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*~* Sheridan Jeane Books *~*
Once Upon a Spy
London, 1854 – Lord Wentworth can’t refuse his brother’s request — not when war with Russia is at stake!
Robert, Earl of Wentworth, isn’t a spy, and he never wants to be one, but when his brother is injured and needs his help stealing an important book from the Russian embassy, he can’t refuse.
Antonia’s future depends on stealing that book…
Antonia has lost everything. She can’t even claim her own name. If she wants her life back, she needs that book. The problem is, Lord Wentworth just stole it from the Russian Ambassador.
…And they both need it
The reluctant spy and the daring thief find themselves at cross-purposes. Who will win in this dangerous game of nations— especially when their hearts are at stake as well?
**Excerpt from Chapter One**
Politics have no relation to morals.
– Niccolo Machiavelli
London, January 6, 1854
The turning point in a man’s life isn’t always accompanied by a crash of thunder. Sometimes it’s marked by something much more subtle and easier to miss, like the flash of a silver gown, or the rich hue of a twist of chestnut hair.
Lord Wentworth managed to dismiss his turning point.
As he caught sight of the woman across the ballroom, her strong allure caught his attention, certainly. But he ignored it, believing his immediate visceral response to be nothing more than a reaction to her beauty.
For him, there could be no future with her. Nor with any woman.
She represented a precipice. Danger. One he needed to avoid.
He chose to turn his back on the silver-gowned woman and her pull of destiny. Instead, he stepped out onto the patio to let the chill January air envelop him. It drove away some of the oppressive heat of the ballroom.
“Robert, come over here,” his brother called to him. “Lord Percival is telling the most preposterous story.”
He closed the embassy door. The glow of the flickering torches allowed him to identify Frederick sitting with a group of men at a stone table near the edge of the lawn.
As he strode across the paved patio, Robert considered how fundamentally wrong it was for the Russian Ambassador’s winter solstice celebration to be held in a building so overheated the temperature drove the guests outdoors.
His brother shifted his chair and made space for Robert to join the group. The low oil lamps on the table illuminated the listeners’ rapt faces as Lord Percival recounted his latest yarn.
Everyone greeted Robert with brief smiles and nods before they returned their attention to Percival. He appeared well-groomed, with his neatly trimmed, sable-colored beard, his white gloves, and his perfectly tailored evening coat all speaking to the excellence of his valet, but something seemed slightly off about him. As expected, an aroma of tobacco emanated from this particular group, but Percival’s whiskey-laden breath came as a surprise. The evening was still a fresh, young thing, with flawless skin and a lively demeanor. Wobbly-looking Percival must have been drinking all afternoon to be so inebriated the odor oozed from his pores.
“You’ll love this,” Frederick murmured as he glanced at Robert. The corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled.
Lord Percival took a puff on his cigar, pausing for effect, and said “…and I forcibly tossed him from the carriage. He landed directly in a steaming pile of manure!” He slapped his hand down on the marble table to emphasize his words, but he clipped one of the oil lamps.
The container flipped over. Oil flew out, splashing onto the table and the cigar Percival clutched. The cigar immediately burst into flame. He dropped it, letting out a sharp shriek of pain and fear. The cigar landed on the table in the spreading puddle of oil. The men jumped back, knocking the chairs to the ground. In less time than a the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings, fire swept down a large swath of the tabletop.
Frederick jumped back too, but his thin evening gloves were already drenched in oil. With mounting horror, Robert watched as his brother froze for an instant. Flames erupted from his hands.
The sickening image chilled him. If Frederick had been a performer on stage, the audience would have burst into applause, but this was no trick. No sleight of hand. It was real, and Frederick’s hands were on fire.
Robert lurched forward to help just as Frederick stumbled back on the uneven lawn and shoved his hands under his arms, suffocating the flames.
There had been puddles of ice on the table, and as the spreading flames came in contact with them, they spluttered and sprayed droplets, like water in a skillet. Two other men patted at their clothing, putting out tiny fires from the flying droplets of burning oil before it could spread.
Lord Tamworth couldn’t extinguish the fire on his sleeve. He shouted with alarm, his friends quickly surrounding him. Someone stripped off his own evening jacket and used it to smother Tamworth’s arm.
After consuming all the oil, the flames quickly withered and died. Tamworth’s friends dragged over a chair and shoved him into it. The door leading from the ballroom burst open, and a small army of footmen came rushing outside, heading directly for Tamworth.
Robert clenched his fists as he took a menacing step toward the man who’d set events in motion. “Good god, Percival, you’re a threat to everyone, you bottle-head! You’re drunk, and you’re dangerous. Get yourself under control. It’s a wonder you didn’t ignite as well with so much alcohol in your veins.”
Lord Percival lifted his hands in supplication. “It was an accident. Surely you don’t think I’d intentionally—”
Robert grabbed the other man by his lapels. “You created this situation. Don’t try to pretend you bear no responsibility for what happened. This is your doing.”
“Let him go, Robert,” Frederick said from somewhere behind him. “Come here and help me.”
With a sense of disgust, Robert gave the other man a shove, spun on his heel, and stalked into the darkness, toward the sound of his brother’s voice.
He found Frederick pacing in circles, stomping a track through the snow near the edge of the lawn and muttering curses under his breath. He still had one of his hands tucked under the opposite arm.
“We should put ice on that to help numb the pain,” Robert suggested. “The Russians must have ice here someplace.” He locked eyes with an approaching footman who had obviously overheard him.
“I will bring some immediately, my lord,” the footman said in heavily accented English.
“And some scotch,” Frederick added.
The footman nodded, turned, and hurried into the embassy.
Activity surrounding Lord Tamworth caught Robert’s attention. The man’s face appeared pale and drawn in the flickering torchlight. The fabric of his clothing had been burned away, and Robert had a clear view of the sickeningly mottled arm and its black and red skin. Robert’s stomach knotted as he turned to face his brother. Was Frederick’s injury as bad as Tamworth’s?
“This is terrible,” Frederick said.
Robert’s stomach sank. He dreaded seeing the hand. “How bad is it?” he asked.
“Bad. Very bad.” Frederick moved even farther away from the others and didn’t stop until he came to a decorative railing.
“Does it hurt?” Robert followed his brother.
“What? My hand? Of course it hurts.” Frederick looked confused for a moment. “Oh, you thought I was talking about— but that’s not what I meant.” Frederick glanced around and lowered his voice. “I’m here tonight on an assignment for the Foreign Office.”
Robert rocked back on his heels. If Frederick was worried about his assignment, the burn couldn’t be too severe, could it? “That explains why you wanted to come to the ball with me at the last minute. Here I thought you wanted to spend time with your estimable older brother. Foolish of me.”
“Indubitably. Quite foolish.”
The footman returned, bearing a tray with two tumblers of scotch and a bundle of ice wrapped in a white cloth. “Can I bring you anything else?”
Frederick shook his head. “I’ll be fine. Don’t trouble yourself. Tamworth is the one who needs your attention, not me. My injury is minor.”
The footman bowed before hurrying toward the group surrounding Lord Tamworth.
“I can’t risk letting anyone examine my hand,” Frederick said. “Any undue notice regarding me or my movements tonight could jeopardize my ability to complete my task.”
A gust of wind ruffled Robert’s dark hair, and he shoved it out of his eyes as he glanced around. Few guests braved the frigid courtyard, so their section of the lawn accorded them the privacy they needed for their conversation. “Why are you telling me about your plans for tonight?”
The bundle of ice clattered as Frederick lifted it. Robert caught a glimpse of the scorched remnants of Frederick’s cotton gloves and the large blisters on his fingertips before he pressed the bundle back down.
“With this injury, I won’t be able to complete my assignment. I won’t have the manual dexterity that’s required. I’ll need your help.”
Robert held up his hands and stepped back. “No. Definitely not. Last year, you promised me you wouldn’t involve me in another one of your schemes. I’m not cut from the same cloth as you— I hate dealing in subterfuge.”
“I know, I know, but this is different. The fate of the world is at stake. We’re risking outright war.”
“War?” Robert stood stunned for a moment.
“At this moment, there is a book, a church register, sitting in a diplomatic pouch locked in Ambassador Revnik’s desk. I’m supposed to pick the locks and retrieve it. How will I manage if I can’t manipulate tools with my fingers? I’ll never be able to hold them. If you don’t help, England and Russia will go to war.”
Robert stared at his brother blankly. “I thought war with Russia was inevitable at this point. Hardly a day goes by without some newsboy chasing me down the street and trying to sell me a newspaper with a headline demanding that Britain respond to the Battle of Sinop.”
“It was an atrocity.”
“The British citizens want justice.” Last November, Russian Admiral Nakhimov had discovered a Turkish naval squadron taking shelter in the port of Sinop during bad weather, and he had attacked them using Russia’s new explosive shells. He’d easily won within two hours but, even with his victory in hand, he’d continued shelling, destroying all but one stranded ship. The massacre was unconscionable. The destruction, wanton. The suffering, immeasurable.
“The Queen plans to use the church register to demand justice. It contains sensitive information she’ll use to force the czar’s hand, but the timing is critical. Everything hinges on what we do tonight.”
More chess moves. Trust Frederick to consider every nuance of a plan.
Frederick winced as he gingerly pulled the remnants of his burned gloves from his hands and let them fall to the ground. He swallowed and took a shaky breath.
His brother’s single-minded focus on world affairs in the face of his injuries astounded Robert. Was he telling the truth? Could tonight’s actions prevent a war? “Do you agree war with Russia is inevitable? If so, why should you and I put ourselves at risk and steal the book?”
“Inevitable? Perhaps— perhaps not. Remember, the timing and circumstances of a declaration are for the Queen to decide, not the two of us. I have a mission to complete, and it isn’t up for debate. We must retrieve the book before the courier arrives. He’ll be here within the hour.”
“How can the fate of the world rest on such a small thing?” Robert took a step backward and raked his fingers through his hair. Frederick must be exaggerating. How could something as commonplace as a church register be so important?
“In my experience, it’s always the little things that cause the biggest problems. ‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost.’” Frederick stared down at his blistered hands.
The corner of Robert’s mouth twitched. He couldn’t hold back the quip that sprang to his tongue. “Or in this case, for Percival’s want of good sense…”
Frederick let out a snort of derision. “The use of my fingers was lost. Yes.”
*~* Other books in the series *~*
It Takes a Spy… (Book 1)
Lady Catherine’s Secret (Book 2)
**Standalone book (not in the series)**
Gambling on a Scoundrel