May 22 2014 12:30pm
Wicked Temptation: Exclusive Excerpt
FATE BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER.
Newly widowed, Bronwyn Parrish’s fortune has been spent settling her late husband’s debts—thanks to an unscrupulous business manager—and now there’s nothing left. Society has no place for a woman without means, and with nowhere to turn, Bronwyn is lost…until, from out of nowhere, a handsome gentleman steps in and makes her an offer she can’t refuse.
WILL DESIRE TEAR THEM APART?
Secrets and subterfuge are in Marco Black’s blood. As one of Nemesis, Unlimited’s most senior agents, Society women aren’t his usual cup of tea. But Marco’s sixth sense tells him that there’s more to Bronwyn than meets the eye…and he wants to help the brazen beauty retrieve her lost fortune. But is his attraction to her worth the risk? His mission will lead him all the way to Les Grillons, France’s most ruthless crime syndicate. Soon, Marco and Bronwyn will find themselves facing a danger that could cost them their lives—and a passion that is priceless.
Get a sneak peek of Zoë Archer's Wicked Temptation (available June 3, 2014) with an exclusive excerpt of Chapter 1.
Bronwyn Parrish haunted her own home. Ironic, given that she was still alive and her husband, Hugh, was chill and alone beneath the earth. It had been eight months since his death, eight lonely months, and yet only now as she drifted from empty room to empty room in her Leinster Square house did she feel the ghostliness of her widowhood. She looked down at her hands, half expecting to be able to see the marble floors through them.
But no—they remained solid. Blue veins threaded beneath the surface of her skin.
Dropping her hands, she looked around at the chamber that had once been the drawing room. It, too, was haunted. By the shadowed forms of servants, who’d at one time silently slipped in and out of the room with glasses of sherry and trays of cakes. By the specters of imported mahogany chaises, and the elegant guests who’d sat upon them and talked of society. She and Hugh had always given lovely dinner parties—everyone had said so. Afterward, she’d retire for the night feeling satisfied with her role as a wife and companion. Before he’d head to his own bedchamber, Hugh would kiss her on the cheek and murmur, “Beautifully done, sparrow.”
Her sigh now echoed off bare walls. It was gone. All of it, gone. And soon, she would be gone, too.
Leaving the drawing room, she walked down the stairs that led to the ground floor. The unlit chandelier hung above the echoing foyer and the front door stood wide open. She hadn’t bothered closing it after the men had come to remove the last of the furniture that morning, including her bed. She’d slept in it last night—or attempted to sleep—knowing that this was to be the last place of her own. It wasn’t even hers now. But the moment she set foot outside the door, she’d have no home ever again.
She went to stand in the room that had served as her private study and practice room, and wanted to hide her eyes from the bookshelves’ nudity. They gaped in forlorn dereliction. God, even her books. Nothing had been spared. She ran her hands over the shelves, saying good-bye to the room that had contained her happiest moments. This small chamber, situated at the back of the house, had been given to her by Hugh so he wouldn’t have to listen to her working out the strains of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 on her violin. Hugh never objected to her playing once the piece had been mastered—in fact, he loved that his wife had so unusual a talent—but it was the learning of it that always set his nerves on edge.
But Bronwyn hadn’t minded the scratches and skips, the juddering stops and wrong notes. She’d enjoyed the process as much as the end result.
In truth, she’d always nursed a secret desire to play professionally. But hadn’t told anyone—it would’ve been a scandal if a woman with her bloodline actually chose to work for a living. But she would have never considered playing the violin work. Still, the idea was the same. An aristocratic woman actually earning money was a disgraceful impossibility.
When she’d encouraged Hugh to take her to concerts featuring violin solos, he’d only imagined she went to appreciate the music. He hadn’t known that she used to picture herself as the soloist, a throb of envy and joy pulsing beneath her chest when she’d watched the swaying figure. That could have been her. It should have been her.
Instead, she’d played for dinner parties. And herself.
Would they let her play her violin? Whoever they were. The nameless, faceless woman or girl that she hoped might hire her as a companion.
Bronwyn patted her pocket, feeling the small fold of pound notes and a few coins that constituted the whole of her wealth. It had to be enough to last her until she found herself a situation.
A situation. It wasn’t the work that she objected to, only that she’d never been asked to do it once in her life, not real work beyond the planning of dinner parties or organizing of charity bazaars. And here she was, lingering for a few minutes longer in her hollowed-out home, with a boardinghouse in Barnsbury waiting for her. She had enough money to last her through the month, plus the expense of taking out an advertisement in the paper, offering her services as a “woman of good breeding to oblige as companion to other women of good breeding.”
Bronwyn had seen those companions. Silent, suffering, pinch-faced, and put upon as they chaperoned debutantes or accompanied single or widowed ladies of means on their travels. Not a servant. Not a friend, or equal. Something in between. A nothing. One of those “surplus women” they talked about in periodicals—mainly, wondering what was to be done about them.
That was her now. A surplus woman. Wanted by no one. Not welcome anywhere, including her sister’s home. Frieda’s husband was an ass, a bully who thought no one’s opinion more important than his own, and he’d made it quite clear that Bronwyn wasn’t to warm herself with coal he’d purchased, nor steal roast off his plate. Even if her sister had defended Bronwyn, living with that man was an impossibility.
A humorless smile touched Bronwyn’s lips. At least I’d get a roof and two meals if I killed him. Until they hanged me, of course.
Neither Hugh’s father nor brother had offered to take her in. Perhaps they blamed her for his death, though all the doctors had said there had been nothing to be done once the disease had settled in his lungs. She’d been the one at Hugh’s bedside when he had died, and for that, it seemed, neither the senior Mr. Parrish nor his son could forgive her.
Quickly, she strode from her former study, back down the hall, across the empty foyer, and into the front parlor, where she stared at the street. Life continued on out there. Carriages rolled by, residents and servants walked back and forth, tradesmen hurried to back entrances. None of them knew or cared about her circumstances. She’d even had to remove the black drapery from the windows and unmuffle the knocker on the front door, so no one would know that death had touched this house with its thieving hand.
Bronwyn pressed her hand to the cold glass. Her wedding band glinted in the pale sun. She’d continue wearing it until … at least two years. Until her proper period of mourning was over. But she might always wear it. It would make her seem more respectable. This world was all about respectability.
Though poverty trumped respectability. A widow only eight months into her first mourning would never move, never leave the house. Of course, that presupposed the widow had a home. Which she no longer did.
“Damn it,” she whispered, allowing herself a small act of defiance by cursing. Though it was still a whisper in an empty room.
She ought to stop putting off the inevitable, and leave. There wasn’t anything to be gained by lingering.
She left the parlor then lurched to a sudden stop. Her hand clapped over her mouth to muffle her startled yelp.
A man stood in the foyer. A man who’d appeared out of nowhere and made not a single sound, though her own delicate shoes tapped against the marble floor.
“Get the hell out of my house.” In truth, she didn’t demand this. Instead, she said stiffly, “I was given to understand by Mr. Moseby that I had until two o’clock this afternoon before I vacated the premises.”
The man watched her from beneath heavy-lidded, dark eyes. He held a very fine hat in his gloved hands, and his suit was of far better quality than one might expect from a land agent’s hired muscle. The stranger was also, she noted coldly, exotically handsome. Olive skinned and black haired, with a neatly trimmed goatee framing a thin but sensuous mouth.
Despite the elegance of his appearance, an air of calculation and danger clung to him, like a silk cravat wound about the neck in order to strangle someone.
When he spoke, she shivered.
“You misunderstand, Mrs. Parrish.” He had a deep, husky voice. Cultured, but sounding as though he were used to speaking in dark places. “I’m not here for the house. I’m here for you.”
* * *
Bronwyn took an instinctive step backward. Should she scream? All the heavy bric-a-brac in the foyer had been cleared out with the rest of the furnishings. There was nothing to use as a weapon. Nothing but her speed. Back in boarding school, she’d been a champion runner. She glanced at the space between herself and the open front door. Could she make it past this stranger before he caught her?
As if reading her thoughts, he took a step to one side, giving her an unimpeded path to the door. This alone made her pause.
“Who are you?” she demanded. Her heart beat thickly beneath her widow’s weeds.
“My name’s Marco,” the man answered. “I’m here to help you.”
She ignored his last statement. “Is Marco your first or last name?”
“First.” He offered her a smile, which was perfectly white and straight and even rather coolly charming, but it didn’t calm her at all. “Last names are … unsafe.”
“Yet you know mine,” she shot back.
“Naturally. We know quite a bit about you.” He didn’t fidget or make any extraneous movement, only continued to hold his hat in his gloved hands. “Helping you would be a more complex business if we didn’t.”
“We.” Ice climbed through her at the word. There was more than one of him, whoever this Marco was.
His dark gaze held hers. “Nemesis, Unlimited.” A pause followed, as though he expected her to react.
“I’ve no idea what or who Nemesis, Unlimited, is,” she snapped.
His lips gave a slight, rueful twist. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t,” he murmured half to himself.
“Get out.” She pointed to the door, hoping her hand didn’t shake too much and betray her.
“Your husband, Hugh Alistair Parrish, died eight months ago from consumption,” the stranger Marco said, quickly but in a low voice, as if reciting the result of a parliamentary vote. “He caught it after a trip to inspect a Glasgow cotton mill. It took three months for the doctors to finally reach a diagnosis. You went to the spa at Amélie-les-Bains to get a cure, but nothing worked, and he died with you at his side. The room had white curtains and blue-flowered wallpaper.”
Nausea swamped her. These were facts no one but she herself knew.
Yet Marco continued, relentless. “When you finally returned home after burying him, you discovered that your money—including the portion you brought with your marriage—was completely gone. So you approached his financial agent and executor, one Edgar Devere. But Devere told you Hugh had died in arrears.”
He quieted for a moment as someone passed by on the sidewalk outside. Once the pedestrian moved on, Marco continued. “Hugh’s bank accounts were emptied and all of his liquid assets—including this house—were used to repay his debts. All your finances were tied up with your late husband’s. It’s been difficult to retrieve your lost fortune because of your widowhood. Everyone you’ve spoken with, all the attorneys and advisors, have told you the same thing.” He drew a slow breath. “You’re destitute and no one can get you back your money.”
“How … how…” was all she could manage. Her head spun, and she walked backward, until she collided with the wall. It took all of her strength and lessons in etiquette to keep from sliding to the floor.
She’d tried so hard to keep all these sordid facts from being known. Hugh was the son of a baron’s youngest son, and the family name meant everything. Scandal would follow like a relentless hound if anyone learned that her husband had died insolvent, but it was Hugh and his mortification from beyond the grave that had had her work intensely to prevent these details from being made public. To all of their acquaintances, she’d said only that she’d put everything into storage, and planned on staying with her sister in the country for an indefinite time.
“You’re a reporter,” she accused.
The cursed man had the nerve to chuckle. “I’ve been called many an insult, but never that one.”
“Then how can you know any of that?” Not only the details of her financial disaster, but the color of the flowers on the wallpaper in the hotel room where Hugh had died.
“I’m here to help,” he repeated.
“I don’t see how or why,” she snapped. Fear, exhaustion, and a dozen other emotions shortened her temper.
“There’s a tea shop on Edgware Road.” He gestured toward the door. “Come with me there, and everything will be explained.”
She raised a brow. “Is this what’s become of the world, then? Penniless widows are the latest prey. And here I’d thought that white slavery was a myth to keep girls and women from leaving their homes.”
Any lingering signs of humor left his face immediately. “Slavery continues to exist. In many forms. But in this instance, Mrs. Parrish, there aren’t any plans to spirit you away to some dockside brothel or sell you to an opium lord in China.”
“What a blessed relief.” Though it was considered crude, she crossed her arms over her chest. “Unless you plan on dragging me bodily out the door, I’m not going anywhere with you, Marco.”
He had the audacity to give her a slow, deliberate perusal, from the hem of her bombazine gown to the top of her head. Since she was home, she didn’t have to wear her widow’s bonnet and veil, and she fought the old self-conscious urge to cover her coppery hair with the flat of her hand.
His look wasn’t salacious, however, and he didn’t seem to care that she had unfashionably red hair. All he said was, “You’d be a slight burden to carry.”
Heat crept into her cheeks. She’d lost weight over the course of Hugh’s long battle with consumption, and since returning home, she’d only been able to afford two meals a day, neither of them lavish. “And you are nothing but impudence.”
“Waiting for us at the tea shop are an associate of mine, and Miss Lucy Nelson.”
Bronwyn pushed away from the wall with a surge of anger. “If you’ve hurt Lucy—”
“Miss Nelson is as safe as a guinea in the national treasury. She was the one who sent me here.”
Confusion thickly clouded Bronwyn’s mind. “Why would my former maid contact you?”
The inscrutable man seemed to lose the smallest thread of patience. His jaw tightened. Just a little. “Because, as I’ve said twice before, I’m here to help.”
“Lucy should have come here, herself.”
“She wanted to, but the house is being watched, and I didn’t want to attract too much attention. Don’t go to the windows.”
Bronwyn stopped in the act of doing just that. “Moseby’s men?”
“The same. They’re on the alert that if you make what appears to be an attempt to retain possession of the house, they are authorized to use force.”
She swallowed hard. Dear God, what sort of man was this Moseby, that he’d use violence against a woman? “They wouldn’t.” But her voice didn’t sound especially confident.
“I know Moseby,” Marco answered, “and he most certainly would.”
Pressing a hand to her mouth, she wondered what had become of her life. It had turned bleak and squalid in a matter of months. She was a gentleman’s daughter. These kinds of things happened only in periodicals full of exciting, lurid stories. Now here she was, just like one of those women in the stories. Except this was truly happening, not a work of fiction.
Marco turned one palm up. “Come with me. Fifteen minutes of your time simply to listen. And if you don’t like what you hear, then I’ll be happy to pay for your cab fare to the boardinghouse in Barnsbury.”
Of course he’d know her intended destination. But then, he had Lucy to tell him everything. Bronwyn had trusted Lucy. Why would her maid—a woman she’d known for six years—betray her like this? Unless Lucy, and these Nemesis people, truly did want to help her. Why? At this point, it didn’t much matter. She’d already reached her nadir at the age of twenty-eight. Anything would be an improvement.
“My bags are in my room,” she said.
“I’ll wait while you fetch them.”
Her life truly had altered utterly when a man expected her to retrieve her own luggage. Perhaps that was for the best. She’d played by all the rules of society and good breeding, yet here she was, in an empty house, without a groat, reliant on the word of a handsome but questionable man. Clearly, those rules served no purpose, offered no safety.
Without another word, she turned and walked up the stairs. She felt Marco’s gaze on her with every step, and it filled her with a strange, unpleasant awareness.
In her former bedchamber, she collected her baggage: one valise, and her violin case. The instrument, at least, she’d been able to save, and she thanked the Lord for that. If she’d been deprived of her music, her despair would’ve known no limits.
She returned to the foyer. To her surprise, Marco actually took her valise and case. Testing the weight of the violin case, he asked, “Chanot? A Georges Chanot, I’d wager.”
She stared at him. “Lucy must’ve told you that.”
“All violins have their own particular weight and balance, depending on the maker. Easy enough to determine this was a Chanot, once I got a hold of it.” He stuck out his arm, offering it to her. “Time to go.”
“One moment.” After pulling on her cloak, she tugged on a pair of gloves, set her widow’s bonnet on her head, and pulled down the veil. The world suddenly misted over, as if loss and grief didn’t do that already without a layer of silk covering her face.
She placed her hand lightly in the crook of his arm. Despite her gloves, despite the layers of his clothing, she felt the solidity of him, and the unyielding presence of his muscles.
Heat washed through her.
She cursed herself. What in heaven did she think she was doing? How could she have any feelings of that sort, with Hugh only eight months gone, and this Marco a complete stranger? Disgust clotted in her veins. Disgust with herself.
Glancing up at him, she noticed the slightest compressing of his lips. As if he, too, felt something at her touch.
Saints strike her down for these delusions. Her life was falling down around her like a sinking ship, and she wanted, no, needed, to reach a shore. Any shore, no matter how rocky,
“I’m ready,” she said.
* * *
Marco Black kept his gaze on the street, alert for any sign of suspect movement. The men watching the house shifted from their slouch against a street lamp, but didn’t follow them. A bloody relief. He didn’t want to have to get into any discreet brawls this early in the game.
His attention wasn’t entirely fixed on his surroundings. A small sliver remained for the woman walking beside him.
It was his job—both for Nemesis and for his other work as what was euphemistically termed an intelligence advisor to the British government—to clearly and objectively assess people within moments of meeting them. He’d been able to determine within minutes that a Russian ambassador’s wife had been using her considerable beauty to gain information about the latest developments in Chitral.
Thus far, Bronwyn Parrish seemed to be exactly what the dossier they’d compiled had delineated. Her impeccable posture came from years of schooling on the Continent, which also contributed to the sheltered expression on her face. It was a pretty face, to be sure. Smooth skinned, though with a few rose-hued freckles across the bridge of her nose, her lips nearly the same color as her freckles. And eyes the silver green of sage leaves. Eyes that gleamed with a surprising intelligence.
Those eyes were hidden now behind her veil. She kept glancing around the street, gauging it. Mrs. Parrish had potential, but she was a woman born and bred to a class that had little use for females who could think for themselves. He didn’t know to what end she’d use that intelligence of hers.
He hadn’t wanted to take this job on at all. Nemesis was for the powerless, the poor, not society widows with dead spendthrift husbands. Nemesis wasn’t for the upper echelons at all—not if he had any say in it.
Entitlement was a poison, infecting a whole class. Her class. He should know.
But he’d been voted down by the other agents. Worse still, he’d been given the lead on the mission since he was the one operative with enough free time to take on the case.
Yet he was a professional in all capacities. He might not want this job, but once assigned to it, he’d do his damnedest to make sure it succeeded.
They emerged onto Bayswater Road, with the broad green expanse of Hyde Park just on the other side of the street. Beneath a watery early spring sun, nannies pushed their infant charges in expensive prams, and a few impeccably dressed women strolled along the paths. One or two gave him a second glance, but he ignored them.
He liked to break everything down into specific components, goals that needed to be met one at a time. In that way, even the most difficult mission became possible. And right now, he had to escort the Widow Parrish to the Cottage Rose Tea Shop.
He hailed a carriage, but Mrs. Parrish hesitated before stepping into it.
“Easy to see why you’re mistrustful,” he said, holding the door. “Your husband had the bad manners to die in debt, leaving you to fend for yourself when you haven’t done it before. Your finances gutted. Your home taken. And then there’s me, a bloke you’ve never met, claiming to be here to help. Why should you trust me? What’s to say that this carriage won’t speed you to the docks, or into the clutches of some procurer?”
Though he couldn’t be sure, he suspected she raised an eyebrow. “My goodness, you certainly know how to inspire faith.”
“Ask yourself this,” he continued. “Why would I go out of my way to abduct you, when it’s all too easy for women in this city to be preyed upon? Would I really show up at your home and tell you in detail things that no one else knows just to fill a bed in some whorehouse?”
She reared back a little at his candid language. Maledizione, he was going to have to learn to curb his vocabulary around her. He wasn’t used to being around women of her class. Women who found an innocuous word like whorehouse offensive, even though London had hundreds, no, thousands of them.
But she didn’t run. Instead, she tilted her head as if contemplating what he’d said.
Then she took his offered hand and stepped into the hired carriage.
Damn, that wasn’t the first time she’d caught him off guard with her courage. There might be more to the Widow Parrish than he’d initially deduced—an unpleasant thought. Something about her, something he couldn’t name or yet understand, took the careful wiring of his brain and rearranged those wires.
There was … a need in her. A desire for something other than the emptiness within.
No. People of her station weren’t like that. He had too much experience with their vapidity, their casual cruelty, to think that, aside from some superficial differences, she wasn’t just like the others. No matter her prettiness or the glint of intelligence in her eyes.
He was a man, yes, but he preferred to think of himself as a mechanism: expertly calibrated, created specifically for its task. In need of occasional lubrication. Always reliable.
He got into the cab and signaled the driver to move on. The ride to Edgware Road was made wordlessly, thank God. She didn’t press him with questions, or chatter nervously. Mrs. Parrish seemed to understand the value of silence. Though she did have a pleasant voice, musical but strong. She probably used it only to be heard above the crowd at a party, or to complain to her dressmaker.
As the streets rolled by, he glanced at her violin case. If Lucy Nelson hadn’t told him her mistress played, and played well, by all accounts, he wouldn’t have anticipated that, either. Most patrician women favored the piano. Violin required a bit more … boldness. More passion than gentlemen’s daughters cared to show.
When she’d taken his arm, he’d felt it in her—a kind of hollowness, a demand for something. As if looking at the world through eyes that truly saw and assessed, rather than existing in a cloud of privilege. And that awareness had drawn on him, pulling him in despite himself.
It had to be an illusion. He’d encountered enough of them in his life. Perpetrated them, too.
The carriage came to a stop, and the driver called down that they’d arrived. After grabbing her valise, Marco stepped out then handed Mrs. Parrish down to the curb. She carried her violin case herself. He watched her take in the storefront, with its inexpensive lace curtains hanging in the windows. “I cannot pay for the cab.”
“Taken care of,” he answered, handing the driver a coin. Then he opened the door to the Cottage Rose and waved her in. “I know you have questions, and they’ll all be answered.”
“In fifteen minutes,” she said.
“Good memory.” One of his most valuable assets was his memory. Pursuing a career in espionage was damned difficult if you didn’t possess an unusual ability for recollection. How else would he know the difference between a Chanot and a Cousineau violin, if he hadn’t practiced hefting different instruments in their cases? You never knew when such a skill might be needed, either.
If she smiled, he couldn’t see it beneath her veil. Instead, she swept past him and into the shop. It smelled of bergamot and sugar inside. Women clustered around slightly battered oak tables, cups of tea held between their fingers, and picked at platters of iced cakes.
The hostess bustled forward. “They’re in the back,” she said.
“Thank you, Mrs. Akeem.”
“Of course, Marco.”
As he threaded his way down a narrow corridor rife with china, the widow finally spoke. “I’d figure you for the sort of man who favors public houses rather than tea shops.”
“Public houses serve the worst wine,” he answered. “When it’s libation I want, I’ve got my own favored establishments. Ones that know the consequence of a good Barolo. And Mrs. Akeem is always welcoming to Nemesis. Ever since we helped her chase off the bigoted idiots who didn’t want a woman of her nationality opening a business in this area.”
She was silent for a moment. Then, “I prefer Chianti to Barolo.”
Another surprise from Mrs. Parrish. He wondered what others were to come.
* * *
“Oh, madam!” The moment Mrs. Parrish stepped into the private room at the tea shop, a small, curvaceous woman rushed forward, tears gleaming in her eyes. Lucy Nelson managed to stop herself from embracing her former mistress. Instead, she wrung her hands and cast Mrs. Parrish sorrowful glances.
Marco watched as the widow pulled back her veil, revealing her face like the last act of a play. “What in heaven’s name is going on, Lucy? Who are these people?” Her gaze fell on the other occupant of the private room.
“I’m Harriet.” Harriet Bradley came forward with her hand outstretched, and Mrs. Parrish was too polite to refuse to shake.
“No last name for you, either, I suppose,” Mrs. Parrish said.
“It’s an issue of protection,” Harriet explained. “Everyone’s protection.”
“I keep being told that withholding information is a matter of safety,” Mrs. Parrish answered. “Yet I always believed that knowing more is the path of greatest security.”
Marco moved past her, and offered her a chair—he might not have wanted this assignment, but he still possessed manners. Three other chairs were arranged around a table that held cups and a pot of tea. Fashion prints lined the floral walls, and lamps with painted china bases and frosted glass were also mounted around the room. Given that Marco was the only man in the chamber, he was grateful feminine spaces didn’t make him uncomfortable.
“You didn’t learn that at your boarding school,” he said, offering her a seat.
“French, dancing, music, drawing—though my efforts were appalling.” She eyed him and the chair as if certain they were baited traps. Not so easily led, this widow.
“Oh, madam, please do sit,” Lucy said imploringly. “I swear on my mother’s thimble that these people mean you no harm.”
A thimble seemed an insignificant thing to swear upon, but for some reason, it satisfied Mrs. Parrish. She removed her cloak and took the seat Marco offered, though not without sending him one last wary glance over her shoulder.
Eager to do her former mistress more service, Lucy took Mrs. Parrish’s cloak and bonnet and set them aside. Once Harriet and Lucy had sat, Marco at last allowed himself to settle into a chair.
Mrs. Parrish immediately poured the tea, her movements practiced and graceful. This was what she’d been born and reared to do: serve as hostess, no matter the time or place. She still looked cagey, but that didn’t stop her from inquiring politely as to whether Marco took milk or sugar in his tea.
His half-Italian blood demanded coffee—espresso would have been ambrosia from Jove’s cup—but that drink wasn’t easy to come by here in England, and when he did get a cup, it tasted more of the river Thames than anything someone would want to drink. But he took the tea Mrs. Parrish offered, noting her tiny flinch when their fingers brushed against each other.
With all the social niceties out of the way, she turned to her maid. “I’ve spent the last hour in a state of confusion. And I never would have agreed to come to this place if Mr.… Marco hadn’t told me you were here. Now it’s time for you to explain what, exactly, is happening.”
“It’s about doing a good turn, madam,” Lucy answered. “You did one for me, more than once. When you gave my sister Martine a job, even though she’d had a babe, and no father to claim the child.”
Mrs. Parrish frowned. “Was I to let her and her baby starve?”
“Most would,” Marco said. “A scandal like that, under your own roof.”
“There was no scandal,” the widow replied heatedly. “Only a woman who’d been used and abandoned, and in need of help.”
Harriet glanced at Marco. “I think I rather like her.”
He might, as well—a surprise—but he always reserved judgment.
“And Christopher Peele, the footman?” Lucy pressed. “You loaned him some of your allowance so he could open a shop.”
“It was a pittance,” Mrs. Parrish protested.
“Not to him,” her maid countered.
“It seems you’re a wellspring of kindness, Mrs. Parrish,” Marco drawled, though in truth, he did find her acts of generosity intriguing. On the rough streets of East London or in the slums of Rome, people looked out for one another, especially since the rest of the world had turned its collective backs on them. But as former missionary Eva Dutton, née Warrick, had explained, the wealthy might throw money at a problem, yet when it came to doing actual good, their delicate hands were never truly dirtied.
“You’ve helped so many,” Lucy went on, her eyes full of sympathy, “and now it’s time for you to be helped.”
A brief flicker of shame crossed Mrs. Parrish’s face. Clearly, she didn’t care to be pitied. Marco couldn’t blame her.
The maid continued. “I knew about Nemesis, and what they did, and so I contacted them to see if anything could be done for you.” She looked expectantly at Mrs. Parrish, as if anticipating her to understand what this meant, but she was met only with a puzzled frown.
“She wouldn’t know of us,” Marco said gently.
“Her kind seldom do,” added Harriet.
“My kind?” Mrs. Parrish exclaimed.
Marco faced her. “England’s favored children. The wealthy. The powerful. Those whose pockets burst with privilege. Nemesis usually finds themselves in opposition to them,” he added.
A bitter laugh burst from Mrs. Parrish. “I’m none of those things.”
“Once you were.” And might be again. “Not Nemesis’s typical client.” He still didn’t like it, but he’d had to yield to the will of the group, and do his job with his usual efficiency.
Marco took a sip of tea. It hadn’t magically transformed into coffee. All the while, an invisible, silent clock ticked down the moments before the trail of Mrs. Parrish’s fortune went cold.
“You keep speaking of this Nemesis,” she said, “but I still don’t know a blasted thing about it.”
Though he could hold himself perfectly still for hours, Marco found a strange restlessness beneath his skin when he was in the presence of Mrs. Parrish. As if her silver-green gaze held an electrical charge, jolting him into motion. That wanting in her. These odd sensations had to be simply a function of the fact that he didn’t want this job. There were other missions that could make better use of his abilities.
He pushed back from the table and crossed to the small fireplace at the other side of the room.
He braced his hands on the mantel. “You’ve had a taste of the cruelty of this world, Mrs. Parrish. It’s a bitter and noisome taste, but it’s far more predominant than sugar and the metallic flavor of money.” Turning, he held her gaze with his own. “Every day, all over this city, all over our majestic nation, men, women, and children are being hurt, abused, or exploited.”
“And not one of them can get justice for themselves,” Harriet interjected.
“But … the law…” Mrs. Parrish murmured.
“Favors the wealthy and powerful,” Marco said. “Not a miner, or a child forced to make cheap jewelry. People who will not be heard, and have no one to speak for them. Exactly the way the elite want them. That’s why Nemesis exists.” He planted his hands on his hips. “To give a voice to the voiceless. To get justice for those who need it. By any means necessary.”
The widow’s eyes went round. “You cannot be serious.”
“Observe my hilarity,” he answered grimly.
Mrs. Parrish glanced from Harriet to Lucy. “That’s … that’s extraordinary.”
“But true,” Lucy said. “Nemesis even gets girls off the streets.” She swallowed hard. “Girls like me.”
If Mrs. Parrish looked astonished before, now she appeared stunned, her mouth hanging open and all the color draining from her face. “Lucy? You were a…”
Tears glittered in the maid’s eyes. “Not much choice for a girl from Whitechapel, is there?” As she spoke, her accent changed, roughened into the harder tones of the East End. “And me with a sister to support, and my mum dead. But Nemesis found me, got me a decent place to sleep, taught me how to speak proper and dress ladies.”
“I had no idea.” Though it likely went against all her training, Mrs. Parrish slumped in her chair—as much as her rigid corset would allow. “You never said anything.”
“And risk losing my position?” Lucy shook her head. “You’d been kind to me and Martine, but I couldn’t trust you to know that I used to be a whore.”
Mrs. Parrish flinched at the word. “I wish…”
Marco narrowed his eyes. What would she say? Would she be disgusted? Condemning? Everyone in the room seemed to wait for her reaction, not just Lucy, but Harriet and himself, as well.
“I wish,” Mrs. Parrish continued, “you’d told me sooner.”
“So you could fire her and let all your friends know not to hire her?” Marco asked.
“So I could have done more to help,” the widow said angrily. “If there were other girls she’d known back then, and they wanted characters, or at least a place to start. I’m glad, though, that you were able to make a better life for yourself.”
Lucy suddenly covered her face with her hands and burst into tears.
Mystified, Mrs. Parrish looked at him.
“As I said,” Marco explained, “this is a hard, rough world. It devours girls like Lucy every day. That’s why kindness is so hard to accept. It’s a word we all know, but almost never experience. And that’s how I came to be at your former home today, Mrs. Parrish.”
He crossed the room to stand beside her chair. She looked up at him, her lips pursed in a question.
“We’ve taken down the most powerful men in England,” he said. “Fought corporate corruption—and won.”
“You sound superhuman,” she said.
He’d helped dozens, scores of people before, but no one like her. Certainly not of her social class. And few individuals, regardless of their caste, had her edged awareness. It made him … restless. Couldn’t she be an empty-headed ninny? Annoying as that might be, it’d make it easier to figure her out.
“We’re only people,” he said. “But when we have a goal, nothing stops us. And now, Nemesis is going to get you your money back.”
Copyright © 2014 by Zoë Archer.
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Zoë Archer is an award-winning romance author who thinks there’s nothing sexier than a man in tall boots and a waistcoat. As a child, she never dreamed about being the rescued princess, but wanted to kick butt right beside the hero. She now applies her master’s degrees in literature and fiction to creating butt-kicking heroines and heroes in tall boots. She is the author of the acclaimed Blades of the Rose series and the historical paranormal series The Hellraisers. Zoë and her husband, fellow romance author Nico Rosso, live in Los Angeles.