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by Caroline Linden

Genre: Regency Period, England, Historical Romance

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Nate Avery almost missed the Frenchwoman when she finally emerged from the Bow Street offices. She came not out the front door but from an alley some distance away. She walked briskly, without looking around her, her head held high. Nate tossed aside the newspaper he'd been reading as he waited, and followed her.

Had he not known to look for her, she wouldn't have particularly caught his eye. Once he had seen her move, though, he couldn't recall why not. Her posture radiated poise and command. "Command" might not be the usual thing to attribute to a woman, but this one had it. Nate recalled how she had dealt with Stafford and what the man had said about her: She is exceedingly capable. Just looking at the back of her bonnet and the set of her shoulders made him think it might be true. Still, she wasn't at all what he had expected, and that bothered him.

Already things were not going as anticipated. Nate had approached Stafford because he needed to; that part had all gone according to plan. There was little to no chance the English would be pleased if he tracked down one of their own and spirited the man back to New York without so much as a courtesy visit. He had expected to be sent along with an Englishman at his side, some pinched-faced fellow meant to watch over him as much as help him. He had not expected the Englishman to be a Frenchwoman, let alone a young, petite one who looked barely old enough to be without her governess but walked with the confidence of a warrior. She was a beauty, to be sure, and that alone would probably be enough to seduce Jacob Dixon, as Stafford had suggested. But Dixon was as slippery as an otter, and had talked and charmed his way past dozens of people who ought to have known better. There was little chance he'd reveal the details of his crimes in exchange for a tumble with any woman, not even that one. Nate was torn between amazement that Stafford wanted to send her, and frustration that he would have to puzzle her out at the same time he tried to pin down Dixon.

At the corner she stepped off the pavement and raised one hand at a passing hackney. By lengthening his step, Nate was able to catch the edge of the door just as she reached out to shut it behind her. Without waiting for an invitation, he swung himself into the carriage, pulling the door closed behind him.

"This carriage is taken," she said. Her voice was calm, but he caught the spark of irritation in her dark eyes.

"I know." He settled into the seat opposite her, not making any effort to hide his scrutiny.

She gave a faint shrug and shook her head. "Then go ahead. Ask your questions."

"You aren't surprised that I want some answers?"

"I never promised answers," she said. "But ask and be done with it. It is not a long ride."

"Oh? How far are we going?" He leaned back and stretched out his legs, as much as he could in the narrow hackney. His boot collided with her foot, beneath the edge of her skirt. Her expression didn't change, but she lifted that foot, placed it on top of his boot, and pushed down until he thought she was trying to break his ankle. He braced his toes and flexed his foot, resisting. His boots weren't the thin leather ones Englishmen were wearing now, but tougher, waterproof ones meant for a seafaring man. He just sat and waited, smiling until she let up.

"I am not going far," she said. "I don't know where you are going."

"Apparently I'm not going anywhere without you, if your Mr. Stafford has his way."

"He may not," she replied gently, as if breaking bad news. "You may still hope."

Nate raised his eyebrows. "He didn't seem the type to take disappointment well."

"But he will, if he has no choice." She glanced out the window.

Nate hadn't heard the direction she gave the driver, but he didn't know distances in London anyway. He might have only another minute or so to take her measure. "He might accept it, but I won't. I intend to find Jacob Dixon and return him to New York to stand trial, no matter what you or Stafford have to say about it."

"I never suggested you do otherwise," she said, the faintest bit of scorn shading her tone. Unflappable, but annoyed.

He grinned. It was obvious from her expression she'd like to tell him what to do, and not just in regard to Dixon. "I only want us to understand each other. Should you decide to agree, that is."

Her eyes gleamed at him. "Yes, I can see you are concerned."

He was running out of time. She was fending him off with this cool condescension, delaying until the hackney reached her destination and she could escape. As foreign as it was to think of a woman as a cold-blooded spy, he could see it in her; it wasn't enough to assure him of her competence, but he was willing to reserve judgment. He wanted to know what she was made of, and he couldn't while she remained settled in this distant, controlled manner. He leaned forward, not making any effort to hide his interest.

"You're not at all what I expected," he said, and it was true. Her eyes were as dark as a moonless night, her skin as fair as fresh honeysuckle blossoms. She looked like a New Orleans belle, with a hint of foreign blood. Up close she wasn't quite as young as he had first thought, but she still didn't look anything like the bloodless clerk he had expected to be given.

Her only reply was a faint, indulgent smile, as if she were listening to a child—and not all that attentively. "I thought he'd send someone more imposing," he went on, trying to provoke her. "Someone older, perhaps, or more…seasoned. You may think Dixon is just some common thief, but he's much worse, clever and charming and utterly without morals. Stafford assures me you're competent, but I confess, I would have preferred someone else." Someone more predictable.

She gave a small sigh, that infuriating smile still fixed on her lips. Her eyes wandered to the window as if his every word bored her to tears. "I just hope I don't have to spend the entire time saving your pretty little neck," he muttered, more as a jibe at her silence than a real concern. He didn't intend to spend his time looking out for her, not when he had more pressing matters. If she couldn't take care of herself, so much the worse for her.

Finally he seemed to have pierced her demeanor. She leaned forward, looking directly at him. She crooked her finger at him, and he, too, leaned forward. Up close she was almost exotically beautiful, he thought, with slightly slanted eyes and a pert, full mouth that was now pursed up almost in a kiss. He edged a little closer, unconsciously breathing deeply to catch the scent of her skin.

"I don't care what you expected or what you would prefer," she whispered in her French-flavored voice. "I will do my part, and you can do yours. Or not; I do not care a great deal what you do. But if you chatter so indiscreetly in public again, I'll cut your throat myself." With a pleasant smile, she sat back and turned her face to the window once more.

In spite of himself, he found a slow smile forming on his lips. He liked her much better already. "Ah," he said. "Then we understand each other better than I thought."