The knock came to the door of Simon Quinn’s Parisian home at exactly eleven o’clock in the evening.
The longcase clock chimed the hour and hid a secret door from view, one of many escape routes Simon had commissioned when he purchased the residence three years ago.
He listened to the exchange between his expected visitor and his butler, then rose as the voices approached the study, where he waited. Since disembarking from the ship that morning, he had spent the day making arrangements for this assignation, eager to conclude this last mission and begin his life anew. He’d sent a missive to Desjardins immediately upon arrival and requested a visit with his men to ascertain their condition. If they were well, he would schedule the exchange for the morrow.
He was dressed for riding and his greatcoat was slung over a leather wingback near the door. A dagger was strapped to his thigh and a small sword hung comfortably around his hips, not with any expectation of use but for appearances and to act as a distraction. Simon’s greatest weapons were his fists, the only defense an impoverished lad could depend upon.
He was prepared in all ways and confident. He’d left the ship and returned to his home with a cloak-shrouded figure beside him. An hour later, a disguised Lysette was taken to another location to ensure the failure of any attempt to wrest her away without a fair exchange.
Simon studied the person who filled his doorway. Lean and sinewy, the man bore the coarse appearance of one who lived by his teeth every day. Few would believe that so blunt an individual would associate with the suave and lauded Comte Desjardins, but it was true. The lackey would not be here if he did nor.
Desjardins’s man was conspicuous within the studied sophistication of Simon’s residence. Although Simon had grown into manhood on the mean streets of Dublin and London, fighting for every meal and a place to sleep, his comeliness had eventually led to him spending a handful of years as the kept paramour of the beautiful and wealthy Lady Winter. Maria had taught him many things, including the value of appearances. Because of her, he dressed with understated elegance, knowing that a man of his breeding could not carry flamboyance. He conveyed this sensibility to everything he owned, from horseflesh and carriages to his homes. His wealth could not be questioned, neither could his taste.
“Shall we?” the lackey asked in a nasally rendition of a gentleman’s discourse.
“I am ready,” Simon said, striding forward and collecting his coat along the way.
They exited Simon’s townhouse and mounted their horses. There were two more lackeys nearby, but Simon was confident in his ability to dispatch the lot of them, if necessary. Besides, if Lysette’s value was such that she was worth a dozen men, he had little to fear alone.
Which created an entirely new dilemma.
The comte was willing to release all twelve men immediately for only Lysette, which would leave the
However, it was no longer Simon’s purview to find out what that might be, and while his natural curiosity prodded at him, he ignored it. He was eager to leave this covert life behind. His recent visit to England and a brief, nonromantic reunion with the now-married Maria reminded him of times when he had been content with his lot. It contrasted sharply with the last few years of restlessness and told him it was time for drastic change. Good or ill, he needed his life to be altered. Continuing his employment was not an option.
The horses’ hooves clopped along the road in an easy canter and the night breeze blew in gentle caressing gusts across Simon’s cheek. Around them, an infrequent carriage passed and pedestrians walked along the street edge at a brisk pace. He noted everything and everyone around him by habit, his existence so dependant on his awareness of his surroundings that it was second nature.
For years he had believed his livelihood took no toll, but now he contemplated a future lacking the ever-present concern that he would be ambushed at any moment, and he smiled.
“Here we are.”
Following the example of the riders with him, Simon urged his mount down an alley and drew to a halt beside a hitching post. Once all the horses were secure, he was directed through an iron gateway and found himself in a cemetery.
“I’ll have to cover your eyes,” a lackey said.
“No.” Simon withdrew his blade.
“Just ’til we go under,” the man assured him, smiling in a way that chilled.
“I have a terrible memory,” Simon drawled. “You needn’t worry that I will join the dead in haunting you.”
“You either wear it, or we’ll have to turn about,” the man insisted.
Simon hesitated, trying to gauge their intent. He even feigned departure and headed back to where his horse waited. They followed alongside him, which reinforced their claim that they would not relent.
Shoving his blade back into its sheath, he conceded. “A few moments, no more. And my hands remain unbound.”
He was blindfolded and pulled forward by two men, one at each elbow. They crossed damp grass, then descended stone steps. The air grew musty and Simon stumbled over uneven ground. He cursed and was laughed at.
Simon stopped and pushed the blindfold off. He blinked and found his suspicions confirmed-he was in a catacomb beneath the city. Torches lined the walls at regular intervals, telling him this pathway was frequently traveled. He grabbed one, both for illumination and as a weapon. When his companions stared at him warily, he arched a brow in challenge. The leader shrugged and led the way without protest.
They walked some distance, venturing deeper via the many twisting pathways. Eventually they arrived, entering a cavernous room that had been modified into a dungeon of sorts. Simon found his men restrained in three cages, four in each, with some lying on the floor and others sitting with their backs against the bars. Several guards watched over them, though all were presently engaged in a card game.
“How fare you?” he asked, addressing the group with a sweeping glance. They were filthy and malodorous, their appearances haggard and unkempt, but they stood in a concentrated rush and seemed to be uninjured. They grabbed the bars with fisted hands and stared at him with hope-filled eyes.
“In need of a bath,” one replied.
“And ale,” said another.
“A woman?” Simon queried with a smile.
“You will be freed tomorrow,” he explained, stepping closer. “I wish it could be now, but I wanted to be certain you all were in good health before I relinquish what I have that they desire.”
A man named Richard Becking extended a grimy hand through the cage and Simon took it without hesitation.
“Thank you, Quinn,” Richard said hoarsely.
“Thank you, my friend,” Simon returned, tightening his grip and thereby hiding the passing of a tiny rolled note.
Richard’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, a silent assurance that he would keep the missive’s existence a secret. It detailed Simon’s plans for the exchange and the way he wished to be told of their safe release before turning over Lysette.
With that, Simon bade them farewell and returned to the surface the same way he had left it: partly with sight and partly blindfolded. He parted ways with Desjardins’s men when they reached their mounts and directed his horse to return home.
The streets were less populated now and only one carriage crossed his path on the journey home. He studied it in passing, noting the obviously female gloved hand curled over the window ledge and the noble coat of arms emblazoned on the door. Both attributes made the equipage and its occupants innocuous and easily forgotten.
The man on horseback was so comely, he stole her wits.
Lynette Baillon straightened from her reclined position on the carriage squab and leaned forward, twisting to watch the rider through the window until he was out of sight.
He rode tall in the saddle, his grip on the reins one-handed and loose. His other hand rested casually atop the hilt of his small sword, but she was not fooled. He was aware of everything around him. His eyes followed her equipage as it passed, his breathtaking features revealed by his lack of a hat.
“What is it?” her mother asked from her position opposite.
“I was admiring a handsome man,” she explained, settling back into her seat.
“Shameless,” the vicomtess admonished. “What if he had seen you craning your neck in that manner?”
“It is too dark,” Lynette argued, “since you will not allow us to turn up the lamps.”
“There is danger everywhere.” Her mother sighed and rubbed at her temples. “You do not understand.”
“Because you refuse to tell me.”
The weariness in the beloved voice made Lynette abandon the subject, just as she had done for years. Now that her sister was gone, she felt compelled to be a comfort to her mother. It was a role that did not suit her well. Lysette had been the gentle one, the quiet one. Lynette was the outrageous one, the flamboyant one, the one forever concocting schemes that landed them in trouble.
“No need. It has been a long journey.”
The vicomtess had the appearance of a delicate beauty with her pale golden hair and finely wrought features, widely lauded attributes that she’d passed on to her children. Age had not diminished her appeal; she remained as ethereally lovely as always. Regardless, the impression of fragility was a false one. Marguerite Baillon, Vicomtess de Grenier, was a remarkably strong woman. When she set her mind to something, she could not be swayed.
Unless it was a request from one of her daughters.
She had never been able to deny them anything, and after the loss of one, she was even more likely to indulge the other. It was why they were in Paris now. Lynette had always wanted to visit the famed city, so when the vicomtess suggested a trip to Spain in an effort to cheer them both, Lynette had begged for a short detour. Although Marguerite disliked Paris and had rarely returned to France over the past two decades, she had conceded reluctantly to her daughter’s wish.
The vicomtess yawned. “I wish for a hot bath and two days in bed.”
“But you allow us only a sennight to visit!” Lynette protested. “You cannot sleep two of those seven days.”
“I am jesting,
Her father was as cautious as her mother. He insisted on knowing their whereabouts at all times. “No, of course not.”
Lynette’s gaze moved back to the window and the view of the city beyond it. Her joy in the trip was tempered by the ever-present longing for Lysette to be with her. They had been inseparable from the moment of conception, and despite the two years since Lysette’s passing, Lynette still suffered the agony of loneliness that only a twin would know. It felt as if a part of her was missing and she was ever cognizant of that lack.
“I miss her,” Lynette whispered through a throat clenched tight with sorrow and guilt. “Dreadfully.”
“We will live for her,” the vicomtess murmured. “Every day.”
Oddly, the man on horseback entered her mind again. He had been so vital, so alive even from a distance. She would have spoken with Lysette about him, if she had been here.
Her impulsiveness had always been tempered by Lysette’s unshakable reason. Her sister had been her anchor, and without her, she felt adrift.
Lynette would give everything and do anything to have her sister back. But death had stolen Lysette away. Now, she would have to learn how to go on alone.
The Comte Desjardins was in his cellar searching for a particular burgundy vintage when a scraping sound heralded the opening of a door. He stiffened, his blood running cold.
Desjardins exhaled with relief at the sound of a normal albeit coarsely accented voice, the knots of tension in his shoulders diminishing only slightly. At this point, even that was a blessing. One could never be relaxed when he danced to the tune of another.
He turned and faced the waiting lackey, his gaze briefly lifting over the man’s shoulder to the rock-hewn stairs that led to the catacombs below. Searching for the devil, even though
Missives were all he received anymore.
His brows rose and the man nodded. No words needed to be said. The exchange with Quinn would take place on the morrow, and the lovely Lysette, arguably his greatest asset, would be returned to him.
He still had difficulty believing that she had been taken prisoner. In the two years she’d worked for him, there had never been an instance of failure. Perhaps she had been compromised? He prayed that was not the case, because he required the assistance of a beautiful woman now. One who could lie and kill without a qualm. Sadly those were few and far between.
The man slipped back into the tunnel and Desjardins ascended the stairs to the kitchen, passing the many industrious servants who prepared supper for his family and their guests. He left the bottle of wine on a counter and returned to the formal parlor.
It was his least favorite room in the house. His wife had decorated the space in a mixture of white and a blue so pale it was nearly white. All the metal accents in the room were silver, creating the impression-for him-of a snow cave of some sort. The only spot of color in the room was provided by the portrait of Benjamin Franklin that graced the wall.
He liked and felt a deep respect for Mr. Franklin. The man was charming, brilliant, and the Grand Master of the
He was also the latest target of
Desjardins had received another damnable missive just a sennight past. Rejecting monetary compensation had not been sufficient to sever that tie. Now he received nothing for his efforts beyond the promise that his family would not be harmed.
Because of this, he was grateful that Lysette had failed in her mission. He had hoped to discover the identity of the mastermind behind Simon Quinn’s activities in France, hoping to use the information to lure
“I found it,” Desjardins said as he drew to a halt beside the man who had become a pivotal part of his plan.
Edward James turned his gaze away from the portrait of Franklin and tilted his head in acknowledgment. The comte had yet to see the man smile. “I appreciate the effort expended and look forward to sampling the wine you speak so highly of, my lord.”
“It was no effort at all,” Desjardins said, inwardly thinking that sharing his favorite wine was the least he could do considering what James would most likely go through in the weeks ahead.
James worked as secretary to Benjamin Franklin, a position of prestige that had become a curse. He accompanied Franklin nearly everywhere and knew minute details of his life, details
Beautiful women were excellent at luring such commodities from men.
“You have a lovely home,” James said.
James was tall and lean with brown hair, dark eyes framed by brass spectacles, and a strong jaw. He was not handsome by any definition, but Desjardins’s daughter Anne was infatuated with the man’s “intensity” and spoke of him incessantly. Anne took great pains to join any outing or excursion that included James and noted all the minute details, such as how he liked his tea. Because of this, Desjardins felt he had a strong grasp of the type of man James was. He intended to feed that information to Lysette, which she could then use to become perfect for him.
“What are your plans for the rest of the week?” Desjardins asked.
He listened carefully to James’s reply, cataloguing the finer points to include in his notes for Lysette. He hoped the secretary enjoyed his brief time with the lovely blonde who was far above his station.
She would cost him his employment and reputation, if not far more precious things. Such as his life.