From Fiona and Enigmatic Earl © 2022 Grace Callaway
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a well-bred debutante should not go skulking around a strange gentleman’s bedchamber. Being intelligent and pragmatic, Miss Fiona Garrity was aware of this fact. At nineteen, she had been deemed an “Incomparable” by Society and had a queue of suitors vying for her hand. Yet she yearned for more than social success.
She wanted freedom and adventure. A life lived to its fullest.
Luckily, she’d found an outlet for her independent spirit. Two years ago, she and her bosom friends, Ladies Olivia “Livy” Wodehouse and Glory Cavendish, had joined a secret society. Founded by Lady Charlotte Fayne, the Society of Angels was, on the surface, a genteel charity; the true purpose of the organization, however, was to conduct investigations on behalf of women in need. Although leading a double life was challenging—it was no small feat to pull the wool over her parents’ eyes—Fiona adored investigating. It gave her meaning and purpose and fulfilled her craving for excitement.
Hence her presence at Count von Essen’s house party this eve. An infamous roué, von Essen was blackmailing the Angels’ latest client, Emily Fisher. Mrs. Fisher was a wealthy widow who’d inherited her husband’s modest bakeshop and transformed it into Fisher’s Fine Foods, a thriving company that produced delicacies enjoyed by London’s elite. Mrs. Fisher had been on the cusp of receiving a royal warrant when disaster struck.
“Count von Essen has obtained private letters that I wrote to a former lover, and he is demanding that I pay him for his silence.” A handsome blonde in her fifties, Mrs. Fisher’s voice had trembled during her interview with Lady Charlotte. “Not only do these letters contain details of an exceedingly intimate nature, but my lover was an employee and younger than me by some twenty years. If news of this gets out, I, and my company, will be ruined. You are my last hope. Will you help me?”
The Angels had planned their strategy accordingly. This evening, von Essen was hosting a private masquerade at his town house, and the place was teeming with light-skirts. This allowed Fiona and Livy, her partner for the mission, to infiltrate the count’s domain disguised as trollops. Their identities concealed by wigs, heavy paint, and demi-masks, the pair had navigated the party incognito.
At present, Livy was downstairs searching the study while Fi made her way up to von Essen’s bedchamber. Dressed as an Ancient Egyptian queen in a tunic that required no unmentionables, Fi moved with easy stealth. Her sandaled feet whispered over the carpeted corridor as she headed for the master suite.
Taking a quick glance around, she tried the knob. Locked…not surprising given the disreputable crowd downstairs and the secrets her host undoubtedly had to hide. Plucking a pair of hairpins from her raven-black wig, she gained swift entry. The bedchamber was dim, the fire in the hearth casting shadows over the ruby damask walls. A large tester bed sat to the left, facing a pair of windows covered by voluminous velvet drapes. To the right, she spotted what she was looking for.
She hurried over to the kidney-shaped desk. The flickering lamp on its surface burnished the walnut burl and the gold frame of the landscape on the wall behind it. Fi jiggled the drawers; they didn’t budge.
Crouching, she employed her hairpins again. She rifled through the drawers, finding no letters. She emptied the contents of the deepest drawer, tapping her knuckles against the bottom; the hollow sound verified her suspicions. Running her fingertips along the edges, she found the hidden latch that released the false bottom. Inside the hidden compartment lay a bundle of letters.
With a feeling of triumph, Fi lifted out the stack. There were six letters, just as Mrs. Fisher had described. To verify that they belonged to the client, Fi unfolded the top note.
My darling master,
I have dreamt of you since our last meeting. Never has anyone taken hold of my imagination so completely. In the world’s eyes, I am a strong and practical matron; in your arms, I become the weakest of wantons. I long for your dominance, for the sting of your whip upon my naughty bottom, for the discipline of your mighty manhood where I need it most. I yearn to prove my obedience, to worship you upon my knees. I count the days, hours, and minutes until I can service you again.
Sweet heavens. The wickedness made Fi’s heartbeat gallop; her cheeks were so hot she feared her face paint might melt off. No wonder Mrs. Fisher wants these letters back.
Shoving the bundle into the hidden pocket of her tunic, Fi was about to leave when a faint scraping noise made her freeze. The sound of a window opening? Fi peered over the desk and saw a large male figure emerge from the curtains. Diving into the cove beneath the desk, she pressed her back against the wood, making herself as small as possible.
Her blood rushed in her ears. Do not panic. Keep your head clear.
If necessary, Fi could fight her way out of the room, but the last thing she wanted was exposure. She’d secured the client’s letters. What she needed now was a clean exit.
She listened for the intruder; whoever he was, he possessed astonishing stealth. She couldn’t hear him at all, yet she sensed his presence. As if he was silently…waiting. The hairs stirred on her nape, and she strove to quiet her breathing. A pair of large black shoes and long trousered legs materialized in front of her.
Is he going to see me? Quivering, she braced for discovery.
Instead, the man turned and faced the wall behind the desk. From her vantage point, Fi couldn’t see what he was doing, but she pictured the landscape painting that hung in his line of vision. Was he trying to steal it? When she heard a click and faint squeal of hinges, it dawned upon her.
There is something concealed behind the painting. An iron box, perhaps?
Her conclusion was corroborated by the unmistakable sounds of a lock being picked. And by no amateur, either; the man knew what he was about. In less than a minute, she heard the release of a locking mechanism, followed by sounds of careful rummaging.
What was the thief—for there was no question that that was the man’s occupation—looking for? Jewels, gold, something even more interesting? It took all of Fi’s willpower to resist curiosity’s pull. To not sneak a peek at the thief at work.
Stay put. He will be done soon. Then you can leave.
It was a pity that she would end her adventure without seeing the rogue. She had never met a professional burglar before; she wondered what this one looked like. Judging from his lower extremities, he was tall and lean. His dark trousers had a perfect fit, his shoes a buffed-to-perfection shine. She would wager her favorite pair of gloves that his tailoring came from Bond Street—
A quiet thud and muttered oath interrupted her musing. Her eyes widened at the sight of the lock pick that had fallen on the carpet just inches away from her hiding spot. Her heart lurched into her ribs as the thief bent to pick it up.
Dear God, please don’t let him look under the desk.
The man turned his head. Framed by a black demi-mask, his gaze met hers. She saw his quicksilver surprise, which vanished the next instant.
“Bonsoir, mademoiselle,” he said calmly. “May I offer some assistance?”
His accent was French. Was he a recent émigré? Whatever he was, he seemed civilized for a man of his trade. Her training kicking in, she assessed the situation: was it best to finesse, fight, or flee? She decided upon the first option, which was her forte. Her success as a debutante rested in no small part on her ability to brazen her way through anything.
“Why, thank ye, sir.” She adopted a cockney accent and a trollop’s easy manner. Taking his hand, she rose as gracefully as one could from beneath a desk. “What a gentleman ye are.”
He had the look of one, anyway. While the mask and dimness obscured his features, he wore his fine evening wear as if he’d been born to do so, the stark lines immaculately fitted to his virile frame. A thick blond wave swept over his brow. As he swept a gaze of an indeterminable hue over her, she felt an odd shiver.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” he queried.
Dash it all. Does he know my true purpose?
She flashed a smile meant to disarm. “Wot do ye mean, ’andsome?”
“Beneath the desk. That is, I presume, what you were doing there.”
Right. Relieved, she improvised. “Silly me, I dropped my earbob, and it fell under the desk. Now that I’ve retrieved it”—she tapped the gold, boat-shaped earring dangling from her left ear—“I’d best be on me way.”
She turned to go; the thief closed a hand around her wrist. His touch was firm yet not forceful. If he had manhandled her or acted brutishly, she would have employed defensive maneuvers. Yet the aim of his hold seemed less to detain her and more to take her measure.
The quivery sensation in her belly grew. She reminded herself to play her role.
She batted her soot-coated lashes at him. “Be ye wanting somefing, sir?”
He swept another glance over her, and she had the alarming thought that he could somehow see through her disguise. Yet that was impossible. Her celebrated flame-red hair was tucked beneath the coarse black wig, her face obscured by her gold mask and layers of paint. In the dimness, no one would look at the scantily clad tart and see Miss Fiona Garrity, virginal heiress.
The thief pulled her closer to him. So close that only a sliver of space separated them. The tiny gap felt charged, like the sky before a storm. An invisible feather teased the curve of her throat, the throbbing tips of her breasts, and lower still. She squeezed her thighs together against a startling pulse of excitement. No man had ever affected her in this way before.
Nonetheless, she kept her head tilted back, maintaining eye contact. Her role was that of a seasoned hussy. She would not be the first to look away.
“What I want to know is this, mademoiselle.” He bent his head, his words brushing her lips as tenderly as a kiss. “Are you good at keeping secrets?”
As an Angel, she kept plenty of secrets. Including from her own family. Leading a double life was, in truth, the biggest challenge of being an agent.
“Keeping secrets is me job,” she said honestly.
“Bien,” he murmured after a pause. “A woman after my own heart.”
Her own organ thumped with a wild and reckless recognition. Her gaze darted to his mouth, the stern yet somehow sensual curve. Was he going to kiss her?
Heavens, do I want him to?
She had a feeling that this stranger’s kiss would be nothing like the chaste pecks she’d experienced. Her intuition told her that this man would make love the way he made his living. In a wicked and masterful fashion.
To her surprise, and ever so slight disappointment, he released her.
“You are free to go,” he said.
She wetted her lips; her limbs refused to move. What was wrong with her? She felt as giddy as if she’d been imbibing champagne and whirling around the dance floor for hours.
“Unless, chérie, you would prefer to stay?”
The dark invitation in his voice snapped her back to her senses.
“Afraid I’ve a prior engagement, luv.” Her regret was not entirely feigned. “A working girl ’as to earn ’er keep.”
And a debutante cannot dally with a thief, no matter how dashing he is.
“My loss.” He kissed her hand with gallant flair. “Adieu, mademoiselle.”
Bemused by her swoony reaction, she turned toward the door…and saw it opening. As she froze, an arm hooked her waist from behind. A heartbeat later, she was lying on her back atop the desk. With one large hand, the thief manacled both of hers above her head. Stretched helplessly beneath him, she felt a shock of heat low in her belly.
His lips found her ear, his command soft and urgent. “Moan like you’re about to come.”
Simultaneously, she registered that his French accent had slipped a notch and that he was proposing a charade. Although she was a virgin, she was not uninformed and understood what he wanted her to do. She summoned a breathy cry that had a genuine ring. For the thief was kissing her neck, his lips as hot as a brand. As his mouth coursed along the sensitive column, her breasts rubbed against his muscular chest, setting off sparks of pleasure. He roved up to her ear again, suckling the lobe, and she squirmed with irresistible need.
When he wedged a thigh between her legs, another moan broke from her lips. Her private place had grown startlingly wet and rubbing against that sinewy trunk made her even wetter. She couldn’t help seeking more of that wicked friction, arching her hips against him. He grunted, and she felt a poker-like object prodding her thigh.
“Ahem,” a male voice said. “Are we interrupting anything?”
Dear God. Turning her head on the desk, Fiona saw Count von Essen advancing toward them with a doxy on his arm. Fi had nearly forgotten the reason for the stratagem…that it was a stratagem at all.
The thief straightened. Sneaking a glance at him, Fiona felt a flutter when she saw the substantial bulge at the front of his trousers. He was a splendid actor, evincing flawless surprise as he bowed to the newcomers.
“Pardon,” he said. “I did not realize we had company.”
Von Essen harrumphed. “As this is my bedchamber, I did not think it necessary to knock.”
His black mask accentuating his bloated jowls, the count darted a glance at the painting that hid his secrets. Luckily, the thief was meticulous at his trade, leaving no signs of his tampering.
Nonetheless, von Essen eyed him with suspicion. “How did you get in?”
“Dearie me, I’m to blame, milord.” Fi slid off the desk, her tone contrite; she couldn’t let her partner do all the work. “Me and my cust—I mean, this lovely gent ’ere wanted to get be’er acquainted. I brought ’im upstairs, and we found this room open—”
“The door was locked,” von Essen said.
“It wasn’t when we came in,” Fi said brightly. “Maybe one o’ the servants forgot to lock it?”
Before von Essen could reply, his companion cut in.
“What does it matter, luv?” The tart eyed the thief with a sultry interest that made Fi grind her teeth. “They’re ’ere for the same reason we are. Why don’t we ’ave our fun together, eh?”
“Alas, mademoiselle, I am not a man who shares.” The thief nodded to von Essen. “My lord, we will intrude upon your hospitality no longer.”
As he led Fi out of the room, she heard the trollop’s wistful sigh.
“Come,” the thief murmured. “We haven’t long.”
Trusting her instincts, Fi followed him down the corridor and into another bedchamber. He shut the door, shoving a dresser in front of it. Fi rushed to the balcony, estimating the distance to the garden below.
Seconds later, von Essen’s voice boomed through the walls. “I’ve been robbed! Find those bloody thieves!”
Fi had already stripped the sheets off the bed and was knotting them together. The thief helped her. Within moments, they had a makeshift rope. Carrying it to the balcony, the thief secured it to a balustrade, giving it a testing tug before tossing it over the side. Fists pounded on the door; the dresser legs squealed against the floor.
The thief gestured for Fi to climb onto his back.
She did so, wrapping her arms and legs around him.
“Hang on,” he instructed.
He swung them over the balcony. For a terrifying instant, she felt like they were plummeting into nothingness. Then the rope tightened; her fear turned into exhilaration as he expertly navigated their descent against the star-studded sky. She hugged her partner, relishing his rippling strength and coordination. When they touched the ground, she hopped off…and not a moment too soon.
A pair of footmen barreled toward them. The thief dodged the first one’s fist, landing a punch that made the other double over. The second footman ignored Fi and lunged at the thief from behind, trapping him in a burly hold. As the thief struggled to free himself, the first footman recovered, marching over with a bloodthirsty expression.
Fi ran full tilt into him, her momentum sending him sprawling.
The footman rose, sneering, “You’re going to regret that, bitch.”
When he came at her, she evaded his grasp and kneed him in the groin. He went down again, groaning and curling into a fetal position. An instant later, the other footman collapsed beside him, dispatched by the thief’s mighty left hook.
The thief grabbed Fi’s hand. Together, they raced through the dark garden toward the back gate. He gave her a lift, not that she needed it. She scaled the iron fence with ease, landing softly in the lane behind the house.
A moment later, the thief touched down beside her.
There was no time to say goodbye. Beneath his mask, the man’s mouth curved, and he reached out, his big hand briefly cupping her cheek. Heart racing, she let her joy show in her smile. Then, without a word, they parted, running in opposite directions. As Fi reached the end of the lane, she saw the Angels’ carriage pulling up, Livy opening the door and waving at her. Climbing inside, Fi couldn’t resist a glance back.
The lane was empty. Like a figment of a feverish fantasy, her partner in crime had vanished…as if he’d never been there at all.Return to Fiona and the Enigmatic Earl