Authors: Sarah Zettel
Table of Contents
In which Our Heroine prepares for battle in the latest fashion and receives an unwelcome blow.
In which a most unwelcome acquaintance is renewed.
In which, against all expectations, at least a few plans unfold as hoped.
In which Our Heroine gives her first party and discovers that not all the circumstances of her life have changed.
In which a most touching reunion is achieved.
In which Our Heroine boldly attempts, just once, to begin a normal sort of day.
In which Our Heroine finds herself once more out in the cold.
In which orders are given, and accepted, with a certain and perfectly comprehensible amount of reluctance.
In which Our Heroine makes a perilous descent among some unruly and unkempt ruffians.
In which Our Heroine makes her full and free confession and must accept the consequences.
In which Our Heroine attempts some actual spying, with frustratingly limited results.
In which Our Heroine receives a highly unusual dancing lesson.
In which a second and much more comfortable supper is given, and pie is consumed by all concerned.
In which Our Heroine avoids a card game, initiates a business transaction, and rises to a challenge.
In which there are favors proposed, confessions offered, and more than a few words spoken in haste.
In which Our Heroine must account for her actions.
In which Our Heroine engages in a pair of entirely unsatisfactory confrontations.
In which Our Heroine makes one more bold attempt at both reconciliation and artifice.
In which the fortress is breached.
In which Our Heroine suffers an infuriating delay.
In which a number of most unwelcome discoveries are made.
In which a timely and highly desirable escape is, most unfortunately, prevented.
In which Our Heroine discovers even previously identified problems may contain unsuspected and profoundly unwelcome depths.
In which Our Heroine becomes thoroughly tired of unexpected encounters in dark places.
In which it becomes abundantly clear that drastic and decisive action is required.
In which the stakes are unusually high, even by Our Heroine’s standards.
In which triumph proves to be somewhat short-lived.
In which Our Heroine reluctantly forms several new acquaintances.
In which certain discoveries are made, and there is a short but eventful boat ride.
In which there prove to be multiple endings, plus one beginning.
Sample Chapter from PALACE OF SPIES
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About the Author
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Zettel
All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Dangerous deceptions : a Palace of Spies novel : being the latest volume in the entirely true and wholly remarkable adventures of Margaret Preston Fitzroy, maid of honor, impersonator of persons of quality, confirmed housebreaker, apprentice cardsharper, and confidential agent at the court of His Majesty, King George I / Sarah Zettel.
pages cm. —(Palace of spies ; 2)
Summary: An unwelcome engagement, a mysterious plot that hints at treason, and a possible murder add even more excitement to sixteen-year-old Peggy Fitzroy’s life as she continues to serve as both a lady in waiting and confidential agent to King George of England.
[1. Spies—Fiction. 2. Courts and courtiers—Fiction. 3. Love—Fiction. 4. Orphans—Fiction. 5. London (England)—History—18th century—Fiction. 6. Great Britain—History—George I, 1714–1727—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.Z448 Dan 2014
This book is dedicated to all those who refuse to simply stand and wait.
I begin this newest volume of my memoirs with a frank warning. Soon or late, there comes to the life of every confidential agent and maid of honor an order she wishes with all her heart to refuse.
In my particular case, it involved dinner.
For those as yet unfamiliar with these memoirs, my name is Margaret Preston Fitzroy, though I am more commonly known as Peggy. Until quite recently, I was an orphan girl, living in a state of dependency with my banker uncle, his kind but silly wife, and my dear, dramatic cousin, Olivia. This evening, I sat in my dressing closet at St. James’s Palace, trussed up tightly in my corsets and silk mantua, and trying to remember if I’d ordered everything necessary to entertain those same relations in royal style.
“You’re certain the kitchen agreed to the partridges?” I asked my maid, Nell Libby.
“Yes, miss,” Libby answered through clenched teeth. This was not because I had asked her this same question three or four times in the past hour. At least, not entirely. Rather, it was because she had a mouthful of silver pins and was endeavoring to fix my hair in the latest style.
“What about the jugged hares?” I demanded. My own voice was somewhat muffled from my efforts to keep my teeth from chattering. It had begun to rain outside. Even in the windowless dressing closet of my equally windowless bedchamber, I could hear the steady pounding over the roofs. Each drop carried winter’s brutal promise and dragged another icy draft across the wooden floor. My fire was roaring, and I was being positively profligate with the candles, but my rooms remained cold enough that my fingertips had achieved a truly arresting shade of blue. “And the chianti? It’s my uncle’s favorite wine. Ormand did say he’d have an extra bottle laid by for us?”
I don’t believe I had put in as much effort preparing for any court function as I had for this meal. I had spent the better part of the last two weeks arranging for room, food, and drink, all the while assuring the clerks of the household (mostly truthfully) that I could pay for it all and that, upon my sacred honor, my little entertainment would not add extra expense to the royal housekeeping.
Had it been up to me, I would have never laid eyes upon my uncle again. He might have taken me in after my mother died, but we had never warmed to each other. Matters rather came to a head this past spring when he betrothed me to a young man with whom I later shared a mutual misunderstanding. That is to say, I attacked him. To be perfectly fair, though, he did attack me first. This wholly rational argument, however, failed to carry any weight with my uncle, and his response was to throw me out into the street. That the entire unhappy affair ended with my taking up residence in the royal court came as something of a surprise to all concerned. As did the interlude in which I masqueraded as one Lady Francesca, who, it was discovered, had been murdered.
I hasten to add that none of this was actually my own doing or idea. Well, almost none. That is to say, very little.
This admittedly extraordinary run of events had an appropriately extraordinary ending. I now enjoyed a certain amount of royal favor and a post at court. It had not, however, served to mend the rift between myself and my uncle. For my part, I had rather hoped to let that particular matter lie. Unfortunately, my new mistress, Her Royal Highness Princess Caroline, had other ideas.
“Sir Oliver Pierpont is your uncle and legal guardian, Miss Fitzroy,” she reminded me, with a hard tap of the royal index finger against the back of my hand. “Whether or not you relish the relationship. You will make peace with him, or trouble will come of it.”
She was right. More important, she was Princess of Wales. That fact limited the replies I could make to being lectured or poked. I could not, for example, inform Her Royal Highness that I would much prefer to be removed to some place of quiet retirement, such as the Tower.
“I’ve made sure of everything, miss. I promise you.” Libby might have been behind me, but the face she pulled showed clearly in the looking glass on my vanity table. “Now, hold still, or I’ll have this pin right in your scalp.”
“On purpose too.”
“Now, miss, would I ever do that?”
“I’m not entirely sure.”
“Then you’d better be sure you sit still, hadn’t you? Miss.”
The perceptive reader will see by this exchange that my luck with maids had not improved since we last communicated. When I first came to court, my maid was a large, raw-boned woman called Mrs. Abbott. We had what might be charitably described as a troubled relationship. The fact that I once accused her of plotting murder did not assist matters. Libby, by contrast, was a tiny girl about my own age. She was so tiny, in fact, that she had to stand on a footstool to properly pin and pomade my hair. Her olive skin and dark eyes might have indicated descent from a Spaniard, or a Roman, or a Gypsy rover. Libby pretended ignorance on the matter, and I pretended to believe her.
I might have tried to find a different, gentler person to whom I could entrust the care of my person but for one grave and overwhelming concern: Libby had mastered the New Art of Hairdressing.
It was a dread and terrible time to be a maid of honor, for we found ourselves in the midst of the storm of revolution. For women, the wig had gone out of fashion.
The wig, or more properly, the
had been seen as an indispensable portion of the fashionable lady’s toilette since the days of Queen Anne. Its purpose, as far as I could tell, was to ensure woman’s rigid adherence to the first two of the Great Rules of Fashion. I will set those down here as a warning to future generations.
Rule 1: Any item of dress for ladies must be both more complicated and less comfortable than the corresponding item for gentlemen.
Rule 2: No woman may show any portion of her personage in public without it being severely, and preferably painfully, altered.
The fontange satisfied both criteria admirably. It was an assemblage of horsehair and wire framework pinned and strapped to the lady’s Delicate Head, over which her own hair was then arranged to create sufficient height and approved shape, with the whole topped off by a tall comb or similar adornment. But recently, some daring woman had appeared before the new regent of France with a smooth, sleek head of her own hair on full display. Instead of being shocked beyond endurance, the regent liked it. He liked it, and he said so. Aloud. In public.
Thus are mighty storms generated by the tiniest gust.
the ladies of Versailles cast off the fontange to freely and wantonly display their own tresses. Many were scandalized, but where Versailles’s ladies led, we lesser mortals were condemned to follow.
For me, this all meant an extra hour in front of the mirror. The fontange might have been consigned to history alongside the neck ruff and the codpiece, but Rules 1 and 2 were not to be altered in any particular. My coarse, dark hair could not be shown in public until it had been cemented into orderly ringlets and lovelocks, then pinned with pearls and flowers and other such maidenly adornments. Libby the Sharp excelled at this feat of fashion, unfortunately.
There was a knock at the door. Libby snorted and jumped off her stool. By then, however, the closet door had opened and Mary Bellenden was sauntering in.
“Hello, Peggy. I’ve come for that bracelet you said I could borrow.” Mary was not a friend to me, or to anyone as far as I could tell. She was, in fact, one of the few genuinely careless people I’d ever met. A diamond and a hen’s egg were both the same to the lively Miss Bellenden, as long as they were accompanied by a flattering turn of phrase and the chance to make a good joke.
Without pausing to do more than smile at my reflection, Mary flipped up the lid on the first of the jewel boxes set out on my vanity table and began rooting through the contents. I was not surprised. Mary Bellenden did not believe in pausing for such trifles as permission.
“It’s here.” I pushed a smaller, sandalwood box toward her, trying not to move my head. Libby had resumed her stool and taken up her pins. She held one up for me to see in the glass. It was a gentle reminder that she was in a position to make my life yet more uncomfortable if I executed any sudden moves.
“Thank you for taking my turn at waiting tonight,” I said to Mary, keeping my head rigidly still.
“Not at all.” Mary held up the pearl and peridot bracelet. It was a pretty thing, and I rather liked it. However, this loan was understood to be of long duration. Those of us in waiting to the royal family were kept to a strict schedule. We had three months on duty, followed by a month off, during which we might return to our family homes, if we had them. This may not sound terribly onerous, but we were expected to be in attendance between six and seven days each week. If it was a state occasion, a day could stretch to twenty hours out of the twenty-four. Maids of honor, like the other “women of the bedchamber,” could take a day off only as long as at least two of us remained in attendance. This resulted in the trading of all sorts of favors and small valuables in return for time.
“But poor Mr. Phelps!” Mary fastened the bracelet onto her slender wrist and turned it around, testing how well the gold and jewels glistened in the candlelight. Mary had the alabaster skin, sloping shoulders, and pale eyes expected of the Maid of Honor Type. She carried the looks, and the style, with an ease I envied. “He will be quite distraught when he sees me wearing his gift instead of you!”
“Well, you’ll just have to soothe his spirits, won’t you?” I will not deny that some small ulterior motive guided my choice of which bracelet to “lend” Mary. Mr. Phelps was one of the many court gentlemen I had to tolerate, but not one I wished to encourage.
“Perhaps I will. He certainly has excellent taste.” Mary leaned in toward the glass, touching her patches. This blocked Libby’s view and caused my maid to eye her last silver pin, and Mary’s neck, thoughtfully. “I note you have not yet smoothed things over with our Sophy.”
“As a good Christian maid, I know I should turn the other cheek, but both mine are already burned.” When Sophy Howe thought I was Lady Francesca, she had done her best to make my life miserable. Now that she knew I was a mere “miss” rather than a titled lady, she seemed to take my continued existence as a personal insult.
“And you will have heard by now that Molly Lepell has returned,” Mary went on with a great and obvious show of insouciance.
“Oh? How is she?” I strove to match Mary’s unconcern, and failed. First, because no one could match Mary Bellenden when it came to complete and marvelous unconcern for others. Second, because Molly Lepell had been the closest thing to a friend I’d had at court. Unfortunately, that friendship had been formed while she believed I was someone else. When it was revealed just how thoroughly I’d been lying to her, and the rest of the world, Molly did not take it well. She’d left the court for her interlude at home before I’d had a chance to try to mend things.
“I’m sure I couldn’t tell how she is.” Mary turned a bright eye toward me. “You need to apply to quite a different quarter to find out what little nothings Molly Lepell whispers these days.” I might have been the one engaged in spying for the Crown, but when it came to acquiring court gossip, I was a decided amateur compared to Mary.
“What are you talking about?” My patience was stretched dangerously thin. Miss Bellenden might have nothing better to do than flirt and gossip tonight, but I was under orders to make peace out of a private war with a man I detested.
“It seems that while she was at home and out of our tender care, a certain gentleman quite captured Molly’s attention.”
That stopped all other thoughts dead in their tracks. “Molly Lepell has formed an attachment?” It was Molly who had warned me against losing my heart to any man at court. I found the idea that she might have abandoned her own excellent advice more than a bit disturbing.
“It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? I thought her quite impervious.” Mary fussed with the fashion-mandated three tiers of lace ruffles trailing from her sleeves, making sure they fell in such a way that they would not obscure her new bracelet. “But I know what I saw, and what I saw was anything but impervious.” She tipped me a happy wink. “I fear that with all that’s going on, you’re going to have to work very hard to recapture anyone’s attention, Peggy. I am so looking forward to seeing what invention strikes.” She dropped a quick kiss on my cheek and sailed out of my closet under a wind of cheerful anticipation as strong as the one that blew her in.
“Invention,” snorted Libby. “She knows too much about invention for her own good, that one.”
“She’s all right,” I answered, somewhat distractedly. Mary Bellenden was indeed all right, simply because she was uncomplicated. She sailed through life as well as doorways. Molly Lepell was another matter. She was beautiful, of course, but she was also deeply intelligent and practical regarding court matters. I wondered who had found her heart. I wondered if he was worthy. I wondered if I’d ever get a chance to explain myself to her and to be her friend again.
“Oh, Peggy!” Mary’s voice rang quite unexpectedly from my outer chamber. “You’ve a visitor.”
“What?” I struggled to my feet, ignoring Libby’s annoyed exclamations. “Who? The Pierponts aren’t due for two hours yet . . .” Could it be Molly?
But the youth I caught in the act of straightening up from the bow he made to Mary Bellenden was no member of my family, much less a maid of honor.
“Heaven defend us,” I croaked as the blood drained out of my painted cheeks.
This man was tall and slender with arresting blue eyes set into a hatchet-sharp face. He was the Honorable Mr. Sebastian Sandford. I had met Mr. Sandford last spring, when he attempted unceremoniously to seduce me at a birthday party. When seduction failed, he, with equal lack of ceremony, attempted rape.
He also happened to be my betrothed.
“Miss Fitzroy. How wonderful it is to see you again.”
Sebastian presented me with one of his best bows, a feat rendered slightly awkward by the beribboned porcelain jar he carried in both hands. I watched him without moving or even managing to close my mouth. I quite literally could not believe my eyes.
I had last seen Sebastian before I came to court. That also happened to be the same day my uncle threw me out of his house. This was the morning after Sebastian had decided he was going to help himself to my virginity, in a garden shed, without bothering to inquire whether I consented to the act. I did not, as it happened, and was able to make a more forceful argument in that regard than he expected.
As Sebastian straightened from his most recent bow, I struggled to find where I had misplaced my voice. The initial results were not promising.
“I . . . you . . . what are you doing here?”
“Lud, Peggy!” cried Mary, clearly delighted at finding the evening’s entertainments had begun so soon. “One might think you had an excess of handsome swains parading in to see you.”
“And does she?” Sebastian inquired. For this pretty quip, he was treated to one of Mary’s celebrated sparkling laughs.
“If she does, she has kept her secrets very well.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
These remarks were ornamented by rather overmuch showing of dimples and batting of eyelashes on all sides. I suppressed the urge to slap them both on their noses.
I will say that if one did not know his true character, one could easily make the mistake of considering Sebastian Sandford handsome. He possessed an arresting face, and when it was not covered by a curled and powdered wig, his hair was pale gold. He was tall, a fact emphasized by his high-heeled shoes with their silver bows. The rest of his clothing was as rich as his footwear. Tonight, he dressed in pale mauve silk and white velvet, all decorated with great lashings of lace and silver braid. Mary’s mischievous eyes made a thorough and obvious inspection of all these points as she toyed with the lace edging her own low neckline.
“You have not answered my question, Mr. Sandford.” I attempted to give Mary a warning glower, but I needn’t have bothered. Mary was not paying my discomfort the slightest bit of attention. “What are you doing here?”
Sebastian, in a belated concession to courtesy, moved his gaze from Mary’s countenance, and other highly visible attributes, back to me. “I have come for the drawing room, of course,” he said. “I was hoping I might see you there, Miss Fitzroy. In fact, I was hoping you’d accept this trifle from me when we did meet.” He held out the jar, which was elaborately painted porcelain with a gilded lid.
I did not take it. Mary gave me a look clearly meant to inquire whether I had lost my senses. “Poor Miss Fitzroy, she’s quite overcome with seeing you again, Mr. Sandford.” She helped herself to the jar and peeked inside. “Oh . . . how wonderful. Look what your admirer’s brought you, Peggy.”
Curiosity is a slave driver, and as Mary held out the jar to me, I could not help but glance inside, although I made sure to keep an expression of complete indifference on my face. Sebastian was already looking far too satisfied with himself. The jar contained some black, crumbling substance with a strong herbal perfume.
“It’s tea,” said Sebastian. “Have you tried it?”
“Of course,” I answered. This was even true. I’d drunk the stuff once or twice with several grand ladies. I confess I preferred chocolate or coffee, which was just as well. Tea was abominably expensive, and not part of the rations allowed a maid of honor in residence at the palace. When considered in combination with the gilded jar, Sebastian was indeed offering me a costly present. Its value might be best judged by the fact that Mary made no move to hand the jar to me, but did eye Sebastian with fresh interest.
I took the jar out of Mary’s hands and set it on the mantel. “You could have sent it up,” I said. “That is, after all, the expected form.”
“I could,” Sebastian admitted with a shrug that I think was supposed to be modest. “But when I arrived, I was told you would not be in attendance at the drawing room. I wanted to assure myself nothing was wrong.”
Which meant that either he had been wandering the halls or he had bribed someone to bring him here. I promised myself I would discover who had committed this outrage. He would be turned out. Possibly hanged. Slowly. In chains.
“You might have sent a note.”
Seeing that I remained uncharmed by his appearance, his flattery, or his gift, the mirth faded from Sebastian’s sharp face, and for a moment he actually looked abashed. “I did not think you would answer.”
“You were correct.” At this, Mary smothered a laugh, and I felt ready to strangle on my own impatience. Well, I felt ready to strangle something. “Mary, isn’t Her Royal Highness expecting you?”
“Not for another hour at least.” Mary’s tone said she hoped to spare me any undue concern. This was all the acknowledgment she gave me. Her attention remained fixed on Sebastian.
“Tell me, Mr. Sandford, how is it that you know our so-fascinating Peggy?”
“She has not told you?” Sebastian raised his brows, which, I noted, had been plucked as ruthlessly as any girl’s.
“Not a word.” Mary sidled closer to him and leaned in. “But then, she’s a great one for secrets.” She nodded vigorously.
Sebastian looked at me over the top of Mary’s dark head.
“You wouldn’t,” I breathed. Which was a mistake, because of course, Mary heard.
“Oh, now I must know.” Mary laid her hand on Sebastian’s arm. There was this way she had of tipping up her chin and lifting her brows that made her eyes grow to twice their normal size. The effect on gentlemen was extraordinary, and Mary knew it. “Please, Mr. Sandford,” she added, sucking in a breath and straightening her shoulders in case Sebastian had failed to take proper note of her finest, snow-white assets.
This once, however, the Bellenden Effect was for naught. Sebastian was not watching her. His gaze remained locked with mine. I have no notion of what he meant to communicate. For my part, I was sorely disappointed to find that, despite rumors to the contrary, looks could not kill. I assure my readers, I did throw heart and soul into the effort.
“I must apologize, Miss Bellenden,” said Sebastian slowly. “But this secret is not entirely mine.”
“I see.” To illustrate this fact, Mary looked ostentatiously from Sebastian to me, then back again. “Well. Isn’t this interesting?”
“Mary, it’s not what you think,” I told her. At the same time, I did not dare take my gaze from Sebastian. I did not want him to think he had disconcerted me.
“I’m sure it’s not, especially if you’re involved, Peggy.” Mary favored me with a bright smile and a quick pat on my shoulder. “But you’re right. I’m wanted downstairs, and you have your dinner to prepare for.” She slipped gracefully up to Sebastian, so close her hems all but brushed the tips of his shoes. “How delightful to have met you, Mr. Sandford. I do hope we’ll see each other again soon.” She curtsied deeply and held the pose.
Sebastian bowed. “I’m sure that we shall, Miss Bellenden.”
Mary straightened, presented us both with another knowing glance, trimmed by a fresh, delighted giggle, and skipped off. I let her go. My immediate priority was to quickly dispatch the man in front of me. This, I decided, called for the direct approach.
“Your audience has departed, Mr. Sandford. The farce is over. Why have you really come here?”
Sebastian looked at the door, plainly expecting me to close it. I declined to move and folded my arms to emphasize my stationary status. I would not be so foolish as to shut myself up with this man, even though I knew Libby lurked somewhere in the background.
“I really did come for the drawing room,” said Sebastian. “My brother and my father say that as I’m to remain in England, I should make myself better known at court.”
“Remain?” The word all but choked me. “I thought the plan was to pack you off back to Barbados.”
Sebastian spread his hands, attempting to indicate ignorance and helplessness. “It may have been, but plans have changed.”
“It’s a long story. May I sit down?” Sebastian added hopefully.
Warning took hold inside me and squeezed several vital organs. “No, you may not sit,” I answered. “My maid is waiting to finish my toilette, and then I have my own business to attend to.” I stepped back, gesturing to show that the pathway to the door was free of all obstruction. “You have seen me. You can be satisfied that I am entirely well, and you have left your gift. You may now go.”
But Sebastian did not turn his footsteps toward the door. Instead, he advanced on me. My first instinct was to retreat, but I caught myself in time and held my ground. I would not let him see me afraid. I touched the jeweled pin that decorated the center of my stomacher—an item I’d requested my patron, Mr. Tinderflint, to commission especially for me—and for a moment silently dared Sebastian to come closer. I had been adding some most unmaidenly skills to my arsenal over the past months, and my carefully manicured fingers were itching for an excuse to unleash them on this particular visitor.
I don’t know if he read any of this in my narrowed gaze, but Sebastian did halt his advance while there was still a good two feet of space between us.
“We need to talk, Peggy,” he said in a low, urgent voice.
I looked at the young man in front of me, at his anxious face and melting blue eyes, and I forced myself to remember. I remembered the feeling of his hot, hard fingers as he shoved them under my skirts so he could pinch my thighs. I remembered the leer on his face as he raised himself up above where I lay pinned to the ground. I remembered how he laughed at my screams and my pleading. At least, he laughed until I jammed my fan into his throat. I made myself remember that moment as well.
“I have nothing to say to you, Mr. Sandford.”
Sebastian’s jaw worked itself back and forth. For a moment, I could have sworn I saw genuine worry in his bright, blue eyes. I told myself not to be ridiculous. There was nothing genuine about this man, and there never would be.
Knowing this as I did, his next words surprised me.
“This is my fault, and I do know it,” Sebastian said. “I have begun as badly as possible, again. But you will soon understand that we must talk. Send word for me when you are ready, and I will meet you, where and when you please.”
He bowed, this time perfunctorily, and left me standing there.
Slowly, I closed the door. My heart knocked hard against my ribs. What on earth could Sebastian be playing at? What did he mean, I would understand that we must talk? We had nothing at all to say to each other.
I repeated this to myself and the closed door several times. At the same time, I looked at the porcelain jar on the mantel. It must hold a good pound of tea. My brain, which had been made mercenary by both my public and concealed duties, calculated that to be worth at least forty pounds sterling, not counting the value of the jar itself. As bribes went, it was both respectable and well considered.
“Friend of the family?” inquired Libby from the threshold of my closet. Of course she had stayed in there, where she could listen to every single word without fear of being noticed. I expected no less of her.
“Am I fit to be seen, Libby?” I asked by way of ignoring her far too personal question.
My maid narrowed her dark eyes, inspecting me like a horse at market. “You’ll do for tonight.”
“Good. Get down to the Color Court and keep watch for my uncle and his family.” With that, I snatched up the small purse from my desk and hurried out my apartment door as quickly as my constricting garments would allow.
Had we all still been in residence at Hampton Court Palace, I would have had space enough to host my dinner party in my own apartments. We might even have been warm. But as soon as autumn arrived, the royal family had transplanted themselves to the heart of London and settled beneath the turrets of St. James’s Palace. I was told this ungainly brick warren had originally been built by Henry VIII. That gentleman considered it to be a fitting home for his beloved, at the time, Anne Boleyn. If that was true, he thought her fitting home was a cramped, smoky, drafty, bewildering maze of dark corridors and dim, low-ceilinged rooms. The small salon that I had been allotted for my dinner was ten minutes’ walk, in fully rigged mantua and high heels, from my apartment, and that was without any wrong turnings.
Even a small court is a good-size village, and I was but one in a stream of richly dressed persons all hurrying to reach their designated places for the evening. I barely noticed who I passed. This neglect would cause me to be accused of snubbery later, but I could not tear my mind away from Sebastian and his abrupt return to my life.
Given the manner in which I’d left my uncle’s house and all that had happened since, it simply never occurred to me that anyone would want to enforce the betrothal contract that existed between my uncle and Sebastian’s father, Lord Augustus Sandford, Baron of Lynnfield. If I’d thought of it at all, I’d assumed that contract had been broken by my uncle’s failure to bring me to church. But now the horrible possibility that I had been wrong descended upon me. The betrothal might still be in effect. As an underage girl, I remained completely under the control of my nearest male relative, no matter where I might temporarily reside. I could, legally and properly, be dragged back to my uncle’s house. I could be given into marriage with a street sweeper or sold as an indenture to the Virginia Colony, just as he saw fit.
I will admit, given that my other choice was Sebastian, street sweepers and colonies had a certain appeal.
I told myself I must not panic. I was hardly alone or friendless. It was not possible Her Royal Highness would permit me to be removed from her service by so trivial a person as a lurking bridegroom. Besides, I had planned this evening well. If my personal charms failed to win my uncle over (a very probable outcome), I had laid out a second route by which I might retain my personal place and see my cousin, Olivia, again. It was admittedly riskier, because it hinged on the whims and generosity of a small girl. I sincerely hoped I would not have to depend on either, but given the way the evening had gone thus far, I felt very glad I’d planned for the contingency.
The farther I went down those dark and busy corridors, the deeper the fear piled around my thoughts. This pessimism readily infected the whole of my mind, causing it to conjure a world of evils waiting for me. Despite Libby’s assurances, I was positive the fire had not been lit and the salon was stone cold—or perhaps the fire had been lit but the chimney did not draw, so smoke was filling the room. Perhaps the servants I had been promised had not arrived to lay the table. If those servants had arrived, they might well have stolen the silver spoons and gone to the tavern. If they had not stolen the spoons, it was only because they had stolen the wine and were lounging about on the chairs, drunk as lords, which, I had reason to know, was very drunk indeed.
So it was that by the time I arrived at the correct door, my hand actually trembled as I reached forward to push it open.
The fragrance of tallow and wax laced with an acrid hint of coal wafted out to greet me. I stepped into a plain, warm, well-lit chamber. A tapestry-covered table took up much of the space and was fully laid out. The wine bottles with their silver tags indicating variety and vintage stood in ordered rows on the sideboard. Two youths with serious faces and neat green coats stood sentry on either side.
So powerful was my relief, I failed to notice they were not alone in the room. Then someone cleared his throat.
I jumped. I might have screeched. I definitely turned, poised, perhaps, to run. But then my bewildered eyes made out that it was Matthew Reade who rose from a stool by the fire.
“Hello, Peggy,” he said. “I thought you could use the sight of a friendly face.”
He spread his arms wide, and I rushed into them.
Matthew’s embrace folded around me and I felt, as I always did, that here I had come home at last. Storm wrack, tempest, flood, revolution, all might come crashing down and none of it matter. As long as Matthew held me, I was safe. I tipped my head up so I could feast my gaze on the brilliance of his smile and his shining gray eyes. At that moment, I hated my cosmetics with a fury hot enough to burn the palace down. My face, neck, and any exposed portion of bosom had been slathered with enough paint to cover a good-size canvas and glued with patches of assorted shape, color, and symbolic significance. It might be all well and good to allow the world a peep at one’s actual hair, but the Great Rules of Fashion would never be bent enough to permit one to show her actual face. The truth was, I spent most of my glittering evenings surrounded by the powerful and the beautiful, and trying not to expire from the itching.
But far worse than any itch was the fact that while I had my court face on, I couldn’t indulge in what had become one of the chief joys of my existence—kissing Matthew. I had to settle for brushing my fingertips along the corners of his mouth and watching his smile broaden.
“Thank you,” I breathed. Matthew generally did not wear a wig. One lock of dark copper hair had escaped his short queue to trail along his temple. I fingered that loose tendril of hair and tucked it back behind his ear, slowly, carefully, taking an extra moment to smooth it into place just for the delight of being able to touch him.
In answer, Matthew took up my hand and pressed my knuckles to his mouth. He also moved slowly, allowing us both to savor the gesture. All the while, he bestowed upon me a lingering, welcome, and very warm glance. As little patience as I have for the exaggerations of our more long-winded romantic poets, I can say with complete honesty that lightning shot through me. Matthew knew it too, and he grinned. I grinned in return, not like the sophisticated maid of honor, but like simple, besotted Peggy Fitzroy.
“That’s better.” Matthew lowered my hand, but did not bother to release his other arm from around my waist. “When you walked in, you looked like there’d been a death.”
I truly wished he had not said that, because it brought all my attendant fears crowding back.
“Matthew, this is going to be a disaster.”
“It’s going to be fine, Peggy Mostly.” I kept meaning to inform Matthew that he could not get away with attaching this most undignified cant name to an important person such as myself, but somehow the opportunity never arose. “Even you can play the dutiful for the length of one dinner. When it’s over, you’ll release your relations into the drawing room, and they’ll be so busy making their bows, they won’t have time to pester you.”
“No, you don’t understand, it’s more than that. It’s—” I froze, the whole tangle of words in my mouth stopped up by a sudden, terrible realization.
I could not tell Matthew what had just happened between myself and Sebastian.
I had shared with Matthew many details about my life. He had even assisted with my spying. But I had somehow entirely failed to mention my status as a betrothed woman. I’m certain there were many excellent reasons for this omission. Given time, I might even have been able to sort through the fear and embarrassment tumbling down upon me to remember what they were.
But I did not have time. Matthew had taken full note of my confusion. He cocked his head in what I’d come to think of as his artistic way—the one that allowed him to break down whatever he saw into its component portions of light and shadow. “Is something wrong?”
I rallied. I could not reveal the existence of Sebastian Sandford with only a few minutes and limited privacy. Explaining the existence of a fiancé to one’s paramour required seclusion, time, and a supply of strong drink. Possibly smelling salts as well.
“It’s just so strange, meeting my relatives as, well, equals,” I told him, which was true, just not the truth I’d almost let slip. “I’m afraid the moment they walk in I’ll turn back into the little orphan I used to be.”
Matthew’s response to this pretty speech was to frown and step back. “Yes, and there’s something more. What is it?”
Becoming infatuated with a keen-eyed artist, it seemed, had distinct drawbacks, especially when one needed to practice some small social deception.
“I can’t tell you now.” I shot a glance at the waiting men. Both Matthew and I knew they’d talk about anything they heard. I made a note to myself that I must take time later to feel guilty about being glad of their attentive presence. “Matthew, thank you for being here, but you’d best go.”
Matthew hesitated, and I watched him try to keep the suspicion from his features. My heart sank. I had deceived Matthew before. I prayed that he had forgiven me, but neither of us had had anything like enough time to forget.
“Peggy, are you in trouble again? Is it . . . Tinderflint business?”
“No. Not this time.” We both spoke seriously. Mr. Tinderflint’s business was the spying, as Matthew knew full well. “I will tell you everything as soon as I can.”
And as soon as I can work out how,
I added to myself. As it was, I was silently thanking my stars that protocol did not allow me to invite Matthew to this family dinner. I had no idea which way the conversation would turn. It was unacceptable that Matthew should learn about my betrothal casually between dinner courses.
“All right.” Matthew kissed my hand again. “A promise against later, when you’re wearing your own face.”
He took his leave then, and one of the servers closed the door behind him. I faced a room grown several degrees colder by Matthew’s absence, and far more lonely.
I had believed this dinner would allow me to show both success and contrition to Uncle Pierpont. But with Sebastian’s reappearance, everything became much more serious. If I hoped to retain my freedom, I must show Uncle Pierpont that I could be useful to him. I must make it clear that I was not just another hanger-on at court. As maid of honor, I was sought out and cultivated by the wealthy and powerful because of my proximity to our future sovereign. Removing me into a marriage would be a waste of resources.
Tonight, I must look up into the eyes of my flint-hearted uncle and make him change his mind.
Unfortunately, the small salon offered very few options to soothe a fluttering of nerves that had ambitions to become a full-fledged attack. I tried to distract myself by inspecting all aspects of both table and sideboard. The two serving youths in their green coats watched my every movement from their posts. I pretended to ignore them. There was a protocol between the servants and the served for even a small dinner. As this was my first chance to play hostess at my own table, I was determined to get it right. I will say that their eyes lingered a bit more on the leather purse I carried than on any other detail of the room.
I stopped in front of the servants. The taller of the two had already begun to turn stout, and his face had been badly pockmarked, which left him with a sinister appearance, but there was intelligence in his brown eyes.
“And your name is?” I addressed the stout, scarred youth as the senior of the pair.