"You're quite mad to suggest such a thing. And madder yet to think I would consider it. You do realize that, don't you?" Evelyn Hadley-Attwater, the Countess of Waterston, rose to her feet and glared down at the man behind the desk. The man she had once thought of with the affection one felt for an annoying brother. The man she'd planned never again to see under these circumstances. "I won't do it. And I cannot believe you have the nerve to ask me in the first place."
Sir Maxwell Osgood studied her over the rim of a pipe, the smoke drifting about his head like a veil of accusation. It was most annoying.
"When did you start smoking a pipe?"
"I thought you preferred a pipe to cigars," he said mildly.
"You look ridiculous." She reached over his desk, plucked the pipe from his mouth, and dropped it into a saucer obviously being used for ashes. "And I prefer to breathe air that hasn't been previously inhaled."
"Doesn't your husband smoke cigars?"
"Never in my presence." She narrowed her eyes. "You do understand there is nothing you can say to change my mind?"
He smiled, a slow seductive smile that had no doubt made any number of women swoon at his feet and fall into his bed. Evelyn had never been among them. She heaved a reluctant sigh and sank back into her chair. "If you're trying to charm me, it will not work."
His smile widened to a grin. "To my eternal regret."
"I fully intended never to see you again."
"Allow me to point out we have seen one another."
"Oh, certainly at the occasional social event, where we treat each other with nothing more than polite cordiality. It's not the least bit significant and can scarcely be avoided. I had no intention of ever being here again." She gestured at the room around them, a room so unremarkable as to be startling. It could well be the office of any midlevel government bureaucrat. Anyone stumbling in here unawares would find nothing whatsoever to indicate that the business of the Department of Domestic and International Affairs was not primarily concerned with treaties of trade between the more far-flung reaches of the empire and other countries. And indeed, on the first floor of the building, for the most part, it was. She met his gaze directly. "And even less intention of having anything whatsoever to do with you."
"My God, Evelyn." He clapped his hand over his heart in a dramatic manner. "You wound me deeply. Deeply and irrevocably."
"I doubt that." She snorted in disbelief. "And it's Lady Waterston."
"I thought we were friends." A hurt note sounded in his voice.
She ignored it. "Of a sort, yes, I suppose we were. But everything is different now. My life is different and I will not risk that."
He studied her for a moment, the look in his eyes abruptly serious. "His life may well be at risk."
Her heart caught. She ignored that, too. It really wasn't any of her concern. Still ... "You said a file had been stolen."
"Two weeks ago."
"Exactly how important is this file?"
"The file consists of documents that reveal the very structure of this organization and the true identities of those involved in its governance and activities." He shook his head. "That information would jeopardize the safety of every person listed as well as the safety of their families. Who knows to what lengths those we have pursued through the years would go in seeking revenge."
She drew her brows together. So like Max to dole out pertinent details a little at a time. "You should have mentioned the importance of this file in the beginning. From what you have said thus far, I had the impression this was no more important than bureaucratic—" A thought struck her and her heart froze. "Am I on that list?"
"No," he said simply.
Relief coursed through her, replaced at once by suspicion. "Why not?"
"The only reference to you is to Eve and that is minimal. When you left the agency, all records regarding your true identity were expunged." He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. Obviously this was a point of some annoyance. "At Sir's orders."
Her heart jumped at the code name of the agent she had worked with for five long years. A man she never met in person, who communicated with her only by written word. Who guided her, issued her orders, and yes, on occasion, saved her. A man who had once invaded her dreams late in the night and had made her ache for something she—they—would never know. But that was a long time ago and those dreams, that man, were firmly in the past, and there she intended to keep them. That she would react to his name was only natural and not at all important. There was only one man who filled her dreams now. The same man who filled her life and her heart. She narrowed her eyes. "Why?"
"He wished to protect you and seemed to think it was only fair to do so. Although ..." Max huffed. "It had never been done before and, I daresay, will never be done again."
"I see." She paused. Sir's actions were as thoughtful as they were unexpected. Not that they changed anything. "He has my gratitude, of course. Regardless, this is no longer any concern of mine."
He raised a brow. "No?"
She shook her head. "No."
"I would have thought, given the many times he saved your delightful derrière—"
"I beg your pardon!"
He chuckled. "Forgive me, my dear, old habits and all." He sobered. "Now then, Evelyn—"
"Lady Waterston," she said firmly.
He sighed. "Yes, of course, Lady Waterston."
"Thank you," she said under her breath although she needn't have thanked him. She was now Lady Waterston, Countess of Waterston, and had been since her marriage two years ago to Adrian Hadley-Attwater, the Earl of Waterston, and very possibly the dearest man in the world.
"Forgive me, Lady Waterston." He eyed his pipe longingly. "It's not always easy to remember how very much the world has changed since you were last in this room."
"Not merely the world, Sir Maxwell." She pinned him with a firm look. "I have changed as well. I am no longer the helpless young woman who was forced into the employ of this agency."
"I don't recall you being forced." He chuckled. "Nor do I remember you ever being helpless."
"I was young and foolish."
"You were young but you were never foolish."
She tried and failed to hide a small smile of satisfaction. She had once prided herself on never allowing her feelings—her weaknesses really—to show to him or anyone else. Even now, secure in her position in the world and in the heart of her husband, she remained reticent to display undue emotion. "Perhaps foolish is the wrong word."
"Perhaps." His gaze met hers, and his eyes narrowed slightly. "You do realize that putting this in the form of a request was little more than a courtesy."
She had suspected as much. Still, she had hoped. "You can't seriously expect me to return to my previous position."
"I not only expect it, Lady Waterston, but you really have no choice."
"Nonsense. Of course I have a choice." She stood once more and crossed the room to gaze out the window that overlooked a small, private park. In spite of the fact that she had been here on no more than a handful of occasions, for nearly five years this imposing, yet nondescript, mansion on this small square in Mayfair had been the center of her world. And this man, and his superiors, most notably Sir, had ruled that world. But she had met Adrian at very nearly the same time she had grown weary of deceit and treachery, even in the name of the queen, and had left it all behind. Or thought she had. She drew a deep breath. "I have no intention of returning to this."
"Perhaps, given the critical nature of the situation, if we brought the matter to the attention of Lord Waterston ..."
The threat hung in the air. So much for friendship.
"Blackmail, Max? Tell my husband about my past if I don't do as you wish?"
"Blackmail is an ugly word." He shook his head.
"And yet accurate?"
He ignored her. "There's more to it than I have said thus far."
"There would have to be, wouldn't there?" On the far side of the park, a small boy, bundled against the cold, played with a dog under the watchful eyes of a nanny. Her heart twisted and she sighed. There probably was no choice. "Go on."
"There have been threats in recent months—"
She turned toward him. "What kind of threats?"
"Those of exposure primarily. Vague, little more than rumors, but threats nonetheless." He drew a deep breath. "As you are well aware, this agency operates under a veil of secrecy."
She gasped in mock surprise. "You mean the Department of Domestic and International Affairs is not primarily concerned with trade?"
"Now is not the time for sarcasm."
She cast him her sweetest smile and retook her seat. "I thought it was the perfect time."
"As I was saying, this is an agency that cannot function openly. If this file was made public, if it was in the wrong hands, everything we do, everything we have ever done, would be cast in the direst of lights. We have not always followed what many would see as proper procedures. Indeed, we have often operated outside the strict confines of the law in the pursuit of the security interests of this country. The repercussions of exposure could bring down the government itself, especially given the volatile nature of the current political climate. At the very least, our effectiveness would be at an end."
He paused. "As for the personal cost, the gentlemen who have headed this organization have done so at risk to themselves and their reputations. The only thing they have received in return, aside from the knowledge that they have provided an invaluable service to their country, is the assurance that their connection to this agency will never be public." He shook his head. "These men are from well-known families, they hold hereditary titles and are respected members of Parliament. Some have had the confidence of the queen herself. Exposure would wreak havoc at all levels of government."
"I understand that." Impatience sounded in her voice. "But none of it explains why you have demanded my presence. Why am I here?"
"Because you are the only one I can trust," he said staunchly.
"Nonsense. You have other agents, far more competent than I, that can certainly handle a minor task like the recovering of a file." She scoffed. "If I am the only one you can trust, then you have far greater problems than a mere missing file."
"And indeed I do." He paused as if debating his next words. "I suspect the theft of the file was arranged by someone within this organization. The file was requested by the foreign office, or so I was led to believe." He blew an annoyed breath. "Given multiple layers of bureaucracy, it's difficult to uncover specifically who requested it without revealing that it has been stolen."
She chose her words with care. "It seems to me, if one is concerned with secrecy, putting this kind of information into a single file is rather, well, stupid."
"In hindsight perhaps," he said sharply. "Do not forget this is still a governmental department, and when one's superiors make a request, one complies without question."
She raised a brow. "My, my, we are sensitive about—" A thought struck her and she gasped. "It was stolen from you, wasn't it?"
He huffed. "That's neither here nor there at the moment."
"It was, wasn't it?" She tried and failed to hide a grin.
"It's not amusing," he snapped. "I would trust no one else with something of this importance and whoever arranged the theft knew that." He glared at her. "I was set upon by thugs and rendered unconscious by the use of chloroform." He shuddered. "Nasty stuff."
"And when you woke up?"
"When I woke up, the file was gone and I was ..."
"Don't stop now. If I am to be involved in this, I need to know all of it."
"Very well," he snapped. "I woke up naked in a most disreputable brothel."
She choked back a laugh. "As opposed to a reputable brothel?"
He ignored her. "It was most awkward."
"Because you have never been in a brothel before?" she said sweetly.
"One does not purchase what one has always had for free."
She stared at him, then laughed. "You have certainly not changed."
"Unfortunately, I have," he said under his breath. "Lady Waterston." He leaned forward and met her gaze. "Because you are no longer an agent and because your real name is not included in the records here, you can act without suspicion. If you noticed, I asked you here on a day when few people are in these offices. Those that are have been sent on errands. All to preserve your privacy." He paused. "In truth, what I need from you is fairly minimal."
"I can scarcely go back to being Miss Turner, an unmarried heiress with a penchant for travel and parties. Without the wealth, of course," she added wryly.
"No, but you are now Lady Waterston, who is welcome at very nearly any social event."
"Yes, I suppose."
"Your presence would be unremarkable at those events where mine might be noted. In spite of my title and my family connections, I am little more than the head of an unimportant government office concerned with minimally important trade."
She sighed. "Go on."
"I am close to discovering where the file may be located. All I ask of you is to recover it."
"That's all," he said quickly although it did seem he hesitated for no more than the beat of his heart. She might have been mistaken and it had been some time since she'd trusted—or needed to trust—her instincts, but instinct was telling her now that he was not being entirely forthright.
"What aren't you telling me?"
He considered her question, obviously deciding how much to reveal. "The file contains the names of the last three men who headed this organization. The first died a few months ago."
She raised a brow. "By foul play?"
"It's impossible to say. He was elderly and appears to have died in his sleep. But you and I both know how easy it is to make death appear natural."
"Only by hearsay." She narrowed her eyes. "If you recall, I was never in a position where such measures were necessary."
"Nor will you be now." He shook his head. "It could well be coincidence especially since his death was several months ago. But it should not be discounted completely."
"Sir's name is in that file, isn't it?"
"I would think he would wish to handle this." She thought for a moment. "Was this his idea? To bring me back?"
"He knows nothing about it."
She pulled her brows together. "Don't you think you should tell him?"
"I see no need for that." His gaze met hers. "Sir left the department at very nearly the same time you did."
"I see." Relief again washed through her. She had no desire to resume their correspondence. Sir was a road not taken and such roads were best left in the past. She drew a deep breath. "The days of my slipping into a house in the dead of night are long over," she warned. "As are my days of eliciting information by means of my charm alone."
"Understandable." He nodded.
"A certain amount of deceit will no doubt be necessary, but I have never lied to my husband and I do not intend to do so now."
"Come now, all women lie to their husbands."
"I don't." Indignation drew her brows together. "I have never had any need to."
"You've never hidden a bill from a dressmaker you did not want him to see?"
"You've never said you were going one place when you went somewhere else altogether?"
"You've never told your husband another gentleman's flirtatious manner was less than it actually was?"
"Of course not." She cast him a pitying look. "You know nothing at all about women. Most of us do not lie as a matter of course. It's not surprising that you aren't married."
"I know a great deal about women, which is precisely why I am not married. And you all lie, each and every one of you."
Excerpted from My Wicked Little Lies by Victoria Alexander Copyright © 2012 by Cheryl Griffin. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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