"From now on, Blakestone, you'll
just have to watch her like a bloody hawk."
"Of course, Lord Aberdeen." Ross
Carrington, the first Earl of Blakestone, was finding it difficult to
conceal a snort at the prime minister's unnecessary warning. "However, if I
watch her any more closely, I'm liable to cause an international incident.
We can't risk that."
And Ross had deflected too many
of those lately for his luck to hold much longer.
"Fine, Blakestone, but just don't
let her get the upper hand in the situation."
"I won't, Aberdeen," Ross said,
"no matter how outrageous her royal demands." Ross turned pointedly from the
tall windows that overlooked the wide expanse of Whitehall and its bustling
mid-day traffic to look at Drew, a life-long friend who surely understood
the royal mind like none other. The man had married one two years ago.
Drew leaned back in his chair and
laughed in that maddeningly contented, happily married way that had
overtaken him. "She's not the least bit shy about asking for the
"Exactly what I'm afraid of,
Wexford," Lord Clarendon added, dropping into a chair. He picked up a troop
report and fanned his wilted face. "We can't bend to her."
"Nor is she at all shy about
putting us in one untenable position after another." The First Lord of the
Admiralty launched himself out of his chair. Aberdeen threw up his
hands. "Never stopping to consider the cost of her conceit to anyone around
sputtered Lord Weldon.
"Mollycoddled at every turn!"
Clarendon shook his fist toward the ceiling.
"Gentlemen, please!" Ross said
through his clenching jaw. "Anyone would believe that we were gossiping
about a beautiful woman instead of thrashing over the wiles of Mother Russia
and her scheming tsar, Nicholas."
"Now, there's a pity we're not,
Blakestone." Lord Aberdeen grunted, scratching at his steely grey temple.
"At least with a beautiful woman we could dazzle her speechless with a
bauble or two. That bastard Nicholas wants the whole of the Ottoman Empire
all to himself."
"Careful, Aberdeen," Jared said
with a slow grin from the sprawling comfort of his chair. "If you value your
life and your fortune, you'll never let my Kate hear you be so flip about a
"Or my Caro," Drew added. "I
learned the hard way that an angry ex-princess can be just as deadly as one
with a glittering crown and an
empire of her own."
"You'd best take heed, Aberdeen,"
Ross said, feeling singularly distracted by a curious noise drifting through
the window. A clattering
rumble from the direction of
Trafalgar Square, though he couldn't quite place the exact nature of the
"No need for your kind warnings,
gentlemen," Aberdeen said, "I've partnered both ladies in whist and now
refuse to play against them."
Deadlier than the male, Ross was
going to say. But he now found himself intrigued by the rising sounds in the
street. He pulled aside the
sheering drapes and, feeling like
a lunatic, leaned partially out the
What the devil?
A cluster of people had formed up
into a parade of some sort at the upper end of Whitehall. Now they were
beginning to walk south toward the
Five abreast, six lines, a limp
banner lagging between two of the marchers. And a half-dozen signs being
jabbed into the air. None of the
words readable yet.
Because the mob consisted
entirely of women.
"I just don't know what's wrong
with these young ladies of today," Lord Weldon said in a voice as rattling
as the tremors in his hands. "Seem to
have grown minds of their own. No
respect for an old man's opinion."
"All the fault of permissive
fathers, I say." The Lord Admiral clacked the bowl of his pipe against the
fireplace grate. "Give a young woman an
inch and she takes the whole of
the street and half the curb."
Indeed, all of Whitehall. Ross
nearly laughed outloud as the carefully lettered signage came into sharp
focus from the street below.
And in the vanguard, one sign was
being thrust repeatedly into the air like a galvanizing call to arms, the
most preposterous sentiment of the lot:
Not only preposterous, but
carried by the most enchanting woman Ross had ever seen.
Damnation, she was a lush bite of
brazen womanhood. He could see the shape of her clearly, though not the
fullness of her face.
Unabashedly golden hair, slashed
with pale copper, uncovered and piled in an unruly knot at the back of her
head. Bits of curls floated outward
at her temples with the impetuous
force of her spirited forward stride. All that glittering pride held
high, her chin perfectly shaped, tipped
toward the world she so obviously
Her splendid bosom was a perfect
prow for leading her flamboyant female armada through the shoals of
carriages, wagons and horses, that now had to steam their way around them.
"Out of the road, you bloody
lunatics!" bellowed a ruddy-faced driver from atop the bench of a wagon load
of baled wool.
Though the furious man shook his
fist at the leader as his wagon wobbled past, the extraordinary woman
offered no reaction. Unless one happened to notice the subtle smile of
triumph that perched upon her dazzlingly moist lips.
Or the sunlight that grazed the
tips of her hair as she spun gracefully on her heel to face the stalwart
troops behind her.
"Women of Britain Unite!" she
shouted, thrusting her sign skyward, rousing her followers to a melodious
"Women Unite! Women Unite!" The
chant became raucous as the women
stabbed at the air with their
signs and their fists. "Unite! Unite! Unite!"
"What the devil's going on out
there, Blakestone?" Aberdeen asked from across the room.
"Sounds like the beginning of a
bloody riot." Drew was chuckling even before he joined Ross at the window.
"Ah, the fair sex at war."
"Terrifying, isn't is?" Ross
said, glad that he'd been born a male in these modern times, because deep in
his heart he felt a niggling guilt
at the plight of women.
The quashed spirit wanting to be
The hidden pride of
A heart oppressed and yearning
"Bloody hell, Jared, isn't that
old Tosser Maxton's wife?" Drew gestured out the window at a youngish woman
just passing beneath them. "There. In that huge green hat."
Jared joined them at the next
bank of windows. "Can't tell, Drew. All I can see is the hat. And one hat
looks pretty much like the next to me."
But Ross had definitely
recognized the woman as Tosser's wife. "And if I'm not mistaken, gentlemen,
the woman beside her is Colonel
"Good Lord," Clarendon said with
a snort as he gingerly peered over the sill. "Have they all gone mad?"
By now, every man in the room was
leaning out the bank of wide opened window panes, first grumbling at the
interruption, then blustering at
the outrageous sight of two dozen
women marching down Whitehall in a show of all-out rebellion against the men
whose pale, ripe faces he
could see in the windows of the
buildings across the street.
"What's all this?" Aberdeen
bellowed as though from the floor of the commons.
"A protest of some sort, it
seems, my lord prime minster." Ross still couldn't take his eyes off the
woman who was leading them all. Her
shapely stride so vibrant, her
shoulders thrown back in pride.
And so damn sure of herself, he
could only stare and wonder who she was.
And wish for her to turn and look
up at him, to share the fierceness of her gaze. Just a fleeting glance would
serve his curiosity, would bank
the flame that was licking at his
He had a mad wish to know the
color of her eyes, the depth of her spirit.
"Do you suppose these women have
anything to do with that new ladies club on King Street?"
"Ladies club?" Ross laughed at
Drew's outrageous sense of humor and then stopped as he realized that the
man was serious. "What ladies club?"
Drew turned toward Jared for
confirmation. "It's called the. . . What is it, Jared?"
"The Abigail Adams," Jared said
with a bewildered frown and a shake of his head. "Named, I suppose, for the
wife of John Adams, who was the
"-the second president of the
United States. Yes, yes, I know who the woman was, Jared. What I want to
know is why?"
"Why Abigail Adams?" Drew
shrugged and sighed. "Don't ask me."
"I mean why a ladies club
particularly?" Flaunting their revolutionary notions right under the noses
of every man in London. Spoiling for an
Impatient for no earthly reason,
Ross leaned out the window to take another look at the ragtag parade and its
wily leader. But they were
disappearing around the gentle
bend in Whitehall. And his heart dipped, slowed from an acceleration he'd
not noticed until now.
"Modern women." The very elderly
Lord Weldon tsked and shook his head as he toddled back toward his chair and
sat down. "What's the world coming to, I wonder?"
"And what do you suppose the
betting book at this club looks like, Jared?" Drew leaned back against the
windowsill. "Has it a needlework
cover, I wonder, dripping with
pale roses and leaping fawns?"
"More's the point, Drew," Jared
said, obviously toying with the older men in the room, unconcerned himself,
for his own wife was as
independent minded as the summer
wind, "what do you suppose the women find to bet on? When Mrs. Hume will
deliver Mr. Hume of a son and heir?"
"Or how long it will take for
their eccles cakes to properly rise." "That's just the kind of trouble I
need, gentlemen," Aberdeen said,
gesturing toward the street as he
returned to the table.
"Meaning what, Aberdeen?" Ross
asked, one eye still on the traffic in Whitehall, reluctant to turn from the
window completely for what he
might miss below. "Upper class
women forming a ladies club and marching on Westminster in broad daylight,
demanding we free them from the prison of their husbands, who just happen to
be members of the Lords."
"And members of the Huntsman,"
Jared joined into the fray. "And
Boodles and the Carlton and Traveler's."
"You see what I mean, lads. Add
women marching in the street to rumors of a war with Russia splattered
across every newspaper and discussed in every parlor across the kingdom and
that gives me a head ache." Aberdeen gripped the ladder back of his chair
with spidery hands as shaky as his hold on the coalition of his government.
"Trouble on every front, domestic and foreign."
A man in conflict with himself
and a world on the brink of a far-reaching war.
"If it's any consolation,
Aberdeen" -Ross handed the man a fleet position chart- "we can lay the blame
almost entirely on the Emperor Napoleon. He stirs up a hornet's nest in the
Bosporus, taunts Nicholas into a frenzy by moving his fleet ever closer to
the Black Sea. Then
coddles the Sultan of Turkey when
she screams bloody murder every time Russia herself threatens to over run
Ross could see it all coming, an
international avalanche roaring downhill, day by day. One he could only hope
wouldn't overtake them all.
"Though Nicholas is far from
innocent in this." Drew leaned back against the windowsill. "He continues to
believe that we agree with him, that the Ottoman Empire is doomed and ought
to be partitioned off and gifted to each of the Great Powers. With Russia
keeping the lion's share for
herself and year-round access to
a warm-water port."
Because the tsar had a long
memory, of a casual discussion he'd had with Aberdeen himself on the
subject. An unofficial, off-handed agreement
that Ross had no intention of
bringing up to the prime minister.
"Yes, well-" Aberdeen snorted and
waved his hand at nothing. "Nicholas is in for a rude awakening. He's always
taken Franz Joseph's support as
unshakable. But with the Russians
now sitting on the Danube and hinting of trouble in the Balkans, the
Austrians have every right to be
"Gentlemen, according what I saw
of the Russian fleet and the French, and the mood on the streets of
Constantinople, if nothing changes we are
but months from a war that might
well spread across the entire world."
Ross heard a noise across the
street and lost his train of thought. He glanced out the window in time to
see a detachment of Metropolitan
Police streaming out of Scotland
Yard. A dozen officers, followed by three paddy wagons.
And they were heading south on
Surely they weren't going to
intercept the harmless parade of women and attempt to disperse them.
A sickly feeling knocked around
in his gut, tumbling with the realization that their beautiful leader wasn't
the type to disperse without a fight to the finish.
Not that it was any of his
business what happened to the woman or her compatriots.
"Ross's recent charts of the
various fleets show belligerent movements on the part of all parties, an
increased concentration since only three
Ross reeled his thoughts back
into the meeting. Aberdeen was bent over the maps that Ross had just
yesterday brought from his most recent
scouting mission into Europe. Six
months of spying and diplomacy.
And not a whiff of peace to be
found anywhere, certainly not here in London. Only trouble and more trouble.
With the Times crying for war
"So in the meantime," Clarendon
said, with a stubborn cross of his arm, "England is forced to sit in place,
with Russia perched on the Danube,
threatening Austria, ready to
over run Turkey, and all of us waiting for Emperor Franz Josef to instruct
his foreign minister to make the next move."
Ross prodded himself away from
the window and moved back to the table,
"Buol has been talking about
bringing the parties together in Vienna to work out a truce."
"I know it's a very long chance,
Clarendon," Ross said, wondering how the devil he'd suddenly been dropped
into the middle of a diplomatic
mission, when his expertise lay
firmly, and by his own design, in the military. Where he didn't have to look
on the morass of politics up
close. "But it's my assignment to
see that the conference in Vienna happens, and that war is averted. At all
Ross reached for the map in the
center of the table, having to favor the familiar ache in his left shoulder.
A painful break that reminded him
daily of his near-fatal
miscalculation a year ago.
"Good, then you're off to St.
Petersburg again, Blakestone?" "God, I hope not, Aberdeen," Ross said,
willing to do most anything to
postpone another visit to that
nest of insanity, "I'm going to start off with a dinner party tonight at the
And hopefully empty his brain of
the exotic, thoroughly rousing images of the rebellious woman in the street.
And a dangerous wave of
unsuitable questions that he shouldn't be asking.
Completely nonsensical questions
like: what does a woman of such obvious free will choose to wear under her
Surely not whalebone and canvas
to straighten her posture, but lace and fine linen, because she's proud
enough for a half-dozen women.
And does she dash the sleekness
of her nape with pale English rosewater?
Or would he find a tantalizing
hint of cinnabar lingering there and across her shoulders, trailing
downward, between her breasts?
Not that he planned to find out.
He would be far too busy in the next few months trying to avert a war to
chase after a stunning woman, no
matter the beauty of the prize.
No matter the force of the
But the mere speculation had
heated the room, steaming at his collar, deepening his breathing.
And making him thankful when the
meeting finally ended and he could step out into the cooling evening air
with his two compatriots.
"I don't know about Drew, Ross,
but I doubt that I'll have time to see either of you at the Huntsman
tonight. Kate and I leave early tomorrow
morning for a week at Hawkesly
As always, Jared was tugging at
the bit to return to his London townhouse and his equally impatient wife.
Hardly the usual kind of
husband who had been married four
years and had a passel of children waiting for them in the west country.
"Caro and I are attending the
theatre tonight with a pack of Swedish royalty." Drew rolled his eyes and
shrugged fondly. "My favorite kind of
outing, as you well know."
Ross couldn't help but chuckle at
Drew's ironic situation. A man who had detested the aristocracy, willingly
married himself into a royal pantomime.
Caro was that kind of a woman.
The sort that a man would give his life for.
And the entirety of his heart.
If he ever found the proper time.
Or the proper woman.
"Gad, Drew!" Ross said, purposely
scattering the images with a clap of his hand against Drew's shoulder. "For
an ex-princess, your wife is
still in tremendous demand by the
crowned heads of Europe."
"Like bees to honey." Drew shook
his head and hoisting his satchel over his shoulder. "Bees to honey. Shall
we say breakfast in the morning at
"Thanks," Ross said, leading them
out of the courtyard of the Admiralty, beneath an arch in the white arcade.
"With any luck, I'll have something
positive to report from my dinner
Or just another useless tidbit
about the growing Crimean conflict to add to the files in the Factory.
Jared and Drew climbed into the
cab that the footman had been holding for them and the vehicle sped north on
Whitehall, away from the backed
up traffic that was moving slowly
in the other direction.
Ross had stabled his horse at the
Admiralty livery and had just turned to head in that direction when he
noticed the traffic breaking up and
Scotland Yard's three paddy
wagons emerging from the fracas.
Curiosity kept him watching from
the curb as the wagons, followed by the swarm of policemen, made a
flourishing right turn into the alleyway
across the street.
He might have turned away from
the fracas, but for a face peering out of a small, barred window in the rear
of the last enclosed wagon.
Damnation! It was her.
And though he could feel the
winds of change rise up and surge against him, deeply aware of the shift in
the turning of the earth, Ross tossed
aside his good sense and strode
across the street toward an unknown fate.
He had regretted few decisions in
Crossing Whitehall might just
turn out to be one of them.