In the final Pink Carnation novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, Napoleon has occupied Lisbon, and Jane Wooliston, aka the Pink Carnation, teams up with a rogue agent to protect the escaped Queen of Portugal.
Portugal, December 1807. Jack Reid, the British agent known as the Moonflower (formerly the French agent known as the Moonflower), has been stationed in Portugal and is awaiting his new contact. He does not expect to be paired with a woman—especially not the legendary Pink Carnation.
All of Portugal believes that the royal family departed for Brazil just before the French troops marched into Lisbon. Only the English government knows that mad seventy-three-year-old Queen Maria was spirited away by a group of loyalists determined to rally a resistance. But as the French garrison scours the countryside, it's only a matter of time before she's found and taken.
It's up to Jane to find her first and ensure her safety. But she has no knowledge of Portugal or the language. Though she is loath to admit it, she needs the Moonflower. Operating alone has taught her to respect her own limitations. But she knows better than to show weakness around the Moonflower—an agent with a reputation for brilliance, a tendency toward insubordination, and a history of going rogue.
The mood in the Rossio Square was nasty.
The agent known as the Moonflower blended into the crowd, just one anonymous man among many, just another sullen face beneath the brim of a hat pulled down low against the December rain. The crowd grumbled and shifted as the Portuguese royal standard made its slow descent from the pinnacle of São Jorge Castle, but the six thousand French soldiers massed in the square put an effective stop to louder expressions of discontent. In the windows of the tall houses that framed the square, the Moonflower could see curtains twitch, as hostile eyes looked down on the display put on by the conqueror.
The French claimed to come as liberators, but the liberated didn’t seem any too happy about it.
As the royal standard disappeared from view and the tricolor rose triumphant above the square, the Moonflower heard a woman sob, and a man mutter something rather uncomplimentary about his new French overlords.
The Moonflower might have stayed to listen—listening, after all, was his job—but he had another task today.
He was here to meet his new contact.
That was all he had been told: Proceed to Rossio Square and await further instructions. He would know his contact by the code phrase “The eagle nests only once.”
Who in the hell came up with these lines?
Once, just once, he would appreciate a phrase that didn’t involve dogs barking at midnight or doves flying by day.
The message had given no hint as to the new agent’s identity; it never did. Names were dangerous in their line of work.
The Moonflower had gone by many names in his twenty-seven years.
Jaisal, his mother had called him, when she had called him anything at all. The French had called him Moonflower, just one of their many flower-named spies, a web of agents stretching from Madras to Calcutta, from London to Lyons. He’d counted himself lucky; he might as easily have been the Hydrangea. Moonflower, at least, had a certain ring to it. In Lisbon he was Alarico, a wastrel who tossed dice by the waterfront; in the Portuguese provinces he went by Rodrigo—Rodrigo the seller of baubles and trader of horses.
His father’s people knew him as Jack. Jack Reid, black sheep, turncoat, and renegade.
Jack turned up the collar of his jacket, surveying the scene, keeping an eye out for likely faces.
Might it be the dangerous-looking bravo with the knife he was using to pick his teeth?
No. He looked too much like a spy to be a spy. In Jack’s line of work, anonymity was key. Smoldering machismo and resentment tended to attract unwanted attention.
There was a great deal of smoldering in the crowd. Since the French had marched into Lisbon, two weeks ago, with a ragtag force that could scarcely have conquered a missionary society, they had proceeded to make themselves unpleasant, requisitioning houses, looting stores, demanding free drinks.
The people of Lisbon simmered and stewed. This lowering of the standard, this public exhibition of dominance, was all that was needed to place torch to tinder. Jack wouldn’t be surprised if there were riots before the day was out.
Riots, yes. Rebellion, no. For rebellion one needed not just a cause, but a leader, and that was exactly what they didn’t have right now. The Portuguese court had hopped on board the remaining ships of their fleet and scurried off to the Americas, well out of the way of danger, leaving their people to suffer the indignities of invasion.
Not that it was any of his business. Jack didn’t get into the rights and wrongs of it all, not these days. Not anymore. He was a hired gun, and it just so happened that the Brits paid, if not better than the French, at least more reliably.
There was a cluster of French officers in the square, standing behind General Junot. They did go in for flashy uniforms, these imperial officers. Flashy uniforms and even flashier women. The richly dressed women hanging off the arms of the officers were earning dark stares from the members of the crowd, stares and mutterings.
Some were local girls, making up to the conqueror. Others were undoubtedly French imports, like the woman who stood to the far left of the huddled group, her dark hair a mass of bunched curls beneath the brim of a bonnet from which pale purple feathers molted with carefree abandon. Her clothes were all that was currently à la mode in Paris, her pelisse elaborately frogged, the fingers of her gloves crammed with rings.
A well-paid courtesan, at the top of her trade.
But there was something about her that caught Jack’s eye. It wasn’t the flashing rings. He’d seen far grander jewels in his time. No. It was the aura of stillness about her. She stood with an easy elegance of carriage at odds with all her frills and fripperies, and it seemed that the nervous energy of the crowd eddied and ebbed around her without touching her in the slightest.
Her features had the classical elegance that was all the rage. High cheekbones. Porcelain pale skin, tinted delicately pink at the cheeks. Jack had been around enough to know that it wouldn’t take long for the ravages of her trade to begin to show. Those clear eyes would become shadowed; that pale skin would be replaced with white lead and other cosmetics in a desperate simulacrum of youth, a frantic attempt to catch and hold the affections of first one man and then another, until there was nothing left but the bottle—or the river.
Better, thought Jack grimly, to be a washerwoman or a fishwife, a tavern keeper or a maid. Those occupations might be hell on the hands, but the other was hell on the heart.
Not that it was any of his lookout.
The courtesan’s eyes met Jack’s across the crowd. Met and held. Ridiculous, of course. There was a square full of people between them, and he was just another rough rustic in a shapeless brown jacket.
But he could have sworn, for that moment, she was looking fully at him. Looking and sizing him up.
For what? He was hardly a likely protector for a French courtesan.
Go away, princess, Jack thought. There’s nothing here for you.
The French might hold Portugal, but not for long. Rumors were spinning through the crowd. The British navy was sending ships. . . . There were British spies throughout Lisbon. . . . The royal family were returning to raise their army. . . . There were troops massing on the Northern frontier. . . . Rumor upon rumor, but who knew what might have a breath of truth?
It would all go into Jack’s report. Provided he ever found his bloody contact, who appeared to be late. The review was almost over, and still, no one had made contact.
That did not bode well.
The soldiers began to filter out of the square, marching beneath the baroque splendor of the Arco da Bandeira, the cheerful yellow of the facade in stark contrast to the bleak weather and even bleaker mood of the populace.
“Pig!” a woman hissed, and tossed a stone.
“Portugal forever!” rose another voice from the crowd.
The officers milled uneasily, looking to their leader. Junot turned, speaking urgently to the man at his side, one of the members of the Portuguese Regency Council, the nominal government that had replaced the Queen and Regent.
A bottle shattered against the tiles, among the feet of the departing soldiers, spraying glass.
“Death to the French!” shouted one bold soul, and then another took it up, and another.
Projectiles were hailing down from every direction, stones and bottles and whole cobbles pried from the street. Abuse rattled down with the stones. The French troops ducked and milled, looking anxiously to their leader, who appeared to be in the middle of a fight with the regency council, none of whom could agree with one another, much less anyone else.
And then, the sound that could turn a riot into a massacre: the crack of an old-fashioned musket, shot right into the ranks of French soldiers.
It was, Jack judged, not a healthy time to stay in the square.
Any moment now, the French were going to start firing back, and Jack didn’t want to be in the middle of it. If his contact hadn’t appeared by now, he wasn’t coming. One thing Jack had learned after years in the game: saving one’s own skin came first.
He slipped off through the heaving, shouting crowd. The various approaches to the square were already crammed with people: people surging forward, people fleeing, people fainting, people shouting, mothers grabbing their children out of the way, fishwives scrabbling at the cobbles, old men running for ancient weapons, French émigrés and sympathizers running for their lives as the crowd hurled abuse and missiles at the collaborators. Rioters were fighting hand-to-hand with French soldiers; Junot’s face was red with anger as he shouted, trying to be heard above the square. A runner was making for the French barracks, undoubtedly to call up reinforcements.
Jack ducked sideways, down the Rua Áurea.
A hand grabbed at his arm. Jack automatically dodged out of the way. This wasn’t his fight. And then a musical voice said, “Wait!”
It was the courtesan—the courtesan he had noticed across the square, her curls flying, her bonnet askew.
“Please,” she said, and she spoke in French, a cultured, aristocratic French that caught the attention of the mob around them, made them stop and stare and growl low in their throats. “I need an escort back to my lodgings.”
He’d say she did. Her voice was already attracting unwanted attention.
But Jack didn’t do rescues of maidens, fair or fallen. Don’t get involved, that was the only way to survive. Even when they had a figure like a statue of Aphrodite and lips painted a luscious pink.
“Sorry, princess,” he drawled, his own French heavily accented, but serviceable. “I’m no one’s lackey.” He nodded towards the embattled French soldiers. “There’s your escort.”
“They can’t even escort themselves.” Her pose was appropriately beseeching, the epitome of ladylike desperation, but there was, even now, in the midst of all the tumult, that strange calm about her. It was the eyes, Jack realized. Cool. Assessing. She lifted those eyes to his in a calculated gesture of supplication, her gloved hands against the breast of his rough coat. “Please. You know that the eagle nests only once.”
All around them, the hectic exodus continued. In the distance Jack could hear the ominous clatter of horses’ hooves against the cobbles, signaling the arrival of the cavalry.
But Jack stood where he was, frozen in the middle of the street, locked in tableau with a French courtesan. And a very pretty tableau it was. Pretty, and completely for show.
Beneath the heavy tracing of kohl that lined her eyes and darkened her lashes, her gray eyes were shrewd, and more than a little bit amused.
She raised her brows, waiting for him, giving him the chance to speak first. It was a damnable tactic, and one Jack used himself with some frequency.
He didn’t much appreciate being on the other end of it.
“The eagle,” said Jack, his gaze traveling from the plunging depths of her décolletage to her painted face, “sometimes nests in uncommon strange places.”
The woman didn’t squirm or color. She said calmly, “The more remote the nest, the more secure the eggs.”
“Puta!” taunted one of the crowd, jostling towards them.
The woman raised her voice, putting on a convincing display of arrogance tinged with fear. “I will pay for your escort. My colonel will reward you well for seeing me safely home.”
“I’ll see her—” shouted one man, and made a graphic hand gesture.
Loudly, in Portuguese, Jack said, “When coin is lying in the gutter, it would be foolishness not to take it, eh?” Under his breath, in French, he added, “Squeal.”
Without waiting for a response, he scooped her up, over his shoulder. A ragged cheer rose up from their viewers, combined with some rather graphic suggestions. Jack waved his free hand, and then hastily had to clap it back over her bottom as she squirmed and bucked and squealed, putting on, he had to admit, an excellent show. That is, if she didn’t unbalance them both.
“Easy there, princess,” called Jack, with a wink for the crowd, and, with a hard hand on her bottom, hoisted her more securely over his shoulder.
Something banged into his collarbone, making him wince.
Not all flounces, then. He’d eat his hat if that wasn’t a pistol tucked into her stays.
Who—or what—in the devil was she?
“Where to?” he asked beneath his breath, staggering just a little. The woman was slim, but she was nearly as tall as he was, and burdened with a superfluity of flounces and ruffles. The street was slick beneath his feet with mud and offal.
“Down Rua Áurea and turn left on the Rua Assunção,” she said, as briskly as though she were giving directions to her coachman. And then she began whacking him on the back with her parasol, screaming for help.
“Right,” Jack said under his breath, and took off. Bloody hell, did she need to hit so hard? “You might be a little less convincing,” he muttered.
“And ruin the deception?” Amused. The woman sounded amused.
They were past the mob now, out of the way of the men who had witnessed their little scene. Jack set her down with a thunk, right in a patch of something unmentionable. It did not do wonders for the lilac satin on her slippers.
“Sorry, princess. I’m not your sedan chair. You can walk the rest of the way.”
He half expected her to argue, but she cast a look up and down the street and nodded. “Follow me.”
She knew how to stay in character; Jack had to give her that. She minced along, constantly readjusting her bonnet, fidgeting with the buttons of her pelisse. Jack followed, in the slouch he’d developed in his role as Alaric o the drunk, keeping an eye out for pursuers, and trying to figure out what to make of the woman trip-trapping ahead of him, making moues of distaste as she picked her way through the sodden street, her flashing rings practically an invitation to a knife at her throat.
But there was an alertness to her that suggested her attacker wouldn’t fare well.
Jack remembered the hard feel of the pistol beneath her stays. That, he realized, explained the fiddling with buttons. And the hat? Jack regarded the woman in front of him with new interest. He’d be willing to wager that there was a stiletto attached to that bunch of feathers on her hat.
As for those rings, those foolish flashing rings . . . Most would-be assailants would be so dazzled by the gleam of gems on her hands that they wouldn’t notice that those hands were holding a knife until it was too late.
Grudgingly, Jack had to admit that whoever the woman was, she knew what she was doing.
Which made her both very intriguing and very, very dangerous.
The house to which she led him was a private residence. Jack followed her through a gate, across a courtyard, and up a flight of stairs to a narrow iron door. His fingers briefly touched the point of the knife he kept in a sheath at his wrist. The woman might have known the code phrase, but that didn’t mean this wasn’t an ambush. No secret organization was inviolable, no code unbreakable. The woman’s French was impeccable, her clothes Paris-made.
Which could mean anything or nothing.
How far did her masquerade go? Jack wondered. Was there a colonel who had her in keeping? It had been done before. Sleeping with the enemy was the surest way of securing information. A man might share with a mistress what he wouldn’t with a friend.
Jack’s imagination painted a picture of the rooms they were about to enter: lush carpets on the floor, a gilded mirror above a dressing table laden with mysterious creams and powders, a hip bath in one corner, silk draperies falling around a wide bed. The perfect nest for a French colonel’s woman.
Jack didn’t consider himself prudish or squeamish; a job was a job, and they all got it done as best they could. So why the instinctive feeling of distaste that this woman, this particular woman, might sell her body for information?
From a reticule that looked too small to contain anything of use, the woman took a heavy key and fitted it into the door.
It opened onto a spartan room, the walls whitewashed, the only furniture a table, a chair, and a divan that looked as though it doubled as a bed. There was no dressing table, no gilded mirror, no bed draped with curtains.
“Surely,” said Jack mockingly, “the colonel could afford better.”
The woman closed the door behind them with a snap. “There is no colonel.”
Now that they were inside, her movements were brisk and businesslike, with no hint of coquetry. She tossed the key on the table and crossed the room, testing the shutters on the window.
“No?” Jack lounged back against the door frame, his hands thrust in his pockets. “You surprise me.”
“I doubt that.” The woman plucked the bonnet off her head, taking the dark curls with it.
Beneath it, her own hair was a pale brown, brushed to a sheen and braided tightly around and around. Without the coquettish curls, her face had the purity of a profile on a coin, the sort of face to which men ascribed abstract sentiments: Liberty, Honor, Beauty . All she needed was some Grecian draperies and a flag.
She dropped the bonnet on the table. “You have a reputation for keeping a cool head. Or have we been mistaken in you . . . Mr. Reid?”
Jack straightened slowly. “I am afraid you have the advantage of me.”
No names. That was the rule. Never names. Only aliases.
One by one, the lady plucked the rings off her fingers, setting them each in a bowl on the table. “Your full name is Ian Reid, but no has ever called you that. Your family calls you Jack. You were born in Madras to Colonel William Reid, a Scottish-American officer in the East India Company’s army and his—”
“Concubine?” drawled Jack.
“—companion,” the woman corrected primly, “a Rajput lady of high birth.”
His mother might have been a bazaar girl for all it mattered to the English community in Madras. Her high birth had meant only that she had felt her fall all the more, reduced from a princess among her own people to a cavalry officer’s kept woman.
Jack didn’t like to talk about his mother. He liked it even less when other people talked about his mother.
Years of taking hard knocks kept Jack’s face wooden. The only reaction was his very stillness, a stillness he knew betrayed him as much as any response. “Does this fascinating exposition have a point?”
The cool, controlled voice went inexorably on. “You served for some years in the army of the Maratha chieftain Scindia, before Scindia’s French allies recruited you, and renamed you the Moonflower.” The last ring clattered into the bowl. The woman stretched her bare fingers, like a pianist preparing to play, before glancing over at Jack. “You fell out with the French three years ago. People tend not to like it when you work for someone else while pretending to work for them. They like it even less when you abscond with a raja’s horde of jewels.”
Jack shrugged. “All’s fair, they say.”
The woman raised a pale brow. “In love or in war?”
From his limited experience, Jack didn’t see much difference between the two. Except that those one loved might hurt one the most. “They’re one and the same, princess.” His eyes lingered on her décolletage with deliberate insolence. “I had thought you would know.”
The woman brushed that aside, continuing with her dossier. “As a result of your little escapade with the jewels, you relocated to Portugal, where you have been positioned ever since.”
Jack tilted his hat lazily over his eyes. “You are well-informed,” he drawled. “Brava.”
The woman’s lips turned up in a Sphinx-like smile. “It is what I do.”
She sounded so pleased with herself that Jack decided that turn and turnabout was only fair play. He’d see how she liked it with the shoe on the other foot.
“We’ve ascertained that you know all about me.” Jack straightened to his full height, favoring her with a wolfish smile. “Now let’s talk about you.”
“I don’t—” she began imperiously, but Jack held up a hand.
Pushing back from the wall, he prowled in a slow circle around her. “You speak French beautifully, but it’s not your native tongue. You wear your French clothes well, but they’re a costume, not a personal choice. Left to yourself, you don’t go in for furbelows.”
His eyes went to her neck, where she wore a gold locket on a silk ribbon. The rest of her jewelry was showy, and undoubtedly made of paste. The locket was simple, and it was real.
Jack nodded at her neck. “Except, perhaps, one. That locket.”
The woman’s hand closed over the bauble, a small but telling gesture. “Very nice, Mr. Reid. You are quite perceptive.”
Jack smiled lazily. “That’s what they pay me for, princess. Now, do I go on—or are you going to tell me who you are?”
He half expected her to demur. Any other woman would have. Any other woman would have teased and played.
Instead, this woman, with her elaborate rings and plain locket, looked him in the eye and said simply, “You may know me as the Carnation. The Pink Carnation.”
Jack stared at her for a moment, and then he broke out in a laugh. “Pull the other one, sweetheart.”