Charlotte clenched her teeth together in fury. “I did no such thing.”
He waved one hand negligently. “No matter. I came to extend the olive branch. Heal the breach. Mend the rift. We began badly last night—or rather, we began well, but then our relationship took a turn for the worse. I apologize for any offense you inferred, for I never meant any.”
She sniffed. “We have no relationship, sir, nor shall we. I know very well what you meant, and no apology would suffice.”
He was smiling, the wretch. “And I thought you’d had a change of heart. An enchanting siren at night, a virtuous saint by day, willing to forgive her fellow man his transgressions.”
“Mr. Drake. Surely you have something better to do.”
He made a show of looking up and down the street. Charlotte was nearly shaking with anger at her coachman for deserting her and subjecting her to this. She would have started walking, but she didn’t want to walk all the way home with him following her. “And leave a lady in distress? Never.”
“You are the cause of my distress,” she pointed out. Stuart laughed, admiring her profile. Up close, her attire was every bit as severe as he had thought when he first saw it from across the street, but perversely, he found it enthralling. Her drab gown couldn’t hide the swell of her bosom or the curve of her hips. He imagined peeling it away, inch by inch ... He reminded himself how she had tricked him, no matter that she had the body of a goddess, and that he had other concerns with her.
“I would like an end to the hostilities,” he said. “I’m disappointed you won’t consent to my request for your niece’s hand—”
“I’m sure you are,” came her acid retort.
“And you, no doubt, acted impulsively when we were dancing—”
“You shall wait a long time if you hope to hear an apology.”
“And so I propose we call it even,” Stuart continued, ignoring her interruptions. “Tunbridge Wells is a small place to wage a war, and—”
“I agree.” She turned toward him at last and smiled. It was a close-lipped, coy smile that made him catch his breath in a mixture of desire and suspicion. “Much too small. I’m delighted you agree, and hope you find the hunting better somewhere else.”
“Pardon?” Stuart was still distracted by that smile, and the light on her face. Even buttoned up like a vicar’s wife, she was breathtaking.
“That is what you’re doing, isn’t it? Hunting for a fortune?” Her carriage rumbled to a halt beside them. “I doubt you’ll find the prey so susceptible from now on,” she added. Stuart stared at her, eyes narrowed. Her smile turned gloating as her driver jumped down to assist her into the carriage. “Good bye, Mr. Drake.”
Stuart said nothing as she drove away. He stood on the side of the street, filled with a growing sense of apprehension. What had she done, calling on Lady Kildair dressed like a she-wolf in lamb’s wool? What did she mean, he might find the hunting better somewhere else? He had no plans to leave Kent. Tunbridge Wells was still a moderately fashionable spa; there were several families of good fortune spending the season there. Susan Tratter was by no means the only heiress in town. With his name and expectations, he was still an eligible match.
Unless someone managed to ruin his reputation.
His fears were swiftly confirmed. By the end of the day, he had been given the cut direct by no fewer than five of the haughtiest matrons in town. By the next morning, he was openly snubbed in the park, and young ladies who had once all but thrown themselves at him scurried behind their mothers with horrified, accusatory glares. Stuart didn’t need the confirmation from a sympathetic widow with whom he had shared a brief flirtation to know what had happened to transform him into an outcast.
Stuart could stomach being refused Susan Tratter’s hand—in some small way, he was almost relieved—and had sincerely meant his attempt at peace with Charlotte Griffolino. He could accept that she didn’t like him, and that she had played him for a fool. It had been his own fault for falling for her ruse, after all. But Stuart also had no doubt that she was behind his ostracism, and that he could not forgive. It made his precarious finances desperate, and left him with little hope of restoring them soon. She could only have done it to spite him, and somehow, in some way, Stuart meant to pay her back.
After all, anything was fair in love ... and war.
It was a modest townhouse on a quiet side street in the fashionable section of town. For a woman in control of the enormous Tratter fortune, it seemed rather dull of her to rent such an ordinary place. Somehow a woman with such lush, exotic looks seemed out of place in this very English house. Still, given what he had come to do, Stuart ought to be grateful it wasn’t a well-staffed fortress.
From his position ignominiously crouched in the bushes, Stuart watched his nemesis leave. She wore blue, the color of the sapphires around her neck. At her side, Susan also wore blue, but a paler shade, and she kept her head down. Stuart made a mental apology to her as he watched her climb into the carriage; he was certain this wasn’t her fault. If it hadn’t been his mother’s ring, Stuart would have let the matter go, but sadly, it
his mother’s ring he had given Susan. His mother had meant for it to go to his bride, and Stuart found, somewhat to his surprise, that he felt the same. Since he clearly wouldn’t be marrying Susan Tratter, Stuart would like that ring back.
He knew this wasn’t entirely defensible. He had freely given Susan the ring, and it seemed rather churlish to ask for it back. To salve both her feelings and his conscience, Stuart had scraped together enough money to buy a small token to replace the ring, something he could ill afford to do, and sent a note asking to call. If Charlotte Griffolino had been a reasonable woman, Stuart would have simply explained matters and hoped for the best. Instead, his polite request had been returned unopened, and when he rang the bell he had been turned away by the footman and told not to come back. After failing at means fair, already goaded beyond endurance and his pride still smarting, Stuart had resorted to means foul: he was going to steal back his ring.
When the carriage drove off with all three ladies aboard—Susan, her aunt, and the Italian singer who lived with them—Stuart took one last fortifying swallow of whiskey from his flask, pushed aside the branches, and sidled around the corner, where he could slip into the garden behind the house.
Once inside, he made his way to a row of darkened windows. With the ladies out for the evening, he expected the servants would retreat to either the attic quarters or the kitchen, and the main floors would be empty. He found an unlatched window without much effort and hoisted himself over the sill. Dropping to his hands and knees, he listened for a moment until satisfied all was still quiet. Slowly, cautiously, he got to his feet and peered around, his eyes gradually adjusting to the dark room.
It was a library, but not a well-used one. The room reeked of neglect and dust, and Stuart swallowed a curse as he realized his every footprint would be clearly marked on the floor. Leaving the window open, he walked on tiptoe to the carpet, only to come smack up to a large box.
“Damn!” he said soundlessly, grabbing his knee. What the hell was that doing in the middle of the room? Cautiously, he began groping his way forward, only to discover that there were a great many boxes and trunks in the room. Dozens, it seemed, all precisely located in his path. He reached out to feel for them, and tripped over something low and round; a rolled up rug, he learned, going over it onto his already aching knee. Crawling forward, he hit his head on a metal-strapped trunk, and cursed out loud as something heavy and oddly furry slid off the trunk and covered his head.
“Blast!” he exclaimed in a moment of panic. Had he been noticed? Was he caught? The covering came off as he flailed about, and Stuart rolled to his feet, heart thumping and every hair standing up on his head. Was the house filled with traps for hapless burglars?
It took several moments, but he finally convinced himself there was no reason for alarm. He considered going back out the window; it seemed he had been in the house an hour already, and he hadn’t even found the door out of this room. Was the ring worth this? Stuart thought of how many times he had disappointed his mother, and crept back to the window. Forcibly controlling his breathing, he lifted the drape a little, letting in enough moonlight to reveal the room. The thing that had fallen on him appeared to be a tiger skin. Stuart stared at it in revulsion and curiosity. What sort of woman kept such a thing in her house?
He shook his head. This was not the time to ponder Charlotte Griffolino’s character. He was here to retrieve what was his and leave with all possible speed. He let the drape fall and, with more confidence, made his way through the room and slipped into the hall.
Only one lamp burned near the door. The hall was empty, as expected. Stuart stole up the stairs, crossing his fingers that he could find Susan’s room quickly and easily. At the top of the stairs he paused to listen. The maids might still be about, tidying their mistresses’ rooms. All was quiet, though, and he began trying doors.
He was just reaching for the third knob when he heard voices—giggling female voices coming up the stairs. In a flash Stuart was through the door, easing it closed behind him. He flattened himself against the wall right behind the door, holding his breath and straining to hear. The voices came nearer, pausing right outside the room he was in. Above the pounding of his own heart, he could dimly hear one relating something about her beau to the other; he was the tailor’s assistant, and
well-dressed, she confided. Ooh, he sounds just lovely, came her companion’s reply. They continued to chat, their voices gradually growing fainter though never fading completely. But it seemed they weren’t coming into this room.
Slowly Stuart rested his forehead against the wall and let out his breath. He was stuck, though not caught, and this clearly wasn’t the right room. In fact, looking more closely, Stuart realized exactly whose room it was. The warm, exotic scent he remembered too well, the riot of bold color in rich fabrics ... It could only be Charlotte Griffolino’s bedroom he was trapped in, and for a moment the precariousness of his situation escaped Stuart’s mind.
The fire had burned low, but gave off enough light to see. The room itself was ordinary, but the personal things blazed and glowed even in the firelight. The bed was hung with blue and green—very fine linen, Stuart noted, running his hand over the duvet. There was a writing desk in the corner, and a chaise nearer the fire. Both held a variety of clothing, and it gave Start an odd sort of pleasure to know she was a bit slovenly. He paused, listening, but the murmur of voices continued out in the hall. Still trapped. In that case, Stuart decided, he might as well make himself comfortable.
He eyed the heap of clothing on the chaise, and something caught his eye. Well, now ... Gently he teased a fine lawn chemise out of the tangle. He certainly wouldn’t mind seeing her in this.
, Stuart thought, spying a blue silk negligee that appeared to have no sides. Thoroughly intrigued, Stuart looked closer at silk stockings and lacy dressing gowns and—my, oh my—a red satin corset. It looked as though she had tried everything on and then flung it aside. That probably meant the maid would come in soon to set all to rights. Stuart ventured a quick look out the window, to see if that offered any hope of escape, but it was a straight, exposed drop to the front steps.
Only half disappointed, he took a more leisurely turn about the room. There was no place to sit but on the bed, so Stuart seated himself, sinking into the luxury of a feather mattress. Her scent was strongest here; it rose out of the linens and filled the air he breathed. He leaned back and inhaled fully, enjoying some small taste—or rather, scent—of vengeance.
Of course it was impossible to sit on her bed and smell her perfume without thinking of having her in the bed with him, and Stuart frowned as his body stirred in unauthorized arousal at the thought. He had learned his lesson on that score, and was not going to be distracted by such urges again. He sat up and listened; the maids still chatted in the hall. What the devil were they doing, he wondered impatiently. No matter how much fiendish delight it gave him to see Charlotte Griffolino’s undergarments, he wanted to accomplish his mission and leave. The longer he was in the house, the greater the chance he would be caught.
He drummed his fingers on his thigh, scanning the room again. A small chest on the bedside table caught his eye, and he idly flipped it open, momentarily taken aback by the blaze of jewels within.
. Stuart picked up the box and poked through it, amazed. An absolute fortune in precious gems just sitting on the table, and the house was all but wide open.
The sound of a door closing very nearby startled him out of his thoughts, so badly he jumped. Several pieces skittered out of the jewel case in his hand, slipping across his lap and into the plush folds of the duvet. Stuart swiftly scooped them back into the case and replaced it on the table before sprinting back across the room to the door. The voices had gone quiet, and he could faintly hear one person, humming. Footsteps went up and down the hall, up and down. Stuart tensed, expecting to be discovered at any moment, but finally the footsteps faded completely.
He turned the knob soundlessly, and opened the door a bare inch. After a long moment of listening, he slipped into the hall. It was quiet and deserted. He glanced longingly down the hall, at the doors he hadn’t tried, but decided it was too great a risk. Better to admit defeat and come up with another, safer, plan. He clearly wasn’t cut out to be a successful thief.
He made his way back down the stairs, quietly and quickly, and back to the library, where he had left the window open. Only when he had closed the door behind him did he realize he had made a mistake; this was not the library, even though it was also filled with crates and trunks, all the way to the ceiling in some places. Was she packing to leave, or just lazy about unpacking to stay? And why hadn’t she rented a bigger house if the latter? Curious, Stuart tried the lid of a nearby crate. It opened to reveal straw, packed around ... a vase, he discovered, feeling inside. A large vase.
A faint sound made Stuart freeze as he was replacing the lid. Tensed for flight, or fight if the need arose, he circled the crate, straining to see in the dark room. A scrape, a rustle, then silence until a low whisper; something being dragged, perhaps? Stuart moved forward stealthily. Whoever it was hadn’t brought a lamp. He closed his fist around a broken slat from one of the crates and lifted it over his head, just in case, and edged forward.
A dark shape was bent over another crate. Now Stuart could see the lamp, a tiny thing with a cover almost completely covering it. A weak glow barely illuminated the open crate, and cast the figure in front of it into a blurry shadow. He hesitated. Another burglar? What was this one after? And what the hell should he do?
Stuart was struck by the absurdity of it. Here he was, breaking into a house for the express purpose of taking something, and yet the sight of another intruder brought out the English gentleman in him. How hypocritical, to want to defend the house he himself had broken into. He shook his head at his own lunacy, a moment of self-examination that was nearly fatal.
The figure crouching over the crate whirled with no warning, one arm swinging upward. Stuart flung the broken slat by instinct, dodging to the side. The intruder—the other one—clipped him in the waist, and Stuart lost his breath in a whoosh as they toppled backward into another stack of crates.
The fellow was small, but wiry and strong. He also had a knife, which Stuart barely managed to keep from his own throat. Grunting, they rolled back and forth, neither gaining the upper hand, until the sound of running footsteps reached them. His opponent froze, then leapt up and fled with the speed of a deer, stepping squarely in the middle of Stuart’s stomach on his way.
Breathless again, Stuart staggered to his feet. The thief had vanished, and he was about to be discovered in the wreckage. Realizing that he had no possible explanation for being here, Stuart limped to the window he glimpsed behind some more crates, and pulled on the sash.
The door was opening, the light of a candle seeping into the room. Stuart wrenched at the window as the nervous face of the butler appeared around the door. He refused to get caught trying to break
of the house. The butler stepped in, lifting his lamp. “Who is there?” he called in a quavering voice.
With one last yank, the window flew up with an earsplitting squeal, and Stuart dove headfirst out of it, landing in the honeysuckle. Ripping the vines from his legs, he hurtled across the dark garden, away from the shouts and screams coming from the house behind him, and didn’t stop until he was several streets away.
Panting and sweating, shaking with delayed panic, he leaned against a wall to catch his breath. Christ, that had been close. Just his luck, to break into the only house in Kent already being burgled. He dragged one hand over his face and realized his fingers were sticky with more than sweat. He swore as he saw the long slice across his palm from the fellow’s knife. He dug in his pocket for a handkerchief, and felt something unfamiliar. With a feeling of growing dread, Stuart carefully pulled out—
—an emerald necklace. It must have slipped into his pocket when he dropped the jewel case.
Stuart crammed it back into his pocket and concentrated on wrapping his bleeding hand, feeling as though a thousand eyes glared down on him. Just bloody lovely; now he was a jewel thief. How the devil could he return it without incriminating himself? He certainly wasn’t going back now. Squeezing his cut hand in a fist, he made his way home, cursing the day he had met Charlotte Griffolino.