“No,” she agreed, “but there is enough to sustain me until Saint-Martin is well and the documents are dealt with.”
“If he survives the night, it will be only because of the grace of God.”
She felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her dizzy and weary. She clung to the back of the chair, but de Grenier caught her arm and forced her to sit.
“You are not well,” he said.
“I must rest. Certainly you can imagine how taxing this afternoon has been.”
The vicomte appeared prepared to argue, then he bowed. “My previous offer still stands.”
He moved to take a seat beside her. He caught up her hand, which lay motionless on the table surface. She looked into his eyes and saw compassion.
“I cannot discuss this now.” It made her sick to think of it. Life without Philippe? Life spent with another man? The thought was inconceivable to her.
And then her day, already unbearably agonizing, worsened.
An urgent knocking came to the open door. Marguerite turned in her chair to see Celie ringing her hands in her apron. “Mademoiselle, a word, please.”
Marguerite stepped out to the hallway and found the servants scrambling. Fear froze the blood in her veins, making her shiver. “What is it? What has happened?”
Celie’s pale eyes were reddened, as was her upturned nose. “Cook made stew for the servants from the scraps. I was late—”
With her nerves stretched to the limit, Marguerite had no patience for nonsense. She grabbed Celie by the arms and shook her. “What happened? Has he passed?”
“They all passed!” the maid screamed. “Cook . . . the footmen. . . They’re all
All of them . . .”
De Grenier burst from the dining room in a full run, skidding momentarily across the marble floor before finding purchase and heading toward the rear of the house. Marguerite followed despite Celie’s pleas, her heart racing so violently she feared it might burst. The vicomte entered the kitchen a few strides ahead of her. He cursed, then spun around quickly, catching her in his arms and dragging her back.
“Poison,” he said grimly with his lips to her ear.
The ground fell away beneath her feet and she was swallowed by the inky darkness of unconsciousness.
e was the sort of man who could enslave a woman with a single glance.
A glance such as the one he was presently giving to her.
Lynette Baillon watched the notorious Simon Quinn with similar shamelessness, admiring the raven blackness of his hair and the brilliant blue of his eyes.
Quinn lounged against a fluted column in the Baroness Orlinda’s ballroom, his arms crossing his broad chest and one ankle hooked carelessly over the other. He looked both leisurely and alert, a dichotomy she had noted the first time she saw him riding through the moonlit Parisian streets. Tonight he was dressed in somber shades of dark blue and gray, a combination that created an understated elegance she found extremely appealing. Amid the flagrantly sensual theme of the intimate gathering—candles scented of exotic spices, chaises cleverly hidden by a faux forest, and servants dressed in revealing costume—he was austerely attractive. His quiet intensity was far more alluring than the deportment of those who cavorted in blatant rut.
For her part, she was dressed in white for effect, her skirts accented with rich cream-colored bows and silver thread. Combined with her pale skin and hair and the dark ruby red of her half-mask, the ensemble drew all eyes toward her.
Drew his eyes toward her.
They had never been introduced. She’d learned his name by eavesdropping on surrounding conversations, listening with avid interest to whispered tales of his wickedness and common origins. He stood on the fringes, alone. Coveted by the women and shunned by the men for the exact same reasons—he had only his reputed expertise as a lover to recommend him and no title, property, or moral compass to redeem him. The widowed baroness enjoyed shocking Society, which explained his presence. He was a novelty and appeared to be comfortable in that role, but Lynette felt a strong pull to join him, to stand beside him, to enter the solitary enclosure he occupied.
Quinn was a tall man, and a big one. His jaw was strong, his nose a blade. Boldly winged brows gave him a hint of arrogance, while long, thick lashes added a touch of softness. To her mind, however, the most alluring part of his rugged handsomeness was his mouth. The lips were perfect, neither too full nor too thin, and when they curved in a smile—as they were doing now—they were irresistible. She wanted to lick them, nibble on them, feel them move across her bare skin.
“Between you and your sister,” her mother had once said, “you are most like me. Your passions run high, your blood hot. Pray you do not succumb to it.”
Her blood felt hot now. Her chest rose and fell rapidly in response to his stare. Her heart raced. That a stranger could incite such a response in her despite the crowd that surrounded them and the distance separating them only exacerbated her reaction.
Then he straightened abruptly and approached with a predator’s easy, yet determined gait. His long legs ate up the space between them, his pathway direct and unconcerned with those who were forced to move out of his way. She inhaled sharply, her palms dampening within her gloves.
When he reached her, her head tilted back to allow her to gaze upon his face and fully appreciate its savage beauty. She breathed him in, becoming intoxicated by the combination of tobacco and musk. The primitive scent was delicious and she fought the insane urge to rise to her tiptoes and press her nose into his throat.
She shivered as the sensual inflection with which he spoke wrapped around her like a lover’s embrace.
“Mr. Quinn,” she greeted, her voice husky and inviting.
Quinn’s gaze narrowed into an examining perusal. Without warning, he caught her elbow and pulled her away from the wall. She was so startled by his action that she was unable to voice a protest.
At least that was what she told herself. She wasn’t yet prepared to admit that she wanted to be claimed by a man such as him. A man whose polished exterior encased raw masculinity.
He led her through the crowd and down a hallway, opening a closed door and pushing her ahead of him into the room. The interior was dark, and for a moment, she was blinded by the dearth of illumination after the blaze of the massive ballroom chandeliers.
Her eyes slowly adjusted to the softer moonlight spilling in through the windows. When she could see, she stepped farther into the large, liberally furnished library. The smell of leather and parchment teased her nostrils, reinforcing the sensation of being primitively claimed.
The door latch clicked into place and she jumped, her nerves stretched too thin. The sounds of laughter and music faded from her perception, leaving her aware only of Quinn and the fact that they were alone together.
“What game are you playing?” he asked gruffly.
“I was staring,” she admitted, turning to face him. She appreciated having the light behind her, which shielded her features in shadow while revealing the whole of his. “But then, every woman here was doing the same.”
“But you are not just any woman, are you?” he growled, coming toward her.
So . . . he knew who she was. That surprised her. Her mother had insisted they hide their identities. They stayed with a friend instead of at their own property and were using an assumed surname. Her mother said it would prevent her father from becoming angry with them for deviating from their stated destination—Spain. She would have agreed to anything in order to come to Paris. In all of her life, her family had never visited here.
But then . . . If Quinn knew her true identity, why would he pull her away from the festivities in such a public manner?
,” she pointed out. “You could have kept your distance.”
“I am here because of you.” He caught her elbows and jerked her roughly into him. “If you had stayed out of mischief for a few days longer, I would have been far from France now.”
She frowned. What was he talking about? She would have asked if he had not placed his hands on her. No man had ever been so bold as to accost the daughter of the Vicomte de Grenier. She could hardly believe Quinn had done it, but she could not jerk away because the sensations elicited by his proximity stunned her. He was so hard, like stone. She could not have expected that.
As her breathing quickened, she felt herself sway into him, her chest pressing into his. It was madness. He was a stranger and he seemed to be angry.
But she felt safe with him, regardless.
For a long, taut moment Quinn did not move. Then he yanked her toward the window, impatiently pushing the sheer curtain aside so that moonlight touched her face. With a tug of his fingers, he untied the ribbons of her mask and it fell away, leaving her exposed. She suddenly felt naked, but not nearly naked enough. She felt a reckless, goading need to strip off every article of clothing while he watched. It was heady to be the focus of such heated, avid interest from so handsome a man.
He loomed over her, scowling, his mouth set in a grim line. “Why are you looking at me like that?” he snapped.
She swallowed hard. “Like what?”
Quinn made an aggravated noise, dropped the curtain, and caught her about the waist. “As if you want me in your bed.”
, what did one say to that?
“You are . . . very attractive, Mr. Quinn.”
“ ‘Mr. Quinn,’ is it?” he purred, his large hands cupping her spine, making her feel tiny and delicate. Conquered. “I always knew you were mad.”
Her tongue darted out to wet her dry lips and he froze, his gaze burning.
“What game are you playing?” he asked again. This time, she heard something else in his tone. Something darker. Undeniably arousing.
“I—I think we are both c-confused,” she said.
He moved, cupping the back of her neck and the side of her hip, mantling her body with his. “I’m bloody well confused, curse you.” He tugged, forcing her spine to arch, leaning over her so that she had no leverage to move.
Every inhale was his exhale. Every movement was an enticement, their bodies sliding against each other in a wanton dance. She felt a fever in her blood, a conflagration that had started with that first smoldering glance in the ballroom.
“Do you want to be fucked?” he purred, his head lowering so that his lips touched her jaw. The caress was divine and wicked at once, making her shiver with delighted apprehension. “Because you are begging for it, witch, and I am insane enough in this moment to indulge you.”
“I—I . . .”
Quinn turned his head and kissed her, hard, his lips mashing against hers. There was no finesse, no tenderness. Her mouth was bruised by his volatility and ardor. She should have been frightened. He seemed barely leashed, his emotions swaying from irritation to consuming desire.
She whimpered, her hands fisting in his jacket to keep him close. Enamored with the taste of him, she licked his lips and he groaned, his hips grinding restlessly into her. She surrendered weakly and he gentled his approach, seemingly soothed by her capitulation.
“Tell me what you are involved in,” he murmured, his teeth nipping at the corner of her mouth.
“You,” she breathed, tilting her head to deepen the contact. She felt drunk. The room spun behind her closed eyelids and she suspected she would crumble if he weren’t holding her so tightly.
Quinn turned slightly and sat in a nearby slipper chair. The change in position stole her balance and she settled between his spread legs nearly prone.
“Why now?” he asked, nibbling his way to her ear.
She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and bared her throat. His hot, open mouth suckled the tender skin and she writhed in mindless pleasure. “Mr. Quinn . . .”
He chuckled, surprising her with the warmth of the sound. “Who knew you burned so hotly beneath all that ice?”
“Kiss me again,” she begged, more infatuated with his mouth now that she had experienced its skill.
“We must leave, before I lift your skirts and take you here.”
Quinn suckled her lower lip and her body softened further, becoming hot and damp and aching. “Then let us retire to a more private venue, Lysette. Before lust rules my better sense.”
She stilled, the beat of her heart arrested by the sound of the name that was not her own.
The sudden understanding of all his questions horrified her. Simon Quinn knew her sister. Her twin. Her dearest friend and most agonizing loss.
For Lysette was dead, her body entombed in a beautifully sculpted crypt in Poland.
How, then, did Quinn know her and believe her to be alive?
The coast of France, three days earlier . . .
ysette Rousseau, an accomplished assassin, inhaled the sea air through the cabin window and wondered why her rapidly approaching demise did not frighten her. Her livelihood had shown her many faces of death. Most had been terror-stricken and accompanied by desperate pleas for mercy. She attempted to dredge up similar attachment to her own life and felt nothing. Death would be a reprieve; she could think of it no other way.
The ship she was prisoner upon would dock on the coast of France by morning. What awaited her there was unknown. She had been sent on a mission to recover information in England and was instead captured. Two more French agents had been held behind as leverage. Another was dead by her hand. It was quite possible, given the disastrous results, that this night would be her last. Yet the knowledge had such little impact, she scarcely felt it.
She was not a woman to ruminate over her emotions, but she did ponder how her lack of memory had become a lack of
joie de vivre
. Her past prior to two years ago was a mystery to her. Without roots to ground her and give her an anchor, Lysette was adrift. Aimless. Perhaps some would find it strange that an existence fueled by the power of others would be so exhausting, but for her it was.
The lock turned in the door behind her and her keeper entered.
“I have brought you supper,” Simon Quinn said in a voice designed to lead women to ruin. The sensuality of the low, deep tone was not an affectation; it was inherent to the man.
Lysette turned to face him, noting how his simple attire of shirtsleeves and breeches together with his dark, unbound hair gave him the appearance of a pirate. In truth he was a mercenary who had spent the last several years in service to the Crown of England. That made him her opponent in a fashion, yet she felt safer with him than with any other man. He felt no sexual attraction to her, a state proven by the last few months of near constant proximity to each other. She had even offered sex to him once, and he had declined. Due to his lack of interest, she almost liked him.
“I am not hungry,” she said, watching as he set a plate of salted meat and hard biscuits on the round table in the corner.
A black brow lifted and brilliant blue eyes assessed her from head to toe. Simon was Irish, his breeding evident in both his coloring and the inflection that tinged his every word. He was stunningly attractive and dangerously charming. He could offer a woman the world with a single smile . . . with the caveat that it was only a temporary gift. Simon was not a man to become a permanent fixture in anyone’s life. That sense of transience was a potent lure. She’d watched women fall into his lap without any effort on his part.
“You need to eat,” he said.
“The rolling of the ship does not sit well with my stomach.”
He ran a hand through his inky locks, the gesture rife with frustration. The movement of his arm was graceful, the large biceps flexing powerfully. Simon bore the form of a common laborer, which attracted more women than it repelled. Lysette admired it with the same offhand attention with which she contemplated death.
“Does our arrival tomorrow . . . disturb you?” he asked grudgingly.
“Would it plague your conscience if it did?”
The glare he shot her made her laugh.
She knew he regarded her with wary confusion. He sensed the division in her caused by her lack of memory, but he had yet to learn the reason for it. Lysette viewed her missing past as a vulnerability, and she had learned—in the most heinous fashion—that she could not afford any further liabilities beyond her gender.
“You do not even attempt to be likable,” he complained.
“No,” she agreed, moving to occupy the only chair in the room, a walnut spindle-back with a contoured seat. They shared a fairly comfortable cabin and yet the first days had been some of the tensest in her short recollection. She was not accustomed to keeping such close quarters with men, especially over a length of time. “You will be free of me tomorrow.”
“Ha!” Simon sat on the edge of her bed to remove his boots. A hammock slung across the far corner served as his sleeping place. It swung gently as the ship rolled, a sight that often lulled her into daydreams of a brighter future. “I would have been free of you in England, if you had not been lying, deceiving, and making mischief the entire length of our association.”
“That is my livelihood,
“Soon to be inflicted on some other unfortunate soul.”
“Your hypocrisy is impressive.”
He glared. “I resigned my commission before leaving England. I am returning you to France only because of my men. If not for them, I would be elsewhere. Far from you.”
While she wore a mocking smile on the outside, on the inside she admired his loyalty and sense of responsibility. His underlings—a dozen men who had worked covertly on his behalf—were now being held against their will as insurance for her return. His resignation freed him from any obligation for their safety, yet he pressed on, regardless.
“As to whether or not I will be free of you tomorrow, I doubt it. This will not be a swift exchange,” he said, surprising her. “I will see all of my men first. Should one of them be injured, we will wait for his full recovery before proceeding. In addition, we must negotiate the terms for Jacques and Cartland. Much will depend on how cooperative Comte Desjardins is.”
“And if you do not regain all of them?”
Simon glanced at her. “Then, your people will not regain you.”
“Perhaps you will never be rid of me.”
He growled. “That would not be pleasant for you.”
“Oh, I might beg to disagree. You are pleasing to the eye and you maintain a surly sort of charm.”
When other men would have made her life a misery, Simon had seen to her comfort and care, albeit grudgingly. His tarnished honor fascinated her. Lysette had spent their time together attempting to discern what fueled him. If she could discover that, the knowledge would be to her advantage.
“Witch,” Simon muttered in response to her taunting.
She placed her slippered feet atop a roughly hewn wooden footstool with a silent sigh. Did she have a family or anyone to care for her and miss her? Did someone pine for her and wonder at her disappearance from their lives? She had no notion of what motivated a man like Simon, what roads in life had led him to hire himself out for money, but she knew what motivated her—the desire to regain the knowledge of her identity. She required funds and resources for such an undertaking, and the skill to kill anyone who impeded her quest.
When she had set out for England with Simon, she’d planned to return under far different circumstances. The Comte Desjardins had promised her freedom in return for the identity of the mastermind behind Simon’s spying in France. Instead, she returned a prisoner.
“Eat,” Simon ordered, gesturing to the table.
Lysette considered demurring again, then decided she did not want to spend her last night arguing with the only person in the world she liked at all.
So she obeyed, pushing thoughts of the morrow far from her mind.