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Her Ally?or Her Enemy?
With a chip on her shoulder and a pistol in her pocket, Mattie Fraser comes to London determined to find answers. What fate befell her brother after he was forced to join the British navy? Military official Kit DeChambelle knows something, she's sure. But can she trust him?or anyone? as a conspiracy of silence surrounds her?
Kit knows altogether too much?about the guilt that drives Mattie, and the peril she faces. The battle against Napoleon is over, but for Kit, peace is elusive. In helping this brave, stubborn woman, he may be endangering her further. Especially if she learns about the orders he's received, placing them on opposite sides?
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After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide an excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at cjchasebooks.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Wiltshire, England September 1815
The Honorable Christopher James Michael DeChambelle staggered to the ancient sideboard and plunked down his empty glass. Perhaps with enough whiskey in his belly, he would at last achieve blissful oblivion—and hold the nightmares at bay for a few hours.
He'd started the evening with a single shot, just a little altitude to suppress the memories—the shrieks of terror, the tang of gunpowder, the rivers of blood.
When the first had proved insufficient to the task, Kit had added a second. And then a third and perhaps a fourth...he couldn't quite remember anymore. And yet the scene still haunted him, and guilt and remorse—his two ever–present companions these past months—remained lodged in his consciousness, their attendance overwhelming even the whiskey's power to let him forget.
He wrapped his fist around the neck of the bottle and commenced to refill his glass.
Familiar footsteps tapped against the hallway's wooden–plank floor. "What are you doing here, Harrison?"
"How did you know?" Lawrence Harrison slipped around the doorway and into the dim study. "I could tell by your walk."
"A shame your sense of location isn't as proficient as your hearing. You might get more of that whiskey into your goblet."
Kit glanced at the puddle forming on the sideboard's dusty top. "I thought my choice of location rather inspired for one who wishes to be left alone. I didn't realize you would pursue me here. Now answer my question—why did you come?"
"Not because I desire to share your comforts." Harrison gestured to the hunting lodge's peeling paint and threadbare curtains. The heads of long–dead stags stared down from the walls, their moth–eaten fur since replaced by layers of soot. "Alderston has men scouring the country to find you."
"Alderston?" Kit tilted his head back and downed what whiskey had reached the glass. He hadn't seen the director of clandestine services in several months—Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo had suspended the government's need for Kit's special...talents. Or so he had thought. "The war's over. What does Alderston want?"
"You, obviously. What are you doing here?"
"Escaping my mother's lectures."
Harrison stared at him, reading him with an uncomfortable familiarity borne of their years of friendship. "I think you hide not so much from your family as from the world, from life. From God."
Kit ignored the too–astute observation and searched the sideboard for another glass. "Drink?"
"None for me." Harrison leaned closer and nudged the bottle just beyond Kit's reach. "And I think you've had your fill for the night."
Kit hurled the goblet at the cold hearth. The glass shattered and littered the floor, the pieces sparkling like stars against a dusty sky. "I came to escape my family, and it's as if my mother followed me."
"Perhaps like her, I care enough to end your unseemly indulgence in guilt."
"Spare me. Few speeches are more tedious than the sermons of a sanctimonious friend."
"And nothing so tiresome as self–pity."
"If my behavior bothers you, leave. I didn't invite you."
Harrison threaded his arm through Kit's and led him to a nearby chair. "Aren't you the least bit curious?"
"I want no more of Alderston's dangerous secrets."
"What do you want?"
Kit plopped onto the chair. A cloud of dust poofed from the upholstery as he rubbed his fingertips against his throbbing temples. "Peace."
"The war is over."
"Peace from...my past. So many times, I thought my life was over. I couldn't wait for the war to end. And now that it has, I feel lost. Purposeless."
"You can't change what lies before." Harrison pointed to the shards littering the hearth. "And whiskey will only make you a slave to its power—it won't bring the atonement you seek."
"But it does allow me to forget."
"At what cost? Your family? Your life? Your soul? Perhaps it is not forgetting you desire, but forgiveness."
Mattie Fraser wouldn't have suspected the headquarters of the formidable British Navy to hide such a tiny, briglike office. Not when the Admiralty's exterior—so grand in design and dimension—towered haughtily above the streets. The other rooms she'd visited had offered at least token obeisance to the occupants' status, but this musty cubbyhole boasted not so much as a window to let her view drenched, dreary London.
Though her damp stockings still squished inside her shoes, the frayed hem of her skirt no longer clung to her ankles. She drummed her foot against the floor as she twirled her umbrella on its point. The large puddle beneath it had almost dried, but for one stubborn spot that refused to disappear.
For two weeks, she had bounced from room to room looking for the elusive official who could answer her questions. Through the maze of government agencies, she had inquired, cajoled and pleaded—thus far, to no avail. Each stop had produced only the suggestion of another person, another location. Still, she persevered, refusing to let bureaucratic indifference halt her search.
A search that had led her...here.
After an hour or more in the cramped quarters, she recognized every crack in the plaster, every watermark on the ceiling. A clerk hunched over his desk and scrawled furiously. Unlike the others who had been only too pleased to send her posthaste to the next department, this one was strangely reluctant to dismiss her. On more than one occasion she caught the shrewd, speculative glances he cast her way, yet he guarded Mr. DeChambelle's door as if it were the portal leading to the crown jewels.
The oil lamp slumping on the clerk's desk belched more smoke than light—smoke that stung her eyes and choked her throat like the fires that had burned Washington the previous year. At least tucked away in this nook she no longer encountered the unnervingly familiar sight of English officers as they marched through the building's hallways, so like the way they stalked through her nightmares.
She hugged her coat, unaccustomed to such cold, damp days in September. Back home, the heat would have moderated to late summer warmth. Balmy breezes would stir the air and ruffle the sails of the ships on the Potomac, with only cooler nights to suggest the approaching autumn.
Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn't eaten since her last foray outdoors at noon. The remaining half of her meat pie tempted her from the depths of her pocket. Impatiently, she tapped the umbrella point against the floor. The tip found a drop of water and skittered across the tile. She tightened her grip—too late. The umbrella slid out of her hands and fell with a clatter that startled an expletive out of the clerk.
Face flaming, Mattie slid from the chair and reached down to retrieve her fallen umbrella. She charged to her feet—
And ricocheted off something solid. Something that grunted.
Two strong hands clinched her upper arms, one on either side, and arrested her backward flight. Something male.
Soap and leather tickled her senses, a pleasant but disturbing combination after a fortnight of London's foul air. She frowned and focused on the dark wool coat only inches from her nose. The fabric swept across broad shoulders and puckered slightly where the arms stretched to clasp her own.
Laura? All that time waiting, and the miserable excuse of a clerk had her name incorrect. "I am not Laura."
Silence hung in the air like the smoke, then, "No, of course not. Are you injured?" The rich tones of the baritone voice drew her attention back to the man before her.
Her gaze wandered upward to a snowy cravat, then to his strong jaw with its shadow of afternoon stubble. Full lips thinned below an aquiline nose with a scar on the side that relieved his face of perfect symmetry—transforming it from mere prettiness to rugged masculinity.
Then she looked straight into eyes of the deepest blue, like the eastern sky at sunset. Their fringe of dark lashes contrasted with tawny hair that gleamed in the lantern's glow and fell in disarray across his brow.
"Madam, are you injured?" he repeated, concern darkening those mesmerizing eyes.
Suddenly aware of the hands wrapped around her arms, she drew back. He released her—nevertheless, his grip left an invisible imprint where the warmth of his palms had seeped through her sleeves. She gathered her composure and snapped her shoulders back. "Only stiff from my long wait."
"My apologies." He scooped a pair of spectacles from the floor—a casualty of their collision?—and settled them on his face, like a veil screening his eyes. The scar along his nose likewise disappeared from her view. "May I help you?"
"I am here to see Mr. Christopher DeChambelle."
"I am DeChambelle." He sketched her an elegant bow, then gestured to the gloomy room behind him. What with the dreary skies and approaching twilight, little light penetrated the soot–clouded panes of its single window. "Won't you come in?"
Kit waited as his visitor marched past him, then he glared at Baxter, his clerk. "Why didn't you inform me I had a caller?"
"Sir, it is Mr. Alderston's wish that he speak to you as soon as possible."
Kit gestured to the five empty chairs. "And yet, he is not here."
"We did not expect you to arrive so precipitously."
"Harrison said Alderston needed to see me about an urgent matter, so I came at once."
"The director has searched London these many days for you. This morning he left for Somerset."
Somerset. The DeChambelle estate. No doubt Alderston's questions into Kit's whereabouts would g...
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