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Near Manchester, England, Early December, 1831
Even in the darkness, he could sense the subtle alteration of the chamber. The room had been disturbed. Brandon Wycroft, the fifth Earl of Stockport, muttered curses under his breath. Damn, The Cat had been here.
The irony of the burglary was not lost on him. While twelve distinguished men of the district met downstairs in his library, smoking his fine cigars, drinking his expensive brandy and plotting how they'd catch the latest menace to the peace, that very menace had prowled free upstairs, daring to invade his most private sanctum: his bedroom.
It was only due to his keen hearing and the location of his rooms over the library that he had heard the faint scraping of a chair on the floor at all and had gone upstairs to investigate.
Curtains stirred at the window, calling his attention to the source of the winter chill permeating his quarters. The window was open. A slight movement behind the curtains gave away the intruder.
Brandon's eyes narrowed. His body tensed. He amended his earlier thought. Not 'had prowled'but 'was prowling'. Standing in the doorway of his chambers, he knew his instincts were right. The Cat was still in the room.
Brandon's dissatisfaction transformed itself into a sense of vindication. After a month of burglarising the wealthy of Stock-port-on-the-Medlock and other potential investors in Manchester who supported the proposed textile mill, The Cat's reign would come to an abrupt end tonight. He would catch The Cat right now and be done with the blustering investors downstairs who had been more interested in kow-towing to the nobleman in residence than concocting a worthy plan. Then he could getback to Parliament and the controversial reform legislation that awaited him in London. But first, he had to catch the man behind the curtain.
A figure emerged from the shadow of the heavy curtains. The figure did not bolt as Brandon expected, but stood brashly at the sill, letting the moonlight outline her silhouette.
Her? The Cat, the daring intruder who stood between him and the success of the mill, which he needed to save Stockporton-the-Medlock from the ignominy of agricultural penury, was unmistakably a woman. A provocatively dressed woman at that, Brandon conceded, raking his gaze over her form.
Loose folds of a dark shirt draped over the swell of promising breasts. Glove-tight black breeches showed off a slender waist, encasing shapely hips and long-booted legs.
The woman was alluring, but that didn't change the fact she was a thief intruding on his private domain and now she was entirely at his mercy. Brandon crossed his arms and affected an air of negligence. He leaned against the door frame, letting his tall form fill the space as an obvious blockade.
There would be no escape through the door as long as he lounged there. The only other option was the impossibly high window that dropped two storeys to the ground, begging the question of how the thief had managed to gain entrance to the house and make her way unnoticed upstairs to his bedroom. 'I am afraid I have cut off your escape route. That is unless you favour the window.' Brandon drawled the last with a touch of sarcasm, knowing full well how inaccessible it was, set thirty feet from the ground. He could not conceive of a way anyone could gain access to it, let alone escape through it. The room's inaccessibility was one of the features he liked about his chambers. A man needed his privacy and Brandon guarded his with dogged determination.
The woman shrugged, indicating a lack of concern over the latest development. 'The window served well enough as an entrance. I am certain it will suffice as an exit.'
Brandon scoffed. The statement was a fool's bluff. 'You came in through the window? Forgive me if I find your claim bordering on the preposterous. Aside from the window's height, I have trained men patrolling the area. I am prepared to ward off an army if necessary.'
'Exactly so, my lord. You were prepared for an army. You weren't prepared for me. It is much easier for one person to slip through the defences than for many.'
Brandon did not care for the cocksure way she dismissed his careful patrols. 'You are overly confident for a criminal who is about to be caught.You will face imprisonment, perhaps transportation, for the crimes you've committed. With the right judge, you may face hanging.' The thought of this audacious woman facing such punishment suddenly sat ill with him. She exuded a wildness that he sensed would not do well behind bars. Her very presence radiated an elemental quality that drew him, unwilling though he was, into her game. He recognised the signs. She was flirting with him, challenging him to catch her.
She laughed as if his warning was nothing more than witty repartee over lobster patties at a dinner party. 'A fine pass England has come to when feeding the hungry is a punitive offense. There are others more deserving of punishment than me.'
Unbidden, Brandon felt a thin smile cross his lips. She thought to outwit him with her brazen statements. Well, she would find him more than an equal match. If there were two subjects in which he excelled, they were women and repartee. 'Who would you recommend?' He took a step towards her.
Six steps remained between them.
'Men like you.' She spat the words at him.
The minx was in dangerous territory now in all ways. How dare she assume she could label him along with the rest of the aristocracy? He'd spent his adult life distancing himself from the ton and its pack of gossiping wolves. 'What does a common burglar know about men like me?'
'I know you let others starve in the name of progress.'
Ah, so the vixen was another radical with ill-gotten ideas about the mills and factories that had become the lifeblood of the English economy. 'Manufacture is the way of the present and the future.' The fact that he believed the statement he'd just uttered was proof enough of the distance he'd tried to create between himself and others of his class, where a gentleman was judged by the extent of his idleness. With few exceptions, aristocrats didn't meddle in trade, but, then, few of them actually understood or cared about the impending downturn of the agricultural economy which supported their overindulged lifestyles.
'The textile factory your industrial friends propose to build here is a guarantee of death! Families count on the extra money their womenfolk make on weaving. Your plan will replace their efforts with machines and fewer men to run them. People are already out of work. Families cannot afford food or fuel to see them through the winter while you sit in your fine house cosy with other rich men, plotting how to make life more miserable for those less fortunate.'
'And all the while, you're robbing us. Funny, that.' Brandon managed a chuckle, enjoying her temerity even if it was mis-aimed and at his expense. The impertinent baggage went too far in making judgements about him.
'I take little enough and you can easily afford it.' For effect, she held up a gold ring, a woman's ring, which glinted, showing off the amethyst set in the band.
Brandon sucked in his breath. Of all the things in the room to seize, it was the one item he was most loathe to lose. 'That ring has special meaning to me. Give it back now.' It was not a plea, but a command.
Brandon held out his hand to receive it, automatically assuming his demands would be obeyed. It had been ages since any woman had dared to refuse the Earl of Stockport.
'No, I don't think I shall give it back. This will feed two families.'
'At least two,' Brandon growled. 'I said give it back, you little thief. I have no wish to harm you.' He took the last step. He was close enough now to make out the half-mask she wore that hid the upper portion of her face.
Glittering green eyes, too like the cat whose moniker she bore, defied him. A dark kerchief tied pirate-style swathed her head. Undaunted by his nearness, she reached up and tugged at the kerchief's knot. It gave easily and she pulled it off in a fluid motion. With a calculated toss of her head, she let a bounty of midnight waves fall to her waist. She postured provocatively, tempting him with curves and curls. A slender hand rested on her hip. 'Very well, I expect compensation for the ring. I will turn it over to you in exchange for something of equal value.'
Her gaze swept the length of him, giving Brandon the uncomfortable feeling of being a Tattersall stud. Usually it was the other way around. Those women who dared to ogle him and he knew there were several, that was the price of being a highly eligible and titled bachelor who'd reached the age of five and thirty without springing the parson's mousetrapdid so from behind painted fans and coyly downcast eyelashes. Never had he been so boldly assessed, not even by the mistresses he took to his bed.
'Not too bad. Not bad at all,'she said, satisfied with her bold perusal of his body.
Not too bad? Brandon jerked an eyebrow in disbelief. He'd never been found merely 'not too bad' in his whole adult life. He knew himself to be in top physical condition thanks to rigorous training at Jackson's on a daily basis when in town.
'Would you care to check my teeth while you're at it?' he offered coolly. It wouldn't do to let her think she'd scored a cheap hit by attacking his masculinity.
She smiled wide and wetted her lips in a provocative gesture. 'An excellent suggestion, my lord, I think I shall.'
With that, she closed the remaining gap between them, claiming his mouth with hers and silencing whatever protests waited there.
Brandon gave her compliance. Despite his intentions not to be lured by the minx, his mouth opened of its own accord, tasting the saltiness of her probing tongue as surely as she tasted the brandy-flavoured warmth of his own. The temptress pushed her advantage, crushing her luscious form against him, shirt-draped breasts erotically pressed against his chest. Brandon's groin leapt to life independent of his mind's urge to the contrary.
He moaned. His entire body betrayed him. The seductive hum of her low laugh indicated his arousal was not his secret alone. He felt her hands in his hair, capturing his head on the odds he'd pull away before she was done. Small chance of that occurring, he was in her thrall. Not because the kiss was the most skilful he'd ever received, but because the kiss conveyed more than cold proficiency. It contained heat. It didn't take long for him to realise this woman was kissing him not solely as a ploy, but because she wanted to. In his cynical world, that was a rare pleasure indeed.
Brandon shut his eyes and gave himself up to the momentary bliss found at the pretty thief's lips. He let her tongue taste and torture by turn. He let her hands roam where they would, finding their way beneath his linen shirt where they stroked the planes of his chest, thumbs teasing his nipples until he was in true ecstasy.
'Touch me again and I'll be lost,'he thought numbly, unable to decide in his bemused state if that was a plea for her to stop or a prayer that she continue.
She moved a hand lower That did it. He wanted to be lost, and he wanted her to be lost with him. She'd been in control so far, having used her brash kiss to seize the advantage. That was about to change. With his desire mounting fast, Brandon angled his mouth to deepen the kiss, his hands firmly splayed at her hips, thumbs beginning a languid caress of the bones just above her pelvis.
The Cat sucked hard on his lower lip and released him, pushing out of range of his arms. Brandon could not remember a kiss having so thoroughly aroused him. He tried to speak in an attempt to bring the situation under his control, but the cool reserve and quick tongue that had served him so well in the House of Lords for so long failed him. He found he could utter not a single word in the wake of her spontaneous seduction.
'What's the matter?'she taunted in a husky-voiced purr. 'Cat got your tongue?' She managed a wink from behind the demi-mask.
Without warning, she turned and vaulted easily to the sill and assumed a crouching position. Before Brandon could react, she leapt to the sturdy oak branch seven feet away and several dangerous feet above the ground.
Brandon darted to the window, fear for her safety overriding the more logical action of raising the hue and cry over the intruder. He peered out to where he'd last seen her. There was no sign of her in the branches of the big tree or of a black form moving stealthily across the grounds. She was gone. He had let her escape.
Cold reality doused him. What had he done? His reaction was inexplicable. A known thief had violated his home and made off with a prized possession and he had allowed it to happen. He turned back from the window. Something glinted on the carpet. Brandon bent and picked it up. She'd left the ring. So there was a scrap of decency in the thief after all. His hand clenched around the ring before placing it back in the velvet casket he kept on a table.
Impulsively, he realigned the little casket which had been knocked off-centre. He'd send his valet to set the room to rights. Who knew what else might be missing? Brandon glimpsed himself in the mirror above the washstand. His immaculate shirt was wrinkled and his cravat ruined. He looked thoroughly well used, and he had been. He would have to change shirts before returning downstairs.
Thankfully, he had a dozen pristine shirts like the one he wore waiting for use in his dressing room. Changing would buy enough time for the fully kissed puffiness of his lips to go down. It would not do to appear dishevelled in front of the men waiting in the library, especially when he had decided to tell them nothing in regards to what he'd discovered upstairs.
Nora bent over to catch her breath, easing the stitch in her side. She'd run hard after she'd shimmied down the oak tree and hit the ground. She hadn't stopped until she was well away from the arrogant bounder's estate and deep into the sheltering boughs of the forest.
Only now, ensconced in the safety of the trees, could she give her thoughts full rein over what had transpired. She'd kissed the Earl of Stockport, known in the less-judicious circles of the demi-monde where The Cat had done her research as the Cock of the North.
Nora concurred that the nickname was justly earned on all fronts. He had demonstrated all the well-dressed arrogance of a rooster preening his fine feathers before the hens. He was a fine male specimen and he knew it. No man spent time cultivating an immaculate appearance without being sure of the results, and no one was surer of himself than the Earl of Stockport.
Nora laughed out loud in the darkness. The look on his face when she'd declared him 'not bad' had been the highlight of the evening. Then he'd given her the perfect opening with his quip about checking his teeth. He'd thought she'd back down when he raised the stakes. Men like him didn't expect to be challenged. But she hadn't survived this long without being caught by doing the expected. She knew how to do the unexpected and his opening had been too much to resist.
She should have resisted. He wasn't called the Cock of the North simply for his excellent sartorial habits. She'd thought to use the kiss as a means of disarming him, stunning him until she could get away unscathed. She was out of her depth with such a master. She had waited too long, indulged herself too much, letting herself be seduced by the clean smell of him, sandalwood and spices mixed with the starch of his fresh-washed shirt. By the time she realised the tables were turning on her, it was almost too late.
At the last moment, she'd felt the slight shift of his mouth as he took over the kiss, felt the erotic pressure of his thumbs against her hip bones. She'd taken the only defensive line left to her and recoiled, grabbing the opportunity to speak first, knowing that whoever did so would control the outcome of the interaction. Then she'd run.
The evening's visit had proved dangerous in ways she and her two comrades had not expected, but by tomorrow afternoon, the danger would be worth it when news circulated that The Cat had hit Stockport Hall while the Earl was within planning The Cat's capture.
She and her two comrades had been watching the house for a week after learning that the local neighbours had sent an urgent summons to the Earl, dragging him out of the Michael-mas Session of Parliament early so they could hold a meeting to nab the thief. Breaking into the Earl's house while they discussed The Cat would be a bold coupbreaking into the man's private rooms would be even more so.
Those rooms were as elegant as his reported personality. Table tops and dressers held myriad expensive accoutrements of a well-groomed gentleman, from expensive ebony-inlaid combs and brushes to silver-handled shaving gear. She should have stolen them. Those items would have brought enough money to keep a family in food until summer. But her eye had been drawn to the velvet casket and she couldn't resist looking inside.
The ring was a bounty. She'd taken it and then realised it was such a small item the Earl might not notice it was gone for weeks. But the ring was all she needed and The Cat prided herself on not taking more than was necessaryone of the many lessons she wanted to teach these gluttonous industrial barons.
Still, if the ring wasn't noticed missing immediately, its theft wouldn't help her cause. She wanted more from Stockport than his valuables. She wanted him to know she'd been there and when. She'd begun to disarrange the room, intuitively knowing that such an act would get his attention more completely than taking other conspicuous items.
As with all her robberies, the larger implication of her work was twofold. First, she wanted to be an annoyance significant enough to make them re-think the building of the factory. Second, she wanted to prick the social consciousness into action regarding the sorry status of a factory worker's life.
Unsafe working conditions had cost her parents their lives. She'd be damned if it would hurt others.
Her plan had gone well enough until she'd bumped into a chair sitting in a dark corner. It hadn't made much noise, but it made enough to catch his attention since his chambers were over the library. She'd relished the confrontation that had followed.
She had gloried in his reaction. He'd roused to her. Unfortunately, that was all she had to show for the night's work. Something beneath his terse command to release the ring had touched her and she'd traded the ring for an ardent bout of kissing. Arousing the Earl of Stockport might be a satisfying touch of one-upmanship, but it wouldn't feed families.
Determined to rectify that aspect of the evening, Nora became practical. She needed pickings and the night was still new. She'd cut cross country to Squire Bradley's house and help herself to another piece of silver from the butler's pantry. The Squire's night watchman was pathetic. In a half-hour he'd be asleep or drunk or both.