That was what she was called by the desperate prisoners incarcerated in Devil's Chateau. Young and beautiful, she was rumored to buy men for purposes both scandalous and secret. Whatever she did with them one thing was certain: Her unfortunate victims were never seen again. But when she whisked Reed Harwood out of the cell where he'd been left to die for spying against the French, he discovered the lady was not al she seemed.
Fleur Fontaine was the most exquisitely sensual woman he'd ever met, yet there was an innocence about her that belied her sordid reputation. Though he'd been tortured and starved by his jailors, his body reacted eagerly to her nearness. Only a dead man would fail to respond to the sight of those ebony curls, the touch of those luscious lips. Reed was not head yet, but was he willing to pay The Price of Pleasure
Chapter 1 France 1798
Never had Reed Harwood wished so fervently for death. But then Reed had never before wallowed in his own filth and the filth of others, bruised, battered and broken in the worst hellhole imaginable. Nor had he suffered days, weeks, of total darkness in a black, suffocating pit.
Reed had lost all track of time. He couldn’t even recall how long it had been since Napoleon’s agents had seized him, charged with him spying for England and taken him directly to Devil’s Chateau, the unofficial name of the prison perched on a windswept cliff on the coast of France, without benefit of a trial. Six months? Nine months? It was impossible to judge the passage of time when one day was much the same as the next.
Though the beatings had stopped a week ago, at least Reed thought it had been a week since his arm had been broken, his body was still a mass of throbbing pain. His brutal jailors cared nothing for a man’s dignity or pain as they wielded their weapons of torture. As he had been told repeatedly by sadistic guards, he and his fellow inmates would die in this prison. What did it matter if it was sooner rather than later?
There was no reprieve. Reed had been caught, charged with spying for England and buried alive in the hellhole in which he now resided. Reed couldn’t even proclaim his innocence for he had been working as a British operative, assigned by a secret division of the Foreign Office to ferret out Napoleon’s secrets. He had been chosen for the assignment because his French grandmother had taught him to speak flawless French. For nearly a year he had successfully posed as a Frenchman in Paris and spied for the Crown.
Then someone had betrayed him.
Reed let out a groan. It rose up and mingled with various sounds of misery emanating from his fellow prisoners. There were six of them locked in a dank cell strewn with filthy straw. Three buckets for human waste sat in one corner, befouling the air they breathed. Reed didn’t know how many prisoners occupied Devil’s Chateau but suspected there were many cells just like the one he now called home.
Reed raised his eyes to the single window high up in the cell and breathed deeply of the meager supply of the fresh, salt-tinged air. That brief breath of sea air was the only thing that had sustained Reed and kept him sane. He tried not to dream of home for he knew his destiny was to die in Devil’s Chateau.
Reed welcomed death, sought it even. Why was he still alive? He tried to laugh but it hurt too much. For some reason the life force within him refused give up. He raised his good arm, not recognizing the bony appendage that once was thick with muscles. His flesh had melted, revealing the boney structure of his six foot two frame.
He had been betrayed.
Perhaps the reason he clung tenaciously to life was to hunt down and destroy his betrayer.
Reed heard a shuffling sound and glanced at the emaciated figure beside him. “Are you all right, Leclair?” he heard himself ask in an unfamiliar voice very different from his usual deep tones.
“As well as any man can be in this hellhole,” Doctor Leclair croaked. “How is your arm? I set it the best I could with what little I had at hand.”
“You did well, mon ami, thank you. Lucky for us Luchien was on duty when you asked for pieces of wood to use as splits. The others would have laughed at you and watched me die of infection.”
The doctor sighed.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Reed rasped. “We’re going to die anyway.”
“It is true, mon ami. I am to meet my maker simply because I treated aristocratic patients who had escape Madame Guillotine and you will die for spying for England. God willing, one day Napoleon will be defeated. No matter the outcome, France will never be the same after the Reign of Terror that tore our country apart.”
Reed closed his eyes, wishing he could bid his brother goodbye before he breathed his last. Reed loved his brother, Jason Harwood, Earl of Hunthurst. Jason had tried to talk Reed out of taking on such a dangerous assignment but Reed, reckless that he’d been, had refused to listen. Napoleon was heading for war with England and Reed wanted to help defeat the self-proclaimed dictator in any way he could. Reed’s flawless French gave him an edge over other British agents.
Reed wondered if Jason had produced an heir yet. His brother had been sickly all his life but had seemed to rally when he had wed Lady Violet Dewbury. Perhaps taking a wife had been the turning point in his health. Reed’s thoughts slammed to a halt. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered to a man hovering on the brink of death.
The door rattled. A flickering light flared near the entrance. Reed blinked then blinked again. He must be hallucinating. He could swear he saw a female being ushered into he cell by the guard, Lucien. A woman dressed from head to toe in unrelieved black, her face hidden by a heavy black veil, appeared hesitantly into the circle of light.
Ross heard the doctor suck in a breath then exhale sharply. “Do you see what I see?” Reed asked.
“Oui, I was wondering when she would return. It’s been several months since her last visit.”
“The Black Widow,” Reed breathed. He had heard prisoners speak in hushed voices about the woman but had never seen her.
The doctor’s voice trembled. “Oui. She is the woman known as the Black Widow. I have been here a year, more or less, and have seen her but twice in all that time. I wonder who she’s come for this time.”
Reed watched the Black Widow through shuttered eyes as she spoke in low tones to the guard. Reed’s brow puckered in concentration. “I heard rumors about her. I understand she selects a man from among the prisoners, makes him her love slave and kills him when she tires of him.”
“Hence the name Black Widow,” the doctor said wryly. “I cannot vouch for that part of the story, however. What I do know is that money changes hands and her retainers carry the man of her choice away. To my knowledge, the poor hapless devil is never heard from again.”
Reed glanced at his cellmates. Like him, they were pitiful specimens of manhood. Most were emaciated and near death. He couldn’t imagine a woman gaining pleasure from any of these men; most of whom could barely raise their head let alone their cocks. Did no one except him think that strange?
“Our cellmates seem to fear her; they’re cringing away from her.”
“Can you blame them? Fear of the unknown, you know.”
The hum of voices ceased. Lucien and the woman were no longer conversing. The Black Widow took the lantern from Lucien and walked slowly into the cell. Reed tensed as she approached one of the prisoners, peered into his face, and then moved on to the next poor soul.
Reed studied the pert tilt of her shapely bottom as she bent to her task. The woman was small and shapely, not even her widow’s weeds could disguise her womanly curves. Had Reed been half the man, no, a quarter of the man he once was, she would have piqued his interest. Though Reed couldn’t recall the last time he’d had a woman, the Black Widow stirred nothing even remotely akin to desire. But he was curious. Not even the specter of death hovering over him could dim his interest in this unseemly female.
“She’s coming this way,” Leclair hissed. “I wonder if anyone has struck her fancy.”
Reed found the energy to chuckle, though it hurt his broken ribs to do so. “Only a woman with a twisted mind would want one of us. We’re filthy, emaciated, broken men, with one foot in the grave. In my case, one foot’s in the grave and the other is ready to slide in to join its mate.”
Reed fell silent. Talking had exhausted him. He closed his eyes, balancing on the edge of unconsciousness. A gentle hand on his shoulder drew him from the brink. Slowly he opened his eyes, blinking in the bright light of the lantern. At first all he could see was black, unrelieved black, from the top of her head to black boots and hands encased in black gloves.
She peered into his face. Though the veil hid her features, it could not disguise the youthful outlines beneath. What would a young woman want with broken men? He could almost feel her eyes piercing into him. He breathed a sigh of relief when she moved on. But to Reed’s consternation, after she looked over the last of the six men, she returned to him.
Lucien, the guard, who waited impatiently near the door, cleared his throat. “Have you made your choice, Madame? You’ve rejected men in all but this cell block. ‘Tis unwise to linger too long. The warden could return at any time.”
The Black Widow placed the lantern on the floor near Reed’s face and bent to peer into his eyes. “Are you Reed Harwood?” Her English was flawless, without a trace of accent.
Startled, Reed rasped, “Who wants to know?”
“Answer my question,” she ordered.
Reed saw no reason to lie; he was already a dead man. What more could anyone possible do to him? “Aye, I am Reed Harwood. What is it to you?”
“It matters very much to me, my lord.”
The woman rose and picked up the lantern. “This one will do, Monsieur Lucien.”
Her French was also flawless, Reed noted.
“You’re making a mistake,” Reed rasped. “I am as close to death as a man can get. You will gain no pleasure from me.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
Reed gave a hoarse cackle. “I am incapable of giving you the pleasure you will surely demand of me. Nor am I willing to pay the price.”
The woman hissed in a breath and shook her head as the prison guard joined her.
Lucien gave an incredulous snort. “You want that one? I beg you, choose another, Madame. As you can see, this one is not long for this world.”
“Is that your only objection?” the Black Widow asked sharply.
Lucien gave a Gallic shrug. “It matters not to me. These men,” his gesture took in all six prisoners, “are meant to die in Devil’s Chateau.”
The Black Widow withdrew a fat purse from her pocket and giggled it before Lucien’s greedy eyes. “I’ve added a bit more this time. Will you turn it down?”
Lucien plucked the purse from her fingers, hefting it in his palm. I will take it and gladly. A humble jailor cannot afford to turn down bribes. Take the man and welcome to him.” He shuddered. “I cannot imagine what pleasure you will gain from him. In any case, he will soon die. You will save me the trouble of digging a grave.”
Reed listened carefully to the exchange. Was he missing something here? He could think of no reason the widow would choose him, or any of these men, for that matter.
“Summon my servants,” Madame ordered.
As if accustomed to her demands, Lucien walked to the cell door and beckoned. Two men entered. They appeared to be ordinary French peasants, wearing rough clothing and wooden clogs on their feet.
“This one,” the Black Widow said, pointing to Reed. “Be careful, he appears to be badly injured.”
The two men bent toward Reed. Reed stiffened. “Do I have a choice?”
“None whatsoever,” she whispered in English. “You are the one I have come for. If you wish to live, do not struggle.”
Reed couldn’t have struggled had he wanted to. He did, however, gasp in pain when the widow’s servants gently lifted him to his feet.
“Be careful of his arm,” Doctor Leclair admonished. “It’s broken. It wasn’t easy setting it with what little I had to work with.”
The widow stared at the doctor a moment then nodded.
“Good luck, mon ami,” Leclair called to Reed as Madame’s servants half carried half dragged Reed from the cell.
Reed must have lost consciousness, for when he awakened he found himself lying in a swaying cart on a thick pallet of straw, covered by a warm blanket. Daylight had fled; Reed gazed up at the star-studded sky and wondered what in God’s name he had gotten himself into.