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Authors: Jerrica Knight-Catania

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency

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BOOK: The Robber Bride
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“For now.”

“Good. Now, what have you been working on?”

“What makes you think I’ve been working on anything?” He didn’t care to share the subject of his most current work

not after their discussion. As a matter of fact, he might just toss the whole bloody thing out the window just to spite her.

“I’m not an idiot, either, Fin. Your hands are covered in paint.”

“It’s nothing important, really,” he said evasively. “Just another boring still life.”

They walked in silence for a few blocks, and Fin was grateful that it wasn’t uncomfortable. Not that it ever had been. Victoria was practically his closest friend. It was just that silences with most other women
were
uncomfortable. They always seemed nervous and desperate to fill the silence.
But not Vickie.
No, she was more than happy to keep her thoughts to herself.

Suddenly, that idea annoyed Fin. What the devil was she thinking about? Would she tell him if he asked? “A penny for your thoughts?” he ventured.

“What? Oh, they aren’t worth that much,” she replied with a nervous laugh.

How uncharacteristic of her.
“Care to share them, anyway?”

She thought for a moment before replying. “No. At least, not until you tell me what you’re really working on.”

“You’re too smart for your own good, you know?”

Her self-satisfied smile made Fin want to laugh. “I know.”

***

“Your mother wishes to see you, miss.”

Victoria looked up to find Davis, their stalwart butler, standing over her. She immediately moved her hand to cover the letter she’d been writing, hopeful that the ink had dried sufficiently already.

“Tell her I’ll be along momentarily. I’m just finishing up here.” Davis shifted his feet and cleared his throat. Victoria turned to him again. “What is it, Davis?”

“It’s just that . . . milady said not to allow you to make any excuses. She wants to see you—now.”

“You may tell
milady
that I am four-and-twenty, and I will come when I am good and ready.” Victoria’s temper bubbled. She knew she should try and control it, but she couldn’t. “How dare she? I’m not a child anymore, Davis. She can’t insist that I drop everything simply because she wants to see me. Part of me wants to take even longer than I need finishing this letter just to spite her.” She held up a hand to Davis, who stood there quietly, listening to her rant. “Yes, I know I’m being childish, but she
treats
me like a child! What does she expect?”

She stopped and stared up at him, not really waiting for a response. He wasn’t one to offer up opinions. But then he did speak, much to Victoria’s surprise.

“I’m sorry, miss,” he said, a pained look crossing his features. “In this instance, I think it is best you go to your mother.”

Victoria felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her. How humbling to be told what to do by ones servant. However, she was too dumbfounded to say anything but, “All right,” as she vacated her chair and walked numbly to her mother’s chambers.

Three

 

 

 

“Well, well, well, isn’t this surprising?”

Fin startled and his brush flew across Victoria’s face—in the painting, of course. He whirled around to scold the intruder, but his frustration turned to joy when he saw who stood in the doorway to his studio.

“Tom!” he shouted as he crossed the room to his old friend. “I thought you were still in Jamaica. When did you arrive home?”

They shook hands and then Tom sloughed off to the sofa. He landed on it sideways, in a reclined position. “Just this morning,” he said. “Finally. It’s a bloody long trip from Jamaica, you know?”

“No, but I can imagine,” said Fin. “Have you seen Victoria? I’m sure she’ll be thrilled you’re home.”

This piqued Tom’s interest. “Why’s that?”

“She can’t stand to have me looking after her. She likes when I’m her friend, but not her guardian. I’m certain she’ll be happy to have you back in that role.”

Tom chuckled and leaned back further to stare up at the ceiling. “I don’t have any intentions of following my sister around. She’s too damned headstrong. I don’t know why you even bothered.”

“Headstrong and secretive and deceptive . . . yes, I’m quite aware of Victoria’s shortcomings.” Fin moved back to his painting of her and stared into the eyes he’d painted just a half hour earlier. They were still wet and glossy, as if filled with tears.

“Apparently you don’t find the shortcomings to be with her looks, though.”

Fin turned to his old friend. “I’m not painting her because I find her attractive. I’m painting her so I can yell at the painting instead of her when she drives me to madness.”

Tom erupted into laughter. “In that case, perhaps you should paint one for me as well.”

***

“You wished to see me, mother?” Victoria crossed the threshold into her mother’s favorite room. Victoria didn’t understand why she favored it so much. It was quite manly, with dark woods and fabrics, and it abutted to the next house—Fin’s house—so it got very little sunlight.

Victoria preferred the front drawing room, which looked out onto the street. It was sunnier and far more interesting than this dungeon.

“Sit down,” Lady Grantham instructed. Once Victoria had done as she bade, her mother finally looked up at her with a serene smile on her face. “Your brother has returned from Jamaica.”

Victoria’s eyes widened with her surprise, but she wasn’t quite sure what to say to the news. Of course, she was happy her brother had returned safely from abroad, but . . . well, part of her wished he hadn’t returned at all.
At least, not yet, anyway.

“I know, this comes as quite a shock,” her mother continued, not bothering to wait for a reaction from her daughter. “We really thought he’d be there forever. His letters indicated he was quite happy. Nonetheless, we must make the most of his return.”

Oh, no. Victoria had an idea of where this was leading and she didn’t like it one bit.

“I will alert him to your social schedule so that he may accompany you from now on. It isn’t good that you’re seen practically everywhere with Lord
Leyburn
. I know he fancies himself like an older brother to you, but the fact of the matter is that he is not. Other gentlemen must see him as your suitor, and who would dare challenge the earl? He’s more handsome than the other gentlemen by leaps and bounds . . .”

As her mother carried on, Victoria’s mind churned with all the tactics she would have to use to escape her brother.
And
Fin. Good heavens, how would she evade two of them? And why did they care so much about what she did? She was twenty-four years old, for goodness sake; she could take care of herself.

Of course, she couldn’t tell her mother that she only maintained a social calendar in order to rob the richest and the rudest, so she simply smiled and nodded her head whenever her mother looked her way.

“Well, that is all. You are excused. Oh, and I’ve had Lily set out your white gown for this evening.”

White?
“White, mother?”

Lady Grantham didn’t look up from the menu she perused when she replied, “Yes, of course. It’s high time you started acting like a debutante instead of an old maid.”

“I hardly think wearing yellow or green places me in the category of old maid—”

Her mother turned sharp eyes on her. “I thought perhaps with age you would come to respect me better, but I see you only grow more defiant with each passing day. However, you still live here, in
my
house, and therefore you will follow my orders. Is that understood?”

Victoria’s shoulders twitched with the effort of keeping her hands by her sides rather than wrapping them about her mother’s neck. It took her a moment to gain control of her voice, but at last she said, “Perfectly,” and then left the room.

***

When a knock came at Victoria’s door later on that afternoon, she knew exactly
who
it was. “Come in, Thomas,” she called, and her brother poked his head around the door.

“Is my knock so distinct?” he asked with a smile upon his face.

Victoria went to him and wrapped her arms about his neck. Thomas lifted her off the ground in a tight squeeze before putting her feet back on the floor again.

“Goodness, your skin is so dark!” She studied her brother closely. “You’ve practically baked yourself, Tom.”

“It’s hard to avoid the sun in the Caribbean, Vic. It blares for more than twelve hours a day most days. And it’s hot—much hotter than our sun here in England.”

“Well, that’s impossible, isn’t it?” Victoria asked, wondering how the same sun could be different just because it was in another part of the world.

“Not at all.” Tom studied her for a moment and Victoria felt as if she were an animal on display at the menagerie. “You look well, little sister.”

“As well as well can be,” she replied. “Living here without you has not been terribly easy.”

“I’m sure Mother is thrilled you’re still unwed.”

“Please!” Victoria held up a hand to her brother. “Do not start with that. It’s bad enough that Mother hounds me about it in her condescending ways—”

“She only wants to see you settled.”

“Settled!” Victoria knew better. Her mother couldn’t care less about her
happiness,
only about what connections her daughter might buy them with an advantageous marriage. “I supposed you’ve been charged with looking after me from now on?”

Tom rolled his eyes and picked up the powder puff that sat on her vanity. He gave it a grimace and then replaced it in the powder. “It’s impossible to look after you, Vic.”
“Thank you.”

“That wasn’t necessarily a compliment.”

“Well, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take it as one anyhow.”

Tom gave her a wide smile. “I’ve missed you, little sister.”

This was a bit of a surprise to Victoria. Though they’d always gotten along, she and her brother had never been exceedingly close. But perhaps things were changing now that they were older, now that they’d been apart so long. Victoria was certainly beginning to truly understand the importance of family; maybe Tom was, too.

“I went to see Fin earlier today,” he said, taking a seat on the edge of her bed.

“You went to see Fin before you came to see me?”

“Mother’s orders.”
Victoria looked at him, stunned. “Please say you’re joking.”

“You know Mother. She always wants to be the first to deliver good news.”

They both shared a chuckle over this, for they knew it wasn’t at all true.

“What did she say to you?” Tom wondered.

“That we must make the most of your return.” Victoria gave him a mocking smile. “Since Lord
Leyburn
is unsuitable as a chaperone—being handsome and eligible himself—Mother is very much looking forward to you being my guardian again at social events. I daresay she’s given you my social calendar already.”

Tom flopped backwards onto the bed and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m glad my return was met with such . . .
enthusiasm.

“Did you expect any differently?” Victoria took the opportunity, while her brother wasn’t looking, to tidy up anything that might pique his interest and cause him to ask questions she didn’t care to answer. She’d really have to be more diligent now that he was home again.

“No, I suppose not,” he answered with a sigh. “But at least
you
are genuinely happy to see me. Aren’t you?”

Her brother’s tone gave her pause. He had always been quite self-assured, but he didn’t seem that way now. He actually seemed rather sad that he’d not had a more enthusiastic reaction from Mother and Father. But really, what did he expect from them? They had always been cold and distant—no amount of time would change that.

“Of course I am, Tom. Why would you think otherwise?”

Tom sat up again and smiled at his sister. “Though it would be nice if Mother and Father would change for the better, I’m glad to see you haven’t changed a bit.”

“And I promise I never will,” she replied, smiling back at her brother. “Now, get out. I have to prepare for this evening.

BOOK: The Robber Bride
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