There was an acute silence.
Louisa looked up. Anthony was gazing at her, dumbfounded. She gave him what she hoped was an encouraging smile.
“Don’t worry,” she said, opening the small, leather-bound notebook that she carried everywhere. “I don’t intend to steal your trade secrets.”
“Just as well because I don’t plan to reveal them to you,” he said dryly. “Put the notebook away, Mrs. Bryce.”
A little chill feathered her nerves. It was the same shiver of alarm she had experienced when Lady Ashton had introduced him to her earlier in the week at the Hammond affair. His name had rung a very loud, clanging bell of warning, but she had assured herself that being asked to dance by the man whose fianc'ee was one of the two women who had drowned in the river a little over a year ago was sheer coincidence, not the Dread Hand of Fate. The social world, after all, was a relatively small realm. Nevertheless, when she saw him in the hall outside Hastings’s bedroom tonight she almost panicked. He could not know it, but the truth was, encountering him there had given her far more of a jolt than she had got from meeting up with the guard.
She was certain she could have dealt with Quinby. After all these months in Society the image she and Lady Ashton had worked so carefully to establish had been generally accepted. She was Louisa Bryce, the unimportant, unfashionable, excessively dull relative from the country whom Lady Ashton had kindly taken in as a companion. There was no reason for Quinby to be overly suspicious of her.
Anthony’s unexpected appearance in that hall, however, had shaken her nerve. This time there could be no denying that something more than coincidence was at work.
She had known intuitively from their first meeting that the air of ennui and jaded disinterest that Anthony projected was an illusion. For that reason she had been very cautious around him. Perhaps it was for that very same reason he had fascinated her from the start.
The realization that he was very likely a professional jewel thief not only reassured her, it had given her a brilliant idea. At least it had seemed brilliant at the time. She was starting to have doubts. Perhaps it was not inspiration that had struck her a few minutes ago. In hindsight, it might have been foolhardy desperation.
She realized that he was watching her with a mixture of amused irritation and relentless determination.
“If you insist,” she said, keeping her tone polite and trying not to show her disappointment. “No notes.”
Reluctantly, she returned the notebook and pencil to the small pocket inside her muff.
He had made no move to turn up the interior lamps as she had requested, so his features remained carved in shadows. But she had danced with him several times in the past week. His enigmatic eyes and the implacable planes and angles of his face had been imprinted on all of her senses. When her gloved fingertips had rested ever so lightly on his shoulder during the waltz she had been vividly aware of the strength in the sleek muscles beneath his expensively tailored coat.
Dancing with Anthony was like dancing with a particularly well-dressed, well-mannered wolf: The experience was both dangerous and exhilarating. Kissing him a few minutes ago had been a thousand times more exciting and, no doubt, a thousand times more hazardous. She would never forget that shocking, thrilling embrace in the hall outside Hastings’s bedroom, she thought.
There was an aura of cool self-mastery about Anthony, a steely edge that simultaneously attracted her and commanded her wary respect. She had heard that he had spent a great deal of time journeying to far-off lands before returning to England four years ago. She had a feeling that his experiences abroad had taught him to see beneath the surface in ways that others in Society did not.
The Stalbridge family was considered by one and all to be heavily populated by eccentrics. For the most part they ignored Society. The Stalbridges, however, had become quite wealthy in recent years, and the family’s bloodlines were impeccable. Given those crucial factors, Lady Ashton had explained, Society could not ignore the Stalbridges. Anthony and the other members of his family were routinely included on every guest list, although they rarely accepted invitations.
Any hostess who succeeded in attracting a Stalbridge to a social affair was widely considered to have achieved a great coup. The new Mrs. Hastings was no doubt very proud of having lured Anthony to the first ball she had given as a married woman.
Satisfied now that the notebook and pencil had vanished, Anthony lounged against the seat and contemplated Louisa with faintly narrowed eyes.
“What were you doing in Hastings’s bedroom?” he asked.
The conversation was not going as she had intended. She had planned to take charge right from the start, but somehow he had seized control and was interrogating her. There was nothing she could do now but brazen it out.
“I opened that door quite by accident,” she replied.
“I trust you will not be offended when I tell you that I do not believe a single word of that extremely flimsy story, and I doubt if the man who stopped us would have, either.”
“I had a perfectly sound story prepared to give that odious creature,” she shot back without stopping to consider her words. “If you had not interfered, I would have told him that I was merely looking for a room in which I could repair a tear in my gown.”
“I don’t think he would have found that story any more believable than I do.” Anthony stretched out his legs and folded his arms across his chest. “By the way, the name of that odious creature, as you call him, is Quinby. He is a hired guard. Hastings recently employed two of them. Both carry revolvers.”
She caught her breath. “Good heavens, sir. Are you telling me that Mr. Quinby was armed?”
“The gun was in the pocket of his coat. I expect he also carries a knife. In my experience, men who grow up on the streets are usually quite comfortable with them.”
“I see.” She swallowed hard, absorbing the information. “Did you acquire that experience in the course of your travels abroad?”
“You have, indeed, made some inquiries about me. I’m honored to have captured your attention to such a degree.”
She flushed. “Yes, well, as I said, your peculiar interest in me made me curious.”
“I do not consider my interest in you at all peculiar. Trust me when I tell you that you are nothing short of fascinating, Mrs. Bryce. And in answer to your question, yes, I did spend some time in places where men commonly go about armed, and I learned a great deal.” He paused for emphasis. “I know men like Quinby when I see them.”
She was not at all certain what to make of the nothing short of fascinating remark, so she decided to ignore it.
“Well, that certainly explains a few things about Mr. Quinby,” she said briskly. “I did wonder why he felt he had the right to confront us in such a rude manner. I realized he was not an ordinary servant in the household.”
“No,” Anthony agreed. “Lesson Number One, Mrs. Bryce: The next time you see a man in a coat that bulges somewhat oddly, pay attention.”
“I will most certainly do so. Thank you for the tip, sir.”
“Damnation. I am wasting my time trying to frighten you, aren’t I?”
“I assure you, I am quite capable of being frightened, Mr. Stalbridge, but in my opinion, there is no substitute for facts regardless of the subject. Obviously, the more one learns about the criminal classes, the better equipped one is to protect oneself. Since you are clearly an expert, I am very grateful for any information you choose to provide.”
“I must give some thought to my tutorial fees.”
“What an excellent notion, sir,” she said, enthusiasm rekindling. “I am quite willing to pay for instruction in such matters. I would find it extremely useful.”
He looked out the window into the night as though seeking answers from some metaphysical source. “Serves me right. I should have known better than to go down that path.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Never mind, Mrs. Bryce. I am talking to myself. You have driven me to it.”
She tapped a gloved forefinger on the cushion. Now that the initial shock of learning that she had been accosted by an armed man was fading, curiosity and excitement sparked. Why did Elwin Hastings feel the need to hire a pair of guards? It was a most intriguing question. Another question followed quickly on the heels of that one.
She looked at Anthony. “How did you learn that Hastings had hired private guards and that they are armed?”
Anthony pulled his attention away from the street scene. “Let’s just say that I pay close attention to Hastings’s affairs.”
“Obviously. Well, what’s done is done. We must move on.”
He seemed amused. “Is that all the thanks I’m going to get for rescuing you?”
She smiled knowingly. “Let us have a bit of honesty here, sir. It was quite convenient for you to make yourself known at that particular moment, was it not?”
“What do you mean?”
“While I had an excellent excuse, we both know it would have been considerably more difficult for you to explain your reason for being in the hall. In fact, it seems to me that you should be thanking me for rescuing you from what would have been an extremely awkward situation.”
She sat back, satisfied that she had turned the tables on him with that bit of logic.
“Remind me to show my gratitude later,” he said. “To return to the subject at hand, I can think of only two reasons why someone would sneak upstairs during a ball. The first and most obvious is to engage in a tryst. Tell me, did you go upstairs to meet Hastings?”
Startled, she could only stare at him in utter horror for a few seconds. Then she shuddered. “No. As if I would ever form a liaison with a man of his vile nature.”
Anthony stilled. “What do you know of him?”
“Among other things, he is a recently wed husband who insults his wife behind her back by patronizing a notorious brothel.”
“How the devil did you discover that?” Anthony said, sounding genuinely intrigued.
She almost laughed. “It never ceases to astonish me that men are always so shocked when they discover that women are not as na"ive as they assume. We have our sources of gossip, sir, just as you do.”
“I do not doubt that for a moment. Tell me, if you do not approve of Hastings’s morals, why did you accept an invitation to the ball this evening?”
She hesitated, not ready to confide in him. His aggressive questioning was causing her to have serious second thoughts about the wisdom of seeking his assistance.
“Lady Ashton wished to attend,” she said smoothly. “She asked me to accompany her.”
Anthony gave that a moment’s consideration and then shook his head once. “I’m afraid that version of events lacks the ring of truth.”
The cool accusation sparked her anger. “That is unfortunate, because it is the only version that exists.”
“If you did not go upstairs with the purpose of meeting Hastings, then I must conclude that you went into his bedroom with the intention of taking something.”
She froze. “I do not see why I should answer your questions when you have failed to answer any of mine.”
“Forgive me. Once I set out to satisfy my curiosity, I tend to become obsessive.”
“What a coincidence. So do I.”
“What were you looking for in Hastings’s bedroom?” he said very softly.
Her mouth went dry. Leaving the ball with him had, indeed, been a very bad idea. She could see that quite plainly now.
“I have no idea what you are talking about, sir,” she said.
“You will save both of us a great deal of time and energy if you simply answer the question.”
She raised her chin. “Surely you do not expect me to respond to personal inquiries about my activities. We are barely acquainted, sir.”
“After tonight, the Polite World will assume otherwise.”
His words sent a searing chill through her. He was right. Gossip spread swiftly in Society. While it was safe to say that no one cared much about her, Anthony was a different matter entirely. Wealthy, single gentlemen with excellent bloodlines were always of great interest in elevated circles. In addition, there was the notoriety that still swirled around him due to his fianc'ee’s suicide. Tomorrow there would most certainly be talk, she thought.
“The gossip will pass quickly,” she said. “Sooner or later you will dance with some other lady, and everyone will forget about me again.”
“You sound quite eager to be rid of me. I am crushed.”
“I am not some silly young girl fresh out of the schoolroom. We both know that you have no personal interest in me. You have been using me for some purpose of your own this past week.”
“Is that what you think?”
“Yes, of course.” She stomped quite ruthlessly on the little spark of wistful hope that had been flickering somewhere inside her. “Kindly credit me with some intelligence, sir. There is no other reason why you would have directed your attentions toward me. I must admit I have been wondering what you were about, but I believe that my questions have been answered tonight.”
“Indeed? And what is that answer?”
“In light of your career as a gentleman-thief, you obviously have your reasons for wanting to attend certain social affairs. It is equally obvious that you find it useful to distract people so that no one notices when you go about your business. For the past week you’ve found Lady Ashton’s poor relation from the country well suited to that purpose, haven’t you?”
“You think I have been using you as camouflage for my criminal pursuits?” he asked, reluctantly fascinated.
She spread her gloved hands wide. “I believe magicians refer to it as misdirection. If people think that the jaded Mr. Stalbridge is amusing himself by seducing a country widow, they will not wonder what else he might be doing.”
“Damnation,” he said, not without admiration. “You really do believe that I am in the habit of helping myself to other people’s valuables.”
“It is the only explanation that makes sense in light of the facts.” She cleared her throat. “May I assume that your evening career explains how the Stalbridge fortunes came to be revived in recent years? Lady Ashton told me that four years ago, before you returned to England, your family was rumored to be flirting with bankruptcy.”
“You think I restored the family finances by taking up a career as a jewel thief?”
“You will admit it is a viable hypothesis.”
“Based on the fact that I asked you to dance on a handful of occasions this past week? No, Mrs. Bryce, I will not allow that it is a reasonable assumption. Your evidence is far too weak.”
“Oh, there is a bit more to it than the dances, sir,” she said coolly.
He did not move. “How much more?”
“I saw you slip away from Lady Hammond’s ballroom the other night. I assumed you had an assignation in the garden, but you went up the back stairs instead.”
“Good Lord, you followed me?”
“Only as far as the foot of the stairs,” she assured him. “I felt that, under the circumstances, I had a right to know what you were about.”
“Circumstances? Damn it to hell, woman, all I did was dance with you a few times.”
“Yes, and I knew there had to be a reason for that,” she said. “As you, yourself, pointed out, there is a limited number of explanations for why a person would sneak up a flight of servants’ stairs during a social affair. Until tonight I had assumed you were in the habit of meeting your lover in that manner, but this evening I began to suspect that you were more likely a thief.”
“You take my breath away, Mrs. Bryce.”
She doubted that was a compliment. So much for trying to prod him into telling her the truth. He obviously was not going to confess to being a burglar. Fair enough. She certainly wasn’t about to confide her secrets to him, either, even if he did have an alarming effect on her pulse.
“Given your profession, Mr. Stalbridge, you are hardly in a position to question my activities, let alone criticize.”
“Mrs. Bryce, this conversation is far and away the most riveting one I have had in years. I will, however, be blunt. I do not know what you intended tonight, but I must tell you that you took a grave risk going into Elwin Hastings’s bedroom. You obviously have no conception of the enormity of the danger involved.”
The grim certainty in his words gave her pause.
“Surely I was in no serious jeopardy of anything other than having to face a few moments of mild embarrassment,” she said.
“If you believe that, then I must tell you that you do not know as much about Hastings as you seem to think you do.”
“I will allow that you may know considerably more about him.” She paused and then gave him an encouraging smile. “Perhaps you would be good enough to enlighten me?”
His expression hardened. “Pay attention, Mrs. Bryce. If Hastings had cause to suspect that you might be a threat to him, you would be in great jeopardy.”
She stopped smiling. “Surely you are not implying that he might go so far as to murder me simply because he learned that I accidentally opened his bedroom door.”
“Yes, Mrs. Bryce, that is exactly what I am implying.”
She drew a sharp breath. “Really, sir, that is preposterous. He is certainly not a nice man, but he is a gentleman. I doubt very much that he would stoop so low as to murder a lady who had done him no grave harm.”
Anthony sat forward abruptly, making her gasp in surprise. He captured her wrists in his hands and leaned in close.
“Heed me well, Mrs. Bryce. If I am correct in my conclusions about Elwin Hastings, he has already committed murder twice.”
Horror reverberated through her. “Good heavens, sir. Are you certain?”
“I have no proof yet, but, yes, I am certain.”
“I suppose I must take your word for it,” she said slowly. “You no doubt have better connections in the criminal classes than I do, and therefore you are better informed about such matters.”
“Do I detect a note of envy?”
“Well, I must admit, I would find detailed information about the criminal underworld extremely useful from time to time.”
“Just what line are you in, Mrs. Bryce?” he asked very gently.
Another chill trickled down her spine. She was fiercely aware of the strength in his fingers. He wasn’t hurting her, but she was most definitely a captive. It took a great deal of effort to keep her voice calm and even.
“Never fear, sir, I am not your competition,” she assured him. “I have no interest in Hastings’s jewels.”
“Then what the devil did you hope to find in his room?”
She hesitated a moment longer and then made her decision. He already knew that she had been in the room, and he had not betrayed her to the guard. It was clear that he was no friend of Elwin Hastings, and, although he appeared to be a gentleman, he was a self-confessed professional thief, a species not known for its scruples. It was not as though she had a great many options here. Anthony was an unusual gentleman; not at all like other men. He just might consider helping her, if only because he might find the challenge intriguing.
“I was hoping to find proof that Hastings has a financial interest in a certain brothel,” she said. “A place called Phoenix House.”
She held her breath.
Anthony regarded her, evidently bereft of speech, for a very long moment. He released her wrists, but he continued to lean forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. He linked his fingers loosely together between his knees and regarded her as though she were a peculiar specimen in a strange zoo.
“You seek evidence that Hastings invested money in a brothel?” he asked, as though wanting to be quite clear on the subject.
She gripped her muff very tightly. “Yes.”
“Do you mind if I ask why?”
“Yes, I do mind. It is none of your affair, sir.”
He nodded. “No, I suppose it isn’t. What made you think that this proof might be in Hastings’s bedroom?”
“I managed to slip into his library earlier and go through his desk drawers. They were not even locked. I found nothing useful. The bedroom was the only other place I could think of to search.”
“You went through his desk looking for documents related to his financial affairs.” Anthony seemed beyond astonishment now. He merely shook his head. “Of all the idiotic, reckless, foolhardy—”
“I did not ask your opinion, sir,” she said, stiffening. “In any event, it was not that foolhardy. No one was about. The servants are all busy this evening.”
“It is a miracle you were not caught by one of the guards.”
“Yes, well, I was not aware of them at the time,” she admitted ruefully.
“A serious oversight.”
“Indeed,” she admitted. She straightened her shoulders. “As I was saying, the bedroom was the only other place I could think of to search.”
“I assume that you did not find the proof that you were seeking?”
“No, unfortunately.” She sighed. “I went through all of the drawers in the wardrobe, and I searched beneath the bed. There is a small writing desk near the window. The drawer was unlocked, but there was nothing inside. I could not think of any place else to look. There was no sign of a safe.”
“That is because it is hidden in the floor.”
She widened her eyes. “You know that for a fact?”
“Yes. It is an Apollo Patented Safe, by the way, the most secure strongbox available on the market.”
“I am most impressed, sir. You must, indeed, be very good at your work. You obviously do a great deal of research on your, uh, subjects. I did not even think to look for the safe in the floor.”
“It is just as well. If you had remained in that room a moment longer, the guard would probably have discovered you inside.”
“Even if I had found the safe, it wouldn’t have done me any good. I regret to say that, although I can manage simple locks with a hairpin, I have had no experience opening safes.”
“I am amazed to hear that there are some limits to your resources, Mrs. Bryce.”
Stung, she clasped her hands tightly together. “There is no call for sarcasm, sir.”
“If it makes you feel any better, to my knowledge no one has ever managed to finesse the lock of an Apollo. Occasionally safecrackers have resorted to explosive devices to get into one, because thus far that’s been the only successful method.”
“Then how did you plan to open Hastings’s safe, sir? Because it is clear that was your intention tonight.”
“Forgive me, I should have said that almost no one has ever managed to finesse the lock. There is one exception.”
Her spirits soared. “You?”
She braced herself. “In that case and given that we have come this far, I have a proposition for you.”
“Stop right there, Mrs. Bryce.” He held up a hand, palm out. “Do not say another word.”
“I was merely wondering if your professional services might be for hire,” she said quickly.
He did not move. “You wish to employ me to break into Hastings’s safe?”
“Precisely. I failed in my mission tonight, but you are obviously an expert in such matters.” She waved one hand to indicate his elegant evening clothes and the handsome, well-sprung carriage in which they rode. “Clearly, you have done very well for yourself in the past few years. I realize that you do not need to take on clients. But as you plan to open Hastings’s safe anyway, I would be extremely appreciative if you would have a little look around while you are at it. I’d be interested in any paperwork relating to a brothel. I will make it worth your while.”
“Mrs. Bryce, I do not take commissions for this sort of thing.”
“I understand.” She gave him her brightest, most encouraging smile. “But surely an intelligent businessman such as yourself would not turn down an offer of compensation from a grateful person.”
He said nothing at all for an extended length of time.
“Well, sir?” she prompted.
“You are an extraordinary female, Mrs. Bryce.”
“You are very much out of the ordinary, yourself, sir. I cannot imagine that there are a great many jewel thieves who move in Polite Circles.”
That remark appeared to amuse him. “You’d be surprised, madam. Statistically speaking, I’m sure it is safe to say that those who move in elevated circles are no more honest than people who move in other spheres.”
“On that we are agreed, sir,” she said, “but the difference between the two groups is that the highfliers are far less likely to pay for their crimes than are those in the lower classes.”
He cocked a brow. “You sound quite cynical, Mrs. Bryce.”
“I do not have any illusions about the wealthy and the powerful, sir. I know all too well the damage they can cause and how easy it is for them to escape justice. But I do not think this is the time to debate such matters, do you?”
“No,” he said. “We do appear to have more pressing problems.”
“You no doubt intend to go back to Hastings’s mansion later to finish your project. All I ask is that when you open his safe you look around for any documents dealing with Phoenix House. I will be quite happy to reimburse you for your trouble.”
“Assuming I do not get shot dead in the process.”
“Yes, well, I’m certain you are a very competent burglar, sir. After all, you have survived until now.”
“I appreciate your faith in my professional abilities.”
Hope surged through her. “Well? Will you agree to take the commission?”
“Why not?” he said, evidently resigned. “It’s not as though I have anything more interesting to do this evening.”
“Excellent.” She gave him another bright smile. “I’ll wait for you in this carriage.”
“No, you will not, madam. I will take you home first. We will discuss the results of my efforts tomorrow.”
“You do not appear to grasp a pertinent fact here, sir. I am paying you to do this job tonight. As your employer, I must insist on staying close by until you have finished the venture.”
“In other words, you do not entirely trust me.”
“My apologies, sir. I mean no offense. It is just that I have never had occasion to hire a professional thief. I would prefer to keep the arrangements as businesslike as possible.” She hesitated as another thought occurred. “By the way, how much do you charge for this sort of thing?”
His eyes tightened dangerously. “Rest assured, I will give that question close consideration, Mrs. Bryce.”