The audience applauded. Nobody as loudly or enthusiastically as Wilberforce, but the new cast for the melodrama, A Tale of Mystery, received a good response.
And the leading lady was one step closer on her journey to becoming London’s most illustrious actress.
Wil’s chest squeezed. He was so damn proud of Cerise’s accomplishments, her talent. She deserved every bit of adulation she received. But each jewel she added to her crown took her one step farther from his reach.
And he was thinking like a fool. She’d never been within his reach. He was the son of a stablemaster. She was destined to conquer the world. Or at least London society.
The man beside Wil shifted. “That was good.”
Wil raised an eyebrow. Brogan Duffy was the newest agent at the Bond Agency for Discreet Inquiries and a decidedly taciturn man. Whether from natural inclination or an attempt to hide his Irish brogue, Wil didn’t know. But that three-word sentence from him was positively effusive.
“That it was.” Wil gathered his hat and coat. “Come on. Let’s go see if she’s available.”
They shuffled through the theatre’s crowd, no one seeming particularly eager to leave the warm confines of the theatre. Not when a storm raged outside. “Pardon me, miss, after you.” He waited for the woman to pass then took a step forward. Stopped again. “Ma’am.”
The stately woman inclined her head as she marched forward… and thwacked him in the leg with her parasol.
Wil grimaced and grabbed his left thigh.
“Sir?” Duffy glanced to his injured leg, to his face. There might have been concern in his expression. Or it could have just been curiosity. In either case, Wil didn’t welcome it.
He gripped his hat and threaded his way to the door to backstage. He made sure his limp didn’t show. His weakness didn’t inspire confidence, and as the manager of an inquiry agency, he needed his men to trust in him. He cursed his injury yet again. More than anything, he hated when he saw the pity in Cerise’s eyes whenever she saw his scars.
The hair on the back of his neck bristled. Wil spun, looking for anyone watching him. Only Duffy’s confused gaze met his. Wil slapped his hat against his leg. All night, he’d had the feeling he was being watched. But each time he looked, no one was there.
He blew out his breath and pushed through the back stage door. It was his nerves over seeing Cerise again. He was acting as silly as a school boy.
The stage manager, Mr. Hanover, nodded at them as they headed backstage. When Cerise had been hired by the Sans Pareil theatre, Wil had thought it prudent to investigate her new work surroundings, make sure she was safe. Make sure everyone knew she was to remain so. That any insult to Cerise would be repaid by Wil.
So far, she hadn’t reported any issues. Not that it was likely she’d come to him if she were in trouble. Stubborn didn’t even begin to describe the French beauty.
He strode to her changing room, ignoring the dull ache in his thigh. Her door was slightly ajar, and Wil raised his hand to knock.
Her musical laughter made him pause. A low male voice murmured something indistinct.
Wil’s muscles hardened to blocks. He should turn about. Leave her to finish her conversation.
But if she’d wanted privacy, she should have shut the damn door fully.
He pushed it open.
Cerise sat at her dressing table. She’d changed from her costume and now wore a burgundy gown, the silver stitching and small crystals sewn to the bodice catching the light. Wil hadn’t seen her in over a month, and he drank her in. Dark hair, tawny skin, and curves he knew well enough to see behind closed eyes.
She took his breath away. She’d had that effect on him from the first moment they’d met. She’d shown him and Lord Summerset little regard, more interested in protecting her friend than in making them. And he’d been caught like a fish on a hook. No one else would ever compare.
He was fortunate that Cerise’s friend was now Lady Summerset, ensuring Cerise would always be in his life.
Or maybe that was to his great misfortune. To always be confronted with what would never be his.
Cerise lowered her face to a huge bouquet of flowers, inhaling the scents. “Thank you, Mr. Cooke. Zis is too kind of you.”
Wil’s gaze shot to the man hovering over Cerise. Soft belly. Soft chin. Arse-licking smile. Wil’s shoulders drew toward his ears. Altogether a weak man. One not worthy of Cerise. One she would take a decided pleasure in dominating.
His gut churned. This was why he hated her job. Men felt entitled to look at Cerise as the arsehole now looked at her. As though he were entitled to see beneath her clothes. As though she owed him something just because he paid for a ticket.
It had become an altogether too common argument between them, her job, and one that he knew he’d never win. She loved the stage too much to care about the risk.
Wil cocked a shoulder against the back wall and cleared his throat. “Am I interrupting something?”
Cooke started then turned a frown his way.
Cerise arched an eyebrow, looking as though she’d been expecting him. Which was impossible. When he’d left her bed last, they’d agreed not to see each other again. That their latest intrigue had been another mistake.
But they’d said that before.
“Yes, you’re damned well interrupting.” Cooke tugged at the knot on his snowy white cravat. “Miss DuBois and I were having a conversation. A private one.”
Cerise laid her hand on his arm. “It is fine.” Her gaze flicked to Duffy, standing behind Wil. “These are friends of mine.”
Wil almost snorted. She’d never met his newest agent before, and whatever there was between him and Cerise, it could hardly be termed friendship. But he didn’t correct her. Just inclined his head and stared at the bit of the man’s sleeve where Cerise still laid her hand.
“I don’t care who they are.” Cooke hooked a thumb in his waistcoat and puffed out his chest. “They’ll just have to wait their turn. We have supper reservations.”
Cerise’s fingers clenched briefly. Then she patted his arm before finally, finally, removing her hand from the bastard. “Zis won’t take long. Why don’t you go to Rule’s, and I’ll be along shortly.”
Cerise held up her index finger and gave it a gentle wag. “Uh, uh, uh.” She laughed. And even though her smile was directed at another man, Wil still felt warmed straight through. “You can’t be too greedy with my time. Go.” She shooed him off. “And by the time you have ordered champagne, I will have arrived.”
Cooke deflated like a stuck bladder. “All right, if you insist.” He picked his hat from her dressing table and slapped it on his head. “But you promise you won’t be long?”
She made the sign of the cross over her heart. “I promise.”
With a few more grumbles, and a stern glare at Wil that was easily ignored, Cooke stomped out the door.
Duffy closed it behind him. “That one’s brains are in his ballocks.”
Wil could hardly disagree, but he still growled. “Watch your language in front of a lady.”
Cerise laughed. “I’ve heard much worse.” She gave him a pointed look, and the tips of Wil’s ears went hot. But really, dirty words said in the heat of passion didn’t count.
He pushed off the wall. “Cerise, this is the newest employee of the Bond Agency, Brogan Duffy. Duffy, this is Miss DuBois.”
Duffy inclined his head even as his gaze roamed the small dressing room, cataloguing every item. “Ma’am.”
“Mr. Duffy.” Cerise turned in her chair to face Wil. “To what do I owe zis visit?”
“We have a new client,” Wil said. “A man looking for his sister. I thought you might be able to help.”
She arched one perfectly-shaped dark brow. “I thought after last time—”
“We only want to ask some questions.” Last time had nearly gotten her killed. He had been an idiot to involve her in the actual investigation. He clenched his hand. An idiot, and a fool.
He’d wanted to be close to her, in any manner he could.
He nodded to Duffy, letting the other man take the lead. It was Duffy’s first assignment as head investigator, and Wil wanted to see what the other man would bring to the agency.
Duffy circled his wide-brimmed hat in his hands and cleared his throat. “We’re looking for a woman of twenty and two years of age. Hair and eyes brown, height, five feet five inches.”
Cerise looked at him expectantly. When Duffy remained silent, she said, “That is it? All of the information you have? Brown hair, brown eyes?”
Duffy shifted. “That was the description.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a miniature framed in a locket. “But perhaps I should have started with this.” He handed the tiny painting to Cerise.
She examined it, frowning. “Zis looks to be of a young girl.”
“It was painted when she was but fifteen.” Duffy shrugged. “It was the only painting the brother had of The Lady Juliana Wickham.”
Cerise lifted it closer to the light. “I still cannot tell her colors. Is her hair Carmelite, cinnamon, or Devonshire Brown? Are her eyes almond-shaped or round? Zis miniature was not done by a master, that is for certain.”
Duffy frowned. “Brown is brown.” He took the painting back, peering down at it. “By all accounts, she’s plain. Average.”
“So not someone I’d be bound to notice.” Cerise sighed, her bosom pressing against the confines of her gown. She gave Wil a look, one he was all too familiar with. A bit of exasperation with a hint of curiosity. “Why are you asking me about zis woman?”
“Lord Snowdon, her brother, said she was a great lover of the theatre.” Wil ignored the way the gas lights flickered across Cerise’s shimmering skin. It must be some type of stage paint that made her glow such, but it reminded Wil of how she looked after an energetic romp between the sheets, dewy and glistening.
He cleared his throat. “I remembered how Lady Summerset took refuge on the stage during her troubles.” Before she’d married Wil’s friend and employer, Lord Summerset. “I thought Lady Juliana might have done the same.”
Cerise shook her head and sighed.
The back of Wil’s neck went hot. Yes, it was a farfetched idea, but they didn’t have many other avenues to investigate.
He swallowed. And he’d wanted to see Cerise again. Being without her for so long made him… itchy.
“Well, no one like her has been employed at zis theatre in the past month.” Cerise turned and plucked up a pair of cream gloves from her dressing table. She slid them on her hands. “I’m afraid I cannot help.”
Duffy slapped his thigh. “Right.” He blew out his cheeks. “Another trail cold.”
“There are more theatres in London.” Wil eyed Cerise’s enticing frame, narrowing his eyes. He didn’t like her preparing for another man. But voicing his displeasure would get him nothing. Instead, he took a different tack. “Would you like us to drop you at Rule’s? I’m sure your suitor is most anxious for your arrival.”
She stood and examined her reflection. “Yes, I’m certain he is, too.” She pinched her cheeks, raising a bloom of color, then reached for her wrap.
Wil stepped forward and helped her settle it over her shoulders. His fingers lingered on her arms. “Have you known Cooke long?”
Her gaze locked with his in the dressing mirror. “Mr. Cooke has been attending my performances for the past three weeks. He has been most attentive.”
Wil’s chest tightened. Of course he’d been. “A man like that should be rewarded for his perseverance. Let’s get you to the restaurant. Duffy, call the carriage. Miss DuBois and I will be right out.”
She waited until Duffy’s footsteps faded. “You seem in quite a hurry to be rid of me zis evening.”
“Nonsense.” Placing his palm on the small of her back, he guided her from the room. Ridding himself of Cerise’s company was the opposite of what he wanted. But he knew Cerise, knew how her mind worked. And if he wanted her to abandon that idiot Cooke…. “But I’m certain you wouldn’t want to accompany us to all the top theatres in town. We’ll only be talking with the actors and producers. It will be fairly tedious, I’m certain.”
She stopped at the door that exited out the side of the theatre. “You will be going to Covent Garden?”
“Of course.” Wil held the door open. The rain had stopped, leaving thick beads of water to drip from the buildings. “It’s our next stop. It was Lady Juliana’s favorite. I think she’d run to familiar territory.”
“And you’ll be speaking to the manager?”
Wil nodded. He fought to keep the smile from his face. He had her, right on the edge of his hook.
She nibbled on her bottom lip, and Wil’s throat went dry. Those teeth had scored most of his body. There was no way he was letting that mouth near that pompous git, Cooke. Not tonight.
Cerise tilted her chin up. “Perhaps it would be best if I accompany you on your inquiries. Theatre folk are a close-knit group, not eager to talk with outsiders. I will be able to gather more information.” Yes, along with the information on future roles. Cerise was an outstanding actress, and part of that was because she charmed the right people into giving her a chance.
“Are you certain? I hear Rule’s serves a fine meat pie.”
“Wilberforce, a young woman is missing.” She sniffed, and watched the agency’s carriage as it rolled to a stop before them. “How could I enjoy such a meal when there is a chance I could help find the poor thing?”
Duffy hopped out of the carriage and pulled the steps down. Cerise marched forward and allowed him to assist her into the coach.
Wil let the smile he’d been holding back loose. It might only be for this one night, but he had Cerise back where he wanted. By his side.
For now, it was enough.
The blasted man was insufferable. Just when she’d thought she’d go through one whole day without thinking of him, he appeared in her dressing room.
She sniffed, which turned out to be a mistake. Wil’s scent filled her nose, the mix of cedar and man sending sharp quivers to her belly.
She should have sat next to Mr. Duffy. Though that man was bluntly handsome, his appearance didn’t stir her.
Wil shifted in the carriage beside her, his leg brushing against hers, and a shiver sneaked down her spine.
It was only because she was heading to Covent Garden that her body tingled so. Not because she was again in Wilberforce’s company. Her run in A Tale of Mystery was drawing to an end, and she wanted nothing more than to become one of the Theatre Royal’s newest actors.
And though she’d never admit it, the idea of assisting Wil with another case was thrilling. Her last adventure as an agent of discreet inquiry had heated her blood almost as much as treading the boards during a performance.
“Why did the girl leave her home?” she asked, the mystery hooking her under the ribcage.
“The brother didn’t know.” Duffy crossed one ankle on top of the opposite knee. “He noticed no upheavals or disappointments in his sister’s life before her leaving.”
“Could she have been taken?”
Wil shook his head. “Her rooms were undisturbed, but a maid discovered her traveling bag missing. Everything indicates Lady Juliana leaving on her own in the middle of the night.”
Hmm. If the woman hadn’t been taken, wasn’t running away, perhaps she was running towards something. Or someone. “An elopement?”
Duffy shook his head. “The brother sent men to Scotland. They found no evidence of a marriage. Besides, he insists she wasn’t familiar with any unattached men.”
Cerise huffed. It wasn’t likely the brother would know. Not if the sister was smart about it.
The carriage turned a corner, hitting a deep rut. Cerise slid towards Wil. Her hand landed on his thigh, and she used his body for balance.
Wil sucked in a sharp breath.
Cerise swore in French and lifted her hand. “I am sorry. Your injury….”
His gray-green eyes were dark in the carriage, looking almost black. “I was not in pain.”
Her heart did a queer twist, and she looked away, focusing on the buildings rolling past. It was always this way for them. Greedy for the others’ touch but knowing nothing more could ever come of it. How foolish the heart was.
“Will anyone still be at this theatre?” Duffy said, interrupting the awkward silence. “Miss DuBois’s play has ended. Won’t the rest of them be over?”
“The performances, yes.” Covent Garden was showing The Comedy of Errors, which was shorter than her A Tale of Mystery. “But the theatre is a second home for many of my people. They could be there until the early hours of the morning resting and sharing each other’s society.”
“We’ll find out how many remain.” Wil nodded outside her window. “We’re here.”
The carriage jerked to a halt, and Wil pushed the door open and hopped down. He held out his hand for Cerise.
With only a flutter of hesitation, she took it and climbed down. The lights still flickered by the front doors of the theatre, but the building had a deserted feel to it.
“Come,” she said. “That door will be locked.” Cerise headed around the side of the building. The side door would most likely be locked, too. But someone should be near enough to hear them knocking.
And after twenty seconds of doing just that, the door swung open. “What do you want?” A burly man with a long white beard peered out at them.
Cerise smiled. “That is hardly the way one should greet an old friend, no?”
He leaned closer, narrowing his eyes, before a wide grin creased his wrinkled face. “Cherry! I ‘aven’t seen you since the Burns Theatre.”
Cerise gave a dramatic shiver. “Don’t remind me of that place. The smell alone still haunts my dreams.”
Harry Braxton chuckled. He leaned forward and pulled Cerise through the door, wrapping her in a suffocating hug. “It was something awful.” He set her back and looked her up and down. “Well now,” he said as the door snicked shut behind Wil and Duffy. “What brings you ‘ere tonight looking so fine? And who are your friends?”
She pointed to her left. “Zis is Mr. Duffy.”
“And I’m Wilberforce.” Wil stepped close to her, slightly wedging his body between hers and Harry’s.
Cerise gave a small shake of head. Men. As ornery as badgers when their backs were up. Though why a sweet old man should set Wil off, she didn’t know.
Wil cracked each knuckle on the fingers of his right hand individually. “We’d like to ask you and other members of the theatre some questions. If you are done fondling Miss DuBois.”
Cerise scooted between the two men. She threaded her arm in Harry’s and led him down the corridor. “Nevermind that one. But I would appreciate any assistance you can give.”
“Anything for you, Cherry. You know that.”
A growl sounded behind her. Cerise flapped her hand at Wil, trying to get him to remain silent. It would be hard enough to get these people to talk freely to two investigators. It wouldn’t help matters if one was acting like a bear.
“We are looking for a young woman.” She waved Duffy forward. “He has a miniature of her, though it is from some years ago. Has anyone been employed here recently who resembles her?”
Harry squinted at the small painting. “Don’t think so.”
“Perhaps others might have seen her?” Duffy asked. He kept his voice polite, and Cerise was grateful. No need to point out the obvious, that Harry’s sight was failing.
Her old friend shrugged. “There’s only about ten of us ‘ere now, but let’s go ask.”
Wil took her elbow. “Yes, Cherry, let’s go.”
Ah, so that was the bee in the bonnet. Wil didn’t like when other men were too familiar. She smothered a grin. Even when said men were old enough to be her grandfather.
They entered backstage, the space filled with the chairs and sofas of past sets. Actors and crew lounged with drinks in their hands, someone softly playing a piano off in the corner. Cerise had worked with one other person there. She gave the woman air kisses and chatted as the portrait was handed around.
“Abner Joseph is the manager here, yes?” Cerise knew he was, but it never hurt to let people think you didn’t know as much as you actually did.
“Aye, you just missed him.” Sandy Watson downed her shot of whisky and held her glass out to her neighbor for a refill. “He’s a bit of a git, but he pays well.”
Yes, and he made actors’ careers.
“So, who’s this girl you’re looking for?” Sandy asked.
Oh. Yes. The missing woman. Heat swept up the back of Cerise’s neck and across her face. That was a bit more important than her next job. “She has disappeared and her brother is trying to find her. My friend’s husband owns an inquiry agency, and I agreed to assist.”
“An inquiry agency.” Sandy raised an eyebrow. “Does that pay well?”
Cerise’s gaze was drawn to Wil. He knelt by a seated actress and asked her questions as she examined the miniature. His trousers pulled tight against his strong thigh and his black hair looked soft as a cat’s belly in the candlelight.
She dug her fingers into her gown. They knew the feel of running through his hair. Her whole body remembered the feel of his strength enveloping her.
She sighed. Wil was like a fine wine. Too much of him was bad for her, but she couldn’t seem to get enough. “Yes, the rewards are very good.”
Wil rose and approached her and Sandy. Cerise made introductions.
Wil handed the other actress the miniature. “Do you recognize this woman?”
Sandy held it to a candle. She sucked in a sharp breath. “Lady Juliana.”
Cerise’s pulse jumped. “You know her?”
“Aye. She’s a very kind benefactor.” Sandy rubbed her thumb around the gold frame. “She used to come back stage after a show and thank us for the performance. But she hasn’t been around lately. And we definitely haven’t hired her.”
Cerise’s heart sank. The disappointment of discovering some information and then hitting a block was worse than if they’d learned nothing at all.
Wil stepped closer. “Do you remember the last time you saw her?”
Sandy scrunched up her face. “Mayhap three weeks?”
“And was there anyone here she spoke to more than others?” Wil pressed. “An actress she became particularly close to?”
Sandy frowned. “She and Bertie seemed real chummy like. Bertie Huddleson. He’s one of our set designers. But he hasn’t been here for the past couple weeks neither.”
Wil shot Cerise a look, and she nodded. “Do you know where we can find Bertie? He might know something, and we don’t want zis girl wandering on the streets longer than she needs to.”
“No, of course not, the poor dear.” Sandy waved to a tall, lanky man slouching in the corner. “Hal, come here. You’ve been to Bertie’s place before, haven’t you? Where’s he live?”
Duffy followed the man over, his eyes narrowed in anticipation. He had the look of a hunting dog following a scent. He’d be right at home in the inquiry agency. Cerise could only hope the man was as competent as he was keen. Investigations could be a dangerous business, and she needed Wil’s associates to help, not put him in harm’s way.
“Bertie has apartments over on Bowker Street. Across from the pub, The Hind Leg. Why?” Hal’s gaze drifted over Wil suspiciously, but the look he turned on Cerise was much friendlier. “Wanna go for a drink?”
Wil gripped her elbow with a possessive hand. “She can’t. But thanks for the information.” He nodded to Duffy. The man slid a pouch from his coat pocket and handed some coin to both Hal and Sandy.
“Come back and visit again,” Sandy told Cerise.
“I will.” At a more reasonable hour when the manager would be in residence. She said her goodbyes and walked with Wil back out the way they’d come. “So you have a name. And will we go wake him up at zis late hour or wait until morning?”
“Duffy and I will interview the man.” Wil placed his palm on the small of her back as he guided her through the door. “You will return home. We’ll drop you off.”
She didn’t want to, but she forced herself away from the heat of his palm. What Wil said was smart. Spending more time with him would only lead to more feelings, and that was something she just wouldn’t do.
Her intrigues with Wil only led the man to want more, and more was something she couldn’t give.
Not even when deep inside she might want more, too.
But her life was on the stage, and Wil had made it clear he disapproved of her profession. And besides, she would make an inferior wife. She knew this. And so did Wil.
So returning home and going on with her life without Wil was definitely the smart action to take.
She tipped up her chin. “It is only—” Movement caught her eye. A man wearing an absurdly high top hat drifted deeper into the shadows of the theatre, enjoying his cheroot. She lowered her voice, not wishing to cause a scene. “It is only through my assistance that you obtained zis information. You have me interested now. I want to follow zis through to the end.”
She always did the smart thing… except when it came to Wil.
“That address isn’t far from our offices,” Duffy said. “Me and the boys have been to that pub after work a few times. I can always drop you and the lady off at the agency and I’ll go—”
“No,” Cerise and Wil replied simultaneously.
She faced off with Wil, planting her fists on her hips. “You don’t get to tell me what to do.”
He planted his own hands on his hips, mirroring her posture. “As this is my investigation, in point of fact, I do get to say who will be involved.”
“It’s actually my investigation.” Duffy ran his hand up the back of his head, mussing his hair and looking like he wanted to be anywhere but here.
“Quiet,” Wil told him without taking his eyes off Cerise. “Now, I thank you for your help gaining entrance to the theatre, but that is all I’m willing to involve you in.” He blew out a breath. “We both know simple investigations can become dangerous.”
“And we both know that I can take care of myself.” The back of her throat burned. She still had nightmares about the man she’d killed. There had been so much blood…
He pressed his lips tight. “Damn it, Cerise, I don’t want—”
“We are only talking to a set designer.” It was a ruthless thing to do, but Cerise couldn’t face going home alone. Saying goodbye. She stepped close and rested her gloved hand on Wil’s forearm. She looked up at him, eyes wide, and gave him the soft smile she knew he couldn’t resist. “There is nothing threatening about set designers. Besides, I’ll be with you and Duffy. What can happen?”
Wil scrubbed a hand across his jaw. He cursed under his breath, and Cerise knew that she had won. He helped her into the carriage and muttered, “Those are famous last words if ever I’ve heard them.”
Nothing would happen visiting a set designer. Wil knew this, yet still he berated himself for his weakness. He should have sent her home. Tucked her away in her bed where she’d be safe. Safe and warm and wearing naught but a flimsy night rail….
He muffled a groan as the carriage stopped in front of Huddleson’s apartments. He had to stop doing this to himself. Cerise told him, over and over, she wanted nothing from him, nothing but the few moments of pleasure she’d allow. And he himself knew they had no future.
He jumped to the ground, ignoring the pain that flared in his thigh. She was much too good for a man like him. She deserved men like Cooke, someone who could buy her fancy dinners and jewels.
She deserved more than Wil could give.
She glided down the coach steps and stood by his side, the faint fragrance of her perfume a tease.
Yet still he allowed her to accompany him. He was a weak man.
They followed Duffy into the building.
“Which room do you think is his?” Cerise asked.
“Don’t know.” Duffy lifted his meaty hand and knocked on the nearest door.
It whipped open. A greying man wearing a sleep cap glared out at them.
“We’re looking for a Mr. Bertrand—”
“Third floor. Second on your right.” The door slammed shut.
Duffy looked over his shoulder. “Third floor,” he repeated.
Wil rolled his eyes. He swept out his hand. “After you.”
He followed Duffy and Cerise up the stairs. He preferred taking the rear position so no one could see his limp as steps were especially hard on his leg. But it meant having Cerise’s lush behind inches from his face. Her cheeks shifting back and forth beneath her thin silk gown.
He dropped his gaze to his feet, cursing his weakness.
Duffy hopped up the last of the stairs and bounded to Huddleson’s door. Cerise crested the top and held a hand to her side. She nodded her head at his associate. “His energy can be most annoying, yes?”
Wil’s lips twitched. “Indeed.”
Duffy pounded on the door. Waited three seconds. Pounded again.
“Why don’t we give him a chance to get up and come to the door,” Wil suggested.
“Fine,” Duffy muttered. He flexed his hands and shifted his feet, clearing not a man used to waiting patiently.
But their patience was rewarded. The door swung inwards and a sleepy male face peered out. “Good Gad, what’s the racket? I know I paid my rent.”
“Mr. Bertrand Huddleson?” Duffy casually slid his boot against the door jamb. “I work for the Bond Agency for Discreet Inquiries. I’d like to ask you some questions about The Lady Juliana Wickham.”
A loud gasp sounded behind the door. “He’s found me.”
The blood drained from Huddleson’s face. He shoved the door, trying to close it. It stopped on Duffy’s boot, and the agent easily pushed it open over the smaller man’s efforts.
Wil hurried in past Duffy. He scanned the room, finding it empty of anyone except Huddleson and a woman who was undoubtedly Snowdon’s sister. “Lady Juliana.” He inclined his head. “Are you all right?”
“I’d say that depends on you.” The woman skittered back behind a torn settee and looked wildly about. Her gaze landed on a brass candlestick. She grabbed it, holding it aloft, the taper wobbling precariously in its perch. Her eyes were bright with intelligence. And fear.
Duffy held up his hands. “Easy. We mean you no harm. We’re here to help.”
Wil ran the possibilities through his head. It was looking less like the lady needed rescuing and more like she was running. He glanced at Huddleson. The young man seemed an odd choice for a lover to abscond away with. Gangly. Narrow-shouldered. Completely lacking the ability to protect his woman if his frantic clutching of the belt on his wrapper was any indication. But since Percy Shelley had popularized the delicate and bloodless look, who knew what attracted women?
“Are you here against your will?” Wil asked.
The woman snorted, then covered her mouth, her eyes rounding in embarrassment. She shook her head.
“Now see here,” Huddleson said. “I would never—”
Duffy held up his hand and the set designer fell silent. Duffy kept his gaze on Lady Juliana. “Then you ran. Why? Your brother is most concerned?”
“Is he?” She chewed on her lower lip. “He didn’t seem concerned when I told him of my suspicions.” Her arm trembled, the candlestick drifting an inch lower.
Duffy eased forward. “And what suspicions are those?”
“That his secretary is trying to kill our father. And since I’ve discovered his plot, now me, as well.”
Wil blinked. He shouldn’t be surprised any longer; he’d seen too much in life. But the lady’s words took him aback. That wasn’t an accusation that was thrown about lightly. Or it shouldn’t be.
“Pickens?” Duffy asked incredulously. “That knobbly man who chastised me for not addressing Snowdon with the proper amount of deference is an attempted killer?”
“Mon Dieu.” Cerise pulled her wrapper more tightly about her. “So that is why you ran? To save yourself?”
Lady Juliana’s gaze darted to her and she nodded. “Who are you people?”
Duffy reached out and plucked the candlestick from her hand, catching the candle before it could hit the floor. “As I said, we work for an inquiry agency. Your brother hired us to find you.”
She rubbed the arm that had held the weight, taking a step back from Duffy. She examined him from his mud-splattered boots to his mop of dark hair that looked past due for a trim. She swallowed. “And if I don’t want to be found?”
Duffy frowned. “Once we get your brother’s secretary sorted, why wouldn’t you want to return home instead of living here? No offense,” he tossed over his shoulder to her roommate.
“None taken.” Huddleson leaned back against a rickety side table. “I told her she was mad to run away from the lap of luxury. But she’s welcome to stay for as long as she wants.”
Wil had to give the man credit. Duffy had to outweigh him by fifty pounds, but the boy didn’t drop his gaze at Duffy’s glare. And why Duffy should care if the girl stayed here was a mystery to Wil. The man hadn’t seemed like a moralist to turn up his nose at unusual living situations.
Perhaps he worried the viscount wouldn’t pay if we didn’t return with his sister in tow.
Lady Juliana rubbed her forehead. “I need to think, and it’s too late to think well. Come back in the morning.”
Cerise tutted. “But of course. You must be exhausted, you poor thing. Wil, Mr. Duffy, it is time for us to return to our own beds and leave zis poor woman to hers.” Her voice brooked no dissent.
“But…” Duffy looked to Wil, who shrugged.
“You heard the ladies,” he said. They’d found their woman. It wasn’t their job to drag her kicking and screaming back to the brother.
Duffy slapped his hat against his thigh. “Fine. Tomorrow.” He gave his thigh one more slap before shoving the hat on his head and striding from the room.
Cerise made their farewells, and Wil followed her out the door and down the stairs.
Duffy waited for them in front of the building. “I don’t like it.”
Cerise shivered. “Which part?”
“All of it. Not leaving her there with that popinjay. Not her suspicions. What an idiot her brother is.” Duffy shoved his hands in his pockets. “His sister suspects his secretary of trying to harm her yet Snowdon had the man in the room when he hired us.”
“Maybe the brother knows more about his sister than he told us.” Wil shrugged out of his coat and draped it over Cerise’s shoulders. “Perhaps the sister is prone to wild tales.”
Cerise snuggled into his coat, looking so damn adorable Wil’s heart actually hurt.
“Perhaps.” Duffy glared up at the third floor. “And what of this Huddleson? As plain looking as Lady Juliana is, he’s not invited her in for an indecent purpose. But I bet she’s paying him to stay there.”
“They’re friends,” Cerise said.
Duffy snorted. “He’s getting something. Taking advantage of her somehow.”
Cerise flipped up the collar to his jacket and strolled to the carriage. “Does friendship mean so little to you?”
Wil opened the door and helped her inside. He followed.
Duffy settled on the seat across from them and slammed the door. “Blunt comes before friendship, every time.”
Cerise shook her head and looked out the window. She sat up straight. “That secretary. Does he wear a tall top hat?”
Wil and Duffy shared a look. Wil shrugged. “I don’t know what type of hat he fancies. Why?”
She pressed close to the window glass, arching her neck to watch something they’d passed. “Because a man with such a hat was at my theatre watching us as we left, and I just saw him again as we turned the corner.”
Wil’s muscles went tense. “Are you certain it was the same man?” He’d felt like he was being followed. He should have listened to his gut.
She nodded. “There could be no two such hats.”
Wil pounded on the roof of the coach. “Stay with her,” Wil told Duffy. He pushed open the door and leapt out the moment the carriage ground to a halt. He sprinted back the way they’d come.
Footsteps pounded behind him, and he twisted his lips. Of course they hadn’t listened to him. Why would Cerise stay in the coach where it was safe when she could risk her fool neck charging after him?
On the staircase, Duffy passed both Cerise and Wil, taking the stairs two at a time.
A scream ripped through the building, and Duffy increased his pace. He was through the open door of Huddleson’s apartment when Wil crested the top stair.
Wil burst in after him, taking the scene in at a glance. Huddleson crouched in front of Lady Juliana, his eye swollen, the sleeve of his wrapper torn. A man’s body flew through the air, and Duffy pounced after it. Both men landed onto a square wooden table, splintering its legs, and crashing to the floor.
Wil stepped forward, but Cerise grabbed his arm. “Let your man take care of it.”
He rolled to the balls of his feet. “But…” A glass flew over the settee, and Wil swung Cerise to his other side. The glass crashed into the wall behind him. “I’m not accustomed to just watching other people fight. And I’m responsible for Duffy.”
The man in questions drew his arm back and plowed his fist into the assailant’s face.
Cerise nodded at him. “Does it look like he needs help?”
The other man, who Wil could see was Pickens, staggered to his feet, dabbing at the blood running from his nose. He narrowed his eyes and pulled an eight-inch blade from his boot.
Cerise nudged his arm, pushing him forward. “All right. Now he needs help.”
Wil tugged his coat off her shoulders and wrapped it around his arm. The brass candlestick Lady Juliana had waved about rolled on the floor, and he grabbed it with his other hand as he circled the settee.
Pickens angled his body, keeping an eye on both Duffy and Wil. He slashed the blade through the air. “Stay back.”
Duffy took a step forward. “That isn’t going to happen.”
“Don’t be a fool.” Wil boxed him in from the other side. “Your only chance is to put the weapon down and beg the courts for mercy.”
The secretary answered with another slash of his knife.
“Why?” Duffy asked. His gaze darted down to the floor than back up. He shot Wil a look. “Why would you try to harm Lady Juliana?”
Wil looked down, saw nothing but a faded rag rug, and glanced back at Duffy.
Pickens snorted. “Why do you think?”
“Money.” Duffy again nodded to the rug, and Wil finally picked up on the message. He nodded.
“Who’s paying you?” Wil asked, drawing the man’s attention his way.
With a speed surprising considering his bulk, Duffy dropped to kneeling, grabbed the edge of the rug, and pulled.
The rug shifted under Pickens’ feet, sending him staggering. Wil checked the man’s knife hand with his wrapped arm, and smashed the end of the candlestick into the secretary’s mouth.
He went down in a heap, unmoving.
Duffy dusted off his hands as he stood.
“That was sharp thinking,” Wil said.
“That was amazing.” Huddleson rose, holding Lady Juliana’s shuddering form close. He dragged an appreciative look up and down Duffy’s body, and the tips of the investigator’s ears went red.
“You’re unharmed?” Duffy asked Lady Juliana.
“The blighter pushed in here and punched me in the face.” Huddleson pressed his fingertips to his puffy eye. “I’d say that’s harm.”
“I wasn’t asking you,” Duffy growled.
Cerise hurried to Wil’s side and unwrapped the coat from his arm. “Must you always throw yourself in the path of danger?” She pushed her finger through the slit Pickens’ blade had made then grabbed his arm, turning it this way and that. When she was satisfied no corresponding cut marred his shirtsleeve, she dropped his arm and huffed. “You are never allowed to complain about my profession again.” She glared up at him, her lips pressed in a pretty pout, her brows drawn together.
He dug his knuckle into his breastbone. Cerise didn’t have many people in her life whom she cared about, but he knew in that moment that he was one of them.
It wasn’t enough, however. Not to allow for a future for them. He hadn’t spontaneously become a better person worthy of her. She hadn’t suddenly decided to make room for a serious relationship into her busy life.
And even though he kept telling himself he couldn’t keep having one more night with her, that the pain when she tossed him aside was too great, his resolve weakened. If she’d have him, he was hers until morning.
“You can clean up here,” he told Duffy. “I’m taking Miss DuBois home.”
Duffy blinked. “But… Pickens.” He pointed at the heap on the floor.
“Call the magistrate.” Wil shook out his coat and tucked it around Cerise’s shoulders.
“And Lady Juliana….”
“We can take her back to her brother in the morning.”
The woman in question jerked her head up, narrowing her eyes.
Duffy cast an uncomfortable glance at Lady Juliana and Huddleson. “Sir, I really think—”
“That you can handle it? Good.” He ushered Cerise through the door and kicked it closed with his heel.
“Wil, that was hard of you.” But her lips tipped upwards and she edged closer to him as they descended the stairs.
“You like me hard.”
She smothered a laugh before pausing in front of the carriage. Her chest expanded with her sigh. “Yes.” He dragged his gaze back up to her face to catch her defeated smile, one he didn’t appreciate even though he knew what it meant.
“Take me home, Wil. Show me just how hard you can be.”
He grabbed her hand and all but tossed her into the carriage. She might be giving him sad smiles now, ones full of defeat for this merry-go-round they couldn’t get off of. For this failure they both couldn’t overcome. But by the time he was through with her, she would be so sated she wouldn’t even be able to remember failure’s name.
They didn’t make it to her apartments. Wil directed the driver to return them to his offices, and even those few blocks felt like an eternity.
She tugged at the buttons to his waistcoat as he kicked open the front door. “One”—she dragged her mouth down his throat—“last time.” It was a lie and she knew it. There was still too much heat between them, too much passion remaining to be exorcised.
One day it would be their last time, a day that would break her heart. But that was a worry for tomorrow.
He only grunted in response. But then, she didn’t really care what his mouth did, not as long as his hands kept sliding their way up her gown, trailing up her thighs, and…
Wil wrapped an arm around her waist and held her against his hard body. She barely had time to push the door closed before he was striding across the main room, heading to his personal office.
He found her mouth, his lips aggressive, demanding. He tugged on her bottom lip with his teeth, opening her to his tongue. She met his parry, sparred with him for dominance. The sound of a seam tearing reached her through her haze, and she didn’t know if it was his clothes that tore or hers.
Her gown sagged off her shoulder. All right. It had been hers.
Wil trailed his lips down her neck, and she arched for him. The bristle on his jaw scraped her skin. Pushing her loose bodice down her breast. Wil enveloped her nipple with his mouth, pulling on her through her chemise, the moistening cotton abrading her sensitive nub.
Her core pulsed. “Why is it like zis with us?” She clasped the back of his head. “Why can’t we stop?”
He raised his head, his eyes searing. “You know.”
The back of her throat burned. She dropped to her knees, avoiding his gaze. Yes, she did know. She reached for his falls. She’d known ever since their first time.
They were nearly perfect together. If she had been a normal woman, they would have been wed. If she didn’t have a career that she loved, that was all-consuming, and one that Wil didn’t disapprove of. If she’d been raised to show a husband the right kind of love.
If she’d been whole, able to provide him with children.
They might have had a chance if she’d had all that.
She jerked his smallclothes down his hips, exposing his ruddy length.
But she didn’t have that.
She had this. Intrigues and good old-fashioned tupping. She took him in her mouth, swallowing him deep, drawing a groan from this man she cared too much about.
She adored the pleasure she could bring to this man, almost as much as what he in turn gave her. And the way Wil made her feel was more than most had. She would have to be grateful for that.
“Cerise.” He wound a lock of her hair around his index finger. His hips thrust gently. “You feel so good.”
She swirled her tongue over his velvety hardness, cupping his bollocks. She sucked and licked and stroked, eager to taste his loss of control only to have Wil pull from her mouth with a muttered curse.
He gripped the back of her neck and dragged her up his body. His breath skated across her lips. “I want to be inside you when I spill. I want to feel your crisis squeezing my cock just before I mark you with my seed.”
Her lungs seized. Her gaze flicked back and forth between his eyes. She saw so much there. How much he cared for her. How beautiful he thought she was.
And how much she was going to hurt him.
Her heart burned. It was times like these she wished she were normal. That she wanted the things most women did. But she couldn’t give him what he wanted. Either she would suffocate in a traditional relationship, or he would.
She closed her eyes, closed him out, and crushed her mouth to his.
Wil gripped her hips, pulling her tight to his erection. His fingers were punishing, and when he flipped her around and pressed her chest to his desk, she knew he hadn’t been fooled. He understood she was trying to avoid the intimacy.
And he didn’t like it.
It was better this way. She didn’t do tenderness.
He jerked her gown and chemise up over her hips. Air cooled the heated flesh of her legs and arse. He slapped her right cheek, and her channel squeezed.
She gripped the edge of the desk. It was going to be one of those kinds of nights. Where Wil let his emotions rule.
She rubbed her legs together, the ache at the apex of her thighs increasing.
He pressed against her, his cock nestling in the crease of her bum. He planted his hands by the sides of her head. “You destroy me every time I see you yet I keep coming back for more.” He scraped his teeth over her shoulder. “I’m a fool for you. You make me a fool. Even knowing this, I’ll be back again whenever you let me.”
The pain in his voice was too much to bear. She rocked her hips against him. She couldn’t help his heart. But she could satisfy his body.
“Take me, Wil.” She pressed her cheek to the smooth wood of his desk. “Take me so hard I forget my own name.”
He slid his palm over her bottom. He rubbed his fingers along her crease, the pressure a tease. He sucked her earlobe into his mouth. “Are you certain it’s your name you want to forget?” He dipped his finger into her core, moistening the tip before circling her clitoris, but never making direct contact. “I think it’s mine you wish to wipe from your memory. My touch you wish you didn’t crave.”
He flicked her nub, and she stifled a cry.
“But I won’t let you forget,” he whispered. “After tonight, you’ll have screamed my name so many times it will be imprinted in your memory forever.”
He plunged two fingers into her core, testing her readiness. “I’m going to fuck you so hard, you’ll feel me tomorrow when you’re pretending there’s nothing between us.” He gripped her thigh and tugged her leg up and onto the desk so her knee was by her hip. His thick crown nudged at her opening.
Cerise gripped the desk, prepared for a hard thrust. But Wil pressed forward in one slow, smooth glide. When she thought there was no way he could go deeper, Wil jerked his hips and took the last inch.
Her shoulders tensed. She was so full. Their connection so intense. And she didn’t want it to end. Didn’t want them to end. Perhaps they could work—
Wil eased back, making every nerve ending in her channel light up, and slammed back home.
A cry escaped her lips.
He gripped her leg with one hand and the back of her neck with the other as he fucked her. Each stroke was measured, hard. He worked her body like a machine. Each thrust ratcheted her need higher. Every clench of his fingers into her skin bound them closer.
“Wil?” Her breath caught when he did that hip-swivel thing she liked so much.
“Yes, sweetheart?” He trailed his hand down her spine, her body rolling up to instinctively meet his touch. He settled his palm over her arse, stroking his thumb up and down between her cheeks.
“Perhaps”—she lifted her hips for his next invasion—“we should make zis arrangement more permanent.” This felt too good to ever stop.
He stilled, buried deep inside her, his only movement that damn thumb driving her mad. “How permanent?”
She clenched her core, feeling every inch of that delicious hardness in her tight clasp. “Have you ever had a mistress, Wil? If not, I promise to make the experience memorable.” She could be Wil’s mistress. Save her nights after her performances for him. Give, and take, all the pleasure they could.
And give him the opportunity to find another woman who would make a good wife. Someone who could give him children. Someone whose only dream was to support those of her husband.
She clenched her hand. Yes, she could be his mistress. Obviously, walking away from him wasn’t an option. She’d tried too many times before and failed. Becoming his demimonde was the only option that remained.
“My mistress.” His voice was flat. “An option that demeans us both. Also one I couldn’t afford.” He circled his thumb over her tight pucker, the illicit sensation making it hard for Cerise to think. “It’s my understanding men are supposed to supply their mistresses with apartments and jewels.”
He bent over her back, hovering his mouth over hers. “I have nothing to offer you but my honor. My fidelity. My body.” He kissed the edge of her lips. “I know it’s not enough, not for a woman like you, but let’s not pretend you could ever be my mistress.”
She squirmed, whether from his words or from that damned thumb, she didn’t know. “That is not…”
He pulled out until only his crown was notched in her opening, then pounded back deep.
“I didn’t mean…”
He synchronized the movements of his thumb and his cock, the tip of that finger just barely breaching her opening on each drive.
Her mind emptied. Even her heart no longer ached. Only the sensations building in her body mattered. She wanted to tell Wil that she was the one who wasn’t enough, but her tongue wouldn’t cooperate.
He grunted behind her, his breathing growing labored. His body pistoned into hers, the slap of their skin loud in the night.
She scratched at the wood, her body coiling tight. “Harder,” she demanded.
He obliged. The edge of the desk dug into her hips, but she wasn’t going to ask him to temper his ardor. She pressed back against him, his thumb plunging deeper, and she moaned. She’d never felt this way before. Never had her body felt so alive except under Wil’s ministrations.
He gathered her hair with his other hand, pulling her back as he hammered forward. “I’ve never wanted anything more than I want you.” He thrust faster, his cock thickening. “Only you.”
She dropped her leg to the ground, squeezing his length tight. He felt impossibly large inside her. The orgasm gathered deep in her center, sending small ripples of pleasure through her body before exploding outward.
Her body bucked, her lungs squeezed. Black dots swam in her vision as Wil wrung every ounce of pleasure from her body before she collapsed, limp, to the desk. Her sheath twitched when it felt his hot release, milking his seed. Cerise moaned at the exquisite sensation.
He settled against her back, his chest heaving, their clothes damp from exertion. He kissed the side of her neck. “I love you, Cerise.”
She closed her eyes and sighed. “I know.” She didn’t know when it had happened. When lust had transformed to something deeper. But there they were. “I love you, too.”
“But…?” When she didn’t respond, Wil eased from her body. He pulled up his trousers, fastening the buttons.
She felt chilled from his absence. She stood, her skirts falling, and ran a hand over her hair. When she felt composed enough to face him, she turned. “You know,” she said quietly.
He crossed his arms over his chest. A small muscle ticked in his jaw. “Yes, I know. You’re determined to be a preeminent performer. And I’m the servant of an earl.”
Heat flushed her cheeks. “You think I care about such things? I care about the man!” She paced away from the desk and kicked a wood file cabinet. “We are not suited. I am not suited to being a wife. I cannot give you what you need.”
His uneven tread sounded behind her. He clasped her shoulders and dropped his forehead to her hair. “I don’t care if you can give me chil—”
“It is not only that.” It probably wasn’t even mostly about that. She pressed a hand to her belly, to the womb that would always be empty. “You would grow annoyed with my acting, jealous of my time and the attention I receive. You would long for a wife who would be home to cook your supper, to spend quiet evenings by your side in front of the fire. That is not my life.”
He wrapped his arms around her middle. A bitter chuckle burst from his lips. “If there is a God, he must surely hate us.”
She rested her head back on his shoulder. “Yes.”
They stood there until her eyes began to droop.
He laced his fingers through hers. “Stay with me tonight.”
He pointed to the side of the room. “I have a cot. I stay here nights I work late. It’s not the most comfortable of beds, but I’m too tired to call the carriage back.”
“All right.” She shoved her torn gown back up her shoulder, her lips twisting. “Besides, I’m not decent to go outside.”
Wil dropped onto the cot, rubbing his leg, before reaching for her hips and guiding her down beside him. “You’re perfect.” He curled his body around hers. “Never forget that.”
She couldn’t help the smile he elicited. Dear, foolish man. Her heart clenched. He wasn’t willing to settle for less than marriage and felt too inferior to ever offer it. It made it easier on her; she’d never have to refuse him. But her body chilled when she looked to the future and couldn’t see him in it.
She swallowed down her panic. No need to worry about the future when she still had the night.
She wiggled her hips, earning a groan from Wil. She infused her voice with as much flirtatiousness as possible. “Wil? Just how sturdy is this cot?”
Wil shook his coat at her, but Cerise continued to fret.
“It is ruined. Completely ruined.” She tried pinning the shoulder of her gown up with a brooch, but the fabric sagged, delightfully exposing the upper curve of her breast. “Could you not at least have torn it at the seam?”
He dragged his gaze away from her tempting curves. “I’ll buy you another.” He didn’t even want to think about what that would put him back. His position as manager of the Bond Agency paid well, but her gown had bloody crystals sewn into it.
At least, he hoped they were only crystals.
She dipped her chin, giving him that look that Gallic women had perfected. “That is not the point. The point is—”
The front door of the office banged open.
Wil shoved the coat at her. “Put this on,” he said before hurrying to the front room. His shoulders relaxed when he saw Duffy standing in the center, fists planted on his hips, face red. “What’s wrong?” Wil asked.
Cerise stepped up beside him, buttoning his coat up to her chin.
“She’s gone.” Duffy plucked off his hat and chucked it at a desk in the corner. “The confounded woman has up and disappeared. Again.”
“Lady Juliana?” Wil frowned.
“Yes, Lady Juliana.” Duffy paced across the room. “When I went to Huddleson’s apartment this morning, he told me she’d packed her bag and left last night. She’s making a right cake of herself!”
Wil’s eyebrows shot up. He’d never heard his agent so heated before. The plain, brown Lady Juliana had gotten under his skin.
He shared a look with Cerise. The edges of her lips tilted up.
Wil’s heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t much, but it was an opportunity. A chance for more time. “Want to go on another hunt?”
She lifted one shoulder. “I might have some time to assist.”
Duffy raked his fingers through his hair. “Why would she run away? We eliminated the threat against her. The woolly-headed woman is just being contrary.”
Cerise tapped her finger against her lips. “She did not strike me as contrary, but she was frightened. Perhaps there is still a threat against her, one we do not see.”
Duffy frowned, his brows drawing low. “Why would anyone, much less two people, want to harm such a woman? She’s the sister of a viscount. All she does is needlepoint and paint.”
Cerise tutted. “Truly, have you learned nothing working as an agent? Sometimes it is the innocuous ones who surprise us the most.” She reached into Wil’s coat and drew out his gloves. She slid them on, somehow managing not to look ridiculous even though they outsized her hands by inches.
“It is a good thing I have time to help,” she said. She strode to the door, glancing back over her shoulder at Wil. “It seems you can’t get by without me.”
Wil trailed after her, rubbing his chest.
Truer words had never been spoken.