Always a Temptress (Drake's Rakes Series #3)by Eileen Dreyer
His greatest battle is just beginning . . .
Captain Harry Lidge has done his duty. After losing too many good men on the battlefield, he's ready to put his responsibilities behind him and live a life free of care. But first he has one last mission: find out what the most outrageous woman in London, the same woman who betrayed him nearly a decade/b>/i>
His greatest battle is just beginning . . .
Captain Harry Lidge has done his duty. After losing too many good men on the battlefield, he's ready to put his responsibilities behind him and live a life free of care. But first he has one last mission: find out what the most outrageous woman in London, the same woman who betrayed him nearly a decade earlier, is concealing, before her secrets take down the crown.
Her heart is the only thing she won't risk . . .
Surrounded by ardent admirers and a few loyal friends, Lady Kate Seaton glides through the ton on a confection of couture gowns and bon mots. No one suspects that beneath her lighthearted façade Kate hides a sorrow so scandalous she'll do anything to keep it hidden. But only when she trusts Harry with the truth and only when he trusts her with his heart can they stop the villains all too willing to kill Kate to attain their ultimate goal: destroy England
Read an Excerpt
Always a Temptress
By Dreyer, Eileen
ForeverCopyright © 2011 Dreyer, Eileen
All right reserved.
Whoever said that no good deed goes unpunished must have been well acquainted with Katie Hilliard. No, Major Sir Harry Lidge corrected himself as he trudged into Oak Grove Manor’s Grand Salon to see her holding court by the front window. Not Hilliard. It was Seaton now. Lady Catherine Anne Hilliard Seaton, Dowager Duchess of Murther. But make no mistake about it. The dowager wasn’t the good deed. She was the punishment.
It had been the good deed that had brought Harry to Oak Grove in the first place. Well, he amended, considering the other occupants of the ornate gold-and-white room: part good deed, part official business, neither of which he was up to right now.
Not that he wasn’t happy to attend his friend Jack’s wedding. He was. He was even glad to spend time with the other members of Drake’s Rakes, who had gathered for the week-long celebration. Not only were they all excellent fellows, they were some of the best minds available to pit against a band of traitors intent on toppling the government.
Which was the official part of the visit. Marcus Belden, Earl of Drake, the leader of their group, had decided that Jack’s wedding was the perfect cover for a strategy meeting. Unfortunately, the gathering had also drawn an unexpected guest. The Surgeon, the most feared assassin in Europe, had made an appearance on the estate, just about the time someone tried to murder Harry’s friend Grace Hilliard.
Harry was just returning from a fruitless search for the man with Grace’s husband, Diccan, and Jack Wyndham, Earl of Gracechurch. At any other time, Harry would have been impatient to get back out and search. He would have demanded the men retreat to Gracechurch’s den so they could rehash what they knew about the threat to both the Crown and his friends, preferably over cigars and whisky. But all he could think of today was that come what may, as soon as the wedding was over, he was going the hell home.
As if hearing Harry’s thoughts, Kate turned to watch him lead the other men into the room. “There you all are,” she caroled, busy trying to wrest a silver flask from the smiling Lord Drake. “Marcus won’t give my back my flask. I expect you to rally to my cause.”
Alongside Harry, Diccan Hilliard chuckled. “One thing I can say for you, cuz,” he greeted her. “You always have your priorities in hand.” Dropping a kiss on Kate’s cheek, he walked by to join Grace on the gold settee.
Kate’s priorities being herself, Harry thought sourly, stopping in the doorway. They had an assassin on the loose, Grace was still recovering from being poisoned, and here was Kate, brangling over a whisky flask.
“But every girl should have her own flask,” she was saying, her sensual green eyes glinting with mischief as she turned back to her victim.
The leader of their merry little band, Marcus, was suavely blond, elegant to a fault, and stood a full foot taller and at least five stone heavier than Kate. Harry knew that banty cock stance of Kate’s, though: hand on hip, head back, breasts thrust forward. Marcus might as well hand the flask over now. She was going to harass him until she got it back.
“I’ll get you a new one,” Marcus assured her, keeping the flask just out of her reach. “Besides, the portrait inside is wasted on you. Let me ogle it.” Leaning close, he flashed a slow grin. “Since you won’t let me ogle you.”
She laughed, slapping his arm. “Don’t be a nodcock. There is no comparison. And the inscription! ‘Is not the fruit sweet, my first love?’ Really.” She wrinkled her pretty nose. “If that truly is Minette in that painting, her fruit was plucked so long ago, it’s surely long since rotted.”
Harry wanted to spank Kate for her thoughtlessness. Both Jack and Diccan looked away, their wives equally uncomfortable. The woman depicted in the flask’s miniature had been mistress to both men, and betrayed each.
“Oh, I don’t know, Kate, ” Harry couldn’t help muttering. “If you could tell how long ago a woman lost her…freshness by a portrait, yours would look like a pox victim. Instead, as any man in London can tell you, it looks quite…perky.”
If he’d expected her to be upset, he was disappointed. Instead, she laughed, clapping her hands. “Have you seen it, Harry? Tell us everything.”
“Is Kate really painted naked?” Grace asked, looking more worried than Kate.
“As the day she was born.”
“Someone was naked,” Kate corrected him. “But it wasn’t me. I would love to see what the artist thinks I look like, though. Is it really hanging in a gaming hell?”
“You’re saying it’s a hoax,” Harry challenged.
She quirked a wry eyebrow. “Disappointed, Harry?”
Her smile grew suggestive. “Too bad you’ll never know for sure.”
Harry had to admit that the painting hadn’t conveyed that certain something that set Kate apart. A Pocket Venus with gleaming chestnut hair and cat-green eyes, she had a body that even clothed would have had the pope reconsidering his vow of celibacy. She was, in fact, every erotic fantasy a man could have, and she knew it.
Harry wasn’t even within ten feet of her, and his body was reacting: his blood thickened and slowed; the pulses throbbed heavy in his throat. His cock twitched impatiently, and his muscles tautened, anticipating the lunge into sex. On the other hand, when he’d stood among the crowds in McMurphy’s staring up at the lush peaches-and-cream tones of the lounging Kate Seaton, he’d felt nothing more than irritation.
“We need to get them to take that travesty down,” Grace urged Kate, her plain face pursed in distress. “You don’t want to upset your brother.”
Kate’s smile was oddly gentle. “My brother was born upset, Grace. One more surprise isn’t going to overload his heart. Besides. I had nothing to do with it.”
Harry decided that now wasn’t the time to call her a liar.
“It’s too bad, really,” Kate mused on. “My siblings seem to have missed out on the famous Hilliard charm, which has left them all unforgivably judgmental. I choose to believe it is an aberrancy, since, of course, I am the epitome of charm. As, oddly, are all of my nieces and nephews. When they can escape their parents, they are quite good company. It’s quite a puzzle.”
Suddenly she flashed a bright smile. “But enough about me. What did you find?”
Evidently the discussion about the painting was over.
Jack’s fiancée, Olivia, turned to him. “The Surgeon?”
Harry could hear the sharp worry Olivia tried to mask. She, too, had suffered at the assassin’s hands. It was impossible to miss the ropy red scar that stretched from her neck to her hairline from the Surgeon’s knife.
Jack kissed her. “I’m sure he’s scarpered. I still have the men out looking, though.”
She smiled, but her eyes were strained. “Then we don’t know why he was here.”
“He was here to try and hurt Diccan,” Grace said, plucking at her sleeves. Considering the fact that she was still a sickly pale green from the poison that had almost killed her, Harry thought her generous. But then, Grace had always saved her concern for others, and Diccan had been implicated and arrested for the poisoning. Only his status and Harry’s supervision were keeping him out of gaol.
“I’m not in the least injured,” Diccan assured her with a kiss. “All they managed to do was make me even more determined to find that bedamned poem and use it to take down the Lions.”
Drake shook his head. “Still say it’s a bloody stupid name for a bunch of traitors.”
“It may be stupid,” Jack said, “but they’ve been one step ahead of us until now. We need to find out what they mean to do before they manage to kill Wellington.”
Still standing by the window, Kate huffed. “They’re planning to install themselves on the throne.”
“They plan to put Princess Charlotte on the throne,” Marcus corrected, “and rule through her. Personally I’d almost let them do it, just to see how quickly she confounds them. I don’t think our heir apparent is as malleable as they believe.”
“Well,” Jack said, abruptly standing. “For the moment, there is nothing we can do. Guards are posted, Whitehall has been notified, and we have a wedding to enjoy.” Reaching down, he took Olivia’s hand. “My love, why don’t we check on the children?”
From the answering smile on Olivia’s face, his words were obviously some personal code. Taking his hand, she followed him out of the room, her only farewell a quick wiggle of her fingers.
“Excellent idea,” Diccan agreed, bending over to pick up his still-ailing wife. “Come along, Grace. I’m taking you upstairs where you’ll be safe till we find him.”
And that quickly, the parlor emptied out, leaving Harry behind with Kate. “You’d better hurry,” he couldn’t help taunting her. “You’re letting Drake escape.”
Flashing a siren’s smile, she stepped up so close that her breasts almost brushed his waistcoat. “No, I’m not,” she assured him, fluttering her eyelashes up at him. “Because Drake doesn’t want to escape.”
Harry struggled mightily, but he couldn’t evade the seductive pull of her scent, exotic flowers and vanilla. Her body. The purr of her voice. He was no more immune to her now than he had been ten years ago.
She tsked. “Too bad, Harry,” she said, running a finger up his Rifleman green uniform tunic. “You had your chance. And nobody gets more than one.”
“Believe me,” Harry assured her through gritted teeth. “Once was quite enough.”
Her smile fixed in place, she swung out the door in a swirl of peacock blue. Harry remained where he was, his posture parade-ground rigid until the moment he heard her heels clatter up the great staircase. Then, with a soft groan, he slumped onto one of the settees and dropped his head in his hands. Damn it. He didn’t have the stamina for her.
He probably shouldn’t have come to Oak Grove at all. He was too tired to think and too worn to be patient. It had been three months since Quatre Bras. The shrapnel he’d taken under his ribs still bedeviled him, and nightmares kept him from sleeping. Add Kate to the mix, and it was a short trip to fury.
He should go upstairs and lie down. He wouldn’t sleep. But maybe he could just lie back and stare up at the cherubs that cavorted on his ceiling for a while, clear his head of Kate and assassins and the past ten years. Maybe he could spend a little time contemplating what he planned to do now that he was selling his commission.
That almost got a smile out of him. His mother was back home, waiting to feed him into insensibility. He had nieces and nephews he hadn’t even met yet. He deserved a few months of lounging around the house before setting off again, for once free of responsibility and schedule and command. From now on the only things he planned to be accountable for were his sketchbook, his protractor, and his boots. Let somebody else sort out the world.
He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there fantasizing about his future when he heard it—a quick, echoing crack. His first muzzy thought was, I know that sound. His second was to run. It still took him half a dozen heartbeats to connect the two.
“Bloody hell,” he suddenly snapped and jumped up. Pain shot through his side, and he clamped his arm to his ribs.
Of course he knew the sound. It was a gunshot, somewhere in the house. Adrenaline coursed sluggishly through him as he thundered down the corridor toward the grand staircase. As always happened in action, time seemed to stretch out like taffy. He noticed that the sun poured through the front windows, lighting the dust motes into tumbling fireflies. He could smell the faint whiff of beeswax and lemon, and his boots slid on the highly polished marble floor. He heard shouts, more clattering feet.
He’d just reached the first stair when new sounds intruded. Shattering glass. A scream. And then, somewhere outside, the sickening sound of thuds.
Oh, hell. Without much of a thought, he spun around and headed out the front door instead.
The activity had come from the far side of the building. He ran across the lawn as if voltigeurs were on his heels. When he turned the corner, he looked up, then down. Halfway down the house a white window sash dangled against the brick, shattered and swaying. The glass was gone, shards of it still spinning slowly toward the ground. Below, the boxwoods were crushed, two bodies flung over them like old laundry.
Harry ran for the one he recognized. “Diccan? Diccan!”
Diccan had been struggling to get up. At the sound of Harry’s voice, he slumped back onto the ground and lay there panting. It took only one look at the other body to know it was dead. Bloody froth stained his face, his eyes were fixed and opaque, and there was a jagged branch sticking straight out of his chest. Recognition dawned and Harry gasped. The body was none other than the Surgeon himself. Dead.
But that would wait. Dropping to his knees, he quickly assessed his friend’s injuries. Scrapes, a couple of lumps, and an oddly twisted forearm. Damn lucky, considering.
“You going to live, old man?” he asked.
Diccan offered a wry smile. “’Fraid so. Surgeon’s come a cropper.”
Harry shook his head. “Too bad.”
He could hear more people stampeding through the house. Diccan must have heard it, too, because suddenly he looked frantic. Grabbing Harry’s sleeve, he tried to pull himself up. “Harry. I think Kate is in danger.”
For a second, he froze. “Kate? God’s sake, why?”
“Something the Surgeon said. ‘The whore has the verse.’ Minette isn’t the only one who’s called a whore. At least not by some people I know.”
Harry swore he stopped breathing. “She’s involved in all this?”
“I think so.”
“Then she’s definitely in danger,” Harry said, unable to forget Kate’s self-satisfied smile. “If she’s a traitor, I’ll kill her myself.”
Three days later
If there was one thing that showed Kate Seaton’s life up for what it was, it was a wedding. Kate loved weddings, especially if good friends were involved. She loved the flowers, the thumping organ music, and the sloppy sentiment that brought handkerchiefs out to be waved like white flags of surrender. She especially loved the smiles. Everyone should smile at weddings. Everyone should have a wedding to smile about.
Which was why once she ate her surfeit of lobster patties and succumbed to the obligatory hug from the happy couple, she escaped as fast as a thief purloining silver. After all, the sentiment expressed on such a nice day should never be envy or cynicism.
Such had been the case today. She had attended Jack and Olivia’s wedding, and they were friends; good friends whose happiness she could hardly resent, their joy hard-won and universally celebrated. Jack had looked handsome and stalwart as he’d said his vows, Olivia lovely and honest-to-God glowing, as every bride should. Kate had joined wholeheartedly in the celebration. And then, at the first opportunity, she had run.
She refused to think that, in doing so, she'd abandoned not only her cousin Diccan but her friend Grace. She might not have forgiven herself if it had only been the Surgeon’s death they’d been dealing with. But then, in a horrific twist no one could have foreseen, Diccan had lost his father. Worse, it seemed that Grace had lost her marriage. Kate would have stayed to help, if she could have done any good. But the animosity between her and her family would have only made Diccan’s burden worse. As for Grace, Kate kept thinking that maybe without their friends there to smooth the way, Grace and Diccan would learn to rely on each other and rebuild their marriage.
Pulling on her gloves, Kate stepped out of the door of the Angel Inn and into the gray afternoon. Guildford was bustling, as always, situated as it was on the main London–Portsmouth road. Of its two coaching inns, Kate had always preferred the smaller Angel on High Street with its cozy half-timbered facade and efficient staff. It never took longer than twenty minutes to change out the horses and down a cup of tea.
Today seemed to be different. When she stepped out into the cobbled yard, her coach was nowhere to be seen. A stage was being unloaded, with much shouting and banging, and behind it a curricle waited. Kate tapped her feet, impatient to be away.
From her left came the sound of a muffled sob. She smiled. “Bea,” she gently chastised her companion, laying a hand on the older woman’s arm. “It is perfectly bourgeois to continue crying over a two-day-old wedding.”
If Kate enjoyed the pomp of weddings, Bea positively wallowed. She hadn’t stopped crying since they’d walked into the tiny Norman church of St. Mary in Bury to find it bursting with friends and late-summer flowers.
“Odysseus and Penelope,” her friend inexplicably answered, dabbing determinedly at her eyes with one of the aforementioned flags of surrender, this one edged in the honeybees Bea so loved to embroider on things.
“Yes,” Kate answered, giving her a squeeze. “It was particularly satisfying to see Jack and Olivia married, after all the years they’d been apart.”
“Devonshire,” Bea said, casting soulful eyes down at Kate.
This meaning Kate had to work for. “Devonshire? The duke? Was he invited?”
Bea glared, which on the tall, elegantly silver-haired woman was formidable. “Georgianna.”
Kate frowned, wondering what the late Duchess of Devonshire could have to do with the newly minted Earl and Countess of Gracechurch. Georgianna had been married to a cold fish who’d kept his mistress and children in the same house as his legitimate family. All Jack had done was divorce his wife and take five years to rectify the mistake.
“Unfair?” Kate guessed.
“To whom?” Kate asked, now cognizant of the looks that passed among the various travelers and ostlers who cluttered up the courtyard. She had to admit, following Bea’s unique conversational style could indeed be distracting. “Jack and Olivia? How could it be unfair that they’re finally happy?”
This time Bea gave Kate an impatient huff, and there was no mistaking her meaning. Kate, who never got misty-eyed, nearly succumbed.
“Oh, Bea,” she said, wishing she were tall enough to give her stately friend a smacking kiss. “How can you think my life is unfair? What more could I want than money, freedom, and my dearest friend to share them with?”
Bea sniffed. “Half loaf.”
“Not at all, darling. Or is it you?” She leaned close and whispered. “Do you long for an amour? Mayhap a young cicisbeo who would squire you about on his arm? General Willoughby would snap you up in a minute, if you just let him.”
Bea’s laugh was more a snort, but Kate saw the pain behind the humor. Bea thought no one would want her, no matter her impeccable lineage and bone-deep aristocratic beauty. Not only was Bea into her seventies, but a few years earlier her brain had suffered a terrible injury that left her speech so tortured, many days Kate was the only one who understood her.
But Kate also knew that, like her, Bea couldn’t tolerate coddling. So with brisk fingers she pulled out Bea’s signature handkerchief and dabbed away the last of the old woman’s tears. “Now then, my girl, we need to be going. After all, you’re the one who committed us to Lady Riordan’s memorial service tomorrow.”
Immediately Bea’s expression folded into pity. “Poor lambs.”
Kate nodded. “At least Riordan has finally accepted the truth and declared her dead. Now maybe the children can move on.” She shuddered. “I can think of few things I find less appealing than drowning.”
Just then, the coach clattered around the corner, the Murther lozenge shining against the black lacquered panels. The horses were unfamiliar, but they were handsome bays that seemed to be pulling hard at the reins.
“Your Grace,” one of the postboys said, bowing low as he opened the door.
Kate smiled and let him hand her into the carriage.
She had just settled and turned to help Bea when suddenly she heard a shout, and the coach lurched. She was thrown back in her seat. The door slammed. The horses whinnied and took off, as if escaping a fire.
Furious, Kate tried to right herself without success. How dare they abuse the horses that way? How dare they leave Bea stranded in the coaching yard, her hand out, her mouth open, still waiting to get into the coach?
The coach turned on two wheels and skidded through the archway. Kate could hear the clatter of the horses’ hooves against the cobbles, the scrape of stone against the coach sides. She heard the urgent cries of the coachman and thought, suddenly, that it didn’t sound like Bob Coachman.
It took her a few tries before she managed to sit back up. She pounded on the roof to get the coachman’s attention. No one responded. The coach didn’t slow; in fact, it sped up, the horses clattering up High Street, their tack jangling like Christmas bells. It didn’t occur to Kate to be frightened. She was still too angry, too anxious for Bea, who simply could not be left alone in a coaching inn.
“Blast you, stop!” she shouted, pushing at the trap.
It was wedged shut. She pounded again on the roof. The coach sped on, rocking from side to side and throwing her off balance. “I am a duchess!” she yelled, resorting to the title she so loathed in an effort to get his attention. “Do you know what will happen to you if you don’t set me down immediately?”
In all truth, probably nothing. Her brother Edwin, the current Duke of Livingston, would say she deserved it. Her stepson Oswald, now Duke of Murther, would be delighted by the mistreatment. She had never gotten on well with either. She had to try, though. She had to get back to Bea.
The carriage made another precarious turn and then straightened onto what Kate thought might be a turnpike. She barely caught the strap in time to keep from falling again. She already felt bruised. She couldn’t imagine what injuries she would collect before the idiot driving her coach finally brought it to a halt.
That was the thought that finally gave her pause. What idiot? Brought it to a halt where? Why hadn’t he paid attention to her? Why hadn’t he so much as slowed through a busy town? She could hear shouting outside, and feared for nearby pedestrians. She tried to pull open the window shades, but they wouldn’t budge. She heard a crash and more shouting and cringed.
“Are you mad?” she cried, rapping again against the roof. “Stop this thing!”
Could it be a kidnapping? She was certainly wealthy. But who in their right mind would think anyone would pay to get her back?
“Did you hear me before?” she called. “I said I’m a duchess. I’m a rich duchess!” It had to be good for something. “Put me down now and I’ll double whatever fee you’re being paid. Better yet, take me to my brother the duke, and he’ll triple it!”
The words were barely out of her mouth before she froze.
Suddenly her mind shuddered to a halt. Oh, God. Edwin. He’d been threatening for years to put her away for what he considered behavior unbecoming a Hilliard. Had he seen the painting? Was that what this was all about?
Kate refused to panic. She categorically repudiated the idea that her brother had the power to incarcerate her for something she had no part in. And when she saw him, she would tell him so.
On the other hand, it would probably be better all around if she didn’t have to face him at all. She needed to get away before he did something irrevocable.
The coach was moving too fast, its balance precarious. She was holding on to the strap, and still being battered around. She would probably kill herself if she leapt. She laughed out loud. There were worse things than a split head, and this little jaunt threatened her with most of them. She would jump and happily take her chances.
She was still too furious to really be properly terrified. Which meant it was time to act. Pulling in a steadying breath, she crossed herself like a papist and reached for the door handle.
It didn’t move. She jiggled it. She yanked. She tried the other one. Nothing. Somehow they had secured the doors, preventing her from escaping. Thinking she could at least alert people passing by, she attempted again to pull up the leather shades, only to find them all nailed in place. She was truly imprisoned.
For the first time, she was beginning to realize how desperate her situation was. Damn Edwin to hell.
She needed to get word to Diccan. He would intercede. He could at least threaten Edwin with the kind of public disgrace her brother loathed.
Diccan was thirty miles away burying his father. Too far for a quick rescue. Much too overwhelmed by the sudden death of his father to have any attention left for Kate.
She sighed, hating the shaky sound of it. She hated being out of control. She had long since sworn that she would never be at the mercy of another human being. She would never again know this feeling of helplessness.
She should have known better. She’d never had that kind of luck before. Why should it start now?
“Please,” she whispered out loud, knowing it was a prayer that wouldn’t be heard.
Back at the inn, people were just beginning to realize that there was something wrong. The ostlers had certainly seen carriages speed through the archway before. There was an entire generation of young bucks who refused to leave any other way. The bystanders weren’t even particularly surprised to see the elderly lady standing flat-footed by the door, her hand still out, her mouth open and emitting garbled noises that made no sense. Obviously the young lady she’d been talking to had departed mid-conversation. Unsettling even for people who weren’t dicked in the nob, like the old gal seemed to be.
A few people frowned when the old woman turned back and forth and cried out, “Sabine women,” her hand still pointing toward the departed carriage. A few more shook their heads, sorry to see such a pitiful thing right there in public.
But when she started to sing, everybody stopped and stared. It wasn’t just that she was singing “Cherry Ripe,” which shouldn’t have ever been heard on the tongue of such a dignified old lady. It wasn’t even that she was singing the wrong words. It was that even with the wrong words in a tune she shouldn’t know, it was beautiful.
“Thrasher, come!” she sang, head back, hands out. “Thrasher, come! Lady Kate, follow the way! The carriage has her! Follow the way, Thrasher come!”
And just as if she were making any kind of sense at all, suddenly a motley gaggle of men in crimson-and-gold livery came thundering around the corner from the stables and headed for the old woman.
“That way I say!” the old woman sang, waving toward the street where the carriage had just disappeared. “Four horses brown, a driver strange. Follow the way, Thrasher, go!”
And darned if one of them didn’t respond. Without pausing in his tracks, a thin, sharp-featured boy waved at the old girl and took off after that carriage like a hare at the sound of a gun. As for the old lady, she just stood there, tears running down her cheeks as the other men circled her, her own mismatched army. It seemed she was finished singing. The people who had stopped to listen shook their heads and went back to their business.
“Well now,” the inn’s head groom said, turning back to his stable. “Wasn’t that somethin’?”
Kate frantically searched the coach. Not for escape; she knew the coach was too well made to be easily pulled apart. For weapons. It was almost impossible, and she knew she’d be bruised head-to-toe from trying, but even as she was thrown around, she rifled through the cushions and side compartments, ripping and tugging until the inside of the coach looked as if a mad animal had been caught inside.
Not so different, she thought, feeling more frantic as she failed to secure so much as a rusty spring with which to defend herself. She was left with three hat pins and her shoes. On the other hand, she had used hat pins to great effect on more than one occasion.
If only she could rip through enough of the coach to see daylight. The coach was beginning to close in on her, all the sunlight barricaded away, leaving only shadow and speed. Even throwing herself under the wheels seemed to be a better option than simply surrendering herself to the dark.
Bastard, she kept repeating to herself, although of any insult she could rain on her brother’s head, that would certainly be the most unlikely. Edwin truly was the one and only Duke of Livingston, holder of all titles and privileges, born to the strawberry leaves, and certainly happy to remind you if you forgot.
He was nothing like their father, who had been a good duke, a responsible man loyal to his people and generous to his community. That duke had truly been mourned when he died. When Edwin went, Kate had the feeling there would be a lot of show and no sincerity.
The problem was, he still had the power. And that meant, since he was head of her family, he was the male legally in charge of her life.
She worked for hours, tearing the coach apart like a starving woman looking for the last bit of cheese. She unearthed two blankets, a writing desk, a tiny bottle of scent she didn’t use anymore, three vinaigrettes from Bea’s stash, and a stale hunk of bread from behind the cushions.
To that pile she added a handful of coins and a small sewing kit she’d been looking for since the Countess of March’s soiree six weeks ago. But no weapons. No escape. No hope. Except she refused to believe that. She would go mad if she considered the places Edwin might want to incarcerate her.
She must have finally fallen asleep, sitting in the well with her head on the ruined seat. All she knew was that when she woke it was deeply dark. It took her a moment to realize that she had been alerted by a change of speed. They were slowing and turning.
Had Edwin had her brought to Moorhaven Castle? Would he have the effrontery to drag her back home kicking and screaming just as he was burying his uncle in the family vault? For heaven’s sake, the Archbishop of Canterbury was supposed to preside. If it was Moorhaven, though, Diccan would be there. It was his father they were burying.
Closing her eyes, as if that could keep the darkness at bay, Kate assessed her options. She loathed the idea of putting her fate in someone else’s hands. Especially a man. That had never exactly worked well for her in the past. But she could trust Diccan. No matter the risk to his social standing, he would speak out against Edwin.
The coach ground to a halt. Kate could hear the jangle of harness as the horses settled. She heard men’s voices, and the creak of the coach as the driver swung down from his perch. She heard the hollow caw of a raven.
And then, nothing. No movement. No voices. No appearance by someone who would offer explanation. Obviously a move orchestrated to heighten her terror. Considering how dark it was inside the coach, it was working.
Well, she’d be damned if she showed Edwin how frightened she was. Even as her stomach threatened revolt, she straightened her clothing and tidied her hair. Stuffing the horsehair back into the cushions as well as she could, she perched herself in the center of the seat and laid her hands in her lap, a duchess come to call. Except this duchess had a quiver of large, very sharp hat pins tucked in her hand.
She settled herself just in time. The door swung open, and a homely, carrot-topped man in an old fusiliers uniform reached in a hand. “If you’ll come out now nice ’n easy, ma’am.”
“Not ma’am,” she said, assuming her haughtiest posture. “Your Grace. And if you lay a hand on me, I’ll hurt you.”
He guffawed. Kate stayed put.
“Go on, then, Frank,” another man called from beyond Kate’s sight. “Haul the old girl out.”
Frank sighed and reached in. Kate struck like an adder, sinking the hat pin deep into the meat of his hand.
“Jesus wept!” Frank shrieked, hopping back. “Now, why’d you go and do that?”
Kate didn’t bother with a reply. She just glared. “You can tell my brother he can come collect me himself.”
He didn’t answer. He just tried to sneak in past her reach. She struck again. He howled. His companion laughed.
“It’s nothing personal,” Kate assured him. “I just believe that a man should do his own dirty work. Now go get him.”
Frank shook his head, as if Kate were mad. “He ain’t gonna like it.” But he shut the door.
Kate turned forward. She didn’t want the men to realize how fast her heart was beating, or the fact that it was only through force of will that she still sat there. She wanted to run. She knew, though, that she wouldn’t get four steps. So there she sat, a queen on her way to tea in a ravaged coach.
Suddenly the door was yanked open again. It was all Kate could do not to jump. She didn’t, though. Proud of her composure, she turned to face her brother, or whatever henchman he’d sent to represent him.
She froze. It wasn’t Edwin at all. For a moment, she couldn’t say a word. She could only stare, sick with betrayal. Not him, she thought. Not again.
“Harry,” she drawled, hoping he didn’t see how lost she suddenly felt. “Imagine seeing you here.”
Harry Lidge made it a point to look around the disaster she’d made of the carriage. “What the hell have you been doing?”
Kate didn’t bother to look. “Redesigning. You know how easily I bore.”
He offered a hand. “Get out.”
She didn’t move. She hated the fact that his hair gleamed like faint gold in the lamplight, that she could see even in the deep shadows that his eyes were sky blue. He had grown well, filled out into a strong man. A hard man who had survived the wars with fewer scars than most. He was no longer the boy she’d known, though, and it showed in more than the web of creases that fanned out from the corners of his eyes. It showed in the unforgiving rigidity of his posture, the impatient edge to his actions.
But maybe that was just for her.
“I don’t think I will,” she told him. “Not until you explain yourself. Are you working for Edwin now, Harry? I certainly hope he’s paying you as much to kidnap me as my father paid you to desert me.”
His expression, if possible, grew colder. “You don’t get to ask questions, Your Grace. You get to answer them. Now get down before I drag you out bodily.”
“Go to hell, Harry.”
Harry didn’t answer. Faster than even she could react, he reached in and yanked her out of the carriage. When she shrieked and fought, he tossed her over his shoulder and turned for the building Kate could only see as a deeper shadow in the darkness. She lifted a hand, ready to drive a pin in his back. He swung her around, never letting her down. His expression flat and cold, he wrapped his hand so tightly around hers that it drove the pins into her palm. She instinctively opened her hand, and they fell. She saw Frank scramble for them.
“You bastard,” she rasped, her hand bleeding and hurt. “Put me down!”
Harry didn’t bother to answer, just swung her back over his shoulder with a grunt as if she weighed fifteen stone, and stalked up the stairs into the building.
Kate was breathless with rage. “Stop this! You’re being ridiculous!”
He didn’t even slow. “Shut up, Kate.”
She tried to answer, but the position cut off her air. She struggled, but it did no good. Harry hauled her into the house, up a dim, grimy set of stairs, and into an even grimier bedroom, where he proceeded to dump her on the bed. She bounded back as if the mattress were on fire and scrambled to her feet.
This wasn’t Moorhaven. It wasn’t any place she recognized; it was a wreck of a room that looked as if it hadn’t been inhabited this century. Suddenly she was truly afraid.
“When did you start doing Edwin’s bidding, Harry?” she demanded, straightening her clothing with her uninjured hand. “Are you under the hatches, or do you need another promotion?”
“I don’t work for Edwin,” he said, his voice dripping ice. “I work for the government. And I have the dubious pleasure of keeping you here until you give us some answers. Where is it, Kate?”
Her hands stilled. She found herself blinking like a child. “The government? Our government?” She laughed, angry that she sounded shrill. “Pull the other one, Harry.”
He took a threatening step closer, his rugged features as hard as granite, the forest green of his Rifles uniform off-putting. “Oh, I think you know perfectly well what I’m talking about. Just before he died, the Surgeon told us. You’re mixed up with the Lions. Do you have it, Kate? Do you have the verse with you? Because if you do, we’ll find it.”
“The verse?” she echoed, stumbling back from him, only to have her knees fold and land her back on the bed. “You mean that poem we’ve been searching all over creation for like a lost Easter egg? That verse?”
He merely tilted his head.
“I don’t have your bloody verse,” she snapped, still feeling pathetically overwhelmed. And then the second betrayal sank in. “You believed the Surgeon? A man whose favorite pastime was carving poetry into people’s foreheads? Are you mad?”
“Not as mad as you if you think I’ll fall for your stories again.”
He stepped back toward the door, and it was all Kate could do to keep from reaching out to beg him not to lock her in. She could barely breathe in this room. It was infested with shadows and dark corners, just a candle away from darkness.
“Don’t,” was all she could say.
Harry stopped, his eyebrow quirked with disdain, but she couldn’t get another word out.
“What?” he asked. “No clever quotes? No Latin or Greek or German, Kate? What happened? No more ignorant farm boys to impress?”
She found herself blinking again. He couldn’t believe that of her. Hadn’t he loved that game as much as she? They’d once spent hours teasing each other with arcane quotes and elaborate curses in as many languages as they could learn.
She shook her head. “I certainly see no one here I want to impress.”
She didn’t recognize Harry anymore. She’d known him once, an open, easygoing son of the earth with a brain too big for farming. She had loved him once, with the passion reserved for a first love. She’d seen him as the hero who would save her from her father’s plans.
But he hadn’t saved her. He had betrayed her. And over the last ten years, grown into this implacable, humorless, spiteful man.
“Now then, Your Grace,” he said as if to prove it, his voice a razor. “You can make this easy or you can make it hard. Your luggage is being searched. If we don’t find the verse there, you’ll be searched. You can cooperate or not.” He shrugged. “Until then, you can consider yourself my prisoner.”
“I told you,” she repeated, rising to her feet like a doomed Mary Queen of Scots. “I wouldn’t recognize the thing if it came up and asked me to dance. Now stop being such an ass and let me go. I need to get back to Bea.”
She was furious to hear a note of pleading creep into her voice. At least it stiffened her spine, so she could brace her feet on the floor and confront the enraged stranger she’d once known so well. Or thought she had.
He shrugged and turned for the door. “No.”
“You don’t understand,” she said, stepping closer to him. “Bea can’t simply be abandoned. She isn’t strong. She’ll fret herself to flinders worrying about me.”
“Don’t be melodramatic, Kate. She was with your staff. Nothing’s going to happen to her.”
“All violence isn’t physical, Major.”
“You don’t leave till I get what I want. Your hand is bleeding, Duchess. You might want to see to it.” He smiled. “And consider the consequences of your own violence.”
Kate clenched both of her hands. “Diccan will kill you for this.”
He stopped, his stare implacable. “Diccan told me to take you.”
Kate wondered whether shock really had a sound. She thought she heard a whirlwind; she thought she heard the echo of a cold void. “Don’t be absurd.”
Diccan would never do this. He would never threaten her with imprisonment. He knew…no, she realized, he didn’t. Only Bea knew. But Bea wasn’t here.
She snapped out of her reverie just in time to see Harry step through the door. She grabbed him by the sleeve. “Damn you, at least get a message to Bea.”
“I told you,” he said, his voice cold as silence. “Give me the verse and we’ll see.”
She bit back a sob of frustration. “You’d torture an old woman just to get back at me?”
It was as if she’d snapped some restraint in him. Suddenly Harry spun around and advanced on her, forcing her across the room until her back was pressed against the peeling, dingy wall. He kept crowding her with his body, battering at her with the fury in his eyes.
“I’m not the one doing anything,” he snapped. “I’m certainly not betraying my country.”
“And you immediately assume I am.”
She was trembling, the cold wall damp against her back. Her first instinct was to cower, to throw her arm up to protect herself. She knew too well, though, that cowering only made it worse. She held perfectly still.
“Yes,” he all but snarled, too close. Too angry. “I do.”
She had nowhere to go. Harry loomed over her, heating the air between them. She wanted to spit at him, to laugh and walk away. But inexplicably, caught like cornered prey, her body suddenly remembered. It wouldn’t move; wouldn’t fight. It began to soften, to open, to want, and she hadn’t wanted in so long she’d forgotten the feel of it.
Even if she didn’t want Harry, her body did. It remembered how she’d hungered for the scent he always carried, horses and leather and strong soap. It remembered how he’d touched her with the raw wonder of an explorer. It remembered how it felt to trust those guileless blue eyes enough to offer him her virginity.
It only lasted a moment, that sense of elation, before she remembered exactly what it was she had once wanted. Before she found herself fighting the urge to curl into herself and hide. And that made her angrier than ever.
Somehow she must have betrayed her momentary weakness, because suddenly he was smiling like a wolf. “On the other hand,” he murmured, leaning even closer, too close, only small inches away, “maybe you want me to find it myself. Shall I look for it? Should I strip you until I can see every inch of the skin you bared for that painting? Should I search you, slipping my hands under your breasts to make sure you haven’t tucked it inside, where it would be warm and damp?”
She couldn’t think. She couldn’t tell if it was fury, fear, or arousal, even though her nipples tightened with his words and a light flared in her belly. She couldn’t breathe because he was taking the last of her air.
“I could do it,” he whispered, his mouth next to her ear. “All I’d have to do is kiss you, right here behind your ear. You’d let me do anything, then. Wouldn’t you, Kate?”
Reaching out, he pulled a pin from her hair, loosing a thick curl. Kate shivered, frozen with memory. Suddenly she was fifteen again, balanced on the edge of womanhood. Trembling with possibility, with wonder, with hunger. For the first time in a decade, she remembered what it had felt like to anticipate, and it shredded her control.
“Or would you like to offer a bit of incentive not to look?” he murmured into her ear. “I’m sure it wouldn’t be difficult. From what I hear, it’s your favorite thing to do.”
And then, Harry made his mistake. He took that last step as if he had the right, as if she would never think to defend herself.
He wrapped one hand around her throat. Not squeezing, just controlling. It was too much. She felt the familiar wings of terror beating against her ribs. She had nowhere to run.
She did the only thing she could. She rammed her knee straight up into his bollocks.
Harry made it down three flights of stairs before finally giving in to the agony in his body. Taking a moment to make sure he was alone, he leaned back against the wall and bent over, eyes closed, hands on knees, and let out a long, low groan.
He shouldn’t have let his anger get the better of him. He’d had no business picking Kate up. If he’d been more rested, he wouldn’t have made that mistake. He would have let Frank deal with her and kept his distance, which had been his intention all along. It would have saved him from not just the fresh pains in his chest, but the hot ache in his balls.
He should never have agreed to this. He should have kept to his original plan and gone home after the wedding. He’d promised himself, lying on that shattered Belgian field among the screaming horses and groaning men, that he was finished with world events. No more Rifles or army or extra little missions he’d found himself taking on during the last ten years. The future would hold nothing for him but the clean, strong lines of construction, the peaceful dust of history, the immutable laws of mathematics.
And yet here he was again. And it was all Kate’s fault.
Even so, he owed her an apology for what had just happened. He had never treated a woman so badly. He’d meant to crowd her a bit, push her into an indiscretion. Instead, the minute he’d stepped close, all of his hard-won discipline had disintegrated. Just the scent of her had damn near destroyed him.
It was her perfume, an oddly discordant scent of jasmine and vanilla, and the clean, fresh-air scent of her hair. His body remembered as if he’d held her last only a week ago, as if the betrayals and lies, the years of separation, had never happened. His body didn’t give a damn about betrayal. It wanted her just as badly as it always had. It wanted her flat on her back, legs spread, eyes soft with desire, just for him. A duke’s daughter offering herself to plain Mr. Harry Lidge.
He wasn’t plain Harry Lidge anymore. He was Major Sir Henry Lidge, knighted for conspicuous bravery, friend of Wellington and Rothschild and Nash. The squire’s son who had dared to fall in love with a duke’s daughter had come far in the world. But she was still a duke’s daughter. And he’d lost his taste for dukes’ daughters ten years ago.
Except that it seemed he hadn’t. Even throbbing like hell, his balls clenched with the thought of having her in his arms again. Even disillusioned and furious with her, he couldn’t get the memory of her out of his mind: the old echoes of her surprised sighs when he’d touched her; the velvet-soft span of her skin as they’d nestled close, hip-to-hip, belly-to-belly; her plump, luscious breasts flattened against his chest.
And her eyes. Grass green, with little flecks of yellow that lit like chandeliers when she was excited, that softened to velvet when she comforted or kissed. Those eyes had once been the most beautiful thing about her, as changeable and vibrant as a moor beneath passing clouds. He had fed on those eyes, deliberately inciting mischief and outrage and glee just to see the emotions flare. He had seen the sun in those eyes.
Now, though, her eyes were sharp as shattered glass; brittle, knowing, sly. A much better reflection of the soul within. His memories had been a lie.
Could he truly mourn what he’d thought he’d seen in her eyes? He could. He did. Because that summer they’d shared, he’d thought her eyes reflected everything that was good and bright and possible in the world. That summer he’d still believed in all those things. He’d believed in her.
He’d been such an innocent.
Well, Kate had taken care of that. Kate and the battlefields of Europe. The only thing Harry believed in now was the beauty of a well-laid foundation. The sweep of a simple staircase, the comfort of a well-placed window and a sturdy roof. The elegant geometry of architecture.
He gave a sour smile. Well. He obviously believed in lust. Hadn’t he just had an unmistakable example of it? And he hadn’t been the only one. He would swear Kate had been just as aroused as he. He’d felt it; her body bowing toward his, metal to irresistible magnet. No matter what had happened before, what would happen next, in that moment she had wanted him just as much as he wanted her. That, at least, hadn’t changed.
Fat lot of good it did him.
Sighing, he straightened. He needed to be more careful than ever now. More disciplined. He didn’t want to be the one to let the Lions slip through his fingers.
He was just so tired. And Kate was still Kate. It was going to be a long few days.
“Wouldn’t you like a bit of a lie-down, Major?” he heard nearby.
He looked up in surprise to find his batman standing not four feet away in the doorway to the library, a lit candle in his hand. “Thank you, no, Mudge. I’m afraid there isn’t the time right now.”
“I’ll watch down here for you, sir,” the boy insisted.
Once, on the Continent, Harry had seen a painting of angels by Botticelli. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear that one now stood before him: young, lithe, beautiful, with curly brown hair and big, liquid brown eyes that looked as innocent as a child’s. Definitely too beautiful to have been thrown into a troop of riflemen without protection.
Straightening as best he could, Harry walked into the room his staff had dubbed HQ. “We have a lot to do, Mudge. Let’s get on with it.”
“Please, sir,” Mudge said, following. “Tell me we’re not supposed to stay here.”
Mudge had obviously already been in the room. The shutters were thrown open to allow weak moonlight to wash through. Sadly, it did nothing to dispel the squalor.
“Sorry, Mudge,” Harry told the inexplicably named angel as he unbuckled the saddlebags that sat on the misused oak desk. “This is our bivouac for a bit. Mr. Hilliard assured me that it’s been out of use so long, no one would think to look for us here.”
Mudge cast his huge eyes around the room as if he were a Christian martyr assessing the Colosseum. “I’m sure that’s all well and good, sir…”
Harry really couldn’t blame the boy. The library was just as grim as the rest of the house. What had once been an oak-paneled room, embellished with coffered ceilings and ogived windows, had been reduced to a bookless, water-stained wreck, paint-peeling, musty, and dark. Harry still couldn’t believe that Diccan’s uncle had lived here until four years ago. It must have taken decades to reduce this place to such sorry shape.
He’d only glimpsed the outside briefly, and it had been no more promising: a collection of mismatched wings badly grafted onto a medieval abbey. Honey-colored Cotswold stone clashed with red brick and, inexplicably, gray flint, all cobbled together like a beggar’s coat. Even so, it had good bones. Harry hated that it had been left to rot.
Perhaps if he had some spare time in the morning, he’d take his sketchbook and do a tour of the place, just for himself. It might never be beautiful, but with a little help, Harry thought it could at least be reclaimed. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have something other than his prisoner to focus on.
He thought of the termagant up in that bedroom and sighed. He had a feeling he was going to be spending all his time trying to outwit one small duchess.
Harry started back to attention, Mudge’s worried countenance beginning to annoy him. “How many of the bedrooms are dry?” he asked. Relieving Mudge of his candle, he made his way to the fireplace.
Mudge sighed. “One.”
Which had been given to Kate. “Well then, pull some bedrolls into any dry room on the ground floor. Any luck with stores or staff?”
“No, sir.” Mudge’s voice was mournful. “Nothin’ in the pantry but mice and dust. Phillips is out trying to make a dent in the stables.”
Harry knelt and pushed his candle into the black maw that yawned beneath the grimy marble mantel. “We’ve bedded down in worse places.” Although even in those, the fireplaces had drawn. As opposed to this one. The candle flickered and died.
“There was a war on,” the boy retorted. “Sir.”
He couldn’t suppress a wry grin. “I don’t suppose you know any chimney sweeps.”
With a long-suffering sigh, Mudge trudged for the door, ostensibly on the way to look.
Setting his candle down on the desk, Harry took out his handkerchief and wiped off his hands before claiming one of the few undamaged chairs. “Schroeder has money,” he reminded the boy. “See where the town is and re-victual. If asked, you can tell them we’re thinking of buying the place for a hunting lodge. ”
Mudge was already out of sight. “Yes, sir,” floated from the darkness.
“Schroeder is here,” a woman’s voice answered in the clipped consonants of Germany.
Harry looked up to see a buxom blonde stride into his new office.
Hands clasped at her waist in imitation of the best chatelaine, the drably attired beauty smiled. “I have to admit I liked my last position better.”
Harry looked up from relighting his candle. “You’ll be abigail for a duchess.”
“Considering who the duchess is, I think I’d rather be scrubbing pots in Chelsea.”
“You’ve finished going through her baggage?”
Taking out her own handkerchief to wipe off the rickety chair that sat across from Harry’s desk, she settled onto it as if she were in a salon. “Nothing…well, unless you count a store of scandalous attire, enough feathers to stuff a mattress, and several very technical treatises on the propagation of tulip bulbs…I don’t suppose the evil plot she’s involved in is to take over the tulip market. If that were so, then we’d have our man…woman. Duchess.”
“Tulips?” Harry asked, as if it would help bring sense to the subject.
Barbara just shrugged. “There was also this,” she said, tossing a pristine white handkerchief onto the desk. “You’ll notice it is embroidered with Napoleon’s symbol.”
For a moment, his heart raced. Then he picked up the handkerchief and saw Barbara’s mistake. “Golden bees,” he said and pointed. “These are black and yellow.”
Schroeder shrugged. “So the duchess said. Evidently her companion is fond of embroidering the insect on every piece of lingerie and linen in their store. The companion’s name is Lady Bea Seaton, the duchess’s sister-by-marriage, if you can believe it.”
“We need to search her person,” Harry said, momentarily distracted by the soft slide of lawn through his fingers.
Schroeder quirked an eyebrow. “Is this a privilege you reserve for the senior officer?”
He dropped the handkerchief. “Didn’t Diccan tell me you were well mannered and obedient?”
She laughed, a pleasant, throaty sound. “He must have been thinking of his horse…No, come to think of it. Gadzooks is the worst-tempered horse in Britain.” When he didn’t answer, she sighed. “Are you sure you want to invade a duchess’s privacy?”
“We don’t have a choice. You’re the one who works for Diccan. Do you think he would have accused his cousin of treason if he hadn’t been sure?”
“What I heard was that it was the Surgeon who made the accusation, and that Diccan was afraid for her. Not of her. Sounds a bit less…damning to me.”
Harry looked over at the open window. “Trust me, she’s capable of anything.”
“I take it you know each other.”
“Not a pleasant experience?”
He sighed. “It was until I discovered that she was amoral, selfish, and manipulative. You’ll save a lot of time and energy if you begin there. Now, please. Get her to change and watch her while she does.”
“Would you like me to also question her? Sometimes it comes easier from another woman.”
“I would like you to find that verse. Nothing else.”
With a long-suffering sigh that sounded a bit like Mudge’s, she pushed herself to her feet. “I don’t feel good about this.”
Harry flashed her a tired smile. “If this were going to be easy, I wouldn’t have asked for you.”
For the first time in her life, Kate wished for complete darkness. Maybe without sight she could have avoided the truth. But she had the candle. She had enough light to discern every shape and shadow in the room. She held on to enough sanity to recognize them all.
The house was called Warren Hall. A decaying monstrosity that blighted the countryside near Marlborough, it had been the home of one Philbert Ambrosius Hilliard Warren until his too-timely death four years ago. Kate sat in a straight-backed chair in the middle of the master bedroom, a grim, echoing chamber presided over by an even grimmer painting of Philbert himself, a skeletal old man in a badly fitting bagwig. She knew this because after the old man’s death, she had taken a tour of the place with the person Philbert had willed it to. Her cousin Diccan.
Harry hadn’t lied. Diccan knew where she was. He really had put her in Harry’s hands.
No one was coming to save her from the dark. No one was coming to save her from Harry. She had nothing to protect her but an uncertain candle. So she pulled the battered old table up to her and reseated the candle in its dingy chipped plate. And then she watched as the flame slowly failed.
In the corner of her brain that still worked, Kate realized that no more than two hours passed before she heard the key in the door. In the rest of it, though, it seemed to be forever, counted in the flickers of the disappearing candle.
When new light spilled into the room, she came perilously close to sobbing out loud.
“Your Grace.” A woman stood in the doorway. “I have come to help you change.”
Kate took a slow breath before turning to greet her visitor. It wouldn’t do to seem desperate. She recognized the newcomer, a tall, shapely woman with blue eyes and pale blond hair that glowed oddly in the light that silhouetted her. She had impressive posture and hands she kept clasped at her waist, like the perfect servant.
“Schroeder, isn’t it?” Kate asked, smiling. Beside her, her candle shuddered with the advent of fresh air. She afforded it a quick glance to make sure it stayed healthy before briefly turning back to her visitor. “You work for my cousin Diccan. As a spy.”
Kate heard the rustle of material as Schroeder curtsied. “I aid him in his investigations,” the woman allowed. “I am also an excellent abigail. Sir Harry asked me to do for you while you are his guest.”
Turning back to her candle, Kate actually laughed. “Please, Schroeder. If you wish to remain on congenial terms, try not to resort to such absurd euphemisms. I am no guest, and we both know it.”
“If you are here, then I suppose it’s true. Diccan is involved in this travesty.”
“He offered the house.”
Kate nodded, as if she understood.
Schroeder hesitated. “Are you all right, Your Grace? You seem a bit…”
“Tetchy? Think nothing of it. Kidnappings seem to make me fractious.”
“This has happened before?”
“No, but once my brother Edwin hears how successful Diccan has been, I’m sure he’ll waste no time taking up the idea. Edwin was never much of a leader. He is, however, an excellent follower.”
Schroeder took an experimental step closer. Kate didn’t move. “May I help you change now? The men will be bringing your baggage up for you.”
Kate kept her voice admirably pleasant. “It is nothing personal, Schroeder. But touch me, and you’ll limp for a month. What you can do is to provide more candles. This one is failing. Or get Harry to open the window.”
“Try not to be afraid. It’s such an exhausting emotion.”
Schroeder spent another ten minutes trying to get Kate to see the error of her ways. Kate spent the time watching the candle eat away at itself. She could hear her luggage being dragged up the stairs. Once it reached the top, though, silence fell.
Schroeder stood before the door like a warrior. “I’m sorry,” she said, sounding truly regretful. “I can do no more without your cooperation.”
Kate should have known Harry would come up with an effective torture. She itched. Her hair felt like a rat’s nest, and she wanted to scrub her teeth. But she wasn’t about to strip for anyone, especially if Harry was the one asking.
Turning back to the candle, Kate nodded. “I understand. I hold you completely faultless in all of this. You tell Harry that if he wants to see me naked, he can make it worth my while, like everybody else.”
Sighing, Schroeder turned to go.
“Schroeder,” Kate asked suddenly. “Do you have a first name?”
Schroeder paused. “Barbara, Your Grace.”
Kate nodded. “Would you mind if I used it? I despise unnecessary formality.”
Schroeder didn’t answer right away. “It would be an honor, Your Grace.”
“Kate,” Kate said, briefly deserting her candle to meet the abigail’s uncertain gaze. “Or Lady Kate. Never Your Grace.”
Still looking confused, the woman dropped a quick curtsy and opened the door.
“I would truly appreciate some candles, please, Barbara,” was all Kate said. It annoyed her that her voice had begun to thin out again, and that her hands were trembling in her lap. “What time is it?”
Schroeder turned. “A bit after midnight.”
Kate almost groaned out loud. At least five hours to go.
“Thank you.” What else could she say? Barbara could do nothing about the dark.
“Something is not right,” Schroeder said without preamble when she ran Harry down in the kitchen where he was brewing tea.
“Plenty is not right,” Harry said, not looking up. “Did you search her?”
“She didn’t move, not once. She could barely look away from the candle long enough to face me, as if that candle were the only thing she could see. Does she have problems being shut in, or being in the dark?”
Pot in one hand, his tin mug in the other, Harry looked up. “How would I know?”
“You said you knew her.”
Harry tilted his head. “I never remember her holding still.”
Schroeder pulled out a cup for herself and wiped it out with her skirt. “I’m telling you. Something is wrong. Cannot we at least open the window?”
“And have her escape?”
“It’s three stories up, Major. She isn’t a bird.”
He poured Schroeder’s portion before his own. “She’s a witch. We’d wake up and she’d have vanished with all her luggage and our horses. No.”
“Then get her some candles.”
“She can have candles. She can have chandeliers. Once she strips.”
“You mean once I search her clothing.”
His head snapped around. “When we find the verse.”
“What if we don’t?”
He turned back to his tea. “Then she ate it and we’ll have to find a way to make her tell us.”
“You’re so sure?”
“You don’t know her.”
“You don’t seem to, either. Not if you don’t know why she stares at candles as if they are the window out of a prison.”
Harry slammed the pot down, sloshing water across the grimy table. “Schroeder, don’t get poetic on me. She’s a duchess, not a fairy princess. Now please. Search her.”
Kate wasn’t sure how much longer it was, except that the candle had worn away to a puddle, and she was seriously thinking of ripping at the shutters with her fingernails. She needed to have more light. The walls were closing in, the darkness thickening, and she refused to face what it hid. More, she knew, since she’d spent that time caring for wounded in Brussels. Another layer of nightmares now lay in wait.
She was so focused on the little flame that she didn’t even hear the lock turn. She just suddenly knew that there was new light in the room.
“I’m not a monster,” Harry said from the doorway.
She wasn’t sure what he wanted her to say. She wasn’t sure she could say anything. Sweat had collected under her armpits and between her breasts, making her itch even more.
He walked in, his boots thudding on the floor. “What game are you playing, Kate?”
“You’re the one playing the game, Harry. Why don’t you tell me?”
She knew better than to goad him, yet she couldn’t seem to help it. Once upon a time, they had fought like duelists, trading verbal blows as they’d argued about everything from astrology to architecture, their laughter as sharp as their wit. For a long time now, though, the barbs they’d traded had carried nothing but venom.
“Please, Kate,” he said, and he almost sounded sincere. “I don’t have a choice.”
He stepped close enough that she could smell fresh air and leather. She almost closed her eyes with the sheer pleasure of it, a scent of freedom and summer and hope. Deserting her candle, she considered the harsh angles of his face.
For the first time, she realized that he looked like hell: strained and tired and lined, as if something literally weighed him down.
“Everyone has a choice, Harry,” she reminded him. “You could believe me instead of a notorious assassin.”
“And you could help us find out why he would have made the accusation.”
“I would be happy to, if that was what you really wanted. But what you really want is to see me humiliated, and I am not in the mood for it.”
“The Surgeon admitted it right before he died,” Harry accused. “He said that you had the verse. That you were tied up in this. Diccan told me himself.”
Excerpted from Always a Temptress by Dreyer, Eileen Copyright © 2011 by Dreyer, Eileen. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
New York Times best-selling author Eileen Dreyer has won five RITA Awards from the Romance Writers of America, which secures her fourth place in the Romance Writers of America prestigious Hall of Fame. Eileen is an addicted traveler, having sung in some of the best Irish pubs in the world. Eileen also writes as Kathleen Korbel and has over three million books in print worldwide. Born and raised in Missouri, she lives in St. Louis County with her husband Rick and her two children.
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