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 (6 page)

BOOK: Love and Larceny
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Daphne started, then peered closer. Surely
that was a man pressed back under the overhanging branches. There
was something familiar about the broad shoulders, the tall shape.
But before she could determine how she knew him, he darted behind
the trunk.

“Lost something, Miss Courdebas?” Mr.
Sheridan asked, coming out of the woods behind her.

Daphne turned as best she could in the side
saddle to meet his gaze. “Apparently not, for here you are. Who’s
your friend?”

He lifted a brow. “My dearest friend is
sitting right before me, and looking rather fetching, I might
add.”

It was a sweet sentiment, but Daphne’s gaze
was drawn to where she’d seen the other man. The shadow had
vanished, and she could not say that it had ever been associated
with Mr. Sheridan. Indeed, she almost had the feeling the stranger
had been watching the rest of the cavalcade, the first of which was
beginning to catch up with her and her guest.

Daphne and Mr. Sheridan fell in line behind
their hosts. He chatted charmingly, making Daphne smile and Hannah
laugh. It wasn’t until they had returned to the stables that she
realized she had forgotten all about Wynn.

“Did you enjoy the woods?” she asked as he
climbed down from his mount.

Wynn glanced to where Mr. Sheridan was
kissing Hannah’s hand in thanks for the ride. “The view proved
unexpectedly disappointing.”

Daphne was just glad to find when they
changed clothes and regrouped for dinner that Hannah had rearranged
the seating, very likely to accommodate the presence of Mr.
Sheridan. Daphne and Priscilla sat on either side of their hostess,
with their beaus on the other and the newest guest farther down the
table. Talking to Wynn about nothing more momentous than pigeon pie
and roast beef went a long way to restoring her balance. She would
have liked to ask him if he’d noticed anything odd in the woods,
but she didn’t want to discuss the matter with her mother and Lady
Minerva at hand.

As Lord Brentfield had promised, a string
quartet was tuning up as they all adjourned to a long gallery at
the back of the house after dinner. The space had damask-draped
walls of an ocean blue, with a dais at one end for the musicians.
Comfortable armchairs lined the walls, and a crystal chandelier
sent light sparkling in all directions.

Mr. Sheridan approached Daphne straight away,
bowing before her. “Miss Courdebas, I hope you’ll favor me with a
dance.”

He was so impressive in his evening
black—tailcoat, breeches, white Marcella waistcoat, and perfectly
tied cravat. Her hand was in his before her lips opened to voice
agreement.

The lady chaperones, Wynn, Emily, and Sir
James sat out the first set, leaving four couples to take to the
polished wood floor. It was a simple country air, with much hopping
back and forth, just the sort of dance Daphne favored. The
appreciation shining from Mr. Sheridan’s gaze as he took her hands
to skip up the line warmed her. She could have gone on long after
the notes faded.

Lord Brentfield went to invite her mother for
the next set, and Sir James offered for Lady Minerva, who refused
him with a sniff of her long nose. He grinned as he offered his arm
to Emily instead, making her aunt’s eyes narrow. Mr. Sheridan
stepped in and offered to sit out with the steely-haired chaperone,
earning him a nod of approval. How nice that everyone had a chance
to dance if they wished.

Everyone except Wynn.

He sat near Lady Minerva along the wall,
smiling pleasantly at the dancers, but he didn’t fool Daphne. She
knew how badly he wanted to join the fun. She could see his evening
shoe tapping against the floor as the music started again. The only
time he attended balls in London was when he was escorting her. She
made her way to his side and plunked down next to him.

“Lord Brentfield isn’t trying to be hurtful,”
she murmured as the dancers bowed and curtsied to their partners.
“Very likely he didn’t think about your injury when he arranged
this.”

“And for that I bless him,” Wynn said. “I’d
rather no one think overmuch about my injury. I try not to.”

Daphne watched as the partners took hands and
spun around each other. The swirl of Priscilla’s filmy white skirt
made her look as if she was dancing on air.

“What would you like to be doing?” Daphne
asked. “Other than dancing?”

He shot her a grin. “Exploring those secret
passages you promised me.”

Daphne grinned back. “Me too, but it seems
Lord Brentfield is determined to entertain us in other ways.”

Mr. Sheridan leaned around Lady Minerva to
eye them. “Did you say secret passages?”

“Apparently not,” Lady Minerva snapped. “Or
Lord Brentfield wouldn’t have to resort to hopping about like a
popinjay to keep us busy.”

He looked abashed and leaned back.

“At least there’s riding,” Daphne called in
commiseration.

Wynn rose. “But not tonight. I think I’ll
turn in early. Your servant, Miss Courdebas, Lady Minerva,
Sheridan.” With a sharp bow, he started for the door, limp more
pronounced than usual.

It wasn’t right. He shouldn’t have to feel
left out. She was certain Lord Brentfield had a game of chess in
the library. Perhaps she could challenge Wynn to play. Daphne rose
and hurried after him.

*

If Wynn had been confident his leg would hold
up, he would have stalked off in high dudgeon. It had been
difficult enough watching Sheridan ride beside Daphne, her laughter
at his quips floating back on the warm summer air. Then Wynn had
had to watch the two dance together, delight shining on their
faces. Knowing he could never have the experience was too much.
Might as well clear the field.

But Daphne would have none of it. She caught
up with him just outside the gallery door.

“Stay,” she urged, catching his arm. “It
won’t be the same without you.”

She knew just what to say to give him hope.
“That’s very kind of you, but I think I’ve had enough excitement
for the day.”

She squeezed his arm, eyes crinkling up. “Are
you certain? You never tire easily in town. Come on. Lord
Brentfield must have a chess game.”

She truly was being kind. He always beat her
at chess. In fact, she’d probably be annoyed if she knew how he
held back to prolong the game as much as possible. It didn’t bother
him that she couldn’t remember the moves or develop a strategy. She
was vibrant, so very alive. She deserved to dance, not sit along
the wall or across a table with him.

“Perhaps another night,” he told her with a
smile.

She cocked her head so that a curl brushed
her cheek. “But I have a new mystery for you. I saw a man in the
woods this afternoon. I think he may have been watching us.”

Wynn couldn’t help perking up. “Interesting.
I take it you didn’t recognize him.”

She shook her head. “No. He was back against
a tree. I’m lucky to have even spotted his shadow. Do you think he
could be our thief?”

“Possibly,” Wynn allowed. “Though it would
seem to make more sense for him to watch the house rather than us
riding through the woods.”

She sighed as she released him. “I suppose
you’re right. Maybe I just want something exciting to happen.” She
turned for the door, then froze, hand flashing out to grip his once
again. “Wynn, look!”

The urgency in her voice forced his gaze
across the corridor to where double glass-paned doors gave out onto
the rear garden. Someone was passing the glass now, darting so
swiftly Wynn might think he had imagined it. Gooseflesh pimpled his
skin.

“Come on!” Daphne cried, tugging on his hand.
“That must be our thief! After him!”

Chapter Seven

Daphne didn’t wait for Wynn to respond. She
knew he wanted to discover the truth as much as she did. She dashed
to the doors and peered out into the night. Just outside, a narrow
terrace let down into the garden. Lord Brentfield had had torches
lit, so that the stone glowed brightly enough to see that the space
was empty.

Wynn shambled up beside her. “Did you see
where he went?”

Daphne shook her head. “But I’m sure we might
spy him if we stepped outside.”

She reached for the door handle, and Wynn put
his hand down over hers. “Wait. We should fetch the others.”

Daphne paused. “I suppose that’s only fair,
but he might get away. Come on, Wynn. Don’t you want to be the one
to say you found the thief first?”

She could see the struggle behind his
sea-green eyes, even through his spectacles. He regularly put
himself out to prove his prowess, so she wasn’t surprised when he
snapped a nod and released her so she could twist the handle.

They slipped out onto the terrace. The
evening was clear, with stars twinkling over the fields. She could
smell lavender on the air. Something called from the wood, the
sound lonely, sad. But nothing moved anywhere that she could
see.

Wynn’s head turned as he scanned the area as
well. “We’ve lost him already.”

Daphne glanced up at the house. “Perhaps he
scaled the wall. That’s what thieves do, don’t they?”

She could hear the smile in Wynn’s voice.
“That’s what you would do if you were a thief, I have no doubt. But
if he had started climbing, I suspect we’d see him hanging off the
stone, or crawling in through a window. Everything looks locked up
tight.”

Daphne puffed out a breath as she turned back
to him. “Worse luck.”

“It might have been a gardener,” he
suggested, smile gentle. “Or a groom hurrying back to the stables
after a meeting with a friendly maid.”

“Perhaps,” she allowed. “Maybe we should take
a walk around the grounds, just to be certain.”

“You will do no such thing.”

At the sound of the familiar voice, Daphne
turned to find her mother standing in the doorway from the house.
Her arms were crossed over the chest of her burgundy gown, her
brows raised and mouth tight.

“What are you thinking?” she demanded. “You
cannot traipse about the grounds at all hours of the night.”

Since the moon was just rising beyond the
wood, Daphne knew it could not be so late. Certainly she’d stayed
out longer at balls in London. Why was her mother harping on that
string?

“We saw someone out here,” Daphne told her.
“So naturally we had to investigate.”

“Naturally,” her mother drawled. “And
naturally you had to bring Mr. Fairfax with you.”

Who else? Honestly, her mother could be so
obtuse. And people considered Daphne dim!

“I insisted on accompanying Miss Courdebas to
assist her,” Wynn offered.

“How very gentlemanly,” her mother said.
“Particularly as that assistance involved being alone together in
the dark.”

“Well, thieves do tend to strike at night,
Mother,” Daphne pointed out. “Have you never read a Gothic
novel?”

“What I read is immaterial, young lady,” her
mother said, eyes flashing fire. “Your conduct is inexcusable. You
will retire to your room immediately.”

Frustration curled up inside her like smoke.
“But Mother . . .”

“And as for you, Mr. Fairfax,” her mother
continued as if Daphne had not spoken, “I advise you to watch your
step. We are odd man at table, and your presence is no longer
required.”

Wynn blanched. Daphne’s frustration burst
into flames. How dare her mother imply that Wynn could be dispensed
with like a worn-out riding habit!

“Mr. Fairfax’s company is very much needed,”
she told her mother, taking a step closer to Wynn. “He is kind and
sensible and a good friend to all.”

“Such a good friend that he kissed you in
public and then arranged to be caught alone with you,” her mother
scolded. “Open your eyes, Daphne. Mr. Fairfax knows he cannot win
you, so he’s resorted to forcing you to marry him by ruining your
reputation.”

Daphne frowned at Wynn, who could not seem to
meet her gaze. She knew she was often the last person to see the
evil in others, but surely her mother was wrong. Daphne had had to
convince Wynn to join her on this caper, just as she’d had to
convince him to come out onto the terrace. The only thing he had
instigated had been the kiss.

Which truly had been marvelous.

Wynn spoke now before she could, his voice
firm but gentle. “I would never do anything to harm your daughter,
Lady Rollings. I admire her too much.”

“And yet I find you here together, with this
improbable tale of chasing a thief.” Her mother raised her head. “I
only wish Lord Rollings had come with us so that he could give you
the thrashing that you—”

Daphne blinked, watching as her mother’s
mouth hung open, gaze fixed on the terrace beyond them. Whirling,
she saw a man sneaking past the lower steps. Torchlight glittered
on the barrel of a musket in his arms.

“There!” Daphne cried, pointing. “Do you see
him? Come on, Wynn!”

The man glanced up, eyes wide under his tweed
cap. Then he dashed off around the side of the stairs.

Daphne started forward, but a noise behind
her made her spin around again.

Just in time to see her mother collapse in
Wynn’s arms.

*

Wynn sagged as he bore the limbless weight of
Daphne’s mother. Daphne ran back to him and helped him ease Lady
Rollings onto the carpet just inside the door.

“She fainted,” Daphne said, voice awed. “My
mother never faints. She says it’s the last gambit of the weak and
witless.”

“And your mother is neither,” Wynn
acknowledged, straightening. A glance out the door proved what he
had feared. Their so-called thief had vanished.

Daphne gazed down at her mother. “What should
we do with her?”

“Attempt to wake her, I suppose.” Wynn caught
Daphne’s arm as she started to bend. “But first, I want you to know
there is no truth in her allegations. I never set out to compromise
you, Daphne.”

“Of course you didn’t.” Her confidence went a
long way to unwinding the knot her mother’s words had tied in his
chest. She sighed. “I just wish she hadn’t cost us our chance to
catch the thief.”

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