next, all behind the scenes. Lately, his friendship with the upstart Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, had been a great service to England’s war efforts.
And now de Chevenoy was dead, right when England needed him most. Webb’s earlier fears seemed foolish in the face of this calamity.
“When?” Sophia asked quietly, breaking the stunned silence.
“Well, now, ‘when’ you ask,” Lord Dryden blustered as he sorted through his papers. “A month ago. His valet, Costard, found him face down in his dressing room. The man stepped out to retrieve something, and when he returned, de Chevenoy was dead. Apparently a heart ailment. Sad business, it is, my lady, but I wanted you to hear it from me, because I knew you were fond of the Count.”
Sophia nodded her appreciation.
“Now, the real muddle to all this is—” he paused, looking vaguely uncomfortable at having to continue in the presence of a lady, even one with Sophia’s nefarious background.
“You know I’ll not leave, my lord,” Sophia said, smiling politely and settling deeper into the sofa. “You can’t drop such havey-cavey business within my earshot, then expect me to bow out like some insipid miss when you finally get to the gist of the matter, now can you?”
Webb knew his father had never quite approved of her involvement in these operations, but not even his father’s stiff-lipped mien could argue with her natural skill for spying or ability to plan strategy. While Giles had long been considered one of the Foreign Office’s best operatives, Sophia was her husband’s partner and equal in every sense of the words, and had been since the first day they’d met.
And even now, when she was obviously far gone with another child and clearly unfit for whatever mission his father had in mind, Webb saw her glancing at her husband in that secret, unspoken language they shared. Webb swore the Traherns could stand across a room from one another and have an entire conversation without uttering a word.
You’ll not go without me, her expression seemed to say.
Giles’ foreboding glower answered his wife’s stubborn determination.
“Well, since you seem intent on staying,” Lord Dryden huffed, “you may as well hear it all.” His father placed his spectacles back on the bridge of his nose and continued. “De Chevenoy’s death, however untimely, has left our entire operation on the Continent in exceedingly dire straits—”
“Surely, sir, the situation isn’t as grim as all that,” Giles commented, drawing a frown of disapproval from Dryden for the interruption. Obviously unperturbed, Giles continued. “You could move Paston up from Vienna and allow him to oversee the Southern operations, and after Sophia’s confinement we could-”
“No, no! That won’t do,” Lord Dryden interrupted so sharply, even Webb, used to his father’s gruff and direct manner, was taken aback. “This isn’t a matter of replacements. That’s all been taken care of. The problem is still de Chevenoy. The fool man may be dead, but he forgot to take his journals with him.”
“Journals?” Sophia no longer sat settled back on the sofa, but perched at the edge of the cushion, her blue eyes glittering.
“Aye. Suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you understand the problem we’re facing,” Lord Dryden said to her. “Yes. A damned chronicle of his activities and all his contacts. From what I’ve gathered, there are volumes of them. The man was worse than Johnson and his blasted dictionary ever was.” Dryden sat back and groaned. “His retirement, the damned fool like to call them.”
“So he would have leverage if he was ever discovered.” Webb shook his head. “Am I correct?”
“Exactly.” Dryden shook his head. “Now you see why I’ve never liked that damnable frog you thought so affable. He taunted me about their existence, all the while promising me they’d never end up in the wrong hands, as long as his accounts were kept full. But I never suspected he would just die like this and leave them unguarded.”
“So you want me to retrieve them?” Webb mentally made his departure plans even as he spoke. This wasn’t a job for any but the best of his father’s agents—which meant him or the Traherns—and with Sophia’s imminent confinement, that could only mean this briefing was for him.
“Go get them, you say?” His father’s outburst held the startling timbre of the first note of a dirge. “If I knew where the blasted things were, I’d have sent you the moment I heard of his death.”
Webb nodded. De Chevenoy had been no fool, and would hardly be expected to keep such damning evidence in the top drawer of his desk.
Giles stood up and began to pace. “If these journals pose a danger to all our agents on the continent, then they also pose a danger to those agents’ families.” He stopped and turned to his wife. “Especially yours, my dear. If any of this comes to light, Lucien can forget any hopes of reclaiming your family’s lost titles and lands,” he said, referring to her elder brother.
“I was coming to the same conclusion,” she said, her features lined with concern.
“Is your entire family back in France?” Webb asked.
“Just Lucien,” Sophia replied, glancing quickly at her husband and then at Lord Dryden. “With my brother Julien at sea, Lucien thought it best to leave his wife and children to look after my mother and father in Virginia.”
Webb noticed while she mentioned her younger brother, she made no mention of her sister, Lily. While he’d heard from his mother that Sophia’s sister was safely married away, even the mere mention of her name sent a shiver of fear down his spine.
It had been on his last visit to Byrnewood that Lily’s unrelenting schoolgirl attentions had nearly driven him mad. Even worse, her romantic infatuation with Webb had become something of a Dryden family joke. One Webb found neither amusing nor worth repeating, though his sisters delighted in teasing him about Lily and their impending ‘betrothal.’
Webb shuddered. The last thing he wanted was an opportunity for Lily, married or not, to add fuel to his family’s pyre of humiliation.
No, he’d not risk asking for any more information about Sophia’s family. Better to think Lily married to her Virginia farmer with a passel of children clinging to her skirts than consider she might be as close as upstairs.
He glanced over at Giles, the man’s brow furrowed with concentration. Here was where his thoughts should be, Webb realized, for it appeared his friend was caught amidst a seething dilemma—loathe to leave his wife in her condition, yet at the same time bound by duty to see her family safe.
Webb knew Sophia’s pregnancies were not easy for her, and Giles would never forgive himself if he wasn’t with her when his wife’s time arrived.
Webb rose from his seat and clapped Giles hard on the shoulder. “You must stay here, my friend. Besides, if you were to go now, your lady wife would only follow. Stay here and use all your wits to see that she doesn’t slip away to Paris and I’ll go over and fetch de Chevenoy’s journals and be back in time for the christening.”
Sophia opened her mouth, obviously to lodge her protest.
Webb shook his head at her. “Though I bow to your superior skill in burglary, my lady, I have no doubts I can enter either of de Chevenoy’s houses without detection and retrieve his journals.”
“Bah!” Lord Dryden tossed aside the paper he’d been perusing. “If it were that simple, do you think I would have summoned you all the way to Bath to discuss it? There is more to this than I’ve said. Sit down, both of you and listen.” His sharp tone sent Webb and Giles scurrying back to their respective seats, like two schoolboys caught in some mischief.
Lord Dryden opened a leather bound portfolio and began sorting though the jumbled dispatches. He selected one and read through it before sharing its contents with his audience.
Webb knew this was his father’s way of reprimanding all three of them for interrupting him.
With his review completed, Lord Dryden finally broke the uneasy silence. “De Chevenoy’s estate has been placed under seal by order of the First Consul, Bonaparte.”
“Bonaparte?” Webb said, more to himself than aloud.
His father nodded. “Aye. De Chevenoy had been cultivating a fast friendship with the First Consul. Bonaparte is anxious to cement his position with all the opposing factions, so he saw de Chevenoy with his vast contacts from the old regime as a means to bring the nobles back to France. So it should come as no surprise that our wily Corsican has posted guards at each house to “protect” the property and ordered de Chevenoy’s solicitor to guard the estate with his life.”
“More likely to give that upstart and his henchman, Fouch? time to ransack the estate,” Webb muttered.
His father shook his head. “While I would never underestimate Fouche, it appears that the First Consul is adamant that the de Chevenoy estates be protected.”
“But why and from what?” Webb asked.
“Not ‘from what’, but for who. No one is allowed in, other than the servants, until the heiress is brought home.”
“The heiress? What heiress?” As far as Webb knew, de Chevenoy had lived like a monk, secreting himself away on his estates or in his Paris home, granting hardly anyone access into his clandestine and dangerous life.
Dryden handed Webb a single sheet of paper, a devious gleam to his otherwise imperturbable features. “See for yourself, my boy. De Chevenoy willed everything to his daughter.”
Webb scanned the document, an apparent copy of de Chevenoy’s last will and testament. He needn’t ask how his father obtained this so quickly, for his father’s connections never ceased to amaze him. “A daughter? Why, I didn’t know he had a daughter.”
“Yes, Adelaide,” Sophia commented. She turned to Lord Dryden, “If I may, m’lord?”
“Yes, go right ahead,” he said, granting her a nod of approval and a small smile of pride. “You obviously know more about it than these two wastrels.”
Webb and Giles exchanged a look of condolence at once again being shown up by Sophia in front of their superior.
“De Chevenoy’s family,” she began, “like mine, inter-married with their English connections. De Chevenoy’s mother was English, as was his wife, the Lady Mary Haynes, until she became the Comtesse de Chevenoy. I met her only once, when I was young. Since her ladyship and my mother had been friends as girls, we visited the Comtesse in her apartments at Versailles just after Adelaide’s birth. The Comtesse died of a fever a few years later.”
Entranced at this unbelievable revelation, Webb leaned forward to listen to Sophia’s tale. De Chevenoy married? And had a child? In all their years of working together, the man had never let slip one word of a wife, let alone a daughter. “But what happened to this Adelaide?”
Sophia looked up, obviously caught in her own private reveries of the past. “From what my mother told me, the Comte sent his daughter to a convent in Martinique when the first pamphlets began littering Paris with ideas of revolution. If there was to be violence, de Chevenoy couldn’t bear the thought of his only child being anywhere near it. Many thought him a fool to retreat from Versailles so early, but those who heeded his dire warnings now live because of them.”
Lord Dryden reached into his packet again and drew out a small, palm-sized portrait. He handed it to Webb.
Webb gazed down at the young girl, probably no more than ten, maybe twelve years old. Her smile glowed brightly back at him, her green eyes dancing with innocent mischief, and her fair, blond hair curled about her shoulders in the promise of one day being a glorious crown of gold. “But he never mentioned having a daughter,” Webb said more to himself than anyone else. He looked up at his father. “She’s probably quite enchanting now.”
Musing as to how the fetching minx in the portrait was probably now a Diamond of the first water, he realized why his father wanted him for this mission—perhaps his talent for being too full of charm and manly vigor, as his sister once described him, was about to come in handy.
“So you want me appeal to de Chevenoy’s daughter. Find a way past the guards and into her home.” Webb grinned at Giles. “Ah the joys of the unmarried state. Now I see why you aren’t being slated for this one, old boy.”
Sophia laughed. She leaned toward the desk and told Lord Dryden in a conspiratorial whisper, “I think your son believes, my lord, that you want him to woo the heiress to secure your journals.”
His father let out a bemused chuckle, much to Webb’s annoyance.
“What is so funny?” he demanded.
Sophia stilled her laughter long enough to reveal the joke. “I don’t think even the King could command you to do that, since Adelaide died before her boat even docked in Martinique.”
“Dead?” Webb and Giles said in unison.
Webb shook his head. When he glanced again at the girl’s lively features in the portrait, he felt the small wood frame grow cold in his hand. Hastily, he set it back on the edge of the desk. “De Chevenoy left his estates to his dead daughter?”
Lord Dryden nodded. “Yes. The man refused to believe her lost, so he continued to act as if she were alive. Even insisted I pay her board at the convent, so the good sisters would be inclined to send letters home from Adelaide. Keep up appearances, as they say.”
“You must be quite popular with the Mother Superior,” Webb commented.
His father let out an exasperated breath. “She is quite in my debt with all the gold I’ve sent her. I don’t know how and I’m not sure why, but de Chevenoy went to great lengths to ensure that as far as his solicitor and everyone else is concerned, his daughter spent the last nine years sheltered in a West Indies convent, awaiting her father’s summons to return home.”
“And when Napoleon finds out—” Webb didn’t need to finish his statement.
Everyone knew exactly what the greedy little Corsican would do—keep everything of value for himself, and bestow the lesser holdings onto his family or his current favorite.
“De Chevenoy’s solicitor wrote to the convent and directed the abbess to have the girl sent home.” Lord Dryden smiled, a rare event in itself, as he held up a tattered dispatch. “We were able to intercept the note, and I have composed a response, which I could, Lady Trahern, use your elegant hand and command of the language to translate and write.” He rose and crossed the room to hand her his reply.
While Sophia scanned the lines Lord Dryden had composed, she glanced first at the note and then at the portrait, still sitting cock-eyed on the desk. Webb could see in the wicked grin finding its way to her lips and the sparkle of mischief in her eyes that she’d quickly unraveled his father’s devious plans.
She winked at his father. “I see now why you need our help—if I take your reply to mean what I think it does.”
“It does,” his father answered mysteriously.
Sophia nodded in agreement. “I’m not sure what the necessary party might say, but I think once the gravity of the situation is explained, they will see that it is not only their duty, but a way to repay the debt our family owes you.”
She handed the sheet and the portrait to her husband, who read the text quickly and ended his perusal with a hearty chuckle. Husband and wife shared a brief glance at each other, and then looked at Webb before both of them started to laugh again.
Before Webb could find out what amusing plans his father had devised, Giles handed both items back to Lord Dryden.
Sophia reached behind the sofa and gave the bell pull a firm tug. Within minutes a young maid entered the study, bobbing her head at her mistress, while casting speculative glances with her large brown eyes at the stranger at the master’s desk. Sophia whispered her instructions to the girl, who then left as she entered, staring fearfully at Lord Dryden.
I know how you feel, lass, Webb thought as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, as all eyes in the room now thoughtfully gazed in his direction. The uneasy sense that he was attending his own funeral returned. “Well, since everyone else seems to find know the plan, would you mind enlightening me?”
Sophia nodded to Lord Dryden. “He’d better hear it from you.”
“We intend to send our own “Adelaide” home to claim the de Chevenoy inheritance.”
Webb didn’t see anything amusing in that idea, though where his father would find a qualified agent on such short notice was a wonder. “Am I to assume you have someone in mind?”
Webb knew enough to be cautious when his father responded in one-word answers. “How old would this chit be? Nineteen, maybe twenty?”
“Twenty one,” Sophia said. “Adelaide was twelve when she was sent away.”
Webb considered all the agents in the office, and came up with a blank as to whom his father intended to send. “A substitute who speaks French without any trace of an English accent.”
“Precisely.” Lord Dryden began cleaning his spectacles for a second time.
Webb’s intuition told him his father had more bad news.
Something akin to hearing one’s last rites.
“This can’t be some émigré guttersnipe you’ve discovered,” he said, fishing for information. “She’d have to be of noble birth, with knowledge of the old Regime, Versailles, the King and Queen.”
Webb blanched at his father’s one word reply. “How is someone to learn intimate facts about the de Chevenoy family, like the names of servants or the lay of the rooms in the time you propose?”
Giles stood up and walked over behind Webb’s chair, his hand resting on Webb’s shoulder. “I suppose you, old man, out of all three of us would be able to instruct her in the de Chevenoy estates, since you claimed just moments ago to know them so intimately.”
Webb didn’t bother to look over his shoulder, the amusement in Giles’ voice rattled at his pride, and he didn’t want the added humiliation of looking at the man’s grin. Sure, he’d been boasting before, yet his friend needn’t fling it in his face. Webb turned his attention to his father. “You have a new agent in mind, don’t you, sir?”
“And you want me to train her?”
He took a deep breath. “Am I to travel with her and make sure she doesn’t meet with any difficulties?”
“You could say you were made for the job.” Giles slapped him on the back. “Ah, the joys of being a bachelor and all.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Webb spied the miniature of Adelaide, and even she seemed to be laughing at him. He looked again and realized there was something familiar about her features, something he didn’t want to see.
It was too impossible to believe, but all he could do was hope his suspicions were for naught.
“You have a girl of noble French birth, approximately one and twenty years, fair in coloring and who is willing to go along with such a wild scheme?”
His father didn’t even bother with the expected one word answer he just nodded.
Webb looked over at Sophia—her glittering gaze danced with mischief and fire. For the first time in years, his usually steady nerves failed him. “Where are we going to find such a woman? If I didn’t know better I’d think my father was describing that hoyden sister of yours, Sophia.” He laughed nervously.
“He is,” she told him, her bemused grin the final signature on his death warrant.
Why on earth did he deserve such a fate?
Then he realized he’d been correct from the start. His father had heard about the Paris incident and obviously decided a desk assignment wasn’t punishment enough for his youngest son.