THE ROYAL TALISMAN by Tracy Cooper-Posey
A Go Get ’em Women Story
Romantic Suspense Novella
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EXCERPT FROM THE ROYAL TALISMAN
COPYRIGHT © TRACY COOPER-POSEY 2018
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
England, Autumn, 1884
Stuart accepted the Earl of Northbrook’s invitation to afternoon tea only because of the unspoken command that accompanied it. Thomas Baring was the First Lord of the Admiralty and ruled the Queen’s navy—the most powerful force upon the open seas. The invitation to tea was Baring’s way of saying he wanted to interview Stuart and discover everything Stuart had learned while he was in the Orient. As Baring controlled the navy and Stuart was a member of the diplomatic corps, Baring could not give a direct order but only an imbecile would have refused the invitation to tea.
Stuart was met at the door by Baring’s secretary. He was a young man with a keen gaze and a firm handshake.
“Patrick Kirkham,” the secretary introduced himself. He looked Stuart in the eye, which was unusual. At just over six feet, Stuart was used to looking down when meeting and speaking to others.
“Kirkham?” Stuart repeated. “Are you related to Nathaniel Kirkham, the Duke of Pemberton?”
“My father,” Kirkham replied, with an easy smile.
Stuart shook his head with genuine disbelief and delight. “Your father is an undeclared hero, Kirkham. I was in China for two years before their war with France grew too intense and the diplomatic corps was ordered to leave. I got to see some of the work he has done at first hand. He is a genius, a gifted diplomat. When he chose to stay in Peking despite the hostilities, my awe of him only grew.”
“Yes, well…” Kirkham grew pink in the cheeks. “Shall we go in?” He waved toward the open double doors that revealed a well-stocked library beyond.
They crossed the oriental rugs and stepped into the room. Baring was waiting for him and thrust out a hand. His handshake was firm and warm. He was in his late fifties, completely grey, but slender and still strong and energetic. His gaze was direct and sharp. His clothing was neat and well-appointed. There was authority and power about him, which was to be expected from the man who directed the Queen’s Navy.
“You’ll have to forgive the informality of this meeting,” Baring said, sitting down behind a pair of large silver trays laid with an elegant silver service and bearing cakes and pastries. “I’m shipping off to Egypt on a special commission in a few days. I’m very glad we will have this chance to speak before I leave.” He glanced up, over Stuart’s shoulder, then stood up. “Ah…” and he held out his hand.
Stuart glanced around, then found himself out of his seat quite without trying.
The woman walking toward them, trailing ecru lace and plaid satin, was stunning. His heart stuttered and began to hammer. Beautiful, his mind whispered with a sighing echo.
Until this moment, Stuart had never considered the beauty of a woman. Like most men, he first assessed her shape. Was it pleasing? Or would it be, once the layers of corsetry, bustle and petticoats were removed? Next, he would quickly judge appeal—not beauty. Was she well-scrubbed? Did she have all her teeth? Did her hair shine?
Unlike other men, Stuart usually took his appraisal one step further. This was always the most interesting of the tests. Did she have the nerve to look him directly in the eye when she caught him studying her? Or would she blush and look away? Worse…would she giggle and hide her face against the shoulder of a friend?
On rare occasions he’d had the great good fortune to find a woman with enough character to stare directly back at him. In those moments, his heart skipped a beat at the promise of what may lie ahead.
But this one…this one made him look a second time. His second glance became a long, lingering stare that was far from one of assessment. It was a stare of wonder.
Not just beautiful but beauty itself. The thought was echoed by a mental sigh, for he could not fathom why she was so beautiful. He simply knew it, as surely as he knew he was left-handed.
She was small in stature. Barely up to his shoulder, he judged. Her black hair glowed like raven wings and her skin was flawless, as if it had been painted. It had a soft, tanned glow. Not the pale tissue that was so fashionable these days. Her lips were naturally red and full, unlike other ladies who bit theirs to achieve a plump, rosy look but were instead left with colorless teeth marks embedded in swollen flesh.
Her eyes were midnight black and seemed to grow larger as he stared into them. It was then he realized she was staring right back at him. No blushing. No giggling. Startled, he found that he was the one looking away.
Neither Baring nor Kirkham had noticed his distraction, thank God. Baring handed the lady to one of the gilded women’s seats pulled up to the low table. “My dear, let me introduce to you Lord Stuart Sutherland-Bruce, the eldest son of the Earl of Salisbury, Viscount of Annan.”
“My lord.” The woman gave a shortened curtsey, more of a bob of the head. When she looked up at him again, it was as if the smile she withheld from her lips was dancing in her eyes.
Stuart’s chest seemed to creak with the impact of her and his breath was actually shortened. She was the most exotic creature he had seen this side of Cairo and to find her in Lord Baring’s library was disconcerting.
“Lord Sutherland-Bruce,” Baring continued. “Let me introduce you to Bian, a very special lady.”
Yes, his mind whispered. He picked up her offered hand and bowed over it.
Like all women these days, she wore the exaggerated bustle and layers of skirt and petticoats over it. She was a concoction of frills and lace, and at this time of the day, there was not a hint of décolletage on display. The dark plaid satin enclosed her shoulders and neck, ending in a row of lace about her throat. Even her slender arms were encased in the fabric.
The faint whisper of scent came from her sleeve. It was light and discrete, but still seemed to wreath around his head and steal his senses. She wore a delicate filigree charm bracelet around that wrist. It was the only jewelry he could see. One of the little figures was swinging almost hypnotically, drawing his gaze. But it helped him focus. He dared look at her face again. With a jolt, he realized she had a hint of epicanthic folds about her eyes. After his time in the east he was used to seeing them and it had taken these few moments to notice hers.
She withdrew her hand from his with a little tug and he realized he had been holding on to it far longer than was polite. He dropped his hand, feeling foolish. But the other two men seemed unconcerned.
Bian lowered herself into her chair and Stuart again felt his heart thud. She wore no corset. He was certain of it. She had a straight back, yes, but she was much too limber. For a moment he could imagine the feel of the satin of her gown under his hands. The fabric would be hot from her skin just beneath. He would be able to feel soft, pliable flesh and if he slid his hands up just a little…
She was looking up at him expectantly and he glanced around. Baring and Kirkham had already seated themselves.
Sweat gathered at Stuart’s temples. He took a deep breath, controlling and hiding his reaction to her. Baring was a politician, a statesman. This was not the time or place for Stuart to pursue his favourite prey. He would be expected to provide the information that Baring needed for his naval affairs.
Stuart took his seat, trying to shake off the moment of disorientation this Bian had delivered. He was conscious of her watching him as he seated himself.
“May I pour you a cup of tea, Lord Baring?” she asked Baring, which was perfectly correct. Baring was the ranking peer in the room while both Kirkham and he were the sons of peers and yet to inherit their titles.
“Yes, thank you, Bian,” Baring told her. “That would be lovely.” He turned to Stuart. “You’ve recently returned from China, I believe. Diplomatic posting.”
“I have been traveling all around the east, my lord. Peking was my last short assignment before returning home.”
Bian had neatly poured tea for all of them and passed around the cups. Stuart felt his heart jump as his fingers touched hers. He clutched the cup with unusual firmness and lowered it to the table in front him. He would drink it later. Perhaps.
He saw that she was watching him. Her lips curved upwards at the corners, as if she knew she was causing this strange reaction in him.
“You were stationed in Canton?” Baring asked, dragging Stuart’s attention away from her.
“Yes but my time there was very short. I was there when the trouble started in Vietnam and hostilities broke out. We were given the option to return home but Lord Kirkham had resettled in Peking after his eastern tour, so…” Stuart shrugged. “It was an easy choice for me.”
Baring nodded his head. “Kirkham is a good diplomat. He does well for England.”
“I don’t believe that’s putting it quite high enough,” Stuart returned. “He was instrumental in settling the second Opium wars, although the history books will omit mentioning his name.”
Baring’s brow lifted. Kirkham grew still. Even Bian seemed to pause at his statement.
“That’s a rather extraordinary thing to say,” Baring responded at last.
Stuart took a breath and pushed his hand through his hair, suddenly feeling awkward. He glanced at the younger Kirkham and realized he owed the lord’s son the truth, at least. “You must understand that a lot of what most people consider to be diplomacy actually consists of back room negotiations. Deals. Trade-offs. The results of those deals is what the rest of the world sees. The strength of a single man’s will in those negotiations can change the outcome of a war. Or end it altogether.”
Baring nodded again. “A fact rarely appreciated by one so young.”
“Are you suggesting, my lord,” Bian interjected, looking at him over her teacup, “that the Duke of Pemberton is a spy?”
“That’s ridiculous,” the younger Kirkham said with a snort.
“If he was a spy,” Stuart said carefully, “He would not share that fact with me.”
Baring lowered his cup, staring at him.
“But you think he is,” Bian pressed.
“You misunderstand me.”
“Not for a moment,” she assured him with a smile. “You know he is a gifted diplomat. You refer to his involvement in the ending of the Opium war and that the more useful sort of diplomacy takes place behind closed doors and requires strength of personality to reign supreme. Did I misunderstand any of that?”
Stuart found himself staring at her, her beauty forgotten. “No, but—”
“I was not finished,” she added. “Something that takes place behind closed doors is hidden, yes?”
“Yes,” he was forced to admit.
“And is not espionage the act of collecting information about another country to benefit your own?”
“The collection of that information is secretive?”
“Yes.” He could feel his frustration rising.
“Behind closed doors, you might say.”
He tried to smile. “Negotiating a deal and gathering information are two entirely different activities.”
“Are they?” She tilted her head a little as she looked at him. “In order to negotiate, one must understand the people with whom one is negotiating. And you implied that the Duke is exceptional at negotiating. That means he must also be exceptional at gathering information about his opponents.”
Stuart sat back, astonished. “That’s a very tenuous assumption to make.”
“It might have been,” she agreed. “But you confirmed it.”
“I did not.” His astonishment stepped up a notch.
“Not in so many words. But when I asked you if you thought that the Duke of Pemberton was a spy, you very carefully did not deny it. You said ‘he would not tell me if he was.’ And I’m quite sure he would not tell you such a thing. But you believe him to be, in fact, a spy. Or, as Patrick did, you would have simply answered such an outrageous statement with an observation about how ridiculous it was.”
Stuart’s heart was thundering now. Who was this woman? He picked up his teacup to give his hands something to do and to give himself time to think. How had she managed to bring him to such a position…and so quickly? His tea had not even begun to cool.
“There is a rumour,” Bian continued, “of a spy in the east, called the Royal Talisman. They say this Talisman is Queen Victoria’s lucky charm—that he kept Britain out of the war with France over Vietnam.”
The cup seemed to leap from Stuart’s hands. He made a desperate grab for the fragile china but merely managed to swat it directly at the floor.
Bian’s hand shot out and down. Her fingers snatched at the tiny handle and arrested the cup’s fall. For the space of several heartbeats, total silence gripped the room, broken only by the sound of tea dripping onto the floorboards. The teacup swung from the tips of her fingers, for she held it as she had caught it, with her arm extended out to her side.
Then Bian sat up, shook the drips from the cup and placed it back on Stuart’s saucer, as if nothing unusual had happened at all.
It was Kirkham who spoke this time. “You believe my father is this Royal Talisman?”
Stuart managed to look him in the eye. “No,” he said, as flatly as he could.
Bian laughed. It was a light, lovely sound. “That means yes, Patrick.”
Stuart’s heart was thundering. How had she known of his suspicions about Pemberton? It was as if she had reached in and plucked the thought from his mind, for he had certainly not spoken of this to a living soul. “If I deny it,” he told Bian, “you will skewer me yet again with your strange logic and insist I am saying yes. I would be prudent to remain silent.”
“Perhaps, yes, you might best be,” Baring said. He seemed to be trying to hold back a smile. “Many men have learned by their peril not to underestimate Miss Bian.”
Stuart focused on the honorific. Miss. He had noticed the bare finger on her left hand but the confirmation of her matrimonial state seemed a good thing to have. Clearly, there was nothing about this woman he should take for granted.
Oh, what a marvellous bed companion she would be!
Suddenly his chest and loins were tight with need. He had not felt such urgency in quite a long while.
He managed to ride out the first shock wave of explosive desire and keep his gaze from searing her from head to foot by focusing instead upon his fingers, curled and resting on his knee. Then he lifted his head and looked squarely at Baring. “I appreciate the warning, my Lord,” he said. “Is it Lord Kirkham’s activities that you wished to speak about, when you offered tea?”
It was a direct thrust but Stuart had abruptly run out of patience for the minuet that diplomats and power mongers everywhere seemed to prefer.
Normally, he enjoyed the verbal fencing. Now, he was more interested in ending the conversation as quickly as possible. All of them were bound by etiquette to remain seated at the table until Baring decided the interview was over. While he was seated, Stuart could not begin his pursuit of Bian.
Baring must have sensed his seething restlessness, for he proceeded to expertly debrief Stuart on what he had seen and heard while he was in China. Kirkham listened with equal care and even asked a provoking question or two. It was a thoroughly professional interview. Throughout the examination, Stuart was mortally aware of Bian on his left, sipping her tea. She was not indifferent to the conversation. On the contrary, she was soaking up every word he spoke. It would not have surprised Stuart to learn she was analyzing it with the same efficiency Kirkham and Baring applied, even though she remained ladylike and silent throughout.
Finally, Bian and Baring rose to their feet. The interview was over. Bian returned their cups to the silver trays as Kirkham and Baring shook Stuart’s hand again. He wished Baring a fast, safe journey to Cairo, all the while conscious of Bian right next to him. His heart was racing again for he was mentally crouched, waiting for the moment he needed.
Finally, Kirkham moved toward the doors of the library, preparing to show Stuart to the front door and Baring returned to his big oak desk in the sunny corner under the high windows.
Stuart took Bian’s hand and was appalled to see that his own trembled. He bowed over her hand and looked into her eyes. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Miss Bian.”
She was smiling properly at him, now. He was absurdly pleased to see she had dimples. “Was it really such a pleasure, Lord Sutherland-Bruce?”
“Actually, yes.” He glanced over his shoulder. Both men were out of range of a well-directed whisper. He leaned closer to her ear. “Make your excuses and meet me at the corner of the street in ten minutes.”
“I don’t think so,” she returned.
He stared at her. He would have wagered his inheritance that she would cooperate and find a way to slip out to speak to him freely.
“A lady doesn’t do such things,” she said gently and withdrew her hand—again—from his stunned grip. “Good afternoon, Lord Sutherland-Bruce.”
Oh, this is a good story! The Royal Talisman is a wonderful historical romance with a truly complicated heroine readers should love.
…characters that quickly grab the reader’s interest and keep it glued to the pages. Bian is the kind of heroine that makes us want to join her in the novel. Strong, independent, and far ahead of her time, she is worthy of a hero like Stuart.
If she reveals herself, she will lose him. If she doesn’t, he will be hanged.
It is 1884 and France is at war with China. Stuart Sutherland-Bruce returns to England after a posting in China as a member of the English diplomatic corps. He meets the astonishingly beautiful Bian, an exotic woman who turns his life upside down with the power of his desire for her. As she continues to astonish him at every turn with the unexpectedness of her life and her responses to him, he falls deeply in love with her.
But Bian did not wander into Stuart’s life accidentally. She has orders to become intimate with him and prove he has been giving English secrets to the Chinese. Yet as she works her spell on Stuart, she learns he does not seem to be the traitor her British superiors assure her he is.
Bian is caught in a trap: If she reveals to Stuart her real — and shocking — identity, she will lose the man she loves. If she honours Stuart’s highest values and does her duty, then Stuart will be tried for espionage and hanged.
READER ADVISORY: This short, sexy historical romance contains frequent, explicit and frank sex scenes and sexual language. Do not proceed beyond this point if hot love scenes offend you.
PS: Don’t try this at home. 🙂
This book is part of the Go Get ‘em Women collection:
1.0 Delly’s Last Night
2.0 The Royal Talisman
3.0 Vivian’s Return
4.0 Ningaloo Nights
A Sexy Historical Romantic Suspense Tale