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Authors: Mia Marlowe

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“So the rumors are true. You cannot be fooled by a fake, no matter how cunningly realistic.” Quinn scooped up the genuine stones and replaced them in his stocking.

She stood. Barring that last diamond, she’d escaped rather easily. She doubted any of the visions had lasted long enough to leave her with the grinding headache that usually accompanied the use of her gift. “I’m glad to have been of service. Now, if you’ll excuse me—”

“Not so fast. I haven’t explained the purpose of our partnership.”

“But I’ve already culled your stones.”

“That was only a test. I had to be sure you were the real Mayfair Jewel Thief. Sit,” he said curtly.

His tone was so commanding, she obeyed reflexively. Then she stood back up. She wasn’t one of his sepoys to be ordered about.

“Very well,
I’ll
sit.” He claimed the end of the bed again and grinned up at her.

Irritation fizzed up her spine, but she was the one who’d chosen to stand.

“Here are my terms and they are nonnegotiable,” Quinn said. “You will render me a burglary service, and at the end of our association, you will receive half the gems you just saw.”

“My choice from among them?” Something inside her quivered with hope. It would mean her family’s money troubles were over. She’d never have to steal again.

Quinn nodded.

“Very well. I accept your terms. What do you want from me?”

“What do you know about red diamonds?” he asked.

“Red diamonds? They’re extremely rare.” In all her thievery, she’d never run across one. “And because of that, they’re worth the earth. But they aren’t for everyone. It’s said they often carry curses.”

“Are you the superstitious sort?”

“No.” It wasn’t superstition to believe something true. She’d be able to hear the curse firsthand. “But as far as I know, there are no red diamonds in all of England. Even if there were, I wouldn’t steal one.”

“Why?”

“Because it would be impossible to fence. And an absolute sin to recut into smaller stones. Red diamonds are never overly large to begin with, no more than five or six carats. What would I do with one?”

“Let me worry about that part.” Quinn rose to his feet. “I need to see you home, Lady Viola. You have a busy day ahead of you tomorrow.”

She was gratified to hear him use her title, but the rest of his words made her slant him a suspicious look. “What am I going to be doing?”

“You’ll be leaving for Paris with me. There is a diamond called Baaghh kaa kkhuun enroute to the Queen’s Royal Collection. And I mean to meet the courier in France.”

“Baaghh kaa kkhuun?”

“It means Blood of the Tiger,” Quinn said. “And you, my Lady Light-fingers, are going to help me steal it.”

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER
2

 

 

“We
cannot trust a thief. Especially not a woman.” Sanjay folded a flowing tunic and stuffed it into a small carpetbag. “A woman muddies every stream she steps in. You know it to be true. When the memsahibs came, did not your countrymen change toward my people?”

Sanjay was right. Social barriers between the white and brown races were swiftly erected once Englishmen brought their wives and sweethearts to the subcontinent.

“I do not like this plan.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic. It’ll work. You’ll see.” Quinn eyed his friend’s luggage, wishing that
his
contained such comfortable garments. When Quinn had lived in India, he often donned indigenous garb. He was a natural mimic and his facility with the language was prodigious. He spoke Hindi well enough to pass as a native in any bazaar where he was not already known as a
Pukka
—devil of a sahib.

“We don’t have much choice. Worthington’s telegrams are becoming increasingly worrisome.” Lieutenant Freddie Worthington shared Quinn’s concerns over the growing native unrest. He’d stayed behind in Delhi, but sent Quinn a weekly update on conditions there. Quinn had let him know to send the next report to the Hotel de Crillon in Paris.

“The fact of the matter is we need the Mayfair Jewel Thief and she happens to be female.”
Exceedingly female.
Quinn grinned at the memory of her unbound breast in his hand and her soft lips beneath his. He raised a brow at Sanjay. “I’ve never known you to shun the company of a comely woman, Your Highness.”

“No indeed. A woman is useful for a great many things.” Sanjay’s teeth glinted in a wide smile. Then the smile faded. “But I have a bad feeling about this one. There is a darkness about her.” Sanjay’s black eyes snapped. “And do not use my title, not even when we are alone. I am no longer a prince of Hind.”

“Through no fault of yours.” Quinn’s lips tightened in a hard line. “It’s not just.”

“Bah! No one but a child or a fool—or an Englishman—expects the world to be just.”

“I don’t know why the Home Office wouldn’t listen.” Frustration made the muscles between Quinn’s shoulders bunch into a hard knot.

The Doctrine of Lapse had stripped Sanjay of his rightful place. When the Sultan of Amjerat died, the East India Company deemed that the line died with him because Sanjay was his adopted son. Fostering was common in England, but adoption? Never. Quinn had tried to explain the custom to his superiors till he was blue, but they wouldn’t listen.

“It does seem odd. Adopted heirs have been recognized in my country for centuries. What else is a man who begets only daughters to do?” Sanjay shrugged.

“Ah, but you see, for us English, succession is only about bloodlines.” Quinn ground the knuckles of one hand into the palm of the other. “As if people were damned racehorses.”

The lack of an heir with the previous sultan’s blood in his veins was all the excuse the grasping East India Company needed to step in and claim Sanjay’s kingdom for itself. Amjerat was a small principality, but strategically located at the apex of several trade routes. Lord Dalhousie possessed the will to back his actions with the full weight of the British military.

Fortunately, Quinn succeeded in convincing Sanjay that Amjerat’s half dozen battle-elephants and fighters armed with aging
jezzails
and limited ammunition would have no chance against crack English troops. Sanjay refused to endanger his people by pressing his claim with war.

But the injustice made Quinn ashamed to be British.

He handed the Beaumont-Adams to Sanjay. “Put this in your luggage. You might need it.”

“No, sahib. A man of my color in this part of the world would be in more danger if he were caught with such a weapon than if he were naked.” Sanjay pushed the revolver away. “You will protect me.”

“We protected you right out of your kingdom.”

“I trust you.”

“I may not be able to change the policy that stole your throne,” Quinn said grimly, “but I’ll do everything in my power to see Amjerat’s treasure restored.”

“If the Blood of the Tiger is returned to the temple where it belongs, I will hold your vow fulfilled, my friend.” Sanjay clapped a hand on Quinn’s shoulder. “The British have brought my country many great things. But they have taken from us as well. The people of Amjerat have a right to feel proud of who they are. The return of Baaghh kaa kkhuun will put heart back into them. It will help my people remember themselves.”

Quinn was a soldier. He knew some fights had to be fought. But he respected Sanjay’s choice. No one hated war more than one who knew what it really was. “Someday both our people will understand that we have a great deal to learn from each other.”

“That is my hope as well. But until that day, the people of Amjerat will teach their children what every blade of grass knows.”

When Sanjay began speaking in riddles, Quinn had difficulty following. The Indian prince saw the world in fluid undulations. Quinn’s view was much more black and white. Things were either right or wrong, true or false, just or unjust. The Oriental mind was a puzzlement to Quinn, but one he enjoyed unraveling.

“All right. I give up. What does grass know?”

“Even stone is not forever.” Sanjay closed his luggage with a snap.

But England is one bloody big stone.

“The Blood of the Tiger must be returned to the temple,” Sanjay said. “Only in the care of Shiva can its evil bent be tempered.”

Quinn silently dismissed his friend when Sanjay talked of curses and the evil inherent in the red diamond. Quinn was more concerned about the evil of men.

Mutiny was being whispered in the bazaars. Mad holy men tramped up and down the Grand Trunk Road, spreading the dream of slaughtering hundreds of English women and children. If only the sepoys could be brought to rebellion, they urged, all the
Angrezi
would be driven into the sea and never return.

Quinn had warned his commander that unrest was brewing. Seizing the kingdom of Amjerat played into the fomenters’ hands, but he’d been ignored. Worse, he’d been accused of “showing the yellow stripe.”

Quinn protested when the viceroy acquired the Baaghh kaa kkhuun from the band of Thugs who’d stolen it. When Quinn continued to rail against the injustice, his commander demoted him and sent him Home with the stern admonition to “remember whose side you’re on, Lieutenant.”

Now he could only try to right a small portion of the wrong done to Amjerat. And hope the English civilians living in the cantonments and residencies across Hind wouldn’t be made to pay for the sins of the East India Company.

“I still wish you were not putting so much trust into the hands of this thief, this woman,” Sanjay said.

“Who says I trust her?” Quinn shrugged into his greatcoat. “In any case, I know how to keep my friends close and my enemies closer.”

“And Lady Viola, which is she?”

“Both, I suspect,” Quinn said, remembering the strange glint in her hazel eyes when she handled the stones, the way she trembled like some wild young thing, wanting what he offered in his outstretched hand, but fearful at the same time. She was a riddle with feet, a lovely knot he’d enjoy untying. “Either way, it’ll be time well spent figuring her out.”

“It’s unseemly for you to travel to Paris unaccompanied, Viola,” the Dowager Countess of Meade said as she grated a carrot into a bowl at the kitchen table. “I don’t like it.”

“I’ll be fine, Mother.”

Viola took the bowl from her and worked through the bunch of carrots at double her mother’s speed. Eugenia Preston, only occasionally known as Lady Meade now, wasn’t accustomed to manual labor. Even after four years of living below her station, she hadn’t shown an improved aptitude for working with her hands.

“It’s not as if I had to cancel a string of engagements. I shouldn’t be gone long enough for anyone to even notice.” Viola moved the bowl aside for their servant Martha to deal with later. “I’m not venturing to the wilds of New South Wales. I’m only crossing the channel to France, a thoroughly civilized country.”


That
is an opinion open to debate,” Eugenia said with a sniff. “The only good thing to come out of France—”

“Is French pastry,” Viola finished for her for the umpteenth time. As if they could afford any. “Yes, Mother, I know.”

“You should at least take Martha with you.”

Viola shook her head. “I’d be taking care of Martha more than she’d take care of me.” Their decrepit servant was often down with the croup or some other ailment and was rarely able to do a day’s work. But Viola kept Martha and her husband Phineas on because they’d been with the family for years and had no place else to go.

Her mother gave a long-suffering sigh. “Then I suppose
I’ll
have to accompany you.”

That would never do.

“Mother, you get seasick just looking at the Thames. You’d be miserable on the crossing.” Viola cast a quick glance at her sister, who was humming in her rocker by the fire. “You’re needed here.”

“But why must you go so far away?”

Viola bit her bottom lip. Her mother was accustomed to Viola coming home with bundles of banknotes and assorted coin without explanation of how she’d come by them. So long as Viola assured her she hadn’t done anything to sully herself with a man, her mother accepted the funds as a gift from God.

When the money ran out, Viola always came home with more. She couldn’t explain to her mother. The idea of the dowager countess hearing about Viola’s disreputable fence Willie and his sordid little shop made her shiver. Her mother was safer, and happier, not knowing the details.

“I have something I must do and this particular something is in France,” she said curtly. “Someone has to provide for this family.”

“You know perfectly well we could sell this town house and retire to the country.” Her mother launched into the old argument once again. They wrangled over it at least once a week. “We’d have enough and to spare, if we lived simply.”

“We do live simply. If we lived any more simply, we’d be going about in potato sacks,” Viola snapped back.

She didn’t want to live simply. She wanted the life she was born to.

Her father had died without a son, so the bulk of the estate of his earldom, along with the income it generated, went to her weasel of a cousin, Jerome Preston. As her father lay dying, he had penned a letter directing Jerome to provide bountifully for his aunt and cousins, but a letter carried no force of law. The new earl simply pretended the old earl’s family didn’t exist.

Her father had left Viola his only unentailed property, a London town house, but left her no funds to run it.

Or to live as the daughter of an earl ought.

“I’m sure Father would have wished matters differently for us,” her sister Ophelia said from her corner. Her pile of darning was dwindling nicely as her needle clicked in time with the creaky rocker. “He didn’t intend to leave us like this.”

“Of course not,” their mother added. “No one
intends
to die.”

But a prudent man might have given the matter more thought
, Viola added silently.

“When Teddy comes back, everything will be fine,” Ophelia said with confidence. She leaned down to ruffle the hair of the toddler who was playing with a kitten at her feet. “Isn’t that right, Portia? When Daddy comes home, it’ll be all right.”

The little girl grinned up at Ophelia, then turned back to the kitten with a happy squeal. Viola and her mother exchanged a glance. Viola shook her head. There was no need to remind Ophelia once again that her feckless husband was not coming back. She’d only ignore the information and go on with her own version of the world.

When Portia was born, Ophelia hatched the notion that Teddy was off on a tour of the Continent, giving poetry readings for heads of state. Nothing they could say would convince Ophelia otherwise and they finally stopped trying.

She was happy with her fantasy. Who were they to strip it from her?

But someone had to deal with reality.

That lot fell to Viola.

She kissed her mother’s sunken cheek and wrapped a cloak around her shoulders. “I’ll be home before you know it.”

“Good-bye, sister.” Ophelia smiled sweetly at her. “Say hello to Teddy when you see him in France.”

When Viola had committed her first theft by lifting a jeweled hatpin out of desperation, she’d quickly realized she needed help turning her stolen good into ready coin. She wandered some unsavory streets, wondering whom to trust. In a flash vision the little garnet in the hatpin had shown her Willie’s face and the sign swinging above his shop.

When she stumbled across his shop around the next corner, she decided to listen to the stone’s advice.

At first, she let Willie believe she was parting with her own ornaments, but when she kept coming in, always in tandem with a reported jewelry theft, he tumbled rather quickly to her gift for larceny.

And heartily approved.

He suggested an arrangement that would benefit them both. He had connections in low places. As the daughter of an earl, albeit a threadbare one, Viola had access to the highest. They could help each other.

BOOK: Touch of a Thief
13.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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