Read One Night With a Spy Online
Authors: Celeste Bradley
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
Julia started, then smiled. She'd been thinking of little but Marcus for the past day and a half and had nearly forgotten about the verdict of the Three.
She was not worried. She had passed their tests with honors, and as soon as she was confirmed, she intended to give them all an earful about putting innocent servants in danger. She removed her apron and smoothed her hair—pity she hadn't more time, for the scrubbing of the paneling made it frizz so—and donned her Lady Barrowby serenity.
She entered the parlor with a smile. "My lords, how lovely to see you all again so soon."
They turned to her as one and her belly went to ice. Their expressions were not congenial at all. The Cobra, the Lion, and the Fox stared at her coldly. Lord Liverpool's expression was more haughty satisfaction.
The Falcon stepped forward. "Lady Barrowby, we will not waste time. It has come to our attention that you are not, in fact, of noble birth. We have recently discovered that your real name is Jilly Boots and that you are, in fact, a member of a traveling troupe of actors."
She swallowed. "Fair performers, actually." Oh, dear. This was not good, not at all.
How could they have found out? All these years, and no one had found out—
Marcus, of course.
No. It simply wasn't true. Marcus would never do that to her, she would wager her life on it. It had been someone in Middlebarrow, some gossip spreading tales of tightrope-walking butlers and bouncing footmen. That knowledge reinforced her, calming her panic.
She raised her chin. "I very much doubt that you can produce an unimpeachable source for such an outlandish claim."
"And yet, we can." The Falcon raised one hand. "May we introduce you to our new Fox?"
That hit Julia like a blow to the gut. She'd been replaced? She turned to the door. Who—
A dark man clad in somber, expensive clothing entered the room and turned familiar emerald eyes her way. He bowed. "Lady Barrowby."
. Julia felt her heart break, right in her chest, just the way people had always described. Yet somehow the stories had not adequately portrayed the pain that sliced so deeply she could not breathe. She staggered very slightly, reaching for the back of a chair to steady herself. Even in her breathless agony, she could not bear to let them see it.
Marcus knew it the moment he saw her again. It hit him deep in his chest, in his gut, like a spike through his heart.
For she'd trusted him completely. He'd seen her perfect belief in her face when he'd walked in the room. Until that moment, she'd had no doubt that he had held her confidence, that he was coming back to be with her, that he was the one person in the world who she could give her full and complete trust.
He'd taken that trust and dashed the perfect, fragile thing on the cobbles—and why?
Naked ambition, of course. He had very nearly convinced himself that he was doing the honorable thing—saving the Four from a mistake, saving Julia from danger and strenuous demands, saving England from the possible manipulation of one of its leaders…
His capacity to lie to himself was astonishing. He'd wanted nothing but the Fox's seat all along. That aim had driven every action, every word, every single moment of the last week.
His own ruthlessness sickened him.
You did what needed to be done. That's who the Fox is.
I broke her heart.
Possibly. Will I?
He didn't think so, for her wide shocked eyes would surely haunt him to his grave. She stood there, absolutely frozen, betraying nothing but surprise to those around her.
He could see it, however. He could see the crumbling of her spirit, like the wall of a beautiful, besieged castle giving way at last. All the trials that had been thrown at her, all the losses, all the attacks, had not been enough to strip away her strength. The anguish in her eyes squeezed the air from Marcus's lungs. He'd done this to her, fully aware of the price he would pay.
Yet he hurt so much more than he'd thought possible. Every endless second that she gazed at him, the surprise in her eyes shifting to horror, then to grief—now, as he watched, to self-loathing as well.
He'd not realized how angry she would be with herself. He ought to have expected it, for it would be his own reaction as well.
He could hear her now.
To all present, her still beauty betrayed nothing but thoughtful assessment of the situation. Only Marcus could see the spiraling despair behind her lovely eyes.
He had done it with two words.
"Low-born," she said finally. She straightened and turned away from him to gaze at the others, letting her eyes slip from him as if he was beneath her notice.
"Yes, my lady. Marriage to a peer is not enough to raise you that high, I'm afraid." Lord Liverpool did not sound regretful at all.
Julia blinked at the Prime Minister for a long moment. "I see."
The hell of it was—the blasted, outrageous irony of it—was that she was being wrongly cast out. And on the very premise that she didn't dare tell them wasn't true.
Then, in the depths of her loss, things got much, much worse.
"You know too much," Lord Liverpool was saying. "You cannot be allowed to continue thus, especially now that you've been dismissed." He glared at her. "How do we know you won't take your vengeance by exposing us?"
"Perhaps because I'm not the vengeful sort." But her voice was too faint to carry over the Prime Minister's rant.
"You are to spend the rest of your days in a convent of our choosing. You will not have access to the outside world, or to your staff, who are even now about to be investigated by the Liar's Club as to the level of their knowledge—"
"They are loyal British citizens! They could no more betray this country than they could betray me!"
"Nonetheless, they pose a serious security risk. The Liar's Club is close behind us. They will round up your staff for questioning and determine how much they know."
The fair folk knew far too much. Her stomach knotted, thinking of her free and easy trust. She'd drawn them all in too deep—
It was so much worse than she'd thought. Broken heart aside, shattered dreams aside, now the Four were going to shut her up behind stone walls and destroy her family! Aldus had warned her, he had taught her and he had told her everything—and still she had remained the stupid girl she had once been. She had set her heart free—and Marcus had put an arrow through it.
The Royal Four would quietly dispose of her family and they would be quite right to do so—for without her at the helm, the group would soon disperse, and someday, someone would relax his tongue for just a moment…
And it was all her fault.
She couldn't do it. She couldn't abandon them like this, even to save herself. All for one, one for all.
"I… see." She drew herself up as tall as she could, seeing as she'd been gutted. "Very well. For the good of England, I will comply with your wishes. My only request is that I—" Why was there no air in her lungs? Oh, yes—she was contemplating treason, that was why. "I should like to be allowed to make my farewell to my people here. You'll find them more cooperative if they believe me to be in good hands."
Liverpool's eyes narrowed. "No."
She saw Marcus's jaw tighten. "Yes."
The Lion was looking at Marcus with sympathy. Why? "Yes," the giant said.
The Falcon was gazing only at Julia. She gazed back as openly as she dared. He was too bloomin' perceptive. "No," was the Falcon's verdict.
The Cobra stood with arms folded. He'd not said a word through all of it. Now his single word was, "No."
She was surprised. He'd seemed to be the most likely one to vote in her favor. Well, then, there was nothing for it. She bowed her head in acquiescence. At least now she knew something she'd not known before: Marcus had feelings of guilt for what he'd done—or at least regret—and the Dane was letting Marcus make the call on this issue.
That was two things—two things that changed the odds so very slightly. Perhaps, in some outlandish dream world, it was enough.
"May I pack?"
Liverpool stepped forward. "The sisters will provide you everything you need. The Order of St. Clara operates under a vow of poverty, so you will need very little."
From pauper to princess to pauper again.
Something woke in Julia—something bold and desperate and long lost. With giddy relief, Julia recognized, and welcomed the intruder.
Jilly scoffed at the threat of rags and gruel. No crumbling convent walls could hold Jilly. And no loyalty to a group that had betrayed her would keep her from saving her family.
Her heart beat fast with a welcome, reckless rhythm and she beamed a wild-child smile on the gentlemen before her. "Damn you all to hell," she said cheerfully. Then she threw back her head and gave voice to the wild girl within.
There was nothing but shocked silence for a long moment. Only Marcus looked properly alarmed. "Ah, my lords—"
The door to the parlor burst open and the Barrowby staff piled into the room, brandishing pokers and rolling pins and whatever had been handy.
They didn't bother waiting to find out the situation. Meg took a swing at the Falcon, who ducked the rolling pin and drove a fist into the cook's impressive gut. Meg grinned.
Beppo had tackled the Prime Minister himself with a broom and was driving Liverpool back with a complicated swinging routine that Julia recognized from his tight-rope days.
"Run, my lady!" Pickles brandished a poker at Marcus, who gazed at the elderly maid in consternation.
Julia backed from the room. "Players, time to knock down! The magistrate is on his way!" she called as she left. They would know that she meant it was time to knock down the wagons and get out of town as fast as possible.
It was the best she could do for them. They were seasoned mischief makers all, and could take very good care of themselves, once they were dispersed on the wind.
The Liar's Club would never find them now.
"My lady, would you care to walk in the wood with me?" He reaches for my hand and I allow him to take it, though we wear no gloves. His skin is rougher than mine, the hands of a horseman, not a dandy. He does not let go as we turn toward the trees, but only wraps my fingers in his as though he owns them. We walk silently into the dimness, the shadows the only watchers.
I close my eyes and breathe in the smell of cool, damp loam and green growing things. When I open them, he is watching me. I know he watched my bodice swell and I breathe deeply again, simply to make him notice once more. His eyes flicker to where my nipples now press through the thin muslin of my gown and I let him gaze on me, shoulders back and chin high. I want him to look, to want.
His gaze grows hot as he steps closer. I see his organ swell his trousers and I revel in the knowledge of my power. He wants me
and not in some polite, "leave your gown on I'll manage" sort of wanting. He wants to rip my bodice to free my breasts. He wants to devour my rigid, aching nipples with teeth and tongue, he wants to lay me on the ground and take me right where we stand.
The dark wood might have seemed threatening to a stranger, but this was Barrowby. Julia ducked and wove through the tangled branches stretching through the mist as if she didn't need eyes at all.
Here, jump the tiny streamlet. There, scramble over the fallen oak, avoid the open pit where the roots once delved. Her own breaths sounded loud in her own ears, but she knew that her feet made almost no sound on the loam floor of the wood.
There was a thicket ahead, thorny and wonderful for hiding if one knew the way the deer had pushed through to get the best berries in summer—
A weight fell upon her from behind, carrying her hard to the ground. The breath left her lungs, but she didn't hesitate to turn on her attacker, hands curved into claws. She took a strip from one cheek before she found herself flat on her back with her hands pinned above her head.
The sight of him—oh, God, the
of him—covering her sent her into renewed struggles. She writhed beneath him, desperate to rid herself of his weight.
She didn't realize she was weeping until he kissed away the tears streaming down one cheek. His lips were warm on her frozen skin, but fatal on the ice she'd surrounded her heart with.
"Julia, Julia—" His voice was a moaning rasp. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Let me go."
She'd meant her voice to be hard. The raw need she heard from her own throat shocked her silent. But then, she had no pride left, did she? She had nothing left to lose by begging.
"Please… Please, my lord, let me go," she gasped. His lips pressed to her eyes, then her temples, his own panting breath hot on her ears. She twisted her head away, forcing herself to deny him. "I would never betray England. You know that—you know
He paused in his consumption of her and dropped his forehead to hers. "I know that you would never
to betray England… but you cannot simply walk away, Julia. You know the danger is far too great. You were the Fox long enough to know that we are only doing what we have to do."
Duty. She writhed anew beneath him. "Is it your duty to rape me on the ground?"
He let his cheek slip down hers and kissed her ear. "No."
She twisted away as best she could. "Then let me up!"
"If I let you up, will I ever lie with you again?"
"Then I'm in no hurry to let you up." He kissed her neck. "A man has to take what he can get."
"Marcus, if you turn me in now, you know I'll be hung—or have some curiously convenient accident!"
"If I let you go, they'll set the Liars on you all. Have you ever seen what an assassin can accomplish with nothing but a throwing knife and a straight shot?"
He was right. If she went back willingly, she might still have the option of the nunnery, although she didn't think so.