Mission at Midnight
Chronicles of the Westbrook Brides, Book 2
Fate brings hearts together in the most unexpected—and inconvenient—ways…
If Clodovea de Soverosa had been comfortable socializing at the ball instead of sneaking off to be alone, she wouldn’t have interrupted the handsome spy’s midnight mission. And if she’d been more convincing, he would’ve believed she wasn’t a criminal and refrained from kidnapping her. Now, it’s too late. She’s stuck with him and his outlandish solution to their problem. She should hate him. But she doesn’t…
Lucius Westbrook was thrilled to capture an enemy of the Crown. Until he discovered Clodovea was exactly who she claimed to be—the sister of a Spanish attaché. After his colossal failure, only a marriage of convenience will protect her. He never thought he’d fall for his lovely captive—or that earning her trust and forgiveness would be so difficult…
Can a case of mistaken identity and an accidental abduction lead to happily ever after? Clodovea and Lucius are about to answer that very question…
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★★★★★ “What happens next is the zany imaginative world Collette is known to deliver in her stories that keeps us riveted to the end. Characters with flaws, strong values, and reframing qualities that captivate and win you over.” ~ Tina Ulrich
★★★★★ “The characters are complex and well rounded. The story moves at such a quick pace that you won’t be able to put it down.” ~ iread
★★★★★ “The story is intriguing throughout with humor and personal growth and romance added in.” ~ Cindy Woltman
★★★★★ “Collette Cameron starts her new series with fireworks and discoveries and the path to those discoveries is full of fireworks, tears, and a delightful Grandmama.” ~ Dee F
★★★★★ “The intricate emotional dance of these two independent and yet flawed characters unfolds with humor, tenderness, compassion, and love, and was a wonderfully heartwarming tale.” ~ Nancy H
★★★★★ “This is a story not to be missed if you like excitement along with romance, and an evasive HEA.” ~ Joanie
★★★★★ “Wow what an intriguing story of mistakes, misunderstandings, harm to another and loss of what one holds dear.” ~ Nann
★★★★★”This is also a story about acceptance and forgiveness that showed the impossible can be possible, earning this a solid five stars.” ~ Kristi Hudecek-Ashwill
17 February 1826
Spanish ambassador’s home
Regent’s Park – London, England
Now. Go now. Escape.
As the animated crowd surged toward the grand room in anticipation of the sumptuous supper laid out for Ambassador Domingo Felix Tur de Montis’s three hundred and fifty guests, Clodovea seized the opportunity she’d waited nearly three hours to come to pass.
As diligent and protective as her older brothers and dragon-like duenna were, she’d likely not have another chance to escape this god-awful costume ball. Clodovea needed a few moments alone in a quiet place to regain her equanimity and allow her ire to abate.
Not just ire but fulminating hurt and humiliation too.
A fresh wave of mortification engulfed her, and her vision blurred.
No. I shall not cry.
Do not give them the gratification, Clodovea Madeleine Cayetana de Soverosa.
Your father was a noble.
You have noble blood in your veins.
You are not inferior to those women.
Jaw clenched tight, Clodovea blinked away the moisture pooling in her eyes.
She had not let the heartless harridans see her weep at their cruel barbs in the ballroom or retiring room, and she would not give them the victory now. Their cold cat-like eyes had shone with glee behind their elaborate masks as they curved their rouged mouths into satisfied feline smiles.
Why must the lovely English ladies in their clever costumes be so vicious?
Slender, graceful, sophisticated women who enjoyed degrading her for reasons Clodovea could not comprehend. Making a May game of her accent, her costume choice, her struggle with British customs, and her faulty English.
Such an ugly, harsh, unromantic language, unlike the dulcet, warm tones of la lengua española.
Snapping her hand-painted ebony lace fan shut while simultaneously grasping the skirts of her black and silver gown in her other hand, she tore down the corridor.
She should never have indulged in the whimsical costume.
Black swan, indeed.
Swans were graceful, elegant creatures.
Clodovea was not.
She more closely resembled a cara blanca—a white-faced black Spanish chicken—some of the largest chickens alive. And the fact that she knew such an insignificant detail said much about her and the trite trivia she easily retained.
Thanks to her voluptuous mother—in truth, all her maternal female relations—Clodovea boasted an overly rounded bosom and generous hips. Mama’s figure had been alluring, sensual, and oh so feminine, her movements as agile and graceful as a gazelle’s.
Not so Clodovea’s.
As much as it grieved her, she was…
Plump as a partridge and plodding as a plow horse.
Clodovea the clodpoll.
A few of the hateful sotto voce whispers directed toward her this evening replayed in her ears.
Never mind that her name was pronounced clode-oh-vee, not clod-dove-ee-ah.
Mama had named her after a mythical warrior, claiming that with three older brothers, she’d need to be strong and courageous.
However, Clodovea wasn’t the least warrior-like—not daring or brave or valiant.
Neither was she as stout or clumsy as the stick-thin, shapeless, and flat-chested English ladies inferred.
Nevertheless, she did occasionally tread upon her dance partner’s toes and found stays a nuisance beneath her gowns. The undergarment emphasized her cleavage, which needed no enhancement whatsoever and only served to lure lecherous male gazes.
Casting a swift glance behind her, Clodovea released the air she held in her lungs with a trembling sigh.
So far, so good.
She’d even avoided the Spanish guards making their rounds.
At these events, sentinels always patrolled inside and out—though no one openly admitted the gatherings were as much about politics and favors, extortion and exploitation, as entertainment and enjoyment.
Andrés, her oldest brother and a Spanish attaché, had dragged her to these elite assemblies since she’d turned eighteen, six years ago. Clodovea supposed she ought to appreciate the luxury and esteemed company.
Regardless, the truth was that ever since her parents died at a fiesta, she loathed crowds—particularly throngs of people whose high opinions of themselves, elevated noses, and contemptuous glances made her feel like a toad.
An ugly, mud-colored, warty toad.
She dashed along, grateful her lovely beaded silver silk slippers merely pattered—a soft swish, swish—on the cold, hard Calacatta gold Italian marble floor rather than clacked loudly with each swift step.
Gazing at herself in the cheval mirror this evening before leaving their rented Bedford Square house, she’d studied the young woman staring back at her.
Unexceptional but not homely.
Her wavy cocoa-bean-brown hair—her best feature—shone. Confident she’d picked the perfect costume to flatter her buxom figure, a glint of eagerness had lit her almond-shaped hazel eyes.
The black ostrich feathers tucked into Clodovea’s intricate coiffeur frantically wobbled as she sped along, and she fretted they might fall out. Her silver fillagree earrings, set with jet and diamonds, swung back and forth, back and forth, pendulum-like as the jet swan cameo pendant that had belonged to her beautiful, blonde Castilian mother bobbed between her breasts.
A longcase clock somewhere in the house began to chime the midnight hour.
You mustn’t get caught.
Clodovea had a mission; she must find a hiding place—to recover and re-erect her battlements. So that when she returned to the ball, she could face the rest of the evening composed and with her head held high.
Heart racing, temples pounding, and stupid, estúpida stubborn tears still stinging her eyes, she rushed onward, leaving the cacophony of laughing and chatting guests behind.
She rounded a corner, then another, before daring to slow her pace.
Possessing an excellent sense of direction, Clodovea had no concern that she’d lose her way in the great house. With a swift side-eyed glance up and down the passageway, she slipped inside the nearest room, praying no one lingered inside.
If the chamber was occupied, she meant to fib and claim she’d become turned around when returning from the ladies’ retiring room.
Two floors above and in the other wing.
If she averted her gaze, hunched her shoulders, and spoke halting English, she might actually get away with the ridiculous lie.
A swift examination of the dim interior brought an involuntary sigh of relief.
A low fire burned in the hearth to dispel the permeating February chill.
How Clodovea missed the warmth of her homeland.
Outside, rain and snow wrestled for dominance, and the wind blew the precipitation about with the vengeance of a cross maid shaking a dirty carpet. Hopefully, no dutiful servant would come along to stoke the fire and discover her where she ought not be.
In her desperation to flee, she hadn’t considered the repercussions should that occur.
Slowly, her full skirts whooshing softly with the movement, she pivoted, taking in the chamber she’d entered a few seconds ago. It was either a private salon or drawing room and every bit as garishly overdone and elaborate as the rest of the mansion.
A diminutive little man at least five inches shorter than her, the ambassador was a puffed-up braggart.
Nonetheless, the room provided a perfect sanctuary for the next hour.
She’d meant to skip supper tonight, in any event.
To her three older brothers’ immense frustration and the irritation of Lupita Balasco, her nurse turned duenna, Clodovea had begun a reducing diet a fortnight ago.
She slipped the silk strap of her fan around her wrist as she wandered to a settee. As she bent to sink onto the gold and crimson brocade cushion, giggling and rustling echoed outside the door.
Who in the world?
Had someone followed her after all?
Well, she wasn’t up to any more abuse at present.
She sprinted across the room and dived behind the draperies.
Clodovea had barely yanked the heavy velvet across the French windows before a couple, locked in a romantic embrace, stumbled into the salon. Heart pounding in her ears and her back pressed against the terrace door handle, she peeked through a half-inch crack. She didn’t recognize either person, although something about the woman seemed vaguely familiar.
Giving a throaty, wicked chuckle, the man dressed as a satyr booted the panel shut, locked the door, and then dropped the key in his blood-red jacket pocket.
Clodovea nearly stamped her foot in frustration, but that would reveal her presence.
Por el amor de Dios!
For God’s sake.
This couldn’t be happening.
The man gave the woman, another Cleopatra—Clodovea had seen at least two other Egyptian queens—a devilish wink.
“No one shall interrupt us, my queen.”
“Tifton, you are so naughty,” she replied in a husky purr.
A lover’s tryst.
Now what was Clodovea to do?
A heartbeat later, the pair collapsed on the second settee and, to Clodovea’s horror, began shedding their clothing.
Surely, they are not going to…
It seemed she wasn’t the only one using the dinner commotion to sneak away.
Eyes squeezed tight, Clodovea tried to ignore the animalistic sounds, husky moans, and rasping gasps as she fumbled behind her to unlock the door as quietly as possible.
At last, she managed to open the French window, and holding her breath, she sneaked through the opening. Lower lip caught between her teeth, she used both hands to press the panel gently shut.
No guard called for her to halt.
Regardless, one would pass by soon.
She must be away by then.
A gust of wind slammed into Clodovea, and she shivered.
It was a wonder the English didn’t have moss and mold growing on them due to the constant dankness and dampness.
While the revelers enjoyed the costume ball, the temperature outside had dropped.
It was freezing, and although the precipitation hadn’t ceased completely, it had lessened somewhat.
Hugging herself and using the house as protection against the elements, she edged along the dark terrace. Another door lay but a few feet away.
She tried the handle.
“Of course, it is locked,” she muttered crossly, pushing a drooping feather away from her face. She’d known it would be.
Ambassadors had many enemies, as did several of the distinguished guests present at tonight’s festivities.
If Clodovea didn’t get inside soon, she’d become a soggy mess, and explaining her appearance wouldn’t be easy. Or else, she’d be apprehended by a guard, which would also require clever justification for her presence outside.
Neither appealed in the least.
Claiming she’d lost her way from the ladies’ retiring room inside was one thing.
Not believable by any stretch of the imagination, and she hadn’t fabricated another story.
She pulled a hairpin from the intricate knot at the back of her head and went to work on the lock. As a child, she and her brothers had competed against each other to see who could pick a lock the fastest.
She usually won.
Not a talent she generally shared, but in this case, a skill that came in most handy.
It all started when Fernández, her middle brother, argued with Enríquez, the youngest brother, and locked him in a closet. Hearing his cries and him being her favorite brother, Clodovea had borrowed one of Mama’s hairpins and freed him.
Papa had thought the contests between his children hilarious, and Clodovea and her brothers had often received lemon drops or some other tasty treat as a reward.
Mama shook her fair head, then curved her lips into an indulgent smile.
Surely Papa could never have imagined his only daughter would ever find herself breaking into a Spanish ambassador’s London mansion.
How Clodovea had missed her parents these past ten years.
They had been taken far too soon.
Poor Andrés had just begun his diplomatic career when she’d been thrust upon him as his ward. Fernández and Enríquez were at university, and Clodovea had been sent to a boarding school until she was eighteen.
A few seconds later, the lock gave way with the merest snick, and a triumphant grin bent her mouth. Excelente. Though it had been years since Clodovea had picked a lock, she still possessed the knack.
Thoroughly chilled, in a trice, she stepped into the room and closed the door. Shivering, her fingers numb, she fumbled with the thick draperies for a few moments before finally freeing herself of their cloying folds.
The smell of a recently extinguished candle met her nostrils.
Her nape hair stood straight up.
She wasn’t alone.
All the saints and Jesus too.
She spun around to flee, but the next instant, a large, rough hand clamped over her mouth and stifled her instinctive scream. An iron-like embrace pinned her arms to her sides as the man slammed her back against the granite-hard wall of his chest.
The air left her lungs in a painful whoosh at the impact.
“We meet at last, Astraea,” came a guttural, icy whisper against Clodovea’s ear. “I’ve waited a very long time to exact my vengeance.”