Determined to secure another London season without assistance from her new brother-in-law, Mary Alsworthy accepts a secret assignment from Lord Vaughn on behalf of the Pink Carnation. She must infiltrate the ranks of the dreaded French spy, the Black Tulip, before he and his master can stage their planned invasion of England.
Every spy has a weakness and for the Black Tulip that weakness is beautiful black-haired women-his 'petals' of the Tulip. A natural at the art of seduction, Mary easily catches the attention of the French spy, but Lord Vaughn never anticipated that his own heart would be caught as well.
Fighting their growing attraction, impediments from their past, and, of course, the French, Mary and Vaughn find themselves lost in a treacherous garden of lies.
And as our modern-day heroine, Eloise Kelly, digs deeper into England's Napoleonic-era espionage, she becomes even more entwined with Colin Selwick, the descendant of her spy subjects.
• Romantic Times Top Pick
• RT Readers Choice Award Nominee 2008
» Kirkus Reviews
"Feisty heroines and flower-named spies continue to blossom in Willig’s lively series (The Deception of the Emerald Ring, 2006, etc). [...] Willig’s research grounds this adventure in solid detail, from the dresses to the deadly weaponry. [...] Romantic adventure executed with wit."
» Romantic Times
“The flower-named spies of Regency England return as Willig's smart, sassy style cleverly incorporates a modern-day historian's hunt for information with Regency characters and events. Willig switches from a historical voice to a modern tone with ease, drawing readers back and forth in time as they hold their breath to see what happens next."
» Romance Reviews Today
"Miss Willig does her research, and the Regency era sections are beautifully written, right down to the satin slippers. The mystery is wonderfully played out, and there are plenty of surprises in store for readers in this, the fourth book in the Pink Carnation series. Do not miss this one!"
» Fresh Fiction
"The reader will find the story packed with action, adventure and passion. This novel would be especially interesting to readers with a genuine love of historical events and espionage."
It’s October of 1803, and Mary Alsworthy is a reluctant guest at the Gloucestershire estate of Geoffrey Pinchingdale-Snipe, once her suitor, now her brother-in-law. Trying to blot out the hurtful sight of her sister and former suitor making eyes at one another, Mary escapes to the Long Gallery—only to find herself confronted by the enigmatic Lord Vaughn and a very unusual proposition.
From Chapter Two of The Seduction of the Crimson Rose:
“I come here tonight as emissary.”
“From a flower-named spy.” Mary didn’t bother to keep the skepticism out of her voice.
The only flowery spy at Sibley Court, as far as Mary knew, was Lord Richard Selwick, the spy formerly known as the Purple Gentian. The likelihood of his seeking her out for anything—other than a good gloat—was nonexistent. Lord Richard had all but ordered fireworks in celebration when he discovered that his best friend had escaped from her clutches (his words, not hers) and married her younger sister instead.
“What does our esteemed Purple Gentian want of me?” Mary asked.
“Oh, it’s not the—” Vaughn coughed discreetly, as though the name came with difficulty to his tongue “—the Purple Gentian for whom I happen to be acting.”
“Oh?” said Mary acidly. “Have we been honored with the presence of other flowers? A Roving Rosebud, perhaps?”
Vaughn spread his hands wide. “Ridiculous, isn’t it? But the most ridiculous tales are often the truest.”
“Unless one were to deliberately invent a ridiculous tale, trusting that others might follow that reasoning.”
“Why would I go to the bother of such invention? Unless…. Oh no. Oh no, no, no.” Vaughn chuckled, a rich full sound that resonated along the vaulted ceiling.
To her horror, Mary felt the color rise in her cheeks. With anger, she assured herself. She never blushed—and certainly not for the likes of Lord Vaughn.
The lines around Vaughn’s eyes deepened with sardonic amusement. “You didn’t truly believe…. You and I? No, no, and no again.”
“I find myself exceedingly relieved,” Mary said stiffly, “to find that we are once again in agreement.”
Vaughn wasn’t the least bit fooled. He smiled lazily. “My dear, if I had wished to arrange an assignation, I would hardly have been so clumsy as to leave you in any doubt of my intentions. This matter is purely business.”
“But whose business is it, then?” Mary challenged. “Why didn’t they contact me directly?”
“My dear girl, if you were meant to know, why do you think our friend would have sent me?”
“I find it even less likely that you would agree to play errand boy, my lord.”
Vaughn refused to be baited. He contemplated the serpentine head of his cane, twisting it so that the fangs glinted in the light. “I prefer go-between. So much less menial.”
“Whatever you choose to call it, you still haven’t explained why.”
“Wouldn’t you rather know what?” Vaughn inquired lightly. “I should think the substance of my communication ought to interest you more than my motivations, which are of no concern to anyone at all other than myself.”
“Aren’t they?” asked Mary, but left it at that. Vaughn’s tone might have been casual, but there was a fine edge of steel beneath that forbade further inquiry. “All right, then. What does your Roving Rosebud want of me?”
Vaughn winced. “A better name, I should think. No, no, don’t bother. It will do for present. My friend seeks your assistance in the removal of a particular thorn. A thorn called the Black Tulip.”
Mary took great pleasure in saying, “You are mixing your horticultural metaphors, my lord. Am I meant to know who this unusually thorny Tulip is?”
“If any of us knew who it actually was, there would be no need to enlist you.” Having scored his retaliatory point, Vaughn went on, “The Black Tulip is the nom de guerre of a spy in the employ of the French government. He started off, in the usual way of such creatures, by leaving arch notes in inconvenient places. Along the way, however, he developed an irritating habit of skewering English agents. The, ahem, Rosebud would like to see him removed.”
“And you want me to bring me his head on a platter?” Mary made no effort to hide her derision.
“Metaphorically speaking. I gather that the platter is optional these days.” Vaughn paused to admire the effect of his rings before adding, “You have, shall we say, certain attributes that would be most advantageous to the goal in question.”
Men had admired Mary’s attributes before. This was, however, one of the more ingenious stories she had been presented with.
“You must think I am very green,” she said gently.
“Oh, not so very green.” Lord Vaughn’s eyes danced silver. “Just a trifle chartreuse around the edges.”
That would teach her to fish for compliments from Lord Vaughn. “Not so unschooled as to believe that any spy would seek me out to serve as his personal assassin.”
“Ah, that explains it.” Lord Vaughn’s understanding smile was a miracle of polite derision. “Your role would be merely a—how shall I put this? A decorative one. You do have some experience in that field, I believe. Your services are required not as assassin, but as bait.”
Well, that certainly put her in her place. Mary raised a brow. “Weren’t there any other convenient worms to hand?”
“None so well-suited as you.” Oh, bother, she had walked right into that one. Before Mary could come up with a suitably cutting rejoinder about snakes and their habits, Vaughn went on, “The Black Tulip has a curious conceit. He makes it a point to employ women with your particular coloring. They are,” Vaughn paused for good effect before delivering the piece de resistance, “the petals of the Tulip.”
“How poetic. And how entirely absurd.”
“My dear girl, the whole lot of them are absurd, from the Purple Wonder in the other room to every fop in London who pins a carnation to his hat and tells his friends he’s turned hero. Nonetheless, they still manage to cause a good deal of bother.”
Torchlight slashed in a jagged angle across Vaughn’s face, slicing across his nose, leaving his eyes in shadow. In the orange light, the lines around his mouth seemed more deeply graven than usual.
“A very great deal of bother,” he repeated.
Despite herself, Mary’s attention was caught. The improbable tale of rosebuds and tulips might have been nothing more than a polished line of patter, designed to capitalize on the current craze for gentleman spies. But a man didn’t feign that sort of bitterness. Not a man like Vaughn, at any rate. To acknowledge pain was to acknowledge that one was capable of sustaining a wound—in short, that one was capable of deeper feeling. It wasn’t in Vaughn’s style. Or, for that matter, in hers.
“And so,” said Mary, “you introduce the bait.”
“The Tulip,” explained Vaughn, “is currently running rather short of petals. Unless his habits have changed, the Black Tulip will be in want of fresh recruits. Women of your coloring are rare in this part of the world. Hence my errand tonight.”
“I see.” Mary took a small turn about the corridor. The train of her dress whispered along the floor behind her, dragging with it a decade’s worth of dust, undoubtedly turning her hem as murky as her musings. “You do realize that this is all highly irregular.”
“To say the least,” Vaughn agreed calmly. “There’s no need to rush to a decision. Take some time to think about my proposition. Mull it over in the deepest depths of your maidenly bosom. I would, however, advise against unburdening yourself to your friends.”
Mary nearly smiled at that. Friends. Ha. Her “friends” had been the first to claw her reputation to shreds when word of Geoffrey’s defection exploded through the ton.
That was one lesson one learned quickly on the bloody battlefield of Almack’s. Confidantes were a luxury a clever woman could ill afford. To confide in others was to invite betrayal.
Mary lifted her chin. “I keep my own counsel.”
“A wise choice. Should you accept, your duties will be minimal. There is, of course, the appeal of patria to be considered,” Vaughn added as an afterthought. “Rule Britannia and pass the mutton.”
Vaughn had obviously never tasted mutton. If he had, he wouldn’t joke about it. “How could one help but be swayed by such a rousing appeal?”
“Spoken like a true and loving daughter of our sceptre’d isle.”
“I can do no better than to model myself on you.”
“Alas for England.” There was something oddly engaging about the way his mouth twisted up at one corner in self-mockery. “Sharper than serpent’s tooth…. There is something else, however, that might quicken your filial piety.”
“What could possibly move me more than mutton?”
Beneath their heavy lids, Vaughn’s pale eyes glinted with pleasurable anticipation, like an experienced card player about to lay down a winning hand. “Something we haven’t yet discussed. The small matter of remuneration.”
Mary schooled her face to stillness, but she wasn’t quick enough. Whatever Vaughn was looking for, he found it. His tone was insufferably smug as he added, “You will be paid. Handsomely.”
Crossing his arms, he leaned back against a bust of the sixth Baron Pinchingdale and waited for her assent, the silver threads on his cuffs winking insolently in the torchlight.
He looked so vilely sure of himself—so vilely sure of her! So he thought that was all is would take to get her to say yes, did he? All he needed to do was dangle a few pieces of gold in front of the venal little creature and watch her jump.
Well, she wasn’t going to jump for him. Not for an unspecified sum, at any rate. He’d have to do rather better than that.
Striking her most stately attitude, Mary raked her sapphire gaze across Vaughn’s face with royal scorn.
“An amusing proposition, my lord, but I’m afraid you will simply have to ask elsewhere.” Without waiting for his reaction, she turned on one heel, using the sweep of her long skirt to good effect. “I cannot imagine any recompense you might offer that would be of any interest to me.”
Basking in self-satisfaction, Mary swished regally down the long corridor, giving Vaughn an excellent view of her elegant back and graceful carriage. Ha! There really was nothing quite like a good exit.
Except, perhaps, for a good last word. Vaughn’s amused voice snaked after her as she sailed imperiously down the gallery.
“Can’t you? I can….”