“Of course. Enjoy yourself.”

Christopher watched Amelia leave the room and then resumed his seat, only to stand a moment later when his wife entered in a profusion of pale pink skirts. As always, the sight of her made his heart race with a mixture of attraction and pure joy.

“You look a vision this afternoon,” he said, rounding the desk to embrace her. As she had since the moment they had first met, Maria melted against him, a lush warm weight that he adored.

“You say that every day,” she murmured, but her smile was filled with pleasure.

“Because it’s true every day.” He cupped her spine and molded her curves to his hardness. They fit together like two matching puzzle pieces, despite their disparity in height.

Maria shared the same glossy raven tresses as her younger sibling, but that was the extent of their physical similarities. Amelia took after her father, the late Viscount Welton, with his emerald green eyes and tall, slender build. Maria, who gratefully claimed a different pater, took after their Spanish-blooded mother with her sloe eyes, short stature, and full figure.

St. John and his wife made a striking couple; their contrasting appearances complemented each other in ways oft commented on. But they drew the most attention for their reputations. The former Lady Winter was still known as the “Wintry Widow,” a woman who was widely rumored to have murdered her first two husbands. Christopher was her third and last husband, the husband of her heart, and he was frequently celebrated for remaining alive.

You have survived another night in your wife’s bed, they jested.

Christopher would smile and say nothing. It wasn’t true, but he would not refute the misconception. Few would understand how he died in her arms every night and was reborn.

“I overheard the end of your conversation with Amelia,” she said. “I think you are looking at the situation from the wrong perspective.”

“Oh?” This was where their true similarities lay. As different as they were on the exterior, on the interior they were alarmingly alike, both criminally minded and quite wily. “What am I missing?”

“You are seeing only what interest the masked man had in Amelia. What of her interest in him? That is where my worry stems.”

He frowned down at her, absently admiring the artfully arranged curls that tumbled about her ears and shoulders, and her full bosom which swelled enticingly above her low, ribbon-edged bodice. “She has always been curious. That is how she met Ware to begin with.”

“Yes, but she allowed this man to kiss her. A stranger. Why? She has been pining for her Gypsy sweetheart all these years and keeps Ware at bay. What was the fascination with this man that goaded such a response in her?”

“Hmm . . .” Lowering his head, he took her mouth in a long, luxurious kiss. “Would you mourn for me with such devotion, were I to pass on?” he queried, his lips moving against hers.

“No.” Maria smiled with the hint of mystery that kept him endlessly enthralled with her.


“Nothing or no one could ever take you from me, my darling.” Her small hands brushed over his chest. “I will die alongside you. It is the only way I will allow you to go.”

Christopher’s heart swelled with love so fierce, it sometimes overwhelmed him. “So our young Amelia was drawn to this man in ways she has not been to anyone else. What do you suggest we do about that?”

“Watch her more closely, and find that man. I want to know him and his intentions.”

“Done.” He smiled. “Have you any plans for the rest of this afternoon?”

“Yes. I’m quite busy.”

He hoped he hid his disappointment. While he had a great many items on his list of things to accomplish, he would not have minded an hour or two of his wife’s company. There was something delicious about making love in the middle of the day with the drapes thrown wide and the sun shining in. Especially when she took the top and writhed above him in the daylight.

Sighing dramatically, Christopher released her. “Enjoy yourself, love.”

“That depends on you.” Her dark eyes shined wickedly. “You see, my schedule says ‘lovemaking’ from two to four. I will need your help to accomplish that task.”

Christopher was instantly aroused. “I am at your service, madam.”

She stepped back and glanced down at the front of his breeches. “Yes, I see that you are. Shall we retire?”

“I should like that,” he purred, his blood hot.

A knock intruded from the open doorway. They both looked over.

“Hello, Tim,” Maria said, smiling at the giant whose great head was ducked to fit beneath the threshold.

He bowed in greeting, then rumbled, “Did you still wish to speak with me?”

“Yes.” Tim was one of Christopher’s most trusted lieutenants. He was also infinitely patient and had a way with women. His fondness for the fairer gender was obvious. They sensed it and were far more open with him than they were with other men. They listened to and trusted him, which would facilitate keeping Amelia in line.

Christopher looked down into Maria’s uplifted face. “Don’t undress,” he whispered for her ears only. “I want to unwrap you myself.”

“As if I’m a gift,” she teased.

“You are. My most prized possession.” Kissing the tip of her nose, he stepped back from her. “I must discuss Tim’s new assignment to watch Amelia.”

Her answering smile was a sight to behold. “You are so clever to anticipate my concerns. You never require my input in matters.”

“But I do,” he refuted, “and I value it.” His voice lowered with promise. “Shortly, I shall show you how much.”

Maria’s fingertips brushed along his palm as she moved away and their hands separated. “See you at dinner, Tim,” she said, sashaying past him as he entered the room.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Tim looked at Christopher with a wry smile. “I know that look. This will be quick, eh?”

“Yes. Very. I want you to shadow Miss Benbridge.”

“I ’eard about last night. No worries. She’s in good ’ands with me.”

“I would not ask you if I weren’t confident in that.” Christopher patted him on the shoulder as he headed out the door. “See you at dinner.”

“Lucky bastard,” Tim said after him.

Christopher grinned and sprinted up the stairs.

Chapter 3

France, a month earlier

“So,” Simon Quinn said, setting his fork down. “The time has come.”

“It has.” And not a moment too soon in Colin Mitchell’s estimation. He’d waited years for this day. Now that it had arrived, he found that sitting decorously at the table for dinner was nigh impossible. In mere hours he would set sail for England and the love of his life. He wished he were already there. With her.

All around them, revelry was the order of the day. Although raised in a boisterous Gypsy camp, Colin preferred quiet evenings. It was Quinn who sought out these loud venues. He claimed they made eavesdropping impossible and solidified their carefully affected mien of ennui and nonchalance, but Colin suspected the predilection was goaded by another reason entirely. Quinn was not a happy man, and it was easier to feign contentment when surrounded by gaiety.

Still, this establishment was one Colin tolerated better than most. It was clean, well lit, and the food was delicious. Three massive chandeliers hung from the wooden-beamed ceiling above them, and the air was redolent of various appetizing dishes and the perfumes of the many buxom serving wenches. Raucous laughter and a multitude of conversations fought to be heard over the frenetically playing orchestra in the far corner, which left them in relative privacy among the din, just two finely attired gentlemen enjoying an evening meal out.

“I had thought you might have grown beyond your feelings for the fair Amelia,” Quinn said with a faint hint of his Irish brogue still evident. He lifted a glass of wine to his lips and studied Colin carefully above the rim. “You’ve changed a great deal from the young man who came to me searching for her so many years ago.”

“True.” Colin knew Quinn did not want him to go. He was too valuable a player in Quinn’s games. He could become anyone, anywhere. Men trusted him and women found him irresistible. Perceptive creatures, they sensed that his heart was locked away, and it made them try harder to win him. “But that is one part of me that has not changed.”

“Perhaps she has changed. She was a girl when you left her.”

“She changed while I knew her.” He shrugged. “It only deepened my feelings.” How could he explain all of the many facets he had seen in her over the years?

“What allure does she possess that enslaves you so? The contessa adores you, and yet she is merely a diversion to you.”

A vision of the lovely Francesca came to mind, and Colin smiled. “As I am a diversion to her. She enjoys the game, never knowing who will appear at her doorstep or which disguise I will be hidden beneath. I suit her reckless inclinations, but those extend only to the bedroom. She is too proud a woman to accept a man of my breeding in a capacity other than the one I fill presently.”

Once, on assignment for Quinn, Colin had been chased into the first open door he’d come to during a ball. The room had been occupied by Francesca, who was adjusting her appearance and enjoying a small respite from the crush. He had bowed, smiled, and proceeded to divest himself of wig and clothing, turning his specially tailored garments inside out. The contessa had found the act of changing from a white-haired, black-clad gentleman to a dark-haired, ivory-clad rogue quite diverting. She’d eagerly assumed the ruse of his companion, exiting to the hallway with her hand firmly attached to his forearm, which effectively stumped the two scowling gentlemen who stumbled upon them in their search.

She’d taken him to her bed that night and kept him there the last two years, unconcerned when his employment forced him to leave her for weeks or months at a time. Theirs was an affair of convenience and mutual understanding.

I sometimes envy the woman who has such a tenacious hold on your heart, she once said to him.

Colin had swiftly turned the direction of her thoughts elsewhere. He could not bear to think of Amelia while in the company of another woman. It felt like a betrayal, and he knew from experience that Amelia would be deeply wounded.

“Amelia holds the same allure for me as her sibling holds for you,” Colin said, meeting Quinn’s widening eyes. “Perhaps if you can explain to me why you still pine for Maria, it will help to answer your question regarding my feelings for Amelia.”

A self-deprecating smile curved the Irishman’s mouth. “Point taken. Will you return to her as Colin Mitchell or as one of your other aliases?”

Heaving out his breath, Colin glanced around the dining parlor at the many guests and overtly friendly serving staff. To Amelia, he was a part of her past . . . a deceased part of her past. A childhood friend who had grown into a young man who loved her with every breath in his body. She had loved him similarly, with the same wild, saturating, unrestrained adolescent passion. He had tried to stay away, tried to push her away, tried to convince himself that they would both grow beyond such impossible aspirations. As he was a Gypsy and a stableboy in her father’s employ, there was no possibility of a future between them.

In the end, he had been unable to keep his distance. Her father, the late Viscount Welton, had been the worst sort of monster. Welton had used Amelia as leverage against her sister, selling the stunningly beautiful Maria to marriage-minded peers, whom he then killed for the widow’s settlements. When Welton’s machinations put Amelia in danger, Colin had attempted a daring rescue during which he’d been shot and left for dead.

How did one rise from the grave? And once he managed that task, would she accept him back into her life in the role he wished to fill—that of lover and husband?

“If she will have me, she will be the Countess Montoya,” he said, referring to the title he had invented expressly for her. Over the years he’d built and strengthened the roots of that assumed nobility, purchasing properties and establishing wealth under that guise. He would not have her married to the common Colin Mitchell. She deserved better. “But perhaps it is her attachment to Colin that will win her heart.”

“I will miss you,” Quinn said, his blue-eyed gaze pensive. “In fact, I am not certain how I will manage without you.”

Quinn had been enlisted by agents of the Crown of England to manage tasks more cautious agents wouldn’t. He was not “officially” recognized, nor was Colin, which freed them both from the restrictions under which others labored. In return for their unacknowledged efforts, they kept most of the spoils, which made them exceptionally wealthy.

“You will find a way,” Colin said, smiling. “You always do. You still have Cartland. In some respects, he is far more accomplished than I. He can track better than a canine. If something is lost, he is the best man to find it.”

“I have my concerns about him.” Quinn rested his elbows on the carved wooden arms of his chair and steepled his fingers together.

“Oh? You never said as much to me before.”

“You were still in my employ then. Now I can speak to you as a friend who shares a joint past.”

The logic to that was odd, but Colin played along. “What worries you?”

“Too many seem to die around Cartland.”

“I thought that was by design.”

“Occasionally,” Quinn admitted. “He lacks the remorse that most would feel upon taking a life.”

“You mean to say that I feel,” Colin said wryly.

Quinn grinned and attracted the attention of a woman the next table over. His smile changed from one of amusement to one of sensual promise. Colin looked away to hide his chuckle. It amazed him that a man so widely lauded for his comeliness could hide such a covert livelihood.