Read an Excerpt
He hoisted his leg over the window sash and dropped heavily into the dark chamber, barely stifling a groan.
I am getting too goddamn old for this.
Cursing silently, he rubbed the muscle spasm gripping his shoulder. He should have known better than to climb that tree. Since when had they started growing with so few bloody branches? He had thought he would ascend it with the agility of an acrobat, easily shifting from branch to branch. Instead he had dangled from it like a frantic puppy, legs swinging and scrambling, arms quivering. At one point he had lost his grip and nearly crashed to the ground. That would have been fine entertainment for the ladies and gentlemen attending Lord and Lady Chadwick's dinner party on the main floor, he reflected darkly. Nothing like having a masked man plummet from the sky just outside your dining room window as the servants are heaping your plate with stringy mutton and greasy peas.
He stood unmoving, giving his eyes a chance to adjust to the dark. It was quickly apparent that Lady Chadwick liked gold. Everything within her bedchamber fairly shimmered, from the heavy brocade coverlet upon her gilded bed to the garishly carved commode that towered like a throne beside it. No doubt in her private moments she imagined herself the consort of a magnificent prince or duke, instead of the bloated, sniveling fop she had elected to marry. He supposed every woman was entitled to some fantasy in her life. His gaze shifted to the bureau at the opposite end of the chamber, which boasted a profusion of richly decorated bottles and jars. Stealing silently across the shadows, he reached for the jewelry chest rising amidst the clutter.
He eased open the uppermost drawer of the bureau and rifled through the layers of undergarments folded within. The key lay nestled beneath the armor of Lady Chadwick's formidable corsets. Why did women always presume thieves would never think to look there? he wondered. He supposed they preferred to believe that most men were either too modest or too gentlemanly to rummage through a woman's lingerie.
As it happened, he was neither.
Carefully inserting the key into the jewelry case's tiny lock, he turned it once, then raised the lid.
A glittering collection of precious stones lay gleaming upon the dark velvet within. In addition to her penchant for gold, Lady Chadwick also enjoyed the sensation of large diamonds, rubies, and emeralds against her skin. He supposed that was fair compensation for enduring the tedium of marriage to Lord Chadwick for so many years. He lifted a magnificent emerald necklace to the thin moonbeam filtering through the window, watching in fascination as its color shifted from near-black to the clear green hue of the river he had played in for so many years as a lad.
The chamber door opened suddenly, flooding him in a wash of light.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," the young woman standing in the threshold quickly apologized. "I didn't realize anyone was in here--"
Harrison watched with grim resignation as understanding swept through her. Ultimately, he had no choice. Even so, guilt weighed heavy in his chest as he grabbed the girl and jerked her toward him. She stumbled forward and he caught her, then kicked the door shut. He clamped a gloved hand against her mouth and twisted her around, imprisoning her slender form against him. Her fear was palpable, he could feel it in the rapid pounding of her heart against his arm, could hear it in her soft, desperate little pants of breath. Self-loathing welled within him.
For God's sake, focus.
"If you scream, I will kill you," he whispered harshly into her ear. "Do you understand?"
Her body stiffened. He was acutely aware of the scent of her as he held her close. Not roses or lavender, or any of the other sickly-sweet perfumes he was accustomed to women wearing. The girl pinned against him had an unusually light, clean fragrance, like the essence of a meadow just after a summer rain.
"I'm going to take my hand away from your mouth now. If you swear to me that you won't scream or try to run away, I give you my word that you won't be harmed. Do I have your promise?"
Harrison warily removed his hand from the girl's lips. He didn't know whether he could trust her. Her evening gown suggested she was one of Lady Chadwick's dinner guests. Whatever her reasons for quitting the dining room, it likely wouldn't be long before some dutiful maid was sent to find out what was detaining her. The girl's delicate rib cage continued to rise and fall against his arm. Her breathing had slowed a little, and he was grateful for that, even though he supposed it would have been better for both of them had she swooned. Then he could have simply laid her on the bed and climbed back out the window. As it was, he was going to have to tie her up so she couldn't go screaming out of the room the moment he left, compromising his escape.
"Please." Her voice was small, hesitant. "You're holding me so tight I can't breathe."
She was Scottish, he realized, the sweetly refined cadence of her voice pleasing to him.
"Forgive me." He instantly released her.
She faltered slightly, as if she had not expected him to free her quite so abruptly. He instinctively reached out to catch her, but this time his hold was gentle. She glanced at him over her shoulder, surprised.
Moonlight spilled across her face, illuminating her features. She was not as young as he had thought, for there were fine lines around her enormous dark eyes and across the paleness of her forehead, suggesting her age to be at least twenty-five years or more. Her cheekbones were high and pronounced, emphasizing the elegant fragility that seemed to surround her. Her finely shaped brows were drawn together and her mouth was set in a sober line as she studied him, her expression hovering somewhere between fear and something else, an emotion that looked almost like empathy. That was ridiculous, he told himself impatiently.
No woman of gentle breeding would sympathize with a common jewel thief--especially one who had just threatened to kill her.
"You dropped your necklace." She pointed to the sparkling pool of emerald and diamonds upon the carpet.
Harrison regarded her incredulously.
"It might be better to leave that one, and take a few smaller pieces instead," she suggested. "Lady Chadwick is sure to notice that her precious emerald necklace is missing the minute she goes to put her jewelry away tonight. If you take some of her less important pieces, she is unlikely to realize right away that they are gone, which means you will have an easier time selling them. Once their theft has been reported to the police and the newspapers, your sources might be reluctant to buy them."
He raised a bemused brow. "Are you always this helpful during a robbery?"
She colored slightly, embarrassed. "I just thought you might consider the advantages of selecting quality pieces which are more modest in appearance. The larger, more opulent stones are not always the most valuable--they can be flawed within."
"I realize that."
"Forgive me--of course you do." Her gaze became curious. "You're the Dark Shadow, aren't you?"
Harrison stalked over to the bureau and began to ransack Lady Chadwick's intimate apparel, searching for something with which he could tie up his quizzical young guest.
"When do you think you will have stolen enough?"
He paused to look at her. "I beg your pardon?"
"The newspapers have been filled with stories of your robberies for months now," she explained. "I'm wondering when you think you will have stolen enough that you will be able to resign from a life of crime and apply your talents toward a more law-abiding profession. Ultimately, sir, I'm sure you will find the rewards are much greater in leading a respectable, productive life."
Anger pulsed through him. In his experience, women who spewed sanctimonious advice about the path of righteousness had invariably lived sheltered lives. They didn't know the first goddamn thing about life beyond their own smug existence.
"It is something you should consider," she continued seriously. "If you are caught you will be sent to prison. I can assure you that is not a very pleasant place to be."
"I'll bear that in mind." He yanked a stocking from the drawer. "I regret having to do this, but I'm going to have to tie you to that chair over there. I'll try not to make the bindings too tight--"
"Miss Kent?" There was a cursory rap upon the chamber door before it swung open.
"Help!" shrieked a horrified maid, appalled by the sight of Harrison in his dark clothes and mask stalking toward the girl with a twisted stocking in his hands. "Murder!" She tore down the corridor, screaming loud enough to wake the dead.
"Quick--go out the window!" exclaimed the girl. "Hurry!"
Swearing furiously, Harrison threw down the stocking and sprinted toward the window. Shouting and screaming split the night air, causing the coachmen and the curious on the previously sedate street to surge toward the house. He was relatively certain he could scrabble down that godforsaken tree in less than a minute without breaking any significant bones.
The distinct possibility that some earnest champion from the mob might shoot him down from the branches like a giant, hapless bird gave him pause.
"What are you waiting for--go!" The girl waved her arms at him as if she were shooing an errant child out the door.
Realizing he had little choice, he heaved one leg over the window sash and stretched his aching arms toward the tree.
A shot streaked through the darkness, clipping the branch where his fingers had brushed.
"I got him!" roared an excited voice from below. "Stop, thief!"
"Come back!" pleaded the girl, grabbing him by his coat. "You can't go that way!"
"I realize that," Harrison agreed tautly.
"You'll have to leave from Lord Chadwick's chamber across the hall--hopefully there won't be anyone waiting for you on the other side of the house." She went to the doorway and peered into the corridor.
"Come out with your hands in the air!"
Harrison joined the girl at the doorway to see a scrawny young groom trudging warily up the stairs, balancing a battered old rifle unsteadily before him.
"I warn you," he bleated nervously, "I've killed before an' I ain't afraid to do it again."
Harrison thought that unlikely, unless the lad was referring to killing rodents in the stable. At that moment, however, the prospect of being shot by a terrified youth with an ancient firearm struck him as highly undesirable--especially given that the boy might miss and hit the pretty young stranger who was so gallantly trying to assist him instead. With no hope of racing across the hallway to another chamber, his only chance for escape had disintegrated. How ironic, he reflected bitterly, to be caught and arrested for his crimes at this late stage.
He exhaled in disgust and raised his hands.
"He has a pistol!" screamed the girl suddenly at the groom. "Don't shoot or he'll kill me!"
Harrison stared at her in disbelief. "What in the name of God are you doing?"
"We have no choice," she whispered fiercely. "You've got to use me to get out of here!"
"Let her go!" The groom sounded as if he was going to be sick. "I told you, I ain't afraid to shoot!"
"For Christ's sake, Dick, don't threaten him!" barked a footman, venturing up the stairs behind him.
"He's liable to murder the whole bloody lot of us!" the butler added, joining them.
"Fine, then!" squealed the groom, thoroughly agitated. "Maybe you'd like to have this instead!" He shoved his weapon at him.
"Don't give it to me, you idiot," snapped the butler, pushing it back. "I don't know how to fire it!"
"Silence, all of you!" Breathless and sweating profusely, Lord Chadwick struggled to affect an air of dignified authority as he reached the top of the staircase. "This is Lord Chadwick speaking." He paused to dab his brow with a linen handkerchief, letting the import of his presence sink in.
"Lord Chadwick, thank goodness you're here." The girl pretended to sound relieved. "Please tell everyone to clear the staircase and let us come down--he won't shoot anyone as long as no one tries to stop him--"
"Everyone in the house has exactly two minutes to go down to the kitchen and lock the door behind them," snapped Harrison. Since this girl had just added abduction to his litany of crimes, he supposed he might as well play some actual part in it.
"Go into the kitchen?" Lord Chadwick sounded outraged by the idea. "Look here, sir, I don't know who you are or what you mean by breaking into my home, but I assure you that I am not moving from this spot until you release my guest safely into my custody, do you hear? Miss Kent's well-being is my responsibility, and I have no intention of abandoning her to your foul, despicable ways--"
"The first person I see upon leaving this room will be shot dead, Lord Chadwick," Harrison vowed darkly, "and that includes you. Now move before I--"
A deafening blast suddenly tore through the house, cutting short Harrison's threat.
"Run for your lives!" His bulging eyes nearly bursting from their sockets, Lord Chadwick knocked his startled servants aside as he fought to beat them down the stairs. "Run before he murders all of us!!"
The entire household instantly exploded into a maelstrom of fleeing bodies, the distinctions of sex and class obliterated as servants and aristocrats crashed into one another in their desperate bid for safety.
"I told them to go into the kitchen," muttered Harrison, exasperated. "Now I've got an even bigger crowd to contend with once I get outside."
"If you keep me in front of you, they won't shoot," the girl suggested.
"I'm not taking you with me--that idiot groom is liable to kill you in his attempt to save you."
"I think he dropped his rifle." She glanced around the door and saw the clumsy firearm lying abandoned on the carpet. "There, you see? He must have thrown it down after it went off."
"It's Miss Kent, is it?" Harrison's tone was bland.
"It's Charlotte, actually. Miss Kent always sounds so terribly formal--"
"It may surprise you to learn, Miss Kent, that I'm not in the habit of abducting helpless women and using them as a shield. I don't intend to start now." A dull throbbing had started to pound at the base of Harrison's skull. He was beginning to wish he had stayed home that night.
"You're not actually abducting me--I'm offering to help you," Charlotte pointed out. "Unless you are prepared to be arrested and spend the rest of your days in a prison cell, you have to let me help you get out of here."
From the Paperback edition.