“A lady agent? How utterly ridiculous. A woman could never do what we do.”
“Smile, my dear Miss Stratton,” Lady Essex Marshom advised. And not for the first time.
So Roselie did her best to smile.
It was a Herculean effort, to say the least.
She glanced around the crowded room at Almack’s and wished she could be more like the other girls. That her only concern was who might ask her to dance. Or if she should have worn her green ribbons or her blue ones. Or whether she needed new slippers.
But she wasn’t like other girls.
After all, she’d been out in London Society for four long years—a veritable eternity in the ton. Nor in her favor was her complete lack of interest in frippery or likely candidates. Actually, she was rather proud of her ability to send suitors shying for the hills. And she would continue to be too sharp, too bossy and whatever else it took to maintain her freedom.
Because quite simply, marriage would ruin everything.
Especially when she had work to do.
She checked once again—and yes, the note she’d been slipped by one of the servants was still tucked in the top of her glove. She wouldn’t have a spare moment to read it until she got away from this crush, most likely until she got home . . . and bother . . . that was still a few hours away.
The note that might be the answer to all her prayers. Years of work. The last bit of evidence she needed to bring down her enemy, the Marquess of Ilford.
For he was her enemy, as much as he was England’s. And nothing would deter her from seeing him pay for his heinous crimes.
But in the meantime . . .
Her frustration got away from her, and she sighed. More like, groaned. Quite loudly and rather unbecomingly.
“Miss Stratton!” Lady Essex chided. “The company tonight may be thin, but a lady never reveals her boredom. Why look at Miss Taber! How fortunate Lady Muscoates is to have a ward who illuminates every room she enters.” Her ladyship tapped her fan against her chin as she examined the fetching girl across the room. “Though I must say, a ward should never be that pretty. Rather, indecent, don’t you agree, Mariah?”
Her hired companion, Miss Mariah Manx, nodded in agreement. “However, Lady Muscoates is French, is she not?”
Lady Essex huffed a sigh, as if this explanation was not only utterly correct, but also vexing. “Yes, of course. She’d never tolerate having some unfortunate creature foisted into her care, now would she?”
Mariah winked at Roselie, having done her best to change the subject.
But the diversion hardly lasted for Lady Essex was truly a terrier at heart, especially when it came to matchmaking. Not that the dear woman had any hope of seeing the infamous Miss Stratton betrothed on her watch, but if anyone was willing to give it a try, it was Lady Essex.
And so she went back to her earlier refrain. “Miss Stratton, smile.”
“I shall endeavor to do my best, my lady,” Roselie told her, smiling sweetly.
Mariah smothered a laugh—one her ladyship didn’t notice.
Roselie wished she could be like Mariah, who hid her own secrets with enviable ease.
But tonight of all nights, Roselie’s slim patience was worn threadbare and got noticeably thinner especially when Lady Essex fluttered to life as a quartet of gentlemen arrived just before the doors closed.
A striking fellow in a captain’s uniform stood at the lead. Captain Benedict Hathaway, if Roselie was to hazard a guess, especially given his remarkable resemblance to the man beside him, Mr. Chauncy Hathaway. Though Mr. Hathaway was hardly worthy of note—handsome, but a second son with no prospects, Captain Hathaway caused a stir. More so than the man who followed, Lord Budgey—rich, for certain, but such a nobcock hardly anyone of note considered him eligible.
Then came the last fellow. And to Roselie’s credit, she kept from groaning out loud.
For the last arrival was none other than Bradwell Garrick, the seventeeth Baron Rimswell.
Her other nemesis. And not because he was a traitor. No far from it. If there was anyone in London who could unmask her, it was her old childhood friend, Brody.
What the devil was he doing here?
Not that he didn’t belong. Elevated to his brother’s title two years earlier, he was considered quite the eligible parti. Worse, he’d grown into a handsome devil. Dark hair that gave him the look of a poet, while his reputation for being a bruiser at Gentleman Jim’s and his penchant for hard riding could all be seen in the lean lines of his tall, athletic build.
All around them, there were more than a few feminine sighs as he entered the room.
Including the one that Roselie managed to keep tightly bound inside her heart. That he sent this racing desire through her every time she saw him, every time they had to be in the same room, was exactly why she avoided him.
Nor could she do much more than cross her fingers as he made his usual sweeping search of the room, his gaze pausing on her for that slightly too-long second, offering her the slightest of nods—a poor homage to how close they had been growing up.
As his gaze continued on, she did sigh.
Which, of course, Mariah noticed. “Might be time to tell him.”
Roselie shook her head, her reply rushing out. “No.” For Brody wasn’t just a handsome, eligible parti, he was also an agent for the Home Office, although that was not well known.
But Roselie knew. As did Mariah. For they’d made it their business to determine who could be trusted and who might interfere with their plans.
With Lady Essex having moved off to have a good coze with one of her friends, Mariah leaned closer to avoid being overheard. “This is all becoming too dangerous.”
Roselie agreed, but she wasn’t about to admit as much. “You sound as stodgy as Lord Howers.”
“Perhaps you should heed his advice,” Mariah told her. “For once.”
Roselie ignored her. Much as she ignored Lord Howers.
Not that Mariah was done. Good heavens, her friend had worked for Lady Essex for far too long. She was starting to sound like the persistent old gel. “Ask for his help.”
“He won’t.” Roselie turned to her. “The first thing he’ll do is to tell me to stop. Immediately. Then he’ll lecture me as to the impropriety of it all. And then, I imagine, he’ll tell me I don’t know what I am doing.”
Mariah, on the other hand, did not share that opinion. “He’ll surprise you.”
“I doubt it.” Shaking off her own misgivings, Roselie continued in a different vein. “Abigail will be off tonight. She’ll no longer be in danger. We’ll have everything she’s gathered and have a full report to Howers before the end of the week. And then—”
A matron came by, slanting a glance at the two, and the pair smiled back. Only after she was well out of earshot did Roselie continue. “And then Asteria will quietly retire.”
“Yes, of course she will,” Mariah said, sounding anything but convinced.
“She, um, I will.” Roselie straightened and smiled, for here was Lady Essex glancing over at them.
Oh, what a ridiculous nickname those fools in the Home Office had come up with for the mysterious lady who’d often been spotted with some of London’s less-polite denizens.
How she’d like to tell them, one and all, that she was certainly no goddess and definitely not immortal. Still, better a fool’s moniker than having one of them actually discover her true identity.
Like Brody. She’d eluded him more times than she could count and he’d nearly caught her twice. Nearly.
But more disarming was the very notion that he’d never once recognized her.
Her. Roselie Stratton.
Yes, yes, it was entirely contradictory that she didn’t want him to know what she was doing, but oh, good heavens, she’d like to take him by both shoulders and shake him until his teeth rattled. How can you not see me?
No, instead he found Asteria entirely fascinating, and her? She knew all too well his opinion of her.
Then again, he hadn’t really looked at her, not in years. Not like he had when they’d been children. Not since she’d been trundled off to school in Bath, and he’d been sent away to Eton.
Oh, but truly, the worst of it was that she saw him. And knew.
Knew what it was like to have him kiss her. Thoroughly, recklessly. To have him touch her, and leave her trembling.
Twice now, he’d caught her. Twice, she’d escaped him.
But not without collecting those damned memories of those stolen moments. His lips. His touch. The way he drove her mad until she was trembling and quaking.
Asteria, that is. Proper Roselie Stratton wasn’t supposed to have such ruinous experiences.
It was her curse, her punishment, she supposed. Outside, she must appear the demure, innocent miss, while inside blazed a courtesan’s heart and desires.
But how she longed to see Brody’s gaze filled with desire for her. That dangerous promise in the turn of his lips.
Longed to see him look for her. Roselie.
If Asteria dared to continue, certainly one night, Brody would come to realize the truth. She knew that.
But this would not be that night, she vowed. It was impossible.
Or so she told herself.
“Is it my mistake, or are we completely outnumbered?” Captain Benedict Hathaway asked as he stepped to the front of the line.
“Tonight is Lord John’s Folly,” Chaunce provided as he took his place beside his brother, glancing with his usual droll disdain and unruffled demeanor at the scene before them that would have sent most men running for the borders of Scotland.
For every man in the room, there were at least five young ladies. And all of them seeking husbands. And they were ably reinforced by their equally determined mothers.
“So are you telling me, that while the rest of London’s male company is cavorting with every pretty petticoat and willing Cyprian over at the earl’s, we are here?” The captain glanced over his shoulder at the third member of their party. “Rimswell, I demand an explanation for this dereliction in duty.”
Brody, having inherited his title two years earlier after the untimely death of his brother, was now quite used to such scrutiny, though even he had to admit that tonight offered the added ghastly sense of being tossed into the Coliseum with a pack of hungry lions.
Still, it wouldn’t do to show any fear. Instead, he grinned at Chaunce’s brother. “For a man who boasts of never having lost a battle, you look rather bilious, Captain,” he teased. “Afraid of a few chits?”
“A ’few chits’? Good God, man, I’ve never faced such odds,” the captain admitted. “The French have the decency to shoot at you.”
Lord Budgey, bringing up the rear, had stopped behind the captain and was now blinking owlishly around the much taller man. “Devilish odds, you say? I do like them when they are in my favor.” The man shouldered his way to the forefront with far more bravado than one would have expected from the rather mild-mannered viscount.
“How is that?” Brody asked, wondering how much Budgey had imbibed before they’d found him at White’s to make him so pot valiant. “Have you finally decided to take a bride, Budgey, my good man?”
It was an old joke, but apparently a jest no longer.
“Mother’s quite keen I marry, and I suppose if I must, I might as well do it now. After all, tonight I’ll actually be in demand.” He made—what he probably assumed was—his triumphant march into the very bosom of London’s Marriage Mart.
Brody and Chaunce exchanged a glance and followed their friend quickly. It was never a good idea to leave Budgey to his own devices.
“I thought you didn’t want to marry,” Chaunce reminded him when they caught up with him. Most likely hoping to nudge the man into a hasty retreat.
Budgey blinked. “I don’t. But—”
“Mother says—” Brody and Chaunce chimed in at the same time.
Budgey ignored them. “This is no time for your japery. Rather, I’d appreciate your opinions on the present company and then a glowing introduction to the future Lady Budgey.”
“I’m not sure you’ve thought this through, Budgey,” Brody told him. “Every chit in this room already knows who you are.”
Budgey pursed his lips. “Indeed? Oh, bother, that’s rather unfortunate.”
“Why is that?” Captain Hathaway whispered in an aside to his brother.
No matter, Budgey heard the question. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a nobcock.”
Captain Hathaway was polite enough to feign surprise. “No, no, not in the least.”
Budgey shrugged. “Obviously I’m not trying hard enough tonight.” He looked around again and then leaned closer, confiding in a low voice, “You might not have realized it, but my foolish demeanor is a rather clever disguise.”
Brody and Chaunce exchanged bemused glances, for this wasn’t the first time they had heard this explanation.
Budgey continued confidently, “Yes, well, the more foolish I appear, the less I’m bedeviled by chits scheming to be the next Lady Budgey. A most enviable position, I assure you.” He glanced up at Captain Hathaway. “You should try playing the fool, sir, if you want to survive the night.”
Chaunce opened his mouth as if to add something, but his brother staved him off with a quick warning.
“Don’t you dare—”
“But—” Chaunce continued, for this was such a golden opportunity to bring his puffed-up younger brother down a notch or two.
“Say it,” Benedict warned, “and I’ll tell that matron over there—the one with the enormous collection of feathers sprouting from her head—”
“Lady Nafferton,” Brody supplied.
“Yes, thank you,” the captain said before turning his attention back to his brother. “I’ll tell this Lady Nafferton that a distant uncle of ours has died and left you a rather large house and tidy fortune to go with it.” Benedict winked at Chaunce. “Devilish bit of luck and all.”
Chaunce paled at the very suggestion. So much for his reputation as one of the Home Office’s most fearless agents. “You wouldn’t dare—”
Benedict folded his arms across his chest and rocked on the heels of his boots. His expression was one of pure devilish delight. Try me.
But Chaunce always had just one more shot. “Do it, and I’ll summon Mother to Town.”
The fearless and daring Benedict Hathaway went positively green. “Now that is uncommonly foul.”
Brody couldn’t help but join in, leaning over to ask, “Captain, who do you fear more, your mother or the French?”
Before the captain could rise to his own defense, Budgey wedged his way into the conversation. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to find my bride before eleven so we can head over to St. John’s. If we get there after midnight, all the decent lightskirts will be taken.”
Now this was a plan Captain Hathaway could endorse. Whole-heartedly. He rubbed his hands together in glee. “Yes, let’s.” His enthusiasm was most likely due to the fact that he wasn’t the one about to be dropped into the parson’s trap.
Budgey was more philosophical. “Might as well join in, Brody. There’s no hope for either of us. We both must marry eventually.”
“Ah, Budgey, don’t you recall,” Chaunce drawled, “our Lord Rimswell is holding out for someone else.” Chaunce winked and Budgey barked a laugh.
“Ah, so you have someone in mind,” Benedict said with a knowing tip of his head—though he didn’t understand the joke. “Is she here tonight?”
“She might be,” Chaunce supplied. “If he knew who she was.”
“The beguiling Asteria,” Budgey waxed. “I daresay, where is something to drink, we should be toasting this rarest of Diamonds.”
“Asteria?” Benedict repeated. “Remind me, for my classics are a bit rusty, but isn’t she the last immortal to live with a man?”
“Well, done,” Chaunce told him. “And here Mother always said our tutor’s fees were wasted on you and Benjamin.”
Benedict ignored him and turned to Brody. “Who is this Asteria, your mistress?”
“Mistress!” Budgey laughed and nudged Chaunce. “Our Brody is far too respectable and proper to keep a mistress.”
“I’m hardly—” Brody protested, not that the others were listening.
“Who is this paragon then?” Benedict persisted.
“No paragon,” Chaunce corrected. “She’s a myth.”
“Marry her myself if she wasn’t a figment,” Budgey added.
“She’s no figment,” Brody told them, despite the fact that he’d sworn he wasn’t going to get into this argument again. “She’s as real as you or I.”
“Introduce us, if you will.” Chaunce smiled with that aggravating Hathaway superiority.
Yes, that’s right. Would like to meet her,” Budgey added like a Greek chorus. “If you can’t, I think you owe us all a round of drinks for having to listen to you all these years.”
“Leave off,” Brody told them. “When I catch her, you’ll all owe me.”
“What’s all this?” Benedict asked, not liking in the least being left out.
Chaunce snorted. “Lord Rimswell believes there is an English lady who works for the Home Office or for—”
“—the Russians,” Budgey added quickly. “My money is still on the Russians.”
“She isn’t Russian,” Brody shot back.
“So you say,” Budgey replied, completely undeterred.
“The real point is,” Chaunce said, “that Old Ironpants would never enlist a woman into the service. Howers has even said as much.”
“We have no idea who her master might be,” Brody reminded them.
“Yes, but we all know who would like to master her,” Budgey replied and the other two laughed.
Brody ignored the jibe. He’d heard it more than once. But then his temper got the better of him. “She was at the Setchfield Ball, just last month,” he told them, folding his arms over his chest. He hadn’t seen her in ages, and suddenly, he’d spied her across a ballroom, but the devilish minx had disappeared before he could corner her. “She was there.”
“So was Napoleon if you believe Lady Maugham,” Chaunce added, for he’d been sent by Lord Howers to reassure the ninety-year- old, half-blind marchioness that, no, the French emperor was not ruining the social circles of London.
Budgey shouldered his way back into the debate with the best argument of all. “Even if she is real, what then, old friend? Take her home to your mother? Explain that her new daughter-in- law has spent most of her time in the worst gaming hells and corners of London? That will never do.”
Brody hardly wanted to marry the woman. He just had this unrelenting need to find her. To unmask her.
To know her.
One more time.