The Mysterious Miss M
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He collapsed on top of her, his need satisfied with hers. Sliding off, he lay facing her, his eyes half-closed, his skin aglow with a sheen of sweat. Madeleine let her gaze wander languidly over his face, memorising each feature, committing each curve and line to memory. She needed to remember him. She needed to dream of her Dragoon returning victorious from the war, coming to whisk her away. She would need for him to come to her tomorrow and the next day and the next.
The fantasy would comfort, though it would never come true.
‘Sweet England,’ he murmured. ‘Thank you.’
She kissed him again, boldly giving him her tongue, tasting him. Brandy would never again taste so vile. It would be how he tasted. She inhaled his masculine scent, filling her lungs and memory with it, as his seed had filled her. She entwined her legs with his. He moved away from her kiss and grinned at her as she arched her pelvis to his.
‘Ah, England, you shall be most difficult to leave.’ As she placed her finger in the dimple on his cheek, he pressed his fingers into the soft flesh of her buttocks. She felt his passion flare back to life and she made a primitive sound deep in her throat.
As he entered her for the second time, Madeleine whispered. ‘Lieutenant Devlin Steele. I shall remember you.’
London, April 1816
D evlin Steele glanced up from the cards in his hand. The acrid smoke and dim light muted the gaudy red velvet of the gaming room. He reached for his glass and set it down again. The prodigious amount of brandy he had already consumed threatened to fog his brain.
His months back on English soil were as hazy as his present thinking. Snatches of memory. His brother, the imperious Marquess, rescuing him from the dirty makeshift hospital in Brussels. Days drifting in and out of consciousness at Heronvale, his sisters hovering around him, dispatched there to return him to health. Eventual recovery and a flight to London for a frenzy of dissipation meant to banish images of blood and horror and pain. Thus far, Devlin had managed to gamble and debauch away his quarter’s entitlement. What capital he’d possessed had gone to money-lenders, but at present his pockets were flush, an unexpected surprise at Lord Farley’s table.
‘Your bet, Steele?’ Farley’s smooth voice now had an edge. His foot tapped the carpet.
Devlin stared at his cards, blinking to focus on the hearts and spades and diamonds. He had avoided Farley’s gaming hell until this night, preferring an honest game, but damned if the man had not sought him out at White’s. Predictable, Devlin figured, after he’d been tossing blunt all over town. Ripe for fleecing, by all accounts. A perfect pigeon for Farley.
He smiled inwardly. Farley had not yet heard the River Tick was already seeping into Devlin’s boots. All the fleece had been long shorn.
‘I’ll pass.’ Devlin barely glanced at the man seated across from him, concentrating instead on keeping his wits about him.Knowing Farley dealt a dishonest hand gave Devlin a slight advantage, if he could but hold on to it.
The cards were too good, though. Farley must be seducing him with a run of luck. He bet cautiously, against the cards, and avoided losing the successive hands. Farley’s brow furrowed.
Rumour had it that Farley had lost a fortune in bad investments. Moreover, Napoleon’s exile to St Helena had brought an end to the lucrative smuggling business everyone knew he ran. Farley was mortgaged to the hilt, a situation to make a man desperate—and desperate men made mistakes. War had taught Devlin that.
Farley indeed became more reckless, and Devlin stacked his chips higher.
Farley dealt the next hand, and Devlin carefully watched his expression. The man could still be considered handsome, though hard living had etched lines at the corner of his mouth and eyes. With his thin elegant nose, hair once fair, now peppered with grey, he had the look of the aristocrat he was, though his family fortunes had been squandered by an ancestry of fools. Typical of society, Lord Farley might not be a welcome suitor to the daughters of the ton, but, in the world of gentlemen who enjoyed his brandy, his card tables, and the young woman whose favours he doled out to the select few, Farley was top o’ the trees.
Farley’s fingers tapped a nervous tattoo on the table. ‘Steele, I believe I could allow you some time with our Miss M. She is delightful tonight. A Spanish maiden. Perhaps she will remind you of your service in Spain.’
Devlin peered over the fan of cards in his hand. ‘I have no wish to be reminded of Spain.’
He placed his cards on the table, and Farley blanched, pushing another stack of chips to Devlin’s side.
The man plastered on a smile, but a nervous twitch had commenced under his right eye. ‘I think you might recollect you won a time with Miss M once before. I assure you, she remains in good figure and has added to the delights she may offer.’
Devlin remembered her. Indeed, memory of her lovely face, so pale against her dark hair, had often warmed lonely nights as the British waited for Napoleon’s army to attack. Her spirit and sensibility had intrigued him more than young ladies in drawing rooms could do. Not that he had mixed in society to any great degree. Good God, he’d never even set foot in Almack’s.
Devlin smiled at his host. ‘I’m sure I’d be delighted to renew my acquaintance, sir. Perhaps after a hand or two.’
How long ago had he shared that memorable space of time with her? Three years and more? Just after Maguilla. What had her life been like under the thumb of this man?
Farley’s brow broke out in beads of sweat. Devlin suppressed his smile. The man was in trouble. Throwing caution to the wind, Devlin made a hearty bet. The tic in Farley’s eye quickened.
The cards were called, and the man on Devlin’s right let out a whoop. So intent on besting Farley, Devlin had forgotten the other player. As Devlin gave up half his stack of chips, he vowed not to continue such carelessness.
‘Enough for me, gentlemen. I think I shall stop before Barnes here takes my whole stack.’
Barnes bellowed with laughter. ‘I’d be pleased to do that, Steele.’ He gathered his winnings, leaving Farley with a scattering of chips too small to stack.
‘Another time,’ Devlin said, standing.
‘One more hand.’ Farley’s voice was thick and tense. ‘Don’t deny me the chance to recoup, Steele. One more hand is all I ask.’
It would hardly be civil to refuse. Devlin bowed slightly and sat back down. One more hand couldn’t break him, though that last loss had hurt a bit. Farley would have been wiser to quit. The man had lost all card sense. Devlin doubted he could even cheat effectively at this point. Barnes, too, was flush with his winning streak and eager to extend it.
Play was fierce. Devlin bet moderately, intent only on preserving his present winnings, but the cards came like magic. Was Farley setting him up, or had true luck shone upon him?
Caution be damned, he thought. Life’s the real gamble. Devlin bet deep.
Barnes good-naturedly laughed off his losses, still ahead with his one spectacular hand. Farley slumped back in his chair, his face drained of all colour.
‘You will accept my vowel, sir?’ Farley’s question did not demand an answer.
‘But of course,’ Devlin replied amiably.
As Farley wrote out his vowel, Devlin gazed around the room, into the dark recesses where Farley’s girls, looking like Spanish tarts, ran the tables.
‘Shall I make Miss M available to you?’ Farley asked, his voice flat.
Devlin considered, sweeping his gaze over the too-opulent room. Had this place truly impressed him three years ago with its wainscoting and brocades? Now it appeared as false as glory.
Perhaps it would be preferable to seek the relative silence of the street and preserve The Mysterious Miss M as a memory.
A shout came from outside the parlour. The door opened and a burly man dragged in a girl who was beating at his chest and kicking his legs in protest. She wore a mask.
‘Lord Farley,’ the huge man said, ‘she’s brawling again.’ He dropped the girl at Farley’s feet. Her pale delicate fingers grabbed the edge of the table to pull herself up. She lifted her head regally and smoothed the skirt of her red silk dress. Black sensuous curls tumbled to her shoulders in a tangled mass. The lace mantilla had slipped off and hung on one of her shoulders.
‘I have no patience for this,’ Farley growled. ‘What now?’
‘She refused a patron.’ The man tossed her a scathing look. ‘She bit him in…a most unfortunate place.’
The girl faced Farley with her chin held high, her face half-covered by a red leather mask. ‘I warned you I would do so.’
Farley shot out of his chair and with a loud clap struck his open hand against her cheek.
‘The devil!’ Devlin sprang from his seat to catch her before she hit the floor. Both her hands clutched her head, and Devlin supported her with an arm around her waist.
‘Farley, I must protest. That was most poorly done.’
‘I’ll thank you to stay out of my business, Steele,’ Farley snarled. ‘You have no say in the matter.’
‘If you strike her in front of me, I claim the right.’ Devlin spoke through clenched teeth. ‘You might hear her out.’
Farley rubbed his face. ‘I have treated her with more consideration than she deserves, and she still defies me. I’m done with her. You found her pleasing once. Take her in lieu of my debt.’
Devlin combed her hair away from her mask with his fingers. He would leave no woman to suffer such treatment. He leaned close to her ear. ‘What say you, Miss England?’
She blinked uncomprehendingly, her eyes unfocused. Suddenly her vision seemed to clear and she stared at him, the bright red imprint of Farley’s hand remaining on her cheek. She smiled faintly and flung her arms around his neck.
He gazed over the top of her head to Farley. ‘Your debt is settled, sir.’
A half-hour later Devlin paced the pavement in front of Farley’s establishment, cursing himself. In the space of a moment, he’d tossed his winnings away and incurred further expense. All for a lightskirt with whom he’d once spent a pleasant interval. He could almost hear the Marquess ring a peal over his head. ‘Brother, how many times must I caution you? Think before you act.’
Ah well, he could not very well leave his Miss England with Farley, could he? Perhaps she had some family. His winnings ought to be sufficient to send her wherever she wished to go.
At least the money bought him a little more time. Only two months left before his brother released his quarterly portion.
Two cloaked and hooded figures hurried from the alley. Devlin instinctively kept a watchful eye on them. In this neighbourhood one could easily be set upon and relieved of one’s winnings. Indeed, Farley might attempt to recoup his losses. The two shadowy figures came to a stop in front of him, one carrying a large portmanteau.
‘We are ready, my lord,’ the other one said, breathing hard.
Devlin peered at her. In the lamplight, her face was all but obscured by the hood, and she was wrapped entirely in her cloak, clutching some bundle beneath its folds. Still, he could not mistake his Miss England.
‘We?’ he asked, one eyebrow arching.
‘Sophie accompanies me. I will not leave her.’ The resolute tilt of the young miss’s head was the same defiant gesture she’d made to Farley. ‘Please, we must hurry.’
‘She is your maid?’ Mentally, Devlin doubled the expense facing him.
‘Yes, but more so she is my friend.’ She glanced about nervously. ‘Truly, haste is in order.’
‘We did not secure Lord Farley’s permission for Sophie to accompany me, but I’ll not leave her.’
The other woman was a wisp of a thing almost overwhelmed by the portmanteau. Devlin massaged his brow.
What the deuce. In for a penny, in for a pound. ‘Very well, Miss England.’ Devlin glanced around the street for a hack. ‘Shall I relieve you of your bundle?’
She shrank from him. ‘If you could take the portmanteau from Sophie, sir, I would be most grateful.’
‘Indeed. Sophie, allow me to carry that for you.’
The maid hesitated, backing away as if it were a precious burden unsafe to hand over. He nearly had to wrestle it from her grasp. The portmanteau weighed a ton. Surprising she had strength to lift it off the ground.
‘Where is your carriage, sir?’ Miss England asked.
Devlin laughed. ‘You mistake me for my brother, the Marquess. Perhaps we can find a hack hereabouts.’
‘Please, let us remove ourselves.’
He led the way, and the women fell in step behind him, like sari-clad females of India, keeping a respectful distance.
Perhaps he should have cast his lot with the East India Company. There were fortunes to be made, to be sure, but he had no wish for foreign shores. Not after Spain and Belgium—truth was, he had no idea what to do with his life.
Devlin glanced behind him, checking on his two shadows. The memory of his Miss England’s soft lips and bold tongue drifted into his mind.
A hack ambled to a stop at the end of the street, and Devlin quickened his step to arrange its hire. He assisted the women into the conveyance, and the driver stowed the portmanteau.
Devlin sat opposite his cloaked companions. ‘Where shall I instruct the driver to deliver you?’
The little maid huddled against Miss England’s shoulder. Miss England faced him, but he could barely make out her features. ‘We have nowhere to go,’ she murmured.
He rubbed his hands. ‘Is there no relation who might be persuaded to take you in?’ The coil he’d gotten himself into had just developed more tangles.
‘There is no one.’ She turned her head, but held it erect. ‘Leave us where you wish.’
Indeed, drop them into the street? They would be gobbled up in a trice. How long could he afford to put them up at some inn?
At that moment, the bundle in Miss England’s arms emitted a squeak. Two small arms poked out of the wrapping and wound themselves around her neck.
‘Deuce,’ Devlin said.
The cloak opened to reveal an equally small head with a mop of hair as dark as her own. The child cuddled against her chest, fast asleep.
‘This is my daughter, Lieutenant.’ Miss England faced him again and spoke in a trembling voice, both wary and defiant. ‘Linette…England.’
Miss England spoke again. ‘I do wish you would order the hackney somewhere away from this place. I care not where.’ She grasped the child more firmly. ‘Lord Farley might have a change of mind.’
Devlin instructed the driver to take them to his address. Where else could he take two women and a child when his brain was foggy with brandy and fatigue?
The passengers lapsed into silence. Miss England pointedly avoided conversation, and Devlin, angry at himself for his rash behaviour, clamped his mouth shut.
The thin light of dawn seeped through the London mist as the hack pulled up to a plain, unadorned building near St James’s Street. His rooms were at the edge of the unfashionable district where the rent was cheaper. It was an area best known for housing Cyprians of the ton and, therefore, acceptable for a gentleman.
His entourage spilled out into the street, the little maid grabbing the portmanteau before Devlin could reach it. He began to chuckle. To anyone passing by at this hour, the women would appear as two more fancy pieces under protection. As long as the bundle in Miss England’s arms remained covered, that is.
Devlin walked to his entrance halfway round to the back.
Wait until Bart saw what he had won at cards. The sergeant’s face when they came in the door would make this whole escapade worthwhile.
Devlin had once saved Bart’s life on the battlefield. Ever since, the older man made it his mission to take care of him. Primary among Bart’s self-imposed duties was tempering Devlin’s rash, impulsive nature—a task at which he was doomed to fail.
Live for the moment. As a creed, it was as good as any.
Hmmph, more like a curse, Devlin thought. That particular creed had gotten him sent down from a school or two, but, from the time his late father had purchased his colours, it had meant survival. Now, however, it meant he had the charge of two women and a child.
He glanced over his shoulder. The women were not following. They stood on the spot where the hackney had left them, looking as lost as waifs.
Devlin cursed himself. They presumed he would abandon them. When had he ever passed by a creature in need? In his youth, one of his impulsive habits had been collecting stray animals which he’d then had to conceal from his father.
He walked back to the women. Three more strays to add to his collection.
‘This way, if you please.’ He wrested the portmanteau from the maid again. ‘My abode is humble, to be sure, but will have to do.’
Miss England stood her ground. ‘You need not trouble yourself, Lieutenant.’
‘Nonsense,’ he replied. ‘We shall contrive something. The streets are too dangerous for you.’
With halting steps she followed him through the narrow alley. Her maid crept close behind. The sky had brightened, showing signs of becoming a magnificent day.
Devlin knocked on the door and only a moment passed before it opened. ‘Good morning, Bart,’ he said in a cheerful manner. ‘I trust you have not been up all night waiting for me.’
‘Half the night is all, then I consigned you to Jericho and took to—’ Pale brown eyes in a weathered face widened.
‘I’ve brought guests.’ Devlin smiled as he dragged in the portmanteau. Bart’s astonished expression was as rewarding as he could have wished. ‘Not guests, really. Charges, you might say.’ He stepped aside to let the women enter. ‘Bart, may I present my charges.’ He swept his arm in a graceful gesture. ‘Miss England and Sophie.’
The little maid stepped forward cautiously and curtsied.
Devlin tossed Bart an amused glance as he shrugged off his coat. ‘Where are your manners, Bart? Take the lady’s cloak.’
Bart, mouth open, did as he was bid.
Devlin turned to Miss England. ‘Allow me to assist you.’ He stepped behind her and unclasped the fastening under her chin, removing the garment.
As the cloak fell away, the child in Miss England’s arms whimpered in her sleep.
‘My God,’ exclaimed Bart.
Devlin laughed. ‘This is Miss England’s daughter…um…’
‘Linette.’ Miss England turned to face Devlin, and he had his first good look at her.
His memory had not failed him. Her face was almost regal in its loveliness. Her skin shone like fine porcelain, except for finger-shaped splotches of blue. Her lips were the identical colour to a rose that had grown in his mother’s garden. Her lush mahogany-coloured hair cascaded down her shoulders, the perfect frame for a perfect face. She met his appreciation with a bold gaze, her intelligent blue eyes reflecting both youthful innocence and knowledge far beyond her years.
Devlin’s breath left his lungs.
‘I…I do not know your true name…’ he managed, feeling his throat tighten at the vision of so much beauty.
She paused, her eyes searching his face. ‘My name is Madeleine.’ She added a faint smile. ‘Madeleine England.’
He remembered the feel of her bare skin next to his, the lushness of her full breasts, and the ecstasy of her passion. His eyes swept over her as his body came alive to her again.
The child sleeping against her shoulder brought him back to his senses, a tiny girl, a miniature of the mother, very much resembling the wax dolls on his sisters’ old toy shelf. The child’s feathery long lashes cast shadows on the rosy cheek that lay against Madeleine’s shoulder.
What the deuce was he to do with the lot of them?
Bart broke out into guffaws of laughter. ‘Cast yourself into the briars again, have you, Dev?’
Madeleine lifted her chin, refusing to let it tremble in disappointment as she regarded the two men. At Farley’s, her vision blurred by Farley’s blow, she’d thought she dreamed Lieutenant Devlin Steele. Lord, she’d dreamed of him often enough. But when she’d blinked her eyes, it truly had been he.
She understood too well the look he’d given her a moment ago. It spoke of wanting to bed her. Foolish of her to forget this would be his motive for rescuing her. He could not be the brave and gallant dragoon of her fantasy. It had always been a silly fancy, after all, even if visions of him riding up on a tall stallion had comforted many a night.
Especially the nights Lord Farley came to share her bed.
The lieutenant ran his hand through his hair and replied to the other man’s remark. ‘I’ve not quite worked out what to do.’
She knew what he would do. He would cast them off as soon as he could. He must dislike her bringing Sophie and Linette. Perhaps if she’d come to him alone he’d have been content to keep her.
No matter. She would go nowhere without her daughter and her friend. They depended upon her.
She avoided looking at him. ‘We shall not trouble you, sir. It is light outside. I am sure we may be safely on our way.’ She reached for her cloak. ‘Come, Sophie.’
The slight figure was in mid-yawn, her lank yellow hair falling across her face. The other man reached out an arm for her as she staggered.
‘The lass is dead on her feet,’ he protested.
The lieutenant rubbed his brow, as Madeleine struggled with her cloak. The child squirmed and started to whimper. The cloak slipped to the floor. She tried to comfort Linette, swaying to and fro with her as she had done since her infancy.
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