Read Love and Larceny Online

Authors: Regina Scott

Tags: #humor, #historical romance, #regency romance, #sweet romance, #historical mystery, #regency romp, #friends to lovers, #romance 1800s, #traditional regency romance, #romance clean and wholesome

Love and Larceny (3 page)

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“You will, no doubt, think me overly
cautious,” Hannah said, artist’s fingers clasping together in the
lap of her lavender silk dinner gown. “But after the trouble we had
earlier this year, I do not like taking chances, and neither does
David.”

They all nodded. Daphne had told Wynn as much
as she could about her and her friends’ first trip to Brentfield in
March, when it began to appear that someone was trying to kill Lord
Brentfield and make off with the art treasures the estate boasted.
Only Emily’s insights had pointed to the culprit.

“And have there been accidents this time?”
Emily wanted to know now.

“No,” Hannah admitted. “But things are
missing.”

Daphne frowned, glancing around at the
opulence. “How can you tell?”

Hannah blushed. “Well, you see, there is an
inventory. When David and I returned from our honeymoon, I wanted
to explore the collection. So we started at the top of the list and
soon realized we could not locate some of the pieces.”

“And you checked the secret passages,” Emily
pressed.

“First thing. They were clear of artwork, as
far as we could tell. David is still concerned about the safety of
the passages, so we couldn’t check them all. But the footmen tell
of knocking and hammering noises only to find nothing moved or
changed.”

“Have you considered a haunting?” Ariadne
asked, finger tapping against her muslin gown as if she longed to
write the scene even now. “All the trappings are there: an isolated
house, a lonely couple, the dark of the moon.” She shivered in
obvious appreciation.

Daphne refused to shiver. “I think your staff
is lily-livered. Why didn’t the footmen pursue the matter, track
the noise to its source?”

“Likely because few are as brave as you,”
Wynn put in.

Oh, but he was doing well. All her friends
were smiling at him. Daphne beamed as well. “Thank you.”

“Mr. Fairfax is quite right,” Hannah said.
“You certainly would have chased after the noise. But I cannot
berate the footmen for lack of courage. They did their best. As
soon as they started after the noise, it would stop. Our new
butler, Mr. Harrop, even instituted nightly patrols for a short
time, but they saw nothing untoward. Besides, the house creaks and
moans at the best of times. And we have had workmen in to repair
things. That may have been what the footmen heard.”

“But you don’t believe that,” Emily
challenged.

Hannah shook her head. “I cannot. Not when
priceless art went missing sometime during my honeymoon.”

“We’ll discover the truth,” Daphne promised,
rubbing her hands together. “I can hardly wait.”

Unfortunately, she had to wait longer than
she liked. Lord Brentfield came in just then and had to be
introduced to the gentlemen and offer his greetings to Hannah’s
friends. A tall, slender fellow with soft brown hair and blue eyes
that sparkled with mischief, he made sure to compliment each lady,
setting more than one to blushing with pleasure.

“And our valiant Amazon,” he said as he bowed
over Daphne’s hand. “Perhaps I can find you a dragon to slay.”

Ariadne sighed as he turned to speak to
Hannah. “He was doing so well until that comment. Amazons do not
slay dragons.”

“I warrant Daphne could,” Wynn said.

“Don’t overdo it,” Daphne cautioned in a
whisper as the others conversed with the handsome earl. “You
needn’t agree with everything I say.”

“Why not?” he said, smile gentle. “I
generally do agree with your sentiments. But if it would please you
more, I can start a fight.”“Tease,” she said with a shake of her
head.

Just then, her mother and Lady Minerva,
Emily’s aunt, came down and the introductions began all over again.
Both ladies wore dark dresses as befitted their role as chaperone,
though Daphne thought her mother’s burgundy gown brought out the
red in her blond hair while Lady Minerva’s black bombazine made the
gray-haired spinster look funereal. It didn’t help that she kept
gazing at Daphne and Wynn with narrowed eyes as if she suspected
they were up to something.

Daphne tried not to bristle. Lady Minerva
looked at everyone that way.

More concerning was the scowl on the butler’s
face when he came in to announce dinner. Daphne remembered Mr.
Asheram, the regal, dark-skinned gentleman who had served as more
than a butler when they had visited in the spring. He’d been stern,
but with an undercurrent of wry humor. In contrast, Mr. Harrop was
a bruiser: tall, muscular, with a heavy brow under his gray hair, a
hawk nose, and a rock-like jaw. He looked from one guest to the
other as if noting strengths and weaknesses before following them
in to dinner in Brentfield’s vast dining room at a damask-draped
table that could accommodate thirty.

A dainty porcelain basket at each place
setting contained a card that named the occupant of the chair, and
Daphne looked eagerly for her spot. Unfortunately, Hannah had
evidently tried to seat her guests according to rank, as etiquette
demanded, but that left Emily and Sir James far apart and put Wynn
between Priscilla and Lady Minerva.

“Trade,” Daphne whispered to Priscilla,
knowing Hannah would forgive her for changing the scheme a bit.
Priscilla promptly found a charming excuse to put Wynn between the
two of them instead. That left Priscilla next to Emily’s
acid-tongued aunt, and, by the look Priscilla cast Daphne, she knew
she would have to pay for the favor later.

Still, the meal went well, with much wit and
merriment despite the prim nods from her mother near the head of
the table. What interested Daphne more were the warm looks David
and Hannah kept sharing from their places at opposite ends of the
table. Now, there was love, to be able to converse with only a
meeting of glances, a soft smile, while the world went on about
them. Perhaps someday she’d have that kind of love.

If any gentleman could be persuaded to see
her as a woman!

“So, what did you think of Lady Brentfield’s
story?” Wynn murmured beside her.

The candlelight reflected in his dark hair,
which was more neatly combed than usual. For some reason, she
wanted to reach over and muss up the thick locks.

“I think we must help her learn the truth,”
Daphne responded, attacking the salmon instead. “Living in doubt
cannot be pleasant.”

“Agreed.” He took a mouthful of the peas in
cream sauce and chewed thoughtfully. “What do you advise? Patrol
the corridors as the butler tried? Lay a trap?”

Lady Minerva leaned around Priscilla. “Did
someone say something about traps?” She glanced at Priscilla with a
raised gray brow. Priscilla ignored her.

“Oh, is that not how someone caught this
marvelous salmon?” Wynn asked, glancing around the table. “My
compliments to your chef, Lady Brentfield.”

That got everyone praising Hannah and David
on the quality of the food, and the conversation veered onto safer
ground.

“I take it this investigation is to be a
secret?” Wynn murmured to Daphne under cover of reaching for the
salt.

Daphne nodded. “My friends and my sister know
why we’re here, but my mother and Lady Minerva must remain in
ignorance.”

“For their safety,” Wynn surmised.

“No, because they would try to stop us,”
Daphne told him, laying into her food once more. “Or, worse, insist
that this is a task for gentlemen. I cannot abide that.”

He reached out and patted her hand. “Someone
already filleted the salmon, Daphne. You do not need to beat it
into submission.”

She felt her face heating. “Forgive me. I do
know my manners. It’s just that we came here to stop a thief, and
here we are observing all the social niceties instead.”

“I would think thieves strike at night,” Wynn
said, forking up some of the flaky fish. “We can certainly lay our
plans by day.”

There was that. But already she could see her
mother frowning at her down the table. Either she too thought
Daphne’s eating habits too bold or her conversation too limited to
Wynn. Mr. Harrop set another plate of fish down next to her with a
steely-eyed look, as if thinking she had had more than her
fill.

“I doubt we’ll have time to talk this
evening,” she murmured to Wynn. “Keep your eyes and ears open, and
meet me at the stables at seven tomorrow.”

*

Wynn was at the stables at three quarters
past six. If there was one thing he’d learned about Daphne, it was
that she was rarely late for an engagement. She did not seem to
carry a pocket watch, and he’d known her to suddenly curtail an act
as if she knew she must be elsewhere, so it seemed as if she had an
inherent sense of time. Accordingly, he was already up on one of
Lord Brentfield’s fine steeds when she arrived in a riding habit of
a blue that matched her eyes, plumed shako of a similar color
riding on her hair.

“Did you hear anything, see anything, last
night?” she demanded as the groom went to fetch a horse for
her.

Wynn shook his head, tugging down on his own
navy riding coat. “I slept soundly. You?”

She puffed out a breath that set the curls on
either side of her face to bouncing. “Nothing, worse luck.” She
frowned at the docile brown mare the groom led out. “That cannot be
my horse.”

“Certainly not, miss,” he assured her as if
he hadn’t intended the horse for her.

She waved off the second mare as well,
earning her a puzzled frown from the fellow.

“Perhaps something more challenging,” Wynn
suggested. “Miss Courdebas is a bruising rider.”

She beamed at the white stallion the groom
brought out next.

Soon Wynn was cantering beside her across the
fields that ringed the manor, heading for a line of trees in the
distance. The sun was already warm on his back, the breeze soft
against his cheeks. Birds called from the garden. He thought he
caught the scent of lavender.

“Now can we discuss the investigation?” he
asked as they slowed the horses to a trot.

Daphne glanced around as if expecting to see
her mother or Lady Minerva bearing down on them. “Yes, I think
we’re safe.” She turned the horse to ride parallel with the trees,
and Wynn brought his mount alongside hers.

“I
liked your idea of a trap,” she admitted, the sunlight turning her
hair to gold.

“Do we know enough to choose the right bait?”
he mused.

She frowned, glancing his way. “What do you
mean?”

“A trap pulls in the unwary,” he explained.
“It offers something worth risking capture. We don’t know who’s
stealing the art. What bait could we offer to tempt them?”

She chewed on her lower lip a moment. “You’re
right. Oh, but I cannot like it. Miss Alexander, er, Hannah is such
a sweet person. I will not allow someone to worry her like
this.”

That was one of the things he admired about
her, her unstinting devotion to those she loved. Would that he
should inspire such devotion!

“A patrol might be wise to start,” he
suggested as she veered closer to the trees, the shadows of the
leaves crossing their path. “We could each take a particular part
of the house.”

“Have you seen the size of the house?” Daphne
shook her head, setting the feathers in her hat to waving. “I don’t
think we have enough people to cover it all. We should have invited
more guests to this house party.”

From out of the woods came a howl, loud,
angry. Daphne’s stallion shied, but his borrowed mount reared,
forcing him to clutch the pommel to stay in the saddle.

“Wynn!” Daphne cried, reining in her own
trembling horse.

He couldn’t manage an answer as the mare came
crashing down. Though he tugged on the reins, the creature insisted
on bolting for the stables for all she was worth.

His last sight of Daphne was her staring at
him open-mouthed as another man rode out of the woods and started
toward her.

Chapter Four

All Daphne could see was Wynn, jerking in the
saddle as his horse dashed for Brentfield. Putting a heel to her
own mount’s flank, she pelted after him.

He was a good rider. She knew that. But a
strange horse and unfamiliar surroundings could unnerve even the
best horseman. She was sure he’d recover shortly, but it was best
to stay close just in case.

And it made for an exhilarating ride.

She let the stallion have his head across the
field, the cool air rushing past her face, the sound of thundering
hooves filling her ears. She was an eagle, diving to the sea; a
porpoise skimming the waves of grass. All Society’s expectations,
all her own frustrations, were nothing compared to the feeling of
freedom.

Then something flew past her, heavy and dark,
and she realized another fellow had entered the lists. His
greatcoat flapping behind him like the wings of a bat, he veered
his powerful horse across her path. What was he doing? Couldn’t he
tell she had a purpose? Daphne turned her mount to avoid a
collision.

To her surprise, he came abreast and reached
out as if to take the reins from her.

“It’s all right,” he called. “I’ll save
you.”

Daphne jerked away from him, sending her
horse farther to the south. “Save yourself, sir. I’m fine.”
Clucking to the stallion, she urged the horse after Wynn.

But the stranger would not desist. Now he
kept pace with Daphne as if determined to ensure her safety. Daphne
resolved to ignore him. Up ahead, she spotted Wynn’s horse,
standing riderless. Her heart started pounding, harder than the
exertion required. Had he been thrown? Was he hurt? What should she
do?

She reined in a few feet away and slid from
the side saddle. Turf flying up, the stranger reined in as
well.

“Wynn!” she cried, hurrying forward, then
pulling back as the other Brentfield horse shied away from her.

Wynn hobbled around it, holding the halter.
“It’s all right. I’m fine.”

Daphne deflated. He was safe. He was whole.
By the look on his face, the horse’s reaction had merely frustrated
him. Yet how odd that the thought of him injured made her pulse
race faster than when she galloped her horse.

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