Read One Night With a Spy Online
Authors: Celeste Bradley
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
Oh, hell. This didn't look good. Marcus let his gaze travel about the room, taking in the occupants with a new eye. All young or youngish. All well dressed and groomed to a spit and polish—all watching each other with the wary acquiescence of predators sharing a watering hole. As far as Marcus knew, there was only one prize worthy of such a turnout in Middlebarrow.
"You're all here to court Lady Barrowby, aren't you?" Damn, and he'd thought it would be easy.
"What? Did you think it would be easy?"
Marcus shot his gaze to Elliot, whose lips twisted knowingly. "You thought you'd just trot down here and attach her affections with your good looks and your ebullient charm?" He gestured to the filled room. "As did we all." He tipped back his tankard and downed the dregs of his ale with a grimace. "Bog water, perhaps?" His brow creased thoughtfully. "Or castor oil?"
The other three men shook their heads. "No, we agreed that it has to be a naturally occurring phenomenon. No preparations from the apothecary!"
Elliot shrugged. "Castor oil occurs naturally, but I shan't press the issue." He turned back to Marcus and stuck out his hand. "Since we're here on a similar mission, I shall dispense with the niceties. I'm Elliot."
? Marcus shook the offered hand warily. "I am Marcus Blythe-Goodman. Elliot… ?"
Elliot smirked again. "Simply 'Elliot.' It adds to my mystique. I need every advantage to stand out in this lot."
The other three offered their hands. Eames, Potter, and Stuckey…
"Are there any blue bloods in the game?"
Elliot narrowed his eyes. "Why, are you planning to claim some connections?"
Marcus regarded the other man just as narrowly. "Why, are you planning to refute them?"
Elliot watched him for a long moment, then shrugged easily. "Sabotage is not my style. I'm more the sort to dazzle her with my charm until she's blinded to yours."
Marcus fought the urge to laugh. A true younger son desperate for some advantage in the world would take this game very seriously. In fact, if he had any hope of getting close to Lady Barrowby, he ought to start taking it more seriously himself. He looked about the room. "There must be some way to cut the herd."
The other four men riveted him with their gazes. "We're listening," Elliot said. "I've tried everything, even telling tales of the man-eating Beast of Barrowby."
Marcus folded his arms. "Rumor is effective. Shall we spread the word that the heir to Barrowby has been found? That will send home the ones looking for more than a widow's portion."
Elliot smiled slowly. "I'm in."
Eames bridled. "Lie? Never! I am a gentleman."
Marcus widened his eyes innocently. "It isn't a lie. I heard it myself, just before I left London. He's on a ship from the West Indies even as we speak." To be truthful, there was a possibility that Barrowby's lost heir lived in Johannesburg—then again, there was a possibility that he did not.
Either way, it was not Marcus's problem.
So it was in unspoken and temporary truce that they all moved into the crowd, spreading the word.
In the elegant halls of Barrowby, Julia heard voices coming from her parlor and pressed herself against the wall at the top of the stairs, keeping out of sight of the entrance hall below. They were back.
She pressed a hand to her forehead. Perhaps if there weren't so damned many of them. Or perhaps if they weren't so attentive.
She'd tried speaking very little, then not speaking at all. She'd instructed her cook, Meg, to lessen the supply and quality of the refreshments, and the same of Furman, the innkeeper in the village. Now there was no food and no fire and still they came!
She'd tried pleading ill once, only to be deluged with notes and gifts wishing her well, all of which then had to be politely answered, which only encouraged the lot of them. She daren't try it again.
She'd always understood the mourning process of the upper classes to be rather isolating, but since each and every one of the gentlemen insisted they were merely here to "console" her, she could not in politeness turn them away.
She was desperate, even contemplating a sudden, vigorous attack of the pox and sneezing on them all.
"Never lie," Aldus had instructed her. "Not if you can possibly help it. It is too difficult to keep track of the ripples in the water. It is better to tell part of the truth and behave as if you've told it all."
She sighed. So many rules to remember and follow. Over the years most of them had become second nature… but now she was faced with something she'd never experienced.
Male attention was not something she'd had aplenty in her life. She'd been a gawky girl and an unprepossessing bride. True, she'd improved somewhat in the following years, but by then she'd been lady of the manor. Hands off.
She was still lady of the manor, and more importantly, she was the Fox, wily manipulator of countries and kings. So what was so difficult about a roomful of adoring fellows unsubtly seeking her favor?
The difficulty was that she missed Aldus. She missed his conversation when he was well and his need for her when he wasn't. For the first time in ten years, she felt alone.
Igby, one of her footmen, passed her in the hallway and gave her pert smile and an encouraging wink. Julia mustered up a smile and nod in return. She wasn't alone. Barrowby was her family, all the staff and cottagers who had become so dear to her.
She sighed and pushed herself away from the wall. There was no help for it. She must face the mob.
She entered the parlor with her head high and the merest of polite smiles on her face. Surprisingly, there was no mob in sight, only a bare dozen fellows—the most persistent of the former crowd and one other.
The tall stranger stood back from her faithful coterie as they moved forward as one to greet her. He remained clearly visible to her, as if the others instinctively left him a path to her side.
A small tremor went through her, surprising her into examining him more closely. He was beautiful. With his sculpted cheekbones he might have been almost too pretty, but for the bump on his nose that gave one the impression that there was a brawler beneath the polished exterior. That impression was substantiated by a small scar that cut through one eyebrow.
His green gaze caught her short, causing her to pause in her unenthusiastic greetings. His eyes were a riveting emerald that seemed to turn darker when his gaze rested on hers. When they briefly turned away, she was able to take notice of his broad shoulders and generally superior manly physique.
A ringing like that of the village fire bell sounded within her.
She was attracted to him, whoever he was. How alarming—and absolutely perilous. Then Elliot, who held the distinction of being the only one to ever make her laugh, stepped between, cutting the stranger from her sight.
Who was he? He was different, she could tell instantly. There was something about the way he stood there, unwilling to compete with men who were clearly his inferiors, completely confident that
would go to
That unconscious bit of arrogance broke her trance. She increased the brightness of the smile she bestowed on dear Elliot. "How glad I am that you could visit again today," she said clearly, not looking at the newcomer by force of will.
She was desperate to find out who he was and somewhat less desperate but still interested to find out what had happened to the rest of the mob. Had Furman gone so far as to actually poison the ale this time?
"I'm afraid the faint of heart have returned to their usual hunting grounds," Elliot whispered into her ear as he took her hand to lead her to "her" chair—well, she couldn't very well allow them to fight out who sat with her on the sofa!—and he winked at her with his face turned away from the others. "Now all I must do is kill off the others and you'll be mine, all mine!"
The corners of Julia's mouth twitched. Elliot spotted her response, although she covered it with an imperious nod. His eyes lit triumphantly.
She ought not to encourage him, but at least his company was not as tiresome as that of the more earnest Mr. Eames. "Can you make it look like an accident?" she replied, her voice no more than a breath.
He squeezed her hand briefly. "A veritable act of God."
"Here now," huffed Mr. Eames from behind Elliot. "Her ladyship is in no humor for your senseless jests, Elliot!"
"Perhaps her ladyship is in no humor to be told what sort of humor she's in."
The stranger's voice was deep and powerful, reminding Julia of the rumbling growl of a predator.
Mr. Eames huffed once more, which seemed to be his primary form of communication. Julia noticed Elliot eyeing the new gentleman with watchful amusement. The fellow gazed calmly back at him, clearly waiting for Elliot, or someone, to remember their manners and present him to her.
Elliot dragged the moment out a bit more, clearly amused. Then he shrugged and turned back to Julia with a smile. "That looming brute over there is Marcus Blythe-Goodman. He rides a fine horse and tends not to talk overmuch about himself. A highly suspicious character. I suggest you bar him from your house immediately."
"But then I should have to bar you all, for I know nothing more about you than I do about him." She stood and held out her hand. "Mr. Blythe-Goodman."
"If that's even his name," Mr. Eames muttered.
Mr. Blythe-Goodman approached her and bent over her hand. Blimey, he was tall.
Julia immediately heard Aldus in her mind. "Don't say 'blimey,' Julia. Say 'goodness!' or 'heavens!'."
The reminder of Aldus pierced her sharply. She must have paled, for Mr. Eames
cried out. "Lady Barrowby, are you ill?"
Bloody hell. Not more notes! She shook her head quickly. "No, do not concern yourself! I am quite well! It is only that I—" There was no reason to hide it. "I was only thinking of his lordship."
All the gentlemen murmured sympathetic things, but Julia caught a flash of something else in Mr. Blythe-Goodman's expression. It was gone before she could define it, but it made her uncomfortable.
Marcus gazed at the woman coolly, then released her hand and stepped back.
He'd been warned. He ought to have known that if Lord Liverpool waxed eloquent about a woman's beauty—eloquent for Liverpool—that she would be truly extraordinary.
didn't even begin to cover it.
Exquisite. Perfect. Dazzling
. All applied, yet none portrayed the additional attributes that kept this motley crowd of men coming back for the crumbs of her attention.
—in a coiled-spring sort of way, like a feline at rest.
Oh, yes. That word said it all quite well. Before them all stood the single most arousing woman Marcus had ever had the painful pleasure of being gobsmacked by the sight of.
The miniature in his pocket must be years old, the image of a mere girl. Before him now was a creature who was entirely a woman.
She was demurely clad in deepest mourning and, until now, Marcus had never seen a woman who wasn't washed to a sickly pallor by that particular dull black. On Lady Barrowby, the drab color only made her golden hair shine more brightly and her fine, alabaster skin gleam like moonlight.
She'd worked the moment nicely as well, with the touching declaration of mourning and the tears that had misted her eyes just enough to make them shine. She was very lovely, the picture of bereaved grace and elegance.
That didn't mean she wasn't lying.
"Tell me, Mr. Blythe-Goodman, what brings you to our far corner of Derbyshire? Are you here on business?"
Marcus leaned back casually on the sofa. "I'm interested in a position that has recently become available."
Well, that was refreshing. Most gentlemen abhorred the very idea of actual work, although most of them surely would end up taking some sort of employment if they couldn't marry well.
Then it struck her that he was making reference to taking Aldus's place as her husband. His arrogance irritated her anew. She lifted a brow. "I'm sure there are others in pursuit of such a choice position. I do hope you are not out of your league."
For some reason this made him flush darkly, the most honest reaction she'd seen yet. Could she have been mistaken? If he was actually in pursuit of employment, her comment was unforgivable. Julia looked away. She'd not meant to injure him.
She wished he would smile again. One of his front teeth was slightly imperfect. She liked that chipped tooth. It said, "I am a man, not merely a pretty plaything."
Not that she would be playing—nothing of the sort!
Oh, dear. The timing of Mr. Blythe-Goodman's arrival into her life was dreadful. There was so much at stake right now. She could not afford such an exceptional distraction!
If only he had come… well…
His riveted gaze reminds me of a hunting beast with the prey in sight. Oh, let me be your quarry…
Marcus was having a bit of difficulty concentrating on what Lady Barrowby was saying to her paramours.
Above her modest neckline he could see the bounty of her breasts still swelling, as if the bodice were a bit too tight. In addition, the waist was cinched more than the current classically draped fashion dictated, so that the curve of her rounded hips was revealed to a group of men who hadn't seen a woman's waist since boyhood.
Although Marcus's own mother had worn such a fashion, it suddenly seemed a deliberate tease aimed at his entire generation. A woman's true shape, revealed!
Perhaps the style will catch on
, he found himself fervently wishing.
"God, I hope so," whispered the man standing next to him.
Marcus clenched his jaw tight. Had he actually spoken aloud without thinking?
She would not surprise another such response from him. He forced himself to look at her with detachment. Was it her large, heavily lashed blue eyes that drew the other men, or the perfection of her even features? Her cheekbones were high enough to be coolly Slavic, but her eyes had a sleepy downward slant that made one think of damp, rumpled bedsheets that smelled of sex.