Authors: A Lady Seduces
Once she was known as La Mariposa, Vienna’s most
seductive—and most dangerous—spy. Then betrayal sent Lucia Booth back to
England, and a life of anonymity. Until the one man she never thought she’d see
again shows up at her “gentlemen’s club”. But has virile spymaster Ronan St.
Simon come for her secret—or for her?
Part of Bronwyn Scott’s Ladies of
A Lady Risks All
A Lady Dares
A Lady Seduces
She was going to take a lover: the very next man, in fact, who walked through the door of her establishment, Mrs. Booth’s Discreet Gentlemen’s Club. Lucia Booth sighed pleasantly, savoring the thought. She slouched comfortably, letting her posture relax in one of the tall high-backed chairs on display in her very fine front parlor, the room reserved for receiving special clients. Down the hall, she could hear the ticking of the long case clock in the still of the afternoon. The house was quiet. The whole city was quiet.
The eight-month wonder of the Bath Season had ended last week. Anyone of note, anyone likely to need her unique services, had moved on to London. Those of lesser note had moved back to their estates. Even the girls who worked for her had gone for holidays on the coast. She didn’t really expect anyone to walk through her door. There wouldn’t be any lover.
Still, the idea was a diverting exercise, one she’d used often enough in the past. There was a certain thrill, a challenge in taking an ordinary man who was ham-handed with compliments and possessed of two left feet and turn him into something sublime, something that pleased the eye and distracted the mind. Wives and fiancées the breadth of England would thank her if they knew the myriad men who darkened her door asking for that very service. A few simple tricks and one delicious rumor were usually all it took to transform a boring man into an interesting one. She knew just how to do it.
Transformations were her specialty. Once they’d been all that stood between life and death, victory and defeat, escape and capture.
Panem et Circenses
. Rome had had it right. The masses were so easily steered—diplomats too—from truths when there was beauty to entertain them. Now such transformations were merely a hobby, reserved for use only among those seeking to enhance their marital credentials or their egos, her stake in the outcome much reduced from what it had formerly been.
Those who had played for higher stakes in the past were dead, a cautionary tale against the sin of overreaching oneself. It had been pure luck she’d been spared—luck and perhaps a dash of her own innate boldness at the crucial moment. Lucia squeezed her eyes shut, mentally pushing the memories back, memories of a ballroom turned bloody. A sun-filled afternoon was no place for such reminiscence. She would go out into the garden and force herself to enjoy the quiet. She’d once dreamed of having nothing more to do than cut flowers. Only now that she had it, the dream did not satisfy. Perhaps she was not made for a life without intrigue, a life without
, the one man who had ever truly tempted her. It had been five years now. She ought to know.
The front bell tinkled. Mary, the maid, would get it. Lucia could hear Mary’s hurried steps, the opening of the door, the low murmur of voices before the quick sound of Mary’s feet headed her direction.
“Mrs. Booth, there’s a man here to see you.” Mary was slightly breathless. Lucia could hear the uneven spacing of her words.
Lucia smiled softly, her eyes still shut. She gave a light laugh. There was someone left in Bath after all. “I was just thinking, Mary,” she began languidly, “how I’d like to take a lover.” She didn’t need her eyes open to know Mary was blushing to the roots of her blond hair tucked up ever so neatly beneath her cap. Even after a year, Mary hadn’t gotten used to her earthy humors. She couldn’t resist a little more teasing. “The very next man who walks through the door, I think.”
“Then it’s my lucky day.”
Lucia started at the low rumble of masculine tones, eyes flashing open, her senses catching too late the fall of a shadow across her sunbeam. There was a time when she would have known someone had entered a room, eyes open or not. She’d gotten lax. She was not lax now. Every sense, every fiber of her being was on alert. A man who did not wait to be received was dangerous.
He swept her a courtly bow. “La Mariposa, we meet again.”
She felt herself pale, an entirely new sensation and quite unpleasant. She rose, steadying herself against the shock with the chair arm. No one called her that, not anymore, and even those who had were a precious few. She’d long suspected even death couldn’t defeat him and that someday he would find her, although she rationally knew that to be impossible. Yet, here he was: her one temptation. Ronan St. Simon, spymaster extraordinaire, standing in her parlor looking as virile and as lethal as ever, topaz eyes agleam, dark hair sleek.
There was a small gun in the drawer of the sideboard under the window, just a few steps from her if she could reach it. It would be enough to scare, to wound. First she had to protect Mary. It was a lesson one learned early if one wanted a fair fight: rid the environs of innocents, don’t give the opposition anything to hold against you. “Mary, you may leave us, it’s all right.”
it all right?” St. Simon asked with a sardonic smile that showed off even, white teeth. His gaze followed her. She was well aware he was laughing at her as much with his eyes as with his mouth. He
he had her at a disadvantage, the element of complete and utter surprise working quite nicely in his favor. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Maybe I have.
are supposed to be dead.”
The last time she’d seen Ronan St. Simon, he’d been gloriously alive, waltzing an ambassador’s daughter across a ballroom in Vienna just moments before the debacle that claimed the lives of the others, victims of a traitor’s deal. The events of that night had sent her scurrying into the anonymity of her last transformation, and him ostensibly to the grave. Elementary logic suggested otherwise. Dead people weren’t darkly handsome men sporting thin white scars along their jawlines or burning holes through a woman’s clothes with intense golden-brown eyes that rivaled a tiger’s.
Everything about this man spoke of life and vitality, from the sleek dark hair worn long and pulled back by a leather thong to the broad shoulders dressed in blue superfine to the strong thighs encased in buff breeches that disappeared into high-polished Hoby’s. Alive, well and
. Such a look did not come cheaply or without suspicion.
Lucia reached the sideboard. She turned and faced him, her hands frantically working the drawer at her back. He’d clearly come out of the disaster five years ago relatively unscathed. It occurred to her there might be a reason for that, a
reason. Had he been the one? Did that explain his survival? Was he here now to finish the job? Most of all,
had he found her? Granted, it had taken five years. But still... The drawer gave and she knew a moment’s relief as her hand closed over cool steel.
The relief was short-lived. The sharp metal of a blade flashed in his hand, retrieved from some secret sheath in his sleeve. He’d been ready for her. “It seems rumor has played us both false. I am supposed to be dead, and you are supposed to be better than that.” The hand holding the knife made a little gesture toward the drawer. “Stop trying to retrieve the gun you obviously have in there. You’d never get a shot off in time.”
Ronan St. Simon took a casual seat in the other chair, a straight-backed affair without arms. He crossed a booted leg over his knee in a pose of supreme confidence—supreme confidence she
shoot. Well, she’d be the judge of that. She might shoot yet. “Besides, La Mariposa, I assure you, you don’t want me dead.”
Lucia pulled the gun anyway in a fast, fluid gesture that saw it emerge in the palm of her hand. Her heart hammered in her chest. “I would settle for just wounded.” He’d always been able to make her pulse race. Did he know how he affected her still? His very appeal always made him dangerous to her. What could he possibly want now that so much time had passed?
St. Simon slid the knife back up his sleeve in a gesture of truce, a gesture she did not care to mimic. Unarmed in this man’s presence was as good as dead. Perhaps that was how he’d managed it with the others years ago.
He shrugged, unconcerned about the gun aimed at him. “Does that mean the lover option is off the table?”
She waved the weapon, wishing it was more intimidating. “Yes, definitely off the table. Say what you’ve come to say and get out.”
He leaned back in the chair with a chuckle, his tiger eyes giving her a slow, intimate perusal. “Off the table
,” he corrected. “Although once you’ve heard what I’ve come to say, you are welcome to change your mind.”
It was an old trick, using information to stop a bullet. Ronan sat back in his chair, relishing the victory. La Mariposa was his for the moment. He was safe from her little gun as long as he knew something she valued. “As you can see, I am very much alive and well, as are you. I am here to see we both remain that way.” His last sentence was a tantalizing carrot, the temptation of secret information to be imparted with the call to self-preservation. Another old trick and just as hard to resist.
She watched him warily through narrowed, sharp green eyes, not daring to sit down and join him or lower her weapon. He had caught her at unawares once. She would not give him the chance to do so again.
“I mean you no harm. I do wish you’d put down the gun.” All bravado aside, he wasn’t sure she wouldn’t shoot. He rather hoped she didn’t.
“So you can take me as easily as you took the others?” she challenged.
He was not stunned by her hypothesis regarding the reason for his sudden appearance. “I once thought the same of you.” He answered honestly. In spite of his efforts to protect her, there had been moments in the dark when he’d wondered if such protection was folly. Death had exonerated the others. Survival had condemned the two of them, although his survival had had the good taste to be in question for several months afterward. He’d been left for dead, but she couldn’t have known.
She shrugged. “Much has been thought of me. Not all of it true.”
Ronan smiled. “Most of it is, though.” Like the rumors of her beauty, the raven hair that felt like ebon silk sifting through a man’s fingers, the clear green eyes resembling so perfectly twin glacier ponds, the porcelain skin so fair as to give her an air of misleading fragility.
“Yes, most of it is,” she conceded, gun unwavering. She was indeed the rare beauty of a butterfly brought to life, and far more dangerous, as she demonstrated now: a vision of loveliness with a gun pointed at his chest. Even acutely aware of his exposure, Ronan’s groin had tightened, aroused by the decadence and danger of the situation. He understood well the wanting of her and the futility of it too.
He would not be the first to be so inspired by her. Europe’s most powerful men had coveted the exotic dichotomy she offered of pleasure amid peril. None of them—ambassadors, politicians, generals or princes—had held her. She’d flown away from each of them in turn. If she were his, he would never let her go. After five years of waiting and hunting, it was time to finish his mission and claim her, if she would have him.
She was right to be wary of him. To her, he was nothing more than the spymaster. In Vienna he’d not dared act on his feelings, for fear of putting her at risk. Even now, he did not come free of danger, indeed, he might have brought danger right to her doorstep at a time when she was used to living in the safety of obscurity. She would not thank him for it. But he could protect her, could offer her a new security.
But first she had to trust him. She was stalking him now, moving in a half circle about his chair, showing off her excellent silhouette in a summer organdy afternoon gown of pale blue. A band of white ribbon showcased high breasts; the tight fit of the bodice highlighted the flat of her stomach where it tapered snugly into the flare of her skirts. Some small part of him, the part still thinking like a spymaster and not solely as a man in the presence of a stunning woman, knew she was playing with him as if he were another of her randy, balding ambassadors.
“Stop it. I’m not an aging statesman impressed by your charms,” he growled.
She gave him a coy look, moving close to him, her eyes giving his crotch a moment’s consideration. “Not aging, but still impressed, I’d wager, judging by the current fit of your trousers.”
His breath caught. His pulse ratcheted. She meant to caress him with her free hand. What an erotic prospect to have one hand on him while the other held a gun. What he wouldn’t give to feel both those hands on him. There’d been gossip she’d coaxed a secret location out of the Venetian diplomat once in just such a way. It took all Ronan’s willpower to seize her wrist as if he meant it. “Not now. We have business.”
She stepped back, eyes narrowed, gun at the ready once more, the prospect of her hand on him now removed. “There is no business, St. Simon. What you ask is strictly against the rules. We are never to talk about the contents of the envelopes. Indeed, we were never to even
“I know the rules,” Ronan said drily. He was the spymaster, dammit. He’d
the rules. “But the game is over, Lucia.”
He used the Italian pronunciation, letting his tongue caress the sound of it, savoring the intimate luxury of her name. In their line of work, names were death warrants and he’d protected hers with his very life, whether she knew it or believed it or not. Maybe someday he’d tell her what he’d endured on her behalf, but not today, not when such a disclosure would only serve to raise her suspicions further.
“Rule number two,” Lucia quoted, eyes flashing. “The game is never really over.”
Lord, he’d taught her well. Too well, it would seem. She was not simply going to hand over her envelope, but it was reassuring to know that after all these years she still had it and it would be sealed, untouched. Still, reassurances were not enough. They never were. He needed that envelope. It had been a quest, a personal mission. For his own sense of closure and perhaps even for hers, they needed to open the last envelope and put the ghosts of the past to rest. He’d promised Jonathon’s family nothing less.
He also needed it for her safety. That was the other reason he was here. Danger was on his heels. He had only tonight and tomorrow to protect her and lead the danger away. When all was well, he could return and act on his desires. Everything hinged on Lucia’s willingness to part with the envelope.
Ronan rose, it was time to take charge, gun or not. He pushed aside the twinge of guilt that always accompanied any reminder of Jonathon before it could become a blinding black wall of remorse. There were so many regrets when it came to Jonathon. He never should have let him play, no matter how good he’d been at the game.
“It is gratifying to see that you’ve been so well schooled,” Ronan said softly, “but I think you misjudge my business.” Would she notice he did not deny her claims? He reached inside his coat, knowing full well Lucia’s eyes followed his every gesture with sharp awareness. He dangled a pocket watch from his fingers, letting her take in the singular beauty of the item: the cover in gold with two raised figures of young Greek men on either side of a bell done in copper, the thin, elegant chain weaving across his knuckles. The unmistakable winding key dangled from the chain in slim simplicity. He saw the moment in her eyes when she recognized it and Ronan knew he’d chosen the gift wisely. What she wouldn’t do for him, Lucia might do for a memory. She was not so different than himself in that regard.
* * *
“Jonathon’s watch,” Lucia breathed. Her eyes began to sting, the sight of the watch conjuring a thousand images: Jonathon’s golden head tossed back in laughter, Jonathon bent neck or nothing over his horse as he took a reckless hedge in the Viennese woods; Jonathon elegant and composed at Vienna’s finest dinner tables; Jonathon waltzing, all grace and ease. She pressed her free hand to her stomach to quell the lurching. But she couldn’t stop the last image: Jonathon falling, his body bloody and torn from the gunshot as he’d staggered toward her in the ballroom, his golden glory destroyed in one lethal moment. The guilt rose.
If you had stayed
you would have been killed
, came the usual argument, the one she regularly used to beat back the remorse. Tonight the argument was impotent. St. Simon had stayed and he’d lived, proving her argument false.
Her eyes darted back to St. Simon. “His watch is your business?” She hated how her voice trembled with uncontained emotion and that her mind seethed with suspicion. Had he brought the watch in the hopes she’d open the secret compartment behind the face because he couldn’t?
He nodded, his voice low and private, his words measured. “I thought you’d want it. You and he were close. I thought it might offer some comfort.” They weren’t quite the words she wanted to hear:
The game is over
there is no other reason for my coming
. Or better yet,
I’ve come for you
to see if there’s anything between us besides the heat of the game.
The last was hypothetical conjecture on her part. St. Simon had never once made inappropriate overtures toward her, as so many other gentlemen had. That didn’t mean he was innocent of interest, however. He was guilty of having followed her with his eyes in Vienna’s crowded ballrooms with a predatory look that went beyond the need for basic surveillance. More than once she’d caught him staring at her in an unguarded moment, a moment that was always so quickly masked she questioned whether it had ever happened.
Those moments were never acted upon. The game did not advocate for such a liaison between compatriots. The game was everything to a man like St. Simon, as deep in his loyalties to England as he was in his passions. Engaging feelings meant engaging danger. There was enough danger as it was without adding to it, especially when the object of one’s affections was La Mariposa, Vienna’s most beautiful woman, and the most deadly.
St. Simon stepped close enough to drop the timepiece in her hand, the gun between them forgotten. The watch was warm from the heat of his body as she ran a finger over the cover. She found the hidden catch from memory but did not spring it.
“There’s nothing in it, I am sorry to report,” St. Simon offered in deceptively soft tones, reading her thoughts. Then again, maybe it wasn’t deception. He’d loved Jonathon too, as much as she. He’d protected Jonathon as much as she had. Except at the end. She’d chosen to protect herself. She shook her head and tried to give it back. “You keep it. He was your friend too.”
St. Simon’s hand closed around her fingers, wrapping them over the surface of the watch. The feel of his hand on hers sent a tingling warmth up her arm. “Please, he would have wanted you to have it, and it’s taken me long enough to find you.” He offered a small smile, looking handsome and sincere, a look that had been the downfall of women across the continent. But that didn’t stop a hunger from stirring in her belly. St. Simon in her bed would be a heady experience indeed, and one a long time in coming.
Lucia shook her head. She’d been alone too long. But that didn’t make her stupid. Neither was she about to go to pieces over Jonathon’s watch. If that disappointed St. Simon, so be it. Moved as she was by the gesture, she didn’t believe for a moment bringing the keepsake had been St. Simon’s only motivation. The game might indeed be over. But there was a new game afoot. She was about to bet her life on it. Lucia moved to the sideboard and began her ploy with six simple words. “May I offer you a drink?”
Lucia opened the cupboard to reveal a well-stocked cabinet full of liquors. Without waiting for an answer, she reached for a bottle and two small tumblers that held no more than a swallow or two at a time. She poured in plain sight of St. Simon, out of habit to assure the drinker the liquor was not poisoned, and offered him a glass. “A toast then, to Jonathon.”
St. Simon took the glass, caressing it ever so slightly between elegant fingers that promised to deliver exquisite decadence to any body part they touched. “To Jonathon, who was arguably the best of us.”
Lucia downed her drink in a single effort and swallowed hard against the strong liquor going down. St. Simon followed suit, swallowing with an appreciable smile. “Zubrovka, unless I miss my guess.”
She nodded and poured them another, gesturing that they be seated. “Shall I ring for food?”
“Heavens, no, it’s bad luck! Have you forgotten the old superstition about drinking vodka with food?” St. Simon laughed away her offer, taking the second glass. “You remembered this, though.” He made a toasting motion toward her with his glass. “There’s nothing like Polish bison-grass vodka.”
St. Simon’s favorite. Of course she remembered. She remembered all the little things that made up the sum of men: the cigars they smoked, the liquors they drank, the colognes they wore, the tailors they preferred. Such knowledge had kept her alive, made her invaluable to men, made her worth saving, and more than once that knowledge had given her the ultimate key to any man: control, the one weapon she never surrendered. She’d surrender her gun before she’d surrender that. Control made all things possible and it was time to start exercising some of that with St. Simon.
Lucia made a show of putting the gun back in the drawer before she settled into her chair and sipped her vodka, the pale-yellow liquid going down easier with each swallow. She set the bottle on the little table between their chairs. “I remembered.” Did he? This might be
favorite drink, but she had yet to meet anyone who could tolerate Zubrovka like
Lucia smiled at St. Simon, letting her gaze warm him along with the vodka. Good. The subtle signs of interest were there. His pupils had darkened in his tiger eyes; his gaze rested on her lips. The spymaster was not immune. That boded well for her. After all, she
vowed to take a lover of the very next man through her door, and Lucia Booth never went back on her word. She licked her lips over the rim of her glass. She would have Ronan St. Simon, body, soul and secrets before the night was out, and then she would decide if she could trust him.