Series: Shadows and Silk #5
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Hortense Marchand has played many roles, but never wife. Until one desperate marquess seeks the lady spy’s help—and her hand…
Thief. Spy. Wife.
Orphaned as a child, Hortense has had to fight her way to becoming the ton’s favorite private investigator. But for a woman who lives on the edge, the past is never dead. When her former spymaster asks her to find his wastrel brother Jamie, the Marquess of Clare, she thinks it’s just one more job uncovering the ton’s dirty secrets. She has no idea that she’s about to find her future…
Lord. Lover. Husband.
To her surprise, Lord James Asquith isn’t as wayward as his brother thinks, and when Jamie catches Hortense searching his study one night, neither can ignore the sparks that fly. Intrigued, he tracks her through London, watching her work. But when his rakish past comes back to haunt him, Jamie can think of no one better to help him than the talented, and very fetching, lady spy…
When Lord Becomes Lover and Thief Becomes Wife…
Their quest takes them back to Hortense’s dark past as a child pickpocket, where she and Jamie will have no choice but to work together to do the bidding of a powerful thief lord—even if that means marriage! Despite their chaste intentions, passion flares and as they grow closer Jamie and Hortense can’t help but wonder if love will be enough to make their marriage more than a masquerade...
Hortense rounded the corner from Bowling onto Little Peter Street, and out of habit, she scanned both directions to gauge the state of the thoroughfare. It stood empty of all but one other night skulker on the opposite side, back to her and keeping to himself. She stuck tight to the midnight shadows, her tread light. Always better to stay unnoticed.
Her boardinghouse lodgings at Number 11 lay just one more street ahead. Already, she was anticipating the comfort of her bed after yet another night of tracking the movements of a philandering husband. The third such case this week.
Ever since the informal spy network she’d been part of disbanded two years ago, her former handler and mentor, Lord Nicholas Asquith, had introduced her to aristocrats in need of tact and her expertise. From there, her discreet investigation outfit servicing London’s elite had naturally formed by word of mouth. Nothing was too mundane or, conversely, too sordid. Mostly, it was infidelity that filled her coffers. Lost and stolen items, every so often. It wasn’t the glorious, seductive spy craft that saved nations on the sly, but it did pay the bills, and then a little to put by.
Her boot heels should be the only click-clack echoing off uneven buildings to either side of her. But an unaccounted for click-clack joined hers, its tread heavier and quicker. Someone was gaining on her.
Her heartbeat kicked up a notch, and the blood whizzed through her veins. She overshot Number 11 and, half a street up, rounded a corner into a dark, fetid alley.
Back flat against the damp stone wall, heart pounding in her throat, breath hitched in her chest, she waited. Nothing may come of it, entered the clear voice of reason. The man might stride past the alley, blithely unaware of his role in this little drama of her own creation. It was a possibility.
Yet it was a different potential outcome that had her crouching low and her hand wrapped around the dagger strapped above her boot. Silently, she counted backward from ten. She reached zero, and no one had passed, not even a rat. Doubt niggled through her. Mayhap the paranoia that was never far out of reach was clouding her judgment, and the man—or woman, but likely man—had turned onto a different street with nary a thought for her.
Again, she counted slowly from ten to zero.
She drew a shallow breath and squeezed the hilt of the dagger, her hand shaky with anticipation, before poking her head around the corner. Not ten feet away, a still figure shrouded in shadow stared out at her. In an instant, her body was flooded with the twin thrusts of fear and readiness.
Recognition hit her, replacing fear with a relief so acute she could sag to the ground with it. “Asquith?”
Lord Nicholas Asquith stepped forward into a dim ray of the waning moon. “You know to call me Nick these days.”
“Old habit.” Annoyance flared. “You could have announced yourself.”
A sardonic smile twisted about his mouth. “How else could I have tested your sharpness?”
“And?” She couldn’t resist asking, the urge to win her mentor’s approval rooted deep after all these years.
She snorted. “You’re lucky I didn’t knife you.”
“I’d have deserved it.” He jutted his chin toward the empty street. “Let us walk.”
She pushed off the wall and joined him. They didn’t walk side by side with arms locked, like a couple. Theirs wasn’t, and never had been, that sort of relationship. “I’m guessing you’ll state your reason for seeking me out tonight?” she asked at last.
“I would like to hire you for a job.”
Alarm streaked through her. “You don’t suspect Mariana of—” She gulped down the last word, unable to speak it aloud.
Nick and Mariana were the rare aristocratic couple who were perfectly suited to one another. Well, after they’d sorted through the first ten years of their marriage. Their connection could almost convince one to believe in the sort of love that lasted.
“Infidelity?” He waved dismissively. “Nothing like that.”
She could sag with relief. “What’s the job?”
She knew of the older brother, but Nick never spoke of him.
“You’ll recall,” he continued, “my mother and father died in a carriage accident five months ago.”
She nodded and kept her silence at the cold distance in his voice. The few fragments of rumor and speculation about the Marquess and Marchioness of Clare that had drifted her way over the years—indiscriminate affairs by both parties, public screaming matches—painted them in a depraved and loathsome light. Nick wasn’t the sort of man to be close to such people.
“As the firstborn son, Jamie inherited the title.”
She detected no bitterness. Second sons knew their lot was to be the spare to the heir. And if the heir survived to inherit, well, the spare received naught all for his trouble.
“I haven’t seen my brother since the reading of the will four months ago. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t left Asquith Court in all that time, and he won’t let anyone in. I’ve tried.”
“What do you need from me?” she asked, the bud of anticipation blossoming, impossible to resist. It had been so long since a job truly interested her.
“I need to know what state he’s in.” Nick met her gaze for the flash of a second, but long enough for her to detect uncertainty, and concern. “If he’s dead or alive.”
She inhaled the sigh that wanted release. “Blast.”
He cut her a hard glance. “You won’t do it?”
“Of course, I shall.” She couldn’t refuse Nick anything. “But, just once, I would like to wear a silk dress instead of a maid’s uniform.”
He snorted, a wry smile playing about his mouth. “When the job is finished, Mariana will take you to her dressmaker. A new silk dress as a bonus payment.”
Her eyes rolled toward the uncommon indigo sky above London. “And where would I wear such a garment?”
He shrugged. “Life rarely lets us know where it’s leading us before the fact. It has a habit of simply arriving. One should ever have one’s silk dress at hand, in case.”
They walked on a few steps. “When do you want me to start?”
“At your earliest convenience.”
In fact, she had another job set to begin on the morrow—a lady whose precious terrier had been kidnapped by a former lover. This lady happened to be married to a well-known member of Parliament and required the deed done discreetly. Another job that was simply a variation on the tired theme of infidelity. But Nick was the one person in the world for whom she would drop everything. He’d loosed her from Doyle. The debt she owed him commanded utter and complete loyalty.
They had circled back and were quickly approaching Number 11. “I can start in the morning.”
“It shouldn’t take more than a handful of days.”
“Any other pertinent facts I need to know?”
It was a standard question, but Nick’s brow creased into a deep furrow. “My brother,” he began, haltingly, “struggles with drink. You should be aware of that.”
She gave a curt nod. He need say no more. His primary concern was that his brother was drinking himself to death. “I shall contact you in a few days’ time.”
“My thanks.” He nodded and pivoted on his heel, continuing up Little Peter Street, a muted whistle trailing in his wake.
Hortense ducked down the narrow alley that ran alongside the boardinghouse. Her key slid into the lock of an unobtrusive black door. Once inside, she turned the lock behind her and climbed the straight staircase to her attic rooms. This private entrance was the deciding factor for having chosen this place. A useful feature for those nights when she returned in the early hours of the morning, like tonight.
It had taken quite a bit of searching to find a respectable landlady willing to accept her two conditions. She would be allowed to keep her own hours. And no questions would be asked.
For this arrangement, Mrs. Hayhurst charged double the rent. The landlady might not ask any questions when Hortense placed prompt payment in her hand every Thursday, but her pinched mouth and knowing eyes did her talking for her. The woman could think what she liked.
Inside her rooms, she gave more thought to the conversation with Nick, specifically the part about his brother. Actually, she’d seen him once. It was last year at an exclusive gaming hell. He’d been deep in play and his cups. She didn’t remember much about him, beyond his dark hair, rangy form, and general sardonic mien, as he hadn’t been her mark that night. He’d been someone else’s mark as it turned out, which triggered a series of events that ended with Lord Bertrand Montfort shot and Lord Percival Bretagne wed. She doubted very much the lofty Marquess of Clare—then the Earl of Pembroke—was aware of any of it.
Yet she wondered what the man was like. He and Nick would differ in temperament, of that she was certain. Nick was disciplined, patient, and loyal. So, what did that imply about the brother?
A marquess and a drinker had been said. Wastrel had been left unspoken. Right. Plenty of that variety of lord charging about London.
Temptation pulled her toward the bed, but she resisted. Instead, she lit the single candle on her bedside table and disrobed down to her chemise, which a quick sniff revealed might need a wash after a long day of striding to and fro about crowded, noisome streets. Due to her early start this morning, she hadn’t a chance to do her exercises. There wasn’t a day she skipped them, not even when she was tired down to the marrow of her bones. Especially then, for that was the moment her guard could slip.
And that wasn’t an option.
She crouched deeply and sprang up, her arms thrusting upward and her toes lifting off the floor for the space of a second. She repeated the sequence one hundred times, like every other exercise in her rotation. She came to the floor and on her stomach, rising to her hands and toes, with arms extended straight. They released and bent at the elbows, lowering her body to the floor, before she pushed up again. Once she reached one hundred repetitions, she flipped to her bottom and lowered her torso until her back nearly touched the floor, then she curled forward. Next, she picked up the lead shot wrapped in burlap and began moving in a variety of extending, curling, and crouching motions. Half an hour from the time she started, she completed the full sequence.
Now, she could sleep.
Years ago, early on when she started working for Nick, she’d learned a valuable lesson about readiness the hard way, the specific memory of which she kept tucked in the deepest corner of her mind. The lesson was this: she would never be bigger or stronger than her adversaries and quarry, but she could be quicker and smarter.
No one would ensure her safety for her. She must do it for herself.
She blew out the candle and slipped her weary body between the covers of her welcoming bed. Sleep, however, eluded her.
She’d missed the odd midnight surprise rendezvous with Nick. These last few years, she’d felt…
Sure, every Monday, she visited Nick for dinner, which included Mariana and their twins, Geoffrey and Lavinia. But that was in the bosom of his family. It was the relationship they’d had to forge when Nick decided to step out of the spy game, taking her with him. She still hadn’t grown entirely accustomed to it. She didn’t quite think of herself as lonely, but she had been living a solitary life.
Not that she thought she could build the same sort of family life as Nick. What man would have a woman like her? She had no interest in homemaking, or any of the activities that made a woman a woman in the eyes of a man.
She had two goals, really. The first was to continue to build her investigating business. With every month, she added a few more clients. The thought of her second goal, however, made her heart double in beats, for this goal was absolutely vital to the success of her first goal. Simply put, it was to put herself out of reach of Flick Doyle, permanently.
During her years of spying for Nick, she’d thought she had. Then, about a year after her return to London, Doyle had demonstrated how very wrong she’d been when one sunny afternoon he’d sent one of his lucky eels around to summon her. He’d then explained to her the “taxes” he would be collecting from her forthwith. After all, he was allowin’—his word—her to conduct her business in London, his turf.
“This ain’t the Continent, as those nobs like to put it. All yer fancy new clients wouldn’t be so quick to pay a jumped-up guttersnipe to be prowlin’ ’round their palaces, nosin’ into their affairs, if they knew yer past. One of them gossip rags would gobble that story right up.”
Of which past he spoke was clear. Her past before Nick. Her past with him.
And his threat was doubly obvious: if she didn’t pay her taxes, he would destroy her business.
Like that, he’d pulled her back into his web.
But now, a year on, she had to disentangle herself. Before Nick caught wind of it. Before Doyle’s “taxes” ruined the good name she was trying to build, for he didn’t require payment in coin, but in baubles. A bauble didn’t have to be fine or expensive, but rather personal to the aristocrat she nabbed it from. She would eventually get found out. It was only a matter of time.
And, tonight, Nick had given her a job. Doyle didn’t need to know about it, for she wouldn’t be stealing from Nick. She had a line, and there it was.
With that assurance to herself, which might not hold in the stark light of day, her head sank into her pillow, and her eyes drifted shut as she succumbed to the pull of an exhausted, and hopefully dreamless, slumber.
The same hope as every other night.
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