Society knows Lilly Clarence Hampton as a respected widow who was wildly in love with her husband, the architect of London's famed Crystal Palace. The truth. . .well, the truth would cost Lilly her reputation, her freedom, and quite possibly her life. And one man has uncovered it--the reclusive, savagely handsome Julian St. Martin.
A former agent of the Crown, Julian intends to blackmail Lilly to obtain plans to the Palace, where the Koh-I-Noor--the largest diamond in the world--will be presented to Queen Victoria at the Great Exhibition. Men have committed all manner of crimes to possess the fabled gem, but Julian's intentions are even darker. And the closer he gets to the beguiling Lilly, the more complicated matters become.
Succumbing to intense, primal desire, Julian and Lilly both become pawns in a wicked game where no one can be trusted, and where the final, shocking truth will test their newfound passion to the limit. . .
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About the Author
Before becoming a novelist, Charlotte Mede worked in advertising and marketing in North America and Europe. Currently, she lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband. If there's one thing she loves more than escaping into a good book, it's writing one.
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By CHARLOTTE MEDE
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One London, 1851
I sambard Kingdom Bellamy bit the inside of his cheek and tasted blood.
By the cold grate, eyes wide with fear, a young woman-hands, feet, and mouth bound-struggled like a trussed chicken. Her cap and soot-stained gown, the petticoats ripped in a brief but desperate scuffle, revealed her to be a scullery maid. The upturned nose and the plump cheeks were wet with panicked tears.
Bellamy bit down harder, savoring the metallic taste flooding his mouth. She would cry, then whimper before realization dawned that it was truly too late. His lips twitched beneath his luxuriant mustache. If Vesper really could make good on his promises, it would all be over too soon.
Dr. Aubrey Vesper stood with his hands tightly clasped behind his back, gaslight glancing off his wire spectacles. He was of slight build with the air of a scholar, the tightness in his narrow shoulders evidence of his unease with the sumptuousness of the salon. His reddish hair brushed back from a high forehead, he contemplated neither the quivering mass of muffled sobs by the fireplace, nor Bellamy. It was the figure directly across from him who held his attention.
Well over six feet of lean muscle, the man in Vesper's view sat insensate and passive as a string puppet, staring off into some unknown horizon. Despite-or perhaps because of-his preternatural stillness he was an arresting sight, Bellamy thought, following the doctor's gaze. He watched as Vesper took a step back to better study the relaxed features of his patient.
"You are remarkably certain that you can bend our guest here to your will?" Bellamy's challenge rang in the darkened shadows of the opulent drawing room of his Hampstead Heath mansion as he took stock of the physical specimen in question. A clock somewhere in the caverns of the house chimed midnight, punctuating the unusual stillness of the room.
"There is no doubt in my mind, sir." Vesper's voice was soothing in its professorial blandness. "He may appear to be a strong individual," he continued, his gaze glancing over the broad shoulders and long legs sprawled casually against the brocade settee. "But corporal evidence can be misleading."
"Given his history ..." Bellamy didn't finish the sentence, thinking it both unwise and unnecessary at the moment. Instead, he stroked the silk of his mustache while eyeing the so-called doctor, noting his carefully erect posture. He could trust Vesper. Most certainly. He'd paid enough for his loyalty-and money did go far, that much life had taught him. And there were supplementary inducements, if required. Vesper's weaknesses, the result of a life carelessly lived in exotic places, were Bellamy's gain.
Bellamy understood weakness-he could smell it like a fox circling its prey. He liked to consider it an inherited talent, not that he thought often of his own desperate beginnings in the gutters of East London. Certainly his splendid house spoke otherwise, a direct rebuke to his humble origins. The acres of marble, the vast conservatory, the gilded music room that never heard a note. Waldegrave Hall was a pastiche of manorial Gothic, and no expense had been spared from the square-headed windows with double transoms and mullions of stone to the raised roofs and chimney staffs arranged in symmetrical stacks at each end of the building.
His money, and there was plenty of it, permitted every possible caprice and excess.
The whimpering behind him ratcheted up a degree, operatic to his ear. He permitted himself a careless glance over his shoulder to the huddled figure made small against the baronial splendor of the oversized fireplace. Soon the feminine sniveling would turn into outright hysteria, that last burst of energy that warred with the dimming of the light. Poetic bullshit. He'd seen rats struggle with more conviction than that ridiculous slattern.
He knew struggle, real struggle, the kind that burned acid deep in the belly. It was a corrosive appetite that had made him the major stockholder in the British East India Company, a mogul, a potentate in his own right, recognized by all who had both profited and lost by his efforts. That scullery maid quaking in the corner was hardly worth his attention, dead or alive. He commanded an empire, a vast commercial enterprise that ensured the sun never set on England. Not that the poor excuse for leadership, that squat little queen and her effete consort, would ever admit it.
The taste of blood on his tongue was dissipating. Alas. He smiled coldly at the doctor, watching as he extracted a silver watch on a chain from his vest pocket. He dangled it steadily, like a metronome going through its paces, in front of the heavy lidded eyes of the man who would see the British Empire undone but who at the moment seemed little more than a corpse, his breathing shallow, his arms slung untroubled over the arms of his chair.
Bellamy was bored, a feeling he had no taste for at all. The proceedings were becoming decidedly tedious. "What about this John Elliotson at University College London," he began sulkily, before settling himself into the wide berth of a rosewood balloon-back chair. "He was disbarred from the medical profession as a direct result of his demonstrations of animal magnetism."
Unlike Bellamy's servants in India, slavish and devoted to the end, this London doctor needed testing, and his reaction just might provide a mildly diverting sideshow. Bellamy scooped up an elegantly carved chess piece from the board displayed handsomely on the side table at his elbow, turning it thoughtfully in his broad hands. "I'm intimating that your approach is hardly original, Vesper. After all, wasn't it James Braid who discovered that his subjects could go into a trance if they simply fixated their eyes on a bright object? An object like a silver watch, perhaps?"
The doctor didn't turn away from his task, the watch firm in his slender hands despite the acid lacing Bellamy's words. Only the slight tightening of his shoulders revealed his disquiet at the challenge to his reputation. "Hypnosis is a component of medical science, a rigorous discipline. I'm not quite certain what you're expecting, sir, but I assure you this will not devolve into a tea party séance." He continued to swing the watch, from right to left, from left to right, in perfect metered arcs in front of the seated man's impassive face. "I explained to you from the outset, if you'll recall, that hypnotism is a neurophysiological process wherein a subject's attention is focused upon the suggestions made by the hypnotist."
"Ah, yes, the great god of science. I do so await with interest." Bellamy infused the statement with the right dose of ennui and double entendre. "Our association has been a long and profitable one for you, after all." It wouldn't hurt to remind Vesper of the largely transactional nature of their relationship. As for his other promises, they could easily be reconsidered.
The doctor continued to dangle the watch in front of the seated man's comatose gaze. Whether Vesper was thinking of India, his past, or his regrets, Bellamy could afford not to care. Instead, he spent the moment in private consideration of his perfect future, unfolding as it should thanks to the predator he was grooming like a hawk before the kill. Indulging in the reverie, he found himself unprepared for the doctor's next words, which caught him broadside.
"Why this man in particular?"
The audacity of the question was breathtaking and correspondingly, Bellamy's estimation of the doctor-never high to begin with-decreased fractionally. He caressed the fine elephant ivory in his hands before crossing one leg over the other, and said consideringly, "I don't pay you to make these types of queries, now do I, Vesper? Because what I do with this man at present, in this room, or later elsewhere falls entirely to my discretion and mine alone."
How calm Bellamy sounded, even to his own ears, when what he really wanted to do was kick the little bastard in the kidneys-is what he wanted to do. These middle-class snivelers, almost worse than the aristocracy, with their affectations and absurd sensitivities. His fingers tightened around the smooth ivory chess piece. For a moment, he considered giving in to his irritation. But then again-his eyes narrowed to take in his hawk held in Vesper's thrall.
A restrained cough from the doctor. "I didn't intend to be forward, sir, with my inquiries," he said. "It's simply that such delicate treatments require some sort of foundational underpinnings, the patient's history, for example, and not knowing very many details ..." Vesper rambled and then stopped his rush of words along with the motion of the watch in midair with a tightly closed fist.
The figure remained immobile in his chair, oblivious to his role as the focus of the proceedings. As if to assure himself that he still had his patient under his control, Vesper peered intensely through his spectacles before taking them off and holding them up to the gaslight, as though inspecting for smudges that might impair his judgment. Finding none, he carefully donned them again, smoothing back his hair and his composure. "Very well then, sir. I am confident that he is properly primed and that we are prepared to begin." The words were neutral, the disquiet stored away in another place for another time. "I shall demonstrate."
"Really?" Anticipation rose in Bellamy's chest like heat from the Rajasthan desert. He leaned back in his chair. "You're ready, are you? But upon consideration, I don't think I'm quite prepared to proceed at this time after all." It amused him to keep the good doctor off balance. Besides which he knew it would be better if he could draw out the situation at least to some degree, like rubbing salt in a fresh wound. Because the little chambermaid snuffling in the corner like a truffle pig wasn't nearly as diverting as he'd hoped she'd be. Many years ago she, or many others like her, would have been cause for excitement. But he required more these days. Much more.
Vesper did a quarter turn to look at him with an expression Bellamy had seen before. Not relief at the thought of reprieve, but a combination of greed and self-loathing. Nothing new under the bloody sun, after all. Bellamy smiled benignly and glanced down at his hands holding the chess piece before returning it to its place. "So if we may digress for a moment, doctor, with your permission of course," he said with a disingenuousness that was almost convincing. He jutted his chin toward the chessboard at his elbow. "I can see that you're marveling over this wonderful East India chess set."
The doctor clutched the timepiece in his right hand, rooted to the spot, half his face in shadows cast by the gaslight, his confusion plain. "A thing of great beauty to be sure, but what of it, sir?"
Bellamy returned the watchful gaze. The set was carved from elephant ivory by craftsmen in Berhampore, northeast India, for wealthy officers, aristocrats, and politicians to take home as luxury souvenirs. One side wore East India Company livery, and the opposing pieces were depicted in Indian costume.
"One of my favored pastimes is chess, that game of strategy, as I'm certain you already know," Bellamy continued mildly and as if they were meeting over drinks at the club on a sultry summer's day and not in a darkened room, heavy drapes drawn against prying eyes. "A fundamental tactic is to capture the opponent's pieces while preserving one's own." He'd come to the game of strategy late in life, and as a man more accustomed to backstabbing and lynching in back alleyways as opposed to the subtleties of chess, something Vesper probably suspected. And feared.
The doctor glanced at the chessboard, carefully calibrating the mood in the salon, well aware who was paying his fare along the way. His expression was shuttered, the glass of his spectacles reflecting the gaslight and nothing more. "The queen is quite impressive," he said perfunctorily.
"But not as impressive as these two intricately carved juggernauts pulled by these oxen right here," said Bellamy, deliberately pedantic now. "Their role is not exactly known except that they relate to an old Indian custom in which pilgrims would throw themselves under the vehicle of the juggernaut idol to be crushed, thus releasing their souls." He asked casually, "Do you believe in the soul?"
Vesper said nothing.
"Neither do I." Bellamy looked past the doctor and to the man who remained immobile across from them. He hadn't moved, and appeared as though made of plaster, except for the barely perceptible rise and fall of his chest. "Nor do I believe in the power of the queen," he added, turning back to the chessboard and picking up the large white piece at its center. "Chess is all about middlegames and endgames. And if one is clever, the queen merely becomes a pawn that is easily captured and eliminated."
He tossed the piece carelessly to one side and rose from his chair, his extemporaneous lecture quite finished. "Thank you for indulging me, doctor, and now that we understand each other, let's see what magic you have wrought here." He smiled tightly. "Not that I am discounting the scientific nature of your enterprise, of course." And as if it had just suddenly occurred to him, Bellamy twisted around in the chair to gesture over his shoulder to the serving maid, who had stopped her keening.
"The little slut believes that if she's quiet enough, we may just forget about her," he said with bemusement. "She will learn differently in a few minutes, if your experiment proves successful. Which I trust it will, given the amount of sterling I've poured into your coffers of late," he added with enough casualness to emphasize the threat in his statement. "And that other matter you would prefer that I attend to ..."
For the first time that evening, Vesper turned to face Bellamy directly, demonstrating that a man could hide from many things but not from himself. Shame warred with survival and, not that he was a gambling man, Bellamy predicted which side would win out.
"It is a most unfortunate situation."
"Indeed. Your unnecessary anguish makes it doubly so, Vesper."
"However, you may rest assured that I am grateful for your assistance and as such will endeavor to successfully conclude our dealings together." Vesper marshaled his credentials, in the event additional evidence of his worthiness was required. "As you know, although I believe it is worth reiteration, I have studied with Hippolyte Bernheim at the University of Nancy," he said. "And, as a result, I have every confidence the outcome here this evening will meet with your approval. As for the gentleman here"-he took a step back to take careful note of the strong but drawn features of his patient-"he is a curious subject, for many reasons which, as you intimated earlier, we needn't explore at the moment."
"I'm well aware of the curious nature of our subject. You have no idea how well aware," Bellamy said. He rose from his chair and sauntered to the opposite side of the room, positioning himself at an optimum vantage point to frame both their subject and the serving maid. From the periphery of his vision, he could see the mass of rags by the cold grate.
"The slut here has calmed down, so that should make things marginally easier for you." He cast the huddled form a contemptuous glance. A man should be able to expect some sport and he felt disappointingly calm. "Carry on," he directed Vesper with the crisp snap of his fingertips.
The doctor seemed to have recovered his confidence, having wrestled his conscience to the ground, but still studiously ignored the servant girl. From the first, Bellamy recalled with rising irritation, Vesper had refused to acknowledge the slattern in the corner.
"So what's your first trick?" Bellamy's insult was well aimed and timed. He tightened his cravat and his conviction to do absolutely nothing to salve the physician's no doubt unruly principles.
Averting his gaze and ignoring the taunt, the younger man slipped the timepiece back into the pocket of his jacket. "He's under my suggestion at the moment." Then he straightened to his full height, hands behind his back, good soldier he was. "However you would like to proceed, only say."
"No tea party tricks. Your idea, not mine, as you'll recall."
Vesper gave a tight nod.
Bellamy's pulse quickened. His eyes locked on the somnolent man in the chair. Brought to life, he knew exactly how dangerous-and skilled-the man could be. Bellamy shoved a finger into his high cravat to loosen the fabric. "The ultimate of course," he drawled.
Vesper, the limp coward, pretended not to understand. "You intend to have him assault her." He punctuated the statement by smoothing back his hair with surprisingly steady hands, again refusing to glance at the woman in question. Whether he was playing for time or genuinely perplexed was difficult to tell.
Excerpted from Dangerous Games by CHARLOTTE MEDE Copyright © 2009 by Charlotte Mede. Excerpted by permission.
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