Kindred – Kristin Vayden

The spring sunshine warmed Jaxsen’s gloved fingers as it streamed through the shop window. She resisted the urge to tap her fingernails along the wood table, impatient as she was to find her target. But waiting was part of the game, and as such, she’d learned the value of taking her time. A million different details fought for dominance in her mind as people milled about in the tea room. She leaned forward, lifting the delicate china teacup from its saucer as she took a tiny sip, keeping her eyes downcast, allowing her other senses to do the observation. The scent of biscuits, tea, and humanity filled her nostrils. The small bell above the door chimed lightly as another customer entered Gunther’s tea shop. She set the teacup back in its saucer and studied the gentleman with interest. He was taller than she’d expected, and as he maneuvered past another gentleman, his height was more pronounced, making him stand out amongst the luncheon crowd. Since others were taking notice; she turned her gaze to watch his retreating back, knowing her interest would not be as noticeable. Odd how watching someone can be suspicious, and yet, not watching someone, when everyone else was, was just as suspicious. It was always a thin line, blending in. His back was broad, stretching his great coat where most men’s clothing tended to be loose. While the quality of the clothing was superb, and he dressed as a gentleman, Collette mentally reviewed her intelligence. Though titled, the target was not entirely English.

Rumors surrounded his birth, saying that his mother had visited cousins near Cornwall in St. Ives. The visit lasted for over a year, ending when she returned, infant in tow, married to a rather elderly earl. It didn’t take a spy to piece together the timelines, but marriage covered a multitude of sins, leaving only whispers in its wake. Jaxsen smoothed her skirt, turning her attention to the window. Angling her chair slightly, she was able to watch the gentleman in the window’s reflection. His blond hair and build made her suspect that his true parentage was of the Norwegian or northern European variety. He had the build of a Viking; all he needed was the ax and beard. A smile teased her lips as she unfocused from his reflection and instead concentrated on the busy street separating the tea house from Hyde Park. Her target was easy on the eyes, that was for certain.

A far cry better than her previous target, a lecherous old Russian prince with a penchant for the darker side of evening activities. She gave a delicate shudder; the things she did for God and country — though she was certain God didn’t exactly approve of said behavior. Giving a mental shrug, she refocused on the gentleman, testing his name in her mind. Emerson Marcus, Earl of Burberry. He had taken a seat in the far corner, facing the door. That he would intentionally take that position was curious. Plenty of chairs were available, even for the milling crowd. Why did he wish to keep his eye on the door? Was he expecting someone? And if so, who? Jaxsen shifted in her chair, lifting her teacup once more, this time taking a longer sip of the cooling liquid, wincing inwardly at the lukewarm temperature. There were few things she despised more than tepid tea. It was like anticipating a warm bath, only to find it chilly.

Bloody irritating and disappointing. The bell at the door chimed again, and a lady walked in, paused as if scanning the room for a particular someone, and then made decided steps toward the back of the room, right where Burberry was seated. Jaxsen watched with interest, lowering her eyes every few seconds to keep from being obvious. The woman took a seat, leaned forward and proceeded to speak in a hushed tone. It was impossible to determine the topic of conversation, but three things stood out to her immediately. One. The woman came to a tea house and didn’t order anything, meaning she was only planning on staying a short time and had a purpose in mind. Two. Judging by the expression on Burberry’s face, it wasn’t a welcome social call. His eyebrows were strained as if trying to appear calm but was truly anything but.

Three. The woman wasn’t one of quality. Bluestocking to the core, she was undoubtedly not from Mayfair nor the daughter or wife of a titled gentleman. It was her dress that gave her away. The cut was older, the design not the rage for the upcoming Season. The ladies of the ton wore clothes to be seen. The ladies who worked for their living wore clothing that was far more functional, even if still sometimes quite beautiful. Jaxsen watched as the woman slid a small pouch toward Burberry. His expression clouded, and he glanced around the room, as if concerned about being watched. Jaxsen had anticipated such a reaction and had already reached down to retrieve her reticule, pretending she needed a handkerchief.

When she had replaced it in her bag, she turned to the window, just to make sure there was no suspicion. Adjusting her position, she watched the reflection of the two people in the glass, waiting. Always waiting. After a few minutes, the woman stood abruptly, spun, and then headed toward the door. She briefly stood at the edge of the street then turned back to the tea room. Her shoulders were tight, and with a visible sigh, the woman’s shoulders caved on herself and she disappeared into the crowd moving away from Hyde Park. Apparently, the meeting had been disappointing. She turned around to cast a glance at Burberry. His expression was closed off while he studied the table’s surface, tapping a single finger as if mentally debating whatever decision he had made. Jaxsen scooted her teacup and saucer farther away and stood, smoothing her skirts.

She had seen enough to confirm her suspicions, and if he was who his file said he was, this was going to be one of her more adventurous cases. At her movement, Burberry glanced up and, catching his eye, she arched a brow, slid her handkerchief from her reticule and set it on the table, and walked out the door. She stood at the edge of the street, counting to three, and then crossed the cobbled stone road, entering Hyde park via a small gate. Keeping her steps measured, she counted to thirty, smiled, then turned. “A pleasure, my lord.” She swiped the handkerchief from his hand and winked. “Pardon me.” Burberry bowed abruptly. “But have we met?” Jaxsen shrugged. “A mere formality.

” “Forgive me, but I’m rather fond of formalities Miss…” He waited for her to fill in her name. Jaxsen started walking, glancing behind her to make sure he was following. “Names are so personal…” she answered. “And necessary,” he replied. “I prefer a little mystery.” She shrugged and then slowed her stride for him to walk beside her. “I find I’m at quite the disadvantage since you seem to be fully aware of my name. Disadvantage doesn’t sit well with me, you understand.” “We all must work through our own weaknesses,” Jaxsen quipped. “But I must say, I do believe the rumors.

You’re startlingly tall.” He paused. Jaxsen halted her steps and spun, facing him. She lifted her lips into a charming smile. “I do believe I’m the quicker wit of the two of us. This will never do.” She clicked her tongue. “Who are you?” he asked, his tone flat, his expression unamused. “And here I was told you were quite brilliant. I must say I’m a little disappointed.

” His browed furrowed, and then astonishment spread across his features, followed by disbelief. “You… you can’t be…” “Jaxsen?” she asked sweetly. He tipped his chin, studying her. “Bloody hell.” “Such language in front of a lady?’ She placed a gloved hand to her chest and feigned shock. “If you’re who I think you are, a lady is the last thing I would call you.” “I feel like that was an intended insult, but I’ll forgive it.” “You’re Jaxsen.” He shook his head and rubbed his chin with his hand. “Damn it all, this is not what I was expecting.

” “Most don’t, which I will admit has made my job much easier,” she answered. “Why else do you think I took my mother’s surname as my own? It’s easy to find truth when you’re a woman and people are expecting a man.” “Apparently.” He sighed. “So, you saw that happened earlier?” “Indeed.” “And you’ve been briefed on what’s happening tonight?” Jaxsen sighed. “Of the two of us, I’m the one who is to be briefing you, Burberry. You’re to learn from me, not the other way around. As long as you understand the chain of command, we’re going to get along well. Do we have an understanding?” Jaxsen kept her shoulders and posture relaxed.

It was constantly like this; every man she trained always struggled to allow her to lead. But the War Office had assigned her to prepare because she was the best, and as much as that went against the grain for the norms of Society, it was far more important to have well-trained spies than to care which gender of person prepared them. War tended to blur those lines beautifully. “I understand,” Burberry replied. “I meant no disrespect, simply that we need to be on the same page. Wouldn’t you agree?” “Indeed. Follow me, and we can talk the details.” Jaxsen held out her hand to her new partner, watching as the typical indecision crossed his face. Men. They never knew whether to kiss her hand or shake it.

Honestly, she didn’t care which, but it was always entertaining to watch their hesitation. She took pity on him and said, “Either is fine, but it will be faster if you just shake my hand.” Burberry nodded, chuckled slightly, and gave her hand a firm shake. “Nice to meet you, Jaxsen. I have a feeling I’m in for quite the experience.” Jaxsen smirked. “You have no idea.”

.

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