Abandoned as an infant under a vicarage archway, Amelia Keystone is now a trainee Agent of the Queen. In the city of Bath she’s on a real mission -- keep the Count of Lille distracted while his hotel room is searched.
The Count is a suspected assassin, which adds to the challenge, but he’s attractive and charming with a reputation for bedding beautiful women. So how hard can it be for Amelia to pass this milestone in her training? Then she discovers the charming Count holds the key to her past. How far will she go to discover his secrets?
Praise for Painting Rapture (Empire of Hearts 3)
"I have really liked this steampunk series it has caught my imagination and I have let it run wild. This book like the others is very well written, with characters that are unique and so special. Chapter Thirteen Rapture at the gate was so emotional and so powerful it was brilliant."
-- 5 Stars from Crystal Crossings, Amazon Review
"I love the way that Ms. Ash writes the voice of Amelia complete with doubts and fears. There are some interesting elements added to the story this time but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. Let’s just say that I didn’t see THAT coming."
-- 4 Stars from Suzanne Irving, Kobo Review
"Abandoned as an infant under a vicarage archway, Amelia Keystone is now a trainee Agent of the Queen. In the city of Bath she’s on a real mission -- keep the Count of Lille distracted while his hotel room is searched. And the hilarity ensues."
-- 5 Stars from Ken T., Kobo Review
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Painting Rapture (Empire of Hearts 3)
All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2023 Mikala Ash
The handsome and exceedingly charming man sitting opposite me, the dubiously titled Count of Lille, was a suspected assassin.
As disconcerting as that state of affairs was, I was in no immediate danger. We were in a public place, the popular restaurant in the Grand Pump Room Hotel in Bath, the city made famous by Jane Austen. The room was much altered since her time, of course, the floor crisscrossed by automaton tracks on which the boxlike servers trundled, carrying menus and bottles of wine in their ice water coolers to the tables. The Count already had a table reserved, and I felt quite privileged to be amongst the very rich diners. Around us the room echoed with the babble of voices, the scrape of furniture, and the clatter of cutlery. Busier than any beehive, diners and servants bustled about, the former going to and from tables, the latter taking orders and delivering meals, the eyes of the women scrutinising the fashions of their competitors, the men savouring the smorgasbord of feminine beauty parading before them.
Not that I was taking too much notice of my surroundings. The Count’s pellucid green eyes were unwaveringly fixed on mine. As mesmerising as any music hall performer, they drew me in, then held me, his adoring audience, in his magnetic thrall. His way, the way of every charming man, was to make you believe you were the centre of his world, that he hung on your every utterance, and that the combined features of your physiognomy, no matter how discordant, outshone Helen herself, and could provoke the launch of a dozen armadas, not just one. Despite the temptation to fall into his power, as so many women had reputedly done before, my task was a simple one -- to keep him distracted and away from his hotel room while Charles Graves and Miss Clayton, more experienced Agents of the Queen, searched his room.
This was the first occasion I had been left alone with an enemy of Her Majesty, and was in the nature of a test, an important milestone in my training. For six months since my marriage to Lord Randolph Cressy I’d been undergoing instruction in the craft of espionage, which included a bewildering array of subjects, including international politics, the law, criminal detection, cryptology, surveillance, as well as the use of weapons and the art of unarmed self-defence, not to mention the theory of the magical arts.
I had studied hard, and the opportunity to put theory into practice was at hand. I was appropriately nervous, my heart thudded inside my ribs with a fast staccato beat, my face was hot and probably flushed, and my palms were moist with perspiration. No doubt the Count believed he had me completely in his power, that his charm had neutralised normal societal constraints, and made me pliable clay in his hands.
So far, the trial had progressed most agreeably. It had begun with an early and unexpected knock on our bedroom door. My maid Emily entered with lamp in hand, which cast a faint golden glow across our bed. Until that moment I had been comfortably snug in the arms of my husband, Randolph. We’d not long before finished making love and were in that wonderful languor that follows sexual congress.
Emily bobbed a deep curtsy, her eyes averted. The poor girl was doubtless embarrassed by the state of our bedclothes which we’d thrown off the bed during the height of passion, leaving us in a state of nakedness.
“What’s this?” Randolph looked past me through half-opened eyes. “It’s still dark outside.”
“Sorry to disturb you, my lord,” Emily said, her voice quavering, her gaze fixed on the disordered pile of sheets. “My lady, Miss Clayton and Mr. Graves are downstairs, and humbly request your presence.”
Excitement of a different sort had surged through me. I gave Randolph a long and deep kiss. “I’m sorry, my love,” I whispered. “Duty calls.”
“Damned inconvenient,” he grumbled. He pulled my hand down to where his cock was climbing to full stand. “If you get my meaning.”
I giggled and kissed him again. “Not in front of Emily.”
His eyes snapped open. “What? Oh. Thoughtless of me. My apologies, Emily.”
Her jaw dropped, and even in the low light I saw her pale face turn dark. She picked up some sheets and with eyes closed held them out to me.
I took them and draped them over Randolph’s beautifully sculpted body. “I must go,” I said to him, and planted a kiss on his cheek.
“I know,” he said resignedly as I climbed out of bed. “I know.”
Emily hurried after me to my dressing room. “Miss Clayton told me you will need the two-day bag.”
My heart jumped. “Very well. Let’s be at it.”
“And you’ll need to travel in a mourning dress.”
“Pardon my saying, ma’am. But she said I was not to attend you. I told her I took my instructions from you, my lady. Was I right to do so? She was so very insistent.”
I took her hand, touched at her proprietorship over me. It would have taken a certain degree of courage for her to stand up to one as formidable as Miss Clayton. “Of course, you were. Though she is a frequent guest, and of some importance, you are not hers to take liberties with. I’ll speak to her.”
“Oh, ma’am. I wouldn’t want to cause trouble.”
“You won’t, and I would always prefer you to speak up. You deserve respect, Emily, and you shall have it.” I caught my own hypocrisy. “I apologise for my husband and me. We forgot ourselves.”
“Never mind, ma’am. I’ve seen worse.” Then she gasped. “I mean… I…”
“Shhh. Let’s get on with it. Miss Clayton may not be your mistress, but she likes to think she’s mine.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”
“I suppose there’s no time for a bath,” I said.
“Miss Clayton said we were to hurry, ma’am.”
“Of course, she did.”
After a I gave my privates a quick sponge -- a whore’s bath, it’s called -- to remove as much of Randolph’s spend as possible, Emily helped me dress. In quick time I was ensconced in split drawers, chemise, stockings, corset, narrow crinoline, petticoats, button boots, and finally one of the mourning dresses that hung ready in the wardrobe. I had a full range of costumes fit for every circumstance from evening gowns, day and afternoon dresses, promenade dresses, riding outfits, jackets, coats, and mantles in every colour and style one can name, from the richest silks and satins to the cheapest muslin and gingham. The number of bonnets and hats, not to mention gloves, scarves and boots was beyond counting. I even had a set of men’s evening and day wear in case I needed to disguise myself as a gentleman.
Knowing Miss Clayton’s dislike of half measures I’d chosen a deep mourning bombazine suitable for a recent widow. I wondered what the day’s training could possibly be that would require such a costume. Emily helped me with a simple hair arrangement, hidden by a suitably veiled bonnet. I selected a black reticule, to which I added my sketch pad, pencils, sharpening knife, and derringer pistol.
When I presented myself to Randolph, who was still reclining in bed, he sat up, a shocked expression on his face. “Good God! Do I look unwell?”
“Don’t be silly!” I said and skipped over to him.
Randolph’s joke had a barb to it. Last year he had been at death’s door. On two occasions he had bravely stepped between me and an assassin’s bullet. He had miraculously survived. I suspected that magic had been involved, that either his daughter Felicity, or his old friend Mrs. Graves, had sold their souls to effect his recovery. Leannan, a depraved faerie, had appeared to me several times, hinting that through him I could save my lover’s life. Being the adopted daughter of a vicar, I had resisted that particular temptation...