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Lady Thessaly Fonteneau sat perched on the window seat, her slim frame and riot of tumbling blond curls outlined by the sun shining through the windowpanes behind her.
Her long legs, encased in high, dark brown leather boots and tan buckskins, were bent at the knee, her heels pressed against a low stool shaped like a camel saddle. She was leaning slightly forward, her arms akimbo, her palms pressed against her thighs, her face in shadow. The white, full-sleeved lawn shirt she wore had been sewn for a larger frame, and rather billowed around her above the waistband, the deep V of the neck exposing the soft swell of breasts beneath the worn brown leather vest.
Just above her breasts hung the oval gold locket suspended from a thin golden chain. A pair of painted images were inside, one old, one newer, both painted by the marquis himself. The locket had hung from a black velvet ribbon until her father had pointed out that one should never wear a weapon in aid of the enemy: a thin chain will break, but a tightly knotted ribbon makes for a tolerable garrote. She possessed the sort of classic beauty artists wept to paint. Aristocratic, finely boned. Gallic to the marrow. Yet with an air of sensuality about her, in those high cheekbones, that slim, straight nose, the wide, tempting mouth, those darkly lashed hazel eyes.
Those eyes, awash now with tears she refused to let fall.
"Where, Papa?" she breathed, surveying the shambles that was once the Marquis de Fontaine's neat study, now searched to within an inch of destroying it completely. Her anger, her frustration, her growing fear, it was all there in the aftermath of her latest search, evidence as damning to her as would be a bloody knife in her hand as she stood over a body. "There has to be something. You would have left me something?''
Tess had instituted her search of the modest manor house a week ago, the day after her father's disappearance. She'd been slow, neat, methodical, as she'd been taught to be.
She'd begun with the servants, who either knew nothing or said nothing. You never knew with servants, where their loyalty truly stood, if anywhere. Her papa had never employed any of the staff for long, as familiarity invited a relaxation of one's guard; a paper carelessly left on the wrong side of a locked drawer, an unguarded word spoken at the table, with a servant still in the room. Always assume you are among enemies, he'd advised. It's safer than relaxing with those you think friends.
It had been a trusted servant who had betrayed her father all those long years ago, he'd told her, and the marquis's beloved Marie Louise who had paid the terrible price for her husband's indiscretion.
No, the servants knew nothing, save for the one who had immediately reported the marquis's absence to London. She'd known about that within days, having gone to the village to beg to be allowed more credit at the grocers until the end of the quarter, only to return home with a woefully inept government tail wagging behind her.
There had been no reason to dismiss the servants now, or to bother ferreting out the one who had tattled to Liverpool. Whomever she'd hire, one of them would be there expressly to spy on her. Save for Emilie, who had come with them when they'd escaped Paris all those years ago. Thank God for Emilie.
And no reason to hide the fact that she didn't know where her father had gone, or why he'd left, or if he'd ever be coming back. Indeed, it was imperative that she let everyone see her lack of knowledge as to what her father might be planning or doing at this very moment. Her safety depended on her ignorance. That's why she'd found no note, was given no warning. He'd been protecting her.
"But he would have left me something, something to assure me he's all right," Tess said aloud, pushing away the stool in a renewed burst of energy and getting to her feet. "I'm just not seeing it, that's all."
Pulling a key from her vest pocket, she approached the special cabinet the marquis had ordered built into the room, and inserted it in the lock. She pulled the glass doors open to reveal shelving holding various artifacts her father had bought or traded for over the past two decades. His treasures, he called them, some of them Roman, some Greek, most Egyptian. Bits of stone, chipped clay bowls, a small carved idol of some long-forgotten god, an ancient pipe with a broken stem. The prized possessions of a man who had traded in his love of things ancient and turned his mind, his talents, to revenge, a man at last left with nothing save these ancient, inferior relics of what had been. And a reminder of all this small family could afford, when the Marquis de Fontaine had once claimed one of the premier collections of ancient relics in all of France.
Tess hadn't touched any of these prized possessions during her earlier searches, but they were all that was left. Her last chance.
One by one, she lifted the items from the shelves. She looked at them from every angle before depositing each piece on the desktop, her frustration building until it took everything within her not to throw the very last item, the broken pipe, into the fireplace.
Because there'd been nothing. Nothing. She put her palms on the bottom shelf and leaned her head against the edge of another, her position one of abject defeat.
"Second shelf, the left end of it. Lift it there's a button there. Push it, and then close the doors and step back."
Tess couldn't breathe. Every muscle in her body had turned to stone; heavy, immovable. Her mouth went dry, her heart stopped, then started again, each beat hurting. Hurting so bad. It was a voice she hadn't heard in nearly four years but would never forget, could never forget. She heard it nightly, in her dreams. I love you, Tess. God help me, I love you. Let me love you
"You?" she asked, not moving. "They sent you? That's almost funny, Jack. The student, sent to find the master. And you came, you agreed, knowing what could be at the end of the day for the two of you." She turned around slowly, placing her hands on the edge of the sturdy shelf behind her, knowing that otherwise she might slip to her knees, sobbing. "You, of all people."
He remained where he stood, which was yards too close for her not to have heard him, sensed him, smelled him. Jesus doux, he still stole her breath away, just by looking at her. She knew every inch of him, had touched and tasted him, taken him in, given herself to him, even as he gave to her. A dark passion, too intense, too urgent and much too fleeting. The fire that blazed, but couldn't be sustained.
Her dark lover. Dark of hair, dark of soul and mind and heart. Even his green eyes were dark, intense beneath those black winged brows, and unreadable. He might have been chiseled from warm stone by a master of the art, his leanly muscled body perfection itself, and life breathed into that beautiful, sometimes cruel mouth by a goddess bent on mischief once he'd been placed on the earth with all the lesser mortals.
That sensual mouth opened now; Tess was mesmerized by his lips as they curled into a brief, almost amused smile. "Fetching outfit, Tess. I doubt those buckskins flattered their original owner half so well."
Tess snapped back to the moment, and took advantage of Jack's remark to throw out a barb of her own. "I wouldn't have noticed. They belonged to Rene."
At the mention of her brother's name, the winglike brows lowered, the stare became unnervingly intense. "So now you've made yourself over into the son? You'd do anything to please him, wouldn't you? Have you ever succeeded?"
"Not as well as you did, no." Another barb that hit home. Those that didn't know him, hadn't all but been inside his skin, wouldn't notice. But she did. She'd hurt him. Good. They could both hurt.
Jack took a step forward. "I'm here to help, Tess, not go back over covered ground. Your brother's dead. You and I never were what we thought we were, nor had what we thought we had. That's the past. You don't know where Sinjon is, do you? He's left you here alone, to face me."
"He couldn't have known that you'd be the one to" But then she stopped, shook her head. "No, he would have known that. I'm the fool who didn't realize you'd be the one. Nobody knows him better."
"But not well enough, apparently. I'd ask if you really don't know where he's gone, what he's up to, but it's obvious you don't. What were you looking for?"
Tess shoved her splayed fingers through her hair, curling her hands into fists at the back of her head, not caring that she was probably only making a tangled mess worse. "I don't know," she admitted. "How could he have done this to me, Jack? To to leave me with nothing?"
"I'm here," he said, putting out his hand, but it was only to motion her aside so that he could approach the cabinet built into the wall. "He knew I'd come. He knew I'd be the one. That makes him either a genius or a fool, doesn't it? Let's see what he's up to, shall we?"
He reached into the cabinet, running a hand beneath the second shelf, lifting the left end of it slightly. She heard a slight click, and then Jack stood clear, closed the cabinet doors.
As they watched, the cabinet seemed to come toward them and then began to pivot until it stood sideways, allowing them access to whatever lay beyond the opening.
Jack lit a brace of candles as Tess could only stand there, staring.
"I never He never told me about this. He told you, but not me. Not his daughter."
"We're keeping score now?" Jack asked as he stepped through the opening and then turned to extend his hand, this time clearly intending that she take it.
She shook her head. "I'm fine on my own."
Jack ran his gaze up and down her breeches-clad body. "Yes. Any fool could see that. Hug yourself close to you, Tess. Don't let anybody in."
"How dare you! It wasn't me who"
But he was gone, seemingly disappearing below her line of sight, taking the candlelight with him. Stairs. There was a flight of stairs behind the cabinet. Tess looked toward the opened door to the hallway, knowing if she left the study, Jack would want to know why she hadn't followed him. She'd have to trust Emilie. Emilie would have learned by now that Jack had come to the manor house. She'd know what had to be done. Please, God, just this one time, toss the dice in my favor.
Tess quickly lit a candle and followed Jack down, into the depths.