A cool, tentative hand touched Simon’s shoulder. Years of living under duress had made his valet’s stealthy approach into the bedchamber impossible to overlook, but exhaustion kept Simon prone on the bed and unmoving.
He opened one eye and met the frown-capped gaze of the servant. The man was blushing. Most likely because of the woman lying beside Simon. With his head turned away, Simon could not be certain, but he would not be surprised if the lovely brunette was baring more of her lush body in slumber than she ever would while awake.
“You have a caller, Mr. Quinn.”
“What time is it?”
“Bloody hell.” He closed his eye, but he was fully aware now. He was not a man people visited to discuss inanities. “Unless they are ablaze or otherwise mortally wounded, tell whoever it is to return at a decent hour.”
“I attempted to. He responded by moving a large quantity of trunks into one of the guest bedrooms.”
Simon’s eyelids lifted, as did his head. “Beg your pardon?”
“The Earl of Eddington has taken up residence here. He claims you would have it no other way.”
Careful not to wake his companion, Simon extricated himself from the mass of tangled bedclothes. He sat on the edge of the mattress, and waited for the spinning room to settle. A night of hard drinking and harder sex had left him with only an hour or two of sleep.
The valet shook his head, his gaze darting over Simon’s shoulder.
Twisting at the waist, Simon glanced at his companion and found her sprawled lewdly in the very position she had been in when he last dismounted from her-legs spread wide with her fingers curled into the linens.
Apparently, he was not the only one exhausted.
He stood and caught up the counterpane, which had slipped off the end of the bed to puddle atop the carved wooden chest at the foot.
“I need a bath,” he said as he covered the woman.
“I will see to it.” The valet bowed and asked, “What should I tell his lordship?”
Simon straightened. “Tell him it’s damned early and my mood suits my lack of sleep. He has been forewarned.”
The servant choked and scurried from the room.
An hour later, bathed and dressed in a sapphire silk robe, Simon left his suite of rooms and descended the staircase to the foyer.
The early morning light streamed in through the decorative window above the front door, glimmering through the crystal chandelier to cast rainbow light upon the parquet floor. His hair was damp and his bare feet chilled despite the Aubusson runner that lined the stairs. The minor discomfiture kept him alert, which was the intent. Eddington was not a friend. There was no reason for the earl to decide to visit unannounced and uninvited so soon after Simon had left his employ.
Simon heard the sound of silverware making contact with china at the same moment a footman bowed to him and gestured toward the dining room.
“My lord,” Simon greeted as he entered.
The earl looked at him and smiled. “Good morning, Quinn.”
“Is it?” Simon moved to the walnut buffet, where covered salvers kept food warm. He briefly wondered what the cook had thought of the menu request. He could not remember the last time he had enjoyed morning fare, as he usually began with the midday meal. “I am not often awake at this time, so I’ve no notion of what constitutes a ‘good’ morning or not.”
Eddington smiled and resumed eating, supremely casual and confident as if he owned the house he dined in. Like most members of the peerage, he assumed his surroundings were his to control.
“Personally,” the earl drawled, “if I find myself waking with an attractive woman beside me, I consider it a fine morning indeed.”
Simon laughed and settled into a chair without a plate of food. The aromatic smells of eggs and kippers made his stomach revolt. He gestured for tea instead. “Why are you here?”
“May I eat first? The food on the ship left much to be desired.”
Contemplating why the earl would come here of all places, Simon’s gaze moved along the cloth-covered length of the table, then around the room. He frowned as he noted the minuscule floral pattern in the golden damask that covered the walls. He had never noted the flowers before and wasn’t certain he liked them. “Can you not eat and speak at the same time?”
“Not while maintaining my dignity,” the earl retorted.
Simon’s examining perusal returned to his guest. The earl was a figure of some notoriety in England, lauded for his dark handsomeness and exquisite garments. Women flocked to him and he cultivated his libidinous reputation with relish. The nearly foppish facade was brilliantly affected to deflect suspicion. It was difficult to believe that a man so concerned with his appearance would have any time remaining to head an elite organization of English spies.
“I may return to bed, then,” Simon said with more than a trace of irritation in his tone. He had no need to await anyone’s regard.
“Very well.” Eddington sighed and set his utensils down. “Privacy is in order.”
Simon nodded to the servant who had poured his tea, then waved the man away. The two footmen by the entrance also retreated, closing the door behind them.
“Since you left Jacques and Cartland in my care,” the earl began, “we’ve had the opportunity to question them at length. Both men have been extremely forthcoming, and Jacques, in particular, has a great deal of valuable information to share.”
“How fortunate for you,” Simon said dryly.
“Yes, but it also raises a great deal of questions. Mademoiselle Rousseau was traded for a dozen men. In addition to that expense, Jacques and Cartland were forfeited. We need to know why she is so important to the
Simon arched a brow. The woman would forever be in trouble of some sort or another.
“I highly doubt that. Regardless, it would be wiser for you to stay with someone else. Someone who has no known history of aiding the British Crown.”
“But you may require my assistance.” Eddington reclined insolently into the high-backed chair.
“With what?” Simon’s hands wrapped tightly around the curved arms of his seat. “The only activity I am presently engaged in is carnal pursuit. I assure you, I can manage that task well enough on my own.”
Eddington ignored the jibe. “You spent some time with Mademoiselle Rousseau, did you not?”
“Too much time.”
“You tired of her?”
“We were never lovers, if that is your hope.”
“By all accounts, she is quite lovely.”
“Beautiful,” Simon agreed, “and a bit touched. I like my bedsport wild, but sane.”
“Interesting.” Blue eyes narrowed. “Perhaps you could overlook her brain in favor of her body?”
“Perhaps you can fuck her yourself,” Simon bit out. “Do not forget, my lord. I no longer work for you.”
The earl smiled. “I have not forgotten.”
“Good.” With his mood souring by the moment, Simon pushed back from the table and stood. Putting distance between him and Eddington was suddenly of primary importance. There were very few things as dangerous as a politically minded, ambitious man. “Enjoy the house. I believe I will quit France in favor of Spain.”
“You would be paid handsomely,” Eddington offered.
“You do not understand.” Simon set both hands palms-down atop the table. “Lysette is no fool. She knows I disdain her. If I approach her for sex, she would see straightaway that I had ulterior motives. There is no chance she would trust me.”
“She might, if you tell her that you have been betrayed by those you once worked for. Tell her that your accounts have been seized, and you thirst for revenge and restitution.”
Simon snorted. “Why in hell would she believe such a tale?”
“Because it’s true?”
Shock held Simon frozen for the length of several heartbeats, then he growled, “Surely you would not be so imprudent.”
“Desperate times lead to desperate measures.” The earl maintained his leisurely pose, but Simon felt the tension in him. He knew he’d provoked a dangerous enmity. “England is beset on all sides. I would do anything to protect her.”
“Spare me. This has nothing to do with the good of England and everything to do with your own lofty aspirations.”
“If my aspirations are achieved by assisting my country, what harm is there in that?”
Simon’s fist slammed into the table, rattling everything that rested upon it. Eddington flinched.
“I am at a disadvantage from the start. Since I lack even an introduction to Mademoiselle Rousseau, I have months of acclimation ahead of me. The same difficulty faces every other alternate I considered. I am left with no choice but you.”
“Just as I have no choice?” Simon snapped. “You drag me into your mire with a smile.”
Eddington attempted a more serious mien, but it was too late. Simon was infuriated as he had never been before. The whole of his life he had made every move by necessity, never having an option if he wanted to survive. The thought of finally achieving independence had been dear to him. Never looking over his shoulder, never fearing he would be discovered with something to hide.
… to be thrust back into that life against his will…
He realized he’d never had any power at all.
He should have followed Mitchell’s example-gathered his coin, changed his name, and traveled to a distant land.
Although he collected his error too late, Simon was a man who lived by his wits. He never made the same mistake twice. Eddington had him on a leash now, but he would not always. When all was said and done, Simon intended to ensure that he was never under anyone’s thumb again.
And Eddington would rue the day he set this plan in motion.
Pulling out his chair again, Simon sat. “Tell me everything you know.”
Lynette turned back and forth before the mirror with wide eyes.
“I am not certain I possess the aplomb to carry this garment,” she said, her gaze meeting Solange’s reflected perusal.
It seemed not long ago that Lynette had enjoyed nothing so much as shopping (except, perhaps, flirting). Her modiste expenditures had been exorbitant, a fact her father often scolded her about. It could not be avoided, she used to say, pointing out how the richer colors and fabrics she favored were costlier than the pastels Lysette preferred.
The gown she presently wore would once have been a delight. The glorious color, accented with layers of gold lace and satin, was alluringly cut to accent her slender waist and full bosom. As she moved from side to side, the veriest hint of rosy areola peeked above the dangerously low bodice. It was the garb of a seductress, a role she had once prided herself on aspiring to.
Now she felt her cheeks flushing and her hands tugged at the material trying to pull it into a less revealing position. She could not help but hear Lysette’s admonishment that the brain was as much a sexual organ as the breasts and hips.
“You are more than beauty, Lynette,” her sister would say.
“You are the brilliant one,” Lynette would retort without heat. She loved her sister too much to compete with her. It was simply the way things were. Lysette was a creature of calculated reason; Lynette was more tactile and emotional.
At least she had been. She was not that girl any longer.
Since Lysette’s passing, Lynette had taken to reading the many books her sister had left behind, finding comfort in the feeling of closeness the activity engendered. She also found comfort in the changes wrought by her new awareness of mortality. There had been so much remaining for Lysette to accomplish. Lynette-too long aimless and frivolous-realized that life was finite and she wished hers to be filled with more than mere flirtations and parties.
“Twirling before a mirror, just as you are doing now,” Solange agreed, moving to her open armoire in search of another gown. “Of course, the attire she was fitted for that afternoon was not suitable for more than a lover’s eyes.”
For a moment, Lynette considered asking more questions, then she shuddered and thought better of it. She did not want to think of her mother and father in carnal congress.
“How about this?” Solange asked, shaking out a pure white gown. It was lovely, if demure, with elbow-length sleeves and cream satin bows. “I commissioned this gown as a jest.”
“A paramour once protested the cost of my gowns, saying that he preferred me naked, therefore why should he pay to dress me?” Solange handed the gown to Celie. “I wore this to prove that garments can have various effects, depending on the wearer and the occasion.”
Lynette studied the dress as she donned it, admiring the costly pearl accents. ” ‘Tis beautiful.”
“I think so, too. Although I wore it only the one time.” Solange stepped closer and set her hands on Lynette’s shoulders. “You look a vision in white. Many women with your hair would be unable to forgo color; they would look pallid. Your skin, however, has a lovely rosy hue.”
Lynette thought it was just the sort of gown her sister would have worn. This impression was confirmed when a loud gasp from the doorway announced Marguerite’s arrival.
Turning, Lynette faced her mother, wincing when she noted how pale she was. Still, the vicomtess managed a shaky smile. “You look lovely, Lynette.”
“I look like Lysette.”
“As long as you are happy,” Marguerite said. Then she gave a shaky laugh. “I am slowly adjusting to this new woman you have become.”
“She is not completely changed,” Solange pointed out gently. “She is quite eager to attend the baroness’s ball.”
Lynette nodded and smiled wide, hoping to relieve her mother’s melancholy. “I would not miss it for anything. I have heard tales of such events, but never thought to attend one.”
“He won’t,” Lynette assured her, walking to Solange’s bed, where a proliferation of masks were laid out. The array of colors, ribbons, and feathers was impressive. Her gaze raked over the lot and settled upon a half-mask of crimson silk. Scooping it up, she held it aloft. “My face will be covered with this.”
For the space of a breath, there was silence, then the vicomtess’s face lit up with a genuine grin. “That is just the color I would have picked for you!”
Solange reached over and squeezed Marguerite’s hand. “It will be great fun for all of us. And the baroness has admirable taste in men.”
Marguerite snorted. “No man attending such an event would be suitable for my daughter.”
Lynette hid a smile, briefly thinking of the man on horseback and others like him whom she had met over the years. Dark and dangerous. Delicious. As much as grief had changed her, that was one thing that remained the same.
“I see that smile,” her mother accused.
But there was a sparkle in Marguerite’s blue eyes that had been absent for years.
It warmed Lynette from the inside. Perhaps the time for healing had finally begun.
From the shadowed depths of the parked carriage, Lysette studied the man strolling briskly down the street.
The flow of carts and pedestrians was steady, often impeding her view. Regardless, Edward James was difficult to miss due to the purposefulness of his stride. He moved through the milling crowd with ease, his hand touching the brim of his hat repeatedly as he greeted those he passed.
Tall and almost slender, Mr. James was definitely of the bookish variety of male, yet he was blessed with a confident bearing and long, muscular legs. His hair was a lustrous brown, nothing extraordinary but not lamentable either. The color of his ensemble was a dark green that was more sensible than noteworthy. His garments were nicely tailored and well maintained, though inexpensive. In short, Edward James was an average man leading an average life… if not for his employer.
“Did you study the notes I provided you?” Desjardins asked from his seat opposite her.
Mr. James led a quiet life. He spent his free time reading or visiting with friends. While he occasionally accompanied Mr. Franklin to elevated social events, he was said to be subdued, yet charming on those occasions, displaying no signs of avarice or a surfeit of ambition.
“James appears to have no aspirations,” the comte said with obvious disdain. “It is hard to lure a man to vice when you do not know what motivates him.”
“That is why we must provide the motivation.”
Lysette watched Mr. James disappear from view into a shop. “And what will that be?”
Her brows rose and she glanced at him. “For
“Your faith is touching,” she murmured, “but misplaced. No one has ever loved me.”
“I love you.” Desjardins smiled when she snorted. “Beyond that, you cannot say for a certainty, can you? You have no recollection.”
“If I had been loved, someone would have come for me.” Her fists clenched. “Someone would have searched until they found me.”
“I gave up fourteen men for you,
For himself, perhaps. She served a purpose, that was all.
“Are we here for a reason?” she asked crossly, irritated by the feeling of being a pawn. “Or are we merely spying?”
“I want you to cross paths with him.” Desjardins rapped on the roof to signal their intent to alight.
“And then?” She was often fascinated by the workings of the comte’s mind. It was the one thing about him that she admired.
“Then you will continue on your way and I will appear. I shall offer him a chance to indulge his fascination.”
The carriage door opened and the comte stepped down first, then extended his hand to her.
“Fascination?” she queried, pausing in the doorway.
“With you. After he sees you, thoughts of you will linger with him all day. He will be desperate to see you again.”
“And what chance for indulgence do you have in mind?” She took his hand and stepped carefully down to the street.
“Baroness Orlinda is having a fete this evening.”
“But…” Her eyes widened. “What of Depardue’s associates? You know it is not wise for me to be too visible!”
“It will be a brief sojourn, and visibility is not our aim. We want him to pursue you, not find you easily.”
“He will not enjoy such a gathering,” she pointed out, “if your study of him is correct.”
As Lysette shook out her skirts, she tried to imagine the understated James enjoying the shocking revelry of an Orlinda party and failed. She also searched inwardly for any feelings of guilt and found only determination. James was her last impediment to freedom. Desjardins had promised her emancipation, if she could succeed in gaining information about Franklin through his secretary.
“No, he will be uncomfortable, as you will be.” Desjardins smiled. “You will suggest departing and James-already enamored with you from your meeting this morning-will arrange to take you away. That will begin a series of shared memories that will build the foundation of your romance.”
“Or so you hope.”
“Trust me.” The comte kissed her on the temple and gave her a gentle push. “I will join you in a few moments.”
Straightening her shoulders and steeling her resolve, Lysette looked both ways, then weaved through the carts traversing the busy thoroughfare. Her focus narrowed, a huntress closing in for the kill. Because of this preoccupation with her quarry, she did not notice the Irishman who lounged insolently within the recessed entryway of a nearby merchant.
But then, Simon Quinn had spent the entirety of his life perfecting the art of fading into shadows. It was a skill that had saved his life many times.
“Poor bastard,” Simon muttered, commiserating with the unfortunate Mr. James.
He watched Lysette assume a casual stance before a shop window, then he straightened. From his vantage, he’d heard enough to begin a hunt of his own.
Tugging down his tricorn, he passed Desjardins’s unmarked equipage and set off toward the Baroness Orlinda’s residence. Months ago, he’d met the lovely baroness while playing a game of cards and they had struck up a flirtation. She would be pleased to learn that he had returned to France.
And he would be pleased to attend her ball.
Through a storefront reflection, Lysette watched Mr. James approach. He appeared distracted-his head was bent and his lips moved as if he spoke to himself. Beneath one arm, he carried a wrapped bundle. He raised his other hand to adjust his spectacles for a better fit.
She waited until he was nearly behind her, then she stepped back abruptly, placing herself directly in his path. He hit her with the force of a falling bag of rice, hard and impossible to withstand. She cried out in surprise, stumbling, nearly falling. Distantly, she heard him curse under his breath, then she was snatched close with such speed and strength that she lost her breath.
“Are you all right, mademoiselle?” he asked, startling her anew with the sound of his voice. It was deep and slightly rumbling.
Clinging to his sinewy forearms, Lysette lifted a hand to straighten her skewed hat and found herself gazing raptly up into his face.
He was scowling, and glancing up and down the street. Still, his profile arrested her. His jaw was square and strong, his skin kissed by the sun. The knot of his cravat was simple, yet perfect.
To add to her already overwhelming astonishment, James seemed completely unaffected by their public embrace. Truly, he appeared to have forgotten she was there. He stepped back and released her, bringing her attention to the fact that he had dropped his purchases in order to catch her.
Lysette sensed that the time when she could capture his attention was nearly at an end. She acted on instinct, reaching out and sliding her hand between his coat and waistcoat, her palm pressing firmly over his heart.
“Forgive me,” she breathed. “I am so clumsy.”
James’s hand caught her wrist in a lightning-quick movement, his head swiveling to face her, revealing astonished brown eyes behind his brass-rimmed spectacles. She could see the moment when he became aware of her as an individual woman, rather than merely an anonymous intrusion into his path.
As she gazed into his luxuriously lashed eyes, Lysette realized how hard he felt beneath her hand. She gave a tentative squeeze and a dark rumble vibrated beneath her touch.
“I was not minding my direction,” he said, pulling her hand away. He lifted it to his lips and kissed the back. “Edward James.”
“Corinne Marchant.” She smiled and he flushed slightly, the crest of his cheekbones darkening with high color.
That response soothed her jangled nerves slightly.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” James said. “Although I would have preferred to introduce myself in a more refined manner.”
In any other instance, she would have flirted more heavily; perhaps she would have said the collision was worth it in order to meet him. But Mr. James was not the type of man women lured in that manner. He was too…
So she backed up to a more appropriate distance and busied herself with resettling her hat back into its former jaunty angle. “I am a featherhead to have been so absorbed in a pair of shoes.”
His gaze narrowed on her, then he turned his head to look at the slippers she referenced. Pale pink and studded with diamonds, the cost for such detailed craftsmanship was unquestionable.
“No one would notice such extravagance when worn by a woman so lovely as you,” he said gruffly. “They would not be looking at your feet.”
Lysette smiled. The compliment was difficult for him to voice, which made it all the more charming. “Thank you.”
She was not sure why he did not move away. His eyes were not lit with the masculine appreciation she was accustomed to seeing. Instead he examined her, as if she were an anomaly he wished to classify. His dropped package rested at his feet, but he seemed in no hurry to reclaim it. Pedestrians brushed past them as they completed their errands, yet he seemed not to be aware of any of them.
Afraid that her unabashed perusal of him was causing the suspicion, she tilted her head and said, “I hope the rest of your afternoon is less eventful.”
James bowed slightly. “And yours as well.”
They parted. As she walked away, she did not feel him looking after her. Curious, and hoping that if he sighted her glancing back at him, it would spark interest, she paused and turned. Edward James was striding away briskly.
Shrugging, she continued on to Desjardins’s carriage to wait.