Read an Excerpt
By Zoë Archer
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Zoë Archer
All rights reserved.
Bronwyn Parrish haunted her own home. Ironic, given that she was still alive and her husband, Hugh, was chill and alone beneath the earth. It had been eight months since his death, eight lonely months, and yet only now as she drifted from empty room to empty room in her Leinster Square house did she feel the ghostliness of her widowhood. She looked down at her hands, half expecting to be able to see the marble floors through them.
But no — they remained solid. Blue veins threaded beneath the surface of her skin.
Dropping her hands, she looked around at the chamber that had once been the drawing room. It, too, was haunted. By the shadowed forms of servants, who'd at one time silently slipped in and out of the room with glasses of sherry and trays of cakes. By the specters of imported mahogany chaises, and the elegant guests who'd sat upon them and talked of society. She and Hugh had always given lovely dinner parties — everyone had said so. Afterward, she'd retire for the night feeling satisfied with her role as a wife and companion. Before he'd head to his own bedchamber, Hugh would kiss her on the cheek and murmur, "Beautifully done, sparrow."
Her sigh now echoed off bare walls. It was gone. All of it, gone. And soon, she would be gone, too.
Leaving the drawing room, she walked down the stairs that led to the ground floor. The unlit chandelier hung above the echoing foyer and the front door stood wide open. She hadn't bothered closing it after the men had come to remove the last of the furniture that morning, including her bed. She'd slept in it last night — or attempted to sleep — knowing that this was to be the last place of her own. It wasn't even hers now. But the moment she set foot outside the door, she'd have no home ever again.
She went to stand in the room that had served as her private study and practice room, and wanted to hide her eyes from the bookshelves' nudity. They gaped in forlorn dereliction. God, even her books. Nothing had been spared. She ran her hands over the shelves, saying good-bye to the room that had contained her happiest moments. This small chamber, situated at the back of the house, had been given to her by Hugh so he wouldn't have to listen to her working out the strains of Paganini's Caprice No. 24 on her violin. Hugh never objected to her playing once the piece had been mastered — in fact, he loved that his wife had so unusual a talent — but it was the learning of it that always set his nerves on edge.
But Bronwyn hadn't minded the scratches and skips, the juddering stops and wrong notes. She'd enjoyed the process as much as the end result.
In truth, she'd always nursed a secret desire to play professionally. But hadn't told anyone — it would've been a scandal if a woman with her bloodline actually chose to work for a living. But she would have never considered playing the violin work. Still, the idea was the same. An aristocratic woman actually earning money was a disgraceful impossibility.
When she'd encouraged Hugh to take her to concerts featuring violin solos, he'd only imagined she went to appreciate the music. He hadn't known that she used to picture herself as the soloist, a throb of envy and joy pulsing beneath her chest when she'd watched the swaying figure. That could have been her. It should have been her.
Instead, she'd played for dinner parties. And herself.
Would they let her play her violin? Whoever they were. The nameless, faceless woman or girl that she hoped might hire her as a companion.
Bronwyn patted her pocket, feeling the small fold of pound notes and a few coins that constituted the whole of her wealth. It had to be enough to last her until she found herself a situation.
A situation. It wasn't the work that she objected to, only that she'd never been asked to do it once in her life, not real work beyond the planning of dinner parties or organizing of charity bazaars. And here she was, lingering for a few minutes longer in her hollowed-out home, with a boardinghouse in Barnsbury waiting for her. She had enough money to last her through the month, plus the expense of taking out an advertisement in the paper, offering her services as a "woman of good breeding to oblige as companion to other women of good breeding."
Bronwyn had seen those companions. Silent, suffering, pinch-faced, and put upon as they chaperoned debutantes or accompanied single or widowed ladies of means on their travels. Not a servant. Not a friend, or equal. Something in between. A nothing. One of those "surplus women" they talked about in periodicals — mainly, wondering what was to be done about them.
That was her now. A surplus woman. Wanted by no one. Not welcome anywhere, including her sister's home. Frieda's husband was an ass, a bully who thought no one's opinion more important than his own, and he'd made it quite clear that Bronwyn wasn't to warm herself with coal he'd purchased, nor steal roast off his plate. Even if her sister had defended Bronwyn, living with that man was an impossibility.
A humorless smile touched Bronwyn's lips. At least I'd get a roof and two meals if I killed him. Until they hanged me, of course.
Neither Hugh's father nor brother had offered to take her in. Perhaps they blamed her for his death, though all the doctors had said there had been nothing to be done once the disease had settled in his lungs. She'd been the one at Hugh's bedside when he had died, and for that, it seemed, neither the senior Mr. Parrish nor his son could forgive her.
Quickly, she strode from her former study, back down the hall, across the empty foyer, and into the front parlor, where she stared at the street. Life continued on out there. Carriages rolled by, residents and servants walked back and forth, tradesmen hurried to back entrances. None of them knew or cared about her circumstances. She'd even had to remove the black drapery from the windows and unmuffle the knocker on the front door, so no one would know that death had touched this house with its thieving hand.
Bronwyn pressed her hand to the cold glass. Her wedding band glinted in the pale sun. She'd continue wearing it until ... at least two years. Until her proper period of mourning was over. But she might always wear it. It would make her seem more respectable. This world was all about respectability.
Though poverty trumped respectability. A widow only eight months into her first mourning would never move, never leave the house. Of course, that presupposed the widow had a home. Which she no longer did.
"Damn it," she whispered, allowing herself a small act of defiance by cursing. Though it was still a whisper in an empty room.
She ought to stop putting off the inevitable, and leave. There wasn't anything to be gained by lingering.
She left the parlor then lurched to a sudden stop. Her hand clapped over her mouth to muffle her startled yelp.
A man stood in the foyer. A man who'd appeared out of nowhere and made not a single sound, though her own delicate shoes tapped against the marble floor.
"Get the hell out of my house." In truth, she didn't demand this. Instead, she said stiffly, "I was given to understand by Mr. Moseby that I had until two o'clock this afternoon before I vacated the premises."
The man watched her from beneath heavy-lidded, dark eyes. He held a very fine hat in his gloved hands, and his suit was of far better quality than one might expect from a land agent's hired muscle. The stranger was also, she noted coldly, exotically handsome. Olive skinned and black haired, with a neatly trimmed goatee framing a thin but sensuous mouth.
Despite the elegance of his appearance, an air of calculation and danger clung to him, like a silk cravat wound about the neck in order to strangle someone.
When he spoke, she shivered.
"You misunderstand, Mrs. Parrish." He had a deep, husky voice. Cultured, but sounding as though he were used to speaking in dark places. "I'm not here for the house. I'm here for you."
* * *
Bronwyn took an instinctive step backward. Should she scream? All the heavy bric-a-brac in the foyer had been cleared out with the rest of the furnishings. There was nothing to use as a weapon. Nothing but her speed. Back in boarding school, she'd been a champion runner. She glanced at the space between herself and the open front door. Could she make it past this stranger before he caught her?
As if reading her thoughts, he took a step to one side, giving her an unimpeded path to the door. This alone made her pause.
"Who are you?" she demanded. Her heart beat thickly beneath her widow's weeds.
"My name's Marco," the man answered. "I'm here to help you."
She ignored his last statement. "Is Marco your first or last name?"
"First." He offered her a smile, which was perfectly white and straight and even rather coolly charming, but it didn't calm her at all. "Last names are ... unsafe."
"Yet you know mine," she shot back.
"Naturally. We know quite a bit about you." He didn't fidget or make any extraneous movement, only continued to hold his hat in his gloved hands. "Helping you would be a more complex business if we didn't."
"We." Ice climbed through her at the word. There was more than one of him, whoever this Marco was.
His dark gaze held hers. "Nemesis, Unlimited." A pause followed, as though he expected her to react.
"I've no idea what or who Nemesis, Unlimited, is," she snapped.
His lips gave a slight, rueful twist. "No, I suppose you wouldn't," he murmured half to himself.
"Get out." She pointed to the door, hoping her hand didn't shake too much and betray her.
"Your husband, Hugh Alistair Parrish, died eight months ago from consumption," the stranger Marco said, quickly but in a low voice, as if reciting the result of a parliamentary vote. "He caught it after a trip to inspect a Glasgow cotton mill. It took three months for the doctors to finally reach a diagnosis. You went to the spa at Amélie-les-Bains to get a cure, but nothing worked, and he died with you at his side. The room had white curtains and blue-flowered wallpaper."
Nausea swamped her. These were facts no one but she herself knew.
Yet Marco continued, relentless. "When you finally returned home after burying him, you discovered that your money — including the portion you brought with your marriage — was completely gone. So you approached his financial agent and executor, one Edgar Devere. But Devere told you Hugh had died in arrears."
He quieted for a moment as someone passed by on the sidewalk outside. Once the pedestrian moved on, Marco continued. "Hugh's bank accounts were emptied and all of his liquid assets — including this house — were used to repay his debts. All your finances were tied up with your late husband's. It's been difficult to retrieve your lost fortune because of your widowhood. Everyone you've spoken with, all the attorneys and advisors, have told you the same thing." He drew a slow breath. "You're destitute and no one can get you back your money."
"How ... how ..." was all she could manage. Her head spun, and she walked backward, until she collided with the wall. It took all of her strength and lessons in etiquette to keep from sliding to the floor.
She'd tried so hard to keep all these sordid facts from being known. Hugh was the son of a baron's youngest son, and the family name meant everything. Scandal would follow like a relentless hound if anyone learned that her husband had died insolvent, but it was Hugh and his mortification from beyond the grave that had had her work intensely to prevent these details from being made public. To all of their acquaintances, she'd said only that she'd put everything into storage, and planned on staying with her sister in the country for an indefinite time.
"You're a reporter," she accused.
The cursed man had the nerve to chuckle. "I've been called many an insult, but never that one."
"Then how can you know any of that?" Not only the details of her financial disaster, but the color of the flowers on the wallpaper in the hotel room where Hugh had died.
"I'm here to help," he repeated.
"I don't see how or why," she snapped. Fear, exhaustion, and a dozen other emotions shortened her temper.
"There's a tea shop on Edgware Road." He gestured toward the door. "Come with me there, and everything will be explained."
She raised a brow. "Is this what's become of the world, then? Penniless widows are the latest prey. And here I'd thought that white slavery was a myth to keep girls and women from leaving their homes."
Any lingering signs of humor left his face immediately. "Slavery continues to exist. In many forms. But in this instance, Mrs. Parrish, there aren't any plans to spirit you away to some dockside brothel or sell you to an opium lord in China."
"What a blessed relief." Though it was considered crude, she crossed her arms over her chest. "Unless you plan on dragging me bodily out the door, I'm not going anywhere with you, Marco."
He had the audacity to give her a slow, deliberate perusal, from the hem of her bombazine gown to the top of her head. Since she was home, she didn't have to wear her widow's bonnet and veil, and she fought the old self- conscious urge to cover her coppery hair with the flat of her hand.
His look wasn't salacious, however, and he didn't seem to care that she had unfashionably red hair. All he said was, "You'd be a slight burden to carry."
Heat crept into her cheeks. She'd lost weight over the course of Hugh's long battle with consumption, and since returning home, she'd only been able to afford two meals a day, neither of them lavish. "And you are nothing but impudence."
"Waiting for us at the tea shop are an associate of mine, and Miss Lucy Nelson."
Bronwyn pushed away from the wall with a surge of anger. "If you've hurt Lucy —"
"Miss Nelson is as safe as a guinea in the national treasury. She was the one who sent me here."
Confusion thickly clouded Bronwyn's mind. "Why would my former maid contact you?"
The inscrutable man seemed to lose the smallest thread of patience. His jaw tightened. Just a little. "Because, as I've said twice before, I'm here to help."
"Lucy should have come here, herself."
"She wanted to, but the house is being watched, and I didn't want to attract too much attention. Don't go to the windows."
Bronwyn stopped in the act of doing just that. "Moseby's men?"
"The same. They're on the alert that if you make what appears to be an attempt to retain possession of the house, they are authorized to use force."
She swallowed hard. Dear God, what sort of man was this Moseby, that he'd use violence against a woman? "They wouldn't." But her voice didn't sound especially confident.
"I know Moseby," Marco answered, "and he most certainly would."
Pressing a hand to her mouth, she wondered what had become of her life. It had turned bleak and squalid in a matter of months. She was a gentleman's daughter. These kinds of things happened only in periodicals full of exciting, lurid stories. Now here she was, just like one of those women in the stories. Except this was truly happening, not a work of fiction.
Marco turned one palm up. "Come with me. Fifteen minutes of your time simply to listen. And if you don't like what you hear, then I'll be happy to pay for your cab fare to the boardinghouse in Barnsbury."
Of course he'd know her intended destination. But then, he had Lucy to tell him everything. Bronwyn had trusted Lucy. Why would her maid — a woman she'd known for six years — betray her like this? Unless Lucy, and these Nemesis people, truly did want to help her. Why? At this point, it didn't much matter. She'd already reached her nadir at the age of twenty-eight. Anything would be an improvement.
"My bags are in my room," she said.
"I'll wait while you fetch them."
Her life truly had altered utterly when a man expected her to retrieve her own luggage. Perhaps that was for the best. She'd played by all the rules of society and good breeding, yet here she was, in an empty house, without a groat, reliant on the word of a handsome but questionable man. Clearly, those rules served no purpose, offered no safety.
Without another word, she turned and walked up the stairs. She felt Marco's gaze on her with every step, and it filled her with a strange, unpleasant awareness.
Excerpted from Wicked Temptation by Zoë Archer. Copyright © 2014 Zoë Archer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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