Heir to an impressive title and fortune, Lord William Townshend, Earl of Harclay, is among the most disreputable rakes in England. Desperately bored by dull heiresses and tedious soirees, he seeks new excitement—with a dangerous scheme to steal the world’s most legendary gemstone from its owner, Thomas Hope. To his surprise, however, it’s not the robbery that sets his blood burning but the alluring lady from whom he pilfers the gem.
A string of bad luck has left the fate of Lady Violet Rutledge’s estate entirely in Hope’s scheming hands. So when his prized jewel disappears from around her neck, she has no choice but to track down the villain responsible for the theft. Only Harclay has his sights set on taking more from her than the necklace—and she’s tempted to surrender anything he desires…
Now, caught in a thrilling game of secrecy and seduction, Violet must find a way to protect her fortune—and her heart—before she loses both forever…
About the Author
A graduate of Duke University, Jessica worked in investment banking before leaving to pursue her writerly dreams. She lives with her husband, the tall, dark, and handsome Mr. Peterson, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
City of London, Fleet Street
The evening’s winnings in his pocket and a small, if indiscreet, smile on his lips, Lord William Townshend, tenth Earl of Harclay, strode into the bank. At once a gaggle of bespectacled Hope & Co. employees gathered at his elbow. One peeled back his coat while complimenting Harclay’s cologne, even though he wasn’t wearing any (“a vigorous choice, my lord, most vigorous!”); another took his hat and gloves and bowed, not once but three times, and appeared about to burst into sobs of gratitude.
Biting back a sigh, Harclay continued up the familiar wide staircase, polished with such enthusiasm as to make it impossible to climb without the aid of the sturdy balustrade. He admired the zeal of Mr. Hope’s bankers, he really did. But to be greeted as if Harclay were Julius Caesar, triumphantly marching on Rome—it was a bit much, considering he came not to conquer Pompey, but to deposit a thousand or two.
And Mr. Hope—ah, he was an altogether different breed. It was why Harclay had, upon his accession to the title some eight years before, chosen to transfer his not inconsiderable wealth to the then-unknown Hope & Co. For Mr. Hope possessed qualities Harclay was hard-pressed to find in his English set: Hope was foreign and exotic and infinitely odd, but more than that, he was possessed of a sort of magnetic brilliance that was at once off-putting and entirely hilarious. That Hope had, through wise investment, nearly doubled Harclay’s fortune—well, the earl considered that quite secondary.
The doors to Hope’s office were flung open to welcome him, and he strode into the cavernous room—more a museum, really, with a Japanese samurai suit of armor squatting in one corner and a passel of Persian rugs rolled up in another. Above Mr. Hope’s enormous desk hung a monumental Botticelli, which, despite Harclay’s admiration, was a bit indecent for a place of business, considering it depicted a breast-bearing goddess.
And then there was Mr. Hope: tall, broad, imposing in that strange way of his. He stood and, though Harclay waved him off, proffered a short but lyrical bow. Behind them the doors swung shut and Harclay let out a small sigh of relief.
“My dear Lord Harclay,” Mr. Hope said. “To have braved such hellish weather to seek my company—why, after a brandy or two I’d blush! Speaking of . . . ?”
Hope raised an eyebrow to a stout pine sideboard crowded with crystal decanters winking seductively in the dull morning light.
“Good man, it’s not yet noon.”
Mr. Hope blinked. “Nonsense. In the north it’s common knowledge a nip in the day keeps the doctor at bay. Please, do sit.”
As Hope busied himself at the sideboard, Harclay folded his tall frame into a rather wide but rickety antique chair. It groaned ominously beneath his weight.
“I say, is this chair sound? I would hate to damage the”—he cleared his throat—“lovely piece.”
Hope waved away his words, setting a heavy blue crystal snifter before him.
“Ah.” Hope smiled, landing in his own chair, snifter pressed to his nose. “I daresay it will withstand its current burden, all things considered. It once belonged to Henry VIII—did you know he weighed over twenty stone at his death?”
“I did not,” Harclay said, shifting his weight so that it rested not on the chair but on his own legs. “However did you manage to discover such a treasure?”
“That profligate prince regent of yours,” Hope said. “Idiot fellow’s so deep in debt he’d sell his own bollocks for a fair price. Whatever is left of them, anyway.”
“Fair point,” Harclay replied.
“No matter.” Mr. Hope took a long, satisfied pull of brandy. “Assuming you have not come to discuss the prince’s rather epic stupidity—in which case I am most happy to oblige you—how might I be of assistance this morning, Lord Harclay? A withdrawal, perhaps?”
Harclay shook his head. “Not this time. A deposit, actually, and a rather large one.”
He placed his snifter on the desk. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he produced a stack of banknotes, each signed by its respective debtor and stamped with the credentials of various banks and agents.
Harclay watched in amusement as Hope struggled to smother his surprise. The banker coughed, pounding on his chest, and finally managed to wheeze a reply.
“Good God, my lord, did you ransack the royal treasury? Bankrupt the local gentry?” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Not a duel, surely? Winner takes all? I hear blood wages are quite the thing.”
Harclay laughed. For a brief moment he thought of his Manton dueling pistols, gleaming, gorgeous things that were his constant companions during a rather raucous youth. Alas, they had remained in their velvet-lined box for some time now, but Mr. Hope’s toes would positively curl if he knew how often those guns had been Harclay’s saving grace.
“No, no,” Harclay said. “I’m afraid it’s just a bit of luck I’ve come across at White’s, games of chance and all that.”
Mr. Hope scooped up the stack of notes and rifled through them. Harclay could tell the banker was biting his tongue to keep from exclaiming at the number of zeros on each note.
Hope clucked his tongue. “Tsk-tsk. Those gentlemen friends of yours should know better than to gamble with the Lord Harclay. Hell, even I’ve been warned about you. Something of a legend you’ve become; they say your luck never runs out. That your stakes are impossibly high.”
Harclay, legs aching, leaned as far back as Henry Tudor’s priceless chair would allow without splintering into a dozen pieces. “My companions at last night’s table were”—here that secret smile returned to his lips—“in a rather generous mood.”
“Well”—Mr. Hope held up the stack of notes with a smile—“all the better for you, my lord, though your accounts are already robust, yes, most robust. Many gentlemen of—ah, your particular age and station have quite the opposite problem, I’m afraid.”
“Indeed,” Harclay replied. He was hardly surprised. For all their swagger and impeccable breeding, most of his friends were frightfully broke. Harclay pitied the poor fellows and helped when he could; nonetheless, there was no helping his set’s near-complete lack of intelligence and savvy, and the temptation to best them time and time again proved far too enticing.
“Very well,” Mr. Hope said. He clapped the long edge of the notes against his desk to gather them into a neat pile. “I shall see to this at once.”
“Excellent,” Harclay said and made to rise. “And it goes without saying—”
Mr. Hope pressed his thumbnail to his lips. “To the grave, Harclay. Can’t have word of your companions’ most sizable losses getting to the papers or, worse, to their wives.”
“Gratitude, good sir, I do appreciate your discretion,” Harclay replied. He was about to turn and exit the room when Mr. Hope held up his hand.
“And one more thing,” the banker said. “I assume you have not received the invitation I sent, some days ago? Post is dreadful this time of year, what with all this rain washing out the roads, and I know a man of your stature would never be so rude as to send a tardy reply.”
Harclay detected the slightest trace of irony in Mr. Hope’s words and replied with no small measure of his own. “I abhor rudeness, Mr. Hope, above all things.”
For a moment Mr. Hope studied Harclay, his dark eyes twinkling, but the earl merely returned Hope’s gaze with a measured amount of disinterest.
Of course Harclay had received the invitation, and, as he had done with all others from Mr. Hope, he had blatantly, rudely ignored it, as had many of his friends. The banker was rich beyond imagining, indeed, with the tastes and fine manners of a gentleman, but alas bore no title; the more rigid of Harclay’s set zealously scorned Hope while harboring a secret envy of his fortune and freedom.
That Hope did not have the good luck to be born into a blue-blooded family mattered not a whit to Harclay. No, his reason for ignoring Hope’s invitation was rather more mundane. Every year, on the first Friday of May, Hope hosted the most extravagant and hotly anticipated ball of the season. Hope, in usual form, attached to each ball a sufficiently ridiculous theme. Last year, the more adventurous of the ton arrived dressed as popes, assassins, and breast-bearing courtesans for “The Murderous Medici”; the year before, it had been “One Thousand and One Nights in the Emperor’s Hareem,” whatever that meant.
Harclay would rather forfeit his tongue, or even his manhood, than attend such a spectacle. The same tedious conversation with the same tedious debutantes; the crush of rooms and the smell of damp, drunken bodies; the spirited dances and inevitable swoons: all this glory, but raised to fever pitch by daringly cut costumes, cunningly crafted masks, and Hope’s rather impressive cellar of cognacs and brandies.
No, Harclay mused, no, thank you indeed.
“I know you haven’t attended many of my humble soirees in the past,” Mr. Hope said, reading Harclay’s thoughts. “But this year, I’m doing something a bit different.”
“Oh?” Harclay said, with a longing glance toward the exit.
“Oh, yes,” Mr. Hope replied, a sly grin on his lips. “Imagine it, if you will: the glory days of Versailles, when the Sun King, Louis XIV, ruled over the most splendid and sumptuous court the world has ever seen. The feasts, the silks, the pomp—the jewels.”
A pulse of interest shot through Harclay so quickly he struggled to catch it before it showed up on his face. Jewels? Now, this was something interesting—something different, new, unexpected.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Mr. Hope said, lowering his voice. “After much searching, I do believe I’ve managed to locate one of the French crown jewels.”
“The French crown jewels?” Harclay drawled in his best monotone. “Didn’t they disappear ages ago, at the start of the Revolution?”
Mr. Hope smiled. “Don’t play dumb with me, my lord, for you are as familiar with the tale as anyone else. We know a band of thieves broke into the royal treasury shortly after poor King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette were arrested. The thieves, and the jewels, seemed to have vanished overnight. And now, nearly twenty years later, one of said gems has resurfaced.”
Mr. Hope daringly waved his finger. “A gentleman does not kiss and tell.”
Harclay furrowed his brow. “I believe that applies to something else entirely—”
“As I was saying,” Hope said, nearly perspiring with excitement, “I’ve managed to purchase the very same jewel worn by the King of France!”
Harclay paused, trying in vain to contain his curiosity. “Which jewel, exactly? Surely not—”
“The French Blue? Yes, that’s the one. It is the crown jewel of my collection, so to speak.”
Harclay made a show of an enormous yawn, though it did nothing to still the rapid beating of his heart. The French Blue!—a treasure indeed. It was rumored to be the size of an apricot, and the most brilliant diamond ever discovered. Harclay had, of course, heard whisperings of the curse attached to the stone; but these only increased his interest. An enormous diamond, worn by kings and cursed by their royal blood?
“I plan to display the jewel at the ball, Friday next. I’ve hired half the British army to guard them,” Hope said with a smug scoff, “but it will make quite the splash, the jewel, don’t you think? Oh, do make plans to attend, Lord Harclay. ‘The Jewel of the Sun King: An Evening at Versailles’—really, how could you resist?”
Harclay let out a well-practiced sigh of resignation. “Perhaps,” he replied. “I’ve a busy season ahead, you see; I make no promises. And my valet, he’s been unwell, and I can’t very well attend in the nude . . .”
But Mr. Hope smiled beatifically at Harclay’s excuses, knowing he had won over the reluctant earl; as if he knew he had been the first to pique Lord Harclay’s interest in a very, very long time.
Duchess Street, near Cavendish Square
Lady Violet Rutledge arrived at Mr. Thomas Hope’s ball early, at the host’s request. Indeed, a bit too early; upon entrance into Hope Mansion’s soaring hall, she realized that she, Auntie George, and her cousin, Lady Sophia Blaise, were Mr. Hope’s very first guests.
Together the three ladies gawked at the grandeur that surrounded them as they shed their spencers and accepted tiny coupes of champagne from a footman dressed in a towering powdered wig and white satin breeches. Hope had, as usual, taken the Versailles theme quite seriously: fragrant white lilies with blooms as large as dinner plates covered every available surface, and from some corner of the house Violet could hear an opera singer warming up a particularly piercing voice. Hope’s parties were many things, thought Violet, but certainly never dull.
As she, Auntie, and Sophia climbed the grand staircase, Violet remembered with a small smile the previous year’s ball. Dressed as a rather voluptuous Lucrezia Borgia, Violet had taken a near-fatal tumble down these very same steps, only to land in the outstretched arms of Pope Alexander VI—Mr. Hope had cunningly replicated the pontiff’s crooked nose with bread dough and a pair of buttons.
Truth be told, Hope’s infamous balls were a rare opportunity for Violet to steal away for a carefree evening of dancing and, if she were honest, shameless flirtation. The burdens of her everyday life—an ailing father, the viperish gossip surrounding her unmarried state—seemed to evaporate in the perfumed air of Mr. Hope’s ballroom.
A shiver of excitement coursed up her spine as they entered the grand space, a trio of gilt chandeliers glowing dimly from above. Something was going to happen tonight, something exciting: she could feel it, a thrilling spark in the center of her chest.
Musicians were setting up in a corner; Violet noticed even they were in costume, complete with satin bows and hideous white makeup. A long table covered in sumptuous silk linens stood against a far wall of tall windows and was set with the contents of Mr. Hope’s celebrated cellar of rare brown liquors.
“This is dangerous,” Auntie George whispered. “The lighting, the music, the brandy—it’s altogether too romantic. An ogre would look handsome in this light. Promise me you’ll stay out of trouble. No, not you, Violet, it’s too late for you. But Sophia . . . ”
Auntie George turned pointedly to her daughter, eyes narrowed in warning.
“I promise,” Sophia quickly replied. Perhaps a bit too quickly, for Auntie reached out and pinched her ear.
Sophia’s cheeks flamed. The poor dear trembled with anxiety; it was her first season and she had yet to master the butterflies that inevitably filled her belly at every event. Violet reached out and took her hand, giving it a good squeeze. Sophia managed a small smile.
“You’re the loveliest nymph this side of the Styx,” Violet whispered, setting the sleeve of her water goddess costume to rights. What a nymph had to do with the Sun King and his jewels, Violet hadn’t the slightest clue; but Sophia loved the idea, and Violet thought the gauze appropriately scandalous.
“I know I say this every night,” Violet continued, head bent to Sophia’s, “but you’ve nothing to fear. You are lovely and far wittier than anyone else in that ballroom. If you find you are frightened, just imagine whomever you’re talking to is in the nude. That’ll put a smile on your lips, make no mistake.”
Sophia’s shoulders relaxed as she let out a little scoff. “An old trick of yours, sweet cousin?”
“It works wonders; you’ll see.”
Sophia glanced over Violet’s head. “Mr. Hope hired an awful lot of footmen. Do you think their pistols are part of the costume?”
Violet turned to see a phalanx of satin-clad, broad-shouldered men enter the ballroom. They did not look at all like footmen; they wore dark, inscrutable expressions, and a few were missing teeth. Beneath their shiny, ill-fitting waistcoats, Violet could indeed make out the imprint of pistols—and rather large ones at that.
“Dear me, I should hope not,” Violet replied. “How eccentric, even for Mr. Hope.”
At that very moment the man himself came into view, striding into the ballroom behind his pistol-wielding servants.
“Good heavens,” Violet murmured.
Beside her, Auntie George let out a low whistle. “How extraordinary!”
Mr. Hope was coiffed and stuffed and powdered into a towering likeness of the Sun King, Louis XIV, complete with gilded staff and a long, curly black wig. He even sported a pair of red-heeled shoes fastened with diamond-encrusted bows. On his brow rested a gleaming coronet set with sapphires the size of grapes that, Violet mused, were very likely genuine.
“Mademoiselles,” Mr. Hope said, grimacing as his staff impaled his foot. “Bienvenue à Versailles. I was hoping you’d be the first to arrive.”
“Mr. Hope,” Violet said as Hope kissed her outstretched hand. “Your costume is nothing short of—er, epic. However do you manage to keep your neck straight with that wig on your head? It must weigh more than I do.”
Hope swayed his head, the wig swaying along with it, and smiled. “Ghastly headache I’ve got, but it’s worth it for the drama, don’t you think?” He turned to Violet’s cousin. “And Lady Sophia! You are a vision,” he said, swallowing her whole with his dark eyes. He took her hand and pressed his lips to it, lingering a moment longer than was proper.
Sophia appeared happy, her face very pink, at his compliment. “Thank you, Mr. Hope,” she said.
“A nymph, I presume? What a marvelous conceit. A goddess of the wood and of the hunt. The Sun King was a great hunter and would have delighted in such a creature. We go together, you and I.”
By now, Hope was not only swallowing her cousin with his eyes but devouring her. Violet’s narrowed gaze slid from Sophia to Hope and back again. It occurred to her that Sophia was not nervous; no, she was excited, thrumming not with dread but with anticipation.
Were she and Mr. Hope somehow acquainted, and not in the polite sense of the word? Though the tension between them was palpable, the very idea of them together was preposterous. Sophia was as quietly ambitious a debutante as any, and had set her sights on shackling a titled bachelor in possession of various crests and, hopefully, a castle. Violet couldn’t blame her; having grown up in the tumult of genteel poverty, Sophia was wise to seek the stability, and profitability, of such a match.
Mr. Hope—well, Hope was a banker, a tradesman, and a foreigner besides; darkly handsome, too. He was, in short, everything that kept Auntie George awake at night; everything that should send a hopeful debutante like Sophia running for the proverbial hills.
And yet here they were, the banker and the debutante, blushing and flirting and smiling at each other, softly.
“Well”—Auntie George cleared her throat, looking anywhere but at the couple ogling each other—“what lovely decorations.”
As if waking from a spell, Mr. Hope blinked and pressed one last kiss onto Sophia’s hand. He rose with some reluctance, his satin costume rustling as he drew to his full height and motioned to one of his gap-toothed entourage.
“Surely you have been wondering why I selected tonight’s theme, ‘The Jewels of the Sun King,’” he began.
“I have,” Violet replied, “and I wondered to which jewels the title referred, His Majesty’s diamonds or his—”
“Genius!” Sophia said. “A genius theme, surely!”
He returned her compliment with a sheepish smile. “Why, thank you, Lady Sophia.”
A beat of heated silence passed between them.
Again Auntie George cleared her throat. “Your theme, Mr. Hope?”
“Oh, yes!” he said. He turned to his guard-cum-courtier, who held out a box lacquered in black. Mr. Hope took the box in his hands and turned back to Lady Violet, his eyes dancing with excitement.
At once Violet’s heart began to throb. Hope’s box was the same size and shape of that which had held her mother’s jewels, pearl necklaces and emerald brooches and bracelets of the finest jade beads. Over the years such priceless family treasures had been discreetly sold piece by piece, to cover the estate’s mounting debts—debts she had only recently managed to pay off through her careful management of the family’s investments. Violet was left with virtually nothing but her mother’s simple gold wedding band, a tiny thing she now wore on a chain around her neck. It was her most treasured possession.
But here was Mr. Hope, proffering what was sure to be a jewel the size of a teacup. It made Violet dizzy, and not in a lovely, light-headed way.
“I have here in my hands a most precious jewel,” Mr. Hope said gravely. “A priceless jewel, first worn by the great shahs of the Mughal court, and then by the kings of France. Louis the Sun King wore it pinned to a ribbon around his neck; Marie-Antoinette—yes, the very one!—is rumored to have smuggled it in her bodice on an ill-fated escape attempt from Paris.”
Slowly, with great care, Mr. Hope unlatched the clasp on the box. Violet thought she might be sick with anticipation.
“Ladies,” Mr. Hope continued, “I present to you le bleu de France, the French Blue.”
Violet wished to remind Hope that she was perfectly capable of understanding French (though her powers of speech were quite dreadful), and that it would please her very much if he would stop flaunting his flawless command of the language; but as soon as her eyes landed on the glittering stone the breath left her body and she stood mute, transfixed.
For there, nestled in a puddle of fine velvet, was an enormous diamond, cut in an oblong circle roughly the size of a fig. It winked at once blue, then gray; Violet could even detect flashes of red and deep purple in its facets.
“My salts!” Auntie George cried. “Someone get my smelling salts!”
The diamond was beautiful, blindingly so. It was possessed of a gravity, a strange seduction, that made her want to reach out and touch it. To think King Louis XIV had once held this diamond in his royal fingertips! How dazzling he must have been, dressed in ermine and cloth of gold, the French Blue slung about his neck. To which ceremonies had he worn it? To which assemblies and balls and illicit, athletic couplings, conducted in the shadowy halls of Versailles, had the diamond been witness?
Really, the mind boggled.
“It’s beautiful,” Violet said breathily.
The banker positively beamed. “My pièce de résistance, as they say.”
“Indeed,” Violet replied, gaze transfixed on the jewel. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Even our own king, poor devil, doesn’t have diamonds like this.”
“It would be a great honor,” Hope said, focusing his gaze on Violet, “if you, as one of my first clients and a dear friend, would do me the honor of displaying the French Blue to my guests and wear it about your neck this evening. I do believe it’s the same shade of blue as your eyes.”
Violet gaped at her host as if he’d just laid her flat on her back with a blow to the nose. Instinctively she fingered the gold band that hung from the chain about her neck. “I couldn’t possibly,” she said, eyes never leaving the gem. “Though it is lovely, the loveliest I’ve seen—”
Mr. Hope waved away her words. Another of his sinister men approached, bearing a second box. Mr. Hope opened it and produced a collar of exquisite diamonds, ropes of them dangling in various lengths from a single necklace.
The banker must have caught them staring, for he smiled and said, “On loan, from one of my—ah, associates. I thought it would be a perfect accompaniment to the French Blue.”
No doubt by “associate,” Hope meant some enormously wealthy Italian duke or an equally foolish Romanov. Perhaps even the prince regent; Mr. Hope was possessed of a wide and influential circle of such “associates,” with whom he traded priceless antiques, exotic African pelts, and extravagant jewelry worthy of a tsarina.
Violet watched as Mr. Hope effortlessly affixed the French Blue to the collar of diamonds as if he handled such treasures every day, perhaps over tea. He then turned to face her, the necklace strung about his fingers like the silken fibers of a spider’s web.
“May I?” he said.
Violet gulped, tucking the ring into the folds of her costume. “You may indeed, Mr. Hope,” she replied and turned away from him, patting her hair to ensure it remained coiffed close to her head.
She gasped when he slid the necklace about her throat. The diamonds felt cold against her skin, electrifyingly so; she shivered visibly and at once he drew back.
“Are you all right, Lady Violet?”
“Yes, quite. What a thrill to wear the Sun King’s diamond, truly,” she said and shivered again. For a moment she wondered if this was what it felt like to be Diane de Poitiers, that infamously decorated mistress of Henri II; or perhaps Catherine the Great, cloaked in diamonds on the throne of her Winter Palace.
Violet stiffened her spine, squared her shoulders. It was a thrill, an honor, to have a small piece of such exalted history hanging from her neck.
The jewel nested in the small, tender indentation between her collarbones. It was heavy, though not so cold now, having warmed to her flesh. If she moved her head just so, she could catch flashes of extravagant brilliance as the molten light of the ballroom reflected off its surface.
She turned to face her audience, and by their stunned faces concluded the diamond was, indeed, the same shade of blue-gray as her eyes.
“Well, then,” she said, feeling suddenly light-headed. “More champagne?”
“Remember, Avery, this very spot,” Harclay said, pulling on his gloves. “I’ve the oddest premonition the evening shall end early.”
“Very well, my lord.” Avery shut the carriage door. “We shan’t move, nary an inch.”
“Good. Always such a crush, getting out of these things.”
He took a deep, vigorous breath as he made his way up the front steps. It was a fine night, a very fine night indeed, a clear night sky above, and the spring air soft and cool against his skin. Harclay couldn’t remember a finer night, not in all his days; for tonight he felt thrillingly, achingly alive. His every sense tingled; his blood coursed hot and ready through his veins. Since his meeting with Hope some days before, Harclay’s mood had been effervescent, joyful even—and now, at last, the time had come.
With no little satisfaction he noted he’d arrived at just the right moment and in just the right costume: Hope’s guests were just getting in their cups, and the mood was light, jovial, as if the heady anticipation of the night’s event had not yet worn off. Like half of those in attendance, Harclay was vaguely attired as a French courtier, with powdered hair and the most enthusiastically patterned jacket his valet could find. Even with purple paisley swirling about his breast, Harclay was hardly distinguishable from the other unfortunately attired gentlemen in the room.
The stage, it seemed, was set.
A footman appeared out of the ether and passed him a goblet of what looked to be claret. Harclay sniffed it and to his surprise discovered it was brandy. Rascal, that Mr. Hope, disguising his liquors as wine; rascal, and genius.
Before ascending the heavily carpeted staircase to the ballroom, Harclay allowed himself a few breaths to savor the moment. Sipping his brandy—Mr. Hope’s selection was always damnably good—Harclay allowed himself a moment to be lost in thought. He hated to steal from the man, truly, he did. Hope was an odd fellow, surely, but a good one, an intriguing one, and Harclay might think twice before robbing him if it weren’t for the man’s million-pound fortune.
The diamond—well, it was a drop in the bucket, really, and far too great a temptation for Harclay to resist. Besides, he’d return the gem to Hope in due time, once Harclay concocted a scheme as daring, as brilliantly ludicrous, as the one he was to set in motion tonight.
Making his way at last toward the ballroom, the earl found himself in a jolly enough mood to converse with a circle of pimpled debutantes and their perspiring mamas. Music floated through the hall, and in a nearby drawing room he caught a glimpse of a famous prima donna performing an aria. The crowd was growing, hundreds and hundreds of flushed faces, and Harclay followed it into the two-story ballroom, the roar of conversation echoing off its tall, coffered ceiling. With a secret smile he glanced at the trio of monumental windows that lined the back of the space, their ink-black panes reflecting the quiver of a thousand candles.
An audible hush trailed in his wake as those he passed began to recognize him. He caught a snippet or two that made him grin:
“The Earl of Harclay . . . they say he deflowered an entire village in Sicily. Yes, the nuns, too!”
“He’s never lost a bet. Man won ten thousand off the Duke of Kent—twice!”
“It’s said he wagered his palace up in Oxfordshire on a bet that a certain gentleman could not seduce a certain lady.”
Harclay allowed himself a small chuckle. One of his favorite wagers, that, and now a legend at White’s.
Sweeping his gaze over the crowd, his eyes caught on the gleaming baubles that hung from the ears and wrists and necks of several ladies, and the more discreet jewels that decorated gentlemen’s waistcoats, their pocket watches. All these were nothing, he knew, absolutely nothing compared to the French Blue.
But the jewel was nowhere in sight. He managed to press his way to the refreshment table, where he exchanged his empty goblet of brandy-disguised-as-wine for a fresh one. Pulse thumping gloriously in anticipation, he surveyed the gathered guests over the rim of his glass. Dancing was about to begin, and out of the crowd came shouted requests for a cotillion, a reel.
Harclay dug his pocket watch out of his waistcoat. Nearly half past eleven; he didn’t have much time now. He glanced about the ballroom, his gaze meandering through the hundreds of bewigged heads. Hope’s hired guns lurked none too discreetly in corners and doorways; though dressed in full Sun King regalia, they were as conspicuous as foxes in a henhouse.
Harclay followed their gazes—there were so damn many of them! he thought with a thrill—until his own landed somewhere at the far end of the ballroom, close to the couples who were gathering to dance. At last his eyes settled on the bare shoulders of a single female.
The lady in question stood with her back to him. Licking his lips, Harclay couldn’t help but notice what a lovely slope of back it was: pale, smooth skin that rounded softly over sinew and proud but feminine shoulders. There was something distinctly erotic about her naked flesh, something seductive about the way she held herself. His eyes followed the line of her spine up to her neck; the tiny hairs there cast gold in the light of the room, and he imagined touching her fine skin, first with his fingers, then his lips . . .
No, his blood roared, though it did nothing to quell the familiar tightening in his groin. Absolutely not, you randy, rutting pig; now is not the time, nor this the place.
It was imperative that he focus not on lovely shoulders and skin but on the task at hand. The time was drawing near, and he needed his wits about him; the theft required a series of actions as deliberate and intricate as the steps of a country dance, and it wouldn’t do to be distracted by the charms of a lady, no matter how lovely her skin and shoulders.
But heavens, they were most lovely, delicious even; and when she turned suddenly to face him his breath caught in his throat, for to his dismay—or perhaps his delight; he couldn’t quite tell—her front was even lovelier than her back.
The earl loved women, admired them, and was, for a short spell five years before, even addicted to them. It was no great secret he’d enjoyed the charms of famous actresses, royal highnesses, an American or two. But of late his desire had cooled somewhat, for reasons he couldn’t quite comprehend. He hadn’t taken a lover for some months now, which, as England’s most notorious lothario, Harclay found rather depressing.
So it was at once unsettling, inconvenient, and wholly pleasurable to feel desire pulse through his veins once again at the sight of a beautiful woman.
His desire raced to fever pitch as Harclay’s eyes traveled from the lady’s round eyes to the enormous glittering jewel that rested just above an enticing slice of cleavage.
The French Blue.
How clever of Hope, thought Harclay, for the jewel appeared all the more alluring worn around this striking woman’s neck. Her eyes, gray-blue and dark, glittered the same shade as the diamond and were just as lovely. For a moment he lost himself in those eyes, impenetrable pools full of laughter and mischief and was that a bit of naughtiness twinkling at the edges?
His body went up in flames, pounding with desire: desire for her, for the diamond. It was lust like he’d never known, and he felt damnably, deliciously like himself for the first time in ages.
Harclay vaguely recognized her as Lady Violet Rutledge, daughter of the Duke of Sommer and heiress to his meager fortune. If Harclay remembered correctly, this was to be her third season; at her age, she was nearly on the shelf and, he mused, likely lonely, frustrated in more ways than one, and ripe for the picking.
It was too easy, really. If he’d known Hope had chosen her to wear the diamond, Harclay wouldn’t have hired all the gunmen, and certainly not the acrobats. Hell, with a few choice words, a discreet grope here and there, Harclay could have Lady Violet in his bed and the diamond in his safe by half past midnight.
Besides, after a few turns in the sheets, he could easily divert her thoughts from the theft to rather more unsavory things. After a few hours with her in his arms, he could surely make her forget the crime, the diamond, the chaos that was about to ensue.
Making his way toward her, the earl made no effort to suppress the achingly enormous smile that found its way to his lips.
• • •
Lady Violet was chatting companionably with Mr. Hope and his Turkish antiques merchant when she felt the prick of someone’s gaze at the back of her neck. At first she ignored it—she was, after all, wearing the Sun King’s fifty-carat diamond about her neck—but when the sensation did not abate, and instead began to pulse with heat, she turned at last to face it.
God in heaven, it was that cad William Townshend, Earl of Harclay. He was positively devouring her with his gaze. In principle she despised the man, as a lady of good breeding ought. But in his smug smile and overwhelming allure, Violet saw a challenge; in his eyes she recognized her own thirst for a thrill.
A fellow adventurer.
She couldn’t resist.
Harclay smiled, that devil, showing rows of perfectly straight white teeth as he approached from across the ballroom. The crowd seemed to part as he strode forward, falling away from the earl’s tall, broad figure. Despite Mr. Hope’s Versailles theme, the earl was dressed exquisitely in the very latest of fashion, a nonpareil the likes of which Violet had never seen. He wore an emerald coat of so dark a hue it appeared blue, and then black, when he moved this way or that; his purple waistcoat and black breeches were made of the finest satin and were cut so close Violet could easily discern the earl’s delectable physique.
His stiff white cravat, simply yet skillfully knotted, set off the square slant of his most perfect jawline. Swallowing the image of his person now that he was in full view, Violet’s heart caught in her throat and for a moment stopped beating altogether. He was handsome, darkly, devastatingly so; and like every woman with two eyes and a pulse, she was positively thrilled by him.
Every set of eyes in the room followed the earl as he took Violet’s hand and placed his lips on her fingers. He rose and smiled again. Violet drew her lips into the most lascivious grin she could manage, the area between her palm and first knuckle burning with the memory of his kiss.
He drew close, his breath warm on her neck, and whispered, “A most lovely costume, Lady Violet. A wood nymph, I presume?”
Lord Harclay was shameless, whispering in her ear like a drunken goat; despite the flutter of her pulse—a warning, a thrill—Violet was captivated. He was handsome, surely, but it was his confidence, his defiance of every rule and manner and courtesy, that drew her in as a moth to a flame.
Grinning ever so slightly, she flitted her gaze to his breeches and raised a single brow. “I daresay you’re the expert in wood, Lord Harclay.”
It was brazen, it was indiscreet, and God forbid anyone should have overheard her say it; poor Auntie would never recover. And yet the look on Lord Harclay’s face—barely contained shock, his color high with pleasure—made saying it well worth the risk.
“I have that effect on gentlemen,” she continued breezily. “The diamond doesn’t hurt, either. A beautiful spectacle, wouldn’t you say?” Violet splayed her fingers across her chest on either side of the diamond, her littlest fingers toying with the low neckline of her gown.
“Beautiful indeed,” he replied, drawing even closer.
The top of Mr. Hope’s enormous wig appeared over Lord Harclay’s shoulder.
“Lady Violet!” Hope said. He fingered her elbow while directing a look of consternation at Lord Harclay. “I trust you find your present company agreeable?”
Her eyes never leaving Lord Harclay’s, Violet replied, “I know the gentleman finds my company very agreeable indeed.”
“Most arousing, yes,” Harclay said with a small smile, fingering her other elbow.
Hope drew back, brow creased. After a moment he cleared his throat. “The two of you are already acquainted, then—”
Harclay wrapped his fingers about her arm and pulled her from Hope’s grasp. “You must excuse us, Hope, but Lady Violet is positively parched.”
She bit her lip. “But I’m not thirsty.”
He turned his head, eyes sparkling with laughter. “Oh, I do believe you are, Lady Violet. Though perhaps not for drink.”
The earl’s hand slid to grasp her own as he led her through the crowd. In her chest her heart skipped a beat as the warmth of his palm seeped through her satin glove. His grasp was gentle but firm; he moved through the crush of bodies with patient authority, nodding politely at acquaintances as he went.
At last they reached the refreshment table. She tried to drop his hand but he held fast. He pulled her very close to him, hiding their joined hands beneath the table.
For a moment they stood beside each other without speaking. Violet tried in vain to catch her breath; it didn’t help that, beneath the table, her hand kept brushing Lord Harclay’s leg. His flesh felt impossibly solid, unyielding to her touch. For a moment she wondered if the rest of him felt as hard, as warm, as strangely inviting.
“Would you like the punch?” he asked, nodding at the enormous cut-crystal bowl in the center of the table.
“I usually find punch rather weak for my taste,” she replied, pleasure coursing through her at his start of surprise, “but Hope’s concoction is as potent as brandy.”
Lord Harclay reached for a coupe of punch and handed it to Violet, his dark eyes flashing as they met hers. “I’ve never met a lady with a taste for brandy,” he said. “At least not one who admits to it.”
“I’ve quite a few vices that might surprise you,” she replied, leveling her gaze with his, “and I’m not afraid to admit to any of them.”
He tugged on her hand, pulling her even closer. So close that their noses nearly grazed each other. It took every ounce of her control not to wince, pull away . . or dive in and discover just what, exactly, his lips felt like against her own.
“I’d very much like to discover the nature of said vices,” he said, voice low, smooth, full of forbidden things.
“If only you were so lucky,” she murmured in reply, pulse thrumming.
He took another coupe of punch from the table and held it between them. “A toast, then,” he said, “to your vices, in the hope that I shall indeed be lucky enough to partake in them.”
Violet clinked her glass against his and brought it to her lips. “And what about you, Lord Harclay? Rumor has it you’ve no small number of vices of your own.”
His eyes flicked to the French Blue. “More than you could possibly imagine, Lady Violet,” he said and took a long pull of his punch.
She watched him drink, the sinewy muscles of his neck working in time to his lips. The effect was hypnotic; so hypnotic that she failed to notice the gentleman, a boy, really, behind her, elbowing his way to the tables, until it was too late.
His sharp elbow found purchase just between her shoulder blades, pushing her into Lord Harclay’s chest with a force that knocked her breathless. The coupe turned over in her hand, and punch spilled down the front of her gown.
“Make way, make way!” the man bellowed. “Can’t you see the crush? Move along!”
Violet felt Lord Harclay grow stiff against her. She looked up to see his eyes darken with wrath as he turned toward the offender.
Oh, no. No, no, no. Even through the haze of desire that hung between their bodies, she could tell this wasn’t going to end well.
She was right.
Harclay stuck out his foot just in time to trip the boy. He flew ass over heels to the floor in a whirl of blue coattails and fine French lace.
After a beat the boy scrambled to his feet, face wide with shock as a rather impolite shout of incensed disbelief escaped his lips. He tugged the lace at his sleeves into place and huffed, smoothing the scant hairs of his sideburns.
“Apologize to the lady,” Harclay said quietly. He cupped her shoulders and turned her to face the thin, pockmarked boy she now recognized as the Marquess of Tarrington’s son and heir. The rotten stench of liquor and sweat rose from the boy like smoke from a cigar.
The boy sniffed his nose even higher. “She was in my way.”
Behind her, Violet felt Lord Harclay suck in an impatient breath. “Apologize to the lady,” he repeated.
By now a small circle of spectators had formed about them, their faces open with glee at the unexpected treat of a public confrontation.
“Please,” Violet said, turning to Lord Harclay, “it’s nothing; let’s get on—”
“Apologize,” the earl said yet again, this time through gritted teeth, “to the lady. And if you don’t, I swear to make a bloody mess of that ghastly thing you call your face.”
The boy swallowed, face red with embarrassment, and lowered his nose. “I’m sorry,” he spat out and turned away.
But Harclay would have none of it. He reached forward and none too gently grasped the boy by the shoulder, turning him to face Violet.
“Try it again,” Harclay growled. “This time like you mean it.”
The boy appeared as if he were about to weep. He bowed and, speaking loudly, said, “I apologize sincerely, my lady, for whatever grief I have caused you. I beg your forgiveness.”
“Th-thank you,” Violet stammered. Her gown felt sticky against her skin and unpleasantly damp. She must appear a fright.
“That will be all, Lord Casterleigh,” Harclay said. “Now be off with you before I make good on my oath.”
Without hesitation the boy scurried into the crowd. Lord Harclay turned to Violet, monogrammed handkerchief in one hand and a fresh coupe of punch in the other.
She took the handkerchief and went to work on her gown. The glittery gauze hid most of the stain, and what with the diamond about her neck, no one would pay much mind to her costume anyway.
Still, her cheeks flamed with mortification. Damned punch; she’d been so suave, so savvy in her flirtation with the earl, and then this had to happen.
“You missed a spot,” Lord Harclay said, pointing to a stain just above her right breast.
Violet looked up from her ministrations to see him feasting on her person with his eyes. Incensed, she threw his handkerchief at his chest and took the coupe from his hand.
“I’m going to leave that spot, just to spite you”—she sipped at her punch—“so that your imagination might run riot with all the possibilities of removing it yourself. Perhaps with those lovely lips of yours; perhaps with some other, no less thrilling, methods.”
Lord Harclay pulled back in mock horror. “You mean to torture me, don’t you, Lady Violet?”
She finished the rest of her punch in a single gulp, licking her lips. “Indeed I do. And I shall relish every moment of it.”
“Excellent,” Harclay replied, taking the empty coupe from her and setting it on the table. He led her back into the crush. “A dance, then, to begin said torture?”
Without waiting for Violet’s reply, Lord Harclay turned toward the musicians. In a commanding baritone that belied his most indecent condition, he called for a waltz.
“A waltz?” Violet drew back. “But Hope won’t have it! And neither will his guests. It’s far too provocative, even for the likes of you and me.”
But Harclay merely smiled. He dug a small satin pouch out of his waistcoat and tossed it across the ballroom. It landed with a satisfying clank in the outstretched palm of the gentleman playing first violin.
“A waltz, if you please!” Harclay called once more, and to Violet’s great surprise the members of the orchestra took their seats and made to play.
A wave of disbelieving murmurs rolled through the room, but guests began to take their places—Violet could hardly believe so many members of polite society knew the dance, despite its reputation—and Mr. Hope appeared out of the ether, wig leaning precipitously off his head.
“I believe I’ve the pleasure of the first dance, Lady Violet?” he said, holding out his hand.
But Harclay stepped between them, his eyes, burning, on her face. “You’ll have to forgive me, Hope, but I’ll take that pleasure for myself.”
It wasn’t a question, a polite “if you please”; no, Harclay’s words were a command, delivered with quiet, savage equanimity. I’ll take that pleasure for myself.
Mr. Hope stepped back, too startled to reply; and Violet—well, Violet fought to keep from smiling.
Harclay slid her arm into the crook of his own and led her to the middle of the floor. In the midst of a flurry of couples readying for the dance, he stopped and wound his way around Violet so he faced her. When he looked at her—damn him and those wicked, wicked eyes—she blushed and he smiled at her indiscretion. He stepped closer to her, eyes focused on her lips. His ardent attention made her feel suddenly, thrillingly alive.
Together they bowed. Harclay again stepped closer and put his hands on her: the right, firmly planted on the small of her back, and with the left he grasped her own, his fingers tangling with hers. Already currents of heat and blood coursed through her belly.
He breathed on her neck. She thought she might die.
The orchestra played the first notes of the waltz, and Harclay moved crisply, expertly, as if he’d been waltzing since he was in short pants. His eyes, dark, glittering in the light of the chandeliers above, never left hers. She felt the heat rise to her face and yet found it impossible to look away. Violet had never spent more than a fleeting moment this close to a man—a greeting, a polite kiss, a curtsy—but here was the Earl of Harclay, wealthy rake, ravager of virgins, with his arms wrapped around her, coaxing her breast closer and closer to his. So very, very close.
She followed his every step, every turn, and it wasn’t long before she was blissfully floating in the quick one-two-three of the music, breathless, spellbound. With each turn the diamond tapped lightly against her chest, its flashes of fire reflecting in Harclay’s eyes. And still his gaze never left hers; never once strayed to the mesmerizing jewel at her throat, a jewel worn by emperors and kings, a jewel for which most men would commit murder; never once strayed, even as she glanced at her feet to ensure they were still on the ground.
“Why a waltz?” she said, her words coming out in a breathy hush that made her want to cringe. “You’re sure to be shunned from every proper ball this season.”
Harclay scoffed. “If only I were so lucky. I daresay I could run down Bond Street naked, shouting filth at the top of my lungs, and still the good members of the ton would welcome me with open arms. Those with eligible daughters, anyhow.”
“But how many eligible daughters are left, really, that you haven’t already despoiled?”
“Despoiled?” he said, smiling. “Now there’s a word I haven’t come across, not in some time.”
“Indeed,” Violet replied. “I imagine you’ve grown quite tired of ‘pillage’ and ‘ravage,’ what with having used them so often as you go about your daily business.”
Harclay pulled her close to him, crushing her against his not inconsiderable flesh. He felt solid and warm against her, not at all like the steely, menacing predator she imagined him to be, and she let out a little sigh.
He pulled her closer, bending his neck so that his lips brushed against her ear. She arched against him, inadvertently deepening their embrace, and her blood screamed with—well, Violet didn’t quite know what, except that she’d never felt anything so poignant in all her livelong life.
“I prefer ‘pleasure,’ myself,” he murmured. “For as often as I pillage and ravage and take, pleasuring is what I most enjoy.”
The music reached its crescendo, and Harclay spun Violet faster and faster, the room a glowing blur about them. Violet couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak or hear or think; she could do nothing but return Harclay’s searing gaze, her pulse throbbing in time to the memory of his words.
Pleasuring is what I most enjoy.
Heavens, what was one supposed to say to that?
“Yes, well,” Violet said. “I’m afraid I shall not be among those lucky few whom you pleasure this evening. I rather prize my sanity—”
Harclay smiled, a knowing, sinister thing that made his lips appear all the more appetizing. “Sanity is overrated, and not nearly so good a time as sin and seduction.”
Struggling to contain the impulse to wag her tongue at his most impertinent remark, she at last looked away in an attempt to gather her wits.
Thoughts tangled in an impossible knot, her gaze landed on the trio of tall windows that lined the wall above the refreshment table. Just who did this shameless Casanova think he was, saying such terrible—awful—wonderful things . . .
The crack and clatter of breaking glass shattered her reverie. She blinked and saw a handful of black-clad figures somersault gracefully through the windows and land soundlessly on the table. Somewhere in the back of Violet’s mind, she registered that the intruders were most scrupulous in avoiding the glittering decanters that held Mr. Hope’s priceless collection of brandy.
For a moment the ballroom went still, as if the guests were dumbstruck in disbelief; and then all hell broke loose. Screams, shouts, bodies tumbling over one another.
In the chaos, Violet nearly missed Mr. Hope’s gap-toothed, costumed guards palming their guns and pointing them not at the bandits but at Hope’s guests; one guard went so far as to press the barrel of his weapon against the Marquess of Kendal’s forehead and shout at the poor man to stay put and shut his mouth.
What the devil? Hope’s guards—Violet remembered with a shudder just how many of them there were—had turned against him? But how? Why?
Faces concealed by black kerchiefs, the intruders pulled sleek-looking pistols from their belts. They aimed at the ceiling and—one, two, three—they fired, the sound deafening as it echoed off the walls. People screamed and held their ears as they crouched low to the ground. Violet watched in horror as, one after the other, the bandits tucked their guns back into their belts and leapt high from the table onto the chandeliers. With herculean strength they climbed the massive fixtures arm by brass arm; and then, with knives they slid from their boots, the intruders began sawing at the silk cords that held the chandeliers aloft.
“My God,” Violet whispered, pointing directly above their heads. “Look!”
Beside her, Harclay gesticulated wildly at the crowd with his arms. “Move! You’re in harm’s way! Get out, I say, get out from under the lights!”
Like a herd of stunned cattle, Hope’s guests pushed and shoved their way off the floor without a moment to spare.
The chandeliers fell through the air as if in slow motion. Lord Harclay tugged Violet none too gently to the side, just as the chandelier above them crashed to the floor, obliterating the very spot they’d been standing on just a breath before. The earth shook with the impact as the other enormous fixtures followed suit. Their candles sputtered and died and the ballroom was plunged into darkness.
The screams quickly became unbearable, and terribly frightening. Violet overheard guests praying—“Take me, sweet Jesus, I’m ready!”—and a few men were weeping noisily, begging their wives to forgive them this transgression and that.
Violet realized with yet another shudder that the bandits had fallen with the lights and were now roaming freely through the ballroom, looking for God knew what.
She hadn’t realized she was shaking until Harclay pulled her against him, cradling her neck in his palm.
“It’s all right,” he whispered. “They shan’t harm you, Lady Violet. You have my word.” She felt the hardened pad of his thumb stroke the tender skin at the back of her neck; and though she knew it was a mistake the moment she did it, she leaned her head against his chest and allowed him to swallow her in his arms.
“But how do you know?” she replied. “How do you know they haven’t come to finish the lot of us off?”
Amid the din she caught the slow, sure rumble of his chuckle. “Lady Violet, I’m afraid you’ve read one too many of those hideous novels of knights and duels and villains. You must trust me, and keep close.”
“Trust you?” she scoffed. “I may be in my cups, my lord, but I—”
Harclay pressed his hand against her mouth. “Quiet,” he said and motioned toward the windows.
What People are Saying About This
"Sexy and sparkling with wit, The Gentleman Jewel Thief overflows with adventure, suspense, and fast-paced action. Jessica Peterson is a fresh, new voice in historical romance."-- Shana Galen, author of The Spy Wore Blue
"Deliciously fun! What a lovely, witty book - I can't wait to see what Jessica Peterson does next!"--Kate Noble, author of If I Fall
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a fun, sexy romance loosely based on the move "The Thomas Crown Affair". It is the author's first book and I will read the next 2 in this trilogy. I liked that the book did not have obvious grammar errors, plot discrepancies or typos as many books by new authors have. I liked the story and believe the author will get better with each book. It's worth reading.