A View to a Kiss
Harry Sinclair is a man of secrets and disguise, a covert agent of the British Home Office. Lady Mariah Dunmore is the only child of the powerful Earl of Doncaster, and far above Harry's touch. Until a chance encounter on a dark balcony leads to intrigue…temptation…desire. All's fair in love and espionage…
2010 RITA® Finalist for Best Regency Romance
K.I.S.S from Romantic Times for hero Harry Sinclair
"Be swept away into a sensual world of danger and disguise as Linden works her magic in a tale with an excellent premise: A sexy mystery man sneaks into your bedroom, wooing you with words and soft touches. It's a delicious readers' fantasy come to life. " Four Stars
"[C]ombines the best of a spy novel, a romance novel, and a historical novel into one thrilling tale of love, lust, treason, and triumph. A passionate well-told story, this book is a compelling read that stands out among other historical romances for its strong, likeable characters, unique romance, exciting mystery, and original plot."
"I loved this story and I'll definitely be looking for more stories by Caroline Linden… Waiting on tenterhooks for my next fix." 4 ¾ stars
"The plot is full of twists, turns, intrigue, and some very good love scenes. I think this author will be a new favorite with me."
"Complex, richly detailed, and emotionally and intellectually satisfying… If you're a fan of intrigue in your historical romance, this is the book for you." Four Stars
"[A] keeper… Caroline Linden just keeps getting better."
"A wonderful read." Four Stars
"Riveting drama." Four Stars
In Case You Were Wondering…
A lot of this book is drawn straight from history. The year 1820 was filled with intrigue and upheaval almost from the first day. At the end of January, George III died, officially ending the Regency and setting off a showdown between the new king, George IV, and his estranged wife, Caroline. Caroline wanted to be crowned Queen, and George was determined that she would not be. It was a tense and divisive issue, with many taking up the Queen's side as a cudgel to use against the unpopular government. For the past years, things had been going downhill for most Englishmen. The end of the Napoleonic wars meant many former army men were without work, the Corn Laws kept the price of food high and led to starvation. A movement for radical political change gained force under the influence of Henry Hunt and others.
Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, favored cracking down on these activities, and he did so with force. A protest march at St. Peter's Field in Manchester (August 1819) was broken up by the cavalry, killing 15 people. In February of 1820, a plot to assassinate the Cabinet ministers in a house on Cato St. was thwarted, and the conspirators were tried for treason. Sidmouth had spies all over the country, infiltrating the radical revolutionary groups and reporting to his spymaster, John Stafford, who was also Chief Clerk of Bow Street. Some of these spies did more than report, however; they became agents provacateur, agents who actively stirred up and promoted violence within these groups in order to have something to report to Sidmouth. As a result, the government's case against many of the accused radicals was weakened and even rejected outright.
My spies are based on this point: what if Stafford had decided to recruit a better class of spy, more honest and even with some ties to respectability, to make his prosecutions more solid? Of course, he might not be entirely honest with them, either…
She called herself Madame de la Tource and claimed to be related to French aristocracy. She was handsome, in a bold way, and she liked to entertain, although most respectable people would never dream of attending her salon. Like most Frenchwomen, she had expensive taste and an imperious attitude, and she treated her servants with disdain.
Which meant that when the household next door acquired a striking new footman, none of Madame's maids thought twice about making eyes at him. Working for Madame didn't offer many benefits, and if a bit of fun with the neighboring servants were the only one a girl could discover, so be it.
Tom, the second footman of the Greaves household, was tall and handsome, with sharp hazel eyes and the finest calves in London. He was dark and charming and gave an air of being meant for so much more than a footman. Before long, there was nearly open strife belowstairs for his attentions, and within a fortnight, Tom could have had any of Madame's maids for a wink and a crook of his finger.
And the evening of Madame's spring soiree, he winked at Polly, Madame's ladies' maid, slipping through the open kitchen door behind her.
"Good eve to you, Miss Polly," he whispered as she hastily arranged a tray of tarts for the guests. Polly gasped, almost upsetting her tray, but recovered quickly.
"And to you." She turned around and set down the tray on a table. Tom's shoulders looked even broader up close, and Polly felt a thrill of excitement that she might explore them, personally, tonight. "No work tonight at Greaves's?"
He shrugged, lounging against the door but staying in the shadows. "Not much. The master's away, so I've a night out. Got a bit of a to-do here, aye?"
Any fool could see that, with people coming and going and various guests playing on the pianoforte at intervals. Madame's guests weren't the most dignified sort. Polly wiped her hands on the edge of her apron. She was supposed to be serving those guests, having been pressed into extra duties tonight like all the servants. But Tom was here, with a wicked twinkle in his eye…
"Not much." Tom's mouth curved knowingly. "Not too much for me to take a minute, that is," she amended coyly. "If you had a minute to spend with me…"
"Tonight, Poll," he said, "I've got more than a minute to spend with you."
Polly abandoned her tray of tarts without a backward glance.
She spirited him up the back stairs into the only room she knew would remain undisturbed during the evening, the mistress's dressing room. All was proceeding very much according to Polly's fondest wishes when Tom lifted his head in an air of listening. "Hush," he whispered, catching her hands. "Hush."
She paused, listening intently. From the next room came the sound of voices, a man and a woman. Madame had come back upstairs, with a companion. "Bugger all," she gasped. "I'll be sack—" Tom cut her off with a hand over her mouth, and she remained silent, hardly daring to breathe. It was one thing to sneak away from her duties, and another to be caught by the mistress doing it.
"You 'ave been ignoring me," Madame was whining in her thick French accent. "You 'ave hardly been to see me this fortnight, and I miss you…"
"Yes, yes," said a man over her complaints. His voice was distinctive, sharp and hasty. "Don't fret. Look what I've brought you."
There was a moment of silence, then a rapturous gasp. "Oh, Gerald, you darling man—"
"Yes, look," he interrupted her. He didn't sound like a man eager to bask in her gratitude. "Look." Another moment's silence. "I can't give you more."
"Oh, Gerry." Her tone had turned wheedling. "You say that every time. It is not so much, is it? And I do depend on you so, Gerry…"
"Yes." He sounded nervous now. "But be wary what you do with it. It's an awful risk I took…"
She laughed, a confident trill of amusement. "Oui, but for me, Gerry, you would risk anything, non?"
"I shouldn't," he said. Almost pleaded. "I can't do it again, please don't ask me…" In the dressing room, Polly's brow wrinkled. In response Tom slipped his finger under the shoulder of her neckline and gave a tiny tug. She jumped and grabbed his hand, setting off a small tussle, during which neither clearly heard what was said next in the other room.
"We should go back downstairs now. Your guests will miss you, pet." Gerry still sounded nervous, but there was an undercurrent of relief in his words. Madame laughed again, a moment later the door opened and closed. Polly exhaled loudly.
"Thought we'd be treated to a real show for a moment there," said her companion, his fingers still running along the edge of her undone bodice.
"Hush!" she scolded him. "Madame would flay me alive."
"Can't have that, can we?" He squeezed her bottom in one hand. Polly gulped back a sigh and tried not to melt; he had such lovely hands. "I suppose you'll be tossing me out, then."
She pulled a face even as she slid from his lap and began tugging her dress back into place. "Not because I want to."
"Who's the bloke? Not the master, I gather."
"Not the master, just the money. Sir Gerald somebody." Polly squinted in thought as she put her dress to rights. "Walton? No, Wollaston. Some fancy gent in the government. The Treasury, that's it. Madame's quite pleased to have such an important one, for all he's a fool. He's the one what pays for all her jewels and whatnot. Thinks he's God, and wants to be treated like it."
"All gents feel that way." Tom leaned back and put his hands behind his head as he watched her with hot, dark eyes. Polly frowned in pique despite that look. He hadn't removed more than his gloves and queue wig. She'd not had so much as a glimpse of his finer assets.
"I've got to get back," she told him. He just continued to look at her bosom. "Do you hear me? I've got to get back to my post."
"All right." He sat up with a sigh and plopped his powdered wig back on his head. He pulled on one glove, then looked around. "Where's my glove?"
"I don't know," she said. The clock on Madame's mantel in the other room chimed the hour and she jumped. How long had she been up here with him—a quarter hour? Half?
"I can't find it," he said, searching around. Polly hadn't yet tidied the room from Madame's whirlwind dressing, and female clothing littered every surface.
"Haven't you got another?" Now that it was clear she wouldn't have any fun, Polly began to feel anxious about being discovered missing. Cook would complain to Madame if she were missed, and the other girls would be sure to tattle on her if they knew she had Tom up here. No matter how clever his hands, she didn't want to lose her employment over Tom. She tossed aside some gowns as he looked behind the chaise.
"No, I haven't."
Polly sighed in distraction. "I don't see it. And I've got to get back."
"Go on, then, if you aren't of a mind to help." He got down on his knees and looked under the chaise where Polly had been sure she would be tumbled good and proper. She eyed his finely shaped arse for a moment, but the danger of getting the sack weighed too heavily.
"Well, don't be too long about it. If the mistress finds you here, I'll be turned out without a reference, I will."
"I heard you. Go on, then."
Polly didn't like his tone, but now was not the time to argue. She hurried to the door. "Don't take on, Tommy. I'll make it up to you, I vow." She winked at him. "Not before tomorrow, though." One corner of Tom's mouth curled lasciviously, and she slipped away, feeling like a queen among maids.
The left-behind footman from next door rummaged under the chaise until her footsteps died away completely. Then he got to his feet and crossed to the door she had exited, listening for a moment before rushing to the other door, the one to Madame de la Tource's bedchamber. With only a swift glance inside to assure himself the room was empty, he slipped through the door, closing it softly behind him.
It was an expensive room, done up in the costliest of materials if not the finest of taste. A room meant to impress, no doubt, although Tom spared it barely a moment's inspection. Without hesitation he went to Madame's dressing table and slid open each drawer in succession, sifting quickly and quietly through the contents. He examined some items for a few moments, but returned everything to its place. Next he went to the writing desk by the window and repeated his search, but still took nothing. Wheeling about, he scanned the room, his gaze catching on the clock ticking on the mantel.
He moved to the chest opposite the bed and pulled open each drawer, his hands skimming through the unmentionables they contained, disturbing each item just enough to ascertain its ordinary nature. When he had rifled the entire chest, he slid the last drawer quietly home, his brow drawn into a slight frown. He swung around, scanning the room again. Not in the dressing table, not in the desk, not in the bureau. He didn't have time to search the entire room, and so had to choose. Where, then?
And then he saw the jewel case, left on the table. It was too obvious…and yet… He crossed the room with three strides and flipped open the lid. Inside lay a stunning emerald and diamond necklace with matching ear bobs, on a bed of pale green silk. Very nice indeed for a Treasury clerk, he thought, lifting the jewels out and setting them on the table. He whisked aside the silk, and there lay his object, a paper folded small and covered with lines of narrow script. He unfolded it and read a few lines, a satisfied smile lifting his mouth.
It took only a moment to restore the silk and jewels to the same attitude they'd had before he disturbed them. He left the jewel case on the table, exactly as he had found it; the entire room was exactly as he had found it, he assured himself before he slipped back into the dressing room, with only the paper from the jewel case missing. To look at it, no one would ever suspect he had been in the room.
Now, though, haste was more important than stealth. He stripped off his long footman's frockcoat, then the more elegant evening coat concealed beneath it, the tails pinned up at the shoulders. Keeping one eye on the door, he pulled off his powered queue wig and swiftly unbuttoned the old-fashioned waistcoat and tossed it aside, revealing another, far more fashionable short waistcoat. He pulled the buckles, which were only pinned on, from his shoes, and retied his footman's stock into a simple but fashionable cravat before re-donning the evening coat, tails unpinned. From one pocket he pulled a small piece of oilcloth, which held a bit of pomade darkened with boot blacking. He rubbed the pomade between his fingers, then ran his hands through his hair, twisting the hair at his brow into a wild mass of waves and smoothing down the back.
Tom paused just a moment to study his work in Madame's looking glass. Now he was no longer a footman, but a modern young gentleman of the ton. He flicked one of his new curls to the side, smirking at his reflection; in less than a few minutes he'd achieved nearly the same appearance most gentleman took hours to perfect.
Then he turned away, bundling up the discarded footman's livery, including the supposedly missing gloves. Nothing must remain to indicate that he'd been here. He opened the window, taking a cautious glance out into the darkness below. It was deserted. He dropped the footman's clothing to the ground and had the window closed again almost before it landed.
Checking once more to make certain the folded paper from the jewel box was safe in his waistcoat pocket, he crossed the room and cracked open the door. A maid was hurrying down the hall away from him. He watched her disappear around the corner before he slipped into the hallway himself. Tugging on a pair of evening gloves, he strolled leisurely toward the stairs and down to join the party.
The parlor was a truly impressive crush, and guests spilled out into the hall and down into the dining room. He wound his way through the crowd, nodding politely to anyone who looked his way.
"Ponsonby!" A drunken fellow stumbled into him, seizing his arm. "By Jove, good man, I thought you'd made for Devonshire!"
"Devonshire? No, no, you mean Somerset, of course," Tom replied without blinking an eye.
The other man blinked, his eyes small and puzzled in his flushed round face. "Somerset? No, Devonshire."
"No, Somerset," Tom repeated in frosty indignation. "I went to Somerset. Nothing of value in Devonshire, I'm sure. What made you think that?"
"Er…" The man looked befuddled. "Don't fairly know."
"Then let's not speak of it again," said Tom, unhooking the man's fingers from his sleeve. "I'm looking for Carstairs. Have you seen him?"
"Carstairs?" His companion blinked again. "No, can't say I have. I say, are you sure it wasn't Devonshire?"
"Quite," Tom assured him. "I must be off. Carstairs, you see."
"Yes, yes," murmured the man in confusion, wandering off. "Thought for sure it was Devonshire…"
Tom continued on his way, lifting a glass of wine from a passing servant's tray. He took a healthy sip as he strolled through the parlor before depositing his half-full glass on a table under a flower arrangement and stepping into the hall. There, he walked up to one of the waiting footmen. "Fetch my things," he said with careless arrogance.
"Yes, sir, immediately." The footman bowed and hurried away, returning a moment later with a high-crowned hat, walking stick, and evening cloak. Tom tossed the cloak around his shoulders.
"Have a good time up there?" breathed the footman as he handed over the hat.
"Not too bad," Tom murmured in reply, his lips barely moving. He set the hat on his head at a jaunty angle and took the stick. "Back of the house, under the dressing room window."
The footman bowed. "Yes, sir," he said again in a normal voice. "Good evening, sir." Tom ignored him and strode out the door, down the steps, and into the London night.
He walked for some time, through the quiet, well-swept avenues lit with gas into darker, dirtier streets that echoed with the invitations of whores and the racket of pubs, almost to Covent Garden, where he turned into a public house. He paused inside the door, letting his eyes adjust to the smoky, tallow-and-ale-scented air before taking a seat on a bench at the end of one table. A serving girl with a tightly laced bodice was upon him in a moment. He sent her for some ale, then leaned back and let his gaze wander about the room.
Within a few minutes another man, paunchy and colorless, slid onto the bench beside him. "Fine night, eh?" said the new fellow.
"The finest," Tom replied in languid tones.
His companion gave a sharp, satisfied nod. "Good work, Sinclair."
Tom the footman, who was neither named Tom nor a footman, tilted his head to look at the other man. "Did you think I wouldn't get it?"
"Never know," muttered Mr. Phipps. "Any trouble?"
Phipps just grunted as the girl brought the ale, leaning forward to display her overflowing bosom. Sinclair gave her a slow smile and a golden coin. She sashayed away, casting him an inviting look over one shoulder.
"Mighty free with his lordship's coin," Mr. Phipps said over his tankard.
Sinclair lifted one shoulder. "What are his lordship's coins for, if not to spend?"
Phipps took a long drink, then wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. Under the table he opened his hand between them. With no apparent attention, Sinclair dropped the paper from Madame's jewel case into it. "Take this," Phipps said, pushing a tightly folded note no larger than a shilling back into Sinclair's hand.
"What is it?" Sinclair palmed the note without looking at it, then lifted his ale again.
"An opportunity." Phipps slipped the paper Sinclair had given him into his own pocket. "You'll be wanting to read that soon."
"Indeed." Sinclair seemed utterly uninterested. "Why?"
"Word is you've got ambition."
Sinclair was watching the barmaid, who was smiling and winking at him as she wiped down a nearby table. "Every man has ambition—even you, I daresay."
Phipps's lips twisted. "Not like yours."
One corner of Sinclair's mouth quirked, but he said nothing.
"You should take it as a commendation," Phipps went on. "Not everyone gets a chance like that."
Sinclair just looked at him from under lowered eyelids. "Indeed."
Phipps gulped down the rest of his ale before shoving to his feet. With only a brief nod, he slapped a cap on his head and started to turn toward the door.
"One question," said Sinclair behind him, although without much curiosity. "Why Wollaston?"
Phipps braced his hands on the table and leaned over him, lowering his voice to a harsh whisper. "Why is not your concern. You do what you're told, Sinclair."
"But I notice no one's taking much notice of what the Frenchwoman does with the information he gives her." Sinclair's eyes glittered before sliding away, back to the buxom barmaid. "And it's not your neck in the noose, is it, Mr. Phipps? It's mine, if I get caught."
"You knew that at the beginning."
"Aye," agreed Sinclair in the same emotionless voice. "I did."
Phipps hesitated, then swung around and stomped out the door.
Sinclair stayed where he was and drank his ale. After a while the serving wench came back, running her fingers along the collar of his evening jacket and whispering an invitation in his ear. He gave her a half-hearted smile and his last coin, then gathered his hat and walking stick and left.
Outside, he stopped beneath the first gas lamp he came to, fishing the small note from his pocket. He held it up to the light, squinting at the cramped handwriting, reading it three times before understanding everything it said.
For a moment he stood motionless, his face drawn in thought. A hackney clattered by, and he stuffed the note back into his pocket. Then he strolled off into the darkness, swinging his walking stick and lightly, quietly, whistling a tune.
Doncaster House was a true mansion, an imposing edifice in the grandest style set in Mayfair. Tall windows glowed with candlelight and the front doors were thrown wide open to admit the throngs of elegantly attired guests climbing the steps. The air was filled with the soft strains of music from inside the house, and the jingle of harnesses and the clatter of carriage wheels outside. The guests must number into the hundreds, all of them wealthy, fashionable, and important.
One man surveyed the scene from under lowered brows as he mounted the steps, rapping his cane sharply on each tread. He had never been to Doncaster House before, and his eyes roamed over the expanse of stone and glass and wrought iron as if he were counting the window panes and pediments. Halfway up the steps he paused, fishing a handkerchief from his pocket to blot his face.
A pair of young men—dandies from the looks of them—burst through the doors, talking and laughing in the careless, too-loud manner of men who have drunk too much. They clattered down the steps, jostling him out of the way without so much as a backward glance. He teetered on the steps for a moment before a footman hurrying in their wake came to his aid, offering his arm and a murmured solicitation. The guest nodded, leaning heavily on the footman until he got his balance back.
"Blasted scoundrels," he muttered, now breathing heavily. "In my day young men knew better than to go about too foxed to walk straight."
"Yes, sir," murmured the footman, discreetly slipping one hand under the gentleman's elbow as he helped him up another step.
"And mind, I'm not sorry to be in my dotage, if that is England's future," the old man went on. "Save for your old age now, lad, and pray they don't bring the country to complete ruin!"
"Yes, sir." The footman eased him up another step.
"If my boys had behaved that way, I'd have taken a cane to them, I would have…" His voice trailed off, and he sighed. "Eh, but they're both dead now. Gone with my dear wife in 'ninety-six to the consumption."
"Terribly sorry, sir," said the footman, urging him up the last step.
"What, what? Not your fault." He patted the footman's arm. "There's a good lad. Write to your mother, would you?"
"Er—yes, sir." The footman bowed as the old man went into the house, leaning on his cane and favoring his left leg.
Inside the house, the elderly gentleman shuffled through the bustle, handing off his cloak and hat to another footman and making his way toward the ballroom to greet his host. It was a grand ball, but he'd arrived rather late, and the receiving line had dwindled to almost naught.
"Lord Henry Wroth," a servant announced him.
The earl of Doncaster bowed, tall and urbane, his dark hair threaded with silver. "Good evening, sir."
"And to you." Lord Wroth executed a shaky bow over the countess's hand. "Madam."
"Welcome to our home," said Lady Doncaster with a gracious smile. She was younger than her husband, with a face more handsome than beautiful. "How kind of you to come."
Wroth chuckled, a hoarse, rusty sound. "And my great pleasure it is, too. But I hope you've not served a surfeit of punch. It tends to go to the young men's heads, it does."
"Indeed not," she replied smoothly. "I quite agree with you, sir."
He nodded his shaggy gray head. "Well done, madam, well done."
He bowed again and hobbled away, but slowly enough to overhear the exchange behind him in low tones.
"Wroth?" murmured the earl. "I thought that title died out."
"Apparently they found an heir," said his wife. "A distant cousin, I believe."
"Ah." This satisfied the question for Doncaster. He greeted his next guest with the same cordial manner as he'd shown the unknown Lord Wroth. Lady Doncaster followed suit, the curious old man dismissed from her mind as well.
The man called Lord Wroth listened with satisfaction, and went on his way. They would hardly be so calm if they suspected they had just welcomed a common spy named Harry Sinclair, in the completely fabricated guise of a recently-discovered Lord Wroth, into their ballroom. Then again, if he did his job properly, they'd never suspect anything like that at all.
The ballroom was a sight to behold. Long swaths of pale green silk hung from the walls, glowing in the light of dozens of fine wax candles augmenting the gas lamps. Harry had been to balls before, but never seen anything quite like this. There were flowers everywhere, all white; everything in the room was either green or white, he noted, scanning the room over his spectacles. It must have cost a bloody fortune just to decorate for an evening's entertainment. His gaze flitted over the three sets of French windows standing open onto a wide terrace, just visible beyond the glow of the ballroom. Beyond that, he knew, lay a large garden. Guests were strolling in and out of the doors, for it was a warm evening and the mass of tapers made it warmer. It would be entirely possible for anyone to slip around to the back of the house, go through the garden, and in the terrace doors. There was no attempt to secure the house at all. Eyebrows lowered, he trudged on.
When he had gone halfway around the room, he plopped down into a chair too near the musicians for anyone to be sitting and conversing nearby. He pulled out his handkerchief again and mopped his face. Within moments a footman stopped beside him. "May I fetch you a drink, sir?"
"Aye," said Harry. "None of that pissy champagne. Some good port."
The footman bowed his head. "Yes, sir." He hurried away and returned in a moment with a glass. As he offered the tray, he tilted it too much and sent a wave of plum-colored port sloshing onto Lord Wroth's yellowed cuff.
"Oh, you blasted lummox," Harry grumbled. The servant stepped nearer, leaning solicitously forward until his powdered wig almost brushed Harry's cheek.
"Beg pardon, sir, I do apologize." The footman whisked out a cloth and dabbed at the spilled wine. "Nice to see you this evening," he murmured. "A bit late, of course."
Harry scowled. "Be more careful, sirrah," he said peevishly. "That's a waste of fine wine, and my linen also." Then he added in a much quieter tone, dabbing at his upper lip with the handkerchief, "It takes an eternity to get this bloody suit on, you know. Care to switch jobs? I'll give you the shoes this instant."
The footman's lips twitched as he rubbed a little harder at the stain. "Not at present, no. You look better gray and humped, actually." He glanced around and lowered his voice even more. "All quiet here tonight."
"That's good to hear." Harry leaned back a little, scanning the room again over the other man's bent head. Doncaster was still greeting guests, his dark head visible above the crowd. After a moment Harry located Lord Crane, a thin stooped figure who stood across the room opposite the musicians. He was talking to Lord Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, accenting his remarks with emphatic slashes of one hand. Whatever they were talking about, Castlereagh seemed to be getting the sharp edge of Crane's temper.
Harry glanced down at the man still scrubbing at his cuff. Alec Brandon would make a fine servant if he ever decided to give up spying. He considered telling Brandon so, after the snide remark about his tardiness. He'd done well to make it here at this hour, given the constraints of old Wroth's clothing. The coat was too tight in the sleeves and too loose in the shoulders, having been let out in back to accommodate the thick padding that gave Wroth a humped back. The shoes were too small and pinched his feet, forcing him to shuffle along with a genuinely grim expression, as any elderly man with gout might. It was a good disguise, and he was rather brilliant in it if he did say so himself, but it was horribly uncomfortable.
"Spill a little more next time, would you?" he muttered as Brandon continued working. "Go to, man, just fetch another glass," he said loudly, pulling free. "I'm not a damned teapot to be polished all night long."
Brandon's eyes flashed but he merely bowed. "Yes, sir."
Harry leaned back again and half-closed his eyes as he surveyed the room again. There were over three hundred of the most prominent people in London here tonight, and the doors stood open wide enough for a dozen radicals to storm in with powder kegs under their arms and blow the whole lot to bits. That would certainly win him no favors, if it were to happen under his nose. Harry stifled his impatience, reminding himself he was only strictly responsible for the safety of two men present.
Lord Doncaster was moving into the room, his countess on his arm. Lord Crane was still haranguing Castlereagh. All looked calm and normal, at least so far as Harry was responsible for noticing. He reached for his cane, prepared to circle the room to keep them both in his sight.
And then he saw her.
"Your wine, sir. I do beg your pardon once more—" Brandon's voice died abruptly. Harry tore his eyes off the woman and snatched the glass from his fellow agent's hand, but the damage had been done.
"Have you lost your mind?" Brandon hissed between his teeth. "She's not for you."
"Of course not." Harry raised his eyebrows insolently and tossed back a gulp of wine. He could still see her from the corner of his eye, dancing with a scarlet-coated officer.
"Remember it," Brandon was saying in his ear. "Doncaster's daughter is the prize of the season. You wouldn't be good enough to wipe her shoes even if you were as you appear, Lord Wroth."
Doncaster's daughter. That would be Lady Mariah Dunmore, only child of the wealthy and influential earl. Of all the females to catch his eye… She was so far above his reach it was somewhat surprising lightning hadn't smote him from on high just for looking at her. Harry said nothing.
"Just keep your eyes and mind where they belong." Brandon pressed his lips together; he'd been standing next to Harry too long and they both knew it. "May I fetch you anything else, my lord?"
Harry made a vaguely dismissive gesture. He'd gotten the message. "No, no, leave me in peace." He raised his glass again and turned his back on Brandon, shuffling away. Brandon spoke cold hard sense. A woman—any woman, let alone that woman—was not for him, not now. He was supposed to be guarding Lord Doncaster's life, not having lustful thoughts about his daughter. Over the rim of the glass he looked out into the crowd, in any direction but hers.
Lord, but she was a beauty, he thought, giving in to temptation within a few minutes. He sipped his wine again, in case Brandon or anyone else was watching. From the corner of his eyes he watched her leave the dancers, escorted by her partner. The officer bowed over her hand, but Harry could see her face and knew the fellow didn't have a chance. She was smiling politely, but her eyes conveyed something else entirely. Harry was quite good at reading expressions. Her feelings were as clear to him as if she had whispered it in his ear: stop talking and go away…
Harry drank some more of his wine to hide a smirk. Poor fool, that captain. The officer lingered a moment while Lady Mariah turned away and spoke to someone else, then awkwardly took his leave. He might have felt sorry for the man, except that the captain had danced with her, held her in his arms, and basked in her smile, even if it had been forced and insincere. And Harry, who would be doing none of those things, couldn't pity that.
Of course, he knew he was leaping to conclusions, which was just what he was not supposed to do. He moved through the crowd, studying the guests from all angles without appearing to do so, always keeping one eye on his two principal marks. Brandon was correct that he would be entirely beneath Lady Mariah's notice no matter what he wore or called himself. Even if not, she was just a beautiful young woman, nothing more, nothing less, no doubt as fickle and vain as any of the species. He knew how women were; he had put the knowledge to use many times, and there was no reason to think this beautiful, wealthy, well-born lady would be any different.
And yet… He caught sight of her again, speaking to her mother the countess. Glossy dark braids were pinned high on her head, with little white flowers here and there. She was upset, her cheeks rosy but her mouth hard. There wasn't much of frail delicacy about her that he could see. There was a passion and vitality in her every movement that commanded his attention. Oh yes, there was something different about her, at least to him.
He drifted around the room twice over the next hour, like a comet in orbit, always keeping his gaze scrupulously away from her. A few people he had become loosely acquainted with stopped to greet him, and Harry chatted with them as long as he must; Lord Wroth couldn't move about society without knowing anyone, after all. But when they moved away, he breathed a sigh of relief. It was much easier to do his job if he didn't have to attend to any conversation, and the conversation at these affairs was invariably pointless and dull.
Satisfied everything was secure inside the ballroom, Harry strolled toward a draped doorway he knew led to a balcony overlooking the garden. Alec Brandon had supplied him with painstakingly exact drawings of the house and grounds, and he wanted to see it himself. As he had already noted, there were more than enough places someone could sneak in and cause mischief, and it was his job to prevent anything like that. He waited until Brandon caught his eye from across the room, then gave the slightest of nods. Dabbing his face with the handkerchief again, he slipped out into the darkness of the night.
There was something wrong with her.
There simply had to be. It was humiliating, but there didn't seem to be another explanation. Instead of enjoying the ball, her first ball in London, Mariah Dunmore was wildly impatient for it to be over. That had rarely happened to her before, and she didn't know what to make of it.
She was hardly unused to gatherings like this. For the last five years her father, the earl of Doncaster, had been an emissary of the crown to various European capitals, and his wife and daughter had gone with him. Mariah had attended royal levees in Vienna, had tea with the czarina of Russia, and danced with a Spanish prince. With few exceptions, she had loved every minute of it. Even the dull people she met were interesting on some level, as they were so different from her, and she'd been almost sorry when her parents decided to return home.
But returning home meant she must have a Season, since she'd been too young to come out before they embarked on their travels. She was now getting well past the age most girls married, and her parents made it clear they considered this ball her presentation to the ton. The very best of English society had been invited, the most powerful, the most influential, the most fashionable. It was, without a doubt, one of the most coveted invitations in town…and Mariah was bored almost to tears.
Her mother had assured her the gentlemen in London would be eager to meet her, and Mariah had to admit that she was curious to meet them. A mild flirtation with an Italian count could not lead to anything; a flirtation with an English earl might. Unfortunately, the Englishmen were terribly disappointing. Every man she'd met tonight had fallen over himself to flatter her and charm her. Mariah had expected that, for her mother had warned her against it. Unfortunately she had also expected that at least some of them would intrigue her, and so far not a one had even come close.
"Well, dear, are you having a good time?" Her mother smiled fondly, catching her in a rare moment of quiet.
Mariah sighed. "I suppose."
Her mother's smile faded in surprise. "What is the matter? Have you a headache?"
"No, Mama." Mariah shook her head, tapping her fan on her wrist in frustration. "But all the gentlemen are so…so…dull!" She whispered the last, almost embarrassed. She could see other young ladies smiling and chatting with the same gentlemen she found unbearably boring, and wondered again what she was missing about them. The countess laughed and laid her hand on Mariah's arm. "We've spoiled you, I fear. One cannot always have the excitement of foreign capitals and political intrigue."
"I know, Mama. But plenty of gentlemen here are interested in political intrigue. Most especially they are interested in the Aldhampton borough, and whom Papa might have in mind for it."
Her mother gave her a sideways, thoughtful look. "You cannot expect the gentlemen to see you independently of your family, Mariah. You might find it objectionable, but there are practical concerns to finding a wife, just as there are practical concerns to finding a husband."
"Well, I'm not ready to be found, then, not that way and not by them." She looked into her mother's sympathetic face and smiled contritely. "I'm sorry, Mama. I just wasn't prepared to be appraised so bluntly. I can almost hear them totting up my value as if I were a horse or a sheep at market."
Her mother smiled gently. "I know. It is hard. I, too, had a prominent father. But remember, you don't have to marry until you are ready."
"Thank you, Mama." Mariah sighed.
"There. Perhaps you need a breath of fresh air. I'll explain to the next young man on your dance card."
Mariah consulted her card. "Sir Charles Fitzroy." Even the man's name sounded dull. Why had she let him sign her dance card in the first place? And how horrible was she, for wanting to avoid him just because of his name?
Her mother squeezed her hand and released her. "I shall see you in a few minutes."
"Yes, Mama." The countess left in a whisper of silk, and Mariah slipped through the guests and onto a small balcony off the ballroom. The breeze was cool but refreshing, as was the quiet. She pulled the drape, not wanting anyone to find her, and took a deep breath, glad to have a moment's peace at last.
Perhaps the problem really was with her, not with the gentlemen. Mama said she didn't have to choose quickly, but Mariah was old enough that people would think there was something wrong with her if she took too long. It was a little disconcerting; somehow she'd thought the answer to the question about when and whom to wed would be obvious. She would meet someone, he would be as drawn to her as she was to him, they would fall in love, he would ask for her hand, and she would accept. Now that she had met dozens of the most eligible men in London, she realized how much her assumptions depended on chance. What if the man for her hadn't been able to attend tonight? What if she never managed to meet him? What if there were no such man? What if she had to choose between being a spinster and marrying one of the prosy fellows who'd swooned over her tonight?
"Blast it all," she said out loud, cross at herself for discovering she was a silly romantic—something she hadn't considered herself before—and at the gentlemen of London for being so inconsiderately dull. "A pox on men."
"Come now," spoke a voice from the darkness. "On all of us?"