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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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Eleven

 

Two evenings later, Victoria stood at the edge of yet another ballroom, flanked by her brother and Mr.
Woodmore
. She was a bit fidgety this evening. All right, she was fidgety every evening, but tonight was worse than usual.

Tonight was the night she planned to rob
Woodmore
, but she was beginning to have second thoughts about this particular robbery. He’d been so kind to her in the last few days. He had called on her twice now, and he was always incredibly complimentary.

Unlike some other men she knew.

Though he lacked a title,
Woodmore
was a gentleman in every other way possible. He was kind and generous, handsome, and his dancing was superior. Victoria’s mother was elated at her new courtship, though she suspected her mother would have been happy with almost any courtship at all at this point.

Tom, however, looked as if he wanted to skin
Woodmore
alive. She couldn’t be sure why. It seemed odd that Tom would care at all
who
she set her cap for, but his scowl and general attitude toward the man were unmistakably filled with contempt.
Woodmore
, on the other hand, didn’t seem to notice that the contempt was directed at him.

“Is there something the matter with your brother, Miss Barclay?” he asked as they twirled around the dance floor in a waltz. “He seems a bit out of sorts, don’t you think?”

Victoria cast a glance in her brother’s direction. She shrugged. “No more than usual,” she lied. “I fear he’s missing Jamaica more than he wants to admit.”

“I can’t imagine anyone would miss such a place. Hell on earth.”

Victoria looked up at
Woodmore
in surprise. “I didn’t realize you had traveled there.”

“Oh, no!” he returned with a scowl. “Why on earth would I want to do such a thing?”

Was he serious? “Why, for the adventure, of course. For the opportunity to explore new places and cultures.”

For the first time in their acquaintance,
Woodmore
gave Victoria what she would deem a condescending look. “Oh, Miss Barclay, I’m not sure you know what you’re saying. You might think you would like to explore foreign lands, but you must know you live in the greatest country on earth. Why would you ever want to leave England for such a barbaric country?”

Victoria dropped her arms and stopped dancing, forcing another couple to swerve quickly in the other direction so as to not barrel into them. “I know exactly what I’m saying, Mr.
Woodmore
.”

“Please, Miss Barclay.” He held his arms out, inviting her to join him in the dance again. “People are staring at us.”

Victoria could not have cared less who was staring at them, but when he said, “Your mother will be most disappointed if she hears you made a scene,” she had no choice but to resume the dance.

“I did not mean to offend, Miss Barclay,”
Woodmore
said as they picked up the tempo again. “It’s just that, well, I can’t imagine such a delicate flower as you in such a rugged environment.”

Victoria wanted so desperately to laugh at his description of her.
Delicate flower?
Was he truly so blind to her character? At the same time, she found it rather flattering. No one had ever referred to her in such a way, least of all
Fin
. He chastised her all the time for her rebellious and rash behavior. Well, it didn’t matter what
Phineas
Dartwell
thought of her anymore, did it? He had written her off. Now she was free to bask in the glory of a
real
gentleman’s praise.

“Well, that’s very kind of you to say, Mr.
Woodmore
,” she said with a bat of her eyelashes, and the pit in her stomach grew larger. Could she really go through with robbing this man at gunpoint? Part of her wished that his intentions had not been so honorable, that he would have said something along the lines of “Women shouldn’t travel; they are meant to stay at home and birth children.” That would have made things much easier.

The music stopped, and it was as if the trance had been broken. She shook her head of the fog
Woodmore
had put her in. What was the matter with her? Were his flattering statements really stronger than the suffering she witnessed almost every day in the slums? The death she was privy to in the hospital?

“It is time to depart, Victoria.” Her brother greeted them at the edge of the dance floor, a flute of champagne in his hand. He downed the last of his drink but his eyes never left
Woodmore
.

Victoria had told Tom she didn’t want to stay past midnight. That suited him just fine, apparently. “Of course, Tom.” She turned to
Woodmore
. “Thank you for a lovely evening, Mr.
Woodmore
.”

“No, thank you,” he returned. “May I call on you again tomorrow?”

Victoria hesitated. It wouldn’t be easy to face him after tonight, but she figured it wouldn’t be nearly as awful as having to face Fin as she’d done last week. “That would be wonderful,” she said, and then she and Tom made their departure.

With any luck,
Woodmore
would remain at the party long enough for her to feign going to bed and then turn around to go back to the venue. Gil would wait for her, as always.

As they rode home, Tom fell asleep. Victoria had never been able to sleep in a carriage, no matter how comfortable. It was rather inconvenient on long trips, but it wasn’t as if she’d be able to sleep now, anyhow. Her body hummed with anticipation. Robbing people made her incredibly nervous, but at the same time, incredibly alive. Every nerve sizzled as she stepped down from the carriage and climbed the stairs to her room. It took all her strength not to break into a run.

When she was sure Tom was in his room, probably changing to go out again, she darted down the stairs to the carriage. She and Gil sat outside the Randall’s townhome, waiting for
Woodmore
to emerge. It was late when he finally did.
Very late.
And Victoria’s bottom had gone numb from sitting for so long. She only hoped her legs would work when it came time to do her job.

Everything went to plan.
Woodmore
wasn’t headed to the Great North Road, so they decided to corner him in a quiet, deserted area of Westminster.

Victoria approached the carriage that carried her prey and swung the door open.
Woodmore
looked terrified, as expected. Only Victoria didn’t get the same rush from seeing him frightened as she usually did with her other victims.

Don’t turn soft now, Victoria! He’s just another rich man whose money will go to much better use because of you.
“Your money or your life.”

“I

I don’t have anything,” he replied. This was a bold faced lie. She’d felt the purse beneath his coat while they were dancing earlier that night. Unless he’d spent the rest of the evening gambling it away, it had to still be there.

“That’s not true,” she blurted out, and then added in a more sinister tone, “is it?”

He stared at her, possibly trying to figure out if she truly knew he was lying or if she was bluffing to get him to pay up. She hoped he leaned toward the latter.

Typically, she would have pushed him further into fear by cocking the gun and repeating, “Is it?” But she couldn’t. Damn, but she was becoming soft.
And for what?
A simpering dandy?

“Ho, there!”

Victoria’s blood turned to ice.
Oh, Lord.
How had Fin found her? How had she not heard the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones? Terror seized her, but there was only one way out of this predicament.

She didn’t think

she didn’t have time to. Victoria simply began to run. Gil already sat atop the seat of their carriage. Still, there wasn’t time to get into the cab. “Go, go, go!” she yelled at Gil as she sprinted toward the carriage. Gil slapped the reins and the horses began to move. Victoria chased them for only a few seconds before she was close enough to jump onto the footman’s perch. Her muscles tightened as she held fast to the bar. If she loosened them, she would surely go careening to the ground, and at this pace that could be deadly.

What the hell had Fin been doing there? She could hardly put two and two
together,
her head was spinning so fast. However, there was only one logical explanation: he had followed her. The implications of this discovery were monumental. If Fin knew, what would he do? Would he turn her in to the authorities?

No. He may have been upset with her, but that didn’t mean he wanted to see her hung.

A shiver raced up her spine. Tonight was the closest she had ever come to that particular reality. In two years, she supposed she had fancied herself invincible. But now…now she realized that her hanging could be an eventuality.
An inevitability
. And for the first time, she was truly scared.

Twelve

 

Fin watched the unmarked carriage as it sped down the road, out of sight. He could have followed it, and he probably could have caught up to it, but he didn’t. It had been his every intention to do so. Victoria was on the back of the carriage

he was certain of it. But if he caught up to it

if he caught Victoria in the act

he would be forced to deal with that. Suddenly he wasn’t up to that particular task.

Instead, he approached the carriage to make sure whoever was inside was all right. Before he made it there, though, a familiar head popped out.
What the devil?


Woodmore
?”

“Is he gone?” the man asked, a wild look of fright in his eyes.

“Yes,
he’s
gone,”
Fin
replied as he climbed down from his mount. “Are you all right?”

Woodmore
stepped down to the street and stared off in the direction of Victoria’s carriage. “Just a bit shaken up is all. You saved my life, though.” He looked to Fin with adoration.

“Yes, well, you’re welcome.” Fin wasn’t completely comfortable with the man. There was something about him that struck Fin as odd, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. “Though I doubt he would have shot.”

“But he certainly could have,”
Woodmore
persisted. “How may I repay you?”

“No repayment necessary.”

“I insist.”

“And I decline.”

Woodmore
stepped closer to Fin.
Too close.
He lowered his voice when he said, “I would really like to show my appreciation, my lord.”

Oh, good God. Was
Woodmore
propositioning him? Fin suddenly understood why he’d always been a bit suspicious of the man. The bloody chap preferred men to women.
Damn and blast.
Fin didn’t give a fig what the man did in the privacy of his own home, but to make such a blatant proposition to someone he barely knew . . .

Fin stepped back a half step. “Were I a less understanding man, I might have beat you to a bloody pulp. As it is, I’m quite understanding, but I’m a rarity.”

“But—”

“No, no!” Fin swung his leg over his horse’s back. “No buts, please. Just go home and try to forget that I saved your life.”

Silence accompanied him as he rode away, and Fin was grateful for that. He had much to think about. What scared him was the discovery he’d made tonight.
The confirmation that Victoria was doing something highly illegal and very dangerous.

But why?
That was the question that lingered in his mind as he returned his horse to the mews and went inside. The house was dark, save a single sconce in the entryway to illuminate his path to the stairs. He climbed them slowly; every step felt heavy and laden with sadness. The distance between him and Victoria had gone from a stream to an ocean in the matter of a day, and part of him wished he had never seen her in
Southwark
.

It still puzzled him, though, and likely would for some time. He didn’t foresee getting any answers from her any time soon. But why was she trying to rob
Woodmore
tonight? And was it at all related to her being in
Southwark
the other morning? He let out a groan, knowing he was too tired to try and piece it together tonight.

Once he’d divested himself of his clothing, Fin crawled into bed, eager for sleep to overcome him. However, as he continued to mull over the events of the evening, something dawned on him.

Damn!
Why had he not realized before? Of course it had been Victoria who had robbed him and Lady Beecham that night last week.
And Lord Culver.
That had been her as well.
Why, why, why?
And for how long?
Could she really have kept this up for two years without being caught? Was she bored? Was she rebelling?

Fin’s mind spun with possibilities, none of which pleased him. And then he began to ponder unpleasant outcomes for his friend.
The most unpleasant, and the most likely given her activities, being hanging.
That image sent Fin darting from bed to light candles around the room. He would never be able to sleep now. His only escape from the gruesome image would be to paint. He was sure he would regret it come morning, not trying harder to go to sleep.

Oh, what the devil did he care? He was a lord. Everyone expected him to sleep all day and drink all night. And it wasn’t as if he had to escort Victoria about during the day as he had done for the past two years.

He should have been working on the painting for Lord Bishop’s wife, but instead he pulled out the half-finished canvas of Victoria. His hand worked fast and furiously as he filled in her features.
Rosy cheeks, pink lips, green eyes.
His heart ached as he looked at her finished face sometime later. He couldn’t explain the turmoil he
felt,
only that he felt it. Deeply.

Even harder to explain was the feeling that came over him when he moved lower on the canvas.
He had already traced her breasts and waist. Thankfully the portrait stopped there. Painting her breasts proved to be difficult enough. Why the devil was he growing hard over the thought of Victoria? He had painted at least a hundred pair of breasts over the years, and none had ever elicited such a reaction. And she was the last person he expected to have this reaction to.

Fin tried to shift his thoughts back to earlier in the evening, to his rage over her activities, to his fear over the outcome, and soon the painting was done. The sky was just beginning to turn pink with the day’s first light, and Fin’s exhaustion finally set in. Now he would be able to sleep.

As he stared at the finished product in his deliriousness, he imagined a black mask over Victoria’s eyes. Before he had a chance to really think about it, his brush was working fast in the black paint. Back and forth, palette to canvas, until finally, the mask was complete.

He stepped back, still wondering how he had missed it that night with Lady Beecham. Didn’t he know Victoria better than anyone else in the world?

No. He didn’t know her at all, did he?

Weary, Fin put down his palette and brush and left the studio before he got carried away and painted a noose about Victoria’s neck.

***

Victoria paced her room. Her nerves had her stomach in knots. Good God, what was she going to do? If Fin knew about her—or even suspected what she was doing—

“Oh, God.” She moaned and fell backwards to her bed, throwing her arm over her eyes. “I’m going to hang.”

“For what?”

Victoria sat straight up in her bed, shocked to find her brother in the doorway to her room. “Don’t you know how to knock?”

“What the devil are you doing up, Victoria? It’s four in the morning.”

“Yes, I know,” she replied haughtily. “I couldn’t sleep.”

Her brother appraised her clothing, and she realized for the first time that she was still wearing her black men’s clothes. “Is that the new bed fashion?”

It would be best to ignore him and make him feel bad for barging in. “It is when it is . . . ahem . . . a sensitive time of the month.” That ought to get him out.

Instead, he smirked. “You can’t get rid of me that easily. What’s going on?”

“Tom, there is nothing going on!” Why couldn’t he just leave her alone? She needed to think. No, what she really needed to do was pack her bags and run far, far away.

“I’ve never seen you so on edge before.” He moved into the room and shut the door behind him.

Victoria sighed. “Yes, well, you haven’t seen much lately, have you?” It was a low blow, but she couldn’t help it.

“You’re right, and I’m sorry,” he said. “But I don’t regret going to Jamaica.”

“Nor should you. I’m sorry I said that. Just promise that next time you leave you’ll take me with you.”

Tom laughed and crossed the room to her window. “Looks like
Leyburn’s
up, too. Perhaps we should all get together for a drink,” he suggested jokingly, but it still set Victoria on edge. The thought of being in the same room as Fin right now terrified her. Not that Fin wanted to be in a room with her now, anyway. He’d made that more than clear.

Truly desperate to be alone, Victoria sought to move the conversation along. “Was there anything in particular that you wanted?” she asked.

Tom turned to face her. “So eager to get rid of me.”

“Well, I would like to go to bed.” She hoped she sounded sufficiently exhausted despite the fact her nerves were still jumping wildly beneath her skin.

“Of course,” he said, moving to her. He pecked her on the cheek and ruffled her hair like he used to do to her when she was little. “Goodnight, Vickie.”

Once he’d gone, Victoria dashed to the window. Indeed, lights were ablaze in Fin’s home. She wondered which room he was in, since both his bedroom and studio burned bright.
Probably his studio.
He always painted when he was upset. Only this time, he was upset with her.

Victoria’s stomach turned over again, causing her to reach for the chamber pot just in case. Things had been going so well. For two years she’d lived her double existence with no consequences. Now, it seemed that everything was turned upside down, and she wasn’t sure how she could ever make it right again.

BOOK: The Robber Bride
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