How to Seduce a Spy
Two men had propositioned Elle on her way into the music hall, and it hadn’t even opened yet. Was this to be her new life? Dodging groping hands and enduring lecherous stares? The indignities suffered as a shop girl would be a nightly ritual at the Folies Bergère.
She pushed the negative thought away. The pay was better here. That was all that mattered. The extra coin would put more food on the table, and would pay a nurse to visit Aunt Madeline every other week.
Elle fingered the loose bit of lace along her neckline, evidence of her poor mending skills. Aunt Madeline would have made the repairs, once, but her rheumatism had grown worse and delicate movements pained her once-nimble hands. She made sparing use of the potion Elle had created to ease her aunt’s symptoms. They both knew they couldn’t afford more serum if Elle’s cherished supply ran out.
Elle followed her guide through the empty theater, her eyes drinking in the sights, learning this place where she would now spend most of her waking hours. The light of the potion-fueled chandeliers glinted in the polished mirrors and the gilded walls sparkled, screaming of decadence in eerie silence. Half an hour more and patrons would flood in, filling the seats, roaming the halls, eager for entertainment, drink, and potions to take their minds off life outside the walls.
“This is where you’ll be.” Marie, the petite barmaid assigned to mentor Elle on her new position, waved a hand at a marble-topped counter. “You performed so well at your interview that you’ve been assigned to a high-traffic area. Keep the pretty bottles and a few ingredients on display, but anything valuable stays under the bar. If you come around back, you can see the drawer where the serum jars are stored. Keep it locked unless you are standing here. One girl had a bottle stolen, and not only did she lose her job, but she had to pay to replace the serum.”
“I won’t lose anything,” Elle promised, speaking as much to herself as to Marie. This job meant too much. It was the first step up. Maybe the last step she would ever take, but enough to fuel the hope that had never died inside her. The hope of enough coins to begin saving. The dream of security and independence.
A bit of the lace snapped off in her hands. Work would calm this unease in her fingers. With the tools and ingredients of her trade at her fingertips, her new situation would transform into something familiar. While she mixed she could take her mind off the rude customers and low pay and focus on the craft she loved. Keeping busy would keep her sane.
“Are you removing that trim from your dress?” Marie asked. “Good idea. It will display your figure better. Lean over the counter while you work to give the men a good look. They buy more when they are distracted.”
Elle glanced down at her dress. She loved the style and thought the low, square neckline flattered her. She wore it for herself, though, not to lure men.
“I wish I had your shape,” Marie continued. “You are small, but round in all the right places, while I am tiny everywhere.”
“You are lovely. I’m certain you catch the eye of many men.”
Marie shrugged. “I try. But beware the upper-class men. These Italian contes and English earls come to spend their money and fall in love with pretty French girls. They will shower you with gifts and declare their undying affection.”
The passion in her voice caused Elle’s brow to furrow. “Does this happen often?”
“Only once to me. He did love me, I believe, but not enough. The world is not kind to those who move outside their own social sphere. His family, his friends, his job all pulled him away from me, as mine pulled me from him. I warn all the girls. I wouldn't give up Luc for the world, but he is forever without a father, and our life is hard.”
Elle recognized the grim look in Marie’s blue eyes. One of wisdom beyond her years, forged from pain and adversity. The expression of a woman getting by with what little she had. Elle dared a glimpse in the mirror behind the bar. Were her own struggles reflected there in her light brown eyes?
“You needn’t worry about me,” she said. “I can’t spare time in my life for romance.”
“Good. Don’t forget. My other warning is to protect yourself when coming and going. The drunks can be belligerent, and there are men who prey on working girls. I take this when I walk at night.” Marie withdrew a small pistol from her skirts.
A childhood memory shuddered through Elle’s mind—blood running between the cobblestones, screams echoing through the street, the sightless eyes staring up at her, a six-year-old girl who had borne witness to murder. Elle recoiled in terror.
Marie quickly hid the gun in her clothing. “I am sorry, chérie. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Elle steadied herself with a deep breath, willing the memory away. “Don’t blame yourself. It’s an old childhood fear. I will never use firearms as you do, but I have other defenses. I will not walk unprotected.”
She knew recipes for defensive potions. Making them would require several precious drops from her dwindling serum supply, but her life and safety were worth the price.
Marie smiled. “I like you. You are smart and capable. You will do well here.”
“I like you too. Thank you for your advice and your kindness. My work will be less arduous with a friend nearby.”
“I’m glad. I will be just over there if you have any questions, and I will bring you a list of the most requested potions. It’s good to have a few on hand when the customers first arrive.”
“Thank you.” Elle took up her place behind the counter, running her hand over the smooth marble. “Someday this will be my counter,” she whispered. “My shop.”
Marie stopped in her tracks and spun around. “You hold on to that dream, Elle Deschamps. Hold it tight. For all of us.”
“I will,” Elle vowed.
A Peculiar Proposition
“And make it last all night long.” The customer leered.
Elle’s fingers flew from one ingredient to the next, tossing and mixing by feel the potion she’d made hundreds of times before. She could do it with her eyes closed, but looking at her work was the best way to hide the flashes of anger certain patrons provoked.
“Last bitch who made it did a shit job. They tell me you’re the best. It had better work, or I’ll see you out on the street.”
Her eyes rose to meet his as she offered the glass.
“My potions never fail.”
The man chuckled and slapped a coin down on the bar. “A brash assertion, missy. I like you. Maybe I’ll stop by later.” His eyes roved across her décolletage. “Test it out.” He turned away, still laughing at his own boorish comments.
Elle stashed the coin with the others and wiped down the bar. Chances were, he would forget all about her. The follies house offered a multitude of diversions for his sort. If not, well, she had ways of dealing with unwanted advances.
A tall, middle-aged gentleman approached, taking advantage of the rare lull to peruse the selection of beer and wine. His graying hair and moustache were neatly trimmed, and his clothing had been selected with an eye for both fashion and durability. He was a man who smiled often, judging by the wrinkles at the sides of his mouth and corners of his eyes. Elle’s preferred sort of customer. Wealthy. Confident. Not to be rushed.
The gentleman picked up a bottle and made a pretense of examining the label. Elle watched his eyes sweep past her, using the mirror behind the bar to survey the room. Curious.
A lady stood a short distance past the end of the bar, the only other customer in earshot. She wore a pale, floral-patterned dress and a wide-brimmed hat that shadowed most of her face. The man waited until she had moved on before turning his gaze on Elle.
“Good evening.” He spoke with a distinct British accent.
Elle gave a nod and forced a polite smile. “Good evening to you, monsieur. How may I help you?”
“You mix potions, I understand?”
“And you are known here as the most skilled in this area?”
“So they say.”
“You are too modest, Miss Deschamps. Your reputation has preceded you.”
Elle stiffened. He knew her name. Who was this man, and what did he want from her? She had created specialized potions in the past, but those requests had come through her supervisor and the work had been done in a back room. Try as she might, she could think of no other reason to single her out.
The pause had grown awkward. “You are very kind,” she replied. “Please, let me mix you something. Is there a particular potion that interests you?”
“I do not require a potion at this moment. I have a request of a different sort for you this evening.”
A line she had heard all too often. Her cheeks burned with indignation. “I apologize, monsieur. I don’t provide the nighttime services some other ladies may. You will need to take your proposition elsewhere.”
Elle found no fault with the women who chose such a career, but she would sooner scrub floors or shovel shit than take up such an offer. Her body was hers and hers alone, and her favors were not for sale.
His smile dissolved into a frown. “You mistake me, mademoiselle. I am not in search of a paramour for the night. I have need of a partner in a very important venture—a partner with an affinity for the magical arts. I have been led to believe you have the qualities I seek. Would you be so good as to discuss the matter with me?”
A surge of hope stronger than any she’d felt in months welled inside her. A new job? Perhaps one that paid well enough to begin saving toward her dream shop?
Ne sois pas idiot, she chided herself.
Strange men with job offers didn’t simply appear at random, and too often villains looked harmless. She couldn’t afford to let fantasies of a better life tempt her into a foolish decision.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot leave my job, either tonight or on another day. I’m certain your proposal is a worthwhile one, but I don’t believe I am a suitable choice for an assistant.”
He pursed his lips. “I understand your desire to remain steadily employed and financially solvent. You will, of course, be compensated for any work you undertake.” He glanced over his shoulder at the growing line of customers behind him and lowered his voice. “May I seek you out later this evening when your work is complete? I promise I will take up no more than five minutes of your time.”
Her inquisitive nature got the better of her. “You may. I’m afraid, however, that I don’t finish here until two o’clock.”
He withdrew a gold pocket watch and flipped open the cover. “It is quarter past eleven now. I will meet you at the door just shy of three hours from now. Thank you, mademoiselle.”
He replaced the watch, gave a polite nod, and hurried off, leaving Elle to the crowd of eager potion seekers. She had three hours to speculate and imagine herself in a new situation before reality would inevitably cause her to decline his offer. She would make the most of the fantasy.
Shortly after two, Elle stepped through the back door of the follies house, eager to learn if the mysterious gentleman was a man of his word. He had seemed anxious to acquire her help, though it puzzled her why he had such need of the services of a barmaid.
Squinting in the flickering light of the gas lamps, she spied him several yards down the alley, gazing at his pocket watch. Elle hung by the door, waiting for the other employees to be on their way. Marie lingered, casting a questioning glance at her friend. Elle waved her on, but she ignored the gesture and paused to talk.
“You are waiting for something.” Marie scooted closer, excitement sparking in her eyes. “Have you taken my advice? Have you found yourself a lover? He is the man I recommended, no?”
Elle shook her head, a smile touching her lips. “I told you, he smells of fish and doesn’t interest me.”
“Doesn’t interest you? How is that possible? He has very fine… assets.”
“That may be, but the man cannot hold two minutes’ conversation on any topic of significance.”
“Chérie, you will not be conversing with him.”
Elle answered with a stern look.
“You are so picky.” Marie sighed. “I don’t like to see you lonely.”
“It’s impossible to be lonely with a friend as attentive as you are. I will tell you all tomorrow.”
“Very well.” Marie gave Elle a peck on the cheek and bid her good night. Elle watched her disappear around the corner, then approached her mystery gentleman.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting long, monsieur?”
“Not at all, my dear. Please, allow me to properly introduce myself. I am Edwin Millard, Lord Westfield.”
Her eyes widened. An English lord? His station in life was higher than she had guessed. Yet he would meet a barmaid in a dirty alley in the middle of the night?
“Please, don’t let the title trouble you. You may feel free to call me Mr. Millard, or even Edwin, if that is more comfortable for you.”
Elle gaped at him before remembering her manners. “I must beg your pardon, my lord, it would be quite inappropriate to be so familiar with a man of significance such as yourself.”
Most men of rank would have been pleased with her response, but he harrumphed. “My significance, I assure you, is wholly manufactured. There is no reason a woman of sound mind such as yourself shouldn’t consider herself worthy of intimacy with anyone of my station.”
Elle’s muscles clenched. What was this, some clever means of seduction? This Lord Westfield seemed too avuncular for that sort of underhandedness, but she slipped a hand into her pocket and let her fingers curl around the spray potion. Whatever his intentions, she would reach her home unscathed.
“You may address me as you wish, for now,” Westfield said. “I do hope that in time you will grow more comfortable and formalities can be dispensed with.” He folded his hands behind his back. “Now, you must be quite eager to return to your home, so I will present my plan to you in brief. As you may be aware, the magic serum that gives our potions their potency is in short supply of late. I mean to discover why. I also wish to seek out new sources of serum, to replace or augment our current source. I have some background in the magical arts, but my skill is limited. I need a true expert, one I can trust not only to possess the necessary knowledge, but also to undertake this task for the good of humanity rather than self-gain. You are the most talented mixer in all the city, and everyone I have spoken with has given excellent report of your character.”
Elle’s heart hammered. She’d known for months that the supply of serum was dwindling. New shipments arrived ever further apart, and her employers paid more for each one. She and Marie were skilled enough to keep their potions potent using ever-smaller doses of serum, but some of the girls were struggling.
Westfield’s request quashed her hope that the trouble might prove temporary. For an English lord to seek help from Parisian potions masters, the shortage must be widespread and dire, indeed. Businesses would suffer as they ran low on the potions necessary to move their carriages, light their lamps, and power their machines. Jobs would be lost. Those with the least means would be hit first and hardest. Her heart ached to think she couldn’t join him in combating such a future.
“I wish I could be of help. I do appreciate your praise of my skills, and your task is of great importance, but you had best look to another expert. I have obligations that keep me here in the city and require me to continue my work at the Folies.”
“You speak of an elderly relation, yes?”
Lord, but this man had been thorough in his research. How long had he been spying on her?
“Oui, monsieur. My great-aunt. My wages cover her care and our food and rent. We have no other family, so I can’t leave her. I’m very sorry.”
“Hmm.” Westfield chewed his lower lip as he thought. “You work every day, mademoiselle?”
“Six days out of every week.”
“Six days, then,” Westfield acknowledged. “And your pay is four francs per day?”
“Five, monsieur. That is why so many girls with potions knowledge seek employment here.”
“Of course. Well, given your financial needs, your annual salary, the particular skills required, the long periods of travel, and the uncertain duration of this project, I am prepared to offer you ten thousand francs, half in advance and half upon completion of our mission. I trust that amount is sufficient to pay a quality nurse to attend your aunt during your absence? Travel expenses, will, of course, be covered as well.”
Elle gaped at the gentleman. “Ten thousand francs, monsieur? Surely you jest.”
“You feel that a higher sum is deserved? I am prepared to bargain if necessary.”
“Non, monsieur. It’s too much. I couldn’t possibly accept such a sum.”
“Nonsense. I’m certain you will earn every cent.” Westfield checked his watch again. “It’s time to turn in for the night, I believe. I will take my leave of you, unless you need an escort home?”
She shook her head.
“Very well. Please think on my offer overnight. I will send a carriage for you, and your aunt, if she is up to the journey, at ten o’clock. We will have a late breakfast and you may give me your final decision then. Is that agreeable to you?”
Elle could only nod.
“Excellent. I will see you again at the prescribed time. A very good evening to you, mademoiselle.”
He tipped his hat to her and walked off into the darkness. Elle took herself in the other direction, her mind in a whirl, uncertain if she would wake the next morning to find this evening was only part of a strange dream.
Ten thousand francs. A new burst of hope blossomed inside her. Another step up. Arrangements would need to be made, but Elle knew what Aunt Madeleine would say about the offer. The Folies Bergère could find itself a new barmaid.
Elle stepped down from the carriage, gaping at the massive villa spread wide in front of her. Her eyes traveled up the facade, taking in the stuccoed walls, the tall, arched windows, and the red-tiled roof. Westfield’s friend lived here? In this Italian palace?
She turned a slow circle. Expansive gardens gleamed lush and green beneath the blazing Italian sun. Vineyards covered the rolling hills beyond. She breathed in, inhaling the sweet, fresh scent of clean air. Beautiful.
And not a little intimidating.
“Come, my dear,” Westfield urged. “The marquess will be waiting for us.”
A marquess? Goodness.
Elle’s hand drifted to the purse concealed beneath her skirt. The “pocket money” Westfield had given her could feed her for months. Several thousand francs sat in a bank back home, providing for Aunt Madeline’s medical expenses—or whatever she chose to spend it on. The journey to a new country was nothing compared to this bizarre foray into a new social class.
A smiling butler in clothes finer than any Elle had ever worn met them at the door. He greeted her and took her cloak, not the least troubled by its faded colors and frayed hem.
“If you would follow me, please, sir and miss. His lordship will see you in the library.”
Elle trailed after the butler, peeking into every room they passed, marveling at the ornate furniture and lush upholstery. Art, photos, and bric-a-brac covered every flat surface. In the distance, she could hear the tinkle of a piano and the shouts of children at play.
What would it be like to grow up in such a place? She could scarcely imagine it.
The library made a stark contrast to the rest of the house. Functional and uncluttered, it contained a neat row of bookcases, several large chairs for reading, and a pair of sturdy desks. A tall, powerfully-built man with gray-brown hair strode toward them, clasping Westfield’s hand.
“Millard. Good to see you.”
“A pleasure, George, always a pleasure. Please, allow me to introduce our guest.” He motioned Elle forward. “This is Miss Elle Deschamps of Paris, master potion mixer. Miss Deschamps, this is my great friend George Ainsworth, Marchese di Murlo.”
The marquess inclined his head. “I’m happy to make your acquaintance, mademoiselle.”
Elle responded with a curtsey, but her gaze drifted past him to a younger man who stood in the background, watching her in stoic silence.
At first glance he seemed unremarkable, but the moment their eyes met the room seemed to spin and realign to center on him. Elle had never seen such a pair of eyes. Sapphire blue and clear as a cloudless sky, they bore into her with such intensity she thought he might be able to see down to her very bones.
She stared back at him, transfixed. He was neither tall nor classically handsome, but striking, with an aquiline nose and a strong, clean-shaven jaw. A spray of freckles dotted his nose and cheeks. His blond hair had been cut short and he wore a severe black suit, tailored perfectly to fit his broad shoulders.
“That would be my youngest boy, Henry,” Murlo said.
Elle’s head jerked. Halfway through introductions and she had been caught staring at a mysterious gentleman. This wasn’t the way to earn her ten thousand francs.
“Henry, stop skulking in the shadows and introduce yourself,” his father said.
Henry didn’t move, but he gave her a nod. “Mademoiselle.”
“A pleasure, Lord Henry,” she replied, hoping she had gotten the form of address correct. Westfield had filled the journey from Paris with lessons on etiquette. Elle didn’t know which was worse, the confusion of titles or the need for six different forks at dinner.
Murlo waved a hand at his luxurious armchairs. “Let’s sit and talk.”
The gentlemen waited for Elle to take her seat before pulling up their own chairs to sit across from her. Henry remained standing in the background. He leaned against a bookcase, one arm resting atop it, his legs crossed at the ankles. The casual stance masked his underlying tension, but his eyes and the hard set of his mouth revealed the coiled energy within. A predator, lying in wait. Elle tore her eyes away, knowing he would continue to watch her.
“I see no reason not to cut straight to the heart of the matter,” Murlo continued. “Westfield and I, along with other friends across Europe, have determined the trouble with potion supplies is grave enough to warrant investigation. He has sought out the finest expert in France, while I have compiled a list of places worth visiting.” His mouth curved into a smile, creating little dimples in his cheeks. “Don’t look so skeptical, young lady, your reputation is deserved. Westfield has regaled me with praise of your work from employers and customers alike. I’m confident you can begin in any location and follow the potions supply chain to its source.”
“Thank you,” Elle replied, flattening her hands against her skirts to stop herself from fidgeting. Compliments were a rarity in her life and made her feel a fraud.
“The plan, as we have agreed upon, is this: you and Westfield will travel to various of the locations on my list, assess the local potions trade, and seek out the source of serum. You will travel as Westfield’s niece. No one will question a man and his ward seeing the world. I have acquired travel papers for you that will confirm this identity.”
Henry coughed, and his father cast a frown at him.
“You will need a new wardrobe,” he continued. “My wife and my daughter, Lucy, will assist you with that over the next few days. You are scheduled to depart at the end of the week. Do you have any questions or concerns with the assignment?”
“Will we be traveling to India, to study our current sources and determine the reason for the shortage?”
“No. There is some concern with heightened criminal activity in that region. Related, we believe, to the shortage. I consider it too dangerous for investigation.” Murlo glanced over his shoulder at his son, who quirked a single blond eyebrow. “Instead, we will attempt to find new sources to replace or augment those we have. It is both a safer and more permanent solution.”
Elle nodded. “That seems entirely sensible.”
“Any other questions?”
Who are you and why are you doing this? Are you agents of the British government? Some organization of your own? And most of all, why me?
“I would like to see your list of locations. That is all. For now.”
Elle trusted that Westfield’s motives were honorable—he had been a man of his word thus far. Still, she would keep her eyes and ears open.
Murlo grinned. “Excellent. Westfield and I will keep in touch during your journey, and I will relay anything you learn to our contacts across Europe. Henry will accompany you, in the guise of your manservant. If, God forbid, you do run into any trouble, he has served in the army these past years and will know how to defend you. I’m sorry I can’t accompany you, myself, but I suffered a bout of pneumonia this past winter and haven’t yet recovered my stamina.”
Henry made a noise that may have been another cough. Or a snort of disbelief.
Murlo scowled. “Isn’t that right, Henry?”
“Absolutely, sir. You were at the brink of death’s door. I feared to leave the house.”
Elle swallowed a laugh. At the same time, a sense of doubt crept over her. This impertinent, standoffish son of a marquess was going to play a servant? That was almost as absurd as a barmaid masquerading as nobility. It would never work.
The clothes needed to play a wealthy lady were enough to drive Elle mad—multiple styles for different times of day, unwieldy bustles, corsets without front openings. As the week wore on, she did her best to choose garments that were as practical as possible, given the circumstances. She ignored the jewelry entirely. Why draw the attention of would-be-thieves and risk losing something of value?
Westfield and Murlo urged her to take whatever clothing and accessories she wished, telling her to, “have fun.” Fun? Living a life she knew little about and was entirely unsuited to? Impossible. It would be a race to see who would blow their cover first: herself or Henry Ainsworth. Assuming he even came along. Elle never saw him for more than a few moments at a time.
Much to her surprise, on the day of their departure she found him beside the carriage, tossing their heavy trunks about with ease. She stumbled to a halt and stood gaping at him. Gentlemen didn’t do manual labor. Yet here he was, attending to the task with a smile of genuine pleasure dimpling his cheeks. His servant’s clothes, while of rougher materials than his austere suits, were equally well-tailored. The shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows and the thin cotton stretched taut across his shoulders and arms, revealing the flex of his muscles as he picked up her things. He was every bit as virile as the dock-workers along the Seine that Marie liked to ogle, but without the smell of fish and dirty water. Elle considered adding one last item to her trunk, just for the pleasure of watching him unload and reload it.
His piercing gaze turned on her. “Is there something I can do for you, Miss Deschamps?”
It was the first thing she’d heard him say since the day they had met in the library. His words carried a slight lilt she couldn’t place. A bit of something coloring his upper-class English. It gave his accent an appealing musicality.
“I’m merely supervising. I understand that is what fine ladies do?”
Of course, fine ladies didn’t stand about admiring their manservant, no matter how pleasant his physique. Not openly, at least. Elle assumed plenty of wealthy ladies used the handsome men in their employ much the way the men used the women.
Henry’s eyes gleamed. “It’s good to see you applying yourself to your role with such enthusiasm.”
Elle couldn’t decipher whether the comment was meant as a joke, an insult, or a compliment. She bobbed her head and said, “And you, as well,” then ducked into the carriage.
She watched him surreptitiously from the window, puzzling over his words and behavior. Was he simply another bored, young aristocrat, happy for any entertainment? Was he the serious soldier, silent and sharp-eyed? The sarcastic rogue?
Whatever the case, the mystery of Lord Henry Ainsworth seemed every bit as challenging as the potions shortage.