Authors: Johanna Lindsey
HE JOB THOSE YOUNG LORDS SENT HER ON
was so simple in comparison to her troubled thoughts that Danny did it almost without thinking about it. Just about every window in the large mansion was open. She climbed through one on the side of the house, made her way to the hall, then up the carpeted stairs.
No lamps had been left burning, but with all those opened windows, a good deal of moonlight filtered in. Not that Danny needed light, as she was used to working in pitch-dark. But even the upstairs hall had a window opened at the end of it.
A lot of closed doors were up there. It was a really big house, larger than anything she’d ever been in before. One side of the hall had more doors than the other, however, so she started on the side with less, thinking those led to larger rooms, the master bedroom in particular.
She was correct. It was the second door she opened. The sheer size of that room gave it away, as well as the lump in the bed. Heddings was sleeping soundly, his loud snoring making an uncommon racket. That was annoying. Danny prided herself on her catlike movements, never making a sound, but she didn’t need to be extracautious with all the noise that Heddings was making.
She moved straight to the tall bureau first. The second drawer held the jewelry chest. A large chest, it nearly filled the drawer. It wasn’t locked, didn’t even have any means of locking it. Too trusting by half, Lord Heddings was.
She lifted the lid and was dazzled for a moment at how much glitter spread across the bottom of that chest, not just rings, but bracelets, brooches, even necklaces. In fact, most of the jewelry it contained was feminine. More gambling winnings? Danny couldn’t care less.
She decided not to take the chest. It was too big and she wasn’t even sure she could lift it out of the drawer, so she stuffed her coat pockets instead. She ran her hand across the bottom of the velvet-lined chest before she finished, just to make sure she hadn’t missed a dull piece of jewelry. She did
want to have to do this again if Percy’s two heirlooms weren’t in this stash.
With that thought in mind, she even did a quick search through the other drawers, but found nothing else of interest. She also checked the desk, but it contained only papers. Lastly she moved over to the vanity table where she discovered a fat wad of money, a gold watch fob, and another ring that had rolled back among the cologne bottles, as if it had just been tossed on the table. She swiped those up as well, stuffing the money in her pants pocket, since her coat pockets were full.
There was nothing else to look through. The night tables next to the bed didn’t have drawers, and she discounted the bookcase, reasoning that a man who left a fortune in jewelry unlocked in his bureau wasn’t likely to hide things in hollowed-out books.
Relieved to be almost done, she headed toward the door, but stopped cold when Heddings started a fit of coughing. She ducked down at the foot of his bed. The coughing was harsh enough that it could wake him. He might even get up for a drink of water from the pitcher across the room. She was prepared to slip under the bed if he did.
The coughing got much worse. It even sounded as if he were choking. The horrid thought came to her that he could die, and a vision flashed across her mind of her being accused of murder, standing before a judge, being sentenced to hang. Her palms broke out in a cold sweat. For a moment she wondered if she should try to help him. For a moment she was paralyzed with fear and couldn’t move to help him even if she was temporarily that stupid.
It took still another moment to realize he was peacefully snoring again, the sweetest sound she’d ever heard. Well, actually, it quickly became an annoying sound again now that the crisis was over, and she wasted no more time in getting the hell out of there.
All was still quiet downstairs. She quickly slipped back into the room she’d first entered and was immediately yanked back against a hard chest, a hand clamping over her mouth to keep her from screaming. She had no wits to scream with her heart in her throat. She nearly fainted…
And then she heard hissed in her ear, “What took you so bloody long?”
And her relief lasted about a second before fury took over. She jerked about, snarled, albeit in a whisper, “ ’Ave ye lost yer flippin’ mind? Wot are ye doing in ’ere?”
“I was worried about you,” he replied somewhat contritely.
She snorted to herself. What a whopper. Worried that she was going to take off with their precious rings was more like it.
“The next time ye want to scare someone ’alf to death, pick yerself. I’m done ’ere.”
“You got the rings?”
“This ain’t the place to discuss it,” she shot back. “I am so gone from ’ere I left yesterday.”
“Quite right,” she heard behind her as she headed to the window—and tripped over a rug on the way.
Falling took her by surprise. She wasn’t the least bit clumsy, and that rug had been nice and smooth when she’d walked over it on her way in. No doubt Malory had bunched it up. She reached for something to prevent the fall, but the only thing nearby was a tall pedestal with a bust on it. The pedestal was heavy and did stop her from falling, but she knocked the bust off it in doing so. It hit the floor with a loud thud.
She groaned inwardly. In the still of the night, that noise had been loud enough to wake the dead, or at the least, one of the servants sleeping on the same floor. She turned back to tell Malory to get out immediately and saw the man standing in the doorway with a gun pointed at the nabob.
Danny went so still she stopped breathing. The man was fully dressed, obviously already up and nearby even before the bust had crashed to the floor. Maybe Malory had made some noise on his way in and roused the man to investigate.
He was within his rights to just shoot them and figure out what they were doing there later. That’s what she would have done if she caught a pair of men sneaking around her house in the middle of the night.
Malory’s back was to the door. He’d leapt forward to try to prevent her fall, but had stopped when she’d managed it on her own. He was still looking at her, but in good light now, since the man had a lamp in his other hand. She wasn’t even sure if it had dawned on Malory yet that someone was there holding that lamp.
“Don’t turn around,” she whispered as quietly as she could. “If ye get recognized, yer in bigger trouble than if ’e shoots ye.”
Gathering her wits about her, she moved around him to block him from view somewhat and told the man holding the pistol, “There’s no need for guns, mate. We were just looking for a place to wait out the night. Our coach broke down in the woods nearby. M’lord ’ere thought ’e recognized yer ’ouse. ’E’s foxed to the gills, so if ’e were wrong, I wouldn’t be surprised none. And we did knock. Bleedin’ lord wouldn’t give up though when we didn’t get an answer, insisted on coming inside and sleeping in the parlor. ’E said that ’Eddings wouldn’t mind. Were ’e wrong? This ain’t ’Eddings place?”
The man’s tense expression altered immediately. His pistol lowered as well, though not completely. So Danny laid it on a bit thicker.
“ ’E tried to blame that wheel fallin’ off on me, ’e did, when I warned ’im just last month that ’e needed new wheels on that old coach o’ ’is. Course ’e’d rather spend all ’is blunt on fancy women and gamblin’, so ’e didn’t pay me any mind as usual.”
The man coughed. “Should you be mentioning this in front of him?”
She managed a laugh. “ ’E’s so foxed, ’e won’t remember. Don’t know ’ow ’e’s still standin’, I don’t.”
“Who is he?”
Danny hadn’t been expecting to come up with any names, but considering how she ended up being there herself, one came easily to mind. “Lord Carryway o’ London town.”
“Why didn’t you just let him sleep it off in your coach then?” the man asked next.
“Would ’ave, but I saw some movement in those woods we were passing through near ’ere. Could ’ave just been some animal, but could ’ave been some bleedin’ highwaymen, too, I was thinking. Didn’t want ’im adding getting robbed to the tally against me. I’d prefer to be keepin’ me job, even though it means puttin’ up with a lord who’s foxed more often than ’e’s not.”
There was a long pause where Danny was sure the fellow was going to call her bluff and laugh in her face. She was calculating which way she should run, or if she should just dive at his legs and try to take him by surprise.
“Bring him along then,” the man said. “We have several empty guest rooms upstairs. There’s a comfortable couch in one you can use yourself.”
Danny hadn’t really expected the man to believe her. He must be no more than a servant himself, probably the butler, and so he couldn’t bring himself to kick a member of the nobility back out into the woods. He could have thought to lock them up until the morning, when what she’d told him could be verified. But he must not be a suspicious sort, to have believed her outright.
A good opportunity to bolt through the window presented itself as soon as the man turned his back on them to lead the way upstairs. But he hadn’t put his pistol away yet. And with that weapon still in his hand, Danny preferred to play out the charade and not risk a bullet or two flying her way. Besides, there were two of them to get out that window, and no way they could both manage it before one of them got shot for trying.
The nabob hadn’t said a single word, thank God. He could have spoiled the whole story if the servant realized he wasn’t foxed at all. He was either smart enough to play the part she’d set up for him or nervous enough to keep his mouth shut.
No, she doubted he was nervous, at least not as much as she was. He’d handled that barkeep tonight too easily for him to be bothered by the mere possibility of flying bullets. Stupidly brave was probably what he was, and a high-handed blackguard for getting her into this mess.
She grabbed his arm now and dragged it over her shoulder so it would look as if she were holding him up, then blanched to see the pistol in his hand. He’d had it trained on the man the whole while, just hidden behind her back. Bleedin’ nabob could have gotten them both killed!
She snatched it out of his hand and stuffed it back in his pocket, only to hear him chuckle at her for doing so. God protect her from half-wits!
She hissed at him now, “I ’ope ye know ’ow to play the drunkard, mate, and ’ang yer ’ead so ’e don’t get a good look at ye.”
It was easy to get him upstairs. She was too nervous to take note of the closeness of their bodies, and he only rested his weight on her when the servant glanced back at them; otherwise, he was mostly getting up the stairs on his own, was in fact leading her instead of the other way around.
“In here,” the servant said, opening a door. “We should be able to find someone to fix your coach in the morning so you can be on your way.”
“ ’Preciate it, mate.”
He’d followed them in, lit a lamp for them, then headed toward the door. He still hadn’t relinquished the hold on his pistol other than for a moment to light the lamp. Danny began to wonder if he’d believed her tale after all. And as soon as the door closed behind him, she threw off Malory’s arm and hurried to the door to hear if the fellow was actually leaving. What she heard instead was the soft click of the lock on the door.
OCKED IN TO AWAIT
Danny lost what little color she had left in her cheeks. Had the man not believed their story, or was he simply being cautious?
She hoped he was just being cautious. After all, they were strangers until his employer verified otherwise. But if he was going to stand out there and guard their door the rest of the night, then this mess was just going to get worse.
She turned back to Malory to see him watching her curiously, one brow raised in question. She rushed back to him to whisper, “ ’E’s locked us in.”
“Bloody hell,” he growled low.
“Ye got that right, mate. So go stick yer ’ead in a pillow and start snoring, eh, and loudly. ’E needs to think we’re sleeping so ’e’ll go back to bed ’imself.”
Having said that, she didn’t wait to see if he’d comply. She moved back to the door and lay down in front of it to look under the crack. Sure enough, there were shoes right on the other side of the door. The servant was still standing out there, probably trying to listen through the door himself.
When she didn’t hear any snoring starting up yet, she turned around and glared at Malory. He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, his lips twisted in disgust, as if her suggestion was quite beneath him. And he didn’t move directly to the bed but went to the window instead, to see how much trouble it would be to leave that way. He must have decided that wasn’t an option because he sighed then and moved to sit on the bed, bounced on it actually, then tested out a few snoring sounds till he got one he was satisfied with and started making a lot of racket with it.
Danny almost grinned. He looked so disgruntled to be doing something so simple as snoring. Too bad. They wouldn’t be locked in an upstairs bedroom if he hadn’t come in the house to begin with. She would have been out of there without a hitch, instead of lying on the floor hoping a suspicious servant would get tired and go back to bed.
It didn’t look as if he would. It was starting to look as if he was going to stand “guard” out there in the hall all night. She could almost hear the prison door slamming shut on her and she was getting a queasy, sick feeling in her belly.
With desperation creeping up on her, she went to look out the window for herself. Malory’s sigh had been accurate. It was not an avenue for easy departure, not without a rope. No tree nearby to jump to, no ledges of any sort to use to climb down with.
They could rip up the sheets to make their own rope, which she wouldn’t even have thought of if the nabobs hadn’t done that earlier in the evening, but a glance about the room showed nothing heavy enough to use as an anchor to support Malory’s weight. Hers maybe, but not his. The bed might work, but it was just a small one for a single guest and had a wooden frame that could break. They’d probably make too much noise trying to move it next to the window anyway.
When it finally dawned on her that the servant might be waiting for the lamp to go out, Danny could have kicked herself. Her drunk “employer” might not worry about the lamp, but why would the sober “driver” want to leave the light on to sleep, unless he wasn’t planning on sleeping? She hoped that was what the servant was thinking, and sure enough, about ten minutes after the light went out, he moved off down the hall and back down the stairs.
All the while, Malory had been trying out a wide assortment of snoring sounds that would have caused Danny to bust a gut laughing if she hadn’t convinced herself they were going to be stuck there all night. The servant definitely distrusted them, or else he wouldn’t have stood outside their room so long. But it could have been worse. He could have gone to wake his employer, they could have checked to see if anything was missing from their house, and there’d be no talking her way out of having her pockets filled with Heddings’s jewels.
She moved over and told the nabob, “He’s finally gone. We’ll give him a few minutes to go back to bed.”
“Then I pick that lock open and we get the ’ell out o’ ’ere.”
“You know how to do that?”
She snorted. “Course I do, and I carry m’own picker.”
She pulled a thick pin out of her hat and went to work on the door. Piece of cake. Bedroom doors usually were.
Within seconds she was saying, “Come on. And we’ll use the front door. Since they already know we’ve been ’ere, leaving it unlocked won’t matter.”
She didn’t wait to see if he was going to follow her. The moment she was outside she took off at a run and didn’t look back or stop once until she reached the trees. Only then did she pause, but merely to catch her breath and her bearings. It took a moment to spot the coach lamps through the thick foliage. Malory caught up to her then.
He took her arm to lead her the rest of the way to the coach. She tried to jerk it away but that effort just made him put his arm around her shoulder. He obviously didn’t trust her to turn over the jewels now that they were safely out of Heddings’s house.
Without the danger of having a servant holding a gun nearby, she couldn’t handle being this close to Malory. She’d put his arm around her earlier when they’d walked up Heddings’s staircase and had felt nothing but her fear. This was nowhere near the same thing. Now she was feeling the length of him pressed to her side, his muscular thigh, his hip and his hard chest, feeling how perfectly she fit under his arm, feeling the heat coming off him—or was it her heat? She was remembering just how bleeding handsome he was, even though she couldn’t see his face in the dark of the woods. She was remembering those sexy blue eyes moving over her in the coach, as if he could see right through her disguise.
If he stopped right then and there and turned her toward him, she would have been mush for whatever he had in mind. He stopped. Her heart began to pound so loudly it throbbed in her ears. He was going to do it, lower his mouth to hers. Her first kiss, and from the most handsome man she’d ever encountered. It would be sublime. She knew it and held her breath, trembling in anticipation.
He pushed her into the coach. They’d only stopped so he could open the door.
Deflated more than she wanted to admit, Danny sat back on her seat in a huff, then glared at Malory as soon as he took the seat across from her. More than half of that glare was because of what had just happened, or hadn’t happened—all in her own mind, of course. But that didn’t stop her from feeling disgruntled. Malory wouldn’t know that though. He would attribute her look only to the topic she introduced.
“That were the most stupid thing I ever saw,” she told him.
“D’ye realize gettin’ caught in there were yer fault! If ye were going to enter that ’ouse, ye could ’ave stolen the rings yerself. Wot did ye need me for then, eh?”
“What happened?” Percy asked, but was ignored.
“You were gone longer than necessary,” Malory pointed out stiffly. “Or I wouldn’t have gone inside.”
“I weren’t gone even ten minutes!”
“So it was an inordinately
ten minutes. All of which is irrelevant now.”
“You could ’ave got us killed! I wouldn’t be callin’ that irrelevant, mate.”
happened?” Percy asked again.
“Nothing the youngun here wasn’t adept at handling,” Malory conceded. Then to Danny, as if he hadn’t just pumped up her pride with that casual compliment, he added, “Let’s have a look at your findings to see if all that trouble was worth it.”
“Get this coach moving first,” she said, mollified somewhat that he’d just admitted she’d saved his arse. “We ain’t safe till we’re nowhere near ’ere.”
“Good point,” Percy agreed, and tapped on the roof of the coach, which signaled the driver to head back to town. “Now, please, keep me on tenterhooks no longer.”
As long as Lord Malory wasn’t doing the insisting, Danny saw no reason to deny his friend. She started emptying her pockets on the seat next to her, including the wad of money, then scooped up the whole pile and dumped it on the seat between the two nabobs. She even turned her pockets inside out to show them she wasn’t keeping anything back.
Percy immediately pounced on one old-looking ring with the exclamation “Good God, yes!” He brought the antique to his lips to kiss it, then with unseemly haste, stuck it back on his finger where it apparently belonged. “Can’t thank you enough, dear boy! You have my—” His appreciation was cut short when his eye was caught by the jewelry again. “Oh my, there’s the other!” he exclaimed, and spread the jewelry wider to snatch the second ring out of the pile.
“You have our thanks, lad,” Lord Malory finished Percy’s thought.
“Eternal thanks,” Percy added, beaming at Danny.
“I wouldn’t go
far,” Malory rejoined.
“Speak for yourself, old chap. You weren’t the one hiding from your own mother.”
“I don’t have a mother.”
“From George then.”
“Point taken,” Malory conceded with a grin.
“George?” Danny asked.
” she gasped.
When the young lord laughed, his cobalt eyes fairly sparkled.
“It’s Georgina actually, but m’father cut that short just to be contrary. Habit of his, don’t you know.”
She didn’t know and didn’t want to. She’d done what they’d asked—insisted—she do. And successfully, so there was no question about doing it again. She just wanted to get home now and face Dagger—and find out if she still had a home.
Reminded of that, her expression turned gloomy. They didn’t notice. They were still glancing down at the pile of glitter.
Percy tapped a large oval-shaped pendant surrounded by emeralds and diamonds. “Looks familiar, don’t it?” he said to his friend.
“Indeed. I admired Lady Katherine’s bosom more’n once when it graced her chest.”
“Didn’t take her for a gambler, least not the sort to part with something like that.”
“She isn’t. Heard it was stolen several months ago while she was vacationing in Scotland.”
“You pulling my leg, old man?”
Malory was frowning by then. “No, and this bracelet looks rather familiar as well. I’d swear my cousin Diana was wearing it just last Christmas. Don’t recall her mentioning it was stolen, but I know
doesn’t gamble a’tall.”
“Oh, I say, are you suggesting Lord Heddings is a thief?”
“Looks that way, don’t it?”
“But that’s splendid news. Can’t tell you how much guilt I was trying to ignore over this distasteful business.”
Malory caught Danny rolling her eyes over that remark. She could tell he had to work really hard not to grin at her. Percy wasn’t finished, however, and his next question sobered the young lord.
“But what are we going to do about it?”
“There’s nothing we
do about it, without implicating ourselves and our young friend here.”
“Well, that’s too bad. Hate to see a thief go about his merry way without paying a price for…it…” Percy intercepted Danny’s pointed stare and coughed. “Present company excluded, naturally.”
“Let’s not forget yerselves,” Danny sneered. “Stealing that glitter weren’t
“Quite right,” Percy said with a blush.
But Lord Malory noted with displeasure, “No,
idea was to empty
pockets, so there’s no need to be pointing fingers here.”
The heat from the multiple blushes she felt just then could have lit the coach brazier. Danny hated having the tables turned on her, she really did. But under the circumstances, she was fresh out of rejoinders.
He was quick, that one, and suspicious, or he wouldn’t have followed her into the house to make sure she did the job. Astute, too, and clever. She didn’t doubt coming here had been his idea.
It was too bad he wasn’t a half-wit like his friend. She might have called him that in her mind earlier, but she knew it wasn’t so. She could probably have talked her way out of her involvement if he was. She still probably could have—if he weren’t so bleedin’ handsome. But she had trouble putting two thoughts together when he turned those cobalt eyes on her. Her cunning and wits had gone right out the door, leaving behind a brainless ninny, hopelessly out of her element.