London, 1877 Twenty-two Years Later
“I don’t kill children,” Christopher Argent informed the solicitor who seemed to be attempting to hire him to do so. “Or deliver them to their deaths.”
Sir Gerald Dashforth, Esquire, perched uneasily behind the desk, and persisted in eyeing the closed door as though he anticipated the need to scream for help at any moment. The man matched the furniture in his Westminster office, expensive, waspish, delicate in an almost feminine manner, and the most offensive shade of puce. He peered at Argent from behind wire-rimmed spectacles perched on ears that had long since outgrown his head.
Argent pondered the few observations he’d made about Dashforth in the minutes since he’d met the lawyer. The man was paid above his station, and yet still spent more than he made. He conducted business with the unscrupulous desperation of someone living well above their means. He was fastidious, vain, intelligent, and greedy to the point of immorality. He’d made a career of being the unassuming absolver of his clients’ malevolent misdeeds by whatever means necessary.
For example, hiring the empire’s most expensive assassin.
“I have three unequivocal policies that my clients must be aware of.” Argent ticked them off on his fingers, beginning with his trigger finger. “The first, I don’t intimidate, maim, rape, or torture, I execute. Secondary, I leave no messages, clues, or taunts behind for the police or anyone else, handwritten or otherwise. And tertiary, I don’t kill children.”
Dashforth forgot to be afraid for a moment, and his thin, dry lip curled up in an imperious sneer. “An assassin with a code? How very droll.”
“Not so droll as a confirmed bachelor who pays to bugger young, foreign boys.” Argent didn’t only rely on observation.
“How dare you accuse me—”
Argent stood, and the lawyer gasped in a breath so abruptly, he choked on his own spittle. It wasn’t just his uncommon height that reminded the man of his fear, Argent knew. It was the contrast of his presence. The flawless press of his expensive suit against the unfashionable breadth of his body. The crook of his repeatedly broken nose against his aristocratic features. The gold and diamond cuff links above hands so scarred and callused from years of forced labor, they could never have belonged to a man of blue blood.
“The daylight is fading, Sir Dashforth,” Argent stated calmly over the man’s indelicate fit of coughs. “And I mostly work in the dark.” Turning from the sputtering man, he counted out five measured paces.
“Wait!” The lawyer wheezed, hacking up a last bit and pressing a trembling hand to his heart as though willing it to slow. “Wait,” he repeated. “My employer doesn’t wish the child harm, I promise … It is his dreadful mother that is to be—disposed of and the document recovered from her.”
Argent faced Dashforth, who cleared his throat once more behind a fist and loosened his tie. “Go on.”
“So long as the boy cannot be traced back to his father, whether the child lives or not is inconsequential.”
Argent blinked. It was not uncommon for nobility to try and get rid of their bastards; he only had to ask his employer, Dorian Blackwell. “And this woman,” he inquired. “What did she do to incur the wrath of your client?”
“Does it matter?”
“Not especially.” Argent ambled toward his vacated seat and lowered himself back into it, unsure of the structural dependability of the chair beneath a man of his size. “What matters is how much you pay me to do the job.”
Bending to his desk, Dashforth made quite a show of dipping his pen and scrawling an astounding sum on a scrap of paper. “My employer is prepared to offer this recompense.”
Had Christopher Argent been prone to sentiment or emotion of any kind, he imagined astonishment would have been where his features would have landed. As it was, he wondered if he might need to show some just so he could perform the human expressions and responses he’d been practicing.
“That’s quite a sum,” he affirmed tonelessly. “Who does your employer want me to murder, the queen?”
Behind his spectacles, Dashforth’s eyes widened at the word murder, and again at the treasonous implications at the mention of the death of the British monarch. “Have you heard of Millicent LeCour?” he rushed on.
“She may be London’s darling, but she’s nothing but a treacherous viper.”
Still looking at all of the zeros on his scrap of paper and doing some quick calculations in his head, Argent gave the man a distracted, “Is that so?”
“Millie LeCour is not just an actress on stage,” Dashforth continued. “She’s a thief, a prostitute, and a blackmailer, who has forced my employer’s hand in this matter.”
Argent stood again, crumpling the paper in his hand and tossing it into the fire. “I’ll take half the payment up front, and when the job is finished, I’ll return for the rest.”
Dashforth also stood, though he steadied himself on his desk before shuffling to the Diebold safe in the corner of the room. Though the gold dial gleamed and the safe was obviously new and expensive, the bulky item seemed as out of place in the frilly room as Argent, himself.
Once Dashforth extracted a leather satchel from the safe, he turned and pushed it across the desk at Argent. “This is more than half. Millie LeCour premieres as Desdemona in a special presentation of Othello at Covent Garden in two days’ time.”
“I know.” Looking inside the case, Argent picked up a pile of banknotes and counted them.
“She’s constantly surrounded by people,” the man continued. “But we know she has apartments above Bow Street not far from the theater. That’s where she keeps the child.”
Argent snapped the satchel closed, causing Dashforth to start. “I do my own reconnaissance. I’ll contact you within three days when the job is done.”
“Very good.” Dashforth put out his hand for a shake, but Argent only looked at it before striding for the door and retrieving his jacket from the stand.
“Don’t let her fool you,” the solicitor called after him. “She’s the best actress in London for a reason. That gutter whore has left a trail of corpses in her rise to the top. The woman deserves less than the swift death you’ll give her, make no mistake. She may be incomprehensibly beautiful, but she’s unfeeling and unspeakably ruthless.”
“If that’s the case, then she and I have much in common,” Christopher remarked. “Except my trail of corpses is indisputably longer and bloodier than hers.”
Millie LeCour strained her vision through the stage gas-lighting to once again find him. He wasn’t hard to find. Though he was cloaked in shadow, his magnetic pull was indefinable and unmistakable.
Two thousand two hundred and twenty-six seats at the Covent Garden Theater, and each one was occupied. But the moment Millie’s eyes had alighted on the rough-hewn gentleman in the impeccable suit, he may as well have been the only audience member she’d ever played to. She’d thought that he seemed more like a character in one of the Bard’s more violent plays than a connoisseur. Something about his presence excited and enticed her, and also made her utterly nervous.
The spotlights were dimmed by the light boy to illuminate only Iago and Rodrigo whilst they pontificated onstage upon her fictional demise. If she hugged the crimson velvet curtains just so, she could peer out at least three boxes on each tier of stage left without garnering any attention.
“Are you nervous?” Jane Grenn, who played Emilia, settled a friendly chin on Millie’s shoulder and peeked into the crowd. Her golden ringlets tickled Millie’s bare skin as they mingled with her ebony curls.
“No.” Linking her arm with her friend’s, Millie didn’t look away from the arresting shadow that hadn’t so much as shifted in the entire time she’d been watching him.
“Really? Not even for your debut at Covent Garden?”
“All right, I’m petrified,” she admitted with a whisper. “This is the biggest night of my life thus far, and the crowd seems so subdued tonight, don’t you think? What if it’s a disaster?”
Jane wrapped her arms around Millie’s corseted middle in an encouraging hug. “They’re all just waiting breathlessly for the great Millie LeCour to make her appearance.”
“Oh go on.” Millie waved her compliment away with an embarrassed huff of breath. “They’re here to see a Shakespeare play.”
Jane’s unladylike snort tickled her ear. “Othello never sells out Covent Garden like this, trust me. They’re here for Desdemona.”
“Or perhaps to see Rynd play Othello.” Millie gestured to the strong, coffee-skinned actor whose deep voice sent thrills through every lady in the audience, whether she deigned to admit it or not. The golden lights shone from his sharp cheekbones and illuminated the brilliant white of his smile. He was exotic, sexual, and powerful as the Moor of Venice, and when she was on stage with him, even her body responded to the sparkle of mischief in his dark eyes.
“We’re all dying to know if he’s as horse-cocked as reputation suggests. Is he?”
Millie hid her gasp behind a hand and backed away from the curtain lest she be caught by the audience making such a gesture. “I’m sure I wouldn’t know!” she stage-whispered at Jane, shooing her away with playful, indignant slaps.
“Don’t be coy.” Jane giggled. “Everyone knows you’re swiving him. It’s the reason you won’t take Lord Phillip Easton’s offer to keep you.”
“Bite your tongue,” Millie admonished. “There are innumerable reasons why I won’t take Lord Easton’s offer, all of which are my own. Besides, Rynd is married to that adorable woman, Ming.”
Jane wrinkled her nose. “Being married never stops anyone from swiving whomever they please. And while Ming is a dear, I heard they’re—you know—not right down there.” She made a discreet gesture between her legs. “Sideways or some such.”
“That is a malicious rumor,” Millie insisted. “Really, Jane.”
“How would you know? Have you seen one?”
“No, but they’re people. And we’re all pretty much made the same. I’m not discussing this further with you.” Millie sidled back as close as she dared to the edge of the curtain, sure to stay out of the way of the entrances and exits of the various actors from the stage that made up the populace of a fictional Venice.
“Who are you playing to tonight?” Jane asked, assuming her place by Millie’s shoulder and peeking into the shadows of the Covent Garden audience. She referred to Millie’s habit of picking one figure in the crowd and delivering her lines through a connection she created just for that individual. Of course she performed to the entire audience, but through her awareness of that link with her chosen theatergoer, she was somehow able to convey more emotion, sentiment, and passion. If she ever lost herself, she would find her mark and it would ground her back in the moment. She attributed much of her success to the practice, and never failed to pick her ritualistic audience-of-one before each performance began.
“See that man there, sitting alone in the second box back on the second tier?” She pointed to the lone figure.
“My, but he’s a giant shadow,” Jane marveled. “Not hard to pick him out of a crowd.”
“No, indeed, and his eyes are so shockingly blue, I could see them from the stage when the houselights were up.”
“Giving Rynd a run for his money, is he?” Jane poked her in the ribs with a sharp elbow.
Millie poked back. “Of course not, since we’ve already established that Rynd and I aren’t involved.”
Jane smoothed her coiffure and sent Millie a sideways wink. “Sure you inn’t. Anyone just has to watch you on stage to know you’re setting each other’s bed linens on fire, you lucky wench.” She swept onstage for her cue, cutting off Millie’s chance at a retort.
“It’s called acting,” Millie muttered under her breath. Rynd was a startlingly handsome and unerringly friendly man, to be sure, but he was also self-involved and bombastic. No one would guess this, but Millie preferred quiet gentlemen. Someone with unimposing intelligence and unfailing kindness. Forgiving. Patient. Indulgent.
Her notice returned to her shadow man. He’d taken off his hat, yet sat taller than most. And still. So impossibly motionless. But a sensation creeping over the fine hairs at her nape caused her to wonder if those eyes, pale and cold as a winter sky, were watching her right now. Something about the idea caused a wicked stirring inside of her laced with a delicious sort of anxiety.
She knew nothing about him, but had a feeling that he was neither unimposing nor safe. Something about his watchful stillness unsettled her. She took an involuntary step back into the safety of the velvet curtains and her own shadows, thinking that her bedsheets were a midnight-blue satin, and those eyes would glimmer from amongst them like crystalline stars against the darkest night.
Catching a sudden breath, she shuddered and brushed away the secret thrill from low in her belly. Best not even to fantasize. Everyone in her life was held at arm’s length but one. Marriage, or even a lover, was strictly out of the question.
Her secrets were simply too dangerous.
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