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"If it's all the same to you, I'd prefer not to die just yet."
"You bloody well don't have a choice. Either you expire voluntarily, or someone else will make the decision for you. I strongly recommend the first alternative."
Adrian, Viscount Harding, heir to an earldom and extensive land and business holdings, paused in his restless pacing and eyed the lean figure propped languidly against the waterstained wall of his squalid room. Rain beat against the single narrow window, blowing in around the warped frame and seeping into the ancient, rotting sill. The atmosphere was redolent of several hundred years of unwashed inhabitants and moldy walls. "I can take care of myself."
It was all very well for his companion to talk about Adrian's disappearing. Fitzhugh Kent could go back to England, take a hot bath prepared by his valet, and sit down to a warm, well-cooked meal in clean clothes ... before going out to mingle with civilized people at one of his clubs.
Adrian inspected his own stained, greasy twill trousers and jacket, unable to visualize a future in which he was wearing anything cleaner. He nurtured a stubborn belief that the rough clothing would retain his shape when he stepped out of them; his personal hygiene of late defied contemplation. But no one knew better than he that Fitz Kent, spy master extraordinaire for Her Majesty Queen Victoria's government, couldn't be bothered to worry about his agent's sartorial problems.
Interrupting Adrian's bout of self-pity, Kent continued, "Let me review. You overheard five Armenian nationalists plot a takeover of their country, a takeover that will doubtless trigger widespread massacres. Imust say this all sounds rather farfetched, but your report is too detailed and the situation too delicate for me to discount it." He shrugged his elegant shoulders beneath the rough clothing of his own disguise and added cheerfully, "You've yet to bring back bogus goods."
"Believe me, they're serious. Fitz, the ordinary citizens they recruit will have no idea how ruthless and power hungry that little nucleus is ... until it's too late." Adrian shivered. He remembered the cold eyes of each of the five men. The stone walls of the dank basement room had reflected flickering light from a lantern balanced on a squat keg. Adrian had inspected the keg earlier; the contents matched those of the haphazardly piled barrels he had hidden behind. Gunpowder.
Sweat beaded his forehead as he recalled his fevered prayers that no one would upset the lantern. He resumed his pacing.
"Have you any idea who tipped the rebels off to your identity?" Fitz asked.
"Not a clue." During every minute of his roundabout journey to Brussels, Adrian had reviewed the events leading up to his near capture. Somehow, someday, he would find the bastard responsible. He was alive, but his heart was filled with hatred for whoever had betrayed him.
"When I arrived for work at the railroad the day after the meeting, a chap I worked with pulled me aside to warn me a stranger had been inquiring about me, asking for Adrian Harding and describing me perfectly. Just then I saw one of the men from the night before, the rebel who was second in command, with my superior. He looked right at me, and I didn't stop to think. I just leaped on a train that was pulling out. That bastard was the most bloodthirsty of the lot."
"'The deaths of ten thousand serfs are as nothing,' I believe was his quaint way of putting it."
"Adrian, have you any idea what complicated diplomatic channels we'll have to swim through to get this information to what passes for government in Armenia? The Russians have the best contacts, but first we'll have to convince them the report's authentic. Even if they believe us, they won't necessarily help. The Turks will be even harder to bring 'round. The warning may not even get through in time."
Kent stepped away from the wall and brushed flaking paint from his stained and threadbare coat with the fastidious gesture most people reserved for cashmere. "In the meantime, you're a marked man, so you can't come back to England and live as Adrian, Viscount Harding. They'll find you no matter where you go. Whereas if you're reported dead..."
Adrian finished his friend's sentence in a voice filled with despair. "They'll stop looking." Halting in front of the single grimy window, he rested his forehead against the pane. Until now, Fitz's idea had seemed a bad joke. "My God! What about my parents?" His vision of the future was a bottomless void. "What about my life? There's a girl in London who has good reason to think I'll offer to marry her."
"You can resume your life when the crisis is past--once the threat is eliminated. And take my advice. If it's the
Satterfield chit, you'll be better off dead," Fitz advised. Concern filled his voice as he continued, "Look, Adrian, I know how anonymous you can make yourself. Yet by your own account, during your journey to Brussels you were waylaid twice and attacked by bandits on yet another occasion. Do you think those were coincidences?"
Adrian let his arms fall to his sides. His shoulders slumped. "I wish to hell I'd never gotten into this."
Fitz shrugged. "Then you never should have been so clever with languages."
"Go to hell."
"Probably." Smiling wryly, Fitz returned to essentials. "However, you can't remain here. The rebels found you already. A distinctly sinister sod turned up in the alley behind this building just this morning. My men 'helped' him board a cargo ship headed for Greenland. Others will slither in, and we can continue disposing of them, but sooner or later one will slip through our net, and then Bob's your uncle." He smiled deprecatingly at his own wit. "Book passage on the Beggar's Bride. She sails at eight tomorrow morning. My agents will guard you until you're safe board.
"You'll die officially in a mid-channel explosion about noon tomorrow. Once you're back in England, find a job on the docks. The waterfront is riddled with anonymous boltholes, and you do have that interesting knack of invisibility."
Adrian rubbed his hands over his face. His eyes burned with unshed tears, tears he would never allow Fitz Kent to see. He felt seven years old and scared out of his skin. "If I survive this, remind me to shelve my linguistic gifts." He turned again to stare out the cracked window. The daylight was fading.
His hand on the rusted doorknob, Kent asked, "Do you need money?"
"I thought I was to get a job at the docks." Adrian kept his gaze fixed on a crocodile-like fissure in the bottom pane.
"Right. Well, if you run into a rough patch or if you should pick up anything useful, you might keep an eye out. Someone will come 'round now and then."
The situation suddenly struck Adrian as decidedly humorous. "How comforting, old chap. Now go back to England, and instruct some clerk at Whitehall to tell my family I'm dead. But be sure the obituary sings my praises."
As the door closed, Adrian was horrified to hear his own brittle laughter echoing in the dank air. Then silence filled the dingy room.
"Damn you, Lionel! If you kill me because of your bloody horses, I swear I'll haunt you forever," Lady Chloe Lockwood grumbled as she crawled across the velvet squabs toward the door of her father's swaying traveling coach.
Sounds of neighing horses, a shrill female voice, and shouting men--her twin brother, Lionel, the loudest of all--filtered in from the outside. Chloe decided it was time to act.
Hitching her cherry-colored silk broadcloth skirts above her half-boots beneath her and released the door latch. It swung open, flapping with the movement of the coach, then back again as the well-sprung body lurched to its right. Like a pendulum, the vehicle settled once more to the left, and the door swung outward. Chloe leaped toward safety--which appeared from nowhere in the form of a lean, well-muscled body equipped with strong arms that closed tightly around her before collapsing beneath her on the gravel drive.
The mixed fragrances of hay, horse, and clean, healthy male filled her nostrils. Pressing her nose against a twill work shirt pulled tightly over the unfamiliar toughness of a male chest, she inhaled deeply, savoring the mixture as she luxuriated in the fascinating contours beneath her.
Perhaps she had been a trifle premature in her decision to remain single as had her aunt Heloise. This proximity to a man was more than pleasant; it was invigorating.
"Miss, are you all right?" The urgency in the soft tenor voice pierced her drifting thoughts.
"I'm going to turn you onto your back. Are you injured?" She felt his muscles bunch as if to rise, then, "Miss, you'll have to let go of me so I can move." His voice sounded strained.
She realized her fingers clutched his broad shoulders with a grip she could duplicate only if she were about to fall from a precipice. "Oh, dear. I'm frightfully sorry," she said without remorse. Reluctantly she released him and rolled to one side. "I'm fine. You ... you saved my life."
As she spoke, she looked at his face for the first time. The deep blue gaze that met hers mirrored the startling awareness she herself felt. The man was a stranger, and undoubtedly a servant of some sort, but she felt ... recognition. As if she had been waiting for this encounter all her life.
As she opened her mouth to tell him so, his gaze became blank. She had the odd feeling his soul had departed while she watched. His lean, aristocratic features were still clearly defined beneath tanned skin, but the life, along with any animation, had leeched from his face.
He rose lithely and extended his hands to assist her to her feet. She accepted the courtesy in a daze, feeling detached from the sounds around them.
"Thank heaven you're all right." Lady Heloise Lockwood's no-nonsense voice brought her back to earth. "That was well done, Drury. Would you be so kind as to give my nephew a hand? Those ill-trained horses he insists on dragging all over England are sure to damage one another if someone doesn't take charge."
The words broke the trance into which Chloe had fallen, and she threw herself into her aunt's arms, grateful for the familiar scents of lavender and laundry starch permeating her tucked white shirtwaist. "Oh, Aunt, wasn't my arrival exciting? I'm so very glad to see you."
Heloise released her and stepped back, her dark brown eyes inspecting her niece with their usual thoroughness. Chloe had no fear of such scrutiny, although she knew even her father sometimes quailed beneath the steely glint in his twin's eye. She met her favorite relative's gaze with a confident, hopeful smile. "Do I look like someone who's teetering on the brink of spinsterhood?"
"Indeed, you look like a passably attractive young woman who is wearing some sort of buckram garment instead of a corset."
Glancing over her shoulder, Chloe saw the servant named Drury leading Lionel's fractious stallion away from the other four horses, who appeared to have calmed somewhat. Could he have overheard her aunt's accusation? The mortifying realization made her warm all over.
"We shall discuss your lack of proper undergarments later, in more private surroundings," Heloise said. She strode toward her nephew, who stood, red-faced and furious, tugging on the lead line he had detached from the rear of the traveling coach. A high-spirited mare danced at the other end. "And what have you to say for yourself, Lionel? These horses should have been sent north by train. Instead, you've risked your sister's life the last three days dragging them behind the coach."
Lionel started, his customary nervousness in his aunt's presence communicating itself to the horse, who reared. Before Lionel could speak, Drury appeared from the direction of the stables and removed the tether from his hands. The mare quieted and followed the servant docilely. Lionel said hotly, "It was that bloody red-haired cow waving an apple! Damn it, Aunt, your maid put the wind up my horses before they'd even come to a stop! Don't she know how high-strung thoroughbreds are?"
"I doubt she does. She's farm bred," Heloise said without apology. "Even though you have not yet seen fit to greet me properly, it was kind of you to deliver your sister. I trust you will stay for a light luncheon."
A chastened Lionel leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "Good to see you again, Aunt Heloise. I'll be glad of something to eat. We left the inn at dawn this morning."
Heloise surveyed him dispassionately. "Have you ever considered that your sister might have become fatigued traveling at such a pace?"
"Chloe? You're on the wrong road there, Aunt. She's the one who wanted to hurry." Lionel gave his sister a grateful look. "She knew she'd arrive that much quicker if we pushed."
Chloe hoped her exhaustion didn't show. She loved her brother dearly, but the trip had been dreary. Single-mindedly intent on his own plans, Lionel had fretted the whole time about the inconvenience of delivering her. She had mendaciously assured him the rigors of traveling from dawn till dark would be an adventure. For propriety's sake, her mother had forbidden her to ride, so she had sat in the coach with only two carpetbags of books for company. The lithe, rangy figure of the servant Drury caught her attention as he led away the last two horses. "Aunt..."
Ignoring her, Heloise motioned to the sweating coachman, who was courageously holding his team steady. "Take the coach around to the back to unload Lady Chloe's trunks." That order given, she gestured imperiously toward her niece and turned to lead the way up the broad stone staircase to the door held open by a gray-clad butler.
Thwarted in her attempt to question her aunt about her intriguing rescuer, Chloe grasped for an opportunity to follow him to his destination. "We can't go inside just yet. Come, I want to show you the present I've brought you." Before her aunt could reply, Chloe seized her by the hand and dragged her toward the brick walk that curved around the left wing of the house.
Going straight to the subject uppermost in her mind, Chloe demanded, "Aunt, is that groom new? I feel sure I don't remember him from my last visit." To her horrified delight, her body quivered at the recollection of the groom's protective embrace as they tumbled to the ground. Was this the physical attraction she'd read about in books? If so, her plans for the future definitely required re-examination. Another little shiver struck her as she recalled the sense of awareness she'd seen in his eyes before he had banked that burst of flame.
"Of course you don't remember him. I hadn't set up my stable when you were here last. Drury came to me last fall. He was highly recommended by the vicar's wife, as I recall."
They walked toward the large oval of graveled drive beyond the service entrance. As they passed the door, a sturdy feminine figure topped by a cluster of improbable black curls burst out.
"Miss Chloe! Ye're 'ere!" Molly O'Day enveloped Chloe in an exuberant hug. Though the top of her head scarcely reached Chloe's chin, the woman's grip nearly lifted the girl from the ground. "I'm s'posed to act more dignified-like," she said, releasing her. "I'm 'ousekeeper fer yer aunt now. Did yer know?"
"I guessed from what you're wearing, Molly. Has anyone told you that black makes you look taller and thinner?" Chloe grinned. "And if you ever become too exalted to give me a welcoming hug, I shall have to lecture you."
As she finished speaking, the coach came around the curving drive and rolled to a stop. Harry Ikehorn, the coachman, removed his hat and wiped his brow. His weathered features wore a relieved expression.
Lionel appeared in the coach's wake, his face still suffused with anger. "You should sack that red-haired wench, Aunt. My horses could have been injured. And I don't know what m'father would have said if the coach had been damaged."
"I intend to speak with Gladys. Now go into the house with Molly. She'll serve you your luncheon," Heloise soothed.
Chloe had had enough. She stepped forward and leaned close, peering into her brother's eyes, a scant inch above her own. "Lionel, you're an ass. I was in the carriage, and I'm not after the poor girl's head. Leave off."
Over Lionel's shoulder she caught the fierce scowl that flitted across the face of the groom her aunt had called Drury. If she hadn't glanced in his direction at that particular moment, she would have seen only the bland expression of a well-trained servant, as once more the life faded from his features. Was his face made of India rubber?
"I want to supervise the footmen when they unload your gift, Aunt," Chloe told her, never moving her gaze from Drury and the coachman as they unhitched the matched grays.
The groom's sure, economical movements mesmerized her. Why were his twill shirt and trousers a size larger than necessary for the neatly constructed form her body recalled with embarrassing clarity? She could almost feel the heat of that muscular frame. She allowed her imagination to supply the play of muscles in the strong thighs beneath his baggy trousers as Drury strained to pull the reluctant lead horse from the traces.
She felt color rise in her cheeks as she pictured her mother's hysterics if she knew her gently raised daughter was entertaining such thoughts, but Chloe adamantly believed there was nothing improper about her interest in bodies. Even though her art teacher had insisted that insipid flowers and pleasant vistas were the only acceptable subjects for a young lady, she had ignored the stricture and continued her observations, frequently capturing the human body on paper.
Aunt Heloise's groom's loosely fitted clothing concealed something quite out of the ordinary, Chloe was positive. Why on earth would he dress so strangely?
Heat suffused her body. "Dear heaven," she murmured. She realized she was staring at a groom, the gift she had brought her aunt the furthest thing from her mind. With that lowering discovery, she walked to the side of the coach, arriving just as Drury turned the last horse over to a stocky individual with curiously watchful eyes.
"Would you be so kind as to unload the roof of the coach first?" she asked, flashing a mischievous smile, well aware of the charm of the misplaced dimple at the left of her lower lip.
Drury showed no curiosity, simply swinging himself to the top of the coach and removing the ropes holding the canvas in place. Under Chloe's watchful eye, he peeled back the cover, revealing the objects beneath. The muscles in his lean cheeks twitched, the corners of his mouth deepened into an appreciative grin, and his white teeth flashed in an outright smile.
"One is mine. The other is for my aunt. Do you think she'll be pleased?" Chloe called up to him.
The smile disappeared as if it had never been. "I'm sure she'll be surprised, miss," he answered woodenly.
Irritation swept Chloe. Naturally friendly and outgoing, she was accustomed to talking with servants as if no social barriers existed. Her aunt's groom, by his very detachment, fueled her determination to break through his reserve.
"What are you called?" she asked curiously, even though she was well aware of his name.
He knelt on top the coach and directed his gaze to a point somewhere beyond her left shoulder. "Drury, m'lady."
"Do you know how to ride a bicycle?"
"Yes, ma'am." The admission came grudgingly.
Delighted, she smiled up at him. "That's simply wonderful, Drury. You can help me teach Aunt Heloise how to ride."
His thoughts racing, Adrian handed the first vehicle down to Harry Ikehorn. Closer contact with the vivacious creature below him would be as dangerous as going back to Armenia. During her leap from the coach, Lady Chloe had lost her hat and most of the pins which held her dusky curls at the back of her head. The errant breeze lifted a lock from her shoulders, blowing the shining strands across her cheek. She pushed them back impatiently.
Adrian thought she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
"I'll hold this one upright while he lowers the other one," she instructed Ikehorn. "Then Drury will show me where they are to be stored." She took hold of the handlebar with one hand and the seat with the other.
As he lifted the second bicycle, Adrian cursed silently and comprehensively in six languages. The familiar exercise failed to alleviate his frustration.
Ever since his "death" he had purposely avoided even thinking of attractive women of his own class. Actually, he'd not allowed himself to consider any woman as other than a person with whom he exchanged a few words, completed whatever the encounter demanded, and promptly forgot.
During the year and a half he'd worked at the Bristol shipyards detachment had been simple. In a totally male environment he had become one with the rough fellows who frequented the docks. Only the books he hoarded in his squalid little room and vengeful thoughts of his betrayer had kept him sane. Such mental and social hibernation had shut down his physical urges. His survival depended on it. Now, out of the blue, his loins remembered the pleasures to be found within a woman's body and wasted no time reminding him.
If only he were back at the docks, away from temptation. But that was impossible. The beam that fell on his shoulder six months ago had ended his isolation. The doctor who dealt with shipyard emergencies had put him in the charity hospital, and it was there that his mother's niece, his cousin Bess Shadwell, had found him. Was it fate or the Machiavellian contrivance of Fitzhugh Kent that had brought Bess there that day on an information-gathering tour with a charity group? Her husband's church wasn't even located in Bristol. He was vicar to the congregation of Upper Whiddlesby.
Bess, Adrian's favorite cousin, had turned her back on society to marry her beloved Robert, a seminary student who, if the twelve relatives preceding him in the succession died of the plague, would be a marquess.
In Adrian's weakened condition, Bess's tears had nearly broken his composure.
"We were told you were dead," she whispered, her voice thick with emotion and her hands clutching his good arm as if she were afraid he would disappear. "I don't understand, Adrian."
His whispered, carefully edited version of the reasons for his disappearance triggered more tears.
"You can't go back there," Bess declared when he finished. "I know just the place for you to heal." She rose, retied the strings on her fetching bonnet, and reverted to the demeanor of an efficient vicar's wife. "I must talk with someone first. Look for me the day after tomorrow."
On her way to the door she turned and said in a hoarse stage whisper that reminded him of shared childhood secrets and deviltry, "You do still like horses, don't you?"
Then, without waiting for an answer, she had disappeared.
A week later he had found himself established in the comfortable groom's apartment above Lady Heloise Lockwood's stables, where he recovered rapidly under Molly O'Day's competent, if brusque, care. And Heloise Lockwood had promised protection.
Each time he thought of the growing circle of people who knew his secret, Adrian shuddered. Even after all this time, someone might still be hunting him. The small, organized faction had triggered rebellion and dissent in Armenia. The news reports of massacres had appeared in the press, and Adrian frequently spent tortured, sleepless nights raging at the uselessness of diplomatic channels.
What did the lives of thousand of peasants mean to the power-hungry men in the labyrinth of Whitehall? More and more often the obvious answer to that question sickened him.
The presence of Lady Chloe Lockwood could prove to be a disaster. Tamped-down desires clawed at his insides. She was vibrant and heartbreakingly alive. It nearly hurt to look at her. And he was dead. He'd been dead for nearly two years.
She wasn't wearing a corset. Her haunting softness as she lay in his arms was still imprinted on the length of his body. As he climbed down from the top of the coach, Adrian felt himself harden. He inhaled, recalling the clean, sweet scent of primroses.
Oh, yes. Lady Chloe was going to be a problem.