Connor Grant would need a new woman in his ranks.
He stood against the back wall of the enormous room and stared out into the ostentatious mass of noblemen. King James had knowingly laid the perfect trap.
Candles glittered against sconces to set a low, concealing light over the room, wine flowed with abandon, and crowds pressed into the card tables like suckling pups to a bitch. All of London nobility had been invited, from the highest of dukes down to the basest of poor country cousins.
They’d come in droves, moving about the room in a collection of colored silks and deafening revelry.
Connor glanced down to his naked finger, where once there had sat a golden signet ring, and immediately cut his gaze back to the room before him.
He would not think about why he was forced to be here—only what his task entailed.
“Have you found her yet?” asked a voice.
He turned toward the woman beside him, whose hair was somewhere between blonde and brown, and whose dark eyes twinkled with excitement. A small freckle dotted the ivory skin beside her red lips.
“Dinna worry, Delilah, I havena found her yet,” he answered quietly. “Ye have time to still enjoy yerself.”
And by enjoy herself, he didn’t mean just feeling bonny in her new gown. He meant harvesting conversation to filter through later.
He nodded toward the lavish party. “Go on, but dinna lose sight of me. When I motion for ye, we leave immediately, aye?”
Delilah gave him a nod and sauntered forward—into the controlled chaos of wealth and entitlement. Into the crush of people who had pushed her into his care.
She looked fragile among them, naive almost. Easily underestimated.
He knew better.
None of his women were fragile—not anymore.
The perfect spies.
James preferred them to be Englishwomen. He assumed they were more malleable than their Scottish counterparts and that men of all nationalities appreciated a beautiful woman without prejudice.
James often made assumptions.
Connor worked around them.
He shoved himself from the wall and made his way through the room for yet another look. His trews were too damn tight, but they called less attention than his kilt would have.
He hated having to look for a new girl, a new spy to add to his band of fallen women. Yes, it was an opportunity to spare her before her ruin could be known, but a deep part of him hurt for the women in his employ and what they’d all endured.
At least the king had not summoned him privately. Deplorable though his current task might have been, it was far more palatable than the more delicate assignments he had been receiving from the king over the last three years. Assignments he thankfully did not receive often.
His gaze skimmed a crowd of English nobility who stood near a card table, sifting through the mundane for the extraordinary.
And then he saw her.
A lovely lass with black hair sat at the furthest card table with a stack of coins in front of her. Someone across the table said something, and her mouth widened in a laugh that lost itself in the hum of chatter.
There was something about the way she carried herself—her spine was almost too straight and her gaze slid in a manner he assumed she thought covert.
She glanced at the cards in her hand and, quick as sin, slipped something from her wide sleeves before fanning the stack in front of her.
Never once did she slouch to mask her movements, nor even attempt to duck. No, in full view of the table and with speed a veteran pickpocket would envy, she cheated.
She spread her cards on the table with a victorious smile and rose slightly from her seat to rake in her stolen coin.
Connor found Delilah’s face in a sea of many, met her gaze, and looked pointedly toward the table.
He’d found their new girl.
Ariana Fitzroy had been too greedy.
She gave a charming smile to the men at the table and pulled a pile of coins toward herself. They clinked against one another, the merry tinkling rising above the din of laughter and conversation.
How she’d come to love the sound of her winnings.
Tonight though, she’d taken it a mite too far.
She’d gone beyond what she needed for the merchant’s bills, the servants’ pay, and the rent on her meager lodgings.
The coins were cool against the warmth of her palm.
Winning always gave her such a heady rush, a wash of heat spreading from her cheeks to her chest and all the way down to her satin-slippered toes.
A discomfiting sensation settled on Ariana, one of which she’d always been especially wary.
The weight of being watched.
A woman with dark blonde hair had joined the table and regarded her with a quiet curiosity. Her red lips lifted into a smile, and Ariana noted she had a slight freckle beside her generous mouth.
Ariana looked down at the cards being dealt out before them, severing the connection.
The last thing she needed was one of the girls at court trying to make friends with her.
Not like this.
Perhaps a year prior, when she’d had not a care in the world, when all her possessions were paid for with unseen coin.
She piled the cards against one another in an indiscernible stack, enabling her to see the faces with discretion while masking the number of cards displayed.
The hand was not in her favor. But then, was it ever?
Ariana glanced up at the blonde again and found the other woman’s gaze had settled somewhere across the room.
Ariana tucked her hands lower against the table as if she were deep in concentration. And truly, she was.
In deep concentration of feeling the sharp edge of the card in her sleeve and sliding it out before anyone noticed.
Her heart pounded in her chest and her breath came faster—it always did when she cheated at cards.
How she despised the word.
How she despised the necessity of it.
Yet she loved winning, the knowledge that for one more day or week or month, she could afford to live.
A warning nipped at the back of her mind. She’d been at the table too long and had won too much.
She risked discovery.
A man settled at the table beside her before the final round of the game could conclude.
“Good evening to ye, lass.” His congenial tone was laced with a heavy Scots accent.
She turned toward him and met his warm hazel eyes.
“Good evening to you as well, sir.” She’d never spoken to a Scotsman before, nor actually seen one up close.
There was a wildness in the way his brown hair fell to his shoulders, and in how he’d failed to scrape the whiskers from his face, leaving the hard lines of his jaw shadowed and dark.
“Have you had much luck tonight?” she asked.
His gaze slipped to the neat stacks of coins in front of her. “No’ as much as ye, my lady.”
She let her own stare trail across her piles of winnings. Shame sizzled against her cheeks.
She had definitely been too greedy.
Perhaps she would do well to lose several hands for good measure.
“I have been quite lucky tonight,” she said in as humble a tone as she could muster. The lie sat bitter on her tongue.
Was this how far she’d sunk?
From an earl’s daughter to a lying, cheating pauper with naught but a good name and several silk dresses from the previous year’s stock.
The man’s gaze settled once more on her face and he stared at her in the way men stare at a woman when they are interested.
She knew the look well and had felt its weight touch her face often.
“Perhaps I’m lucky tonight myself,” he said.
The silky undertone in his voice crept up her back like the skilled swipe of a musician’s fingers strumming a harp.
“What do you mean?” Of course she knew what he meant, but the glint of flirtation in his eye begged her to prompt him for the compliment.
A golden dollop of honey dribbled to lure the bee.
And she buzzed ever closer.
He pulled his freshly dealt cards toward him. “Perhaps I’m lucky tonight because I’ve met ye.”
His fingers were long and graceful, but too masculinely blunted to ever be considered feminine. Capable hands.
She picked up her own cards. “Well, we haven’t met, have we?”
There was an engaging smile hovering at his lips, one she found all too attractive. “Then allow me to introduce myself. I’m Connor Grant.”
She repeated the name in her mind.
It was smooth.
“How very nice to meet you.” She slid him a coy look over the top of her cards. “I’m Ariana Fitzroy.”
“Fitzroy. Are ye a princess, then?”
The gentle laugh she gave came out hollow. She couldn’t be further from a princess. Her slippers were hopelessly scuffed and her dress had grown too large. She’d spent far too many nights choosing to sleep early rather than eat dinner in an effort to preserve her precious funds.
Sleeping, after all, was far more comfortable than being hungry.
“I think you’re behind on your history,” she admonished in a teasing tone. “The Fitzroys have long been off the throne.”
She accepted several more cards, but found none were what she needed. Still, she added precious coins to the center pile. Again, to keep up appearances.
“And are you a laird?” she asked.
It was meant to be a playful jest, much like his quip about her being a princess.
But the light faded from his eyes. He crinkled them in a mock smile, as if he had realized the shift in his mood and was trying to compensate.
“I will be,” he said. His jaw flexed with a determination she understood too well.
“I think I’d like to hear about that.”
“I think here is no’ the place.” He winked.
“Then perhaps we might get to see one another again.” The bold statement left her lips in a flash and set her heart pounding in her chest.
A simple, girlish hope flitted in her stomach.
Perhaps Scottish men were not like Englishmen.
Perhaps they didn’t care about dowries, or lack thereof.
And perhaps she might sprout wings and fly up into the gilded ceiling.
Was she now adding husband hunter to her list of tarnishing sins?
Could she fall any lower?
“I think I’ll be seeing more of ye soon,” he answered.
Her heart squeezed with an eagerness she had not felt in too long. The idea of seeing him again was not unpleasant.
Everyone laid their cards on the table. She added her own miserable hand to the collection.
While seeing Connor again would not be unpleasant, losing most certainly was.
Ariana tried not to stare at the portion of her former winnings being pulled toward the blonde woman, and focused on dulling the pang of disappointment.
“It must be hard to lose when ye’ve won so much,” Connor said.
Before she could reply, he leaned toward her. The light scent of leather and a foreign, sensual spice teased her. “I’ve been watching ye.”
His warm breath stirred the wispy hair at the base of her neck. A shiver tickled her spine.
“Do ye regret no’ having pulled the card from yer sleeve on this round?”
All the giddy hope and all the silly, girlish excitement crashed into the pit of her stomach.
Her breath came harder, faster. She was a cheat and a liar.
And he knew.
“The first of Martin’s Mercenary Maidens will intrigue readers seeking a story filled with a large cast of characters, plenty of adventure and heated love scenes. Martin showcases her talent for storytelling as this fast-paced tale moves from one adventure to another at lightning speed. . . . readers longing for a good old-fashioned adventure with empowered women will find much to enjoy.”
—RT Book Reviews
“Appealing. . . a solid thread of teamwork and family, provided by the strong supporting cast of Ariana’s fellow spies underlies the romance between Ariana and Connor, creating a community that will surely thrive as the series continues.”
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of Highland Spy, Book 1 in my Mercenary Maidens series (Thank you for reading!) If you’d like to order, please see the order links below: