In her first Season in London, Cassie manages to drink too much champagne, and insinuates the reigning Queen of the ton is a whore, due to the marchioness’ frequent, late-night, male visitors. In fact, Lady Ex, as Cassie calls her, organizes spies and works for the Crown–and isn’t pleased with the new rumors. So when a handsome baronet begins to court Cassie, she doesn’t trust him for a moment.
Hugh works for Lady Ex, though he has been unable to go abroad since an injury left him with a pronounced limp. Lady Ex has assigned him to ascertain whether Cassie’s father, a duke, is involved in treason–by getting close to Cassie. The more time he spends in the company of the forthright miss, the less he wants to leave. With his humble origins, and her father’s possible treachery, a love affair is prohibited. But that’s what Gretna Greene is for…
Theme song: Without You by David Guetta ft. Usher
“Lady Exerly entertains men in her townhome each night,” Lady Cassandra Mitchell announced before draining her third glass of champagne. With the exception of her good friend, Elizabeth, the young ladies surrounding her giggled nervously behind their fans.
“Surely you jest.” Bess’ brown eyes exhibited a proper amount of horror at the statement.
“Not at all.” Cassie shook her head, frowning at the way her vision took a few extra seconds to catch up. “I’ve seen them.”
Truly. Every night for the six weeks since Cassie had arrived from Wiltshire, she’d witnessed various men enter the marchioness’ London residence.
“My goodness, Bess, d’you think she’s secretly a–?”
“Cassie!” Bess looked from her friend to the other young ladies leaning forward to catch every word. As Bess’ grip tightened on her elbow, Cassie’s fuzzy brain registered that perhaps she’d overstepped her bounds.
The longer Cassie considered it, the more she realized how dimwitted it had been to say such a thing in a crowded ballroom. Her father, the Duke of Brigton, would not be pleased when he learned of it. He may even pack her away to the country to wait another year for a London Season. She’d already been presented, but he could return her to the dull existence in the country. Or worse, an extended stay with her aunt in the wilds of Lincolnshire where there was nothing but landscapes to paint.
Her stomach flipped as the ramifications of her social misstep occurred to her, and she shoved the empty champagne flute into Bess’ free hand. The retiring room would be an excellent place to collect her wits. She spun away from the dance floor and nearly flattened the woman she’d recently maligned.
Lady Exerly—or Lady Ex, as Cassie thought of her—stared down, her icy blue eyes narrowed and aflame with anger. Her cheeks were red, but Cassie doubted it was from embarrassment. Lady Ex was livid, and it was all directed at Cassie.
Cassie curtsied before the reigning Queen of the ton, then raised her chin. Her governess had always instructed her to show no outward reaction. Regrettably, she’d never mastered the art.
“Lady Exerly,” she said, amazed her voice didn’t quiver.
The woman was nearly a foot taller than Cassie. If she were to paint this scene, Lady Ex’s talons would be bared, reaching over Cassie, with steam escaping her raven-topped head. Raven. Talons. The image caused half a giggle to escape before she realized it. The champagne still buzzed in her head, and sounds around her seemed much farther away than they ought.
Lady Exerly’s gaze raked over her and she felt every tine claw through her skin. Cassie clenched her fists at her side in an effort to keep herself still as the silence stretched between them. The orchestra prepared for the next set, though neither the crowd nearby nor Lady Ex shifted. Rather than hurry off to find their dance partners or chaperones, they all seemed content to watch the drama unfolding before them.
Say something. Whether she was urging herself or Lady Ex to speak, she didn’t know. She ought to apologize—if her father caught wind of this, he would bellow for a month. Yet the words would not come. The buzzing in her head grew louder, and she separated her feet slightly to keep from swaying as she stared up at the older woman.
Champagne was evil.
Lady Ex’s fingers twitched, and Cassie thought she heard the sound of grinding teeth, though she couldn’t be sure. Suddenly, Lady Ex straightened and turned her back on Cassie.
Indignation flared inside Cassie—how dare Lady Ex give her the cut direct? Did Lady Exerly not know who she was? She took a step forward, her mouth open and ready to blast her feelings on the subject when several others in the crowd followed Lady Ex’s example, including the gentleman who was to partner her for the next dance set. Cassie’s stomach tightened in dread.
The possibility of an extended stay with Aunt Agatha was becoming more certain.
Most of the onlookers had not been near enough to hear Cassie’s statement, but one did not have to be within earshot to see Lady Ex cut her as cleanly as a freshly sharpened knife. She looked from guest to guest. Some watched from behind their fans, their eyes glittering with malicious curiosity, but most had already turned their backs on her.
Acid burned her throat, and the sting of tears pricked her eyes. Thank God her father was not present this evening.
Realizing she remained in the middle of the ballroom, she continued on to the retiring room. Had the ballroom lengthened in the past quarter hour? She quickened her stride and forced her breathing to keep a steady pace. They would not see her cry.
“Lady Cassandra,” her aunt called from between a set of potted palms. “Where are you going?”
She turned toward her aunt too quickly, and her eyes lost focus. This had the unfortunate side effect of causing her to stumble over a nearby chair. She managed to right herself and closed her eyes until the room ceased its dance before she answered.
“I believe I require air.”
Her aunt frowned, then followed Cassie to the retiring room. Sadly, a great number of women had already cloistered in Cassie’s sanctuary, and their whispers halted the moment she crossed the threshold. She spun and brushed past her aunt, hurrying in the opposite direction. “Perhaps the terrace would be more palliative.”
Aunt Agatha trotted after her. “What in heaven is wrong with you, gel?”
Had her aunt not seen the interaction with Lady Ex? The whispering in the retiring room confirmed how quickly gossip travelled. And if her aunt found out, her father would know before the morning. Cassie’s stomach roiled at the thought.
She swept through the glass doors to the deserted terrace and continued until she reached a stone bench abutting a large, Roman-inspired fountain. A cherub held a bowl that trickled water over the side into the pool below. Cassie collapsed on the bench. The cool from the stone seeped through her ball gown, her skin, finally settling a chill in her bones.
“You look as green as the walls in the Austerleys’ ballroom.” Her aunt pulled a handkerchief out of her reticule and dabbed at Cassie’s brow. As she leaned in close, she sniffed the air. “You’ve partaken of the champagne. How many glasses?”
“Perhaps three.” Relief flooded her as she realized her aunt referred not to her loose tongue, but to her drinking. “I was curious, and it tasted wonderful.”
Aunt Agatha’s nose crinkled in disdain. “A young lady should not be allowed to drink so soon after her come out. This is only your second ball.”
“Not to worry, I’ve no intention of ever touching the stuff again.” She dipped the handkerchief into the fountain and used it to pat her heated cheeks. The wretched dizziness seemed to dissipate the longer she held the soothing fabric to her face.
How had tonight gone so wrong? Her second ball—if one counted the ridiculously large gathering her father hosted after her presentation at court—should have been grand. She wore a new gown of pale green silk with a gathered bodice and deep green ribbons shot through with silver thread. A pink camellia flower had been strategically placed among the ringlets atop her head. If not for her blasted curiosity about champagne, this night could have been a rousing success.
Her former governess’ disappointed voice echoed in her mind, and guilt poked at her. For years, Miss Trimble had warned Cassie of the evils of gossip, regaling her with tales of how rumors had ruined members of Society. While Miss Trimble had never admitted as much, Cassie suspected her governess was one of those ruined members.
Yet Miss Trimble never differentiated between false rumors and truth. Cassie supposed it didn’t matter, if the end result was someone else’s pain. Damnation. She would have to apologize and she did not relish the idea. Then there was her father to contend with. How to explain to him what had happened?
Chest up, chin high, shoulders back, and for heaven’s sake, slow down. If there was one thing Miss Trimble emphasized, it was that the members of the ton were ruthless. Any weakness, any vulnerability, was fodder for the gossip rags.
“If you show them your underbelly, they will flay you,” she used to say.
Cassie suppressed a shudder. Yes, Lady Exerly had publicly cut her. Yes, there were sheep who followed suit. When the morning light came, though, Cassie would still be the daughter of a duke. She was wealthy. She was pleasing to look at. How bad could it get?
“Why are we here, Margot?” Sir Hugh Campbell asked his companion. His leg throbbed, and the thought of several hours in a theatre box, listening to Shakespeare, only tensed his muscles more. Even if it was Kemble’s Coriolanus.
“Reconnaissance.” Lady Exerly trained her glasses on a box closer to the stage. “I have received word that there is a traitor to the Crown.”
Hugh sucked in a breath. “A traitor?” Margot hadn’t mentioned anything of this when she’d sent him a note ordering him to accompany her here. He reached down to rub his thigh, tracing the jagged contours of his scar beneath his breeches. “Do we know who?”
His harsh tone elicited a small tilt of her lips. “We suspect someone rather high up in the ton, but we do not have sufficient evidence.”
Margot’s position in the War Department was to find the evidence, and she employed any number of means to obtain it. But she’d rarely contacted him until an individual had been apprehended. Hugh’s primary job was to secure a confession.
“How high?” he asked.
“Lord Brigton.” She turned to watch his reaction.
“Are you out of your bloody mind?” he asked, incredulity causing his volume to sound higher than he had intended. Her sources must be wrong. A duke?
“Quiet,” she hissed.
He sat back and flexed his leg, trying to soothe the sudden cramp. The Duke of Brigton was a widower, his only daughter in her first London Season. He had too much to risk if he were found out.
“Why do you suspect him?” Hugh asked.
She faltered, then recovered and stared at him down her nose. “Are you questioning my judgment?”
“No.” He shrugged to mask his irritation at her reminder of the discrepancy in their ranks—both in Society and at the War Department. “I merely suggest it would help if we knew what to focus on. Clandestine meetings, correspondence, financial backing, that sort of thing.”
Mollified, she raised her glasses again. “Thus far, we have received a letter indicating he is a French sympathizer, but because of his status, Holmes wants more substantial evidence.”
Hugh didn’t blame him. As one of the heads of the War Department, Holmes would not want to be wrong about such an accusation. “In other words, watch everything he does.”
“It is not that simple,” she snapped. “He rarely joins social events, preferring to stay at his clubs, so he is inaccessible. However, I have devised a way to learn more, without casting suspicion on us.” She paused. “His daughter.”
“You want to befriend his daughter?” Hugh asked.
Margot’s eyes flashed before she composed herself again. “No. You are going to.”
Surprise catapulted him forward. “Pardon?”
“You are to court her, get her to trust you. If she knows anything about her father’s dealings, you will find out. Seduce her, if you must.”
Now he was certain Margot was out of her mind. Seduce the daughter of a duke?
“Why not ask Deuce?” Viscount Deuceton, affectionately known as Deuce, was the one usually chosen for this sort of mission. His ability to charm women into offering up their skirts, as well as their secrets, was a useful talent in their line of work.
“Because she would never trust a rake to be serious about courtship. You do not try to sleep with every female that passes under your nose.” Her gaze flicked to his leg. “And you have sympathy on your side. Therefore, you are the better candidate.”
His jaw ticked, but he kept silent. Arguing with her would only waste his breath, and there were other obstacles to consider.
“And how do you suppose I am to get an introduction? We do not move in the same circles.”
“I will arrange it.”
Not reassuring in the least. Lady Cassandra was the ton’s darling. A true beauty, or so Hugh had heard, with wealth and lofty connections. She’d caused a stir at her Court presentation a month ago when the Regent himself stood to greet her, no doubt looking for a new mistress. Even with invitations to the same events, the chances of getting within shouting distance of the young lady were not in Hugh’s favor.
The curtain rose, and while Hugh wanted to focus on the performance, his mind insisted on cataloguing all the potential disasters of Margot’s plan. If he could manage an introduction to Lady Cassandra, if he could convince her of his interest, if her father did not immediately discount his suit, he still had no idea what to look for. Searching the duke’s study might be one way to investigate, but he might as well try to break into Prinny’s chambers. Especially if Brigton had something to hide. No, this would not be easy.
But if the duke was a traitor, then Hugh would do everything in his power to expose him.
Anything. And Margot knew it.
As the curtain fell, she jumped up and yanked on his sleeve. “Come along.”
He struggled to stand, his leg stiffer than usual, and followed her into the crowded corridor. She led him through the throng to the other side of the theatre, then halted. A nearby pillar sufficed to brace his knee, and he leaned on it, eyes cast down to survey the patrons’ shoes as they jostled past. An old habit, but one that had served him well.
One could discern quite a bit about people by their shoes. Margot, for example, wore only the best—her current shoes likely cost more than he earned in a year at the War Department, and featured beads that looked suspiciously like diamonds. She never wore the same pair twice, either. At least, not that he’d ever seen. If he didn’t already know of her vanity by the way she expected every man to fall over himself to attend her, her choice in footwear would have told him.
“Be a dear and get me a lemonade,” Margot said, pointing to the fruit sellers at the front of the room.
What was she up to? She was the type of woman who drank whisky, not lemonade. As he stepped past her, his foot caught on something and he pitched forward. Unable to keep his balance on the injured leg, he collided with one of the young ladies in the nearest group of patrons. He steeled himself and managed to catch the young woman before they toppled to the floor. Dropping his hands as soon as she stood on her feet again, he glared at the empty space where Margot had been. No surprise.
He returned his attention to the woman he’d accosted. “My sincerest apologies, miss. How clumsy of me.”
The sight of her wide-set grey eyes sucked the breath from his lungs. Long, dark lashes. High cheekbones, flushed with pink. Blonde hair that curled near her ears. A mouth with full, lush lips. Tilted up. Moving.
“Sir, there is no need to apologize. There are so many people here this evening, it’s difficult to avoid crashing into one another.” Her voice resembled the melodic trill of a sparrow’s song.
Her companion’s voice, on the other hand, reminded Hugh of a foghorn, and she looked more formidable than a campaigning admiral. “We must be on our way, Cassie. Sir, if you would please step aside.”
Hugh froze, mentally shaking himself free of his fanciful thoughts. No wonder Margot had tripped him. Not the introduction—or impression—he’d hoped to make. Lady Cassandra was every bit as lovely as he’d heard, even as she cast an annoyed glance at her chaperone.
With a slight bow, he bore his weight on his good leg and shifted out of their way.
The scent of lemons lingered in her wake, and the gentle sway of her hips drew his attention. When she turned the corner, he snapped out of his trance-like state, and irritation welled within him. This assignment would be far outside his area of expertise. Deuce would have received an introduction without any effort whatsoever and likely would have caused the lady’s companion to titter at his charm. Hugh had been hard pressed to breathe once Lady Cassandra had looked at him.
Bells rang to signal the end of intermission, and Margot had not yet returned. Hugh stormed back to the box, prepared to insist she find someone else to play this role. Instead, he found her footman waiting with a note.
Meet me at half-past three.
He crumpled the note in his fist and swore. God, he hated working for a manipulative bitch.