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Much Ado About Rogues
April 2012  |  HQN Books
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Chapter One

Lady Thessaly Fonteneau sat perched on the window seat, her slim frame and riot of tumbling blonde curls outlined by the sun shining through the windowpanes behind her.

Her long legs, encased in high, dark brown leather boots and tan buckskins, were bent at the knee, her heels pressed against a low stool shaped like a camel saddle. She was leaning slightly forward, her arms akimbo, her palms pressed against her thighs, her face in shadow. The white, full-sleeved lawn shirt she wore had been sewn for a larger frame, and rather billowed around her above the waistband, the deep Vee of the neck exposing the soft swell of breasts beneath the worn brown leather vest.

Just above her breasts hung the oval gold locket suspended from a thin golden chain. A pair of painted images were inside, one old, one newer, both painted by the Marquis himself. The locket had hung from a black velvet ribbon until her father had pointed out that one should never wear a weapon in aid of the enemy: a thin chain will break, but a tightly knotted ribbon makes for a tolerable garrote.

She possessed the sort of classic beauty artists wept to paint. Aristocratic, finely-boned. Gallic to the marrow. Yet with an air of sensuality about her, in those high cheekbones, that slim, straight nose, the wide, tempting mouth, those darkly-lashed hazel eyes.

Those eyes, awash now with tears she refused to let fall.

“Where, Papa?” she breathed, surveying the shambles that was once the Marquis de Fontaine’s neat Study, now searched to within an inch of destroying it completely. Her anger, her frustration, her growing fear, it was all there in the aftermath of her latest search, evidence as damning to her as would be a bloody knife in her hand as she stood over a body. “There has to be something. You would have left me something.”

Tess had instituted her search of the modest manor house a week ago, the day after her father’s disappearance. She’d been slow, neat, methodical, as she’d been taught to be.

She’d begun with the servants, who either knew nothing or said nothing. You never knew with servants, where their loyalty truly stood, if anywhere. Her papa had never employed any of the staff for long, as familiarity invited a relaxation of one’s guard; a paper carelessly left on the wrong side of a locked drawer, an unguarded word spoken at table, with a servant still in the room. Always assume you are among enemies, he’d told her, it’s safer than relaxing with those you think friends.

It had been a trusted servant who had betrayed her father all those long years ago, he’d told her, and the Marquis’ beloved Marie Louise who had paid the terrible price for her husband’s indiscretion.

No, the servants knew nothing, save for the one who had immediately reported the Marquis’ absence to London. She’d known about that within days, having gone to the village to beg to be allowed more credit at the grocers until the end of the quarter, only to return home with a woefully inept government tail wagging behind her.

There had been no reason to dismiss the servants now, or to bother ferreting out the one who had tattled to Liverpool. Whomever she’d hire, one of them would be there expressly to spy on her. Save for Èmilie, who had come with them when they’d escaped Paris all those years ago. Thank God for Èmilie.

And no reason to hide the fact that she didn’t know where her father had gone, or why he’d left, or if he’d ever be coming back. Indeed, it was imperative that she let everyone see her lack of knowledge as to what her father might be planning or doing at this very moment. Her safety depended on her ignorance. That’s why she’d found no note, was given no warning. He’d been protecting her.

“But he would have left me something, something to assure me he’s all right,” Tess said aloud, pushing away the stool in a renewed burst of energy and getting to her feet. “I’m just not seeing it, that’s all.”

Pulling a key from her vest pocket, she approached the special cabinet the marquis had ordered built into the room, and inserted it in the lock. She pulled the glass doors open to reveal shelving holding various artifacts her father had bought or traded for over the past two decades. His treasures, he called them, some of them Roman, some Greek, most Egyptian. Bits of stone, chipped clay bowls, a small carved idol of some long forgotten god, an ancient pipe with a broken stem. The prized possessions of a man who had traded in his love of things ancient and turned his mind, his talents, to revenge, a man at last left with nothing save these ancient, inferior relics of what had been. And a reminder of all this small family could afford, when the Marquis de Fontaine had once claimed one of the premier collections of ancient relics in all of France.

Tess hadn’t touched any of these prized possessions during her earlier searches, but they were all that was left. Her last chance.

One by one, she lifted the items from the shelves. She looked at them from every angle before depositing each piece on the desktop, her frustration building until it took everything within her not to throw the very last item, the broken pipe, into the fireplace.

Because there’d been nothing. Nothing. She put her palms on the bottom shelf and leaned her head against the edge of another, her position one of abject defeat.

“Second shelf, the left end of it. Lift it … there’s a button there. Push it, and then close the doors and step back.”

Tess couldn’t breathe. Every muscle in her body had turned to stone; heavy, immovable. Her mouth went dry, her heart stopped, then started again, each beat hurting. Hurting so bad. A voice she hadn’t heard in nearly four years, but would never forget, could never forget. She heard it nightly, in her dreams. I love you, Tess. God help me, I love you. Let me love you…

“You?” she asked, not moving. “They sent you? That’s almost funny, Jack. The student, sent to find the master. And you came, you agreed, knowing what could be at the end of day for the two of you.” She turned around slowly, placing her hands on the edge of the sturdy shelf behind her, knowing that otherwise she might slip to her knees, sobbing. “You, of all people.”

He remained where he stood, which was yards too close for her not to have heard him, sensed him, smelled him. Jésus doux, he still stole her breath away, just by looking at her. She knew every inch of him, had touched and tasted him, taken him in, given herself to him, even as he gave to her. A dark passion, too intense, too urgent, and much too fleeting. The fire that blazed, but couldn’t be sustained.

Her dark lover. Dark of hair, dark of soul and mind and heart. Even his green eyes were dark, intense beneath those black winged brows, and unreadable. He might have been chiseled from warm stone by a master of the art, his leanly muscled body perfection itself, and life breathed into that beautiful, sometimes cruel mouth by a goddess bent on mischief once he’d been placed on the earth with all the lesser mortals.

That sensual mouth opened now, Tess mesmerized by his lips as they curled into a brief, almost amused smile. “Fetching outfit, Tess. I doubt those buckskins flattered their original owner half so well.”

Tess snapped back to the moment, and took advantage of Jack’s remark to throw out a barb of her own. “I wouldn’t have noticed. They belonged to Renè.”

At the mention of her brother’s name, the wing like brows lowered, the stare became unnervingly intense. “So now you’ve made yourself over into the son? You’d do anything to please him, wouldn’t you? Have you ever succeeded?”

“Not as well as you did, no.” Another barb that hit home. Those that didn’t know him, hadn’t all but been inside his skin, wouldn’t notice. But she did. She’d hurt him. Good. They could both hurt.

Jack took a step forward. “I’m here to help, Tess, not go back over covered ground. Your brother’s dead. You and I never were what we thought we were, or had what we thought we had. That’s the past. You don’t know where Sinjon is, do you? He’s left you here alone, to face me.”

“He couldn’t have known that you’d be the one to—” But then she stopped, shook her head. “No, he would have known that. I’m the fool who didn’t realize you’d be the one. Nobody knows him better.”

“But not well enough, apparently. I’d ask if you really don’t know where he’s gone, what he’s up to, but it’s obvious you don’t. What were you looking for?”

Tess shoved her splayed fingers through her hair, curling her hands into fists at the back of her head, not caring that she was probably only making a tangled mess worse. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “How could he have done this to me, Jack? To … to leave me with nothing?”

“I’m here,” he said, putting out his hand, but it was only to motion her aside, so that he could approach the cabinet built into the wall. “He knew I’d come. He knew I’d be the one. That makes him either a genius or a fool, doesn’t it? Let’s see what he’s up to, shall we?”

He reached into the cabinet, running a hand beneath the second shelf, lifting the left end of it slightly. She heard a slight click, and then Jack stood clear, closed the cabinet doors.

As they watched, the cabinet seemed to come toward them, and then began to pivot, until it stood sideways, allowing them access to whatever lay beyond the opening.

Jack lit a brace of candles as Tess could only stand there, staring.

“I never … he never told me about this. He told you, but not me. Not his daughter.”

“We’re keeping score now?” Jack asked as he stepped through the opening, and then turned to extend his hand, this time clearly intending that she take it.

She shook her head. “I’m fine on my own.”

Jack ran his gaze up and down her breeches-clad body. “Yes. Any fool could see that. Hug yourself close to you, Tess. Don’t let anybody in.”

“How dare you! It wasn’t me who —”

But he was gone, seemingly disappearing below her line of sight, taking the candlelight with him. Stairs. There was a flight of stairs behind the cabinet. Tess looked toward the opened door to the hallway, knowing if she left the study, Jack would want to know why she hadn’t followed him. She’d have to trust Èmilie. Èmilie would have learned by now that Jack had come to the manor house. She’d know what had to be done. Please God, just this one time, toss the dice in my favor.

Tess quickly lit a candle and followed Jack down, into the depths.


#

When he’d gone away, she’d still been more girl than woman.

No more.

Jack hadn’t known what to expect when he saw her again, either from her, or from himself. Seeing her had turned out to be both better and worse than he’d imagined.

The hurt was still in her eyes, undoubtedly made more raw by her father’s disappearance, and his refusal to include her in his plans. This was an old pain for Tess. She’d told Jack she understood: Sinjon Fonteneau was not a demonstrative man, making him uncomfortable with any displays of emotion. He loved his daughter, yes, he did, but praise did not flow easily from his mouth. She understood, but understanding and acceptance are often strangers to each other, and Tess clearly was still trying to please her father, make him admit out loud that he was proud of her.

She was wearing Renè’ breeches? Because she felt less constricted dressed that way while destroying rooms in her search? Or just because that’s what she now wore? What the hell had gone on here these past four years?

With the familiarity of his former acquaintance with the underground room easing his way, Jack dipped the brace of candles again and again, lighting a dozen squat candles, illuminating the cool, dank-smelling room.

“Damn,” he bit out as he turned in a full circle, seeing what was there, taking note of what was gone.

He heard the click of Tess’s boots on the stone steps and quickly rid his face of all expression as she joined him in the center of the room.

“I’d often wondered where he kept …” she said, but then her voice trailed off. “Did Renè know?”

Jack nodded, not wanting to discuss the fact that Tess’s twin had been privy to this sanctum of sanctums, but she was not. Not then, not since Renè’s death. “He kept everything,” he said, still taking his mental inventory. “The disguises, the pots of paint and powder, the wigs.” He walked over to pick up the crude wooden crutch leaned against one of the tables. “I remember when he used this. He’d even tied up his leg beneath his greatcoat to lend more credence to his role of crippled veteran. The French lieutenant actually pushed a sou into his hand before Sinjon slashed his throat. And all of it accomplished while balanced on one leg. I’d argued against the disguise, pointed out that a one-legged man was vulnerable. I should have known better.”

“He only killed when necessary,” Tess said firmly, her belief in her father’s motives unshaken. “He only does what is necessary. Ever.”

Jack replaced the crutch and turned to her. “Yes, of course, the sainted Marquis de Fontaine. And what is so necessary for him now, Tess? The war’s over, he’s been rewarded for his service to the Crown, cut loose, left to live out his life in peace and security. That’s all he wanted, wasn’t it, all he ever said he wanted for all of you?”

“Both of us,” she corrected, wandering over to the large desk and opening the center drawer. “He never really wanted Renè to be like him.”

“All right, Tess, let’s do this now, get it over with,” Jack said walking over to slam the drawer shut. “Your brother was young, foolish. And wrong. Sinjon never favored me over his own son. Renè had nothing to prove that night. Nothing.”

Her eyes flashed in the candlelight. “He had everything to prove. To our father — to you. He worshipped you. He wanted nothing more than to be like you. The so-brave and clever Jack. See, Renè, how Jack does it. Observe and learn, Renè, Jack will show you how it is done. Jack, so fearless as he enters the wasp’s nest. Jack, who is steel to the core, with the mind of a devil, and the skills of an army. Watch him, even if you can never hope to equal him. He is one in a lifetime. Fearless.”

“Christ,” Jack bit out, putting the width of the desk between them. “Because I didn’t care. Because I had nothing to lose but my life.” Until you, he added silently.

“But it wasn’t your life that was lost, was it, Jack?”

“And do you think you’re the only one who grieves his loss? Renè was my friend.”

“No, he was never your friend. You have no friends, you make sure of that. I knew him better than anyone. Renè was meant for books, and beauty, never destined to bleed out his life’s blood in that Whitechapel alley.” Tess pounded her clenched fist against her chest. “Me, Jack. I should have been there.”

“To die in his place?” Jack asked her, his voice hard, cold.

“None of you would have been in that alley, if you’d allowed the original plan as my father and I drew it up, damn it, and you know it! Renè would never have been in any danger. We all knew he was too eager to please you and Papa to remember his lack of skill if the opportunity to … to …”

“To show off for us presented itself? Are you finally ready to admit that, Tess? Is Sinjon? Or am I still to take all the blame?”

“You convinced Papa to change the plan, to keep me out of it.”

Jack felt the fabric of his composure split. He’d never wanted Tess involved in any of their missions; that had been Sinjon’s choice, to use his own children, Sinjon’s mistake. “Because I loved you!” he all but shouted, his words echoing back to him from the stone walls. “Because I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you.” He pulled himself back together, not without effort, then ended quietly, “And lost you anyway …”

Tess said nothing, the silence lasting nearly to the breaking point, turning the physical space between them into a yawning chasm that stretched across the lost years.

“Wherever he is, he’s well armed,” Jack said at last, looking toward the glass-fronted cabinet usually filled with weapons both deadly and unique. Tools of the trade. The cabinet had been the first thing his eyes had gone to when he’d entered the room, for he knew it would tell the tale. A man didn’t carry a dozen weapons into the woods with him if all he meant to do was blow out his own brains. Clearly it was destruction of some kind Sinjon had in mind when he’d done his flit, but not self-destruction.

He heard the drawer slide open once more. “There’s this,” Tess said, apparently just as eager as he was to put their recent confrontation behind them. “The Gypsy hasn’t been active in England for several years, not since … since Renè. Why would he have kept this?”

Jack returned to the desk to pick up the calling card Tess had placed there.

“Cheap theatrics,” he said coldly, looking at the card made of rich black stock and embossed with a golden eye with a blood red pupil at its center. He passed it back to Tess. “I never agreed with Sinjon on that.”

“Papa says the government believes the man is Romani, and the eye symbol is that of the querret, the seeker. That’s why he was given that name. The seeker. As if he follows some higher purpose in what he does.”

Jack shook his head. As the son of an actress, he believed he could recognize a flair for the melodramatic when he saw one. “He seeks lining his pockets, and always has. Working for the French, working for anyone who will pay him, and filling the rest of his time working for himself. Whoever he is or once was, now he’s a thief and a murderer, and leaving these cards behind is his way of tipping his cap at those bent on stopping him. He’s an actor playing a part, and we who pursue him are his audience. Each time he places that card on another body, on the cushion where some treasure had been resting moments earlier, he’s taking his bow. We’d actually begun to believe him dead. But we found one of these cards a month or more ago, left behind after several very good pieces were removed from the Royal British Museum.”

Tess looked at him for long moments. “So he’s back. And you’re hunting him, aren’t you? Because of Renè. Because … because of everything.” Then her eyes went wide. “You … you don’t think…?”

“I don’t know, Tess. He’d have to be mad to try to find him on his own. Has he spoken of The Gypsy often?”

She sat down on the chair behind her, her long fingers tightly clasping and unclasping around the ends of the chair arms. She was nervous, a highly-strung filly ready to bolt at any moment. Why? She should be searching the room, eager to see what was there. Was it him? Was it that difficult to be in the same room with him?

“Never. Not since Renè died. It was all over then, just as you said. The war, the assignments, the reason for the fight. Mama was still dead, and all the revenges he’d exacted for twenty years hadn’t changed that. He was given a small pension and told his services were no longer required. He still taught me things, although obviously he never trusted me, not if I wasn’t allowed to see this room.” She looked up at him. “But you know that. He’s never been quite the same since Renè died. Since you left. Suddenly old, and defeated.”

“I had no reason to stay, you’d made that plain enough. And it’s clear nothing’s changed there, either.”

“Not for you, certainly. You’re still working for the Crown, still doing their bidding. Which brings us back to why you’re here. You’ve as good as said Papa summoned you by disappearing. I think I know what the Crown would ask you to do once you found him. But what does Papa want from you?”

“When I find him, I’ll be sure to ask,” Jack said shortly, suddenly needing to be out of this room, out in the fresh air, away from Tess and her incisive questions.

“I won’t help you, you know. I’m not a fool. I know I can’t stop you. But I won’t help you.” She got to her feet. “In other words, Jack — for us, it ends here. I’ve seen your party trick with the cabinet and I thank you for it. But now I’m telling you to leave. You’re not welcome beneath this roof.”

He looked at her as she stood there. Magnificent. Frightened, but hiding it so well, the way she’d always done. He wanted her so badly he ached with it.

When she made to sweep past him, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her around, chest to chest with him in the flicking candlelight, her wrist still in his possession, their bent arms pressed between them. She raised her chin, stared at him in defiance, didn’t flinch, didn’t fight him, didn’t blink.

He needed her to blink.

“I know about this room, Tess. If you think there’s only one way in here, you’re not as intelligent as I gave you credit for being. I know every secret in this house, which clearly you don’t. If I want to be here, I’ll be here, with or without your permission. I will go where I want, when I want. Take what I want.”

He captured her mouth, grinding her tight against him by cupping the back of her head, holding her still as he plunged his tongue between her lips, pressed his leg between her thighs. Four years of longing, of needing, of pent-up frustration combined in that kiss, stripped him of his hard won ability to mask his every emotion.

Her free hand snaked up his arm to his shoulder, clasping it firmly, lovingly, her fingertips lightly pressing against him. For a moment, she gave. For that moment, she let him in. For a moment, they were fire again.

And then the moment was over. She dug her fingers into him, pushing down hard on his shoulder with her hand as her knee came up swiftly, taking him and his arousal unawares. His knees buckled, his hold on her relaxed, and she was gone, leaving him to bend over where he stood, his hands on his thighs, forcing himself not to black out, or throw up.

“I taught her that,” Black Jack Blackthorn managed at last, speaking to the uncaring stone walls. And then, unbelievably, he smiled. “God, was I even alive these past four years?”

He looked at the far wall and then walked toward it, his hand out to push on one certain stone. It was time he saw what else Sinjon might be up to, what else might be missing.

---------

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Books in this Series:
Much Ado About Rogues
A Midsummer Night's Sin
The Taming of the Rake






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