Authors: Tracey Devlyn
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #General, #Suspense, #David_James Mobilism.org
Copyright © 2012 by Tracey Devlyn
Cover and internal design © 2012 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover illustration by Aleta Rafton
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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To my husband, Tim. You’re the man,
you’re the man, you’re the man.
Thank you—for everything.
Near Honfleur, France
Guy Trevelyan, Earl of Helsford, stopped short at the sharp smell of burning flesh. The caustic odor melded with the dungeon’s thick, moldy air, stinging his eyes and seizing his lungs. His watery gaze slashed to the cell’s open door, and he cocked his head, listening.
A sudden scrape of metal against metal. A faint sizzling sound followed by a muffled scream.
He stepped forward to put an end to the prisoner’s obvious suffering but was yanked back and forced up against the dungeon’s cold stone wall, a solid forearm pressed against the base of his throat.
Guy thrust his knee into the bastard’s stomach, enjoying the sound of air hissing between his assailant’s lips, but the man didn’t release his hold. Nearly the same size as Guy, the Viscount Danforth wasn’t an easy man to dislodge. Guy knew that fact well. For many years they had tested each other’s strength.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” the viscount whispered near his ear. “We’re here for the Raven. No one else.”
Guy stared into Danforth’s shadowed face, surprised and thankful for his friend’s quick reflexes. What would have happened had he stormed into the cell to save a prisoner he knew nothing about, against odds he hadn’t taken time to calculate? Something in the prisoner’s cry of pain struck deep into his gut. His reaction had been swift and instinctual, more in line with Danforth’s reckless tendencies than his own carefully considered decisions.
“Leave off,” Guy hissed, furious with himself. He pushed against Danforth’s hold, and the other man’s arm dropped away.
He had to concentrate on their assignment, or none of them would leave this French nightmare alive. The mission: retrieve the Raven, a female spy credited with saving hundreds of British lives by infiltrating the newly appointed emperor’s intimate circle and relaying information back to the Alien Office.
Guy shook his head, unable to fathom the courage needed to pull off such an ill-fated assignment. The ever-changing landscape of the French government ensured no one was safe—not the former king, the
, the bourgeoisie, or the commoner. And, most especially, not an English secret service agent.
Although Napoleon’s manipulation of the weak and floundering Consulate stabilized a country on the brink of civil destruction, the revered general-turned-dictator wasn’t content to reign over just one country. He wanted to rule all of Europe, possibly the entire world. And, if his enemies didn’t unite under one solid coalition soon, he might achieve his goal.
Another muffled, gut-twisting cry from the cell drew his attention. He clenched his teeth, staring at the faint light spilling out of the room, alert for movement or any signs of what he might find within.
Sweet Jesus, he hoped the individual being tortured by one of Valère’s henchmen wasn’t the Raven. In his years with the Alien Office, he had witnessed a lot of disturbing scenes, some of his creation. But to witness the mangled countenance of a woman… The notion struck too close to the fear that had boiled in his chest for months—
—giving him no respite.
On second thought, he hoped the prisoner was the Raven. Then he wouldn’t have to make the decision to leave the poor, unfortunate soul behind, and they could get the hell out of this underground crypt posthaste.
“Are you well?” Danforth asked, eyeing him as if he didn’t recognize his oldest friend.
Guy shoved away from the stone wall, shrugging off the chill that had settled like ice in his bones. Devil take it, what did the chief of the Alien Office expect him to do? Walk up to the prisoner and say, “Hello, are you the Raven? No? What a shame. Well, have a nice evening.” Only one person knew what the agent looked like, and Somerton did not offer up those details before ushering them off to France.
he wondered for the thousandth time. It was an answer he intended to find as soon as they got back to London, assuming they survived this mission.
“I’m fine.” He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “Now cease with the mothering and get behind me.”
He barely noticed the fist connecting with his arm, having already braced himself for Danforth’s retaliation. Some things never change. Inching toward the cell door, he tilted his head and concentrated on the low rumble of voices until he was close enough to make out individual words.
“Why do you force me to be so cruel?” a plaintive voice from inside the chamber asked. The Frenchman spoke slowly, as if talking to a child, which allowed Guy to quickly translate the man’s unctuous words. The gaoler continued, “All you have to do is provide my master with the information he seeks.”
A chain rattled. “Go to the devil, Boucher,” a guttural voice whispered.
Guy’s jaw hardened. The prisoner’s words were so low and distorted that it was impossible to distinguish the speaker’s gender. Every second they spent trying to solve the prisoner’s identity was a second closer to discovery.
The interrogator let out a deep, exaggerated sigh. “The branding iron seems to have lost its effect on you. Let me see if I have something more persuasive.”
An animal-like growl preceded the prisoner’s broken whisper. “Your black soul will burn for this.”
Boucher chuckled low, controlled. “But not tonight, little spy. As you have come to discover, I do not have the same aversion to seeing you suffer as my master does.”
Something eerily familiar about the prisoner’s voice caught Guy’s attention. His gaze sliced back to Danforth to find puzzlement etched deeply between his friend’s brows.
Guy turned back, the ferocity of his heartbeat pumping in his ears. His stomach churned with the certain knowledge that what he found in this room of despair would change his life forever. He steadied his hand against the rough surface of the dungeon wall, leaned forward to peer into the cell, and was struck by a sudden wave of fetid air. The smell was so foul that it sucked the breath from his lungs, and he nearly coughed to expel the sickening taste from his mouth and throat.
The cell was twice the size of the others they had searched. Heaps of filthy straw littered the floor caked with human waste and God knew what else. Several strategically placed candles illuminated a small, circular area, leaving the room’s corners steeped in darkness. In the center stood a long wooden table with a young man strapped to its surface by thick iron manacles.
Disappointment spiraled through him. He glanced at Danforth and shook his head, and then evaluated their situation. The corridor beyond the candlelit chamber loomed like a great, impenetrable abyss.
The intelligence Danforth had seduced from Valère’s maid suggested the chateau’s dungeon held twelve cells. If the maid’s information was correct, that left four more chambers to search. Would they, like all the others, be strangely empty?
Guy narrowed his gaze, fighting to see something—anything—down the darkened passage. It yawned eerily silent. Too damned silent. The lack of movement, guards, and other prisoners scraped his nerves raw. That and the realization they would not be able to slide past the nearby cell without drawing attention from its occupants.
He ignored Danforth’s warning tap on his shoulder and peered into the young man’s cell again. The prisoner’s filthy legs and arms splayed in a perfect X across the table’s bloodstained surface. A few feet away, with his back to the prisoner, stood a slender man dressed in the clothes of a gentleman, his unusual white-capped head bent in concentration over an assortment of spine-chilling instruments.
Guy watched the man assess each device with the careful attention of an enraptured lover, masterfully prolonging the young man’s terror. Give a victim long enough, and he’ll create plenty of painful scenes in his own mind that the interrogator need only touch his weapon to the prisoner’s skin to elicit a full, babbling confession.
He couldn’t walk away from the poor soul struggling on the table, nor could he cold-bloodedly put an end to his misery. The young man was a countryman, not his enemy, and he would never leave one of his own in Valère’s hands.
With great care, he withdrew a six-inch hunting knife from his boot. He heard Danforth curse softly, violently, behind him, and then a rustle of movement. His hand shot out to stay his friend, and a short struggle ensued. Their roles now reversed, Guy whispered in Danforth’s ear, “There’s no way around, and I’m not leaving him here.”
“We don’t have time—”
“I’m. Not. Leaving. Him.”
After a moment, Danforth gave a sharp nod and settled into the rear support position once more, anger dripping off him in waves.
He couldn’t blame his friend for wanting to press on. Evil penetrated every crack and hollow of this place. Even with his vast experience with the darker side of human nature, Guy felt trapped and edgy and unusually desperate.
Guy shifted his attention to the prisoner just as the young man’s head swiveled toward the open doorway. Bleakness and terror etched his swollen, blood-encrusted face, but something more blazed behind the young man’s steady gaze—strength, fortitude, and a hint of hope.
He was a fighter, a warrior entombed in a rapidly weakening young man’s body. A rush of fury mixed with a healthy dose of respect surged through Guy. How did one so young get involved with the likes of Valère?
The prisoner’s chest rose high with each deep, agonized breath. As his torturer intended, the young man knew Boucher’s next attempt at pulling information from him would be far worse than the last.
Candlelight flickered over his youthful features. When the prisoner focused in on Guy’s position, his terrified blue-green eyes—or eye, as one was little more than a bloated slit—opened wide.
Guy’s heart jolted, fearing the young man would call out. With an index finger to his lips, he motioned for the prisoner to remain quiet.
Familiarity washed over Guy again. His gaze cleaved to the prisoner’s; his focus sharpened.
An unusual color Guy had seen only once before. His muscles contracted. A wave of frigid heat swept across every inch of his skin, and nausea twisted in his gut.
He knew those eyes.
The young man wasn’t a man at all. But a goddamned woman.
Cora deBeau’s heart ground against the wall of her chest. She peeled her blurry gaze away from Boucher, unable to watch her gaoler touch each instrument as if he were selecting the perfect snuffbox for his waistcoat pocket. Her keeper was a strange combination of depraved villain and thoughtful philosopher. She had initially thought him French, but she had isolated another, more subtle accent during the times he was caught up in the excitement of his “little experiments.”
As he was now.
In an attempt to bolster what meager courage she had left, she concentrated on the rusty metal hook near the cell’s door.
Her gaoler enjoyed prolonging her anticipation of what was to come and relished her building fear, her struggle to be brave. Her inevitable failure.
He fed off her pain, of which there had been a great deal.
Constant. Never ending. Nearly unbearable.
Cora knew with profound sadness—and utter relief—that she would soon break. The endless dark days and stifling black nights, the vicious rats, and the limitations of her female body would lead to her compromise.
As Valère knew it would. His legendary patience would see Cora crumble to the ground like a marionette discarded by its unforgiving owner.
Soon she would be forced to rattle off every bit of intelligence she knew about the Nexus, a group of international spies who worked so diligently, so stealthily toward containing Napoleon’s ambitions. Then Valère would kill her and all the other agents of the Nexus. Her three-year sojourn in this country would end abruptly, and the man responsible for killing her parents would forever run free.
Agony of a different sort tore through her chest. Ten years of preparation and three years of searching snuffed out in a matter of days by a Frenchman in a full pout. When Valère had learned of her betrayal, his fury had known no bounds. None.
She hadn’t reached her breaking point. Not yet. By now, Dinks, her maid and sometime messenger, would have notified Lord Somerton of her capture. Even now, her former guardian could have men on the way.
In the public eye, Somerton was known as chief of the Alien Office, a small division within the Home Office originally created to monitor the influx of French émigrés after the Terror. But secretly, as head of the Nexus, Somerton commanded a contingent of highly skilled and highly intelligent secret service agents. Because of the group’s international reach, the Nexus was actually under the auspices of the Foreign Office.
An image of Guy flashed through her mind, and her heart soared with another infusion of determination. The thought of Guy rescuing her strengthened her mind and numbed her body for what was to come. She could hold on, for a little while longer. She must, if only to see his face one last time.
Then she realized Somerton would never send an administrator on a rescue mission, especially one who could botch the mission from the weight of his emotion alone. Fear for her safety would drive him to brash action, endangering them all in the process. No, Somerton would not be so foolhardy as to send Guy to her. On the tail of this realization, her body suddenly felt anchored in exhaustion. The hours to her possible rescue seemed an eternity to wait.
Her gaze flicked to the open doorway. Something had shifted in the shadows. A mere disturbance of air. She squinted, trying to penetrate the gloom.
Had Valère returned again? He’d made a habit of standing unobtrusively in the darkened corner to watch Boucher practice his art of persuasion. When the torture became too much and she could no longer hold back her screams, he would scurry from the chamber, taking with him any hope of release.
A face pressed through the darkness. Her empty stomach tightened, and tears swarmed her eyes when Guy Trevelyan’s features materialized. Familiar and beloved.
And, oh, so out of place.
She blinked several times, thinking he was one of those desert mirages she had read about. But his image never wavered.
She shook her head, wanting desperately to warn him off without drawing Boucher’s attention. What was Somerton thinking? Not only was Guy a newly belted earl, but he had no experience with this sort of thing. At least not that she knew of. His particular talents lay in assisting Somerton with the administration of the Nexus, not traipsing through a French dungeon where he could get his bloody self killed.
The darkness behind him remained unruffled; she could detect no other presence. Surely the idiot did not come to Valère’s stronghold without a swarm of reinforcements. A shout of warning welled in her throat. She could not bear to watch Guy suffer the same fate she had endured these many days. If they came out of this rescue alive, she was going to kill him. Right after she showered his bloody handsome face with a thousand kisses.
She had obviously been spending too much time in Dinks’s company. The outrageous maid was rubbing off on her.
A shiny, long object in Guy’s hand caught her attention before it disappeared behind his back. He held his finger against his lips, silencing her. She hadn’t realized her breaths sawed in and out of her lungs like a spent racehorse.
“Yes, my dear,” Boucher said, noticing her distress. A disturbing satisfaction edged his words. “I will join you in a moment. I cannot seem to find an instructional tool that I haven’t used on you before.”
Her interrogator seemed especially cruel and deliberate tonight. He always enjoyed toying with her, but rather than his normal cool detachment, a strange excitement laced his words. It was almost as if all his earlier sessions were nothing more than preparation for this one awful moment.
Panic spasmed through her muscles, and she jerked against her shackles, splitting open old wounds. She forgot all about her savior in the shadows. For days she had been careful not to show her fear, careful not to incite Boucher’s baser instincts. But it all had suddenly become too much.
Freedom. Its scent had filled the air seconds ago, making her reckless like a starving caged beast. All she wanted to do was run headlong into its warm embrace.
“Ah, here we go,” Boucher whispered.
Cora whipped her head around to watch her tormentor slide his freakishly pale fingers down a long clamp with four sharp, curved prongs that looked like they could wrap around something the size of a man’s fist.
Boucher approached her left side, slowly, admiring his weapon with the same worshipful eyes as a child holding a Gunter’s chocolate cream ice on a hot summer day. She swallowed hard. Her muscles grew taut, and her body began to shake.
He ran the bloodcurdling device along her breast, and she knew then what he meant to do with his newest toy. A vivid image of the prongs closing around her breast, squeezing until the blood pounded hotly against the strained surface—she bit down hard to stop an involuntary scream of terror.
Through her fear, she managed to remember Guy. She needed to keep Boucher’s attention on her. Given her interrogator’s current fascination, she didn’t think it would be a problem. If she could distract Boucher long enough, Guy could make his move.
Part of her longed for Guy to slip away undetected, return to England and remember her the way she had been before traveling to this godforsaken country. And another part of her, the selfish and frightened part, prayed he would be the savior she so desperately needed.
Various schemes flashed through her fevered mind until one settled in place like the aftermath of a violent storm. Calm and surreal. And oddly sunny.
She grabbed hold of it like a rope to salvation and dragged in a fortifying breath. There would be no second chances.
“No,” she whimpered, having no problem dropping her mask of courage.
He skimmed the breast-ripper over her chest again. “Tell me what my master wants to know,” he said, “and this time, I promise to stop before you scream.”
“Very well.” She kept her voice low. Too low. “Please, no more pain.”
Triumph lifted his placid features. “Go on. Speak up.”
She licked her swollen, cracked lips. “Hurts.”
He placed the well-cared-for clamp over her right breast. A warning. “You can have all the water you desire
you give me the names. Every single one. Leave no one out.”
She forced a cough, a hard, rattling cough that scoured her throat and vibrated through her chest.
“Tell me.” His knuckles slashed across her cheekbone, breaking skin already swollen with blood. His calm command stood out stark against the swift delivery of his fist. Warm liquid oozed from her cheek and slid into her hair. Black spots blanketed her vision. It was the incentive she needed to get the words around the mountain lodged in her throat.
After nearly a fortnight of isolation and torture, Cora submitted.
As expected, Boucher leaned close, listening greedily to a long list of coveted names. Her restraints made him bold, unconcerned for his own welfare. She spoke slowly, pronouncing each syllable with precise measure. Careful to keep his attention locked on her words.
Through the whiteness of his hair, she could see his scalp, a pale pink that looked far too delicate on such a monster. Such an odd thing to notice when her existence could be counted in seconds rather than years. She had no doubt that Boucher would kill her once she spoke the last syllables of the final name.
When she shifted her attention to the doorway, it was empty. Her voice staggered for the merest second. Had Guy come to his senses? Or had someone attacked him from behind? So focused was she on keeping Boucher’s attention that she couldn’t recall hearing any signs of an altercation.
Closing her eyes, she forced down her alarm, only to have it push to the surface again. Sweet heaven, she wasn’t ready to die. Exhaustion and a deep sense of failure penetrated her every muscle and thought. Had her incompetence killed Guy? She had become too confident, too complacent around Valère. One misstep was all it took to land her in a pit beneath his country chateau.
She covertly searched the cell for Guy’s solid presence one more time. But with Boucher’s body angled over her the way it was, much of her field of view was blocked.
Dammit. Where was he?
She couldn’t bear the thought of his death on her hands, too. Her parents were enough. More than enough. Not Guy. Never Guy.
When she pulled the last name from her lockbox, she knew her time had come to an end, and her body gave up the fight. It melted against the bloody table, boneless and beaten.
Boucher’s body crashed into her, heavy and rigid. Pain shot through her ribs like a piece of jagged glass ripping through muscle. Air wheezed between her lips, and her eyes shot open.
That’s when she saw the mahogany-and-pearl-handled knife protruding from his back. Boucher’s knees buckled, and Guy grabbed a handful of his collar and lifted him away.
For a moment, Boucher stared at her with his pale, cruel eyes, glassy now with pain. His natural skin color provided a perfect mask for death. “You will still die.” His threat was delivered with a frail wheeze, but Cora felt his words sink into her bones.
Guy whirled her tormenter around and slammed him to the stone floor. Boucher’s newest toy clattered uselessly to his side.
A whip of silence cracked through the room. She and Guy stared at Boucher’s unmoving body as if waiting for him to miraculously rise. He didn’t.
Then Guy’s burning gaze slashed to hers, and three years sifted away. They were once again in Mrs. Lancaster’s sitting room, standing face-to-face, aching for the other’s touch but unable to breach the line of friendship.
“Guy,” she choked out.
Two swift steps brought him to her side. He cradled her face, and she felt a pang of embarrassment at what he must see.
“What are you doing here—?”
“Shhh,” he interrupted, bending to test her restraints.
“Helsford, what the devil are you doing?” another man whispered, skidding to a halt beside Guy. “We don’t have time for this.”
Guy’s eyes softened, although his features remained harsh, savage even. “I’m saving Cora’s life, man.”
Danforth’s incredulous gaze sliced to hers. “Cora?”
She peered through rapidly swelling flesh to see the Viscount Danforth. She tried to send him a welcoming smile, but she managed only to rip open the weeping slit on her bottom lip. She settled for a simple, tear-clogged greeting.