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THE CHARMER (Chapter One)
ENGLAND 1813, AUTUMN
His naked, sculpted chest gleamed in the candlelight. His shoulders, broad and muscled, narrowed to a hard waist and flat belly. He was tall enough to make her feel small, although she wasn't, particularly. His gray eyes watched her as intently as she watched him. She didn't want to miss a thing--not the way his tousled dark hair hung over his brow, not the way his chest rose and fell with his quickening breaths. Especially not the way his sweat-dampened breeches clung to powerful thighs that were already braced to receive her advance. She knew his form well, knew the feel of him, the shape of him. Yet there was always more to learn.
Rose couldn't blink, couldn't look away. Her eyes became her only conduit to him as she shut out everything else. There was no London, no England, no war. There was only this man--this beautiful, half-naked man who gazed at her with such intensity.
She stepped closer. Careful. She mustn't seem too eager, nor too nonchalant. If she was to fulfill her wish here in this dimly lit room, she must play wisely and well.
His chest swelled as he inhaled and the golden glow from the candles played like music over his hot and rippling body. He exhaled in a rush.
She almost smiled. It was a sign.
As he moved toward her, she spread her knees and readied herself. Her patience had repaid her, for as he wrapped his arms about her--
She rolled him cleanly over her shoulder and tossed him hard to the mat beneath them.
Collis Tremayne lay there, gasping back the breath that had been knocked from him by the fall. Rose Lacey, former housemaid turned spy trainee, only cocked her head down at her opponent and folded her arms.
The hand-to-hand combat trainer stepped forward and grunted. "Should have rolled out of that fall," Kurt said.
Kurt was the premier assassin of the Liar's Club, the band of Crown spies that operated behind the facade of a gambling hell that stood opposite the school. Who would ever have thought it? Assassins and spies had become everyday associates of Rose's ever since the day she'd been liberated from her former position and installed as the first woman ever to be trained to be a Liar.
Kurt, who also cooked for the mixed band of gentlemen and street thieves that made up the Liars, was very, very good with puff pastry and anything bladed and sharp. Ever a man of few words, the scarred giant turned his back and returned to his place along the wall.
The weapons training room, or the arena, as Kurt had dubbed it, was the largest portion of the cellar of an unassuming building in a not-quite-respectable area of London. Of course, it no longer resembled a place for storing root vegetables and casks of ale. Pity about that ale. Rose wiped perspiration from her face with the back of her forearm. She truly could use a pint about now.
Currently the stone walls were adorned with racks of weapons and other training accoutrements. Against one wall stood a rack of straw-stuffed canvas figures that served as the enemy for students too likely to kill one another accidentally. She herself had graduated from dummies very quickly, thank you very much.
Fortunately, there was plenty of room for errors, as the great space was broken only by six thick oak foundation pillars that supported the building above. Alarmingly painted targets adorned another wall, while above it all hung a rather medieval candleholder that reminded Rose of the giant oaken cranks that had once lifted a castle's drawbridge. It held forty candles or more, which she knew because she paid her board at the school by cleaning it as well.
Most of the students lived at the school and did as she did. Tiny bedchambers had been carved from the top-story attic. A bit cramped, it was true, but Rose felt the charm of her very own room more than made up for the lack of space.
And Kurt lived there, when he wasn't tending the kitchen of the other establishment. She glanced at him, awaiting further instructions. The giant instructor made all the other students lined up against the wall look like children. Some of them were, compared to her and Collis. They two were the oldest in the group by several years, having both come late to the school.
To the world, it was known as the Lillian Raines School for the Less Fortunate.
To those few who knew better, it was the Academy, the training ground for the most elite gang of thieves and spies ever in the service of the Crown--the Liar's Club. Rose and Collis, all of them, were the next generation of this mixed band of badness and bravery.
That is, if they didn't kill one another before graduation.
A rumble came from Kurt. Rose nodded. She looked back down at her opponent. Collis Tremayne, the stuff of a maiden's dreams. Even with one arm rendered useless Collis was a prime specimen of manhood.
He was quite tall, making Rose feel like standing as straight as possible to make up for her own middling height. Some said he looked like the younger brother to his uncle, Lord Etheridge, and he did, in a literal way. Collis had the thick, nearly black Etheridge hair and the pale gray Etheridge eyes, though not as eerily silver as his uncle's. Collis was far more high-spirited and playful than his uncle. Too playful by half, if anyone were asking Rose's opinion.
Handsome, charming Collis was also the heir to the great fortune and title of Etheridge--and the bane of Rose's existence.
He'd caught his breath at last. Rose offered him a hand up. He grinned up at her. "Now, if only you fought in skirts, being tossed to the floor might be a pleasurable experience. I might at least be paid for my troubles with a glimpse of those lovely ankles."
Rose snatched her hand back. "Oh, but trousers keep off the vermin and other pests," she said pointedly.
"Again," came Kurt's order from the shadows. "You're two and two. Last fall." The great candle-bearing wheel above them hissed and flickered as Rose and Collis circled each other again.
"Don't give it away, lad." Kurt's rumbling advice seemed to come from all directions. "You're gusting like a bellows afore you rush her."
Blast. Rose wished Kurt hadn't told Collis that. It was her best clue. Collis was far stronger than she was, even with his disabled arm. She was perhaps a hair quicker, but that was only from years of dodging blows and gropes from her employer and his son, Louis.
Former employer, that is. Dead and gone now, and good riddance to the evil and traitorous Mr. Edward Wadsworth. No longer was she a poor little housemaid, beaten for every petty or imagined offense.
Nor would anyone ever beat her again. She was fast and she was smart, too smart to allow herself to be ill-treated evermore.
Rose pulled her mind from the past and set herself firmly into the present. There was only Collis. He tossed back the dampened lock clinging to his brow and she was put in mind of a sleek and spirited stallion. Magnificent, unbearable Collis...
He rushed her without any sort of warning. She had no time to sidestep, no time to react in any way but to shrink back. Old memories, old fears, old reactions took her over. She ducked wildly, without reason. His attack bowled her over, tumbled her back--
And rolled him directly over her and flat onto the mat once more. It took a moment before Rose realized what had happened.
She'd accidentally won. Collis had expected resistance, had expected a countermove. His speed and force had been so great that he'd done himself in, rather like swinging too hard at something that suddenly isn't there.
She looked up from her own crouch to see Kurt standing over them. Kurt's scarred and craggy face used to be difficult for Rose to look at directly, although now he seemed as familiar and comfortable as the shabby furnishings of the training arena.
The man only grunted once at Collis, although he sent Rose a piercing look that told her he had seen her instinctive cower.
But Collis hadn't, thank heaven. Rose raised her chin, defying her own weakness. She shouldn't think about Collis as if he were an ordinary man, who might take the fancy of an ordinary girl. She certainly shouldn't allow thoughts of him to distract her in the middle of training.
Collis rolled over to stand, using his good arm to brace his rise from the mat. Rose took a step toward him, her hand out once more.
Collis's head came up as her next step rustled the straw-filled mat. She thought she saw struggle on his face before he dredged up a teasing grin. "Your match, Briar Rose."
Rose stiffened at Collis's reminder of her origins. Briar--a weed, a pest to be rooted out of any respectable garden. Her chin rose and her eyebrows crept to a haughty level she had learned from the finest of British butlers. "Imagine that," she drawled in her best upper-class mimicry. "Bluebloods still bleed red."
Collis brought his knuckles to catch the drop seeping from his split lip. His eyes widened comically at the smear of blood.
The other students were preparing for weapons practice. Gleaming pistols came from their boxes. Rags and oil emerged to clean the deadly things. Rose grimaced. She was good with the defensive weapons, good enough to deflect even Kurt's blows on occasion. Still, the servant girl within flinched from handling the pistols. Firearms belonged to the Quality. Mustn't touch.
She knew Kurt despaired of ever making her an offensive operative. Even with all the extra training he'd provided her, she could not bring herself to attack. It was just as well, for she had the feeling he'd wanted her as his own apprentice. He considered her servant skills a major advantage in getting close to a target, then getting away. Rose's stomach churned. Rose the Assassin? Ew.
But Rose the Spy...perhaps. If she could keep in mind the woman she'd become.
She'd been contrary enough as a child. When she went into service, she had learned that it would not serve her well to be so stubborn. Many lashings later, the rebel within had been mostly quelled.
Until Clara Simpson had happened upon her. Rose had been crying alone on her little pallet in the attic, where she'd been banished after one too many clumsy incidents. Many times she wondered why Mr. Wadsworth didn't simply sack her, but so many servants came and went in that household that she mused that he probably thought he already had.
After all, it wasn't as if anyone called her by name. She was addressed as "You there!" or "Girl!" so often that at night she would repeat her own name to herself in the dark, just to remind herself of the sound of it. Perhaps a tiny rebellion after all.
Widowed political cartoonist Clara Simpson had swept in like an avenging angel, with sympathy and stolen food and the outlandish request to take Rose's place. At first Rose had been only too happy to slumber away the hours when Clara worked as maid, for it seemed she could never sleep her fill. Then one day, her spirit strengthened by rest and the treats that now came her way, it occurred to Rose to wonder what it was that Clara found so fascinating within the Wadsworths' household.
Curiosity had stirred from some forgotten corner of Rose's mind, sharpening her wits and brightening her existence with the game of hide-and-seek-information. At first there was so much she hadn't understood, complicated concepts that rang meaningless on her ears--until she began to study at the Liar's Academy.
A great deal had come clear during her lessons in politics and history, dangling bits that only spurred her to further effort in order to provide the context needed for the information that she already held.
Wadsworth had been dirty indeed, leader of a group of treasonous plotters known only as the Knights of the Lily, a reference to the fleur-de-lis that was the emblem of French royalty. The group had been squelched once before, years before Rose's time there, but Wadsworth had been left untouched for reasons of political benefit. Untouched but not unwatched.
But the evil Mr. Edward Wadsworth was dead now, killed at the hands of Lord Etheridge himself while he was rescuing his beloved Clara.
Rose wanted to be like Clara more than anything in the world. Clara had a mission, a purpose in life. Her drawing talent had done more than support her in her widowhood; it had given her a way to strip the pretty veil away from the dirty doings of the Quality, to defend those who couldn't defend themselves.
Having a husband who was mad for her didn't hurt, either. Lord Etheridge was as aristocratic as any man Rose had ever seen, but she didn't hold it against him. No one who loved that much could be all bad. Odd how a bloke's armor chinks told you more sometimes than his strengths did.
At his urging, she'd been happy to flee the Wadsworth house to find refuge with the warm and gracious Lady Raines.
When she'd diffidently knocked at the service entrance of that fine house months ago, she'd had no hopes of anything but a meal and perhaps a position in the scullery where she wouldn't be worked too hard or fed too little.
She'd been welcomed, fed, and interviewed in the first hour. Agatha Raines had eyed her closely, asked her several pointed questions, then clapped her hands with glee and announced, "You'll do very nicely indeed."
Within days Rose had found herself installed in her own cozy room in the school attic and pressed into tutelage under various outlandish teachers. Kurt, of course, taught her hand-to-hand fighting and weapons. Feebles had shown her the ins and outs of picking pockets. Button had instructed her in costume and disguise and how to learn to play any character by observation and emulation. The shy and earnest Fisher had drilled her on codes and mapmaking. Lady Raines had taught her how to speak and move and conduct herself no matter at what level of society she found herself.
Entirely willing to be seduced by the kindness surrounding her, Rose had thrown her very being into improving herself in any way her teachers wanted, despite the oddness of the requests.
Rose felt as if she had been a parched and dying plant, suddenly blessed with all the water and care she could desire. She expanded--she grew--if she could have put forth flowers to reward her benefactors, she gladly would have.
So now, with a deep breath, she took up her pistol.
And promptly dropped it. She could hear Kurt's gusting sigh from all the way across the arena. She sent him an apologetic shrug.
Collis slung a piece of toweling over his shoulder, watched Rose Lacey fumble her pistol, and grunted in sympathy. He knew how embarrassing clumsiness could be. His left arm would never be whole and his balance was still uneven without the use of it. Hence this afternoon's trouncing on the mat. He'd get better. All he needed was time.
He looked away uncomfortably. Perhaps.
He himself wasn't required to sit firearms practice, thank the fates. He'd grown up shooting for pleasure on the Etheridge estate and knew his pistols inside and out.
Absently he rubbed the shoulder of his deadened arm. Although he had no feeling from the joint down, the muscles above there ached as badly as did the rest of his body from hitting the mat often and hard.
Briar Rose had enjoyed that, he just knew it. There was no hiding that spark of victorious light in her eyes when she bested him. Her lips would relax and quirk just a bit to the left and her lids would drop slightly to shield her triumphant gaze--and Collis would know she was crowing inside.
It was his secretly held belief that there was far more to Rose Lacey than met the eye.
Oh, she played the no-nonsense trainee well enough. She certainly looked the part, as serious and disapproving as a nun with her sensible braids pinned tightly about her head. The odd thing was, the more tightly she wound herself into the perfect student, the more Collis had to wonder what would happen when she sprang free.
There was potential for a most noteworthy springing free there, he suspected. A truly respectable eruption, in fact. No one was that industrious or that quarrelsome without something pushing them hard from behind.
Not that he was interested in her or anything of the sort. She wasn't his preferred variety of woman at all. He liked them pretty and round and bubbly. Rose was far too long of leg and far too short of bosom. Her features were austere, despite those deep hazel eyes. No one would look twice at her face--until she smiled.
Not that she often did. But by God, when she did...Collis had found himself breathless more than once, gone still and riveted by that radiant smile. Then it would be gone, and he would shake himself back to reality.
Of course, Briar Rose cared nothing for his opinion of her beauty. She cared nothing for him at all. She seemed completely consumed by her own aspirations. There wasn't a score he'd earned that she hadn't topped or come bloody close to, not a move he tried that she couldn't counter. The hell of it was, the more she competed with him, the more he looked forward to coming into the Academy every morning. Sooner or later, one of them was going to collect their winnings.
Winnings. Winnings always reminded him of Ethan Damont. Never had a bloke taken more winnings than Ethan. And last night he'd been in the Liar's Club.
The public side of the club of course, which truthfully was rather exclusive in its own right. The gentlemen's establishment known to the world as the Liar's Club was limited to members only. Of course, the only membership requirements were those of being rich, bored, and vaguely bad.
Ethan was all that but rich. Unless he'd come into some fortune that Collis didn't know of, Ethan Damont worked hard for a living. Worked hard playing hard, that is. Ethan was a professional gambler, making his way through the world depriving rich and stupid young men of their--in his words--undeserved wealth.
And last night, there Ethan had been, raking in his winnings with that same wry, disinterested manner in which he'd taken every tuppence from the other boys at school. Collis watched Ethan light his cheroot from the cigar candle he held to its end. His old friend let out a puff or two, then finally flicked his gaze to Collis without a moment's surprise.
"Tremayne," Ethan greeted him laconically. He leaned back in his chair and stretched his legs. "Surprised to see you in this hole. Then again, you never did have any taste."
Collis laughed easily. Ethan knew very well that the Liar's Club supplied its members with all the finest in food, wine, cigars and gentlemanly entertainment. There was even a raised stage on one end of the clubroom for those less-than-gentlemanly entertainments, although there was a standard policy against any actual prostitution taking place.
Nodding to that velvet-draped stage, now standing empty, Collis took a chair. "You missed the show tonight. That python was the damnedest thing I've ever seen. Six feet if it was an inch."
Ethan shrugged. "I heard about it. My latest victim brought me here as his guest, but not until the fun was over. Can't say as I'm sorry I missed it. Why would any girl want to dance with a snake?"
"Same reason she'd want to dance with you, I suppose."
That finally got a chuckle from his friend, to Collis's relief. Ethan did not look as though he were thriving. Collis had not seen him for a long time.
Ethan and he had a long history. They had spent their years at school using their wits and their fists to get them in and out of trouble. Unlike Collis, Ethan was not highborn. He was the youngest son of a dour shipping merchant who had decided the irreverent young man was not fit to inherit any portion of the business, so after giving him an education had sent him out to make his own way. And so he had.
Ethan was a master of the cards. A cheat, yes, but the finest, most affable, infinitely challenging cheat about. The wealthy men of Society could not resist him. It had become something of a mark of social superiority to play against "the Diamond". He fleeced only the mighty, and he only took what was needed to continue his delightful lifestyle in the Polite World.
To have Ethan in your game was to experience the height of the manly art of gambling. He never stole estates from lordlings too young to know they were out of their league. He never targeted desperate men out to restore fallen fortunes. He was a most ethical, honorable cheat. Most importantly, one could never prove the fact.
Collis never, ever played opposite him.
But the dashing and handsome youth from Collis's past had become a jaded, world-weary man, though he was no older than Collis. Ethan's eyes were flat, his gestures mechanical as he toyed with the deck of cards.
"How are you these days, Damont?" Collis leaned forward. "Really."
Ethan didn't look at him. "Better than you."
Rebuffed, Collis sat back with a snort. "True. At least you still have both wings."
"That is I. Fully fledged and nowhere to fly."
The words were quiet, almost inaudible, but they rang in Collis's head like a bell. Nowhere for an intelligent, wily, adventurous fellow like Ethan to fly? Excitement twined through him. Oh, had his friend come to the right club!
Still, nothing could be done without clearing the notion through Dalton first, so Collis had taken his friend's latest address and bid him a cheerful goodnight. Recruiting wasn't a trainee's job, but this idea was simply too brilliant not to pass along.
And admittedly, it had not been very comfortable being with Ethan last night. His old friend's presence had brought back far too many memories. Recalling the boy he'd once been, the man he'd become for a while...until that day on the battlefield when the cannon fire had blasted him from his horse, breaking several ribs and shattering his left arm so badly it had nearly been declared hopeless and amputated.
If not for one very observant surgeon, who had seen that the pulse in Collis's left wrist was still strong and had ordered the arm set and left to heal on its own, he would indeed be without one wing.
But healed did not necessarily mean recovered, so his soldiering days were over almost as soon as they'd begun. No more war, no more battles, no more music--
Don't think about it. Think about this day, this work.
It was worthy work, or would be as soon as he became a Liar in truth. He couldn't wait.
On the few missions he'd taken part in, he'd not been a real operative. He'd once helped James Cunnington attempt to locate an elusive prostitute named Fleur. Those had been interesting days, combing every place from the finest establishments, like Mrs. Blythe's elegant house of entertainment, to the lowest and filthiest corners of the stews--educational in itself, to be sure, but he'd only been along for the ride. He'd not even been told why they were searching for the girl.
Another time he'd donned the red vest of a Bow Street Runner to search for a traitor's daughter--but again, errands, not missions.
For now, Collis's mission was to graduate the Liar's Academy--and to enjoy provoking Rose, with her flashing eyes and snug breeches that showed entirely too much length of leg--
Rose turned just then and caught him looking. Collis blinked innocently under her questioning glare, until his grin turned to laughter. She was so much fun to rile.
He crossed the room to lean one hip against the wall near where she sat with her firearms class. "That was good work on the mat. You're going to be as good as me someday."
Rose sighed, then put down her pistol and cloth. She folded her arms, tucking her fingers beneath her rolled-up sleeves, and eyed him with raised brows. "Flirting again? It won't work, y'know. I'm immune."
He grinned at her, that easy smile that sent tiny shivers through her. "Flirting is so passé. I'm...beguiling."
She stiffened her spine against its traitorous tendency to melt. "Well, go beguile somewhere else. I'm busy."
"Oh, but I love to watch you work." He stepped closer. "You're so very...nimble-fingered." His voice went husky and his eyes seemed to go darker, from smoke to storm cloud. He moved a step closer, until her elbow was so close to his...um, hip...that she could feel the heat of his body on her bared arm. She ought to get up and move away. She ought to say something sharp, a rebuke for such ridiculous maneuverings.
Too bad her mouth was so dry.
She always could feel him near her, as if he were surrounded by a wall of heat that seeped through her clothing to warm her skin. For once, he seemed to feel it too. The teasing gleam in his eye faded, to be replaced by something darker and much, much more intense.
Breathing was becoming a problem. She parted her lips for more air to her lungs. His eyes flashed at that small, moist sound. Oh, God, she could fall into those cloudy-sky eyes forever--
A sound came from nearby, a not-so-subtle clearing of a raspy throat.
The spell over Rose popped like a soap bubble. She spun toward Kurt in relief. "Yes, sir?"
With a grunt, the trainer jerked his chin toward the dismembered pistol before her.
Rose blinked. Right. The pistol.
She picked up the pistol, refusing to notice how her hands had that tendency to shake again. She was immune to blarney-bleating toffs with more looks than honesty. Immune.
And as soon as her body stopped quivering with unreleased heat, she was going to prove it.
Collis watched Rose handle the pistol, unable to take his gaze from her quick, skilled fingers. Her hands were actually quite elegant, despite the short, practical nails. She cleaned the barrel, her touch almost caressing as she stroked the cloth up and down.
He was quite sure he was choking. What would it feel like to have those hands on him, stroking him in just that skillful way?
Rose never fluttered her hands like some women he knew. Every movement she made had a purpose, with grace and economy combined. She had very sensible hands.
Collis found himself suddenly convinced that anything else was just plain silly on a woman. Who wanted a female who couldn't keep a grip on her own fan, for pity's sake? Who wanted to be touched with weak, flaccid fingers when he could be held fiercely tight by a woman who meant it?
Elegant, sensible hands.
Through the opening into the hall, Collis caught a glimpse of the proprietor of the Lillian Raines School--Sir Simon Raines himself--talking to Dalton.
Collis smiled and strode forward. Just the men he'd wanted to see.
THE CHARMER Copyright © 2004 by Celeste Bradley