Argent (Hundred Days Series Book 3)

BOOK: Argent (Hundred Days Series Book 3)
13.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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ARGENT

 

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Argent is a work of fiction.

Many of the characters and events in this book are invented.

Some other characters are real, and also dead, leaving little room for complaints.

 

Argent copyright 2016

Cover art copyright J Caleb Design 2016

Story & Copy editing by Two Birds Ink

ISB
N
978-0-9968957-1-2

 

All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without permission is unlawful. Written permission can be obtained by emailing the author.
[email protected]

 

Follow Baird Wells on Facebook

Join the official Baird Wells mailing list by emailing: [email protected]

You can follow Baird on Twitter: @BairdWells

 

First Printing: April 2016

 

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To Wes, and all the trips we’ve taken together around the sun

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Broadmoore, North of London -- May 2nd, 1814

 

Spencer Reed searched the ballroom's churning ocean of color, sorting its noisy crush. More specifically, he sorted the
female
half.

He had come to his friend John's masquerade with one aim: to avoid London. The city’s noise and its obligatory social schedule chaffed after months in the field. Not that a ball sounded much more appealing; he'd rather be locked away in solitude.

And yet, all such hopes had been dashed in the first thirty minutes his feet had been back on British soil. A crowd which had gathered in front of his Mayfair townhouse warned of peering and prying which was to follow for days. London’s populace was eager for a glimpse of their newly-minted hero, and patriotism and good manners demanded he afford it to them so long as he remained in town. There would be no peace, no anonymity in London; the invitation to John’s country estate could not have come at a better time.

There was no riding without stopping every block to make conversation, no walking to the Exchange without arriving wrist-cramped from lifting his hat again and again. Five minutes alone in the study was a rare blessing; Lord Reed being ‘not at home’ didn’t stem well-meaning efforts. There was not true peace to be had; for now, moving masked and unrecognized between the violins and laughter would have to be sufficient.

It
was
sufficient, so much so that he’d warmed to the evening and now pursued a very different aim: company.

Spencer picked now through his choices; both the married and the young ladies were out. He was too old for a midnight tryst
and
a dawn appointment. Women he recognized -- there were one or two -- were out, as well. His mask afforded him anonymity and he found, despite his earlier reserve, that it was to his liking. He observed the dancers and the men and women seated in ivory silk chairs at the edge of the floor, the quartet’s cellist dabbing sweat from his temple at a rest; he observed
them
and kept inconspicuous in a shadow near the terrace doors.

              She caught his eye by coincidence, a crimson rose on her black velvet mask flashing when she turned her head and laughed. There was a softness to her cheek which spoke of maturity when it filled out against a smile. A swirling crowd of bandits, devils, and kings vying for her attention hinted, perhaps, at the absence of a husband.

             
A harlequin,
he realized, as he shouldered through the crowd and drifted between islands of revelers. She was turned almost facing him now, and he could see her costume better. Her gown, like her mask, was one half white satin and the other plush black velvet, tailored by someone who’d grasped what her body was capable of. Dark curls swept her crown like a raven's wing and framed her face. Inside his glove, Spencer’s fingers twitched at the smooth skin of her bare shoulder. She was made up of textures meant for exploration by a man’s hand.

              He took the long way through the crowd, jabbed by elbows and whacked by ribbon batons but hardly noticing, his eyes never leaving her. It had been pleasure enough to study her. Now he hungered for more.

Pushing through a rowdy collection of her friends and admirers, he paused behind her and brushed his glove over the warm skin of that tempting bare shoulder. She gasped, spun around, and wide blue eyes behind her mask settled the matter of whether she’d come unescorted. Clearly, she had not expected anyone to touch her.

              Bowing low, he held out a hand. He liked her smile, hesitant but warm, full lips turning up at one corner. She opened her mouth to speak but he bridged it with a finger and shook his head.

              Shoulders relaxing, her smile blossomed and she nodded. She’d grasped his game.

              He wrapped her gloved with his and guided her toward the other dancers with an insistent pressure. A low groan of disappointment from her ring of admirers trailed them and he indulged in a small smile. His heart beat with something beyond simple anticipation, something like pleasure. He’d been a
very
young man the last time he’d enjoyed an engagement as much as he was now. Maybe it was her willingness to play along, the confident way she returned his grasp. Her perfume, a musky floral scent, enveloped him each time they paused. He longed to lean in, trace the curve of her neck and catch the scent on her skin.

              Spencer pulled her up short as they reached the edge of the dance and turned to face her. Eyes, wide and curious, followed his movements as he removed his gloves. He ran a finger along the band of her white satin one, traced its black embroidery, and hooked it. Tugging slowly to the wrist as he would her gown, her shift, he stripped each of her fingers in turn and undressed her hand. He considered her slender fingers against his stouter, rougher ones, heart pounding a pace faster at the thought of slipping them together.

Folding up her glove, he tucked its bundle into his pocket with a wink. If she wanted it back, it would cost her a waltz.

              She was watching him, her head cocked and eyes half lidded behind her mask, where a question played out. Whatever she struggled with, he knew she’d answered it when she reached for him.

Spencer fit his naked hand over hers, calloused palm pressing her smooth one and creating an electric current which sang through his body. They stood there a moment, a charged tension humming between them, their eyes locked. He pressed her back, she arched, and they were off.

Two steps back and they swirled in with the others. Velvet at her waist clung to his hand, whispering the heat of her body against his palm. At first she only rested fingers at his shoulder, a hesitant fluttering through his sleeve. When he led her through the first turn she gripped tighter, an intimate pressure which didn't relinquish.

              Spencer drank her in, from a surprisingly modest neckline to the crown of her head. She was older; he had been correct. She was more beautiful than he’d appreciated at a distance, with a mischievous smile which lit the depths of her cornflower eyes.

He smiled in reply, inhaling sharply with something like joy. He wasn’t sure what had come over him, and he wondered at the last time he’d pursued a woman this way. Before Portugal, maybe longer; never with such enthusiasm from his quarry. It had been three years, at least, since something other than a functional arrangement had satisfied his needs. Perhaps it was turning forty, or a musket ball that had been a hair too low to finish him at Toulouse, making him predatory tonight. He wanted to chase, and to win her.

              The quartet’s last warbling strains found them in amber light at a far corner of the ball room under a welcome cool breath from open terrace doors. Her hand relaxed against his now that their dance had ended, but Spencer had no intention of letting go unless she protested.

He laced fingers tighter between hers and turned. He loped through laughing, pressing bodies, overjoyed when she matched his pace. They passed through the doors out into a moonless spring night. Honeysuckle and early roses mingled with her perfume, and a chill which promised morning dew cooled sweat at his temple. They dashed down the steps and along a dirt path, skirting a tangled hedge. Her footsteps padded gently behind as they ran, matching the pulse hammering in his throat.

              Spencer rounded a corner of the orangerie’s wall, jerked her to him
,
and trapped her between his body and the greenhouse's coarse stone. She gasped, caught her balance with hands pressed to his chest, and sighed. He shivered and leaned into her warmth against a breeze, surprised and thrilled that she had followed him this far. How had he gotten so lucky?

              Her arms circled his neck, slender fingers twining in his hair as her lips brushed his in a sweet invitation. Something tightened low in his gut; he may have led the waltz, but his lady was making clear that they were on equal footing now.

He rallied, responding with aggressive pressure, catching a tantalizing hint of almond in her mouth. Fingernails raked through hair at the back of his collar, a distinctly feminine assault which tore free a groan. He nipped the hollow beneath her ear in retaliation, the perfume filling his nose as intoxicating as he’d imagined. His reward was a gasp and she arched. Pressure from the contact was his body's undoing.

              Grabbing her waist, Spencer hauled her atop a low brick wall bordering the side yard. Rucking up a fistful of her skirts, he jerked them to her hip and chuckled when she pushed at his hand. She was sweet, playful, and he brushed her lips again in response. On his second attempt with her skirts, however, her grasp was trembling and earnest and her hand refused him any farther.

              He groaned and surrendered the fabric to bury his face in her curls. He’d made an error somewhere; she had a husband or a lover. Perhaps he’d been too aggressive, or mistaken her enjoyment of the party for more.

He was set to pull away and apologize when something stopped him; her foot brushed his calf, head cradled on his shoulder, and she held him tight. Intrigued, he kissed her under the ear, and she shivered. She seemed perfectly content, judging by her soft panting, to let him continue tracing her neck with his tongue.

Her tentative hand slipped inside his coat, smoothed his chest and darted away, brushing his side through the linen of his shirt. Not, in his experience, the act of an unwilling partner. Her fingers teased the ribbon of his mask and she cradled his cheek and urged his head back. He dared lips against hers, one last kiss before they parted ways.

Her tongue brushed his, shocked him and lit a fuse. Spencer grasped her skirts again in spite of himself; a reflex, in answer to her breasts crushed against him. This time she fell back until her palms caught the wall's edge, not interfering when his trembling fingers traced the top of her stocking. He was nerves and breathless aching; when had anticipation ever affected him so?

             
Now
. His body demanded it. They had crossed some tipping point, his self-control frayed to threads. Stumbling fingers worked over each button of his breeches. Her fists strangled his coat and used it for leverage to fit their mouths together, her soft groans humming against his lips.

              “Alexandra!” a man's voice called.

Spencer realized he had caught it faintly, moments earlier and further away, but animal hunger had told him to ignore it. Now, they were nearly caught.

He didn't care. A masquerade, a garden; what was transpiring should hardly surprise anyone. It was tame by comparison to wilder London parties. But the lady was up now, frozen and clinging to the wall's lip.

              “Alexandra?”
Halfway down the path
.

Panting, she pressed him back with a hand. She looked to him a moment in silent apology before sliding down, turning and disappearing at a run behind the hedge's screen. Her racing footsteps faded into the darkness, shadow into shadow, and she was gone.

              From the opposite direction a dark figure rounded the corner and coalesced into a familiar shape. “Alix, are you there? Oh, Reed!” John glanced around, turning in a wide, drunken circle. “What are you doing out here?”
A chuckle
. “You out here with a lady?”

Spencer did a poor job of hiding hands inside his coat, stuffing his shirt tail and wrestling with the fall-front of his breeches. He was fourteen all over again. “Amusing. We’ve been friends, what, near ten years now? Have you ever known me to indulge in garden assignations?” He would not admit to John, even though they were best friends, what he’d been up to; he hated questions.

              John crossed his arms. “I’ve never known you to get foxed and piss in my garden either, but your trousers are only half done up.”

“I’ll have a word with my tailor about the matter.”

John held long arms wide. “Thought I’d do you a kindness, Reed, and assume it was owing to your being with a lady.”

              “No, Hastings,” admitted Spencer, “I am not, as you can well see. And don't use my name.” He adjusted his mask, pulled askew by fingers he already missed. “Spoils the mystery.”

              John's head bobbed out of time, under the influence of good wine. “So it does.” He planted a fist to his hip. “And just so, I’ll thank you not to use
my
name!”

              Spencer wondered if John appreciated the irony of his mask hanging around his neck, then shook his head. “I stepped out for some peace, some air. Why've you come?”

              “Looking for my cousin, Mrs. Rowan. The Jerseys have arrived and I'd like to make an introduction.”

              John's cousin, Chas Paton, and his wife Paulina, along with his Chas’s sister, Mrs. Rowan, had come from New York to take in a London spring. That detail, and that Paulina had offended John's wife on multiple counts, was all he knew or cared to know. Anyone who greeted Laurel Hastings’ hospitality with rudeness was hardly worth his notice.
              “You have time to find Mrs. Rowan,” Spencer drawled. “Once the Jerseys arrive, it's impossible to get rid of them.” The Jerseys, George and Sarah Villiers, made any party a success, and they enjoyed that influence and admiration as much as others enjoyed paying it to them.

BOOK: Argent (Hundred Days Series Book 3)
13.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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