Shadows sculpted his sharp profile as he watched the crowded ballroom from the dim, high balcony; in the oscillating glow of the draft-buffeted wall candle, he seemed to flicker in and out of materiality like some tall, elegant phantom. Its shifting radiance glimmered over his raven-black hair and caught the Machiavellian glint of cunning in his quicksilver-colored eyes. Patience. Everything was in order.
Preparation was all, and he had been meticulous. With a musing expression, Lord Lucien Knight lifted his crystal goblet of burgundy to his lips, pausing to inhale its mellow bouquet before he drank. He did not yet know his enemies’ names or faces, but he could feel them inching closer like so many jackals. No matter. He was ready. He had laid his trap and baited it well, with all manner of sin and sex and the siren’s whisper of subversive political activity that no spy could resist.
There was nothing left to do now but watch and wait.
Twenty years of war had ceased this past spring with Napoleon’s defeat, abdication, and exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba. It was autumn now, and the leaders of Europe had gathered in Vienna to draw up the peace accord; but any man with half a brain could see that until Bonaparte was moved to a more secure location farther out in the Atlantic, Lucien thought dryly, the war was not necessarily over. Elba was but a stone’s throw from the Italian mainland, and there were those who opposed the peace—who saw no profit for themselves in the Bourbon King Louis XVIII’s return to the throne of France and who wanted Napoleon back. As one of the British Crown’s most skilled secret agents, Lucien had orders from the foreign secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, to stand as the watcher at the gate, as it were, until the peace had been ratified—his mission, to stop these shadowy powers from stirring up trouble on English soil.
He took another sip of his wine, his silvery eyes gleaming with mayhem. Let them come. When they did, he would find them, snare them, catch and destroy them, just as he had so many others. Indeed, he would make them come to him.
Suddenly, a round of cheers broke out in the ballroom below and rippled through the crowd. Well, well, the conquering hero. Lucien leaned forward and rested his elbows on the railing of the balcony, watching with a cynical smirk as his identical twin brother, Colonel Lord Damien Knight, marched into the assembly rooms, resplendent in his scarlet uniform with the stern, high dignity of the Archangel Michael just back from slaying the dragon. The glitter of his dress sword and gold epaulets seemed to throw off a shining halo around him, but the famed colonel’s unsmiling demeanor did not discourage the swarm of smitten women, eager aides-de-camp, junior officers, and assorted hero-worshiping toadies who instantly surrounded him. Damien had always been the favorite of the gods.
Lucien shook his head to himself. Though his lips curved in wry amusement, pain flickered behind his haughty stare. If it weren’t enough that the colonel had captured the popular imagination with his gallant exploits in battle, as the elder twin, Damien would soon be made an earl by a rather convoluted accident of lineage. It was not jealousy that stung Lucien, however, but an almost childlike sense of having been abandoned by his staunchest ally. Damien was the only person who had ever really understood him. For most of their thirty-one years, the Knight twins had been inseparable. In their rakish youth, their friends had dubbed them Lucifer and Demon, while the alarmed mothers of Society debutantes had warned their daughters about “that pair of devils.” But those carefree days of laughter and camaraderie were gone, for Lucien had transgressed his brother’s soldierly code.
Damien had never quite accepted Lucien’s decision to leave the army a little over two years ago for the secret service branch of the Diplomatic Corps. Officers of the line, as a rule, deemed espionage dishonorable, ungentlemanly. To Damien and his ilk, spies were no better than snakes. Damien was a born warrior, to be sure. Anyone who had ever seen him in battle, his face streaked with black powder and blood, knew there was no question of that. But there would not have been quite so many victories without the constant stream of intelligence that Lucien had sent him—against regulation, at the risk of his life—on the enemy’s position, strength, numbers, and likeliest plan of attack. How it surely chafed the great commander’s pride to know that the fullness of his glory would not have been possible without his spy brother’s help.
No matter, Lucien thought cynically. He still knew better than anyone how to prick the war hero’s titanic ego.
“Lucien!” a breathy voice suddenly called from behind him.
He turned around and saw Caro’s voluptuous sil- houette framed in the doorway. “Why, my dear Lady Glenwood,” he purred, holding out his hand to her with a dark smile. Wasn’t Damien going to be cross about this?
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Her doll-like side curls swung against her rouged cheeks as she flounced over to him in a rustle of black satin. She smiled slyly, revealing the fetching little gap between her two front teeth as she took his hand and let him pull her up close against his body. “Damien’s here—”
“Who?” he murmured, skimming her lips with his own.
She groaned softly under his kiss and melted against him, the black satin of her gown sliding sensually against the white brocade of his formal waistcoat. Last night it had been skin to skin.
Though the twenty-seven-year-old baroness wore mourning for her late husband, Lucien doubted she had shed a tear. A husband, to a woman like Caro, was merely an impediment to her pursuit of pleasure. Her ebony gown had a tiny bodice that barely contained her burgeoning cleavage. The midnight fabric made her skin look like alabaster, while her crimson lips matched the roses that adorned her upswept, chocolate-brown hair. After a moment, Caro made an effort to end their kiss, bracing her gloved hands on his chest.
When she pulled back slightly, he saw that she was gloating, her cheeks flushed, her raisin-dark eyes glowing with amorous triumph. Lucien masked his insolent smile as Caro coyly lowered her lashes and stroked the lapels of his formal black tailcoat. To be sure, she believed she had done the impossible, what none of her rivals had ever achieved—that she alone had snared both Knight twins as her conquests and could now play them off each other for her own vanity. Alas, the lady had a large surprise in store.
He was a bad man, he knew, but he could not resist toying with her a bit. He licked his lips as he stared at her, then glanced suggestively at the nearby wall, cloaked in shadows. “No one can see us up here, my love. Are you game?”
She let out one of her throaty laughs. “You wicked devil, I’ll give you more later. Right now I want us to go see Damien.”
Lucien lifted one eyebrow, playing along with consummate skill. “Together?”
“Yes. I don’t want him to think we have anything to hide.” She gave him a crafty glance from beneath her lashes and smoothed his white silk cravat. “We must act naturally.”
“I’ll try, ma chérie,” he murmured.
“Good. Now, come.” She slipped her gloved hand through the crook of his elbow and propelled him toward the small spiral staircase that led down to the ballroom. He went along amiably, which ought to have warned her that he was up to something. “You swear you didn’t tell him?”
“Mon ange, I would never say a word.” He did not see fit to add that such was the bond between identical twins that they hardly required words for the exchange of information. A glance, a laugh, a look spoke volumes. Appalling, really, to think that this wanton little schemer, for all her beauty, was on the verge of snaring Damien in marriage. Lucky for the war hero, his snake of a spy brother had come to his rescue again with the crucial information: Caro had not passed the test.
Lucien bent his head near her ear. “I trust you are still coming with me to Revell Court this weekend?”
She slipped him a nervous glance. “Actually, darling, I’m . . . not sure.”
“What?” He stopped and turned to her with a scowl. “Why not? I want you there.”
Her lips parted slightly, and she looked like she might climax on the spot in response to his demand. “Lucien.”
“Caro,” he retorted. It was hardly a lover’s devotion that inspired his insistence, but the simple fact that a beautiful woman was a useful thing to have on hand when trying to catch enemy spies.
“You don’t understand!” she said with a pout. “I want to go. It’s just that I received a letter today from Goody Two-Shoes. She said—”
“From whom?” he demanded, cutting her off with a dubious look. If he recalled correctly, it was a character in a classic children’s story by Oliver Goldsmith.
“Alice, my sister-in-law,” she said, waving off the name in irritation. “I may have to go home to Glenwood Park. She says my baby might be getting sick. If I don’t go home and help take care of Harry, Alice will have my head. Not that I know what to do with the little creature.” She sniffed. “All he does for me is scream.”
From the Paperback edition.