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"Love, like other arts, requires experience " Lady Caroline Lamb
The Village of Fortune's Folly Yorkshire, February 1810
Alice Lister was not cut out for a life of crime.
She had not even committed the robbery yet and already her palms were damp with anxiety and her heart was beating light and fast.
This, Alice thought, as she tried to calm her breath, is a very big mistake.
There was no going back. That was the coward's way. Bravely she raised her lantern to illuminate the interior of the darkened gown shop. She had broken into the workroom at the back of the premises. There was a long table with piles of fabric heaped up on one end. A half-finished gown was draped across a stool, the pale silk glimmering in the light. Paper patterns rustled and fluttered in the draft from the open window. Ribbons uncurled on the floor. Sprays of artificial flowers wilted in a corner. Lace trimmings wafted their ghostly fingers against Alice's cheek, making her jump. The whole place with its unnatural silence and its darkness made her think of a sinister fairy story in which the gowns would come to life and dance in front of herand she would run screaming from the shop straight into the arms of the night watch. Yes indeed, burgling Madame Claudine's gown shop was not for the fainthearted.
Not that this was theft, precisely. Alice reminded herself that the wedding gown she was hunting had been bought and paid for. It would have been delivered in the normal manner had Madame Claudine not gone out of business so abruptly and shut up her shop in the face of all inquiries from her anxious clientele. The modiste had disappeared one night, leaving nothing but a pile of debts and bitter words for those of her aristocratic customers who lived on credit. The contents of Madame Claudine's gown shop had been declared the property of the moneylenders, and all the stock impounded. This was particularly unfair to Alice's friend Mary Wheeler, for Mary's father had paid the bill already with the same promptness he had paid a gentleman to marry Mary. Sir James Wheeler had been one of many to take advantage of the Dames' Tax, the wholly outrageous edict leveled the previous year by the squire of Fortune's Folly, Sir Montague Fortune. Sir Monty had discovered an ancient tax that had entitled him to half the dowry of every unmarried woman who lived in the village of Fortune's Folly unless they wed within a twelvemonth. Sir James Wheeler had been only one of many fathers who had seen this as an opportunity to get his daughter off the shelf and off his hands, parceled away to the first fortune hunter who asked.
Mary Wheeler had been distraught to hear of the gown shop's closure. In the months of her betrothal she had managed to persuade herself that hers was a love match despite the fact that her ghastly fiancé, Lord Armitage, had returned to London and was carousing in much the same way as he had before their betrothal. With the wedding date only a matter of weeks away, Mary had taken the whole thing as a bad omen. And to be fair, Alice thought, marrying Lord Armitage was a poor enough proposition without getting off on the wrong foot .
"Alice? Have you found it yet?" The urgent whisper brought Alice back to the present and she raised the lantern again, scanning the piles of clothing hopelessly, for there were so many gowns and they were as tumbled as though a wintry gale had blown through the shop.
"Not yet, Lizzie." Alice tiptoed across to the open window where her coconspirator, Lady Elizabeth Scarlet, was keeping watch in the passage at the side of the shop. This whole venture had been Elizabeth's idea, of course. It was she who had thought it the most marvelous scheme to go to Madame Claudine's shop and simply take Mary's wedding gown. After all, Lizzie had reasoned, the gown belonged to Mary and she had set her heart on wearing it at the wedding, and even if they had to break in to take it, no one would know and right was on their side.
It had been another of Lady Elizabeth's astound-ingly bad ideas. Alice shook her head to have been so easily led. Naturally, once they had reached the shop it became apparent that Lizzie was too tall to squeeze through the window and it was Alice who was the one who had to break in.
"What is keeping you?" Lizzie sounded decidedly testy, and Alice felt her temper prick in response.
"I'm doing my best," she whispered crossly. "There is a mountain of gowns in here."
"You are looking for one in white silk with silver lace and silver ribbons," Lizzie reminded her. "Surely it cannot be so hard to find? How many gowns are there, anyway?"
"Only about two hundred. This is a gown shop, Lizzie. The clue is in the name ."
Sighing, Alice grabbed the next pile of dresses and hurriedly sorted through them. Silver with pink trimmings. White with green embroidery golden gauze that was pretty white and silver with silver ribbons Alice snatched up the wedding gown even as Lizzie's agonized whisper floated up to her.
"Alice! Quick! Someone is coming!"
With a muttered and very unladylike curse, Alice ran for the window, squeezed through the gap at the bottom of the sash and struggled to climb out and down into the street. It was only a drop of about four feet, and she was wearing boy's britches, borrowed from the wardrobe of her brother, Lowell, which made movement a great deal freer and easier. But as she tried to ease her leg over the sill the britches caught on something and stuck fast.
"Alice!" Lizzie's hissing held a note of panic now. "Come on! Someone is almost upon us!" She caught Alice's arms and tugged hard. Alice heard the material of the britches rip. She wriggled free for a few painful inches and then stuck fast again. She was not a slender girl and every one of her curves currently felt as though it was squashed into too small a space. The edge of the windowsill dug painfully into her hip. She dangled there helplessly, one leg out of the window, the other on the sill. She could hear footsteps coming ever closer, their measured tread loud on the cobbles of the road.
"He will see us," Lizzie groaned.
"He will certainly hear you," Alice said crossly. Lizzie's idea of being quiet seemed to equate to behaving like a bull in a china shop. "If you will cease that pulling and pushing and keep still and quiet for a moment, he will pass by the end of the alley. And put the lantern out!" she added fiercely.
It was too late.
She heard the footsteps stop. There was quiet for a moment; quiet in which Alice's breathing seemed loud in her own ears and the window ledge creaked in protest beneath her weight. She lay still like a hunted animal. Instinct told her that the man, too, was watching and waiting .
"Run, Lizzie!" Alice gasped. "I am right behind you!" She gave her friend a shove that sent Lady Elizabeth stumbling off down the passage even as everything seemed to explode into noise and movement around her. A man came running out of the darkness, and Alice wrenched herself free of the ledge and tumbled headlong on top of him, wrapping them both in the silky, voluminous folds of the wedding gown as they fell to the ground. As an ambush it could scarcely have been more effective had she tried.
Alice scrambled up, lost her footing on the slippery folds of material and fell to her knees. The man was quicker. His arms went about her, scooping her up and then holding her fast against him, so that all her kicking and pummeling was quite in vain. His grip was too tight to break, as taut as steel bands about her waist and back. Her struggles were embarrassingly puny against such quiet, almost casual, strength.
"Hold still, urchin," he said. His voice was mellow and deep, and he sounded carelessly amused, but there was nothing careless in the way that he held her. Alice could tell she was not going to be able to break his grip. She also sensed by instinct that this was no drunken lord returning home after a night's entertainment at the Morris Clown Inn. There was something too powerful and purposeful about himsomething too dangerous to dismiss easily.
She was in deep trouble.
Fear clawed at her chest as she frantically tried to think of a way to escape him. Her whole body was shaking with fear and panic and a desperate need to flee. She stopped struggling and went limp in his arms in an attempt to trick him into loosening his grip, but he was evidently too old a hand to fall for the ruse, for he simply laughed.
"So docile all of a sudden? Listen, boy" He stopped.
Held so close to him, Alice could feel the hard muscles of his body tense against her own and she recognized the precise moment that he realized, despite the evidence of her attire, that she was not a boy at all.
"Well, well " The amusement was still in his voice, but it had a different quality to it now. He shifted, his chest unyielding against the betraying softness of her breasts, his hand moving intimately over the curve of her bottom where the rip in her britches exposed rather more bare skin than she would have wanted. His grip on her slackened, not much, but enough for Alice to wrench herself from his arms and turn to run.
It was the treacherous wedding dress that foiled her again. Wrapping itself about her ankles, it tripped her so that she staggered and almost fell. The man caught her arm in a savage grip, spinning her around so that her back was against the rough brick wall of the alley. Alice gasped as the pain jolted through her, and gasped again as he deliberately brought his body into closer contact with hers, holding her pinned against the wall with his hips, his hands braced on either side of her head. She was trapped, caged. A long shiver went down her spine that was neither fear nor cold.
The man took her chin in his hand and turned her toward the pale light of the lantern. His face was only inches away from hers, the harsh lines and planes shadowed in the darkness. She could feel the beat of his heart against her breast, feel his breath against her skin and the press of his lower body, lean and hard, against hers. It filled her with a strange, unfamiliar kind of ache and a weakness she did not much care for. Alice hated to feel out of control. She had never experienced such waywardness from her body before.
The man pushed the hat roughly back from her brow, and her hair escaped its confinement and fell down about her shoulders. He brushed the tangles away from her face. Then his fingers stilled. She felt the shock rip through his body.
"Miss Lister?" There was flat disbelief in his tone.
Oh, dear. So much for her desperate hope that whoever he was, he would not be able to identify her. And she recognized him, too. Miles Vickery. She knew his voice now. She had loved his voice. It was so smooth and mellow Alice had sometimes thought that he could have seduced her with his words alone. He almost had.
She had been such a fool to believe even for a moment that his attentions to her had been sincere .
Even as her treacherous body responded to the touch of his hand against her cheek, the knife twisted within her as she remembered that she did not like Miles Vickery very much at all. In fact, she absolutely detested him.
Nevertheless, they stood staring at each other for what felt like a very long moment while Alice's heart beat in her throat and the heat washed through her body and left her trembling. She could not move. She could not even tear her gaze from his. She was captured in the moment by the fierce, intent look in his eyes and in the strange, aching demand of her body where it touched his.
Then a carriage rumbled across the cobbled road at the end of the passageway, and the sudden noise made them both jump. Alice took advantage of the moment to raise her elbow in a sharp and persuasive jab into Miles's ribs, and as he doubled up in pain she ducked away and ran, leaving him standing staring after her, the wedding dress still in his hand.
Twenty minutes later, tucked up in her bed, Alice lay and watched the patterns made by the moon on the ceiling as her curtains shifted a little in the cold night breeze from the open sash window.
Lizzie had been waiting for her, full of questions. In typical melodramatic fashion she had told Alice that she had run all the way back to Alice's home, Spring House, without pausing even to draw breath and then had fretted and fidgeted for a full ten minutes before Alice had appeared for fear that her friend was lying in the street, raped, murdered or worse, whatever worse might be.
"I thought you were behind me!" Lizzie had said, nursing the cup of hot chocolate that Alice had rustled up for both of them on the kitchen hob. "You said you were! And then when I realized you were nowhere to be seen I did not know whether to wait or go back for you, or what to do!"
Alice had made some excuse about twisting her ankle and having to hop home, and that had satisfied Lizzie, who had spotted that Alice no longer had the wedding dress and was berating her for dropping it in the street. The girls had taken their cups of chocolate upstairs, tiptoeing through the quiet house so as not to wake its sleeping occupants, and Lizzie had completely failed to notice that Alice no longer appeared to be limping.
And now, lying in her bed, Alice could not really understand why she had not told her friend about Miles Vickery catching her. Perhaps it was because she did not wish to think about Miles, let alone speak about him. She had never told anyone what had happened between her and Miles the previous autumn, probably, she thought, rolling over in bed in a vain attempt to relax, because nothing had happened. There was nothing to think about and nothing to remember. Miles was a penniless adventurer who had set out with calculated intent to seduce her. He had failed. That was all there was to it.