A Difficult Disguise

By: Kasey Michaels

Prologue




When titled Britain went toddling off to do battle with Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée, it did it with stylish English panache (more than a few handy umbrellas to keep the rain off their uniforms) and a patriotic fervor liberally mixed with a healthy appetite for adventure, war being regarded in the way of a highly desirable romantic escapade.

But now, at long last, Napoleon was safely locked up on Elba, and the war was over.

The Prince Regent—Prinny to his friends and, increasingly, Swellfoot to his enemies—who had never spent a long night in the cold rain with an empty belly or fought deadly hand-to-hand combat with a relentless enemy, viewed the victory as the perfect excuse to indulge in his most favorite thing in the whole world: a party of truly monumental proportions.

London’s organized and spur-of-the-moment festivities, which had begun early in the year, intensified in June with the arrival of the Czar, as well as that of Blücher, a hard-drinking man who fast became the favorite of John Bull (as the everyday citizens of the metropolis were called), Prussia’s spartan King Frederick, Count Platoff, commander of the Cossacks who had so successfully harassed Napoleon throughout that man’s ignoble retreat from Moscow, and a host of other luminaries Prinny was hell-bent to impress with his entertaining genius, his outlandish, specially designed military uniforms, and his social largess.

By the second week in June the whole of Regency London was operating at a fever pitch, the usual hustle and bustle of the busy city magnified a thousand times, which was altogether wonderful if a person was in the mood to be entertained.

For the hardened veterans of battles in Salamanca and Badajoz, like Fletcher Belden, who was at the moment propping up the wall in a very hot, very overcrowded ballroom as all around him overdressed men and giggling women cavorted in a frenzy of celebration, all this carrying-on was not only frivolous, it was fast becoming downright dull. Turning his back on the crowd, he sauntered into the card room to try losing his boredom in the bottom of a deep glass.





Chapter 1




“Who’ll buy my sweet lavender?”... “Hot codlins! Cherry-ripe!”... “Chairs to mind? Bring out your chairs!”... “Milk-o! Milk below!”

Fletcher Belden groaned once, rolled over onto his stomach, taking his pillow with him, and buried his aching head beneath the soft goose down.

“Cockles! Cockles an’ mussels, alive, alive-o!”... “Old clothes, mum? Old clothes to buy!”... “Cockles!”

The pillow hit the floor with considerably less than satisfying force as Fletcher bounded from the bed and stormed to the brocade bellpull, yanking the inoffensive signaling device so pitilessly that it ended by retaliating, rudely separating from its anchor to collapse in a mantle around the broad bare shoulders of its attacker.

“Beck,” Fletcher roared in an abused tone, fighting his way free of six feet of tasseled bellpull and putting on the burgundy banyan that had found a home on a nearby chair back in order to cover his nakedness. “Beck!”

The doorway to the upstairs hall of the Belden town house opened, admitting both the glaring light of day and a slight brown-haired man of much the same age as his three-and-thirty-year-old employer.

“You bellowed, Fletch? Good God! You look as if you’ve been ridden hard and put away wet. But it is good of you to be nasty once in a while; it reminds me of how much I didn’t miss your sharp tongue while you were on the Peninsula.”

Fletcher shot the man a smoldering look as he ran a hand through his tousled blond hair. “Oh, capital! Just what I needed—humor before breakfast. I’m surprised you stay with me, Beck, when you’ve obviously got such a brilliant future in comedy. Perhaps you should reconsider remaining in my employ and take yourself off somewhere to scribble a book. Lord knows everyone else has. George has done all right for himself, although it did bring him Caro Lamb, which can only be considered unfortunate. No, I imagine one Byron is enough for any Season.”

“My, my,” Beck said, crossing the room to stoop awkwardly and rescue the torn bellpull from the carpet, “we are in a mood this morning, aren’t we? Have a bit too much fun last night, my friend? Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy dinner at the Guildhall. Did the Grand Duchess Catherine of Oldenburg order the musicians to stop playing again? That would be too bad, as then you would have been left with little choice but to listen to all those dry speeches.”

“Fifteen toasts, Beck. We were forced to drink fifteen toasts. I think Prinny has run mad. Poor old Blücher was under the table again, and stayed there for most of the night. It took everything I had not to join him.”

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