The Spy's Kiss
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Serena Allen has taken refuge at her uncle's country house ever since a scandalous seduction left her reputation in tatters. But her aunt has never given up hope of making a match for her and is delighted when the handsome, aristocratic Julien Clermont arrives at Boulton Park expressing an interest in the earl's famous butterfly collection-and interest of a different kind in Serena. Serena herself views the guest with misgivings. Can a man be too charming? And can it be coincidence that important foreign documents entrusted to the earl have begun to disappear and reappear in odd places?
Julien is indeed on a top-secret-and personal-mission, one that prevents him from disclosing his real identity to Serena. But the truth will out, and with it comes a devilish choice-betray the lovely, quick-witted woman who has won his heart, or risk forfeiting his own life. . .
Release date: October 15, 2013
Publisher: Zebra Books
Print pages: 384
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The Spy's Kiss
“Ah, yes, my consequence,” Clermont had said. “We mustn’t forget that.”
“It would not do to appear too eager,” his servant reminded him, “under the circumstances.”
That argument had silenced him. He had sent off a civil reply thanking the earl and vaguely promising to call at his earliest convenience. But when the designated morning proved wet and blustery, he refused to listen to Vernon’s warnings about muddy boots and colds in the chest and other disasters which might result from riding over to Boulton Park in the rain.
“I’ve never taken a chill in my life. As for the mud, Bassington has an army of servants, you told me so yourself. They can mop the front hall if I track in a bit of dirt.”
“It is not customary in England to pay the first call in inclement weather unless one has the use of a carriage,” said Vernon stiffly. “Only regular visitors will be expected on a morning like this.”
“I most certainly intend to be a regular visitor.” Clermont picked up his leather notebook and stuffed it into a small satchel along with the case for his magnifying glass. “And,” he added, looking out the window of his parlor on the upper floor of the Burford Arms, “it has stopped raining.”
“Not for long,” was the valet’s parting shot as his master headed out the door.
Vernon was right, as usual. Julien had barely passed the junction at the outskirts of Burford when the sky began to darken. By the time he came up to the stone wall, which protected Bassington’s park from the traffic on the Bath road, tiny drops were beginning to brush the side of his face.
He drew rein and thoughtfully eyed the rusted iron gate in the wall. If he kept to the road he still had three miles to go. The gate, he knew, led to the wood which adjoined the lower end of the garden west of Boulton Park. He had explored this part of the earl’s land several times now, and had even ventured into the gardens late one night. If he cut through the trees and went over the hill, he could be at the house in ten minutes. What was worse—to arrive soaked, or to trespass yet again, this time in daylight?
He knew what Vernon would advise: retreat to the inn and wait until tomorrow. Or hire the hideous carriage which sat, slightly tilted to one side, in the stable of the Burford Arms. Waiting until tomorrow was out of the question. And picturing the state of the upholstery in the inn’s ancient vehicle, Clermont decided that even a very damp visitor would make a better impression than a visitor who was picking tufts of decaying mustard-colored velvet off his garments as he climbed the front steps. All in all, it made sense to take his chances on the shortcut. There was not much risk that he would be spotted approaching through the park. No gardener was likely to be out in this weather, and he had never seen a soul on his forays into the wood during the past week. He dismounted and led his horse up to the gate. It was unlocked. He had pried open the padlock himself on his first expedition into the enemy’s territory.
The gate gave its customary screech as he pushed it open, and a clump of blackbirds darted up from the branches above him. His horse sidled and stamped at the sound, sending more birds into the air. Closing the gate behind him produced yet another eruption. He swung back into the saddle and turned his horse onto the narrow path which threaded its way east from the road. There was a long, muddy ascent, which he remembered, and several gullies full of melting ice, which he had not remembered. The gelding, slipping once or twice, grew nervous and Clermont judged it safer to proceed at a walk. The wind had picked up, and drops were showering down on him from the leafless branches. Still, he thought, he would emerge from the woods in a minute or two and, if he were lucky, could cut down to the front drive before the rain began in earnest.
He was not lucky. At the bottom of the hill, just as he was riding up out of yet another mud-filled ditch, the bushes ahead of him shifted suddenly. A short, slight figure leaped out onto the path in front of him, wearing a shapeless wool hat pulled down over the eyes and a large red muffler, which concealed the lower part of his face. One gloved hand was clenched at his side. The other was holding a pistol, pointed straight at Clermont.
Clermont’s first thought was that some gamekeeper was about to shoot him as a poacher, and while he fought to get his startled horse back under control he was trying to remember which of his six pockets held the earl’s letter. But as the chestnut subsided, it dawned on him that keepers rarely lay in wait for poachers at ten in the morning. Moreover, the person in front of him was rather small to be a keeper—not to mention oddly dressed, in a short jacket and breeches which clashed oddly with the shapeless hat. The hand holding the pistol was trembling violently. Above the muffler, blue eyes were bright with a feverish combination of terror and exhilaration.
It was a boy, he realized. He took in for the first time the fine leather boots, the silver buttons on the jacket. He would give good odds that this was Bassington’s son. The eleven-year-old viscount, according to the groom at the Burford Arms, was “a rare handful,” an assessment which appeared to be, if anything, an understatement. And the gun was a deadly one, a long-barreled dueling pistol, with a trigger made to go off at the lightest touch. Clermont thought that on balance he would have been safer with an angry gamekeeper.
“Stand and deliver,” the boy croaked in what was meant to be a gruff bass. The effect was somewhat spoiled by the layers of wool over his mouth.
“Is your pistol loaded?” demanded Clermont, hoping the answer was no.
“Yes, of course,” said the boy indignantly in his normal voice. The muffler slipped and Clermont caught a glimpse of a fine-boned face and fair hair before the would-be highwayman hastily pulled it up again.
Keeping his tone casual, Clermont said, “Are you certain? Did you keep the powder dry?”
The boy looked down involuntarily at his damp jacket.
“Let me have a look.” Clermont nudged his horse forward and reached for the gun. “I’ll return it,” he promised, as he saw the boy hesitate.
Grudgingly the gun was released.
“A Manton,” Clermont said matter-of-factly as he examined it. “One of the new ones, with a water-proof pan. If you loaded it correctly, the powder should be fine.” He held it out at arm’s length, pointed it over the trees, and pulled the trigger. A sharp report set his horse dancing and produced a veritable explosion of agitated blackbirds. “Is that how you knew I was coming?” he asked, gesturing towards the clouds of birds. “From seeing the birds fly up near the gate?”
“You liar!” The boy was furious. “You said you would give it back!”
Julien extended the pistol. “Here it is.”
“But now it isn’t loaded!”
“Otherwise, I assure you, it would be very irresponsible of me to keep my promise.” He added in severe tones, “This thing can fire if you even twitch a finger, let alone wave it up and down as you were doing. You could have killed my horse just now playing your little game of highwayman.”
The boy looked taken aback. “That’s only Budge’s chestnut,” he muttered sulkily after a moment. “He can’t be worth much; he shies at everything and stumbles if you try to make him trot when he doesn’t want to. I’ll wager my father wouldn’t have to pay more than five pounds for him.”
“You could have killed me, then,” Clermont pointed out.
“You’re a trespasser. For all I know you’re—you’re a robber. Or a smuggler.”
The wind dropped for a moment, and in the lull, Clermont caught the sound of voices shouting. They faded away and then grew closer. He heard hoofbeats and an agitated cry: “Master Simon! Master Simon, are you here?” Then another, breathless voice, calling out that there were footprints on the path.
“This is your fault,” hissed the boy, glaring. “They would never have found me if you hadn’t fired the gun.”
“Who is ‘they’?” asked Clermont, holding out his hand imperatively for the pistol.
“My tutor and Bates.” Sullenly the boy relinquished it for the second time. “You’re not going to keep it, are you?” he asked, looking anxious. “It’s my father’s.”
For answer, Clermont leaned over and flipped the telltale slouch hat into the bushes. “Unwind that muffler,” he advised. “And don’t say anything foolish.”
The next minute an elderly groom had cantered up, followed by a blond man in his twenties with one of the worst seats Clermont had ever seen. The groom simply eyed the boy in grim silence, but the younger man slid clumsily off his horse, scolding before his feet even touched the ground.
“Simon, have you no consideration for your mother? She is nearly in hysterics! We’ve been searching for half an hour, and when we heard the gunshot I assure you the countess was not the only one to feel anxiety on your behalf.” He surveyed his pupil with displeasure. “What she will say when she learns you have been out in the wet without your cap I do not know. You promised faithfully, you may recall, to wear both your cap and your muffler and to return at the first sign of rain or snow.”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. . . .?” Clermont interposed.
“Royce,” said the tutor stiffly.
“Mr. Royce, then. Your pupil saw me struggling with my horse and came to assist me. I am sure you would have done the same.” Having successfully diverted attention from Simon, he anticipated the tutor’s next question. “I was riding along the road south of the park and saw a suspicious-looking fellow in a frieze coat prying open the gate. I shouted and he ran into the woods; I followed him in, of course, and when he heard me behind him he fired at me. My horse took exception to the noise, and if this young man had not run up and seized the bridle I believe I should have taken a nasty fall.”
“Is this true?” demanded the tutor, frowning at the boy.
“Are you calling me a liar?” Clermont’s tone was mild, but the groom, who had been examining the torn branches of the shrubs near the path, suddenly lifted his head.
Royce drew himself up. “Who might you be?” he asked, still suspicious. “You do realize that you are trespassing? I’ve a good mind to summon the constable and see what he thinks of your story about a man in a frieze coat.”
Sighing, Clermont fished in his pockets until he found the envelope. “This will no doubt be a disappointment to you,” he said, holding it up so that the crest was clearly visible, “but the earl is expecting me. He has kindly offered to let me examine his father’s butterfly collection. My name is Clermont.”
There was a stunned silence. Simon was the first to break it. “You are the old man who is coming to look at the butterflies?”
“Simon!” said the tutor sharply.
“Well, they always are,” Simon said. “Old, that is. And they hunch, and smell of cheap snuff, and wear spectacles. I wish I could see Serena’s face when she discovers you are her latest charge!”
“That’s quite enough.” The tutor had Simon’s arm in an iron grip, but he smiled thinly at Julien. “The earl is indeed expecting you, Mr. Clermont. I have been serving as his secretary lately and recall your correspondence perfectly.” He added, in the most natural tone Clermont had heard him use, “I fear I am better suited to secretarial duties than to pedagogical ones. I must ask you to forgive the viscount’s lack of conduct.” He added in a low voice to Simon, “After you have changed into dry things and had your tonic perhaps you will write your father’s guest a note of apology.”
“No, no, that won’t be necessary,” said Clermont hastily. But the tutor was pushing the errant viscount onto his horse and leading the animal off with only a sketch of a bow in farewell.
“If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you around to the stables, Mr. Clermont,” said the groom. He scrupulously avoided looking at the slight bulge in Clermont’s coat pocket.
After studying the older man for a moment, Julien took out the pistol and handed it to him. “Make sure you clean it before you put it back,” he said. “And you might advise the earl to lock his weapons away from now on.”
The groom snorted. “Much good that would do. Master Simon can open any lock in the house. Why, he’s taken his mother’s jewelry out of the safe just to plague her.”
“Why isn’t he off at school?” asked Julien bluntly.
“He has a delicate constitution,” the man explained, his face expressionless.
Julien raised one eyebrow. “Indeed. How very convenient.”
“Just so, sir,” said the groom with feeling, pocketing the pistol and the coin which accompanied it. “I’ll see this is returned, and no one the wiser.”
Serena was in the still-room, scowling at a jar filled with a pale, viscous liquid, when the maidservant came to fetch her.
“Begging your pardon, miss,” said the girl breathlessly. “Your aunt sent me to tell you that a gentleman is here to see the butterflies, and would you be at liberty to show him upstairs and explain how the trays are labeled.”
“Is Mr. Royce not available?” she asked, looking up briefly.
“He is with Master Simon, miss. And in any case the countess asked for you particularly. Apparently this gentleman will be working with the specimens in the locked cabinets, and Mr. Royce is not familiar with them.”
“No, he isn’t.” With a sigh, Serena untied her apron and hung it on a hook. “I might have known one of the scientists would arrive just now,” she muttered, giving the jar a black look. “Five crowns this wretched thing cost me, not to mention the knife I ruined cutting it open, and it still hasn’t separated.”
The maid peered curiously at the jar on the windowsill and then at the fibrous shards piled on the table. “What is it?”
“Coco-nut oil. Or it would be, if it would only separate.” Serena frowned. “Perhaps I did not dry the meat long enough before I pressed it. Or I should have opened the window sooner when I was chilling it.” She began to ruffle impatiently through the untidy pile of recipe cards on the table, until an embarrassed cough from the maid reminded her that a visitor was waiting.
“It does smell rather nice, miss,” offered the maid timidly as she held open the door.
Serena, after three hours of struggling with her extraction, was heartily sick of the cloying odor. But she knew the maid was offering an apology for interrupting her, so she smiled wryly over her shoulder as she went over to the basin and rinsed her hands. “I hope my aunt agrees with you, since I suspect I will reek of Coco-nut for the rest of the day.” She looked around for a towel, remembered that both of them were now sitting under the disemboweled fruit, and wiped her fingers surreptitiously on her skirts as she ducked into the back hallway. “Could you return this to Mrs. Fletcher?” she asked, locking the door and holding out the key. “I’ll go straight up to the library.”
“Certainly, miss.” The maid tucked the key into one of her apron pockets. “But the gentleman is in the drawing room, with your aunt.” She added diffidently, “The countess hoped it would not take you too long to change and join them.”
“The drawing room?” Serena looked at the maid in astonishment. The butterfly-men, as Simon called them, were usually received by Royce and taken to the library, which adjoined the cabinet-rooms. Occasionally the earl would stop in and greet an especially learned visitor. The countess, however, paid little attention to the scientists and certainly had never admitted one to her drawing room. Frowning, Serena considered what might have prompted her aunt to this unusual hospitality. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted two servants hurrying down the kitchen stairs. Something was odd. Breakfast was long over; luncheon two hours away. And now the maid was sidling away, avoiding her gaze.
“Lucy,” said Serena. There was an edge in her voice.
The maid stopped, looking wary.
“This gentleman isn’t by any chance a young gentleman, is he? An unmarried young gentleman?”
The maid hesitated. “I’m sure I couldn’t say, miss.”
Serena raised her eyebrows.
“Whether he might be married, that is,” the maid said hastily, conceding the question of age.
“I will wager,” said Serena between her teeth, “that he has no more interest in butterflies than you do.”
“Oh, no,” said the maid earnestly. “I think they are lovely—that is, Mrs. Fletcher permits me to help Hubert dust the trays every so often, only in the first two cabinets, of course, the ones all the visitors can look at. . . .” She turned pink and started again. “It’s a very polite young man, and he has a magnifying glass in a case, and a notebook, and a pincushion, and a little ivory rule, just like all the other gentlemen.” The tone of her voice made it clear that in all other ways he was most unlike the usual denizens of the library.
“If he were just like all the others, he would not be in the drawing room,” Serena pointed out. “And no one would have thought I needed to change my gown.” Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Am I presentable?” she asked abruptly, holding out her skirts and pivoting slightly.
“With all due respect, miss, no,” said Lucy, surveying the frayed cuffs of Serena’s wool gown and the still-visible patches of damp at the hips.
“Good,” said Serena with a cold smile. And she headed purposefully for the stair which led up to the drawing room.
The Countess of Bassington surveyed her preparations with satisfaction. Fresh flowers had been brought in from the greenhouse and set on the side table. The Sheraton chairs and the small table were now behind a screen. A chaise and wing chair huddled awkwardly in the corner by the pianoforte. There remained in the center of the room only three pieces of furniture: a low-backed armchair (her own headquarters for this first stage of the campaign); a walnut and ivory tea table, which would soon hold some light refreshments; and her latest acquisition, an elegant scroll-backed sofa covered in Chinese silk. How very fortunate that she had been walking by the library when Pritchett had brought the young man in. How fortunate, as well, that the visitor’s damp, untidy clothing had not misled her for an instant. Her trained eye had noted the ruby stickpin hanging slightly askew in his cravat, the fine cut of his jacket, and then, incredulously, the gold signet ring. The startled butler, who had expected to leave the visitor to await Royce’s convenience, found himself hurrying off with orders for two of the upstairs maids, a footman, the housekeeper, the earl’s valet, and even Bassington himself.
The aforesaid footman, still slightly out of breath from a rapid bout of furniture moving, now reappeared, holding the door for the earl.
“Go away,” said the countess to her husband. “You were not to come up until I sent for you.”
The earl took in the flowers, the little island of furniture, and the hovering servant. “May I be excused from whatever is afoot?” he asked. “I am rather occupied at the moment.”
“You most certainly may not be excused! I need you.”
“What is it today? Comforter of the bereaved Sir Reginald? Patron of Lady Orset’s hospital? Surely Serena could assist you? I thought you were not at home today; you told me at breakfast it was too wet for callers.”
She looked at his rumpled jacket and the telltale inkstains on his cuff. “You’ve been working.” It came out as an accusation.
“My love, it is sometimes necessary,” he said mildly. “There is a war on, you know.”
“I hoped Royce would be able to do more for you,” she muttered. “He certainly isn’t a very good tutor; I only kept him on because he seemed as though he could be useful as a secretary.” She had had other reasons for encouraging Jasper Royce to remain at Boulton Park, but she had kept them to herself.
“He is useful. But he is also, my dear, a bit of an ass—if you will excuse my blunt language. I daren’t trust him with this. And if Sir Reginald and Lady Orset and the Derrings and all our other neighbors will be offended to find me shut up in my study when they call, I shall have to go back to London.”
She doubted he would execute this threat; he did not like London at this time of year. But she knew that any sign of irritation in her husband required careful management. Normally she would have sent him back to his reports with her blessing. He was already turning to go, believing he had won the battle.
“George!” she said, pleading.
He looked exasperated.
“I know what you are thinking, but it is not Sir Reginald,” she added hastily. Their elderly neighbor, a wealthy and childless widower, required frequent consolation for the perfidy of his younger relations, who unfailingly proved to have no sense of duty or affection but merely to be waiting for his demise. His visits usually lasted far longer than the conventional morning call and involved detailed explanations of the latest changes in his will.
“That young man who wrote to inquire about the butterfly collection. Mr. Clermont. He has just arrived. And,” she said with unusual emphasis, “he is wearing a very remarkable signet ring.”
“What’s his ring to do with anything? Clara, I wish you would not talk in riddles. If you insist, of course I shall come up. Briefly.” He grimaced. “He did have a letter of introduction from young Derring; they were at school together. I suppose I should make an appearance.”
“He’s in one of the spare bedrooms at the moment; the storm caught him and I sent Tuckett up to help him with his wet things. He will be down at any moment.” She glanced at her husband’s stained cuff and debated asking him to change his shirt, then thought better of it and waved him away. “Off with you; I don’t want you here yet. But be sure to come up the minute I send for you.”
The earl was used to his wife’s stage-managed social events; he bowed ironically and moved to the door.
“Oh,” said the countess, as though remembering. “Bates says we had an intruder in the park. Mr. Clermont tried to pursue him and was shot at for his pains.”
“The devil you say!” Shocked, the earl swung around. “I beg your pardon, Clara. But why did Bates not tell me at once?”
No need to worry now that her husband would not come up when she sent for him in half an hour, she thought, very pleased with herself. He might not care, as she did, about presentable young men, but he would certainly want to hear about a stranger prowling through the park. Two days ago he had become so obsessed with the notion that robbers were in the neighborhood that he had even hired guards to patrol the gardens at night.
“You told Pritchett you were not to be disturbed,” she reminded him. She herself, of course, routinely ignored these orders.
Snorting in disgust, Bassington stalked through the door, which the impassive footman was still holding open.
“Good morning, Uncle.” At the sound of Serena’s voice in the hall the countess gave a silent sigh. There was a crisp bite to the consonants which was all too familiar. And indeed, here was her niece, striding into the room in a manner very reminiscent of the earl’s irritated departure a moment earlier. She was not precisely frowning, but her expression was wary and hostile, and, of course, she had not changed her gown.
The countess surveyed Serena cautiously. Her hair was still in its braided coronet, and the smooth brown surface gave off little glints of red as the light struck it. Her dress was wrinkled, true, but the color—a deep green—was flattering. Serena’s gray eyes tended to take on the hues of her clothing, so that just now they held a faint hint of emerald at the edges. And her posture, which was sometimes lamentable, was always at its best when she was angry. All in all, the countess decided, it could have been worse, and she surprised her niece by greeting her with a warm smile.
“You sent for me, Aunt Clara?” the girl asked. Her voice was softer than it had been in the hall. She had expected a scolding for her appearance, the countess realized, and was flustered by the omission.
“Yes, dear. It seems we have a very distinguished visitor who would like to look at the butterflies, and after I receive him I would like you to take him up to the library yourself. I hope you do not mind.”
“Would—would you wish me to change? I was in the still-room,” she added, flushing slightly.
A peace offering, thought the countess. Ever since her sister’s only surviving child had come to live with them eight years earlier, she had taken innumerable vows to be more patient with the girl, to respect her preferences, and to refrain from giving her advice. She made another silent pledge now. “No, no,” she said airily. “I had thought of it, but perhaps it is just as well; I understand Mr. Clermont wishes to work with the late earl’s diaries, and some of the volumes are in a sad state.”
“You mean that they smear flecks of red leather on everything they touch,” said Serena with a trace of a smile. She started to say something else, but the door opened again.
The footman reappeared, flanked by Pritchett, who announced impressively, “Mr. Clermont, milady.” He stepped aside and made way for her guest, whose appearance, unlike that of her niece, was now quite acceptable. His neckcloth and jacket had been pressed, his boots had been cleaned, and his hair, which had been falling over his forehead earlier, was now neatly combed. For the first time she got a good look at his face, and especially his eyes. They were very dark, with dark lashes, in curious contrast to the fair hair, which was growing lighter as it dried.
“Ah, Mr. Clermont,” she said, holding out her hand. “I do hope Tuckett has made you more comfortable.” Her eye searched automatically for the fascinating ring. It was now gone. A thin indentation across the base of his finger reassured her that she had not been hallucinating. Why had he removed it?
“Less disreputable, at any rate,” he said smiling and bending over her hand with practiced grace. “I had not meant to put you to so much trouble, Lady Bassington. I should have postponed my call until the weather was less threatening.”
“Nonsense,” said the countess briskly. “At this time of year in Oxfordshire, you might spend weeks waiting for a fair morning.” She gestured Serena forward. “Mr. Clermont, allow me to present my niece, Miss Allen.”
Serena’s eyes widened slightly, but she nodded gravely as the visitor bowed. Clermont, the countess noted with satisfaction, did not seem at all surprised by the wording of her introduction. And, as she had suspected, he was distinctly taller than Serena, something few men could claim.
“A pleasure,” said Clermont formally. “I understand that you are the guardian of the Bassington cabinets, Miss Allen. I hope it will not be inconvenient for you to assist me for a few moments this morning. Once I have seen the labeling system I usually do quite well on my own, so you need not fear I shall plague you further.”
“And what is your particular interest in butterflies, Mr. Clermont?” Serena asked, in a tone of voice which the countess could not help but label “skeptical.”
“I am, in fact, more interested in moths. Particularly the new lunar moths described by Hübner.” He gave a slight shrug. “But those are primarily Asian, and your collection is more noted for its African and South American specimens, if I am not mistaken.”
Now what has he said to make her frown so? thought the countess in exasperation. There was a light knock at the door, and she turned in relief, expecting to see the maidservant bringing in the tea tray.
It was Pritchett, however. He was frowning as well. “Mr. Googe is with his lordship, my lady,” he announced lugubriously. “And he would like to speak to Mr. Clermont at his earliest convenience.”
“The constable is here?” Lady Bassington was aghast. “Whatever for? And what would he want with Mr. Clermont?” Then she recollected the intruder in the park. “Oh,” she said, turning to Clermont in relief. “It is only about the man who fired at you. It is very tiresome, but I suppose you will have to go and be interviewed.”
Serena found herself studying Clermont surreptitiously while the constable went through the laborious process of recording five pages of notes on the incident in the park. She had surprised herself by volunteering to escort him to her uncle, and surprised herself even more by remaining, seating herself inconspicuously at one side of the room in case Googe should notice her and decide that she had no business there. Which, in truth, she did not. But she was curious. Her aunt’s reception of the visitor sug
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