Lady Starling’s Stockings
Lady Solange Starling has a special skill. But catching spies within her cousin’s embassy has never presented a challenge…until now.
One moonlit evening in a garden, Solange views a daring man she has not seen in years. A man she never forgot. A man, who even in his youth, carved his place in her life and her reverie.
Monsieur Noir, he calls himself. And so he is, a man living in shadows, dark and dangerous to her heart. As the two of them join together to weed out the nemesis who attempts to destroy their fight against Napoleon, Solange and Noir learn how rich grand passion can be.
Once more, they fight against cruel fate to give them what they most desire. Each other. Free of torment and loss. Free at last to love.
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Copyright 2011, Cerise DeLand. All rights reserved.
September 30, 1815
Lady Solange Starling adjusted her mask and gazed out over the assemblage at the British Embassy, searching the ballroom wearing a blasé smile–and with a determination fraught with frustration.
Where, oh, where are you, Monsieur? Dinner is done, the dancing is about to begin and I am bursting with news and questions!
Among the pale flocks of British ladies and somber olive-skinned Italian matrons, Solange wove her way through the throng to find her contact. Out of courtesy, she had to stop here and there often to permit the gentlemen who approached to kiss her hand, murmur greetings and attempt to charm her. Despite her ostrich-feathered mask, these diplomats and naval officers, both English and Italian, knew her curvaceous figure, her love of fashion–and her noble English name. They knew she was wealthy and half French. And all that they knew came from two sources–her reign over the haute ton in London as Lord George Starling’s young bride and his widow, plus her previous visit here at the embassy to her cousin and his wife. On Solange’s first sojourn to Naples three months ago, she had accomplished her mission to find the traitor who turned out to be her cousin’s naval adjutant. And she had done it within days of sailing into port.
Now, given the threatened return of Napoleon’s brother-in-law Murat here to reclaim his throne of Naples, her newest task was greater and more urgent. And my contact? Monsieur de la Guerre? Where is he?
“My lady, Solanj-a,” the Neapolitan prince of D’oro crooned in his heavily accented English. “I am so happy to see you have returned to us here in Napoli.”
“Va bene, Your Highness, how could I stay away?” She flirted with the eagle-eyed naval officer, using a gay tilt to her head and a flash of her eyes. A man notorious for his spendthrift ways and frequent bouts with the pox, Prince Giorgio peered at her with a salacious intensity before letting his gaze scan down her figure.
“Have you had the opportunity to shop yet in the main piazza, cara mia?”
“You remember well my little amusement to keep my modiste rapidly sewing, dear Prince.” She pursed her lips and allowed him to savor the sight.
“I wish to learn more about you than your preference for the richest fabrics, my lovely bird,” he said, his tongue sliding across his lower lip.
“Now, now,” she teased him, tapping her fan on his arm and walking toward terrace. With a sideways look, she led this man on as she did all men. She had no one in her bed. Had invited no one since her elderly husband passed on to his grave reward five years ago. And though she longed for a spectacular lover to fill her body and obsess her mind, she had spotted no candidates who matched her exacting ideals. Until such a specimen of manhood appeared and could match one unforgettable champion she’d met half a lifetime ago, she would remain alone in her bed by night and at her espionage by day. “Though I confess, I would love to shop for a few yards of Venetian lace.”
“For a camisole?” he asked, his gaze afire with hunger. “Do you need one? As creamy as your skin? I will order one made!”
“You are too kind. I would not trouble you. But alas, I am so occupied, Your Highness. You must have heard that I did come this time to help my cousin’s wife after her recent lying-in.”
“You should have a child of your own.” He grabbed her hand.
His own was clammy, and Solange bore with the cool sweat like a seasoned soldier of the Cold Stream Guard.
“You are so lovely, so well formed…what is the English word? Endowed? I am certain God has blessed you with the ability to bear many children, bella mia.” His thin black brows wiggled high while his arm circled her waist and he pressed his fingers to the side of her breast.
She smiled serenely, the lascivious cuss. Then she picked up her pace. She would tempt him, but she would not bed him. Her stock in trade was her own sensual allure. Without her golden looks and her acute perception, without her sloe-eyed sensuality that she never tamped, she would not have become one of Home Department’s most accomplished spies. She enjoyed the chase and she would not stop intriguing men. Not now. Not when victory over the last of that tyrant Bonaparte’s men was soon to come. Not when that victory depended on her rooting out the French operative who had burrowed himself so deeply into her cousin’s diplomatic staff that he threatened the peace of Europe with his nefarious presence. “You are too complimentary, Your Highness.”
“Never! Beauty such as yours blossoms, I am certain, when a seasoned lover teaches you the delights you so richly deserve.”
Forward fart. She forced her muscles to relax.
“I would show you my newest mill. On the road to Roma.”
They descended the terrace steps, and Solange purposely stopped at the entrance to the maze. She would not offer him any solitude in which to accost her.
“I purchased it two weeks ago.”
“So recently?” She marveled that these Neapolitans changed sides so easily. “Are you not concerned that Murat’s spies lurk on the road to Rome?”
“Murat has lost all friends among us. He is a nasty cat, one day with his brother-in-law, one day with the Austrians and you British. Forget politics, lovely Solanj-a.” He caressed the side of her breast and she fought the urge to box his ears. “Come with me in my carriage to view my fabrics.”
“Ah, Your Highness, tempting surely.” To go out with this lecher alone in his carriage would cause all kinds of a scandal. Yet Solange needed to discover if Giorgio was simply dedicated to her seduction or if he wished to glean information about her cousin and the British naval blockade of the city. After all, Giorgio had been a close friend of the naval attaché whom she had put to ground three months ago. Plus she had seen Giorgio only an hour ago in hot discussion in one corner with a French émigré whom she suspected of collusion with the Bonapartists. “But you know I must not disappear with you alone. My family, my friends. Why, you must imagine how they would view an afternoon with you.” She widened her eyes and consoled him with a tiny moue.
“Bring your maid, if you must,” he told her, leaning forward.
He came so close she smelled the garlic and onions of his lunch on his breath. Oh, merde. “A charming solution!” Her stomach lurched. She tried not to wince–or inhale the fumes.
“I will show you silk such as you have never seen.”
Silk? The blood in her veins raced. Her favorite. Her fetish.
“From Lucca’s finest worms.”
“Luccan silk.” She repeated like a half-wit. Luccan silk. Reputed to be made from Chinese worms given by Kublai Khan to Marco Polo. “I have never felt it.”
“I will allow you to feel everything.” He grasped her hands and, in his rabid desire, squeezed the blood out of them. “Everything!”
His innuendo was not lost on her. She grimaced, surrendering to her need to investigate his life further. “Well, Your Highness, I–“
“I will give you all you need, Solanj-a. My silks. More. Come with me for the day, the night–“
A man coughed. Once. Twice. From behind the tall cypresses.
Giorgio’s heavy brows darted together. At once, he hauled her against his wiry body and his very rigid cock. “Ignore him, bella. Tell me you will come–“
Solange stepped backward, brushing the front of her dress. How to deter him politely from handling her like a whore, hmmm?
He took no heed, but flowed toward her, pressing his mouth to her ear–and his lips were as wet as his hands. “I am mad for you, my lovely English lady.”
From behind the tall evergreen next to them, a gentleman cleared his throat.
Their interloper’s intrusions made her suppress a chuckle.
“Your Highness, your offer of the afternoon–“
“Your offer, Your Highness, I might say, is¬ what?”
A booming bass voice surrounded Solange like a villain in a Venetian opera as a man strolled from the bushes. She gasped.
“Wonderful? The lady will consider it and write you tomorrow with her answer.”
Solange stared up at the towering figure before her. Taller than any man she’d ever met. More fit, as well. Dressed entirely in black, save for a flowing white stock, he looked like a devil’s disciple. Even to his rich ebony hair that fell over his brow and the large black velvet mask that covered his eyes and cheeks but not his strong square jaw.
“And who are you to speak for the lady, sir?” Giorgio asked, his lips curled in outrage at this interference.
“I am an old friend of hers from her childhood,” the apparition in midnight hues responded with derision. “I am certain she remembers me. Don’t you, ma cherie?”
Solange swayed on her feet, her forehead cool, her eyes burning with the sight of the man she had wished to return to her, lo, these fifteen years. Even now moments since Giorgio had stormed off, she was blinded by brilliant memories from her wretched past.
Her man in black swept her into his arms and carried her to a nook in the maze where he sat upon a small stone settee and plopped her on his lap. “I have shocked you,” he said, the back of his hand soothing strokes to her forehead and cheeks. “I meant to be more gallant and introduce myself in a civil manner in the ballroom. But that man intruded. He irritates me to no end.”
She caught her breath, her gaze all over this man whose face she saw within her shattered memories of her parents, Paris and the tumbrils. “Me, too,” she admitted because she knew she could speak to this man plainly as she could no other. “How did you find me? Why…here? Why now?”
His eyes sparked with humor. They were black, brilliant and bold. “I am here to help you, my dear Solange.”
Help? She stilled. Do what? Why would the man who as a youth had once pulled her from the dastardly cart headed for the guillotine appear now? After years in which she thought him dead, how could he help her? He would probably faint if he knew what she did for her adopted country. And for that, she did not require his help but her dear Monsieur de la Guerre’s.
This led her to the more pertinent question. “Where the hell have you been all these years?”
“Shh. That will come.”
He glanced this way and that to check the entrances to the maze. Aware of his caution and not knowing his reason for it, she tensed. Then he turned the full magnetic power of those onyx eyes on her.
“I have been in Naples for three months.”
“Three–?” Since I first came here? “Since Murat left with the remnants of his army and his pride?”
His long lashes lowered in a sign of agreement. “I’m here to help you, ma cherie. With your work.”
My work, she mouthed, then narrowed her eyes. Her investigative work?
He nodded then whispered. “I am your new contact.”
“Why?” she shot back, beneath her breath.
“You can guess the sad cause, my pet.” His gem-like eyes spoke of death.
“No.” She shook her head, disbelieving his implication. “Monsieur de la Guerre?”
He set his jaw.
She shot to her feet, fluttered her fan, and turned this way and that as she swallowed her tears. If her Monsieur was dead, then the cause could surely be put to his carelessness. Or was it my own? “How?”
“I cannot tell you here.”
Irritation flooded her muscles and she stomped her foot. “You must.”
“Have a care, Solange.”
“Name a place. A time. And how do you know this in any case?” Was she a fool to trust a man she had not seen in fifteen years? Much had changed since last he rescued her from one of Napoleon’s agents when she was fifteen. Even more since his first rescue when both were prisoners of the Committee of Public Safety, condemned to be murdered by the Parisian mob. “And how do you know this about my Monsieur?”
“I have friends,” he told her beneath his breath and then he rose.
Once more, his imperial height took her breath and filled her vision with his masterly command. Over the intervening years, he had matured from gangly youth to vigorous compelling manhood. His warm hands cupped her elbows as he drew so near she felt once more the life-giving warmth of his body. Once he had cradled her like this, sheltering her from angry churls who sought to kill them both. Once he had hid her in gutted, charred chateaux and foresters’ shacks. Once he had dug potatoes from ravaged earth for their suppers. He’d caught rabbits, skinned them, roasted them over fires, and thereby kept them both from starvation. Once he had helped her stowaway from Calais to Dover and set them both free of Robespierre. He had drawn her close then, kept her warm, fed and told her tales to make her believe that one day all strife, all war, all useless killing would end. In some ways, he had been right. But in most, he had been wrong.
If she was grateful to him for having saved her even as he saved himself, she was also cognizant that if the world was to be free of tyrants, then she must help ensure it. And so she had done for the past four years with what weapons she possessed. Her beauty, her brains and her courage.
“Come, Solange. Know that my work complements your own. I will tell you about this, but at a better place and time.”
“Then call on me tomorrow here at noon.”
She bristled, impatient, irritated and frightened. “Of course, you can.”
“I am known here.”
“And not welcome?” Had he changed loyalties over the past years? She could not imagine it. Yet, it might have occurred. “Why would my cousin James refuse you?”
“James? No.” He flourished a hand to denote his mask. “But others? Oui, there are more, Solange.”
“In the house? Here? Oh, damn it, man! What do you know?” She slapped her fan against her thigh.
He stepped back and shot his cuffs. “You and I will meet. Soon.”
She blinked. “Where?”
He chuckled, a rich sound of hilarity. “When it is possible, I shall send you word.”
She stepped closer, enough to inhale the cumin and sandalwood of his soap. Her throat constricting with the heady fragrance, she whispered, “I do not like surprises.”
“How well I recall.” He took a step toward the house, but turned to look into her eyes with solemn purpose. “I will send a well-penned note.”
She stilled. ‘A well-penned note.’ The code for a transmission of import. He knows this secret set of passwords. Which means he is most definitely a British spy. And that is how he came to know of Monsieur de la Guerre’s demise. Her reluctance to counter him crumpled and she supplied the appropriate response, “I am eager to read it.”
“Until then, be vigilant. Careful.”