For Her Spy Only Excerpt

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Taken from the Prologue…

 

24th of December 1808, near the coastline of Sussex

 

Miss Winifred Wilmington pulled her green velvet cloak tighter around her. She exhaled and the puff of air was visible, so cold was it inside the carriage.

“We are going to die in here,” her maid, Polly, wailed.

Winifred rolled her eyes heavenward. “I seriously doubt that,” she said. “It is rather cold, but I suspect someone will be along soon enough and rescue us.”

“I could remind you that it was my suggestion that we leave earlier in the day. Or yesterday,” Polly grumbled. “It is the eve of Christmas, who else is traveling?”

The thought had crossed Winifred’s mind as well, but she certainly wouldn’t put voice to it. “Holmes went to search for help. Certainly he will find someone to assist us.”

There was no need to panic, as that would solve nothing. Therein lie the significant difference between herself and her longtime maid. Winifred was nothing if not practical. It was a skill she had learned out of necessity. One did not get jilted at the altar without adjusting one’s expectations of life and other people. In any case, she was somewhat concerned about being stranded in this frigid carriage all night, though she was hopeful that someone would come along to save them.

Polly sat up. “Do you hear that?”

Polly was so apt at creating drama, no doubt the woman thought she heard wolves outside. “What?” Winifred asked.

“A carriage is coming,” Polly said.

Winifred strained her ears, and certainly enough it did sound as if wheels were drawing nearer. Hope bloomed in her chest. The wheels rumbled and the horse hooves clattered louder and louder until they were upon them before they rolled to a stop.

“As long as it’s not a highwayman, I suppose we can consider ourselves rescued,” Winifred said.

Polly gasped, her hand going to her throat. “A highwayman!”

A male voice sounded outside the carriage, obviously speaking with his party unless Holmes had found this particular someone to salvage them.

There came a rap at the door. Winifred leaned forward and opened it.

A tall gentleman stood there in a great coat with a top hat perched upon his head. He held a cane in his hand. “Madams,” he said, the timber in his voice deep and rich.

A chill skirted over Winifred’s arms despite the cloak encasing her body. “Good evening, sir,” she said. “I hope my driver, Holmes, didn’t get you out of bed to rescue us.”

“I beg your pardon, I know no such man. I came upon your rig by happenstance.”

“Well, then, I should thank you for stopping to assist us. Can our carriage be repaired?”

“I do not know, nor am I inclined to look,” he said.

That wasn’t very gentlemanly of him. She opened her mouth to tell him precisely that—

“I will offer you a ride,” he said before she could comment.

Winifred considered his words. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it would do. “Yes, my grandmother’s estate is not far from here. We would very much appreciate it.”

“No,” he said.

She started to thank him for his hospitality and then his words sank in. “I beg your pardon? Did you or did you not offer us a ride?”

“To where I am going. I am not a coach for hire.” He tapped his cane against his chest.

She had the childlike urge to mock him, but thought better of it. Her options for getting out of this predicament were rather limited, so she best mind her manners.

“In the morning, you may have the carriage take you to your destination,” he continued. “But in this weather, I am going nowhere else.”

“And where is it that you’re going?” Winifred asked.

“Coventry Hall,” he said.

Nerves prickled at her neck, standing the little hairs on end. “You are?” Winifred asked.

“Alistair Devlin, Marquess of Coventry,” he said with only a shadow of a bow.

“Oh good heavens,” Polly said, finally breaking her silence. She shook her head violently. “Miss Wilmington, we mustn’t go with him. We can wait for Holmes.”

“Don’t be rude, Polly.”

“Yes, don’t be rude, Polly,” he repeated. “I don’t believe you’ll have any other options tonight.” His shoulders rose in a slight shrug. “Though you could certainly choose to stay here and freeze,” he said. “I have made the offer.” He turned on his heel and walked away.

“Miss Wilmington, you know what they say of him,” Polly said once he was out of earshot. She gripped Winifred’s arm tightly. “Mary, who works for Lord Garrick, says she knows the housekeeper that used to work at Coventry. He is a killer,” she whispered. “Murdered his own wife, tossed her right off a cliff, they say.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.” But of course Winifred had also heard those rumors and plenty more when it came to the Marquess of Coventry. He had a most interesting reputation. Of course the fact that he rarely, if ever, was seen in London, only fueled said rumors.

Unfortunately the man was right. The odds of someone else coming along to rescue them were very slim. “It is a good offer,” Winifred said. “Our only offer, as it were.”

“He could be dangerous,” Polly warned.

“He is a peer of the realm. Rumor or not, there is a code of etiquette.” When Polly looked unconvinced, Winifred continued. “Consider that being tossed off a cliff should result in a rather quick death, whereas freezing in this carriage would be slow and painful, I suspect.”

Polly closed her eyes and shook her head as if warding off the image.

“Excuse me, I should like to get down please,” Winifred called out. Nerves fluttered in the pit of her stomach, though it could have been the chill from the opened carriage door. Several breaths passed before a footman appeared to assist her to the ground. “Oh, you must be one of the marquess’s men. Thank you.”

The man nodded, but said nothing. The snow swirled around her, soft as a whisper, covering her face and sticking to her eyelashes. She put her hands in her muff and walked quickly toward the other carriage.

Polly raced up to meet her. “Miss Wilmington, think of your reputation.”

“Don’t be silly. I am a spinster who was jilted. Besides, my reputation has already been damaged. Furthermore, my reputation certainly won’t matter if I freeze to death, now will it?”

“I shall not ride with that man,” Polly said with a firm nod of her head.

“Suit yourself, you can wait for Holmes. Do try to stay warm,” Winifred said.

“If you go with him, I shall resign,” Polly warned.

“Don’t bother, I shall simply dismiss you,” Winifred said.

Polly made a growling noise, yet still followed behind. “I shall come with you to keep you safe, but I refuse to ride inside with him.”

“Do whatever you wish. I am riding inside where it promises to be nice and cozy.”

And with that a gloved hand reached out of the carriage door. She took a deep breath, placed her hand in his, and climbed into the carriage. A lantern hung from a hook, illuminating the interior. She took a seat on the plush bench across from the marquess. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“I instructed my footman to stay and wait for your driver.”

He certainly did not appear to be murderous. Not that she had any notion of what a murderer might do or say.

“Your maid, she is going to ride outside?” he asked.

“She’s a stubborn lot,” Winifred said.

“You sacked her,” he said.

“Third time this week.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Polly and I have plenty of disagreements.”

He nodded, then picked up the book that had been sitting on the seat next to him. The carriage lurched forward.

She eyed her unlikely travel companion. He wasn’t a friendly sort; formidable was more what she’d consider him. He was tall and lean and imposing, but younger than she had expected. She’d heard of the Marquess of Coventry, but had never before seen him. His reputation in London was notorious. He could not be more than thirty. His cane leaned against the bench next to him, and his gloved hand held onto the gold knob on top. An ugly scar slashed across his left cheek, leading up to his eye.

He looked up from his reading as if he sensed her perusal. His eyes were a startling shade of green, like the first bloom of spring after a blistering winter.

“My name is Winifred Wilmington,” she said dumbly.

“Indeed,” he said, then went back to his reading.

She felt her brow furrow. “What are you reading?” she asked.

“Shakespeare. As You Like It,” he said.

She was quiet for a moment, trying to recall if she’d read that particular play. It seemed she must have, but she couldn’t recall a single thing about it.

“You know I am not afraid of you,” she said. Her mother used to chastise her about her chattiness, but Winifred had a tendency to talk when she was nervous. And the marquess’s silence had her quite addled. “I don’t think it’s very intelligent to believe everything you hear about a person.”

“I see,” he said, not bothering to look up from his book.

“Oh yes, people are quite spiteful with the rumors they spread.” She forced herself to stop talking as she was about to tell him a particularly nasty rumor, but that would be gossiping. She knew she became chatty when she was nervous, and she certainly did not need to say something she would later regret. And she knew the sting of being on the other end of those rumors. When Theodore had left her standing alone with the priest and the church full of onlookers, people had made all sorts of conclusions.

“What is it that people say about me?” he asked, again not looking up from his book.

She studied him for a moment, trying to gauge if he was toying with her. He must know what people said. Even the servants gossiped about him.

He looked up at her and once again she was caught in those unusual eyes. His right brow rose expectedly.

She swallowed. “That you murdered your wife.” Her voice came out weak.

“But you do not believe that,” he said.

“No, I do not.” She shook her head. “You are obviously a responsible and kind gentleman.”

You do not know me,” he said. He set his book aside. His glove gripped the gold knob on his cane.

“No, but you stopped to assist a stranded lady. That says volumes about your character, my lord,” she said, quite pleased with her logic.

He leaned forward, his eyes narrowed. “How do you know I’m not taking you to my castle to ravish you?”

She sucked in her breath. His words should have driven fear into her heart. They should have made her second-guess climbing into this carriage with him. Instead she became acutely aware of how she must look with her traveling cloak and bonnet. She resisted the urge to pat her hair.

“Are you? Going to ravish me, that is?” she couldn’t help asking. No man had ever been so forthcoming with her, and the effect was rather intoxicating.

He crooked his finger at her, beckoning her forward.

Curiosity gripped her. She leaned toward him. He had lovely eyes, mossy green with long lashes.

He grabbed her by the chin and pulled her closer, then caught her mouth in a kiss. So shocked by the touch, her lips parted, giving him a brazen invitation to deepen the kiss. His lips were soft and unfamiliar, yet seductive, intoxicating. Her eyes fluttered closed and her hands gripped the fabric of his great coat around his shoulders. And then the kiss was over, ending as quickly and abruptly as it had begun. He leaned back in his seat and she was left in the middle of the carriage with her eyes closed, no doubt looking very much the goose.

“You should not be so trusting,” he said.

He was right. Of course he was right. Yet, she felt no fear with him, even at the liberty he had just taken. She felt only curiosity and something that was probably desire, at the very least attraction and intrigue. “You never answered my question,” she shot back once she’d regained her senses.

“Which was?”

“If you were intending to ravish me once we arrived at your castle?”

His lips quirked up in a half smile. “I suppose you’ll have to wait and see.”

###

Winifred wasn’t certain what she’d been expecting of Coventry Hall, but it was quite luxurious for a looming cliffside castle. The room she’d been given hosted a huge four-poster bed, elegantly carved and covered in the richest of fabrics. The fireplace, already lit, heated the room, and a plush carpet covered the stone floor. If she closed her eyes and concentrated hard, she imagined she could hear the waves crashing into the cliffs below.

Despite the rumors, the Marquess of Coventry was most certainly not what she would have expected. She wouldn’t deem him charming, but rather appealing. His face wasn’t one that most might consider dashing, with his dark features and sharp angles—and that scar. But there was something so alluring in his thickly lashed green eyes. He was mysterious, and she found that attractive.

When they’d arrived at the castle, he’d suggested she get changed, warm up, and then come back down to the dining hall for a light meal. She crept out into the corridor and followed it to the stairs that wound down to the second floor, where he’d said she’d find the dining hall. The castle was quiet, without many servants milling about. Candles sat in sconces against the walls lighting her way.

The rich aroma of food caught her attention and she followed the scent until she reached two large wooden doors. She opened one and peeked inside. A massive table bisected the room, and on one end a sideboard sat covered with dishes of food. Her host already sat at the head of the table, and a footman served him a plate.

The marquess looked up at her. “Are you coming in or not?”

“Yes,” she said stupidly. She chose the seat to his right and immediately a footman brought her a plate. “This is your light meal?” She pointed to the heaping platters on the sideboard.

“The cook didn’t know what you would eat.” He shrugged, bringing attention to his broad shoulders. “We don’t receive many visitors here.” Though the dining room was rather large, his deep voice curled around her, an echo of the intimacy of their dinner.

The rest of their meal went by with little conversation. The food was delicious, but all Winifred could think about was her impulsive question in the carriage. Asking him if he intended to ravish her. What had she been thinking?

She’d been thinking about that kiss. A spontaneous and passionate, albeit brief kiss between strangers. It had been more enthralling than any of the embraces she’d shared with Theodore. Though he’d been her fiancé for nearly half of a year, he’d never done more than give her chaste kisses that left her cataloging things she had left to accomplish that day. But the marquess’s kiss had evoked thoughts and sensations that left her only wanting more.

More of him.

And had her thinking of the ridiculous. Of suggesting that he should ravish her. What would it matter? Her prospects of marriage had already been ruined. Who would care if she gave her body to an attractive stranger in a mysterious castle on the eve of Christmas?

He pushed his chair back from the table and stood.

“What is it you normally do after you eat?” she asked, coming to her feet as well.

He pinned her with those intense eyes of his. “Retire to my study and read.”

“Splendid, I very much enjoy a good book.”

Was a study a good place to host a seduction? She certainly had no notion, but it was worth an effort. Was she actually intending to do this? She took a deep breath and nodded as if agreeing with herself. The worst he could do was say no.

The room reminded her much of the comfortable study of her father’s closest friend, the royal cartographer Sir Reginald Mirren. She took in heavy wooded panels, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and a large, imposing desk. But what the marquess had in his study that she had not seen before were the medals. Several of them graced one shelf, and they gleamed in the candlelight.

“Were you in the military?” she asked.

He glanced up from his book and nodded. “I work for the Crown.”

“Still? You are active? Are you a captain?”

“I have no classification. I merely work for the Crown.”

She wasn’t certain what that meant, but he seemed finished with the conversation, so she allowed it to drop.

It took her the better part of thirty minutes once they were settled in the library—him in a large leather chair, her in a softer chaise—to pull together the nerves to approach the subject.

She cleared her throat.

He did not look up from his reading, no longer the Shakespeare, but now a book from Sophocles.

“I should tell you,” she began. “That is, I want you to know that I am open to the possibility of being ravished.”

That stole his attention from Sophocles, though aside from one cocked eyebrow, his expression was unreadable. “I beg your pardon?”

“Well, I find myself quite intrigued by the kiss we shared, and if you do not object, I should like to explore—”

“Are you trying to seduce me?” he asked. His tone spoke of surprise, but certainly a man as confident as he would not be caught unaware by a woman taking a fancy to him.

“I am. Though perhaps not successfully. You seem surprised.”

“Surprised by your boldness, perhaps.”

“I know it is unbecoming for a woman to be so bold,” she said, suddenly feeling quite embarrassed and wishing a hole would open in the floor and swallow her.

He set his book aside and stood. “On the contrary.” He took a step toward her. “I find your brazenness refreshing.”

Warmth spread through her arms and legs.

“What of your reputation?” he asked.

“Well, it would seem that I have recently been accused of being a wanton harlot.” She swallowed hard. It had taken her several months to learn to ignore the stares when she shopped for new dresses on Bond Street. And her invitations to social gatherings had all but dried up. “I was thinking that if I have to endure such rumors, I should get to behave thus at least once.”

The marquess eyed her a moment, then tipped his head back and laughed riotously. “Miss Wilmington, you are most assuredly a refreshing female. Why is it that people claim you are a wanton?” He held up one finger. “Though I could point out that if this is not your first proposed seduction, that could be the reason.”

“No, of course not.” She smiled in spite of herself. “This is the first time…that is, you are the first man I have proposed such a thing.” She inspected her fingernails, concerned that if she told him the truth about Theodore that he might decline her offer. “I was engaged and my would-be groom left me at the altar. He then told people that he’d done so because he’d discovered me in the arms of another man. A blatant lie, but it would seem that people don’t care about my side of the story.”

“Is this seduction your way of trapping me into marriage?” He took a couple steps closer to her. “Because as you’ve heard, I had to kill my first wife to get out of that union.”

She laughed.

“Most people don’t find me amusing.”

She stepped closer to him, so close that she could feel the heat radiating off his body. “I’m not most people.”

“Why me? Why seduce me?”

She looked up and was caught in the depths of his green gaze. “I find you intriguing and attractive. And judging by my reaction to the kiss in the carriage, it is safe to say that I desire you.”

“I see.” He was quiet for a moment, as if weighing her argument. “I have precautions to ensure you will not get with child.”

Her heart fluttered. “Does that mean you accept?”

“I am a peculiar sort, Miss Wilmington, a bit of a recluse, most say. I much prefer the company of books to that of people.” He laced his fingers with hers. “But I am still a man and when a beautiful woman offers herself to me, I shall gladly accept.”

 Copyright © 2014. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.


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