Lady Quince Winthrop had always known she was the unfortunate sort of lass who could resist everything but temptation. And the man across the ballroom was temptation in a red velvet coat. There was something about him—some aura of English arrogance, some presumption of privilege—that tempted her beyond reason, beyond caution, and beyond sense. Something that tempted her to steal from him. Right there in the Countess of Inverness’s ballroom. In the middle of the ball.
Which was entirely out of character. Not the stealing—she stole as naturally as she breathed. But because the other thing that Lady Quince Winthrop had always known, was that the most important thing about stealing was not where one relieved a person of his valuable chattels. Nor when. Nor how. Nor even what particular wee trinket one slipped into one’s hidden pockets. Nay.
The tricky bit was always from whom one stole.
When one robbed from the rich, one had to be careful. Pick the wrong man, or woman for that matter—too canny, too important, too powerful—and even the perfect plan could collapse as completely as a plum custard in a cupboard. Which made it all the more curious when she ignored her own advice, and picked the wrong man anyway.Whoever he was, he stood with his back to her, his white-powdered hair in perfect contrast to that red velvet coat so vivid and plush and enticing that Quince was drawn to it like a Spanish bull to a bright swirling cape. Unlike the gaudily embroidered suits worn by the other men, the crimson coat was entirely unadorned but for two gleaming silver buttons that winked at her in the candlelight, practically begging her to nip one of the expensive little embellishments right off his back.
A button like that could feed a family of six for a fortnight.
And while her itchy-fingered tendency toward theft was perhaps not the most sterling of characteristics in an otherwise well brought up young Scotswoman, no one was perfect. And it was so very hard to be good all the time.
She had much rather be bad, and be right.
So Quince took advantage of the terrific crush in Lady Inverness’s ballroom, slipped her finger into the tiny ring knife she kept secreted in the muslin folds of her bodice for just such an occasion, and sidled up behind Crimson Velvet.
She did not pause, nor give herself a moment to think on what she was about to do. She ignored the chitter of warning racing across her skin, and set straight to it, diverting his attention by brushing her bodice quite purposefully against his back, while she nipped the button off as easily as if it were a snap pea in a garden.
The elation was like a rush of blood to the head—intoxicating and addictive.
And because that was what she did—regularly stole fine things from finer people in the finest of ballrooms—she wasn’t satisfied with only the one button. Nay. Another six mouths could be fed, and Quince could live all week on the illicit thrill of having taken the second button as well, and gotten away clean.
Except that she didn’t get away clean.
She didn’t get away at all.
A very large hand clamped onto Quince’s wrist like a shackle. A red velvet-clad hand.
Alarm jumped onto her chest like a sharp-clawed cat, but Quince kept her head, automatically tucking the buttons and knife down the front of her bodice, and winding her now-empty free hand around that crimson velvet waist. She pressed herself to his backside more firmly, and familiarly, and said the first unexpected thing that came to her mind. “Darling!”
Crimson Velvet went as stiff as a bottle of Scotch whisky. “Good Lord. What’s this?”
Alarm faded as recognition, and something that really oughtn’t be delight curled into her veins. She knew that deceptively easy tone. Strathcairn. Earl thereof.
Oh, holy clotted cream.
The Laughing Highlander, she had once called him. But the Highlander was not laughing now. He was looking down at her with a sort of astonished wonder. “Wee Quince Winthrop, is that you? Good Lord.” He stepped away—though he did not let go of her wrist—to case her as thoroughly as she ought to have done him. “I would not have recognized you.”
She had clearly not recognized him. But the man gripping her wrist was neither the powdered dandy she had imagined from across the ballroom, nor the amusing, carefree Earl of Strathcairn she remembered. This man was different, and as dazzling in his own way as the shining silver buttons she had secreted down her soft-pleated bodice.
Firstly, he was as irresistibly attractive as that red velvet suit—all precise, well-cut shoulders, and long lean torso that seemed a far cry from the rangy, not-yet-fully-formed man in his youth. But secondly—and more importantly—he was much more controlled, more…curated, as if he had carefully chosen this particularly splendid view of himself to show the world. As if he not only wanted, but demanded to be seen.
Quite the opposite of Quince, who minded her appearance only to make sure she blended into the crowd—if her sister told her this season everyone was wearing white chemise dresses, then a white chemise dress she wore, disappearing into a sea of similarly dressed swans.
By contrast, Strathcairn looked every bit an individual, and quite, quite splendid. His waistcoat was of the same saturated color as his coat, and his snow-bright linen with only the barest hint of lace was the perfect foil for his immaculately powdered hair.
On any other man such a look might have appeared plain and underdone, but on Strathcairn the blaze of unadorned velvet served to highlight the force of his personality.
And there was nothing she liked as much as personality, unless it was a challenge.
The earl appeared to be both.
“Why, Strathcairn.” She made her voice everything breezy and cordial. As if her heart were not beating in her ears, and dangerous delight were not dancing down her veins. “It’s been an age.”
“Too long, from the looks of it.” He stepped close—too close, not that she particularly minded—and looked down at her in a perilously attentive way, like a great, green-eyed tomcat eyeing up a wee mouse. The effect was most unsettling. It put her right off her stride. “Do you often embrace men you haven’t seen in years?”
It had been exactly five years. He had briefly been one of her eldest sister Linnea’s suitors then—newly elected a Member of Parliament, and headed to London, brilliant and ambitious. Quince remembered thinking the lanky Highlander was too tall, too clever, too canny, and far too insightful for tiny, fluttery Linnea, who adored nothing more than to be made a pet of.
Strathcairn hadn’t seemed the type to keep pets.
Quince had been little more than a fourteen-year-old lass, but she had quite liked the young man’s intelligence, nearly as much as his vibrant charm. Though what she liked best of all was his lovely, buttery smile that had made her feel like she was melting in the sun.
Strathcairn was certainly not pouring the butter boat over her now—his eyes might have been smiling, but from this angle, his chiseled jaw seemed to have been carved out of Grampian granite.
No matter. Quince was not Linnea—she was no one’s pet. “I thought you were someone else,” she lied without effort or qualm. “You’ve changed.”
“So, my indiscreet young friend, have you.” The barest hint of amusement in his glorious baritone was all that was necessary to bring back all the delicious torment of her youthful infatuation. “What in heaven’s name did you think you were doing, calling me ‘darling’?”
“Thought you were my Davie.” Quince made up a convenient beau on the spot. “I must find where the darling lad’s got to.”
Strathcairn let out a low, disbelieving bark of laughter, but didn’t let go of her wrist. “You can’t be old enough to be making assignations with men, wee Quince.”
He trespassed easily on the old acquaintance by calling her by her Christian name—if Papa’s botanically inspired names for his daughters could even be called Christian. Strathcairn also crossed the lines of familiar behavior by turning her toward the door, and somehow settling her against his side in such a subtle, but insistent, way, that not a person in the place would have suspected she was being all but frog-marched from the ballroom.
Even though she was grown up now, and towered over tiny Linnea, Quince still had to leg it to keep up with Strathcairn’s long strides, all the while craning her neck to get a proper close look at him.
He looked so different, with his hair powdered white, and this controlled look upon his face, as if his smile had been put away in a cupboard, like a cravat that no longer fit. This new Strathcairn was far more imposing, and much, much more intimidating looming beside her like one of the great statues at Holyrood Palace than he had ever seemed all those years ago when she had keeked out at him from behind the drawing room curtains.
But she was not four and ten now. Quince let him tow her only as far as a conveniently empty alcove at the end of the entrance hall, before she rounded her elbow out of his grip, and served him a sharp, instructive jab in the ribs—anger brought out the Scots in her. “I’d be much obliged if you’d take your great paws off of me, Strathcairn. You’re creasing my gown.”
He subdued his grunt of discomfort, but put a hand absently to his side. “My paws”—he gave the word a wry intonation—“are not great in the least. They’re rather average. For a Scot.” At last he let the gorgeously rough Scots burr rumble beneath the town polish of his Member-of-Parliament accent. “Your gown is barely creased, and not by me, but by that interminable crush. Or more likely by this Davie fellow. And who the devil is he?” Strathcairn’s green gaze poured over her like chilly water. “He can’t possibly be a worthy mon if he lets a lass like you caress him in public. You’re too young for suitors.”
By jimble, but he had grown into an even more attractive man himself over the years, despite this polished, urbane facade. Or perhaps because of it—his worldliness gave him an attractive look of experienced wisdom. Quite irresistible.
“I’m not young anymore, either. I’m nineteen.”
This he acknowledged with a wry sideways slant of his head, as if she were so out of kilter that the acute angle somehow made it easier to see her. “A very bad age to be an accomplished liar. And flirt.” Strathcairn finally released her arm.
Much to her chagrin—which was all the emotion she would allow to account for the strange warmth suffusing her face—she found she missed the contact. How disconcerting.
So she changed the subject. Without flirting. “What are you doing in Edinburgh?”
“I’ve come north to see to Castle Cairn now that my grandfather’s passed on.”
Something that must have been sincerity stabbed her hard in the chest. “I am sorry, Strathcairn. He was a grand auld gent.”
It was the right thing to say—Strathcairn’s whole demeanor softened enough to show her more of the young man she had admired beneath his curated veneer. Even those glittering eyes went soft at the edges. “Thank you. He was, wasn’t he?”
“Aye.” The Marquess of Cairn had been a cavalier of the old school, gentlemanly, generous and bold. He had raised Strathcairn when his son, Strathcairn’s father and the prior earl, had passed away suddenly during Straithcairn’s youth. “He’ll be missed. Oh—that means you’re Cairn now.”
Strathcairn—for she could think of him no other way even if he were now Marquess of Cairn—lowered that chiseled chin, and nodded in rueful agreement. “Aye. And he’s left large boots to fill. So I’m seeing to Cairn.” He took a deep breath as if he were collecting himself before he raised his head, and added, “But before I head north to home, I’ve also been asked to see to a rather persistent problem plaguing Edinburgh.”
A softer sense of alarm—or perhaps it was guilt—padded across her shoulders like a stealthy barn cat. She made light of it, as she always did. “The persistent plague of too many ladies and not enough gentlemen? I do hope you’ve come prepared to dance.”
The first hint of a smile began at the far corner of his lips, as if he were not yet ready to commit to the strenuous exercise of a full-out grin. “No. I rarely dance.” He shook his head in rueful apology. “No, the problem I speak of is a rash of thefts from some of the better households in the district. I’ve been asked to restore some sense of law and order within Edinburgh’s society.”
“On guard” was too simple and sensible a phrase to describe her reaction—Quince’s skin went a little cold, and that sharp-clawed sense of alarm scratched its way down her spine. But she rose to the occasion—she knew better than most how to put up her weapons. To win any sort of fight, one had to attack, not just defend. And satire was the sharpest sword of them all.
“Restore law and order?” She made herself suitably wide-eyed and breathless. “I hadn’t realized we were lacking it. Ought we to be on watch for gangs of housebreakers?”
“No, no. Nothing like that.” He looked sage and worldly with all his unruffled calm, but she could see a tinge of riddy heat creeping over his collar. “Though it’s too early to tell. But certainly too early for worry. Pray don’t be alarmed, lass.”
Quince’s skin went all over prickly—nothing put her back up like being condescended to.
She sharpened up her sarcasm so he would not be able to so easily evade her point. “Holy sticky toffee pudding, Strathcairn”—she decided if he could trespass upon her Christian name, then she would trespass upon his old title—“imagine that. A gang of cutthroat housebreakers carting off priceless Louis Quatorze commodes to furnish their tatty tenement houses. How have the newspapers and broadsheets not been full of that?”
His smile confined itself to the outer corners of those intelligent green eyes. “No priceless commodes have been carted off.”
“Auld occasional tables, then? Scaffy, mismatched chairs?”
“You needn’t mock, lass. It’s not ladylike.” He put a hand up to rub the back of his neck, as if she really were succeeding in making him uncomfortable. Marvelous. And he had to subdue his growing smile—it started to hitch up one side of his mouth, as if he wanted to be amused, but was sure he oughtn’t be. “If you must know, it’s been very small items—smelling salt bottles, buttons, and the like.”
And her with his two buttons down her bodice. She could feel them press into her skin as if they were biting her. Unsurprising since they were his.
Quince was too larky a lass to let a bit of her discomfort show. “Really? You’ve never abandoned Westminster, and come all the way north from London for some missing smelling salts?”
He had the good nature to look chagrined—that wary smile turned down sheepishly at the corners. “Not exactly. It’s more complicated than that.”
In fact, it was a great deal simpler than that. And she could not resist telling him so. “Well, it’s a very good thing you told me.”She lowered her voice in mock confidence. “Because I’m sure I know exactly what’s happened to them.”
He did not lean down to share her confidences. If anything, he became more upright, and even tilted away from her, as if he thought he could see her better from a distance. “You, lass?”
“Aye.” She seized him by the upper arms, and man-handled him around—and by jimble if he hadn’t the brawest, most firmly shaped musculature hidden under that soft, plush velvet—so he could follow the direction of her gaze. “There. Mr. Fergus McElmore has misplaced his snuffbox there, right under that vase of heather and broom. See? And there”—she pushed him in the other direction—“the Dowager Countess of Chester has abandoned her silver vinaigrette bottle in the cushion of her seat. Q.E.D. as you parliamentary types say.” She made a dramatic flourish as if she were a theatrical barrister in court. “There is themodus operandi of your thefts, Strathcairn—silly stupidity at worst, simple thoughtlessness at best. Though in Fergus’ case particularly, I think the thoughtlessness has come from an excess of Lady Inverness’s fine Scotch whisky befuddling his poor wee numptie brain.”
A fine coloring heat crept up Strathcairn’s neck to his jawline. It lessened that impression of Grampian granite nicely.
He shook his head, but smiled nonetheless. “You think me foolish.”
“I think whoever complained of their missing baubles is foolish, when they are likely only victims of their own excess—how can they be expected to keep track of so many possessions?”
He looked at her then—really looked, as if he finally saw more of her than the ghost of her pigtailed past. “You’ve a remarkably jaundiced view of society for a lass your age.”
She was more than jaundiced. She was nearly lock-jawed with disdain. “I have a realistic understanding of human nature, Strathcairn. I think people are forgetful, and don’t want to appear foolish, so they bluster and blame others for their own mistakes. And it is easy enough to blame the powerless”—she nodded toward the servants, who were most often the first to be accused when anything went amiss—“from the safe position of privilege.”
“I take your meaning, lass.” He acknowledged the right of her argument with a nod. “Nevertheless, it is my duty to look into the matter, to determine if it is indeed only a case—or cases—of forgetfulness.”
“Then I should advise you to start with our hostess, and ask her what she does with all the flotsam and jetsam her guests leave behind after her balls.” Because not even Quince, terrible magpie that she was, could take everything that was available—her bodice could only hold so much. “Perhaps she has the footmen cart it all up, and take it to the poor box at Canongate Kirk where they’ll get better use of it.”
The moment the words were out of her mouth she wished them back. She’d let her tongue run away from her mind, and run far too close to the truth for comfort.
And her suggestion brought Strathcairn’s perilously attentive green gaze back to her. “What an agile mind you have, Lady Quince.” And then for no reason she could fathom, he smiled at her—that gorgeous, gleaming grin she remembered of old. That mischievous, sideways curve of lip that made her feel as if she were being blessedly bludgeoned over the head with a five-penny slab of butter.
Quince nearly had to pinch herself to call her wits back under starter’s orders. “Oh, pish tosh. Practical is what my mind is.”
His smile settled back down to the corner of those sharp eyes. “Perhaps, but you’ve given me an idea—perhaps what I’m looking for is not a hardened criminal, but someone with the dowagers’s vice.”
Nay, nay, nay.
Clever, too clear-eyed man.
She had to divert him with something equally clever. “Carrying a vinaigrette is a vice? What do you imagine the ladies keep in there? Undiluted opium?”
Strathcairn shook his head, but he was amused enough to still smile. “The dowager’s vice is the irresistible tendency toward theft. That is, the compulsive stealing of objects which are not rightfully theirs. It is commonly practiced by maiden aunties and elderly companions. And dowagers, of course. Hence the name.”
Oh, by jimble. That sounded far too apt.
And the skeptical Scot in him had taken over—he was frowning at the row of seats at the far side of the ballroom where the older ladies, including some rather impecunious relations and companions, sat with their heads together in a comfortable coze. “They look perfectly harmless, but one never knows what might be hidden in their reticules, or tucked into their bodices.”
Heat blossomed in that very place where Strathcairn’s purloined buttons dug into her skin. Oh, he was clever.