Richard Downing may be a viscount of impeccable character, but he’s bored beyond belief of dancing at balls, faking smiles, and making dull conversation. So when he stumbles upon a housemaid with defiance in her striking blue eyes and a dagger hidden in her skirts…well, color him intrigued.
Raised with a rather…peculiar upbringing, Lady Victoria Daring is full of secrets and surprises. As part of His Majesty’s personal homeland spy network and as a master of disguises, Vic is charged with infiltrating high society to uncover the enemies hiding in plain sight.
But Richard is the first man to see through her disguises––and infiltrate deep into her heart. Too bad his family is at the top of her list of suspects…
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About the Book
A Lady Never Tells
by Lynn Winchester
Women of Daring
September 23, 2019
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Home of Ambassador Gadstoke
Lady Victoria Daring kicked out with her bare foot, sweeping at her brother’s knees to send him toppling onto the bamboo mat behind him. Before he could rise, Vic pressed the tip of her rapier to the bottom of his chin, grinning down at him like the monkey who stole the sweet cakes.
“I thought you said you were faster than me, Love,” she said, her voice carrying a triumph she didn’t bother hiding. “It appears to me, dear brother, that you’ve only gotten clumsier.”
Their sister Honoria giggled from the other side of the training house, or the dàochǎng, her vigorous hand-to-hand practicing paused so she could watch her siblings spar. Dressed as she was in loose-fitting pants and tunic—just as they all were—she looked at ease grimacing playfully at Love, who was glowering up at Vic.
“Dammit, Vic, you know I haven’t fully recovered yet,” he groused, flopping back onto the mat and throwing his arms over his head in a dramatic show of surrender.
“You shouldn’t have eaten so much làzǐ jī; you were warned that all that spice would upset your delicate stomach,” Vic teased, removing the blade point from her brother’s throat and helping him stand. “Next time, opt for the steamed rice and pork rolls.”
“But I love the spicy food,” Love whined, making Vic grin at him.
“I know you do, darling, but your stomach does not.”
Love opened his mouth to argue, and Vic opened her mouth in preparation of arguing back, but the sound of the door opening made them both turn toward it.
“Hallooo,” their other sister, Verity, called from the doorway, her emerald green silk gown a dramatic accent to her pale skin and black hair. Her furrowed brow was telling. Though her lovely sister was stunning in her more elegant attire, Vic knew Verity much preferred breeches and loose shirts—which was in contrast to Honoria’s preferences for big gowns and shiny baubles. The twins were alike yet so different, and it never failed to make Victoria somewhat jealous of their closeness.
“Mother must have been beyond determined to get Verity into a gown this morning, otherwise she would be dressed as you are, Honoria, and much happier.” Vic offered her younger sister an empathetic smile.
A frown appearing on her face, Honoria crossed her arms over her chest, which pulled the fabric of her training costume, or jianshen fu, taut.
“I see you are wearing one of my gowns,” she accused, huffing adorably.
Apparently unbothered by her sister’s displeasure, Verity simply shrugged.
“I haven’t many gowns of my own, and Mother was adamant that I dress in a manner befitting a true lady.”
Love, as usual forgotten among his sisters, snorted, drawing all eyes to him.
“Vic!” Verity exclaimed. “You know better than to challenge Lowell after he’s gorged himself on Ping’s cooking.” She sighed heavily, walking across the room to stand beside Honoria.
Lowell—whom they’d called Love since the time he learned to write his own name but the “W” came out looking like one big “V”—brushed pieces of bamboo mat from his backside. His glare was equal parts menacing and playful. As the only male sibling, he often found himself the butt of jokes or the center of unwanted sisterly affection. He would sneer and grumble about it, but he also didn’t mind the special treatment when it came time to procure sweet treats from the kitchens.
Chuckling, Vic replaced her rapier on the horizontal wall-mounted hooks beside the other five swords. While she was more than proficient with the dao and katana, she preferred the rapier, which was lighter and a little more wicked.
“What brings you to the dàochǎng? I thought Mother was forcing etiquette lessons on you today,” Honoria said, unwinding the linen strips from around her fists. “Lord knows you need them.”
Verity arched a single raven eyebrow. “If anyone needs etiquette lessons, it’s Faith. She’s been running around with Mai all morning—I tell you, that monkey is going to get her into trouble.” Verity huffed, which was her usual reaction to anything their youngest sister did. At only twelve, Faith was the most rambunctious and feckless of the lot. “This morning, the creature stole one of my stockings.”
Honoria snickered. “Which one, Faith or the monkey?”
The room erupted with hearty laughter, and Vic embraced the moment of welcome levity. Unlike her typical five-hour training schedule, she’d been training ten hours every day for the last two months, and she was tired. Tired of the bruises, the missed meals with her family, and the constant strain on her body. But there was naught she could do or say about it. Her father had pushed her, telling her she needed to be faster, fiercer, tougher. And it had been a rather difficult two months, but she knew she would only be better for it.
She reflected on the frightened six-year-old girl she had been eighteen years ago, facing down the hard expression of the man who would be her “master.” She’d nearly run from the dàochǎng screaming. Now, though, she had to admit, her confidence had grown by leaps and bounds over the years. She knew her own limits…and she tested them each and every day. She was the oldest and the strongest of her father’s children.
“You are becoming what you need to be, dearest. I promise it will all be worth it. You’ll see,” her father had said the evening before when she’d dragged herself into his study after a rather strenuous kung fu lesson from Master Lao-Nang. Her father, a very respected diplomat, had wanted his children—all six of them—to learn something “useful.” And so, once they were old enough, he employed masters in various specialties to instruct them on everything from languages to acting to throwing daggers.
And their poor, long-suffering mother was forced to teach them all about being men and women of bearing, grace, and good manners.
Her younger siblings often lamented the need for lessons at all, but Victoria understood that their time in China was only temporary. She’d be a fool to think that her father, an earl, would never return home to see about his estate, an estate he would eventually leave to his son. And while said son’s thoughts were often on athletic pursuits and spicy foods, Victoria’s thoughts were often on the country across the world.
The country where all the noble ladies and gentlemen made the news. The country where being a lady of twenty-four would make her a spinster—something her mother despaired of almost continually.
“If your father does not send you to England this Season, you will die alone.” Her mother had taken it upon herself to remind Vic of that nearly every day for the last week. Living as they were in China, there were so few proper British gentlemen to court, and so her mother had often despaired of ever marrying off her progeny. At least once a quarter, her mother would ask her father if it were possible to visit England for the purpose of marrying off the eldest daughters. Her father always refused, stating that there would be plenty of time for that. Later.
Her mother never liked putting off what could be done now, but it wasn’t until recently that her mother had seemed…single-minded about it. It was grating—and not only because her mother was incessant. It was also because…well…Vic was curious about what it would be like to have a Season. To attend balls and don elegant dresses. To meet new people who led lives different from hers. To dance with someone other than Love. To flirt with handsome men who didn’t know she could kill them with her bare hands.
She longed to experience life outside of China and the grinding day-to-day she lived, but also to do something with all she’d been learning for the last eighteen years.
You seem ungrateful. But she wasn’t—she loved her life in Zhejiang. She enjoyed spending time with her siblings and learning things she would have never learned in some haughty British all-girls school. But that enjoyment didn’t stop the ache that appeared more often as of late: a painful hollowness that pressed on her chest.
Angry at the trail of her thoughts, she cast Verity an impatient gaze. “Well? What was it you came in here for?”
“Father wants us all to meet him in his study. He has news for us,” Verity announced, and Vic’s heart dropped to her bare toes. Her father rarely called them all together if it weren’t time for a meal…
“Do you know what the news is?” Love asked, soft blue eyes rimmed with concern. For a lad of nineteen, Love had grown from a smiling scamp to a world-weary leader. As the only son, he was being groomed to take over for their father one day. And it showed in the loss of laughter, the thinning of his lips, and the stiffening of his spine. Yes, he’d be a good leader one day…or a terrible bore, though he did have many moments of levity and lightheartedness—but only ever with his sisters.
Verity shook her head. “But Grace and Mother are already there.”
“I wonder if this is about all the moping and furtive glances between him and Mama,” Honoria remarked, reminding Vic of Honoria’s ability to perceive more than anyone else. She could see the same image everyone saw, but she was the one who picked out all the details and insights no one else did. It was disconcerting, really—to have the ability to see through all the distractions to the very truth. Together with Verity’s ability to see codes and clues in any document, the twins were nearly impossible to fool.
“What furtive glances?” Love asked, replacing his own sword and peeling the linen from around his hands. “I haven’t noticed anything.”
Honoria huffed. “Of course you wouldn’t, Love. You barely notice your own nose on your face.”
Love grunted, rolling his eyes at his older sister.
Pursing her lips in annoyance, Honoria snipped, “It isn’t as though I haven’t told you this before. As a matter of fact, I’ve mentioned it at least twice in the last three days. It isn’t my fault no one has been listening to me.”
Her wariness piqued, Vic inquired, “What exactly did you mention, and why?”
“Father received an important missive last week,” Honoria continued, “and just after that, he and Mama began glancing at each other with this…wariness on their faces. Almost as though they were dreading telling us something.”
“That is troubling,” Verity agreed, her face pinching in alarm.
“Let us go, then. We should not keep Father waiting,” Vic exclaimed, starting for the door, as both excitement and fear surged within her.
Allowing the sense of urgency to reign, she took off at a run, sprinting from the dàochǎng, across the courtyard, and through the back door leading to the kitchens. She was up the stairs and dashing down the hallway when she saw her mother float through the door to her father’s study and into the corridor, stopping Vic with a pinched, displeased expression.
“You know better than to run in the house,” she snapped. “You aren’t a horse.”
Honoria, close on her heels, stopped short and let out a snort of laughter.
“And you, young lady—both of you know better than to come into my house in those ridiculous outfits. You might as well be wearing nothing but your underclothes,” their mother intoned, her piercing blue eyes—much like Vic’s own—shooting from one daughter to the other. “And yet, you continue to disregard my tender disposition.” Mary Daring, Countess Gadstoke, sniffed as if grievously injured by her daughters wearing breeches.
The urge to giggle at her mother’s feigned discomfiture was difficult to ignore, but Vic did so, and instead, she offered her mother the appropriate—and well-practiced—pout.
“We’re sorry, Mama,” Vic said. Madam LaMagre would be proud of my performance…
Verity then Love then Faith arrived, filling the wide corridor with curious and anxious Darings.
“Come along, then, your father is waiting.” With that, their mother turned on her heel and entered the study, Vic and the others following after.
“What do you mean, leaving?” Verity exclaimed, shooting up from the settee where she and Honoria had been sitting.
Her father, Devon Daring, Earl of Gadstoke, cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with the level of disapproval his news had produced. “The Prince Regent, acting on behalf of his father, has ordered it,” he remarked, holding the official letter aloft so they all could see the royal seal emblazoned into the top of the paper. “We’re to return to England before the end of the year and report to Lord Leavenson at the Home Office.”
Home Office? That sounded ominous and yet…intriguing.
Her heart threatened to beat out of her chest, but she willed it to slow down. And her mind clamored with thoughts and emotions and questions and worries…
“It is a great honor to be given this new…appointment,” their father said, rising slowly to allow his rickety knees a chance to bend without popping. “We will finally be able to put your training to use.”
“Is that what we’ve been doing all these years? Preparing to be ‘put to use’ by the Crown?” Love asked, taking the words right out of Vic’s thoughts. Had that been their father’s true purpose in requiring their extensive and exhausting—and sometimes downright strange—training?
“In a way, yes,” Father replied, lifting his cleft chin into the air, which caused a lock of thinning black hair to dislodge and then fall over his broad forehead. “I knew our time in China was at the grace of the King. I also knew that, eventually, my work with the embassy would come to an end. But I wanted to make sure that each one of you had something that no other debutante and gentleman in England had…”
“And what is that?” Grace asked, her pixie-like features drawn and her cheeks pink from holding back her anger. The fiercest of the lot of them, Grace—unlike her name—was the first to lash out when frustrated. Which she was, a lot. A skilled martial artist, Grace was a formidable opponent when she was amiable, but she transformed into a veritable dragon when provoked. As it was, Vic was shocked Grace hadn’t already voiced her rage at their father’s announcement.
“A life,” her father answered simply, but his answer was anything but simple.
And it struck Vic, deep in the pit of her belly. A life? Is that what she’d been doing? Living?
Had the training and the learning and the practicing and the aches and pains and bloody fists been some form of living? What of the women and men she’d read about in the long-out-of-date newspapers and fashion catalogs? Weren’t they living?
“I don’t understand,” Victoria finally said. “What will we be doing for the Home Office, specifically?”
At her father’s furrowed brows, Vic hurried to finish her thought, if only to assuage some of the worry she saw there. “It isn’t that I am unwilling to do as ordered, Father, but I do not see how my dao form will be of any use at high tea.”
Lord Gadstoke nodded, understanding softening his features. “The missive provided little information regarding the grander plan, only that our…positioning in the ton will be of use.”
“And our training? What’s that to do with the ton?” Love asked, his tone one of curious frustration. “Are we to spar at balls for sport?”
Honoria snickered, breaking off a tiny piece of the tension weighing on the room. “I would pay to see that, I think.”
“Certainly not.” Mother sniffed. “But do think of all the parties, the luncheons, the visits to all the shops along Bond Street—it will be like finding heaven after being lost in Hades for twenty-four years.” Their mother sighed wistfully, making Vic smile at the usually austere woman.
Honoria fairly glowed. “Oh, that does sound fabulous, don’t you think, Faith?” she asked, and all eyes turned to the youngest, who was playing with the ribbon on her skirt.
“I suppose it would be fun to visit the private zoo I’ve read about,” Faith murmured, out of character for one who often chattered like a wren in spring.
“Of course the private zoo would appeal to you, but what about Mai? You’ll have to leave her behind. A monkey will not do well in a large city,” Love said, his voice wary. Vic knew Faith loved that troublesome monkey, but Faith loved all animals; she could be easily persuaded to leave China with a mere promise of a menagerie to enjoy.
“I know…” Faith said, a heavy sigh lifting and then drooping her shoulders.
“Now, see here. You have only ever known Zhejiang. Think of it as the chance to learn something new. Love,”—their father smiled at his only son—“there are shooting parties, gunsmiths, and a market of the best horseflesh in the world.”
Love’s eyes widened, and Vic swore she saw a flickering of awe in those depths. A deft hand at shooting and a novice gunsmith himself, Love would no doubt find a treasure trove of gunmetal delights.
Father continued, “And it goes without saying, Love, that, as the future Earl of Gadstoke, there are things you must observe and learn firsthand, and people you must meet. You will be ready to take the helm when the time comes for me to shuffle off.”
The room grew heavy at their father’s words, all of them uneasy at the thought of Devon Daring’s passing. As if knowing the weight of his comments, Lord Gadstoke broke the silence.
“And, Honoria, you’ll have all the gowns and fripperies and ribbons and bags and shoes—and parties to wear it all to.” Honoria, a lover of all things pretty and costly, gasped, her face lighting.
Their father turned to Verity, who was now sitting on the arm of the couch, her face pinched and her arms crossed.
“Verity, my dear, think of the Royal Academy, where the world’s greatest mathematical and scientific minds come together for lectures and symposiums.” Verity, a genius with numbers and chemical compounds, actually cracked a sort of half smile.
“Well, that does sound…not terrible.”
“Grace, my darling, think of all the other young ladies you could meet and befriend. You’re of age to have your own guests and excursions. Aren’t you tired of tea parties and such with Ping-Na?” Their cook, while amazing at her skill, was an awkward and rather silent tea party guest. Never having children of her own, Ping-Na was a motherly sort when she wanted to be, fussing over the younger Darings and scolding the older ones. But despite their insistence that she was one of their family, Ping-Na always held herself apart from them, using their titles, never accepting gifts, and rarely taking tea with them. She insisted that she made the tea sandwiches and tea for the “masters” and not for her, because she’d rather eat fresh-caught silver carp and drink rice wine.
Finally, he turned to face Victoria, his expression hopeful.
“And you, Victoria? What interests you about your new home across the globe?”
Victoria knew her father was silently asking for her support in convincing her siblings, and so she offered him a smile.
“Oh, Father, you needn’t worry about me. I am exceedingly eager to learn more about this business with the Home Office.”
His shoulders losing some of their tension, her father remarked, “To answer your earlier question, Love, the Prince Regent has asked that each of you make yourselves available for Crown business, whenever he may need it. He has need of your skills in matters of the utmost importance—Imperial espionage, I believe he called it.”
“Crown business? Imperial espionage? Like…spying?” Vic asked, her heart racing. Why did the thought of something so ludicrous thrill her?
“Yes.” Her father’s answer shattered something deep within her, and she found that the shards didn’t make her bleed as she thought they might. Instead they pieced themselves together into something new.
This is it—the chance at an experience, one where I can actually make use of all I’ve learned. All of the long days, the bloody knuckles, the aches and pains would be worth it.
Taking a deep breath, Victoria Daring, eldest daughter of the Earl of Gadstoke, stood and squared her shoulders.
“When do we leave?”
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About Lynn Winchester
LYNN WINCHESTER is the pseudonym of a hardworking California-born conservative, now living in the wilds of Northeast Pennsylvania. Lynn has been writing fiction since the 5th grade, and enjoys creating worlds, characters, and stories for her readers.
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