Sophie Atherton knows when someone is lying. The covert agent is an expert at deception—she can spy a falsehood a mile away. Working undercover as a medium's assistant, she is well aware that her employer is a charlatan. So when dashing archaeologist Gavin Stanwyck seeks out the spiritualist's services, Sophie knows he's after much more than a long-lost heirloom.
All Gavin Stanwyck wants is justice for his murdered friend, but his search so far has come up empty. Posing as a treasure hunter, he seeks out a man who claims he can commune with the dead—a man Gavin suspects played a role in his friend’s death.
Complicating matters even more is the medium's beautiful assistant. She's a distraction Gavin can ill afford and a temptation he’s unable to resist. As danger closes in, he'll risk everything to protect the woman who's dared to touch his heart.
Each book in the Her Majesty’s Most Secret Service series is STANDALONE:
* When a Lady Deceives
* When a Lady Dares
* When a Lady Desires a Wicked Lord
* When a Lady Kisses a Scot
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When A Lady Dares
Her Majesty's Most Secret Service
By Tara Kingston, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Tara Kingston
All rights reserved.
London, September 1891
Sophie Atherton knew a liar when she saw one. Perhaps because she was so skilled at deception herself. Heaven knew, her undercover investigations for the Herald had provided considerable opportunity to hone her technique. Shaping the truth to suit her own purposes came easily now, especially if the male of the species stood on the other end of her lies. A well-timed smile and tilt of the head went a long way toward extinguishing any doubts in the masculine brain.
She'd do well to keep that truth of nature in mind when she dealt with Gavin Stanwyck. If she kept her head about her, defeating the man at his own game shouldn't pose much of a challenge. What did it matter that he was reputed to be one of the most brilliant minds in London? Or that he was handsome, much more so than the small, blurry image on the newspaper's front page had let on? His imposing height and broad shoulders made him no less vulnerable to a calculated flirtation. After all, he was only a man, even if the intensity in his gaze conjured a warmth she could not blame on the noonday heat.
Observing Stanwyck from a discreet vantage point, she battled the nearly irresistible urge to move closer, to drink in his enigmatic blue eyes. The smooth cadence of his voice lent his statements an almost-endearing earnestness. Pity she knew the truth — the words uttered by his tempting mouth were lies.
Someone less adept at using words as a disguise might be fooled by his act. Perhaps it was the tense set of his jaw that betrayed him. Or the forced casualness of his stance, and the almost too-even rhythm of his words. The clues were subtle — tells — her mentor had called them. But to Sophie, they seemed a confession.
Devil take it, what had brought an academic to a spiritualist's doorstep? Gavin Stanwyck was a rational man, a scholar whose expeditions to Egypt had earned accolades and stirred rumors of future knighthood. Whatever his reasons, the professor's motives had nothing to do with the tales of long-lost jewels he dangled like a lure. Neil Trask's newest patron was no more a treasure hunter than she was a medium.
Sophie slanted Trask a glance. Her employer-of-the-moment, a charlatan whose séances rivaled a magician's flare for the dramatic, seemed ready to rub his palms together with greedy glee. Excitement colored Trask's rich baritone as he regaled their guest with boasts of his occult prowess. Quite ironic. The failed thespian could not see what was right in front of his prominent nose, let alone discern messages passed from one realm to the next.
She bit back a smile. If she wasn't set on ferreting out the truth behind Stanwyck's presence at Trask's studio, she might find the situation amusing.
As if he read her thoughts, Stanwyck cocked his head toward her, seeming to search her out. Time to meet the rogue face-to-face.
She stepped into his line of sight. A corner of his mouth hitched ever so slightly as his gaze settled on her. And then, the half-smile faded. His lips pulled into a rather fierce line. Not quite a scowl. But definitely rather unpleasant, as if she posed a quandary he could not puzzle out.
"Ah, there she is. My lovely associate, Miss Sophie Devereaux. You'll be most impressed with her ... insights."
Trask swept a hand toward Sophie with practiced flourish, as if introducing a performer. Of course, in essence, that was exactly what the man was doing. Sophie possessed no more insight into the spiritual realm than Trask, but her lack of occult powers was of no significance to his fraudulent schemes. Trask had not hired her because of her talents. Rather, she was another form of bait to lure in the unsuspecting bereaved.
Gavin Stanwyck appeared neither unsuspecting nor bereaved. Calm and detached, with no sign of either the desperate grief or enthusiasm for intrigue typical of most who walked through Trask's door, he studied her. His gaze roamed the length of her, assessing, yet smooth as a caress. But there was nothing soft or gentle in the man's expression. If anything, his mouth grew more taut as he took her in, and Sophie's breath caught as her skin heated beneath her proper, high-collared dress.
He met her gaze. Was that challenge flashing in his eyes?
"Sophie Devereaux?" One dark brow hiked. "Have we met? Perhaps at Lord Chesterton's country house?"
"Most unlikely." Sophie met the inquiry with a properly thin smile. He thought her a fraud. Unsurprising. "Although one can never be certain of which souls have crossed our path ... perhaps in another life. The ways of the universe are mysterious, wouldn't you say?"
"Indeed." Stanwyck's tone was low and rich, held under the same tightly leashed control as his full mouth. "Perhaps even more intriguing than I'd anticipated."
Something in his words rippled through Sophie like an electrical current. She squared her shoulders and straightened her spine. Though the effort made little impact on the sharp difference between their sizes, facing him with her head high and her chin jauntily angled stoked her resolve. He did not intimidate her. She would not allow it.
She returned his bold perusal, drinking him in from head to toe. Broad-shouldered and lean-hipped in an impeccably tailored suit of charcoal gray superfine, Stanwyck cut a powerful figure. Men who'd come into their fortunes before strands of silver marked their hair were rare commodities. But a man like Stanwyck — tall and strapping, fiercely intelligent, and unencumbered by a wife and the requisite heir and a spare — was rarer still. Was it any wonder London's prematurely bereaved widows so avidly courted his attentions?
Sophie released a breath she hadn't realized she'd drawn in. Perhaps intimidation was not the true root of her problem where Mr. Stanwyck was concerned. Gavin Stanwyck was a man in his prime. His chestnut brown hair bore hints of copper, while stubble of a darker hue defined the lines of a strong jaw and betrayed at least a day had passed since a razor had touched his cheeks. Tiny lines around his eyes suggested he actually smiled at times, perhaps even laughed.
This, evidently, was not one of those times.
If only she did not feel as though Stanwyck could see through her deliberately placid mask. Could he possibly suspect the real reason she'd agreed to take part in Trask's deceitful schemes?
As if on cue, Trask cleared his throat with purposeful emphasis. "You've come to the right place, Professor Stanwyck. We are precisely the people to offer assistance on your quest."
Stanwyck offered a grave nod. "You cannot imagine the heaviness in my heart, knowing my father went to his grave with so many matters festering between us. I won't rest until I make contact."
The heaviness in his heart? Good heavens, the man was as dramatic as Trask. This was shaping up to be quite an interesting performance.
Trask acknowledged his words with a carefully crafted look of empathy. "I can well imagine the burden on a man whose esteemed sire has been torn away prematurely, leaving much unsaid."
Sophie bit back a smile. Premature might not be the best word to describe the elder Stanwyck's passing. By all accounts, the old gent had been approaching his eighty-seventh birthday when he keeled over in the arms of an East End chorus girl.
"Indeed," Stanwyck said. His faintly mocking tone rang as clear as Big Ben in Sophie's ears.
"Your timing is fortunate. We will host a gathering tonight. You are welcome to join us."
"A gathering?" Stanwyck's mouth quirked. "I assume you refer to a séance."
Trask met the subtle challenge with a slight, solemn shake of his head. "I prefer to think of our efforts to contact those who have gone beyond as a gathering of souls, come together to channel their energies and embrace those we've lost."
"I would prefer a private consultation." Stanwyck's piercing gaze settled on Sophie's mouth. "Miss Devereaux's reputation precedes her. I understand she is quite ... skilled."
A tingle of awareness set the fine hairs at her nape on end. What blather was this? Reputation? She'd engaged in this charade for only a matter of weeks. Surely Stanwyck must be testing her.
Battling the urge to look away, she forced her lips into what she hoped was a tempting smile.
"I assure you my reputation is well justified." Amazing, how smoothly the lie flowed.
"I have no doubt it will be an intriguing experience. When might we arrange our first ... sitting?" His eyes lit with intrigue, but no smile curved his lips. "An evening appointment, to be followed by dinner at Café Susannah."
Stanwyck's commanding tone kindled angry heat across Sophie's cheeks. A private evening sitting and dinner at a fine establishment? Precisely what nature of services did he believe she was prepared to offer?
Right then. Does the man truly believe I wish to join his bloody harem?
Pulling in a breath to quiet the thud of her pulse, she mustered a bland voice. "I'm sorry, but that will not be possible. I make a point to observe firm boundaries in all interactions with clients."
His mouth crooked at her pronouncement. "Come now, Miss Devereaux. Surely you don't believe I am interested in any aspect of your abilities beyond the spiritual."
Trask shot her a dagger-filled glance. He cleared his throat, dramatic as ever. "I understand Mr. Stanwyck's father was rather fond of the place. Perhaps the establishment might prove a favorable venue to initiate contact."
Blast the man. She'd known Trask's greed eclipsed any semblance of character, but the notion that he'd send her off to dine with this wolf in professor's clothing, all in the interest of garnering Stanwyck's favor — and no doubt, more blunt from his accounts — was beyond the pale.
"My thoughts, precisely." A subtle note of triumph colored Stanwyck's tone. "Father's favorite dining spot would be the very place to lure the old man back to this realm. While he walked this earth, he rarely made an appearance before sundown. Why expect him to start now?"
Trask's smile was positively serpentine. "We will most certainly arrange your consultation to best suit your preferences, Professor Stanwyck. Rest assured, we shall leave no stone unturned while assisting you in your quest." He made a show of thumbing through the appointment journal on his desk. "Does tomorrow evening suit?"
"Yes. I trust the experience will prove quite enlightening."
Sophie subdued her features into some semblance of a calm façade even as Stanwyck stared down at her, as if daring her to dissent. Perhaps she could turn this unexpected situation to her advantage. A glass of fine wine ... or two or three ... might prove effective at coaxing out the truth of his motives.
Still, she would not give Stanwyck the satisfaction of knowing her heart pounded at the thought of being alone with him. She held his gaze. "As you wish."
"Perhaps I have given Miss Devereaux the wrong impression. I assure you I harbor no designs on seduction." His sly, knowing smile made it clear he intended to fan the flames of her doubt rather than extinguish them. "My interest is not rooted in the physical realm, regardless of how tempting the medium."
Pompous ass. Perhaps I shall advise him to return to the Nile Valley to search for his father's lost jewels. A fool's errand under the Egyptian sun might be just the thing.
"I suppose I must consider myself fortunate there will be no need to steel myself against an uncontrollable passion."
Trask coughed behind his fist, his gaze icy enough to freeze Sophie where she stood. "It's agreed, then. Tomorrow evening, at sunset. We shall seek to make contact with your father, followed with a meeting in the earthly location where he'd experienced much contentment."
Sophie's teeth clenched. Only for a moment. Recovering her composure quickly, she smoothed a stray tendril from her face. Stanwyck's eyes followed her every movement.
"Perhaps if you join us tonight, your father will be able to tell you what he'd like the chef to serve ... an incentive, so to speak, for his timely arrival." Sophie spoke the words as though she meant every syllable.
Trask's complexion took on the hue of a ripe berry. For a breath, Sophie wished she'd better considered the words before they'd left her mouth. If the conniving fraud thought to dismiss her, right then and there, she'd need to say whatever it took to make him reconsider. Sacrificing her pride would be a bitter pill, indeed. But she couldn't endanger her investigation by losing her access to Trask's clientele.
A sound rang out, hearty and rich and masculine. Laughter, no less. Amusement lit Stanwyck's eyes, adding another dimension to his classically carved features. Blast the man, it was downright unsporting of him to throw her off-kilter with his smile. He'd no right to be so bloody attractive. Just her luck — a man she did not trust to tell the truth about the current state of the weather held the power to make her pulse speed ever so slightly with his endearing, slightly crooked grin.
An appreciative glimmer shown in his gaze. "Father would have liked you. He enjoyed a sense of humor in his women almost as much as he savored their beauty."
She forced a prim smile. "I feel confident we shall have no trouble conjuring his essence."
"Excellent." Trask composed his features. The bloke wasn't pleased with her. That much was obvious. But at the very least, the ruddy blotches in his complexion had faded, and the angry glare in his eyes had dimmed. Leaning forward, he jotted notes in an appointment journal. "Shall we count on you joining us tonight?"
"Wild hounds could not keep me away." His wry smile was not effective at drawing Sophie's attention from the cynicism in his eyes. "Miss Devereaux has been most persuasive. I would not miss an opportunity to observe her talents. At what time shall I arrive?"
"We will be seated at nine o'clock. I trust the time suits." Trask answered so quickly, Sophie wondered if he feared Stanwyck would come to his senses and renege.
"Quite suitable, indeed." He turned to Sophie, his expression as solemn as if he addressed Parliament on some matter of crushing importance. "Wear red tonight. I anticipate a most memorable experience."
"I scarcely think it's proper —"
Stanwyck shook his head. "Again, you miss my meaning. The color of your attire does not matter one whit to me. But father was exceedingly drawn to shades of red. So much so, his last bride wore crimson on their wedding day."
Her nails dug into her palms, but she held her voice low and unwavering. "I shall give your request the utmost consideration."
His attention fixed on her mouth. Heat, unbidden and unwanted, crept through her core. If only Stanwyck were a gargoyle. If only the look in his deep blue eyes didn't make her knees wobble.
"Until tonight, Miss Devereaux."
* * *
Leaning an elbow against the bar in McKinley's Pub, Gavin Stanwyck took a tumbler of whiskey from the barkeep's outstretched hand. At his side, his research assistant downed a gulp of ale. The ruddy-faced second son of a Scottish earl, Henry MacIntyre had proven his mettle on Gavin's last expedition and now seemed intent on developing a taste for intrigue.
"So, ye've met the blighter. What are yer thoughts?" Henry lowered his boisterous tone. "Do ye still believe he's connected with Peter Garner's death?"
Gavin nodded. "I've no doubt there's some link, but I've damnably little evidence. Certainly not enough to bring the matter to Scotland Yard." He took another drink. "I'll know more tonight. There's a sitting."
"A séance." Gavin stared into the amber liquid, mulling his disgust. As a man of science, the idea of communing with spirits seemed the worst sort of rubbish. "Trask is all too eager to seek out the legendary Stanwyck jewels. And in the process, empty my coffers for his benefit."
"Bloody fraudster. I made some inquiries this afternoon. The lass he'd been working with for more than a year ended their association about six weeks ago. She hasna been seen or heard from since."
"Interesting. What do you know of her?"
"She went by the name Lady Valentina. She claimed to be a distant relative of the Romanovs."
"Of course. The more intriguing his assistant, the better, as far as Trask is concerned."
"Her landlord is looking for her. She owed the man," Henry said.
"He won't find her. I doubt she left of her own accord. But if she did, she's in hiding."
"Ye think Trask killed her?"
"Not necessarily Trask. But someone connected to the bastard. Someone who thought Lady Valentina knew too much."
Henry downed another swig of ale. "Damn shame. She was a beauty, or so her landlord said."
Just like Sophie. His mind conjured an image of Trask's newest assistant. In centuries past, artists would've vied to capture her likeness on canvas. Her sweetly rounded face was precisely the thing to lure in an unsuspecting male.
Excerpted from When A Lady Dares by Tara Kingston, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2017 Tara Kingston. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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