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A Talent for Temptation
Mrs. Meriel Vyse hurried down the stairs of the Fulkham town house in a most unladylike manner. If she could complete this task for her brother-in-law, Gregory Vyse, the Baron Fulkham, before midnight, perhaps—
“Madam?” their butler, Nunley, said, giving her velvet ball gown a once-over. “His lordship’s mother told me you’re attending an exhibit at Somerset House while she’s playing cards with her friends down the street.”
Blast, she’d forgotten to tell the servants about the change in plans. “I had intended to, yes.” She jerked on her gloves. “Until Lord High-and-Mighty Undersecretary to the Office for War and the Colonies decided that since he had to be at some secret meeting until the wee hours of the morning, I had all the time in the world to trundle off to a ball and assess some foreign princess for him.”
Nunley’s lips twitched as if he badly wanted to comment.
“What?” she demanded. “I know what you’re thinking, so you might as well just say it.”
“It is not my place—”
“Oh, don’t play that game with me, Nunley. You and I have been through too much to stand on ceremony now.”
He huffed out a breath. “Madam, I am trying to improve my skills as a butler for the day when the master ascends to the cabinet. And one of those skills involves not blurting out the first thing that comes into my head.”
“You’re right, Nunley. I’m sorry.” The last person she should be snapping at was him. “Still, you needn’t be discreet with me. I rely on you for your frank opinions.”
He softened. “As you wish, madam. If you must know, my opinion is that since you were looking forward to the exhibit, you should perhaps, just this once, refuse to do as his lordship asks.”
“Nunley! It is most unlike you to suggest such a thing.” And decidedly not what she’d assumed he was thinking. “I can’t refuse Gregory. I owe him too much. Both of us do.”
“And you have repaid him for it repeatedly in the past four years.”
“Not enough.” She shook her head. “Never enough.”
“I believe Lieutenant Vyse would have said otherwise.”
“Possibly.” And Nunley would certainly know. Before he’d come to work for Gregory, he’d been a sergeant under John. He probably knew as much, or more, about her late husband as she did.
And an awful lot about her, too. Like the fact that she craved a normal life free of schemes and spying and subterfuge, something that Gregory didn’t seem to realize. Something she was too much of a coward to tell him.
She sighed. “In any case, he’s merely asking me to attend a ball. What woman could reasonably complain about that?”
Though Nunley raised an eyebrow, he dutifully helped her on with her blue velvet cloak. “I called for the carriage before you came down, but we shall have to inform the coachman of the change in direction.”
“Of course,” she said dully. Nunley was right—she had been looking forward to the exhibit. Or rather, to her tryst.
As if Nunley had read her mind, he said, “What about your young man? You said he’d be going to the exhibit as well.”
She winced. “Quinn Raines is not my ‘young man.’?” At nearly thirty, he wasn’t even all that young. And at twenty-seven, neither was she. “He’s a friend, nothing more.” When Nunley narrowed his gaze on her, she rolled her eyes. “All right, he is more of a . . . flirtation.”
Nunley could be entirely too perceptive sometimes. “I should never have told you about him,” she complained. “And you’re sure Gregory hasn’t guessed that I spend time with Mr. Raines?” Which was the only reason she’d involved Nunley—so he could keep an ear out for what Gregory knew.
“I’m sure. But you should tell his lordship yourself.”
“I can’t. If he knew I was engaged in a flirtation that will go nowhere, he wouldn’t approve. His sister-in-law must behave above reproach, or how can he rise in politics?”
“Why must your ‘flirtation’ go nowhere? Why not just marry your young man?”
She stared out the window. “Because we’re from different worlds. His mother is the daughter of a Spanish count, for pity’s sake! You can well imagine what she’d think to hear the truth about me.”
“She might not care. And if Mr. Raines cares that much, he’s not the man for you anyway.”
Meriel was afraid to find out how much he cared. Because Quinn was the wealthy scion of the prominent Raines banking family, while she . . .
. . . was indebted to Gregory. As a result, she felt she must support his furtive work, if only just in the planning. She was his secretary, so to speak. And sometimes his spy.
Quinn could never be part of that. She wouldn’t want him to be. As the director of his father’s bank, Quinn had to be discreet and cautious and averse to the sort of risks Gregory’s minions took regularly in service to their country. Not to mention that having a wife with her sordid past would ruin him if it ever got out.
She should never have taken up with Quinn. But it had begun as a flirtation, and by the time she realized it was something more, she’d become so addicted to their little trysts . . . to him . . .
“Anyway,” she went on, squaring her shoulders, “he may not be at the exhibit now even if I did go. I sent a note by the footman a few hours ago, telling him I couldn’t attend because of a prior engagement.”
Quinn would be furious at being put off again, but it couldn’t be helped.
Perhaps this was a sign it was time to end things.
But then there would be no more shared conversations about the small idiocies of high society. No more stolen walks, where he listened to her rattle on about nothing and seemed to enjoy it. No more “accidental” encounters at balls, where they would sneak out to balconies or gardens so Quinn could put his warm mouth and clever hands on her and make her melt as John never had. It hadn’t gone beyond caresses, but she dearly wished—
Nunley cleared his throat, and she started. Oh, Lord, had she made some sound to give away her thoughts? How mortifying!
This obsession with Quinn was absurd. Nothing could come of it except an illicit affair, which was impossible.
Then again, perhaps if she and Quinn could share a bed just once, he would be content to let her end things. After all, once men had what they wanted from a woman, they generally lost interest in her.
Perhaps it would work for her, too, and she could go back to concentrating on her missions for Gregory.
Right. And perhaps the sun would turn into the moon, and the stars fall out of the sky. Sadly, making love with Quinn was unlikely to banish her feelings. She was just grasping at any chance to have him in her bed.
A footman entered the foyer to whisper something in Nunley’s ear, and the butler turned to her. “There’s an issue with the carriage, madam. I shall return in a moment.”
While she waited for him, she watched out the front door. A man strolled by whose size and gait looked familiar. For a second, she was almost certain it was Quinn, but it had to be a trick of the gaslights, amplified by the fact that her thoughts were filled with the man. Quinn wouldn’t come here—he knew she wanted to keep their association secret from Gregory.
After pacing the foyer for a few moments, she glanced out again and saw that their carriage had finally drawn up in front. She walked out and headed down the steps.
She was nearly to the coach when she realized something was wrong. This was not the Fulkham family carriage. Confused, she halted, and a stranger leapt out and dashed up the steps, seizing her by the arm and dragging her down to his equipage.
She tried to scream, but the man clamped his hand over her mouth. She tried to bite him, but he had gloves on and she merely got a mouthful of leather.
That left her only one alternative. As he hauled her toward the carriage, she fumbled in her reticule for the knife she’d carried ever since that horrible night when Gregory had saved her.
She’d just managed to pull it free of its sheath and was lifting it to stab her assailant over her shoulder when a man came running up the street and cried, “Unhand her, you scoundrel!”
In a flash, her attacker thrust her at her rescuer, who unfortunately got the brunt of her blade when she fell into him, embedding her knife in his arm. As the brave man grunted in pain, the villain fled to his coach, which raced away.
Meanwhile, her rescuer was now cursing a blue streak as he jerked her blade free. She barely had time to register the dark red stain spreading over his coat sleeve before the light from the gas lamps fell full upon his face and she gasped.
“My word, Quinn!” Meriel cried.
Her panicked voice seeped into Quinn’s brain, despite the throb in his arm and the ringing in his ears. He swayed on the steps, and the blade he’d wrenched free fell from his hands.
“Are you all right?” Her face was drawn with contrition and worry. “Heavens, I didn’t mean to hurt you!”
“I figured as much,” he said through gritted teeth. “It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine!” She tried to examine his wound in the poor light. “I could have killed you!”
Yes. Though he probably would have deserved that, given that he’d plotted the fake abduction.
Bloody stupid idea that had been. But he’d been so angry about her canceling yet again that he’d felt he had to act. The plan had been to delay the Fulkham carriage so that his servant could drive up and attempt to carry her off. Then Quinn would gallantly come to her rescue.
He’d had some fool notion that it might make her consider him in a new light, showing her that he wasn’t the boring banker everyone portrayed him to be, that he could be just as gallant and brave as Fulkham. Then she would swoon in his arms, shower him with kisses, and be grateful to him for saving her.
He should have known better. Meriel never behaved according to plan.
But he hadn’t expected her to stab him, for God’s sake. Next time he plotted something like this, he should make sure she wasn’t armed. Not that there would be a next time. He wasn’t idiot enough to try this again.
“Come,” she said, slipping her slender arm about his waist. “We need to get you inside.”
Wonderful—now she thought him an invalid. As she tried to guide him up the steps, he muttered, “I can walk perfectly well, you know. I’m not wounded in the legs.”
“Yes, but you’re losing blood and you might faint.”
Which would really make him appear the fool. And now that she’d put the idea in his head . . .
Don’t faint, don’t faint, don’t faint, he chanted to himself.
“Which is why I need to get you inside where you can lie down,” she added. “I need to tend to that wound.”
Huh, that sounded promising. And he did rather enjoy having her supporting him. It might even be worth the searing pain in his arm.
If he didn’t bleed to death first. “Do you actually know anything about tending to a wound?”
“I know enough,” she said evasively.
There she went again, throwing out one of her usual enigmatic remarks. Would he ever parse out the mystery that was Meriel? Did he even want to? After all, what sort of woman carried a blade in her reticule?
But in for a penny, in for a pound. He might as well see this through. As long as she didn’t find out that the “abduction” was staged, he ought to be safe.
They’d reached the top of the steps, and the door swung open to reveal an alarmed servant, whose livery showed him to be a butler. “Madam, what the devil—”
“Nunley, this is Mr. Raines,” she said as she led Quinn inside. “He came to my rescue when a man tried to abduct me, and he got hurt as a result.”
Paling, the butler took her cloak from her. “I knew our carriage had been sabotaged. I was just coming to tell you when I saw that you’d gone out. Thank heaven you weren’t harmed.”
“Don’t thank heaven,” she said. “We have Mr. Raines to thank for that.”
Quinn fought a surge of annoyance at her speaking of him as if he were some stranger. Even now, she was reluctant to admit she knew him. It was what any respectable widow would do to preserve her reputation. Still, he’d had enough of sneaking around with her and pretending not to know her, when he yearned every moment of every day to make love to her.
“Shall I send for Dr. Worth?” the servant asked.
“No need,” Quinn said, determined to keep Meriel to himself as long as possible. “I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine.” She inclined her head toward the butler. “Unfortunately, Dr. Worth isn’t presently in town, and there’s no one else I trust. So fetch my apothecary box. I shall take care of Mr. Raines myself.”
The butler seemed not the least surprised by that, blandly saying, “Very well,” before heading off down the hall.
She led Quinn into a parlor and to a settee, which he practically fell onto. The damned arm really hurt now.
With the efficiency of a woman oddly comfortable with knife wounds, she peeled off his coat and waistcoat. “Lie down,” she ordered. “I need to elevate the arm.”
He did as she asked. Lying down was good. Very good. Though it would be better if she lay down with him.
She drew a footstool up to the settee, then pulled his arm up over his head and pressed hard on his wound.
Fire streaked through him. “What the hell are you doing!”
“I have to stop the bleeding,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Well then,” he gritted out, “carry on. Can’t have me expiring in your parlor.”
Regret suffused her face. “Honestly, Quinn, if I’d had any idea you were nearby, I would never have drawn my—” She paused. “Why were you nearby, anyway?”
His stomach lurched. Another way in which he hadn’t really thought this plan through. “Does it matter? If I hadn’t shown up when I did . . .”
“Of course I’m grateful, but it’s odd that you just happened along after I told you I couldn’t see you tonight. Didn’t you get my note?”
“I did. That’s why I rushed over, hoping to catch you before you left for your ‘other engagement.’?”
“Ah.” Her face cleared. “So it was you I spotted outside before that villain’s coach pulled up.”
She’d seen him? Hell and be damned. “Er . . . yes, I suppose.” Best to gloss over that before she figured things out. “So, do you always have a knife with you?”
She stared grimly at his arm. “Yes.”
“So all those times you and I were entwined in the dark, you—”
“Yes, yes!” she said, a hint of desperation in her tone. “Now be quiet and conserve your energy until I can get the bleeding to stop.”
He was beginning to feel a bit light-headed, but that had nothing to do with loss of blood. He always felt light-headed around Meriel.
But why? She wasn’t rich or of high rank, the two qualities everyone seemed to think essential for his potential spouse. And she had no facility for mathematics whatsoever, which, as a banker, he considered a deficit in anyone.
No one would call her a beauty, since her features were slightly irregular, making her more arresting than handsome. Some would even call her plump, though he preferred a bit of flesh on women, so that didn’t bother him.
Yet somehow she’d crept under his defenses, with her sandy curls and her gray eyes and her lush mouth that sent his pulse hammering whenever she flashed him her Mona Lisa smile. She was clever and witty and bold, a combination he found utterly intoxicating.
Just then, the butler came in bearing a huge chest and set it on the floor in front of her. He glanced at Quinn’s bloodied shirt and turned ashen. “Do you wish me to help you . . . er . . .”
“No need, Nunley,” she said. “I know what the sight of blood does to you. I have matters under control.”
“Excellent.” He averted his gaze from Quinn. “Though I would feel better if we could catch the villain who did this.”
And Quinn would feel better if they couldn’t. “The fellow is long gone, I’m afraid.”
“Did you see his face? Recognize the carriage? Anything?” Meriel asked.
“No,” Quinn said. “It all happened so fast.”
“I suppose the master wouldn’t want the police involved,” the butler said.
“No,” she said.
That was strange. Granted, Quinn was happy she wasn’t going to the police, but he would think that an abduction would generally warrant such a thing.
“Only Gregory will know how to find the villain, since he’s the one who might know why it happened,” she said, “but he’s not returning until very late.” She let out a heavy breath as she opened the chest to reveal a number of suspicious bottles and nasty-looking implements. “Oh, well, it can’t be helped. I’m sure Mr. Raines won’t mind returning in the morning to answer Gregory’s questions. He may have noticed more than he realizes.”
Wonderful. Now he’d have to lie to Fulkham, too. Then again, that would give him an excuse for hanging about tonight. “If you wish, I can stay until Lord Fulkham returns. You don’t want the villain to escape because we waited until morning.”
“Yes, that would be best.” Meriel glanced up at the butler. “Be sure to send Gregory in when he gets home, whenever that may be.” She met Quinn’s gaze. “I’m happy to look after my rescuer until then.”
Nunley got an odd expression on his face. “Of course, madam.” He headed for the door.
“Oh, and Nunley?” When the servant looked at her, she blushed inexplicably. “If you would just close the door on your way out . . .”
His lips tightened into a line, but he nodded and did as she asked.
That cheered Quinn. She’d made it so they could be alone and private, which proved he still had a chance with her. Between that and her blush, things were looking up.
With a certain softness in her eyes, she stopped pushing on his arm. “I think you’re no longer bleeding.” She removed a pair of scissors from her apothecary chest and proceeded to cut off his shirt.
“I knew you were eager for me,” he teased as she bared him from waist to neck, “but this is taking matters a bit far, don’t you think?”
“How can you joke?” With worry beetling her brow, she surveyed his arm. “You’re hurt, and it’s all my fault.”
Guilt choked him. “Not all your fault. The villain pushing you into me had something to do with it.”
“And that’s my fault, too.” She pulled a bottle out and poured some liquid from it onto a cloth, then leaned over him to dab at his wound.
“How so?” he ground out as the fluid against raw flesh burned.
“He was trying to abduct me,” she said, gently cleansing the wound with what smelled like alcohol. “No doubt to keep me from attending the ball tonight.”
Uh-oh. That was uncomfortably close to the truth, although Quinn hadn’t known she was going to a ball. “And . . . er . . . why should someone want to keep you from attending such a thing?”
She wouldn’t look at him. “I can’t talk about it.”
That utterly flummoxed him. “Why not?” Unless it was just as he’d guessed. She’d been going to be with “Gregory.” Again. “Were you supposed to meet Fulkham there?” Are you in love with your brother-in-law? His growing suspicion closed a fist about his heart.
“What?” she said, sounding truly surprised. “Certainly not. Why would you think that?”
“Well, you said he’d be out very late, and I thought perhaps you knew that because you were supposed to join him.” A hollow hurt settled in his gut. “When you cancel plans with me, it’s generally because of him.”
Her face closed up. “Your wound isn’t as bad as I feared, but it’s deep enough that I ought to stitch it up so it will heal properly.”
All thoughts of Fulkham flew right out of his head as she drew some thread and a needle out of her chest of horrors.
Not liking being at a disadvantage, he sat up, then clamped his hand over his arm. “You are not going to practice your embroidery skills on me.”
She ignored him and threaded the needle. “Don’t be so skittish. I’ve done this before.”
“What, sewn up wounds?” When she nodded, he said, “Who the hell are you? What sort of gently bred woman carries a knife and knows how to sew up a wound?”
Her lips thinned. “It’s complicated.”
“Clearly. So do me the favor of uncomplicating it by explaining.”
“I told you—I can’t,” she said, clearly exasperated.
“Then I’m not letting you anywhere near my arm with that needle.”
“Fine,” she snapped. “Wait until you can see a doctor. Get an infection. What do I care?”
“Obviously not enough to let me know anything about your past. Not enough to tell me your hopes for the future.” His throat tightened. He took a chance and said the words he’d been suppressing for weeks. “Not enough to be honest and tell me why every time I bring up marriage, you change the subject.”
Her face fell. “Oh, Quinn . . .” She appeared to be debating something. Then she dragged in a heavy breath. “Let me stitch up your wound, and I swear I’ll tell you as much as I dare.”
Dare? That sounded ominous. But he couldn’t go on like this. It was turning him into a blithering fool, and he wasn’t used to feeling that way.
He uncovered his wound. “Thank you.”
She rose and walked over to a decanter. Pouring a generous portion of brandy, she returned to his side with the glass. “Here, you may need this,” she said as she held it out to him.
“You’re damned right I will.” To soften the pain of being used as a pincushion, and to soften the blow of whatever she was about to say.
God rot it. He downed the contents in one long swallow, relishing the burn. At least he could be drunk while she dashed all his hopes.
Looking a bit nervous, she sat down and took his arm in her hand. “Your wound really isn’t so bad. It’ll take two, three stitches at the most.”
“Just get it over with,” he growled.
She stuck the needle in him.
“Mother of God and all that’s holy,” he hissed through his teeth. “Are you sure you’ve done this before?”
“My husband was in the army,” she said. “So yes. A few times.”
Right. He’d forgotten that Vyse had been an army lieutenant. “But that was long after the war was over. How did he get wounded?”
“Doing things he shouldn’t.”
She stuck him again, but by now the brandy had begun to take effect and he felt marginally less pain.
“Like what?” he asked, to keep his mind off it. “Dueling? Getting into fights? Stumbling about drunk and running into things?”
“More like throwing himself willy-nilly into anything that smacked of danger.” Her mouth formed a grim line as she tied off the thread. “Don’t get me wrong. He was a good man, my husband. But he would take on any mission, no matter how risky, just for the thrill of it. In the year we were married, I spent half my nights alone, terrified of what might happen to him.”
“I thought women liked daring men.” Men like Fulkham.
“I suppose some do.” She bit off the thread, then drew out a bandage to wrap around his arm. “Personally, I’d rather have a man with less appetite for adventure.”
Intriguing. “But you were in love with your husband, I assume.”
Guilt flashed over her face. “Not exactly. I mean, I liked him. He was a fine gentleman and we were good friends. Close friends, even.”
“Who shared a bed,” he said thickly.
“Yes.” She concentrated on winding the bandage about his arm, though her cheeks grew decidedly pink. “We were married, after all. But he’s been dead awhile now. I’m ready to . . . to . . .”
“Marry again?” he prodded. When she didn’t answer, pain clogged his throat. “Just not to marry me.”
She sighed. “It isn’t that simple.”
Right. “I understand. You’ve set your sights higher.” On Fulkham, just as he’d feared. “You don’t want some lowly banker who deals with numbers all day, like a clerk—”
“A clerk?” She snorted as she tied off the bandage. “I doubt that any clerk makes as much money as the director of Raines Bank.”
Well, at least she’d noticed his financial state. “Still, I’m in trade. I’m not a titled lord.”
That response would have relieved him, except it made other possible reasons for her reluctance loom larger. “And I’m not the handsomest of men—”
“If you were any more handsome, you’d be the death of me,” she muttered, dropping her hand down to rest on his naked chest.
Turning to face her, he took in the sight of her alabaster hand against his swarthy skin, and his pulse thundered. “So my Spanish blood isn’t what bothers you.”
“Of course not. Why would it?”
“Because it reveals, more than anything else, that I’m not a typical Englishman.”
“You certainly aren’t—not in any way.” Her soft smile spiked need in the pit of his stomach. “And that’s precisely what appeals to me. You don’t look down on those beneath you; you reason through things rather than taking what the government says at face value; and you’re steady as an oak.”
“Yet you consistently avoid any talk of a marriage between us.” When she said nothing more, a curse escaped him. “I’m running out of reasons for that, Meriel. If it’s not what I do or who I am or how I look, then what is it? Unless . . .”
“Unless what?” She smoothed her other hand over his chest, and he lost his train of thought as his cock stirred in his trousers.
He stared into her lovely eyes, the exact hue of rain-drenched slate. She’d never touched him so intimately before. Why was she doing so now?
To distract him. To keep him from pressing this issue.
Well, he was done with her avoidance. “Unless . . . you’re in love with someone else.”
She gaped at him. “Who the devil would I be in love with?”
He would take comfort in her clear surprise, except it might only mean she hadn’t yet acknowledged to herself how she felt. He’d have to force her to do so. He had to know.
Just tell her you love her.
And have her pity him for it if she loved someone else? No thank you.
“Quinn, answer me! Whom do you think I love?”
He braced himself. “Fulkham.”