Captured Countess (A Beresford Abbey Story)

Never trust a spy!

Nicoletta, the Countess Vilandry, is on a dangerous mission - to lure fellow spy Gabriel D'Arcy into bed and into revealing his true loyalties. With such sensual games at play, and such strong sensations awakened, suddenly Nicky's dangerously close to exposing her real identity. 

Gabe knows the Countess has been sent to seduce him. The only question is to what end? He's never met such a captivating woman - and he's determined to enjoy every seductive second she spends as his very willing captive!

Adventure, sensuality and Romance are beautifully blended as Lethbridge's captive/captor spy vs. spy tale unfolds. Readers will be easily drawn in by intrigue as the author carefully builds her plot, wrapping the reader in a web of deceit, mystery and passion. This is a quick exciting tale that Lethbridge's fans will devour - 4 stars - Romantic Times

An excerpt from Captured Countess:

August 1804

When Napoleon amassed an army twenty-two miles away on the other side of the English Channel, what should an English peer of the realm do? Attend Lady Heatherfield's summer ball, naturally. Gabe D'Arcy, the recently gazetted Marquess of Mooreshead, eyed the occupants in the over-hot marble-columned ballroom with a sense of despair. Did they have no idea of the danger facing their country? Did they not see the disillusion of the common man on their estates, in their cities and towns? If they did, they didn't show it. Or seem to care.

The myriad candles reflected in gilt-edged mirrors threatened blindness as he gazed at his fellow peers. How would these carefully coiffed heads look in the basket at the foot of a guillotine? It was where they would end up if Britain became a satellite republic of France.

It wouldn't happen. Not if he had anything to say about it. He'd given up everything he had to make sure it did not. His principles. His honour. Not to mention his rightful inheritance. Damn his father.

He and his father had never seen eye to eye about a great many things—politics, the treatment of tenants, the bullying of his mother—but Gabe never expected his father's outright mistrust. Had been shocked when he understood how deep their differences of opinion had gone, to the point where his father considered him a traitor to the family name and to his country. But that was all water under the bridge. His father was dead and Gabe's rebellion against his father's autocratic rule had made him who he was now. A penniless marquess and a spy.

He did not let his impatience or frustration show. A worried countenance fuelled gossip. He'd suffered enough of that when details of his father's will had surfaced. The first to turn their backs had been the matchmaking mamas who had plagued his early years. A poverty-stricken marquess wasn't worth the time of day. Not that he'd cared, since he had no intention of marrying for years. If ever.

The hearsay about the unsavoury source of his income to support his privileged and idle bachelor life, whispers of him gulling green 'uns at the gambling tables or, worse, cheating, rolled off his shoulders. They were conjectures he'd encouraged.

The rumours about why he'd been denied the income from his estates cut pretty deep. Gossip about his support of the French revolution. The doubts about his loyalty to his country. Unfortunately for his pride, those rumours were also to be encouraged. They served a higher purpose.

Worse would be the revulsion of his fellows if the truth of his real activities came to light. A man could seduce innocents, kill a man in a duel or cheat on his wife, as long as it was all open and above board. It was the kind of underhanded dealings Gabe engaged in that would make him persona non grata in the world of the ton.

So he let them think what they would while he risked life and limb to save theirs. Given his preference, he would never visit London at all, but since he kept his base of operations secret, and since his French contacts demanded the occasional face-to-face interaction, he'd had no choice but to don the guise of charming philanderer and inveterate gambler and mingle with his fellows.

Hence his appearance at Lady Heatherfield's ball.

A passing gentleman lurched into Gabe, who put out a hand to minimise the clumsily executed accident.

'I beg your pardon, m'sieur,' the florid-faced, rotund gentleman murmured, bowing low. 'M'sieur Armande, à votre service.'

The contact he'd been expecting. 'Mooreshead. You suffer from the heat, no doubt.' Code words of recognition, even though they needed none. Armande, a supposed émigré, used his position to gain information for money. They had come into contact more than once over the years.

The man bowed again. 'Indeed. Fortunately, the winds are strengthening and should bring a change in the weather.'

The winds that would bring the French from France, but there had been a change in plans. What change? 'Let us hope it occurs soon, sir.'

'Indeed. I have been almost prostrate these last five days.'

Five days? He had not anticipated they would make their move so soon. He had to get back to Cornwall and prepare. But what was the change in plan? 'We will all welcome a change in the weather, even if it brings storms.'

'The captain of your yacht, the Phoenix, I believe, would likely be interested.'

His orders were being sent to his ship. Why drag him all the way to London to tell him that? 'I shall be sure to let him know.'

Armande dug out his snuff-box and offered it to Gabe. He lowered his voice. 'You are in danger, mon ami. They do not trust you. Someone has been sent.' He smiled blandly and raised his voice to normal tones. 'No one but the English would fill their rooms so full on such a warm summer evening.'

A spurt of anger surged hot in Gabe's chest. He controlled it. He'd spent years trying to win the trust of both sides in this war—any chink in the walls he'd built could prove disastrous. 'Who?' he asked in an undertone. A double-edged question. Who had been sent? And by whom? Armande had loyalty to neither side. He glanced around as if considering the man's earlier words. 'Personally, I am surprised anyone is in town at all at this time of year.'

Armande shook his head, his eyes regretful. He did not know the answer to either of Gabe's questions. 'A debt paid.'

Gabe had saved Armande from being picked up by a British coastguard one dark night. All part of the job, but even men like Armande, a man who profited from war, had a code of honour and paid his debts.

The Frenchman once more raised his voice. 'No doubt refreshment is in order.'

'Over there, m'sieur. Enjoy your evening.' Gabe indicated the direction of the alcove where a footman guarded a table groaning beneath the weight of punchbowls. The Frenchman bowed and moved on.

Who didn't trust him, Gabe pondered. The French? Or the British?

Either was possible. Or was it speculation without substance? In the world of espionage rumours ran riot.

'How was Norfolk?' a voice behind him asked as a heavy hand fell on his shoulder.

He turned to meet the stern, harsh face of one of his oldest friends. Bane, Earl Beresford. One of only a handful of people Gabe would trust with his misbegotten life. A captain of industry, Bane owned mines and factories that fed the British war machine. His head would not remain on his shoulders if Napoleon held sway.

'Norfolk is…Norfolk,' Gabe said with a brief smile, knowing they were not talking about Norfolk at all. Years ago in a moment of weakness, he had trusted Bane with his secrets. And hence his life. In return, Bane had allowed him to use his family estate in Cornwall as a secret base. 'Manners creeps around with snail-like efficiency. Boats come and go with cargo, both legal and illicit.' He always told the truth. Or as close to it as made no difference, whenever possible. You never knew who might be listening.

'It's good to see you back in town,' Bane said in his usual brusque manner. 'Come for dinner. Next week. We would be delighted to feed you.'

'I suppose you want to talk politics and the state of the British economy. Poor Mary.'

Bane's dark face lit up at the mention of his wife. 'She's used to it. And she has some pretty good ideas of her own. So, will you come?'

The elegant Lady Mary had a lovely and very delicate neck. Easy work for a sharp blade. With a conscious effort, Gabe shook off his black thoughts and inclined his head. 'It would be my very great pleasure, but I am not in town long enough, I'm afraid.' The news he'd just received made it imperative he leave as soon as he informed Sceptre of this latest development. Unlike agents of the Home Office, who reported to Parliament, the political arm of government, Sceptre owed its allegiance to no one but the House of Hanover. Fortunately, for the most part, the goals of these agents of security were in accord. Sceptre, however, tended to be more secretive and entirely ruthless in achieving its aims.

'Next time you are in town, then,' Bane said. 'Let me know your plans in advance and I will arrange a quiet evening at home. Meanwhile, stop racketing about. You are looking quite done up.'

He laughed. 'Surely not that bad?'

'Not so bad others will notice.' Bane strolled away.

The man saw too much.

Gabe sighed and glanced around the room for a suitable dance partner to help maintain his façade. One who would not immediately give him the cold shoulder. There were plenty of females who enjoyed flirting with a man of his reputed wickedness, provided he wasn't looking for more than a dalliance.

The babble on the far side of the room intensified. The stir of the ton at some new piece of gossip, some on dit or scandal, no doubt. The crowds at the edge of the dance floor shifted like water swirling in a strong current before parting around the object of their interest.

A woman he didn't know. She wasn't particularly tall, or even particularly short. Her hair wasn't brown, or chestnut or guinea gold. Strangely, it was all of them. Her features were neither classical nor pretty nor plain, because one only noticed her large cerulean-blue eyes framed by surprisingly dark lashes. Were they dyed or natural? And why would he care? She didn't glitter or sparkle as other females did, nor did she fade into the modest obscurity of a miss new on the town. She glowed with the incandescent warmth of the pearl choker around her throat.

And the Beau Monde hovered around her like bees over clover. Sumptuously dressed women hung on her every word, while the men mentally slavered over the flesh exposed by the low-scooping gown. The lure of shoulders and high, full breasts of palest white star-tlingly scattered with freckles. Instinct told him she was French. Few British women would dare such a diaphanous gown of silver and dampen their petticoats with such blatant unconcern. A recent émigrée, perhaps? One who had arrived during his absence these past few months.

A woman as sensual as sin. The words reverberated in his head. Surprising. Shocking. These days, he rarely had that kind of reaction to a woman, no matter how beautiful or fashionable.

Her gaze passed over him and flicked back. An almost imperceptible lift of brows as dark as her lashes. Interest. Followed immediately by an acknowledgement of desire. The look strummed every nerve in his body, a vibration followed swiftly by heat. Things inside him shifted, as if his spine had realigned. Stunned, he froze. His body stirred as he was caught in her clear-eyed gaze. A coolly calculating glance that spun out into timelessness before it fractured into naked vulnerability. Or not. A blink and the very idea seemed absurd for such a self-contained creature.

Realisation dawned. She was the one of whom he'd been warned.

The French, then. How typical of them to suppose he couldn't resist the wiles of a woman. Clearly, they'd let appearances deceive them into thinking he was an easy mark. Yes, he found the woman extraordinarily attractive, but so did every male in the room.

Damn it all. And if he was right, why test his loyalty at such a critical juncture? That he now had to fight a battle on yet another front was irritating to say the least. Yet, if he'd been in their shoes, he likely would have been testing his loyalty too. His role had become pivotal to their plans. If he proved a weak link in the chain, it might set the invasion back by months. He certainly didn't want that. The more nervous they became, the harder it would be to put a stop to their ambitions once and for all.

If he told Sceptre of his suspicions about this woman, they would demand he eliminate the danger. Coldly. Brutally. Just as Marianne had been eliminated. His stomach clenched at the memory.

No. Not without proof. Suspicions were one thing, but it behove him to discover the truth of who had sent her and why. Only a fool would eliminate a danger without knowing from whence it came.

Tension tightened his muscles. A reaction to the knowledge of an upcoming skirmish. Retaining his outward easy calm, he sauntered through the ballroom, bowing and smiling, while his skin tingled and his body burned with an inner flame. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this much anticipation. Because of the way he had come alive during the space of a glance.

As he moved among his peers, he heard her name on their lips. Nicoletta, Countess Vilandry. Society's new novelty.

He drifted towards the refreshment table, glad to see Armande was nowhere in sight. He deliberately slowed his breathing, forced himself to think logically, sifting through the bloodlines of the French nobility. Vilandry. An old name. And one now extinguished, he thought. Lack of certainty made him uneasy. Ignorance was vulnerability in this high-stakes game. But no matter what he didn't know, his gut sensed she was the one of whom Armande had warned.

Heat leached away, followed by cold resolve. One way or another, he must delve the secret depths of the Countess Vilandry before returning to Cornwall. And quickly.