At the sound of her bodice ripping, Pandora clenched her teeth and pushed away the soldier’s groping hands. Blooming hell. My mission’s going to be foiled—by a bleeding foot wabbler?
It was her own dashed fault. She should have been more careful. Her disguise as a trull—a camp prostitute—was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gave her access to the army encampment; on the other, it made her appear fair game to the lusty, drunken foot soldier presently accosting her. She’d chosen the dark path at the edge of the camp to avoid such pitfalls, but the bounder had stumbled out of nowhere.
“Let’s warm ourselves with a tickle, eh dove?” he leered, his words puffing in the wintry night. “Share some real Yuletide cheer?”
In the cold moonlight, she saw his glazed eyes and unshaven face, and her stomach lurched at his stench of liquor and unwashed flesh. Memories of another time rose like a dark tide, but she pushed them back. At nineteen, she was no longer a helpless girl. She’d killed men far stronger and cleverer than the bastard in front of her.
In fact, she’d done so not a quarter hour ago.
Which left her with a problem: she couldn’t afford to leave another dead body in the camp. One fatality might be attributed to natural causes (certainly the poison she’d used was designed to mimic death from a heart ailment). Two corpses, however, would definitely rouse suspicion.
A good spy leaves no incision, Octavian always said. In and out.
Octavian was her mentor, the man who’d plucked her from the gutters and given her a new life and purpose—and the tools with which to practice her new trade. He’d even given her a new identity: Pompeia. She was the only female agent that he’d recruited into his elite espionage ring, and it was an honor and privilege she did not take lightly.
No, she wouldn’t let Octavian down… which meant no more killing for the night. She’d have to brazen her way out of the situation. Luckily, she had some skill at dealing with the opposite sex.
Planting her palms firmly against her attacker’s chest, she used the Cockney of her childhood. “Another time, luv. Got a couple o’ brats in me tent squallin’ for their supper.”
Nothing like the mention of children to throw ashes on a man’s libido.
“Let ’em wait. I’ll feast my fill, then they can ’ave theirs, eh?” Smirking, he cupped her bottom and squeezed.
Disgusting. She slapped his hand away, moved out of reach.
Feigning an apologetic look, she said, “’Fraid there’s another problem, sir. I’ve a fire on board.” She waggled her brows. “Wouldn’t want your mast to get burned by the flames.”
If the threat of venereal disease wasn’t enough to stop him, nothing was.
“Only one thing to lower my mast tonight. Fire or not, I’m coming in,” he slurred.
He launched himself at her, and she took an instinctive step backward, only to trip on a blasted rock. Her breath left in a whoosh as her back hit the frost-hardened ground. He wasted no time in clambering atop her, fumbling to push her skirts up.
“No,” she gritted out. “Stop it. Get off me, you bastard.”
He didn’t take any notice.
Blast it. He left her with no choice. She’d have to choke him unconscious; mayhap when he came to, he’d forget what happened, think he’d passed out in the dark. It wasn’t the clean exit she’d hoped for, but it was a damned sight better than getting raped in the dark. Digging the heels of her boots into the dirt, she readied to leverage her strength, to reverse their positions so that she could plant her arm against his windpipe and cut off his supply of air.
Just as she tensed to act, her attacker’s weight suddenly disappeared. Blinking, she watched him hurtle backward into the darkness. The next second, she scrambled to her feet and saw that another figure had materialized: this one was tall, broad-shouldered—and strong, by the looks of how easily he subdued her assailant. After a brief grapple, he twisted his opponent’s arm and used it to drive the other to his knees. The soldier cursed and moaned but couldn’t escape.
“I could have you court-martialed for this,” the stranger snapped.
His captive stopped struggling instantly. “Lieutenant-Colonel Harrington. Sir.” Though still slurred, the soldier’s voice now held a note of fear. “I-I didn’t know it was you. B-beg pardon—”
“Bradley, is it?”
Even in the dimness, Pandora saw the reluctance of Bradley’s nod. “Y-yes, sir.”
“It isn’t my pardon you should be begging.” Harrington released Bradley with a shove, his gaze locking on her. “Are you all right, miss?”
“I’m fine,” she managed.
She’d seen too much, known too much to be surprised by anyone. But Lieutenant-Colonel Harrington was unlike any man she’d ever met. She knew his name, of course; anyone who kept abreast of England’s struggles with Napoleon did. Over the past few years, he’d become one of the nation’s heroes because of the courage and valor he’d shown on the battlefield. Just twelve days ago, he’d been part of Lieutenant-General Hill’s valiant efforts to stave off the French attack at St. Pierre. It was rumored that Wellington planned to bestow a commendation upon Harrington.
What surprised Pandora wasn’t just Harrington’s youth (he looked to be in his mid-twenties—young for an officer of his rank and achievements). No, it was also the fact that this much-lauded hero was addressing her as courteously as if she were some Mayfair debutante and not the painted strumpet she was currently disguised as. His fierce eyes—she couldn’t tell their color in the dimness—stayed on her face and didn’t wander to the expanse of flesh displayed by her torn bodice.
“See? N-nothing ’appened, sir.” Stumbling to his feet, Bradley rubbed at his arm, his voice just short of a whine. “We were just ’aving a bit ’o fun—”
“It didn’t sound like fun to me.” Harrington’s tone had a dangerous edge that raised the hairs on Pandora’s skin—and, intriguingly, not in a bad way. “I heard the lady tell you no. She told you to stop.”
Blanching, Bradley nonetheless said unwisely, “But she’s just a trull—”
“And that gives you the right to assault her?” Harrington demanded.
“N-no, sir, I didn’t mean… that is…”
“We are fighting a war to protect those who cannot protect themselves. As soldiers, this is our duty. What does it say about you that you’d take advantage of someone weaker and less powerful than you?”
Weaker and less powerful? Pandora stifled a snort. If she’d chosen to employ her trusty garotte, she could have strangled Bradley before he could let out so much as a squeak. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help but be charmed by Harrington’s moral code. His chivalry was rather quaint, like that of a knight of old. As much as she enjoyed watching him make that worm Bradley squirm, however, she couldn’t allow matters to get even more out of control. She had to contain the situation. In and out.
“No ’arm done, sir.” She addressed the Lieutenant-Colonel with a whore’s pragmatic cheeriness. “Just a misunderstanding is all. Be obliged if you’d let the lad off—if word gets out ’round camp, it’ll be bad for business, if you get my meaning.”
Harrington’s gaze roved over her, so intently that for an instant she fancied that he could see through the curly blond wig designed to distract from her features, the layers of paint she’d meticulously applied, the torn and tawdry dress. That he could somehow see her…
Her heart quickened; her breath jammed in her throat.
Turning to Bradley, Harrington said curtly, “Report to my tent at eight o’clock sharp. You’re dismissed.”
Like a cur with his tail between his legs, Bradley slunk off.
Harrington advanced toward her, unbuttoning his scarlet jacket. Immediately, Pandora took a step back, but he was too quick for her. He reached out… and a moment later, she was engulfed in warmth and a clean, masculine scent.
The cove gave me his jacket? She blinked up at him, bemused.
“I’ll walk you back to your tent,” he said.
“No. That is, no need, sir.” She gathered her wits. “I’ll find my own way back—”
He took her arm, his grip on her elbow gentle yet firm. “It’s dark. You shouldn’t be out alone at night. It’s not safe with a battalion of soused soldiers roaming about.”
Did he not see that she was dressed and painted like a whore? Where else would she be but plying her trade in precisely such circumstances? Before she could think of a reply, he was steering her through the darkness toward the cluster of small, glowing tents in the distance, home to the camp followers.
“May I ask your name, miss?” he said.
“It’s Kitty, sir. Kitty, um,”—her gaze latched on a clump of dead bushes—“Brown.”
“Marcus Harrington, at your service. I must apologize, Miss Brown, for my subordinate’s behavior. Rest assured he will be punished for his offense.”
She slanted a look at Harrington. His dark hair was cut in a short, no-nonsense style, and his features were too rough-hewn and stern to be handsome—but handsome was too paltry a word to describe a man with such an aura of command. No, a more apt adjective was… compelling. Disturbingly masculine. Magnetic to the senses.
This isn’t a promenade through Hyde Park, you stupid chit. Focus. You’ve got to get out of here.
“Be obliged to you, sir, if you left it alone. Like I says before, a girl’s got to make her livin’. If talk spreads,”—she looked up at him through heavily sooted eyelashes—“I’ll be out o’ work.”
“Would that be so bad?”
She heard no judgment in his voice. Just a calm curiosity.
Shrugging, she said, “Do what we ’ave to do to survive, don’t we, guv?”
In her case, that meant protecting her country by any means necessary. Something that he’d never find out. Octavian’s warning rang in her head. Military and espionage are like oil and water: the two don’t mix. Those mushrooms in uniform are too stodgy to trust us, and we’re too clever to trust them.
“One can’t argue against the importance of survival.” Harrington’s lips formed a tight line. His was a nice mouth, if a trifle stern. “Yet every profession has its downside.”
She tilted her head at him. “Even yours?” He was a respected officer of high rank; surely he had few complaints.
“What’re the downsides o’ your job?” she couldn’t help but ask.
In the silence, the ground crunched beneath their boots.
After a moment, he said, “If I fail at my work, people die. If I succeed… people die.”
Her chest tightened. She understood. All too well.
“We do what we must,” she said.
The glance he gave her made her feel more transparent than ever. Something was shifting inside her, an awareness she’d never felt before. A sensation intangible and cataclysmic. She realized that they were nearing their destination. Their conversation would soon end. After that, she’d never speak to this man again.
On impulse, she said, “If you weren’t an officer, what would you be, sir?”
He stopped, pivoted to face her. “Do you know,” he said in a strange voice, “no one has ever asked me that before?”
She instantly regretted her error. “Ain’t my business, don’t mean to pry—”
“A husband and father,” he said.
Those four words, laced with quiet desire, hung between them like a garland of smoke. Clouds parted, revealing a velvet sky dizzy with diamonds, yet to Pandora, the glitter in his eyes was even more brilliant because she had never met a man like him in her entire life and was certain she never again would.
He was a true gentleman. One whose inner fire wasn’t sparked by ambition or fame or fortune, but something different altogether. What Harrington, Britannia’s much-heralded hero, fought and yearned for was… a family.
He wanted a wife and children of his own. A family that he would provide for, protect, and—she knew it in the deepest depths of her soul—love. That was what beat in the heart of this man.
She became aware of her wildly thrumming pulse. His scent curled in her nostrils, his jacket warming her from inside out. She swayed a little closer toward him, his hard face and sad eyes—
“Lieutenant-Colonel Harrington! Sir!” A panting voice, pounding footsteps.
The skeins of the moment snapped.
“What is it?” Harrington said alertly to the approaching soldier.
“’Tis Major Starky, sir. He was found in his tent. Doctor’s looking at him, says his heart gave out—”
“Let’s go.” Harrington started off, then turned to look at her. “Miss Brown?”
Pandora’s heart was racing now for an entirely different reason than just moments before. She prayed the breathlessness in her voice didn’t give her away. “Yes, sir?”
The briefest smile touched his lips, yet it was enough. Far too much. She remained for a few precious seconds longer, watching him disappear into the night.
“Merry Christmas, Marcus Harrington,” she whispered.
Then she too, vanished, into the darkness.