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A Notorious Proposition
Lady Ivy Wentworth stood motionless in the shadow of an ominous twilight, feeling the icy January wind scrape her cheeks like bits of blowing sand, thinking little of the frost in the air as she stared at the silent, lifeless house looming in the distance. The coach that brought her from the city pulled away slowly behind her, though she scarcely heard it. Nothing filled her mind now but the same trepidation that had forced her to return to the elite and scandal-ridden town of Winter Garden—and a sharp, sudden fear that she might be too late.
Drawing a deep, cold breath, she closed her eyes and lifted her face to the darkening sky, holding on to what remained of the vision that drew her to fear this moment.
Dark hair, black eyes, cold, bright crystals. Snowflakes. Snowflakes falling around her . . . And then standing on a dirt path, staring up at the figure in the window. A window from her past. A shadow of a man, or a ghost, watching her, waiting, silently begging for help, desperately needing her . . .
She strained to remember the details, the earlier and later moments, but everything else escaped her for now. She couldn't see the face, its features or expression, but she knew who it was, which made the scene so frightening she could hardly contain her emotions, and she knew that hiding them now and in the days to come would be one of the greatest difficulties of her life. Since her visions always came and went like a rolling fog, missing certain elements of importance never bothered her too much—until now. This vision waspersonal, and a sudden wave of apprehension seized her as she once again thought of the life at stake. She had a great deal to do, and very little time.
Grasping her valise with a gloved hand and tightening her woolen pelisse at the neck with the other, she glanced around the village square for the first time, seeing nobody, probably because it was almost dark and the streetlamps were yet to be lit. Swallowing her weariness, she began a direct stride down Farrset Lane, hearing the unmistakable sounds of music and bawdy laughter from the tavern and inn to her left, thankful she wouldn't need to stay in such a noisy place with her nerves so jumpy.
Tonight she would stay at the small cottage owned by her contacts in Winter Garden; tomorrow she would be moving into the manor house on the lake, formerly owned as a summer retreat by Richard Sharon, Baron Rothebury, left vacant but for a handful of servants after his arrest on charges of opium smuggling two years ago. She had the key and had been invited. With her comfortable establishment in the home, she would earnestly begin piecing together the remnants of her vision and correlating it as best she could with the more vital reason that compelled her to take such a risk in coming here. But for this evening, she would meet with Thomas and Madeleine St. James, the Earl of Eastleigh and his half-French wife, to discuss the particulars and uncertainties that awaited her once she let it be known that she'd arrived in Winter Garden and was staying at the Rothebury estate. They were the only two people in the community she knew through her work for the government, and she trusted them with the unusual and rather confidential reason she'dreturned.
The earl and his countess were secretly employed as spies for the British, though they were now mostly retired. Ivy had met them both in her own service for the Home Office, through their immediate superior, Sir Riley Liddle, though she'd never worked directly with them. She wasn't a spy, and her work had never involved deception. It had, in fact, been just the opposite, as her unconventional exploits in the field of smuggling and the missing and murdered usually found their way to print, for all of London to relish and discuss at parties, sometimes in excruciating detail. Nevertheless, she very much enjoyed what she did, helping investigators with details nobody could see or know save she, only mildly irritated when she'd be asked to some social gathering or another simply as an "amusement," as if she could entertain the gossips with her mere presence. Such stunts rarely came to pass, however, for although she possessed certain gifts for knowing the unknown, she was, in the end, the respectable twin sister of the Earl of Stamford, and as such, most members of the peerage simply referred to her as "colorful . . . but delightful." Still, helping the government had been her choice, and she'd not regretted it for a moment.
The winter wind swept her skirts out in front of her as she reached the gated fence that enclosed the cottage. Shivering, she lifted the latch and moved quickly along the stone path toward the front door, which remained partially hidden by a trellis dripping with winter greenery. They were expecting her. She'd sent a note a few days prior to her departure from London, only briefly explaining her reason for the trip, and she'd beeninvited to stay the night in the guest room. Now lights from within shone through the beveled windows, speaking silently of a warmth inside, both in feel and hospitality. She needed that now.
Removing a glove, she rapped lightly with the brass knocker. She expected a servant to greet her, but within moments the door was opened by none other than Madeleine St. James, Countess of Eastleigh herself, one of the most beautiful women Ivy had ever known and one of the few people in the world she could honestly count as a friend.
"Ivy, it's so wonderful to see you!" Madeleine said brightly, reaching for the handle on her valise and fairly pulling her inside the foyer. "Come in, come in before you catch your death. My goodness, but it's freezing," she added, closing the door tightly and bolting it.A Notorious Proposition. Copyright ? by Adele Ashworth. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.