Excerpt: Touch of a Thief
The Touch of Seduction, Book 1
This is positively, absolutely the last time, Lady Viola Preston promised herself as she squeezed through the ground floor window of the posh London townhome.
Viola had contemplated Lady Henson’s new emerald necklace over the soup course at Lieutenant Quinn’s dinner party last night, but then the lieutenant let slip that he’d brought back a handful of uncut stones from India. A newly returned nabob shouldn’t flaunt the details of his wealth if he didn’t wish to be relieved of it.
Viola’s fence would have to chop up Lady Henson’s necklace and even then, the gems were large and of uniquely deep color. They might be recognized. But uncut stones–and one of them big as a peach pit, if the lieutenant were to be believed–were nigh untraceable. Viola would get full value for them.
And then she’d stop.
Only once more, Viola vowed silently.
From somewhere deep in the elegant townhouse came a low creak. Viola held her breath. The longcase clock in the main hall ticked. When she heard nothing else, she realized it was only the sigh of an older home squatting down on its foundations for the night.
She cat-footed up the main stairs, on the watch for the help.
So long as I steer clear of the kitchen or the garret, I’ll be fine, Viola told herself.
Besides, the stones would be in Lieutenant Quinn’s chamber and the lieutenant was with Lord Montjoy at his club. Townhouses on this fashionable London street were all equipped with identical wall safes in the master’s chamber. The newfangled tumbler lock would open without protest under Viola’s deft touch.
She had a gift. Two, actually, but she didn’t enjoy the other one half so much.
Slowly, she opened the bedchamber door. Good. It had been oiled recently. She heard only the faint scrape of hinges.
The heavy damask curtains were drawn, so Viola stood still, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the deeper darkness. There! A landscape in a gilt frame on the south wall marked the location of the safe.
With any luck at all, she’d slide the painting right back and it might be days before Lieutenant Quinn discovered the stones were missing. Viola put her ear to the lock and closed her eyes, the better to concentrate. After only a few tries, the final tumbler fell into place and she opened the safe. The dark void was empty. She reached in to trace the edges of the iron box with her fingertips.
“Looking for something?” A masculine voice rumbled from a shadowy corner.
Blast! Viola bolted for the door, but it slammed shut. The lieutenant’s Indian servant stepped from his place of concealment behind it.
“Please do not make to flee or I am sorry to say I shall have shoot you.” The Hindu’s melodious accent belied his serious threat.
Viola ran toward the window, hoping it was open behind the curtain. And that there was a friendly bush below to break her fall.
Lieutenant Quinn grabbed her before she reached it. He crushed her spine to his chest, his large hand splayed over one of her unbound breasts.
“Bloody hell! It’s a woman. Turn up the lamp, Sanjay.”
The yellow light of the gas wall sconce flooded the room. Viola blinked against the sudden brightness. Then she stomped down on her captor’s instep as hard as she could.
Quinn grunted, but didn’t release his hold. Instead, he whipped her around to face him. His brows shot up in surprise when he recognized her. “Lady Viola, you can’t be the Mayfair Jewel Thief.”
“Of course, I can.” She might be a thief, but she was no liar. “I’d appreciate it, sir, if you’d remove your hands from my person.”
“I bet you would.” The lieutenant’s mouth turned down in a grim frown and he kept his grip on her upper arms. His Indian servant didn’t lower the revolver’s muzzle one jot.
“Did I not tell you, sahib? When she looked at the countess’s emeralds, her eyes glowed green.” The servant no longer wore his turban, his coal-black hair falling in ropey strands past his shoulders. “She is a devil, this one.”
“Perhaps.” One of Quinn’s dark brows lifted. “But if that’s the case, my old vicar was right. The devil does know how to assume pleasing shapes.”
That was a back-handed compliment if Viola ever heard one. She hadn’t really considered Lieutenant Quinn closely during the dinner party. She made little time for men and the trouble they bring a woman. She’d been too intent on Lady Henson’s emeralds at the time. Now she studied him with the same assessing gaze he shot at her.
Quinn’s even features were classically handsome. His unlined mouth and white teeth made Viola realize suddenly that he was younger than she’d first estimated. She doubted he’d seen thirty-five winters. His fair English skin had been bronzed by fierce Indian summers and lashed by its weeping monsoons. His stint in India had rewarded him with riches, but the subcontinent had demanded its price.
His storm-gray eyes were all the more striking because of his deeply tanned skin. They seemed look right through Viola and see her for the fraud she was–a thief with pretensions of still being a lady.
Quinn glanced at his servant. “Looks like I owe you a hundred rupees.” He shook his head. “My money was on Viscount Fenway.” He released her arms and took Viola’s hand instead, making a slight obeisance over it. “My apologies for doubting you, milady. It appears you are the light-fingered wretch we hoped to catch this evening.”
“Now I suppose you mean to denounce me and see me ruined.”
“I greatly fear I’m too late to be the instrument of your ruin.”
Viola brought her hand up sharply to slap him, but he caught her arm in mid-swing and held it motionless. His intense gaze froze the rest of her. There was a thin scar running through one of his eyebrows toward the side part in his sable hair. Lieutenant Quinn might be rakishly handsome, but he was also a man of action. Dangerous. Among the men of the ton, he’d stand out as feral in the midst of domesticated stock.
“My servant has a loaded revolver pointed at your mid-section and he’s overprotective to a fault.” His voice dropped to a low purr of silky menace. “Are you certain you wish to strike me?”
“A lady cannot defend her honor without threat of gunshot?”
“So there is honor among thieves. I’d wondered about that.” He motioned for the Hindu to lower his weapon with his other hand, while keeping hold of Viola’s wrist. “That’ll be all, Sanjay. The lady and I have things to discuss.”
“As you wish.” The Indian stowed the firearm in his wide sash belt and pressed both his palms together in a gesture of farewell. “Namaste. But guard yourself from demons, sahib,” he shot an evil glare at Viola, “however pleasingly they disguise themselves.”
Sanjay slipped out the door as quietly as silk flowing over bare skin.
“I demand you release me.” Viola’s wrist throbbed in his tight grip.
“You’re in no position to make demands. Do you plan on taking another swipe at me?”
“Not unless you do something to deserve it.”
“Fair enough.” Quinn let her go and sat at the foot of his bed. “Now I’m fully prepared to hear why you’ve chosen to risk shame and prison for a few baubles.”
“You would sit while a lady stands?”
“Of course not.” He hooked an ankle over one knee. “Should a lady break into my bedchamber in the dead of night, be assured I will stand.”
Viola narrowed her eyes. If he was set on insulting her, he’d never be moved by her plight.
“You’re welcome to sit, if you like.” He patted the brocade counterpane beside him.
“I’ll stand.” She folded her arms beneath her breasts. “Being a thief and being a lady are not mutually exclusive.”
“It’ll be hard to convince the magistrate of that.”
“If you planned to turn me over to the authorities, we wouldn’t still be here.” Viola hoped she was right. It would kill her mother if she were arrested.
“Clever girl. No, I don’t plan on hauling you before the magistrate. I shall have to add ‘astute’ to your list of qualities,” he said with a grudging nod. “Did you know ‘The Mayfair Jewel Thief’ is famous even in Bombay? Stealthy. Only takes from those who can well afford to lose. Never fooled by fake jewels. You see why we set out to catch you.”
She knew there was a sizable reward for her capture, but she didn’t know word of her exploits had traveled so far. “Then your story about a fistful of uncut jewels isn’t true.”
“It’s two fistfuls actually and they’re real enough. Mostly.” His gaze traveled down her body to her legs which were encased in skin-tight buff trousers. “I have no need to turn you over for the reward, so you and I will have to come to another arrangement.”
“If you expect me to share your bed in exchange for your silence, you’re destined for disappointment.”
He chuckled. “That wasn’t my plan, but it bears consideration. I’m gratified to hear you’re thinking about sharing my bed.”
This time, she was quick enough to deliver a ringing slap to his smooth-shaven cheek.
But Quinn reacted just as quickly. He pulled her onto the feather tick and pinned her beneath him. She sank into the mattress as his long hard body covered hers.
“Release me this instant!” Viola pounded against his chest with her free hand, but he caught it up and joined it with the other one he’d stretched out above her head. He wrapped his legs around hers and held her immobile.
“A woman who sneaks into a man’s bedchamber shouldn’t expect to emerge without paying a penalty.” His mouth descended to swallow her protest in a demanding kiss.
She struggled beneath him, but then his lips softened. He slanted his mouth over hers, as if he sensed exactly what she liked. His kiss became a beguiling summons instead of a forced intimacy. Her body responded with a disconcerting flutter in her belly and the beginning of a deep ache.
This is insane. Viola knew better than to let a man use her passionate nature against her. She willed herself to go limp and unresponsive.
He pulled back and looked down at her, curiosity arching his brow.
“Is that your idea of a penalty?” she asked.
“No, kissing you just seemed a good idea at the time.”
“You don’t think so now?”
“It might be a distraction. You see, we are going to be partners, Lady Viola,” he said with certainty.
“Not very gentlemanly of you, lieutenant, on both counts.” She fought to keep her voice even. “Have I no say in the matter?”
“About our partnership, no. Not if you wish to avoid the magistrate.” His rough baritone rumbled over her whole body, leaving a shiver in its wake. His eyes darkened as he looked down at her and she felt his hard maleness pressed against the juncture of her thighs. “About whether it’s more than business between us, yes. You have a say.”
His heart pounded against her breast bone. Her mouth opened and closed, but no sound would come out. Heaven help her, she hadn’t been this tempted by a man since–she snipped off the thought. Viola knew better than to let her body make this decision. She sucked in a quick breath.
“Just business,” she whispered.
“I’ll accept that for now. But for the record, you’re the one who brought up sharing a bed. If I let you up, will you refrain from pummeling me?”
She nodded, not trusting her voice.
Quinn rolled off her and pulled her into a sitting position beside him. He was perfectly still for a moment, bridling himself. Then he rose and walked briskly to the chest of drawers. He pulled out a stocking and white handkerchief. After spreading the kerchief on the bed, he dumped the contents of the stocking onto it. A glowing rainbow of stones glittered up at Viola.
“You keep your jewels in an old stocking?”
He shrugged. “It seemed more secure than the wall safe with the likes of you prowling about London.”
She frowned down at the gemstones. It was an impressive pile of riches, but the resonance was off. “Some of these aren’t genuine.”
He cocked a brow at her and nodded. “Show me.”
She drew a deep breath and stretched out her hand. She’d do the pearls first. Their sibilant, watery voices were always easiest to bear. She picked up a gray pearl, a smoky iridescent orb. The low hum began inside her head.
Like a waving bed of kelp, the pearl spoke to her in wobbling, gentle tones. The words were garbled, and in no language she knew, but a quick vision of a wizened old gent with a purple turban and scarlet-dyed beard flashed across her mind. She dropped the pearl before the precious thing could show her any more.
It was unusual for her to receive a vision from a pearl. Perhaps it was because they were never as old as other gems. Perhaps the fragile substance resisted picking up imprints from its owners. Or perhaps pearls realized they too were mortal and didn’t want to carry someone else’s burden for the course of their stay on earth.
Whatever secret this gray pearl bore, Viola didn’t want to know it.
“That pearl is real,” she said. “And very old. You’ll not find its mate. It will have to be used as a pendant.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just know.” How could she explain something she didn’t understand herself? She only knew she was different.
And people mistrust those who are different.
She turned back to the rest of the jewels. One by one, she sorted out sweet-voiced carnelians and sultry-toned lapis lazuli, shoving their silent imitations to one side. Then she moved on to the harder gems.
The ones with more strident voices. The ones most likely to invade her mind with nightmarish images of their past. She gleaned out the rasping emeralds, the muttering sapphires and wailing rubies, sorting the paste gems off in a small pile by themselves. Some of the fakes were quite good and probably would have fooled most jewelers, but if a stone didn’t speak to her, she knew it wasn’t real.
Finally, she was left with only five diamonds. She drew a deep breath to steel herself against them. Of all jewels, diamonds screamed out the atrocities in their pasts most painfully.
“Why are you stopping?” Quinn asked. “Can’t you tell with diamonds?”
She picked up the largest and breathed a sigh of relief. “Fake.”
She dropped it on the floor and ground it under her boot heel. The stone splintered into shards.
“Damn. Sanjay had me almost convinced that one was genuine.”
Viola reached for the next stone. The moment her fingertips brushed it, the diamond screeched at her, a high-pitched squeal on the edge of sound. She jerked back her hand before it could send her an image.
Quinn moved the gem to the ‘keepers’ pile and it whined softly when he touched it.
How does he not hear that? It was unusual for a stone to speak without her touch merely because she was near. The gem must have a particularly vicious story to tell. This one she would avoid at all costs.
The rest of the diamonds were genuine. Viola managed to handle them quickly enough that only one was able to send her a red-splashed image of the moment the man who first dug it out of the ground was hacked to death for it. She swallowed hard and tried to expunge the horrific scene from her mind.
“So the rumors are true. You cannot be fooled by a fake, no matter how cunningly realistic.” Quinn scooped up the genuine stones and replaced them in his stocking.
She stood. Barring that last diamond, she’d escaped rather easily. She doubted any of the visions lasted long enough to leave her with the grinding headache that usually accompanied the use of her gift. “I’m glad to have been of service. Now, if you’ll excuse me–“
“Not so fast. I haven’t explained the purpose of our partnership.”
“But I’ve already culled your stones.”
“That was only a test. I had to be sure you were the real Mayfair Jewel Thief. Sit.”
She remained standing.
“Very well, I’ll sit.” He claimed the end of the bed again and grinned up at her.
Irritation fizzed up her spine, but she’d chosen to stand.
“Here are my terms and they are non-negotiable,” Quinn said. “You will render me a burglary service, and at the end of our association, you will receive half the gems you just saw.”
“My choice from among them?” Something inside her quivered with hope. It would mean her family’s money troubles were over. She’d never have to steal again.
“Very well. I accept your terms. What do you want from me?”
“What do you know about red diamonds?” he asked.
“Red diamonds? They’re extremely rare.” In all her thievery, she’d never run across one. “And because of that, they’re worth the earth. But it’s said they often carry curses.”
“Are you the superstitious sort?”
“No.” It wasn’t superstition to believe something true. She’d be able to hear the curse first hand. “But as far as I know there are no red diamonds in all England. And even if there was, I wouldn’t steal it.”
“Because it would be impossible to fence. And an absolute sin to re-cut into smaller stones. Red diamonds are never overly large to begin with, no more than five or six carats. What would I do with one?”
“Let me worry about that part.” Quinn rose to his feet. “I need to see you home, Lady Viola. You have a busy day ahead of you tomorrow.”
She was gratified to hear him use her title, but the rest of his words made her slant him a suspicious look. “What am I going to be doing?”
“You’ll be leaving for Paris with me,” he said. “There is a diamond called Baaghh kaa kkhuun en route to the Queen’s royal collection. And I mean to meet the courier in France.”
“Baaghh kaa kkhuun?”
“It means ‘Blood of the Tiger,'” Quinn said. “And you, my Lady Light-fingers, are going to help me steal it.”