Authors: Marie Laval
If Bruce didn't like the champagne, McRae seemed to have no problem draining his flute, and from the unnatural glow in his blue eyes and the animated tone of his voice, it was clear that it wasn't his first either. He leant towards Bruce in a conspiratorial manner.
âI daresay it will soon get even better. I have a surprise for my guests â my male guests, that is â I think all will enjoy. I guarantee it'll cheer you up.'
Bruce arched one eyebrow. âThen I'll look forward to your surprise, McRae.'
He surveyed the room. âI don't see Lady Patricia.'
Cameron's face clouded over. He plucked another flute from the tray of a passing waiter.
âMy mother has been taken ill and will unfortunately not be joining us tonight.'
He drank more champagne and turned to watch a couple twirling on the dance floor to the lively tune of a polka. The woman, tall and rake thin, was dressed in a pale and unflattering shade of blue. Her dance partner wore the 9
Gordon Highlanders officer's parade uniform.
âAh, here she is â my lovely fiancÃ©e, dancing with someone I think you are well acquainted with.'
Bruce's shoulders stiffened. There was a man he had hoped never to meet again.
âCaptain Frazier.' His fingers tightening around the stem of the flute, he watched the couple dance.
The last time he'd seen him was at the Whitehall enquiry when Frazier was cleared of all wrongdoing and Bruce discharged for misconduct. That had been their first encounter since the man had run away from the battlefield at Ferozeshah, allegedly suffering from heatstroke and leaving Bruce's men and himself exposed to enemy fire â and the deadly explosion of the ammunition depot.
A dull ache now throbbed on his temple, just above his right eye. He felt himself grow a little shaky, and the bright lights suddenly hurt his eyes. Damn. This wasn't a good time to suffer another fit.
He'd better get a grip on himself, the last thing he wanted was for McRae and Frazier to notice he was unwell. There were clearly enough rumours flying about as it was. He took a long, deep, calming breath, put his half-drunk flute down on a console, and focussed on the dancing couple.
Lady Sophia's lacklustre brown hair was curled in tight ringlets and bounced around her slim face, her eyes were narrowed to slits and her lips pinched in concentration as she followed the dance steps. Frazier hadn't changed in the year and a half since he'd last seen him. With his blond hair flopping fashionably on his high forehead and a gormless smile plastered on his fleshy lips, he seemed not to have a care in the world.
And why would he not be enjoying himself? Bruce sneered. He wasn't the man who got discharged and was now fighting to save his estate and his people â the man who was slowly, inexorably, going mad.
âMy dear,' McRae held out his hand to his fiancÃ©e when the polka had finished, âlet me introduce you to Lord McGunn who is paying us an unexpected visit.'
The woman's small brown eyes opened wide in shock and she recoiled as if faced with a dangerous animal. Bruce bowed as Lady Sophia recovered her manners. She muttered a greeting and curtsied quickly. Next to her, Frazier blushed a deep crimson.
âLieutenant McGunnâ¦ I never thoughtâ¦ ahâ¦ I'd see you here,' he stammered.
Bruce nodded curtly. âFrazier.'
âI hope you areâ¦ ah â¦ well,' the man added, his fingers fiddling restless, with the tie of his red and yellow sash.
âWhy wouldn't I be?'
There was a short, uncomfortable silence. Frazier cleared his throat as if to speak but didn't seem to find anything to say. Bruce would be damned if he made it easier for him. What lay between them was more than mere enmity and wounded pride â it was the blood of many good men.
âI don't know about you, my dear girl,' McRae said, slipping his arm under Lady Sophia's arm, âbut I'm in great need of a bowl of punch.'
She nodded in agreement, and McRae turned to Frazier. âWould you care to join us?'
âOf course,' Frazier nodded, hardly able hide his relief.
Bruce watched as the trio made their way through the crowd and out of the ballroom, then turned on his heel and walked out through a door at the opposite end. Hopefully people were too engrossed in the music, the dance, the buffet or the gossips, to notice him as he slipped into the library.
His heart beat a little too fast as he closed the door behind him. Slightly dizzy, he leaned against the door panel. The room was empty and dark except for a single oil lamp on the desk that gave a little light.
He closed his eyes, and waited for his heartbeat to return to normal.
This was madness.
What exactly was he hoping to find? Some kind of proof that the farfetched notion that had taken shape in his mind after his conversation with Charles Langford was indeed based on truth? The fantasy that Niall McRae might be hisâ¦
No, this was ludicrous! He almost opened the door and walked out again when something stopped him. It wasn't quite the sound of a woman's voice, or the touch of a woman's hand against his cheek. It was like a gentle whispering wind enveloping him, coaxing him, urging him to go to Niall McRae's portrait, and lift it off the wall.
He carried it with great care to the desk, pushed the lamp closer and turned it up to get more light. His breath short, he searched through the drawers for a magnifying glass, found one and bent down over the painting to read the inscription.
The sound the magnifying glass made when he dropped it on the desk echoed in the library. So he'd been right. The Battle of Alexandria had taken place in 1801, his medal had borne the first two digits, 18. McRae wore the other half of the Battle of Alexandria medal, the one that read 01.
He made himself check again.
Was he reading too much into the portrait? Could it be that the artist made a simple mistake, and that the fact Niall McRae looked like him was a mere coincidence?
He stared at the man in the painting, his dark hair, his proud stance, his uniform â and the claymore at his side. No, there was more than a mere resemblance. If McRae's hair had been shorter, he could be McGunn himself.
A long-forgotten event pushed its way into his memory. He had once called in the regimental mess where a reunion of officers who had fought at Quatre-Bras and Waterloo was underway. An old man â a colonel, judging by his uniform â had stared at him across the room most of the evening with rheumy blue eyes. Sometime after the toasts he had ambled towards him, gripped his arm in a claw-like vice, and asked his name. âLieutenant McGunn?' he had repeated, disappointment in his voice as if he was hoping to hear another name. âSorry, man, you reminded me of someone I used to know a long time ago. Damn strange how you look like the man too. Thought you might have been his son. The poor chap died at Quatre-Bras.'
Bruce had dismissed the event as delusions of an old man who'd drunk too much whisky. He hadn't thought about it for a long time. Of course, it now took a completely different meaning. It was obvious who the old man was thinking of. Niall McRae.
The light grew dimmer, the room shrank, closed in on him, and the world as he knew it collapsed.
Rose and Bruce's story concludes in
Book 3 of the Dancing for the Devil Trilogy, available in March 2016.
For more information about
Published by Accent Press Ltd 2016
Copyright Â© Marie Laval 2016
The right of Marie Laval to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by the author in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
The story contained within this book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers: Accent Press Ltd, Ty Cynon House, Navigation Park, Abercynon, CF45 4SN