Chapter One: An Urgent Request
Sussex, May 1826
This had all the makings of a dirty evening -- a dim sun, a low yellow horizon, a grey blankness in the east. Back in the war, Matt Holt had been a ship's surgeon, so he knew the signs of a storm, and this might be a batten-down one. If he'd had any sense, he would have stayed in his own library by the fire, a good kidney monograph in hand and a great brandy in the glass. But instead, he was dismounting in the walled yard of the old Brighton Road inn, handing his reins to a stammering stable boy, and setting off to rescue a woman he didn't even like.
As he stepped across the threshold, he felt in his pocket for the note a groom had delivered. Matt, darling, it began, and it meant something that she was as cynical as he, to call him darling when she didn't like him any more than he liked her. No, she was more cynical, because she had confidence that a stupid endearment could bring him out on an evening with a storm gathering in the east. And she was right, wasn't she, because here he was.
Natasha was sitting on a bench in the inn's front hall, a single leather bag by her feet, composed amidst the bustle of the travelers and staff. After he wended his way through the crowd, he called out her name, and she rose, as gracefully as if she owned the place. But then she gave him a lopsided smile and said, "I am so glad it is you!" He didn't have time to ask her who else it would have been, considering she'd summoned him, as she added rapidly, "I was on my way to the King's fête in Brighton. But I was stranded. I did try to find your house." She gestured to her hem—there was three inches of dust on the grey merino.
"Miles and miles. In circles around this town. All roads, it seems, lead to Trome. You know," she added, her expression growing steely, "in Russia, there are lovely long straight roads."
"Yes, I hear those long lovely straight Russian roads led Bonaparte right into Moscow."
She scowled at him, and then must have remembered she was meaning to ask him for a favor, because her face smoothed out and she didn't look like Lady Macbeth anymore. In fact, she looked beautiful and tragic, and he grew wary. They hadn't seen each other since Twelfth Night, when the entire remaining Danford clan had gathered for the holiday, and Matt, seeking a refuge from his late wife's living relations, found Natasha in the nursery with all the children, including his own. He'd been wary then too, for his children had lived with her after their mother's death, and he had never quite overcome the suspicion that she'd take them back if she could.
Now, however, the children were far away and safe in their schools, and there was only the two of them, not counting of course the dozen or so staff and guests milling around them in this hall. "Matthew," she started.
"You need money." It seemed just as implausible as when he first read her note. "Why do you need money? Charlie left you well-fixed." He knew precisely how well-fixed, as he was trustee of his friend's fortune, and guardian to their son. "And what are you thinking, traveling alone like this?"
And she scowled at him again and launched into a long explanation of taking her son back to school, and proceeding on the main road towards Brighton and the King's week-long birthday fête, and of a coachman and an abigail who fell rather suddenly in love and eloped, leaving her here at the inn.
He took her arm and led her into deeper into the hall, where at least there was a fire, and a proprietor at the counter. "Taking the carriage with them."
"And," she said, "my purse. It was very romantic."
"Trust you to find felony romantic. I gather you didn't bother to call the constable."
She made an airy gesture. "It was a hired carriage. I've no doubt the owner will send for a constable."
"When there is no chance of tracking their passage." He shook his head. "So finding yourself penniless, you went looking for my house?" He glanced around at the crowded hall, at all the fête-bound others who had stopped here also to shelter from the coming storm. "You could, no doubt, get a seat with one of those." The half-smile curving her mouth told him that she wasn't interested. "You don't want to attend the fête any longer?"
Immediately the smile vanished. "Of course I do. It promised to be the most vivid event to end the season. The invitation said exactly that. Vivid. I am desolated to miss it. And I am desolate here." There was the one flash of pleasure when she used the same word two different ways—English was her third language, and occasionally still a novelty. But then she composed herself and looked tragic and lost again, and he gestured for her to continue before he made any stupid promises. She said, "But I haven't my trunk, and my fête dresses, and— So I remembered you lived near Trome. But I couldn't find it from here—" Her scornful gesture took in the whole of the South Downs and its twisting country lanes. "And I realized it was for the best, for it wouldn't be proper, would it, for me to come to your abode" (he read her prim tone as a critique of the absurdity of English propriety, which was fair enough) "and I came back here. But the gentleman landlord—" this was said with the sort of acid that probably sounded better in her native Russianized French—"refused me room."
The gentleman landlord was gazing at the door slamming closed after a little maid. He said distractedly, "Offered you room. Offered you the cottage out back, in fact, where my own mother stays. Safe and quiet, away from the hubbub. But you hadn’t the rent."
Natasha ignored this and said to Matt, "My purse was gone."
"So you thought of sending for me," Matthew marveled. "I'm flattered."
"You should be. It was extremely difficult for me." She touched her ear, where sparkled something diamond and blue and expensive. "First I offered him my earbobs, but he refused."
Matthew looked over at the landlord, who had the stubborn red face so common here on the Downs. "You realize one of those could have bought you a new inn."
"King's currency is plenty good enough, this being the kingdom," the man said. "And I'll take some now, if you want to get a room for your lady friend."
"She is not my lady friend. She's my – " He didn't know what to call her. She was his best friend's widow. She was his late wife's best friend. Their spouses had been twins. They were family, somehow. Certainly. Somehow. So he resorted to the all-purpose term country folk used for kin. "She's my cousin."
The man's eyes flickered at the title, but he said sturdily, "Well, your cousin's room will cost a florin. Not an earbob. And there's another lady sent ahead she's coming in--" he grimaced. "And she will have coins, I wager."
There was a line gathering behind them, headed by a young dandy in buff and yellow who was muttering something about the blasted storm and the blasted delay. Matthew shot him a grim glance, and slid a couple shillings across the counter, where they disappeared quickly into the till.
The landlord added, "We run a respectable inn here," as if Matt had disputed this. "You'll have to sign the ledger, milady, and—" his voice dropped warningly, "with your own name." He pushed his leatherbound book towards Natasha, and without demur she used the attached pencil to dash off her name at the bottom of the list.
Her smile told him that she was doing something mildly wicked, so Matt glanced at what she was writing. Not Lady Danford, that was certain. Or maybe she’d written those words, but in that Russian alphabet, what did they call it, Cyrillic, the letters oddly familiar but completely alien. As the landlord called to the gangly stable lad to carry her bag out to the cottage in the back, she dropped the pencil and closed the book and turned to Matt. "Let me at least," she said, slipping a hand on his arm and tugging him away, "give you supper before you head back home."
"You are penniless, remember?"
She smiled at him. "Only you must add it to my account."
"Perhaps you should just give me your earbobs as payment."
"Not now that I know how dear they are! And here Charles told me they were just well-crafted paste."
Matt laughed. "I was with him when he purchased them, and I can assure you, they're not paste."
"You were with him? Why, then, did he tell me they were false?"
"So you would accept them, I suppose. He was always besotted with you, eager to please you. And he knew you were not one for expensive fripperies."
"That is true," she said, and she fell silent then.
Just as well, for the landlord was behind them, brandishing his towel, avowing that this was a coaching inn, mostly for the mailcoach, and he hadn’t fancy facilities for nobs, much less lady nobs, and the supper wasn’t fit for— this diatribe kept up until they were in the supper room, a low-beamed place with a scattering of locals, none of whom Matt recognized, fortunately, at the long tables. He'd never been here, hard as it was to believe, as he lived not three miles over the ridge. But this was across the main road from his own town, and not in the way of his usual medical rounds. He liked to think if he'd ever doctored anyone in this house, the innkeeper would be more forthcoming.
From the far door came a billowing of steam, followed by a woman in a pristine apron and a fierce expression and wooden spoon. The wife and cook, apparently. She fastened her gaze on them and smiled, her face suddenly transformed by the pleasure, and she came bustling over just as Matt brushed off the landlord’s protest. “You are on the Brighton Road, man,” Matt said. “You have to have had a lady in here once or twice. You said you did, for you kept that back cottage for ladies. If you give her room, you have to give her supper. That’s the law.” He was a physician, not a barrister, and didn’t know if there was any law to that effect, but if not, there should be. At least Natasha, for once, didn’t object.
The landlord sullenly allowed that he’d had one or two ladies here in his time, and his wife broke in gaily, “’Had one just sent her driver to secure a place for her to wait out the storm! But she waren't quick enough for the lady cottage if your ladyship has it. Ladies are most welcome here, and safe too, we make good sure of that, I tell you.” She shot a sharp glance at her husband and said with a beam at Matthew, “You’ll be snug in the snug, I’ll warrant, you and your lady wife.”
Matt didn’t bother to protest again that she was not his lady wife, and Natasha did no more than cast a smile back at him and follow the woman to the little walled booth near the kitchen. The landlord, however, was made of stronger stuff. “She hain't 'is lady wife," he grumbled, to them, his wife, or the room at large, Matt couldn't tell. But the old man was just getting started. "We got no truck with wasters here, no matter how much the nob they come over—"
His wife interrupted him again. "Aye, and no riff-raff of the sort that would trouble a lady, don't you frash none on that. Just slip in there, milady, and milord too, and Tuppen here will send a bottle of our best claret round, and the supper too."
"'At'll cost you," the landlord muttered, and added, "And don't be expectin' that fancy cookin'. We do plain and simple Sussex food."
"And that will be just delightful," Natasha interposed, sliding into the dark snug. "A candle, however, would be useful."
The innwife gave her husband a sharp prod, and he went off scowling to attend to what he clearly considered the unreasonable expectations of nobs. His more ambitious wife, however, gave them a smile, and promised to send the serving maid over right quick.
It wasn't until they were settled in the snug, candle flickering, hidden just a few feet away from locals playing cards in the taproom, that he remembered what he'd wanted to say since he'd got her note. “You should not be travelling alone.”
“I was not alone. I told you. I was with—”
“A coachman and abigail. Who ran away together. Yes, I am going to write that up as a melodrama for Drury Lane.” He liked to say things that made her scowl that way. She had a pretty frown, no doubt, and a prettier smile. But the scowl was the most amusing of all. “You are a lady alone. You shouldn’t be on the road at all, without a chaperone.”
Now she glared at him. “Matthew, I am old enough to be a chaperone myself. And if I can chaperone others, I can certainly chaperone my own little self. It is not as if Charlie’s maiden aunt Willa would be much use in a fight with highwaymen. And I am hardly some naif who has never travelled beyond Surrey. I was, after all, born in Russia.”
He inclined his head at this undoubted fact, but gamely kept trying to defend the good name she was not herself willing to defend. “You should remember your reputation.”
“I haven’t a toss for reputation. Goodness, I would be confined to home if I worried about my reputation— and why would I? I am not some deb on the prowl for a husband, and anyway, I wouldn’t want one who would be frightened away by a bit of gossip.”
He couldn’t argue with that, and couldn't imagine her on the prowl for any husband at all. "You still must have a care for those who would see you out unchaperoned and want to cast aspersions."
She shook her head. "You see— I mean, you do see. But most people do not. See me, that is. I am nothing to them, not a pretty maiden about to be married off. No longer the wife of an important man. To the world, I am quite invisible, which is, of course, precisely agreeable to me."
He regarded her closely, for what she said sounded so very sad, even in that amused voice of hers. But she did not seem sad, looking back at him with that faint defiance, and he forbore saying that she was of course important, if no one else, to their children. Just as well he held that back, true as it was, for it would have sounded as if they had children in common. So he contented himself with what even he had to admit was the most pro forma mention of the danger of the open roads. He might have known she would toss her head and mention, of course, who else—
“Lady Hester Stanhope.” She brandished this name triumphantly. “I am in correspondence with her, and I assure you, she has told me of travels far more hazardous than the Brighton Road. She traveled through Arabia. She dressed in men’s clothing to hide her identity!”
"Lady Hester Stanhope has much to answer for," Matthew said, "putting so many errant ideas into female heads."
"That they can have adventures too? What, the excitement should be reserved only for men?"
He thought of the years he'd spent in the Navy at the height of the war, another year as a physician to the ship with the prisoner Bonaparte, and the official racketing about the continent afterwards, as consultant to the ambassador rebuilding the broken Europe. After all that, he'd decided he'd had enough excitement to suit him for the rest of his life. But Natasha was regarding him with those sable-dark glittering eyes, and he felt something he'd assumed faded and dead stir to life. He felt a moment of danger, but quashed it quick. Natasha wasn’t his charge, fortunately, and anyway, he just wanted his supper and a return to his home and his book and his fire, and the quiet life that had taken so much to attain but had not heretofore required great effort to maintain. To steer the conversation back into safe channels, he asked, "So what is your plan, if you are determined to forge your path alone through the coming storm?"
"I must, of course, hire a carriage on the morrow. That much is clear." She frowned a bit, and he took this to mean that, independent lady though she was, she'd rather assumed he would take care of the arrangements. And he probably would, though not without tormenting her first.
"I don't know if I recall how that's accomplished, hiring a carriage, now that I have attained the ranks of nobhood, with a coach of my very own."
"I am sure it will come back to you in good time," she retorted. "After all, I am set here for the night, and shan't need the carriage in any haste. And tomorrow perhaps I will spare you the trouble of hiring, and just borrow yours."
"Oh, but there'd be no adventure in that!"
Before Matthew could tease her with questions of the type of coach desired and the marital status of any prospective coachman, the landlord passed by their table, halting just a moment to look not at them but at the bare table before them. "M'daughter," he grumbled, "she'll be here with your food soon enough. " But the glance he cast back at the door was wary and annoyed, and he called out sharply, "Bess! In here! Now!"
Matt, who had a daughter of his own, felt an unwilling sympathy as the errant maid trailed in from the back hall, all flushed and distracted, her apron askew and her gaze dreamy. Natasha caught his eye and mouthed Just been kissed, which would indeed account for her disarranged fair hair and plumpened lips, not to mention the landlord's annoyance. The girl snapped to attention when she saw her father's abrupt gesture, and with a murmur of apology, dashed into the kitchen. She couldn't escape the scolding even so; the landlord left them and went through the swinging door, and a moment later they heard his harsh voice. His Sussex dialect had got so deep that even Matt, who had grown up near here, could make out little but the name of Wat and walking out with the lads and some terms a man should perhaps not call his daughter. When the girl came out with two plates, her face was still flushed, but now there was a streak on one cheek where she'd wiped her tears.
"Are you not glad," Natasha said when the girl had left their soup before them, "that Dorie isn't yet so old?"
She'd spoken his thoughts exactly. "Soon enough, though," he said.
And then, very serious suddenly, she said, "I would no't be a girl like that again for all the world." When she caught his curious glance, her mood changed, and she said lightly, "That is, I distantly recall being so young."
At least they were hidden here in the snug, which was fortunate, as Matt from his perspective had seen pass by a few people he might have recognized, an elderly lady who had once talked to him for a quarter hour about her songbird's lame leg, as if he were an animal minder, and that worthless St. James wastrel in yellow breeches, and more he supposed of the king’s fêters taking refuge from the storm. They wouldn’t see him here behind the confines of the booth, and more to the point, they couldn’t see Natasha without actually entering this private room and peering over the half wall. “You don’t seem to care a rip about your reputation.”
“And what of yours? Imagine the damage it would do to your consulting physician’s image if you were to be seen here with me.”
Matt shook his head, smiling, refusing to be baited. “My professional image, such as it is, was all the result of luck, happening to treat a sailor who turned out to be rather important.”
“Very important,” Natasha agreed, her dark eyes dancing. “And it wasn’t luck. You were called in precisely because the admiral knew you could save Prince William's arm. So perhaps you were right-- your reputation was made unassailable years ago.”
“Many years ago. Before the war ended,” Matt said, but it was true enough. Among those who mattered— the physicians who referred the difficult cases to him, the wealthy and well-connected who wanted their doctor to have a title and a royal patron— a reputation once established could last forever. And even a taproom supper with a dark-eyed lady would not cause much damage. He was, at any rate, no more than a superior servant, consulted only when he was useful and ignored otherwise, which was, he supposed, precisely as he preferred.
But she was not anyone's servant, however superior. She was a society lady, invited to balls and ridottos and king's fêtes, and presumably just as easily uninvited. He was about to remind her of that hazardous position, but then, in a gracious but still somehow abrupt way, Natasha asked about his children. It was in that particular protective tone she took when she spoke about them. He should have, he supposed, been grateful that she cared so, but then it reminded him of her assumption of possession, and grew stern. “They are well enough. You needn’t worry.”
“I am not worried. But they are my concern, surely. My son’s cousins, and my nephew and niece.”
“That is all they are. No more than that. And only by marriage.” That angered him, that she would, after so long, assert some ownership or whatever it was. “You take too much on yourself when you think otherwise.”
She exclaimed, “Matthew, truly, you can’t think I meant them harm when I took care of them.”
They had never actually had this out, not in all the many times they’d met since at Danford family gatherings. After so many years at war, he supposed, he’d learned to keep the peace. But tonight he was feeling restless and bemused, and she was so unapologetically herself, expecting that whatever she wanted was, perforce, the right.
This was, of course, why they had never liked each other. It was always this between them— her high-handed ways, his resentments— and for a moment they were there the two of them again, alone in this room with their animosity. Then he said, “I knew you wouldn’t hurt them. But to come back and discover them abducted—”
“They weren’t abducted, no matter what that nurse you hired said.” Natasha turned her face pugnaciously towards him. “They should have been with their family, that was all, and that was my son and I.”
He recalled arriving home five years ago from that disastrous posting abroad, still half-mad from the loss of his wife, and finding his children gone too, and the sullen nurse muttering only about the “furrin lady” who had taken them. Of course, he’d known then who it was, and that had decreased the anxiety if not the anger. And to find her unrepentant, even defiant, and proposing— well. To take his children from him for good. He said, “They were, you forgot, mine.”
“They were their mother’s too. And—” She broke off, but the implication was clear. She was saying she knew what Amy would have wanted.
“You presume too much,”
“Perhaps so.” Then she gave him that look, not quite up to the point of wicked, but menacing in its way. “I might have been presumptuous, but I was right. And it worked.”
“It worked? How is that?”
“Well, you sold out your commission, and came home, and bought the house, and settled the children there. And resumed your family life.” She added in a steely tone, “As Amy would have wanted.”
That was all true. But he didn’t need to be reminded, did he? After traveling the world, he had ended up where he’d started, rearing his children in the next town from where he’d been born, setting up a consulting practice, and quitting his destructive ways. “If you’re waiting for me to thank you—”
“No.” Her smile was brighter now. “It’s enough if we have forgiven each other.”
That was just like her, to present that they were equally culpable and in need of forgiveness. But finally he let it go. It was so long ago, and he gave up the long suspicion that this had been her presumptuous grab for a family not her own. “I suppose you meant for the best.”
She smiled again, as if she knew he didn’t entirely mean that. “Friends again, then?”
It was no use saying that they hadn’t been friends in the first place, that only chance and their spouses’ twinship ever brought them together. And, of course, the loss. He took a deep breath, and was about to agree. But his still somewhat grudging words were interrupted by the taproom door opening and slamming shut. Then came a burst of speech from the cardplayers, hidden away in the corner—a garbled request, a swift and bitter denial, a short silence, and finally the slap of cards on the table. Matt was, in the end, a man all too used to combat, and instinctively he rose and looked over the top of the snug wall into the tap room. There were the cardplayers gathered around an oak table, but two were standing, their backs to the others. One was a powerful man in a silver coat, as inappropriate for this setting as the other man's yellow breeches. The yellow-breeched one spoke something calm, and the other responded sharply back. The exchange was audible, but the words were not clear. Another language? Matt couldn't hear enough to tell for sure which. The one in the yellow breeches— the fête-bound wastrel, no doubt— walked away, and the other man sank down into his chair and took up his cards.
It was nothing special as far as taproom encounters went, the nascent conflict descending not into a battle—which might have been entertaining—just a hasty retreat. Still, something had intrigued Natasha, for she had inclined her head to listen harder. What was it? Matt didn't ask as he retook his seat. He knew her well enough to know that she wouldn't, or perhaps couldn't, explain. But something had alerted her, for she straightened, alert, wary. But now with the argument faded, she subsided, taking up her spoon. She held it up, still listening, but when she caught his questioning glance, she gave a little laugh and turned back to him.
"That was Russian, wasn't it?" he said.
She tilted her head and gave him a wary look. "Was it? We spoke mostly French, of course, in St. Petersburg."
"Even to your servants?"
But there wasn't time to speculate, for the landlord returned with a dusty bottle of claret, and Matthew was pouring it, about to pursue his question, when she asked in her sudden way, "Has it got better for you?" She meant, of course, their common loss: Charles and Amy, twins to the last, dying within hours of each other when influenza swept across the south coast.
He shrugged. He didn't want to talk about this, but she clearly didn't want to talk about the overheard conversation. "Sometimes."
She played idly with the fork, crossing it over the knife, and observed, "Six years, and we neither of us ever married again."
"I suppose we never quite saw the point of it. It's nature's way, to fall in love when you're young, and to marry and beget. But once that's done, why bother with the aggravation?"
"You are a cynic, Matthew Holt. Or so you'd like me to think."
"And you don't think that?"
She tilted her head to the side. "I won't say. It would only embarrass you."
She didn't say it, but she didn't have to—he knew what she would have said. That little smile of hers told him that she knew him too well.
They had known each other for a very long time. He and the local lord's son Charlie had been unlikely friends all their lives, joined only by common age and proximity, and allowed by both sets of parents to ignore the difference in their stations. They had run off to sea together at 13, Charlie ending up years later a sea-captain, and Matt a Navy physician—he hadn't, after all, been able to escape the fate his father had planned for him. And he'd always known he would marry Charlie's sister Amy, though she was several steps above him in social class and wealth. Natasha was the newcomer, and he had never quite learned how Charlie had found her— he'd just come back from a voyage with this exotic Russian wife. She wasn't Matthew's sort, but then she didn't have to be. More intriguingly, she wasn't Charlie's sort either. But he'd been, true enough, besotted, and loyal Amy took to her like a true sister. So of course Matt and Natasha could never actually speak their mutual antipathy out loud, not once the Danford clan had closed ranks like that. Danfords stuck together, and Natasha was Lady Danford now.
The only communication he and Natasha had for the first years came during the times they sat on the edges of the family gatherings, making cynical wagers— which of the aunts would first sniffle at the portrait of their late sainted mother, and which uncle would start the snoring, and which cousin would beg an emergency loan from Charles. Matthew, who had grown up in the market town a stone's throw away, usually won, but Natasha, he had to admit, provided an entertaining commentary in her fluent but accented English.
Something about the memories of that happier time, and something about that lingering resentment and shame of their just-concluded argument, and something about this dark room and the flickering candle on the scarred oak table, and something about the second bottle of wine, and something about the way she smiled to herself made him speak aloud the thought he'd never spoken, not even to Amy, certainly not to Charlie: "I never thought you loved him enough."
It was a cruel thing to say, which was why he'd never said it before, and it was none of his business besides. Charlie had been his own man, and made his own choices, and he had not been like Matt, to fall in love early with the girl next door and never imagine another life. But Matt had always thought that— as much as Charlie loved his lady, she'd never loved him back. Not that much. Not enough.
Here it was, six years too late, six years after that terrible year of loss, and this was no time to be casting that up to her. He wouldn't blame her if she—
But she didn't. She just reached out her finger and touched the candleflame, and kept touching it until Matthew swore and knocked her hand away. "Are you mad? You'll burn yourself."
"Yes," she said, and he thought at first she meant about the flame. But then deliberately, she turned her hand and gazed at her finger, then held it up for him to see—unburnt. Untouched. "You are right, of course."
"I never loved him enough." She held her hand again above the flame, but soon let it drop. "I wanted to. It was the wrong time for that. I was still... broken."
Matthew had never known anything about her past, only that she was Russian and clearly noble, but without the intricate and interfering family connections that usually came with nobility. It was 1813 when Charlie had found her, and that would have been just after Bonaparte’s invasion and the burning of Moscow. But she'd never spoken of it, and Charlie, usually so quick to confide, hadn't either. Perhaps he'd never known.
Strange, wasn't it, how well Matt could know someone—know from long acquaintance that she would tilt her head just that way, and stroke the stem of her glass just that way—and yet know so little, and still he went on, all those years knowing her, never asking. "I didn't mean that."
"It is all right. It is all true. I don't think I could love then. But I could let him love me. That was something, n'est-ce pas?"
"No." Now she seized his hand and pulled it away from the wineglass. "Tell me it was enough. For him."