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London, March 1814
Flickering firelight cast a golden glow over Dare’s nude body as he stood before the bedchamber hearth, yet no flame could warm the chill in his heart. His mind flooded by thoughts of a beautiful, deceptive enchantress, he stared down at the playbill advertising her latest performance at the Drury Lane Theater.
He didn’t need the artist’s sketch to prod his recollection, for everything about her was burned into his memory. Images of her assaulted him: her exquisite body arched in passion. Her sleek limbs wrapped around him. Her luxurious hair like a mantle of sable fire about her shoulders. Her skin so flawlessly white, it looked like fine porcelain. Her laughter and her smile. Her keen wit. Her dark, luminous eyes with their incredible sensuality . . .
It was all branded upon his memory with a sharpness and clarity that still seared.
“What a bloody fool you were,” he murmured, the accusation hoarse in the quiet of the bedchamber.
Dare locked his jaw, distressed that Julienne’s sudden appearance in London had awakened emotions he’d presumed long dead. He’d thought himself over her years ago. Free of the tormenting memories, free of the regrets and loneliness that plagued him.
Yet given the savage pain that lanced through him now, he knew he still hadn’t fully recovered from his shattering encounter with Julienne. Apparently the adage was true—that a man never forgot his first love.
He hadn’t intended to lose his heart to her. He’d been young and hot and full of himself, eminently secure in his powers of seduction. But the girl he set out to conquer had become the woman who taught him about love. About betrayal.
The first time he’d laid eyes on the beautiful French émigré, Dare knew he had to have her. He’d come to Kent in June for a cousin’s wedding, putting up at his grandfather’s estate of Wolverton Hall near the small seaport of Whitstable, where Julienne’s millinery was located. He’d wound up staying for the entire summer, intent on wooing her.
His intense attraction had surprised him. He’d had dozens of women as alluring, in countless affairs that had never touched his heart. Love for him had never been fiery and urgent, as it was with Julienne.
He’d wanted her far beyond the usual dalliance or casual taking. He wanted to possess her, to give her everything in return. His heart, his body, his very soul.
He hadn’t known she lied as easily as she breathed.
Bitter memories of her rushed through him, centering on their final shocking encounter. . . . Julienne’s look of dismay to have been discovered in the arms of another lover; his own anguish when he comprehended the depth of her deception. He hadn’t believed it until he saw it with his own eyes, heard Julienne’s admission from her own lips.
Against his will, Dare traced her sketch with his fingertips. His grandfather had claimed the Earl of Ivers was her lover, but he’d scoffed in the old man’s face. After stalking away from another violent argument with the marquess, Dare had sought Julienne out at her millinery, where he’d caught her with Ivers.
Only the slightest hint of remorse had shown on her patrician features when Ivers revealed they were long-standing lovers, and no remorse at all when Julienne had curtly ended their betrothal.
With her simple declaration, Dare felt as if his heart had been ripped from his chest. Her pretense of virginal innocence had been a sham from the very beginning, he realized. Her professed love for him merely a charade.
Only afterward had he put the pieces together and understood how completely he had been played for a fool: Julienne had wanted greater riches than he could give her if his grandfather disowned him. It was even possible she had plotted to wed him from the first but reconsidered when his grandfather’s wrath rendered his inheritance uncertain. Perhaps she’d even planned to share the spoils with her lover
Dare’s throat tightened on the razor-sharp edge of memory.
Admittedly, though, he was glad to have discov- ered the truth about her before he threw his entire future away.
“A scheming French jade,” his grandfather had called her, but Dare hadn’t listened. He’d been remarkably stupid to fall for her display of virtue, or to believe she could be faithful. He should have known better. His own mother had enjoyed too many lovers to count, making a mockery of the word fidelity. He had thought Julienne cut from a different cloth, but she had deceived him so thoroughly, he’d never suspected her treachery until he felt the knife sliding between his ribs.
Dare cursed again beneath his breath. Julienne had vowed to love and cherish him, yet she had shattered those promises with lies and deceit.
He wondered if she regretted her choice now. He finally had come into the title of Marquess of Wolverton, along with the vast Wolverton fortune, for his hated grandfather had died the previous year.
But more than half a decade would have been a long time for a scheming fortune hunter to wait. She apparently had been busy meanwhile developing a successful acting career.
And no doubt cultivating other lovers. Dare had seen her in the park today for the first time, holding court for her love-struck swains.
The sight had rocked him to his core, for until two days ago, he hadn’t even known she was in London. He’d been away for weeks, first on an assignment in the north, then on an unrelated mission to Ireland. He’d returned to discover Julienne Laurent the toast of the town, being pursued by a multitude of bucks and dandies. London’s brightest new Jewel was how she was being termed. Reportedly every man wanted the dazzling actress for his mistress.
Hiding the unexpected pain knotting his chest at the sight of her, Dare had shifted his attention back to his companion, Lady Dunleith. Moments before, the lovely widow had beckoned to him from her carriage as he rode through the throng gathered in Hyde Park for the social hour.
When he questioned Lady Dunleith about the ton’s latest novelty, she was cheerfully forthcoming.
“Miss Laurent? She hails from York, I believe. She is all the rage, but deservedly so. She sings like an angel, and she is quite an accomplished actress. Not in the class of Mrs. Siddons, perhaps. But Edmund Kean himself praised her last dramatic performance when she played Desdemona to his Othello.”
Dare’s mouth tightened. He would have to agree that Miss Laurent was an accomplished actress, although he had yet to see her upon the stage. During their enchanted summer together, he had never once suspected that the same sweet lips that promised him love would betray him so completely.
Lady Dunleith gave him a speculative look. “If you are thinking about pursuing her yourself, darling, you should reconsider. I’ve heard she is rather cold-blooded as a lover.”
Whether the beautiful widow spoke out of jealousy or spite or the charitable desire to spare him a futile effort, Dare wasn’t certain. But he could attest that she was mistaken; Julienne Laurent was as cold-blooded as flaming coals.
“And in any case,” Lady Dunleith added in an amused tone, “Miss Laurent has announced that she will not make her choice of protectors until the end of the season. Wagers are already flying about who will win her.”
Her choice would no doubt have deep pockets, Dare reflected resentfully. Actresses often augmented their meager incomes by finding rich patrons, but he knew from painful experience that the mercenary Mademoiselle Laurent wouldn’t settle for any but the wealthiest protector.
What interested him most, however, was the parti- cular gentleman who claimed the Jewel’s attention just now. Viscount Riddingham evidently had garnered the privilege of driving Miss Laurent in his curricle. They had stopped in the Row and were surrounded by a half-dozen eager admirers on horseback
“Darling . . . ?”
The sleepy voice jolted Dare back to the present. Behind him Lady Dunleith called again. “Why do you not return to bed?”
Wincing at the intrusion, he suddenly noticed the cold that roughened his flesh. The chill of the bedchamber reminded him that he was naked, that he’d left a warm bed in order to study the handbill that bore his former lover’s image, like a tongue probing an aching tooth.
That same ache had driven him to accompany the Widow Dunleith home and spend the evening in- dulging her carnal needs. Yet he’d executed the task purely as a mindless exercise, his performance habitual from practice. His lust tonight had been determinedly manufactured—an attempt to exorcise his restless passion and the painful memories of another woman.
He’d attempted a great deal of exorcising in the years since Julienne Laurent had savaged his heart. In the wake of his broken betrothal, he had returned to London and embarked on a rampage of debauchery, including assuming leadership of the Hellfire League, a notorious club of England’s premier rakes.
His outrageous exploits and determined pursuit of sexual gratification had added a new luster of glamour and notoriety to his reputation, earning him the nickname the Prince of Pleasure.
Dare disliked admitting even to himself that his profligacy had been his way of drowning his pain, of masking the emptiness of his life. Night after night he sought to lose himself in a warm, female body, to drive away memories of Julienne in an excess of sensual indulgence.
Yet even when he was buried deep inside a woman, bound in the most intimate way possible, he felt alone. Worse, he couldn’t stop himself from yearning for the taste of another beauty’s flesh. Julienne still tempted him, still tormented him.
Damn her to hell.
Seeing her again this afternoon had made him realize the wound she’d inflicted had never truly healed. He still wasn’t completely over her. Even after all this time, his heart had stubbornly refused to abandon its obsession.
“Dare?” the widow implored, this time with a note of impatience.
“Forgive me, my sweet,” he forced himself to reply.
He crumpled the playbill in his fist, resisting the urge to hurl it into the fire. A new performance was to begin tomorrow night, starring the celebrated new actress Julienne Laurent. But he had yet to decide if he would attend.
He would do better to keep as far away from her as possible, Dare cautioned himself. He knew how lethal she could be. He would never willingly make himself vulnerable to her again. He’d worked too hard never to feel so afflicted again. Still, a plan had begun to take shape in his mind. . . .
Suddenly impatient for action, he said over his shoulder, “I’m afraid I must go, Louisa.”
“Now? But it is so late.”
“It is not yet midnight.”
Momentarily ignoring the pouting of the lush, naked lady in the bed, he dressed silently. Then, going to her side, Dare employed his most charming manner to beg her forgiveness, kissing her breathless but evading her pleas to return soon.
All her servants had retired for the night, he realized when he went below. And the mount he’d ridden in Hyde Park this afternoon was snugly stabled in the mews behind Lady Dunleith’s mansion. Rather than rouse the household, Dare let himself out and walked the short distance along Mayfair’s dark streets to Lucian’s home.
Lucian Tremayne, the Earl of Wycliff, was one of his closest friends, as well as one of England’s chief spymasters. Lucian preferred not to advertise that he’d employed Dare in the hunt for a deadly traitor, so they had agreed to limit the frequency of their meetings. Yet they needed to confer about the latest developments.
Bending against the frigid night air, Dare drew his greatcoat around him. This was the coldest winter in memory, and only now was the country thawing out. In London even the Thames River had frozen. And in Yorkshire, where he’d recently visited for several interminable weeks, the snowdrifts had piled higher than a man’s head, shutting down roads and bringing commerce and travel to a complete halt.
Tonight would be his first opportunity to update Lucian regarding his clandestine endeavors. He’d sent a message this morning, arranging to make his report.
There were several lights burning in the windows of the regal Wycliff residence. Dare was admitted without question and shown into Lucian’s study, where the earl was at work at his desk.
The two men greeted each other with the fondness of long acquaintance.
“And how is your beautiful wife?” Dare asked as Lucian poured them both a brandy.
“Flourishing. Brynn is as round as a melon, even though the babe isn’t due for nearly two months.”
“I regret I missed seeing her,” Dare said, settling in a comfortable chair. “I understand she was in London this past week?”
“Yes, but I escorted her home again. She’s safer in the country.”
For her confinement, Brynn had retired to Lucian’s family seat in Devonshire, where she could more easily be protected. Last fall she and her brother had been menaced by a criminal mastermind who called him- self Lord Caliban, after the character in Shakespeare’s play. Lucian had destroyed the gold-smuggling operation Caliban used to fund Napoleon’s armies, silencing their leader for a time, but the traitor was still at large. Which was why Dare had become involved.
Lucian handed his guest a brandy and then settled in an adjacent chair. “So tell me what you learned in Yorkshire.”
“Not much, I’m afraid. I stayed at a friend’s estate barely six miles from Riddingham’s, but all the damned snow made getting there difficult. Even so, I managed twice to enjoy dinner and cards with Riddingham and his houseguests. Perfectly insipid. He wore the ring the entire time. When I remarked on the uniqueness of the design, Riddingham claimed he won it playing piquet, but he couldn’t remember from whom. And he could be lying.”
Pausing, Dare took a sip of brandy, absently noting the quality. “Yet he’s still wearing the ring now. Even if he has no notion that we suspect him of being Caliban, it seems foolish to flaunt such a distinctive ornament. To be truthful, the more I see of Riddingham, the more I wonder if he’s bright enough to be a deadly traitor.”
“Perhaps not, but we have to be certain.” Lucian’s mouth hardened. “It can be a fatal mistake to underestimate Caliban’s cunning. Riddingham could be duping us all with his pretense of affability. And he was here in London in January when our man was killed.”
A diplomat in the Foreign Office had been found murdered two months ago—the work of Caliban, it was suspected, although there was no proof. But he would strike again, Dare and Lucian had no doubt. They could only hope to unmask the traitor before he could do even further damage.
Cursing under his breath, Lucian brought his fist down hard on his chair arm.
“My sentiments exactly,” Dare agreed darkly.
He well understood his friend’s frustration at hunting a killer who was little more than a whisper and a shadow. They had only two clues thus far to Caliban’s identity, both from a witness who’d had a momentary glimpse of him last year: Caliban was thought to be an English nobleman. And he possessed an unusual ring embellished with a ruby-eyed dragon’s head.
Dare had first spied the ring several months ago on Lord Riddingham’s hand. Since then he’d covertly followed the viscount’s trail, trying to determine if he could possibly be Caliban. It was that possibility that had led Dare to spend a tedious interlude in Yorkshire, where he could better investigate the theory.
His lack of success galled him. But he could hardly be expected to accomplish overnight what had eluded the nation’s best agents. His licentious past, Lucian was wont to remind him, had not exactly prepared him for a career in government espionage.
In fact, Lucian had recruited him last fall primarily because of his well-known predilection for sin—he made such an unlikely candidate as a spy. Caliban would never suspect the Prince of Pleasure of leading the hunt for his capture.
Dare had agreed to help, not only because he was familiar with most of society, both high and low, but because he’d become restless and bored with his life. He was more than a little intrigued by the challenge of pitting wits against a cunning killer. He’d only half laughed at Lucian’s assertion that having a serious goal could be the making of him.
He was not laughing now.
Dare took another swallow of brandy, hesitat- ing while he debated telling Lucian of the new twist in the game.
“What do you know of the new actress at Drury Lane?” he finally said. “The Jewel who has the entire ton abuzz.”
Lucian sent him a penetrating glance. “Am I to presume you have a new love interest?”
“Hardly. Riddingham is one of her suitors.”
“Ah.” Lucian leaned back in his chair, looking thoughtful. “I took Brynn to see Miss Laurent perform last week. We both found her surprisingly good. You’re suggesting that her association with Riddingham is more than simply amorous?”
“Possibly. She bears investigating, at least. She is French, after all. It wouldn’t be impossible for her to be in Napoleon’s employ. Given their sparse incomes and dubious moral values, actresses are highly susceptible to bribery.”
When Lucian raised an eyebrow, Dare realized how ironic it was for him to be decrying dubious moral values.
Yet this was not the first time Julienne Laurent’s allegiance to England had been questioned. Seven years ago his grandfather had called her a traitor, claiming she was conspiring with Bonapartists and threatening to have her arrested for treason.
At the time Dare had been certain the accusations were fabricated—merely the old bastard’s attempt to force him to end his betrothal. His chief concern had been protecting Julienne from his grandfather’s wrathful machinations. But he was more willing now to believe there had been substance to the charges after all.
“I may be leaping to conclusions,” he admitted, “but she could be in league with Riddingham.”
“Why do you say so?” Lucian asked curiously. “Didn’t Riddingham return to London only last week? They would scarcely have had time to meet.”
“But they may claim a prior association. Riddingham’s family seat is in Yorkshire. And Miss Laurent reportedly has spent the past half-dozen years treading the boards in York.”
“Perhaps she was once his mistress.”
“Perhaps. When I saw them driving in the park today, they seemed closer than mere acquaintances.” Dare forced a smile. “If he isn’t already sharing her bed, he certainly appeared eager to. He was hanging on her every word, along with half the male population of London.” He hoped his sardonic tone hid the note of jealously he found difficult to repress. “But either way, she could be his accomplice.”
“Or,” Lucian countered, “he may solely be pursuing her with a carnal relationship in mind. Rumor has it that she is looking for a protector.”
“I’ve heard the same rumor. Apparently La Belle Laurent made a public declaration that her choice will be made at the end of the season. A clever ploy,” Dare said cynically. “The better to keep her admirers vying for her favors. Regardless, she merits watching. And you could perhaps use her to get closer to Riddingham.”
“I? Don’t you mean you?”
“I might not be the best man for the task. I had a . . . brief acquaintance with Miss Laurent a number of years ago.”
Lucian studied him for a long moment, while Dare struggled to remain unruffled by those perceptive eyes. He was not about to disclose his wretched history with Julienne. How he’d discovered his betrothed in the arms of another lover. How his heart and his pride had been ravaged by her betrayal. Or how the memory still left him aching.
At length, Dare shrugged. “The affair ended unhappily.”
“So you think the lady will want nothing to do with you?”
“Yes, I seriously doubt she will.”
Lucian flashed him a wry grin. “You, my friend, have never been at a loss with any female. Surely you have only to wield your vast charm to persuade her to change her opinion of you.”
Dare stared down at the amber liquid in his glass, wanting to refute the statement. It was true; when he chose to be persuasive, some of the haughtiest and most reluctant females had come into his arms willingly. But in this instance, he would be starting with a possibly insurmountable disadvantage.
Lucian broke into his dark thoughts. “I understand your reluctance to become involved with her, Dare, but clearly you should be the one to investigate her connection with Riddingham.”
He grimaced wryly. “I feared you might say that.”
Lucian’s expression grew intent as he leaned forward. “I’m certain I don’t need to remind you that England’s future could be at stake.”
“No, I need no reminding.”
“This bloody war may at last be coming to an end—nearly every day there are fresh reports from the battlefield about Allied victories. But even if Napoleon is vanquished, I don’t expect Caliban to retire. A man like that does not simply disappear.”
“I’m well aware of the danger Caliban represents.”
“Then you will do it?”
Dare took a long swallow of brandy, feeling the burn sear a trail down his throat to mingle with the fire already churning in his gut. “Yes,” he said finally, exhaling a reluctant sigh. “I expect the best approach would be for me to join the supplicants for the Jewel’s favors. Pretend to be one of Riddingham’s rivals. That would give me a legitimate excuse for getting close to him. Stir the pot, as it were. Perhaps he will show his hand if I can manage to burrow deeply enough under his skin.”
“Good. And if you find your reservations interfering with your mission, you have only to recall how many innocents have died as the result of Caliban’s treachery. Meanwhile, you can use the opportunity to ascertain Miss Laurent’s loyalties. You may be right. She could very well be working for the French.”
Dare smiled to himself. It would be poetic justice if he could not only unmask Caliban, but discover that the temptress who’d broken his heart was abetting England’s most dangerous traitor.
The tension that had gripped him since seeing Julienne this afternoon eased with the sense of having reached a decision.
He would use the dazzling actress to help him get closer to Riddingham, Dare vowed. And if she was indeed a French spy, he would make her pay dearly.
From the Paperback edition.