Authors: Jerrica Knight-Catania
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
That evening, Victoria, Tom and both their parents boarded their carriage and headed toward Westminster. There, they would take a boat across the Thames, straight to the dock at Vauxhall Gardens. Victoria was both excited and apprehensive about attending the festivities tonight. Vauxhall always proved to be exceedingly entertaining, and she was sure tonight would not disappoint. There was a concert of new music, and of course, the fireworks. Only one thing would remove her apprehension, though, and that would be if Finny declined the invitation.
She wasn’t sure what he knew—or if he knew anything, really—but Victoria had the sneaking suspicion that he might be on to her. Or that he was at least roused with a bit of curiosity.
What she worried about the most was that he might have seen her that morning. He hadn’t said as much, and it wasn’t like Fin to beat about the bush. They had been friends since birth, after all. They didn’t have that many secrets. Well, except for the ones that Victoria kept. But what good would it do to bring Fin into her plots? Simply knowing about it could land him in a heap of trouble, and Victoria preferred to protect her friends and family.
But now she thought about it, he
have secrets, didn’t he? Hadn’t he said something about buying flowers for someone the other day? Was it for a woman? Was he courting someone that Victoria didn’t know about?
And why did these ideas bother her so damned much?
She refocused her thoughts back to their carriage ride that afternoon. The more she played the conversation over in her head, the more she was convinced he had seen her. If that were the case, he would eventually come out and inquire about it. Knowing him as she did, he was probably waiting to see if she would confess to being in
first. Well, if he knew her equally as well, he would know that she’d take her secrets to the grave. As it was, he didn’t really know her, did he? How could he when Victoria kept the most important aspects of her life hidden from him?
Something about that saddened Victoria, but she didn’t have time to ruminate on it. They had pulled up to the dock, and Fin waited for them on the small boat. Though they had ended their carriage ride on a bit of a brusque note,
now. He waved and welcomed them aboard with a kiss to her mother’s hand and a handshake for both her father and brother. When it was Victoria’s turn for a greeting, his smile disappeared, and he only bowed his hello.
Any other day with any other man, Victoria would have found some smart remark about his lack of enthusiasm for her. However, no remarks came to mind. No witty retort to shame him for his behavior. Nothing. All she could do was stand there and try to hold back the tears that were a surprise even to her. Even worse than the tears was the knowledge that he knew. He had seen her in
that she was most certain now. It was likely that his cold indifference would continue until she confessed that she was in
Sadness tugged even harder now, for she could never tell him where she had been or what she had been doing. If she did, he would forbid her from going again, at least not without a chaperone. Under ordinary circumstances, she might have allowed him to go with her. But these were no ordinary circumstances. They were dire. If she told him a little, she would have to tell him everything, and she just couldn’t do that. It was one thing to risk
life. To risk hanging nearly every single night as she robbed the rich to give to the poor.
To risk any number of diseases while she assisted at the hospital.
To risk mugging or rape in the most undesirable parts of London.
But she couldn’t ask that of someone else. Not someone she cared about. Not someone she loved.
Fin hated this feeling. He hated being at odds with Victoria, even though neither of them had spoken as much to that end. Still, there was obvious tension, and it was his fault.
No. It was her fault.
Or was it? He wasn’t quite sure who was to blame. He only knew that Victoria wasn’t accountable to him, and if she didn’t want to tell him why she was in
that morning, she didn’t have to.
Then why did it bother him so damned much?
The five of them entered The Grove, making small talk until they reached their supper box. The concert would start shortly, but first dinner would be served, along with free-flowing wine and champagne. Fin thought he might drink an entire bottle himself. He hoped it would make things less awkward with Victoria, so when the bottles arrived, he claimed one and hid it on the floor beside his chair.
“What are you doing?”
He looked up to see Victoria staring at him, her brow crumpled with curiosity.
“Ah, nothing,” he said, casually placing the bottle back on the floor and bringing his glass to the table.
Her brows rose. Clearly, he wasn’t very good at covert operations.
“I suspect you’ll want to share that.” She held her glass out to him.
“Of course.” He was careful not to touch her hand as he took her glass, and just as careful when he handed it back.
Damn it, this was awkward. They had touched hands, brushed shoulders—they’d had plenty of physical contact over the years and it had never felt uncomfortable. They were like brother and sister, for God’s sake.
Only they weren’t actually, were they?
“I’ve never seen the Handel statue up close. Would you care to escort me there to have a look, Fin?”
That wasn’t true. The first time they visited Vauxhall, she spent nearly thirty minutes studying the statue. That was many years ago, when she was but a girl of sixteen, and he still saw her as a child, being twenty-four himself at the time. Somehow, though the years between them remained the same, the gap seemed far smaller.
But who was he to turn down an opportunity to clear the air between them?
“Well, you’re not leaving now, are you? The music is about to start.” Lady Grantham stared back at them with a shrewd look in her eye.
“I need to stretch my legs, Mother, or I’ll be too uncomfortable to enjoy the music.”
“Your brother will go with you, then.”
Victoria’s lips pressed together in a thin line. She was clearly perturbed. But she held her tongue, turned abruptly and then left the box. With a quick glance at one another, Fin and Tom both rose from their seats and followed her.
“What’s the matter with my sister?” Tom asked as they walked side by side, Victoria just a bit ahead of them.
“I was hoping you could tell me,” Fin replied. “I won’t lie to you, she’s been acting rather strangely. I had hoped she might confess the problem to me on this walk.”
, what a pleasant surprise.” Satan’s daughter herself stepped in front of them on the path. She was turned out in black and crimson, her breasts thrust forth for
world to see.
Fin rolled his eyes, but managed to suppress his groan. “Lady Beecham, we meet again.”
“Indeed.” She batted her eyelashes as she shifted her gaze to Tom. “Would you mind if I stole Mr. Barclay from you for a few moments.”
Fin was sure he’d never been so happy to see Lady Beecham. “By all means.” He stepped around her and left Tom to his own devices. It seemed his friend might not mind being left in the woman’s clutches, so Fin didn’t feel terribly guilty for abandoning him.
In a few long strides, he had caught up to Victoria, and he fell into step beside her, taking her elbow as he did. She looked up at him, her face more open and vulnerable than he had ever seen it.
“Victoria,” he said, his tone soft and beseeching, “will you please tell me what this is all about?”
She was quiet for a few moments, but when she spoke, her words sounded almost pained. “I cannot, Fin.”
“Then why did you ask me to walk with you?”
“To tell you just that.” She glanced about, and then stopped just before the statue. “And you must stop trying to figure it out.”
“Like hell I will.” Fin was getting upset now. What the devil was this mad girl up to?
“Fin, please,” she begged of him. “You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
“Then please explain.”
“I told you,” she said emphatically, “I
“Is it dangerous?” She stared at him and silence fell between them. “Damn it, Victoria, what the devil is going on? Are you being blackmailed?”
“Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“No! Fin, please stop trying to guess. The closer you get to finding out, the more dangerous it becomes.” She closed her eyes and took a breath. “Please, Fin. I’ve been at this for more than two years—”
“I know what I’m doing.”
Fin’s nostrils flared. There had been times in their relationship when he had thought himself infuriated with Victoria.
Such as the time when she had teased him about his bold jonquil waistcoat (which, admittedly, was probably not a good look for him).
Or the many times she’d treated him as though he were but excrement beneath her feet. But he now realized that he’d only been annoyed with her in those instances. She had treated him like a brother, and in return, he’d forgiven her as if she were a sister.
This was different.
he was infuriated. How dare she put herself in danger for—had she really said two years? How could she possibly have hidden such a monumental and dangerous secret from him for so long? And what kind of danger was she in?
“Victoria Barclay, you will stop this immediately, whatever it is that you’re doing. I will not stand by and watch you put yourself in danger.”
“Then don’t watch. Pretend you know nothing at all. Pretend you never saw me in
this morning.” Her eyes were pleading, and if he hadn’t known better, he might have thought they were filling with tears. But Victoria Barclay didn’t cry.
“But I did see you. And I cannot forget it.”
They had come to an impasse, it seemed. Deep down, he knew that no matter how much he yelled or threatened, Victoria would never tell him her secret. That didn’t mean he was any less angry with her, though.
He gave her his most disdainful look, and then walked away. He wouldn’t stand here and do this with her. She would only make him angrier, and the fact of the matter was that they still had to get through this night. After that, he would stay out of Victoria’s life as much as was humanly possible. If she met her demise, he didn’t want to be there to see it.
“Fin, wait,” she said to his back. “Please, Fin, you don’t understand.”
He should have kept walking, but he couldn’t help himself. He whirled on her, and much to his dismay, pointed his finger at her as he walked towards her again.
“That’s right, Victoria, I
understand.” She flinched at his tone. Fin had never spoken to her like this.
He had always exhibited patience with Vickie. But he couldn’t hold it in any longer. “And you are the only person who could rectify that, aren’t you?”
“But I told you—”
“You cannot. Yes, I know.”
“It’s not for me, Fin. This isn’t for my own protection that I keep you in the dark on this matter.”
Ha! Did she think to protect
? “How very charming,” he said with no small amount of acerbity to his tone. “I’m being looked after by a woman.”