“What are you doing out here all alone?” Alex didn’t hide the surprise in her tone as she stepped into her friend’s path.
The question caught Ella unaware and, with an extraordinarily loud shriek, she jumped into the air, terrified. The sight was so comical that Alex doubled over with welcome laughter.
When she straightened again, Ella was holding her hand to her chest, waiting for her heart to stop racing. She said sternly, “That wasn’t as amusing as you seem to think.”
Alex smirked at her friend. “That’s because you were on the wrong end of the hilarity. You are incredibly well met, Ella.”
“What are you doing out here?” Ella had recovered and was back to her inquisitive self.
“I asked you that first, if you’ll recall.”
“Vaguely. That happened just as you took a dozen years off my life?”
“Just then, yes.”
“I rather think that you should tell me first. Considering you terrified me and then laughed at me.”
“It’s a ridiculous and somewhat lengthy story that makes me appear alternately unpleasant and irrational. I’d rather not discuss it at this particular moment.”
Ella cocked her head. “That sounds like a very interesting story. I will allow you to postpone sharing it only because I have a very interesting story of my own.”
“And this is why I adore you. Not only do you spare me embarrassment, you do it in the most entertaining of ways.”
Alex resumed her seat on the bench and patted the space next to her. “Join me, friend. I welcome your allegedly interesting story.”
Ella seated herself beside Alex and began, “I was avoiding the next dance on my card—”
“Aah…Grabhands.” Alex nodded with an air of understanding.
“Quite.” Ella pressed on, “So I escaped to the balcony, where I saw Baron Montgrave slipping off into the garden—”
“Oh, Ella. Your obsession really is becoming rather worrisome.”
“It’s not an obsession! Which you would understand if you would let me finish a sentence.”
“If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is, but”—Alex offered an exaggerated magnanimous gesture—“please, go on.”
Ella tipped her head. “Thank you. Where was I?”
“While I’m not entirely sure, I think you might have been traipsing off into the darkness with a man who is thrice your age.”
“Shh! First, there was no traipsing involved. I followed him. At a discreet distance.”
“I beg your pardon?!”
“And second, keep your voice down! If someone overheard, it could ruin me!”
“All right!” Alex whispered. “What would possess you to follow him—”
“At a discreet distance,” Ella cut in.
“Fine, at a discreet distance—into a deserted garden?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem that it was entirely deserted,” Ella pointed out, “but we will come to that particular truth later, I assure you. I don’t know why I did it…curiosity, boredom, whatever. It is really irrelevant now, really. The point is, I did.”
“And…I think…” Ella’s voice lowered to a whisper that Alex could barely hear. “I think I overheard something I shouldn’t have.”
“Like what?” The two had their heads bowed so closely together that they were almost touching.
“I’m not entirely sure. The baron met with another gentleman in the garden, but I couldn’t make out the other person or the conversation very clearly—they were speaking very quietly, and I had just the smallest inkling that they were discussing something…”
Alex waited as Ella paused for drama. Ella adored dramatic emphasis.
Ella’s whisper barely made any sound at all, and Alex couldn’t help the half smile that played at the corner of her mouth. “Nefarious?”
Ella nodded once, curtly. “Yes. Nefarious.”
“All right, Ella.” Alex’s tone was designed to humor her friend as she sat back on the bench. “What ‘nefarious’ thing do you think you overheard?”
“Again, I can’t be certain of that part of it,” Ella was quick to respond, “but there are a few things I am certain of.” She began ticking off her fingers as she spoke. “First, he was most definitely meeting someone at a time that had been predetermined in a place that had been prearranged. He went straight to the spot without dawdling.”
“All right, but that means little, you understand.”
Ignoring Alex, she pressed on. “Second, the person he met was not dressed in formal attire. I had the distinct impression that the other man was not a guest of the Salisburys. And…they greeted each other in French!”
“That is odd, considering the baron is French,” Alex said drily.
Ella gave her a quelling look. “Third, the conversation was laced with obscurity. They were discussing ‘the problem,’ and ‘the situation.’ At one point, the other gentleman said something about ‘the situation being resolved this evening without delay.’”
Alex opened her mouth to speak, only to be stopped by Ella’s raised hand and dramatic flourish. “And…if all of that weren’t enough…I could swear I heard the baron refer to un voleur.”
“A thief? Are you certain?”
“Not entirely…but that could have been it! Who speaks in such a manner? Spies, if you ask me.”
Alex laughed aloud before saying, “Few people speak that way, I’ll grant you. But we still have little indication that the baron is anything more than a kind, if slightly eccentric, old man. We certainly have no indication that he is a spy, for goodness sake. Vivi’s father and Blackmoor’s uncle both know him and find him to be a welcome addition to their circles, so I see no reason to surmise that he’s a villain of the first water. Would you like to hear my theory on the matter?”
“Most certainly,” Ella replied eagerly.
“You’ve been thinking about your novel too much… and your imagination has become overactive.” This was said with a grin.
“That may be the case,” Ella agreed in a tone that suggested she’d not thought of that possibility.
“May be? You think that sweet old man is out to topple the Crown.”
“Quite.” Ella cleared her throat. “But it was an odd occurrence.”
“Certainly. But I highly doubt it was an issue of national security. How did it end?”
“Calmly. They shook hands and parted ways. I waited five minutes or so and made my way back—and found you!” Her tone turned excited and curious. “What are you doing out here, Alexandra Stafford?”
“Not terribly much,” Alex spoke casually. “Taking in the evening air, pondering life’s mysteries, selling state secrets to the French…”
Ella chuckled. “A common occurrence this evening, it seems.” She paused for a moment, waiting for Alex to speak. When she didn’t, Ella spoke again. “Are you going to tell me?”
“I’d rather hoped not to.”
Ella nodded thoughtfully. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. Just nursing a slight case of embarrassment and irritation.”
“Ah. So you shall be fine.”
The two sat in companionable silence borne of years of friendship, each allowing the other’s presence to calm her. Alex took a deep breath and looked up at the starlit sky, wondering if she and Ella would be missed if they stayed out here for the rest of the evening.
Sadly, they would be. Not looking away from the sky, Alex spoke. “We should make our way back.”
“I suppose so.”
They stood and fluffed their skirts, then crossed the lush gardens to the ballroom. As they ascended the steps to the open doors, where several couples were standing in the fresh air, Ella spoke a touch louder than usual, “It was a lovely walk we took, don’t you agree?”
Alex smiled at her friend. “Most calming indeed. Thank you very much for thinking of it.” She nodded at Lord Denton, who bowed as they passed, clearly hearing their conversation.
“Think nothing of it,” Ella offered with a grin as they stepped over the threshold and into the ballroom.
The two had paused just barely, attempting to get their bearings, when the hairs on the back of Alex’s neck rose. She knew before looking that Blackmoor was standing nearby.
There he was, an appropriate distance from her, a combination of boredom and anger in his eyes. She had a feeling the boredom was affected, but she was quite certain that the anger was entirely real. Ella glanced over and noticed him with a smile, offering a quick, “Good evening, Lord Blackmoor,” before remarking to Alex, “I see Vivi by the refreshment table…I’m going to join her. I shall see you inside?”
“Yes.” Alex’s response was lost in the crowd as Ella pushed through. She sighed and muttered to herself, “You know, for someone so observant, Ella, you can be rather oblivious when you want to be.” She turned back to Blackmoor and spoke up, “If you are here to scold me, I assure you it’s unnecessary.”
“I’m here to tell you that I’m leaving. If you would care for transport home, you should say your good-byes.” His voice was cool and distant.
She briefly considered refusing him and asking the Marquess of Langford to bring her home, but she knew that would make Blackmoor even more irritated, and she wasn’t in the mood to push him any further.
“Very well, my lord”—she made her voice as cool as his own—“I shall only be a few minutes.”
The two rode home in stony silence, neither interested in forgiving or forgetting the events of the evening. When the carriage arrived at Worthington House, Blackmoor, ever the gentleman, exited the carriage to help Alex down from the vehicle. Once on solid ground, Alex offered a quiet, “Thank you, my lord.”
He did not respond, except to offer a short bow, at which point she turned and entered the house, closing the door behind her and not waiting to see if he returned to the carriage or not. She thanked the night footman who had been waiting for her return home, and relieved him of his duties so that he could find his bed. Just as she’d done that, her mother’s voice spilled into the foyer from the library. “Alexandra? Is that you?” And, with a sigh, Alex went to find her.
“Indeed, ’tis I, the princess returned from the ball,” she quipped as she threw herself into a leather chair, kicked off her slippers, tucked her feet up under her, and began unbuttoning her elbow-length gloves.
Her mother and father were seated in identical chairs in a ritual she had witnessed hundreds of times before. When one of the children was out of the house and expected back late, they would stay awake and keep each other company as they waited for the child who was due home. Her father would nurse a glass of scotch while her mother read, but they always ended up chatting. Alex had fallen asleep on the floor of the library to the sound of their discussions countless times as she was growing up. As difficult as her evening had been, it comforted her to join them.
Her father spoke first, his rich voice gently questioning, “That doesn’t sound like the response of a young lady home from a thoroughly amusing evening.”
“Was the ball not enjoyable, my love?” This from her mother.
“The ball itself was lovely,” Alex shared, peeling one long sheath of satin down her wrist and off her hand, draping it across the arm of the chair. “Nicola was gorgeous and entertaining as ever, and Lord and Lady Salisbury were…well, Lord and Lady Salisbury.” The last drew a smile from both her parents.
“If that’s the case, why are you so subdued?” her father queried, teasing. “Did some oaf step on your toes during a quadrille?”
Alex offered him a half smile she didn’t quite feel. “I wish that were the case. No, if you must know, Blackmoor and I had a falling-out.”
“Whatever about?” asked the duchess.
Sighing, Alex focused entirely on her glove as she tugged each satin finger from her hand. “Well, everything was fine until I danced with someone of whom he did not approve.”
“Who?” The duke perked up.
Yanking the glove from her hand, she waved it in frustration. “Freddie Stanhope! Thoroughly innocuous Freddie Stanhope.”
“I thought Stanhope and Blackmoor were friends?” The duchess looked to Alex’s father for confirmation. He didn’t speak as Alex continued.
“So did I, until this season. Will, Nick, and Kit seem to enjoy Freddie’s company as much as ever, but Blackmoor thinks him a rogue and not to be trusted around females. Especially me. Which is ridiculous, considering Freddie and I have been friends for ages.”
“It is rather strange. I’ve always rather liked young Stanhope,” said the duchess.
This elicited a laugh from His Grace. “I imagine that’s exactly why Gavin thinks the way he does. For generations women have ‘rather liked’ the Stanhope men.” Turning back to Alex, he asked, “Has young Stanhope been inappropriate in your presence?”
“Never,” Alex spoke vehemently. “To the contrary, Freddie’s been a capital friend—certainly a bit of a rake—but harmless. After all, I’ve known him for years and he’s very close with Nick. We just have fun together and Blackmoor seems out to ruin anything that seems to entertain me. He takes his role as surrogate brother too seriously, and tonight he overstepped his bounds, leaving me a touch—”