Grosvenor Square, London, 1814
Lady Elsie Morrow, daughter of the Duke of Shelby and twin sister of Duncan, Baron of Argyll in Scotland, wished she stood on a craggy rock, the wind whipping all of the pins out of her hair. She could almost see the hills rolling in every direction, a low stone wall lining portions of properties and a stubborn crop striving to break through the dry earth. The sky would be blue, the clouds sparse, and everything would be just as it should be.
She murmured words from Sir Walter Scott: “‘O, might I live to see thee grace, / In Scotland’s court, thy birthright place.’”
Instead of standing on her beloved Scottish soil, her feet stood firmly planted in London. Unfortunately, time spent in London always dragged for Lady Elsie. Not just dragged, it creeped along like the snails over the rocks on her estate. But she missed the snails. The London Season she could do without. Even the small ball she’d attended one week past had been trying. She and Lady Sophie had weathered the gossip and upturned noses of some while enjoying dances and warmth from others. Who was friend and who was foe? She would never really know, and for that, she clung to her best friend, Lady Sophie, and to the women who regularly met in her home.
The meetings with the ladies in her Books for Change group were a weekly solace. Their thoughtful words, their wisdom, their very intelligence prompted her to learn more herself.
She returned from the park to prepare for such a meeting. Before she could lift a hand to the brass knocker, their family butler opened the door with a small smile. “Welcome home, Lady Elsie.” Timson took her parasol and bonnet. “You’ll find the duchess preparing for the Books for Change meeting.”
JEN GEIGLE JOHNSON
“Thank you. Has anything of note happened while I was out?” “In this house? Things of note happen all the time.”
She laughed, as she assumed he’d meant her to. “Anything of particular note?” The man refused to be her spy, no matter how often she tried to make him do so. But today he surprised her with one tidbit. “Your father has had a visitor.”
“Oh?” She turned to go to her father’s study.
“He’s come and gone, your father with him.”
“Who was it?” Her nonchalant tone and partial attention were likely not fooling good Timson.
“The Duke of Grant.”
She whipped around to face their butler fully. “I suppose you don’t know the purpose of the visit?” “I would never presume to say.”
She nodded. “Thank you.” Then she hurried up the stairs to change into an appropriate morning dress for the Books for Change meeting she and her mother were hosting.
When all their guests had gathered, Elsie sat at the side of her best friend and let the general conversation of the room sink into a happy place inside her, clearing away the past weeks’ frustrations.
Lady Locke stood at the front of the room, completing their weekly recitation.
“As wreath of snow on mountain-breast Slides from the rock that gave it rest, Poor Ellen glided from her stay, And at the Monarch’s feet she lay; No word her choking voice commands,She showed the ring,—she clasped her hands. O, not a moment could he brook, The generous Prince, that suppliant look! Gently he raised her,—and, the while, Checked with a glance the circle’s smile; Graceful, but grave, her brow he kissed, And bade her terrors be dismissed:—”
Elsie sighed with happiness as she listened to the words of Sir Walter Scott. The rhymes, the meter, the beautiful language.
Lady Sophie leaned closer. “She said prince.” She smiled but looked as though she might say more.
Elsie shook her head, watching the others. “We don’t even know if they’re coming.” Her whisper was meant for Lady Sophie’s ears only, but a few of the older women turned disapproving stares in her direction.
“But they must. If we heard tell the plans were in place, then they must.” Lady Sophie nodded as though a rumor decided things.
Lady Locke eyed them for a moment from her place up front before continuing her presentation. “I think we can do another benefit for the purchase of more books. Our library is doing surprisingly well.” Lady Locke was widowed and was the perfect group member because she had a healthy inheritance and so much time on her hands that she did twice as much as anyone else.
Elsie loved her.
Lady Sophie nodded in agreement with Lady Locke. Elsie knew her best friend was a firm supporter of a greater library. Her family, though highly ranked, had not collected any sort of library themselves, much to her frustration. “Have we considered allowing visitors to take books home from the library?”
“Oh no. We cannot trust that they will return the books in good condition. Do you know that some readers actually fold down the corners of pages? Or write in them? What if their tea were to spill across the words?” Lady Locke obviously had more to say on the matter, but she forbore.
The group collectively gasped, and Elsie laughed. Women of a mind to do good, to learn, to improve the world surrounded her. “I agree with the others, Lady Sophie. We cannot allow the books to leave, but I also support asking for donations from the users. It will help with our other endeavors and allow us to buy more books.” She placed a hand on her friend’s. “But you most certainly can borrow from our library anytime you wish.”
She nodded. “And I can spend time in the actual space like the others and read what I like?”
They all agreed.
They continued talking and planning, and the more good works that were on Elsie’s schedule, the better she felt. They would use the Season—the gathering of everyone of rank, importance, or money into one place—for good.
JEN GEIGLE JOHNSON
Elsie’s mother bade farewell to their guests, one by one, at the doorway. e women had lingered for a time and then started to trickle out. Lady Sophie came to stand at Elsie’s side. She was all smiles, and her deep, rich auburn hair curled up around her face. “at was the best one yet.”
“Do you think? The one where you stood on a chair was pretty exciting as well.”
“I couldn’t help myself. Women’s suffrage deserves such a response.” “That’s why that particular meeting will go down in history as our finest.”
Lady Sophie laughed. “Have you heard from Sir Walter Scott?” “Not yet. If he comes to London, I think he would join our meeting, don’t you?” “How could he not?” They waved to another small group of women making their way out of the drawing room.
Elsie leaned closer. “I have news.”
Lady Sophie turned to face her and reached for her hands. “Tell me.” “Father has been meeting with the Duke of Grant in the early mornings, here at first, and then they left together this morning.”
“What do you think is going on?” “I don’t know. I thought maybe the war . . .” Elsie paused, watching Lady Sophie’s growing amusement with confusion. “What?” “Only you would consider a visit from the Duke of Grant to be war related.”
“What else could it be? Don’t they both spend time with that office?” “I haven’t the slightest idea, but I will tell you what I do know. The Duke of Grant has a highly eligible son, who shows a good amount of interest in you.” Her triumphant expression made Elsie wish to talk of anything else.
“Please, Sophie. I doubt very much that I am the subject of frequent meetings between two dukes.”
Lady Sophie shrugged. “You’re just as important as any war.”
Her carriage arrived, so she kissed Elsie’s cheeks and rushed out, waving behind her as she went.
When the last woman had bid farewell and walked down their front steps, Elsie stood by her mother, with her hand still lifted in farewell to their last guest. Mother put her arm around Elsie’s waist, watching the carriage drive away.
“That was a wonderful meeting.” Elsie grinned.
“I’m so proud of you.” Her mother kissed her temple. “I love our work together with this.”
“Me too.” They stood together for a moment, Elsie enjoying the last lingering drops of the best part of her week.
A servant approached and curtsied when Mother gave her leave to speak. “Beg pardon, Your Grace, my lady. His Grace would like to see Lady Elsie in the study.”
“Oh?” Elsie looked to her mother, wondering if she knew the reason for the summons, but her mother seemed as curious as she was.
Mother patted her arm. “I’m going to do some reading in the east library this afternoon if you care to join me.”
“Yes. I have some correspondence as well.” Elsie left her mother and quickened her steps to the study.
Her curiosity grew. A summons? She’d just spent last evening with her mother and father on a rare night when they were all at home. As she went over the conversation, she could think of nothing that would have indicated a summons to the study was necessary. She reviewed her interactions with any would-be suitors and could see no evidence of any men who had shown any more interest than usual, nothing to indicate one would expect to be favorably received by her. She tried to push those thoughts aside, but a tiny part of her did wish for a good relationship with a man in her life—one she respected and admired, who did good for the world, who broadened his mind by reading, looked out for others. She sighed. Even her own brother didn’t meet all of these requirements as specifically as she would have hoped.
She knocked on her father’s door.
The study was lined with books, her father’s personal collection. She’d read quite a few but had less interest in the war tomes than some of the others.
“Elsie, come here.” He stood and held out his arms.
After a quick embrace, her father’s familiar smell of sandalwood filling the air around her, she sat in her usual chair across from his desk. He had energy about him, light in his face. Her father was about to give her some news. She sat forward.
“You may have noticed I’ve been entertaining the Duke of Grant here at early hours,” he began.
“Yes, and then leaving with him.”
He chuckled. “Of course you’ve noticed.” He studied her a moment more. “You see things most do not. You would make the perfect spy, were you a man.”
She choked. “Pardon me?”
He shook his head. “But that’s neither here nor there. You are perfect for what is needed right now.”
She waited, growing more baffled by the minute.
“We have a situation, perhaps of national importance.”
“And it’s related to the Duke of Grant?” She was growing excited. Her father trusting her with knowledge of national importance? Bringing her into the conversation? For years she’d watched her brother and father discuss matters her father had thought not for her ears. They would leave his study with determined faces and serious expressions, but when turning to her, they would soften and smile and talk of her coming Season. Yet, here, now, perhaps she was going to be a part of those serious plans. She scooted as far forward as she could.
“We find we are in need of your help.”
Her heart leapt. “I’m ready, Father. Whatever you need. I’ve been wanting something like this for years. I mean, we do good work, the ladies and I. And that’s important. Our library is growing, and our causes are well supported, but this—this is what I know I was made for.”
His soft, proud chuckle warmed her insides. “Excellent. A visitor has come to England from Oldenburg. So far, he is in the north, with the Duke of Sumter.”
She nodded. The Duke of Sumter was a decent man, by all accounts. Never made an appearance in London, but now, to have a visitor from Oldenburg? The princes! She daren’t change her expression, but she was certain Father must be talking about the eight princes.
“We aren’t certain why he has come. The timing is suspect. Sweden has just declared war on England.”
“Why would they do such a thing?”
“Pressured to do so by the ridiculous Treaty of Paris, in which they maintain peace with France but must be at odds with her enemies. They plan to trade with us as usual but in a manner that might not be so overt. But that needn’t concern you.”
“But, Father, I’m incredibly interested in this kind of talk.”
“Excellent, because I will need your best listening ears. Oldenburg is in a vital location for our naval forces, and they are close enough to Sweden that concerns have arisen as to their continued loyalty. We need someone to befriend the prince.”
“Prince?” She forced her hands to remain still, though a sudden fluttering rushed through her. Lady Sophie would be most interested in this development.
“Heir to the throne of Oldenburg,” her father confirmed. “He will be visiting London for a time, and we need to watch him. We are shorthanded. None of our agents with the kinds of social reach you have are available. We are going to host the prince, as a family, befriend him ourselves, and you will become close to him, be present wherever he goes, and report back your findings.”
Lady Sophie might die when she heard this. And half the ton were in love with at least the idea of the Oldenburg princes, but Elsie couldn’t feel as excited as perhaps she might have were she to simply be introduced to him in a more conventional manner. “My . . . findings?”
“Yes, if he does anything suspicious—has the wrong sorts of friends here, tries to reach any French nationalists. We can’t guess why he has come and have no time to decipher, as I said. We are relying on you.”
“Where do you suspect he will go?” This could be intriguing, but something didn’t sound right.
“We will offer to aid in his introduction to Society. He will be our guest at Almack’s. You can introduce him to your friends. We need you to be everywhere he is.” Her father sat back with an overly large grin. “Perhaps he will go only where we introduce him. Perhaps everything will come to nothing, but if he steps outside the expected social circles, you will know it, and I will know it.”
Her concern only grew, a potential thorn in her happiness. “You want me to attend more things this Season?” She’d always imagined spy work to be a bit more exciting than simply following her subject around at social events.
“Exactly. Your country needs you, Elsie.”
Perhaps if she wholeheartedly accepted this assignment, there might be others. And hadn’t she already decided she wished to know the prince? “I must admit I’m intrigued by this assignment.”
“I knew we could count on you. He will be here tonight to attend the Duke of Grant’s dinner with us.”
“I didn’t think we were attending.”
“We are now. Put on your prettiest dress and your best listening ears. Let’s see if we can find out why this man is visiting England at such a time.” He picked up a quill and dipped it into his ink. “Thank you, Daughter.”
She knew she was dismissed. “You’re welcome,” she said distractedly as she left her father’s study.
Oldenburg. She’d heard of the country, naturally. Now she must find out everything there was to know about such a place and its crown prince.
Peace is tenuous in the small kingdom of Oldenburg, and the looming threat of invasion from Napoleon weighs heavily on the royal family. Their best chance lies in strengthening their alliance with England. So it is that Prince Hayes Wilhelm finds himself in an unfamiliar land, where he hopes a prominent duke can help him protect his country.
Lady Elsie longs to make a difference in the world, but spying was not quite what she had in mind. So when her father, the Duke of Shelby, approaches her about keeping a close eye on the visiting crown prince of Oldenburg, she reluctantly agrees. But the outspoken young woman did not anticipate finding in Hayes a man who shares—and respects—her progressive ideas. Their mutual attraction is undeniable, but Elsie cannot forget her charge to spy on the man who is quickly stealing her heart. With the threat of war looming ever closer, Elsie and Hayes must consider carefully whom to trust—before their secrets tear them apart.
Lady Elsie longs to make a difference, but spying was not what she had in mind. So when she’s asked to keep a close eye on the visiting crown prince of Oldenburg, she agrees—reluctantly. But the outspoken young woman did not anticipate finding in the prince a man who respects her ideas—or one who could steal her heart.