Three years later
Husbands came and husbands went, but dreadful hair lasted forever.
Julia, now the widowed Lady Barrowby, forced one last curling strand back into her severely restrained hairstyle and settled the black veil over it all. Her beloved Aldus had lingered for three long years in his efforts to stay with her after his initial collapse and although he'd been more mentor than husband, she had sworn to mourn him for one entire day before she took on the task he had set her.
Just as he'd wished, she had buried him today with no more fanfare than the baker of the nearby village of Middlebarrow might have received. Now, she must pull herself together and dry her tears, for the moment had come.
With a sigh, she saw that another pale wisp had come loose. Her hair refused to adapt to the role of highborn lady, a last holdout from the common Jilly Boots she'd once been.
She shoved the blasted thing into submission once again, using her customary excess of pins. At last, she was ready to face down the three intimidating lords who had gathered uninvited in her front parlor. She pressed her fingertips to the locket about her neck for a moment, then she turned and walked calmly from her bedchamber.
All about Marcus there was chaos in the yard of the coaching inn. The impromptu visit from the Prince Regent of England had sent the innkeeper into fits of near-fainting and the people of this anonymous village into goggle-eyed ineptitude. There was noise and madness everywhere as he tried to get his highness back on the road, but deep inside him, there was a place of suspended silence.
Marcus Ramsay, Lord Dryden, was waiting.
Outwardly, he seemed well enough occupied by his duties protecting the Prince Regent and securing his prince's safe journey from Kirkall Hall in Scotland to Brighton---George IV's preferred winter destination. There was the prince's new mistress to consider, and there were more servants and staff and Royal Minions of the Midnight Kitchen Foray than any one man could possibly need, and yet somehow Prince George still overworked them all.
Marcus's duties to his demanding monarch aside, there still remained a portion of Marcus's mind that sat in that still, frozen moment of anticipation.
He'd been waiting all his life, it seemed. The second son of a marquess, one boy child too many to hope for more than Ravencliff, the minor estate left to him by his mother's dowry, he'd spent his youth wondering what the world would have left for him.
He'd spent his years in the army, hoping for the answers there, but mere combat didn't hold any thrill but the unpleasant one of danger itself. Marcus didn't want to be the man taking the hill, he wanted to be the man to choose the hill.
His vision seemed to extend beyond that of his general, as if he could see the field of battle from an eagle's view, as if he could outthink the enemy, and his own commanders. He'd waited for them to see what he saw, until he'd not been able to wait any longer. He'd been so frustrated by the useless waste of life perpetrated by shortsighted men---the men who chose the hills.
Finally, unable to bear one more day of slaughter for slaughter's sake, he'd salted his commander's meal with a powerful emetic and left the man puking out his ignorance and stubbornness in the company's latrine. Taking command through lies and persuasion, though he was a mere major, Marcus led his command through the gaping weakness in the side of the French army that somehow he'd been the only one to see.
They'd taken the hill without a single loss.
He'd been accused, tried, and acquitted---for no one could quite prove he'd done what he'd done, nor could they deny its effectiveness. He'd been ordered from the army with a black mark on his record and a furtive, fervent thank-you from his men.
The next day, he'd been tapped by the Royal Four. A blond giant of a man had appeared at his doorstep and offered him the chance of a lifetime.
Someday he would take over as the Lion, someday he would assume a seat on the council of analysts and spies who held the reins of England in their hands---the Cobra, the Lion, the Fox, and the Falcon. Men whose deathless loyalty to England superseded even their loyalty to their king.
Someday---provided his youthful and very lively mentor died before him.
Nor did Marcus wish Dane Calwell dead. The man was more brother than teacher, more friend than superior. But the Viscount Greenleigh had given Marcus the taste of a future full of promise and power---not to glorify himself, but to change the world.
To be a man who ruled kings---to be able to use the vision he had, the mind he'd been given, the strength in his spirit for something more meaningful than spending his inheritance and waiting for his brother to kill himself with overindulgence? Now that was a future he could scarcely wait for.
"Be patient," Dane had advised him, seemingly for the hundredth time. "You're almost ready, but not quite. You're too impulsive yet, too reckless. Yes, you saved the lives of potentially hundreds of soldiers---but you did it rashly, without thorough deliberation. You might have killed more than you saved. Take this time to cultivate some restraint---for you'll need more than you know."
Wait. Always wait.
Marcus had bitten his tongue, he'd beaten down his ambitions, he'd settled into his role as protégé of the Lion. Or so he'd thought.
Marcus closed his eyes against the chaos of the inn yard. He should not allow himself to savor the excitement and satisfaction rising within him, yet he could not contain it. The waiting was nearly done.
Even now, the Cobra, the Lion, and the Falcon journeyed to Barrowby, home of the Fox. All Marcus need do now was reach for a last bit of patience in a life filled with "wait." In a matter of days, he would have his dream---a seat in the ring of power. A seat on the Royal Four.
For the unthinkable had happened. The Fox had died without apprentice.
And the Royal Four were only Three.
In the most formal and luxurious parlor of Barrowby, consternation reigned.
For the first time in the history of that elite and powerful cabal that steered the course of England's past, present, and future, one of the Royal Four had neglected his most sacred duty.
The three lords, most concerned, accompanied by a very edge Prime Minister, had set themselves the task of discovering which deserving gentleman had been selected by their venerable peer before his death. At that moment, this task seemed futile.
He had not trained a replacement.
More vital than an heir to a mere title, more important than even an heir to the Crown---for when had England ever had any shortage of those lying about?---the lacking heir to the seat of the Fox left the Four vulnerable to defeat from within.
Lady Barrowby was counting on just that.
Lady Barrowby, "Jilly" to her long-dead mother, "Julia" to her recently deceased husband, stood in the front hallway of Barrowby and listened without shame to the conversation being had in the first parlor.
It was her house, after all---at least until the distant heir to Barrowby could be found. And, although the four men in the parlor knew it not, their conversation concerned her greatly.
The crisp, slightly nasal voice of Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister of England, was unmistakable. "I cannot believe Aldus could have been so careless! He had nearly forty years as the Fox to select a protégé---it is not possible. There must be someone---perhaps someone who tired of waiting and went about his business."
Not bloody likely, Julia thought.
A deep and powerful rumble disagreed with Lord Liverpool. That would be the blond giant, Lord Greenleigh, who held the seat of the Lion.
"I have never heard of someone choosing not to serve once selected---and don't give me Etheridge as an example. He still serves as spymaster."
"Barrowby cannot have believed he still had time," said a smoother voice thoughtfully. Julia guessed at Lord Reardon, the new Cobra. "He was over seventy years of age!"
The fourth man, Lord Wyndham, had not said much at all. Nor would he. Julia was well aware of the Falcon's cool, watchful nature. Aldus had prepared her well.
"You'd not have had a chance among the old roosters I served with," Aldus had told her, back when he'd been lucid nearly all of the time. "This new crop of fellows . . . perhaps they are of a more modern bent." Yet, he'd not truly believed it, she had known even then. Hoping was not the same as believing.
Julia believed. She had based the last five years of her life on believing. Now the time had come to put that belief to the test.
She straightened, patted her hair once more just in case, then knocked briskly on the parlor door. With luck, the carved oak had left no discernible impression upon her cheek.
At the curt invitation---obviously Lord Liverpool had thought her to be a servant---she entered the parlor. The four men looked up in surprise and hastily stood.
"Lady Barrowby!" Lord Reardon bowed. He was easily recognizable from his appearances in Sir Thorogood's political cartoons. The other three bowed as well, although their expressions were less welcoming.
Julia decided at once that she approved of Reardon. She was not so sure about Greenleigh and Wyndham. Liverpool she knew too well to approve of. She curtsied. "My lords."
Liverpool stepped forward. Julia noticed that he did not come close to her. Perhaps he came close to no one---or perhaps he was unwilling to draw attention to the fact that she stood inches above him. Not vanity, she knew. Liverpool's motives were ever rooted in power.
How odd to see them all in person at last.
Liverpool cleared his throat. "Lady Barrowby, if you'll excuse my thoughtlessness in your time of grief---" He didn't sound any too penitent to Julia. "I wonder if you could tell us of any particular companion your husband might have had in his last years. A younger man, perhaps---a member of the aristocracy?"
Julia could answer that question with complete honesty. "No, my lord, I could not. Aldus has---had not seen anyone outside of our household in years."
Still, there was no point in keeping them in distress. Breathe in, breathe out. "Gentlemen, the fellow you seek does not exist. There is no younger man. There is only me."
She paused. Swallowed. Met their confused gazes with a serenity that did not truly exist.
"I am the Fox."
The uproar was immediate and unpleasant. Julia maintained her composure until the four men had sputtered and exclaimed and denied enough.
She cleared her throat. They fell more or less silent, although if Liverpool did not cease swearing beneath his breath, someone might think him better off in Bedlam.
"My lords, I am not requesting that you allow me to be the Fox. I am informing you that I am the Fox, and have been for the past three years. I know everything that my husband knew, and considerably more than any of you, excepting the Prime Minister, of course."
Liverpool sputtered. "Rampant falsehoods, all of it! I have been dealing with Barrowby for years! We came into the Four within a few years of each other. When I stepped down to become Prime Minister last year, it was after extensive correspondence with Aldus. I would have known had I not been dealing with him!"
She folded her arms. "You have been corresponding with me, Robert. I could prove it, but I do not think you would wish me to. I know more about you than merely the gossip one might read in the newssheets."
Liverpool went entirely still. "You tread dangerous ground, my girl."
She tilted her head. "I believe the correct address would be 'my lady,' but I shall let that familiarity pass for such an intimate acquaintance."
Liverpool did not respond. It was obvious that he was thinking very hard, and even more obvious that one would not like to know what he was thinking. Not that she required a map. She knew these men, even the most recent member, Lord Reardon, better than their mothers could.
Julia turned to the other Three. "May I congratulate you on your recent marriage, Lord Greenleigh? I wish you and your intrepid lady the best."
Dane Calwell nodded graciously, but his eyes were narrowed. "You seem rather well informed, my lady, for being isolated at Barrowby for so long."
Julia nodded. "Indeed, I have found it necessary to set up my own network of informants. I could hardly take my case to the Liar's Club, could I?"
"So you admit to hiding the truth from us?" Liverpool was quick to sniff out discrepancies. Aldus had warned her of that.
Julia lifted her chin. "I imagined your response and acted accordingly. Aldus wished to remain the Fox until he could no longer function as thus. He entrusted me to decide for him when that time was." She was unable to hold back a sigh. "It came so much sooner than we'd feared."
There was not a flicker of sympathy in the granite expressions before her. Never mind. She would not fail Aldus. He had believed in her ability to hold the Fox's position, even to preparing her for this moment.
"They'll test your mettle," Aldus had told her. "You won't know where it will come from or when, but you can count on being set with some sort of trial." He'd patted her hand. "No sense in worrying over it yet. Not a thing you can do but prove to the lot of them that you're made of good stern stuff."
So far, only her carpets were being tested by Liverpool's pacing.
"She is too young!" The Prime Minister was not going to give up easily.
Julia smiled gently at him. "There is a precedent. The eleventh Falcon assumed his seat at the age of nineteen in the reign of King Henry VI. I was all of twenty when I did so."
The Falcon nodded slightly. "That is so." His eyes gave away nothing.
Julia nodded respectfully in reply. "I realize that this is a shock to you all. You will require some time to adjust to the notion of a woman in the Royal Four." She curtsied and turned to leave the room. "Yet, pray do not forget this." She stopped and looked at them over her shoulder. "There is no one else."
She left, closing the door behind her. She made it around the corner of the hallway before the stiffening left her knees and they began to shake uncontrollably. She'd done it. She'd faced down the four most powerful men in the land---some might say the world. Nothing she had done so far as the Fox compared to this moment. She felt terrified and exhilarated and calm, all at the same moment.
She knew they would do their best to deny her. Liverpool was particularly dangerous, for he'd not taken kindly to her dig about the gossip. Then again, she doubted any of the others would stop at eliminating her if they truly believed her to be a danger. It was up to her to convince them that she knew what she was about. Being female had no influence on her mind or her loyalty.
"Oh, Aldus," she whispered, tipping her forehead against the cool wall. "You should have seen their expressions." A small, rusty breathless laugh broke through her reserve. "I wish I could see it again, myself."
Beppo rounded the corner, obviously looking for her. Julia straightened and nodded at the small wiry butler, her practiced composure instantly back in place. "Yes, Beppo?"
"Their lordships wish you to wait on them in the parlor, my lady. At your convenience, of course."
Beppo, who had come late in life to the serving of the "Quality," had added that last bit on himself, she was sure. "Their lordships" hadn't seemed too terribly concerned with her convenience. She lifted her chin and closed her eyes for a long moment.
Grace under fire.
She returned to the parlor to find the four men ranged like a firing squad, facing her. Fire, indeed. From the glare in Lord Liverpool's eyes, she rather thought brimstone might also be in her future.
"Gentlemen, have you come to the obvious conclusion?" Careful. She might have the upper hand, but they'd never work with her if she alienated them completely.
Lord Reardon bowed. "My lady, I fear the only conclusion we have come to is that we cannot currently come to a conclusion. We request a fortnight to deliberate upon it."
A thrill went through Julia. A tie vote, then? Who might be voting on her side---Reardon and Greenleigh? The two were reportedly very happily wed. They would likely have a higher opinion of a lady's abilities.
So . . . it was the Prime Minister, of course, and the sharply handsome Lord Wyndham.
She curtsied low in return. "Then I shall remain here at Barrowby to await your verdict, my lords."
If someone had been watching---and someone was---they would have seen four very thoughtful men leaving the grand house of Barrowby.
Now what in that house might have brought about such pensive brows?
The afternoon sun glanced off shining golden hair, drawing the watcher's attention to the woman standing at the top of the grand steps, watching her guests leave. His gaze passed over her, then was drawn sharply back.
There was an unfamiliar sensation in the watcher's midsection. He spared a moment to analyze the feeling, only to determine that it was deep and bone-chilling shock.
He slipped silently through the trees, moving closer than was truly wise, but he must know . . .
She turned slightly, lifting her face to the day and letting her shoulders droop wearily for a moment. He could see her clearly now---the same eyes, the same chin, the same shimmering hair. It was impossible. How could this be?
More to the point, what had she to do with the men who were now riding away? After he'd followed them thus far the truth seemed no clearer. She was obviously the lady of the house and she wore black, so she must be in mourning. Had they been merely consoling the widow of a peer?
No, it could not be. It was merely a chance resemblance, some trick of the light, a similarity in bearing---
Then he saw the locket gleaming in the hollow of her throat. He knew that locket well, for he'd ordered the jeweler to make it just so, with the design of the golden serpent's coils cradling an emerald.
Ah, so it was true. When there was no other explanation for the impossible, one must accept it as possible.
His eyes narrowed as the woman turned to reenter the grand house.
Then one must consider how to turn it to one's advantage.
A new plan, a perfect new plan, blossomed in his mind. He would take her back with him---but he must take care that she went more or less willingly.
He could merely steal her away, but how to control her? He was a bit short of treasonous minions at the moment, nor did he have the gold to bribe the mercenary sorts.
On the other hand, she obviously possessed a plenty from her generous, elderly husband. He almost smiled, for he did appreciate such ruthless ambition. She could afford two passages on a fine, if highly illegal, ship.
If he could convince her to come away voluntarily, at least until he could imprison her aboard a ship and keep her drugged for the journey to Paris, then his long arduous penance might come to a close at last.
He could see the difficulties already. She would want to stay, for although he could promise much, who would leave such luxury unless they were forced to?
Then again, if the burden of playing lady of the manor became too much---
He would begin immediately, then, to make sure she would have no reason to stay.
Julia stayed where she was for a long moment as the four men on horseback rounded the turn in the long drive.
In moments, they were gone. She'd not been surprised when they'd refused the hospitality of Barrowby. They must have realized that every word they'd uttered would have been reported by her faithful staff.
Three large men, one slight. All handsome in different ways. All waxing territorial, their hackles raised. She'd not been around that much heady virility in a very long time. It would be enough to make a sillier woman giddy.
Luckily, she simply wasn't that sort.
Copyright © 2006 by Celeste Bradley
Celeste Bradley is the New York Times bestselling author of Scoundrel in My Dreams, Desperately Seeking a Duke, and the Royal Four and Liars Club series, among many others. Prior to giving writing a try, Celeste was a professional artist. Believing that storytelling is as much of an art form, she applies those skills to writing. She is a two-time RITA Nominee and winner of the prestigious Historical Storyteller of the Year from Romantic Times Book Reviews. Mother of two teen divas, Southern-born Celeste lives in the Southwest. Her hobbies include gardening, jewelry making and collage. She feels very strongly that literacy can change lives.