He stood back in the shadows, watching the last of the maids slip into the kitchen for bed. The large and echoing halls were suddenly empty; the time he had been waiting for with deliberate and delicate patience had at long last arrived. The front door was to his right and down the hall some were several doors that led to who-knew-where. Directly across the hall from him was the study.
This was some of the most dangerous work he had ever had to do. Very rarely did he sneak into homes of lords and ladies for information, but time had run short this round and he found that the direct approach would be best.
He waited five long moments, no longer than the others he had waited, but the silence grated on his nerves, making him jumpy and susceptible to a speeded heart. The halls of the London house were silent, but that didn’t fool the spy; there were guards, outside all along the perimeter. Getting in had been one challenge, waiting for the opportune moment another, getting the information he needed in a timely fashion a whole other, and getting out another still.
Then, when he was satisfied that the house was asleep, when the shadows had not moved and only the wind outside had howled, he stepped silently from the shadows and across the wide hall. He stopped at the door, touching the knob, turning it, surprised that it was unlocked. The duke must feel safe, he decided, slipping like a ghost into the inside.
The room was dark, so he felt his way slightly through the dark to the opposite wall, where he hoped to find a window. He found a large table that he assumed rested in the middle, and what had the feel of a desk with papers on it, then his hand touched cloth. Gently, he reached to the inner folds of the curtains and spread them, but only slight fractions every few seconds or so until they were wide enough to let in enough moonlight to see. He had been right about the large table; it was rectangular and stretched out from one wall of the room to the other, parallel the door. The desk sat only a few feet behind him, facing the large table. Indeed it had papers on it. He went immediately there.
The papers were financial ones for one of the duke’s estates. Also on the desk were an ink well and a jar of feathered quills, a stamp, paper weights, a magnetic toy, and a stack of books. He looked swiftly through all of these things, but did not find what he was looking for.
Failing at the desk, he looked around the room. It consisted mostly of bookcases, huge things that held numerous books of varied genres. (He recalled that the duke’s youngest daughter enjoyed reading.) But one, small bookcase in the corner caught his attention. It had a lock on it and unlike the wooden ones around it, was made of glass. Kneeling, he peered inside it, trying to see what could be seen. A box, a file, a stack of papers, three small books that he guessed to be personal records. He took up the lock, looked it over and inside, though he couldn’t hardly tell what he was looking at for the poor lighting.
He pulled an iron pick from his inner pocket and inserted it to the lock. With a couple of inspecting clanks and clicks, he realized that this lock was not a common one, but neither was it rare. He could pick it.
Setting to work, thanking his older brother once again for making him learn to pick locks as a boy, he had it unlocked in a matter of minutes. The click as it came undone was sweet in its satisfaction. He slipped it off and laid the lock on the floor, careful as he opened the glass door. Reaching in first for the file, he opened it up and looked inside.
Papers with topics related to the river estate. Smothering disappointment, he replaced it and went for the three small books. As he had expected, they were journals of a sort. He would have loved to look through them—there was bound to be useful information there—but time was short and surely they would be missed if he took them.
Replacing these, too, he reached for the stack of loose papers.
“Who are you?”
He jumped, taken completely by surprise. Standing and turning all in one motion, willing his heart to slow and his body to support him, he saw the woman who had caught him, standing in the doorway, the study door closed behind her. He couldn’t pick out many details about her where she stood in the darkness, but she was of medium build, judging by the shadow of shadow she occupied.
“I saw you sneak across the hall,” she said, stepping forward a few steps, further into the moonlight. Her hair, loosely hanging over her shoulders and down her back, was a dark brown. He could not see the color of her eyes, but her face and hair hinted at brown as well. Her gown, a bright red, was simpler than English court dictated, but not that of a maid’s working clothes. The duke’s and duchess’s youngest daughter, the only one still home-bound, he decided.
“What are you doing in here? What do you want?” she demanded in a firm voice.
He was frozen by the mere fact that he had been caught. Intolerable! Where were his spy’s senses that had saved his life on more occasions than he could count? Why had he not seen her spying on the spy himself, before he had moved from the shadows and gone about his dark business? As far as he could see, he had no choice; he would have to flee for his life at this point. And without what he had come for to boot. It was the first failure he would have to endure. And unendurable it would be. Insufferable, simple-minded, unobservant fool, he bereted himself.
“Well, answer me, if you please,” she demanded.
Recovering from his shock, he bowed slightly from the waist. “Milady, please forgive the intrusion,” he said, as if he meant to leave, but did not move.
“You’re a spy, aren’t you…? A French spy.”
He saw no point in lying to her. He was caught in a delicate situation either way. And either way, whether he returned to the streets alive, or was hanged for his craft, the duke would tighten his holdings and getting another spy in would be nigh impossible.
He could get rid of her. He rejected the idea automatically; he had not the heart nor the stomach nor the courage to kill her. But perhaps he would tie her up, out of the way until he could find what it was he sought.
Ah, if he was to do that, then he’d best keep his mouth shut and not give her anything to tell the others in-residence later.
Steeling himself for the unexpected, unpleasant task ahead, he stepped swiftly toward her, reaching a hand out to cover her mouth. But even as he moved, she did not screech like he had expected, didn’t beg him to leave her.
That alone stayed his hand, frozen inches from her mouth, ready to silence her. But she stared firmly into his eyes, showing no fear, letting out no screech.
“Why do you just stand there, woman?” he asked, his eyes fixed on hers, his curiosity and admiration stirring and running wild.
“I will not give you that pleasure,” she said simply.
He stared at her for a long moment, lowering his hand to his side. “You realize that I must be rid of you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“That I cannot trust you to go back to your chambers and not speak of this?”
“If you mean to kill me, then do not talk my ear off.”
“I have no intention of killing you.”
“Why? Because I am a woman?” she asked softly, a challenge underlying her words.
“Because it is wrong to take innocent life, be it an innocent man, an innocent woman or a child.”
“Noble,” she said severely. “Do you say that from your heart, or is it what you wish you could follow?”
“I make no promise that I cannot keep; I say nothing that I will not, do not, do,” he stated firmly.
She regarded him for a long moment, then her eyes flickered to the opened glass bookcase.
“What is it of my father’s that you seek?”
He started to tell her, such was the effect she was having on him, then stopped and shook his head. He reminded himself of what he must do, but couldn’t find the steel for it now. In that moment, that small second, he acknowledged for the first time that this little venture was a failure. He would walk—hopefully—away without what he wanted, what he’d been sent to find. He saw in her eyes that she planned to protect her father’s things from him, and he could do her no harm, no injustice. His sense of fairness and pride and honor would not let him. Imagine the gossip—he, the best of his trade—had stained his honor by harming the innocent.
He bowed again, smiling slightly at her. “I beg your pardon of my unwanted intrusion, milady. I will leave now.” And this time, he moved for the door, only a few feet behind her.
At first, she let him slide around her, but just before he reached the door, she caught his arm. “You leave without what you came for?”
“This time,” he said softly, offering a smile for her. Then his hand reached out and lightly touched her cheek. “I have been shown true bravery tonight and in the light of suck must flee.”
Then the door was closed behind him. She stood there for a long moment, then rushed to the window, where the curtains were drawn back to let in the moonlight. She watched, waiting in the strained silence. Then she saw him jump the wall that lined the front of the manor house for protection. He stood up straight from his jump and, as if sensing her eyes on him, turned to look at her. He smiled again, a smile that made her feel… protected and, strangely enough, loved.
She watched him head off into the semi-darkness. The moonlight gave her a decent view of him until he vanished on the far side of the tree grove. She sat there for a long moment, letting eccentric feelings rush through her.
Then she turned back around. Her heart was forever changed, somehow, but the only physical evidence of the intruder was the open glass bookcase.