Read an Excerpt
Book Three in the Liar's Club
By Celeste Bradley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Celeste Bradley
All rights reserved.
One month later ...
Faint radiance from the nearest street lamps gleamed on the silken skin of a single exposed thigh. Long, ivory, and elegant, it was framed by a ruffle of underthings hiked high and the dark tease of stocking gartered low over the knee. Only a pale flash, a voyeuristic moment in time, yet the sight held the impact of a fist to the gut.
James Cunnington's mouth went dry in that moment and his brisk progress through the park came to a sudden halt. His brain slowed as his pulse quickened, startled into abrupt arousal by the very unexpectedness of his accidental glimpse of creamy female flesh. How long had it been since he had seen a woman's bare thigh? Three months? Four?
Not since the night his mistress had seen fit to kidnap and imprison him. He'd been walking home sated and nearly weak-kneed from yet another evening of astonishingly wicked pleasure at the skilled hands of the most intoxicating woman he had ever met. He'd been jumped by more men than he could defeat alone and had woken as a prisoner of the lovely and devious Lady Lavinia Winchell, French spy and amateur assassin. He'd eventually escaped and managed to foil her plan to assassinate the Prime Minister. The half-healed bullet wound in his shoulder ached at the memory. Lavinia was now imprisoned upon the mercy of the Crown, and if James had anything to say about it, it would not be long before she was hanged for the murders she had committed.
As his mind traveled back down the road of his unquenched desires, the woman before him used the slender limb she had exposed to step up onto a stone park bench. Her aim seemed to be to peer over the high hedge that delineated the borders of the park in the center of the square. James watched mournfully as yards of petticoat, skirt, and dark cloak tumbled back down over the most sexually satisfying experience he'd had in months.
What a pity.
Then he blinked. Pulling himself forcefully from his straying thoughts, James took a moment to notice the lateness of the evening hour. Twilight was long past and only the lamps burning around the square illuminated the darkness.
Odd. Before him was a woman alone in a shadowy park in the middle of London. True, they were in Mayfair — but even this enclave of the wealthy and elite held its dangers. He himself had been set upon in this very park on that fateful night.
A night very much like this one.
James moved forward carefully until he could see the entire dark-cloaked figure silhouetted against the shadows of the hedge. The woman still hadn't seen him or heard his footsteps on the brick-paved walk. Obviously she was far more interested in what lay on the other side of the boxwood.
As far as James knew, the only thing directly beyond the hedge and street was a house.
Continuing his silent progress, James approached directly behind the woman, who had gone up on tiptoe in her determination to see beyond.
"So, at what are we peeking?"
Phillipa Atwater's heart stopped at the sound of the deepvoice behind her. She jerked backward in her surprise. One of her worn shoes lost its footing on the dew-dampened stone and she felt herself begin to fall —
Only to find herself clasped in a pair of strong arms that cradled her close to a broad hard chest. Naturally, her first response to being grasped by a strange man was to struggle.
A chuckle rumbled from the chest she squirmed against, a sound so deep it went clear through her.
"Now is that any way to reward your hero?"
Her captor's grasp was not harsh, but quite implacable. Her struggles were as effective as a moth fluttering in a boy's hand. With a last frustrated jab of her elbow into the bastard's rock-hard abdomen, she gave up to lie quietly in his hold with her head ducked and her arms crossed.
He laughed again and she felt the warmth of his breath across her cheek and ear. Bloody rotten hell. Her hood had fallen back during her struggles. Luckily, her hair had come unpinned as well and now hung down about her shoulders. With a shake of her head, her face was well curtained.
"Who are you?" The man's voice was low, but not particularly gentle. In fact, he sounded downright suspicious. "What are you doing about so late?"
Phillipa remained silent. There was nothing to do but wait for her captor to let his grip loosen. It would only take a moment, for she had by necessity become very swift in the last months. The world was full of the groping hands of men. A woman on her own must learn to dodge.
Although she must grudgingly admit that this fellow didn't seem inclined to snatch an illicit caress. His large hands, unyielding as they were, remained most correct — one wrapped firmly around her upper arm, the other politely not gripping her knee.
She felt herself hefted easily, as if he were gauging her weight. His strength would be frightening if it were not for the painless clasp of his muscular arms. For a moment she longed for such secure arms to hide within, just once in a while. It had been so long since she'd had someone strong on her side ...
"You aren't one for words, are you? That does not disturb me. I feel quite able to stand here all night."
Although his statement was meant to be mildly intimidating, James found it to be somewhat true. She was no burden at all. Or perhaps it was simply the feel of a woman in his arms. Her fragrant hair spread across his chest and shoulder, draping him in a sensuous veil that glinted red in the lamplight. He felt the urge to bury his face in that hair, to feel it on his naked chest ...
He cleared his throat and shifted his weight, but that only pressed her hip against the hungriest part of him. Swallowing hard, James decided that the best place for the woman was on her own feet. He bent to drop her legs gently down, never letting free his grip on her stiffened shoulders.
There. Much better.
Except that now her side pressed to his and he could feel the small curve of her breast against his extended arm. His fingers tightened involuntarily at the surge of yearning that rolled through him.
His captive whimpered, and instinctively James eased his grip — only to find himself clutching empty air.
She ducked away with astonishing swiftness, her cloak a dark flutter as she whirled. He stepped forward to catch her arm once more, but she dashed to the side, then turned to run into the shadowy trees. He pursued her instantly, his longer legs assuring his success. She dodged tree trunks before him, but he followed the coppery flag of her hair in the dimness. He was her shadow, almost able to reach —
She ran beneath a limb which he didn't see until too late. His brow struck wood. Hard. By the time he'd recovered himself, she was gone.
"Damn." He'd never catch her now. The darkness swallowed her as if she'd never been.
To be quite frank, his powerful arousal had him mistrusting his own instinct to chase her down. What had she done that was so terrible that he ought to pursue her? Stand on a bench in the park?
So, with a rueful shake of his head he remained where hestood, listening to the fading brush of running feet in the night.
James had a powerful hunch that he was going to regret losing her.
The next afternoon, Phillipa found herself at the house once more. She raised the heavy knocker, took a deep breath, then let it fall. Within moments, the door swung open to reveal a small man in green and black livery. His gaze traveled down, then back up.
Cool dismissal flickered in his eyes. "State your business, then."
Phillipa was startled by the fellow's common speech. She would have thought such a fine house would have nothing less than top-drawer staff. "I —" Too high and girlish, blast it! She cleared her throat. "I've come to interview for the position."
"Humph." The butler shrugged and cast her a sour glare. He stepped back and held open the door. "Well, come on then. Or be you wantin' the weather to come in as well?"
Phillipa stepped quickly over the threshold, then winced. After less than an hour as a man, she had decided that the worst thing about wearing trousers was the chafing of her ah ... thighs. The second worst thing was the fact that she looked entirely too convincing as a male.
She'd once been proud of her willowy figure but the past months of poverty had thinned her down to what could only be described as desperately starved. Her borrowed trousers and frock coat didn't fit at all properly, and the waistcoat was so thoroughly pinned that she could scarcely move her arms without stabbing herself. She smoothed her coat with one hand, feeling the crackle of paper from inside. Ah, yes. In her pocket was the advertisement that had brought her here today.
"Tutor required for a boy of perhaps nine years," the advertisement in her pocket read. "Patient and agreeable gentlemen should please apply to Mr. James Cunnington, 28 Ashton Square, London."
A familiar name, a name she'd seen in her father's notes. "Keep a close watch on James Cunnington." What her father meant by that, she had no idea. That was why she'd been watching this house last night. That was why she was here, dressed in borrowed male clothing that fit about as well as the gender did.
She knew she looked odd, but she was hoping it would pass as scholarly forgetfulness. After all, a young man interviewing for a position as a tutor was hardly required to be the first stare of fashion.
So it was quite a blow when, as she caught a glimpse of herself in the shining surface of an entrance-hall table, she was dismayed to see that she appeared quite plausibly male. A thin, badly dressed fellow stared back at her, features gone bony with starvation — looking entirely neuter.
Apparently she'd quite lost her looks.
This had all seemed a much better idea yesterday. It was as though some madness had seized her on the previous day as she'd stared at the advertisement in her hand.
She'd just been turned down again in her search for a governess position. It was difficult to obtain a position in charge of young ladies when a young lady had no references and no experience of her own. The service agencies of London would not even touch her for that reason.
But that refusal had been the last of the advertisements for a governess, and the last chance she'd had to avoid going into an even lower service. Not that she was too proud, not at this stage of desperation. She would do anything to survive and to discover if Papa still lived.
There'd been no help for it. Phillipa had dug out the three-day-old section of advertisements from beneath her mattress and had begun to peruse all the pages. She passed over her favorite column, the Voice of Society, with little interest. Ever since the Voice had stopped writing about the Griffin, England's Gentleman Spy, Phillipa had lost her taste for gossip.
If only she had someone like the Griffin to turn to ... butshe had only herself to depend on. She must make her own way now. Was there any work out there for a young woman of her varied but inconsistent skills?
Then she had seen the name. James Cunnington. Her vision had passed over it, snagged on some snippet of memory, and turned back. She'd run her fingers lightly over the words on the sheet of newsprint. Where had she seen that name before?
After a moment of thought, she'd scrambled off her cot where she'd been bundled up against the damp and chill. With a grunt and a pull, she'd moved the bed a few feet to the left, just enough to kneel down behind it. There she had flipped back the threadbare carpet and run her fingertips over the time-worn planks below.
There was one that sat slightly higher than the others — there. She'd edged her nails over the ridge and lifted carefully, working the plank from its place by dint of much wiggling.
Beneath the plank, down in the hole between the floor supports, had lain an elderly, stained satchel. With one eye on the rather pitifully latched door and an ear alert to the sound of her landlady's heavy footsteps on the stairs, Phillipa had pulled the satchel from beneath the floor and lain it carefully on the cot.
The heavy book within was equally stained and the pages were rippled from the dampness, but Phillipa had ignored the musty smell that rose from it to handle it with such care it was almost a caress. With an almost superstitious compulsion, she ran her fingers over the Greek emblem that was stamped as decoration into the leather cover. The letter Phi, a squat circle bisected by a vertical line.
Then she'd opened it. Quickly she had scanned the pages. If she was not mistaken, she had seen the name from the paper written on the margin of a page —
Yes, there it was, scrawled in Papa's handwriting in that half-legible way he used when it was meant to be read only by himself.
"Keep a close watch on James Cunnington."
Nothing else. No reason why James Cunnington should be watched. For his own safety? For reasons of Crown security? For that had been what her father had worked in, before his retirement. He'd never told her specifics, and indeed, she'd never seen this book of notes before the night of her escape from the marauding French soldiers who had broken into her home and stolen her father away ...
No time for memories or regrets now. She firmly put the recent past from her mind. Pulling the page of advertisements across the cot, she laid it next to her father's open book.
There was no mistake. The name was the same. Friend or foe, it remained to be seen. The best way to determine that would be to get to know this Mr. Cunnington firsthand.
And James Cunnington was advertising for household help.
A tutor to be exact. The very work Phillipa had been looking for, with one small difference.
James Cunnington wanted to hire a man.
Phillipa Atwater. Phillip A. Walters. The name had turned and twisted through her mind. Phillip.
If changing her last name slightly had rendered her less visible to those pursuing her, imagine how she'd completely disappear if she —
God, she'd been mad to think what she had been thinking!
Then again, the requirements were slightly less stringent for tutors of boys. In addition, there were far more advertisements asking for tutors than for governesses.
Finally, the fact that taking a male identity might finally throw any pursuers from her back permanently had decided the matter.
Once upon a time she would have scoffed at living such a lie and would have stoutly declared she would die first. Now dying had a realistic ring to it that she'd never before experienced.
There was nothing left. Her rent was overdue and she was down to bread and broth once a day. It wouldn't be muchlonger before she was on the streets. Her landlady was not a sympathetic sort.
Mrs. Farquart had ordered one of the other residents carted away to Bedlam last week when the poor woman had begun to carry on loud conversations with her dead soldier husband while alone in her room. The woman's things stood in a trunk in the hall, still waiting to be claimed. Her clothes ... and her husband's clothes.
Phillipa had only borrowed a few things. Just long enough to attend the interview, after which she planned to return them. Then she'd traded her hair to a wigmaker for a pair of boots and changed the color with a bottle of cheap dye that had cost her last pair of whole stockings.
In the mirrored surface, one hand rose to her short mottled brown locks in unconscious mourning. Her waist-length copper hair had been her best feature. Without it, she was merely a thin freckled girl with no figure.
Phillipa shook off that thought and followed the butler through the halls of her prospective employer's house, looking about her with curiosity. Although she had watched the house carefully for hours last night, she'd seen nothing of those who lived within.
She had remained in the park far later than was wise, still hoping for some glimpse of Mr. Cunnington, who she imagined a stout and dour fellow, secretive and unreliable. Perhaps even a bit gouty, for the entry in her father's journal had been from years ago. The man might even be elderly and frail.
Unlike her mysterious captor last night. Heavens, he'd been anything but frail. His broad chest had been like a wall of brick ...
Phillipa blinked herself back to the present. It was a very fine house, beautifully kept and furnished, yet it had the distinct air of a house not lived in, until she was shown into the study. There reigned the comforting chaos of manly doings, reminding her very much of her father's study in Arieta. The sweet smell of pipe smoke was the only thing missing, besides her father's rumbling chuckle.
Then a rumbling chuckle emerged from the high-backed chair before the fire, so deep it seemed to resonate through her belly —
Phillipa's gasp was covered by the butler's announcement. "Mr. Phillip Walters to interview for the tutor's position, sir."
A tousled head of brown hair emerged around the high winged sides of the chair. "Oh, hell, I forgot."
Her gut shivered further as she recognized the deep voice from the previous evening. Phillipa caught a glimpse of brown eyes and a square jaw before the occupant unfolded himself to his full height.
Excerpted from The Spy by Celeste Bradley. Copyright © 2004 Celeste Bradley. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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