England, October 1793, outside of London
The sun shone brightly on the rolling green English hills and verdant forests as they lay basking in the warmth of an early autumn afternoon. The countryside was peaceful this October day, its waving meadows of tall grass and sparkling small streams contributing to the tranquil setting. A visitor beholding this calm scene would be hard pressed to believe that not far away lay the great city of London, with its noise, crowds and squalor; here, all was blanketed in the beautiful serenity of nature.
Through this picturesque scene wound a country road, deserted on this mild day save for one lone rider, who barely cast a glance at the verdant landscape as he trotted down the lane. The dull thudding of his great black horse's hooves against the hard dirt was the only sound to stir the warm country air, but the man's distracted expression indicated that his thoughts were far from the peaceful countryside surrounding him.
He sat the horse with expert ease, his finely-cut black clothes and gleaming leather tack indicating a person of wealth and society. His square, handsome face was slightly lined with age, but still bore the attractiveness and vigor of youth. His blonde hair was smoothly pulled back and fastened into a long queue which hung down past the high collar of his plain but fashionable riding coat.
Closer observation, however, would reveal a hardened look to his sharp green eyes, a dark shadow lurking just behind their gaze which cast a shadow over his entire countenance. There was suffering in those depths, an old pain which had been quickly inflicted and had only just begun to heal.
The rider followed the road up a slight rise, and as he topped the hill, a magnificent view appeared before him. He was at the edge of the forests now; the rolling hills now lay clear and glowing in the afternoon sunshine. The rider reined in his horse and paused for a moment, considering the sight which now met his eyes as a small, wistful smile spread across his face.
In the near distance, nestled among the green hills and gleaming like a pearl in an emerald sea, lay an enormous estate, its massive mansion and lushly landscaped lawn giving clear indication of the status of those who lived there. The house itself was enormous, gracefully designed and superbly built of light stone. Its tall polished windows flashed in the sunlight, its huge double front doors and sweeping front staircase seemingly inviting all who passed to enter and admire what lay inside.
To one side sat a large and perfectly tended rose garden, with roses of all colors twining and twisting over the whitewashed trellises and bursting from the bushes. Even from this distance, the rider could detect their fragrance lingering in the autumn air. Behind the mansion lay more well-tended lawns and the edge of the next forest, as if the house was merely a pause of civilization before nature reclaimed the land.
It was a beautiful sight, and the traveler sat admiring it for several moments before continuing, his smile never fading. Finally he spurred his horse forward, and they both trotted down the road, at length turning up the long path which led to the mansion's front door. He galloped through a tall iron gate set into the high stone wall which surrounded the estate; into the wall by the entrance was set a rectangular brass plaque, polished to blinding brilliance, which read in florid script: BLAKENEY MANOR.
After passing beneath the huge shady trees which lined the approach to the mansion, the rider turned his mount into the circular road which wound past the huge marble staircase. At the center of the circle was a grassy garden with a riot of multicolored flowers, its perfume mingling with that of the rose garden. As the traveler reined in his horse, a young footman appeared to meet him, clad in green and white, his brown hair neatly tied back, his thin face wearing an expression of dutifulness.
"Good day, sir," he said in a clipped manner, his English accent clear in every syllable.
The rider nodded as he dismounted and handed the reins to the footman. "Good day," he replied; there was no accent in his tones. "I'm here to see Sir Percival Blakeney; he's expecting me."
The footman cocked his head. "Your name, sir?"
"Sir Christopher Larabee."
"Ah." The footman nodded a little in recognition and turned to another man who had appeared at the top of the grand entryway stairway, a taller, older, dignified figure wearing a white wig and carrying a staff. "Jessup, Sir Christopher has arrived."
Jessup appeared delighted at the news as his square, soft face lit up at once. "Ah, excellent! He's been anticipating your visit, sir. Be so good as to follow me, Sir Christopher, and I will dispatch someone to inform the baronet of your presence."
The great black horse was led away to the livery nearby as Chris mounted the stairs, pulling off his black leather riding gloves. As he walked, he glanced about, seemingly a little uncomfortable at the opulence of his surroundings; everything in sight spoke of luxury and immense wealth. But it quickly passed, and by the time he went through the gleaming front doors, his mind had moved on to other matters.
"Right this way, Sir Christopher," Jessup said in his haughty tones as they moved through the elegantly appointed foyer. His riding boots clicked against the polished tile floors as they moved towards the drawing room. He glanced around a bit, noting the plush curtains, the carved mahogany furniture upholstered with rich embroidered fabrics, the sumptuous rugs and invaluable artworks which graced the painted walls and decorated every shining table and marble mantelpiece.
"I am sure Sir Percival would apologize for the delay, sir," Jessup sniffed as they walked down the hall towards the drawing room, his voice echoing in the huge space. "He is currently meeting with his tailor, and will be down at once."
Chris laughed a little as he took off his tricornered hat. "If I know Sir Percy as well as I used to, he could be with that tailor all day."
They entered the drawing room, a huge chamber lined with light blue walls, their surfaces hung with large paintings in bright golden frames. Several tall paned windows draped with dark blue velvet curtains filled the room with sunshine, the light bouncing off of the richly appointed furniture and the beautiful inlaid spinet which graced one corner of the chamber.
Jessup's gray eyes looked at him uncertainly, then he cleared his throat. "The baronet takes great care with his wardrobe, as you know, sir," he said carefully, trying to phrase his words diplomatically. "He sees it as his duty as an English gentleman to always be at the height of fashion."
"Yes, I know," Chris nodded, the pain in his eyes receding a bit as he smiled. "I don't guess that's too hard when you're one of the richest men in England." His tone was fond, without the slightest trace of jealousy.
A servant has bustled in behind them, and in no time was handing Chris a crystal snifter of brandy.
"I shall go make certain Sir Percival has been made aware of your arrival, sir," Jessup said as the servant hustled back out. "If you'll excuse me."
Chris nodded, waving him out slightly with one hand, an expression of friendly acquiescence on his face. Jessup bowed a bit and disappeared, leaving the visitor alone with his thoughts.
Chris sipped at his brandy as he gazed idly about the room, its every touch reflecting the taste and sophistication of its master and mistress; not much had apparently changed in Percy's ideas of style, it seemed, or his desire to only acquire the best of everything.
How long had he known Percy, Chris mused as he studied his surroundings. Since they had met at school as boys, and Chris had always counted the man among his friends. Theirs had been a bond of survival; Chris was harassed because he had spent his first eleven years in the American colonies, where his British parents had resided until his father came into his inheritance, while Percy had to endure the stigma of an indifferent father and a mother who had died insane when he was a child. Between Chris's fighting prowess, and Percy's quick wits, they had found a way to fend off the bullies together and form a lasting bond. Along with Percy's other friends, including Lord Tony Dewhurst, the men had managed to fill their years of education with a good deal of camaraderie, practical jokes, and, occasionally, learning.
Chris's father had inherited a modest estate from a wealthy uncle who despised everyone else in his family. Soon after finishing his education, Percy acquired the considerably more vast estate of Blakeney Manor, also called Richmond. Before long Percy was awhirl in London society, immersing himself in fashion, gentleman's sports, and other high-society pursuits which earned him the reputation of being delightful and handsome, but rather shallow. Yet he and Chris remained close, and when Chris met the beautiful French woman Sarah during a tour of Europe, Percy had been the one to arrange a suitably embarrassing pre-marriage party for him. Even when he was in France, they had still corresponded; Percy had been as delighted as anyone over the birth of his son Adam. With the passing of his father, Chris inherited the Larabee estate, and joyfully anticipated bringing his family to England. Then-
Chris scowled and sat down on one of the richly upholstered chairs. It still was impossible, even after two years, to suppress the grief in his heart over what had happened next. Chris had been in England on business, preparing to bring Sarah and Adam over, when the Revolution began. Horrified and frantic, Chris made the dangerous journey to Paris, only to discover that the guillotine had already claimed his family, condemned as aristocrats and traitors to the new order.
Dark memories burned across Chris's mind; how he had been arrested himself, condemned as an aristocrat and enemy to the new Republic of France, the horrors of waiting with the other condemned prisoners in the squalid Conciergerie prison, how his friend Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner-the gameskeeper of his small estate, but more like a second brother-had risked their lives to come to Paris, find him, and bring him home. Home to a large, empty house echoing with hopes of a happiness that would never be his.
The next eighteen months had been a dark, painful blur, a desperate whirl of sleepless nights and hollow days without purpose. For almost a year he had abandoned his home to wander England, riding alone from town to town, haunting taverns, searching for something to take away the pain. By the time he finally returned to his estate, some of the anguish was gone, but anger had taken its place.
He hadn't really had the heart to visit Percy since, despite several invitations. He'd heard his friend had also married a French woman, a famous one as it turned out, the beautiful actress Marguerite St. Just. Chris had sent his congratulations, but had not attended the wedding, and since then had only caught news of Percy through the various gossip passed on by Buck, gleaned from his frequent jaunts to the local taverns. It sounded as if Percy hadn't changed much, ever the fashionable favorite of London society, despite the rest of the world going to hell. He had earned his title of the best-dressed man in London, and from what Chris had heard, that was all the man cared about.
It hadn't surprised him much; though Percy was a good friend, Chris had never thought he was much of a deep thinker, and the few times he had attended parties where Percy was also present, the man could always be found by following the sound of his inane, foppish laugh. Percy was usually surrounded by a group of men just as fashion-obsessed as himself, and they were invariably talking about the latest trends as if they were the most important things in the world. How did Marguerite stand him always joking while her countrymen slaughtered each other? Chris wondered.
A sad, vaguely disgusted feeling gripped Chris's heart. With thousands being killed in France every day, it seemed all that mattered to Percy was whether his buttons were properly polished and if his cravat was tied just right. Perhaps it was for the best that he hadn't really spoken to him lately, Chris mused; still grieving, he knew he couldn't bear to be around Percy and his friends, listening to them discuss such trivial matters.
Chris sighed to himself and mentally shrugged, taking a sip from the snifter. He couldn't really fault his old friend; that was just Percy, the same as he'd always been, sailing through life untouched by its darker aspects. He was a good man, a generous and loyal friend, and if he lacked the capacity to take interest in anything beyond the realm of fashion and society, well, that was simply the way he was. Perhaps someday, that would change.
So engrossed was Chris in his thoughts that he failed to hear the footsteps quickly approaching the room. He remained unaware until a loud, enthusiastic voice boomed from the doorway, "Christopher! How bloody marvelous to see you again!"
A bit startled, Chris got to his feet and turned. In the doorway was a man around thirty years old, his powerfully built frame standing over six feet tall, clad in a casual yellow and black striped outfit of the latest cut, the high-collared coat of which dropped almost to his ankles. Every inch of his appearance bespoke a man to whom appearance was everything, from his thick golden-blonde hair tied neatly back into a long curled queue to his immaculately tied white cravat and neatly stitched flowered waistcoat to the gold-framed single-lensed quizzing glass which hung around his neck.
The man's striking appearance was enhanced by his classic handsomeness; he had a strong countenance marked by fine high cheekbones, a straight, strong nose, and lazy blue eyes set beneath fine, long brows of chestnut brown. Upon seeing Chris, those blue eyes brightened, and he seemed about to fly to pieces from excitement.
"Sink me, but I'm thrilled you were able to come today, my friend!" he exclaimed in a highly pleased voice as he dashed into the room, one finely manicured hand extended before him. His voice was smooth and rich, marked by the tones of England's highest class.
Chris smiled as he gripped Percy's hand; damn, but it was good to see him. "Thank you for the invitation, Percy."
Percy released his friend's hand but instantly patted him on the shoulder. "Not at all, old boy, not at all. It's been so blasted dull with you hiding yourself away lately, I simply had to take matters to hand." He looked back to where Jessup was waiting by the door. "Jessup, be a good fellow and tell the girls to set an extra place for dinner, would you?" He turned to Chris. "Do say you'll stay, you must be famished after that demmed dusty ride."
All of this happened in a fast whirl, and Chris had to blink a little to try and keep pace with it all. After a moment of thought, he nodded. "That'll be fine."
"Splendid! Off you go, Jessup, and do see we're not disturbed, thank you!"
With hat Jessup hastened from the room, and Percy swiftly and smoothly closed the tall polished doors.
"Pray accept my apologies for not meeting you sooner, my friend," the baronet said with a smile as he walked to the sideboard and picked up the brandy decanter.
Chris shrugged a little. "That's all right, Percy, you know I don't stand much on ceremony."
"Yes, by God, I do!" Percy chuckled warmly as he poured his drink. "One of the reasons I'm so fond of your company, I expect-your money hasn't turned you into one of those staid dull fellows." He glanced up at Chris and lifted the decanter a bit. "Would you like some more brandy?"
Chris looked down at his nearly-full glass. "Not just yet." He smiled a little. "I should apologize for interrupting your visit with your tailor."
Percy shook his head after taking a sip of brandy. "Quite all right, dear boy, we were just finishing up anyway. You should see the new garb he's making for me. Lud! It would make Solomon in his glory weep with envy, it's so stunning. The man is an utter genius, sir, a genius. I would be happy to recommend him to you, should you ever desire it."
Chris glanced quickly down at his plain black clothes-finely made and tailored, but still far more simple than what Percy was wearing-and looked back up at his friend, shaking his head with a slight grin.
"I'm grateful, Percy, but that won't be necessary. What I have suits me just fine."
Percy paused, then nodded. "Yes, yes, quite all right," he muttered, his voice becoming softer. "Gad, but I should have known! Forgive me. And do have a seat, you must be simply exhausted. Best be comfortable for our chat, eh?"
Chris sat back down in the chair as Percy walked to a seat nearby, the long striped coat swirling about his legs. Chris watched him with a small grin; Percy hadn't changed a bit since the old days, and Chris could only wish with regret that time had left his own soul untouched as well.
"Thank you for accepting my invitation, Christopher," Percy said in his cultured English tones as he sat down. A regretful smile crossed his lips. "It's been such a demmed long time since we've had a chance to talk."
Chris shrugged. "Haven't been feeling much like being sociable," he confessed quietly, putting the barely-touched brandy carefully down on the finely polished mahogany table beside him.
The other man nodded sympathetically, his expression becoming serious. "Yes, by God, I can understand that. See here, my friend," Percy continued in a quiet manner, sitting forward, "this whole business has been perfectly ghastly for you, I've no doubt. Is there anything at all you need? Some extra help around the estate, that sort of thing?"
After a pause, Chris shook his head. "Thank you, Percy, but there's not that much to manage, Vin's got it pretty much under control," he sighed.
Percy nodded quickly. "Good, good," he muttered. "Though you'll let me know if that changes, all right? Begad, old boy, I was quite beside myself when I heard. Your sweet wife and boy claimed by Madame Guillotine..." He shook his head. "Quite a tragedy, to be sure. Are you certain there's nothing you require?"
There was a pause as Chris dropped his eyes, staring at some distant point. "About the only thing that'll truly help me is the one thing I can't do."
Percy peered at him, curiosity in his blue eyes. "And what might that be, my friend?" he inquired softly.
Chris hesitated. Percy, with all of his fussing over fashion and other meaningless matters, would never understand the violent urges churning through Chris's soul. The raging desire to do something, anything, to ease the grief. What could his old friend know of such things, safe and pampered behind the marble walls of Richmond?
But still...He sighed and rose, walking over to stand in the sunlight, facing out the window so that Percy couldn't see the anger in his eyes.
"You remember the times we had back at school?" he asked in a reflective tone, staring out across the rolling green lawns. "All the times we had to fight the other boys because they said we'd never be gentlemen?"
He heard Percy laugh a little. "Zounds, hard to forget those days!" he replied. "We did have some rather satisfying brawls, if I recall. And I believe we've proved 'em wrong, after all."
Chris swallowed, his throat tightening. "Maybe you have, Percy," he said softly, "but you know I've never been one for dressing fancy and being the gentleman, like you. Maybe it's because of all those years growing up in the colonies. I may have some money, but I'm not what you'd call refined, and I have to admit it's never really bothered me all that much."
"Sink me, my friend," Percy exclaimed in a contemplative voice, "you're a demmed sight more refined than some of those rascals in our circle. It just don't show outside, that's all."
"Perhaps," was the doubtful response. "But after Sarah and Adam were killed..." He paused, the agonizing pain in his heart flaring through his soul. "Well, I've been having some thoughts that are pretty unrefined. If there was some way I could get to France and find a way to make those bastards pay for what they did, I'd take it in a heartbeat."
Percy was standing beside him now, and when Chris turned to him he noticed that the nobleman was studying him in a lazy manner, mild shock in his blue eyes. But there was something else there, too...
"Do you mean to say," Percy inquired in hushed tones, "that you'd risk your life to strike back at the French? You've heard what it's like there now, I'm sure. Blood runs down the streets like rainwater."
Chris sighed and looked back into the yard. "If it meant there was some way of stopping them," he said in a firm voice before turning back to face his friend, his green eyes hard, "then that's exactly what I'm saying. Risks be damned."
He expected Percy to be shocked, or laugh at him, or try to talk him out of it. Instead, his friend backed away a few steps, watching Chris very closely as he went to the elegant sideboard where the brandy stood.
"Bold words, my friend, very bold words indeed," Percy said as he retrieved the cut crystal brandy bottle. "Although I'm sure our government would frown on such a venture."
Chris shook his head as he wearily walked back to the sofa. "That wouldn't bother me," he confessed as he sat down. "It's a personal fight, not something I'd want anyone else involved in." He paused for a moment, then gave a quick, light laugh. "And that hasn't stopped some other people, anyway."
"Ah!" Percy chuckled as he refreshed his brandy. "You're no doubt referring to that demmed impetuous madman, the Scarlet Pimpernel?"
Chris smiled; the Scarlet Pimpernel was currently England's most famous son, even if no one knew who he really was. All that could be said was that he was an Englishman who managed, through daring and disguise, to save countless condemned men, women and children from the guillotine, spiriting them to England and safety while leaving only a small piece of paper marked with a small red flower for the baffled French to find. It had started the previous year, and with every passing month the Pimpernel's fame grew as those he rescued spread the tales of his bravery. Men praised his courage; women swooned over his daring; he was the toast of England; and all endlessly discussed who he, and the men who worked with him, could possibly be.
Whoever he was, he was a man of action, of resolution, of selfless determination-everything Percy, decent fellow though he was, was not. Thus, Chris was not surprised that Percy disapproved of anything reckless. "I guess you might call it impetuous, for an Englishman to go rescuing people from the guillotine right under the noses of those bloodthirsty scum without expecting any kind of fame or reward," Chris admitted, leaning back in his seat. "I call it damn brave, myself."
Percy gave a refined scoff as he walked back to his chair. "Skulking about France in disguise, without a soul even knowing his identity, leaving only a paper marked with that wretched red pimpernel flower as his calling card?" He sipped his brandy and shook his head. "Hardly the acts of a proper gentleman, sir."
The other man tiled his head a little. "Not too improper for you to use him as inspiration for that poem of yours that everyone keeps quoting. I heard about it, even when I was traveling. Really caught on, you should be proud of yourself."
"La! Yes," Percy chirped, a wide smile of self-satisfaction spreading over his handsome face. "Sink me, but I never guessed it would be so bloody popular! I must say, it was one of my most briliant creations, even if I think the impertinent fellow who inspired it to be quite mad." He paused, still smiling as he glanced upwards a bit towards the ceiling and began to recite, one hand toying with the golden quizzing-glass about his neck and gesturing with it as he spoke.
"They seek him here, they seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere!
Is he in heaven, or is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel!"
At the end he burst into a fit of giggles, highly pleased with himself. "Lud love me, but that's quite good, if I do say so m'self!" he chortled.
Chris smiled indulgently. "Good enough for just about the whole country to be quoting it," he pointed out as he waited for Percy to recover from his own wit. "I'll wager even the Pimpernel himself, whoever he is, has probably read it by now."
"Or more likely had someone read it to him," Percy said with a shrug as he succeeded in collecting himself. "Marguerite's maid heard that he's actually an illiterate German stableboy."
Chris laughed, glad for the distraction. "Buck's got a wager going at the tavern that the Pimpernel's a Russian prince acting on orders from the Empress Catherine." He sighed and shook his head. "Whoever he is, I'd join him and his men in a shot."
His friend emitted an elegant snort as he resumed his seat. "What, that infernal band of his? The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel? Rubbish! England needs her sons here and safe, doing what men were meant to do-squire the ladies about in the most handsome manner possible. Why, a fellow could hardly stay in clean linens, poncing off to France as he does every bloody week!"
A smile played across Chris's lips. "I suppose he just imagines some things are more important than looking good, Percy," he replied quietly.
"Odd's fish, I can't imagine what," was the astounded answer muttered into his glass just before Percy drained his snifter. The nobleman swallowed and sat up, shaking his head and regarding Chris with an expression of concern. "See here, my boy, no more of that. Vengeance is a dirty business, and exceedingly bad for one's health. I pray you find a far safer means of soothing your soul, one which can be accomplished safely on our own hallowed shores."
Chris smiled a bit, not surprised that Percy didn't quite understand. "We'll see," he muttered, willing to drop a subject that made his friend so uncomfortable. The desire, however, remained.
"Good," Percy replied, pleased. "And no more talk of that Pimpernel fellow, all right? Gives me the shivers. There is a matter of vital urgency which I must discuss with you."
Chris looked up, slightly surprised and wondering what Percy would find so important. "All right," he said, cradling his snifter in his hands and leaning forward.
"Now," the baronet continued, "the Prince is giving his autumn reception next week. My dear Marguerite will be home from the spa by then, and she and I insist that you join us to the event as our guest."
The other man blinked; that was a matter of vital urgency? He shifted awkwardly. "Well, Percy, I don't know," he said with hesitation. "That sounds like a pretty fancy gathering."
"So it will be, my friend, just the thing to lift your spirits!" Percy insisted, his blue eyes blazing at the prospect. "Come, I promise you, as my guest I will see to it that you are treated with all the respect you deserve, and I know several people who have missed you at this year's parties. Marguerite is simply mad to meet you as well, and most anxious that you emerge for a breath of air."
Chris paused; a huge, elegant ball wasn't something he really felt ready to face just yet.
"I'll...I'll think about it," Chris promised, unwilling to disappoint Percy by flatly refusing. He was only trying to help, after all, and it seemed that to Percy, a party could cure just about anything.
"Splendid!" Percy exclaimed with a dazzling smile. "And you may bring a guest of your own if you choose, I'm sure His Highness won't mind. Ever since I assisted him in selecting the royal wardrobe last spring, he's been most forgiving of me."
Chris nodded; from what he'd heard of the Prince of Wales, the man needed all the fashion advice he could get. "I appreciate it, Percy. I'll let you know."
His friend leaned forward in his armchair, setting the empty snifter down on a nearby table as he peered at Chris. "I do hope you decide to attend, my friend," he said in a more thoughtful tone. "You're a good, sensible man, and society needs as many of them as it can find in these dangerous times."
Chris thought of the anger still in his heart over losing Sarah and Adam, and wondered how good Percy would think he was if he were able to see past the surface.
"And if you require any assistance in your garb for the ball," Percy continued in a much lighter tone, "I will be more than delighted to help!"
Percy's poem was written by Baroness Orczy and appears in the first Pimpernel novel, 'The Scarlet Pimpernel'
"So, what'd Percy want last night?"
Buck's voice barely carried over the din of the Brown Boar tavern as he and Chris sat stretched out before the fire, away from the evening crowd which milled about in the main room. Chris didn't answer at first, thinking as he smoked his long clay pipe and stared into the dancing flames.
The other man was content to wait for the answer, the warm firelight dancing off his handsome face and thick black hair, his blue eyes wandered the room for their pretty barmaid. Like Chris, he wore simple clothes, nothing that would attract attention; also like Chris, he had been born in America to wealthy British parents, the two meeting at school. Their separation when Chris's family left for Britain was short-lived; Buck's parents, staunch Royalists, left the colonies at the start of the rebellion and returned home. Many in the tavern knew Buck was the son of a Lord, but as he had four older brothers and little hope of inheriting anything, the fact failed to impress them much. It impressed Buck even less, and his low family status had the advantage of allowing him the freedom to behave as he pleased.
Another man sat on Chris's other side, just as relaxed, although his rough, brown-hued clothes and tall, worn, mud-spattered boots were more suited to the dim, smoky tavern than Buck and Chris's modest finery. His long golden-brown curls hung loose and unfettered about his shoulders, rather than tied neatly back, and his handsome, boyish face bore the shadow of slight stubble. This man's bright blue eyes were quietly watching the fire, flickering with a latent energy which belied his casual posture. Smoke drifted from his short-stemmed pipe, wafting and mingling with the puffs snaking from the pipes of his companions before floating away.
"Oh, not much," Chris finally replied, still staring at the flickering flames. "Wanted to talk about Sarah and Adam. Said he was sorry about it."
Buck nodded. "Glad you finally went to see him," he offered, taking a drink of his ale. "Every time we had a party, he'd track me down to ask about you, no matter how many of father's guests he had to plow through."
His friend chuckled around his pipe. "Persistent, isn't he?"
"Persistent don't tell it by half," the brown-haired man muttered, not taking his eyes from the fire. "Every time we cross paths when I'm hunting, you're the first thing he asks about. An' he's serious about it, not all foolish like he is normally."
Chris blew out a puff and laughed a little. "Not much for Percy's style, eh, Vin?"
Vin shrugged, glancing over at his two friends. "Just can't see why he's got to act so fancy, that's all. Long as a man's got his roof, his rifles, and a few good huntin' dogs, what does he need with gold shoes and silk shirts?" Like Chris and Buck, the years of living in America had worn away all traces of an English accent from his voice.
"When you're as rich as Percy is, you have to show it off," Buck replied with a contemplative frown. "Else I don't think it counts, somehow."
"Then I'm just as glad not to be rich," Vin murmured, looking back into the fire.
Buck nudged Chris a little, grinning. "It's all those years he spent in the Colonies, being a mountain guide and living with the Indians."
The huntsman smirked a bit as he peered at Buck. "You an' Chris ought to be damn glad I was in them mountains, Wilmington, after I saved your asses from that bear the day we all first met. You two wouldn't have been the first rich boys he'd munched on, I'll wager. Remember?"
"Whew! I do," Chris sighed with a shake of his head as he stared into the fire. "I think I'd decided to hire you on as my huntsman before that beast even hit the ground. I never saw a man get off a shot like that, right between the eyes."
"That was amazing," Buck agreed with a nod, "and God knows I'll appreciate that to my dyin' day. I'm just saying you never had to listen to people tell you all the time how important it was to be rich, like we did. Hell, it's about all my father talks about. And after all these years of listening to him, I still can't quite see his point."
Vin nodded. "That's what I'm sayin', Buck. I never had a farthing when I was growing up in Wales, or earnin' my way to the colonies as a sailor, or guiding travelers through the Allegheny mountains. Never felt less of a man for it, either. Percy and those other rich fellows, they can keep their silk suits. I'm fine in my skins."
"Aw, Percy's got a decent heart, even if he does dress too pretty for his own good," Buck said with a wave of his hand. A smile crossed his face. "Well, at least he didn't tell the Earl of Gloucester about the time he found me kissin' the Earl's daughter."
Chris laughed and took the pipe from his mouth, regarding Buck warmly. "Buck, if you keep chasing the ladies, one of them is liable to run you right to the altar."
"Not too worried about that," Buck admitted, setting his ale down. "Once they find out I won't inherit a farthing, they generally go running the other way."
"Hm." Chris's expression became wistful as he turned his eyes back to the fire. "I was lucky with Sarah. She didn't care a damn how much money I had, as long as we could be together."
"Yeah," Buck sighed softly, settling back in his chair. "She was special. Never put on fancy airs or ignored people because they weren't rich."
Silence fell, and after a few moments, Buck looked over. Chris was still staring into the fire, the gentle light of remembering now hardened into a more bitter gleam.
"I'll never understand how her own people could have killed her and Adam," Chris whispered in a choked voice.
He could still see it all so clearly, the Paris he had known and loved drowned in a sea of hatred and blood. He had known about the unrest, but had never dreamed it would swallow his family, and the torturous questions never left his mind. If he hadn't listened to Sarah when she insisted on staying with her family in Paris when he went back to England-if he'd been able to get back sooner-if there had been some way, any way, to stop their deaths...
Then, after he realized he'd been too late, they had come after him as well. If Vin and Buck had not heard he had been arrested and risked their lives to come to France for his sake, he would have followed his wife and son to the guillotine. The escape had been difficult, more of a miracle than anything else, and he could still feel the horror of their flight through the dark streets of Paris, surrounded by a suffocating fog of terror.
"No use tryin' to figure them out, Chris," Vin said in a quiet voice. "They're just plain blood-crazy, and that's all there is to it. We were lucky to get you out of there alive."
"If you hadn't put a musket ball into that officer coming after us, Vin, we *wouldn't* have gotten out of that hellpit alive," Buck pointed out. "Just sorry that man's family put a price on your head for it."
Vin shrugged and studied the bowl of his pipe. "Well, it's not like I'm planning on going back soon. Saw enough of that madness to last me quite a while."
"It's a madness somebody should stop," Chris muttered, his eyes never leaving the fire. Finally he blinked and smiled a bit. "Would you believe Percy and I even discussed the Scarlet Pimpernel?"
Buck snorted indelicately. "Who hasn't?" he groused into his ale.
"They were talking about the Pimpernel during the hunt last week, when I was helping the gameskeeper at Hutchings Manor," Vin volunteered. "Percy was there. He went all green and said he had to go lie down."
Chris shook his head. "The same thing happened last night. Seems just talking about the Pimpernel makes him nervous."
"Well, I wouldn't mind if people would *stop* talking about him," Buck insisted. "Not sure how that Pimpernel does it, but he seems to rescue another hundred people each week. And you should hear JD-we were cleaning up in the stables yesterday and I swear, all that boy talked about was that damn Scarlet Pimpernel."
Chris laughed a little. "Still idolizing him and wishing he could go to France and fight too, I suppose?"
Vin shrugged. "When you're eighteen and been working in the stables since you were eight like JD, it's not hard to wish you were somewhere more exciting."
"He's probably still missing his mother, too," Chris offered, staring at the fire with a melancholy expression. After a moment he glanced at Buck. "It was good of your father to keep JD on, after she died last year."
His friend nodded, looking into the fire as well. "It sure wasn't easy talking him into that," Buck said with a sigh. "He usually doesn't pay attention to a word I say. But I wasn't about to let him turn that boy out, after his mother worked all those years at our place." He sniffed, rubbed his nose, and sat back, trying to lose his somber mood. "Besides, he'd get himself killed if it weren't for me, with all those ideas about adventure he's got in his head."
"Maybe you shouldn't have taught him to read," Chris said, reaching for his mug of ale.
"Well, it wouldn't be so bad if some of the things those newspapers print weren't so bloody ridiculous!" Buck protested. "Every week it's nothing but how damn dashing and brave and heroic that Pimpernel is. Most of the pretty ladies around here have decided he's some kind of god, and it's making things hard for us ordinary men!"
"Lucky for you no one knows who he is," Vin replied with a small smile, taking another puff on his short pipe. "The girls'd all run after him and leave you empty-handed." He paused and thought a bit. "Of course, I heard he's kind of short and rather ugly."
"Now that's what I can't figure out," Buck said, his voice becoming puzzled. "Here's a fellow who rides off into all that danger and rescues people from the guillotine, and he disguises himself so nobody can find him to even say thank you! If you're going to go to all that trouble, you might at least get something back for it."
"I suppose saving the lives is reward enough for him," Chris mused around small puffs of white smoke. "It would be for me, if it meant preventing the hell I went through from happening to anyone else."
Vin nodded quietly, his blue eyes thoughtful.
Buck humphed. "Well, I'd still like a little kiss from a pretty lady out of it."
Chris cocked his head. "You could still get your chance, for a kiss, anyway. Percy invited me to a reception next week for the Prince, and he said I could bring a guest. Vin, I'm guessing you're not interested."
"You guessed right," Vin replied lightly, putting his booted feet up and watching the fire.
Buck scratched his chin thoughtfully. "It would be a good way to practice the new dance steps with the ladies," he averred. "Are you going?"
Chris pursed his lips, scowling. "Haven't decided yet. I know Percy means well, but I don't think I have the stomach to listen to him and his friends blather on about the latest cravat styles and how long coats will be this spring." He sighed and looked at Buck. "He's a good friend, Buck, but sometimes I wonder how anyone can be so damn shallow. I know he's always been that way, but lately it's gotten even worse, until I wonder if I even know him anymore."
"I suppose he's rich enough to do without deep thoughts," Buck shrugged. "Don't be too hard on him, Chris, he's an all right fellow, even if he is a dandy."
Chris chuckled a little. "Maybe-"
Screams interrupted Chris's thought, and both men sat up quickly as a crash of noise and shouting erupted from the main room.
"Damn, looks like Widow Nettie's havin' trouble again," Buck muttered, sitting up in his chair and straining to see. Vin was turning to look behind him, his face anxious.
Chris put his pipe aside and stood, an angry, disgusted look on his face. "Let's go see what it is this time."