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A Second Chance for Love
Writing as S.M. Laviolette
Smart & Sexy Historical Romance

Sneak Peek at THE CUTTHROAT COUNTESS...

Did you like Jo and Angus in THE BOXING BARONESS and THE CUTTHROAT COUNTESS?

Well, here they are in their very own book.

Here are the first 3 chapters for your delectation…

Chapter 1

France

March 1815

Elliot lost count of the number of times the three men hit him.

Whenever he slipped into unconsciousness, one of them threw a bucket of freezing water on him and shook him until he awakened.

And then they started hitting him all over again and asking the same question:

À qui rapportez-vous?

Who do you report to?

Elliot always gave one of three answers, always in impeccably accented French:

I don’t know what you mean.

I report to nobody.

You must have mistaken me for somebody else.

It had been going on for days. Today, for some reason, the men seemed angrier.

“We are running out of patience, you English bastard!” A fist connected with Elliot’s jaw and slammed him to the side, turning everything gray and hazy.

Rough hands shook his shoulders until his teeth rattled. “Wake up, you pig!”

Elliot’s eyelids felt weighted down with lead, a fact he was grateful for; he didn’t want to see what the men did to him next.

A voice pushed through the thick fog: “Should I hit him again?”

“Too much more hitting and he won’t talk at all,” a different voice said, the words followed by loud, raucous laughter and yet another jaw-cracking punch.

White, agonizing explosions blossomed inside his skull like lethal chrysanthemums.

And then darkness . . .

“Smithy?”

The voice—low, calm, and feminine—insinuated itself through the fog as gently as the weak light of dawn breached the darkness.

It was the first voice in days that hadn’t been accompanied by pain.

“Smithy. You need to wake up.”

Elliot could only force one eye to open.

The sight that met his gaze was a filthy face fringed with ragged strands of gray hair. A stranger’s face.

He squinted and then gasped at the ache the action caused, his head throbbing and his eye watering as he stared.

“It’s me—Jo,” the stranger hissed.

Jo?

Only the eyes gave her away, because that was something she couldn’t hide: pale, opalescent eyes that he would have known anywhere.

“Why, if it isn’t Josephine Brown,” Elliot teased, or at least tried to. But his voice came out a cracked wheeze, his jaw too swollen to form the words correctly.

“Can you walk?” Jo asked, her face and voice expressionless.

Elliot gave a rusty laugh. “I’ll bloody well walk out of here.”

Jo—or Blade, as she was known by just about everyone at Farnham’s Fantastical Female Fayre, the circus where they both worked—

helped Elliot into a sitting position and then draped his arm over her shoulder and kept hold of his wrist. “On three we’re going to stand,”

she murmured. “One . . . two . . . three.”

They pushed up together, although Elliot had to admit it was more Jo’s effort than his own that propelled him to his feet.

His head felt like a bowl full of liquid that had been set spinning, sloshing, and pitching so violently that he was surprised nothing leaked out his ears.

“Can you stay upright?” she whispered.

Barely.

“Yes, I’m good,” he lied.

She shifted   her shoulder and tightened her grip on his wrist.

“Ready?”

No.

“Yes,” he lied again. “But you’ll have to guide me, as I seem to have some trouble seeing.”

Rather than answer, she took a step.

Elliot’s stomach joined his head, both pitching and sloshing now, but in different directions. It reminded him of his unpleasant journey across the Channel on the way to France—a memory he could easily do without.

The first step was the worst, but the next one wasn’t much better. After ten steps, he was shivering, rivulets of sweat running down his skin, his muscles were spasming so badly it was impossible to control his legs. He staggered against her, almost knocking her off her feet.

Shame joined nausea as she struggled to keep them both upright and moving. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “You should just leave me, Jo. I’ll only slow you down.”

She didn’t answer or even acknowledge that she’d heard him. Instead, she kept walking, her slim, strong body bearing more of his weight with each step.

Just five more steps, he ordered his body.

After four more steps, they paused so she could open a door.

A body lay on the ground. Elliot noticed the worn bottom of boots first, and then the man they were connected to. It was one of his captors, the one who’d always smiled while beating him. He wasn’t smiling now—at least not his mouth. Instead, he looked surprised, eyes wide and unseeing, the slash across his throat a gruesome red grin.

Jo guided him over the man’s body, saying only, “Lift your feet.”

He obeyed, eager to put the corpse behind them. He’d hated his tormentor but couldn’t bring himself to rejoice at the sight of his mutilated body.

“Almost there,” Jo said.

Elliot ordered his limbs to cooperate, to help her, but the next time he tried to pick up his foot, his opposite knee buckled.

Jo gave a muffled grunt and sagged under his weight, but she didn’t fall. “Just a little bit more, Elliot.”

He blinked at the sound of his Christian name on her tongue.

How did she know it? He’d never told her his real name; he’d told everyone at the Fayre to call him Smithy.

Elliot was so intrigued by the mystery that he took a few steps without even realizing he was moving.

“Fifteen more steps to the door,” she said. “You can do it. Just fifteen.”

Elliot closed his eyes and counted in his head. One, two, three, four—

Somewhere between five and nine, he must have lost consciousness; her voice jolted him awake. “You have to hold on to me, Elliot.

Only four more.”

One, two, three, four.

He forced his eyes open when he noticed they were still walking.

“That’s four. Why are we—?”

“I lied,” Jo said. “Keep going. You can do it.”

Elliot snorted weakly and kept walking, but he was no longer lifting his feet.

“Take his other arm,” Jo said.

Elliot’s eyelids lifted slightly at her low, sharp command. “I don’t know what you—”

A hand—far bigger than Jo’s—took his free arm, and a second set of shoulders slid beneath, somebody taller and far broader than Jo.

Elliot was just conscious enough to feel mortified that he’d not even heard the newcomer’s approach.

“We’ve got steps now, Elliot, so you’ll need to lift your feet.”

Steps?

Elliot blinked rapidly, struggling to keep the darkness at bay, and lifted one foot; this time both his legs gave out.

A male voice cursed in French and said, “Let him go and I’ll carry him, Blade.”

Burly arms shifted him, positioning Elliot’s body as if he were a doll. He gave a hoarse yelp when his feet abruptly left the ground, and up suddenly became down. An arm clamped around his thighs, and a hard shoulder pressed against his midriff.

This time, when the blackness came for him, Elliot welcomed it.

 

Chapter 2

Josephine Brown—or at least that was the name she’d been using for the last eight months—stared down at the Honorable Elliot Wingate, foreign and unnerving emotions churning inside her as she studied his handsome but badly abused face.

Jo had already deviated from her very well-paid job by stopping to rescue him. Instead of staring at his sleeping face, she should be hundreds of miles away.

Leave him, hen,  Mungo’s voice hectored. Ye’ve already done more than enough for him. Ye cannae allow anythin’ to get between you and your mission.

Jo couldn’t argue that Elliot had interfered with her current mission—as Mungo had grandiosely called their services—but it hadn’t sat right with her to leave him in the hands of his brutal captors.

It had been foolish, reckless, and dangerous to steal Elliot away from the Red Cats—a militia that flourished in the war-torn French landscape, preying on terrified provincials.

While the men who’d been torturing and questioning Elliot were not part of the army, the French government often paid coin for the information the Red Cats stumbled on while they were raping and pillaging their way across the unprotected French countryside.

Regardless of what Elliot was really doing in France, a British

Home Office agent would likely fetch a handsome price. Elliot’s future would have been beyond bleak—and probably very brief—if Jo and her small cadre of ruffians hadn’t liberated him. Not that it had taken much skill or stealth, thanks to the fact that the Red Cats were too fond of spirits and whores to set more than one guard over the cell where Elliot had been held.

They’d been working on the slim, wiry Englishman for five days, and he’d not broken yet, a fact which had impressed Jo as much as it horrified her. But she knew far too much about torture and how effective it was; Elliot would have eventually given the men all the information they wanted, no matter how good an agent he was.

And once the Red Cats had established his identity, it would have been one short step to linking Elliot to Farnham’s Fantastical Female Fayre and then to the woman Jo was supposed to be protecting: Marianne Simpson.

So, Jo could claim that by rescuing Elliot, she had taken care of a small problem before it could blossom into a much larger one that would threaten her mission.

Ye ken that yer interest in the man cannae come to anything, lass, Mungo’s voice persisted, just as he would have persisted if he’d still been alive. Not that Jo had been idiotic enough to develop such a tendre in the years she’d been with Mungo.

I think the word yer lookin’ for is  obsession, hen.

Jo rolled her eyes. Fine,  obsession.

Mungo had made sure they’d never lived in any one place long enough.

We must keep moving.

It had been his mantra, and the two of them had lived by it for most of Jo’s twenty-eight years. Or at least as long as she could remember.

She was still living by it, even though Mungo was now gone.

He’d been dead almost six months, and the pain of loss was still as sharp as the edge of any of the six knives currently secreted on her person.

Elliot groaned and shifted on the bed, his eyes fluttering open.

His gaze flicked around the room, his forehead furrowing. Finally, his eyes settled on Jo. The tension seemed to drain from his body, and his face—taut only seconds before—softened slightly; although features that were as sharp and angular as Elliot Wingate’s could never look soft .

“I thought I dreamed you,” he said in a raspy voice.

Jo’s heart sped at his words. And then her face heated when she realized he didn’t mean that the way it had sounded—not that he’d dreamed  of her.  But that he’d dreamed his escape.

“How long?” he asked when she remained silent.

“Three days.”

His eyes widened, and he winced. Although the black eye had lost a great deal of its prior swelling, Jo knew it must hurt.

“Where are we?”

“Not far from Charleville.”

The tension returned in an instant. “The men who had me were based—”

“They won’t find you,” she assured him quietly. “I sent my people out to lead them on a wild goose chase. We’re safe here for the moment.”

He sighed. “Thank you.”

Jo nodded, using the tail of her shirt to wipe the oil from the blade she’d been sharpening.

Elliot’s gaze dropped to the knife, the flicker of emotion in his eyes so quick and subtle that she almost didn’t catch it: he was recalling the body of the Red Cat she’d dispatched when she’d rescued him.

He was remembering that she’d committed murder to free him.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “He’s not dead because of you.”

He looked away from the knife and met her eyes.

“I could have knocked him out, but I didn’t. I wanted to kill him and I’d do the same thing again given the chance.” Not just for what he’d done to Elliot, but also for the trail of innocent victims all the Red Cats had left behind them over the years.

Elliot inhaled deeply, as if he needed a lot of air for what he had to say.

But before he could speak, there was a tapping at the room’s tiny window. Her raven, Angus, was standing on the sill. Jo lifted the sash, and he hopped inside.

“There’s a good fellow,” she crooned, taking a small lump of sugar from her pocket and offering it to him. Jo rarely gave the bird sweets, but he’d done a great deal of flying over the past three days and deserved a treat.

Angus made a soft quork, quork and fluffed his feathers—his polite way of demanding petting—while delicately taking the sugar from her fingers.

Jo scratched his neck ruff and turned back to Elliot, waiting for whatever he’d been working himself up to say—judgment, condemnation? Or—unlikely—gratitude?

But the tension had leaked out of him, and he was merely watching her and Angus with interest.

It worried Jo how glad she was that he’d decided to let the matter of the murdered Red Cat be, but she was skilled at shoving such concerns aside. Instead, she said, “Marianne and the others are only about four or five days ahead of us.”

“How do you know that?”

“Angus just told me.”

Elliot snorted softly.

Jo dug around in her boiled leather satchel and removed an apple, a heel of bread, and a chunk of cured ham. When she placed the food on the rickety table, Angus wasted no time helping himself to the meal.

Jo turned back to Elliot. “Angus left early this morning, and it’s now almost nightfall. His instruction was to follow the road, and I can make a close guess about how far he went based on how long he was gone and how hungry he is. It’s not precise, but the time of his return tells me where they are within a day.”

“What does his appetite have to do with measuring the distance?”

“He’s hungry, which means he didn’t stop to feed anywhere.

Sometimes it can take him hours to find something to eat. Again, it’s not an exact science.”

“It’s Marianne you are protecting, isn’t it? Somebody has hired you.”

Jo didn’t bother asking how he knew that; it was his job to know such things. Elliot Wingate was one of His Majesty’s spies, working in one of those secretive departments in the Home Office that most people had never heard of.

“I’m not doing such a grand job protecting her right now,” Jo pointed out wryly.

“You’ve fallen behind because you helped me.”

“I had some other matters to attend to that took me out of the way.” Not as much out of the way as rescuing Elliot, but there was no point in making him feel guilty.

“I should get up and”—he pushed back the covers and then yanked them up again. “Er, or perhaps not. It appears I’m naked.”

“Your clothes stank and weren’t worth saving.” Jo could see by his expression that he took her meaning. His cheeks darkened, although—in her opinion—there was no shame in soiling oneself when one had undergone days of excruciating torture.

“Who undressed me?” he asked, twin bright spots of color staining his high, blade-sharp cheekbones and standing out on his pale skin even though there were so many bruises and cuts.

“I did.” Jo turned away to give him a moment to collect his shattered pride. She dug another apple from her bag and slipped a knife from her boot, quickly peeling, coring, and quartering the apple before re-sheathing her knife.

When she turned, Elliot was still flushed, but no longer discomposed.

She offered him the peeled fruit.

“Thank you,” he said, taking one piece.

“I peeled it for you; take it all.”

Jo wiped her hands on her breeches and gestured to his left hand.

“Can you manage a sandwich if I make one?”

He stared silently at the two smallest fingers, which Jo and Etienne had straightened and splinted while he’d been unconscious.

He’d screamed during the horrible procedure but, thankfully, he hadn’t woken up.

“I suppose you did this, too?”

She nodded.

“Thank you again,” he murmured, flexing his three free digits and only wincing slightly. “Yes, I can hold food.”

Jo busied herself making a sandwich rather than gazing at the object of her fascination, something she’d done far too much of over the past few days. She should have been guilty about how much she’d enjoyed undressing him. After all, he’d been bruised, lacerated, and filthy—like an old master painting that had been defiled by vandals. But even all that abuse hadn’t been enough to hide his magnificent physique. Elliot Wingate wasn’t big or brawny, but elegant sleekness and toned efficiency. He was, in Jo’s opinion, masculine perfection.

Not that her opinion mattered, of course.

“I must be holding you back,” he said.

Jo shrugged.

“I know you’re following Marianne and the three wagons that are traveling with her,” he continued, “but I don’t know why.”

Jo smirked faintly at his pained tone. For a man whose duty it was to gather information, such an admission must rankle.

He snorted softly. “You aren’t going to tell me.”

It wasn’t a question, so she didn’t answer. Instead, she gave Angus a chunk of cheese before rewrapping the rest.

Once she’d poured a glass of buttermilk from an earthenware jug, she turned and carried both it and the sandwich to Elliot.

“I hope you like buttermilk,” she said.

“I do, although I’ve not had any since I was a boy.” He took the sandwich. “Thank you. I seem to be saying that a great deal.”

Jo ignored his thanks. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I’ll pay for the room for the next week and give you enough money to make your way back home.”

He lowered the sandwich without taking a bite. “I’ll be going with you.”

Rather than argue, Jo just allowed her eyes to roam down his supine body and then back up. By the time she reached his face, it was flaming, and his lips were compressed in a thin, stern line.

“You needn’t worry that I’ll slow you down,” he assured her.

“I’m not worried. I just don’t want you with us.” That was both a lie and the truth; Jo wanted   him to come with her, but it wasn’t something that she should  want.

“Don’t sugarcoat it for me,” he said wryly. “You might not want me along, but you can either take me with you or I can trail behind you. We’re heading in the same direction with the same goal in mind.”

Jo doubted that but didn’t argue. Instead, she shrugged and said,

“Fine.”

Once again, he appeared nonplussed, this time by her easy acquiescence.

“Unfortunately, I’ll need to borrow money from you. The Red Cats took everything I had—including my horse, obviously. But I’ve got more money stashed in our caravan.”

He meant the caravan that he and two of his friends—both aristocrats—had been using while pretending to be workers in Farnham’s Fantastical Female Fayre.

Elliot had managed to blend in as an employee, but his two aristocratic companions—the Duke of Staunton and the Marquess of Carlisle—had been as conspicuous as tropical parrots among a flock of pigeons.

Jo knew the men had come to France to rescue the duke’s brother.

She also knew that Elliot was likely acting without the approval of his employer, the Home Office, jeopardizing his job to help out his two friends.

Angus suddenly flew the short distance across the room to Elliot’s bed, landing on the blankets near his hip.

Elliot made a surprised sound but otherwise didn’t move.

It was Jo’s turn to be startled; Angus rarely showed any interest in people.

“He must want some of your sandwich,” she said.

But when Elliot broke off a piece and handed it to the bird, Angus ignored the food. Instead, he fluffed up his feathers.

Jo gave a snort of disbelief.

Elliot cut her a questioning glance. “What should I do?”

“I think he wants you to pet him,” Jo admitted grudgingly.

Elliot lifted one eyebrow in surprise and then tentatively reached for the bird. His split, swollen lips curved into a smile when Angus began to purr just like a cat, a noise he’d learned to mimic from the two mousers who lived in the London theater that housed the all-female circus.

Jo narrowed her eyes at her bird, but Angus refused to meet her gaze.

Angus and Jo had been together almost eight years, and not once had Angus shown any interest in another person. Not even Mungo, whom he’d tolerated, but had never begged for attention.

Just why was her reserved raven suddenly showing affection to the very same man Jo was trying—and failing miserably—to resist?

 

Chapter 3

Jo was impressed.

In the ten days since they’d left Charleville, not only had Elliot managed to keep up with her small cadre, but he’d earned a place in the hierarchy when he’d demonstrated his superlative intelligence-gathering skills. He was shockingly good at ferreting out information, and he somehow managed to do so without anyone noticing.

“It’s as if the man can blend right into whatever chair he sits in,”

Jean-Louis had told Jo upon returning from a reconnaissance expedition to an inn in the tiny village of Mouzon. “I thought he’d left the tap room entirely, and yet there he was, sitting among a group of six or seven locals, as if he were one of them.” His expression had been one of awe and respect.

After that, Jo had sent Elliot off on his own to comb the area and ensure that Baron Strickland’s private army wasn’t any larger than her initial information had suggested.

The men who’d held Elliot captive—a militia called the Red Cats led by a man named Broussard—were the very same ones that Strickland, Jo’s quarry, was using.

Elliot had discovered Broussard had been paid to capture him, although whoever had paid Broussard hadn’t given the brutal militia leader his real identity.

Jo was almost certain that Broussard’s employer was Baron Dominic Strickland, the man responsible for not only luring Marianne on this journey, but also the three aristocratic men who’d traveled with the circus.

Elliot and his two friends had traveled to Europe in response to a ransom demand from Strickland—who claimed to be holding the Duke of Staunton’s brother captive.

Privately, Jo didn’t think that Strickland had the duke’s brother, a man who’d gone missing while gathering intelligence for Wellington, himself. She believed Staunton’s brother had died over a year ago in an undercover military engagement that had gone awry. Jo could have told the duke why she suspected that and perhaps saved him and his two friends the journey to France, but that wasn’t part of her job.

Neither is taking Mr. Wingate along, is it, hen?

Jo rolled her eyes at phantom Mungo. She’d made peace with herself when it came to Elliot Wingate. Rescuing him from Broussard’s men hadn’t required much time or effort, and it hadn’t knocked her schedule off course, either. She’d still get to Strickland in plenty of time to make sure Marianne was safe. She’d also collect the incriminating documents and other articles her employer had paid her to retrieve.

Everything was fine.

Everything was going according to plan.

Arriving on Strickland’s doorstep any earlier than she’d planned would just mean there would be more opportunities for exposure.

Baron Strickland wasn’t a fool; he’d have people monitoring activity around Himmelhaus Castle and the tiny Prussian village that serviced it. If Jo and her crew showed up too soon and lingered in the area, they would immediately draw attention.

She finished sharpening her favorite knife, tested the balance, and then slid it into one of the sheaths in her boots.

“Hungry?”

Jo looked up to find Monique, one of her group’s four operatives—five, now, counting Elliot—standing in front of her, holding out a bowl of steaming soup.

“Merci,” Jo murmured.

She ate her supper, idly watching the others but not joining in with their conversation, which was—not surprisingly—about Napoleon Bonaparte’s recent escape from Elba.

The four French nationals and Elliot were engaged in a lively debate about the recent Treaty of Alliance against Napoleon that the Coalition Powers had ratified only days before. War was imminent, that much was clear. When and where the powder keg would explode—and who would be victorious—was a matter of dispute.

Jo was surprised that two of her four French employees were royalists while two were sympathetic to Bonaparte’s cause, if not his chances of defeating the allied powers. She had worked with all four of them for years and had never known their political alignment. Elliot had been with them only days and already was more closely acquainted than she’d ever be.

Friends are for other people, hen.

Jo sighed at her father’s voice. Yes, Mungo, I know.

Just because she wasn’t allowed friends didn’t mean she couldn’t listen in and enjoy the spirited debate.

“Bah!” Jean-Louis snorted, deriding Arlette’s support for Napoleon’s promises of constitutional reform. “His back is to the wall; so of course he will promise anything and everything to gather support.”

Monique nodded her head in support of her colleague and lover while topping up everyone’s tin cups with more wine.

“The fifth and seventh follow him—even Ney, who once said Bonaparte should be paraded through Paris in a cage—not because of what he promises them, but because we’ve all had a taste of life beneath the Bourbon coward.” This from Arlette, who handed her un-finished bowl of stew to her husband, Etienne, a mountain of a man who seemed to eat constantly and yet never get full.

“What do you think, Smithy?” Etienne asked Elliot, who was methodically polishing off his second bowl of stew. He, too, ate a prodigious amount, although it never seemed to accumulate anywhere on his whipcord-lean body. “Will Bonaparte deliver on his promises?”

Elliot wiped his mouth with his cuff before answering. “It’s possible, but there are other concerns on people’s minds right now. All his efforts will necessarily be focused in another direction before any great changes can be made at home.”

Jean-Louis nodded. “The Bourbon coward left him very little army to work with. He’ll have his hands full raising troops. Promises of reform are nothing but a sop.”

Etienne, Jean-Louis, Arlette, and Monique were not the only operatives Jo had worked with over the years. Jo and Mungo’s jobs had taken them as far west as Lisbon and—one time—all the way to Moscow. Her father had built networks of efficient and skilled associates from one end of Europe to the other, and Jo had, for the most part, inherited those connections.

Of course, things had changed as the war dragged on. People disappeared, died, or joined one army or another—often without wishing to do so—and many of her former associates were no longer available. She’d been relieved to discover that these four, who’d been favorites, were still alive, well, and at liberty.

Jo lifted the last spoonful of stew to her mouth and was considering having a second bowl when Elliot sat down on the log beside her.

She gave him a questioning look.

“Could we take a stroll? I need to talk to you about something,”

he said in a voice so quiet she could barely hear it. She glanced at the others, but their calm discussion had heated, and they didn’t appear to be paying Jo or Elliot any mind.

Jo nodded and stood. Angus, who’d been dozing on a dead tree nearby, sat up, his black eyes glinting in the light of the fire, waiting for Jo’s signal that he should follow. When she didn’t call him, he tucked his head back beneath his wing and resumed his slumber.

By nature, ravens were diurnal, but Angus had gradually adapted his sleeping pattern to Jo’s, especially since she’d been working at the Fayre, and often stayed up far later than a raven in the wild would do.

But even wild ravens could be alert for short periods of time at night when necessary.

Of course, the things that Angus deemed necessary weren’t always what Jo considered important. Like the time a cat had wandered into a tree where he was sleeping. Angus had woken, alerted by some sixth sense that a predator was nearby. A sleeping bird was easy prey for the average housecat, but a roused raven—at close to two pounds in weight—was a nightmare for a feline even four times Angus’s weight.

The unfortunate tabby had spent probably the longest, most miserable, night of its life trapped in the tree while Angus had relentlessly toyed with it, chasing it up and down the tree and from one branch to another, refusing to allow it to escape.

Jo could have stopped him, of course, but far be it from her to interfere when Angus was teaching a lesson.

She followed Elliot away from the campfire and toward the horses, which were picketed near a tiny stream that would better be called a rill.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” he asked, lifting a small, dark cigar.

“No,” she said, taking a seat on a nearby stump and watching while he took a flint and strike plate from his pocket and lit his cigar.

Mungo, too, had enjoyed blowing a cloud, as he called it. A habit he’d picked up while serving in the Americas.

Elliot tilted his head back, his eyes briefly closed and an expression of near bliss on his face before he slowly exhaled a ghostly silver stream of smoke.

He gave her a slightly embarrassed smile. “Sorry, it has been some time since I’ve enjoyed one of these.”

“My uncle used to love them,” she said, more than a little surprised by her uncharacteristic volunteering of information.

Yer chatty because ye want him to linger.

Jo wanted to argue with the accusation but knew it was true.

“Oh?” he asked, leaning against a tree, only half of his face illuminated by the moon, which was waxing gibbous and bathing everything in a silvery-blue light. “Was your uncle a military man?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Just a guess. Is he the one who raised you?”

Jo knew that Elliot would have investigated her background every bit as much as she’d investigated his when they’d been in London. Because he was employed by the Home Office—although she wasn’t exactly sure which agency—his resources would be much better than hers.

“I think you know who raised me,” she countered. A ribbon of smoke drifted toward her, and she inhaled it deeply, the smell reminding her of Mungo.

Elliot’s teeth flashed. “I know the official story—the one in your file.”

Jo pondered his disclosure for a moment. What was he trying to do by admitting that he knew who she was and that their government had investigated her actions in the past? Gain her trust? Warn her? To what purpose?

“What makes you think there is an unofficial story?”

“Just a hunch.”

“Out of curiosity, what is the official story?” she asked.

“Why don’t you tell me?”

Jo couldn’t help smiling at his caginess. “The only story I know is the real one,” she lied. “I was born and raised on a farm in Yorkshire until I was twelve. The farm burned to the ground and killed my parents and brothers and sisters—everyone but me. I escaped death because I’d sneaked out to look at the new foal that had been born that day. My uncle Mungo Brown—my only relative other than my aged grandparents—had recently been discharged from the army, and he took charge of me. He worked doing odd jobs, which meant we traveled from place to place.”

He nodded slowly, taking another deep draw from his cigar.

“Yes, that is what the official version says.”

“But?” she prodded.

“But it leaves me wondering where you learned all your, er, blade skills.”

Jo wasn’t surprised that Elliot knew the story—he was a government agent, after all. She also wasn’t surprised that he’d seen through the flimsy tale, which was one that Mungo—who was actually her father, not her uncle—had concocted years ago, for reasons of his own.

Jo had always believed her father’s caution had been excessive and unnecessary. But then, a few months before Mungo’s death and right after they’d moved to England, both of them had been brought in for questioning by some men working for an agency that fell under the aegis of the Home Office. The reason for the interrogation was a job they’d done for the British Navy three years earlier. It had amazed Jo that the men who’d questioned her had no clue that Jo and Mungo had been working for a British admiral at the time.

Mungo had often mentioned how greedy—and frustrating—the government could be about sharing information, but not until that interrogation—which had become quite ugly and lasted over two weeks—had she fully understood just how little the left hand knew what the right hand was doing.

Thankfully the investigation had withered on the vine for lack of information or proof. Jo had known that if things became serious—

meaning if the government had decided to actually charge her and Mungo, rather than detain them—there would have been no appealing for help to the admiral they’d worked for. They’d known when they’d taken the job that the admiral would disavow any knowledge of them or their mission. If they had been charged, there would have been nobody to intervene on their behalf.

Although it bothered Jo that Elliot believed she was same the sort of self-serving mercenary as the man they were heading toward—

Dominic Strickland—she had no way to prove to him that she wasn’t a traitor and that they were working for the same side.

But then, Jo was accustomed to having her actions viewed in the harshest of lights.

Elliot traced a pattern in the dirt with the toe of one boot before turning to her and saying, “The official story also leaves me wondering how you and your . . . uncle . . . managed to meet associates like those by the fire if you spent your formative years in Britain.”

Jo wasn’t surprised that he was skeptical of her flimsy story.

“Is there a point to this conversation?” she asked.

“You mean other than finding out the truth about you?”

“Why does that matter?”

“Because I like to know who I’ve thrown my lot in with.”

“You’re free to leave at any time.”

“I don’t want to leave. And I’m sorry if what I’m saying sounds . . . suspicious.”

“Aren’t you suspicious?” she asked, allowing her exasperation to show. “We risked our lives to get you out of Broussard’s hands.

Shouldn’t that tell you I’m not the villain your associates at the Home Office seem to think I am?”

It wasn’t light enough for her to see whether he was blushing at her words, but she recognized the expression of regret that flickered across his normally impassive face.

“I read your file, Jo. I know the evidence they had about your activities in Paris in 1812. It was—”

“Damning.”

“Very. I don’t want to believe what that evidence points to.”

“You mean treason?” She snorted and went on before he could answer. “Would my word suffice to convince you, Elliot?”

“Yes.”

His lack of hesitation was both reassuring and startling. “Really?

You’d take my word that I’m not a traitor?”

“I would.”

“I can’t tell you that I haven’t sold information to French government officials.”

His face went hard and taut.

“But I can tell you that none of it was harmful to any of our soldiers.”

His brow furrowed in perplexity, and Jo didn’t blame him. Unfortunately, she wasn’t at liberty to clear up his confusion.

“Why are you asking me this right now?” she asked.

“I have my reasons.”

“I take it the main reason is that you have some information you’d like to pass along but are worried I’ll interfere. You doubt I can be trusted?”

“Something like that.”

She tried not to let his words sting, but they did. “If you are looking for a courier, there is somebody in Metz I can recommend.”

His lips parted slightly, and he stared, his pupils huge in the low light. Finally, he nodded. “Thank you. I’ll take you up on that.”

“Anything else?” she asked, getting to her feet.

“As a matter of fact, there is.”

Elliot had never stared into the eyes of another human being and understood that person less than he did at that moment. Josephine Brown—or whatever her name might really be—was the opaquest person he’d ever met.

That should have made him extremely suspicious of her.

Instead, he inexplicably trusted her. Of course, that might be the result of his cock leading his brain because he’d trusted her even before she’d given him her word and even before she’d rescued him from certain torture and death.

For whatever reason, he simply could not believe that she was betraying her country, regardless of the government file he’d read that contained evidence to the contrary.

Elliot trusted her, and he desperately wanted some trust in return.

“I want to know what the plan is,” he said.

“Plan?” she repeated.

He recognized this particular response she often employed—

looking befuddled and repeating words, which usually made the person talking to her either give up in frustration or volunteer information they’d had no intention of sharing.

Elliot knew that because he’d watched it happen time after time, people underestimating Jo and thinking she was slow-witted or too much of a bother to try and understand.

“Yes, the plan involving Marianne?” he explained, even though he knew that she knew what he’d meant. “What are we doing hanging back several days behind the rest of the group? I know we could have caught up ages ago. If you’re protecting her, then why aren’t you with her? If you know Broussard is after Marianne, then why not warn her and the others? Sin and Guy could help us catch Broussard and stop him.”

Her lips curled into a smile so faint and fleeting that Elliot doubted he’d really seen it.

“I guess I can tell you the plan,” she said. “At least the part that pertains to you and your two friends. Perhaps you’d like to tell me about them?”

Elliot snorted. “I suspect you already know everything there is to know.”

“I know Staunton is going to meet up with Dominic Strickland because he believes the baron is holding his brother captive.”

“Yes, that about sums it up,” Elliot said. “Did Marianne tell you that?”

“No.”

Elliot wanted to ask her how the hell she knew about Staunton’s brother, but it didn’t really matter at this point. Instead, he asked,

“Since you appear to know so much, do you know if Strickland really has Benjamin?”

Her mocking expression was replaced by something that looked like regret. “Staunton’s brother died in that skirmish last year—regardless of the fact that nobody found his body—just as the authorities reported.”

He made a noise of disbelief. “How long have you known about that, Jo?”

“A while,” she admitted.

“And you didn’t think it was worth telling Sin that his brother isn’t really alive?”

She shrugged. “I have no proof of what I know. Or do you think he would have just taken a strange woman’s word on the matter?”

“Perhaps he might have if you were compelling enough. And then he wouldn’t have needed to come on this journey at all, and Marianne wouldn’t be forced to confront her former lover.”

“That second point is debatable—Strickland would have used whatever tool he needed to get Marianne in his grasp. As it happened, the tool he chose to use was your friend.”

“Which brings me back to my first point,” he persisted. “That you should have spared Sin the mental anguish and a dangerous journey?”

“I’m sorry, but that’s not what I’m being paid to do.”

“It would have been the humane thing to do.”

She stared for a long moment, and just when he thought she was going to ignore his comment, she said, “If it wouldn’t have interfered with my job, I would have told Staunton about his brother. But I couldn’t tell him; my first loyalty is to my employer. I couldn’t interfere or Baron Strickland might have known that somebody was aware of what he was up to. The person who is paying me wants to recover incriminating documents from Strickland. If he gets wind that I know what he is doing, he might go to ground, and the information I want will go with him.”

“What sort of documents?”

“Don’t worry, none of it relates to spying or selling secrets.” She paused and then said, “You work for the government in sensitive situations. You know that sometimes you must do things you don’t like in order to reach your objective.”

“The end justifies the means.”

“Just so,” she said. “Now, as to why I’m hanging back? Strickland didn’t just hire Broussard and his gang to capture you; he paid Broussard to bring a quarter of his militia—which is somewhere around twenty-five men—with him. The baron, for some reason, wants a private army. He must be paying well, because Broussard isn’t just taking any riffraff, he’s collecting the most skilled men he can find—not to mention the most brutal and conscienceless.”

“So why don’t we stop him now, before he has assembled his vicious little army.”

“We’ll stop him—don’t worry about that—but if I am too hasty now word will reach Strickland, and then he will—”

“Go to ground and take whatever information you want with him,” Elliot finished.

“Yes.”

He flicked the butt of his cigar into the stream, sending sparks arcing through the air. “So we’re watching and waiting while a dangerous man like Broussard gathers other dangerous men and converges on our friends.”

“Yes.”

He gave a bitter laugh. “Need I mention this is a dangerous  game you are playing, Jo?”

“No, you don’t need to mention that.” She pushed off the tree she’d been leaning against and closed the distance between them before saying, “One, this isn’t a game to me; it’s what I do for a living.

And two”—she gave him a smile that showed more than a few teeth—“I’m more dangerous than Broussard and Strickland put together.”

***

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