He was well aware that sex with her would not reveal the answers he needed about Welton and her husbands’ affiliation with the agency. She was too much like him. A series of orgasms would not suddenly engender in her the desire to share her secrets with him. And he wanted her secrets. Needed them.
The agents who worked under the auspices of His Majesty’s Royal Navy were a thorn in his side. They followed him ceaselessly, spied on him regularly, and reclaimed pirated cargo often enough to be annoying. The reason Maria married two of them could be simply that both men had been wealthy peers, but it could also be related to the agency itself, and if it was, he wanted to know why.
The setting of the Harwick country house was perfect in a way few places could be. First of all, he was welcome here. Second, they were forced to share a roof. And lastly, but most importantly, her home was vacant aside from the servants. With careful staging, one of his people would manage to join her household. She would not be able to sneeze without him knowing of it.
Christopher lifted his glass to her in a silent toast and she smiled a woman’s smile, one filled with mystery.
To the winner, the spoils.
“I received word from Templeton,” Simon murmured, his hand at the small of Maria’s back. “He will be waiting in the pantheon after the clock strikes two. I cannot go to him, mhuirnín. I will be occupied.”
“I shall go, of course. What do you expect him to say?”
He gave an elegant shrug for appearance’s sake, but his gaze was sharp as flint. “I anticipate he has some pressing news about your sibling. He would not risk coming here without just cause.”
“You expanded the search of the coastlines?” Beneath lowered lashes, she studied the many occupants of the parlor. St. John was presently charming Lady Harwick, but Maria had no doubt where his attention truly was.
She could feel it-hot and intense.
“Yes. Because of this, the men are spread thin.”
“What else can I do?”
He sighed and his fingers stroked over her back. The touch was barely discernable through the layers of her garments, but she knew it was there all the same. “Be on your guard. Templeton is a man for hire. He cares nothing for you or your sister, he cares only for coin.”
“I am ever careful, Simon.”
She turned slightly and stared up at him. He was a stunning man. Dressed in gray silk with a quilted silk satin waistcoat, there were no distracting colors to compete with his masculine appeal. Unwigged, with his dark hair restrained in a queue, his long-lashed blue eyes riveted her attention. Their half-lidded state gave the appearance of boredom, but as she watched him, his gaze darkened.
“I will turn her away, mhuirnín, if you would like to follow through with the promises your scrutiny is making.”
“Every woman here is admiring you. Am I to be denied that pleasure?”
His mouth curved dangerously. Simon was rough around the edges, untamed. She had literally plucked him from the gutter, and the sense that he could kill or fuck with equal expertise held a potent allure for most women. “I have never denied you anything.” He lifted her hand to his lips. “And I never will.”
She shook her head with a soft laugh. “You take care, as well, Simon love.”
Bowing, he said, “I am, as always, your servant.”
In a few moments, he was gone, and a short time after that St. John’s dark-haired companion made her excuses as well, her anticipation palpable. Maria knew firsthand that the woman would not be disappointed.
Turning her head, she saw St. John approaching. Whatever remnant of disquiet she felt over Simon fled in an instant, her senses fully focused on the man whose interest caused butterflies to take flight in her stomach. He towered over her, golden hair and skin burnished by the candlelight. Chain-stitched embroidery accented his cream-colored waistcoat, which in turn accented the lush deep green of his coat. Unlike Simon’s, his garments were designed to draw attention, bringing his coloring into stark relief. Once again she felt the weight of female gazes directed to where she stood.
He caught her hand, much as Simon had, and kissed the back, but her reaction to the gesture was entirely different. She was not touched by sorrow. Not by any means.
“I will make you forget him,” he rasped softly, his gaze piercing. He was every bit as rough as Simon, and there could be no doubt that this man had no qualms about anything-killing included.
However, his bearing was not lazily seductive, as Simon’s was. It was brazenly sexual. She knew, as only a woman could, that St. John was not a man prone to rolling about a bed with laughter and playfulness. St. John was too raw for that.
She was deeply astonished to realize that she was attracted to that primitive quality in the pirate, especially after suffering through Lord Winter’s treatment. And not merely attracted, but filled with base cravings.
“Hmm…” She tugged her hand free and looked away, feigning a nonchalance she did not feel.
He moved, stirring the scent of his skin in the air. She felt a feather-light touch drift across her throat. “My beautiful deceiver. Your heart races. I can see it here.”
Suddenly, in that brief contact, she became fully aroused. Eyes wide, she looked back at him.
His gaze was dark and hungry. Territorial. “A chaste touch, yet it makes you want me. Imagine how much greater the effect will be when I am inside you.”
She sucked in a breath. “That is all you will be doing-imagining.” That her voice remained strong and slightly dismissive amazed her.
He smiled a purely male smile. “Tell me you will not end up in my bed.” St. John’s voice lowered, his fingertips again brushing across her fluttering pulse. “Say it, Maria. I do so love a challenge.”
“I will not end up in your bed.” Her lips curved. “I much prefer to have sex in mine.”
She could see that she surprised him, then delighted him. His eyes sparkled and the rumble of laughter that came from him was genuine. “I can live with that arrangement.”
“But not tonight,” she equivocated. Then she leaned closer and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Lady Smythe-Gleason has been coveting your form all evening. You might try her. Good evening, Mr. St. John.”
The thought of St. John with another woman affected her in a similar manner to such thoughts of Simon. However, it was not as easy to push them aside…
St. John caught her arm when she attempted to move away. The heat that flared from where he touched her was undeniable. It was also reflected in the look he gave her. “As part of our inevitable business association, I want the private use of your body. In return, I will offer the same courtesy to you.”
Maria blinked. “Beg your pardon?”
Christopher’s thumb stroked intimately within the crook of her elbow, hidden from view by the froth of white lace. The caress sent tingles up her arm to her breasts, making her nipples ache. She was grateful for the prison of her corset, which hid her state from him.
“You heard me,” he said.
“Why would I agree to such an arrangement? Better yet, why would you?” She arched a brow.
He returned the gesture.
She gave a shaky laugh and attempted to conceal how fascinated she was by the idea of claiming him. He was wild, untamed, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “You amuse me, Christopher.”
“That is not what you are feeling.” He stepped closer, entering her personal space. “I arouse you and intrigue you and even frighten you. My repertoire of carnal amusements is nearly endless, as you shall soon see. But I am not amusing. That requires a level of frivolity I will never achieve.”
Her lips parted with softly panting breaths.
“Come to my room when you change your mind,” he murmured, stepping back.
Maria managed a mocking smile and then made her excuses so she could retire. She felt him watching her as she left the room, and his words followed her long after they parted.
Leaving the manse without being seen was both simpler and more difficult than Maria expected.
On one hand, it was as easy as tossing her leg over her balcony railing. On the other, it required her to descend using a vine-covered trellis. With custom-made black breeches, it was more of an inconvenience than a true trial. Regardless, the method was not the most desirable means of traversing the distance from her room to the ground level. Especially with a rapier attached to her waist.
She dropped to her feet with enough noise to make her cautious. She looked around, clung to the shadows, and waited the space of several breaths. Once she was certain no one was peering out their windows for trespassers, she pushed away from the bricks and set off toward the pantheon.
The night was still and quiet, the breeze cool but not cold. It was a perfect setting for a moonlit meeting of two lovers. That she was dressed as a man and rushing to meet an unsavory denizen of the streets was simply a fact of her life. There was no room for wasted moments of happiness and comfort. She could not enjoy them in any case, knowing that Amelia was at large, perhaps scared and alone.
As she had earlier in the day, Maria moved from tree to tree, circling the pantheon, her eyes straining to see in the darkness. The canopy above filtered the moonlight enough to make the interior of the structure black as pitch. She paused, her breath held. The hair on her nape stood on end, warning her.
She spun about before a twig snapped to her rear, her blade singing as she yanked it free of its scabbard. A man stood a few feet away, watching her with a cold intensity that put her further on her guard. In the darkness, there wasn’t much she could see of him, but he was shorter in stature than Simon or Christopher, and so thin he looked emaciated.
“Where’s Quinn?” he asked.
“You will be speaking with me this evening.” There was as much steel in her voice as in her blade.
He snorted and turned away.
“Who do you think pays your coin?” she murmured.
Templeton paused midstride. A long moment passed where she could almost hear him considering, then he turned about. He whistled softly, then leaned against a nearby tree and thrust his hands against his pockets.
Maria opened her mouth to speak and then she noted his eyes were shifting, as if he espied something beyond her that she had no view of. His preoccupation alerted her to a rushing movement passing through the periphery of her vision. Suddenly on guard, she leapt back from a lunging foil wielded by a second man.
She recovered instantly and parried the next thrust, the two rapiers meeting in a clash of steel. Her jaw hardened at the sight of the burly man who faced her. She was an expert swordsman, a hard-earned accomplishment made possible by Dayton’s largesse. Still, her heart raced.
Sadly, my darling Maria, you are one who will live by the sword, he once said. Therefore, we must be certain your skill with a blade is unequaled.
How she missed him!
As always, the memory of his loss sharpened her focus and she began to fight with such fervor her opponent, large as he was, cursed and was pushed back. Her arm lifted, thrust, and moved lightning quick. She kept to a position that allowed her to keep sight of Templeton, who watched avidly, even as she remained engaged by his associate. She was small and fast, but that did not prevent the toe of her boot from catching on a tree root. Maria stumbled with a cry of alarm, the gleam of victory in her opponent’s eye undeniable as his foil aimed to take the advantage.
“Easy now, ’arry!” Templeton cried.
She hit the ground and rolled, Harry’s downward-plunging blade piercing the dirt, her upward-thrusting blade piercing his thigh. He bellowed in rage, like a wounded bear, then a bright flare of muted white hit the man full bore in the chest and took him to the ground with a brutal thud. The two bodies rolled briefly, a pained groan was heard, and then both men went still.
In the end, it was the figure in the billowing linen shirt who rose, yanking free the dagger that had found its home in the larger man’s chest.
Moonlight revealed pale hair and a quick turn of his head in her direction revealed fathomless eyes. Then Christopher St. John moved toward Templeton, who stood frozen nearby.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked in a deceptively quiet voice.
“Aye. St. John.” Templeton backed up cautiously. “The leddy’s none the worse, you see.”
“No thanks to you.” Moving as quickly as he had before, with a speed so startling it would be missed if one blinked, St. John had Templeton pinned to the tree with his dagger embedded in a bony shoulder.
What followed was agonizing to watch. St. John spoke in a low, almost soothing tone while twisting the blade into torn flesh, and the frieze-clad man writhed while gasping and sobbing out his replies. Against her will, Maria’s gaze moved back and forth between Christopher’s broad shoulders and the dead man a few feet away. She fought nausea, repeating a familiar litany in her head, one that absolved her of guilt because the end had been necessary to preserve herself. And Amelia.
His life or mine. His life or mine. His life or mine.
It never quite succeeded, but what more could she do? If she took too long considering how far in the mire she had fallen, she would sink into a melancholia that took weeks to run its course. She knew this from experience.
“Restore the area to its previous appearance,” St. John said, pulling away and watching as the man fell to his knees before him. “When the sun rises, this spot should be pristine and undisturbed, do you understand?”
“When I works, I’m careful,” Templeton said, his voice strained.
Christopher turned his full attention to her then, striding to her side and catching her elbow before dragging her away.
“I must speak with him,” she protested.
“A governess was hired and sent to Dover.”
Maria tensed, and perceptive as he was, he did not fail to notice.
“He said no more than that,” he assured. Despite the controlled quality of his voice, there was a dangerous undercurrent beneath the façade. “Trust that your need for such information is a secret saved. Wise of you to keep the reason for your inquiries a mystery. He has nothing with which to leverage extortion.”
“I am not a fool.” She shot him a sidelong glance, and the tiny hairs on her nape stood on end. He was leashed for the moment, but barely. “I also had the situation firmly in hand.”
“I will debate the use of the word ‘firmly,’ but I agree, you were doing well enough without my intervention. Blame my intrusion on a heretofore unknown speck of chivalry.”
Although she said nothing aloud, Maria had felt relief at his appearance and a softening she had not expected. At first, her examination of this new regard for him yielded no answers. Then she realized, with great surprise, that it was the first time since Dayton that someone had saved her.
“Why were you there?” she asked, noting as they left the cover of trees that he was nearly undressed, wearing only shirtsleeves, breeches, stockings, and heels. There was blood on his shirt and hands, an outward sign of his proclivity toward savagery.