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By CHARLOTTE MEDE
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2008 Charlotte Mede
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLondon, May 1818
Amurmur cut through the smothering darkness. The Marquess of Blackburn kept his eyes closed, heavy lidded from the streams of opiate coursing through his veins. The voices moved nearer, the blend of French syllables mingling with the blood throbbing to the rhythm of his heart.
"He didn't offer much resistance-that alone is suspicious." The words were muffled, as though coming from the other side of a heavy door or thick wall.
Aware of dampness seeping into his bones, Blackburn fought the lure of sleep, lulled by the numbness of his body. Only the voices pierced through the haze clouding his mind.
He rose through layers of consciousness, carefully turning his head from side to side, planks of wood grinding into his spine. In a corner, water dripped slowly and, inexplicably, he sensed the Thames nearby.
He was parched, the back of his throat as dry as sandpaper. His limbs remained leaden, his soul pitiless and emptied. Gray Dalton, Marquess of Blackburn, was a patient man not by nature, but by hard-won experience. In this dark prison he would lie in wait.
"If I could say so, guv'ner, there was the four of us, guv'ner. He didn't have much of a chance. And drugged, he was, too."
"This isn't your usual dupe, you fool. He would never let himself be taken prisoner unless it suited his purposes."
"But the Lady Treadwell drugged him, guv'ner. And we was right there, waitin' fer him, outside."
Clarity slashed through a layer of his physical numbness. A Frenchman and an east Londoner, judging by their accents. The rasp of his breathing was shallow and steady and he could feel the dry grit of blood crusting his knuckles, hours old, he guessed.
Forcing himself to remember, Blackburn pushed aside the shadows clouding his thoughts and recalled Susannah Tread-well and their interlude after the ambassador's reception. Everything had gone according to plan, his and hers, he recalled with a cynicism that ran miles deep.
That cat-and-mouse game they played so well together. He didn't know who was the more ruthless: Susannah with her abundant allure which she used to feed her bottomless appetite for money and intrigue. Or perhaps he was the more cold-blooded, armed with a brutal and callous disregard for anything and anyone who stood in his way.
He was tired of the game, bone weary, but he had convinced himself that the next round would be his. Just one more time.
The thought brought with it a burst of energy. He moved his arms experimentally, the stiffness in his broad shoulders easing. Threads of sensation began flowing back into his muscles as his eyes opened to a windowless cell.
Pitch blackness met his gaze except for the scarcely lighter shadow along the bottom of what he perceived was the door. No way to know whether it was day or night, yet again his instincts told him it was late-close to midnight. He was lying on a hard wooden bunk with his hands expertly bound, the situation an echo of the past, insistent and strangely welcoming. Damned if he didn't feel vaguely nostalgic.
The sound of footsteps on flagstones scraped closer. A new voice this time, low and female, just outside the cell.
"He's still useful to me, I trust?" the woman asked, words like chipped ice. There was a shuffling of feet, the jangle of keys.
"Somewhat bruised you'll discover, Mademoiselle," said the Frenchman. "But I'm certain neither you nor Le Comte will be disappointed."
Le Comte and his bait, thought Blackburn in the darkness. He began to work the ropes around his wrists and ankles, the cords burning into his skin like a physical memory. He'd escaped from far more dangerous situations and, after all, this was one scenario he had planned himself.
The voices ceased abruptly, and he could hear nothing but a faint whisper to his left, the door opening quietly. With the smooth movements of someone in absolute control of his body, he twisted his upper torso a fraction, ignoring the jab of pain slicing through the back of his head.
He saw clearly now, with the kind of detachment that comes only once or twice in a lifetime, a pale nimbus of light surrounding a figure on the threshold. Dark red hair, alabaster skin, the sensuous rustle of black silk and the muzzle of a silver-mounted pistol aimed straight and unwaveringly at his heart.
The woman he'd been waiting for.
Chapter TwoBlackburn stared hard, hard as the head-splitting pain on his right side allowed.
She was beautiful, his angel of death, sporting a small ladylike pistol in an admirably steady grip. Silhouetted in the light of the open doorway a few feet away, he could see that her eyes were the color of the North Sea and just about as cold.
"Sit up." She left the door partially ajar, her glance quickly appraising.
"I suppose it would make for an easier target." He struggled to an upright position, the pain giving way as the room slowly stopped spinning. The light from the outside hallway lit the small space, bare except for his bunk and a wooden stool in the opposite corner.
Like a general surveying a battlefield, she walked toward him out of the dimness, taking dispassionate note of his physical condition, his securely bound hands and legs. "Such wit." Her soft low voice dripped contempt, strangely enticing given the circumstances. "You probably should not have put up such a struggle, Blackburn. Three men to one are hardly in your favor."
"The opiate did help those in your camp," he said. "And I'm assuming my attackers were your emissaries." The footpads had posed very little challenge as a matter of fact. But then if he hadn't let them wrestle him to the ground and into this small corner of hell, he would not be facing Devon Caravelle at this moment, a critical link to one of the most dangerous men in Europe-and a most convenient outlet for his own plans for vengeance.
"Now I suppose you're here to tell me how I might be of help?" He scanned her face with a professional expertise, searching for something he couldn't yet define.
She refused to be pushed into any quick answers. "In good time."
The diffuse light cast a sheen on her dark auburn hair and threw into sharp relief the delicate planes of her face. Her English appeared perfect and unaccented. And she was clearly accustomed to brandishing revolvers. Without lowering her pistol, she moved in closer. Her cloak was brown, deliberate camouflage for physical assets tempting enough for a Jesuit. Every time she moved, he heard the unmistakable shimmer of the silk she wore underneath. He knew her type-and her world-all too well.
She shrugged in his direction, her brow raised in reproof. "For your own sake, I caution you. I can and will use this revolver should the situation dictate."
Blackburn didn't doubt it. "What threat do I possibly present?" He held up his bound hands for her inspection. His jaw must be sporting at least a few bruises as well, now dark with two days' stubble. De Maupassant's henchmen weren't known for their subtlety, causing Blackburn to wonder if this beautiful ambassador knew the extent of their cruelty. He expected at least a flicker of revulsion, but her eyes remained unmoved.
"True-but you do seem to look after yourself remarkably well." Her lips curled over the last word as she took a few steps away from him.
Blackburn accepted the backhanded compliment with a small smile, waiting for her next move. Seated on the bunk, held immobile by thick ropes, he felt a strange euphoria, a coiled tension that he hadn't felt in a long while, an edginess that perversely cut through some of the guilt and darkness that marked too many of his days. Devon Caravelle was not exactly as he had expected.
He watched the slow pulse at the base of her slender neck above the rise of rounded breasts no amount of brown wool could conceal. She did an admirable job of hiding her thoughts, those wide compelling eyes revealing little except a penetrating acuity. She was her father's daughter, there was little doubt.
Yet there was a strange vulnerability about her as she stared at him over the gun, her expression a closed prison door. "I'm going to tell you what I want from you, Blackburn. I trust you're ready to hear it."
Bloody hell, he couldn't wait.
But keeping his face expressionless, he merely shrugged. "A cynic would conclude that everybody wants something. It's an unfortunate aspect of human nature I've learned."
"Indeed." Devon Caravelle's delicately rounded chin lifted higher.
He smiled inwardly. This was exactly what he and the Duke of Wellington had planned-for Devon Caravelle to come to them. They both knew how useless her father, Brendan Clifton, had turned out to be, refusing to be of help to St. James's Palace, throwing his lot in with neither the English nor the French. And how convenient it had been for him to send his daughter away to the music conservatory that last year, as the dangerous currents of the war between England and Napoleon swirled about him. Right before his murder.
Blackburn felt his gut tighten like a bow. Despite those measures, Clifton had left his daughter with a highly volatile and explosive legacy.
She was the only person alive who had a chance of accessing the dangerous truth embedded in Beethoven's Eroica score.
With that thought, the pounding in Blackburn's head resumed. In response, he attempted to stretch the cramped muscles in his shoulders as Devon Caravelle instantly retrained her pistol, aiming precisely for his heart.
"I'm just getting comfortable," he reassured her, surprised at her nervous reaction, the tightening of her lips as she concentrated her gaze on him.
"That's precisely my concern. The last thing I want you to feel is comfortable." The words dripped acid.
She stood limned in the dimness, and he focused on the slender but strong gloved hand that gripped the pistol.
"You're not going to kill me-at least just yet," he played along with the game. "Are you preparing me for another bout with those henchmen? I suppose I should be trembling in my boots." What he really wanted to ask her was why she had aligned herself with a man as cruel and dangerous as de Maupassant.
"It can be arranged," she said dryly, seemingly secure in her position as the Frenchman's mistress and musical protégée.
"For Christ's sake, put down the gun and relax. I'm not going anywhere," he ground out. Blackburn saw her eyes widen in momentary surprise but the pistol didn't waver.
"I'll relax when this is over, thank you." She wet her lips seemingly unaware of his gaze following the sensuous curve of her mouth.
He tried to keep the grimness from his tone. "When what's over? You're taking a rather long time to get to the point."
"That's my prerogative given the circumstances."
"Circumstances can change quickly." Blackburn watched her remarkable eyes darken at his comment. He would probably bed her, he thought cynically, but with purpose in mind. Here was just another link in the chain of de Maupassant's machinations, another weapon to get to the Eroica and the cipher that was the ultimate prize. A beautiful, sensual package that possessed the secrets of untold power and of England's and Europe's potential devastation.
"There is a chair available." He gestured with bound hands to the stool in the corner.
"I prefer to stand."
"You have the pistol, so naturally, whichever you prefer." They eyed each other. Blackburn shifted slightly on the bunk and sensed the apprehension in the tight set of her shoulders.
He itched to get his hands on her. "You're probably not going to shoot me, or you would have done so already. What is it that you want?" he asked instead, lowering his gaze, completely at ease staring down the barrel of a gun.
She made a small sound, a clearing of her throat, giving his question some consideration. "I sense that like most men, you have little patience." The words were said in a low contralto in the gloominess of the cell. "And yet, I have my suspicions that you already know what I want."
There it was, the gauntlet, thrown down in challenge. He regarded her impassively, all the while wondering how she would go about asking him-forcing him-to work with her on deciphering the score.
Without turning her back to him, she walked slowly toward the stool in the corner and dragged it to the center of the room before sitting down and carefully arranging her skirts as though the action was the most important thing in the world at the moment. She was a fine actress. And why wouldn't she be? He was in the presence of the daughter of one of Europe's most accomplished mathematicians and cryptologists. As a worldly woman who had traveled among Europe's most bohemian revolutionary circles, she was certainly no innocent waiting here in this cell for his reluctant cooperation.
And her eyes were spectacular, as compelling as gathering storm clouds, he noted distractedly, while continuing to work surreptitiously to free his bound hands and legs.
"You've gone to considerable trouble to have me transported here-what with the drama of opiates and ruffians, so you'll forgive my impatience," he said trying to get her to say the words he wanted to hear.
She looked at him carefully, smoothing the leather of her gloves as though the motion helped her come to an important decision. "I believe I'll explain what you need to know later," she said slowly and unpleasantly. And with her free hand pulling her cloak more closely around her she made a motion as though to rise from her seat. "In the interim, you're coming with me."
"Just like that?" He raised a brow speculatively. "This is becoming more and more diverting, so much so that I can almost forgive the brutality of the previous evening. Now tell me," he leaned forward slightly as though being asked to raise the stakes in a polite game of whist, "why should I?"
"I have something you want."
"You are an attractive woman ..."
Anger steeled her voice as she rose from the stool in a swirl of wool and silk. "Don't be obtuse. There's much more at stake here which I'm sure you know."
Blackburn shrugged, feeling implausibly relaxed in his rumpled evening clothes. Despite an urge to destroy the woman in front of him, along with the man who sent her, he was actually enjoying himself. "Why don't you tell me what it is, then," he asked almost gently, as if he'd ever been denied anything in his life. "I'm getting rather bored. I should like to think you'd get to the point in the next minute or so."
"You actually believe there's cause for humor here?" She cocked her pistol for emphasis, the silver glinting in the dim light. "I suggest that you take this meeting quite seriously, Blackburn, because you have a critically important decision to make. You either go with me willingly tonight-or I leave you here to languish indefinitely. I somehow suspect these accommodations are much too damp and dark for your liking."
"I'm truly intrigued now, Mademoiselle." She couldn't mistake the mockery in his voice.
"Introductions are hardly in order," she conceded, her full lips tightening, as though preparing herself for an unwelcome task. "I know who you are. And you, no doubt, know who I am. More important, we're after the same thing."
"And that might be what exactly?" If Devon Caravelle had been watching more closely, she would have noticed that his smile didn't reach his eyes.
"Beethoven's Eroica score. I know who has it."
The unspoken name swung between them like a noose.
Le Comte Henri de Maupassant.
His eyes never left her face, but his expression was deliberately indolent, almost careless of the situation. "So you may be aware of the Eroica-but why should I be impressed? First off, you're Brendan Clifton's daughter, Devon Caravelle. And second, it should be easy for Le Comte's current mistress to ascertain its whereabouts."
"I expected that you would know who I am," she countered, not bothering to deny or confirm her position of mistress to the Frenchman.
It wasn't as though he was expecting her to blush or demur, for God's sake, yet Blackburn fought back a sense of irrational disappointment, as though her association with de Maupassant should in some way matter to him.
"The fact that you're his new mistress is widely known-no news there," he said harshly, giving himself a mental shake. "I also know that you're probably with the Frenchman because of the score." Surprisingly, the words left a bitter aftertaste.
Excerpted from Explosive by CHARLOTTE MEDE Copyright © 2008 by Charlotte Mede. Excerpted by permission.
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