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Lady Wynwood's Spies, volume 4: Betrayer - Chapter 1a

I’m posting an excerpt of Lady Wynwood’s Spies, volume 4: Betrayer!

Part four in a Christian Regency Romantic Adventure epic serial novel with a supernatural twist

Beleaguered spies

Lady Wynwood’s team of spies are trying to heal from the physical and mental wounds recently dealt to them. However, their investigation into Apothecary Jack’s mysterious group has turned up only a few strange, disjointed clues, and the dangerous Root elixir continues to circulate in the London underbelly. It is only a matter of time before the Root is sold to Napoleon, which would give him overwhelming dominance in the war.

Sudden threats

Then Laura, Lady Wynwood, is unexpectedly attacked by a man she had trusted. Although Phoebe and her household staff manage to protect her, her life is now in danger and she must go into hiding.

Dangerous mysteries

Laura uncovers more secrets kept by her late husband that shed illumination on his enigmatic mistress, Bianca. In the meantime, the team follows the trail of Laura’s attacker, which might enable them to capture Apothecary Jack or his compatriot, the pale-eyed man.

All the while, they are unaware that the hunters have become the hunted.

PLEASE NOTE: Like the novels published in Jane Austen’s time, this is a novel in multiple parts. Each volume has a completed story arc, but this is NOT a stand-alone novel and ends on a cliffhanger.

All the posted parts are listed here.

***

Chapter One (part 1)


Two weeks later

Stapytton House, on the outskirts of London, had once held a ballroom with numerous windows that looked out over a quaint French-style garden. The garden, alas, had been overtaken by weeds, and the ballroom had ceased to look like one.

Every single window had been cracked, although it was questionable what act of nature could have destroyed so many panes of glass. The wooden floor, which once likely gleamed with polish, now was a motley of brown, black, and dark green, which made one feel that a misstep would cause a broken floorboard and a dangerous tumble down into the basement level. It also bulged with warping from water damage, so walking across it was like traversing a bobbing boat.

Michael slowed the wide roundhouse punch he threw at Miss Gardinier, but despite how his hand looked to be moving like a slug in mid-air, she just barely ducked under it. Then in side-stepping to try to angle for a counter, the uneven floor made her weakened leg wobble and give way.

He didn’t even hesitate at the sight of a woman in jeopardy. Without an ounce of mercy, he moved in with a slow jab. Rather, it looked slow to his senses, still enhanced by the Root formula Jack had forced upon him, but it was apparently too quick for Miss Gardinier. She took too long to notice his attack and jerked backwards barely an inch from his knuckles. She yelped as she lost her balance and landed on her backside.

“Heartless! Cruel!” she flung at him from her position on the floor.

He tried. He really did, but no matter how hard he pressed his hand over his mouth, it would be obvious to her that he was trying not to laugh at her.

Miss Gardinier’s gray eyes blazed with ire. “You saw I lost my footing. Could you not have given me a moment?”

Miss Sauber, watching from the edge of the ballroom, was the one who answered her friend. “A real attacker would not have given you a moment.” Miss Sauber likely had taken pity on Michael and spoken up in order to prevent more of Miss Gardinier’s wrath from thundering down upon him.

“Et tu, Brute?” Miss Gardinier said with a pout.

“That is the only thing you remembered from your Shakespeare,” Miss Sauber replied dryly. She reached a hand down to help Miss Gardinier to her feet.

“You would do better to remember more of your lessons from Mr. Armstrong,” Michael told her sternly.

Mr. Drydale had been taking Miss Sauber and Miss Gardinier to the Ramparts in the mornings to be privately trained by Mr. Alex Armstrong, who trained agents for both the Alien Office and the Foreign Office. A giant of a man, with muscles the size of headstones and a very impressive blond mustache, he often flashed his gleaming white teeth in a ready smile, which was nearly as blinding as the light reflecting from his balding pate. He was cheerfully relentless in training the two women in the many methods by which they could incapacitate an opponent using only their fists or weapons of opportunity.

Miss Sauber had been the one to approach Mr. Drydale and request some sort of fighting training, confessing that she had been woefully outclassed by the abilities of the French spy Brigitte. Michael was at Stapytton House when she brought the subject up to Mr. Drydale, and she apparently expected an explosive quarrel, because her face was screwed up as if her arguments were going to come spewing out of her mouth. Her jaw had actually fallen open when Mr. Drydale immediately agreed to her suggestion.

Now, after two weeks of training, Michael had bullied Miss Gardinier into sparring with him while they waited for Mr. Drydale to arrive at Stapytton House. It had become standard for either Michael, Thorne, or Mr. Drydale to travel with the two women in Lady Wynwood’s coach, driven by her coachman. They would remain in the house with them so that the two would not be alone in such a remote area, with only the coachman, who would be in the separated stable for part of the time, caring for the horses.

It was often boring work, to guard the two women, both of whom would hole themselves up in their respective work rooms, and Michael often spent time doing physical training or chatting with the coachman, Mr. Havner. Michael gave the man pointers on his fisticuffs technique, but the coachman was not a great fighter, and in a confrontation was was more effective with his accuracy with a horse-whip.

But since the two women had begun their training with Mr. Armstrong, Michael would instead spar with them to test their mettle. He now stood in his shirtsleeves and waistcoat, hands on his hips as he frowned at Miss Gardinier. She was breathing heavily and perspiration dotted the edges of the plain gown she wore when working in her stillroom, while Michael’s breath was still long and even.

“You are quick and accurate,” he told her, despite the fact she hadn’t landed a single blow, “but you are lacking in mobility because of your leg injury. So you must work to become more flexible so that you may avoid punches you cannot move away from.”

Miss Gardinier looked rather sullen, but Miss Sauber said to her, “Isn’t that the same thing that Vadoma told you before?”

Miss Gardinier groaned. “But stretching hurts so much …”

“Vadoma?” Michael asked.

“A gypsy woman who taught us how to fight with knives,” Miss Sauber said. “Keriah’s father allows them to camp on his lands every summer.”

He had seen the two women knife-fighting with Brigitte, and despite the stress and heat of battle with the French agents affected by the Goldensuit plants, he had remembered being surprised and impressed. Sep had also mentioned that he’d seen them fight, and that their skill was considerable, although their movements were unconventional.

Now Michael understood why their attacks would surprise an opponent. Their teacher would be nothing if not unconventional.

Still, he wanted to help prepare them for fighters even more skilled than Brigitte. He told Miss Gardinier, “You must strengthen the muscles in your abdomen and lower back, so that you may more easily bend your torso and dodge the blows that you cannot sidestep. Your most important skill shall be to buy yourself time.”

“What do you mean?” Miss Sauber asked him.

“You mentioned that when you cut someone with the sedative smeared on your knives, it is several minutes before it takes effect, isn’t that so?”

“Ah, I see,” Miss Gardinier said, realizing why he’d mentioned buying time. “Yes, it takes three to five minutes for a normal man, more for a man on the Root, depending on the amount of sedative.”

“So we must engage an enemy while we wait,” Miss Sauber said.

“If your knife is knocked away, you must be able to keep his attention with your fists alone,” Michael added.

Both women looked thoughtful. They were still new to the types of physical confrontations that agents were trained for, the flow of battle and the tactics needed to defeat an opponent.

“How many normal men could you incapacitate with a sedative knife?” Michael asked them.

“Just one,” Miss Gardinier answered slowly. “The sedative must be replaced after being used once, or at most twice if the first cut was shallow.”

Miss Sauber immediately understood the problem Michael had touched upon. “So the knives are not effective if we are attacked by multiple people,” she said.

He nodded. “You shall need the means to fight without relying on the sedative.” He motioned to Miss Sauber. “Shall we?” he asked, as if asking her to dance.

She was taller and her reach longer than the petite Miss Gardininer. The width of her shoulders was usually disguised by the puffed sleeves of the fashionable gowns she wore, but now that she was dressed in something plainer for working with the plants, he could see the play of her muscles under the fabric as she circled around him, her hands raised before her a little awkwardly.

She threw a punch. Miss Gardinier had fought wildly and punched with great enthusiasm, but Miss Sauber was surprisingly tentative. Well, she would need to learn to overcome that. He stepped in, faking a jab and intending to simply tweak a stray curl from where her hair had been gathered at the back of her head, to teach her lesson.

Except that she slammed a hard fist straight into his chin.

There was nothing tentative about that blow. Michael realized with surprise, and also approval, that she’d been faking her awkwardness to draw him closer so that she could land an unexpected hit.

Miss Gardinier crowed in triumph as though she had been the one to strike him.

Miss Sauber’s eyes didn’t waver as she studied him, not giving in to any surge of confidence from her attack. But he noted that her gown was like most of the current styles, and the skirt—or perhaps her petticoat—was narrow. She had difficulty stepping to the side, and her legs were too close together rather than forming a wider, stable base for the rest of her body.

He faked a left jab to the right side of her head, forcing her to pivot away from him. She was at the perfect angle to his body so that he could bring his right foot swerving toward her in a fast arc, striking between her Achilles tendon and her ankle bone. The sudden jolt, coupled with her too-narrow stance, swept her left leg out from under her and she began falling.

But the movement of his feint and his kick had brought his body close to her, and even as she fell, her hands grabbed the loose collar of his white shirt. He thought at first that she was trying to pull him down to the ground with her, but then she reared her neck back and delivered a sharp headbutt.

Stars exploded in front of his eyes, and he didn’t resist as her grip on his shirt pulled him down with her. Except that he landed on something soft instead of the hard, dusty floorboards.

He smelled wildflowers rather than the mold from the warped wood, but he still couldn’t see beyond the flashes of light in his vision. “Excellent headbutt,” he groaned.

“Um … thank you?” Her voice was a little strained.

His vision began to clear and he saw fabric rather than a face. He realized with horror that he had been speaking to her bosom.

He tried to rise, but his head swam in figure-eights, and she was so soft and smelled so nice. So he ended up propping himself on his elbows instead.

This put his face directly above hers.

Her forehead was bright red, making his own begin to throb as if suddenly reminded that he’d been clouted. Her sea-foam green eyes were also a bit unfocused, so perhaps she was still seeing the stars that framed his field of view. Her lips had parted, and he abruptly realized that her mouth was terribly close to his.

His chest was pressed against her so that he could feel the thudding of her heart. Its rhythm was quick and light—and as fast as his own.

Perhaps the headbutt had also muffled his hearing, because he didn’t hear the footsteps that should have sounded on the rickety main staircase. Instead, he jolted in surprise at Mr. Drydale’s booming exclamation, “Mr. Coulton-Jones!”

The two of them scrambled to their feet amidst tangled skirt fabric and clouds of dust. They both blurted out at the same time, “We were only sparring.”

Which, of course, made it sound like they had been doing something exceptionally scandalous.

Keriah began whooping in laughter, braying like a donkey.

***

My Lady Wynwood’s Spies series starts with Lady Wynwood’s Spies, volume 1: Archer.

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