Unmasking the Spy, page 1
UNMASKING THE SPY
Table of Contents
Friday, March 3, 1820
“ALICIA, GET YOUR HEAD down from the clouds!”
Alicia Kinsey jumped guiltily when she realized she’d been so involved in her own thoughts that she’d walked right past her father’s office. Alicia stepped back, inched inside past the crackling fireplace and stood in front of his towering bookshelves to dip a quick curtsy.
“Yes, Papa. I’m here.”
“I can see that, daughter.”
Baron Chadwick looked the way he always did – rotund figure, neatly groomed silver-blond hair, fashionable and tidy clothing. He sat behind his wide desk, elbows propped on twin piles of stacked documents, tapping the tips of his fingers and eyeing her with an odd, speculative look. He cleared his throat and leaned back in his chair.
“Have you thought about marriage, daughter?” he asked.
Alicia clasped her hands to her chest. “Oh, yes, Papa. All the time. When I fall in love, you’ll be the first to know. Or,” she added in a wry tone, “when I get a suitor. Whichever comes first.” The Season would start bustling again in the next month or two. Since they lived here in London, a few invitations had already begun to arrive. Perhaps this would be the Season she’d find love.
Chadwick cast his gaze to his desk, dipped his pen in ink, and signed a waiting document with a flourish. “That’s no longer necessary.”
Alicia took an involuntary step back, nonplused. “Which? That I find love or find a suitor?”
“The former is up to you,” Chadwick replied without looking up from his papers. “As to the latter, I have decided to grant your cousin’s petition to marry you.”
She took another step backward and sagged against the doorjamb. “Which cousin? Who?”
“Louis Larouche, of course.”
Alicia goggled at her father. “You want me to marry Loony Louie?”
Chadwick’s head snapped up to give her an irritated glare. “You cannot use that unfortunate nickname.”
The fading sun trickled light through the window behind her father, casting his shadow across her feet.
“If he is to be my husband, I’ll call him anything I like,” Alicia muttered.
“Wives have no such privileges.”
She winced. Being wife to Louis would hardly be a privilege. No doubt his interest was due to her position as sole heiress. What was a title? All the baronies in the world couldn't compare with the simple joy of being in love. She herself planned to settle for nothing less than happily ever after. She doubted Louis qualified as Prince Charming.
Her father gazed at her without a hint of compassion. “Louis will be a good husband.”
“Louis is rarely good to anyone but himself,” countered her aunt’s quavering voice from the corridor. Something thumped against the doorframe as if to underscore her point.
“Beatrix,” Chadwick said in a low, long-suffering voice. “I have asked you not to use my quizzing glasses as hammers. Please set it down before you break another.” The expression on her father’s face bespoke his annoyance with the interruption.
This was apparently not one of her aunt’s more lucid evenings.
“She’s not in love with Louis,” insisted Beatrix, whacking the quizzing glass against the wall with each emphasized word. On “Louis,” the handle cracked and clattered to the floor. Alicia closed her eyes after she saw the large round lens from the quizzing glass sail through the doorway, skate across her father’s messy desk, and land in his lap.
Beatrix sniffed and hobbled down the hall, leaving her to fight this battle alone.
Her father’s hazel eyes cast a disapproving glance in her direction, as if Alicia had somehow instigated her aunt’s punctuated support. “It has been decided.”
“By whom?” Alicia flung out her arms in frustration. “I decided nothing.”
Chadwick tapped the tips of his pale fingers together. “A daughter is not required to–”
“I know what a daughter is required to do, just as I know what a wife is required to do. Submit to her father, then submit to her husband.” Alicia’s blood rose to a boil. “And while I must submit to you, Papa, I must also state that I categorically do not wish to submit anything at all to Loony Louie.”
“Alicia.” Chadwick’s tone left no doubt to the level of his displeasure.
“You made up the name yourself before he set out on his Grand Tour, and he is no different today!”
Chadwick’s nostrils flared. “I haven’t uttered that name in years.”
Alicia paused. No, he hadn’t – not since the scandal.
“He tries to influence your antiquities collection even though he’s not half as intelligent as your left shoe! He’s a conceited fribble.” Alicia waved a slender arm in a sweeping motion about the room, indicating the classic antiquities, stylish curtains, and delicately carved furniture. “Chadwick House is tasteful and elegant. The town house Louis keeps is a hovel.”
In a bored tone, her father asked, “Have you been to his town house, daughter?”
“You know I have not.” Alicia fought the urge to pick up the other half of the quizzing glass and throw it against the wall. “I see Louis more than necessary with his constant visits here.”
He sorted through some papers before replying. “Perhaps Louis cares for you.”
“Force me to marry if you must, but don’t bother with polite lies.”
Chadwick gave her a measuring stare, and dipped his pen in ink. He marked several documents as if he no longer registered her presence in his office.
Alicia’s hands fisted at her sides. She took a calming breath. Her mother preached following her heart. However, Mama could no longer intervene, and Great-aunt Beatrix held no authority.
“I would rather marry a man in love with me,” she said. Was that so outrageous? “Someone who would condescend to speak when he entered my home, not spend the entire time shuttered in an office with my father. A man in love would clasp my hand and whisper sweet words in my ear, and press a kiss to my cheek.”
“Life is hardly a romantic novel, daughter,” said Chadwick in an immutable tone, squinting at the writing on one of his papers.
Alicia bristled. “You are, of course, correct. Would that it were so.” Perhaps she was naïve in hoping to marry for love. “But is it too much to ask for even the faintest flicker of affection?” she implored.
“Louis may learn to feel a certain affection.” Chadwick waved a careless hand and returned to his papers. “My position on this matter is clear. Your outrage is inappropriate.”
“Marrying Louis is inappropriate,” Alicia muttered.
Chadwick pointed a chubby finger in Alicia’s direction. “Do not disobey me, daughter. I will not carry you bodily down the aisle, but I have the power to better or worsen your situation as I see fit.”
Alicia nudged the broken handle of the quizzing glass with her slippered foot. A continued argument would serve no helpful purpose. If Louis had asked her father’s permission to marry her, it was hardly Papa’s fault. But why the sudden interest? She doubted Louis even liked her. She certainly felt no love for hi
“Papa,” she began in a soft voice. “Louis only comes to beg you to procure that piece of pottery or those paintings, which he probably just turns around and sells. He has no business–”
“You are a girl,” Chadwick interrupted. He stabbed the air with his pen and tiny drops of ink peppered his paperwork. “You collect fripperies and fritter the days arranging each blonde curl just so. You do not understand business dealings.”
Fripperies? He was the one who collected things, not she. And her hair needed no assistance to coil into springy curls, a lucky trait that allowed her free time to read or practice the pianoforte.
Papa seemed to have no idea his daughter had a brain. She’d taken to the library from the first moment she could read, inhaling the non-fiction as well as the fiction. She’d read each of the romance novels enough times to have them almost memorized. If anything, she was bored, not stupid. His words ignited a frustrated rage she hadn’t known she possessed.
“You don’t have business dealings, Papa. You are just a collector. You–”
“And you are a daughter who oversteps herself,” Chadwick snapped in return, blotting at the ink stains with a cloth. “I was a fool not to enforce the maxim that children are best seen and not heard.”
“Children?” Alicia gave a little laugh. “I am the only one you have, and at nearly one-and-twenty, I am no longer in the nursery.”
“And I should have taken a much stronger rod to your bottom. You are not so old that I cannot.”
He would beat her into submission? Alicia backed closer to the bookshelves. Her father’s hand flexed around the crumpled handkerchief in his grip.
“No more, Alicia. I know what’s best.” Chadwick raised his bushy brows and waved her away with one hand. “That is my final word.”
Alicia clenched her jaw. She’d have to appear to go along with the idea. She took a deep breath and let it out before replying. “My apologies, Papa. I forget myself. I am sure you have sound reasons.”
He nodded in approval and returned his attention to his ink-smeared papers.
Alicia pressed her lips together. Reasons or not, she needed a stratagem that would place her at the altar with an acceptable suitor. She had hoped to marry for love by now, not find herself leg-shackled to her second cousin. “Is it too late? Have you given Louis your permission?”
Chadwick sifted through another stack of documents and read a few pages before responding.
“I have not. Louis will meet me in the morning to discuss potential terms.”
Pent-up air escaped her lungs in a sudden rush. “Not tomorrow,” she breathed in a voice tight with dread. “I need more time. I wish to see if we will suit,” she said as evenly as she could, hoping the roiling in the pit of her stomach did not seep desperation into her voice.
Hard lines etched Chadwick’s brow. “You have known Louis all your life. And the marriage will not be immediate. He will have to apply for a license, and we must plan the wedding.”
“I meant before you give your permission to Louis,” Alicia clarified, fear lacing her voice with panic.
Chadwick closed his eyes. “Alicia, I warn you–”
“Papa, please.” What could she say that might convince him to let her wait? “If you… if you will allow me some time to accustom myself to the idea before you make any agreements with Louis, I shall force myself to be open to the… proposal. I wish a chance to assure myself I am not surrendering to a life without love. Two months to determine whether we suit. That’s all I ask.”
“You had opportunity enough to search for suitors, Alicia. You frittered away twenty years walking in gardens and reading romance novels.” A vein pulsed in Chadwick’s temple. “There is more at stake than you.”
Alicia’s jaw dropped. She hadn’t had twenty Seasons, in any case, and the two that she did have had been abbreviated by events outside her control. The unfairness of his statement caused hot tears to sting her eyes.
“Why am I at stake at all? Am I but a burden to dispose of, a creature unworthy of finding love?”
“Enough.” Chadwick placed his hands on the desktop and stood so quickly that his chair scraped across the floor. “If I wish to be rid of you, daughter, I will not be obliged to grant a single day’s concession, much less two months. Return to your room and remain there until you have gained control of yourself.”
No longer trusting her runaway tongue or the sharp look of warning in her father’s hazel eyes, she straightened stiffly, stepped backward into the hallway, and marched down the corridor and up the spiral staircase without another word.
Nearly knocking over a small Chippendale table at the top of the steps in her hurry, she strode to her room and threw herself face down on the bed. No. She would not allow herself to cry. She rolled onto her back and stared at the rose-colored cloth covering her canopy bed. Tears threatened to escape. With a sigh, she swung her legs off the side of the bed and sat up, putting her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.
Louis did come around several times a week, but Alicia doubted his reasons had anything to do with her. He’d been Papa’s only friend for a while now, and he lived near enough to make Chadwick House an easy ride. Over the past years, Louis seemed to catch her father’s fever for finding rare antiquities, although his taste ran to the tasteless.
Oh, why couldn’t she have found a suitor by now? Someone dashing, charming, romantic…
She dreamed of a prince to carry her to his palace, a knight to rescue her on his noble steed, or even a dashing gentleman with caring eyes, leaping from his curricle with open arms, ready to clasp her to his chest in a passionate embrace.
Louis scarcely fit the image of a fairy-book suitor. Alicia grimaced. He always sported the biggest cravat, coats with the longest tails, the most mincing of steps – no, there was no way she could go through with it! She could never persuade her heart to love Louis in a month’s time, or even a month of Sundays.
According to the law, she had the right to refuse. After all, she might very well become a baroness in her own right someday. However, the law also gave her father the right – and the power – to make her life miserable if she openly defied him. And although Louis inspired no passion in her heart, there were others who found his fixation with foppishness enchanting, and his conversation stimulating. Though she couldn’t technically be forced to marry, an objection of “But he doesn’t love me!” would engender nothing but contempt from her father and confusion or laughter from her peers.
Alicia kneaded her temples with the tips of her fingers. What had Papa said? She should trust he knew what was best? Perhaps, since this was her first concrete marriage offer, he felt Louis was her last hope before she placed herself irrevocably on the shelf. Humph. Better a hopeless spinsterhood than a loveless marriage.
Frowning, Alicia turned to stare out her darkened bedroom window. All was not lost. Surely she could convince Louis that his matrimonial objectives would be better served elsewhere. She only needed a plan.
It was there on the sideboard when the first rays of dawn slanted through the windows. Just a small folded square, the missive seemed harmless enough.
Ian knew better.
He recognized the hand that had scratched “Mr. Ian Morrissey” in an angular scrawl across the outer edge as belonging to an old friend. An old, old friend. Ian closed his eyes briefly, but opened them as soon as images of battle began to play on the backs of his eyelids. The war was over. What could Caspian want?
His arm reached out in a slow, reluctant stretch toward the note. When he’d gone to bed, scant hours earlier, the sideboard had been empty save for a single vase filled with flowers. He’d slept through the messenger’s early-hours visit, and had wakened with the sun, in a fine mood and eager to start the day. He planned to take his horse for their morning ride along Heatherley’s vast fields.
Heaven knew what Caspian planned.
Ian propped one elbow behind him on the sideboard, leaning b
“Stop worrying. Nothing to do with Whitehall. Accept the Montgomery’s invitation. I’ll explain when you get to London. Yours, C.”
A sheet of ice encased Ian’s stomach. Droplets of sweat formed on his brow. Less than twenty words, but Caspian only needed one to provoke such a reaction.
He despised the City and all it represented, including the frenetic atmosphere of the marriage mart known as the Season and the attitude of the haut ton in general. He couldn’t comprehend why Caspian hadn’t come to Heatherley to speak with him.
Ian’s country home was far from London, and he had no desire to leave. No desire to dance until the wee hours of the morning and worry about whether his cravat was folded in a perfect Trône d'Amour. More than that, he had no wish to see how long the memories were for the cause célèbre of his family’s past or to face ill-concealed animosity toward his half-Irish heritage.
Heatherley had been in his mother’s line of the family for generations. It was a spacious, sprawling mansion in the middle of the country and firmly in his heart. The walls in this room were a cheery yellow, the windows big and wide to let in the bright sun. Best of all, Heatherley was a full day’s ride from London – far from dampened dresses and hinged tongues.
Swearing under his breath, Ian crushed the letter in his palm and slammed his fist onto the sideboard. He wished he could toss the missive into the fire and forget it. He wished he could pretend he hadn’t seen it, or the stiff square of vellum that fell into his hand when he opened the note.
An elegant script proclaimed an invitation to the Montgomery’s one night hence for dinner and dancing. Marvelous.
Scowling, Ian forced his long fingers to unfurl from around the crumpled paper. He turned, smoothed out the crinkles with both hands, and studied the words again. No matter how many times he reread the four concise sentences, he could find nothing to misinterpret in the strong strokes across the parchment. As always, Caspian was maddeningly clear in his instructions.