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A REFLECTION OF SHADOWS

Chapter One

London, February 1885

Loops of fine chain coiled as Colleen returned Lady Sophia’s golden locket to its velvet pouch. Done. She closed the safe, gave the dial a spin and rehung the heavy oil painting to hide the strongbox from view. Odd, that a man of Lord Aldridge’s means would choose to stare at blurry haystacks in a field. Years of creeping into the libraries and studies of wealthy gentlemen had taught her that most preferred to gaze upon portraits of themselves. Or of a distinguished ancestor. A favorite dog. Occasionally a beautiful wife.

All, however, kept at least one bottle of single malt scotch whisky on hand. Liquid sunshine in a bottle. Drifting across the dark room to the lord’s liquor cabinet, she considered the array of choices before her, tracing the zigs and zags of the pattern cut into a crystal decanter with a leather-clad fingertip.

The household was quiet. All servants had retired. Lord Aldridge himself would be careful to be elsewhere this evening. Still, she shouldn’t. Not once in four years had she helped herself to the smallest of nips. But tonight’s task had gone smoothly, without the slightest hitch. And she was officially off the job.

Retired.

With a blemish free record.

A smile stole across her face. Already her bags were packed. Soon her cat, Sorcha, would return from her city prowl, and London would be nothing but a sooty memory.

She ought to celebrate. Lord Aldridge wouldn’t begrudge her a drink for saving his daughter—and her dowry—from a marriage to a good-for-nothing scoundrel with significant gambling debts, would he? She pulled the stopper from the decanter and poured herself a splash.

Generous dowries made for wonderful bait, but sometimes they hooked a bottom feeder.

Livid, the earl had turned to Witherspoon and Associates: Private matters handled with discretion. His daughter had been compromised—a polite way of saying she’d allowed herself to be seduced by a treasure hunter without regard for the consequences. Pressing for an engagement announcement, the reprobate had threatened to display her engraved locket while sharing detailed stories of his conquest. Shameful behavior. And all mere days before the naïve girl was to be presented to society. The very kind of situation which Witherspoon and Associates was often employed to handle. Colleen had retrieved the locket while Mr. Witherspoon himself arranged for the offending gentleman’s debt to be called in, casting any nasty rumors that oozed from his mouth into doubt.

Glass in hand, Colleen sank into the large chair behind Lord Aldridge’s desk, tipping backward to rest her booted feet on its surface. Swirling the whisky, she took a sip. Dignified, with a seamless blend of rich fruit, spice and just a hint of peat. Aether, she missed Scotland. Missed the quiet countryside surrounding Craigieburn and the nearby village, where none of its populace ever glanced at her askance for, though golden eyes might be rare, there wasn’t a single family who couldn’t name a relative whose eyes glimmered in the dark.

Everything had changed the night the bridge carrying her parents’ train across the River Tay collapsed, killing all aboard. Her chest still ached at the memory of burying empty coffins, of standing in the graveyard surrounded by well-meaning villagers but without a single family member beside her. She’d felt so very alone.

With her father’s death, she’d become a laird in her own right, but tied up as her inheritance was in legal verbiage, her title was nominal until she reached her twenty-fifth birthday. Life in London under the thumb of her uncle—her mother’s disapproving brother—had become her new reality.

Only three more days to go.

Once she ripped control of the property from her uncle’s hands, she could finally tackle the ever-lengthening list of repairs on her family’s home and surrounding properties. Five long years had passed since she’d last crossed its borders.

The door creaked.

Abandoning her drink, she dropped her feet to the ground and slipped into the shadows mere moments before another individual slipped into the room. She’d not expected Lord Aldridge’s study to be such a popular destination this evening. Was his daughter’s dowry so grand that men would have her by whatever means necessary?

Her hand slid to her boot, hovering above the dirk sheathed there. She was a sneak thief, working silently and alone. Unaccustomed to any interference. The blade was for self-defense, not for drawing blood over a silly girl’s locket. Not once had she ever needed to resort to violence. Neither, however, did she wish to fail at her last task.

Please, not here. Not tonight.

The man shifted. Heredity, unnatural or otherwise, had provided her with the advantage of keen nighttime vision. The faint light cast by the thin sliver of a waning moon was enough to fully illuminate Mr. Torrington’s familiar form. Dark hair. A straight nose. The honed planes and angles of a handsome face. A set to his jaw that spoke of single-minded purpose and a razor-sharp mind.

Friend not foe. Her heart started beating again. With new purpose.

She’d always enjoyed watching the Queen’s agent work. Reveled in stepping out of the shadows to materialize beside him. Colleen grinned. The first time she’d tapped his shoulder in the dark, he’d jumped so far and so high that she’d expected his own eyes to reflect the light of his lamp. But not only was Mr. Nicholas Torrington’s lineage noble, his family tree contained no inexplicable branches.

Still, they both lived dual lives. One kept hidden from the ton, the other highly visible. For years, they’d flirted as their paths crossed. On rooftops, inside locked rooms, down dark alleyways. In ballrooms, at garden parties, in the hallways of the theater. Neither betraying the other’s secrets with so much as a stray comment or shared glance at an inopportune moment.

Time passed and small conversations grew longer. An inexplicable bond formed. One that had snapped some months past.

With the coming of fall, gentry retreated to their country estates, and London society thinned. Still, small gatherings were held. On All Hallows’ Eve, Mr. Torrington—eyes glittering—had lured her out onto a balcony where torches affixed to the balustrade burned. In the flickering light, he’d pressed a soft kiss to her mouth, and the ground beneath her feet shifted all while dragonflies took wing in her stomach. Would he propose they merge their assorted lives? If so, how would she answer? Forming an attachment to a London gentleman was not at all compatible with her plans.

But a giggling couple had wandered out behind them, and whatever he’d been about to say had died on his lips. The evening ended in disappointment, and no flowers had arrived for her the next day, no note. Not a single indication that he wished to discuss the possibility of joining their two lives. She’d not seen or heard from him since.

Irritation had faded into a dull, empty ache, and she’d thrown herself into work and another flirtation. One that had been decidedly misguided on her part. Her fault for allowing emotion to direct her behavior. Had her dowry not been perceived as worthless, her life might have taken a turn not unlike that of her client’s daughter for Mr. Glover was becoming an unavoidable and increasing irritation.

There was a faint click, and a dull, red light flickered to life. A shade with a long wavelength, one barely visible to most human eyes. Curious. Decilamps usually glowed a greenish-blue. A recent advance placed in the hands of the Queen’s agents? Mr. Torrington’s eye caught upon the unfinished drink as he crossed to the desk, popped open its locked drawers with ease and rifled through its contents.

Was it coincidence that led him to this very study on this particular night?

Possibly. Lord Aldridge sat on the board of the Lister Institute, a group with close ties to the Queen’s agents. Still, she needed to be certain.

Frowning, Mr. Torrington prowled about the edges of the room, peering behind paintings. Colleen’s heart stopped and she forgot to breathe as he lifted the blurry haystacks, setting the painting aside to contemplate the numbers etched into the dial upon the safe. She couldn’t allow anything to leave the lockbox tonight lest she stand accused. Frozen, she watched as he pressed his ear to the door and spun the dial with deft and capable fingers. Left four spins, right for three, left for two, then a twist to the right. Pop. The door fell open. She cursed silently as he inspected each box. Gold and silver. Emeralds, rubies and diamonds. But he took nothing. With a soft huff, he closed the door and rehung the painting.

Once again, she breathed.

She ought to stay silent, wait for him to leave, then slide down the drainpipe and disappear. After all, curiosity always killed the cat. But something about him still tugged at her heart, and soon she would quit London, never to see him again. With the necklace—and all of the contents of the safe—secure, she could afford to indulge a whim. “Can’t find what you’re looking for?” Mr. Torrington whipped about, lifting his decilamp as he reached for his weapon. The light seared her eyes, and she averted her gaze. “Do you mind?”

“Lady Stewart?” Incredulity laced his voice. “What are you doing here?” The beam of light lowered, and he dropped his hand from his hip, away from the TTX pistol hidden beneath his coat.

Adrenaline buzzed through her veins as the inevitable attraction flared. Impossible to leave now without playing their old game of cat and mouse. This time, however, if he let himself be caught, she had no intention of allowing him to slip away with a mere kiss.

Curving her lips into a smile, she sauntered back to the desk to lift her glass. “Enjoying a glass of whisky, neat. I’d offer you one, but you appear frustrated.” Smoothing a gloved hand over the curve of her hip, over her close-fitting trousers, she invited his interest. “As if satisfaction is just beyond your reach…” She let the suggestion hang between them.

“Are you offering to help bring my evening to an exciting finish?” His broad shoulders relaxed, and his eyes—a narrow rim of brilliant blue surrounding dark pupils—flashed. To his credit, only then did his gaze drop. “Or merely offering a professional consultation?”

 

~~~

 

Her answering laugh was low and throaty. Despite the gravity of his mission, Nick found it impossible not to respond to her teasing. Like him, Lady Stewart was garbed entirely in black. A hooded cape about her shoulders. A shirt beneath a buckled corset. Pouches hung from a low-slung belt. Leather gloves stretched to her elbows. Trousers hugged her hips and thighs. But the boots… As always, those held his gaze with the tenacity of a pteryform trap. Leather and laced, they rose from her trim ankles, sheathing her long and shapely legs before releasing their grasp a few inches above her knees. Those brain cells that had not entirely abandoned work noted the stitching at her calf. Since they’d last crossed paths, she’d added a long—and likely sharp—blade to her attire.

His heart gave a great thud, then took off racing while the room grew warmer by several degrees.

Aether, he’d missed her. Missed the bustled and skirted woman who wore tinted spectacles and hugged the walls at society events. Missed the leather-clad seductress whose amber eyes flashed as they glinted back at him across the dark room, daring him to—

What, exactly?

His eyes lifted to her full lips, and he found himself stepping closer, not at all certain that she wouldn’t bite. After disappearing from her life—from London—these past three months, she’d likely draw blood. But, like cream rising to the top, finding out the answer had become an immediate priority.

So much for a formal call that landed them both upon a settee in a parlor while her aunt supervised awkward courtship conversation. Better, perhaps, that they’d met here, where he could speak freely about the possibility of merging their realities.

As soon as he’d claimed a kiss.

He chanced another step closer.

“That would depend, Mr. Torrington, upon your goal.” She set down her glass and propped a hip against the desk. “I certainly can’t assist you if we’re working at cross purposes.”

Ah, she did indeed hold a grudge. He couldn’t blame her. But the lead he’d chased into Scotland this winter—one involving a snowy owl—had required he depart immediately and under an assumed name. When Nick had finally located the cryptid hunter, the slitty-eyed purveyor of rare and unusual creatures had denied selling any animals, let alone owls, to men involved in medical experimentation. Was he trustworthy? No. But the man swore up and down that he wanted nothing to do with any of “that shape-shifting nonsense.” Nick had stopped by the Department of Cryptozoology in Edinburgh, but found it a tangled, bureaucratic mess. Abandoning hope of their assistance, he’d left the north and returned to London to find himself once again an uncle, but his sister’s health worsening.

He pushed aside all grim thoughts. There would be plenty of time for them later.

At the moment, the woman he wished to make his bride required his full attention. New leads concerning the shadow committee operating in London had emerged in his absence and, should those prove valid, Nick would at last have means to infiltrate the group—which would once again mean abandoning Lady Stewart. This time, however, he vowed he would not leave her wondering at his intentions.

His mouth twitched, fighting a smile. “You want me to divulge secrets to an employee of a private agency?” He kept his voice light and teasing.

Nick could, however, do exactly that. Tonight, he wasn’t acting as a Queen’s agent. Instead he was chasing a rumor, one that promised hope for his ailing sister. For years, he’d worked to develop a treatment, but none of the cardiac medications he’d worked upon improved her condition. If anything, they worsened it. Then, recently, he’d heard a whisper about a medical device used to stimulate a paralyzed heart to beat once more. Quietly, he’d begun asking questions.

A board member involved in the oversight of Lister Laboratories, Lord Aldridge had denied the technology’s existence. “I’ve yet to lay eyes on a convincing blueprint,” he’d scoffed. “The theory is in place, but for now it remains nothing but a future possibility.” Yet a nagging feeling in Nick’s gut insisted that the earl knew something more. If there was a treatment under development that might help his sister, he would find it, and searching the earl’s private residence was a first and obvious step. Alas, it fell outside the bounds of the task assigned to him by the duke and, therefore, he could not request direct assistance from the agency.

Tipping his head, he considered the woman before him. Lady Stewart would make a most excellent silent, stealthy partner.

She narrowed her eyes as she pushed off the desk. “If your task this evening does not involve the contents of that safe, we might be able to find common ground.” Lean, lithe, and light on her feet, Lady Stewart circled about him, inching closer. But Nick didn’t reach for her. He had the distinct feeling that should he make the slightest move in her direction, she might leap out the window.

The open window.

He’d watched her do exactly that too many times to count.

“Was that why you watched from the corners?” he asked, turning to keep her in his sights. “Was there something in the safe you wanted?”

“What I want is for all its contents to remain securely locked within.”

Nick had found nothing of interest in the safe, nor the entirety of the study. Save a certain lady who had interrupted his search.

“Done.” Perhaps Lady Stewart could help. He’d never before considered partnering with her—heat swelled in his chest—leastways not in terms of working a job together. His eyes slid once again over her form-fitting trousers. Yet they’d passed each other in the dark for years, prowling about London in the small hours of the night. So many untapped skills paced before him. “Any chance you—and your cat—would consider working with a new partner?” He glanced behind her, searching the shadows. “Where is your familiar?” Lady Stewart rarely prowled London at night without the overlarge, black cat who shadowed her every step.

“Sorcha often wanders off on her own. Cat business.” She shrugged. “She’s always returned. No need to worry.”

But she did. Nick could see it in her eyes.

Lady Stewart lifted her eyebrows. “Why would a Queen’s agent consider hiring a common sneak thief?”

“Please, you’re anything but common,” he scoffed. Society might look askance at her unusual eyes, but they conferred upon her amazing nighttime vision. Her other senses were heightened as well, not to mention her physical prowess. “Four years living this dual life and not once caught.”

“Five,” she corrected, stopping in front of him. Close enough so that he could see the fine locks of hair that had wrestled free from a twisted knot at her nape. “A lady without plans to marry needs to look after herself.” The faint, familiar scent of wildflowers drifted past—now mixed with a hint of whisky—and his breath caught, trapping the scent within his lungs.

“Without plans, or without offers?” Yes, he was fishing. And hoping for a glimmer of encouragement. He knew a few agents who mixed business with pleasure. A few ended up married, the exact state to which he aspired. Would a brief alliance with a competent—his gaze skimmed over the curve of her neck—and beautiful thief help or hurt his cause?

Her eyes narrowed. “Does it matter?”

“Only if you’re about to inform me I’ve competition for your attention.” Her face froze, and a crack shot through his hopes, threatening to shatter his plans. He prayed she wouldn’t mention another man’s name. “Work called me away before I had a chance to speak.”

“Is that an apology?”

“It is.” He stared into her amber eyes. “I’ve missed you.”

“Marriage,” she huffed. “I’ve no interest in agreeing to terms that would force me to curtail any of my activities.”

“Nor should you.” The crack retreated, and he found himself able to breathe deeply once more.

A single step brought her body mere inches away from his. “Most of the ton—most men—would disagree.”

“Not this man.” He struggled to hold on to the thread of their conversation. “A woman should not be forced to waste her talents.”

Her eyes flashed. “Yet, more often than not, we must hide them.”

As she had hers. “But not from me.”

“Trust that I place in your word as a gentleman and a Queen’s agent… and our mutual ability to reveal the other’s predilection for nighttime prowling…”

“From which you’ve announced your retirement. I do hope you’ll reconsider, but in the meantime, do you propose to resume your celebration?”

“Possibly.” She tipped her head. “Provided you’ve no conditions, no assumptions that what we share here, tonight, will lead any further?”

“None. Hopes, yes. But I’ll not force them upon you.” His gaze fixed upon her soft, wide mouth. “Does that qualify me to join the festivities?”

Her fingers wrapped about the black, silk cravat at his throat, and she tugged him closer. “It does.”

Dropping his hands lightly upon the warm leather encasing her narrow waist, he lowered his mouth to hers, intending to gently explore the shape of her lips, to tease forth her arousal. But as her lips parted, her fingers slid about his neck urging him closer and shattering the last of his preconceptions about her experience. There was no hesitation, no awkwardness to her response that might encourage him to slow down. Instead, her soft moan was pure carnality.

Desire surged, and his tongue slipped inside her mouth to tangle with her own, to drink in her taste. Whisky, rich and seductive with a hint of spice. Warm and intoxicating, like the scent of her skin.

With a throaty growl, he slid his hands down her back, past her bottom to catch at her thighs. Lifting her firmly against his hard length, he spun about to drop her onto the edge of the desk.

Without breaking their kiss, he circled his fingers about her ankles, then dragged his palms upward over leather and lacing until they reached her knees. With a mewl of approval, she spread her legs, inviting him yet closer. A roar rushed through his veins.

Aether, she was a perfect fit.

He nudged against her, and her body shuddered. Kissing her, holding her, touching her was all consuming. His heart raced as fantasies of taking her on the desk swirled through his mind. No, not fantasies, for even now her fingers tugged at the clasps that held his trousers closed. Not in ages had such wild anticipation driven him senseless. He flexed his hips, and she groaned her encouragement.

But one moment his fingers were dipping beneath the rise of her corset, and the next she’d shoved him away. “Did you hear that?” she hissed. “Someone is coming.”

Nick heard nothing but the pounding of blood in his ears.

“Go!” She pushed at his shoulder as she dropped onto her feet. “The window!”

He heard the footsteps now—growing closer—and turned to follow. She was already halfway out and reaching for a drainpipe.

“Hurry!” Her eyes flashed green-gold.

He followed quickly, but by the time his feet hit the ground, she was gone.

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