Authors: Michele Jaffe
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Romantic Suspense, #Historical Romance, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense, #FICTION/Romance/General
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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New York, NY 10016
Copyright © 2000 by Michele Jaffe
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
For more information, email
First Diversion Books edition January 2012
This book is dedicated to Emily Goldner and Michael Humphries.
From the shores of the Sea of Cortez to the banks of the Thames, may your life together be filled with happily-ever-afters.
LONDON, 4 MAY 1588
He was being followed.
There were two of them, a short one with a strange cap, and a tall one whose bald head reflected the early morning sun. He had tested them, leading them back and forth through the bustling colonnades of Saint Paul’s, studying their reactions, looking for weaknesses. He noticed that the little one had a slight blind spot, and that the tall one was quicker on his left, but he could not shake them off, even with his best tricks. They were good, he had concluded. Very good. And that made him smile. Because there was nothing Crispin Foscari, the Earl of Sandal, liked better than a challenge.
Coming out of Saint Paul’s, he turned right, then right again. He smelled his objective before he saw it, the warren of makeshift stalls on the bank of the Thames that served as London’s main fish market. The shouts of the stallholders filled the air, offering trout fit for the Queen’s own table on the right, the Sultan’s favorite kippers on the left. Crispin stopped to inspect a slab of something pinkish that was promised to be every bit as delicious as a woodcock, never losing sight of his companions. Short was right behind him, and Tall was moving parallel along the next avenue of stalls. Crispin consulted his pocket watch and decided that it was time.
Without giving a sign, he dove under the counter of a particularly rickety stall, tossed a half dozen coins at the proprietor, grabbed a basket of eels, and disappeared. With his slippery companions perched on his shoulder he was able to move unobtrusively down the pathway that ran between the stalls and reach the edge of the market undetected. Before leaving, Crispin made a present of the eels to a gaunt-looking boy with a dog, and then plunged himself into the thicket of alleyways and narrow lanes that marked this quarter of London. Four turns took him within sight of the rendezvous place, five minutes early. He had just entered the alley that led to it when a gentleman stepped out of a doorway and held a knife to his stomach.
Crispin nodded at him politely. “Is there something I can do for you and your”—he looked down at the knife—“friend?”
The gentleman smiled. “Did you hear that, boys?” he said over his shoulder to the three large men, daggers out, who entered the alley behind him. “His Lordship wants to know if there is something he can do for us.”
“I suppose,” Crispin said with an apologetic sigh, “I should have made it a statement rather than a question. There
something I can do for you.” Before the man could respond, Crispin had him distracted, disarmed, and disjointed. “Much better,” he said, looking at the unconscious figure at his feet. “Who would like to be next?”
The three other men fell on Crispin simultaneously and in less than two minutes were arrayed against the alley wall next to their leader. Crispin was just checking the fabric and stitching of the clothes of the last of them, confirming his hunch that they were all English, when the bells of Saint Paul’s began to ring. As they tolled for the ninth and final time, a black-lacquered coach without a coat of arms on the door pulled up before him. None of the coachmen looked at him, but kept their eyes focused on the middle distance, like all good servants who serve a secretive master.
The door opened from within, and, entering, Crispin found himself in almost complete darkness.
“That was very neat, Lord Sandal. Those were some of our best men,” a voice said from the far end of the vehicle. “I hope you had an unremarkable journey and have found London everything you left it.”
That was the first code phrase specified in the letter. “The sea was flat and the keel even,” Crispin replied, giving the appropriate key-phrase as he had been instructed.
“Very good,” the voice commended. “Although with the performance you just gave out there in response to Our little test, your identity is hardly in question. There is only one man in Europe who could have done that. Perhaps,” the voice went on, sniffing delicately, “perhaps next time the Phoenix will not choose to spend quite so much time in the fish market.”
Crispin murmured the requisite thanks for the compliment and apology for his piscine scent, but he had really only attended the remarks with part of his mind. The other, larger part, was distracted by the tingling sensation that had begun at the base of his spine. He always felt it, and only felt it, when something extremely important or extremely dangerous was about to happen. He had gotten an inkling of it eight days earlier when a messenger had burst into the small apartment he was occupying in Spain with an urgent summons to London. He had spent months establishing himself as Carlos, a
so notoriously stupid and bumbling that the Spanish admiralty did not even bother to punish him when he accidentally rowed his boat around their munitions storehouse, and no longer paid attention when he was found floating, dead drunk, among their newest and most secret warships. In this guise he had been able to provide information that would be vital to England in the country’s inevitable clash with Spain. Only something very important and probably dangerous, he had surmised, could account for his abrupt recall to London.
He was about to receive confirmation that he was not wrong. There was a rustling in the carriage and a flame sprung into life, bobbing on the end of an oil lantern. Even in the jiggling shadows thrown by the lamp there could be no mistaking the person across from him. Or the importance of the meeting. For facing him was not merely one of Her Majesty’s most trusted secret operatives. It was Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I, herself.
Crispin sank to his knees, bowing his head over the fingers that were held out to him. The Queen gave him her ring to kiss, a thick gold band with an enormous knot just under the knuckle, and then motioned him up. She began speaking as soon as he was reseated, not wasting time with a preamble.
“We have summoned you, Lord Sandal, to thank you for your fine work on Our behalf. The attempt on Our life by Our Cousin the Queen of Scots would never have been uncovered without your efforts, and the end of that smuggling operation in Turkey has been a blessing for Our Exchequer. Not to mention that it has been a pleasure not to have to worry about an attack by the Dutch, since their fleet was so cunningly destroyed.” The Queen held a pomander before her nose as she spoke, making her words slightly muffled.
Crispin nodded. “I did nothing more than my duty, Your Majesty. I could—”
The Queen cut him off with a gesture. “Indeed. We hope you shall continue in this vein even after your retirement.”
“Retirement?” Crispin repeated. “But I do not wish to retire. King Philip of Spain is about to invade—”
“Yes, We have read your reports about the Spanish, and are taking them under advisement, given what We now know. But your work for Us is finished. The Phoenix will not serve Us any longer.”
The tingling at the base of Crispin’s spine now extended itself all the way to his neck. “May I ask why?”
“We fear that the burden of Our trust has been too much for you.
“Are you accusing me of betrayal?” Crispin’s eyes darkened.
“We accuse you of nothing. Your recent record speaks for itself.”
“What record? I have been disguised as a fisherman in Spain these many months and out of communication with everyone.”
“Of course,” Her Majesty said in an unapologetic tone. She now removed the pomander from her nose and looked at Crispin with the penetrating gaze that had brought so many men to their knees. “We refrain from mentioning the specifics of your actions, for your case is still under consideration. The judges will meet about it in a fortnight, and We would not like for any of the witnesses to be unduly influenced. For the time being, you should be content that you have merely been retired. Out of respect for your fine service and your aunts, Our dear friends, We have forborne to arrest you, but Our clemency is not boundless. If you rectify your behavior and act as you should during these next days, We may still deign to grant you your life.”
“May I at least know who has maligned me this way?” Crispin asked with deceptive calm.
“We cannot say who is behind these accusations, and We advise you not to inquire or find out why they are making them. Do not do anything to thwart them, Lord Sandal, and do not make any long-term plans. Make no mistake—it is your life which hangs in the balance.”
The Queen held Crispin’s eyes for a moment, using her gaze to underscore her words. “We trust you understand what we are telling you, Lord Sandal.”
“I understand,” Crispin said, his expression grim.
The Queen scrutinized him closely for one last moment, nodded curtly to herself, and then reached up with her pomander to bang on the roof of the coach three times, bringing it almost immediately to a halt.
“Good day, Lord Sandal,” she told Crispin. “You shall hear from Us in fourteen days. Do not let Us hear of you before that.”
Crispin stood in the middle of the narrow street and watched the coach recede until it was nothing but a bouncing black dot in the distance. As it disappeared, the words “
” echoed in his head, repeating and rearranging themselves endlessly. Fourteen days to salvage an identity he had spent years creating. Fourteen days to find out who was trying to destroy the Phoenix and why. Fourteen days to defuse a powerful threat. Or fourteen days until his death.
Crispin Foscari, the Earl of Sandal, liked challenges. But he was not smiling anymore.
LONDON, SIX DAYS LATER
“Are you aware,” the voice whispered into Sophie Champion’s ear, “that your mustache is slipping?”
Sophie was having a very bad week. Her cook had quit, twice. Her beekeeper was hearing voices, in particular that of the queen bee suggesting that they run away together. She had been compelled to suffer through two balls to model Octavia’s newest gown designs, which had led to three new marriage proposals. Her godfather, Lord Grosgrain, had been killed in a mysterious riding accident. Her upper lip was numb and her nose itched from the false mustache she had been forced to wear for two days in her desperate attempt to infiltrate the Unicorn—London’s most exclusive, and exclusively male, gaming establishment—in the hope of tracking down the one man who possessed any information about the real cause of her godfather’s death. Her attempts to look inconspicuous while she waited for that man had cost her a small fortune at the dice tables. And now, unless she misunderstood the tone of his comment, the individual next to her was threatening to undo all her efforts and turn her in as an impostor.
Sophie raised the dice cup to her lips, appeared to whisper a good-luck prayer to the ivory cubes, and let them fly across the table. Without waiting for the dice master to announce that she had lost, she tossed a silver coin onto the table, turned to the man who had addressed her, made a short bow, and spoke in her best Spanish accent. “Don Alfonso del Forest al Carmen, gentleman of Seville, thanks you for your interest in his mustachios,
, and begs you not to trouble yourself about them further.”
The man acknowledged her bow with a tilt of his head. “Very nicely done,” he said, smiling slightly. “Pretending to whisper to the dice so you could fix your mustache, I mean. The accent, however, is atrocious.” As he spoke, the man carelessly threw the dice across the table, gathered his winnings, and motioned her to follow him into a less populated corner of the chamber.
Sophie was furious. Not only was she not in the habit of following men around, but she had practiced her accent for hours and thought it quite good. When they arrived at their corner, she pulled herself up to her full height—which, she noticed with surprise and then annoyance, did not even bring her eyes level with those of her adversary—and addressed him. “Don Alfonso del Carmen al Forest—”
“—al Forest del Carmen,” the man corrected helpfully.
“—will not stand here and listen to your insults,
.” Sophie bent her head back and glared at the man ferociously.
The man met her glare with calm silver-blue eyes. He studied her for a moment before he spoke, and when he did his voice was low, calm, and slightly menacing. “Perhaps Don Alfonso will listen to a message from his friend Richard Tottle?”
She was good, he thought as he watched her quickly suppress her surprise. He would have to ask her whether it was Cordova or Von Krummen who had trained her as soon as he had her well locked away.
Sophie’s heart had begun to pound. This was exactly what she had been waiting for. She was so excited she almost forgot that she was furious, or that she was supposed to have an accent. “A message from Richard Tottle? What is it?”
Damn good, the man reiterated, and damn dangerous. “He wants to meet with you again.”
“Again?” she repeated with only a whisper of a Spanish accent.
“Yes. Again. Right now.”
Her tone, even through the accent, was different when she asked, “What does
Tottle want to see me about?”
“I am just the errand boy, Don Alfonso,” the man said, pronouncing the name with only the vaguest hint of irony. “Most likely whatever you discussed before.”
“Then I am afraid I cannot accompany you. Our conversation,
, is over.” Sophie began to turn from him, but was stopped by the man’s hand on her elbow.
“I am afraid it isn’t. At least as long as you do not want me to announce that Don Alfonso is a woman.” There was no menace now in the man’s tone or his eyes, but the words held their own threat. As Sophie was acutely aware, under the newest laws impersonating a man was a treasonable offense, carrying the punishment of hanging. The man let his first suggestion sink in, then leaned closer to whisper, “Or that he plays with loaded dice.”
For an instant, Sophie’s composure ebbed completely away, and her eyes grew enormous. How the devil did he know about the dice? She had been sure that no one would suspect anything. After all, what kind of idiot would play with dice that had been altered to allow her to
every time rather than win?
“I have to say, the dice were rather ingenious,” the man commended her. “They are probably the only thing that kept you from being seen for a woman from the beginning, because no one pays close attention to those who lose, only those who win. Nobody would bother to suspect a loser.”
Exactly. That had been Sophie’s exact surmise. And it had worked splendidly during the two days she had been loitering around the Unicorn, waiting for Richard Tottle to appear, worked without a flaw until…
“Until you came along,” she said aloud without realizing it. She looked up at her companion in the dim light, seeing him for the first time. He was undoubtedly the tallest man in the room, but despite his height he was not lanky. Instead, she noticed as she lowered her eyes from his face, his body was beautifully proportioned, from his broad shoulders, all the way down to the remarkable curve of his—
Satan’s knockers, what was she thinking? Sophie Champion did not spend time ogling men, particularly not infuriating men who lied and used threats to coerce her to go with them. Nor men who criticized her Spanish accent. Nor men in general. Nor any man, ever. The paste Octavia had used to adhere the mustache had been making Sophie feel woozy for the past two days, but she had not previously realized that it was interfering with her thinking as well. It was, however, the only reasonable explanation for her unusual and unacceptable flightiness.
With that resolved, she addressed the man in as pronounced a Spanish accent as she could produce. “
, I have assessed my options—”
“Yes, I noticed you assessing,” the man interrupted, laying extreme emphasis on the final word.
“—and have decided to accept your invitation to meet with Richard Tottle again.”
The man only nodded his acknowledgment, and steered Sophie down the stairs to a wide mahogany door at their base. He watched with interest as his companion hesitated on the threshold, then put her fingers on the handle, took a deep breath, and passed through.
At first Sophie thought it was the effect of the deep breath, a sort of mustache-paste-induced hallucination, but then she saw it was real. Very real. And very dead.
Sophie had no eyes for the sumptuous decoration of the Unicorn’s smoking chamber, the dark red brocade walls or the beautiful gold carpet that covered the floor. She did not notice the wall of tobacco-filled ebony boxes or the smoke that hung in the air. Only much later did she remember the sugared almond crushed into the carpet. At that first moment she saw simply the body of the man sprawled across one of the couches and the dark hole where gunpowder had scorched the satin fabric of his doublet.
“That is Richard Tottle,” she said, and the man could not be sure whether it was a statement or a question.
“Yes. Or rather, was. He is dead.” He observed her closely as she approached the corpse, then asked, “When you were here before, did Tottle give you anything?”
I did not see him before, Sophie almost said, but caught herself just in time, recollecting simultaneously her Spanish accent. “I cannot say,
. I have never been in this room before.” She was momentarily flustered, and became more so as the man said nothing and merely stood looking at her. Not only did Sophie Champion not ogle men, she did not permit them to ogle her. “What?” she demanded finally. “Don Alfonso al Foren del Carmest is not in the habit of being stared at.”
“I am trying to decide which you are worse at. Lying. Or impersonating a Spaniard.” He circled around her slowly, letting his eyes scour her, then faced her with their chests less than a hand’s width apart. “I know you were here tonight. I know you met with Richard Tottle. I entered this room as soon as I saw you leave, and I found Tottle dead. The obvious assumption, Don Alfonso, is that you murdered him, but I am willing to forgo that if you can give me an adequate explanation. To begin, what did you take from Richard Tottle?”
Sophie was having a hard time marshalling her thoughts. It was becoming more and more clear that the mustache paste was dangerous stuff, because she could not remember either her fake name or her real one. All of which would have been unacceptable under any circumstances, but in the presence of the dangerous man in front of her, it was completely unthinkable.
He was playing with her, but she could play back. Let him ask all the questions he wanted, hundreds of them even. She was under no obligation to answer them, or at least, not helpfully. In fact, given his presumptuous behavior, it might almost be her duty to aggravate him. She had settled this definitively when he resumed his interrogation.
“Don Alfonso. I am waiting for your response.”
Sophie cleared her throat, inhaled through her mouth—hoping to mitigate the effects of the paste—and said, “Suppose you are correct. Suppose I was in this room, tonight, with
The man examined her. “And? Did you take anything from him?”
“Nothing,” Sophie replied in a fishily innocent tone.
“Where was he sitting?”
She gave a slight smile. “I cannot say.”
“What did you and he discuss?”
The man tilted his head back and regarded her through slitlike eyes. “Was he alive?”
“I cannot say.”
“You will have to do better than ‘nothing’ and ‘I cannot say’ if you want to stay out of jail, Don Alfonso.” As he spoke, the man moved away from her and toward the corpse.
She had clearly annoyed him, but Sophie did not feel any real joy at the victory. Her eyes kept returning to the body on the divan, the literal dead end of her investigation. Her godfather, Lord Grosgrain, had been on his way to Richard Tottle’s the morning he died, carrying in his doublet a bill of credit for twelve hundred pounds and on his face more obvious signs of worry than Sophie could ever remember seeing. There had been something strange about the meeting, something that upset Lord Grosgrain terribly, something Sophie thought might be connected to his death, or at least might give a reason for it. Richard Tottle had been her only hope for information about what really lay behind her godfather’s accident—which she was convinced was no accident at all—and with him gone she felt completely lost. Even more lost than she had felt that morning four days earlier when she saw her godfather’s dead body being carried into the stable yard.
Lord Grosgrain had been both more and less than a simple godfather to her. He had been her whole family for more than ten years; but he had also been her responsibility. Not only had his death removed the only person she had ever entirely trusted, but she also deemed that it was, somehow, her fault. She should have stopped him, should have asked him more questions the morning of their last meeting, should have wondered more at his recent behavior. She felt at once desperately, achingly alone and horribly to blame.
She did not allow herself to wonder whether it was the echoing hollowness inside her or a rational quest for truth that drove her to question his death, because each time she wondered, she found herself biting her lip and swallowing back tears, as she was now. She was simply determined to find out what had caused his horse, a completely reliable and untempermental animal, to lose its footing on London’s best thoroughfare and hurl her godfather headlong to his death. Now, with Richard Tottle dead as well, she had nothing to go on.
Except the fact that the annoying man in front of her, whose muscles showed through his leggings each time he moved, had used threats of exposure to force her into the smoking room with the corpse, apparently to interrogate her.
But Sophie Champion would not allow herself to be threatened. “Now it is my turn to ask questions,” she announced in a voice that challenged him to deny it. “Why did you insist on bringing me down here? What did you hope to learn? Who do you work for? Why do you keep asking what Richard Tottle gave me?”
It was one of the man’s professional axioms that you could learn more from the questions that a subject asked than from those they answered, and with this slippery specimen that was doubly true. She was not in the least disturbed by his threats—they seemed simply to make her mad—nor did she seem frightened. Indeed, it was only when he had ceased speaking that she showed any weakness at all, and then it had vanished almost as soon as it had come. Clearly getting her to give up the piece of parchment that he suspected she had removed from Richard Tottle’s dead body was going to require unusually devious scare tactics. He was about to test her, to find out whether she would be more susceptible to force or cunning, when one of her battery of questions cut into his thoughts and gave him the answer.
“I cannot say,” the man replied smoothly to her interrogation.
Pompous caterpillar, Sophie thought to herself, her irritation intensifying as the suggestion of a smile flashed across his lips. Sophie had made a fortune by trusting her instincts, and they now told her that there was more to that almost-smile than the mere pleasure of throwing her unhelpful responses back at her, something far more ominous and sinister. They also told her that she should leave as quickly as possible.
But she could not go and let this arrogant beetle of a man think he had intimidated her. The prospect of appearing to be bullied overrode all of Sophie’s instincts. “I am not afraid of you,” she told the man, standing with her legs apart and her hand on the hilt of the dagger at her waist.
The smile suggested itself again. She was reacting beautifully. “It is not I you have to be afraid of, Don Alfonso. I told you, I am just the errand boy.”
“Who do you work for?”