Collette Fortier took a shaky breath and pasted a bright smile on her face.
Do not mention hedgehogs. Do not mention hedgehogs!
Collette was nervous, and when she was nervous, her English faltered and she often fell back upon the books she’d studied when learning the language. Unfortunately, they had been books on natural history. The volume on hedgehogs, with its charcoal sketches, had been one of her favorites.
This ball had been a nightmare from the moment she’d entered. Not only was she squished in the ballroom like a folding fan, but there was also no escape from the harsh sound of English voices. Due to the steady rain outside, the hosts had closed the doors and windows. Collette felt more trapped than usual.
“He’s coming this way!” Lady Ravensgate hissed, elbowing her in the side. Collette had to restrain herself from elbowing her chaperone right back. Since Lieutenant Colonel Draven was indeed headed their way, Collette held herself in check. She needed an introduction. After almost a month of insinuating herself into the inner sphere of Britain’s Foreign Office, she was finally closing in on the men who would have knowledge of the codes she needed.
Lady Ravensgate fluttered her fan wildly as the former soldier approached and then let go so the fan fell directly into the Lieutenant Colonel’s path. Lady Ravensgate gasped in a bad imitation of horror as Draven bent to retrieve the fan, as any gentleman would.
“I believe you dropped this.” He rose and presented the fan to Lady Ravensgate. He was a robust man, still in the prime of his life, with auburn hair and sharp blue eyes. He gave the ladies an easy smile before turning away.
“Lieutenant Colonel Draven, is it not?” Lady Ravensgate asked. The soldier raised his brows politely, his gaze traveling from Lady Ravensgate to Collette. Collette felt her cheeks heat and hated herself for it. She had always been shy and averse to attention, and no matter the steps she took to overcome her bashfulness, she could not rid herself of it completely. Especially not around men she found even remotely attractive.
Draven might have been twenty years her senior, but no one would deny he was a handsome and virile man.
“It is,” Draven answered. “And you are…?”
“Lady Ravensgate. We met at the theater last Season. You called on Mrs. Fullerton in her box where I was a guest.”
“Of course.” He bowed graciously, though Collette could tell he had no recollection of meeting her chaperone. “How good to see you again, Mrs…er…”
“Lady Ravensgate.” She gestured to Collette. “And this is my cousin Collette Fournay. She is here visiting me from France.”
Collette curtsied, making certain not to bend over too far lest she fall out of the green-and-gold-striped silk dress Lady Ravensgate had convinced her to wear. It was one of several Lady Ravensgate had given her. She’d bought them inexpensively from a modiste who had made them for a woman who could then not afford the bill. Whoever the woman was, she had been less endowed in the bosom and hips than Collette.
“Mademoiselle Fournay.” Draven bowed to her. “And how are you liking London?” he asked in perfect French.
“I am enjoying it immensely,” she answered in English. She wanted people to forget she was French as much as possible and that meant always speaking in English, though the effort gave her an awful headache some evenings. “The dancers look to be having such a wonderful time.” The comment was not subtle, nor did she intend it to be.
“You have not had much opportunity to dance tonight, have you?” Lady Ravensgate said sympathetically.
Collette shook her head, eyeing Draven. He knew he was cornered. He took a fortifying breath. “May I have the honor of the next dance, mademoiselle?”
Collette put a hand to her heart, pretending to be shocked. “Oh, but, sir, you needn’t feel obligated.”
“Nonsense. It would be my pleasure.”
She gave a curtsy, and he bowed. “Excuse me.”
He would return to collect her at the beginning of the next set. That would allow her a few minutes to think of a strategy.
“Do not mention the codes,” Lady Ravensgate said in a hushed voice, though Collette had not asked for advice. “Lead him to the topic, but you should not give any indication you know anything about them.”
“Of course.” She had danced with dozens of men and initiated dozens of conversations she hoped would lead to the information she needed. Lady Ravensgate’s tutelage had been wholly ineffective thus far. She always told Collette not to mention the codes. Her only other piece of advice seemed to be—
“And do not mention your father.”
Collette nodded stiffly. That was the other. As though she needed to be told not to mention a known French assassin to a member of Britain’s Foreign Office. What might have been more helpful were suggestions for encouraging the man to speak of his service during the recent war with Napoleon. Few of the men she had danced with had wanted to discuss the war or their experiences in it. The few she had managed to pry war stories from did not know anything about how the British had cracked the French secret code. And they seemed to know even less about the code the British used to encrypt their own messages.
But she had learned enough to believe that Draven ranked high enough that he would have access to the codes Britain used to encrypt their missives. It had taken a month, but she would finally speak with the man who had what she needed.
She watched the dancers on the floor turn and walk, link arms and turn again. The ladies’ dresses belled as they moved, their gloved wrists sparkling in the light of the chandeliers. They laughed, a tinkling, carefree sound that carried over the strains of violin and cello. Not so long ago, Collette had danced just as blithely. Paris in the time of Napoleon had been the center of French society, and her father had been invited to every fete, every soiree.
He hadn’t attended many—after all, he made people nervous—but when he was required to attend, he brought Collette as his escort. She couldn’t have known that, a few years later, she would be doing those same dances in an effort to save his life.
The dance ended and Collette admired the fair-skinned English beauties as they promenaded past her. She had olive-toned skin and dark hair, her figure too curvaceous for the current fashions. Then Draven was before her, hand extended. With a quick look at Lady Ravensgate—that snake in the grass—Collette took his hand and allowed herself to be led to the center of the dance floor. The orchestra began to play a quadrille, and she curtsied to the other dancers in their square. She and Draven danced first, passing the couple opposite as they made their way from one side of the square to the other and back again.
Finally, she and Draven stood while the waiting couples danced, and she knew this was her chance. Before she could speak, Draven nodded to her. “How do you like the dance?”
She’d been unprepared for the question, and the only English response she could think of was Hedgehog mating rituals are prolonged affairs in which the male and female circle one another. In truth, the dance did seem like a mating ritual of sorts, but unless she wanted to shock the man, she had to find another comparison.
More importantly, she did not have much time to steer the conversation in the direction she needed. She had not answered yet, and he looked at her curiously. Collette cleared her throat.
“The dance does not remind me of hedgehogs.”
His eyes widened.
“Oh, that is not right,” she said quickly. “Sometimes my words are not correct. I meant…what is the word…soldiers? Yes? The dancers remind me of soldiers as they fight in battle.”
She blew out a breath. Draven was looking at her as though she were mad, and she did not blame him.
“You fought in the war, no?”
“I did, yes.”
“I lived in the countryside with my parents, far from any battles.”
“That is most fortunate.” His gaze returned to the dancers.
“Did you lead soldiers into battle?” she asked. Most men puffed right up at the opportunity to discuss their own bravery.
“At times. But much of my work was done far from the battle lines.”
Just her luck—a modest man.
She knew it was dangerous to press further. A Frenchwoman in England should know better than to bring up the recent war between the two countries, but her father’s freedom was at stake. She could not give up yet.
“And what sort of work did you do behind the lines? I imagine you wrote letters and intercepted missives. Oh, but, sir, were you a spy?” Her voice sounded breathless, and it was not an affectation. She was breathless with nerves.
Draven flicked her a glance. “Nothing so exciting, mademoiselle. In fact, were I to tell you of my experiences, you would probably fall asleep. Ah, it is our turn again.” They circled each other, and then she met with him only briefly as they came together, separated, and parted again, performing the various forms.
When he led her from the dance floor, escorting her back to Lady Ravensgate, she tried once again to engage him in conversation, but he deftly turned the topic back to the rainy weather they’d had. Lady Ravensgate must have seen the defeat on Collette’s face because as soon as they reached her, she began to chatter. “Lieutenant Colonel, do tell me your opinion on Caroline Lamb’s book. Is Glenarvon too scandalous for my dear cousin?”
Draven bowed stiffly. “I could not say, my lady, as I have not read it. If you will permit me, I see someone I must speak with.” And even before he’d been given leave, he was gone.
“I take it things did not go well,” Lady Ravensgate muttered.
The lady sighed in disgust, and not for the first time, Collette wondered whose side her “cousin” was on. She’d claimed to be an old friend of her father’s, but might she be more of a friend to Louis XVIII and the Bourbons who had imprisoned Collette’s father?
“Poor, poor Monsieur Fortier,” Lady Ravensgate said.
Collette turned to her, cheeks burning. “Do not bemoan him yet, madam. I will free my father. Mark my words. I will free him, even if it’s the last thing I do.”
She knew better than anyone that love demanded sacrifice.
* * *
Rafe Alexander Frederick Beaumont, youngest of the eight offspring of the Earl and Countess of Haddington, had often been called Rafe the Forgotten in his youth. He’d had such an easygoing, cheerful personality that he was easy to forget. He didn’t cry to be fed, didn’t fuss at naptime, and was content to be carried around until almost eighteen months of age when he finally took his first steps.
Once, the family went to a park for a picnic, and Rafe, having fallen asleep in the coach on the ride, was forgotten in the carriage for almost two hours. When the frantic nanny returned, she found the toddler happily babbling to himself and playing with his toes. When Rafe was three, he had gone with his older brothers and sisters on a walk at the family’s country estate. It wasn’t until bedtime, when the nanny came to tuck all the children in for the night, that the family realized Rafe was not in bed. He’d been found in the stables sleeping with a new litter of puppies.
In fact, no one could recall Rafe ever crying or fussing. Except once. And no one wanted to mention the day the countess had run off, leaving four-year-old Rafe alone and bereft.
By the time Rafe was nine, and quite capable of making himself so charming that he could have gotten away with murder (although Rafe was far too civilized to resort to murder), his new stepmother had pointed out to the earl that Rafe did not have a tutor. Apparently, the earl had forgotten to engage a tutor for his youngest. When the first tutor arrived, he pronounced Rafe’s reading skills abysmal, his knowledge of history and geography nonexistent, and his mathematical ability laughable.
More tutors followed, each less successful than the last. The earl’s hope was that his youngest son might enter the clergy, but by Rafe’s fifteenth birthday, it was clear he did not have the temperament for the church. While Rafe’s knowledge of theology lacked, his knowledge of the fairer sex was abundant. Too abundant. Girls and women pursued him relentlessly, and no wonder, as he’d inherited the height of his grandfather, a tall, regal man; the violet eyes of his great-aunt, who had often been called the most beautiful woman in England and was an unacknowledged mistress of George II; and the thick, dark, curling hair of his mother, of whom it was said her hair was her only beauty.
Rafe had been born a beautiful child and matured into an arresting male specimen. While academics were never his forte, men and women alike appreciated his wit, his style, and his loyalty. He was no coward and no rake. In fact, it was said Rafe Beaumont had never seduced a woman.
He’d never had to.
Women vied for a position by his side and fought for a place in his bed. Rafe’s one flaw, if he had one, was his inability to deny the fairer sex practically anything. In his youth, he might have found himself in bed with a woman whom he’d had no intention of sleeping with only because he thought it bad form to reject her. Eventually, Rafe joined the army, not the navy as two of his brothers had done, primarily for the respite it offered. His time in service did not make it easier for him to rebuff a woman, but he did learn evasive maneuvers. Those maneuvers served him well after he joined Lieutenant Colonel Draven’s suicide troop, and his unwritten assignment had been to charm information out of the wives and daughters of Napoleon’s generals and advisers.
Back in London, Rafe was busy once again charming his way in and out of bedchambers. One of only twelve survivors from Draven’s troop of thirty and an acknowledged war hero, Rafe had little to do but enjoy himself. His father gave him a generous allowance, which Rafe rarely dipped into, as charming war heroes who were also style icons were invited to dine nearly every night, given clothing by all the best tailors, and invited to every event held in London and the surrounding counties.
But even Rafe, who never questioned his good fortune, was not certain what to do about the overwhelming good fortune he’d been blessed with at his friend Lord Phineas’s ball. Rafe, bored now that the Season was over, had talked his good friend into hosting the ball for those of their friends and acquaintances staying in London. Too many of Rafe’s female acquaintances had attended, and he found himself struggling to (1) keep the ladies separated and therefore from killing one another, and (2) lavish his attentions on all of them equally.
Thus, he found himself hiding in the cloakroom of the assembly hall, hoping one of his gentleman friends might happen by so he could inquire as to whether the coast was clear.
“Oh, Mr. Beaumont?” a feminine voice called in a singsong voice. In the cloakroom, Rafe pushed far back into the damp, heavy cloaks that smelled of cedar and wool.
“Where are you, Mr. Beaumont?”
Rafe tried to place the woman’s voice. He thought she might be the wife of Lord Chesterton. She was young, far too young for Chesterton, who was his father’s contemporary. Rafe might think Chesterton a fool for marrying a woman young enough to be his daughter, but that didn’t mean he wanted to cuckold the man.
“There you are!” she said, just as the light from a candle illuminated the cloakroom.
Rafe squinted and held up a hand, even as he realized the small, crowded room offered no opportunity for escape.
“You found me,” he said, giving her a forced smile. “Now it is your turn to hide. I shall count to one hundred.”
“Oh, no!” She moved closer, her skirts brushing against his legs. “I found you, and I want to claim my prize.”
“Your prize?” he asked in mock surprise. He knew exactly what she wanted for a prize. “What might that be? A waltz at midnight? A kiss on the hand?” He moved closer to her, forcing her backward.
She bumped against the wall of the room, and he put a hand out to brace himself while he gazed down at her.
“I’d like a kiss,” she said breathlessly as she looked up at him. “But somewhere far more interesting than my hand.”
“More interesting, you say?” He leaned close to her, tracing his free hand along her jaw and down the length of her neck. “Close your eyes, then, and I will kiss you.” His fingers traced the swell of her breasts, and with a quick intake of breath, she closed her eyes. Rafe blew out the candle, plunging them both into darkness. He leaned forward, brushed his lips across her cheek, and then bolted.
As he slipped into the servants’ stairway, he heard her call after him. “Rafe! Play fair.”
“Never,” he murmured and climbed the steps with deliberate motions. Perhaps he could use the servants’ corridors to find another staircase that would lead him out of the hall. He reached a landing, turned a corner, and Lady Willowridge smiled down at him, the plume in her turban shaking with her excitement.
“Looking for someone?” she asked in her smoky voice.
Rafe took her hand and kissed it. “You, my lady. Always you.”
She was the last person he wanted to see. She was a widow and had claws as sharp as any tiger. Once she sank her nails into him, she would not let go.
When he lifted his hand, she yanked him toward her. She was uncommonly strong for a woman, he thought as he attempted not to stomp on her slippered feet. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and tilting her head back so he could feel the diamonds in her coiffure against his hands, she offered her mouth.
Rafe rolled his eyes. He could simply kiss her, but he’d been in this position before, and she’d tasted like tobacco and stale coffee. Why not give her a little thrill and give himself a reprieve?
Rafe slid his arms along hers, lifted her hands over his head, and spun her around. She gave a little squeak when he pressed her against the wall, pushing his own body against hers and leaning down to whisper in her ear, “Do you want to play a little game, my lady?”
She tried to nod, but her cheek was plastered to the wall. “Oh, yes,” she said, her breath coming fast.
“Do you feel my hand here?” He touched the small of her back.
“Close your eyes and imagine where I will touch you next.” His hand slid over her buttocks.
She closed her eyes.
Rafe stepped back. “No peeking.”
And he took the rest of the stairs two at a time and burst into the servants’ corridor. A footman carrying a tray of wineglasses raised his brows, but Rafe wasted no time on explanations. “Where is the exit?”
“To the ballroom, sir?”
“Dear God, man. No!” Rafe looked over his shoulder to make sure Lady Willowridge had not come for him yet. “To the street. Preferably a back alley.”
“You just came from that exit, sir.”
“There must be another.”
“Rafe Beaumont!” He heard Lady Willowridge’s footfalls on the staircase. Panicked, he grabbed the servant’s coat.
Rafe pushed on the panel and stumbled into the assembly rooms, where an orchestra was playing a waltz. Men and women twirled under the lights of the crystal chandeliers while the tinkling of laughter and champagne glasses accompanied the music.
A girl seated against the wall next to the panel gasped. “Mr. Beaumont!”
Rafe looked at the wallflower and then at the door he’d come through. It would not be long before Lady Willowridge deduced where he had gone.
“Dance?” he asked the wallflower.
She blushed prettily, then gave him her hand. He led her onto the floor and proceeded to turn her about in time to the music. After a minute or two, Rafe let out a sigh of relief. Why had he not thought of dancing with wallflowers before? They were unmarried and therefore relatively safe, not to mention he enjoyed dancing. He could dance all night. He could dance with every wallflower in atten—
Rafe’s eyes widened and he met the wallflower’s gaze directly. “Miss…uh?”
“Vincent,” she answered sweetly. “Miss Caroline Vincent.”
“Miss Vincent, your hand has apparently wandered to my…er, backside.”
She smiled prettily. “I know. It is wonderfully round and firm.”
Christ, he was doomed. If her father did not kill him, one of the ladies he’d abandoned—he spotted both Lady Willowridge and Lady Chesterton scowling at him—would. Rafe danced toward Phineas, catching his eye and giving him a pleading look. Phineas merely glared back at him, his expression clear: You wanted this ball.
What had he been thinking?
Miss Vincent squeezed his arse, and he nearly yelped.
“Would you prefer to find somewhere more private?” she asked, fluttering her lashes.
Rafe was always surprised at how many women actually fluttered their lashes and thought they looked appealing. To him, it always looked as if they had something stuck in their eyes.
“No,” he answered.
Dear God, would this waltz never end?
Just then, he spotted Lieutenant Colonel Draven. Draven never came to these sorts of affairs. He’d probably come tonight because three members of his troop were in attendance. He spotted Rafe and gave a grudging nod of understanding when he spotted Rafe’s predicament. Rafe gave his former commanding officer a look of entreaty as he turned Miss Vincent one last time and separated from her as the music ended. He bowed, prepared to promenade her about the room. He might take bets on who would kill him first—her furious father, the irritated Lady Willowridge, the abandoned Lady Chesterton, or the icy Mrs. Howe. He’d forgotten that he’d left her in the supper room.
“Excuse me, miss. I do not mean to interrupt, but I must claim Mr. Beaumont for just a moment.” Draven put a hand on Rafe’s shoulder and pulled him away from Miss Vincent. Draven didn’t wait for her response. His word was an order and always had been.
Draven led Rafe away, and Rafe tried to walk as though he had not a care in the world instead of running for his life. Draven steered Rafe through the assembly rooms, past numerous ladies who would have stopped him if Draven hadn’t looked so formidable. The lieutenant colonel led Rafe down the stairs, past a row of liveried footman, out the door, and into a waiting hackney.
Once they were under way, Rafe leaned his head against the back of the seat. “That was too close.”
Across from him, Draven shook his head. “Lieutenant Beaumont—”
“Shh!” Rafe sat straight. “Don’t start bandying about titles. Do you want someone to hear?”
Draven stared at him. “Mr. Beaumont, I can see your popularity has been something of a…mixed blessing. Why do you not simply tell the ladies you are not interested?”
“I try,” Rafe said, settling back again. “But it always comes out all wrong. Not to mention, females tend to water when I reject them, and I hate to see a woman put a finger in the eye.”
“You don’t mind if a woman cries, as long as you don’t witness it.”
Rafe frowned. “I hadn’t thought of it that way. Do you think I’ve left a trail of weeping women?”
Draven barked out a laugh. “No. I think most women know what you are.”
Rafe straightened. “And what is that?”
“A man who flees even from the word ‘matrimony.’”
“Not true. I attended Mostyn’s wedding.”
“And I seem to recall a greenish tint about your gills the entire time.” He held up a hand to stay Rafe’s protest. “But I didn’t come to discuss marriage. I have an assignment for you.”
A sensation much like a mild bolt of lightning flashed through Rafe. “For me?”
Rafe could not believe his good fortune. Finally! His chance. “But the war is over.”
“There are still dangerous people about, and the Foreign Office asked if I knew anyone who could take this assignment.”
“And you thought of me?” Rafe cleared his throat. “I mean to say, of course I came to mind directly.”
“Is it dangerous?”
Rafe blinked. He hadn’t been expecting Draven to answer in the affirmative. Neil had rarely given him dangerous assignments during the war. Although Rafe had argued once or twice that slipping in and out of the bedchamber of one of Napoleon’s men, persuading his wife or mistress to reveal secrets, and slipping back out again without being caught was not without peril, it was not quite the same thing as running across a field while cannonballs exploded around you.
“Good.” Rafe clapped his hands together. “I have been wanting something to do besides chasing after women and attending social outings. What is it you need me to do?”
Draven smiled. “Attend social events and chase after a woman.”
Rafe sighed and sat back again. “And if I refuse to accept the assignment?”
“I don’t recall asking for your acceptance.”
“You’re no longer my commanding officer.”
Draven crossed his arms over his chest. “Would you like me to change that?”
“No.” Rafe knew as well as anyone Draven had connections in the highest spheres. One word to the Regent and Rafe might be back in uniform patrolling the Canadian frontier. “Tell me about my new assignment.”
Draven sat back. “Her name is Collette Fortier.”
“Fortier? Why does that name sound familiar?”
“Because her father was one of Napoleon’s most successful assassins.”
“And? If I remember correctly, Fortier is dead.”
“Yes.” The hackney slowed and Draven peered out the window. “I want you to find out more about his daughter.”
“How am I to do that?”
“We believe Collette Fortier is in London. We further believe she may be calling herself Collette Fournay and claiming to be a cousin of Lady Ravensgate.”
“Suspected French sympathizer and dear friend of Marie Antoinette’s daughter.”
“You are acquainted with Lady Ravensgate?”
“Not personally, but I’ve heard rumors. Is Lady Ravensgate taking Mademoiselle Fortier out in public?”
“I danced with the woman in question not a quarter hour ago, a woman Lady Ravensgate introduced as her cousin, a Miss Fournay. Your mission is to ascertain whether Miss Fournay is, in actuality, Collette Fortier, and if it is she, what she is doing in London. If she’s spying—and I think from my encounter this evening that there is a very good chance of that—discover what information she hopes to unearth and determine what she knows already.”
“And then you kill her.”