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When A Lady Deceives
Her Majesty's Most Secret Service
By Tara Kingston, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Tara Kingston
All rights reserved.
London, October 1890
The smell of death mingled with expensive perfume.
Meager rays of a streetlamp lent an ethereal aura to the dead woman's spun-copper hair. Crimson-streaked strands splayed over the cobblestones framed her angelic face in a macabre halo. She'd pressed one elegant, lace-covered hand to the vicious wound at the base of her throat, yet her wide blue eyes were fixed in an unseeing stare. Instinct, perhaps. A final, desperate attempt to staunch the lifeblood lost with each beat of her heart.
Swallowing hard against the nauseating bile in her throat, Jennie Quinn took a step back, then another. She doubled over. Her stomach contents spilled onto the pavement. Pulling fetid air into her lungs, she straightened and swiped the back of her hand over her mouth. She'd burn her gloves later, once she returned to her flat. But for now, she had a job to do.
She'd come to this vermin-ridden alley to meet her informant. Mary McDaniel had promised evidence that would fuel Jennie's latest exposé at the Herald. Now, the West End songbird lay permanently silenced, her still-warm body beyond earthly cares.
Icy rivulets flooded Jennie's veins. She searched the shadows. Was she truly alone, or did the killer lurk in the darkness?
She slid a trembling hand over her reticule. The hardness of gunmetal eased her fear. If the cur showed himself, he'd soon find out she'd come prepared to deal with the likes of him. One tug on the trigger, and her derringer would send the devil straight to Hades.
Pulling in another breath, she quelled the frantic little voice deep inside that pleaded for her to leave and not look back. She couldn't walk away. Not yet.
Sheathed within the soiled leather gloves, her palms went damp, but she forced herself to crouch at Mary's side. Jennie's skirt pooled around her, brushing the deep red liquid coating the pavement. Revulsion churned within, but she steadied herself. She had to do this. If the diary was still on the dead woman's body, she needed to find it.
She slipped a hand over the beaded bag tethered to Mary's wrist. Working the ties loose, Jennie tugged it open.
Choking back a fresh wave of sickness, she swept her hands over a blood-soaked ermine cape. Nothing. Her fingers glided along the plush folds of a velvet skirt.
Where in bloody hell is the journal?
Had Mary been killed to prevent her from passing on the secrets recorded in the diary, evidence of a powerful man's brutal crimes?
A lilting laugh cut through her thoughts. A man's deeper tones followed. The couple hadn't turned into the alley, but they were close.
Too close. Jennie couldn't chance being spotted here, within inches of a woman who'd been savagely murdered. Her investigations required her identity to remain hidden. Nosy constables asking questions were a complication she couldn't afford.
Hands quivering, legs unsteady as saplings in a brisk autumn wind, she rose. The lifeless mask of Mary's face stared up at her. Without her animated smile and expressive movements, she had the look of a painted wax doll. Her lip rouge did not bear so much as a smudge.
The murderer must have seized her from behind. Or had Mary trusted her killer?
Jennie's gaze swept over the bloody slash across her informant's throat.
Dear Lord, what have I done?
* * *
Three Weeks Later
In Jennie's experience, two things could be trusted to loosen a man's tongue. Since she'd no intention of luring any of the Lancaster Tavern's patrons with desire, liquor would have to do.
The hulk seated at a corner table downed a hearty slug of whiskey. A dirt-caked finger idly traced the scar bisecting his left cheek. The brutal muscle for a gang of smugglers, Duncan Poole had earned his reputation as a rambling, loudmouthed sot.
Just the man she'd hoped to see.
"I damn near took 'is head off." Poole hefted a fist streaked with another man's blood as if it were a trophy. "The mug won't go challengin' 'is betters any time soon."
A gangly weasel staked out a seat across the table. Timothy Cathcart. His cunning gift for thievery more than made up for his lack of muscle. He eyed the brawny drunk with wary admiration. "What the 'ell did the bloke do t'ye?"
"What's it to ye?" Poole's voice was low and menacing.
Cathcart raked a hand through his greasy red mop of hair. "It ain't nothin' t'me, but the blighter works for Claude Harwick. The 'igh and mighty son of a bitch might not take too kindly t'ye beatin' the pulp outta 'is associates."
"Ye think I'm runnin' scared of that bloody bastard?" Poole leaned closer, smiling as the redhead flinched. "Ye think I'm a stoat-faced coward like yerself?"
Cathcart's mouth wobbled, and he searched the tavern as if mapping out an escape route. "Nothin' of the sort. But Harwick's not a man t'be crossed."
Color flooded Poole's complexion. His face crimson as his elegant silk waistcoat, his bushy brows slashed a line across his forehead. Thick fingers curled around the thin man's collar, dragging him from the chair until he dangled like a scarecrow coming unmoored from its perch.
Poole had forced her hand. Jennie snatched up a tray bearing two overflowing steins and marched to the table. She'd hoped to glean more of the men's dealings before putting in her appearance, but she'd garner no information out of either man if the sot decided to flatten his companion's face.
Saliva flecked Poole's wide, flat lips. "So, ye do think I'm a coward —"
Fixing a smile on her face, Jennie sauntered up to Poole and placed a mug within his reach.
"What's this?" He released his grip on the bug-eyed man and honed in on Jennie's mouth. "Do ye come with the ale, missy?"
"That depends." Behind her smile, Jennie clenched her teeth. If she hadn't been so sure the braggart would unwittingly aid her investigation, she would have found an excuse — any excuse — to turn on her heel and flee. Poole's clothing might be of the highest-quality fabric and tailored with expert skill, but even a rich man's attire could not mask the stench that assaulted her senses. Odds-runners could take bets on how many months had passed since Duncan Poole had seen the inside of a tub. The man garbed himself like an emperor, but he clung to the gutter he'd crawled out of, a thug no amount of blunt could disguise.
The big man eyed her with devouring hunger, an ogre from a childhood fairy tale come to life. "What'll it take t'get ye t'come with me?"
The queen's jewels would not suffice.
Silencing the mutinous thought, she managed a placid set to her features. She had to see this through. Unbidden memories drifted like specters through her mind. Blood drenching the cobblestones. A painted bow-mouth parted in a silent scream. The vicious gash across Mary McDaniel's jugular.
She banished the images to the recesses of her mind and pulled in a fresh lungful of air. She'd ferret out Mary McDaniel's killer. She'd never blot away the stain on her conscience, but she owed Mary that much. The crime lord's mistress had been slaughtered and dumped in an alley to die — all because she'd told Jennie too much.
Jennie swept a glance to the barkeep. Harry Malloy, a good-natured bear of a man, looked up from filling a tray of mugs and gave his head a slow, warning shake.
"Harry won't like it if I leave. Besides, I know nothing of you."
"I can change that, angel."
She sidled closer, laughing softly as if they'd shared a witty morsel. "Ah, wouldn't you like to try?" Turning to Cathcart, she honeyed her voice. "My, you're the quiet one, aren't you?"
He speared her with a hooded stare. His eyes were dark. And cold. He'd be no use to her. Best to get rid of him.
"Just 'and over me ale and get back to whatever the 'ell ye were doin'."
She offered a polite nod and placed the stein on the table. "Your drink, sir." Offering a sly smile, she brushed the heel of her hand against the heavy glass with calculated clumsiness. The tankard toppled. Liquid cascaded into the scrawny weasel's lap like an amber spring.
He leaped to his feet as if she'd set him ablaze. "Bloody 'ell, ye daft wench, look what ye've done!"
She bit her lip until tears sprung to her eyes. "My heavens, I'm sorry."
"Now there ye go, makin' 'er cry." Poole's voice dropped to a near growl as he rose to his full height.
Derision etched Cathcart's gaunt features. "Ye always was a damn fool fer anythin' in a skirt." He stalked to the door. "Keep yerself outta trouble, Poole."
The big man peered down at her. His lecherous eyes seemed to strip away her prim white blouse as surely as if he'd shredded the fabric. She clenched her fingers against the urge to shield herself.
"Now where were we, luv?" Poole's amorous grin revealed teeth the color of steeped tea.
She choked back her disgust. A little chat about his boss might be just the thing.
Swiping away a manufactured tear, she added a sniffle for good measure. "I suppose there's no harm in a bit of conversation. As long as the barkeep doesn't notice."
"If the bastard 'as a problem with it, 'e can take it up with me."
She plastered on a look of wide-eyed admiration. "You're very confident, aren't you?"
"Missy, ye don't know who I am. Blokes in these parts know better than t'tangle with the likes o' Duncan Poole."
"So I've nothing to worry about then, do I?"
Poole's hand closed over hers. Flakes of dried blood crusted his knuckles. Thousands of ants seemed to swarm over her skin, overwhelming her resolve. She wriggled away. His mouth settled into a scowl as he stared down at his empty hand.
Jennie lowered her voice as if sharing a confidence. "The barkeep's looking over here. I can't let him see —"
His eyes met hers. Hard now. Angry. Her words had not appeased him. A smirk spread over his broad face, and he planted his palm on her bottom.
"I 'ad no idea I was speakin' to a fine lady. Ye think yer too good for the likes o' me?" He tangled thick fingers through her hair. One massive arm coiled around her waist, and he dragged her against him. Reptilian lips curved in an ugly imitation of a smile.
"Take your hands off me," she hissed. Sweat and liquor permeated her senses. Jennie shoved his barrel chest with all her strength. Useless. He didn't budge.
"Damned if I don't like a little spirit in a woman." Whiskey on his breath could not mask the stench of decay. Still clutching a handful of her curls, Poole pinned her with his body while his free hand slid to her bosom. His low chuckle accompanied her struggles. He stared down at her like a cat toying with a mouse.
She threw a frantic glance to the bar. Harry? Blast it. The barkeep had picked a bloody fine time to relieve himself. He'd be no help to her. She'd have to rescue herself.
"Yer not goin' anywhere, luv." Laughing, he lowered his mouth to the curve of her throat and nipped her earlobe.
Glimpsing a half-filled pitcher, Jennie squirmed furiously, wormed an arm free of his iron grip, and struggled to reach it. Her fingertips brushed the stout glass. Just one more inch and she'd have her weapon.
Her fingers coiled around the handle. For a heartbeat, a twinge of conscience held her back. But then, his lips grazed her throat. A shudder slithered the length of her spine.
She heaved the pitcher as high as his brutal restraint allowed.
The glass shattered against his skull. Poole's bloodshot eyes widened. Beer gushed over his scalp, blending with a single stream of blood trickling down his face.
But he did not crumple.
His fingers manacled her wrist. Red blotches on his fleshy face deepened to a furious scarlet. "Ye little bitch!"
Out of the corner of her eye, Jennie spotted another makeshift weapon, a pewter tankard. Desperate to reach it, her hand clutched at the vessel. Poole tugged her away with a vicious yank. The stein clattered to the floor as his grip bit into her flesh.
"Let's see if ye're still pretty when I finish with ye."
Jennie wrenched against him. His punishing hold tightened. He reared back, brandishing a palm the size of a skillet. Time slowed.
Her breath hovered in her throat. Suddenly, Poole's eyes went wide. His ugly mouth contorted in pain. The color drained from his blunt features.
His hold dissolved; Jennie darted out of reach.
He didn't follow.
Turning back, Jennie met the dark gaze of a man whose features were as familiar as they were unreadable. Matthew Colton. She'd read every article about the man she could get her hands on. She knew his history. His crimes. The unflinching stare in his arrest photographs.
He stood behind Poole, immobilizing the hulk without so much as creasing his own well-tailored suit. Most impressive. Colton controlled the brute's every movement, a triumph of cunning and skill over brawn. Lean, sleek muscle tensed and flexed beneath the fine wool of his jacket, and Jennie's breath caught even as her pulse sped ever so slightly.
How very peculiar. It wasn't as if she'd never witnessed a display of masculine power. But somehow, at an elemental level she could not hope to describe, this was different. Colton had come to her defense. And at some primal level, the realization touched a part of her she'd never believed existed.
Colton's gaze locked with hers, and her mouth went dry. Ah, the newspapers had not done the man justice. No printed image could capture the intelligence and intensity in those midnight-dark eyes. An emotion she could not define flashed over his features, intriguing her beyond all reason, and for the briefest of moments, she drank him in.
A heartbeat later, Colton's attention shifted from Jennie to Poole. Contorting Poole's tree trunk of an arm behind his massive back, Colton wrenched a grunt of pain from his captive's blubbery mouth.
"What was that you were saying to the lady? Something about how pretty she is?"
Poole grimaced and bit out a profanity. Perspiration beaded his broad forehead, each furtive movement seeming to intensify his misery. "I'll kill you, you bastard."
"Unlikely," Colton replied. "Now, what did you say to the lady?"
Poole sank to his knees. "I don't know what ye're talkin' about."
The steady calm of Matthew Colton's voice failed to disguise its lethal edge. "Do I need to refresh your memory?"
The big man offered a frantic shake of his head. "I remember now."
Colton's brow furrowed as he regarded his prisoner. His mouth set in a stern line. "I think an apology is in order."
"I'm sorry," Poole sputtered.
"Not to me," he corrected in the manner of a schoolmaster growing weary of a dull student. "Apologize to the lady."
"Sorry, miss." He gasped a breath. "Truly sorry if I offended you."
Jennie composed her features and nodded her acceptance.
"That's better. Next time, keep your hands off the lady." Colton released his captive's arm. "Get the hell out of here."
Eyes glazed with rage, Poole pulled himself to his feet. A smirk twisted his lips. "This ain't over. Not while ye're still standin'."
He wielded his fist like a battering ram. Colton evaded the blow with a quick step to the side. Poole's balled hand slammed into another man's bearded chin with a sickening thud.
"Oh, dear." Jennie pressed her palm to her mouth. Why did Poole's errant blow have to land on a mountain of a man?
The burly giant rose to his full height, shook his shaggy blond head as if to clear it, and rubbed his hair-covered jaw. His blue eyes narrowed to an icy stare. "Ye bloody bastard."
He reared back and swung. More agile on his feet than Jennie would have guessed, Poole dodged the impact. The massive fist hooked into a portly onlooker.
Reeling from the punch, the stout man swayed on his feet. Fury transformed his features to a grim mask. "What the 'ell do you think you're doin'?" He lifted a chair over his head. "Let's see 'ow this feels!"
Colton seized Jennie's arm and tugged her behind his back. She stood on tiptoe to see past his broad shoulders. Fists and chairs flew in a frenzied brawl.
"Good heavens, you've started a riot!"
"I believe that honor belongs to you," he said, his voice low and wry.
"Me?" Jennie scoffed.
"As I recall, you struck the first blow. Come on, you need to get out of here."
Excerpted from When A Lady Deceives by Tara Kingston, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2016 Tara Kingston. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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