Authors: Helen Dickson
Lucy realised he was serious in his request. He was a tall man, over six feet by several inches, and he seemed at that moment to fill the room. Watching him warily, she didn’t understand where this conversation was leading, although she had a strange tingling in the pit of her stomach, a tingling suggesting she would not be pleased with what he had to say.
For a moment he seemed to lose himself in contemplation. When he next spoke it was in a musing tone. ‘What you don’t know is that from the beginning of the war against France I have been working with a branch of the government which operates completely in secret, a branch which reports only to the Prime Minister. I have been given an assignment in Portugal. It concerns the Duke of Londesborough—who happens to be a very close friend of the Prime Minister.’
The tingling had become an aching dread. Wishing her mouth were not so dry, Lucy cleared her throat. ‘What are you saying? That you are a spy? What nonsense is this? You’d best explain yourself, and quickly, for I have no time to listen to this.’
Nathan did not smile, nor had Lucy really expected him to. Becoming thoughtful, he turned his back on her. Turning to face her once more, he moved closer, pinning her with his penetrating gaze. ‘I spent twelve months in Portugal, where I was wounded and sent back to England to recuperate. When I was restored to health I did not intend going back, but on being given this assignment I am left with no choice but to return. The families concerned mean a great deal to me. I consider it my duty to help them.’
Lucy made an impatient gesture with her hand. ‘I see—although I really don’t see what all this has to do with me. I know absolutely nothing about politics and spying, nor do I wish to.’
‘I can understand that. The majority of women find the subject of no interest and if I remember correctly you were one of them. But I do need your help.’
Lucy had to look away because he was staring at her with such intensity she found it most disturbing. She straightened her skirt as if to straighten her thoughts. The atmosphere in the room was beginning to weigh on her. She was tired and her head was aching.
‘My help?’ she repeated. ‘I really do not see how I can be of any help to you.’
‘I want you to come to Portugal with me—to work with me. I have done such tasks before when a certain degree of discretion is required—it would appear I am rather good at subterfuge. But this time it is different.’
‘How?’ she demanded.
‘Because you will be with me.’
She stared at him incredulously. ‘You want me to become a spy? That is rather far-fetched, even for you. It’s quite ridiculous.’ She laughed, although she did not feel amused. ‘I am an actress—just that. Nothing more and nothing less.’
He gave a low, sardonic chuckle. ‘I’m not asking you to become a spy. It’s true, you are an actress, which is one of the reasons why I have chosen you to help me. You also have other qualities that recommend you. Not only are you beautiful, Lucy Lane, but wise, too, and witty and clever. You have too many talents for a mere actress. I would like you to know that what happened between us before has no bearing on my decision to ask you to assist me in this. It was a purely practical decision. It is my opinion that you are ideally suited for the mission I have been set.’
For a span of several heartbeats she said nothing, then, ‘I will not agree to do whatever it is you require of me. I refuse to do it. I will not. Let me remind you that I have no talent for the—the profession you propose, that it is altogether strange to me. You are asking me to give up the theatre—for if I agree to this mad scheme that is what it will amount to and I cannot afford to let that happen. I have a safe and comfortable profession, one that I happen to like. I will not give it up for something so uncertain. What is it you would have me do? What is so important about this mission?’
Her angry reaction to his request came as no surprise. ‘At present I cannot tell you the whole of it for I have not been fully informed. All I know is that an English woman and her child have been captured by a band of ruthless deserters—soldiers from both sides—and they are being held for ransom in the mountains.’
‘I am sorry. Are they terribly important, this woman and her child?’ she asked, horrified by the woman’s predicament.
‘To her family, yes, she is. You will be working with me. I can’t pretend that it won’t be a great undertaking for you. Where we are going is exceedingly dangerous. Going through the lines is perilous in the extreme. You will be put at risk.’
Lucy’s eyes opened wide. ‘And you would expose me to such danger?’
‘With reluctance, believe me, but it is necessary.’
‘But—why me?’ she asked, slightly bewildered. ‘Surely the risks would be lessened were you to take someone who is accustomed to Portugal—to the mountains—a soldier, perhaps.’
‘If I could be certain the captives have come to no harm then, yes, it would. Unfortunately the woman was wounded when she was taken hostage. If she has not died of her wound then she will be considerably weakened by her captivity. The journey out of the mountains will not be easy. I need a woman to take care of her—and her child.’
‘But—how can you ask this of me?’
‘You are the only one I can ask, the only one I can trust. I ask you to trust me, Lucy.’
‘Trust you?’ She shook her head in disbelief. ‘I think not. Either I am mad, sir, or you are.’
The savagery in her tone startled him. ‘We don’t have much time. I ask you to think about it.’
‘I have. We haven’t seen each other for four years. Much has changed.
have changed. My answer is no. Now I would like you to go. We have nothing else to say to each other.’
He cocked a brow nonchalantly. ‘No? Tell me, what have you been doing for the past four years? When I left for Spain I heard you had left London with a travelling theatre company.’
‘I did—not that it is any of your business. For three years I worked in the provinces, gradually building my reputation before returning to London. I was lucky. I got the breaks I needed.’
‘I am sure talent had something to do with it—having observed you on several occasions on stage.’
Taken off her guard by this, she stared at him with surprise. ‘You have? I didn’t know.’
‘How could you? I was careful not to let you see me. However, I would add that many women are beautiful, but very few have that personal magnetism that marks them out. I believe your aunt Dora had it, too. She was the toast of the town in her day.’
He was right. Aunt Dora had been an actress by profession. She had seen Lucy’s potential and put her on the stage. It had paid off.
Lucy was too beautiful not to have been the recipient of many admiring looks and advances from men. Usually she brushed them aside with a laugh that conveyed the message but gave no offence. Nathan was not like that. When he had remarked on her beauty he had been stating a fact. He did not flatter. He did not smile invitingly. They knew each other too well for that. There had always been an arrogance about him. Now he seemed harder and self-absorbed. Had the war done that to him? she wondered.
Her expression was one of contempt. ‘Why, what’s this? Flattery from you? Coming from you it is insincere and I prefer you didn’t use it on me.’
‘It’s not flattery. I am sincere in what I say. You know, you make me almost sorry for the past. You were beautiful then but now, with a maturity about you, you are more so. No man could help but desire you. It suits you to be angry. It makes your eyes sparkle.’
He let his eyes dwell appreciatively on her lovely face and caress the long, graceful throat and the proud curves revealed by the low-cut bodice of satin and lace. ‘Don’t play the fool with me, Lucy. You are an accomplished actress. Moreover, you speak French like a native. That is a valuable asset for what would be expected of you.’
‘I have no mind to get myself killed for a cause that is nothing to do with me.’
‘You cannot refuse to at least give me the opportunity to change your mind.’
‘It would be a waste of time. My mind is made up.’
‘Is there nothing I can say to induce you to agree?’
‘No. Nothing. That is my last word. There is no point in our meeting again.’
‘Shall I command you, Lucy?’
Her eyes blazed. ‘No man commands me.’
She turned her back on him to walk away. Suddenly her arm was grasped in a vice-like grip and she was spun round. So surprised was she that it took a moment before she realised that his arms were encircling her and he was drawing her against his hard frame.
‘No! Don’t you dare! Leave me alone—you—you brute! Let me go...’
He smothered her objection with a hungry, wildly exciting kiss. Temporarily robbed of her anger that had fortified her resistance, Lucy’s traitorous body lost its rigidity and the scream of warning issued by her mind was stifled by her pounding heart and the shocking pleasure of being held in the strong arms of the man she had believed she would never see again.
His mouth opened and twisted across hers, his tongue thrusting through as his arms crushed her in his embrace. Her world careened crazily as his mouth became insistent, demanding, relentless, snatching her breath as well as her poise. The whole of her body seemed to burst into flame. The feel of him, the smell of him, all combined to transfix her. She was caught up in the heat of a battle she could not hope to win. Her weapons had died, her wits fled. The hard, muscular chest, warm through the cloth of his coat, tightened against her meagrely clad chest, and she was aware of the heavy thudding of his heart while her own throbbed a new frantic rhythm.
His warm lips moving on hers, the sensation of his body pressing against hers—it was all so achingly, poignantly, vibrantly familiar to her. Trailing his mouth across her cheek, brushing insistent kisses along the sensitive curve of her neck and ear, Nathan let his hands slide into her hair, tilting her face up to his, and his eyes held hers, teasing, challenging.
‘I’m glad to see you haven’t forgotten how to kiss, Lucy.’
Before Lucy could utter a reply, his parted lips came down on hers again in another long, searching kiss. Lost in a stormy sea of desire, confusion and yearning, Lucy felt his hand splay across her lower spine, forcing her closer to him, but instead of resisting she slid her hands up over his shoulders, unwittingly moulding her melting body to the hardening contours of his. A shudder racked his muscular body as she fitted herself to him and Nathan’s arms tightened, crushing her.
Fighting back the wild urge to lay her down on the carpet and take her then and there, Nathan dragged his lips from hers and drew a long, unsteady breath, slowly expelling it.
Surfacing slowly from the mists of desire, Lucy stared into his hypnotic eyes, dazedly watching their colour and mood change from the smoky darkness of passion to their usual enigmatic pale blue, while she felt reality slowly return. Her hand was still curved around his neck and it finally dawned on her what she had done. Retracting her arm, she stepped back, but his hand shot out and gripped her wrist.
Nathan’s eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened. ‘My compliments,’ he said curtly. ‘I see you have not forgotten all that I taught you—and that you have learned a great deal more in the past four years.’
Outrage exploded in Lucy’s brain. ‘Are you complaining? Four years ago I imagine you found me excruciatingly naïve. Things have changed, Nathan. I have changed. Now, please leave my house. We have nothing further to say to each other.’
‘I disagree. We will speak of my reason for seeking you out in a day or two when you have had time to think it over.’
‘I will not do it,’ she hissed, pulling her wrist free from his grip.
He looked down at her with disdain. ‘No? You will—in the end.’
For a second, Lucy thought she must be going mad. There was a red mist before her eyes and a storm of utter fury in her heart such as she had never felt before. How could she have let him kiss her? How could she have been so weak?
‘Just what are you implying?’
‘I know that you need the money, Lucy, that things haven’t been going well for you of late. If you behave sensibly, as I hope, and do as I ask, then I promise you will be paid handsomely—a princely sum that will enable you and your aunt Dora to live the rest of your lives without having to worry where the next penny is coming from, without having to work yourself into the ground on the stage.’
For the span of several heartbeats she said nothing, then, ‘I happen to
what I do. Now, get out,’ she whispered fiercely. ‘Get out and don’t come back. I hate you! Oh, how I hate you!’
He gave a twisted smile and his heart flinched before the cold fury in her glittering green eyes. The pallor of that lovely face, the anguish so clearly written there, touched some forgotten chord and had their effect on his cynical nature. He opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it, shrugged, like a man seeking to shift a burden from his shoulder, and crossed the room. With his hand on the door handle he paused and looked back at her.
‘I forgot to wish you happy birthday, Lucy.’ He smiled softly. ‘You see, I do remember.’
hen Nathan had left, Lucy stared at the closed door, the energy that had fortified her for the length of his visit deserting her as she walked slowly over to the window and stood staring blindly out into the darkness of the garden. She felt as if she had just done physical battle with an army and lost.
After all this time, his smile and his kisses could still make her burn with longing. A moan escaped her as she leaned her head against the cool glass of the windowpane. Shame and fear surged through her as she covered her face with her hands and bitterly faced the awful truth. She had been so confident that if ever they should meet again he could never make her feel anything for him. And all it had taken to prove her wrong was a smile and a kiss.
Physically, she was no more immune to Nathan Rochefort than she had been four years ago. The very nature of his kiss had wreaked havoc on her body, her soul and her heart. Despite all she had learned, everything she had acquired in sophistication and experience, despite everything she knew of him, he could still twist her insides into tight knots of yearning as he had done when she had been nineteen years old.
Where he was concerned, she was still as susceptible as she had ever been. What kind of sorcery did he employ that he could have this effect on her, when she harboured no illusions about any tender feelings he might have for her?
* * *
Striding off into the night, Nathan reflected on his meeting with Lucy. This was not the same woman who had been excited and enthusiastic four years ago. Now she spoke crisply, with a confident authority, all traces of wide-eyed naïvety gone. There was something feline about her. She was quiet in her movements, beautiful, but she had claws, he knew, and he also knew she had the intelligence to use them skilfully if need be.
The flash of anger in her eyes when he had confronted her and kissed her told Nathan that he had gone too far and that if he were to continue in this vein the success of his mission would be seriously imperilled. He remembered how, when she had broken off their engagement without explanation, his anger had been fierce, but at the same time he had been confused.
He had tried numerous times to see her, to demand an explanation, only to be told she didn’t want to see him, then that she had joined a troupe of travelling actors and gone to the provinces. Having no time to pursue her since he was to leave for the Continent, he had left London, determined to forget her. Only it had been impossible. She was too deeply embedded in his heart and mind for him to do that.
After that, when anyone asked about her, he would answer dispassionately, his reply devoid of concern—not even his eyes showed interest. Lucy was gone. Since he knew damned well that he had done no wrong, the only remaining conclusion was that she had left him for someone else. Having seen the way other men followed her with their eyes, drooled over her when she appeared on stage, the existence of a lover was the only thing that made any sense.
With this thought in mind, he hadn’t considered trying to contact her again. She became dead to him and he didn’t give a damn where she went or whose bed she occupied. She had a highly refined sense of survival and she’d land on her feet wherever she went.
But seeing her tonight he had wanted her all over again. The truth was that he missed her. He missed her far more than he could ever have imagined. Numerous times he had picked up his pen to write to her, but his pride had refused to let him put pen to paper.
was the one who had ended it. It was Lucy who must make contact with him.
But then his hand had been forced by duty and now here he was.
His father had been a bishop, his mother first cousin to Lord Wilmslow. Never having married, Lord Wilmslow had died without issue. Nathan was his heir. It was Lord Wilmslow’s influence that had taken Nathan from Oxford University to the Foreign Office where his command of languages, his sound mind, reliable judgement and quick intelligence had ensured a swift rise. Introduced to men of note, he had been given responsibilities and entrusted with confidences. His reputation had led to his first major appointment when war had broken out with France.
British spies had proved effective in following Bonaparte’s activities, and with the information they gleaned, more than ever the British Government was convinced the French leader was determined to invade England. As an important member of the British intelligence system Nathan had been sent to France and then to Spain to work against Bonaparte, an appointment which was as lonely as it was secret.
But the savage war was done for him when a French sword had pierced his side. When his wound had healed, and at thirty-two years old, he had decided it was time for him to think of marriage and raising a family. When he had been summoned and given this assignment, he knew he had to go back.
It was an assignment that drew his full attention since it affected him personally and would enable him to avenge the death of a young soldier, a brave soldier called Harry Connors, who had been the son of a close friend, a soldier whose death he himself had inadvertently caused. He would never be free of the guilt of what he had done until what he considered to be an act of murder had been avenged.
Another reason why this mission was so important to him was because it involved rescuing the wife and young son of his closest friend, who had been killed in battle. He would not be able to live with himself if he did not try his utmost to rescue them from the murderous rabble holding them captive.
But he could not do it alone. After spending weeks in captivity it was likely the woman and child would be in no fit state for a long trek down from the mountains, so it would be better if his companion was a woman. He knew many women, but not one of them was suitable to carry out such a mission.
From a strictly logical standpoint he had chosen Lucy Lane to help him—the last woman on earth who would want to.
She would be perfect for what he had in mind. Of course he had expected her to react angrily to his appearance and his offer, but how long that anger would last he didn’t know. She had already been angry with him for four years. She would fight him, but no matter. Before approaching her he had been quietly watching her for some time. Making discreet enquiries into her circumstances and discovering she was in financial straits, he realised the money she would be paid for accompanying him on his mission might tempt her.
Also her relationship with Jack Lambert bothered him. Lambert had a manly quality that endeared him to women. He was also a notorious rake with a well-deserved reputation for profligacy. He had heard the rumour that Lambert found the beautiful actress a challenge and that he fully intended luring her into his bed by offering her marriage—not that he had any intention of carrying out his promise. Lambert wasn’t the only one to be attracted by her, Nathan reminded himself, for Lucy was a beautiful woman, and there was the allure of her profession, as well. But Lambert was a no-good wastrel who, from sheer perversity and extreme boredom, had unscrupulously flayed the reputations of dozens of pretentiously proud females, but he had never once attempted to rebuild one of those demolished reputations.
Standing in the shadows outside the theatre, Nathan had pressed his lips together at the unexpected stab of jealousy that tore through him as he watched Lambert kiss Lucy’s lips. He had told himself it didn’t matter if she did return his kiss. He couldn’t have cared less. But deep down he would hate to see Lucy become just another of Lambert’s victims and become an object of ridicule. But then, Lucy was not without guile. She was no naïve innocent, but desperate to solve her financial issues, the lure of Lambert’s wealth might prove too strong a temptation for her to resist and she might admit him to her bed, hoping it would end in marriage.
Whatever the truth of the matter, that had been the moment Nathan had determined to recruit her to serve his purpose.
There was no softness in his gaze as he strode on, only the calculating gleam of a man on a mission. Despite what was between them he knew that he had not been mistaken in choosing Lucy Lane. She would be perfect for what he had in mind.
* * *
The next afternoon Lucy received a note from Nathan, asking if she had given the matter he had discussed with her some thought.
She’d already made up her mind that what he asked of her was preposterous. There was a time when she would have gone to the ends of the earth for him, but that was in the past. She had given him her heart, her devotion and her love—in short, she had given him what was the sum and substance of Lucy Lane. She had loved no man before him and no man since and he had betrayed her with her closest friend, Katherine Tindall.
Looking back over the days before she had ended it, she realised it had been in their faces, in their eyes and the way their bodies met, familiar with one another. Katherine, a widow whose military husband had been killed in India, had acted strangely. In her naïvety Lucy had asked her if all was well with her. She recalled Katherine’s evasive disinclination to tell her why she was acting secretive, the way she had laughed nervously and accused her of imagining things—and all the while...
And Nathan! He, too, had seemed withdrawn, secretive, his thoughts elsewhere. She had asked him what was wrong—with him, with her, with them. She didn’t know. She couldn’t tell. He had told her nothing was amiss, that it was in her imagination. His face, though, had belied his words. Normally they had no secrets from one another and she had known he was hiding something from her.
And then there had been Mrs West, an older woman, a widow, an actress herself, who had been among their circle of friends. She had taken Lucy aside and told her in low, conspiratorial tones of the rumour that was being whispered about town of Katherine’s closeness to Nathan, that they were often seen together having a tête-à-tête.
You’re an intelligent girl
, she had said.
Surely you must have noticed
. Lucy hadn’t and she wildly shook her head to deny it, telling Mrs West with bitterness and pain that she didn’t believe it and hating her for what she had said, that they were nothing but malicious lies. But could this be what was behind their odd behaviour, the changes she had noted in both Katherine and Nathan?
A shiver passed through Lucy as she remembered the moment she had seen for herself and could no longer ignore the horrible truth. The scene she had witnessed just days before their wedding had become frozen in her memory. Early one morning she had gone to call on Katherine, who was to have been her matron of honour, to discuss some minor details concerning the day itself.
About to get out of her carriage, she had paused on seeing the door open, shrinking against the squabs when she saw Nathan come out of the house accompanied by Katherine. After embracing her and placing what had looked to her like a lover’s kiss on her cheek, he had walked away. That was when something inside her, no more than a tiny crack, began to form at the foundations of her belief that she and Nathan would be together always.
Every nerve in her body had stiffened against the onslaught of her bitter anger and the pain of betrayal. She had wanted to hurt him badly, make them both pay. She wept in the dark of the night with the pain until she thought she would die of it. Her spirit was battered and desolate, but when she rose from her bed and put pen to paper, telling Nathan that she had changed her mind, that it would be folly for them to wed, that she had been mistaken in her feelings for him and that he was not the man she wanted for her husband, she was clear-eyed and icy calm.
When he had called on her she adamantly refused to see him and did not leave the house. Nor did she discuss the matter with anyone, not even her aunt Dora. After two weeks his visits ceased and she later learned that he had been posted to France. Feeling a desperate need to get out of London and to leave the memories and heartache behind, she had joined a travelling theatre company.
Now, to confuse her totally, he had swept back into her life, just as handsome, just as intriguing, and with him he had brought an offer of money as well as adventure. He knew too well how difficult it would be for her to refuse such an alluring combination, but she must.
Refusing to let him intimidate her, angrily she tore up the note and threw it into the fire.
* * *
Another note was delivered the next day, and when she failed to respond he turned up at the house.
‘I’ve given you my decision,’ she told him irately when Polly showed him into the parlour, where she was poring over the housekeeping books, wishing there was more money in the pot to pay the outstanding bills and to spend on a few luxuries. ‘I want no part of it. Now, please don’t pressure me anymore. There have been times in the last four years when I have wondered if I did right in breaking off our engagement. Now I am very glad I did. I was right to do so, for now I see you for what you are. You are a monster. You keep nibbling away at my reserves like a mouse. You will bide your time until the moment is ripe—until I have nowhere else to turn—and then you will pounce.’
Keeping a firm check on his expression, Nathan stepped closer with a respectful glance. ‘I apologise if I expressed myself badly the other day. Do you need more time to think about it?’ Her angry reaction to his proposal had come as no surprise. He was aware of her stubborn independence and he would have to soothe her ire as much as possible. It was up to him to convince her to work for him.
‘No. I’ve given you my decision. There’s too much at stake. I am happy as I am. I enjoy my work, work that is comfortable and familiar to me, work in which I take great pride. I will not leave all this and enter a very different world. I also have my aunt to take care of. Should anything happen to me, who would look after her? She isn’t strong. Who would pay her bills?’
‘That would be taken care of.’
She looked at him incredulously. ‘By whom? You?’
With an exasperated sigh she looked at him. ‘Are you simply unable to comprehend the word