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Just when Lady Meredith Woolcott thinks she is safe, the nightmare returns. A madman who will stop at nothing has her in his sights once more. This time, she must escape his clutches forever, or die trying.
Protecting Meredith was never part of Sir Richard Archer’s assignment. His duty is to pursue her… follow her every move… and let her be the bait that draws a murderous villain out of the shadows and into his grasp.
The Ultimate Risk
Against his orders and his every instinct, Archer refuses to let Meredith endanger herself—and she refuses to relent, forcing them to partner together to ferret out the threat. But the inferno of passion between them has its own seductive dangers, putting their trust to the test at every deadly turn…
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“Hold the lantern higher, if you will,” Lady Meredith
Murad complied, moving into the cooler shadows, his eyes narrowing with mounting disapproval. When he had first accepted the assignment from the British foreign office to accompany an Englishwoman around the sites of Cairo, he had anticipated the usual widow wreathed in black bombazine. Instead, and far worse where he was concerned, he’d been saddled with this tall red-haired female, her long legs encased in wide trousers, now clambering about the remains of an old Napoleonic fort in the village of Rashid. It was not seemly, he thought, even for an Englishwoman. Against his better instincts, he held the lantern higher.
Lady Woolcott murmured something under her breath, and Murad was certain it was ancient Greek words he’d heard. The woman squinted at what appeared to be faint inscriptions on the wall, heedless of the dust that hardly dulled the brightness of her hair. She had abandoned her serviceable bonnet hours earlier, tying it to the saddle of the horse she’d ridden alongside his from the port to Rashid, located a few miles from the sea in the western delta of the Nile.
Satisfied, she turned to face Murad directly. Her expression was unabashedly bold and his disapproval notched higher. “I do believe we established earlier that we share a common interest and educational background, Mr. Murad,” she said in her low melodious voice, alluding to their initial meeting at the home of the British consulate in Cairo. “And so it should be of no surprise to you that these inscriptions, faint thought they are, appear in two languages, Greek and Egyptian.” She paused. “But also in three scripts.” Retreating from the tumble of rocks, she extracted a small notebook and pen from the pockets of her voluminous trousers.
Murad had indeed noticed.
Scribbling quickly, her full lips pursed, Lady Woolcott then snapped the notebook shut in one slender hand. She stepped away from the comparative coolness of the shadowed wall, seemingly impervious to the late-afternoon sun that blazed mercilessly in the rubble of the ruins of the former Napoleonic fort of St. Julien, abandoned fifty years ago when the French were chased out of Egypt by the British fleet. A few low walls, like jagged teeth, were all that remained. Tasting sand and guilt at the back of his throat, Murad wished that he could conclude his assignment and deposit Lady Woolcott back at her rooms at the Shepheard Hotel in Cairo. Long the haunt of foreign aristocrats, it was where she clearly belonged amid the opulent furnishings and private terraces.
As though divining his thoughts, Lady Woolcott leveled her gaze directly at his. “Mr. Murad,” she said, tapping one dusty booted foot, and not looking in the least as though she was ready to return to Cairo or even the village, “are we certain that this is the old wall that was ordered demolished by French soldiers in order to extend the fort?”
“My Lady Woolcott,” he said, with a faint bow of his head, “I’m certain you know that the claim is supported by the institute’s Egyptian map, which indicates the fort was on the west bank of the Nile in the area of Rosetta—or Rashid, as we know it.”
She nodded. “I am not doubting your qualifications, not at all. The consulate assured me of your credentials, Mr. Murad. I simply wished to see the site myself.”
The Egyptian took a deep breath, the heaviness of his conscience lightening momentarily. “But of course. I am here to serve, my lady.” It was hard for him to reconcile that this unusual creature was not only an expert horsewoman, having survived a four-hour trek in pitiless heat, but also fluent in several ancient languages. “As I advised earlier, there is not much here to see, rather a disappointment to you, I should imagine.” He gripped the lantern more securely. “Nothing much remains other than these random inscriptions, barely visible, and indecipherable given their advanced age. And nothing that would link them directly to the Rosetta stone. There are other places to visit and slake your curiosity, Lady Woolcott. I’m certain you already know Napoleon brought two printing presses along with his expedition. The results of the discovery of the Rosetta stone were documented in a twenty-four-volume work, Description de l’Egypte, published between 1809 and 1828.”
“Which resides in the British Museum at present.”
“Indeed.” First the French and then the British had ransacked his country. Lady Meredith Woolcott should have remained at home, he thought darkly. It was better that he did not know what she was seeking here in this abandoned fort, other than an escape from the ennui that seemed to afflict Western women of a certain age. That was a perception he could live with and from which he’d preferred not to deviate. He glanced over her shoulder to the horses waiting for them by the south entrance of the fort.
Lady Woolcott shaded her eyes against the sun, her ivory complexion having taken on a rosy hue. For at least the third time since meeting the Englishwoman, Murad speculated as to her years. She moved like a young girl and yet the fine lines around her eyes told a different story.
“We do know,” she said, taking a look around the deserted site, which was no larger than an English cricket field, “that the circumstances of the stone’s discovery are unclear. Some say it was found just lying on the ground.”
“Yet others,” Murad said smoothly in his perfect English, honed by a sojourn at Oxford, “claim that it was part of an old wall which was ordered demolished by French soldiers to extend the fort.” The sky above them was a hard blue and the air preternaturally silent for late afternoon. They were alone amid the ruins and, although he carried a rifle, he felt the sudden urge to return to their mounts. Without glancing at his pocket watch, he knew it was time. “If you have seen enough, perhaps we can begin our return journey toward the village.”
Detecting his unease, she stepped back into a shaft of sunlight, which glinted off the ebony fastenings of her linen riding jacket. “This area is quite deserted,” she said to no one in particular. “Of interest only to very few, I should imagine.”
Stubborn woman. The rendezvous time was fixed. And his honor was at stake. Murad cleared his throat to make the import of his words clear. “I should have preferred we take several guards with us when we left the barque.” Not that the guards he’d intended to hire would have made a whit of difference. Regardless, Lady Woolcott had been adamant that they proceed alone, heedless of the dangers that resided in a country filled with antiquities, poverty and desperation.
Lady Woolcott lifted her chin. “I refuse to cower, Mr. Murad. I have had enough of hiding in my life.” She did not elaborate further.
“Then if you have seen your fill,” Murad repeated, ignoring her words and gesturing to the small copse of gnarled sycamore trees where their mounts waited.
Her wide mouth parted in a rueful smile and then she laughed, a curiously bitter sound. “I am a scholar, Mr. Murad, and for many years I was unable to fully indulge my pursuits. As my circumstances have changed, I am now free to travel at will, and I have taken the journey to see firsthand where this important stone was discovered. This journey is fundamental to the paper I am writing and will deliver several weeks hence at Burlington House in London. As you well understand, upon the stone’s discovery, scholars immediately recognized that it contained the key to deciphering the ancient Egyptian language. As a result, interest in the Rosetta has not ceased in the ensuing fifty years.”
“I understand completely, Lady Woolcott, but I apologize that there is nothing here that could possibly add to your scholarship,” he said, gesturing to the wall with its faded inscriptions.
“Never fear,” she said brightly. “Coming to Rashid is by far enough. And I’ve had weeks to sate myself on the cultural riches offered by your country, Mr. Murad, for which I thank you.” She gestured to the lantern that swung by his side. “I believe we can dispense with the light at the moment. I have seen what I have come to see. Perhaps you are correct and it is time for us to return to the village.”
Where he had secured them two rooms at the only lodgings available. He refused to think of the reality, that Lady Woolcott would never arrive at the humble inn. He felt another twinge of conscience. His honor was at stake. He had given his word. Whatever happened to Lady Woolcott was not his concern. Besides which, her learning, her athleticism and her confident regard were unsettling, an affront to the natural order, so different from the women of his country, who were kept from public view by impenetrable veils and high walls.
Lady Woolcott had already turned her back to him, balancing herself perfectly on a low wall before jumping, without his help, to the scrabbled path leading from the ruins.
She had a face and form that could haunt a man for years. As for Lord Richard Buckingham Archer, the Earl of Covington, it had only been two months since he’d been plagued by images of Lady Meredith Woolcott.
He was adept at staying in the shadows, his surveillance as invisible as the heavy air that had settled in like a suffocating mantle. He ignored the heat and kept his sights trained on the man and woman only twenty yards away. Her hair was unmistakable, despite its disciplined knot, a blaze of glory, and even from this distance, he remembered that singularly tempting mouth and the deep gray of her eyes, holding a cool disregard. For him.
He smiled inwardly, the sting of rejection a novel experience, the memory of her face a minor inconvenience. He never looked back, did not believe in introspection, never concerned himself with anything more than cold, hard contingencies, particularly if he found them reasonably diverting. He could kill a man, lie and cheat for all the right reasons, and turn his back on a personal fortune bequeathed to him by birth alone. An abbreviated encounter with Lady Woolcott should have been entirely forgettable. Except that it wasn’t.
The jagged edge of a stone dug into the small of his back, reminding him of his reasons for following Lady Woolcott from England to Egypt. Yet watching her now, here in the sun-bleached outposts of a desert, had taken on the semblance of a dream. It was as though he had somehow conjured her from that stronghold in the north of England that she had called home to this parched piece of earth on the other side of the world.
She turned and said something to the man beside her, the column of her neck elegantly pale above the crisp linen of her riding jacket. Then she smiled and Archer swore he could hear her low laugh carry over the expanse of parched earth separating them. It reached inside him until he could hardly draw breath. He could not have wrenched his gaze away if he’d tried. Instead, he took a drink of tepid water from the silver flask in his hand.
The Arab by her side watched over her with a proprietary air, stiff in the garb of an Englishman manqué, his hat set at an awkward angle. Lady Woolcott responded to him with none of the usual feminine affectations. Her movements were more familiar to Archer than they should be, the tilt of her head, the loose elegance of her limbs, a dangerous collision of subtle curves and taut litheness.
Archer studied the two figures and then she glanced across the rubble, her eyes meeting his for the briefest moment. But of course he knew that she only saw centuries-old rock and not the man who had come to hunt her down. He wanted to shut his eyes, resisting the urge to shift from behind the crumbling wall and move towards her. The voice of Sir Hubert Spencer rang in his ears.
“This shouldn’t prove too difficult for you, Archer,” he’d said a fortnight earlier, shoving a sheaf of documents across his desk with an ingratiating smile. “Although, truth be told, nothing ever is for you. Bloody irritating, that.” The man sitting across from Spencer was the only son of an earl long dead and a wildly indifferent mother, and from his early dismissal from Eton due to his high spirits and blithe disregard for tradition to his years in the Royal Navy, he always seemed to have the wind at his back. Perhaps life had come too easily to the man, thought Spencer darkly, and at too low a price.
“Careful that I don’t disappoint you one day.”
“You’ve returned from the dead so many times, I shan’t worry.”
“Most kind of you,” Archer said, crossing one booted foot over the other. “So what shall it be? Another last-minute rendezvous with one of your underworld brethren? Infiltration to the highest levels of the Admiralcy? Tempt me with something, Spencer. I am bored. And you know how much I dislike the condition.”
“That’s the cross you must bear,” Spencer said dryly, “al though I should have thought your last imbroglio involving the Rosetta stone and Lord Rushford would have sufficed for a while.” Despite the declaration, Spencer knew otherwise.
“Seems like decades ago,” Archer said, but without his usual good humor. He was thinking of Lord Rushford and Rowena Woolcott’s wedding, which he’d attended in the immediate aftermath of the Rosetta stone debacle. The very idea of nuptials set his teeth on edge, but he’d put in an appearance in honor of his old friend. The two-day affair did not disappoint, made all the more intolerable by his introduction to Lady Meredith Woolcott, Rowena’s guardian. Hellishly irksome woman. He much preferred the purely decorative sort when it came to female companionship, beauty without the thorns. The Countess Blenheim came readily to mind. Camille had been the perfect mistress these past two years.
Spencer lifted the corner of the dossier before dropping it again, intruding upon Archer’s rambling thoughts. “This situation happens to concern Lord Rushford, peripherally.” Rushford was on his wedding trip in Europe and would be joining Rowena’s sister, Julia, and her husband, Lord Strathmore, in subsequent weeks. “More directly, it has to do with Lady Meredith Woolcott.”
Archer’s head shot up.
“I have your full attention, I can see. What a novelty! So I suppose I should make the most of the situation,” Spencer said drolly. “Bluntly put, I am asking you to follow Lady Meredith Woolcott wherever she goes, to the ends of the earth if you must.”
“And why would I wish to do that?” Archer asked.
“Because she will bring us to the Comte, Montagu Faron, if he is indeed still alive, as we suspect.” The diplomat’s smile broadened. “You have had a passing acquaintance with the lady, so we hear at Whitehall. Should pave the way somewhat.”
Archer had indeed. The dimness of Spencer’s Whitehall offices, the windows heavily draped to keep out prying eyes, and the dampness of autumnal London had a sobering effect. He needed a drink. A very large one. Instead, he settled more deeply into his chair, his interest in Lady Meredith Woolcott exerting a discomfiting draw that he had no desire to examine closely.
“By this time, I realize you know the details of her rather colorful past: the death of her father; the two girls she was left to raise at a young age,” Spencer continued with a dismissive glance at the sheaf of papers on the desk. “Lady Meredith Woolcott also happens to be one of those troublesome bluestockings who dabbles in academics.”
Troublesome didn’t begin to describe the woman. “I shouldn’t have thought her pastimes would be of particular interest to you,” Archer said.
“They aren’t. Except that they connect her to Faron,” Spencer supplied smoothly, “the Frenchman who has been a thorn in our sides these past ten years.” They both knew of the man, the scourge of the Continent and beyond, whose acolytes killed and lied on his behalf, single-mindedly intent upon the collection of ancient relics, scientific spoils and new lands. Much to Whitehall’s vexation. “The last insult was Faron’s attempt to steal the Rosetta stone from the British Museum, as you well know, an attempt just barely foiled. Thanks to you and Rushford.”
“You’re not convinced he’s dead. Is that the crux of the matter?” Archer stared moodily over Spencer’s head to the portrait of Queen Victoria in its gilt frame.
“I prefer to have hard evidence, this time,” Spencer said, alluding to Faron’s uncanny ability to escape death, once by fire and now, possibly, by drowning. “It is rumored,” he continued, “that Woolcott and Faron were lovers.”
Archer looked away from the portrait and swallowed hard, dismayed at the blood hammering in his ears. Lovers. That single word reverberated through his body, echoing like a stone dropped into a dark hole.
“Yes, lovers,” Spencer repeated absently. “And the affaire did not end well. Likely the cause of the continued enmity between the two of them, as well as the reason for the Frenchman’s designs on Lady Woolcott’s wards—”
Archer interrupted. “Both of whom are now safe.”
“Or so it seems,” said Spencer. “In any case, Lady Woolcott feels she is no longer in danger, freed from the cloud that had her confined to that heap in the north of England with her two charges for so many years. Now she will indulge in her unorthodox interests, which, we’re told, will involve travel to support her rather bizarre intellectual interests.” He added ominously, “Who knows what may transpire? If he’s still alive, Faron will wish nothing more than to see her gone.”
Archer glanced briefly at the dossier lying between them, its pages containing the story, however incomplete, of Lady Woolcott and her youthful indiscretion with one of the Continent’s most dangerous men. Whom they all hoped was dead.
However, past experience demonstrated that Spencer was nothing if not a practical man. “It is not her continued wellbeing that concerns us, Archer. Let me make that plain.” He was not sending in a knight errant to protect a woman in distress. “Faron is obsessed with Lady Woolcott, a situation which presents us with an opportunity I should not like to miss. We would like nothing more than to flush the Frenchman out. If he is still alive.”
“He’s dead,” Archer said flatly. “Lord Rushford made sure of it and witnessed his drowning in the Channel off the coast of France.”
Spencer arched his brows. “So your old friend and colleague maintains. However, no one need tell you of Rushford’s uneven history and divided loyalties.”
Archer said softly, “I would suggest that you not cast aspersion on Lord Rushford, who has served the Crown admirably for most of his life. And certainly more consistently than I have. If you do not agree”—he flicked a glance at the dossier on the desk—“I shall like nothing more than to take my leave.”
The mastermind who had catapulted his way to the upper echelons of Whitehall with little more than razor intellect to recommend him wisely changed tactics. “Let’s set aside the subject of Rushford for the moment, then,” Spencer said, all too aware that Archer would leave him in the dust if the mood struck him. As an agent to the Crown, the man sitting across from him was highly effective, if entirely uncontrollable. A ridiculously large fortune, coupled with peripatetic leanings, allowed Archer any number of options. He’d been known to disappear for months sailing into uncharted waters in his sloop, The Brigand. As well as appearing out of thin air to rescue agents of the Crown, including his friend Rushford, from the tightest of spots. His was a daredevil’s temperament that had been effectively, if inconsistently, leveraged on Whitehall’s behalf.
“Also be aware of Giles Lowther, whom we suspect is still lurking about.” Faron’s shadow was known to execute his master’s wishes to the letter and to a fault. “He’s gone to ground since the Frenchman’s alleged death.”
“Strange. An Englishman in league with a French peer.”
“Nothing more than a guttersnipe and petty thief, we’re told, saved from the gallows by Faron himself. And eternally grateful as a result.”
“A dangerous combination, unthinking loyalty.”
“Indeed. He was behind most of Faron’s maniacal assignments, the Rosetta stone only one of many.”
“All very interesting, Spencer, but I don’t recall agreeing to take this on.”
“We are simply asking you to keep Lady Woolcott well within your sights.”
Archer asked abruptly, “Why me?”
Spencer shrugged. “You met at her ward’s marriage to Rushford. So it would not appear suspicious to her or any one else if you were to seek her company from time to time in the more exotic climes you seem to favor.”
“To what end?” he asked abruptly, chiding himself for asking when the answer was obvious.
“No need to be disingenuous, Archer.” Spencer folded his hands on the top of the highly polished desk. “We use Lady Woolcott as the draw. To get to Faron, if he still lives.”
“Even if he gets to Lady Woolcott first,” Archer said, suddenly uncomfortable. He rose from the chair.
Spencer’s smile was serene. “Precisely.”
Now in the cooling heat of the desert air, Archer watched the retreating figure of Lady Woolcott, her long strides outstripping the pace of her Arab guide. He stared hard, taking in her bright hair and supple figure before he glanced down, realizing that he was still holding the silver flask. He tossed back more of the water, the taste metallic.
Despite his height and muscled breadth, he had learned to move silently as a shadow. He edged out from behind the low wall to follow the two figures approaching the mounts waiting for them under the sycamore trees to the south of the fortress. Lady Woolcott untied a bonnet from her saddle, along with a leather flagon. Filling a cupped hand with water, she offered both horses a drink, her movements graceful and assured.
Once again he found it difficult to drag his eyes away. He was getting too old for this. A sudden rush of air announced the flight of a dark raven and broke his focus. The glistening black wings streaked against the sky, but Archer was already searching the horizon, every instinct on the alert. He took the pistol from his belt, the barrel glinting as the sun caught it and danced along its polished surface.