Book Genre: Historical

To Win A Wicked Lord

Posted January 23, 2020 by Sofie Darling in / 0 Comments

Title: To Win A Wicked Lord
Series: Shadows and Silk #4
Genre:
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Lord Percival Bretagne is used to playing games. He survived being a spy for a decade using his wits alone. But that was just life and death, now he’s playing for the most important prize of all—love.

He’ll Stop at Nothing……

Ten years after his family gave him up for dead, British spy Lord Percival Bretagne is back home, but his mission is far from over. Playing the aristocrat in London gambling dens and at country house parties is just a cover for Percy's real quest. He's hunting the man who stole everything from him—his family, his marriage, even his identity. And this time nothing, and no one, will stand in his way.

She’ll Risk it All…...

But one night with Isabel Galante changes everything. She’s willing to gamble a woman’s most intimate prize in order to save her imprisoned father, but she didn’t expect a devilishly handsome opponent with a dangerously attractive wicked streak. Isabel would do anything for her family, including betraying Percy, but she has no idea that she’s stumbled into the middle of a decade-long quest for revenge.

Who Will Win in the Game Called Love?

Percy has been betrayed before, and now the man who destroyed his life is using Isabel to strike again. With the fate of the government and his new life in the balance, he’ll have to keep Isabel seductively, scandalously close. They begin a passionate game of truth and lies, deception and dalliance, uncovering the heart of who they really are and realizing that winning might mean losing what matters the most—each other.

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Excerpt:

Chapter One

London
20 June 1826

Lord Percival Bretagne stepped into a room alive with the vibrancy of a young night and grasped in an instant that he would be known.

This gaming hell was exclusive, a playground for the ultra-wealthy. Here, the son of a duke—even a younger one, like himself—would be hard pressed to remain anonymous. Society circles ran small and tight in London. He should have stuck to the dicier hells. But in those places the stakes were too low, and he needed to strike his enemy where it hurt: deep in his banking account.

From finely woven Persian carpets to walls bedecked with gold-shot silk brocade up to the high ceiling lit with crystal candelabra, bright opulence winked optimistic light and beckoned Percy to follow its uncertain promise. Impassive male servants circulated through the crowd, champagne and spirits balanced on trays polished to high shine. Strumpets, clad in diaphanous fabrics that left naught to the imagination, tripped through the room on light feet, flirtatious laughter trailing in their wake, laughter that didn’t quite reach their eyes.

Percy’s gaze narrowed on Number 9’s patrons, seated at various gaming tables that offered any man with the right amount of wealth or family connections the opportunity to test his luck. To a one, they wore the specific look of the well-heeled and moneyed, an air of Eton and Harrow hanging about them, half an eye on the gaming, the other half on the female flesh.

Percy descended three quick steps and entered the fray. A few faintly curious eyes glanced up, only to return to their game the next moment.

“Champagne, milord?” inquired a plaintive cockney whine at his side. He was about to decline the offer when he found a pair of familiar eyes the hue of a turquoise stone staring up at him. “Follow me,” she said, low, her voice again her own. She led him to an alcove hidden behind a large curtain that she must have already scouted. Hortense was ever prepared.

“Where did you procure that?” Percy indicated her costume of gossamer silk that left little to the imagination. He didn’t like her wearing such revealing clothing.

“From the doorman. He knew Nick.”

Hortense didn’t need to elaborate further. During their years in France and the Continent, Lord Nicholas Asquith, their handler and friend, had been expert at securing favors here and there, names and places passed along on the breeze, this or that useful bit of intelligence in exchange for a scrap of coin or safe passage across the Channel. This French doorman must have been quite useful to Nick for him to be in London.

Serious blue eyes snapped at Percy. Hortense had the sort of gaze that could see past skin and muscle, down to the marrow of bone. “Are you certain about tonight, Bretagne? This Savior of St.

Giles business has taken on a life of its own.”

Percy snorted. “The Savior of St. Giles? What foolery. The gossip rags have outdone themselves with that one.”

“You can’t go around bankrupting gaming hells and not expect anyone to notice.”

“There is only one man whose notice I care to attract.”

“Well, you’ve single-handedly shut down two of his hells, so you can feel confident on that score. But the papers have noticed, too. You’re becoming a bloody folk hero.”

Percy waved off Hortense’s concerns. “Is that all?”

She persisted. “You’re open to exposure. It can be used against you.”

Her jaw set in determination. Percy had come to know that look from years of working by her side on the Continent, cracking codes and gathering information for Crown and Country. She was like a terrier with a bone once she got something between her teeth, and she wasn’t letting this go, which, of course, was why he’d involved her in the first place. In truth, she was the most perfect agent he’d ever known.

A few months ago, before he’d caught wind of his enemy’s illicit activities, Percy might have paid her worries more attention. But, tonight, he would allow her qualms no air to breathe, not when he had the scents of peril and possibility in his nose. Since stepping foot on English soil, he’d been most alive on these nights when he actively worked toward the destruction of Lord Bertrand Montfort.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, Percy had lost the talent for the aristocratic London life he’d once been so exceptionally good at living. A life he’d shed a dozen years ago on a scarred Spanish mountain pass that had been blown to bits by Napoleon’s army.

It was Montfort who had, at last, found Percy, his memory ripped to shreds.

And Montfort who had ensured it stayed that way, as that version of Percy had perfectly suited Montfort’s purposes.

With Percy returned to England, Montfort’s account had come due.

“We shall have everything we need on Montfort tonight, if all goes to plan,” Percy said. “Then you can return to spying on rich men’s cheating wives.”

“Don’t forget rich ladies’ cheating younger lovers.” Hortense shrugged one shoulder. “It pays well.

Still, it has felt good these last few months, getting back into the thick of an operation.”

Percy loosened the constrictive silk cravat at his neck before adjusting one, then the other, of the cuff studs at his wrists. It had been some time since he’d dressed in evening blacks. “Do I look the part?”

“Of debauched, entitled lord determined to fritter his life away on a single roll of the dice?” Hortense’s mouth twitched. “Aye, I’d say you’re hitting that nail on the head.”

Percy chucked her beneath the chin. “Cheeky.”

The seriousness returned to Hortense’s eyes. “I’ll be waiting in a hackney cab behind the building until dawn.”

Percy lifted an eyebrow. “I doubt—”

“I’ll be there.” Hortense deposited the serving tray onto the nearest table with a loud clank and disappeared into the crowd, this role complete.

Hortense’s concerns vanished with her as Percy stepped from the alcove and considered the room. He was champing at the bit to dismantle this place by using its own vices against it.

“Why if it isn’t Lord Percival Bretagne,” came a public school drawl.

Percy stopped dead in his tracks and met the gaze of one booze-soaked Lord James Asquith, Earl of Pembroke, standing at a hazard table, one hand braced on green baize, the other idly curled around a crystal tumbler of brandy. The man was heir to the infamous Marquess of Clare and older brother to Nick. Blast. London could be small as a country village.

“Pembroke,” Percy acknowledged. “Hazard’s your game?”

Pembroke gave an indifferent shrug of the shoulder. “The game hardly makes a difference. In search of a little oblivion, like everyone else.” He craned his head and fixed cold gray eyes on Percy. The same eyes as Nick’s, but not the same at all. Pembroke’s were dissolute, jaded, and utterly, utterly bored. “Seeking the same?”

Percy nodded. It was clear Pembroke hadn’t a care, but the man was Nick’s brother, and Percy couldn’t just leave it. He angled his body so only Pembroke could hear his next words. “You need to clear out of here.”

A sardonic eyebrow lifted. “Concern about my moral well-being? From you, of all people?”

“Hardly,” Percy said, ignoring that last bit. His licentious reputation didn’t bother him as much as Society would like. “This night will have consequences. You won’t wish to become embroiled.”

Pembroke shot Percy a glance, surprisingly penetrating and sober. Then he returned his attention to the table action for a few more tosses of the dice that lost him an additional fifty quid before draining his tumbler in two great swallows. He gathered up his remaining counters and, without another word to Percy, shambled his way through the room, nimbly avoiding every strumpet who threw herself into his path. Percy slid into Pembroke’s vacated spot and set his ivory counters onto green baize. The night was set to begin.

Of a sudden, the hairs on the back of Percy’s neck prickled, and he felt it, someone’s gaze upon him. He followed the feeling around until he located the source on the far side of the room: a woman, veiled and dressed in all black. Number 9’s madam, presumably.

Unease began a slow crawl through him. Most of the madams he’d encountered in his short tenure as the Savior of St. Giles possessed a certain bearing, a brazen flash of the eye, a daring pout of the lips, and a view toward the winning angle. None of them hid behind layers of black lace.

Yet he detected a litheness to her figure suggesting freshness and, confoundingly, youth. In his experience, madams were neither fresh nor young.

The prickling sensation spread. It could be interpreted as a physical response to intrigue, but, in truth, it felt not unlike the initial stir of desire. He instantly tamped it down and pursued the other interpretation. What was her game?

“Dingo?”

Dingo. His nickname from long past Eton days. Blast.

He half pivoted to find Chauncey Talbot-Spiffington, otherwise known as Runt, waiting with an expectant look on his face. When Percy glanced back, he found the woman gone.

A beat of silence went on a tick too long. Runt’s bushy eyebrows drew together and released. The man’s feet shuffled with unease. “Just arrived in Town, have you?”

“It’s been a few months.”

“And you didn’t call on me?” Runt asked, hurt running through the question.

Percy barely contained a snort. He hadn’t the time or inclination to soothe a grown man’s wounded feelings.

“Your scar,” Runt began and trailed.

Percy felt himself go tight about the mouth.

Runt, ever the sensitive one of the old Etonian pack, must have noticed, for he continued in an obsequious rush, “It’s quite fashionable and . . . and da-dashing!”

Percy wouldn’t touch his fingertips to the scar, its silvery length running along the ridge of his right cheekbone, put there by the single slash of a French saber, his last memory before a well-aimed—or poorly, depending on one’s point of view—cannon shot blacked out his world.

“Of course, we’ve all heard tattle about your exploits, Dingo.” Runt’s expression turned commiserative. “Wouldn’t have expected such behavior from Olivia, though.”

Percy clenched his jaw. Olivia. The woman who had once been his wife. The wife he’d left on this side of the Channel for a dozen years, letting her—and the world—think him dead. Once she’d been alerted to his continued existence, she’d petitioned Parliament—with the assistance of his own father, the Duke of Arundel—to set the marriage aside and succeeded, rendering the daughter he’d never met, Lucy, a bastard.

Lucy.

The pang of guilt hit Percy with its familiar swift, sharp jab to the gut, as it always did when he thought of his daughter.

No, Percy wouldn’t be discussing Olivia or any of his family with Runt. He would only have to defend them—for they were absolutely in the right. Runt was determined to revisit the past. So, let them, and be done with it. “Where is Chippers?” Percy asked. This was the nickname for Lord Phineas Featherstone.

“Checking the betting books,” Runt supplied.

Percy plowed on with his line of questioning. “And Bongo?” Lord Jarvis Smythe-Vane.

“Oh, he didn’t come out tonight. His gout, you know.”

Percy hadn’t, but no surprise there. “And Tuppy?” Lord Harold Ponsonby.

“Tupping a wench upstairs, what else?”

Right. “And Bumpy?” Lord Basil Arbuthnot.

Runt jutted his chin toward a point behind them. “Passed out in a chair.”

Percy glanced back and spotted the unconscious man, a thread of drool hanging from his open mouth.

And that was the old Eton tribe accounted for.

To survive Eton, a boy needed a tribe, and they’d formed one based on their shared status as younger sons, spares to the heirs. With no expectations placed upon them, they’d been free to be useless to a one, and they’d run with it, Percy included. In fact, as the younger son of a powerful duke, he’d been their leader. And they were exactly who he would have become had he not sped off to the Continent and war on a wave of misguided foolhardiness. Reckless vainglory had its uses.

But Runt and his cohort weren’t the worst part of his past. Not even close.

Across the hazard table, the croupier caught his eye. “Your toss, monsieur,” the man called out in a light French accent.

Percy found a pair of dice in his hand and gave himself a mental shake. Tonight, he had an opportunity to send the worst part of his past to the devil. It was time to get on with it. “Stay if you like, Runt, but I have work to do.”

“Work?” Runt asked, as if startled by the very concept. “This is pleasure, old man.”

“For some.”

One hour later

Oblong green baize stretched ahead of Percy, a pair of dice rattling in his hand. Gathered round this hazard table stood a moneyed, bleary-eyed crowd breathless in anticipation of his next cast.
“Dingo,” whined Runt’s voice beside him, “haven’t you had enough?”

Percy smirked down at the man. When had Lord Percival Bretagne ever had enough of anything? Never once in his life had he been able to resist raising the stakes when the opportunity presented itself.

Again, he rattled the dice, this time for effect. Another thrill of anticipation shimmered through air dank with bodies long in need of a wash and a sleep. He opened his hand. “Blow on my dice for good luck.”

The ever-faithful Runt heaved a resigned sigh before doing as his old leader commanded. “Aren’t you happy with your winnings?”

“Happy?” Percy scoffed.

Happiness had become an abstract concept the day he’d engaged in his first battle on the Peninsula, acrid cannon smoke filling his lungs, rifle bullets whizzing past his ear, and the realization sunk deep into his bones that they weren’t playing toy soldiers. The stakes were infinitely higher, of life and death, and Death wasn’t playing around. In fact, judging by the broken, bloodied bodies strewn about the ground in twisted poses of which only contortionists and the dead were capable, it had become clear that Death was winning. Death always won. It was simply a matter of putting off the inevitable for as many seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years as one could manage and somehow make a difference in lives in the meantime.

How was happiness possible after one had come face-to-face with this reality?

Percy didn’t place much value in the concept of happiness. It only mattered what he did, not how he felt. Feeling had only gotten him into trouble in the past.

But this . . . A wicked smile curled up one side of his mouth . . . This was mindlessness, a state he could slip into only too readily. How he’d missed it. He let it take him into its embrace and suck him inside as he glanced down at his stacks of winnings. It did appear he might have enough to get management’s attention—and, from there, Montfort’s—yet . . . Percy wanted more.

Percy pushed his winnings, every last farthing, forward, eliciting a chorus of startled gasps, raucous yeahs!, and whistles that split the fuggy air. The only way to have enough—to have everything—was to risk everything.

Percy met the croupier’s gaze across the table. Even as the man appeared to blanch at Percy’s stake, he nodded. The odds were no friend to the reckless aristocrat on this roll, and they both knew it.

The blood whissed through Percy as he stood on the precipice of the unknown. At this moment, his purpose wasn’t solely to wreak revenge and justice upon Montfort. A wickedness flowed in his blood, one that he’d only ever been able to control when he starved it completely. Once fed, even a scrap, it took on a life of its own.

His hand began a slow, relentless shake. With every rattle, the volume of the crowd increased until it crescendoed into a loud roar. The night had been building up to this one fateful toss.

He’d neither nicked nor thrown out on his last roll. If he rolled the main, a seven, the house would win. Sevens were always the best odds.

If he rolled an eight, both the chance and the worst odds in hazard, well, matters would take an interesting turn. He would most definitely gain Montfort’s attention.

Percy flicked his hand open and let the dice fly. Across green baize they hopped, skipped, bounded, and rolled, a series of gasps following their every rotation as they bounced to a stop, their numbers staring up for the world to see.

Percy’s heart galloped in his chest, and he felt as out of breath as if he’d just run a mile at full tilt. He lifted his gaze to meet that of the croupier across the table. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of the man’s face, the smile on his lips turned rictus.

Percy almost felt badly for the croupier, for the man would have to answer to Montfort. Then Percy considered the lives this place had despoiled and destroyed, families ruined as men were reduced to paupers and women to whores. This man was part of that life.

“I’ll settle up now,” Percy spoke through the charged silence.

The croupier’s throat undulated with a hard swallow. He and Percy both knew that he didn’t have the cash on hand to pay out. He would have to summon his superior. This was the exact series of events that Percy had hoped to set in motion when he’d walked through Number 9’s front door tonight.

He was close, so close his fingers twitched with anticipation. So close was the proof he needed against Lord Bertrand Montfort, younger son of the Earl of Surrey and long-standing servant of Crown and Country. It had taken a few months of poking around to catch the whisper that Montfort had been silently investing in gaming hells and brothels around London. Once he’d held this dark, slippery bit of information, Percy understood that if he kept pursuing this path, he would eventually hold the key to Montfort’s ruin. In their rarefied world of wealth, excess, and privilege, reputation was life, and Percy would see Montfort’s destroyed. A little quid pro quo.

The croupier’s gaze shifted and widened on a point beyond Percy’s left shoulder. That was when Percy felt it: a change in the air, an electric current that rippled through the room as it passed from person to person, brightening eyes and heightening smiles. He pivoted and followed the general gaze until he found the veiled woman, her attention fixed on him.

The world stretched away, receding to a great distance. A path parted for her, she one magnet and he the other. Although he could see nothing of her features beneath the veil, her focus never wavered as she moved forward . . . toward him.

With only a few feet of Persian carpet separating them, she stopped, her lush figure—waist cinched tight, breasts pushed up—somehow on full display beneath all that black lace. Through dense air fogged by cigar smoke and brandy, he caught her scent. Honeysuckle. Another word came to mind. Sunshine. How was it possible a gaming hell madam smelled of summer at its sweetest?

At last, she opened her mouth to speak, only to hesitate at the last moment. No, not hesitate. Women like her didn’t hesitate. She’d paused for effect. “Shall we play for higher stakes?”

Percy blinked. Her voice. It was husky, a lower register than he would have guessed. Further, it held a foreign accent. The night grew more interesting by the moment.

Montfort had sent her. Percy knew it in a flash.

What he didn’t know was why.

Familiar anticipation charged through Percy, urging him on, toward the edge of the precipice that would drop him into the thick of whatever this night—and this woman—held for him. As a spy, he’d loved nothing better than a path that bent at sudden angles.

“Lead the way,” he replied, only just containing a cynical snort. What did Montfort think sending him a whore would accomplish? If this was a stratagem to catch him unawares, it was for amateurs.

The crowd, which had quieted to take in the exchange, burst free and broke into rounds of leers, hoots, and rowdy whistles. The frisson of unease returned and snaked through Percy, as if an unconscious part of himself understood that within this woman lay something he shouldn’t get tangled up in. Except . . .

When had he ever let such a feeling stop him? When hadn’t that feeling, instead, pushed him into the thick of it?

Whatever game Montfort had planned for Percy, he would play.

And he would win.


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At the Pleasure of the Marquess

Posted February 23, 2021 by Sofie Darling in / 0 Comments

Title: At the Pleasure of the Marquess
Series: Shadows and Silk #5
Genre:
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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...

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Excerpt:

Westminster, London
April 1827

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.

Again, nothing.

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.

“As ever.”

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?”

“My brother.”

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.

Ever.

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…

Untethered.

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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