had his cousin with him to tend to all social events.

“Any other news?” she asked as she opened the invitation.

“Besides Talleyrand being up to his old tricks? The same old frustrations—”

“My goodness!” cried Mrs. Brandon, staring at a letter in her hand.

“What? What is it, my dear? What has alarmed you?” Christopher almost shot out of his chair. He saw his wife staring at a letter.

“It cannot be! Oh, could it be true? How?”

“Marianne!” the colonel shouted. It served; he finally got her attention. Marianne waved the invitation at him.

“Do you wish to know the news? You will not believe it.”

“Believe it or not, I cannot say until I am apprised of it.”

“Christopher, Sir John Buford is to be married—to Miss Caroline Bingley!”

“Oh.” Brandon casually returned to his chair and his mail. “Does it say when?”

Marianne was astonished at her husband’s lack of reaction. “Did you not hear me? Sir John is marrying—” She gasped. “You knew! You knew and did not tell me!” This time the glare was in earnest.

Christopher smiled sheepishly. “I suspected.”

“Oh!” Mrs. Brandon tossed down her letters and sat with a cross expression on her face. After several minutes, she asked, “How long have you suspected?”

Her husband had no choice but to answer. “Buford wrote to ask my opinion on the matter in September.”

Marianne’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Two months!”

“Nearer three, I am afraid.”

“Christopher Brandon, I simply cannot believe you have kept this news secret from your wife for nearly three months!” she cried. There was a long pause. “Usually you relent after a week.” She picked up a pillow and threw it at him.

Catching her weapon, he ventured, “When is the wedding?”

Trying not to smile, Marianne picked up the invitation. “The middle of January. She marries from Bingley House in London, at St. ——.”

“Good. I would not like to travel to Nottinghamshire in winter.”

“There is more.” She indicated a small note enclosed with the invitation. “Mr. and Mrs. Bingley are giving a ball in the couple’s honor at Bingley House on New Year’s Eve.”

Her husband eyed her. “Do you wish to go?”

“I am tempted, but I cannot bear to leave Joy just now, Christopher.”

“But nothing could be easier! We shall bring Joy with us. We shall simply open our house in London early.” He reached over and took her hands in his. “You will be fully recovered from your laying-in by then, I think. A ball would do you good.”

“Oh, my dear, do you mean it? All of us—Joy’s nurse and the rest of the staff? It will take two carriages at least!”

“Two or two hundred—what is that to me when I have the opportunity to dance with you, my Marianne?”

She stroked his face with her hand. “You are too good, sir.”

“I am a poor fool saved by your love. You have given me joy—by giving me Joy. I shall spend the rest of my life proving myself worthy of you.”

As Marianne’s face beamed with affection for her husband, Christopher gathered her into his arms. There was little talking for a quarter-hour.

*   *   *


The emperor stood on the balcony of his palace surveying his domain, his arms behind his back in the classic at-ease position. After the customary hour-long bath he insisted on each morning, he was dressed in a uniform with the sash of the Legion of Honor peeking from under the coat. Of average height—he was four inches taller than the five feet two inches commonly believed—the casual observer would not think much of him unless he saw his eyes and the grim look on his face.

His wife, Marie-Louise, and son were guests—prisoners actually—of the Austrians in Parma. The Treaty of Fontainebleau had not given him much—this spit of land, a thousand soldiers, and two million francs. But it was enough—enough to start again. His lucky star would never desert him.

A servant interrupted his musings. “Your Excellency,” he announced, “dejeuner is ready.” Exactly on time—the emperor insisted on it. He had a passion for consistency and routine.

Merci,” he replied in the Italian-accented French that he had not been able to overcome in thirty-five years. He returned inside and sat alone before the first of the two meals he would consume that day, this one of well-done sauteed chicken, croissants, and heavily watered Chambertin wine.

Such was the change in his life. A year ago, he would have been involved in the morning levee, with aides, generals, and diplomats scurrying about, carrying out orders that had shaken the world. As usual, the emperor left half his meal on the plate before retiring into his office.

The Allies thought they were kind to give him this empire—one hundred thousand souls on Elba—while they placed that fool of a Bourbon onto the throne of France. A lesser man either would have accepted his fate or despaired of his condition. But he was not like lesser men. Destiny was not through with him, he knew. His preparations were almost complete.

Soon, very soon, Napoleon Bonaparte knew it would be time.

Chapter 1


It was a night for memories.

An unsettled Caroline Bingley silently sat before her looking glass in a dress of fine ivory and peach silk while her maid finished her hair, her sisters, Louisa Hurst and Jane Bingley, smiling and observing. Tonight was the New Year’s Eve ball given by her brother at Bingley House in London in honor of her upcoming marriage to Colonel Sir John Buford. She had striven all her life for such a moment, and it had finally arrived.

“Oh, Caroline!” cried Louisa. “The dress is superb! I have never seen you in better looks. Does she not look well, Jane?”

With quiet sincerity, Jane agreed. “She does, indeed. But how can she not? This is a special night for you, Sister.”

“Sir John will be pleased, I am sure.” Louisa actually giggled, to Caroline’s mortification.

The maid halted her labors. “Are you pleased with your hair, miss?” she asked nervously.

Be kind, be kind, Caroline reminded herself. “Your efforts are to be commended, Abigail.” Caroline smiled a small smile to herself. Only she would have an abigail named Abigail.

The maid sighed in relief. “Just a few more minutes, miss.”

Caroline stared into her reflection. Is this the woman Sir John sees: a dark-haired lady, elegant and refined, yet with just a touch of the bloom of youth in her cheeks? Or does he see through the disguise to behold the woman desperately escaping her roots in trade? Everything my father wanted for me—everything my mother taught me—is now in my hands. Wife to a respected, landed gentleman and knight of the realm, as well. I am happy with my choice. I am.

But why am I uneasy?

Mixed with Caroline’s joy and anxiety was a bit of weariness, for she had just undergone the most trying four and twenty months in her life.

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