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Lady of Intrigue
A Group of Eight Novel
By Sabrina Darby, Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Sabrina Darby
All rights reserved.
"Asked for milk," Lady Jane Langley said, stifling a yawn as they began another round of The Minister's Cat. They had already gone through the entire alphabet once using adjectives as per the rules of the simple game and thus had moved on to verbs.
"Batted yarn," Lady Powell said. "And he's asleep." Lord Powell punctuated his wife's observation with an indelicate snore.
As a child accompanying her father on his frequent travels around England, Jane would bring stacks of books and happily pass hours immersed in some work by Voltaire or Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy. In recent years she had lost the fortitude of those early days and could no longer read in a moving vehicle without suffering from nausea, which was why Jane had jumped at the opportunity at the last inn to switch carriages and leave Mr. and Mrs. Brumble and Sir Joseph Grimsby behind for a few hours in order to travel with two of London's wittiest members of society. However, there had been the weight of tension in the air all morning, as if she had caught the couple mid-argument. And it was clear from the way Lady Powell leaned forward, her eyes sharp and her smile sly, that she was happy her husband was no longer listening.
"What do you think of Alistair Whitley?"
The tall, thin, red-headed man, the third son of Baron Sloane, was a clerk with the foreign office and, as best as Jane knew, was already in Vienna with the British delegation. She'd met him at dinner parties and soirees, but as a junior clerk he worked long hours and was not as much in society as others.
"Serious, keeps his opinions to himself," Jane said. She thought the tactic a wise one, gave the man a chance to get his footing in the political world and gain supporters before seeking greater positions in government, as he surely would.
"Yes, he has a very attractive silence," Lady Powell said. "And all that red hair. I've always been partial to men with red hair. Or hair, for that matter." She slid a scathing look at her husband who had lost much of his hair at least a decade ago, despite being not more than forty. "His height is appealing as well. When men are that tall, they tend to do the most adorable knock-legged thing in order to kiss."
Jane raised an eyebrow. She hadn't yet observed that particular phenomenon.
"I think he shall make a very good lover. Mark my words, Lady Jane. Young men are the best. They can be trained."
Jane coughed and then gave in to her shocked laughter. "Very kind advice."
"Do not judge me too fast," Lady Powell said. "My husband's current mistress will be in Vienna, and his mistress before that as well. He thinks I am unaware but it isn't as if I care. I am happy to have my own delicious pursuits."
Jane glanced at Lord Powell. Still sleeping. "Your marriage is hardly my concern."
"No, it is not. I assume you plan to marry soon. If you do not, let me impart another bit of advice. Do not let yourself become a spinster assisting your father forever. When he dies and you are old, then you shall have wasted your life."
Jane couldn't speak, couldn't force any sort of laughter. She was traveling to Vienna to join her father and act as his factotum, as she had for years. He trusted her far more than he trusted his secretary, or any man he employed. She would have accompanied him a week earlier when he traveled with the initial British delegation, but as a female there were social obligations one must attend to that men could so easily put aside. Her cousin's wife had requested her company for her lying in and Jane could hardly refuse a direct plea in favor of matters of state. No one would ever allow such an excuse to a female.
Jane was no Mary Wollstonecraft, chafing against the bit of a male-dominated society. She had enough of a grasp of history to understand that the rights and freedoms of women in civilization had had its ups and downs and that this period was neither the most liberating nor the most constricted. If anything, Jane was fundamentally practical. She prided herself on that quality. It was what made her the most useful to her father. Yet, Lady Powell's bits of advice all pointed to the unfairness of a society in which a woman's value was dependent nearly entirely on her usefulness or attractiveness to a man.
The carriage listed and Jane fell to the side, slamming into the door. Her stomach and heart lurched as well.
"What the —?" Lord Powell sputtered from the floor where he'd fallen upon her legs. Lady Powell, too, lay sprawled across the carriage in a tangle of limbs. As the carriage righted itself, so did its occupants.
Powell rapped on the roof. "If that damn driver fell asleep at the reins, I'll have his neck."
The carriage picked up speed, charging over the road in uncomfortable jolts.
"Perhaps he's dead already," Lady Powell said acerbically, even as she tried to stay in her seat.
Asleep, dead or drunk, Jane didn't care. She simply wanted the carriage to stop or she'd soon be sick all over it.
It stopped with an explosion of wood and fabric, and Jane's head slammed back against her seat. She looked up at the blue sky, at flying pieces of wood, and then, fear coursing through her, she fell forward, hands flailing, reaching for purchase, finding wood that collapsed beneath her hands as she collapsed. She breathed in the heavy scent of earth and varnish and horse before something fell on top of her and her world turned to black. She wasn't dead; there was far toomuch pain for this to be death. As she struggled to open her eyes, she heard voices and opened her mouth to cry for help, but she choked on the sound as her visionfocused.
On the angel of death bending over Lord Powell, whose face was frozen into a mask of fear.
Was she next? Nausea clenched her stomach and she struggled to swallow down the acrid taste of her fear. With the sickening crack of Lord Powell's neck, Jane realized two things. One, surviving the carriage accident might not mean she would survive this. Two, the accident was no accident. She did not want to die like Lord Powell. She did not want to die at all. With effort, her gaze swept the area, searching for help, and then lingered on a horse that huffed and squealed as it struggled to stand, and beside it the soles of Lady Powell's green brocade shoes. The woman's body was eerily still.
The carriage carrying their servants and luggage was far ahead of them but the carriage carrying Mr. and Mrs. Brumble and Sir Joseph Grimsby was perhaps only an hour or two behind, if they had not stopped again. Not close enough to save her if she was marked for death. Desperation welled up in her strongly, froth upon the waves of pain and nausea. She could not give in to weakness. If ever she had needed clarity of mind, it was now.
If she were already dead, there would be no one to kill. She shut her eyes and slowed her breath as best as she could, but there was a raspy, rattling quality to each inhale that felt as loud as thunder in the perfect September day. Do not look at Death. Do not look at him. Do not move. She thought the commandments in the precise enunciations of her last governess. Perhaps if she had kept to her original seatmates, instead of leaping to join the Powells at the first chance, she would then be the one to soon gasp over the wreckage of the carriage, to cry over the lost friends, to think it all such a horrible accident.
Her breath sounded so loud that she almost missed the whisper of cloth against cloth, the scruff of boots treading upon packed earth. He was coming for her. But why? This shadow of a man could steal her valuables without murder.
"I know you are conscious," that rough voice said, first in French, then in crisp English.
His words gave her hope. Why speak to her if he intended to kill her? She opened her eyes and the brilliantly clear blue sky pained her. She parted her lips to speak, to say anything that would fight off this murderer. She fluttered the fingers of her right hand but could not move the appendage more than that. Something pinned her arm down. Then he was over her, suffocating her nearly with his body looming so, his dark hair a curtain against the sun. He looked familiar, but she was certain she had never before seen this man. A shadow of hair lined his jaw in a swarthy streak. The darkest eyes she had ever seen met hers. He took her breath away. The pain ebbed under the force of his gaze.
"What is your name?"
Perhaps this was death, or the moment before death, this floating, this being held up by one man's eyes, one man's will. She blinked, found it within herself to remember the pain. Where there was pain, there was life. She had learned that truth at a much younger age. But Lady Jane Langley lived in stately homes, intellectual salons, and crowded ballrooms. In this moment there was nothing to tie her to that girl. She was simply a woman struggling to stay alive. Shakily, she asked, "What name should I give you so you won't kill me, too?"
That look in her eyes — it made Gerard uncomfortable in a way he hadn't been in years, not since his first kill. This woman with her too pale face, her long English nose, even as she lay there bleeding and trapped under the wreckage of the carriage, stared at him with such an awareness of him. The way a lover looked after months, not moments.
That knowing cut him to the quick, made him wish she hadn't witnessed this final act of murder, because he would remember this look. Perhaps he could leave death behind, but still her eyes would haunt him. She was not Lady Powell — he had spotted her moments ago. This was an unexpected occupant, a slight wrinkle in the plans. Was she embroiled in Powell's secret life or was she as ignorant of it as he suspected Lady Powell to be? To make certain that Powell's death would not create an international incident, at least publicly, beyond the scope of Gerard's job, he carefully chose the manner of death and its location, on the border of Nassau and Hesse. But this unknown woman's disappearance ... all his research and planning was undone by her existence. She had witnessed him ensure Powell was no more.
Gerard reached for the woman's face, grasping her neck in one hand, her cheek, and the curve of her jaw in the other. Strands of fine, light brown hair slid over his fingers. With one firm movement she would be gone, that wary, challenging expression in her shockingly light, clear blue eyes extinguished forever. Under his fingers the skin was silky, soft, delicate. But she still watched him steadily, and he knew beneath the exterior, she was not delicate.
Her blood was seeping onto his trousers.
Nausea roiled through his stomach. That sensation, too, was one he hadn't experienced in years. He had become inured to death. Yet here he was quailing at the act when it was the only reasonable solution to an unexpected wrinkle in his plans. But he no longer wished to be the servant of death, especially not on a distasteful job he felt obligated to do.
When he had found Lady Powell lying several lengths away, assessed her injuries and determined that she was unconscious, he had felt a glimmer of satisfaction. She had witnessed nothing, and as far as he knew was not involved in the matter that had imperiled her husband. As a result, he had no wish to kill her if he need not, and her lack of consciousness allowed him to offer her mercy.
It was not the same for this unknown woman before him. She knew the wreck was no accident and thus there were only two options: he could kill her or take her with him.
And that last option didn't make any sense.
He removed his hands from her neck, pushed aside the wood that kept her pinned down, the glass that had cut her legs, arms, and cheek. He lifted her then, felt her muscles tense with pain, knew the moment that she passed out in his arms and that the burden of her unconscious body was completely his. He was a fool for what he was about to do.CHAPTER 2
She was cold. She turned to her side to curl up. Pain flared at the attempt. It was everywhere, like the licking flames of hell. But she was still alive, and the pain that seemed to be all consuming was not. Mostly, there was a bone-crushing ache in her shoulder, a stinging in the vicinity of her chest, and a deep, aching pain in her leg.
She had been in an accident. She shuddered, reliving the jarring force of the crash of the carriage. The screams of the horses, of her companions. Her own screams.
The sound of death.
Her eyes snapped open as fear made her body rigid. Where was she and where was he? In the flickering candlelight, she could see the outline of a male form leaning against the wall, knees drawn up to his chest. Recognition knifed through her at the silhouette of his profile. She breathed in deeply and pushed the useless fear back, forced herself to take stock.
She was alive. She was naked but for a blanket and though her entire body ached and stung, she had the sense that not only had he let her live, he had tended to her. In the darkness she could not make out much of her surroundings, but there was a wall to her left and a bed beneath her.
He had taken her prisoner.
Had this all been about her? Was she being held for ransom? And if so, why?
His head turned and fear coursed through her body as his dark gaze met hers.
"You are awake." He pushed himself up off the floor and stood up. He grew larger in her vision and then, half illuminated by the candle, loomed over her. The shadow of hair at the line of his jaw was more pronounced. How long had she lain there?
"Who —" Jane stopped, swallowed, and tried to wet the desert of her throat. "Who are you?"
He pulled back the blanket to study her body, and though it was her body he bared, she felt infinitely more naked, as if he were stripping away from her everything she had ever known. His hands pressed lightly here and there, and each place where he touched flared to life with renewed pain.
"How badly am I injured?" She forced the words out between her swollen, cracked lips.
He pulled the cover back up and, perversely, she started to shiver.
"Your arm was dislocated. I reset it. It has started to swell but should heal. The rest of your body is mottled with bruises from collarbone to knee." Each word seemed to pierce the corresponding wound with fresh pain. "There is a deep gash on your leg that is stitched shut and, as yet, heals well. Inside? I cannot tell." He finished his litany, his eyes never once straying from her face.
He had tended to her injuries. Was that the action of a man who intended to kill her? Ransom, then. But again, why? Lord and Lady Powell were worth as much as the Langleys. Political secrets, then? Was there some information about the congress at Vienna that he wanted from her father?
Who are you? That question he had not yet answered, but he didn't need to answer for her to understand that he was an assassin.
She closed her eyes against his gaze, against dark eyes that revealed nothing even as they seemed to see into her, to know her in a way no one else had ever come close. Yet that was impossible, a fancy born of pain. How could an assassin look at her that way?
"Perhaps you will be able to give more information."
Was that why he had let her live? He wished to interrogate her? Should she admit she could not have any knowledge he sought? What answer would keep her alive? She opened her eyes again, met his curious gaze.
"Do you feel pain inside?"
Shock warred with relief as she realized he referred to her body. "I cannot distinguish between the sensations yet."
He made a small sound of acknowledgment.
"Come. Let me help you sit, and you may drink some water."
She watched him cross the room — the remnants of a rough, peasant sort of dwelling — and retrieve a full leather water bag. She struggled to move but found her limbs ridiculously weak. But he was at her side again, sitting beside her and lifting her with shocking gentleness. Pain and his heat burned through her. Cradled in his arms, she opened her mouth at the touch of the sweet water against her lips. She swallowed the liquid down, her thirst reborn with each new taste.
"Thank you," she said when she'd had her fill. She frowned at the grateful words that had come unconsciously. She was nearly certain that her injuries were due to an accident he had somehow instigated. She could not forget that even though he was now acting as healer, too.
Excerpted from Lady of Intrigue by Sabrina Darby, Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2015 Sabrina Darby. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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