Sir Martin Powell dragged his fingers through his hair and poured himself a glass of brandy, the only luxury his small office afforded. Though he loved his work and never questioned his duty to the Crown, the last few days had not been pleasant.
For days he’d watched the soldiers stumble into Paris from the Russian warfront, gaunt, pale men, their uniforms in tatters and their faces reflecting the gruesome deaths they witnessed. Many more—hundreds of thousands from Napoleon’s Grande Armée—would never be coming home. Though almost all of England would rejoice, the slaughter sickened Martin. But the Crown expected him to wait and watch. And to send reports of all he observed.
It was nearly Christmas, and to cheer his wife Elise he’d promised a drink to celebrate with their good friend Ormond, another Englishman serving the Prince Regent through espionage in France. Martin hated to be late for anything, so he hastily finished his brandy, shoved back his chair and grabbed his coat. An hour later the three were seated in their favorite café, crowded and noisy on this frosty December night. All around, returning soldiers sought solace in drink. Martin scanned the room, studying the men’s faces. After all these years it was second nature to be aware of those he might have to face in a skirmish, their weapons, and the exits he might need for escape.
Tossing back her head of dark curls, Elise laughed at something Ormond said. The sound always reminded Martin of bells tinkling. How he loved her smile, so openly displaying her love of life. He had married her too young, he knew, and it had been taking a serious risk given his situation, but one day he would return to England and he wanted Elise with him. She was like a fresh wind off the sea, a soothing balm to his oft-troubled soul.
As they always did in public, they spoke in French.
“I understand there is more to celebrate tonight than Christmas, my good friend.” Ormond followed these words with a wink.
“You told him?” Martin asked, turning to face his wife and seeing her mischievous smile.
“Oui, I did. Ormond is like a brother; I could not keep it from him. He was happy to share our joy.”
She beamed, and Martin could not be angry. Elise was right. His colleague and good friend did need to know, and Martin was pleased as well, though he was reticent to bring a child into the world during a time of war.
“Since we’ve shared the news, let’s share a toast to the babe!” exclaimed Ormond, calling for champagne. Soon their three glasses were raised in celebration. “What are you wanting, you two? A boy or a girl?”
“I am hoping for a boy—for Martin,” Elise said. “One with his blue eyes.”
“And I will take whatever you give me, my love,” Martin reminded her, leaning over to bestow a kiss that brought a smile to her sweet face and to him a feeling of contentment.
He’d known little enough of it until the day she came into his life.
Downing the last of his drink, Martin kissed his young wife again on the cheek and the three rose to leave. There was much yet to do.
The night air was wintry as they exited the crowded café. The cold felt good, invigorating. Martin had just taken a deep breath when several soldiers emerged from the café behind him, swearing and complaining amongst themselves about Napoleon deserting his troops in his haste to return to Paris. One of them was defending his emperor. The men were drunk, angry and looking for a fight. The warning sounded in Martin’s head, but this was a night for celebration, not war, so he shrugged and walked on, his hand under Elise’s elbow.
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a brandished pistol. A man shouted, followed by an explosive shot, and Elise slumped to the ground. In the light from the tavern Martin saw a circle of blood widening on her chest.
“Elise!” he cried, dropping to his knees beside his wife. “Dieu, no. Mon amour.”
A terrible anger filled his soul like a gathering storm. Maddened, he rose and spun, pulling his knife. He struck out toward the throat of the man who had fired the pistol. The soldier was an easy target, too stunned by what he had done to move, but before Martin’s blade could fall the two other soldiers attacked him, one swinging a fist into Martin’s ribs and the other holding a knife to his throat.
Instantly Ormond was there. He leveled a pistol on the soldiers. “Laissez-le aller!”
Seeing the weapon, the soldiers let Martin go. Though he fired no shot, Ormond’s pistol never wavered and the soldiers fled into the night.
Martin reached for his wife, taking her into his arms. He cradled her close to his chest as he rocked back and forth, saying her name over and over. “Elise…Elise…Elise….”
Ormond knelt beside him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. Martin felt his friend’s touch, but there was no comfort to be had. There was no bringing back the girl whose vacant brown eyes stared up at him.