An Improper Arrangement

By: Kasey Michaels

PROLOGUE

Battle of Champaubert

10 February 1814

GABRIEL SINCLAIR HAD talked his friends into many a wild start or dubious enterprise over the years, but the objectives always had been entertainment, adventure and, often, since they’d grown into manhood, willing women.

Which didn’t explain why they’d followed him this time, as the only things certain were they’d be cold, bored and forced to miss their noon meal, not that the last could be considered much of a sacrifice.

There wouldn’t be any more large battles, everyone said so, especially after the Allied Army’s thorough trouncing of Napoleon’s troops at La Rothière. Any day now, Boney would present an offer of abdication, hand back his crown and they could all go home.

“Tell me again why we’re up here, Gabe, risking frostbite to our most treasured appendages,” his friend Cooper Townsend said, wrapping his greatcoat more tightly around himself. “Our Russian friend camped us in the wrong spot?”

“I think we’ve already agreed on that. They’re all acting as if the war’s already over,” Gabriel muttered as he studied the crude map he’d drawn a day earlier, while out reconnoitering on his own. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust England’s ally; he merely trusted himself more. He was also partial to giving orders, not taking them, and hadn’t been best pleased to be ordered to join with the Russians. “Look at this, Rigby,” he demanded, shoving the map under Jeremiah Rigby’s nose. “Five thousand men, all but deserted by Blücher and stretched thin like pulled taffy. Our affable host, the dear General Olssufiev, has yet to set out half the needed sentries, and the few he did do nothing but hide in the bushes and snore their heads off.”

“Not the ones we kicked awake when we first got up here,” Cooper said, grinning. “Only real enjoyment I’ve had in days.”

Gabriel ignored him and continued making his point. “One sharp bite on the taffy and the French are through our lines, and with nothing at our backs but a half-frozen river.”

“Yes, yes, very pretty. You’re quite the artist with words, Gabe. Not that I can decipher the thing.” Jeremiah Rigby pushed the offending map away. “Worse, now I’m hungry for taffy.” He winked at Cooper. “Wouldn’t mind a rabbit, either, come to think of it. Since we’ve seen no French, what say you we scrap this ridiculous patrol you bludgeoned us all into, Gabe, and turn it into a hunting party?”

“Not yet, boys. Our doomsday prophet might yet be right. Shame, if true, but odd things happen all the time.”

They all turned to Darby Travers, who, for lack of anything else to do, had been lazily scanning the horizon with a spyglass.

“Give me that—it’s mine. See? It’s got my name inscribed right there, below my grandfather’s. It was a gift to him when he represented England in the court of Russia’s own Empress Elizabeth. We lived there for several years, and that’s how Papa managed to— Well, I didn’t give you permission to touch it.”

“Christ, Neville, you’re worse than a nursery brat fighting over his toys,” Gabriel said as the last of their small reconnaissance party grabbed the spyglass and stood straight up before being pulled back down by his breeches. “Idiot beanpole—why not wave a flag while you’re at it? What did you see, Darby?”

“Sunlight reflecting off metal, just as somebody else would see it bouncing off that spyglass. At least I think I did. Just inside those trees on the other side of the field. I’d call it three hundred yards. I saw flashes not once but twice, in two different areas.”

“It’s probably one of our patrols,” Neville said, sticking the glass to his eye, then fighting to focus in on the tree line. “Where? I don’t see anything.”

“Surprised he’s looking into the correct end,” Darby said, rubbing his cold hands together.

“Oh, now that’s harsh, Darby. Shame on you.” Rigby turned to Gabriel, whispering none too quietly, “Remind me again why you thought we needed to drag this fuzzy-cheeked halfling along with us?”

“It wasn’t simply because he asked so prettily—I’ll tell you that. I thought he might come in handy. An idea, when looked at in hindsight, that wasn’t particularly brilliant. But he speaks Russian, remember? Only one of us who does, if we need to get a message to Olssufiev in a hurry. Otherwise, if you also recall, we were going to tie him to his tentpole so he wouldn’t wander.”

Young Neville pushed his unruly black hair out of his eyes while looking momentarily nonplussed, but then seemed to come to a decision. “You want me to go tell the general, don’t you? But what do I tell him? So far, all we’ve seen is some reflections. We can’t know if it’s one of our own patrols or Boney’s whole army massing in those trees for an attack.”

“Remarkably, I believe I agree with the infant. He must have once read a book or something. Myles, there may be hope for you yet.” Gabriel spat on the ground beside him.