The thin shaft of metal caught on the tumbler but the lock did not open. Shifting slightly, the cloaked figure crouched beside the desk flexed a gloved hand and tried again.
Snick. Snick. Still no luck.
"Oh, bloody hell." The oath was no louder than the faint whisper of the damask draperies framing the open window.
"Well, what did you expect?"
The fingers froze and the figure whipped around, revealing a masked face.
"You are going about it all wrong."
Black silk stretched from the intruder's hood to below the nose, with two holes cut out for the eyes. The pale wash of moonlight did not allow the Earl of Branford to remark on their color -- or perhaps, he thought with a wry grimace, the reason had something to do with the fact that he had just polished off his second bottle of brandy in less than an hour. The surfeit of spirits, however, could not drown the sight of the softly curved lips beneath the slash of midnight. No matter how foxed, he was absolutely sure they were not those of an ordinary thief.
"I would suggest you hold the wire between your thumb and your forefinger." He rose from the leather armchair where he had been dozing and moved across the Oriental carpet with surprising quickness. "Like this."
Taking the implement from the young lady's hand, the earl thrust it into the small opening of the drawer and gave a jiggle. "No wonder you're making a hash of it," he muttered after a moment. "A hairpin!" A low snort emphasized his opinion of the implement. "Not only are you harebrained enough to attempt to rob the marquess while he is at home, but you don't even have the sense to bring along the proper tools."
The eyes behind the slitted openings narrowed in indignation. They were green, Branford realized, now that he was much closer. A green the color of molten jade, with sparks of amber shooting up from their depths.
"I don't need some jug-bitten gentleman to tell me that a hairpin is not the ideal choice," she retorted, the sarcasm in her voice every bit as sharp as his had been. "I'll have you know that I started out with a set of excellent picks, only...only they somehow slipped from my pocket on the way up."
"I'm sober enough to come up with a better excuse than that." He was also sober enough to note that the heat of her voice was immediately reflected in her cheeks -- at least, what little of them was visible below the mask. They turned a deep, glowing pink that put him in mind of the exotic roses that his last mistress used to decorate her boudoir. An apt metaphor, he decided, for, despite being a trifle in his cups, it was clear that the female crouching next to him was a highly unusual specimen of her sex.
Her next words were just as prickly as a cuisse de nymphe. "Have you ever tried to scale a two-story wall while wearing skirts?"
Branford allowed a devilish grin to spread over his lean features. "I have been accused of a great many ungentlemanly acts in my life, but donning petticoats is not one of them."
The sparks from her gaze would have singed Lucifer. "Well, then, don't smirk. It's deucedly hard with all that fabric getting in the way of your boots, not to speak of snagging on the vines."
"Professionals don't make excuses." His gaze swept from the defiantly tilted chin down to where the bunching of skirts was revealing a nicely turned ankle. "Next time, try wearing breeches. I think you will find the snug fit a welcome change; I know I would."
Her lips parted in outrage.
"But then, I rather doubt you can call yourself a professional at this sort of thing," he went on, his wits still sharp enough to note several telling details. Her speech indicated she was a lady of gentle breeding. As did her cloak and gown. They were of good quality, even though the styles were out of date and the wool slightly frayed around the edges. And a faint tang of lavender, mixed with an undercurrent of verbena, perfumed the lock of hair that had strayed from the confines of her hood -- hardly the signature scent of Southwark or Seven Dials. So, that made the question of why she was there an intriguing one.
His musings were cut short as she snatched back the hairpin from his grasp. "I don't intend to call myself anything. I've wasted quite enough time in idle conversation." Her chin came up a fraction higher. "Now kindly take yourself off, sir. You are blocking what little light there is."
Branford leaned back a bit but made no move to rise. "Aren't you worried that I might raise the alarm if I do? After all, I am a guest in this house."
"Call the magistrate and be damned," she muttered while renewing her attack on the small brass lock. "It is the Marquess of Dunster who is the real criminal, and I vow I shall prove it, even if I have to swim all the way back to London from a penal colony in the antipodes."
Criminal? The marquess a criminal? If she was looking to arouse his curiosity, she had certainly done it in spades.
Up until the discovery of the masked intruder, the evening had been a crashing bore, like so many others since his return to London. He had agreed to accompany a casual acquaintance to the marquess's private party for no other reason than that the company of strangers seemed preferable to a night alone with his own depressing thoughts. It was, however, a decision he soon regretted. Dunster had struck him as a crude, unsavory character, and the coarse treats being passed around after the port and cigars were not at all to his taste, despite the rumors being bandied about Town.
Oh, some of the whispers were true enough. His skills at coaxing favors from a deck of cards or another gentleman's wife were only slightly exaggerated. And no doubt he did possess a hair-trigger temper and cold-blooded nerve, seeing as two men lay nursing bullet wounds from recent encounters on the dueling field.
But the prospect of writhing about on the carpet in the midst of a debauched orgy held no allure. If a female's thighs were to be wrapped around his hips, he preferred to choose his partner -- and achieve his pleasure through seduction rather than brute force. So he had drunk more than was good for him and then wandered upstairs, thinking to pass the time with yet another glass of spirits rather than a hired trollop until the others were all too deep in their cups or otherwise occupied to notice his departure.
Branford certainly had no intention of leaving now. "Try a little more pressure with your index finger," he said. His hand closed over hers and guided it slightly to the left. There was a touch of resistance, then a distinct click. Reaching up, he slid the drawer open. "Voilà."
He smiled, rather expecting some acknowledgment of his expert assistance, but such a notion was rudely shoved aside as the young lady scrabbled to get at it. Without so much as a word of thanks, she reached in and began rummaging through its contents.
"Just what are you after?" inquired the earl, massaging the spot on his ribs where her elbow had caught him a solid blow. "Has Dunster reneged on the promise of a diamond bracelet? Or failed to pay the agreed upon fee?"
A scathing look was the only answer. She then turned her attention back to the sheaf of papers she had snatched up and continued to examine each page.
"Look here," he growled. "Perhaps if you explained -- "
A sudden clattering in the hallway interrupted his demand. There was a brief silence, then a trilling squeal, followed by several drunken guffaws. After another moment the steps suddenly turned in their direction.
"Damnation!" The young lady's head jerked up as several elongated shadows fell across the half-open doorway. With the documents still clutched in her hands, she made a quick survey of the room before turning for the voluminous drapes.
"Too late," murmured Branford. It was clear she would never make it to cover in time. Why he should feel any obligation to give further aid to the sharp-tongued chit was as big a mystery as her presence here, but for some odd reason he did.
A spin to his left blocked her path of retreat.
"Out of my -- " The rest of her words were swallowed in a squawk of outrage as his lips came down hard upon hers. Ignoring her muffled protests, he twirled her around and lifted her onto the edge of the desk. One hand held her hard against his chest while the other rucked up her skirts high enough so that he could step between her flailing legs. They were quite long and shapely, he couldn't help but note as his fingers grazed the inside of her thigh.
The intimate touch brought an even more furious response. Her mouth parted, trying to manage a louder cry. To cut off any outburst, he deepened the kiss with a thrust of his tongue, filling her with the lingering heat of the brandy.
For an instant she went absolutely still.
Branford took full advantage of the lull. He pressed closer, so that their bodies were locked together, then leaned forward, forcing her head nearly down to the blotter. Tightening his grip around her waist, he then yanked free the knot of his cravat and fell to fondling her breast.
"Well, lookee here. Should ha' known a stallion of Branford's reputation wouldn't take long in mounting one of the fillies."
Out of the corner of his eye, the earl saw the Marquess of Dunster and one of his cronies leaning rather heavily on the half-naked female who stood between them. Both of them looked every inch the proper gentlemen in their tailored evening coats, embroidered waistcoats, and polished Hessians. However, as their breeches were missing, not all of those inches were of the sort that titled lords should be showing in public.
"Seems she's giving you a spirited gallop," said the leering Dunster, for indeed, the young lady had resumed her struggle to break free. "P'rhaps when you're done in the saddle, you'll pass the reins to me."
The other gentleman laughed and added a very lewd comment.
Branford exaggerated the rocking of his hips, using the movement to nudge the desk drawer back into place. Taking care that his back blocked all view of the papers and the masked face, he released her mouth long enough to glance over his shoulder with a wolfish grin. "Find your own rides, gentlemen. I don't plan on finishing with this one anytime soon."
There was a sharp intake of breath from the young lady.
Fearing that an outburst of temper might ruin the whole charade, he gave her a warning shake. "Keep quiet, you little fool," he whispered while appearing to nuzzle at her neck. "Unless you truly wish to be trotted off to Newgate."
Apparently she was not devoid of all sense, for she bit back whatever retort was hovering on her lips.
Raising his voice to a rough growl, the earl turned back to the others, noticing that a third man had approached and was standing in the shadows, half hidden by the marquess's swaying shoulders. "So, gentlemen, if you don't mind closing the door as you leave..."
"Like to apply the spurs in private, eh?" Dunster's flushed face took on a petulant pout. "A shame. Would have liked to watch you put her through her paces."
"Aw, come on, milord." The doxy rubbed up against the marquess's arm. After eyeing what showed of the other young lady's willowy form, she gave a slight sniff and a toss of her overly blond curls. "If yer looking for spirit an' stamina, I've a friend downstairs wots got a lot more to offer a fine gentleman than that bag o' bones."
Amid a rumble of laughter and ribald jests, the door slammed shut. Branford slowly relaxed his hold as he heard them stumble off, and started to speak.
The young lady beat him to the punch. "Why, you unprincipled cad!" Yanking one hand free, she wasted no time in landing a hard right to his jaw.
His head snapped back. Hell's teeth! he thought with some amazement. Where had a female learned to hit like that?
"You might show a bit of gratitude, you ungrateful chit," he growled, rubbing gingerly at the spot. "I just saved your neck."
"You nearly stole my virtue! And it was not my neck you were making sport with, rather...several other parts of my anatomy!" Suddenly aware of how much of that anatomy was now in full view, she hastily tugged her skirts back over her knees and slid off the desk.
He gave a throaty chuckle, despite his smarting jaw. "My dear, I am far more skilled at larceny than you are. Had your virtue been the object of my desire, it would now be in my possession."
"Arrogant coxcomb!" She sought to brush off his hand, which still had a grip on her arm. "Damn you, let go of me! I do not wish to suffer any further indignities at the hands of a lecherous rogue."
"Not before you answer a few questions." Drawing his dark brows together, he fixed her with his most intimidating stare. It was a look that had usually reduced the soldiers under his command to quaking in their boots. And as his military experience with Wellington had also involved interrogating a good many traitors and double agents, he imagined he would have a young lady -- no matter how defiant -- confessing within seconds. "Starting with who the devil are you, and what are you looking for among those papers."
His experience with men of war, however, had not prepared the earl to be on the lookout for a swift kick in the shins.
"Bloody hell!" Caught by surprise, he fell back against the edge of the desk, bruising his hip in the process. The young lady seized the opportunity to twist out of reach and sprint for the window. Off balance, his reflexes still slightly slurred by drink, Branford was a step slow in lunging after her. He grabbed for the collar of her cloak, but his fingers missed by a fraction of an inch. Instead they closed over thin air.
No, not quite thin air, he realized as he felt a slight tug. A thin gold chain had snagged on his hand. It snapped, and the broken links fell to the carpet, along with a ring.
Before he could recover, she jumped onto the sill and, with a theatrical flourish of her cloak, dropped down from sight.
In a fit of disgust, Branford kicked at the wainscoting as he watched her disappear into the shadows of the garden below. It was he who had made a complete hash of things.
His hand raked through his raven locks. The Black Cat -- once Wellington's most trusted intelligence officer -- bested by a woman? Good Lord, the thought was more sobering than a Methodist's sermon. If he could be outsmarted, outmaneuvered, and outgunned by a mere female, perhaps it was high time to stop drowning himself in self-pity.
With a last look at the boxwood hedge, he drew the window closed and turned away.
A wink of light suddenly caught his eye.
He had almost forgotten the fallen trinket. Bending down, he retrieved the broken chain, but the ring took a bit of searching to locate. Once he had scooped it up from under the armchair, he carried it over to the desk and lit one of the candles in order to examine it more closely.
It glowed with the soft patina of age. The shape and size indicated it was made for a man, and although the engraving was quite worn, the earl could make out the intricate outlines of a crest.
A husband? A lover?
Whoever he was, his name would be easy enough to trace. And, once armed with that information, he was certain the young lady's identity would not remain a secret for long.
His lips quirked into a grim smile. She may have won the first skirmish, but the battle was far from over.
"Bloody, bloody hell."
Miss Portia Hadley could not restrain the unladylike oath as she threw off her cloak. Dropping the sheaf of papers and crumpled silk mask onto her dressing table, she turned to the unlit hearth of her bedchamber and began pacing. Although it was well past midnight, she was still too furious to feel any inclination for sleep.
Good Lord, the evening had been a complete disaster!
A second look at the stolen documents during the carriage ride home had shown them to be useless -- naught but bills from a boot maker and wine merchant on Jermyn Street, mixed in with several highly improper verses. If only she had not lost her set of picklocks, she might have had more time to make a proper search of Dunster's desk.
And if only the information she had overheard at the Framingham supper concert had been more explicit as to what took place at a gentleman's evening at home, she might have avoided a most embarrassing encounter. The next oath was directed at herself. How could she have been so naive! Somehow, the picture in her mind had been of a rather stodgy gathering -- a formal supper followed by port and cigars, with nothing more heated than disagreement over politics.
Ha! Heated, indeed! Portia felt her face grow exceeding warm at the mere thought of what she had seen. And felt.
All in all, the evening could not possibly have gone any worse, she fumed. Unless, of course, she had slipped from the vines and broken her neck.
And even that might have been preferable to being mauled by a ruthless rake. Her steps slowed and a shudder of disgust ran down her spine at the recollection of his hands roving upon her person and his mouth plundering hers.
Or was it some other emotion?
The flush of anger suddenly turned a guilty shade of crimson. She could not deny that along with outrage and indignation, she had also experienced a strange frisson of excitement at his touch. It was, she knew, quite wrong -- a proper young lady should have swooned from maidenly shock.
But then again, Portia was well aware that she was not a proper lady. And never had been. Given the rather unorthodox nature of her upbringing, she feared her sensibilities were far less refined than they should be, and that her headstrong behavior often caused her to stray far past the boundaries established by Polite Society. Perhaps that was why, unlike most innocent English schoolroom misses, she had allowed herself to be kissed rather thoroughly before.
It had happened several years ago during one of her family's expeditions to Greece. Intellectual curiosity had compelled her to encourage the amorous advances of a native guide on the island of Mykonos. Taking advantage of her father's preoccupation with the ruins of an ancient temple, the young man, aptly named Adonis, had pulled her behind one of the crumbling marble columns and pressed his mouth to hers while sliding a callused palm inside her bodice to fondle her breast. It hadn't lasted all that long, but despite the fact that he had smelled vaguely of donkey and tasted of stale retsina, the fleeting intimacy had been undeniably intriguing.
Indeed, she had thought about it often since then. And on more than one occasion had found herself desiring to be kissed again, for surely it could not be that wicked to wish for the brushing of a gentleman's lips against hers....
Ha! Such a sentiment caused her mouth to pucker in a wry grimace. Wicked did not begin to describe the embrace she had just experienced! It had certainly involved a good deal more contact than a brushing of lips. And the Earl of Branford had certainly been in no hurry!
The Earl of Branford.
Oh, yes, he may not have had a clue as to her identity, but Portia knew who he was! How could she not, even though she had only been living in London a short while? Every time the earl entered a ballroom, heads swiveled and the whispers commenced. According to the gossips, he was the Devil Incarnate, guilty of such a multitude of sins that Dante would run out of circles in which to consign him!
The Devil, she repeated, staring at the unlit logs and finding herself slightly surprised they didn't burst into flames. That she could well believe! She had been aware of the heat emanating from those broad shoulders and long limbs as soon as he had crouched down next to her. And then, when his arms had crushed her to his chest, and his hand had raked over the top of her stocking...Heaven help her, the sensation had been like a burning match against her bare skin! She was sure the flesh was still singed and smoking where his long, lithe fingers had trailed their fire!
Her own fingers flew to her cheeks, which were now glowing like red-hot coals. They then strayed down to her lips, which were also feeling a bit scorched. "May Lucifer be roasted on his pitchfork," she whispered. She could still taste the sizzle of the earl's mouth, hot with the spice of brandy. He had left her senses reeling, and much as she wished to say she had loathed the sensation, in truth it had made her feel oddly alive.
It was all so devilishly confusing! Was a kiss really supposed to ignite such a...conflagration of passions in a proper young lady? She rather thought not.
With an exasperated oath, Portia forced herself to extinguish such thoughts for the time being. She had much more burning questions to occupy her attention. Such as, how in the name of Hades was she going to prove that the Marquess of Dunster was a liar, a thief, and quite possibly a murderer?
Her lip puckered in concentration as she paced. What if she --
"Portia?" Her door opened a crack, just enough to allow a shadowy figure to slip into her room.
Drat it -- yet another male to fend off! This one, however, should not prove nearly as hot to handle.
"Where the devil have you been?"
"You shouldn't swear in the presence of a lady," she replied rather primly. "Nor should you be skulking around in the wee hours of the night."
"Hah -- rather the pot calling the kettle black!" Her younger brother flopped down upon her bed. "On both accounts."
She executed another quick turn in order to hide her guilty expression.
"Come on, confess, Portia. Where have you been?"
"Out. Which is where you are going this instant. Back to your own bed, if you don't mind. It's awfully late, and I wish to make use of mine."
His scowl turned every bit as black as hers. "Damnation, don't try to fob me off as if I were a child." He gave a hard look at her black garments and the scuffed toes of her sturdy boots. "And don't try to tell me you were attending the Renfrew ball dressed like that. I may be too young to go about in Society, but I'm not that naive."
A flicker of sympathy lit in Portia's eyes. Sixteen was a deucedly awkward age. With his long, gangly limbs and voice that could range over an octave in one sentence, Henry was not quite a boy, but not quite a man.
"No," she answered softly, but made no effort to elaborate. While she could well understand his frustration, that did not make her any more willing to involve him in the very adult risks she was running.
After another moment of silent confrontation, his gaze shifted away. "You promised you wouldn't do anything rash."
Actually, what she had just done had not been rash, she thought as a grimace tugged at her mouth. It had been insane!
"Did you learn anything about Papa's disappearance?" he continued in a low whisper.
As she feared, her brother had not failed to notice the papers on the dressing table. "Then what are these -- "
"Please, Henry. Don't press me any more tonight. I -- I really am exhausted and not feeling up to a detailed explanation."
He must have sensed that the slight tremor in her voice was unfeigned, for he rose without further argument and jammed his hands into the pockets of his dressing gown. "Very well." The growl was obviously meant to sound manly; however, the jut of his lower lip almost caused Portia to smile in spite of herself. He looked more like six than sixteen. "But only for now. I shall expect to hear all about it come morning."
Ha! On no account was she going to tell her brother everything that had transpired in the marquess's study. He would get a highly edited version, and even that, she worried, would be too much. She sighed. As if she didn't have enough to think about, it now appeared she would have to be extremely careful that her brother did not get any wild ideas of his own.
Her weary fingers began to work at the buttons of her bodice. It was bad enough that one member of the Hadley family was flirting with danger and disgrace. But perhaps the morning would bring with it a glimmer of hope, a change of luck.
Ha! And perhaps the Devil would be invited to breakfast with Saint Peter!
Copyright © 2003 by Andrea DaRif