A loud knock sounded just as he took hold of the loose end of the cravat. Stuart paused. On the bed, Charlotte was breathing in shallow pants, her eyes closed, still lost in his words. As he preferred to be. Stuart decided to ignore it.
“Drake, damn you, open the door!” The voice, slurred by drink, changed his mind. Stuart sighed as Charlotte’s eyes fluttered open and she blinked, coming to herself in a moment. Her chest rose as she drew breath to scream.
“Don’t,” he told her. “They are my friends, and they are also received. Keep quiet or everyone in town will know you were here tonight.” Some of the familiar hostility returned to her expression, but he was already on his way out of the room. He pulled the bedroom door closed behind him, and went to let Jameson and Whitley in.
They almost fell over each other into his sitting room. “I say, Drake, gone to bed already?”
“I was tired, Whit.” He extended a hand and helped the very drunk Angus Whitley to his feet. “What brings you here?”
“A carriage,” said Whitley with a stupid grin.
Jameson yawned. “All the women wanted to know where you’d gone. We couldn’t even get a smile.”
“Lost badly, then.” Stuart glanced toward the bedroom. It was highly unlikely he’d be able to pick up where they left off, but he didn’t like leaving her. She had been quiet so far, but the more time she had to think about it, the more likely she was to scream or cry out for help. Stuart really didn’t want to have to explain to his friends why she was tied up in his bed. “I’m all done in for the night. Take yourselves home and sleep it off.”
“Drake, this country life is killing you,” announced Whitley, staggering to the mantle and foraging for a box of cigars. “Let’s to London. Tomorrow.”
“I can’t go to London,” he said dryly.
“Rot,” said Whitley, waving one hand. “That sorry tale’s surely blown over by now.” He picked up a cigar box. Stuart dragged one hand over his face. It was easy for Whitley to disdain the gossip; many of his friends had. But Stuart knew the rest of society would not. His own father had told him not to come back until he had made something of himself. So far, all Stuart had made of himself was an accidental thief.
“Sorry or not, I’d rather not stir up—” His explanation was cut short by Whitley’s disbelieving exclamation.
“Drake, you devil! Empty pockets, indeed! No funds to play deep, with this in your hands?” He held up Charlotte’s emerald necklace. Stuart clamped his mouth shut to keep from swearing; he had completely forgotten he had put it there while he tried to figure out how to return it.
“I say, Drake, I’ll take my two hundred pounds back, then,” drawled Jameson, sprawled on the sofa. “Whose neck did you buy this for?”
“You know how it is,” he said vaguely, moving to take the jewels from Whitley. “A gentleman shouldn’t say.”
“How much is this worth?” Whitley tossed the necklace past him to Jameson. Now that there was something interesting afoot, both were more alert and less drunk than before. Stuart didn’t want anyone knowing he had that necklace. Both Whitley and Jameson had met Charlotte in the last few days, and either might recognize the emeralds as hers. He took the box from Whitley with a scowl.
“All right, all right, just curious! You’re at your last pence for weeks, and suddenly you’ve got a handful of gems. Surely not for the heiress. Wait until after the wedding for that.”
“That’s right, I should. The necklace, Jameson.” He held out his hand. He should just hand it back to Charlotte, now that she had proven she was willing to break into his house. How she knew he had it, Stuart couldn’t guess, but now that he was reasonably sure she wouldn’t report him to the magistrate, he could return them without delay.
Jameson was frowning at the necklace, turning it back and forth. He leaned forward toward the fire, then scratched his fingernail over several stones. “Where’d you purchase this, Drake? A reputable place?”
“Not precisely,” he hedged. “A friend of a friend.” Still Jameson examined the necklace.
“I hope you got a good price, then.” He looked up. “You know it’s a fake.”
Stuart stared. “No. Not at all.”
Jameson met his eyes a moment longer. Then he dropped the necklace into Stuart’s outstretched hand with a shrug. “Well, I could be wrong. Sometimes old stones look fake.”
Stuart closed the box gently. It was dark in the room, and he hadn’t a jeweler’s glass, and he was drunk. But still ... Jameson knew jewels, having bought a great many for his mistresses over the years. “How do you know?”
“They’re scratched. Even good paste won’t stand up to pressure. But I haven’t a loupe, and the light is poor. It could be my imagination.”
“What a tangle that is,” said Stuart quietly.
“Let’s find out, shall we?” proposed Whitley, puffing at a cigar he’d found. “There has to be a proper jeweler in this town.”
Jameson shrugged. “Up to Drake, really. His blunt thrown away. His heiress who’ll pout if she winds up with paste.”
“Of course he wants to know!” Whitley declared as Stuart opened his mouth to demur. “How could he not? The man’s been cheated.” Jameson looked at him, and Stuart closed his mouth. If he showed no concern, his friends would remark it more than if he flew into a fury. As it was, he could only admit to a growing curiosity.
Did Charlotte know the emeralds were paste? If so, why had she come after them? Surely it was more trouble than the necklace was worth. And if she didn’t know ...
Stuart turned and went into the bedroom. Charlotte lifted her head at his entrance. “Who is here?” she whispered, her voice tight with anxiety.
“Some friends. We’re going out for a bit.” He picked up his jacket from beside the bed. Her mouth opened in outrage.
“And you’re just going to leave me here, like this?” She started twisting against her bonds, and he held up one hand.
“Be patient. You can’t leave while they’re waiting in the other room.” He pulled on his jacket and fiddled a moment with the cuff. “Perhaps you should wait until I return.”
Stuart winced at her loud whisper, and glanced at the door in apprehension. There was just the murmur of Whitley and Jameson talking, so he reached for the cravat around her wrists.
“Don’t leave right at once,” he said, working on the knot. “And stay to the main streets. It’s not safe to walk alone at this time of night.”
“Just untie me!” she hissed, wriggling again. “I know how to take care of myself!” Stuart paused to give her a wry look. She glared back. “Would you please hurry?” she bit out.
Stuart scowled at the knot. He had tied it securely, and her struggles had pulled the cloth tight. “I’m trying,” he muttered. “Hold still—”
“Drake?” In one stride Stuart was across the room, narrowly blocking Whitley at the door. “Don’t go back to bed,” he joked.
Stuart grinned sheepishly. “I wasn’t about to, Whit.” He cast an apologetic glance back at Charlotte as he pulled the door closed behind him, just barely hearing her whispered “You’ll regret this.”
It took less than an hour to find a jeweler who could be roused from his bed. The fellow grumbled a bit, but examined the necklace and informed them that sadly, the pieces were forgeries, good ones, but still worth very little. Stuart pocketed the necklace without a word, and refused his friends’ offer of a ride. Jameson gave him a searching look as they parted, but said nothing, and Stuart walked home.
He wondered why Charlotte Griffolino wore paste jewels. The most likely reason, of course, was that she had sold the real ones. Women often did it, when they needed funds: have a copy made, then sell the original. Husbands or lovers were often none the wiser, and it provided a secret supply of money to women who otherwise had none. But why would she do something as dangerous as break into his rooms in search of jewels worth next to nothing? Surely her dislike of him didn’t extend to risking her neck just to spite him.
The only explanation Stuart found reasonable was that she couldn’t bear for anyone to know she wore paste, not even the fool who—mistakenly—stole them. But why? Stuart could understand wanting them back, and wanting to punish the person who took them, but why would she care what he thought of them?
If she didn’t know they were fake, why not? She seemed like a worldly woman; how could she not have her jewels examined and insured? Had someone given her real ones as a gift, and then exchanged them for these? Perhaps there never had been real gems, and her wealth was all a front. Except for her undergarments; Stuart might be fooled by a false diamond, but he knew women’s clothing, and her lingerie was real, and expensive. None of it made sense, or at least not in a flattering way, and he let himself in, still trying to puzzle it out.
She had fallen asleep. Stuart stood over her for a moment. She looked sweeter, calmer, in sleep, not at all like a hardhearted harpy. Her hands were still wrapped around his cravat, and even though he had tied her ankles with loose knots that would have eventually come undone, they were also still tied. She hadn’t really tried to get free. He untied them gently, delaying just a moment longer until he woke her.
It was none of his business why the jewels were fake, or whether she knew it or not. Everyone had a right to their own secrets, even a woman who had done her best to expose his.
He sat on the bed beside her and reached for the cravat. Her eyes flew open and she gasped. Stuart smiled grimly, working at the knot. “Never fear, I am letting you go.”
“How gentlemanly of you,” she said bitterly. “Tying me down and then walking out and leaving me here for hours! I shall be quite amazed if my maid hasn’t called the watch.”
“If you didn’t tell her you were going out tonight, dressed as a man, to sneak into my rooms, why would she even be looking for you? I’ve barely been gone an hour.” The cravat came loose. Her eyes narrowed, catlike, as she hastily swung her legs over the side of the bed, rubbing her wrists. Stuart dug into his pocket and produced the necklace. It was a tacit admission of guilt, but he didn’t have the heart to keep them from her, not after the look of breathless wonder on her face as he whispered his fantasies in her ear.
She snatched the jewels from his hand. He waited for her to complain about them being fake, to accuse him of switching the real emeralds. “Is this all?”
Stuart frowned. “That’s all. I didn’t take anything else.”
“Then what were you doing in the music room?”
Ah yes, the music room. “Looking for a way out,” he said. “But someone was in there and nearly slashed my throat.”
“Who? Who was it?” she asked immediately.
“How the devil should I know?” Stuart raked his hair from his forehead. “He was opening crates. I didn’t do anything to him, but he jumped on me with a knife. Gave me a lovely scar, no doubt.” He opened his bandaged palm for her to see.
She glanced at it. “What did he look like?”
Stuart shrugged, suddenly tired. “I never saw his face. Small fellow, but strong.”
“Did he speak? What did he wear?”
“I didn’t take the time to converse, what with keeping his knife away from my neck.” Stuart got to his feet and fetched a long cloak from the wardrobe. “Put that on. It’s gotten cooler, and you shouldn’t be recognized.”
“I want to know who was in my house!” she exclaimed.
“And I’ve told you, I don’t know.” He tossed the cloak at her and went into the sitting room, slapping his hat low on his head. “Come along. I’ve had enough excitement for the evening.”
“Not until you tell me everything.” Charlotte was trying not to choke on a bilious fury that she had responded in a raw, sexual way to nothing more than the sound of his voice. That he could turn a woman—a mature, experienced woman, no less—into mush just by talking to her only confirmed her distrust of him. This man would have destroyed Susan, and Charlotte was not at all sorry for blackening his name.
But she did want to learn what he knew about the other burglar. For some reason, she believed his claim that he had only broken in the once, and taken only the necklace. It explained everything perfectly: why her bedroom had been disturbed for the first time, the wreckage in the music room, the obviously unfinished search of the newly arrived crates. Charlotte was almost relieved, in fact. If Stuart had been the one in her room, and had kept the other burglar from following his usual pattern, at least she wasn’t dealing with a thief who was getting more dangerous. And if Stuart had seen the other man, there was a chance she could solve the whole mystery once and for all.
So she planted her feet in the doorway and waited. He heaved a sigh and faced her with his hands on his hips. “I’ve told you all I know. It was a small fellow.” He indicated his own shoulder height. Still an inch taller than Charlotte, but perhaps small to him, she had to admit. “And slender, or wiry. Strong, and reckless as the devil, for he tacked right into me. He had a knife, probably a boot knife, maybe six inches, and used it without hesitation. He had a sort of lantern that gave only a little light, and he was searching inside a crate. I didn’t see him remove anything, or even what was in the crate he had open, and when the servants came running, he ran over me and disappeared. Are you satisfied now?” He flung his hands wide.