England 1667 - the summer after the Great Fire of London. The English and the Dutch are at war
With his curved Turkish sword, and dark, brooding looks, Harry Ward is a formidable adversary. Saskia van Buren's life is in danger, so she has fled to London and hired him as her protector. But she soon finds herself longing for more than safety in his arms …
Unknown to Saskia, Harry believes she's a Dutch spy - and he intends to bring her to justice. Only he's torn between duty and desire, and will do whatever it takes to keep Saskia safe - even make her his convenient bride …
Covent Garden, London, June 1667
The backroom of the coffeehouse was small and poorly lit. Every time the door opened Saskia felt a shiver of anxiety until she'd seen the face of the man who entered - and even then a residual fear remained that one of those she interviewed might be in Tancock's pay.
She heard the door open and snatched up the mask from the table, holding it to her face as the next man came into the room.
She knew at once he wasn't Tancock. He was too tall, too exotic - too obviously dangerous.
Her breath caught in her throat. One or two of the previous men had struck her as uncomfortably disreputable, but she'd called upon her experience of dealing with her late husband's business to dismiss them as quickly and easily as possible. This man was different. A wolf not a jackal. She could see it in the swift, appraising gaze he cast around the room; the silent, fluid way he moved, and the self-assurance of his bearing.
His appearance was a combination of the foreign and familiar. His soft, tan leather boots made no sound on the floorboards. He wore a scarlet sash around his waist from which hung a curved sword. Unlike his boots and his sword, his broad-brimmed hat was English in style, but beneath it Saskia saw his dark hair was cut much shorter than fashion demanded.
He stared straight at her. As she met his dark eyes, even the anonymous mask seemed no barrier to the disturbingly virile, dangerous energy he radiated. Her pulse quickened. She couldn't remember ever being so instantly, compellingly aware of a man's physical - male - presence. Nervous tension skittered through her body. She was used to men who obeyed the customs and manners of civilised society. She was already convinced that this man obeyed no rules but his own. She didn't need a wayward, edgy man. She needed one who would follow her commands obediently. Unquestioningly.
She was about to reject him before he'd even said a word. But then she remembered her first impression of Tancock. Until the evening she'd heard him plotting murder she would have said he was punctilious in observing the requirements of civilised behaviour. Perhaps an obviously dangerous, unpredictable man would be better than an apparently placid man. She'd never forget to be on her guard in his presence - and whoever she hired had to be capable of helping her rescue Benjamin.
'Sit down,' she ordered, determined to assert her authority from her first words.
Harry Ward had seen the woman snatch up the mask as he'd opened the door. She'd done it so quickly he'd had no chance to gain more than a fleeting impression of her features. Despite the summer warmth, she was wearing a dark hood and cloak, concealing both her hair and the shape of her body. He hadn't seen her eyes, but he'd glimpsed a well-shaped mouth and a small, but decisive chin.
Until a few weeks ago Harry had spent his adult life in lands where the veil was customary for women. One or two European merchants and diplomats took their wives and daughters with them to the Ottoman Empire, but Harry had never seen, let alone spoken to, the womenfolk of even his closest Turkish friends. Ever since he'd arrived back in England he'd had a nagging sense that he should be chivalrous in female company, without quite knowing what that entailed. From the moment he'd learned that the Dutch agent recruiting men in the back room of the coffeehouse in which his brother was a silent investor was likely to be female, he'd been on edge. The confirmation that he was indeed dealing with a woman intensified his unease.
Of course, an Englishwoman who'd turned traitor had forfeited her right to be treated chivalrously. But Harry had been disturbed by the information he'd received. Apparently the woman was motivated by a desire to avenge her dead husband. Harry understood better than most how the burning need for vengeance - for justice - could overwhelm every rational thought. But treason could not be tolerated, nor could her activities be allowed to taint his brother's reputation, even in passing.
Harry steeled himself to deal with the lady as ruthlessly as if she were a man. The mask she held to her face could not disguise the fundamental immodesty of her present situation. The mere fact she was interviewing strange men alone without even a chaperone meant she had forfeited her right to chivalrous treatment. On the other hand, since it wasn't the custom for English women to be veiled, her determination to conduct her illicit business in his brother's coffeehouse behind the anonymity of a mask was in itself an insult. All in all, he concluded, she could have no expectation of receiving gentle treatment from him.
'Are you afraid the mere sight of your beauty will make men run wild?' he demanded, a little more scornfully than he'd intended.
'Of course not!' She exclaimed. 'That is … my lord is most complimentary about my looks, but I do not expect to be universally admired.'
'Who is your lord?' Was she talking about her spymaster - or a man with whom she was on more intimate terms?
'That is no concern of yours.'
'And will I be of concern to him?'
'I beg your pardon.' She sounded confused.
'Do you intend to disclose my existence to him?'
'It was his idea I hire you!' she snapped.
Harry was so startled he uttered a short Turkish curse under his breath. What kind of man encouraged his woman to act in such a forward manner? 'Why isn't he interviewing me?'
'Because he's in Portsmouth.'
'Why did he leave you here?' Harry was so distracted by the masked woman's disclosures that for a moment he almost forgot what his former guardian, the Earl of Swiftbourne, had told him that morning.
He belatedly reminded himself that Saskia van Buren was the daughter of a Dutchwoman and an English baronet. According to Swiftbourne's informant, she'd married a Dutchman at the age of twenty and spent the past six years living in Amsterdam. She'd returned to England a few weeks ago after she'd been widowed when her husband was killed in a naval battle with the English. Apparently, it was her husband's death which had driven her to become an agent for the Dutch. If this was Saskia, it was extremely likely her "lord" was nothing more than a fiction to cover her true plans.
She drew in a deep breath. 'May I remind you, fellow, that you are the one wishing to enter into temporary employment with me,' she said crisply. 'I am the one deciding if I will hire you. I ask the questions. Is that clear?'
She didn't sound as if she was overwhelmed with grief. Nor did Harry receive the impression that she was locked into the single-minded, bitter fury of vengeance. She did sound exasperated. Perhaps she wasn't Saskia.
He grinned, amused despite himself at her irritation. He had a temper of his own, though it rarely manifested itself when he was questioning potential employees. There was a plain wooden chair obviously intended for whoever the lady was currently interviewing. He turned it around, straddled it and rested his forearms along the back.
'Ask away,' he said cheerfully.
There was silence for several moments.
'Did you respond to my advertisement so you could entertain yourself by insulting me?' the masked lady demanded.
'I'm here because the Dutch are blockading the Thames,' Harry replied, secretly pleased she'd challenged his deliberately provocative behaviour so directly. When he'd heard he would be confronting a vengeful widow he'd been afraid he might have to deal with tears and emotional pleas.
Although he couldn't see her face, he saw her gloved fingers tighten on the mask, and sensed an increased tension grip her body. He was satisfied that whatever else might or might not be the truth, the lady was indeed sensitive to mention of England's current enemy.
'And what has that to do with my notice?' she asked sharply.
'I was going to sign up on a merchantman, but until the blockade is lifted …' He shrugged. 'If I don't work, I don't eat.'
'What if the blockade is lifted and the ships sail before you can return to London?' she asked.
'There's always another ship,' he said nonchalantly, which was true, although he hadn't built his fortune by habitually letting the initiative slide. 'I am here, in need of work. What is it you want me to do?'
'With such an arrogant, heedless attitude, I am surprised you ever find anyone willing to hire you,' the lady said tartly.
'They hire me because I am very good at what I do.'
'What do you do?'
'Be more specific. Can you use that sword by your side?'
Harry laughed. 'I'm hardly likely to say no,' he pointed out. 'I have guarded the passage of men and goods along many dangerous routes, from Scanderoon to Aleppo, Smyrna to Istanbul.'
The mask moved slightly as the lady looked Harry carefully up and down.
The fifteen years he'd spent in the Levant meant he was not used to being in the company of women. Whenever he was in the presence of his sister-in-law, Mary, he felt ill-at-ease, anxious that he do nothing to alarm her or embarrass his brother, Richard. After the Dutch attack on the English ships he'd escorted Richard, Mary, and their newborn son to Mary's family home in Bedfordshire. Once there, Harry had been invited by Mary's parents to remain as an honoured guest, but he'd felt so uncomfortable in the presence of his sister-in-law and all her female relatives he'd claimed he had business to attend to in London. He'd given his apologies as courteously as he could, while inwardly castigating himself for his lack of social address. But when he'd heard the news from Swiftbourne that a Dutch agent was recruiting men at Richard's coffeehouse he was glad his return to London meant he was available to investigate the matter.
The expressionless scrutiny by the masked lady was an odd, potentially disturbing experience, but it left Harry unmoved. If it had been Richard's wife, or one of her sisters, studying him so closely Harry would have felt very unsettled - concerned he had either offended the lady or revealed his ignorance of the manners of polite English society in some subtle, unintentional way. But he felt no such qualms in the presence of the spy. What the lady saw was what she got. And since she hadn't already dismissed him he was beginning to suspect he could be just what she wanted.
If she really was a Dutch agent, recruiting men to work against England from within its borders, her interest in him might not be so surprising. Not if Swiftbourne's parting shot was correct. 'You have a lean and hungry look, Harry,' his former guardian had said. 'The kind of man any conscienceless agent would want to employ.'
'You are judging me by yourself, my lord,' Harry had replied dryly, and received a characteristically enigmatic smile in response.
'It will be your duty to protect me,' the lady said, her words cutting across his thoughts.
'My lord's former … former mistress - her servants, that is.'
Harry's eyes widened briefly before he controlled his expression. Would a grieving widow have taken a lover already? Perhaps she hadn't been so distressed by her husband's death? But if she was enjoying her new freedom it cast doubt over the claim she was determined to avenge her husband.
'She is jealous, you see.' The mask trembled briefly, before the lady's hand steadied once more. Harry noted the tell-tale gesture and immediately suspected this was yet another lie.
'Despite what you said, I assure you my beauty does not drive most men wild,' said the masked lady, and from her tone he was inclined to believe she meant it. 'But my lord is quite fond of me. Very fond of me. Besotted. I mean, devoted,' she corrected herself quickly. 'Unfortunately, his former mistress …. Well, she wants to scratch my eyes out.'
'You want to hire me to protect you from a cat fight?' Harry exclaimed.
'Of course not! I would never demean myself … she has servants of course. They might try to cause me trouble on my journey to Portsmouth.'
'Indeed. And what about your besotted, devoted lord?' Harry found her description of her nameless lover very unconvincing.
'What about him?' the masked lady said uneasily.
'Why did so devoted a gentleman ever let you out of his sight? Why is he not providing for your comfort and safety? Did he misuse his former mistress or fail to provide adequately for her when they parted? Does he know you are hiring a manservant in the backroom of a coffeehouse? For my own future well-being, I must ask is he a reasonable man, or prone to jealousy-'
'Very reasonable. Very reasonable,' the lady broke in hastily. 'He is the soul of discretion, of good sense-'
'Yet he left you alone in London at the mercy of his former mistress while he went to Portsmouth?' Harry made no attempt to hide the scepticism in his voice.
'Well, um … it's the Dutch of course,' the lady said after a moment's hesitation. 'He cannot leave his post until this business with the Dutch is resolved.'
Harry noticed the almost irritated note in her voice. What kind of spy considered war a nuisance?
'Is your lover married?' he asked.
'What? Of course not!' The mask quivered with outrage at the suggestion. 'Do you think I'd have an affair with a married man?'
'If he's not married already, why isn't he going to marry you?' Harry asked.
There was another long silence. 'You are right,' she said. 'I hadn't thought of it before but you are completely correct. He should be marrying me and, as soon as the opportunity arises, I will draw it to his attention.'
'Madam, I cannot believe a lady possessed of such firm resolve needs me to protect you from a mere former mistress,' said Harry. 'Let me spare you the expense of my hire-'
'Sit down!' She all but shrieked as he started to stand up. 'I do need you. I definitely do need you.'
From the book: Runaway Lady by Claire Thornton
Imprint and Series: Mills & Boon® Historical Romance™
Publication date: 2009.
Copyright © 2009 by Claire Thornton
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books SA