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Authors: Mia Marlowe

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Viola knew who owned what valuables. Willie found out through the servants’ grapevine and his friend in the masons’ guild where they stashed them. Viola never had to enter a home without knowing exactly where she would find the jewels.

When she began stealing more costly pieces, Willie claimed his expenses went up. He had to bring in someone to dismantle the jewelry. Sometimes large stones were recut. It all cost money. Her return for each heist dwindled.

Willie began suggesting specific targets for her housebreaking and promised to increase her share in the profits. So far, she hadn’t seen much increase in her take.

He wouldn’t be pleased to learn she’d bypassed Lady Henson’s emeralds for Lieutenant Quinn’s stash and come away with so little. She’d left the lieutenant’s home with only the gray pearl in her pocket.

“A show of good faith,” Quinn had said.

“One of the diamonds would have shown more good faith,” she muttered as she left her hired hansom by the corner after telling the driver to wait. She darted down a narrow alley to Willie’s shop.

A veil covered her face, but not because she worried that any fashionable member of society would recognize her there. It wasn’t the sort of place frequented by the high-in-the-instep crowd.

The veil was for her. It helped her pretend she couldn’t see herself doing those lowering things.

She pushed open the shop door and a little bell tinkled overhead. Willie appeared from the back room, his good-natured, ugly face split in a smile.

“Good day to you, milady,” his gravelly voice rasped. He had agreed never to call her by name.

“Hello, Willie.” She had never learned his full one. The less she knew about him, the better she slept. The shop was empty so she pulled a handkerchief from her reticule and undid the knot she’d tied around the pearl. “Not much to show for last night, I’m afraid.”

She kept on her kid gloves as she nudged the pearl toward him. The last thing she needed was a vision-trance in that seedy little shop. Willie knew she was an accomplished thief, but she resisted letting him learn about her other gift as well. “This pearl is all I have.”

“What about that lot of uncut stones the lieutenant was bragging about?”

“Men love to exaggerate.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. Viola was careful not to add to her list of sins if she could help it. Let Willie make of it what he would. “This pearl is quite unique—very old and very rare.”

“And that makes it very hard to move.” He named an insultingly low offer for it.

They haggled over the price for a few minutes, but in the end Viola accepted much less than it was worth. Sometimes she was tempted to seek out another fence for her jewels, but the more people who knew about her activities, the more dangerous it became. For better or worse, she was stuck with Willie.

“Don’t fret yourself, ducks,” he said as he counted out the payment. “You’ll see more when you pinch those emeralds.”

“I won’t be doing that for a while.”
Or ever
, she amended silently. She folded the banknotes and stashed the coin in her reticule. She’d deposit it all in her mother’s account with the Bank of England on her way to the wharf to meet Lieutenant Quinn. Her mother would need the funds while she was gone. The Blood of the Tiger theft was his plan. He could pay her bills while she was in France. “You won’t be seeing me for a bit. I’ll be out of . . . town.”

“Oh? Anything I should know about?”

“No, this journey is unrelated to our partnership.”

“Hmmm.” His face broke into a quick, slightly smarmy smile. “God keep ye safe then, yer ladyship.”

“Thank you.” She hoped it would be the last time she’d ever see him. Once she had the jewels Lieutenant Quinn promised her, she wouldn’t have to use Willie’s services. She’d make Quinn give her a bill of sale, so she could prove she owned them legitimately. Then she’d take them to a reputable jeweler where she’d receive full value for them.

She’d deposit the money with a venerable man of business and live as she was meant to. Her mother would never have to grate another carrot. They’d find a doctor to cure Ophelia’s troubled mind. No more worries about keeping Portia’s pudgy growing feet in a pair of shoes that fit her. No fretting over the unpaid butcher’s bill. There’d be endless soirees, nights at the theatre, and as many new gowns as she wished. Viola could even fund her own dowry if she wanted to marry.

No
, she decided.
Men are far more trouble than they are worth.

The important thing was she could put this sordid little shop and all her thefts behind her. Her life would be back to normal.

And she’d never see Willie’s tobacco-stained smile again.

“Good day.” She pushed out of the shop, eager to breathe the fresher air outside.

“And to you, milady,” he called after her.

Willie swiped the pearl off the counter into his beefy hand. It was mighty fine. There was more where that jewel came from or he was a Dutchman. “Duncan!”

His spotty-faced shop boy appeared from the back room. “Wot?”

“Something’s not quite coupled up with milady’s story. She just left the shop. Nip after her. See where she goes. Find out what you can about where she’s off to, who she’s with, and what she might be doing once she gets there.”

The boy untied the leather apron around his waist.

“Hurry up, boy!”

Duncan jumped, dropped his apron and ran out the door.

“If you lose her, you worthless little bastard, don’t bother coming back,” Willie shouted after him. “Save me the trouble of takin’ it out of your miserable hide.”

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER
3

 

 

Th
e
Minstrel’s Lady
was tied up at the pier as Lieutenant Quinn had told her it would be. The man himself paced with obvious irritation at the foot of the gangplank.

Viola’s lips curved into a satisfied smile. Tall, battle-hardened Quinn was an impressive figure of a man. His trousers and jacket were cut in the first stare of fashion and the lean lines suited his masculine frame. He’d obviously updated his whole civilian wardrobe since returning from India. Traveling with such a presentable fellow would be no hardship.

And if she’d made him fret about whether or not she’d show, so much the better.

It always does a man good to wait. Makes him more appreciative of the honor bestowed upon him once a woman does arrive.

She allowed the cabby to hand her down and fetch her two valises and hatbox from the boot. “Thank you, good sir. Now if you’d be so kind as to wait a moment, the surly-looking gentleman coming this way will pay my fare.”

“There you are! Finally. I was within an ace of coming to get you.”

“Be thankful I arrived at all. May I remind you I had very little notice for this trip?” Having removed her veil before arriving at the wharf, she tucked a wayward lock of russet hair that always escaped her bonnet back into the lacy confection. Her hats were the one extravagance she’d not been able to wean herself from entirely, even when her family’s need was dire. “There were certain matters that required my attention before I left London.”

“Well, you’re here now, so hurry or we’ll miss the tide.” Quinn turned from her sharply and began to stalk away.

“Half a mo’, guv,” the cabby piped up. “You’ll be owin’ me for the lady’s fare.”

Quinn grumbled, but paid the cabby and tipped him handsomely. He started back toward the ship again.

“Lieutenant, aren’t you forgetting something?”

“What now?”

“My baggage, of course.”

“Of course.” He smiled thinly at her. “I thought I told you to pack light.”

“I did.”

Quinn picked up her hat box, leaving the two heavy bags on the ground. “
This
is packing light.”

“But what about my other things?”

He was no longer smiling, merely baring his teeth at her. “Carry them yourself or leave them. It makes no difference to me. Whatever you think you need, I’ll buy for you once we reach Paris, but get your sweet little bum on that ship right now. Or I’ll rethink my plan and turn you over to the magistrate quicker than you can pick a lock, milady.”

He wheeled around for the last time, leaving Viola staring after him.

“Brute,” she muttered as she stooped to hoist the luggage herself and scuttle after him.

Sailors pulled up the gangplank behind her and the mooring lines were loosed. The
Minstrel’s Lady
wallowed into the main channel of the Thames as her sails filled. She was not a large craft, only about eighteen feet across and little more than twice that in length. Certainly not equipped for luxury travel. Viola saw no other women on deck.

“I need something on my stomach if I’m to be a pleasant sailing companion,” Viola said as she followed Quinn. Her mother was plagued with mal de mer whenever she traveled by boat. Viola had never taken an extended voyage, so it was reasonable to assume she might be too. “Bread for choice.”

“Don’t worry,” Quinn said. “I won’t let you starve.”

“I assume we’ll put in at Dover.” Her breath came in huffing pants. A corset was such a bother. It would have served him right if she’d decided to make the trip in the male attire she wore when she was working. That would’ve been packing light. “Won’t we board the paddle steamer for the crossing?”

“No, this ship is sailing to Le Havre and then up the Seine all the way to Paris.”

“We’re crossing the channel in this?” Viola looked around her. The bustling crew swarmed over the small vessel like ants over an upset hill. They tried to make her shipshape, but the gunwale timber was noticeably worm-eaten, the sails patched and much mended. “My estimation of your courage has ticked up several notches, Lieutenant. Sadly, I cannot say the same for your intelligence. Are you mad? This is a river craft, not an oceangoing vessel.”

“It’s the only ship leaving today for Paris. The captain assures me he’s made the trip several times. It saves a dusty carriage ride from Calais. If you have a better way of getting us there, by all means, enlighten me.”

Viola clamped her lips shut. She didn’t even have fare for a hansom to get herself home.

“No? Then we’ll go with my plan. Come, I’ll see you to the cabin.”

Cabin? There was a ray of sunshine. At least she’d enjoy some privacy on the small vessel. She followed him down the narrow companionway toward the stern. When she snagged the valises on one of the inner hatches, he relieved her of their weight. He lifted one bag, tucked the other under his arm and led the way, holding her hatbox out in front of him.

Quinn glanced back over his shoulder to see if she was following as he stooped under a low beam. The
Minstrel’s Lady
was built with much shorter sailors in mind. If Quinn wasn’t careful, he’d crack his head before the trip was over.

“The captain has agreed to surrender his cabin, so the accommodations are the best available.”

“How kind.”

“Kindness has nothing to do with it.” Quinn dropped the hatbox in order to open the cabin door.

“Careful with that!”

“How else should I turn the knob, your ladyship? With my teeth?” Quinn stepped aside to let her enter first.

The cabin was spartan, but clean and held the faint tarry smell of carbolic soap. The linens on the narrow bed appeared fresh and there was a small commode with an ewer built into it. A pitcher swung from a hook above. A square table was bolted to the floor in the center of the space.

“I’m paying handily for the use of this cabin,” Quinn said. “That means you have
me
to thank for not having to shift for yourself on the open deck.”

“If I were making this trip of my own free will, perhaps I would thank you.” She flashed him a poisonous smile.

“And if you weren’t wanted for larceny in several English shires, perhaps this would be a pleasure cruise,” he returned smoothly as he set her luggage on the bunk. “There’s not much room in here, but there’s a decent porthole and a private head through that door. I suppose we’ll make do.”

“What do you mean
we
?”

“I’ll be sharing the cabin with you. For your protection. We’re listed on the ship’s manifest as husband and wife.”

“Husband and—of all the cheek! This is totally unacceptable.”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense. A woman traveling alone is—”

“Is what? Mannish? Beyond the pale? Please.” She untied the bow beneath her chin and removed her bonnet. “We are living in the Year of Our Lord 1857, not the Stone Age. A grown woman is perfectly capable of traveling safely by herself.”

“Capable, perhaps. But safely, no. Sailors are an unruly lot. If it’s noised about that you’re under my protection, no one will trouble you.”

“And who’ll protect me from you?”

One corner of his mouth hitched up. “I’ve already told you whether our relationship is more than business is your choice. It’s a long way to Paris and I’ll not deny that shared pleasure makes for pleasant travel.” He took a step closer and gazed down at her, his eyes darkening with interest. Her whole body tingled with awareness. “Would you like to amend your previous decision?”

“Ah . . . well.” The ship hit a swell and Viola stumbled back till her spine was pressed against the curved hull. Quinn swayed with the movement of the ship, but kept his feet, lifting a hand to the low ceiling to steady himself. He still looked every inch the English gentleman, but beneath the civilized trappings, she sensed a feral quality to his maleness. All that was feminine in her responded.

He reached over and tucked that errant lock of hair behind her ear again. Then he traced her cheekbone with his fingertips, his movement unhurried, his expression both hungry and strangely vulnerable. He ran the pad of his thumb over her bottom lip. The sensitive skin sparked with excitement. She caught a whiff of his scent, a bracing combination of leather and gun oil and something indefinably male. Viola trembled under his touch, not with fear, but with suppressed desire. Her insides churned like a cauldron over a low flame.

She would not let a man control her like that again.

“No.” She pushed his hand away. “Don’t do that.”

He stood stock still for a moment, as if he’d suddenly turned to stone.

“As you wish,” he finally said. “But unless you have a derringer tucked in your garter and know how to use it, I suggest you resign yourself to sharing this cabin with me.”

She nodded mutely, refusing to look at him. Her heart was fluttering so fast, she was sure he must be able to hear it in the small space. That wild person inside her, the mad part that had escaped once before and made her do things she regretted, pounded to get out again.

If only they hadn’t been such outrageously exciting things.

The wanton she kept under tight control threatened to claw her way free once again. How could she keep the hidden side of her from breaking out and doing something stupid?

Something that would undoubtedly be quite filthy and quite lovely all at the same time.

She couldn’t risk everything just because her knickers bunched in a knot every time Lieutenant Quinn glanced sideways at her. She had to be strong. She had to shut down that part of her. Ladies weren’t supposed to like such things.

“I hope your silence doesn’t mean you want a quick annulment,” he said softly.

If she could stand sharing the small cabin with him without succumbing, it would prove she was in full possession of herself.

“No, now that I’ve had time to consider it”—she met his steady gaze—“I think your plan is a wise one. If we’re to pose as husband and wife, I suppose I should call you something besides Lieutenant. What is your Christian name?”

“Greydon, but no one except my mother ever calls me that.”

“Why not? It’s a perfectly respectable name.”

“It’s one of my father’s names.” A wall dropped down behind his eyes. “He’s many things, but worthy of respect is not one of them.”

“I’d be careful casting stones if I were you. You’re about to embark on a life of larceny in Paris, so if Quinn the elder is less than respectable, I rather think our partnership proves you are your father’s son,
Greydon
.”

“Call me Quinn.” His gaze cut to her sharply. “I’m nothing like him. And I’m not the one committing larceny. You are.”

“My, my! That’s an exceptionally fine blade you slice your conscience with.” She leaned toward him, bracing both palms on the table, pleased that she seemed to have the upper hand for the first time since she’d met him. “So long as you only bankroll thievery, your hands don’t carry any taint? How convenient.”

“I’m not doing this for myself. I—” He closed his mouth abruptly.

“You’re stealing that red diamond for someone else,” she guessed. She came around the table and walked her fingers up the center of his hard chest. “Are you trying to impress some woman?”

“No.” He caught her hand and held it still.

“I’m the one taking all the risks. I think I deserve to know the particulars. You can start with what your father did to make you hate him and finish with why this diamond is so important to you.”

“You already know all you need to know.” He released her hand and backed toward the door.

“I don’t think so.” She followed, not willing to let him retreat when she sensed she was winning the skirmish.

“This conversation is over.”

“Not until you—”

He grabbed her and pulled her flush against his body. Surprise forced all the air from her lungs. Their gazes locked, and he bent slowly to cover her mouth with his. Her lips parted and his tongue swept in to claim her dark moistness.

She knew she ought to pull away, but his strength would make the contest woefully lopsided. And his warm, wet mouth on hers sapped her will to resist. She tasted brandy on his tongue. His rough chin scratched against her smooth one. His breath feathered hotly across her cheek. She felt herself melt into him without being able to stop it.

She began to kiss him back, chasing his tongue and nipping at his bottom lip. Her fingers curled around his lapel and pulled him closer. He groaned into her mouth.

His hands left her waist and found her breasts, stroking and circling them through the heavy serge fabric. Her nipples hardened and ached beneath their whalebone prison. Longing sang in her veins and pooled between her thighs.

It had been so long.

But she remembered the bitterness that followed bliss.

With reluctance, she slipped her hands into his and pulled them away from her needy breasts. Finishing off their kiss she drew away gently. “You, sir,” she whispered, “do not fight like a gentleman.”

He grinned down at her, bending to touch his forehead to hers. “I guess that makes us even, because you certainly don’t kiss like a lady.”

BOOK: Touch of a Thief
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