The second book in the Georgian series, 2007
To editorial goddess, Kate Duffy.
For everything, but especially for
loving my books as much as I do.
I love writing for you.
Thanks to my critique partner, Annette McCleave (www.AnnetteMcCleave.com).
Thanks to my dear friends Renee Luke and Jordan Summers for their support on the other end of the IM window.
Thanks to my family, who were orphaned for over a year.
Thanks to my mom, who took over the maintenance of my house while I wrote a bunch of books.
Thanks to my readers, the most loyal, enthusiastic, and fabulous audience a writer could ever ask for.
What a lucky gal I am to have all of you in my life. I’m hugely grateful.
“If all angels of death were as lovely as you, men would line up to die.”
Maria, Lady Winter, shut the lid of her enameled patch box with a decisive snap. Her revulsion for the mirrored reflection of the man who sat behind her made her stomach roil. Taking a deep breath, she kept her gaze trained on the stage below, but her attention was riveted by the incomparably handsome man who sat in the shadows of her theater box.
“Your turn will come,” she murmured, maintaining her regal façade for the benefit of the many lorgnettes pointed in her direction. She had worn crimson silk tonight, accented by delicate black lace frothing from elbow-length sleeves. It was her most-worn color. Not because it suited her Spanish heritage coloring so well-dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin-but because it was a silent warning. Bloodshed. Stay away.
The Wintry Widow, the voyeurs whispered. Two husbands dead…and counting.
Angel of death. How true that was. Everyone around her died, except for the man she cursed to Hades.
The low chuckle at her shoulder made her skin crawl. “It will take more than you, my dearest daughter, to see me to my reward.”
“Your reward will be my blade in your heart,” she hissed.
“Ah, but then you will never be reunited with your sister, and she almost of age.”
“Do not think to threaten me, Welton. Once Amelia is wed, I will know her location and will have no further need for your life. Consider that before you think to do to her what you have done to me.”
“I could sell her into the slave trade,” he drawled.
“You assume, incorrectly, that I did not anticipate your threat.” Fluffing the lace at her elbow, she managed a slight curve to her lips to hide her terror. “I will know. And then you will die.”
She felt him stiffen and her smile turned genuine. Ten and six was her age when Welton had ended her life. Anticipation for the day when she would pay him in kind was all that moved her when despair for her sister threatened paralysis.
The name hung suspended in the air between them.
Maria’s breath caught. “Christopher St. John?”
It was rare that anything surprised her anymore. At the age of six and twenty, she believed she had seen and done nearly everything. “He has coin aplenty, but marriage to him will ruin me, making me less effective for your aims.”
“Marriage is not necessary this time. I’ve not yet depleted Lord Winter’s settlement. This is simply a search for information. I believe they are engaging St. John in some business. I want you to discover what it is they want with him, and most importantly, who arranged his release from prison.”
Maria smoothed the bloodred material that pooled around her legs. Her two unfortunate husbands had been agents of the Crown whose jobs made them highly useful to her stepfather. They had also been peers of great wealth, much of which they left to her for Welton’s disposal upon their untimely demise.
Lifting her head, she looked around the theater, absently noting the curling smoke of candles and gilded scrollwork that shone in firelight. The soprano on the stage struggled for attention, for no one was here to see her. The peerage was here to see each other and be seen, nothing more.
“Interesting,” Maria murmured, recalling a sketch of the popular pirate. Uncommon handsome he was, and as deadly as she. His exploits were widely bandied, some tales so outrageous she knew they could not possibly be true. St. John was discussed with intemperate eagerness, and there were wagers aplenty on how long he could escape the noose.
“They must be desperate indeed to spare him. All these years they have searched for the irrefutable proof of his villainy, and now that they have it, they bring him into the fold. I daresay neither side is pleased.”
“I do not care how they feel,” Welton dismissed curtly. “I simply wish to know who I can extort to keep quiet about it.”
“Such faith in my charms,” she drawled, hiding how her mouth filled with bile. To think of the deeds she had been forced into to protect and serve a man she detested…Her chin lifted. It was not her stepfather she protected and served. She merely needed him alive, for if he were killed, she would never find Amelia.
Welton ignored her jibe. “Have you any notion what that information would be worth?”
She gave a nearly imperceptible nod, aware of the avid scrutiny that followed her every movement. Society knew her husbands had not died natural deaths. But they lacked proof. Despite this morbid certainty of her guilt, she was welcomed into the finest homes eagerly. She was infamous. And nothing livened up a gathering like a touch of infamy.
“How do I find him?”
“You have your ways.” He stood, looming over her in the shadows of the rear box, but Maria was not cowed. Aside from concern for Amelia, nothing frightened her any longer.
Welton’s fingers lifted one of her curls. “Your sister’s hair is so like yours. Even powder cannot truly hide its gloss.”
His laughter lingered long after he parted the curtains and exited to the gallery. How many years would she be forced to endure that sound? The investigators who worked for her were unable to turn up anything of value. Brief sightings of her sister and barely warm trails. So many times she had been close…But Welton was always one step ahead.
While every day her soul grew blacker at his behest.
“Do not be fooled by her outward appearance. Yes, she is short of stature and tiny, but she is an asp waiting to strike.”
Christopher St. John settled more firmly in his seat, disregarding the agent of the Crown who shared the box with him. His eyes were riveted to the crimson-clad woman who sat across the theater expanse. Having spent his entire life living amongst the dregs of society, he knew affinity when he saw it.
Wearing a dress that gave the impression of warmth and bearing the coloring of hot-blooded Spanish sirens, Lady Winter was nevertheless as icy as her title. And his assignment was to warm her up, ingratiate himself into her life, and then learn enough about her to see her hanged in his place.
A distasteful business, that. But a fair trade in his estimation. He was a pirate and thief by trade, she a bloodthirsty and greedy vixen.
“She has at least a dozen men working for her,” Viscount Sedgewick said. “Some watch the wharves, others roam the countryside. Her interest in the agency is obvious and deadly. With your reputation for mayhem, you two are very much alike. We cannot see how she could resist any offer of assistance on your part.”
Christopher sighed; the prospect of sharing his bed with the beautiful Wintry Widow was vastly unappealing. He knew her kind, too concerned over their appearance to enjoy an abandoned tumble. Her livelihood was contingent upon her ability to attract wealthy suitors. She would not wish to become sweaty or tax herself overmuch. It could ruin her hair.
Yawning, he asked, “May I depart now, my lord?”
Sedgewick shook his head. “You must begin immediately, or you will forfeit this opportunity.”
It took great effort on Christopher’s part to bite back his retort. The agency would learn soon enough that he danced to no one’s tune but his own. “Leave the details to me. You wish me to pursue both personal and professional relations with Lady Winter, and I shall.”
Christopher stood and casually adjusted his coat. “However, she is a woman who seeks the secure financial prospects of marriage, which makes it impossible for a bachelor such as myself to woo her first and then progress from the bed outward. We will instead have to start with business and seal our association with sex. It is how these things are done.”
“You are a frightening individual,” Sedgewick said dryly.
Christopher glanced over his shoulder as he pushed the black curtain aside. “It would be wise of you to remember that.”
The sensation of being studied with predatory intent caused the hair at Maria’s nape to rise. Turning her head, she studied every box across from her but saw nothing untoward. Still, her instincts were what kept her alive, and she trusted them implicitly.
Someone’s interest was more than mere curiosity.
The low tone of men’s voices in the gallery behind her drew her attention away from the fruitless visual search. Most would hear nothing over the rabble in the pit below and the carrying notes of the singer, but she was a hunter, her senses fine-tuned.
“The Wintry Widow’s box.”
“Ah…” a man murmured knowingly. “Worth the risk for a few hours in that fancy piece. She is incomparable, a goddess among women.”
Maria snorted. A curse, that.
The girlish pleasure she had once felt for having uncommon beauty died the day her stepfather leered and said, “You shall fetch me a fortune, my pet.”
It was only one of many deaths in her short life.
The first was her beloved father. She remembered him as unrestrained and vital, a dashing man who laughed often and adored her Spanish mother. Then he fell ill and wasted away. Later, Maria would become intimately familiar with the signs of poison. At the time, however, she knew only fear and confusion, which worsened when her mother introduced her to a dark-haired, beautiful man who was to replace her father.
“Maria, child,” her mother had said in her softly accented voice. “This is Viscount Welton. He and I plan to wed.”
She had heard the name before. Her father’s closest friend. Why her mother wished to remarry was beyond her immature comprehension. Had her father meant so little?
“He wishes to send you to the best academies,” was the explanation. “You will have the future your father wished for you.”
Sent away. That was all she heard.
The wedding took place and Lord Welton took over, whisking them to the moors to a house that resembled a medieval castle. Maria hated it. It was cold, drafty, and scary, so very far removed from the golden-bricked home they had lived in before.
Welton begat a daughter on his new wife and then promptly left them. Maria went to school, and he went to Town where he drank, whored, and gambled her father’s money to his heart’s content. Her mother grew paler, thinner; her hair began to fall out. The illness was hidden from Maria until the last possible moment.
She was sent for only when the end was near and assured. Returning to her stepfather’s home, she found the Viscountess Welton a ghost of the woman she had been only months before, her vibrancy depleting along with their coffers.
“Maria, my darling,” her mother whispered on her deathbed, her dark eyes pleading. “Forgive me. Welton was so kind after your father passed. I-I did not see beyond the façade.”
“All will be well, Mama,” she had lied. “Your health will improve and we can leave him.”
“No. You must-”
“Please do not say any more. You need rest.”
Her mother’s grip was surprisingly strong for a woman so wan, a physical manifestation of her urgency. “You must protect your sister from him. He cares not at all that she is his own blood. He will use her, as he has used me. As he intends to use you. Amelia is not strong like you. She has none of the strength of your father’s blood.”
She had stared at her mother in dismay. In the decade of the Welton marriage, Maria had learned many things, but most of all she had learned that beneath Lord Welton’s incomparably handsome face, Mephistopheles dwelled.
“I am not old enough,” she breathed, the tears falling. She spent most of her time at school, training to become a woman Welton could exploit. But on her occasional visits, she watched the way the viscount belittled her mother with razor-sharp barbs. The servants told her of raucous voices and pained screams. Bruises. Blood. Bed rest for weeks after he left.
Seven-year-old Amelia remained in her rooms when her father was in residence, frightened and alone. No governess would stay long with them.
“Yes, you are,” Cecille whispered, her lips white, her eyes red. “When I go, I will give what strength I have to you. You will feel me, my sweet Maria, and your father. We will support you.”
Those words were her only anchor in the years that followed.
“Is she dead?” Welton had asked flatly when Maria emerged from the room. His bright green eyes held no emotion at all.
“Yes.” She waited with bated breath and shaking hands.
“Make whatever arrangements you desire.”
Nodding, she turned away, the swishing of her heavy silk skirts loud in the deathly silence of the house.
“Maria.” The soft drawl floated ominously after her.
She paused and faced him again, studying her stepfather with new appreciation of his evil, absently noting the broad shoulders, trim hips, and long legs that so many women found appealing. Despite the coldness within him, his green eyes, dark hair, and rakish smile made him the handsomest man she had ever seen. The devil’s gift for his black-as-sin soul.
“Tell Amelia about Cecille’s passing, will you? I am running late and do not have the time.”
Maria was devastated at the thought of the task ahead. Added to the near-crippling pain of her mother’s loss, she almost sank to the floor, crushed beneath her stepfather’s heel. But the strength her mother promised her stiffened her spine and lifted her chin.
Welton laughed at her bravado. “I knew you would be perfect. Worth the trouble your mother gave me.” She watched him turn on his heel and take the stairs to the main floor, disregarding his wife completely.
What could she say to her sister to ease the blow? Amelia had none of the happy memories that sustained Maria. Now the child was orphaned, for her father might as well have been dead for all the attention he paid to her.
“Hello, poppet,” Maria greeted softly as she entered her sibling’s room, bracing herself to absorb the impact of the small body hurtling toward her.
Clutching her sister close, Maria moved them toward the bed draped in dark blue silk that contrasted gently with the pale blue of the damask-covered walls. She rocked the sobbing child in her arms and cried silent tears. They had only each other now.
“What will we do?” Amelia asked in her precious voice.
“Survive,” Maria said quietly. “And stay together. I will protect you. Never doubt that.”