Authors: Connie Brockway
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Juvenile Fiction
“A fabulous love story…wicked, tender, playful, and sumptuous…. Too wonderful to resist.”
—New York Times
best-selling author Lisa Kleypas
“A well-crafted engaging read.”
“Passionate and entertaining…with an abundance of romance, mystery, and virile Scotsmen in kilts. What’s not to love?”
—America Online’s Romance Fiction Forum
“Utterly delicious, sexy, and fast moving.”
—New York Times
best-selling author Eloisa James
“This is why people read romance novels…. An exceptionally good read.”
—All About Romance
“Exciting, romantic, and deeply emotional, with a poignancy and sensuality unmatched this season, Brockway’s tale is a pleasure to read.”
Once Upon a Pillow
(with Christina Dodd)
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Publication of POCKET BOOKS
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This one is for the Buckhorn Biergartners,
Who, in my heart, have remained forever young.
St. Bride’s Abbey, January 1804
The wedding celebration
of Christian MacNeill and
Katherine Nash Blackburn
UTSIDE THE CHAPEL,
Charlotte crossed to St. Bride’s cloister walk and rubbed her hands briskly up and down her bare arms. It was bloody cold in Scotland in January and if the shawl her sister Helena had been chasing her about with all afternoon hadn’t completely destroyed the lines of her new gown, she might have actually donned it, despite the jarring way the russet color clashed with her dress’s soft blue.
She wasn’t exactly sure why she had felt a sudden need to leave the wedding celebration. Her other sister, Kate, and her brawny soldier were so deuced happy, their future assured, the past forgotten, all’s well that ends well, and how much more well could something end than that two handsome, intelligent, and worthy people find one another after years of struggle?
Nothing! Except…except…Charlotte felt as if she were reading a fairy tale’s happy ending. Though Kate had found her knight-in-shining-armor and Charlotte was delighted for her happiness, she suspected her own ending would be nothing like Kate’s.
Their father had died three years ago when she was sixteen, and with his death the family she’d known had died, too. Within a year, her mother was dead and her sisters, anxious—no, desperate—to give Charlotte all the “advantages” they’d had as the daughters of well-to-do gentry, somehow scraped together enough money to ship her forthwith off to one of London’s most prestigious boarding schools for young ladies, urging her to make “valuable” connections. Finally, Charlotte grasped what must have been abundantly clear to any casual observer: She was a burden. A beloved albatross. A speculative venture—nay, drain—that showed no hints of ever giving fair return on the investment.
she made good use of those “connections.”
As soon as she understood her situation, Charlotte, nobody’s fool, accepted it. Wasting little time on grieving for the past, she determined to live up to her sisters’ expectations and used her newly discovered adaptability to do so. She’d always been a very pragmatic child; now she became a coolly unsentimental one.
Thus, within six months of their mother’s death, all the Nash girls were gainfully, if not always happily, employed: serene and lovely Helena as a companion to a terrible old biddy; dark, passionate Kate, teaching the pianoforte to merchants’ daughters; and Charlotte, as boon companion to Margaret Welton, the only daughter of a vastly wealthy, vastly kindhearted, and disastrously ramshackle baron and his equally derelict wife.
The Weltons asked nothing of Charlotte other than that she accept the gifts and dresses they bestowed in abundance upon her, comport herself in a manner that made even their scapegrace offspring look well behaved by comparison, and be unremittingly uncritical.
It was pleasant work if one could get it, Charlotte thought wryly as she headed down the cloister walk toward the door standing ajar at its far end. All she had to do was amuse, be pleasant, and agree to whatever pudding-headed schemes her friend Margaret came up with. She’d become a shameless hoyden, a romp, and a coquette of some renown. Except…more and more lately, she feared that “shameless hoyden” was the only role anyone—most notably the Weltons—would ever require her to perform and, worse, someday she might be satisfied with it herself.
She wished for something more for herself. She wasn’t certain what, she only knew that it wasn’t the same as her sisters. She had little empathy for Kate’s single-minded determination to recoup her lost security—security she’d found with her brawny Highlander and wealth to match in some smuggler’s cave. She wasn’t a romantic like Helena, wanting only to be loved for her true self. Charlotte smiled with a touch of asperity. In truth she wasn’t at all certain who her “true self” was. A bonbon? A scapegrace? A delightful article? Probably a bit of all these roles and bored with all of them, too. There had to be more to being alive than simply filling space.
She peeked inside the doorway to some sort of library, two facing walls covered with overstuffed bookcases that towered nearly to the ceiling. She smiled. She loved books and one of her regrets over her current situation was that books, or any kind of reading material other than the Tattersall sales sheets, were in scant supply in the Welton household. She slipped inside, her gaze gliding hungrily over the embossed leather spines as she wandered past the great scarred table that sat squarely in the middle of the room.
A straight-backed chair had been pulled out haphazardly at one side as if its occupant had left in a hurry without bothering to resituate it properly. A newly printed map of the Continent was spread out across several untidy stacks of paper covered over with little chicken scratches of ink. A single sheet poked out from underneath, just enough for Charlotte to see that it was written in French.
Charlotte stilled, outrage sprouting with the dark flower of suspicion. Why was the abbott, Father Tarkin—and presumably it was the abbot’s room she was in since she could not conceive of any other monk at St. Bride’s being important enough to command his own library—corresponding with someone in France?
England was at war with France.
She moved closer.
Her father’s name leapt out at her: Roderick Nash. She shoved aside the map, snatching up the letter and trying to decipher—
Charlotte wheeled around, the paper trembling in her hand as she confronted Father Tarkin. Any embarrassment she might have felt at being caught going through his belongings fell away before her righteous anger.
was not the one consorting with the enemy!
was not the one with a potentially incriminating letter in her possession!
“Why is my father’s name on this letter?” she demanded.
Father Tarkin approached and angled his head to see what she held, his expression of mild curiosity fading into one of sadness.
“Ah! This is from a man greatly indebted to your father. He writes to remind me of the sacrifices your father, as well as others, made that he might continue his current endeavors. See?” He reached around her and gently underlined a series of words with one long, bony finger.
“Respectfully, Father Abbot, I remind you of what you well know,”
he translated softly,
“that all great enterprises require great sacrifices. Those required of me, which seem to trouble your conscience so much of late, are nothing compared to those made by others. Recall the sacrifice made by Colonel Roderick Nash as well as other unnamed men and women who have given their lives that I might continue my work
Abruptly, the abbot broke off, smiling apologetically at Charlotte. “The rest does not concern you, child.”
“Continue my work.”
Three years ago, her father had willingly traded himself to the French in exchange for three Scottish lads he hadn’t even known who were being held imprisoned in LeMons dungeon as spies. By nightfall that same day, he’d been executed. She’d always assumed that with the three survivors’ return to England whatever plot they’d contrived at had ended.
The realization that someone was carrying on the work the Scots had begun in France years ago hit Charlotte with a near physical force. And fast upon that realization came another; she wasn’t surprised to learn that this sharp-eyed, gentle-faced abbot was part of it. All the young men involved had come from St. Bride’s, had they not?
“I am not a child, Father,” Charlotte responded with a gravity few who knew her would have suspected her capable of. “And if my father died for some ‘work’ the writer alludes to, then I must disagree. It does concern me.”
The abbot shook his head. “Only in the most peripheral manner.”
Charlotte scowled, uncertain why she could not leave it alone, but the words the abbot had translated, so rife with intention, so full of the power of the writer’s convictions, hummed through her thoughts like a siren’s song, bringing to mind the tragic circumstances of her father’s death and its immediate aftermath.
By all reckoning her father’s sacrifice had been a selfless act of nobility. But it had always pricked at Charlotte that his sacrifice had not meant more, that his life had been traded for a
conspiracy. And now, here was proof that perhaps the mission these young men had undertaken still lived, that her father’s sacrifice had allowed important work to continue. Certainly the letter suggested as much.
She suddenly wished, fervently, that she, too, could do something that would honor her father’s sacrifice.
“I can help.” The words hung in the hushed quiet of the abbot’s library.
“My dear child, I cannot begin to understand your meaning—”
“I can be of use if you will only let me.” Her soft statement stopped whatever the abbot had been about to say. She met his gaze. His brow furrowed.
“What is it you think you know, Miss Nash?” he finally asked and with an oddly courtly motion, indicated that she take the straight-backed chair.
She was too tense to sit. “Whatever those Scottish lads had been sent to France to do remains to be done. I want to help. I need to help.”
The abbot did not deny her supposition, he only tilted his head. “And why do you need to help?”
“To make my life count. To give meaning to my father’s death. To make his sacrifice worthwhile.”
The abbot’s expression grew troubled. “You do not feel saving three young men’s lives carried meaning enough?”
Father Tarkin’s silvery brows rose at that, surprise and hurt in the gaze fastened on her.
“No,” she repeated firmly, thinking of the man who’d written so movingly of her father’s sacrifice, certain that he would understand. “Not when it could mean so much more. If someone in France has been allowed to continue his work these past three years because of my father’s sacrifice, then I want to help him to succeed. I owe it to my father’s memory. I owe it to my country.” She saw Father Terkin’s hesitation and cast about, seeking some means of making him understand.
“I owe it to myself.”
They stood staring at each other, locked in silent communication. His gaze never wavered from hers.
“There may be something…” he trailed off pensively, his fingers tapping lightly against the table separating them.
“Occasionally,” he began slowly, “messengers arrive in London with information that needs to be passed on. They often travel a great distance and o’er many circuitous routes to do so and it is often difficult to estimate when they will arrive or where.
“People who wish to know what information these messengers carry, people whose aims are in direct opposition to ours, scour the city searching for the person who receives this information and then organizes our friends in London. The recipient must, therefore, take care never to stay too long in one place, to move his lodgings frequently, and draw no undue attention to himself in doing so.”
He waited and Charlotte understood his silence as a test to see if she was quick enough to catch the implications of his words.
“I imagine,” she said carefully, “that because the recipient moves about so often and because he never knows when to expect the courier, it makes arranging a meeting between the two difficult.”
The abbot nodded. She’d passed. “Last year the courier from France never was able to deliver the information he had specifically come here to relate. His time was short before he would be missed in France and the recipient had taken new quarters.”
“But,” Charlotte continued, “an intermediary, someone whom both men could easily find, would expedite the situation.
if the person who acted as intermediary was someone no one would suspect of being involved,” she continued. “Someone young and frivolous, with no political or religious ties, an accessible person who is always in the public eye at some fête or gala or reception or other where she might be approached easily without arousing suspicion.”
“Me,” Charlotte said. “I would be the perfect candidate for that position, Father Abbot. I enjoy a freedom very few young ladies can claim, I move in a variety of circles, I can go when and where I please without causing comment.” Her lips quirked. “Well, without causing comments with which I am not already familiar.”
The abbot turned away from her, his head bowed in thought, his gnarled hands clasped behind his back as he moved toward the far bookcase. She watched him, holding her breath.
She hadn’t realized until the opportunity to do something for her father’s cause presented itself how important it was to her. The abbot mustn’t refuse her. Whether he judged her as the fashionable, mischievous young fribble the world knew or the hard-minded and determined woman she understood herself to be, only the next few minutes would answer.
“It needn’t be particularly dangerous,” he murmured to himself.
He looked at her over his shoulder, his seamed face troubled. “You would only need to remember a few addresses, repeat them in passing in a crowded room.”
She nodded eagerly.
“Our little band is very small—you would be approached only two or three times a year at most.”
He turned, facing her fully. “But not
dangerous are hardly the same things. There would be some risk involved.”
“I am willing to take it.”
“But am I willing to bequeath it?”
She answered for him. “Yes.”
He thought for long minutes and Charlotte let him, knowing that to push now would be a mistake. Finally, he issued a deep sigh. “All right, Miss Nash. All right.”
A smile blossomed on Charlotte’s lips. “Thank you.”
“No, my child. Don’t thank me. I tread a thin line and my conscience already pricks.” He sighed again and reached up toward a thick, heavily embossed volume on a shelf above his head. “But as it’s agreed that you shall act as go-between, you may as well meet one of my agents. The author of this letter.”