Chapter 14

It was barely noon when the first missive arrived on Simon’s desk. Written in a beautiful, flowing feminine hand, it asked if he had reached a decision regarding his discussion with the Vicomtess de Grenier the day before. He thought of burning it, but thrust it into a drawer instead.

Later, another arrived, this one containing only the address of a tailor’s shop and nothing more. Unlike the vicomtess’s, it was a message Simon was relieved to see.

Donning his coat, he left his house posthaste. His residence was now a torment, occupied as it was with both Eddington and memories of Lynette. It was the last place he wanted to be and yet the only place to both wait for news and bide his time until the hour was sufficiently late to allow him to visit Lysette.

He rode swiftly, goaded by the feeling of being trapped, forced to act against his will and in ways that went against the grain. He could not move forward or back, and lack of information was what hampered him.

Familiar with the direction sent to him, Simon was still forced to travel in ever-minimizing circles, searching for anyone who might be following him before finally reaching his destination.

The ringing of bells on the shop door heralded his arrival, but no one he knew was inside.

Simon removed his hat, his gaze sweeping over the various bolts of cloth and the customer speaking to the red-haired woman at the counter before discovering the waving hand peeking out from behind a curtain. Moving to the rear, he slipped behind the thick wool and found himself in the back of the store. He also found Richard.

“Took you long enough, Quinn,” the man said, laughing.

Richard was seated at a table covered in multiple scraps of cloth and spools of thread. As always, he looked relaxed and carefree. Simon was not fooled, though the less observant would be.

Taking the seat Richard gestured to, Simon set his hat on the table and said, “Interesting choice of venue.”

“Courtesy of Amie”-Richard gestured to a rather plain-faced girl who sat in the corner tugging needle through thread-“and her mother, Natalie.”

The redhead rounded Simon’s back, set a chipped and mis-marched tea service atop the mess on the table, and began to pour.

“Natalie’s husband is the tailor,” Richard explained. “But he is home ill this week.”

“Merci beaucoup,” Simon said to Natalie, then he pressed a kiss to his fingertips and tossed it at the girl. Amie blushed and lowered her eyes.

“Women come too easy to you,” Richard complained. “It took me two hours before she would even look at me.”

“But your efforts paid off.”

“I would rather expend no effort, like you.”

Simon accepted the cup and saucer offered to him, and settled as comfortably as possible into his wobbly seat. “Tell me you have something valuable.”

“I am not certain how valuable it is, but it’s damned interesting.” Declining tea, Richard crossed his arms on the table and leaned closer. “The Vicomte de Grenier is most likely one of my easiest assignments.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. He was embroiled in a scandal of such note, that it is still remembered to this day.”

“Always lovely when that happens.”

“Yes, it is. Apparently the vicomte was betrothed to Marguerite Piccard, who was a diamond of the first water, 1 understand.”

“Still is,” Simon said, setting his cup down without drinking from it. He wanted liquor, not tepid tea.

“However, before they could wed, she hared off with the Marquis de Saint-Martin, a noted libertine who happened to be married at the time. I heard some diverting tales about women crying in the streets over the man, but his reputation was obviously not a deterrent to Mademoiselle Piccard.”

Simon remembered the haughty and icy woman he had met in his parlor, and his brows rose. Then he thought of Lynette and the heat of her passion. It seemed both women were determined to have what they wanted.

“She was his mistress for over a year,” Richard continued, “then she returned to de Grenier, who married her anyway. He is some sort of diplomat to the Polish and she has been living in Poland ever since. De Grenier returns quite often, always alone. They had two daughters, but one is deceased.”

“Was the parting with Saint-Martin amicable?”

“It is said the libidinous marquis suffered a great decline after they separated. He was not seen for months after she wed, and afterwards, was never the same.”

Frowning, Simon considered the news carefully. “What year did this transpire?”

“In ’57. Also, I am not certain if they are connected in any way, but Saint-Martin’s surname is Rousseau.”

“It cannot be coincidence. There are too many of those as it is.”

“What does it mean? Do you know?”

“I might.” Suddenly wishing he’d had more sleep, Simon growled and damned his brain for being sluggish. “Say nothing of this to Eddington.”

“Of course not,” Richard muttered. “You know me better than that.”

Simon pushed to his feet.

“Well? Are you going to tell me what in bloody hell is going on?” Richard demanded.

“No, not yet.”

“Damn it, Quinn… Do not go yet! I haven’t finished.”

Pausing midturn, Simon waited.

“I will tell you mine,” Richard offered, “if you tell me yours.”

“Becking…” Simon rumbled.

“Oh, very well. Since I felt rather successful after last night, I stopped by Mademoiselle Rousseau’s residence this afternoon. Just before I came here, actually. One of her servants was leaving at the time and I followed him. He went directly to Desjardins’s residence and was shown in like a guest, not a servant.”

“A bit odd perhaps,” Simon murmured, “but not surprising. I am certain Desjardins supports her and pays her staff. He would expect reports of her activities and visitors.”

Which was why Simon would not be announcing his next visit to her.

“That is not the best part.” Richard sat back and grinned. “That James chap was following him, as well. Damned good at the business, too. I had no notion he was in pursuit until after I mounted to meet you. I was turning a corner when he caught my eye.”

“So… the mouse senses the trap.” Simon nodded. “Excellent work as always, Becking. You can share that part with Eddington. It should keep him happy for a time.”

“Eh. It was a lucky day.”

Simon patted him on the shoulder. “See what news you can find regarding the marquis.”

“Already working on it,” Richard assured. “As much for my benefit as for yours. Been a while since I had anything this interesting to chew on.”

Smiling, Simon departed the shop and rode toward Lysette’s.

Desjardins fingered the missive in his pocket as he climbed the stairs to Lysette’s room. Another L’Espritquery, this time in regards to Simon Quinn. The man was coming far too close to Lysette for the comte’s comfort. If he was not careful, he would lose her.

He reached the door and knocked once, then entered without waiting for permission. It was his house, after all.

Mapetite,” he said, striding toward the bed.

Lysette was reclining, though more upright than on her back. Dressed in a night rail and covered to the breasts in the counterpane, she seemed so small and fragile. He was reminded of his daughter Anne and his throat tightened.

“My lord,” she murmured, her voice still tight and raspy.

“How are you feeling?” He grabbed a nearby chair and pulled it closer to the bed before sitting.

“Tired. Confused.”

“I cannot help you with the former, but perhaps the latter is in my power to soothe.”

She sighed, which led to a brief fit of coughing. She caught up the large handkerchief resting in her lap and held it to her lips.

“Has the physician returned?”

“Not that I have been aware.”

“I will send for him when I leave.”

“Thank you.”

Desjardins smiled. “I would do anything for you.”

She nodded, her features grave.

“I hope you feel the same charity toward me,” he said.

“Have I not proven that over the last two years?”

“Yes, of course.” He placed one ankle over the opposite knee. “Bur the world is changing, wars are raging. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends. Such is the way of things.”

Lysette blinked at him, a slight frown marring the space between her brows. “What has happened?”

The comte glanced around the room, noting a pale pink chaise set in an awkward location. He gestured toward it with a jerk of his chin. “Is that where James slept?”

“I assume so.”

There was an odd note to her voice and he looked back at her. “Is that where your confusion stems?”

“Yes.” Her slender fingers twisted the handkerchief into a tangled rope. “I do not understand why he would go to such trouble, unless he is not as innocuous as he appears. Could he have some returning interest in you?”

“Doubtful. Is it so difficult to believe that he tended to you because he cares for you?”

“How? He does nor know me.”

Desjardins shrugged. “What is there to know? Your favorite foods, favorite places? Such tidbits are interesting and can lead to conversation, but truly, does that change the feeling one has about a person upon the first meeting? You know instantly, within a few moments, whether you wish to know a person better or not. Obviously, James felt that way about you.”

Her lips pursed.

“I think you are a puzzle to him,” he said, “and he is the sort of man who enjoys such challenges.”

“A puzzle,” she repeated.

“I think so.”

“Hmm…” Her gaze sharpened on him. “So tell me why you are here.”

“To make sure you are well.”

“Thierry would have told you that.”

The comte grinned. “Yes, but I prefer to see some things with my own eyes.”

“Think I might run away?” she drawled softly.

“You might. Quinn seems disinclined to forget about you. Perhaps there is more to your association than you want me to know.”

“You say that simply because he came by?”

“I say that because he has a man watching your home.”

Lysette stiffened, eyeing Desjardins carefully. There was something odd about him today, a moody tension that was far removed from his usual ease of deportment. It set her nerves on edge and made her wary. Restless predators were always dangerous.

“I must say,” he murmured, “it does ease my mind to see that you are not pleased to hear that.”

“Of course not,” she scoffed. “I do not like anyone prying into my life. It is hard enough knowing that nothing escapes your notice.”

“I wish that were true.”

Dropping the kerchief, she crossed her arms. “Tell me what ails you.” She presently lacked the patience to continue with meaningless discourse when something important was afoot.

He removed a missive from his pocket and tossed it in her direction. It spun gracefully on its side and landed near her thigh. She picked it up and examined it, noting the broken black wax that bore no seal. The front was blank, not addressed to anyone.

She looked up at him and asked, “Should I read it?”

“Please do.”

Using more care than usual, she opened the letter and read.

“Who is this from?” she breathed, horrified by the curt and heartless way it demanded information about Simon, at the cost of Desjardins’s daughter if the request was not met.

“A man known only as L’Esprit,” the comte said, his voice dripping venom. “A thorn in my side for over two decades.”

Her hands fell to the bed. She was so startled by the thought of Desjardins being as helpless as she often felt. “Has he been using your family against you all of this time?”

“From the beginning. I would never assist him otherwise.” The comte stood and began to pace angrily. “L’Esprit is the reason for your work with James. He is highly interested in Benjamin Franklin and I had hoped that you might learn something of such great import that it would lure L’Espritout of the shadows.”

“I will do what I can, of course.”

“It is beyond that now. You read his latest demands. Quinn’s man was seen following Thierry to my home. It will not be long before L’Espritfollows Thierry or Quinn to you.”

Suddenly cold, Lysette burrowed deeper under the covers. “That upsets you a great deal.”

“It should upset you as well,” Desjardins said. “Depardue was his spy within the Illumines. If L’Espritlearns that you killed his most trustworthy lieutenant, he will take you from me. If he kills you, that would be kind. I have seen him destroy men.”

“Destroy?” she whispered, more frightened by Desjardins’s obvious disquiet than by the tale itself. After all they had been through, she had never once seen him anything less than completely self-assured.

“He once bore a grievance against the Marquis de Saint-Martin. He robbed Saint-Martin of everything he held dear. Nothing was sacred.”

“What can we do?”

“Use your illness as a way to ingratiate yourself into James’s life. Allow him to do what he can to make you comfortable. Allow the bond between you to grow. That should not be too difficult, he saved your life.”

“And what about Quinn? He will return.”

“I will manage Quinn.”

Menace laced the comte’s words and Lysette felt her stomach roil. Desjardins’s urgency goaded hers. “I will do what I can with James, I promise.”

“Thank you.” The comte approached and kissed the back of her hand, then he retrieved the note from L’Espritand returned it to his pocket. “I will look into moving you. I no longer feel this residence is a safe haven.”

With that, he left, closing the door behind him. Lysette lay with her cheek to her pillow and wept silently, fearful that she would not be allowed to learn of her past before her future became the death of her.

“Your life is a mess.”

She jumped, her heart racing at the sound of the low voice behind her. Rolling, she faced the sitting room door and found Simon lounging there, his gaze trained on the exit Desjardins had just made his egress through.

“How did you get in here?” she asked, struggling to sit up while swiping furiously at her wet cheeks.

“Come now,” he chided, straightening. “We all have our ways.”

Lysette watched him enter her bedchamber as if he owned it. He caught up the chair the comte had just vacated, spun it about, and sat with his arms crossed atop the back.

He was so blatantly male and dominant in the overtly feminine surroundings of her rose-hued bedroom, making no effort to meld or be less incongruous. Simon contrasted so completely with Edward that she could not fail to note it. Edward was every inch a male and a strikingly intense one at that, yet he had tempered that for her this morning. Her chest grew tight and she pushed the memory away. She could not think of him now. It was simply too much for her beleaguered and weary soul to manage.

“Tell me about yourself, Lysette,” he drawled, his gaze narrowed and examining.

“I should kill you for trespassing,” she hissed, hiding her tumult under aggression, as she had learned to do to stay alive.

“I should like to see you make the attempt. You are as weak as a kitten.”

“If I scream, help will come.”

“The servants Desjardins provided?” Simon laughed.

Her jaw clenched. He was right, she was weak, something she had promised herself she would never be again.

“I am not here to injure you,” he said softly, the levity leaving his features. “I simply want to know who you are.”

“Why?”

“I believe I have met a relation of yours, and I want to see if I am correct.”

Lysette paled, her palms dampening with distress.

“What did your parents do to make you resort to this elaborate ruse?” he asked quietly. “Threaten to marry you off? Cut your allowance?”

“What do you want?” she bit out.

His brow rose. “This does not have anything to do with me.”

“My family is dead.”

He made a chastising noise with his tongue. “Lying is a sin. Though I suppose it is probably the least of yours.”

“You are so smug,” Lysette snapped. “As if you know everything. As if you are so superior.”

“At the moment, I feel as if I know nothing at all. I do hope you will enlighten me.”

Having survived due in large part to her ability to accurately judge others, Lysette labored under the feeling that Simon was being sincere. Her mind told her it was a trick of some sort, her heart told her otherwise. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“Your sister loves you a great deal and mourns deeply over your loss. Do you care nothing for her? Is your heart so cold that you can excise her from your life without a qualm?”

“My s-sister?” Lysette’s hand went to her throat as the room began to spin. Her stomach roiled and she reached blindly for the basin on the nightstand.

Simon moved so quickly, he was at her side the same moment the chair he had occupied toppled to the floor. He held the basin beneath her mouth as she retched violently, her body so weakened it was unable to tolerate the stresses of the day.

When she had finished, and had fallen back listlessly into the pillows, he moved to the door and locked it. A moment later a knock came and then the knob was tried, rattling briefly in an attempt to turn it.

A feminine voice came muffled through the portal, “Madame Marchant? Are you well?”

Arching a brow, Simon dared her to reveal his presence.

Lysette gasped for a deep breath, then answered. “I knocked a chair over on the way to the chamberpot. There is nothing to worry yourself over.”

“I will fetch the key and help you,” Madame Fouche offered.

“No! Please. I want sleep, nothing more.”

There was a long pause, then, “Very well. Ring the bell on the table if you need me.”

Simon stood with his ear to the door. Eventually, he nodded and returned to her, righting the chair and sitting in it properly. He waited patiently for her to speak.

“What do you want me to say?” she asked, her head throbbing unmercifully. Spots danced before her eyes and sweat dotted her brow.

“I am attempting to understand how you relate to Lynette.”

“Lynette?”

A shadow passed over his handsome features. “You do not know the name, do you?”

She shook her head, feeling a spark of hope that made her nigh as dizzy as casting up her accounts.

“Where is your family, Lysette? Who are they?”

“I do not know,” she whispered, feeling as vulnerable as if she were naked in a crowd.

“How can you not know where you come from? I am a bastard, yet I know 1 was born in Dublin and my mother was a seamstress.”

Swallowing hard, she reached for the damp cloth on the plate beside her and laid it around the back of her feverish neck. “I do not remember anything of my life prior to two years ago.”

He stilled, staring at her unblinkingly. “How is that possible?”

“I wish I knew!” she cried, sobbing quietly. “I wish it every day.”

“Bloody hell.” Simon stood and paced, just as Desjardins had. “Two years ago, a young woman with your name was killed in an accident and buried by her family. She is survived by a twin sister, Lynette, and her parents.”

“A twin?”

Could it be true? Would fate be kind to her at last, giving her a sibling whose identity could not be questioned?

“Yes.” He stilled and exhaled harshly, running a hand through his hair and setting his queue in disarray. He did not appear to notice, nor care. “How did you come by your name?”

“Depardue called me Lysette. It felt… right. So I kept it.”

“Depardue?”

“Yes. Regrettably, he is my earliest memory.” She shuddered and felt ill again. She might have retched anew, if there had been anything remaining in her stomach.

“And Rousseau? Or is it Marchant?”

“Desjardins gave me the surname Rousseau, said it suited me. I use Marchant as a rule, as added protection against Depardue. He was angry to lose me, and while he could not keep me permanently after Desjardins interceded, he would have come to me at his leisure, if he knew where to find me.”

“You did not use it with me.”

“My journey to England was to have been my last assignment for Desjardins. He promised me that if I was able to bring back the name of your superior, I would be free. I saw no reason to hide who I was, most especially since I was not even certain the name was true.”

“I think Desjardins knows very well who you are,” Simon said, standing with arms akimbo. “I think he has kept you close as leverage, a hidden asset to withdraw when necessary.”

“No…” Her lip trembled and she bit it to hide the display of weakness.

“Do you truly think he cares for you? Sending you to kill those who impede his plans?”

Lysette said nothing, heartbroken at the feeling of having no one at all to turn to. No, she did not believe Desjardins loved her in any fashion, but she did hope that he might have some kindness for her, if only a little.

Simon came to the bed and sat next to her, taking one of her hands in his. He searched her face, his own starkly austere. “Your family loves you. They miss you. Despite all you have done, they would welcome you home with great joy, I am sure of it.”

She swallowed hard. “I am not worthy. Not any longer.”

“That is not for you to decide,” he said gruffly, his callused fingertips rubbing soothingly across the back of her hand. “However, someone wants you dead. And someone went to great lengths to make it appear as if you were. There is a body buried in Poland with your name on the crypt. For now, you should stay buried.”

“Do they know about me?” she asked, disengaging her hand from his to wipe at her tears.

“In a fashion, but only your sister holds out hope. Your mother saw a body, as did her spouse. She finds it harder to reconcile.”

“I see.”

“One look at you and there will be no doubt.” He growled low in his throat.

“You have never liked me,” she whispered. “Why are you telling me this? Why not leave me for dead?”

“I wish I could.” Simon shook his head. “I cannot see how you could bring them anything but pain.”

Lysette considered what he had told her, how angry he had been on behalf of her sister. Her eyes widened. “It is for Lynette, is it not? You do this for her.”

His jaw tensed.

She laughed softly and he pushed up from the bed with a curse.

“Poor Simon,” she crooned, “how taxing it must be for you to have a tendre for a woman who looks like me.”

“Witch.” His glare was chilling, but it did not alarm her. All bark, he was. He only bit when necessary.

“What do we do now?”

“You will continue on as you are,” he said. “Tell no one what I have told you. Give me time. There is still a great deal we do not yet know.”

“There is a man hunting you.”

“So I heard. Leave him to me.”

Lysette held her breath a moment, attempting to think of something suitable to say, some way to help and show her gratitude. “I wish I could do something.”

“You can. Whatever you learn from James, pass it along to me first.”

“James?” Her heart stopped beating for a moment. “Why must you involve him?”

“He is the reason why I am still here in Paris, tangled in the web of your past.” Simon moved back toward the sitting room, clearly distracted by his thoughts. “Get well,” he muttered. “In the days ahead I may need you.”

As quickly as he had come, he was gone.

Lysette lay alone in her bed, sick in mind and body, torn between elation and deep regret.

“Edward,” she murmured, curling into her pillow.

Fate was so unfair to her, giving with one hand while taking away with the other. Would she forever be a torment to those who were kind to her?

She buried her head in her pillow and cried herself to sleep.

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