Once a Spy – Mary Jo Putney

Even though Suzanne was working under the small window in her room to get the best light, it was now too dark to continue sewing. England was much farther north than where she’d been living, and in midwinter the days were short and often rainy or overcast. She might have to buy candles to finish these alterations by the end of the week. She set aside the gown and stood to stretch. Perhaps she should go for a short walk. The day was raw and her old cloak barely adequate, but she loved having the freedom to go outside whenever she wished. Solid steps sounded on the stairs outside her room and she recognized the dignified approach of her landlord, Mr. Potter. He knocked on the door and announced, “Madame Duval, there’s a fellow here who says he’s your cousin, Colonel Duval. He’s down in the sitting room. Do you have a cousin who is a colonel?” Suzanne opened her door, surprised. After the last tumultuous years, she had no idea what relatives might still be alive, or what they had been doing. “I might, but I’ll have to see him to be sure. I assume he looks respectable or you wouldn’t have allowed him in.” “He has the look of a soldier, not that being one would make him a saint,” her landlord said dourly.

“I’ll go down with you in case you want me to send him away.” She nodded her thanks. Mr. Potter was very protective of the female tenants in his boardinghouse. It was one of the reasons she’d chosen to live here. She peeled off the fingerless gloves she wore to keep her hands warm while sewing, brushed a casual hand over her dark hair, and straightened her knit shawl over her shoulders, glad that her appearance was no longer a matter of life and death. Then she followed her landlord down the narrow stairs. When she opened the door to the small sitting room, the dim light revealed a man gazing out the window, his hands clasped behind his back as he studied the shabby neighborhood. Lean and powerful, he did indeed have the bearing of a soldier. His wavy dark hair was in need of cutting and he had a familiar grace as he turned at her entrance.

His searching gaze met hers and he became very still. She froze, paralyzed with shock. Jean-Louis! But her husband was dead—she’d seen him murdered with her own eyes. Also, Jean-Louis had been twice her age when they married. This man was younger. When she saw his cool, light gray eyes, she remembered a young second cousin of her husband. Simon Duval had been a boy, only a couple of years older than she’d been as a very young bride, but he’d shared a strong family resemblance to her husband. The years had emphasized subtle differences in his features and she guessed that he was a shade taller and more broad-shouldered than Jean-Louis had been. Realizing she wasn’t breathing, she inhaled slowly. “Well met, Simon.

Or should I call you Monsieur le Comte?” “So it really is you, my cousin Suzanne,” her visitor said with soft amazement. “The name is not uncommon and Hawkins didn’t say you were the Comtesse de Chambron. But though you are a countess, I am no count. Merely a distant cousin by marriage who is very glad to see that you are alive.” He spoke English with no hint of French accent and she remembered that his mother had been English. “Though I no longer think myself a countess, you might be the Comte de Chambron if enough members of my husband’s family have died.” Which was true, but even more true was that the world where French courtly titles mattered seemed very far away. She extended her hand. “Mr. Potter announced you as a colonel.

Which army? British, French royalist, or French imperial?” “So many possibilities! The British army, though I’m going to sell out now that the emperor has abdicated.” He smiled a little as he took her hand and bent over it, a gesture wholly French. “I’m glad to see you well and more beautiful than ever. I’d heard you were dead.” His hand was warm and strong and competent. She released it with reluctance. “You flatter like a Frenchman, Simon,” she replied, returning his smile. “I am no longer a dewy young bride and I was very nearly dead several times over. But yes, I have survived.” Her landlord cleared his throat and she realized that he’d been monitoring this meeting from the doorway.

“Madame Duval, I imagine you and the colonel have much to discuss, so I’ll bring you some tea.” “That would be lovely, Mr. Potter.” After he left, she knelt on the hearth and added a small scoop of coals to the embers of the fire. “Indeed, we have much to catch up on, cousin. It’s been a dozen years or more.” Simon had been one of many guests at her wedding to the Comte de Chambron. She’d been only fifteen, dazzled by suave Jean-Louis and thrilled to be making such a grand marriage. Since Simon had been near her age, they’d developed a teasing friendship in the days before the wedding, but that had been a lifetime ago. She settled in the chair to the right of the fireplace.

“How did you find me?” “Captain Gabriel Hawkins.” Simon took the seat opposite her. “He and I shared an alarming adventure in Portugal some years back. By chance we ran into each other and, as we exchanged news, I learned that he’d just returned from a voyage to Constantinople and you were a passenger.” She stiffened. “Did he tell you my circumstances?” Voice gentle, Simon said, “He said you were in the harem of a powerful and deeply corrupt Turkish official, and that your aid was invaluable in rescuing two English women, including the young lady who is now his wife.” Those were the bare facts. She hoped that Hawkins had said no more than that. “And in return, he rescued me and brought me here.” “Hawkins said he offered to take you to France, but that you chose to join émigré relatives who were in the French community in Soho.

” His perceptive gaze was evaluating her and the clean but worn sitting room. She could guess his thoughts. In London, Soho was the French quarter where the wealthy émigrés lived. The poor ones struggled to make a living in this rundown neighborhood in the St. Pancras parish. Answering his unasked question, she said, “After Napoleon abdicated, those cousins returned to France to reclaim their property. I was not surprised to find them gone. But no matter. I prefer to make my own way in England rather than return to France. There is nothing for me there.

” His gaze flicked around the worn sitting room again. “Forgive me for asking, but how are you managing?” “I sew well and I’ve been doing piecework. Soon I should be able to find a permanent position.” She smiled wryly. “But I do wish I’d been able to bring the jewels I had when I was a favorite in the harem! I’d have been able to buy my own shop.” “Money makes everything easier,” he agreed, his brow furrowed. “I’m fortunate that my mother came from a successful English merchant family and her fortune remained on this side of the Channel.” “Very prudent of your mother and her family.” She cocked her head to one side. “Are you here only to look up a distant family connection? Perhaps you are bored now that you’ve sold out of the army?” “Not bored, though I am rather at loose ends,” he admitted.

“But as soon as Hawkins mentioned you, I wanted to see if you were the right Suzanne Duval, and if so, to learn how you are faring.” Mr. Potter returned, a tea tray in hand. The tray was dented pewter and there was a chip in the spout of the teapot, but her landlord presented the refreshments with the air of a duke’s butler. There was also a dish of shortbread. “Thank you, Mr. Potter!” Suzanne said warmly. “You and your wife have outdone yourselves.” “The pleasure is ours, my lady.” He inclined his head and withdrew from the room.

“My lady?” Simon asked as she poured tea for them. “He knows that you’re an aristocrat?” “He was just being polite, though you might have changed that.” She sipped her tea, then offered him the shortbread. “Have a piece. Mrs. Potter is a wonderful baker.” He followed her advice and murmured appreciatively after he bit into it. “She is, and she doesn’t stint on the butter.” He finished his tea in a long swallow and set the cup down with a clink. “I wonder if I might find old friends or relations in the émigré community.

Have you found your compatriots welcoming even though your relatives have returned to France?” Her mouth twisted. “The grand émigrés in Soho will have nothing to do with a woman who was a whore in Turkey.” He winced. “Surely no one said such an appalling thing!” “The aristocratic ladies did. Their husbands tried to corner me in empty rooms,” she said tartly. “I decided I would be safer among my more humble countrymen here in St. Pancras.” He bit off a curse. “You deserve so much better than this, Suzanne!” She sighed. “If there is one thing I have learned, it’s that no one ‘deserves’ anything more than the right to struggle for survival.

I’d rather be here altering gowns in a cold room than living in luxury in a Turkish harem and wondering which night might be my last, so I think I am doing well.” She raised her teacup in a mock toast. “Will you drink to my survival, Simon?” “I can do more than that,” he said, his gaze intense. “Marry me, Suzanne.” Chapter 2 Suzanne set down her teacup so quickly that the tea sloshed out. “Good heavens, Simon! You look so sane, but clearly I misjudged.” He smiled, enjoying the musical lilt of her French accent, the grace of her petite, perfectly proportioned figure, the shine of her rich, tobacco brown hair. “I am as astonished by my proposal as you are. Yet it feels right.” “Why?” She tilted her head, her startling green eyes curious and amused.

“Why ask, and why does it feel right?” This was a question he needed to answer for himself as well as her. “I have spent years of my life working for the demise of Napoleon,” he said slowly. “He and his regime cost me much of my family and the girl I loved. Now he is gone, for good, I hope. What does a soldier do when the wars are over?” “What do any of us who survived do?” she asked softly. It was the question that had haunted him for months, and gradually he was finding answers. “Cultivate the ways of peace. I’ll open my long-neglected house. Put away my uniform. Plant a garden.

Take a wife.” He studied Suzanne’s lovely face. In many ways she was a stranger, but on some deep level, familiar. “You have survived great losses and tumult in your life, so perhaps you want the same things?” She set her teacup down and rose to drift across the room. Ending at the window, she gazed absently at the street outside. “You and I met a dozen years ago during the Peace of Amiens. The naive and optimistic girl that I was then thought the wars were over and we could look forward to bright futures. Then the world dissolved once more into violence and chaos. Perhaps your proposal stems from a desire to recapture those days of peace and optimism? But they are gone forever.” “That time has passed,” he admitted, “but weren’t we friends even though we didn’t know each other for long? I enjoyed your intelligence and warmth and envied my cousin his choice of bride.

You seemed to enjoy my company as well. Isn’t that worth building on?” “That is a frail, distant connection,” she said as she turned from the window to look at him. “We are strangers to each other now.” “Are we?” He caught her gaze. “Much has happened to us both, but do you feel as if you are a different person from that young bride? I may be battered and weary, but I feel that at heart, I’m the same man I was when we met.” “I suppose I am also the same deep down.” Her expression tightened and he saw pain in her eyes. “But I don’t know if I’ll ever be suited to marriage again.” When she fell silent, he asked tentatively, “Are you willing to say why?” At first he thought she’d refuse, but then she sighed. “Years in a harem where my survival depended on being a whore and pretending to enjoy it have damaged me, perhaps beyond repair.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever know desire again. The way I feel now, the answer is probably no.” He winced internally as he recognized how much pain lay under her flat, honest words. Yet he felt a surprising kinship with her. “My circumstances were nothing like yours, but I do understand the death of desire.” For a brief, piercing moment he remembered the intoxicating mutual madness he’d known with his fiancée, Alette. “For me, desire is not much more than a memory, buried with all the other bright memories. Yet I can imagine a satisfactory marriage without physical intimacy. Can you?” She looked startled, then thoughtful. “For myself, yes, I can imagine it.

But you’re a man in the prime of life, and in my experience, men are more physically passionate. What if desire returns for you and not for me? I should be a great inconvenience to you then.” It was an important question. He thought before replying, “You would still be my wife and my friend. I would do nothing to humiliate you. What if the reverse is true and you recover desire and I don’t?” “Like you, I would be discreet and do nothing to bring shame on your name.” She laughed suddenly, her face alive with amusement. “This is a very French conversation!” He laughed with her. “So it is. Perhaps we would be very sophisticated and both quietly keep lovers on the side.

But this is mere speculation. All we can know is this moment, how we feel now. And what I feel is that I would be profoundly grateful if you agreed to share my life.” “But why?” she asked a little helplessly. If there was to be any chance she would accept his proposal, he must be honest and vulnerable. “I have felt lonely for many years, Suzanne,” he said quietly. “When I walked into this room, my first emotion was great happiness to see that you are alive. And in the next moment, I realized I didn’t feel lonely anymore.” Her gaze was searching. “I also feel less alone, but what if we don’t suit?” “We courteously go our separate ways within the marriage and treat each other with respect and kindness.

That shouldn’t be too difficult. It’s great passion that creates anger. If we are both beyond passion, surely we can be friends.” “The idea sounds simple, but human beings are seldom simple,” she said skeptically. Just talking to Suzanne made him feel more alive even when they disagreed. “You’re right, of course. But let us not overlook the shockingly practical side of my proposal,” Simon said. “As my wife you could live quite comfortably. Not with the luxury of a countess, but you will not have to work long hours in order to eat.” “I can’t deny that has appeal,” Suzanne said.

“But marriage is a great leap of faith at the best of times, and I scarcely know you. The same difficult years that are something of a bond between us might also have produced deep scars that could prove hard to live with.” “Those are all good points, but we need not decide today. Let us spend some time together. Become reacquainted.” “That is essential! At the moment, sir, you are a pig in a poke.” He laughed outright. “I have been called many unflattering things, but never that.” He gestured at the lightening sky outside. “The sun is attempting to shine.

After calling here, I planned to visit my London house. I’ve been staying in a hotel since returning to the city, but it’s time to move into my own home.” She glanced out the window at the brightening day. “I should finish my sewing commission while there is light.” After a moment’s thought, he said, “If you join me for this small excursion, I will supply candles so you can work into the night.” “You are courting me with candles?” she asked with interest. “If you find that appealing, they can be courtship candles. Or you can think of them as merely helpful.” She studied him thoughtfully, then nodded. “Candles will indeed be helpful, and I should like some fresh air.

Let me get my cloak.” He watched her depart, and wondered if he was mad to offer marriage. But he felt no inclination to withdraw his offer.

.

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