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Helping Theodora could jeopardize Devlin's undercover assignment to catch a counterfeiter. Yet beneath their assumed identities lies a true ...
Helping Theodora could jeopardize Devlin's undercover assignment to catch a counterfeiter. Yet beneath their assumed identities lies a true connection that could restore his faith, and help her put vengeance aside. Until Theodora's dangerous quest places both their lives—and their blossoming love—in jeopardy.
Theodora Langston watched Edgar Fane stroll across the lobby of the Grand Union Hotel. A half smile lurked at the corners of his mouth, while a swelling crowd—mostly ladies—clustered about him. His gray fedora tipped forward jauntily and one pale hand lightly swung a brass-handled walking stick, tapping the marble foyer with each step. Mr. Fane epitomized a gentleman out to enjoy his season at Saratoga Springs. He had the right, seeing he was a son of one of the richest men in the country.
Thea watched him, and her heart burned with hatred.
As he passed the marbled pillar where she stood, the indifferent gaze passed over her as though Thea were part of the pillar. Edgar Fane, she had discovered over the past ten days, preferred his female admirers long and willowy and adoring, or dainty and luscious and adoring. She could feign adoration, but since her unextraordinary face and physique failed to capture the scoundrel's interest, Thea would have to try a different strategy. She had spent the last of her deceased grandmother's trust fund on this crusade, and would not abandon her quest until Edgar Fane was behind bars, where he belonged.
Her troubled glance fell upon Grandmother's ruby ring, snug on Thea's engagement finger. She was accustomed to ink from a printing press, not fancy rings. Still, the facade of wealth was necessary to gain access to the higher echelons of Saratoga Springs society. Justice did not come cheaply. The ring might be real, all the lavish gowns she'd purchased from Bloomingdale's with the rest of the trust money might be the latest fashion, but she was living a lie.
She could hear her grandfather's voice as though she were standing in their library on that rainy afternoon a month earlier. Thea, you mustn't think such things about him. He had sounded so gentle. Gentle, and defeated. Mr. Fane proclaimed his innocence with equal vehemence. No proof of malfeasance on his part has surfaced.
You are innocent, but you're the one they arrested, you're the one those awful Secret Service operatives treated like a common criminal!
I was the one who tried to deposit counterfeit funds.
But it was Edgar Fane who had paid Charles Langston with those bogus funds.
The burning hatred inside Thea seethed, cauterizing her heart. No use to pray for forgiveness, or ask for divine help. Her grandfather could pray all he wanted to, but Thea doubted God would oblige Charles Langston with an answer. Because of Edgar Fane, her grandfather's faith had dimmed to the stub of a barely flickering candle. As for Thea, life had finally forced her to swallow an unpalatable truth: She could not trust anyone—God or man—to see justice served. If she wanted Edgar Fane to be punished for his crimes, she'd have to do it herself.
For all her life she'd played a part—the good child, the grateful girl, the admirable woman—while inside, insecurity and anxiety clawed with razor-stropped spikes. Now she was about to embark on her most ambitious role. She did not enjoy the risk and the public nature of the charade, but she was confident of her success.
The crowded hotel parlor seemed to lurch, and Thea braced herself against the grooved pillar until the sensation dissipated. She never should have used her mother's maiden name, a constant reminder that no matter whether her present life be truth or lie, she remained the abandoned daughter of a wayward youngest son and a vaudeville singer from the Bowery. No surprise that for most of her childhood she struggled with dizzy spells.
As for faith, life had finally forced Thea to swallow an unpalatable truth: something was lacking in her, something missing from birth that made her unlovable to everyone but her grandfather.
Despite Charles Langston's attempts to give her the life of a privileged young lady, perhaps she was Hetty Pickford's daughter after all.
The high-pitched whinny of an alarmed horse cut through the noisy road traffic on the Saratoga Springs Broadway. Moments earlier Devlin Stone had emerged from the Indian encampment arcade, where he'd spent the past two hours shadowing a suspect. Scarborough disappeared into one of the sidewalk eateries, and Devlin let him go, instead searching the street until he spotted a foam-flecked bay hitched to a surrey in front of the Columbian Hotel. Hooves clattered on the cobblestones by the curb and the horse's head strained against the checkrein. The driver, stupid man, yanked on the reins while shouting an unending barrage of abuse.
Anger flaring, Dev approached just as the terrified horse reared in the traces and plunged forward straight toward a pair of young boys on bicycles. Dev leaped in front of them. "Move!" he ordered, whipping off his jacket.
The two boys scrambled for safety but the horse swung his head around, ears flat and teeth bared. Devlin grabbed the driving reins just behind the bit, then flung his jacket over the blinkers to completely blind the horse.
"Easy, boy calm down, you're all right. Nobody's going to hurt you now."
"Hey! Whadaya think you're doing?" the driver yelled, sawing on the reins in a vain attempt to regain control.
With his free hand Dev reached for his pocketknife. "Probably saving this animal's life, and unfortunately yours," he responded in the same soothing tone as he lifted the knife, slicing both reins twelve inches from the bit. "There you are, fella. No more pressure on your mouth. That's it just relax."
He dropped the knife back in his trouser pocket, unlatched the checkrein. The driver's complexion had gone from the boiling flush of rage to dirty-sheet gray. Good. Devlin held his palm in front of the horse's nostrils, waiting until a hot fluttering breath gently blew over his fingers before he slowly removed his jacket. A single quiver rolled through the flanks, but the horse stood still, watching Devlin.
"Good boy. You're all right." He applied light forward pressure and the horse docilely allowed Dev to lead him across Broadway onto a calm side street.
Devlin turned to the driver. "Get out of the buggy."
"I'm not paying for the harness you ruined," the man complained, climbing stiffly down from the surrey.
"How about you shut up and hand me the rest of the reins?" Before Devlin pummeled the bounder himself.
The lash of temper did the trick, for without further argument the man complied. In seconds Dev formed a makeshift hackamore, and secured the end to a hitching post.
"You know horses well enough," the driver observed grudgingly. "Guess I owe you. Don't know what spooked the stupid animal."
"Try having a piece of metal crammed in your mouth, then have someone yank on it until it bleeds." Devlin eyed the other man with disfavor.
"Yeah well, I don't usually do my own driving." He glanced at the now-quiet horse, a flicker of admiration warring with the sneer. "Anytime you want a job as coachman, look me up." He reached into his vest pocket and tugged out an ivory calling card.
"No, thanks. I'd have to be around you." Devlin rummaged for a fifty-cent piece, flicked it so the coin fell with a soft thud onto the packed dirt inches from the man's shiny shoes. "Enjoy a cup of coffee at the Congress Spring Pavilion. I'll return this animal. Where'd you rent him? The livery on Henry Street? By the way, you are right about one thing." He waited a moment before continuing, "I strongly suggest you do hire a driver. Because if I catch you mistreating a horse again, rest assured you'll feel a lot worse than the animal."
The driver bristled anew. Then, jaw muscles working, with his heel he ground the coin into the dirt, swiveled and stalked off down the street.
An hour later, mostly recovered, Devlin stood on the piazza of the Grand Union Hotel, surrounded by a herd of chattering humanity instead of a spooked horse in a herd of Broadway traffic. He wished, not for the first time, that he was back in Virginia, surrounded by his own horses, none of which had ever known the cruelty that poor livery hack endured. The pasture would be lush and green, and if he looked up he would see the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains against a summer sky instead of rows of massive white marble columns supporting a structure billed as the largest hotel in the world.
Over the aroma of ladies' French perfume and men's sweat he caught a whiff of popcorn. Maneuvering his way between a cluster of ladies debating on whether to visit Tiffany's before or after a promenade along Broadway, Devlin shouldered his way over to the vendor to buy a bag of popcorn.
Bright summer sunshine poured over Saratoga, onto the twenty-plus thousand tourists enjoying a season at the place touted as "America's Resort." An ironic smile hovered at the corners of Devlin's mouth. How many of the guests would scramble for the first train leaving the depot if they knew an operative for the U.S. Secret Service prowled among them?
Perhaps he should have flashed his badge at that lout earlier—except Dev was here undercover, the badge and credentials safely hidden in his own hotel room.
Of course few operatives—if any—could spend an entire season playing the part of a wealthy gentleman of leisure. In the first place, Congress would never approve the funds. To Devlin's way of thinking, such shortsightedness plagued a lot of government officials. He'd only been with the Service for two years, and at the moment did not feel adequate to match wits with the Hotel Hustler.
In only three years, the invisible thief had cost unsuspecting dupes somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty million dollars—and nobody could figure out how he managed it.
The previous autumn, Service hopes had soared when a call came in from the chief of the New York City office; they'd arrested a man at the bank where he tried to pass bills matching the Hustler's work. Infuriatingly, the man denied all knowledge of counterfeiting, claiming the false bills had come from Edgar Fane. Corroborating evidence could not be found either to support his claims or prove his guilt, and they'd been forced to release Charles Langston. Edgar Fane hadn't even been arrested, much less charged. Another dead end in this impenetrable maze.
Counterfeiters were a despicable bunch. Pervasive as flies, they swarmed the country, mostly in cities, undermining the national currency. A few of them had committed murder. Over the last decade, for the most part the Service had done a crackerjack job closing down the worst of the gangs.
But the Hotel Hustler had them stumped.
Devlin accepted that pride as well as a dose of cussed-ness had concocted this present undercover infiltration scheme. Chief Hazen reluctantly sanctioned it, telling Devlin he certainly wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.
He'd laughed when he said it.
Dev shook his head and resumed watching the front of the Grand Union Hotel. Six weeks earlier, a reliable snitch had informed another operative that the Hustler would be at Saratoga, but as always no other information, such as a description, had surfaced. Three guests, one of them Edgar Fane, warranted surveillance, based upon these scraps of evidence tirelessly gleaned over the past twenty months.
Some ten minutes later patience was rewarded. Dev watched the impeccably clad Edgar Fane emerge onto the piazza, surrounded by his throng of hangers-on. Dev had been shadowing the cultured, congenial fellow for three days, and the man did not fit the usual profile of a criminal. Privileged son of the owner of exclusive emporiums all over the country, Fane scattered money and bonhomie wherever he traveled. The money thus far was genuine. Dev wasn't convinced about the rest. Edgar Fane reminded him of a Thoroughbred he and his uncle once reluctantly agreed to train for the owner. Flashy specimen of horseflesh, conformation of champions—but not an animal to turn your back on.
Edgar Fane paused, lifted his hand. Several women approached, and Devlin watched in some amusement as they jockeyed for position—the buxom redhead boldly thrust her arm through Fane's, while a regal blonde offered a narrow white hand adorned with several rings, which Fane adroitly kissed even as his other hand patted the redhead's arm. The trio merged into the crowd, easy enough to follow since the redhead sported a gigantic hat the size of a saddle.
Devlin shouldered away from the column, then paused, his gaze returning to the third woman, the one Fane had barely seemed to notice as the other two women led him away. She stood very still, and in this chattering, gesticulating, endlessly restless crowd that stillness piqued Dev's interest. Without fuss, he tucked his hands in the waistband of his trousers and sauntered down the steps, pretending to scan the crowd while he memorized the young woman.
Unremarkable height and build in comparison to the luscious redhead and slender blonde. Like most society women, she styled her mass of honey-colored hair in the current Gibson girl fashion. Creamy magnolia complexion and a soft mouth, large dark brown eyes gazing after Edgar Fane with an expression of—Devlin's eyebrows shot up. Was that anger, or fear?
He wasn't to know, because the woman abruptly turned in a graceful swirl of skirts and hurried off in the opposite direction.
Thinking fast was one of the Service's unwritten requirements: intrigued, Dev followed the spurned woman instead of shadowing Fane, keeping at least a dozen people between them. When a potential masher approached her, his manner a trifle too familiar, Devlin's fingers twitched with the need to intervene.
Wasn't necessary. The young woman laughed, said something; the vanquished masher tipped his hat and moved away. So. The lady knew how to dismiss louts without causing offense.
Perhaps she'd had a lot of practice.
For several more moments Devlin followed her, automatically memorizing traits, from the slight tilt of her head to the firm assurance in her steps, the swanlike neck and softly rounded shoulders. A fine figure of a woman, perhaps. But he needed to see that face again. Moving quickly, he wound his way along the teeming walkway until he was some twenty feet ahead of the woman. He bought a frankfurter from a sweating vendor, absently munching while he chewed over his response to this particular female.
With an internal jolt he realized his acute interest bordered on personal rather than professional. He needed to see her face not only to jot down an accurate description in his nightly notes, but to discover if that blaze of emotion in her eyes had been a trick of the sunlight, rather than a revelation of her character. In his experience, women didn't always feel like they acted, or acted like they felt.