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Excerpt: The Alexandria Affair

Book 11: Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries

In late August, 1818, my wife had me abducted, trussed up, and taken down the Thames to be put on a tall ship bound for Egypt.

Our party consisted of myself, bound and furious; Lucius Grenville, who was funding much of the voyage; our retainers, Bartholomew and Matthias; and one Thomas Brewster, a tough who worked for a man named James Denis.

Brewster and the two lads hauled me, still bound, into my tiny cabin off the ship’s ward room, and shut and locked the door.

“Devil take it, Bartholomew!” I shouted.

“Her ladyship’s orders, sir,” Bartholomew’s voice came through the thin partition.

He sounded uncertain, but I had no hope that he’d let me out until we were well underway. It had come to the sad pass that my valet feared my wife’s wrath far more than he feared mine.

“Grenville!” I bellowed.

I heard no reply from him, but Brewster’s tones came to me. “Mr. Grenville’s swallowing his remedies for the voyage,” he said calmly. “I’ll see to it you’re released when it’s time, guv.”

I knew that though I might coerce Bartholomew in the long run to let me out—after all, my wife, Donata, was safely back in Oxfordshire—Brewster, a former pugilist hardened by a life of crime, never would.

All I could do was fume.

Only when we were a long way out in the English Channel and making steadily for Lisbon did Bartholomew tentatively open the door and cut my bonds.

I had recovered my temper somewhat, but it was more resignation than peace—I’d have no way to reach shore again until we were in Lisbon. There I might jump ship and hie my way back to London and again to Oxfordshire, where I’d enlist the help of Donata’s father to prevent her from banishing me again.

I went out on deck, accompanied by Brewster, to plan my escape.

“I am surprised to see you,” I snapped as I leaned on the railing beside him and watched mist rapidly obscure the dark green line of England. “Do not tell me my wife employed you to keep me to my purpose.”

“’Course not.” Brewster scowled at the receding coast, looking as unhappy to be onboard as I was. “His nibs sent me. I’m to keep you alive, he says, while you’re in foreign parts.”

“His nibs” was James Denis, a man who did not bother with the law when he wanted something. Mr. Denis controlled a large part of London as well as many prominent men in England, and now he fought an ongoing battle to control me.

Denis had done much for me, obligating me to him more and more each passing year. But while I’d come to admire his efficiency and unexpected bursts of compassion, I’d also watched him murder a man with his bare hands and flick his fingers to command others to do murder for him.

When Denis knew I’d be making this voyage to Egypt with Grenville, he’d tasked me to go to Alexandria and retrieve an item for him. I had no idea what item or where to look for it—he’d told me he’d send me written instructions to be opened when we reached Alexandria. However I’d received no such letter before I’d been dragged from my home.

I glanced at Brewster in sudden suspicion. “You have the letter, don’t you?”

“About what his nibs wants you to find?” Brewster gave me a nod. “That I do, Captain.”

“Wise,” I had to admit.

Denis would know that if I had the letter now, I’d read it immediately and not wait until we landed in Egypt as commanded. Brewster, who was a tall, broad-shouldered man with the solidness of a dock laborer and the strength of a bull, would never give the letter to me until time.

Brewster’s first loyalty was to James Denis. I could cajole, plead, threaten, or bribe, but Brewster would never capitulate, and I knew it.

“Mr. Denis is a wise man, sir,” Brewster said.

“Ah, well.” My hand tightened on the railing as the ship rolled in earnest, a strong wave running under its prow. “Let us simply enjoy the voyage while we can.”

“Some of us might,” Brewster said doubtfully. “Mr. Grenville is already in a bad way. Why does he want to go so far from home if it only makes him heave all day and night?”

“Because he’s right as rain once he arrives,” I answered. “And his restlessness would not keep him in London any longer.”

Lucius Grenville, one of England’s wealthiest gentlemen and the most famous dandy in London, had invited me on this voyage to Alexandria and beyond it to the wonders of the Nile. Unfortunately, all Grenville’s wealth, looks, and fine taste could not save him from his malady of motion sickness. Even a short carriage ride in the country laid him out grievously.

I’d look in on him later. For now we watched the bank of low fog swallow England, the land where my wife, who was heavy with my child, lay.

Donata—formerly the widowed Viscountess Breckenridge—had been ill much of the summer, not weathering her condition well. I’d planned to take her, her son, and my daughter to my boyhood home in Norfolk and continue putting the falling-down house to rights. Donata’s indisposition, however, made us retreat instead to Oxfordshire. My grown daughter had returned to France to her other family, while Donata, Peter, and I settled into Donata’s father’s lavish estate, where she was tended to like a queen.

I watched my wife most anxiously. Donata was thirty, and childbirth was so very dangerous no matter how strong the woman. I’d seen the wife of my former commander lose several children, coming near to death herself on one occasion. Remembering her trials made me sleepless, especially on the days and nights Donata was the most ill.

Donata was not happy to be confined. She was a woman who liked to be up and about, and seethed even as she settled in to be waited on hand and foot. She became peevish and very unhappy with me, but I was adamant that she stay quiet and not endanger herself in any way.

When I told Donata decidedly one evening that I would abandon my journey to Egypt and remain with her through my child’s birth, our marriage nearly foundered.

Grenville and I had already altered our plans from leaving at New Year’s to going late this summer, as my child was to arrive in December. I wanted to be back in time for the birth, and I knew I’d scarcely want to tear myself away after that.

Now I’d declared I would stay home and look after Donata during her confinement, and Grenville and I could journey to Egypt next year.

Donata, her body thick and face flushed as she lay on a chaise in her sumptuous bedchamber, had fixed me with an imperious gaze.

“Grenville has been to much trouble making the preparations, Gabriel,” she’d said. “You must not disappoint him.”

“Grenville will be perfectly happy traveling on his own,” I countered. “He has done so many times before. He will enjoy not having to stop every three minutes and explain things to me.”

Donata regarded me in disapprobation. I knew I had been hovering and protective, but until that moment, I had not realized how much I’d been driving her distracted.

“You are a fool, Gabriel,” she’d said crisply. “I’ve borne a child before and know what I’m about. If you leave in August as you and Grenville plan, you will return in plenty of time for the birth. Modern ships keep good timetables. Go, my husband. Do.

I stared at her in stunned anger for a moment and told her stiffly that it was my duty to remain with her, and I’d do so.

Thus began an argument that lasted many weeks.

Some of the reason for my worry was that earlier in the summer a gentleman had sent me threatening letters, followed me about London, and tried to shoot me. Though we’d heard nothing about this man in the intervening months, I did not think he’d give up so easily.

Donata pointed out that not only was her father, an earl, and his retainers perfectly capable of protecting her, but Mr. Denis had promised to hunt for the man and keep him away from my family. Denis had found no sign of him, which likely meant my hunter had left the country, but I could not stem my fears.

We quarreled constantly about the matter until Donata became quite fed up with me.

In the end, she’d resorted to kidnapping. I’d been persuaded to return to London on an errand for her—or so I’d thought. The day after my arrival in London several burly men had entered the dining room in the South Audley Street house where I breakfasted. They wrenched me from my chair, tied me as I tried to fight, stuffed me into a coach, and dragged me off.

Now as I stood on deck, the sun broke free of the gloom that had hovered over England, and the sea sparkled a deep and beautiful blue. I began to laugh.

“Never underestimate the resourcefulness of women, Brewster,” I said. “Especially that of wives irritated at their husbands. I suppose Mrs. Brewster would have done much the same.”

Brewster didn’t smile. “Indeed she would, Captain. In fact, your abduction was her idea. When I conveyed the notion to your lady, she was only too happy to agree.”

I imagined Donata’s eyes, as blue as the dark sea around me, lighting in enjoyment when Brewster explained the plan.

I laughed again. My homecoming this winter would be quite satisfying.

But first, we had to reach Egypt.

The merchantman, owned by one Captain Woolwich, a man for whom I’d been some use earlier this summer, moved swiftly, and we put in at Lisbon after four days to replenish supplies and prepare for the longer voyage into the Mediterranean.

Grenville felt better once we were out of the rocking sea and came out on deck for a look at the town. As I gazed out at the working docks, the sunburned Portuguese men swarming up ropes and hauling down crates, I recalled my last look at this city, when I’d hobbled onboard a ship, in vast pain and furious, my army career at an end.

I’d been a pathetic wretch when I’d departed Lisbon four years ago. Now I was returning as the friend of a generous man and married to a fine lady. I’d been reunited with my daughter and about to become a father again. I counted myself blessed.

“Ports are always dreary,” Grenville remarked, watching the smoke and bustle, the forest of masted ships against the pale buildings and twilit sky. “Shall we adjourn into town and take in the sights while they load?”

I was ready to leap down the gangplank and stride off, or at least limp away, but traveling with Grenville had already proved to be a different experience than hauling myself about with the king’s army. Grenville ordered a conveyance as opulent as one he’d hire in London, and we clopped off into the avenues, accompanied by our two servants and Brewster.

The city was lively, the Portuguese coming out with the sunset to eat and drink with their neighbors. We dined in a restaurant on a street that rose up a steep hill, enjoying the balmy evening. I spoke some Portuguese, as did Grenville, and we ate well on fish fresh from the sea. Bartholomew and Mathias slipped away on explorations of their own, while Brewster waited outside and watched every person who went in or out of the building.

When we reached the ship again, we found new passengers on board, a man and his wife who were off to Alexandria to look for treasure.

Archibald Porter, a slim, wiry man, was a retired sergeant who’d been a marine—one of the body of men who were assigned to naval vessels and fought battles either on land or on the ship itself. Marines were a tough breed, and we in the army had both despised and admired them. They’d despised and admired us in return, and I imagined that Sergeant Porter and I would rub along well.

His wife, Josephine, was also tough and wizened, her face brown from their travels. Though she was a small woman, the strength in her hand when I took it in greeting was a bit unnerving.

“Your wife stays in England?” she asked me as we leaned on the railing and watched Lisbon’s enclosed harbor fade behind us. “I had enough of that when the sergeant was in the war. We go about everywhere together now, from the cold of Russia to the burning lands of Africa, don’t we Archie?”

“Aye, she’s a good traveler, is my Jo,” Archibald answered without rancor.

“My wife is a bit indisposed at the moment,” I said, defending Donata’s absence. “She will have a child in December.” I could not disguise the note of pride in my voice.

Mrs. Porter grinned at me. “I bore ten of ’em, Captain. All growed now with bitty ones of their own. Never did me no harm. A few years, and your wife will be roaming up and down the world with you, I’ll wager. England’s a fine enough place, but dull.”

Egypt ain’t dull, Captain,” the sergeant continued. “We’re off to dig it up. There’s a bit of coin to be had in digging up treasure. Amazing what these Egyptians did in ancient times. Never knew the inside of a church, the Egyptians, but their temples are astonishing places.”

“And what they did with their dead is wonderfully gruesome,” Mrs. Porter added. “Wherever you go, you’ll no doubt encounter mummies or parts of them—the poor souls are everywhere. People once thought ground-up mummy a tonic for all sorts of ills—can you credit it?” She chuckled. “These same ladies and gents would be shocked by any mention of cannibalism. Takes all sorts, eh, Captain?”

I remembered my father reading that mummy was good for the constitution, but thankfully it was far too expensive for him to procure. A boy at the time, I’d reacted with both fascination and horror.

“Come help us dig if you like, Captain,” Sergeant Porter said. “Find a pretty trinket to take home to your lady.”

I wasn’t certain what Grenville’s plans were for our sojourn, but I thanked the Porters and told them I’d join them if I could. The idea of uncovering treasure that had been tucked away by an unknown civilization eons ago did intrigue me. I wanted to see every part of Egypt, from the Greek city of Alexander to the very ancient and mysterious pyramids.

I bade the Porters good night and went below to Grenville, who’d retired as soon as the anchor lifted.

“Salt of the earth, those two,” Grenville said weakly from his bunk. He’d been given the largest cabin in the stern of the ship, which surrounded the ward room. Grenville’s cabin held a bunk built to his stature by the ship’s carpenter, two large trunks of his belongings, and a tiny window, a light as it was called, that gave out onto the moonlit sea.

“Nothing wrong with salt.” I leaned on the doorframe, wishing I could do something to ease his malady. “They have invited us to dig for treasure with them.”

“Kind of them. I have arranged for us to do some digging of our own when we reach Giza. We will have a fine time of it, Lacey.” The ship heaved, Grenville’s eyes widened, and he quickly put his handkerchief to his mouth. “If I survive, that is.”

“Nonsense, the weather is wonderful,” I said, unable to keep the ebullience from my voice. “The ship’s master is pleased with the voyage so far and anticipates smooth sailing.”

Grenville only nodded and gave me a miserable look from his gray face. I took pity on him and left him alone.

Smooth seas we had, as anticipated, all the way to Malta. We passed the mighty rock of Gibraltar, the English bastion at the tip of Spain. We sailed past that edifice and on through the blue waters of the Mediterranean to put in at Valletta, in Malta.

It was only then that the man who’d shot at me this June made his appearance and once again tried to kill me.

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