My Beautiful Enemy
Hidden beneath Catherine Blade’s uncommon beauty is a daring that matches any man’s. Although this has taken her far in the world, she still doesn’t have the one thing she craves: the freedom to live life as she chooses. Finally given the chance to earn her independence, who should be standing in her way but the only man she’s ever loved, the only person to ever betray her.
Despite the scars Catherine left him, Captain Leighton Atwood has never been able to forget the mysterious girl who once so thoroughly captivated him. When she unexpectedly reappears in his life, he refuses to get close to her. But he cannot deny the yearning she reignites in his heart.
Their reunion, however, plunges them into a web of espionage, treachery, and deadly foes. With everything at stake, Leighton and Catherine are forced to work together to find a way out. If they are ever to find safety and happiness, they must first forgive and learn to trust each other again…
Don’t forget to check out THE HIDDEN BLADE, the companion volume to MY BEAUTIFUL ENEMY.
On a storm-whipped sea, some prayed, some puked. Catherine Blade wedged herself between the bed and the bulkhead of her stateroom and went on with her breathing exercises, ignoring fifty-foot swells of the North Atlantic and the teetering of the steamship.
A muffled shriek, faint but entirely unexpected, nearly caused her pooled chi to scatter. Really, she’d expected more reserve from members of the British upperclass.
Then something else. A blunt sound, as if generated by a kick to the back of the neck. She checked for the box of matches she carried inside her blouse.
There was no light in the corridor—the electricity had been cut off. She braced her feet apart, held on to the door knob, and listened, diving beneath the unholy lashing of the sea, the heroic, if desperate, roar of the ship’s engines, and the fearful moans in staterooms all along the corridor—the abundant dinner from earlier now tossing in stomachs as turbulent as the sea.
The shriek came again, all but lost in the howl of the storm. It came from the outside this time, further fore along the port promenade.
She walked on soft, cloth-soled shoes that made no sounds. The air in the passage was colder and damper than it ought to be—someone had opened a door to the outside. She suspected a domestic squabble. The English were a stern people in outward appearance, but they did not lack for passion and injudiciousness in private.
An cross-corridor interrupted the rows of first-class staterooms. At the two ends of the apse were doors leading onto the promenade. She stopped at the scent of blood.
She recognized the voice, though she’d never heard it so weak. “Mrs. Reynolds, are you alright?”
The light of a match showed that Mrs. Reynolds was not at all alright. She bled from her head. Blood smeared her face and her white dressing gown. Next to her on the carpet sprawled a large, leatherbound Bible, likely her own: the weapon of assault.
The ship plunged. Mrs. Reynolds’s body slid on the carpet. Catherine leaped and stayed her before her temple slammed into the bulkhead. She gripped Mrs. Reynold’s wrist. The older woman’s skin was cold and clammy, but her pulse was strong enough—she was in no immediate danger of bleeding to death.
Althea was Mrs. Reynold’s sister Mrs. Chase. Mrs. Chase could rot.
“Let’s stop your bleeding,” she said to Mrs. Reynolds, ripping a strip of silk from the latter’s dressing gown.
“No!” Mrs. Reynolds pushed away the make-shift bandage. “Please…Althea first.”
Catherine sighed. She would comply—that was what came of a life time of deference to one’s elders. “Hold this,” she said, pressing the match box and the strip of silk into Mrs. Reynold’s hands.
She was soaked the moment she stepped outside. The ship slanted up. She grabbed onto a handrail. A blue-white streak of lightning tore across the black sky, illuminating needles of rain that pummeled the ankle-deep water sloshing along the walkway. Illuminating a drenched Mrs. Chase, dressing gown clinging to her ripe flesh, abdomen balanced on the rail, body flexed like a bow—as if she were an aerialist in midflight. Her arms flailed, her eyes screwed shut, her mouth issued gargles of incoherent terror.
A more distant lightning briefly revealed the silhouette of a man standing behind Mrs. Chase, holding on to her feet. Then the heavens erupted in pale fire. Thunderbolts spiked and interwove, a chandelier of the gods that would set the entire ocean ablaze. And she saw the man’s face.
What had the Ancients said? You can wear out soles of iron in your search, and you would come upon your quarry when you least expect.
The murderer of her child.
A dagger from Catherine’s vambrace hissed through the air, the sound of its flight lost in the thunder that rended her ears. But he heard. He jerked his head back at the last possible second, the knife barely missing his nose.
Darkness. The ship listed sharply starboard. Mrs. Chase’s copious flesh hit the deck with a thud and a splash. Catherine threw herself down as two sleeve arrows, one for each of her eyes, shot past her.
The steamer crested a swell and plunged into the hollow between waves. She allowed herself to slide forward on the smooth planks of the walkway. A weak lightning at the edge of the horizon offered a fleeting glow, enough for her to see his outline.
She pushed off the deck and, borrowing the ship’s own downward momentum, leapt toward him, one knife in each hand. He threw a large object at her—she couldn’t see, but it had to be Mrs. Chase, there was nothing else of comparable size nearby.
She flipped the knives around in her palms and caught Mrs. Chase, staggering backward—the woman was the weight of a prize pig and the ship had begun its laborious climb up another huge swell.
She set Mrs. Chase down and let the small river on deck wash them both toward the door. She had to get Mrs. Chase out of the way to kill him properly.
More sleeve arrows skimmed the air currents. Fortunately for her his sleeves were sodden and the arrows arrived without their usual vicious abruptness. She ducked one and deflected another from the back of Mrs. Chase’s head with the blade of a knife.
She kicked open the door. Sending both of her knives his way to buy a little time, she dragged Mrs. Chase’s inert, uncooperative body inside. A match flared before Mrs. Reynold’s face, a stark chiaroscuro of anxious eyes and bloodied cheeks. As Catherine set Mrs. Chase down on the wet carpet, Mrs. Reynolds, who should have stayed in her corner, docilely suffering, found the strength to get up, push the door shut, and bolt it.
“No!” shouted Catherine.
He wanted to kill her almost as much as she wanted to kill him. One of them would die this night. She preferred to fight outside, where there were no helpless women underfoot.
Almost immediately the door thudded. Mrs. Reynolds yelped and dropped the match, which fizzled on the sodden carpet. Catherine grabbed the match box from her, lit another one, stuck it in Mrs. Reynold’s hand, and wrapped the long scrap of dressing gown around her head. “Don’t worry about Mrs. Chase. She will have bumps and bruises, but she’ll be all right.”
Mrs. Reynolds gripped Catherine’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you for saving her.”
The match burned out. Another heavy thump came at the door. The mooring of the deadbolt must be tearing loose from the bulkhead. She tried to pull away from Mrs. Reynolds but the latter would not let go of her. “I cannot allow you to put yourself in danger for us again, Miss Blade. We will pray and throw ourselves on God’s mercy.”
Crack. Thump. Crack.
Impatiently, she stabbed her index finger into the back of Mrs. Reynold’s wrist. The woman’s fingers fell slack. Catherine rushed forward and kicked the door—it was in such a poor state now that it could be forced out as well as in.
As she drew back to gather momentum, he rammed the door once more. A flash of lightning lit the crooked edges of the door—it was already hanging loose.
She slammed her entire body into the door. Her skeleton jarred as if she had thrown herself at a careening carriage. The door gave outward, enough of an opening that she slipped through.
His poisoned palm slashed down at her. She ducked. And too late realized it had been a ruse, that he’d always meant to hit her from the other side. She screamed, the pain like a red-hot brand searing into her skin.
The ship plunged bow first. She used its motion to get away from him. A section of handrail flew at her. She smashed herself against the bulkhead, barely avoiding it.
The ship rose to meet a new, nauseatingly high wave. She slipped, stopping herself with the door, stressing its one remaining hinge. He surprised her by skating aft quite some distance, his motion a smooth, long glide through water.
Then, as the ship dove down, he ran toward her. She recognized it as the prelude to a monstrous leap. On flat ground, she’d do the same, running toward him, springing, meeting him in midair. But she’d be running uphill now, and against the torrent of water on deck. She’d never generate enough momentum to counter him properly.
In desperation, she wrenched at the door with a strength that surprised her. It came loose as his feet left the deck. She screamed and heaved the door at him.
The door met him flat on at the height of his trajectory, nearly twelve feet up in the air, and knocked him sideways. He went over the rail, over the rail of the deck below, and plunged into the sea. The door ricocheted into the bulkhead, bounced on the rail, and finally, it too, hit the roiling waters.
The steamer tilted precariously. She stumbled aft, grasping for a handrail. By the time the vessel crested the wave and another lightning split the sky, he had disappeared.
She began to laugh wildly—vengeance was hers.
Then her laughter turned to a violent fit of coughing. She clutched at her chest and vomited, black blood into the black night.
For some who had lived her entire life thousands of miles away, Catherine Blade knew a greal deal about London.
By memory she could produce a map of its thoroughfares and landmarks, from Hyde Park in the west to the City of London in the east, Highgate in the north to Greenwich in the south. On this map, she could pinpoint the locations of fashionable squares and shops, good places for picnics and rowing, even churches where everyone who was anyone went to get married.
The London of formal dinners and grand balls. The London of great public parks in spring and men in gleaming riding boots galloping along Rotten Row toward the rising sun. The London of gaslight, fabled fogs, and smoky gentlemen’s clubs where fates of nations were decided between nonchalant sips of whisky and genteel flipping of The Times.
The London of an English exile’s wistful memory of his gilded youth.
Those memories had molded her expectations once, in distant days when she’d believed that England could be her answer, her freedom. When she’d painstakingly made her way through Master Gordon’s copy of Pride and Prejudice, amazed at the audacity and independence of English womenfolk, the liberty and openness of their lives.
She’d given up on those dreams years ago. Still London disappointed. What she had seen of it thus far was sensationally ugly, like a a kitchen that was never cleaned. Soot coated every surface. The grime on the exterior walls of houses and shops ran in streaks, where rain, unable to wash off the encrusted filth under windowsills, rearranged it in such a way as to recalled the tear-smudged face of a dirty child.
“I wouldn’t judge London just yet,” said kindly Mrs. Reynolds.
Catherine smiled at Mrs. Reynolds. It was not London she judged, but the foolishness of her own heart. That after so much disappointment, she still hoped—and doomed herself to even more disappointment.
In any case, she had not come to make a home for herself in England. Her task was to retrieve a pair of small jade tablets and deliver them to Da-ren, Manchu prince of the first rank, uncle to the current Ch’ing emperor, and her stepfather.
The jade tablets, three in all, were said to contain clues to the location of a legendary treasure. Da-ren was in possession of one of the tablets, but the other two had been taken out of China, following the First Opium War.
“There they are,” cried Mrs. Chase. “Annabel and the Atwood boys.”
It was impossible to know Mrs. Chase for more than five minutes—and Catherine had known her five weeks, ever since Bombay—without hearing about her beautiful daughter Miss Chase, engaged to the most superior Captain Atwood.
Such boastfulness was alien to Catherine, both in its delivery—did Mrs. Chase not fear that her wanton pride would invoke the ill will of Fate?—and in its very existence.
Parental pride in a mere girl was something Catherine had never experienced firsthand.
At her birth, there had been a tub of water on hand—to drown her, in case she turned out to be a girl. In the end, neither her mother nor her amah had been able to go through with it, and she’d lived, the daughter of a Chinese courtesan and the English adventurer who’d abandoned her.
She’d been a burden to her mother, a source of anxiety and, sometimes, anguish. She’d never heard a word of praise from her amah, the woman responsible for her secret training in the martial arts. And the true father figure in her life, the Manchu prince who’d brought her mother to Peking and given her a life of security and luxury, Catherine had no idea what he thought of her.
And that was why she was in England, wasn’t it, one last attempt to win Da-ren’s approval?
On the rail platform, a handsomely attired trio advanced toward them, a young woman in a violet mantle flanked by a pair of tall men in long, black overcoats. Catherine’s attention was drawn to the man on the young woman’s left. He had an interesting walk. To the undisciplined eye, his gait would seem as natural as those of his companions. But Catherine had spent her entire life in the study of muscular movements and she had no doubt that he was concealing an infirmity in his left leg—the strain in his back and arms all part of a mindful effort to not favor that particular limb.
He spoke to the young woman and a strange curiosity made Catherine listen, her ears filtering away the rumble of the engines, the drumming of the rain on the rafters, the clamor of the crowd.
“…you must not believe everything Harry says, Annabel,” he said. His head was turned toward the others, the brim of his hat and the high collar of his great coat obscuring much of his profile. “My stay on the Subcontinent was marked by nothing so much as uneventfulness. The most excitement I had was in trying to keep a friend out of trouble when he fell in love with a superior’s wife.”
She shivered. The timbre of that quiet voice was like the caress of a ghost. No, she was imagining things. He was dead. A pile of bones in the Taklamakan Desert, bleached and picked clean.
The other man was adamant. “Then explain why your letters came only in spurts? Where were you all those months when we hadn’t the least news of you?”
Miss Chase, however, was more interested in the love triangle. “Oh, how tragic. Whatever happened to your friend? Was he heartbroken?”
“Of course he was heartbroken,” said the man who refused to limp. “A man always convinces himself that there is something unique and special about his affections when he fancies the wrong woman.”
Catherine shivered again. An Englishman who’d spent time in India, whose brother suspected that he’d been further afield than Darjeeling, and who had an lingering injury to hims left leg—no, it couldn’t be. She had to have been a more capable killer than that.
“You wouldn’t be speaking from experience, would you, Leighton?” said Miss Chase, a note of flirtation in her voice.
“Only in the sense that every woman before you was a wrong woman,” answered the man who must be her fiancé, the most superior Captain Atwood.
A shrill whistle blew. Catherine lost the conversation. Mrs. Reynolds reminded her that she was to entirely comply with Mrs. Reynold’s desire to put her up at the Brown hotel. Catherine suspected that Mrs. Reynolds, out of gratitude, planned to find Catherine a respectable husband. A tall task: Catherine had never come across a man willing to marry a woman capable of killing him with her bare hands—and easily too.
Until he changed his mind, that was.
The welcome party was upon them. Greetings erupted, along with eager embraces. Miss Chase’s fiancé stood slightly apart, a cool presence at the periphery of this sphere of familial warmth.
His brother, golden and gregarious, should be more noticeable. Was more noticeable. But Captain Atwood was the man Catherine would immdiately single out from a crowd of a hundred for the danger he presented.
Latent danger. The danger of a man who knew how to handle himself. Who, like the sleek black jaguar of the jungle, was perfectly aware of his surroundings.
Her heart beat fast: This was how she had first noticed her lover, by his aura of control and perceptiveness.
She expelled a breathe and, at last, looked directly at him.
A tall, dark, handsome man—remarkably handsome, one might say. But his was the kind of good looks that would not have immediately drawn attention to itself, were it not for a long, thin scar on his jaw. A knife cut from years, perhaps decades, ago, largely faded by now. But at the time, one inch in the wrong direction and his throat would have been neatly slit.
Catherine had never seen this man before.
Of course. What was she thinking? That the lover who had betrayed her, and whom she had punished in turn, would be miraculously alive after all these years?
Now that the initial hugs and handshakes were out of the way, Mrs. Chase fussed over Captain Atwood. Mrs. Reynolds spoke to him eagerly. Miss Chase had her gloved hand on his arm. Even his brother tapped him on the shoulder, wanting a quick answer to some question.
Yet Catherine had the feeling that it was she, the stranger, who commanded the bulk of his attention—he was as keenly aware of her as she was of him, though he had not even looked at her head on.
But now he turned partly toward her—and she gazed into the green eyes from her nightmares.
If shock were a physical force like typhoons or earthquakes, Waterloo station would be nothing but rubble and broken glass. When remorse had come, impaling her soul, she’d gone looking for him, barely sleeping and eating, until she’d come across his horse for sale in Kashgar.
It had been found wondering on the caravan route, without a rider. She had collapsed to the ground, overcome by the absolute irreversibility of her action.
But he wasn’t dead. He was alive, staring at her with the same shock, a shock that was slowly giving way to anger.
Somebody was saying something to her. “…Lieutenant Atwood. Lieutenant Atwood, Miss Blade. This is Miss Blade’s very first trip to England. She has lived her entire life in the Far East. Lieutenant Atwood is on home leave from Hong Kong, where he is serving with the garrison.”
“Please tell me that I did not overlook your society while I was in Hong Kong, Miss Blade, I would be devastated,” said Harry Atwood, with an eagerness to please that seemed to arise not from a need to be noticed, but an innate happiness.
She made herself smile. “No need for premature devastation, Lieutenant. I rarely ventured that far south. Most of my life has been spent in the north of China.”
"And may I present Captain Atwood?” Mrs. Reynolds went on with the introductions. “Captain Atwood, Miss Blade."
Leighton Atwood bowed. Leighton Atwood—a real name, after all these years. There was no more of either shock or anger in his eyes, eyes as cool as water under ice. "Welcome to England, Miss Blade."
“Thank you, Captain.” Words creaked past her dry throat.
Then she was being introduced to Annabel Chase. Miss Chase was young and very, very pretty. Wide eyes, a sweet nubbin of a nose, soft pink cheeks, with a head full of shiny golden curls and a palm as pliant as a newborn chick.
"Welcome to England, Miss Blade, I do hope you will like it here," Miss Chase said warmly. Then she laughed in good-natured mirth. "Though at this time of the year I always long for Italy myself."
Something gnawed at the periphery of Catherine’s heart. After a disoriented moment she recognized it as a corrosive jealousy. Miss Chase was not only beautiful, but wholesome and adorable.
Every woman before you was a wrong woman.
Of course. A woman such as Catherine was always the wrong woman, anywhere in the world.
“Thank you,” she said. “It has already been a remarkable experience, my first day in England.”
Copyright © 2014 by Sherry Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Berkley Books, a division of Penguin Publishing (USA), Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Heart of Blade Duology