Authors: Jerrica Knight-Catania
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
Though Fin was no longer needed in Victoria’s life, he still couldn’t escape her. Now that Tom was back, he wanted to learn more about his travels to Jamaica, and of course, wherever Tom was,
Victoria would be. Lady Grantham would make sure of it. Of that, Fin was most certain.
But nothing could have prepared him for the shock he received when Victoria arrived at the dinner party that evening. He stood in the far corner, nursing a brandy alone, when she walked in, clad head-to-toe in white.
He hadn’t seen Vickie in white since her come-out years ago. He would have thought it was positively ridiculous, her wearing white, except that she looked . . . well, almost pretty.
was he trying to fool? She looked like a damned angel. Her chestnut hair was swept into a loose coif atop her head, and tendrils dangled about her face in a most ethereal and, dare he say, erotic manner.
, what the devil was wrong with him? This was Victoria—
she was practically his sister. It felt rather perverted to think of her in such a way, yet at the same time he couldn’t seem to stop himself.
“What are you doing over here all alone, Finny?”
Fin had turned away and taken a sip of his drink, so it came as quite a surprise to realize Vickie and Tom had made their way to his side already. He sputtered on his drink for a moment and Tom smacked him on the back.
“Okay there, old man?” Tom teased.
“You ought not to sneak up on a person like that,” he said, once he’d regained his ability to speak. “I nearly choked.”
Victoria’s lips pressed together as she tried to hide her mirth.
“Since you think it’s so funny, I’ll have to find a way to give you a taste of your own medicine one of these days.” His scolding had no effect on Victoria.
“You may try,” she replied airily as she scanned the room.
“What the devil are you wearing, by the way?” he said, changing the subject.
Victoria turned her large, green eyes on him and cocked her head sideways. “What? You don’t like it?”
“Not at all.” She let down her guard a bit and huffed as she crossed her arms over her chest. “But you know Mother . . .”
He did. Which meant Victoria had been given no choice in the matter.
“Well, Tom, how does it feel to be back in the fold?” He turned to his friend who now sipped lazily of his own brandy.
“Damned freezing is how it feels. I never thought I’d long for the heat of Jamaica.”
“Keep drinking and you’ll feel it soon,” Fin encouraged.
“Perhaps you should go somewhere more temperate next time, Tom,” Vickie suggested. “Maybe I’ll go with you.”
Both Fin and Tom erupted into laughter. Victoria punched her fists to her hips, clearly not amused. But really, the thought of her traipsing after her brother . . .
Well, it would probably be the other way around, wouldn’t it? Victoria would certainly put her poor, lazy brother through his paces in a foreign country. It was a sight Fin would gladly pay good money to see.
“Oh, good Lord, is there a good place to hide nearby?”
Fin followed Tom’s line of vision until it landed on the last person he cared to see.
“Why, Lady Beecham!” Victoria welcomed the woman with a wide smile. A smile she only reserved for people she truly despised. “How wonderful to see you. Is Lord Beecham here with you this evening?”
“Oh, dear,” replied the woman in a dripping, melancholic tone, “I’m afraid my poor husband has taken ill.”
“I do hope it’s nothing serious!” Victoria’s brow furrowed with feigned concern. Everyone knew Lady Beecham would be thrilled if her husband suddenly dropped dead. She’d maintain the name and finally be free to have affairs openly rather than in secret. As if her affairs were a secret to begin with.
“We just can’t know yet, but thank you for thinking of us, dear Victoria. A treasure you are.”
This time, both Tom and Fin choked on their brandy. Victoria shot them a warning look, but it was impossible to hide their mirth.
It took only a moment for Lady Beecham to regain her faculties. “And I see your dear brother has returned at last. Tom, I do hope you’ll make time this week to tell me all about your travels.”
Tom did his best to remain
though any bystander could see that meeting with Lady Beecham was the last thing he cared to do. “Of course, my lady. It would be my pleasure.”
Finally she turned to Fin and, with a seductive bat of her eyelashes, said simply, “Lord
Fin’s mouth dropped open. Lady Beecham was trying to make him jealous. How very amusing. But of course, the joke would be on her.
Dinner was a painstaking event for Victoria, who was not only dining in the home of her last victim, but who was also tragically seated next to the deplorable Lady Beecham. It was enough she’d had to speak with her before dinner, but now her appetite was completely ruined. The woman spent the entire meal trying to dredge up information about Tom and Finny—clearly she’d set them up as her next conquests.
Victoria shivered with a bit of disgust. Though she knew the two of them were far from saints, she didn’t care to think about what went on behind their closed doors. And the last thing she wanted to do was facilitate a tête-à-tête between one of them and a potential lover. Even the word
made Victoria a bit queasy.
However, seeing as Lady Beecham was to be
next conquest, it was not actually ideal that they were spending so much time together this evening. What if she became more attuned to the cadence of Victoria’s voice and recognized it later on while she was being robbed?
No, that would never happen. Victoria had worked too hard at disguising herself and her voice over the last two years. She was worrying for nothing.
When dinner was finished, Victoria left her brother and Fin to join the ladies in the drawing room for tea and spice cake, though Victoria would refrain from the cake. If she had to get close to Lady Beecham during the robbery, the woman might recognize the smell of it on her breath.
Victoria sighed. One day she would retire from her work and be able to enjoy her life without thinking of such intricate details. But for now, it was of utmost importance that she be vigilant, lest she find herself with a noose about her neck.
The night droned on in boring detail. Fin wanted nothing more than to go home and enjoy his own brandy with his paints and canvas. The portrait of Victoria was coming along quite nicely, and he itched to finish it. Perhaps he would make her a birthday present of it, though he wasn’t so sure he would want to part with it. It was perhaps one of his best pieces to date.
Either way, he wished to finish it. If only there were an opening to excuse himself from the party. As it was, their host, Lord Culver, kept on and on about having been robbed at gunpoint several evenings before on the Great North Road.
Fin might have brushed it off as an odd occurrence, since highwaymen really were not
anymore, except that Lord Culver was not the first to experience such a thing in recent times. Fin had overheard many a story at his club of highway robberies, so clearly there were thieves out there, looking for a bit of coin to fill their own coffers. Though he wondered at the magistrate’s inability to bring any of these men to justice.
As Lord Culver finally wrapped up his frightening tale, Fin stood from the table. “I do hope you will forgive me, Culver. I’ve an early start tomorrow.”
“Careful on your way home, my good man,” the duke advised.
Fin nodded and thanked the man for his hospitality before escaping the smoke-filled room. He’d never taken much interest in
so sitting in a room filled with their smoke was not terribly enjoyable for him. He was halfway down the hall when Tom called after him.
“Didn’t want to hear more about Lord Culver’s robbery?” Fin asked as his friend approached.
“God, no. How much of it do you think is truth?”
“Probably not nearly as much as he might wish. He does love playing the hero, does he not?”
“Your carriage, milord.” The footman at the door stood aside to allow him onto the sidewalk.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Tom,” Fin called back. “And don’t forget to collect your sister before you leave!
“Was that Fin?” Victoria asked as she slipped out of the drawing room into the foyer. “Leaving so soon?”
“Yes, and so are we,” Tom told her as he accepted his hat and cane from the maid.
“All right.” That suited Victoria just fine. Lady Beecham had left only minutes ago. Thankfully, the ride home would be quick, and then she would turn around and be on the road again in minutes.
Plenty of time to catch up to Lady Beecham’s carriage.
“Did you see Lady Beecham leave?” Tom asked once they were in motion.
She wondered why he was asking after that woman, but he was a man after all. They didn’t often see much beyond a pretty face and a willing bed partner. There was that sick feeling again. She really had to stop thinking of her brother as having bed partners.
“Only shortly before we did,” she replied. “Why do you ask?”
Right. No reason at all.
Gil pulled the carriage up in the drive and Victoria alighted with her brother. They entered the house and parted ways, headed for their own rooms. But as soon as the latch to his bedroom door clicked, she scurried along the hallway and down the back staircase. Gil was waiting in the alley behind their home, so she didn’t have far to go to climb aboard. And then they were off to find Lady Beecham’s carriage.
It didn’t take long. Though the carriage bore no emblem, it was most certainly hers. Victoria was sure the woman had insisted her personal transportation be unmarked—that way she could enjoy her affairs with discretion.
Victoria slipped out of her own unmarked carriage and stalked quietly to the conveyance holding her prey. Wouldn’t Lady Beecham be surprised this evening, to have her precious jewels taken from her? Well, maybe. She clearly had enough to wear a different necklace every day for a year. Victoria doubted she would really miss the ruby ensemble dangling from her neck and wrists tonight. But knowing Lady Beecham as she did, she would probably claim they were her favorites and lament them for years to come, just to have something to complain about.
She waited until she was sure Gil had taken care of the coachman and then sidled up to Lady Beecham’s carriage. Only she was shocked to hear that the woman was not alone. A man’s voice reached her ears, muffled and impossible to make out.
She hadn’t seen anyone else slip into the carriage. When had it happened? Well, it didn’t matter now. She was already here and she had a job to do. Victoria wasn’t about to let down the poor, ailing people at the hospital, so she would just have to handle both Lady Beecham and her mystery gentleman. No doubt it was some dandy who spent his time sitting in the window at
. He would be no match for her.
Now, if it were a man like Finny—a man who spent much of his time at the boxing club—she might have a bit more difficulty. Chances were the man was unarmed, though, and he’d be foolish to challenge a highwayman with a gun.
Despite the fact she’d thoroughly talked herself into believing she had the upper hand, Victoria still hated to be taken off guard. Which was awfully ironic, considering her chosen profession.
Stop dawdling, Vickie, and get on with it!
Having chastised herself sufficiently, Victoria sprung into action, throwing open the door to the carriage. She pointed her gun at the man, who much to her surprise, sat opposite Lady Beecham. She still didn’t know who he was, as the darkness was thick tonight, with no moon to light her victims’ faces.
Screwing up her courage and convincing herself that two was no harder than one, especially since one was a woman, she said, “Your money or your life.”
Lady Beecham screamed and clutched her chest. At least, that’s what Victoria thought she did based on the way her rubies clicked together. Even if she had been willing to take her eyes off the man, she wouldn’t have been able to tell in the dark.
There was a pause and then the man spoke beneath his breath. “Damn! Of all the nights for you to sneak into my carriage,” he said to Lady Beecham.
Victoria froze. Oh, goodness. This was not good. Damn and blast, what was Fin doing in Lady Beecham’s carriage? No. What was
And how had she and Gil confused the two?
She took a moment to catch her breath and reminded herself that Fin didn’t know who she was, or that she was even a
She’d had no trouble convincing anyone else she was of the male persuasion; this would be no different. Though she did hate to steal from Fin.
“Your money or your life!” Victoria said again, hating the panic in her own voice.
“Fine, fine,” Fin said as he reached into his coat to retrieve his purse. He handed it over, and Victoria weighed it in her hand. “I know it isn’t much, but I spent the rest on flowers this afternoon.”
This from Lady Beecham.
Victoria swallowed hard. Who
the flowers for? And why did she care all of a sudden?
“I’m afraid that’s none of your business, my lady.” He then turned to Victoria. “Now, may we be on our way?”
Did he always speak to armed robbers this way? His bravado was quite alarming. If she were truly a highwayman with a loaded gun, she might find his attitude a bit off-putting, and who knew what a highwayman with a loaded gun would do in that situation? She ought to teach him a lesson, but she still had jewels to retrieve.
She trained her gun on Lady Beecham and said, “The rubies. All of them.”
“What!” Lady Beecham made as if she were going to swoon. “Not my rubies! My precious, precious rubies!”
“Oh, give him the damned rubies,” Fin said. He clearly had little patience for the woman’s histrionics, which was somehow comforting to Victoria.
There was an audible gasp from the lady, but once she’d collected herself, she removed the jewels from about her neck.
Once Victoria had them in her possession, she did her best to refocus her attention on the task at hand. It wasn’t good that she’d let her mind wander while she waited on the rubies. Even worse was the subject of her distraction.
“Five minutes,” she muttered to the pair. “Don’t move a muscle until then.”
“Yes, yes,” Fin said, waving her off. “You’ve got what you wanted, now off with you.”
Ha! Victoria wanted desperately to laugh in his face and remind him that
held the gun in this instance, but arguing with him would give her away. So instead, she held her tongue and headed back to her own carriage, trying desperately to ignore the annoying feeling of jealousy that nagged at her heart.
Damn, damn, damn!
Well, this was certainly his lucky night. A boring dinner followed by a loathsome woman sneaking into his carriage, and rounded off with a robbery.
How bloody coincidental, after hearing about the damned highwayman from Lord Culver all night.
Well, at least no one was harmed. Though one wouldn’t be so sure if they heard the wails and cries coming from his carriage right now.
“I say, are you quite finished, madam?” he asked of Lady Beecham. He was still reeling from the fact that she’d snuck into his carriage. He was in no mood to make nice with her now, despite her histrionics.
, how can you remain so calm? We were nearly killed!” she cried.
Fin rolled his eyes. “Yes, well, we weren’t, were we?”
“But the thought of it!”
“Don’t think about it, then.”
There was silence and Fin hoped he’d finally shut her up.
“You are so cruel to toy with my emotions, Finny, darling.”
to you, and I’ve never done any such thing as to toy with your emotions. To toy with someone’s emotions would indicate that I bore some liking to them—at least enough to be in their presence long enough to do said
—but you, Lady Beecham, mean nothing to me.” He could hear her sharp intake of breath, but thankfully couldn’t see her stricken face. “Once our five minutes is up, I will deliver you back into the hands of your husband and you will leave me alone once and for all. Is that understood?”
Silence reigned again, until the woman finally answered, her voice choked with fake tears. “Completely.”