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3

A businesslike arrangement. How in blazes had it come to this? He was about to crack Elwin Hastingss safe while his new accomplicemake that clientwaited for him in a closed carriage in a nearby lane. His already complicated life had developed a few new and decidedly convoluted twists tonight.

For the second time that evening Anthony studied the shadowed hallway outside Hastingss bedchamber. The guard was gone. There was no indication that anyone else was lurking up here. He checked the alcove where he had hidden a short time earlier. It was empty.

Getting back inside the mansion had been simple enough. He had pulled on the long overcoat and low-crowned hat that he had brought along for the purpose. Louisa had watched closely, clearly intrigued by the sartorial transformation.

If I am seen at a distance, it is unlikely that I will be recognized, he explained.

You look quite menacing in that coat and hat, sir. It is amazing how it affects your appearance. I vow, you could easily pass for a member of the criminal class.

The idea is to look like a respectable tradesman.

Oh. Sorry.

He had scaled the garden wall without incident, although he had been forced to crouch behind a hedge when the second guard, Royce, made what appeared to be a routine patrol of the grounds.

Guided by the floor plan he had studied that afternoon and what he had seen of the house earlier, he had no trouble locating the servants entrance. The back stairs that led to the upper floors were still clear. The harried staff was occupied on the ground floor dealing with the behind-the-scenes demands generated by a houseful of guests.

Satisfied that he had the hall to himself, he opened the door of Hastingss bedroom. Inside he stood quietly for a moment, allowing himself to absorb the feel of the moonlit room. He had been studying Hastings for over a year. He knew a great deal about his quarry.

He raised the corner of the carpet and found the safe exactly where it was supposed to be. He did not need to strike a light to see what he was doing. When one opened an Apollo Patented Safe in a clandestine manner, one did it by touch, not sight.

He got the strongbox open very quickly. The small set of safecracking tools he had brought with him had been specially commissioned from one of the finest craftsmen in Birmingham. The implements were more delicate and more sensitive than a surgeons scalpels.

The interior of the Apollo was as dark as a small cave. He reached inside, pulled out all of the items, and placed them on the carpet in a shaft of bright moonlight. There were four velvet pouches of the sort used to hold jewelry, a number of business documents, five leather-bound journals, and an envelope containing three letters.

He flipped through the journals. Four were written by people other than Hastings or his wife. The fifth was a record of payments received from individuals who were identified only by initials. The letters in the envelope were signed by a young lady.

He tucked the journals, letters, and business papers into pockets on the inside of his overcoat. Turning to the jewelry pouches, he unlaced each in turn. The first three contained an assortment of bracelets, earrings, and necklaces fashioned of diamonds, pearls, and colored gems. All of the pieces were in the modern style. They had no doubt belonged to the first Mrs. Hastings. She had been much admired for her sense of fashion. He picked up the fourth sack and poured the contents into the palm of his hand. Moonlight glinted on an emerald-and-diamond necklace set in gold. The design was old-fashioned and very familiar.

A savage exhilaration roared through him. He had anticipated finding some answers tonight. He had not allowed himself to hope that he would be this fortunate.

He put the necklace back into the pouch, retied the cord, and placed the little sack in a pocket.

He tossed the other three sacks back into the safe, closed the door and locked it. Next he repositioned the carpet. There was no telling how soon Hastings would check the contents of his Apollo, but when he did, he was sure to get a well-deserved jolt of alarm. No ordinary thief would leave most of the jewelry behind. When Hastings realized precisely what items had been taken, he would know that someone was hunting him. With luck he would start to sweat.

Anthony went to the door and listened intently.

Outside in the hall a floorboard squeaked. The first creak was followed by another, closer this time. Someone was coming down the hall toward the bedroom. One of the guards, most likely. Would he open the door of his employers bedroom or was that forbidden territory? There was no way to know how thorough Quinby or Royce would be, but from what Anthony knew of Hastingss temperament, it did not seem likely that he would authorize either man to prowl through his private sanctuary.

Voices sounded out in the hall. A man whispered something in soft, urgent tones. A woman responded, her voice equally low and eager.

Hastings had evidently brought one of the female guests up to his bedroom while his young bride was dutifully dealing with the crowd downstairs. The action certainly confirmed Louisas already low opinion of his character. But the sensibilities of the very new Mrs. Hastings were not his primary concern at the moment. He had to get out of the room.

There were two alternatives: the window and the connecting door to Mrs. Hastingss bedroom. He chose the latter. If he went out onto the ledge he might not be able to find another unlocked window to crawl back through.

His hand was on the knob of the adjoining bedroom door when he heard the outer door of that room open. He stilled, listening as the couple entered.

This is so damned risky, Lilly.

Hastings and his guests have all had far too much champagne tonight. No one will notice that you and I have slipped away for a short time. In any event surely this is no more reckless than the way we used to meet before I was forced into this ghastly marriage.

But if anyone discovers us

Darling, I have been so desperate for you. The past few weeks have been a nightmare. Hold me.

There was a rustle of heavy skirts and some passionate-sounding moans.

Oh, God, Lilly. You cannot know what it has been like for me. I lie awake every night thinking of you in Hastingss bed. The image is driving me slowly mad.

Do not torment yourself, my love. He was unable to consummate our marriage on our wedding night, and he has not come to me since.

Hastings is impotent?

He says it is my fault. He claims I do not understand his special needs. I believe he goes elsewhere to satisfy those needs, and I am truly grateful, believe me.

So am I.

Anthony released the knob and went back across the room to the door that opened onto the hall. He let himself out into the shadowed corridor and descended the rear stairs.


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