"Linden weaves history into the backdrop of her current romance. Her characters, from very different backgrounds, are intriguing, honorable and deeply emotional. These characters, coupled with an unconventional plotline, combine to create a surprisingly rich and passionate tale." 4 ½ stars TOP PICK!
"[A] gem—Caroline Linden enchants and captivates in this skillfully drawn tale." 4 ½ stars TOP PICK!
"[A] beautifully written historical novel… Ms. Linden goes on my favorite new author list and I can't wait until her next book!" 4 ½ stars
"An insightful tale of trying to regain one's reputation, while dealing with family disillusionment."
In Case You Were Wondering…
The Napoleonic Wars shaped England to an enormous degree. Coming from a military family myself, I always wanted to write a military hero, and given that I set most of my story in 1820, that meant learning about Waterloo. An excellent account of the battle, by the way, is Alessandro Barbero's The Battle. I drew many of Alec's memories of Waterloo from true events; General Sir Willian Ponsonby really did try to find an old horse the night before the battle to spare his expensive horse, because the army would only pay him a modest sum if the animal were killed. It turned out to be a bad decision, though, as his replacement horse wasn't fast enough to escape a pursuing French lancer, and Sir William didn't survive the battle.
And since I always get email asking what happened to other characters, I went ahead and wrote a story for one of them: Cressida's sister Callie and her own happy ending (which is hinted at in the book). This is not an independent story! But I hope people enjoy it, no matter what.
It was said that every sort of vice could be found in London, if one knew where to look. In the filthy rookery of St. Giles, one didn't even have to look very hard.
The fight had already started, a bare-knuckle match between two street fighters in a grimy pub cellar. The favorite, an Irishman native to St. Giles, was short and stocky and known for fighting dirty; in St. Giles, fighting dirty was applauded. The challenger was an African, dark and formidable, and jeered by the crowd. The cellar was packed with men who had paid their farthing at the door and were intent on recouping their money by placing bets with any and all takers. A musty odor of old smoke, spilled beer, and dried sweat clung to the walls; before the night was over, there would probably be a sharp scent of freshly spilled blood as well.
One spectator, pasty pale and a little too short to see over the rest of the crowd, wormed his way through the room. From time to time he bobbed on his toes for a glimpse of the fighters before resuming his search for a better vantage point. At last he seemed to find one that suited him, settling into a place against the wall opposite the stairs.
"Five quid on the Moor," he said to the man beside him, a tall fellow in the hard-worn clothes of a drayman.
The taller man removed the cigar from between his teeth and blew out a puff of smoke. "The Irishman's favored."
The newcomer, Mr. Phipps, scoffed. "Bloody idiots, the Irish. Look at the Moor—solid muscle, a long reach, and such ferocity! He could beat a dozen Irishmen." In timely demonstration, the African fighter struck, pounding several quick hits to his opponent's belly. The Irishman staggered and looked for a moment as if he would fall to his knees, if not pass out altogether. Phipps raised a fist in triumph.
His companion shrugged. "Perhaps. But the crowd wants the Irishman to win, Mr. Phipps. If the African wins, the losses will be heavy."
"You've got no appreciation at all for the sport, have you, Brandon?" Mr. Phipps said crossly.
"No." In the ring, the Irishman landed a punishing blow to his opponent's chin, and the African fell back to his seconds, reeling in pain. The frenzied crowd roared, and even the colorless Phipps let out a shout. Brandon didn't move, his eyes still restlessly roaming over the spectators.
"You're the only man I know who wouldn't relish this assignment," Phipps told him in a low voice. "There's men out doing a lot worse than watching a good mill." Brandon just gave a quiet snort. Phipps shook his head and sighed, reluctantly turning from the fight. "Well, where is Pearce?"
"There." Brandon tilted his head, indicating a balding man in a green coat across the room. "He met them just a bit ago and took a packet from them. Paid in coin."
"And the Blackwoods?"
"By the ring, near the corner." Brandon dropped his cigar and ground it under his heel. "They bet very heavily on the Irishman."
Phipps nodded. "Good work." He pushed up the brim of his cap and wiped his forehead, and his other men, scattered around the room, took note. With practiced ease they maneuvered toward the three men just identified. The two Mr. Blackwoods and Mr. Pearce would spend the night in Newgate Prison, although none knew it yet. Like many others before them, the Blackwood brothers had been brought low by their gambling, but unlike more ordinary sinners, they had resorted to embezzling stocks from the bank where both worked as clerks. Simon Pearce, a partner in the bank, was likely the architect of the scheme, but he had very carefully covered his part by using the Blackwoods for the necessary forgeries. Any regular investigation would only lead to the Blackwoods, and Sir Thomas Broughton, another partner, was anxious to have Pearce removed while avoiding any embarrassing publicity that might ruin his bank. For discretion he had turned to John Stafford, chief clerk of the Bow Street Magistrates Court and spymaster for the Home Office, and Stafford had set Brandon to discovering how the Blackwoods transferred the stolen stocks to Pearce.
Brandon eased away from the wall. His job was done now. "I'll leave you to it." Keeping his head down, he started to head for the door at the back of the crowded room.
"One moment." Phipps pressed a folded paper into his hand. "Condolences," he muttered.
Brandon automatically closed his fist around the paper and shoved it into his pocket. "Why?" He looked back at Phipps, but the shorter man had already disappeared into the crowd surging toward the ring. A scuffle on the far side had broken out, and was growing larger as more men turned from the staged—and probably fixed—match between the African and the flagging Irishman, and enthusiastically joined in the fight going on among the spectators.
He had no interest in joining that fight; his responsibility had only been to keep an eye on the Blackwoods and Pearce until Phipps could arrive to arrest them. That was Brandon's specialty as a spy: watching. Patiently and silently, he had followed the brothers to every pub, cockfighting pit, and street fair in London, trying to discover how they passed their information to Pearce. After several weeks of dogged monitoring, he had learned their habits. The Blackwoods always met Pearce at a different public location, where both parties might justify their presence on unrelated purposes, and exchanged forged stock certificates for hard coin. Brandon had guessed that this boxing match would draw the brothers like bees to a garden, and notified Phipps. True to form, the Blackwoods had headed straight for Pearce when they arrived at the fight, handing him a thick packet in exchange for a plump little purse. Now Phipps and his men would spirit the thieving clerks and banker away, to face who knew what, and no one in the disorderly crowd would notice or care.
Around him the roar grew louder, punctuated by cracks of a whip as the fight organizers tried to keep order. The African was being assaulted from outside the ring as well as from within, as the Irishman's supporters realized how close their bets were coming to being lost. Phipps's men were probably whipping up the fight to cover their purpose, if they hadn't started the brawl in the first place.
Brandon pushed through to the rickety stairs, taking them two at a time. When he came out into the back of the dingy pot-house, the owner gave him a sharp glance. The bare-knuckle fight going on in his cellar was hardly secret, but it was illegal all the same. Brandon's lip curled at what the man would think if he knew several fellows from Bow Street were down there right now. Instead of leaving and fixing suspicion on himself, he leaned against the counter and motioned the publican over.
"When does the African fight again? He's lost me some blunt tonight."
The other man's expression eased. "Thursday next."
Brandon grunted and dropped a few coins on the counter. "A pot of heavy wet."
He took the mug of ale and carried it to a small table. The room was busy, with men coming in for a drink before disappearing into the back, going down to see this fight or the next one. This drinking house was well-known in St. Giles for its ring. When men could not be found to fight, a cock-fighting ring was erected in its place. The profits from the taproom couldn't compete with the profits from the cellar, he thought, grimacing as he sipped the soured ale. No one noticed him here, just another unlucky drayman washing down the loss of his weekly pay before staggering home. He pulled his woolen cap lower on his forehead and drew the guttering candle close before unfolding the note Phipps had passed him. Stafford didn't waste a moment, sending him to spy on someone else before this job was even concluded.
But that wasn't all the note said.
The bench scraped along the floor as he jumped to his feet, holding the note close to his face to reread it. He glanced toward the stairs to the cellar, then jammed the note into his pocket, leaving behind his barely touched ale and heading to the door. He strode through the narrow, twisting streets of St. Giles, jumping over the sewers running in the gutters and ignoring the catcalls of the whores. Crossing Great Russell Street was like crossing the River Styx from the Underworld of St. Giles to climb back to earth, or at least a better part of London. As he went north the buildings seemed to expand and brighten, the cramped poverty of the rookery giving way to more spacious gentility. The houses here were clean brick edifices, tightly fitted together with neatly swept steps and painted railings, their windows dark mirrors for the gas streetlamps. There were still thieves here, but they kept to the shadows.
After a few streets Brandon turned into an alley and went to the back stoop of a house near the end of a long terrace. The door was surely locked tight for the night, but he didn't bother to try it. Instead he braced one hand on the door, stepped up onto the short railing beside the steps, and reached upward to grab the ledge of the window. He pulled a knife from the sheath strapped under his upraised arm and wriggled the flat of the blade beneath the sash of the window, twisting the knife until he could fit his fingers into the opening. With one hard shove the window slid up; holding the sill with both hands, he walked up the wall until he could pull himself through the open window and into the house. Brandon glanced around as his feet hit the floor, but he'd learned to do that trick almost silently. No sound of footsteps betrayed alarm in the house—not that it would have really mattered, except to his pride. The owner of the house left that window unlocked for just this reason, so Brandon could let himself in without any servant seeing him. He closed the window and went in search of the man.
Light seeped from beneath the door of the master's study; Sir James Peterbury was still awake. Pausing only a moment to listen for voices, he turned the knob and slipped into the room.
"What the—? Bloody hell," exclaimed the man who sprang to his feet, first in alarm, then in recognition. "You nearly scared me witless, man!"
"Sorry for that," said Alec Brandon. He pulled Phipps's note from his pocket and held it up. "Did you know?"
James looked at the note, then back at Alec's face. "I presume you mean your brother's death," he said quietly. James always had been a quick one, Alec had to give him that. "Yes, I knew. I wanted them to tell you some time ago, but they insisted you were vitally occupied."
Alec's tense anger drained away. He dropped into a chair and hung his head. "He died months ago, and no one told me." There was nothing he could have done, but he still should have been told. After all, there was nothing he could do about it now, either. He rubbed one hand across his eyes, feeling the raw sting of grief in his throat. "Damn it. I should have been told."
James took the other chair by the fire. "My mother wrote that it was a lingering illness contracted in the winter. No one thought it was terribly serious, but he just grew worse and worse. You know Frederick never was very strong." The Peterburys no longer lived only a few miles from Alec's family, but James's mother and Alec's mother were still fast friends and wrote each other often.
Alec nodded, swallowing his emotions. He hadn't thought of his older brother in some time, but James was right. Frederick might not have been as vigorous as Alec, but he had always been wiser, more dependable, and most importantly, always there. Alec had never expected Frederick to die. "And the rest of my family?"
"Your mother and sister are well, as are Frederick's widow and children." James cleared his throat. "I understand a cousin has stepped in to manage the estate. I suppose he thinks he's inherited everything now."
He knew what James was thinking. That cousin hadn't inherited anything, because Alec was still alive. But only a handful of people knew that. To most of the world, Alexander Brandon Hayes had died a traitor to his country during the battle of Waterloo, his body ignominiously dumped into an anonymous grave. He had sworn he wouldn't return home without proving himself innocent, but neither he nor James had been able to do it. For five years James had made every effort to locate the letters from a French colonel, found in Alec's personal belongings after Waterloo, that branded him a traitor. But with Alec presumed dead—and unwilling to risk prosecution if discovered otherwise—James had had to tread with extreme caution, and had been utterly unsuccessful. Alec had become a spy, hoping his service to the Home Office would win him a reprieve, and instead he was being sent home, unmasked and still shrouded in disgrace.
But Frederick was dead and Alec was the head of the family. James would argue that that duty outweighed all others. Perhaps it did, for the sake of his mother, his sister, his brother's widow and children.
"I'm returning to Marston," Alec muttered.
His friend's face shone with fierce satisfaction. "I knew you would. It's time, you know, and I've been thinking about your situation. Wellington is Master of the Ordnance now and has politics more on his mind than old battles. If we could secure an interview with him, and perhaps have your present employer put in a word—"
"Wellington, who said he would have shot me himself if the French hadn't been good enough to do it first?" Alec shook his head. "I'm not going to Wellington without proof."
James fell silent. Both of them knew it was highly unlikely any proof of Alec's innocence would surface now. "It's still the right thing to do," he insisted. "Going home, that is."
Alec sighed. He held out the crumpled note from Phipps. "I haven't got a choice."
His friend took the note and read. Stafford was sending him home to Marston, not out of any tender compassion for Frederick's death, but to find a missing man. Sergeant George Turner had gone to see Colonel Lord Hastings, a Deputy Commissary General for the army, in London and never come home to Marston. He'd been gone for almost four months now, and his daughters had appealed to Hastings, who had asked Stafford to look into it. Just another spy's task on the surface, and a routine one at that. Only a terse line at the end—I regret to inform you of the death of Frederick Hayes this past spring—gave any indication Stafford was aware of the ramifications of sending Alec to that particular town, where he would be known and reviled by all.
"Bloody cold of him," remarked James. "Who is this Sergeant Turner he wants you to find?"
"I've no idea." As usual, Stafford gave very little information. He often sent Alec out almost blind, expecting him to quickly find his way and report back how things stood do Stafford could assign other agents most effectively. Alec was used to that; he had done much the same thing when he was in the army, helping guide Wellington's army around the countryside of Spain and Portugal. In this case, though, Alec thought he might have earned the courtesy of more explanation.
"What's Turner done, I wonder?" James murmured. "Hastings is a proud man. I can't see him taking up for a lowly sergeant."
He had wondered about that, too, but Stafford wasn't above doing favors for people with influence, and Hastings was certainly in a position to command Stafford's notice. By far Alec's greater interest was in why Stafford had chosen him for this job. There was no question of masquerading as an old army mate of the missing sergeant or a clerk from the Chelsea pensioner board, not when everyone in Marston would recognize his face and know his name. He would have to return as himself, and that would complicate things on many, many levels.
"It doesn't matter what he's done, or who he really is. Hastings wants him found for some reason, and that's enough for Stafford. I wouldn't think anything of it if Turner hadn't gone missing from my own village." Alec took the letter back. "Stafford should have the spine to explain that part at least."
"Do—do you plan to refuse? I believe you should go, but perhaps not like this…"
He shrugged. James meant he shouldn't go home as Stafford's spy, and with good reason. "What choice have I got? Who else would take a chance on me like he's done?"
"Perhaps this means he's discovered something." His friend sat up straighter. "It would be like that old parsnip to keep it to himself and squeeze a few more months of service from you. But he knew your situation and promised all along to do what he could to restore your name. This"—James shook one finger at the note—"must mean he thinks the time is ripe for you to go home. He'd never expose one of his best men without good reason."
Alec said nothing. It was true that John Stafford and Phipps had known exactly who he was when they hired him as one of their agents; it was true they had pledged to do what they could to help his cause. But sending him home like this could hardly be beneficial. Part of him wondered if it might be a sign that Stafford had become convinced Alec actually was as guilty as he appeared, but he reminded himself that Stafford was far too ruthless to deal with him this way. If Stafford believed him a real traitor, he'd be dead by now, not sent on another assignment. Could Stafford have some evidence that he hadn't conspired with the French? He must have made some provision to keep Alec from being arrested the moment he was recognized. Was there any way he could know?
"Would you write to my mother?" he asked. "Would you tell her…" He hesitated. It was unfair to ask James to explain his actions. "Would you tell her to expect me?"
Alec flexed his hands, suffocated by apprehension. Could he do this? What would his family think of him, first for disappearing and then for returning? What had happened in their lives since he became someone else? He had dreamed for so long of going home, but not like this; he had imagined going home an exonerated man, not as a spy in truth. "Thank you. I wouldn't want the shock to kill her on the spot."
"I'll send it tomorrow," James promised. He eyed Alec somberly. "Is there anything else I can do? You know you only have to ask."
As if he hadn't done enough already. James had believed him when he denied committing treason, helped him get out of Belgium right under the nose of the whole British army, given him clothing and money while he recovered from his wounds sustained at Waterloo, and then found him a not-quite-respectable job as a spy for the Home Office. Suddenly Alec felt the burden of that loyalty; if he could never prove his innocence, it would reflect very badly on James.
But James was all he had. Alec liked to think that his other friend from childhood, Will Lacey, would have stood by him as well, but Lacey really had died at Waterloo. Without James, Alec would have been a dead man and he knew it.
"I'll leave by the end of the week," he said, rising to his feet and extending his hand. "Thank you for everything."
James shook his hand. "Promise me one thing." Alec raised his brows in question. "When you catch the bastard who really did write those letters to the French, tell me. I should like to see him hang."
"You may depend on it," Alec vowed.
His friend didn't smile. "Won't you stay here until you go? You look a bit haggard."
"Small wonder," said Alec wryly. "Don't all dead men, before they rise again?"
Penford didn't appear to have changed much. Three stories of limestone, stately but comfortable, with a pitched roof he had once skidded off on a sled when the snow was particularly deep. The grounds still ranged somewhat wildly about the house, as if the gardener had been let go, but it was all by design; his mother had always favored an almost wilderness air to her grounds, and her children had loved it, spending hours scampering through those woods when they were supposed to be at their studies.
Penford looked almost too much the way he remembered it, as if time had not passed at all. Alec shifted in the saddle, ashamed that he had unconsciously expected to see some sort of decay, some sign that he—and now Frederick—had been missed. Instead it appeared just as it always had, at least from this distance. Perhaps it was comforting that it was more ageless than he was, that it was still a safe and secure home for what remained of his family.
He hoped the next few days wouldn't shake that security too badly.
Alec gathered the reins and urged the horse forward. He had had a whole week to prepare for this day, which ought to be filled with joy. He'd only been dreaming about it for five long years. Instead he let the horse walk, and tried to quell the sudden urge to turn and go back the other way, back to the inn where he had stayed the previous night or even all the way back to London. He had sent word that he was arriving today, and Peterbury had written them as well. Even without Stafford's mission to pursue, Alec had no choice but to go forward.
When he reached the curve in the drive, a figure emerged from the house. He shaded his eyes and watched Alec for a few minutes, then strode down the graveled drive to meet him, the tails of his coat flapping behind him in his haste. Alec drew up the horse when they met, and looked into the curious, wary eyes of his cousin John.
For a long moment they just studied each other. John had grown tall and solid, his fair hair cut short and his complexion ruddy from the sun. He was dressed as any country squire might be, the image of a hardworking landowner. He had an honest face, Alec thought, though his expression was pure amazement at the moment.
"Alec? Alexander Hayes?" said John slowly. "Is it really you?"
There was no denying it now, and no going back. He swung down from the saddle. "It is good to see you, John."
John's light green eyes moved up and down, taking him in. "By God," he said softly. "It is. It really is."
Alec's hand stiffened on the horse's bridle. "Yes."
"By God," murmured John again.
He cleared his throat when the pause wore on too long. "Is my mother…?"
His cousin shook himself, still seeming dazed. "Yes. We received James Peterbury's letter a few days ago, and then yours a day later. It was quite a shock, but of the happiest kind. My aunt has been beside herself awaiting this moment. You must come in to her at once." He stuck out his hand, and when Alec took it, he threw his arm around Alec's shoulder, pulling him into an awkward embrace. "Welcome home, cousin," he said in a voice muffled against Alec's shoulder.
It was far more cordial than he had expected. He hadn't seen John in nearly a dozen years, and they had never really been friends. But after a moment he returned the embrace, then stepped back and collected the reins. John fell in step beside him and they walked toward the house. "I understand you've been looking after things here," said Alec, for lack of anything better to say while John still watched him from the corner of his eye as one would watch a circus curiosity. He told himself to get used to seeing that expression.
John jerked around to face him, eyes wide, but then he laughed, a bit ruefully. "Oh—yes. Freddie invited me for the Christmas holidays, and then after he fell ill…" He pursed his lips and looked at the ground. "My condolences on his death."
Alec nodded once. Freddie, John called him. Clearly John had had a closer relationship with his brother than Alec had, even allowing for the void of the last years. "Thank you," he murmured. "I am pleased he was not alone or consumed by estate business."
It took a moment for his cousin to reply. "No, no, he was not burdened by it." He kicked a rock from the drive, sending it bouncing into the neatly trimmed lawn. "I shall be happy to go over the books with you at your convenience. I believe they are still kept in the same manner as your father kept them. Freddie never changed, and I… Well, I assumed he would return to form in due time and come thrash me if I changed his accounting."
Frederick had never been one to thrash, and they both knew it. Frederick would have frowned and pinched his lips together, then gone off and redone the books the way he wanted them. Alec felt a stab of pain that he'd never see that disappointed look again. "I'm sure everything is fine."
"I have tried to run things properly, as your father and brother would have done…" John's voice died abruptly as Alec stopped.
"And because you thought they were to be yours," he said quietly. "John—"
"No, no." John held up one hand, his smile grim and tight. "I thought that, yes. But it is a far greater happiness that you are still alive. Losing Frederick was very hard on your mother."
Alec looked toward the house. Other people had come out. His mother, leaning on his sister Julia's arm. His sister-in-law, Marianne, holding a child in one arm with another child clinging to her black skirts. Abruptly he felt suffocated, hemmed in and gripped by a mad desire to mount his horse and ride far from all of them before he could see the expressions on their faces. Frederick had died honestly; Alec had just disappeared, letting them believe him dead because it suited him, and for a brief horrible moment, he wished he'd had the decency to succumb to his injuries on the field of Waterloo.
"Come." John nodded at the welcoming party. "They are anxious to see you."
As they drew near, Alec began to focus on telling details. Marianne's children hid their faces at his approach. Marianne, more lovely and fair than ever in her widow's weeds, seemed on the verge of tears as she stared at him, her knuckles white where she held her smaller child. Julia watched him almost belligerently, her chin high and her eyes blazing, looking taller and thinner than before. But his mother…
"Mother," he said softly, stopping an arm's length in front of her. "I've missed you."
She reached out her hand to touch his sleeve. She was smaller than he remembered, more stooped and wrinkled. Her gaze lifted to his face in wonder, the same deep blue eyes that peered from his mirror every morning. Funny how he had forgotten until now that he had her eyes. "Alexander," she whispered. "You have come back." She released Julia and took two steps forward until she could lean on his outstretched arms. Her hands trembled as her fingers curled into the fabric of his coat, digging into his arms. "Oh, Alexander," she said again, tears beginning to stream down her face. "My son."
Alec felt the first real bite of despair as his mother laid her cheek against his chest and wept. She was his mother, as familiar as his own flesh, and yet not. A deep shame swept over him. No matter that he knew he was innocent of treason; his family could not have known, and if they had believed him innocent nonetheless, they had done so without any proof or even assurances from him that it was so. In his outrage and humiliation and even fear, he had simply vanished and left them to face the public scorn for him. "Mother," he said again, helplessly. "I am so sorry."
She raised her head to look at him. "Never," she said fiercely, through her tears. "Never apologize. Whatever grief I have endured cannot match my joy at your return. I lost both my sons, and now one has returned to me. I don't care how or why, I only care that you are alive and well and home."
"What you must think," he began, until she put up her hand, touching his cheek.
"Not now," she said gently. "Today is a day for celebration, nothing else."
Her words only made him feel worse somehow. If she had demanded to know if he truly had sold secrets to the French…if she had asked where he'd been for the last five years and what he'd been doing… If she had only asked why he hadn't sent her even a whisper of a suggestion that he was still alive… All those questions would have been her right to ask, and the fact that she didn't ask one, but merely gathered him into her arms as she had done so many times when he was a boy, rent Alec's heart. He was better as a spy now, alone and unfettered, when he didn't even have to pretend to any sort of honesty. Gingerly he held his mother and let her weep.
"Oh, but I've gone and turned maudlin," she said, raising her head and dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. "On this, the happiest day in many a month." She stepped back, and Alec saw her make a small hand motion urging Julia on.
His sister didn't appear nearly as pleased to see him. "Alec," she said, ducking her head in a stiff curtsey.
"It is good to see you again, Julia," he replied. She pressed her lips together and said nothing. "And you, Marianne."
Frederick's wife jumped as he said her name. The child she was holding clung tighter to her neck and started to whimper. "Welcome home, Alec," she said quietly. "We were overjoyed to hear of your return."
"Thank you," he murmured. Everyone was looking at him, and with such naked curiosity and emotion. It made his skin crawl to be the focus of so much attention, after years of avoiding all notice.
"Well," said his mother brightly, "shall we go inside? You must be tired, Alexander dear, and in want of a drink." Clinging to his arm, she steered him into the house. He couldn't help glancing up and around as he passed through the high arched door into the main hall. He might have left only a month ago; the house was just as he remembered it inside as well as out. The butler and housekeeper were waiting within, and from the quick patter of footsteps, the rest of the servants had also been loitering about the hall, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man come back from the dead. Alec tried to rein in his dark mood, but it all began to seem quite ghoulish.
"Farley, see to Major Hayes's things at once," his mother told the butler. "Mrs. Smythe, send tea to the drawing room, along with…" She glanced up at Alec. "A bottle of port, and some brandy." The servants bowed and hurried off. "Come, dear," she said to Alec. "Won't you sit with me?"
Like a funeral train everyone filed into the sitting room. Marianne followed after sending her children upstairs with a nursemaid. The thought that he was attending his own funeral grew more pronounced; irrationally, Alec felt like saying it aloud to provoke any other reaction. Only his mother seemed oblivious, settling herself in the chair that had always been hers, beaming at Alec as he sat next to her.
But then no one seemed to know what to say. The silence grew more and more ominous as they all sat and hardly looked at one another. Alec finally forced himself to speak. "I only recently heard of Frederick's death. If I had known—"
"Then what?" Julia said under her breath.
Perhaps if they had a loud screaming row, it would air out the grievances everyone must be feeling, like ripping a bandage from a festering wound in one painful swoop. Alec turned to face his sister. "What do you want to know, Julia?"
She lifted her chin, taking up his challenge. "The same thing we all want to know, I daresay. Where you've been for five years and why the bloody hell you didn't send Mother even a single word that you were alive—"
"Julia!" cried her mother.
Julia's mouth pursed. "I was just answering his question, Mother. Didn't you say we must go on as if nothing had changed?"
Anthea Hayes flushed. "Not today, Julia," she said with steel in her voice.
"No, no," Alec replied, watching his sister's face burn red. "Let her speak. Julia and I were never coy with each other."
Julia's hands balled into fists in her lap. "Weren't we?" she retorted. "And yet you've been exceptionally coy these last five years, neglecting to tell us you still lived."
His sister was seething with fury, and oddly it made Alec feel better. This was better than sitting and being stared at with amazement and suspicion. "I wouldn't call it coy or neglectful—"
"Oh?" She sniffed. "Perhaps willfully deceitful, then."
"Julia," said Marianne softly.
His sister opened her mouth, then closed it. She lurched to her feet. "Pray excuse me, Mother. I feel a headache coming on and would like to retire to my room." She shot a furious glare at Alec before sweeping from the room.
He clenched his jaw as the door slammed shut behind her. He saw the worried look Marianne sent John, and the way John replied with a tiny shake of his head. "I am so sorry," said his mother, reaching out to put her hand on his. "Julia is… Well, it was a tremendous shock…"
"Mother, I understand." Alec shook his head. "I don't expect her to be overjoyed."
"Julia always loved you so; this has been a very hard week for her," she replied. "She was distraught after Waterloo, when we heard… But she will come around in time."
In time. The thought of the weeks and days ahead made Alec's head ache. If this was the reaction from his family, how much worse would it be when he met neighbors and old friends? He might as well have come home with the word "traitor" branded on his forehead. "I'm sure it has been very hard on you as well."
"Oh, no!" His mother's face lit up. "When the Peterbury boy wrote to us, telling us you were alive and well— Alexander, you cannot know what happiness I felt, and then doubly so when your letter arrived a day later. This has been the longest week of my life, waiting to see for myself. Your father…" Her voice wobbled. "He would have been overjoyed as well." Tears glimmered in her eyes.
"Excuse me," John murmured, rising to his feet. "I have some things to see to…" He trailed off and coughed, looking ill at ease.
"And I should go to the children." Marianne rose. "You must wish to have some time together. Welcome home, Alec."
In the silence after their departure, Alec turned to his mother. "I know everyone will have questions, Mother. You mustn't tell Julia she should go on as if nothing has happened."
She pressed her lips together. "Julia should moderate her tongue."
Alec was surprised into a short laugh. His sister had always been the most outspoken of the Hayes children, for she had known she was the apple of their father's eye and would get away with anything. "Why start now?"
His mother didn't respond to it. She touched the cuff of his jacket again, smoothing her fingertips over the fabric as though to reassure herself he was real. "Never mind. Julia will get over her upset. All will be well now that you are home again."
Alec thought of all the reasons she was wrong. He suspected his mother was willfully turning a blind eye to every one of those reasons, and that it would only delay the inevitable questions and explanations. More potently than ever, he wished he had been able to refute the charges of treason; now he had come home without the vindication he needed and would be even more suspect because of it. Who would believe him innocent after he had disappeared for five years without a word to his family? Thanks to Stafford's intervention with the Home Office, he wasn't about to be arrested, but Alec hardly thought that would prove anything to the people of Marston, who had long ago accepted his guilt.
But it would be cruel to say that to her now. Let one person at least rejoice in his return. He covered her hand on his arm with his own. "I hope so, Mother."
But I doubt it.