Authors: Kate Monroe
By Kate Monroe
Copyright 2014 Kate Monroe
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Esther Quinn froze in the doorway as the solitary candle flickered and died. For all his faults, Samuel Fleetwood was nothing if not attentive. Without fail he leapt to his feet to greet her whenever he heard her key in the door – and more often than not had her clothing stripped away before she could even catch her breath.
Tonight, though, all was quiet in the junior minister’s townhouse. Were it not for her lover’s apparent absence, that would not have concerned her. The servants never stayed the night. Fleetwood liked his privacy, particularly when he had sent for her to keep him company until dawn. Always, though, he came to her the moment he heard her call his name, and she had done so thrice now with no response.
“Samuel?” she said again, not daring now to raise her voice beyond a whisper. He would surely hear her if he could, for she could see him amongst the shadows of the silent dining hall. He was slumped in his chair at the head of the table, his head lolling against his chest. He had spilled his wine. The sanguine liquid blossomed across his white shirt, near black in the gloom that enveloped him.
As Esther drew closer, though, a faint niggle in the back of her mind screamed for her attention. She hesitated, holding her breath as she unwillingly allowed it to fill her head.
The open bottle on the table was white wine, not red.
Terror exploded in her core as the truth slammed into her with all the force of a freight train. Fleetwood was not sleeping. He was dead. Someone had driven a knife through his heart – but if that was true, there no reason why she should be hearing what she was.
Her breath came in shallow gasps now, but it was not alone. Behind her were a series of steady, measured breaths that were the very antithesis of her own. No sooner had she registered that than a gloved hand closed around her mouth.
“Try not to scream, my lady,” a low voice whispered into her ear. “I have remarkably sensitive hearing, so I would far rather confine such sounds to the bedchamber.”
Esther only wished those salacious words didn’t thrill her anywhere near as much as they did. The dark image he deliberately placed in her mind whirled relentlessly, wrenching away what little remained of her composure as the stranger’s gloved thumb stroked across the bow of her lips. The silk was agonisingly erotic, sending a twist of such painful arousal searing through her veins that she knew she had to break away from him before he could seek further.
She stumbled backwards as he cursed under his breath, retaining his hold on her despite her frantic struggles against him. Her cap fell sideways, freeing her loose curls to tumble down to her shoulders, and the sleeve of her white blouse tore away as she bucked furiously against her captor and drove them towards the tall, narrow window that looked out onto the gardens.
Tangled in the long curtains, they fell to the floor and before Esther could even catch her breath the stranger pinned her down. The velvet drapes wrapped around their bodies, and though she twisted and writhed in desperation to break free, she only succeeded in arching into the restraining weight of his body as his nostrils flared.
She balled her fists and pummelled them against his chest, but then their eyes locked and in an instant all fight faded away to nothing more than a memory. His gaze captivated her, seeming to penetrate the depths of her soul as his grey eyes effortlessly held hers, so dark in the shadows that they were almost as black as the night sky outside. As his long hair fell forward to brush against her face, her breath hitched and a slow-burning smile broke out on his thin lips.
“There, that’s better,” he said softly, the low timbre of his voice sending a shiver chasing down her spine. “This is unexpected, isn’t it? I was about to leave when I heard your key in the door, my lady; and fool that I am, I could not resist the urge to stay a little longer and find out who had joined me. To my delight, I had a lovely view of my night’s unexpected companion as you came into this room. If, as I presume, you are visiting for the benefit of the gentleman who lived here, he surely counted himself deeply unfortunate that I arrived before you came.”
The spark in his eyes told Esther he fully intended that particular double entendre. She flinched, but then perhaps she deserved that when she had deliberately dressed with the intent of catching the male eye. She hated her cumbersome skirts with a passion, but she could not deny how well they suited her. The new fashions of the age played to her advantage, clinging to her curves with an impunity she often took advantage of – and such a talent was the reason she was here tonight. She had not intended, though, for it to throw her into the path of a man as dangerous as she feared this one would be.
Casually so as not to attract his notice, Esther allowed her eyes to flick from side to side. Only one of his hands was gloved. On the other, a thin trail of dried blood gave her all the confirmation she needed and feared. The stranger holding her down in so intimate a way was the one responsible for Fleetwood’s death – and if he had any idea who she truly was, she was in just as much danger. She had to make him believe she was nothing more than Fleetwood’s mistress, just as the dead man himself had believed.
A low moan built in the back of her throat, threatening to build to a crescendo until he inhaled sharply and forced his hand onto her mouth once more. “Hush now, my lady!” he said urgently. “I did not come here to do you harm, but if you try to fight me you will leave me with no choice!”
She did not doubt that for a moment. The fear in her eyes was very much real, and to her dizzying relief the stranger slowly loosened his hold on her.
“There we are,” he said, speaking softly as if trying to tame a wild animal. “Will you be a good girl if I allow you to stand again? Delightful though this is, if we stay like this much longer I shall lose all inclination to leave this house as I soon must.”
Esther drew a treacherously shallow breath. “That depends on whether or not you will promise not to hurt me, sir.”
A ghost of a smile pulled back the corners of his lips. Contrary to the fashions of the day he was clean-shaven, and his lack of beard afforded more prominence to his surprisingly high cheekbones. His accent had a foreign twang to it she could not place, but his vowels were rounded and precise; if it were not for all she suspected he had done tonight, she would have placed him squarely amongst the upper echelons of London society. Bemused by the contradiction he posed, she forced herself to gaze up at him as his smile widened.
“I shall not hurt you if you do all I demand of you, my lady – and as you have no doubt realised by now, that is a threat I am more than capable of following through on. To your feet, then.”
Though encumbered by a heavy greatcoat made to withstand the English winter, he leapt up with a surprising grace and held his gloved hand out for her to take. Esther reluctantly did so, but the moment she was steady on her feet she pulled away from his firm grasp. “Did you do this?” she asked, relieved to hear her voice was steady once more.
He gestured carelessly to the table where Fleetwood still sat, a mocking tableau that made Esther’s blood run cold as he spoke. “If by this you mean the perfectly executed job you walked in on, then yes. I am responsible.”
“How?” he echoed. “Do you mean to ask what my implement of choice was?”
She swallowed hard, painfully aware of the danger of the dance he was leading her through. “Yes,” she said, watching him through narrowed eyes as he rolled up one sleeve of his coat. “He was my lover, after all. I want to know what you did to him.”
“A fair question – and I fear I am powerless to refuse any request you might make of me, my lady.” He laughed under his breath when she paled further. “So, the answer to this request then. Many of those who share my profession have a certain fascination for poisons and the like, but I confess that my blade and I have something of an affinity. It is that which I used on Samuel Fleetwood tonight. Would you care for a demonstration?”
“A demonstration?” she said warily.
The assassin smiled as he casually flicked his right wrist and a six inch blade shot out of nowhere to gleam in the light of the moon. Caught off-guard Esther swore loudly, amazed at the technology that had embedded a knife into a man’s wrist to be wielded whenever he so chose. She had seen many examples of nanotech over the course of her work this past year, but this was undoubtedly the most spectacular example. The metal melded seamlessly with the bones and flesh it protruded from, and despite the nausea that gnawed at her stomach her eyes rounded in wordless awe of the weapon the assassin possessed.
What was more important than anything else, though, was the fact that if that knife had truly struck its intended target, she had failed. Hot tears stung her eyes as she crossed the room in three short strides, willing herself not to glance at the assassin as he instantly followed and laid a possessive hand on her shoulder when she came to a halt beside Fleetwood’s chair.
Her hand shook wildly as she reached out to press one finger against his jugular vein. She had never seen a dead body in the flesh before. She had seen plenty of photographs, but somehow now the reality was before her eyes, the awareness of how fragile life truly was took her breath away. She knew she had to hold firm, for everything she worked towards for the past four months was tied up in this house.
There could be no doubt about it. Fleetwood was dead.
Esther jerked back as a sharp twist of frustration seared her veins. “Damn it!” she said, her eyes already darting from side to side in desperate search of that which she was already convinced was lost to her.
The assassin arched one brow in polite surprise when she glanced back at him. “An unusual reaction to the death of one’s paramour, I must say. Did you forget you are supposed to be playing the role of a grieving mistress?”
She flinched. “I – I
“Not for the reason you should be. Your grief is not because he is lost to you, but because his death is in some way a frustration. You are intriguing, my lady – and most unexpected.”
“Unexpected?” she said slowly, ceasing her search for the moment as the assassin turned her to face him again. “How so?”
“Because I have been watching Fleetwood for weeks. He lived alone.”
His deliberate use of the past tense reminded her anew of the danger she was in. Fleetwood and his secrets forgotten for now, her tongue darted out across her lips as he watched her intently. “I have been abroad this past month,” she finally replied.
He tilted his head to the side. “You have a travel permit?”
Esther heard the disbelief in his voice, but for once she was telling the truth. “Friends in high places, sir.”
“Evidently so. Yet nobody mentioned you to me.”
affaire de coeur
was not a public one. Samuel preferred to keep the two strands of his life separate, you see. His life of politics in London was not one he liked to intrude upon all we shared here in Oxford.”
“Then nobody knows you are here.”
Esther whitened as the gravity of her mistake sunk in. She should not have let that slip. The one weapon she had at her disposal was the threat that someone else would soon arrive, and now this seemingly skilled assassin knew he had her entirely at his mercy. Her patience gave way as she lifted her head to look directly at him, her jaw clenched tightly as she cursed her lack of foresight in not bringing a weapon tonight.
She had had enough of playing this game by his rules. “No, they do not. So do you intend to kill me?”
He was still staring at her with that peculiar intensity that made her heart miss a beat as it lurched against her ribcage, fluttering more wildly than ever now she found herself teetering on the very edge of death. Her breath quickened as she met his eyes, lost in the impenetrable depths of all they threatened as he clenched his fist and the blade finally receded back amongst the flesh and bone of his arm, invisible once more.
“No,” he said finally.
A thrill of horror shot through her body. “Then you intend to...to rape me?”
“I would really rather not.”
To her deep unease, his cool words made her stomach flip over. Something of her discomposure must have shown on her face, for he laughed under his breath.
“Oh, it is not that I find you unattractive – far from it, Esther!”
The assassin’s hoarse confession should have terrified her, but all she heard was the final word he spoke. Dumbstruck by all it entailed, she finally backed away from him. “How do you know my name?”
“Your name was the last word on your gentleman’s lips. Does that offer you any comfort?”
Esther forced two tiny tears from her eyes as his laughter faded away and his hand drifted up to rest against her face. Building a rapport with the assassin was the only weapon left in her arsenal. She had to disassociate herself from the dead body at their side, to make him see her as a person in her own right, and she feared it was high time she called upon the feminine wiles she so disliked.
She twisted away from him and buried her head in her hands, and to her deep relief as she peered through her entwined fingers his face contorted. The hired assassin’s cool facade had cracked, and she suspected that though he was fully prepared to murder the man his employer marked out, adding the weight of a lady’s soul to his burden was not something he was prepared to take on. Perhaps in the first moment she stumbled across him he might have done so, but that moment was forever lost.