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"The English duke is dead."
The words, muffled and heavily accented, hardly reached me through the voluminous duvet that, while I slept, had somehow twisted around me with such violence that it now more closely resembled mummy wrappings than a blanket. Struggling against its bonds, I managed to extricate one hand before realizing my head was under a stack of pillows. I flung them aside and sat up, turning to discover my husband was no longer next to me. The words came again, and this time vanquished in an instant all of the confusion clouding my mind after being awoken from a deep slumber.
"Monsieur, the duke, the English duke, he is dead."
"Jeremy?" I leapt from the bed, dragging the duvet with me (I had not been quite so successful in the removal of it from my person as I had hoped), and started for the narrow patch of light coming into our room from the door, held open by my husband, his dressing gown pulled around him. A chasm seemed to open inside me, as if my heart were splitting and filling me simultaneously with intolerable cold and heat. Jeremy Sheffield, Duke of Bainbridge, my dearest childhood friend, who had tormented me in my youth not quite so much as I had tormented him, could not be dead. I tried to step forward, but my limbs would obey no commands.
"Is he in his suite?" my husband asked. The man standing in the corridor nodded. "I shall come at once."
He must have closed the door, but I have no memory of him having done so. I collapsed in an undignified heap, my legs no longer able to support me.
"Emily." Colin knelt at my side, scooped me into his arms and deposited me back onto the bed. "I must see what has happened and will return as quickly as possible. Will you be all right?"
"Yes, of course." I rubbed my face. "No. No. I must come with you."
"I don't think you ought." His dark eyes locked onto mine, and I could see pain and worry and just a bit of frustration in them.
"I have to see him. I-"
"No." He squeezed my hand and slipped the dressing gown from his shoulders, finding and putting on the stiff boiled shirt he had discarded earlier in the evening with entirely no regard for its subsequent condition. After retrieving his trousers from the back of a chair and locating his shoes-one had disappeared under the bed-he shrugged into his tailcoat and walked to the door, pausing to turn back and look at me as he opened it. Had I not been so upset, I would have better appreciated the handsome dishevelment of his cobbled-together evening kit. "I am so terribly sorry, Emily."
The tears did not come before the door clicked shut behind him, but then my eyes produced a worthy monsoon. Sudden storms are short, however, and this was no time for succumbing to emotion. I splashed water on my face and pulled on my dressing gown. There could be no question of returning to my own previously discarded garments: Ladies' gowns are designed to require assistance, and while this may allow for a more beautifully designed bodice, it proves an immense frustration when one finds oneself on one's own.
Fortunately, no one saw me slip out of our room as there were not yet other guests meandering through the Hotel Britannia, the most fashionable place to stay on La Croisette in Cannes, and arguably on the whole of the Côte d'Azur. A clock near the curved marble staircase told me it was nearly half five in the morning. Anyone awake now would either be a servant or someone staggering in from a long evening, probably spent playing baccarat at the Cercle Nautique. I climbed one flight to the top floor, where Jeremy had insisted on staying. The view, he said, was incomparable. His door was closed and locked, so I tapped on it, and a man I did not recognize opened it without delay.
"Madame, you would not wish-"
I pushed past him and went straight through the sitting room to the bedroom, where I saw my husband standing with two other men. On the bed was the prostrate form of a gentleman in evening kit.
I recognized the wiry individual closest to the supine figure as the hotel doctor. He adjusted the tortoiseshell pince-nez on his long nose and placed his unopened bag on a bedside table. "We will need to further examine him, of course, but there is no question-"
"There is no question," I said, stepping forward with no regard for any of them, "because this is not the duke."
"Emily-" Colin reached for my arm, but I pulled away and moved to the opposite side of the bed, closer to the body, determined to confirm the identity of the man. It was harder to move him than I had anticipated, but I managed to roll him over and reveal his face, the eyes staring and vacant.
"Chauncey Neville." I was shaking rather violently now, and realized that I was barefoot and my teeth were chattering. "It is not Jeremy. Not Jeremy." Mr. Neville, a shy, soft-spoken gentleman from Cornwall, had always seemed an unlikely friend for Jeremy, but the two had been close since their days at school. We often joked that they tempered each other, Chauncey reeling in Jeremy when he got too out of hand, and Jeremy prodding Chauncey to embrace joviality. Shy though he was, Mr. Neville never proved awkward in social situations, but instead was kind and thoughtful, always on hand to support his friends in any of their schemes.
"Come, my dear," Colin said. "You will catch your death of cold. You know how chilly the seaside gets at night."
Any person who has had the privilege of forming even the barest sort of acquaintance with Colin Hargreaves knows he is not the sort of gentleman to make such trite remarks. Rather, he is the most trusted agent of the Crown, a particular favorite of Queen Victoria's, and the individual most frequently called upon by the palace to assist in delicate matters that threaten the state of our great empire. My eyes focused better on the room now, and I saw the manager of the hotel wringing his hands.
"Fear not, Monsieur Fortier, this is not the first body I have seen," I said. In fact, I had seen many. The work my husband and I shared-sometimes in official capacities, sometimes when we chose on our own to help those in need of assistance-had led us to reveal the identities of no fewer than nine cruel murderers. I was not a stranger to violent death. Whether my words soothed the concerned hotelier, I do not know. Colin removed me to our own suite of rooms before I could gauge the man's reaction. Regardless, the untimely demise of one of our party would dramatically alter what had been intended as a celebratory holiday on the Côte d'Azur.
Nearly four months ago, at Christmas, I had received a telegram from Jeremy, announcing his engagement to Miss Amity Wells, an American heiress who had realized her parents' dearest hopes by catching an English duke. Miss Wells's mother, a veritable battle-axe of a woman, far better suited to roping steers on the range than moving in high society, insisted on throwing an engagement party to celebrate the match, but would not content herself with a ball in Mayfair. Instead, she had planned a trip to the south of France, where all the closest friends and family of the bride and groom would spend a fortnight, culminating in a party she assured us would be more spectacular than any we had ever seen. England, she explained in a coarse whisper, was such a little island it could not possibly be expected to hold all her big ideas.
Colin and I had met mother and daughter over New Year at Jeremy's estate in Kent; the Wellses had cut short a trip to Egypt for the occasion. While Mrs. Wells could be described as a force of nature, one had to accept Amity as something akin to a dream. Her fresh-faced beauty, enviable figure, flair for fashion, and quick wit made her a favorite in London society. A favorite with the gentlemen, that is. I am sorry to say that my own fair sex proved far less generous with her, a judgment firmly footed in the lair of envy. I scorned this, knowing it to be unfair, but must acknowledge that my reaction to Miss Wells proved somewhat more complicated than I should have liked.
The estate of the Duke of Bainbridge lay adjacent to that of my own excellent father, and Jeremy and I had been inseparable as children. When it came time for him to leave for school, I cried for three days straight, and marked on my calendar when he would be home between terms, counting the weeks until I would see him again. By the time he had finished at Harrow and was leaving for Oxford, we no longer climbed trees together, instead finding great amusement in the knowledge that both our mothers longed to see us (and our families) united in marriage. Neither of us could think of anything more ridiculous, for although we adored each other, our temperaments and our interests could not have been more at odds. I had grown up studious and intellectual; Jeremy had championed the goal of being the most useless man in England. When his father died suddenly during his son's second year at university, everyone hoped the new duke would undergo a transformation à la Prince Hal and adopt a more solemn and appropriate demeanor. This served only to spur him into more questionable behavior.
Jeremy played the rake with consummate skill, but, at heart, his kindness and steadfast loyalty prevented him from ever becoming truly profligate. He claimed this to be his greatest disappointment. He took splendid care of his mother, refusing to let her be holed up in dowager quarters, and, knowing both what an asset she had been to his father and how much she had enjoyed helping to run the estate, insisted that she continue her work. He did as little as possible, squeaked through Oxford with a degree he claimed disgraced every Bainbridge ancestor, ran with a fast set, and, perhaps, drank too much on occasion, but he never got himself into irreparable trouble. Everyone in society fawned over him, particularly the legion of mothers who longed for the dashing, fun-loving duke (whose fortune was even more attractive than his bright blue eyes) to someday propose to one of their daughters.
Over the years, Jeremy's steadfast resistance to marriage became the stuff of legends. He did everything in his not inconsiderable powers to avoid it, including pretending to court my close friend Margaret Michaels, née Seward. Their deception was borne out of mutual need. Margaret, an American, had been sent to England, much like Amity Wells, to catch a titled husband. She, however, had no interest in such things, wanting instead to study at Oxford. She and Jeremy spent a season pretending to be in and out of love. Eventually, when he threw her over (at her insistence, of course), she pled a broken heart and convinced her parents that they must not try to force her into marriage until she had quite forgot the duke. Jeremy let it be known (quietly) that he felt an English peer ought not marry an American, a sentiment lauded by the aforementioned legion of mothers. Their daughters vied for his attention with such implacable nerve that it began to make him quite unable to enjoy all the social functions in which he used to take such pleasure. Finding this condition unacceptable in the extreme, he decided to direct all of his affections toward me, his oldest friend.
At the time, I was a young widow, my first husband having been murdered only a few months after our wedding. Out of mourning and back in society, I had fallen in love with Colin Hargreaves, and even after I had accepted his proposal of marriage, Jeremy refused to stop pressing his own suit. Not, mind you, because he actually loved me, but because he knew I would go along with his scheme. He viewed my engagement as a gift from the dear Lord himself. Society believed him to be heartbroken and devoted to a lady he could not have, and the legion of mothers could tolerate with relative equanimity waiting for him to recover from the blow my second marriage struck.
Colin accepted this arrangement with good humor, knowing full well Jeremy had never been a threat to our marital happiness. He also knew that one day, Jeremy would have to marry. He might play the profligate, but he would never leave his dukedom without an heir. Much as I enjoyed Jeremy's little game, I had rejoiced when I read his telegram and knew it was over. I longed to see my friend as happily settled as I.
Then I met Amity Wells.
I am, perhaps, not being entirely fair. She failed to make much of an impression at our first meeting, but balls do not provide much of an opportunity for deep conversation. Our trip to Cannes was to offer us that. Yet almost from the moment I stepped into La Croisette with her, I knew we could never be friends. And I feared Jeremy would never forgive me for that.
Twelve months earlier
India did not suit Amity. The oppressive heat reminded her too much of her grandparents' plantation house in Natchez, Louisiana, where she had spent more than one unhappy summer while her parents retreated from New York's Fifth Avenue to their mansion in Newport. This arrangement came at the insistence of her grandmother, Varina Beauregard Wells, who was as unhappy at the Confederate loss in the War Between the States as she was that her Harvard-educated son had abandoned all his breeding and married a Yankee. She had always objected to sending him north for an education. The fortune he earned in copper tempered her displeasure, but she was not about to let her only granddaughter grow up with coarse northern manners. Her daughter-in-law made no effort to dissuade her. Learning to simper in that charming southern way could do nothing but enhance Amity's value on the marriage market, and Birdie Wells had every intention of seeing her daughter married to an English nobleman. So far as she was concerned, this outcome was nonnegotiable. Her husband had no interest in arguing with her regarding this or anything else about which she felt strongly.
"She must be a duchess, don't you think?" Birdie-Amity had never been able to think of her mother as anything but Birdie-made a habit of talking about her daughter as if she were not there.
"I am sure you know best, dearie." Amity's father loved to indulge his wife, who was delightfully unlike the southern belles his mother had traipsed before him, hoping he would take one of them as his bride. Their superficial charms were many, but none could compete with his Birdie, who spoke with a shocking degree of directness. The day they met she had looked him in the eyes and said, You are less of a fool than I expected, Wells, and he knew he had found his partner in life.
"I am doing this all for you, my dear. Vanderbilt's daughter caught a duke and we cannot tolerate falling beneath that family. I should be unable to take so much as a step out of the house. We have got to take her abroad without delay."
"I would never deny you something you want so badly, Birdie." Mr. Wells folded up his newspaper and left for his office, where, after finalizing a deal that nearly doubled the family's already enormous fortune, he set about making plans for their trip. That he chose to start with India reflected his priorities. An old friend who had wrangled himself a plum position after the dissolution of the East India Company had invited him to visit, with the object of convincing him to invest in what he was certain would prove a most profitable arrangement. They would be in India by February, and stay until the following winter, when they would remove themselves to Egypt, and form all the acquaintances necessary to make an appropriate splash in London the following spring. Birdie would have preferred to start in London, but understood her husband too well to suggest an alternative to his itinerary.
Within hours of their arrival in Bombay, Amity was being heralded as the belle of expat society. Invitations poured in, and the family found themselves in even greater demand than that to which they were accustomed in New York. Birdie's exuberant parties proved a great success with the British community, although Amity noticed more than a few ladies looking down their nose at her mother, especially when she insisted they ride camels to the site of one of her picnics. Regardless, Amity allowed herself to be escorted to countless events by a series of young men Birdie had vetted, but she took little pleasure in the company of any of them. She did not object to making a good marriage, but felt that she ought at least to be allowed to like her future husband. Her new friend, Miss Christabel Peabody, shared this view. Miss Peabody, a young lady whose British manners and affability were approved of by Birdie, had traveled to India to visit her brother, who was serving there in the army. Within a fortnight of their introduction, she and Amity were inseparable.
"I do not think I shall ever adjust to being here," Amity said, as she and Christabel lounged in the courtyard of the villa Mr. Wells had taken for their stay. "The humidity is intolerable." She stretched out on a chaise longue and waved a large ostrich fan in front of her face.
"And it is not yet summer," Christabel said. "You will adore Simla, though. Everyone spends the summer there. The society is incomparable."
"Incomparable society in Simla?" A stocky man in uniform approached them, Birdie's housekeeper following behind, doing her best to announce the visitor. "Christabel, you are giving this young lady the wrong idea altogether."
"Captain Charles Peabody, Miss Wells!" The servant made a slight bow, her hands pressed together as if she were praying.
"Very good, thank you," Amity said.
"And Captain Jack Sheffield as well."
Amity thanked the housekeeper again and inspected the new arrivals. Christabel's brother, Captain Peabody, was a bit of a disappointment; Amity preferred her officers to cut rather more of a dashing figure in uniform. Fortunately for her, his companion filled the role admirably. Tall and lanky, Captain Sheffield moved with careless ease, and Amity was taken at once with his easy humor and self-deprecating ways.
"The society in Simla is the worst sort of colonial balderdash," Captain Peabody said. "If one is to be in India, one ought to be there, not set up some sorry version of England instead."
"Going native, Peabody?" Captain Sheffield's grin brightened the room.
"I take all my opinions from you, old boy, so you ought not criticize me."
"Quite right." Captain Sheffield tugged at the cuffs of his bright red jacket. "India is magnificent: exotic and mysterious. How many forts have you ladies visited thus far?"
"Forts?" Amity asked, pursing her perfect lips and raising her eyebrows. "Why should I have even the slightest interest in visiting forts? Unless you can promise me more officers as charming as the two of you?"
"Not that sort of fort, Miss Wells," Captain Sheffield said. "I speak of the ruins of ancient citadels, the towering walls and heavy gates that kept safe the maharajas and their jewels. You do know about the maharajas and their jewels?"
"What girl worth her salt wouldn't?" Amity smiled. "Daddy promised me emeralds while we are here."
"Good girl. Insist on rubies as well."
"Sheffield is a terrible influence," Captain Peabody said. "But you could not put yourselves in better hands should you want a guide to show you the area. I am afraid, Christabel, that I will not have quite so much liberty as I had hoped during your visit. Mother is furious, but I must do my duty."
"Of course, Charles. No one would expect less from you," Christabel said.
"I have brought my friend along as a peace offering. Mother has no interest in doing anything beyond taking tea with her old friends, and I do not wish to see you trapped doing only that. So far as she is concerned, she has already seen the best of India."
"She and father were here for nearly a decade."
"Yes, but she is very keen on you having a wander around, so long as it does not interfere with her routine. Sheffield is as good a bloke as I know. He will look after you well."
"I am still in the room, Peabody."
"Right. Well. I must be off. I shall leave the three of you to formulate a plan for your adventures."
From that day forth, Captain Sheffield spent every waking hour not required of him by the army with Amity and Christabel. Birdie initially balked at the young man. Captain Sheffield would never make an acceptable candidate for her daughter's husband-he was a dreaded younger son, and, hence, without title or fortune-but once she learned he was the brother of the Duke of Bainbridge, Britain's most desirable bachelor, her feelings warmed slightly. That is to say, she no longer did her best to discourage the acquaintance.
Amity, Christabel, and Jack-for none of them required formality of the others any longer-began to refer to themselves as the Three Musketeers. They traveled (chaperoned, of course, by Birdie) to the Golden Temple at Amritsar, where Amity threatened to become a Sikh, but only if she would be allowed to wear a turban and carry a dagger. The dagger, Jack assured her, was a requirement. They lamented the sorry state of the Lake Palace at Udaipur, where the damp had taken hold and ruined much of the fine interior.
"I shall make it my mission to return here and restore every corner of this place," Amity said.
"I have been laboring under the impression that India did not suit you," Jack said. "It would impossible to count the number of times you have told me you would prefer to be in Paris or London-"
"Or the Alps," Christabel continued, crossing to her friends after she had finished photographing the remains of a frieze on one of the walls. Her brother had given her a camera for Christmas, and she had become something of an expert at using it. Carrying it on their trips often proved problematic, but they all agreed it was worth the aggravation when they saw her pictures. "Or Rome-"
"Stop, you wretched beasts! I repent," Amity said. "I repent wholly. The subcontinent has grown on me. When are we to see the tigers?"
Birdie categorically refused to allow a safari of any sort, tigers or not. This did not give Amity more than the slightest pause. She appealed to her father, who never could resist her, and he organized a hunting party for them. Christabel very nearly begged off coming, but was persuaded in the end, although she was convinced, up almost to the last moment, that it was a wretched idea.
"Come now, Bel," Amity said. "Think of us, camping in the wild, riding on elephants-"
"I do quite fancy riding on an elephant," Christabel said.
"I promise you will never regret it."
"Oh, Amity, I can never say no to you!"
"Why would you want to?" Amity smiled. They departed for the Rajasthani hills the next morning.
Copyright © 2015 by Tasha Alexander