The Wicked Spy - Blackhaven Brides, Book 7
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to Blackhaven, where the great and the bad of visiting Regency society turn local life upside down...
Can her enemy melt her cold heart?
Lady Anna Gaunt comes to Blackhaven on a government commission - to free a French prisoner of war, thought to be Napoleon’s spymaster, Colonel Delon, and learn his secrets. But Anna has to find him first, for the enterprising prisoner has freed himself and clearly has an agenda of his own to be played out in Blackhaven.
Louis, betrayed, vengeful, and yet stubbornly loyal, is an enigma. He seems more interested in Anna’s personal secrets than those of his own country, and their war of words and information quickly becomes one of seduction.
But with the stakes so high, neither can afford to lose. Distractions such as highway robbery, elopement, and mysterious secret meetings can only unite them for a short time. For love is surely their common enemy, and any lasting relationship impossible.…
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Being an ambitious man, Henry Harcourt always entered his neat London house with faint dissatisfaction. He disliked its modest size and unfashionable location. This evening, however, he had more important matters on his mind—matters, which might, in fact, lead to promotion and a larger house before too much longer.
His heart lifted as always at the sight of his wife, Lady Christianne, descending the narrow stairs to greet him. He had married well above his own rank, his wife being the sister of the Marquis of Tamar. Although she was penniless, that had never concerned him, for his was a love match.
Striding to meet her, he realized belatedly that the lady approaching him was not his wife but her twin sister. The twins shared the same petite, delicate figures, raven locks, and lustrous, dark brown eyes. Their beauty was almost ethereal. But there, all similarities ended.
Although most people thought them identical, Henry rarely confused them, even at a distance, for Anna lacked Christianne’s impulsive warmth and sweet disposition. Anna walked with icy poise, her eyes veiled and watchful, her beautiful face betraying little except bored amusement at life. With her sharp perception and caustic tongue, she was one of the most intimidating women Henry had ever met.
She was not an entirely comfortable house guest either. On the other hand, she had proven surprisingly useful to him in his work, and she was just the person he needed to see this evening.
“Ah, Anna. Come into the study, if you please.”
For an instant, her eyes betrayed a spark of interest that was almost relief, but she merely inclined her head, and obligingly followed him into his tiny study.
Henry wasted no time on pleasantries. “Are you on visiting terms with your brother?” He squeezed behind the desk which was really too large for the room.
“God, no,” Anna replied with revulsion. “Which brother?” she added as an afterthought.
“Your eldest brother, Lord Tamar.”
“Oh, I don’t mind him. But I can’t imagine his wealthy new wife condescending to our Kensington hovel.”
Ignoring her slur upon his home, Henry corrected her. “No, I wish you to visit him up in Cumberland. At Braithwaite Castle.”
“Why the devil would I do that?”
Henry frowned. Like Christianne, Anna had grown up wild with little company but her siblings and she clearly saw no reason to mind her tongue with family. “Find your own reasons,” he said curtly. “He is newly married, that should be enough. I want you there because it is a mere ten miles from the Black Fort which houses French prisoners of war.”
That caught her attention. “Go on.”
“In October, an attempt was made to blow up the fort. It was foiled, and the French agents captured or killed. But such a strange act drew the fort to my attention. Why pick on such an obscure prison? Who were they trying to rescue? The men we captured had no idea or weren’t telling. So, I’ve been looking into the inmates and discovered this man.”
He took a sheaf of papers from the inside of his coat and pushed them across the desk to Anna. “Captain Armand L’Étrange. A man of the same name and the same regiment died at Salamanca. I know because a report was made of his bravery.”
“Then who is this?” Anna enquired, flicking through the papers.
“Whoever he is, he surrendered in Spain at the beginning of this year without much struggle and has given no trouble since. I have reason to believe he is Colonel Delon, the commander of all Bonaparte’s spies—under Bonaparte himself, of course. An intimate—or at least a past tool—of the likes of Fouché and Talleyrand, the one-time ministers of police and foreign affairs.”
Anna cast him a skeptical glance. “What reason could you possibly have for so wild a guess?”
“Well, it is a guess,” Henry admitted, “for we have no physical description of Delon. He was never a very visible commander. But, according to a spy of our own, about a year ago, there was some kind of purge in the ranks of the French police, with several of their spies being killed, or given away to whichever enemy would deal with them. No one has seen or mentioned Delon since, so we think he was pushed out, forced into hiding. He was last heard of in January, in Spain. I imagine his lifespan would have been severely curtailed had he returned to France. He must have a head full of information, dangerous to a lot of powerful people.”
“And so he pretended to be this L’Étrange and gave himself up to us? A rather drastic move, is it not?”
“Perhaps,” Henry agreed. “But our man placed this Delon within a few miles of where the supposed L’Étrange was captured. It seems likely Delon surrendered in disguise, and as a result, no one has ever asked him to betray anything. But can you imagine how useful his knowledge would be to us?” He smiled faintly. “And this is where you come in, my dear. I would like you to visit the prison, in charitable spirit, and make friends with the man. Help him escape, find out what you can and bring him to me.”
Her face did not change, yet Henry knew that she was pleased. Her very stillness betrayed her excitement.
“To bring such a man to the British side…” she mused. “It would surely help end the war. And it would be quite a feather in your cap, would it not?”
“And in yours,” Henry said steadily. “If you succeed. But make no mistake, Anna. This man is dangerous, and not only for what he knows. They say he was once a mere spy himself and rose to control the whole of Bonaparte’s secret police system under the likes of Fouché. He couldn’t have done that without being highly intelligent, devious, and utterly ruthless.”
Anna smiled and rose to her feet. “Then surely we are well matched. If you procure me a seat, I shall leave on the early mail coach.”
Two days later, Lady Anna Gaunt stepped down from her hired chaise. The impressive front door of Braithwaite Castle was already open and a very superior butler regarded her from the top step.
“Be so good as to pay the post boy, if you please,” she said carelessly, mounting the steps. “And announce me to Lord and Lady Tamar.”
Both instructions appeared to bewilder the butler, though not enough to remove him from her path.
“What name shall I say, madam?” he enquired, making no effort to attend to the impatient postillions who were anxious to return to Carlisle.
Anna gazed at the butler as though astonished. “Lady Anna Gaunt, of course. Lord Tamar is expecting me.”
His surprise at least enabled her to sail past him into the house, although he recovered quickly.
“This way, if you please, madam,” he said repressively, and led her across the vast hall and oak staircase to an uninspiring reception room. “I’ll see if her ladyship is at home.”
Anna allowed herself to look slightly offended. “His lordship should have had my letter a week since,” she observed. “I cannot be above a few minutes later than I intended.”
The butler merely bowed and went on his stately way.
In truth, Anna was not remotely offended since she hadn’t written to anyone, and the butler was only doing his duty, preserving his masters from uninvited hoi polloi. Her departure from London had been sudden, her journey north urgent and appallingly uncomfortable, though she had no intention of advertising the fact.
The reception room was small and somewhat soulless, though perfectly decorated. It had struck her, on first approaching the castle, that it resembled her own home, Tamar Abbey —another medieval pile. However, the nearer she approached, the fewer were the resemblances. Both the older and newer parts of Braithwaite Castle were clearly in excellent repair, the estate in which it was set well-cared for and prosperous. Here, the best was obviously made of a difficult and wild landscape. And the question uppermost in Anna’s mind remained, what on earth had possessed the Earl of Braithwaite to marry his very eligible sister to Anna’s entirely ineligible brother? The advantages were all clearly Rupert’s, and Anna was likely to be merely the first of her siblings to take advantage.
The butler’s footsteps returned after several minutes, though rather more hurriedly. “If you’d please to follow me upstairs, my lady,” he said with rather more respect, “her ladyship will receive you. And the post boys will be taken care of.”
“Thank you,” Anna said, and followed him up the grand staircase to an apparently infinite gallery and the first room opening off it. Now the moment was upon her and she would discover what sort of woman had taken on her flat-broke and feckless brother. To say nothing of his awful, grasping family.
But the drawing room—although a much finer apartment—was also empty. The butler bowed again and departed.
Only seconds later, a young woman of around her own age rushed in. Although clearly flustered, she was beautiful, fashionable, and unexpectedly friendly. The kind of woman who had never feared or wanted for anything.
“Lady Anna!” the beauty exclaimed, hurrying toward her with both hands outstretched. “What a delightful surprise!”
Anna almost laughed. She managed to avoid the clearly intended embrace by an adroit sidestep while she briefly shook her sister-in-law’s hand. That much contact was unavoidable. “Lady Tamar,” she said formally.
Her sister-in-law’s hands fell to her sides. Anna might have imagined the flash of hurt in her eyes but the spark of anger was real enough.
“Call me Serena,” her brother’s wife said at once. A perfect lady, clearly, she would not allow a perceived slight to affect her. “We are sisters, after all. But I hope you will excuse our unpreparedness. Paton said we should be expecting you, but I assure you, we received no word.”
“I wrote to Tamar more than a week since,” Anna lied. “It would be just like him to ignore it or simply forget! But the matter is easily remedied. I shall be quite happy to put up in Blackhaven. I believe there is a hotel.”
“Nonsense, you must stay here, of course. Please, sit close to the fire—you must be chilled through. They’re bringing refreshments directly.”
Anna took the nearest chair, making up for her old and unfashionable gown by sitting rigidly straight. “Is my brother not here?” she enquired.
“I left him further along the coast, huddled inside a greatcoat and two cloaks painting the sea from a particular angle. But I’ve sent someone to fetch him home.”
“You needn’t have bothered,” Anna said frankly. “He won’t be pleased to see me.”
Serena blinked. “I’m sure you wrong both of you.”
“Oh no,” Anna said. She allowed herself to gaze more blatantly at her sister-in-law. The girl lacked neither intelligence nor beauty. Anna was at a loss as to why she had married Rupert. “So, are your brother and mine friends?” Anna asked, wondering if that was how they had met.
“They are now,” Serena said cautiously.
“Then Lord Braithwaite did not introduce you?”
“Goodness, no. I introduced them.” There was a challenge in Serena’s direct gaze. “Why?”
Anna opted for honesty. “To be frank, I am wondering what on earth can have possessed you to marry my graceless brother.”
“Love,” Serena said without apology. She didn’t even drop her gaze.
Anna, who had wondered whether Rupert or his bride would be in most need of rescuing, found herself none the wiser. For the first time, she caught a hint of steel in her new sister, a sense that she might just be a worthy opponent. If opponent she turned out to be. Anna reserved judgement, at least until she had seen Rupert.
“How very romantic,” Anna said, smiling.
But it seemed Serena was only half-listening for a banging door in the bowels of the castle and a raised, familiar voice heralded urgent footsteps and the precipitous arrival of none other than Rupert himself.
“Serena, guess what? One of the prisoners really has escaped the Black Fort and—” He stopped, blinking, brought up short at the sight of Anna. “Good God.”
“Good morning, Rupert,” Anna said calmly. His blurted news was not uninteresting to her, but at this moment, it took second place to their reunion.
Although she would never admit it, Rupert was one of the very few people she was ever pleased to see. But now, finding him healthy and full of vitality, her sense of relief took her by surprise. If this marriage was the result of some deep game on the Braithwaites’ part, she could not yet discern it. Rupert looked happier than she could recall since they were children running wild around the abbey.
Of course, he had luxury and money now, but Rupert had never really been bothered by their lack—at least not on his own account.
“You might have told your wife I was coming,” she reproved. “My letter must have reached you at least four or five days ago.”
Rupert gave a crooked smile. “Doing it much too brown, Anna. You’ve never written to me in your life. You’re welcome, you know…so long as you haven’t brought your brothers.”
“Good God, no,” Anna said, revolted. “I merely thought it time I unburdened Henry of my presence for a few weeks.” She glanced at Serena. “Henry is my sister’s husband. We think he makes himself deliberately dull to avoid my brothers descending on him too often.”
Rupert let out a snort of laughter. “He’s not dull, he just disapproves of us, and who can blame him?”
“Not I,” Anna admitted. “So, I was going to return to Tamar Abbey, but the place is in uproar while your renovations begin, with builders and so on all over the place. Henry said I couldn’t stay there until you and your wife were there, too. And so, Christianne sent me up here instead to see how you did. And to wish you happy, of course.”
“Of course,” Rupert said, regarding her a little too keenly. “That must have been uppermost in your mind.”
“Well, that and curiosity,” Anna admitted. “We’re all agog to discover the lady brave enough to marry into our family.”
“She only married me,” Rupert retorted, unexpectedly possessive. Normally, he shared his good fortune. “Not the rest of you.”
“Don’t be inhospitable, Tamar,” Serena reproved, and then, as if she could no longer contain herself, blurted out, “But what were you saying about an escaped prisoner?”
“A French officer at the fort. Never gave them any trouble before, apparently, but when the gate was opened yesterday morning to admit a supply cart, he took the opportunity to lay out one of the guards and bolted. Took everyone by surprise.”
“Did they catch him again?” Serena asked. Usefully, she was asking the questions Anna needed answers to.
“Not yet. One of the guards shot him, but he just got back up and ran on. They reckon he’ll head for the coast, if he isn’t dead yet. The soldiers are already watching Blackhaven and the nearby ports.”
“Goodness,” Anna murmured. “Are we all in danger for our lives from this monster?”
“I imagine he just wants to go home,” Serena said with more than a hint of compassion. “And will avoid people rather than seek them out to murder them in their beds—although I’ll wager the gossips in Blackhaven are already scaring each other witless with such wild imaginings.”
Rupert cast his wife a quick grin, allowing Anna a glimpse of genuine intimacy between them.
“All the same,” he added with a frown. “You probably shouldn’t go walking or riding alone until the fellow is caught. I expect he must be desperate.”
Her brother’s advice was no doubt good for his wife and servants, but Anna had no intention of taking it. Before luncheon, thanks to the tour of the castle provided by her sister-in-law, she knew all the exits. By midafternoon, alone in the castle’s fine library, she had poured over all the old and new maps of the Braithwaite estate and the surrounding countryside as far as the Black Fort.
She then drifted up to the well-appointed bedchamber prepared for her and ordered a cold collation to be sent up. She bade the maid who brought it to explain to Lady Tamar that she was overcome with exhaustion and was going to lie down . “Give her my apologies for missing tea and say that I hope to rise for dinner. But if I do not, I am merely sleeping through until the morning and am best left alone. By tomorrow, I shall be quite myself again.”
Since they knew she had travelled from London to Carlisle in the fast but exceedingly uncomfortable mail coach, they would not be surprised by her tiredness. Though she might need better excuses in the future.
Left to herself, Anna changed into her old, dark navy riding habit, complete with her favorite stiletto tucked away in its purposely-sewn pocket. She packed the food, with a few surgical necessities, into a small canvas bag. After all, she was looking for a wounded man. She then slipped out of one of the several side doors and made her way to the stables unseen.
Serena’s brother, the Earl of Braithwaite, kept an excellent stable at the castle, even when he was not in residence. Anna, who preferred dogs and horses to people, spent some time there, getting to know the horses and easily charming the stable boy who was the only other person around. Deciding on a spirited but affectionate chestnut mare, unimaginatively named Chessy, she bribed the stable boy to keep her departure a secret and rode out of the castle grounds.
By then, daylight was fading, and she carried a lantern as well as her canvas bag tied to the saddle.
One of the reasons she had chosen the mare, was that the animal knew the terrain, according to the stable boy, and was sure footed over the roughest ground. When darkness fell, she was even more grateful for that, and for the lantern which she held in one hand to light her way, while she controlled the reins in the other.
Beyond the boundary of Braithwaite lands, she made no effort to be silent or to avoid people. However, two hours after she had set out, the only person she had encountered was an elderly man with an injured goat at the edge of the forest. He was carrying the poor creature home and told Anna sternly that she shouldn’t be out alone in this country at this time of night. Anna agreed with him and rode on, deeper into the forest. When she emerged at the top of the hill, if she found no trace of the escaped prisoner, she intended to ride the quicker way back to Braithwaite Castle. She might even make it in time for dinner.
However, before she reached that far, the mare suddenly veered to the left, winding through the trees to a more open space. A stream trickled down the hill, forming a pool that gleamed in the cold moonlight. More than that, a man crouched at the water’s edge. He appeared to be quite alone.
Anna’s heart beat faster. She let the mare walk on, out of the cover of the trees and into the open.
The man had light hair and his coat dangled off one side of his body. He was shaking violently as he used his cupped hand to splash freezing cold water over his shoulder. Perhaps the sounds of the stream and his own washing disguised those of Anna’s approach, for he appeared quite oblivious to her presence. Until the mare tossed her head and snorted.
The man sprang up like a startled crow, his worn military overcoat flapping as he swung around, fists raised to defend himself.
Anna allowed herself a small cry of alarm—which was natural enough since his speed of movement had taken her by surprise. She raised her lantern, urging the mare forward with her heels so that the light fell full upon hm.
His hair was a dark blond, his face lean and far from ill-looking, even with several days’ growth on his jaw. He might have been thirty years old, or a little more. His eyes, an intense, piercing blue, darted to all sides before returning to her. Blood stained his coat and his shirt. A lot of blood.
Slowly, his hands fell to his sides. Then, clearly irritated, he waved her away, almost shooing her as though she were a gaggle of geese or an importunate dog. And any young woman alone in the woods in the dark, close to where a dangerous enemy had recently escaped, would have followed his urging and fled. But Anna could barely believe her luck. It could have taken her days to discover him.
“Goodness, you are hurt!” she exclaimed, springing from the saddle. He scowled warningly as she rushed toward him, her lantern in one hand, reins in the other. He even backed away from her, forcing her to seize his arm before he fell into the water. For an instant, he stared down into her face.
Something jolted, deep within her. Surprise, perhaps. She had been prepared to see in his eyes the violence and plain nastiness of his profession. But there was only darkness so deep one could drown in it. He was too weak, surely, to be a threat to anyone. He blinked rapidly and then sagged to the ground, all but dragging her with him as he fell face first.
He was heavy, but Anna sank with him, breaking his fall and turning his face to the side on the rocky ground. She set the lantern down beside him. Beneath the grime and the stubble on his jaw, his features were unexpectedly refined.
He appeared to be out cold, which at least gave her time to tend his wound. He had been shot in the back of the shoulder, no doubt as he ran from his prison, and the ball, presumably, was still lodged inside him. She could only hope it had damaged no vital organs. If it had, she doubted he would still be alive.
At least he had been keeping the wound as clean as he could without being able to reach it properly. He had torn his shirt trying to get at it, so at least she could see it clearly. Peeling off her gloves, she gathered up the bloody rags he had been using in the stream. Then she crouched down at his side once more and set about a more thorough cleansing of his wound.
She found the ball quite easily. Fortunately, it had not penetrated too deeply and did not seem to have damaged any bone, for she could see no splinters. Holding her tweezers in the lantern flame for a moment or two, she hoped he would not come around while she extracted the ball. She had never performed such an operation before. But she had steady hands, and the spy, if such he was, made no movement beyond the involuntary trembling of his body.
She was able to extract the ball quickly and cleanly, after which she took the flask of brandy from her bag and poured some over the wound. She thought he tensed, whether in his sleep or otherwise. She did not pause to check. From common humanity, she needed to get this over with.
She took out the needle and thread, heated the needle in the lantern flame, and sewed up the wound as through it were a torn gown. She had done something similar for Rupert when he had laid his leg open on a scythe blade. And when Sylvester had fallen out of a tree and ripped his arm on a jagged branch. But she had never tended a stranger before.
After she had stitched the wound neatly closed, she applied some of Christianne’s healing ointment. She was winding bandages around him when she realized his eyes were open and watching her.
Deliberately, she finished tying his bandage and pulled his ripped shirt and coat back around him. He was shivering more violently from the cold and, no doubt, from the pain.
“Come,” she said. “You need warmth and shelter…though I’m not sure there’s anything here except an old shepherd’s hut.” She had passed one just before entering the forest, By the look of it, it had been abandoned for many years.
She rose to her feet, and pulled on her gloves, steeling herself to help him rise, but somehow, he sat up and stumbled to his feet without her aid. The lantern threw deep shadows beneath his high cheekbones, giving him an alarming, cadaverous look. His eyes remained steady on her face, but he made no move toward her.
“Come,” she repeated. “Wherever you’ve been hiding, it’s too cold.”
The man, who was surely one of her country’s most dangerous enemies, perhaps even the most dangerous after Bonaparte himself, regarded her without a visible trace of either hope or suspicion. She had never encountered eyes so opaque. It entered her head that, fully fit, he would be her worthiest opponent yet. Even wounded, possibly mortally, he would require all her skill.
Her heart drummed loudly. Her success or failure surely depended on whatever he did now.