The Houseparty

The Houseparty

Anne Stuart

September 2015 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-668-0

Is he a spy who could break her heart?

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Is he a spy who could break her heart?

Michael Fraser was so handsome, it was positively criminal. His cold blue eyes made Elizabeth's heart skip at their very first meeting. No doubt about it, the gossip was right: this tough soldier was a traitor, a spy, a scurrilous French agent. Yet her hapless cousin had invited him to their home for the weekend.

What trouble might this untrustable man cause during the course of a three-day house party filled with distinguished guests? Soon Elizabeth hears that this stealthy spy has been querying the servants about her. Her brother is off on a secret mission against Bonaparte—that must be the reason for Michael's sly attentions. 

If only his gaze weren't so irresistible, his voice so hypnotic, his kiss so treasonously sweet. She never imagined a French agent could be this dangerous.

Anne Stuart is currently celebrating forty-five years as a published novelist. She has won every major award in the romance field and appeared on the NYT Bestseller List, Publisher's Weekly, and USA Today. Anne Stuart currently lives in northern Vermont.


Coming soon!


Chapter 1

IT WAS A COOL, sunny afternoon in late winter, and some­where in London two gentlemen met in an unprepossessing little room that may or may not have been part of the offices neces­sary to the running of a large and disorderly regency. There were no paintings on the walls, but the desk between the two men was a massive piece of furniture reserved for those in power, and the elderly gentleman who sat at it stared with unseeing eyes at the cool, handsome face of the young man.

"I cannot like this situation, my boy,” Sir Henry Hatchett was saying gruffly. "It ain’t right to involve civilians in this sort of affair. No matter how careful we are, we can’t control every­thing all the time. I gather Jeremy Traherne’s brother and sister will be at Winfields for this houseparty.”

"Surely we can count on them for assistance?” the younger man questioned swiftly.

"If we had to. But you know Traherne would never forgive us if anything happened to his family. He’s making sacrifices enough for the cause. As you are, dear boy. There’s a limit to how much martyrdom the Crown has a right to demand.”

The word the younger man used was short and satisfyingly blasphemous. "If you were to ask Jeremy, he would tell you, as I do, that it’s hardly a case of martyrdom; it’s more in the nature of a challenge. You haven’t heard me complain, and you’re not about to. I understand your reservations about this houseparty, but tell me, sir, do we really have any other choice?”

Sir Henry sighed. "I’m afraid not. We’ll simply have to be very careful, very careful indeed. A great deal is riding on this. The work of a year, at the very least. We simply cannot have it all go for naught.”

"We shan’t fail, sir.”

Sir Henry eyed the coolly determined young soldier oppo­site him. "I would guess that you won’t object too strenuously to having this over and done with, would you, lad?”

"I won’t deny it’s been damnably uncomfortable on occa­sion,” he agreed with an unexpected flash of humor. "Though I’d do it again if the situation warranted it.”

"Aye, I’m sure you would. If it weren’t for men like you and Jeremy Traherne, we’d have lost out to Bonaparte years ago.”

The younger man dismissed the praise with a shrug. "Tell me, sir, do you have any reason to fear we might not succeed this time?”

"None at all,” Sir Henry replied. "But I wish to hell it were over with. I won’t rest easy until we have that scheming traitor brought to justice. When I think of the number of our lads who’ve lost their lives because of his vanity and greed, I feel frankly murderous.”

"I don’t blame you. But it shan’t happen again. By this time on Monday our traitorous friend will be as harmless as... as Jeremy Traherne’s sister.”

Sir Henry allowed himself a small smile. "Obviously you ha­ven’t met the girl yet. According to Traherne, she’s a real corker. I only hope she won’t make matters more difficult. We can’t afford to take her into our confidence, and I couldn’t be responsi­ble for her life if she were to find out what’s going on at Winfields.”

"Is there any reason she should?”

"Traherne says she’s the very devil. Bright, inquisitive, and far too pretty. She was the one who found LeBoeuf, you know. Damnable luck!”

"I gather Jeremy knows she and his brother will be in­volved, then.”

"He knows. And he doesn’t like it,” Sir Henry said in his gloomiest tone of voice. "But he agrees with us; there’s no way to avoid it. I only hope things work out aswe’ve planned.”

The younger man’s expression was grim, and Sir Henry, watching it in the fading afternoon light, felt vaguely nervous. And profoundly grateful that he was on their side and not that of the Corsican monster.

"They will,” the young man said in a steely voice.

And Sir Henry had little doubt that they would.

"MY DEAR SUMNER,” Elizabeth Traherne began in her well-modulated voice, "I still fail to see why we must spend the entire time with the squire. You know that his mother doesn’t really care for us, and as for Cousin Adolphus himself, why, I am certain he invites us under duress and not for any desire for our lively company. Couldn’t we possibly cry off this time?”

It was later that same afternoon on a winter’s day, and Elizabeth had been so bold as to accost her brother in his study at the drafty old parsonage. Of all the pleasant, well-lit rooms this was the most pleasant, and Elizabeth’s brother had unhesitat­ingly chosen it for his own. The roaring fire filled the farthest corners with heat, the winter sunlight poured in the windows, and the book-lined walls provided a perfect back­ground to her brother’s elegant figure—a background he had cultivated deliberately.

The Very Reverend Sumner Traherne cast a disapproving look out of his large, melting blue eyes, craned his neck in an effort to appear magisterial, and made a reproving sound in his throat, which, though undeniably mellifluous, was somewhat reminiscent of a boar in rut.

"You are frivolous and ungrateful, Elizabeth,” he said sternly, folding his well-shaped hands across his knee. "Cousin Adolphus invites us only for our pleasure and to show me some distinguishing attention. He was so condescending as to confide his wish that you, my girl, would receive some much needed brightening of your downcast spirits. He’s fully aware of the strain of the last few months, without a word from Jeremy. And your finding that drowned French sailor down at Starfield Cove scarcely helped the tone of your spirits.”

Elizabeth allowed herself a momentary shudder as the memory of those blank, unseeing eyes intruded. "That unpleas­ant experience was hardly my fault, Sumner.”

"I am not suggesting that it was. Though why you have to ride such great distances is beyond my comprehension. Still, you never were a biddable female. And little does Adolphus realize that your supposed meekness is merely the mask for the most unseeming levity, usually at his expense. May I remind you—”

"Whether you may or not is beside the point,” she inter­rupted with a sigh. "I wish you wouldn’t prose on so.”

Again that snort issued forth from Sumner’s broad chest. "Adolphus Wingert, besides being a cousin of ours, is the squire of this area, the justice of the peace, and our most generous patron. It would behoove you to show more gratitude and re­spect.”

"I’m certain his mother would prefer that I show my re­spect from a distance,” she murmured, unrepentant.

"And I cannot imagine what you have against Lady Elfreda. She has been all that is kind.”

"She is afraid, my sweet brother, that I mean to run off with her overfed, overbearing son. It is incomprehensible to her that any female could find Adolphus something less than the embodi­ment of girlish dreams.” She allowed herself a faint shudder.

"I would have thought you’d be a bit past girlish dreams,” he stated with a brotherly lack of tact. "As a matter of fact, Adolphus called you a very fetching young lady. You could go a lot farther and do a lot worse than marry someone like Adolphus Wingert.”

"Why, Sumner.” Elizabeth’s eyes opened wide with surprise tinged with amusement. "I wonder that you would countenance the thought of my marrying with such equanimity. I had pre­sumed you were expecting me to devote my life to you.”

"Naturally,” Sumner responded with his usual gravity. "How­ever, an alliance with the Wingert family could only benefit my career in the long run and would do Jeremy no harm, either. And I have little doubt Adolphus would be generous enough to see to a housekeeper for me, should he decide that you might suit.”

Elizabeth bit back the retort that threatened to bubble over. She tried to allow herself only one biting remark an hour, and she already had overstepped her allowance. She sighed and tried again. "I am very sensible of the honor Adolphus does me,” she said meekly enough, "though I doubt there is anything serious in his attentions. And I wonder whether it is truly Christian of us, Sumner, to burden poor Lady Elfreda with worry for naught,” she added. "You cannot argue that she wouldn’t rather see Adolphus married to a lady of title or at least someone a bit more biddable. And a slightly more noble lineage wouldn’t .hurt mat­ters, either.”

"There’s nothing wrong with our lineage,” her brother said ab­ruptly, his handsome face set in an intimidating frown that left Elizabeth unmoved. "The Trahernes are one of the oldest fami­lies in all Britain.”

"Yes, but our ancestors were Welsh.”

Sumner did not care to have disagreeable facts clouding his pontifications. "One of the oldest families in Britain,” he re­peated firmly. "And your portion is very nice indeed. Not that the Wingerts would have any need of your dowry, and I wouldn’t doubt that Adolphus might be generous enough to turn it over to the church.”

And its current incumbent, Elizabeth added silently, accus­tomed to her brother’s itchy palms. "I wouldn’t rely on any future match, Sumner. I am hardly the type to suit Adolphus Wingert, you must admit.”

For once her brother was tactful. Elizabeth could well imag­ine what he was thinking. Not that she was a bad-looking female, of course. How could she be, when she and her two brothers were known as the dashing Trahernes among their set? If nature had unfairly given her brothers the more spectacular good looks, she hadn’t come out badly in the end, either. With­out a doubt she was what might be termed a handsome young woman. Although a bit above average height, she still had the innate good sense not to tower over the majority of the gentle­men she met. Her rich chestnut hair was streaked from the sun, for she would go out hatless in their back garden despite Sumner’s remonstrations. That same reckless disregard for the sun accounted for the faint spattering of freckles across her delicate nose that were still in evidence in late March. Her eyes were a warm, laughing brown, although that laughter could have an uncomfortable edge to it. Her chin and her nature were too willful, and of course she was far too opinionated and intelligent for a woman.

But then, she took very good care of Sumner, and he wasn’t one to be ungrateful. He knew that he was a lucky man to have his only sister devote her life to his wellbeing, and it was a fortu­nate thing that she’d never evinced any interest in the admittedly small number of suitable gentlemen who had come her way. If truth be told, Sumner had done his share to discour­age them once Jeremy had left for the war. Elizabeth had allowed him to do so, leaving him secure in the belief that she would be far more content managing a parsonage than she would be gallivanting in the dissipated pleasures of London with some rackety gentleman.

But it appeared that Sumner’s forbearance was coming to an end. In the case of Adolphus Wingert, he’d clearly decided to nobly put someone else’s comfort above his own. Balanced against the good it would do his career, it wasn’t wise to be too selfish. Therefore, he eyed his sister and granted her his most encouraging smile, one she distrusted above all things.

"I am certain that Adolphus could not help but appreciate a treasure such as you, my dear,” he said smoothly.

"And I am sure you must have windmills in your head, Sumner,” she replied frankly. "And I shan’t have you encourag­ing that great lummox. For the time being I am quite content taking care of my dear brother.”

"For the time being?” he echoed in a hollow voice. "But what else could you possibly want to do?”

"Well, I don’t expect you to end your days a bachelor, dear heart. Already you have half the ladies in the congregation swoon­ing. Sooner or later some enterprising damsel will catch sight of that golden head of curls and that handsome face, and you’ll find yourself leg shackled before you know it.”

"I have no immediate plans,” said Sumner, not at all dis­pleased with this summing up of his not inconsiderable physical attractions.

"But you never know what might happen. And I doubt that your bride would care to have a managing sister-in-law about the place. So I thought I might keep house for Jeremy when he returns.” A troubled look clouded her expressive face. "I sup­pose I should say if he returns.”

"Don’t be absurd, of course the boy will return,” Sumner said gruffly. "Our brother leads a charmed life. Three years fighting Napoleon and not even a scratch on him.”

"I trust you are right,” Elizabeth said with a sigh.

"And I would think he’d be just aslikely to marry as I am. He always had an eye for a pretty girl.”

"If and when he does, I have other options. It is entirely pos­sible I might still get married. I am only twenty-three. Rather ancient by some standards, but I might still be able to attract an eligible party, someone a bit more appealing than Cousin Adolphus. A widower, perhaps, or an aging cleric. I’ve certainly had a great deal of experience managing a vicar’s household. Or I might set up house on my own. There is more than enough money for it, and I might even have Miss Biddleford to keep me company.”

"Miss Biddleford is a shameless bluestocking with the most dangerous ideas. I blame having her as your governess for all the flighty and, yes, seditious ideas that racket around in your brain.”

"Sumner, you’re a shocking prig,” Elizabeth shot back cheer­fully. "How could I have such a conservative brother? Of course, Biddy’s to blame for my outrageous opinions.”

"Well, I shan’t allow you to set up house with her. I’ve never heard of anything so ridiculous in my entire life,” Sumner announced, leaning back in his chair with a decisive air.

Elizabeth smiled sweetly. "My dear Sumner, you won’t have any say in the matter. If you remember, my money was left en­tirely in my hands, not in yours or Jeremy’s. You have no say over it or me.”

"Father must have been demented when he wrote that will,” he said, fretting. "Imagine stating that you were better equipped to handle finances than your brothers.”

"But you must admit I immediately gave you control of your portion,” she said demurely.

He eyed her with his usual misgivings. "I am not happy with you, Elizabeth. Your uncharitable attitude toward the Wingerts, your threats of disgracing yourself by running off on your own... I am deeply troubled.”

For all Elizabeth’s mischief making, she had a kind heart, and she reached out and touched one of Sumner’s strong, ele­gantly shaped hands that had never known a day’s hard work. "Don’t fret yourself, Sumner. As long as you keep from med­dling with Adolphus Wingert, I will restrain my wanderlust until Jeremy comes back. We’ve rubbed along very well together the past three years, and I am perfectly content. But I will tell you one last time: I have no wish to marry our portly cousin.” This was said with a great deal of kindness accompanied by a stern­ness that brooked no argument, and as usual Sumner capitulated in the face of a stronger will than his own.

"Very well,” he said somewhat sulkily. "It is your life, I sup­pose. Though how you can whistle such an advantageous match down the wind is more than I can understand. Haven’t you any loyalty? Think what it could mean to my career.”

"My dear, I would immolate myself for you, slave for you, manage your household and your accounts, counsel your parish­ioners, lead your choir, and write your sermons, but I will not marry Adolphus Wingert.”

"You don’t write my sermons,” he said, hotly. "You may make a few suggestions and help with the phrasing and such, but the main kernel of thought is my own, and it is up to me which of your flighty suggestions I might possibly heed.” Sumner’s angelically beautiful face was red with annoyance, and his blue eyes with their absurdly long lashes were narrowed in fury.

"Of course, Sumner,” Elizabeth said meekly, cursing once more her unruly tongue for speaking the unpalatable truth. "I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.”

She could tell by his sly expression that her brother had rec­ognized her contrition and intended to make full use of it. "Then you will agree to accompany me to Winfields? It should be charm­ing—only family, Lady Elfreda tells me. Her brother-in-law, the general, might be there, with a few close friends. It should be a delightful time.”

"Delightful,” Elizabeth echoed gloomily. "I presume you mean Sir Maurice Wingert? The only thing more tedious than aging politicians is aging soldiers.”

"Sir Maurice is one of our great heroes,” Sumner said repres­sively. "You are totally lacking in respect, Elizabeth.”

"I know.” She sighed. "And I presume he’ll have the usual complement of stiff young men to cater to his every whim.”

"Oh, doubtless. He’s got a new one, not that wispy fellow who couldn’t even ride properly.” Sumner snorted, his one real talent being horsemanship. "Come on, old girl, it’ll do us some good. Keep us from worrying about Jeremy.”

A shadow crossed Elizabeth’s face. "Why haven’t we heard from him, Sumner?”

"You know as well asI that he quite often doesn’t get the chance to write nowadays. This wretched undercover work re­quires that we be kept completely in the dark. I don’t like it, but what can we do?”

"Nothing, I suppose.” She rose from her cramped, uncom­fortable chair. There was only one decent seat in the room, and Sumner, of course, had claimed that as his own. "Shall I see to tea?” she inquired, suddenly ravenous. Sumner, like herself, was fond of food, although he never seemed to add an ounce to his trim frame, whereas her robust health had an unfortunate tendency to become a mite too robust on occasion.

"I trust we’ll have more than dried-out salt biscuits,” he re­marked somewhat pettishly. "If you need to slim down, I fail to see why I too must suffer.”

"There’s a great deal to be said for mortifying the flesh,” she replied limpidly. "I’ve had Mrs. Gibson make up a fresh batch of ginger biscuits. Six for you, six for me.”


"It is perfectly fair,” she said cheerfully. "I cannot resist temp­tation; therefore, temptation must be removed from my path and perforce from yours too. You wouldn’t wish me to arrive at Winfields rivaling poor Adolphus in my girth, would you?”

"Two days will hardly give you enough time to put on that much,” he muttered, scattering papers with a petulant shove. He was a man who liked his creature comforts.

"Well, then, why don’t you speak to Mrs. Gibson and have her bring you some nice warm scones in your study later on? As long as I am unaware of their existence, I shan’t mind,” she allowed graciously.

"I fail to see why I must hide away in my study to eat,” he cried. "Who runs this house, anyway?”

"I do.”

He paused, nonplussed. "Well, who is the master of it, then?”

She dropped a kiss on the noble brow that had caused more than one susceptible parishioner to entertain lustful thoughts. "I am,” she said, and whisked herself out the door, leaving her brother fuming, determined to sulk in his study until she re­turned to beg his pardon. But five minutes later, with visions of hot buttered scones and fresh ginger biscuits dancing in his head, he strode into the warm and cozy little drawing room that was Elizabeth’s particular retreat. He found his sister curled up on the love seat by the fire, her feet tucked under her, a French novel of dubious social merit in one hand and a cup of tea nearly finished by her side. On the plate in front of her were two soli­tary-looking ginger biscuits.

Sumner eyed her with great sadness. "You promised me six,” he said incomprehensibly, and then she realized that he meant the biscuits. She smiled up at him with that lightning change of expression that turned her face from passably pretty to almost beautiful.

"Not to worry, Sumner. I had Mrs. Gibson hide them from me. I’m sorry I teased you, dearest. I will go to Winfields. I will be on my best behavior, and you’ll have no cause to blush for me.”

Settling down opposite her, he eyed her warily. "And you won’t set Adolphus’s back up?” he questioned warily.

She handed him his tea. "I will flirt just the proper amount with Adolphus. I will convince Lady Elfreda of my disinterest. I will be respectful to Sir Maurice, polite to the boring young adjutant. Was there anyone else?”

"Miss O’Shea,” he said, and his sister didn’t miss the slight change in his mellifluous voice.

"I will be charming and friendly to Brenna O’Shea, with just the proper hint of condescension since she is a poor relation. That’s what you wish, isn’t it?” she inquired impishly.

"It isnot! Miss O’Shea is a very nice young lady who thinks just as she ought about all things. You could take a lesson or two in deportment from her,” he replied defensively.

The smile lit Elizabeth’s golden-brown eyes once more. "I will study Miss O’Shea’s behavior that I might learn proper de­portment, and I will keep my tongue in my head at all times. What more could you ask, Sumner dear?”

He eyed her warily. "I could ask that there was even the slight­est chance such a thing could happen. But the age of miracles has passed.”

Elizabeth smiled. "Cheer up, Sumner. At the very worst, we are in for an extremely boring weekend. Nothing ever happens at Cousin Adolphus’s houseparties. Nothing at all.”



Chapter 2


WINFIELDS WAS A very ancient, very grand estate. The firstWingert had come over from France with William the Con­queror and had haughtily accepted ashis due some fifty thou­sand of the ripest acres in Dorset. During the long centuries that followed, the Wingerts had erected Winfields, with each genera­tion adding something to its overwhelming consequence and lack of beauty, till now it rambled and towered and loomed over the remaining five thousand acres (some of the Wingerts having been fatally addicted to gaming) with a ramshackle air that would have been comical had it not been for the sheer force of the Wingert family pride. The current incumbent, Baron Adolphus Wingert, squire of the village, justice of the peace, eligible bachelor and devoted son, spent as little time there as his duties would allow. But Adolphus was ever zealous in perform­ing his duties, one of which was to entertain his distant cousin Sumner Traherne and that toothsome sister of his for a weekend just before the season started in London.

Another of his duties was to wed and beget an heir. His mother, the formidable Lady Elfreda Wingert, never failed to bring this up, and so at age forty Adolphus had finally decided to capitulate. With the right sort of female who knew better than to interfere in his life, he could continue on with his comfortable existence. The only question left was who the lucky girl would be.

There was Brenna, of course. When she had first arrived from Ireland to serve as his mother’s companion, Adolphus had had little doubt she was one of his mother’s selected brides. And indeed, she was a nice enough girl, biddable and sweet-temp­ered, but a bit on the bony side. Adolphus liked his females well rounded. His mind slipped back to Elizabeth Traherne, and he licked his thick, pink lips.

"Adolphus! His mother’s piercing tones startled him out of a pleasant if somewhat lascivious reverie. With a great sigh and creaking of stays he rose from his comfortable chair and ambled off in the direction of that demanding voice.

It was a laborious process. Adolphus Wingert prided him­self on his resemblance to his idol, the Prince Regent. Indeed, their girths were similar, with Adolphus having a slight edge. They had the same milky blue eyes, with golden waves trimmed and arranged a la Brutus. If Adolphus didn’t affect quite the extremes of fashion Prinny was wont to, at least he was both colorful and elegant, and his stays were far tighter. Not only did the whalebone corseting hold his somewhat excessive stomach in check, it forced him to walk bolt upright, adding to the air of consequence he liked to affect. That it also interfered with his breathing, particularly after a heavy meal (and he ate no light ones), was merely one of the little annoyances one had to cope with in a less than perfect life.

By the time he traversed the hallway, descended three short steps, turned two sharp corners, and went up another four steps to his mother’s salmon and apple-green sitting room, he was quite winded and had to content himself with staring, glassy- eyed, at his mother’s indomitable figure.

Lady Elfreda Wingert was as spare as her only child was cor­pulent. She was fully six feet tall, with long, thin arms and strong hands that enjoyed pinching and slapping at the servants and her overgrown son, a narrow face adorned with a long, thin nose, two small, hard blue eyes, a thin-lipped mouth, and an expression of perpetual disapproval. Added to this unpleasant expression was an air of hauteur that was outdone only by her son. It was no wonder that the pretty young girl at her side had an unhappy expression lingering in eyes so green they could only be Irish.

"The Trahernes have arrived,” she said in her cold, carrying tones. "I wonder if you know what absurd hopes you are encour­aging in that young woman’s breast by inviting them here every year. Soon she will be having airs above her station, fancy­ing herself the future Lady Wingert, and I shall be forced to give her a sharp set down, making it impossible for me to attend my own church. Why you constantly refuse to listen to me is a wonder, when I have only your own best interests at heart.”

"Now, now, Mama,” he said soothingly between gasps for air. "Elizabeth is a very nice young lady. A less encroaching lady I have yet to find. Why, she even pretends that she has no inter­est in my attentions at all. How could one ask for more maidenly modesty?”

"Attentions?” Lady Elfreda had picked up the key word, and her voice rose sharply. "You haven’t been paying her any marked attention, have you, Dolph?”

"Not yet,” he admitted.

"Well, thank heavens for that. A more managing female I have yet to meet. If you wish to leg shackle yourself to an under­bred, sharp-tongued hoyden who’d have you living under the cat’s paw for the rest of your days, then I wash my hands of you. At age forty you should be old enough to know better.”

"Now, Mama, you know I will be guided by your wise judg­ment in such matters,” he said soothingly. "I would never will­fully cause you any discomfort. But you wouldn’t wish me to shirk my duty. The Trahernes are distant cousins, and I am Sumner’s patron. It is necessary to entertain them occasionally, and what with Uncle Maurice arriving with his retinue, I couldn’t think of a better time. Dispense with two duties at once, eh?”

"And that is another matter, Dolph. Out of the blue your un­cle announces he is coming down to Winfields, without even asking whether or not it is convenient for us. And he’s bringing not only that wretched young man I’ve heard so much about but a female besides! Some foreign woman. I told him he absolutely could not, but he ignored me. So like your dear father. I don’t know what this world is coming to that I should have to enter­tain foreigners and poor relations at table, not to mention out-and-out traitors such as young Fraser. I can only thank heaven Sir Henry Hatchett and dear Beatrice chose this weekend to come also, or I might fear I’d be murdered in my bed. The next thing you know I’ll be having the tenant farmers in for tea.”

"Mama, I think you’d best watch your step about young Fraser. Nothing has been proved, you know. They would hardly have made him Uncle’s adjutant if there was any blot on his record.”

"They would hardly have made him your uncle’s adjutant if there weren’t a blot on his record. After his service in the Penin­sula and the remarkable job he did in Vienna, there must be something terribly wrong for him to have been relegated to the position of high-class servant to an aging general. And I have little doubt you know exactly what it is,” she added shrewdly.

"If I did, I would hardly be likely to spread such slander,” said Adolphus loftily.

Lady Elfreda sighed, absently reaching out and giving her si­lent young companion a sharp pinch on the knee. "Help me to the front hall, Brenna,” she ordered crisply. "Much as I dislike Miss Traherne, I suppose it would only lower myself to be petty and not welcome her.”

"That’s my dear mother,” Adolphus said approvingly, nearly earning a pinch for himself. "And I’m certain you’ve judged Miss Traherne too harshly. She’s a very charming young lady with just a trace too much liveliness of tongue.”

THE LADY WITH the lively tongue was standing in the large, drafty front hall of Winfields, staring about her with undisguised amusement. "How anyone could want to live in such a place is beyond me,” she whispered loudly to her brother as she gri­maced at the lofty caverns above her. "I wouldn’t be at all sur­prised if they have bats.”

"Hush, Elizabeth!” Sumner hissed, holding his well-propor­tioned frame upright as his hosts approached with regal ceremony. "For once, try to make a good impression,” he pleaded.

"Why?” she questioned in an undertone as the Wingert fam­ily reached them.

"Well, well, little Elizabeth,” Adolphus said jovially. "You must allow me a cousin’s prerogative.” Before she could divine his intention, she found herself firmly seized and a great wet kiss planted just beneath her left eye. At the same time a pudgy hand happened to squeeze her breast. Before she could slap him, he moved nimbly out of reach, greeting her brother with a com­radely condescension that never failed to grate on her nerves. Before she could regain her composure, a thin bejeweled hand was held out to her. She looked up into Lady Elfreda’s lizard-like eyes with a small shudder of dismay. Belatedly she reached out to take the hand, and Lady Elfreda dropped it, leaving Elizabeth standing awkwardly with her hand outstretched, feeling, as al­ways with that woman, clumsy and ill-bred.

"You haven’t changed, dear Elizabeth,” Lady Elfreda slid with a malicious smile. "How delightful that you could come to us for the weekend. Things get so tiresome this time of year, waiting for the season to begin.” Before Elizabeth could reply, she sailed onward, greeting Sumner with the smile she reserved for handsome young men who treated her with the proper defer­ence. Sumner knew the proper amountof flattery and shy respect to a nicety.

"Hallo, Elizabeth.” Brenna’s cool Irish voice broke through Elizabeth’s irritation. "It’s nice to see you again.”

No warmth from this quarter, either, thought Elizabeth dole­fully, eyeing the dark-haired, green-eyed little beauty in front of her with a hopeful smile. Brenna O’Shea had never shown any interest in Elizabeth’s overtures of friendship during the six months she’d been in residence at Winfields, and by now Elizabeth had given up on her. Those green eyes only warmed, inexpli­cably, when they rested on her brother’s admirable form.

The small, stilted group was moving into one of the more formal drawing rooms that were scattered around Winfields like a rabbit’s warren, and there was nothing for Elizabeth to do but take up the rear, watching Brenna’s slender little back with a twinge of jealousy. It must be nice to have a waist that was barely a man’s hand span, she thought mournfully, fully aware that her own ripe curves constituted a more generous handful. Elizabeth sighed, seated herself as far from Lady Elfreda’s disapproving attention but as near the tray of delicious cakes as possible, and accepted her fate.

Unfortunately, Adolphus had been watching both the cakes and Elizabeth closely. While his mother was distracted with serving the tea and evincing a proper interest in Sumner’s charm­ing anecdotes, the portly baron slipped to Elizabeth’s side, a faint spattering of crumbs trailing across a baby-blue superfine jacket that had taken five ells to make up.

"What a treat to see you again, Cousin Elizabeth,” he breathed. "And you’re looking more stunning than ever. A fine, strapping figure of a girl,” he said, licking his lips as if in anticipa­tion of a tasty morsel.

Not this tasty morsel, thought Elizabeth firmly, giving him an unencouraging smile and edging as far away as the narrow chair would allow. "It’s nice to see you again, Sir Adolphus,” she replied distantly.

"Heavens, how formal we’re being! You must call me Dolph, Cousin. After all, we’re related.”

"You are too kind, to call a mere connection a relationship,” she said vaguely. "Your mother is looking well. You must be very fond of her.” She could think of no reason for him to be, but Adolphus nodded sagely.

"A wonderful woman, my mother,” he said. "But tell me about yourself, young lady. Any importunate young gentlemen hanging around, wishing to slip a ring on that pretty little hand?”

Elizabeth shuddered inwardly at the coy tone of voice asshe glanced down at her strong, capable hands that were itching to box Adolphus’s ears. "I am devoted to my brothers, as you know, Cousin,” she said demurely. "Miss O’Shea is looking lovelier than ever,” she added somewhat desperately.

His bulbous blue eyes never left her. "She’s well enough,” he replied, dismissing Brenna with one wave of a pudgy hand. "She hasn’t your fire, my girl. And what’s the news from that scamp Jeremy? Can we hope to see him soon?”

"Oh, I do hope so.” Elizabeth sighed. "But we’ve had no definite word. I suppose that’s just aswell. We’d know soon enough if anything was wrong.”

"Of course you would,” he said soothingly, reaching out and patting her knee. He allowed his hand to rest there, and Elizabeth quickly shifted position, giving him an ingenuous smile as he was forced to move back. "Tell me, does that brother of yours allow you any freedom?”

"None at all,” she replied quickly. "Sumner’s a very high stickler. When is your uncle due?”

A shadow crossed his ruddy face. "Sometime this evening. I trust your brother has warned you about Michael Fraser?”

The name had a distant ring to it, but for the life of her Elizabeth couldn’t remember the connection. "He may have done,” she replied cautiously. "I’m afraid I don’t remember. Who is Michael Fraser?”

"My uncle’s current adjutant. He’s from an old and proud Scottish family, younger son, I believe. A career man in the army and done well for himself and his country over the last years. Distinguished himself in the peninsular action and was consid­ered quite promising in Vienna last year.”

"Sounds estimable,” Elizabeth said, stifling her yawn. "Just what a general’s secretary should be.”

"Not at all. Fraser was destined for much more important things than fetching and carrying for someone like Uncle Maurice, who’s on the very edge of retiring. I don’t know the details of it, but something very unpleasant happened after Vienna.” Adolphus leaned closer, his breath hot on Elizabeth’s averted cheek. "Nothing anyone could prove, I gather, because he wasn’t clapped in irons. But it was a near thing.”

Elizabeth’s curiosity was piqued. "What sort of thing? Did he run off with his commander’s wife, sell secrets to the French, seduce a duchess?” she questioned flippantly.

"I believe he was suspected of being a traitor,” Adolphus whispered importantly. "But they couldn’t prove a thing, so they had to settle for putting him in a post where he couldn’t do any harm. Uncle Maurice hasn’t many duties left to him in these last few months before he retires, and I doubt he’d have anything to do with military secrets of great importance. By the time he retires and Fraser gets reassigned, they should be able to get any proof they might need.”

"Proof of what?” she inquired in a suitably hushed tone.

"I don’t precisely know,” Adolphus admitted fretfully, not liking to be in the dark any better than the inquisitive Elizabeth did. "Whether or not he’s to be trusted, I suppose. More than one brave agent of our country has met his end by the traitor’s hand. If there’s any truth to the rumors surrounding Fraser, then he’s a direct threat to people like your brother Jeremy. I would suggest you avoid him at all costs. There was no way I could keep him from coming, and of course it may all be a tempest in a teapot. He’s a handsome enough devil,” he added with a trace of envy in his voice. "You’d better keep an eye out for any blan­dish­ments, Cousin. Uncle Maurice should be able to keep things under control, and a friend of his from the Foreign Office is expected. We should be safe enough.” He cast a nervous glance over his shoulder, as if he expected the villainous Fraser to appear with knife in hand.

Elizabeth’s interest was well and truly caught by this time. "But why would he change sides? After having served king and country so well and truly for so long?”

Adolphus shrugged his thick shoulders, sending his highly starched shirt points into his ears with a sharp jab that caused tears of pain to start in those pale blue eyes. "Who can say what dark forces drive such men to desperate measures?” he intoned. "We can only guess at the tragic circumstances that affected him so—”

A small spurt of laughter from Elizabeth’s tightly com­pressed lips drew his ruminations to an abrupt halt, and the expression in her golden-brown eyes was merry. "I never knew you were such a romantic, Adolphus! Michael Fraser sounds positively Byronic. I am quite looking forward to meeting this desperate traitor, tormented as he is by unspeakable horrors. Particularly if he’s as devilishly handsome asyou say he is.”

Adolphus drew himself up, affronted. "You may very well laugh, Elizabeth, but I advise you to be careful. One man is dead already, do not forget, and I gather from friends of mine that the situation could still be dangerous.”

Elizabeth’s levity vanished abruptly. "A man dead?” she ech­oed. "You don’t mean that French sailor?”

"Certain people think he was more than a mere sailor intent on smuggling laces and brandy,” Adolphus announced. "The more I think about it, the more I am afraid that I may have been a bit hasty in ruling it death by misadventure. But then, as justice of the peace I have a great deal on my mind and can’t be ex­pected to be overly suspicious.
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