It was moments like this that Sullivan Waring was struck by what a difference a year had made in his life. Whatever the circumstances that had brought him to this point, being shot in the shoulder a year ago now seemed to have been the best of it.
Sullivan tied the black half-mask across his eyes and sank into the shadows at the base of the house, squatting between the white wall and a low stand of thorny shrubs. He knew how the clocks and calendars of the London aristocracy ran, and so he’d waited until well past midnight to come calling. Tonight was about revenge. And it had the added benefit of being dangerous.
The last light went out upstairs, but he remained motionless for another ten minutes. He had time, and the more soundly the residents slept, the better for him. Finally, as Mayfair’s scattered church bells chimed three times in ragged unison, he stirred.
The information Lord Bramwell Johns had given him was inevitably reliable, though he had to question the motives of a man who sold out his own kind for no better reason than boredom. Still, he and Bram owed their lives to one another many times over, and he trusted the Duke of Levonzy’s son. Bram had never betrayed him. He couldn’t say the same for his own so-called father, the Marquis of Dunston.
Of course the marquis probably had his own complaints lately. With a grim smile Sullivan stood. Tomorrow Dunston would find he had even more about which to be privately ashamed, and that was the point of the evening. Sullivan hefted the shoeing hammer in his right hand and jammed the narrower end between the window frame and its sill beside him. With one hard wrench the two separated. He dropped the hammer onto the ground and shoved the window open far enough for him to slip inside.
He’d passed by the Mayfair, London home of the Marquis of Darshear at least once a week both before his sojourn to the Peninsula and in the year since his return. As he made his way silently around the tasteful furniture of the morning room, he smiled again. He’d been inside Lord Darshear’s house, now, but he doubted he would ever enter through the front door. Nor would he ever care to. He didn’t approve of the marquis’s taste in friends. One friend in particular.
It was one thing to be a bastard, he reflected, and quite another to be treated like one, and by his own sire. Well, he could dole out as good as he got. Better, even. And the best part of his nocturnal sojourn was that while no one else knew what was going on, the Marquis of Dunston did. He was fairly certain Dunston’s pretty, legitimate progeny did, as well, or he would hope the marquis had been forced into confessing it to his son by now. And there wasn’t a bloody thing Dunston or the precious Viscount Tilden could do about it. Well, they could read the local newspapers and be alarmed at what they’d unleashed on their unsuspecting peers, but nothing more than that.
Sullivan tucked an ugly porcelain dove figurine into one of his voluminous pockets and made his way to the door that opened from the sitting room into the main foyer. There he paused again, listening.
Nothing stirred, but then Bram had informed him that the Chalsey family had spent the evening at the Garring soiree. Even the servants would be fast asleep by now.
Crossing through the foyer, he turned down the main hallway which would open onto the breakfast room, with probably an office or another sitting room and then the kitchen beyond. He didn’t need to go that far. Just opposite the open breakfast room doorway, he found what he’d come for.
“There you are,” he murmured, his heart beating faster as he ran a finger along the gold leaf frame. An original Francesca W. Perris painting, done back just after she’d married William Perris and left behind her maiden name of Waring. Back when she’d raised him in a small house just outside of London, back when she’d promised him that even though his father might not be able to acknowledge him legally, he still had a heritage – hers.
Except that Francesca Waring Perris had died at about the same time he’d been wounded in Spain, though he hadn’t learned that news until weeks later. And then Sullivan had returned home a handful of months ago to find that while he’d been good enough to fight for Britain as an officer, in the eyes of the law he had no standing at all. Not when George Sullivan, the Marquis of Dunston, claimed that all of Francesca Perris’s property belonged to him. She had, after all, been his tenant for the past thirty years.
Sullivan clenched his fist, then shook his hands loose again. Memories, revenge fantasies, could all wait. At the moment he was in the home of someone who’d probably never met his mother, but who had bought or accepted one of her paintings from Dunston’s hand. He didn’t care whether it had been a purchase or a gift. All he cared was that by sunrise it would be his again. His heritage, his inheritance. His. And Dunston would hear about this latest theft and pray that no one else made the connection.
He grabbed a second small painting from some other obscure artist off the wall for good measure, then stripped off the lace table runner from the hall table and wrapped both paintings in it. A small crystal bowl and the silver salver from the same table went into his pockets as well. Then he tucked the paintings under his arm and turned back toward the front of the house. And stopped dead.
A woman stood between him and the morning room. At first he thought he’d fallen asleep outside the house and was dreaming – her long blonde hair, blue-tipped by moonlight, fell around her shoulders like water. Her slender, still figure was silhouetted in the dim light from the front window, her white night rail shimmering and nearly transparent. She might as well have been nude.
If he’d been dreaming, though, she would have been naked. Half expecting her to melt away into the moonlight, Sullivan remained motionless. In the thick shadows beneath the stairs he had to be nearly invisible. If she hadn’t seen him, then–
“What are you doing in my house?” she asked. Her voice shook; she was mortal after all.
If he said the wrong thing or moved too abruptly, she would scream. And then he would have a fight on his hands. While he didn’t mind that, it might prevent him from leaving with the painting – and that was his major goal. Except that she still looked...ethereal in the darkness, and he couldn’t shake the sensation that he was caught in a luminous waking dream. “I’m here for a kiss,” he said.
She looked from his masked face to the bundle beneath his arm. “Then you have very bad eyesight, because that is not a kiss.”
Grudgingly, even occupied with figuring a way to leave with both his skin and the painting, he had to admit that she had her wits about her. Even in the dark, alone, and faced with a masked stranger. “Perhaps I’ll have both, then.”
“You’ll have neither. Put that back and leave, and I shan’t call for assistance.”
He took a slow step toward her. “You shouldn’t warn me of your intentions,” he returned, keeping his voice low and not certain why he bothered to banter with her when he could have been past her and back outside by now. “I could be on you before you draw another breath.”
Her step backward matched his second one forward. “Now who’s warning whom?” she asked. “Get out.”
“Very well.” He gestured for her to move aside, quelling the baser part of him that wanted her to remove that flimsy, useless night rail from her body and run his hands across her soft skin.
“Without the paintings.”
“They aren’t yours. Put them back.”
One of them was his, but Sullivan wasn’t about to say that aloud. “No. Be glad I’m willing to leave without the kiss, and step aside.”
Actually, the idea of kissing her was beginning to seem less mad than it had at first. Perhaps it was the moonlight, or the late hour, or the buried excitement he always felt at being somewhere in secret, of doing something that a year ago he would never even have contemplated, or the fact that he’d never seen a mouth as tempting as hers.
“Then I’m sorry. I gave you a chance.” She drew a breath.
Moving fast, Sullivan closed the distance between them. Grabbing her shoulder with his free hand, he yanked her up against him, then leaned down and covered her mouth with his.
She tasted like surprise and warm chocolate. He’d expected the surprise, counted on it to stop her from yelling. But the shiver running down his spine at the touch of her soft lips to his, stunned him. So did the way her hands rose to touch his face in return. Sullivan broke away, offering her a jaunty grin and trying to hide the way he was abruptly out of breath. “I seem to have gotten everything I came for after all,” he murmured, and brushed past her to unlatch and open the front door.
Outside he collected his hammer and then hurried down the street to where his horse waited. Closing the paintings into the flat leather pouch he’d brought for the purpose, he swung into the saddle. “Let’s go, Achilles,” he said, and the big black stallion broke into a trot.
After ten thefts, he’d become an expert in anticipating just about anything. That was the first time, though, that he’d stolen a kiss. Belatedly he reached up to remove his mask. It was gone.
His blood froze. That kiss – that blasted kiss – had distracted him more than he’d realized. And now someone had seen his face. “Damnation.”
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