They fell asleep and when she woke, she found Amelia gone.
And her life had changed forever.
Suddenly eager to be productive in some manner, Maria rose to her feet. She pushed the curtain aside and stepped out to the gallery. The two footmen who stood on either side to keep the ambitiously amorous away snapped to attention. “My carriage,” she said to one. He hurried away.
Then she was bumped none too gently from behind, and as she stumbled, was caught close to a hard body.
“I beg your pardon,” murmured a deliciously raspy voice so near to her ear she felt the vibration of it.
The sound stilled her, caught her breath and held it. She stood unmoving, her senses flaring to awareness far more acute than usual. One after another, impressions bombarded her-a hard chest at her back, a firm arm wrapped beneath her breasts, a hand at her waist, and the rich scent of bergamot mixed with virile male. He did not release her; instead his grip upon her person tightened.
“Unhand me,” she said, her voice low and filled with command.
“When I am ready to, I will.”
His ungloved hand lifted to cup her throat, his touch heating the rubies that circled her neck until they burned. Callused fingertips touched her pulse, stroking it, making it race. He moved with utter confidence, no hesitation, as if he possessed the right to fondle her whenever and wherever he chose, even in this public venue. Yet he was undeniably gentle. Despite the possession of his hold, she could writhe free if she chose, but a sudden weakness in her limbs prevented her from moving.
Her gaze moved to her remaining footman, ordering him silently to do something to assist her. The servant’s wide eyes were trained above her head, his throat working convulsively as he swallowed hard. Then he looked away.
She sighed. Apparently, she would have to save herself.
Her next action was goaded as much by instinct as by forethought. She moved her hand, setting it over his wrist, allowing him to feel the sharp point of the blade she hid in a custom-made ring. The man froze. And then laughed. “I do so love a good surprise.”
“I cannot say the same.”
“Frightened?” he queried.
“Of blood on my gown? Yes,” she retorted dryly. “It is one of my favorites.”
“Ah, but then it would more aptly match the blood on your hands”-he paused, his tongue tracing the shell of her ear, making her shiver even as her skin flushed-“and mine.”
“Who are you?”
“I am what you need.”
Maria inhaled deeply, pressing her corset-flattened bosom against an unyielding forearm. Questions sifted through her mind faster than she could collect them. “I have everything I require.”
As he released her, her captor allowed his fingers to drift across the bare flesh above her bodice. Her skin tingled, goose-flesh spreading in his wake. “If you find you are mistaken,” he rasped, “come find me.”
He stepped back and she spun in a flurry of skirts to face him.
She expertly hid the true depth of her surprise. The renderings in the papers did not do him justice. Pale golden hair, sun-kissed skin, and brilliant blue eyes enriched features so fine they were almost angelic. His lips, though thin, were beautifully sculpted by a master hand. The entire sum of his countenance was so stunning, it was disarming. It made one want to trust him, something the cold intentness of his gaze told her would be a mistake.
As she studied him, Maria absently noted the undue attention they were attracting from the other patrons in the gallery, but she could not spare a quelling glance. Her attention was snared by the man who stood so arrogantly assured before her. “St. John.”
Showing a leg in a courtly bow, he smiled, but it did not reach his eyes-glorious eyes that were made more poignant by the shadows that rimmed them. He was not a man who slept often or well. “I am flattered by your recognition.”
“What is it that I am supposed to be lacking?”
“Perhaps whatever it is your men search for?”
The surprise elicited by that statement could not be hidden. “What do you know?”
“Too much,” he said smoothly, his gaze intensely searching. Sensual lips curved and trapped her attention. “And yet, not enough. Together, perhaps, we could achieve our aims.”
“And what is your aim?”
How was it that he would approach her so soon after Welton? Surely it could not be a coincidence.
“Revenge,” he said, the word rolling off his tongue so casually she wondered if he was as dead to emotion as she was. He would have to be to live the life of crime he did. No remorse, no regret, no conscience. “The agency has meddled in my life one too many times.”
“I’ve no notion of what you are talking about.”
“No? A pity, that.” He stepped around her, leaning close as he moved by. “I will be available, should you figure it out.”
For a moment, she refused to turn and watch him depart. But it was only a moment, and then she studied him avidly. Starting with his height and breadth of shoulder, down his satin-clad form to his heeled shoes, she missed nothing. Dressed as he was, he could not fade into the crowd that milled in the gallery. His pale yellow coat and breeches stood apart from the darker colors of the other theater patrons. She fancied him as a god of the sun, a shining overpowering presence. His casual stride was unable to hide the danger inherent in him, a fact noted by the peers who quickly moved out of his way.
Now she understood his appeal.
Maria returned her attention to her footman. “Come along.”
“My lady,” he cried plaintively, stilling her midstep. “Please forgive me.” The young man looked as if he might cast up his accounts. His dark hair fell over his brow, framing immature features. Were it not for the livery he wore, he would appear very much the boy he was.
“For what?” Her brows arched.
“I-I did not come to your aid.”
Her stance softened. Reaching out, she touched his elbow, a gesture that startled him. “I am not angry with you. You were afraid, an emotion with which I sympathize.”
She sighed and squeezed his elbow gently before releasing him. “Truly.”
The grateful smile he gave her made her heart ache. Had she ever been so…open? She felt so disconnected from the world at times.
Revenge. That goal was all she had. She tasted it every morning for breakfast and rinsed her mouth out with it at night. The need for retribution was the force that pumped blood through her veins and filled her lungs with air.
And Christopher St. John could be the means by which she would acquire it.
A few moments ago, he had been a chore to complete as quickly as possible. Now the possibilities were beyond intriguing; they were seductive. It would take careful planning on her part to utilize them and St. John effectively, but she had no doubt she could manage it.
For the first time, in a very long time, she smiled.
Christopher whistled as he walked away, feeling the weight of Lady Winter’s stare following after him. He had not anticipated actually speaking with her. He had merely hoped to see her up close and take note of how well she guarded herself. It was a wonderful turn of events that she had chosen that moment to leave her box. They’d not only met, but he had touched her, held her in his arms and smelled the scent of her skin.
He was no longer dreading boredom in the bedroom, not after feeling the point of that hidden blade. But beyond that, he found that more than his carnal interest was piqued. She was younger than he had assumed, her skin beneath powder and patch unblemished by lines and her lovely dark eyes displaying traces of both wariness and curiosity. Lady Winter was not yet completely jaded. How was that possible, when she was widely considered to have killed at least two men?
He intended to find out. The agency wanted her more than they wanted him. That alone intrigued him no small amount.
As he exited the theater, Christopher noted the black lacquered carriage that bore the Winter crest. He paused beside it. Making a barely discernable gesture, he listened for the answering birdcall that told him his order was seen by at least one of his men stationed around the area. The coach would be followed until he said otherwise. Wherever the fair lady went, he wanted to know about it.
“I shall be at the Harwick house party this weekend,” he told the driver, who stared back at him with wide eyes and rigid body. “Make certain her ladyship knows this.”
As the man nodded violently, Christopher smiled with deep-rooted satisfaction.
For the first time in a very long time, he had something to look forward to.
“There is the possibility that she was sold into slavery.”
Maria paused her pacing before the fire to stare hard at her investigator and former paramour. Simon Quinn wore only a multicolored silk robe, his tanned throat and chest visible in the parted opening. His eyes, a startling blue, stood out in stark contrast to his dark skin and black hair. Irish coloring. The complete opposite of the golden St. John, and younger by several years, but extremely handsome in his own right.
Aside from his innate sexuality, Simon appeared innocuous enough. Only the intense way he studied his surroundings hinted at a livelihood fraught with danger. In the course of their association, he had broken nearly every law there was.
So had she.
“Odd you would say that tonight,” she murmured. “Welton said the same to me earlier.”
“That certainly does not bode well, then, does it?” he asked in his smooth-as-satin voice.
“I can do nothing with conjecture, Simon. Find me the proof of it. Then we can kill Welton and give chase.”
Behind her, the fire in the grate quickly heated her dressing gown and then the backs of her legs to an uncomfortable degree, but inside she was icy with terror. The thoughts that filled her mind made her ill. How would she ever find Amelia if her sister was in the world at large?
Simon’s brows rose. “Taking the search beyond the shores of England would greatly diminish the chances of a successful outcome.”
Raising the cordial in her hand to her lips, Maria drained the contents to bolster her spirits and set the small glass on the mantel. Her gaze moved across the room, once again finding comfort in the stained wood paneling and dark green drapes. It was an extremely masculine study, an effect that served two purposes. One, it established a somber mood that discouraged meaningless discourse. Two, it gave her a sense of control she needed desperately. Often she felt like a puppet on Welton’s strings, but here she was in command.
She shrugged and resumed her pacing, her black dressing gown swirling around her ankles. “You act as if I have something else to live for.”
“Surely there is some goal you wish to accomplish.” He rose to his feet, towering over her as most everyone did. “Something more pleasant than death.”
“I cannot think of the future beyond finding Amelia.”
“You could. It will not make you weak to wish for better things.”
The glance she shot him was narrowed and cool enough to discourage most. Simon, however, simply laughed. He had once shared her bed, and with it, the inevitable domestic discord that came with the role of resident lover.
Maria sighed, her gaze moving to the portrait of her first husband that hung on the wall from a length of thick ribbon. The swirls of paint created an image of a portly man with ruddy cheeks and bright green eyes.
“I miss Dayton,” she confessed, her restless stride slowing, “and the support he provided.”
The Earl of Dayton had saved her from total ruin. Seeing through Welton’s exterior, the kind widower had rescued her, paying a high price to take a girl young enough to be his granddaughter as his second wife. Under his tutelage she learned everything she needed to know to survive. Weaponry and the consummate use of it were only two of the many lessons learned.
“We will see to it that he is avenged,” Simon murmured. “I promise you that.”
Rolling her shoulders in a vain attempt to alleviate the tension there, Maria moved to the desk and sank wearily into the seat. “What about St. John? Can he be of any use to me?”
“Of course. With what the man knows, he could be of use to anyone. But there must be something to be gained for him. He is not a man known for his charitable tendencies.”
She curled her fingers around the carved ends of the chair. “It would not be sex. A man who looks like he does would have women aplenty.”
“Very true. He is a man known for living to excess.”
Moving to the sideboard, Simon poured his own libation and rested a lean hip against the edge. While he managed the appearance of nonchalance, he never lowered his guard for a moment. She knew this and appreciated it.
“I can only assume it is the death of your husbands and their relation to the agency that has sparked his interest.”
She nodded, expecting as much. The only motivation she could find for St. John’s approach was his desire to use her as Welton did-for a distasteful task where feminine wiles were required. But surely he had women closer to him who could do the job with similar efficiency? “How was he caught? After all these years, I cannot help but wonder what error he made.”
“From what I can discern, he made none. An informant was found who was willing to speak out against him.”
“A bona fide informant?” she asked softly, her mind’s eye remembering the brief moments she’d spent with the criminal. He was supremely confident as only a man with no fears could be. He was also a man one would be foolish to cross. “Or simply one who bent to coercion?”
“Most likely the latter. I shall look into it.”
“Yes, do.” Maria fingered the corner of a piece of parchment on her desk. Her gaze rested on the sparkling amber liquid in Simon’s hand and then moved higher, noting his broad shoulders and powerful arms.
“I wish I were of more help to you.” The sincerity in his voice could not be mistaken.
“Do you know of a woman we could trust to align herself with Welton?”
He paused with his snifter lifted halfway to his mouth, a slow smile transforming his features. “By God, you are a wonder. Dayton taught you well.”
“One can hope, yes? Welton has a preference for blondes.”
If only her mother had known that.
“I shall find a suitable female posthaste.”
Maria leaned her head back and closed her eyes.
“Yes?” She heard his glass settle on the surface of the sideboard and then the steady sound of Simon’s confident stride. It made her sigh, flooding her with a sense of comfort she struggled to deny herself.
“Time for bed.” His large hand covered hers where it curved around the chair arm, and the rich scent of his skin filled her nostrils. Sandalwood. Pure Simon.
“There is too much to be considered,” she protested, her eyes opening just enough to look up at him.
“Whatever it is, it can wait until morning.” He tugged her up and when she stumbled, he caught her close, embracing her in warmth. “You know I will not be swayed until you do as I say.”