Excerpt: A Spy in the House

From A Spy in the House

During a house party, Mary sees the general distraction as a chance to break into the merchant’s office. When someone interrupts her snooping, she takes cover in a large wardrobe. She’ll be safe in there: the guests are all out front, dancing, drinking and having a good time… aren’t they?

For several moments, Mary couldn’t hear anything over the violent pounding of her pulse. She tried to draw a slow, deep breath. Then a second. A degree of calm returned with the third breath, and she blinked in the warm dark of the wardrobe. Her cheek brushed against a rough woollen garment — a coat? — and she could smell something like the blend of tobacco and male cologne that scented the bookcases.

Her mouth was dry. What was that sound in the room? Oh, why hadn’t she taken the time to lock the door properly behind her? Impatient, she chided herself.

Slowly, a new noise entered her awareness, so gradually that at first she thought she’d dreamt it. It sounded almost like… quiet breathing. Yes, breathing. Not her own. And it was… behind her?

Preposterous.

Wasn’t it?

Instinctively, she caught her breath — and the other breath stopped, half a moment later. After counting to five, she exhaled very quietly — and heard a faint echo, a fraction behind hers.

Poppycock. She could not afford to indulge in this sort of panic. If she began now, where would it end? Right. She would have to demonstrate to herself, once and for all, that her imagination was getting the better of her.

Calmly, slowly, she reached behind with her left hand and came up against — yes, fabric. Fine linen, to be precise. So far, so good: she was inside a wardrobe, after all. The only problem was that this linen was oddly warm. Body-warm. Beneath the tentative pressure of her palm, it seemed to be moving…

With terrifying suddenness, an ungloved hand clamped roughly over her nose and mouth. A long arm pinned her arms against her sides. She was held tightly against a hard, warm surface.

“Hush,” whispered a pair of lips pressed to her left ear. “If you scream, we are both lost.”

She couldn’t have screamed even if she’d chosen to. The sound was lodged at the back of her throat.

Her captor tightened the seal over her mouth and nose. “Understand?” His tone was level, his hand warm and dry. He could have been asking if she took sugar in her tea.

She managed, with difficulty, to nod once.

Long seconds slid by. The footsteps in the office came closer, then receded. The swish of metal on metal — once, twice — suggested that the curtains were being drawn.

Tears pricked at Mary’s eyes and she forced them back, her jaw tightening with the effort. She would not, would not, would not give him the satisfaction of knowing she was frightened. Instead, she tried to evaluate what she knew about this man in the wardrobe. The voice was educated. Michael Gray? No. This man’s scent was different — cedar soap and a trace of whisky, instead of the faint aura of macassar oil and pipe tobacco that clung to Michael. She surprised herself with her certainty on that subject.

The footsteps made another circuit of the room. Their owner emitted a dissatisfied “humph”. Then, at long last, the door re-opened, re-closed, and a key turned firmly in the lock.

Mary and her captor waited. She could feel his heartbeat, steady and slow, at her back. She counted to ten. Twenty. And then to thirty. Was he never going to let her go? She considered biting his hand.

Then his voice again, in her ear. “You will not scream or cry.”

She shook her head weakly.

He waited several seconds before slowly uncovering her mouth.

She drew a long, shaky breath. Tried not to gasp as she did. She tried to move her arms, but his left arm was still locked around her.

After another pause, he released her arms, again slowly.

With trembling hands, she pushed open the wardrobe door and all but fell out. Strong hands caught her and set her upright — not harshly.

Slapping them away, she whirled around to face him. The room was almost completely dark with the curtains drawn, but she could make out a tall, lean figure.

A match flared brightly in his hand, giving her a glimpse of dark eyes and a harsh, uncompromising mouth. He produced a short candle and lit it, holding the light closer to her face. Its glare was almost painful after such prolonged blackness. They inspected each other for a long moment, then the corners of his mouth twitched. Did he find this funny? He looked as though he wanted to ask her a question, but seemed to think better of it.

She glared at him defiantly. Her own questions crowded her mouth, but she was determined not to speak until he did. After the heat of his body, her back felt cold.

He strode to the door, produced a key from his pocket and unlocked it. Seeing that the corridor was unoccupied, he turned back to her and made a courtly gesture with his other hand. “After you.” It was that same, damned, conversational tone.

Mary stared at him. What the devil…?!

He glanced into the hall again, then back at her impatiently. “Quickly, now.”

Standing her ground, she shook her head slowly. “No. After you.”

“Come, now — are we really going to squabble?” His tone was distinctly patronizing.

“I have no intention of squabbling,” she said loftily. Now that he was talking, she felt more certain about holding her ground. “If you wish to leave, I wouldn’t dream of stopping you.”

He closed the door again and glared at her. “My dear girl, just what are you playing at?”

She looked at him haughtily. “You are hardly in a position to ask such a question.”

The corners of his mouth twitched again. What an odd gentleman. “Touch.” He paused and stared at the ceiling, as though for inspiration. “Very well, then. Might I propose that we leave the room simultaneously?”

Mary considered this. They could hardly remain. Apart from the risk of someone returning to the office, she would soon be missed at the party. He might be, as well – assuming he was actually a guest. She inclined her head graciously. “An excellent idea,” she murmured, mimicking his polite tone.

She glided towards the door, which he silently held open for her. They slipped out into the corridor and she watched while he locked it again, then pocketed the key. It was a proper house key. How had he pinched that?

He glanced down at her, eyebrows rising arrogantly. “Well? Hadn’t you better run along to the drawing room?”

Mary suppressed a powerful urge to hit him. With as much dignity as she could muster, she turned on her heel and walked quickly down the hall.

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