The first time Serena saw him, she knew there was going to be trouble. He had that look. It was the sudden stillness that alerted her to his presence. She looked up from the cards Flynn had just dealt her and became aware of a silent, menacing figure in the open doorway. One hand rested casually on the hilt of his smallsword, and even in that dim light, she could see the distinct challenge in his eyes as they scanned the various tables in the tavern's crowded, smoke-filled common room.
Dangerous. Reckless. Wild. Those were the words that passed through
Serena's mind. When his glance fell on her, taking in her filmy costume, lingering on her artfully painted face framed with soot-black curls, and the wide expanse of white bosom, especially the wide expanse of white bosom, her fingers itched to reach for her cape to cover herself. She had no idea why his interest should fix on her. In relation to some of the other "ladies" who were present that evening, she was hardly worth a second stare. Nothing too much, nothing too obvious—that was the rule she and Flynn followed.
Remembering the role she was playing, she smiled at him vaguely and
drew Flynn's attention to the stranger by fingering the black silk
patch at the corner of her mouth, her signal to be on the alert. Then
the stranger's eyes passed over her, and calling for a tankard of
ale, he found a place for himself at a table against the wall. Only
then did the hum of conversation resume.
Serena darted a quick, questioning look at Flynn. It was one of the
other players, however, a resident performer at Drury Lane, who
answered Serena's pointed look. Cassie, in Serena's opinion, was
worth a second stare. The girl's looks were dramatic, and her tightly
laced hooped gown of crimson damask set off her supple curves to
admiration. Serena had left off her hoops this evening, knowing that
they would only get in the way once she and Flynn embarked on their
"Julian Raynor," whispered Cassie, her eyes fairly devouring the
gentleman in question, "you know, the gamester. Oh Lud, he's looking
our way," and she slanted Raynor a flirtatious look that was half
challenging, half mischievous.
Cassie's partner, a young actor, let out an impatient sigh. "Ladies,
may I remind you that a card game is in progress? I suggest you mind
"And I second that suggestion," said Flynn, giving Serena a very straight look.
It was hard to concentrate on the game of whist that was in progress
when the name of London's most notorious gamester was reverberating
inside her head. Somehow Serena managed to contribute to the lively
conversation that went on about her, as well as play her cards
without drawing attention to herself. But behind her smiles and
carefully untroubled expression, her mind was hard at work.
What she could not fathom was why Raynor would deign to visit a
ramshackle place like this one. The Thatched Tavern was not, by any
means, a hovel, but it was no palace either. Its patrons were a
motley lot, ranging from the upper echelons of household servants to
the odd student as well as a plethora of theater people from nearby
Drury Lane. As for the gambling, it was desultory, and rarely for
For their purposes, the tavern was an ideal rendezvous. There was
much coming and going. Neither Flynn's untutored tongue nor her
cultured accents would rouse anyone's suspicions. Flynn was, in
actual fact, a footman. She was passing herself off as an actress, or
an aspiring actress to be precise. The most compelling reason for
choosing The Thatched Tavern for their rendezvous, however, was
because it sat above a secret Roman drain which led to a labyrinth of
underground passages. Flynn knew these underground passages like the
back of his hand.
Raynor's setting was far different from this. He was a professional
gambler, and kept a gaming house, a magnificent place just off Fleet
Street where, it was rumored, fortunes were won and lost every night
on the turn of a card. The patrons of his establishment, among them
her own brothers, were drawn from the wealthy upper classes.
Raynor was so out of place here that Serena's mind worried at it
like a dog with a bone. She had good reason to be worried. At any
moment, their "passenger" would be delivered, and it was their job to
transport him to a safe house, close to the docks, where her younger
brother, Clive, was waiting for them. At first light, weather
permitting, their "passenger" would be aboard ship taking sail for
France and freedom.
That thought put her in mind of something else she remembered about
Julian Raynor, or Major Raynor as he was generally known. The man was
credited with being something of a war hero. His daring exploits at
Prestonpans were almost legendary. Some said that if there had been
more like him on the field that day, government forces would have
crushed the Rebellion that much sooner, and there would have been a
He was an enemy of the Rebellion, and that made him her enemy too. If
he once got wind of their real purpose in being here this evening, it
could prove catastrophic not only for their "passenger," but for
Clive, Flynn, and herself also. Aiding and abetting Jacobite
fugitives was still a capital offense.
For a fleeting moment, Stephen's face swam before her eyes. The
thought of Prestonpans, where Raynor had won such glory for himself,
never failed to revive the old memories, the old ache. At Prestonpans, Stephen had cruelly perished, and all her dreams with him. It was entirely possible that it was Raynor's hand that had cut down her betrothed.
No good could be served by perpetuating the old hatreds. She
understood this. She accepted that the Cause was lost. But so long as
the authorities hunted down Jacobite fugitives as if they were
vermin, there was still something to fight for. Her own father was
one of the lucky ones. When the Rebellion failed, he had managed to
escape to France, where he now languished. Until amnesty was offered
to all Jacobites with a price on their heads, their escape route must
From the corner of her eye, she saw Raynor adjust the angle of his
chair, as though to get a better view of her table. Why was he here?
What was he doing watching their table? She fervently hoped that it
was Cassie who had caught his eye, and not herself or Flynn. Cassie
might have been playing to the gallery, so animated were her
expressions and gestures. Evidently, she was playing up to Raynor,
hoping to attract his interest. Flynn, on the other hand, looked
perfectly unremarkable. In his powdered toupee and wire-rimmed
spectacles, he had aged ten years. No one would have taken him for
the flamboyant young chairman who was forever getting into fisticuffs
with other chairman when their sedans got in his way. Her own getup
was equally deceiving. According to Flynn, the black wash in her hair
and the powder and paint had completely transformed her.
If they were caught, their safest course lay in sticking as closely
to the truth as they dared. It was not unknown for ladies of fashion
to risk their reputations in their search for novelty and amusement.
Her presence here might cause a brief scandal, nothing more. The real
danger lay when she and Flynn were in possession of their "passenger." The sooner he was delivered, the better it would be for all concerned.
Apart from Raynor's presence, things were going according to plan.
With a quick, meaningful glance in Flynn's direction, touching her
little finger to the curl on her brow, she signaled that it was time
to move on. The next hand must be their last.
It was her turn to deal. There was a time when she would have invented any pretext to avoid this chore. She'd had a year of nights in places like this one to hone her skills. Flexing her fingers, she skillfully sliced and cut the cards, then quickly dealt each player a hand. Her eyes lifted without volition, and were caught and held by Raynor's inflexible stare.
The fine hairs on the back of Serena's neck rose in foreboding. Oh
God, she knew when she first saw him that there was going to be trouble. Swallowing, dragging her eyes away, she threw out her first card.
She played as if her life depended on it, not because she wanted to
win, but because she couldn't help herself, not when Raynor's gaze
was fixed on her, and she was sure, now, that she was the one he had
singled out. Winning, in this company, was easy. It was losing that
took all her powers of concentration. When she took every trick,
Flynn slanted her a warning frown. She knew what that signified. The
last thing they wanted was to draw attention to themselves, and there
would be plenty of attention if she was suspected of being a
cardsharp. Win a few, lose a few, that was the strategy they
followed. It wasn't as though the card-playing were essential. It was
a means of fitting in with the crowd until their "passenger" should
arrive. By sheer force of will, she managed to lose the last two
tricks. Then the game was over, and as Cassie and her young actor
became involved in a heated lovers' tiff, she and Flynn pocketed
By this time, alarm was pumping blood to every pulse point in her
body. Flynn recognized her tension and managed a quiet, "What is it?"
It was nothing. It was everything. It was Julian Raynor. She shook her head.
She was aware of the door opening to admit a newcomer, aware of the
leather-bound volume the young man clutched to his bosom; she was
aware of Flynn idling his way to the door to engage the newcomer in
conversation; but most of all she was excruciatingly aware of Julian
Raynor rising and beckoning with one finger, summoning her to his
Though her temper flared at the arrogant gesture, she was in no
position to antagonize him. She picked up her feathered cape and
slowly sauntered over.
"Sit down." He indicated the empty chair he was holding. His voice
carried a note of amused interest. His look was one he might have
bestowed on a piece of prime horseflesh he was intending to purchase.
Through the sweep of her blackened lashes, Serena made her own
appraisal. He was tall, too tall for her comfort. His dark hair was
lightly powdered and tied in back with a ribbon. The lace at his
throat and wrists, though of the best quality, was not lavish. His
blue silk coat, embroidered at the edges and on the great turn-back
cuffs with silver thread, hugged his broad shoulders. He wasn't
handsome as her brothers, Jeremy and Clive, were handsome. This man's
looks were too harsh. Some might have called him the epitome of
elegance. Serena could find no fault with his appearance. What she
mistrusted was the glitter of some nameless masculine emotion in
those silver-gray eyes. It made her skin prickle. As for his manners,
they verged on the insolent. More than ever, she was convinced that
her first impression of Julian Raynor was correct.
It was then that Serena remembered something else she had heard about
Julian Raynor. There were rumors of duels, and women, scores of
women, and debauchery on a scale she could not imagine. She could
well believe it. This man was dangerous.
This was not the time to put him in his place. The situation called
for tact and caution, though neither were her strong points.
"Major Raynor, is it not?" she said, and smiled pleasantly. "You do
me too much honor, sir."
She glanced idly over her shoulder, hoping to summon Cassie to her.
One quick look told her that her newfound "friend" was leaving the
tavern in high dudgeon. Swallowing a sigh, Serena turned to face the
One dark brow was lifted in cynical mockery. "You had me fooled for a
time there, ma'am, but now I am on to you," he said.
Her mind reeling with the shock of his words, Serena slowly sank into
the chair he held for her.
"First, allow me to say that you play remarkable well for an
amateur." He bowed over her hand, then seated himself on the other
side of the table.
"Thank you," she answered numbly.
"But cards are not precisely your game, are they?"
She dropped her lashes to conceal the stark terror his words had
evoked. "I don't know what you mean."
"I think you do. I think you knew, or guessed, that I wouldn't be
able to take my eyes off you if I suspected you were a cheat. And it
"Cheat?" repeated Serena carefully. The word she was in terror of
hearing was traitor.
He leaned forward, and she caught the gleam of laughter in his eyes.
"Your ploy succeeded, as you can see. Shall we drink to the occasion?" Signaling to one of the serving wenches, he ordered a bottle of claret.
It was becoming clear to Serena that Julian Raynor had no idea of her
real reason for being here. Her alarm abating a little, she steered
her eyes casually in Flynn's direction and noted that he had drawn
their "passenger" into the shadows while he waited for her to join
She could well imagine what was going through Flynn's mind. He would
be cursing her for endangering herself by even being here this
evening. They never could see eye to eye on this. Flynn regarded
Serena's part in their mission as unnecessary, and he would have
preferred to handle things by himself. This Serena would not allow
since she knew Flynn's heart wasn't in it. He was involved because
she was involved. It would be unscrupulous to let him take all the
Her eyes returned to Raynor. Though he was relaxed and smiling, her
first impression of him lingered, and she decided on instinct not to
provoke him by refusing to drink the wine he was pouring out for her.
"I wasn't cheating," she said.
"Oh, I know that now. Haven't I just said so?"
"But . . . what made you think that I was?"
"The beauty patch, the little curl on your brow, and the way you
fingered them. These are the props and methods of the rank novice."
Flynn would have said that she was indulging a vulgar taste for
melodrama. He had no use for the signals she had invented, and so he
had told her.
In spite of her uneasiness, she managed an arch smile. "Perhaps I was
"And perhaps you are a very clever woman."
His eyes smiled into hers as if, thought Serena, they shared a secret
joke. Not wanting to pursue this dangerous subject, promising herself
that from now on she would listen to Flynn, she raised her glass to
her lips. "What is the occasion we are drinking to?" she asked.
His eyes teased her wickedly. "To our better acquaintance," he said,
"Miss . . . what is your name, by the by?"
She had her answer ready. "Victoria," she said at once. It was a name
she had always liked, even as a child, and one that she thought was
more appropriate to her nature than the insipid. "Victoria
Noble. An actress by profession," she threw in casually, trying to
establish the role she had adopted.
"An actress? Where are you playing?"
She was prepared for this question. Her little mouth trembled, and
her eyes slid away before lifting to look deeply into his. "An actress of sorts is what I should have said. You know how it is." Her shrug was eloquent. "There are more actresses than there are parts to be had."
"Say no more, Miss Noble. I understand your position perfectly."
A ripple of unease ran up her spine. She knew an innuendo when she
heard one. Did he perhaps know more than she suspected? Then why was
he smiling at her and not calling for a magistrate?
Under cover of drinking her wine, she sent her gaze in search of
Flynn. There was no sign of him or their "passenger." This was
serious. Flynn would not leave her unprotected unless an emergency
forced him to. In spite of her fear of Raynor, it was time to decamp.
She set down her glass and made a move to rise. "The hour grows
late," she said, "and"—she stifled a yawn behind her hand—"alas, I
am excessively fatigued."
Laughing, with the swiftness of a striking cobra, he had her by the
wrist. "I like an eager wench. But sweet, allow me a little time to
set the stage." To her blank look, he elaborated. "I have yet to
bespeak a room for us. Drink your wine. This won't take a moment."
"A . . . bespeak a room for us?"
"If not here, somewhere else. Oh, did you think that I would take you
to my gaming house? Hardly. I have to live there, and I should prefer
a little more privacy."
When his meaning finally became clear to her, she did not know
whether she wanted to stamp her foot and spit on him, or dissolve in
a fit of the giggles. That Julian Raynor, a rake of the first magnitude, should have mistaken the daughter of Sir Robert Ward for a common doxy! It was hilarious. It was outrageous. She must be a better actress than she knew.
She watched him go with supreme complacency. As soon as the doors had
closed upon him, she was on her feet, reaching for her feathered cape. Disregarding the protests of the waiters and serving girls, Serena entered the kitchens. As she advanced toward the door she took to be the back exit, it opened, and several uniformed militiamen pushed into the tavern. She heard the word Jacobite and did an about-turn.
Her heart was beating so furiously, she could hardly catch her
breath. In all the confusion of thoughts that raced through her
brain, one stood out starkly. They had been betrayed.
Forcing the hysteria to recede, she tried to take stock of the
situation. Flynn must have heard or seen something while she was in
conversation with Julian Raynor. They had always known that the most
perilous part of their mission was when they collected their
"passenger." Once they went underground, as Flynn would have it, no
one would find them in that labyrinth. Praying that Flynn had not
delayed on her account, she pushed through the door to the front
From here, she could see the lanterns outside, and beneath them, a
detail of militia assembling on the pavement. Her eyes flicked to the
staircase. When an arm circled her waist, she cried out in panic.
"It's only me. Who were you expecting?"
It was Raynor's voice, laced, as always, with that intolerable
masculine amusement. From the corner of her eye, she saw someone try
to leave the tavern only to be turned back by one of the militia. She
could take her chances with the militia, or she could take her
chances with Julian Raynor.
She looked up at him, her eyes wide and unfaltering. He was a
gamester, but that did not mean he was an unprincipled rogue.
According to her brother Jeremy, Raynor was one of the best. Stifling
her misgivings, with one eye on His Majesty's militia, she allowed
Raynor to lead her to the staircase.
From the Paperback edition.