BARELY A LADY

PROLOGUE

Charleroi, Belgium - Dawn, June 15, 1815

It would take a miracle to get him out of this alive. And he had the feeling he’d long since used up his share of miracles.

Warming his hands on a tin of hot coffee, he took a moment to assess his environment. The plain of Charlerois spread out before him like a green and gold quilt partitioned by hedgerows. Dawn thinned the summer sky to a watery yellow, and the smoke from a hundred cannons writhed through the morning mist. Relative silence temporarily reigned, but the air stank of cordite, hard-ridden horses and unwashed men.

No one took any notice of him as he stood beside one of the doused campfires. He was just another officer trying to catch a quick meal and smoke as he waited for the call to arms.

As far as the eye could see, men were preparing for battle. Campfires were being doused, weapons checked. The rolling plain echoed with the rhythmic scraping of swords being honed, the nervous whinnying of horses, the sharp sounds of command.  In his own vicinity men were stripping their kits of everything they wouldn’t need. Uniforms were straightened and checked, bad jokes exchanged, courage exhorted.

This was it, then. The final great battle for Europe. How the hell had he ended up here? He'd only wanted to get back to Brussels. He had a mission to finish, and the two armies massing before him stood in his way.

If he had been a different man, or it had been a different time, he probably would have happily stayed to offer his life up on the altar of patriotism. Nothing played quite so well back home as a solemn memorial stone in the village church.

But he wasn't that man. He’d already committed more sins than a man is allowed in order to get this far, and he couldn't allow even Napoleon or Wellington to stand in his way. Not only because what he brought to Brussels was as vital as the outcome of this battle, but because after what he’d survived, he owed it to himself. He owed it to the people he'd left behind  and the ones who waited ahead. He owed it to his beautiful Mimi, who had paid such a price for helping him.

But that wasn’t a memory he could waste time on today. Today he had bad business to take care of. And when he was finished with that, he had business of his own to finish. He had to face off with Livvie and Gervaise and all the others, and settle things once and for all. He had to get his revenge.

Yes, he thought, pulling the cheroot he’d been smoking from his mouth and flipping it to the grass. That was what he would live for.

Revenge.

Whistles sounded up and down the line. Men gathered into the greatcolumns that had terrorized a continent. Exchanging his coffee tin for his sword, he sheathed it with a lethal-sounding hiss. He checked his powder and the priming on his pistol, and retrieved the musket he’d learned to reload and fire on the run. He stood alone in the chaos trying to see if there were any way he could avoid this fracas.

A young soldier ran up to stop before him. “Mon Capitain,” he announced breathlessly as he snapped off a salute. “The enemy is in sight.”

He looked at the anxious young face before him and wished he could laugh. Was he caught in a tragedy or a farce? The lad who stood before him hadn’t so much as been introduced to a razor.

“Indeed, private. And what is our job this fine morning?”

The boy looked confused. “To harry the enemy’s flanks, sir.”

“And so we shall. But for you, mon brave, I have a special mission. You are willing?”

 If possible, the boy grew taller. “But of course, sir.”

“Excellent.” Pulling out a slip of paper and a nub of charcoal, he scribbled  a note. “Deliver this request to the quartermaster. And then stay at his command until it is completed.”

No matter what other sins lay on his soul, he was not going to send this child to his death. At least not this day.

The boy cast a brief frown over his shoulder to where the red British uniforms were beginning to materialize through the lifting mist.

“Private?”

The boy looked bemused, but he held out his hand and accepted the twist of paper. Then, saluting, he ran for the rear.

Waiting only until he was sure the boy was well out of it, the Captain buttoned his blue tunic and shot his red cuffs. Then, giving the uniform he’d worked so hard to a acquire a final pat, he set his shako on his head.

“Well, then,” he snapped to the rest of the men as he pulled out his pistol. “Don't stand there like sheep. The enemy comes.”

As one, the squad of sharpshooters turned to jog toward the receding mist. Across the plain, trumpets blared. Drums began to beat a familiar tattoo. The chant, rose, “Vive l'Emporer!”. The columns started off. The battle for Quatre Bras had begun. He he had no choice but to engage.

God forgive him.

Setting off at a lope he followed the ragged squad. A line of sharp crimson uniforms approached. He raised his pistol and fired.

Ahead of him, a soldier in blue fell.

Tossing away the pistol, he lifted the musket and fired again.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Brussels - Thursday  June 15, 1815

All prey understands the need for concealment. Sitting at the edge of a crowded ballroom, Olivia Grace knew this better than most, and kept her gaze sweeping the room like a gazelle sidling up to a watering hole.

Olivia couldn’t help but smile. Watering holes. She’d been reading too many naturalists’ journals. Not that there weren’t predators here, of course. It would have been impossible to miss them, with their bright plumage, sharp claws and aggressive posturing. And those were just the mamas.

Olivia was safely tucked away from their notice, though. Camouflaged in serviceable gray bombazine, she sat on a chair set against the trellis-papered wall, just another anonymous paid chaperone watching on as her charges danced.

The ballroom, a converted carriage house in the Duke of Richmond’s rented home, was full to bursting. Scarlet-clad soldiers whirled by with laughing girls in white. Sharp-eyed dowagers in puce and aubergine committed wholesale slaughter of each others’ reputations. Civilian gentlemen in evening black clustered at the edge of the dance floor to argue about the coming battle. Olivia had even had the privilege of seeing the Duke of Wellington himself sweep into the room, his braying laugh lifting over the swell of the orchestra.

It seemed all of London had moved to Brussels these last months. Certainly the well-born military men had come in response to Napoleon’s renewed threat. Olivia had already had the Lennox boys, the Duke of Richmond’s sons, pointed out to her, and handsome young Lord Hay in his scarlet Guards jacket. Sturdy William Ponsonby in Dragoon green, and the exquisite Diccan Hilliard in diplomat’s black.

With all those eligible young men afoot, it would have been absurd to think that families would have kept their hopeful daughters at home. It was certainly why Olivia was in Brussels.

Tonight, though, her employer had insisted on shepherding her own chicks, which left Olivia with nothing to do but watch. And watch she did, storing up every bit of color and pageantry to record for her dear Georgie back in England.

“Oh, there’s that devil Uxbridge,” the lady next to her whispered in salacious tones. “How he can show his face after eloping with Wellington's sister-in-law...”

Ah, Olivia thought, another snippet for her letter home. The return of Lord Uxbridge from exile. She'd heard he'd been called up to lead the cavalry in the upcoming fight. She'd also heard he was brilliant and charismatic. Catching sight of him as he sauntered across the room in his flashy Hussar’s blue and silver, his fur-lined pelisse thrown over his shoulder, she thought that the reports had been woefully inadequate. He was unforgettable.

She was so intent on the sight of him, in fact, that she failed her primary duty. She forgot to watch for danger. She’d just leaned a bit to see whose hand Uxbridge was bending over, when her view was suddenly blocked by a field of gold.

“You don’t mind if I sit here, do you?” someone asked.Olivia looked up to find one of the most beautiful women she’d ever seen standing before her. Even sitting against the wall, Olivia fought the urge to look over her shoulder. Women like this never sought her out.

For a second, she flirted with old panic. She’d spent so many years trying to evade exposure, that the instinct died hard. But this woman didn’t look outraged. In fact, she was smiling. And she was alone, with not even one condemning matron at her side. Olivia found herself smiling again, amused at the thought that after this long anybody would even recognize her.

“It’s quite all right,” the beauty said with a conspiratorial grin. “Contrary to popular opinion, I rarely bite. In fact, in some circles I’m considered fairly charming.”

“I do bite,” Olivia found herself answering. “But only when provoked.”

She should bite her tongue. She knew better.

The woman didn’t seem to notice, though, as with a hush of silk, she eased onto the chair to Olivia’s left. “Well, let’s see who we can get to provoke you, then,” she said. “I think what this ball needs is some excitement--more than Jane Lennox making cow-eyes at Wellington over dinner, at any rate.”

Olivia actually laughed. “I think you might get some argument from all those men in red.”

Her companion took a moment to observe the room though a grotesquely bejeweled lorgnette. “It never occurred to me. This is the perfect place to watch absolutely everything, isn’t it?”

“Absolutely.”

“I wish I’d been sitting here when those magnificent Highlanders did those reels. I don’t suppose you caught a glimpse of what they wore under those kilts.”

“Sadly, no. Not for lack of trying, though.”

Olivia wondered why this peacock would choose to sit among the house wrens—especially since several of the wrens in question had taken umbrage. One or two sidled away. Olivia even heard the whisper of “harlot”. Again she fought the old urge to hide, but the attention was definitely on the newcomer.

As for that petite beauty, she appeared to take no notice. A Pocket Venus, she looked to be no older than Olivia’s four and twenty years. As fine-skinned as a porcelain doll, she had thick, curling mahogany hair and a heart-shaped face that might have looked innocent but for her slyly amused cat-green eyes. Her dress had been crafted by an artist in layers of filmy gold sarcenet that seemed to flow like water from a barely respectable to expose quite an expanse of diamond-wrapped throat and high, white breasts.

The other women might sniff, but she had the indefinable air of a true a lady. Olivia couldn’t help but like her.

“I noticed the way you watch everyone,” the beauty now said, lazily waving an intricately painted chickenskin fan under her nose. “And I’ve been dying to hear what you’re thinking.”

“Thinking?” Olivia said instinctively. “But I think nothing. Companions aren’t paid enough to think.”

The lady gave a delighted laugh. “If you only did what you were paid for, my dear, I sincerely doubt you’d ever move farther afield than your front parlor.”

Olivia found herself smiling back. “The back parlor, actually. Closer to the servant’s stairs.”

She knew perfectly well she was being reckless. Exposure was still possible, after all, and one gasp of recognition would destroy her. But it felt so good to smile.

Her new acquaintance laughed. “I knew I’d like you. Who is it who benefits from your companionship, might I ask?”

“Mrs. Bottomly and her three daughters.” Olivia gestured toward a group on the dance floor. ”They felt that passing the season in Brussels might be...advantageous.”

Her guest turned to observe the short, knife-lean matron in pea green and ostrich feathers smacking a rigid Mr. Hilliard on the arm with her fan, as three younger copies of her looked on.

“You mean that flock of underfed crows pecking at my poor Diccan? Good lord, how did she ever manage to acquire an invitation?”

“Ah, well,” Olivia said, ”that would involve a well-timed walk along the Allee Verde, an even better-timed ankle twist which obliged the Duchess of Richmond to take Mrs. Bottomly up in her carriage, and Mrs. Bottomly’s tenacious confusion as to the nature of the invitations to tonight’s event.”

Her new acquaintance shook her head in awe. “Why ever has the creature wasted her time with a mere ball? Let’s introduce her to Nosey, and she can help him rout Napoleon.”

Olivia wryly considered her employer. “Not unless he has three eligible officers who might be offered in compensation.”

Just then Mrs. Bottomly let off a shrill titter that should have shattered Mr. Hilliard’s eardrums. Olivia’s companion flinched. “Not something I’d want on my conscience. I’m afraid Wellington will simply have to rely on his own wits.”

“Indeed.”

“But what of you?” The beauty demanded of Olivia. ”Surely you deserve better than service to an overweening mushroom.”

Olivia smiled. “I’ve found that life rarely takes what we deserve into consideration.”

For just a moment, her companion’s expression grew oddly reflective. Then, abruptly, she smiled.“Well, there are small mercies,” she said with a lazy wave of her fan. “If that dreadful woman had decamped from Brussels like everyone else who feared the upcoming battle, I never would have met you.”

Olivia couldn’t help but enjoy a flush of gratitude. “Indeed you would not. For it is certain we couldn’t have met in London. Not even Mrs. Bottomly would dare to aspire so high.”

The woman turned those bright eyes on Olivia. “And how do you know that?”

Olivia’s smile was placid. “Your gems are real.”

Her friend gave a surprisingly full-throated laugh that turned heads. Olivia saw the attention and instinctively ducked.  Several wasp-waisted dandies had noticed the beauty next to her and approached on high, tapping heels.

Her companion huffed in exasperation and waved the men off like annoying clerks. “Like bees at a pick-a-nic,” she huffed as the swarm turned away. “Neither pleasant nor productive.”

Olivia assessed the lot, all primped and languid and self-important. “Maybe not bees. More lilies of the field.”

“If a field is involved,” her friend said dryly, ”I think what you’re looking for is sheep.”

Harmless, anyway, Olivia thought to herself. She was still watching their retreat when her companion suddenly straightened. “Grace!” she called with a wave of her fan. “Over here!”

Olivia looked up to see a tall, almost colorless redhead turn and smile. She was in the same serviceable gray as Olivia, although the cloth was better. A silk moiré, possibly, that did nothing but wash out whatever color the young woman had in her plain features. Then she began walking towards them, and Olivia realized that she limped badly.

Must have danced with the wrong clod, she thought, and instinctively moved to offer her seat.

Her companion quietly held her in place. “Grace, my love,” she caroled, her hand on Olivia’s arm. “What have you heard?”

The tall redhead lurched to a halt right in front of them and dipped a very fine curtsy. “Word has come, Your Grace. Fighting has commenced in Quatre Bras, south of us.”

Your Grace? Oh, sweet God, Olivia thought, feeling the blood drain from her face. What had she done?

Unobtrusively, she searched the room for Mrs. Bottomly and her daughters, but suddenly it seemed the entire crowd was in her way. Many of the officers now milled about uncertainly. Young girls wrung their hands and chattered in high, anxious tones. Wellington himself was speaking to the Duke of Richmond, and both looked worried.

It had begun, then. The great battle they had all been expecting for weeks was upon them. Awfully, Olivia felt a measure of relief. She would be invisible again.

“Ah well, then,” the duchess said, climbing to her feet. “It seems our time for frivolity is over. Noblesse oblige and all that. Before we go, Grace, come meet my new friend.”

Olivia stood, and was surprised to see that the duchess came only to her shoulder.

“I’m sorry we didn’t have time to share more observations,” the petite beauty said to her with a gamine smile. “I think we could have thoroughly skewered this lot.”

Olivia dipped a curtsy. “It has been a pleasure, Your Grace.”

The Duchess lifted a wickedly amused eyebrow. “Of course it has. Although by morning you will be notorious for speaking with me, you know. ‘Oh, my dear,’ they’ll all say, ‘did you hear about that nice companion, Miss...’”

The little duchess suddenly looked almost ludicrously surprised. “Good God. I can’t introduce you after all.”

Olivia froze. Had she really recognized her?

“We never exchanged names,” the duchess said, laughing.

“How shall I ever enjoy my full consequence if you don’t even know to whom you should debase yourself? My dear step-son is forever chastising me for my lack of consequence. Perhaps it’s time I stop hiding every time he visits and actually listen. 

“I shall begin,” she said. “I, for my sins, am Dolores Catherine Anne Hilliard Gilbey, Dowager Duchess of Murther.” She wafted a lofty hand. “You may respond with proper gravity.”

Olivia found herself chuckling again as she dipped a curtsy of impeccable depth. “Mrs. Olivia Grace, Your Grace.”

“Good lord,” the Duchess said, her eyes wide. “I’m a grace, you’re a grace, and of course Grace is a grace. A real grace, mind you, in all ways.” She patted the tall girl halfway up her arm. “Introduce yourself and make the irony complete, my love.”

With a smile that softened her long face, the redhead dipped a bow. “Miss Grace Fairchild, ma’am.”

“Grace is the daughter of that grossly bemedaled Guards general over there with the magnificent white mustache,” the duchess said. “General Sir Hillary Fairchild. Grace is one of those indomitable females who have spent her life following the drum. She knows more about foraging for food and creating a billet from a cow byre than I know about Debrett’s.”

Olivia exchanged curtsies. She liked this plain young woman, who had the kindest gray eyes she thought she’d ever seen. “A pleasure, Miss Fairchild.”

“Please,” the young woman said. “Call me Grace.”

“And I am Kate,” the young duchess said. “Lady Kate, if the familiarity sticks in your craw. But never Duchess or my lady or Your Grace--” She shot a glare at Grace Fairchild--”for how would we tell each other apart? Which would be unconscionable among friends. And we are friends, are we not?”

 Olivia knew better than to agree. “It would please me immensely,” she said anyway. “Please call me Olivia.”

“Shall we see you at Madame de Rebaucour’s later then, Olivia?” Grace Fairchild asked. “She is organizing the ladies of the city to help prepare for the anticipated wounded.”

“Never let it be said that I am completely without useful skills,” Lady Kate said proudly. “I’ve become absolutely mad for rolling lint. Grace here says I am quite a deft hand at it.”

“If my employer gives me leave, you can expect me there,” Olivia said, casting an eye out for that lady among the crowd.

“Excellent,” Lady Kate told her, flinging her Zephyr shawl about her. “We shall all help, like the heroines we are.”

“And sully those exquisite white hands?” a man’s voice demanded from behind Olivia.

Olivia froze. Shock skittered across her skin like sleet.

“Since these are the only pair of hands I own,” Lady Kate was saying,”I imagine they will just have to adapt.”

Olivia couldn’t move. Sound suddenly echoed oddly, and movement seemed to slow. Lady Kate was looking just past her to where the man who had addressed her obviously stood, and Olivia knew she should turn. She should make sure.

It wasn’t him. It couldn’t be. She had escaped him. She’d hidden herself so thoroughly that she’d closed even the memory of him away where it could no longer breed nightmares.

“A generation of young exquisites would go into mourning if you gained so much as a scratch,” he was telling the duchess in his charmingly boyish voice.

Still behind her, out of sight. Still possibly someone who only sounded terrifyingly familiar. Olivia desperately wanted to close her eyes, as if it could keep him at bay. If I don’t see him, he won’t be there.

She knew better. Even if she refused the truth, her body recognized it. Her heart sped up. Her hands went clammy. She couldn’t seem to get in enough air.

And there was no escape. So she did what cornered animals do. She turned to face the threat.

And there he was, one of the most beautiful men God had ever created. A true aristocrat with his butter blonde hair, clear blue eyes and hawkish Armiston nose, he stood a slim inch below six feet. His corbeau coat and white smalls were only a bit dandified, with half a dozen fobs and a ruby glinting from his finger. He was bestowing a mischievous smile on the duchess, and all the women smiled back.

Olivia had once thought, like them, that his gentle looks reflected a kind soul. She would never make that mistake again.

“Dear Gervaise.” Lady Kate was laughing as he stepped up to her. “How thoughtful to persist in your delusion that I am a fragile flower.”

His grin was disarming, his laugh like music. “Been thoroughly put in my place, haven’t I? Daresay you’ll ignore my heartfelt wish to safeguard your looks, and then where will be you be when they’re gone?”

Lady Kate laughed again and held out her hand to him. “Doing it up much too brown, Gervaise. You know full well that I’m content simply being outrageous. I’ll leave you to hold the torch for natural perfection.”

Gervaise bent over Lady Kate’s hand, but suddenly he wasn’t looking at her. He had just caught sight of Olivia.

She was probably the only one who caught the quickly shuttered surprise in his eyes. The glint of triumph. She wanted to laugh. Here she’d been hiding herself from judgmental mamas, when there had been a viper in the room all along.

“It seems I arrived just in time,” he said, straightening with a delighted smile as he shot his cuffs. “As quickly as this place is emptying, I might have missed you all. I know Miss Fairchild, of course, Kate. But who is this?”

“Make your bows to Mrs. Olivia Grace, Gervaise,” Lady Kate said. ”Olivia, this is Mr. Gervaise Armiston. He is about to take me over to the door so I can see off our brave soldiers. I have no brave soldiers of my own, you know. Only Gervaise.”

Gervaise chuckled good-naturedly and extended an arm. “I also live to serve, Kate,” he protested. “It’s just that I only serve you.” Giving Olivia a quick bow, he nodded. “Mrs. Grace.”

Olivia swallowed against rising bile. “Mr. Armiston.”

Lady Kate rested a slim white hand on his midnight sleeve. “Excellent. Come, Gervaise. Let us now go and remind our soldiers what they fight for. Grace, Olivia...tomorrow.”

The duchess had barely turned away before Olivia’s legs gave out from under her and she sat hard.

“Olivia?” Grace Fairchild asked, her face creased in concern. “Are you all right?”

Olivia looked up, trying desperately to quell her nausea. Suddenly from the streets below, military drums shattered the darkness like gunshots. Trumpets blared, and the Duchess of Richmond rushed about the ballroom, urging the men not to leave until after dinner had been served.

“Just another hour!” she pleaded.

Officers lined up at the doors to get a farewell kiss from the lovely Duchess of Murther. Some girls wept, others swept off to dinner with the remaining men. And in the corner where the chaperones sat, Olivia’s world collapsed.

She couldn’t get her hands to stop shaking. She had to warn Georgie. She had to warn them all.

She couldn’t. Any contact with them would lead Gervaise right back to them, and that would prove fatal.

Just like before.

Oh, Jamie.

Grace touched her shoulder. “Olivia?”

Olivia jumped. “Oh…” she said, trying so hard to smile as she climbed to suddenly unsteady legs. “Oh, no, I’m fine. I suppose it’s time to go.“ 

“You’re sure you’re all right? You’re pale.”

“Just the news.” Gathering her shawl, she avoided Grace’s sharp gaze. “I wish I were more like Lady Kate,” she said brightly. “Look how she’s making all the men laugh.”

Grace looked to where the duchess was lifting on her toes to kiss a hotly blushing boy in Rifleman green. “Lady Kate is amazing, isn’t she?”

“She’s a disgrace,” one of the nearby women hissed.

Several other heads nodded enthusiastically.

“Glass houses,” snapped a regal older woman at the end of the row.

Everyone looked over at her, but she ignored them. Reticule and shawl in hand, she rose imperiously to her feet. She was a tall woman, with exceptional posture and a proud face beneath thick, snowy hair. She’d only taken two steps, though, before she caught her toe and pitched forward, almost landing on her nose. Olivia jumped to help, but Grace was already there. 

“Dear Lady Bea,” she said, steadying the elegant woman. “Do have a care.”

The older woman patted her cheek. “Ah, for the last Samaritan, my child. For the last Samaritan.”

“That’s good, Lady Bea.”

“Indeed it is,” the older woman agreed. Grace smiled as if she knew what the woman meant and ushered her on her way.

“Lady Kate’s companion,” she confided as they passed.

“Mrs. Grace!” Mrs. Bottomly screeched. She was bearing down on them like a particularly skinny elephant with her calves in tow. “We are leaving.”

Ostrich feathers bobbing, she herded her hopefuls to the door. Olivia had no choice but to follow. Lady Kate waved as Olivia passed and then hugged a burly Dragoon. Olivia saw that Gervaise wasn’t with her anymore and almost turned back for the safety of the ballroom.

He was waiting for her, of course. She’d only made it a few steps into the hot night when he stepped out of the crowd.

“I’ve missed you, Livvie,” he said, reaching out a hand. “You’ll see me, won’t you?”

Not a request. An order wrapped in etiquette. Olivia couldn’t prevent the sick cold or trembling that beset her. She knew much too well what his presence portended. She could hold her ground, though, pulling herself out of his reach. She could face him eye-to-eye. The days of downcast eyes and prayed-for escape were long over. “Why, no, Gervaise,” she said just as amiably. “I won’t.”

And before he could so much as to grab her arm, she swept down the steps and into the night.

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