Authors: Jerrica Knight-Catania
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
Fin watched Victoria and
walk through the garden from his second story window. He hid just behind the curtain so that even if they did look up, they wouldn’t see him. At least, he hoped they wouldn’t. He hadn’t really tested that theory.
At any rate, Victoria was far too nervous and distracted to notice much of anything. Clearly she was trying to get rid of the man, and why wouldn’t she be? No one would be comfortable spending time with someone they’d recently tried to rob.
But that was what had Fin worried this afternoon. What was
playing at? Though the man might look for a wife for the sake of keeping up appearances, a man like him certainly wouldn’t go after a woman like Victoria. She was far too passionate a specimen. Whoever took
as wife would have to be devoted. Faithful. Fin was certain his lifelong friend would not overlook indiscretions, especially the kind
would engage in.
So it begged the question: what was he doing calling on Victoria?
When they moved to the other side of the garden, Fin left his post at the window. Good God, had he really become so desperate to see Victoria that he had resorted to spying on her?
No, it was simply out of concern that he watched her.
From behind a curtain.
Never mind all that, he would see her tonight at the Gilbert masquerade. Right now, he was supposed to be having tea with Sally. They’d made a habit of it ever since Caroline had passed away. The child needed normalcy in her life, something she could count on every day without fail. And today, Fin had something special to tell her.
She was waiting for him in the front parlor. Her blonde curls had been swept up on top of her head, held together by a giant blue bow. The bow matched her dress, which
a blue and white stripe, complete with lace trimmings and a sash. He shuddered to think what would have happened to the girl had Victoria not discovered her in
that day. Where would she be with no mother and no one to care for her? It tore at his heart, but he put on a bright smile for her as he entered the room.
“You’re five minutes late,” she said matter-of-factly.
Fin stopped and bowed to her. “I beg your forgiveness, milady. I’m afraid I was unavoidably delayed.”
“Because you were spying on Miss Barclay?”
Fin’s mouth fell open, and Sally’s mouth turned up in a grin. “Well, if you know that I was spying on Miss Barclay, then that means
were spying on
“At any rate,” he continued, “I’ve something very important to speak with you about today, Sally.”
Sally’s laughter died away, and her eyes filled with tears. “Sally, why are you crying?” he asked her.
“It was too good to be true. I knew it. You’re going to send me away now, aren’t you?”
“Send you away?” She nodded. Fin smiled softly at her. “Sally, I am not sending you away. As a matter of fact…” He procured the documents from his solicitor stating that Sally was now his legal ward. “Do you know what these papers say?”
She shook her head. “I can’t read, sir.”
“A fact we will remedy very soon,” he assured her. “Sally, these papers state that I am now your legal guardian. You’re going to live here with me, but only if you want to, of course. You do have an aunt—”
Fin was quite literally cut off when Sally’s arms wrapped about his neck. She cried into his jacket, but he didn’t much care.
, there,” he said, patting her back gently. When she pulled away, he wiped the tears from her cheeks. “No need for tears, dear girl. But we are certainly in need of a celebratory cup of tea.”
Victoria never made it to the hospital.
overstayed his welcome by more than an hour, and by then more visitors had arrived. By the time they were done receiving guests, Victoria was exhausted. Damn her illness; it had weakened her more than she’d realized.
But tomorrow was another day, and tonight was the Gilbert masquerade. It was the perfect opportunity for her to scout out her next donor. And then tomorrow she would be able to visit the hospital with more than just her meager pin money.
She’d chosen to keep her dress simple. Since she planned to play highwayman later in the evening, it had to be one that she could easily slip off and back on. So she decided upon her Juliet costume. The white gown cinched just under her bust and then the silk chiffon cascaded down, covering her feet and dragging along the floor, so that when she walked, she looked like a floating ghost. On her face, she wore a jewel-encrusted black domino mask. The entire effect was quite stunning, she thought.
Fin and Tom both accompanied her to the party, of course, both equally unimaginative in their evening clothes and plain masks. But Victoria had to admit she liked the look on Fin. It made him seem mysterious—a word she would never have used before to describe her best friend.
They sat across from one another in the carriage, and Victoria wondered at the grin he wore.
“Are you excited for the masquerade,” she asked, “or is there something else to cause such a smile this evening?”
He turned to her, his eyes bright behind his mask. “Indeed, there is much to be happy about,” he said, and she sensed a deeper meaning behind his words. “But in particular, I was thinking about Sally. I told her the good news today.”
Victoria pushed down the lump in her throat. “Oh, that’s wonderful, Fin. She must be beside herself with joy.”
Fin nodded. “She was quite pleased that I wasn’t sending her to live with her aunt in Surrey.”
Tom lifted himself from his slouched position on the seat. “Quite a responsibility,
. Are you sure you’re up to the task? You don’t even have a wife yet.”
A covert glance passed between her brother and Fin. What in the world was that about?
“Well, it doesn’t much matter,”
said. “I’ve grown attached to the girl, and it would have been cruel of me after all she’s been through to turn her over to that witch of a woman. Besides
” his gaze shifted to Victoria
“I do believe it won’t be too long before I have secured a wife.”
Heat infused Victoria’s cheeks. Thank heavens it was somewhat dark in the carriage. Did he mean to say that
would be his wife? Impossible. One little kiss couldn’t have made him forget all they’d been through together, acting as brother and sister. Surely, he referred to someone else.
And why did that thought bother her so much?
Oh, she knew why. It was foolish to even pretend she didn’t harbor romantic feelings for Fin now.
She gave herself a mental slap across the cheek, for to give herself a real slap would draw unwanted attention. But she needed something to shake her mind of these thoughts. Tonight was an important night. Sarah and Molly and the patients at their little hospital were depending on her; she couldn’t let them down by allowing her romantic notions to get in the way.
“Well, I think it’s wonderful, Fin,” she said, ignoring the part about the wife. “And it’s hard not to fall in love with Sally. She really is a darling girl.”
Conversation came to a stop as they pulled to the front of the Gilbert mansion. Up the stairs and in through the front door they went, along with other masked guests. Victoria felt the familiar thrill of the hunt. It had been too long since she’d had this rush of excitement and nerves. For the first time in weeks, she truly felt alive.
The Gilbert’s home glittered with candlelight and the jewels that adorned their distinguished guests. Finding someone with more than enough funds to assist in the running of the hospital would not be a problem tonight.
She made her way to the ballroom, Fin and Tom close on her heels, and then stood to the side, watching. Waiting. She knew most of the people here. Some had already donated to the hospital, but most had not. Some were penniless, thanks to recklessness on either their part or that of their predecessors. Others had plenty of money but were far too upstanding for Victoria to want to rob them at gunpoint. The trick was always to find someone rich who needed a lesson in greed.
“Good evening, Mr. Barclay,” came a syrupy sweet voice from behind her. Victoria’s skin crawled. How did that woman find them wherever they went?
“Ah, Lady Beecham,” Tom replied, and Victoria turned to find him bent over her hand. The woman barely deserved a nod. But Victoria couldn’t let on any ill feelings toward her, lest she begin to suspect something.
“Good evening, my lady,” she said, dipping into the slightest of curtsies. “My, my, that dress is quite lovely on you.”
In reality the dress made her look as if she belonged in a brothel.
“Well, thank you, my dear.” She gave Victoria a tight smile. “And may I say that you make a lovely Juliet?”
Victoria’s smile was equally as tight, and it didn’t reach anywhere near her eyes. “You are too kind.”
“May I have this dance, Lady Beecham?” Tom asked her.
The woman narrowed her eyes at Victoria as she said, “It would be my pleasure.”
As they walked off toward the dance floor, Victoria gave a shiver of disgust. That woman clearly hadn’t learned any lessons from her harrowing experience on the highway, but Victoria knew better than to strike the same victim twice. It would be far too obvious, especially given their blatant animosity toward one another.
“I feel the exact same way,” Fin said from beside her, assumedly in response to her shiver. “But don’t you dare get any ideas.”
Victoria couldn’t believe he would bring up her
no matter how cryptic his message. “I don’t know what on earth you could be talking about.”
“Victoria.” His tone held a great deal of warning in it, and Victoria fought the urge to be defiant.
Instead, she decided to put him in his place. “Do you think me a bloody idiot,
“Of course not, but clearly you’re not always in your right mind.”
“The only time I’ve been out of my right mind was when I kissed you the other day,” she hissed, knowing her words would sting, but saying them anyway.
There was a sharp intake of breath followed by a brief pause, and then, “Well, then…”
Blast. Why did she have to be so damned impetuous?
Victoria kept staring straight ahead at the dance floor. If she looked at Fin it would break her heart. But she didn’t have time for that tonight. She had work to do.
Once she’d composed herself, Victoria turned to tell Fin she was going to the ladies retiring room, but he was gone. Damn and blast, she had really mucked things up, hadn’t she? First thing tomorrow she would go to him and apologize, but just then a great deal of whispers and pointing had broken out amongst the crowd. She stepped closer to the gaggle of women gathered nearby in hopes of hearing what they were talking about.
She couldn’t hear much over the orchestra, but she did catch a few words that helped her deduce there was a prince in attendance, though whether he was Russian or Prussian, she could not determine.
Moments later, the sea of people parted, allowing the prince an aisle down which to walk on his way to the dance floor. Gentlemen nodded and genuflected, and women curtsied and swooned. He wasn’t all that handsome, but just the idea of a prince from a far-away land gave women the vapors. Victoria even saw a few mothers shove their eligible daughters into the man’s path. How humiliating for them.