Three Lessons in Seduction
Married: Persons chained or handcuffed together, in order to be conveyed to gaol, or on board the lighters for transportation, are in the cant language said to be married together.
– A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose
Paris 12 September 1824
Nick spotted her across the cavernous expanse of La Grande Salle, and the breath froze in his chest. There would be trouble.
From his shadowed position inside the opera box opposite hers, he could easily pretend she was just another sophisticated Parisienne. After all, he couldn’t see her face as she made conversation to her right.
Except he didn’t need to see her face. Her profile, limned in the soft glow of gas lamps, was enough for the heavy thrum of recognition to flood him with both a dread and a thrill that had excited him from the first moment he’d laid eyes on her more than a decade ago.
Why was she in Paris?
As if in response to his unspoken question, she canted her head to the side and froze as if she sensed something unusual, or was it someone unusual? He stepped deeper into shadow. Her gaze shifted sideways and unerringly found the exact spot he’d occupied no more than a trio of seconds ago.
He resisted the urge to run frustrated hands through newly shorn hair. She might have caught a flash of him. He couldn’t be sure.
Blast. Why was she here?
For one thing, he was missing, or was he dead? Or maybe he was on a trip to Italy. No one could say with certainty. And he preferred it that way until he discovered who had sent two men to attack him in his hotel suite a fortnight ago.
The woman was more than trouble. She was a threat to half-formed plans that were barely treading water as it was. Ignoring her presence in Paris wasn’t an option. If she was here for him—and she was without a doubt—she would find him. She was that sort of woman. She didn’t fade into the background when it was convenient for others that she do so. In fact, she only responded by foregrounding herself further.
He must find a way to seize control of the situation before it spiraled away from him, as situations tended to do around her. If she’d caught a glimpse of him, perhaps he could use to his advantage the curiosity such a sighting would stir within her.
She must be handled, and this ran him square into the second reason there would be trouble: she was his wife. If one person in Paris could best him, it was Mariana.
“Ma chérie,” Mariana heard this as if from a great distance. “To sit in La Grande Salle is a privilege and a joy. Settle and experience it. You have les fourmis.”“Les fourmis?” Mariana’s French didn’t extend beyond the schoolroom basics of bonjours and adieus.
“Zee ants. You sit like ants are crawling against your skin,” explained Helene de Vivonne, her mother’s dearest childhood friend. “I lived in London during la Terreur. Have you forgotten? Everything is rush-rush. Tick one item off your list, so you can complete the next. Posthaste, you English say. This is not the French way.” The older woman pulled Mariana close. “Savor the night, ma chérie. London has nothing on Paris.”
Possessed with the attention span of a butterfly, Helene released her hold on Mariana and turned to her other neighbor, leaving Mariana alone to take in the crowded room.
From the ornate ceiling frescoes illuminated by a magnificent cut-glass, ormolu chandelier, and the parquet floor cushioned by dense Persian carpets, to Society’s glittering monsieurs, madames, and mademoiselles in between, La Grande Salle was nothing short of sumptuous, the sparkling epicenter of Parisian Society. Inside this spectacularly gilded room, one could forget Paris had been in shambles not so long ago. This room could tempt one into pretending that the Revolution had never happened, and that it was only a wicked night terror revealed to be without substance in the warm glow of morning sunshine.
It was within this world that her husband had spent the better part of the last decade. Oh, Nick . . .
She slipped the note from her reticule and fingered its newly worn edges. She’d looked at it so often these last three days, she could quote its contents from memory:
9 September 1824 To the most esteemed Lady Nicholas Asquith: It is with great and solemn regret that we inform you that your husband, Lord Nicholas Asquith, younger son of the Marquess of Clare, is missing, presumed dead in the service of his King and Country. He was last seen in Paris on 30 August. Please accept our most profound and sincere condolences to you and your family.
Unable to comprehend the subtleties contained within the note at once, Mariana had sprung into a course of action regarding its more concrete elements. Namely, she would hasten to Paris and find her estranged husband—either dead or alive.
First, she’d seen to the care of the twins. Her sister, Olivia, took Lavinia with few questions asked, and Geoffrey would remain at school in Westminster.
She couldn’t get Geoffrey’s solemn, intelligent, ten-year-old eyes out of her mind. He’d known that something was wrong. “Tell me again why you’re leaving in such a hurry?” he asked as if she hadn’t already explained herself twice.
“I’m visiting your father in Paris. It will be a holiday.”
“You never visit Father in Paris.” His head had cocked to the side. “Or take holidays, for that matter.”
“There’s a first time for everything,” she’d said, bright and shrill.
Geoffrey’s eyes had only narrowed.
Even so, he, like Lavinia, had agreed to post an express letter to Helene’s Paris address every single day. With the possibility their world had been irrevocably turned upside-down looming over their heads, Mariana needed to know her children were safe while she searched for their father—their missing, presumed dead father.
Next, she’d rushed from London to Margate. There she’d used a combination of desperation and gold to convince a reluctant Captain Nylander to transport her across the Channel in his East Indiaman. He was set to sail to East Asia within hours, and a quick side trip to Calais would be nothing to him. From Calais, she’d hired a coach, paid the driver twice his usual fee, and rode on to Paris.
If Nick proved to be alive, she would leave him where she found him and return home.
For a decade now, they’d been living the perfect facsimile of a Society marriage where they saw each other at arranged times of year—Christmas, Easter, birthdays—for the benefit of Geoffrey and Lavinia. Not ten words passed between them a year, and the children likely never noticed. It was the sort of marriage not uncommon to their social set, and it was not at all the sort of marriage she’d envisioned when she’d fallen head over heels in love with him.
She gave her head a tiny, clearing shake. That dream had been crushed years ago, a lifetime really. A better use of her time would be to focus on the present. If Nick proved to be dead, she would transport his body to London. At the very least, she owed the twins their father’s decent burial at home.
Familiar panic rose, and the ground beneath her feet threatened to crater and give way. She wasn’t certain what lay below, but she suspected it was a bottomless abyss from which she would never claw her way out. Even though she saw him no more than every few months, a world without Nick in it was too much for her brain to comprehend.
It simply couldn’t be, and it simply was not. A force, intangible and mysterious, connected her to Nick. She would sense his absence if he’d left this world for the next. Except . . .
What if she couldn’t? And he was dead? The doubt crept in and threatened to split wide into the unfathomable chasm of her nightmares, but she refused to consider that outcome.
Hands clenched into fists at her sides, a steadying wave of determination steeled her. It simply couldn’t be. It simply wasn’t. She would find him and prove it—for the children, and, yes, for herself. She could admit that much.
The playful rap of a silk fan across her knuckles snapped her back into the present. Helene leaned in. “I take it the tall drink of Viking water is no longer in Paris?”
Mariana quashed a sigh and replied, “He left soon after escorting me to Nick’s hotel.”
Helene shrugged a Gallic shoulder. “His loss,” she said, returning her attention to her other neighbor.
Escorted all the way to Paris by the imposing Nylander—it was true the man resembled nothing other than a Viking in both bearing and temperament—Mariana’s first order of business on her arrival yesterday had been to place herself on Helene’s doorstep. Within the hour, Mariana and Nylander had followed Helene’s directions to Nick’s hotel in the Place Vendôme.
“I believe this is where we part ways,” Mariana had said to Nylander, her tone purposeful and businesslike. “I’m not certain you needed to escort me all the way here.”
She’d darted a covert glance at the captain. He was the sort of man who could give an unhappily, even happily, married woman ideas. Even though she was here for Nick, Mariana saw how easily she could pivot and pursue a different path. She could invite this gorgeous man into her suite of rooms. She didn’t owe Nick fidelity, especially after what he’d done.
“Shall I escort you inside?” Nylander asked in a low rumble.
For a long moment, she met eyes the blue of a midsummer sky. “I think not.”
“I shall be in Calais for a fortnight to have a few repairs done to the Fortuyn. Contact me at Le Blanc Navire if you need further assistance.” Without another word, he pivoted and strode down the crowded sidewalk as casual passersby parted for him like the Red Sea.
Mariana found herself the lone occupant of Nick’s set of rooms, which once picked apart inch by inch, yielded no clues as to his whereabouts or fate, an outcome at once wildly frustrating and oddly comforting. She didn’t know he was alive, but she didn’t know he was dead either. The man was nowhere.
Mariana worried the note between her fingers. Over the last few days, its texture had become as soft and supple as cloth. Yet, she kept it close for a reason: this note defied all logic. It was impossible to square with the dissolute life Nick led in Paris. Although the note was unsigned, it had originated from the Foreign Office.
How in the course of largely ceremonial consular duties—Nick’s words—did one become missing and presumed dead in the eyes of Whitehall? She intended to ask Nick if she found him . . . No, when she found him.
“Mariana?” came Helene’s voice.
As Mariana turned to reply, the fine hairs on her arms stood on end, and she hesitated. Her eyes darted left, toward the source of the feeling, but she found no one she recognized.
Heart pounding, she whispered, “Helene, may I use your opera glass?”
Helene raised a single eyebrow and handed the object over.
Mariana held the glass to her eyes and . . . saw nothing useful. Her overwrought mind was playing tricks on her. A phantom husband was the stuff of novels full of whimsy and scandal, not the stuff of real life.
The glow of the theater’s lights dimmed, and the roar of the assembled dulled to a low rumble. The ballet was set to begin. All eyes shifted their focus away from the drama of each other and toward the impending drama to be enacted on the stage.
All, except Mariana. She couldn’t succumb to the sugar-coated fantasy of the ballet. In an effort to relax, she exhaled every last bit of breath in her lungs and inhaled a slow, steady stream of air. But it was to no avail. Her heart a relentless tattoo in her chest, the walls of the theater threatened to close in on her.
She shot to her feet. “Helene, I need some fresh air.”
Without a care for the other woman’s response, Mariana darted out of the dark box and into a bright, empty corridor. Finally, blessedly alone, the walls expanded, and a self-conscious smile pulled at her lips. She was in danger of becoming the sort of excitable woman who tested her patience within thirty seconds of conversation. It was no state in which to conduct one’s life. A restorative visit to a museum would do her a bit of good. Perhaps the Museum of Natural History . . .
An inconspicuous door flew open, and a hand shot out, closing around her upper arm with the strength of a steel vise. A scream caught in her throat as she was dragged into a pitch-black room, the door snapping shut behind her. Her heart hammered in her chest as if it was trying to break free of her body, and her mind raced in time with its frenetic rhythm.
Before another scream could gather in her chest, a leather-gloved hand clamped over her mouth, and an arm reached across her torso, trapping her arms to her sides and pulling her tight against a solid, muscular chest. She struggled, twisted, wiggled, and stomped—everything she could think of to free herself. But nothing succeeded, and her breath continued coming hard and fast through her nose.
It wasn’t until her body stilled in frustrated exhaustion that she inhaled and smelled. Located in the scent surrounding her were notes she recognized—notes specific to one man. It was the scent of . . .
“Can I trust you not to scream?”
It was the voice of a dead man.