Author's Note: I've been a fan of Regency novels since I discovered Georgette Heyer back in high school. And when I became a fan of B7, it was immediately apparent that Avon was the science fiction equivalent of the arrogant, aristocratic, Dark and Dangerous hero of my favorite Regencies. So I started fooling around with the concept of putting Avon into a Regency setting…then I started fooling around with the idea of putting a number of the B7 characters into the Regency setting, with the result below. The Regency didn't get beyond chapter one, but Regencies, like many romances (professional and fanfictional) have a sort of 'set piece' quality to them and the discerning reader can probably figure out what's supposed to happen next…

 

 

An Infamous Arrangement

Chapter the Only

by Pat Nussman

 

 With mid-summer, London had become a hothouse, so sultry that some household minion—less cautious than the rest—had ventured to throw open a window in Sir Roger Blaine's spacious library, allowing a dusty breeze to ruffle the papers held in sullen captivity on the broad mahogany desk.

The curls of the lady standing by the window were similarly disarrayed, but she seemed to notice that no more than she did the children playing in the fenced square opposite or the occasional clatter of a carriage passing in front of Sir Roger’s handsomely-appointed town house.

Such a sight should have possessed every power to capture her attention, for the Lady Catherine Emilia Lawrence had only very recently returned from a lengthy sojourn on the Peninsula, where the only children were half-starved native waifs and wheeled conveyances were more likely to carry artillery or hideously wounded soldiers than the exquisitely-dressed fashionables that London’s elegant vehicles boasted. But her host’s discourse had exerted such a powerful effect upon her mind that she could only stare blindly into the street below, her thoughts almost totally. disordered.

This in itself was an uncomfortably novel experience for Lady Cathia. Newly emerged from widow’s weeds, her assured manner proclaimed her to be a lady who, though barely embarked upon her twenty-third year, had held a matron’s status for several years. Since her union, Cathia had been used to directing her life very much as she pleased, having learned very early in her married life that Captain the Honorable Peregrine Lawrence—whatever his martial talents—had less than no notion of the management of an establishment engaged in following the drum. This, combined with a total lack of interest in learning that delicate art, had left his young bride very much one her own.

Nor had Captain Lawrence possessed any particular talent for holding household. The improvident younger son she had so precipitately wed had contrived to further reduce their precarious fortunes by his inveterate gaming with fellow officers, a habit only put to a period by his gallant—and extremely opportune—demise during the glorious action at Cuidad Rodrigo. His death had rescued his small establishment from utter ruin, but it had not prevented his widow from being plunged into a state of extremely ungenteel poverty.

A poverty Sir Roger Blaine had offered to rescue her from. Upon terms.

"You would not be the first woman who had entered into a marriage of convenience," that worthy pointed out, breaking the lengthening silence.

"True." Lady Cathia threw him a fulminating glance. "But I am the strangest creature. For I expect any marriage I might contract to be a matter of my own convenience rather than yours.

Sir Roger smiled, pulling out a chair. "Come, Lady Cathia, let us sit down and discuss this like reasonable creatures."

Deserting her post by the window, Cathia accepted the chair, regarding him wryly as she rearranged her narrow skirt. "I fear I must be very odd, indeed, sir. For I had imagined you to be the unreasonable party and not me.

"Very strange," he concurred. He pulled another chair from the railing, setting it opposite her. She looked around her, seizing the opportunity to put her agitated spirits into some semblance of order. She noted that Sir Roger’s library, though comfortable, could only be characterized as gloomy, being paneled in a dark, unpainted oak and furnished in the uncomfortable, heavily-carved style common during the century past. Without being precisely outdated, the room nonetheless appeared a trifle stolid, reflecting its owner, who—despite the noble efforts of tailor and hairdresser—retained the appearance of a benevolent country squire, his square build and slight Welsh burr betraying his origins.

"It is a trifle dreary," agreed that gentleman, apparently following the workings of her mind without difficulty. His paternal, placidly knowing manner began to grate on Cathia’s nerves in to no small extent. "But it does well enough."

"And your decor is unimportant," suggested Cathia with exquisite politeness, "when placed next to the welfare of your country."

"True." He leaned back, cradling his chin on one large hand. "Does that bother you?"

"Not in the slightest," she replied with the utmost amiability. "Your sentiments do you credit. But promoting the public welfare through means of blackmail does appear to me a trifle.. irregular."

"Sometimes public spirit needs a bit of prodding." His placid manner remained perfectly undisturbed.

"I daresay," she agreed icily. "But forcing me into a marriage with a perfect stranger—and a French agent at that—seems to me to go beyond the line for even the most ardent of patriots. Would you not agree, Sir Roger?"

"Well, he not be a French agent," temporized that gentleman.

"May not be—" She rose from her chair and paced the length of the room, her gloved hands clenching and unclenching. No great beauty, the Lady Cathia Lawrence, possessing as she did a countenance a shade too long for the classic mold and features too decided for delicate grace. But each passing emotion animated her expression to a degree that often deceived the

chance observer into believing Cathia lovely indeed. As anger did now.

"He is only suspected to be a French agent," Sir Roger added helpfully. "Only suspected!" exclaimed Cathia. "Well, naturally that makes all the difference.

"I had hoped it might," Sir Roger replied mildly.

"Indeed." Lady Cathia’s expression was anything but encouraging.

Sir Roger’s pleasant, homely features relaxed into a grin. "Let us speak frankly, ma ‘am."

"By all means." A gleam of amusement returned to her eyes. "You know how much I dislike the excessive delicacy you have shown in this matter. You are most truly the gentleman, but your diffidence has carried you to unbecoming extremes."

"Just so," he said gravely. "Now, Lady Cathia, let us examine your situation. It is frankly a most uncomfortable one."

Uncomfortable. She laughed shortly. "Yes, you might well call it that." But then at no time during her existence had her position been precisely... comfortable. The Marquis of Deren’ s daughter might well have expected respect, affection, an honorable position in life at the least. But it had proved otherwise. The Marquis’ title was indeed ancient, but his estate was heavily encumbered, leaving that dissolute nobleman with only on unentailed possession: his daughter.

Cathia’s lips thinned. She had not yet emerged from the schoolroom when her sire decided to cash in on this most disposable of his assets, contracting her with unbecoming haste and minimal ceremony to Justin Robert St. Claire, the Seventh Earl of Ware—in return for settlements that doubtless recompensed him amply for so eminently dispensable a commodity as his only daughter.

As for the reason why so notable—not to say notorious—a peer as Ware wished to marry a schoolroom chit of only passable beauty and unsavory parentage Cathia had no knowledge and even less interest. Nothing could have persuaded her to wed the Black Earl. The reputation that had earned him the dark sobriquet should alone have precluded such a match. But not for her father, whose attention was focused more on the gold in the Earl’s pocket than the ruthlessness the Marquis’ daughter perceived in that darkly handsome countenance.

And, in the end, she had indeed not married the Earl. That was some comfort to her now, that while she had ruined herself with her elopement, she had also cheated Ware. More than that, humiliated Ware, wounding that cold, arrogant pride which was the sole inhabitant of the Earl’s heart. She knew he would neither forget—nor forgive—that humiliation.

Nor did her family forgive her for her precipitous flight with young Lawrence. Not that she had expected forgiveness. From the moment she had set foot in Peregrine’s carriage, special license in hand, she had known herself disowned as an ungrateful daughter, a fallen woman. At the time, the price had seemed cheap for her escape from the Earl. Now, she had realized she had only just begun the payment.

But now was not time for regret. Nor did she. No matter what came after, she had freed herself from Ware. Cathia lifted her chin. "You might well call my situation uncomfortable, Sir Roger, but I would by no means term it impossible. Are officers' widows not due a pension?"

"A pittance, my dear. Not fit to support a lady of quality. And I fear," he met her gaze blandly, "that your case is being delayed in the Horse Guards. Some bureaucratic tangle, no doubt."

"No doubt," she replied colorlessly.

"And I collect your need for funds is.. .pressing."

"I take your meaning, Sir Roger. There is no necessity for you to belabor the point." She took another agitated turn around the room. "It appears I have no choice." A familiar enough situation, but she had altered such a circumstance before and, given time, might well do so again. But as for now... He was quite correct. She was desperate for funds and could hardly maintain herself for even a week longer. "I appear to be quite in your power.

"You must believe I regret the necessity for such methods." If so, he hid signs of such regret admirably.

Cathia replied in kind. "Of course." She reseated herself opposite Sir Roger. She would need all her wits about her now. And all the facts. "But you haven’t told me all, Sir Roger. Why

should my prospective bridegroom consent to such a scheme? There seems little enough motivation for him to place an informer in his own household."

"The situation is a trifle complicated," Sir Roger admitted with a touch of reluctance.

"Now why does that not surprise me?" She would have continued, but any further remark was cut short by the entrance of Jackson, Sir Roger’s butler, an individual of gigantic proportions who would have appeared to more advantage on a field of pugilistic endeavor than in a gentleman’s household. She watched with considerable trepidation as the giant set down the tea tray on an inadequate table all to close to her delicate dove gray skirt, a nerve-rattling clatter of china and silver plate marking its all-too-precipitate arrival. Like the rest of her surroundings, the tea set appeared to be two full decades out of date.

"Shall I pour out, Sir Roger?" Without awaiting an answer, she snatched the heavily-chased silver pot from the butler’s uncertain grasp. She noted from the muddy constitution of the liquid issuing from the spout that Sir Roger’s mind was as far above the quality of his refreshment as it was his decor. At least he was—somewhat—predictable. Perhaps.

Jackson having made his ponderous way from the room, Cathia handed her companion his cup, resuming her former discourse. "And what precisely is the complex situation of which you speak, Sir Roger?"

He eyed the tea warily and cast a rueful glance at the tray, obviously wanting milk and sugar, but not quite daring to go so far as to request that service. $he watched with satisfaction as he sipped distastefully at the unsweetened liquid, helping herself generously to both items, as well as to some rather desiccated biscuits she had discovered half-hidden on one corner of the tray. "Sir Roger?" she prompted.

"Well." He placed the cup gingerly to one side. Obviously, his mind was not entirely above foodstuffs. "He.. .your ‘husband,’ that is, may want to sell you to the highest bidder. So naturally you would be financially useful to him and he would be delighted to have you in his household. For whatever period of time the transaction would take."

"He may want to sell me." Cathia chewed thoughtfully at the biscuit. She was almost tempted to believe Sir Roger to be quite mad. Of course, she had suspected that from the first. "He is Turkish, then? Of perhaps a supplier of harems?"

"Nothing so exotic, I’m afraid." Sitting back in his heavily-carved chair, he regarded her thoughtfully. "He is perhaps more interested in your knowledge than you beauty. Your exploits on the Peninsula have not gone unnoted, you see."

"What?" Cathia sat bolt upright, abandoning the half-eaten biscuit.

"Some see you as quite the heroine. Others," Sir Roger shrugged, "perhaps a little less charitably. But you are regarded in all quarters as a lady of considerable interest—and a source of interesting information." He tilted his head, regarding her with candid interest. "Come, Lady Cathia, surely you didn’t believe a gentlewoman who spends a year with the Spanish guerrillas would escape the attention of polite society, did you?"

"I had hoped it would remain secret," she said woodenly.

"Hardly possible. Your friends in the army are too numerous—and too prone to gossip—for such an exploit to remain long a secret. The talk spread through London like wildfire for months and your return will only serve to intensify the tattle. You have quite eclipsed Lady Hester Stanhope’s notoriety, my dear."

Cathia set her cup aside, any thirst quite forgotten. "I cannot tell you, Sir Roger, how obliged I am to you for the delicacy you have shown in imparting this interesting information." For he must know, as well as she, what such talk would mean. But then, she supposed it hardly mattered, for how could one be doubly ruined? She had not intended to take a part in society which was just as well, for this had quite obliterated any lingering possibility that she could ever do so. She was now pariah, indeed. Maddeningly, Sir Roger smiled. "I quite understand your feelings, Lady Cathia. But from my standpoint the situation you find yourself in could hardly be bettered."

She regarded him speechlessly.

"Come, come, Lady Cathia. I know you are not slow of wit. Consider the advantages. The whole of fashionable society believes you to be in possession of quite considerable intelligence on the movements and future plans of the Spanish guerrillas, most particularly Mina."

A supposition that was no less than the truth. But best to keep that to herself.

Sir Roger rose to pace restlessly twist fireplace and open window, his homely countenance alternately illuminated and hidden by shadow. He appeared grimmer than she had thus far seen him. "The guerrilla movement is the key to holding Napoleon’s troops susceptible to Wellington’s attack. Of that you are most certainly aware. They have cut the avenues for French supplies and communications across the Pyrenees, keeping Napoleon’s army hungry, isolated.. .and extremely vulnerable."

"I begin to follow your reasoning, Sir Roger." Not particularly to like it, but most certainly to perceive it.

"I had hoped you would." He ceased his perambulations, facing her once more, his large hands gripping the carved back of his chair. "Wellington is a brilliant general, more brilliant than most in the present government are prepared to appreciate. But without the guerrillas, particularly Mina, our army stands little chance of holding the Peninsula against the French. A fact that has most certainly not escaped Napoleon." For the first time, Cathia perceived the lines of care webbing the man’s face, spreading out from eyes and mouth. "As it is, the intelligence that continually reaches the French concerning Wellington's plans is proving a grave impediment to the war effort."

"And you believe my future ‘husband’ to be responsible. And hope to use my knowledge to entrap him."

He nodded, almost reluctantly. "I hope he is not the culprit, however. The gentleman in question, you see, is our agent. Or was. In the time since Napoleon seized power he has engaged himself in making his company exceedingly agreeable to our community of French émigrés."

A crease appeared between Cathia’s brows. "But the émigrés fled the Revolution."

"True. But then Napoleon is hardly the most fervid of revolutionaries, and we suspect he may be promising some of the émigrés a position amongst his new nobility. Whatever the reason, the leaks from that quarter are increasingly serious. And where once the leaks were of false information supplied by our agent, now the intelligence is genuine.. .and exceedingly valuable to the French."

"And you suspect your agent?"

"Perhaps. And he himself refuses to discuss the matter." Blaine’ s hands played restlessly over the carving. "That he is uncommunicative is hardly unusual, but under the circumstances, extremely daunting. He has access to the intelligence—and the channels to readily transmit it to the French." He shrugged wearily. "He is forever telling me that I’m a fool to trust in him. He could just be right."

Cathia regarded him quietly, her mind awhirl. Reluctantly she had begun to feel some sympathy with Sir Roger, some interest in his plans. As no doubt had been his intention. But still... "Perhaps, Sir Roger, you had best tell me the details of your scheme."

"Perhaps I should." He reseated himself, regarding her intently. "You have heard, no doubt, of the Marchioness of Servais?"

Cathia drew in a sharp breath. "Yes." As who had not? Her scandalous marriages and even more shocking affairs were the on dit of polite society, the gossip of her crim. cons. even penetrating the cloistered schoolroom of Barham Manor. But, beyond even the common talk, she knew the Marchioness as Ware’s mistress, an affair they had flaunted through the opera houses and ballrooms of London in front of her husband’s indignant nose. Cathia had glimpsed her once at a ball at Barham—herself a still a schoolgirl, hanging over the railing to watch the Marchioness’ sinuous descent down the curved stairway, black hair gleaming in the candlelight and thin muslin clinging to an almost indecently voluptuous form. A good match, she had thought then, the Wicked Marchioness and the Black Earl.

"Yes, I know of her," Cathia replied coldly.

"Then you know that she is the cynosure of the émigré community. It may not be coincidental that our leak also originates there."

"Have you considered questioning her?"

"The matter is delicate. She and the Prince Regent maintain a close…friendship."

"I see." And, indeed, Cathia did perceive the difficulty, quite clearly. Judging from common report, the Regent could prove quite intransigent about any suspected harassment of his particular.. .friends. So, rather than disturb the Regent’s sensibilities, Sir Roger proposed to sacrifice a far less exalted personage. Herself.

"And I take it my future husband is also a friend of the Marchioness? What a very sociable creature she is, to be sure. I quite look forward to making her acquaintance."

Sir Roger’s gaze shifted uncomfortably. "Their, ah, connection was established solely to pass false information to the French."

"How very noble of him." Cathia smiled sweetly. "Of perhaps not, as the reports he is currently relaying to the lady appear to be dismayingly accurate."

"I hope it is not he," Sir Roger replied heavily.

"But you fear it is. And you plan to use me to discover the truth... to stake me as a Judas goat, a bait to your ruthless spy, whomever he might be."

Sir Roger raised his eyebrows. "Eloquently phrased, Lady Cathia. If perhaps a trifle…melodramatic?"

"You think so?" Cathia clenched her gloved hands together in her lap, forcing a lightness to her tone that she was far from feeling. "Perhaps it has escaped your attention, but your plan places me in considerable danger."

"Hardly more danger than you faced amongst the guerrillas." He leaned back in his chair, a measure of calm descending upon him once more, an immovable placidity Cathia mistrusted. "Lady Cathia, we have been extremely frank. Let me state the matter more baldly still. Your reputation is in shreds, your exchequer quite empty, your future doubtful at best. If you will assist me, I can mend a portion of that, at the least." His tone, unyielding as it was, still held a touch of sympathetic understanding. "As I said previously, I fear you have very little choice.

Cathia folded her lips against any useless show of emotion. He was, after all, quite correct. But there was a piece of this puzzle still missing, a detail this diplomatic master of illusion had yet to reveal. "You have been admirably frank, sir, in all areas save one." She pinned Sir Roger’s countenance beneath her gaze. "That is, the identity of the man I am to wed. On that topic you seem strangely reticent."

Sir Roger’s gaze shuttered.

Her palms felt damp, even through the barrier of fabric, and the blood pulsed through her veins with the rhythm of a drum on battle’s eve. "Why is this mystery man?" she persisted. "This suspect agent of yours?" Blaine's silence hammered hollowly at her senses. "Sir, can you not tell me who my husband is to be?"

Just then, the doorknob rattled. Jackson threw open the heavy oak door, his gigantic frame half-concealing the figure of the gentleman who lingered behind him in the passageway.

"Yes?" Sir Roger’s deep voice held a hint of strain. "Who is it?"

Jackson disappeared, swept aside so swiftly and completely he seemed to have turned suddenly transparent. In his stead stood a chimera from her past. Cathia wanted to faint. Or scream. Instead, she sat staring, her fingernails dug into the palms of her hands.

"How quickly we forget. It seems I must I must reintroduce myself." His eyes rested momentarily on Cathia’s still face. "Justin Robert St. Clair, Earl of Ware."

"Your fiancée." His smile was pure poison. "Once again."

 

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