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London’s most talented criminal is about to be fingered…
Lady Viola Preston can relieve a gentleman of the studs at his wrists without his being any the wiser and pick any lock devised by man in less than a minute. But she’s careful to wear gloves when she steals jewels. Because when Viola touches a gemstone with her bare skin, it “speaks” to her, sending disturbing visions—visions almost as unsettling as the sight of the cool-eyed stranger who catches her red handed.
Now Viola will only be stealing at Greydon Quinn’s behest. And even more daunting than the violent history of the red diamond he’s after is the prospect of a night in the devastatingly handsome lieutenant’s arms. Touch has always been Viola’s weakness, and the full body-to-body contact Quinn has in mind is about to shatter her defenses and set her senses reeling.
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Amjerat, a principality of India
On any given day, someone writhed in exquisite pleasure at the home of the most sought after courtesan in Amjerat. Unfortunately for Captain Greydon Quinn, on this day it wasn’t him.
“Very good, Quinn-sahib,” Padmaa cooed as he lowered his mouth to her neck. She smelled of jasmine and musk and warm, roused woman. “You are fast becoming a master of the teachings of Vatsyayana.”
He was fast becoming too much for his trousers, but the exercise was about giving bliss to the woman, so only Padmaa was gloriously naked. When Quinn set out to learn the ancient pleasuring techniques from an obscure Sanskrit text called Kama Sutra, he realized there would be times during his sensual odyssey when sacrifice was required.
This was one of those times.
His groin ached in unrelenting need, but he concentrated on Padmaa’s hitched breathing and on every shivering muscle beneath her golden brown skin.
“You are the best student I have ever taught,” she said, her tone breathless. She took one of his hands and guided it over her belly to the soft, sweet delights between her legs.
By some oriental magic, Padmaa always removed all the small hairs on her body, even the ones covering her sex. Quinn found her smooth pudenda exotically erotic.
“Many of your countrymen come to me for training in the sensual arts, but so few complete the lessons.” She made a soft purring sound and tilted her pelvis into his questing fingers. “Why do you think that is so?”
The way his body throbbed for release, Quinn was having difficulty thinking much of anything.
“Attend, Quinn-sahib,” she said, when his fingertip slipped away from the spot Padmaa called her “little pearl.” “You can do two things at once.”
He drew a deep cleansing breath and resumed his intimate caress. Padmaa gave a soft moan of approval.
“I think it’s a matter of time that keeps them from completing the training,” he said through clenched teeth as he struggled with control. Her skin flushed hotly, sending a message of desire straight to his groin. It was all he could do not to yank down his trousers and bury himself in her soft wetness.
“Do we not all have the same length days, the same . . . heartbeats while we . . . live?”
Quinn was encouraged that Padmaa, an expert in the sensual arts, seemed to struggle with control as well.
“Yes, but we Englishmen divide our days up into nice, practical little hours and minutes.” When Quinn first arrived in India, he’d railed at the Asiatic disregard for punctuality. Since then he’d realized there were times when the eternal now could not be regimented into a Western schedule.
“No, I think it is because most Englishmen seek only their own satisfaction, not ways to please . . . their …women … oh!” Her dark eyes rolled back into her head and her body stiffened in preparation for release.
As she came in shimmering waves, Quinn glowed with reflected pleasure. It made a man achingly alive to bring a woman to such a peak.
He was sure she’d demonstrate her gratitude by returning the favor just as soon as she stopped convulsing.
There was a soft rap on the door. Quinn cursed under his breath. Padmaa rose shakily from their bed of cushions and wrapped a length of silk around her body. “Come.”
“That was my plan,” Quinn muttered. Pleasing a woman was all well and good, but a man had needs too.
It was Sanjay at the door, so Quinn rose to his feet.
“A thousand pardons, my friend.” No one would suspect the man in threadbare leggings and tunic was the Crown Prince of Amjerat. Quinn had accompanied him on several incognito adventures when he evaded his guards and slipped out of the palace, but it was the first time he had interrupted Quinn’s visit to Padmaa. “There is trouble at the temple.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“A Thugee band entered the outer court,” Sanjay said. “Already they have killed one of the priests.”
Not all devotees of the destroyer goddess Kali practiced ritual murder, but Quinn had heard a group of Thugee were traveling south on the Grand Trunk Road, leaving offerings to their goddess along the way. He usually practiced tolerance when it came to the beliefs of others, but garroted corpses left a particularly unsavory trail of breadcrumbs. Each kill was considered an act of puja, a veneration of Kali.
The British had attempted to quash the cult, but obviously some persisted. Now that this new band had reached Amjerat, Quinn could act against them.
He kissed Padmaa’s cheek. “My apologies. I must go.”
“Then your training is complete.” Her musical voice was tinged with regret. “To give bliss without thought of receiving is the goal of the enlightened soul.”
“I’m not all that enlightened.” Quinn growled in frustration as he shoved his Beaumont-Adams revolver into his belt. “Believe me, I bloody well thought about it.”
At a brisk trot, Quinn followed the prince into the sultry night and down a narrow alley toward the imposing temple in the center of Amjerat’s capital. They approached the temple’s side door in case the Thugs had posted a guard out front.
“What do they want in the temple?” Quinn whispered as he and Sanjay drew near. Most victims of thuggery were caught stumbling home from the local opium den, too wrapped in their lotus-eating haze to put up much of a fight.
“I fear it is Baaghh kaa kkhuun.”
“Blood of the Tiger?” Quinn translated for himself as he ran toward the small side door.
Sanjay followed. “Oh, yes. It is the red diamond that makes up the eye in our Shiva. It is said to contain immense power. In the wrong hands, the energy of Baaghh kaa kkhuun turns to evil.”
“Then let’s make sure it stays in the right hands, shall we?” Quinn drew his revolver, wishing he’d reloaded after target practice that afternoon. He’d been in too much of a hurry to get to Padmaa. He had only four shots instead of the usual twelve.
Quinn kicked open the door and bellowed at the gang to stop. When one was outnumbered, a bit of bravado rarely went amiss.
But it only served to put the gang on alert. Quinn counted ten of them. The Thug perched on two of the four arms of the massive statue at the far end of the temple tossed them a glance and continued prying the eye of the god out with a wicked-looking dagger.
Quinn raised his pistol and dropped four Thugs as they ran toward him and the prince, their long, curved swords glittering. He considered trying for the one clinging to Shiva, but the other four were closer. Besides, Prince Sanjay would take it badly if Quinn accidently put a bullet through his god.
As it was, he and the prince stood back to back, slicing away with their swords, fighting off the rest of the masked gang. Blades arcing, Quinn and Sanjay turned in concert, a stylized dance of death. None who came within their reach escaped without being cut.
It never failed to astound Quinn how battle heightened a man’s senses. He noted a hairy mole dividing the eyebrow of one of his attackers, the pungent smell of fenugreek and curry emanating from their flowing robes, and the strident scream when his blade opened a vein and a fountain of red spurted into the air.
He and his friend were both expert swordsmen, but if either of them went down, they were both dead.
The thugee defacing the god suddenly screeched out a high ululation. At the sound, the remaining band turned and ran after the man who had the red diamond clutched in a square of black silk.
Quinn and Sanjay gave chase, but soon lost them in the tangled rabbit warrens of the bazaar. Baaghh kaa kkhuun disappeared like a gob of spit into the Ganges. The red diamond left no trace as it descended into the rotting heart of Amjerat’s underworld.
This is positively, absolutely the last time, Lady Viola Preston promised herself as she squeezed through the ground floor window of the posh London town house.
Viola had contemplated Lady Henson’s new emerald necklace over the soup course at Lieutenant Quinn’s dinner party, but then the lieutenant let slip that he’d brought back a couple handfuls of uncut stones from India. A newly returned nabob shouldn’t flaunt the details of his wealth if he didn’t wish to be relieved of it.
Viola’s fence would have to chop up Lady Henson’s necklace and even then, the gems were large and of a uniquely deep color. They might be recognized. Uncut stones—one of them big as a peach pit, if the lieutenant were to be believed— were nigh untraceable. Viola would get full value for them.
And then she’d stop.
Only once more, Viola vowed silently. Though, like the Shakespearean heroine for whom she was named, she’d miss wearing men’s trousers from time to time. They were ever so much more comfortable than a corset and hoops.
From somewhere deep in the elegant town house came a low creak. Viola held her breath. The longcase clock in the main hall ticked. When she heard nothing else, she realized it was only the sigh of an older home squatting down on its foundation for the night.
The room she’d broken into held the stale scents of cigar smoke and brandy from the dinner party of the previous evening. But there were no fresh smells. Perhaps Lieutenant Quinn had taken Lord Montjoy up on his offer to introduce Quinn at Montjoy’s club that evening.
Probably visiting a brothel instead. No matter. The house was empty. Why made no difference at all.
She cat footed up the main stairs, on the watch for the help. The lieutenant hadn’t fully staffed his home yet, but had brought a native servant back with him from India. During the dinner party, Viola had noticed the turbaned fellow in the shadows, directing the borrowed footmen and giving quiet commands to the temporary serving girls.
The Indian servant would most likely be in residence.
So long as I steer clear of the kitchen or the garret, I’ll be fine, Viola told herself. She knew the stones would be in Lieutenant Quinn’s chamber.
Her fence had a friend in the brick mason’s guild who, for a pretty price, happily revealed the location of the ton’s secret stashes. Town houses on that fashionable London street were all equipped with identical wall safes in the master’s chamber. The newfangled tumbler lock would open without protest under Viola’s deft touch.
She had a gift. Two, actually, but she didn’t enjoy the other one half so much.
Slowly, she opened the bedchamber door. Good. It had been oiled recently. She heard only the faint scrape of hinges.
The heavy damask curtains were drawn, so Viola stood still, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the deeper darkness. There! A landscape in a gilt frame on the south wall marked the location of the safe.
Viola padded across the room and inched the painting’s hanging wires along the picture rail, careful not to let the hooks near the ceiling slide off. She’d have the devil’s own time reattaching them if they did. With any luck at all, she’d slide the painting right back and it might be days before Lieutenant Quinn discovered the stones were missing. After moving the frame over about a foot, she found the safe right where Willie’s friend had said it would be.
Viola put her ear to the lock and closed her eyes, the better to concentrate. When she heard a click or felt a slight hitch beneath her touch she knew she’d discovered part of the combination. After only a few tries and errors, the final tumbler fell into place and Viola opened the safe.
The dark void was empty. She reached in to trace the edges of the iron box with her fingertips.
“Looking for something?” A masculine voice rumbled from a shadowy corner.
Blast! Viola bolted for the door, but it slammed shut. The Indian servant stepped from his place of concealment behind it.
“Please do not make to flee or I am sorry to say I shall have to shoot you.” The Hindu’s melodious accent belied his serious threat.
Viola ran toward the window, hoping it was open behind the curtain. And that there was a friendly bush below to break her fall.
Lieutenant Quinn grabbed her before she reached it, crushing her spine to his chest. His large hand splayed over one of her unbound breasts.
“Bloody hell! It’s a woman. Turn up the gas lamp, Sanjay.”
The yellow light of the wall sconce flooded the room. Viola blinked against the sudden brightness, then stomped down on her captor’s instep as hard as she could.
Quinn grunted, but didn’t release his hold. He whipped her around to face him, his brows shooting up in surprise when he recognized her. “Lady Viola, you can’t be the Mayfair Jewel Thief.”
“Of course, I can.” She might be a thief, but she was no liar. “I’d appreciate it, sir, if you’d remove your hands from my person.”
“I bet you would.” The lieutenant’s mouth turned down in a grim frown and he kept his grip on her upper arms.
His Indian servant didn’t lower the revolver’s muzzle one jot. “Did I not tell you, sahib? When she looked at the countess’s emeralds, her eyes glowed green.” The servant no longer wore his turban, his coal-black hair falling in ropy strands past his shoulders. “She is a devil, this one.”
“Perhaps.” Quinn lifted one of his dark brows. “But if that’s the case, my old vicar was right. The devil does know how to assume pleasing shapes.”
That was a backhanded compliment if Viola ever heard one. She hadn’t considered Lieutenant Quinn closely during the dinner party. She had little time for men and the trouble they brought a woman. Once burned and all that. She’d been intent on Lady Henson’s emeralds. Now she studied him with the same assessing gaze he shot at her.
Quinn’s even features were classically handsome. His unlined mouth and white teeth made Viola realize suddenly that he was younger than she’d first estimated. She doubted he’d seen thirty-five winters. His fair English skin had been bronzed by fierce Indian summers and lashed by its weeping monsoons. His stint in India had rewarded him with riches, but the subcontinent had demanded its price.
His storm-gray eyes were all the more striking because of his deeply tanned skin. They seemed to look right through her and see her for the fraud she was—a thief with pretensions of being a lady.
Quinn glanced at his servant. “Looks like I owe you a hundred rupees.” He shook his head. “My money was on Viscount Fenway. He’s been a cad ever since we were at Eton together. I thought he’d graduated from cheating on exams to lifting jewels.” He released her arms and took Viola’s hand, making a slight obeisance over it. “My apologies for doubting you, milady. It appears you are the light-fingered wretch we hoped to catch this evening.”
“There’s no reason for rude names.” She snatched her hand away. Perhaps if she kept him talking, she might sidle over to the door and escape. It would be his word against hers and no one who hadn’t seen her unlock a safe would believe her capable of it. “A liar has very few stones to throw. Didn’t you say you’d join Lord Montjoy at his club this night?”
“Yes, I did, but standing up a friend at his club and relieving a man of his jewels are not sins of the same magnitude, are they?”
“Relieving a man of his jewels.” She shot a wicked glare at him. “Now there’s a thought.”
Viola wished she could call the words back as soon as they left her lips. Her association with Willie had exposed her to so many overheard vulgarities while she waited for his shop to clear long enough for them to conduct their business. It was coarsening her sensibilities. No lady would ever think such a thing, much less say it.
Quinn snorted. “You’ll pardon me if I don’t quake in my boots”—his grin faded—“but I didn’t lie. I spread misinformation. A time-honored tactic used with good reason.”
“I suppose you think I couldn’t possibly have a good reason for my actions.” She took a nonchalant step or two toward the door.
Broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, Quinn matched her movement with the sinuous grace of a great cat. If she had to flirt her way out of this predicament, it wouldn’t be the most onerous task she’d ever undertaken. But she’d only go so far. If she’d been willing to sell herself in the first place, she wouldn’t have had to resort to theft. “I suppose you mean to denounce me and see me ruined.”
“I greatly fear I’m too late to be the instrument of your ruin, milady.”
Viola brought her hand up sharply to slap him, but he caught her arm in mid-swing and held it motionless. His intense gaze froze the rest of her. There was a thin scar running through one of his eyebrows toward the side part in his sable hair. Lieutenant Quinn might be rakishly handsome, but he was also a man of action. Dangerous. Among the men of the ton, he’d stand out as feral in the midst of domesticated stock.
“My servant has a loaded revolver pointed at your midsection and he’s overprotective to a fault.” His voice dropped to a low purr of silky menace. “Are you certain you wish to strike me?”
“A lady cannot defend her honor without threat of gunshot?”
“So there is honor among thieves. I’d wondered about that.” He motioned for the Hindu to lower his weapon with his other hand, while keeping hold of Viola’s wrist. “That’ll be all, Sanjay. The lady and I have things to discuss.”
“As you wish.” The Indian stowed the firearm in his wide sash belt and pressed both his palms together in a gesture of farewell. “Namaste. But guard yourself from demons, sahib”— he shot an evil glare at Viola—“however pleasingly they disguise themselves.” He slipped out the door as quietly as silk flowing over bare skin.
“I demand you release me.” Viola’s wrist throbbed in Quinn’s tight grip. She didn’t want him to become aware of how fast her heart was hammering.
“You’re in no position to make demands. Do you plan on taking another swipe at me?”
“Not unless you do something to deserve it.”
“Fair enough.” Quinn let her go and sat on the foot of his bed. “Now I’m fully prepared to hear why you’ve chosen to risk shame and prison for a few baubles.”
“You would sit while a lady stands?”
“Of course not.” He hooked an ankle over one knee. “Should a lady break into my bedchamber in the dead of night, be assured I will stand.”
Viola narrowed her eyes. If he was set on insulting her, he’d never be moved by her plight. She drew her lips tight together. He did not deserve a front row seat at a recitation of her private pain.
“You’re welcome to sit, too, if you like.” He patted the brocade counterpane beside him.
“I’ll stand.” She folded her arms beneath her breasts. “Being a thief and being a lady are not mutually exclusive.”
“It’ll be hard to convince the magistrate of that.”
“If you planned to turn me over to the authorities, we wouldn’t still be here.” Viola hoped she was right. It would kill her mother if she were arrested.
“Clever girl. I don’t plan on hauling you before the magistrate. I shall have to add astute to your list of qualities,” he said with a grudging nod. “Did you know The Mayfair Jewel Thief is famous even in Bombay? Stealthy. Only takes from those who can well afford to lose. Never fooled by fake jewels. You see why we set out to catch you.”