Read The lady hellion Online

Authors: Joanna Shupe

The lady hellion

AN IMPROPER VISIT“I wish I could remove my stockings,” she murmured. “But even this feels heavenly.”Quint swallowed hard and crossed his arms over his chest. The image of her sliding stockings down her bare legs was too erotic to dwell on—not if he didn’t want an obvious erection frightening her. “I am not surprised. Traipsing through the mews of Mayfair is exhausting business.”“Indeed it is,” she returned cheerfully.“Why have you returned, Sophie?”She stared at her toes, moving them back and forth, hesitating. He sensed she was attempting to fabricate a reason because she didn’t want to tell him the real one.“The truth,” he said.“It seemed a nice night for a stroll. You are generally up late, so I thought I’d see if you were still awake.”He snorted. No lady strolled by herself in the middle of the night. “You are aware I live alone. That this is a bachelor’s residence?”“Should I be worried? Are you planning to chain me to your bed and ravish me at your whim?”He strove not to combine the words “ravish” and “Sophie” in his head; the idea only served to remind him of what he could never have. “Indeed. Merely allow me to remove the other woman there first.”She chuckled. “That’s one thing hardly anyone realizes about you: how amusing you are.”Books by Joanna ShupeThe Courtesan Duchess  The Harlot Countess  The Lady Hellion  Published by Kensington Publishing CorporationTheLADYHELLIONJOANNASHUPEZEBRA BOOKSKENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.http://www.kensingtonbooks.comAll copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.Table of ContentsAN IMPROPER VISITBooks by Joanna ShupeTitle PageDedicationAcknowledgmentsChapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter FourteenChapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenChapter EighteenChapter NineteenChapter TwentyChapter Twenty-OneChapter Twenty-TwoChapter Twenty-ThreeChapter Twenty-FourThe Harlot CountessCopyright PageTo my parents,who first showed me what happily ever after looked like. And to Rich,who gave me my very own.AcknowledgmentsMany people were instrumental in shaping the Wicked Deceptions series. Thank you to the countless friends and acquaintances who patiently answered my questions about titles, pistols, science, and everything else I struggled with. I am so grateful for the New Jersey Romance Writers, as well as my own critique group, The Violet Femmes. To Janet, Michele, Maria, Tina, Diana, Julie, RoseAnn: Thank you for all of the advice, the last-minute reads, the toasts, and the friendship. Thank you to Laura Bradford for her guidance and for believing in me. I am so grateful to have her in my corner. Also thank you to Peter Senftleben for loving this series as much as I do and giving it life. I love when my writing makes him laugh. Grateful does not begin to describe how I feel about Diana Quincy, Michele Mannon, and JB Schroeder. These ladies are my rocks. And a giant thank-you to my plot maven, Lin Gavin, who reads everything first and (usually) insists I can do better. She is my harshest critic, my biggest fan, and my first line of defense. Thank you to my sister, Denise, who started me on this crazy journey. And to my mom, who first introduced me to romance books, thank you for believing in me. You’re a tireless champion, and I hope I made you proud. To my two little girls, I hope you both grow up to be strong, smart, kind, and kick ass women. Thank you for understanding when Mommy sneaks away with her laptop for an hour or two every day. I need to thank my amazing husband, who has always supported my dream to write. He goes above and beyond, smoothing the way for me to pursue this career, and I appreciate him more than I can say. I am one lucky lady. To the readers, bloggers, reviewers, writers, and fans, thank you for supporting romance, most especially historical romance. You make this the greatest job in the world.Chapter OneFebruary 1820 Padding the crotch of one’s trousers required a surprising amount of skill. Too big of a bulge drew attention. Too small and you risked the thing slipping down your leg.Fortunately, Lady Sophia Barnes had enough experience to achieve the perfect balance. No one looking at her now would believe her a lady of twenty-seven, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful marquess—not dressed as she was, in gentleman’s finery from head to toe.Just as no one would believe her spare time was spent investigating matters for a class of women most Londoners did not even want to think about.The evening, though chilly and unpleasant, had been moderately productive. As Sophie approached the hackney, the driver jumped down to open the door. Her maid, Alice, sat inside, huddled under blankets. Alice waited until the door closed before she spoke. “Well, my lady?”Sophie knocked on the roof to signal the driver. Then she pulled a folded paper out of the pocket of her greatcoat. “No trace of Natalia, but I did find this.” Beth, the girl who’d hired Sophie, was worried that ill had befallen her friend. Though Beth had now found herself a protector, Natalia still worked in a tavern near the docks, where extra coins meant taking a customer to the second-floor rooms. The two girls corresponded every week without fail, and Natalia hadn’t sent word for almost a month.Tonight, Sophie had gained access to Natalia’s room and searched it. The only letter she’d found was in Russian.Sophie stretched her unencumbered legs in the small space as the carriage rumbled forth into the night. Breeches really were a spectacular invention. “I wish I knew what it said. Beth only speaks English.”“We’d need to find someone who can speak Russian, my lady.”A name came to mind. A name she tried not to think of more than five—or ten—times a day. She often failed even at that. “I do know someone who speaks Russian. Lord Quint. He gave a short lecture during a gathering at the Russian Embassy three years ago.” Sophie had attended, standing in the rear of the room. She hadn’t understood a word, but oh, he’d been glorious. Speaking on some recent scientific discovery, he’d commanded the attention of everyone present, even making the dour-faced Russians laugh at several points.Alice clucked her tongue. “La, his lordship won’t be speaking it for long, that’s for certain.”“Whatever do you mean?”Her sharp tone caught Alice’s attention. “I thought your ladyship knew. He’s near death’s door, that one. I saw one of his lordship’s kitchen maids three—no, maybe four days ago. Fever’s set in. His lordship won’t let any of the staff tend to him and won’t allow a physician in.”Sophie’s stomach plummeted through the carriage floor and onto the dirty Southwark streets. No doubt Alice told the truth. The maid’s network of servants would put any foreign spy service to shame.Quint. . . near death’s door. Oh, God. She knew a bullet had grazed him that night at Maggie’s house, right before the fire had swept in. But she’d assumed he’d recovered. Everyone had said the injury wasn’t serious. Damn, if only she hadn’t been so wrapped up in her own life—Her fist banged the roof. The driver opened the small partition and Sophie barked in her low register, “Stop at the southwest corner of Berkeley Square instead.” Quint lived just down the square from her father’s town house so she would get out and let Alice continue on.“What are you going to do, my lady?”Was it not obvious? “I’m going to save him.”Alice gasped. “You cannot very well show up at his front door”—her hand waved at Sophie’s attire—“dressed like that.”“Why not?”“They’ll not let a stranger inside to see him, even one dressed as a gent. And besides—”“Do not even start lecturing me on propriety. We bid farewell to that ship eons ago, Alice. Not to worry, I’ll manage a way into his house.”By the time she arrived at the servants’ door of Quint’s town house, Sophie had conjured a plausible story. A bleary-eyed older woman in a nightcap opened the door, a frown on her wrinkled face. “Yes?”“I am here”—Sophie deepened her voice—“at the behest of His Grace the Duke of Colton to attend to his lordship.”The woman held up her light, looked Sophie up and down. “You’re a surgeon?”“A valet, though I do have extensive medical knowledge.”“From a duke, you say?”Sophie lifted her chin. “Indeed. And I do not think His Grace would appreciate you leaving me on the stoop to freeze.”The woman stood aside to allow Sophie to enter. They went into the kitchens, where Sophie removed her hat and greatcoat. “Where may I find his lordship?”“His chambers. Won’t let anyone in, not even a doctor. Most of the staff’s already left. Figure every one of us will be out on the street in a day or two.”Without another word, the woman turned and shuffled to the corridor.Must be his cook, Sophie thought, and followed. “Stairs,” the woman mumbled, handed Sophie her lamp, and continued on.A few wrong turns, but Sophie finally found the master apartments. Inside, the air was cold and stale, the fire left untended. Moonlight trickled in from the windows, enough to allow her to see a large shape, motionless, under the coverlet. Quint.Please God, let him be alive.She rushed over, and then nearly gasped.Dear heavens. His condition was worse than she’d feared. His skin was waxen, his lips cracked and swollen. His eyes were closed, with blue-black smudges underneath them. She shot her hand out to feel the side of his throat not covered with a bandage. Though his skin burned to the touch, she exhaled in relief. A pulse. Weak, but there.She set her light on the table beside him. “Oh, Damien,” she whispered, unable to resist gently smoothing the damp hair off his fevered brow. “This is what you get for eschewing a valet, you stupid man.”A strangled, pained sound came out of his throat when she checked the wound. Now red and ugly, the hole oozed when she gently poked it. He made another noise and weakly tried to shift away. At least he’d shown signs of life. Striding to the bell pull, she began a mental list of all the items she required.Had she arrived in time, or was it too late? Ignoring the worry in her gut, she vowed not to fail. He would not die.“Hear that, Quint?” she said loudly. “You. Will. Not. Die.”After ten minutes and many tugs on the bell, a weary, rumpled footman finally arrived. He’d clearly been asleep, but she felt absolutely no sympathy for the servants. They’d abandoned their master, which, whether he’d asked for it or not, was unacceptable as far as she was concerned. And Quint deserved better.“Rouse every servant. Tell the cook to boil hot water. I need fresh bed linens and clean towels. Bring every medical supply in the house. And send for a physician.”“But—”“No arguments. His lordship is near death and I mean to save him, so do what I say. Now, go!”
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Chapter TwoApril 1820 “You have a visitor, my lord.”Damien Beecham, Viscount Quint, did not bother looking up at his new butler, his attention instead focused on the rows of letters in front of him. He had to get this idea down. Now—before it was too late. “Pass on the usual response, Turner.”The butler cleared his throat. “I beg your lordship’s pardon, but the name is Taylor.”Quint grimaced. He could hardly be faulted for forgetting the lad’s name, could he? Taylor had only been on the job for a few days. Or was this further proof of Quint’s worst fear becoming a reality?Nearly three months since the shooting. Three months and he was no better. Oh, the wound had closed, the fever abated, yet everything else that followed had only worsened.He exhaled and dipped his pen in the ink pot. The invocation he’d adopted these past weeks went through his head:Remain occupied. Engage your mind while you can. Prepare for the worst.He looked back down at his cipher. “Apologies, Taylor. No visitors. Ever. Until further notice, I am not receiving callers.”“She said your lordship might say no, and if so, I was to tell you her name—the Lady Sophia Barnes. I was also to mention she planned on coming in whether your lordship allowed it or not.”Quint felt himself frown. Sophie, here? Why? Displeasure was quickly replaced by an uncomfortable weight on his chest. He could not face anyone, most especiallyher. “No. Definitely not. Tell her—”Before he finished his sentence, Sophie charged into the room. Smothering a curse, Quint threw down his pen, came to his feet, and snatched his topcoat off the chair back. He pulled on the garment as he bowed. “Lady Sophia.”He’d known her for years—five and three-quarters, to be precise—and each time he saw her, he experienced a jolt of heady awareness. There’d never been a more remarkably remarkable woman. She had short honey-brown hair that gleamed with hints of gold in the lamplight. Tall for a female, she had long, lean limbs that moved with purpose, with confidence. Her nose and upper cheeks were dusted with freckles that shifted when she laughed—which was often. People fell under the spell of that laugh, himself included.“Lord Quint, thank you for seeing me.” Holding her bonnet, she bobbed a curtsy in an attempt to give the impression of a proper young lady. No one who knew this particular daughter of a marquess would ever believe it, however. She and Julia Seaton, the Duchess of Colton, were close friends, and the two of them had landed in one absurd scrape after another over the years. Last he’d heard, the two had required rescuing from a gaming hell after a brawl erupted.“As if I’d had a choice,” he said dryly.She laughed, not offended in the least, and Quint noticed Taylor, mouth agape, hovering near the threshold, eyes trained on Sophie. Good God. Not that Quint hadn’t experienced the same reaction in Sophie’s presence a time or two. “That’ll be all, Taylor. Leave the door ajar, will you?”The butler nodded and retreated, cracking the heavy door for propriety. Ridiculous, really, when the entire visit was already deuced improper. “I hope you at least brought a maid, Sophie.”“Of course I did. She’s in the entryway, likely planning to flirt with that baby you call a butler.” Her lips twisted into a familiar impish half-smile. Once, she had given him that smile, leaned into him, and parted her lips . . . right before he’d kissed her.The memory nearly distracted him from the fact that he didn’t want anyone in the house. Bad enough he had to keep the staff. “I am not receiving callers,” he told her. “And this is not going to help your reputation.”She waved her hand. “No one worries over a spinster nearing thirty years of age. Now, shall we sit?”He happened to know she was only twenty-seven, but no use quibbling with her. He glanced about. Books, papers, and various mechanical parts littered every surface. Not to mention there were the three heavy medical volumes on his desk—all on mental deficiencies. With rapid flicks of his wrist, he closed each one and moved the stack to the floor behind his desk. He then came around and cleared a chair for Sophie.“Thank you.” She lowered gracefully into the seat and arranged herself, bonnet in her lap. “I apologize for barging in. Your butler did try to turn me away, but I haven’t been able to locate you elsewhere. You’ve become something of a recluse.”Better to be a recluse than take a trip to an asylum. He sat in his desk chair and said, “I have been occupied.”A tawny eyebrow rose. “So occupied you missed the opening lecture at the Royal Society last Tuesday?”“I had a conflict,” he offered, lamely.“A conflict? With what? You’ve never missed one of the opening lectures before. Not in recent memory, at least.”He tried not to react, though he wanted to grit his teeth. “I did not realize my schedule was your concern.”She sighed. “Oh, dear. I’ve upset you already—and I haven’t even arrived at the purpose of my visit.”“Meaning that learning the purpose will only upset me further?”“Yes, I daresay you shall not approve, but I’ve nowhere else to turn.”“Why do I feel a pressing need to close the door before you speak?”She shot to her feet, so Quint started to rise as well. “No,” she said, “please, stay seated. I think more clearly when I am standing.”Reluctantly, Quint lowered. He had no idea what she wanted, but with Sophie it could be nearly anything.Whatever her troubles, Quint did not care. Could not care. A healthy distance between himself and others must be maintained, especially with anyone who’d known him before the accident. Therefore, he’d hear her out and then show her to the door.He waited as she traveled the study floor, slapping her bonnet against her thigh. Nervous, clearly. Her dress was both expensive and flattering, yet her boots were worn. No jewels. A practical woman underneath the trappings of a lady.Interesting.And he hated that he still found her interesting, even after she’d so thoroughly rebuffed him more than three years ago.“What in God’s name isthat?” She pointed to an abandoned teacup on the desk.He shot up and grabbed the forgotten porcelain container, which held a greenish-brown gelatinous mixture comprised of various herbs and spices. It looked every bit as terrible as it had tasted. He set the cup inside his desk drawer.“Why are you here, Sophie?”She folded her arms over her chest, a motion that called attention to her small, enticing breasts. He forced his eyes away as she spoke. “I would normally approach Colton or Lord Winchester with this request, but as you know, they are both unavailable. You are the only person I can ask.”“Your flattery overwhelms, madam.”She stopped and pinned him with a hard stare. “I did not mean to offend you, as you well know. Stop being obdurate.”“Fine. I readily acknowledge I am to serve as the last resort. Pray, get it out, Sophie.”She straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin. “I need you to serve as my second.”  Lord Quint never sputtered. He did not fluster or ever forget himself. Logical, reasonable, and maddeningly unflappable, she knew the viscount could be counted on to keep a level head. It was one of the things Sophie liked best about him.So when his jaw dropped, she braced herself.“Yoursecond?” Quint’s brows flattened. “You need me to serve as your second? For aduel?As in, ten paces in a field at dawn?”“Yes. Precisely that.”“And with whom in the name of Heracles would you be dueling?”She nibbled her lip. What were the chances she could avoid explaining it before he agreed? “Does it matter?”He traveled around the bulk of the desk and stopped in front of her. Though she was on the tall side, he was a few inches taller. She liked that he didn’t loom over her. It allowed her to better see his face, and he had an interesting face. Astute brown eyes with golden flecks. A strong, angular jaw. High, sharp cheekbones that set off a nose too masculine to ever be called pretty.His hair was shaggy, his clothes rumpled and appallingly ill-matched. No, he did not inspire swoons in the ballroom, but perfection had never interested Sophie.And there was the root of the problem.The man was intelligent in ways most people couldn’t even comprehend. They thought him odd. Unsocial. Aloof. He never danced or paid afternoon calls. But those opinions, if he even paused to hear them, didn’t affect him as far as Sophie could tell. He exuded confidence, unshakable beliefs that were based on well-researched facts. His ability to recall the smallest detail he’d read fifteen years ago fascinated her.Quint folded his arms across his chest. “Yes, it very much matters. And it’s not as if you can hide the other party’s identity, if I’m to serve as your second—unless you plan to blindfold me. But all of that is irrelevant as I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to go through with a duel.”Without a cravat, the strong column of his throat shifted and rippled as he talked, and she was reminded that she’d once had the opportunity to experience the power in his lithe frame. Had once shivered as he’d clutched her so tight she could hardly breathe.But that was long ago, years now, all before he’d fallen in love with someone else. A lump formed in her throat, regret nearly choking her, but she forced it down. “And I cannot see how you can possibly prevent it. I do not need your approval.”Cocking his head, he studied her with shrewd scrutiny. “What happens if I say no?”She lifted a shoulder. “I shall muddle through somehow.”“If you do, your reputation will suffer.”“My reputation has already suffered—which is why I have accepted the challenge. Torepairit.”He huffed a seemingly exasperated laugh. “That is ridiculous.”“Oh, because I’m a woman I cannot have honor?”“I never said that. Women can duel if they so choose, as far as I’m concerned. Stupidity is not ascribed to gender. What’s ridiculous is thinking no one will learn of it. Nigh on impossible to keep a duel private these days.”“Yes, but you won’t tell anyone. Neither will I, for that matter.”“Your opponent might, as could the surgeon who is taxed with removing a ball from your chest. But it hardly matters because I cannot serve as your second.”“Cannot—or will not?”A flush stole over his cheekbones. Was he embarrassed? She’d never, ever seen him blush. “Cannot,” he said. “And you’d better not go through with it.”Intolerable, high-handed males. Sophie had suffered them her whole life. Between idiotic rules and unrealistic expectations, an English woman’s life was more constricting than stays after a five-course meal. “I must. And will you tell me why?”“No. Will you tell me why you need to duel?”She shook her head. “No. I cannot.”He shifted, coming close enough to send her pulse racing. She could see the rise and fall of his chest, the shadow of tomorrow’s beard on his jaw. Strong, wide shoulders, lean waist. Heat radiated off his body to warm her in all the places ladies never mentioned—places that Sophie happened to like quite a bit. He was such a complicated specimen of brains and brawn, a combination she happened to find particularly appealing.Not to mention he had full, strong lips that she knew firsthand were quite adept at turning a woman’s insides to jelly. Well, hers, at least.“Cannot, or will not?” he asked, refocusing her attention.She hated having her words turned around on her, so she ignored the question altogether and sidled away. “Will you at least teach me how it’s done?” She peered at the stack of books on the floor behind his desk, the ones he’d hidden when she entered. They were all medical journals on . . . diseases of the brain. Every single one. Now why hadn’t he wanted her to see those?“Dueling? You want to learn how to stand on a field and shoot at another person?”She glanced up at him. “Yes. I’ve never even fired a pistol before.”“Firing is not the hard part. Hitting something is the trick.”“I thought the point of a duel was to miss.”“Deloping is considered ungentlemanly. Have you not even read theCode Duello? The point of a duel is to restore your honor while not getting yourself killed. And to place your bullet where it will do the least damage.”“See how little I know? You can teach me.”“No. I cannot involve myself in this. You should merely apologize to whichever lady you’ve slighted and end it.”“It is impossible to apologize. And why can you not be involved?”He placed his hands on his hips. “Many reasons. Six, to be precise. Would you like them in alphabetic order or order of importance?”She sighed. This was going badly. She had no one else to ask, no one with a chance of keeping her secret. And she and Quint were friends . . . of a sort. Based on their previous history, she’d thought he’d agree. That he would, at the very least, want to protect her. What could she do to convince him?“Fine. I shall ask someone else.”He quirked an eyebrow, his expression too knowing, drat him. “And whom shall you enlist in this tutelage?”She rapidly searched her brain for a name, for any bits of gossip she’d overheard. “Lord MacLean has been rumored in a number of duels. He must know the way of it.”“And he’s a rake. Burned through the entire lot of Edinburgh innocents and had to come to London just to ravish more. Your reputation would never survive it.”“That hardly signifies.” In more ways than one. “I merely want the ins and outs of the thing. And if you will not show me, I will find someone who can.”
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His jaw hardened, but his eyes burned into her, churning with an emotion she’d never seen before. Was it . . . doubt? It gave her pause. Quint moved about the world with ease, with no need to question himself because he was rarely wrong. Any criticisms he encountered were for matters he cared little for, such as the unfashionable length of his hair or his appalling sartorial sense.But this was new. He looked . . . uncertain.“Then you must do whatever you feel necessary,” he finally said, reaching to knead his temples with his fingertips. “I apologize I am unable to fulfill your request. Taylor will see you out.” He bowed and then headed for the door.She watched him go, stunned at both his rudeness and the expression on his face.“Quint,” she called to his back. He stopped but did not turn. “Are you all right?”“Never better,” he answered and disappeared into the corridor.“No,” she whispered into the empty room. “Somehow I think not.”“Well, that did not take long,” Alice said once they were on the walk back to the Barnes town house. “Did his lordship agree, my lady?”“No.”A pair of older ladies strolled near in the rare spring sunshine, and Sophie smiled politely as they passed. The streets of Mayfair were busy once again, with horses and carriages each way you turned—a sign that another Season was nigh.The familiar heaviness settled in Sophie’s chest. She dreaded the next few months. More dress fittings. More inane chatter. Dancing with the men her stepmama foisted on her. Pretending to ignore the pitying, curious glances.She had no one to blame but herself. Some mistakes could not be undone.Alice came alongside. “What shall you do now?”“I’ll figure something out. Do not worry on it, Alice.”Her maid made a dismissive noise. “A dangerous game your ladyship is playing.”“So you’ve said on more than one occasion.”“I wish your father had not let you sit in on some of those cases, my lady. It was not proper for a young girl at such an impressionable age to hear sordid tales of criminal behavior.”Sophie hid her smile. Oh, she had loved every minute. Instead of ignoring her after her mother died, her father had kept her even closer. Wherever the marquess went, so did his little girl. The quarter sessions he would oftentimes attend were her favorite.When she was nine, she’d told him she wanted to be a magistrate when she grew up.He’d laughed.My dear, girls cannot be magistrates, though you’d make a fine one. But you’re to marry and have your own family. That is what proper young ladies do.Sophie didn’t like to be told no, especially because “that is what proper young ladies do.” Hang propriety.Turning to Alice, she asked, “Did you learn anything from Lord Quint’s staff?”“Superstitious fools, the lot of them,” Alice snorted. “All but the butler, who seems entirely loyal to his employer. The rest of them believe his lordship to be the devil himself.”“The devil? Ridiculous.” Quint was far from evil. He was intelligent and kind, a man most of London did not understand for his eccentricities. But the devil? “Why would they believe such a thing?”“Say his lordship stays locked in his study for hours, never sleeps nor eats. Never leaves. No visitors. Rooms off limits to the staff.”“Never leaves?” She’d suspected something was off. He hadn’t missed an opening of the Royal Society in recent years, a fact she could attest to because she always attended as well. Quint routinely gave a speech, and Sophie could listen to him lecture for hours. He had a deep, clear voice that rang with knowledge and purpose, his ideas elucidated logically. His talks were heartfelt and passionate, and Sophie felt the depth of that passion down in her soul. It was the closest she allowed herself to get to him.Instead, he’d shut himself up in his house to study books about diseases of the brain. Odd—though perhaps she’d never known him as well as she’d thought. Merely because a man kissed you as if his next breath depended on it didn’t mean you were of a like mind.Especially when that man proposed to another woman within three weeks of said kiss.Sophie forced that thought away.You rejected him. What did you think he’d do?“It does seem strange,” Alice said. “But as your ladyship knows, it hardly matters if it’s true. Servants love to gossip.”This felt like more than gossip. Something was wrong. Yet Sophie couldn’t very well explain her intuition to her maid. How did one describe that gnawing, slightly nauseated sensation in one’s belly that was more suspicion than fact? But Sophie trusted her gut—it had led her away from trouble more often than not.Besides, were she and Quint not friends after all this time? She’d saved his life two months ago, though he didn’t know it. For nearly a week she—along with a physician—had cared for him, bringing him back from the edge of death. Once he’d begun to recover, however, she’d instructed his staff on what to do and stayed away.She recalled a few minutes earlier, the uncertain expression that had appeared on his face. A hopeless, confused sort of look, as if he’d lost his way in the world. If he had a problem, she might be able to help. If not, then perhaps she could pick up tips on dueling.“Alice, I believe I’ll return there tonight.”Her maid clucked her tongue. “I cannot see how that’s wise, if you don’t mind my saying. Not when his lordship has already refused.”“Perhaps I can help him to see reason.”“Heaven help his lordship then, my lady.”Sophie nearly rolled her eyes. “Would you rather I attended the duel without learning how to do it properly, then?”“I’d rather your ladyship did not attend a duel at all.”Unfortunately, that might not be a choice, but she refrained from saying so to her maid.Barnes House, the London residence of the Marquess of Ardington, stood on the northwest side of Berkeley Square, not far from Quint. While not as big as Lansdowne House at the other end of the square, Barnes House was an impressive stone structure with massive columns, portico, and rows of windows. Sophie never wanted to live anywhere else.When she and Alice crossed the street, a soft voice reached her ears. “My lady.”Sophie slowed as a cloaked woman emerged from around a waiting hackney. Her hood was pulled low to obscure her face. Alice was suddenly by Sophie’s side. “Here now,” Alice said. “Who are you and what do you want with the lady?”The woman shied away, reconsidering her approach in the face of Alice’s protectiveness. “It’s all right, Alice,” Sophie said, stepping closer. “Were you searching for me?”The woman revealed the slightest bit of her face. “I apologize for searching your ladyship out on the street.”Sophie relaxed. “Lily! How nice to see you again.”She offered a curtsy. “I know your ladyship said no payment was necessary, but I wanted you to have this.” She held out a parcel. “It’s nothing much, just some fancy soap I had a boy pick up in a shop.”Sophie tried to refuse, but Lily was determined. “Please, my lady. To find my sister after all these years, and happily settled at that, I cannot tell your ladyship what it means to me.”Sophie did not want to hurt the other woman’s feelings, so she accepted the box. “Thank you, then. I am honored to accept it.”This is why Sophie enjoyed helping people, especially women who seldom found a champion. Magistrates ignored them—or offered aid in exchange for physical favors. Runners were expensive and generally more interested in a higher class of clientele. To whom should these women turn, then, when in need?Sophie gave them hope. An ear to listen. Answers.She reached to squeeze Lily’s hand. “All my best to you and your sister.”“Thank you, my lady.” Lily curtsied and withdrew, disappearing around the side of the hack.Alice sniffed as they neared the stoop of the Barnes town house. “A lightskirt approaching a lady on the streets of Mayfair in broad daylight. I do not know what this world is coming to, my lady.”“Oh, Alice. She’d likely been standing there for hours. The very least we could do was speak with her. And she brought me a gift. I think it’s sweet.”“Some days I regret starting your ladyship on this path.”That was a partial truth. There was one event, from ages ago, long before Alice came to work for her, when a kitchen maid had been accused of theft.Jenny had been her name, and Sophie had liked her. She’d often snuck eleven-year-old Sophie currant buns and sugar paste when no one was looking. So Sophie hadn’t instantly believed the upper housemaid’s tale that Jenny had stolen money from the housemaid’s room—especially since Sophie had observed a footman flirting with both girls. The two maids had argued only the week before, making it clear they didn’t care for each other. Wasn’t that reason enough to doubt the allegation?Unfortunately, Jenny had had no proof she hadn’t taken the money and no one had believed her denials. Then, when ten pounds was located under her mattress, she had been tossed out without a reference. Sophie tried to get her father to intervene, to help Jenny, but he refused, saying the housekeeper would take care of the matter. The servants were not Sophie’s concern.When Sophie saw the housemaid’s smug smile over the next few days, she was positive the girl had lied. No one listened to her, however, and the matter was firmly dropped. Sophie had been heartbroken to learn that Jenny had died in a cholera epidemic shortly after leaving their service.The tragic tale left a lasting mark on Sophie’s brain, one never forgotten. The truth mattered, regardless of what class one was born into.“Do not be ridiculous,” she told Alice. “I enjoy these cases and I am good at it. Yes, this officially started when your sister was accused of stealing her employer’s silver, but if not for her, it would’ve been someone else. I feel as though I was born to do this.”“Well, my sister is ever so grateful your ladyship stepped in and found the real culprit. To think, one of the grooms sneaking in the house and pilfering the forks and knives.”Sophie snickered. “One would have assumed him smart enough to wipe the liniment off his hands first.”“As we’ve seen, your ladyship, most criminals are not at all bright.”“And thank heavens for that.”Chapter ThreeQuint put his hands on his hips and stared down at the perfectly matched set of ivory-handled Manton dueling pistols. Should he give her these or the newer tube-lock pistols he’d purchased in January?Pistols.Aduel.Antimony, why would a woman of such intelligence and wit participate in this primitive ritual? The levelheaded thing to do would be to parley with the aggrieved party, discuss the slight, and come to some sort of resolution satisfactory to both sides. To risk one’s life over something so trivial was absurd, in Quint’s opinion.Reservations and common sense aside, however, he’d asked Taylor to retrieve the pistols. Quint planned to have them wrapped and delivered to her. If he could not teach her himself, at least she would be well armed. God knew he’d never need the deuced things again.All day, he’d considered writing to the Marquess of Ardington. The marquess was a powerful man, involved at the highest levels of government, and Quint actually liked him quite well. Shouldn’t the marquess be warned of the danger his daughter faced? At best, her reputation would be shredded in a duel. At worst, she could be killed. Each time he’d picked up a pen to dash off a note, however, he’d set the pen back in the tray. He couldn’t do it. With anyone else, he would wash his hands of the whole business. But Sophie . . .Though he was loath to admit it, there was another reason he hadn’t written to her father. After more than three years, he still had a soft spot for her—which merely proved his idiocy. After all that had happened between them, he could not deliberately hurt her.His entire life, Quint had been considered odd. Different from other men in his pursuits and interests. From the first moment he’d met Sophie, however, he’d felt a deeper understanding in her sharp gaze, that she was a woman unlike any other. Another misfit. And he had hoped.They’d begun a casual flirtation at events over many months, and she had seemed to enjoy teasing him. He’d often found her staring at him from under her long brown lashes, an occurrence guaranteed to send a bolt of lust to his groin. During one particularly dull ball, he’d wandered away, as he frequently did, to the host’s library, knowing the books would be far more interesting than the small talk, and Sophie, surprisingly, had followed.  A noise behind him caught his attention. Sophie stood there, breathtakingly beautiful in a cream-colored gown that shimmered as she moved. She shut the door, locked it, and Quint’s pulse leapt. “You should be in the ballroom, Sophie.”The edge of her mouth kicked up as she drew near. “Are you ever going to kiss me, Quint?”“Do you want me to?”“I followed you in here, did I not?”“You answered a question with another question, Sophie.”“As did you.”He smiled, unable to resist her, and stepped forward. Without asking permission, he placed one hand on her hip and another around her neck, thinking she’d back away. Instead, she leaned in to his touch, welcoming it, her skin soft and warm. Her chestnut eyes grew dark, fathomless pools of invitation, and he was lost. “Yes, then. I should very much like to kiss you,” he admitted. “But I should not.”“Life would hardly be worth living if we were to obey all the rules.” Her hands reached up to tangle in his hair as he bent and sealed his mouth to hers.  That one kiss had been monumental. Life altering. She’d been willing and pliant, and he’d lost all sense of himself, forgetting they were mere yards away from a crowded soirée. And he’d been so sure, so certain at the time, that his feelings were reciprocated.Only, he’d miscalculated. With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, she’d broken his heart into millions of molecules and scattered them like pebbles. He would be unwelcome as a suitor, she’d said, the encounter nothing but a momentary fancy.Under normal circumstances, serving as a beautiful woman’s “momentary fancy” would not be a hardship. But with Sophie . . . it had mattered. A lot.Ended up a fortunate turn of events for her, however. Quint would not wish himself on any woman, considering what his future held in store.As a boy, he had witnessed his father’s mental decline and the toll it had taken on his mother. She had cried all the time, hardly eaten, and had consulted with countless apothecaries, physicians, and scientists about a potential cure. All for naught. She had exhausted herself and ignored her son, and the viscount had never recovered.Quint had vowed never to let that happen to him. He would never succumb to the madness that had overtaken his father. He would be smarter. Sharper. Work harder at his focus, memory, and stamina. No matter the cost, he’d avoid his father’s fate.And it had worked until a bullet had grazed his neck last February, nearly robbing him of his life.A brisk knock on his study door interrupted his thoughts. Taylor appeared, a cloaked figure behind him. “My lord, a visitor.”Every cell in Quint’s body came to attention. He recognized that shrouded form. Why had she returned? “See that we’re not disturbed, Taylor.” His butler started to turn away and Quint added, “And remind me to review my visitation policy with you later.”Taylor nodded and left, after which Sophie drew down the hood of her cloak. She wore no bonnet or cap, her brown hair twisted in a simple knot at her nape. The yellow glint of candlelight reflected in her dark eyes. Her mouth quirked. “Do not blame Taylor. I was already in the house, coming up the servants’ stairs, when he found me. He couldn’t very well kick me out then.”“Why have you come back, Sophie?”“What have you there?” She came closer and peered at the box on his desk. “Are those pistols?”He sighed. May as well deal with her now. Then he could get back to his cipher. “Yes. This pair was crafted by Manton, who produces the best dueling pistols in the world.”“What makes them superior?”He tried not to notice her nearness, how shifting an inch or two would bring their shoulders together. He cleared his throat. “Manton discovered weighting the barrel allowed for a steadier shot. Less recoil in the forearm when the charge is fired. They are remarkably accurate at the right distance. I have others, but this is likely the easier set for you to use.”“Hmm.” Her fingertip slid down the ivory handle. “Why did you have them out, if you do not plan to help me?”“Because it is important to have the very best equipment for whatever task you undertake. Since I had no way of knowing what pistols you intended to use, I planned to send these to you. I will not need them.”“Have they been loaded?”“Absolutely not. The barrels are empty.” Less chance of someone—him, most likely—getting shot.“But how can I practice if they are empty?”“You need to build up your arm strength in order to hold them steady for a prolonged period of time. Women have a lower percentage of muscle mass in their upper body and torso, so you need more practice than pulling the trigger if you want an accurate shot.”“See, that is exceedingly helpful. I cannot trust anyone else to tell me these things.”A sharp and unexpected sense of satisfaction coursed through him, followed quickly by resentment. She was clever, using flattery to get what she wanted. He preferred facts, however. “You are aware, of course, that duels are illegal. And that most result in death or serious injury.”She tilted her head up to find his eyes. “Some, but not most. And I question the validity of such a statement. No actual data can be gathered as most duels are private and unreported, especially those with no injuries.”Heat suffused his body. Christ, when she used words such as “validity” and “data,” Quint wanted to do unspeakably improper things to her. Dragging a hand through his hair, he put some distance between them. “There’s little use in debating the point. In case you’ve forgotten, you’ve asked for my assistance and I have refused it.”“Which I refuse to accept. Not only are you the most clever man I know, you’re a friend. Who else is in a better position to help me than you?”Now he would appear churlish to refuse. Smart.He flexed his fingers, thinking. While he did not appreciate being manipulated, he did not want to see her hurt. And if he showed her how to operate the damn things, would she go away and leave him in peace?“If I give you your hour, do you promise not to return?”“Yes,” she answered quickly, enthusiasm lighting up her face.“And what if you show no aptitude for firearms? Will you abandon this silliness?”“Of course. I do not have a desire to die.” She removed her cloak and threw the heavy garment over a chair. “I’ll suggest swords instead.”  “If that is your idea of a jest, I am not laughing.”Sophie bit her lip. No, Quint’s face did not show any hint of amusement. With his eyes narrowed and mouth curved into a frown, he looked quite dour—even for a man who tended toward the serious. All the more reason she sensed something was off with him.She forced herself back to the conversation. “Of course I am jesting.”Not in the least.“Now, let us begin. I need to return before daybreak.”That did not appear to make him any happier. “Just how did you escape, by the way? And how did you sneak into my house without any of my staff stopping you?”She dared not tell him of her abilities. Only Alice had an inkling of the talents Sophie possessed, and no one else need know. “My maid is covering for me. She’s entirely trustworthy and discreet. And your kitchen door was unlocked. I assume your cook forgot to lock it on her way to bed.”He pulled at his full bottom lip with his thumb and forefinger, clearly contemplating something. The action brought attention to his mouth, and her skin began to tingle with the memory of what it had felt like to have those lips on hers. He was a remarkable kisser, with a single-minded focus and thoroughness to make a courtesan blush.That was the thing about Quint: Whatever he chose to do, he did well. His viscountess would be a lucky lady, indeed.Too bad it would not be Sophie.She glanced away and took a deep breath. These reactions to him would not do, not if she planned on paying attention.“Let’s examine the weapons,” he said, dropping his arm. “Pick one up, if you please.”Sophie reached into the velvet-lined box and lifted one of the pistols. The ivory handle was cool against her palm. “It’s heavier than I assumed.”“That is why you need to practice holding it, as I said, to build up your arm strength. The steadier you keep it, the more accurate your shot. And if you cannot hold it steady, then do not go through with a duel.”“Understood.” She peered down the barrel, pointed it at the floor. “Will you show me how to load it?”“No. The seconds oversee the loading of the pistols. All you need to be concerned with is not dying.”“But how shall I practice properly if I cannot load it?”She expected him to argue, but he surprised her by sticking to the practicalities. “You are aware you’ll need to drive out into the country in order to shoot, I hope.”“You needn’t treat me like a child, Quint. I plan to spend a few days in Sussex. I daresay there’s enough space on Papa’s estate to discharge a cannon and not be overheard.”He held up his hands. “Fine.” Reaching into the case, he withdrew various bits and pieces, which he lined up on the desk. His thorough explanation covered both the construction of the pistol and firing mechanism, as well as the function of the other items originally contained in the box. He showed her the paper cartridges, how they were used. In all his diligence, however, he never touched the pistol once.She began to shift impatiently, ready to actuallydosomething.“Are you listening to me?” he asked sharply. When she nodded, he lifted a skeptical brow. “What can cause the pistol to misfire, then?”“A dull flint, soft frizzen, weak springs, over-primed pan, clogged touch-hole,” she recited none too smugly. “Anything else?”“Let’s see you load it,” he said by way of answer.She did so quickly, efficiently, and then looked to him for confirmation. He nodded in approval and she grinned, inordinately pleased with herself. “Are we finally ready to practice?” she asked.“Anxious, are you?”“Well, I must return home before someone notices I’m missing. Otherwise, you’ll be putting these pistols to use when my father requests your presence at dawn.”“Fair enough. Switch yours for the empty one.” He strode to the center of the room.She didn’t bother switching pistols. It wasn’t as if she would shoot him. “Wait. Should you not take one as well?”“No. I’ll pretend,” he said, flexing his fingers. She’d noticed him doing that motion a few times, especially since she’d started handling the guns. A nervous habit?“Your challenger decides the distance,” he explained. “Ten paces is common, though I’ve heard of six or eight. The seconds will mark it off. Take your position.”She stepped off ten paces then turned to face him. “Here?”“Good. Once you’re both ready, you’ll be given a signal after which you’ll have three seconds to fire.”“And I should aim for . . . ?”“The extremities. Shoulder. Arm. You do not want a death on your hands or your conscience.”Hard to argue there. “What happens if both parties miss?”“Then your challenger must decide if his honor is satisfied or not.”She examined the pistol in her hand. It really was quite pretty, with its gold accents and pearl handle. The wood was smooth and polished. “Have you ever engaged in a duel?”
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He made a sound. “Absolutely not. It’s barbarism. I bought those to examine how they work, to see how Manton improved upon the design.”“But you’ve attended a duel, surely?”“Two. Both Colton’s, when he was still too young and stubborn to see reason. Sort of like someone else I know.”She ignored that. “What room is directly below us?”Quint’s brow lowered as he considered the question. “The wine cellar, as I recall. But—”Sophie squeezed the trigger as he’d taught her, the barrel pointed at the floor. The flint swung down, struck the frizzen, sparked, and the pistol went off with a loud crack. A puff of acrid smoke encircled her and she wobbled from the surprising kick of the shot. Exhilaration coursed through her, a heady mix of relief, power, and awe. “Gads, that was fun!”Using her free hand, she batted the smoke. “May I—Quint, whatever is wrong?”He stood frozen, his pallor gone the color of fresh snow. His chest heaved as he stared at the pistol in her hand. “Quint?” She came closer and noticed his hands were shaking. “I apologize for firing. I could not resist—”“Get out.”She blinked. Had he said—?“Now, Sophie. Get out of my house and do not come back.Go!” The last word was nearly a roar, a shocking tenor of voice from a normally soft-spoken man.Stunned into obeying, she hurriedly replaced the pistol in its case and found her cloak. He now faced the wall, away from her, his head clasped tightly in his hands as if he was in pain. She started to apologize once more, but thought better of agitating him further.“Leave!” he rasped, and she bolted into the corridor, closing the door softly behind her.Instead of leaving, however, curiosity and concern had her pressing her ear to the wood. A fast, rhythmic huffing sounded from inside the study. Was he wheezing? Heavens, perhaps he was ill. After ensuring no servants hovered nearby, she ever so slowly turned the latch and cracked the door.He hadn’t moved, except to reach out and brace himself on a chair back. She could only see his profile, but his lids were screwed shut, and it appeared he could not draw enough breath into his lungs. He gasped again and again, weaving on his feet, and her stomach clenched at the sight of his misery. What was happening? Was his heart giving out?Mesmerized, she debated whether to rush in and offer assistance or stay in the corridor. If he was anything like her father and younger brother, he would not appreciate a witness to his weakness. Men were remarkably prickly about illness. But what if Quint was in grave danger?“My lady.”Sophie straightened and leapt away from the door. The butler’s expression etched with disapproval, he marched forward and quietly closed the partition to the study.“Is he ill?” she whispered.“I really could not say, my lady. However, perhaps it is best if your ladyship returned to your own home.”“But should we not call a physician? Or at least wait to ensure he recovers?”“His lordship has asked that no physician be admitted to the house. Ever. And I do not believe he would appreciate one being sprung on him.” The butler did not seem overly concerned about the health of his employer. Was this not the first time Quint had fallen ill?He gestured toward the front door. “Now, I must insist, your ladyship, as I’d like to retain my post.”She clenched her fists, anxious to check on Quint but not wanting to get the staff in trouble. “I’d best go out the service door, Taylor.” With the cloak on her shoulders, she pulled the hood low over her face. They traveled silently through the house and down to the kitchens.Taylor opened the door. “Would you prefer a footman to see you home, my lady?”“No, that won’t be necessary.” She moved onto the stoop. “You’ll see to him, won’t you?”“Of course, my lady. However—” He closed his mouth abruptly, obviously thinking better of what he’d been about to say. Which would never do, of course.“Go on,” she prodded.He glanced over his shoulder, dropped his voice. “If you should care to return, simply send word and I shall ensure your ladyship need not pick the lock again.”  By the time Quint recovered, Sophie had long departed.Good. He didn’t know how he could face her after tonight. Bad enough the staff remained in the house, that they were witness to the embarrassment of Quint’s failings. He kept removed from them as best he could but suspected Taylor had drawn his own conclusions after the last episode.He swiped perspiration off his brow. Began reciting Locke’sAn Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It was one of his favorite passages, on how all human knowledge comes only from experience. Fine and good for Locke, of course, since he’d retained his sanity. What rational understanding could be deduced from these debilitating attacks of pure terror? Even the brightest of enlightenment thinkers would likely be baffled by Quint’s condition.After another moment, his respiration restored itself to its usual rate.He struggled up out of the chair, weaker than he wanted to admit. The fits, when they came, left him exhausted and with a blistering headache. Opening a window, he welcomed in the fresh air to remove the smell of gunpowder.She’d actually fired a pistol in his house. He rubbed his temples. Only Sophie would dare do something so reckless. It was part of what he admired about her. But that sound and smell had set off a waking nightmare for him, one he could never admit to her. One he could never admit to anyone.“My lord,” Taylor called through the partition. “Was a pistol fired?”“Yes, and you might as well come in, Taylor.”The door opened and the young butler appeared. Quint could read nothing in the lad’s placid expression, no disapproval or worry, which was something of a relief. “Is there anything I might bring you, my lord? Tea?”“Yes, that would be much appreciated. Also”—he gestured to the pistols—“take these below and have them wrapped up. I want them delivered tomorrow to Lady Sophia, the daughter of the Marquess of Ardington.”“Very good, sir. Shall I also request a carpenter to come and repair the hole in the floor?”Quint glanced down. A small, round hole now marred the floor by the leg of his desk. He did not want workmen in the house. He did not want anyone in the house, really. And that hole would serve as a reason why. “No. Not just yet.”“I thought you should like to know that her ladyship left through the service door, my lord. I instructed a groom to follow her at a discreet distance.”“Good thinking, Taylor.” He dropped into his desk chair, ready to distract himself with work. “The mews are not always as safe as Lady Sophia clearly believes them to be.”“Indeed, your lordship, that is sadly true. Though the lady is certainly brave. Not what one expects.”An understatement. And Quint was not sure if she was brave or just reckless. The distinction hardly mattered, though. She was, however, distracting—and Quint could not afford distractions.But it was the fondness in Taylor’s voice that made Quint frown. She’d gained herself another admirer, it seemed. “Yes, she is precisely that. She is also persuasive. Remember who pays your wages. No visitors, Taylor.”Taylor lifted the box containing the pistols, then bowed. “As you wish, my lord. I will send up some tea.”Now alone, Quint removed a small key from his waistcoat and unlocked the top desk drawer. Withdrew a ledger he never let anyone see. He flipped to the last entry and reached for his pen. In clear handwriting, he wrote the date. Then he catalogued the circumstances preceding the fit, as well as the symptoms he’d experienced during the episode. Every detail, written down for later examination. He would cross-reference this one against the others, looking for patterns. Similarities.Answers.It’s all in your mind,he told himself.There is nothing physically wrong with you.While he knew it to be true, it was as if his body believed something else altogether. The fits were debilitating. Humiliating. Like nothing he’d ever experienced before in his thirty-three years. And if it happened in public with witnesses, he knew what they would believe. Knew what would happen then.The same thing that had happened to his father.Bed straps. Bloodletting. Freezing-cold baths. Emetics.Quint shuddered. No, he preferred death to a lengthy stay at a hospital—or worse, a madhouse. Nor would he permit unqualified surgeons or physicians to poke and prod at him. He would happily swim in the swirling pits of insanity rather than subject himself to a charlatan.How much time did he have left? His father had been thirty-eight when the fits started and had lived only four more years after that. Quint was already thirty-three. Did that mean he would not live to see forty?The thought depressed him.He often stared at his father’s painting in the gallery, looking for signs. What had the viscount been thinking? Had he noticed anything strange with his health? Had there been any clues to the madness in his future?Will I turn out to be just like you?The current medical texts and journals believed the answer to be yes. That madness, fits, and anxiety—the sort his father had suffered—traveled in the bloodlines. And there was no known cure. Quint refused to believe it, however. He would heal himself, if given enough time. The answer was in the evidence contained in the journal, the tests he’d conducted over the past three months.So far, he’d experimented with spices as well as hot water baths, both to unpleasant conclusions. He’d brewed flavored teas, which tasted nice but hadn’t helped. Then there were the various herbs and plants that also failed to produce results and tasted terrible. He was loath to try an opiate derivative. A poppy extract would dull his senses significantly, a feeling he routinely avoided at all costs. Precisely the same reason he never drank spirits. He needed to retain the clarity, yet reduce the fear and anxiety.He wanted to get better—and he would get better, if he could remain focused on the problem. Continue his research. Avoid distractions.Which meant no more Sophie.Chapter FourSophie slid the small door open, the rusted hinges protesting loudly in the silence. The soft golden glow coming from inside the unused garden shed meant her maid was already here.“Oh, thank heavens,” Alice said when Sophie came through. “I swear I don’t know how much longer I could have stood it. Something crawled across my foot a few minutes ago.”“Probably just a mouse.” Sophie threw off her cloak and turned her back to Alice. Her maid began unlacing her gown.“It still gives me the shivers, my lady.”“Get me changed, then, and you can return to the house.” Within minutes, her gown, petticoats, chemise, lacy drawers, and stays had been removed. Sophie unbuckled the strap on her thigh where a shiny, sharp knife rested in a leather holster. Shivering, she stepped into the plain smalls Alice handed her. Next came the binding.This was Sophie’s least favorite part, though it wasn’t as if she had large enough breasts to worry over. In fact, Sophie’s long and lean body had never been precisely “womanly.” Her whole life, she’d longed for curves. A blessing her prayers had gone unanswered, yet even still, her male clothing had required extensive tailoring.She turned in slow circles while Alice wrapped the cloth tightly about her torso. Next came stockings, trousers, a fine shirt, braces, and a waistcoat. Alice tied a cravat neatly around a high collar that would aid in hiding the lack of an Adam’s apple or whiskered jaw. A pin in the neckcloth finished the look.“There. Now let’s fix your hair,” Alice said and reached for ajar of pomade. Sophie removed the silver combs in her short curls and sat in the small wooden chair. Her maid rubbed the mixture through her fingers and then straightened, pulled, and swirled Sophie’s hair into a fashionable, foppish style. By the time Alice was done, Sophie would look like one of the poets women swooned over—if one did not look too closely.When Alice stepped back, Sophie rose and slipped her feet into her male dress shoes. Finding footwear in Sophie’s size had proven difficult, so she’d taken a pair belonging to her younger brother and stuffed the toes with cloth. They were not comfortable, exactly, but would do. The topcoat slid over her shoulders easily, the garment having been heavily padded to give her more of a man’s broad shape. One greatcoat, walking stick, and hat later, she’d been transformed.She turned to leave, but Alice’s voice stopped her. “Wait, my lady! The spectacles.”Once they were in place, Sophie struck a manly pose. “How do I look?”“Like the prettiest dandy in London.”She smiled. “Then we’ve got it right.”“And just where is your ladyship off to, so that I may inform the search party later on?”“Very funny. I’m merely visiting Madame Hartley.”“Another missing girl?” Alice asked.Sophie slipped on her gloves. “Indeed. And since I never found Natalia, I intend to devote all my efforts to finding this one.”“Be safe, my lady.”“Always, Alice,” Sophie said and slipped into the gardens.Twenty minutes later, she alighted from a hackney, taking care not to trip in her oversized footwear, and tossed the coachman a few coins.“Thank you, m’lord,” the man returned with a tip of his hat.She ignored him—most gentlemen treated the lower classes with a healthy dose of disdain—and sauntered up to the familiar dark red door. A sharp bang with the head of her walking stick and the partition swung open. “Sir Stephen,” the big guard, Mulrooney, said in a heavy Irish accent. “Welcome. Madame Hartley will be anxious t’ see you.”Sophie relinquished her greatcoat, hat, and stick, and then pitched her voice deep. “A drink first, I think, Mulrooney.”“Excellent. I’ll tell the mistress you’ve arrived, sir.”Crowded tonight, Sophie thought as she strolled into the closest side room, where the stench of smoke and sweat nearly choked her. A footman arrived with a heavily watered whisky, Sir Stephen’s preferred spirit, and she grabbed at it gratefully as she covertly observed the men lounging around card tables. Women assumed brothels were all about fornication—and they were—but the amount of time gentlemen spent here was surprising. They chatted, gamed, and drank at all hours. With the number of recognizable titles around the tables, this might as well be White’s or Brooks’s.She affected a bored expression when a few looks came her way. As predicted, none lingered. People saw what they wanted; no one assumed she was anything other than a green lad out for a bit of evening sport. And if she kept a slight distance, she could carry it off without question.The whisky, smooth and woodsy, helped calm her nerves. Sir Stephen had made a few enemies recently, and Sophie dearly hoped not to encounter any of them this evening.“Sir Stephen.” She turned at the sound of the feminine drawl and found Madame Hartley at her side. “How lovely to see you again so soon. I know Joselle will be happy you’re here.”Madame Hartley ran the most exclusive brothel in London, but they both knew Sophie was not here to enjoy the girls. “Then it would be a shame to disappoint her,” Sophie returned.The abbess murmured, “Joselle is in the blue room at the end of the hall.”Sophie took the carpeted stairs to the second floor. Doors flanked the upper corridor, and the sounds coming from behind them were both mysterious and erotic, a hint of the world forbidden to ladies. Grunts, moans, sighs . . . a slap followed by a giggle. Ropes creaked and snapped under mattresses. What limited experience Sophie did have fueled her imagination and the sense of longing inside her. She wanted to feel that passion, so much so that she now ached in all the places that made her a woman.Or could the tingling under her skin be a result of seeing Quint?She’d wanted to kiss him earlier tonight. Badly.Why would he bother kissing you again?He wouldn’t, not after she’d told him their one and only kiss meant nothing—a sentiment he must’ve agreed with because he’d gone and fallen in love with the “Perfect Pepperton” chit. Blonde, demure, ideal in every way, she had put all the other marriageable girls to shame. When his betrothal had been announced, Sophie had died a thousand times inside.While she cringed at the humiliating way his betrothal had ended—his future bride dashing off to Gretna Green with a groom—she could not say she was sorry for it. That silly girl had not deserved Quint. No one did, really. No one was good enough for a man so unique, so intelligent.Certainly not Sophie.Ladies aren’t supposed to enjoy it so much. And they certainly aren’t supposed to tell the man what to do.Lord Robert’s voice, even years later, rang in her ears, the humiliation still sharp. So foolish she’d been. So innocent. She’d loved him and he’d used her and thrown her away like a pile of refuse.Now, at the end of the corridor, Sophie knocked and entered. A young, pretty blonde girl came to her feet. “Oh, thank you for coming, my lady,” Joselle said, and then clapped a hand over her mouth. “I mean, sir.”Sophie smiled as she locked the door. She’d never bothered trying to fool the girls. If anyone knew a man’s body from ten paces, it was a woman who made her living on her back. “That’s all right, Joselle. We are alone now. I trust you’ve been well.”“I am worried sick. Did your ladyship have a chance to visit The Pretty Kitty?”“I did. I spoke with your sister’s friend, Mary. She hasn’t heard from Rose in a fortnight either and they already cleared Rose’s room out. The man who looks after the girls told me she was busy with a customer.”Joselle wrung her hands. “They’ve done something terrible with her, I just know it. She was getting out. Had a protector, she said. She wouldn’t need to work at The Kitty. She was so happy . . .” Her face crumpled, and Sophie rushed to awkwardly pat her shoulder.“We will find her. I swear, I will do whatever I can, Joselle.”“I know you will, my lady.” Joselle dragged in a deep breath. “I never wanted her working in one of O’Shea’s places. He don’t look after his girls. Treats ’em like garbage.”Sophie knew of James O’Shea, rookery legend and owner of The Pretty Kitty. Rumors abounded of his violence and cruelty. O’Shea may or may not have been involved in Rose’s disappearance, but this was now the second girl gone missing from The Kitty since October. “And you are sure Rose has not gone with this man, the one she said was going to take care of her?”“I’m sure. She would have written to me. Even if she was living somewhere else, Rose would have sent me word.”“Do you know anything about this man, the one who made the promises to her?”Joselle shook her head. “All I know is he was a gent. I am worried she’ll be one of those girls who’ve been washing up along the river.”As was Sophie. Three dismembered bodies thus far, each a young prostitute. “I plan to return and see Mary once more. Perhaps she knows more about this mystery gentleman. Certainly he would have been one of Rose’s regulars.”Joselle nodded grimly. “Thank you, my lady. We are so grateful for all that you do.”Sophie gave her a small smile. “I shall return after my next visit to The Kitty, I promise. Now I best return downstairs before I cost you any more money this evening.”“Well, let’s give ’em a show, my lady.” Joselle leaned over the bed and gripped the bed frame. Using her hands, she began banging the wood against the wall. “Oh!” she yelled. “Fuck me harder! Harder!” She moved faster, an intense rhythmic slapping against the plaster. “Yes, oh God, yes!” A few more noises then she rattled to a stop.Sophie bit her lip to keep from giggling. “Who would’ve guessed Sir Stephen had it in him?” she said quietly.The girl playfully cocked her hip and tossed her long blond hair. “I’m so good I can make a dead man see stars, my lady.”  When Sophie finished with Joselle, she returned to the main floor. She wanted to speak with Madame Hartley before she left.A footman presented her with a crystal glass. Sophie took the drink and swaggered over to a banquette along the wall. She sprawled on the velvet cushions, taking up space as men do with arms bent and legs spread, trying to appear as if she’d been recently satisfied. Of course, she had very little experience to draw on; but the trick, one assumed, was to look inordinately pleased with oneself.“Sir Stephen.” Madame Hartley approached. “I trust you enjoyed Joselle?”“Indeed, I did,” Sophie answered with a wink.“Excellent. Might I have a private word, sir?”“Of course.” Sophie rose and trailed the abbess to the back part of the house. When they reached Madame’s office, the proprietress gestured to a chair. “Let us both sit for a moment, my lady.”Once they were seated, the abbess retrieved a note out of her desk. “This is from Pearl.” Sophie accepted the paper, which likely contained any hints of gossip the courtesan had overheard. “Joselle has been quite upset,” Madame noted. “Do you believe you can help her?”“I will certainly try. One of the boys at The Kitty watches out for me in exchange for coins. He’ll keep an eye out for anything related to Rose.”“Excellent. I am grateful for your ladyship’s help. To assist women who would otherwise be helpless is truly a gift, my lady”Warmth flooded Sophie at the praise. She loved what she did, and receiving recognition for her small achievements was flattering. “Joselle is worried her sister may be the next girl pulled from the Thames,” she said, referring to the prostitutes recently found mutilated and tossed into the water.“I certainly hope not. It is a terrible business, not one that any girl deserves, no matter how she makes her living. Whatever small part I can play, your ladyship only need ask.”“Thank you.” Sophie slapped her knees and stood. “I believe Sir Stephen must get back home.”“Be careful, your ladyship.”While Sophie waited on Mulrooney to collect her belongings, the front door opened and a group of men poured in. A short, blond man caught her attention and her stomach sank. Lord Tolbert.For heaven’s sake.The very last person Sir Stephen needed to run into.She held her breath. There would be no avoiding the hot-tempered earl in the small entryway. Tolbert took off his greatcoat and looked up, dark eyes narrowing as they landed on Sir Stephen. Sophie straightened; as a rule, she refused to cower.Sophie had met him in polite circles before, of course, though his overexuberant attentions made her skin crawl. Since his gaming debts were legendary, she suspected his interest in Lady Sophia had far more to do with her dowry than any affection.Last week, in a considerably less reputable establishment than Madame Hartley’s, Sir Stephen had made the mistake of drawing away a girl Tolbert had secured for the night. She’d needed to speak with the prostitute and hadn’t known of Tolbert’s dealings. None of that mattered to Tolbert, however, and the ensuing argument had devolved into a challenge.A challenge she’d not formally acknowledged, since there wasn’t anyone reliably discreet enough to act as her second. Part of her had hoped Tolbert would forget about the supposed slight. Judging from the expression on the man’s face now, however, that hope was unfounded.“Sir Stephen,” Tolbert drawled, tossing his greatcoat and hat to one of his unfortunate friends. “So the coward finally emerges from under his rock. I’ve been looking into you.”Sophie swallowed. “Have you?”“Why is it,” Tolbert sneered, “no one knows where to find you? I must’ve asked every chap I know; yet none knew where one Sir Stephen, that’s you, could be found. And something even more interesting . . .” He paused for dramatic effect. “There is no Sir Stephen Radcliff in my copy of Debrett’s.”“Perhaps you are using an outdated version,” Sophie replied in her haughtiest man-voice.
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“No, indeed, I am not. You know what I think.” He took a step closer and whispered, “I think you are a fake, Sir Stephen. You are in disguise, posing as a member of our elite little world. And I mean to find you out.”Perspiration gathered under her arms. If only Tolbert knew how close to the truth he was . . .She lifted her chin as she tried to put a little distance between them. “You’re half-cracked. I’ve been in London for nearly a year.” God save her for telling this lie. “I’m cousin to the Viscount Quint.”“That lunatic?” Tolbert laughed derisively. “Everyone knows he’s mad.”It wasn’t anything she hadn’t heard said about him countless times over the years. In theton,anything beyond the normal routine was thought lunacy—and Quint was anything but normal, thank heavens. Though she wanted to leap to Quint’s defense, she lifted a shoulder. “He seems perfectly fit to me.”“And you are lodging there, with Quint?”She forced a nod. Thank heavens Quint never allowed visitors. All she needed to do was get Taylor to tell a small fib if anyone called for Sir Stephen.“Good,” he continued, dark brown gaze glittering in triumph. “Then I shall pass that information along to my second. You will be hearing from him.” He moved forward and Sophie retreated until her back hit the wall. Tolbert poked her shoulder. “There still is the matter of my honor.”“Will you accept an apology?”“No. I will not. As a matter of fact”—he grabbed her arm roughly—“I think I should keep an eye on you until morning, when we can settle this as gentlemen.”Panic froze her insides. Stay with Tolbert until morning? He’d discover her lie in a ridiculously short amount of time, long before the sun came up.“Here, now.” A beefy hand reached between them and pushed Tolbert back a few paces. Sophie glanced up and found Lord MacLean there, his normally jovial expression gone hard as he stared at Tolbert. “The gent has tried to apologize for whatever transgression you’ve suffered. Now you’re to accept his apology and forgive the slight, Tolbert. Do you not even ken how it’s done?”Tolbert’s face twisted in anger. “This is between gentlemen, MacLean.Englishgentlemen. So you may run along now,laddie.” Sophie heard the snickering of Tolbert’s companions.MacLean rocked back on his heels. “Jesus, you’re even stupider than your mountain of debt suggests. Are you gonna apologize, man?”Tolbert glanced over his shoulders at his friends, who were all avidly observing the exchange, then turned back to MacLean. “I never apologize.”MacLean just grinned and scratched his jaw. “I suppose I’ve been itchin’ for another early morning. You’ll hear from my second, Tolbert.”Sophie saw Tolbert’s throat work, though he tried to put a brave face on it. “And just whom might serve as your second?”MacLean slapped Sir Stephen on the back, which nearly caused Sophie to pitch facedown on the carpet. “Thisladdiehere will do it. What do you say?”Both men turned their attention on her. “O-of course,” Sophie sputtered in her deepest voice. “I’d be honored.”Quint finished the instructions to his steward, folded the paper, and sealed it. The one positive light on his illness: The viscountcy had never been in better shape. His investments were flourishing, accounts perfectly balanced, all correspondence answered. When Quint finally did succumb to madness, whoever assumed guardianship of the estate would have an easy time of it.Taylor appeared after a brisk knock. “My lord, if you’ll pardon the interruption.”“What is it, Taylor?”“Your presence is requested in the ballroom.”The ballroom? The butler had to be mistaken. “The ballroom has been closed up for years. Who would—?” His jaw snapped shut. He didn’t need to ask because he already knew. Unbelievable. Once more she’d gained access to the house—and after he’d explicitly told her not to return two nights ago.His eyes narrowed on Taylor. “Well, did she pick the lock or did we leave the door open?”“Neither, your lordship.”Quint rose and came around the desk. “Let her in, did you?”Taylor had the grace to appear sheepish, his ears turning crimson. “Her ladyship was quite persuasive.”She always was, he thought, as he took the stairs. Quint knew better than to lay blame at his butler’s feet. Indeed, he was keenly aware of precisely whom to take to task.The ballroom door stood ajar, light spilling into the corridor. Taylor must’ve instructed one of the maids to set the candles. Quint wasn’t sure how to feel about his staff rushing to do Sophie’s bidding. Though, to be fair, his staff likely relished any activity to fight the tedium of the Beecham household.He entered, ready to give her what for, and stopped short at the sight that greeted him. Long legs—long,shapelylegs—encased in buckskin breeches. Tall, black boots. A short military-style jacket that women favored for riding. All the breath left his chest and his cock twitched, instinct swiftly taking over. Sweet, merciful cadmium . . .When he recovered enough to speak, he noticed her amused half-smile. A hundred questions leapt to mind—starting withwhy?—but what came out of his mouth was, “Did Taylor see you like this?”“No, I kept my cloak on until he left. Though I hardly see why that matters.”The idea of anyone witnessing her so . . . sorevealeddid not sit well. The outline of her lithe body clearly visible, it was a sight to make any man lose his mind with lust. And Quint realized, gut churning with possessiveness, that he didn’t want any man to see her. Any man save him, of course.“Why are you here?”She pulled her arms from behind her back to reveal two foils. “I thought you might like some exercise.”Fear replaced the stirrings of desire. Since the shooting, he hadn’t intentionally raised the rate of his heart for worry of another fit. What if exercise worsened his condition? Granted, each fit had been triggered by a specific event or thought, like an attempt to go outside or the sound of gunfire. He doubted fencing would hurt, but how could he be sure?“I don’t think—”“You are not allowed to refuse.” She executed a single feint with her right arm. “It will do you some good, in my opinion.”He rubbed the back of his neck and contemplated his research. If it was hereditary, as he suspected, then nothing would prevent the impending madness. Not to mention, if he fell ill, he could leave or order her from the room.You just want to ogle her arse in those breeches.Without dwelling on that last thought, he closed the distance between them, held out his hand. “Where did you get these swords?”“I borrowed them,” she said with a lift of her shoulder and handed him a foil.“And what about those clothes? Did you borrow them as well?”She glanced down at herself. “No, they are mine. The breeches are unbelievably comfortable. Dresses are impractical garments, especially for fencing.”“A duel, scuttling about the mews after dark, not to mention all the excursions with Julia over the years . . . I swear, you court danger at every turn. Has anyone the vaguest idea what you’re about?”She sauntered away, hips swinging, providing him with the precise view he wanted—and he froze.Saint’s teeth,his imagination had not done justice to the perfect, high roundness of her buttocks.“I do not require a keeper, if that is what you are implying. Now, shall we?” She spun and lifted her arm into correct position, weapon pointed at him with her front foot forward.“Have you fenced before?”“I’ve taken a few lessons at Angelo’s academy. You’ll not have an easy time besting me.”“Is that so?” He hefted the foil, tested the weight in his hand to get a feel for it. “Fencing is a thinking man’s—or woman’s—sport. You need to plan ahead. Not react rashly.” Lifting his arms, he stretched out his back and shoulders. “Can you keep a level head, I wonder?”“We may never know if you cannot cease stalling.”“Allez!” he growled and lunged at her.She defended his parry, and returned with a thrust of her own. He soon realized she had skill. What she lacked in strength she made up for with speed, her movements precise and quick. She obviously had not lied about the lessons, and he suspected she’d taken more than just a few. Despite his resolve to go gently with her, he soon found himself perspiring and breathing hard from the exertion. It felt . . . exhilarating.“You’re smiling,” she said, her breath equally labored.“Am I? It must be because this is so terribly easy.”Her eyes flashed and she began attacking him with renewed vigor. He nearly laughed. She was utterly predictable.“Is that the best you can do, Lady Sophia?” He led a charge of his own, driving her backward as she defended herself with the blade.“You’ve been holding back,” she accused, the flush on her cheeks deepening as her movements faltered.This time, he did laugh. “Is your shoulder burning yet?”“Like the fires of Hades!” she snapped, then flicked her wrist and slid his blade out from between their bodies. She stepped in close, so close he could see the beads of sweat on her brow, the damp tendrils at her temple curling so enticingly—Her foot shot out behind his ankle, pulling, while at the same time her free hand pushed on his shoulder. Even distracted, Quint saw her intention. Subtlety had never been Sophie’s strength. With a smirk, he shifted his weight to counterbalance her effort, which caused her to lose her equilibrium. He wrapped an arm around her waist to keep her from tumbling to the ground.“A nice effort—for a woman,” he taunted, attempting to infuriate her.He failed miserably. Something sparked in her eyes—but it was not anger. Instead, it was hot and wicked, and her gaze dropped to his mouth.She was thinking of kissing him. He had no doubt. With her lips parted, the rate of her breathing significantly increased, and her stare locked on his mouth, she had one thing on her mind.And he wanted nothing more than to oblige her.They were close, hips aligned, with their legs melded together in a tangle. His body stirred, a purely physical reaction he could not hide, and he itched to touch her. To taste her. The problem was, he didn’t want to be a “momentary fancy” this time. If he kissed her, she could still say she hadn’t wanted it. He needed her to be sure. Needed her to kiss him of her own free will.It was the same reason he’d never had a mistress. Yes, most every man he knew kept a woman tucked away in a small house somewhere convenient, but Quint could not see the logic in it. He did not want a woman to pretend, to allow his advances only because she coveted his coin. Not that he hadn’t ever paid for a tumble in his youth, but honest passion, true desire between two willing people, was a hundredfold more satisfying.He wanted Sophie willing.But what then? A mad husband was a terrible burden for a wife.Suddenly, she used her free palm to push his chest. He dropped his arm to release her. Springing forward, she wasted no time advancing, her blade high and fast as it slashed toward him, and he convinced himself he’d been mistaken about the interest in her eyes. Perhaps a result of the fencing? She attacked him logically, precisely, and he countered with a combination she did not expect. Her muscles shook from the effort, exhaustion on her face. He could nearly taste the victory.“Wait!” she cried. “There is something in my boot.”Panting, Quint lowered his foil and watched as she turned, presenting him with her backside. She bent over, slowly, and he could not tear his eyes away from those lush, gentle swells encased in tight fabric, not even if the ghost of Newton himself suddenly sprung up from the floor.They were perfect. Each just the right size for a man’s hand. He swallowed, his groin tightening. Breasts drew some men, legs others. Quint had always loved a woman’s buttocks. Soft, plush, and ideal for cushioning a man’s hips. And right now, Sophie’s were poised high as she played with her boot, positioned exactly as if a man might take her from behind.His cock filled, blood rushing at the mental picture. It would take little effort to free himself, lower her breeches, and bury deep—In a blur, she pivoted, blade up and ready. Before he could blink, the tip landed square on his chest.He glanced down, frowned, and tried to shake the lust from his brain.“Youlose.” She grinned and straightened. “Not bad—for a woman.”Chapter Five“You tricked me,” he accused.“Yes, that’s true,” Sophie readily admitted, bouncing on her toes. The thrill of the victory coursed through her veins.“I thought you had something in your boot,” he said unhappily, like a petulant child.“Unlike you, I am not bound by any gentleman’s code. I may fight as unfairly as I wish. And you lost.” She couldn’t help but grin. “You cannot think I’ll apologize for it.”His gaze narrowed. “You are quite determined when you want something. Do you let anything stop you once you’ve decided on a course?”“No, not if I can help it. And admit it, you are surly merely because you did not foresee my brilliant plan.”“Brilliant plan?” he scoffed. “A rock in your boot?”“It worked, did it not?”An annoyed huff served as his answer.Sophie laughed as she started for her abandoned cloak. Time to return home before her absence was noted. She was also having trouble concentrating with Quint in such a sweaty and disheveled state. The opening on his shirt had widened, showing a patch of chest lightly covered in dark, springy hair, now damp from exertion. It was deliciously improper and intimate, and every part of her tingled at the sight.He’d almost kissed her. For a moment, with his arm around her, she’d felt something powerful between the two of them. And it scared her how much she’d wanted it.She picked up her cloak, turned to him, and cleared her throat. “Quint, I wanted to apologize for the other evening, with the pistols. I should not have fired without warning, or at least asking first.”He grimaced. “I overreacted, and for that I beg your pardon. I haven’t heard a pistol fired since that night and it . . .” He trailed off.“It what?”“Nothing. Got a bit rattled, is all.”She’d seen him through the door. Rattled? He’d been nearly apoplectic. “You did a very brave thing that night,” she said, “trying to stop Maggie’s attacker.”“It was stupid of me. I didn’t think it through. If I had, I would have grabbed a weapon, at least.”“You couldn’t have known—”Quint held up a hand, cocked his head. When he did not speak, Sophie asked, “What is it?”He turned to her, intensely serious. Heavens, those beautiful, full lips. She could not help but stare. “Did you hear that?” he asked, quietly.“No. What should I have heard?”He frowned. “I heard glass breaking. A window, perhaps.” He beckoned her with his hand. “Come. I need to see what’s happened.”She held up her palms, as if to ward him off. “What if someone sees me? I believe it prudent that I remain here.”He sighed. “First, I know you shall scamper away the second my back is turned, and since there may well be a threat on the property, I should like to keep an eye on you. Second, if there is a threat, it is best you are with me instead of here by yourself.”“Nonsense. More than likely it’s a mouse.”“I do not have mice, at least not ones large enough to break glass.” He lifted his foil and removed the cap covering the tip for safety. “And you are being illogical, Sophie. Do as I say now, or we waste precious time in an argument I will undoubtedly win regardless.”She’d seen Quint in a debate and he was very, very good. And they both knew it was not a mouse. Reluctantly, she lifted the other weapon. Quint was already to the door, so she had to hurry to catch up. He stopped abruptly and she nearly slammed into his back. “Quiet,” he said over his shoulder.He crept into the hall and Sophie followed, staying close. Silence echoed throughout the house, and the carpet muffled their footsteps as they traveled toward the stairs. Quint’s home tended toward the austere, she’d noticed. The furnishings and carpets were all in excellent condition, but the space held no life. There were no flowers to brighten it up. No family portraits or other artwork she’d seen, and his study seemed the only room he actually used. Heavy covers concealed the furniture, as if the lodgings were temporary and he planned to move at any moment.At the bottom of the stairs, he paused to listen. She waited on the first step, feeling ridiculous. The odds that a person had gained entry to his house—A floorboard creaked somewhere near the back of the house, and Sophie held her breath. Perhaps one of the servants was not abed yet. Foil raised, Quint started in the direction of the sound. Before they’d taken a dozen steps, a shadow slipped out of Quint’s study and into the corridor. A man. He was wrapped in a brown cloak pulled low over his forehead. The shadow glanced their way and froze, and Sophie saw he was wearing a black mask, like some sort of highwayman.“Do not move,” Quint ordered the man and took a step toward the study.In an instant, the intruder bolted. He ran toward the dining room, which Sophie knew would lead to the terrace. Quint sprinted after him, Sophie right behind. He was faster, though she did her best to keep up. In the dining room, she saw the figure throw open the French door and disappear outside. Quint skidded to a halt at the threshold, and she heard him utter a curse.“Why are you stopping?” she shouted. “Go after him!”When she came alongside, he was standing there, still as a statue, his face contorted in anger and misery.“What is wrong? Are you ill?”“No,” he snapped.“You are letting him get away?”He said nothing, his lips pressed tightly together.Confused but determined, she ran out onto the terrace. “Then I shall get him myself!”  Quint stared, mouth agape, as Sophie streaked across his terrace like some sort of avenging Valkyrie. He hadn’t thought for a moment that she would give chase, alone. Had she no sense at all? Whoever that man was, he would not want to risk discovery, which meant he’d hurt Sophie without remorse. Christ, she could be hurt. Killed.For God’s sake, man,he told himself.Just go.She should not be forced to risk herself because he was too bloody afraid. What kind of a man was too scared to leave the house?Do it,his brain shouted.He took a deep breath and placed his foot on the stone beyond the dining room. Before he could take another step, his heart tripped and cold perspiration broke out all over his body. No, not now. He swayed, determined not to give up, and gripped the frame. Brought another step forward.Focus on the logic. You’ve done this a thousand times before.A breeze fanned his skin, an unwelcome reminder that he was partway out of the house, and his vision sparkled. The sense of panic intensified a thousandfold and, with a desperate lurch, he threw himself backward into the safety of the house.Bent at the waist, he placed his hands on his knees and struggled to draw air. Shame and guilt washed over him. He could not do it, could not go out there, no matter how much he needed to. Was this to be the rest of his life, then? Ruled by unfounded fear and uncontrollable physical reactions? Perhaps he should go ahead and put a ball in his brain now.Anger rose in his blood, sharp and fierce. At himself, at Sophie, at the person who’d dared to break into his home. And where was his damned staff? He stomped to the bell pull and nearly yanked it off the wall.He was waiting at the terrace door when a slightly winded footman appeared. “You rang, my lord?”“An intruder has gained access to the house. He ran into the gardens, most likely headed to the alley. Take this sword”—he pointed to the foil on the ground—“and make sure he has gone. Take care not to engage him in a fight, however. It’s not worth your life.” He turned to add over his shoulder, “When you’re done, see that Lady Sophia returns home safely. Then report to me in the study.”“Very good, your lordship,” the boy said, taking up the weapon.Quint retreated to the study. The one room in the house that he enjoyed. The one room in which he spent most of his time. And the one room just invaded by a footpad. So what had the intruder been searching for?The study sat at one end of the library, the stacks of old, familiar tomes more precious to him than a lover. He’d read all of them, most more than once, and had discovered a passion for learning in this very space. Even though his parents had hired the best tutors, Quint had preferred to teach himself. Reading at the age of two and fluent in four languages by the time he’d turned eight, he’d studied alone for long hours.His father had died when Quint was six. Quint had begged his mother not to send him away to school, to let him stay with her, and for a few years she had allowed it. But when Quint turned ten, she would hear no more arguments and he was shipped off to Eton.School had been excruciating, especially the first few years. The absurdly facile lessons had frustrated him, and the other students had mocked him for the questions he asked during instruction. The boys had been merciless, both in and out of class, though Quint had tried his best to ignore them. Kept to himself. He was there to learn, after all, not make friends. And though he was physically capable of fighting back, why on earth would he lower himself to such a base display of unenlightened behavior?Everything changed the day four older students locked him outside in his smalls. Mid-January, the weather was near freezing and his bare feet had begun turning blue when two boys from a neighboring house took pity on him. They brought him inside, warmed him up, and gave him clothes and tea. When he recovered, his two saviors marched over to Quint’s hall, busted down the door, and proceeded to beat the stuffing out of the boys responsible. It was the most fearsome and humbling sight Quint had ever witnessed in his eleven years.And a lifelong friendship had been born.Nick Seaton, then just a duke’s forgotten second son, and Simon Barrett, the prized future Earl of Winchester, soon taught Quint everything one could not learn in books. How to throw a proper punch. How to cheat at cards. How to sneak out without getting caught. Quint, on the other hand, helped both boys with their studies. The three of them were inseparable, and school grew tolerable.Fate had thrown them together, and Quint remained grateful for the two men who’d saved him on more than one occasion. Now, however, he thanked providence that both of his childhood friends were in absentia, that they would not bear witness to his humiliation. He still felt like the eleven-year-old boy out in the unforgiving cold, trying to comprehend what made him so different, sobroken.And he’d rather no one saw his failing struggle, his desperate attempts to remain sane.Sighing, he brought his attention to the present. On the far wall stood a glass curio case, which he kept locked. Inside were various bits and mementos he’d picked up in his travels over the years. Nothing particularly valuable, but the intruder must’ve thought otherwise because he’d broken the thing open. So that was the crashing sound Quint had heard earlier.He was inspecting the shelves for missing items when Sophie’s voice shattered the silence. “Well, I lost him in the mews,” she panted. “Dratted man was fast. He turned up Charles Street and disappeared on me.”Quint could not look at her. Could not withstand the questions or the pity. He stared intently at a small refracting telescope from Rome. “Regardless, I thank you for your effort. John will see you home.”Silence descended, and he sensed her waiting. What in the hell did she want him to say? He had no explanation, no answers. And he absolutely didnotwant to have a damned conversation about it. Everything inside him wanted to howl, to scream, in anger and frustration as misery boiled inside him, rising like a tide he struggled to contain. One crack and the levee would burst . . . and no telling what would happen then.“Are you dismissing me?”Her dismay caused more emotion to leech out, a sliver in the wall of his composure. He straightened and crossed his arms. “Hard to believe I would dare to speak rudely to such a paragon, the perfect daughter of a marquess out running amuck in men’s clothing. But dare I shall. Consider yourself dismissed, Sophie,” he snapped. “The lessons are over. The advice, the exercise, the everything . . . it is over. Leave anddo not come back.”“You stubborn man,” she said, her eyes narrowed to slits. “I have done nothing but try to help you. Why are you so unwilling to accept it?”Fury and embarrassment roiled inside his gut, and he clenched his hands to keep from throwing something. “I do not need your help. I do not need anyone’s help.”“Is that so? Because thisparagonnoticed how you fell apart at the report from a pistol. How you refused to give chase—”“Enough!” he roared and snatched the first thing within reach—the crystal ink pot from his desk—and hurled it against the wall. Dark blue spattered on every surface, gruesome evidence of a bestial violence he’d never displayed before. Chest heaving, he closed his eyes against the sight. God, he was no better than an animal. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyelids. It was getting worse.Shewas making it decidedly worse.“Quint,” she said quietly. “Let me help you. Whatever is wrong, it can be fixed.”He shook his head. So optimistic, his Sophie. She’d been indulged and pampered her whole life, her father allowing her to do as she pleased without consequence. He was beyond redemption, however. How could he make her understand?“This—I—cannot be fixed. The sooner you believe me, the sooner you will cease interfering in my life and leave me alone.”“Is that what you think I’ve been doing, interfering?”He hated the way her face fell, how her shoulders slumped. Most of all, he hated himself for the disease rotting his brain. He needed to drive her away, when what he really wanted was to pull her into his arms and never let her go. But this was how it had to be.
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“My lord.” Taylor knocked on the open door and peered in. “I thought I heard a crash. Is anything amiss?”Quint swallowed and dug for composure. “Everything is fine. See that Lady Sophia gets home, will you, Taylor? I am going to bed.” Without a backward glance, he strode out of the study and toward the stairs. One thing he knew, sleep would be a long time coming.  Noises pulled Sophie up from the depths of sleep. She fought it, snuggling in deeper, until light spilled into the room. “Go away,” she mumbled and flipped the bolster over her head.“My lady,” Alice said, “his lordship is requesting your presence in his study when you’ve dressed.”Her father wanted to see her—and so early? That jolted her awake. “What time is it?”“Nearly one.”Sophie blinked. “It is? I cannot believe I slept so late.”“That is what happens when you stay out all night,” Alice muttered.“I was not out all night. I returned at a fairly reasonable hour.” Only, then, she hadn’t been able to fall asleep. The evening’s events with Quint kept turning around and around in her head.She rolled over and then groaned. There wasn’t a part of her that did not ache. Even the tops of her toes hurt. “Do I have time for a bath?”“His lordship is with his man of affairs. I suppose he won’t notice if you’re a few more minutes.” Alice went to the door and poked her head into the corridor.Sophie struggled to sit up when Alice returned. “Do you think this is about The Talk?” Sophie’d heard it so many times that she could recite it.You need a husband, Sophia. I won’t always be around to look after you. This year, I expect you to choose one.And while she loved her father dearly, she had no intention of following his orders. Her failure would disappoint him, which she regretted, but there was no hope for it. Marriage was impossible.Her maid went to the wardrobe. “It’s about that time, I’m thinking.”Sophie sighed heavily as she swung her legs over the side of the mattress.“His lordship only wants to see you settled and happy with children of your own, my lady. All fathers do.”Guilt pressed down on her. She would be married now, if only she hadn’t been so stupid. She’d actually believed Lord Robert would offer for her.Many betrothed couples anticipate the wedding night, Sophia. And we’ll be betrothed as soon as I can speak with your father.Only, he hadn’t approached her father afterwards. She’d waited and waited, hope fading each day, until she’d finally cornered him a week later at a soirée.  “Robert,” she said once they were alone. “I thought you planned to speak with my—”He looked at her coldly, his face nearly unrecognizable in its unfriendliness. “Then you misunderstood,” he said. “My wife will be pure when she comes to the marriage bed.”Sophie gasped. “I—I was pure.”“Then where was the blood?” he sneered.“I do not know. I’m told not all women bleed the first time.”“They do. And you were far too . . . enthusiastic for a virgin. To marry you now would dishonor my family.”  The memory made her cringe.Dishonor. She’d seen the truth in his eyes, that Robert would never believe her. That something waswrongwith her. To that point, Robert had married another girl not long after and they had moved to his family’s estate in Wales. And Sophie had vowed never to allow anyone to humiliate her ever again.She would not inflict her shame on another man.By the time she’d bathed, dressed, dried her hair, and entered her father’s study, it was near three. “Good afternoon, Papa.”Her father glanced up from his desk. His secretary was there, pen scratching madly over parchment as the marquess dictated directions. Papa was an important member of Liverpool’s inner circle, and he spent his days on both government duties and estate matters. Though he was busy, however, he always made time for her.Her father’s face softened as he rose. “Sophia! There’s the beautiful smile to brighten up my dreary day. Come here, my dear.”She warmed under his affection, as she always did. Her father was demonstrative and loving, never afraid to show how he felt about his family. He was still handsome at fifty-eight, tall and fit, with graying brown hair and sideburns. When she drew close, he reached for her and kissed her cheek. “I hope I haven’t interrupted your busy day. Yates, would you mind giving us a moment?”“Of course, my lord.” The secretary gathered his things and quit the room.When the door closed, he said, “Let’s sit, shall we? I have something I need to discuss with you.”She folded into the chair across from his desk, clasped her hands. Readied herself.“My dear,” he said, resuming his seat. “I know what it is to be young and enjoy one’s self—believe me, I got into my fair share of scrapes in the day—but you are a lady and the rules are different. Each year I give you the same lecture, and each year you ignore it. So I fear drastic measures must now be taken.”Sophie blinked. This was not The Talk. Drastic measures . . . whatever did he mean? “Papa, I know you wish me to marry. I will find someone this Season, I promise.”“That has been your answer every year since your debut. Yet you remain unmarried. You discourage suitors so handily it could be considered an art. I know I am partly to blame because I’ve indulged you all these years. But after your mother . . .” He took a deep breath and her heart squeezed painfully, both for his loss of a wife and her loss of a mother. He continued, “This Season will be different. I already have someone in mind for you. Therefore, should you not make your own choice, I will be making it for you.”Her stomach dropped as her jaw fell open. “No! You cannot mean it.”“I do.”“Why?”“Sophie, I am nearing sixty. I should like to see you settled. Perhaps hold a grandchild or two before I go.”The idea would’ve knocked her off her feet had she not been sitting. She’d never considered . . . Of course, she knew he would die someday, but that day always seemed so far in the future. He was all she had. Yes, she had a stepmama and a half brother, but it wasn’t the same. This was the man who’d rocked her back to sleep each time she’d had a nightmare. . .the man who had let her slide down the banister in her nightclothes . . . the man who let her keep a pet piglet in the house.“And the closer you get to thirty,” he continued, “the harder it will be to form a good match.”Her mind reeling, she wheezed, “Who . . . who is he?”Her father shook his head. “I shan’t say for fear you’ll come up with a way to scare him off, but this gentleman meets all my requirements in a husband for my only daughter. Just know that you will be married this year, whether you choose him or I choose him for you.” He shuffled a few papers on his desk, unable to meet her eyes, and she realized how uncomfortable he seemed.She did not believe him. Her father would never marry her off to someone she did not want. She just needed to give him time. Put forth a reasonable effort at this year’s parties. Go for a few drives in the park. Then he would relent, she was sure of it.But a small amount of doubt stayed with her the rest of the day.Chapter SixThe next afternoon, Quint’s mood was blacker than obsidian. The broken glass and ink spots in his study had been dealt with, but he was no closer to determining the person responsible for the break-in or what he had been looking for. From what Quint could tell, everything was in its rightful place. Nothing of value taken. His work was safely tucked away in a location no one save him would ever find.In addition, guilt compounded his other worries. He’d lost control in front of Sophie. Acted like a child, shouting and throwing things. How could he ever face her again?A timid knock on the study door interrupted his concentration. “Yes?” he snapped.One of the maids—Elizabeth? Eliza?—appeared. “My lord, there’s a man at the door asking for a Sir Stephen. He seems quite adamant that the gentleman lives here. What should I tell him?”“Where is Taylor?”“He is downstairs, my lord. I was dusting and heard the knocker.”“Who did he ask for—a Sir Stephen? No one by that name lives here. Tell him he has the wrong house.”“That’s just it, sir. He says he does have the right house, that it’s one of your lordship’s guests.”Guests? Quint rubbed his forehead. “Who is the caller?”“Lord MacLean, your lordship.”That gave him pause. He’d seen MacLean over the winter in the clubs and various social events, but the two of them hadn’t exchanged even ten words. Why would a Scottish earl—one he and Sophie had discussed recently—be on Quint’s stoop asking for a nonexistent houseguest? “Show him to the front drawing room, will you?”She bobbed a curtsey and shut the door. Quint rose and lifted his coat off the chair back, shoving his arms into the sleeves. Could this have something to do with Sophie’s duel? He started around his desk and wondered if she had gone to MacLean after all.Cursing himself a fool, he buttoned his coat and continued to the drawing room. Sophieshouldgo to MacLean. Hadn’t Quint told her never to come back? He’d been purposely cruel last evening in the hopes of keeping her away. So relief should be the prevailing emotion, not this burn blossoming in his chest—a burn he suspected might be jealousy.Lord MacLean stood when Quint entered. “Apologies for disrupting you, Quint. I was inquiring after your houseguest, Sir Stephen.”Quint motioned for the man to sit as he lowered into a chair. “I fear someone’s bamming you, MacLean. I have no houseguest.”The ox-sized Scotsman frowned, appearing genuinely perplexed. “I heard him say it with my own ears. Why would your cousin lie?”“My cousin?”“Ran into him at Madame Hartley’s two evenings past, in an argument with Lord Tolbert. Apparently Tolbert challenged the pup to a duel, wouldn’t accept an apology instead. I had to step in, and Tolbert took offense to a Scotsman involving himself in a dispute betweenEnglishgentlemen.”Quint’s eyebrows lifted, and MacLean nodded. “Indeed. I could not let that stand, you ken. Tolbert’s to meet me on a field of honor and Sir Stephen’s agreed to be my second.”Familiar pieces of information slid around in Quint’s brain: Duel. Buckskin breeches. MacLean. Young pup. Cousin to the Viscount Quint—and then they fell into place. Good God.She had truly gone too far this time.His fingers curled around the edges of the armrests. It was all he could do to stay seated, not to jump up and . . . what? Shake his fist in impotent anger? Pen a strongly worded note? It wasn’t as if he could charge through Mayfair, demanding answers. Christ, he was pathetic. “What does Sir Stephen look like?” he forced himself to ask.“Young. Scarcely out of the schoolroom, if you want to know the truth. A bit short, but then everyone seems short to me. Brown hair. Spectacles. Thin.”Hiding her eyes. Smart. No,notsmart, he corrected. Nothing about her scheme showed intelligence. Did she have any idea of how utterly ruined she would be if discovered? A litany of questions peppered his brain, but no answers emerged. He could not imagine a single reason why she would be out and about in London Society dressed as a man. At abrothel, no less.Pending a tower with an impenetrable lock, there would be no stopping her—and he could do nothing. He’d never regretted his condition more than at this moment. To think of her out in London, at night, unchaperoned, dressed as a man . . . any number of unfortunate things could happen. She needed a keeper—only her keeper wouldnotbe London’s biggest rake. The last man Quint wanted in Sophie’s proximity was the one before him now.MacLean watched him closely, awaiting a response. On occasion, a reputation as a madman could definitely serve as a benefit.Quint snapped his fingers. “Of course, mycousin. How could I forget the lad? I mostly keep to my study and cannot keep track of his comings and goings.”“So he does live here?”“Yes, he has been known to knock about the place. But keep your distance from him.”“Why’s that?”“He’s unpredictable. Raves like a lunatic some nights. Other days he cannot get out of bed.” He tapped his temple. “Non compos mentis.”MacLean lifted a brow. “Well, I wanted to speak with him about Tolbert. He was supposed to call on me yesterday, yet he never showed.”Understandable. To pass herself off as a man would be infinitely easier at night than during the day. At least she employed some restraint. “And as the boy’s appointed guardian, I am afraid I cannot allow that. His mental status would make him an unreliable second. He might suffer a fit and shoot you instead.” MacLean frowned but nodded, and Quint asked, “Do you happen to know why Tolbert challenged Sir Stephen?”MacLean pushed his large frame out of the chair and grinned. “I dinna ken the whole story, but I heard it was over a woman at The Pretty Kitty.”Quint choked, which he quickly covered with a cough. “Is that so? I’ll be sure and ask the lad next time I see him. So take care, for your own sake, to give Sir Stephen a wide berth. I would not even approach him, were I you.” He stood up and held MacLean’s stare. “Stay far, far away from Sir Stephen.”MacLean held up his hands, his brows raised. “Not a problem. But he might get into less trouble if you can fatten him up. Lad’s skinnier than a fence post.”  A large carriage waited in the alley behind the tea shop. The driver jumped down at Sophie’s approach. “Greetings, my lady.”“Good day, Biggins.” He flung the door open for her and set the step. “Thank you.” She climbed up and inside, the well-sprung vehicle creaking slightly in protest. The curtains were drawn and a lamp had been lit in the interior. Biggins closed the door behind her.“I apologize for being late,” Sophie told the two women waiting inside as she settled on the seat.“Not a problem, my lady,” Pearl Kelly said, smiling. “Mary and I have just been comparing tricks of the trade, as it were.” Carefully positioned chestnut curls framed Pearl’s delicate face, the style both youthful and flattering. Though it was early in the day, her jewels glittered in the dim interior. Sophie had never seen Pearl without something sparkling on her fingers and ears.“I am indeed sorry to have missed that conversation. Perhaps—”“No, you know that I cannot.” Pearl wagged a finger at Sophie. “Lady Winchester and the duchess both would have my hide. Not until your ladyship is married.”Sophie bit off the retort, that she would never be married, because what was the point? No one believed her anyhow. She turned to the thin, black-haired girl next to Pearl. “Mary, thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I would have come to you at The Kitty, if it were possible, but I am afraid Sir Stephen must remain out of sight for a few days.”Sir Stephen may have extricated himself from his dawn appointment with Tolbert, thanks to Lord MacLean’s intervention, but now he was involved in another, also thanks to Lord MacLean. Who knew the men of thetonwere such a hotheaded bunch behind closed doors?Mary shrugged. “No problem, milady. It’s not every day I gets a chance to chat with Pearl Kelly and the daughter of a marquess.”“And sneaking out won’t cause any problems for you?”“No, milady. My friend Tibby will cover for me.”“Still, it’s best not to keep you. I wondered if you could tell me about Rose’s fancy gent, the one she believed would set her up in a house.”“Set her up? Rose never said anythin’ to me about gettin’ a protector, your ladyship.”“She told her sister, apparently. I thought she might have shared the news with you as well.”“I’m afraid not, milady. She did have some regular customers, but I never heard that one of them was sweet on her.”Sophie exchanged a quick glance with Pearl. “So these recent regulars,” Pearl said. “Any idea of their identities?”Mary cocked her head and contemplated the question. “Well, let’s see. I only knows ’em by what she called ’em, er, their pet names. . . .” She raised her eyebrows.“Yes, I understand.” Then Pearl said to Sophie, “They give them names based on the gentleman’s performance or preferences in the bedroom.”“Ah,” Sophie said. “And so?”“Let’s see. One of O’Shea’s men. She called him Sweaty. Another gent, called himLa Gauche.” Mary put her hand in her lap, extended one finger, and swung it to the left. Pearl sniggered and Sophie blurted, “They can do that?” which caused Mary and Pearl to dissolve into a fit of giggles.“Very well,” Sophie drawled to get back to the issue at hand. “Anyone else?”“There was the Watcher. Never wanted to touch her, just watch her . . . you know.” Mary shifted on the seat. “One of ’em she called King George because he seemed not right in the head, God rest His Majesty’s soul.”“Not right in the head, how?” Sophie asked, sharply.“Erratic, I think. Not violent, just . . . strange. Talked all sorts of nonsense. But I don’t think he would have hurt her, milady. Rose had a good head on her shoulders.”“I do not doubt it, but evil does not always show itself outright. Others you can think of?”“Oh, there was a man who stammered when he got excited. Tangle tongue, she called him. That’s all I can remember, your ladyship.”“Thank you, Mary. Will you send word if you encounter any of these men? I’d like to see if I can learn their identities.”“I will, milady. More ’n likely they’ll start seeing other girls at The Kitty.”Sophie dug in her reticule, pulled out a few coins, and handed them to Mary. “Hide these and use them for yourself.”“Thank you, milady. I will.”“You shall escort her back?” Sophie asked Pearl.“Indeed, my lady. Be safe.”“And you as well.”  A second visitor arrived not long after MacLean departed, one Quint could not turn away—no matter how much he wanted to.“Quint, thank you for seeing me.” Lord David Hudson strode into Quint’s study, leaning slightly on the walking stick in his left hand. “Although you will need to explain why you refuse to come to me, illness or no.”Hudson had served as Quint’s contact at the Home Office for seven years. Razor-sharp and charismatic, Hudson was undoubtedly one of the most important men in the British government, though what he actuallydidwas a bit vague. He’d recruited Quint for service during the Napoleonic conflict, and Quint had enjoyed his years of developing complicated codes the French could not break. The two kept in loose contact these days. Hudson knew Quint was working on something but did not know the particulars. Quint preferred to keep his work to himself until it was completed.“This could’ve been handled in correspondence,” Quint said. “There was no need to come all the way to Mayfair.”“Yes, your man did attempt to turn me away at the door. And suffice it to say I did not come for the hospitality.” He glanced around for a place to sit.Quint reluctantly cleared a chair of its contents. “What if I had contracted something contagious?”Hudson strode to the chair, flipped up the tails of his topcoat with a flourish, and sat. He propped his walking stick against the desk. “But you have not contracted anything. You are perfectly well.”Better not to argue, Quint thought. He had no intention of explaining precisely howunwellhe was. “Now that you are here, perhaps you can explain why you wanted to see me.”Hudson rested his elbows on the armrests and steepled his fingers. “How much do you know about the current political status of Greece?”Quint cocked his head and sifted through the pieces of information inside his brain. “I know that revolution has been brewing there for a number of years, and that the Filiki Eteria has begun massive initiations with the plans of launching a liberation campaign against the Ottomans. The Greeks have the support of Alexander I, who is presumably hoping to colonize after the bloodshed, and England would rather Russia not get a foothold so close to our shores.”“Very good. Castlereagh has maintained the need for status quo on the face of it, to preserve the peace of Europe as long as we can. But I am orchestrating things quietly to make sure, whenever it begins, this skirmish goes the way we want.”“Ah.”“Yes, you can see where I am headed, I suppose. I know the work you did against Bonny, and I also know your penchant for solving the unsolvable puzzle. I suspect you are attempting to crack Vigenère’s cipher during your self-appointed incarceration. I do not need to tell you how valuable that solution would be to the British government when every other government in Europe uses it. We could read and decipher every coded message ever sent. So the question becomes, who else knows of this work?”
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Scary how much Hudson knew. “Absolutely no one.”“I understand you had an intruder last evening. Why would someone bother doing that, do you suppose, unless you were close to cracking it?”Quint stilled, hardly able to breathe. How had Hudson learned of last evening? “I haven’t the faintest idea.”“Because thereisno other reason. Are you certain you have not told anyone about your work? Lady Sophia, perhaps?”Goddammit. Quint searched the other man’s face, but Hudson gave nothing away. There was no clue as to how he knew of Quint and Sophie’s . . . friendship. The man had ice in his veins; little wonder he’d risen so high in His Majesty’s service. “No, Lady Sophia is a friend. Nothing more.”A small twitch of his lips was Hudson’s only discernible reaction. “I assume whoever broke in did not find anything. Is whatever you are working on in a safe place?”“Yes.”“Any chance you will tell me where you keep it?”“None.”Hudson tapped his fingers together in a slight show of irritation. “Quint, Castlereagh is . . . unpopular. People are unhappy with his policies, Peterloo, the Six Acts, and the like. And this discord is affecting his mind. Public opinion can be quite harsh when it turns against you.”Quint tried not to react. He knew how the game was played. Hudson did not care to be thwarted, so now he’d loaded up his quiver with well-appointed arrows. Quint watched and waited.“Doubtful he’ll last much longer,” Hudson continued, “and so we must begin to think about the future of England.”“And you hope to succeed him?”Hudson grimaced. “Heavens, no. Much too high profile for me. I prefer to remain in the shadows, where the real power resides. But there is someone already in mind, someone who will listen to reason when it becomes necessary. Like if, for example, a peer of the realm needed our protection.”The skin on the back of Quint’s neck prickled. God, he hated politics. Why intelligent men did not instead put their time and efforts to more worthwhile pursuits, such as science and philosophy, boggled his brain. Disease and famine might well be eradicated if not for politicians. And agents of the British government.“I cannot produce what I do not yet have, Hudson. The work is under way but not finished. When it is ready, you will have it—and not a moment sooner.”The man smiled amiably, though his eyes remained as hard as flint. “Of course. Just as long as I am the one to receive it.”Meaning Quint might sell the cipher solution to a rival empire. “Whyever would you not be?” he countered coolly.“I cannot imagine. But we find ourselves in strange circumstances these days, do we not?”As Quint stared at Hudson, he quickly catalogued the man’s appearance. Shorn dark hair, the kind one used to see under wigs, receded off his forehead to form a point in front. Nails clean and short. Elegantly appointed with expensive tailoring. Same limp, from an injury he’d suffered fighting with Wellington in Portugal before landing in government service. No stain, smudge, or speck of dirt to mar the presentation. Why men wasted so much time on their appearance never failed to perplex Quint.Nothing seemed out of place, yet there was something off, something he should be noticing. He knew it instinctually. The same walking stick Hudson always carried, the inside no doubt hiding a long, sharp blade. A small chunk of wood was missing from the handle, near the knob.None of that should make Quint uneasy, however. So why did part of his brain insist on searching where nothing existed? There was only one answer: His mind had clearly deteriorated even further than he’d originally thought. The idea depressed the hell out of him.Hudson snatched up his walking stick and levered out of the chair. Quint rose as well, disconcerted. “I shall leave you to it, then,” Hudson said as he started for the door. “Good day, Quint.”When Hudson departed a few moments later, Quint called Taylor to the study. “Yes, my lord?”“Taylor, the members of the staff, what are we up to now? Ten?”“Nine, your lordship. The upper house maid quit earlier today.”Quint searched his desk for a clean piece of paper. “Assign one of the other maids, or hire a new one. It matters not to me. Thank you, Taylor. That is all.”“Pardon me asking, but has your lordship ever given thought to acquiring a valet?”Pen paused over the ink pot, he said, “No. Why?” He did not want a valet. Hadn’t had one since he was twenty. They disapproved of his odd hours and his tendency to dress himself. They were worse than nursemaids, and Quint did not need to be cared for like a child. Like an imbecile. Oh, hell . . .“The maids, my lord, are responsible for many tasks in a household this size. The additional requirements of your lordship’s wardrobe—the mending, the polishing, the pressing—are quite outside the scope of what they normally do for a master of the house. It’s a valet’s job. I believe we would have more success in retaining maids if there were a valet about.”Quint’s face must have shown his horror, because Taylor quickly added, “We could keep him below stairs, my lord, if you’d rather. Your lordship need never see him. But he can tend to the clothing, relieving the maids.”It made sense, damn it. Quint never cared for convention, but perhaps it was unfair to ask the maids to do more than their share. “Fine. Find one, but keep him out of my sight.”“Thank you, my lord.” Taylor retreated, leaving Quint alone to contemplate his exchange with Hudson.Just how was Hudson coming by the information? It had to be someone inside Quint’s house, someone observing and passing notes along to the Home Office.And then there was the intruder. While the layout of Beecham House was not complicated, the man had known precisely where to find the most expeditious escape. That suggested familiarity with the house. As well as someone who was aware that he and Sophie were otherwise engaged in the ballroom. So who was it?The Beecham household attracted a hodgepodge lot, mainly due to Quint’s reputation as a difficult employer, and the fact that he never bothered with references. Anyone on his staff may not be whom they claimed. No employment agency would work with him any longer, so anyone he hired came off the street. Not that it mattered; whatever an employment agency could tell him would be far less than Quint could observe himself.Taylor’s interview a few weeks back, for example. Fresh-faced lad, borrowed shoes, too thin, a fading, round burn mark on the inside of his right wrist. Too young to have ever served as a butler but desperate for any position he could find. Quint had hired him on the spot. Regardless, he knew nothing about the lad’s background.Glancing around the walls of his study, he frowned. This house was his last remaining solace, the only place to which he could retreat. He’d grown up here . . . buried his parents here . . . come into the title in this very room. It was the one place in the world he’d felt safe.Until now.Chapter SevenQuint stared at the basket on his stoop. A red woolen blanket covered the top, and there was a large paper pinned to the thick fabric that read:For his lordship.“Whom did you say delivered this, Taylor?”“It’s unclear, my lord. The person departed before Cook answered the knock.”Quint scratched his jaw, thinking. With the break-in a few nights prior, he supposed any number of things could spring out. “Better step back, Taylor,” he said.The butler moved away and Quint lifted the edge of the blanket. He saw . . . brown fur. And legs.He flipped the blanket off and found a sleeping dog. A puppy, to be precise. Light brown body with black fur surrounding its nose. A fat scarlet ribbon had been tied in a bow around its neck.“Why, it’s a little dog,” Cook said, she and Taylor now peering over Quint’s shoulder. “And ain’t she a cute one.”Quint grimaced. “Dogs are not cute. Dogs are messy, dirty, and exceedingly dumb. They demand attention and eat . . .” He drifted off as the creature began to stir, its legs twitching in awareness. It blinked a few times and rolled on its back to stretch.“A boy dog, I be thinkin’,” Cook laughed and then quickly sobered. “Beggin’ your pardon, your lordship.”“No need to apologize for drawing the obvious anatomical conclusion,” Quint said, rising. “The question is, what are we to do with it? We cannot keep it. Perhaps the boys in the stable—”Cook gasped. “But, my lord, that dog is for you. Someone wanted your lordship to have him.”The dog twisted to his stomach and stood up. His ears flopped over, they were so large, and he put his oversize paws on the edge of the basket and tried to climb out. “Yes, but I do not know the first thing about domesticated animals. How to care for it, what to feed it.”“Why, it’s not hard, my lord. Once you get them trained properly, that is.”Quint dragged a hand down his face. Christ, the animal would urinate—and worse—all over his house.Taylor cleared his throat. “If I may say, my lord, I believe the dog would be a welcome addition to the household. The staff would appreciate the opportunity to care for it.”“Oh, yes,” Cook added in a rush. “I agree, my lord.”Now Quint looked an ogre if he tried to get rid of the thing. “Dogs need exercise. Who is going to take it for walks?”“I’ll have a footman do it.”“And I suppose,” Quint said to Cook, “you are going to tell me you shall feed the thing.”“Indeed, my lord. We’ve got more than enough scraps for him.”The puppy was still struggling to get out of the basket, though the wicker sides were higher than its head. Quint bent down and tilted the basket until the creature was able to tumble out. Tail wagging madly, the puppy bounded down the steps and began sniffing the earth.Quint knew who’d delivered the puppy. She could not keep from interfering, despite the harsh words he’d leveled at her. Why was she so determined to poke and prod him? The dueling practice, the fencing . . . and now a dog. He did not have time for an animal. Every bit of his concentration needed to be in research and experimentation, in finding a way to return to his previous self. The man before the accident.He still hadn’t decided what to do about her other identity, Sir Stephen. The whole thing would be amusing if it weren’t so incredibly reckless. Was there a purpose to her sojourns as a gentleman, or was she bored? And how had no one discovered her secret before now? Quint would recognize her no matter the costume, convincing or not.The dog dashed up the steps and rose to stand on its hind legs, oversized front paws resting on Quint’s boots. The creature looked absurdly happy—his big, round eyes sparkling and vacant—and Quint wondered what a creature so stupid as a canine had to be so bloody jolly about. It seemed to want something from him, but Quint had no idea what he was supposed to do.“He wants your lordship to pet him,” Cook said, gently. “Go on, then. Give him a scratch behind the ears, my lord.”Feeling ridiculous with both Cook and Taylor watching him, Quint reached to stroke the puppy’s head with one finger. Soft. He’d never touched a dog before. His mother hadn’t allowed pets. He had studied animals out in the country and ridden horses, of course, but he’d never petted a dog. The creature seemed to like what he was doing, though, if the tail wagging was any indication.Without warning, the puppy licked Quint’s palm. Quint snatched his hand back and straightened, then shook his head at his own ridiculousness. Licking was instinctual to animals in the Canidae family, both as a method of grooming and to show appeasement. Still, he wiped his hand on his trousers.“What breed of dog is it, do you think?” Cook asked.“A mastiff, I think,” Taylor answered. “And judging by the size of his paws already, a large one at some point in the future.”“How much do you know about dogs?” Quint asked his butler.Color rose on the young man’s cheeks. “I grew up in the country, my lord, and my family had animals of all kinds.”“Excellent. Consider the dog your responsibility, then.”The puppy scampered down into the yard once more, ears bobbing, and Quint wondered at this bizarre gift. A dog. What had she been thinking?“I am pleased to care for him,” Taylor said, “but the honor of bestowing a name should be your lordship’s.”“A name? By which to call it, you mean?” What did one name such a creature? Giving it an identity made him uncomfortable, as if he was treating an animal as a human being. And naming the dog would make it more difficult to rid himself of the thing.Of course, if he gave it away, there was every chance Sophie would merely gift him another one. He sighed. Probably less trouble to keep the cursed thing at this point. “Canis horribilis.”“My lord?”“His name.Canis horribilis.” Quint pointed to the puppy, now digging under a bush. “Fitting, I think.”Taylor’s mouth flattened, but he said, “An excellent choice by your lordship.”Quint grinned. “I am glad you approve, Taylor. Now he’s all yours.” He spun and started for the kitchens. He’d taken one step when something thumped against his ankle. The puppy waited at his heels. “Go with Taylor, Canis.” Tongue hanging from the side of its mouth, the dog sat on the ground and blinked at him. Quint pointed at the butler, scowled at the dog. “Go, Canis.”Nothing. The animal stared at Quint patiently.Quint dragged a hand through his hair. If he knew Sophie, she was nearby, someplace close, to observe his reaction. So he certainly hoped she was enjoying this. Stepping forward, he brushed by Taylor and returned to the threshold. “Do not expect my gratitude,” he shouted into the dying light.He swore he heard giggling before he disappeared into the house.  The distinctive odor of the Thames filled the carriage and Sophie turned toward the window. In the daylight, the docks bustled with rough-hewn dockworkers and sailors unloading cargo as well as efficient-looking customs officials on patrol. At night, however, the area had an eerie stillness to it. The revenue officers barred people from the docks in order to protect cargo against theft, so the men moved inland to the brothels and bars.At last, the wheels slowed to a stop. Sophie threw open the door and climbed out. The driver jumped down and she experienced a moment of surprise at the man’s size. He hadn’t appeared so large up on the seat. She fished in her pocket for a few coins, handed them over, and started to leave. “I’ll be waitin’ for you over there, sir,” the driver said with a tip of his hat.She paused. While she appreciated the gesture, it struck her as odd that he assumed her errand a quick one. “No telling how long I might be.”“No worries, sir. I am happy to wait.”Hmm. This was the first driver she’d hired who had not departed the second he’d been paid. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to argue.Located at 259 Wapping Street, the Thames Police Office was an unassuming three-story structure on the riverbank. Having been established here some twenty-odd years earlier, the police surveyors were charged with seizing and detaining any offenders detected in the act of criminality in and directly around the Thames. While this may have started as a way to guard against piracy and thievery, the men’s responsibilities also included handling any bodies found in the river, the very reason Sophie was now here.She knocked on the door. After several minutes, a man arrived, unlocked it, and allowed her in. He was short and wore spectacles. She guessed him to be in his late thirties.“Good evening,” she told him, stepping inside on the rough wood floor. “I am Sir Stephen Radcliff. I should like to speak with someone regarding the unfortunate discovery day before yesterday.”He peered over his spectacles. “I beg your pardon, sir, but we have many unfortunate discoveries here. To which one are you referring?”“The girl. The one missing a hand.” She held up her right arm to demonstrate. “I fear she may be someone I know. I should like to see her, if possible.”“Surgeon’s got her downstairs,” he said as he strode toward a large desk against the wall, “but there’s not much in the way to recognize her by now. Have you ever seen a body pulled from the water, sir?”Sophie stood a bit taller. Or tried to, at least. “I have not, but I shall not be turned away. The girl may very well be my valet’s sister, and I mean to set the man’s mind at ease.” She slid a few coins across the surface of the desk.The clerk wasted no time in pocketing the silver. “Of course, sir. Follow me.”He came around the desk once more, a large ring of keys in his hand. There was a lamp on the corner, which he picked up as well. Sophie followed him to the door, which the clerk unlocked to reveal a set of steps. They descended, the soft light throwing shadows on the plain, dirty walls. Doors fitted with heavy locks stood on both sides of the corridor. They continued on to the far end, where the man used another key to open a thick, wooden door. “We keep it locked at night,” he explained and gestured for Sophie to enter.This room was brighter than she expected, with multiple lamps positioned around the large space. Instruments covered every surface, a macabre silver reflecting in the glow. There were three long tables, two of which were covered with cloths. A young, bearded man with blood on his clothing—the surgeon, she assumed—leaned against the empty third examination table, a lit cheroot in his fingers. There were dark smudges under his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept in a very long time.“This gentleman wants to see the girl pulled out day before yesterday, the one missing a hand,” the first officer said.The surgeon tiredly lifted his cheroot and asked, “Do you mind? Might keep your eyes from watering if you’re not used to the other smell.”She nodded, grateful. The underlying scent was already quite strong—a rank, noxious odor of decaying flesh. He gestured to a long table where a sheet-covered lump rested. “Right here.” He walked over and flipped the cloth with a flick of his wrist to reveal a bloated, pale naked form with an incision down the center of her body. Sophie had to dig her nails into her palms to keep from reacting. She’d never seen a dead body, let alone one pulled from the water. The skin was gray and loose, torn in places, the stomach distended. Her hair had been cut short, a rough, haphazard effort. Pity constricted Sophie’s chest as she forced herself closer.“Couple of surveyors found her yesterday around noontime. Some boys were throwing rocks at something floating in the water near Horsleydown and the surveyors went to investigate. Pulled her out and brought her here.”Sophie swallowed hard. “Do you know what killed her?”He pointed to purple marks around her throat. “Strangled.”“And her hand was severed.”“Yes, very neatly, too.”She walked all around, studying the body from various angles. The smell grew stronger and she fought the urge to gag. She took a handkerchief from her coat and held it over her nose. “That mark there, on her leg. Is that a tattoo?”“Yes. It’s a small playing card, the queen of spades. Likely a mark from whatever house in which she worked. It’s not a common practice, but there are a few who do it.”So not Rose, who had been employed at The Pretty Kitty. Sophie experienced a small measure of relief until she realized this meantanothergirl had been murdered. This made a total of four found in the last six months—and that still left Rose unaccounted for. She thought of Natalia, the tavern worker that had disappeared a few months back. Could she have been another victim as well?“Anything else you can tell me about her, or any idea when she was killed?”He blew a long, thin stream of smoke from his lips. “Generally takes at least two days in the water until they float to the surface, depending on the temperatures. Dead before she went in the water. Appears as if she was raped as well.”Sophie closed her eyes briefly. A tragic end for anyone, prostitute or lady. “Thank you. I think that is all I need. May I leave money for a proper burial?”That seemed to surprise him. “Leave it with the clerk, sir. I think she’d appreciate that.”  The door closed behind the young man, and the officer, who’d eavesdropped the best he could, stroked his beard. Sir Stephen, he’d said. No good reason for a fresh-faced gent to visit the Thames police in the dead of night. Came to see the girl, the latest victim in what the papers were calling the River Murders. He’d asked too many questions, in the officer’s opinion. Seemed he wanted to know more than just the girl’s identity.Sir Stephen had asked the surgeon about the other victims as well. Why? His initial curiosity had been for the most recent girl—not all the others. So why had he lied?
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One person in particular paid the officer good money to keep an eye on things on Wapping Street. Secret, weekly reports of the investigations and activities in the office, which the officer wrote without fail and delivered to the requested address. It was the main reason he preferred working the desk at night. With the constant stream of surveyors, watermen, and constables in and out of the office during the day, it was nigh impossible to piss without someone watching over your shoulder.At night, however, the officer could do as he pleased. The surgeon might work late if a fresh body awaited, but he stayed on the lower floor. So there was no one to stop the officer as he picked up his pen and found a fresh sheet of parchment.  Quint stood just inside the terrace doors and watched as Canis gamboled away into the dark gardens, the puppy’s big ears flopping wildly. Two days since Canis had joined his household and Quint had to admit the invasion hadn’t been as bad as he feared. The animal hardly ever left his side and Quint found it . . . strangely comforting.Not that he would admit it.Taylor had the right of it; the staff had instantly taken to the animal, eager to participate in frequent walks and feedings. But Canis always returned to Quint’s side. The beast had attached himself to Quint, and there wasn’t a damned thing to be done about it.How had she known?Canis began barking happily. It was the same unrelenting sound when he wanted Quint to pay him attention. Someone was out in the gardens—and it did not take a genius to deduce who might be out there. This was beginning to be a habit with her.“You may as well show yourself,” he called. “He’ll not let up until you do.” Tenacious did not even begin to describe the beast when he wanted something.The yapping ceased and soon Sophie appeared, looking adorably sheepish, with Canis cradled in her arms. “I had not planned on disturbing you. I merely wanted to make sure you had not given him away.” She climbed the steps to the terrace, set Canis on the ground, and then drew closer. She wore a black cloak and bonnet, which he assumed were her skulking clothes.“I ought to, but the staff have grown attached to the curst thing.”“Just the staff?”He did not care for the smug set to her lips. “I named him, did I not? What more do you want from me?”“Does it feel better with your shoes off?”He glanced down at his bare feet. Hard to say when it had started, this preference for the cold marble floor beneath his naked feet, but it helped him feelalive.A true gentleman would never be seen without shoes, yet Quint wasn’t about to put them back on. If she found it offensive, she was welcome to scuttle home. “It feels . . . bracing. As if the cold roots your legs to the floor. You should try it one day.”She lifted her plain skirts to reveal brown half boots with black laces. Bending, she pulled the laces loose, then stood and started toeing off her shoes. Quint watched this with a mixture of fascination and horror. Was the woman truly going to remove her footwear? Propriety had never concerned him, but evenheknew this was beyond the pale.Two soft thuds and her stocking feet made an appearance. His heart kicked hard in his chest, and this time it had nothing to do with fear. Encased in thin stockings, her feet were small and delicate. She wriggled her toes and sighed, a sound that caused heat to unfurl in his groin.Tools of bipedal locomotion, he told himself and snapped his gaze to the gardens.Nothing more. They were functional appendages that should in no way be tempting. He should not be thinking of running his tongue along the smooth instep . . . or wondering how the soft underside would feel as it slid along the backs of his thighs—“I wish I could remove my stockings,” she murmured. “But even this feels heavenly.”Quint swallowed hard and crossed his arms over his chest. The image of her sliding stockings down her bare legs was too erotic to dwell on—not if he didn’t want an obvious erection frightening her. “I am not surprised. Traipsing through the mews of Mayfair is exhausting business.”“Indeed it is,” she returned cheerfully.“Why have you returned, Sophie?”She stared at her toes, moving them back and forth, clearly hesitating. No doubt attempting to fabricate a reason because she didn’t want to tell him the real one.“The truth,” he said.“It seemed a nice night for a stroll. You are generally up late, so I thought I’d see if you were still awake.”He snorted. No lady strolled by herself in the middle of the night. “You are aware I live alone. That this is a bachelor’s residence?”“Should I be worried? Are you planning to chain me to your bed and ravish me at your whim?”He strove not to combine the words “ravish” and “Sophie” in his head; the idea only served to remind him of what he could never have. “Indeed. Merely allow me to remove the other woman there first.”She chuckled. “That’s one thing hardly anyone realizes about you: how amusing you are.”Only she would believe that. Amusing was not a word anyone had ever used to describe him. Odd, strange, and aloof were far more likely. “Not everyone appreciates my humor.”“Admit you are fond of the dog, Quint.”Never. “Did you know the Romans sent mastiffs into battle wearing armor in order to attack the enemy?”She sighed, irritated with his evasion, and he hid a smile. “As always,” she said, dryly, “you are a wealth of information.”“Actually, I find myself quite in the dark these days.”Her eyebrow rose. “Oh? About what?”“I cannot think of a single reason you should be sallying about London in the dead of night, dressed as a man, even if to visit the Thames Police Office. Would you care to enlighten me?”“How . . .” She crossed her arms and thrust up her chin. “Are you having me followed?”“Yes. And you should hardly be surprised. If any woman in the history of England ever needed constant supervision, you are she.”“The driver. I should have known.” She rubbed her forehead. “I cannot fathom your audacity. You have no right to oversee my activities, and furthermore I am doing quite fine on my own.”“Only because no one gets a good enough look at you. How anyone could mistake you for a man is beyond comprehension. You are a hairsbreadth away from the scandal of the decade, Sophie.”“And you are wasting your time if you think to stop me.”“I never said I wanted to stop you. If I did, I would write to your father and inform him of what I know.” He held up a hand as panic clouded her face. “I will not do so unless I feel you are in immediate danger. But that does not mean it’s wise for you to do this. Therefore, I’ve hired someone to drive you about and ensure your continued safety—no matter what you are wearing. But what I do not understand iswhyyou are posing as Sir Stephen in the first place.”He didn’t think she’d answer, the silence stretched so long. “You’ll laugh,” she said quietly.“I sincerely doubt it. Tell me, Sophie.”“I’ve fallen into a bit of a . . . diversion,” she explained with a wave of her hand. “I investigate things. For people—women—with no other resort. Prostitutes, servants, and the like. It started when my maid, Alice, her sister was accused of stealing the flatware in the house in which she worked. After I figured that one out, someone else came to ask for help and it kept going from there. We found I had an easier time dressed as a man, not to mention people took me more seriously.”Though he wished such treatment were not the case, he did not doubt her. Women were not afforded the same accessibility as men in any culture. Still, this hardly set his mind at ease.“Investigating. And here I thought you were not in immediate danger. It’s even worse than I feared.”“It is not!” She stamped her foot. “I’m helping people. And I am careful.”“Yes,” he scoffed. “Duels. Standing in as MacLean’s second. Visits to gaming hells.”She pinned him with a hard look. “You are surprisingly well informed for a man who never leaves his house.”“Shocking, is it not? Yet I remain current on all your antics. What do you think that means?”“I could not begin to guess.”“It means,” he said with all due seriousness, “that if I could learn of it, others could learn as well. Which is why I hired someone to protect you. God, Sophie. Do you know what could happen to you in a brothel? You could be dragged into any nook or empty room and be forced to do unspeakable things. Things a woman like you should never know about.”“A woman likeme.” She let out a brittle laugh, and he could see the flush of anger on her cheeks. “You have no idea what sort of a woman I am, what I know or do not know. And I do not require a guard. You are not my father, Quint, nor my husband.”A well-placed blow, and he felt it keenly, his body tensing. He gave her a stiff nod. “Indeed, I am not. But that does not mean, as a friend, I do not feel responsible for your welfare.”“Why?”“Because if your repeated visits to my house are any indication, you seem to care for mine.”Chapter EightA strange disappointment filled Sophie’s chest, eradicating any anger at his high-handedness, and she had to look away. Right. He cared about her—in afriendlyway, of course. Just as she cared about him. As a friend. Indeed.So why, then, did she wish he’d said something more? Something different.Because you’re feeling something more, nitwit.“And what if I refuse?” she asked, getting back to the conversation at hand.“If you refuse or attempt to evade the guard I’ve hired, then Iwillwrite to your father.”She studied him, but his expression gave nothing away. If it was a lie, she could not tell. But she recognized the deliberate set of his chin, the hard, unrelenting lines of his jaw. “Fine.”The puppy trotted up, sniffed Sophie’s toes, then continued on to Quint. He sat on the ground by the viscount’s naked feet. Very masculine, naked feet. Just staring at them started a quiver deep in her belly. Did his skin look like that all over, slightly pale and dusted with brown hair?“And,” Quint continued, “you must promise to stay out of places such as The Pretty Kitty.”That got her attention. She gasped. “Absolutely not! I must have the freedom to go wherever is necessary for the information I seek. Sir Stephen affords me that freedom. I am perfectly safe there.”“Safe!” He tilted his head back, a mirthless laugh erupting from his throat. “You are anything but safe, even dressed as a man. Sir Stephen does not possess the strength to stop a brawl or evade a footpad. That part of town is more dangerous than most, Sophie. And what happens if a man who prefers to bed young, feminine-looking lads takes a fancy to Sir Stephen?”A fancy . . . to Sir Stephen? Good heavens. She could only blink at him.“I see the idea never occurred to you, my lovely innocent. It is one thing to visit Madame Hartley’s, where gentlemen act in a fairly civilized manner. A house such as The Pretty Kitty is another matter entirely. It is far more unpredictable. There are no rules there.”“I am hardly innocent. And I am not completely daft. I know what happens inside bawdy houses. You’ll be pleased to know that I always carry a weapon to protect myself.”He quirked a brow. “What sort of weapon? I know it is not a pistol.”“A knife. I carry it wherever I go.”“Wherever you go? Even now?”She nodded, eager to prove she wasn’t a total ninny. “Of course.”He turned and closed the short distance between them. She caught the calculating gleam in his brown eyes. It had her taking a cautious step back.He advanced, his large frame crowding her, and she held up her hands to ward him off. “Quint, what are you—”“What if I can find it?”“Find what?”“The knife. If I can locate it and disarm you, will you abandon this silliness after I prove how inadequately prepared you are?”Her spine met the edge of the doorframe, yet he kept coming, effectively trapping her with his body. He wore only a waistcoat atop a fine lawn shirt that hadn’t seen the good side of a pressing since Michaelmas, with the laces partially open to reveal the hard angles of his collarbone. Awareness prickled under her skin. “I am not inadequately prepared.” Why did her voice sound so strange?He didn’t look as if he believed her. “Let us conduct an experiment, shall we?”He reached into the folds of her cloak, clasped her hands, then raised and pinned them above her head, securing them with one of his own. With her cloak thrown open, the taut planes of his chest brushed the tips of her breasts, which began to tingle in appreciation.His free hand settled on her hip. “If I can relieve you of said weapon, then no more visits to bawdy houses and gaming hells.”“That is unfair!” She struggled in his grasp. “You’re holding me captive. At least let me have use of my hands.”His eyebrows shot up. “You think some drunken, randy rogue or cutthroat will fight fair? This is not Gentleman Jack’s or Angelo’s. An assailant will restrain you as quick as you can blink—and you are not strong enough to get free.”At that, she gave a renewed effort to break his grip. He held fast, however, and let her flail for a few moments. When she stilled, she panted, “Devil take you, Quint. I am not amused. Let me go.”“I am not amused either. And you, you stubborn woman . . . you need to be taught a lesson about safety.”“Safety? Need I remind you just who bested whom in your ballroom during our fencing exercise? I can take care of myself.”He did not comment as the fingers of his free hand began traveling up her rib cage, over layers of clothing . . . and ripples of sensation coursed through her body. She shivered when his palm slid over her stomach, his thumb coming to rest between her breasts. The pounding rhythm of her heart echoed in her ears. “Hmm. Not here,” he said, the deep, husky sound like warm honey as he nearly cupped her breast. “Where else might it be?”When his fingers started south, Sophie shook herself. She could not let him win so easily—even if his touch did turn her knees to jelly—so she twisted her body once more, this time with everything she had. Surprise flashed on his face before he tightened his hold. She continued to struggle, jerking on her arms and shoulders to free herself, but he would not budge. His palm glanced over her hip and then her upper thigh, and she began to use her legs, kicking, though her skirts and his proximity prevented her from doing serious damage. “Getting closer, am I?” he said, his eyes glittering in the light of a nearby sconce.The smug set of his beautiful mouth annoyed her. He presumed victory, and Sophie did not care to be dismissed so easily. She raised her knee and aimed for the one spot where men felt it most keenly—but Quint shifted and she connected with his inner thigh instead. “Curse you,” she ground out, chest heaving with exertion.A flash of teeth emerged in a rare grin. “I fully expected that move first. You almost caught me off guard.”“You are enjoying this entirely too much.”“Indeed, this is the most fun I’ve had in ages.” Curling his fingers, he began gathering up her skirts and lifting them. Cool air brushed over her ankles. “Besides, how could I not enjoy having a beautiful woman at my mercy?”The words irritated her further. “I am hardly at your mercy.”He chuckled, still collecting fabric in his hand. “Give over, Soph. You are seconds away from losing.”The edge of her skirts fluttered against her knee, and anger at her helplessness built like a thunderstorm in her chest. Clearly she would not best him physically, so she needed to employ a bit of strategy. Only one idea came to mind, however. So, rising up on her toes, she sealed her mouth to his.He stiffened in shock, but only for an instant. His lips came alive and then, heavens, he was kissing her—reallykissingher. Intently, as if he’d been waiting a lifetime to do it—which wasn’t true, of course, since he’d fallen in love with the Perfect Pepperton. But Sophie no longer cared if he loved someone else. Nothing mattered but this verynon-friendly kiss. Her breasts swelled inside her stays until she could hardly breathe, his hand cupping her jaw to keep her still as he kissed her with exquisite precision.Finally, after what felt like hours, he slid his tongue along the seam of her lips, and she opened eagerly to let him in. He invaded, overwhelming her senses with a delicacy and skill that would have buckled her knees had he not pressed her into the wall.His tongue twined with hers and Sophie matched his movements, determined to affect him every bit as much as he affected her. And he growled, a deep rumble of male desire that thrilled her. She never wanted this to end. It felt reckless and yet completelyright, as if this was the one thing that had been missing from the last three years of her life.Suddenly her hands were free and she immediately threaded her fingers through his thick hair to hold him closer. He responded by tilting her head and deepening the kiss into something more urgent, far less gentle. His tongue continued to probe, to explore. An answering ache built within, centered between her legs, and she began an exploration of her own, her palms moving up his arms to clutch his wide shoulders, marveling at the feel of him under her fingertips. So much strength there, and the heat that radiated off his big body seeped into her bloodstream, igniting her from the inside.His mouth broke off and he dipped to kiss her jaw, her throat, the evening bristle on his face gently teasing her skin. She shuddered as hot, open-mouthed kisses rained across her skin. “Oh, God, Quint.”She should stop him. Run from his house as quickly as her feet would take her. Go home, undress, crawl under the covers, and ease this burning craving at her own hand. Safely. And alone.But she didn’t. No way did she want this to end. Instead, she pushed on his shoulder to reverse their positions and dragged his mouth back to hers. He approved, kissing her with renewed vigor. His palm covered her buttock, bringing her pelvis in line with his, whereby he rocked his hips at the precise spot she ached the most. She moaned into his mouth.The sound of barking gradually registered through the fog in her brain. Quint must have heard it, too, because he broke off to rest his forehead to hers. Sophie clung to him, gasping for air, more shaken than she expected. It was as if he’d reached within her and turned everything inside out.The puppy barked once more, and Quint released her with a sigh. “Canis, quiet.”“What did you name him?”“Canis horribilis.”“‘Horrible dog’? I should have known you would not choose anything as simple as Spot or Blackie.”Quint lifted a shoulder. “It suits him. Though I am unsure why you believed I needed a dog.”“Because I live to torture you.”“Does that also explain why you just kissed me stupid?”No, that was more to torture myself.It only served as a reminder of the things she’d never have. Things she didn’t deserve.Sophie stepped away and pulled the edges of her cloak tighter, wrapping up all those dark desires and wicked yearnings. She kept her voice even. “I was attempting to win your silly game. And now that I have, I must return home.” Spinning on her heel, she strode across the terrace and headed for the gardens.“Sophie,” he called just as she reached the stairs.When she turned, she saw the glint of metal in his hand.Her knife.“How . . . ?” Somehow he’d removed it while they were kissing. Unbelievable.His eyes glittered. “Youlose.”She thrust her chin up, forced a light tone. “You may keep it. I have others at home.” She started down the steps, and then stopped. “Oh, and Quint?”“Yes?” He was watching her intently, his expression annoyingly smug.“Look down.”Quint’s head dropped. Immediately, his body stilled as if he were caught on a frozen pond threatening to crack below him at any moment.Beneath his feet lay the terrace. Quint was outside.  Quint stared at the smooth white surface of the terrace. He could do this. Hehaddone this, not even ten minutes ago with Sophie here. He’d been outside and the world had not crumbled around him.Of course, he’d leapt indoors the instant he’d realized, but for a few moments he had beennormal—not a near-cripple unable to leave his house.He took a deep breath, held it, and slid his toes onto the stone. His pulse jumped, so he closed his eyes and hurried to shift his other foot in line. The surface of his skin turned cold as perspiration broke out on his brow, and his lungs constricted.Do not think about it,he repeated, but it did not help. He gasped, desperate for air, and his heart nearly slammed out of his chest.Damnation. Irrational fear crashed over him, a wave of immense failure that had him retreating into the house. He could not do it. Safely inside, he bent over and rested his hands on his knees, drawing in great gulps of air.He’d researched anxiety, this “deluded imagination” as it was called.The dread of something worse than the present.And while he yearned for a solution, the rational side of him knew there likely would not be. As Byron said,There is an order of mortals on the earth, who do become old in their youth, and die ere middle age; Some perishing—of study, And some insanity.Sighing, he straightened. Disappointment weighted him down. Each day, he expected to be better, yet each day ended in defeat. Except for tonight when kissing Sophie. Too bad he could not kiss her each time he wanted to leave the house.And why had she kissed him? To distract him, certainly. Had there been another reason as well, or was that wishful thinking on his part? He would like to imagine she’d been overcome with passion, desperate for him . . . but he dealt in realities. Practicalities. Why would she want him now—a broken, cowardly excuse for a man—when she’d rebuffed a perfectly healthy version years ago?She wouldn’t, he told himself. Sophie could choose any man, and she’d made it clear long ago Quint was not under consideration.He stared out at the darkness, wondering if perhaps he should give up hope—on Sophie, on going outside, on ever beingnormal. “‘Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not,’” he said aloud, a quote from one of his favorite Greek philosophers, Epicurus. He should ask one of the maids to embroider the saying on pillows and litter the house with them.He needed to return to more important matters, such as discerning the identity of the intruder. His list of observations regarding the staff was near complete. Yet even so, he couldn’t point to one servant as having an obvious motive for breaking into the study. Theft, yes. But if any of them were of a mind to steal, there were plenty of smaller items and even paintings that would fetch a fair penny if fenced. And while he may be oblivious to much in his household, he was fairly certain the staff weren’t robbing him blind.
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“My lord.”He turned to find Taylor striding toward him, a note in hand. “Yes?”“This was just delivered.” Taylor offered the paper from his own fingers, which no proper butler would ever do. A proper butler would have the paper on a salver and present it with great flourish. Though Quint had to admit, he definitely preferred the non-flourish method. Another reason he liked Taylor.Quint slid his thumb under a seal he recognized and then noticed Taylor hovering. “Yes?”“It has been some time since your lordship has eaten, so I had Cook prepare something. It is waiting in the study, my lord.”Quint was not particularly hungry and he hated to be needled, but he supposed he should eat. “Fine.”He glanced at the parchment. A note from Colton. Julia had given birth to a boy. An heir. God help the ladies of thetonin twenty years, Quint thought with a grin. Along with reporting on the mother’s health and the baby’s exemplary constitution, Colton invited Quint to visit Seaton Hall. Quint hated the idea of disappointing his two friends, but traveling anywhere was out of the question.He’d best concoct a plausible excuse, however, or Colton might very well show up on his doorstep.  Activity buzzed inside The Black Queen late on a Friday evening. Hazard tables, croupiers, roulette wheels . . . the frenzy kept the guests hopeful while they emptied their pockets. Sophie, decked out in Sir Stephen’s finery, strolled to the nearest table and placed a few bets while searching the room.A far cry from where she’d been earlier tonight, at one of the Season’s first events, dressed in a ball gown and pretending to enjoy herself. Sophie did so much of that lately—pretending—that it was becoming difficult to remember the real woman.When one of the house girls drew near, Sophie gave a nod to attract her attention, and the lightskirt soon arrived at her side.“Wanna buy some time, luv?” She smelled of gin and sweat, her clothes threadbare.Sophie shook her head. “I am looking for Molly.”Pearl had sent a note earlier—through Alice, of course—with the name of a girl to see tonight in hopes of getting some answers. With any luck, Pearl’s connection would be free. Sophie did not care to be at The Black Queen any longer than necessary. It was another of O’Shea’s establishments, and not in a reputable area of town.“That’s her, over there.” The girl pointed to the back, where a brown-haired girl was bent over, whispering in a gentleman’s ear. Sophie slipped the girl a coin, then headed for Molly. When she drew near, Molly glanced up and gave Sophie a once-over. Her lips twitched before she put her mouth near the man’s ear once more. Whatever she said made him laugh and pat her backside, and Molly straightened to face Sophie.“Were you wantin’ go somewhere private, sir?”“Yes, I do. Where?”Molly grinned. “Follow me.” She brushed past Sophie and continued to a door by the faro tables. A large, rough-looking man with a forbidding expression opened the door and Molly sailed through, Sophie following behind.At the landing, they nearly ran over a girl on her knees. A man leaned against the wall, his trousers undone, pushed to the tops of his white thighs, while the girl worked his male member with her mouth. The act was not unheard of, certainly, but it was the first time Sophie had ever seen it in person. Head bobbing, the girl pulled her lips over the taut, glistening flesh, wet sucking sounds filling the cramped space. Sophie stood motionless, unable to look away. The scene was strangely titillating. The man’s lids were closed, his face slackened in pleasure, and he didn’t even notice the interruption. But the girl’s eyes landed on Sophie—and she winked.A hand on Sophie’s elbow pulled her farther down the corridor. “In here,” Molly said, throwing open one of the doors. She crossed to sit on the small bed and her hands went to the laces on the front of her shabby gown. “What might your lordship be lookin’ for tonight?”“Nothing of that sort.” Sophie held up her hand. “I just need to talk.”“Oh, you like to watch? We get plenty of those, too.” She reached for the hem of her gown, lifting.“No,” Sophie said quickly. “Pearl Kelly said you might be able to help me with some information.”“Pearl Kelly.” Molly grinned. “Well. I haven’t seen her in years. Known her forever, since before we even had tits. She’s got quite a life for herself now. So what did she send you here for?”“Have you heard about the bodies being pulled from the river? The girls?”Molly shook her head. “No. Why?”“One of the girls who died, found a few days ago, she had a marking near her ankle. A small playing card, a black queen. The surgeon said it was a tattoo, most likely from whatever house she worked.”Molly nodded. “O’Shea makes all of us get ’em.” She lifted her leg, pointed to her stocking-clad ankle. Sophie could just make out a black smudge under the wool. “He says it’s to remind us of where we belong.” She rolled her eyes. “As if we could forget.”The barbaric practice of permanently marking women like cattle caused bile to rise in Sophie’s throat. “Have any of the girls gone missing recently? I am trying to find someone, a girl from The Pretty Kitty. The Thames police think she might’ve been pulled from the water two weeks ago. If I can find a man who knew both of these dead women—a customer, perhaps—then I might find whoever was responsible.”Molly shook her head, her gaze sliding away. “I can’t think of anyone who’s gone missin’.”An obvious lie, and Sophie had no intention of letting it drop. “Are you sure? This girl, the one found mutilated two days ago, obviously worked here at some point. Brown hair. She had blue eyes with a small scar—”Molly made a choking sound, then covered her mouth with her hand. Sophie could see the emotion on the other woman’s face from across the room. “Tell me, Molly. It’s plain you knew her. Tell me who she was.”Molly drew in a ragged breath. “I can’t,” she whispered, and Sophie noticed something new in Molly’s eyes. Fear.“Of course you can.” Sophie frowned and stepped closer. “You can help me find whoever did this to her. Please, just tell me what you know.”A tear slipped down Molly’s cheek and she quickly brushed it away. “I can’t,” she repeated in the same hushed tone. “If I do, he’ll kill me, too.”“Who?” Sophie pressed. “Who will kill you? You must tell me, Molly.”Molly shot to her feet. “Forgive me for sayin’, but I don’t have to tell you a thing, my lady.” Sophie jerked at the form of address, but Molly continued, her voice quiet and determined. “This is a lark to you, to come down here and ask questions, nosin’ around. Then you get in your fancy carriage and go back to your nice house on the other side of town.” She placed her hand on her chest. “I got no choice but to stay here. And if they find out I been talkin’ about things I shouldn’t, I’ll be breathin’ my last.”The words hurt, as true as they were, but Sophie did not let them deter her. “He rapes them, Molly.” Molly closed her eyes, and Sophie continued, “He forces her and then he strangles her. And then he cuts off her right hand before throwing her into the river like refuse. If you know who would do such a horrible thing, then you have to say it before anyone else is killed.”“No, I don’t. I feel poorly for those girls, but they ain’t me.” She lifted her chin. “And sometimes there are fates far worse than being killed. O’Shea don’t like his girls talkin’ and causin’ trouble. I can’t help you. Now I need to get back to the floor.” She started for the door.Disappointment rolled through Sophie. There was no way to force the girl to tell what she knew, and Sophie could not protect Molly should O’Shea find out. “What if I pay you?” That got Molly’s attention, so Sophie said, “I have some money saved. What if I can pay you for the information? You could use the money to leave London, go far away where O’Shea cannot find you.”Molly’s lips turned into a sad, resigned smile. “There’s nowhere O’Shea can’t find us, if he has a mind to. You best leave it alone, miss—else you’re likely to find yourself a Thames trout, too.”As Molly reached for the latch, Sophie blurted, “How did you know I wasn’t a man?”The girl gestured to Sophie’s crotch. “Your bollocks. Men carry ’em around like the most precious things on earth. You walk like you’ve nothin’ hangin’ between your legs.”Sophie was still pondering that piece of information as she stood downstairs, preparing to leave. As she shrugged on her coat, she noticed an errand boy accept a note from one of the floor bosses. The boy waited for instructions, nodded, and raced out the front door. Sophie hurried to follow him outside. When the boy started off down the street, Sophie chased him, calling for him to stop. She cursed her shoes, which prevented her from catching him.The boy glanced over his shoulder, his wild red hair sticking every which way, and slowed to a stop. “Wot is it, guv?”“You work here, running messages and the like?”His expression turned wary. “So wot if I do?”“I bet you know everything that happens inside.”He puffed up, as only a young boy could. “I know my fair share.”Sophie took out a coin from her coat and presented it to him. “This is yours if you’ll answer a question.” Then she described the missing girl. “Do you know her?”He shook his head. “Girls, they keep to themselves, mostly. O’Shea don’t care for ’em talkin’ when they should be tuppin’.” Two fingers reached out and snatched the coin.“Wait,” she said before he could dash away. “What’s your name?”“Red.” He pointed to his head.“Well, Red, there’s plenty more coins where that came from. Would you like to earn them? All you would need to do is be willing to keep me informed.”Chapter NineAfter securing Red’s promise of help, Sophie continued down the street and glanced about. No hacks anywhere in sight. With no choice, she began to walk in order to find one, her hat pulled low as her mind turned over the conversation with Molly.Molly had known the girl’s identity. Fear had prevented her from saying. Fear of O’Shea, certainly, but had there been fear of someone else? Did Molly know the killer? If so, the prudent thing would be to tell someone so the man could be caught and hanged. Though Sophie could hardly blame her hesitancy; women like Molly held little faith in law and justice, since they saw so little of it in their own lives.Perhaps Sophie should return on another night and question a different girl, one who might be willing to share information. She shuddered to think of what O’Shea did to the girls under his control to frighten them. If rape, mutilation, and strangulation paled in comparison . . .The night was fairly quiet despite the early hour. Two cats fought nearby in a tangle of screeches and hisses, and the faint revelry from a nearby tavern spilled out into the street. Both served as a comforting reminder that she was not completely alone in this deserted stretch.A noise caught Sophie’s attention. A boot scraped on stone—a sound out of place considering the desolation on the street. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. Was someone following her?She glanced around, checking. Nothing moved, not even the wind. Her trepidation rising, she transferred her walking stick to her left side, slid her right hand into an inside pocket, and clasped the comforting weight of her knife. She increased her pace. Bishop’s Gate was not far, and there should be enough activity there to lose whoever might be behind her.Her heart pumping, she regretted evading Quint’s man earlier. If she hadn’t, she could be on her way home by now. Another sound, this time closer.It all happened in a flash. She spun to find a large shape nearly upon her but did not have time to focus on his face before the glint of a blade caught her eye. A knife streaked toward her chest. Holding up her right arm, she tried to block the attack while shifting her body. The weight of the blow landed on her forearm, dislodging the knife in her hand. It clattered to the ground, and there was a sharp sting near her shoulder. She had no time to examine it, however, because the man slashed once more, this time near her belly.Sophie jumped back and raised her walking stick to defend herself. The ineffectual adornment bounced off the man’s shoulders, not affecting him in the least. A sneer twisted his lips as he advanced. She hadn’t ever seen him before. Crooked nose and large, rough features. He was missing two teeth from the top of his mouth, but otherwise seemed fit. Even if the heavy greatcoat were not hampering her legs, she could not outrun him.He moved quickly, aiming for her stomach again, and she reacted on instinct. Using all her weight, she bent low and threw herself into him. It put him off balance, just enough that she could slide her boot behind his foot and trip him. He fell backward—but did not release her. Instead, he pulled her down as well and she landed with a jarring thump on the ground. The side of her head slammed against the walk and pain exploded behind her eyes, the impact dazing her.“Fucking cunt,” she heard the man grunt before he rolled to slash the knife across Sophie’s thigh. Sophie kicked as hard as she could, her boot catching him on the knee. Struggling for breath, she knew she had to get to her feet. On the ground, she was as good as dead. But everything hurt and she felt dizzy. Dear God, was she going to die on the street?What felt like a large tree trunk rammed into her stomach, knocking all the air from her lungs. Sophie gasped, closed her eyes, and curled into a ball to protect herself. Then the sharp crack of a pistol erupted, and she tensed, expecting to feel a searing pain rip through some part of her body. None came, however, and the last thing she saw before the blackness rose up to engulf her was Quint’s guard standing over the attacker, a smoking pistol in his hand.  Quint heard the commotion before the study door even opened. Loud voices were uncommon in the house, generally heralding an unwanted visitor.He was halfway around the desk by the time Taylor threw open the door. “My lord, he just arrived,” Taylor said, standing aside as Jenkins entered, a limp form cradled in his arms. Quint’s insides went cold. Christ almighty, it wasSophie. Dressed in man’s garments. And . . . dead?“I didn’t know what else to do, my lord,” Jenkins blurted as Quint rushed forward. “Figured you’d want me to bring him ’ere. He’s lost quite a bit of blood.”With a desperate lurch, Quint reached for her, the need to touch her overwhelming him. Thankfully, Jenkins did not question it, just placed the body in Quint’s outstretched arms. She was tall but thin, and stirred as Quint held her close. “I am fine,” she murmured against his shoulder. “Just need to rest a few moments.”His chest seized painfully, this time from panic of a different sort. How badly was she hurt? He sucked in a breath and said to Jenkins, “Follow and tell me what happened.”He pushed by both men and strode quickly for the stairs, taking them two at a time. He went to the chamber adjoining his and kicked the door open. Striding inside, he placed her on the bed. “Taylor!” he shouted.“Yes, my lord,” Taylor said from directly behind him.Quint began unbuttoning Sophie’s outer garments. “Send a footman to Barnes House for Lady Sophia’s lady’s maid, Alice. Then bring every medical supply we have in the house. Fresh cloths. Boiled water.Now!”“Shall I send for a physician as well, my lord?”“No,” Quint replied emphatically. “Absolutely not. I’ll tend to her—him—myself.” He slid the greatcoat off her arms, and she groaned at the movement. The slash in the fabric near her right shoulder caught his attention. Blood stained the fabric.Goddammit.“What happened, Jenkins?” he barked, tossing the coat on the ground. He went for her boots next and noticed another slice in her trousers. Wet, dark crimson spread over her thigh. That laceration would need to be treated first. On the unused washstand, he found a clean linen towel. “Here, press this against the wound on his thigh.”Jenkins came forward and did as instructed, which earned a groan from Sophie. “Apologies, my lord,” Jenkins mumbled and then continued his report. “He did exactly as your lordship said he would. Tried to give me the slip in the mews, but I was ready for him. Followed him to The Black Queen over in—”A large, darker-skinned man burst in, a stack of clean towels in his arms. Quint blinked, paused in the process of removing Sophie’s boot. “Who the devil are you?”The man drew himself up. “I am Vander, your lordship’s new valet. I have brought you fresh linens.”His manner of dress was English, but the voice revealed his eastern heritage—India, specifically. Quint’s eyes narrowed on the interloper, helpfulness notwithstanding. “And you were to remain below stairs, where we would never cross paths with one another.”Visibly shaken, the valet nodded and placed the linens on the bed. He hurried from the room, not saying another word.“Quint,” Sophie gasped, regaining his attention.New valet forgotten, he slipped off her boot. “Continue, Jenkins.”“So The Black Queen. Do you know it?”“Yes,” Quint gritted out. Had she completely lost her mind? A gaming hell in that part of town was no place to go alone, lady or no.“Weren’t there even an hour before he came out and started toward the corner. I followed at a distance so he wouldn’t scent me. Then this big fellow come out from an alley and pulled a knife. Lad put up a good fight, but the fellow got in a couple good swipes before I came alongside.”Quint removed her second boot and hurried to slide her arms out of the topcoat. “And where is this fellow now?”“Dead, more ’n likely. I put a ball in his head, picked up the lad, and came straight here.” Jenkins chuckled. “The lad knocked that big ox off his feet. Never seen anything like it. Swiped his boots right out from underneath him. That’s a brave one right there, my lord.”“Yes, very brave,” Quint muttered from behind clenched teeth. “I’ll take over now. That will be all, Jenkins. And thank you.”“Happy to help, my lord.” Jenkins stepped back and Quint pressed on Sophie’s thigh to staunch the flow of blood. Quiet footfalls were muffled by carpet as Jenkins departed; then the door closed.“Please do not be cross with me,” Sophie whispered, her voice quivering with pain.“Cross does not begin to characterize what I am experiencing right now.” White-hot boiling rage. Paralyzing, debilitating fear. Frustration at his worthless inability to protect her. Regret he had not informed her father of these outings. So much emotion bubbled up inside him he thought he might choke.“I am not seriously injured, Quint. A few nicks. I bumped my head on the ground when I fell, and it made me a bit dizzy.”“Oh, is that all?” he drawled.A heavy sigh escaped her lips. “I am relying on your levelheaded reasonableness. Do not get upset over something so trivial.”He was not feeling particularly levelheaded or reasonable at the moment. “You are bleeding all over the coverlet. I would not call that trivial.” Using one hand, he loosened her cravat to make her more comfortable. “I shall wait for your maid to remove the rest of your clothing.”“Not necessary.” She yawned, likely an aftermath of the energy expenditure as well as the concussion. “Do what you must. I need to return home before I am discovered missing.”He stared at her, studied the dirt and smudges marring creamy skin. Exhaustion etched her fine features, while the bedclothes turned crimson with her lifeblood. Someone had tried tokillher. Quint had known the risks, yet allowed her to carry on regardless. This was every bit as much his fault as hers. “Aiding you in this deception has lost its appeal, considering what happened this evening. Perhaps if you are discovered missing, it will prevent future acts of harebrained recklessness.”Her lids snapped open, the brown irises cloudy with pain. “You would not dare. If I were found here—”Taylor knocked and entered, thankfully cutting off Sophie’s objections. Whatever her argument, Quint did not want to hear it. Taylor set a large tray down on the bedside table, and a maid came in to light the fire. After asking the girl to hold the towel on Sophie’s thigh, Quint busied himself by taking stock of the strips of linen, salves, and herbs. The butler had wisely included a bottle of brandy. “Bring me a knife, Taylor.”Quint strode to his chambers and thoroughly scrubbed his hands with soap and fresh water. When he returned, he found Sophie’s lady’s maid by the bed, pressing the cloth on Sophie’s wound. Sophie’s lids were closed, her skin pale. He knew she was in pain, yet she was admirably determined not to show it, her body clenched to bear the agony. A fire now blazed in the long-forgotten hearth to bring some warmth to the musty space. A small knife had been placed on the stack of linens.He uncorked the brandy and splashed a large amount in a glass. Selecting a vial, he sprinkled some powder into the liquid, stirred it, and handed the glass to the maid. “See that she drinks it.”The maid sniffed it. “What is it?”“Peruvian bark.” Knife now in hand, he moved to Sophie’s side.“Pardon me for asking, my lord, but shouldn’t we give her laudanum instead?”“With a head injury, I’d rather not. The opiate will slow her responses. And we’ll accomplish more in a shorter amount of time if you follow my instructions without questioning them.”“It’s fine, Alice,” Sophie rasped. “I’ll drink it. I trust his lordship.” The maid helped Sophie raise her head enough to throw back the brandy in one mouthful. Quint would have wondered over Sophie’s familiarity with spirits if he weren’t so petrified about her bleeding out on the bed.He put the blade to her trousers, preparing to rend them.“No!” Sophie said. “Do not cut my clothing. Pull it off instead.”“Which will be infinitely more painful for you. Do not be ridiculous, Sophie.” He raised the knife to the wool once more.She made a feeble attempt to clutch at his arm. “Quint, stop. I need my clothing to wear home.”His gaze locked with hers. Stubborn, maddening female. He was of half a mind to let her stumble home dishabille. It would serve her right for embarking on the mad scheme in the first place. “Please,” she whispered.“Remove her clothing,” Quint ordered the maid and moved to the far side of the room.He stood with his back turned, listening to fabric rustle and Sophie’s gasps of pain each time she was forced to move. With anyone but her, Quint would have felt vindicated by those tiny expressions of abject misery. But the sounds she made twisted his insides, the idea that she’d been attacked strangling him.A thump followed a grunt. He heard the maid move the bedclothes. “There, my lord.”Spinning, he found the injured side of her body exposed, while bedding covered the rest of her. Skin gone the color of flour, Sophie’s eyes were screwed shut. She panted in obvious torment. The wound on her shoulder had started bleeding again, while a steady stream of blood dripped from the cut on her thigh.“Was it worth it?” He picked up a fresh cloth and pressed it to her leg.“Yes,” she gasped, turning even paler.“Liar.”Working efficiently, Quint cleaned the wound thoroughly. Then he stitched it neatly, Sophie gritting her teeth with each pull of the needle. When he finished, he bound the leg tightly. Thankfully, the cut on her shoulder was shallow and did not require stitches, merely cleaning and bandaging.He handed the jar of salve to her maid. “Use this on the wounds when you change the dressings, but you absolutely must wash your hands each time. Do not touch her unless you’ve done so.”
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The maid’s mouth tightened. “My hands are clean, my lord.”“Not clean enough. Wash them. Soap and fresh water. Every time.”“She will, Quint,” Sophie rasped. “Won’t you, Alice?”“Yes, of course, my lady,” Alice said, still frowning at Quint.“Alice, would you mind waiting in the corridor a moment? I’d like to speak to his lordship.”Alice looked as if she wanted to argue, but, after a warning glare in Quint’s direction, she left the room.“I don’t believe your maid likes me,” he remarked when they were alone and was pleased to see a small smile twist Sophie’s lips.“Do not take it to heart. She is not accustomed to having anyone else fussing over me.”He reached for the bedclothes and started to pull them over the injured side of her body. It was the first time he’d allowed himself to really look at her. All creamy, soft skin. Tight linen encircled her chest to flatten her breasts. A pity, that. But it was what she wore over her hips that did him in. A plain pair of men’s smalls—without doubt the most erotic sight he’d ever beheld. Her maid had pushed the thin fabric up Sophie’s leg to expose the injury and left the garment on for modesty. It had the opposite result on Quint, however; heat suffused his body, his shaft coming to life.He’d never seen a woman dressed in men’s clothing before, and it was strangely arousing. And when had he lowered himself to lechery? For God’s sake, she was injured and all he could do was ogle her. He dropped the bed linens as if they were hot, covering her.Her lids fluttered open. “Thank you for your assistance. But I cannot stay. As much as I dread the walk home, I must go.”The idea of letting her out of his sight had him gritting his teeth. But he had no way to keep her here, short of tying her down. He scrubbed a hand through his hair. “What time do the servants rouse?”Her eyes fell shut once more, as if the lids were too heavy to lift. “Shortly before five.”He pulled out his pocket watch to check the time. “It’s half past twelve. Sleep for three hours. I’ll have my coachman take you home before four.”She did not respond and he stood there, feeling ten thousand times a fool. How could he have allowed her to carry on in this ridiculous game, a lark that could very well get her killed? Whatever investigation she was pursuing was not worth her life.“I can hear you frowning,” she said, her eyes still closed. “Come and sit with me. Stop thinking for five minutes, Quint.”He brought a chair over and placed it at the side of the bed. He sat and focused on her beautiful face, the long, brown lashes fanning her cheeks. The luscious lips that had kissed him so passionately only a few nights ago. She was lovely, normally so full of vibrant energy and intelligence. He’d never seen her this quiet before. “You’ll have to tell me, you know.”Her mouth hitched. “Only if you promise to help me—not try and stop me.”“Sophie, you cannot think to continue. Not after tonight. Whatever you’ve stumbled upon is too dangerous.”“I’ll do what I must. And if you are worried about my safety, then come with me.”He stiffened, his muscles protesting at the mere suggestion of going outdoors. “You know I cannot.”“I know no such thing.” She yawned. “I think nearly dying after the shooting affected you, but you can recover.” Her words were slurring together, a sign of her exhaustion.But something she said caught his attention. “Wait—how did you know I almost died?”She did not answer, however. Her breathing had evened out. She’d fallen asleep.Chapter TenLast night could only be categorized as a disaster, Sophie thought the next morning. If she were making a list of things never to repeat, getting knifed—twice—in the streets of East London would be at the top. Who had attacked her? A random footpad?And the journey had been for naught because Molly hadn’t wanted to help. Sophie would need to write Pearl, see if the courtesan knew of any other girls who might speak with Sir Stephen.Alice entered just then. “Good morning, my lady. Would you care for breakfast?”The thought of food turned Sophie’s stomach. “No, not yet. I would like your help getting up, however.”Her maid nodded and helped Sophie get out of bed. Each step on her injured leg sent sharp pain throughout her lower body. By the time she relieved herself and returned to the mattress, she was gasping, wet with perspiration.“You best stay in today, my lady. You’re not fit—”A knock sounded before the Marchioness of Ardington, Sophie’s stepmama, peeked in. “Oh, good. You are awake.” She entered, closed the door behind her, and approached the bed. “You’ve had two deliveries this morning, Sophie. I knew last night’s ball would be a success.”“Deliveries?”“It’s exciting, isn’t it?” Her stepmama beamed, clearly hopeful this would be the year Sophie would find a husband. “A huge bouquet of flowers arrived. Here’s a card. Along with another note delivered for you this morning.” She held out two pieces of paper.Sophie took them both, frowning. The only person who would send her anything would be Quint. But the idea of him sending flowers was laughable. Quint was not the hearts and romance type. She would sooner expect him to fly to the moon than ever write a sonnet to her eyes.“Well, open the note from the flowers. Let’s see who they’re from,” her stepmama urged.Sophie tore the seal and read the short note.I very much enjoyed our dance last evening. Your servant, Lord MacLean.Before she thought better of it, she smiled.“You’re smiling. That must be a good sign. I’m dying to know who sent them.”“Lord MacLean. We danced last evening.” The last dancing she’d do for a while, considering her leg.Her stepmama’s face fell. “Oh, Sophie. I am not certain he’s the right man for you. I know he’s well titled and fairly handsome, but really, his reputation is less than desirable.”“You needn’t worry. I have no intention of marrying Lord MacLean.” But that reminded her of something. “All anyone could talk about last night was how Papa has picked my husband. In fact, I hear the betting books are full of wagers as to who the unfortunate man might be.”“He’s of the mind you do not believe him. He thinks by making it public, it’ll convince you.”Well played, Papa, Sophie thought. She hadn’t expected that. “Why is he so eager to get rid of me? Can I not just live here a few more years?” Like until death.“Darling.” Her stepmama came forward and clasped Sophie’s hand. “Marriage is not so terrible, as you seem to think. Your father and I have great affection for one another. We both want you to have it as well, but you cannot wait forever. And do you not want children of your own?”A flash of rumpled, brown-haired boys with telescopes and test tubes went through her mind. Sophie was surprised by how much the image appealed to her. But then she thought of explaining her stupidity to the one man who valued intelligence above all else . . . and the pleasant warmth in her veins turned to a chill. He deserved better than a woman so cork-brained as she.“Now, shall we do some shopping today? I was thinking we could go to the milliner first and then—”“I cannot,” Sophie blurted. “I am unwell.”“Oh, dear.” Her stepmama’s forehead lowered in concern. “You do appear flushed. Have you a fever?”“No, nothing so serious. It’s my monthly courses.” She felt bad for the lie, but shehadbeen bleeding after all. From her leg, of course, but still. And this way, no one would question her staying in bed all day.Understanding lit her stepmama’s face. “Of course. I’ll have Alice prepare a posset for you. You rest and feel better.” She smoothed a hand over Sophie’s brow and stepped back. “I’ll check on you later.”Now alone, Sophie started to roll over and then realized she still held the unopened note. Pulling it apart, she saw neat lines of random letters in rows down the page. It was . . . a code. She huffed a laugh. No doubt who had sent it. Only Quint would fashion her a note in the form of a cipher.Smiling, she reached to ring for Alice, who had discreetly retreated earlier. When the maid arrived, Sophie requested her writing supplies. Quint hadn’t provided any sort of key or clue to the puzzle, so an answer might take some time. Soon, she was propped up in bed with her traveling desk, studying the patterns of letters to arrive at a solution.It took a quarter of an hour. When she finally decoded the message, it said:AN EXPLANATION IS EXPECTED. NO LATER THAN TOMORROW. THE USUAL TIME AND SETTING. A REFUSAL RESULTS IN CONSEQUENCES. Q.She read it again, then sighed. No question what “the usual time and setting” meant. He wanted her to come to his terrace after dark. But what sort of consequences? He had threatened to tell her father once. Would he dare?Sitting through a lecture outlining her idiocy and recklessness, which Quint would surely relay post-haste, held little appeal. And Quint would most definitely try to prevent any more excursions by Sir Stephen. Sophie had no intention of giving up, however. She’d found something worthwhile, something she wasgoodat doing. And if she could help people, was that not worth a few bumps and bruises?And there was little Quint or anyone else could do to stop her.She made him wait two days.Quint nearly peeled the paper from the walls in his impatience and frustration. He had no recourse other than to send her another note—and she knew it. In those interminable hours, he imagined her dressed in man’s clothing and carousing in every gaming hell, opium den, and brothel in London. It nearly drove him mad.Correction,madder.His mood was decidedly dark by the time she appeared in his gardens shortly before midnight on the second day. He stood at the threshold, waiting for Canis to finish digging in the dirt, when a cloaked figure with a slight limp emerged from the gloom. The dog bounced happily around her feet, his tail wagging furiously, and she awkwardly bent to scratch behind the dog’s ears.Quint’s own reception would not be as friendly. He was still furious with her. Furious for the stupid risks and idiotic chances she took with her person. He wished he didn’t care, that he could leave her to her own devices. Wash his hands of her, like any rational man would have done long ago. But he was incapable of letting her go.She straightened and lowered the hood of her cloak. Moonlight illuminated the fine arches of her cheekbones, the curve of her upper lip, the gentle slope of her nose—and Quint momentarily forgot his anger. Tenderness and longing filled him, along with a heat more elemental in nature.He thought of their kiss, the one from the other night in this very spot. How she’d clung to him and whimpered in his mouth. Would she claim it a momentary fancy this time as well?“I see you solved the puzzle I sent. Did it take you two days?”Her mouth hitched as she drew closer. “Indeed not. It took less than an hour. You must be slipping, Quint.”“Of course I am slipping. I am mostly mad. Have you not figured that out yet?”“You are no madder than I.”He snorted. “Oh, that is reassuring. The woman skipping about town in men’s clothing.” And smalls. Damn it.“I hardly skip. Though I have been told I need to improve my walk.”“What?”She waved her hand. “Never mind. Well, I am here for the lecture. You may commence at any time.”Of course he wanted to lecture her. To rail and argue with her until she saw reason. But Sophie would only bristle, and the exercise would accomplish nothing. He had to understand why first, and then he could wage logical arguments to convince her of dropping the matter. “Why do you want to do this?”“I must. Why should I not try and help others when I can?”“Not good enough, Sophie. If it were benevolence, you would find another way to be charitable. Countless ladies perform altruistic deeds, but none put their lives at risk. Why have you chosen to dress as a man and mix with the lowest scum London has to offer?”“Because these women have no one else. They cannot afford a Runner and the magistrates rarely bother. Should they not have someone to turn to with their problems?”“Of course they should. I am uncertain why that person has to beyou. Why not give them the funds to hire a Runner, if that is your concern?”She crossed her arms and pressed her lips together, remaining coolly silent.“It’s obvious to me that you enjoy the danger and duplicity. The risk is the reward, isn’t it?”“No, the solution is the reward. As fond as you are of puzzles, certainly you can understand.”“Yes, but my life is hardly in jeopardy when I am working on puzzles in my home, at my desk.”She sighed, her eyes sliding away. “Then you obviously do not truly understand.”“And just what would I not understand? How it feels to be trapped? How it feels to be unhappy with your prescribed lot in life?”Her gaze snapped back to his. “How did you . . . ?”“Because I know you. And a person who readily pretends over and over to be someone else, who eagerly courts danger without thought to the consequences, is unhappy with her present circumstances.” She blinked rapidly, and he knew he’d hit the mark. “So tell me, why are you so unhappy, Sophie?”She took her time in answering. “I merely need something of my own. Something worthwhile that I can be proud of. And I am good at it. Maggie has her art and her efforts to better the lives of these women, should they choose to pursue another livelihood. And Julia has her children to care for—”“Including Colton, who is every bit a child himself.”Sophie flashed a brief smile. “But I have nothing. I cannot draw to save myself and I will never have children or a husband. So why not this?”“What do you mean, you will never have children or a husband? You could’ve married ten times over. In fact, Lord Yardley offered for you only two Seasons ago. Someday, you’ll choose a suitor—”“Or my father will choose one for me.”The resentment in her voice set him back on his heels. That did not sound hypothetical. “Has he settled on someone, then?”“Yes, he has a man in mind. He said if I do not choose a husband myself by the end of the Season, he will approve a marriage without my consent.”Quint hadn’t expected it. Hadn’t thought the marquess would finally draw a line in the marital sand. He swallowed. This . . . this feeling in his chest—a sharp, crushing pain, as if he would crack apart at any second—was nothing he’d experienced before. Not with the fits. Not when his betrothal ended. Not even when Sophie’d broken his heart.He struggled to draw in a breath. “Who?” he rasped. Who would be the man so fortunate as to spend each night wrapped around her long, willowy frame?“He will not tell me. He fears I will scare the man off if I learn his identity.”“Your father is a wise man,” Quint noted.“Perhaps, but I still believe I can change his mind.”“Why?” He honestly did not know why she avoided marriage more earnestly than a well-seasoned libertine. What was she so afraid of? The propagation of the human race was instinctual in both males and females: men to spread their seed as far and wide as possible, and women to nurture and protect the young. It was elemental and necessary. So what did Sophie hope to gain by resisting?“I have always convinced him in the past. Though he did go one step further this time by making the edict public knowledge. That was new.”The marquess would only announce it if he was serious. Sophie had to know that. “No, I mean why do you want to change his mind? Why not just marry and be done with it?”She grimaced. “Because I would rather not. And my reasons are my own.”  Sophie’s leg screamed in protest as she bent to pet Canis, yet she welcomed the pain as a distraction. Quint’s perceptiveness was, at times, especially grating. Such as now, for example. It should come as no surprise that he would uncover what she was about. He’d always understood her as no one else did.“Let us get back to the matter of these investigations.”She straightened, fighting a grimace at the pinch in her thigh. “We’ve been round and round on this, Quint. You cannot force me to give up.”
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“Then what if I offered to help you?”“Then I would ask why you would make such an offer. Because if it is an attempt to control me or my methods, like preventing me from visiting brothels or gaming hells, I would politely decline.”He lifted his hands, all innocence. “I only want to keep you safe. Perhaps if we work together, I won’t need to suture your leg again any time soon. Or worse.”She stared at him. Was he telling the truth? Would he truly help, without trying to manipulate her? The offer was tempting. She could use someone to talk with, someone capable of drawing inferences and conclusions . . . and no one did that better than Quint. “What would that mean, working together? You’ll escort me on these errands?”A muscle jumped in his slightly whiskered jaw. “No.”“Why not?”“If I were able, I would. Believe me.”No, she refused to believe it. She wanted to know more, to learn about this illness that had convinced him he could not go outside. If she did, then maybeshecould helphim.She recalled their kiss, the one in this very spot. He’d ended up outside and, though it had surprised him, it hadn’t killed him. And it had been a very nice kiss. Anamazingkiss. She wanted more. More kisses, more touching. More everything. After all, it wasn’t as if she’d ever have a husband to do these things with.And who knew how much longer Quint would tolerate her visits? He’d told her on multiple occasions not to return. One of these days, he might trulymeanit. She needed to enjoy these stolen moments with him while she still could.Her gaze flicked to his mouth as an idea occurred. “So I would come here at night, discuss any developments with you?”“Yes, precisely. But no more recklessness. We decidetogetheron how you proceed.”“I’ll only agree on one condition.”His brows lowered. “And what is that?”“You kiss me whenever I want.”Surprise registered on his face before he let out a startled, choked sound. “Kiss you?”“Yes.”“Sophie, you cannot ask me to kiss you. It’s . . . absurdly improper.”“You’ve already kissed me—twice—so I fail to see why it is such a bad idea.”“One of those timesyoukissedme, and we should not be kissing at all. You should not be kissing anyone until you’re married.”Which would never happen. “Loosen up, Quint. You seem to enjoy kissing me and I know I like it as well. Where is the harm?”Ladies are not supposed to enjoy it so much.Sophie beat back Lord Robert’s voice. Quint hadn’t seemed to mind her enthusiasm; still, it would do her well to remember not to get too carried away.“Oh, God,” he muttered under his breath, dragging a hand down his face. “You are unbelievable.”“True. And you know how determined I can be when there is something I want.” Suffering through his amazing kisses while helping him conquer his fear at the same time? Oh, she wanted that. Badly.“And I also know how you never stop to reason anything through. You are too innocent to realize, of course, but kissing generally leads to other more intimate things.”Heat sizzled through Sophie’s veins at the idea of “other more intimate things” with Quint, and warmth settled low in her belly. She swallowed and said, “That is what I have you for, to retain a level head.” After all, he didn’t feel anything for her other than friendship. Remaining calm should be easy, at least for him.“I should refuse,” he said. “But I’m at a rather large disadvantage, since you may just decide to leave and never return. There would be little I could do to force you to come back. I shudder to think what would happen to you then.”Nerves and excitement bubbled up in her chest. “That is true. Does this mean you agree?”“Newton help me, but yes. I’ll kiss you and I’ll assist your investigations.”And I’ll find a way to fix you,she thought. “Excellent. I knew you would see things my way. Shall we start now?”He slanted her a glance. “With the investigation, you mean?”She shook her head. “With the kissing.”Arms folded across his chest, he lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, so that’s what you think, that you can crook your finger at me and I’ll do your bidding? I may be cracked in the head, Sophie, but all the other parts work just fine. Which means I’m still a man. Andthisman kisses a woman when he wants to, like when she makes him laugh. Or when her smile knocks him back ten paces. Or when she’s so beautiful he can’t breathe. Not when it’s an obligation.”Sophie blinked. Words would not come, her mouth gone dry at the heady declaration. It was a wonder she could stand upright, what with her bones rapidly turning to jelly. “All right,” she finally managed.His gaze darkened. “Of course that look happens to work as well,” he said quietly, advancing on her.“What look?” She instinctively took a step back, then winced as a stab of pain radiated through her injured leg.He froze, concern pinching his brow. Without a word, Quint bent, picked her up, and carried her deeper into the house. “Wait, where are we going?” she asked.“To the study. To sit down. It’s obvious your leg is paining you.”Sophie wrapped her arms around his neck, enjoying the shift and play of muscles beneath his clothing. When they reached his study, he did not set her on her feet. Instead, he crossed to an armchair by the fire and lowered into it, setting her on his lap.“Let me see the sutures,” he said gently. “I want to ensure the wound isn’t infected.”“It’s fine,” Sophie said. She was not shy, but sitting on Quint’s lap in the middle of the night for a businesslike examination of her wound had her squirming.“Be still. I want to see for myself.” He lifted the gauzy layers of skirts and petticoat. The leg of her drawers was wide enough that he could push it up to see the wound on her thigh. “Excellent. The skin is healthy. Alice must be keeping her hands clean.”She expected him to adjust her clothing to cover her—but he didn’t. Instead his large hand smoothed over her exposed leg, eyes raking her skin, while her heart fluttered behind her ribs.“Sophie, I need to tell you—you expect me to retain a level head, but you should not rely on me. I’m not exactly in control of my faculties these days. Seeing you like this doesn’t help, either.” His hand indicated her lower half. “And I do not want to hurt you. I beg of you, rethink your request.”If she’d had any concerns about his state of mind, his speech eliminated them. Would a madman really give fair warning? But there could be another reason for his hesitation, one far more humiliating. “You would not hurt me. And I think you are stalling. If you don’t want to kiss me—”He closed the distance between them in a blink, pressing his mouth to hers, his tongue immediately pushing inside. He kissed her hard, desperately, his mouth rough and smooth at the same time, and she loved every second. She held nothing back, using her tongue and her hands to explore while his lips slanted over hers again and again.The warmth in her belly spread until her breasts were heavy, aching. Moisture gathered in her cleft, the beat of her heart evident there in a rhythmic pulse. She became aware of Quint’s hardness beneath her backside—a thrilling, heady proof of his desire for her. For Sophie, not the Perfect Pepperton or any other woman. He wanted her, and she gloried in the knowledge. It was all she could do not to rub against his erection.And then she did rub against it.He groaned into her mouth, a pained-yet-excited sound she’d never heard from him before. Lust raced down Sophie’s spine. Her fingers trailed over his broad shoulders, reveled in the heat pouring off his frame. The opening in his shirt was just wide enough for her to slip a hand inside, testing the smooth, taut skin of his chest. His heart thumped under her palm, while the soft hair tickled her fingers. She ran her hand over his chest, enjoying the feel and the taste of him, and the tip of her finger brushed over his nipple.He gave a quick intake of breath and then drew back to murmur, “Sophie, you’re killing me. We should stop before this goes any further.”All she heard was “stop”—and so she rose up to kiss him once more.Chapter ElevenOne kiss, he’d promised himself.Kiss her quickly—yet long enough to ensure she did not complain. That had been the plan. But he hadn’t expected her to be so enthusiastic. A virgin, even one of twenty-seven, should not have him so flustered with mere kisses. The probability of such an occurrence had seemed incredibly low when this exercise began.He should have known Sophie would defy logic.Quint’s control unraveled the second her mouth found his once more, with any thoughts of ending this long forgotten. She kissed as she did everything else: with exuberance and passion, a reckless disregard for anything but the moment at hand. He could not stop from giving it back to her in kind.With one hand cupping her head and the other on her leg, he clutched her tight. Licked at her mouth. Nipped at her lips. Tasted her until she gave a needy whimper in her throat. The sound wound its way through his groin to sharpen his arousal. God’s blood, how he craved her. He’d frigged himself so often in the last few days thinking of her, it was a wonder he hadn’t chaffed.He could barely think, barely breathe, and the animal instinct—the desire to give and receive pleasure—took over. And with this particular woman on his lap, it was impossible to resist. It had been a long time since he’d felt this heady rush of lust drag him under the surface of rationality—and he welcomed the sweet oblivion.His mouth left hers to trail across her jaw. He sucked the lobe of her ear between his lips, scraped it with his teeth. A gasp escaped just before she pressed her lips together tightly, as if to stop the noise. Which would never do. “I want to hear you, Sophie,” he whispered in her ear. “Every sound. Every sigh. Do not hold back on me.”Next, he worked his way down the silky-soft skin of her throat. She threw her head back, giving him better access, of which Quint took full advantage. He felt drunk on her, out of his mind with this craving for her. A small part of his still-functioning brain could not believe she was allowing these liberties with him. The man whose suit she had refused. Yet here she lay, on his lap, soft and pliant, and offering up no protest. Pulling him closer. Kissing him. And he was not yet insane enough as to pass on such a rare gift.Two fingers dipped inside the layers of her bodice and lifted a pale and perfect breast over the cloth, revealing it. “So pretty,” he murmured before drawing the rosy tip inside his mouth. He alternated between sharp pulls and laving the taut nipple with the flat of his tongue, determined to drive her mad.Her fingers threaded his hair, holding him close. “Quint,” she sighed, the sound barely above a whisper. The more he sucked, the more restless she became. “Don’t stop,” she said. “God, Quint, I am burning alive.”His hand returned to her thigh, where he brought it up to cup her mons. Heat scorched his skin and she rocked her hips against his palm. “Yes,” she groaned, and the friction against his aching cock nearly had his eyes rolling back. A few more of those and he’d spill in his trousers for certain.Releasing her breast, he lowered her against the armrest until she was nearly flat across his lap. Her eyes, half-lidded and sultry, watched him, while her chest rose and fell rapidly. “Remain still,” he told her. “Let me feel you.”With her skirts already gathered around her waist, he only had to find the part in her drawers. He spread her open and then her glistening vulva lay bare before him—the downy brown hair covering her mons and the pink, dewy lips of her labia externa and interna. He swallowed. Perfection. Utter perfection.Without thinking, he swiped a finger through the moisture gathered at the entrance to her vagina and brought the digit to his mouth. He closed his eyes and savored the sharp tang of her arousal on his tongue. Sweet. Saint’s teeth, what he wouldn’t give to have his face between her thighs. But he didn’t want to frighten her.“Please,” she panted, as if sensing his hesitation. “Don’t stop.” Her glittering gaze implored him to keep going and the desire in his groin grew heavier.Further proof of his madness, no doubt, but he had no intention of stopping.He slowly traced the folds of her labia with his thumb and explored every bit of her before pushing one finger inside her vagina. Her lids fell on a moan as her hips pushed up, bringing him deeper. The walls were hot and slick. And tight. He shuddered, imagining that wet, warm tissue clasping his erection.Keeping his own raging need in check, he began a teasing slide in and out of her channel. Coaxing a response from her. Then he added a finger, stretching her further.“Oh, yes,” he heard her say. He watched her body take his fingers deep inside. Felt her tremble. Then he curled his fingers, searching for the one spongy, sensitive spot—She shouted and thrashed atop his lap. “Quint, oh God.”He knew she was close. Her clitoris, the distended vascular bundle of cells at the top of her cleft, was swollen and taut, so he applied his thumb to it with relentless intensity. “Feel it, Sophie. Let it happen.”Sophie clawed at him, the armrest, the fabric of the chair, anything she could reach. “Oh, God. Yes,” she whimpered. “Right there.”Her thighs shook and her walls clamped down on his fingers. She clenched and then cried out, orgasm overtaking her. It was beautiful. The kind of image a man remembered to his grave. Her head thrown back, eyes closed, lips rosy from his kisses, shivering in ecstasy. He held on as best he could, prolonging the experience, until she twisted away with a shiver.He dropped his head against the back of the chair, released her, and struggled to catch his breath. It took some effort to calm himself. Sophie seemed similarly undone as she lay boneless in his lap, a hand pressed to her chest, eyes shut tight. The study clock continued its usual tick, as if the world hadn’t just turned upside down.Everlasting hell, what had he done?Shame and loathing rolled through Quint. He’d . . . defiled her. She was a virgin. The daughter of a marquess. That she’d asked for it did not matter. He should know better—hell, hedidknow better. He just hadn’t been able to refuse her.Hadn’t been able to stop himself.Which stood as more proof of his imminent decline. His father had talked incessantly of copulation during his fits—dirty, filthy words—and had masturbated until they’d tied his arms down. That Quint had inflicted this utterly inappropriate act on a gently bred lady only verified what he already knew of his future.He was not fit to be around others.And his stupid cock was not listening. It lay hard and heavy in his trousers. Ready to mate at any second.God, he hated himself in that moment. He adjusted her skirts to cover her.“I am . . . I had no idea,” she murmured. Satisfaction and wonder laced her tone.“And I beg your pardon for it. I should not have taken things so far.”A crease formed between her brows. “Why not? Granted, it was a bit more than a kiss, but I’d hardly complain.” She struggled to sit up, so he helped to right her. “I daresay I’ll never look at your hands in quite—”“Sophie.” He set her on the floor.She laughed. “Quint, there is no need to be so serious. This was my idea and any regrets may be placed squarely at my feet. Not that I regret it, mind you.”“You should.”“Why? Because we are not married?”“That, yes, but there is an even greater reason.”“What?”“Because I am nearly insane.”  The next evening, Quint scratched his pen furiously over the paper, the idea bursting forth from his mind. He must get the thought down in its entirety—before it was forgotten and gone. What if he split the coded message into parts and then performed a frequency analysis on each letter by section?The hour well past midnight, he’d dismissed the staff some time ago. The coals had long faded, the temperature in the room decidedly chilly. Still, he wrote. When he finished, he placed his pen on the tray and sanded his paper. “Did you enjoy your ride with Lord MacLean?”A gasp carried the length of the room. “You knew I was here?”Only the instant she’d entered. He was attuned to her, down to the subcutaneous membranes under the layers of his skin. “Of course. And you did not answer my question.”She lifted her chin stubbornly, a look he happened to adore. “A waste of time to ask, then, how you are aware of my perfectly innocent ride with MacLean this morning.” She stood and put her hands on her hips. “I do not like that you are having me followed. Especially during the day. It is unnecessary.”He disagreed—and with MacLean around, Quint had all the more reason to keep her under watch. The Scot was a practiced reprobate, Sophie a reckless innocent. A clear recipe for disaster if ever there was one.“I believe it necessary,” he told her, “considering your nocturnal activities. Criminals and footpads do not disappear in the daylight.”“I am aware of that. But I am fairly certain MacLean could fight off any ruffian who dared approach.”Quint clenched his jaw. Yes, no doubt MacLean could protect her. The sane Scottish lord could leave his house. Take her for rides in the park. Could likely club any attacker using a full-grown oak tree, if needed. But who would protect Sophie from MacLean?“That may be so, but your kilt-wearing hero does not know what I know—and he may be caught unaware. And you are wasting your time by arguing.”“You are exceedingly stubborn.”“In that, we are well matched. All you need do is give up your ventures as Sir Stephen and I will happily dismiss Jenkins.”She snorted in response. “You said you would help me, not try to stop me.”Yes, he had—but he’d never expected the bargain she suggested. A bargain that had him hard and straining inside his trousers all damned day. It was all he could do not to pounce on her and lift her skirts.Nevertheless, he would not allow it to happen again.And not because of the antiquated belief that women should wait to find pleasure in the marriage bed. No, his resolve had to do withhim. For whatever reason, she had wanted to dally with him. He didn’t pretend to understand it and had foolishly allowed his feelings for her to momentarily cloud his better judgment.But she deserved better than a coward, a madman afraid to leave his house. The perfect and beautiful daughter of a marquess, she was braver and more intelligent than half the men in Europe. And he was . . . broken. Still that eleven-year-old boy standing in the freezing cold, knowing there was something wrong with him. He had no right to force himself on this woman, to touch her in any manner.So despite the powerful, burning desire for her, he had to refrain from any further physical contact. Even kisses.“I said I would help you, and I shall. Come with me.”He reached for his piece of foolscap and stood.“Where are we going?”He stood close enough to see the pulse leaping at the base of her throat.Ignore it,he told himself. “I need to lock this away.” He held up the paper. “And we may talk privately there.”“And we are not private here?” She glanced about the obviously empty room.“Perhaps, but one never knows.” Especially when a member of his staff was likely passing information along to the Home Office.Without waiting for further arguments, he led her to the rows of books at the far end of the study. On a high shelf, he plucked the edge of Hobbes’sLeviathanand the latch sprung. Sophie gasped as the bookcase opened. “You have a secret passage!”“Which will not remain a secret if you do not lower your voice.”He took her hand and stepped into the tiny corridor, closing the hidden door behind them. Darkness descended. He never brought a light when using the passage, as he didn’t need it. The trip was one he made often, sometimes out of need and other times out of weariness.Sophie clasped his hand tightly, her breath coming faster. “Should we not have a lamp?”“No.” He led her along the cramped space. It was not wide enough for them to travel side by side; rather, she pressed herself nearly flush against his back. “Just do not let go of me. Otherwise you may miss a turn and fall into the pit of crocodiles.”A hand smacked his shoulder. Quint smiled.“Here are stairs,” he told her. He guided her up the first step. Counted the eighteen. Then at the top, he found the latch and pulled it to open the door. Flickering light from the fading fire illuminated his bedchamber. He let go of Sophie’s hand, set his paper on the bed, and crossed to add more coal. “Push that closed, will you?”Sophie shut the passage door while he tended to the fire, then he went to the bed. He’d designed the rosewood frame with squat, square posts, and without a canopy. Each of the posts had a small, decorative cap on top. Quint lifted and twisted the cap on the lower right post to reveal the wooden box hidden within. He withdrew the box, which was about the size of his forearm, and placed it on the coverlet.“What on earth . . .” she breathed over his shoulder. “How positively clever! What do you keep in there?”He slid the lid back, revealing the inner compartment. “This and that.” Rolling his progress on the code, he tucked the pages inside, around some other drawings. Just let Hudson try and find that.“Are you working on something important?” She was close—so close her skirts brushed his leg, unnerving him.“Possibly. Won’t know until I get it right.”“You think this may have something to do with the break-in.” A statement, not a question.“Yes. In the past, the Home Office has sought my help with various code problems. There is one cipher that is thought to be unbreakable, oftentimes calledle chiffre indéchiffrable. If I can find a way to crack the cipher without the necessary key code, it would draw the attention of quite a few governments, including our own. It would be like having the only master key to every locked door in the world.” The box now closed, he slid it back into the post.
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“I . . . had no idea you did this sort of work for our government.”He glanced at her sharply. She wore an odd expression. “Why would you? No one knows, except the man I work for. And I trust you won’t tell anyone.” Sophie shook her head. “Good. Now, shall we discuss your investigation?”“Oh, of course,” she said quickly, reaching into the pocket of her dress to produce a folded piece of paper. “I wrote everything down, as you asked.”“Excellent.” He unfolded the parchment and read her very neat handwriting.Missing: Rose Hoyt, sister to Joselle (real name?) Hoyt of Madame Hartley’sEmployment: The Pretty Kitty, CheapsideDescription: Blond hair, brown eyes, tattoo of cat above her ankleLast Seen: late MarchDeath: ??Body: MissingRegular Visitors: Sweaty,La Gauche, The Watcher, King George, Tangle Tongue. (One was likely a would-be protector.)“La Gauche?” he asked. “Because he favored his left hand?”Sophie’s face turned crimson and she pressed her lips together. “N-not exactly,” she stammered. “It has to do with his . . . his . . .” She gestured vaguely in the direction of her waist.He chuckled. “I understand. This has been quite an education for you, has it not?”He resumed his perusal:Missing: Unknown womanEmployment: The Black Queen, East LondonDescription: Brown hair, blue eyes, queen of spades tattoo above ankleLast Seen: ??Death: River police pulled her from the water on 16 April, 1820Body: Missing right hand, raped and strangledRegular Visitors: ??“This was the reason for your visit to The Black Queen? To see if you could draw a correlation between the two women?”“Yes. I had hoped one of the other girls there would confirm her identity and her regulars.”“And?”“They were too frightened—fearing O’Shea far more than our hand-collecting murderer.” Likely with good cause. O’Shea did not have a reputation as a fair employer—especially to women. “But one clearly knew the missing girl,” Sophie continued. “It was obvious by her reaction. I could go back and try to speak with—”“No,” Quint stated emphatically. “Sir Stephen’s presence was noted and clearly not appreciated, considering what happened when you left.”She stretched her shoulders, and the flickering light danced across the nape of her neck. He tried not to notice. “Not necessarily,” she said. “That could have been a random occurrence.”“Unlikely. The chance of a random attack is very low, especially when you factor in your visit to the Thames police. There very well may’ve been a corrupt officer or two who would not appreciate someone asking questions. I believe you attracted the wrong kind of attention with both visits.”“I fail to see how you can be certain.”“I am not certain. No one can be certain. But I’ve weighed the various factors mathematically using Bayes’ rule and believe there is a high probability that the attempt on your life was intentional.”He could tell that news upset her. She worried her bottom lip with her teeth. “Why would anyone want to kill me?”Quint held up the paper with her notes. “The answer lies somewhere in this.”Chapter TwelveSophie was in trouble—not nearly as much trouble as someone trying to kill her on a street in Whitechapel, of course. But a different sort of trouble, and one no less disconcerting to her well-being.Fact: She was alone with Quint in his bedchamber.Fact: He was talking of theorems, secret messages, and mathematical probability.Fact: She was incredibly, distractingly aroused.The warmth in her belly slid south, a sharp tingle that resulted in a distinctive throb between her legs. How she could be so attracted to one man and not melt into a puddle at his feet was a testament to her sheer strength of will.She cleared her throat. “So how do we find the answer?”“By looking for patterns, which you have already begun by visiting The Black Queen. We need to carry it a bit further. What do we know about the four girls pulled from the river, other than they were each missing a right hand?”“They were all suspected prostitutes. Each fairly young.”“Estimated to be between nineteen and twenty-two,” he elaborated. “Which is not significant in itself. Most women in prostitution are young.” He sat on the edge of the bed and folded his arms. “What else?” he asked, waving his hand as if to hurry her along.Sophie shut her eyes for a moment, concentrating on the bits she’d heard. “Each girl washed up along different spots on the river—”“Unsurprising, considering the unpredictable currents. Variations in weather and detritus in the water would also factor as to how far a floating body may travel. And?”“Um, mudlarks discovered the first. Dockworkers numbers two and three. River police found the fourth.”“So we discount method of discovery. What about the bodies?”“Each was missing her right hand. Why is that, do you suppose?”“Hard to say.” Quint stroked his jaw. “Is it the sense of touch he’s trying to prevent? As most people favor their right hands, is it symbolic of robbing her strength? Also, it’s a unit of measurement; is the murderer using them to ‘measure’ the crimes figuratively? Or, does he make them use that particular hand for some perverse physical act, and retain it as a keepsake?”“I can see you’ve given it some thought,” she said, astonished.“There is little else to do when trapped inside your own home.” He shrugged. “Have you looked into the other two girls pulled from the river? Where they worked and anyone who might be able to identify them?”“No, not yet. They were badly decomposed by the time the surgeon saw them. He could not tell me much.”He cocked his head. “Any other girls missing from The Kitty or The Queen?”“One from The Kitty. Her sister is the one who originally hired me. I haven’t been able to find out what happened to her. She disappeared without a trace, so I strongly suspect she’s another victim.”“Careful,” Quint warned. “You may be right in your assumption. But when you look for coincidences, you’re bound to find them. You must stick with facts.”“Makes perfect sense to me. Two girls, both prostitutes for O’Shea, and both go missing in such a short period of time. Is that not a strong indicator?”“There is no causal relationship with coincidence. Meaning there is no cause and effect. Just because two brothers die on the exact same day ten years apart does not mean there is anything sinister afoot. Merely because this other woman disappeared does not mean she’s been killed by the same man—or even killed. She may be visiting her aunt in Shropshire.”She sighed unhappily, and Quint chuckled. “No one said this would be easy.”“It might be for you, if you were willing to leave your house.”He frowned. “It’s not a matter of being willing. I would like to leave. I amunableto leave.”A pang of sympathy streaked through her.“Do not give me that look,” he snapped, getting to his feet and pointing a finger at her. “Do notpityme. God, I’d rather you did anything but that.”“I do not pity you, Damien,” she said. “I believe you are being stubborn and childish.”His lip curled. “Is that so? Was my father being stubborn and childish when he started pulling his own hair out of his head in giant clumps? Raving and shouting at all hours? Knocking his head into the wall?”How terrible it must have been for him, a small boy, to witness such madness in a loved one. But she did not see how it mattered. “And you believe your fate to soon be the same?”He jerked his chin, avoided her eyes, and remained silent.So, yes. That was what he believed. It was beginning to all make sense.“Were you not just lecturing me on drawing inferences where causal relationships may not exist? Yes, your father might have been insane. But it doesn’t guarantee that you will follow the same, precise path.”“Perhaps. Yet prevailing medical theory certainly favors that exact outcome.”“Yes, but—”“Do you not think I’ve turned this over in my mind countless times? That I haven’t looked for even the faintest glimmer of hope that this is a physical ailment rather than one of mental acuity? Spent hours and hours searching for a cure? I’ve tried tens of remedies, I’ve experimented with nearly everything I’ve thought—”He snapped his jaw shut and spun away. After a few seconds, he dragged a shaking hand through his unruly brown hair. Her heart constricted. To Quint, this must be absolutely terrifying, and she hadn’t meant to upset him.“I am sorry,” she said after a long moment. “I should not have pushed.”“No, you did nothing wrong. I am . . .” He blew out a long breath and placed his hands on his hips. “I find myself at my worst around you.”She drew near and saw the emotion in his golden-brown depths, a reflection of the hurt and confusion inside him. “Your worst is still better than my best. Probably better than most anyone in London, in fact.”He shook his head. “You are only flattering me because I know your secret.”He was wrong, but she did not correct him. “Your experiments, have any of them helped? Or at least shown progress?”“Only that one time, on the terrace. With you. When we were kissing.”“Well, good thing you still owe me payment this evening. Come with me.”  Quint stared outside, then cut his gaze to Sophie. “This is a terrible idea.”“I think it’s a perfectly sound idea.” They had now returned down to the ground floor. She stepped out of the open terrace door and turned to face him. “You kiss me and at some point, I’ll lead you outside. As long as you keep your eyes closed and allow me to do all the work, you’ll be fine.”“But how does that solve the problem? It’s a temporary fix, based on my remaining oblivious.”“It’s a start, Quint. Perhaps if we do it often enough, you won’t worry about doing it on your own.”“Sophie—”“What is the worst that could happen?”“You called me Damien,” he blurted.She blinked up at him, her impish smile reflected in the soft light coming from the room behind him. “Did I?”He nodded. “Yes. In my chamber. I’ve never heard you say it before.”Even in the dim surroundings, he saw the flush steal over her cheekbones. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed—”“No, I liked it. I haven’t been called by that name for a very long time.” Lifting his hand, he brushed the backs of his knuckles over her cheek. Then he tucked a short brown wisp of hair behind her ear. “And to answer your question, the worst that could happen is that I have another fit.”“Which I’ve already seen,” she said matter-of-factly. “So you have nothing to fear.”Merely because she’d seen one did not mean he relished repeating the experience. And that was not his only concern. “Lest you forget, our kiss last evening got a bit out of hand.” An understatement. He’d rushed her out of his house, fearing what he might do if she stayed. He’d wanted to take her hard and fast, bury himself inside her until they both exploded. “For the sake of your innocence, I think it best if we skip tonight’s venture.”“Allow me to worry about my innocence. And I hardly think you’re going to ravish me on the terrace, for heaven’s sake.”He was not so sure—not with Sophie involved. Each time he touched her, he forgot what little reason he still possessed.She placed her hand on his chest, stepped closer. His heart pounded beneath her palm while his mind warred with itself. On one side of his brain, logic was standing on a chair, waving its arms to get his attention. On the other side, lust and yearning rubbed their hands together in unholy anticipation.When she tilted her head to meet his eyes, the determination and desire in her glittering gaze had him admitting defeat.Bending, he took her mouth. Her lips were soft and ready, and they responded to him eagerly. He clasped her tight, so tight he could feel every curve pressed against him. The night wove a dark, protective cocoon around them and he soon forgot about everything else but Sophie’s lips and tongue.Her arms wound around his neck, breasts flattened to his chest. Taller than most women he’d known, she fit him perfectly, their hips nearly aligned. Therefore, he didn’t have to reach far in order to place his hands on her deliciously round backside.He deepened the kiss, demanding more. She did not disappoint, her tongue twining with his. Blood rushed in his veins and pooled in his groin, his penis rapidly engorging. Everything in him begged for friction, for the ability to drive and thrust. To root and mark. To devour and conquer.He rolled his hips into her pelvic bone, and Sophie whimpered, her nails digging into his scalp. He loved her responses. She held nothing back, a woman completely without artifice when it came to her desire. A rarity among ladies, especially unmarried ones.“Quint, please,” she breathed when he broke off to kiss the slim column of her throat.“Who?” He slid a hand to her breast, plumped it, and found the nipple through the thin layers of cloth. Pinched it.“Damien,” she gasped. “Oh, God. Don’t stop.”“What do you want,delicia?” His lips trailed the bare skin along the edge of her bodice.“Is that . . . Italian?”“Latin. But I shall use Italian, if you prefer,cara mia.”She shivered. “What about Greek or Russian?”“Psihi mou.”My soul.Her breath hitched.He kissed the plump mounds of her décolletage. “Lyubov moya.”My love.Another kiss.“Or German.Ohne dich kann ich nicht leben.”I cannot live without you.She was panting now. She must not understand what he was saying, or she’d have run screaming. And he meant every word, he suddenly realized.Grabbing his head in her hands, she dragged him back for a frantic, scorching kiss. He rapidly lost the ability to speak—in any language.Damnation, he wanted . . . he needed . . . awall. There was a wall behind her. Never breaking from her mouth, he backed her up until her spine met the surface. He clutched fistfuls of her skirts and hitched them to her waist. He cupped her mons through her drawers. So hot. And the cloth was wet.“Yes,” she hissed. “Oh, yes. More.”His fingers parted the cloth. Touched her slick crease. He groaned. If there was a heaven, it would feel like this. He slipped one finger into that tight sheath. Only, it wasn’t enough this time. He needed to taste her.He dropped to his knees. “Hold these up for me,” he said, shoving up the various skirts.Her eyes, glazed with lust, stared down at him in the near darkness as she gathered the cloth in her hands. “Why? What—”“Throw your left leg over my shoulder.”Without waiting, he positioned her leg where he wanted. Then he slid his hands up her thighs, parted her drawers, and licked her. His erection throbbed, but he ignored it. Nothing mattered but Sophie. The way she trembled. The way she gasped when his tongue flicked her clitoris. The mewling noises when he applied gentle suction with his mouth. The moans when he speared the opening to her vagina with his tongue.And when she peaked—her body tightening and then convulsing—he held on, riding her through it. Finally she stopped shaking and he released her. He tried to regain his composure by taking a few deep breaths, his forehead resting on her thigh. His own body was aroused to the point of mind-numbing pain.Knees aching, he placed his hands on the floor to push up. The hard stone under his palms caught his attention and his eyes flew open. He was out on the terrace. Outside.He’d just lifted Sophie’s skirts and pleasured her with his mouthoutside.Against a wall. Where anyone might happen to see. Granted the terrace was mostly dark and the hedges near the mews were taller than he. And it was the middle of the night. But . . . still. Sophie did not deserve to be treated like a two-penny tart on payday.Bloody hell, he’d done it again.She had trusted him not to ravish her on the terrace, and that’s precisely what he’d done. He’d have to apologize. Again.Sighing, he rose to find her slouched against the wall, breathing hard. She clutched his shoulder. “That was . . .” Wonder broke out on her face. “Unlike anything I’d ever imagined. And did you see? You’re outside.” She grinned. “I told you we could do it.”His chest ached, but location had little to do with it. “Sophie,” he started and then licked his lips. The tantalizing taste of her was still on his skin, taunting him with his loss of self-control. “I must apolog—”“Do not dare.” She put her hands on her hips. “Do not apologize, Quint.”So they were back to Quint. He shook his head. “I must. This is entirely improper and highly disrespectful. I should not be touching you in such a manner. Even if you do not push me away, I should have more restraint. It’s just that . . .”
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