Authors: Jerrica Knight-Catania
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
However, as soon as she walked through the front door, Victoria knew she was in trouble.
here to see you,
Fin waited in the drawing room of Victoria’s townhouse, pacing the floor in anticipation. What was he going to say to her? What
he say to her? He’d told her they couldn’t be friends anymore, not until she told him what was going on. But now he knew. Did that mean they could be friends again? And did he really want to be?
with her again, knowing what he knew?
! Why the devil was he here?
Deciding he didn’t want to see her after all, he marched from the drawing room and headed toward the front hall. And there she was, looking as though she’d been through some kind of tempest. She was soaked, her hair matted to her face in dark clumps, and there were dark circles around her eyes. For some reason all Fin wanted to do was wrap her in a blanket and hold her until she fell asleep.
Clearly, there was something wrong with him. The effects of sleep deprivation were monumental.
“Please tell him I am not at home, Davis,” she said to the butler.
Davis was about to acquiesce, but Fin cut him off. “It’s a bit late for that.”
Her eyes met his, wild and almost scared. She said nothing.
“Come.” He motioned for her to follow him back to the drawing room. “The fire is warm in here.”
She held her tongue, but her footsteps padded on the marble behind him. He still didn’t know what he meant to say to her, but there was no avoiding a confrontation now. Though Victoria didn’t look as though she was up for one at the moment.
So unlike her.
Once they were in the room, Fin shut the door and turned the key in the lock. Victoria looked at him as if he’d gone mad.
“What are you doing?”
“Do you really want your parents to be privy to this conversation?” he asked.
“Well, no, but . . .”
“I want the truth, and I want it now.” His earlier demands hadn’t held much sway over her, but for the first time, Victoria actually looked scared. Good.
“You already know it.”
“No,” he corrected her. “I know what I saw last night. I know that I saw you in
the other day. I know you’ve been out all morning doing God-knows-what. But I don’t know why.”
“Fin—” She crossed the room in a few long strides and took both his hands in hers. They were frigid, and she shook rather violently. Whether it was from cold or fright or anger, he couldn’t be certain. “Please. You must forget about all this. You must forget that you saw me anywhere other than proper places for a young lady to be.”
“I can’t, Victoria. How could you even ask such a thing?”
“Because . . . because I care about you,” she said, and Fin wondered if she’d wanted to say something else.
“How kind,” he replied, his tone leaden with sarcasm. “However, I don’t need looking after, and— Damn it, Victoria, we’ve already had this discussion!”
“And now you understand why I begged you not to go looking, don’t you?” She squeezed his hands even tighter. If he had to describe it, he’d say her grip was desperate. “I could
for this, Fin. Do you not understand that? And if anyone finds out that you knew about me, well, I suspect you could too.”
“Why is it okay for you to not want
to hang, but I’m supposed to forget about the fact that
could hang?” Blast, but she was a stubborn girl!
“Because I know what I’m doing, Fin.” Every word she said was weighted and desperate. “Because I chose this, you didn’t. My purpose in doing this is greater than the threat or fear of dying because of it.”
that purpose?” he demanded.
“Rest assured, I do not pocket the money I collect to use for my own selfish purposes.”
“Is that why you were in
She clamped her lips together into a straight line, clearly trying to decide if she should tell him more or not. “Stop,” she finally said.
“Fin, stop!” She headed for the door, probably to usher him out of it, but he wasn’t about to have that.
He grabbed her by the wrist and spun her around. His tug was harder than he realized, and she collided into him. He caught her and put his arms around her back to steady her. They were nose-to-nose practically, and they had both stopped breathing.
She was too close. And all his emotions—rage, frustration, and damn it all, lust—crept up his body until they choked him. It was too much. Impulsively, he moved one of his hands up to the nape of her neck and as gently as he could manage, grabbed a fistful of her damp hair. Victoria didn’t resist when he pressed her closer or when he pressed his lips to hers. She was still at first, her lips clamped together in that line. But then she opened to him, allowed him in.
He took greedily of her, tasting her with a hunger he’d never in his life felt before. There were brief moments of disbelief that crept in. How could he possibly be standing here, kissing Victoria, his lifelong friend? It didn’t make sense, yet at the same time, it made perfect sense. It felt wrong, but then again, it felt completely right.
How the devil would he reconcile this? What would it do to their friendship?
He didn’t stop kissing her. He couldn’t. She smelled of rain and mud and sweat—things he never thought he would find arousing in a woman. But sure as the sun would set, his trousers tightened in a most uncomfortable manner.
Victoria pulled away from him, breaking the kiss. Fin loosened his grip, and she stumbled back a few paces. Her eyes were round and wide; clearly, she was just as confused as he was. For a moment they just stared at one another.
Finally, Victoria broke through the silence. “I think you should go.”
“Don’t push me away, Victoria,” he pleaded.
Tears suddenly glistened in her eyes. “What would you have me do, Fin?”
“Let me help you.”
“You can’t, not without being a party to my crimes, and I won’t allow that.”
“There are other answers, you know? You can get the money by legal means.” He stared at her, waiting, wondering. What was she using this money for anyhow?
She scoffed and rubbed her eyes free of the tears. “What would you suggest? That I work? Perhaps I could become a seamstress to the ladies of the
“Don’t be ridiculous. Your sewing skills are atrocious, everyone knows that.”
A hint of a smile appeared on Victoria’s lips, just as Fin had hoped. “This is no time to make jokes, you know?”
Fin schooled his features back into a serious frown. “Apologies. I had simply hoped to lighten the mood.”
Silence fell between them, long and dense. He watched Victoria carefully. She was fidgety, and her eyes darted about as if her thoughts were scattered about the room. Fin wanted to press her further, to find out what, specifically, she was doing with the money, but he didn’t. He’d tortured her enough today, and clearly, both of them were exhausted.
He walked to her and took her face in his hands. A bold move, he knew, for being so close to her made him want to kiss her all over again. Her lips hung open just a hair, and she barely breathed at all.
“I want to help you, Victoria. I’m
to help you in any way I can, consequences be damned.” Fin couldn’t believe he was saying this, but it was true. If Victoria were to hang for her crimes, how in the world would he be able to keep on living? A world without Victoria in it…
He stopped his thoughts there. Even entertaining the idea threatened to send him into a state of panic. Instead, he placed a single, lingering kiss to her forehead, and then released her. With one last look at her exquisitely troubled face, he took his leave.
Victoria collapsed onto the nearest chair as soon as Fin shut the door behind him. Her nerves were singed and they caused the pit in her stomach to grow until she was sure she would toss up her accounts. She put her hand to her mouth and forced herself to take a few steadying
. Getting sick would help nothing. She had to focus. She had to figure out what in hell she was going to do, first about Caroline and Sally, then about the hospital, and lastly, about Fin.
In her mind she had her priorities straight, but her heart was another matter entirely. It kept redirecting her thoughts to Fin. Only Fin. And not the predicament of whether or not to involve him in her activities, but rather to the kiss he’d bestowed upon her, just over there, near the settee.
Victoria shook her head. She couldn’t think about that now. There were much more important things to deal with. Fin would just have to wait.
Or perhaps everything would have to wait while she took a nap. Her body ached and her eyes burned, and if she had any hope of keeping up appearances tonight at the Randall soiree, she needed to sleep.
The physical and emotional toll made it feel as if she were slogging through quicksand to get up the stairs and to her room. But once she was there, she collapsed on the bed, and finally, after nearly thirty-six hours, found the rest she needed.
Sleep. Yes, that was all that she had needed. At least, that’s what Victoria told herself over and over as she prepared for the Randall ball that evening. In truth, her head hurt like the dickens and her body still felt weak, but perhaps it was simply that she needed to shake off the dregs of such a long afternoon nap.
“Are you sure you’re feeling all right, miss?” Lily asked after Victoria sneezed for the sixth time in a row.
“I’m fine, Lily,” Victoria replied rather shortly. “It’s that damned powder. It’s gotten up my nose is all.
“I can have Cook prepare you one of her tinctures, if you like.” Clearly, Lily wasn’t convinced.
“Lily, I am
” Victoria stood and ignored the light-headedness that resulted. “I don’t need any tinctures and I certainly don’t need you fussing over me all evening. Now, where are my gloves?”
“Here, miss.” Lily handed them over reluctantly. Victoria snatched them from her with a huff of annoyance.
“Thank you, Lily. I shall see you in the morning.” With that, Victoria left her room and went to meet her brother in the foyer. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone. He stood with Fin, deep in conversation. Victoria’s stomach flipped. It had never occurred to her that Fin might rat her out to her brother. Oh, dear. What would she do then?
No, it was unthinkable. She might not be on the best terms with Fin—although, that kiss said otherwise—but he would never do such a thing to her. This was between the two of them. Wasn’t it?
They stopped talking abruptly and turned to look at her. Fin’s brows came together in a frown, and Tom stepped forward to take her arm.
“Are you feeling all right, Vickie?” Tom asked. “You’re positively burning.”
Victoria rolled her eyes. “I wish everyone would stop treating me like a child. I feel fine, and I’m only warm because I just took a very long, very hot bath. Now, may we please go?”
By the time they arrived at the Randall’s townhome, Victoria was regretting her decision to come to the ball tonight. At least a hundred people had crammed into the modest ballroom, and there weren’t nearly enough windows to ventilate the place properly. It was hot and stuffy. She might suffocate if she didn’t get outside soon. However, she couldn’t even see the door from where she was, even though she stood on tiptoe.
Damn, she should have listened to Lily and Tom. Why did she have to put on such a show of strength all the time? It had certainly been her downfall this evening.