Authors: Lynne Connolly
Love knows no bounds, and keeps no secrets.
Even Gods Fall in Love
, Book 6
Joanna Spencer is doing more than just serving tea at the Pantheon Club. She’s secretly collecting society gossip and evidence of foreign spy activity for her father’s journal articles.
Instead, she finds the club’s walls shield Roman gods in human form. One of which she must keep at arm’s length at all costs—the club’s alluring, enigmatic owner, Amidei, Comte d’Argento. Otherwise known as Mercury.
Joanna catches Amidei’s attention long before she drops and shatters an expensive tea caddy. He knows she’s spying, but he never suspected she’d be his nemesis in human form—or that she would stir his strongest protective instincts.
Those instincts will be tested to the limit when an enemy strikes from an unexpected corner, threatening their lives. And Amidei will have to face every last one of his fears to protect the woman he has come to love.
Warning: Contains a woman who’s too honest to be a good spy, and a mind-reading god sent reeling down the fast track to passion the moment he touches her thoughts. Excessive heat could cause readers to reach for a fan, but remember—fanning the flames only makes them burn hotter.
Her Quicksilver Lover
When the cook called her name, Joanna Spencer tucked a wayward lock of hair under her voluminous linen cap and shoved her glasses up the bridge of her nose. Keeping her head down, she scuttled across the kitchen and collected the tray she was to take up to the dining room.
“Don’t spill it! Breakages will come out of your wages!” Mrs. Crantock admonished. She was too busy chopping herbs to look up, and Joanna would not want her to look away from that flashing blade.
Not without effort she lifted the large wooden tray laden with crystal, porcelain tea dishes and a teapot. At the centre of the tray stood a large tea-caddy, the wood gleaming with polishing, the marquetry design dauntingly elaborate.
She hefted the heavy tray in one hand, trying to juggle it the way she’d seen the experienced maids do, but it was heavy and unwieldy, and full of fragile objects. Handling this thing was like taking on a dare.
But today she had her aim. She was finally allowed upstairs, into the ladies’ assembly room. One step closer to her goal.
Joanna needed to make judicious use of her elbows to get out of the kitchen. Climbing the narrow, stone-flagged stairs to the ground floor, and then up again to the main floor, was made easier by her ankle-length skirts, but the added bulk of her clothes didn’t help her one bit.
She moved into a different world, where everything was elegant and grand. Serenity and grace replaced the low ceilings, heat and bustle of the servants’ quarters. After the member had entered the lobby and signed in, he—or she—would pass through to the great inner hall, the arch supported by classical pillars. A staircase rose on either side of the graciously proportioned area, leading to a landing. On the left lay the ladies’ area, and on the right, the men’s.
Joanna used the jib door by the gentlemen’s room and crossed the marble-flagged landing to reach the ladies’ room. When she got halfway, the cream jug tilted. She skidded, bent, and caught the tray. China jangled and crystal tinkled.
Her heart beat hard against her chest, but she had the tray steady again, and she’d only lost a little of the cream. She gasped and glared at the footman below, who was standing as straight as a soldier, staring up at her expressionlessly. Muttering a less than ladylike word, Joanna straightened and continued on her way. If she’d dropped it, she might as well have gone downstairs and collected her cloak and hat.
Her arms aching from the weight, she went through the double doors into the ladies’ section. The ladies’ drawing room was moderately full today, all the colours in the world clustered here, to complement and clash in equal measure. The hum of quiet conversation filled the large space. Joanna manoeuvred her way past the informal arrangements of tables and chairs. Almost every cluster was occupied. Lace worth a king’s ransom decorated necklines and elbows, and embroidery delicate enough to make the needleworker blind was sprinkled over hemlines, robings, and petticoats. Scents wreathed around her as Joanna moved through the room, past the clustered groups, towards the place where a footman was setting up a stand, a foldable cross of polished wood.
Carefully, she bent and laid the large tray on the stand, ensuring it was properly seated before she rose, surreptitiously wiping the telltale smear on the outside of the cream jug with a corner of her apron.
The lady glanced up but didn’t let their gazes meet. She was obviously a high stickler, and meeting the direct gaze of a servant was not acceptable. Joanna bobbed a curtsey to hide her grimace.
“Can this club not afford attractive maids?” Her glance flicked over Joanna’s attire, from her snowy white but plain cap over the blue gown with its modest hoop, the caraco jacket and her black shoes. “At least you’re clean.”
Disguising herself with the thick spectacles and tucking her hair under the cap had been worth it, then. Not that anyone would recognise her, but she was trying desperately not to attract any attention to herself. When the cook had commented on them, she’d told her the glasses were to stop her falling over her feet. Nobody had cared enough to say anything further. Truthfully, they pinched her nose badly. They only contained magnifying lenses, so they made her sight worse rather than improving them.
She folded her hands before her, waiting for further instructions before she left, and listened. This was part of her job here. If she heard enough gossip and reported it back, that would keep them going a little while longer.
The lady began to make the tea. In Joanna’s humble opinion, tea should be made with boiling water, not stuff ladled from the cauldron and brought up from the kitchen in a separate pot. Her plebeian origins were showing.
“I shall certainly be coming here again,” a lady in the group said. “This room is charming, is it not?”
“Such a good idea; I suspect the comte will be setting a fashion,” a blonde lady chipped in. Lady Gaynor was a notorious scandalmonger, one Joanna had come across before.
“Unless he decides to marry,” the first lady said. She accepted a cup of pale brown liquid with a twitch of her lips, indicating a smile rather than giving way to one.
Joanna seethed with indignation. How dare they gossip about the man who had provided them with all this?
“I think he’s a confirmed bachelor.”
It wasn’t the first time Joanna had heard that particular accusation. In the coded terms of society, it indicated that Lord d’Argento was not interested in the fairer sex for anything except conversation. Many ladies of society, however, could prove that was far from the case. The ones gossiping about him were the less fortunate ones, the ones he had not favoured.
“He would certainly not appear amiss here. In this room, I mean.” The ladies dared a small laugh.
“Would you?” A dark-haired beauty in yellow silk flicked open her fan and held it before her lips, murmuring a few words that were most likely lascivious. Many people spoke that way about the owner of the club, the enigmatic Comte d’Argento.
“Does anyone know who he really is? An Italian title?” Lady Gaynor glared at the first lady, her blue eyes cold. “He could be an upstart. Charlatans have fooled society before.”
“I have heard that his affair with Lady Davenport has run its course.”
The lady in the apple green lustring snorted indelicately. “Lady Davenport does not have affairs. She has male harems. Did you know that she has vanquished Lord Stephens?”
Joanna pricked up her ears. Lord Stephens was remarkably religious. If he had succumbed to one of the most notoriously promiscuous women in a generally promiscuous society, she had her story. If she didn’t go home with something, their new patron might walk away and leave Joanna and her father utterly destitute.
The lady she had served looked up. “The black tea is almost empty. Bring us more, if you please.”
Joanna bobbed an ungraceful curtsey. She’d never been good at those. She took the highly polished wooden caddy in both hands and left the room. She would have to hurry, or Lady Gaynor would complain about the service in this place.
Gentle female chatter followed her from the room. Someone was coming down the stairs leading to the upper floors, but she did not look up to discover who owned the heels clicking on the marble. She strode across the landing, intent on reaching the jib door on the other side. Her arms still ached from the weight of the heavy tray, but she would have to carry more before the day was done. Maybe she should practice with her father’s print trays.
She glanced up.
Lord d’Argento was perfection in male form. From his highly polished shoes to the top of his delicately wigged head, there was not a thread out of place, nor a spot marring his lavender waistcoat and rich green coat and breeches. The linen and lace at his neck sported a single jewelled solitaire, today in green. Probably an emerald, but worn so casually it was easy to forget exactly how much a stone that size and that brilliance would cost. She’d never seen him so close before, and the sheer magetism of his presence made her falter.
His emerald pin flashed in the light as he turned to her when she fell.
Pain lanced through her foot, up her calf, as she teetered, then skidded, scrambling to keep her balance. Her feet went from under her and she cried out in alarm. Anxious to save the tea, she clutched it as she slipped and tumbled right into his arms.
A shower of black leaves, followed in short order by green ones, flew through the air like rice at a wedding, then the gleam of the highly polished glass mixing bowl, and the crystal lids to the tea containers. The sickening sound of shattering glass mingled with alarmed cries, and then his arms were around Joanna and she was safe.
Only, of course, she was not. Lord d’Argento was not a safe man. He grunted as he fielded her weight, compounded by the velocity of her body landing in his arms. She’d fully expected him to step back to save himself—after all, what gentleman would not?
His sinewy power astonished her. Effortlessly he lifted her out of the way of the mess and roared, the sound louder because her ear was pressed to his chest. “Lightfoot!”
The factotum burst out of the men’s salon, consternation creasing his brow and anger lighting his eyes. “I knew this girl was trouble. Put her down, my lord, and we’ll send her off directly.”
Joanna had lost her glasses. No doubt the shattering glass included them. She had another pair at home, but she felt exposed without them, as if her fall had torn the clothes from her back. The comte gazed down at her, his pale silver eyes seeming to strip the disguise from her body.
He turned abruptly, still with her in his arms, and bore her back upstairs. Her body heated, and a vibrant thrumming hummed through her. She had felt nothing like it before and didn’t know what to make of it. Had she broken something? Her head, maybe?
Her father had ordered her to investigate the owner of the Pantheon Club. Discreetly, he’d said. Well, that had gone to hell in a handcart.
Upstairs lay more public rooms. Above that were the comte’s private rooms, and the guest bedrooms. For this was not only a club, it hosted guests, male and female. No wonder this place was gaining notoriety.
“My lord, I’m sure I can walk,” she protested.
He said nothing, only tightened his grip on her. Joanna barely stopped herself squirming. Upstairs, a maid hovered. The comte spared her a glance. “Clear up that mess, would you? And don’t let anyone use the stairs until then. That landing is lethal.” He murmured something, perhaps to himself. “I should probably have carpet put down.” He glanced down at her. “What do you think?”
“Me?” She was startled enough that the remains of her dazed shock left her. Pain thrummed through her leg. “My lord, it was my clumsiness—”
“It was nothing of the kind,” he said impatiently.
She frowned. Something else had changed. Oh, now she had it. His voice did not have the trace of an accent, where usually an Italian lilt decorated his words. Nothing except clear English. But how could she comment on that? Was he, after all, a charlatan, as some people had suggested?
He shouldered his way through a door and into a stunning drawing room, the pale blue upholstery startling in its brocaded glory. He laid her on a sofa, and in a few efficient movements, had her shoes off.
When she tried to scramble up, he pressed her shoulders, forcing her to remain where she was. “Stay there.”
Joanna did as he told her, stunned by the speed of events and panting as if she’d run a mile.
Gently, he lifted her skirts back, but only as far as her calves. Then he put his hands on her ankle, his fingers gently probing. She caught a breath when he touched a sore spot, where she must have twisted the joint as she went down. That would have been the cause of the pain. It was easing now, no more than a dull throb.
“There’s not much swelling. I think it’s just a wrench. You’ll be fine.” Straightening, he folded his arms and gazed down at her. “I’ll order tea for you, then you may go home when you feel well enough.”
Her heart plummeted. She had discovered barely anything. But she had created such a mess and fuss, she could not blame him.
“I’m sorry, my lord. I understand if you wish to remit my wages to pay for the tea.” She bit her lip. “And the caddy.” That must have been expensive.
“Tea?” He frowned. “Oh yes. You spilled some tea. You mistake me. I meant that I will not have you limping around the club for the rest of the day, but if you feel up to it, you may return to your duties tomorrow. All you need is a little rest. Now for the tea. I think we’ll drink it this time.”
Her head spun as he left the room briefly. While he was gone, she took the opportunity to press her hand against the sole of her foot. She winced with the pain, but already it was easing. He was right. Although her ankle was sore, that would wear off soon enough. She’d been lucky not to break it.
He came back to her, his coat rustling in an audible display of his wealth. “They’ll bring it up. The maids were entirely too assiduous in their polishing. That marble was like glass.”
She had to confess to her clumsiness. “It was my fault, sir. I spilled the cream on the way in and slipped on it on the way out.”
“But if the floor was not polished to a high shine, you would not have slipped on it so easily, would you?”
“I should have taken more care.”
“Perhaps.” His shoulders lifted in a slight shrug.
Joanna blinked in shock. Maids were so rarely given the benefit of the doubt. When she shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position, the crisp slickness of the brocade caressed the bare skin of her forearm. She didn’t belong here. “I should have remembered and avoided the patch on the way back.”
His mouth flattened. “I do so dislike martyrs.”
The ring on his hand glinted as he gesticulated. At least he was continental in that respect; the Italians she had met had spoken as much with their hands as they had with their voices. He had long, artistic hands with perfectly manicured nails, but for all that, there was nothing feminine about them. The sinews flexed when he moved them, and without meaning to, a vision flashed through her mind. What would it feel like to have those hands on her naked flesh? After all, they’d touched her ankles, and all she had on her legs were relatively thin stockings.
His touch had left tactile echoes on her skin. She could feel them still, and she wanted more, as if he had touched her with desire instead of clinical exploration.
No wonder he was known for his prowess between the sheets. Not that he ever spoke of it or behaved with any impropriety, but his lovers were legion and by all accounts well satisfied. And of both sexes, if gossip was correct.
How could she even
such a thing? She was even less prepossessing than usual, had ensured she was so.
So why did she wonder if she could shift just a little more, display a tiny bit of her bare flesh? As if he’d notice. Some of the most desirable women in the world had set their caps at him. He could take his pick. She should be ashamed of herself.
At least she’d got to meet him. Now she had to discover something newsworthy about him. Something she could write about. Although that was what she did for a living, unaccustomed shame washed through her. He was being kind, and she was about to pry. That didn’t seem right. But what choice did she have? Without the news, especially about Lord d’Argento, she and her father would find themselves on the street.
A tap at the door shocked her into awareness. Lord, she’d been staring at him. As a servant, she was not even supposed to meet his eyes directly, and she’d been shamelessly doing so since he brought her in here.
Lord d’Argento opened it himself, and motioned the maid inside. The girl glared at Joanna. What had she done now? But the maid said nothing, only laid the tea-things out on a side table and left, taking the tray with her.
“Do you need help to sit?” he asked.
She would not dare fall into that temptation again and let him touch her so intimately. Joanna swung her legs down to the ground, the softness of the oriental carpet beneath her toes cushioning the twinge of pain. She busied herself smoothing her skirts, the rough fabric harsh against her palms next to the smooth brocade.
“After you’ve had your tea, you must lie down again for at least an hour before you go home.”
“Why do this, my lord?” she blurted. “I’m not badly hurt, and I’ve damaged your property. I am so sorry. Even if the floor was a little slippery, I should have taken more care.”
“I prefer my staff not to risk life and limb.” He poured the tea himself, and put the delicate dish and saucer on a side table, where she could reach it. She eyed it doubtfully. Her clumsiness was not something she was proud of.
“Besides,” he continued, “you did me a favour. If one of the guests had slipped, there’d be hell to pay.”
That was true enough. The members of the club did appear particularly demanding, but that was not unusual in the upper echelons of society. She had watched them particularly closely recently; she’d had good reason to. “Sir, I should go.”
“When you have done as I asked. Have a nap, then you may go home. Take tomorrow off.”
She gulped. Did that mean he didn’t want her back? Although that was probably for the best. “Yes sir, thank you. I am very grateful for your help.”
He sat and crossed one leg over the other, then lifted his tea-dish with delicate precision, his little finger crooked to balance the weight. He sipped his tea without taking his eyes from hers. His eyes were brighter than the jewels on his fingers or at his neck, and far more beautiful.
He put his tea-dish down, finding the saucer without hesitation, even though he did not look. “I like to interview all the servants here at least once. I should have seen you a week ago, but I’ve been busy. Where do you come from, Joanna?”
“And you come in every day?”
She nodded. “Yes, sir. I live with my father, who is not well.”
“Ah.” He delicately adjusted the fit of the dish in its saucer. “So that is why you’re not a live-in maid. It must be difficult finding work that leaves you free to care for your father. Is he an old man?”
Joanna thought briefly of her father. Her hale and hearty father. “Yes.”
“I see. So you go home every evening and return in the morning in time to clean the guest rooms and help with breakfast.” He gazed at her, and for the life of her she couldn’t look away. “That’s a lot of work.”
She didn’t need him to tell her that. “No more than most maids undertake, sir.”
He nodded. “True enough.”
He finished his tea in a couple of quick gulps, his throat moving when he tipped his head back. When he lowered the dish, he caught her watching. He kept her attention effortlessly. “We will consider the matter at an end. Now you will rest, and then go home in a chair.”
She swallowed her protest that she couldn’t afford to pay for a sedan chair. “Yes, sir.” His gaze was too intent; she could not look at him any longer. Joanna turned her attention to the side, noting the fine portrait over the mantel.
“Oh, what a beautiful lady,” she said impulsively. She had never been in this room before, as the comte was very particular about the staff that attended to his private quarters. She was privileged to even be here.
The lady in the picture was wearing silk and velvet in the style of the last century, her bosom perilously close to exposure. She gazed out at the onlooker, her stare provocative and challenging.
His voice took on a wistful tone. “The painting pleases me. It looks very much like her.”
“She was very lovely.” A question wisped through her mind. How would he know that about a lady a hundred years dead?
He got to his feet. “Lightfoot will ensure you get home. We will meet again the day after tomorrow.” He strode to the door, his heels clicking against the polished mahogany floor.
Before he left, he turned back. “I shall expect to see you when you return. Do not disappear or I will make it my business to discover you.” Once more he paused, and cast a smiling glance over his shoulder. “My mother was English, and I was reared with fluency in a number of languages. The accent is good for business.”
He left her gaping because she had not asked him about the loss of his Italian accent.
As she finished her tea, Joanna went over recent events, debating the consequences. Why would he insist on her returning to work when she had failed so miserably? Two reasons sprang immediately to mind, one of them to be immediately dismissed. He did not want her in that way, not carnally, unless he had serious problems with his vision. His lordship was wealthy, fashionable, and could command any woman he chose. In the kitchens nobody had warned her that he took advantage of the servants—in fact, quite the contrary. The comte had a reputation for never touching the domestics, even the prettiest ones. He never varied from that, so he would certainly not do it for the most unprepossessing of his servants.
She was ordinary-looking at best. When she put her mind to it, Joanna could appear pretty, but only in the right clothes with her hair dressed the right way. Most people barely noticed her. She had brown hair and eyes, and rarely powdered. Not tall enough to attract attention, she could slip through a room leaving people wondering if they had seen her or not.
Instead of repining on her problems, she had used them to her advantage. She had served coffee in one of the most notoriously seditious coffeehouses in London, had attended balls as a maid, helping the ladies in the retiring rooms, and now she was working in London’s newest club. Nobody remembered her.
Except this time she’d failed. She’d managed to get herself noticed. She would have to return for a week or so, enough time for the master to see her, and then retire gracefully. Plead a sick relative or something similar. Her comfortable position here would have to end, before people realised exactly how the journal got its stories.
So she would have to make the most of her one time here. She should have asked him personal questions, should have tried to get him to open up, to tell her something. Perhaps she could describe this elegant room—but then, considering how carefully he kept his privacy, he was bound to work out who had done it. One thing, just one, and she’d have something to keep the journal’s new patron happy.
D’Argento’s grace and perfection covered a powerful body and a swift mind. Of course, anyone who made a success of something like the Pantheon had to have a degree of intelligence, but it wasn’t that. More a personal deftness, a grace he used with purpose. He looked to be thirty, or thereabouts, but she couldn’t be sure. Spare and elegant, a clean bone structure and clear eyes, paired with a firm mouth with the promise of sin.