July 19, 1815
This was wrong, so very, very wrong.…
She was a villain tonight, there could be no denying it, but any guilt was somehow eclipsed by the unexpected pleasure of this wicked and very sinister charade.
The passion is not real, Véronique reminded herself as she took hold of Prince Nicholas’s gloved hand, met his gaze with a mischievous look of desire through her half mask, and allowed him to assist her into the coach.
Quickly, before he joined her, she glanced around at the cushions placed just so, the bottle of champagne in the corner, and breathed in the subtle scent of rosewater, which she had splashed onto the dark green velvet upholstery a few hours ago, before she’d entered the ball.
The coach lamp flickered wildly as the night breeze wafted in through the door. With graceful, controlled movements, she sat down and reclined seductively.
Prince Nicholas, her quarry, followed her inside and closed the door behind them.
At last, they were completely alone.
As he slid onto the seat beside her, the lamplight reflected off the brass buttons of his royal regalia and sparkled in his enticing blue eyes. His mask covered most of his face, but not those luscious full lips. Not that the disguise made a difference. She already knew what he looked like. He had been shown to her the day before, pointed out like a partridge in the wood.
“Look, that’s him down there—in the black coat. That’s Wellington beside him. Viscount Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, is wearing the gray hat.” Pierre Cuvier handed her the spyglass. “Will you be able to pick him out in the crowd?”
Leaning out over the rail of the stone arch bridge that spanned the Seine, Véronique shut one eye, peered through the lens, and peered down at the three men standing on the bow of the boat as it passed beneath them.
She had been briefed about Prince Nicholas’s extraordinary good looks, but had not expected to nearly lose her breath as she caught him in her sights.
She’d also been warned about his notorious reputation with women. According to Pierre, he was a flagrant charmer and heartbreaker. A scoundrel of the highest order.
Now that she had seen him in the flesh, she understood why he could get away with such behavior. Not only was he a royal prince of Petersbourg—a small but powerful European nation on the North Sea—but he also had the face of a Greek god, with jet black hair and blue eyes, a teasing smile that could charm all the angels out of heaven, and a strapping muscular build, unquestionably fit for a throne.
Though he would likely never wear the crown, for his brother’s wife, Queen Alexandra, had recently given birth to a son.
None of that concerned Véronique, however. She had a job to do, and she must stay focused on the task at hand.
“Yes, I will be able to pick him out,” she replied as she snapped the spyglass shut and handed it back to Pierre.
“He’ll be wearing a mask,” he warned.
Véronique turned to walk back to the coach. “Don’t worry. It won’t be a problem.”
Yet here she sat this evening, reclining on the soft upholstered seat in the overheated coach, smiling at her captured prince with tempting allure, wondering how much time she had. How long would they be alone before the laudanum took effect? Five minutes? An hour?
Her desire for him was alarming, and she realized she may not be in full control here. She supposed she had known that before she stepped into the coach, for everything had turned rather warm and hazy in the ballroom when they first met. Something very potent had sparked between them, and now she was caught up in a delicious sexual current, which she feared might sweep her off her feet.
“I didn’t expect this tonight,” Nicholas said in a low, husky voice that heated her blood. “It was supposed to be a night of political debates and endless arguments.”
“You’ve all been arguing for days,” Véronique replied, referring, of course, to the fate of Napoléon, who had been defeated at Waterloo less than a month ago, and had just surrendered to the British. He had boarded the HMS Bellerophon at the port of Rochefort, but no one could agree on what to do with him. “Haven’t you had enough?”
Nicholas slid closer, slowly removed his gloves one finger at a time, then cupped her chin in his hand. “Enough talk of politics, yes, but not nearly enough of you.”
There it was … the famous charm. She would have liked to believe she was immune to it, for she was the seducer in this situation, but when he spoke to her in that velvety voice and touched her with those strong, gentle hands, she melted like every other woman who found herself blinded by his impossible charisma.
Keep your head, Véronique. It won’t be long now.…
“Are we going somewhere?” he asked while his gaze dipped to her parted lips. “Or did you invite me to your coach for some other decadent purpose?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Such as?”
The corner of his mouth curled up in a devilish grin. “I’m not sure, darling, but you seemed rather determined to lure me out of there. Where do you live? Is it far? Or do you have some other plan for me? A hotel perhaps, or a long, leisurely drive through the city?”
The coach lurched forward and pulled away from the curb.
Prince Nicholas’s eyes remained fixed on hers, and he smiled. “A drive it is, then.”
With a simmering look of desire, he kissed the side of her neck, and the moist heat of his lips lifted her into a dreamlike cloud of arousal. Letting her head fall back on the seat cushion, she laid her hands on the gold epaulets on his broad shoulders and closed her eyes. How relaxed she felt in his arms.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She wasn’t supposed to let it go this far.…
Nicholas continued to lay a trail of hot kisses across her collarbone and down to her cleavage. “You taste sweet, my darling,” he whispered. “Like honey.”
Then he lifted his head and gazed intently at her for a heart-wrenching moment.
Slowly he reached up and pulled his own mask away. Tossing it to the floor, he said, “I am glad I found you tonight, and that you dragged me out of there.”
Seeing his whole face for the first time in the golden lamplight caused a shiver in her heart—a sudden twinge of uncertainty. Or perhaps a better word was regret, for what she was about to do to him.
What was it about this man? she wondered frantically. Was she foolish to think there was something more between them than a devious plot on her part, and a casual sexual seduction on his? Perhaps he made all women feel this way when he held them in his arms, as if there were something deep and profound between them. True love at first sight, so to speak.
She didn’t love him. No, of course she didn’t. To her, he was just a means to an end.
“May I have the pleasure of removing your mask, Véronique?” he asked. “I would like to see your face.”
She laid her gloved fingers upon it to hold it securely in place. “But isn’t this part of the allure?”
Her voice was full of a confident, teasing melody, but she felt her lip twitch at the dishonesty, for they were alone now, like true lovers. She reminded herself that she was being paid to seduce him, and very soon the mood in the coach was going to take a severe turn.
He surprised her then, by sitting back, slouching in the seat, and grasping her gloved hand. He looked down at it with curiosity as he weaved his fingers through hers. “You still haven’t told me your full name. Why ever not? Do you feel you must keep secrets from me? Is it because of who I am?”
A ball of heat caught fire in her belly. “I didn’t think the details of my identity—or yours—should matter to either one of us tonight. Napoléon will soon be dealt with, and for that reason, you won’t be in Paris much longer. Besides, I am no fool. I know your reputation. You want a single night of pleasure with me, no strings attached, isn’t that right?”
He paused. “Is that really what you think of me? Of this?”
She chose her words carefully. “Am I wrong?”
He said nothing while he rubbed the pad of his thumb over the back of her gloved hand. Then he raised it to his lips.
“I don’t know what has been happening to me lately,” he confessed with eyes closed. “I am not myself.”
He shook his head as if he had no answer to give; then he looked at her. “Perhaps it is the end of this bloody war. The world seems different somehow. Or maybe it’s the fact that my brother now has a wife and a son, and my sister has gone off to become a married woman as well.”
“Do they seem happy?” Véronique asked, curious about his perceptions of the world, and his illustrious family.
“My brother is happy. I am not sure about my sister. She is in Austria now, and I worry for her.”
“She is married to the future emperor. I am sure she will be fine.” Véronique looked out the window and wished she did not have to do what she must this evening. She wanted things to be different. “I heard that her husband was wounded at Waterloo.”
“Yes, but the archduke is on the mend. Thank heavens for that.” Nicholas was slouched very low in the seat with his head tilted back. He closed his eyes again. “Did you lose anyone at Waterloo, Véronique?”
She remembered certain days of the war and thought it would be best to avoid that painful subject. So she turned toward him again, her body at an angle, and rested her cheek on a hand. “We lost a neighbor—a young man who had been a playmate for my sister and me when we were young.”
Nicholas opened his eyes and regarded her in the dim lamplight. “You have a sister? Younger or older?”
“She is nineteen and in love with a gentleman who cannot marry her.”
He frowned. “Why not?”
“His parents will not approve the match. They have threatened to disinherit him if he makes a promise to her. They do not consider our family worthy enough for their son. He is a viscount,” she explained with a sigh. “My father owns a lovely piece of property. It borders theirs, but he has no title, and money is…” She swallowed hard. “The war was hard on us.”
A shiver moved through her, and as the coach rolled on, she found she could not avoid the truth after all.
“I did not tell you everything just now,” she continued. “We lost more than a neighbor. Both my older brothers … very early during Bonaparte’s campaigns.”
Nicholas’s dark brows pulled together in a frown. “So your family … they are Bonapartists?”
She shook her head. “Not anymore. It’s been years since that Corsican tyrant had a single shred of loyalty from us. We are relieved the king is back on the throne, but my father—” She paused again. “—he is not the same man he once was. He has taken to gambling and drinking.”
Nicholas raised her hand to his lips and kissed it tenderly. “I am sorry to hear that, Véronique. I know what it’s like to lose someone.”
Her heart warmed at the kindness in his words, and for a moment she forgot what she was doing here. All that seemed to matter was the way he made her feel—like a woman who was meant to be loved.
But this was not love.
Still … there was something strangely enchanting about this encounter.
“You are referring to your father, the king?” she asked, in response to his last comment, for it was a well-known fact that the king of Petersbourg had been lethally poisoned the previous year.
Nicholas continued to kiss her hand and began to journey up her wrist while she tingled all over with pleasure. “And my mother died when I was very young. They say I took it hard.”
“You don’t remember?”
He seemed lost in thought, or very sleepy.… “I remember everything.”
The coach rocked back and forth as they made their way to the outskirts of the city.
“God, I’m tired all of a sudden,” he said as he reached out to pull her into his arms. “Come here, I want to hold you.”
She snuggled closer and rested her cheek on his shoulder.
“You smell good,” he whispered as he kissed the top of her head.
He smelled good, too. Véronique turned her face into the crimson wool of his jacket, which was decorated with a navy sash and a black belt with brass buttons. Closing her eyes, she inhaled in the delectable scent of his body.
He was a handsome royal prince, and his clothes smelled clean and regal, like nothing she’d ever smelled before.
She wanted to know so much more about him. If only they could continue talking this way, but the drug was taking effect. Soon he would be unconscious, they would reach the little farmhouse on the outskirts of the city, and everything would change. He would not say caring words to her when he learned what she had done to him.
She sat very still for the next few minutes. She did not move a muscle, nor did she initiate any further conversation. When the sound of his breathing grew slow and even, she carefully lifted her head to study his profile.
What a beautiful man he was. His dark features were perfectly sculpted. He had the enticing aura of someone born to be a woman’s dream lover, her Prince Charming in every way. It was almost comical that he was a true prince.
In that regard, his brother, King Randolph, would no doubt take notice of his mysterious disappearance from the Paris ball and leave no stone unturned in the quest to locate him and punish those responsible for the abduction.
With a sudden pang of dread for all that she would face in the coming weeks, Véronique carefully disentangled herself from Nicholas’s embrace, placed his arm gently upon his lap, and slid across to the opposite facing seat.
She watched him for a long time and wondered what he would think of her when he discovered her treachery.
She regretted it already, for there had been something truly extraordinary between them this evening. It was both sexually exciting and surprisingly intimate in a way she had not expected. As a result, this mercenary task had become a secret indulgence. For a while, she had forgotten that this was wrong, and that she was a corrupt, false-hearted charlatan.
If things were different, she would not have chosen this path for herself, but she was duty-bound to her family. She could not allow their entire world to come crashing down around them. Véronique would therefore do what was required and pray that somehow she would emerge unscathed.
The coach pulled to a halt, and she peered out the window.
The door flew open suddenly and banged against the outside panel. Véronique frowned at her sister, Gabrielle, who wore a black cloak with the hood pulled up to hide her fiery red hair.
“For pity’s sake, be quiet,” Véronique whispered. “We must be careful not to wake him.”
Gabrielle grabbed hold of the rail and swung into the dimly lit interior. She took a seat beside Véronique and stared with fascination at Prince Nicholas, who was sprawled out on the opposite seat like a gorgeous work of art. He slept soundly.
“How long has he been out?” Gabrielle asked.
Véronique removed her mask and gloves and rubbed her fingers over her cheeks where the stiff fabric had been too tight. “Not long. Ten minutes perhaps?”
Gabrielle inclined her head and leaned a little closer. “Upon my word, he is deadly handsome. How in the world did you keep your head?”
“It wasn’t easy, I assure you.”
“Did he kiss you?”
Véronique let her memory take her back to those first few moments.…
“Not on the mouth.”
Gabrielle’s eyebrows lifted. “Not on the mouth?” She spoke as if scandalized, but Véronique knew her sister was thrilled at the possibilities. “Care to explain?”
“No,” Véronique said. “There’s no time for that. I don’t know how long he will sleep. Did you bring the rope?”
Gabrielle pulled it from her cloak—like a rabbit out of a hat. “I’ve got it right here. Which one of us gets to do the honors?”
Véronique immediately snatched the rope from her sister. “I caught him,” she said, “so it’s only right that I get to bag him.”
Copyright © 2013 by Julianne MacLean