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London
December, 1819

 Bertrand Laclos rounded a corner, booted feet skidding on something slippery and rotten on the cracked cobblestones. Vegetable peelings or damp leaves or rotting meat or something worse. He’d prefer not to know.

A gust of wind bit the back of his neck, sharp with the sleety bite of December. He glanced at the two women beside him, jerked his head towards a doorway, dodged inside, and leaned against the rotted boards, breath jerking against the buttons of his waistcoat.

In the shadows, he ran his gaze over the two women across from him. It was harder to run in a long gown (as he knew from certain missions in disguise), but they had had the sense to kirtle up their skirts with strings pulled from their chemises. Their eyes gleamed bright in the darkness. He could see the quick rise and fall of their breath, feel the taut urgency of the chase coming off them, but neither showed signs of panic.

“We’ve lost them for now,” he said. “But it’s not safe to go to your lodgings.”

Sofia nodded, but Nerezza jerked out her chin. “Why not? I’ve been surviving on the streets my whole life. I can get myself to safety.”

“And when you get there and they’re waiting for you?” Bertrand asked. “We can’t be sure the whole plan hasn’t been uncovered.”

Her gaze shot over his face, bright and hard. “You said—”

“I know. Our plan was clever. We used people I trust implicitly. As much as I can trust anyone. We were careful. But Carfax is very good.”

For a moment he saw a flicker of fear in that defiant green gaze. Then Nerezza’s jaw hardened. “I could—”

“You’re brave,” Bertrand said, “but you’re not foolhardy.”

She shook her head. The hood of her cloak slipped back from her bright hair. “This Carfax and his people can’t be that dangerous—”

“He’s the head of British intelligence,” Sofia said. “His people are everywhere. And he is that dangerous.” She pushed the dark tangle of her side curls out of her eyes. “Why else have we run all the way across the Alps and half the Continent, and across the Channel?” She looked at Bertrand. “Where can we go? I hate to ask to go to your house—”

“I’d gladly take you there,” he said, “but I think we need somewhere it’s easier to lose ourselves. I think we need the Rannochs.”

Sofia’s eyes widened. “Is it safe to involve them?”

Despite the situation, Bertrand nearly smiled at the combination of Malcolm and Mélanie Rannoch and the word “safe” in any context. “With Carfax in the mix, they’re going to be involved in any case.”

“But their home isn’t any larger than yours and to go there—”

“They’d be the first to welcome you, but they aren’t at home. They’re at the Tavistock Theatre, where Mélanie’s scandalizing Mayfair by appearing in a Christmas pantomime.”

“You’re suggesting we hide in a bloody theatre?” Nerezza demanded. “If it’s such a scandal, surely half of London will be there.”

“Actually,” Bertrand said, “I can’t think of a better place to lose ourselves.”

 “Nervous?” Manon Caret adjusted a blonde ringlet round the sparkling paste jewels of her tiara.

“No. Yes. Maybe a little.” Mélanie Rannoch leaned closer to the looking glass, fluttering the light of the tapers that burned on either side, and added a bit more rouge to her cheeks. Far more than she’d wear in a ballroom or if she were sitting in a box on the other side of the footlights. “It’s a long time since I’ve been onstage.”

Manon turned from the dressing-table looking glass to smile at her. “You’ve lived your life onstage, chérie.” Her shrewd gaze belied the gauzy pink draperies of her Titania costume.

“That’s a bit different.” Mélanie reached for the brush to deepen the blacking round her eyes. “One tries to blend in.” She angled the brush to the side and softened the line of the blacking.

“You couldn’t blend in if you wanted to, Mellie.” Manon smoothed the silver lace flounce at her shoulder. “Though you’re certainly going to be the talk of Mayfair tonight. In a different way than you’ve been for the past two years.”

“We’ve faded into the background since we got back from Italy.” Mélanie rubbed some more rouge onto her cheek. “I’m hardly as noticed as I was, which makes being onstage less notable.”

“Don’t believe it for a moment, darling.” Manon tugged one of her silver-edged flounces smooth. “Your face is still in printshop windows. Why do you think the ticket sales for a charity holiday performance were so excellent?”

“Oh, well. Anything for ticket sales. Now I know why Simon asked me to be in the pantomime.”

“That has nothing to do with it, and you know it. If you ask me, he’s been longing to ask you for years, and now that you’ve written a play—”

“I obviously have no concern for scandal?”

“I wouldn’t say that. After all, I manage to be an actress and married to a baron.”

Which Manon was managing superbly. But everyone had known she was an actress when she married Crispin Harleton. Mayfair believed Mélanie’s past had been very different from the reality. Childhood with a traveling theatre troupe and life as a French agent. With a soul-destroying few months in a Spanish brothel in between.

Mélanie gathered up her trailing silver net and seagreen velvet draperies and moved to the door. Into the smell of lamp oil from the footlights, the looming shadows of canvas flats, the brush of feet on bare boards, the draft from the flies above. The sights and sounds and smells of her childhood.

“Mélanie.” The voice came from behind a canvas flat painted with trees and a moonlit sky as Mélanie stepped down the passage towards the wings. Familiar but out of context. A slender dark-haired figure slipped from behind the flat. Mélanie recognized her but it was like seeing a character from the wrong play appear onstage, so unexpected that it took her mind a moment to catch up.

“Sofia!”

Sofia Vincenzo darted to Mélanie and took her hand. “I’m so sorry. Bertrand said you could help.”

“Bertrand—” Mélanie scanned Sofia’s face. For all the risks she ran, Sofia should have no need to seek Bertrand Laclos’s help to slip into Britain in secret. She was Italian nobility and betrothed to an Englishman and could travel freely. Which meant—

“Who have you brought with you?” Mélanie asked.

Sofia cast a quick glance round, waited until a stagehand vanished into the wings, then addressed the canvas flat. “It’s all right. You can come out now.”

A slender woman with auburn hair slipping free of its pins and half-obscuring her face emerged from behind the flat, arms hugged across her chest.

“This is Nerezza,” Sofia said.

Mélanie didn’t wait to hear more. She pulled Sofia and Nerezza into her dressing room. Manon, who had been right behind Mélanie, followed without speaking and pulled the door to.

The woman called Nerezza backed into a corner of the dressing room, arms folded across her chest, gaze darting about as though she were seeking escape. She was slender and, though not tall, considerably taller than the petite Sofia. Her hair was straight and henna-bright, her eyes a brilliant green, her generous mouth set in lines of defiance.

“There was no need—” she said.

“There’s every need,” Sofia said in a tone that indicated this was not the first time they’d had this argument. She turned to Mélanie and Manon. “Nerezza, Mélanie Rannoch and Manon Caret. That is Harleton. Lady Harleton.”

“You’re a lady?” Nerezza turned to Manon, surprised out of her belligerence. “What are you doing onstage?”

“I’m not really a lady. I’m an actress who married a baron. Mélanie’s more of a lady than I am, though that’s neither here nor there. Why are you running?”

“It’s got worse for Carbonari in Italy,” Sofia said. “It wasn’t safe for Nerezza to travel openly.”

“Nerezza was working with the Carbonari?” Mélanie asked. The Carbonari were Radicals, but though Sofia worked with them they weren’t known for numbering women in their ranks.

“Yes.” Sofia cast a quick glance about. “Nerezza was mistress to the minister of police. She was passing information to the Carbonari at great risk to herself. Invaluable information. Then she was discovered. My brother smuggled her to my rooms in the middle of the night. We knew we had to get her out of Italy. Enrico wanted to bring her himself, but I managed to convince him that I’d be much less likely to attract attention. Even then we knew it wasn’t safe to travel openly. Nerezza disguised herself as my maid, but we when we got to Paris we realized we were being followed. Enrico had reached out to Bertrand and he met us and got us across the Channel in secret. We know the authorities in Naples are searching for Nerezza. They’re bound to have alerted Carfax. We’ve uncovered more than one communication they’ve had with him. He might send her back. Or take her in for questioning. I’m not sure which would be worse. We never meant to come here. We never meant to involve you. But Bertrand recognized one of Carfax’s agents near the docks. We think we gave him the slip, but it wasn’t safe to go to the lodgings we had prepared. We needed somewhere we could lose ourselves. Bertrand remembered you were here tonight. He’s gone to tell Malcolm.”

“I’m glad you came to us,” Mélanie said. “But Carfax is in the audience.”

Sofia’s eyes widened. “Oh, God. I should have thought of that.”

“Perfect,” Nerezza said.

“Along with hundreds of other people. It doesn’t make it a bad place to hide. He won’t be looking for you.” Mélanie exchanged a look with Manon. “I think a variation of how you hid me in Paris would work.”

“Excellent,” Manon said. “I feel quite ten years younger.” She looked at Sofia. “Mélanie and I did something very similar at the Comédie Française nearly a decade ago.”

“Or rather, Manon hid me and probably saved my life,” Mélanie said. “We must have a costume the right size somewhere.”

“It’s a lot of fuss for nothing,” Nerezza said, arms still folded across her chest. “If you just left me alone I could get to the lodgings. I’ve got round worse streets than that for ten years and more.”

Ten years ago she couldn’t have been more than six or seven. Mélanie looked into that armored face and felt as though she were talking to her daughter, though at the same age she’d already been a seasoned agent herself. “It’s not the streets, it’s who’s on them.”

Nerezza’s full lower lip jutted out. “Can’t be worse than Naples or Milan.”

“It can always be worse,” Manon said. “Don’t refuse help when it’s offered.”

Nerezza’s green gaze raked over Manon. “You’ve got a nice life married to your baron. Why should you help me?”

“Because we share the same enemies,” Mélanie said. “Because Sofia’s a friend.”

Nerezza’s arms tightened over the lacy salt-stained sarcenet of her gown. “I’ve seen what friends do to friends. I’ve tangled with difficult men before. That’s part of being on the game.”

“These men go beyond difficult,” Mélanie said.

“I’ve seen—”

“Because there are men looking for you who wouldn’t hesitate to put you in irons or do things you haven’t even dreamt of to get you to talk,” Manon said. “I don’t like to take help either. But I know when I need it.”

Nerezza tilted her shoulders to one side. “I’m listening. How are you going to protect me if they’ve followed us here?”

 Manon exchanged a look with Mélanie. “By not letting them find you.” She ran a gaze over Nerezza. “A fairy princess, I think.”

Nerezza gave a harsh laugh. “Me? A fairy princess?”

“Precisely. It will never occur to them. And we should cover up that brilliant hair.” Manon tugged a dress of frothy white tulle off one of the clotheslines strung overhead laden with costumes and reached for a blonde wig.

“No.” Nerezza said.

“Trust us,” Mélanie said.

“I don’t trust anyone.”

“A good maxim for an agent.” Manon gave the costume a brisk shake. “But sometimes there’s no alternative.”