A brave Officer is tactically Deployed
London's spring weather was at its most seasonable, which merely meant it was both wet and chilly, when Captain Cole Amherst rolled up the collar on his heavy greatcoat and stepped out of his modest bachelor establishment in Red Lion Street. Mindful of having lived through worse, Amherst glanced up and down the busy lane, then stepped boldly down to join the rumbling wheels and spewing water as carts and carriages sped past. The air was thick with street smells; damp soot, warm horse manure, and the pervasive odor of too many people.
A few feet along, the footpath narrowed, and a man in a long drab coat pushed past Cole, his head bent to the rain, his hat sodden. Skillfully, Cole stepped over the ditch, which gurgled with filthy water, and was almost caught in the spray of a passing hackney coach. Jumping back onto the path, Cole briefly considered hailing the vehicle, then stubbornly reconsidered. Instead, he pulled his hat brim low, then set a brisk, westerly pace along the cobbled footpath, ignoring the blaze of pain in the newly knit bone of his left thigh.
The long walk to Mayfair, he resolved, would do him nothing but good. The rain did not let up, but it was less than two miles to Mount Street, and just a few short yards beyond lay the towering brick townhouse to which he had been so regally summoned. It often seemed to Amherst that he had been summoned just so -- without regard to his preference or schedule -- on a hundred other such occasions over the last twenty-odd years. But one thing had changed. He now came only out of familial duty, not faint-hearted dread.
"Good evening, Captain," said the young footman who greeted him at the door. "A fit night for neither man nor beast, is it, sir?"
"Evening, Findley." Cole grinned, tossed the young man his sodden hat, then slid out of his coat. "Speaking of beasts, kindly tell my uncle that I await his pleasure."
The desk inside Lord James Rowland's study was as wide as ever, its glossy surface stretching from his vast belly and rolling forward, seemingly into infinity. This effect was particularly disconcerting when one was a child and compelled to look at a great many things in life from a different angle.
Cole remembered it well, for he had spent a goodly portion of his youth staring across that desk while awaiting some moralizing lecture, or the assignment of some petty task his uncle wished to have done. It had been difficult to refuse James, when Cole knew that his uncle had been under no obligation to foster his wife's orphaned nephew, and had done so only to allay her tears.
But Cole was no longer a child, and had long ago put away his childish things, along with most of his hopes and his dreams. The ingenuous boy who had passed the first eleven years of his life in a quiet Cambridgeshire vicarage was no more. Even the callow youth his aunt and uncle had helped raise was long dead. And now, Cole could barely remember the gentleman and scholar that the youth had eventually become. There were few memories, Cole had found, which were worth clinging to.
Now, at the age of four-and-thirty, Cole was just a soldier. He liked the simplicity of it, liked being able to see clearly his path through life. There were no instructors, no vicars, no uncles to be pleased. Now, he served only the officers above him and took care of those few soldiers below whom fate had entrusted into his care. What few hard lessons the rigors of military training had failed to teach him, the cruelty of battle had inculcated. Cole felt as if his naïveté had been tempered in the fires of hell and had come out as something much stronger. Pragmatism, perhaps?
But the war was over. Now that he had returned to England, Cole opened his uncle's rather dictatorial messages only when it suited him to do so, presented himself in Mount Street if he had the time, and appeased the old man if it pleased him to. Although in truth his uncle was not an old man -- he merely chose to behave like one. What was he now? Perhaps five-and-fifty? It was hard to be certain, for like well-aged firewood, James Rowland had long ago been seasoned -- but by presupposed duty, supreme haughtiness, and moral superiority rather than wind and weather.
Abruptly, as if determined to throw off the insult of age, Lord James Rowland leapt from his desk and began to pace. He stopped briefly, just long enough to seize a paper from his desk and shove it into Cole's hands. "Damn it, Cole! Just look at that, if you please! How dare she? I ask you, how dare she?"
"Who, my lord?" murmured Cole, quickly scanning the advertisement. His eyes caught on a few words. Established household...Mayfair...seeks highly educated tutor...two young gentlemen, aged nine and seven...philosophy, Greek, mathematics...
Lord James drew up behind him and thrust a jabbing finger over Cole's shoulder. "My Scottish whore of a sister-in-law, that is who!" He tapped at the paper, very nearly ripping it from Cole's grasp. "That -- that murderess thinks to subvert my authority. She has returned from her flight to Scotland -- she and that insolent cicisbeo of hers -- and now has had the audacity to dismiss every good English servant in that house." The jabbing finger shot toward the north end of town.
"Uncle, I hardly think 'murderess' is a fair desc -- "
James cut him off, slamming his palm onto the desktop and sending a quill sailing, unnoticed, into the floor. "She has cast off good family retainers like an old coat -- turned them off with nothing, belike -- then fetched down two carriageloads of her own servants! Hauled them all the way from the Highlands like so many sheep, mind you! And fixed them in Brook Street as if she owns the bloody place! And now -- look here!"
Cole lifted his brows in mild curiosity. "What?"
James jabbed at the paper again. "She means to employ a tutor, and deny me my right to see that his young lordship is properly educated. Upon my word, Cole, I'll not have it! The titular head of this family must be suitably schooled. And it cannot be done without my advice and concurrence, for I am the trustee and guardian of both those children."
Cole swallowed back a wave of bile at his uncle's words. So it was a "proper education" that James sought for his wards. Did he, perhaps, wish to see the young lords ensconced as lowly Collegers, as Cole himself had been? Was that still James's preferred method of fulfilling his family duty? To cart sheltered boys off to the cold beds and sparse tables of Eton, where they might subsist on scholarship, and survive by their fists?
Cole trembled with anger at the prospect. But it was none of his business. He had survived it. And so would they. "I take it we are discussing Lady Mercer?" he dryly replied, bending over to retrieve his uncle's quill.
"Bloody well right we are," answered Lord James, his voice stern. "And that is why I have called you here, Cole. I require your assistance."
His assistance? Oh no. He would not back a bird in this mess of a cockfight. He wanted nothing to do with the Rowland family. The young Marquis of Mercer meant nothing to him. Cole was merely related to the family by marriage, a fact his cousin Edmund Rowland had always been quick to point out, since it was crucial that the dynasty keep their lessers in their proper places. Well, fine! Then why must he suffer through an account of the machinations of Lady Mercer?
Her husband's suspicious death had nothing to do with Captain Cole Amherst. Lord Mercer's lovely young widow might be Lucrezia Borgia for all he knew -- or cared. Certainly many people held her in about that much esteem. And while they had liked her late husband even less, in death there was always veneration, no matter how wicked or deceitful the deceased had been in life. Yes, Lady Mercer's life was probably a living hell, but Cole needed to know nothing further of it.
"I am afraid, my lord, that I can be of no help to you," Cole said coolly. "I do not know the lady, and one cannot presume to advise -- "
"Quite right!" interjected his uncle sharply. "I need no advice! I daresay I know my duty to the orphans of this family, sir. You, above all people, ought to know that perfectly well."
Duty. Orphan. Such ugly, dreary words, and yet they summed up the whole of his uncle's commitment to him. He could almost see young Lord Mercer and his brother being locked up in the Long Chamber of Eton now. Cole bit back a hasty retort. "With all due respect, uncle, these children are hardly orphans. Their mother yet lives, and shares guardianship with you, I believe?"
"Yes," Lord James hissed. "Though what Mercer meant by appointing us jointly defies all logic! That woman -- of all people!"
Inwardly, Cole had to laugh. He rather suspected that Lord Mercer had known better than to circumvent his wife's parental authority altogether. From what Cole had heard, her ladyship was capable of flying in the face of any authority or command. Indeed, the woman whom half the ton referred to as the Sorceress of Strathclyde was reputedly capable of anything. Had the provisions of her dead husband's will displeased her, she would simply have set her pack of slavering solicitors at James's throat.
But quite probably the lady would have lost, for despite her own Scottish title and her status as the dowager marchioness, the patriarch supremacy of English law died a hard, slow death. But from all that Cole had heard, Lady Mercer -- or Lady Kildermore as she would otherwise have been called -- had seemingly forgotten St. Peter's admonition about women being the weaker vessel and having a meek and quiet spirit.
At that recollection, grief stabbed Cole, piercing his armor to remind him of Rachel. How different the two women must have been. Unlike Lady Mercer, Cole's wife had been the embodiment of all the Bible's teachings. Was that not a part of why he had married her?
At the time, she had seemed the perfect wife for a religious scholar, for a man destined to enter the church, as his father before him had done. Yes, like Uncle James, Rachel had known her duty quite thoroughly. Perhaps it was that very devotion to duty, Rachel's own meek and quiet spirit, which had been the end of her. Or perhaps it had simply been Cole's callous disregard for her welfare.
Shifting uneasily in his mahogany armchair, Cole shook off the memories of his dead wife. It should have been harder to do. What he had done should have haunted him, but most of the memories were so deeply buried that he was not sure if it did. He forced his attention to return to his uncle, who was still pacing across the red and gold carpet, and ranting to the rafters.
Suddenly, Lord James wheeled on him, standing to one side of the desk, his feet set stubbornly apart. One fist now clutched the advertisement. "You remain on half-pay?" The question was blunt.
Cole inclined his head slightly. "At present," he acknowledged.
"And what then?"
"When my leg is fully healed, I will rotate to garrison duty." Cole shot his uncle a wry smile. "By autumn, I'll be posted to Afghanistan. Malta or the Indies if I am among the more fortunate."
Lord James resumed his pacing for a time. At last, he spoke again. "Good. Then we have a little time."
"I beg your pardon?"
But Lord James did not respond. Instead, he seemed to collapse into his desk chair, looking suddenly pale and drawn. He cleared his throat sonorously. "Look here, Cole -- it is like this. I simply cannot bend her to my will." He said it quietly, as if it shamed him to confess such a failing. "I have done my damnedest. Lady Mercer will not even receive me. Not unless I insist upon consulting her in regard to the children, and then her solicitors must be present. Can you imagine such audacity?"
Cole felt a grin tug at his mouth. "Shocking, my lord," he managed to reply.
As if pleased by his nephew's sympathy, James nodded, then continued. "She has spent the months since my brother's murder hiding out at Kildermore Castle, a cold, godforsaken place hanging off a cliff over the Firth of Clyde. I was powerless -- indeed, our legal system is apparently powerless -- to stop her. Curse her impudence! She poisons her own husband, and it would seem she has gotten away with it. Nothing can be proven. Not only is she an adulteress, she is a murderess, and now, she thinks to undermine my authority over her children!" James shook his head until his jaws flapped. "I tell you, Cole, I greatly resent it."
All you resent, thought Cole sardonically, is that the awe-inspiring family title is not now yours. But wisely, he held his tongue. Lord James reared back in his chair and rested his hands atop his paunch. "I simply must have someone inside that house, Cole," he muttered.
Briefly, Cole considered the point. He personally knew at least two hundred good soldiers who were without work since the war's end. Several had the makings of a good spy, but he was loath to pitch anyone into the viper's pit which passed for the Rowland family. "You require an investigator, do you not?" he mused. "To discover what happened to your brother?"
Quickly, his uncle shook his head. "No, no. Too late for that! What I require is someone to watch her. I will have my nephew, Cole. It is in young Lord Mercer's best interest, because his mother is unfit to raise him."
"Is she indeed?" asked Cole softly, his tone hinting at doubt.
James swore violently under his breath. "Why, she drives men mad with lust!" he insisted. "Indeed, that besotted, brazen Delacourt practically lives under her roof now! And one has only to look at that younger boy to plainly see that he is no child of my brother's, though I suppose one cannot prove it."
"What, precisely, do you want, Uncle James?" asked Cole very softly.
"I want her every move watched with utmost care. I want her every indiscretion, her every temper tantrum, and indeed, her every movement documented." James pounded his fist upon the desk for emphasis. "And I want those boys properly educated, until such time as I can get them out of that house, and into this one. Or at minimum, enrolled in a decent school."
Cole felt a moment of concern on behalf of Lady Mercer, for James's ruthless determination was apparent. And had his uncle's concern been less personally motivated, Cole might have agreed with his assessment. From what little Cole knew of her ladyship, it was quite possible that she was not fit to parent her sons. Even he, a man who had no interest in the beau monde, had heard the whispered rumors of her lovers and of her husband's apparent murder.
Indeed, the tale about Lord Mercer's death was rather more than a rumor, for poison had been mentioned at the inquest. And her ladyship's rather obvious affection for David Branthwaite, Lord Delacourt, was the talk of the ton. Their relationship had begun long before Mercer's death and had continued unabated. Fleetingly, Cole felt sorry for the children, then just as quickly squashed that notion, too. None of it was his concern. No one had felt sorry for him when he had been left in similar straits -- nor had he wished them to, he inwardly insisted.
Cole looked up at his uncle and spread open his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I see your predicament, my lord. I wish I could be of some service, but this is clearly no matter for a military man."
"You misunderstand me, Cole. What I want is a tutor."
"A tutor?" Cole lifted his brows inquiringly.
"Good God, Cole!" James laid his palms flat upon the glossy desktop and leaned halfway across it. "How plain must I make my meaning? I want you to answer Lady Mercer's posting. I want you to apply to her in Brook Street. And who could be more qualified? You are a brilliant scholar."
Cole drew back in his chair. "Absolutely not."
"Cole, please understand. If you cannot do this for me, think of young Lord Mercer. He is left at the mercy of that -- that harridan. The child is your cousin, for pity's sake."
"I am sorry to disabuse you, my lord -- but neither of those children is any kin of mine."
Lord James's breath seized, as if he had been stabbed in the back. His dark eyes narrowed. "After all this family has done for you, Cole, you cannot know how those words wound me. These boys are mere babes. How can you be so selfish, when you have had the advantage of the best schools? Eton, Cambridge, King's College, for God's sake! Your academic achievements are nothing less than stellar. Moreover, you have a vast deal of experience in educating young men of good families."
"I am now a cavalry officer, sir. A return to teaching is utterly out of the question. I am no longer fit to be a companion to young men of good families. And more to the point, Lady Mercer would never agree."
"Cole, sometimes I despair of you, my boy! I truly do! You must not tell Lady Mercer who you are! It has been ten years or better since you met her -- and in any case, I cannot imagine she would have troubled herself to remember you. Besides, war has aged and hardened you a bit."
Oblivious to the insults he had just leveled, James held out his hands as if the matter were settled, and only the details wanted ironing out. "We shall dissemble your credentials just enough to explain away your years in the army," he continued. "And of course, I shall make certain that your references can be verified -- "
"It is out of the question, my lord," Cole interjected. He rose abruptly to his feet, pulling out his father's gold watch as he did so. "I regret that I must take leave of you, sir. I am engaged to dine at my club with Captain Madlow at half past."
James jerked his impressive girth from the chair and circled around the desk. "Cole, you owe me this. Far be it from me to remind you of all that I have done for you, but look at the facts -- "
Cole threw up a hand to forestall his uncle. "The only fact which matters to me is that you propose to do something deceitful. I must assume that your usual good judgement has been exhausted by your concern for the children. Were it otherwise, I am persuaded you would never propose such a thing."
"Cole, Cole!" James let his face fall forward into his thick fingers. "Have you no gratitude?"
"Yes, my lord. I am exceedingly grateful. And yes, I do care about the innocence of children. God knows I lost my own innocence rather too soon. I am sorry that my -- my cousins have lost their father under such unfortunate circumstances. But I do not choose to teach again, and I shan't be wheedled into misrepresenting who and what I am."
Suddenly, the door to his uncle's study drew open with such force that the candles upon the desk very nearly guttered out.
"Upon my word, it is Cousin Cole!" said a deep, overly polished voice from the doorway. "What a delight." His cousin Edmund Rowland strolled casually toward the desk, his hand extended limply in greeting. "Father failed to mention your coming, dear boy. Are you to dine with us?"
Cole stared down his nose at his uncle's dandified son. "No, Edmund. I thank you, but I am otherwise engaged."
"Yes, well!" Edmund gave a neat little tug on his shirt cuffs. "I am sure you must be exceedingly busy, what with your...well, with whatever it is you military fellows do when there are no infidels in want of killing!" He laughed uproariously.
"Oh, shut up, Edmund," said James on a resigned sigh. "And sit down if you plan to stay. Cole and I are discussing what is to be done with Lady Mercer."
Edmund's thin, black brows flew up at that. "Oh, dear Cousin Jonet! Why, I know perfectly well what I should like to do with such a lively wench as she." He beamed insinuatingly, showing his perfect white teeth, then slid into the chair next to Cole.
James hissed aloud. "The children, you dolt! What is to be done with her children!"
"Why I hardly think I care, Father." Edmund turned a sarcastically inquiring glance upon his sire. "Indeed, I find the lot of them rather inconvenient. Do not you? Two small boys standing in the way of all that wealth and power? Tsk, tsk! Damned inconvenient -- that is what my lady wife says." He looked at Cole, flicking his gaze up and down, then settled on Cole's red and gold regimentals. "Though what business it is of yours, Cousin, I cannot begin to imagine."
"Precisely my point," said Cole, trying to keep the muscle in his jaw from twitching. He stood, still half turned toward the door, and yet suddenly hesitant to leave. He wanted to leave, did he not? Setting aside his uncle's insulting request, Cole avoided being in the same room with Edmund whenever possible. Still, something in his cousin's snide tone held Cole's boots fast to the carpet. Just what it was, he could not say. Edmund was always malicious.
"I have asked Cole to go to Brook Street as tutor to Stuart and Robert," said James impatiently. "We are discussing the particulars."
Edmund barked with laughter. "Half-pay caught you a bit short, old boy? I would be better pleased to go to the devil myself. I can hardly envision your return to academia, but then, one must earn one's crust, and the war does indeed seem to have ended."
"I shall go to Brook Street tomorrow," said Cole abruptly, turning to hold his uncle's stunned gaze. It seemed as if the words were spoken by someone else, and yet they tumbled forth with perfect clarity. "I shall wait upon Lady Mercer at three, if that is convenient to her schedule. You will send word of my purpose in coming, and ask her permission for me to do so. You will explain to her my credentials -- including my military service."
"I -- yes, I suppose...," answered James with uncharacteristic docility.
Cole crossed his arms over his chest. "Moreover, Uncle, it is your burden to persuade her to accept me, for I shall not bully her. Nor shall I lie. Nor shall I spy for you. Is that understood?"
"I -- well, I do not know." James slid a beefy hand down his face. "I am gravely concerned...about the children."
Suddenly, Edmund leapt from his chair. "Why, what nonsense! You cannot send him! Cole has no business in this! None whatsoever."
Cole ignored his cousin, focusing his full attention on his uncle's increasingly florid visage. "I shall see to the children, my lord. Rest assured that I shall have only their best interests at heart. That is your concern, is it not?"
He waited for his uncle's reluctant nod before continuing. "Should I observe anything which is inappropriate, unsafe, or unseemly, I will discuss it with both you and Lady Mercer at once."
"Discuss it with her?"
Cole would not be swayed. "That is only fair, do not you agree, since you hold joint guardianship?"
James scratched his jaw hesitantly. "Cole, I am not perfectly sure that will serve..."
Cole went to the door and laid his hand upon the brass handle. "I realize, my lord, that this is not quite what you wanted, and I am sorry for it. This is all I have to offer. Consider it until tomorrow morning, and if you can think of someone who can better do the job, I shall be all gratitude."
Cole was halfway down the steps in the pouring rain when he realized he had walked right past Findley, who had been holding his coat and hat. As if to remind him of his folly, a cold drop of water trickled off his hair and slithered behind the facing of his collar, sending a shiver down his spine.
Now, what the devil had he just done? And why? Cole turned around to run back up the steps, wondering if perhaps he had taken grapeshot to the head instead of the leg.
The sun had barely risen over Mayfair when an urgent knock sounded upon the door to Lady Mercer's private parlor, a small but elegantly appointed sitting room which connected her bedchamber to that of her late husband. For a moment, Lady Mercer did not respond, so engaged was she in staring over her writing desk and through the window into the quiet street below. Lightly, she laid a finger to her lips, then took up her quill once more. The knock came again, heavier this time.
Lady Mercer sighed deeply. Apparently, there would be no escape into solitude today. "Come in," she finally said, pushing back her chair and standing.
Her butler entered, wavered uncertainly in the door, then hastened forward, a small silver salver extended. "A message, milady," said Donaldson in his faint Scots accent. "I asked that the boy wait belowstairs, should y'wish tae send a reply."
0 Jonet Cameron Rowland, Marchioness of Mercer, Countess of Kildermore, Viscountess of Ledgewood and Baroness Carrow and Dunteith, inhaled sharply. "From whom?"
Donaldson watched her sympathetically. "I regret tae say 'tis Lord James again, milady."
Lady Mercer snatched the note from the salver. "You say his servant waits?" she asked darkly.
"Aye, but in the kitchens!" Donaldson threw up his hands, palms out. "Cook will'na let him from her sight, she swears it."
With a terse nod, Lady Mercer went to her desk and took up a heavy gold paperknife, delicately carved into the Celtic cross of her ancestors. With a flick of her wrist, her ladyship laid open the letter and held it across the palm of her hand as her eyes darted over it.
She was a willowy, delicately boned lady, with hair as black and slick as a raven's wing. In her girlhood, she had been considered a great beauty, but age and experience had stripped much of the vivacity from her face, leaving in its place an intense, almost cold, wariness. One could see it in the wide, expressive blue eyes, which were quick to narrow, and in her full, mobile mouth, which was more often than not drawn into implacable lines.
Lady Mercer's gaze was steady and certain, and capable of pinning a careless servant to the wall like the hurl of a corsair's blade. Moreover, her wit was as quick as her temper, and she did not suffer fools -- gladly or otherwise. After two children and eight-and-twenty years, Lady Mercer still had a figure to turn a man's head, while her cutting expression could just as quickly snap it back again, should she wish it. With her patrician forehead, elegant cheekbones, and fair, flawless skin, she looked every inch the Gâidhealach aristocrat, and she was.
There were many who thought Lady Mercer proud, brash, and volatile, and of late, a few had callously added the term cold-blooded to her emotional repertoire. Whatever she was, she was much as life had made her, but by virtue of their many years of close companionship, Donaldson was also aware of a few things which were not commonly known of his mistress. That she could be generous to a fault and unfailingly devoted to those whom she trusted.
Woe betide her enemies, but those whom she loved, she loved deeply and faithfully. All of this despite a life that was very different from the one that she had wished for.
Donaldson stood stoically to one side, watching as the dull black bombazine of Lady Mercer's skirt began to tremble. At once, her eyes began to blink spasmodically and her knuckles went white. Across her hand, the letter began to quiver. Tension thrummed through the parlor like a gathering storm.
Prudently recollecting that one word -- volatile -- the butler narrowed one eye and drew back incrementally as her ladyship hissed like a cornered cat, seized up her inkhorn, and hurled it viciously against the hearthstone with a bloodcurdling scream.
"Roast in hell, you black-hearted bastard!" she exploded, dark ink splattering up the pale pink marble of the mantel.
"Milady!" Donaldson laid a gentle, steadying hand upon her trembling forearm. "God in heaven, what now?" Gently, he dragged her toward the small sofa near the fireplace and urged her down.
Lady Mercer sank onto the proffered seat and handed the letter to him. With eyes that were momentarily horrified, she looked up at him. "A tutor, Charlie," she whispered, her voice suddenly breaking. "He sends a tutor for my children! He shall force his way into this home by whatever means possible. What are we to do?"
Charles Donaldson went down onto one knee beside her and skimmed the letter. "I think...I think, milady, that we can fight this." The young Scotsman looked up to hold her troubled gaze. "Shall I send a footman tae fetch McFadden? Or one of the other solicitors?"
Lady Mercer swallowed. "I do not know," she admitted wearily. "I am sick to death of all this bickering! I advertised for a tutor, and heaven knows the boys need one. We cannot go on as we are, acting as if life as we knew it has ended."
"Aye, but sich a one would be a stranger tae us, Lady Jonet," he softly cautioned, reverting to her old name. "What d'we know of this man?"
"Nothing good," she answered grimly. "James is sending a snake into our midst. Depend upon it."
"Shall I have the footmen send him packing then, milady?" inquired the butler. "It says he's tae come at three o'clock."
Lady Mercer grasped the letter in both hands, crushing it to her lap in obvious frustration. "No, don't send him away, Charlie." She rallied again, just as she always did, stiffening her spine and pulling back her narrow shoulders. Her deep voice returned to normal, with its hard edge and faint burr. "Undoubtedly he is nothing more than one of James's henchmen, and therefore only minimally qualified. Once I have met the fellow, perhaps I can unearth some shortcoming, and find a better candidate. Even James cannot argue with that."
"Verra good, milady." Smoothly, Donaldson stood. "You look a wee bit drained. May I send Miss Cameron to attend you?"
Her lips tightly compressed, Lady Mercer stood and shook her head. "No, I thank you. Cousin Ellen cannot understand me when I am blue-deviled. I'll do naught but distress her, and you know that as well as I."
"Aye, milady." Donaldson could not help but smile. "Ye might at that."
As was his custom, Cole rose at dawn to throw on his clothes and saddle his horse for a long morning ride. Shunning the more fashionable environs of town, he ignored Hyde Park and everything in between, riding north instead, up Gray's Inn Road and into the countryside. On this particular day, he pushed his horse hard for almost an hour, turning toward home only when the need for breakfast compelled him to do so.
Despite Cole's admittedly academic bent, he had always done his most serious thinking from the back of a horse. Today it was not working. Halfway through St. Pancras, with all of London now stirring about him, Cole still had no notion why he had agreed to his uncle's mad, self-serving scheme. What had he been thinking? Just what did he hope to achieve?
Oh, matters were a bit dull within the army just now, it was true. But there were things to do. His club in Albemarle Street, the two or three academic societies to which he still belonged, and an occasional trip to the War Office to chat up old friends. Reading his scientific journals, writing letters to inquire into the welfare of his former men, and every evening, a little drinking in the local public house, which was filled at night by an eclectic mix of actors, students, and poets, along with a great many men such as himself, old soldiers with too much time to spare.
Well -- ! The truth always slipped out in the end, did it not? The fact was, Cole was just dead bored with his life. After hobbling about Paris for three months, making minimal contributions to the peace effort, he had returned at last to London -- how long ago? Seven months? He counted on his fingers. Yes, and damned dull months they had been, too.
His splintered thigh was solid once again, and the few shards of metal which were destined to work their way out had long since done so. Cole knew he was fortunate to have broken the bone in a fall from his horse, and that the grapeshot had been glancing and secondary. Better men than he had lost a leg to amputation. Almost a year later, only a few scars and the occasional ache remained.
And now, he no longer had any excuse to avoid going home. Home to Cambridgeshire. Home to Elmwood Manor, the estate he had not seen since leaving England before the war. As manor houses went, it was hardly a grand place. It appeared to be early Georgian, with two small but well-balanced wings, but from the rear gardens, one could see a goodly portion of the original Tudor structure. Long ago, perhaps in his great-great-grandfather's day, Elmwood had been a vicarage. Indeed, it was still referred to as such by the villagers, because for a hundred years or better, even after the house itself had been sold by the church, someone within the walls of Elmwood had served them as vicar of Saint Ann's. But no longer.
That was yet another of life's crossroads which Cole had managed to circumnavigate. For a time after leaving his position at Cambridge, he had acted as curate, with every good intention of stepping into the pulpit at some future date. But in the end, he had chosen muscular Christianity over the more pastoral sort, and had resolutely beaten his plowshare into a sword.
Cole still was not perfectly sure why he had done it. He knew only that he had felt driven to join the army; driven toward war by an emotion he could not name. Patriotism, he had called it at the time. Certainly, he had not done it for financial gain. His officer's commission had been expensive, and he had had a wife at home for whom to provide. And although Cole was far from being a rich man, his mother's marriage settlements had provided him a steady income upon his twenty-fifth birthday and his father had left him Elmwood Manor.
Elmwood consisted of a small home farm and five tenant properties, whose holders tilled the same land their fathers and grandfathers had before them. Since the war, Cole had taken the unheard-of step of leasing the whole of it, parceling the home acreage into fifths, and giving it over to his trusted tenants. The manor, for all practical purposes, now ran itself.
Three months past, unable to reconcile himself to the thought of going home, he had sent along Moseby, his orderly, to look things over. All was well, according to Moseby's infrequent reports. Cole's plan to follow shortly thereafter had come to naught. And now, he had to admit to himself that he had no wish to return.
Cole spent the remainder of the morning at his club, taking a late, leisurely breakfast and debating with his cronies the state of the empire's residual military strength. But as always, Cole came away a little empty, finding himself unable to fully savor the morning despite the intellectual stimulation it afforded him. Such occasions merely served as a poignant reminder of those men who had been left in the ditches of Portugal. Good officers and valiant men who would never again argue field strategy, never again take up arms for their king.
Other men seemed to accept such things more readily, and Cole often suspected that his scholarly devotion to religion and philosophy had left him singularly unsuited for an officer's life -- or at least unsuited to the aftermath of such a life.
Eventually, Cole returned to his rooms to catch up on correspondence, and then, with unerring care, he shaved and dressed for his meeting with Lady Mercer. He was half reluctant, and yet more than a little curious, to meet the lady once again after all these years. Although Cole was certain she would not remember him. No, she would not. Would she?
He presented himself in Brook Street, only to find that he had arrived a quarter hour early. Cautioning himself that it would not do to wait upon the marchioness betimes, Cole resolved to spend his excess energy in pacing further up the street, then turning the corner to stroll through the mews behind. Like any good military man, he reconnoitered the establishment from all angles as he went.
It was a typical Mayfair townhouse, though somewhat larger than most. Four rows of deep windows across the front, a service entrance below the ground floor, a narrow, well-shaded backyard with an elegant garden, and a row of fourth-floor servant's dormers in the rear. Opposite the yard lay the mews. The quarters could probably house two carriages and provide accommodations for another half dozen servants.
On this side of the alley, no one stirred. But in the back garden, a servant lingered, a huge, red-haired fellow, who was rather aimlessly hoeing about in a freshly turned flowerbed, seemingly unaware that he had just trod across a swath of spring daffodils. At Cole's approach, the man tensed and lifted his eyes to stare malevolently across the low fence at him. The message was clear. Cole touched his hat respectfully and moved on past the garden gate. Lady Mercer's servants, it would appear, were not the sociable sort.
"Psst, Stuart!" In a sunny shaft of dust motes, Lord Robert Rowland stood, tugging plaintively upon his elder brother's coattail, nearly yanking him off the crate on which he perched. Precariously balanced on his knees, Stuart, Lord Mercer, shook off his pesky young sibling, then stretched up to meet the high attic window, peering out over the dusty sill.
"Quit jerking, Robin!" he cautioned his brother, looking down from the crate over one shoulder. "If you make me fall, Nanna shall hear it, and we'll both be put to bed without supper!"
Standing on tiptoes, Robert pulled a pitiful face. "But what's that fellow in the mews doing now, Stuart? Let me up! Let me up! I want to see, too!"
Stuart turned back to the window. "He's just walking around the back." The boy grunted a little as he tried to scrub the grime from the glass with his coat sleeve.
"Hey, Stuart, d'you think he might be a spy?" asked Robert eagerly. "D'you reckon he's the fellow who poisoned Papa? Perhaps we could trap him and catch him, if he's the one."
Stuart looked down with a scowl. "Shut up, dolt! We're not to know about that! And this fellow in our mews is an army officer, I told you already. They just shoot the enemy. They don't have time to go about poisoning folks in their bedchambers."
But Robert was desperate for a little excitement. "Well, can you tell if he's spying on us? Maybe that's what he's up to?"
"He's snooping a bit, but he isn't spying!" reported Stuart from his perch. He leaned closer to the window. "Anyway, I don't think he's the fellow who's to come this afternoon. Not wearing those fancy regimentals."
"What regiment is he from?" asked Robert enthusiastically, trying harder to scrabble up beside his brother.
Stuart hesitated, and Robert knew why. The sighting and identification of all things military was a source of constant dissent between the boys. And despite his being the younger, Robert accounted himself more of an expert in the field. His collection of toy soldiers was vast, much loved, and intently studied.
"Umm...," Stuart hesitated. "Life Guards."
At last, the smaller boy succeeded in scrambling up and squeezing into the dormer with his brother. He sighed sharply. "Oh, Stuart, you are an ejit and that's a fact! That fellow there is a Royal Dragoon." Robert pronounced the words with the same awe one might reserve for the heavenly host.
"Is not," retorted Stuart, clearly affronted.
"Is too!" insisted the younger boy. "And that's what I call a proper coat, too! D'you see any cheap brass buttons stuck all over it? No. And the trousers, Stuart! They are not at all the same."
"Oh, it's Life Guards and I know it," insisted his lordship haughtily.
"Oh, Stuart! You are such a -- a -- " Lord Robert groped desperately for the new phrase he'd overheard in the stables yesterday afternoon. "A horse's arse!" he bellowed triumphantly.
"Am not!" answered Stuart. "And you are just a -- a dog turd. A scrappy little dried-up dog turd."
"No, I'm not!" wailed Robert, outraged.
His brother narrowed his eyes. "Are too!"
"Dog tur -- yowch!"
Abruptly, a meaty fist reached out and dragged his most noble lordship rudely backward off his perch. "Aye, an' just what d'ye think yer aboot, my fine fellow?"
"Nanna!" cried the boys in unison.
"Doon't 'Nanna' me, my laddies," the plump old nurse said grimly, grabbing up Robert in the other hand and giving him a little shake. "'Tis no good yer up to, plain enough. Now, doon the stairs, w'the both of you, and we'll see if there's tae be any supper."
Copyright © 2000 by S.T. Woodhouse