Outrageously Yours - Book #2 in Her Majesty's Secret Servants Series
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Signet (December 7, 2010)
The Sutherland sisters lead ordinary lives-- until their childhood friend, now Queen of England , seeks their assistance in matters requiring the utmost discretion. Then they must become.
Her Majesty's Secret Servants
A rare stone gifted to Queen Victoria by her secret suitor, Albert of Saxe-Coburg, has been stolen, and possibly delivered into the hands of the Marquess of Harrow - a man whispered to be slightly mad. Her Majesty asks scholarly Ivy Sutherland to assume the role of science student "Ned Ivers," win the marquess's trust, and recover the stone before news of the theft ruins the royal courtship.
Since the death of his young wife, Simon de Burgh, Marquess of Harrow has dedicated himself to science. Finding an assistant whose intellect and passion match his own proves an unexpected boon, until he discovers that "Ned" is actually a woman. Simon is incensed.then intrigued. Unable to resist his growing desire for Ivy, which she undeniably returns, Simon knows he must end her charade before it leads to scandal. Instead, Ivy convinces Simon to work together to recover the stone...and unwittingly plunges them both into a more dangerous game. Now they're risking their lives...and their hearts... in a race to stop a sinister murderer before he kills again.
London , 1838
Ivy Sutherland slapped the morning edition of the Times onto the counter in front of her. Her shocked gaze darted over the books lining the walls of her family's tiny shop. Had she read correctly? She snatched up the paper again and reread the headline:
PRICELESS JEWEL STOLEN FROM BUCKINGHAM PALACE
Her eyes skimmed over such phrases as "without a trace," "no clues," and "queen distraught."
The rap of knuckles against the shop door made her flinch. She had locked up not ten minutes ago, shortly after her two sisters, who helped her run the Knightsbridge Readers' Emporium, left for the opening of a new play across town. Ivy hesitated. Ever since her eldest sister, Laurel, had returned from Bath last spring, there had been changes in the Sutherlands' lives. Laurel 's new husband, the Earl of Barensforth, saw to it that his three sisters-in-law enjoyed heretofore unattainable luxuries like plays and new frocks and more books than Ivy could ever hope to read.
There had been other changes, too . . . such as a pair of servants, the Eddelsons, who lived in the third-floor garret. With his previously broken nose and tree trunk of a neck, Mr . Eddelson seemed, in Ivy's estimate, more suitable for prowling London 's back alleys than carrying in deliveries and driving the sisters about town in their shiny new phaeton.
Then there was that morning not long ago when Ivy had spied Mrs. Eddelson sharpening the kitchen knives in their tiny rear garden. As Ivy had watched, the woman had cast a circumspect glance over her shoulder before grinning and sending the meat cleaver sailing end over end to sink some two inches into the trunk of the stunted birch tree growing in the corner.
It hadn't taken Ivy long to conclude that their brother-in-law's precautionary measures stemmed from more than mere prudence. Something had happened during Laurel 's adventures in Bath to warrant stringent safety measures . . . such as never opening the door to strangers at night.
Another knock resounded, louder and more insistent than the first. Slipping off her stool, Ivy went to the window and peeked through the gap in the curtains. A coach-and-four of the finest quality stood at the curbside. No identifiable crest adorned its sleek panels. The plain livery of the three attending footmen gave no clue as to the individual they served.
No clue, that was, to anyone but the Sutherland sisters, who had seen this coach before. Recognition rushed through Ivy; with a gasp, she hurried to the door and turned the key.
A figure draped from head to toe in black wool stepped over the threshold. "Quickly, shut the door!"
Once Ivy had complied, a pair of softly plump hands flipped back the cloak's hood and then reached for Ivy's own hands. "Something dreadful has happened."
"I know." Ivy pointed to the newspaper angled across the countertop. "I just read about it."
"Yes, well, there is more to the story than the papers, or anyone for that matter, knows. Please, Ivy, I need your help. May I count on you?"
Ivy gazed down into the solemn eyes and sweet features of England 's nineteen-year-old queen and smiled. "I am your servant, Your Majesty. Now, please, dearest, come up to the parlor and tell me everything."
The hired caleche jostled laboriously along the weather-pitted highway north of Cambridge . Inside, the single passenger, dusty, hungry, and exhausted from the three-day journey from London , entertained grave doubts about the rash decision that had brought her here.
Lady Gwendolyn de Burgh had done a very, very bad thing, and now she didn't know how to set about making it right. Borrowing the queen's mysterious stone hadn't seemed so terrible when the idea had first occurred to her. It was really nothing but a rock, after all, not shiny and faceted and richly hued, but a jagged, granitelike hunk speckled with bits of silver. Other than the odd, tingling energy that emanated from its surface, there was hardly anything remarkable to be said for Her Majesty's stone.
Except that it had been a gift from that German gentleman, the one the queen strictly forbade her ladies-in-waiting from discussing outside the private royal chambers. That man, Albert, believed the stone held special properties-electromagnetism, the queen had said-which was what had prompted Gwendolyn to steal . . . borrow . . . the stone in the first place.
Gwendolyn's gaze fell to the ornate box on her lap. Even through the carved wood with its inlaid design of jade and ivory, she thought she perceived a faint vibration beneath her fingertips. Or did the sensation originate from her jangling nerves? She couldn't refrain from noting that the dimensions of this particular box could neatly accommodate a human head- her head. A century or two ago, that very well might have been the unhappy outcome for anyone foolish enough to steal . . . borrow . . . from his or her monarch without permission.
Oh dear .
In the distance, beyond the flat, boggy fens streaming past the carriage window, a lingering splash of sunlight turned Cambridge University 's loftiest towers to amber. As the vehicle rambled farther away from the city, a box hedge sprang up along the roadside, replaced all too soon by familiar high stone walls topped by a wrought iron railing with lethal-looking spikes.
Gwendolyn was almost home. With a rap on the coach ceiling, she called out, "Stop here."
Here was the base of the curving drive that snaked through a heavy growth of oak and pine planted nearly a hundred years ago by the first Marquess of Harrow. That the iron gates stood open did not make the shadowed entrance of Harrowood any more welcoming. Clinging to the safety of the open road, Gwendolyn hesitated in ordering the coachman to turn in. Would the present marquess, her brother, welcome her back after all these months?
A chill of doubt crept across her shoulders as the last of the sunlight seeped away, plunging the road into sudden darkness. The box on her lap seemed to give off a cautionary tremor.
Above the trees, a fiery burst of light illuminated the house's sloping rooftops. Gwendolyn gasped. From Harrowood's central turret, an angry conflagration of sparks shot upward. The caleche jolted as the pair of grays whickered and tugged at their traces. In the stillness that followed, a crack like thunder echoed down the drive, rousting a flock of blackbirds from their nests to scatter in a panicked flurry across the twilit sky.
Both sights fueled Gwendolyn's growing misgivings. The sparks served to remind her of her brother's rage and the blistering words they'd exchanged the last time they had seen each other. Like those scattering birds, her courage flitted away.
"Ma'am?" The coachman's voice rose an octave and caught.
This was a mistake, Gwendolyn concluded, a foolish, dreadful, ill-advised mistake. She should not have come here alone. How silly of her not to seek help from someone who was capable of talking sense into that brother of hers. A new idea occurred to her, one that, with luck, just might work.
"Drive on," she cried as another flash lit the night sky.
Simon de Burgh, Marquess of Harrow, cursed the cinders that showered back down into his laboratory through the turret's open skylight. With an exasperated sigh, he seized the woolen blanket from the table behind him and smothered the tiny flames dancing amid his equipment. Then he stamped out each glowing ember to prevent the oaken floor from catching fire.
Only when he was satisfied that flames no longer threatened his ancestral home did he pause to survey the damage to himself. His singed cuffs indicated the ruination of yet another shirt. His palm and fingertips stung, and the muscles across his shoulders and down his back quivered as if he'd just carried a sack of bricks a mile uphill. At least this time he smelled no burning hair, though his ears would ring for the next day or two, undoubtedly.
Taking up the blanket again, he waved it up and down to clear the smoke from the circular room set high above Harrowood's sprawling wings. Damn and double damn. He had been so certain that this time his calculations had been correct, that the current flowing from his electrical generator was at the proper level. He'd believed he had made all the necessary adjustments to the negative and positive charges. He had recalibrated the force of the steam passing through the conducting coils, and positioned the electromagnets with meticulous care.
But flipping the lever and releasing the energy accumulated in the steam duct had brought only flames, sparks, and dashed expectations. Cursing again, he crossed the room to the brandy he kept on the bookcase beside the south window. The wide stone sill offered a convenient perch. He loosened his neckcloth, propped up a booted foot, sipped the burning liquid, and considered.
Perhaps it was time he admitted defeat. Perhaps, as people continually said behind his back and occasionally to his face, he had been tilting at windmills in this laboratory of his.
But as the pungent spirits spread warmth through his veins and eased his smarting fingertips, the old tenacity surged back. Simon was far from ready to surrender, and he couldn't deny a certain fondness for windmills, with their wide-open arms and their ability to harness one of nature's greatest powers and tame it for practical use.
That was all he wished, really, to tame a natural force and put it to good use. But perhaps he couldn't do it alone.
Alone. How he had come to hate that word and the way it had redefined his life. How he detested the sidelong glances of his acquaintances, their gentle queries into his welfare, and, worst of all, the pitying whispers they thought he couldn't hear. How he dreaded waking to the deafening roar of those midnight silences that could not be filled because . . .
Because he was alone , and there was no longer anyone to talk to or reach for or hold.
With another generous draft, he banished those and other pointless broodings. Life was what it was. His gaze drifted out the open window. From this vantage point, he could see across the open fenland to the twinkling cluster of lights that was Cambridge . Something closer caught his attention. Was that a coach speeding away down the road? Had someone passed his gates as the flames and sparks shot up, or had the passerby simply remembered that the Mad Marquess lived here, and urged his team to a gallop?
It didn't matter; it was no concern of his. No, Simon knew what he needed to attain his goal. But he also knew that what he needed would not come easily, if indeed it came at all.
Ivy poured tea, added cream and the heaping teaspoons of sugar Queen Victoria favored, and passed the cup and saucer into her royal guest's hands. "Drink this, dear. It will help calm you."
Victoria obeyed with a small sip. "You don't understand," she said with a shake of her head. "I cannot be calm until the stone is back safe with me. Oh, I'll be a laughingstock, and Albert will never wish to speak to me again. . . ."
Wondering about the identity of this Albert, Ivy held up a hand. "Please slow down and tell me why this stone is so special. You say it is not a priceless gem as reported in the newspapers?"
"Indeed it is not, at least not in the typical sense. But I dared not let the real truth be known. You see . . ." Victoria 's bosom rose on a sigh. "It is infinitely more precious than a jewel. It was a gift from . . ."
"Yes?" Ivy gave Victoria 's shoulder a reassuring pat. "You may speak freely. You know my sisters and I would die before we betrayed your confidence."
A fleeting smile of gratitude softened Victoria 's expression. "The gift came from Albert, my Saxe-Coburg cousin. He is a dabbler in the sciences, you see, and this stone . . . it is believed to have fallen from the sky . . . a meteorite. And, oh, Ivy, it is extraordinary indeed."
"There is a certain energy about it." The queen's voice dropped as if someone might overhear. "A kind of warm field that at once pushes some objects away from it and draws others to it."
"It is magnetic," Ivy ventured.
"Oh, more than that. It is electro magnetic, and Albert believes it might even be a key to providing scientists with the means of generating . . . someday . . . useful and efficient electricity."
A ripple of excitement traveled Ivy's length. "To replace fire and steam in the powering of our industries, yes?"
Victoria gave a little shrug. "To be quite honest, I'm not certain what all this hocus-pocus is about." With a faint frown, she raised her cup for another sip.
Then her features crumpled in dismay. "Oh, but what does it matter? Albert entrusted this stone to me as a symbol of our commitment to each other." In a whisper she said, "Ivy, he has asked me to marry him."
In a burst of elation, Ivy threw an arm around her younger friend, careful not to upset her tea. "That is wonderful news. My dearest, I am so happy for you. When will the joyous occasion take place?"
She didn't ask if she would be invited, for she knew the answer to that. The Sutherland sisters had stopped being suitable companions for the then princess Victoria some seven years ago, when she had become heir apparent to the throne. Soon after, they had lost touch with her, only to reestablish ties-secret ones-last spring when Victoria had appealed to them for help in a matter requiring the utmost discretion.
"I don't yet know," Victoria replied to Ivy's question. "These things must be handled through the proper channels. But once we are married and Albert is here in England , he intends to put the stone in the hands of the right man, a scientist of singular brilliance. But now I have lost it and . . . oh, Ivy! Albert will be so angry with me! And so will my dear Lord Melbourne."
"Your prime minister?"
"Indeed, yes." Placing her cup and saucer on the sofa table, Victoria leaped up from the settee and began pacing the small area of faded carpet in front of the fireplace. Ivy noted that her petite figure had grown plumper in the months since her coronation, her youthful features more careworn. Or was the latter due to her present predicament?
"I don't understand why Lord Melbourne should care one way or another about such a private matter," Ivy said.
Victoria came to an abrupt halt, her eyes as round as an owl's. "That is exactly the point."
When Ivy stared back blankly, the queen continued impatiently, "My dealings with Albert should never have been a private matter. I am a monarch, and for me there can be no affairs of the heart, not in the truest sense. Such matters must be conducted through proper diplomatic procedures, but Albert and I have been skirting those procedures on the sly. Nothing has been officially approved, not yet. Should anyone find out that I have already pledged my hand . . . why, think of the scandal!"
Ivy could indeed imagine the tittle-tattle certain to fill England 's drawing rooms should it become known that the queen had behaved in a manner deemed inappropriate. "It isn't fair. Your uncles-"
"Were men. It is one thing for a king to carry on with his mistresses, but let a queen set her big toe beyond the dictates of proper decorum, and oh!" She made a noise and tossed her hands in the air to simulate an explosion. "Royal or no, I am foremost a woman in the eyes of my subjects, and an impropriety like this . . ."
"I understand." Ivy pushed to her feet and went to stand before her queen. "What can I do?"
"Find the stone, Ivy. I don't know how soon Albert might visit again, but I must have the stone back before he discovers the theft. What if he should speak of the stone in his letters? What will I do then?" Her eyes widened with alarm. "I couldn't possibly lie to him."
"Good heavens, no." Ivy clasped her hands together and considered. "Do you have any idea who might have taken the stone?"
"Indeed I do. One of my ladies-in-waiting, Gwendolyn de Burgh."
"Are you certain?"
"Yesterday morning the stone was gone, and so was Lady Gwendolyn-quite without my permission. Why, she'd been asking so many questions, I should have realized her interest in the stone was more than cursory. But I trusted her as I trust all my ladies, or most of them. Never could I have imagined such treachery from within my own private chambers."
Ivy's heart fluttered. If only Laurel and Aidan were home. If anyone could recover the queen's stolen property, they could. Last spring, Victoria had sent Laurel to Bath disguised as a widow in order to spy on George Fitzclarence, a royal cousin whom Victoria had suspected of treason. Together, Laurel and Aidan had followed a dizzying maze of clues to solve a murder, stop a financial fraud, and put a very nasty individual behind bars where he belonged.
But Laurel and Aidan were away in France on some mysterious business neither seemed inclined to discuss.
"If only Laurel were due back soon . . ."
"No, Ivy, it is you I need."
"But I'm not the adventurous one. Everything I know I've learned in books-"
"Precisely. I need someone bookish, someone who would fit in with scholars and men of science. I am all but certain Lady Gwendolyn has headed to her home outside of Cambridge . Her brother disowned her some months back, and I believe she intends giving him the stone as a peace offering. You see, he's something of an amateur scientist, if a rather mad one, and the stone would be of particular interest to him."
At mention of Cambridge , home of one of Europe 's most prestigious institutions of higher learning, all of Ivy's senses came alive with interest. What she wouldn't give to be allowed to attend lectures in those celebrated halls. The word scientist , too, had seized her attention. But she hadn't at all liked Victoria 's one quick reference to the disposition of the man in question.
After a brief hesitation, Victoria admitted, "Some call him the Mad Marquess of Harrow, but I'm sure it is merely collegiate fraternity nonsense. He maintains close ties with the university. That is where you will find him, Ivy, and perhaps the stone as well."
"I see." Ivy tapped her foot nervously on the carpet. "Then I am to appeal to him for the return of the stone."
"Goodness, no!" Alarm pinched Victoria 's features. "He may not be mad, but neither is he known for being a reasonable man. He disowned his sister, didn't he?"
"Then . . . ?"
"You must earn his trust. It so happens he is presently searching for an assistant for his experiments. If you could win the position, you would gain access to his private laboratory, and you could steal back what is rightfully mine."
The outrageous proposal sent a chuckle bubbling in Ivy's throat, one quickly coughed away when Her Majesty's expression failed to convey even the faintest trace of humor.
This, apparently, was no jest but a true call to Her Majesty's service, one that left Ivy more than a little perplexed. "How on earth shall I, a woman, track down a man in an academic setting? I wouldn't gain admittance through the front gates, much less the lecture halls."
Victoria smacked her lips together. "I have a plan for that, though admittedly a shocking one. More shocking, even, than when I asked Laurel to pose as a widow last spring and work her charms on my inebriate, adulterous cousin."
More shocking than that ? Ivy dreaded to ask, but ask she did. And the answer she received stunned her more than anything she had ever heard before in all her twenty-two years on this earth.
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