Sword fighting and martial arts may not interest the typical Regency heroine, but Pickens, known for such traditional work as The Storybook Hero, fits them nicely into her new action-filled historical series. At Mrs. Merlin's Academy for Select Young Ladies, street urchins are trained in both the ways of society and the deadly arts, for the purposes of countering England's foes. On her first assignment, the resourceful Siena is charged with sniffing out a Napoleonic spy while posing as a courtesan in search of a new protector. Apparently one of the six highborn members of the Gilded Page Club has been smuggling documents in the guise of acquiring valuable old books, but who is it? As Siena challenges each club member to a series of competitions to win her favor, the sensuality of one prime suspectthe earl of Kirtland, a disgraced former officer in the Royal Armythreatens Siena's self-control and secret identity. The introduction of an enigmatic outsider and some helpful intervention from another of Mrs. Merlin's young ladies thicken the plot and build momentum for the sequel. Regency fans should enjoy this innovative and adventurous foray. (June)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Spy Wore Silkby Andrea Pickens
They were once orphans from London's roughest slums. Now they are students of Mrs. Merlin's Academy for Select Young Ladies, learning the art of spying and seduction. Bold, beautiful, and oh-so-dangerous, they are England's ultimate secret weapons. The most skilled of Merlin's Maidens, Siena must unmask a traitor lurking among an exclusive club of book collectors. Armed with only her wits, her blades, and her sultry body, she joins the gentlemen at a country house party. But her prime suspect, disgraced ex-army officer Lord Kirtland proves as enigmatic as he is suspicious-and sinfully sensuous. Kirtland's instincts tell him the enticing "Black Dove" is hiding more than a luscious body beneath her fancy silks. Yet as he starts to plumb her secrets, a cunning adversary lays plans to destroy them both. To live, Siena must end her tantalizing dance of deception and desire-and decide whether to trust her head or her heart.
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The Spy Wore Silk
By Andrea Pickens
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2007 Andrea Pickens
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSteel clashed against steel, the blades flashing like quicksilver fire in the afternoon sun.
But this time, there would be no errant sparks, no flare of flames. This time, the wolf-faced Italian would not goad an explosion of temper-
"Porca miseria!" Spinning with deceptive quickness, Il Lupino punctuated his curse with a flurry of lightning slashes that sent the opposing saber clattering to the courtyard cobbles. "Non, non, non-is all wrong!" he snarled. "You must slide to the left, then counter with a punta sopramano."
"And your thrusts must be deeper and faster, Volpina. Like so ..." The Italian's swordpoint cut through the air with a lethal whisper. Soft but deadly.
"Grazie." Volpina watched its sinuous dance.
"Like a man making love to a beautiful woman." Finishing with a flourish, he raised his weapon to the en garde position. "Now try it again-this time with more passion." A smile flashed, the crescent curve a mocking reflection of the hard-edged steel. He was being deliberately provocative. "Unless, of course, you are too tired to continue."
"Not bloody likely."
As intended, the challenge prickled, like daggers dancing on tender flesh. For an instant, anger blazed, sparked by wounded pride. But then, Volpina recalled the master's own words.
Fight fire with fire.
Snatching up the fallen saber, Volpina crossed swords for only an instant before lashing out with a furious lunge that drove Il Lupino back to the edge of the chalked circle.
The Italian parried the attack with ease, but as he set his stance and angled his blade to block the next blow, Volpina suddenly whirled around and drove a knee into his groin.
Woof. Il Lupino doubled over, then dropped to the ground with a leaden thud.
Silence descended over the courtyard, save for the twitching scrape of leather against stone.
"Bella! Bella!" After several moments, the Italian recovered enough of his breath to speak. "Magnifico, in fact."
Pushing the steel away from his throat, he uncurled his legs and managed to sit up.
Several of the onlookers winced in sympathy, while one or two bit back a titter of laughter.
"Machiavelli would be proud of you." A note of humor blunted the rasp of pain. "A lady should never fight fair."
"No hard feelings, Signor Da Rimini?" The dark-haired beauty known only as Siena set a gloved hand on her hip and shook the sweat from her brow. Fire still tingled through her tensed muscles, but its burn curled the corners of her mouth into a small smile. Finally, she had bested the wily wolf at his own game.
"On the contrary. It gives me great pleasure to see one of my pupils begin to master the art of war." For an instant his grin appeared to angle to a more serious tilt. "It seems you have been born with natural talent, Signorina Siena. My job is to hone it to a fine edge."
Siena stared down at her sword. Her real identity had long since been lost in the stews of St. Giles. But like all the students at Mrs. Merlin's Academy for Select Young Ladies, she had been given a new name on entering its world, one chosen at random from the ornate globe in the headmistress's office.
A new name for a new life. A new meaning for the savage skills learned in the primitive school of the slums. Once inside the ivied walls, she had been determined never to look back at the twisted alleyways of her past.
"Now, girls, pay close attention to my words and not my manly thighs." Her musings were cut short as Da Rimini resumed his cocky drawl. "Signorina Siena has just given us a perfect demonstration of why it is important to keep a cool head in the heat of battle. The point is, all of you will need to rely on wits and imagination, rather than size and strength, to prevail over an opponent. As you have witnessed, brains can be a more potent weapon than brawn."
Siena reached down and helped him to his feet.
"Fire and ice," he murmured. "Once again I commend you, signorina. Now that you are learning to fight with your head as well as your heart, you present a deadly challenge. God help the enemy."
A shiver ran down her spine, hot and yet cold. Was she ready to test her mettle in the real world?
In the distance a bell chimed the hour. "The lesson is over for today, girls," announced Da Rimini.
Siena stripped off her padded doublet and shook out the knot of curls coiled at her neck. Tall, slim-hipped, and lithe as a rapier, she could pass for a boy in her fencing gear. But the thin linen shirt, dampened from her exertions, revealed curves that were decided womanly.
Da Rimini gave an appreciative leer as he watched the raven tresses spill over her shoulders. "On the morrow I teach you how to execute the botta dritta, eh?"
"Assuming you have the ballocks to step back onto the field of battle," quipped the student known as Shannon. The class wit, she was always quick to unsheathe a sharp tongue. Sometimes too quick. Her penchant for challenging authority had recently provoked a disciplinary warning. A second might result in expulsion.
"Nonnie," cautioned Siena, hoping to keep her roommate out of trouble.
"Like my sword, my testicolos are made of steel, Signorina Shannon." The Italian waggled a brow, his slitted eyes still aimed at Siena. "Indeed, all my equipment is honed to a fighting edge. As the lovely Volpina would quickly discover if only she would accept my offer of more intimate instruction in the nuances of hand-to-hand combat."
Ignoring his lascivious looks, Siena handed her gear to a first-year student and gathered up her books. "Come, Shannon, we had better hurry and change, else we will be late for our next class."
Her friend, however, could not resist a parting retort. "Indeed, signor? I heard your equipment was in danger of growing dull with disuse." Exaggerating a flourish, she tossed Il Lupino a scrap of chamois. "But if it needs a bit of polishing, you will have to do it for yourself."
With his laughter ringing in their ears, the two of them cut across the fencing yard to the graveled garden path.
Siena slanted a sidelong glance at her friend as they rounded the tall privet hedge. Shannon had the same willowy height, the same loping stride-and the same stubborn set of the chin. Indeed, they might have been taken for twins, save that her friend's hair was the color of autumn wheat and cut several inches shorter.
"You are lucky. Da Rimini was in one of his better humors today," she said. "But he's unpredictable. The next time you try to pick a fight with him, it may not go so well."
Shannon shrugged off the advice. "The lecherous old goat. His nickname ought to be the Snake instead of the Wolf. Only yesterday he tried to slide his hand up my skirts as I was cleaning my pistol in the armory." She made a face. "Why the headmistress hasn't given him the boot ages ago is still a mystery to me."
"Because despite his alley cat manners and advancing age, he is extremely good at what he does," answered Siena. "I doubt there is a more skilled fencing master in all of England."
"As long as he keeps his sword to himself-"
"Rumor has it he was forced to flee Milano over some incident involving a blade." The student known as Sofia, who shared their spartan dormitory quarters, caught up with them in time to hear the last exchange. Falling in step beside Shannon, she added a wink. "As well as a contessa and a cardinal. And for Italians to express outrage, it must have been shockingly scandalous."
"It isn't as if this is an ordinary institution of higher education. Nobody here at the Academy-including ourselves-is remotely respectable." Siena flashed a sardonic smile. All of them were orphans who had been left to fend for themselves in the slums of London. Alone and homeless, they had quickly learned the cardinal rule of the rookeries-only the strongest survived. Not that she cared to recall those early days, save to remind herself that she was tough enough to stand up to any challenge.
She darted another glance at her companions. The three of them were more like sisters than school friends. Shared adversity was, perhaps, a stronger bond than blood.
Unperturbed by the oblique reminder of their desperate past, Shannon laughed. "You have a point. How many schools for females include a Negro boxer, a convicted cardsharp, and a former courtesan to King Carlos of Spain among its instructors?"
"You neglected to mention the Indian fakir," said Sofia.
"An expert in disciplining both the body and mind. He must be bloody good at it, too, for he arrived this morning in a spitting sleet, wearing naught but a saffron loincloth and two bloodred rubies in his earlobes."
"We are already doing an hour of yoga a day." Spinning to a halt, Shannon bent over and touched her forehead to her toes. "Lud, what will Mrs. Merlin think of next?"
"Since you asked, a Turkish belly dancer is coming next term to teach a special class in the art of seduction." Siena set aside her momentary melancholy and forced herself to join in the banter. She was one of the lucky ones, she reminded herself. If Lord Lynsley had not witnessed her beating off three boys twice her size to protect the gold watch she had just stolen, she would likely still be eking out an existence as a thief. Or perhaps a whore.
Sofia shimmied her hips. "I don't mind surrendering my virtue in the name of England, just as long as they don't expect me to bed the Prince Regent. I draw the line at sleeping with a man who wears a corset."
"There are no lines, Sofia. Not here, not in our world." Siena turned abruptly and resumed walking toward the quadrangle of Georgian brick buildings that housed the classrooms and dormitories. "We'll do whatever they ask of us, whether it be slitting a man's throat or seducing the Prince of Darkness."
Pressing the tips of his well-tended fingers together, the Marquess of Lynsley looked out the window of his ministry office. A freezing rain pelted against the glass, and the sudden storm, which had blown in out of nowhere, showed little sign of relenting. Clouds hung heavy over the spires of Westminster, the swirling mists turning more leaden by the moment.
Darker still was the news staring him in the face. He lowered his gaze back to the dispatch on his desk. "The devil take it," he muttered, smoothing at the creases in the travel-worn paper. But nothing could take the edge off his anxiety.
"I would gladly return it to Lucifer if I could, sir." Major Chertwell essayed a grim smile. As the officer in charge of coordinating military intelligence with their Russian allies, he had long since learned that a sense of humor, however black, was an essential weapon for survival. "But the damn fellow seems to have gone to ground, leaving us with this hellish problem."
"Hellish indeed." Lynsley rose. He crossed the carpet and pressed his palm to the mullioned glass. A chill seeped through his skin, and despite the layers of tailored finery, he couldn't repress a shudder. "A traitor? One of our own?"
"The evidence seems incontrovertible, my lord. Only someone who moves within the highest circle of Society would have access to such information."
"Tell me again what you know."
"Our agent in Berlin has penetrated Napoleon's Eastern spy network. For nearly a year, he has been aware that highly sensitive information was coming out of the very heart of London. Sometimes it was actual government documents, sometimes a summary of troop movements, or secret meetings with England's allies. At first it was only a trickle; then the flow became truly alarming. But it wasn't until recently that he discovered how the information was being smuggled out of the country." Chertwell withdrew a small leather-bound book from his pocket and placed it beside the letter. "That our agent discovered the document hidden in here further confirms our suspicions." He ran a thumb over the gilt spine. "The volume is a rare early edition of Milton's Paradise Lost. My source assures me that there are but a handful of gentlemen here in Town who have the means and opportunity to lay hands on such a treasure."
"Your argument appears compelling." Lynsley let out his breath in a long sigh. "So our enemy is likely rich and titled?"
Chertwell covered the incriminating paper with a note of his own. "I have made a list of the possibilities, sir."
After a last glance at the mizzled shadows, the marquess returned to read over the names. "Bloody hell." He spent another few moments contemplating the list. "You realize the implications of investigating the private affairs of these men?"
The major looked equally grave. "Yes, sir. You have made it clear that this is an extremely delicate situation."
"And extremely dangerous. The dilemma is, we are damned if we do and damned if we don't," mused Lynsley as he perched a hip on the corner of his desk.
At first glance, he would not stand out in a crowd. Over the years he had learned a number of subtle mannerisms to appear shorter and slighter than his true height. As for his features, they were well cut, but a self-deprecating smile softened their patrician edge. His hair, just beginning to turn silver at the temples, was neither long nor short, and its mouse brown hue was echoed in the somber earth tones of his clothing. Many people thought him a bland, rather boring bureaucrat. A fact that suited him perfectly.
His official title-Minister to the Secretary of State for War-was a deliberately vague cover for his true responsibilities. Charged with countering espionage and intrigue, he dealt with the most dangerous and diabolical threats to England's sovereignty. And while he preferred to work with only a small group of trusted associates, events had unfolded in such a way that he had no choice but to take the major into his confidences.
Lynsley reluctantly went on with his explanation. "If word slips out that we have allowed such treason to take place under our nose, the resulting scandal could topple the government."
"Yes, sir. It will have to be handled with utmost discretion. Even then, it will take a miracle to pull it off without setting off a display of pyrotechnics in Parliament that would put Vauxhall to blush."
"A miracle." Lynsley drummed an urgent tattoo upon the leather blotter, as if summoning spirits from the netherworld.
"A miracle." The major's echo had an even more doleful ring. "Or a hero from Arthurian legend."
"Merlin," whispered the marquess.
Chertwell gave a halfhearted laugh. "Abracadabra. The heart of Galahad. The steel of Excalibur."
A moment later, the marquess rang for his secretary. "Collins, have my carriage brought around immediately." Tucking the list of suspects into his waistcoat, he turned for the door. "Don't just stand there, Chertwell. We haven't any time to lose."
The major cleared his throat. "W-where are we going, sir?"
For the first time that afternoon Lynsley actually smiled. "To take tea with Mrs. Merlin."
"Who the devil-"
"A little old lady who works magic."
"Damnation, this door latch still sticks like the devil."
"Language, girls! Language!" Dressed in dull shades of bark and brown, Miss Clemens, their house prefect, would have been indistinguishable from the woodwork if not for her stentorian shout. "No cursing! You know the rules. Inside these walls you will behave as refined young ladies. Now hurry along-gracefully, mind you, gracefully- and change, or you will be late for Mrs. Twining's lecture on ballroom etiquette."
Siena smiled, for in spite of the spinster's drab appearance, she was not really such a stick in the mud. Many a midnight raid on the kitchens had gone unpunished, and on occasion, the spoils of victory had been washed down with a bottle of Clemmie's excellent champagne.
"Refined my arse," muttered Shannon, much to the amusement of the others. "It would take a sledgehammer and chisel to sculpt me into any semblance of a drawing-room miss."
"Appearance is not the problem." Sofia regarded her friend's Valkyrean figure and shook her head. "Lud, I'd kill to have your bosom. It's a question of attitude. If you would put your mind to it-"
"Need I remind you again?" warned Miss Clemens. "One more infraction for tardiness, and the three of you will be mucking out the stables for a month."
"Hell, I would rather concentrate on riding and rapiers than on the proper way to curtsy to a duke," grumbled Shannon as the three of them took the stairs two at a time and raced to their room.
"As would I." Siena slipped out of her shirt and breeches. "But to be effective, we must be well schooled in the more subtle forms of warfare."
"Easy for you to say," shot back Shannon. "You seem to have a natural talent in the classroom as well as on the fencing field." She made a face. "Lud, you even excel in art history."
"I find the subject interesting, don't you?"
Shannon shook her head. "Not unless the paintings portray some of the more esoteric uniforms or weaponry of the period."
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Lord Lynsley knows that whoever is selling top military secrets to England¿s enemy must come from a select few who have power, and money to accomplish the seditious deed as the nefarious seller has access to high levels of government. Lynsley especially thinks one of the members of the Gilded Page Club (Dunster, Fitzwilliam, Winthrop, Leveritt, Jadwin, and Kirtland) is the traitor, but these are connected aristocrats so accusations of traitorous activities must be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. --- Linsley turns to the Mrs. Merlin Academy for Select Young Ladies for an undercover spy to ferret out the identity of the culprit as these women taken from the slums of London have been trained to fight or seduce their foes into submission. Mrs. Merlin chooses Siena, a bold fighter and art connoisseur. Siena pretends to be a brash courtesan who infiltrates the club by offering her wares exclusively to whom she decides is the chosen one. Her plan is perfect except she is attracted to the Earl of Kirtland, a war hero who saved his men¿s lives only to be disgraced for failing to follow a superior¿s order that would have needlessly led to his squad¿s deaths. The cat and mice game has begun, but a Russian and a Merlin join the contest. --- This is engaging Regency espionage romantic suspense tale starring a courageous heroine and a strong support cast. Readers will appreciate the audacious saucy steps that Siena takes to uncover the traitor while feeling for Kirtland, who is the only who suspects there is more to this courtesan¿s infiltration even as he wants her like no other female ever before. Sub-genre fans will take pleasure in this fun thriller and look forward to Siena¿s roommate¿s adventures as a nineteenth century ¿Jane Bond¿ saving England. --- Harriet Klausner