"If you spot him again, shoot him on sight," my father said. "I shall deal with the repercussions myself."
I gently pulled off my gloves and felt Will's grip on my elbow tighten. I looked about the room --- at my younger sister, Lil; my brother, Felix; and one of our guards, Pascal, standing with Antonio and my father.
"What's this?" Will asked, leading me closer to the others, deeper into the Venetian palazzo's grand salon. I was thankful that the long windows were wide open, allowing the brine-laced breeze to waft through. "What's happened?"
"Oh, Cora!" Lillian cried, rising and entering my arms. She clung to me a second and then pulled back to look at me. "It was Nathan Hawke! I'm certain I saw him across the piazza today!"
"Truly?" I asked. "Nathan? If you're right, he's far less clever than I though." I looked to my father, his words about shooting him on sight making far more sense now. Nathan Hawke was dangerous, insturmental in our kidnapping a week past, thwarted only because Will and Art had used other nefarious men to double-cross him. I lifted a hand to my temple and shook my head. "It makes no sense. He should be on a steamer to Greece by now. Not lollygaggin about where one of us might spy him, report him. He risks imprisonment!"
"Unless he wants to be seen," Antonio grumbled, thick chin in hand.
"For what purpose?" Felix asked.
"To make certain that we know who is behind the next kidnapping," bit out my father, throwing up a hand in frustration. "So that we might pay the ransom without hesitation."
"His partners are in jail," I said. "What true threat is one man when we are so many?"
"It took only one to take our Lillian," my father said, his blue eyes steel cold as he leveled them at me. "And another to nab you as well."
"We are far less naive than we were when we began this journey. We never go out alone ---"
"Not that that resolves our concerns," my father said. "What would you do if he leveled a gun at you? Or your sister? Or young William here?"
"Presumbably our armed guard would protect us."
He paced back and forth, flicking one hand in the air. "So he draws his pistol, Antonio draws another, and you are caught in the cross fire?"
I bit my lip, stymied by both his logic and the sudden reminder that he might care for me and my future, regardless of the bad blood that had passed between us. I pinched my temples between thumb and ring finger. "We've been trhough this, Father. We cannot live in fear the rest of our lives. Like it or not, after that Life article, we'll be recognized wherever we go. Even more so once the next issue is off the presses and reaches Europe."
"Which will be soon," said Hugh Morgan, one of our traveling companions, his tone uncommonly gentle. "It'll be any day now."
I looked back at my father. Here, at last, was the gauntlet he'd warned me of --- the trials of leading, of making choices. I had to show him I was up to the task. "If it's not Nathan Hawke, there will be others, yes? You have enemies. I, apparently, have enemies. This is our present reality. And we all must deal with that threat, here, now, so that we can be done with it forevermore."
"It would be easier at home in Montana," my father said. "We wouldn't be so exposed."
I held a breath, defeated by the idea of turning tail and running after all we'd endured. We'd fought to be here, earned the right to finish our trip, even if it was against Father's wishes. Hadn't we? But I recognized his fear, his concern for the others --- my siblings, Felix, Vivian, and Lil, as well as the Morgans --- even if I couldn't trust what he felt for me. I sighed and looked to Will.
"When is the earliest we could leave, if we wished to?" Father said.
"The Charleston ships out in a couple of weeks from Pisa. We might secure passage on her. But given that it's high season, she's likely sold every stateroom, and getting us all aboard, even if you all agreed to travel second class..." Will shook his head. "No, it's highly unlikely we'd find anything above steerage. There's a slim chance we could find acommodations on the Charlemagne, the following week out of Naples."
"Oh, but the Charlemagne's a miserable ship," Pierre de Richelieu said, entering the room, his keen eyes covering each of us but resting on me. "Trust me. You'd never wish to board her wretched gang-plank." His eyes narraowed as he took in the dour mood of the room. "What's happened?" he asked, his French accent growing thicker. "What is it?"
Antonio ben to whisper in his ear, and Pierre's handsome green eyes shifted to me, his brows furrowed in alarm --- and then his gaze traveled down to Will's hand on my elbow. I knew he'd remained, even once Will and I began openly courting, hoping I might change my mind. He pinched his lower lip, then turned to a chair and sat down, heavilty, as if beaten. He was due to leave for Paris within hours. I knew that this was perhaps the last time I'd ever see him, which made me alternately relieved and sad.
My father strode to the window and put a hand on the frame as he stared outward. "It is you that Nathan Hawke is after, Cora. An heiress, a millionaire in her own right, now. That's the story the press shall propagate. Luc Coltaire would've taken any of you. But a Montanan like Hawke? He's after you."
I let out a soft scoffing laugh. My sole inheritance --- my claim on a portion of the Dunnigan mine --- was in dispute. Father wished to hold it out before me like a carrot before a horse, forcing me to go in the direction he wished. I had secured an attorney and discovered I might have a change at fighting for a portion, whether my father approved of my decisions --- continuing the tour, allowing Will rather than Pierre to court me --- or not.
"Perhaps you can flag Hawke down in the piazza," I said.
"Explain to him that you are doing your level best to keep me and my parents from earning one dollar of our mine's bounty. That trying to wring a ransom from my banker will be as difficult as squeezing blood from a turnip since I have about three dollars to my name."
I heard the tiny gasp from my sister Lil. Everyone in the room seemed to take a collective breath, all eyes now concentrating on the two of us.
"Cora, this all mustn't be so trying," my father said, his blue eyes shifting in agitation to the others in the room. "And even if we weren't at odds about the Dunnigan mine, you know he'd come to me. Appeal to me as your father. I'm the known quality."
"And we both know how far that would get him." I took a deep breath and looked to Will, then back to my father, feeling a wince of regret now over my harsh words and the shadow that passed through his eyes. "But if you feel it's me that Nathan is after, perhaps we should part company for a time. I don't wish to endanger the others."
"No!" Lillian cried, coming to me and taking my arm before looking back to our father. Her blonde ringlets by her ears bounced. "Please, Father. Don't allow her to go. It isn't safe!"
"We only have a few weeks left before the Olympic sails back home," I said, patting her hand. "We wouldn't be apart for all that long."
rising voices, floating down the marble staircase, drew our attention to the open doors. Vivian. And Andrew. They were getting closer, bickering, and then Vivian arrived, flushed and wringing her hands, Andrew directly on her heels. She looked up, belatedly realizing that so many of us had gathered and overheard them arguing.
I splayed out my hands and forced a smile, eager to relieve the pressure of the group's attention. "We were just discussing the possibility of parting ways for a time."
"Parting ways?" sputtered Vivian, her small features drawing together in a frown. "Who of us wishes to part ways with you?"
I almost laughed at Andrew's steady gazed behind her. he was one, for certain. Somehow, he seemed ready to pin their growing dissonance on me.
"I believe we are past that idea," my father said quietly. "Now we must plot our safest course."
I considered him and then cast my eyes about the room, thinking. "What if we changed course again? Get off the Grand Tour track. See Antonio's Italy together?" I gestured toward our guide and then folded my arms. "Nathan Hawke is resourceful, but I wager it was Luc Coltaire that kept them on our trail before. If we up and disappeared in the wee hours, this very night, would we not likely slip from the city without him knowing where we'd gone? And if we kept to the smaller towns and villages, rather than the grand cities, would we not be far less likely to encounter those that knew the first thing about us?"
My father's gaze shifted to me, his gray mustached twitching as he considered my plan. And it was then that I knew he agreed with me.
"But what of the big cities?" Nell whined. "I do so want to see Milan. Turin. And Florence!"