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Seduced by a Spy
By Andrea Pickens Forever
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One The wind whipped against her cheeks, a hard, biting cold that cut down to the bone. Ignoring the pain, Shannon ducked low in the saddle and spurred her lathered stallion toward the high stone fence.
"Fly, Ajax, fly," she whispered, feeling her own muscles tense at the sight of the rocks standing in sharp silhouette against the scudding mists. "NOW!"
Soaring high into the air, the big animal hung for a heartbeat above the jagged teeth before thundering back down to earth in a blur of heaving flanks and flailing legs. The ground was slick with rain and the stallion stumbled, but Shannon gathered the reins, steadied its head, and angled for the narrow path between the grove of oak trees.
Faster. Faster. A mere fraction of a second could make the difference between life and death.
Despite the chill, her face was sheened in sweat. The pistol. Surely it was just up ahead, where the trees thinned to a small clearing. Straining, she caught sight of the telltale glimmer of steel among the fallen leaves.
Shannon leaned forward. Gripping the leather pommel with one hand, she kicked a leg free of its stirrup and swung low. Thorns scraped her fingers, but she managed to snag the weapon. A hard twist, a turn of her hips, and she was back upright.
Steady. Steady. No mistakes-not now. Not with all that was riding on her ability. Her pulse was racing nearly as fast as her stallion's gallop. Her heart thudded against her ribs, its rapidfire beat echoing the cacophony of pounding hooves and snapping twigs. Drawing a deep breath, she willed herself to see only the leering face up ahead-the coal-dark eyes, the menacing snarl, the broad bulk of shoulders cloaked in black ...
Without hesitation, Shannon took aim and squeezed off a shot.
A hoarse cry rang out as the bullet exploded, tearing a gaping hole in the figure's chest. She slowed to a trot and circled back, the acrid smoke of the gunpowder still heavy in the air. From the corner of her eye, she caught a ripple of movement in the trees. A young man stepped out from the sheltering branches.
"Is he dead?" she demanded as he crouched down over the jumble of cloth.
"Dead as a doornail." Giovanni Marco Musto-Marco to all his friends-grinned as he poked at the singed straw. A tall, well-muscled Milanese mercenary, he served as the assistant riding and fencing instructor at Mrs. Merlin's Academy for Select Young Ladies. "Bravissimo. You hit him square in the heart."
"No real harm done." She repressed a twitch of her lips. "Jem will fashion him a new one by morning."
"Sí, but God help any flesh-and-blood enemy who stands in your path." He consulted his pocket chronometer and the pearly flash of teeth stretched wider. "A magnifico time, Signorina Shannon." He gave a jaunty salute as he snapped the gold case shut. "You've shaved another second off the Academy record. None of the other students come close to matching your equestrian skills." Standing in profile accentuated the artful tumble of his dark hair. It curled in Renaissance ringlets around his open collar, looking soft as silk in contrast to the sculpted muscles of his broad shoulders. The very picture of masculine beauty.
And well he knew it, she thought wryly. The Academy-a small school hidden in the pastoral countryside outside of London-required both its teachers and students to possess a unique range of talents. Marco was apparently picked not only for his finely honed skills with spurs and sabers, but also for his perfectly chiseled body. The young Italian was often called upon to model for the advanced drawing classes. A position he flaunted with shameless bravado.
Marco held his pose for a touch longer before turning with a suggestive cock of his hips. "Now, if you wish to have expert instruction in the art of swordplay, come by my quarters after supper. A private tutorial is yours for the asking."
"Steel yourself for disappointment. If we crossed blades, you would not come out on top."
"All the better, bella."
"I doubt you would be singing the same tune as a castrato."
Marco accepted the set-down with a good-natured laugh. "I can't help myself, cara. We Italians are born with a lively appreciation for beauty."
"Keep your lively appreciation buttoned in your breeches. Mr. Gravely would not be at all amused if he were to get wind of you trying to cut a swath through his students."
His face lost a touch of its waggish cant. "Porca miseria! You won't ... hay on me, will you, Signorina?"
She bit back a laugh. "No, I won't grass on you, Marco. I stand by a friend. Even when his boudoir braggadocio threatens to get out of hand."
"Sí. We all know of your steadfast loyalty." Suddenly serious, he kicked at a wisp of straw. "It is a pity that Signorina Siena has taken her leave from our ranks."
Shannon swallowed hard, trying not to dwell on the fact that her own departure from the Academy might also be imminent. The difference was, her friend and former roommate Siena had taken up an even more challenging position, while she ...
She looked away to the shadows, loath to let anyone see a flicker of pain in her eyes. She was, after all, one of the select few who had made it through to the Master Class. Its badge-a black winged merlin tattooed just above her left breast-marked her as a hardened warrior, a trained killer.
Softer sentiments had no place in such an arsenal of talents.
"I miss her," mused Marco.
"As do I."
He slanted a searching look at her. "It will only take me a bit longer to finish up here. Wait and I will ride back with you."
"If you don't mind, I'd rather go on alone."
Before he could argue, Shannon gave a flick of the reins and spurred her stallion for the stables. Her body relaxed, instinctively matching the rhythm of the canter. Would that she could exercise such easy mastery over her mind, she thought. Daredevil acrobatics came naturally to her. The steel of a sword or pistol fit her hand like a second skin. But when it came to controlling her tongue or her temper, she was awkward, unsure. Damnable inner demons, they seemed to have a will of their own.
"Bloody hell." The oath slipped from her lips as the whitewashed walls and peaked slate roofs of the stables took shape from out of the fog. Her fears, sharp and pointed as the weathervane crowning the center cupola, formed into a palpable presence in her chest. Like the talons of the weathered copper hawk, they clenched and would not let go.
Would Lord Lynsley expel her from the school? She had broken a frightening number of rules by interfering in another Merlin's mission. But as of yet, the marquess had been ominously silent as to her future.
Looking around her, Shannon felt regret, recriminations dig even deeper. The shooting ranges, the fencing fields, the spartan classrooms and dormitories-all were so achingly familiar. It was hard to imagine an existence outside the ivy-covered walls. After all, it had been home since ... a life she did not care to remember.
The fears, the filth, the violence had been left behind in the slums of London. Even her real name, if ever she had possessed one, lay buried in the shadows. Like all new students, she had been ushered into the headmistress's office, a skinny, frightened little girl uncertain what to expect. One of the first things Mrs. Merlin had done was show her an ornate globe, and as the orb was set to spinning, she had been told to pick out a name from the myriad cities dotting its surface.
A new name for the new world she was about to enter ...
Seen from afar, Mrs. Merlin's Academy for Select Young Ladies was undistinguishable from the other boarding schools that polished highborn daughters of the English aristocracy into Diamonds of the ton. The pastoral grounds, the tidy brick buildings sheltered by the high, ivy-covered walls. However, outward appearances could be deceiving. The difference was ... day and night.
Shannon's grip tightened on the reins. Here, the students were not pampered young misses admitted on account of their family's pedigree and purse. They were streetwise orphans, handpicked by the Marquess of Lynsley from the rookeries of Southwark and St. Giles.
Shannon wondered what he had seen in her. A surly toughness that refused to knuckle under to the grim realities of the stews? Even as a small child, she had been awfully good with a blade.
With her fists and her fury, she had fought her way to the top of the class. Unlike the other finishing schools, the Academy's curriculum was not designed to cast its students in a rosy light, but rather to thrust them into the heart of darkness. To be sure, there were instructors to teach dancing, deportment, and all the other social graces. But while other girls studied the art of watercolors, Merlin's Maidens studied the art of war. They were England's ultimate secret weapon, dispatched by Lord Lynsley to take on the most difficult, dangerous assignments. Their master classes included rigorous training in the traditional martial arts of fencing, shooting, and riding, along with the more exotic Eastern disciplines of self defense and yoga.
Would that she had paid a touch more attention to the lessons on self-control. Action came so much easier than introspection.
Blinking the beads of moisture from her lashes, Shannon forced her chin up. She would not surrender to self-pity. Discipline, duty, and a dispassionate detachment from emotional excess-those were the rules that Merlin's Maidens swore by. If her superiors deemed her unworthy of the name, she would go out with her head held high.
Disobeying orders was a serious transgression. It was understood by all that a Merlin was on her own when dispatched on a mission. But on learning that her roommate was in dire danger while trying to trap a deadly traitor, Shannon had slipped away from the Academy without permission in order to ride to the rescue.
She had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the law, and yet she could not truly say she was sorry. Part of the basic training taught that in their profession, there were no rules. So she had obeyed her heart rather than the Hellion Handbook that each student was required to memorize.
Right and wrong. Discipline and duty. That her intervention helped defeat a dangerous traitor did not, according to the headmistress, diminish the gravity of the offense.
No one questioned her courage, merely her character.
"Shall I rub 'im down fer ye, Shannon?"
Roused from her reveries, she shook her head. "Thank you, Jem, but no. I shall see that Ajax has his oats before I go in to my own supper." She patted the stallion's sleek neck before slipping down from the saddle. Her legs wobbled a bit as her boots struck the cobbles. She had pushed herself at a punishing pace all afternoon-fencing, karate, and the cross-country shooting course. As if pain could make amends. But at least the aches and exhaustion kept her from thinking too much about the future.
Her hands, stiff with cold, fumbled with the buckles of the bridle. "You will find barley vastly more tasty than hair," she murmured, fending off the velvety nuzzling to her neck. Ajax's nickering formed soft puffs of vapor in the twilight chill as she untangled the loosened strands of her chignon from the leather and brass.
After currying the stallion's coat to a gleaming chestnut sheen, she pitched a few forkfuls of hay into the stall and latched the door. Duty done, there was nothing to keep her from joining her comrades in the dining hall. And yet she lingered, loath to see the glimmer of sympathy in their eyes. Pity only piqued her wounded pride.
Dipping into the stone cistern, Shannon splashed a handful of cold water over her face, determined to shake off the maudlin mood, along with the gray grains of gunpowder still clinging to her cheeks.
"Need a hand?"
She watched her roommate slip out from the shadows. Sofia always appeared so assured, so elegant, moving with a natural grace that would have been right at home in the ballrooms of Mayfair-save for the foil and saber tucked under her arm.
"It looks like you had a rough afternoon," added Sofia.
"Don't beat yourself up. You made the decision you thought was right, and would do it again in a heartbeat."
"Thanks for not saying I told you so." Shannon essayed a smile.
Sofia uttered an unladylike oath. "I'm not such a fair-weather friend as that." She quirked a wry grin. "Besides, it isn't as if I'm entirely innocent of wrongdoing. Marco still hasn't forgiven me for sneaking your stallion out of the stables."
"You are the best of comrades, Fifi. And you shouldered more than your share of the blame. I'm sorry you were stuck with so many demerits."
Her friend cut a jaunty flourish through the air. "I am learning a great deal about the fine points of weaponry, seeing I have been set to polish the whole damn armory."
She winced. "Lud, Da Rimini is a bastard-"
She snapped to attention at the sound of the stablemaster's stentorian shout. Hopkins did not often raise his voice above a growl. "Here, sir!" she answered.
"You are wanted in the headmistress's office."
Mrs. Merlin wished an audience? Her heart gave a lurch, hope warring with trepidation.
Muddy boots and cockleburred buckskins did not help to inspire much confidence. She would have preferred to appear more polished and poised, rather than as a bedraggled gun rat.
"Good luck," murmured Sofia. "And godspeed. You heard him-march!"
Turning smartly, Shannon maintained a military stride until rounding the barn door, then broke into a hell for leather run.
Alexandr Orlov accepted the glass of clear spirits. "Cheers," he murmured, tossing back the potent vodka in one gulp.
Prince Yuri Feodor Yussapov, head of Special Intelligence Services for the Imperial Russian Ministry of War, chuckled as he switched to a bottle of ruby port and poured them both another round. "I trust you enjoyed your sojourn in England?"
"It had its high points, Yuri."
And its low ones as well. Orlov pursed his lips, aware of a slightly sour taste in the back of his mouth despite the sweetness of the wine. The covert mission had not gone quite as planned. In truth, he considered it somewhat of a personal failure, though the end result had proved satisfying to his superiors.
He had been dispatched to London to retrieve a stolen document. The fragile alliance between England and Russia depended upon keeping it out of French hands, and the Tsar had been unwilling to trust Whitehall's agents to get the job done.
Perhaps because not in the wildest flight of fancy would anyone in Russian Intelligence have imagined what shape and form the English counterattack would take.
Orlov stared moodily at his port. The paper had indeed been found-but not by him. Though to be fair, he had made a certain contribution to the success of the venture. The two traitors would not be sending any more state secrets across the Channel. Still, the thought of being outmaneuvered by a rival operative stuck in his throat.
Swearing a silent oath, he drained the rest of his drink in one gulp.
Never one to hold his punches, Yussapov threw in another sly jab. "Don't look so glum about being bested by a female, tvaritsch. Lord Lynsley's winged ladies are said to be birds of a unique feather."
"They are that." Both he and the prince had been astounded to discover that Whitehall's most trusted agents were a secret force of highly trained women warriors.
And they were good. Damn good.
So was he. Yet it was only by the skin of his teeth that he had eluded the embarrassment of being captured. Sitting here, in the comfort of the Stockholm embassy, it was easy enough to crack jokes. But at the time, it had been no laughing matter.
Taking up the prince's Cossack dagger, Orlov spun its point upon the leather blotter. "However, you might have given me-and Lord Lynsley-fair warning that the mission was a joint venture. As it was, the wrong man nearly ended up with his throat cut."
"Bah." Yussapov brushed off the retort with a cavalier wave. "All's well that ends well. Is that not how your famous Bard put it?"
"As I am half Russian, I am wont to look at things from a more melancholy perspective," he replied dryly. "It is easy for you to laugh from the comfort of your armchair and lap robes, but the whole affair came dangerously close to disaster on account of not knowing who was friend and who was foe. If we are allies with the British, should we not try to work together a bit more closely?"
"We are uneasy allies, Alexandr. The Tsar is not quite certain he can trust the Mad King and his ministers."
Excerpted from Seduced by a Spy by Andrea Pickens Copyright © 2008 by Andrea Pickens. Excerpted by permission.
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